by Peter C. Conrad
“What did you say your name was?” asked the heavy-set woman as she cracked another egg onto the grill. Ed was stirring a pot of steaming cereal.
“Ed, Mrs. Thomas.”
“Well, you can start calling me Darcy.”
“How old are you?”
“Just about thirteen,” Ed lied.
“Thirteen, ah? That’s something—the ones that stick with it are older. I was sure after a week you’d stop coming, that was if you came back for the first day.”
“You’re a nice kid—you have problems getting along with the rest?”
Ed remained silent a moment. “No—I’m fine,” he replied.
“Quickly now, get the dishes out,” she said. “That cereal is done. Set the table, they should be here any minute.”
Bill and Gregory were the first to arrive. Like every other morning, the town’s only taxi arrived and the two slowly opened the door and climbed out. Ed didn’t know why a taxi brought them. It seemed odd to Ed at first, but as he spent time in their world, things that seemed strange became normal.
He watched out the window as the hunchback boys came to the door and walked in. Their faces were red and cold just like everyone else. They had thick lips and crooked stained teeth. Bill had a huge lump on the right side of his nose that made it look crooked. Gregory didn’t appear to have any nose at all. Their cheekbones were low and heavy. The heavy bony mass of their brows made their eyes look small and sunken. Their hair was thin, making them look slightly bald. They both had short, stocky legs. Ed watched as the two helped each other take their boots and coats off. This silent ritual occurred every morning and every afternoon when they left.
Connie was different. She would skip and jump as she came to the small building. There was no one with her. “La-la, ta-ta, da-da.” She would come in. Connie was always dancing to the rhythms of some band playing again and again, somewhere in the light of her mind. She was always there—wherever that was—smiling, always happy. “Ta-ta, la-la, da-da,” she sang along as she took off her coat. She was not physically different like Gregory and Bill. She was overweight for her height, but at eleven years old it seemed right. From a distance, she looked like any other girl.
Tom came next. He was he oldest and the biggest. He came down the street from the same direction as Connie. He had abnormally big boots. Tom never looked around. He walked with his eyes straightforward and his chin stuck far out. Like Gregory and Bill, he had a pronounced hunchback and heavy brow. His arms were long and bulky and his legs were bowed. He looked old at nineteen.
Kathy and Bob came on one of the early school buses. They arrived as the rest finished their breakfast.
“Oh but Connie,” said Kathy as Ed came out of the kitchen with fresh toast for the two that just arrived. Kathy was at Connie’s side, her coat still on. She was cleaning some hot cereal from Connie’s blouse. Connie was sitting still and looking down at the mess. Ed was surprised. For the first time since he has been helping, Connie was still, not humming. “Oh but, oh but,” continued Kathy.
“There now, don’t worry,” said Darcy as she continued to clean Connie. “You take your coat off Kathy. I’ll take care of this.”
“Yes,” said Kathy quietly as she did as she was told.
“I saw a nice car today,” announced Bob.
“You take your coat off too Bob,” said Darcy. “And have something to eat.”
* * *
Ed felt comfortable as he sat down at the small table on the far side of the school library and opened the book he had chosen for his book report. He looked up and noticed Carleton sitting down beside him.
“Find a book to do your report on?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said Ed.
“I think I’ll do this one,” he said as he patted the book he had in front of him.
“That’s good,” said Ed, unsure of why Carleton had come to sit down beside him.
“I was going to say thanks.”
Ed looked up from his book, surprised. Carleton stared intently at Ed. He shrugged. “For what?” asked Ed.
“Getting the guys off me the last couple of times,” said Carleton.
“I sure wish I was like you,” said Carleton.
“What?” said Ed, surprised.
“You’re fast and you’re smart.”
“Your Mom is a teacher and your father is a lawyer. You have to be smart,” said Ed.
Carleton just looked down and shrugged. “I wish I could run like you.”
“It’s not that much fun running either,” said Ed.
“It’s better than just having to take it,” said Carleton.
“Have you ever tried doing anything when they get you?”
“If you fight back, they really let you have it. If you tell, the next time it’s worse,” said Carleton, embarrassed.
“Maybe they will lay off you more now,” said Ed. “They have been after me more lately.”
“That’s because you’re helping at the special school.”
“Yeah, well—” said Ed.
“Why did you do that anyway?” asked Carleton.
“I guess just because I wanted to. You know, in a way, I did it because I knew that Robert would hate it. It’s a power trip for him, you know.”
“What?” asked Carleton.
“His fighting; I think that’s the reason why there wasn’t a volunteer at the special school all fall until I got here was that Robert said he would beat up the weirdo who dared to do it.”
“That’s right,” said Carleton.
“I didn’t like the way he could do that,” said Ed.
