“Peter, please pay attention.”
Peter sat up straighter. In the afternoons, he found it increasingly difficult to keep his mind on what the teacher was saying, especially if she was droning and it wasn’t very interesting. But even if it was, he had a hard time concentrating.
Behind him, he heard a voice; it was Charlie’s voice, and he almost certainly was speaking to Brock. “He’s falling asleep again. I think he earns money giving blowjobs at night at that restroom in the park. That’s why he’s always sleepy in the afternoons.”
Then he heard Brock’s cackling laugh.
Peter tried not to let it bother him. He was more concerned with what they did to him when they could catch him after school. He could usually avoid them, but wasn’t always that lucky.
Today he wanted to see if he could get home unscathed because maybe Mr. Laurenson had a job for him. If he could only make a few bucks, he could buy a chicken! He was a fair hand at making chicken soup. He’d need some carrots and onions, too, but knew a dumpster where he could usually find things, and if he got there at just the right time when the produce man disposed of today’s veggies so he’d have room for tomorrow’s, the ones he could gather would still be fresh.
He didn’t have much. That really didn’t bother him. He’d known nothing else in his life. When things were hard were when he didn’t have enough to eat. That made everything hard, even staying awake in class. But having clothes that he’d outgrown and got second hand, shoes that worked better in the summer than the winter, a coat with no lining and a tear on one sleeve, those were just part of the deal, part of who he was. He’d learned not to care about things he had no control over.
He didn’t really understand why some of the kids at school, ones like Charlie and Brock, thought because he was poor, he should be picked on. It was a part of his life that made no sense. He knew why he was poor. He didn’t have a father and is mother was sick a lot. She worked when she could, but holding down a job when you couldn’t be relied on to show up, well, she worked when she could, and that was that. Otherwise, it was up to him, and he had to go to school. He’d been through the ordeal of missing school and the grief that caused too many times. Enough was enough. He had to go to school.
She cleaned people’s houses and did their laundry when she was able, and if she was working every day they had enough money to get by. Certainly not for clothes for him when it wasn’t absolutely necessary. Even when they had money, he got what he needed at the thrift store. No, it was having enough to eat that was the problem.
They lived in a basement of a house where an old couple lived. The old couple didn’t have much, either, and not enough to help them with anything but the basement rooms, but they were nice people; they let Peter and his mother stay in their basement and she cleaned their house for them when she could. Peter didn’t know how they’d live if these folks didn’t allow them to stay there.
He simply didn’t know why being poor meant he should be picked on. So he was poor; so what? But there were several boys in his sixth grade class that went out of their way to make sure he never had a good day at school. They’d taunt him at school when no teachers were around, and Charlie and Brock would wait for him off the grounds where there wasn’t much the school could do. The principal would ask him about the occasional black eyes and sore ribs, but when Peter told him what had happened on the way home, the man would shake his head, and that would be that. And Peter didn’t always get beat up. Sometimes they just messed with him.
His mother was sick again, coughing as she did so often, coughing so hard it would leave her weak, too weak even to stand up. He hadn’t had anything to eat today, and very little last night, either. When he was done at school today, he’d see if Mr. Laurenson had anything he could do. Mr. Laurenson frequently needed small jobs done, and the few dollars Peter earned doing them was often the difference between dinner or none. His mother needed the food to keep up her strength. She needed the food more than he did; he was small, and she was an adult. Maybe he’d be able to make enough money to buy that chicken. She liked his soup. And if they didn’t eat all of it, he might even have some for breakfast tomorrow.
Oops. He wondered how many times Mrs. Fox had called his name. Sometimes, when he hadn’t had breakfast and lunch, he found his mind wandered to the point he became oblivious to what was going on around him. He hated when that happened and a teacher noticed. He didn’t like attention being called to him. It just made it worse with the boys who found him a target.
“Yes, Mrs. Fox?”
“Just checking, Peter. Please stay with us.”
