Words hit like sticks and stones, even harder, and a young boy covered his head to protect himself from the shower of them. They pelted down like hail, chilling his soul with their frigid viciousness. And the scariest part of it all was not the number of children shouting at him, and it wasn’t the way they pointed and chanted in unison at him; it was the idea that wriggled into his head that they could be absolutely right.
“Dressed like that!”
“From his stupid buckle shoes!”
“To his stupid, floppy hat!”
Now, Braidy did not think any article of clothing he had on his person was inherently stupid in one way or another. They just were. And they made him Braidy. His Gran, his parents, or his aunts or uncles gifted the articles of clothing he wore to him, and some of them were hand-me-downs or family heirlooms. Braidy’s mother always told him it was wonderful and special to be unique but the other children thought otherwise.
“Maybe he’s too poor to afford new clothes,” one laughed.
“He lives in an old dustbin of a house; I bet he eats out of the trash, too!”
“Eeeeeeeew,” another cried. “Trash eater!”
They moved in to him, closing the circle so that there stood only inches between Braidy’s arms and face and the fingers of the children.
“I don’t eat trash!” Braidy shouted over the rabble. “I would never eat trash!”
They did not hear him. Braidy straightened as tall as his tiptoes would let him to see if he might get the attention of a savior, any adult that could come and end the humiliation. Ms. Winsby stood by the back door that led into the gym, but she chatted with Mr. McIntyre and was not looking. She was never looking.
“I mean look at these things,” Neal Salter sneered as he tugged on Braidy’s frilled collar. “Did something crawl into an old trunk, give you its clothes and then die?”
“This ascot belonged to my great, great, great—”
“Oh, shut it,” Rita Easley barked as she shoved Braidy’s shoulder, attempting to knock him over. “No one cares about who died and gave you your lacy necklace. I would wear it better.”
“Actually, Rita… you would wear it better,” Neal Salter agreed, a devious idea flashing across his eyes. “Why don’t we just take it from him?”
Braidy’s stomach did an acrobatic backflip inside him (judges would have given it a ten out of ten), which turned his insides to goop. His mother always said nerves wriggled like butterflies that came out of their cocoon. Braidy felt positive that the result of this experience would be nothing like a butterfly and something more like road kill.
Neal Salter took a swing at Braidy’s head, hoping to box his ear, but Braidy moved down in time. Neal Salter lost his balance and tripped over his own untied shoelaces into Ronald Raymond, who bumped into Patsy Gibson, which opened a space, the teensiest, eensiest space through which Braidy saw escape.
Braidy dashed through the hole in the circle and bolted for Ms. Winsby by the gym. He was only about fifteen or twenty yards from her. If he could make it to her in time she could—
OOF! Someone slammed into Braidy’s back like a rhinoceros and Braidy went hurtling toward the playground gravel at an alarming speed. He put his hands up, but whoever had slammed him was heavy and nothing much could be done. Gravel stabbed its way into Braidy’s palms, puncturing in some places, bruising in others. He slid forward from momentum, rocks dragging their way down the skin of his exposed shins and into his socks. The weight of the child on top of him pushed him deeper into the dust and someone rolled him over. Braidy gasped desperately after the wind had been knocked out of his lungs.
The noontime sun glared down into Braidy’s eyes and he shielded them with a dirty, bleeding hand as Jesse Martinez pinned his chest down with a large, wrestler-sized knee. A large, wrestler-sized fist slammed into the side of Braidy’s head, which knocked stars and black into his eyes.
“Hey!” an adult voice cried out over the sound of kids cheering and shouting. “You get off of him, Jesse. What do you think you’re doing?”
Jesse Martinez clawed at Braidy’s ascot, attempting to pull it off, and landed another solid blow before being pulled away by Mr. McIntyre and hauled elsewhere. Braidy was left to embrace the reality of what had happened. His face, on the side where he had been socked, was swelling; he could feel it. He couldn’t help it and he didn’t want to, but he started to cry the kinds of tears you shed when you’ve been startled, not when you’ve been hurt. A few of the other children started to laugh at his tears, like they had laughed at everything else. In a few moments, Mr. McIntyre was back for Neal Salter and he, too, was removed from the scene.
“Braidy, are you all right?” Ms. Winsby asked as she pulled Braidy up to sitting.
Braidy wiped through his tears with dirty and bloody hands and replied, “I’m f-fine, b-but I sc-craped my kn-nee…”
“You all should be ashamed of yourselves. Rita, how would you like it if someone yanked on your pigtails and pushed you to the ground?” Ms. Winsby threatened as she stood Braidy up. “Everyone back to recess.”
The kids scattered as if nothing had happened and Braidy hobbled with his teacher back inside. They entered through the huge double doors to the gym, which Ms. Winsby had to push with her whole body to open, and moved through the gym into the maze of hallways that was Maple Hills Elementary.
The walls were plastered with art and diagrams, colorful reminders of projects past and events to come. Skylights dotted the hallways, letting the natural sun illuminate the school. The linoleum floor glistened in the light, and the whole of the place smelled of bleach-cleaner. Every step for Braidy was agonizing. His skin cried out in unison as cool air passed over open wounds. Dirt clung around the edges of the scrapes as the blood clotted, and when he looked at the gashes, he wondered if his legs would need to be amputated. The thought made him shudder, but not cry. His tears were drying, and, even though the side of his face hurt, he did not feel startled any longer.
