Lessons From a Fellow Beast is the eighth of ten short stories published in a book by writer and filmmaker Christopher J. Aran titled Awake While Dreaming.
Virgil, the target of bullies at school, learns a hard lesson about the difference between compassion and corrupted power.
Lessons From a Fellow Beast
On the sidelines of the playground Virgil watched the boys in his 6th grade class play basketball together. Past the running bodies of young athletes, he could see the girls in his class socializing and giggling, as their favorite boys would make a basket. Virgil didn’t play with the rest of the boys, and it wasn’t for lack of athleticism. He was fit enough for his age but he was never asked to play. More often than not he was asked not to play, and ask any kid, that was worse. As kids can be cruel his name was the first target.
“What weirdo has a name like Virgil?” They would ask, and of course taunt.
Truth is, not many kids have such a name living in suburban New Jersey. He tried to explain that his parents were avid readers and admired the classics. This of course didn’t win him any points in the cool department. Sure there were kids that read books and knew which classics he referred to, but he became a target all the same. The girls in his class took to poking fun at his attire, which consisted mostly of slacks, usually worn out from many years traveling in and out of various thrift stores. During the winter months his mother unearthed some form of woolen sweaters, which donned less than attractive patterns for any child to wear. Simply put, Virgil was a living, breathing, target for ridicule. So like his parents, Virgil immersed himself in academics. Virgil excelled in every subject, save gym, which he usually had difficulty participating in. At home his life was very different. Virgil was showered with affection from his parents. His high scores were a sense of pride in the family so whenever Virgil wanted something, whether it was as simple as going out and gorging on ice cream, or an expensive model train set for the holidays, he was sure to get it. Virgil was an only child and so with no siblings and no friends to play with, even the most extravagant of gifts wouldn’t hold his interest for very long.
The caring couple that they were, Virgil’s parents noticed over the years their son was somewhat of a loner. At first they kept their thoughts to themselves but as Virgil brought home complaints of bullying and proof of said behavior in the form of torn clothing or animal excrement smeared on his face, they tried to have a parent to son talk with him. Virgil would complain but had no patience for his parent’s advice; mostly because it involved turning the other cheek or talking to the school counselor. Fighting, of course, was not an option, but Virgil felt differently. He wanted to hurt them back the way they’d hurt him and so parent and son did not see eye to eye. The rebel inside wanted to come out, claws bared, ready to tear flesh, but he knew better than to upset his parents.
Dissection and examination week was fast approaching and Virgil was excited to get his hands on the little frog and cut it open. As a younger child he was fascinated with how things worked, and so he broke whatever he could get his hands on. At first, his parents were frustrated. They’d replaced coffee mugs and television remotes. His mother found a pair of shoes torn to pieces, the sole on the couch and the rest of the shoe on the floor. They never quite figured out how he managed the strength for that particular experiment. It wasn’t until they caught him examining the pieces of an old clock radio that it dawned on them. He was opening things to see the magic inside. What makes things move? What holds them together? He was holding the little circuit board up to the light and running his finger over it. Then he picked up the clock face and turned it over examining it as well. He even tried to put it back together with little success. So his parents nurtured this curiosity with “Young People’s” brand of science kits. Create your own circuits. Grow plants inside a vacuum. They bought books and gadgets to satisfy and develop his curiosity, so it only made sense that he would move from objects found around the house to something living. The great mystery of life. The frog would be the first living thing, or had-been living thing that he would take apart. And he was excited.
His classmates didn’t share his enthusiasm about cutting open the frogs, particularly the girls. For Virgil however, the time couldn’t come sooner. The moment arrived when the little frog, stinking of formaldehyde landed on his desk in a small metal tray. Hand delivered by his science teacher, who gave him a big smile. “Wait’ll you see what this little guy has inside. Fascinating stuff!” Virgil watched his teacher trot away handing out more trays of frogs to disgusted recipients. He stared down at his own specimen and went straight to work following the laid out procedure supplied by his teacher. He was a natural with the scalpel after having spent a few years using small tools to cut wires and solder small circuits. This came almost as second nature. Beyond the frog’s skin layer, lay a whole new world of possibilities. The organs revealed themselves, and he was in awe. These little fleshy parts, he was discovering, are what had pumped and sustained the life of the little creature that lay before him. He followed the course material identifying each organ as he exposed it. When he’d completed all the tasks on the assignment, Virgil felt satisfied with himself. The problem was, he wanted more.
The day had come to an end and Virgil began his daily walk home from school. Halfway through his journey, he was stopped by a group of boys from his class who asked him if he wanted to play baseball with them. He looked around and they seemed sincere so Virgil agreed. They walked together to a park a few streets away and talked about the dissection that afternoon. Virgil was of course enthusiastic and was glad that finally someone else was interested as well. They reached the park and the boys ran out to the field. They called for Virgil to join them so he did. One of the boys was swinging a bat as if practicing and another boy tossed him a ball. The little stitched orb clanged off the aluminum and away it went. The batter asked Virgil to stand close and promised he wouldn’t hit the next ball very hard. They assured him they knew he didn’t play very often so they’d take it easy. Another boy tossed him a glove and told him to catch the ball should it come his way. He put the glove on and got ready. By this point Virgil could see some of the girls from his class walking towards the park. From behind him a baseball went lobbing towards the batter and “clang,” away it went far from Virgil. The batter winked at him and said,
“Next ones yours. You ready?”
