“You have to do something, Keilo.”
I blinked. My mother was staring at me. I knew that, yes, but I couldn’t see her. My head was in the blankets. Deep, deeply burrowed like a little bug who knew they would surely be killed if they came out of their hole. Not that my own mother would kill me. I knew that, at least. I blinked.
“What are you doing with your life, Keilo?” I shut my eyes closed tighter and pulled my legs close to my body. If only I could will her to go away. I was okay. Really. It was fine. It was. My mother didn’t think so. She was determined. She was… she yanked the blankets back off my head and my burrow broke. The world was cold.
“I’m fine. It’s fine. I have a life. I’m doing things. Just… quieter than before.” I rubbed my eyes. Bright bright lights burned at the back of my head. I blinked and tried to smile. “Isn’t that okay? I’m just tired.”
She knows that’s not true, though. Mothers know. And I’m not good enough to fool myself either. I wasn’t fooled. What was I doing with my life? I didn’t know. Maybe I didn’t want to. I knew one thing. I wasn’t going back to school, anyway. No one missed me. At least I could sit at home in my bed and eat pork rinds and watch reruns of Old Westerns and no one missed me. I wondered what it would be like if they did, but no one misses a spider once they take away its web.
“No, I mean it.” My mother grabbed my shoulders, pulling me upright. “I signed you up for something. It’s an art class. You’ve always liked art, haven’t you? Get up.” It wasn’t a question; what she said about me liking art. She practically just told me that I liked art. Always have, apparently. Well. I decided that I didn’t want to go. Wasn’t going to go, and good riddance to anyone who tried to make me. Even if it was my mother.
I shook my head. “No.” I sniffed and pulled the blankets back over my head. “Thanks, though.”
My mother stood up and I thought she was leaving, but she wasn’t. Instead, she picked up the glass of water from my bedside table and poured it on my head. I sputtered. “Mother! Hey!”
“Get up.” She tore the blankets clear off the bed and threw them all on the floor. Then, having a second thought, she picked them up and carried them out of the room. Most likely to the laundry room. They hadn’t been washed in two weeks.
It had been two weeks since… well. Since everything at school, I guess. I don’t know how else to say that. It’s not enough to say the story because the story doesn’t begin to cover it. The story doesn’t tell how everything that happened at school two weeks ago went back way before then. It went back before I ever started at that school. It started when I was born. I know that sounds dramatic and moody and whatever else you want to label me as, but it’s true.
I’m not like anyone else and it’s not in a cute or quirky or unique way. That’s how girls can be, yeah, but when boys like different things, or don’t do and talk how people want them to, they don’t get called cute or quirky or unique. No one tries to sugarcoat what they’re trying to tell you. They say what they mean and expect it not to hurt your feelings, and when it does they laugh more. And if you cry… well, you’d just better not cry. That’s not something to do. Especially if you’re me, Keilo Ibanza.
Because two weeks ago, something happened at my school, but like I said, that wasn’t when it started. It started when I was born, and it started when I met the likes of Orris Slavko in kindergarten. He took one look at me crying in the corner of the classroom and instead of coming over to be my friend, or sharing his crayons, or giving me the last juice box, he laughed at me. This kid, Orris Slavko, laughed at me in kindergarten when I was crying and he said, “Do your parents not love you enough to make sure you don’t have food on your clothes?” I had peanut butter on my shirt and jelly on my hands. I knew my mother loved me though. I knew that. She just didn’t have time to help me that morning. She had to get to work. I didn’t tell that to Orris Slavko, though. Instead, I cried harder and curled into a ball under the table, pretending not to hear the evil patterings of little feet crowding around me and laughing. All through sixth grade, Orris did things like that to me. Laughed and pointed and told me I was nothing at all. He’s the reason I was a bug in the first place. Anyway, I moved eventually. At the new school, I could move quietly among the shadows and no one noticed me too much, even when I joined the football team.
And then one day they noticed someone else.
