Contest #28 shortlist ⭐️

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Feb 14, 2020

Creative Nonfiction

Recess. A boy. Conversation. Leaning against the wire mesh fence, tugging idly at the ragged holes worn through it, he told me he wanted a fleet of Roman soldiers.

I said: sure  — if you’re willing to put in the work for it.

It was one of our meetings in the corridor, the narrow grey strip leading from the darkened hovel of the classroom out into the sallow sun, which was filtering, then, through the net of emerald foliage that shaded this nook behind the restrooms. The Sports’ Day parade was rubbish, he said, so he wanted Roman soldiers in the march. A corner of pale-yellow light glowed on his head.

Without another word, he nodded, turned and walked past me. I saw him go past a stalwart, grumpy tree — the alleged haunted one, in that school — with a red sash about its middle, watched him stride over gnarled roots and disappear into the afternoon glare.

Whatever book I’d been holding from the library, I shifted it from one hand to the other. My chest was hot. I glanced around quickly to see if anyone had been watching us, before, satisfied, I meandered into the necessary path, willing both arms and legs into a casual stroll. It was stupid.

Just a couple of months back I wouldn’t even have dared talk to him like this.

***

“So you two are going to work together?” The teacher adjusted her silky ochre headscarf.

Our classroom looked like an attic, minus the old-book smell, the whistling of the wind, the altitude, and all those things that could make an attic charming. It hunched over. It suffocated. It squeezed. Especially now, with all the students clustering together around the table — around us — a school of goldfish, mouths gaping and eyes wide in a mixture of awe and anticipation of laughter.

The first time we’d been here, in this situation, was when the teacher had cut our first real conversation short — a teenager's debate over socialism — leaving me to creep after him, tap his elbow and deliver my crushing final point outside the boys' restroom. That evening, we started texting.

To the classmates surrounding us, it had so far seemed nothing had changed. The side-eyed looks and swift turn-away whenever I approached him in public taught me that he wanted to be discreet about whatever it was we were doing. Things went on. That it was so rose to the surface with this recontextualized familiar situation, with the other students in a ring - and the two of us outside of that ring.

I studied the sketches he’d placed on the teacher’s table. This obsession with history, these shields and phalanxes and formations, they made him strange to teenagers, made him sharp-edged and old. Now our classmates were waiting for him to give them something to laugh at.

For a moment, he withstood their implicit taunts with quiet deliberation. His gaze was still all clouds and mountaintops, fixed far away as if on some distant goal. Then, as if remembering an appointment, he shuffled out of the classroom and the noise died down.

He didn’t stay to hear our little project be approved. I think his faith assumed it would be.

***

As a child, a story had made me cry, one about a tin soldier. It was only an old fairy tale, distorted by time and self-projection. In my mind at the time, at least, the tin soldier was a small, intricately-designed thing, but with a large hat and a simple, open face, and a vulnerable silvery sheen across the outline.

They had been the beloved toy of a pair of careless children, who’d one day developed an interest in paper boats. They’d been excited at first, to ride the boat, the boat that had been thrown into a storm drain, the boat that had been wasted in a fit of impulsive curiosity. Then the rain came, and the tin soldier was washed away.

I don’t remember the middle of the story. Maybe if I had, things would have been different.

***

In the time leading up to Sports’ Day, he bombarded my inbox with link after link to historical re-enactments and pictures of broad-nosed white men wearing bronze helmets and screwed-up faces. I remember fusillades of these images just coming at me left, right and center. Every so often, he’d stop to ask me a question; I’d stare at it, study it thrice before I replied.

We were on to something great, he said, he was feeling it.

Past the 11-o-clock mark, when the chaos had died down, and my pen stopped its furious note-taking, the topic of conversation would drift off to something a little bit more human. He told me about his figurines, which he kept in a bedroom that I’d never seen.

He sent me a picture of these vacant glass cabinets, shrouded in grey, which gave me absolutely no indication of what the figurines looked like, only that they must have been precious, impossibly delicate. In that conversation, he used a lot of words like “collectible” and “limited edition” and “resin-coated,” but I imagined a boy playing with action figures, making up stories the way I’d seen in the carefully cultivated photographs of his Lego collection I understood, I knew he had because he’d made it public. This nebulous golden version of his story fit better with all the pieces I'd thus far collected of him.

Certainly, he was just embarrassed. Nobody wants to talk to a girl about playing with toys. Only about collecting them and practicing "photography" with them and building a profile. Yes, embarrassed hopefully in a delightful way, the way that heated my face whenever I sat down to my laptop with him.

***

Over the next few weeks, the four shields and eight spears became just shields, which became a generic wooden signboard thrust upon us by the administration, who were unwilling to see young people get too creative, and the work then became Medieval-themed rather than Roman, after he sent a video of a jousting competition and figured it would be simpler.

Still, each phase of the project I sent to him in a screencap or a photograph, waited for his response before proceeding.

“But should I get the resin figures? The grenadiers? The hussars?” he texted.

 “If you want.”

***

True to our era and age, it was a meme that did it. One chat session, I was looking into the teary face of an older boy with his hair dyed pink and purple. Then, suddenly, I was looking at war, a boy leaping into a trench, the image blurred by smoke and a camera from the 1940s. The little ellipsis at the bottom-right corner of the chatbox tossed and turned, a restless demon until he hit send:

“Eighteen-year-olds nowadays, right?”

They should be put in a simulation, he typed, with increasing gusto. A simulation of the Victorian era, with the rats and the destruction and let them rot let them — rot! His texts came in blurry slithering, angry tirades, and every so often I would glance back at the picture of the boy with the dyed hair. I didn't know him. Neither did he. He ordered my reply. Wouldn't it be better if all these soft, gooey people went through some kind of training? No one asked about their feelings, no one asked for their opinion. I began closing windows. News reports. My poetry blog. He said: don't you think it's all going to shit now? It's all going to shit...

My fingers were hollow and metal as I tapped out my response.

***

Why hadn’t he replied?

***

On the morning of the parade, I’d set up on one of the garishly orange wooden desks at the very front of the class. I remember being happy with my work. It was a humble design, made with a manila card that formed the box-like backdrop behind an improvised coat-of-arms. I’d showed him the spade with the heart-shape inside, and he hadn’t laughed. I’d suggested the glitter, and he hadn’t laughed either. Things would be okay. He and I could finish this together, then it would all go back to normal. I toyed for a moment with the pair of scissors, opening and closing the blades around the thick air.

He walked in at seven o'clock with a tripod slung over his shoulder. It made me think of rifles.

“I’m getting out of here,” he said, jerking his head towards the door. “You take care of that.”

What I knew I had to say surprised me with the speed it came out of my mouth.

“You can’t just leave.” I rested my fingers on the edge of the table, dug in. “You can’t just leave me here with your idea.”

A pause. He looked at me for a moment.

“Oh yeah.”

Like he was only forgetting something, rather than willfully ignoring it, he fumbled around in his jacket pocket, pulled out a roll of duct tape and placed it on the table as if to say — there. He’d done his part. Then he turned, slunk between the tables into the world, and I did not bother calling him back. I let him fizzle out into the rising sun.

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