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“How’s your nose, Collin?” Principal Harris asks from under his thick tobacco-stained mustache.
“Eighteen,” I say, and wipe the small stream of blood escaping out of my right nostril.
Principal Harris and my dad, who sits beside me, both stare at me like I’m a stain that won’t come out of an expensive carpet.
“Can you not do that right now?” Principal Harris asks, with irritation aimed at me.
Again, each letter invades my skull, separating itself into a countable sequence. First, they appear as puffy white clouds, but then morph into smoky white numbers, similar to those planes you see in the sky that leave messages for people: “50% off sale!” or “Will You Marry Me?”
But mine aren’t cute. My letters are stubborn and invasive. And I can’t ignore them. They are in my head, pressing hard against the backs of my eyes until I give in and give them my attention.
“Twenty-three. And like I’ve told you a million times before, I’m not trying to do it, it just happens.”
Principal Harris shifts his eyes toward my father. “Oh, I see. It just happens, huh? Well, maybe it does, but you know what doesn’t just happen? Fighting. In my school. So, tell me why you decided to fight,” he says, like a lawyer trying to convince a judge that I’m guilty of something. Anything. Everything.
I watch his letters crawl into numbers at the same drawn-out pace in which he speaks. As much as I don’t like him, his letters are slow and easy to count, which is sometimes refreshing. Most people’s letters move fast like bees, stinging my mind until I release them, but this guy’s letters slink across my brain like a caterpillar.
“One hundred and thirteen. I didn’t decide to fight. He and all his friends were doing what they always do to me at lunch,” I say, hoping I don’t have to explain further and reveal to my dad what a wuss I usually am at school.
“Which is what?” my dad asks.
Great. I lost a fight, and now I’m going to have to inform my dad that I’m the kid who gets picked on every day. How much of a disappointment can one son be?
“Eleven. Tease me. Get right in my face and talk. All at once. And they never shut up,” I say.
“Collin. You can’t start a fight with people just because they want to talk to you,” Principal Harris says, even though he very well knows that no one wanted to simply chat with me. They wanted to say as many big words to me for as long as they could and laugh at me as I struggled to count them. It’s a sick and twisted game the other students play on me on a daily basis.
His words bounce around inside my head. From ear to ear, behind my face, ricocheting off the back of my head, finally turning into numbers as they reach the exit: my mouth.
“Sixty-four. It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t start it. This happens every day, and no one blinks an eye. The one time I stand up and fight back, I’m the one that gets in trouble? That’s bullcrap!” I say.
“Language!” he snaps back at me, and through my peripheral I see my dad bury his face into his hands. Looks like I haven’t reached the bottom of disappointing him just yet. I’m still digging.
“Eight. Sorry. I didn’t want to fight. Obviously. Look at my face,” I say.
Principal Harris leans back in his leather chair, like a king on his throne about to deliver my punishment. But he doesn’t look like royalty at all. He resembles Mr. Potato Head. That’s why he’s referred to as Mr. Potato-Harris by most of the students, and even some teachers. “Witnesses said that it was you who threw the first punch. Is that not true?”
“Fifty-nine. He spilled my lunch all over me,” I say as I show him my stained shirt.
My dad glances at my shirt. But it’s not a look of support. It’s more disappointment. I not only lost a fight, but I also managed to ruin my clothing. At least blood hides better in black fabric.
“How did he do that?” Harris asks.
“Fourteen. Like I said, I was minding my own business, just drawing. When they started talking over each other, reciting a bunch of tongue twisters to watch me struggle counting, I tried to leave, but he shoved my food tray into my chest and tripped me. I got up and hit him. He hit me back. I hit the ground. That’s what happened,” I say.
“He said that was an accident,” Principal Harris says.
“Twenty-three. And you believe him?”
“Three. Then you’re an idiot,” I say before thinking.
“That’s it. Cover them up! Now!” orders my dad.
“Twenty-one. Fine,” I say, and pull the gray fuzzy earmuffs up from my neck and place them over my ears. One positive thing about having no friends is I have a lot of time to experiment with gadgets in my room. Like these earmuffs. To this day, the only time I have ever seen my dad truly impressed with me was last year when I showed him how I connected my headphones to my earmuffs. I can listen to music as people talk. For someone with my condition, this invention of mine is a lifesaver.
Why? Because for some unexplainable reason, I can listen to music all day long and not even count one lyric. It’s my heaven. My number-free heaven. Naturally, I’m obsessed with all kinds of music. But my favorite is rap. Hands down. I think it’s because there are so many words, spoken so quickly. An army of words that invade my head but never attack. So I guess they’re not an army at all, more like a parade. How many are there? I don’t know. I don’t count them—and I love it.
I take a deep breath and try to make my last words as clear as possible. “Believe me, if I could just turn it off like a light switch, I would have done it years ago.”
My dad clears his throat, so I trace the cord down to my phone, which is in my pocket, and hit PLAY. A song begins. Normally, this is where my dad tells me that bullies only pick on weak people, and if I don’t want to get bullied, then I shouldn’t be so weak. Of course, that wouldn’t make sense this time, since I finally fought back. But with these things over my ears, I hear lyrics and music, not grown-up words saying how much of a problem I am.
