Continuing the sad train to dysfunctionville, I present to you:
Julian Files chapter 8
Thursday July 21, 2005
Carlisle Windsor School, All Saints neighborhood
When they pushed him, Boyd stumbled and fell. He had been paying so much attention to the book he hadn’t expected anything else, so he wasn’t prepared to catch himself. His foot missed the edge of the steps and he tumbled all the way down the stairs, bumping and rolling until he crashed to an abrupt halt at the bottom.
His knees skinned on the concrete, and his arms jolted. His head snapped forward.
The suddenness scared him. His heart thundered in his chest.
He curled his fingers against the concrete and focused on that instead of the startled pain that tried to overcome his natural ability to stay unaffected. His chin wobbled so he clenched his teeth.
He wouldn’t cry. Boys didn’t cry, and he couldn’t be a girl. They already called him that and more.
Carefully, he pushed himself up. It hurt even more doing that, and for a horrifying second he thought he was going to cry anyway. Everything got all blurry the way it did when he had tears. But he managed to hold it in, and he thought his mother and dad would have both been proud.
He could stay quiet no matter what. He was a good boy.
As long as he stayed a good boy, his mother and dad would always remember him. They would still want him.
As long as he stayed a good boy, Mr. Cole wouldn’t take them away.
“You forgot this.”
The book he’d dropped careened down and clipped him in the side. It hurt but he tried to ignore it. He stayed very still, hunched and facing away from the others, in the hopes that they would forget he existed the way most people did.
He didn’t understand why they pushed him today. Usually they went out of their way to do nothing that could leave physical marks. Usually, they used their words the most as weapons.
He didn’t know why Austin was mad today, but Austin was always mad lately. Boyd had overheard Nella say that it was because Austin’s mom finally died of the lung sickness. Austin had always hated Boyd, but now he wouldn’t leave him alone. Every time Boyd turned a corner and Austin was there, he did or said something mean. He kept telling Boyd to run home crying to his mommy, and then he said if Boyd did, he would have his dad’s people follow Boyd home and kill his mom so he had a real reason to cry.
Boyd didn’t know why Austin was so obsessed with the idea of him crying. He hadn’t cried in front of Austin except the first time, when he hadn’t expected Austin to try to set his shirt on fire while he was wearing it, and he’d gotten scared.
But that was before Lou had protected Boyd. Before Lou stopped Austin from doing more than taunting him from afar.
But now Lou wasn’t there. It was summer and only some of the kids attended the summer academy. Austin and his friends went because they weren’t good students and they got in trouble a lot, even though their parents always bailed them out. Boyd was a top student but his parents were busy a lot so Boyd went so they didn’t have to get a babysitter and Boyd got to learn more.
Lou had wanted Boyd to go with the Krauszer family on his vacation but Boyd couldn’t and hadn’t wanted to, anyway. Austin already said mean things about Lou because he spent time with Boyd. If Boyd went with them in the summer it would only be worse.
Plus, even though his dad said he didn’t have to go to the summer academy, Boyd liked learning. He liked that they let him do art when it was quiet. He didn’t have to worry as much about making a mess here; they didn’t give him a look the way his mother did at home. He felt less guilty here.
But with Lou gone and fewer people to care, Austin and his friends were getting worse by the day. With Austin leading them, they taunted Boyd, called him names, stole his money, hid his backpack, took his food, blocked him from his desk, pulled his hair, his clothes, tripped him…
And now, they pushed Boyd down the stairs when Boyd was reading a book as he walked.
He heard Austin laugh from the top of the stairs. “Why’re you so clumsy, Boyd?”
“He’s even creepier when no one else is around,” Christian said. “Doesn’t even look where he’s going.”
“He doesn’t even walk down stairs like normal,” Elijah said.
Boyd stayed quiet, controlling his breath and not moving. Austin would get bored eventually. He always got bored.
“Stupid! I can see you! Just ’cause you’re not moving…”
Boyd heard footsteps stomping down the steps and suddenly he was worried. Austin was supposed to leave him alone if he didn’t do anything.
People always left him alone if he stayed quiet enough. They got tired of hurting or hating him if he didn’t resist.
He chanced a glance over his shoulder and saw Austin storming toward him, face red and twisted in a scowl, while Elijah and Christian flanked him.
