No One Knows
Retarded. Retarded. That’s what people at school always shout at me.
I asked Aunt Peggy once what it meant. She said it meant “slow.” I don’t think that can be right though. I’m not slow at all. On the contrary. I’m the fastest kid in my grade. I beat Nicholas Phillips in a race once. I beat him fair and square.
Nicholas Phillips wasn’t happy about it. He called me retarded and got really close to my face. I wanted to hit him, get him away from me. On the contrary. I didn’t want to get in trouble, so I stayed quiet.
On the contrary. That’s a fun thing to say that I learned from Aunt Peggy. She’s always saying fun things. She always makes me the best strawberry jam sandwiches. They’re my favorite. I take one to school every single day. A lot of times when I eat them at lunch, I can’t keep my hands still and I spill jam all over myself. The people shout “retarded” at me again.
It’s a fun word to say, I guess. Retarded. Retarded. I wonder if Aunt Peggy has ever said it before? Retarded. Sometimes I say it so much that it doesn’t even sound like a word anymore. Retarded. Retarded.
Math is my favorite subject in school. Numbers and equations and formulae. Mrs. Ziegler’s projector. Dry erase markers. The only problem is that I sit right in front of Nicholas Phillips. He doesn’t like math nearly as much as me. He likes to bother me instead. He flicks my head and pulls my hair. He whispers “retarded” under his breath. Mrs. Ziegler doesn’t notice. I’ve gotten in trouble for interrupting before, so I stay quiet.
There’s a river at the far end of town. A big bridge juts over it, and if you look off the side, you can just make out your reflection looking back up at you. The water is so pretty and clear. Like a mirror. And it’s quiet, too. It doesn’t say anything about “retarded.” A lot of times I go there when I want to be by myself. The birds sing, and the waves ripple, and everything is pretty. It helps me slow down my words or stop my hands from shaking.
My hands shake a lot. Especially when I get upset. I don’t know why they do, but it gets me in trouble sometimes. Like when I eat strawberry jam sandwiches. I try to eat, but I drip jelly all over the table. Nobody likes to sit by me at lunch. I think it’s because nobody wants sticky jelly all over them. I understand. I don’t like strawberry jam all over me either.
Aunt Peggy is a nice lady. She wears fur all the time. I like to hug her because the fur is soft and smells good. Sometimes I wonder what animal the fur came from. Cat? Dog? Squirrel? I asked Aunt Peggy once. She laughed and said she didn’t know. I love it when she laughs. It’s such a pretty sound. Not like the laughs of the kids at school.
The kids at school. Sometimes I think they’re mean to me. Sometimes they’re all mean to me at once; it’s like they plan it or something. For example. One day I went into school and all the people were calling me “dickhead.” I didn’t know what that meant. It wasn’t my name. It didn’t even sound like my name. “Dickhead” and “Seth” don’t rhyme.
I asked Mrs. Ziegler what it meant. She just gasped and got angry. She told me never to say it again. I didn’t know what to say. Mrs. Ziegler had never gotten mad at me before. I sat down, trying to hold back tears, and saw Nicholas Phillips smiling at me.
“Do you like your new name, Dickhead?” he asked.
“I don’t know what that means,” I said. “Please don’t call me that.”
“Dickhead,” he said quietly. Like he was telling me a secret. “Dickhead.”
“Dickhead,” the whole class whispered. It was even worse than “retarded.”
It was like the whole school was in on it that day. Every time I turned a corner, I got called that name. Every time I walked into a room, every time I tried to answer a question, every time I took a bite of my strawberry jam sandwich. “Dickhead. Dickhead. Dickhead.” On and on and on.
Aunt Peggy could tell that something was wrong when I went home. I think because my hands were shaking so hard. She sat down on the couch with me and made me tell her everything. I laid my head against her fur and let my tears fall. I had been holding them in all day. The kids laugh louder if they see you cry. The tears got stuck in the fur, shining like dew on grass in the morning.
After I managed to tell, I sat quietly and just shook. Aunt Peggy wrapped her arms around me and held me until I finally stopped. When I did, she pulled me away and looked at me. Her face was so nice. Her eyes were like the stars. Stars that just wanted to help make everything better.
“Seth,” she said. “Don’t listen to those kids. You are a wonderful, beautiful person. A wonderful, beautiful person with dreams and a heart of gold. They only say those things because they see something in you they wish they had.”
A heart of gold. I liked the sound of that. I felt my chest and imagined my heart, sending golden blood though my body with every golden beat.
