“Don’t talk to that boy, Luna,” my mom told me. “He’s trouble.”
“Why?” I asked. I was eight, and I may as well have been oblivious to the world itself with my ignorance.
“It’s not his fault,” she said, tearing her gaze away from the window and walking over to me. “He just comes from a bad family, that’s all.”
“What do you mean?” I questioned while she pulled my brown hair into a ponytail.
“I mean, you’re lucky, Luna,” she said when she finished, crouching down and looking me in the eye. “I work a lot and we don’t always see each other, but I do love you. Some people don’t have that. One day, you’ll understand.”
And with that the conversation was over. She took me to school, I kissed her goodbye, and I headed into my 3rd grade classroom. Ms. Taylor sat behind her desk, her nose in a book in preparation for the wild room of kids she was responsible for taming. I said good morning, and she smiled at me and said the same. I felt good for possibly making her day a bit brighter, just in case no one else has attempted to already.
I sat with my group of friends – yes, my clique of 8 year old girls – and joined their conversation. About what, I’m not sure, but likely Barbie dolls and those cute frosted Circus Animal crackers. I never really fit in there, but I don’t think anyone did. I knew I was the most disposable in the group, but I didn’t really care, because it didn’t matter. Somehow, I had the sense to see it for all it was; temporary.
I heard noises in the back of the classroom, and I didn’t have to look back to know what they were. I didn’t look back. I tried my hardest not to, bouncing my legs and telling myself to shut up, but I couldn’t. Even at 8 years old, I was utterly incapable of self-control.
“Could you leave him alone?”
The entire class was silent. No one was talking about ponies or animal crackers or Barbie Dream House, everyone was staring at Luna Rose. Luna Rose, the girl who was more ballsy than anyone in that damn classroom, including Ms. Taylor. Even she looked up from her romance novel at the sound of the deafening silence. All I saw were mouths showing lots with missing teeth and cavities and shock. No one was sure what to do next. They were all shocked that I just stood up for him, that anyone stood up for him. I was more relieved than I was ashamed, having carried around the guilt, pity, and annoyance I felt when witnessing him being bullied.
I thought the boys that were making fun of him would make some rude comment, but they just sat down and the girls gave me weird looks. I could clearly tell that I no longer had to witness the lame conversations taking place when I was around them, because I wouldn’t be included in them. Charlie just stares at me, more stunned than anyone in the room, the blue eyes he usually keeps pointed at the ground staring at me with such intensity the entire room could probably feel it. I turned and pretended I didn’t notice, but even then I could feel his gaze burning holes in my back.
I ate lunch alone that day. Charlie was nowhere in sight, but he never was, and no one seemed to care. After school, when we all left the classroom, he walked up to me.
“Thank you,” he said, nervously, looking from me to his dirty sneakers.
I knew what I should have done. I know it now, and I knew it then, but I didn’t do it, so it doesn’t matter. I wanted to say, “No problem,” or start a conversation to make him less fidgety and uncomfortable. But I walked away. I said nothing, just left him there and walked to my mom’s car, my heart heavy and filled with regret.
“What’s wrong?” she asks as soon as I get in. I’m still unsure of how mothers know your feelings even when you don’t know you’re showing them.
In response, I sobbed. I didn’t hold anything back, just cried and cried and cried. I’m not sure of my mom’s initial reaction, because my vision was blurred by my tears, but I’m sure it was a mixture of terror, shock, and confusion. Following the waterworks, I was able to give her a clear explanation. I told her everything, from the way they make fun of him and him thanking me and how I ignored him in return.
She sighed and ran a hand through her wavy hair, a habit of hers when she is really stressed—which is very often. She started to drive, probably racking her brain for something she could do to make the situation a bit better.
“I want you to invite him to dinner.”
I looked up at her with all the previous shock of my classmates amplified by 1,000. That morning she forbade me from talking to him, and now she’s inviting him to our house.
“No one deserves to be treated that way, no matter where they come from.”
I didn’t understand why my mom said that with such emotion then. I was only eight, and I could only comprehend what she was feeling as guilt. But it was much more than that. She saw herself in him. Her parents kicked her out of the house after she gave birth to me, but she still had to go to school and endure all the comments and harsh treatment from the students. She knew what it felt like to be alone, and she knew that it was awful, and she knew that she would never forgive herself if she subjected him to the same fate.
