I keep a row of used wine bottles in a crate in the garage, waiting for Transvaal daisies to start wilting. These sunny flowers don’t fall apart, they wilt with a graceful bow, giving the floor the next stalk—I usually cut them mid bow. Today a butter-coloured friend goes into their tipsy retirement on the island in our kitchen. They lean onto the dark neck of their new old bottle, and we sigh at each other.
My brother comes home in the afternoon without a smile. I tell him that I’ve saved him the last chocolate chip cookie, and he thanks me with a, “Ah, that makes me a little happier.”
He bites into the crusty edge. “I was bullied today.”
“Bullied? By who?”
“How do some people learn to bully?” Caramel crumbs are falling down his school uniform.
“I don’t think people learn to bully, sometimes they don’t know they’re bullying. Who bullied you?” I repeat my question.
“All of them. All the boys.”
“What did they do?”
He takes another mouthful and chews quickly. He always eats too fast. “They teased me. They said they had the right answer and I was wrong.”
“Was this in class?” I set my laptop aside.
“Uh huh, in English class.”
“What was the question?”
His dimple on his left cheek peeps in as his teeth break the cookie and his mind flips through the day’s pages. “It was about indirect speech. ‘Leo said that he—uh—not a rat.’”
I squint. “Do you mean fill in the blank? ‘Leo said that he—blank—not a rat?’” My brother nods. They’re starting to read Roald Dahl at school, like I did when I was their age. “What did you say?”
“I said, ‘was’. My friends said, ‘is’.”
“And what did the teacher say?”
He picks up a crumb from his shirt and tastes it with his tongue. “She said I was right. But my friends still teased me. They said I’m dumb.” There are two bites of the buttery cookie left.
I lean back in my chair and reposition my spine. “People like to think they’re right about things, but no one’s right all the time. And when they realize they’re wrong, they can feel a little upset. It makes them say things they don’t mean.”
He doesn’t seem convinced, and it pops into my head that the first Roald Dahl I read from cover to cover was The Witches. “I think when that happens, you can take a step back,” I say. “Give them time to calm down.”
The last bits of the cookie remain in his little fingers. The Transvaal daisy sits in the calm of their island behind his back.
I ask, “They said you’re dumb?” He nods, and I ask again, “Do you think you’re dumb?”
He knows the answer, but he waits a while to say it. “No.”
“All right, that’s fine then. You know you’re not dumb. They don’t know. They’re not in your head, so how can they know?” He blinks at that. And then he finishes his cookie.
I propose fried chicken for dinner.
Thao To writes short stories and peruses newspaper archives. She’s always between timezones. You can find her musings in Literally Stories, Anak Sastra, or on Twitter @thao__to