I just watch Principal Harris and my dad smack their lips back and forth like old friends. In fact, they are. They played football together in high school. I wonder if Harris ever teases my dad for having such a wimpy kid. His son is an athlete. His son doesn’t sit alone at recess under a tree and draw pictures. And even better than that, his son doesn’t count the letters of whoever speaks to him. Nope. Unlike me, his son is normal.
About five minutes later, my dad taps my leg and signals me to remove my earmuffs. Great. More talking. More counting. Can’t we just go home now? I press STOP, ending the song, and remove them, give these men my best attempt at a smile.
“Collin … what I think Mr. Harris is trying to say is, we think your condition might be too difficult for other students to adapt to.”
I close my eyes and clench my jaw. I’m counting and trying with everything I have to not relay the total. But the cloud won’t dissipate until I release it. It will linger inside me forever, driving me crazy. I hate this.
“One hundred and three,” I say.
Principal Harris sighs in frustration.
“Difficult for everyone else? Seriously?” I ask my dad.
Principal Harris sets his elbows on his desk and leans forward. “It’s just not working out for you here, Collin. I suggested to your father that homeschooling could be beneficial for someone like you.”
That was a mouthful. They watch me squint my eyes up toward the ceiling as I count the invisible letters like someone trying to count the stars during the day.
“One hundred and nine. Are you guys kicking me out of school?” I ask.
My dad puts his hand on my arm, which he never does, and shifts his position to face me. “He suggested homeschooling, which we simply can’t do.”
“Forty-three. So, what exactly are you saying?” I ask.
“I can’t have you at home. We can’t afford a teacher to come every day,” he says.
“Fifty-two.” So I ask again, “Well then, what are you saying?”
My dad goes silent, and Principal Harris delivers the death blow. “We think it’s best if you transferred schools.”
I should’ve seen this coming. This is a familiar road between schools and me. I show up, quickly become that “weird” kid, and before I have a chance to let the jokes settle with the dust, I’m hauled off to another campus and it all starts over. And over. And over. Forever being the freak.
But this time feels different. This time my mind’s legs are too tired of running. I’m exhausted. Maybe that’s why today was the first time I actually stood up for myself and fought back. Never mind the fact that I lost and got a bloody nose to show for it, but the point is I didn’t curl up like a frightened caterpillar and wait for the bully bugs to stop picking on me. I didn’t hide. I didn’t run. Now that’s exactly what my dad wants me to do: switch schools and run.
“Thirty-seven. What school, Dad? I’ve been to almost all of them by now. And how is it going to be any different? It’s not like the counting is going to stop,” I say.
My dad rubs his hand across his unshaved face. Not because he’s thinking. It’s to hide his shaking. When he doesn’t drink for a few days, he shakes. Everyone knows he drinks, but he still comes up with these little tricks to hide the effects from everyone.
“I’ve been thinking about this for a long time and…” He stops talking and just presses his lips together. He doesn’t know what to say, or worse, he does. He just doesn’t quite know how to say it.
He’s at thirty-nine letters right now, but I don’t think he’s done. I need him to end his sentence. The clouds are filling up my sky. Come on, Dad! Blurt it out!
“And what?” I impatiently ask.
“And I contacted your mother,” he says.
The clouds in my head burst into a million fluffy white question marks. I’m momentarily speechless. My mother? Who is she? It’s a pretty strict rule in our house to never ask questions about her. Did he throw all of that away and track her down? What does that even mean? To me, mothers are just roles that actresses play on TV. They’re movie stars. They’re not real. They live off in some fantasy land with Santa, Bigfoot, and the tooth fairy.
Sure, I suppose some kids believe they’re real; some even claim to have a mother, but having is not believing. Seeing is believing. And I haven’t seen a mother near our house ever.
“Collin?” my dad asks.
And the numbers rush back into my skull full force.
“Thirty-nine. Twenty-three. Six.”
Principal Harris hands my dad my most up-to-date report card. “Who knows, maybe this move will be good for him,” he says, and my dad nods like he’s heard that line before. Many times. Too many times.
“Thirty-seven,” I say, under my breath.
“It’s only October,” my dad says. “School just started. It’s the perfect time to hit the reset button.” My dad slaps his thighs like our time is up.
“Sixty-seven. But … I don’t know her,” I say as I stand up and try to shake this foreign feeling off my body. “At all.”
My dad stands, shoves his hand into my hair, and ruffles it into a messy bird’s nest. I guess he wants to look like a caring dad in front of his buddy. He even fakes a smile. “Change is good, kid,” Dad says.
He’s lying. Change has never been good. Change hasn’t changed anything for me. “Fifteen. I’ll be in the car,” I say, and walk out of the office.
I march down the hall and stop in front of the deep blue sea of lockers. The thought of punching a locker fills me, but there’s been enough punching today. The last thing I need is a broken hand to match my bloody nose.
I bend down to my locker and twist it right. Seven. Then left. Twenty. Then right again. Eighteen. It clicks, and I swing it open. I pull out my backpack and slam my locker shut for the last time at this school. I put it on and tighten the straps to begin my final walk through these halls.
I put my earmuffs on again and hit PLAY. Eminem begins to spit into my ears. I bob my head as I head toward the parking lot. This is when I appear normal to the outside world. Just a kid listening to music.
As I turn the corner, a teacher passes me by and points to my ears, gesturing for me to remove my earmuffs, but I ignore him. I know headwear is prohibited for students at school, but I’m not a student here anymore.
Copyright © 2020 by James Bird