I’m not the hero. If asked me if I was the hero, I’d tell you I wasn’t. Perhaps the ease is implicit, wrapped in the word “hero”; if you asked if me if I was a hero, I’d tell you I wasn’t, for I see “hero” as too grand a phrase for a planet mundane enough to exist outside of a comic book. So, even in the context of a vaguely colorful story, there are no such things as “heroes.” But, then, if you asked me if I was the protagonist of said story, I wouldn’t know what to say. It can’t be known before I’ve asked the question of myself. Should I ever claim that I’m the protagonist, let me bite my tongue, for I have not yet been asked if I am the villain.
I drew my conclusions on this topic when I was eleven years old; they are outdated. Consider this essay the grand re-opening of a case five years shut. The case files contain many since-disregarded conclusions that I’d like to shine some light on. If I tell you that I am not sorry, reject my thesis; I have not researched my topic thoroughly enough.
With all of this in mind, let me introduce a question that can be objectively answered: what happened?
When I met him, he asked the normal small talk questions and I gave him the normal small talk answers. “Nice to meet you, Alec, my name is Harry. This is my second year at Lakota. Yes; that rather racist image on the rock wall does bear a lot of resemblance to the logo of the Washington Redskins. Shower Hour is right before First Shift Dinner, which is right before Free Play.” The answers I didn’t give: “The other bunk is essentially the cool kids’ bunk, as it was last year, so my best friend Zach and I practically feel targeted, that our bunk should be filled with the weirdos, the Europeans, and the European weirdos.”
Zach, the kids from the other bunk, and even some counselors immediately considered Alec to be of “the weirdos,” though I couldn’t see it. Nothing he did seemed especially strange, at least. He asked the questions one could be expected to ask and he laughed when one could be expected to laugh. He was the only person I’d ever met to wear a swim shirt, and perhaps, retrospectively, that fact was very in line with the insecurities he would come to show, but it didn’t strike me as very strange then. Everyone else thought I was blind. Though I’m not known by most to be optimistic, I’d rather attribute it to optimism than to blindness.
Soon, he had taken a clear liking to me, even though I didn’t pay that much attention to him. A counselor that had noticed Alec’s affection towards me and his odd nature, Ben, asked to keep an eye on Alec. It seemed an odd request, but I respected Ben, so ten minutes later, when Alec began to run away from the bunk after yelling something akin to “you don’t understand me!”, I took it upon myself to chase after him. “Wow, you’re fast!” he exclaimed.
I tried my best not to laugh at his amazement with my speed. I was nearly world-renowned for being a god-awful runner, at any distance. “Hardly.”
“Pretty fast,” he insisted.
I moved past it. “Why are you running away?”
“They just don’t get me.”
“Who are ‘they’, Alec?”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter. Did I hear you say you liked tennis, earlier?”
He had heard correctly. It was the only sport that I could be positively compared to my athletically-minded peers in, so I most definitely liked it. In a couple of nights, him and I had taken to having a couple rallies on the tennis court. We kept the tradition up semi-regularly for at least a couple of weeks, and our conversations became rather personal.
“At school, I get really bullied.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. We discussed it for a while, and he eventually asked for advice. “Develop a thick skin; just know not to let everything affect you.”
“Hmm, okay. Oh, and don’t tell anyone this Harry. You promise?”
“And don’t tell anyone this next thing, okay? You promise?”
“Okay. So. You know about the boat when Hitler ‘died?’”
“Well, my uncle was a famous German painter. When I went to Germany, I looked inside a painting of his with special glasses that he left behind for me, and I saw the bodies frozen, like, they were stuck to the hull of a metal ship.” This seemed like gibberish to me, so after I challenged every part of it, he said, “Look, that’s not the point. I looked with my glasses harder, and I realized, it was a time ship.”
“Are you suggesting that Hitler is alive?”
“He’s waiting for the right opportunity to come back!”
I later brought up the conspiracy with Alec while Zach was within earshot. Alec, naturally, looked supremely pissed.
“You promised, Harry! I thought you weren’t gonna tell! I thought we were friends!”
The night before Alec was set to go home was the night that it all culminated. I was in bed reading, Zach was in bed reading, and Alec was in bed taking offense to it all. Then, Alec asked to see Zach’s almanac.
