I knew it would happen sooner or later. Brad Murphy’s gang pounces on me and I’m down on my stomach. Two guys jump on my back. Brad grabs my hair and grinds my face in the dirt. But they’ve tangled with the wrong person. Every muscle in my body is on fire. I buck and roll, sending the two assholes on my back flying.
“Hold him, hold him, for Christ’s sake,” Brad shouts.
I grab at Brad’s arm before he can get away. Standing, I twist his arm. He cries out and falls to his knees. Reaching in my pocket for my X-acto knife, I push the blade out with my thumb. The two others quit when they see the blade. Their eyes bulge and they stretch out their arms, backing away.
“Okay, man, you win, you win!”
Blood is dripping from my nose. Every ounce of me is pushing for payback, all the crap I’ve taken since sixth grade. I could end Brad with one quick slash at his throat.
“Don’t cut me, don’t cut me, please!” he cries.
The hand with the X-acto is shaking. I have no control over it.
Brad cries again, “I’ll never call you a retard, ever again, I promise.”
A picture of my mother flashes in my mind. Would she want me to do this?
The hand with the blade comes into focus again. I look down at the whimpering eighth grade student body president.
“If you ever threaten another room 20 kid, I’ll cut your fucking head off!”
He nods and cries, nods and cries; it’s over.
Betty is waiting for me when I get home. She’s my sister and even though she has her own apartment now, she sometimes comes over and cooks dinner for me when dad doesn’t make it home. We live in a crummy little three bedroom house in North Redondo.
Betty sees my face and gasps, “Good Lord, what happened, Steven?”
I head for the bathroom. “Got in a little fight after school.”
I feel my face and it’s rough and sticky. I stare into the mirror. My cheeks and chin are bloody and my nose aches. I wonder if it’s broken.
Betty follows me into the bathroom. “Let me help you. Sit on the toilet.”
She wets a washcloth and I let her clean me up. The soapy water hurts like heck, but I feel a strange peacefulness inside me.
Betty checks my face. “Not so bad now, but you’re going to have scabs. You can’t be getting into fights like this, Steven. Why did it happen?”
I look up at her. “A guy can only take so much shit, Betty.”
She shrugs and finishes patching me up and we go into the kitchen. I sit at the table.
“Dad wanted me to make you chicken and rice tonight. He’ll be home later.”
“Huh, listen, how old was I when mom died?”
Betty turns to me. “Oh, I don’t know – maybe about two. Why?”
I do the math. “That would make you about eight, right? I have a picture of me sitting on mom’s lap.”
“You do? I thought dad threw away all her pictures?”
“I found it in the attic with some other junk. Why would he do that? Throw them all away?”
Betty puts the rice on to cook and comes and sits next to me.
“I guess he was angry at her for getting in the accident. I don’t really like to talk about it, Steven.
I think this over, but it doesn’t make sense. “But that’s crazy, isn’t it? The accident killed her. How could he be mad at that?”
Betty hunches her shoulders. “Maybe it was the drinking. He was always complaining about it and they argued a lot.”
“What was she like anyway? Was she a good mother?
Betty goes to the stove and puts some butter in a fry pan. She turns on the gas and shakes her head. “I don’t know how to answer that. I guess you could say she was a good mother to you. She always had you on her lap, singing and cuddling.”
“What about you?”
She rolls her eyes at me. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore, Steven.”
This pisses me off. There’s stuff she’s not telling me.
After dinner, I go to my room and flop on the bed. My room smells like airplane dope. I have model planes hanging from the ceiling in every corner. It’s one of the two things I like to do. Opening the night stand drawer, I take out the picture of mom and me. I study it for awhile. She is really pretty. Betty looks a lot like her, but she doesn’t have mom’s kind eyes. I sometimes get lost just staring into them. I study the little boy. He is leaning against her. He’s smiling and happy. Whenever I get worried or fed up with the crap I take at school, I look at this picture and it calms me down.
I think about Marshall Intermediate where I’ve been stuck in Room 20, the Special Ed room. The school retards meet there. As a sixth grader, I was in the room every period, but now as an eighth grader, it’s only for two periods. So, I’m not as dumb as some people think.
And I’ve learned a few tricks along the way. If you give me something to read, I’ll study it, and after the letters stop bouncing around, I’ll figure out what it says. I didn’t know how to do this when I was a little kid, so they stuck me in Special Ed when they found out I couldn’t read.
I put the picture away and go to my chess table where I’ve carved a whole set of chessmen out of balsa wood. It’s the second thing I really care about. And I’m learning to play chess all by myself. Not bad for a retard, huh.
It’s taken me three days to carve the last of the 32 pieces of chessmen. Here’s the black king in my hand. Something is wrong with the cross on the king’s crown. I pick up my X-acto knife and cut around the imperfect edges of the cross to make it look better. I pass the piece from hand to hand, analyzing every feature. It has to be perfect before I can stop shaping, and it is.
I lay the piece face down, take my X-acto in hand and slice off the king’s head.
- * *