They circled around him. The children, in their apricot tans and indigo violet jeans, pointing at where his glasses were bent askew. A boy, Mark, dug his nails into a fistful of sand, asking Elijah why he didn’t celebrate Christmas. This time of year, my mother commanded that I walk to school in three turtleneck sweaters, and I shuddered at the slightest wind. Watching my classmates from a splintered gazebo, I cringed. Savannah was no sweet Georgia peach, aiming an opened water bottle Elijah’s way. Scott, the boy who boasted to my face that he would one day win a Nobel Peace Prize, ran from the storage closet with a plastic jump rope. I put down my sketchbook, the one filled with lambs and swans and elephants, and ran towards the group, throat sliced in December air.
“Mommy says that those who don’t accept Jesus as their friend and personal Savior go to Hell. You know what that is?” Mark’s nose inched closer to Elijah’s, his fist of sand balled firmly against his pocket.
Elijah’s mouth kept shut. Despite his father’s classroom visit to explain to us the meaning of Hanukkah, the presentation fell on empty ears, or ears clogged with the saccharine residue of “…Baby One More Time” on the school bus radio.
“Why do you sing when we read aloud in class?” Savannah’s hands pinched at her sides. She always laughed when Elijah was assigned to read a paragraph from the abridged classics we studied together as a group. Elijah sang, but hardly spoke, if only to ask Mark to leave him alone. Warbling, though clear, his voice could turn a dull block of Times New Roman into something lively, a steadily spinning carousel. At least I thought so, while the others giggled.
At Savannah’s question, Elijah repeatedly shrugged. He sang aloud for months, never changing his ways. It seemed absurd to only be questioned months after the first week of school.
“Savannah, he sings because he’s gay. Elijah likes boys.” Scott pushed Mark aside, his right thumb circling around the rubber neon grips of the jump rope that stung me many times over due to my bookish clumsiness as I tried to double-dutch.
“Gays go to Hell too. That’s what my mom says.” Mark’s face crinkled, a rotten plum. I stood behind Savannah, scowling at Mark as I remembered the time he interrupted me during my presentation on why the Amazon rainforest was important. Our teacher tended to her fingernails, while he stood up to whisper in my ear, “The Lord says trees are made for men.”
Ever the peacemaker, Scott added, “You know, in the Bible, Jews were slaves. Do you want to be a slave, Elijah?”
Elijah remained silent, like a girl I read about who was born deaf, blind, and mute. His cheeks burned something red, deflating to gray, bursting to red again. His eyelids sealed, legs stiffened, and his arms bent at the elbows, rapidly. I thought of a rooster on my aunt’s farm, flapping disappointment when its cries woke no one.
“Get him! He’s a monster!” Scott pointed to Mark, who stepped behind Elijah to hold back his arms. Scott pulled out a good stretch of jump rope, spinning it as if he were Bruce Lee. Elijah finally screamed, scratchily, unlike the way he would sing about goats and cheese during a reading of Heidi. My classmates laughed. I did not.
“Leave him alone, asshole!” I grabbed at the jump rope, engaging myself in a scuffle that the young playground monitors didn’t seem aware of as they sat at a nearby picnic table, laughing about some adult subject none of us could comprehend.
Elijah kept screaming, braying, eventually whispering “Red, red, red” in an almost melodic chant. Boys and girl no longer directed their attentions to him, their eyes darting my way, mouths like soggy Cheerios.
“What did you call me, Miss Goody Two Shoes?” The jump rope fell from Mister Peacemaker’s hands. I could feel the saliva spattering off Scott’s cracked lips.
“I said that you’re an asshole.” I didn’t know the harm in what I said, teachers only telling us that “stupid” was an impermissible insult. Many a time, Mark called Elijah a “retard,” though no one stopped to reprimand him. Perhaps the teachers grew tired, often talking about retirement, our homeroom teacher describing to us her future home near Potato Lake.
The bell rang, boys and girl dashing for the classroom. I stayed with Elijah. We were alike in that we didn’t like people. We were quiet, seen as weird. And though he often threw tantrums in art class when his paintings didn’t finish how he liked, I often felt just as dissatisfied with my imperfect portraits. Also, the other girls often called me “gay,” a gratuitous insult they repeated while failing to explain to me what “gayness” actually meant.
No one ever stopped to reprimand the children. After walking into class with a shaking Elijah, I saw Ms. Rowlett rise from her desk. She gestured for me to go back outside, into the wind and gathering fog.
“I must say that I’m quite impressed with your vocabulary, Miss Audrey.” Ms. Rowlett scratched her cheek with a sharp red fingernail and thumped at her chest to cough bluntly, almost phlegmatically. I grinned at her. My upturned cheeks were not reciprocated.
“Who taught you that word?” Ms. Rowlett bent down to kneel at my height. I looked towards her feet to spot the linings of three dresses, layered like my itchy turtlenecks.
“What word?” I clasped my hands behind my back, turning my head left and right. My teacher softly touched my cheeks, keeping me still.
“Audrey.” Her voice stung with slight frustration. “Who taught you to call Scott an asshole?”
