Disclaimer: It's mine. Getcher grubby little paws off it! That's right. Slowly now. Just BACK away. Uh-huh. That's what I thought.
I was eleven and a half years old, just starting into the fifth grade. I had begun school a year late, due to the Depression. My mother couldn't afford to clothe my sisters and I for school and buy our school supplies, so she had kept me home to help her with some of the chores. I didn't mind and never said a word about it.
My father was another reason I stayed home. He would come home, take one look at me as I sat in front of the window and watched the other children coming home from school, go to my mother and whisper about my brain. He used to say that I wasn't all the way right because I refused to speak, and when I did, it was in an incoherent language all my own. Of course, I knew what was going on around me, but my tongue wouldn't work the way my father's or my mother's would work. It would always get stuck on the different sounds. I suppose he had been ashamed of me for the first five years of my life. But I didn't mind. I hardly minded anything until I was six. Maybe that was because I "wasn't quite all there", as my father would say about me.
Being the oldest child in the my class was all too difficult for me. Rumors would go around that I was stupid. I was, but I would rather they had said it to my face than whisper. At least that way I would be able to bloody their nose before a teacher separated us. But I never got to bloody their nose because they would never say it to my face, which was the most cowardly thing a six year old could do to another, save from tattling. There were a set of rules that were understood, but never spoken. And I was always either an exception to the rules or an example of a few of the more cruel rules.
But when I was eleven and a half and entering the fifth grade, I was promoted from the low status I had achieved over the years. When I was in fifth agrade, there was a new arrival.
His name was Henry and he was very little: about three and a half feet tall and couldn't have weighed more than fifty or sixty pounds at the most. He would always keep his nose in the air as if looking down on the world, even though the world was looking down on him. That was no fault of his own. The world had to. He was only forty-two inches high. He walked with his arms swinging at his sides and had a mushroom haircut. It was a brief bittersweet victory when Henry moved into town and I was promoted to tormentor.
I walked into the classroom on the last day of the first week of the fifth grade and took my usual seat in the middle of the classroom. The bad kids would sit in the back and the good ones would sit in the front. This would leave me out of the range of sight of the teacher, who scared me. All teachers scared me. Particularly because they seemed to think that they could "reach me" or make me into the type of boy who would willfully sit in the front row. I wished them well, because I knew they would never succeed in doing this.
I took out a pencil and paper and frowned thoughtfully, as if listening to the teacher explaining about how "the Japs had bombed Pearl Harbor and our boys were out there, fighting for our freedom." Instead, I was trying to force my mind to make the clock hands on the wall to move quicker. It was true: my brain wasn't good for anything, so I decided to listen. I understood full well that our freedom was at risk ... but I was not sure how. It was true, we had one less harbor made of pearls in America, but how did that pertain to me? I dismissed this thought and tried to break my pencil tip with my mind. That, also, did not work.
I turned around and saw Henry frowning at his pencil on his desk, clenching and unclenching his fists. I thought perhaps he was trying to break his pencil nub, too. I wanted to tell him that he was concentrating too much on clenching and unclenching his fists for his mind to be able to break the pencil tip. But he didn't look as if he'd be able to hear me. That was okay, because I would have probably ended up being his friend and being demoted back to "scapegoat" with him.
"Hey!" I heard a whisper behind me. I turned around, but the boy next to me, Jon, was hissing at Henry. I evesdropped. "Isn't your dad in the army?" he snickered.
"Did he get killed yet?"
"No! He wrote me last week!"
"Mr. McTaggert? Would you like to come to the front of the class and tell us all what is so fascinating?"
Surprisingly, Henry McTaggert stood up, head held high, arms swinging loosely at his sides, and approached the front of the classroom. Once he was there, he said, "Yes, ma'am. I would. You see," he said regally, "My father, Mr. Peter McTaggert, is one of the American heroes that you are so fond of telling us about. He is risking his life to help preserve peace in America. Last week I got a letter from him saying that when he returns, he's going to bring me back the biggest gun he can find. And bullets. And he's going to bring me lots of daggers encrusted with gold and jewels. I'll bring them for show when he comes back. I wanted to save it for a surprise, but you asked me to say, so I did."
Jon burst into small giggles, for reasons only known to him and half the class. I, however, thought that this was a fantastic story and applauded, until the teacher tapped my desk with her ruler. I then put my hands down and glared at the ruler, trying to snap it two.
"Stop laughing!" Henry shrieked in a high pitched voice. "Stop laughing at me! I'll kill you all with my daggers and guns!"
The teacher then grabbed Henry by the ear and dragged him out of the classroom, Henry shrieking like a banshee the whole way.
I had no idea why he was leaving. I knew Henry would never use his new weapons against us. He knew that was wrong. Maybe the teacher was jealous. That soon became my theory from then on. Whenever I, or anyone else for that matter, was punished, it was because the teacher was jealous that she would not be able to share in the fun of war stories, souvenirs, and the like. All of us had a relative in the army and her boyfriend had died. She was jealous of us and that was the only answer my mind could come up with. I both pitied her and hated her for her unspoken jealousy. She was sneaky about it, always punishing us for crimes we had committed against the school. But we all new it was because of the war that she hated us.
Henry McTaggert didn't come back on Monday. Nor did he come back on Tuesday after that. But on Wednesday, his round face, pointy chin, blonde mushroom-cut hair, and angry, narrowed blue eyes were spotted in the back corner of the classroom, right next to Jon.
