A feather like quality, a child’s cruelty. Holding the prejudice of the adult— of a burden to fat to
carry in their little arms, they persist. They hold it tight, keep it close no matter if their hearts
sing, or their chests burn; and they always burn, because malevolence is never sweet, never
tepid. It’s hot or bitterly cold.
He runs until his bones break. Snow falls, powdery white. Every flake touches his agony, catches in his lashes. Over and over, his lips purse. Words spill, the flaps of his vocal chords, congested.
What does a stupid boy like Rue know? His mother says he knows better. Knows better than to act this way. That the world is torturous. They’ll take a look at him, call him a fool. An idiot. Another stupid Black boy. Dead before he has the chance to fly.
To fly… little Black boy, what you know about flying?
His mother is scared. Rue knows it. Sees it in her eyes when she screams. Her fear. She passes knowledge the way of her mother’s mother. A cycle of toxic humility. Rue doesn’t know how to tell her such words slice his heart. That he feels.
His feet slap black gravel. Hop in the squares, don’t touch the lines. The thick white lines, straight and neat against the watery floor. He stops, his toes skim the edge of the hopscotch grid. He pulls his leg back.
Little Black boy, you dare fly?
And slowly, as of pulled on a string, Rue’s crooked fingers spring from his hips. Supple fingers, plump and rigid, crinkle in excitement. Rue musters every drop of strength into the center of his bulging gut. Courage boils his fear, snatches his breath, and like a frightened bird, Rue flaps his arms.
Oh, how he flies!
“One, two, skip to my loo! One, two, skip to my loo!” He sings, pitching his voice like the girls in his class. The short inflections of consonants, the longevity of vowels, he matches them perfectly. Over and over. To himself, he whispers.
Sleepy trees drag faded leaves across the blacktop as Rue descends his flight. A sharp ache zips his chest in two. His hands sweat. And he remembers. He didn’t come to fly, he came to hide.
Hide little Black boy, hide!
So he runs, weaves between the tetherball poles. Ghosts of excitement step in Rue’s footsteps, duck with him under the swinging balls only he can see. Winter steals his breath as Rue and his ghosts sing tales of Mary’s lamb and Muffin Men.
Scratches of chalk flash memories of recess across Rue’s mind. Happy faces. Shouts, cries. Rue sees it all, because it’s all he’s ever done—watch. He doesn’t speak. His voice too horrid, too blunt and bland for children to empathize. And they don’t speak to Rue. But he hears when they whisper behind their tiny hands,
“I don’t want to play with him.”
“It’s staring at us.”
Rue hits his ears, batting the voices away. He stumbles along. A mural blooms out of the dark concrete, and Rue hugs the cafeteria, runs his fingers along the rough wall. Pink, yellow. Waves of chipped blue and mossy green bend and snap, gnashing their teeth into Rue’s shoulders, spreading positivity through his body like a venomous snake.
Happy children on the wall.
Brown children. Gold children. Red children. Blue children.
Rue looks at his hands. Splatters of dried blood on brown skin. Shards of broken plastic poke from between ashy knuckles. Rue remembers why he runs. His feet begin the rhythm again, his arms pump in tandem, his heart breathes. He had to leave the office. He wouldn’t have survived another moment. Sitting in on that hard seat, not without Blu.
George took Blu.
Rue sat on the red triangle, book open in his lap. He rubbed his fingers between spindles of blue polyester, tried to calm down. But someone had drawn the sun in the corner of Ms. Sarah’s room, and the heat made his skin itch. He was to practice ‘self-soothing,’ which Rue came to understand meant no Blu. His mother was adamant about it this morning. Said he was too big to be attached to a toy. She wanted him to try. And oh, how Rue tried.
The air was stale. A funk of Cheeto breath and erasable markers twinged under his nose. Logs of white light beamed, fluorescents unnervingly bright, and Rue watched the swollen midafternoon clouds trudge over the sky.
Back against the water-stained wall, Rue brought his eyes down to the pictures between his legs. Alone, he read on the circle-time carpet. And though there were six other shapes without a partner, Rue knew no one would sit next to him. His classmates had made it clear, and Rue couldn’t push the words together to tell them he wouldn’t mind the company.
Brittani would sit. But Rue knew his noises distracted her. He looked up from his book then, watched his friend flip through Judy Blume. She sat at her desk. Hers, beside his. And as if she felt him, Brittani looked up, caught Rue’s blank stare, and smiled.
