The sixth story from Sean McBride’s published short story collection, A View of the Edge of the World, is long enough that it has been split into two twenty-five minute episodes. This week we bring you Part 2, produced by Ed Robinson and read by James Paul Xavier.
This story has been through so many drafts I can barely remember which one I kept, however the basis of the story and the themes are still there and prevalent. I initially sat down to write a coming of age story a la “Stand by Me” and there were so many things that I wanted to put into it. I wanted bullying to be central, as well as overcoming obstacles and puberty. I asked myself, how do people deal with difficult situations? How does a little fat boy deal with having no father and an overbearing and protective mother? Then there’s the card. Ultimately the card itself is a means to an end, but you can read the story in whatever way you want. Is the card supernatural? Is it all part of his imagination? Is it his subconscious mind trying to show him the way into manhood, to get beyond his childish fears and stand tall and proud? In the end what does it really mean to be grown-up? I invite you to think about these things in yourself as you read about poor little Tanner Miller who is struggling to break out of his shell and find happiness and meaning through the harshness of reality.
Another Ace in the Hole
Tank walked down the street ignoring the laughter of the other children endeavoring to eliminate the hurt of their cruel remarks, when he happened upon a card laying in the gutter of the street. It looked old and its edges were tattered, the face dark from dirt caked into the card’s wax surface. It was an ace of spades, which made Tank feel particularly vindicated and excited. It was the death card, a card that bled power. He ran his hand over the undulated wax and took a deep breath relishing the thought of warm energy running up his arm from the card.
He was shocked out of his reverie by a rock glancing off the top of his head; laughter reverberating through the air, muffled Tank’s cry. It was nothing new to him, these random act of violence, so he ran forward ignoring the pain shooting down his back making an effort to ignore the jeering of the children behind him all the while wiping tears from his face. Running was never Tank’s forte however because of times like these he did it often. The sight of Tank running was always a surprise because it seemed a boy that big just shouldn’t move that fast.
Despite his quickness Tank was still shocked to escape. In his estimation children were cruel as a matter of nature, but the only one that resulted to extreme violence like throwing rocks was “Ace” the local bully. Tank hated Ace and his cronies; the only thing they seemed capable of creating was misery and once they started in on you they usually didn’t let you go, but maybe the card was good luck. Usually they meant business if they went as far as to throw rocks.
Tank ran all the way home, clutching the card in his chubby little fingers, praying for deliverance between gasping breaths. Once he was home he didn’t stop to pay respects to his mother in the kitchen or plop down in front of the television as he was prone to do; instead he ran straight for his room barreling his way up the stairs.
Once in his safe haven he collapsed to the ground gasping for breath, trying to cover his rosy wet face. He laid there for an hour feeling his head for blood and crying to himself about his weight problem. He hated being fat more than he hated the bullies who tortured him. He looked in mirrors and grimaced, knowing the only way to lose weight would be to go on a diet and eat only good foods. Hell, he might even have to exercise! The thought made him want to vomit.
After his hour of sulking he remembered the card, which he had crushed in his fat little hand. He let out a small squeak, thinking he had ruined any magic in the card by crushing it so he bent over it and pressed it on the carpet of his room, hoping and praying the card wasn’t ruined, that the crinkles would come out and it would still work.
He was distracted by his mother calling him down to dinner, any worries about the card or the day’s transgressions left him and he sprinted for the door whipping it open and bulleting down the stairs. Dinner time was, after all, his favorite time of the day.
Tank’s real name was Tanner Miller. The nickname came not just because of the resemblance to his real name and his size, but because he had a tendency to run over things without noticing them. Tank’s mother taken any fragile knickknack about the house because of his clumsiness. This was where the nick name originated, from his penchant for destruction, but it wasn’t that Tank was clumsy, though he was; it was that he never quite realized how big he actually was. He would walk by something thinking he had enough clearance and run right into it.