“My dad. He says that a lot. He calls me that a lot too, but only when I’m bad. Scott was really bad.” I explained myself, eyes still aimed downward. Ms. Rowlett sighed again. “They were bullying Elijah, Ms. Rowlett. They were calling him a Jew and a gay and Scott was about to hit him with a jump rope.” I found this information helpful. It seemed to only annoy my teacher.
“Audrey, remember what we talked about in class? Remember when we talked about tattle-tales, and how they cause more harm than good?” Indeed, Ms. Rowlett was tired. Since August, Elijah was quite a handful, unwilling to introduce himself as he refused to speak, completing assignments, though failing to follow instructions, arriving to school with mismatched socks, and recently, throwing a chair at the wall in response to an insult issued by Mark.
“They were going to hurt him, Ms. Rowlett.” Like Savannah, I grabbed my sides, insistent that the teacher could levy some kind of penalty.
“Sweetie.” The teacher stepped away, hands no longer pressed against my cheeks. “You know Elijah’s different. You know Elijah’s difficult.”
“Elijah did nothing! The kids closed in on him.” I wanted to yell, but couldn’t, throat still seasonally wounded.
“Audrey, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m giving you a red bear today. This behavior just isn’t acceptable. I’m also going to write out a slip for you to take home to your parents. If you do not return it signed by tomorrow, I will have to fail you for participation this week. I’m sorry, but I can’t have you use such foul language. Especially as you’re a lady.” Ms. Rowlett shook her head, motioning for me to walk back into class.
“So Mark can call Elijah a ‘retard’ because he’s a boy?” I stammered in my indignant inquisitiveness.
“Audrey.” Ms. Rowlett no longer spoke in forced kindness. I aggravated her. Later, I would aggravate my mother, who often signed paperwork my father didn’t have the patience or concern to read.
“Why do you care about Elijah so much?” My mother read over the disciplinary slip, my crisp red bear laid flat on the dining table. She shook her head, practicing her signature multiple times on a napkin with a pen that was ready to dry out.
“He needs help. The kids are so mean to him.” I bit into my grilled cheese sandwich, chewing slowly.
“Audrey, that boy is abnormal. You know what that means?” My mother shakily signed the slip, one hand pressed against the sliding paper.
“He’s not contagious.” We had this argument before. I was watching some news special about a girl born with HIV. My mother, feather duster in hand, laughed at the television, telling me, “No one is born with that. Unless your parents are sinners.” I told her she was mean, and she ordered me out of the house for an hour or so.
“So I can’t be a friend to him because he’s not like the other kids?” I was almost done with my sandwich. I could no longer taste the richness in the slices of sharp cheddar.
“No. Also, you are grounded. No TV for the week. If I ever catch you playing with that abnormal boy, I will call your aunt to pick you up.” She crammed my slip into my folder, leaving the red bear on the table within my view so I would not forget my misbehavior for the remainder of the evening.
“What if the other kids are assholes?” I swallowed the last bit of the grilled cheese sandwich.
“Then concentrate on your books. You go to school to learn, not to make friends.” My mother reached across the table, smacking the side of my head and slamming the door between us as she stormed into the kitchen to clean.
As my mother never accompanied me to the bus stop, she never learned that Elijah and I took the same ride to and from school. Often, I stood on the pavement while the other kids played tag in the grass. Each morning, I counted the times I craned my neck to see if the bus was on its way. On an average day, I did this around a dozen times. The bus was usually late by five minutes.
The day after my mother signed the disciplinary slip, I took care not to run to the bus stop. The roads were icy, and headlights flooded the suburban streets as vans stalled, bumper to bumper. Upon reaching the bus stop, I heard that pitiful sound. The screaming, braying, raspy whispers. “Red, red, red.”
“Tuck your shirt in, for crying out loud!” A woman who seemed familiar fussed over rumples of orange that burst from her son’s open jacket, spilling over the front of his khaki pants. The socks, however, were matching. Elijah’s socks, radioactively red.
She cleaned my teeth the past summer, and told me to call her Diana, rather than Dr. So-and-So. While I typically feared the dentist, this appointment was pleasantly uneventful. No pain, no struggle, no requests to open my aching mouth a bit wider. She did the job swiftly, reminding me of peregrine falcons I read about in the waiting room an hour before after rummaging through the basket where children’s books piled. She didn’t say much, aside from remarking that my teeth were healthy, to stay away from chocolate, to not go trick-or-treating, and that she liked my red blouse. “Red is my son’s favorite color,” she added.
Like our teachers, Elijah saw his mother as a figure to defy. He tried to shove her away as she tidied up his shirt, though she uttered a firm “No!” as she held his arm still. His knees buckled as he stepped on a strip of Velcro attached to an unfastened shoe. Diana stepped back, the freckles across her face darkening like the clouds above. I watched her make a fist with her right hand, slowly extending each finger, counting to five. She knelt before Elijah and adjusted his loose shoe. “What did we get you Velcro shoes for, huh?” She looked at Elijah, fatigue welling in her gray eyes. He shrugged, wordless.
