The Popping

27 Nov

By Christian Wilson
8th Grade

The gymnasium stinks with the horrible stench of adolescent sweat. Sneakers squeak routinely against the polished wood. The piercing sound bites against my ears to a soundtrack of my own breathlessness. I huff along desolately as boy after boy laps me. Each time they pass, they whisper at me. Their insults weave themselves into a textile of fatties and lardos enveloping my body, making it even harder to breath. My knees ache from the strain, unused to relentless exercise.

I take one more shuffling step and collapse, slamming violently against the ground. My glasses snap, both sides eschew their respective ears. A kid runs by and goes out of his way to step on my hand. Pain tears through my arm like a tsunami. My nerves are enveloped, numb. Pain sucks my control from my fingers. A dam bursts beneath my eyes and tears flood my face, mixing with my sweat.

A group of boys crowd around me. I naively think that they’re concerned, but suddenly a blow is delivered to my gut and they unleash their primal terror upon me. A barrage of uppercuts and right hooks and karate chops pins me to the ground.

There’s a popping within me, I hear the short burst right behind my rib cage, reverberating in my brain. Heat clouds my vision as flames rip my mouth and envelope my body. An inferno devours the boys, charring them in its blistering embrace. And when the flame returns inside my chest, even the boys’ bones have been reduced to ash.

I meander from gym to science, smoke filling my mouth. The popping isn’t as loud anymore. A wave of relief splashes over me. It’s a mischievous sensation. It tap-dances over my body, inspiring wells of joy to burst from my psyche. But as it does, it leaves an incomprehensible feeling that it was waiting. Waiting to give way to the dreadful anger. Then the popping. Then the flames.

I slip into my seat. My science partner, Courtney, looks at me in disgust, scoffs, and scoots her chair away from me. Like always. I sigh, stroking my throbbing hand, ignoring the pain in my gut.

“Courtney, it looks like that skirt is too short for ladies your age,” our smarmy teacher, Mr. Pensworth suggests. “Let me go get my ruler and check.”

He walks over to his cluttered desk, almost skipping. He runs his hand through his greasy hair. He’s almost giggling, but his lips are sealed into a perverted smirk between a poorly trimmed mustache and goatee. He wears ill-fitting slacks, accentuating a bulge in his pants. He bends over his desk, sticking his middle-aged rear into the air and displaying it to the whole class.

“Two inches above the knee, Courts,” Pensworth announces as he snatches a flimsy cardboard ruler from behind a jar of pencils.

Courtney starts scooting closer to me and away from the teacher. I guess on a scale of creepiness, I’m slightly more attractive than Pedo Pensworth.

The smug jerk places the flimsy ruler above Courtney’s knee. He firmly places his ashy hands across Courtney’s thigh. Courtney looks like she’s about to vomit and who can blame her? I look at Pensworth and see him discreetly lick his lips as he looks up her skirt.

I become queasy also. My innards twist into smoky knots. As much as I dislike Courtney, I despise Pensworth more. It’s people like that who should be punished. He’s even worse than the bullies. Pensworth stands, brushing his palm roughly against her shoulder, his long fingers nearly touching her teenage chest.

“I guess you weren’t out of dress code after all,” Pensworth remarks. “Now onto our lesson!”

The popping is groggy. After the gym, it wants to rest. It tells me it controls me, not the other way around. It’s slow, the pops like ooze like lazy waves eroding away at my innards. My breath is labored, my soot-covered lungs struggle weakly as the pops lull them into a smoky rest.

“Esteban! I asked what the answer was.” Pensworth barks, slamming his hand in front of me. My eyes shoot up instantaneously to see his oily face contorted into an annoyed frown. I can feel viscous liquid clogging my throat. I wasn’t listening to his lesson. My apprehension causes wisps of smoke to fume from the pores on my arms.

“Don’t push me,” I whisper.

Pensworth laughs haughtily, “ Of course, I wouldn’t have to push you if you were paying attention to me, not off staring at the ladies.”

I make a groan of protest as rushed giggles ripple through the students. Pensworth smirks at my obvious embarrassment and winks innocuously at a quiet girl across the classroom.

“I’m sorry, Esteban, what was that?” Pensworth retorts, shoving his hands into his pockets.

I jump up from my seat, panic clawing through the murkiness in my chest. “You have no idea what I have to go though!”

Pensworth sticks out his lips in a disapproving manner. “I’m sorry, man, but I’m afraid I’m gonna have to write you up for back talkin’ me.”

I tremble for a moment as the popping reluctantly quickens. I open my mouth and thick black smoke emerges from it like a volcano about to erupt. My throat constricts and convulses as a dark substance spews from my mouth like an oil rig exploded in my stomach. The steaming oil throbs from my mouth, running down my chin, staining my clothes, pooling on the ground. The screams of my peers mix with the wailing of the fire alarms.

The popping grinds rebelliously against my thoughts and mixes with the alarm. I fall over, pulsating, my hands splashing in the oil. I fall over onto my side as the class empties. Boiling tears roll down my face. I’m helpless. Hopeless. I’m a freak. Everyone hates me so much that even when I try to do good, everyone hates me.

I look up to see the quiet girl standing before me, her eyes full of pity. I sneer as sparks tear from eyelids, slicing my skin. She shrieks and runs off. The oil ignites. The fire hungers, spreading quickly across the room. Its heat renders it blinding white and it melts plastic and metal instantly.

If you turned on the news that night, they would’ve told you a lot of things. They would’ve said that a freak fire consumed Franklin Roosevelt Middle School. That there were 257 casualties and more injured. That the police were investigating. I didn’t stick around to find that out. Before the firefighters and the news crews came, I’d already risen from the ashes and I didn’t look back. I walked out here. To the ocean. To think.

The sea laps at the shore like a playful puppy, licking its owner’s feet. Steam rises from my hands. I push them into the water. A bloodcurdling hiss erupts from my fingers and fades as my hands cool down. I wade into the ocean, dyed orange and purple by the sunset. I imagine that the ocean is cold. Its molecules slowly tumble over each other, initiating my fuming body in its freezing embrace. The hissing is deafening so I assume that the water is cold.

I imagine what life is like without the popping. What it would be like to feel frosty snow or chilly breezes or the pendular ocean waves. I don’t feel temperature. My grandmother called me el diablo and hit me with a wooden spoon because I spilled boiling water on myself and didn’t even flinch. The ocean rocks me steadily. The hissing stops. Water washes away fire like fire washes away men.

My grandma was Catholic. She took me to church every Sunday in a sweaty, muted brown suit that I eventually burned. Fourteen years ago, my mother found burns on her stomach and my grandma thought the devil was trying to hurt the baby. Now, she knows that the baby was the devil. When my crib kept catching fire, my grandmother had me baptized four times in four different churches. The holy water washes away. Fire is sin. I am fire. I am sin.

Tears well up at my eyes and evaporate when they drip onto my burning face. I dive into the ocean. I never learned to swim, but you don’t need to learn anything to drown.

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