Hair twined between fingers. Dirt bloodied into paste. Coiled muscle, panting breath, and a broken smile.
“What are you?” I’d shouted down at him.
I hit him again — hard enough for the bones in my hand to rattle against each other. I don’t know why it made me so angry that he was still smiling.
“I want to hear you say it! What are you?”
“Too much. I don’t want it I don’t want I don’t —”
Again — the pain in my hand was triumph. The kid would have been flat on the ground if I wasn’t still holding him up by his hair.
“Just say it. That’s all you got to do. Admit what you are.”
I dropped Chase to crumple in a heap. The boy was laughing, blood spraying from his mouth as he did. Exhausted, I sat down next to him. He rolled back and forth, body rigidly locked in the fetal position. He was taking great gasps of air and choking on his own blood, laughing all the while.
“God damn it. You’re literally insane,” I panted.
Chase choked again. The coughing didn’t stop this time. I helped him onto his knees and slapped his back to help clear the airway. He rewarded me with a giant bloody smile.
“I would have stopped if you just said it,” I said, my voice calmer. “Why are you so stubborn?”
“You want me to say I’m autism,” he slurred. He was hard enough to understand without a mouthful of blood.
“Autistic,” I corrected. “I want you to tell the truth and stop pretending you’re normal.”
“I never pretended. I never normal — pretended normal.” His breath was coming easier now. I couldn’t look away from the long line of vicious blood which hung from his lip without quite falling. “Not many people are happy. I’m special like that.”
We both laughed, although I don’t think we were laughing at the same thing.
For the first few weeks I knew Chase, I hated his guts. All the special attention he got — everyone doing stuff for him and congratulating him for accomplishing absolutely nothing — for that big dopey grin he didn’t deserve — I thought it was all just a big act. I hated that he wore clothes like a normal person and sat in class without doing any of the work. I thought I could beat the truth out of him, and I guess I did. The truth was that he really was happy — maybe the only truly happy person I’d never known.
“I know I’m autism,” he told me later in his customary lurching speech. “I know what it means — I’m autism. I don’t play around — play pretend.”
“Then why don’t you ever say it?”
“I do. I just say it last. If I say it first, people don’t listen to the rest. They think they already know me.”
I stayed quiet while we walked home. He was rolling his sleeves up and down his right forearm. Up and down. Then both down. Then both up. He never stuck with one tick very long. The next moment he was on his tiptoes, tottering along behind me. Then he was loudly humming some made-up tune, or flapping his arms like a bird, or spitting straight in the air and shrieking with laughter as he tried to dodge the falling drop. Whatever he was doing seemed to absorb him completely — so much that when I spoke again he jumped in surprise to find me still there.
“You’re too busy busy,” he said, even though he was the one doing everything while I just walked. “That’s why it’s — why you’re not happy.”
“I’m not even doing anything,” I said.
“Too many things,” he insisted, almost shouting it. I looked around to make sure no one else was around. “Not nothing. You’re looking at ten things. Thinking about twenty. Thirty forty fifty — not real things. Old things. New things. Could-be-things and shouldn’t-be-things.”
“So what? You’re the one always spazzing out.”
His whole face furrowed in confusion. Then he smiled.
“I just do one thing with my whole heart.”
I was getting frustrated. “That’s not true. In the five minutes we’ve been walking you’ve done like a hundred different things.”
He shook his head, his grin widening. “Just one thing. All my heart — just one thing. Then when I’m finished, I do another.”
“And that really makes you happy? It doesn’t bother you that you’re different?”
He didn’t answer though. He’d stopped to pet a bushy plant as if it were a dog.
“I’m not waiting for you,” I said. “I’m going home.”
“The plants can’t walk.”
“I’m not talking about the plants —”
“Or drive cars. Or make friends,” he rambled. Despite myself, I stopped and waited to hear where this was going. “They’re different too. And some have flowers and some have spikes and some have flowers —”
“You already said flowers,” I interrupted.
“Because some have lots,” Chase declared, unperturbed. “It would be stupid if they didn’t grow though — just because they were different. Everything grows — is different. Everything dies. Everything dies.” He grasped the bushy plant he’d been petting with both hands and ripped it violently by the roots. A moment later and everything was in the air — stems and leaves and clods of soil all raining around us while he laughed and danced through it.
“You’re retarded,” I said.
Chase grinned. “So are you, but it’s okay. We’re still growing.”
He wasn’t so talkative the next day in school. He had a fresh bruise under one eye. I know that shouldn’t have made me so angry after what I’d done to him, but it did. I asked what happened, but he didn’t feel like talking.
“Tell me who did it,” I demanded. “I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
He shook his head, not looking at me. I tried to grab him by the shoulder and turn him my way to get a better look, but he yelped and darted into the corner of the room. He pulled out a notebook from his bag and began writing furiously, not looking up as I crept closer. If someone was hurting him, then I wanted to know. I liked the idea of getting into a fight with someone — like it was my penance for what I’ve already done.
I snuck a peak at what he was writing. Chase was halfway through the notebook, and I figured it was some kind of journal or something. I got too close again though, and Chase started shrieking. The teacher assumed I was picking on him and gave me detention on the spot. It was so stupid — when I was ACTUALLY trying to hurt him we just became friends, but now that I was trying to help I got in trouble. I shouted at Chase, telling him to explain that I was on his side. Chase didn’t look up though. The only result was the teacher grabbing me by the arm to march me all the way to the principal’s office.
“Boys will be boys —” I heard the principal say through the door. I waited outside on a hard plastic chair for him to finish his meeting.
“Chase is being tormented! You don’t understand how hard it is to take care of a —” came a man’s voice. I stopped kicking the wall to listen.