Ms. Winsby led him to the nurse’s office and he was promptly seated in a stiff, itchy chair while he waited.
“I’m going to go call your mother,” Ms. Winsby said. “Give the nurse a moment and he’ll be right with you.”
After Ms. Winsby left, closing the door with a sharp click behind herself, Braidy was left alone. He adjusted his floppy beret back on his head so it was straight and huffed a deep sigh. He inspected the shin to understand the damage and noted that a glazy residue was beginning to form the start of a scab. The scrapes themselves were three or four inches in length, a good example of intense road rash, and there were bits of rock and smudges of dirt in them. His hands fared no better. He pulled a chunk of gravel out of his skin and tossed it into the waste bin that sat in the corner on its own. He would need a good wash to get all the dirt out, but the warm water of the bath would scald the wound.
And he was filthy. Oh, how filthy he was. The dust and dirt from the playground stood ashy white against his black velvet jacket and trousers and his white stockings were stained. The dust rested on the tops of his black, shiny shoes like a film. His mother would be so displeased with him.
He could not imagine the state of his face. He was sure he looked similar to a puffer fish or a sponge. Every thump of his heart sent a pulse through the spot next to his eye and into his ear drum and it would sting every few moments. He wished he could have a picture of how he looked.
After forever the nurse came out of his back office with gauze and wipes. Braidy did not know his name, even though he had been to his office many a time. The nurse never wore a nametag and Braidy had never asked.
“Oh, dear,” the nurse muttered while he dabbed at Braidy’s leg with a wipe. The wipe smelled of alcohol and stung.
Braidy hissed and fidgeted in pain. “That hurts,” he said.
“I know. The alcohol will help get any nasty bugs out of the scrapes. It’s a rather important step. After I get all the dirt and rocky bits out of you we’ll put a nice, large Band-Aid on it, okay?”
The nurse took tweezers and got rid of all the rocky bits and used the wipes to clean away the dirt. The wounds became redder and redder as more and more alcohol went into the cuts but he laid the gauze onto them and put down a few strips of sticky medical tape and that was that.
“How about your hands?” he asked. “Do you need them covered up as well?”
“I don’t think they need Band-Aids,” Braidy said, “but they could use a good wash.”
“Come over here, then. I have some soap in the restroom.”
Braidy followed the nurse to the bathroom where he washed the dirt and extra gravel from his hands.
“Is your mom coming?” the nurse asked.
“I think so,” Braidy answered.
“Okay then. You can go ahead and have a seat while you wait. Do you want a sucker or anything?”
“I’ve got lemon or grape. Everyone ate all the cherry.”
“Ah, a sour fan. You’re one of the few kids I’ve met that would pick that flavor. Here you are,” he said as he handed Braidy a circular, plastic-wrapped sucker.
And then the nurse returned to his office again.
A good thirty minutes ticked by before Braidy’s mother walked in. Mrs. von Althuis opened the door for just a moment before she caught a glimpse of Braidy and stepped into the office, clutching a brown leather bag with pastel flowers painted on it in her hand. When she saw the state of him, her dark skin paled and she rushed at him, clicking her way to his chair in blue suede heels. When she reached him she kneeled, cupping his face in her hand. “Oh, my poor sweet baby,” she said. “What happened?”
“Neal Salter thought my ascot was stupid and tried to pull it off of me. Jesse Martinez punched me in the face.”
“Oh, my God. And your legs?”
“Mm,” she mumbled and gave him a hearty mom-kiss on the forehead. “I called Mr. Brashire. He’s going to teach today so we can go home.”
“I don’t have to sit in on your class?”
“No. We’ll head home and I can make us a good, tasty dinner. We can even have your favorite.”
“Matzo ball soup?”
“Matzo ball soup. Come on, love.”
Mrs. von Althuis took Braidy by the arm and helped him from his seat. The two of them walked, hand in hand, out of the winding halls of Maple Hills Elementary to the parking lot. The other children had already gone back inside from recess and the playground was now a ghost town, the only evidence that children had even been there a lone, semi-deflated soccer ball sitting in the field.
Bessie unlocked with a friendly click, Bessie being the von Althuis family minivan, and Mrs. von Althuis opened the front passenger seat for Braidy. Braidy slid over onto the upholstered seat while his mother got into the driver’s side. VROOM, went the car when it started, and the pair drove homebound, away from the place that Braidy was beginning to despise.
“Do you think my beret is stupid?”
“No, sweetie. No. I think it’s handsome. You look like a famous artist.”
“And my ascot? I know it was great-uncle Morty’s and—”
“I think the ascot is very becoming.”
He nodded in reply and gazed into the side-view mirror at himself.
“You don’t think the ascot is too… girly?”
“Heavens, no. You wouldn’t say that a suit tie is too girly, would you? Or a bow tie?”
“So there you have it.”
A few moments of silence passed and the car lurched over a pothole. A fruity scent was barely detectable as it wafted through the dispenser in the air conditioning vent into Braidy’s face, and the cool air made his skin tingle.
“Do I have to go back to school tomorrow? The kids hate me there. They think I’m weird.”
“We’ll talk to your father about it over dinner. Don’t stress.”
“I just want them to like me.”
“I know, love. It’ll all work out. I promise.”