“Sorry, Mrs. Fox.” Peter looked down at his desk. Behind him, he heard Charlie chuckle and say to Brock, sitting next to him, just loud enough so he was sure Peter could hear, “Look at that shirt. I can see his bony back through it. Christ, he probably found it in a dumpster.” Charlie was one of the worst.
“Class, just a reminder—bring your Valentine cards in tomorrow and at the end of the day we’ll pass them all out.”
In the background, Peter heard Brock whisper, “Peter never brings any in for anyone. I used to think it was because he couldn’t afford any. But maybe it’s because he’s gay. That might be the reason. That explains the being tired in the afternoon, too. With the blowjobs.”
Peter sighed. Another reason for them to beat him up. Not that they needed one.
At afternoon recess, he sat on a bench reading one of the stories in his English book instead of joining the others running around the field. He didn’t have the energy for that, and his stomach was hurting again. Besides, he liked reading; the stories took him away, and that was something to look forward to.
He usually sat on a bench that was closest to the school. If he used one farther away it was more likely some boys would join him there. There’d be a bunch of them and they’d say things that he’d learn not to let bother him, but they wanted him bothered and if he showed he wasn’t, they’d do things, like take his book away and tear it up, or mess with him physically. He liked being able to sit where he was now. It was safer.
He was reading about a boy who’d been kidnapped. Mrs. Fox said Robert Lewis Stevenson was a great author. Peter thought the book was a little old-fashioned, but he was able to get into it. For a few minutes, he was able to forget about being hungry.
“Can I sit down?”
Peter jumped. He was always aware of where he was and who was around him unless his mind was wandering, and it hadn’t been just then. But he had lost sight of his surroundings, immersed in the book as he’d been. He tried to never let that happen. It just had, and he was both mad and surprised at himself.
He looked up and saw an eighth grader standing in front of him. Peter was small for his age. He’d once heard someone say it was because he didn’t get enough nourishment. Just another thing he had little control over. Like being in sixth grade, the youngest grade group in his middle school. Most everyone was larger than he was, but especially the eighth graders who all looked very large to him. This one was larger than most.
When Peter didn’t answer, the boy tried again. “Can I sit down? Please?”
Peter was not used to politeness directed toward him. No one ever asked his permission to do anything. He barely knew how to respond, but then, at last, he nodded.
The boy sat, then asked, “Do you know who I am?”
Peter shook his head.
“I’m Grant Taft. Your mother was working for my family, then a few days ago just didn’t show up to work any more.”
He stopped. Peter wasn’t sure what this was about. Was Grant blaming him? It didn’t sound that way. He didn’t sound mad. He sounded nice, concerned. Peter didn’t like it that a kid at school knew his mother cleaned houses. There was nothing at all wrong with that, but Peter knew it would just be one more thing to get teased or beaten up about. He hoped this kid, Grant, wouldn’t tell anyone, but Peter couldn’t say anything about that; it would just give the kid the idea. Although, from the quiet way he was talking, and his body language, this seemed to be a nice kid, so maybe he wouldn’t do that. However, he seemed to be expecting Peter to say something. Peter wasn’t sure about that, or what to say, so simply remained quiet.
Grant nodded, as though confirming something. “My father—he’s an attorney. He knows people. I guess he’s important. Anyway, he was surprised when your mother didn’t come back. Puzzled, too, because she seemed to like working at our house. So he decided to find out why she disappeared. He’s like that.”
He stopped again, and this time Peter found he had something to say. “She got sick. She gets sick a lot. She couldn’t come back.”
“Couldn’t she have phoned? If she had, my father would have told her to let him know when she could return. He liked her.”
Peter dropped his eyes. “We don’t have a phone.”
Grant watched him silently for a moment. Then he sighed. “I want to tell you something you probably don’t know. Why my father was curious. Why he liked her. It’s a little embarrassing for me. But I want you to know. Can I tell you?”
Peter sat up a little straighter, and took a quick glance at Grant before looking down again. But he managed to nod, and Grant began.
