His bedroom is a cramped and filthy box with dingy walls that sag slightly inward, shrinking the already miserable smallness. The floor is a mulch of papers and pine cones and pop cans. Hornets hover. It is a convenient garbage can for the other residents of the house. The yellow door opens enough for someone to toss in an empty bean can. The bedroom’s only window looks out onto a dirty orange brick wall. The bed consists of two tattered towels pulled over and under four ripped and rotting life vests. The fishy stench from the bed fills the room and nearly suffocates Idaho in his sleep. Poor little Idaho. He sits up and leans over and pukes onto the back of a fat sleeping mouse. The mouse doesn’t wake. Idaho watches as other mice emerge from under Styrofoam burger containers to pick his vomit off the rising and falling fur of the obese vermin. It is the first day of school and Idaho has to go outside for the first time since last June. That was when eighth grade ended.
He had spent the last months of the school year wrapped in a coat made of tarpaper and it had burned in the sun and burned to his skin, leaving a black-red mark that still runs from the right side of his neck to the left point of his hip. He had been rolled down the hill behind the school. He had been set up on a low branch by the river so the other children could knock him off by tossing heavy rocks and lumps of hard dirt at him. The summer was spent here, in this revolting room, his back sticky with tar and his feet bruised by a winter of running away. It is difficult to describe hardship this intense. This poor, poor boy, Idaho, whose unhappiness exceeds everyone’s. No one has greater reason to give up and cry in a loathsome lump for the rest of his sad and morbid days than poor pathetic Idaho Winter.
The door opens again and a dog appears. A yellow hound with a red mouth, its head low and ready to pounce.
“Get the boy up, Growler.”
That is Idaho’s father. Idaho’s father, known locally as Early Winter, stomps past the boy’s room, down the stairs to the kitchen and sits at the table across from a woman. Early scoops beans in milk from a shallow pan silently, staring with menace at the woman, who is known only as Wife. She is pretty and silent and thin and probably hungry. She stares at her lap. She dare not look up. She has been forbidden to look up from her hands.
“Growler’s getting the boy.”
A crashing noise. Pictures fall and plaster crumbles as Growler, who has Idaho’s shoulder in his jaws, knocks the boy back and forth against the hall’s narrow walls, finally dropping him at Early’s feet. Early looks down at the wretched boy. Idaho looks up, squinting in fear of this hateful man. Early’s eyes are hidden roads: cold crooked roads that carry killers back up into the woods. Early’s eyes are the same secret roads that killers take. Idaho buries his face in his thin hands.
“School. You eat what the critter found.”
Idaho feels something kicked across his knees. He looks through his spidery fingers at the stiff raccoon. Its throat and belly are covered in flies.
“Eat its cheeks and clean yer teeth with the tail.”
Idaho can see his mother’s slender feet under the table, her big toes curled and white. This is as close as he has gotten to her in many months. He sees one toe straighten and the other scoop up under her foot. These feet seem absorbed in caring for each other. Two little blind puppets that seek each other out and exchange tendernesses even here in the harshest spot on earth. Idaho feels a buzzing on his knuckles. A tear has fallen and stirred the flies from his breakfast.
It is the first day of school and thin lines of smoke rise through the chill of the September morning. Little boys and girls with brightly colored backpacks go up on tiptoes to kiss their mothers at front doors. They jog down the short straight walkways from their porches and open the clean white swinging gates, then turn down the sidewalks that will take them to school. Some linger on corners waiting for friends, others run ahead, swinging books on book belts and skipping to greet the crossing guard with freshly baked cookies. The sun is bright this morning and the few clouds in the solid blue sky are white and sharp. Ms. Joost, the crossing guard, bends to accept the cookies, then straightens quickly to watch for cars. A beautiful little girl with heavy orange ringlets on her cheeks looks up.
“What is it, Madison?”
Two boys, one large and round with fat hands and the other thin with pointy hands, run up and push Madison out of the way.
Ms. Joost swings her great stop sign down in front of the boys. “Kyle! Evan! Do I need to send a note ahead on the first day?”
The boys lower their little bratty heads, and Kyle, the large one, shoots Madison a deadly glance.
“Now, Madison, what did you want to ask?”
The boys are not sure if they’ve been dismissed and stand waiting. Soon, they’re snickering.
“She wants to know about Potato.”
Potato is the awful nickname given to Idaho by, well, virtually the entire town. To a startling degree most people have accepted that Idaho should suffer terrible cruelty. Ms. Joost taps the boys’ shoulders and they explode down the street, running and laughing to the far curb. Ms Joost shoots them a stern look before going down to one knee and placing one of Madison’s ringlets in her palm.
“Now, Madison. You shouldn’t think about the Potato.”
Madison lowers her eyes, mostly in shame. She thinks about Idaho all the time. She nods solemnly.
“Okay, my dear. I know it’s hard for you to understand. You have such little experience with people. But the Potato is treated badly for a reason.”
