My name is Shade. Well, actually my birth name is Galactic Shade Griffin, thanks to my hippie chick mom. No matter how much time and energy Mom put into naming me Galactic Shade, I still resent being stuck with a name that leads to so much laughter during roll call at the beginning of each and every school year.
And having the last name Griffin doesn’t help. Since middle school, my last name has gotten me mocked even by some of the geeks, the ones who are into fantasy stuff. In seventh grade, it was explained to me that a griffin has the wings, head and front parts of an eagle and the body, hind legs and tail of a lion. I’ve been told I come from a family of weird fantasy creatures, mutant offspring of an eagle and lion, stuff like that. In eighth grade, I was called Gargoyle for the entire year.
According to my mother, she had been caught up in an unwanted pregnancy seventeen years ago—ummm, thanks, Mom, for letting me know about the “unwanted” part, since I was that pregnancy. Then, about three-quarters of the way through her gestation of me, she was suddenly struck by some sort of miraculous revelation by which she developed the belief that babies are incredibly special, the stuff of stars, magical dust of the galaxy, something like that, so she decided to name me Galactic. Going into labor at twilight, she gave me the middle name Shade.
My mother is flighty. There’s no denying that.
The summer before my junior year of high school, my mom left her third boyfriend since leaving my dad.
First of all, I have no idea why she left Dad. They married because she had gotten pregnant with me and they fought all the time, but I don’t know why she finally walked out the door and took me with her. Boredom, I guess. I was six years old when it happened—right in the middle of first grade. First grade was hell. My teachers couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me—I seemed bright, they all said, but my underperformance concerned them. It should’ve concerned Mom, too, but I think she just thought of it as one more burden she’d have to bear until the issue went away on its own. In the meantime, she smoked pot and took antidepressants. (It wasn’t until junior high school when I smelled pot some kids were smoking that I identified the kind of funny cigarettes my mom had smoked back when I was a little kid.)
Mom said Tony, her third boyfriend after leaving Dad, was boring. I never thought of him that way. He was actually a really nice guy. He was kind and thoughtful, and included me in most of their plans. So she left him. Took me on the road again, driving me away from my stable home life to who-knows-where in her rusty van.
As I moped in the passenger seat, we drove up to who-knows-what. It turned out to be a dilapidated old house, as unfriendly in appearance as the haunted house my friends and I visited for the sheer horror of it every Halloween. People dressed up in costumes and fake blood and jumped out at you, and we thought that was pretty cool. But I certainly didn’t want to live in a place like that.
We arrived close to midnight. The sky was pitch-black. The moon was a slice of light that disappeared behind clouds as Mom parked our van next to a broken curb. A shimmering planet stared at us and a few stars winked, but mostly the night had been plunged into darkness. As I opened my door, a strong wind gusted, blowing the sheets of paper on which I had been drawing and writing across the front yard. I ran after them. The wind grabbed the shutters and slammed them against the house, causing me to scream without thinking.
The house hated us. I hated this house. I swore I would never forgive my mother.
I gathered up the papers, one by one. My mother laughed. “What a night, huh, Shade?”
“Yeah, what a night.”
I waited for her to unlock the front door. The lightbulb next to the door sputtered and gave out. My mother fumbled in her purse for her cell phone. Using its small patch of light to see, she inserted the key into the lock, then turned it just as her phone went dark to conserve energy. Once inside, she felt for the wall switch and flipped it on.
The place was filthy. How could she have agreed to rent this place? How could she have let the landlord get away without cleaning it?
“Where’s my room?” I asked.
“Top of the stairs. Are you going to bed already?”
“Yeah, I’m tired.”
I climbed the wooden stairs that creaked with every step I took. I found my room and slammed the door, as though answering the shutters.
The wind picked up. The shutters answered back.
“Screw you, house!”
I looked around. My room didn’t look half bad. It had character, at least. The paint was peeling in places, but mostly around the molding that ran along the top of the walls and right above the baseboards next to the floor. The walls were dusty pink, a kind of old-fashioned color, and the molding and baseboards were gray. I liked it.
I walked over to the window seat in a bay window and realized that my room was located in one of the turrets I had vaguely noticed when I ran after my papers on the front lawn. This house was old Victorian style, with two large turrets in the front.
I sat down on plump gray cushions—kind of tattered and beat-up, with stuffing coming out in a few places, but pretty comfortable overall. I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and texted Mary Jane, my best friend in the hometown I had just left. Notice her completely normal name, by the way, as normal as peanut butter and jelly. And her last name is Smith. I am so jealous of her name.
