When the older boys lob it, jeer it in the hallway between classes—voices that say “I’m joking” … “We get it” … “I’m untouchable” …
When you type it and your dumb old Mac responds: a red underscore.
When, on the soccer field, Chad’s not using it when Scott’s talking back, he’s spouting other words, flaunting an impressive store, his face pink, his shirt soaked, until he waits as for a punch line, then softly drawls it—flat but steely and aimed—and before Scott can lunge he’s sprung back.
When, in class, you hear a girl whisper it, turn.
When you open the restroom door as Scott’s leaving, forcing both your eyes up: pebble brown so like yours you laugh, lips so small and pouty they look stung.
When you feel it at night like a presence—something watchful and ugly that won’t leave.
When, curious, you leaf through the school library’s dictionary (the hefty one lying open on its lectern) and, thumbing its shiny black tabs, your fingers light on thin pages, you absorb the words’ gravity, their breadth, the procession of their columns and rows, and, incredibly, following the bad first meaning, find a second one that doesn’t sound bad—that could even, possibly, be good—a mystery your thoughts knock against as you flounder through a pop quiz in Math.
When you can’t get it out of your head, keep wanting, weirdly, to share your knowledge, thinking it might make him feel better, but when you see him alone at a table, your meatloaf on its tray poised before you, you swerve so abruptly you lurch.
When, at night, you mouth it; when whispering it it comes out breathy and weak.
When, just curious, you start penciling the first letter on paper, but before you’re done it’s formed bangs, it’s sprouting ears and eyes, hard and dark, a shy smile emerging from the whiteness, waiting for your pencil to limn it, but when you hear the car park you see your work is ugly, you’re crossing it out, you’re tearing the paper in half, in fourths, into smaller and smaller shreds until you sweep them with a palm into a trash can, knowing you’re safe as you slink into bed now, your insides so warm they might be glowing, feeling, your eyes closed, how it feels to be perfect, how it feels to be finally clean.
Stephen Delaney writes fiction, craft articles, and book reviews. His work has appeared in, among other places, Crazyhorse, Euphony, Per Contra, Gingerbread House, Requited,and The Believer online. His website is www.stephen-delaney.com.