“Excellence” by Raj Davis

Excellence

PART 1

CHAPTER 1

REIGNING IT IN

It is a painful day for Todd Harrison and his two sisters, Lee and Ebony. The school bus rolls over the bumpy roads of their neighborhood while closing in on their stop. Todd counts this as a blessing. As predictable as the day has been in school, it is just as predictable now. He and his sisters are enduring the cruelty of their fellow students. A big girl, dark, dirty, and wild in the eyes, strikes him on top of his head from the seat behind him. The blow snaps his head forward while stinging at the same time. Suppressing the swell of anger that rises up to his eyes, he turns to her and tries not to allow it to release in the form of tears. It will make things worse if he cries. They will tease him all the more, seeing the pain as weakness as if they didn’t see weakness already.

“I told you to bring me your Star Wars cards today! Where were you?” she hollers.

Todd stares at her saying nothing. His eyes burn as she rises out of her seat. The bus hits a pothole and sways. She swings in the aisle but catches herself from falling. The other kids laugh after poking Lee and Ebony in the head and then act as if they didn’t when the two turn around.

“If you don’t bring them tomorrow, you are going to get some more of this.”  She rushes to sit next to him in his seat and slaps him across the face. Todd puts his hands up in front of his face to block her next volley of blows. She pummels him.

“I heard he does it to his sisters. He be boning them in the bathroom,” a knotty-haired boy says laughing in the back. All eyes flick to him, and he puffs out his chest a little more. The driver is either too focused on the road or too ambivalent to intervene; still, he’s peeking in his rearview mirror. Todd knows that he must be aware.

“Yeah, he gives it to them fast and quick.”  He does the hump motion with his arms going up and down in sync. Laughter explodes.

“You had enough, Todd?” The big dirty girl asks.

“Yes, Franky, I don’t want anymore.” Todd says, gritting through his teeth making sure not one tear escapes.

The bus pulls up to Frazier Street by Dan Marino Field. With a hiss the doors open. Todd gets out of his seat, and with his head down, exits the bus. When on the street, he turns and waits for his sisters. Franky comes out next and pounds her left hand with her fist. “Better see you tomorrow. Your grandma bought you the best ones, and I want them. You’re nothing but a punk!” She fakes a swing at him.

Todd, rigid, holds the balloon of rage that threatens to erupt, “Sure, Franky.” You can slap me every day, but you’re not getting my cards. My Grandma didn’t buy these anyway; I just say that. Mrs. Thompson from down the street bought them.

Lowering his head, he is joined by his sisters, and they begin the five-minute walk home. He is glad that he is in his last year of middle school; being in eighth grade, and thirteen years old, he will be walking to high school next year. He will no longer have to deal with Franky and her entourage. His sister Lee is twelve, and Ebony is eleven.

The sun is behind the clouds, which are full of grey. The wind feels cool against his neck. It might rain tonight. I have to get out on the porch. It will be worth it. That’s where the peace is.

Once inside, Todd calls his father at work, letting him know they made it home, and then he and Lee sit down to watch TV. Ebony goes into the kitchen to do her homework. Todd flips through the channels and settles on MTV. They watch music videos for hours, and the time passes by without them noticing.

Thunder rolls, and they hear the squeak of the old rickety screen door open, and the bass as it bangs shut, then a key in the lock—Jim’s home. He comes into the musty hallway and steps into the dark of the unoccupied living room. They use the dining room to watch TV and lounge. Jim hangs up his coat on the back of the living-room door. His black slacks and yellow dress shirt have the creases of a long day in them.

Groaning, as Todd and Lee get off the couch and sit on the dusty brown carpet, stained with age, Jim plops into his usual seat and holds out his hand. Todd places the remote in it. He turns on the six o‘clock news. “Todd get in the tub.”

Todd gets up, rolls his eyes, and heads up the creaky stairs, running his hands along the dingy walls. While lathering up his washrag, the activities of the day infiltrate his brain. Rolling the anger around on his tongue like a chocolate square, his shoulders drop. I’ll never be happy. That’s for special people—people with nice cars, big houses, and nice tennis shoes. He whispers out loud, “the popular girls in school, who have the best clothes and the biggest smiles, could never like me. I wish I could kill every person in the world who did me wrong.” His bath takes fifteen minutes, not having a showerhead. He towels off and walks down the steps, naked, to rub on lotion and be smelled by his father, who makes sure he washed everywhere. “A thirteen-year-old should not be naked in front of his sisters; it’s unnatural,” he is wringing his hands together speaking in a ragged whisper.

While lounging and watching TV, his sister, Lee, comes down next, naked breasts swelling from puberty. There is no interest in her female parts, like he has for the girls at school, but still he feels dirty. His attention turns back to the television because Jordi Laforge is speaking to Captain Picard on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and it sounds critical.

