W.A.R. Part Three - The Broken Boy
Chapter Three - Dustin's World
by Jeff Wilson
It was certainly a different experience staying at Dustin's house than staying at Brett's house. Each place was fun, but in different ways. At Brett's we did a lot of watching television and movies or playing video games or on the computer. But Dustin didn't have a computer or video games. His family still didn't even have cable and they only had one television. So at Dustin's house we had to find ways to entertain ourselves without having modern technology.
I think that's why Dustin was so good at sports and outdoorsy stuff. He grew up playing outside and being active. He enjoyed it. He had his dirt bike and his basketball hoop and he was happy. When he had to be indoors, he had his chess board and a deck of cards and various board games that were older than both of us combined. There was Monopoly and Scrabble and a few other games. Not that Dustin wouldn't have liked to have a computer and video games, but his family could barely afford to eat.
I could never figure out the Smith family. They were always dirt poor. Frank was always out of work, it seemed. And Carol was driving a middle school bus for a living. So it confused me that Dustin was the only one of them that actually looked poor. He always had clothes that hardly fit and looked like he found them in Goodwill's trash can, probably because that's where they came from. His shoes were always wearing out and once our teacher, Miss Winston actually bought him a new pair because you could see his feet through his old ones. But then Mrs. Smith sold them back to the store and kept the money and was very upset with Miss Winston. I could never figure that one out. Dustin always looked too thin, like a starved cat. It looked like his body had grown taller, but he didn't add any weight. He was a little over six feet tall and barely weighed a hundred thirty pounds. But he never ate, even at school where food was available and plentiful. My mom was always trying to feed him when he came to our house, but he just wouldn't eat.
Dustin's dad seemed to always have enough money for his beer. Amanda's clothes, while not the greatest in the world, at least fit her and weren't falling apart. Both she and her mother were very heavy, as if they'd taken whatever weight Dustin should have gained and added it to their own. Dustin's mom was taking classes at a nearby state college. So it wasn't like the family was broke. It just seemed like they didn't want to spend their money on Dustin.
Through it all, though, Dustin maintained a kind of quiet optimism about his situation. He didn't complain about being poor. He never complained about how his family treated him. He seemed convinced that things were about to improve and that better days were just around the corner. Someday his parents were going to win with one of those many lottery tickets that they bought. He would defend his mom and dad vigorously. He would even get mad if you talked about his sister the wrong way. I just didn't get it.
Dustin's mom, Carol, finally made it home about eight o'clock. She looked exhausted after a long day at work and then class. She not only worked for the bus company, but she also worked part-time at other jobs as well. Mrs. Smith was much smarter than she appeared, a lot like her son. She was studying accounting at school, and her goal was to eventually become a certified public accountant. She had been working on her degree for about six years in the evenings and I wondered if she would ever be finished.
Dustin and I were playing cards in the living room. Frank had disappeared into the basement and Amanda still hadn't come home from wherever she had gone off to. Carol dumped her books and some grocery bags by the door. Dustin leaped up from the floor where we were playing and surprised me by giving his mom a hug. I couldn't remember the last time I'd voluntarily hugged my mother, especially in front of people.
"You want me to take that stuff to the kitchen, mom?" he asked.
"Would you?" Carol replied. Dustin quickly grabbed the grocery bags and sped into the kitchen while Carol slumped onto the couch with a sigh.
"So how are you Mr. Roberts?" she asked me.
"Okay, Mrs. Smith," I replied. I usually called her by her first name, since I'd known the Smiths my whole life. But since she had addressed me formally I returned the favor.
"Well that's good to hear," she smiled. "How's your mother doing?"
"She's good," I replied.
Dustin returned from the kitchen and sat on the couch next to his mom.
"That bozo didn't come over today did he?" she asked. Apparently, she didn't like Max too much.
"He picked her up when dad got home," Dustin sort of lied. That was just the way he was. Even though his sister was so cruel to him, he didn't tattle on her.
Carol sighed. "You know better than to get mixed in with him, boys," she warned. "Amanda should know better too. Oh well... I hope you're in the mood for hot dogs and macaroni and cheese, because that's about all I can handle making tonight."
"That sounds good to me," I said. "We'll help you if you want us to."
Mrs. Smith put the back of her hand against my forehead. "Hmm... No fever. I don't understand. No one has ever offered to help me cook before. Billy, you realize I'm keeping you forever now."
I laughed. I didn't mind helping out, at least when the person wasn't forcing me to do it, like my mom. Because I had offered to help, Dustin joined us in the kitchen as well. Dustin and I ended up getting the pots and filling them with water while Mrs. Smith sat at the kitchen table and talked with us while we waited for the water to boil.
"So, Billy, how are you doing in school?" she asked.
"Pretty good, I guess. I got a B on a test in science from Miss Winston, but I should still get an A in the class," I said.
"Oh, the dyke?" Mrs. Smith scoffed. I felt the back of my neck get hot. "After she insults the family by trying to make Dustin her charity case, she gives him a D on a paper just because she said it was turned in late! I checked that paper over myself, and it was worth at least a B, and I know Dustin had it ready that morning."
"I told you, she doesn't like me," Dustin protested. "None of the teachers do!"
"Miss Winston likes you, Dustin. You just need to be more responsible," I offered.
"Nobody asked you," Dustin said coolly.
"Billy's right, Dustin," Mrs. Smith said. "What have I been telling you about being responsible? Why can't you be more like Billy?"
"Because Billy's smart and I'm stupid!" Dustin snapped.
Just then, Frank emerged from the basement. He wobbled a bit in the doorway and I was afraid for a second he might fall over backwards and topple down the stairs. "What the fuck is with all the fucking noise?"
"We're just talking, Frank," Carol replied.
"Jesus fucking Christ, Carol! I'm trying to get some fucking sleep down there and all I can hear is your fucking fat mouth."
"Well since you had such a busy day I'll try to keep my big fat mouth quiet for you, Frank!" Mrs. Smith yelled.
"Don't start with me, goddammit! You're always running your goddamn mouth!" Frank shouted. I glanced at Dustin. He looked like he was frozen in place, trying to hide within himself.
"There you go again, always blaming everyone but yourself for your problems, Frank," Carol retorted. "It's always someone else's fault, isn't it?"
"Oh, it's my fault we live in such a fucking shit hole? When was the last time you fucking picked up a fucking dust rag? And you wonder why the fuck I spend my fucking time at the club instead of in this fucking dump?"
"I'm trying to make a better life for our children, Frank! What have you done to make anybody's life better?"
"You think I don't care about my kids, Carol? I'm trying to get them to not be as fucking lazy and useless as their fucking fat ass mother and actually make something out of their useless fucking lives!"
"Well! Aren't you the world's greatest role model? There you go, Dustin! Grow up to be the town drunk like your father!"
"You fat fucking cunt!" Frank shouted. "That stupid shithead would be a lot better off growing up to be like me instead of the worthless lazy piece of fucking shit he is now!"
I never saw Carol Smith move as quickly as she did when she leaped out of her chair and slapped Frank right across the face. "You're a selfish, evil son of a bitch Frank!" she bellowed. She stormed out of the kitchen. Frank followed her, and the sounds of their argument turned from yelling and shouts to crashes and smashes as items in their living room began being hurled about the room.
I had never seen two adults go after each other like that before. Especially two people who were married and supposed to love each other. I turned to ask Dustin if they always fought like that, but I stopped cold at the sight of Dustin standing there beside the stove. His complexion was pale, even more pale than usual. Like green... He looked like he was about to throw up. He stood there running his hands through his hair with his eyes closed, wincing at the sound of every threat and every crash as if he was being hit.
"You okay?" I asked.
Dustin opened his eyes and looked at me peculiarly, as if he'd forgotten I was there. He opened his mouth to say something, but another crash, this one coming from upstairs, silenced him. He looked up at the ceiling as if he was seeing with x-ray vision the fight that was taking place. He winced again at the sound of a loud bump and a scream and he grabbed two fistfuls of his hair.
"Hey, it's alright..." I soothed.
"You want to get out of here?" he asked quickly.
"Yeah," I replied.
"Come on," he said. He led me quickly out of the house and towards the woods. Even outside we could still hear Dustin's parents' battle raging on. Dustin walked faster and faster into the trees and quickly up the hill. The sounds of the house quickly faded away until all was silent. Dustin didn't stop until he reached the top of the hill where the path intersected with the path to my house. This was the place where Brett and Dustin had their fight and their friendship had ended.
Dustin fell to his knees next to an old tree stump and violently threw up. Then he just started bawling. It was horrible. He buried his head under his arms as if he was protecting himself from being hit and grabbed his hair. This time he started pulling on it, though he didn't yank it out. I'd never seen someone cry as hard as Dustin did that night. I just stood there and watched him because I had no idea what to say or do.
"He hates me!" Dustin sobbed. "My dad hates me!" He lifted his head and looked at me. Tears streaked his face. He wailed, "I hate them Billy. I hate them all! I hope they all die! You hear me? I hope they all die!" He bawled even harder than he had before and buried his face in the stump, covering his head with his arms. I didn't have a clue what I should do. I certainly didn't know what to say. I'd never seen anybody act like this before. I felt a sick knot in my stomach. All I could think of to do was to kneel next to him and put my hand on his shoulder. As soon as I did, he flinched like I'd burned him. I took my hand away, but then Dustin grabbed me around the waist and sobbed. I could feel him shaking. I patted him gently on the back.
"You're the only one who loves me, Billy," Dustin wailed. "Nobody cares about me except you. You're my only friend."
