StrongMedicineCoverStrong Medicine – Excerpt

Jonah was feeling particularly lucid that day. He hadn’t seen any dead relatives, nothing had burned, and he actually felt like he was inside his own body, for once. He knew it wouldn’t last. It was a constant feeling of dancing on the edge of the cliff, just waiting for the one misstep that would send him plummeting into the void again.

He sat in the rocking chair, the one that had become known as ‘Jonah’s chair,’ and watched Harry the groundskeeper shovel snow off the patio next to the picture window. The scoliotic old man bent to sprinkle handfuls of rock salt over the pavers before moving on farther into the courtyard.

As usual, Jonah lost himself in the warmth of the blanket of sunlight, so much so that he was startled when he sensed a presence behind him. It was just a change in the air, a shift of the molecules, and then a new scent—sharp and heady, a mixture of cedar smoke and Old Spice. Jonah had smelled it before, yesterday. He didn’t need to see to know that the sparkly new probie was standing behind him.

And just like that, just picturing the man in his mind with his weird, shaggy blond hair, dark blue eyes, and boyish features, Jonah remembered. He’d been much younger then, the boy on the TV that his mother had sat him in front of when she couldn’t deal with his damning silence anymore. That boy, his sweet face, and even sweeter voice, had saved Jonah more times than he could count, just kept him hanging on for one more day.

Staring unblinking out the window, Jonah breathed deep of that fragrance and addressed the spectral memory of Kyle Chase. “I know you,” he whispered.

The air stilled as the movement behind him ceased, as if the other man had turned to stone.

“I loved you once.”

Footsteps. Soft, padding, staccato beats of leather against linoleum, until Jonah was face to face with his boyhood crush. Well, more like face to chest, since Jonah was seated and Kyle was looming over him. He wasn’t Kyle, of course, not really. Though Jonah strained, digging through layers of memory, he couldn’t extract the boy—man’s real name.

“Excuse me?” Not-Kyle asked, bushy eyebrows raised toward his hairline.

Jonah tried for a rueful smile, and he could practically hear his skin cracking with the effort. “Sorry, probie. It’s well known around here that I don’t make any sense. What I meant was ‘I used to watch your show.’”

“Oh. I, uh… really?”

Jonah half coughed, half grunted, because it was as close as he ever got to a laugh. “That surprises you?”

“Yes—No! I just sometimes forget that the people who used to watch my show are all grown-up now. Most of the time, I still feel like a kid, so it kind of catches me off guard.” He ran a hand through that mop of messy hair—bleached blond like he was still playing a Cali surfer boy on TV—then squatted down so that he was on Jonah’s level.

“I think you’d be the first one to call me a grown-up. I’ve been called a lot of things, but never that. Besides, I’m not as old as I look.”

“Yeah? How old?”

“Twenty-three.”

“Oh. Wow.”

“Yeah, I know. That’s what hard living and insanity will do to you,” Jonah explained without a hint of malice.

“Oh, no. I’m sorry, that came out wrong… You don’t look bad. It’s the opposite, really. You look… yeah, anyway, you’re right, you do just look older than twenty-three. Not in a bad way.”

“Easy there. It’s really okay. I’m pretty hard to insult. Most of the things you could think of to say about me would be true anyway.” Jonah wiped his sweaty palms on his sweatpants and reached on out to him. “Jonah Radley.”

“Cameron Fox.” Cameron took his hand, shook it, lingered just a second longer than was proper.

“I have to admit, I was wrangling for an introduction because I couldn’t remember your real name. I figure you probably wouldn’t want me calling you Kyle.”

Cameron’s laugh was soft, cozy, like a splash of honey in some warm Earl Grey. “No, I guess not. It’s nice to meet you, Jonah Radley. Radley, that’s an unusual name.”

“Indeed it is. Not as unusual as you’d think, but yes… I did have to deal with the well-read students in school calling me ‘Boo’ all the time. But this is rural Appalachia, so it wasn’t always a problem if you get my drift.”

Jonah could see it took Cameron a moment to get the reference, but when he did, he chuckled again. “So what made you decide to join the wonderful world of psychiatric care?” Jonah asked.

Something flashed in Cameron’s eyes, a cloud, a moment of indecision, before he answered. “I got arrested.”

“Ah, you’re one of Rohan’s boys.” Jonah kept his voice neutral, careful not to seem like he was judging, because people in glass houses and all that… “A probie in every sense of the word.”

Cameron lowered his head, studied the ugly, weathered linoleum. “Unfortunately.”

“Hey, we all have pasts. At least you have a future.”

That blond head snapped up, and Cameron gaped at him. “So do you, Jonah.”

Jonah shook his head sadly, then caught sight of a pair of dark, yawning eye sockets peering through the window. One of the dead girls, of course, just when he was starting to feel human again.

He didn’t make eye contact when he spoke to Cameron. “You should go now,” he whispered.

“Jonah…”

“Go!” Jonah shouted it, his voice tinged with desperation. He never cared before, but he didn’t want this man to see him disappear, to see him float. His eyes welled up, something that hadn’t ever happened at Riverbend before, and he felt ashamed. “Please.”

“Probie!” Rohan’s rich tenor rang out across the buzzing air, slicing the tension between them. Cameron tensed, and his feet seemed to obey Rohan before the rest of him caught up. He cast one more sad, sidelong look at Jonah before he was led away.

Once he was alone, Jonah began to shake. Shivering violently though he was burning up inside, Jonah felt tears sear flaming rivulets down his cheeks. He dug the heels of his hands into his eye sockets until they ached, and eventually the tears stopped. Then there was nothing left but smoke.