I was nine years old and my brother Sam was eight. It was a late Sunday afternoon on a warm bright blue sky day in the middle of May. We were both smiling and grinning ear to ear because we had just scored the biggest prize ever in our little lives. A gigantic box, longer in all it’s in dimensions than we were in height, it was a monster. We had just pulled it out of a CARTON ONLY dumpster behind the factory building pretty close to where we lived.
It was to be a grand addition to our makeshift fort we already had built in our backyard from the previous day. We couldn’t believe how lucky we were. We only had a block left to drag it, and it was heavy work. It wasn’t every day something like this came along so we were very determined to get it home.
As my brother and I pushed and prodded the behemoth of a box down the street my little mind was already working furiously to figure how it would be cut and worked into our current structure. I was thinking this was going to be command central for all the adventures for the days to come.
“What’s the box for Felix?” a voice in front of us asked as it approached us barring our progress down the street.
I poked my head from around the box and groaned inwardly.
Three boys stood there directly in our path down the sidewalk, two of them were Anton and Anthony, eight year old identical twins, led by their twelve-year-old big brother named Terence. They were our neighbors about three houses down from us.
I hated them. They took delight in making me and my brother’s life miserable at any turn they could find when they ran across us.
For example, once I had been given a watermelon by my mother’s friend who had grown it in her garden. She had lived down the street some four houses away from our own. (Yep right next to Terence’s). I was walking home with it clutching it in both arms with my little hands wrapped around it tight. My mom loved watermelon she was going to love this nice surprise. Suddenly, I was pushed hard from behind. I stumbled and fell forward watching the watermelon fly from my arms and end up in broken chunks all over the hot summer cement of the sidewalk. I didn’t look back at who had done it. I knew. I ran home crying with their laughter at my back.
Terence approached us and our box with the twins in tow. He was tall for his age and even slightly muscular. His dark skin was darker than mine by ten times as much. I always thought of my mom and how she took her coffee, black with two sugars but no cream when I looked at him. Me, I was cream poured in you might say, because I guess my mom had been white and my dad was black whereas I knew both of Terence’s parents were black. I knew that much back then I guess. My hair was jet black, slightly wavy and cut short against the side of my head while Terence’s dark black hair was braided and pulled tight against his scalp in what most black people called cornrows. The braids trailed down the side of his head and to the back until they came out from his head hanging down to his shoulders. He smiled a friendly smile as he walked over to me but I knew it was fake.
He put a hand gently on the box, and looked up at it appraising it with his eyes.
“It’s ours.” I blurted out, regretting it the moment I said it. Terence didn’t like it when you were defiant.
“It’s our now.” He simply said and came up to me and pushed me out-of-the-way where I fell to the ground hard. He nodded at his two brothers who took it as a sign to rush the box.
I got up and grabbed my brother’s hand and walked quickly away down the street. At the time, I told myself I was protecting my younger brother but inside I knew different. Fear had always been my friend. The farther I was away from them the less scared I became and the angrier I got. Then Terence yelled out to me and my brother asking if we wanted our box back.
We turned back to them thinking just for an instant that he might actually mean it. I took one hesitant step back towards them.
Then they laughed and started to destroy the box. They kicked at it, punched it, and ripped at the joints and corners with their hands, all the while laughing like it was the biggest joke in the world. Finally the box collapsed in on itself with all the beating it had undergone. Terence then climbed on top of it and began to jump up and down crushing with his feet. His brothers joined into until it was just a mangled piece of paperboard on the ground.
All the while this was happening; I stood there holding my younger brother’s hand as he began to cry next to me. A thunder began to roll in me with all the momentum of a giant wave rolling towards the shore. Gathering, gathering, collecting in strength until it would crash.
“You nigger!” I yelled with all the power my little voice could carry. I put behind the word all the hurt I felt, all the anger that had built up over the months, days and weeks of their constant bullying. I put it all into that one word and flung it like a rock straight at him. Some instinct inside told me that this one word would work and I had grabbed it and used it without thought.
“What did you call me?!” he asked. He wasn’t laughing anymore. He looked stunned.
I yelled it again and again. My mind railed the word over and over inside my head.
He didn’t make a move to chase me. He just stood there with his arms at his sides and fists clenched and then calmly but loudly yelled at me. “Tomorrow on the way home from school, I’m gonna get you then!” was all he said. Then he and his brothers simply walked away towards home leaving the crushed box in the middle of the sidewalk.
I walked home scared. I went to sleep scared. I woke up scared. I went to school scared. I sat in class all day scared. Then the bell rang to go home.
It was about a ten to fifteen minute walk from school to my house. Terence was a middle schooler and got out earlier than me nearby in the same neighborhood. I knew he would be waiting for me somewhere along the way home. If I was quick and ran nonstop all the way home, he might not even see me to catch me. So I ran.
I ran past friends in the hall not saying a word, I busted through the double doors of the school and sprinted across the street ignoring the crossing guard who yelled at me saying I was going to be in trouble tomorrow when I came back to school. I thought to myself I’m trying to stay alive today so I can come back to school tomorrow.
I didn’t look to my left I didn’t look to my right. I just ran like a bullet towards home with my target being my front door. I dodged my way around slow-moving kids in my way, at the next street I crossed against the light beating out a car turning the corner earning me a blaring horn in my ear.
Up ahead was the street next to my own. All I had to do was to cross it and then make a quick cut through the parking lot between the restaurant and the Goodwill Store and I was home free. No sign of Terence. Maybe he forgot. Maybe he never intended to show; maybe he was more talk than anything else.
I crossed the street in a run but slowed to a quick walk when I hit the sidewalk and entered the parking lot. I could see my house across the short field from the parking lot. I felt a small cocoon of safety settle over me seeing my home in sight.
Then there he was out of nowhere like he had appeared from thin air; right in from of me at the very edge of the parking lot. He ran at me. I couldn’t move. My mind screamed to run but my body didn’t want to cooperate. He grabbed the top of my shirt near my neck with both hands and shoved me heard against a parked car.
His eyes were wide and brown and they burned into me. I could almost feel the pressure from them pushing against my own.
“Why did you call me that!” he yelled at me pushing me hard again against the car.
“I don’t know I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I was mad. I’m sorry.” Tears started to come into my eyes.
He held me against the car just staring into my eyes. Then I saw something different in his than what I had just before. It wasn’t anger or menace. It was pain. Pain showed in his eyes. Deeply. I felt it to my core.
“I’m sorry Terence. I never should have said it. I never will again I promise, I promise. I’m sorry.” and I meant it to. I didn’t say it from fear. I had said it because in the end I truly was sorry. Yes he was a bully, and he treated my bad but he didn’t deserve what I had said. I felt ashamed of myself in that instant with his eyes looking back at me full of pain. I never thought he could feel pain, never thought it could touch him. No, that’s a lie, I told myself in that instant. I knew it could touch him, that’s why I had said it, but I had chosen to ignore what I had done.
I hung my head.
He let me go, hands slowly releasing me to fall down at his sides.
“See that you never do say it again.” he said and walked away.
I stood there in the parking lot for quite a while, not moving, and barely breathing with my head still hanging down staring at the ground.
I found the strength to pick my head up and realized as I made my slow walk home I didn’t know myself at all.