He smelled her perfume before he opened his eyes; for one second he was happy. But then he took a breath and his whole world hurt, and he remembered he should be surprised. And he was: Liz was sitting next to him. They were in a drab room. His inhaler was next to him on an end table. Peter was hooked up to various machines, including a heart rate monitor. Somehow they were in a room with a window. The sun hit her hair and created a golden halo around her face. Peter couldn’t help himself; he grinned. He’d forgotten how to do that and it felt good to remember.
But she didn’t smile back and Peter found he couldn’t remember how to anymore. “Peter, we need to talk.” He wanted to have something snide to tell her, he wanted to tell her to go away. But he couldn’t. “What happened yesterday was serious. I mean, look at what you did!”
“What I did?? I’m in a hospital bed! What do you mean, what I did? You mean what your precious brick wall of a boyfriend did.”
Liz stood up and walked over to the bed. “Peter: Flash is from a broken home, from a broken family. His father’s an asshole. He beats him, but not his face, so that way Flash can go to school without people asking questions. He is under the thumb of some of the worst people I’ve ever met. But he cares! He still wants to be good! I know, because, despite all the awful things he’s said and done, he does what he can. But you…? Your Aunt and Uncle are awesome. And you’ve turned into something evil.”
Peter gingerly leaned forward and touched Liz’s hand, who flinched and pulled it back. “But this is because of what Flash and his cronies like Kong keep doing to me! Liz, they swirlied me every day for a year, right after they were done using the toilet! I had to go home, every day, for a year, to wash fecal matter out of my hair! The school did nothing. My aunt and uncle did nothing. And you sure didn’t do anything about it either. Flash is pulling a fast one on you, Liz. He just wants to ruin you and then laugh about it to his friends.”
“How often have you been picked on in the last six months, since I’ve been talking to Flash?”
“He broke my Weather-Man just the other day! It’s why I did what I did! What you’re doing didn’t work!”
“Wait, what? When?”
“Around fourth period, just the day before yesterday.”
Liz blushed. “Um, that’s impossible.”
“What does that mean?” Peter clutched her hand again but Liz yanked it away.
“Why don’t you figure it out, genius?” She stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
It wasn’t much more than a minute until Uncle Ben and Aunt May came in. Uncle Ben took one look at Peter’s face and motioned for Aunt May to leave. She came up and gave Peter a quick kiss and left. “This isn’t a moment for a lady to witness”, Uncle Ben said. “Some things just can’t be said in front of anyone but another man.”
Peter nodded. “I destroyed a necklace that Flash was going to give Liz. I took peroxide, vinegar, and threw in some table salt packets I had from our lunch room, put it in a bucket, and instantly rusted out the necklace. Flash put me in the hospital over that.”
Uncle Ben nodded throughout, holding eye contact with Peter. But, when Peter finished, he didn’t say anything for a few more minutes. “Peter, you’re not malicious.” Peter opened his mouth to protest but Uncle Ben held up a hand “I’m not saying what you did wasn’t bad. It was. We’ll have to talk about that in a minute. But there are many things you are not, and an aggressor is not one of them. So what did Flash do to provoke you?”
“Uncle Ben, how do you know I haven’t changed? How do you know I didn’t just pick that fight with Flash?”
“Peter, you do know what you do every day, right? You go downstairs, into that basement, and you work. I’ve seen the things that are on your desk down there. They’re not weapons. You just make things. The concept of breaking things is not natural to you.”
Peter looked down at his hands. He took a deep breath. “Flash destroyed my Weather-Man machine. I had made it to be able to alter the weather, but on a very small scale. I was so… I was so… it’s gone now. And Flash had broken it. That’s what matters.”
“Ah, this makes more sense. It’s a bit of a relief, too!” Uncle Ben and Peter laughed; Peter winced.
“I miss how simple things used to be, Uncle Ben. Well, not that life isn’t simple now! It is… way too simple. I miss things being good. I miss people besides you and Aunt May being better than… well... what they are.”
“They are already, Peter. You just need to have some more faith in people. And I know that’s hard” Uncle Ben said hurriedly as Peter opened his mouth. “But there’s a lot more going on with people than you give them credit for. I know it’s hard to imagine someone being that warped by what happened to them, but look at what you just did! You destroyed something meant for Liz, of all people! I know you didn’t win out on that triangle, Peter, and I know that must hurt, particularly since you used to be such good friends with Flash. But c’mon, what you did was pretty awful. Why did you do it?”
