I was born in Pennsylvania, in a slum of a hospital equipped with second rate doctors to care for patients with second rate wallets. As my mother held me in her arms, a nurse scribbled down the date: December 21st, and the time of birth, 12:01 AM. My stepfather tried to name me Leonard, because he wanted to stay true to his Italian heritage, but my mother intervened and I became Caleb. When I was old enough to read (and out of simple curiosity), a quick library search showed the name Leonard is actually Germanic and Leonardo is the Italian derivative. Of course, I wouldn’t expect my stepfather to know that. That quick library search took more time to complete than he had ever spent on me.
My stepfather drove us home in his grey Ford Pinto when the hospital released me. It must have been a short drive, because the trailer park where I spent my early childhood was within walking distance of the delivery room. I knew from personal experience. I cut my arm on a broken beer bottle in our yard when I was nine years old, and both of my parents were busy at their jobs. Twenty-two stitches later, I walked home from the hospital. After my parents saw the bill, I almost had to return.
We never had a television that lasted longer than a month due to my stepfather’s drunken tantrums. So, unlike many children my age, I learned to keep myself entertained without the benefit of technology. When the sun was up, I raced my single-gear bike, which I had found rusted and abandoned on the side of the highway, through the ranks of trailers, whipping by chained up pit bulls that had no desire to catch me. I explored, I adventured, and I discovered—I did anything to keep myself away from home.
I learned to love reading at an early age. My school, Kingston Elementary, was home to derelict children and teachers alike. Fights were common in its parking lot. I don’t think there was a single day that, after the closing bell, Kingston Elementary had not gained an extra black eye among its inmates. I myself didn’t escape unscathed, and I grew accustomed to the yellow detention slips that followed the skirmishes. I should be thankful—those detention slips saved me from following in the shadow of my stepfather’s largely uneducated life.
Mrs. Derundi proctored detention in fourth grade, and that was the first time she had ever met me. Although I, along with the rest of the school, knew her by her reputation in the halls and the rumors of her class. No matter how cool or how badass the students of Kingston Elementary thought they were, the hallways fell silent when she walked by. She could break up a fight with a glance, and she stilled even the most unruly of students with only a whisper. She never yelled or raised her voice above indoor levels, and
it was rumored that the year before, a kid shit himself and never returned after she whispered in his ear for fifteen eternity-like seconds. Mrs. Derundi taught me how to listen, if nothing else, because it is not loud yelling and screaming that are most terrifying, but rather the whispering.
The first time I was sent to detention was for losing a fight. Two seventh graders, Jake Kimbrell and Mark Smith, had cornered one of my fourth grade classmates against the chain link fence that separated the parking lot from the ghetto. I would usually keep my mouth shut—in Kingston Elementary, you grow accustomed to brutality and bullying—but the student the two of them were bouncing between them like a ping pong ball was Danny Roark, the runt of the fourth grade litter. The class knew him by his nickname, “McTwitch,” for his nervous tick and greasy hair that resembled a fast food burger. I don’t think Danny had ever had a full burger in his life though, judging by how skinny he was and the way his freckled skin stretched over his gaunt cheeks.
“Hey! Leave him be!” I shouted. Jake looked up, a sneer crossing his face.
“Oh yeah? Hey McTwitch, I didn’t realize you had any friends. Especially Four-Eyes here.”
“Yeah, McTwitch,” cackled Mark, “looks like you’ve been busy. Did you meet this guy before or after your father dropped you on your head?”
“At least his father stuck around to drop him on his head,” I spat. It was well known around school that Jake’s father had been serving time for the past six years for murdering a store clerk that refused to hand over cash from the register. As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew I should have kept them to myself.
On the bright side, Danny got away.
On the dark side, Jake and Mark gave me a beating that day that my stepfather would have been jealous of.
Finding out that I would be serving detention with Mrs. Derundi only made matters worse. But when Mrs. Derundi read the yellow slip over my swollen face the next day, I saw her eyes soften, and she looked at me in a way I had never seen before. Some may call it tenderness.
Though I never had a class with her, throughout the course of elementary school I racked up enough detention hours to take one twice. Mrs. Derundi forced me to read, unlike the other students, whom she sat in the corner and forced to copy lines from the board. On the first day, too scared to do otherwise, I stared at the first page of the book she gave to me for the full length of the hour.
Academically, I was behind the other students in my classes, primarily because of the value my stepfather placed on education. Not once in my life had I completed a homework assignment, let alone tried to read an entire book. But over the weeks sheer boredom forced me to decipher the words on the pages, and slowly I rose to the top of my class, though my grades never showed it.
Despite my objections, I came to enjoy our afternoons sessions and found myself coming even when there were no yellow slips assigned to my name. Mrs. Derundi pretended not to notice.
She understood the neighborhood we lived in and how we weren’t as privileged as the school a county over. Mrs. Derundi never gave up on us, unlike many of the teachers who used our misfortune as grounds to decide our futures were already dismal. Once I saw a classmate turn in an assignment on a paper plate because his family couldn’t afford a notebook. She saved the student the embarrassment of answering questions, just like she never mentioned me coming in after hours.
She exposed me to many things—fantasy, science fiction, and biographies were some of her
favorites. I devoured them all. Anything that helped me escape the after-school hours in the trailer park was worth reading.
When night fell, I would hide my bike under our trailer for fear that the cluster of homeless men at the end of the street would sell it for a few cans of beer. I’d enter through the creaky screen door that made sneaking in or out of home impossible, and creep to my room down the narrow hall.
If I was lucky, my stepfather would either be out drinking or would have already passed out from his first round of the night. Too often he would wake again with a hangover before the sun would rise. Those times I would climb out the skinny window and hide beneath the trailer, cradling my bike in case an emergency exit was necessary while my stepfather stomped above like the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk.
It was on the dawn of one of these nights that I first met the preacher man.
A boot crunched on gravel as the first rays of sunlight joined the feral cats, spiderwebs, and myself under the trailer. I heard a tinkling of bells accompanied by ruffling pages as my eyes cracked open.
A man stood there, dressed in a black cloak that matched his complexion and drifted down to his ankles. A sky blue rosary swung from one hand, while the other held a Bible so tattered that the Word of God was falling out. He was bald, and the sunlight reflected off the crown of his head in a way that made it hard to gaze at his face.
He took another step forward, raised his head as if sensing a change in the air, and sniffed. His voice was deep when he spoke, and I’ve never forgotten the way it reverberated down the desolate alleyway of trailers. When I dream, I still remember this as the moment that started it all, as if his words conjured my fate.
“There’s evil in this place.”