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Runt
Andrea Marcusa

When she heard the needy chirp of a child, Cheryl scanned the subway station and noticed the little boy. His voice sounded innocent and tender compared to the low grunts of the three other boys. She didn’t overtly stare. She gave an, I’m just a passenger sitting on a bench looking down the subway platform for the train, look, a pose she’d mastered during years of city living. Her roommate, Tina, always called her overcautious. “You have a right to look where you want to, especially at a bunch of kids making a ton of noise,” she’d have said if she’d been there. But Cheryl knew that most New Yorkers followed the subway rule.  Don’t stare. Especially in a heatwave when violence spikes along with the temperature. Her phone said it would hit 101 degrees today.  

The boy was slight, small-shouldered, maybe eight or nine years old. The others stood taller, were burlier, and yelled like rowdy hyenas. Cheryl’s eyes lingered on him. He kept trying to nose himself into the group like the runt of a litter.

Cheryl mopped her brow from the withering heat that engulfed the station, which surpassed even the stifling humidity of teeming Times Square outside. A sinister darkness cast a pall on everything because of the missing lights overhead. She glanced about. If there was a teacher or grown-up in charge of the group, they were MIA.

The boys dodged and weaved back and forth on the platform between the two sets of tracks, one for the local train, the other for the express. It was a miracle none of them had slipped and fallen onto the third rail.

Cheryl took out a newspaper and began fanning herself, then stole another glance. Her eyes locked on the small boy as the shoving and elbowing intensified. The usual roughhousing, she told herself.  But not really. Someone was about to be hurt.  She could sense it in the rising clamor; two of the larger boys had balled their hands into tight fists. She wanted to warn the little boy, protect him from what she was sure was about to unfold. To shield him from the knocks she took as a kid. So he wouldn’t end up like her. Distrustful, wary, separate. Once a frustrated lover, now long gone, called her walled off. Another used the term “disconnected.” 

But what if she was wrong? Cheryl turned to the jowly woman slouched beside her. “Do you think that little kid’s okay?” The woman looked up from her phone, glanced at the group, shrugged, and turned away.

 “Don’t read into things. Not everyone is like you. You don’t know when to leave things alone.” Tina’s critical voice sounded in her head. But Cheryl knew when she sensed danger. She felt it in every tensed muscle, the galloping hooves in her chest.

The boys continued to howl and holler. The tallest one sank a punch into the little boy’s back. Cheryl flinched. It was as if his knuckles had landed on her spine and sent hot sparks all the way to her fingers and toes. The boys laughed and whooped except for the little one who winced from its force, then shrugged it off like a joke laughing. Cheryl had done that as a child. Anything to avoid the label crybaby. The woman beside Cheryl glanced again down the platform. She turned to Cheryl, looking concerned. “You a social worker or something?”

“No. But the little kid looks so young.”

He was skinny. Like he wasn’t eating enough. Or didn’t have enough to eat. Or maybe it was just a growth spurt.  Hard to tell. His pants were cinched and baggy. When he bent over, every bone in his back showed. He was no match for the bigger kids.

The woman observed them and said, “You know, it’s just kids.”

For Cheryl, it was more than “just kids.” The other boys were sturdier; one sported new athletic shoes. The bigger ones seemed to float on a force of their collective energy, moving as one. The younger boy, despite the slug, kept trying to find a way into their cloud of power.

Cheryl knew that impulse well. She’d have done anything for acceptance. Always trying so hard and falling short. Never fast enough or big enough. Brat-baby, pest, booger—the names her big sisters called her. She knew the little boy’s efforts were a lost cause. Those kids would never let him in. 

“Don’t interfere,” she told herself. But how could she not? She ran her tongue across the scar that still snaked on the inside of her front lip from when her sisters sent her down a flight of stairs on a tricycle. It had been a dog day like today. They were bored and hot, waiting to go to the town pool. 

An announcement blared. The express train was a minute away. The woman who’d been seated beside Cheryl stood up.

The train rumbled in, and the kids edged toward it. People spilled out. Cool air from the train A/C blew towards her. Two of the big boys boarded the car, and the third stayed behind and held back the little boy. Just when the doors were closing, he knocked the boy so he tumbled sideways onto the concrete. Then the older one vaulted onto the train. The doors thudded shut, separating the smaller one from the others. The boys hooted and cheered through the window as the train clattered uptown.

Alone on the platform, the boy, head downcast, paced.

This was too much for Cheryl. She couldn’t bear to see the child humiliated and left behind. Maybe lost. Those boys had been cruel. She wished she could have kicked each of them in the shins. The platform had since filled with passengers. The kid was so small, she had trouble keeping him in sight.

When she reached the boy, he shot a wary look at her. His bare knees were grimy. A ruddy scab marred his cheek.

She bent down. “Are you okay?”

His expression turned stony, but his eyes betrayed a flicker of something, a wildness akin to a fallen baby bird searching for its nest. Maybe he needed to use her phone to call someone. The boys were headed uptown on the express train.  Did he know where he was or his way back? She tried again. “Can I help you?”

“No.”

“You sure?”

He leaned towards her. She could feel his boy-breath on her face. “Get outta my face, bitch!”

And with that, he turned, sped up the subway steps, and disappeared.

Cheryl grew still and felt all eyes in the station jeering as the boy’s words burned her face.  

Her local train thundered in. She stood frozen. Her mouth filled with a metallic taste. It reminded her of the blood that had gushed from her lip on that scorching day years ago. She’d trusted her sisters, let them give her a push, and then she tumbled, her bike tipping while she screamed, terrified and powerless to stop its descent until her face and mouth thudded on the bottom cement step. She, too, had acted tough that day. She knew if she’d given into her terror and hurt and cried and tattled, that her sisters would snub her. And their mother would keep them all home from the pool, which would feel like punishment. So, she kept quiet. Held a wet, cold cloth to her mouth until the bleeding stopped. It was as if it had happened yesterday.  

Glancing back at the stairway, she ached for the boy. He was so small and young and yet had already become so tough. Even tougher, she thought, than she had been. She imagined the betrayal and shame he must have felt as he made his way all alone through Times Square. His hot tears.  She can still feel hers. His fury each time his slight frame is shoved and knocked in the crowds. That wall of his growing thicker and stronger, until, like Cheryl, the city’s shouts, sirens, honks all taunted and mocked, and there was no way to find a way out.

 

 

Andrea Marcusa's writings have appeared in The Gettysburg Review,  River Teeth, Citron Review, New Flash Fiction Review and others. She’s received recognition in a range of competitions, including Smokelong, Cleaver, Raleigh Review, and Southampton Review. She teaches fiction, poetry and flash at The Writer's Studio in New York City where she also studies in the Master Class with poet Philip Schultz. For more information, visit: andreamarcusa.com or see her on Twitter: @d_marcusa and Bluesky: @d_marcusa 

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