Billy Paxton’s thick, black-rimmed glasses filled the screen of his MacBook Pro in extreme close-up before he zoomed out. His brown-on-beige plaid pullover with three silver snaps down the collar and his dark-maroon corduroys that almost looked purple matched him if not each other. If anyone were to examine his ankles, they would have found a black dress sock on his left foot and a white, knee-high tube sock with dead elastic on his right. They would also find both of his feet stuffed into a pair of ancient Birkenstocks held together with duct tape, his toes hanging over the front, and his heels nearly touching the floor through the soles.
Billy’s gaze darted from left, up, to the right, and across the screen. He never looked directly into the camera lens as he made adjustments to the picture. He actively avoided it.
Ian Scott, Billy’s seventeen-year-old nephew, sat in a wheelchair in the background. Ian’s atrophied right arm and hand curled uselessly in front of his chest over a Punisher t-shirt. He was adjusting a carton of chocolate milk so the doubled silly straw, taped end to end, would reach his mouth. The condensation on the carton and his limited grip were making the motion more of a job. He chased the straw with his mouth until finally grasping it with his lips.
Homemade gadgets were on shelves and pegs all over the immaculate garage-turned-workshop. Saying it was littered with them would deny the overall cleanliness of the space, but there were clearly more gizmos and doohickeys than there was space to store them. The vast majority were unrecognizable to anyone but their creator.
Billy had an array of tools and tiny screws and gears on a shammy in front of him. When he finished adjusting the camera, he turned his attention to the tiny, DIY air cannon he was building and said, “Billy and Ian’s video log: entry one.”
Ian replied, “This is stupid,” through the AAC device attached to his chair that he accessed with an iPad. The electric voice could not convey the annoyance Ian felt. Sarcasm was right out anyway. Billy did not speak it. He was a genius with literal language, but he was lost when it came to anything figurative.
Billy continued, “Ian doesn’t want to go to school. He says his para’s been bullying him.”
“Duck that grass hole.”
Billy glanced up from his device and said, “I told him to use his iPad to get video for his mom.”
“Duck her too.”
Billy put down his screwdriver and swiveled one hundred eighty degrees to more-or-less face his nephew without looking at him. “You know she’s my sister.”
The air cannon toppled over and spritzed out a fine mist of chocolate milk onto the computer screen. Billy spun back around to wipe it off and stopped the video.
Ian’s classroom’s paraprofessional, Mr. Cherno, prepared snack for the class. He was two-hundred pounds of raw pizza dough crammed into the clothes of a one-hundred-eighty-pound man. He brought a spoon and a fruit cup over to Ian.
“Ready for snack, Eon?” asked Mr. Cherno with a voice reminiscent of what would happen if Goofy had a child with Starscream.
Ian did his best disappearing act. It left him completely visible to anyone who cared to glance in his general direction. As Mr. Cherno came closer, Ian said “Duck,” in his electric, emotion-free voice.
Mr. Cherno stopped. “Duck? It’s peaches.” He stepped forward and spooned a limp, syrupy peach toward Ian’s mouth.
Ian turned away tightening his lips, so the para chased his mouth with the spoon. Ian shook his head, and his chin knocked the peach onto the floor. Mr. Cherno reloaded the spoon.
“Come on, little buddy, work with me.”
Ian backed up his chair, so Mr. Cherno had to step forward. He slipped on the fallen peach, and laughter erupted in the classroom as his behind hit the floor.
Mr. Cherno got up muttering incoherently and red-faced. He reloaded. He took hold of Ian’s chin. Ian struggled until he noticed his classmates watching. Isa, who was also spending her life in chair and talking through a machine, pleaded concern with her eyes. Ian begrudgingly accepted the remaining peaches.
“All gone,” said Mr. Cherno. He then aggressively wiped the syrup and saliva from Ian’s face with a paper towel just as the door opened and in walked Ms. Sloan, Ian’s teacher.
“Gently, Mr. Cherno,” said Ms. Sloan. “You’re going to wipe his face off.”
“Yes ma’am, Ms. Sloane.” Mr. Cherno set down his roll of paper towels, got near Ian’s ear, and whispered, “No one makes me look bad, you dumb, half-breed retard.”
Billy hit record on his MacBook and then took a long sip from his carton of chocolate milk. He came away with a milk mustache Steve Harvey would have been envious of. Ian drank his chocolate milk with his doubled silly straw.
“Billy and Ian’s video log: entry 2,” said Billy.
“Still stupid,” replied Ian.
Billy turned to face Ian’s knees. “I told you; we need a record.” He then turned back to tinkering with his tiny air cannon. “So, there was nothing on the video.”
“Peaches are gross,” said Ian.
“That’s not enough.”
“He hurt my face.”
“You can’t really see that, and the teacher got him in trouble.”
“You said you believe me.”
Billy stopped working and lifted his head. “I do.”
“Then stop being a stick.”
Billy was hurt on the inside, and it confused him. He couldn’t tell if he was angry, frustrated, or sad because it was all three jumbled together. It was like three people singing three different songs in his head at the same time. He didn’t have an emotion card he could use for that, so he tried to focus on angry. It was first alphabetically and right on top of the stack he kept on his workbench. He picked up the lamented card, turned to Ian, tapped the angry-face emoji, and said, “You know I know what that means.”
“Duck you,” said Ian.
Billy threw down his emotion card. Tears were forming. He pointed at the door and said, “Go home, Mr. Potty Mouth.”
