There's Something About Ari
November 10, 2014, Riptide
Buy it now from Riptide Publishing
There's Something About Ari
The cafeteria doors burst wide and a stick-thin boy with streaming black hair hit the playground at top speed. His lime-green light-up sneakers flashed as he dodged the kickball game and zig-zagged through jump-ropers. In red cargo pants and a yellow Power Rangers T-shirt, he was colorful and electric and probably every bit as bad for me as the bag of Skittles I'd hidden in my jacket pocket.
He made a beeline for the jungle gym, scampered to the tip-top, then flipped upside-down, squinting into the sunshine. His arms dangling like tentacles, one wrist-to-elbow covered in a green cast.
My mother would have had a heart attack if I'd flipped over anything, even with two good arms and a safety net, but the kid swiveled from his bat perch beaming such joy--his small, heart-shaped face mesmerized me.
I kept to my swing, toeing the dirt and popping Skittles one after the other, the bright flavor coating my teeth. If only the candy could give me the courage I needed to say Hi. Hi. Hi. Hi.
The pint-sized guy waved like I might miss him. "Hey. Hey! Hi! Hi." He had a squeaky mouse voice, and missing front teeth, and a bruise under his left eye--but he had no problem talking to a stranger. "I'm Ari!"
Ari. The name sounded weird and new and maybe even foreign. Ari. I swallowed the candy and lifted my sticky hand. "I'm Buck."
His eyes widened. "Buck? Wow. Are you a real cowboy? Cuz that's an awesome name for one."
I was terrified of horses. And I didn't think Buck was such a great name since I'd learned it rhymed with something awful--but it impressed Ari, so I kept my answer simple. "It's short for Buckley."
What else was there to say? I was out of practice because kids didn't talk to me. Not at recess anyway. And not in class unless we were partners for something. Not even at Cub Scouts because I was different. I don't know how they knew, or what left me standing on the outside, but I was smart enough to stay out of everyone's way, because when the other boys did include me, it wasn't especially nice.
This Ari kid's face was glowing with excitement, though. "Today's my first day of school. We were late getting here because the car wouldn't start and we had to walk, so I haven't gone to class yet, but Mr. Bennett said that's okay, cuz he's my teacher." Ari dangled upside-down, chatting like this development in my day was totally routine. I didn't know what to do, so I watched him hang there, his hair falling from his head in straight black lines. He stuck his tongue through the gap in his smile. "Hey. Wanna see something cool? Watch this."
He flung high in a wild arc, and his arms pumped until he swung parallel to the ground for a hovering second and whipped backward. Then he did it again and my heart skipped and no, no, no. I didn't want to watch anything cool. He was going to fall and break his other arm or his neck or something, and the teachers would probably think we were fighting.
I chewed my lip, sneaking a look at the grownups, but they were lumped in a group on the blacktop, talking. Some of them were even laughing.
I felt sweaty.
He used his small weight to rock higher and higher, "One. Two. Three!"
Ari tucked his knees, letting go of the bar, like he trusted gravity not to face plant him in the woodchips. I thought I was going to die, but he flipped vertical and stuck a two- footed landing. He grinned goofily and took off, running circles under the jungle gym like a crazy person.
Ari squealed, "My dad taught me how. Wasn't that the coolest?" I didn't even know boys could do a penny drop, because that's something girls did, but his had looked perfect. More than perfect. Magic. Once I got my breath back, I nodded. Ari was actually the coolest. "My dad says I have a lot of energy, so he showed me all kinds of tricks. I can teach you, too, if you want."
"I'm not very energetic."
"That's okay. I have plenty of energy for both of us." He laughed and wriggled into the empty swing next to me, having to hop to get his butt in the seat. When his toes didn't touch the ground, he turned to lay on the swing's seat, chest down. His feet trailed through the dirt.
I started to understand why he had a broken arm.
Ari said, "I'm in Mr. Bennett's room."
"Me, too." Mr. Bennett might sit Ari next to me, because I modeled good behavior. That's what all the teachers said. "Why are you wearing the yellow Power Ranger? That one's agirl."
"Yellow's my favorite color. I don't care if it's a girl's shirt. I like girls. They're okay. I really like your shirt." I was wearing a blue Cub Scout shirt, like all the other boys in my class, and the fabric pulled across my chest. "Are you in Scouts?"
I nodded. "We don't do much, yet. We're supposed to go camping. That's why I joined. My mom just had a baby and she can't take me camping anymore." I didn't mention the thing about my dad being sick, because it made my stomach hurt and I'd eaten a lot of candy. I didn't want to puke in front of the other kids.
Ari twisted on the swing. "Can I come too? To Scouts? And camping? I could go with you. We can be friends, if you want. I like you. We can go together."
I like you.
Those three words pierced the loneliness and chased away my shyness. I pictured the two of us walking into the Scouts meeting room, side by side. Sharing a tent on the sleepover. Eating marshmallows and reading comic books. Shooting rockets in the backyard like my dad used to do. A friend.
Hope curled inside my belly, and it soothed the hunger that Skittles never eased. I gripped the metal chain with one hand; the other, I wiped on my clean school pants. I held my palm above my head, waiting until Ari beamed and slapped me up high with a solid thwack.
Best high five ever.
That's the day I fell in love with Ari Valentine.
copyright 2009-17, l.b. gregg