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King Freak

Sep. 21, 2016
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Bernard runs the playground from his throne, aka the slider, slamming back and forth as his cronies survey the cement. They’re his eyes and ears, because Bernard is busy with that slider; nobody knows if he’s trying to break it or what, the way he smashes it against either side and lets his bulk whip back and forth with the reverberating impact. Some kids complain about the piercing sound of metal on metal. Mostly the girls. This one time, Cassidy is thick enough to stand up for his rumored crush Vicky when she smushes her hands against her ears and makes a face. 

Cassidy ends up in the dirt with his leg at a new angle. Bernard doesn’t do it himself, that’s for sure. One of the other boys does, and Bernard just watches and then slides and slides, checking back once to make sure there’s red on the concrete. Did the teachers see? Maybe. The boy’s mother will get a call. But maybe not. Nobody will call Bernard’s house, that’s for sure.

Bernard’s house is on a gray cement sidewalk behind a gray gate. Crash the bullmastiff watches from his Astroturf. Like most bullmastiffs, Crash doesn’t bark much, but he does when Bernard comes home from school every day, because he wants scratches on the part of his neck that’s always covered by his choke collar. Sometimes Bernard takes the whole thing off and lets it clatter to the ground. 

Sid is Bernard’s older brother, too much older to be understood very well. On this one day Sid gets home and offers to throw some footballs for Bernard, except Sid calls Bernard Bernie. “Get the ball, Bernie,” says Sid. Bernard played football at school for a couple months at the beginning of last year, but then his sixth grade history teacher failed him on a couple assignments and the school took him off the roster. 

It’s not the best combination, Bernard not wanting to catch and Sid throwing wrong and too hard. 

“Make it spin?” Sid roars when Bernard ends up with a face full of chain link fence and a shiner after one throw. “Make it spin? Do you think Coach ever told me to make it spin while I was carrying the team to championships?” Sid is referring to his brief career in the local YMCA’s under-10 recreational football league. 

Sid’s got Bernard pinned to the ground and laughs like he’s only kidding and keeps whispering “Lighten up, Bernie.” 

“Come on inside,” their mother pleads from the back steps. “Come on in.”

There’s a snap, and afterwards Bernard can’t move his right arm.

Bernard gets a cast and three sharpie pens; red, blue, and green. His mother says he can ask his friends at school to sign it. Their names, a message, anything they want. Bernard pockets the pens and kisses his mother’s cheek.  

At lunchtime, he slides the slider extra hard, if that’s even possible. 

“There really is something wrong with him,” Vicky says to Cassidy. They’re sitting on the last picnic bench before the play structure trying to impress each other by pretending that Bernard’s kingdom doesn’t exist.

“I think he’s messed up in the head,” says Cassidy. “Maybe retarded or something.”

“What was that?” says a crony. “What was that you said?” 

Cassidy stands up like this is the last straw in the whole world. “I said, your highness must be retarded if all he does is slam himself into metal and stop everyone else from hanging out on the playground.” 

Cassidy tries to get a punch in, but the crony has Cassidy facedown onto the cement with his arms twisted behind his back before Bernard reaches the other side of the slider. 

“What do you want me to do with him?” the crony asks, looking back at Bernard, because there’s no precedent for dealing with this level of audacity. Bernard doesn’t look back at him, so the first crony looks at the other three cronies, who look back at Bernard, who just picks at the cotton on the rim of his cast. 

Then Bernard does something new. He steps down from the wooden platform beneath the slider and walks toward Cassidy slowly. Bernard stops right before Cassidy’s face, so Cassidy only sees the very bottoms of Bernard’s scuffed-up shoes. 

What do the teachers do? They do the same as the kids, they look on and wonder if what they think is about to happen will, because until it does there’s not much to be done. 

But Bernard just takes three sharpie pens, red, blue, and green out of his pocket and offers them down to Cassidy. 

“Sign my cast,” Bernard says. “You can pick which color.” 

Cassidy would rather have been kicked in the face. Bernard? Talking? To Cassidy? To someone? To anyone? To ask him to sign his cast? Impossible. 

Cassidy considers just lying there, but the time starts to drag out, and he figures, what the hell. Bernard’s arm waits patiently outstretched as Cassidy skids the pen down the plaster. Cassidy hands him back the pen and its cap, and then Cassidy is free to go, to run away and brag to Vicky and everyone else for the rest of eternity about how he survived an interaction—no, a scrape; no, a fight; no, a brawl to the death—with King Bernard. 

Bernard reads what Cassidy wrote. “King Freak.” In big red letters, like a mistake staring up at him. 

Bernard doesn’t go back on the slider that day. He sits on the wood beneath the metal handle he’s plied and tortured for months. He sits there until lunch is over, he sits until his mother’s black Pontiac pulls up in the parking lot after all the other cars have left. 

“What did they write?” she asks. “Let me see,” she says.

But Bernard pulls down his sweatshirt sleeve over the red letters and won’t let her see, no matter how high she puts the heat on as a joke. He sits in the back seat sweating, wishing those words would wash away. Even at home, when Crash barks for scratches, he keeps his sleeve clenched over his balled-up hand, imagining the fingers closed around that slider, always that slider, ramming and ramming all day long. 

Cover Image by Jodeci Zimmerman