“It’s like you are having a fight with him and you’re winning,” said Carleton with a smile.
“I guess,” said Ed.
“Hey look, the two losers sitting together,” said Robert loudly as he walked over to the table they were sitting at. Carleton quickly looked away, but Ed stared at Robert as he approached. Ed felt calm. He knew that he was okay in the library; Robert wouldn’t start anything physical.
“Hey, Eddy, you still going to school with the weirdoes?”
Ed didn’t move he just watched as Robert stepped up to the table.
“Hey, you scared to talk?” asked Robert with a smile.
“Robbie,” Ed said. He had often called Robert “Robbie” in his mind, but he had never said it. Now it just slipped out. Jessica, who was standing nearby laughed. “Robbie,” repeated Ed, to the surprise of Robert and Stan who heard it. “They sure could use your help over there too.”
Robert stepped back from the small table, shocked. As he watched, Ed thought he looked as if he had just been punched.
“I’ll get you,” stammered Robert. Jennifer began laughing with Jessica. Robert stepped forward and hit his fist on the small table as he felt his cheeks burn. Ed just looked at Robert passively, and then looked at Robert’s fist. It seemed small to Ed.
“I’ll be waiting,” said Ed to his own surprise. He meant to say he would be watching, but it was too late to change what he had said. The girls behind Robert were silent. Robert motioned to his friends and quickly left the library.
Ed looked across the table to Carleton. He stared back wide-eyed. He looked like he hadn’t breathed the entire time Robert had been there.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” he said excitedly.
“It doesn’t change anything,” said Ed.
“What?” said Carleton.
“They have been really watching me for weeks now. They have done everything they could to get me. They’ll just keep trying,” said Ed as his heart began to pound.
“But, when they do get you, they’ll really do some damage.”
“They would have anyway,” said Ed.
Carleton was right, he really shouldn’t have done it, but it just came out. Ed had been thinking of saying those things to Robert for a long time. He never thought he would get a chance or have the guts to say them. Robert may have a better reason to try to get Ed now, but Ed now had a reason to be careful. This could be a good thing, thought Ed. He had always been very fast, now he would be much faster.
* * *
At the back of Ed’s class, there was a small study room and a small storage room. In the storage room on the left, there was a small shelf of books. Ed had finished with the atlas he was looking at and made his way to the small room without noticing that Mrs. Brown, his teacher, was not at her desk.
Mrs. Brown was only an inch taller than Ed was. She had dark brown straight hair that touched her shoulders. Ed thought he was too thin. She wore a pair of large round glasses.
As he stepped close to the door of the small room, he heard her voice.
“Robert, I didn’t give your assignment a mark,” she said.
“Why?” Ed heard Robert say in a whisper.
“You really wouldn’t want the mark I would be forced to put on it.”
“I’d pass, wouldn’t I.”
“Not with this assignment. It’s no better than the other assignments you handed in.”
“They weren’t that bad,” Robert pleaded.
“You know I have to tell Mr. Ryerson about this soon.” Mr. Ryerson was the manager of the hockey team and the rink.
“You can’t do that.”
“I have to, especially if you don’t come in for help at noon. You still have trouble with reading and—”
Ed noticed Stan staring at him. Ed turned and made his way back to his desk. He could return the atlas later.
* * *
All the students had left the special school except Connie. Ed watched as Darcy pulled Connie’s coat on and zipped it up. She stepped up to where Ed was and looked out the window. She nodded and turned.
“Okay Connie you can go, he’s waiting for you,” she said. Connie swayed from one foot to the other and until Darcy opened the door. She stepped out and walked to the curb of the sidewalk. She paused and stared across at the boy who was waiting there. It was Dwain, another player on the hockey team. He was the same size as Robert and had dark hair. Ed could not remember ever seeing Dwain talking to Robert in class. But then, Ed had noticed that Dwain never seemed to talk to anyone.
Dwain looked both ways and nodded to Connie who was looking at him. She did not look side to side, she just stepped out onto the street and walked to him.
“That’s her brother, he comes to get her sometimes,” said Darcy. “Now can you help me get these chairs on the table before you go. The floors have to be swept.”
Ed quickly helped with the job.
“It’s a strange thing,” said Darcy. “You can have a whole family that is completely normal, then for no reason that I know there will be one with cerebral palsy.”
“Like Dwain’s family?” asked Ed.
“Yes. You never know what it’s going to be like either. One may not be able to walk, but have full use of their hands. Another may have very few outward problems, but he may not be able to swallow, or talk very well.” She shrugged. “We have one of the highest number of cases in the world and no one has any idea why.” She placed the last chair on the table and looked at Ed. “I guess it just one of those things.”
“I guess so,” said Ed.