One Night

January 20, 2011
It was a Tuesday morning when things started to get really bad for me. I walked into school late, so I was alone in the hallway when I heard somebody walking toward me. I peered around the door of my locker and saw Derek standing a few feet away, a smug smirk on his face.
"Hey, f**." He said, walking closer.
I shoved my backpack into my locker, trying to ignore him. Then, I felt his hands clutching my shoulders. Derek shoved me into my locker, my face smacking against the metal edge. I tasted blood in my mouth as I struggled to free myself from his vice-like grip.
Suddenly, I was pulled from the locker, his hands were released, and he said loudly, "whoa there, little guy. Almost fell over, didn't you?"
I turned and saw Mrs. West, one of the freshman English teachers, walking down the hallway toward us, her eyes narrowing in suspicion.
Derek smiled and nodded at her, “Good morning, Mrs. West.”
Her expression cleared and she smiled at the two of us, the looming linebacker, and the short, thin loser. “Good morning boys.” She started to walk away, then turned back and said to me, “Oh, and Virgil? Be careful. Derek won’t always be around to help you.”
I faked a smile, one of those smiles that barely tug at the corner of your mouth, “Yeah, thanks Mrs. West.”
Once the clicking of her heels faded from earshot, Derek shoved me against the locker again, one massive hand tight on the front of my shirt. His eyes bored into mine for a brief second, and I hoped he wouldn’t see the fear that flooded my face for a moment. He let me go, being sure to slam my head against the metal.
I slid down to the floor, letting the spots clear from my eyes as Derek walked away, his footsteps heavy against the linoleum.
I was cautious for the rest of the day, careful not to do anything that would upset Derek or one of his moronic cronies. It wasn’t easy either, since every time I saw him in the hallway he flashed me a menacing smirk.
At the end of the day I saw him hovering outside my math classroom, so I decided it was a good time to make up the math quiz I had trouble with last week. I spent more time on it than I needed to, checking and double-checking each of my answers. By the time I finished, it was almost four in the afternoon, and I figured Derek would be gone.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy as I walked down the hallway toward the exit. I glanced over my shoulder as I walked out the front door toward the parking lot, my shoes squeaking against the wet pavement. It was barely drizzling out, the kind of rain that would make my best friend, Jessica, complain about her hair. I smirked as I thought of her, tan, slim, the kind of girl that made men on the street speechless when they saw her. We had met in kindergarten, and bonded over a love of the color purple, a wish to be a dancer, and a crush on Rick Clark, the cutest boy in school. I couldn’t help but compare myself to her in my head. While we were both thin and blonde, that was where the similarities ended. She was tall, built like a model, whereas I took after my mother and was on the shorter scale. This put me at a severe disadvantage to Derek and his crew, but at least my dad never made me play basketball.
As I approached my car, my eyes fell on the shiny, red exterior of Derek’s racecar. It’s the kind of car that makes guys’ jaws drop, and makes girls want to be the one sitting in the passenger’s seat. Everyone knows that’s Derek’s car. Everyone knows you do not touch it, unless you have a death-wish.
I whirled around, suddenly paranoid. If his car was here, it meant he was here also. Satisfied when he was nowhere in sight, I hurried to my car. As I unlocked the front door and slipped in, the hairs on the back of my neck prickled. I slammed my door shut and turned to stare at Derek’s car, just as the front door closed.
My heart leapt as I wondered where he had been hiding. I quickly started my car and resisted the urge to peel out of the parking lot as quickly as the show-off jocks at my school.
The whole ride home I was trying not to stare into my rearview mirror. I relaxed as I pulled into my driveway, partly because I was sure he hadn’t followed me, and partly because I knew my father would be home in a few hours, and practically every guy in school has been afraid of him since I was elementary school and he yelled at a teacher for hitting on my mom.
I lugged my backpack into the house, my mind already wandering from Derek to my irritation at my history teacher for making my use this massive textbook. I kicked the door closed, toed my shoes off and headed to the kitchen to make a snack.
