Posted by: Matt Y | 09/20/2015

The Troll

Part of my short story collection

Part One

The Troll

“Hey Tyler, did it rain last night?”

“No, why?”

“Because it looks like it’s flooding in here.”

The two boys seated behind Kevin broke into low snickers as he tried to ignore their taunts and focus on Mrs. Iverson, who was trying to explain complex fractions.  He was no stranger to being made fun of, and Kevin thought he was getting better at ignoring most insults, but he still felt his face get warm at the remarks of the boys behind him.  He had learned only a week ago that the ‘flooding’ references they made at him were about his pants being too short, like how people rolled up their pants in a flood.

He couldn’t help it if he was growing taller.  Kevin had asked his mom if he could get new pants after he understood what some of the kids were making fun of, and she told him that he was growing too fast, she couldn’t afford to buy a new pair of pants every time he grew an inch.  That, Kevin knew, was the real source of shame behind the jokes about his clothes.  It was that his family couldn’t afford to keep him in clothes that fit well.  Even if he bought new pants he knew that they’d just find another way to make fun of him, for not having an iPhone or even a generic rip off, for having sneakers that were so far from name brand that even the manufacturer was too embarrassed to put a logo on them, or for wearing the same shirt more than once a week.

His face burned because it made him angry that they made fun of him for being poor, as if it was a choice.  Kevin tried to block the sound of the whispered taunts out, whispers that weren’t loud enough to be heard by Mrs. Iverson, just loud enough for Kevin and the few kids surrounding him to hear.

Kevin was getting better at ignoring the insults, but he noticed that while some kids would get bored and move onto an easier target, there were others who took the silence as a challenge.  The two boys behind him, Tyler Johnson and Steven Claymore, were of the latter kind.  Kevin both feared and hated the two of them, and had routes he used between classes to make sure he avoided coming across them at school as much as possible.

Kevin couldn’t avoid having Algebra with them however, and regretted the seating choice he had made on the first day of class.  Kevin liked school well enough, except for math.  Almost every subject came to him easily with math being one of the few classes that could frustrate him.  The numbers all made sense, and then the teacher would start adding in decimals, fractions, and variables and Kevin suddenly felt as if the teacher started speaking another language.

He had made it to class early on that first day so that he could get a seat in the middle.  Sitting in the front meant that the teacher could see him drift off and start to goof around with drawing in his notebook, and it seemed like the teacher called on the students in the back more to make sure they were paying attention.  Sitting in the middle seemed like a safe area, until Steven and Tyler came to class and took the seats right behind him.  It was only the second month of school and Kevin was already dreading how the rest of the year would go.  He thought of trying to change seats, except he might have to explain why he wanted to do so, and everyone knew that kids who tattled got it worse later on.

Flick.

Suddenly there was a sharp pain in his right ear.

Without turning his head Kevin knew that Steven had flicked his ear.  It wasn’t the first time it had happened, Steven was a master at painful dirty stunts that didn’t leave a mark and were hard to prove.  Wet willies, hard noogies, flat tires and wedgies were among the weapons in his arsenal, and the ear flick was one of the more annoying and surprisingly painful.  Tyler only encouraged Steven and was never one to get physical.  Steven had been held back and was one of the largest kids in the fifth grade, his black hair cut close to the scalp, always wearing expensive looking sports jerseys with the sleeves rolled up, and pants that not only fit but were fashionably baggy in the legs.  Tyler on the other hand was massive, both in height and in weight.  He had not been held back, he was just exceptionally tall and husky for his age.  He wore sweaters to try to hide the weight, and only ended up looking greasy from the amount that he sweated all the time.  His brown hair clung in damp curls to his forehead, and he had about four hairs on his upper lip that he was desperately trying to cultivate into a mustache but only drew attention to his pig snout of a nose.  The two were partners in bullying, with Steven pulling the mean pranks and Tyler always standing nearby to howl out laughter to punctuate the moment.

That’s how Kevin knew it was Steven that flicked his ear, and that the snickering he heard after would be from Tyler.  He kept trying to ignore it, his face burning hotter, distracting him from what Mrs. Iverson was doing with fractions, which was already frustrating for him to understand.

Flick.

Pain again.  Worse since his ear was still sore from the previous attack.  He started to turn, unable to ignore it anymore, when Mrs. Iverson called on him.

“Kevin, what would be a way of simplifying complex fractions?” She asked.

Kevin’s mind spun, trying to remember what she said and stuttered out, “U-um, find th-the least common d-d-denominator?”

“That’s correct, now what you want to do after that is…” she continued, motioning to the equation on the board.

“Kiss ass.” He heard Tyler whisper to the left of him.

“Tuh-tuh-tuh-teacher’s pet.” Steven whispered to the right, mocking Kevin’s habit of stuttering.

The relief he felt at having the answer faded and the anger flared right back up inside of Kevin.

Flick.

Kevin slightly turned his head and hissed, “St-stop it.” and was angry at stuttering again.

“Yeah, what you gonna do about it?” Steven said.

Flick.

Kevin whipped his head around to Steven and loudly said, “I said stop dumb fuck!”

Silence filled the classroom, aside from the sound of Kevin breathing heavily.  He was so angry he felt like he was going to explode and knew he was in trouble.  He had dropped the f-bomb in the middle of class.  For some reason even though his mouth had trouble spitting out a whole sentence without stuttering normally, it never had a problem when it came to saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

“Kevin!” Mrs. Iverson said, “Get up and go to the principal’s office right now.  I will not tolerate that kind of language in my class.”