If Lou were there, he would have run in between them and punched Austin in the face. He would have gotten in a fight and yelled at them for hurting Boyd.
But Lou was gone and Boyd didn’t want to hurt anyone, he just wanted to be left alone.
He grabbed the book and his backpack from where it had fallen next to him. He started to run, or tried to, but his knee hurt and he was a lot smaller than them.
He was smaller than all of the other boys. Austin and the others always said it was because he was a girl. They said they should cut off his privates and then he’d really be a girl, and then they usually laughed and tried to pull at his clothing.
He didn’t like it when they did that. He didn’t like it when people touched him, except Lou and his dad who were always nice and didn’t say mean things around him like he didn’t know what it meant.
He barely made it past the fountain before Austin caught up to him.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Austin demanded, and behind him Elijah echoed, “Yeah, where’re you going?”
Boyd didn’t speak. He knew it was better if he didn’t speak. It was always better if he was quiet, even when he was home.
Austin and Elijah yanked him back by the arms, and Boyd didn’t resist because he knew it was safer if he didn’t. They dragged him backward, his heels bumping along the ground. The book and his backpack fell with a thud.
“You were staring in class earlier.” Austin glared at Boyd. “Staring at Christian. Why’s that? You like him?”
He shoved Boyd at Christian, who jumped out of the way.
“Gross!” Christian yelled.
Boyd fell down.
“Oh, sorry.” Austin sneered. “Looks like Christian doesn’t like you.”
The reason Boyd had been watching Christian was because he’d been trying to figure out why everyone liked him so much when he didn’t really do anything nice or interesting. When all the kids were there, Christian was even more popular than Austin or Elijah, but all Christian ever did was follow Austin around. Christian wasn’t good at listening to the teacher and he was always mean to Boyd.
So, why did people like him? Why did the teachers always let him get away with everything, when if Boyd tried the same thing he got cold stares instead?
Boyd had been wondering what he could do to be liked too, or at least ignored so no one would hurt him. He’d thought if he analyzed Christian’s behavior he could figure it out, and he’d thought summer was a good time because fewer people were there to notice.
But he must have been too obvious. He’d made a mistake.
Austin shoved Boyd down with a foot on his shoulder. Boyd caught himself with his hands and saw Christian’s dirty loafers loom in front of his face.
“You like him so much, why don’t you kiss his feet?”
Christian made a gagging noise but didn’t move. Elijah laughed and, when Boyd didn’t do anything, shoved hard on his back. Boyd fell forward, bumping his nose on the toe of Christian’s shoe.
“Gross!” Christian shouted. “He did it! He really did it!”
Boyd didn’t bother telling them he hadn’t. They wouldn’t believe him, anyway.
It got quiet above him and that made Boyd grow worried. He froze and, slowly, chanced a glance up.
Austin had reddened from anger. “Gross! You’re so gross! You’re disgusting!”
Lips peeling back from his teeth, Austin grabbed a handful of Boyd’s hair, right down to the roots, making Boyd’s head throb painfully.
“I hate you,” Austin seethed.
He dragged Boyd up, getting Elijah’s help when Boyd was too heavy. When Boyd wavered to a stand, Austin shoved him hard in the chest. Boyd stumbled backward, falling on his butt. Elijah and Austin were there again, dragging him back up by the hair. Again, again they did this, pushing harder and farther each time.
The pain on Boyd’s head intensified. He sucked in a breath and barely kept himself from crying out, but he couldn’t stop his hands from grasping at Austin’s wrists to lessen the hold.
“Don’t touch me!” Austin smacked Boyd’s hands away, then threw him backward.
Boyd felt his knees catch against the edge of the fountain, and the next thing he knew he fell backward underwater. Boyd’s breath left him in a whoosh, his feet flying up into the air where he couldn’t get a good hold. Austin’s rippled reflection came over him through the water, his glare turning even scarier with the water twisting it even worse. Boyd tried to sit up out of the water but Austin got even angrier, and just as Boyd almost got to air Austin shoved him backward on the chest again.
Austin’s words were cut in pieces as Boyd struggled to rise up and breathe; as the sound of the water engulfing him and the drone of his blood muffled Austin’s snarl. Even so, because Boyd had heard it so many times, he knew exactly what was being said to him.