Five minutes later, I walked back to the front hall to get my backpack, my mouth full of peanut butter and crackers. I grabbed the handle at the top of my bag and glanced out the window as I went to heave it over my shoulder. I froze, my bag thudding to the ground, as a slick, red car slowly drove past, the engine revving as it passed my front door.
I swallowed, but my mouth suddenly felt dry. I backed away from the door, then rushed to the kitchen, drinking orange juice straight from the carton.
I leaned against the counter, “He probably just had to go to the store or something,” I muttered to myself, brushing my hair back from my face. I glanced down at my plate of crackers and peanut butter on the counter, and pushed it away. I wasn’t feeling hungry anymore.
I shook my head, trying to fling out the thoughts of Derek, and went back to the hallway to get my backpack. As I straighten, the bag heavy on my back, the red car slowly drove past again, this time in the opposite direction.
I closed my eyes, “This can’t be happening.” I stood there, shocked, until the car went past a third time, this time moving so slowly I could see Derek looking out the window at me, one thick, dark eyebrow rising, and the corner of his mouth curling up, a cruel glint in his eye.
My face flushed and my head reeled for a quick second, then I sprung into action. I locked the door, the heavy slide of the deadbolt satisfying and comforting. I went through the living room, pulling the curtains shut. I locked the back door, and slammed the windows down so hard the glass shivered in its frame.
I curled up on the couch in the living room, staring out the front window, watching Derek’s car drive past a fourth time, and a fifth. I leaned back against the pillows of the couch, staring at the front window. My eyelids started to grow heavy and even as I fought against sleep, it was a losing battle.
I woke up as the front door closed. My dad raised one eyebrow at me, shifting the bag of groceries in his arms across his chest, “Since when do we lock the front door?”
I shook my head, “I didn’t mean to lock it.” I felt the heat rising in my cheeks as I tried to think of a believable lie, “I must have knocked the lock with my elbow or something when I was taking my jacket off.”
My dad just looked at me for a long second, then shook his head a little, “Okay.” He set the bag on the little table by the front door and began to take his shoes off. He stumbled a little, throwing out one hand against the table to steady himself. The table shifted, and the bag fell to the ground. A jar inside shattered; glass breaking through the bag and scratching the floor.
I sprang from the couch as my dad swore loudly, glass crunching under his boots as he hurried to the kitchen to get the broom. I knelt, and began to gather the larger pieces of glass. I gasped in pain as I felt a shard wedge its way into my palm. I sat back on my heels, pulling the glass out with my teeth, tasting blood. I pulled my hand away and looked at it, thick, red liquid oozed from the slice on my skin. I wrinkled my nose and got to my feet, tossing the other bits of glass in the trashcan near the front door.
I washed my hand in the kitchen sink while my father cleaned up the rest of the glass. He didn’t use gloves and he didn’t get cut once. His skin on his palms is thick, and calloused from working with engine parts all day. My hands are soft, with a few scars from childhood escapades; although most of mine involved sewing machines and cuts from ice skate blades, not trees and bikes.
My dad plopped onto the couch, one hand loosely clutching the remote, the other scratching his thinning hair. He turned the TV on to basketball, part of our usual routine: an hour of whatever sport was in season, then an hour of Project Runway or America’s Next Top Model. My dad turned the volume up to the perfect height for the two of us; soft enough so our ears weren’t ringing by the end of the night, but loud enough to discourage conversation.
My father muted the TV during commercials, but neither of us spoke to the other, not wanting the silence to be broken by anything other than the voices of announcers.
In the silence that descended us during the commercials, I replayed the events of the day in my head. Being shoved into the locker was a usual occurrence, Derek’s mild act of violence hardly phased me anymore; hell, even my classmates were used to seeing me get shoved around. Usually teachers didn’t interrupt interactions between Derek and I though, so that must have added a bit of an edge to Derek’s mood.
I tuned out the cheers coming from the TV and tried to analyze Derek’s behavior, just like my mom would have done. I already knew that Derek was the kind of person who thrived on the fear of others, so there must have been some kind of flaw in my ice-cold act today. He had taken things a step further today, testing his limits between bullying me, and taking things to a whole different level. I shivered, wondering just how much further he was planning on going.
