EDITOR’S CHOICE AWARD
By Darlene Eliot
Theo curls up in his race car bed. He pulls the blanket to his chin, then his nose, then his eyes rubbed red. He looks at the terrarium, making sure Spot, his leopard gecko, still guards the water and the rocks in the dimly lit space. Theo rolls over and closes his eyes, trying to disappear before the sun holds a magnifying glass to his face and his mom buckles him in and they pull ahead of the school bus, and before he knows it, the morning drops him into a seat with no harness. The classroom lights buzz. The other race car drivers steal his pencils and his lunch and the miniature bag of carrots—the ones he promised to eat, so he could see better—gets tossed over his shoulder. Theo takes off his glasses to make things disappear, but it only gets louder. He puts them back on and covers his ears. The teacher is gone and didn’t tell anyone. A tall man rests his feet on the teacher’s desk, scrolls through his phone and tells the drivers, Slow your roll, slow your roll.
The new kid sticks out his tongue, takes two laps around the classroom, and slides into Theo’s desk. He leans toward Theo, crossing his eyes, then backs away, waving his hand in front of his nose. Everything blows up. Then everything slows down. Theo looks at the laughing mouths and pointed fingers and presses down on his ears. The new kid grabs Theo’s arm and pulls it away from his head. Theo howls like a dog sent to the backyard when the baby comes home from the hospital. The tall man stands and says, Hey, hey, hey, slow your roll. He makes the new kid sit, then says, You guys better chill until I get back.
Theo gulps air as the tall man walks him to the restroom. Come on, little guy, the tall man says. It’s not the end of the world. People with glasses always win in the end. Theo stumbles onto the tile and rubs his eyes, trying to remember if the tall man has reflectors or has regular eyes like his teacher. He loses his grip and the glasses fall into the sink. He squints into the blurry mirror. The sun angles through the window and heats his right cheek. Theo closes his eyes and tries to breathe like his mom and dad when they fall asleep in the hammock. They’re taller than the tall man and they don’t put their feet on desks or yell like the next-door neighbors. They tell Theo to go to his room when the neighbors get loud. He gets into his race car; they rub his back and tell him everything will be okay. The only time they get sad is when the teacher says he would do better in another classroom. They hug Theo when he says he doesn’t want to go and they tell the teacher he will do better. Theo promises, too.
He doesn’t tell them that the classroom spins when it gets too loud and the kids call him Snot Boy and the girl who smells like pine trees pushes him off the swings and the teacher draws red circles on his papers, so he stuffs them into his pockets. Theo doesn’t know, as he eats peanut butter and apricot jelly sandwiches with no crusts, that the teacher’s computer talks to his mom and dad’s computer, and soon everything he knows—the Hot Wheels, the Legos, the Oscar-the-Grouch puppet that eats papers, and the warm compress for his eyes—will no longer be enough, and instead of going to his room, he’ll seek the comfort of the backyard: crawling under the hammock and lying on his stomach, befriending earthworms and lizards and things that go to ground.