Learn to Care
Vito was the biggest kid in my class. Parker was the smallest. They fought on a spring day after we went for confession. The priest used to come to our school, but he was getting old, so that morning our class walked to the church instead. The air was still damp from the rain that had fallen earlier in the morning – it had come down hard for a few hours, but nothing like the storm we had last week.
I tried not to step on the earthworms that had been forced from their flooded homes; they littered the sidewalks and driveways. I’d heard that if a worm gets cut in half, the two pieces both survive, and each becomes a whole new worm. Vito had already squashed five worms, and, to the disgust of the girls, picked one up with his bare fingers. He ran up behind Parker and placed it on the shoulder of his yellow rain coat. Even though it wasn’t raining Parker had his hood up, hiding his red hair. He must have felt Vito’s hand because he brushed the worm off his shoulder, and onto someone’s soggy lawn. Vito shoved him from behind and he landed on the lawn as well.
“I needed something to confess today,” Vito said, and a few boys laughed.
“I’m sure you have plenty already.” Parker got up and tried to wipe away the mud from his coat with his sleeve, but it just smeared down the front.
“You’ll have to tell your daddy to buy you a new one.” Vito saw Miss Allen approaching, and before she arrived he rejoined the line of students walking two-by-two.
“What happened, Parker?” asked Miss Allen.
“Nothing. I just tripped.”
“You’ve gotten your nice coat dirty.”
Our real teacher, Mrs. May, would have found out what had happened and disciplined Vito, but she was off having a baby. Miss Allen was covering for the rest of our grade-eight year. She believed almost anything we told her. Vito once told her he hadn’t finished a project because he was out with his mom fundraising for cancer – everyone else knew Vito didn’t have a mother.
Parker stuck beside Miss Allen for the rest of the walk to the church.
The first thing I noticed on the old building was the large wooden cross at the front. It was tilted, hung like an ‘X’ with one long leg. The storm must have loosened a few bolts. My mom had hung crucifixes outside of mine and my sister Ally’s bedroom doors. There wasn’t enough space to nail them directly above the door, so she just slid them against one corner of the frame, so that the corner nestled into Jesus’ armpit. Occasionally, if we slammed our doors, the crucifixes came crashing down. Mom always put them back in their place. Although, last week after we all returned home from the hospital, Dad told us not to do anything to upset her for the next little while.
~ ~ ~ ~
Our whole class went for confession one by one in the little booth with the soft red curtains. It took forever. I stood in line waiting – wanting to escape, to cut myself in two like a worm and be the half that got to wiggle away. I never knew what to say after, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” Father Baxter should have to confess his sins to me, too; then it would be fair. I told him that I stole from my sister and lied to my father. I hadn’t stolen anything from Ally but figured I’d be covered for lying because I’d said I lied to my Father. With his raspy voice, he gave me three Hail Marys. Even though I’d made up my sins, I felt better as I walked out of the confessional – it felt good to be forgiven.
~ ~ ~ ~
Father Baxter’s face looked tired as he held Mass for us. I could hardly hear his voice as he read from a Letter to the Corinthians. Our class knelt in the two glossy wooden pews at the front. The rest of the church was empty. Two thick candles with crosses printed on them sat on top of the altar. I watched their flames flicker as Father Baxter coughed. It sounded like the type of cough that came with a bad flu, one that might cause something sticky and oddly coloured to be spat up. We waited for him to catch his breath.
Parker sat with his hands together at the end of the front row. He had his eyes closed. There was something about the way he prayed that I both admired and pitied. When we were younger, Ally and I used to pray like that. Goodnight, God. I’m going to bed with my sleepy head. Thank you for the work and play, thank you for this beautiful day. We spoke to God like He was in the room with us, and yet when we told Him about our day we acted as if He hadn’t seen it Himself. It had been so much easier to believe then. I never questioned anything about religion – God was a given, and, as Ally used to say, we were “Cat-licks.”
When Mom lost her baby last week, my faith flickered like those candles. I couldn’t understand why God had done nothing to save my second sister. Why He took such a small life before it had even lived. Some people said God wanted the baby for Himself, but that didn’t make sense to me. It seemed selfish, considering how much it hurt everyone else. I’d never seen Mom cry like that before; it was impossible not to join her.
