Saved by the bell, thought most of the students at High Park Elementary School at 3:15pm every day. Not Robbie though. Never Robbie. He had five minutes to spare before the two goons would jump him for not paying his daily “Air Tax”. It wasn’t his fault that his mother failed to give him money today. She had packed him a lunch for the first time since fourth grade. Maybe she was suspicious of why he came home ravenous every day, ready to eat a horse.
Robbie adjusted his thin rectangular frames and kept his head down as he slinked outside Classroom 5A and threaded through the crowds, hoping to avoid the bullies. He counted the alternating black and blue tiles on the ground until he could make out the base of the water fountain. A familiar face came into view, but it did not belong to James Cunningham nor Wilson Wong. Instead, tired and ancient-looking eyes gazed down at the 40-inch-tall boy. A grey uniformed but disheveled man approaching retirement held an equally filthy mop with one hand and picked at a piece of gum from the fountain with the other. Relieved that it was just the old janitor, Mr. Hannigan, Robbie tilted his head up and leaned into the fountain for a drink.
“Careful, son. This facility is full of baboons who mistake water fountains for trash cans. All this gum everywhere. I don’t get paid enough for this.” Somewhere nearby, a glass broke, followed by momentary silence and then uproarious laughter. The janitor sputtered under his breath and dispatched himself toward the sound.
Robbie wiped his mouth with a sleeve and peered closely at the man whose back was turned. Ever since he transferred to High Park two years ago from Chicago, he noticed that Mr. Hannigan always carried around something blue in his shirt pocket. Sometimes it was a handkerchief, but not always. There have been blue rags, blue napkins, and even blue socks! He must really like the colour blue. Robbie even saw a teacher gifting Mr. Hannigan a blue wristband before. He couldn’t see it now, but Robbie was sure it was hiding underneath one of the unshapely, grey sleeves. Everyone knew Mr. Hannigan was cuckoo, but no one knew why. Before Robbie could contemplate further, his five minutes were up.
“Well, well, well. Look what we have here,” a sleazy voice sang to the rhythm of three slow claps.
“Looks like a rat doing ratty things,” echoed another.
Robbie kept his back against the fountain and sized the source of the voices up and down. The first came from James, a lanky sixth grader from Mrs. Walsh’s homeroom class. Robbie heard a rumour that in second grade, James punched a girl for making fun of his Korean accent. James was someone hard to respect. The second voice belonged to Wilson, James’ rotund counterpart. There was nothing particular to describe about Wilson, save for his timid personality compared to that of James and his dutiful nature to follow.
“Will you guys just get it over with? Beat me up fast so I can go home,” sighed Robbie.
“Whaddaya mean get it over with? We’ve been looking all over for you. Saw you hanging out with that crackhead Hannigan just now. Next time Wilson over here will snap a photo and it’ll be all over Facebook.”
“You’re gonna be a sorry ass for missing your payment, Miller!” Wilson chimed.
Robbie looked around frantically for an escape plan, but the halls had emptied out and no one was to be seen. As if James noticed his movements, he launched forward, pressing Robbie’s backpack into the metal water fountain and clasped his fingers around his neck. In another swift motion, Wilson kicked open the door to the boys’ washroom and they dragged Robbie’s helpless form in with them.
The beatings today felt harder than usual. Most of the time they would avoid the face, but this time Robbie felt a blow that surely broke his nose. A stinging pain followed by warm liquid trickling down his chin verified the theory. James and Wilson uttered mean phrases at him while they taught him a cruel lesson, but Robbie simply closed his eyes and lied motionless on the floor. He didn’t plead for help nor expect someone to step in. This was fifth grade, not kindergarten. And it was certainly not his first rodeo.
"Hey! What’s going on around here?” In stormed the usually tranquil janitor. His eyes glistened and his nostrils flared. Wilson was almost intimidated, but not James. Robbie tried to open his eyes, but he couldn’t find his glasses.
“None of your beeswax, Old Han’! Robbie forgot to pay his daily tax for breathing the same air as me, and we’re just teachin’ him a lesson, that’s all.” James frowned but made no eye contact with Mr. Hannigan.
“Yeah, leave us alone, mister,” muttered Wilson.
