Free will.

Some have called it the greatest gift bestowed on humanity. It is our ability to control what happens to us and exactly how it happens. We are the masters of our fate and no one can foist their will on us unless we allow it.

Others say free will is a crap myth. We have a preordained destiny and no matter what we do or how hard we fight it, life will happen to us exactly as it's meant to happen. We are only pawns to a higher power that our meager human brains can't even begin to understand or comprehend.

My best bud, Acheron, once explained it to me like this. Destiny is a freight train rolling along on a set course that only the conductor knows. When we get to the railroad crossing in our car, we can choose to stop and wait for the train to pass us by, or try to pull out in front of it and beat that bad boy across.

That choice is our free will.

If we choose to rush ahead, the car we're in might stall on the tracks. We can then choose to try and start the car or wait for the train to plow into us. Or we can get out to run, and fight the destiny of the train slamming into us and killing us where we stand. If we choose to run, our foot could get caught in the tracks or we could slip and fall.

We could even say to ourselves, "there's no way I'm dumb enough to fight the train" and hang back to safely wait. Then the next thing we know, a truck rams us from behind, throwing us straight into the train's path.

If it is our destiny to be hit by the train, we will be hit by the train. The only thing we can change is how the train turns us into hamburger.

I, personally, don't believe in this crap. I say I control my destiny and my life.

No, nothing controls me.


I am what I have become because of the interference and secrets of one creature. Had things been done differently, my life would have been a whole other enchilada. I would not be where I am today and I would have had a life worth living instead of the nightmare my life has become.

But no, by keeping his deepest secrets, my best friend betrayed me and turned me into the darkness I have come to embrace. Our fates and destinies were mashed together by a freak event that happened when I was a kid, and I curse the day I ever called Acheron Parthenopaeus my friend.

I am Nick Gautier.

And this is my life and how things should have been. ...


I am a socially awkward mandork."

"Nicholas Ambrosius Gautier! You watch your language!"

Nick sighed at his mother's sharp tone as he stood in their tiny kitchen looking down at the bright orange Hawaiian shirt. The color and style were bad enough. The fact it was covered in l-a-r-g-e pink, gray, and white trout (or were they salmon?) was even worse. "Mom, I can't wear this to school. It's ..."—he paused to think real hard of a word that wouldn't get him grounded for life—"hideous. If anyone sees me in this, I'll be an outcast relegated to the loser corner of the cafeteria."

As always, she scoffed at his protest. "Oh, shush. There's nothing wrong with that shirt. Wanda told me at the Goodwill store that it came in from one of those big mansions down in the Garden District. That shirt belonged to the son of a fine upstanding man and since that's what I'm raising you to be ..."

Nick ground his teeth. "I'd rather be a delinquent no one picks on."

She let out a deep sound of aggravation as she paused while flipping bacon. "No one's going to pick on you, Nicky. The school has a strict no-bullying policy."

Yeah, right. That wasn't worth the "contract" paper it was written on. Especially since the bullies were illiterate idiots who couldn't read it anyway.

Jeez. Why wouldn't she listen to him? It wasn't like he wasn't the one going into the lion's den every day and having to traverse the brutality of high school land mines. Honestly, he was sick of it and there was nothing he could do.

He was a massive loser dork and no one at school ever let him forget that. Not the teachers, the principal, and especially not the other students.

Why cant I flash forward and bypass this whole high school nightmare?

Because his mom wouldn't let him. Only hoodlums dropped out of school and she didn't work as hard as she did to raise up another piece of worthless scum—it was a harped-on litany permanently carved into his brain. It ranked right up there with:

"Be a good boy, Nicky. Graduate. Go to college. Get a good job. Marry a good girl. Have lots of grandbabies and never miss a holy day of obligation at church." His mom had already road-mapped his entire future with no diversions or pit stops allowed.

But at the end of the day, he loved his mom and appreciated everything she did for him. Except for this whole "Do what I say, Nicky. I'm not listening to you because I know better" thing she said all the time.

He wasn't stupid and he wasn't a troublemaker. She had no idea what he went through at school, and every time he tried to explain it, she refused to listen. It was so frustrating.

Gah, cant I catch swine flu or something? Just for the next four years until he was able to graduate and move on to a life that didn't include constant humiliation? After all, the swine flu had killed millions of people in 1918 and several more during outbreaks in the seventies and eighties. Was it too much to ask that another mutant strain of it incapacitate him for a few years?

Maybe a good bout of parvo ... You're not a dog, Nick.

True, no dog would be caught dead wearing this shirt. Whizzing on it would be another matter. ...

Sighing in useless angst, he looked down at the crap shirt he wanted desperately to burn. Okay, fine. He'd do what he always did whenever his mom made him look like a flaming moron.

He'd own it.

I dont want to own this. I look epically stupid.

Man up, Nick. You can take it. You've taken a lot worse.

Yeah, all right. Fine. Let them laugh. He couldn't stop that anyway. If it wasn't the shirt, they'd humiliate him over something else. His shoes. His haircut. And if all else failed, they'd insult his name. Nick the dick, or dickless Nicholas. Didn't matter what he said or did, those who mocked would mock anything. Some people were just wired wrong and they couldn't live unless they were making other people suffer.

His Aunt Menyara always said no one could make him feel inferior unless he allowed them to.

Problem was, he allowed it a lot more than he wanted to.

His mom set a chipped blue plate on the side of the rusted-out stove. "Sit down, baby, and eat something. I was reading in a magazine that someone left at the club that kids score much higher on tests and do a lot better in school whenever they have breakfast." She smiled and held the package of bacon up for him to see. "And look. It's not expired this time."