Ebony is in the dining room after her bath, a half an hour later, clothed in a nightgown. Todd snaps to see his father’s reaction. Jim frowns, “What are you doing with that on? You know we have no secrets in this house. Take it off!”

Ebony cries as she pulls the robe over her head. Her sobs send a spike of pain cutting through Todd, his heart being rolled over glass. Clenching his fists under his blanket, where his father can’t see them, she puts lotion on like every day since they moved in with the man they did not see for most of their young lives. Their mother died two years ago—then “he” shows up. Children and Youth Services found him. He was their biological father, though they knew little about him at the time.

At least they are not in an orphanage, Todd says to himself to assuage his guilt for not fighting his father, and for not protecting his sisters. His eyes get big from the realization that he is too scared of what may happen if he tries to change this situation.

After that, Jim bathes and comes down nude like his children. It is much too close in here. Then he drifts off to sleep as the patter of raindrops splatter on their roof…first slow, then fast and copious.

***

The sun is full in the morning as Todd looks up and feels its warmth upon his face. The blue sky, cloudless and serene, defies Todd’s mood. He stands at the bus stop, arms folded with his spine feeling like a steel rod. Franky gets a ride to school but has to catch the bus home. Her friend, Big, which is a nickname because he is a tower of a young man, is also in the eighth-grade, and he is staring at him. Todd assesses that Big is taller and broader than he is. This is the only reason Franky gets away with tormenting him.

A few of the other kids are playing “it” tag. The sun shines just as bright for them as it does for him, and they are pure evil. “How fair?” he mutters. Sneaking a look at Big, their eyes meet. The desire to make a face at him, saying something like, and “what are you looking at?” rises. Big is well connected with the drug dealers in the neighborhood. If he beats up Big, then there will be retribution. A beating, pure and simple, may be death if they get excited enough.

***

The bus ride is intolerable as usual. Lee and Ebony get off and head to their homerooms and so does Todd. After homeroom, Todd strolls to his first class. The busy halls are clustered with students making noise that is a mixture of laughter and sarcasm. He slides by a couple of kids snickering by their lockers and stealing glances at a girl with tape in her hair, makes a left, and enters his reading class.

The fluorescent lights are bright white, and the tile floor is black and brown. Mrs. Roland looks at him as he enters the room, then goes back to her novel. She is always reading before class. The title to this one is the “Tale of Two Cities.” Stopping beside Mrs. Roland’s desk, he takes in the full scope of the class. The desks are in neat rows. There are posters advertising different books. His usual buddies, who he cracks jokes with, are on the right side of the classroom. Mark is leaning over his desk, spilling out into the aisle, balancing his desk sideways on two legs, while Phil is whispering into his ear. Todd sits behind Phil. Phil is black and Mark is white. The both of them are tall. Mark is chubby, but you can see Phil’s ribs when his shirt is off.

The bell rings, and Mrs. Roland closes the door. Anyone after this is marked late. She moves herself in front of the class, stomach fat jiggling.

“Today, class…since this is Tuesday, we will do what we do every week. Read the book on our yearly list, to ourselves. As you know, we are reading “Excellence” by Wilford Brandt. Get your copies out and get started.”

There is a collective groan, and the sound of desktops creaking open and pages being ruffled fills the opening seconds of the assignment. She goes back behind her desk, opening her own book. Silence hangs, becoming a quick revealer of anyone who is trying to start a conversation.

A note lands on Todd’s book. He looks over at Mark, and Mark nods with a smile. Todd unfolds the paper and reads the message:

“There’s this rumor around school that you are getting busy with your sisters. I know who started it—Reggie Black. He’s asking for it. You got to step up and handle this one, because if you don’t, you’re done next year if this follows you to Langley High. We got your back, me and Phil. Otherwise we can’t help, if you don’t knock this dude out. You gotta show that you are a real man—scared or not.”

Todd’s nostrils flare as he crumples up the paper with shaking fingers. Leaving his desk, he stomps to the garbage can and glides back, realizing he doesn’t want to draw Mrs. Roland’s attention to himself. Mark gets a thumbs-up as he sits back in his desk.

Todd grinds his teeth and reads more of “Excellence” but not taking any of it in, thinking on how tired he is of being taken advantage of. In the next class, he gets to talk to his best friend, Alyssa. She sits next to him in that class. That’s how they met. They had assigned seats, and hers was right by his. In this class, she is on the other side of the room. She will have something good to say. He steals a look at her ponytail of straight black hair and her light brown skin. It’s like she can feel his eyes on her. She lifts her head, turns to look at him, and their eyes lock. She rolls them with a smile then points down at her book telling him to get back to their assignment. He rolls his eyes back with a smile and picks up where he left off. This book is good, and he did not expect that. How can a poor, abused, boy like me become excellent?

