They called him Freddy Krueger, which, was not only mean but unoriginal. On the playground, the girls would creep up to him then go running off screaming at the top of their lungs. The boys would see him in the hallways, nudge each other, lean in close, staring at him like he was fine print.
His face was burned. His cheeks, his ears and down his neck. I couldn’t help but wonder how far down his shirt the scars went.
What drew me to Matt was how he ignored them. At recess, he’d sit off by himself, picking dandelions while the taunting and screaming and laughing went on around him.
Honestly, I admired him.
I had questions. Sooo many questions. Obvious ones like how, when, did it hurt? I mean, of course it hurt. But mostly I wondered if Matt was so strong because of the burns, or was he just naturally that way. Did he go home and cry about how people treated him? What did his voice sound like?
That last one I had to know. Because in the month since school started the teachers never called on Matt. Be it out of pity or fear or laziness, but everyone treated Matt like something to get through, ready to pass him off and get to the next class like the flu or a bug or something contagious.
I couldn’t stand it. Couldn’t stand it one bit. So the next day at recess, after all the usual screaming and Freddy Krueger taunting was out of the way and everyone had gone back to kickball or tag, I straightened my glasses and walked right up to him.
“Hi Matt,” I said in my most casual tone. Of course he didn’t look up at me. Why would he?
I plopped down beside him, leaving some room between us. “Got some real jerks here, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.”
Again, nothing. But I saw his hand twitch with the stick he was dragging through the dirt. Out of my side eye I saw his face was really bad, shriveled and puckered, still red and pinkish and it looked like it hurt. I hoped there was something that could be done, skin cream, surgery. No wonder he didn’t mind what people said. He probably couldn’t hear through all that pain.
So I kept talking. I talked through all of playground. I told him all about how Krissy Morris had peed the bed at a sleepover party back when we were in the third grade, told him how Chris Connolly couldn’t spell cat if you spotted him the C and the T.
The kids told me to shut up, asked why I was talking to Freddy, said he would haunt my dreams. They said he was my boyfriend. But I didn’t care. I’d never had any trouble standing up to them. They weren’t worth impressing anyway.
A week went by like that. I’d sit and talk and tell people to shut their faces. It was six or seven days in before he ever even looked at me, his eyes slitted and watery, but true as rain. He didn’t quite smile. Not at first anyway.
We sat. We sat for another week. We sat while the teasing and singing and chasing went on all around us. We sat while Miss Clark suggested we walk. So we walked. And one day when we were walking, Matt told me what happened.
It was electrical. The house was old. By the time the fire woke him up it was raging in the kitchen and living room. The smoke, Matt said. He could still taste the smoke.
His whole family died. He said it plain, without choking up. He survived. He was six and the doctors said he was lucky. I tried to imagine what he thought of that. His whole family gone and he was in pain all over.
I could think of luckier ways to die.
I thought about Matt all night. The next day I took my place beside him, without much to say, with so much to say. But the sun was bright and it was almost seventy. A perfect day to sit in the grass.
And then Chris marched over with that stupid grin of his. He started in with the Freddy talk and before I knew what I was doing I got up and walloped him across the face. Smacked him hard as I could. He ran off crying.
I didn’t tell the principal. I sat with my hand stinging and didn’t tell Mom when she picked me up. Not even when she said I should be ashamed of myself and I was grounded for a month. I didn’t say a word because Matt had trusted me with his words. With what happened. I didn’t want to break his trust.
The next day was a Saturday, I was sulking in my room when I heard a car in the driveway. I looked out and saw Matt with an old lady, I guessed his grandmother.
I paced. I thought about Mom meeting Matt. I wondered what they were doing or how they knew where we lived. Then I heard Mom’s footsteps at my door. She knocked. I opened the door and she closed her eyes, took a big breath and brought me in for a hug.
I took it to mean I wasn’t grounded anymore.