Tom Gumbert: No One Cares
Image: Unsplash, downloaded (https://unsplash.com/photos/wPbbShdlEWI) 01.05.2022.
The Lonely Boy
The boy was afraid, always afraid. Afraid of big things like rogue asteroids, and small things like microscopic viruses. His dreams were filled with feral camels, naked mole rats and fog that slithers, slithering into his dream, into his room and around his throat.
He masked his fear, not with anger or false bravado like the bullies who picked on him at recess, but with shyness; doing his best to be unseen, because unseen meant unthreatening which, he hoped, meant safe. His parents took him to counseling, only to be told, “He’ll grow out of it.”
They did their best, showering him with love and hosting play dates…which were never reciprocated. “Sorry,” other parents would say apologetically. “He’s just…well, that is, our child doesn’t feel comfortable around him. Maybe another time, you know, when they are older.”
During his eighth-grade year, his parents wanted to enroll him in Taekwondo, which they hoped would “instill confidence” so that he could “stop being afraid.” While he appreciated his parent’s desire to help, he couldn’t understand how learning a martial art would stop asteroids or viruses, or slithering fog around his throat. But, wanting to please his parents, the boy agreed to try for the “90-day trial period,” which was offered at a reduced cost.
It was during this time that the boy became aware that he was changing physically, his voice croaking at times and hair sprouting in places where previously there had been none. His Phys Ed class required him to do sit-ups and push-ups and he discovered that he rather liked it. He started lifting weights and discovered that no longer did he struggle with taking the trash cans to the curb or bringing in the weekly groceries from the car. He also experienced a growth spurt, requiring his parents to buy him new school clothes mid-year, which was unprecedented.
Not all of the changes were positive. No matter how many times a day he washed his face, it always seemed oily and tiny bumps, black, white, red, yellow appeared on his face and back. This made it difficult to remain invisible, making him an easy target for classroom and locker room bullies, though to his surprise, it happened less frequently than in the past.
The boy became aware of something else—girls. Sure, he’d always been aware of their existence, but now he noticed them, looked forward to seeing them each day and dreamt of them at night. They too were changing and he very much appreciated those changes. Some were now wearing nylon stockings with their skirts and dresses and applying makeup, causing him to marvel at the transformation. When he walked past the girl’s restroom on the way to homeroom, the waft of perfume floated in the air, making him want to linger in the doorway, though he knew better as he didn’t want to be a creep.
For the first time in his life, the boy thought about sex. In fact, it occupied so much of his thoughts that he wondered if something was wrong with him. Worst yet, was how his body reacted to those thoughts, which could occur without warning. One minute he would be thinking about dissecting a sentence and the next imaging Andrea in her t-shirt and gym shorts and viola, a stirring and bulge in his pants. “What, Mrs. Brighton? Will I come up to the board? No thank you, please.”
The boy wasn’t alone in thinking about girls. It seemed that everywhere he looked, girls and boys were holding hands, and sitting next to each other at lunch. Each day seemed to bring the whispered news of another couple “going out.” The boy was surprised to discover that he longed for this. He wanted to hold a girl’s hand, to sit next to her at lunch, to be exactly half of a “couple.” But more than being a couple with any girl, he wanted to be a couple with Andrea.
Andrea Tolliver was beautiful AND smart, and the boy found that he was mesmerized whenever she was around. His head hurt from wondering how someone so attractive could also be smart in every-single-class. Honestly, it was unfair. Yet despite that, Andrea Tolliver was not a part of a couple. It defied logic, so the boy allowed himself to imagine the illogical. What if she was secretly into boys that were masking fear with shyness? What if…she was waiting for him to ask her out?
The boy’s mother asked him what he wanted to do for his birthday. He could see how stunned she was when he suggested “a boy-girl party.”
“Who will you invite?” she asked. When he gave her the side-glance, she added, “So I can prepare…ensure I get enough food and drinks.”
“Plan for eight,” he said optimistically, though he thought it was exceptionally unlikely that seven kids would come to his party.
That night as he lay in bed, he considered his plight. His end goal was to get Andrea to come to his party, so his best bet was to get her friends to come. He considered how he could convince three of her friends and the boys they were “going out” with, to come to his party. It was just after the four chimes of the mantle clock when he decided it would take a miracle.
On the day of the party the boy found himself unable to sleep. Before the sun had pierced the horizon, he was in the basement family room, removing all the pictures from the walls, wiping the dust from the frames and cleaning the glass before returning them. He dusted the furniture, wiped down the chairs, and once he heard his parents in the kitchen, ran the vacuum. He checked the refrigerator, confirming yet again that his mom had stocked the favorite soda of each of his guests and that the freezer resembled a Ben and Jerry’s display. The cake would be delivered from the bakery in the square about an hour before the party was to commence, and the pizzas, a half-hour after that. There was really nothing left to do, besides attend to his personal hygiene and wait.
