Nothing Boy

Nothing Boy

short story by Sue Kim, age 15

They called you the freak.  The failure.  The nothing boy.

I called you Ashton.

2003

You never spoke during class. I met you in first grade, because Mrs. Wellington moved you away from the window to the seat next to mine. She said you were spending too much time gazing out the window. I introduced myself as Leah, not Amelia, because I hated that name. You smiled for the first time and said, “Ashton.”

You spent the rest of the year gazing at me.

2004

They started calling you things—the freak, the weirdo, the good-for-nothing boy. You smiled at the insults. We never talked, but I always smiled at you. I felt bad, thinking you needed someone to smile with. You always smiled back.

2005

Our first assignment as third graders was to draw something we did over the summer. The teacher beamed as she walked along the rows of desks, picking up completed drawings. When she got to you, she asked you what you were doing. You smiled at her, politely, and told her you were drawing a knight on a horse. Speaking slowly, as if you didn’t speak English, she told you to start over and follow the directions this time. She took your drawing and gave you a blank sheet. You smiled, nodded, and began to draw a knight riding a dragon.

2006

One day you walked into class with sticks in your hair and dirt on your clothes, your elbows scratched and bleeding. The teacher gave you a stern look and sent you to the back of the classroom. The corners of your lips curved up as the teacher reprimanded you for being late, and your eyes twinkled.

2010

Then, you stopped smiling.  When your name was called on the first day of school, you didn’t turn away from the window. You didn’t acknowledge the teacher, or your classmates, or even me. I tried to catch your eye, but you avoided my gaze. You showed up for school exactly on time and disappeared after class every day. I could never figure out where you went, and you answered my questions with shrugs and single syllables. My friends always teased me about you, but I kept trying.

You stopped smiling at the rumors, too—the pranks and the muffled giggles. I think they began to get to you; you withdrew into yourself as the other children shot up like beanstalks. You faded into the background, the quiet kid in the corner. Good-for-nothing became simply nothing. You were the nothing boy.

2013

Walking home from school one day, I was seized by an impulse and strayed onto a beaten path winding deep into the woods. I lost track of the trail pretty quickly, but somehow—and I think fate had a hand in this—I found you, lying peacefully on top of a rock in a clearing, gazing up at the sky. You were smiling to yourself, as if the world was a private joke, and you were the only one who was in on it.

You sat up, noticed me, and beckoned, still smiling. I sat down beside you and said nothing. That was the first time I noticed your makeup—a fine powder, dusting your cheeks and ringing your left eye. Below it, your skin was a deep, ugly purple, almost black, but barely noticeable beneath the makeup. I still said nothing.

Then you laughed and lay back down, gesturing for me to do the same. The rock sat just below a gap in the canopy, giving us a clear view of the blue sky, which stretched out for miles in all directions. White clouds drifted lazily across our vision, and you pointed at some of them, giving them shape and life and spinning wonderful fantasies around them. We lay there for hours, me saying nothing and you telling me stories drawn from the world around us.

It grew dark, and eventually I sat up. “We should go home,” I murmured, not wanting to go home at all. The smile slipped from your face, but you nodded, and we parted ways.

April 14, 2013

You started smiling at me at school like before, although you still didn’t talk. I didn’t mention the day in the woods. I kept meaning to go again, but I could never find the time. I wondered why you were so quiet at school, and when you started having to wear makeup. But I never asked, and you never told.

May 3, 2013

You stopped showing up to class, sometimes for days at a time. You wore less makeup—or perhaps it was that the bruises were getting harder to cover—and then stopped altogether. You quailed under the teacher’s concerned gaze, her probing questions. “Everything’s fine,” you said. “I tripped,” you said.

May 23, 2013

I decided it was time to make another visit to your clearing. I had half expected it to be empty, but you were there, in the same position as before, still smiling. It was a different kind of smile, though, sad and contemplative. You sat up as I walked in, same as last time, and said, “Hello, Leah.”

“Hi.” I sat down next to you, and you moved over to make room for me. Your skin was sallow and splotched with purple, like little withering plums in the desert. But your mouth still curled up in that way of yours, and I couldn’t help but smile back. “Where have you been?”

You lay down and said simply, “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”

I joined you in looking up at the sky, which was, I remember, decidedly not beautiful. Dark, gloomy clouds rolled across the sun, threatening rain and possibly a thunderstorm. “No.”

“It’s always darkest before the dawn,” you said in a weary voice, and I can still hear you saying it, because it was the only time I had heard you so openly sad. I don’t think you were talking about the weather.  I asked you what was wrong, referring to everything—school, your bruises, your silence.

“I’m happy out here,” you said, by way of explanation. Then, as if you had suddenly made up your mind about something, you began to talk. You told the stories of your bruises and injuries, touching each one as you explained how it had come about; the black eye was from your father, who had come home drunk and raging one day; the fading red welt on your cheek was from your mother, after you told her you liked the view with your head in the clouds. It made me uneasy, hearing you tell these stories in the same tone you had used to concoct fairytales.

“That’s why I don’t come to school,” you told me. “It reminds me too much of home.” Failure. Useless. Good for nothing. It wasn’t your classmates shouting names at you anymore; things weren’t as simple as they had been on the playground. No, the hatred came from your own mind now, haunting you in your parents’ voices. I knew, because I heard them too, the doubts and the fears that whispered in your ear, and saw the way you shrank with each passing day.

“Death is a strange thing,” you said, and I shivered. “Life is so small.  We walk winding paths that lead nowhere, climb mountains with no summit. But then death, and you are remembered. Death, and monuments are built in your name. Death, and legends rise up around you.”

