The boys called her computer brain, but that was only sometimes. Most of the time they told her to get out of the ditch, because she was the smallest kid in class and they towered over her. The teasing itself bothered her less than the way it made everyone look at her.
The teacher told her good things come in small packages and if she ignored them, they would stop. They didn’t.
Her mother said if the boys teased her, it meant they liked her. She told them that. They just got meaner.
In second grade she met Katrina who taught her how to kick boys in the shin so quickly there was nothing to see by the time the teacher looked over. The boys never told on her, too embarrassed to admit she could hurt them. One by one they stopped bothering her, except for Matt.
Matt had been held back and never raised his hand in class. When the school nurse measured them, he was always the tallest and weighed the most. Other than that, she didn’t really know what he looked like, because she never looked at people’s faces. She recognized them by the sound of their voices. His was very low, but had a funny squeak to it, like a cartoon character. He kept telling her to get out of the ditch years after the other kids stopped.
By fifth grade, Katrina had moved away. She had no other girlfriends. Instead she hung out with the boys, because even though they teased her, they didn’t think it was weird she didn’t care about clothes or the way her hair looked or didn’t want to talk about who she liked. They called her by her last name, like she was one of them.
Her favorite place was the school library. When she was there, she didn’t stand out. She was just another kid looking at books.
One day at home, she left a library book outside on a lawn chair. When she went back to get it, the neighbor’s dog had grabbed it and was chewing on the cover. She pulled it away, but the damage was done. She was so distraught she couldn’t calm down. She always followed the rules. This wasn’t supposed to happen. She didn’t know what to do. Her mother said they would pay for a new book.
Walking up to the librarian’s desk, she felt pins and needles in her scalp and neck. She showed him the book cover.
She looked over his right shoulder. “It was the neighbor’s dog. I left it outside. My mother said she’ll pay to replace it.”
“Borrowing books is a responsibility. You shouldn’t have left it outside.”
“I was reading outside and left it on a chair, I didn’t know the neighbor’s dog would come. Our dogs would never hurt a book.” The terrifying heat she felt when she was the center of attention spread over her cheeks and overflowed onto the rest of her face.
“Leave her alone. She said she’d pay for the book.”
It was Matt’s voice.
“That won’t be necessary,” the librarian said. “Just be more careful in the future.”
She left, too angry to speak. She loved books. She would never be careless with them.
A few weeks later, she walked down a hallway in school, running her hand against the wall. Matt was on the other side, walking the opposite direction. They were alone.
He crossed over and picked her up in a giant bear hug, before putting her down and walking away without a word. She disliked physical contact and stood motionless, several minutes after he left, frightened and confused. She set the feelings apart, where she wouldn’t come across them by accident. Her expression calm as ever, she returned to the classroom.
Years later, when the other boys found her on Facebook and told her about their crushes as if they were a gift, she remembered.
M. P. McCune lives in New York City with her spouse, kids, and bearded dragon. Her fiction and creative nonfiction pieces have appeared or are scheduled to appear in We’ll Never Have Paris Literary zine, Gravel, and The Ginger Collect. She can be found on Twitter at @MPMCune2.