2 Baron Versus
“I said up! Get up!”
Baron jumped out of his sleep.
An older, silver-haired woman glared at him from the foot of the bed, her brow strained, her gaze serious, vexed even; the vein on the left side of her forehead pulsated with vigor, so much so that it appeared ready to burst. She held a plastic-wrapped bologna sandwich in one hand and an opened package of tissues in the other. Those items, Baron had chucked across the room out of anger hours earlier, after being told he would never see his parents again.
Baron’s cheeks were smeared with dried drool, while snot crusted under his nose and dry tears filmed around his puffed eyes; he wiped himself clean with his flannel sleeve, then yawned, breaking apart the specks he’d missed in the corners of his mouth. It felt like he’d been asleep for days, and he felt well rested, no longer fatigued. Unfortunately, when he realized where he was, what he was told just a few hours ago, a dark cloud cast over him. He wasn’t seeing the blurred aura or the odd squiggly lines everywhere, not anymore, and there were no ghosts, so that meant Mrs. Chou wasn’t a witch, probably, but also, there was no mom, no dad.
“It’s time for lunch. Get up!” the woman commanded.
What’s the point? You go eat the lunch, he thought, crudely. He sat up, brought his knees to his chin and roped his arms around them, forming a protective ball, and he buried his head deep between his legs. The woman’s gray eyebrows raised in contempt, as though to question his audacity, and the pressure of the vein on her forehead appeared to approach its limit. She placed the bologna sandwich and tissue pack down, atop the windowsill, reached for his flannel sleeve and grabbed a hand full of shirt. He tried shrugging her loose, but she held firm.
“I said up!”
She was only inches away from his face. Her breath smelled of leafy vegetables, faint whiffs of lettuce or cabbage, spinach or broccoli, maybe even carrots, and droplets of saliva flew when she yelled. She was surprisingly strong. Desperate to free himself, he crawled the width of the bed on all fours, like a human crab, belly-up, and pulled her along in the process to the edge of the other side. She fell forward onto the bed and caught herself from falling face-first into the sheets, but also freed Baron of her iron grip.
“I’m not hungry!” he yelled.
With a determined look in her eye, she reached for his arm again, and missed, as Baron sprang to his feet, staggering backward onto the nearby armchair, where he quickly regained composure and stood. Ha! he thought, suppressing the urge to say it aloud, though he smirked a little. He straightened his wrinkled sleeve and adjusted his shirt. It felt like a game of cat and mouse, sort of like a game of tag, and he was winning, for the moment, but he wasn’t truly having fun—it was just the rush.
“Now, leave me alone!” His fists were clenched down at his sides.
You’re making me mad, lady, he thought, and I don’t think you wanna see me mad. The blood rushed through his muscles, to his arms, his fingertips, where he felt a hot energy build in his fists. He was supercharged, like an overcharged battery. It was here he would finally transform into someone more powerful than himself, into a person with superhero abilities like he’d always dreamt, like he’d always imagined. He was in his “prime”. He felt indestructible.
Then, a fiery look burned in the older woman’s eyes.
Baron’s heart sank into his stomach. He took a half-step back, his fists still balled but his outer show of confidence lessening into something less spectacular. The energy was draining from his body, moving out into the air, and he was being taken out of his “prime”. This feeling of invulnerability was an illusion, a figment of his imagination, and he would pay the price for believing. There could be no “transformation”. This woman wasn’t one to allow unruly children to show her up, and he somehow recognized that just by her scathing glare.
With an impressive burst of energy from her elderly body, she rushed to the other side of the bed and caught his arm. This time, her grip was locked and steady.
“Let me go!”
She yanked him in her direction, and he pulled back in this tug-of-war as they approached the open door. The look in her eyes seemed stressed, weary. He cried and wailed, an animal caught in a trap hoping to attract attention, but it felt like there wasn’t a person for miles around. He was entangled with this elderly lady who he felt forced children to do her bidding, to do things they don’t want to do, like eat lunch. Bite her! he thought. Step on her feet! Step on her feet! Punch her face, punch her in her face! With his bare foot, he stepped on her socked foot, but couldn’t shift his bodyweight onto it, or rather, chose not to. Over and over, he thought to attack her, to hit her, to crush her foot (if he actually could), but couldn’t, or wouldn’t will the action, the reason being the morals he never even knew he had. He was taught not to hit his elders, no matter what, and that stuck with him. It was that, and also the fact that she was terrifying.
“What’s going on in here?”
Baron and his captor ceased.
Mrs. Chou separated the two.
“I’ll be damned if I let another child run this house!” the silver-haired woman declared. “You know what he did.” She was huffing, and her eyes, searing.
“But I didn’t do anything,” Baron asserted.
Mrs. Chou placed herself between the two.