The wind began to pick up then, and it teased at your hair, a wayward halo of golden hay. “I want to do something great, Leah,” you said. “I’m tired of making up stories. I’m tired of this little town of angry, restless people.  I’m tired of people telling me I’m useless. I need something more.”

May 23, 2013

When I asked you what you were going to do, there was a moment in which you struggled with yourself, a moment in which you almost told me.  But you just smiled at me and said to trust you. I wonder now if it could have made a difference.

May 24, 2013

The night after that was prom night. We were packed into a rented ballroom—pretty, but somehow off, like a plastic cake served on glass china. Too clean, perhaps; unlived in, cold. Crystal chandeliers swayed gently to the drumbeat of a growing storm.

I went with friends, of course, but for a moment I thought of you in a suit, holding my hand and brushing my cheek with soft cherry lips. There were whispers about a stranger, smiling and confident and mysterious.  It wasn’t until you approached me and kissed the back of my hand that I realized–that anyone realized—the stranger was you. Your hair, normally scruffy and tangled, shone like a king’s crown, your laughing eyes the emeralds that adorned it. Gone were the sunken, discolored cheeks that you had worn in shame. Your face was sharp, radiant, and young. Only I saw the layer of concealer that hid your bruises, saw the weariness in the eyes that sparkled so.

9:49 P.M.

Your voice was strong when you asked me for a dance, your grip steady on my waist. We swayed, we pirouetted, we dipped and we spun, until all the eyes in the room were on us. And that night, the world was your stage. It seemed that you had been born for this moment, born to laugh and dance and awe like the clouds in the sky had taught you. When you finally released me, your face was flushed and drunk with life.

10:06 P.M.

By then, everyone was staring in disbelief—look at the nothing boy, he’s glowing—and your smile was dangerous this time, smug and daring. I remember how my hand burned when you took it in yours, and like young, reckless lovers, we swept up the stairs as the rain beat steadily against the wall. We were Olympic juggernauts, two steps at a time, and our feet were those of giants—thundering, thundering.

10:07 P.M.

You were followed first by eyes, then whispers, then people themselves. Prom was a distant reality. They wanted to see the nothing boy.

10:09 P.M.

We burst out onto the terrace, a battlefield of rain and thunder. Water fell like little shards of glass. We danced on top of the world, twenty-something floors up, and drank in the thrill of the storm. The crowd had followed you up; the rooftop was full of laughing, dancing couples. But you were on the forefront of everyone’s minds.

10:11 P.M.

The chaperones began shepherding the dancers back inside. “It’s too dangerous out here,” they said. There was indignant muttering, and fingers pointed at you. You stopped and put a hand up for attention, still holding onto me with the other.

10:12 P.M.

“Wait.”

10:12 P.M.

Your voice rang out as you flickered behind a curtain of rain.  They stopped, and waited. The air thrummed with energy as they looked at you expectantly. You stood there, your eyes clear yet not completely focused, as if you were remembering some distant memory.

10:13 P.M.

We all realized too late. The ground was slick with moisture as you backed up toward the edge of the building. The rain grew to a crescendo, a relentless barrage.

10:13 P.M.

A teacher stepped toward you as you swayed to a distant rumble.

10:13 P.M.

You shook your head.

10:13 P.M.

Slowly, steadily—you stepped back.

10:13 P.M.

Finally, you smiled.  “My name is Ashton,” you said, and then you squeezed my hand, once, and let go. I grabbed at you, but I was too late, and all I caught was empty air. In the split second before it happened, our eyes met, and yours were a brilliant, laughing green. In them, I saw the clouds as you had described them, quirky and unique and constantly shifting. I saw the forest as you entered it for the first time: vast, full of wonder and things that would never hurt you. I saw your father’s blazing eyes as he drew his fist back, heard your mother’s accusing voice as she declared you a disappointment. I saw the concealer that came away on your palms when you rubbed your eyes, and thought that maybe, behind all your makeup and stories and secrets, you were the bravest of us all.

10:13 P.M.

And then you had stepped off the building, and a streak of lightning lit the world on fire. For a moment you lingered, suspended in the night: a glowing angel, illuminated by the lightning, your hair a flame white and burning and brilliant. Your lips were set in a satisfied smile, your fingers tracing farewell letters into the fabric of the sky. Then it was dark again, and you were falling, falling, dissolving into the soft folds of the night. With an air of finality, the darkness swallowed you up. I felt hands grip me as I lurched toward the edge of the terrace. My lips were moving, and I vaguely heard myself sobbing, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

10:14 P.M.

I’m sorry.

10:15 P.M.

We were ushered into the ballroom, numb and speechless with shock. No one was dancing anymore. Distantly I heard sirens wailing, but all I saw was you, falling from the top of the world twenty-something floors up like a marionette with cut strings. You fool, I screamed in my head. Ashton, you fool. I loved you. Tonight, the world loved you. Why did you die?

10:23 P.M.

It took me a while, but as I sat hearing your voice whisper your final words in my mind, over and over and over again, I realized that maybe this was what you had wanted. For once, you were the story being told. No longer were you the nothing boy. You were Ashton, the boy who daydreamed and smiled and cried and loved a life he could not have.

I still remember the little smile on your face. It was peaceful and content, and every time I think of it now, I feel a little bit of hope. Because, perhaps to you, this was better than anything than life had to offer.

Now

Sometimes I go back to your rock and sit there, staring up at the clouds. They move slowly now—I think they’re mourning for you. It’s terribly lonely without you there, nothing but an empty clearing.

I don’t see anything but clouds anymore. Then again, I never could; you were the one with the magic, the one who breathed life into the place.  But sometimes, if I look hard enough, I swear I can see you among the constellations, flying with the horses and the dragons and the warriors, laughing and smiling down at me. As if the world were a game, and you were the only one who had won.

2015 Scholastic Writing Awards Gold Key

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