[This is a fiction short story I penned in late 2007, with spot edits in 2008 and 2009. I have backdated this post to roughly the date I wrote the story. If printed, this story will probably be categorized as Juvenile or Young Adult fiction, though I wrote it to be accessible to all ages a la Harry Potter, and to be enjoyable by a mainstream audience that isn't necessarily familiar with or interested in science fiction.
My technique is still very unpolished here, but I am thrilled to see that I got so many of the essentials right: a strong, central protagonist, a clear conflict, realistic antagonists, transformation (rather credible and effective even), and a believable setting. The story needs more of a ticking clock and I need to show more and tell less. I have been working on making this into a novel-length narrative under the working title "Gordon/David/Rachael Story," with "Respect" as the prologue or first act, so there will be much polishing.]
by Michael Bahr
That frozen Monday morning in January was the first time I ever saw David Castillo. He staggered up the road, shivering and sniffling, dragging behind him an overfilled backpack. His breath steamed off to the sides of his face in the bitter cold as he trudged toward us in obvious agony. I would not learn his name until an hour later in eighth-grade homeroom, but I could tell from one look at David that he did not belong.
"Look what we have here!" smirked Robbie. Robbie was the biggest of us. He puffed up his chest and stared down the road at the hapless David.
"New kid, I'd say," said Steve, looking up from his busy attention to flicking icicles off the edge of the schoolyard wall. "Looks like a Mexican."
Derrick scowled and stared at the newcomer. "My dad says Mexicans steal jobs and money from Americans."
"Your dad says a lot of things," I replied. But I had heard the same things. Was David a Mexican? Was his family here to steal jobs and money? I wanted to know. I always wanted to know things. I wanted to understand who, how, and why. The other guys never did. I guess that's why I let them do most of the bullying. And if some poor wimp of a boy didn't have the guts to stand up for himself, that wasn't my problem, right? Why should it be my problem? I wasn't the person throwing the punches. Right?
"Yeah, well, I'm going to make him wish he was back in May-hee-coh," declared Derrick.
"Oh yeah? How?" asked Steve.
Derrick stepped out from the schoolyard wall and into the gate. If David wanted to make it onto school grounds, he had to come past us, unless he wanted to spend half an hour walking all the way around to the other side.
Every day for as long as I had known the guys, we had spent our mornings this way. Robbie or Derrick would see a boy approaching that was smaller than us, or different from us, or who came from a different part of the neighborhood than we did, and we would block the gate so the boy had to either fight us or go around. Most of the time, boys went around. In the previous grades, we had to step aside for the older, bigger kids. This year, in eighth grade, nobody was older or bigger than us.
Steve spoke little, but he was always there to join in the fun. He stood gangly and awkward, just like many of the boys that we bullied, and I always wondered why he thought he was any different from them. I guess he was just lucky to have known the larger, tougher Robbie and Derrick since first grade.
The four of us watched David suffering his way up the road toward the schoolyard. He continued straight toward us.
"Look at that loser. He doesn't even have a scarf and gloves!" said Robbie, stepping out to flank Derrick at the gate.
I smiled. "It looks like he's going to cry! Little baby can't take the cold!"
"Ain't no cold where he comes from, Gord-o," barked Derrick. "Nothing but sand and lizards and stuff!"
Steve just stared at David in silence, flicking his icicles.
David reached the gate and stopped in front of Robbie and Derrick. He stood at least a head shorter than either one of them, and he was as skinny as Steve.
"Excuse me, I need to get through," said David, speaking pristine English.
"Can't go through," said Derrick.
Robbie shook his head.
David glanced back and forth at the two. "It's almost time for class."
"Go around," said Robbie.
"Yeah," I said. "Go around."
David paused for a moment, then set his eyes forward and stepped directly into Robbie and Derrick, pushing between them.
"Whoa, whoa, what's this?" laughed Robbie. He pushed David away, and the weight of David's backpack pulled him off-balance until he fell side-down in the road. Muddy water and chunks of snow and dirt caked David's coat, pants, and face.
