Labels

    Dear Mom,

    I know you love me, and so this is going to hurt you terribly. I am sorry. Giving you pain is the last thing I want to do. All the same, I need to kill myself. I can’t see any alternative.

    I am fat and ugly. No other kid at school wants to be my friend, and most of them think the funniest thing in the world is to humiliate me. And I’ll never have a boyfriend, not with my looks.

    OK, I am good at studying, but so what? What for? When I graduate from school, I’m sure to get into college, just so we can build up a huge debt, then no one will ever bother to employ me.

    Look, if I lived somewhere else in the universe, and was offered a ticket to visit another planet, Earth would be the last place I’d choose. It sucks. Oh, the place is OK, but the monsters inhabiting it are something else. All this hate and fighting and selfishness. I can’t stand it.

    We both love Greta Thunberg. She is right. But what’s the point? Demonstrate all we like, but the moneybags won’t listen. Going to hell with billions is so important to them! So, my generation can expect a life of horror and misery. I am only getting off the sinking ship a little early.

Shelly leaned back. Tears might damage the keyboard. She opened the second drawer of her desk, and found one of the carefully hidden Hershey bars — the only effective antidepressant in all the world.

Someone laughed behind her. She spun her chair around — who could that be, at 4 a.m., in her bedroom?

A boy about her age stood there, a friendly smile on his face. He wore blue jeans and a yellow t-shirt. “You’re not ugly,” he said. “Fat, yes, thanks to that thing in your hand, but if you lost fifty pounds, you’d look beautiful.”

“Who are you, and what the hell are you doing in here?”

“My name is Jakablatioini, but Jake will do. And what I am doing here should be obvious. I am saving your life.”

She felt her face flame. Here she was in her summer pajamas, fat tits half out of the top, all the bulges she usually hid under loose clothes visible. “Go away!” she shouted.

“Shh! You’ll wake your mother.”

Shelly crossed her arms over her chest, hugging herself, and once more couldn’t help crying.

“You can change everything,” Jake said. “Start by changing what you eat, and do some exercise. Tomorrow is Saturday, right? You’ll need a sleep-in, then we can go for a walk.”

“What the hell for? If I got skinny, I’d still be a black girl who got born because some bastard raped my mother. She never even saw his face.”

“You’re not black but brown. I got a friend, now he IS black, like coal.”

“If they could get away with it, half the people in this town would call me a Nigger anyway. In elementary school, the favorite thing thrown at me was ‘Shitface monkey’ because I’m brown. Oh, go away!”

“Look, I’ve got to save your life, or I don’t live either.”

“Huh?”

Jake bowed, grinning. “I am your great-great-great-great grandson from the future.”

Shelly couldn’t speak. Bloody nonsense. “Who’re you kidding?” she finally managed.

“OK, let me explain.”

The door opened, and Mom came in, half asleep, with a dressing gown over her nightgown. “Shelly, what are you doing awake this time of the night? And who are you shouting at?”

To one side of her, Jake said, “She can’t see or hear me. Only you can. This is not me, but a projection of me.”

Well, if he really came from the future, not that he could have, there were no bets on technology.

Shelly saw Mom look at the screen, and lifted a hand to control-tab to something else to hide her letter, but too late. A strong hand grabbed her wrist.

“Oh no. Oh darling, no! I couldn’t live with myself if you died! You’re all I’ve got!”

Then Shelly was standing, and held in a comforting hug, and both of them were bawling their eyes out. Past Mom’s shoulder, she saw that Jake was crying, too.

“Promise me you won’t do any harm to yourself. We’ll get you to see a psychologist.”

“Mom, they cost money. You work hard enough washing ancient bums for a pittance.”

“There is a lot more to my job than washing bums. The oldies call me Sunshine. Anyway, money is a tool. No point having it if we’re dead.”

“No psychologist. They can’t take away my problems, only some nonsense about changing my attitude or something.” She pulled away from Mom and looked her in the eyes. “But OK, I promise not to kill myself.”

Jake said, “Right, see you tomorrow,” and disappeared.

Shelly woke at 11 a.m. Mom was at work, of course. She hoped Jake wouldn’t turn up while she was showering and dressing, but thank heavens, he only appeared when she got to the kitchen. “Hi Shelly,” he said. “Start eating healthy: have the same breakfast as your mom.”

“Who are you to tell me what to do?”

“Temper, temper. Do you want to show up those stupid school bullies?”

“How do you know all this?”

“You could even ask, how can I speak your ancient version of English, and wear clothes from your time and all. Look, please have a healthy breakfast, none of that maple syrup and stuff, and I’ll do my best to explain, OK?”

Shelly shrugged. It was easier to comply than to battle. “Go ahead. Tell me.” She got out a couple of eggs, and heated up the frying pan.

“Every time someone makes a choice, the universe splits in two. If a rat under your house has to choose between turning right and turning left, you get two universes, one for each.”

“Bullshit.” Shelly buttered two slices of bread, and put the jug on. “Hey, you want something to eat, too?”

“You forget. I’m not really here, only a projection. Anyway, most of those universes are very similar, but some choices make huge differences. If you kill yourself now, the universe I live in doesn’t exist. And out of her mind with grief, your mom will go for a drive in one universe, and crash the car and die. In another, she’ll survive the crash, but as a quadriplegic. And in others, she comes home OK, but… you get the idea?”

“You’re trying to put a guilt trip on me.” She made instant coffee, and sat down to eat.

