“Hey you,” a voice hissed.
He had been walking home from school, staring at markings and writing in the sidewalk cement for messages. He’d read about people discovering hidden meanings in ordinary objects and imagined he could, too.
It was sunny and hot for March, and between the warmth of the sun and the hum of cars coming down the hill on the Alameda, Shelby had been getting sleepier with each step.
The boy’s voice woke Shelby from his trance and made him turn. They had been sitting under a tree in the front yard of a house on a corner lot. They stood up and came over to him. He’d seen them around but he didn’t know where. Neither were as big as Shelby, the tallest boy in the Roosevelt School fifth grade.
“What are you looking at stupid?” the smaller of the two asked and walked up to where Shelby stood frozen on the sidewalk.
“How come you’re always smiling?” he said moving closer.
The smaller boy’s eyes were dark, his sharp angry face smudged.
Shelby tensed up, his fingers tightened around his school books. The bigger boy was a little chubby. He had a vacant look on his face as he ran his fingers over the books Shelby carried tucked under his arm.
Some note papers, a homework assignment, stuck out from between the pages of his English text where Shelby had jammed them in his rush to get out of class. The bigger boy snatched them away. Shelby had pinch the books tighter to his side to keep them from tumbling to the sidewalk.
“Why are you still smiling?” the bigger one asked, looking down at the notes. “This looks important.”
Shelby’s heart was pumping so hard, he could hear it throbbing in his ears.
“I guess it’s not, because you don’t need it anymore.”
The chubby boy tore the pages lengthwise, wadded them up and threw them in the gutter.
“Got any money smiley?”
Shelby couldn’t speak. He guessed the wrong word would mean a bloody nose.
“He’s too fat and stupid to have money,” the little one said.
“Yeah,” the bigger one said. “What would he do if I did this?”
Before he could finish his sentence, he wrenched Shelby’s school books from his grasp, sending them cartwheeling and spinning to the ground, papers he’d tucked carelessly into them fluttering about.
“Look, I think he’s going to cry,” the bigger one said.
“I’ll bet he is,” the little one said as he stepped closer again and held his clenched fist in Shelby’s face. “I could pop you. What would you do about it?”
Shelby had no idea what he would do. Duck? Try to block his punch? The best he could do was keep his body from shaking.
“What a pussy,” the little one said.
The two cackled to each other, turned and walked away.
“See you smiley.”
Shelby watched them go out of the corner of his eye, afraid to move his head or do anything that might provoke them into returning. They went off in a different direction from where he was headed and didn’t look back. Shelby’s breath returned but his heart was still pounding. He took two slow steps toward home and sanctuary, wanting to put as much distance as he could between him and the evidence of his disgrace: from the books and papers littering the curb strip and gutter.
He wanted to leave them there and just get home as fast as he could.
As he started he could hear his mother asking him about them, as she did every time he forgot something – which was often. His mother would ask, or his home room teacher, Mrs. Shore, would ask.
He could say he lost them. But in his mind that sounded too lame to be believable, even for him, and he was always losing stuff. His mom would ask where he lost them, and he would have to say he forgot, but how can you forget where you lost your schoolbooks?
That wouldn’t work.
Shelby turned and shuffled back to where he’d been set upon and got down on his hands and knees to gather up his books and papers. Where a few minutes before he had been comfortable and alone in his thoughts, Shelby now felt exposed. He became conscious once more of the cars rushing past.
His social studies book’s spine was broken, the front cover hanging at an odd angle. His spelling workbook was torn and his English book was muddy from where it had landed in the gutter.
Now he’d have to explain their appearance when his mom asked what had happened to them.
“I tripped and I dropped them. Nothing happened,” he said out loud, so that he could test how credible his voice sounded. Shelby repeated the phrases until he convinced himself he could sound believable.