I could smell my gym shorts before I opened my locker. The sweat had soured, and when I pinched the waistband between my thumb and forefinger I could feel the moldy dampness where wrinkles had set in.
Paul pulled his shirt down from his neck. His small bird chest was so white it glistened like it had been rubbed down with baby oil. His skinny legs dangled from the bench between the rows of lockers like a small kid.
“Spurgeon cut off her lock and replaced it with a new one yesterday. She missed some homework assignments, but other than that I don’t know what Aaron has done, or what Big Mix done to you guys.” He said.
Paul’s consonants clacked together with his Yankee accent. That must be what made him so good at school work, but slow between classes. Aaron told everyone that Amanda Pine had given both of us the hickeys and Paul accepted it without solving for y.
I rubbed the spot on my neck. This morning, in front of the bathroom mirror the dark red glowed brighter that when it was fresh. I caught Paul staring at it and he jerked his head away when our eyes made contact.
“Have you got a copy of her class schedule yet?” I asked
“In our stash locker. I put a copy there this morning in an old Punisher comic. I thought that might give you something to read.”
Paul’s goofy grin covered his face. His new eyeglasses were too big for his narrow head. It made him look like a girl. He turned his head in those huge frames and image gave me a flash of a young Sally Jesse Raphael.
“If I start reading books then what will I need you for?”
I cut my eyes at Paul when I said this. He sat quiet as I pulled my shorts up on my waist. The dampness crept into my underwear and the whole effect felt like reusing yesterday’s towel.
Paul and I walked out on the gym floor. Big Mix sat in the first row of bleachers. Her blank cow eyes seemed to follow me everywhere without moving at all. She wasn’t dressed out for gym, and as she leaned forward to rest her arms on her knees her fat rolls congealed down her chest and stomach. Her tight brown t-shirt wrapped each fat loaf, and the combined effect made her look like a segmented worm.
Mr. Thompson strolled into the gym twirling his whistle around his first two fingers. He walked like my grandfather after hemorrhoid surgery with the heel barely behind in distance from the toes. The point of his destination always faced the side of his feet like he was trying to keep his butt cheeks together when he walked. No one really paid him attention. Tennis shoes squeaked on the floor as people stood around talking.
“Mrs. Shlevic. You're not joining us for class today?”
Kids called him coach even though the school had no sports teams.
“You don’t have your pretty little outfit on.” Mr. Thompson said.
The girls covered their mouths when they giggled. Their ponytails bounced on the monosyllabic laugh. Mr. Thompson hitched his thumbs in the waistband of his tracksuit and winked at whatever cute girl would accept it.
“That’s okay. You can keep score for the boys as they play basketball. All right, let’s exercise.”
Mr. Thompson clapped his hands once. It was barely audible with the whistle string binding his fingers. The girls chatted as they walked to the volleyball net, and their long legs held my attention without me knowing why.
Under the net we separated the teams. Tall kids got picked fast, and when they called my name, an idea hit me. Big Mix scooted across the row she sat on to our side of the goal. I could hear her butt scrape the plastic as she barely lifted up her body from the bench
“Let’s make this more interesting.” I said.
Kevin Stokes tried to spin the ball on the end of his finger.
“What do you mean?” He asked.
“A goal, as usual, is worth one point, but if you hit Big Mix you score two. A big fat bonus.”
Kevin snickered. “The bison is worth double.” He yelled “We get the ball first.”
The ball hit the floor and made a sound like a shoe being used as a hammer. Everyone separated trying to get Kevin’s attention, and the ball. At first the other boys acted scared and threw at the net. Finally, when the ball was passed back to Kevin, he made a run for the side of the court. This confused the boy who was covering him, but when the ball smacked big Mix on the leg everyone laughed.
“Two points.” Kevin yelled out.
I never cared for basketball because it felt like dancing. But after Kevin shot the ball at Big Mix a frenzy started that I couldn’t help but enjoy. No one tried for the basket anymore. Big Mix ducked, twisted, and cowered behind her raised arms to block herself from direct shots. Red spots, where she had been hit, colored like a rash. The harder shots were raspberry like my own.
Mr. Thompson stopped watching the girls jump and jiggle long enough to turn his concentration on us. Air balls landed in the bleachers that missed Big Mix, and we made her retrieve them.
"Hurry up we haven't got all day. Gym will be over in a few more minutes." Kevin yelled at her.
She became a moving target since the ball would be thrown again before she made it back to her spot. Soon the whole gym watched our game of Duck Hunt. Most times the ball would roll down the bleachers after it hit her. No one even cared about playing defense.