***

The bell rings, and Todd is up. It takes no time to fall in stride with Alyssa as they make a left down the hallway and a quick right into their English class. Todd notices that her sundress is clinging to her curves more every day. Nodding “what’s up” to Mrs. Snyder, his teacher, she winks back while putting a clip in her hair, pinning it up. Alyssa slides into her desk, and Todd slips into his, noticing how graceful her moves are. She is so delicate. Girls are so delicate, or is it just her?

Kids stream in, and as they get settled the late bell rings, and Mrs. Snyder closes the door. Her copper glow defies her age. Todd cannot figure out how old she is. She rebuffs him every time he asks, remaining polite when she does it though. She raises her hand, and everyone stops speaking except for a couple of open rebels who don’t care about authority, though their voices drop to a whisper.

“Class, you were told to write your short stories over the weekend. You had yesterday as a backup. Now you will pick a partner. You will write a summary of your partner’s piece and a review, including what was good about it, and what you think needs work, and then your recommendation. You should consider the grammar, commas in the right place, and if the story has a solid beginning, middle, and end. We will do this today and tomorrow. Go ahead and get started.”

The desks clatter as students start switching chairs to sit by their preferred collaborators. Todd brings his desk closer to Alyssa’s.

“Lyss, I did my homework this time,” He pulls his book bag onto the top of the desk and pulls out a folder. His story is covered with canary yellow construction paper with binder clips. “I tried to write something happy, but I just couldn’t, you know; life is too real for me sometimes.”

She opens her desk and slides out her story on white paper with a cover of pink construction paper and binder clips. “Okay, I’ll read it anyway. I hope this doesn’t make me sad. You know how you can get.” She offers him her story held with slim fingers and manicured fingernails. He likes her pretty title in black calligraphy. He just printed his with pencil—didn’t have the nerve to ask his father for calligraphy pens. They cost twenty dollars, but to his dad that is a fortune…or one less case of beer. Alyssa looks at the title of Todd’s story “Day of Blood.”

“Todd, this is a crazy title. What do you mean “Day of Blood?”

“One day a guy, who gets picked on, gets enough of it and goes berserk. He lights up everybody who ever hurt him.”

Alyssa sighs, prim lips come together, and eyebrows drop into a frown. “This isn’t any good. I don’t want to read it.”

“Please, Lyss…just this once? I don’t want to find a new partner. You know how I am. I’m comfortable with just a few people. Besides, if you lived my life you would understand.”

“Alright, dope. I hope this isn’t going to come true, you know. You have been fuming. You’re breathing heavy, right now. Don’t think I didn’t hear about the little rumor going around class. What are you going to do?”

“I am going to do what I should have done years ago. I am going to get some respect around here.”

“Whatever, Todd. You’d better be careful…my mom tells me that vengeance is poison, and if you get caught up in it, it will leave you unhappy. She said broken and hollow to say it verbatim. That means empty like when we didn’t see each other for a whole month because you got sick. Verbatim means word for word. I worried about you until you came back.”

“Lyss, this isn’t vengeance. This will set up something—making every person who goes to school here realize what’s up.”

She bows her head while shaking it, opening up the book’s crisp, warm-yellow cover. Todd does the same with hers. He looks up, time to time, to see if she is still reading. Her story is so imaginative. It is about secret friends who help children. He feels no pain as long as she is with him. He can’t wait, though, for lunch because he has something to say to Lee and Ebony.

“This is terrible,” Alyssa says to Todd, “but well written. You did everything the teacher said to do.”

The next two classes pass by with Todd and Alyssa trading insights.

***

Lunchtime is announced by a bell ending fourth period. Todd heads straight to the recess grounds, not even stopping to drop his bag in his locker. Alyssa standing still, watches him move like a corvette down the hall.

Lee and Ebony are at their usual spot by the football field, sitting on the concrete steps next to it. It’s easier to stay to themselves than to be picked on. They look up and see Todd hurrying over to them with his backpack still on. He sits down with a shuffle.

“Lee, Ebony, today is the ‘day of blood.’ We are going to take control of the situation.”

“What are you talking about?” comes Lee’s response, her brown eyes burning.

“I mean we are not going to take anymore disrespect. We are going to beat some sense into our enemies. They’ll have no choice but to respect us or leave us alone. I’m tired of it, and I know the two of you are tired of it.”

“We are, but what if we lose?” Lee asks.

“So what. They won’t want to fight us again. I promise.”

“It’s about time you made some sense,” says Ebony, “all this ‘we don’t want the drug dealers to get us,’ is the issue holding us back. I am not fearful about that at all. We will take ours. I just read a biography “Streets Disciple,” by Ellwood Woods. He was a major league drug dealer, and he took no stuff. We’ll keep these hoes in line.”

“Ebony, how can you even understand a book that big?” Lee frowns.

“I just can. Why you asking anyway?”