Kevin looked at her imploringly, wanting to explain that it wasn’t his fault, that Steven had been flicking his ear and making fun of him.  When he opened his mouth to do so his throat felt like it had closed up, the anger had left and he was worried if he tried to choke the words out that he might start to cry.  So he said nothing, and shoved his books back into his bag and then went to the principal’s office to receive his punishment.

On his way out Kevin looked over his shoulder and saw Steven, whose face was as bright red as Kevin imagined his own face had been just a few minutes ago.  Steven’s eyes glared at him through eyes narrowed in rage.  The boy mouthed two words, and though Kevin did not know how to read lips, he had been able to easily make out the message Steven had sent to him:

You’re dead.

It’s not fair, Kevin thought later to send me home early when I wasn’t the one who started it.

The principal had not sympathized when Kevin had tried to explain to him what happened.  When Kevin tried to tell him what Steven had done the principal only said that there were no excuses for swearing in class.  That made Kevin even angrier, by calling his explanation an excuse as if he was just making it up!  The principal then called his mother as he sat outside of the door to the office, and he could hear the principal telling his mother that this was just another example of Kevin’s pattern of bad behavior, as though being picked on was somehow his fault.

Kevin silently fumed as he sat listening to the Principal talk, and he heard that he was being sent home early and would have to bring a letter of apology back with him to the teacher the next day.  The words ‘pattern of behavior’ kept rattling around in his head.  Sure, he had been in a few fights, only he had never started those fights.  Even calling them fights was stretching the definition of the word since most of them had been a one sided ass kicking.  The school had a no tolerance policy for fights, so even when Kevin had not thrown a punch in a fight he got the same punishment as the person who had stomped him.

The Principal had no idea how much worse he was making it for Kevin by telling his mom things like that.  Kevin had not wanted to be a part of any of those fights and he tried to keep his head down as much as possible.  He took longer paths to classes just to avoid these guys and he ate lunch in a secluded area hoping that as long as he stayed out of sight that he might stay out of the mind of kids like Tyler and Steven.  How could he explain to the Principal that being a rail thin boy whose arms and legs stuck out of second hand clothes made him a choice target for bullies?

Kevin said nothing when the Principal told him he was being sent home, he just shrugged his backpack onto his shoulder and walked away.  The school was not very far away from where Kevin lived, just on the other side of a small wooded area and creek.  He kept his head down as his feet walked the familiar path in front of him, trying not to sniffle or cry in front of the younger grade children who got out of school in the early afternoon.  They mostly avoided him, unused to seeing an older student out so early.

As he walked the path through the woods he kicked at stones and questioned the fairness of life while growing increasingly worried about what he was going to come home to.

A few years back his mother had taken him along when she had gone to the city.  Their own town had only a population of twelve thousand, which seemed to be a huge number of people to Kevin.  That number was nothing to what Kevin saw in the city, he had sat wide eyed as they drove closer to the cluster of what looked to be impossibly tall skyscrapers.  The local town doctor had sent his mother to the city to get a type of test that was only done in one of the larger hospitals and with no money to spend on a babysitter and Kevin’s father having long since passed away she had to take him with.

The city filled the younger Kevin with both awe and fear.  There was so much of it, and so many different kinds of people walking on the streets.  The city also looked so much dirtier than their little town, and Kevin had not understood why people had let it get so dirty.  He was told to sit and stay in the waiting room while she went to do some tests, telling him that she would not be very long.  While she was gone Kevin had sat for a moment looking at the magazines, and then had become bored and wandered to the windows.

On the street he had seen a man with a folding table playing a card game with people who passed by.  The game only used three cards, all of them queens.  One was the Queen of Hearts and the other two were the Queen of Spades and the Queen of Clubs.  The man would place all three cards face down on the table and mix them around, the cards bent back into a curve that fit right into the palms of his hands.  The man would mix those queens up, jump them over each other, and pass them under each other like a magic trick.

He could barely hear what the man was saying through the glass, he was speaking fast but it sounded like, “Find the Red Lady, find Lady Luck, you don’t want the Bad Queen, no sir, she can be a bitch, come on now, who thinks they can find the Good Queen?”

Men would come up, and some would win and most would lose.  Kevin watched intently, hands leaving palm prints on the glass window, his breath occasionally fogging up his view until he wiped it off with the sleeve of his shirt.  He watched trying to figure out which one was the Lady along with the people who walked up to the table.  He could’ve sworn where it was, only for one of the Bad Queens to show up.  After some time had passed someone nearby yelled “Fold!” and the man swept up the cards and started to quickly walk away, leaving the table behind.

Kevin had gone back to looking through magazines and settled on killing time with Highlights For Kids, even though all of the mazes were filled in and someone had circled all of the hidden objects in the Find These Items picture.  He flipped through it anyway while he had waited, mostly thinking about the card game and wondering how the man had made the cards dance under his fingers like he had.

Now a few years later Kevin thought about that card game a lot.  He felt like he was playing that game every time he went home after school.  His mother did not work, having injured her back at her old job, and mostly stayed at home.  She told Kevin she got sick a lot, but he knew it was because she drank, and it did not take long for Kevin to notice a change in how she acted when she started to drink.  She was drinking more and more these days and Kevin was worried that maybe she needed to drink more because of the pain in her back. Sometimes he guiltily wondered if she drank more because of him, and the trouble he could not seem to keep away from.

No matter what the reasons were, the more she drank, the more she acted differently.  When he went home he felt like he was playing that card game, hoping to see the Good Queen, the Queen he knew and loved.  That Queen made him feel better when he was sick, would kiss him goodnight, told jokes with him around the dinner table, and would tell embarrassing stories about when he was a baby.  He loved the Good Queen so much that it hurt.  He knew that the Good Queen worried about raising him without a father, and he tried to be a better son to help make it easier for her, because they were a team.  They were family.