The four of us erupted in laughter. The sight of David sprawled out on the ground sent me into hysterics, though I could not quite say why.
Derrick leaned down at David and grabbed a handful of David's hair. "Mexicans aren't allowed here in Waukegan. That means you, kid." And he slugged David in the stomach.
David heaved and choked for air, doubling up his gut at Derrick's sudden attack. Derrick gave Robbie a high-five and we all laughed.
"I'm - not - a - Mexican," gasped David.
Robbie stepped up to David and offered his hand. "Oh, I'm sorry. I guess we were mistaken." But there was something wrong with the way he said it. I had heard that tone before.
David must have noticed it too, because he stared up at Robbie's hand, reluctant to so quickly trust a stranger after Derrick's surprise attack. David extended his hand toward Robbie's, and Robbie pulled the smaller boy up.
"You aren't just a Mexican. You're a liar!" sneered Robbie. Just then, Steve appeared behind David, pulled on the hood of David's coat, and dropped a handful of icicles and snow grime down David's back.
We howled with laughter now, watching the shocked and freezing David groping at the back of his coat and shirt to dislodge the icy sludge. Just as David forced a flurry of ice out from under his shirt, a clod of sludge slid down into the back of his pants. David yelped in pain and frantically tugged at his pant legs to force the grime out. I doubled over, laughing so hard my sides ached.
The bell rang. All four of us darted through the gate and ran for the main building, leaving David to struggle at the roadside.
An hour into class, the principal, Dr. Rogissart, walked into Mrs. Herbert's homeroom class with a newly-redressed David in tow.
"Oh, no!" whispered Robbie, "We're in trouble for sure!"
"If we get busted, I'm going to let him have it after school!" seethed Derrick.
"This is why I keep telling you guys not to take it so far," I whispered back. "If you just hit them once or twice, they can't prove anything!"
Steve, as usual, said nothing. He doodled silently in his notebook.
Robbie leaned over and slugged me in the bicep. "I'll hit who I want to hit, however many times I like." I looked to the front of the classroom, but Dr. Rogissart and Mrs. Herbert were talking to each other, and must not have seen Robbie's punch. They finally turned to address the class.
"Class," said Dr. Rogissart, "I have good news! We have a new student joining us today, and he just moved here to Illinois. This is David Castillo. Let's all welcome him to Elkdale Primary!"
"Hi, David!" came the chorus from most of the class. I said it, and even Robbie mouthed the words, but Derrick and Steve kept their mouths shut. My arm ached.
"Hi, everyone," said David.
Dr. Rogissart nodded. "Well, I'll just let you get settled, then. Have a good day, everybody!" The principal strolled out the door.
Mrs. Herbert smiled. "So where are you from, David?"
"Las Cruces, New Mexico. We moved here during Christmas break."
"Wow," said Mrs. Herbert, "Waukegan is pretty different for you, then! Yes, Robbie?"
Robbie had raised his hand. I scowled, convinced that Robbie was going to spill the beans somehow.
"So, does that mean he's a Mexican?"
Mrs. Herbert shook her head. "No, Robbie. David is not from Mexico. He is from New Mexico, the 47th state, which makes him an American. Anybody, without looking at the map, who can tell me where Las Cruces, New Mexico is and the primary features nearby?" Hands shot up, and Mrs. Herbert nodded to the class know-it-all, Rachael O'Reilly.
Rachael ticked off each answer on her fingers. "Las Cruces is located on the New Mexico border with Texas, across from El Paso. The Rio Grande runs directly through the city and eventually out to the Gulf of Mexico. To the north is Albuquerque and to the west is Tucson, Arizona."
"Impressive," nodded David.
"Correct, Rachael. Everyone take note of the features Rachael identified. You will need to know the layout of the states and major cities for your history exams this semester," said Mrs. Herbert. Rachael wore a self-satisfied smirk. I avoided Rachael's gaze, because one of her favorite games of the past few grades has been to bother me and pester me at every opportunity. Why she found it so fascinating to bother me, I will never know. I had to hand it to her this time, though: at least her little show turned David's attention away from Robbie.