Rue’s heart fluttered. It was always this way with Brittani, ever since the first day she arrived at Washington Elementary. They’d become friends after Rue heard George call Brittani a name he so often called Rue, freak.
Rue still didn’t understand why George said Brittani’s face was melted, and he didn’t think Brittani was disgusting like everyone else said. She was beautiful, and pink. Always pink, and always beside him. Side to side. Freak to Freak.
Rue lowered his head back down to read. He blinked rapidly. His finger traced over dinosaur backs. Squeaky, monstrous, Rue chirped like the characters he’d watched on Land Before Time, grinned as he turned the page.
Rue loved Spike, the dinosaur that never talked. He’d told Ms. Sarah so before he’d sat down. Just moments ago, he’d taken his book to her desk for approval, and when he’d arrived, she’d smiled. “How cute,” she’d said. Her blonde hair bounced off her delicate shoulders, and Rue had thought her voice sounded pointy. “Who’s your favorite character?”
“Spike,” Rue had said.
“Of course,” she’d said. “You’re both slow and don’t talk.”
And Rue had simply walked away, found his spot on the carpet, and pondered Ms. Sarah’s gleeful expression. He knew something was wrong, but what? He didn’t know. So he’d dived into his book, stumbled along the pictures.
Focused, Rue shook Ms. Sarah’s smile from his mind, and turned the pages. As he read, the bright classroom faded into the plush greens of the pre-historic jungle. He was with Spike and Littlefoot now.
Until there were knocks on the door, and Rue had to look up, bothered by the distraction.
A tall woman, tanner than Ms. Sarah. Her belly was squishy where Ms. Sarah’s was tough. Rue liked that Mrs. Cherry’s hands never got sweaty, and she’d let him sit in her office when he didn’t feel well.
He watched her smile at Ms. Sarah. “Hey Jo, you got a sec?”
And after a quick peak around the room, Ms. Sarah dragged a chair to the door, cracking it, as she stepped into the hall.
Little ants began to crawl along the bottom of Rue’s toes. He knew the chair wouldn’t hold the weight of the door. And Rue stared as the heavy metal slowly overcame the small wooden chair. Anxiety munched on his belly. He slammed his eye shut. The door clicked closed, and the tranquil classroom, burst.
Callow voices snaked, vibrated the floors and Rue’s chest. They took his concentration, and his eyes responded by blinking harder, faster, until he stuttered. With Ms. Sarah gone, the room was off kilter, and Rue’s eyes kept wandering off the page. He smacked his lips. His mouth felt tacky, his skin was damp from the heater.
Rue laid down his book, unfolded his legs to take a drink. But when he stood, he found George. Big, orange-headed George, standing at the sink. Now the walk to the fountain felt like a mile.
Rue approached carefully, his steps small, hesitant. He hunched his shoulders, flinching as an unruly sneer hiked George’s lips. A child’s confidence laid pert on his rounded shoulders; in his smart eyes, a glint Rue knew meant trouble. But he was thirsty, so Rue kept on.
“Hey stupid,” George said as Rue got close. Ms. Sarah and George carried the same blue eyes, the same red lips. They wore the same colors, the same brands. Rue liked how George’s hair always looked wet, but he thought it strange how crisp his pants and shirt always were. Rue’s mom never had time to care for his clothes.
George twisted his face, his eyes slanted as his cheeks rose reminding Rue of a beast. “Who am I,” He said as his mouth went slack.
He curled his hands and flipped invisible pages so hard, he’d have ripped them if they were real. Paul and Jacob, George’s dearest friends, bellied over cackling.
Rue dropped his eyes to the shiny tile. Black lines of old gum, blotches of dried watercolor. He ignored George, and stayed the course. And as he climbed the step to reach the metal spout, the plastic stool slipped from under him.
Rue flew through the air! His arms spun, the wind carried his back, and for a second, Rue floated. Weightless.
But then the world’s foot stomped into his stomach, and Rue fell to the ground. Landed on his back. His brain sputtered, his mind reeled, sloshing his emotions until his brain shriveled, until his throat ran dry. His eyes burned, but Rue didn’t cry. He didn’t do anything but get up. Like a well-oiled machine, Rue picked up the pink glittery stool, lined it perfectly in front of the silver spout, retook his step, and ignored George’s jovial mocks. He pushed the valve, and the arch of crystal water met his lips. It’s just George, Rue thought. Just George.