Then there was the Bad Queen, and the Bad Queen could indeed be a bitch.  He would come home and the Bad Queen would already be yelling at him, telling him he was lazy, that he was just like his father.  If he tried to say anything she would take his words and twist them, make them mean and nasty when he wanted nothing more than to show her that he wanted to be a good son.  When Kevin tried to stay silent or agree with her the Bad Queen would lash out and slap him, telling him to shut his smart mouth.  It took a long time before Kevin realized there was no pleasing the Bad Queen, and the more she drank the worse the Bad Queen was.

Lately, the Bad Queen showed up far more often than the Good Queen.  Like with the bullies at school Kevin tried to do his best to keep out of sight when those black moods took his mother.  He would hide in his room and play quietly, or try and creep out of the house with the excuse he was going to play with friends he did not have, and instead spend time wandering around the woods near their house playing soldier.

Since the Principal had called his house, Kevin knew that there was almost no chance that when he got home that he would be dealing with the Good Queen, the one that might punish him for using a bad word, but also might be willing to listen to his side of events.  No, he knew it would be the Bad Queen, and he was surer of it with every step he took closer to home.

He stopped and set his backpack down and sat on the ground hugging his knees to his chest, wanting just a moment to himself before he went home.  Kevin idly thought maybe he shouldn’t go home at all, maybe he should run away, and then banished that thought as well.  She would just worry and eventually someone would catch him and bring him home, and then it would be even worse than if he had just gone straight home.

Kevin leaned against one of the oak trees that lined the path through the small woods, feeling the rough bark against his back through his shirt.  Fall had already turned most of the leaves into a bright variety of oranges, yellows and reds, though most of the leaves had yet to fall.  The weather was still warm for that season, with a chill breeze that promised the warm weather would not last for much longer.  Kevin closed his eyes and inhaled the sweet scent of woods, then sighed, pulled his backpack on again and started back down the path towards home, still dreading the confrontation when he got there, only now he felt that he would be able to better deal with whatever was to come.

As he walked down the path he came up on two younger girls who must have been in one of the younger grades that they let out of school just standing in front of a wooden bridge that ran over the creek several feet below.  Both of the girls were the kind of light blonde that appeared to be almost white, and they stared at him wide eyed.

“Wh-what are you gir-irls doing here?” Kevin asked.

“We don’t talk to strangers.” One of the girls said.

“We’re afraid of the troll.” Said the other.

“Troll?” Kevin said, “There’s no such thing as tr-trolls.”

“There are too Trolls, and they live under bridges.”

“How do you kn-know there are trolls?” Kevin asked.

“Duh, everyone knows there are trolls.” the second girl said, with the first girl keeping her pledge about not talking to strangers.

“Tell you what, I’ll cross that bridge.  If there is a troll, it will come up and eat me, right?  If I make it across then you know that there are no trolls under that bridge.”

Both of the girls nodded in agreement, their expressions so serious that Kevin couldn’t help but smile.  He crossed over the bridge, looking over the side and watching the creek below as it zig-zagged over and around sharp rocks below.  As he crossed he thought about the line from the story with the three goats (who is that clip clopping over my bridge) and remembered that the first goat didn’t make it across.  When he made it to the other side he turned around and lifted up his arms to show them that he was still there and not troll food.  The girls smiled, and still looked a little nervous about crossing with a strange boy on the other side of the bridge, so he shrugged his shoulders, turned around and kept heading down the path.

Once out of the wooded area he walked along cracked sidewalks with weeds bursting out of the gaps.  The neighborhood was mostly one story houses that were painted different colors but managed to look the same regardless.  The paint on nearly every house was faded and peeling.  Some houses had chain link fences, if so the fence would be sagging and barely hanging on to the posts they were connected to.  The yards along the street did not look much cared for and looked more like evidence of a series of ongoing battles between the weeds and overgrown grass.  Some of the yards were losing that battle, and to Kevin it appeared to him that some of his neighbors were employing a kind of biological warfare by leaving their garbage on their lawn until whatever was living underneath died off.  He kept an eye out for the MacKenzie’s pitbull, their dog had broken through a part of their fence a few months ago and they had never fully repaired it.  Kevin never heard of the dog actually biting anybody, it mostly just ran around and terrorized stray cats and pissed on cars, however he did not want to be the first person to find out the dog was a bitin’ dog.

He walked up the sidewalk, watching his house grow larger as he neared it.  The house was a one story house that was once painted a light green and was now more of a sickly yellow color.  Kevin hoped that his mom had gone out, knowing that she was likely right inside of the door waiting for him.  As he approached the door he laid his hand on the handle, inhaled and tried to steel himself from the upcoming verbal storm.  Then lowering his head he walked in, one last time hoping that he would draw the Good Queen.

Later that night he laid in bed staring at the ceiling, feeling anger, guilt and shame fighting within him, keeping him from falling to sleep.  He had indeed come home to the Bad Queen after all.  When he walked through the door his mom stood up from the couch in the living room and stalked straight towards Kevin, her face dark with rage.  He opened his mouth to say something, he wasn’t even sure what he would have said, everything he had been planning to say left his head as soon as he saw her coming at him, before he could utter a word her arm swung out.

Crack.

She had slapped him across the face, hard enough to snap his head to the side.  The pain was instantaneous, stinging in a palm shaped pattern on his cheek.  Tears sprung to his eyes, it wasn’t the first time she had slapped him and Kevin thought after a while he might eventually become used to it, yet each time still brought that stinging pain and a different kind of pain that went even deeper.