Virgil nodded then squared his legs like he’d seen players do on TV and got ready for the next hit. The girls were all watching now shouting for the boy’s attention. Virgil’s glove went up ready for a ball to come his way. He watched the batter pull the bat back preparing for a swing, and then it came. But instead of a ball, the bat connected with a giant fleshy frog whose parts shot and splattered all over Virgil’s face. The boys and the girls on the field fell to their knees laughing. Tears fell from their faces as they wailed in amusement while Virgil struggled in shock to see. Just as he wiped the thick parts away with the glove, he heard the thud of another frog hit the bat, which for the second time sent the battered amphibian flying his way covering his face and body in frog blood and guts.
“Nice catch frog boy!” shouted the batter as Virgil fell to the ground shouting at them.
“Ribbit, Ribbit!!” yelled a female voice.
Someone yanked the glove from his hand and he could hear them, boys and girls, all laughing as they ran away. For the first time since the last school year, Virgil began to cry. He was sitting in a field alone covered in frog parts with his name officially changed to Frog Boy. He was hurt and angry. He was angry with his classmates for treating him this way and angry for allowing himself to be fooled by them. Stinking of chemicals and flesh, he collected his things and waddled home an emotionally broken kid.
Virgil snuck in the back door and crept silently to the bathroom. He peeled the reeking layers off his body and started the shower. Virgil let the water run for almost thirty minutes before he heard a knock on the door.
“Sweetie is that you, are you okay?”
“Yeah mom, just finishing up,” which was a lie as he had yet to lather with soap. Twenty minutes after that the water shut off and Virgil dried himself. He looked into the steamy bathroom mirror and saw a blob of a shape that was supposed to be him. Virgil wiped his hand across the mirror to see himself better and when the moisture cleared, he saw his face. It wasn’t the sad Virgil from the field, but a bubbling under the surface angry Virgil.
At the dinner table he sat in silence. Try as they might, his parents couldn’t incite even the simplest of responses from him.
“How was your day?” was met with a shoulder shrug.
“The dissection must’ve been cool huh?” collided with a cold stare.
So they gave up in hopes that Virgil would come around eventually. They pushed the food around their plates, and the only sound left to be heard was the spine chilling scraping of utensils on plates. Virgil excused himself and took his dirty dishes to the sink. His parents watched him leave and head upstairs to his room. As they heard his door close, they looked at each other seeking answers that neither one of them had.
Virgil stared up at his ceiling into the glowing constellations he created with star stickers. He held a flashlight in his hand and passed the light beam over the stars to recharge their glow. Swishing the beam back and forth attracted a mosquito to the lamp. It buzzed and buzzed and soon Virgil’s attention was on the bug. He steadied the light between his knees and waited for the mosquito to return for its fix. In a flash, Virgil smashed the palms of his hands together crushing the life out of the little bloodsucker. He opened his hands and caught the last moments of life as it twitched its dying wings for the last time. He stared at the blood it left streaked down his palm. He moved it in the light and brought it closer to his face. Virgil poked at the dead little body and nothing happened.
“Got what you deserved.” He smeared the mess onto his sheet then turned off the lamp. Moments later his eyes closed shut and his mind transported to a place of dreams. Dreams filled with the sounds and colors of hate.
The following months were bitterly cold. The holidays came and went but Virgil kept to himself. His mind was too old for Santa Claus and his soul was becoming older still. Sleigh bells came and went but Virgil did not hear them. Once or twice a week throughout the winter months he would fall victim to another taunt, or another prank. Those days he would brush past his parents and head straight to his room. Virgil’s parents tried on occasion to talk to him but their attempts were met with shouts, venting anger and the slamming of doors. They were quite literally being shut out. Meanwhile Virgil’s room became something more than a place to hide from the world. It became a place where something no one else knew was brewing. The frogs had been the gateway. The mosquito a discovery of power he’d had all along.
After another day of being stuffed into a locker something finally snapped inside him. Wrong seemed right. Right seemed like a nonexistent ideal. Virgil managed to shout for the janitor to rescue him, but only several hours after being trapped. To balance this most recent incident, he finally decided to take a stand. Virgil followed his abuser home. It wasn’t hard not to be seen. Once they were out of school not many people noticed he was alive. And it was not the first time Virgil had done this. Like everything else he wanted to know what made these kids do what they did. Arriving at the bully’s home he found what seemed like a regular life. Staring through the kitchen window he saw parents, toys, a nice home, and finally … the soft spot. A weakness …