The Arf Thing

The counselor’s room is never still. It is churning pipes and an hour-off ticking clock and Friends Care! posters flapping on paint-thick walls and a heat of stories pushing themselves forward, tangling around each other. The students wiggle, fidget, shake in the armchair, as if fighting off their own words.

*     *     *

Mary Beth

Are you mad at me? Please don’t get mad at me because this is totally a tiny thing gone really, really wrong. It’s so stupid how it started, like dumb in a way that I’m embarrassed to even talk about it’s so dumb. It’s not even my fault—it’s all my stupid dog’s fault. My dog GC. I know—it’s a weird name, but his real name is weirder. George Clooney? Yeah, my mom’s cra-zy. Anyway, GC is dog-friends with my neighbor’s dog Lucky—like, they chase each other and stuff. And sometimes Lucky stays at our house because his owner works and my mom doesn’t.

So remember the snow day back in January? Really close to the end of the month? I was home that day, and at one point I went into the kitchen to get a Pop Tart, and there was GC and Lucky, just … um. I don’t even know how to say this. They were, you know … having dog sex. It was so weird! And they’re both boy dogs, so on top of all that weirdness I was like “Oh my god! My dog is gay!”

I was telling my friends about it in math the next day. And they were laughing because it was funny. I mean, a gay dog is funny. So Nico Papadimos, he overheard us, and he’s the kind of guy who even makes the teachers laugh. And did this thing where he made his hand all limp and said “arf” in this way, I can’t even do it, but we couldn’t stop laughing.

It was about a dog, though. I didn’t even know they were doing the “arf” thing to Adam Mavis. Not for a while, at least. And when I finally saw them doing it, I was really confused. Because I thought the whole thing was just about my dog.

*     *     *


You might not believe this, but Adam Mavis was always so happy. Like, too happy. With a roadrunner smile that’s stupid and too wide. And he didn’t have any reason to be. No one liked him.

Even though people were sticking out their feet to trip him and stuff. He always smiled at the worst times, when no one else ever would.

He sat behind me in a bunch of classes, all the ones with alphabet seating. In the back of the row, the very last seat. So I’d get the lucky view of him marching back to his seat with that smile. Even though people were sticking out their feet to trip him and stuff. He always smiled at the worst times, when no one else ever would.

And his laugh! His laugh drove us crazy. Everyone in my class. It was too loud and too long, like it came straight from a kids cartoon. Every time a teacher called on me and I got the wrong answer, he’d burst out with it. That stupid laugh. All the teacher would have to do is say, “Not quite, Katie,” and he’d be gone.

My friends stuck up for me. They’d say, “Shut up, Adam!” and “He’s so stupid” but he’d just laugh louder, to piss us all off. And I wanted to die because even the biggest loser in the school made fun of me. Even he noticed that I’m stupid.

So you get it, right? How it felt kind of good to turn around and say, “Hey Adam,” and do the hand thing and say “arf” all gay? How it made me smile to hear the sound of everyone else laughing at him, to see that stupid smile wiped off his face.

*     *     *


You ever seen a Ben Stiller movie? That guy is the man. Really—he’s the man! He’s shrimpy and ugly but he still gets all the girls. And you know how he gets them? With his jokes.

I’m kind of like the Ben Stiller of middle school. Now, I’m not saying I’m ugly. But I am just a little bit short. So how do I still have girlfriends? Think about it.

It’s a Papadimos thing. My brothers and I—we give each other crap all the time. My brother calls me a faggot like fifty times a day. Everyone around me, my whole life, jokes like that. People don’t stop me ‘cause they know it’s for fun. It’s just for fun.

So here’s this fat dude, who even teachers don’t like because he blurts out the answers before they can call on people—I’m serious. Sometimes Adam would try to, like, control himself, and he’d stretch his fat face in all these weird ways like he was constipated and stick his hand in the air and go “Oooooh! Oooooh!” You expect me not to say anything? That’s like gold, you know? I’m a Papadimos man. I see a basket, I gotta take a shot.

So I did—I mean, I took shots. And once I started doing the “arf” thing, it was like everyone was doing it. Everyone wants to be like me. But something else happened that … it’s kind of hard to explain … it was like … how everyone has to wait outside until first bell rings, and when the doors finally open it’s like the stampede in The Lion King, you know? Everyone tries to rush in all at once. The “arf” thing was like that.

Kids started throwing stuff at his head. Spitballs and stuff, then it got crazier, like soda cans and shoes in classes where they could get away with it. People did the gay cough whenever he shouted out answers. You know, where you pretend to cough but you actually say “gay” under your breath? Charlie Wiltham especially did that—every chance he got. And someone wrote “arf” on Adam’s locker in permanent marker or something. Took him forever to clean it off, and then whoever it was just wrote it again. People think it was me, but I still don’t know who did it. Whoever did was; he’s the man. I don’t know how he snuck around everyone like that.

Really, I didn’t do anything. All I did was say “arf” until the locker thing happened. Then I needed to up my game, you know? But mostly, it was everyone else. I guess they all really hated Adam Mavis.

