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We say grace before supper every night. But on one occasion, we didn’t, and it was a very strange incident. I remember my mom had called me to supper, the three of us, she and I along with my friend Robert. Usually we would wait on dad to get home from his nightly checkup on the farm, but tonight he was taking especially long, and the food was starting to cool. So I pulled myself up from the ground and my game of checkers with my pale arms holding tightly onto the back of the couch, and my friend Robert and I ran to the dining room. I slowed down and walked into the mismatched room full of old and worn furniture just as the door rattled open. Not only was it dad, but also a boy around my age standing there. The boy was wearing a slashed and dirty uniform like the kids at Pritchett’s Catholic School wore. Underneath his eyes were swirly brown marks, and when he blinked, the tops of his eyelids were stained a dark scarlet. Aside from that and the mess of his uniform, I would have easily taken the boy for just another spoiled brat. But he was shaking so badly I could almost cry for him. Almost.
“He was tied to a tree out by the first cow pasture. I’ve never seen a kid in such a fit. Never seen anything like it. And he hasn’t talked all this time,” Dad said, nudging the kid inside and seating himself at the table.
“Richard, don’t be so rude,” Mom said, and then turning to the boy, “Welcome, I’m Mrs. Tullin, but you can call me Judith. And this is my daughter, Erin. She’s in fifth grade at Darlington, the public school, you know?”
The boy nodded his head yes.
“Eat whatever you want. We’ve got plenty. This is a farm, y’know,” I said, giving him a shy smile. He nodded again, not returning my kind gesture.
We were all silent for a while. The boy was attentive to manners, folding his napkin in his lap, the crease facing his body. Or maybe he was just downright shy. Since he was in a house where he’d never been, he seemed incapable of serving himself any food. Robert and I caught eyes, giving each other a look that said, “What’s with him?” So I cut the boy a slab of ham and put it on his plate. Then my mom spooned him some peas, and my dad grudgingly placed two biscuits on his plate. Biscuits are my dad’s favorite. After a while, my parents started talking to each other, and the boy began to eat. He shoveled it all in like this was the last supper he’d ever get. And then he started to talk, his voice was swift and shrill, pitched like the pigs squeal when being slaughtered. We all listened intently.
“I didn’t mean to trespass, and really it wasn’t me… I just… I just, I was being forced up here. I don’t even like the woods… I don’t like being outside in the first place. I’m not meant to be. We were at Pritchett’s School, my school. Can’t you tell by my uniform? I hate it. I really do. But we were there and the bell for the end of the day had just rung, so I was making my way out of the classroom. I had so much homework I just worried over it, and as I was dragging my bag I thought it was going to break--”
“Slow down, slow down. We’ve got all the time in the world,” Mom assured him, raising her eyebrows in a curious manner.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you… Anyway, I wasn’t looking where I was walking and I accidentally tripped over Matthews’s heel. Matthew, he’s a big fellow, a real farmer-looking type--”
“Oh, really? And what is that type like, might I ask?” Dad inquisitively asked in his gruff voice, as rolled his sleeves up to the elbows on his burly arms.
“Sorry, again. I really am,” the boy apologized. It looked like he was about to burst into tears, but after a brief silence, his peculiar voice started up again. “He’s a real lug, is what I mean to say. He’s got a big belly and he can flex his neck, and he has the biggest Adam’s apple I’ve ever seen. He says he can put a rock in his mouth, then swallow and break it in his neck. But I don’t know if that’s true. He’s just a big fellow. So I tripped over his heel and my bag broke open. I said sorry really fast, the fastest I’ve ever said it, but that doesn’t make a difference to Matthew. No, he called his friend Tyler over and they said they wanted to play a game with me. I couldn’t disagree, you know?”
And we all thought he was just using “you know” as an expression. But he was just waiting, pausing the story with a gripping cliffhanger.
He must have thought we were ignorant. “Yes, we know,” Mom replied politely, though I could see through her smile, that her creamy white face was turning pink and adjusting her slim body in the wooden chair. She was getting anxious.
“So I didn’t disagree. I just stood up and looked at them while I waited to hear the rules of the game. Matthew said I had to close my eyes. So I did,” Oliver shifted in his seat, wringing his hands together as if it would dry the cool sweat off of them. “I heard my books rustling on the floor, and I guess they were kicking them to the corner of the classroom. ‘Now open them,’ he said. So I did and I waited to hear the next rule. ‘You know,’ he says, ‘lots of games are actually very tricky. Aren’t they, Oliver?’”
Oliver, that was the strange boy’s name. And so he went on. “’Yeah, they are,’ I said to Matthew. He said, ‘so we aren’t going to tell you the rest of the rules. You’re just going to do what we say.’ Of course I agreed again. Matthew, he’s a big guy, you know?”
“Yes, we know.”
“They told me to go into the teacher’s cabinet and steal some rope. I did, but they said it wasn’t long enough and told me to go to the janitor’s closet, they would have more rope. I did and thankfully Matthew and Tyler were satisfied with the janitor’s rope. Then they led me outside into the forest and we walked for a long time,” He sighed, as if remembering how exhausting it was. “I’ve never walked so long, but, like I said, I’m not an outdoors person. I think I said that. Well, I’m not. So we walked this long, torturous time and we stopped walking in front of the biggest tree I’ve ever seen. Tyler said, ‘lean back against the tree.’ So I did, and then Matthew smiled and laughed as he tied me to it, Tyler was laughing, too, and held me against the tree so I wouldn’t run. I started to cry, just a little bit, but I knew they’d make fun of me if I did, so I tried to hold it back. Matthew said, ‘we’re gonna see how long you can last out here, okay?’ I said okay, and then they snickered and walked off…” Oliver straightened his back against the old wooden chair and tugged on the hem of his collard shirt, “I thought maybe they’d come back, but they didn’t, and now here I am. Oh, thank you Mr. Tullin. Thank you for saving me. I really should be going now.”
What a strange boy. But of course my parents wouldn’t let him go home alone in the dark. They didn’t want the whole thing to happen again.
“Oh no you don’t,” my dad started, using his napkin to wipe the sides of his chapped lips. “I’ll be driving you home.” My dad pushed himself out of his chair and took his flannel coat off of its hook as he made a fist pushing his arm through the sleeve.
On the way out, my mom turned to me, “Go say goodbye to your new friend.”
Robert followed me as I walked outside and caught Oliver’s eyes, but before I could say anything Oliver looked at me with his dark eyes and said, “I shoulda known the real trick Matthew was playing was that I had to come around trash like you.”
I, was so taken aback, I didn’t know what to do.
“Wow, what a jerk,” Robert said after the creaky door had been slammed shut behind his costly shoes.
Yeah, I agreed.