What Our Helmets Let Us See
by Stephen Measure
It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, the sky from horizon to horizon a dark green, like freshly cut grass under the watchful shade of a tall pine tree, the green punctuated with little wisps of white, like aged dandelions ready to release their seeds into the breeze.
The boy stood on the sidewalk in his blue jumpsuit, shiny and smooth. He wore a glossy black helmet on his head, his face palely visible through the visor as he looked up at the magnificent green sky. It was going to be a wonderful day. He could already feel it. He felt cocooned, safe, protected by his glossy black helmet. In a tree beside him, three red-breasted robins perched high above, singing a tune in perfect unison.
The school bus approached. Picking up his backpack from the ground, the boy slung it over a shoulder. He stepped back from the curb as the bus came to a stop in front of him, the bus letting out a gasp of air, its lights blinking a warning that a child was about to board. The bus doors opened, its engine idling in the cool morning air.
The bus driver, wearing a brown jumpsuit and a glossy black helmet, greeted the boy as he ascended the steps into the bus.
“Be careful, the second step is loose,” the bus driver said, his voice comfortably muffled by his glossy black helmet, his face a ghost through the visor.
The boy placed his boot on the second step tentatively. The step looked normal, yet just as the bus driver had warned, the boy could feel the rubber tread slide beneath his boot. Carefully he advanced up onto the third step and then into the bus.
“We’ll get it fixed after I drop you kids off at school,” the bus driver said. He turned his glossy black helmet back to the road, and the bus slowly pulled away from the curb.
The boy walked down the center aisle of the bus. Sunlight peeked through the window to his right, reflecting off row after row of glossy black helmets, the bus nearly full, boys and girls sitting two to a bench, all wearing jumpsuits and glossy black helmets. Some wore red jumpsuits. Some wore green. Some wore yellow, some orange, some purple, some brown, and some blue like the boy himself. His heart stirred at the sight. Such diversity of color! Above, the sky was the perfect shade of green, and here he stood in a bus filled with jumpsuits in so many different colors, and above those vibrant, diverse jumpsuits, the same glossy black helmet on each and every boy’s and girl’s head. So uniform, so safe, so comfortable, so right.
The same glossy black helmet was on each and every head, that is, except one. There on the fifth row, a boy sat alone—for who would want to sit by someone so disgusting? He didn’t wear a jumpsuit, just blue jeans and a gray shirt, and if that weren’t horrible enough, he wore no helmet, nothing to cover his filthy, unkempt hair that spiked in all directions, small bugs visibly crawling across its surface. His skin was rotten, bulging in places as some small horror wiggled beneath it. His eyes were beady and red, his lips moldy, and in his mouth, a sharp serpent tongue. He was a monster, an absolute monster. Why he was allowed to board the same bus as normal kids, the boy had no idea.
The boy glared at the other boy, the monster boy, who met his gaze passively.
“I mangle baby bunnies,” the other boy said, his voice obscenely clear, a sharp serpent tongue darting in and out of moldy lips. “I skin them with my teeth. Little bones—I break them!”
The boy shook his helmeted head. “You are such a freak,” he said. The other boy continued looking at him with his beady red eyes, a cheek bulging, then his lower jaw, as the horror beneath his skin explored its putrid lair.
The boy wondered, how could someone be so horrible, so hateful? He looked into the other boy’s beady red eyes, searching for an answer, and as he looked, he saw something unexpected: hurt and confusion. Emotions like that on the face of a monster? But then the other boy opened his disgusting moldy lips, and his sharp serpent tongue dispelled the illusion. “The bunnies, I squeeze out their blood. I slurp it up!”
The boys and girls in nearby rows yelled and groaned.
“That’s so disgusting!”
“Why don’t you just shut up?”
The boy shook his helmeted head once more and turned his back on the other boy, the monster boy, who looked down at the floor. The boy continued along the bus aisle until he found an open seat next to a boy wearing a yellow jumpsuit.
As soon as he sat down, a girl in the row ahead turned around, the shoulder of her purple jumpsuit peeking above the seatback, her ghostly blonde hair visible through her helmet’s visor. “I can’t believe they let that monster ride the same bus as us,” she said. “I complained to the principal already. You all should too. They should kick him off the bus. They should kick him out of school. No one should be allowed to say the things he says.”