Jake’s white teeth flashed in a grin in contrast to his face, only slightly lighter brown than hers. “The records show you to be highly intelligent. Shame to snuff out all that potential. Of course I’m putting a guilt trip on you. I want to live, don’t I?”

Shelly used a sip of coffee to wash the egg taste from her mouth. “But isn’t coming back to influence the past logically impossible?”

“Bullshit back to you. There are infinitely many futures. It’s making sure one happens.”

“And that’s an infinite cycle. You are born because you came back. But you can’t come back unless you were born.” She rinsed the dishes.

“Leave the theory to the physicists. Look, do you know how your smartphone works? I just trust the experts. I’m here, so my theory is right, yours is wrong. C’mon, walk time.”

***

Sunday morning, Shelly managed to get out of bed before Mom, and prepared breakfast for both of them. Jake sat at the table, silently approving.

Walking in, Mom said, “That’s a surprise! Not your usual?”

“No. I’m gonna get rid of my fat.”

“Wonderful! What brought this on?”

What to say? “I… I met this cute boy called Jake who reckons I’d look beautiful if I lost fifty pounds.”

Jake laughed.

“So, I’m going for a walk before studying for tomorrow’s math test.”

“Darling, you’re beautiful inside with all your passionate care for every living thing. But listen, only Friday night you were desperate. Next time you feel like that, remember, the sun always shines, even when something blocks its light.”

In half an hour, Jake and Shelly were walking along under sunlight that could have benefited from a few clouds to block it. She had a thought. “Hey Jake, so humanity is going to survive?”

“In some futures. Obviously, in the one I come from. But other futures have nothing apart from primitive life for millions of years.”

Shelly shivered, never mind the heat. “Climate change?”

“Yes, that’s devastating and will get worse, but the main idiocy is poisoning the whole planet. You’re killing all the insects and other small creatures, and—”

“ME?”

“Keep your shirt on. The people of your time. If the little animals die out, everything dies out. They are at the base of all the food chains, and pollinate plants, and so on.”

Taking her shirt off was a horrendous thought. Shelly speeded up, to burn off a little more bulge material. “I know that. But maybe you can tell me what people of my time need to do to survive.”

“I don’t know. I could find out, but the krionter only gives me knowledge for the task I set myself.”

“The what?”

“It’s a sort of a machine.”

Then hell intruded again: Gillian whizzed past on her bike, shouting, “If it’s brown, flush it down!”

Tony and Harry rode behind her, screaming with laughter. Tony slowed enough to shout, “Nah, she’s too big a lump, would block it up!”

This of course spoiled Shelly’s mood. She walked silently beside Jake, until she noticed a nasty pain in her thighs. She said, “I’ve got a chafe between my legs. We better go home.” By the time she entered the front door, her thighs were on fire and she could hardly walk.

Monday morning, thighs thoroughly lathered with the cream Mom gave her, she hobbled off the bus. Avoiding eye contact with the usual torturers, she still couldn’t close her ears to little oft-repeated gems like “Wish they built the corridors wider so Ms. Blimp could fit, hahaha!”

First period was the math test. Shelly finished in half the time, then got out a sheet of paper and a soft pencil, and sketched Mr. Barlos. He did have a nice face with gray eyes, a sharp nose, and a firm, square jaw.

He must have noticed her repeatedly looking at him and down, and walked over. He smiled at seeing the drawing. “Give me the test,” he murmured.

At the end of the period, he called Shelly to stay behind. As the last kid left, he said, “I’ve scored your test. 100% as usual. Congrats.”

“Thank you, sir. Math is fun.”

He laughed. “To you and me. To most of humanity, it’s torture. Look, have you heard of the Math Olympiad?”

“Vaguely.”

“The first round is done online here, with me supervising, but if you do well enough, it’s an all-expenses paid trip to MIT in Boston. If you enter, I’ll specially coach you after school.”

“Oh… sir, you really think I have a chance?”

“Probably not to win the first time, but it can be practice for next year.”

Well, extra study fills empty time, right? “Only sir, I do babysitting Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday after school. And won’t your family miss you?”

His eyes glistened, and the corners of his mouth turned down. “No family anymore. I’m divorced. My ex has moved to New York, and I only see my kids on Skype except for twice a year. But OK, we can spend an hour on preparation after school on Thursdays and Fridays.”

Great. Wonderful. Lost in her thoughts, Shelly forgot to steel herself for the usual as she walked out.

Kathy screeched, “Did you sit on his lap? He’ll now be two-dimensional!”

“Hey Shel, how is the baby?” Tony poked toward her stomach.

“That has to be an immaculate conception,” Cade said with a mock adoring look on his face. “I mean, who’d want to?”

Somehow, she got through them and hid in the restroom.

At lunchtime, she visited Mrs. Corter in her home economics classroom. “Ma’am, I’ve decided to lose weight, and want to do it properly. Can you please help me set up a diet?”

“Excellent, Shelly. First, change the language. You’re not losing anything, but reducing weight and gaining health. You know all the nutritional facts. Avoid fad diets, cut out sugar and as much processed foods and takeaways as you can, and just eat less of everything. One trick is to use a smaller plate. It still looks heaps, but the quantity is reduced.”

“Of course it is, by Pi-r-squared.”

The teacher looked puzzled. “A square pie?”

Shelly hid her inner grin. “The mathematical concept of Pi, ma’am, not food wrapped in pastry.”

