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Praise and Punishment

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Xander taught himself to read. 


It was before preschool. Before he had friends. He had Usborne books at his grandparents and Dr. Seuss books at home. One day his dad found him flipping through one of the picture books.


"What you doing there kid? Like looking at the pictures?"


"I'm reading"


"Yeah? What's it say?"


Xander picked the book up, held it out between them and read as he followed the words with a finger. "Up whales! Up snails! Up rooster! Hen!"


His father looked perplexed for a moment then grabbed another book. "You're just looking at the pictures there." He flipped to a random page and shoved the other book in Xander's face. "What about this?"


"You might catch a boot

or you might catch a can

you might catch a bottle 

but listen young man… 

if you stay fifty years 

with your worms and your wishes 

you'd grow a long beard 

long before you'd catch fishes."


Xander couldn't figure out what had his father so surprised, he had read plenty of times in front of him before. It was generally what he liked to do while his dad was watching TV.


One last time his father put something in front of him. This time it was his own block print on scratch paper. Xander had a little bit of a harder time with it but eventually managed to say the sentence aloud.


His dad didn't say anything more about it now that he believed him. Instead he changed subjects. "Grilled cheese  n' tomato soup okay with you for lunch?"


"Yes please!"


His parents didn't spend much time together at this point of his life. He learned years later that his mother was going to be a stay at home until they realized his father couldn't hold down a paying job for long. Apparently it had lasted about a year. After that his dad mostly stuck to closing and overnight shifts and mom the regular nine to five. 


Evenings spent with his mom would be curled up on the sofa watching Star-trek. During the day his dad would take him out. Usually they took his Harley. He would clip him into a helmet that sat over his eyes and said nothing more than 'hold tight' before they shot off. The way the wind wrapped around them as they rode through the town is something he could never forget as long as he lived. Their destination was always the same. This little podunk bar that doesn't even exist anymore. 


Rarely was a soul in it when they were by. He could say that was why the place went under but not too many people are looking for a drink at ten in the morning. It made sense.


He was too short to climb off the bike without burning himself so his father would grab him under the arms and lift him off after riding. Then he would run into the dingy place and scramble himself up into a barstool.


"Heya there Xander!" The blonde on the other side called to him with a genuine happiness in her voice. Pammy the bartender was the most sweetest woman he ever knew. 




She would already be pouring his father a pilsner of bud off the tap while talking to him. That was one of the things about Pammy. She couldn't focus on one thing at a time, she always had to be doing something.


"You want a Shirley temple today sweetie?"




"Extra cherries okay with you?" She teased.


Usually his father would come up behind him about now and put a rough hand on his son's shoulder. "Roy Rogers for him. Shirley Temple is a girl's drink."


"Gotcha boss" and then she'd wink at him and push him his drink. "Your first is all ready for ya."


Sometimes he'd get away with the Shirley. He loved the way the deep red cherry flavor looked when it wasn't all mixed in and the pretty pink it made when it was. Sure the other cherry beverage still tasted good but it was just boring brown.


The amount of time they spent there varied. Sometimes it was in and out with just one drink. Sometimes his dad would get talking and Xander would have to make his own fun. Today was one of the rare days the bar had other mid day visitors.


"I'll bet you a beer that my kid can read any word you give him." His dad was learning by the dart boards chatting up a man Xander didn't know.


"Alright Tony, you're on."


"Xander!" He called "Get over here." Xander trot himself over from where he had been playing with coasters at one of the tables. 


"You see this word right here?" His dad pointed out a long one in the newspaper and he nodded.


"Okay, do you think you can read it?" He nodded again and his dad made him take the paper. "Do it."


He squinted at it and tried to puzzle it out. The guy he didn't know started pestering his dad for a drink but his father just shushed him.


"Arr-" He started, it wasn’t so hard after that to keep going. "Kuh-TeK-Chur" Immediately he turned his head up to his dad. "What's that word mean daddy?"


The smile that met him was so big and it filled him up with a feeling that everything in the world was good and right. 


“It’s just something people get paid too much money to do as poorly as they do.” His dad gave him a pat on the back that was rough enough to almost knock him over. “Good job.” 


Xander beamed. He didn't know that his dad’s pride was more about the free drink than his son's talent.


"Must of done something right." was the comment made as the loser signalled to Pammy over the counter. "You have a real smart kid there."


Few Years Later


"What the hell is this?" His father was waving around a piece of paper he had brought home with his schoolwork. 


Xander curled in on himself as much as he could while standing. "It's my spelling test. I need you to sign it so I can bring it back in."


"I'm not signing this crap. Why didn't you get this right?"


"I don't know, it was hard."


"It won't be hard after you rewrite these each a hundred times. Here." He threw a notepad onto the table from on top of the fridge.


"Get to work" Then he grabbed a magnet and put the test smack in the middle of the refrigerator. The check minus on the top right corner glaring back at him angrily.


His father didn't even bother to give him the correct spelling of the words he had wrong. Xander spent the first twenty or so repetitions trying to figure it out. He didn't understand why it was so hard. Reading was easy, but try and spell something and he couldn't make it work out. He could tell pretty well when they were wrong but it didn't do him any good if he couldn't figure out how to do it right.


He had to sneak the test off the fridge once his dad forgot about it a few days later. His teacher was pestering him about collecting that signature. He didn't even consider asking his mom at this point. She would probably just side with dad anyway. He hid in the basement and turned on a lamplight under which he put his test and a pen. Then he reached into his back pocket and pulled out the check his father messed up writing the day before. Luckily he had already signed it. V O I D was scribbled over top but he could still see the signature. He practiced the motions several times before finally making his permanent mark. It didn't look exactly the same but it was going to have to work. It was his only option.


He walked into class with a heartbeat that wouldn't calm down. He was so sure that the teacher was going to know something was up. When he got to his desk he opened up his bag and pulled out the folder where homework went. Inside was the evil test. He took it out slowly. Afraid it was going to bite him if given half the chance.


Holding just the paper he walked up to his teacher where he was shifting through some other work on the desk. 


"You finally remembered! Great job Alexander."


He was far too cherry, it kind of made him uncomfortable, so he turned around quickly to get back to his seat. 




His chest felt tight, he was figured out. He was in for it now. His dad was going to be so mad. He tried really hard to stay calm as he turned around and looked back at his teacher. 


He waved Xander closer. Not good not good.


"I know that school can be hard." He began. "The important thing is to keep trying. I wasn't good at spelling myself when I was your age. Point is that if you need some extra help we can make that happen for you. Just let me know."


"That's it?"


The man blinked. Then chuckled. "Yeah I guess that's it."


He walked back to his seat in a daze. It worked. It really worked.


He got good at forging signatures after that. It didn't matter much anyway since they had nothing to compare to. No matter how many tests he failed, report cards he received or permission slips he was given they all were just a scribble of his dad's name at the bottom.