The leaves on the trees were the color of burnished copper and of flames. The crisp air made little clouds of smoke trail from the lips of the children as they hurried underneath the oaks and the elms on their way to school. Zippered up against the crispness of the autumnal air, Andy moved without haste towards the the yellow cinderblock elementary school
, thoughtfully nibbling on the end of his eraseable ballpoint pen. He trailed one hand along a chain link fence and relished the clinking sound that rippled behind him. Today there would be dry, crumbly coffee cake and the slightly warm lowfat milk that comes in half-pint cartons that taste of wax. Andy's mother worked 20 miles away and never had time to make him breakfast or lunches in brown paper bags. Andy knew he would sit alone at his table and took the extra time to steel himself to the cruel comments his classmates would half-heartedly direct his way. Andy was not tormented like the class outcasts -- then he might be able to find some sort camaraderie among the other lowly and mocked-- rather he was largely ignored and seemingly invisible
. No one paid him any attention if there were anything else more interesting around. His teachers would sometimes awaken enough from their half-dream state of rote recitation to ask him questions, but even then he felt unremarkable. This is the way it had always been for him. Sometimes he felt as if he could stare directly through his palm and see the green checkered pattern of the linoleum
beneath his feet.
If anyone had been paying attention to Andy, they might have noticed that his shadow was several shades darker than anyone else's. It seemed to ooze along the ground like a pool of oil; slickly dark rainbows shimmered on its surface. But no one gave him so much as a second glance as he made his way to the cafeteria.
Andy took his place in line behind four fifth-graders. They all dwarfed him. Andy quickly snatched a pink plastic tray from a stack at the end of line, careful to avoid the boisterous older boys who were jostling and jabbing each other. The clanking and sighing of the steam trays was a soothing sound to Andy, and he was distracted by it when he was shoved forcibly into the chromed countertop. Andy looked up into the eyes of David McCune. David was the fifth grade bully. He'd been held back twice, and as a result seemed enormous to anyone under the age of twelve. There were rumors that he'd already started shaving. Andy coughed and rubbed his side. David glared at him offhandedly and muttered, "Don't get in the way, gaywad," before slapping the other fifth graders on their backs and calling them nonsensically vulgar names.
Andy's shadow began to speak. It had a low, rumbling voice that would have commanded attention if anyone besides Andy could have heard it. There was a malicious sort of glee in the shadow's voice as it said, "You don't have to take that from that pimple-faced, lard legged loser, Andy m'boy. You an' me could teach him some manners. You an' me could teach him a little humility."
Andy shivered and whispered, "No!"
David turned around at this, squinted down at Andy and said, "You say something to me, you little turd?"
"No, uh, I was just talking to myself."
David smirked, "Better be," and then belched loudly at the cafeteria worker. The smell made her reflexively cover her nose with her plastic baggie clad hands. A small lump of gooey oatmeal clung to
her cheek afterwards, and she scowled at the fifth grade boys who mocked her.
"Andy, Andy, my lovely boy, if this boy don't learn a little he's headed for trouble. It would almost be a favor, a service to mankind if you and me taught him a hard, little lesson," the shadow implored.
Andy shook his head and thanked the Cafeteria lady who scooped a handful of viscous oatmeal into a foam bowl. Andy took a slab of coffee cake and a carton of milk and went to sit down at one of the long, canteloupe-colored tables. He absentmindedly kicked against the legs of the table with his blue and red Stride Rite sneakers.
The fifth grade boys had started a food fight at another table. Gangly Mrs. Skidmore was yelling at the four boys who had been throwing oatmeal and chunks of coffee cake at each other. David McCune was not with them. David McCune was across the room whispering into the ear of Lydia Sherman, the prettiest girl in the school. Lydia shoved David. He grabbed her wrist. His face contorted and turned red. Lydia wrenched her arm away and ran out of the cafeteria. David and Andy were the only ones paying attention to her departure.
For a moment the air seemed to ripple before Andy's eyes. The colors of the cafeteria became muted and hazy. Disembodied angry voices hovered on the air.
"You're a stupid bitch."
"Leave me alone, David."
"Stupid bitch. Hold her arms!"
A girl began to scream. Andy slapped his hands down on the particle board table. The dull thwack and the mild pain jolted him away from the voices. Except one.
"You just saw somethin'," said his shadow. It was not asking.
"I didn't see anything. I just got dizzy."
Andy was a poor liar.
The last bell had rung. Most of the children had scattered off in different directions. Rushing home to watch cartoons or play games of tag and catch while there was still light. Andy was in no rush. He was a latchkey kid; the key to his front door was suspended from a chain around his neck. His mother wouldn't be home for another two hours, his father later still. He lingered around the playground. He swung on swings, smiling at the way the redwood chips flew away each time his feet touched the ground. He pumped his legs and ascended higher into the cloudy blue sky singing softly, "tray-bla, tray-bla kum qua kimo"
"That goodest, sweetest song ain't enough to keep you safe," sighed his shadow.
Andy closed his eyes and sang out as the swing reached the apex of its arc. His stomach tightened and his hands clenched around the chains as he prepared for the fall back to earth. And then he heard a scream. He let go of the chains and jumped. He landed on all fours. Blood welled from tiny cuts on his palms and a scrape on his right knee; his hands smelled like sweat and iron. The scream came again, louder this time. Andy got up and ran towards the sound, through the fields at the back of the school.
