's 2018 Horror Write-off:

Garbage Boy

Submitted by Joseph Hartman (email)

He was the most delicate boy I'd ever met. It was like he was made entirely of glass, but wasn't afraid of being broken. It was almost as if he believed that, for the sake of his fragility, everything else would break around him, and that's what scared him. If only he'd been right.
His fragility was entirely physical, you know. He seemed emotionally fragile, but that was just how people liked to simplify it. If he tripped someone on accident, broke a pencil, even so much as watched someone step on an ant in front of him, he would burst into tears.
What they mistook as emotional weakness or being 'a wimp' was in actuality a severe acuity of the senses. It was incredible, really. He had incredible hearing, eyesight. A great sense of smell, of taste, of sensation. An incredible sense of guilt. Sense of sentimentality, responsibility, empathy. I think, he was gathering so much from the world around him at any given moment, that he never had the time to think about it, to come to any proper understanding. That was what caused it, I think.
So, delicate, yes. But weak? No. I say that it would take an incredible amount of emotional strength to endure all that for so long.
People thought he was weird. And yeah, he was. I won't deny that. Your classic, introverted, book-reading kid who hadn't quite figured out how to talk to people yet. It's possible he was somewhere on the autism spectrum, but we were just stupid kids and his parents never bothered to get him diagnosed. But there was more, and I think a lot of people never really noticed, until it was too late.
For instance, he hated trash cans. He always took the seat in the corner of the classroom, or if he couldn't choose, he begged the teacher to move the trash can as far away from him as possible. He was given special privileges to eat outside instead of in the cafeteria, which was lined with trashcans. It had taken a while, and a lot of screaming to get to that point. He always gave his garbage to other people, so they could throw it away instead. Which, admittedly, didn't really help him make friends.
He had a special box, that he kept old pencils in. They were always short and nubby; he always used the same one until it was sharpened all the way down to the eraser, then into the box it went. One day, he was very distressed that he'd gotten his current favorite jammed in one of those old crank-sharpeners, and while everyone left, he was still there, trying to pick it out. Whimpering, pleading. I kept thinking he would give up and go home, but he just kept trying, for five minutes straight.
I decided to help him. I gave the sharpener a big whack on the other side, and the pencil popped out, and he looked at me like I was his hero. He hugged me, which was awkward, but it was the most affection I ever saw him gave anyone. So, looking back on it, it was sort of magical.
I asked him. "Why do you keep old pencils in a box?"
He looked a bit confused. They're old," he said insistently, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "It's their retirement box."