Tank was an only child in the Miller household, thus was spoiled all his life; given portions of two instead of one. This could account for his abnormal largeness, but it wouldn’t entirely be true. Tank had a genetics problem; he was born with a damaged thyroid throwing off his metabolism. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew this and accepted it, it was partly the reason he never fought back against bullies at school; because he knew there was nothing he could do to change it. When his father was still alive, he said acceptance of his obesity was the only true way to happiness. Tank fully believed him, because his father was overweight too. His father, Albert Ronald Jackson Miller or just AJ for short, died of a heart attack at the age of thirty-five. Tank’s mother grieved briefly then turned her attention to Tank as AJ’s surrogate.
Tank’s mother was eternally loving and always told Tank he looked great, that he was a handsome little man. What Tank didn’t realize was that Province Miller wasn’t saying this out of a mother’s love; she just liked larger men. Not that she was attracted to her son, she just felt big men were much more attractive.
Province was the one person Tank always felt comfortable around; when he was home she would smother him in care making him feel truly loved, enabling him to ignore his obesity. She made him feel human, something Tank wasn’t used to feeling.
When he went to school he felt like an alien. He knew other people were staring at him. He knew they laughed at him behind his back, sometimes getting bold and yelling out such childhood pearls as, “Look out, here comes fat ass!” and “Since when did they allow elephants in school?” Tank took much of this in stride and used his imagination to imagine their colorful insults. He would imagine he was an elephant, walking around in the barren wastelands of the Serengeti, towering above all the small gazelle and prairie dogs whom had his classmate’s faces. He dreamed one of them might look up at him and realize they were just two creatures running alone in the desert and ask for friendship. It never happened. Tank never had any friends and he always ran home after school.
The next day Tank was getting ready for school and he happened to notice the card sitting on the ground; a lonely ace sitting on the barren carpet. He reached down and picked it up, rubbing it against his pant leg to straighten it.
He turned and placed it on his dresser as he pulled on his shirt. Once on, he put the card in the front pocket facing in holding the face of the card to his heart then waddled down his staircase for breakfast.
When Tank got to school it was the same routine; people jeering and yelling obscenities at him. He went from class to class ignoring his peers, trying to find his happy place where their tormenting yells could be ignored. His imagination was vast and it took him to many places, but perhaps his favorite was an amusement park where he could go on all rides and people would hang out and play with him. Girls would bat their eyes at him.
He had been infatuated with amusement parks since he was ten years old. He and his mother went for his birthday; his mother thinking it might be good for him to get out and get some fresh air, get on some rides and forget about his weight problem.
Tank protested the entire way, so much so that his mother almost turned the car around to take him home, scolding him for his laziness. She didn’t though unfortunately for Tank.
When they entered Tank thought it was the greatest place on earth. He loved the loud noises, the conglomeration of people and the large rides that seemed to fly, but it was the smells and the food were the best part. He couldn’t think of a better way to spend his birthday and he thanked his mother excessively.
They were at the park for an hour, his mother begging him to go on a ride when they finally got in line. It all seemed to be in jest, his mother acting like a child pulling on his sleeve and stamping her feet. Tanner enjoyed the attention, though he did his best to play it off wanting to give his mother a bear hug to show her his love, unable to express it in words.
The coaster was his mother’s choice, a big twisting thing she was sure he would love and after waiting two hours they got to the front of the line and were getting ready to board. Tanner got in first and crushed himself in the corner of the car giving his mother room to get in. He wanted her to enjoy herself as he had, he never wanted the smile on her face to wane; conversely he wanted to feel free like a bird with wind whipping around him. His mother got on next to him and gave him a big smile coercing one out of him. It was biggest smile he ever gave, so big it split his lips. Then the attendant came by and tried to close the bar over them, only it wouldn’t close, Tanner was just too big.
Province threw a fit. Yelling at the attendant, saying he wasn’t doing his job and that the manager should come out and they would have words. The attendant apologized, motioned to the safety regulations posted on the wall and Province grabbed Tank’s hand and stormed to the next ride…with the same result.
With each subsequent rejection Province’s face got more and more red, her fists balled so tightly they became white; Tank tried to meekly suggest they should just enjoy the park and forget about the rides, but when she finally started to cry she turned to him and said, “no one can tell you, you can’t do something. They’re all being mean. You have to stand up for yourself.”