“But mom!  I didn’t even-” Kevin cried out.

“But nothing young man, swearing right in front of your teacher, in front of your class!  What kind of parent they must think I am.  Well I’ll have none of it, none of it you hear me!  Come now, you get to see what happens to boys with dirty mouths.” she had said and then started walking further into the house.

Kevin stood there, unsure of what to do, wanting to touch his hurt face but afraid to move and possibly cause her to get even angrier.  She spun on her heel and stalked back.

“Just going to stand there?  I don’t think so.” his mother said, and then grabbed him by the hair and pulled him along after her.

That was new.  His mom was not a large woman, Kevin was already nearly as tall as she was and had inherited her rail thin figure, but when she was in a mood though it was as if she became larger and stronger, as though fury could make up for sheer size.  When her bony fingers snaked into his hair and pulled Kevin gave no thought of resisting.  It hurt, more than the slap had by far.  It felt as though she might pull his hair out by the very roots, he followed right along behind her, afraid that if he did not she would have a handful of bloody scalp in her hand along with his hair.

She dragged him along to the bathroom and let go of him with a small push so that he stopped in front of the bathroom sink.  The mirror in the bathroom reflected the images of them, his mother standing behind him glowering, her brown-red hair a mess of strands that looked like a nest of Medusa’s snakes.  The mirror showed him, his eyes bloodshot and puffy, half of his face a bright red that almost looked like a handprint.  He quickly glanced away from the image, not wanting to see what he looked like at the moment.

“Know what happened to kids in my day that had dirty mouths?  They got their mouths washed out with soap.” His mother said.

Kevin looked at the sink, the only soap they had was the liquid kind, designed to smell like apples and cinnamon.

“I know you’re thinking we don’t have the bar kind, but soap is soap.  Now you can either wash your mouth out while I sit here and watch, or I’ll do it for you.  If you don’t think I can do it, I’ll call Bobby and you can bet he’ll get it done.”

Bobby was his mother’s boyfriend, and Kevin knew that if she called him then he would come over and do what she said.  Bobby had once told Kevin to just call him Bob.  At first Kevin hated Bob, a short pudgy bald man with small severe eyes hidden underneath a protruding forehead who smelled like machine oil and the inside of a beer can.  To Kevin, Bob looked and swaggered around just like the bullies he knew in school.  Bob was never outright mean to him, but Kevin thought there was a mean streak inside of the man that could be seen in his cruel jokes and stories.

Kevin didn’t want Bob to come over, not because he was worried about Bob hurting him, though that was mixed in as well, it was just that he thought if he had another person watching that he might just die of embarrassment.

“What are you waiting for, go on then.”

Kevin thought of running out of the bathroom, he thought he could make it and from there out of the house, only he again thought that would just make things worse.  Instead he put his hand out and squirted some of the soap into his palm.

“More than that for saying the f-word in school.”

He pumped the dispenser again, and his stomach lurched.  He wasn’t sure he could do more than what was already in his hand.

“Now put it in your mouth.”

He tilted his head back and put his cupped hand to his mouth.  As he did he felt his mother put her hand over his and held it to his face.  The soap that ran into his mouth did not taste anything like apples or cinnamon, despite how it smelled.  The taste was entirely chemical.  He gagged only he couldn’t spit it out with his mother’s hand clamped over his own.  He breathed through his nose and accidentally swallowed some of the soap and started to cough.  His mom let go and stepped back, and he leaned over the sink dry heaving and spitting, then turned on the faucet and stuck his mouth under it, anything to get rid of the taste in his mouth.

While he had been spitting and trying to bring more water into his mouth with the hand that had not held soap in it, his mother said, “Think about this the next time you feel like swearing at school.  You are grounded to your room, no video games or television.  You will write that letter and apologize to your poor teacher.  Don’t expect dinner either, I want you to taste that soap and remember.”

After that he had gone to his room and cried until no more tears came and his chest hurt from sobbing.  The taste of the soap would just not go away.  He tried licking his arm just to have a different flavor in his mouth.  When that did not work he tried licking the wall, which somehow tasted worse.

Bob did end up coming over.  Kevin could hear his mother talking to Bob and heard his name come up.  It was bad enough when his mom started to date the man; it felt like he had been betrayed.  Even with the Bad Queen he and his mom were a team, they looked out for each other, and now she was in the other room talking about him and how bad he was.  He heard Bob laugh as she told him how she made him eat the bathroom soap, with Bob telling her that his father would’ve socked him in the jaw if he had been caught swearing as a kid.

What Bob had actually said was, “When I was a fucking kid my fucking dad would’ve socked me right in the goddamn jaw if I was caught talking shit like that.”

Instead of pointing out how much Bob had cursed in just that sentence, his mother laughed along with him.

So he lay in bed staring at the ceiling, angry at how unfair life was.  Feeling guilty that he had sworn in school at all, knowing that the other kids would make fun of him for that now, and even worse Steven was probably going to kick his ass.  He also felt ashamed that at himself that he had made his mother so angry, and ashamed of her for how she treated him and then laughed at him behind his back.  Most of all he felt hungry, despite the flavor of the soap still lingering in his mouth.

As the night went on he heard Bob leave and then there was mostly silence in the house.  In the silence his thoughts turned dark, wondering if the soap was poisonous.  Maybe he would die from eating it, and he hoped that maybe that would happen.  He imagined how terrible his mom would feel then, knowing that she made him eat it in the first place.  His thoughts went back to earlier in the afternoon (who is that clip clopping over my bridge) and he wished that there had been a troll under that bridge.  At least if he had been eaten he would not have had to come home and dealt with the Bad Queen.  Plus if a troll had eaten him he would not need to worry about whatever it was that Steven had planned for him.