After the hell of school, it was the usual heaven of caring for Ellie and Tim. With Jake smilingly watching, she entertained them, fed them, bathed them, put them to bed and got out The Lorax. Ellie could recite it word for word.

As she kissed Tim’s little face, he said, “Oh Shelly, loveya.” Ellie gave her a big hug. “See you tomorrow after school,” she said, very proud of being a schoolgirl.

Then Shelly studied for three hours until Mrs. Dorian got home from work and paid her. On the short walk home with Jake, as she was passing the 24-hour supermarket, he challenged her. “You’re not doing your usual, are you?”

“Stop nagging!” But she walked right past — at the tortoise pace imposed by burning thighs and too much weight — without putting money in the vending machine. In fact, before settling for sleep, she extracted all her hidden antidepressants, stripped them of wrapping, and popped them into the compost bin, under a few layers of other muck. Emptying that was her usual job anyway.

On Thursday, Mr. Barlos drove her home after their study session. Mom was just opening the front door, surrounded by cloth bags full of shopping. The teacher looked at her. “Hello Sunshine!”

She turned. “Oh. Alex, right? You visit your mother nearly every day. Didn’t realize you were the teacher coaching Shelly. Come on in.”

Mom produced three cups of coffee and a plate of cookies. Jake said, “No cookies!”

Shelly surprised herself by pushing the plate closer to Mr. Barlos, and keeping her paws off them. Last week, she’d have done her best to grab them all. All three of her companions — two humans and one projection — gave her surprised smiles.

“Ms. Martin, you have one bright daughter,” Mr. Barlos said.

“Please, Lynette.”

“Or Sunshine?”

“Sometimes. But we do have hard times occasionally, too. Shelly, does Mr. Barlos know about the bullying?”

The teacher’s face went hard as he looked at her. “Shelly, you know school rules are that bullying must be reported. Tell me.”

Shelly managed not to cry. “Sir, I went to elementary school with these same kids. They started on me then, and I told my teacher, which made things worse. I got hit, and spat on, and my things stolen and wrecked. If I just suck it up, at least it’s only words. I can survive that.”

“Report to me in detail.”

Friday morning, there was an announcement. “Gillian Treloar, Antonio Florino, Harold McTave, Katherine Harter, Cade McNaughton and Michelle Hirsch, you are required at the Principal’s office.” Off they went. When they returned, Shelly caught a barrage of toxic glances, but surely, they couldn’t do worse than the usual shit?

During breaks, predictably, what she got was the invisibility treatment, which was much better. Then, after everyone else left, she had the joy of learning with Mr. Barlos, working on matrix algebra, which was new to her. Again, he drove her home, and this time had dinner with them.

During the weekend, she immersed herself in math, did her share of the housework, and during their walks, asked Jake about his life.

“Oh, where do I start? There are only about five million people on Earth, so by your measures, everyone is a billionaire, only we don’t have money. You want something, you order it from Gaia. If you compare an abacus with your computer, that’s the step up from your technology to Gaia. She is a person who is everywhere, and organizes everything.”

“How do you spend your time?”

“Lots of ways. One is, I enjoy growing beautiful plants. I use something like you now call genetic engineering to make amazing variations. We don’t eat animals at all, and many kinds have developed speech, and they’re also people. And I play music, and hang out with my friends.”

“Do you go to school?”

“No. That’s what the krionter is for. You put on this helmet and go to sleep, and wake with all the knowledge you specified. Skills are something else. They need practice.”

“Wish you could take me to your time!”

“Sorry, Granny, ain’t gonna happen.”

Monday at school, things were peaceful enough, and Shelly enjoyed her evening job, with Jake watching. Ten past ten, she was walking from one streetlight to the next when Jake shouted, “Look out!”

Something slammed into her back. Then Tony was in front of her, with a baseball bat raised high.

Then nothing.

***

Beep… beep… beep…

There was something on her face, and she lay in an unfamiliar bed. Pain gnawed everywhere, but somehow distant, like looking through a veil.

Someone was holding her left hand. Shelly opened her eyes, to see Mom leaning toward her. A tear hung on the lashes of both of Mom’s eyes. Those eyes were swollen and bloodshot. “Thank the Lord, you’re back,” she whispered.

“Back from what?”

“Do you remember anything?”

“Uh… Jake and I were walking on Sunday, and he told me a little about his life.”

Mom smiled. “I’ll have to meet this Jake. But what about Monday night?”

Shelly tried, but there was nothing.

“John Carlisle was just driving home, and saw this bunch of people putting the boot into someone on the ground. When the headlights shone on them, they ran away. He saved your life, but, oh, you had a depressed skull fracture, and four knife wounds, and three ribs broken, and three other fractures, and internal bruising…” Then Mom was crying. “You had emergency surgery, and stayed in a coma until now.”

“What day is it?”

“Friday afternoon, love.”

“But shouldn’t you be at work? And what about Ellie and Tim?”

“Mr. Cartwright is being very generous. Both Susie Dorian and I are on paid leave, although as casuals we don’t have that in our contracts.”

Shelly heard footsteps, and Mom let her hand go. “Wonderful, she is conscious!” Mr. Barlos said.

Shelly managed to turn her head left a little, and saw Mom and the teacher hug. She approved.

Still holding onto Mr. Barlos, Mom said, “Alex kept me alive. He’s been here almost every moment when not at work.”

“Welcome back, Shelly,” he said, smiling. “The police will want to talk with you. Can you identify your attackers?”

Mom said, “She has no recall after Sunday night.”