The next day, the kids were still whispering the name. I heard it around every corner. When math class rolled around and Mrs. Ziegler flipped the switch on her projector, I tried to keep my eyes forward. But Nicholas Phillips was right behind me, his breath hot on my neck.
“Dickhead,” he said. “Hey, Dickhead. Did you run home and cry to your mommy last night?”
“Aunt Peggy says I have a heart of gold,” I said, trying not to shake.
“A heart of gold?” Nicholas Phillips sneered. “We’ll see about that. We’re gonna fight after school. Let’s see if your blood is gold too.”
“Fight?” Now my hands were really shaking. I’d never said that word before. “I don’t want to fight.”
“We’re gonna fight,” Nicholas Phillips said, flicking my head. “Meet me in the lot beside the library today. After school.”
“The river.” I don’t know why I said the words. But I did.
“The river?” Nicholas Phillips kept sneering. I learned that word from Aunt Peggy too. She said Uncle Albert sneered when he left. “Alright, fine. You’d rather get your ass kicked over some water? Fine. Meet me on the bridge after school. Four o’clock.” His lips were almost in my ear. “If you don’t show up, you’re dead meat.” I gulped. Dead meat. That was a bad thing.
I had seen dead meat once. Squirrel. It was out in the parking lot after school, its head flat like a pancake but red like a tomato. It didn’t smell like a pancake or a tomato, though. It smelled like what I guess death smells like. I didn’t like it at all. The bugs liked it, though. They were all over its red bushy tail and red stained arms and in its red-veined, pancake eyes. They buzzed so much it sounded like the world was coming apart. The more I looked at it, the more I shook, and the more I shook, the more the flies buzzed. Like they knew I was afraid. I walked home that day.
School went by so much quicker after Nicholas Phillips talked to me. It was confusing; before math, the day had gone by so slowly, but after, the day passed by faster than it ever had before. Time doesn’t make any sense. It goes fast when you want it to go slow and slow when you want it to go fast. In no time at all, I was out on the blacktop, staring at the brown stain where the squirrel once was. I walked that day as well, but I didn’t go home.
The river was quiet that day. It whispered my name as it flowed beneath the bridge instead of shouting like it usually does. The river knows my name. It doesn’t call me “Dickhead.”
Nicholas Phillips never looked happy. On the contrary. He was always sneering. I hoped I never looked like that. As he walked towards me, my shake started again. I tried to put away my bread. My jam. My knife. I was making another strawberry jam sandwich. Instead I shook so hard that the bread rattled off my leg and fell into the water below. The river whispered its thanks.
“Seth. Seth. Seth.”
“Dickhead. Hey, Dickhead. Stand up, Dickhead.”
I did. Nicholas Phillips was right in my face. His breath smelled like peanut butter.
“You ready to take your medicine, retard?”
On the contrary.
The first punch was in my stomach. It knocked away my breath and filled my eyes with blinking lights. I stepped away, a tear squeezing out of my eye. Nicholas Phillips laughed when he saw it.
“Already?” He sneered. “After one punch? I always knew you were a crybaby, but not THIS much of one.”
The next punch was across my face. Then my nose. The lights were getting brighter. The river was getting louder.
“Seth. Seth. Seth.”
A kick in the side. Don’t let him see you cry.
Another punch to my face. It didn’t feel like I had a nose anymore. I reached up to check and my hand came away red. Red like the squirrel.
Nicholas Phillips crouched before me. “So much for a heart of gold,” he whispered.
A punch in the eye. A punch in the teeth. I should be at home. I didn’t know which way was up or down.
“Seth. Seth. SETH.”
My hand touched something cold. Narrow. An icicle.
“SETH. SETH. SETH.”
A kick in the side. A punch in my chest.
There weren’t icicles in August.
Red was everywhere. It looked like strawberry jam.
“SETH! SETH! SETH!”
No more punches. I looked up. Nicholas Phillips was gone. I knew he was fast, but I didn’t know he was THAT fast. I guess he was even faster than me now. The river below was quieting down. So much red. It even looked like there was some in the water. There was white, too. I had never seen white before. Thousands of tiny bubbles that sizzled like one of Aunt Peggy’s pans when she cooked dinner.
I reached for my lunchbox. My knife, cold as ice. My jam. I had to get home. I was always home at this time. My hands were covered in jam.
“Seth. Seth. Seth.”
That’s probably why Nicholas Phillips hit me so many times. Jam was all over me. I tried to wipe the red off of my hands. The bubbles gurgled in the water below. I wish I didn’t shake so much.
Fall, 2016 Issue