With those thoughts spiraling in his brain he didn’t hear the footsteps coming down the hall towards his room until his door opened a crack, letting in a wedge of light from the hallway spill into his bedroom.

“Kevin?  Are you asleep?” he heard his mother ask him.

For a second he thought about pretending to snore, then said, “No, I’m still awake.” hoping she would hear the sadness and anger in his voice.

“Do you mind if I come in?” she asked.

That was different.  The Bad Queen did not ask for permission to enter his room, it was her house and she went where she wanted to.

“Okay.” Kevin answered hesitantly.

He watched as her silhouette entered carrying something and sat on the edge of the bed.  Kevin could smell cherry pie, and his empty stomach grumbled.   He sat up and scooted so that he was at the opposite end of his twin bed from where she was sitting.

“I want you to understand what a bad thing you did was,” she said, her voice stern, but much softer than earlier that afternoon.

“I also think I went a little too far with punishing you.  It’s hard to be a single parent.  I’m always so worried about you and that I’m doing the wrong thing, and when I get a call saying that you swore in class, that just makes me feel like a bad mom.” she said, her voice slightly cracking.

No! Kevin wanted to say, You aren’t a bad mom, it’s the other one, the Bad Queen.  He said nothing, not sure how to put into words how she was different at times.  Her words made him also feel guiltier, ever since his father died everyone told him he was the man of the house and needed to help his mom, and now she was sitting on the end of the bed sounding as though she might cry because of him.

“I know this doesn’t make it better, but I brought you some pie and milk.  You are still grounded though.  You can’t act like that in school.” She then leaned forward and set the dishes down on his nightstand.

His mom then turned to him and opened her arms and said, “Can I get a hug, please?”

The please broke through his last emotional defenses and he rushed forward into her arms.

As they hugged his mom said, “We still a team?”

Kevin nodded vigorously against her shoulder.

“I love you Kevin.”

“I love you too, m-mom.” he said.

She let go and left, shutting the door behind her.  Kevin ate the pie, thinking that the pie was one of the best he had ever tasted, even though after he ate the pie and washed it down with milk he could still taste the bitter flavor of soap as he fell asleep.

The next day he walked right up to his Mrs. Iverson and handed her the apology that he had written, worried she was going to yell at him.  Instead she read the note then looked at him in a way that was both sweet and sad, and then said “Thank you for apologizing.  While I still disagree with foul language in my classroom one of your classmates told me how you were being treated by the two boys who sat behind you.  That’s no excuse, of course, but I understand how boys can be.  Next time please just tell me what is going on so that we can avoid such problems in the future.”

Kevin felt angry at the last remark, he had tried to tell her about what was going on, only his mouth kept tripping over the words and she had not been willing to give him a moment to untie his tongue.  Then he noticed the seats normally occupied by Steven and Tyler were both empty.

“Wh-where are th-they?” Kevin asked, gesturing towards the empty seats.

“After one of your classmates told me what was going on I went to the principal and reported the two boys.  The school implemented a strict anti-bullying policy this year.  Steven and Tyler get to be one of the first examples of that policy.  They’ve been suspended for three days.”

That news nearly tipped Kevin over.  Tyler and Steven suspended for three days?  A small voice in the back of his mind started panicking, he had worried all the way to school what Steven was going to do to him, that the bullying would just get worse now.  If calling him a dumb fuck had angered Steven than being suspended was going to send him into a rage.  There would be consequences, the small voice inside of his head said.

The sheer joy of knowing that he would at least have three days of peace at school overshadowed those panicked thoughts.  Kevin was a little annoyed to know that the principal believed Mrs. Iverson when she reported the bullying and did not believe it when he told the principal the same thing, but that was now in the past.  Three days without taking different paths to avoid those guys, without worrying that in the middle of class he might feel the wetness of a spitball hitting the back of his neck, without worrying about being shoved, flicked or tripped!

Curiosity got the best of Kevin. “Who, uh, w-was it that t-t-told you?”

Mrs. Iverson smiled and said, “Kate saw the whole thing and told me after class.  Don’t be angry at her for telling me, I really hope that from now on you will trust me to come and tell me if anyone is causing you problems.  I want everyone to feel that this is a safe place to learn…”

Kevin didn’t hear anything after the first sentence.  Kate had told her?  He tried and failed to slyly glace at her while Mrs. Iverson continued on about the difficulty of teaching children in a hostile environment.  Luckily she was not looking his way and was doodling in a notebook while waiting for class to start.

Kevin felt a flush creep up his neck, and looking at her made him feel slightly dizzy.  He had a crush on Kate Fowler ever since she moved to town the year before.  She was quiet like he was, usually dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans with her dark blonde hair tied in a ponytail.  The other girls made fun of how she dressed, but Kevin thought she was prettier than all of the other girls in his grade combined.  She had sat near him at lunch one day and tried to talk to him and he froze up.  He couldn’t think of anything to say in response to her, and was so worried that he might say the wrong thing that he sat there completely still.  After a moment she went away, and he was able to breathe and move again.  After that he figured she probably thought he was mentally handicapped.  That thought had made him sad, and a little relieved that he could just admire her from a distance.

The idea that she had seen him being picked on, and then reported it to the teacher made him feel slightly sick to his stomach in a good and bad way.  Bad that she had seen him sit there for so long doing nothing about their taunts and provocations, but good because it meant that she was paying attention to him, and was so angered by his treatment that she had gone to the teacher to defend his outburst.

