December/Christmas 1995

Ostrich Boy sat two seats over.

I was aware of this because I hated him, with every bit of little goody two shoes that I was. We were making Christmas ornaments and I was busy spooling yarn around a cardboard square, making a sheep for the family Christmas tree. I acted like you’d expect (I lived in mortal fear of disappointing the adult figures in my life, and cried whenever I earned less than an A on any of my assignments), but I had a streak of stubborn independence; it seems appropriate that I chose to make a black sheep on this particular day, rather than a white one. My hands were sticky with glue from my tissue paper wreath, yarn fuzzies coating the pads of my fingers, but my mind was five feet back and to the left, where Ostrich Boy sat coloring (very badly, I thought) the back of his own wreath. That wasn’t even the assignment.  I watched him from the corners of my eyes, scribbling hard with a colored pencil.

I thought of him as Ostrich Boy because he’d used the description himself. Born at two and a half pounds with something wrong with him (I remembered the two and half pounds but not the something wrong, because he’d brought in a licorice bag for show and tell that weighed as much as he did when he was born, so he said), he wore leg braces and said that he ran like an ostrich, which was true. He had gumption, but also one of the most manipulatively sniveling personalities I’d ever met. He was not the good little boy that I thought disability kids were supposed to be. He laughed at the expense of others, joked to be cruel, and I’d once heard him actually curse. Yes, curse. To my eight-year-old ears, this was the pinnacle of bad kid behavior.

But the worst part – worse than any swear word, worse than the grin, than the leg bracings that gave him a free-pass to the former – was how he used tears to his advantage.  As the youngest in my family I implicitly understood that crying for effect was a deeply unfair strategy. That was dirty pool. You only cried if you meant it.

Earlier that week he’d called Jessie four eyes. Jess was popular because she actually deserved it, wore glasses and a kind smile, and the insult had been pathetic. Four eyes was the cop-out insult. But then his insults always worked like that: innocuous on one level, mean-spirited anyways. He had grinned, the boys at his back had laughed (idiots), and Megan had jumped to her defense. She was a four eyes too and Jessie’s best friend, so it was her fight for the taking.

“You’re stupid.”

As retorts went, this was bad. Still, we were all good girls and in the middle of the hall, so no one dared to actually say “a butthead” where a teacher might hear it. I backed her up with a mean laugh (it was supposed to sound mean, to let her know she had done good), and Megan cocked her hip and smiled.

His eyes welled immediately. Unbelievable, except that it worked.

Megan dropped her hip and quite suddenly I was in a hall full of doves, all cooing their condolences.  Tim (big, athletic, and sometimes a jerk; I nearly wore him down while playing tag once – with two older siblings my endurance was something to behold – but he called time-out a couple of inches before I tagged him and used it as a breather before simultaneously shouting “Time in!” and sprinting away; another height of criminality in the third grade) pushed off the wall to see what was wrong.

I saw it in their faces. Here was this poor kid, two and half pounds at birth, runs like an ostrich, and suddenly we were all remembering that his life was unfair. With his eyes pricking red, it became an easy thing to forget that he called Jessie four eyes, squinted when he smiled (like a rat planning something), and laughed when other kids tripped.

When the consolation session had finished, when he turned back into his usual, wretched self, he swiveled on a braced leg, caught Tim’s eye, and I know – I know – I heard it, said, “They are so damn stupid.”

(Though “I know” is, admittedly, something of an exaggeration. He was quiet enough that I’m not entirely certain how the insult went. But I know I heard “damn,” even if I didn’t know exactly who are what he was condemning to eternal punishment in hell.)

“Did you hear that?” I demanded. There was a general outcry when I leaned in to Megan and explained in a hushed whisper (he said “darn” only the bad way, I swear I heard him), but the scandal settled way too quickly for my taste. I wasn’t hurt on behalf of the popular girls (I was friendly with them but not friends; I didn’t know how you got into that group and it wasn’t really worth it if you weren’t in automatically ), but I couldn’t stand injustice. It roiled up hard anger right at my forehead, deep behind my skull where most of my headaches start, because he manipulated everyone and I was the only one who saw it.

