THE RED HELMET • by Mishkat Bhattacharya

The red helmet was missing. They looked for it inside the barn next to the playground, in the gym store, and all over the small building that housed their classrooms. But it had simply disappeared. This was an inconvenience, because the other boys in the sixth grade used to make Pico put it on and stand in the middle of a circle. Then they would throw a wicker ball and try to hit the helmet. Whenever it did, they would laugh at the tinny sound it made. Pico never complained, so they thought it was okay and had fun with the activity. Now he looked as puzzled as anyone as to where the red helmet had gone.

The boys soon cooked up a new game when someone found a piece of tarpaulin lying around. They would load Pico on it and then heave it up as fast as they could to see how high they could send him. Pico was a natural choice for the role because he was the smallest boy in the class. No one bothered to ask his opinion about being used as a (human) cannon ball, or notice his slightly terrorized expression wondering what if they didn’t catch him when he came back down. When someone got tired someone else would take their edge of the tarp.

A week later, the tarpaulin could not be found. This time the search was even more extensive than earlier, but just as fruitless. Some of the boys found this disappearance suspicious. They approached Pico and asked him where the tarp had vanished to. In response he only turned his palms up and the corners of his mouth down. Some of the rougher kids were irritated by his manner. They searched his bag by turning it over so all his books fell out. One of them shoved him by the shoulder.

Things got worse when the boys were taken for a trip to the stream that ran by their town. One of the bigger kids, Jack, knew Pico couldn’t swim. In the middle of the picnic, Jack picked Pico up, carried him to a deep part of the stream, and dropped him in. Pico thrashed around panickingly, and after much swallowing of water, managed to clamber back on to the bank. The boys watched and laughed. Pico stood away from the crowd, coughing and hyperventilating. He had no choice but to let his sopping clothes dry on him. But he did not utter a word in remonstrance.

The next day Jack did not come to school. When he did not show up the day after as well, the school called his residence. But no one answered the telephone. The headmaster visited the house listed in the school records. But it seemed to have been abandoned recently. The town newspaper ran a notice, and the local police immediately went on search. But a week later there was still no sign of Jack.

A voodoo panic gripped the students at school. Jack’s friends cornered Pico in the playground one day after classes were done. They were sure he knew something about what had happened to Jack. One of them grabbed Pico by his collar and lifted him off the ground. “Tell us where Jack is, or we’ll beat you to a pulp,” he said. That’s when Pico spoke for the first and last time, the weight of his words sinking his entire class into silence. “Let me down,” he hissed, “Or I’ll make every single one of you disappear.”

They restored him to the ground and backed away slowly. They realized they did not want to take any chances. At least not before they found the red helmet, or the tarp, or Jack. Then, and only then, could they rely on Pico to be the victim of their games.

Mishkat Bhattacharya writes out of Rochester, NY. His fiction has been published in The Antioch Review and Muse India.

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