He took his seat in class, his mind too clouded by recent events to be able to focus on what Mrs. Iverson was trying to teach.  He kept sneaking glances at Kate while pretending to be looking at his math textbook.  Once he snuck a look at her as she was pushing her ponytail over her shoulder, and in that second she had glanced over at him and their eyes met.  She smiled a little and looked down at her notebook again.  Kevin noticed her cheeks got a little pinker as she did, while he felt slightly guilty for being caught looking at her, for a moment she had looked at him and had blushed.  Maybe she liked him as well.

The thought made his chest tight and his palms felt so sweaty he had to wipe them on his pants.

After class with his heart beating so loudly he thought for sure other people around him must be able to hear it he walked in front of her as the other kids were scrambling to make it out into the hallway.  She was putting her textbook away into her backpack when she noticed him walking towards her and she stopped and looked up at him, the focus of her attention like a physical force on his skin.

He stood there, knowing what he wanted to say but having trouble with getting the words out.  Kevin took a deep breath, closed his eyes and forced the words out.

“Th-thank you.” He said.

She smiled, dimples appearing in her cheeks and her eyes lighting up with the smile.  The smile made her even prettier to him, to the point where it felt as though he would do whatever it took to see it again.

“Those guys were being jerks, besides,” Kate said then leaned closer to him and whispered, “Steven really is a dumb fuck.”

At those words Kevin threw back his head and laughed, and Kate laughed with him with her hand over her mouth, both of them turning their heads to make sure that the teacher had not heard.  Mrs. Iverson looked up when they started laughing, but the noise of stampeding students covered up their conversation.  Kate picked up her backpack and they hurried out of the classroom together before Mrs. Iverson could ask them what they were laughing about.

In the hall Kate went in a different direction for her next class, before she did she stopped and waved at Kevin and said, “See you later!”

Kevin walked to his next class feeling like he was walking on a cloud.  Thoughts of what might happen with Steven and Tyler, or of what Queen might be there when he got home later on seemed like they were a million miles away, the problems of a future Kevin.  The Kevin of right now felt happier than he had ever felt before.

After school he walked again through the wooded path.  As he walked Kevin thought for the thousandth time about what Kate had said, replaying the conspiratorial way she had leaned forward and whispered to him.  He thought again about the way she said ‘dumb fuck’, the way that dirty word slid out from between her lips so casually made his pulse race a little faster.  He even obsessed a little over the ‘see you later’ comment she had made before walking off.  Kevin wondered if that meant she really wanted to see him later, or if she was just saying that she would see him in class again later.

Those thoughts were running and re-running through his mind as he walked out onto the wooden bridge.  The sound of his foot step on the board made another thought run through his mind for a moment, who is that clip clopping on my bridge, the thought fading immediately against the onslaught of the wayward thoughts of a boy in puppy love.

As he neared the other side of the bridge another sound broke through the thoughts he was having of Kate and made him stop walking.  For a moment he thought he heard a groan and not the groan of the wooden planks under his feet.  It sounded like the groan of a person (troll?) nearby.  Kevin looked behind him, and didn’t see anyone.  He thought maybe it was just the odd sounds of the forest and started moving forward again when he heard the noise again, much loader than before.  This time there was no question about the location of the noise, it was coming from underneath the bridge.

Then to his left something moved.  A dirt-stained hand came from under the bridge and slapped down on the surface, grasping for purchase on the edge of it.  A grimy cloth was wrapped around the palm of the hand, Kevin saw with the clarity of fear.  The wrist of the hand disappeared into the tattered remains of a sleeve, the fingers ended in yellowed cracked fingernails (claws?!) that were trying to dig into the wood of the bridge.  Kevin heard another groan, and realized that whatever it was, it was trying to pull itself up onto the bridge.

Kevin wasn’t sure if it was a man or something else (a troll!) only that he did not want to stick around to find out.  He turned his gaze from the hand and ran the remaining distance to his house, not stopping for a moment, imagining he could feel the hot breath of some monster that lived under a bridge on the back of his neck.

Once at home he found his mother in the kitchen looking through the cupboards.  He ran to her and hugged her, then started babbling rapidly about what he saw on the bridge.  She grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him off of her, then knelt down to look at him in the eyes.  For a moment the fear of the Bad Queen battled with the fear of the bridge monster, however he saw nothing but compassion and concern in her eyes.  He had come home to the Good Queen, and he almost wept in relief, knowing that his mom would know what to do.

“Slow down,” she said, “when you talk that fast I can’t understand what you are saying, what is going on?  What’s got your goat?”

Kevin gulped, then slowly told her about the girls who believed there was a troll underneath the Ridge Creek bridge, and how he had seen a hand and heard something from underneath that bridge today.  When speaking slowly he found that he stuttered less, though talking at that pace was almost as frustrating as tripping over the words.

His mom hugged him when he finished and laughed. “Oh honey, that wasn’t a troll.  You know trolls aren’t real.”

Kevin wanted to say that he did know that, only for a moment when he had seen that hand with what looked like cracked and yellowed claws, and he had forgotten that he did not believe in them.  For a second the idea that trolls might exist seemed terribly real.

“Still you need to be careful through those woods,” she said, “there aren’t trolls, but there are other dangers.  What you saw was probably some old wino sleeping off a hangover under there.  You have to be careful when you walk home, if you do see a bum in those woods I don’t want you talk to them or give them any money.  Lord knows they’ll just drink it away.”

Kevin thought about telling her that he never had any money, since she didn’t give him an allowance and held his tongue.  Usually such comments would just come out before he had the chance to rein them in, and he was glad it did not and ruin the moment, enjoying the warm comfort and security of his mother’s hug.

