Fourth Grade — Edward Rojas
* Content warning: this piece contains representations of graphic violence *
Every day after school I would see Howie and his parents playing with their english bulldog. My parents never let me have pets growing up. I had two goldfish when I was 6 but they died within several weeks. Sometimes my mom would tell me I should go out and say hi to Howie’s family. I remember staring at their dog. That english bulldog was Howie’s birthday present last year. Howie didn’t have siblings. I remember one day looking outside as Mr. and Mrs. Curd took the dog for a walk and I wondered what they would think if they knew what Howie did on the bus. Howie acted a lot different with his parents than with John and everyone else on the bus. John told me if I ever snitched on him he would rip my balls out. I never told on him.
I was bullied in fourth grade. I shared a bus with sixth graders. John Panten would sit on me while the other kids took turns throwing punches, twisting my nipples, kicking my balls. John weighed a lot for a sixth grader and I was not able to get out from under him. This happened every day from August to November. Bus ride to school, bus ride home. It was my first year at Samuel Staples Elementary. My parents moved from Connecticut to New York mid July. School started late August. I didn’t know anyone at the school except Howie Curd who lived next door. I liked Howie at first. He had been going to the school since kindergarten. My mom said he would help me make friends. His family introduced themselves the day after we moved in. Howie and I spent the rest of the summer at his house watching movies and playing with his english bulldog. We got along until school started and then he had to choose between me and the bullies. He chose the bullies and we stopped being friends.
I had a difficult time at Samuel Staples. There were many days where I couldn’t gather the mental stability to go to school. I would tell my mom I was sick but she became suspicious. I didn’t show any real symptoms and I stayed home for around half of September. Each sick day was a different excuse; sore throat, stomach virus, headaches. My grades were falling because I had missed so many assignments but I didn’t want to tell my mom about the bus. My mom thought I just missed my friends from Connecticut. She would ask why I was always sick. Why I no longer spent time with Howie. Why I had bruises on my legs. I usually told her I didn’t know or that I fell during recess.
One day on the bus John grabbed me by the hair and threw me on the floor. He sat on my face and I couldn’t breathe. He was too heavy to push off. I could feel weight piling up on me. Shoes stomping on my stomach and my rib cage. I tried screaming at them to stop but they wouldn’t. I tried to say that I couldn’t breathe but it was just a muffled sound lost in the frantic laughs and shouts. There was too much weight on me. I could hear people yelling things like “fag” and “pussy” but I didn’t know what those words meant at the time. Once they got off, I tried my best not to cry. They all laughed. I made eye contact with Howie and his laughter became uneasy. He looked away. He knew if he stuck up for me then he would get it just as bad. Stuff like this happened frequently. The bus driver did nothing to stop them.
I became an easy target. Even the kids who got bullied would join in to elevate their status. I was at the bottom. The person everyone could team up against. If I tried to fight back they would bend my arm behind my back and John would say “We don’t want to have to break your arm, do we?” I had no choice. Resisting only made them worse. I had to accept it. This was part of their daily routine now. I was nine years old. John became more aggressive once September was almost over. He liked stepping on my face and telling me to lick his shoes. He slammed his foot on my face so hard it gave me bloody noses. There was one day where he brought in a candle and told me I had to eat it. I refused. He kneed me in the ribs but I still wouldn’t open my mouth. Some kids held down my arms and John held my nose shut until I had to breathe with my mouth. He shoved the candle stick into the side of my cheek and said “Look guys he’s giving a blowjob.” I didn’t know what a blowjob was. John forced the candle down my mouth and a part of it broke off and got stuck in my throat. This caused me to choke, I couldn’t breathe and I kept gagging until I threw up all over myself and the seat next to me. John started calling me a cunt. Then he made me apologize for almost getting my throw up on him and for not appreciating the candle. I apologized. I had my vomit all over my clothes. Snot was running down my nose and I smelled horrible. John grabbed the back of my head and shoved my face down in my throw up and said “You like that, bitch? You like that you fucking faggot?” He took off his belt and started hitting the side of my face with it. When I looked up, I saw Howie laughing.
Everyone was repulsed when they saw me in school that day. Washing my face and clothes in the bathroom sink was not enough to cover up the smell and hide the stains and splotches on my clothes. I had cried on the bus after John forced my head into my vomit. Howie and some other kids told the bus driver that I purposely made myself throw up to be funny. I had to stay and clean the seat. This made me late to school. The administration called my parents and told them I purposely threw up on the bus to be funny. My parents were upset with me. They asked why I did it and I said I wanted the kids to like me. The story told to the bus driver was that John had a candle for a school project and I took it from him and pretended to eat it as a joke. They said that John kept asking me to give it back but I wouldn’t. My parents told me it was very disrespectful, and they said I had to go to John’s house and apologize to him for almost throwing up on him and messing up his project. I had to do chores in the house to buy John a new candle.
My parents had a talk with me the next day. They told me that they knew I was having a hard time adjusting to school but that I couldn’t act out like that. I told them I wouldn’t and that I was sorry. I spent the rest of the day doing chores until my parents said I did enough to buy the candle. They were happy with my obedience, that night my family made a fire in the fireplace and put on a movie. My dad had gone up to bed halfway through so it was just me and my mom watching it. Fifteen minutes later my mom fell asleep on her chair. I wasn’t that interested in the movie so I walked over to the fire and sat down. I stared at the flames for a few minutes and then removed the screen. I brought my hands close to the fire. The heat felt good on my skin. There was a daddy long leg to my left. I stared at it. The spider was running up the wall. Its speed increased as I got closer. I grabbed one of its legs and held it while its other legs tried to curl around my fingers. I carried it to the fireplace and dropped it in.