“You,” Hannigan grunted at the sickly boy who lied sprawling on the floor. “How old are you?”
“I’m turning nine in November!” Robbie cried through a bloody nose.
“Well you cry like a baby!” James sneered, relaxing his hold on Robbie only to high-five Wilson’s outstretched hand.
The janitor leaned his right hip against the sink and stared into the mirror.
“Once upon a time, I was nine years old. So were my friends, and so was Billy. That was his name, but we all called him Baby Blue.”
James feigned stifling a yawn. “Where’s this story going? We’re kinda busy here.”
“Shut it, unless you want to be on the floor with Mr. Miller.”
Their faces turned as white as the tiles.
“We all called him that because he would wear the same stupid baby blue t-shirt to school every day. He also wore crooked glasses and smelled funny, but the shirt was easiest to make a moniker out of. Baby Blue Billy, haha. I was credited with that creation.
“Me and the boys, we would make a game out of dirtying his shirt, just to see if he had another one, or if it was the same old shirt. Whenever one of us got marker or food stains on that dirty blue thing, we would get a point. I had so many points I couldn’t count them on two hands! Imagine a light blue shirt stained with all sorts of stuff. Within a week of the game, it was starting to look like a mosaic.”
Wilson giggled quietly.
Hannigan continued. “We were kids, but we weren’t stupid. Deep down we knew that he probably had a hard time at home, and that his parents for some reason didn’t have the money to buy him new clothes or go to the laundromat. But did we care? No, because we were kids. And that’s what we told ourselves. Even until that day.
“The day that shirt just couldn’t take any more. My boys and I were tired of the game and all we wanted to do was end it. In a rather rough brawl with Baby Blue one sunny day after school, we pushed him around like usual but one of us grabbed onto him a little too tight. I caught his collar and my friend Peter pulled on his sleeve. Someone else had a handful of the front. Suddenly we heard a loud rip and the shirt tore to shreds.
“We all got two weeks of in-school detention after that. But I don’t even remember any of it because all I remember is the look on Blue's face. We were all shocked as heck, but Billy he didn’t cry. Instead, his eyes widened, and all the emotion melted away from his face. It was the expression of someone who had given up. Then he brushed off the remains of his t-shirt and walked off the premises. I knew at that moment that I had to do something about it.
“I didn’t have money ‘cause my folks wouldn’t give me an allowance like you lucky kids have it. I also couldn’t order whatever the hell I wanted off of Amazon since it didn’t exist. So, I asked the Arts n’ Crafts teacher to teach me how to sew and tried to find as many pieces of fabric of that same baby blue shade as I could. After my detention every day, I would head to art shops, thrift stores, salvation armies—you name it. You'd be surprised to know how little those places organize their stock. Girls will say that there are hundreds of shades of blue. Boy, did I believe it after that. Bottom line is, it was a challenge, and I stuck to it.
“I stuck to it for the entirety of my detention period, and then some. Over the years, I had collected one thousand, six hundred and seventy-three pieces of baby blue fabric. But I never got to repair his t-shirt. Poor Conrad took his own life shortly after the incident. The principal organized a memorial, and the entire school wore baby blue to honour him. Everyone was sad for a day or two and then everyone forgot.
“I’m retiring this year, boys,” coughed old Hannigan as he shook himself back to the present. “Before you know it, you’ll be old like me. Growing up the right way is hard, but you never want to grow up like me. Make the right call, will ya?” At the end of his tale, the janitor clutched his mop like a staff and stood up slowly, pausing at the top.
“And, for Christ’s sake, mop up the mess on the floor before you leave. I will be speaking with Principal Ash and requesting detentions with the custodial staff for all of you.” Weakly, he smiled at the silenced boys and returned to his post beside the water fountain.
Like an unraveling tableau, James, Wilson and Robbie loosened their grips on one another. As soon as the door swung closed, Wilson grabbed a wad of paper towels and furiously rubbed them into the floor. The other two boys looked at one another and didn’t speak. As Robbie turned around to splash his own face with water, James stuck his hands into his pockets and emptied all the coins he had. Through the mirror, Robbie nodded at him. They never fought again.