Father Baxter finished coughing and went back to blessing the bread and wine.
Vito was kneeling one student over from me, directly behind Parker. I watched as he pulled a bible from the wooden slot. He held it by its spine, reached out and poked the corners into Parker’s hunched back like a fork.
Parker’s posture straightened immediately, but he managed not to make a sound.
Vito poked him again. Parker turned this time, and whispered, “I’m going to tell Miss Allen.”
Vito smiled, and mouthed, “I don’t care."
I thought of my mother again. I don’t care was like a swear word in our house. Any time Ally or I said this, Mom immediately gave us a stern look and replied, “Learn to care.”
Vito’s jabs with the bible continued. I could tell Parker was trying to ignore him.
I wanted Father Baxter to hurry up so we could go up for communion, but he was taking his time wiping the inside of a gold chalice with a neatly folded white cloth.
Vito, annoyed that he was no longer getting a response, raised the book above Parker’s head and brought it down with force; it was a solid hit, making a loud and hollow knock. Parker let out an agonizing, “Ahhh!”
Vito returned the bible to its slot before everyone’s eyes were on them. Miss Allen came over right away.
“We’re in church,” she said to Parker. He was holding his head, but she didn’t take any notice.
I wanted to tell Miss Allen what had happened, but Vito was much bigger than me, too, and I was afraid he’d start picking on me if I did.
Father Baxter finally shuffled to the top of the centre aisle with his shiny chalice.
My class stood and filed into a single line to receive communion.
With hands folded in front of me, I took a half-step forward in the line every few seconds and stared up at the cross at the front of the church. The longer my eyes were on the cross the angrier I became – angry at Vito, angry at Miss Allen for not knowing it was Vito, and at Father Baxter for not even noticing. Most of all, I was angry at God for not doing anything, again.
I almost didn’t realize that I’d reached the front of the line. Father Baxter held the round host in front of him. I raised my hands and he placed it into my palm. The light wafer melted on my tongue, tasteless, as always.
When I returned to my seat I put my head down and prayed. I tried to pray from the same place I did when I was younger. After a few moments I knew it wouldn’t be the same. So instead, I just told God what I wanted. Stop Vito from hurting Parker. I knew we weren’t supposed to test God, but He tests us every day. I asked Him to stop it, and if He didn’t, I decided right there and then that I’d stop believing in Him. It was a thought that had never come to me before, a thought both satisfying and frightening. I had the power to kill God, by simply not believing.
~ ~ ~ ~
When we got back to school it was already lunch hour. As soon as Parker came back outside, Vito went after him. Vito chased him down and cornered him by the portable classrooms. It was like Vito only had room in his head for one idea at a time. Or maybe he was just encouraged by the fact that nothing had stopped him. Most of the boys gathered around, wanting to see how far he would go.
Vito grabbed Parker by his yellow coat and lifted him up against the portable wall so that his feet dangled. Parker squirmed, but couldn’t get free. Vito was so much taller and heavier that it was hard to believe they were the same age.
Vito punched the space next to Parker’s head on purpose; the metal wall rattled.
Parker swung his legs, kicking as hard as he could.
Vito held him with both hands and shoved his back against the wall two times.
“Stop,” Parker pleaded, tears pooling in his eyes. “That hurts.”
“You think I care?”
Mom’s voice came to me again and I almost blurted out her words.
Vito shoved him again, with even more force than before.
The tears rolled down Parker’s face like wax down the side of a candle. “It’s not fair!” he screamed.
For a second it I felt like I might cry too, but I held it back. God wasn’t going do anything. He didn’t care, because He didn’t exist – if He did, He wouldn’t allow such things to happen.
“Vito,” I said, surprised by my own voice. “You made him cry. What more do you want?”
Vito looked at me over his shoulder, gave Parker a last shake and threw him to the ground.
Vito turned to me. “You want to be next?”
Vito’s gaze sent a chill through my body. “No,” I said, and held my breath. I wanted to turn and run, but stayed standing there.
I heard someone shout, “Principal!”
The other boys scattered, but Vito held his ground.
In those last few moments, I knew why I was the only one who saw it all. I saw Parker’s clenched jaw, and how quickly he was breathing. I saw the rock in his hand, and how tightly he gripped it. I saw the fire in his eyes as he raised his arm back.