Jace Bell changed schools four times before he got to the fourth grade. He hated that, and he resented his father because of it. He never told him that, though. Already at eight years old, there was nothing that scared the boy, except for his father. “The Colonel,” as Jace called him–behind his back of course–was a real colonel in the army at that time. He was a career military man and he never said no to an assignment, no matter how much it might fuck up his only child’s life. Jace didn’t have a mother. He never wondered about that until he started school and realized that almost everyone else did. He asked the Colonel about it and his response was, “She didn’t want to be a mother. She didn’t particularly like either one of us, so she left.” That was it. That was the only conversation they ever had about her.
Jace wasn’t always the only new guy. Military life meant going to school on an army base where there might be a new kid every day of the school year. He also wasn’t the only kid that got picked on, but as a little boy, with no one to talk to about it, he felt completely alone in his misery. Each time they moved, the town changed, the army base looked a little different, and the schools and teachers changed…but the bullies were always lurking. At only eight, and in the third grade, Jace was already as tall as a sixth grader. He looked about twelve years old, and mean kids liked to point out the obvious. They called him “Jace the giant” or “Jaliath,” and sometimes on the playground they would actually pretend he was Goliath, and they would throw stones at him.
Jace never once thought about telling the Colonel about the abuse. He did his best to avoid it, by avoiding everyone. He knew he was big and ugly, but he thought if he stayed silent, and out of everyone’s way, they would forget he was there. It worked at home. Sometimes, even when the Colonel was there, he’d go days without talking to Jace. Most of the time he wasn’t there, but it was even worse when he was gone. Jace would be left with a babysitter or nanny, and those were as ever-changing as his schools were. He had a lot to do with that. He wasn’t nice to them. He wasn’t necessarily mean either. Jace didn’t know the meaning of the word “intimidating” back then, but nevertheless he had figured out how to become it. He would quietly stare at the young babysitters no matter what they said to him, refusing to answer them, and giving them the meanest look he could muster. Most of them didn’t come back after the first day, and by the time Jace turned nine, the Colonel had given up and just started letting him stay by himself.
Jace maintained the anger he felt inside of him, the hate he felt for other people, the sadness and worthlessness he felt over never being wanted…well into the middle of the third grade. Then a well-placed rock and a particularly bad day unleashed a kind of rage that no third-grader should even possess. That particular day, he’d waited in the boy’s bathroom, like he did most days, for the rest of the kids to leave before he started walking home. He wasn’t afraid of them, but he preferred avoiding them to the confrontation if it was at all possible. That day as he was leaving, he saw the only person in the world he could honestly say he liked. It was his third-grade teacher, Miss Morgan. She had pretty blonde hair and light blue eyes and she smiled at him, a lot. No one else ever smiled at Jace, and it gave him a warm feeling deep in the center of his chest. She always wore flower print dresses and when she stood close to him, Jace could smell her floral perfume. It was like being in the middle of a sunflower field with the sunlight shining down on his face. Sometimes Miss Morgan would rumple his hair with her hand or look at one of his assignments and tell him how smart he was. No one else ever told him he was smart either. He’d just assumed that he wasn’t at that time. Jace didn’t understand the feelings he had for Miss Morgan. For months he thought that he only wished she were his mother. He imagined her making him cookies after school and giving him hugs and saying nice things. But that day he had a new feeling. It was jealousy, or envy, but again, Jace had no words to describe it.
He heard a loud rumble as he came out of the bathroom and he looked in that direction toward the front of the school. A big, dark motorcycle, black and shiny with a ton of chrome, pulled up in front of the school and the man on the back of it pulled off his black helmet. Jace was fascinated by the machine, at first. He spent a lot of his time at home, putting together model cars that the Colonel let him buy with his allowance. He thought about buying a motorcycle once, but so far he hadn’t. Now looking at the black Harley made him want to run right out and get one…a model, that is. It might have been the coolest thing he’d ever seen. But then, he saw her.
Miss Morgan came out of the front door of the school…but she looked different. She wasn’t wearing the yellow sunflower dress she had on that day. She’d changed into a pair of jeans, and a long-sleeved black shirt and boots. Jace had never seen her in anything other than a dress, but when she walked straight for the motorcycle, and the man on the back of it…he understood. That ugly feeling started in the pit of his stomach when Jace saw the way she smiled at the man. It was even prettier than the smiles she gave Jace. Her whole face lit up. But that wasn’t the worst of it. That ugly feeling moved up into his chest when he saw the man stretch out a tattooed arm and pull Miss Morgan in for a kiss. Jace had only seen people kiss like that on late night television, the kind he wasn’t supposed to be watching. It looked like the man was trying to suck off her face, and Jace almost went over to help her. When she pulled back, however, she was still smiling, only now there was another kind of look about her, like a glow or something. The man on the bike handed Miss Morgan a helmet, and Jace watched her put it on and climb on the bike. She wrapped her arms around the man and laid her head against his back. Once her legs were pulled up and her feet on the chrome pegs, the bike took off…and Jace felt like he was watching his princess ride away on someone else’s horse.