A middle-aged lady’s face came into Shelly’s limited range of vision. “Wonderful. Honey, I’ll take your obs and I’ve called the surgeon. She wants to talk with you.”

A Chinese lady arrived within ten minutes. “Good afternoon, everyone. Hello, Shelly, I am Dr. Kwong, and spent three hours Tuesday on fixing your skull. I’m afraid we had to shave your hair off, but that’ll grow back. Now, I need to test for any psychological effects of the brain trauma.”

Actually, that was interesting. It started with stuff like her name, birthday and address, then easy general-knowledge questions, then about recent events.

She correctly answered everything, up until going to bed on Sunday. After that, nothing. She asked, “Doctor, I want to check if my math is affected. Mr. Barlos, can we do some matrix algebra?”

“Good idea,” Dr. Kwong said, and now Mr. Barlos came into Shelly’s view. In a few minutes, they determined that she could still solve the problem they’d worked on a week ago, which was a great relief.

“Unfortunately,” the doctor said, “You won’t be any use as a witness for the police.”

Shelly thought about those six hateful, hating kids. She didn’t want them to go to jail — what good would that do? “I have an idea. Mom, can you organize a visit from Ellie and Tim, and take a video of them seeing me like this? And Mr. Barlos, show the movie at class. Mom, you can talk on it too, telling the world how the attack on me made you feel. Maybe, just maybe, we can get them to realize I’m not merely a lump of lard but a person with feelings like them?”

“Love you!” Jake shouted, making Shelly smile inside.

***

Saturday morning, two nurses washed Shelly. That was terrible for a moment, them seeing her fat belly and fat bum and… She reminded herself, dozens of medical people had seen her during the various operations and procedures, but she still squirmed inside. Then they propped her in a sitting position, which was much better than lying flat. She took stock of herself during this. Both lower legs were in plaster. Her right upper arm was encased in a sort of a frame. One of the nurses explained it was to apply tension so the fully broken arm would set straight. What kind of a person would do that to someone! Bandages covered much of her. A tube carried yellow fluid into her abdomen, another dripped clear into the back of her right hand, and two tubes took the wastes out of her body. She asked for the hand one to be moved somewhere else so she could type and draw, and at least they moved it further up her arm.

As soon as the nurses left, Mom and Mr. Barlos entered. She was carrying Shelly’s laptop computer, phone, drawing pad and pencils. He handed her a CD. “These are study materials from all your teachers. Every one of them is rooting for you to get better.”

“Oh. Thank you, sir. I—”

“In school when you return, I’ll still be ‘sir’ and Mr. Barlos, but in private time, please call me Alex.”

A pink cloud of pleasure filled Shelly, never mind all the background pain, the shock of being assaulted like this, being tied to a bed. It’d be so wonderful to have a father!

“Alex, can we please do some math now?”

“No, darling,” Mum said. Susie and the kids are coming, to do our video.”

“Great, although… I hate to give the littlies distress. But something else. How can we pay for all these medical expenses?”

Alex answered her. “The state has a medical insurance program for victims of crime. It won’t cost you a cent.”

Shelly thought of what Mrs. Corter had said about losing weight. “I am not a victim, but a survivor!”

Jake appeared on Mom’s other side, and cheered.

The door opened, and Mrs. Dorian led Ellie and Tim in. They looked at her, and both started to cry.

Shelly said, “Darlings, I’m still alive.”

“Mom told us not to touch you ‘cause you hurt everywhere,” Tim said with a sniff, “but I wanna kiss you better!”

Mr. Barlos — no, Alex — stepped to the foot of the bed, and Shelly felt the bed moving down. Mrs. Dorian lifted the little boy, whose blue eyes seemed too large for his face, then she felt the butterfly touch of his kiss on her cheek.

“Thank you, I’m better already!”

Ellie said, sparks flying out of her eyes, hands forming fists, face like a little tiger’s, “You’re my best friend in all the world! Why would anybody do this to you?”

While thinking about her answer, Shelly thought their golden hair and pale skin would emphasize the lesson. “I don’t know. I can’t even imagine wanting to hurt somebody else. You know I don’t even kill insects. But suppose you were able to talk to these people who attacked me. What would you say?”

“Shelly is wonderful! My teacher in school told me I’m the best in my class, and that’s because Shelly taught me to read and count and write. And she is the best friend, ever, and if I could find you and had a gun I’d shoot you!”

“No, Ellie darling,” Shelly said. “That’d make you the same as them. I’ve read lots of things a man called Gandhi said. One is, an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. Do you understand that?”

“Uh… not really.”

“They hurt me. That’s a bad thing. If I hurt them back, that’s two bad things. It goes round and round forever: they hurt me and I hurt them so they hurt me so I hurt them, on and on.”

Mrs. Dorian asked, “What would you do, then?”

“I… I’d like to rescue them from their sick way of thinking.” She couldn’t help it, started to cry. “Ellie, ever since I was your age, every day they tortured me. Isn’t it horrible to be like that? To be so full of hate that all you want to do is to hurt someone else? I feel sorry for them, always have.”

Alex said, “Shelly’s mother is a nurse at The Haven nursing home where my mother lives. All the old people call Ms. Martin ‘Sunshine,’ because she makes everyone feel good. She is everyone’s favorite nurse, and all her colleagues enjoy working with her. Since the attack on Shelly, I’ve spent a lot of time in her company, watching over an unconscious girl, and I can see why she is so popular. Now, Ms. Martin, please say what this horrible event has done to you.”