The boy nodded his approval as did the boy in the yellow jumpsuit sitting next to him as did all the boys and girls who had heard the girl’s opinion, their glossy black helmets bobbing up and down in unison. The other boy was a monster. He shouldn’t be allowed around normal kids. And yet … the boy thought of the emotions he had seen in the other boy’s beady red eyes: hurt, confusion. They had almost made the other boy appear human.
“Watch this,” the boy in the yellow jumpsuit said. He held a wadded piece of paper in his hand, and he threw it at the back of the other boy’s head. It hit with a thud and the bus filled with laughter. The other boy turned around, beady red eyes, sharp serpent tongue darting in and out of moldy lips, “I smear my hair with bunny blood!”
The boys and girls erupted in disgust.
“Just shut up, will you? We all hate you. Just shut up!”
The other boy, the monster boy, turned away and looked down at the floor once more. The boy thought again of the confusion and hurt he had seen in the other boy’s beady red eyes. But even if a monster were capable of such feelings, what did he expect, given the horrible things he always said? Did he really expect them to tolerate that? Of course they wouldn’t.
And yet the boy felt unsettled. His morning had started out so perfectly. The dark green sky, the bus full of such a diversity of colored jumpsuits, everyone wearing their glossy black helmets. The other boy, the monster boy, had been there like always, looking and sounding horrible and monstrous just like you’d expect. But there was something different this time, something that didn’t fit. It was the emotions the boy had seen in the other boy’s eyes. They didn’t fit. They didn’t fit like they were supposed to fit. And the boy felt unsettled.
He looked out the window at the homes flowing past, grass and bushes, cars parked in driveways, basketball hoops, neatly pruned trees, and above it all, the dark green sky. Its relaxing hue calmed him, just as it always did. Looking at it, the boy was reminded that the world was as it should be, the sky a mirror of the grass below, as if the whole world was cocooned, safely wrapped in green just as his head was safely wrapped, protected inside his glossy black helmet.
Arriving at the school, the bus stopped with a loud gasp and its doors opened to let out the schoolchildren. Everyone stood up and started walking toward the exit, their excited chatter mixing with the heavy idling of the bus engine. In the aisle ahead of him, amidst the glossy black helmets and the wonderfully diverse colored jumpsuits, the boy could catch glimpses of the other boy now and then, filthy, unkempt monster hair, gray shirt, blue jeans. All the normal kids gave the other boy a wide berth. No one wanted to be touched by his rotten skin. No one wanted to feel the horrors that crawled beneath.
The boy wondered again at the emotions he had seen in the other boy’s beady red eyes, the hurt and confusion. But what did the other boy expect? He was a monster! Did he expect normal kids would treat him like a human? How could he expect that, with the monstrous way he looked and the monstrous things he always said?
The boy followed the crowd to the front of the bus, where he began to descend the steps to the sidewalk. Ahead of him was the school, a respectable two-story structure built of red brick, reaching up into the glorious green sky, the schoolyard a sea of colored jumpsuits and glossy black helmets. But as the boy descended the steps, he forgot the second step was loose. Putting his full weight on it, he slipped and fell, the sidewalk rushing up to meet him. He hit face-first with a painful crash then rolled onto his back.
The boy lay on the sidewalk, eyes closed, something cold and hard pressing against the back of his head. It felt like cement, which meant his helmet must have come off. He hoped he hadn’t broken it. Opening his eyes, he looked up at the sky, his vision filling with blue from horizon to horizon. Panic seized his heart. A blue sky? Where was the green? The boy blinked, willing the world to return to how it should be. But despite his blinking, the sky remained blue. Something horrible had happened to him. Something was wrong with his eyes!
“Are you okay?” a timid yet clear voice asked.
The boy looked over and saw blue jeans and a gray shirt. He tensed as he looked up into the other boy’s face, expecting to see beady red eyes looking down at him, rotten skin, a sharp serpent tongue behind moldy lips.
But there were no beady red eyes. There was no rotten skin, no sharp serpent tongue, no moldy lips. The boy was surprised to find himself looking into the face of a normal boy, caucasian skin, hazel eyes, brown hair parted quietly to one side.
“That was a nasty fall,” the other boy said. “Are you okay?”
Where was the other boy’s sharp serpent tongue? Where was his filthy, unkempt hair with bugs crawling all over it?
“You look like a normal kid,” the boy said.
