This short story first appeared in the Fall Fiction issue of Oeuvre Magazine in 2009.
George waited for the school bus in Two Harbors. Soon, Todd would make him eat dirt. His punctual Yankee parents always shoved George out the door. They reminded him that if he wasn’t five minutes early, he was late. This just gave Todd more time to terrorize.
The night before, George tried to call in the cavalry. Wasn’t military intervention justified when a fourth-grader was thumping a second-grader?
“Hey, Pop.” George peeked around the corner of the stairs.
“There’s a kid who teases me at the bus stop.”
“What about it?”
“That’s it, I guess.”
“Okay. Go back to bed, George.”
His dad went back to his newspaper. George hoped he could learn karate from the World Book Encyclopedia before dawn.
When Todd showed up at the bus stop, he chose to repeatedly flick George’s ears with his index finger. That was good because the dirt looked undercooked. George rode it out in the big yellow torture chamber. Maybe, if he sat perfectly still on the bus, Todd would lose sight of him. Maybe Todd could only see motion, like a T-Rex. It didn’t work.
After a day of spelling, penmanship, #2 pencils, simple math, and milk cartons in the John A. Johnson Elementary School, Mrs. Stromquist asked George to stay behind after class. Was he in trouble? At least it kept him off the bus.
Mrs. Stromquist said, “George, we’re going to put you in a little extra class.”
“You’re going to learn to speak properly. Like I do.”
“Real good, then.”
There were flashcards. The words had R’s in them.
George read the word quarter. “Quawtah.”
“No, George. Quarrrterrr.”
“Oofda,” said Mrs. Stromquist.
“Oofda ma doofda,” said Mrs. Stromquist.
George was surprised he spoke so poorly but resolved to improve. Even away from class, he corrected his mistakes. At hockey practice with his new friends, his coach taught him to skate backwarrrds. Not backwuhds.
He was born in Gorham, New Hampshire. Locals there would call it Gaw-rum, Nuh Hamp-shuh and think nothing of it. He lived there for eight years until his dad got a new job in Minnesota. Apparently, people in the White Mountains spoke incorrectly.
George worked into the winter, facing down Todd on the bus and Mrs. Stromquist in the school. His fight-or-flight reflexes were getting a workout. Todd was creative with his snow torture du jour. Would it be down the back of George’s jacket that day? Or a hard packed snowball to the face? And Mrs. Stromquist was running out of patience.
Water. “Watehr.” That was definitely better, thought George.
Jeez, thought George. Her yelps had the same effect as a car battery with jumper cables attached to his nipples.
“Hallelujah!” shouted his teacher.
Saturday night at George’s house was a Miller family ritual: B&M Baked Beans from Portland, Maine, and, for whatever reason, hot dogs and homemade cornbread. George’s dad sat at the table in a white t-shirt and his mother joined them at the table, smoothed her apron and sat down.
George’s dad asked, “How was hockey practice today?”
“Well, Coach is teaching me to skate backwarrrds so I can be a defenseman.”
His dad squinted across the table at his mom and looked back at George.
“Good. I’m making some morrre friends.”
His dad furrowed his brow and now his mom was leaning in toward George.
“It can be hahd being the new kid, can’t it?” asked his mom.
“Yup. But I’m getting betterrr at hockey and everybody plays hockey herrre, so that’s good.”
“That’s it.” George’s dad clanked his fork down onto his plate, shifted in his chair to look at his wife. “Ma, this boy doesn’t talk nawmal anymowah.” He looked at George and asked, “What’s going on, son?”
George sat up straight and froze. He figured he was in for it.
His mother asked, “What is it, George?” It sounded like “Jawj.”
What is what? George thought. His eyes got wide.
“Ansuh yuh mothah,” ordered his dad.
The words tumbled out. “Well, Mrs. Stromquist keeps me after class and we go over worrrds. She says I don’t speak correctly, so she’s helping me learrrn.”
“What? An extra class just fuh you?” asked his mom.
“Yeah. She says I have a speech impediment.”
Pop hollered, “SPEECH IMPEDIMENT?!” as he slammed the table with his fist. He stood up and his chair skittered across the kitchen floor. George flinched.
I’m going to get the belt because of the way I talk? he thought. That’s not fair.
His dad stormed down the stairs to the cellar and bashed around at his tool bench.
“Eat yuh suppah, George.” His mom patted his arm. “Everything’ll be fine.”
That better mean no belt, thought George.
(“SPEECH impediment. A SPEECH impediment? JUDAS PREIST!”) came up muffled from downstairs.
George scooped up his last beans and wondered what in the world was happening.
George’s folks were both at the breakfast table on Monday morning. His dad was usually at work before George woke up. George ate his Cheerios and mentally girded his loins for his daily degradation at the bus stop.
“Yuh dad and I will drive you to school today,” said his mom.
“Okay.” Pure joy to be delivered from evil. “How come?”
His dad said, “I need to talk to the principal.”
They walked down the hall toward the principal’s office. His dad was in front. His mom held George’s hand and followed behind. They entered the office and the receptionist said, “Mr. and Mrs. Miller, the principal will see you now.”
“George, you stay heah,” said his mother. She smiled and patted his head.
His parents disappeared behind the door. He sat on a straight-backed wooden bench and dangled his legs down, watching the snow from his boots melt in little puddles on the linoleum.
After a few minutes, the principal poked her head out the door and asked the receptionist to get George’s teacher. The receptionist pressed a button on her phone and announced: “Mrs. Stromquist, please report to the principal’s office.”
George perked up as the public address system echoed down the halls. He wondered what kind of mysterious power his parents had.
Mrs. Stromquist hustled into the office, saw the receptionist pointing to the closed door, and paused holding the knob with a furrowed brow on her round face. She suddenly saw George sitting quietly to the side, looked even more puzzled, and then went in. He struggled to hear.
Murmur, murmur, murmur.
Murmur, murmur, SPEECH impediment.
You evah heah of an ACCENT, Mrs. Stromquist?
Murmur. But, murmur murmur.
You evah considah that maybe, just maybe, YAW the one who sounds funny?
After some more back and forth, Mrs. Stromquist emerged, flushed pink in the face and scurried out. She averted her eyes from George.
George looked through the open door and saw the principal shake his dad’s hand. She said she was sorry, shook hands with his mom, and apologized again.
The Miller Family moved into the hallway. His dad got down on one knee, looked at George and said, “No extra speech class fuh you. How’s that sound?”
“Good, Pop.” The class was tough, but nothing compared to the tribulations of Todd. He didn’t want to appear ungrateful.
“Good. Now, get going.”
After George turned toward class, his dad asked, “Hey, is that kid still hassling you at the bus stop?”
George looked back and said, “Yeah.”
“What’s his name?” asked his mom.
“Todd. Todd Kramer.”
“Is that so,” said his dad. He pressed his lips tightly together, looked down, and shook his head. He turned and walked out the door into the snow.
“Be good, George,” said his Mom. She waved and smiled.
“Bye, Mom.” He waved back.
George walked to class and wondered why his folks asked about Todd. Maybe they’d finally send him some cavalry.