1st Place Winner in Nonfiction: “An Unfinished Story”

Posted on: July 25, 2012
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By Brock
 
 

The story began in the fourth grade, but was remembered for the first time yesterday. I bought a house, so my parents reminded me of the possessions I had accumulated at theirs over the years. After buying that house, I lost the right to use my old room as a storage space. One afternoon, I gave in to their demands and moved out my boxes.
 
 
Digging through my things, I found my collection of grade school yearbooks. Aside from their lack of production quality, the yearbooks had acquired a dusty smell that you find only in old people’s homes. My dad chuckled when he saw the lack of signatures in the back of the book. “You were a very quiet boy,” he added, as if I had forgotten.
 
 
Tired and sweaty from moving box after box, I sat down for some nostalgia. I thumbed through the yellow-edged pages, starting from the back cover. I skipped through the pictures of staff and fifth graders to find my class I found my frail, fourth-grade self in the group picture. Having the palest skin of anyone in the portrait, I was hard to miss. Next to me, double the weight but standing at the same height, was John Munoz.
 
 
In that picture, John wore a tattered Oakland A’s baseball cap and a basketball jersey with no numbers or letters. His shorts seemed to go down to his ankles, and his hands were somehow muddy. Of course, he did not smile; his face was that special kind of childhood indifference, of “I’m too cool for this.”
 
 
My face was also unfriendly—maybe because I was standing by John Munoz.
 
 
John was a bully. Not the “give me your lunch money” kind either. John would hurt his victims both physically and emotionally. He could not care less about getting things from others; his only goal was to cause pain.
 
 
At recess, while the other kids would play on the blacktop, I remained in the school’s computer lab. It was a cold space where I could relax and not be forced into having awkward interactions with my peers. Based on a mutual understanding with the computer lab lady, I would escape the warm sun and type stories on the school computers.
 
 
My stories always were in the adventure genre, most of the time either in the past or in the future. They were short, never any longer than three pages. I was the only one who could ever read them. Once I learned how to put watermarks in my documents, the word “Confidential” appeared layered behind the text of every story I wrote.
 
 
One day, John entered the computer lab. For everyone but me, going into the lab was against the rules. That day, I was writing a short fiction story about a football player throwing the winning touchdown pass, then getting the girl—the cheerleader.
 
 
I saw him, and I closed my work. I pulled up a web browser to hide what I was doing.
 
 
John approached, and took a seat in the chair next to mine. He looked at my computer. “What are you doing in here?”
 
 
“Nothing.” I said.
 
 
He could sense my fear, but that was how I always responded to John. Although not muscular, his arms were nonetheless as thick as my legs.
 
 
“It seems like you’re doing something in here,” he looked around. “Besides, it’s against the rules for you to be in here.”
 
 
“Then I guess it is for you too.”
 
 
“Don’t get smart with me again, Brock.” He reached out and grabbed my arm. He started to pinch with his index finger and thumb, which was painful enough. With a firm grip, he started to twist. Pain shot through my arm, so I let out a cry. I caught a glimpse of his grin.
 
 
“Tell me why you’re in here.”
 
 
“No! Let go!”
 
 
“What is going on here?” A voice emerged from behind us. In the doorway, the computer lab lady had her hands on her hips. John let go, and I stood up to leave. I could tell John was going to get a scolding. Meanwhile, as I left the room, I wondered if my computer privileges would be revoked.
 
 
The next day, I arrived at school to find the blacktop almost empty. Children would play with their friends in the mornings before school started. Concerned that I was late, I looked in Mrs. Tringali’s classroom. No one had gathered there yet.
I looked in the cafeteria, where again I found no one. I looked in the school courtyard, where a group had gathered around the bulletin board—a place where moms would post carpool ideas and where the PE teacher would post signups for afterschool sports.
 
 
I approached the crowd. As I got closer, it seemed like the attention turned to me. The laughter in the front of the group stopped. Attention turned my way. Over the heads of the other children, I could see the Oakland A’s baseball cap. John Munoz stood in front of the bulletin board, along with a sheet of paper pinned to the wall.
 
 
When I saw the word “Confidential” across the center, my heart sank into my stomach. It felt like getting my arm pinched, but much worse.
 
 
“Brock,” John said. “Very good story!”
 
 
I said nothing. Even if I had wanted to, I could not think of anything to say.
 
 
“Yeah, good story.” Someone else said, cackling with laughter.
 
 
John started reading from it, “After Brock threw the pass that won the game, he ran to the sidelines, where he kissed Jennifer. Jennifer was the cheerleader, and Brock the star quarterback.”
 
 
The real Jennifer, the cutest girl in my grade, who served as inspiration for the character, was not too embarrassed to laugh. In fact, she was the loudest in the group. Everyone’s silence, a mix of pity and insult, became a community experience of glee. I ran away, not to class or to the principal or to the computer lab. I ran home and cried. I cried not because I was sad or angry or embarrassed.
 