"So, David, what does your family do?" asked the teacher.
David replied in that soft, matter-of-fact voice that we had first heard out by the gate. "My dad works on mirrors. All my life he has worked for the Army, ever since he served in the Middle-East War. Sometimes, he worked at Fort Bliss, near El Paso. Other times, he worked at White Sands on the other side of town. They sent him to Holloman for a year to work on mirrors for the Air Force, and when he came back, they said he was going to Chicago to do the same thing for the Navy."
"What does your father do with mirrors?" asked Mrs. Herbert.
David shrugged. "The military uses them for different things. Dad can only tell me about some of the work he does. The rest is secret. Mirrors are used in surveillance, communications, and even weapon targeting. Laser beams mark a target, and mirrors are used to focus and direct the beams. Once a target is marked, our soldiers know where to aim. I think for the Navy he is doing the same thing, except for missiles that they fire from ships. If you have enough mirrors, you can launch a missile from a hundred miles out at sea and still hit an enemy fortress way up in the mountains."
A hush fell over the classroom after David's explanation. Some of the other guys sat wide-eyed in wonder.
"That's very interesting, David!" said Mrs. Herbert. "You can have this desk over here. Have a seat and you can join in this morning's writing exercises."
I scowled in resentment, personally offended that this stranger could come walking into my school and classroom and immediately look so cool -- especially after taking such an easy beating from my friends out at the gate that morning. His father works on weapons targeting mirrors?! How could I ever compete with that? My father poured concrete for a living.
Thankfully, Robbie was not impressed either -- but more by accident than by design. He leaned over to me and whispered, "That's no big deal! I have a mirror at home in my bathroom, and I only ever use it when I brush my teeth!"
Recess was barely ten minutes old when the four of us cornered David again.
"You should use one of your daddy's mirrors," Derrick was saying, "so you can see how ugly you are, Mexican! Oh, I mean New Mexican!"
"Why don't you guys leave me alone?" asked David.
Robbie stood tall in front of David. "Why don't you make me?"
David paused, perhaps pondering his situation. I noticed Steve creeping up behind him. It was the classic one-two move, just like that morning in the road. Robbie distracts someone and Steve sets the trap.
Robbie forced the issue. "Well?" he spat, and then pushed David forward by the shoulders. David's momentum carried him over Steve's outstretched leg, and the new boy tripped and stumbled to the ground with a smack.
When David regained his feet, I noticed that a sliver of blood trailed from the side of his mouth. Maroon spatter coagulated on the concrete where he had lain. I turned away. I had seen enough.
The next voice I heard was Derrick's. "That's right, Mexican! Run away! We'll see you again after school!" I knew I should be enjoying it. I knew I should be shouting with Derrick. Instead, I just stared at a tree, watching the water drip from its needles. I fixed my focus on the pine needles, hoping not to see David for the rest of the day.
“It’s cold out here. I’m getting wet. I’m going inside,” I told the guys.
“Suit yourself, Gord-o,” replied Robbie, avoiding eye contact with me. Derrick shrugged. Steve stared off in the direction David had run and didn’t answer.
Tuesday morning came and went, and there was no sign of David. He was in class, so he must have gone around, we figured. The same thing happened after school, and then again Wednesday and Thursday. That was the fastest I had ever seen someone give up the fight against Robbie and Derrick. Usually, a boy would put up a struggle at least a couple more times.
I was stuck with David as a partner in sixth period science on Friday. The class had to fill in tables on the behavior of wild animals. I slogged through the canine species -- dogs, jackals, and wolves, while David covered the felines -- panthers, tigers, lions, and leopards and such. I supposed that his schools in New Mexico had to teach that stuff, in case a mountain lion ever attacked them. David tried to catch my eye, but I wouldn’t acknowledge him.
“The alpha wolf,” David said.
I didn’t look at him.