And the next day, I do apologize and invite him to dinner and his face lights up but he tries not to smile too hard. Everyone looks at us weird, but I don’t care, and he’s grown so accustomed to it that he doesn’t either. I ask him if he needs a ride home and he objects. I know I should just accept the fact that he wants to walk, but instead I push until he gives in and we’re both in the backseat of my mom’s Camry.
We don’t talk on the way there. My mom notices the silence and starts to ask him questions like, “How was school?” or “Do you play any sports?” and all kinds of filler questions to hide the fact that it was indeed an awkward situation.
When we got to the house, he pulled on the strings of his faded black jacket—a nervous habit—and looked frantically at his house. We got in, and my mom told him he could take off his jacket. I sensed panic in his eyes. He didn’t want to object, because that would be impolite, but he also did not want to take off his jacket. But he did, reluctantly, and before I could muster up the courage to tell him that he didn’t have to.
We sat and watched SpongeBob while my mom was cooking, and the simultaneous laughing at SpongeBob’s stupidity was the first time we bonded. My mom called us to the table and we ran, our little stomachs grumbling. He picked up the fork and began to eat, and my mom furrowed her brows at him.
“What’s that on your arms?”
He looked at her with wide eyes and quickly hid his arm under the table. He reached for his jacket string, but noticed that he wasn’t wearing it.
“Nothing,” he says, shooting her a fake smile and shifting uneasily in his chair. “I fell when I was walking to school.”
“Honey,” she says. “I know when someone’s lying. It’s a superpower of mine.”
He clearly bought the whole superpower theory, judging by the faint flush of his cheeks and his willingness to tell her afterwards.
“I was misbehaving,” he said, taking a bite of my mom’s spaghetti. “My dad hit me. It was my fault, though.”
My mom gasped, but tried as hard as she could to contain her shock. The dinner table was silent. I knew that parents were supposed to love their children, not hit them, despite my childish ignorance. I was confused as to why his mother and father didn’t love him, why they left him with marks on his body instead of kisses.
“It wasn’t your fault,” she said. She was starting to get angry. “No matter what you did, he had no right to hit you.”
“But I deserved it,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “My mom told me not to go downstairs after bedtime because that’s when he comes home, and I did. I shouldn’t have gone down. It was my fault.”
“He’s still not allowed to hit you,” she said, trying to keep a strong voice but tears were brimming in her eyes. “I’m calling the police.”
“No, no, no!” he pleads, his eyes wide and fearful. “Please don’t call the police. My mom says they’ll just make it worse.”
“Does he hit your mom, too?” she asked. She was unsure of what to do; whether she should call or leave it alone, since it was his business, not hers.
“Yes,” he says, bowing his head. “But she says if we call the police, it’ll just make things worse.”
She got up, sighing and running her hand through her hair. This was before she said the thing that changed my life forever. My mom was just full of surprises that week.
“Would he look for you if you just stayed here?”
He looks up, hopeful this time and nods his head. I was surprised with my mother, but happy that I may have improved his life, even if only slightly.
After that day, our friendship blossomed and we became closer than ever. He was the closest friend I’ve ever had, the only friend I’ve ever had. I remember talking to him at school no matter what those stupid kids said to him, and I remember getting sent to the principal’s office for punching Lilly Kendall in the face after she called him a bum. I remember making s’mores with him and my mother and his 16th birthday. I remember all these, the happy memories, but what I remember most of all, what I wish didn’t hurt so much, is his funeral.
My mother had an emergency and had to travel to her hometown, but she couldn’t afford to take Charlie with us. She told him to hang on, that we would be back soon, but he was only used to staying there for a certain amount of days, only long enough so that no one got suspicious, not for two weeks.
When I came back he was gone. We didn’t even get closure. He just left me. He swallowed the sleeping pills and left me here to die with his body. The older it gets, it decomposes. So do I. I’m empty. The blood stopped coursing through my veins when he fell to the ground. My heart stopped beating when his did. My mom is just as depressed as I am, our senseless bodies in sync and our sadness incurable. All we can do is replay the images of us in our heads and tell ourselves that he’s never coming back for us, no matter how hard we cry.