Odd Pete (Part 1)
I hate children’s toys, especially dolls.
They’re the bane of my existence.
For a little over 30 years, I’ve managed to avoid them, until last weekend at a friend’s birthday luncheon, when one of the guests had brought their five-year-old son. The boy had a doll with him, like one of those Cabbage Patch Kids. Instantly I panicked at the sight of it, and I wrestled it out of his grip and struck a knife through its heart.
I snapped out of this episode when I realized that the doll had no blood, nor any entrails, just wads of fluffy, white cotton balls. Everyone went dead quiet and gawked at me in horror. The boy ran off to his mother wailing uncontrollably.
“What the hell, Benjie!” my friend shrieked.
I left the party right away, shaken and humiliated beyond belief. I thought of writing an apology letter to my friend and the boy’s parents. Of course, I wanted to express how deeply sorry I was. How could I not be? And I wanted to tell them that I’d buy a new doll for their now traumatized son. But I did nothing. I let phone calls go unanswered and text messages unread.
It has been a lot to handle, and so now here I am. I am writing this to finally explain why I lost control that day. I have kept this story to myself for three decades. This is a story about toys, and why I can no longer bear the sight of them.
In fifth grade our teacher, Ms. Bryant, introduced a new student — Pete. She wanted us to make him feel welcomed, since he and his parents had just moved into town about a week ago. We all said ‘Hi, Pete!” in unison, but he wouldn’t return the greeting. All he did was stare at us with unblinking, blue eyes. They looked as though they had been painted over their sockets. And then, like a wind-up tin soldier, he marched to an empty desk in the back of the classroom. I swear to God, he moved like he didn’t understand how the human body worked. We started to giggle, but with one stern look from Ms. Bryant, we slapped our hands to our mouths. Snickers continued to slip through the gaps between our fingers.
Pete wasn’t simply weird. His general demeanor made my flesh creep. He had his hair neatly parted and gelled. He always wore the same outfit: a buttoned-up, white short-sleeved shirt with a pocket on the left breast. This was always paired with a thin black tie, black shorts held up with suspenders, and polished leather black shoes. He reminded me of one of those insurance salesmen on TV.
He was also quiet.
Jackie, a girl known for her fiery mouth, tried to talk to him. “So, where did you used to live?” she asked, and when he didn’t say anything, she asked another question. “Are you from out of state?”
His silence irritated her.
“You’re a fucking weirdo!”
Ms. Bryant’s snapped around from the whiteboard and glared at Jackie. “Watch your language!”
Throughout the day, Pete didn’t speak. Not a single word. This, I would find out later, was because he couldn’t, and not because he didn’t want to. I overheard Ms. Bryant talking to another teacher about Pete. They would smoke behind the classroom trailers. She said that Pete had a condition. For one, it made him effectively mute. But it also affected the texture and color of his skin, which was like sanded ash wood with the faint brown stripes and rings.
“But the boy’s father said he’ll be going through a special procedure soon,” Ms. Bryant said. “I hope it’ll work. That kid gives me the fucking jitters.”
The procedure did work. The following week, he walked into class, and, for the first time, he spoke.
“Present,” he piped up, cheerfully and forcefully, as Ms. Bryant scrolled through the attendance.
All heads turned to him, completely surprised. I did notice that Jackie was absent that day. Later, at recess, word got out that Jackie was missing. She had disappeared in the middle of the night. Poof. Without a trace. No signs of a break in or struggle. Naturally, the police suspected that her parents were involved in her disappearance and had taken them in for interrogation. There was, however, no evidence.
My friends — Frank, Mark, and Andy — and I gathered by the basketball court near the fence that separated the playground from the parking lot. We were curious about what happened to Jackie, and many of us came up with some wild theories; some thought she’d ran away, and some believed she’d been abducted by aliens. But we all agreed that Jackie would probably pop up somewhere, and that this was just one of her dramatic ways to get attention. After all, this was something that she was also known for.
“Hi, may I join you?” We jumped at the squeaky voice that suddenly spoke from behind us.
It was Pete.
None of us said anything, until Frank yelled, “Heads up!” and threw a basketball at him. It bounced off Pete’s chest. He stared at the ball as it rolled away, then turned to us with his glossy blue eyes and, and those lips; permanently affixed into a smile with perfectly symmetrical alabaster teeth. Like fucking porcelain.
Frank frowned. “You’re supposed to catch the ball.”
Pete watched us play a round of basketball from the sidelines. The teacher on recess duty strode over with hands on hips, scolding us for leaving Pete out of the game. Groaning, we reluctantly waved at him to step onto the court. Frank threw the ball to him again.
This time Pete caught it but didn’t dribble or throw it to another player. He didn’t even make an attempt to shoot it through the hoop. Instead, he inspected it, feeling the bumps and grooves. The teacher cheered him on, encouraging him to run and shoot the ball. Pete wobbled, rather than ran, like a clumsy penguin across the court.
His aim was terrible, and the ball bounced off the beam of the hoop and hit a group of girls jump roping. As they screamed at him in frustration, all he could do was scratch his head and shrug. One of the girls tossed the ball back to Pete, but Frank snatched it from his hands and ran with it to the other side of the court, expertly pulling off a figure eight dribble. He threw the ball into the hoop.