The memory of the smells and campy atmosphere are what stayed with Tank, not the embarrassment and he used it as his primary escape. His happy place. Somewhere people couldn’t hurt him, no matter what they said or did. It was the memory of the place he had been happiest and was too strong for others to penetrate.
So when he got to school that day in his head he went to the park, this time imagining being on one of the rides, flying through the air with wind blowing through his hair, and all the cares far behind him on the ground, when he was brought out by one of his teachers.
His imagination was so strong he didn’t notice Mr. Robertson had been talking to him for a few moments before he recognized Tank wasn’t paying attention. Mr. Robertson got to a knee in front of him and shook his shoulders, knocking him out of his trance.
“Tanner. Tanner? Are you okay son?”
“Ye…Yes Sir,” His hand jumped to his chest pocket to hide the card.
“You were pretty spaced out there for a minute. I was just giving you kudos for your name plate.”
“Thank you mister Robertson.” At first Tank didn’t know what he was talking about, until he remembered they made nameplates the week before. Tank had been at the amusement park in his head then as well; he barely remembered making it.
“Don’t listen to these kids around here. One day you’ll grow up and be their boss.” Tank looked into Mr. Robertson’s face and gave his best embarrassed/thank you smile.
It wasn’t until after Mr. Robertson walked away that Tank noticed the pocket holding the card was hot. He snapped his hand away as if it were on fire and bent over pulling his shirt fall away from his skin, all the time ignoring the “wide load” jokes coming from behind him.
Tank didn’t bother finishing the rest of the day and ran home as fast as his feet would carry him. When he got home he didn’t bother finding out if his mother were there, he went straight for the staircase and ran up the stairs to his room slamming the door behind him and dropping the card to the ground.
In his room he hovered over the card and studied it, trying to find differences between normal Bicycle cards. There was nothing out of the ordinary. It had the same design as the other cards, it had the same consistency and the correct weight. Just a small playing card lying on the ground.
He got down on all fours and stared at the card. Had it all been in his imagination? Had he needed escape from school so badly he made himself think the card had actually heated up?
“Honey? Tanner baby? Didn’t you hear me?”
Tank squealed and turned into his mother’s perturbed face, wondering how she got there and why she looked so scared.
“I thought something was wrong! I was about to call the hospital! Are you okay baby?” Terror faded from her face, but was still present, like a ghost streak left on a pane of glass by a greasy finger.
Tank stared at his mother. The hospital? Why would she need to call the hospital? He was fine; he just got a scare from the card and was winding down from school. Was she angry with him because he ditched school early?
“Baby, speak to me. Are you okay?” His mother’s voice was frantic and when he looked out the window, he saw why. Had he fallen asleep? How could it be dark outside?
He looked into his mother’s eyes and gave her his best smile. He spent long hours in front of his mirror perfecting that look. That, “everything is fine” look.
“Sorry mom, I didn’t mean to scare you. I guess I just fell asleep. I was really tired and I found this card outside, I guess I lost track of time.” It was the worst excuse he could possibly think up, trite, pathetic and typical backtracking of a teenager in trouble, but his mother bought it all the same.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Tank could see relief appear on his mother’s face and hear it in her voice. He had successfully wiped the greasy smear away.
“Yeah, I think I’m just gonna go to sleep. I think that’s all I need right now.” Tank morphed his expression from happy reassuring smile to tired and worn. Once again his mother bought it.
“Okay baby, but let me know if there’s anything I can get you. Just yell down, I’ll be listening.” She leaned down and kissed his forehead.
“Thanks ma.” He said hugging her.
They both got up and His mother tucked him into bed. He gave her another big smile as she kissed him on the cheek and he watched as she exited the room. She deliberately left the door slightly cracked before leaving, making sure to give him an “I love you.”
Once she was gone Tank sat up in bed and eyed the card on the ground. He gave a little huff of confusion and laid back down quickly falling asleep.
That was the first dinner Tank ever missed.
He woke the next morning and left for school after he had a hearty breakfast. His mother woke early expecting him to make up for lost time so she cooked him a feast. He ate ravenously, acting like he hadn’t eaten for days and Province felt relieved when he ate. How could he remain her sweet little fubsy if he didn’t eat?