Why should you get to have a mom still? Why should you get to be here? You don’t even have money. Not like the rest of us do. You don’t deserve to be here. Your dad’s poor and worthless and no one likes your mom. No one likes you, either. You’re gross. You’re gay. You’re creepy. You’re stupid. You’re a girl. You’re a spy, just like your dirty traitor mom. You don’t belong in this country. Everyone hates you. We all wish you’d die.
Water rushed into Boyd’s mouth when he couldn’t hold his breath any longer. He choked, trying to cough while trying to breathe, his breath filling with water instead. He grabbed blindly at Austin’s wrists, trying frantically to pull them away from him, and Austin only pressed down harder.
He was terrified and powerless and his heart hammered so hard he couldn’t even make out what else Austin was saying. All he knew was he couldn’t breathe and maybe Austin, Elijah and Christian glaring down at him through the water was the last thing he would see. Maybe Austin really would kill him and maybe that really was what everyone wanted.
He didn’t know if some of the wetness on his face was tears too.
He hoped not. He was a good boy, and boys didn’t cry.
Distantly, just as his mind buzzed so hard he couldn’t think, he saw Christian and Elijah look suddenly to the side. Austin scowled. Just as abruptly, the pressure on his chest was gone and Boyd rose up out of the water with a great gasp of air that caught and burned and hurt deep in his chest. He choked and coughed and crumpled forward, trying to catch his breath. It took him a long, shaky moment to be able to scramble out of the water and collapse against the side of the fountain just trying to breathe. The stone burned against his arm, hot from the summer air.
There was a sharp punch to his side.
“You better tell her it was fun or I’ll get my dad’s people to kill your dad, too,” Austin hissed. “And then they’ll kill Lou and make you watch. And then I’ll be the one to kill you just like you deserve.”
Boyd barely had the chance to look up at Austin’s narrowed eyes before he recognized the sharp click of heels on pavement. He struggled to push himself to a stand, and had only just managed it before Ms. Riggs was upon them.
“What is the meaning of this? Austin Cole, are you bothering Boyd?”
Austin was all wide-eyed innocence looking up at her. “No, Ms. Riggs. We were playing a game. Loser had to look for the pennies at the bottom of the fountain. Boyd’s bad at the game so he lost and then he didn’t find any pennies. We tried to help him but he really sucks at it.”
Ms. Riggs stared at him like she didn’t believe him, and Boyd didn’t blame her. Austin could have come up with a better story. Boyd’s dad would have. He was good at stories.
“Is that true, Boyd?” she asked.
Boyd had learned long ago that adults didn’t care about the truth; they only wanted to hear what made them happy. His dad was the only exception, but the problem was unlike everyone else, his dad did care, and then he got upset anyway because he worried. Everyone else hated him if he said or did something that made their lives difficult. Even the other kids. Except for Lou, and Lou wasn’t here.
So, Boyd nodded.
She frowned, glanced between them, and then as she always did when she was confronted with anything that seemed like too much trouble, she shrugged and accepted it. She was always doing that with the kids in school.
Boyd had overheard her talking to one of the other teachers the other day. She was mad about how she needed more money and had to work extra in the summer academy. She said when she’d first started as a teacher that she’d wanted to make a difference but then she’d realized how spoiled all the kids were here. She said she’d been yelled at by the parents for teaching their kids the wrong things but then also not teaching them enough; for not disciplining the kids and acting like their parents but then if the kids were disciplined they said she wasn’t their parents and she didn’t have the right. She told the teacher she found it hard to care anymore. She said sometimes she thought the kids deserved anything they got, since they were all rich enough that they probably missed most of the problems of the war.
Teach them a lesson, Ms. Riggs had said. They deserve it.
Boyd didn’t know what money had to do with loss and the war. All he knew was for Ms. Riggs his family had too much, and for Austin his family didn’t have enough, and even at home he often was too much or not enough of everything.
Ms. Riggs shook her head to herself, muttered something about them being more careful, and left. They watched her cross Carlisle Windsor’s courtyard, walk up the steps Boyd had fallen down, and approach the nearby school building she had come from.
Austin didn’t even wait for her the door to shut behind her before he kneed Boyd in the groin. Pain flooded Boyd like water had his lungs. He fell down to his hands and knees with a gasp.
