At school I am in love. Ms. Roth has let us move desks to where we want. I left mine where it was but Payton Larson moved hers away from Nathan and right next to mine. Right right next to mine. So close they overlap and she writes at a tilt. She makes me laugh. Soon we were sitting next to each other in the cafeteria at lunch too. She has too much blonde hair and has to keep tucking it away. Nathan isn’t happy.
“Look, Sean.” Nathan strikes the same pose his uncle does when lecturing the team. “I know you want to play on the team again this year… and you do want to play, don’t you?” Roy follows Nathan’s lead and crosses his arms too. He’s such a copycat.
“Good. But the bad news is. You’re too slow. You’re too slow and too fat. You ain’t baseball material, you hear?” It wasn’t even real baseball. We were stilling playing with a stupid T.
“You’re just too slow, ya hear?” says Roy.
“Ain’t isn’t a real word,” I say.
“And you ain’t a real ball player get it?”
I don’t. I turn and walk to Andre and Philippe. “Hey guys want to–”
“Hey Andre, Philippe, come play with us! Don’t play with that loooozer!” They pause and I love them for it. Then they run over to Nathan and little copycat Roy and I’m left alone. I don’t get Nathan. We’d been friends before. I had even gone to his birthday party. I go to the library that recess and read about the Olympians.
At lunch I see everyone starting a game of mega tag. Philippe and Andre still with Nathan and Roy. I didn’t want to play so I bring a book out to the old playground. I sit in the tower with my book and let my legs dangle. The lunch hour is almost over when I see some guys crossing the field towards me. They keep stooping to pick things up. I can’t tell who they are. They walk slowly, with meaning, and keep bending and picking things up. The bell rings and they turn around dropping whatever they had gathered. In class Payton tells me Nathan is going to get me after school.
“Nathan is going to get you after school.” I stare at my desk. My life is over. “Is your dad picking you up today?”
“No. I’m walking home with Esmé.”
“Do you want my bike? You can get home fast that way.”
“No. How would Es get home?”
“I’ll walk her home.” Payton and Esmé have dance class together. Es would be okay.
“Alri –’’ and then Ms. Roth told us to be quiet or she’d speak to us outside. I can’t help it. As Ms. Roth turns away I lean over and kiss Payton’s cheek. She jumps in her seat and smiles at me. I try to hold her hand but we are practicing cursive now and that makes it hard.
School ends and Payton goes to take Esmé home. I burst out of the big double doors and run for her bike. It’s pink and has tassels and is chained to the bike post. I didn’t ask about the combo. I run over to Andre and Philippe where they’re collecting rocks by the baseball diamond.
“Guys guys Nathan is going to get me.” They freeze.
Frogs in a flashlight beam.
I turn from one to the other. They each have a handful of good-sized stones, palm to fist sized. Andre stares and Philippe speaks, dipping his head a little. “Run Sean. You gotta run.” I run.
I make it across the baseball diamond and across the soccer fields before the first stone whizzes by me. I scramble up the little hill to the tennis courts and slam the cross-wire gate. Stones bang off it and all around me now. As I slam the gate shut I see them coming. Andre and Philippe and Roy and Nathan and even Billy Slater from fifth grade. I run across the tennis courts and out the other side, slamming the other gate closed too. Then down the hill and to the old playground. They call names after me. Slow poke, shorty, fatty, Canuck, retard.
I climb up from platform to platform. At one point a rock bounces off the wood and hits me in the face. Somebody laughs. I get to the top tower. The slide has been gone since forever and all that’s left is the fireman poll, the ladder up, and an empty space where the long slide used to be. I’m beat and fall against the one solid half wall of the tower. Below me they throw the rest of their stones till they’re out. The playground has woodchips and they look lamely for more ammo. Except for Nathan, who savours his last rocks. He tosses them and up and down, coin-like.
Nathan paces and laughs. I check my cheek and I’m bleeding. I wipe it away before it dries. Can’t let anyone know. Nathan smiles up at me. “Go get him.” The boys begin to climb. Billy Slater is the first up. He grins at me, his wiggly tooth sticking out. I kick and it connects with the wet sound of meat and rubber. He falls backwards onto Philippe. Andre shimmies up the pole and grabs the edge of the tower’s platform. I step on his fingers till he screams and lets go. I wipe my cheek again. Roy and Philippe push forward again and I step on their hands too. Roy tries to bite me but I twist on his fingers and he lets go and falls.
Nathan is furious. He throws a stone that scrapes me right along the top of my head knocking me back against the tower’s one wall. “Do you like her, Sean?” he yells up. He stands at the bottom tossing his last rock up and down. Up and down. “Do you like Payton?”
“Yeah.” This gets snickers from Andre and Philippe. I can’t see so well. Blood from my cuts is getting in my left eye and tears are in both.
“Yeah? You want to kiss her?”
“Well you can’t!” The rock flies and clangs against the metal roofing of the tower. Nathan yells red-faced. “She doesn’t like you. She doesn’t want a Canadian boy. She’s American, she wants an American boy. She doesn’t want you.”
“We don’t sit alphabetically now. We got to choose where we sit. She doesn’t have to sit next to you anymore. She chose to sit next to me.”
“She chose wrong!”
“Why are you doing this?” I look over the edge. Philippe looks miserable; Anton has torn his shirt and Billy throws his shoe at me. It zooms by. Nathan fumes. I look at my friends, “Philippe, Anton why are you doing this? You guys aren’t American either.”
Philippe turns white and Anton steps away from Billy Slater. “No no guys, our mum’s American. She is. Really. Ask her.”
Nathan laughs at them. “Beat it. You guys weren’t much use anyway.” The two twins looked crushed, then Billy raises his fist and they duck and run. Nathan laughs again and he and Billy stare up at me. I can’t see Roy, but I can’t see much of anything. “You still like Payton?”
“If you say you don’t I’ll only punch you three times.”
“No. I do.”
“Say you don’t. Say you don’t or I’ll kill you. Last chance.”
“I do, I do like Payton. And Payton likes me.”
Nathan yells and I feel Roy’s hands push me from behind. I fall then for a long time. I see and hear only red. It tastes like iron and wood and hurts every inch of me.
When I wake up the sky has changed colour. I take the longer way home so no one sees me. I try to go fast but I limp and my breathing isn’t so good. All I remember after the fall is red. No. Most was red. But I also remember Nathan. Nathan stomping my face. Slowly, I reach up and touch my lips. They’re split. My hand continues and I panic when I can’t find my nose. When I do pain flares deep into my skull. It’s broken. My nose is broken.
Before I reach the house I see Esmé. She runs up the drive and helps me pull myself inside. She’s crying and I mumble something about wiping and blood.
“SeanSeanSean. You’ll be okay. You’ll be okay. Mom and Dad will get them. Mom will be here soon. You’ll be-’’ and she breaks down.
“Es.” She keeps sobbing. “Es I need my bike.” My own words sound sick. Gummy and toothless.
“Get me my bike.”
“Studying?” She nods. “Okay. Good.” His desk faced away from the cul-de-sac. He wouldn’t be able to see. I’m … I’m not a good person. I don’t want him to see this. I can’t let him know.
Esmé comes back wheeling my bike and I get on. I tell her to go change and wash up and not tell anyone ever. Leave it to me. She nods and runs back inside. My breathing hurts. I ride in circles until I see Mum’s minivan coming down the drive. When I’m sure she can see me I pick up speed. My thoughts stop. I pedal pedal pedal straight into the brick wall of our house.