He agreed not to talk to or give money to strangers, and she had him help make dinner.  Making dinner with his mom was one of his favorite moments, cooking was something he enjoyed doing, and when making dinner his mom would listen to him talk about school, or they’d joke around, and a few times she would put on the radio and they would sing together while making food.  That night was one of the good nights, Bob was coming over and they made enough fried chicken for the three of them.  At one point they got into a flour fight, and then had to stop dinner preparations to clean up the mess.

After they finished cooking Bob came over and joined in the fun.  Most of the time when Bob came over Kevin went to his room, as Bob wasn’t comfortable around kids, and Kevin was not comfortable around his mother’s boyfriend so it worked out better that way.  That night Bob was in good spirits, and had brought over a bottle of vodka to share with his mom.  They joked over the dinner table while eating chicken, with Bob starting a little game between him and Kevin.

Usually Bob just referred to Kevin as The Kid, as in “Where’s The Kid” or “Hey Kid, why don’t you make yourself useful and get me a beer”.  Tonight he was in a friendly mood and when asking for Kevin to pass some of the food instead of calling him ‘The Kid’ he said “Pass the potatoes, fartface.”

His mother said, “Hey now,” but Kevin laughed at the silly insult.  He could tell by Bob’s tone that he was having a good time and meant it in a joking way.

The corn was next to Bob so Kevin asked, “C-could you p-please pass the corn, you giant booger.”

Then the game was on, both of them trading increasingly juvenile comments when referring to each other, until the dining room was filled with laughter at each successful insult.  The words jughead, sissy, spaz, dork, mouth breather, buttmunch and noob were tossed around, though Kevin had to explain the meaning of the last term.  They stared at each other across the table with big grins on both of their faces, and at last Kevin thought he might’ve won the exchange after a moment of silence from Bob who appeared to be out of insults.

Then he looked at Kevin, grinned even wider and said, “P-pass thuh-the salt, Puh-puh-Porky Pig.”

The laughter inside Kevin deflated like a balloon losing air.  He was having fun but Bob decided to actually insult him over something he knew he was sensitive about.

“At least I’ve got all my hair, baldy.” Kevin heard himself say without stuttering.  He knew it was a mistake the moment he said it, and yet was unable to stop his mouth from spitting out the words.

There was silence in the dining room.  A dark look crossed Bob’s face and he stood up and came around the table.  Kevin didn’t move, thinking that Bob was so mad that he was just going to storm out of the house.  Before he could react there was a sudden sharp pain in his ear and his vision went dark red with white spots.  Kevin realized he had fallen off his chair and shook his head to clear his vision.

He punched me, Kevin thought, he punched me in the ear.

The side of his head felt warm and stung.  He could hear his mother yell something at Bob, but the sounds were muffled and heard through what sounded like water running, like the sound of the creek he crossed over daily.  He sat back up, more stunned than hurt, though there was the promise of pain in the future within the throbbing sensation in his ear.  His mother and Bob had gone to the kitchen and he could hear them fighting.

“You hit him!” He heard his mother yell.

“Of course I did, The Kid needed to be taught a lesson, you can’t just coddle him when he’s being a smart ass.”

“You can’t just do that!”

“Don’t push me.  I’m not in the mood to be pushed around right now.” Bob said quietly, with steel in his voice.

“I’m his mother, I’ll take care of punishing him when he’s bad.” she said, the anger in her voice gone when confronted with the edge in his.  She now sounded as though she was pleading with him, and for some reason even through the blooming pain in his head that made Kevin disgusted with her.

“Then take care of it.  I don’t want to see that little snot again tonight or I might not be able to help myself from teaching him another lesson.”

His mother came back to the dining room to find him sitting in his chair, hunched over with a hand against his ear and a silent tear sliding down his face and onto his plate.

“You see what happens when you have a smart mouth?” She said to him. “You are still grounded, and you can add another week to that since you obviously didn’t learn yesterday.  Finish up your dinner and then go straight to your room.”

Kevin looked at his mother through tear rimmed eyes, wanting to ask her why.  Why would she let someone hit him?  Why would she take Bob’s side?  Were they not still a team?  Instead he took a deep shuddering breath and let out a small sob.  He was no longer hungry, so he pushed his chair back and went down the hall to his bedroom, dripping tears onto the carpet.

Once in his room he sat on his bed and wiped away the snot and tears, determined not to cry even with the continuous pulsating pain in his ear.  For a while he sat on the bed with his knees drawn up to his chest and wallowed in self pity.  He wondered what his dad had been like, and what he would’ve done had he still been alive.  Life would’ve been better, Kevin thought.

After some time had passed he grew bored with feeling sorry for himself and started to play with his action figures.  He did not have many of them, and most of the ones he had were superheroes that he liked.  Owning only the heroes posed a problem though, since they had no one to fight.  At the moment he had devised a complicated series of betrayals and backstabbing to give reasons for the heroes to fight each other.

Outside of his room he could hear that the storm of anger had not passed when he was banished to his room.  His mother and Bob would argue and then stop for a little bit, and then an even louder argument would start up.  As the night continued the arguing grew fiercer, though Kevin couldn’t understand what it was about.  Their words were slurred and by the time they made it down the acoustics of the hallway they no longer made any sense.

He played with his toys, though part of him paid attention to the fighting in the background, worried that at some point they might bring the fight to his room.  It had happened before.  At some point there was the sound of dishes breaking, when that happened he flinched, and tried to focus even harder on the superhero drama that was developing with his action figures.

The yelling turned into screaming at each other, and then a door was slammed so hard it shook the whole house.  Bob had left, and Kevin could hear his mother weeping in the other room.