Madison shakes her ringlet from the woman’s palm. She doesn’t look up.
“The Potato is an awful boy. He smells like rotten fish. He is dressed in filth and, why, even his parents can’t stand the sight of him. No shoes. And his hair!” Ms. Joost covers her mouth. “Nobody likes him because there is no reason to. Some people find this difficult to understand, Maddie, but here it is: some people are born in a very foul state and stay that way. We should never feel sorry for them. We should avoid them until their own rot, one day, swallows them whole.”
Madison stares up at Ms. Joost. The crossing guard has such a kind face, she thinks, with sad, caring eyes, and a laughing, wonderful mouth. A beautiful face. Why does she say these things?
“Actually, Madison, people aren’t born this way, there isn’t anyone quite like that. Except for him. Potato. When he gets to that curb over there, I’ll wait, like I do every year, for a fast car to turn that corner, then I’ll summon him across.”
“That’s right, Maddie. It’s what we all want. Don’t spoil it. Now off you go.”
Madison takes two steps, then stops. I must warn him, she thinks. She turns to go back, but the giant red hexagon swats her coat, stopping her short. Ms. Joost winks and wrinkles her nose.
“Go on, child. Get to class. It’s the first day!”
Madison feels dizzy by the time she reaches the far curb. The path she takes to school cuts through the apple trees near the tractor dealer. She wants to walk alone this morning. She stops by the creek and watches hatchlings bump the water’s top. White fluff from the willow drifts down and touches the stream’s slow, calm surface. Madison sits on a long, cool stone on the bank and rests her tiny, blue shoes on wet wood. It is time to wonder about things. Why are people all so dreadful to that boy? Horrible. And today, in school, they will throw stones at him until he is too hurt to go to class and he will be sent home—sent home by a teacher who will examine his wounds and then push her sharp fingers into them before shoving him out the door. Home: what is his home like? Do his parents know how badly he is treated? Madison feels the light shift and the little diamonds by the stones near her feet are gone. His parents don’t care. Madison puts her hand to her wet face. His parents are the worst of all. I will not go to school today, she thinks. The stream is so beautiful it seems populated by fairies. Dragonflies. Heavy bees. Water beetles weave and unweave a skittery cloth across the cold blue stones.
Idaho is walking slowly. His feet are sore from deep dog bites and his stomach is roiling with the maggoty paw his father forced him to eat. It’s hard to say what Idaho really looks like. His hair is probably brown, but it’s so matted down with the dung of bedbugs that it could be red. His eyes, I’ve never seen; they are more than merely lowered; they are hidden, hooded, sunken back. Not enough nutrition in him to light them, maybe, or just no reason for them to look out. His hands are puffy, but I don’t think he’s a large boy; it may be that his extremities are swollen from the infectious mouths that bite him while he sleeps or just lies there, as he does, all summer—an unmoving unfortunate boy with no reason to rise.
He’s up now, though, trudging alongside poplars, alone and slightly darker than his own shadow. I wish I could say what he thinks, but I don’t even know if he thinks at all. It is a fact that when a person is visited with more suffering than he can bear, he stops being a person in a way, to protect himself, to stop being vulnerable, to stop being like us. So it’s not possible to understand Idaho’s pain, because it isn’t properly felt by Idaho himself. Idaho is empty. He is an emptiness. Like the space you leave behind when you get out of a chair. It’s like after a loud noise, when all you hear is the sound of yourself listening. What is there is only was. That’s it. Idaho is was.
He stops at the curb and hears the crossing guard’s shrill whistle, then steps onto the surface of the road. He knows that a car is bearing down and he leaps away at the last moment.
“You wretched little creep!” Ms. Joost has run toward him and is brandishing her sign like an axe. Idaho runs away as fast as he can, and he’s still only a sliver ahead of her swing. He makes it to the other side of the road, then keeps running down the sidewalk, ignoring the cracks that open up across his dry toes and the burning vinegar of his tears.
“You better run, Potato! Tomorrow I finish you off!”
Idaho barrels down the sidewalk, splitting up children who walk in pairs. The children take up the chase. Soon a crowd of them is after him as he runs blindly across a front yard.
Idaho stops in front of Mr. Harris, who is watering his garden with a spout shaped like a giant daisy. He looks over the top of his glasses at the mob of kids who have massed at the border of his lawn. The kids mill guiltily, not quite willing to leave.
“What’s this? What’s going on?”
Mr. Harris notices Idaho panting on all fours on the wet lawn. The old man touches Idaho’s shoulder.
“You okay, son?”
Kyle makes his way to the front of the mob. “That’s Potato. We was gonna beat him before school.”
Mr. Harris straightens and shuts off his daisy. “Now why would you do that?”
Kyle sniffs, defiant but unable to think of an answer. Evan walks out in front of his friend; he speaks in a voice that’s much calmer and more adult that Kyle’s.
“We beat him up before school to keep him from going to school.”