The other strange kids stood at the back wall. After a good hard shot socked Big Mix on top of the head one of the girls walked up to Mr. Thompson. She whispered in his ear and the whistle stopped spinning.
“Okay boys, let’s rap it up.”
The girls walked off to the locker room in pairs. Big Mix threw the basketball back onto the court, and it hit Paul’s foot as it reduced to a roll. Paul picked it up and I grabbed his shirt sleeve. We stood until the gym had mostly cleared. The odd kids kept looking over their shoulder like my mom when she steals make-up in Kmart.
“Do it.” I said to Paul.
Big Mix sat back in her spot, beside her mud stained backpack.
“Do what?” He held the basketball against his ribs with his forearm, and when his eyes widened it was magnified by his glasses.
“Throw the ball.” I said through clenched teeth. I tilted my head back towards Big Mix. “Hit her with it.”
“You do it.”
“Go ahead you wuss. We gotta be unified.”
“Unified on what?” Paul asked.
“Just throw the ball.”
He turned and threw it. If I didn’t know any better I would have thought the sentiment was aimed at me the way his skin curled under his lips, and the way one eye strained, like in a snarl. Paul hadn’t even aimed. The ball arched through the air slowly spinning backward like Fall Guy backpedaling when he falls off a building.
I don’t think he meant to hit her. It smacked her in the fat of her upper arm. When the ball landed, wedged between her foot and her book bag, she didn’t even flinch. Her blank stare seemed to travel no further than the end of her nose.
“Come on lets go.” Paul said, making the o’s a little too long.
After Paul walked off I stood there and watched her. My arms were crossed and I shifted from foot to foot. A big wide grin grew on her face and her paw rubbed at her neck, mocking me.
The simultaneous talking of eighty middle school kids can sound like a wind tunnel. One word is spoken louder than the one before it and pretty soon all the words are all in competition with one another like my mother and the volume of the TV during my new stepdad’s football game. I guess that’s what makes an orchestra so loud, one sound lying on top of another.
Paul walked up to the lunch table near the end of the lunch period. He leaned forward in his backpack like he was hiking up a mountain.
“Amanda Pine didn’t give you guys those hickey’s.” Paul said.
He didn't bother looking at anyone else but me. I was amazed at how clear he cut through the chatter. A few tables around us quieted down because Paul’s tone was the type used right before a fight. Aaron jumped up, cupped his hand around Paul’s shoulder, and turned him to the hallway.
As they weaved through the lunch tables to the main door I tried to catch up. When I made it outside the lunch room door clicked shut and the voices stopped instantly. I stood there for a minute trying to figure out where they went. An arm shot out from the side of a portable, and when I got around the building I found Aaron holding Paul’s chin up to examine the deep red centered below the ear on Paul’s neckline.
“When did she get you? I’ve been around you all day.” I said.
Aaron lowered Paul’s face so Paul wasn’t struggling to be an inch taller. Paul sniffled like he was on the verge of crying.
“Why didn’t you guys tell me about this? I could have avoided this whole thing. I joined up with you guys so I wouldn’t be picked on so much, and maybe be left alone by high school.” Paul said.
“Relax. It’s just a hickey. It will go away in a few days.” Aaron said.
I touched my own out of habit. Yesterday marked a week and mine has gotten brighter instead of fade.
“Tell everyone Amanda Pine gave it to you like we did. Won’t nobody question it none. Probably even get you a few points in the challenge classes. I’ll meet up with her tomorrow morning, every things going to be okay.” Aaron said.
The bell rang for the end of lunch. All of the noise from inside the cafeteria spilled out as it emptied.
“What’s going on?” Neil asked. He had snuck around the building.
“Nothing.” Aaron said. He let go of Paul, and picked his book bag off the ground.
The next morning the locker room in gym class was almost empty. Light leaked into the dirty windows high above me like it was strained through cotton. A locker clanged shut somewhere in the back, and I looked at the clock to make sure I wasn’t late because the second bell hadn’t rang.
I pulled my freshly washed gym clothes out of my book bag and changed without having to look at a dozen half naked boys. The gym was empty as well when I got there, and I sat on the first row of bleachers by myself. Girls trickled in wearing their regular clothes, and when the bell did ring a few groups of the boys rushed in as well. There must have been fifteen of us before I realized I was the only one who was dressed out.
Mr. Thompson walked out of his office a little faster than normal. His nose dammed up the roll of meat in his weird under bite frown. When he faced the bleachers I could see it. The raspberry blotch spilled like a red wine on wheat carpet.