“Okay, alright. Mrs. Hill, can we talk out in the hall? Mrs. Chou gently laid her hand on her shoulder and gestured her through the door.
“Baron, go wait by the window.”
He shuffled away as she stepped out and left the door ajar. Baron listened in, comprehending only Mrs. Hill and her angry interludes:
“You saw, you know what that troublemaker did…to my favorite coat, Melinda, my favorite coat! Almost two hundred dollars…Who’s going to pay…I didn’t think anyone would touch it…What if it was your things, what if one of these boys took your…This is serious, this is no small matter…It does matter, it does for…It does…Look, I run a strict home and if the boys can’t adhere to that, and to the schedule I set, if they can’t be disciplined, then they’re out, they’re out into the system! You know how it goes…When I say it’s time for lunch, then it’s time for lunch. I don’t care…You know…I am, I know…That is…I did not strike him, I did not put my hands on him.”
Baron was confused because he’d done nothing to Mrs. Hill or her coat. He’d only been here, in this nursery-type room for the morning, and probably the night before, and the majority of that time, he was asleep. The timeline was: he woke, met Mrs. Chou for the first time, then cried himself to sleep after throwing that bologna sandwich and pack of tissues across the room, the sandwich and tissues that Mrs. Hill had picked up, the sandwich presently sitting beside him on the windowsill.
And he was starving.
He was lying when he said otherwise. He unwrapped the plastic film and took a bite. The second bite was just as good as the first, the combination of processed bologna and salty American cheese was so satisfying, so, so satisfying. He didn’t even like bologna. He would’ve preferred the peanut butter and jelly, but ham was his favorite, and tuna was the worst. The conversation outside the door had begun to die down. Both Mrs. Hill and Mrs. Chou were now talking in whispers, and Baron couldn’t understand much of anything.
Mrs. Chou returned soon after he finished the sandwich.
She knelt on one knee and pulled him close.
“Now, I need you to listen, Baron.”
“But I didn’t do anything to her jacket.”
“She’s the head caretaker and from now on, you do as she says, alright?”
“But I didn’t do anything to her jacket,” he repeated.
Mrs. Chou glanced to the side, either in disbelief or dismissal, it was hard to tell.
“What happened to it anyway?” he asked.
“Well, someone broke a pen over it and stained the back. It’s permanent.”
“I didn’t do that. You believe me, right?”
She dropped eye contact, entirely. “When she came in this morning, she left her coat in this room, over there on that chair, and you were the only one in here the entire time…”
“But it wasn’t me, I swear.”
Mrs. Chou sighed. “Who else could it be, hon?”
He pulled away.
“I don’t like her.” he said.
She pulled him back.
Regardless, you will follow her instruction.”
He jerked away from her, again.
“Stop it, Baron!”
“She’s a liar, and she’s mean!”
He left the room, out into the corridor, and moments later, Mrs. Chou followed.
“I’m trying to be patient with you. Now, you’ll need to apologize.”
Apologize? Apologize to that…that monster? Baron thought. He wanted to say this followed by something obscene, a word he learned from his neighborhood friend, Rodney, back in Philadelphia. That stupid old witch, that, that stupid twat, he thought. He’d checked with his school peers and they all agreed it was a word. They also agreed it was a part of the female body, but its actual location was subject of much debate among the boys.
Evening arrived and a class-sized group of young boys and their chaperones entered the home from the frigid weather. The home was suddenly rampant with chatter and movement. The children removed their winter garments and left a pile of coats and hats by the front door; a woman’s voice called them back and ordered them to hang their winter clothing. After that, some headed upstairs to do whatever, while the toddlers were taken by caretakers for diaper changing. The rest rushed to the beloved playroom. Upon entering, the laughter and chatter ceased. All the boys stopped and stared; Baron stared back. The children were no older than seven, some as young as three, and their eyes were aglow with shy curiosity. The chaperones, who were also part of the home’s staff, were hindered by the wall of children, though, they briefly stopped in surprise, as well.
Why is everyone staring at me? Baron thought.
The caretakers encouraged the boys into the room, and they slowly continued to their desired playthings, but kept their sights on the newcomer. Why’re they all looking at me? Baron wondered, again, as he watched the wall-mounted television. He detected the various glances out of the corners of his eyes, the stares from all of his new housemates and also a few of the caretakers, and he grew uneasy, in his stomach and all. Why am I nervous? he wondered.
Stage fright was one thing but this was something else. He was feeling very self-conscious.
A passing caretaker waved as she made her way to the other side of the room, and he nervously waved back. Okay, he thought, calm down. They’re only little kids, and the ladies are nice, so chill. His eyes fixed on the television, but his attention was everywhere else; his mental focus had developed a capacity and will of its own. A few yards away, where a chest of toys was situated on connectable foam mats, another caretaker worked to settle a dispute between three toddlers.
