Perry Correctional inmates sat in the small plastic chairs lined up in the middle of the gym. They resembled some of the dumb kids with full beards in my classes that had failed too many grades. Their leg shackles caused them to shuffle to the podium, and the speakers amplified the sound of their handcuffs hitting the wood when they slouched over to talk into the microphone.
I thought I recognized the one speaking as my mother's ex-boyfriend. His hair was longer, and dirtier, but his voice sounded the same. He told his sob story about how he didn't really commit a crime. He claimed he was asleep in the car as his friends robbed a gas station. I had used a version of that lie before, and, like him, I wasn't spared any mercy.
"I hung around with people who I thought were my friends. Guys who thought the rules didn't apply to them, and didn't care who they hurt in the process." Said the inmate whose name I thought was Junior.
I also wasn't fooled by the hard talk of the other inmates. I looked around at my classmates to see who all was buying into this scared straight business. Everyone had their eyes glued to these dummies and the red marks covered my classmates necks like a village hit by the plague.
By spring break Paul and I had reached our goal and covered over half of the eighth grade. It wasn't very hard to prod someone to make fun of Big Mix since most of my classmates had been at it for the last couple of years. I wasn't even sure if my actions mattered much because some of the people who showed up with the mark were out of my circle of influence. Sure, I set a few things in motion, like burning her book bag with the JV boys that went to the highschool to play football. The art club and I did a great job with a mural of the Big Mix mascot on her locker.
Every school day a new group came in trying to cover up a fresh mark, including a good many of the girls. I was proud of myself for bringing people down to my level. The one thing that bothered me was Neil, Aaron's cousin. When I walked out of the lunch line every day I cut my eyes at him since he sat in my old seat. His neck was slightly tanned, and I could picture the biggest, nastiest, raspberry stain set on top of a small mole on his neck. Neil was hard to get now that Aaron didn't talk to me anymore. Paul and I had been watching Aaron’s new gang build.
Neil had become my primary target now that Paul and I had finished our main goal. I tried a couple of times to lure the beast to him but Big Mix never took the bait. I could see her in the assembly, at the bottom of the bleachers. She leaned forward and her dirty mushroom cloud of hair covered most of her face. Every seat around her was empty like someone farted and didn't want to claim it.
"When I was first locked up I blamed everyone else for my problems. But in prison a person has plenty of time to think. Because in prison you have no friends. It's just you and your rage all locked up in a cell, and then you get marked for the rest of your life just for making one stupid decision."
He finally sat down. The fat cop came back up to the podium. His dirty blonde mustache was thick and neat like a straw broom. He preached his usual Officer Friendly talk about staying in school, like someone gave us a choice.
When the principal dismissed us everyone stood up but me and Big Mix. The bleachers vibrated from all the footsteps like train tracks before the roar of the cars passed by. Inmate Junior locked his eyes on me. I smiled and picked up my books. All of the kids swarmed out into the hall like gnats chasing rays of sunlight. Big Mix waited until almost everyone left, and then I filed in behind her. Junior's head turned to follow me out the door.
"We need to talk." I said as she and I were the last ones in the hall.
"About what?" She said over her shoulder. Her voice was cracking like a teenage boy. I never realized she was taller than me. I gained a few steps then slowed to her pace when I pulled up beside her.
“That kid, Neil. He has been saying some really mean stuff about you lately. He said you were a Hermorphoditiy. Hermorphidike. Something like that.”
She stopped and turned to me. Her knuckles hung down low enough to touch her knees. I kept waiting for her to crouch and take her natural position like a gorilla. Her mouth clamped tight and she shook her head at me.
“Do you ever stop Brandon?”
I gave her the smile I give to Social Services.
“You’ve gotten almost everyone else in school.” I said. “What’s one more? You think I didn’t push everybody to mess with you? Just one more and I will leave you alone. Forever. Honest Injun.”
She walked off without a word. My fists clenched, and I could picture how David hit Goliath with a rock. She turned into a classroom, away from my line of sight.
I wore my best shirt. The one I usually wore for court appearances. It bunched up in the shoulders around my t-shirt and came up a little short on the wrist. I was very early. Most of the lights weren’t even on in the front office were I was sitting. Principal Skelton stumbled in carrying his briefcase, a bag, and a huge binder. He shuffled everything to one arm and the tip of his tongue stood sentry in the corner of his mouth.
“What is it Brandon? You haven’t had time to be sent to the office yet.”
“I know sir. I have been sitting here since yesterday.”