“The section you’re stuck on. A pack is led by the alpha wolf.” David pointed to the circle on my page. I was sitting with my pencil near the blank tag for the head of the unit, and I realized I had been sitting there staring at it for a few minutes.
I grunted and nodded, then filled it in. I dared not give David the satisfaction. I knew about animals. I was just preoccupied, that’s all. Just preoccupied.
“Why did you turn away?” asked David. He returned to his tables, noting that the female lions in a pride did the hunting, conceding to me the attempt at eye contact.
“I don’t remember inviting you into a conversation,” I huffed.
“I don’t remember asking your permission,” David shrugged.
His ploy worked. David’s clever reply prompted me to turn and look directly at him, and he stared back with – what? Not malice. Amusement. No, curiosity.
“So why did you turn away?” David persisted.
"I don't know what you're talking about," I lied.
"Monday at lunch. After I hit the ground, you turned away."
“What does it matter? You learned your lesson. Nobody gets the best of us.” I shrugged. I turned back to the canines.
“We had groups of guys like your friends back in Cruces,” David related, “and I recognized the others for what they were. Robbie is big, so he feels like he has to be tough all the time or people will think he is weak. Derrick talks like his father. And Steve is the guy who is always there, but never matters.”
“Hey, jerk,” I said, “those are my friends you’re talking about!”
“Are they?” asked David.
“Why?” asked David.
That’s easy. Anyone knows why. What a stupid question. It’s ridiculous that David would even ask such a question.
And somehow I did not know the answer.
“Do you know Rachael?” asked David, pointing at the teacher’s pet.
“She thinks she’s so smart,” I mumbled to myself.
David blinked. “Well, it’s strange you should say that. I talked to her at lunch. She says you’re pretty smart too. She says you almost beat her in the spelling bee last year.”
Rachael still had not realized that I threw the contest. She missed "lethargy," and then I had a chance to spell "exuberance" for the win. I had no intention of winning a contest for dorks, so I misspelled it "e-x-u-b-e-r-e-n-c-e." She made her next word, and then I misspelled mine on purpose again.
“Rachael O’Reilly is the teacher’s pet, David. If you do anything fun, she will tell on you. If you get anything wrong, she will be there to point it out. If you want to think about anything but school, there she is, talking about school.”
“I guess,” said David. He sounded unconvinced.
I contemplated the conversation while finishing up the hyenas. I hadn’t noticed that David was reading my work over my shoulder until he spoke.
“I thought the hyena counted as a canine.”
“Technically they don't. They are more like the mongoose or the meerkat,” I explained.
“Huh. No fooling. I guess you’re right, Gord-o. You aren’t smart at all. Rachael is probably just pulling my chain.”
Did he really just call me that?
"Gord-o?!" I deadpanned.
“Well, you called me David, so I figured we were on a first-name basis now,” smirked the New Mexican.
“My name is not ‘Gord-o.’ My name is Gordon Callahan,” I said.
“David Castillo,” he replied. He shook my hand suddenly, and I didn’t think to pull it away. Just Monday morning I had taunted David while he laid freezing in the road. Why was he being nice to me? None of this made sense.
Wait a minute.
“You said what my friends were. Robbie is a bully, Derrick is ignorant, and Steve is spineless. Okay, I get that. I’m not sure what that proves. But what am I, then?”
“Isn’t it obvious, Gordon?” asked Rachael, joining our conversation. “You’re the mismatch. You don’t belong with those guys. I’ve been trying to tell you that for a while now.”
Why was she bothering me now, too? “Hey, brown-nose, don’t you have a science assignment to finish?”
Rachael waved off my question. “I finished my animal tables before you two even started talking. By the way, you left out the alpha female. In all the subspecies of gray wolves, there is an alpha male and an alpha female.”
“Just – just shut up a minute,” I snapped at her. I was in no mood to be corrected by Rachael -- not today. “Okay, so why am I a mismatch? A smart guy can’t enjoy hanging out with normal guys?”