“I had it first, Ms. Elaine.” The little boy, who had straight, black hair and chubby cheeks, was holding an electronic pad behind his back.
“You did have it first, Jamie, I know, but wouldn’t you like to share with Eli and Stevie? They really wanna play too.” Ms. Elaine smiled and tried reaching for the toy. The other two toddlers, Eli, the smallest of the three who wore overalls, and Stevie, who was about Jamie’s size, and who appeared to have more of an investment in the toy, watched in anticipation.
“No! It’s my etchy-sketchy!” he yelled. “I bought it so it’s mine.” His expression was snub, and he was also really adamant on keeping the electronic pad for himself; as adamant as his blue “I Want You” Uncle Sam t shirt, an animated, child-friendly version of the well-known propaganda. It was likely a donated Good-Will item.
“What did Mrs. Hill say about lying?” Ms. Elaine warned, raising onto her knee. “That toy belongs to you all, just like everything else in the home. You know you didn’t buy that toy.” She reached for it again and Jamie scooted backwards on his bottom.
“I did buy it!”
Ms. Elaine sighed. “Come on, Jaime. Give them a turn.”
“Yeah,” Stevie added.
“Please, for me…” Ms. Elaine batted her eyes and faked a sad face, protruding her lower lip and beaming sad eyes.
Jamie clutched the electronic pad, about the size of a standard notebook, against his chest and began to tear. “But it’s mine.”
Stevie suddenly lunged forward and grabbed the pad.
“No! I said no! It’s mine!” Jamie yelled. The two boys pulled back and forth and Ms. Elaine intervened to confiscate the source of the fight. Eli watched, innocently, whilst seated on his knees. By now, the sounds between Stevie and Jamie, what were whines and cries, mixed with the various chatter and giggles of the room.
Baron’s heart began to race, to beat against his chest walls. His clammy hands, he wiped into the lavender carpet and his eyes glanced in every direction, at everything in his line of sight—at the television program of some cartoon he could no longer focus on, at Jamie, who was sobbing, letting loose streams of tears and viscous snot, at Stevie and Eli, who watched as Ms. Elaine walked away with the toy that sparked the fight, at an unrelated group of four on the other side of the room who were playing Uno, at the other two caretakers tasked with overseeing the room, and at the two boys nearby, closely watching the same television. He rocked forward and back, to quell the information overload. Why was his brain so keen on, well, everything?
“Wassup, my nigga.”
Baron looked up to his left and saw this scrawny boy, maybe aged seven or eight, or possibly even nine, the same age as Baron, though he would turn ten in a couple of months. His trimmed hair was black and he had very light freckled cheeks.
“I said what’s good?”
Baron was reluctant to answer. That latch or switch on the inside took effect and he couldn’t say what he wanted to say, though he couldn’t think it either because his thoughts were racing at a pace too fast for him to decipher. So really, he had no response, nothing coherent to say because his stream of consciousness had gone awry.
“I’m the king of this place, so you know, if you wanna be popular, you gotta be my friend. Everybody knows who I am. I’m like a president.”
Baron rocked forward and back. He was retreating into that feeling, the same one he had when he first encountered Mrs. Chou. Everything around him appeared to slow as he was able to hear the thumping of his own heartbeat. This time there were no ghosts, no squiggly wiggles or hallucinations, just an unexplained dread that caused him to shut down. And he felt like he had moved into a different dimension, one that was essentially a duplicate of his current reality, but it felt different, rather ghostly, like he wasn’t “Baron” anymore.
“Hello, anyone there?” he poked Baron on the side of his head.
He just sat there, without response.
“Hello?” he poked him again.
“Leave me alone!” Baron yelled.
A caretaker, possibly the youngest on staff, noticed the two among the ruckus of the room and walked over.
“Toa, leave him alone.”
“I’m not doing nothing, he’s the one being a weirdo.”
“Maybe he wants to be alone. Go play with the others.”
“Psst, whatever, I don’t wanna talk to that dummy, anyways.”
“Watch it,” she warned. Toa strolled over to the group of card players.
The caretaker sat down, before Baron.
“Hi, my name is May. What’s your name?”
He kept his eyes down and kept rocking, but now, subtly. “Baron.”
“Okay, Baron. Is everything alright?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I feel scared, and my stomach keeps hurting.”
“Do you have a stomach ache?”
“Yeah, and I feel hot, and, and I’m sweating, and I’m scared.”
“Do you want something to drink? Will that make you feel better?”
Baron used his sleeves to wipe his eyes and was without response. He continued to rock.
“Do you want to talk to Mrs. Hill?”
“No!” His tears began to stream.
“Okay, okay. Wait here. I’ll get Mrs. Chou.”