Then, for a few seconds, everything got weird. The lights in my room—a white globe suspended from the ceiling fan, a pinkish lamp on the dresser and an antique desk lamp—blinked on and off with a sizzling sound. My cell phone switched into speaker mode and a guy’s voice said, “Welcome to your new home, Shade. I could use a friend here. I’ve been very lonely.”
This seriously freaked me out. I didn’t recognize the voice on the phone and I wondered if the sizzling sound could have been electric wires shorting out in the house. I ran downstairs to ask my mom about the lights.
She was unpacking boxes, but the whole downstairs smelled like booze and pot.
“What are you doing, Mom?”
She turned around, holding the joint behind her back, and flashed me a huge smile. I hated that smile. It was the one she used whenever she wanted to cover something up and act a lot more friendly than she really was. “I’m unpacking, honey. What does it look like I’m doing?”
“Did the lights blink on and off down here just a few minutes ago?”
“Why, no, honey, not at all. Why do you ask?”
God, I hated when she called me honey. It felt like such amazing hypocrisy, considering how she constantly upended and wrecked my entire life. “Because the lights in my room just did that and there was a sizzling sound. I think maybe the wiring in my room is shorting out. Did you have this place inspected?”
“Oh, I’m sure everything’s fine, dear. You worry too much. The landlord told me the house was inspected last year. A professor lived here right before us. I doubt he’d have lived here if the wiring was bad.”
“Well, he moved out, didn’t he?” God, she was so irresponsible.
I went back upstairs, lay down on my bed—which was a really cool bed with a white lace canopy and a pink-and
-gray checkered quilt—and tried to call Mary Jane. This time the call went through and she answered right away. “Shade, how are you? I miss you already!”
“I miss you, too. You have no idea.”
“So, how’s your new digs?”
“Oh my God, this house looks like the haunted house we go to every year, I am not even kidding. And the lights flickered on and off in my bedroom and made a sizzling sound that scared me half to death almost as soon as I got here.” I decided not to mention the strange voice message on my cell phone, since I had no idea what that might have been. “But my room looks kinda nice. Oh my God, you gotta visit me. There’s so much space in my room. It’s in a turret. I have a huge canopy bed and a window seat with cushions, and there’s a couch in my room. You would love it here and you’d be really comfortable.”
“What did you say about a turret?”
“This house is old-fashioned Victorian with two turrets and my room’s in one of them—you know, those circular tower-type things on a lot of Victorian houses.”
“Oh my word, you are so lucky, Shade.”
I was hardly lucky, but I felt better talking to Mary Jane. We talked for about an hour. Then I got ready for bed.
It turned out that I had my own bathroom right off my bedroom, so I started thinking I might be just a little bit lucky.
That, of course, was a huge mistake.
The next day, I remembered just how truly lucky I was. My mom drove me to school in her rusty old van. She was wearing some kind of hippie dress that reached down to her ankles. It was, honest to God, made out of bright yellow cloth covered in purple tulips with neon-green leaves, and she had painted her lips fire engine red and rubbed purple eye shadow all over her eyelids.
Kids stared as we drove up. My mom insisted on walking me inside and introducing me to the principal. I thought the principal might act snooty and superior toward her, like most of my other principals had, but I swear this one, Principal Lafferty, kind of flirted with her. Gross. But then he was sort of old—gray hair around a bald spot and hair poking out of his ears. So maybe his eyesight wasn’t so good, or he was an ex-hippie himself or something, I have no idea.
When I finally got through all that, I had to make my way through the halls and find my first class which was English Literature.
And then there was roll call.
“Galactic Shade Griffin.”
“Here.” As I raised my hand, I could hear the giggles, feel the stares. I just pretended to ignore everyone, as though I was totally unaware of the reactions to my name.
Once class started, I only got called on once, to answer a question about why Romeo and Juliet had pretended to die. That was easy. We had discussed Romeo and Juliet a little bit the previous year at my old school … and, well, duh, because the adults in their lives wouldn’t let them be who they really were and date who they really loved, and they had to let everyone think they were dead so that they could sneak away, be themselves, follow their hearts’ desires and have no one look for them.
The teacher said, “Very good.” I was off the hook for the rest of the class. The teacher was mousy, kind of soft-spoken, but she seemed energetic and really into Shakespeare.
My next class was Chemistry. It had potential. It involved a laboratory and the mixing together of chemicals. I mostly ignored everyone there, just kept to myself and took notes.
Then came U.S. History in which I yawned quite a bit. Some muscular guy tried to trip me as I left the classroom, so I thought maybe I was going to hate that class. Boredom plus bullies was never a great combination.