A four-pack of boys shouted insults at Ben Dalouz as the ten-year-old made his way down Slocum’s Run country road. In the distance, the school bus that had just dropped them off was disappearing around the bend.
Ben’s broken, beaten-up trailer squatted like a deformed goblin only a quarter mile down the road, but the walk always felt like it was far longer than that — Ben’s tormentors made sure it did
“Keep walking to your crappy trailer, you loser.”
“How come his coat sleeves only reach your elbows?”
“Because he got the coat out of a welfare box.”
“No, he stole it from his mom’s pimp.”
The boys laughed.
Ben kept walking, eyes straight ahead, his gut telling him not to run. If he ran, he’d set off their predator instincts. Nothing good ever happened if you ran from bullies.
He heard them packing snow and laughing and he braced for the snowballs. All three of them hit him at once, two square in the back and one at the collar so that the snow stung his neck with cold.
He just kept walking.
His trailer was only a quarter-mile down the street, but the walk always seemed to last for eternity.
He wanted to fight them, but Dustin Collier’s father had taught him how to box. Ben desperately wished he had a father to do the same. Maybe his dad did, indeed, know some fighting skills. He’d spent a good portion of his life in prison, after all, but even if he did, he’d never been around to show him anything.
“There’s his shoe box,” Randy called.
“Yea, he lives in a crappy shoe box surrounded by rats and he’s a rat, too.”
“Yea, a queer rat in shoe box.”
Ben’s trailer had boarded-up windows and tarpaper sticking up through missing slots in the roof shingles. Every day of his life Ben dreaded being seen walking into that trailer. Of course, everyone knew he lived there, already, but still it was nice to maintain the illusion that it was a secret.
He kept his eyes fixed straight ahead and pulled on the front door handle. It didn’t move. He tried again. Still nothing.
“Mom,” he said, trying to keep the growing panic from his voice, “let me in.”
“Get out of here you little bastard,” his mother called through the door. “You’re just like your father, you son of a bitch.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Ben said. “Let me in.”
“My money’s missing again.”
“It wasn’t me, Mom.”
It really wasn’t him. It was never him.
Whenever his mother went on a bender, she’d spend or lose all her money. When she woke up at the end of the drunken tear she’d forget everything she’d done and wonder why her money was missing. Her favorite response was to blame Ben.
The boys laughed from behind him.
“Even your mother knows you’re a freak.”
Tears welled up in Ben’s eyes. If there was one thing that could possibly make his life more unbearable, it was crying in front of his tormentors. They’d let everyone know. He’d never, ever be able to live it down.
He was trapped there on the porch of his embarrassing home with an enraged, hungover mother of one side of the door and a pack of vicious young boys on the other.
He didn’t even make a conscious decision to run. It just happened.
Ben dropped his backpack from his shoulders and bolted around the house, keeping his face turned from the street to hide his reddening eyes.
Through the trash-laden backyard he ran, crashing through a wall fir branches and breaking into the woods. Behind him came the sound of the boy’s footsteps crunching through the snow like drumbeats playing beneath the sound of their ceaseless, cruel laughter.
At any other time, the woods would have been Ben’s sanctuary. He knew every tree, every curve of the land. The woods were the one place he felt safe, and he could disappear within them for days without anyone finding him.
In the wintertime, though, the snow betrayed him. It gave evidence of his passing and it stripped the trees and undergrowth of their concealing foliage.
There were patches of frozen ground under the thick boughs of the pine trees where the snow hadn’t fallen, and he ran in these places to mask his trail. The subterfuge would buy him time, but it couldn’t save him.
Out there in the woods, away from all witnesses, there was no telling how prolonged the torment would be, nor how far it would go.
There seemed only one possibility for escape. If he could cross the big frozen pond, he’d not leave any tracks, and even if he did leave tracks, the other kids would have to take the long way around. They wouldn’t be crazy enough to cross that pond that early in winter. There was no guarantee it’d hold them up.
He turned left, which momentarily took him closer to the path of his pursuers. Their mocking cheers grew excited as Ben came within sight. They sounded like a pack of jackals who’d spotted a gazelle.
Ben hurled himself though a wall of brambles and launched out onto the frozen pond. He fell onto his chest and slid over the ice for several yards.
He’d hit his head and was dazed. He lay there on the ice for a few moments as his mind came back to him.