Again, it was a bit weird to me. But I wasn't bothered, really. People collected stamps, trading cards, videogames they never play. Why not pencils? Why not frame it as retirement? It was weird, yeah. But sweet.
He turned pages slowly, very slowly. He had a peculiar way of walking, as if he was trying to never make a sound. He never ate food that came wrapped. He was nice to everyone, until they treated him wrong or acted in a way that disturbed him. I never did, but I worried whether or not I would by accident. It was like there were a thousand other invisible rules that he knew by heart, and I could never find a pattern.
Until, of course, when it happened. A substitute teacher, first thought temporary, but then our original teacher died of the sickness she thought was a cold. This new teacher was a strict old man, who thought that people should change to fit the rules, rather than the other way around.
There was a seating chart, that our old teacher, rest her soul, never bothered to change to accommodate the boy. His seat was right next to the trash can, but it was generally assumed he would swap to the far corner of the room each time he came in.
The new teacher didn't let him. No matter how much he wailed, all it earned him was reprimands and a ticket to the principal's office. A conference was held with his parents, and all they could tell him was to 'stop causing trouble'. Their logic was, he'd already gotten what he wanted with the cafeteria, why was he causing such a ruckus elsewhere?
They didn't know what they had. So they scared their son into submission, threatening to take away his collections. Plural, of course. I didn't know how many he had, and I didn't ask when he told me about it. I was the only one he would really talk to, so I was careful not to overstep my bounds.
But I was still curious. I asked him and asked him, about all his rules and quirks and obsessions, and if I could help when his teacher, the principal, when even his parents failed him. But I didn't really understand, and he just shook his head. And he told me something, like a cardinal rule:
"If you leave them be... they get quieter."
I thought it was fairly clever. That was why he was usually quiet. He was staying low, staying quiet, letting everyone forget about him. So they wouldn't bother him. That was better than the alternative.
That's what I thought he meant, anyway.
In the weeks to come, he sat next to the trash can. He never looked at it, just sat at his desk, staring straight forward. He was pale most of the time, crying other times. His grades faltered. Out of class, he was quieter, more reclusive than ever. He missed class, many times. When he was in class, he could hardly pay attention to lectures, having to ask the same question multiple times, as if he couldn't hear.
There was a pizza party one day. Everyone was excited, even him. It was the last time I saw him happy. Because, after the party was over, the new teacher asked everyone to help clean up. But throwing away plates or paper wipes would require going near the trash can, so the boy ended up not helping much at all.
The teacher noticed, told him to take the trash bag out to the dumpster.
He burst into tears. Tried to refuse, but the teacher just kept getting angrier, and he just kept crying harder. I offered to take it instead. Even the kids who didn't like him volunteered, never seeing him in quite so much duress.
"No," the teacher said. "He needs to learn personal responsibility."
Still weeping, the boy pulled out the bag, holding it gingerly by the strings, and carried it out. I went with him, even though the teacher called after me and threatened suspension.
The boy refused to let me take it. Muttered something about 'responsibility' through hearty sniffs of a runny nose.
The dumpster was behind the school. He'd never gone back there before. Not many kids did, except the ones who didn't wanna get caught doing something against the rules. He stiffened when he saw it. His breathing became unsteady, and he nearly retched. He took staggering steps towards it, and I thought it was just trepidation.
Secretly, maybe selfishly, I hoped that doing this would help him, somehow. It was a horrible thing for the teacher to do, but he was still the adult. Maybe this was what the boy needed.
That was when the boy fell to the ground, halfway to the dumpster. And I noticed he was bleeding from the ears.
I ran to him. Pulled him away from the dumpster, from the spilled trash on the ground. He wasn't screaming, just gasping for breath, clutching at his chest. I felt it. It was hammering out of his ribcage, beating wrong and uneven.
I screamed for help. It took a while before anyone came. I looked down at him, and asked, frantically, trying to help.
"What's wrong? What happened?"
His fingers came up, and dragged at his weeping face, as if trying to pry his eyelids down his cheeks. His pupils were pinpricks, darting around at the sky. Trying to put into words something instinctual. Something he didn't quite understand.
"I wish I could help them..." He cried. "But nobody cares! Nobody loves..."
He trailed off, voice failing him.
Instead, he pulled a pencil out of his pocket, and pressed it to my ear. Then, he died, and the pencil fell to the ground, stomped in half by the paramedics who would come to collect him, and unsuccessfully revive him.
He was extraordinary. And extraordinarily fragile. His heart was weak, and the weeks of stress had taken their toll. It was generally assumed by the 'experts' that it had struck at random, with no discernible cause. The new teacher was, to them, blameless.
The only oddity, really, was the ruptured eardrums. But that too, was written off to something trivial. Blood pressure. Weak tissue.
But I knew. I know. And now, you know.
Because, when he pushed that pencil to my ear, I heard something. Barely a whisper, but I remember, clear as day, that I heard a voice. Either I heard something, or I'm crazy. And I'm not crazy.
And it makes me wonder what exactly was going on there. That, maybe, he could hear that all the time, and louder. And maybe everything had a voice to him, and maybe pencils do deserve a retirement.
The teacher didn't understand, and his parents rushed home after the funeral to throw away all his 'useless piles of trash'.
I imagine myself as him, sometimes. Imagine that everything has a voice, that it's alive in just the smallest way. A pencil may love to be written with, and sharpened back to a point. A book may love to be read, and despair when its pages are ripped or rendered unreadable. And I find myself more respectful of the world around me. I see the faintest outline of the invisible rules he so cherished.
And it strikes me that if everything's alive in some small way, then it's no wonder at all why the boy hated trash cans.

Or, more appropriately, what's inside them.
How they must scream.