In the park that adjoined the school there was a small copse of aspens. The screams came from there. Andy made his way over, taking care to be quiet. There were five boys with their backs to him. One of them was much larger than the others. They were in a semi-circle. Andy heard sobs. He heard a voice plead, "Leave me alone, David."
David McCune said, "Stupid bitch."
He snarled at his followers, "Hold her arms."
The other boys grabbed the girl who began to struggle. It was Lydia Sherman. Her pretty face was now red and blotchy. Her eyes were red rimmed and frantic. She saw Andy watching and mouthed the word, "help".
David McCune grabbed one of Lydia's small, budding breasts and said, "You need to be nicer to me."
Andy clenched his tiny fists and began to move towards the boys when the shadow shouted, "Wait!"
Andy stopped to listen.
"You go in there by yourself and you're gonna get flattened. Any one of those boys could lay you out. But I can help."
Andy shook his head. David slugged Lydia in her stomach. She coughed and gasped.
"You wanna help that girl? You need me."
Lydia cried, "please," in between gasps, more to Andy than to her tormentors.
"Please," she said again. The boys around her just laughed.
Andy closed his eyes. A tear rolled down his cheek. He had to stop them. He couldn't stop them alone. In a small, meek voice he said, "Please, Mr. Saturday, help."
His shadow smiled. It had white, even teeth. It flowed around Andy and covered him completely, then vanished. The voice that came out of Andy was not a boy's squeaky soprano. It was a low, melodic baritone.
"Hello boys," he said, grinning hugely at the five bullies.
"You're gonna wish you didn't come here, fucktard," David snarled.
"I'm downright scared," Andy's grin grew wider, "You boys have been ver' naughty. Ver' naughty indeed. Can't say I'm real happy about that."
The fifth grade boys laughed nastily at the scrawny third grader with the pipe-cleaner arms who dared challenge them. Andy smiled as if he somehow shared the joke. He snapped his fingers twice. The two boys who were holding Lydia's arms shrieked in pain and dropped to the ground, unconscious. Andy tipped an imaginary hat at Lydia and said, "Run now, while you can."
Lydia shot Andy a grateful look and then ran past Andy towards the school. The remaining three boys advanced on Andy. David stooped down to pick up a rock. The boy on David's right reached out to grab Andy, instead Andy grabbed the boy by his collar and flung him backwards as if he weighed no more than a doll.
"Holy shit," cried the boy on David's left.
Andy smiled genially at the boy and the left and said, "I suggest you start getting while the gettin's good. This here is between me and Mr. David."
The boy on the left broke flank and ran. Andy drummed his fingers on his chin.
"Your judo shit don't scare me, freak," David growled.
Andy grinned wider, baring all of his teeth. His features resembled nothing more than a skull. David balled his hands into fists and lowered his head. He charged liked a bull, closing the space between him and Andy. Just as he reached the boy and prepared to pummel his opponent into submission, Andy spread one slender hand out in the symbol for stop. David slammed into an invisible wall and hung there, his feet dangling just above the ground.
"You think you know pain, David? You don't know nothin' yet. But you've got a wonderful new teacher. Oh yes indeedy, I am the professor of pain," Andy danced a complicated jig slowly around David.
"Your mama never teach you it ain't gentlemanly to hit ladyfolk," Andy asked. David spat at the ground. Andy clapped his hands together. There was a sound like dry wood cracking on the fire. David screamed out as the bones in his hands twisted and snapped.
David wailed and sobbed as he looked down at his mangled and useless hands.
"Music to my ears," said Andy, "And it looks like mebbe you're a quick learner. Too bad this is a slow lesson."
"Please," whimpered David.
"Please? Please? And where was your mercy when you and your boys were tying cans to the tail of Miss Lydia?" thundered Andy.
"Please!" shouted David.
"No, you're going to have to better'n that if you want to make a good impression, babe."
Andy's eye fell on the rock David had held in his hand. Andy clucked, "You were gonna throw a rock at an eight-year-old baby. Big strong thirteen-year-old like you. Not ver' sportin' Davey. Not ver' sporting at all."
A wet stain spread slowly on the front of David's pants.
"I never got a good feeling for that ol' rock an' roll music," Andy gestured and the dead leaves on the ground swirled in lazy circles, "but how's about you get a listen."
Andy pointed and hundreds of rocks on the ground floated up into the air. They ranged from tiny, smooth pebbles to jagged bits of limestone as big as Andy's head. There was a whistling sound as the first of the rocks sped towards David and smacked into flesh with brutal accuracy.
"Oh, how I love that sweet rock an' roll music now," Andy chuckled as the rocks homed in on their target. A thin trickle of blood dribbled into David's eye after one of the sharper rocks collided with his brow.
Andy's nostrils flared, "What a delightful odor. And I sure am hungry after all this time."
Grinning, he advanced slowly upon David who gibbered something unintelligible. The leaves swirling beneath David burst into flame. Slow tendrils of smoke wafted upwards.
This boy's death be right. It's true, it's mine.
This is wrong!
He deserves worse. And I'm so hungry
The fire ebbed and died just as suddenly as it began. David fell to the earth in a heap. A small boy with a shadow that seemed to ooze along the ground like a pool of oil stood over the larger boy. Andy shook his head. His voice was childlike, shrill and high, "You don't know how lucky you are."
Andy walked away from the broken bully and his incoherent sobs.