Slowly it dawned on him that there was an eye staring back at him through the ice.
Ben jumped up and screamed. He could hear the boys on the other side of the brambles trying to find a way around.
“Don’t go,” a girl's voice said. “Please, don’t go.”
Ben would have run, but the boys were back there, so he tentatively crept forward.
Terror scrambled his mind. Some mad part of him tried to say that it might be a little girl stuck under the ice and he needed to help her. That was insane, though. She’d be dead under there.
Ben cleared snow away from the ice to expose her full face. She was around his age. Her red hair swayed slowly in the water. Her skin was blue, but there was a light of awareness in her eyes.
“Who are you?” Ben asked.
“My name’s Maria,” she said. “Don’t run away. Please. I haven’t talked to anyone in a really long time.”
“You can’t be alive,” Ben said. “You’re trapped under a bunch of ice.”
“You fell. What were you running from?”
Ben looked back into the woods to see if the boys were in sight. “There are some boys coming after me.”
“Bullies,” she said.
“Yea, I guess so.”
He hated using the word bully. That's what all the weak kids called the strong kids. But what else were they, really? And what did that make him?
“People used to bully me all the time, too,” Maria said. “I hated it. No one loved me. No one cared.”
“Is that why you’re down there?”
“I’m down here because my father put me down here.”
The boy’s laughter neared. They were working their way through the brambles.
“You can stay here with me,” the girl said.
A distant part of Ben’s mind screamed out to him. His eyes were locked on the girl’s. He couldn’t turn away. He couldn’t even blink. Still, that distant part couldn’t break him away from whatever spell he was under.
“I’ll never be mean to you,” she said. “Ever.”
He wanted to be down there with her. He wanted to slip inside the pond’s icy embrace and float underwater with Maria forever.
The boys came running over the ice behind him, laughing like hyenas. Ben heard them, but he couldn’t look away.
“I won’t let them hurt you,” Maria said. “You’re going to be my friend forever.”
The girl swam off so quickly that Ben didn’t even register she was gone until a few moments afterwards. It was Dustin Collier’s screaming that snapped him back to attention.
Ben spun around to see two blue hands reaching up out of the ice and gripping Dustin’s ankle. Dustin’s friends were all running away, screaming in blind terror.
Dustin’s leg broke through the ice as his windmilled his arms desperately trying to find something to hold onto.
Maria’s arms skittered up his body and grabbed hold of his coat.
Ben had no time to think. If he had, there’s no telling what he would have done, but things were moving too fast, so he ran at Dustin. He rammed into the boy with every ounce of his strength. Even that was barely enough to jar him free of Maria’s grasp.
Still acting on instinct, Ben pulled Dustin up off the ice and ran with him to the shore. They kept running through a little opening in the brambles and then finally collapsed in the woods.
The pair sat in the snow catching their breaths.
“Thanks,” Dustin said. His voice was different than Ben had ever heard of it. It was as if Ben was hearing Dustin’s real voice for the first time ever. “I can’t believe those other guys left me.”
Tears welled up in Dustin’s eyes. The shock was fading, and his face crumbled under a wave of emotion. “I’m so sorry I picked on you, Ben. I don’t know why I did it.”
Dustin rambled on for what seemed like minutes, apologizing profusely and telling Ben how he himself always scared and embarrassed and how he took it out on Ben and how he was so, so sorry.
Ben’s mind processed none of it. He was looking back towards the pond, still partially visible through the branches and brambles. Maria stood in the center of that pond, watching him.
“Just get out of here,” Ben said to Dustin without looking at him. “I never wanted to be your friend and I don’t care if you’re sorry. I never wanted any of you to like me. I just wanted you to leave me alone.”
Dustin said some more, but Ben heard none of it. He didn’t turn to look as Dustin got to his feet and walked away.
Ben remained sitting in the snow, looking back at the pond, at Maria, who hadn’t moved a hair, who was just standing on the ice, waiting.
Time passed. The sound of cold surrounded him. Ben had never known such a sound existed, but it did. It sounded like good, long rest.
The sun began to set. Dusk spread its spidery fingers through the woods. Ben was vaguely aware that he’d begun to shiver, but only vaguely.
There was only Maria, and the gathering dark, and the long, restful sound of cold.