Tie Li looked up at Kim, then at Tony. She searched their somber faces for some sign of life.
“What wrong with you guys?” she implored, shouting to be heard above the whining roar of the school bus engine. “This morning you both very quiet. You sick?”
The boys continued to stare in two different directions, lost in thought.
“I think there is a lion on the school bus. See? Over there? Yes, there’s big lion going to school with us!”
Tie Li shifted her position annoyingly. She always looked forward to each morning’s bus ride to school because it offered her a chance to sit between her two favorite people and tell them all the exciting things going on in her life. But today she may as well have been sitting between two lumps of clay.
“I getting married today,” she said. “You want to come?”
The girl decided to try a new approach. Grabbing her throat, she opened her mouth, stuck out her tongue, and began making gurgling noises as she swayed back and forth. Then with a final dramatic groan, she collapsed across Kim’s lap, her schoolbooks tumbling onto the floor.
Kim looked down at the still form sprawled over his legs. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Glancing at Tony, he spoke somberly. “Too many chocolate chip cookies. They’ll get you every time.”
Tony nodded in agreement. “And she was so young. We’d better tell the bus driver to stop so we can bury this poor little girl out there in a snowbank.”
The two sat in silence for a moment, then both smiled and shouted, “Dibs on her lunch!”
Tie Li sat up and started hammering her brothers with playful fists. “You don’t care that I die! You just want to eat my food. Well, never mind. I alive again!”
The boys laughed at their sister’s reprimand and helped gather her scattered books and papers. But even in the merriment of the moment, both had serious thoughts crowding their minds. Foremost in Tony’s plans was his upcoming rendezvous with the mysterious L.B. And Kim had decided that today he would find the body behind the face–that sneering, hateful face–that had greeted him his first day at school.
A living tide of children surged down the hallway as the first bell rang. Kim stood at the door of his classroom, searching the faces passing by. He’d done this before. Each day each class would find him here, looking for a hint of hate hiding in the eyes of those entering the room.
But it seemed the face had simply disappeared. No eyes met his with the type of intense emotion he’d seen that first day. No voice sounded as bitter. No lips so thinly drawn.
Could hate change a person so much that he’d be unrecognizable without it?
“He’s not here.” A man’s voice spoke from behind Kim. Turning, the boy saw Mr. Carlton, his teacher, leaning against a bookcase.
Kim studied the man’s face. “You know who he is? You know who tripped me? Why didn’t you–?”
“Come to my office, Kim. I’d like to talk to you for a minute.” The man led Kim down the long hallway to an empty room beside the main entrance of the school building. Closing the door, he motioned for Kim to have a seat. Mr. Carlton took his place behind an old metal desk, its surface piled high with students’ papers, teaching forms, class schedules, and a ceramic mug with a big yellow smiley face printed on it. To one side rested a potted plant adorned with brown, wilted leaves.
“I need to water this silly thing a little more often, wouldn’t you say?” the man mused, fingering the dry, parched foliage.
“Yes, sir,” Kim responded quietly.
The man sat back in his chair, his eyes slowly scanning the cluttered inventory of his desk. “So many things to do, and no time to do them.” Mr. Carlton sighed. “Sometimes I wonder what I’m supposed to work on more, cluttered desks or cluttered minds.”
Kim watched his teacher rub his chin thoughtfully. He sensed the man had something to say, but it was hard for him to start.
“Mr. Carlton, you brought me here for a reason. Have I done something wrong?”
The man smiled. “No, you haven’t done anything except maybe being born at the wrong time in the wrong place.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Kim, because of who you are and what you represent, you have enemies. I know it’s sad, but it’s true.”
“Are you talking about the boy who tripped me?”
Mr. Carlton nodded. “He’s got this wild notion that nations fight nations in wars for good and noble purposes that people of one race have the God-given responsibility to fight people of other races until everyone thinks and acts the same way. So he keeps right on fighting, even after a war ends, because in his mind it really hasn’t ended.”