*     *     *


Adam wasn’t always like this. He wasn’t. When we were little, he was a totally normal kid. He’s my neighbor, and back then, we were friends. We used to bike together in my driveway and hold races in my backyard with all these crazy rules. You see? We did normal kid stuff.

He was better than normal to play pretend with, though. Better than all of my other friends. We used to play this game where … well, don’t tell anyone I told you this, but we pretended my backyard was a secret land called … please don’t tell anyone I said this … Adsaria.

Like Narnia, but with our names worked in—A-D for Adam, and “sar” for Sara.

Weird, right? But it was so much fun. In Adsaria, we were knights who fought beasts, and we imagined that the beasts were gold and had wings like statues in a museum. One day Adam said, “You know what their faces look like? Like those Halloween mask faces, the white ones with hole-eyes and mouths pulled down into a scream.” And picturing that, those scream faces on top of gold, winged beast bodies—it gave me nightmares.

That was Adam, though. He could just come up with things like that. With whole entire worlds.

I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I guess I wanted you to know that Adam had a friend. That not everyone hated him.

I was in the classroom when he went up to Charlie Wiltham. I was making up a quiz—I’d missed science because of band rehearsal. So did Charlie. I think there were around eight of us there.

But Adam wasn’t in band. He hadn’t missed the test, but he was in the classroom anyway, opening his lunch bag. Watching him, I realized that this was his place to eat. He didn’t eat in the cafeteria. And I mean it wasn’t my fault that people were mean to him, but knowing that he couldn’t even eat with anyone made me really sad. It made me think about Adsaria.

Charlie was bent over his quiz. He didn’t see Adam standing behind him with that open cup of yogurt in his hand.

That’s when I noticed Adam standing behind Charlie’s desk. I hadn’t even seen him walk over there, he’d been so sneaky. Charlie was bent over his quiz. He didn’t see Adam standing behind him with that open cup of yogurt in his hand.

It was amazing. Adam had this grin on his face when he dumped the yogurt on Charlie—not his usual weird grin, but an actual real one, a mean one, like he knew Charlie totally deserved it. But it was a crazy thing to do. Charlie’s a jerk, but there’s a reason why people don’t dump things on his head all the time. He’s on the wrestling team. And Adam had to know that. He wasn’t stupid. But maybe he didn’t care? Maybe he thought he’d risk anything to get a shot at Charlie, that it would be worth what he got in return? I don’t know. Maybe he just wanted to get hurt.

Because Charlie hurt him. I mean, at first he just sat there with his mouth hanging open and yogurt pouring down his head like volcano lava. And then I guess he got mad at us laughing, and he stood up and started yelling things to Charlie. Words I … I don’t even like to say them. He said “faggot” a lot.

And Adam just stood there. He didn’t step back. It even took awhile for his smile to shrink. He just stared at Charlie, like he was in fighting position but he’d forgotten what to do next.

*     *     *

Miss Spitzer

I don’t know why I’m even here. The administration has already reamed me out for this, and they’ve gotten what they wanted. I lock my classroom door during lunch period now.

No one is allowed inside.

All I wanted to do was provide a safe space. I opened my classroom up to students who didn’t feel safe in the lunchroom. And yes, I realize that they could have reported their issues to the principal instead, but the kids don’t always feel comfortable admitting that sort of thing. And yes, technically, make-up tests are supposed to be held after school, but a lot of the kids have after school activities, hence the lunch period make-up.

What was I supposed to do? I have five classes a day, and I’m involved in extra help sessions during my free period. Lunch is, frankly, the only time I have to use the bathroom and retrieve my food from the teacher’s lounge. I’d only left the room for ten minutes. Ten minutes max. And I trusted the students that stayed to respect the environment I’d created for them. I really did.

When I walked in and saw Charlie punching Adam, naturally, the first thing I did was pull them apart and call security. I was on automatic. But once they were taken from the classroom, I almost cried. I’m telling you, I have never cried in front of my students.

In that moment, though, all I could think was: you spend so much time with these kids, and you don’t really know them at all.

*     *     *


He was always looking at me. Adam Mavis. I could feel his eyes on me sometimes in class even though we usually sat across the room. I think he had a gay crush on me.

So I had to give him crap, you know? So he wouldn’t think I liked it or I was gay too or anything. The last thing I need is for people to think I’m gay when I’m not. My parents—you don’t know them. It wouldn’t even matter that I’m not. If they even heard a rumor, they’d go crazy. Crazy.

I never meant to hurt him, but then, I never expected him to pour yogurt on my head. I mean, what was I supposed to do? He just stood there with that creepy, demented smile. I didn’t even punch him hard. A soft one-two. He didn’t even go down.

We got him back. I mean, I was in detention, but Nico Papadimos took care of it. He brought in this big thing of yogurt, like one of those tubs. And I was suspended for the fight so I didn’t see, but I heard that this girl Katie distracted Adam, called him a name so he was looking her way, while Nico snuck up behind him and dumped that whole tub all over his gay haircut.