He laughed at something that really wasn't funny. One of the guys who came into his mom's club was a local grocer who would give them meat sometimes when it expired since all the guy did was throw it out anyway.

"As long as we eat it quick, it wont make us sick."

Another litany he hated.

Picking up the crispy bacon, he glanced around the tiny condo they called home. It was one of four that had been carved out of an old run-down house. Made up of three small rooms—the kitchen/living room, his mom's bedroom, and the bathroom—it wasn't much, but it was theirs and his mom was proud of it, so he tried to be proud too. Most days.

He winced as he looked at his corner where his mom had strung up dark blue blankets to make a room for him on his last birthday. His clothes were kept in an old laundry basket on the floor, set next to his mattress that was covered with Star Wars sheets he'd had since he was nine—another present his mom had picked up at a yard sale.

"One day, Mom, I'm going to buy us a really nice house." With really nice stuff in it.

She smiled, but her eyes said she didn't believe a word he spoke. "I know you will, baby. Now eat up and get to school. I don't want you dropping out like me." She paused as a hurt look flitted across her face. "You can see exactly what that gets you."

Guilt cut through him. He was the reason his mom had dropped out of school. As soon as her parents had learned she was pregnant, they'd offered her one choice.

Give up the baby or give up her nice home in Kenner, her education, and her family.

For reasons he still didn't understand, she'd chosen him.

It was something Nick never let himself forget. But one day he was going to get all that back for her. She deserved it, and for her, he'd wear this god-awful shirt.

Even if it got him killed. ...

And he'd smile through the pain of it until Stone and his crew kicked his teeth in.

Trying not to think about the butt-whipping to come, Nick ate his bacon in silence. Maybe Stone wouldn't be in school today. He could get malaria or the plague, or rabies or something.

Yeah, may the smarmy freak get a pox on his privates.

That thought actually made him smile as he shoved the grainy powdered eggs into his mouth and swallowed them. He forced himself not to shiver at the taste. But it was all they could afford.

He glanced at the clock on the wall and jerked. "Gotta go. I'm going to be late." She grabbed him for a bear hug.

Nick grimaced. "Stop sexually harassing me, Mom. I gotta go before I get another tardy."

She popped him on the butt cheek before she released him. "Sexually harassing you. Boy, you have no idea." She ruffled his hair as he bent over to pick up his backpack.

Nick put both arms through the straps and hit the door running. He launched himself from the dilapidated porch and sprinted down the street, past broken-down cars and garbage cans to where the streetcar stopped.

"Please don't be gone. ... "

Otherwise he'd be doomed to another "Nick? What are we going to do with you, you white-trash dirt?" lecture from Mr. Peters. The old man hated his guts, and the fact that Nick was a scholarship kid at his snotty overprivileged school seriously ticked Peters off. He'd like nothing better than to kick him out so that Nick wouldn't "corrupt" the kids from the good families.

Nick's lip curled as he tried not to think about the way those decent people looked at him like he was nothing. More than half their dads were regulars at the club where his mom worked, yet they were called decent while he and his mom were considered trash.

The hypocrisy of that didn't sit well with him. But it was what it was. He couldn't change anyone's mind but his own.

Nick put his head down and ran as he saw the streetcar stopped at his station. Oh man____

Nick picked up speed and he broke out into a dead run. He hit the platform and leapt for the streetcar. He'd caught it just in time.

Panting and sweating from the humid autumn New Orleans air, he shrugged his backpack off as he greeted the driver. "Morning, Mr. Clemmons."

The elderly African-American man smiled at him. He was one of Nick's favorite drivers. "Morning, Mr. Gautier." He always mispronounced Nick's last name. He said it "Go-chay" instead of the correct "Go-shay." The difference being "Go-chay" traditionally had an "h" in it after the "t" and, as Nick's mom so often said, they were too poor for any more letters. Not to mention, one of his mom's relatives, Fernando Upton Gautier, had founded the small town in Mississippi that shared his name and both were pronounced "Go-shay." "Your mom made you late again?"

"You know it." Nick dug his money out of his pocket and quickly paid before taking a seat. Winded and sweating, he leaned back and let out a deep breath, grateful he'd made it in time.

Unfortunately, he was still sweating when he reached school. The beauty of living in a city where even in October it could hit ninety by eight a.m. Man, he was getting tired of this late heat wave they'd been suffering.

Suck it up, Nick. You're not late today. It's all good.

Yeah, let the mocking commence.

He smoothed his hair down, wiped the sweat off his brow, and draped his backpack over his left shoulder.

Holding his head high in spite of the snickers and comments about his shirt and sweaty condition, he walked across the yard and through the doors like he owned them. It was the best he could do.

"Ew! Gross! He's dripping wet. Is he too poor to own a towel? Don't poor people ever bathe?"

"Looks like he went fishing in the Pontchartrain and came up with that hideous shirt instead of a real fish."

"That's 'cause he couldn't miss it. I'll bet it even glows in the dark."

"I bet there's a naked hobo somewhere wanting to know who stole his clothes while he was sleeping on a bench. Gah, how long has he owned those shoes, anyway? I think my dad wore a pair like that in the eighties."

Nick turned a deaf ear to them and focused on the fact that they really were stupid. None of them would be here if their parents weren't loaded. He was the scholarship kid. They probably couldn't have even spelled their names right on the exam he'd aced to get in.