Owen was at school for the third day in one week. This did not go unnoticed by Miss Roemer, who put her hand on his shoulder and knelt down beside him.
“I’m glad you made it to school again today, Owen,” she whispered and gave him a warm maternal smile. Owen smiled and looked down at his desk coyly. He liked Miss Roemer. She was pretty and nice. And she wasn’t even married. Owen didn’t know which finger married people wore their rings on, but he didn’t need to know because Miss Roemer didn’t wear any rings on any fingers, indicating her availability. Owen imagined Miss Roemer being married to one of his brothers. He pictured the wedding photograph of his mom and dad that hung in the hallway upstairs by the bedrooms. In his mind, he replaced his mother’s smiling face with Miss Roemer’s, and his father’s face with his first brother, Peter. No, Peter was already getting married this summer, he thought. He wouldn’t do. In his mind he crossed off Peter’s face with a big red X. He then pictured Abe’s nineteen-year-old face beside Miss Roemer’s, then wondered how old Miss Roemer probably was. Owen raised his hand.
“Owen, I’m glad you’re willing to take part in this discussion,” his teacher said, “what do you think Anne would do if Mrs. Rachel Lynde called her ugly and made fun of her red hair?”
“Wha, oh, um, actually, Miss Roemer, I wanted to know your age.”
Miss Roemer’s face looked puzzled as the other students began giggling to themselves, trying to hold it in because laughing at other students was considered rude.
“Owen, I’m not really sure what my age has to do with Anne Shirley’s reaction to being called ugly, but if you must know, I’m twenty-four years old.” Miss Roemer smiled. Owen smiled and returned to his reverie. A big red X crossed off Abe’s face too. Abe was ugly. He was big and strong, and a good farmer, but too ugly for Miss Roemer. He still had yellow pussy pimples on his face and you were only supposed to have those while you went through puberty. Abe was way past puberty but he still had them. Next in line was Jack. Jack was seventeen, and while he didn’t have pimples like Abe, he was rude. Jack, Owen thought, would only embarrass him. He imagined Miss Roemer and Jack, a married couple, in bed reading, as he imagined all married couples did before falling asleep. He saw Jack pull the sheets above Miss Roemer’s head and fart under the covers and not let Miss Roemer get any fresh air. Jack had done this to Owen a million times. A big red X crossed over Jack’s face in the fake wedding photo. Jack was no good either.
“Owen? Owen. Will you continue reading the next paragraph?” Miss Roemer interrupted. Owen looked at the book that was open in front of him. He hadn’t turned a page in twenty minutes.
“We’re on page sixty five, second paragraph, ‘whereat.'”
Pages shuffled as Owen rifled through the book to find page sixty-five. Finding the second paragraph, he read.
“Where eat Mrs. Rachel if a fat wabbleb could sweeq out and away,” the words swam in Owen’s mouth, bumping into one another, and they floated on the page. Owen squinted his eyes, raised the book closer to his face. Words jumped on the paper like crickets, one moment big, the next moment small; they transformed before him, and seemed to pop right out of the book and onto his desk, where he couldn’t follow them as they ran down his desk and onto the floor to scurry outside like Owen wished he could do. He had to keep his eyes on the page in order to trap some of the dancing letters, he had to make like he was reading, “and Marilla with a face,” Owen clasped the book tightly in an attempt to stop the popping words, “deteek herself to the east pable,” Owen’s leg itched and he wondered if a stray letter ‘h’ was strolling up his leg, “On the yaw pu stairs uneasily she pobereb as to w-dat she ought to do.”
“Thank you, Owen. Marjorie, please continue,” Miss Roemer interrupted.
Owen felt eyes on him, but he didn’t look up. He felt like throwing up as Marjorie read on. He recognized his bad feelings and remembered why he didn’t like coming to school after all. Reading seemed to be so easy for Marjorie and Klara and Tony, but Owen could not understand the letters. They wouldn’t stop moving and jumping and switching about on the page before him, and he didn’t know how to make them stop. I don’t care, Owen thought, and he closed the book.
When the bell rang, Owen grabbed his belongings and ran to the door before his teacher could approach him. On the sidewalk outside, he kicked a stone along McLeod St., which would take him out of town. He had a four kilometre walk home if no one stopped to pick him up on the way. The tidy homes in town surrounded him with their green lawns and purple perennials starting to show. It was early June, 1964, and the spring tulips were slowly disappearing, forgotten until next year’s thaw. Owen pushed thoughts of Miss Roemer’s kindness and dancing with Klara out of his mind when he felt a sharp bite on the back of his head. He gripped the spot and turned around to see Garth Munro and Eddie Von Trapp behind him.
“W-w-w-where are y-you g-going, Owen?” Garth stuttered. Eddie laughed as he threw a stone in the air and caught it again in his rough hand.
“Is b-b-big b-b-brother John gonna teach you how to read, or is he an idiot like you? Heh, heh. Nice ‘wabble’ Owen,” Garth hurled. Eddie whipped the stone in his hand at Owen, which just hit his arm as he dodged it. Owen took off after the boys, who didn’t run away. Owen lunged at Garth and the two of them fell to the ground in a struggle. The boys rolled in the grass, each trying to get a grip on the other. Finally on top of Garth, Owen swung at Garth’s stomach and face. Having four older brothers had at least taught Owen how to fight. Forgetting where he was, Owen continued to pound on Garth’s body, blow after blow. Owen’s knuckles stung and slid with warm wetness. Owen saw blood on Garth’s lips and nose and covering his own white fists. A thump from Eddie’s boot knocked Owen off of Garth who stumbled to his feet. Each boy gave Owen one last kick in the gut before running off down the street, their strides ringing in Owen’s ears.