The class grew quiet. And Rue, relieved, thought Ms. Sarah had finally come back. But when he turned, his eyes landed on George, by his desk.
Brittani was on the floor.
And in George’s hand,
Fear crammed between Rue’s fingers. He jammed them together, his mouth opened and out his lips came the birth of fear and anger: distorted, jarring moans Rue could not control.
Rue’s little dinosaur had molted his green plastic scales. His white tail, exposed from Rue’s endless rubbing, shined. George laughed as Rue cried. His only lifeline was in the clutches of Evil.
“Look, ” George said mockingly. He shook Blu in Rue’s face, taunting him to come closer.
“What’s the matter stupid?” George asked, and Rue’s howls grew frantic. George raised his hand in the air. “You gonna cry?”
“N-no,” Rue stuttered, pleaded. Hoarse, his voice was half full.
George’s lips curled into his cheeks, and with a swoop of his arm, smashed Blu to the ground.
Rue froze. He didn’t know it then, but as he watched his friend clatter to the floor, his heart broke.
Blu, my Blu.
Foamy bubbles of anger bloomed in his stomach, and like a shaken bottle, he erupted. His hands found the tops of his head, his fingers locked between tuffs of coiled hair. And Rue screamed.
Brittani shouted. Her long braids swung behind her as she tussled to get Blu, but George cackled, lifted his heeled boot, and furiously stomped Blu to pieces. His yellow teeth gleamed as he watched Rue cry, viciously tearing into his pain, eating his fill.
“No!” Brittani screamed.
Rue crumpled to the floor, scrambled to collect the sharp plastic, and in his rush, cut his finger deep. Red gushed down the side of his finger, dripped to the shiny floor. White, pristine, now splattered with Rue’s blood. He screamed louder. He needed Blu, but Blu was broken.
And oh, how his classmates laughed! A circle of madness, they surrounded Rue.
“Stupid,” they called him.
“Freak,” they screamed.
They didn’t understand! Rue felt! Sadness, anger, hurt. Rue burned.
Finally, Mrs. Cherry and Ms. Sarah hurried into the room. Ms. Cherry rushed to Rue. Ms. Sarah scoffed and went to George.
“What’s happened?” Ms. Cherry asked.
“He must be throwing a fit,” Ms. Sarah said. “I’ve been dealing with his meltdowns all week, Barb.”
Mrs. Cherry’s squishy belly pressed into Rue’s back as she held him. “Rue sweetie, where’s Blu?” But Rue couldn’t answer. In his hands, he clutched the broken body of his friend so hard, more fingers bled.
“He broke it,” Brittani said to Mrs. Cherry. “He pushed him, and stepped on Blu.”
“George,” Mrs. Cherry had said snippily. “You’re coming with me.”
“Is that really necessary?” Ms. Sarah said. “He’s just a boy, Erica. He didn’t mean any harm.” Ms. Sarah was angry. Her demure voice went sharp, vicious.
“He put his hands on another child, Jo. I have to write him up.”
“Oh, I’m sure Georgie didn’t mean it, did you, Honey? I’m sure that boy isn’t innocent either.”
“What? He refuses to do his work, he constantly disrupts my class, but I don’t see his referral!”
“Why haven’t you reported this to me? He has an IEP. You’re mandated to report his behavior.”
“I don’t have time to report his little outbursts!”
Rue rocked back and forth. He wished he could spin Blu’s tail. Wished he could calm down, but the noises… Oh, the voices! Blurry, disgruntled faces fuzzy and horrid. Rue couldn’t stand it and slammed his eyes shut.
Mrs. Cherry rubbed down Rue’s back and said, “He’s stimming, Jo.”
Ms. Sarah scoffed. She lowered her voice as if 20 pairs of ears weren’t listening to every word. “He’s not autistic, Erica, he’s troubled. You know where he comes from, what he’s seen.”
A couple little voices laughed, reveled in Ms. Sarah’s words, inhaled them.
Mrs. Cherry didn’t respond to Ms. Sarah. Instead she gently grabbed George’s arm.
“To my office, the both of you,” she’d said.
“This is absurd!”
“Look at him, Jo,” Ms. Cherry snapped. Rue felt her arm tighten around his shoulders. “Look at his face, Joanna, and now look at your son’s. You tell me, Ms. Sarah, where the real problem lies. Because it’s not with Rue.” Mrs. Cherry paused, her voice disgruntled, “and I see now… it isn’t with George either.”