“My father keeps some money in his office at home. That’s the embarrassing part, talking about money. But it’s part of what I want to tell you. See, he has clients, and sometimes they pay him in cash, a lot of them do, and it isn’t surprising for him to have quite a bit of money on hand. He just sticks it in a drawer of his desk and doesn’t think much about it. And the other day, he had a stack of bills on his desk a client had just given him. I saw it. Well, when I was talking to him, he was both listening to me and moving papers around on his desk at the same time, and he managed to knock the pile of twenty- and fifty-dollar bills over onto the floor. I helped him pick them up and he shoved them in the drawer. I teased him about it.”
Grant paused, remembering what had happened, then continued. “Your mother came the next day. She cleaned his office, and when he came home that night, he found she’d set four twenty-dollar bills on his desk, along with a note saying that she’d found them behind the desk.”
Peter nodded. He knew his mother was honest. She’d told him about some of the things she’d found, cleaning people’s houses, and used it as a lesson to him about being honest, and about how it was even more important when you were poor. He wasn’t at all surprised to hear what Grant was saying. He even smiled, getting distracted, his mind picturing how much they could have used that money. They wouldn’t have been hungry for two weeks with eighty bucks. But he knew her self-respect was worth more than that.
“My dad wanted to thank her in person, but that was the last time she came to work. Well, my father is sort of stubborn.” Grant grinned. “He wanted to tell her he appreciated her honesty and came home early the next day so he could tell her in person, but she wasn’t there, and she hasn’t called, and so—well, he told me he was going to find out why.”
“She was sick,” Peter repeated.
“I know. My dad had her name, and when he wants to find out about somebody, he does it. He found out lots of things. One thing was that she had a son named Peter, and he went to my school, and asked me if I knew you. I told him I did.”
“You did?” Peter looked up at Grant again. “I don’t know you. Why did you tell him that?”
“I told him I knew who you were. I think I know the name of every kid who goes to school here. When I told him that, he asked me to do something.”
When Grant didn’t say anything more, Peter knew he was supposed to ask what that something was, so he did. Grant smiled.
“He wanted me to talk to you and give you something.” Grant reached into his pocket and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. “He wanted her to have this as a very small way of saying thank-you for being so honest, and he wanted me to tell you, so you could tell her, that he wants her to come back when she can.”
Peter didn’t know what to say. Grant was holding the money out to him, and he had to take it. He did, and quickly shoved it in his pocket. He knew his mother wouldn't approve, but that twenty dollars would pay for food, and she desperately needed that. If she had food, she’d get stronger, and when she did, she would still have a job! Now all she had to do was get better. The twenty dollars would make a difference. Even if she wouldn’t be happy he’d accepted it.
Grant saw Peter thinking, and smiled. “That isn’t all. He found out from the school that when you’ve been absent, she’s sent in excuse slips saying that she was sick and you had to stay with her to help. He learned you’ve been absent lots of times. So he wanted me to ask you what was the matter with her?”
Peter looked up this time and held Grant’s eyes, looking squarely into them without dropping his own. He saw nothing there but concern, and what he saw appeared to him to be real, not put on for the moment.
“She went to a doctor once.” Peter had a twelve-year-old’s voice, light and high pitched. He spoke softly, and didn’t look at Grant as he spoke, so Grant had to pay attention to hear what was being said. “The doctor said she had bronchitis. He prescribed antibiotics, but she couldn’t afford them. He told her it was likely to come back frequently, and she needed to take care of herself. But we can’t afford that kind of medicine. So when she gets a cold or the flu it usually turns into bronchitis, and she just coughs and coughs. Eventually she gets better. Then, when she can find it, she goes back to work for as long as she can. She’s usually weak, and some of the work she does is strenuous, and maybe that brings the coughing back.”
