I get to ride shotgun in Mr. Gregory’s car because I missed my bus, and I missed my bus because I lost Spiderman in the snow at recess. I got Spiderman in a Happy Meal that Dad bought me once. His arms and legs move, but he doesn’t have a web.
Mr. Gregory is my first grade teacher. I was supposed to be in Mrs. Anderson’s class this year, but the school put me in Mr. Gregory’s class by myself when I stopped using my voice. I like Mr. Gregory. He lets me read big kid books in class and he doesn’t yell. But sometimes his face gets really red and he stares at his hands for a long time, eyes closed. It’s how Dad looked when Mom got sick. I always thought Dad was angry, but really he was scared.
Mr. Gregory asks me questions while he drives.
“Why did you miss your bus, Julian?” It’s snowing, the flakes zooming straight at us. Mr. Gregory looked up my address in the school directory because Mom didn’t answer the phone. Mom sleeps in the afternoons. Spiderman is safe in my pocket because I’m not supposed to have him at school.
Mr. Gregory’s car smells like Red Hots candy. Mom used to buy Red Hots for Dad and he always shared them with me like a secret. I like them even though they make my throat burn. When I breathe in through my nose I can taste cinnamon.
“Is your Mom okay?” Mr. Gregory asks. I nod, but I’m lying.
“Do you see your Dad sometimes?” I lie again.
“How’s Megan?” Megan always goes to her boyfriend’s house after school. I don’t really mind. It used to make me very upset, but now I like it better than when Megan’s boyfriend comes to our house.
Mr. Gregory turns the car off in front of my house.
“Julian, I know you’re tired of hearing this, but you have to talk eventually. We all know that you have a lot to say.” I’m not really listening because I’m staring at my house wishing that Megan would come home and Mom would wake up.
Then Mr. Gregory grabs my leg hard. Moves his hand up towards my pocket. Towards Spiderman. I feel that familiar pain in my stomach. The pain that keeps my voice locked up. The pain of things being taken away. His hand hurts. I feel words kicking their way up my throat. Mr. Gregory’s hand moves to my pocket, pressing down hard. Spiderman’s cold arm digs into my hip.
My mouth is burning, and then—
“No!” I say, my voice coming out like dragon breath, the words crackling. “Please don’t take Spiderman!” The words spill out too fast, like they had grown tired of waiting inside of me. “Please.” I take a breath because my voice is making my whole body shake.
Mr. Gregory’s hand jumps back, his eyes big and dark.
“Spiderman?” His hand hangs in the air like the metal grabber in a claw machine. “Who is Spiderman?” His face is red and scared.
As I walk up the driveway, I feel very warm and very cold all at once. My voice made my heart beat too fast. I can see my breath in the air and I wonder if that’s what my voice looks like. I take Spiderman out of my pocket and grip him tight because I know he won’t get hurt. The air smells like ice but my throat is still burning. Mr. Gregory’s wheels crunch the gravel as he drives away.
I lock my voice up inside of me again.
When I found Spiderman on the playground one of his hands was sticking out the snow, a tiny red flag waving to me. Like he knew I would always come back for him.
Emily Roth is an undergraduate at Columbia College Chicago.