Rue didn’t hear Ms. Sarah’s reply, but felt Mrs. Cherry’s thick arms as she led him out of the classroom and to the office.
“Sheryl,” Mrs. Cherry said, rounding the curved counter of the front desk. “Take George to my office and call Yara. Tell her it’s an emergency.”
“My word, what on earth’s happened to his hand?”
“Here,” Mrs. Cherry handed George off, and navigated Rue to the cold nurse’s office. More bright lights, the stink of sterile seats and band-aids. Rue didn’t open his eyes, even when Mrs. Cherry sat him down.
“Ms. Siu’s on her way.” Mrs. Cherry tried to take the fragmented pieces out of Rue’s hand, but he held tight. Rue didn’t want to let Blu go. No. He rocked in the plastic chair, mumbling despair.
“Alright, Rue,” Mrs. Cherry said softly. “After Ms. Siu cleans you up, you can come sit in my office, just the two of us, hmm?” Mrs. Cherry patted Rue’s cheek. “We can watch Spike and Littlefoot, maybe even Godzilla?” She asked, trying to coax Rue from his agony. But Rue couldn’t sit still without Blu…
Mrs. Cherry patted his cheek again, and closed the door. Her thick heels stamped the short carpet. Rue heard her tell Ms. Riker, “Keep an eye on him until Yara gets here.”
And then Rue was alone. Him and Silence. Maddening emptiness. He couldn’t stand it. He couldn’t. So when Ms. Sheryl left her desk to get some water, he ran.
He ran out the office, through the halls. He ran. Ran as his tennis shoes squeaked, as his sweatsuit chafed. He ran. And ran. And ran.
Until he finds it, his castle.
It sprouts from the tanbark, red and lovely. Curves of cold metal twist, circles loop from one side to the other. Chipped paint and gapped ladders.
Three slides jut from the castle’s body, vessels that take Rue nowhere, but protect him from everything. Plastic springs and turning tops. Grated walls, dented with numbers and letters. And under the biggest slide, three walls, solid and sturdy. Rue’s room.
Rue sprints across the basketball courts. He floats, charmed by the castle’s lure, and oh, how it beckons him!
Come little Black boy, come!
Wood chips splinter his skin, but he doesn’t care. He hurries under, scooting until his back hits the far wall.
Hide little Black boy, hide!
And then Rue’s broken heart splits in two, and he feels the hollowness in his chest.
He cries. Until his eyes are swollen, curls his legs to his stomach. He sobs until his nose streams sour snot into his mouth. Until his voice gives its final bow and leaves Rue with wheezy grunts. He cries for hours. Until grief ardently knocks at his chest. Until all he can remember is the cold of sadness, the blackness of pain biting his bloody fingers.
The grey of day turns into a snowy twilight. And Rue shivers, clutching broken Blu to his chest. The bitter wind rustles his clothes, his blue sweatsuit clings to him, trying to warm him. But the cold freezes his eyes shut. Icy prickles stab his veins, chilling his blood.
They call for him. Ms. Sarah, Mrs. Cherry. Every adult seems to be outside, looking for him. But his hands hurt and his lips crack when he slides them open. Rue can’t make a sound.
So in his red castle, he lays, alone.
But then he hears them—footsteps, crunching over fresh snow.
They stop at his palace door. A pair of pink fur boots with fuzzy balls tied on the laces. Thin knees bend, and Brittani pops her head down, her gentle smile shines under her furry hood. Without a word, she crawls inside Rue’s palace. The refuge they both share. Brittani and Rue. Brown skin and scars. Mental and physical. Love. Though neither knows its voice, they sing its tones, run down its jagged edges. The soft, dedication of friendship pulses between them, drives Rue’s heart to shake.
Brittani holds out her pink mitten. And on it… oh.
Rue’s heart leaps. Tears sting his eyes. And he clutches Brittani’s hand. Pieces broken, begin to mend.
Because in the soft groove of her pink mitten, lies a little bottle of glue.
Rue’s heart thumps as Brittani unravels Rue’s bloody hand, her touch like falling snow, smoother than satin. Blu falls to the ground and Brittani collects his broken pieces.
And together, they crouch under the red play structure, outcasts in a found home.
“Come on,” Brittani says, slipping Rue’s frozen fingers into her palms. “I’ll help you fix him.”