It takes around 14 seconds for a spider to die once it is on fire. The spider’s burning legs shimmered as it danced in a terminal frenzy. I stared at the flames devouring the spider. Rapid misfirings of its neurological networks led the spider to some post-life pre-death lunacy. The glistening legs impulsively jolted the spider’s body in a surge of chaos until the legs shriveled up and the spider died. I stared at the fire until my mom woke up at midnight and told me to go to bed. I carried a lighter from the kitchen to bed with me that night. I ran my fingers through the flame. Index, middle, ring, pinky. Reverse. I liked watching the dim glow in the room when I flicked the lighter on. And the return to blackness when I released it. I played this game where I tried to keep one of my fingers in the flame for as long as I could until it was too painful. The next day I returned the kitchen lighter and took a lighter from my dad’s cigar box and kept it in my pocket. I liked the feeling of reaching into my pocket and holding it. Later that day I went with my parents to buy John a new candle. We brought it to his house, I wrote John an apology. His parents opened the door and called him down. I told him I was sorry for being disrespectful to him on the bus. I reached into my pocket and gripped the lighter. John’s parents thanked me for coming over and buying him a new candle. I told John that I was sorry and that I wouldn’t do it again. John’s parents nudged him and said “John, what do you say?” John looked at me and said he forgave me. For a second I saw a smirk on his face. I gripped the lighter.
On the bus the next day, John and Howie sat near each other and gave me weird looks. This was unusual. They didn’t do anything on the bus. At recess I heard someone shout “Hey fagbag!” It was John and Howie. They took my arms and pulled me to the woods when the teacher wasn’t looking. John looked at me and said “You fucking snitched on us?” I didn’t. I told them I haven’t told anyone. “Remember what we said we would do if we found out you told someone?” I looked at Howie but he didn’t say anything. John punched me in the balls and a gush of sharp pain shot through my body. My vision became blurry and I tasted blood in my mouth. John grabbed my head and slammed it against a tree. I swore that I never told anyone. I begged them not to hurt me. Howie smashed a glass bottle and went up to me with one of the shards. John told me that I had a choice. I could either have my balls torn off or I had to eat a piece of glass. I was crying and I begged Howie to stop this. He didn’t say anything. John told me if I didn’t choose I was going to get both. I chose the glass.
I spent a few days in the hospital. There was severe damage to my esophagus tissue. I had to get an expensive surgery. The glass had cut the inside of my mouth and my throat so I had to stay away from a lot of foods. John and Howie said that I was trying to impress them by eating glass. They all told me not to but I did it despite their attempts to stop me. This was disconcerting to my parents. They said we were going to have a serious talk when I got out. The hospital workers didn’t take my lighter so I would take it out at night and glide my fingers through the flame. My whole body was in a lot of pain. I coughed up blood every hour and couldn’t sleep. I just stared at the flame. Flicked it on and off. Held the light close to my body.
The school suspended me for inappropriate behavior so I spent the next two weeks at the house. While my parents were at work I would walk around outside and burn pieces of grass. I lit ants on fire. I found stink bugs and would light half of their bodies on fire and watch them writhe for a few minutes until they stopped functioning. There was plastic in the house and I burned it. I liked the smell of burning plastic.
I piled leaves together in the woods, poured isopropyl alcohol on them and lit them. It made me feel good. I took paper from the house and held sheets in my hand as they burned. I stuck the lighter near my tongue and felt it flicker. I grabbed aerosol cans from the garage. My mom has these long candles she keeps in the storage room and I took one outside and held a flame up to it, watching it melt into a gooey dripping substance. There was candle wax on my hand. I liked the way it felt. There was a squirming bird on the ground, struggling to get up with a broken wing. I held the lighter and melted its face off.
My parents told me I had to go to therapy. I told them I understood. They said they were worried. I could hear their whispers as I left the room. They said they didn’t know what was wrong with me. I thought about telling them everything but I didn’t. That Friday night, the Curd’s had a barbecue and invited my family. I told my parents that I still needed to recover from the surgery. No one noticed the aerosol can was missing. I kept the lighter, the can, and the rubbing alcohol hidden at the bottom of my clothes bin under my bed. I could see the neighborhood gathering in the Curd’s front yard. Howie was playing with his dog. I thought about how I used to be friend’s with Howie. How I used to really like him. How he changed once school started. I took my fire supplies to the backyard and was about to search for a bird’s nest or an injured animal until I noticed Howie’s dog running up to me.
It wasn’t very hard to sell the house. I can still hear Howie shrieking and crying during the barbecue. I never liked New York anyway. Howie’s family didn’t press charges. And there was a disturbed silence that still echoes. A flaming ball of puppy love thrashing through the neighborhood. When puppies cry in pain, their shrieks are a lot sharper than usual. Apollo riding his chariot in a rampage of fury. We never spoke to anyone from that neighborhood again, anyone from Samuel Staples again. We moved before the funeral. It was a closed casket and we weren’t invited. I still have my supplies in my room. There’s a lot more to burn in Connecticut. I sometimes wonder what Howie and John are up to, if they’ve grown out of their bullying activities. I can smell plastic burning. I spend sleepless nights staring at flames. Running my fingers through their blistering solace. And I still think about that dog, how he thundered through the neighborhood in a catastrophe of iridescence and mayhem. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.