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   Curiosity. Innocence. Laughter. All that existed in my mind as a four-year-old who rarely got out. It was an early morning and the minimart was quiet. Hand in hand with my mother, I took in my surroundings as a zoo-bred tiger would when released into the forest for the very first time. As my mother was paying at the counter, someone caught my eye. 

    It was that very second, when the barrier around the only world I had ever known crumbled down, and I was introduced to a whole new concept - difference. 

    The woman who had just walked up was shorter than I was. Her short, wavy hair framed her large, square face. Her body was short, and her legs even shorter. She waddled like a penguin as she struggled to put her things into her shopping bag. She looked unlike anyone I had ever seen before. Therefore, I used my favourite reaction.

    I laughed.

    My mum saw where my finger was pointed, and widened her eyes as she shot me a sharp look. A wave of horror immediately washed through me. I had done something wrong. 

    ‘Sweetie, I know you thought it was funny. You thought she looked like a dwarf in Snow White, didn’t you? But sweetie, you can’t laugh at someone because they look different. It’s not kind. Do you understand? Oh sweetie, don’t cry. You didn’t know. I’m not scolding you,’ my mum said gently as we were walking home.

     I did understand. As the tears streamed down my face, I knew exactly what I did wrong. I was not kind.

    It has been twenty years, but I often look back and feel the guilt as if it were yesterday. Central Station. The announcement pulled me back from my daydream, as I prepared to get off the train. 

    I took my usual route to work and dropped off a ten-dollar bill at all three of the usual beggar spots. I made quite a lot for a 24-year-old, but I didn’t have a lot. I have spent my whole life trying to make up for the day at the minimart by donating to charity, volunteering, and giving money to every beggar I see. My friends’ eyes sparkle when they tell me how kind I am, but I know the truth.

    My mind was preoccupied while my legs took me down the familiar street. Therefore, it came as no surprise when I bumped into someone.

    ‘Oh! I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! Are you alright?’ I frantically asked. To my surprise, the man I bumped into chuckled.

    ‘Geez lady, calm down,’ he said. ‘It’s not like I only have one leg or something.’ 

    Hearing that, my mood went from apologetic to anger in a heartbeat.

    ‘How dare you tease them like that? Just because you are fortunate enough to be healthy, it does not mean that you can go around disrespecting people who look different! They can feel, you know? From what I’ve heard, possibly better than you can!’ 

    That shocked him for a while, but he recovered quickly.

    ‘Fine. But just so you know, you’re not that much better than me if you judge me by one thing I said. You don’t know me,’ he replied in an irritated tone, before he walked away steadily.

    Way to start my day, I thought.

    Work that morning was challenging, but I managed to finish it with time to spare, so I decided to treat myself to lunch in the park.

    The day was beautiful, with an azure blue sky decorated with a few flaky clouds, and golden sunlight shining through them. The mood at the park was made perfect by the cool breezes and red autumn leaves that occasionally danced down the trees. I took a seat on a bench and opened up my salad. I couldn’t help but smile at the wonderful view. The laughter of innocent children playing was music to my ears, and I blissfully enjoyed the afternoon. 

    Out of the blue, a little boy came over and sat next to me.

    ‘What are you eating?’ He asked, looking up at me with curious eyes. 

    ‘Just a salad,’ I replied with a smile.

    ‘I don’t like vegetables,’ he said plainly, as he took off his cap and pat it pointlessly.

    We sat in silence for a few moments before I let my curiosity get the best of me.

    ‘Why aren’t you out there playing with the other kids?’ I asked.

    He just shrugged and said ‘They’re not nice.’

    ‘How’s that?’

    ‘My dad has cancer.’

    ‘Oh, they laugh at you for that?’

    ‘No.‘

    ‘Well, you lost me there.’

    ‘They treat me like I’m just another normal kid with nothing to worry about. But I do, and they just act like they don’t see it. Like they just want to ignore it, so they do.’

    ‘Isn’t that a good thing? I think it’s nice of them to do that.’

    ‘No it’s not!’ He stood up suddenly and shouted angrily. ‘You’re an adult. Don’t you understand? Maybe I want them to laugh! Maybe… maybe I want them to ask me about it! Maybe… maybe I… Everyone just acts like they… like they don’t even care! They think they know what I want, but they don’t! I just… I don’t know how to explain it!’