Suddenly, my dad tossed the remote to me, which I of course didn’t catch. The clatter of the plastic on the tile floor startled me and I jumped slightly, leaping out of my seat, grabbing the remote before it skittered into the kitchen.
“Sorry.” I said lightly, sitting back down in my chair, tucking my legs daintily under me. I changed the channel to Bravo, where Project Runway was just starting.
Fifteen minutes in, my dad grabbed the remote from the coffee table and muted the TV, “Alright, Virgil, what’s wrong?”
I looked up at him, a deer in the headlights, “What do you mean?”
He just looked at me.
I realized I was gnawing on my thumb, the skin red and raw. I took my hand away and set it on my lap. “Nothing’s wrong.”
My dad looked back the TV, watching the silent figures race around, fabric flying out from their outstretched hands like wings, “Sure.”
He turned the volume back on and I jumped, startled.
At the end of the show, he got up stiffly from the couch, cracking his back. He yawned loudly, then clapped my shoulder with one large hand, “Goodnight, kid.”
“Goodnight dad,” I said softly, turning and smiling shyly at him.
He lumbered up the stairs, the banister creaking as he leaned on it. When he got to the top of the stairs, he turned to me, “Uh, look,” he said awkwardly, “I mean, you can… talk to me.”
I looked up at him, surprised, “Yeah, yeah, I know.”
He nodded, satisfied, and clambered up the rest of the stairs. I heard his bedroom door close and I heaved myself off of the chair, wearily climbing the stairs and going into my room.
I sat at my bed, staring at a photo of me and my mother. The picture had been taken a few weeks before we got the news about my mother’s cancer. The three of us, mom, dad, and I, had gone to Florida on a family vacation, where I had gotten a sunburn, and my mother had her corn-silk hair braided on the side of the road by women with skin like leather and squinted eyes that, when caught in the right light, looked almost pure black. I remember one of the women telling me what a pretty little girl I was, and saying I looked just like my mother. I had said nothing, looking at my feet. My mother had laughed, but few hours later, in the car, my dad had scolded me for not correcting the old woman. The funny thing is that, even now, six years later, I probably still could be mistaken for a girl, if you looked at me from the right angle. That’s probably the only thing that hasn’t changed.
My mom was amazing, and I’m not just saying that to respect her memory or whatever. She was genuinely amazing. I remember when I was ten, visiting her in the hospital, she asked my dad to go get me some hot chocolate so I could talk to her alone.
After his footsteps had faded down the hallway, she took my hand, staring into my eyes with her own, tired blue ones.
“Now, Virgil, there is something you need to know,” She said, her voice raspy.
I nodded, eager to learn from the smartest woman I had ever known.
She raised one eyebrow mischievously, “Now sweetheart, I think it’s time that you learned the story of your name.”
I hopped up onto the bed next to her, “I thought dad said I was named after that guy from The Godfather?”
My mom rolled her eyes, “Honey, I just let him think that so he wouldn’t get all miffed with me.”
We laughed together, identical in sound and pitch. She squeezed my hand, “Do you remember when I told you about Dante?”
I nodded. Now that I’m older, I know that being told the story of Dante’s travels through hell is kind of a strange bedtime story, but my mother was fascinated by it, which meant that I was too.
“Virgil was the name of the man who led Dante through hell. He was the one who made sure that Dante was safe.” My mother’s eyes were glistening, whether it was with tears or excitement I couldn’t be sure. “Virgil, promise me that you’ll keep your daddy safe, okay? Promise me that you’ll help him through this.”
“Mama,” I was shaking my head, “No… nothing’s going to happen-”
She pulled my forward, kissing my forehead, “I love you Virgil. You’re strong, and smart, and proud of yourself. And I know that you and your father can make it through this.”
I nodded, knowing that no matter what I said, my mother would get her point through. She was stubborn like that.
That was the last time I talked to her. I was in school when she went. My aunt came and picked me up. I remember running down the hallway in the hospital toward my dad, and jumping into his arms. I cried into his shoulder until I fell asleep.
I rolled over, facing the wall. I rubbed my eyes, then turned off the light, not bothering to change.

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