Eleven-year-old Whizzer Brown was unable to concentrate. It seemed an impossible feat, particularly if you were in a position where your handwriting resembled a toddler’s and you still struggled greatly in grasping the concept of reading aloud (in a language you were perfectly fluent in, mind you), without stammering or halting in the middle of a sentence. After muddling his way through elementary school with more letters home from the baffled Mrs Jamie than he’d like to admit, his mother dragged him away to be tested for dyslexia. However, Whizzer had to admit that a sensation of relief trickled through his body when the tests had come back positive. There was rhyme and reason behind his egregious spelling and other aspects of his sorry academic career, and he was just as competent as every other sniggering child in that classroom, unlike what those older kids had spat at him in the lunchroom the antecedent week. Gosh, he didn’t want to think about that. Cordelia began a high-pitched lecture on the harsh manner they were treating her closest friend. Whizzer joined in after he’d finished the crackers he’d got in his lunchbox, and suddenly he could feel his hands forcibly pushing the eighth grader away from him, and his butt on one of the creaky, straight-backed chairs inside the principal’s office. But, in fairness, he felt no shame in having dyslexia; he didn’t have to panic about being slow or inept for the rest of his life, and nor did his siblings or his overwhelmed mother.
The sixth day of February proved to be no different, in terms of Whizzer’s concentration. His English teacher droned on in his monotonous voice about analysis and paragraphs and, in general, things that made Whizzer’s head swim like an Olympic aquatic professional, and the boy was fairly certain that he’d only looked at the board three times throughout the lesson. Usually, he would try and fail to bother Cordelia, because God knew that she was too emotionally invested in whatever book they were analysing to adhere to his mid-class whines. Mendel, too, with his mess of frizz and curls and stature that made him look similar to a lamppost, would be out of the question - he was practically drooling as he stared in the direction of Trina Aronowitz as she gave an answer.
Usually, but not today. Today, Whizzer’s eyes were pulled in a different direction. One that wasn’t the clock above the interactive board or the large oak that he sat under at recess with Cordelia beyond the window. The boy who sat at the desk across the aisle from his own. Who sat lunchless in the cafeteria in solitary, and whose friend Whizzer and Cordelia promptly became. His hair was auburn and springy, curls falling in his face as he wrote furiously in his composition book, hunched over at his desk. His eyes were steely and sharp, the exact hue of the sky. Typically witty and trenchant around strangers, but gentle and soft-spoken with the two people he could call best friends. Whizzer knew - the boy had been nothing but cold to him for his first two weeks at school in New York.
Apparently, he hailed from Roxbury, and had just transferred that semester from a prestigious boarding school. Kevin informed his little brother that his friend’s hometown was located in Massachusetts, not too far away from the home they built in New York, after moving from Nebraska when Whizzer was two. His brother’s theory was proven correct one playdate, when Marvin Feldman’s Bostonian accent came to the fore as the two laughed about anything and everything. He hadn’t noticed it at first, but cursed himself repeatedly when he did. Oh, that was his name; Marvin Alexander Feldman. Whizzer liked his name. It had a steady rhythm to it. But, despite being one of the most gentle, bashful people the Midwesterner was certain he’d met in a while, he was insanely private. And that wasn’t exactly a helpful trait when he kept noticing questionable things about his and Cordelia’s new friend.
It started out as excusable things - a black eye from the bullies across the street, scratches on his arms from an argument with his ferocious little brother. Emmett was his name, Marvin had said. Although Whizzer was dyslexic, he had a remarkable intuition. But it didn’t take much to realise something was horribly wrong. His scarily-thin stature, his hard R sounds, the occasional bumps and bruises that decorated his skin were explained one day, after their friendship had grown and blossomed. Every piece of the world’s most disturbing jigsaw puzzle clicked into place the day after parent-teacher conferences back in November.
Whizzer leaned in the direction of his blonde best friend’s desk. “Ask your mom if you can stay over tonight,” he whispered, avoiding the watchful eye of Mr Collins, who still yapped zealously about the techniques used by the author to create tension, or whatever. “I need your help,”
NOVEMBER 22, 2002
“I need to talk to you,” Whizzer said bluntly, at that day’s lunch hour.
Marvin looked up from his homework, set the previous class, and grimaced. “I’m busy,”
“Where’d that black eye come from? Be straight with me. I know Emmett didn’t just do it by accident. He’s nine, he’s not a baby. And your mom didn’t look too happy with you at parent teacher conferences yesterday,” the Midwesterner pressed, crossing his arms over Jack’s old flannel. He’d been the recipient of numerous hand-me-downs, being the youngest of six. As much as he ate, the clothes never grew any smaller. Sometimes, his family couldn't be sure if the littlest’s high metabolism was a blessing or a curse. “Marvin. If something’s going on, I want to know so I can help you!” he added.
The skinnier’s eyes grew to the size of quarters, and he set down his pencil and tried not to chew on a swollen lower lip. An injury from the bullies of his suburb, apparently. A likely story. Suppressing a flinch at Whizzer’s final sentence, he shoved all his books into a ragged backpack and dragged him out of the lunchroom. It was all he could do to not break down on the way to the men’s room. He could still feel the sting of his mother’s hand on a hollow cheek at parent’s afternoon, and the nausea and terrible growlings of his empty stomach that came as a package deal with being deprived of his dinner the same night.
And on his twelfth birthday, too.
Although it’d happened on more occasions than Marvin could count, it never got any easier. The worst part was feeling whatever small tower of self esteem he’d built inside his heart come crashing violently down, like a wrecking ball crushing a structure in ten seconds flat. The worst part was watching his cheeks turn ruddy and tearstained when he looked at his spindly, spider-like arms and horrid knobbly knees. The worst part was tentatively stepping onto the bathroom scale and squeezing his eyes shut until the metal machine of judgement declared a verdict. The worst part was breaking down in desperate, confused, tired tears when he removed his shirt.
It wasn’t enough. It never would be.
That’s what he told Whizzer, whose frown deepened with every word as he listened, holding a broken Marvin in his arms as his shoulders shook and his chest heaved. One of his mother’s candles. A dainty, delicate thing that served the purpose of invoking relief, and the feeling that nothing was awful. That kept being burnt, and, when the flame danced impatiently for too long, gave up. That switched between a world of joy and light and one of murky darkness. That, as hard as it tried, would always be put out in the end.
“She doesn’t even f-feed me, Andy,”
Double Science didn’t seem so important anymore.