Good, he thought savagely.  A part of him felt guilty for feeling good about her crying, though a more vindictive part of him was glad to hear it, to know that she was suffering while he suffered.

He left for school early the next morning, not wanting to face his mother.  Kevin slept horribly, his emotions churning through him and giving him bad dreams of Steven and Tyler as trolls, holding him down while his mother rooted them on, telling him that he needed to learn a lesson.  It didn’t help that every time he rolled over in his sleep that the pain in his ear would wake him up.  That morning when he looked in the mirror his ear was swollen and had a dark red, almost purplish color to it.

When he reached the bridge he looked over both sides of it, saw nothing and walked on.  He knew it was ridiculous but he kept waiting to hear the groan again, followed by a voice asking ‘who is that clip clopping over my bridge?’

Over the course of the day Kevin felt even more relieved that Steven was suspended, with how sore his ear felt he could not imagine how much it might hurt to have Steven flick it, and knew that the swollen ear would have immediately been a target for the bully.  He sat in Algebra, stealing glances at Kate, who was wearing a purple flannel shirt.  Kevin did not know they even made flannel shirts that color, but thought it looked good on her.  After class she stopped him and asked him about his ear.  He told her he fell, too embarrassed to admit that his mother’s boyfriend was the one who did the damage.

At lunch he sat in his usual spot, off to the side at the end of a table with another group of kids, who left enough space between their group and him to make sure people understood that he was not in their clique.  He pushed around lukewarm salisbury steak with a plastic fork and wondered what he would come home to that night when a shadow fell over him.

He turned, afraid Steven had been allowed to come back to school early.  Instead it was Kate with a lunch tray.

“Mind if I sit down?” She asked.

“Shu-sure.” Kevin said, and then blushed, already ashamed of his stutter.

She sat across from him and they both picked at their food for a moment before she started talking.  She told him about a horror movie she had just seen the night before, about a serial killer who could switch bodies with people.  He listened enraptured, both by the sound of her voice and interest in the movie she was talking about.  His mother never let him watch horror movies and from Kate’s description this one sounded like a good one.  She stopped as she started pantomiming the way the killer jerked in the electric chair in the film as if suddenly realizing she had an audience and had that maybe she’d gone too far.  She stopped and blushed.

“What happened next?” Kevin said, genuinely interested.

She smiled and started to tell him when a group of girls walked past.  One of them yelled out, “Hey Kate, is that your boyfriend?” and another started singing “Kevin and Kate sitting in a tree…” while the rest made smooching noises with their mouths.

To Kevin’s surprise she turned to them, held one arm out and flipped them the bird.  The sight of her defiantly holding up her middle finger at the girls changed the way he looked at her, the warm confused feelings he felt towards her crystallized into something more pure, and it felt as though his heart ached.  The group of girls had the opposite reaction, reeling back as though she had reached out and slapped them all.  They regrouped and started talking among themselves in offended tones as they walked away.

“That was gr-great.” Kevin said.

She looked back at him and the mask of defiance melted into the smile he was fond of.  She was blushing even harder than she had been when describing the horror movie scene.

Then the lunch bell rung and she waved goodbye to him and ran out of the cafeteria.  He watched her go with her ponytail bobbing along behind her and wished that lunch had never ended.

The rest of the day and the walk home were filled with thoughts about Kate.  He wondered what else she liked other than horror movies, and how cool it was she liked that kind of movie.  He remembered what those girls had said to them and the song about kissing in a tree, which led to thoughts about what it might be like to kiss Kate.  The thought of her lips against his was enough to make him feel suddenly feverish and he stopped to lean against a tree until his head stopped spinning with daydreams.

Leaning against the tree, he heard a voice that was very familiar to him.

“I’m telling you, the little homo walks this way every day.” He heard Steven say.

Kevin moved slightly away from the path while keeping his chest against the tree, and then peeked around the other side of it.  Standing around the next curve of the path he could see Steven, Tyler, and two other boys he did not recognize through the holes in between bushes and branches.  They were standing around smoking cigarettes, with Steven pacing back and forth across the trail.  Had he not stopped when he had, Kevin would have walked right into them.

“How much long we gonna wait?” one of the boys he did not recognize said.  They were older, as tall and broad as Tyler, only much more in shape.  Kevin thought that he did not recognize them because they must be high school boys.

“It’ll be soon,” Tyler said “School got out not too long ago.”

“Then we’re going to get that punk.  Little fucking rat insults me and tattles?  Oh no, we’re gonna teach him what happens to snitches.” Steven said.

“Oh yeah?” The other unknown boy said with amusement in his voice, “What are you going to do?”

Kevin tried to lean further to hear what it was that Steven had planned.  As he moved a branch snapped under his foot, the crack of the branch loud and clear in the woods.  Kevin saw all four heads whip around in his direction.

“I bet that’s him.” he heard Steven say.

Kevin did not stick around to find out if he said anything else.  He ran in long loping strides into the woods.  He heard one of the boys make a whooping noise before he heard the sound of all four of them crashing into the woods in full pursuit of their prey.

Powerless to do anything else he brought his arms up to protect his head and tried backing away.  Her nails struck against his forearms and a few times a hand slipped through and hit him in the head.  Looking at her between his forearms with her face contorted in fury he came to another discovery.  She was not the Bad Queen after all.

Were her eyes squinted and bloodshot like the troll’s?  Yes, they were.

Were her nails bared as claws like the troll’s had been?  Yes, they were.

Did he see maybe two little horns in her hair as it thrashed about?  Yes, he thought he did.

She was not the Bad Queen.  Kevin knew now that she was a troll.

And he knew what to do about trolls.

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