Five minutes after seven o’clock, the bus arrived. I noticed that unlike other children, Elijah wasn’t keen on hugging his mother goodbye. Diana patted his backpack, told him to be good, and that she would be in the same spot after the ride home. Elijah stood behind me as I boarded the bus, stared at Diana, and muttered, “You are not my mom.”
Diana offered a crooked smile, corners of her mouth trembling as I looked out the window, finding a seat to myself. For the first time, I heard Elijah speak—and not sing—a complete, meaningful sentence.
Recess began as it usually did, myself sitting in the shade with my sketchbook, purple box of pencils settled nearby. Mark, Scott, and Savannah were busy in the soccer field, laughing, arguing, and crying all in one breath as the ball would eventually hit someone’s head. Like myself, Elijah was alone, pacing steadily and singing a song that didn’t sound like anything we read aloud in class. He was only a few feet away, crooning softly, belting joyously, humming and humming until I looked up. He continued to sing, walking closer to where I sat.
“Hey.” I looked at him, though he turned away. “Sit with me.”
Elijah continued to sing, lips trembling as he repeatedly performed the lines, “Oh, my love.”
“That’s a really nice song, Elijah. Sit with me. I want to ask you something.” He could actually carry a tune, maintain a rich quivering which our music teacher called a vibrato. He cocked his head my way, slowly approaching what I would have otherwise declared my personal space. He sat as I asked him to.
“Elijah, who is Diana?” I wanted to pat him on the shoulder, but my observations that very morning advised me to refrain.
He shrugged in his usual way, and then reached for my purple box to retrieve a sharpened pencil. He fiddled with the eraser, and then ran his fingers over the yellow wood. “Vertices,” he stammered. I looked at the pencil blankly as he continued to sing about time, and the many sad things time can do.
“I think they played that song at my grandmother’s funeral,” I excitedly interrupted. I knew the lyrics, but not the title. I could only recall two handsome men on an album cover. Two handsome men slightly resembling my oldest cousins I knew little of. Two handsome men called The Righteous Brothers.
“Unchanged Melody,” Elijah nodded, deciding to hum as I showed him the drawings of baby animals corralled within my sketchbook.
“Elijah, who is Diana?” While reminiscing with others on our youth, I agreed I was a rather nosy child.
He gently took the sketchbook from my hands and flipped to a blank page. With the pencil he took from the purple box, he drew what appeared to be a fallen bird. Body fat like a submarine, wings triangular like autumn leaves. He made sure to draw a line beneath the bird, and proceeded to scribble some curlicues, from the tip of one wing to the top of the page. Elijah ran his thumb over the graphite, attempting to illustrate smoke. He then lined the top of the page with sheep without legs. Sheep without heads. Sheep without tails. “Clouds,” he murmured. He paused for a few moments, humming, then whispering, “I need your love.” On the body of the bird, he drew a sharply angled set of stairs. Steps.
“Diana is your stepmom.” I nodded, quietly realizing. I looked over the picture curiously as Elijah continued to gently sing. Then, I remembered.
Two years before, when Elijah was not even enrolled at our school, a plane crashed several countries away. The news spent a good month covering the incident, interviews with sobbing family members playing in a loop while photos of missing victims were presented to the public. While my parents were not acquainted with anyone related to the accident, my mother would often remark, “So sad, so sad,” leafing through the paper and noticing the overwhelming handful of photos that featured fresh-faced mothers and the children left behind. Eventually, those missing were declared dead, and more interviews followed.
Though it was clear the victims’ family members interviewed were overwhelmed with uncertainty and loss, few broke down on camera. I remember sitting with my mother on the sofa, watching a somewhat aged man discuss the loss of his wife, his hair tousled by tropical winds as he struggled to hold his wriggling son against his chest. A quiet boy, possibly as distressed as his father. After three questions too many, he requested to be excused, lowering the boy to the ground and walking away, hair white as a holiday tablecloth. His name was Don Alterman. Kind Mr. Alterman, the one who took the time to visit class a week before to teach us about Hanukkah, handing us chocolates at the end of his presentation, though Diana would have surely disapproved.
One of the final news reports published listed the names of all who were lost after the airplane struck ground. I remembered my mother reading the paper, mouthing a name, and announcing it slowly. Elaine Alterman.
Elijah was the boy on the television screen, small, pale, and silent. Elaine was the mother he lost, the one Diana could never replace, no matter how hard she tried to care for her stepson while treating patience as a ritual.
“Elijah, I’m so sorry.” I knew the bird wasn’t truly a bird and that Elijah didn’t have to draw nor say anything more.
He reached into his pocket, offering me a Hershey Kiss. I wondered where he found one, given his dentist stepmother’s views on candy. I then remembered his father, a kind, warmhearted, sensitive man.
“Thank you.” I again wanted to reach out to him, to show that I was his friend, and that I would play with him at recess even if it angered my mother. Before I sought to restrain myself, I felt his arms hang over my shoulders.
“She’s still mine,” Elijah whispered, his face buried in the knit security of my outermost turtleneck sweater.