“Whatever it means, we can do it. We need to break out and turn some heads,” says Todd.

“What’s the plan?” Lee asks.

“Pure and simple—I am going to beat up Reggie. Then on the way home, you two are going to beat up Franky on the bus, and I am going to take a chance with Big. In fact, who cares—I’m a tank—you see how I play football with the guys; I can handle a lot of pain. So if I lose, it won’t matter. He’ll remember not to mess with me, ‘cause he’ll have to fight me, every day, and every drug dealer who are his friends, before I let him bully me anymore.”

“Then what about, Dad, Todd? What about that negro? We can call the police on him,” says Ebony.

“Negative, Ebony. Are you crazy? We might end up in worse conditions. Those foster homes are horrible. We will outgrow him,” says Todd.

“Imma kill him one day.” Ebony says

“Stop reading those hood books.” Lee says, “He is still our father.”

“Yeah, don’t get happy, Ebony. Let’s just handle this one for now.”

Todd turns his head and catches a glimpse of Reggie coming out of the cafeteria onto the blacktop.

“It’s time.” Todd says and gets up. He takes a deep breath and lets the rage flow through him down into his fists, for the first time, with action as its goal. His frown is sobering, and he calls out while walking up to Reggie with balled fists.

“What did you say about me, Reggie; I do it to my sisters?”

Kid’s heads snap to their direction of the conflict.

“You know what you do to your sisters. You better back up before I give you something to remember.” Reggie is a head shorter than Todd, but is known for being able to fight. He doesn’t miss Todd’s intent. Breaking from his circle of buddies, he puts his fists up just in time to block because Todd has run up to him swinging.

Trying to push off and swing back, he finds this to be a mistake. Todd’s knuckles crash against his cheek through the opening left by his missed punch, then another one in the head, then another one on the nose. He starts feeling faint as the punches keep coming. He can’t get a breath or get a pause to center himself.

Todd unloads on Reggie like a wild cougar. He feels powerful—his muscles taut and energized by the adrenaline. Reggie is no match as Todd busts through every defense, pounding him without tiring. Reggie falls down. Todd starts to pummel him while he is on the ground, but gets caught up in the grip of school security and several teachers. He bucks, trying to break free. He never felt so strong in his life, and he can’t calm down, can’t control his desire to make Reggie pay for every wrong he experienced. Anger is pumping through his muscles, making him difficult for school security to control, but they get him on the ground pinning his limbs till he can’t move—it takes six of them.

“Nobody messes with us! Try it, and see what happens to you!”

The noise starts up again as Lee and Ebony pound two girls, a little ways up, inspired by Todd’s fury. It’s Franky and Fantasia they are fighting. Lee head butts and Ebony jumps into the two surprised girls. Franky and Fantasia scream as they get hit by unrelenting barrages of rock-like fists. It takes a while before the teachers know what is happening to subdue them, too. They fight just as intensely as their brother.

***

 The next day, Jim is sitting in Principal Jordan’s office with School Counselor Jane Smith-Braxton. Principal Jordan speaks first. “It is such a shame that we have to bring you here Mr. Harrison. There was never a problem with Todd, Lee, or Ebony until now. It took some time, but we spoke to all their teachers, and they were unaware of how deep this goes. Your children have been bullied by some of our students. With regret, we tell you that we had no idea they were being tormented like this, and that we are talking to the other parents to make sure that this stops. As far as we know, they have been enduring this as long as they have been in school here, and, well, they just exploded. Reggie was treated at Mercy Hospital for broken ribs and a broken nose. Franky has bruises, and her friend is bruised as well.”

Jim is smiling on the inside while his face shows nothing. “Well, Mrs. Jordan, I will talk to my kids and get to the bottom of this. They are good kids, so I just want them to have good schooling. An environment where they can learn without fear is important. They are tough; I will see them through any turmoil. What I need from them is to not fear me. I wished they would have come to me about the bullying. I will make sure they don’t get into the habit.” Jim says.

“That is good to hear Mr. Harrison. You don’t know how many parents don’t even show up to meetings like this. We will work hard on our end. You will do your best on your end, we can tell.”

“That is my goal. Since their mother died, I have been the one there for them. I know it’s hard on them. They are still not adjusted since she passed two years ago,” he is saying anything right now, he realizes, to smooth over the disinterest he has. He wants to finish up so he can meet someone at the bar around the corner from his house. A spanking and a month of grounding should do the trick. Besides, these teachers don’t want me suing. They kiss butt well.

“There is another matter that we want to speak with you about, Mr. Harrison,” says Counselor Smith-Braxton, “we have tested your youngest daughter, Ebony. You’ll be pleased with this. She has always excelled in her classes, but we had to see how far she could go. We gave her the Road Scholar test. She is a genuine genius—a child prodigy. She is ready for college.”

 

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