Grant nodded. “Thank you for telling me, Peter. Well, look, Dad was wondering. And now I can tell him what the matter is. I know what he’ll do. She was his employee and she got sick. He will get her medical attention. People who work for him full-time get health coverage, and he wants her to work for him full-time. He says hardworking, honest employees are worth keeping. I’ll tell him about her tonight. If it’s OK, he’ll have someone come see her tomorrow to check her out. It’ll be a doctor, and he’ll give her the medicines she needs to make her well. Then, when she’s strong enough, she can come back to work.”
Peter had to look away. He felt tears coming to his eyes, and didn’t want the older boy to see them. He stood up and took a couple of steps away. While turned aside, he nodded, then said, haltingly, “Yes. It’s OK if you want to do that. Send a doctor. Please.” And then, unable to stop himself, he started crying in earnest.
Grant watched, then stood and stepped forward and slipped an arm around Peter and moved him back to the bench.
“I’m sorry,” Peter finally stuttered. “I’m not used to anyone caring, to anyone being as nice as you are.”
“I’ve seen some of the boys in your class bothering you at recess,” Grant said. “Can you tell me about that?”
Peter did. Once started, he talked for a long time.
When recess was over, the two boys stood up. Peter asked Grant if he needed an address, and Grant shook his head. “My dad found out where you live. Someone will come tomorrow.
∞ ∞ ∞
Peter took off as quickly as he could when the final bell rang. He had to avoid any of the boys who sometimes waylaid him. He ran, which was hard and quickly tired him, but he was able to get to a grocery store without being stopped.
He grabbed a basket and quickly found a chicken and a few veggies. On his way to the check-out counter, he passed a Valentine’s Day display—hundreds of bright red heart-shaped boxes of chocolates. They were on sale, and Peter couldn’t help himself. With a huge grin on his face, he grabbed one. He was going to tell his mother the good news tonight, and feed her, and then present her with the box of candy and ask her to be his Valentine. He could picture her smiling at him.
He was halfway home when he found Charlie and Brock waiting for him.
“Thought you could get away, huh?” asked Charlie.
“Saw you running, just made us want to know why,” added Brock.
“Guess we need to see what’s in that bag, don’t we?” Charlie asked Brock, who nodded, grinning.
They were on the sidewalk with apartment houses and various storefronts around them. Peter looked around frantically. Charlie saw that and laughed. “No one’s going to save you. Now, let’s have that bag.”
Peter shook his head and started backing away, but Brock took two quick steps and was behind him. Charlie was in front. He stepped forward and grabbed the plastic grocery bag. Peter held on, but the bag ripped and the candy, veggies and chicken all spilled out on the sidewalk.
Charlie picked up the chicken, took one look at it, and then threw it down. It made a mushy sound, splatting on the sidewalk. Then, for good measure, Charlie stomped on it several times until it was just an oozing mush. Then he picked up the box of candy.
“Is this for your boyfriend?”
Peter shook his head.
“Then you won’t care if I do this,” Charlie said, dropped the box on the sidewalk and jumped on it, squashing it flat.
Peter watched, and couldn’t help himself. Seeing his dinner and his dream of his mother’s smile being destroyed so viciously, so meanly, tears started leaking from his eyes.
“Ha ha, look at the baby crying,” Brock called out.
Charlie turned to Peter, his hands now fists. “Let’s give him something to really cry about,” he said.
“I don’t think so.”
All three boys looked around and saw Grant walking toward them. He was considerably larger than either Charlie or Brock. When he reached them, he grabbed Brock around the back of his neck, then Charlie the same way. He squeezed both their necks, and they both yelped at the sudden pain. Then he yanked them both together so their foreheads smacked into each other.
They both screamed out. Without letting them go, Grant pulled them apart. Brock’s forehead was bleeding slightly, while Charlie’s simply had a red bruise.
“I saw what happened,” Grant said. “I saw you smashing Peter’s things. What’s wrong with you two, anyway?”
Neither boy said anything, and Grant shook them briefly, still holding their necks. When he stopped, he said to Peter, “Check their pockets. They need to pay you back for what they’ve ruined. Don’t worry, they won’t bother you again. I guarantee it.”
