The Boy Who Invented Me
On my way home from school, I swerved my bike from side to side on the quiet road, a canopy of new leaves spilling shadows onto the suburban street. I wondered when I’d be able to do wheelies and ride no-handed like the big kids in sixth grade. I was two blocks from my street, when a boy on a bike came around the corner ahead of me with a clank of metal and the sound of heavy breathing. His bike was clunky and old-fashioned with balloon tires and foot brakes, unlike my light-weight with its polished frame. Tall and awkward, he had runny eyes behind thick glasses, a flannel shirt too big for him, an overbite like a rabbit’s. “I bet you don’t know who I am,” he said.
“You’re Jerry Hazelcorn.” Now that I was finishing fifth grade, I wasn’t afraid anymore of the kids on my own block, including the boys. “Your sister Sarah’s in my younger brother’s class.” I went on. “Your house is across from Katie Jameson’s house on Woodlawn Avenue.” I didn’t mention that it was the crummiest house on the street.
“You have no idea of my powers.” He circled around me on his bike, dragging his dirty gym shoes over the pavement. His certainty of his superiority and his sideways stare rubbed me the wrong way. He came to a stop, and let his long legs hang down. “You don’t realize that you don’t exist outside my mind,” he said. “When I don’t see you, you cease to be.”
“Don’t make me laugh,” I said, resting my fists on my hips, like my teacher, Mrs. Fernstrom. If he hadn’t been bigger than me, I would have punched him. “This morning, I went to school and passed the quiz on the state capitals, all forty-eight of them, without any assistance from you. I assure you, I’m as real as you are. Maybe more, ‘cause I don’t go around saying rude things to people I don’t know.” I stole a look down at my blouse to make sure the buttons were lined up in the right button holes.
He shrugged. “That just proves my point. You’re a dumb girl with conventional ideas. I’ve read about Einstein and about general relativity.”
He wasn’t stupid. I wondered if I was outgunned. But no, he was just Jerry Hazelcorn, a big, odd kid with no friends, and he was making me madder and madder. “Look,” I said, clicking the gearshift on my handlebar, “there are millions of people in this country, and they didn’t need you to imagine them into existence.”
“What I’m saying is true,” he said. “When I don’t look at you, you don’t exist for me.”
“For you! I could care less if I exist for you or not. You didn’t bring me into the world. My mom did. She had a Cesarian. Now, get out of my way.”
He was leaning over me now. “I can make you disappear you know.” He kicked the asphalt with the toes of his shoes.
His effort to appear menacing made me laugh. “If I were you,” I said, “I wouldn’t count on me disappearing. And I advise you not to tell your theory to other people, because someone might take it the wrong way and beat you up.” Some of the thuggish boys in his sixth-grade class had probably beaten him up a few times already. He needed to find smaller victims.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He pushed a tangle of dust-colored hair back from his forehead.
“I’m not afraid of you. You should watch less science fiction. The body snatchers’ll get you.” I rolled my gleaming Schwinn away from his clodhopper bike. The speed of my wheels screamed my freedom. His laugh died a sudden death as I took off. Then, gradually, as if in a dream, I began to wonder what would happen if I did disappear before I got home. Would I just be invisible, or would I have no thoughts, no feelings? Would I be dead, like in the cemetery, or just missing? What did it mean not to exist? My mom would be heart-broken. My little brother, who cried about everything, would cry. My eyes began to blur at the thought of my mom finding my empty bed, wondering what to do with my rock collection.
But as I turned into my comforting driveway, with its blossoming lilac bushes, I thought, Nah, don’t be such a sap. That guy’s nuts. And then I realized he must be a very unhappy person, with no friends and possibly horrible parents, who wouldn’t get him a new bike, even at the bike exchange. I shook my head and began to feel a little sorry for him.
At home, my mom poured me a mug of cocoa. My dog wanted his ears scratched. My brother was watching the Mickey Mouse Club. I was relieved to find I was still reliably three-dimensional.
I never told my parents about my encounter with Jerry Hazelcorn. I never mentioned it to my friends, though I imagined I could put a pretty funny spin on it. If you’re out there, Jerry Hazelcorn, I’m sorry you’re the one who had to live with your troubles. I suspected you had plenty of problems and were doomed to be scapegoated for the rest of your time at our school and beyond. I’m sorry I didn’t know how to help you. For the record, I remained reliably three-dimensional without your ever thinking of me again, and I never trusted anyone who thought they’d invented me. But I didn’t forget about you—nor have I forgotten that day when I realized that your pain was as real as my own.
About the Author
Ann Russell holds a PhD in English literature. Before turning to fiction writing, she had a long career in museum administration and preservation of rare books, archival materials, and art on paper. Her stories have appeared in Joyland, Epoch, Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere.