THE new kid doesn’t live in the housing project but further west, the changing area between Strathcona and Chinatown. Each time I walk him home after program I see fresh real estate signs, blossoming like the cherry trees.

The other kids at the community centre peg him as weird right away. It’s the slight look of surprise he has on his face and how his sentences are too long and the things he wants to talk about are too specific. When I pick up his backpack it weighs a ton. What’s in there? I ask. He lets me look at his seven books about World War Two. Hitler, the Holocaust.

Wow, I say, those are some heavy books.

Is that a joke? he asks.

Yes and no, I say.

The centre is a contradiction for him. I can see the struggle on his face each time he comes in. This place where the computers are. But also other kids who are so much harder to read than books or even adults.

On the walk I try asking him about the books. Are they for a school project?

Nope, he says.

So it’s just something you’re interested in?


You just started coming to the centre. Did you live someplace else before? Do you have any brothers or sisters?

I can’t tell you that.

Why not?

What if you’re a secret agent?  What if you’re a spy?

Who would I be a spy for?

Who knows!

Is that a joke? I ask.

Yes and no, he says.

• • •

Secret agents. Spies. Words that could be coming from his books or his immigration status or maybe from his own household. Is his mother escaping an abuser, in the country illegally, working in the drug trade? I’ve met all those kids, living inside secrets they don’t even understand. I can remember being a kid with secrets. My dad was a small scale drug dealer. My mother was an activist. Sometimes I can remember the sick feeling you could have at a simple question. All the dangerous things it is possible to be asked. And other times I forget and ask them myself.

What did you get for your birthday/Christmas?

What does your dad/mom do for a living?

How many people live at your house?

Because what is a secret but something that changes how a person looks at you after you say it out loud.

• • •

The next week I ask him about school and the kids in his class.

I don’t want to talk about that.

Because it’s secret?

Because it’s boring.

OK, fair enough. What would you do with a million dollars?

That was one of the questions I had to ask the summer I worked as a telemarketer. It always kept people on the phone, which was the trick to making a sale.

He seems to have thought a lot about this for a twelve year old because he answers with a long list of weapons he would buy. I’m doubtful a million dollars would go that far and I tell him so.

Tanks aren’t cheap, I say.

• • •

He discovers I have no sense of direction and so walks me around in circles when I am taking him home from the centre. He likes the million dollar question. The next week he has to spend half on anything but weapons. He begrudgingly helps out his mom, gives me money for the computer lab. I try to engage his interest in the technical details. Monitor size. RAM. Processor speeds. But he’s not that kind of geek.

Just don’t buy crappy stuff, he says. Don’t rip me off.

The week after, I try to talk to him about the problems he’s been having at the centre.

Tell them to leave you alone really loud. Yell it. LEAVE ME ALONE! That way we can hear it and help you but the other kids can’t say you’re a snitch. Sometimes it takes a while to solve a problem. Sometimes we have to try more than one thing.

I’ve thought about my list and I have some changes, he says. The new list is more realistic. No tanks or helicopters. But guns, so many guns. Different weapons for different occasions. Zombie attack. Civil war.

We have to take a break from talking about guns, I tell him.

Why? They’re so interesting.

Not to me. All they do is hurt people.

But they protect you.

Against what?


• • •

I talk to the other staff about his gun obsession. The school counselor is called. There are shared concerns. There are some assessments planned.

It’s hard having a vivid imagination sometimes, I say to him. When everything feels like a story where anything could happen. But just because something could happen doesn’t mean it will.

Like a zombie apocalypse you mean?

Zombies, alien invasions, societal breakdown, war and other doomsday scenarios he can’t help imagining. Just because something could happen doesn’t mean it will. Like the movie that sometimes plays in my head of him coming through the centre doors with one of the many weapons he’s talked about. In the movie I always remind him of our walks, but what happens next depends on the day. Sometimes I’m a hero and sometimes I’m the first victim.

Short or long walk? I ask him after one of our last programs before summer break. That’s our new deal, instead of pretending to get lost.

Long, he says. We need the exercise.

Catapults and medieval weapons are mostly what he talks about now. It’s not guns, he says. You only said no guns.

Nearly all the For Sale signs down his street say Sold. He tells me they might have to move out of the neighbourhood. Where? I ask and he just shrugs.

OK, I say, imagine you could have any super power in the world. What would you pick? I think I’d want to be able to read minds.

What about being able to control them? he says. That would be a million times better.

Sonja Larsen has been collecting stories her whole life. A dual US/Canadian citizen, her childhood included joining a cult, hitchhiking across country and living on communes. Her award-winning memoir Red Star Tattoo (Random House) is available in paperback and audio book. Her work has appeared in literary magazines in the US, Canada and the UK. Her day job is working in youth and technology programming at an inner-city community centre in Vancouver BC. More: @redsonjabegonia |

© 2019 Sonja Larsen. Published by LITTLE FICTION | BIG TRUTHS, August 2019.

Images from The Noun Project (credits: Studio Adrien Coquet).




by Sonja Larsen