Very cautiously, Peter stepped forward. Now, he wasn’t crying. Now he was simply following orders. He found wallets in both their back pockets, and some loose change in their front pockets. All told, between them they had $23. 35.
“Take the money,” Grant told Peter, “and put the wallets in my pocket. We’ll keep them as evidence. I have a cell phone in my pocket. Can you use it to take a picture of the ruined chicken and the candy?”
“I don’t know how,” Peter said. “I’ve never used one.”
“OK. I’ll do it when I’m done with these two.” Then he shook his two prisoners again before speaking to them. “You two are the worst kind. You pick on someone too small to defend himself, and you ruin things that belong to someone else just to be mean. Let me tell you how things are going to be from now on.”
He shook them by the necks again to be sure he had their attention. “Peter told me about you two. When I saw you watching him run from school, then take off after him, I thought maybe I should follow. And this—“ he nodded at the ruined mess on the ground “—is what I found. That and you about to hit Peter.” He shook Charlie again, the boy’s head flopping around as he did so, his neck hurting where Grant’s fingers were pressed deeply into the sides of it. “From now on, you’ll leave Peter entirely alone. I’ll be watching, and so will my friends. If we see you having any contact with him, you’ll get beaten up so bad, you’ll wish you’d listened to me. If he tells me you’ve said anything about him, or spoken to him or in any way been involved with him, me and my buddies will find you and work you over so bad you’ll probably end up in the hospital. Besides that, my father is a lawyer. He’ll decide if he wants to sue your parents for the way you’ve treated Peter. If he does, he’ll get a lot of money and you guys and your parents will be poorer than Peter is. And that’ll be your fault.
“From now on, Peter is off limits to you. Do you understand?”
Both boys were hurting, and scared. They both said yes, they understood.
“And if you’re thinking this’ll only last till I’m in high school next year, well, it won’t work that way. I’ll tell a few seventh graders I know about you guys. They’ll take over for me and my friends. Peter is to be left alone! You understand?”
Both boys squeaked that they did. Grant continued.
“OK, I guess that’s it, other than you apologizing to Peter. I’m going to let you go now. When I do, you apologize, and you’d better mean it!”
Grant released both boys’ necks. He glared at them, and they both told Peter they were sorry. Then they turned and looked at Grant, he nodded, and they walked away, cautiously at first, then very quickly, both rubbing their necks where Grant’s fingers had been.
“I’ll walk with you back to the store, Peter,” Grant said.
He accompanied Peter to the store, then walked him home. They talked all the time they were together. Grant invited Peter to come to his house after school to play video games. Peter told him he’d never played a video game. Grant told him he’d teach him.
Peter made chicken soup for his mother, and gave her the candy. She smiled at him, weakly, and told him yes, she’d be his Valentine, and how proud she was of him.
∞ ∞ ∞
Peter went to school the next day, and Grant met him at the front door. “Did you have anything for breakfast this morning?” Grant asked.
“Yes, I had some of the leftover soup. A whole chicken makes a lot of soup.” Peter grinned at his new friend.
“Well, I brought you some donuts, just in case. I brought you a sandwich for lunch, too. But these donuts I brought, they smell good, and since you won’t need them all, being awash with soup, maybe I get to have one, too.” He laughed and handed a white bag to Peter, and Peter held it open to let Grant pick one for himself. They went to the cafeteria and both got cartons of milk, Grant paying for them. They sat together, munching and talking.
“Oh, I’ve got something else for you,” Grant said, and reached into his backpack and handed Peter an envelope.
Peter opened it and found it was a funny Valentine.
“What’s this for?” he asked.
“I was just afraid you might not get one in class today. Everyone should get a Valentine.”
“But I didn’t get one for you!” Peter protested.
“Yes you did. You’re smiling. For as long as I’ve seen you at school, I’ve never seen you smile. That smile’s my Valentine.”