Ian turned his wheelchair to exit and his chocolate milk fell. He rolled over the carton and stopped. His wheelchair beeped as he backed it up and over the carton. He crushed it a third time as he rolled back forward doing his best to flip Billy off and control the chair at the same time.
Billy stopped the video. He sat motionless for seventeen minutes and then started recording again. He flipped through his emotion cards and pulled out the sad face. He held the crying yellow emoji, tapped it, and said “Billy and Ian’s video log: entry 2.1. My nephew is my best friend. I want to help him.... I just don’t know how.”
Ian rolled back into the background. He tacked his chair back into its usual place and said, “Sorry, Uncle Billy.”
Billy refreshed his mustache. He set his carton down and looked at his feet. “It’s okay. You didn’t mean it.”
Billy stepped over to Ian. He started leaning into the hug halfway there with his arms rising. Ian slid his left arm up and around Billy as best he could. They embraced as if both of them were afraid the other would break. Billy patted Ian lightly and too fast on the back, pulled away, and sat down. He knocked his glasses askew swiping tears from his eyes and adjusted them as he sat.
Billy went immediately back to work on his air cannon and asked, “What do you want to do about your para?”
Ian replied, “Shoot him in the face.”
“You should talk to your mom.”
Billy stopped tinkering, looked over his shoulder, and said, “I thought she was tax attorney.”
Ian snorted out a stifled laugh and said, “No mom.”
“We’re going to need evidence,” said Billy. The air cannon slipped and went FOOMPT. Chocolate milk dribbled out onto the shammy. “Dang it,” said Billy as he reached for a roll of blue shop towels and turned off the recording.
Ms. Sloane was out for the day at a training. It happened a lot. The sub’s name was written on the whiteboard in purple dry erase marker. Ms. Susan was a twenty-year-old grad student. She spent the day staring at her smartphone. She would occasionally swipe at the screen with her finger, but other than that, she showed no signs of life.
Mr. Cherno was feeding Isa pink applesauce. She cried silently as Mr. Cherno spooned in the last bite. Ian’s chest ached and stomach went a weird kind of queasy as he watched Isa’s look of pain mingle with disgust.
Mr. Cherno walked away from Isa without cleaning the smeared pink mess he’d left on her face. He offered Ian a spoonful of the pink applesauce. Ian knew just from the smell that it was loaded with siracha. He clenched his jaw. Mr. Cherno grabbed Ian’s earlobe and pulled. He kept pulling harder until Ian opened his mouth to protest. In went the applesauce.
Ian’s eyes welled as he tried to spit out the sweetened pain. Mr. Cherno put his hand over Ian’s mouth and said, “Oh no. You take it. You’ll think twice before you make me look bad again; won’t you, Eon?”
Billy’s face filled the MacBook Pro’s screen. His eyes were red and slightly swollen. The camera zoomed back out to fit Ian into the frame.
“Ian’s video log: last entry.”
“Thank Beyoncé,” said Ian’s electric spokesperson.
“Sorry, Ian. Your para is a ducking grass hole. We have to show your mom.” Billy sat up awkwardly to pull a handkerchief from his front pocket and used it to wipe his tears and blow his nose. His dark skin contrasted against the stark white of the fabric. He could see his nephew shaking his head in defiance on the computer screen. Billy lowered the handkerchief and said, “I won’t lie to my sister.”
Ian moved closer to his uncle. “Help me fight.”
“How?” Billy turned and looked over his nephew’s shoulder.
“We could be like the Punisher and Micro,” said Ian.
Billy’s face went blank. The light in his eyes went somewhere deep within himself. It was a look Ian knew well. His uncle went somewhere else without leaving the room when he needed to think, so Ian waited. After a minute and forty-five seconds, Billy blinked rapidly. It was only for a moment, but Billy mad eye contact with Ian. He spun back to his bench and began dismantling his tiny, DIY air cannon. “I can rig your chair…, but if we’re going to be superheroes, we need superhero names.”
Ian sat up straight and nodded in agreement.
“I want to be Wilbur,” said Billy.
Ian looked around the room and then said, “That is not a superhero name.”
Billy spun around faster than Ian had ever seen him move. “I’ve wanted to be Wilbur ever since I was a little kid, but Mom said no.”
Billy continued, “Wilbur is the protagonist in my favorite book.”
“The pig in that book with the spider?”
“Yes. Charlotte’s Web is the best book ever. You should be the Singularity.
“Because of the chair?”
“You’re one with your machine. It’s perfect.”
Ian rocked his head from side to side, rolled his eyes, and gave a thumbs up. Billy did a double fist pump. He bent over and took two cartons of chocolate milk from the mini fridge under the workbench. He opened Ian’s and helped him with the doubled silly straw. The duo bumped their cartons together, and Billy said, “Wilbur and the Singularity’s Video War Journal: Entry One.”
Mr. Cherno walked toward Ian. His grin had bad intentions from corner to corner. He had a cup of very red and runny applesauce.
An electric whir whispered behind Ian’s right ear as he clicked icons on his iPad. He adjusted the position of his chair slightly to the left to square the paraprofessional in his sights. Mr. Cherno came into range and was sighted in. Ian tapped another icon and FOOMPT! Mr. Cherno got a face full of ghost pepper extract and dropped like a stone. Ian zoomed in the camera on the bully. Mr. Cherno clutched his face and wailed, “My eyes!”
Ian looked over Isa. It was the first time he ever saw her smile.