The only reason we’re the ones getting blamed is because we’re kids. You don’t know what was happening in Adam Mavis’s brain.

But he deserved that. I mean, he did it to me first. People blame me for the fistfight, but really? He deserved that too. He dumped yogurt on me while I was taking a test.

The only reason we’re the ones getting blamed is because we’re kids. You don’t know what was happening in Adam Mavis’s brain. Or what his parents were like. But you can’t do anything about the parents. So you hear that Adam got into a fight, something that could’ve happened to any kid, and that’s all the proof you need to blame the kid he fought with. It was just a punch in the face. A punch in the face and half a food fight. Nobody would kill himself over something that small.

*     *     *


Look, I didn’t know Adam Mavis. Sure, he sat at my lunch table for the one week he spent in the cafeteria before he attempted suicide. But people at my table don’t talk to each other. Most of them are tools, stuck together ‘cause they like to eat alone. So aside from watching yogurt get dumped on him and having the whole cafeteria look at our table and laugh, I barely noticed Adam.

The only thing I remember was that he always got the cafeteria lunch. And ate it. He didn’t even seem grossed out. I mean, people drop our hot dogs to see how far they bounce, but no one in his right mind actually eats them.

When we first heard he attempted suicide, no one knew if he would make it. All we knew was that he was found around 3:00 in the afternoon in his bathroom. And that he’d taken a lot of pills. I remember thinking: I saw him eat his last meal. And then I thought: his last meal was a cafeteria hot dog.

You think I’m making fun of him? I’m not. But I don’t feel sorry for him. It’s not like no one makes fun of me. You know what everyone calls me? The Creeper. Just because of my coat, and I guess because I don’t smile. Those same people give me crap, Charlie and Nico and those idiots. You don’t see me trying to kill myself.

All week I’ve had to listen to those Friends Care people talk about bullying. You want to talk about creepers? They stand in front of our classes with those huge toothpaste smiles, saying things like, “Hey, kids! How do YOU think you can make your school bully-free?”

What a stupid question. When have you ever heard someone in middle school use the word “bully”? That’s because it’s a gay word. It’s too simple. A bully is like some cartoon character that takes little kids’ lunch money.

What happened with Adam Mavis—it was nothing like that. There were a bunch of kids flicking their hands and saying arf and laughing wherever he went. And there were even more kids who didn’t do it, but laughed when other people did. And then there were kids like me who tried to just ignore it, but didn’t say anything because it would’ve gotten us made fun of, too. No one was “The Bully.” Everyone was just an asshole.

*     *     *


Sorry to bug you again. I guess I’m here a lot these days. But I really wanted to tell you something—I visited Adam.

It was … well, it was awkward at first. He looked so different. Like smaller in that long bed and skinnier and, well, he wasn’t smiling. It was like seeing him when we were little, when we were friends, except this time he was attached to tubes, and all I could do was look back and forth from his skinniness to those tubes. I just kept thinking, this is Adam, and he wanted to die.

And I couldn’t believe it, even though I was there.

I said, “How are you?” because I needed to say something. It was awful. I mean, that’s normally an okay question but it’s a really stupid question if you’re in the hospital for attempted suicide.

He didn’t say anything back.

I just wanted to ask him why. Like, I know he was being made fun of, but if he had only laid low for a while and not called out answers or laughed at people, everyone probably would’ve forgotten all about the “arf” thing. Or even if they didn’t, there’s stuff he could’ve done. He could’ve transferred or something. There had to be something he could’ve done.

I had to keep talking, and once I started, I couldn’t really stop, but soon the things I said weren’t so bad. I just told him what he missed at school. Like how Miss Spitzer kicked Bill out of class the other day for cracking his knuckles because she’s scared of the noise. And how that eighth grader broke into the vending machine. I don’t know if Adam wanted to hear about school, but he seemed all right with it. I think he almost smiled when I told him the Spitzer story.

But he still didn’t say anything.

I’ve never known anyone who died and I hope Adam’s not the first. If he would only get better and come back to school, I swear I’d be his best friend. I’d hold his books and clean his locker and I wouldn’t care if people left me out or called me his girlfriend. I swear. And if Nico or Charlie or anyone else called him gay, I’d yell at them so much, it’d be like my words were the swords we pretended that we had in the Adsaria game. Really. I think. I think I’d do all of it.

My mom knocked on the door when it was time to go, and he was still quiet. I looked back at Mom in the little door window, then at Adam again. What could I say? How could I even say goodbye when he hadn’t said hello? What if it was the last time I was going to see him?

What if he never gets better?

“You know,” I finally said, because I had to say something real, “I’m glad you didn’t kill yourself.”

I wish I could tell you that brought him back to life. Or that it got a smile out of him, one of his old weird ones. But it didn’t. He just turned away from me, toward the little TV on the top of the wall. He stared at it with fixed attention, like he thought if he kept his eyes there for long enough, it would turn on and drown everything out.

Val HowlettVal Howlett recently earned an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she won a short story competition for this piece. She is also a proud member of the literary community The Secret Gardeners. She is currently working on a YA novel.