“Ohh?” Austin looked down his nose at Boyd. “That hurts girls too?”
Elijah laughed. “He’s got ‘boy’ in his name but he’s weaker than a girl.”
“If he was a girl it’d be less creepy that he keeps looking at me.” Christian shoved Boyd on the side with his foot. “Don’t look at me again! I don’t want to see your ugly eyes! They’re creepy. Only gross people have yellow eyes.”
“Yeah, stop looking at Christian,” Elijah echoed. He shoved his foot against Boyd’s hip. “He hates you.”
“We all do.” Austin spit on the back of Boyd’s head. “Next time, I’ll kill you for good. I bet the teachers’d give me straight A’s for doing it, too. You saw Ms. Riggs. She’d probably help if she could. She doesn’t like you, either.”
“Only Lou likes him,” Elijah said.
“That’s ‘cause Lou’s gay too.” Christian sneered but Elijah laughed, and Austin snorted.
“Let’s go,” Christian said. “We’re gonna get infected if we stay around him too long.”
Elijah jumped back in alarm. “Infected? With what?”
“I dunno. But my brother says it happens all the time with gays. They get you sick if they touch you.”
“Why didn’t you say that before I touched him?” Elijah demanded heatedly.
“It’s fine ‘cause you used your foot and didn’t touch his skin. As long as you use your shoe you’re okay.”
“But I touched his hair—”
“I think it has to be bare skin or something, I dunno.” Christian turned and shoved his hands in his pockets. “We should be okay. Austin probably got it washed off in the water.”
“We better be,” Elijah grumbled.
“But don’t ever let him touch you normally! Throw things at him if you have to so he stays away. We gotta tell the others when they come back. They’ll get sick if we don’t.”
“We’ll tell Mary when school starts. She’ll get it to everyone.”
“Oh yeah,” Christian said thoughtfully. “Mary will.”
Austin knelt next to Boyd and hissed into his ear, “Just die already,” before shoving his head down to the concrete with a hand in his hair. Boyd’s cheek scratched along the rough ground.
Austin stood up and stormed up to his friends. “Let’s go. I got a new game at home we can play.”
Elijah leaped into the air with his hands raised, a huge grin on his face. “Yessss! Your dad got it for you?”
Austin scoffed as they strode away. “Idiot. My dad gets me anything I want.”
They left in the same direction Ms. Riggs had, but they kept going past the buildings, toward the front gates hidden from view from here.
It seemed so quiet and empty with them gone.
Even after they had left, Boyd stayed on the ground, trying to stabilize his breathing and working up his pain tolerance to pretend nothing hurt. He didn’t know how long it took, but eventually he was able to stand up, and he didn’t fall when he got his backpack and book, so he knew he would be okay.
He was pleased with himself for this. He was a good boy.
Slowly, he started home. The longer he walked, the more he realized he had twisted his knee a little when falling the stairs. It hurt and it made him limp a little, but he had to walk. Austin had already taken the money he’d had earlier, so he couldn’t get on the bus or take the train. His mother didn’t like it when he took the train or bus, anyway. She said it was pleveein. He didn’t know what that was, but he knew it was as bad as being a girl and gay.
He still didn’t know what ‘gay’ meant, but he knew it was something really bad. It had to be, since so many people called him it. And they called Lou it too, when they wanted to hurt him the way they hurt Boyd.
By the time he made it home, his knee hurt so much it stung with every step. He had hoped he would be home early enough that no one else would be there but he saw his mother’s car in the driveway. Maybe she wouldn’t be downstairs.
He opened the front door quietly and peered around the heavy wooden door but his stealth hadn’t worked. He saw his mother reclining on the couch, holding a glass of something pale and not for kids that she called white wine.
Her gaze turned to him at the sound.
Austin’s words passed through his mind. They all wish you’d die.
Sometimes he thought his mother felt the same.
“What did you do?”
Her tone was detached, no anger in it, but Boyd still felt ashamed for having disappointed her. He stared at her wordlessly, not knowing how to respond. He didn’t know what he’d done to make Austin angry today. Maybe if he did, he could know what not to do tomorrow.
“You walked home looking like this? In front of the neighbors?”
He continued to stare wide-eyed, not knowing what answer to give to make her happy. In the end, he didn’t have long to wait before she turned away from him.
“You know where the first aid kit is.”