He didn’t laugh. He turned the key in the knob and held the door open for me. I sat quietly in my usual spot until Mr. Skelton got his stuff arranged. When he finally sat down I saw that his tie wasn’t tightened all the way. His family smiled at me from their picture on the desk, and Mr. Skelton joined his fists together on the oak like one big potato.
“I haven’t had my coffee yet, so make this quick son.”
I had been so concentrated on getting here and winning that I didn’t think about what I was going to say. I rode over early this morning with my step-dad on his way to work and I never really thought the whole thing over. I wondered what beginning would look best for me, but I decided to cut to the chase since Mr. Skelton seemed to be out of patience.
“Well. This rash that’s been going around the school. Like this one.” I pulled my collar to the side and twisted my neck. “It ain’t a rash.”
He leaned back in his chair and covered his mouth with his hand. I let go of my collar and opened my eyes wider.
“This is a hickey. That girl Laneece is going around giving one to everybody. It’s not some rash going around from the insulation. She’s crazy. Anybody that gets in her way she goes after.”
Mr. Skelton didn’t move. Heels ticked on the floor outside the door.
“Does this look like any kind of rash you have ever seen?” I asked.
“Brandon, the county engineers say this building has got asbestos in the ceiling. Some kind of mold is in almost all the walls. Mr. Thompson the gym teacher has got the rash. Along with Mrs. Kirksey the French teacher and Mr. Jeter the history teacher. Most of the eighth grade class, and half of the seventh graders has got this rash. I may even have a lawsuit on my hands. And you’re trying to tell me one little girl is going around doing all of this?”
“We might argue about her being a girl, but I win if you want to call her little.” I said. “Nobody wants to talk about it because who wants to admit that thing gave them a hickey. We never called it a rash. Someone else did and everyone played along.”
The tick ended at the door with a curt knock. I leaned forward with my elbows on my knees when the door opened. The secretary scowled me as she set some papers on the desk. I had spent some time staring at her in my three years at this school and her attitude toward me hadn’t changed since I stole my Walkman back from her desk.
“Thank you Shelia.” Principle Skelton said. He had turned his chair to stare at her until she shut the door. Her heels clicked off around the office when he turned his attention back on me.
“One little girl? It’s hard to believe but it would save me a lot of trouble. Do you have any proof?”
“What kind of proof would you need?” I asked.
I missed tug-of-war. I missed the balloon pop, and the three-legged race. In fact I had missed all the field day events. A bead of sweat slipped down the furrow in my brow, and near the entrance to the gym I could see Spurgeon pacing and stretching out the turn-around.
This should have been over by now. Big Mix sat on the ground pulling up grass and tearing it into little pieces. I watched her all morning as Aaron scanned the crowd and walked around looking for his cousin. I didn’t know how much longer Paul and Spurgeon could hold off. It wouldn’t be long before lunch and then my last chance would be ruined.
Then she stood. I held my breath with hope. She wiped off the back of her shorts and slowly lumbered toward the gym. I waved my hands to signal Spurgeon and he instantly straightened up and shot through the door as planned.
I didn’t think I was going to make it in time. I sat myself at the top of a small hill to watch her make her trip to the bathroom, but my spot was a little too far away. As she waddled to the door I had a hard time running. My foot was asleep, and every time it hit the ground it tingled and felt numb.
I wasn’t making good time so I cut across the field during the potato sack race. The kid in front gripped the hem of his bag like it was the handholds in a roller coaster. He was in the lead, so I guess that was why he had a goofy grin. I shoved him out of the way and a teacher’s whistle screamed.
I caught the door to the gym as it was about to close behind her. Her feet scraped and squeaked on the gym floor as she walked to the locker room. I waited until she got around the corner before I followed her farther. It felt like my heart stopped beating for a few seconds when I entered the girls’ bathroom. I looked underneath the doors and I could see Big Mix’s hams, and Spurgeon’s shoes. I entered and locked the stall door beside Big Mix.
My hands shook as I opened my backpack. The brown bottle of chocolate syrup was warm from being outside all day. I stood on the toilet seat and as I rose over the flimsy wall’s edge, I could see Spurgeon’s tall high-top above the partition like a black bush. I nodded to him and then he climbed down. When the slide from his stall lock snapped open I stared down at Big Mix. Her shorts and panties gathered in wrinkles on the tops of her tennis shoes, and the elastic waistband stretched to their limits around her legs. I pulled open the top of the bottle and turned it upside down with a big squeeze. The syrup was so thin by the heat that it poured like water.
Big Mix yelled and looked up at me. I grinned and squeezed harder until I could feel the insides of the bottle touch each other. When she tried to get out Spurgeon held his weight against the door. Big Mix pushed hard on the door with her shorts around her ankles. The pale white skin of her butt bunched up and looked like the bumpy heads of cauliflower. When I let the pressure off the bottle is sucked in air at a loud rush.
