Jimmy Carter was our school’s rooster of the hen coop. He’d strut his stuff through the hallways with a swarm of girls, hair up in pigtails, swoonin after him in a swish of pink overalls and frilly colored dresses. A stream of giggles echoin behind him.
Us guys would be leanin in our corner, the section where the busted water fountain met the dust of the lockers. With graffiti and slang that the teachers didn’t [AD1] bother to cover up at our backs, and the smell of dank water around us, we’d stand there in our little huddle, and as soon as ol’ Jimmy would see us he’d salute the doe-eyed crowd before sidlin up next to us.
We had an interesting relationship with Jimmy, us guys. We couldn’t tell if we hated him or if we loved him. He was the kinda guy that was such a picket fence sitter in emotions that anyone on the outside lookin at us couldn’t fathom how we didn’t sock him one in the kisser. But adults are dumb, they don’t see the complex inner workings of our group and even if they did, they’d still be missing out on the important stuff (‘specially them new teachers, they don’t know nothin).
See we guys didn’t mind scarecrow Jimmy. Sure he was sweet with the ladies but he never tread on territory that never belonged to him. Ya see, Jimmy had keen ear, even keener for when things were goin down the grape vine. If he heard that poor, acne riddled Joe was interested in sweet-tooth Sadie, Jimmy backed off as much as he could to make sure that they got an opportune chance. Hell, there was a time that Lee Honson, shy boy in room 2B, somehow let out that he was crushing on bookworm Sammy Suester; and as soon as Jimmy heard of the news through the vine he orchestrated an event where the two shy lovebirds had a chance—we all thought it wouldn’t work, but were proved wrong when three months later the two were still goin strong.
Jimmy had a heart of gold, but you’d be wrong to think that Jimmy’s life was all peaches and cream. Despite his gelled hair and lanky clothes he knew all about unfairness. It followed him like the stench of his mother’s stubbed out cigarettes. Mummy dearest lost in the bottle, Daddy afeared for the buckled belt ‘round his hips, and little Finch who was taken away by women in straightjacket like dresses and slicked back hairdos. Jimmy knew all about unfairness and it was one of things he wouldn’t tolerate at school. He was always sayin how we needed to stick together, protect our own, stuff like that.
Jimmy was the glue in the school, he held us together. He was the guy that punched bully B. Jones and sent him to the hospital for picking on little Tanner. He was the one that shared what little of his lunch he had with scrawny Timothy Finks who wore holey hand me down tees and ripped up sneaks.
Jimmy was a good guy, and our relationship with him had the push and pull of man and his beloved bottle (cause sometimes even we ended up at the other end of his tongue lashing or fists).
But Jimmy was strange.
And there was one thing we never could understand about him. It was his one secret, his one strange flaw.
You see, Jimmy couldn’t use the bathrooms at our school. He didn’t always have this fear. Before, he could use the toilet just fine (guess nothin meant proper whizzing more than old rinky-dink toilets, stained urinals, and drippy faucets) but when the government ‘membered we existed they decided we needed an upgrade. Somethin ta show we weren’t forgotten in the mass of low test scores. In and back out they came, and nothin seemed any different ‘cept them automatic motion detector paper towel dispensers. You know, the ones that are sleek, black, and with a red light. Not much of a change, but enough of one that it rose the hair on the back of Jimmy’s neck and made it next to impossible for him to enter the bathroom ‘less someone was there with him.
We never understood this fear of his, but we never dragged him down for it.
We tried to protect him just as much as he tried to protect us. You see, it wasn’t just that Jimmy didn’t like going inside the bathroom, he couldn’t even go to the bathroom when he was by himself.
During class he’d sit there for hours, cramped chair digging into him while his legs crossed tightly, face scrunched discomfort. As the minute hand would tick by his body would start twitching and a flush would spread from his neck and up to his ears and across his nose. His whole body an uncontrollable squirm.
When this happened all of us, ‘cept the girls, knew he had been holding it longer than he was showing, suffering silently until it had become unbearable. It was then that all of us, from our individual corners of the room would meet one another’s eyes and then, quietly, secretly, one of us would volunteer to help Jimmy. Sometimes we caused a distraction so that one of us could separate from the chaos and take a shakin, sweatin Jimmy to the bathroom. There, while the class was being suitably distracted, one of us would guard the stall or stand in the urinal beside him as Jimmy relieved himself.
It was embarrassin to do, listenin to Jimmy whizz. But when we would hear his anguished gasps and hiccupped sobs we would construct our red faces into ones of utter blankness and offer Jimmy as much privacy as possible while still giving him the comfort of our presence.
Despite the comfort we offered he still refused to use the paper towel dispenser. No matter how many different ways we tried to give him the paper—from handin it to him, to activatin the motion sensor, nothin worked—he’d turn an awful shade of white and adamantly refuse to dry his hands on the tanish brown paper. Instead, he’d slap his hands against his jeans, leaving wet handprints behind, and exit the bathroom in a hurry with us followin in a bewildered sort of way.
Despite all this we never questioned what we considered an irrational fear. We didn’t want to draw any more attention to his discomfort.
We had sworn that we’d protect him and that meant keeping his inability to use the bathroom secret. That is, until one day we didn’t and instead used it against him.
We were gathered in the playground, seventh graders that ruled the monkey bars and measured out calluses. It was late, the sun setting in a bloody line across the sky. School had been let out a long time ago and we had all huddled here to escape the different messes goin on at our homes.
That meant Jimmy was there.