So I was sitting there, the day melted mostly away and the end of school ticking closer, watching his hand scribble, scribble, scribble, when brilliance struck me so suddenly it actually made my eyes twinkle.  Not that I had a mirror to see, but if smart aleck cleverness can show up on someone’s face, it had to have just showed up on mine.

The best part about being one of the good kids is that no one ever sees you coming. The third out of three golden children my parents had had the good fortune (or perhaps fortitude) to raise, I had come to realize that being good meant you got away with more. I rarely got in trouble; usually because I didn’t ask for it, but sometimes just because being smart was about being clever. I pulled out a piece of paper, hid it between my desk and my lap, and wrote the word “crybaby” with my left hand, disguising my handwriting. I could smell the glue from my fingers, several inches from my face as I kept my body scrunched as far into itself as possible.

“Oh!” Kelly said, leaning with remarkable and unexpected speed over my work. Her hair swept sharply forward, accusing me. “That looks really cute!”

I startled very quietly (a trick I’d learned growing up with a brother who liked jumping out at me from dark corners), and all the pencil did was punch a hole into the paper.  She didn’t see, which was good.  Friend or not I remained smart about this. I knew, even then, that the only way to keep a secret was to make sure I was the only one keeping it.

For a moment I couldn’t think of what to say.

“Thanks,” I finally remembered.

Fortunately, Kelly returned to her work, which involved pulling bits of red tissue paper off her fingers. She plucked at the green when she was finished, and I was safe to wait for opportunity to knock.

“Would you please pass me the—”

I pushed the glue over without looking, because I couldn’t bear to let anyone stop me. Sometimes sinning is as simple as keeping up your momentum.

Ostrich Boy stopped scribbling suddenly, and I became keenly aware of my own heartbeat. Not the beat itself, but the way it made breathing difficult. He looked at the result of his mess of an art project, and when he took himself and his purple pencil with an ostrich, ostrich, ostrich walk to the pencil sharpener, the time to make my move was officially nigh.

I followed him to the back, alibi in my hand (my own pencil, in case anyone asked what I was doing), and I made sure with a subtle side glance that no one was looking. Mrs. Anderson – wonderful, with blonde hair, a smile that crinkled her face with amusement, and a way of answering any question you could think of to ask – was nowhere to be seen. In truth I was watching for her, because the deepest shame I could imagine involved her finding some reason to be disappointed in me. Justified though I knew my cause to be, it would kill me to get caught.

I was very smooth. The note went into his desk as I passed, slightly crushed, but that fit the handwriting on the lined paper. I couldn’t look at him when we crossed, but I smiled at no one, pleased with myself. The sharpener made a scrumming noise that vibrated through my hand, and I went back to my seat. Nonchalant. Casual.

Ostrich Boy found it way too fast.

I sat down with all my organs in the wrong place. I actually had to pass him as he discovered what I had done. I hadn’t counted on that. I expected him to find it later, when I wasn’t around to smile or start or give myself away, but I still couldn’t stop the tugging of my mouth. Success (yes!), but I was still feeling my heart press my lungs to the front base of my throat.

“Hey,” he said suddenly, throwing up the note to Cody, who sat behind him. “Who wrote this?”

Eject, eject, eject, and my breath was crawling backwards into my esophagus. He was not supposed to show it to anyone. He was supposed to take the note to heart, feel bad, and then move on with his life. This was not how it was supposed to happen.

Cody took it, then passed on note and the question.  “Who wrote this?”

Tim took it. They were all gathering around his desk now, and my heart beat a hard ba-THUMP into my ribs, pounding as the boys passed my seat to get to his.

But my ploy had worked.

“It was Sean,” one of them decided.

Sean was actually meaner than Ostrich Boy, with the disadvantage that he had neither the guts to swear in school or the leg braces to make everyone his friend. He was also well-known as the worst kid in class. With the worst handwriting.

Shane let go a “hmph” of breath through his teeth, and agreed. “It’s Sean.”

Tim (and at this moment I couldn’t stand Tim), said: “It has to be.” Size meant authority and this, as much as the crappy handwriting, made it true.

Mrs. Anderson called them both to her desk, Sean claiming innocence the whole way, but no one believes the boy who cried wolf. I was clever; I was safe. They never saw me coming. Never even dreamed it might’ve been me.

And I felt the guilt start to coil deep and snake-like into my stomach.