Mom passed her phone to Alex. Shelly actually had forgotten that everything was on video.

“I have no family. Shelly is it. For the past fifteen years, I’ve lived for her, and she’s been worth it. She is the gentlest, kindest, most decent person I know, and the smartest one, too, and I feel honored she chose me to be her mother.” Tears cascaded down her cheeks, but she kept a level tone of voice. “I didn’t know she’s been bullied for years. She never told me, but I saw her sliding into depression. Then she put on weight. We now know it’s because sweet things helped her to fight the pain. The other night, I caught her writing a suicide note to me.”

Mom stopped — had to stop. Mrs. Dorian pulled her close, and it was beautiful to see blonde and black hair mingle, brown cheek against white.

Mom again looked at Alex, well, at the camera. “If you-all simply treated her like another kid, she’d be a great friend to you too, like she is to every person and even animal. You know, before she got terribly depressed, she only had to hold out her hand to a wild bird, and it’d come to her?”

There was a knock on the door, and a young man entered. “Oh, sorry. I’m the physical therapist, here to give Miss Martin her first session.”

Shelly said, “Mom, it’s OK for you to return to work. I’ll study, and draw, and play chess and Sudoku and stuff on my computer.”

She got a kiss from Mom, Mrs. Dorian and the two little kids, then they left.

The physical therapist’s badge stated he was Steve Billings. He moved her covers off from over her, and Shelly wanted to grab them and pull them back. She wanted to hide, not to have a nice guy look at Ms. Blimp. But he seemed not to notice. After a few minutes of instruction, she could swivel in the bed, lower her legs to the floor and pull them back, then he taught her to stand with a frame, and sit again. “That’ll do for the first time. But your plaster has gotten loose. I’ll report it.”

Maybe she was losing… reducing weight?

Her lovely people returned on Sunday, but after about an hour, Shelly nodded off. When she opened her eyes, she enjoyed seeing the vase holding a bunch of roses, and hand-drawn cards from Ellie and Tim, and Jake sitting by her bedside. “Don’t you have anything else to do?” she asked, but with a smile.

“At the moment, getting you well and on top of the world is my most important project.”

“Can you play chess?”

“Give me an hour and I’ll program myself. But don’t you need a set?”

One of us can use my phone, the other the computer.”

Jake disappeared. Shelly worked on her biology homework, then again went to sleep. When she woke, they did play chess, only Jake was unbeatable, at Grandmaster level. “That’s the instruction from the krionter,” he explained. Still, it was fun.

Never mind smashed up body, Shelly was happy.

***

Shelly’s phone tinged Monday morning at 11: an email. It was on her school email address, and the sender was Michelle Hirsch. “Oh bloody leave me alone!” she shouted, then felt stupid, and lucky she had a private room. Were they starting the abuse again? She didn’t want to read the message. Couldn’t they leave her alone even after a murder attempt? “Jake?” she called.

He stood by her bedside, smiling.

“Can you please read this message? If it’s abuse, I don’t want to know what it says.”

“Fair enough.” He leaned over, then said, “Wow! You’ve got to read it.”

Thank heavens for Jake, and how he was always there when she needed him. Reassured, she read the message.

    Hi Shelly,

    I am taking a risk, but would like to visit you to apologize and make friends.

    Michelle

She thought, Well, she never hit me even in elementary school. It’s not like Gillian or Tony wanting to come. So, she replied,

    Michelle, I am delighted. Mr. Barlos will visit me after school to coach me for a math contest. Ask to come with him.

    Shelly

Not only would that be convenient, but also protection, just in case Michelle meant to cause trouble after all. Shelly still slept long periods — maybe that was partly because of the analgesic still dripping into her right arm? In between, she tried to study, but worry over Michelle got in the way.

Again, two nurses washed her, and again, she wished they couldn’t see her body, then they removed her leg plasters and put new ones on.

And just after what was lunchtime to people who were able to eat, a young man in jeans and a short-sleeved shirt came in. And great, his skin was the same color brown as hers.

“Hi Shelly, I’m Dr. Jim Holroyd, a psychologist working for Victims’ Services.”

She’d imagined psychologists as old men with white beards, or wise old ladies with spectacles and wrinkles, not someone she wouldn’t mind for a friend. So, to get a rise out of him, she answered, “Dr. Holroyd, you look too young to have a doctorate.”

He laughed. “Good, healthy living. Now, my information is that you’ve suffered bullying at school for ten of your fifteen years. Tell me about it.”

Once she started, it just kept pouring out. Dr. Holroyd quietly sat there, and Shelly felt safe. She told him all of it — except for Jake. She still didn’t want anyone to think her crazy.

When she came to a stop, he gently asked, “How do you feel now?”

“Like… I stopped carrying a mountain. But… they still hate me for no reason, and if they get put in jail, their lives will still be wrecked, and if they don’t, they’ll still torture me.”

“Part of my task is to work with them, too, and their families. You’re safe now.”

She didn’t think he’d make the slightest difference with Gillian and Tony. The others, maybe.

“Shelly, I’ll come back again Wednesday the same time. Now that you’ve started on the path to inner strength, you’ll get there.”

Shelly again needed a sleep, then, after Dr. Holroyd’s visit, somehow she had more energy, and worked on her history essay.

Later on, to Shelly’s surprise, Mom returned. She was with a lady in police uniform, who gave her a friendly smile. “Shelly, I am Detective Christine Jardin. I know you have post-concussion amnesia, but I need a statement from you regarding the bullying at school, because that little gang are our chief suspects.”