This shocks Mr. Harris, who looks down at Idaho. He reaches a hand under the boy’s chin and lifts his head. Red-ringed eyes and swollen lips. A pale face, with almost transparent skin, but dark, too, deep creases of worry and pain. A stunning face, Mr. Harris thinks, like nothing I’ve ever seen. He turns his daisy back on and points into Idaho’s eyes.
“Get off my lawn, you Potato! Kids! Come and get rid of it!”
Idaho crumples and covers his ears with his hands. The blows come from everywhere. Kicks to the ribs. Jabs and stabs on the backs of his legs. Dirt and mud flipped into his mouth. He closes his eyes and falls deep inside. He loses consciousness. It’s not sleep, more like a sluggish withdrawal from the world. Like a slug or a snail pulling himself up into a chamber to hide. I should be able to tell you what happens to him in there, but as far as I can tell, he is just gone. Swallowed whole by his own not being here and in spite of this, the children keep raining fists and pencils and mud onto him. Even wonderful old Mr. Harris can’t help but shove a tomato stake between the boy’s fingers and into his ear. They seem so desperate, all of them: desperate to hurt him, as if their own welfare depended on this boy’s pain.
In time, they leave him and skip back to the sidewalk. Mr. Harris rolls the boy to the gutter and gives him one last kick. On Maple Street, poor Idaho Winter is curled, covered in leaves and sticks, and nobody cares. No one. His father sits at home with the vicious dog that feeds on Idaho’s feet. His classmates are hiding all along the way to school with paper clips and spitballs and tough little tacks taped to their knuckles. The teacher waits at the back of the classroom with a small cage filled with fire ants. Even the crossing guard is ready — unwilling to leave things to chance, she sits in her big brown van, revving the engine, prepared to squeal out onto the road should Idaho Winter cross back.
There is someone who isn’t plotting to hurt Potato. She sits alone in a sunlit, pebbled patch by the brook, arms folded and face frowning. The unfair world is before her and she does not yet know what she will do, only that she will do something. When you see things as they are, no matter how they are, you take a moment by yourself and plan some changes.
In the meantime? Things get worse for poor Idaho Winter.
Mrs. Hail taps her shoe against her desk. She slaps the attendance book closed and slides herself up onto her desk.
“Two missing. Idaho Winter and Madison Beach.”
The children exchange wide-eyed looks. Kyle, who is not smart enough to give looks, moans. Evan slaps the back of Kyle’s neck with a ruler.
Mrs. Hail looks menacingly at Kyle.
“Do you know where these two are, Kyle?”
Evan hisses softly. “Tell her.”
Mrs. Hail cocks her chin and spies Evan whispering.
“Do you know something, Evan?”
Evan coughs and, under the cough, blurts the word “dead” to Kyle. “Yes, teacher.”
Mrs. Hail is surprised and pleased. She gestures with a long pencil in her long fingers for Evan to continue.
“Madison was looking for the Potato and he must have found her.”
The other children make a noise of agreement.
“Well, then. That’s not very good. Is the Potato still dangerous?”
All the children chime in at once. “Yes! Yes! The Potato is the worst! He’s the worst! He’s the worst!”
Mrs. Hail watches grimly while the children shout. She silences them by stabbing the air with her pencil. “Okay. So this lovely girl is missing and that repellent little vegetable is responsible?”
The class is almost on its feet now, cheering and howling, pumping their fists in the air.
“Quiet, children. Please, I have to think.” Mrs. Hail taps her chin with her pencil and squints: a bad boy has taken a good girl. She reaches back and pulls out a tiny cell phone, stabbing it with her pencil.
“This is Mrs. Hail, home room teacher at St. John’s Wort Middle School. One of my lovely students has been kidnapped by a boy and we don’t know where they are.”
She smiles at the silent class and winks.
“Miss Madison Beach. That’s right. Yes, she is a perfect little girl. I know, it is awful. His name is Idaho Winter. Yes. That’s him. Thank you.” She closes her phone and stares impishly at the class. “The police are assembling search dogs and they say they will find her.”
The class claps and cheers.
“What about him? What are they going to do to the Potato?”
Mrs. Hail slams her fist on her desk and the children freeze. “The police say that when they find her they will take her home for the day. And when they find him they will feed him to the dogs.”
The children leap onto their desks and throw their books into the air.
And so begins the first day of school.
I sit back for a moment marveling at the terrible drama. Surely these people will see, surely they’ll change before they do something truly awful.
Tony Burgess lives in Stayner, Ontario, with his wife Rachel and their two children. He is the author of The Hellmouths of Bewdley, Pontypool Changes Everything, Caesarea, Fiction for Lovers (which won the ReLit Award), Ravenna Gets, People Live Still in Cashtown Corners, and Idaho Winter. His writing has been featured in numerous anthologies and magazines across the country. Most recently, Tony was nominated for a Genie Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Pontypool, a film directed by Bruce McDonald.