"You know that's not true, Dustin. Lots of people like you," I soothed.
"No they don't. I know what they say about me. I hear them. Everybody thinks I'm stupid! They make fun of my clothes. They make fun of my family. I hate them! I hate everybody! I'm so stupid!"
"You're not stupid, Dustin," I replied.
"Yes I am!" Dustin cried. "I'm a worthless lazy piece of crap!"
"Stop it!" I said sternly. Dustin's grip loosened from my waist. "Did you just hear yourself? Did you hear what you called yourself? That's your dad talking, not you! You are not crap. You are not lazy. And you are not worthless! Don't you ever say that about yourself again!"
"No!" I stopped him. "No buts! I'm not going to let them hurt you anymore! You're my best friend, Dustin! I love you, dammit! And a lot of other people love you too! Why do you let those people push you around? You don't have any confidence in yourself! You've allowed yourself to believe the things they say about you! That's why your sister pushes you around! That's why your dad treats you like shit! That's why you don't do well in school! You don't believe in yourself. Well I believe in you! I don't care how much money you have! I don't care what clothes you wear! All I care about is who you are on the inside! That's all that really matters. You are not shit, Dustin! Don't ever let anyone tell you otherwise! You hear me?"
Dustin sat down on the stump. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hands. For a few moments, he stared at the ground. He made tight fists with his hands and pounded his knees a few times. "It's not usually like this," he said. "He's just under a lot of stress. That's all. He didn't mean what he said. He didn't mean to hurt me."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing! "Are you really trying to defend that son of a bitch?" I asked.
"He's not usually like that, Billy. You don't know what it's like."
I sighed. "Either way, you just need to believe in yourself. You could do amazing things if you tried. Don't give up on yourself. Don't let them bring you down to their level."
"They're going to break up some day, you know," Dustin spoke softly. His voice cracked. "You don't understand. Your parents never get into fights like my parents. They're going to split up. And then what's going to happen to me? You don't know what it's like to have nothing. I don't have video games like you or fancy Nike shoes like you. I don't even think these shoes have a brand. I've never worn a piece of clothing that wasn't worn by somebody else before me. Even my stupid underwear is used! If my parents break up, I won't even have that! I'd kill myself if they broke up."
I looked down at my shoes. They weren't Nikes. They were New Balance. I'd hated them when my mom bought them for me. But they fit and they were in one piece. I looked at Dustin's ratty worn out shoes. I could see right through to his sock on his left foot. I was ashamed of my fancy new shoes. I thought of my video games. Most of them were Brett's games, sure. But I had a television to play them in my room. I had my own computer for doing my school projects. Dustin had nothing compared to me. I couldn't think of anything that I could say that would make him feel better. I just felt so sorry for him. Dustin had always been taller and stronger than me. But under the brave front and the happy mask he seemed to wear, there was this vulnerable, fragile, and scared little boy. In that moment of vulnerability, was I finally seeing the real Dustin Dwayne Smith?
"I don't know, Dustin. I don't know why we get dealt the hands we do in life. I mean, look at Brett. He's got a lot of money, yeah. But he's not happy. His mom spoils him and he still hates her. He's got problems, just like you. My parents fight sometimes too. They just hide it better than other people. We're no better than you. You've just got to play the game the best you can. My dad once told me that life is never going to be easy. Sometimes it's just less hard, but it's never easy. You know, I'm sure he'd like to talk to you sometimes like he does for Brett. He's almost more Brett's dad than mine!"
"I have a dad, but thanks," Dustin replied. "I really appreciate you wanting to cheer me up." He smiled at me. If I hadn't just seen him bawling his eyes out, I would have sworn he was happy. His face was so convincing. I marveled at how well he could mask his emotions. It was like he could flip a switch and go from miserable to happy. It was like the real Dustin was gone once again, and the mask was back on. "I guess we should head back. I thought I heard dad's car drive off. Hopefully the house doesn't burn down because we didn't turn the stove off before we left."
"Oh shit!" I gasped. "You're right!"
"Oh well. We'd be doing the town a favor if our house burned down," Dustin laughed. As we began walking back to the house he stopped me. "Hey Billy..."
"Please don't tell anybody about this. I mean about me crying and puking and all, okay? It was just really hard seeing my parents fight like that. You know I'm not usually like that. I feel like such a dork right now."
"You know I wouldn't say anything," I replied.
"Please, just promise you won't tell Reilly," he pleaded. "I don't think I could stand it if he knew."
"I swear I won't tell anybody," I promised. "Not even Brett."
"Okay, thanks. I'm sorry about everything. I didn't mean to dump on you like that. You're a real friend, Billy."
I didn't answer. I just put my arm around his shoulders and walked with him back toward his house. I didn't know what we were going to find when we made it back. All I knew was that I wanted to be there for Dustin, no matter what.
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Next time: Raw Deal