Marshmallow had actually slapped me and I was doing everything I could not to laugh at him. See, Marshmallow was the scary kid. He was bigger than every other kid, dumber than every other boy, and he was piss ugly to boot. No girl would talk to him. None of them were impressed. He had just slapped me but it was laughable.
When Sharp had slapped me at 20th Street, he had done it right. I had worn the red mark of his hand for two hours. He had done it in front of everyone and they had all seen my humiliation. The hit rocked me so hard it had actually driven me to my knees. I could not feel my cheek all day long.
When Marshmallow attempted it, it was all fingers. He had no palm in it at all. It did not even move my face. My cheek rippled a little bit. I looked at him with shock as every one of the boys there said, “Damn, he slapped him in the face. Damn, Marshmallow doesn’t give a fuck.”
“Shit, Joe, what are you going to do now?” Prickle said. He was back today. He had been gone for a week after X was done with him, but he came to school looking for some payback.
“I don’t know why she likes him. He looks like a pile of shit,” a boy said.
It knocked me out of my stupor, the slight haze that I retreated to when I was being abused by these wanna-be bullies. I looked up at the one who had spoken, but did not say a word.
“She is fine as hell, but can’t be too smart if she is looking at Joe,” another boy said.
This was literally the very first I was hearing about this. A pretty girl, or what these boys thought was a pretty girl, liked me.
“She just needs to see my big dick and she will come running and forget Joe’s name altogether,” Marshmallow said.
I looked him in the eye and Guardian stepped forward. He did not speak. He did not move. He did nothing but look Marshmallow in the eye and nod. None of the other boys saw it. None of them saw the look on Guardian’s face or the way it sent a bolt of terror through Marshmallow. But it had been there. A boy had spoken poorly of a lady, had threatened to expose himself, and Guardian was taking notice. He was gone in a flash, but for that one moment, Marshmallow knew. He knew he had gone too far.
They talked about the mystery girl for at least ten minutes before the bell rang and we headed for our lockers. I ran to mine, switched out my books, and ran for Grr.
“G.I. Joe, as I live and breathe, I was just coming to look for you,” she said with a sly smile.
“Does someone like me?” I said. “I heard that someone liked me.”
Grr stared at me dumb for a moment before she shook her head. “Man, you are clueless.”
“Let me tell you how this is done. You don’t ask me. That is not right. I can’t tell you and I wouldn’t even if I could. There are rules. Even Joe has to follow them.”
“So, what do I do?”
“You ask X.”
“Wait, he didn’t tell you?” Grr said.
“No, he didn’t say anything. I was with him on the bus this morning. When did he find out?”
“Yesterday afternoon. He has told everyone. I figured he had told you already. Everyone knows. She is convinced you don’t like her since you didn’t send her the note folded right.”
“What?” I said. “X told everyone I don’t like her? I mean, I don’t know who she is but, I haven’t heard about this at all. You can’t tell her that I don’t like her.”
“Double negative,” Grr said.
“Listen, I don’t want whoever it is—” I huffed, “Just tell me.”
“I’m no narc,” Grr said. “You have to find out on your own.”
I grabbed her shoulders and looked her in the eye.
“Don’t touch me, G.I. Joe. I don’t like soldier boys.”
“Shut up, Grr. Just listen.”
“No one tells me to shut up, but I’ll let it slide this time because I am loving every minute of this.”
“Please, listen. Please tell whoever it is this for me.” Artist pulled forward. He looked Grr in the eye then closed his. He breathed deeply and smiled. “Tell her I do not know who she is. My monster has not told me her name, but tell her that I will quest to find it. I will search every inch of this school and turn over every desk until her name is breathed to me. Tell her I will kill my monster if I have to just to hear her name spoken on the air.”
Grr looked at me. She blinked. I looked at her. I had a vague notion of what had been said, but not much of one.
“You want me to say that to her?”
“Please don’t let me down.”
“You want me to say that to a sixth grade girl?” Grr said. “Those words right there?”
“I beg of you.”
“I’ll do it, but if it kills her, I’m going to be pissed. I kinda like her.” Grr smiled. She turned around and walked away, then looked over her shoulder. “That was really good stuff, Joe. Say more things like that.”
I knew where that bastard would be and I ran there. He was in the lunch room. It was abandoned this time of day, and he knew he could fit his arm up the milk machine and steal a few cartons of chocolate milk before first hour. I smacked the doors open and roared.
“I’m going to rip your tiny little pecker off,” I yelled.
X laughed. “Finally got to you, huh?” He saw me stomping toward him and threw a stolen carton of milk at me. I caught it, dropped it to the ground and stomped on it. The milk exploded in every direction, covered me, my boots, my pant leg. X laughed as I walked forward, fighting not to slip. I grabbed him, tossed him across the room to bounce off the wall, and he laughed.
“Who is she and why all the fucking rules?”
“Are you going to kiss her and hug her and let her lick on your tiny dick?” X said.
Why were middle school boys so obsessed with their penises?
“Who is she?”
“Ruffle,” he said with a giggle.
I shoved him up against the wall. I kicked his feet out from under him and he used them to trip me. I hit the ground cursing. “You’re lying,” I said.
He stood up and dropped to the ground, landing his elbow in my shoulder. It hurt like the devil and I grunted. “Ruffle likes you. Grr told me herself.” He made kissy faces. “He is sooo cute!” he said with a girly voice. “I just have to have his arms around me and that stupid jacket he wears covering my body as I—”
I backhanded him in the chest. “Shut your mouth. Are you serious?”
