“What happened?” Amelia asked, as they watched Richard continue to shuffle down the sidewalk, periodically turning to see if anyone was in pursuit.
“Actually—he laughed at me. I think it helped him relax a little bit,” Josh answered.
“I bet he was relieved, to laugh at someone else for once,” said Amelia. “Not to be the butt of everyone else’s jokes for a change. That was horrible, Josh. Did you see the terror in his face, and the misery?”
“Yes I did. It was hard to watch. I felt it in my chest, like I couldn’t breathe.”
“I couldn’t look any longer, I had to turn away.”
“You’re right though, Aim, everyone is relieved to laugh at someone else. To take the pressure off themselves, and give the blame to someone else, to point the finger so they can hide in the shadows, even in plain sight and in broad daylight. Richard is their scapegoat. We’d all like one. I felt it, didn’t you feel the temptation?”
Amelia didn’t answer at first but stared painfully at her brother. “Yes…I did. For a moment I wanted to laugh a little bit too.”
“I did laugh, Amelia. I felt complete hatred for Richard over there, I felt it course through me and I could have accepted it. I easily could have said, alright, this guy deserves it and I’m going to give it to him, and it’s going to feel really good. And everyone else is doing it, so all the better, I won’t even look especially bad as I do it.”
Amelia looked with horror at Josh with her mouth slightly ajar. “What are you saying?!”
“Don’t worry. I didn’t feel that way for long, and besides I didn’t entertain those hideous thoughts or feelings, I’m just saying I noticed them. I’m no different than anyone else in that mob, I could easily have done what any of them did, other than that I chose not to. Why? Because I felt the pain and sadness of Richard too. I felt as if everyone was yelling and laughing at me, I really felt as though I was standing next to him in there, and everyone was doing that to me. I felt my humanity drain out of me and I began to believe what they were saying about me. I lost any sight of my worth, for a moment, and accepted that I was less than a human, but it made me angry. And it made me sad, incredibly sad.”
“He looked so sad, he must be very sad. And alone. I don’t suppose people would pick on him so much if he had friends. We should be his friends, Josh. Oh, God do we have to be his friends? I’m sorry, it’s just so much easier not to worry about him. What am I saying?”
“Aim, you’re right. He needs someone on his side. I’ve seen him, he’s always alone, and he has nobody. Nobody makes him laugh. I think we should try to be his friends.”
It was unspoken between them at that moment, but both Amelia and Josh weighed the cost of being Richard’s friend. Would they bring his status up among the other students, or would he drag their status down? Probably it would happen a little both ways; Richard would be more accepted and he’d be left alone, while at the same time they would get some ridicule from their peers. Amelia decided it was worth it, and screw anyone who doesn’t like it; Josh knew it would be better for Richard this way, and also figured some ridicule might actually do himself some good. He found the prospect of befriending Richard a little exciting and exhilarating; and decided that it might be an adventure they all would enjoy.
Later that afternoon they went out for a sail in Amelia’s boat and worked on a plan. They decided that Josh should try to become friends with Richard first, since he already made Richard laugh, and then if that worked, Amelia could join them and they all could spend time together. Since there were only a few weeks left in the school year they had to work fast before they lost track of Richard for the summer.
The rest of the week however, Richard was nowhere to be seen. Josh spent his breaks and lunches searching the school for him but without success. Meanwhile, Richard had retreated to his home in the trees following his ordeal that Monday morning and hadn’t come back out, except during the nights when he searched for food. The school trash cans were the most likely places to find discarded food, but he had to act quickly because they were emptied each evening by nine or ten. Since the days were growing longer this really only gave him about an hour, or a little more, of darkness for cover, to safely search the schools for his meals before they would be removed and dumped. In the event he was too late for the school garbage, there were both the dumpsters behind the grocery store and the café. But the one behind the grocery was often locked or difficult for him to climb into since it was so large. The one behind the café however was smaller and was never locked, so he found discarded pastries, burnt cakes, pieces of bacon and toast; plenty of edibles could be gathered there to stay alive.
It was the dumpster behind the café that Josh found Richard that Saturday night. Josh was riding his bike home from work, and he often cut through town past the alley which ran behind the café, when he noticed Richard sifting through a garbage bag. Richard hadn’t noticed Josh, as he quietly got off his bike and cautiously walked up the alley. He hoped to get close enough to talk, before Richard discovered him and ran away. They were only a few yards apart when Josh spoke quietly, “Richard.”
Richard was startled and dropped the bag and stared wildly at Josh, but froze, unsure whether to fight or run. Josh knew this was his chance, and since it had so worked well last time, he lowered himself again to the ground, kneeling and looking up at Richard. Inexplicably, Richard began to smile and started to giggle and then point at Josh.
“I don’t want to hurt you, Richard. Trust me. I think we can be friends. I want to be friends.”
Richard took a step closer, then glanced up and down the alley, squinting into the shadows and trying to discover the trap he was certain must be laid for him.
“My name is Josh. I think you and I are alike, we can be friends. Would you like that?” Josh asked hopefully.
Richard stopped smiling and looked intently at Josh, prostrate on the ground before him. He couldn’t understand why he was down there, or what it meant. It was funny though, and made him laugh, but what did he want? Why did he want to be his friend? It must be a trick. He stepped backwards and then turned and ran up the alley, away from this trap whatever it might be; he became very frightened as he ran and suddenly felt very alone. He left the alley and ran as fast as he could back to the ravine where he lived.
Meanwhile, Josh got on his bike and followed at a distance, keeping Richard in view but hiding in the shadows as he went. He hoped to discover Richard’s house; as he followed, he grew certain which neighborhood it must be, and he noted this so that he could remember where to find him in the daytime. But then suddenly he vanished. They had just crossed a small bridge and turned to the left, and Richard was only half a block ahead and easy to see under the street lights, but then, somewhere between one light and the next, in the shadows between them, he was gone.
Josh got off his bike and walked back and forth along this section of the road, glancing into the trees, trying to find a driveway or path, but there was nothing. He had just disappeared; could he be up in a tree? Josh looked up into the canopy overhead trying to find someone up there. But that was unlikely, it was doubtful Richard with his physical limitations could have climbed a tree that quickly, if at all. After a little more searching along the margins of the underbrush, Josh gave up for the night. He decided to return tomorrow in the daylight, and try again.
* * *