With those confusing feelings festering inside of him, Jace started walking toward home. He made it about three-quarters of the way before he felt a stinging feeling on his right cheek. He thought he’d been stung by a yellowjacket at first until he heard the giggles. He looked over toward a clump of bushes and trees and the freckled face of Randy Barr. The biggest bully in school was looking out at him. Randy was laughing and Jace would never know if it was still about what he was feeling for Miss Morgan, the feel of the rock hitting his cheek, Randy’s smiling face, or the culmination of all of it…but he snapped. For the first time in his life he felt the need for violence. He could almost taste blood in his mouth as he dropped his backpack and began to run toward the bushes.
Jace was almost there when his nemesis seemed to realize that this time, Jace was going to fight back. His green eyes widened and Jace heard a scream just before he dived through the bushes toward him. He missed, and Randy took off running after the two girls and a boy that had been with him and had already gotten a good head start. Jace’s legs were long, and Randy’s weren’t. In three long strides, Jace caught up with him. He pounced on the boy, knocking him to the ground. Randy’s face was buried in the dirt and when Jace grabbed his shoulder and pulled him over onto his back, it was so filthy that all Jace could see were his frightened eyes and the blood that seeped from the kid’s nose and ran down his chin. Randy opened his mouth to say something. Later, he would claim that he was going to apologize for what he’d done earlier. Jace didn’t believe that, and he didn’t care. Before Randy had a chance to speak, Jace unleashed all that anger. He beat that boy until he was unconscious. When Jace realized Randy was no longer moving, that’s when he stopped. Just like that, the rage was gone, and Jace just felt tired…and ugly inside. The “ugly” was probably guilt, but Jace’s grasp of emotions was all over the place all the time. All he knew at that moment was that he did feel sorry for what he had done. But he didn’t feel sorry enough to believe he might never do it again.
He got off the boy, leaned down, and picked him up…and he carried Randy home. Randy’s mother was still screaming when the MPs got there and took Jace into custody. Probably because of who the Colonel was, they didn’t hold him long. The Colonel picked him up, angrily lecturing him all the way home about how a “man” does things. When they got there, he was told that he was grounded for two weeks. Now Jace would never dare laugh in the Colonel’s face, but laugh he would later on. Being grounded meant nothing to him. It meant spending all of his time in his room, watching television and putting his models together. His “consequences” had only further impressed upon him that fighting back had been the right thing to do.
Jace was suspended from school twice that year for fighting. He didn’t like Miss Morgan anymore. He’d felt betrayed that day when he saw her kiss the motorcycle man…but the rock on her finger and the swelling of her belly a few months later really did him in. He stopped even trying to ignore his tormentors, and he would revel in the feeling that unleashing all of that anger gave him afterward. It was almost the end of the school year when he was expelled altogether. That made him even happier. He’d gotten into putting together model motorcycles, small, replicas of Harley Davidsons. Not having to go to school kept him from having to see Miss Morgan. It kept his tormentors away, and it gave him time to do the only thing that really calmed him down: put together and take apart his models. It didn’t really matter anyway. The Colonel had new orders and it was time to pack up and move again. There would be another new school, and new bullies and a new teacher he already decided that he wasn’t going to like. What Jace hadn’t bargained on was the new woman that would come into his father’s life, and into his home. Myrna would be the catalyst that would change everything, but at the time, when Jace was only nine and his father announced he was marrying her, and they were having a baby…Jace was sure it wasn’t going to be for the better.
Jace knew from the start that Myrna didn’t like him any more than anyone else did. She tried to pretend in front of the Colonel, but Jace knew it was fake, and what Myrna wasn’t bright enough to realize at that point was that the Colonel couldn’t care less if she liked his son or not. Jace did wonder sometimes about why he was so unlovable. He thought it was mainly because he was big, and ugly. He’d never been little and cute like any of his classmates. His hair was dark, his eyes were black, his nose was too big and his lips too small. When he was nine years old his hands and feet were bigger than the Colonel’s and by the time his father married Myrna, Jace was half a foot taller than her. She acted like she was afraid of him, although Jace had never even intimated that he’d lay a hand on her. His rage was focused on the kids at school who gave him a hard time. He didn’t like Myrna, but he never thought about hurting her.
He thought about Miss Morgan often, even after the move. Each time he saw a Harley on the street with a woman on the back, he wondered about her. He also had to watch Myrna’s belly get bigger every day, and that reminded him of his old teacher…his first love…as well. Jace also instinctively knew, even at such a young age, that Myrna and the Colonel both already liked the unborn baby more than they did him. Myrna had people in and out of the house, decorating the nursery. She turned it into a fairyland, as soon as she found out that she was having a girl. Jace wasn’t allowed in the nursery. His father told him he’d break something or trip over something with his huge feet. To spite him, Jace would break into the locked nursery door at night. He would move things around, and sometimes take things. Then he’d lock the door on his way out and let Myrna wonder about it the next day.