“Smart has nothing to do with it, Gordon,” David calmly replied. He never raised his voice, not the entire time I had known him. I had no idea how he could stay so level-headed, especially after being pushed around like that. “You have a conscience,” David explained. “You know the difference between right and wrong. You pretend you don't care, but you do care.”
Rachael nodded. “It's really easy to tell.”
David smiled. “Those guys are cruel and petty because this is all they will ever have. I saw guys like that back in Cruces. Bigger than Robbie. Nastier than Derrick. The ones like Steve -- well, they were about the same, now that I think about it.”
“Not you, though, Gord-o,” blinked Rachael, twirling her pony-tail absent-mindedly. “You may not know it yet, but you’re one of us.”
That was enough. My vision narrowed. These two had insulted my friends, sneered at me with their fancy words and arrogant smiles, and now they were calling me a nerd in so many words. I had half a mind to punch David in the nose right then, but that would have meant detention on a Friday.
“Shut up, both of you,” I growled. “Leave me alone. I am nothing like you. I’m cool, and I hang out with the awesome guys, and you two can just go enjoy doing your times tables or whatever. But count me out.” I snatched my science paper off the table, dropped it in the “turn-in” bin, and then excused myself to the bathroom for the last ten minutes of the period.
Twice more the next week, we caught wimps and nerds walking to our gate before school, and twice more they suffered at the hands of Robbie and Derrick. Steve nodded along, playing his set-up role as appropriate, and each time I delivered taunts and stood about in a menacing manner, but could not bring myself to join in the beatings.
One Thursday, the guys were giving Eric Miller a "swirly" in the bathroom. The poor kid blubbered and wailed in agony as they dunked his head repeatedly in the toilet, and eventually I had heard enough.
"I'm going to make sure the coast is still clear," I lied, and I took my exit from the bathroom.
David was standing outside, by the wall.
"What do you want?" I asked.
"Just waiting to use the bathroom," said David. "It seems like this might be a bad time to go in there. I don't know how much more Eric can take."
I shook my head and stared out at the yard.
"Why aren't you in there helping out, Gordon?" asked David.
I wanted to be angry at him for asking, but his question held no trace of sarcasm.
"They're going too far. They always go too far. I hate it when they get like this. They never listen to me. Someday, somebody is going to really get hurt." I had no idea why I was telling this to David, except that he kept standing there, listening. "Robbie is a thug, just like you said. And Derrick? Man, I don't even know anymore where he gets all his hatred. And Steve is always there, always giving those two an audience."
"What about you?" asked David.
"I let them do the bullying. If some wimp can't take it, that's not my problem."
"How do you figure?"
"Well, I'm not the person throwing the punches," I shrugged.
David furrowed his brow in thought. "That first Monday, when I hit the ground and busted my lip, you didn't punch me that day, right?"
"So, by your logic, you weren't responsible for what happened to me."
"That's right," I said.
"Then why did you turn away?"
I searched my mind, and realized that I had no answer.
The miserable days of January went on, and snow turned to hail and to sleet and eventually rain. Most days had all the school cooped up in the main building, and tempers flared in the frustration of our imprisonment.
The circumstances brought out the most sadistic in Derrick and Robbie, and they no longer cared about being within earshot of other students or even teachers. Twisty hallways, corners in the locker room, and the boys' bathroom became torture chambers for the nerdy, the different, and the weak among the male students. Even the girls became snippy and emotional, with Rachael crying in the corner almost every afternoon after some hearing second-hand some behind-the-back ridicule from the clique of "lipstick-girls" holding their court.
We called them "lipstick-girls" because they were the ones whose parents let them wear makeup, carry purses, and pierce their ears. The lipstick-girls relentlessly enforced the social pecking order among the females in each grade, based on some arcane, inscrutable hierarchy that made the physically brutal social circles of the boys seem friendly by comparison. This is how it had been ever since kindergarten, and the best information I had so far about high school made the lower grades seem downright friendly by comparison.
There was some connection between the behavior of the lipstick-girls and that of my friends, and I shook my head in frustration every time the key to that connection eluded me. David had asked a crucial question that day outside the boys' bathroom, and I was determined to find the answer. Why did I turn away? I had to know.
