In Jackson’s house, the television loomed over the living room. Under the TV were board games. Jackson was the king of checkers. His brother even made a crown for him from yellow paper.
But the TV was boss. After school, the TV told Jackson and his brother and sister to watch cartoons. Evenings it drew their father to football games.
Later, his mother watched other shows with laughter and jokes Jackson didn’t understand.
Then Jackson brought home a note from his teacher. He was behind in reading, it said. He could not put sounds to letters and make letters into words.
“A” made all kinds of noises and he wasn’t sure why it baaaaaad like a sheep or baaaaayed like a hound.
The teacher said Jackson required quiet to read so his father built a bookshelf for his room and his brother and sister filled it with their favorite books. But when they left and his door was shut, Jackson opened the book covers and nothing happened.
School days, a woman escorted him from the classroom. She helped the kids who couldn’t read. Everyone looked. Outside, he repeated sounds and hooked them to letters for the woman. Sometimes they added up to words he knew; sometimes they just remained sounds. The worst times Jackson looked at the pictures and guessed.
The woman’s face was so expressive it frightened him. Soon the whole building turned grey and mean as a monster’s castle. The teachers and helpers all smiled. Maybe they didn’t know a monster had eaten them or maybe they were the monster’s friends. Many students, too, smiled and laughed: the monster’s children. Those who were not huddled against the walls. Their mouths were straight lines, their eyes watchful.
Recess and lunch were worst. Teachers stood under posters that said, Don’t be a Bully. But the monster’s children had horns and the rest of the children did not. The monster’s children hooked and prodded the others until the bell rang again and their horns disappeared and the teachers loved them best.
In his bedroom, Jackson’s head wandered its own direction. He wanted to imagine himself into a blank. He decided not to call himself Jackson anymore. He slept. Asleep no one reads and no one can not read either. But he had dreams. At school, the other children made a circle around him. They held up a book with blank pages. “Read,” they sang. Even sleep was no longer safe for him.
Frightened, he went downstairs and stood in front of the television.
“Move out of the way, please,” his sister said.
“No,” Jackson replied.
She hollered for her brother.
“At least keep it in on one channel,” his brother said.
“No,” Jackson said.
“That’s what he told me,” the sister said.
“School is mean,” Jackson said.
His brother and sister nodded.
“Should I tell the teacher?” Jackson asked.
His sister shook her head. “One time I told a teacher something and she made me wear a ten-foot tattle tail.”
“Should I tell mom?”
“When a parent calls, the teacher tell the tells the whole class. “‘Jackson’s mom called today. So don’t pick on Jackson.’” His brother laughed. “Then they really torture you.”
Jackson was uncertain what to do.
“We will find the mean ones and scare them,” the brother said.
“What will you do?” Jackson asked.
“Let Eddie Dalton pee on the girls’ backpacks,” his sister said. “He likes that.”
“I’ll draw dicks on the boys’ school pictures,” Jackson’s brother said.
Their father talked quietly on the phone in his office. In the kitchen their mother busied herself. Jackson smelled spaghetti sauce. His mother knocked on the counter three times with a wooden spoon, her signal for the children to set the table. His brother and sister set about the chore.
Jackson was pleased his brother and sister would take up for him, but he knew no one could stop the monster’s children. There were too many. His father had a gun. He hid it, but Jackson had discovered where. He had studied the gun carefully. He did not know if it held bullets, though he was pretty certain the sliver of metal inside the loop made it shoot.
On the TV the good people shot bad people. He tapped the remote for a police show.
“Come eat,” his mother cried.
“No,” Jackson said.
“Not this again,” she said. She came into the front room. “Turn off the television.”
“No,” Jackson said again. “I’m learning.”
Bruce Holbert is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop where I held Teaching/Writing Fellowship. I have three novels in print, WHISKEY the most recent with FSG. My stories have appeared most recently in The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The Common Reader, and Story Quarterly.
Artwork: Public Domain