 
When I told my parents about what happened, my dad’s response was advice to “beat him up,” to stand up for myself. I heard those phrases many times before. Yet, I knew an attempt to pick a fight would end badly. My understanding mom, on the other hand, offered a more profound insight than violence. “There is no such thing as a bad person,” she said. “People do bad things, but it’s always for a reason.”
 
 
I could not understand John’s malice, let alone explain the reason behind it. For all I knew, John was just a bad kid. But perhaps my mom had a point. Perhaps if I understood John a little better than I did, which was none at all, I could solve this problem on my own.
 
 
The next day, I was afraid both of the blacktop and the computer lab, so I spent lunch and recess in the boy’s bathroom. After school, I rode my bike not to my house but to John’s. I knew John would be busy with afterschool sports because I saw his name signed up on the bulletin board, next to my story. Regardless, my hands shook with nervousness as I approached the front door of his house.
 
 
The house was much smaller than mine was, and the lawn was dotted with brown patches. The outside of the house had stains on it, like a shirt in need of a wash. It looked worse up close than it did from the street. The screens on the windows stood ripped, as if animals could come in and out, as they pleased. Still shaking, I rang the doorbell.
 
 
After a few moments of shuffling inside, I heard three locks unlatch from inside the house. The door opened, but only by a crack. A chain held the door ajar, and a pair of eyes emerged. A raspy female voice whispered, “What are you selling?”
I cleared my throat. “Uh, I’m not selling anything, ma’am.”
 
 
“Who are you?” She demanded.
 
 
“I’m, uh, John’s friend from school. My name is Paul.”
 
 
She paused. “Paul, huh? John doesn’t know anyone named Paul.”
 
 
“Oh, well, we just met. At school. I’m new.”
 
 
She paused again. “What do you want, Paul? John is not home right now. He’s at football practice at the school.”
 
 
I heard the click of a cigarette lighter, and a plume of smoke came out the door. “Could I wait for him here, ma’am? I came a long way to see him. We’re working on a class project together.”
 
 
“You know he’s not going to be here for at least another hour, right?”
 
 
“Yes, ma’am. I’m not busy.”
 
 
“Ok, ok.” She shut the door and unlatched the final lock. Moments later, the door opened all of the way.
 
 
John’s mom was a thin woman, with long red hair and holding a lit cigarette. Wrinkles around her lips and eyes made her look much older than she was. She was dressed in a polka dotted nightdress, which I thought was very odd for a Tuesday afternoon. She led me into her living room, which was cluttered with junk like newspapers, magazines, soda cans, and food bags. The television was on and with blaring volume.
 
 
“I wasn’t expecting guests today. I would have cleaned up. John’s going to hear it when he gets home.” His mom said to no one in particular. She led me to a torn leather chair. “Have a seat.” I plopped down, resting my backpack on the side. “Can I get you anything?”
 
 
“No, I’m fine.”
 
 
“Ok, suit yourself.” She opened up another soda can.
 
 
We sat in silence for a while, watching the courtroom drama of a daytime judge show. At last, she said, “I was surprised to hear you’re a friend of John’s.”
 
 
“Why?”
 
 
“Because John doesn’t have many friends.” She took a drink of her soda. “I can’t remember the last time John had a friend over here.”
 
 
“John is very popular at school. But I guess I don’t know him very well.”
 
 
She smirked. “He’s a bully.”
 
 
Again, I found myself unable to speak.
 
 
“He’s a bully, and looking at you, I’m sure you know it.”
 
 
Hearing that from any other adult except for John’s mom would be an absolute shock. But for a moment, I forgot that I was listening to John’s mom; I could see John in her face and hear him in her voice—not only the sound but the words coming out of her mouth.
 
 
“It’s alright. You are a nice boy. I’ll tell John not to pick on you, Paul.”
 
 
“Thank you.” I said.
 
 
“John’s been a bully ever since his dad left. I know that because I am always getting calls to come to the school. That’s been three years now.”
 
 
I remained quiet, pretending to watch the television.
 
 
“Yeah, John doesn’t talk to me much anymore. He does not talk to anyone anymore. It is as if he shut off. His dad comes to visit every once in a while, but he lives in Texas now with John’s brother and sister.” She sighed. “With his new wife he’s got over there.”
 
 
I remained silent. What does anyone say to that?
 
 
“Anyway, I think John is angry with me. He should be.”
 
 
I had to say something. “No, I don’t think so. I think you’re nice.”
 
 
“You’re a sweet boy.” She said, looking over at me. “Such a nice boy.” She put out her cigarette in the overflowing ashtray.
 
 
I left before John came home. Later that night, I lay on the floor of my living room, spending time with my brother, my parents, and my dog. I took a step back for a moment and, as a child, I counted my blessings. Blessings, of course, that John did not have—one-half of his family living a thousand miles away, an unhappy mom, and nothing to look forward to except a lonely day at school. In that moment, seeing the differences between us, I could only understand briefly the reason why this “bad kid” was doing bad things.
 
 
That night, I stayed up, thinking about what I would do if I lost my family, my mom who cared so much for my character, my dad who wished for me to solve my problems with my own two hands.
 
