Note: Before Austin left for his wild Hemingway-style adventure in the Pacific, he gave me his blessing to post another update in his absence. He’s up next when he comes back though.
Here’s a link to the first entry if you’re just now tuning in and feel like getting caught up:
Hope you guys are enjoying the story!
Before the rape of Maggie Nice threw the entire town of Deercliff into disarray, Ethan was forced to play dodgeball in gym class as a third grader at Deercliff Elementary. Deercliff Elementary was more of a mixed bag than Deercliff Alternative High School and Deercliff High School.
Deercliff Alternative was originally conceived to give a fighting chance to students who did not flourish in a regular schoolroom setting. This concept was maintained for nearly five years while idealistic teachers from around the American Northwest flocked to Deercliff in the hope that they could truly make a difference. But bigger and better opportunities in bigger and more romantic cities presented themselves and none of these teachers stuck around in the end. Eventually, their shoes were filled by ordinary teachers (many of them still wet behind the ears in the world of private high school education, like Ms. Bridgette Halvorson) and the idea that they would be providing a safe haven for alternative young minds fell by the wayside. At the end of the day, the fact that Deercliff Alternative was a private institution built on the more affluent side of town meant that the more financially endowed families sent their kids there. The trailer park kids that couldn’t afford a private education and had to take the bus to get to school inevitably ended up in public school at Deercliff High School.
Elementary education in Deercliff was not nearly so divisive. There was one large elementary school and one large middle school and no private options for kids who were not yet in high school. Everyone who wasn’t homeschooled went through Deercliff Elementary, and everyone who went through Deercliff Elementary was forced to play dodgeball in gym class at one point or another.
Ethan was not an athletic child. At the age of nine, Ethan was a few years shy of shedding his baby weight and a touch of asthma meant that his lungs were not exactly well suited for carrying his body at the time. As such, he dreaded gym class every day for fear that he would suffer some embarrassing fate because of his slight heaviness and frail lungs. Jimmy Halvert, not yet known by his eventual nickname “Big Mac” was the opposite of Ethan. Jimmy was a natural born athlete, and was regularly called up by the fourth graders to play basketball at recess. Where Ethan was fearful of being exposed for his lack of physical prowess, Jimmy was universally confident and had no reason to be anything but.
One day down the road, around the time that he earned the nickname “Big Mac”, Jimmy would begin having friends over to play Battlefield 3 after school. Jimmy was friends with Reggie because they were both successful players on the basketball team in middle school. Reggie was friends with Jackson since Kindergarten, and Jackson befriended Ethan at a daycare that they both attended (Ethan very briefly, and Jackson for the duration of his childhood). Thusly, Reggie was invited to play by Jimmy and eventually, both Jackson and Ethan were invited by Reggie not long after. The controller would get passed to the next person every time the player suffered a death. This meant that the people who were not playing were free to hang out and chat at their leisure. It became standard fare to head to the Halverts’ basement after school. Eventually, they stopped playing Battlefield 3 quite so much but kept showing up because, at some point, genuine friendship had developed between the four of them.
Before all of that, Jimmy was something of a tormentor to Ethan. It was not a direct or malicious mission for Jimmy (in fact, thinking back on it, Ethan didn’t believe that Jimmy truly thought about him at all); he was simply strong and Ethan was weak and when it came to dodgeball, Ethan was terrified of Jimmy. It didn’t matter what tactics Ethan tried; Jimmy roared out of the gate full-force every time and crushed everything in his path, Ethan included. Ethan was nothing more than an ant beneath Jimmy’s shoe. And every time he got hit by a ball thrown by Jimmy it was painful. Every time.
One day, Ethan was wearing his favorite “Pink Floyd: The Wall” shirt and feeling strangely confident. At the beginning of the dodgeball game, Ethan hung back while most of the other kids dashed forward to grab the balls that were at the half court line in order to preserve his stamina. Some balls made contact with his teammates, but more balls ended up sailing well clear of their target. Ethan caught one of these stray balls in mid air, which meant that the kid who had thrown it had to go “out” and one of Ethan’s teammates who was “out” got to come back “in”. Ethan threw this ball and managed to blindside one of his enemies.
He had never enjoyed such success before. Jimmy had his back turned to Ethan, chasing after a rolling ball. Ethan felt more and more confident; today was the day. No more embarrassment, no more running away. Jimmy was a mere mortal, just like Ethan, and if Ethan had anything to say about it, Jimmy was headed to the bench.
One of Ethan’s opponents turned his sights towards him, but Ethan was a step ahead of him. Ethan deftly sidestepped ever so slightly and caught his enemy’s ball. In one smooth motion, he was going to pivot on his right foot and nail Jimmy before he even saw what was coming. He didn’t need the kind of athleticism that Jimmy had; he had careful planning and cosmic justice on his side. But when Ethan turned his gaze towards Jimmy, Jimmy had already recovered the ball and was staring Ethan down. Ethan swore that for a second, Jimmy’s eyes glazed over black, like a shark’s. Ethan threw his ball at Jimmy as hard as he could and he could feel pain all through his shoulder as he did it. The ball flew through the air on target, but Jimmy simply held up his ball and deflected the shot, as though he were waving an annoying fly out of his face. Jimmy reared his arm back and threw his ball with the motion and precision of a Major League Baseball pitcher. The ball screamed through the air and caught Ethan square in the face. Ethan was unconscious immediately, and he fell backward in a heap onto the ground. His left eye was already swollen shut and blood began guzzling out of his freshly broken nose, dotting the surface of the gym room floor and staining his Pink Floyd shirt permanently as he fell.
Ethan sat in the shade of a cottonwood tree on the playground, his eye still swollen shut and his nose heavily bandaged from the blow that he had suffered earlier in the day. His head was still throbbing with pain and the recess attendants had been told to keep a close eye on him to make sure that he didn’t fall into unconsciousness again. They tried chatting with Ethan out of sympathy but Ethan said very little and eventually they gave in to his request to go enjoy the shade.
He looked on as his peers ran and screamed and threw balls and swung with joviality and innocence. In that moment, through his one open eye, Ethan could not discern a single face. They all appeared to him the same: empty automatons moving thoughtlessly through the world as though they couldn’t see the inherent imbalances and unfairness that plagued every passing moment. He was suddenly overwhelmed with a compulsion to go and grab one of them; any one of them (they were all the same) and say “Look at me! Just stop what you’re doing and actually look at me!” But he knew that they were either incapable or unwilling. He dared not actually ask them to see him because he knew that that would never happen, that every single time they would simply look right through him.
Ethan was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion and tears began welling in his eyes and spilling down his face, around the swelling and the bandages. He did not attempt to wipe them away. In fact, Ethan did not move at all. He simply let the tears roll down his chin and wet the neck of his bloodstained shirt. Ethan closed his one good eye and let the waves of defeat roll over him again and again.
But then he heard a voice: “Hey!”
Ethan opened his eye and through the haze of his teardrops he could see a girl. He blinked away the tears and more and more of her became apparent. She was his age, but small. She had dirty blonde hair and her face had no imperfections whatsoever. A perfectly pleasant face that was lost on Ethan in his moment of anguish. She wore a peach-colored summer dress and leather sandals on her feet. The sunlight was hitting her just so and she appeared to have a whitish yellow glow erupting around her whole body. The fresh leaves on the branches that hung around them framed her perfectly and Ethan felt appreciation for beauty for possibly the first time.
She held a bouquet of flowers in her hands; wildflowers that grew through the sawdust and around the edges of the playground that she must have wandered around and collected. She extracted one of the flowers: an immaculate daisy that she thrust towards Ethan.
“Here!” she said. Ethan took the flower and looked at it. Nobody had ever given him a flower before.
He looked back up at her and she said, “It’s okay.” She smiled and then she bent down and kissed him on the cheek and then ran clumsily away.
Ethan thought for a moment and then emotion overwhelmed him again but this time he wiped his tears away and tried to pull himself together. For a moment, a nanosecond even, he felt like the girl had truly seen him. And, for the first time, he felt something strange welling up inside him; something that he felt very infrequently afterwards; something that he wouldn’t be able to pinpoint for many years thereafter. It almost didn’t bother him as he followed the girl with his eye and saw her give a flower to another boy, and then another, and then another.
“What are we going to tell Big Mac? What are we going to say about any of this?”
“I can’t think about that right now.”
“I mean, things have changed right?”
“Don’t say anything. To anyone. We’ll talk about it later.”
“Okay. Can you stay? Will you stay with me tonight?”
“I have to go.”