“Of course I do,” the other boy said. “I am a normal kid.”
“And you sound normal,” the boy continued. “You aren’t talking about torturing bunnies like you always do.”
The other boy raised an eyebrow. “Torturing bunnies? Why in the world would I talk about that?”
Boys and girls were still exiting the bus. They stopped and pointed at the boy on the ground and the other boy standing above him, their jeers filling the air.
“Look, the freak has a friend!”
“I didn’t know there were two of those disgusting monsters.”
“Look at their rotten skin. It’s not contagious, is it?”
“I’m talking to the principal. They shouldn’t be here.”
The boy rose up on his elbows. These were the same kids he had been sitting next to on the bus. He saw the boy in the yellow jumpsuit. He saw the girl with ghostly blonde hair. Couldn’t they see who he was? “It’s me, you guys,” he said. “I just fell and my helmet got knocked off.”
Behind the visors of their glossy black helmets, disgust filled each and every pale face.
“Why would you do something like that to an innocent puppy?”
“That’s so gross.”
“I’m telling the principal!”
The boy didn’t understand. “But it’s me!” he said. “It’s me!”
“Shut up, you freak!” the boy in the yellow jumpsuit said. “Why don’t you two monsters go away? Can’t you see you’re not wanted here? No one wants to hear your disgusting, hateful stories about how you torture innocent animals. No one wants monsters like you here.”
The boys and girls in their diversely colored jumpsuits and glossy black helmets all turned their backs on the boy and walked away. The boy looked at the other boy. “Why can’t they see who I am?” the boy asked. “Why can’t they hear what I’m saying? Why do they think I’m a monster?”
The other boy held the boy’s glossy black helmet in his hands. “It’s their helmets,” the other boy said. “They make you look and sound like a monster.”
“Why would their helmets make me look and sound like a monster?”
“Because you aren’t wearing a helmet.”
There was truth in the other boy’s words, the boy could feel it. Unfamiliar, uncomfortable truth, like the unfamiliar, uncomfortable, blue sky. But it didn’t fit. It didn’t fit with everything the boy knew. It didn’t fit with everything the boy had heard. It didn’t fit with everything the boy had seen. Wind caressed his bare cheeks, and he shuddered at the violation. He felt so exposed, so unprotected, so unsafe. The sky was blue from horizon to horizon. It should be green! It had always been green. It didn’t fit. None of it fit. It simply didn’t fit.
It’s a lie, the boy told himself. All of it, the blue sky, the other boy, all of it was a lie. He had fallen and bumped his head and that was why this was happening, that was why he was seeing these strange things, that was why he was hearing these strange things. He needed his helmet to protect him. He needed his helmet to help him see. He needed his helmet to help him hear. He needed his green sky.
Grabbing his glossy black helmet from the other boy’s hands, the boy thrust it onto his head, sighing as the padding enveloped his head in a warm, safe cocoon. He opened his eyes and looked through the visor, and his heart relaxed as his sight was filled with green, glorious green.
This was how things should be. This was how things really were. No more wind harassing his cheeks. No more blue where there should be green. He could feel the comforting weight of the glossy black helmet on his head, the protection from the world outside. Everything unpleasant, everything wrong, shown exactly as it truly was.
The boy looked at the other boy. He saw the other boy’s beady red eyes. He saw the other boy’s rotten skin, his filthy, unkempt hair crawling with bugs. And when the other boy opened his moldy lips, the boy saw the other boy’s sharp serpent tongue. “I clean my teeth with bunny bones,” the other boy said.
The boy saw hurt in the other boy’s eyes, the same hurt he had seen earlier. But now he knew it was all a lie. The other boy was trying to trick him. The other boy did terrible things to defenseless animals. The boy had heard him say it. The other boy was hideous and horrible. He was a monster.
The other boy, the monster boy, held out a rotten hand to help the boy to his feet. “I’m going to torture three bunnies today,” the other boy said, filthy, unkempt hair silhouetted against the glorious green sky. “Fresh ones, helpless ones, newborns. I can already hear them squealing.”
No more, the boy thought. No more! Ignoring the outstretched hand, the boy punched, hitting the other boy hard in the groin and sending him to the pavement with a surprised grunt. Then the boy grabbed the other boy by his filthy, unkempt hair, and he slammed the other boy’s face into the curb. He slammed it again, and again, and again, and again.
It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.