 
The day after, at school, I decided to honor both of their wishes.
 
 
My computer lab privileges, as it turned out, had not been revoked. In fact, the computer lab lady was happy to see me. I turned on my computer and began typing away at my story—one that was based on reality. It was my first attempt at nonfiction.
 
 
Sure enough, John checked to see if I was there. Knowing that he had struck bully gold the last time he interrupted my writing, he thought he might try again. John made no secret of his entrance, closing the lab door behind him with a crack. He approached, but I too made no secret of what I was doing. The story stood clear in front of me.
 
 
John sat in the same seat he occupied a couple days before. He looked at me for a while before saying anything. “Writing another story, huh, Brock?”
 
 
“Yep.” I said, avoiding his stare.
 
 
“I thought you had stopped writing your stupid fairy tales.”
 
 
I looked at him. “Nope, still writing.” I turned my attention back to the computer screen.
 
 
“What’s this one about?”
 
 
“It’s about a boy.”
 
 
“Aren’t all of your stories about that?” He chuckled.
 
 
“This one’s about a boy like you.” I said.
 
 
He was stunned. “What?” is all he could manage.
 
 
“Would you like me to read it?”
 
 
Again, John was speechless. This story did not have “Confidential” written into the background. “Yeah, ok.” He said.
 
 
“Ok, here it goes.” I said.
 
 
There once was a boy named John. John lived with his mom, his dad, his brother, and his sister. John loved his family very much. They would play board games together, go to the park, get ice cream. John’s dad would take his family to see the Oakland A’s. John loved baseball.
 
 
“What is this?” John said.
 
 
But one day, John’s dad got angry with John’s mom. They fought all of the time, and that caused John’s dad to leave. John’s parents made him say goodbye to his brother and his sister. John didn’t want to say goodbye, but he had to.
 
 
“Hey, shut up!”
 
 
John felt very lonely without the rest of his family to be there with him. John started to blame his mom for making his dad go away. So, John didn’t talk to his mom much anymore. But John wasn’t angry just with his mom. He was angry with everyone else. He was angry with those who had what he didn’t. At school, he picked on kids who wore nice clothes, who had new pencils, and those who liked to be alone. John picked on the kids who liked to be alone because he was alone, but he didn’t want to be alone.
 
 
John was very lonely, but all he needed was a friend.
 
 
John was not telling me to shut up. He was not threatening me. He was not even going to beat me up. John was crying. It was a silent, embarrassed cry at first, but he opened up, letting out a whimper. I reached out a hand to put on his shoulder, and John leaned in for somebody’s comfort. His whimper turned into sobs, and we did not move.
 
 
After a few minutes, I said, “But wait, it’s not over.”
 
 
John pulled away. He nodded—a sign for me to continue.
 
 
John met a friend at school. It was somebody who understood what John was going through, and somebody who John could talk to about his loneliness. A friend who would listen to John and someone would make John’s life a little better.
 
 
John nodded again. “Thank you.” He whispered. I watched him leave the room, drying his face as he went.
 
 
All stories are meant to be read. Not all stories are finished. John’s story will never be over. But the idea of overcoming adversity is an idea both of us first shared on that day. It is a story I will never forget.
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
A SELECTION FROM OUR JUDGES’ CRITIQUE
 
No one is immune to bullying. Everyone has experienced it at some point, whether in the form of criticism at work, verbal wars at home, or fighting at school. So what makes this story so special?
 
It is not only about resilience, but resilience and creativity. The protagonist of this story suffered defeat and humiliation at the hands of the bully. And he was also physically overpowered by the bully. But in the end, he showed readers that sometimes, not using your physical strength is more powerful than using it. Which is why instead of his fists, this character used their brain and their heart instead. Through a brave attempt at visiting the bully’s home, to an admirable amount of forgiveness and compassion doled out to his bully, the protagonist and author serve as a brilliant example of humanity’s ability to deal with and overcome adversity. Not only did this author not let the bully “get to him,” he got to the bully.
 
 

There is so much I love about this story. The writing pulled me in. It was extremely well-written and visual, crafted with strong descriptions and articulate wording. I loved the line, “My face was also unfriendly—maybe because I was standing by John Munoz.” So simple, yet bursting with meaning. Additionally, the story itself is a prize. I LOVE to read stories about someone caring enough to see to the heart and truth of a difficult situation, because generally, things are not as they appear. There is always a broken heart or a broken spirit beneath the exterior of a bully, and how beautiful and meaningful for Brock to care enough to LOOK beneath the surface. What an amazing influence, and such an example of how love can change a life. It changed the direction of John’s future. Gave him a new destiny. I just applaud this story in so many ways! Very well done!!!
 
 
 
 
 
 
Note: In regard to the length of this piece, Watch Me Bounce recognizes that is lengthy. In order to be fair to the other contest entrants, this piece was judged up to the 2,000 word mark by one of our judges, after being nominated for a winning spot by another judge. Since it qualified even in its shortened version, we are publishing the full, complete version of the story here, in order to best due it justice. Thank you for understanding.

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