One Monday morning in February, the rain had stopped, the road had mostly dried up, and if we had any luck, we would get some winter sun before the day was through. The guys and I took up our customary positions at the edge of the schoolyard, and we were shocked and amazed to see David walking deliberately up the road and directly toward the gate.
Robbie and Derrick took their positions blocking the gate. Steve lounged by the wall. Something in David’s expression was off-putting, so I stepped back a few feet. I had a funny feeling that something might happen. But I never could have guessed, not in a million years, what would happen.
“Looks like Mexicans just never learn,” mused Derrick, cracking his knuckles.
“Yeah! They didn’t teach him down in school in New Mexico how to tell when he wasn't welcome,” taunted Robbie.
David just smiled.
“What’s his problem?” wondered Steve aloud.
“Stupid idiot doesn’t even realize he’s about to get beat up!” laughed Derrick.
This wasn’t right. Nothing in front of me made any sense. David just walked on toward us, smiling like the Mona Lisa. The guys were getting ready to jump David, and somehow all the reasons that it made perfect sense to do so turned to black and faded away into nothing. In that moment I felt a pang of fear that those reasons had never truly existed.
I had kept stepping away without realizing it, and Robbie’s voice snapped me back to the present.
“Hey, Gord, where you going, pal? You're going to miss it!”
"Yeah, Gord-o," said Derrick, "come on. Are you going soft on us?"
I stopped myself. The three guys all looked at me with accusation in their eyes. Could they see my uncertainty? All of a sudden, I thought back to my science lesson about the wolves. They say that wolves all obey the pack alpha because the alpha asserts himself and the rest defer. The pack alpha eats first. The pack alpha makes the decisions. The other wolves have to obey or they will be left behind.
I had to be the alpha. I had to make a move.
“Step aside, you two. I’m going to bust this Mexican right in his stupid, Mexican, smiling, moronic, loser face!”
“Yeah!” grinned Derrick and Robbie. Steve smiled toothily and nodded his head frantically.
I strode through the gate, past the guys, and stormed up to David as he was still about fifteen feet from the others. I grabbed hold of his shirt collar and raised my fist.
“Hey, jerk! This is what happens to guys like you in Waukegan!” I thundered, making sure the guys could hear. They roared in approval.
David just smiled and winked at me.
I hesitated. What was he doing? Why didn’t he say something? I shrugged at him, fist still high in the air, the question in my eyes.
David Castillo, the unflappable New Mexican, nodded and winked again.
“Come on, Gord-o! Pop him right on his stupid mouth!” shrieked Derrick. I could hear the hatred in Derrick’s voice. I could hear the contempt. I thought back to all the times Derrick just lost it and unloaded on some other kid, usually a new kid from somewhere else, just like David, or else the kid with the leg braces, or the kid with the thick glasses. All those times, those kids hadn’t done anything to Derrick – they just stumbled into his path, and that was sin enough for him to condemn them. And there I was, every time, helping him out.
Without even turning around, I could see Steve’s maniacal grin in my mind’s eye, and I thought back to all the times I stood by, watching Robbie and Derrick pummeling some kid while Steve just sat there smiling along. That's all Steve ever did, and yet I suddenly saw it for what it was. Steve represented the basest, least discriminating audience a person could have for their acts. In the presence of any audience, a person feels compelled to act. And no matter how reprehensible our act might be, we knew Steve would not disapprove.
Robbie was the worst of all. How many times did he just punch people, just deck them out of nowhere – myself included – because he thought something they said in passing was some kind of insult to his toughness? And I just kept taking it, always afraid to step up to Robbie and fight back, because I knew most of the time his next target would be somebody else.
At last I understood why I had never objected to the beatings: because as long as I was doing that, I was not the target of the beatings. All those victims of our quartet and all their pain, suffering, bleeding, and agony were on my hands as well, because I had sold those boys up the river to save my own skin.
I didn’t know what to do. I lowered my fist, but kept hold of David’s shirt. I shook my head in confusion.
“What are you doing, man? Don’t you see what’s about to happen?” I implored him.
David shrugged and pointed with his eyes back toward the other guys, and winked once more.
I let go of David. “I'm sorry for my part in this, David. That's why I turned away that day. I knew I was wrong, and I was ashamed of myself. But, seriously, though: You should go around. I don’t know what they’re going to do.”
David’s eyes brightened in exultation. He smiled widely, still not showing his teeth. Before I could warn him off more urgently, he strode right up to Robbie and Derrick.
“What?” bellowed Robbie. Derrick glowered belligerently. Neither of them blinked.
In retrospect, perhaps they should have.
David blasted a vivid spray from his mouth and caught Robbie and Derrick full in the faces, right across the eyes. The spray looked like water, and it looked normal enough when it hit them, but both Robbie and Derrick quickly dropped to the ground, shouting and shaking in pain. I trembled in sudden terror.
“It burns! Make it stop! Get it off! Aaaauuuugh!” whimpered Robbie.
“Burning! I can’t see! I’m blind!” shouted Derrick.
Both of them grasped sightlessly at the grimy, slushy snow at the roadside and frantically rubbed handfuls of the muck into their faces.
Steve, trembling and agape, backed up in a stagger, then turned and fled for the main building. "Mrs. Herbert!" he shrieked. “Mrs. Herbert! Call the nurse! Fast!” The other students in the yard turned to look, and saw Robbie and Derrick writhing blindly in the gutter when the bell rang.
I stared open-mouthed at David. He smiled with his chin held high and his feet planted astride the gate, triumphant, exulting in his victory. Did he not realize he just blinded two of my friends?! What kind of sick, twisted maniac was he? Had he spat poison? Or acid? How could he have spat acid?! I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to know! I kept my distance from David as I circled back toward the school.
“Gordon! Wait, Gordon!” he called. I did not look back.
I stared at my sandwich in the lunchroom and found myself without an appetite. Robbie and Derrick were not in class all morning. Mrs. Herbert said she didn’t know where they were, but I think she knew. Dr. Rogissart had whispered something to her at the door, and I think his mouth pronounced “Robbie,” and she nodded. But I couldn’t be sure. Steve came to class about an hour late with a new pair of pants.
I hardly even noticed when David and Rachael sat down across the table from me.
“Boy, Gordon, who died and left you with the mess?” she quipped.
“Yeah, Rachael, have your fun. Your friends didn’t get blinded.”
The two paused, and then broke into gales of laughter.
“Blinded? They aren’t blinded, Gordon,” David chuckled. “Well, not permanently, anyway. They just won’t be able to see straight for a few hours. They’re at the nurse’s office, sitting in the dark room being treated with eye-wash.”
So they weren’t blinded, I mused in relief. I was surprised to realize then that, in some small measure, I had sort of hoped that they might be. Not to be cruel or anything, but because they deserved it – sort of, maybe a little. Not permanently, anyway.
"What did you spit on those guys, anyway?" I asked.
David held up a small, fruit-like pepper, and then popped it into his mouth.
“A jalapeño?” I asked.
“No,” David replied, chewing and swallowing. “This is a different kind of chilé. We ate these all the time back home in Las Cruces. I’m used to them. But to someone who has never had one, they’re a little hot.”
I turned to Rachael, and she nodded. “I tried one. It didn’t go well.”
“You have to be lying. There’s no way pepper juice would make those guys drop down in pain like that and think they were blind. I’ve eaten jalapeños on pizza and I was fine.”
David and Rachael shared a glance. “Oh, I don’t know, Gord-o. New Mexican chilé can be spicier than you might think.”
“I don’t believe you,” I shot back. It was too absurd to accept. There was no way a simple southwestern pepper had beaten Robbie and Derrick and sent Steve running for the hills.
David pulled another pepper out of his lunch bag. “Try it, if you want.”
I looked at Rachael. She shook her head and looked at the pepper askance. “Don’t look at me; I’m not touching that thing. I know better.”