    He was crying uncontrollably and the cap in his hands was deformed from his tightly clenched fists of frustration. The little stranger’s expression broke my heart. I carefully set down my salad and raised my hand slowly to ruffle his sandy blonde hair. He planted himself like a tree as his chest heaved up and down with his sobs. I gently took him by the shoulders and comforted him.

    ‘Kiddo, don’t cry. I know you’re scared for your dad and you just want someone to share that feeling with you so you don’t have to be alone, isn’t that right? But the other children don’t know that, and it’s not their fault. They just… don’t understand you.’

    One of the ironic things about life is how we are always blind in our own struggles and unwilling to listen, but have so much to say when it comes to other people’s. This was one of those situations, and comforting this little boy gave me a moment of clarity for my own twenty-year struggle.

    I chose to ignore people who looked different as an expression of respect, but I never cared whether they wanted to be acknowledged. I let guilt be the only thing I took away from that memory, and let it be my drive for ‘kindness’. A true act of kindness should not be categorising their condition as a taboo topic, but understanding what they want. Respect should not mean pity, it should be the respect for their wishes. All the ‘giving’ I have been doing may have helped, but people who are different or in need should not only be seen as charity cases. They are also human beings, with needs that go beyond our subjective understanding. 

    ‘I’m sorry, kiddo. On behalf of all the kids, and all the adults who don’t understand you, I’m sorry,’ I said and hugged the child closer.

    ‘Clay?’ A man’s voice enquired.

    ‘I looked up to see the man I bumped into this morning. He stared in astonishment, and I returned the reaction.

    The little boy turned toward the man and smiled.

    ‘Dad!’ He croaked and rubbed his red eyes.

    The man took Clay in his arms as Clay buried his face in his father’s shoulders.

    Is he okay? The man mouthed. 

    He misses you. I mouthed back.

    He stood there holding his son as I watched them. After a while, Clay calmed down and came to me.

    ‘Thanks,’ he said shyly. ‘I’m sorry I yelled at you… can you not tell my dad? Not just the yelling part… just don’t tell him why I cried. I know it was silly now.’

    ‘It’s not silly. Your feelings aren’t silly, but your secret is safe with me,’ I replied with a wink.

    Clay’s father sat down next to me after Clay went to play.

    ‘I’m sorry about earlier,’ I apologised. ‘I had my own problems, but I’ve figured them out now. I had no right to yell at you.’

    ‘Nah,’ he waved it away. ‘I shouldn’t have said what I said anyway.’

    I finished the rest of my salad in silence and decided to get back to the office.

    ‘I have to go,’ I said to the man. ‘I know we don’t know each other, but if Clay need anything, or if you need anything, here’s my number.’

    I gave him my card and stood up to leave.

    ‘Good luck with your cancer,’ I said.

    As I walked back to the office, I knew I was a different person, and the memory that has been haunting me my whole life is no longer a ghost of my past.

 


October 17, 2019 15:30

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3 comments

Debra Caples
17:18 Oct 24, 2019

The only things I noticed were a couple of places where you had the wrong tense in your verbs but I liked the story. When I was in grade school and little Asian girl, a new student, was standing in the playground, her back to the wall, notebook that had the name Suzi stenciled on it. She was terrified. I didn't help matters any. Some unwritten law says you have to mean mug the new kid. Usually I was the one my classmates talked into going over and meeting them and then they might steal my new chum. I never got the chance with Suzi. Never saw...

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Unknown User
01:24 Oct 26, 2019

Thank you so much for the reminder! :) The important thing is that we know to be kinder to people now, because you felt it first hand how being mean would come back to haunt you. Forgive yourself! You were just a kid and everyone makes mistakes! :)

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Karen Mc Dermott
10:53 Oct 24, 2019

Reedsy sent me this story to comment on as part of the critique circle. Excellent theme to go with - I think we can all relate to having said something as a child we later regret. It's nice when we try to make up for it to restore karma. Good balance of dialogue with description. I would only remove: "The laughter of innocent children playing was music to my ears, and I blissfully enjoyed the afternoon" as 'music to my ears' is a well-worn phrase and I believe you have the depth of imagination to come up with something more original :) He...

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