Ron regrets bullying Samuel in high school - 2nd place What a Character, December 2018.
|Ron Johnson hesitated in the hospital corridor, reluctant to open the door and confront his past. While he struggled to steady his racing pulse, he adjusted his gray tie and ran a hand across his crew cut. This was the right thing to do.
He stepped inside the cramped room, where the stench of disinfectant prompted painful memories of his own recent convalescence. He hadn't set eyes on Samuel Brown since high school. When he examined the skinny patient in the bed, he wondered if he'd entered the wrong room. No. It was Samuel. He’d never forget that crooked nose and those pointed ears, but Samuel's skin had turned a pasty yellow and his face gaunt. The last fifteen years hadn't treated him well. He looked even worse than Ron expected.
Samuel's bloodshot, blue eyes flickered open. They kindled with recognition and disgust.
Steeling himself, Ron approached the bedside. “Hello, Samuel.”
“That's Mr. Brown to you,” he rasped.
“Thank you for agreeing to see me.”
“You're here now. What do you want?”
Ron wanted to answer that question but worried Samuel's voice was deteriorating as this conversation continued. “Can I get you some water?”
Samuel nodded, so Ron made to help him sit up.
“I don't need your help.” Pushing against his elbows, Samuel edged back onto the pillows until he sat upright.
Ron spied a jug of water on the nightstand. He poured some into a paper cup and passed it over. Sam took a sip and leaned back.
“How do you feel now?” asked Ron.
“I'm suffering from end-stage renal failure. How do you think I feel? Like you give a damn.”
“With our history, you have every reason to think like that. But I do care. I've changed.”
“Yes. I read all about you in the local rag. You're quite the hero: Marine Staff Sergeant, fighting the Taliban, Purple Heart…”
“Only did what I had to.” He rubbed his chest where the bullet tore into him, earning him a punctured lung and that damn medal. His mind flashed back to that moment in a ruined factory. He would never forget his terror—the overwhelming noise and confusion and certainty death would strike at any moment.
“I imagine you loved it—getting paid to hurt people and the media making you out to be the good guy. Anyway, why aren't you in uniform? I'm sure the pretty nurses would be impressed by your shiny brass buttons. In school, you never missed an opportunity.”
He had chatted with the nurses, but only to ask about their day-to-day work because he’d recently started the nursing course at Brooks College of Health. He gestured to a chair. “Would you mind if I sat?” Samuel waved dismissively, and Ron took it as permission. “Actually, I left the service.”
“You're moving back to Jacksonville?”
“Probably.” He'd yet to discuss with his fiancée where they would settle after his graduation, but Karen had family and a good job here.
“Well, if you do, I'm sure everybody will tie a yellow ribbon around a tree. All except me, of course. I know the real you.”
Ron sighed. “Yeah, you do. That's kinda why I came here today.”
“I see. You do realize all that stuff happened a lifetime ago? These days, I've got bigger problems to worry about than you. But if you're looking for forgiveness, forget it.”
“I don't expect forgiveness.” Not after the torture Ron put him through. Samuel might have put it behind him, but Ron doubted he could ever shake the memories of what he inflicted on him. He would never forgive himself.
“So why bother coming to see me?” asked Samuel.
He leaned forward on the chair. “I came to express how sorry I am for your suffering at my hands.”
“I wish there were something I could do or say to make amends.”
“For four years, you made my life purgatory. Every day, you stole my lunch money or gave me a wedgie or a swirlie. You called me a queer, a fruit, a fudge-packer, and a dozen other crude things.”
Ron hung his head.
“After you learned about my adolescent infatuation with Steven Bluff, you made sure the whole damn school witnessed my humiliation at his rejection.”
“Yeah. I was a complete asshat.”
“You can't imagine the pain I went through,” Samuel spat. “I bet you've never endured a pantsing—the exposure of your most private insecurities to public scrutiny and ridicule. Unless you someday encounter the same kind of physical and mental torture, you’ll never fully comprehend what I suffered at your hands.”
Ron recalled one occasion at boot camp when his Drill Sergeant accused him of being homosexual because he collapsed nineteen miles into a twenty miles run wearing full kit and carrying his rifle. What was the relevance of sexuality to endurance? Even back then, Ron regretted how he treated Samuel in school. But his basic training instructor pushed him mercilessly for a noble purpose—to harden him to survive hostile situations. Ron bullied Samuel for his own sadistic gratification, and that was evil. He considered sharing the anecdote but decided against it. To Samuel's ears, it would sound like an attempt to compare Ron's voluntary debasement with his involuntary suffering.
Samuel shook his head. “What I never really understood,” he continued in a more moderate tone, “was why you singled me out. I wasn't the only gay at school, but you never treated the others like dirt.”
He cringed. “You deserve to know the truth.” He took a breath. “Do you know who your father was?”
“My father? What's he got to do with anything?”
He nodded to himself. “I thought not.”
Samuel frowned. “Mom never told me who that loser was.”
“You have a right to know.”
