It’s easy to climb on the wagon when it stops beside you, especially when people wearing blithe smiles offer their hands to pull you up. If you accept their help and climb aboard, the diverse band of delighted folk heartily pat your back and shake your hand; some of the more daring might hug you. If you ask them what happens if you accept, standing in the middle of the road with a wary countenance, they’ll smile wider and say it only costs you. The wagon promises camaraderie and the opportunity to be in a community, and only a fool would dismiss such a thing. Who wants to be shunned, after all, when joining is as easy as never disagreeing or denouncing the opinions of the driver? It’s such a simple price to pay for belonging. We even take turns driving, you see, so in the end everyone has a chance!
The germane question is, “A chance to do what?”
Simon Jay, all of four feet and two inches tall and tousled brown hair and olive eyes, watches quietly as Pete Cunningham, senior schoolmate by a whole year, closes in on his marked prey. Today is Friday, and Simon wants to have a weekend not marred by Pete’s fearsome scowl and biting words, often accompanied by the humiliating chorus of tittering girls and boys. Simon doesn’t want trouble. He doesn’t want to be teased mercilessly for his unkempt bedhead, scrawny knees, and girly face. Most of all, Simon Jay does not want to go home in the evening and have to explain why he has a purpling bruise on his cheek. Pete isn’t kind enough to hit the arms or legs, where it is less overt and simpler to explain.
None of his classmates, nor his teacher who’s editing the lesson plan on her laptop, think twice about bashful Simon at his desk in the third row, fifth seat, with his head bowed and shoulders hunched.
“Hey!” Pete barks sharply. Pete almost has the entire room’s attention with one exclamation. Everyone’s heads rise to glance over at Pete, wondering if he is talking to them. Everyone except for the tiny girl scribbling on the back of her math worksheet with a naked blue crayon. His target, Ellis Lesley. She’s a relatively soft-spoken young girl with a tendency to smile goofily at whatever she is drawing on her paper that day. She likes to jump from the swings on the playground after going as high as she can. She once tried to climb a tree, but the teachers had put a quick stop to that.
“Hey, I’m talking to you!” Pete repeats. He crosses his arms and leans forward at the waist in such a way that makes him seem taller and more intimidating. Simon slowly slinks down his chair until he resembles a piece of paper folded one too many times, but does not look away from the confrontation and its inevitable end.
Ellis scratches her elbow, puts down her crayon, and looks up at Pete with wide, unblinking hazel eyes. When Pete does not say anything else but loom, she waves her hand and wiggles her fingers. “Hello,” she says. She plucks a dark green crayon from the worn box and offers it to Pete. “Do you wanna color?”
Pete swipes the crayon and carelessly drops it on the carpet. He keeps eye contact with Ellis the entire time. The gaggle of children watching begin to giggle at Pete’s bravado. Simon Jay knows that they’re only laughing because they don’t want to be beaten by Pete after school either. Bolstered by their apparent support, Pete puffs out his chest and looks down his nose at Ellis.
“You’re weird,” he informs her matter-of-factly. “Swingin’ all day like a weirdo, and always coloring on your homework instead of doing it. Of course I don’t want to color with you! Not when you act like a loser.”
Undeterred, Ellis ducks beneath her desk, grabs the crayon, methodically puts it back in the box with painstaking care. It’s organized to look like a rainbow. She nods at Pete. “Okay,” she says. Ellis stares at the older boy knowingly. “You don’t have to be able to draw,” she reassures him, “I can’t draw. I just like the colors.”
There is a stifling silence from the peering children. Pete’s face makes an odd expression, partly scowling and partly disgusted with a hint of bafflement. Ellis waits, but when he does not say anything again, she starts scribbling with the same blue crayon as before with an idle smile.
Simon is melting into his chair because he knows what happens next. The scared, anticipating looks exchanged between the other students says that they know, too. There’s an almost palpable excitement rising in the air. It smells like glue, stale Cheez-Its, and new books.
Pete draws himself up, and in one sweep of his arm, he overturns the box of crayons, scattering them on the floor. Ellis leans back, a startled look on her face at the aggressive move. “You’re a… a freak!” Pete snarls. His eyes are squinting and fierce and his teeth bared. Simon Jay thinks he looks like a villain, like Loki. “It doesn’t surprise me that you can’t draw, since you aren’t smart enough to do your homework! No wonder you only have a mom!” Pete finishes his tirade by clicking his tongue sharply, taking Ellis’s colorful math sheet, and crumpling it into a ball before sauntering to the trash can and depositing it. He glares at her one more time, and then he returns to his desk. On his way, he purposefully kicks Simon’s shins.
The other students snicker and titter and joke, ribbing each other playfully as they turn back to their assignments. The teacher’s fingers click-click on the keyboard as she obliviously works on. Simon Jay discretely stares at Ellis, at the twist of her mouth, at the redness of her cheeks, and understands. However, he doesn’t approach her. He doesn’t help her, or talk to her. Instead, Simon cradles his book bag.
Today is Friday, and he wants to go home without a bruise on his face that makes his parents ask him if everything is okay at school.
“A chance to do what?” you ask.
