I didn’t even see them coming.
I guess I never do, because I don’t ever expect anyone to be so mean.
I was pushing Desi on the swings, as high as I could. She never gets scared of anything. Not even all the doctors. Mom calls her Destiny the Brave. She loves it when I get to take her to the playground after school. “She loves her big sister,” Mom always tells me. “Loving someone makes you brave.”
All of a sudden I heard girls laughing behind us, and I didn’t feel so brave. It was ugly mean laughing, like the Joker in Batman. And I could hear those words, the ones I’m not allowed to say. I wouldn’t ever want to say those kinds of words anyway.
Destiny didn’t notice, and she never stopped smiling at me. She just kept giggling. Most people love that sound. I do.
“Look at the little retard baby! Hey, retard!”
I hate that word. I don’t hate anyone. I’m not supposed to. But I hate that word more than anything.
How can people just hate someone they don’t know at all, someone so totally gentle and sweet who doesn’t even understand what it means to be mean? I hope she never understands that.
I caught the swing and stopped it, holding Desi in place before I turned around. She’s still pretty wobbly sitting up on her own, even in that little bucket swing. She’s almost two, but she still needs some help with stuff like that.
I wished Mom was with us. I took a big breath and tried not to sound as mad and scared as I was. The girls were bigger than me. Teenagers. High schoolers maybe. At least middle schoolers, but they weren’t in my sixth grade class. Nobody in my class would be mean to Desi.
“Don’t say that.” I stared them down and used my best calm voice, the one my mom said was best to use with people who don’t understand why that word hurts. She’s really good at explaining. I usually don’t have to.
“What difference does it make?” the taller girl laughed. “She can’t understand anyway. Can she?”
I wanted to run into her and knock her over, pull her hair out maybe. At least punch her really hard. Or maybe just cry and hold my sister so she wouldn’t have to hear those words. But I took a deep breath instead, like my mom said she has to do sometimes when people give her reasons to educate them.
“Her name is Destiny. She was born with an extra chromosome. She has Down Syndrome. She’s no different than us and she’ll be able to do everything we can, just in her own way and her own time. She’s a person just like you.”
The shorter one snorted. “Whatever. Let’s go, Ashley. We don’t need to waste our time on freaks anyway.”
They started to walk away. I wanted them to go away. But Desi squeezed my hand and made those cute little kissy noises she always makes just for me.
“Hey!” I yelled. “I was wrong.”
They stopped and looked back at us with weird duck faces. “Well, duh. Of course you were. The kid’s a retard for sure,” Ashley chuckled.
“No.” I picked up my chubby little sister and held her close. She was still giggling. We walked up to the two girls. They seemed so much bigger up close. Or maybe I felt smaller. But I had to say it.
Desi’s little fingers were twirling in my hair and I’m pretty sure she was blowing bubbles all over me but I didn’t care. “What I meant was, I was wrong when I said my sister is just like you. She will never be anything like you. She will never be mean and hateful and judge people based on how they look or what they can and can’t do. She is different. And I’m glad.”
They didn’t have anything left to say. Neither did I. My eyes stung. I held Desi tight and tried not to jiggle her around too much as I walked as fast as I could away from them. I stopped at a bench at the edge of the playground to catch my breath. When I looked back, they were gone.
I sat down and realized I was crying. Desi was making the kissy noise and squishing her face against mine, pressing her little palms on my cheeks like she wanted to wipe the tears away. We sat there for a few minutes because it was all I could think of to do.
“That was a pretty brave thing you did.” I had never been so happy to hear my mom’s voice. Before I could even turn around she put her arms around me and hugged me from behind the bench.
“You saw?” I asked. “They were saying the “R” word about Desi. I was so mad.”
“That word makes me mad too,” Mom said. She sat down beside us on the bench. “I always watch when you’re out here, Sara. We protect the people we love.”
“Loving people makes you brave,” I smiled.
Destiny started to giggle and crossed her arms over her chest. Mom and I looked at each other. Was she really doing it?
“La yoo,” she grinned, still criss-crossing her arms like she was giving herself a hug.
I guess she really had been paying attention to that baby sign language video we played for her all the time.
It was the sign for, “I love you.”
Short story by Tammi Croteau