Shrugging, I took the pepper from David and looked at it. It was cool to the touch and smelled vaguely like salsa.
“You going to study that chilé or eat it?” asked David.
Defiantly, I popped the pepper in my mouth and chewed vigorously. That, as it turned out, was a mistake.
It was like a nuclear bomb had exploded on my tongue.
Searing, scorching, stinging pain coated the inside of my mouth, and my eyes instantly welled up and burst forth in tears. My nose ran with agony as I kicked back my chair and dashed for the water fountain. David and Rachael pounded the table in laughter at my desperate plight.
I furiously lapped water as fast as the fountain would feed it. I held my hand under the second faucet for more water and greedily drank and rubbed my tongue with it. It was then that I made my second mistake. The tears were making it hard for me to see through my bleary eyes, so I rubbed them.
Once I returned from the nurse's office and rejoined David and Rachael in the lunch recess, David explained to me that water would not counter the heat of the peppers, and that I needed to drink milk to dampen the burn. I tried it, and it worked: both Rachael and I managed to eat a pepper without suffering in agony. He told us we were well on our way to being Southwesterners, and Rachael beamed with pride at the accomplishment. David told me when Rachael was out of earshot that her first time had gone even worse than mine.
Later that afternoon, I sat in the brilliant winter sun with David and Rachael after school. The chill breeze rustled the nearby pines, but the afternoon lit our faces with warmth and life.
We shared a laugh at the expense of the other guys when they emerged from the school building and scampered down the street, deliberately avoiding looking at us.
David raised his eyebrow. "Not feeling sympathy for your friends, Gordon?"
"I don’t know anymore. I've been hanging out with those guys for as long as I can remember. But I never had the sense that they liked me for who I really was. I always had to put on a show that I was a bully like them. I had to hide my intelligence. That's why I threw the spelling bee last year."
"You did not!" gasped Rachael.
"I'm afraid I did, Rachael. I could have beaten you on 'exuberance.'"
"I don't believe you!" She shook her head, mouth agape.
I smiled and shrugged. "I'll just have to beat you this year and then you'll know it was true."
David smiled. "Well, I have to go. My folks worry when I don't return home on time, since we're still new to the neighborhood."
"See you tomorrow, man," I said.
"Bye, David!" said Rachael.
She and I sat on the park bench and watched David depart, and I was struck with the sense of how much more David seemed to belong now than when I first saw him that Monday morning back in January. But was it David that belonged, or was I finally realizing that I belonged with David and Rachael? I stood on the precipice of a significant step -- from a big eighth-grade fish in the small pond of Elkdale Primary School to a high-school freshman in the fall at either Waukegan High or Lakeshore High, depending how the district drew the boundary lines this year that assigned people to one school or the other. I would be moving forth from all I held familiar and had mastered -- I desired no further social upheaval in addition to that. All of this was more than I was ready to contemplate, so I just enjoyed the cool breeze and the bright afternoon.
Rachael sat a little closer to me than I could remember her sitting before. “You know, Gordon, David told me what you did this morning.”
I was confused. “What do you mean?” I answered.
“You had a chance to join in the mob and attack David, but instead you turned away and let him go. Why did you do that?”
She brushed stray strands of hair out of her face, and I noticed for the first time that her face was less annoying and nerdy than I remembered it. In fact, there was a certain something about it – something I tried to grasp, but it slipped away.
“I don’t know,” I lied. The realization was still fresh in my mind; I didn't trust myself to discuss it just yet.
Rachael got up and slung her backpack across her shoulder.
"I think you do." And then, as quick as a flash, she leaned in and pecked my lips with the briefest of kisses – and I sat, stunned, living that instant for an eternity.
“Also, David said if you hadn’t let him go after that third wink, he was going to spit the pepper juice in your face. So it’s a lucky thing you figured it out on time. See you tomorrow, Gord-o!” smiled Rachael.
She turned and waved at me as she reached the gate and continued down the lane on her way home.
And then, I smiled.