On his way to school Tank felt the front pocket of his baggy shirt for the card he safely tucked there that morning. He wasn’t entirely sure why he brought it along, especially since it made him leave school early the day before.
He enjoyed the feeling of the card, though, sitting down low in his pocket. It was like a secret no one else knew about, not even his mother. What kind of powers could the card have? And where did it come from? He thought the power it surged would only improve his ability to go to his happy place and escape reality, ensuring his ability to ignore the real world and all its cruelties. It might even give him the power to make himself skinny and make girls interested in him. Most of all, he thought, it may give him the power to stand up to bullies. To stand up to Ace.
Tank’s day at school was moderately long and very boring. When he got to class he immersed himself in work, forgetting he had the card after about twenty minutes of arithmetic. The hours zipped by, but that all changed when school let out for the day.
He left through the gym door on the side of the school, the way he usually did, and made his way home, but he only made it half way when the card began to radiate heat again. He was scared at first, remembering how the card had burned his chest the day before, but his curiosity was too strong.
He reached in his pocket and whipped the card out. He expected to see it glowing a shade of orange, bright with fire, but it just looked like a playing card. There was warmth coursing into his fingers and Tank could only wonder how did the card heat? What kind of magic did it contain? He turned it over thinking maybe the back had some clue to the mystery.
The back was a dream, white flames leaping, inextricably there despite the afternoon glare. He dropped to his knees slammed the card down to the sidewalk in an effort to put out the flames, and then inspected his hands to asses how bad the burn was. Nothing.
He was so taken with the strangeness of the situation he barely noticed when a rock skidded off the ground just beyond him. He began to turn to see where it came from, but before he could he heard a chorus of titters; “Look at the fat ass!” and “Don’t get to close! He might eat you!”
Tank felt his anger rising, alongside the dread of human interaction he always carried in his heart. Behind him was Carlos Williams, Ben Massey and John “Ace” Wild. Anger fled from Tank the moment he saw them, replaced by intense fear. When these guys decided to bully someone they didn’t quit.
Tank picked up his card, his secret power and tried to run, but his legs had turned to jelly and they tripped over themselves flopping him to the ground. He grabbed the card and thrust it in his shirt pocket trying to ignore the warm waves emanating from it, trying to hide his fear of the three bullies.
“What’s that you got there fat boy?” Carlos squealed kicking dust and small stones into Tank’s face.
Tank immediately pressed his hand to the card to protect it, then scolded himself promptly afterward, knowing that if they didn’t know about the card before, they did now. So he pulled his hand back as nonchalantly as he could and put it into the pocket of his slacks.
“Carlos asked you a question Pillsbury, I expect you to answer.” Ace said.
“It…It’s nothing.” Tank whimpered. He tried to ignore the pain burning into his chest and swore he was going to catch fire. Thoughts of his happy place skittered vaguely around the corners of his mind, but pain focused his mind in reality.
“It’s something. Otherwise you’d take your hand out your pocket,” Ace said “I want you to give it before Ben here can count to five, or you’re gonna be in a world of pain.”
Tank closed his eyes at the onslaught of tears as the gravity of the situation hit him; he had to stop them or they’d steal his card; steal the source of all that pain and joy. So he opened his eyes and sneered at Ace. It didn’t work.
“Fuck him up.”
Carlos kicked him in his ribs, the impact rolling him a few feet away. The boys readied themselves while giving him a chance to stand up and get his bearings while the burning card pinnacled in intensity against his chest which made him notice something that he never had before.
He was taller than they were.
The three bullies walked toward him, their hands balled in fists and Tank forgot about the incessant burning. Instead he felt an immense anger well up inside him. He balled his hands into fists mimicking them.
When Ace was in range he swung at him with all the strength he had directly into Ace’s stomach, doubling him over, but before Tank could manage anything else Ben and Carlos descended, showering his head and shoulders with fists.