The boy had done his best to be prepared, eavesdropping when his classmates talked about the music they liked or the shows they watched. He’d prepared a playlist of their favorite songs, ensuring that he included plenty by Billie Eilish as well as Andrea’s favorite, “Meet Me At Our Spot,” by The Anxiety. With closed eyes he imagined what that would be like, to share a secret spot with Andrea, to share secrets, to share fears and hopes and dreams—to be part of a couple.
“Are you okay?”
The boy opened his eyes and looked into those of his concerned mother.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
She looked him up and down as if searching for confirmation, then said, “Breakfast is ready.”
After breakfast, which he mostly pushed around on his plate until his parents left the room and he could surreptitiously dispose, the boy went to his room and lay on his bed. Staring at the ceiling, he tried to visualize the party, planned what he would say to Andrea and how she would react. His heart raced when he imagined them slow dancing, the feel of her hand against the back of his neck, the smell of her hair, the warmth of his hand on her hip. He imagined what it would be like to not be lonely.
He didn’t remember falling asleep, but he felt his foot being shaken and when he opened his eyes, his mother was at the foot of his bed. “You should probably get up and get ready,” she told him. “The cake is here, the food is here and your father and I are going to a movie. I’ll leave my phone on vibrate if you need anything.”
From the couch he stole glances out the window, wiping his palms on his pants each time he heard a car or a voice outside. His chest heaved when the minute hand on the mantle clock ticked, and when the doorbell rang, he sprinted for the bathroom.
He had recovered quickly, and things were going relatively well, the boy thought. He’d managed to calm down enough to greet his guests without being off-the-charts anxious and now everyone was enjoying the pizza. Both Ty and Max gave him a thumbs-up when seeing the soda selection, and Katie practically gushed over the chili cheese fries. As casually as he could, the boy made is way to the computer and started the playlist.
It didn’t take long for heads to bob and feet to tap. On the third song, Ty took Lyndsey’s hands and pulled her to the center of the room where they began to dance. The boy watched from the side as each of the other ‘couples’ joined Ty and Lyndsey. On song five, he got up the nerve to approach Andrea. He buried his hands in his pants pockets so that she couldn’t see them shaking.
“Hey,” he said, trying to be casual. “Would you like to dance?”
It was a fast song and there was no touching involved but the boy’s heart soared. They danced three songs together, but when the slow song came on and he started to move towards her, she stepped back and asked, “Where’s the restroom?”
The boy stood at the door, thanking his guests for coming and for the ‘epic’ gifts. “My parents are going to be a little late,” Andrea informed him, and the boy managed not to smile. They stood in the living room looking out the window, watching dime sized snowflakes float to the ground. He was replaying the party in his mind, and though they never did slow-dance, he felt it was a success.
When a car pulled up in front of his house, he knew that the moment of truth had come. He swallowed as he walked her to the door and when they reached it, he said, “Andrea, I was thinking…”
She stopped and turned to face him. Her mouth twisted, like she was about to smile and she put her finger on his lips and leaned forward. He was tingling, his head spinning as he took in the smell of her hair as it brushed his cheek, the softness of her finger pressed against his lip, the feel of her breath as she whispered into his ear. Three words. Three little words that would change his life.
“Hey,” are you alright?
He wasn’t, but the boy understood that his mother already knew that. Her real question, the unspoken question, was “What is wrong?’ The boy shrugged.
They sat for a moment in silence. Maybe she thought he would tell her about Andrea and the conversation at the door, and maybe she would even understand. But he couldn’t tell her, that three little words spoken so casually, had slammed him so hard, he would rather have been beat up by bullies.
“Did you know that the pandemic has killed almost six million people? And that two years after the insurrection, we still have people—elected officials for Christ-sake, calling this a stolen election and making voting restriction laws?”
His mother reached towards him but he pulled back. “Roads and bridges are crumbling, but we can’t pass an infrastructure bill because it,” he made air quotes, “cost too much. We can cut taxes on the rich but can’t spend on making safe roads and bridges. We do nothing to stop school shootings, global warming is probably going to kill us, Russia invaded Ukraine, China will probably invade Taiwan and WW3 will likely happen during my lifetime! You fucked it up! My life is totally fucked up—because adults are nothing but a bunch of selfish do-nothing assholes.”
“Hey, what’s going on?” his father asked as he came into the room from the back door. “And what’s up with all the covered mirrors. Did someone die?”
“Yes,” the boy said quickly, and when his mother stiffened, her eyebrows raised he quickly added, “my self-esteem.”
He knew it was over-dramatic, but that’s the way he felt. Because what Andrea had said to him felt less intentionally hurtful and more like the truth. When it came to the boy, his thoughts, his feelings, his future…well, ‘No one cares.’
About the Author: Process Efficiency Manager by day and daydreamer by nature, Tom and wife Andrea, live in a log home in the woods near an Adena Burial Mound in SW Ohio. He feels fortunate to have had his writing published in The Sunlight Press, Anti-Heroin Chic, Five2One Magazine, Fictive Dream, Horror Tree, and others, alongside that of his literary heroes.