tragedy from the perspective of a survivor
Burtis looks to his left. He looks to his right. Not that he could tell you left from right. He’s four years old. He shouldn’t be outside by himself either, but who’s to stop him. Nobody can tell him what to do anyway. They’ve never been able.
He’s been standing outside for an eternity. It seems like hours, but who can tell time? Merely the long hand is, and the short hand is, blah, blah, blah. It never made any sense. The actual time is only important to those people who watch the clock and can tell what it means. He knows what time it is by what’s on television, or rather, what just went off. All the good shows seem to end too soon and rarely satisfyingly.
Burtis tries to look uncaring, nonchalant, but his eyes are too bright, too inquisitive, and much too expectant. They’ll be coming soon. They have to. They know better than to wait around and play games. There were more important things to do. But where were they?
He pulled on the bib of his overalls, way too large and being held up by one buckle, not two. Never two! Who can stand two?
He can count that far. He can count to ten and he hasn’t been to school yet. Actually, he can count to fifty, but he can’t let them know that. Somehow he knows, much as he seems to know most things. He’s fairly sure that one day, suddenly, the way it always happens, he’ll be able to tell time. He knows it has something to do with counting, but there seems to be too many parts right now.
Burtis can’t even keep the parts straight. As he thinks about it, he realizes why. His brother, the not too smart one, the one unable to read though he’s been in school for years, he’s the one trying to teach Burtis how to tell time. Burtis knows his brother can’t tell time either, but it’s fun to watch his face get all scrunched up as he fakes it. That’s okay, he guesses. Somehow that seems right. Older kids should show younger kids how to do things. They should also keep them out of trouble or at the very least, show them how to get in so much trouble that all your Mom can do is shake her head and smile as she brushes the flour off your face. Even with flour, this little darkie can’t pass for anything other a little darkie.
The sun is really warm. As Burtis closes his eyes, he can still follow the sun and knows exactly where it’s burning a red hole through his eyelids. He can also tell his colors, even though he thinks his eight color crayons somehow ain’t right. After all, he can make up new colors without names when the crayons melt together in the sun. One day, he knew he’d know more colors, more than anybody. But today, he knew red, a little orange, some yellow, a bit of blue, grassy green, burnt black, chalky white, and brown as you want to be.
This was always the point where he woke up with a smile on his face, grinning from ear to ear. It only lasted a few moments as the reality of where he was seeped wickedly through his brain. As it sunk in, he turned his head to the left and spit out a lougie through the open window. This was the very same window that let in countless mosquitoes throughout the summer and prevented him from sleeping and rejoicing in a pleasant dream.
Reaching down to scratch himself, as though needing constant reinforcement of what led him to his unfortunate state, he audibly gasped as he groped the spot and wasn’t rewarded with instant familiarity and a little thrill. He kept groping around, persistently missing his mark, and brushing across flesh and bone, all at once familiar and not. He began to panic, quickly breathing in and out, not feeling his chest rise or fall while gathering steam to scream. He did. It was more of a hoarse silent whisper than a scream, with gurgling and wheezing.
Then he truly awoke, felt the sun through the window blinding redness behind closed lids. He opened them slowly and as they began to focus, he saw multiple areas where spittle had sprayed along the lower ledge, now dry and smeared, obviously not sprayed today.
He continued to try and scream, willing himself to toss and turn, but feeling nothing. Even now, he realized, he couldn’t open his eyes, so what he thought he had seen had clearly been in his mind. But he could feel the warmth; he swore he could, couldn’t he? He really desperately needed to wake up.
Burtis was sitting in a chair. His small hands were clenched in fists as he tried unsuccessfully to will his legs to rise, run from the classroom, and take him home. Instead, he was handed more work to do, silly work, work that made him want to bite something. He looked down at his pencil. The eraser was gone, long since digested and returned to nature. He knew it was different from the wood. The wood, he saw specks of when he was brave enough to look in the toilet before waving goodbye to his closest friends.
Now he was in the bathroom. It was noisy and he could hear people milling about outside of the stall, and outside on the playground behind him. He was just about to put his feet down as the last person left the bathroom when he heard the door open again as someone else entered. His legs were beginning to cramp-up, but he couldn’t risk anyone seeing him leave the stall, when there was no telling how long he’d been in there. People would talk and begin to make up stories about the smell and call him “dookie boy” and he’d have to run all the way home again.
When he thought he couldn’t stand another minute he heard the guy leaving, the door opening, and escape looming in front of him. He was glad, because it had begun to smell. It smelled really bad. He’d have to run out before he passed out. Luckily, the feeling had returned to his legs. He quickly opened the door. Just then, the applause began. He got the award for the stinkiest BM anyone had every smelled. No sense running now. You could count on your friends to make your smallest feats memorable, even if you didn’t want to remember.
The encephalitis had left him with episodic weakness of his arms and legs. If it had been just that, he could have endured it. The other problems with his bowels, his bladder, his manhood, his brain; those occupied all his waking thoughts.
It was surely some punishment for taking a gander at a girl. He’d told Burtis that he had to see this chick for sure, and everyone else had agreed, so Burtis took a look. The car hit a pothole, broke an axle, swerved, and rolled three times. He was the only one wearing a seatbelt. Burtis had been punked-out of wearing his, as had the two punks who pushed him. He went through the windshield before the car even rolled. If he closed his eyes now, he could see it in slow motion. All that intelligence, all that promise, and his best friend, all of it gone in a flash.
He left town because everywhere he looked he saw Burtis, not all clean-cut the way he was, but all cut up, the way he ended.
Escaping to the south, he’d been happy to stay anywhere he could, and the further from civilization, the better. That distance precluded electricity, running water, toilets, phones, or screens on the windows. It also precluded friends.
He thought he’d just caught a really bad cold, but the headache was the worst he’d ever had and the chills were debilitating. By the time they reached the hospital nine hours away, he was delirious with fever and had lapsed into a coma.
Now that his body was functioning independent of his wants, and though he wouldn’t tell anyone, he wasn’t sure his brain was dependable either, he went on.
In any case, studying gave him respite, and for some unclear reason, he could hear himself copying Burtis. “I don’t know how or why I know, I just do. And that’s that.”