Nathan Alling Long is the author of The Origin of Doubt, a Lambda Award finalist. His stories and essays have appeared in over 100 publications. He teaches at Stockton University. "Them" was originally published in the Indiana Review. It is now a part of Short Édition's series, The Current.

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Originally published in the Indiana Review
They called her the girl with the big ears, though they didn't call her that to her face. That is, not to her ears. Not exactly. Not intentionally. They were sitting in the cafeteria—one line of buff Formica tables after another—talking about Mark Russell, the Spanish kid, the one you couldn't tell was Spanish, not from his looks or his name. They spoke over the roar of two hundred nervous voices and pairs of stainless steel silverware scraping against plastic trays. The air was full of inflated seriousness, laughter, and insinuations that someone had too much—or not enough—familiarity with sex. This is junior high.

"He's only half Spanish," one of them said of Mark—though really even this was wrong: Mark's mother was from Peru, his father from Omaha. He was Latino, half-Latino. But they didn't know that word, and so they called him Spanish, because one of them had heard him while he embarrassingly held the pay phone in the school lobby, whispering to his mother the fast marbled phrases of a foreign language that wasn't French. "It must have been Spanish," the one who heard it said. "Or Portuguese," another one offered. "It could have been Portuguese."

"Which one is Mark?" the youngest of them asked, swallowing a knot of fear, as she did with all of her questions. (For at some moment, wouldn't she ask the wrong question, the one that would reveal how thirteen she was, not fourteen—how innocent, not experienced?)

"He's that one," a couple of them said to the youngest. "The one with his back turned toward us."

"Which guy?" the youngest said again, leaning in close. "They've all got their backs toward us."

"Ahhh!" one of them said. Another sighed. The youngest had annoyed them, just like that.

Nonetheless, they tried to explain, whispering, "He's next to the girl with the big ears."

It was at that moment, however, that the sounds of the cafeteria were stilled into near silence, the way an audience hushes suddenly when the conductor raises his baton. There was no reason for it, no explanation, except that it obeyed the law of possibility, in which a loud, unruly crowd at times spontaneously pauses at the exact same moment.

Then the cacophony of voices and cluttering returned to the cafeteria, Stravinsky-like, and within it, doubt blossomed: the girl with the big ears had heard their comment and choked a moment on her strawful of milk. She hadn't thought of herself exactly as having big ears, yet she knew the remark was directed at her. She made a note to herself, deep within an unconfessionable chamber of her mind, to go to the bathroom after lunch and examine the size of her ears. Perhaps she had worried about it before, wondering, Are they too large? but she had never determined an answer. Now, finally, if it proved true (and how could it not?) she would have to wear her hair differently, give up the hope of earrings, and not be too surprised if she never got a date, ever again. It would be no wonder, then, if Mark Russell, who was sitting beside her, was only sitting there out of politeness.

She could not at that point in her life imagine that the reason he sat there, among the pale white girls, was to help erase within him that feeling that he was not one of them. He, too, had heard them say, "He's next to the girl with the big ears," and knew they were talking about him, about his foreignness, about the ways they knew he did not belong.

And the youngest of the group, the one who had asked the question, said, "Yes, I see now who you're talking about,"—though really she was still confused, for there was a boy sitting on either side of the big-eared girl. Both boys seemed simultaneously plain and foreign, and she feared she would never learn to tell difference and end up dating someone who only her friends could see was wrong. And then she thought of the girl with the big ears for a moment, wondering if the girl had heard their comment in that miraculously awkward lull, if it might have hurt her feelings—though she did not worry too much about it, for what mattered was that she, the youngest of them, was back among the group, a part of them again. At least for now.

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