When Ace got up, he forgot about the card Tank had been hiding and laid into Tank’s ribs with kicks and punches. It surprised Ace that Tank would punch back and it incensed him more; he wanted to make sure Tank didn’t do it again, so he beat him as hard as he could. He beat him until his hands were bloody; he beat him till Tank went limp. Ace was used to feeling bigger than others; it made him feel like a man.
The last thing that ran through Tank’s head was he had protected his Ace. He had won.
Tank woke in the hospital terrified. He was lost, with no idea where he was. The room around him was white and Spartan, without any familiar surroundings. He felt for the card, but only found a thin piece of fabric he knew to be a hospital gown. He looked down at his chest and his head whirled, the room spinning and vomit threatening the back of his throat. He screamed for his mother before he realized what he was doing, but instead of his mother coming it was an unfamiliar nurse.
“What’s wrong honey?” The nurse cooed at him.
“Where am I? What happened?” Countless questions converged in his head clouding evaporating his articulation.
“You’re in the hospital. You got beat up pretty good; I’m surprised you’re awake now. The doctors didn’t think you’d be up for hours.” The nurse reached out and stroked Tank’s hair.
“Huh?” Pain flooded every joint in his body. He felt each individual cut in his face and ribs; every move made each bruise feel like a fist burrowing deep in his muscles.
“You’ve been unconscious for two days now honey. It’s good to see you awake.” She got up and walked over to a table and picked up a small paper cup.
“Two days?” There was no way could be out for two days! It had to be a joke; it must’ve only been a couple of hours. They hadn’t beaten him that badly…had they?
“Two days for sure, honey. Your mother was worried sick. She came in and cried for hours, said she was going to sue the pants off whoever did this to you. Said she wanted to see them in the Chair. She went a little crazy.” The nurse put the cup in Tank’s hands. “Why don’t you take these now? I’m sure you’re in pain, these’ll lessen it, make you sleep some.” She wiped the hair out of Tanks face and smiled. “Now you get some rest. I’m gonna call your mother and we’ll git her over here as soon as we can.” Then she left the room.
Tank lay there, head spinning and closed his eyes to try and remember exactly what happened, but all he could picture was the card. It preoccupied his mind so completely that it was everything outside of the pain. The nurse said his mother was coming; there was nothing to worry about there. Where was the card?
– – – – – – – – –
The death card flared in his mind, it was bright white lending the only light with a backdrop of pure black. Tank felt warm, his gaze transfixed on the card, warmth emanating from it filling him with pleasure that he had never known making his loins hum below his large stomach. Tank looked down to see what was happening, why the warmth felt so amazing, but his gut wasn’t there anymore, his stomach had shrunk down to a good level, a respectable level, and he could see straight down to his toes. But what was even more astonishing and frightening was down with all the tingling warmth his penis stood fully erect.
Tank looked at the card in the inky blackness and saw the glowing shift its focus and shine brightly down upon his groin. The light came off in waves and as time progressed the waves got brighter and came to him faster. Tank was frightened and tried to turn away, but the sensation the light was bringing was too overpowering, it held him where he lay, making his legs shake and his chest heave.
Tank’s back arched, thrusting his groin into the pulsing light, forgetting his fear and losing himself in the sensation of the card’s light beating down upon him. Pressure was building up inside of him and he blindly grasped for anything to hold onto while his hips shook. The light pulsated faster and faster, changing color from white to pink to bright red waves of light.
Tanks strength failed and he fell back to the bed spent and sticky, feeling empty and relaxed. Then he started to cry feeling suddenly guilty, guilty at the act, guilty that it felt good, guilty he was alone. Something happened that didn’t seem quite right. He felt tears running down his face as he looked back at the card. It was still glowing, but the light switched back to soft phosphorescence as it floated before him. He contemplated the feeling it gave, the feeling of empowerment when Ace and the others attacked him the other day and the sexual comfort it brought him now. He reached for the card and held it against his chest, next to his heart.
The card hummed against his chest, soothing him with its reassuring warmth. He tried to focus on it to relieve the guilt and renew the euphoria, but darkness crept in on him and he slept.