Boyd did. His mother always made sure it was well-stocked for him. He thought that was very kind of her and showed that she cared. If he wasn’t a good boy she would stop stocking it, he thought. So he had to make sure he stayed good.
He limped into the bathroom and carefully pulled the first aid kit out of the cupboard, trying to ignore the way his back twinged when he lifted his arms at the wrong angle, and how his knee trembled with his weight. He selected the right size of band-aids and placed them on as carefully as he could.
He didn’t have many injuries, luckily. And his clothes and hair had dried on his way home. So everything was okay.
Once his scrapes and cuts were covered, he put the first aid kit away and then went into his room where he changed. He carried his dirty clothes over to the hamper in the bathroom, and then realized he was still dirty and a bit of blood had smeared. He tried to reach for the faucet but it was too hard to reach with his stretched limbs. He started to force it, but something startlingly painful pulled at his knee, and he lost his balance. He fell down with a muffled thump.
He hit his butt on the floor and told himself he didn’t want to cry at how much that had hurt.
He was a boy and boys didn’t cry.
He was okay. Everything was fine.
He was just about to push himself back up to a stand when he noticed movement in the doorway and he froze, looking over.
He shouldn’t have made a noise. Now she was angry with him for interrupting her, he knew it.
His fears seemed confirmed when he saw the way she watched him. At first she only stood there, and he thought she seemed more disappointed the longer it lasted.
She said quietly, “You cannot do anything right, can you?”
She walked to the sink while he watched, half curiously and half in trepidation. Soon, she was kneeling next to him with a soapy, wet cloth in one hand, and a fluffy towel folded on her lap. She wiped at the blood and dirt caked all over him, not meeting his eyes, nor touching him other than through the cloth as she cleaned him.
Neither of them spoke.
When she was done, she pulled a band-aid off that hadn’t covered the knee wound well enough. She pulled the first aid kit out again, and then set a small amount of some sort of cloth with holes in it over the wound and taped it on with the odd tape Boyd had never figured out how to use. When finished, she put everything away again, and rinsed the cloth out in the sink before setting it in the hamper.
She ran a clinical eye over Boyd, and then turned and walked out of the bathroom. Boyd stood up and inspected her handiwork. The holey-cloth was much better. The band-aid had hurt the way he’d had it on; too small for the wound and unable to stick to the blood.
He walked out of the bathroom and peered down the hall to find her sitting once more on the couch, sipping a glass of white wine and staring blankly out the window. He thought about thanking her for her help but he knew that the best way to thank her was to be very quiet so he didn’t upset her.
Boyd went to his room, where he dug around in his nightstand drawer until, with a thrill in his heart and a flutter in his stomach, he found what he was looking for. He smiled when he pulled it out, feeling warm inside and very important the way he did every time he touched the little metal notebook and pen. It was brown and blue and it was his very own gift someone gave him.
Julian had given it to him to keep, even though Boyd didn’t know why. Maybe Boyd had been an especially good boy that day and Julian had known it. Boyd’s dad said Julian was smart and knew a lot of things so maybe Julian had known that Austin had been gone that day but even with that everyone had still ignored Boyd and acted like they hated him, and Christian and Elijah had still glared. Maybe Julian had known that Boyd had felt sad, and he’d given him something so important like this notebook because he was nice.
Boyd was very gentle with the notebook, as he always was when he touched it. He didn’t want Julian to think he wasn’t careful with important presents.
With aching slowness, he settled down onto the floor between his bed and his bookshelf, across the room from the door. It was his favorite place to be, because it hid him from the doorway and the rest of the house. He could be super special invisible back here, and then it wouldn’t bother him even when his mother and dad forgot he existed, because anyone would forget someone who was hidden like this.
It made him feel like if they ever forgot about him it wasn’t because he was bad or they didn’t want him, but instead was because they simply couldn’t see him.
He turned the notebook around in his hands, enjoying the process of pulling the pen out from its sheath, and then he opened the pad to a new page. Sometimes he pretended he was his dad, taking notes for very important stories or articles that would change the world the way his dad was always saying he wanted to do.
But most of the time, he drew.
He stared at the blank page for a few seconds, getting a feel for what he wanted to draw. An image started to form in his mind, and with a pleased nod he set the pen to paper.
It was going to be a frog.