Kim’s forehead creased in frustration. “Where did he learn such crazy thinking?”
“From his father. You see, his dad had a brother who was killed in a war. All this happened before the boy was born. But his dad had such hate in his heart for the people responsible for his brother’s death that he carried his bitterness into his married life and into the heart and mind of his young son. After what happened the other day, the boy was suspended from school.”
Kim shook his head. “I know what it’s like to feel hate, but I didn’t know you could teach someone else to share your feelings. After the war came to my country I wanted to destroy those responsible for what was happening. But my dad kept telling me, ‘Don’t hate, son. You only end up
hurting the people that need your love.'”
“Your father was a very wise man, Kim,” Mr. Carlton said soberly. “Every boy should have a father like that.”
Kim was silent for a moment. “I’d like to talk to the boy who tripped me. Will you tell me where he is?”
The man stood to his feet. “I’ll do better than that. I’ll take you to him. I’ve scheduled a film to be shown in class. We’ve got an hour. It should give us just enough time.”
Kim grabbed his coat from his locker and followed his teacher to the parking lot. They got into Mr. Carlton’s car and drove north, away from the school. Kim watched snow-covered streets speed by beyond the frosted window of Mr. Carlton’s station wagon. He felt excitement gnawing at the pit of his stomach. Finally he was going to have his chance. He was going to meet the boy behind the face.
The car stopped in front of a small, brick house half hidden behind a row of wide evergreen trees. Mr. Carlton switched off the engine and sat back in his seat with a heavy sigh. “His name is Ted. His parents call him Teddy.”
Kim studied the long walkway leading to the house. He reached up to open the car door, then hesitated. “Aren’t you coming, Mr. Carlton?”
The man remained motionless, staring out the window. “You go ahead. I’ll join you in a minute.”
Kim opened the door and slid off the seat. Snow crunched under his boots as he made his way toward the house. Dark, faded curtains hung limply in each window. Cold gusts of wind sent miniature snowy tornadoes wandering aimlessly across the front yard. Somewhere, far away, a dog barked at an imagined intruder. Kim shivered under his coat and scarf.
At the door, the boy looked back toward the car. Mr. Carlton sat watching him. The teacher.
Kim’s gloved hand knocked against the storm door. A noisy rattle echoed in the entryway.
“Who is it?” A woman’s voice called out from somewhere in the house.
“It’s Kim Parks.”
The boy cleared his throat. “I’m Kim Parks, from Ted’s school.”
Kim jumped as the door cracked open against its chain lock. A frowning face appeared looking down at him. “You go to school with Teddy?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m in his class.”
The door closed, then opened again, a little wider this time. “What do you want?”
“I’d like to see Ted, if you don’t mind. I’d like to talk to him for a minute.”
Kim watched as the woman studied him carefully. When she seemed satisfied that he was not a threat to her or the house, she opened the door the rest of the way. “He’s not here right now, but I’m expecting him back any moment. You can wait inside if you’d like. Just have a seat over there.”
Kim walked to a chair by the window and sat down. “Thank you,” he said, looking around the room. “You have a nice house.”
The woman closed the door. “It’ll do. So, you say you’re a friend of my Teddy’s?”
Kim frowned. “I guess that’s up to him. We sort of got off to a bad start. We have some unfinished business to attend to.”
The back door of the house slammed shut as footsteps echoed down the short hallway leading to the kitchen. “Mom, I’m back. I hope I got the right kind of soap. I think every company in the world makes soap.”
The woman smiled. “I’m sure you did. Hey, son, you’ve got company. Says he goes to school with you.”
“Oh, yeah?” The boy’s voice grew louder as he moved through the kitchen, toward the living room. “I don’t know anybody who’d come to visit me now.”
Kim stood as the voice drew closer.
“Maybe he brought an assignment or–”
The boy rounded the comer, then stopped when he saw Kim. “You!” he said, his lips forming a tight line across his teeth. His eyes narrowed into a cold, harsh stare. Fists formed at his sides. “What are you doing here?”