Samuel sat up straighter. “You know?”
“His name was Theodore Johnson.”
He nodded. “My dad’s brother. The black sheep of the Johnson clan.”
“Cousins. In fact, since my mom passed in April, you're my closest living relative.”
Samuel shook his head. “I don't believe it.”
“It's true. Dad told me just before we started high school.”
“Yeah. At first, I was stoked. I'd never had a brother growing up, and I imagined you might be like me…into football, action movies, girls…you get the picture?”
“Then I met you, and you were more like an irritating, bratty sister. I knew you were gay. Image was everything to me. I grew terrified you’d tell the whole school we were related.”
“I never knew.”
“I reasoned attack was the best method of defense. If I made it clear to everyone I hated you, others would never associate us together even if you did claim a relationship.”
“That's why you were always mean.”
“I was stupid and immature. 'When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put aside childish things.' I wish I could turn back time and change our past.”
Samuel rolled his eyes. “Like I said, it was a long time ago.”
“I can never apologize enough.”
“That doesn't change what happened.” He smirked. “If there were any real justice, you'd have a beer gut and be married to an alcoholic who does all her clothes shopping at Walmart. Instead, you look like a Men's Health cover model, and I understand you're engaged to Karen Koprowski. Ironic, since she was my best friend in high school. I guess since she won Miss Florida a decade ago, she’s your type now. Also, it can’t hurt she's a successful CPA. She must be loaded.”
He shrugged. Everything Samuel said was true. Enough girls approached him on campus for Ron to know he was considered attractive by the opposite sex. However, no fashion photographer would wish to feature his naked torso, with vivid scars marring his chest and back where the bullet ripped through. Ron bumped into Karen at Westside Baptist Church a few months ago, just after he left the service. She was beautiful and the finance manager for a small, not-for-profit organization. He would never have hooked up with her in high school, Karen being a mathlete nerd and he a jock, but now she was exactly the kind of lady with whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life.
The door opened, and a nurse in blue scrubs entered. “I’m sorry to interrupt your reunion, but the doctor will be here soon and needs to see Mr. Brown alone.”
“Well, I best get going, then.” Ron's stomach twisted with anxiety, but he would stay the course. He nodded to Samuel. “It was good seeing you again after all these years. Karen and I are both praying for your swift and full recovery.”
“I don't believe in any of that religious hocus-pocus, but I appreciate the thought.”
“Karen wishes you hadn't lost touch after school.”
“Me, too. I'd love to see her again sometime. She was a good friend through tough times.”
“I'll let her know. I'm sure she'd like to visit if that's okay.”
“That would be nice, but I'm not sure how much longer I've got. I've been on the transplant program for three years and nothing's come up. Now that I've been hospitalized, it's probably too late. Finding a compatible kidney is like winning the state lottery.”
“Don't lose hope. Every week in the newspaper, I see someone with a grin holding a giant check.”
Samuel snorted. “I'll try to keep the faith.”
Ron followed the nurse out, along the corridor, and into the elevator. When they reached the ground floor, she ushered him into an office where a middle-aged lady in a suit sat behind a desk, typing on a computer keyboard.
She stood to shake his hand. “It’s good to see you again, Mr. Johnson.”
“Likewise, Doctor. I understand you've got news.”
“Yes.” She picked up a folder from her desk. “The test results came back. You'll be pleased to hear the panel reactive antibody test came back with promising results.”
“Okay, you explained this was to check the level of sensitization to donor HLA antigens, but does that mean my kidneys are compatible?”
“The lack of any mismatch gives us the confidence to proceed, but it isn't a guarantee of compatibility.”
“But you're confident enough to recommend the transplant?”
She nodded. “With the immunosuppressant drugs available today, I'm confident we can perform a successful transplant using one of your kidneys.” She opened the folder and scanned a document. “We'll run further verification tests before the operation, but we can get you signed up today and prepare a preliminary schedule for the transplant.”
“That's awesome news.”
She returned to her seat and gestured to a guest chair. Once he sat, she asked, “But do you understand what you're committing to? A serious operation, at least a three-day stay in hospital, a two month recovery period. You may develop high blood pressure in the long term. Some donors suffer from pain or nerve damage afterward.”
“If I can save my cousin, it's worth the consequences and risks.”
“And you still wish to make this an anonymous donation?”
“Absolutely. After I won that stupid medal, the local media made a huge fuss. If it came out I was donating my kidney, Heaven knows what they would say. I don't want to put Samuel through all that nonsense when he's so vulnerable right now.”
She placed a finger on her chin. “We could just inform Mr. Brown.”
“I'd rather not. We share a complex history.” He could never erase the awful things he'd done, but perhaps this was a step toward redemption.
“Very well.” She smiled and pulled a lengthy form from the folder. “Let's get started saving Mr. Brown's life.”
Word Count: 1,975
Want to learn more about Ron's journey? Check out:
"Short Stories Newsletter (December 19, 2018)" "Short Stories Newsletter (February 3, 2021)"