“Oh, ma’am, I wish I could get out of that!”

She looked surprised. “You can report it. We’ll keep you safe.”

“No, ma’am, it’s not myself I am worried about.” How to put it? “Um… if they go to jail, they’ll only come out worse criminals. Can something be done by the court to lead them out of hate instead?”

“My dear, the law does what it does. I am a servant of the law, and we’re all required to obey it. Never mind the outcome, your duty is to answer my questions honestly, to the best of your ability. Now, Ms. Martin, I need your explicit permission to record this interview.”

***

Alex and Michelle walked in the door. He was smiling. Shrunk in on herself, she seemed even shorter than her actual little-girl height. She was looking down, and as usual, her brown hair masked much of her face.

Shelly thought, She looks terrified, so said, “Michelle, I am so pleased you’re here. Thank you.”

“Uh… you don’t know, but I’m a coward. Always have been. And right back to being little kids, the safest thing was always to do what Gillian told me to do. You know we live next door to each other. She used to beat me up even before we started school, and if I told on her, it was worse. So, all these years, I had to join in their games against you. Sorry!”

Alex said, “I was watching those six. Michelle was crying when I played the video.”

Michelle shook her head. “Yeah, but later, during the break, Gillian said, excuse me sir, ‘So what, shitface monkey mother crying over shitface monkey daughter,’ and I had to pretend to laugh with them.”

“Michelle, listen,” Alex said. “Now you have a high probability of going to jail. One way out may be to tell all you know to the police.”

She shivered. “Oh, sir, they’ll kill me!”

“They’ll be locked up, and chances are good the judge will let you off with a rap on the knuckles.”

“Mr. Barlos, Shelly, you got no idea. Gil’s father… if I stand up in court and send them to jail, he’ll stop at nothing. Look, his house is full of guns. He has them as decorations on the walls of his living room. All legal, but scary as hell. And Shelly, that’s where the bullying comes from. I’ve often heard him say, excuse me, sir, shitface monkeys should be got rid of, shouldn’t have the right to live near people.”

“So, to him I’m not even human?”

“That’s it.”

Shelly felt the tears come. “What a bastard! Oh, excuse me, Mr. Barlos. But you know what, I feel sorry for Gillian. She is the horrible way she is because that’s normal to her, from home. It’s, I don’t know, a rotten father spreading his rot into his child.”

***

Tuesday morning, Steve the physical therapist turned up. He helped her to stand, then to sit in a wheelchair. He pushed a pole on wheels with her various liquid bags on it, while an orderly pushed the chair. Steve supervised her standing, then transferring to a sort of a wide massage table. All this while, Shelly shut her mind off to them seeing all her bulges, but what could she do?

A lady with gray hair took ultrasound over much of her body, and Shelly was fascinated by the pictures on the screen. It was like monsters emerging from a swirling ocean.

Soon after she returned to her ward, her phone rang. It was Mom, sounding terribly upset. “Darling, remember that psychologist you told me about yesterday evening?”

“Dr. Jim Holroyd? I really like him.”

“Somebody called Craig Treloar has murdered him!”

Oh no. That nice young man! “That’s Gillian’s father.”

“Detective Jardin was talking with me at work. She needed me to sign the transcript of your interview. Her phone rang, and I heard her side of the conversation before she rushed off. That’s how I know.”

After the call, Shelly collapsed inside. A young man, with his life ahead of him, perhaps with a young family… a person who may have gone through all sorts of hardship to study so he could help people… snuffed out by an ignorant, toxic monster. For a moment, she felt like Ellie: if Mr. Treloar were in front of her, and she had a gun, she’d shoot him. Except, she knew she wouldn’t. Stupid, misguided, destructive, she thought, he may be a cockroach, but I can’t even kill real cockroaches.

She hadn’t prayed for years, thanks to the bullying — God had permitted it, hadn’t He? But now, she tried to pray for Mr. Treloar and the five kids. Michelle, she thought, needed support, but not prayer.

Only, no words came to her mind. Aloud she said, “If I could, I’d forgive you-all. I can’t, I just can’t, but I do wish that you’d climb out of your horrid pit and become humans. You look down on me and Mom and Dr. Holroyd as subhumans because of skin color, but you are the ones who have thrown away God’s grace.”

She fully expected Jake to appear, and here he was. “Well done,” he said. Then they sat in companionable silence until a nurse came in to replace Shelly’s near-empty food and analgesic bags.

Then he asked, “Do you think you can draw me?”

“Yeah, drawn and quartered for pestering your great-great-great-great grandmother!”

In half an hour, she had an excellent likeness of his face, lighter than hers but still brown, and wavy dark hair, and a half-smile on his lips. She wrote “Jake” under it in an elaborate script.

He took a small object from his pocket and pointed it at the drawing. “Thanks, I’ll treasure this.” Then he was gone.

Shelly was able to do some work on integral calculus, and soon got lost in the tricky problems Alex had set for her.

He arrived soon after 3 p.m., and inspected her work. They were still at it when Mom came, wearing her uniform. Shelly glowed inside seeing the way they glowed at each other. She decided, the many hours they’d spent together in her hospital room was the silver lining on her cloud.

