Chapter 6

Put It On

It was Bruce’s first day of school as a sixth grader. Alfred knocked on his door and made sure he was awake, then went downstairs to make breakfast. This was in keeping with their routine in years prior. It was two weeks since his parents’ murder, and he and Alfred had already had the discussion: if he didn’t feel up to going to school he didn’t have to. Bruce, however, had assured him that he was. He’d spent much of the last two weeks alone. As far as Alfred could tell he hadn’t left Wayne Manor and hadn’t seen any of his friends. Alfred thought that if there was one word to describe Bruce’s mourning process it would be ‘stoicism. He seemed to want privacy, but he could still take care of himself and didn’t ask for special treatment. But there was another discussion Alfred thought they should have: that of entering Bruce into some kind of counseling. Who knows what trauma he might be working through? To attempt to forge through it without help would surely be ill-advised.

Bruce came into the kitchen and sat at the table.

“Almost ready, sir,” Alfred said.

Bruce coughed into his sleeve.

“You have your backpack ready?” Alfred asked.

“Yep.”

“I made some fresh orange juice for you.”

“Thanks, Alfred.”

Alfred placed the plate of eggs, sausage and toast in front of him, and then the orange juice. Bruce ate quietly, how he did most things these days. His backpack was indeed resting at his feet. Alfred resisted the urge to check for himself for the notebooks and binders it should contain. To take on so fully the role of parent probably wasn’t advisable either. He knew the boy better than anyone. The care Alfred felt for him was genuine, but Bruce would have to step up a bit and take on more responsibility for living himself, just as Alfred was.

A few minutes later they were ready to go. They got into Alfred’s car, a Volkswagen minivan, and started the short drive to Powell Elementary. Bruce leaned against the door and stared out the window. He’d had the dreams again, the third straight since the night. They were so vivid. Looking through the eyes of his parents’ killer, and hearing his thoughts. Bruce knew he worked in a bank downtown. His name was John. He’d already done the business of killing before he’d done it to the Waynes. He’d served in the Gulf War. It was quite possible he would kill again. Some of his profoundly evil thoughts suggested as much. What was Bruce supposed to do with this intelligence? It wasn’t really real was it? Was it? It couldn’t be. Since the night Bruce had never felt more alone. These strange dreams were of no help whatsoever.

They reached Bruce’s school. Alfred pulled to a stop behind a school bus that was offloading its cargo.

“Here we are my boy,” said Alfred.

He put the car in park and looked over. Just as he was afraid it would, his heart came into his throat when he saw that Bruce was crying.

“Oh Bruce,” he said, then reached over and stroked his hair. “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”

“No, I do, I do. It’s just…”

His shoulder heaved and he seemed to try to take control of himself.

“I couldn’t help them,” he managed to cough out. “I didn’t do anything.”

“There’s not much you can do against a pair of full grown men with guns.”

“I wish I could help them. I wish I could kill him.”

“Look, I’m going to take you home. Sixth grade can wait.”

“No!” Bruce shouted, then took several deep breaths. “I want to. I should. I can’t let him win.”

Bruce then put on a smile. He knew Alfred was his employee but he also didn’t know what he would do without him.

“I’m fine Alfred. I have to. If I can’t I’ll call you, but I have to try.”

They sat a few more moments. The school bus pulled away in front of them and disappeared into the morning traffic.

“I’m fine. Really. I’ll see you this afternoon unless I can’t control myself.”

With that he opened the door and left the car.

Alfred watched him join the crowd of miniature commuters. There was nothing more he could do for him. Still he would make sure he was never far away from a phone. Beyond that he had to accept the fact that he wasn’t family. He wasn’t sure but he thought Karina had a cousin somewhere out there. It might be well advised to get in touch with her. He drove back to Wayne Manor with plenty to think a out. Bruce really was an admirable young man. But boy were the cards suddenly stacked against him, and at such a young age.

Powell Elementary, a private school with a generous scholarship program, was composed of a network of one-to-two room buildings connected by pavement or wood walkways, growing up the side of the hill off of Broadway Terrace. Bruce had been coming here since kindergarten along with most of his class, who in effect grew up together. Fourth through sixth graders attended the same homeroom, which was provided over by two teachers named Pam and Francesca. The line Bruce joined formed against a wall and was nearly complete when he arrived five minutes before class was to start. There were two sisters ahead of him, Puerto-Ricans he didn’t know very well. He saw a friend of his, a short white kid named John Aaron a bit further on. They waved at each other. John Aaron looked happy to see him. He was seen as a bit of a dork, a bit awkward and good at his lessons. Bruce himself was a bit on the popular side. Still, he hadn’t seen most of the kids here for several months.

Bruce was afraid it was obvious he’d been crying. He wiped his eyes and nose with his sleeve. He hoped, if nothing else, that being back at school would take his mind off darker things. But, almost instantly, he was rudely disappointed: he saw that one of the kids was wearing a clown mask. It was a black kid named Clorous, who was something of a bully who disliked most of the white kids. Clorous hadn’t seen him. He was about halfway up the line from Bruce, and Bruce couldn’t take his eyes off him. By the way Clorous seemed to survey the population around him Bruce began to venomously suspect that his classmate’s fashion choice wasn’t being well-received.

Pam was walking down the line, saying hello to the kids. Bruce watched her stop at Clorous. There was a look of unmitigated disgust on her face. A little while later the young boy took of his mask and put it in his backpack. Then, probably by chance, Pam’s eyes met Bruce’s and it was impossible for her not, for a moment, to look apologetic.

Bruce felt bile in his throat and dropped his glare. He tried to get his breath and heart rate under control. It was just the kind of thing he should have been prepared for. At least it seemed to have been a freak occurrence. It was no secret, after all, that plenty poor kids resented their more well-off classmates.

Pam passed him. She had already corrected her expression to one of neutrality and welcome. She took a whistle that was hung around her neck and blew into it.

“Okay class, let’s get started. Your seating assignment is on the projector. Let’s start the year on the right foot, so please, follow the seating instructions.”

The kids filed through the doors and mostly followed instructions. Bruce found himself at the same four-desk cluster as John Aaron, and another friend of his, a Puerto-Rican named Maria.

“Hey Bruce,” she smiled. “Back from summer, huh?”

“Hey Maria,” Bruce answered, but didn’t know what else to say. He couldn’t say it had been a good summer, could he?

He took a notebook and pen out of his backpack. His mind was still dully red from what he’d seen in line. He never could have imagined how heavy grief could be. He didn’t want to talk to anyone, not even John Aaron. He waited for class to start. He would try to pay attention. He felt a pervasive thud living in his chest and behind his eyes. Maybe he shouldn’t have come, but you can’t just let them win, let them end your life, right?

Pam and Francesca stood in front of the blackboard and called the class to attention. Quiet soon followed and the day began. It was easier for Bruce to focus on the lessons than on his classmates. At least nothing was expected from him there but obedience.

Time passed and Bruce listened and did his work. A sort of emotional normalcy established itself in him as he learned that this year he would learn about Gotham state’s colonial history, about fractions, pre-algebra and a few select literary classics. There would be art class three times a week, just as had been for fourth and fifth grades, and computer lessons. There would be a science fair in a few months. Pam and Francesca, alone with about forty pre-teens, would have their work cut out for them, which already became apparent in the first hour by the frequency with which they had to raise their voices.

Bruce allowed himself to be quiet. He hardly felt singled out at all, but, sometimes, he couldn’t take his eyes of Clorous. During lunch he decided not to join the rest of the kids outside, but instead ate at his desk. Francesca briefly visited with him and asked why he didn’t want to join everyone else. “I don’t want to,” he answered simply. Of course she knew what had happened to his parents. Her suggestion had been gentle and well-meaning. She let him be, as did everyone else for the rest of the day. Before he knew it the final bell rang ad he went back across campus to Broadway Terrace to wait for Alfred. There was a line of oak trees planted in a slim line of grass that some of the kids sat under while they waited for their parents. This had been tradition ever since Bruce’s first day of kindergarten, except, of course, now he was waiting for Alfred’s car instead of his mother’s.

Bruce sat on the roots of one of the tees. He supposed the day had gone by okay. He wondered how long he would feel this way, anxious at his own feelings. He wondered which of his classmates had donned a clown mask over the last month.

Then he saw Clorous, sitting on the grass a ways down the black. And there went his heart, leaping into his throat and thumping in his chest. He knew instantly what he had to do.

He looked around at the ground for a moment, then picked up a rock about the size of his fist. He left his backpack behind him and stalked toward his quarry.

He arrived at Clorous’ back and cast a shadow over him. Clorous turned and looked up, squinting into the sun.

“Put it on,” Bruce said.

“Huh?”

“The mask. Put it on.”

Clorous recognized something dangerous in Bruce’s eyes, though in the years that they’d shared classes he’d never known him to be anything more than mild-mannered, and certainly not a threat. But then he seemed to remember who Bruce’s parents were and what had happened to them.

“What you talking about?” Clorous asked.

“I’m not asking you any more. Put it on. That freak that tried to kill me.”

Clorous turned more fully toward him and began to stand, but he proved too slow, and lacked the fight-or-flight instinct that might have helped him as Bruce pulled back his arm and swung his fist-rock down on the side of Clorous’ head

“Damn!” Clorous shouted as he was knocked down and onto his side.

The rock fell out of Bruce’s hand, luckily, as he went right on swinging his fists. Clorous had been caught totally off guard. A circle of laughing kids formed almost instantly around them, chanting “Fight! Fight!”

“He killed my parents! He killed my parents!” Bruce was yelling through his tears. He kept repeating it and punching and kicking until he felt a pair of strong adult arms grab him and pull him away.

“Stop, Master Bruce! Stop!” It was Alfred. He took Bruce through the crowd and shoved him into his minivan. Bruce was still crying as Alfred pulled out onto the street, silent and grim-faced. A school administrator saw them leave, then went to help Clorous, who was bleeding and bruised in several places.

“That’s not the way, Bruce, that’s not the way,” Alfred said.

“He killed them Alfred! Right in front of me.”

“I know he did, Bruce.”

It wasn’t until a little while later that he and his butler realized that in the tumult they’d forgotten the child’s backpack on the grass. For one night, then, Bruce would have to do without it.

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