“Lottery, dude,” he said with a laugh. “You hit the fucking lottery.”
And I had. Ruffle was the second most popular girl in school.
I walked into Palkstad’s class late, and dropped into my seat.
“Why him?” Palkstad asked.
I looked up in horror at my first-hour math teacher pointing at me and talking to Ruffle.
“Why would you waste yourself on this dirty little bum?” the teacher said.
Ruffle could only stare at the table. Her face was so red.
The teacher’s total lack of professionalism was staggering. I could only stare as he leered at her and looked back at me. This wasn’t happening. This was some sort of nightmare.
“You ought to go for Prickle. At least he knows how to dress,” the teacher said. Everyone in the class was appalled. No one knew what to do except Marshmallow. He looked up at Mr. Palkstad and laughed.
“I’ll take her. Even though she is obviously blind, I’ll take her in.”
Shadow looked at him. Alive and enraged, he stared at the first thing he wanted to kill. That stare shut Marshmallow down.
“I’m disappointed in you, Ruffle. You can do better,” Mr. Palkstad said. Then he went to teach his lesson. The act had been so despicable, so rude and terrible, that I shook it off as impossible. There was no way a teacher would be that inappropriate, that rude and that aggressive to a girl with a crush on a boy who had never given him any reason to dislike him.
This was my first glimpse into the horrifying underbelly of this school. It was not until the next hour that I saw its true extent.
I was the first person out of the room and I waited in the hall where she would see me when she passed.
Island looked at me and grinned. “Heard you have caught an eye,” the girl said. She was the only original girl I had even seen at this school. Her hair was wrong, her makeup too thick. She wore too revealing of clothes, and she had almost no friends. She was distrusted by everyone, and I found her intriguing and terrifying.
“Yeah, I guess,” was all I could say. I looked at the letter in my hand that I had scribbled on. I didn’t even know what it said. I knew it wasn’t folded right. How was that even a thing? And I didn’t want Island talking to me when Ruffle walked out of the room.
“That is all wrong, you know?” Island said as she walked away. “Bye, Mr. Brown.”
I asked her, before I left that school for good, why she called me Mr. Brown when everyone else called me G.I. Joe. Island smiled at me and stopped my heart as she said, “They never saw your eyes.”
When Ruffle walked out of the room, I handed her the letter and ran. I ran across the hall from Palkstad, to his best friend’s room. The man himself. Mr. Jenkins, my social studies teacher. I just had a terrible first class, was attacked for no reason I could name, but this would make it better. My favorite subject taught to me by my favorite teacher since 20th Street.
When I sat down, he looked up at me with an impeccable smile. I smiled back. When the class took their seats, he said, “Get up.” And he walked away. He walked to the window and sipped his coffee. “I said get up, now, Jesse. Get out of that seat and stand. You haven’t earned that seat.”
I actually laughed. It was so ridiculous. Such an insane thing to say that I thought it was a joke.
“If you don’t get off of that seat, I am putting you out of my class. Get up.” He turned to look at me and smiled. It was the smile that was so horrible.
A few boys laughed. One girl was crying.
“Take it off,” he said.
“What?” I said.
“Take off that jacket right now.”
I stared at him. I would rather have taken off my skin, tossed it to the ground and spat on it than take my jacket off.
I obeyed. I took it lovingly off my shoulders and draped it on the back of the seat.
“See, that right there is why we are doing this,” he said. Mr. Jenkins of Slinger Middle School pointed his finger at me and said, “Pick that up right now and fold it with a little respect.”
I tried. I really tried. I loved my jacket. Would have done anything for it. He wanted respect, how could I tell him that I loved no object I had ever owned as much as I loved that jacket? But when I folded it, he became enraged.
He told me to button it up.
Fold the arms behind it.
Fold it in half.
“Now, set it on your desk and grab your books and your paper, and walk to the back of the class.”
“This is where you stand now. This is your seat. You will fold that jacket and put it on your desk and stand in the back of the room like you have a bit of class. Like you have a little respect to you and are not a worthless kid. This is the new way we do class.”
More boys laughing, more girls crying.
“If I ever see you sitting in my class again, wearing that coat, I will fail you. I don’t care what grades you get. I will fail you and make sure every other teacher does as well.” He glared at me with pure hate. “I hope you test me on this.” He turned back to the window. “Pull out your books to chapter three. Jesse is going to read this chapter to us and answer the questions at the end out loud. He would write them down, but he can’t because he has given up his desk. Jesse, begin.”
I dropped my head, weeping, and read. My dyslexia caused every boy to chuckle, and more girls to cry.
When Ruffle got to her next class, she took the letter and almost dropped it in the trash. She told me she didn’t even want to look at it because she could tell by the way it was folded that I didn’t like her. But she did open that letter, and she said she cried when she read it.
I have no idea how this happened. You are a slice of magic, a glowing chord played from a golden guitar. I am a Street Rat from the gutter. I have been writing for years but I have no words that could be spoken in my mind that would be as sweet as to walk beside you in the hallway. To hear you laugh at a joke I speak or even to sit beside you.
I know nothing. There are laws for love in this place, and I have always been a criminal. But for you, I will obey them. Tell me what you want and I will do it. Get me the rules and I will follow them. I will say the words, learn the folds, and say my lines if it means I can sit beside you and hear you breathe as you say my name.
I await your instruction.
The letter had been written by Artist. She was not ready for him. No one was.