To spoil their mood, Mom carried a copy of the local newspaper. The headline was “Murder!” above Dr. Holroyd’s photo. The report stated that Mrs. Hirsch (Michelle’s mom), saw him drive up and enter the Treloar house. She heard Mr. Treloar shouting obscenities, then multiple gunshots, so she called the police. When they came, Mr. Treloar shot at them through a window, wounding two officers, but police managed entry, and he suffered multiple gunshot wounds. He was in the hospital under guard.

The paper reported that Dr. Holroyd had two children, aged four, and eighteen months.

Shelly couldn’t help crying, and Mom joined her. Alex hugged Mom and stroked Shelly’s hand.

Shelly said, “Alex, Mom, I wonder if it’d be possible for me to get into a wheelchair and visit him. After being shot and arrested, he may be open to seeing the world differently?”

“Not a chance,” Alex answered. “He is in effect in jail. There’ll be armed officers guarding him, keeping out everyone but authorized medical personnel.”

“Mom, do you have Detective Jardin’s phone number?”

Mom nodded.

“Please ask. At the worst, the answer is no.”

Mom explained the situation on the phone, listened, then thanked the detective. “The Captain himself happens to be here, and Detective Jardin said he is coming to speak to us!”

There was a knock on the door within two minutes, and a very fit-looking middle-aged man in a conservative suit entered. “Good afternoon, I am Captain Gray.” The name suited him: he had wiry gray hair, and gray eyes. Those eyes looked at Shelly. “Young lady, I’ve heard remarkable things about you, and also I’ve got some good news. We’ve searched the homes of all six of the school bullies. Antonio Florino’s baseball bat has traces of blood despite having been washed. We are sending a sample for DNA analysis, and I’d like to take the opportunity now to request a sample from you. He is singing like a canary. Of course, it’s not his fault. Each of the six blames the others.”

“Sir, I’m convinced Michelle Hirsch didn’t take part in actually hurting me, although she was there because she was scared, of Gillian Treloar in particular.”

“You have no recall of the event. What makes you say so?”

Alex offered, “Sir, Michelle came with me from school yesterday to apologize to Shelly, and I agree with Shelly’s assessment. Oh, I’m their math and science teacher, Alex Barlos.”

“Well, she is still accessory to attempted murder. But Shelly, why do you want to talk to this criminal?”

Shelly looked this good man in the eyes. “Sir, he suffers from a very common illness, that of hate. I thought, if he is forced to talk with me long enough to see me as a person, not an animal because my skin is brown, he may be able to see things differently. And if he changes, Gillian will, too, and the others follow her. She and Tony are the leaders, but even he does what she says.”

“Well, girl, it probably won’t work, but can’t do any harm. During the arrest, he was shot in both arms and one knee, so he is in no position to do worse than swear at you.”

Mom pushed the bell. While waiting, Shelly thought about putting her body on public view. “Er, Captain, Mr. Barlos, when I am transferring, can you please wait outside? And I’d like myself covered with a sheet or blanket or something while in the chair.”

When two nurses helped Shelly to transfer to the wheelchair, Mom said, “Hey, you’ve lost heaps of weight!”

“Reduced, Mom.” It was to be expected, with no food, just some yellow muck dripping into her intestine.

Alex pushed the chair, Mom the pole with the liquid bags on it, Jake walking beside Shelly’s other side. Soon, they were outside a door with two armed policemen guarding it.

Shelly swallowed. It no longer seemed such a good idea. If she could, she’d have run away.

“You can do it,” Jake said as one of the guards opened the door.

Mr. Treloar did look like Gillian, or rather, obviously it was the other way. He sat in an armchair, plastered left leg up on a footstool. Both bandaged arms were in slings. A third policeman sat on a chair near the door.

When they entered, he didn’t look anything out of the ordinary, just a man with short-cropped blond hair, but then he saw Shelly and Mom. His face transformed into something horrible. “Fuck’n shitface monkeys!” he roared. “Get outa here!”

Captain Gray said, “Treloar, shut your mouth and listen to me. You’re in here for murder. You—”

“Nah! Pest extermination!”

“Mr. Treloar,” Shelly said, hating the tremble in her voice, “what makes you think I am not human, just like you are?”

“Uppity little bitch, aren’t you?”

“Sir, I study biology. A sixteenth of an inch under the skin, we’re all the same.”

“Get outa here and stop stinking up the room!”

Mr. Barlos said, “All right, Mr. Treloar, do you consider yourself to be superior to colored people?”

“They are not people. But yeah.”

“This girl is fifteen years old. I challenge you to outdo her in any mental activity. She runs rings around students two years ahead of her in every school subject. I am helping her to prepare for a very high level math competition, in which she could win a lot of money.”

“So?”

“So who is superior, who inferior?”

The man tried to stand, but his movement pushed the footstool away, and he landed on his bum on the floor, the leg still up. His roar of rage filled the room.

Captain Gray and the policeman grabbed him under the arms and hoisted him back onto the chair, even as the door opened, and the two guards rushed in, guns in hand.

Shelly managed to start breathing again. “Sir, I am not superior to anyone, and you are not inferior to anyone. But also, the same the other way. You are not superior to anyone, and I am not inferior to anyone. I happen to have been blessed by God with good intelligence, and so what. But—”

“Oh, shut up!”

Shelly found her hands forming fists, and she could feel her pulse in her temples. She took a deep breath. “Why? Are you afraid to hear me out?”

“Afraid? AFRAID? I’m not afraid of anything.”

“No? Only of people who are different from you in a trivial way. Look, sir. Suppose I am an animal. A bird just flew past the window. That’s an animal. Do you want to exterminate birds?”