Pete watched in awe.
The next day, Frank was absent from class. My stomach churned as I saw a picture of his smug face on a “Missing Person” flier that was posted on the announcement corkboard alongside Jackie’s. The town started to fear that a serial kidnapper could be on the loose. Concerned parents demanded that police and the school administration to do something… anything. Later that week, the principal announced over the P.A. that we weren’t allowed to wait outside in front of the school where our parents usually picked us up. Instead, parents had to come into the classroom, sign in, and pick up their children.
“What a stupid idea,” Ms. Bryant mumbled. She was right. People fought over parking spaces. Cars jammed the area in front of the school. It was chaos. But the principal insisted this was the best way to ensure student safety.
The new rule didn’t apply to me, though. My mom worked as a waitress and her boss was a real asshole who refused to let her swap shifts, so she couldn’t go pick me up no matter how much she wanted. And my dad…well, I didn’t know where he was. He walked out on us when I was five. I’m not sure if he’s still alive to this day.
So, I walked home alone, as always. I lived about half an hour on foot from the school. I never encountered any problems on the way home. I knew the route and neighborhood better than the back of my hand. I had always felt safe, but one day an overwhelmingly weird feeling twisted my insides. I glanced over my shoulder, and instantly my heart jumped to my throat.
A car was following me.
I noted the color and make of it. A classic black Lincoln car. The driver rolled down his window as he slowed his speed to match my pace. From the corner of my eye, I spotted Pete sitting in the passenger seat. I could only guess that the man in the driver’s seat was his dad. They both looked exactly alike, though the dad seemed, at least, more human.
“Hi, son! It’s Benjie, isn’t it?” Pete’s dad said, cheerfully. “Do you need a ride?”
I shook my head. “Oh, it’s alright, I know my way home. Thanks for the offer, sir.”
He laughed. “You can call me George. Oh, by the way, thanks for being so nice to my son. It’s not easy being the new kid in town. We just moved here from out of state, and we’re still trying to blend in.”
With a happy-go-lucky grin, Pete nodded. “I had fun today at recess, Benjie. That was a great basketball game! Didn’t you think so?”
“Uh, yeah, sure.”
Earlier that day, Pete wanted to join me and my friends for another round of basketball. I thought it was so strange how suddenly he was able to dribble the ball as smoothly as Frank. He no longer wobbled like a penguin; he ran as if he were a natural athlete. After seeing that, I had this feeling that he was the reason Jackie and Frank were missing. I mean, it was obvious. Andy and Mark thought so, too. We just couldn’t prove it. And did we even want to find out?
I kept my eyes straight on the path towards home; I guessed it was another fifteen minutes before I reached my block. I picked up the pace a bit, hoping that I’d get there sooner, but George slightly pressed on the gas. My whole body tensed. My heart started to beat a little faster and a little louder.
“Are you sure you don’t want a ride, son?” asked George.
“Yeah, I don’t need a ride. I’ll be alright.”
“Okay, suit yourself. Just be careful, I heard there was a kidnapper on the loose! A couple of kids went missing.” With that being said, he drove off.
Later that week, another student was absent. It was Susan. the class brainiac, so to speak. I remembered seeing her help Pete work out a math problem. Everyone thought he was as dumb as a bag of rocks. While most ignored him or told him to figure it out on his own, Susan was too nice. She liked to help people. It was in her nature. So, of course, when Pete politely asked her for help, she did. And as she explained to him how to solve the problem, he looked at her with admiration.
The whole town was freaking out more than ever. The police still didn’t have a lead which angered everyone. They all just wanted someone locked up. Since the three missing kids were from Ms. Bryant’s class, the police had their eyes dead set on her. They marched into the classroom, and despite our tears and protests, she was handcuffed and taken away.
For the rest of the month, a substitute teacher was brought in. This put the parents at ease. They thought the serial kidnapper had been finally caught, though many were still upset and thought it could all have been prevented if the principal had screened the teachers better. But I knew Ms. Bryant wasn’t to blame. None of the teachers were. I wanted to scream, “It was Pete! I swear to God, it was Pete!” I knew they wouldn’t believe me.
After Susan’s disappearance, Pete looked more…well, like a human. His skin appeared fleshier and less like sanded ash wood. His face, too, had a peachy color. And, suddenly, he also became the smartest kid in the class. His hand shot up to every question the teacher asked. He spoke clearly and with confidence, just as how Susan would’ve answered.
He came to class with a stack of envelopes and passed one to each of us. It was an invitation to his 11th birthday. Colorful confetti and several colorful paper balloons popped up from the invitation card with Pete’s distinguished squeaky voice speaking, “You’re my special friend and you’ve been invited to my birthday party!”
Mark and Andy decided to go, but I was unsure; I was uneasy about this. They assured me that it probably wouldn’t be so bad. Besides, the parents would be coming along as well. They were sure that if Pete was behind the disappearances, he wouldn’t be able to do anything with so many adults keeping their eyes on him.
“I’d be over the moon if you all could come!” said Pete. “It’s my first birthday party ever!”
I remembered how he stood in front of the classroom; gazing expectantly at us with that perfect little manicured smile.
I need to stop right here. Recalling these events has been so draining. I promise that I will continue. Once I get some sleep.