“I’m reading it right now; hold on.”
“Dude, I asked if I could read it. Please?”
“I am reading it, so no.”
“But I asked nicely.”
“That doesn’t change anything if I’m reading it.”
“BUT I ASKED NICELY!” Alec screamed. He jumped from his bunk bed onto Zach’s ground level bed and tried to grab the book out of hands. Zach threw the book to the ground and Alec’s hands rerouted themselves towards Zach’s neck. “Why doesn’t anyone like me?” Alec violently commanded.
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
“I came to this camp to get away from bullying! Ah!” Zach had begun to block his body with his oversized pillow. When Alec finally managed to cast the pillow aside, Zach scratched Alec’s neck so that it bled and darted out of the bunk as two counselors, including Ben, walked in.
“What’s going on in here?” Ben asked, which caused Alec to scream and charge at him. The counselors, with their combined, adult strength struggled to push Alec into the back room of the bunk. “What are you doing, Alec?”
“I wanna KILL him!”
“I… AH! I came to this camp to get away from bullies!”
When Alec returned from the nurse, very late that night, his eyes seemed to be just black pits. His skin was paler than mine. He immediately crawled into bed where, presumably, he fell asleep. I shuddered the night through.
It has occurred to me that there is an easy way out. I could ask, “are things really so black and white?” Then, things would be so black and white; I could answer, “things really aren’t so black and white.” I could throw away the case without indicting a soul. I could chalk it all up to some untouchable gray territory and I would be free from asking.
I once thought that Alec simply dealt with what the rest of us dealt with. Young boys are cruel to each other, occasionally indiscriminately: some campers would tie him up and poke him with brooms, but they’d slap each other as a greeting; some campers would call him names, but they’d insist that they only do it to him because he’s the only one who bothers asking them to stop. It’s just survival of the least easily scarred. In the summer that this story took place over, for instance, I was berated regularly for the length of my hair and for my inability to play sports, but I didn’t care. Now, I’ve grown to think that such an expectation is not fair. Alec, who, to me, still seems normal, yet was easily broken, shouldn’t have had to be as cold as the rest of us. The standards that we held ourselves to should not have been the standards that we held someone else to. Since that summer, I’ve written approximately three essays on why the SATs are an inadequate gauge of ability, and this seems like a fourth. In ways that everyone else could see, he was not like us: he was a scientifically minded student scoring poorly on the SAT math and reading/writing sections while we were the College Board; he was a visual learner confronted with memorizing an audiobook; he was Murph from “The Yellow Birds,” entirely unprepared for war and death.
I’m inclined to cut myself slack. After all, I was the only one who really attempted to be his friend, and I even succeeded for a while. That’s more than anyone else can say. Still, I failed to keep his secrets and failed to defend him. It sounds patronizing, now, to claim that defending him was my job, but Ben asked me to look out for him and I failed.
So: I am sorry. I am sorry that I spilled the conspiracy stories that he told me in confidence, I am sorry that I stopped playing tennis with him, and I’m sorry that I failed to stop the other kids. I am guilty because I so consistently call those who picked on him “the other kids,” as if to put as much distance between myself and them as I can, even though I don’t know if such a divide truly exists.
These are answers that I am glad to have, I suppose, but now I am aware that some questions are simply unanswerable. I can’t ever know whether or not his explosion might’ve been averted if I had stuck with him, in the same way that I can’t know whether he’d have been better off if I hadn’t shallowly befriended him in the first place. I can rest with a conscious slightly cleared, knowing that I couldn’t have known better. I can say that, although it may or may not have been helpful to him, at least I tried when no one else did. Though I wonder where Alec is now, I’m too scared to Google him. I don’t want to know whether I’d feel huge waves of emotion or cold apathy upon seeing his Facebook profile picture, should he even have such a thing. In much the same way that Private Bartle of “The Yellow Birds” could hardly stand to look at Murph’s disfigurements, I fear Alec. I fear the sunken eyes that we sent back home to his mother. Even though I’ve attempted to clear myself of blame, through the process of writing this essay and otherwise, I still can’t bring myself to look at someone I never knew.
After all of this, I still don’t know if I’m one of the other kids.
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