“Due to a rash that’s spreading through the school on one is required to dress out for the next few days.” Mr. Thompson said. His hand cocked into a gun and pointed at me. “Sorry
Kevin’s crew came in and sat high in the bleachers on the other side of the gym. Everyone had isolated me. If I had paint I could have made a quarantine line. I didn't have anything to keep me entertained for an hour and Paul never showed up. Big Mix sat on the other side of the gym smiling and chewing on the collar of her shirt. I waited a few more minutes and weathered the cold shoulder of my classmates. The ones who knew didn’t want to talk about it, and the ones who weren’t branded didn’t want to know. I got the point and went back to my locker.
The rest of the day was more of the same. The kids with hickeys didn’t want to talk to me and everyone else didn’t want a rash. The clock slowed until lunch, and when everyone showed up at the table they didn’t say much. Spurgeon’s new hickey stuck out more on his black skin. Neil was the only one unmarked. We all sat silent without food in front of us, and leaned back in our chairs.
“Paul’s mother called the school and complained about a rash.” Aaron said.
“We all know that ain’t true.” Spurgeon said. “Some of us knew it before others and could have warned everyone.”
“I know you’re mad, but how were we to know she would go after the school. We thought we were getting vengeance for a stunt she pulled on us.”
“What are you guys talking about?” Neil asked.
Spurgeon’s eyes wrinkled like an adult when he narrowed his gaze on Neil. The expression was comical in his purple basketball jersey and green jeans. His shoulder blades rested against the top of the plastic chair as he slouched.
“So what do we do?” I asked.
“We cut our losses and leave the mongoloid alone.” Aaron said. “It’s still the beginning of the year. These things will fade and be forgotten by the time report cards come out. If we pester it then we may have more undesirable consequences next year when we go to high school, and none of us want that.”
“I don’t like that option.” I spat out.
“I don’t ether.” Spurgeon said.
“I say we leave it alone. This will go away, and we’ll forget about it. Let’s not make it into a big deal.”
“You do realize I am the only black kid whose neck lights up like ET’s finger.” Spurgeon said.
“And I have had this thing for over a week and a half and it keeps getting brighter.” I said.
“IT WILL GO AWAY.”
Spurgeon jumped up and grabbed a handful of Aaron's shirt. I tried to break it up and get between them, but as I did I elbowed Neil in the nose. He must have stood up at the same time I did and when I lifted my arm I knocked him a good one in the face. He hit the floor whimpering and Aaron stared me down.
If we would have had guns their might have been a standoff. No one doubted Aaron was the leader since he was the better fighter, but I doubted he could have taken me and Spurgeon both. My guts felt like something was climbing through them. The smell of plastic rectangular pizza’s nauseated me.
"Go on. If you want to handle it on your own then go on." Aaron said.
Paul quit wearing the bandage over his hickey once it got cold enough to put on a jacket. His new winter clothes consisted of high collars and turtlenecks. He said the doctor told him he had a port wine stain that must have been underdeveloped until he got a little too much sun.
I laughed because that’s what you do at a joke. My spot was till there and the color was as deep as liver. Occasionally someone else would show up with a fresh mark, but the teachers and principle claimed the rash was contained.
“What's you plan?” I asked Paul
We were outside walking to our last class. Each line of buildings was identical and sectioned off like barracks. Paul was the only one of the group that still hung around me. The group split up after the lunchroom argument. Paul and I were left to fend for ourselves since Aaron put together his new gang.
"Everyone looks at us like we have some fatal disease." Paul said. "None of my classmates will talk to me, except for the few that have the mark on their neck."
"Well, what can we do about it? I have tried everything I know to get this thing off of me and nothing works. Neosporin, bleach, teeth whitening gel. It's all useless." I said.
"I know. My mother has bought every type of skin bleaching product she can find. All the products don't do anything. In fact the spot keeps getting brighter, and if we don't do something now things are only going to get worse next year in high school. Then nobody will talk to us."
"Tell me something I don't know."
"I was thinking that maybe we are going about it the wrong way."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
The last bell rang. We were late standing in the hallway when all of the classroom doors closed.
"Well we can't make people stop ostracizing us, but maybe we can level the playing field."
"Which means?" I asked.
"If everyone has something then no one is a reject. We all would be equal again if everyone had a red mark, and then no one would call us names."
What Paul said made sense
"How do we get Big Mix to go after everybody?"
"It doesn't take much to push her buttons. Maybe we could work on one student at a time. We don't have to get everybody. If we got over half I think my theory would work."
cover image by Robert Ingle