Tank was released the next day. No one spoke of his first wet dream, not to explain what it was, nor to berate nor console him. To the people in the hospital the wet dream was a normal pubescent function, but to Tank it meant something different altogether. It meant a connection with the card a link between fantasy and reality. He knew there something was different about that particular, peculiar card. He thought, maybe, it was made specifically for him, as if it were his own personal savior. Something to give him power and make him a man.
When Tank got home, he took immediately to bed, wanting a repeat of the wet dream…however none came.
He spent a week at home after he left the hospital, most of it in his room either sleeping or trying to understand the card. He hardly ate that week telling his mom his stomach hurt. He would feign vomiting whenever his mother put food in front of him. In truth, he just wasn’t hungry. It felt like his stomach shrank, he would drink a glass of water and feel full. It was working too, he lost twenty pounds since he entered the hospital and never felt better, in fact when he vocalized he wasn’t hungry he actually wasn’t hungry. The only time he hunger struck him now was when his mother made him eat, restarting his metabolism and the only reason he did that was because his mother looked haggard. He could tell worry was eating away at her and he knew the only way to ease her consternation was to eat.
He was complacent in these trivialities however, because there was something about the card he had to figure out. The card had levity to it, like a mist that passed through him like an ethereal goddess. Every wave that passed through felt like ecstasy, more powerful than the caress of a woman’s touch. It gave him strength, courage and discipline. It gave him hope.
The night before he headed back to school Tank had another dream of the card. He had been home for a week and a half and Province forgot all about taking legal action against whomever attacked Tank; her fear for his health was just too great.
He lost thirty pounds and had become merely chubby in his convalescence. Province, eaten with fear, could only wonder at the cruelties children. He was once big; so big that people generally didn’t bother him, but what would happen when he went to school skinny?
Tank however, had other more important things on his mind. In his youth he had yet to find the fairer sex attractive and the wet dream didn’t even really make sense to him; he didn’t understand what had happened or what it meant and it confused him. However when it happened again he couldn’t have been happier…
Roberta Simmonds. He wasn’t sure if that was her name or not; he had never spoken to her, had never even spent more than a couple of moments looking at her, but here she was in all her teenage beauty. He stared at her mosquito bite breasts and her slightly distended stomach. She stood with a coquettish demeanor, a tinge of smile at the right corner of her mouth, her eyes burning hungrily at his malnourished form; her auburn/blonde blowing slightly a ubiquitous wind. His eyes trailed down her curves until they reached tender soft peach fuzz, slowly growing thicker the lower he looked. It was uncharted territory; he felt no arousal as he drank her in, just curiosity. That is, of course, until the card came into view.
Roberta’s smirk grew larger and her eyes betrayed her force of desire, a soft white light glowing around her teenage body. Tank felt unsure of himself, unsure of what was expected of him. His stomach dropped and he felt nauseous, his head swimming.
Her smirk disappeared, replaced by a look of hunger. She no longer looked fourteen, now her body looked older, middle aged, at least middle aged to a thirteen year old boy. He took a small step back, feeling sweat break out on his forehead along with the emergence of menace into the atmosphere.
It began in his shirt pocket again, intense and localized. Unknowingly his right hand reached up to his pocket and clutched the card. His breath quickened as she approached him. She reached out with her right hand and caressed his ear, while the other hand wrapped around his waist.
He didn’t know what to do, what was expected, so he did the only thing that came naturally to him; he took the card out of his pocket, cognizant of his tumescence, and placed it in the center of her chest. Her eyes rolled back and her mouth dropped into an O, while he pressed his chest against hers, embracing the heat and channeling his heartbeat to match hers. Tanner felt loss of control in his throat, muttering “ga…ga…ga…ga” in contiguous rhythm, while pressure built.
He didn’t see what happened to her, how she reacted when the cancerous expulsion happened, because he sat bolt upright in bed, holding the card tight in his right hand, encircled around his penis. He felt dampness spread across the blanket and immediately knew it had happened again.
The shame was somewhat lessened this second time however, as if he had expelled his guilt with the ejaculate. He felt relieved and smiled as he looked around his small bedroom. Today was his first day of school and he would see Roberta Simmonds, maybe catch a hint of her coy smile. Maybe he would kiss her. Maybe he would ask her to go steady.