Peter couldn’t answer.
“You’re not a bad person, Peter, but what you did was pretty awful. Are they bad people just because they’ve done something bad?”
“I… I don’t know. About them or me.”
“Exactly. And don’t you have a responsibility to give them the benefit of the doubt? Not to mention yourself.”
“I… I…” Peter couldn’t look at Uncle Ben. He kept trying to, but his neck muscles wouldn’t budge.
“You have that power, Peter. You have the power to give people the benefit of the doubt they need to be better. And that means you have a responsibility to use that power, wisely, like I’m giving you, right now. Can you give that to Flash? What if he wasn’t the one who destroyed your Weather-Man?”
“Flash has broken into my locker before, Uncle Ben. He’s admitted to it! Of course it was him.”
“Did you ask this time?”
“You talk about the past not being indicative of the present all the time and you go and accuse someone of something based off of past behavior?? How dumb is that? I mean, what do you need, a flowchart??”
“Wouldn’t a flowchart be kind of against the point??” Uncle Ben shrugged, and then his face screwed up as he got it, and he started to laugh. And then Peter started laughing. Peter and Uncle Ben laughed until the tears flowed down their cheeks. Peter was holding his ribs, groaning in pain. “You alright there, buddy?” Uncle Ben asked.
Peter winced, but smiled “Yeah! Yeah, just fine… I’m just fine.” He said in surprise.
“Good. Cause Flash is waiting outside, and he’s been wanting to talk to you this whole time. He got here earlier this morning.” Peter blanched. “Don’t worry, buddy, you got this! Just remember: you have a responsibility. See it through, OK?” Peter nodded. “You got this, alright buddy? I’ll be right out there with your Aunt. You can do it.” Peter nodded and Uncle Ben left.
The next few minutes were spent looking up at the ceiling. And sweating. Peter grabbed his inhaler and puffed, which only made him feel light-headed. And then the door slammed open. Peter jumped. Flash stalked into the room, grabbed a seat, and threw himself into it, next to Peter. They didn’t make eye contact for a few minutes. Peter still had his hand on his inhaler. After a few minutes Flash shook his head. “I didn’t break your weather thing.”
“No, it’s not whatever!” Peter yelled. “That machine was going to put me on the map! I was going to use it to get me a scholarship out of this hellhole! Away from you! Away from Liz! Away from all of it!”
Flash backed up a bit. “Whoa- one second-“
“NO! FOR ONCE IN YOUR LIFE YOU’RE GOING TO LISTEN TO ME!” Peter lurched forward and Flash fell out of his chair. “SHE LOVED ME, YOU IDIOT! NOT LIKE, LOVED! YOU HAD NO RIGHT TO TAKE LIZ! NONE! I’LL NEVER FORGIVE THAT! SWIRLY ME A THOUSAND-“
Flash slapped Peter in the face. Gently. Peter- still - fell back onto the bed. “Parker, listen up: I didn’t destroy your weather-thing. I know I did a lot of things to you and I know that makes me your fall guy. But, in case you forgot, I haven’t swirlied you for years now. If you miss it I can drag you to a nearby toilet and we can do it again for old time’s sake. Not my thing, not anymore, but if it makes your day? I’m down. But it is what it is: I did not touch your weather-thing. Sorry about the broken ribs. You really should stay out of my locker. Dweeb.”
Liz walked past as Flash walked out. “No right to take Liz?”
To liken Peter to a deer in the head lights was an understatement. “What?”
“Seriously? Take? What, you think I can be bought and sold?”
“Shut up, Peter. Flash didn’t break your Weather-Man. Not only do I not think he would do that but I know he didn’t. He was with me, Peter. Take. I don’t know what happened to make you like this, Peter, but I don’t want to find out.”
Peter winced as the door slammed.
Fifteen minutes went by. A soft knock could be heard, and Aunt May peeked her head in. “Peter?” He didn’t look up from gazing into his lap. Aunt May walked in, softly, and stood next to Peter. He didn’t look up. Aunt May stroked his shoulder. Peter stiffened, but Aunt May didn’t seem to take notice and continued to stroke his shoulder. She ran her hand down Peter’s arm, to his hand. He relaxed.
Peter held her hand.