He stood a small ways off in the cornered area of the school wall. Red chipped brick and smudge graffiti to his back and rings of smoke circling to the front of him. A stolen cig that Jimmy had swiped from his mother in his left hand. The embers burnin and the smoke circlin his mouth casting shadows ‘cross his face. He had just let out a small exhale when his face warped into one of slight discomfort. It was a look we had come to recognize long ago as the one where he had just barely a few moments before he had to go. As his body began to wriggle part of the group had begun to play truths and dares. I watched as he squirmed a little more before he trudged reluctantly closer to where we was truthin and darin each other.
“Guys,” he called out before snubbing out the cig on the ground, “um, can you—“
“Oh, Jimmy it’s your turn! Truth or dare?”
I watched as Jimmy’s face tightened, it was Greg who had asked. Greg was the only one in our group who held no sympathy to Jimmy’s problem with the bathroom. Recently, though, he was holdin a grudge against Jimmy for stealin the wandering eye of his on and off girl, Rebekah, and had begun to whisper scathin remarks about him behind his back. Many of the guys in the group were a little leery of Greg as he had a volatile temper and was prone to slingin punches.
“Well, I don’t really want to play---“
“Are you chicken, Jimbo?” Greg asked before climbing his way on top of the metal bars and letting his legs sway freely in the space, “Come one just pick something. It’s just a little game of truth and dare. Shouldn’t be too hard. Ya only have two options.”
Jimmy shuffled and his blush spread further across his cheeks and nose. “I really don’t want to play. I was actually hopin that—“
“Bawk! Bawk-bak! Bawwk! Ya hear that fellas? Jimmy don’t wanta play! Guess he’s too ‘fraid of choosin dare!”
“I ain’t no chicken! And I ain’t afraid of choosin dare!”
Greg laughed and it wasn’t a nice laugh. High pitched and cynical it bounced through the skeletal playground, “Sure ya ain’t Jimbo. I mean that would be just embarrisin.” His voice dropped and his eyes cut like steel, “I mean, already a seventh grader and ya can’t even whizz in the bathroom without one of us there? What are you, some kind of girl? Do you need us to be your little girly friends and giggle with you in the bathroom while you take a whizz?”
Jimmy’s face was tight and his mouth was a quivering line. His usually dark skin was pale with anger and his eyes glinted furiously, “No! I don’t need ya! I don’t need any of ya to hold my hand. I ain’t scared.”
“No?” Greg taunted as he slid off from his perch on the bars and sauntered over to Jimmy, “Prove it.” He poked a finger into Jimmy’s chest, “I dare you to go to the bathroom then. Alone.”
The group was silent as we gazed at the standoff that was happening. My body was shaking. This was unfair, it wasn’t right. Jimmy’s face remained blank but his eyes flickered nervously from one face to another before his lips thinned further and looked like they had been drawn on with white chalk. With a spin of his heel and one last look at us he stalked off towards the school.
We were silent as the closing school door echoed loudly through the playground.
“Greg,” I started.
“Give him a few seconds and he’ll be runnin back.” Greg snapped back.
We waited. A few of the guys shuffled anxiously. I knew we were all thinkin back to the last time that Jimmy tried to use the bathroom on his own.
I wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans as some of the guys fidgeted.
The door remained closed.
“Greg.” I said as I took a hesitant step towards the school.
“I’m gonna go check on him.”
“Then go! I’m not yours or Jimbo’s keeper!” Despite his annoyed tone he looked worried. I could tell by the way he was gnawing his bottom lip and plucking at the ripped pocket on his hip.
I nodded back before sprinting into the school.
It was dark and creepy. I had never been inside the school when it was closed and the florescent lights flickered. My sneaks squeaked on the floor. The white linoleum roiling beneath my feet as my steps began to falter. A trickle of sweat slithered beneath the collar of my shirt as I felt like the walls were getting closer. The lights began to dim further until some sections turned off completely. Mouth dry, I nudged closer to the boys bathroom.
I was only a few feet away when I heard a shrill scream.
Heart leaping up to my throat I darted the last bit and threw myself at the door. The sharp edge of the handle dug painfully into my stomach as I grabbed for it blindly while shouting Jimmy’s name. Before the door was even halfway open the entire hall was bathed in pitch black.
“Jimmy?” My mouth was too dry, his name was barely a rasp across my tongue, “Jimmy?” Nothing. No answer. My eyes couldn’t adjust to the darkness. I swallowed drily as I continued to move forward with my hands outstretched. Reaching the tile of wall I began to slowly turn when a flash of red caught my eye.
I screamed, the sound of the automatic paper towel dispenser echoed in the tiled room and all at once the lights flicked on. Turning around in the bathroom I yelped when I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror—freckled skin pale and clammy looking with whited out eyes. Pulse still pounding and ignoring my reflection, I continued to look for Jimmy.
He wasn’t there.
BANG! BANG! BANG! Each stall was flung open only to reveal their stained toilets and horrifying emptiness. Body shaking, I turned in our little bathroom and froze.
Distantly, I could hear the worried voices from the rest of the group yelling out, by now realizing that we had been gone for too long. Their voices warped in an unpleasant way in the hall as their fearful questions reverberated off the walls. I could hear their sneaks slapping on the linoleum as they sprinted towards us. I could hear and I was aware of all of this, but I couldn’t answer.
In front of me the red eye of the automatic paper towel dispenser gleamed.
And hanging from it was a paper towel the exact shade of Jimmy’s skin.
Hands shaking and a cold sweat forming on my body, I tore off the piece. It felt warm and soft.
Bile rose up in my throat and I darted into one of the stalls.
It felt like skin.
Edited by: Anna Grace Dulaney