Her name was Penelope and she had yellow hair and blue eyes but she only ever wore red clothes, so it made her look like a part of the colour wheel hanging up in the art classroom. The one that noticed her was someone else on the football team. His name was Wade Harts. He was bothering her. He said, “Hey.” She didn’t answer. He said, “I’m talking to you.” She kept walking. He grabbed her backpack and pulled her back and breathed in her face and said, “Listen to me, girl. When someone talks to you, you listen.” And she pushed him away and straightened her dress and backpack. Then Wade Harts growled lowly in his throat and he grabbed Penelope’s wrists and she yelped. I stepped out of the shadows.
“What are you doing?” I glared loudly at Wade and his thick fingers wrapped around Penelope’s wrists.
He laughed, “I’m doing whatever I want to do. Get out of my face, stupid, and go back to whatever gutter you crawled out of.”
I ignored him. “Are you okay, Penelope?”
She shook her head. “No. He won’t let go.”
“Let go already.” I stepped closer to Wade.
He dropped her hands and she ran off to class. I was taller than him. I was broader too, and if I wanted to, I could’ve really hurt him.
Luckily, I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t want to hurt anyone until later, when I found out that Penelope was put in the hospital after trying to… well. She was trying to hurt herself because she thought it would be better that way. Because of Wade, who had been bothering her for far longer than what I thought.
So the next day when I saw Wade Hart, I smacked him in the back of the head with a sock full of batteries. That’s why I was never going back to school. Because I couldn’t. No one wanted me there. And no one missed me, anyway. I didn’t want to tell Greta that because she may not have understood. She would have seen that I was too angry and too emotional and too much for my own good, but that wasn’t what I meant anything to be. I wasn’t trying to be a hero. I just wanted Wade to know he had hurt someone. That’s all. I know it wasn’t a right thing, but it was a thing that I thought could be justified. I was wrong, but that’s what I thought. I thought that I was just tired of everyone being so mean to me and not caring, so I thought maybe I could just fix this one thing. It didn’t work.
Now I was awake and I was still not ready to leave my room. But my bed was cold and my clothes were wet. I should probably get in the shower, I thought. Man, I smell like the absence of all things good and holy, I thought. I trudged to the bathroom and turned on the water and I got in the shower. I got out of the shower fifty-three minutes later and then I didn’t smell so much like the absence of all things good and holy quite so much. There were some things, though, that even the longest of showers couldn’t wash away.
When I went downstairs, I was wearing my jeans from last Christmas and my jacket from when I played football. My mother was surprised by that, I know. Her eyes popped and then she tried to pretend they hadn’t so she just smiled and said, “Hi, Keilo.”
“Hello. What are you making for breakfast?” Small talk, I thought, was a good place to start building trust back. It wouldn’t happen overnight, but I could do it. I’d try with this, and I told her I’d go to the art class. I said yes, I will go to that class. And my mother clapped her hands together like a seal.
She drove me to the community center and parked by the front doors. “Be good, you hear me?” That’s what she yelled while I was walking inside. I waved back at her to say silently, “Yes, I will be good.”
That was her worry, I knew. That I wouldn’t be good, like she told me, and that I’d do something that was the opposite of good, was her biggest fear. Because of two weeks ago. She couldn’t hide the fact that well. Not from me; not from her own son. I heard the door click behind me.
There was a lady at the desk who looked at me and said in her head, “Here is a menace. This is a danger. I should call the police. Yes, I think I will make something up and call the police and they will lock this menace up and he will not visit this establishment anymore.” Except she didn’t really. She just looked that way because her eyes screwed up deep in her wrinkled head and her wormy lips tightened around her movie star white teeth. I never understood how people with teeth so white could bear to eat food with color. Like, how could they eat beets? Did people not like beets when they did that, or maybe was it a sacrifice they had to make? I didn’t care, incredibly enough.
“Hello, I’ve signed up for the art class here. My name is Keilo Ibanza.” I smiled pretend hopefully at the lady. Even if I couldn’t trick myself into thinking I was happy, and even if my mother didn’t believe me, I knew this lady couldn’t know that. She never could. Ha, I wouldn’t give her that, at least.
“Oh. Okay. I’ll get right on that.” I could see the art class meeting in the back room. They had paint out on the table and I could smell it. It smelled like blue and purple and blue and purple was the color of bad wallpaper but great flower arrangements.
“Hi, um. I see the room back there. I can just go. I know I’m on the list. I’ll check in when I meet the teacher, if that’s okay.” The lady pursed her lips and clucked cluckily like a clucking chicken. What was her clucking deal?
