From deep within, a fire is unleashed, when a fellow classmate unwittingly crosses a sacred line…
by: R.C. Neighbors
You told me to write this letter as part of my punishment, so I’m gonna, even though I don’t like it. I reckon you intend it to show me the error of my ways. Mama said, “Sylvia, you need to show contrition in that letter. Let Mr. Roberts know what you done was wrong.” She told me, “It’s what Jesus would want.” Well, I don’t put much stock in that. Sure, Jesus said to turn the other cheek, but he also drove the moneychangers from the temple with a bullwhip. Maybe he meant for you to turn that cheek, so he could give it a good lashing. Well, Mike Reynolds is worse than any moneychanger, and I woulda used a bullwhip if I’d had one. So, I’m gonna tell my side of the story, as you wouldn’t let me get a word in when we was in your office the other day. Then we’ll see how contrite I’m feeling.
As you recall, it happened last Thursday. I remember it like the back of my hand, the one with this scar I got from falling out of the barn loft and onto an old nail that one time. Anyway, I got to the bus stop early as always. I was dressed up nice wearing a light-green dress that my sister Missy had tightened around the middle with a sash. The dress had leaves on it, but not real leaves of course. I hadn’t been rolling around in the grass or nothing like that. It had pictures of leaves on it — fall leaves of all different colors. Mama suggested it because the leaves had started to turn, all shades of brown and orange and deep red. She likes for me to dress nice because she says it shows respect. And I got nothing but respect for you and the middle school of Okay, Oklahoma, in these United States of America, that’s certain.
No matter how much respect I have for school and learning, I always dread it because of Mike Reynolds. Every day on the bus he pesters me, like a hornet buzzing ’round my ear or the old coon that stole my stash of sweets once from under the shed. Mike Reynolds sits behind me and pesters, and it doesn’t matter where I sit neither. If I sit in the back, the middle, the left or the right, he always pesters. I even sat behind the bus driver Mr. Jacobs once. He’s the one with all those teeth missing, and the teeth he does have look like a wood chipper chewed them up. I suggested once, when I was younger, about eight or so, that I could get him a toothbrush as a present, but Mama said that would be rude and then began to whisper to Daddy. Toothbrush or not, Mr. Jacobs didn’t do a durned thing to help me last Thursday, and Mike Reynolds kept pestering.
My friend Missy says he does it because he likes me. I told her that being a nuisance and calling me names that would make a sailor blush didn’t make the feeling mutual.
So last Thursday I got on the bus when it arrived, as much as I dreaded it and Missy and I took our seats. She sat in the back with the older girls and left me alone in the middle. Sure enough, as soon as my fanny touched the cushion, Mike Reynolds sat behind me and started flipping my pigtails. I told him to stop as cordially as I could manage, but that only egged him on. Then he started flicking my ear until it was red and throbbing. I told him sternly to quit, so he started in with the names, “zit face” and “Pinocchio” and “fat ass.” I told him that, sure, I had pimples but what thirteen-year-old didn’t, and that I thought my nose and ass were perfectly normal-sized, thank you very much. Maybe he was thinking of his mama I told him.
He didn’t take too kindly to that, so he began flipping, flicking, and name-calling all at the same time. I didn’t know what I was gonna do. I felt I had a bomb inside me about to go off, one that would turn me into a giant mushroom and force the other kids to hide under their cushions or maybe outside in the ditch from all the heat and light.
But I just sat stewing until that jerk Mike Reynolds mentioned my daddy. I’m not even sure what he said any more, but my hands grabbed the collar of his t-shirt and he was on the aisle floor before he could finish. I stood over him, my fists balled up, not caring which cheek he turned to me next.
Before I could do anything else, the bus jerked to a stop, and I had to grab the seat with both hands to keep from falling headlong onto Mike Reynolds.
“Out of here, the both of you,” Mr. Jacobs said. I stared at him, not believing what I heard. At that moment, Mr. Jacobs looked like Mike Reynolds might have been talking about him earlier, with the zits and nose and ass. He opened the door and yelled, “I ain’t gonna say it again. The two of you can’t fight on the bus. School rules.”
I glanced down at Mike Reynolds who hadn’t budged from the floor. “So,” I said. “You’re gonna make me walk? With him?”
“Nah, take it outside,” Mr. Jacobs said. “We can wait.”
A hundred hushed conversations sprang up at once. I looked back at Missy, who watched me with concern, before I marched down the aisle and out of the bus. I heard a faint cheer as I spread apart a barbed-wire fence and stepped through into a field of waist-high grass, which had turned yellow with the change of season. All of the kids crowded against the windows to stare at me, but Mike Reynolds didn’t come out.
Eventually I heard jeers coming from inside the bus, “wimp,” “scaredy-cat,” and the like. I stretched out my legs and my arms like I’ve seen Missy do before her track meets. Mike Reynolds finally strode down the bus steps and there was another cheer. He had a big smile on his face and made a show of dancing around, shadowboxing. I waited in the field, hands on my hips, mulling over all the times he had hurt me and called me names. After he finished showboating, he stepped through the fence and stood an arm’s length away.
“Get on with it. I’ve gotta get these kids to class,” Mr. Jacobs yelled from the bus. Another cheer erupted.
His back to the bus, Mike Reynolds stared at me with a blank expression. “I don’t want to hit a girl,” he said. “You really want to go through with this?”
Then, I punched him, right in the nose. So, yeah, I hit him first, like he whined in your office. I made sure to turn my hips and follow through, too, just as my daddy taught me. “If any guy gives you grief,” he said. “Don’t take it easy on him and don’t let up until he’ll leave you alone.”
The kids on the bus cheered and kept on cheering. When Mike Reynolds turned back to me, his nose was bleeding. “That really hurt,” he said, and I punched him again, this time in the stomach, then another to the face. He dropped to his knees. “What’s wrong with you?” he said.
I drove one of my knees into his face, and he fell onto his back in the grass. I wasn’t even thinking at that point. I dropped on top of him, pinning his shoulders down with the weight of my body, and pummeled his face. Again and again. Left, right. Left, right.
What happened next is kind of blurry. The cheering had stopped, and Missy pulled me off of Mike Reynolds after I don’t know how long. She said I was crying and muttering to myself. I just remember her holding me to her chest as we knelt together in the grass. The top of my dress had wet spots on it afterward, and the hem was covered in mud, so I have no reason to doubt her. Mr. Jacobs drove the rest of the kids — including Mike Reynolds, I guess —to school, and then he came back for us. I went to your office first thing, so you were there for the rest.
As for the reason I reckon you wanted me to write this — do I think turning Mike Reynolds’s face all manner of purple was wrong? Maybe, maybe not. My momma certainly gave me the switch over it when I got home, but I think I know what my daddy would say, if he was still with us.
R.C. Neighbors is an Oklahoma expatriate who received a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from Texas A&M University and an M.F.A from Hollins University. He currently serve as a Lecturer at the Texas A&M Higher Education Center in McAllen, TX. His work has appeared in Tampa Review, Barely South Review, Found Poetry Review, Southern Poetry Anthology: Texas, and elsewhere.