"Where's your dagger?" Jon hissed with a sneer.
"He's not going to get it until his dad comes back," I sighed. Jon turned to look at me, his sneer gone and surprise in his eyes. Henry also looked surprised. His eyes were no longer narrowed and he looked more impressed and confused. "What? You're the dummy. Don't you remember on Friday? Oh, never mind. Class is starting. I'll explain it at recess." I turned back around in my seat, a triumphant grin on my little face. It may have been the first time in my life that I had outsmarted someone.
Henry leaned over in his seat. "Thanks."
"Shut-up," I said.
Recess came and went and I spent a good fifteen minutes relating the entire story of Henry's story back to Jon, who ignored me.
On the walk back home, Henry followed me, lagging nine paces behind. It was all I could do to keep from pushing him down and running. "Bye!" He yelled cheerfully as he ran across the street to his house.
I sighed, wishing he lived more than two blocks away from me. I walked the rest of the way home, kicking a bottle cap as I went. Bottle caps were getting rarer and rarer to see, so I savored this one. When I approached the front step of my house, I bent down to retrieve the bottle cap. I chucked it at a passing car, thankful that my father had not seen me, and even more thankful still when I realized he woulnd't be home for another four hours.
I let myself in and parked myself in front of the kitchen table and stared at my mother who was just beginning to make dinner. She turned around and raised an eyebrow. "What?"
"Nothing," I said.
"Go somewhere else."
"Because you're not doing anything worthwhile."
I frowned. "Neither are you!"
My mother laughed. "Only making your dinner! Now shoo."
I picked up my bookbag and went to the den, flopping down on the couch. I stared blankly at the wall for about fifteen minutes before I finally decided that I'd better start my studying, so I opened my books. I figured that, ever since I corrected Jon on his little mistake about the daggers earlier, I was on a roll and might as well get some studying in at my peak. It must have been the first and only time I ever willfully studied. A good half hour later, my mom entered the room, drying her hands with a plaid dish rag.
"How's little Henry McTaggert today?"
Every night, I prayed to God that she would stop asking me that, yet every afternoon, evening, or night she would ask me again. I could never understand her fascination with that little boy. It almost seemed as if she was more interested in him than in me, her own son. And every day I answered the same: "Same as always: annoying. But he's doing okay." I always told her he was doing okay because he was never doing anything else but okay.
"That's good," she answered, and always had answered. But today, she did something a little different. "Would you take something to his mother for me?"
I narrowed my eyes, weary at having to go over to his house. "Why?" I drawled, looking at her from out of the corner of my eyes.
She laughed. "Stop putting up such a fuss. You know why! Poor woman. Tsk tsk tsk." She turned around and left, then returned with a small pan of pasta. "Take this to them."
"If you do, I'll add an extra penny to your allowance for this week."
That got me. I grabbed the pasta, knocked the books off my lap, and headed for the door. I suppose that visit got Henry thinking that the two of us were friends, because the next day, he followed me to school, followed me home, and in between followed my around the schoolyard, despite threats to pistolwhip him with his dad's new gun. Months went by and Jon's dad came back home, but his legs were left on the battlefield, which moved Jon to a lower, yet still highly powerful, rank. The teacher's boyfriend never returned. My father was, of course, drafted. Other older brothers of classmates left. Some returned, sometimes half of them returned, sometimes a letter and a box of ashes came, and, sometimes, there was nothing at all.
Of course, young Henry McTaggert was untouchable. His gentle features were never marred by the war and he remained upbeat and happy about his dad's conquests.
"You're not that stupid," he said one day when I taught him how not to kick balls on the roof quite so much.
I gave him a puzzled look.
"You're a lot smarter'n Jon. He doesn't know when to shut-up. You do."
"Speakin' of not knowin' when to shut-up," I said walking toward him.
He took off running.
I turned around and tried to find Jon. I spotted him at the gate and ran to him. "Hi, Jon!" I said breathlessly.
"What do you want?"
"To ... talk?"
"I don't want to talk to you."
"You're as big a liar as Henry. You must be dumber than I thought."
I narrowed my eyes and recalled something that Henry had once told me. "You're bigger'n any of'em. Why can'tcha just knock'em down every once in a while? Show'em who's boss?" So I did. No one had ever said anything like that to my face before, so I bloodied his nose. Just like I had been planning to do my whole life, if he'd ever say that to my face.
Henry's dad never came back from the war. He was such a good soldier, Henry said, that the government kept putting him on missions. And after the war was over his father went on safari in Africa. And after Africa, he went to the Amazon River, then to Australia, and was even a prisoner in a Japanese prison before he escaped and lived in Paris, France for a year.
Henry would walk home with me everyday after school after that, telling me the latest mission his dad had gone on and how many confirmed kills he had. I lost interest and focused on the trees. I stopped caring about the stories soon after and even stopped letting Henry McTaggert follow me around. Even when his father went to China and helped fix the Great Wall and met various leaders of India and even killed a tiger and tamed its cub, I wouldn't let him follow me. The stories were growing monotonous and boring and sometimes I almost thought that Henry was making some of them up.
No one listened to him, and no one believed him but me. And his father, of course. Soon, there was no one to listen to his fantastic stories of his father, the War Hero, but himself. But Henry went on telling them just the same.