The day that his sister was born, the Colonel came home from the hospital and made him take a shower and dress in his good clothes. Jace didn’t tell his father, but he had no desire to see the baby. He’d never known a baby, but he’d seen them on TV and they didn’t look all that interesting. When they got to the hospital, the Colonel checked in at the nursing station with an older woman with white hair and bright pink lipstick and scrubs.
“I brought my son to see his new sister.”
The nurse looked at Jace and smiled. “Well, isn’t she a lucky girl to have such a big, strong brother to look after her?” Jace didn’t say anything until he felt a nudge in the middle of his back.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, in a voice that was already much too deep for a nine, almost ten-year-old.
The nurse came around the desk and led them to Myrna’s room. Jace stayed in the background while the Colonel fussed over Myrna and the baby in a way that Jace had never seen the old man act. Jace wondered if the Colonel would like the baby more, just because he liked Myrna more than Jace’s mother. Jace was smart enough to know that didn’t make any sense, since it wasn’t his fault who his mother was. It wasn’t his fault that she had made him ugly. The Colonel was a good-looking man with light brown hair and green eyes, so Jace was sure his mother had been the ugly one. But what confused him was how he was the only one who seemed to know that wasn’t his fault.
“Jason, come meet your sister,” the Colonel snapped at him. “Why are you always lurking in the corner? It’s creepy. You remind me of a serial killer, or something.” Jace didn’t know what a “serial killer” was, but he knew “creepy.” The kids at school had called him that, plenty of times. He wasn’t surprised that his old man used the term to describe him, especially now that he had a new kid to love. Jace did as he was told and went close to the bed. The Colonel held his arms out to Myrna, and reluctantly, it seemed, she placed the baby in his arms. Jace was suddenly looking into the baby’s face, and at first, he wasn’t impressed. She was pink and wrinkled and her eyes were closed. Her lips and cheeks were moving rapidly, like she was sucking on something. Jace thought she looked like one of the aliens on the old black-and-white movies he watched late at night. “Her name is Rosie,” the Colonel told him. As if the baby already knew her name, she pulled open her eyes and she was looking directly into her big brother’s. In shock, because he’d never seen anyone who looked like him, Jace said:
“She has black eyes, like me.” He was happy about it, but Myrna stole his joy once again, snatching the baby from his father’s arms and saying:
“They’re brown, and I’m sure they’ll lighten up eventually.”
Jace hoped not. He hoped that God…or whoever was up there…had finally put someone else on earth like him. For the next few hours, Jace was forgotten again, as usual. But he kept his eyes on the baby. He got a strange feeling when he looked at her, especially when she opened her black eyes and looked back at him. It was a good feeling. It made him feel warm inside…and he felt something else too…protectiveness. He knew, before he left the hospital that day, that he was never going to let anyone hurt his baby sister. Maybe that was his purpose in life all along. He was too young to know about any of that. But what he did know was that from that point on, the only time he felt content, and safe, was when he was in the company of his little sister, Rosie. Rosie liked him too. She’d smile and coo every time he looked at her. When she got old enough, she’d reach for him and cry. Myrna didn’t seem to like how close the two of them were, especially since Rosie seemed to prefer Jace over her. The Colonel didn’t notice any of it, of course. He was back to business as usual and Rosie’s newness, or whatever it was, seemed to have worn off.
When Rosie was two years old, Jace woke up to the sound of her screaming. His heart raced as he jumped out of his bed and ran down the hallway to the nursery. When he got there, Rosie was on the floor, bleeding from her tiny little mouth and nose. She’d tried to climb over the side of the crib and she’d fallen four feet to the floor. Jace ran over and scooped her up into his arms, just as Myrna came into the room. From there, it took Jace a while to even process what had happened. Myrna was screaming, and then an ambulance was there, and then the MPs. The Colonel showed up not long after and within days, Jace was on a bus, headed to a private, military boarding school, one thousand miles away from his sister.
Twelve-year-old Jace stared out the window of the bus, thinking about Rosie. His little sister was barely two years old and she wouldn’t understand why he went away. She was too small to understand that it wasn’t his fault, that he’d done everything he could do to protect her. The pain consumed him, mile after mile. It felt like it was eating his insides out and even at twelve years old he knew he’d never survive it. He had to find a way to deal with the pain…so somewhere along the path between Boston and his new school in New York, he let the pain simmer, and then burn, and ultimately turn into rage. Jace knew rage. He’d known it for years. The difference between rage and pain was that he knew what to do to release the rage when it burned too hot. From that moment on, Jace was like a volcano, always on the verge on a spontaneous eruption…and for the next fifteen years of his life, that rage would be his compass, leading him, guiding him, controlling him…and every so often leaving him dangling on the very edges of hell, sometimes hoping the thread would snap and put him, and everyone around him, out of their misery.