I threw down the bottle on top of her and jumped off the toilet seat. From inside my backpack I pulled out a ziplock bag of her gym clothes I had found inside her hijacked locker. She had pushed her way out at the same time I came out of my stall. There was murder in her eyes. Chocolate sauce covered her from head to toe, and it looked like she had been playing in a sewer. I held the bag of her clothes pinched in my fingers and dangled it like treats for a dog.
“Do you want to negotiate?” I asked? “Do you want to see things my way?”
She huffed. Her hands clinched into balls of meat.
“No one will ever believe it. You can clearly see it is chocolate.” She said
“But who’s going to taste it to find out? Plus my story is better. I got Neil waiting and ready in the boy’s bathroom. You go give him a big kiss and I give you these nice clean clothes. We all win.”
I threw the bag of clothes to Spurgeon who nodded and walked off to make sure Paul hadn’t freaked out and Neil hadn’t escaped the duct tape. When the door closed Big Mix lowered her shoulders in defeat. Her eyes steadied into mine and then a slow grin grew on her face.
“I can take that off you know.” She said.
“No way.” I said as I rubbed my neck. “How could you get rid of this, it never goes away.”
“I gave it to you didn’t I? I can get rid of it if you let me. If you ask.”
I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid if I let her try I would get an even bigger spot. But what if she could get rid of it? I turned my head and stared at my reflection in a far off mirror near the sinks. I would be the kid without the mark. The exception to the rule. Big Mix’s grin had moved to a wide smile when I looked up at her.
“You still have to kiss Neil.” I said
She nodded and I sighed at what might be a bad decision.
“Would you please take this thing off of me?” I asked.
“There. Now that wasn’t so hard was it?”
The way she walked up, grabbed my hair, and leeched on to my neck was the way I had seen in old vampire movies. A clamped my eyes shut and the sting on my neck started instantly. It wasn’t the burning of last time, but, instead, the way a needle feels in skin after it has been numbed. The lips wiggled and tickled below my ear lobe. I made the mistake of opening my eyes and I could see her clothes and hair covered in thick lines of chocolate sauce like puff paint. What caught me off guard was the smell of her. It wasn’t chocolate, but flowers. Honeysuckle after you pinched the end and pulled out the nectar.
She pulled away from me and my neck had that cool wet feeling like when you rub a cold coke can on your head after a hard day. I could see myself in the mirror. The raspberry hickey was just the red of irritation.
“Thank you.” I said, and she gave me a genuine smile.
“You ready to go get your clothes and meet Neil.” I said.
I rubbed my hands together and Big Mix lost her smile.
“You will never change Brandon. You’ll always have that hard heart.”
I held the door open for her as we walked out. The boy’s locker room was just on the other side of a concrete divider.
“Why is it that when you tell people you’re a bad person they act surprised when you do something bad?” I asked. “Maybe you shouldn’t expect anything more from people than what they are.”
Behind the door of the boy’s bathroom we saw Spurgeon and Paul standing by the door like guards. I grabbed Big Mix by the elbow and led her to the stall. Neil sat on the toilet testing the square knot of his restraints. Part of the duct tape around his mouth had peeled from spit.
“Let him loose when you get done. Have a good summer.” I said.
I could hear Neil’s muffled screams like my mother when she cries into the mattress. I walked out of the bathroom with Spurgeon and Paul right behind me. When we got back outside we all went separate ways. I walked around the corner to the principal’s office and laughed as I rubbed where the spot on my neck had been.
I didn’t even bother stopping at the secretary’s desk as I walked into the office. I strolled right up to Principle Skelton’s door and opened it without a knock. Some other teachers sat in the visitor’s chair laughing and talking.
“You might want to check out the boy’s bathroom in the gym. What you needed from the other day might be in there.” I said.
He jumped up out of his chair and jogged away from the office. I didn’t get to see what happened but there were rumors. In the last few days of school I saw Neil around school with the raspberry hickey, but Big Mix had been expelled. She never showed up at the high school either.
I walked in the first day of high school expecting to be the king of my class, but I got more strange stares since my hickey was gone. Nothing got better or worse for me. I was just forgotten. I watched all of the people I went to school with, and they can hardly remember my name. But I remember them all. Stupid people would describe all of the success my classmates had as overcoming diversity. Supreme court justices, writers, and rocks stars all stopped by the gas station I worked at on their way to visit their old hometown. They never hid their flaws, and over time the old raspberry turned to the deep color of garnet. I could see how they were more humble, and it makes me wonder if I would have had a better life if I had a flaw.