At eight years old, Ashley learned her first real swear word. The lexicon of the playground had long since been encoded into her vocabulary. Variations on poop and fart and potty, usually combined with head, face or butt, were all part of her daily routine. Of course in third grade saying these things, even in class, wouldn’t get you sent to the principal’s office. They were second nature, old hat, until Ashley learned a new word.
She had wandered near the fence, which divided the lower grades from the high when she heard it. Like the sounding of Gabriel’s horn, the skies opened up and blessed her ear with the glorious gift. Instantly she felt its power, without even seeing the reactions it caused among the sixth graders who dared utter it. She knew it had strength unlike any word she had ever known before. As she turned it over in her mind it pulsated.
In the back of her brain she thought that perhaps, this was not her first encounter with the word. That it had traced a pattern through her life, hopping around furtively in adult conversations or lying idle in restroom graffiti. It had been there, calling out to her, waiting for her to find it.
It didn’t take the fistfight now being fought among those same sixth graders to teach her its power. This word could wound. It could destroy. What power now rested in her young voice box? It intoxicated her. She could even guess at its meaning, but wrapping her head around that mystery proved too daunting. Clues abounded, she knew, but the answer eluded her.
Ashley turned back to her own play area to weigh her options. A power like this demanded testing. Her eyes fell on her best friend Kari jumping rope. How sweet and innocent she seemed now. A word like Ashley’s could obliterate that. She could pull Kari kicking and screaming into the bigger world that Ashley had entered so willingly. Ideas of right and wrong swirled until they seemed indistinguishable. A new thought joined the others. Rather than use this power she could secretly lord it over her friend. She would always be the mature one. No amount of boy-kissing or underwear could bridge the gap. The knowledge would be kept safe so that she could pull it out whenever it seemed most necessary. She would never be the baby. The power grew stronger even in her refusal to use it.
The pulsating in her brain became a beating. The word itself was pounding in her mind. Its single hypnotic syllable repeated, demanding to be let loose. In the distance she saw Ms. Stanch, her teacher. The scene flashed through her mind in an instant.
Ms. Stanch stands before the class and demands Ashley’s homework. Ashley fires off her verbal cannon. Ms. Stanch falls back in shock, unable to recover. The awed faces of her classmates stare on. Ms. Stanch must be taken to the nurse, unable to speak, unable to ever teach again. Ashley’s class would have free choice from then on.
A flaw occurred to Ashley. Ms. Stanch loved her. She was sure of this. While in all her favorite shows teachers were cruel tyrants to undermine or overthrow, Ashley thought of Ms. Stanch as almost a second mother, and she would never, ever say this word to her mother.
The time for the bell to end recess drew near. A quick evaluation of potential targets seemed to dismiss any as candidates. Most kids, she thought, wouldn’t even know the word, just as she had been so recently innocent. This ignorance protected them from Ashley’s power unless an adult heard it, which had consequences of its own. She was outgunned in an arms race. Still the word pounded.
Ashley took the last option, the failsafe. As Ms. Stanch glanced off in another direction, Ashley snuck through the side fence squishing her body through the tight opening between the pole and the wall. She jogged out to the front lawn, looking about to ensure her invisibility.
She squatted beneath her favorite apple tree, the one under which she waited for her mother each day. She cupped her hands and brought them to her face. Her sweet breath mixed with her raspberry lip balm and wafted into her nose. She had to release the power inside her before it consumed her. In the tiniest of whispers, she said the word.
Ashley looked up to the screeching of tires and the smell of burnt rubber. The world seemed to slow as two cars collided on the street in front of her. Metal screamed. Smoke and steam shot from the wreck like a misplaced firecracker. The sudden loss of momentum made her brain skip. It felt unnatural.
My fault, she thought. She had let loose the awful power and it had done its job. Yet it still pounded in her head. In fact, it infected the drivers of the cars, who now exited their vehicles. One bled badly from the forehead, his face coated in crimson as he screamed. Every second word they yelled was that word. Ashley blinked and swallowed hard. Frightened of being sighted she turned and ran back to the school.
The power still pulsed, but she knew she would never use it again. She wished to forget it, to go back to this morning, to be like Kari. It was impossible. This gift, the power had become a burden for her to bear ever thumping in her brain. She could never go back. As she entered the building, the bell ending recess rang.
Benjamin Jacobson writes in Arizona.