“They don’t pretend to be people.”

“Why is it a problem that I pretend to be a person?”

“Because you don’t know your place, daring to argue with me!”

“Why is it my place to not argue with you?”

“Huh?” The man glared at her, but could come up with no answer.

“You see, sir, this is your fear, that the position of privilege you imagine yourself to be in is being challenged. In what way are you worse off if I am as good as you are?”

Captain Gray said, “Shelly, he is a lost cause. Not enough brains to follow a logical argument.”

She shook her head. “Captain, I don’t think Mr. Treloar is stupid. You can be intelligent and prejudiced. And I think he is following my reasoning all right. Mr. Treloar, Mr. Barlos has white skin. He is a teacher, with knowledge and authority you don’t have. All the same, he is no threat to your position in life. You’re a mechanic. You have knowledge and authority he doesn’t, but you’re no threat to him. Would it be any different if his skin was brown or black or purple?”

“Look, why are you here, pestering me? Is this your idea of revenge?”

“Mr. Treloar, hate is an illness. I want to help you to get cured. That poor young man you killed just because his skin was brown had a lot of training, a lot of wisdom. He wanted to help you to improve your life. Instead, now you’ll spend, I don’t know, maybe twenty years in jail. And because you’ve spewed your hate during all of Gillian’s life, she is going to jail, too. Is that what you wanted for your daughter?”

A silence filled the room. Mr. Treloar looked at Shelly, and a tear rolled down his face.

“Sir, I don’t hate Gillian. I don’t hate you. So my revenge is that I’ll pray for you both, and the others, too. Now, I’ll leave you, and I hope you think about things.” As Alex turned her wheelchair, she couldn’t help the thought, It does feel good to take you down a peg or three, you bastard!

***

The weeks passed. Mom changed her shifts so she could look after Ellie and Tim while Mrs. Dorian worked at the nursing home. As Shelly’s stomach healed from the knife wound, she gradually started eating, and the various tubes were removed. Now, the major challenge was to regain her strength.

Eventually, she could go home, and return to school, where kids vied to be friends with her.

Looking in the mirror, having other people see her body, were no longer painful, and as she said to Jake, she was determined to stay slim for the rest of her life.

“Yeah, slim and beautiful. If you weren’t my granny and I wasn’t a projection, I’d ask you for a date.”

“So, Jake, will you keep visiting me, now my life has improved?”

“That’s up to you. Remember when you said, a visit from the future is bullshit?”

“Yeah.”

“You were right. It is bullshit. I don’t exist. You invented me as the way out of your deep hole. You always had it in you to get rid of your fat, and to be brilliant in math, and take the world by storm.”

Now what the crap! “You mean, I’ve gone schizophrenic, hallucinating?”

Jake laughed. “Haven’t you had enough of labels? It worked, didn’t it?”


Rhobin Courtright’s assignment for her round robin was for us to post a story or book extract. This is my contribution.

Please comment, then read the stories by my friends:

Rhobin L Courtright
Skye Taylor
Victoria Chatham
A.J. Maguire
Anne Stenhouse
Beverley Bateman
Connie Vines
Diane Bator
Fiona McGier
Marci Baun

About Dr Bob Rich

I am a professional grandfather. My main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which my grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. This means reversing environmental idiocy that's now threatening us with extinction, and replacing culture of greed and conflict with one of compassion and cooperation.
This entry was posted in Rhobin's round robin, stories. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Labels

  1. Deeply thought provoking, Bob. thank you. anne

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Margaret Goodman says:

    Bob, I enjoyed your story! One nitpick:
    in the part about the video taking, you
    wrote,”Mom passed the mike to Alex.”

    I believe that it should be, “Alex passed the
    mike to Mom.”

    Like

    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      No. First were the two kids, then Alex made a speech. Lynette videoed all that, then it was her turn, so she passed the phone over.
      I know because I was in the room. 🙂

      Like

  3. okwriter says:

    Well- written, intuitive and, unfortunately, a picture of a slice of our society. It points out differences really are only skin deep. Forgiveness and understanding could go far in our society if more people could understand how self destructive hate can be.
    Beverley

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Marci says:

    Although I know there are people out there like this, it’s hard to believe it. During WWI, I think it was during the first Christmas Eve, the generals of the armies called an armistice and allowed their soldiers to interact with the enemy. The soldiers ate dinner together, played games, and told stories about home. The next day, they had to go back to killing each other. This never happened again, which makes sense. You have to dehumanize another person in order to be able to kill them like that.

    A good story.

    Marci

    Like

    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Thank you. When I was in the army, a significant amount of “training” was just that: to look at the enemy as pests to be exterminated. That was one of the reasons I got out of that culture.

      Like

  5. Skye-writer says:

    A lot of good lessons to be learned here.

    Like

  6. Rhobin says:

    Awesome story…I cried. You touch on so many world problems in this short story, but bullying and hate seem to be out of hand, especially between people with differences (and yet we are all different). And your solution is a path toward healing– love rather than hate, one preached throughout the past but needing constant reiteration. Inspirational. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. acflory says:

    Not sure I’d have the strength of character to forgive such hatred, but it was a wonderful story. Thank you. 🙂

    Like

    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Thank you, Meeks.
      I am only the scribe, and write what my characters tell me to. But actually, the original version was even more so. A couple of beta readers told me to make Shelly less perfect, and so I suggested that she allow me to incorporate a few negative comments about Gillian’s father. 🙂

      Like

Comments are closed.