Tanner rose from bed and ran across the hallway to the shower, smelling the wonderful fragrance of a full breakfast his mother prepared. The empowerment at the end of the dream didn’t fade as he washed the semen from his body; it only grew as he donned his previously baggy clothes, which now billowed around him.
He was in such elation that he hadn’t noticed when he slipped the card into the back pocket of his pants. His Ace. His wild card.
He went downstairs, smiling wider than his mother had ever seen. He didn’t notice her reaction at the time, mostly from his levity, but Province seemed to relax when she saw him and for the first time since his stay at the hospital, she smiled.
Tanner almost finished his breakfast that morning; he honestly tried, but his stomach had shrunk so much and the breakfast was just too large. He noted his mother’s expression, one of fear and tribulation, smiled meekly and kissed her on the cheek. He wanted to tell her that he loved her and was sorry to cause her any strife, but he only turned and headed for the door.
Outside the air was cold and he felt goose-bumps popup all over his body. Since he lost the weight his clothes merely caught the wind instead of deterring it and as a result he shivered his entire way to school; by the time he arrived he felt brittle.
Tanner notated the blank stares of the other students. He knew he looked entirely different, but by most accounts the students didn’t seem to notice him at all, let alone his absence from school.
His will dropped and though he had finally thought of himself as Tanner; the effulgent Tanner, the one who lost all the weight, but the apathetic demeanor in his peers destroyed this image, subverting his self image to Tank the Nobody; Tank the fat ass.
He felt joy leak from him, like steam rising from his head, replaced by a much more cold and forlorn feeling. Did it even matter if he was here? Would he be missed from school? Should he just go?
The front door looked more like an entrance to a prison, than a high school; where the teachers didn’t care and the students cared less. No, he’d only be missed if these people needed a punching bag.
He walked over to the curb and sat down feeling tears well in his eyes. He would suppress it until he knew he was alone of course, but the feeling was there non-the-less. However when his butt hit the curb he felt warmth. It surprised him and he jumped up swatting at his pants as if he sat on a fire, but when he stood the warmth faded. Then he remembered…the card.
Elation returned as he shoved his hand into his pocket. His strength returned and he felt courage pushing out his depression. Who cares, he thought, they don’t mean anything to me either.
He walked through the front doors with gumption and stormed directly to his first class.
That was the first day Tanner felt he learned anything in class. He felt confidence and it made him see things in a new light. When he looked at the other students, the looks he initially took for disgust, were actually obtuseness; they merely didn’t recognize him.
Later, when they realized who he was they congratulated him in his appearance. His classmates compliments amazed Tanner, but what actually got to him was a select few weren’t just being polite. They seemed to really mean it.
He walked with gait in his step, like he was a lord walking among his subjects and it lasted all day, until it was time to come home. Tanner decided to walk right out the front doors rather than sliding out the side door. That was his only mistake.
“Hey fat fuck, where you goin’?”
Tanner recognized the voice; it was the same voice that played over and over in his mind. Ace. He grabbed the card squeezing it in his hand and feeling its warmth.
Tanner tensed and stopped walking. He felt pressure build between his shoulder blades and his stomach clenched; even curled his toes to give extra traction. He never tested how fast he was after he lost the weight and fancied himself much faster, but this was not the venue with which he wanted to be tested.
“You gonna talk to me or are you just gonna stand there, fatty?”
Fire burned in Tanner’s palm. He felt it running up his arm and propelling its way down his back, streaming heat through his capillaries. He turned three shades of red and his face wrinkled, eyes crunched like a baby throwing a tantrum. He faced Ace.
Ace stood at the top of steps leading to the building laughing, his cronies standing on either side of him.
Tanner felt an outline of an A burning into his palm, felt it pulsate with power, with heat. Then he saw the loose piece of concrete at the edge of the pathway. It was the size of a large rock and must have weighed at least two or three pounds.
“Oh, look at the Baby I think he’s gonna cry!” Ace struggled to finish the sentence, breaking off into such fits of laughter that he leaned over and laid his head on Ben Massey’s shoulder.