“A chance to drive!” the passengers of the wagon will reply enthusiastically.
You watch them skeptically. “How do you get the chance to drive if you can’t have a different opinion than the current driver?”
They don’t answer. Rather, the smiles on their faces are faltering and incredibility raises their eyebrows as they realize that you aren’t buying their pitch. Oh, the wagon thinks. We can’t bring this one aboard, not when you are already disobeying the rules.
I guess you don’t belong.
Ellis Lesley becomes Pete’s favorite target. Pete determinedly trudges after her at every opportunity he sees. He shoves her on the playground, he steals her crayons, and he rips apart her pictures and throws them away in front of her. Ellis comes to school every day looking more miserable, her eyes redder, and she doesn’t jump from the swing anymore. The other kids watch passively, daring their friends to be a snitch and tell the teacher that Pete is bothering poor Ellis. They whisper these things to one another in secret, avoiding the word bullying because then Pete will come after them too. He goes after anyone who accuses him of being someone as terrible as a bully.
Simon Jay knows personally because he called Pete a bully straight to his face two years ago, in the first grade. Ever since, Pete has trotted after him faithfully and beat him up once a week. When Ellis became Pete’s favorite a month ago, Pete forgot about Simon, and Simon has taken advantage of it by sneaking during class and sneaking during recess. He doesn’t want to remind Pete that he is there, and is content to ignore Ellis’s tears and Pete’s vindictive glee like everyone else.
A month and one whole week since Pete has begun ignoring Simon, and Simon sees Ellis Lesley after school, sitting against the brick wall outside the cafeteria with her face in her hands. She’s alone with her coloring materials scattered all over the ground. Her book bag’s zipper is broken off and next to her feet while her book bag is a few inches away.
Simon Jay looks around, makes sure nobody is watching, and approaches.
He stands in front of her hesitantly for several long minutes. The buses honk and depart from the school parking lot. The chatter of children and parents walking away sits in Simon’s ears. Simon stands, and he listens to the hitched breaths of Ellis’s crying. The fear that Pete will somehow know about Simon’s kindness rattles Simon, but he decides that it doesn’t matter as much when his classmate is crying. He kneels next to her and leans his shoulder against the brick wall, and wonders what he’s supposed to do.
“Hi,” he says. Ellis’s crying abruptly diminishes to sniffling. Simon waits, but she does not say anything. “My name is uh, Simon,” Simon Jay says awkwardly. Ellis remains silent, and so Simon crawls to her book bag and starts organizing her art. He places them in piles based on types - colored pencils, crayons, and markers. When he has finished that, he puts them in the boxes and back in her bag. Simon sits up, glances at Ellis, and startles when he sees bloodshot hazel eyes staring back at him.
“Uh.” Simon stutters. He slowly puts her book bag and recovered art utensils beside her against the brick. “Uh. Sorry for um, yeah.”
“Thanks,” Ellis says softly.
Simon Jay grins crookedly, and Ellis Lesley grins back.
The wagon’s temptation never leaves. It persists throughout your entire life, stopping intermittent along your road. You are isolated, different, from the rest, but the band on the wagon is determined to make you see that you are in the wrong. They’re coming closer to you now, but instead of stopping, they speed right by because you paved another a road. It is parallel to yours, so the wagon will always be within sight, but they won’t stop. Don’t get me wrong, they’ll still call out to you, still offer promises and artificial sweets and boisterous handshakes.
But you’re different. You decided that you had had enough of it, and were no longer going to enable the wagon to tell you what to do.
Nobody can control you, but yourself.
Simon Jay, all of five feet and eight inches tall and tousled brown hair and olive eyes, stares down his crooked nose at his best friend. His hips are cocked and hands in fists, like the day he had challenged Pete Cunningham and gotten his nose broken in the ensuing fight. Ellis remembers that school year fondly, for all of Simon’s griping over the numerous detentions he had served over a two-week period.
“No, we are not going to King’s Dominion this summer,” Simon says, exasperated. “You said your mom already rented a beach house when you asked two months ago, Ellis. Why do you want to go to an amusement park all of a sudden?”
Ellis Lesley rolls her eyes and cocks her own hips right back at him. “Don’t sass me, Simon,” she retorts. Simon flaps his hands uselessly at her.
“What sass?” he demands. “I am not sassing!”
“I’m seeing all of your unwelcome sass."
Simon throws his hands in the air, clearly finished with Ellis and her needling. “I hate rollercoasters,” he grumbles.
“You’re such a party pooper,” Ellis says with equal exasperation.
Simon squints at her. “I,” he says, “distinctly remember that time when I wanted to go paint balling. I remember this girl, ‘bout yay high and just as shortly tempered, throw a fit worthy of giving the paint ball staff therapy. All because they did not have exclusively blue paint balls.”
“That never happened,” Ellis says loftily.
“Keep telling yourself that.”
Ellis Lesley laughs, skipping ahead of her friend as he walks behind her at a more sedate pace. Simon Jay smiles affectionately at her boundless enthusiasm. Pete Cunningham and the classroom of terrified third graders under his iron thumb are naught but a distant memory, left to the past as two best friends refuse to allow anyone to make them someone they aren’t.