“I don’t know if that’s a great idea. We have a strict security policy.” Sure they did!
“Sure you do!” Oops, I hadn’t meant to say that one out loud. I bit my lips together but it was too late and the lady blushed furiously. Before she or I could say anything else, a girl came in the door. She looked at me and looked at the tight lipped lady and then she grabbed my arm.
“Oh, I’m so sorry I’m late! Come on.” And she was pretty strong so I had to go with her, which was okay because she went to the art room. She waited in the doorway with me before we walked in. “Hi. I’m sorry about that. Is that okay?”
“Um, yes. It was fine. Thank you.” The girl let go of my arm and took her motorcycle helmet off. “My name is Keilo.” Why did I tell her my name? I didn’t know. But I wanted to and that was reason enough.
“Oh, well, hey. I’m Greta. You’re new to the class.”
“Yes.” I nodded and blinked and howled in my head because I knew that nodding and blinking were bad and people don’t like to talk when you nod and blink too much. “Yes, I am. My mother signed me up for it. She said I needed to do something with my life.”
Greta quirked an eyebrow and ran her hands through her hair. “Do you?”
“Oh, I guess. I’ve been sleeping a lot.”
“Why don’t you go to school?”
“That’s not your business.” I pushed past her lightly and walked into the classroom. Fine. She was being nice and that was fine but there was a certain point when enough was enough and I didn’t want to answer those questions. She wouldn’t like the answers, anyway. I realised I didn’t know what I was doing. The teacher was a tall man wearing paint splatted clothes and he had clay in his fingernails. He had holes in his shoes. “Hey, I’m Keilo.”
The teacher turned to look at me and smiled broadly. He held out his hand. “I’m Ivan. Your mom called me earlier. We’re glad to have you. Why don’t you sit over there by Ramona and Tarrence? They won’t bite.”
A girl, presumably Ramona, waved at me. The boy next to her scowled. I walked over to their table and sat down. Greta sat at a table across from me. She didn’t seem fazed by my non-answer brush off. She didn’t seem to care at all.
We were painting trees. It was tremendously boring and tedious and I hated it so much that I thought my head would fall off and roll under the table. When I was done, I found that my trees looked too long and twisted and everyone else’s trees were beautiful and shining. I crumpled the paper into a ball when the three hours were over, but I wasn’t mad I had gone. It was good for me, like my mother had told me. As I left the community center to wait by the flagpole for my mother, Greta was walking towards her motorcycle. She stopped and stood by me. I shifted from foot to foot and then I said, “What do you need?”
And so we stood by the flagpole until my mother drove up in the car and I got inside and then I watched Greta get on her motorcycle to ride away.
“How was the class?’ My mother asked me, smiling.
“It was fine. It was great. I loved it. What do you want me to say?”
She was quiet and then, “I’m glad you enjoyed it. Will you go back?”
I knew I didn’t actually have a choice. I nodded. “Yep.” I hoped Greta wasn’t there and that Tarrence would stop scowling at me and that Ivan would stop blowing bubbles and telling us stories about a place called Bombolla, but yes, I would go back.
I’m still the villain, and people like Wade are the victim. I should’ve known that people wouldn’t see it how I needed them to. I should’ve known they would have turned this on me. I guess now I have to learn how to trust not everyone is like Wade or Orris, and that there are still good people, like Greta and Ivan and my mother. I guess I have to learn to see the world like I could’ve seen my trees.
They were crooked and tangled and ugly, broken and messy and unruly, sprawling and dark and shadowy, but they could be beautiful if you looked hard enough. If I uncrumpled the paper and looked at the picture again, maybe I could see that I wasn’t the bug after all, but instead I was a bird.
I went back to the class and I looked in the trash can for the picture of my trees, but it wasn’t there. I asked Ivan, and he told me to ask Greta. She pointed to where she had taped it to the wall in the center of the room. My trees were the same. Twisted and sprawling and in the middle of the whole little shattering forest was a bird. Not just any bird, but instead it was a bird made of heart and fire and and everything in the world saying yes I can to everything that said no you won’t. It was a phoenix flying up out the ashes. And now I think that’s what I need to learn. I need to learn how to be a phoenix.