Everything happened very fast after that. Tank took two running steps towards the bullies stretching for the concrete, then took two more giant powerful steps and threw the thing with all his might. He heard his shoulder creak and his muscles rip. He imbued the concrete with all the heat that had been growing within him, forcing it through his blood into the card, then into the concrete.
Ace lifted his head of Ben’s shoulder to taunt Tanner further and through the worst possible timing, was hit directly above the bridge of his nose.
Ace never felt it crush his skull, but just as quick as that Tanner ended his reign of terror.
Tanner heard screaming, but had no idea what he had done; only knowing he fought back. Tanner grabbed his pained shoulder and started to run, wanting to go home, but knowing he couldn’t go there. He knew Ace was going to get him for this. So he ran to the only place he felt he could be safe; the only place where he could be protected. He ran to the Police Station.
Tanner was held in protective custody for three days. Province had no idea things had progressed so far for him, to the point where he would throw stones at other boys. She made a resolution to care for him more, to pay attention to him, nurture his growing needs rather than to push her own desires.
Tanner, on the other hand, was worried more about where the card was than what was going to happen to him. His power, his strength and his willfulness were directly attributed, at least in his mind, with the card. The attraction to females, the use of his penis for pleasure rather than mere urination, the strength to stand up for himself and the growth of his self esteem all now seemed to be void in it’s absence. Guilt filled that void, more even than the guilt of his first wet dream. Guilt because he had ended someone’s life; as much as he felt he did a service to mankind with the dispatching of Ace, he felt cold.
On the fourth day Tanner’s mother took him to school. He sat in the car with his head lowered, depressed and terrified of what his classmates would do to him.
The school rose in the window and a vision of what this place meant to him before came back to him; it looked like a prison. He’d be stuck here all day without the protection offered by the police or the comfort of his mother. He’d be alone.
They pulled up front and Tanner grabbed for his backpack in the back seat, sighing as he did so. Province grabbed his arm and forced him to look at her.
“Tanner, you’re a man now. Be good.” She nodded as if to give meaning and purpose.
Province meant after what he’d been through other children at school would either be scared of him or they would look up to him. He was a role model now whether he liked it or not, he had to be careful to show his contrition.
Tanner took his mother to mean now that he had killed he was a man and that gave him the power of fear, which Tanner took as a burden. He sat with the backpack now pulled into his lap and thought about it. He had once been terrified of those kids, what they would do, what they would say and rather than get through it he became shy. Now it was his peers that would feel the fear. He had to be careful because now he was Ace.
Ben Massey and Carlos Williams were standing in front of the school waiting for him. When Tanner saw them he paused and said a prayer as they walked over.
“Hey, Tanner! Um…hey!” It was Carlos.
Tanner stopped and stared as the two bullies closed the distance. His eyes scanned the few students milling around before the bell rang in hopes of finding someone to interject, at least long enough for the bell to ring, but no one was looking; just Roberta Simmonds. She had a disgusted look on her face and spit towards him before whipping around and storming off. One thing repeated in his mind: He was Ace now.
“Tan, the man” Ben laughed. “…I was wonderin’,” He said as he closed the gap. Tanner could only imagine what these two were up to. The two who had beaten him to the point he had gone to the hospital. They seemed amiable, as if they were scared of him, but he couldn’t be sure.
“Hey, dude, you should, you know, like, let us, kinda, follow you?” It shouldn’t have been a question, but there was undoubtedly a raise at the end of his sentence. Tanner thought back on what his mother had said in the car. He was taller than they were.
Tanner looked past their relieved faces looking for Roberta, but she had gone. Instead his eyes caught Darla Wallace. Darla? She was prettier than Roberta. His now only slightly chubby cheeks rose into a smile and he ascended the small staircase that led to the school, glancing down at the spot where Ace had been standing when he was hit. Down at the side of the staircase was a playing card. Its face was down, so he couldn’t tell what it was, but it looked old and well loved. It looked like his Ace. Tanner glanced at Carlos, who was looking at him reverentially.
“Leave it. You don’t need it.” Tanner said out loud thinking of his mother’s words then of Ace’s malicious sneer. I’m a man now.