My yellow, “Number 2” stops and stutters along the last sheet of clean paper in my homework notebook. Almost worn to the nub, there is only a small sliver of wood to fit between thumb and index finger. I’ve spent more time studying my mom’s signature than for a final exam. Grades are less important than the need to avoid shame. Anxiety spiders into my fingertips. I have a death grip on what’s left of the pencil. The tip snaps. A lawyer of fine graphite dust covers my sick note, The signature is gone. All that remains is a mess a tiny rubber eraser can’t undo. I turn to a blank page and pull a tiny red sharpener out of my desk drawer.
The cautious, clockwise turn reveals a new tip. I glance at the alarm clock on the nightstand next to my bed. Only a few minutes before I am supposed to be out the door.
“You’re going to be late for school Connor. I’m about to leave, You’ll have to walk.”
Mom’s voice booms from the downstairs kitchen.
“That’s ok mom. I will walk today.”
My concentration returns to the note. This time, slow and methodical. There is no pencil left if it breaks.
“Connor Has Not Been Feeling Well. Please Excuse Him From Gym Class”
I toss the worn out stub in the trash. My hand moves to my stomach and rubs in a circular motion. It remembers the last Dodgeball shirts and skins. It remembers the pain. It remembers the embarrassment.
A hard rubber, overinflated red dodgeball slams against my exposed gut. A purplish bruise rises from the pale, freckled, flab. The feeling of being stung by a thousand bees. A painful reminder of my unworthiness.
A direct hit from another direction. I stagger backward, my right foot catching on an untied shoelace. Unable to stop the fall, my right elbow slams into the floor. Searing pain distracts from stomach discomfort. I roll over onto all fours. I can see my contorted face reflected in the polished basketball hardwood. Sweat, floor polish and my zit cream mix penetrate my nostrils. I want to puke. I can hear kids laughing despite the ringing in my ears. Keds tennis shoes squeak against the gym floor as the game continues. Jukes and pivots to avoid being womped. A tear forms. It separates from my eyelid. A slow-motion descent, splattering on the back of my right hand. Don’t cry! An adult voice from the bleachers.
“Get up Connor, you’re not hurt. Move around. Work up a sweat. You could lose a couple pounds.”
A gentle hand is on my shoulder. A nice smell. A soothing smell. The tip of blonde hair brushing against my pimpled and sweat glistened back. The stinging subsidies.
Are you ok Connor?
I recognize the voice. Maggie from homeroom. She was playing volleyball with the girls on the other side of the gym.
“Yea, thanks, it doesn’t hurt much. I’m fine.”
Her hand never leaves my shoulder as I push myself to my feet, covering my stomach with my hands as I regain my balance.
“I’m glad you’re ok. See you tomorrow.”
“Yea, see you, and thanks for coming over.”
Her head turns over her right shoulder and smiles as she walks back to her side of the gym. The memory of her hand and smell stay. The stinging in my gut is fades.
A shrill whistle. The kind I hear watching the football team run drills as I walk by their practice on my way home. This day of torture is over. The class is over. Shirts and Skins is over. I hate shirts and skins.
The garage door opens. I hear my mom’s car backing out. I pull the pencil out of the garbage. A new note.
“Maggie, thank you for helping me. You are very nice”
If I hurry, I can leave it on her desk before she gets to homeroom.
I bound down the stairs, two at a time. A door slamming behind me, not in fear of shirts and skins but in anticipation of a conversation with Maggie. Today won’t be so bad.