“Perhaps a public school is not the safest environment for —”
“It’s your job to make it safe. If anything happens to him —”
“Mr. Hackent, please. The teachers will always do their best, but they can’t be everywhere at once. What happens before or after school —”
I opened the door. Sudden silence. The principal in his sweater vest and the man I can only assume to be Chase’s father in a suit, both staring at me.
“I can keep an eye on him to and from school,” I said.
The principal looked uncomfortable. He was well aware of my history of fighting. I guess he thought it was more important to placate the angry man sitting across from him though, so he nodded after a moment.
“That’s settled then,” he said. “The teachers will keep Chase safe during school, and now he’ll be safe on the way too.”
Mr. Hackent growled at me, his eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“What about at home?” I asked, staring straight back.
“What happens at home is none of your business,” he replied, standing up rigidly. “If anything happens now, at least I’ll know who to blame.”
The bruises didn’t go away though. There was a fresh one at least once a week. Chase didn’t want to talk about it, but at least he was talking about other stuff again — everything except what he wrote in his journal.
“One thing — your whole heart — one thing at a time,” he said. “If you let that one thing be something bad, then that bad thing is all there is.”
“Just ignoring something doesn’t make it go away. If someone is still hurting you —”
I stopped because he wasn’t listening anyway. He was just playing with his ears, not looking at me. Folding them back and forth. Back and forth.
“I don’t ignore it,” he said after a long moment.
“I just don’t take it with me,” he insisted. “I write it down, then I leave it behind. Fists only hurt once. It’s not too bad, and then it’s over. Thinking about it hurts more — hurts longer. Most things are like that — it’s the thinking about the thing that hurts more than the thing. So just stop thinking about it.”
“Are you happy now?” I asked him.
“Always happy,” he said, although he didn’t smile that time. “I just got to focus on growing.”
He didn’t look at me very often, but he did this time. Right in my eyes, still staring while he hid his journal behind an electrical box. He put a finger to his lips, hissing a loud SHHHH before turning to walk away. He could have hidden it anywhere, but he was doing it right in front of me because he trusted me. I entertained the thought of just taking it to try and find out the truth, but now it seemed more important to prove I was his friend.
I hate how much sense he made at the time. I hate how easily I let it go.
I started seeing Mr. Hackent at the school more frequently. There’d always be shouting as soon as the principal’s door closed, and I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Pretty soon kids started talking, and someone must have spoken up about seeing me beat up Chase that one time. After that I was forbidden to walk with Chase, or even talk to him in the hallway.
The bruises didn’t stop though. They weren’t happening at school, and they weren’t happening on the way there either. I kept getting called into the principal’s office. I tried to explain that it must be happening at home, but no one believed me. I started getting really angry at Chase. I wanted him to tell people the truth, but he couldn’t handle the pressure. Detentions turned into suspension, with threats of permanent expulsion if Chase didn’t stop getting abused.
It wasn’t my fight. That’s what I told myself. The little idiot was going to be happy no matter what happened, and the only thing I was doing by getting involved was making things worse for myself.
I let it go. I stayed the hell away from him — didn’t speak to him — didn’t even look at him. Even when he tried to talk to me, I just walked away. I thought no one could blame me if they saw that I wanted nothing to do with him.
It didn’t stop me from blaming myself though. The lights and sirens were on my block a few days after I cut contact. I was taken down to the police station for questioning. There was so much going on that I couldn’t even process it. I just remember rolling my sleeves up and down. Up and down. Trying not to think. Up and down, with all my heart. Because the moment I stopped, I know I’d hear everyone talking about the autistic boy — that’s what they called him on the news, not even using his name — the autistic boy who took his own life with a razor blade. I’d hear about the incessant bullying which drove him to it, and hear his father blathering about doing all he could.
But I know Chase would never do that. He was happy. He was growing. And nothing could have stopped that except someone pulling him up by the roots.
The first thing I did was retrieve Chase’s journal. There were a hundred things I could have done with it to prove what really happened, but I only picked one. One thing at a time. One thing with all your heart, and for me, that was revenge. Mr. Hackent is a dead man.
It took a few days snooping around his house to find a reliable way in: the broken grate which let me slip into his basement from the outside. I’d wait until I saw him leave for work in the morning, then I’d sneak upstairs to his bedroom. Over the next week, he’d find quotes from Chase’s journal cut out and left around his house.
He doesn’t like hurting me. He just can’t help it. – on his bedside table.
Dad wishes I was was normal. I wish he wasn’t. – taped onto his bathroom mirror.
He wants me to go, but I have nowhere else to go. – on his leftover eggs in the refrigerator, ketchup soaking through the paper like blood.
It was working too. Every day he left for work, he looked a little more tired. A little more on edge. On Thursday he skipped work entirely, and when he left Friday morning it looked like he’d been wearing the same clothes since Wednesday. When he got home that night, this is what he found.
Are you happy now?
It wasn’t a note though. It was spray paint this time. On every wall. Every counter. On the ceiling and across his bedsheets.
Are you happy now?
I heard him shouting it when he found out. Screaming at the top of his lungs, the sound distorting as he ran from room to room, seeing it everywhere.
Are you happy now?
Neighbors reported a gunshot that same night. Rumor had it that he spent several hours ranting about ghosts to his family before it happened. The police concluded that he’d been driven to madness over the death of his son, which I guess isn’t too far from the truth.
One thing at a time. And now that I’ve finished what I set out to do, I’ve got to keep myself busy. Really busy – incessantly jumping from one project to the next. I need to always be living, always growing. Because I know when it gets too quiet I’ll have to stop and think, and I’m afraid of the moments when I have to ask myself:
Am I happy now? [tc-mark