By Katie Gergel
Every so often, Travis Hogan thought of the day he threw that freshman into the school dumpster. It was spirit week during his senior year at North Copperdale High, and – although the teachers did everything in their power to prevent it – hazing underclassmen was an ongoing tradition. Travis knew people feared him and his group of stocky, intimidating, football-playing friends. They walked the halls of school with an air of importance, waiting for others to move out of their way and sometimes pounding lockers just to watch the smaller students squirm.
All the guys in the group were daunting, but Travis had come to be known as the leader. People called him “The Alpha” behind his back. When he shaved his head, so did the rest of the pack. When he skipped school one day to smoke behind the grocery store, so did the rest of the pack. Travis loved this power, and used it to his advantage any chance he got.
So when little Kent Schmidt, a freshman who had not yet hit his growth spurt and who carried a backpack bigger than his body, accidentally bumped into Travis in the parking lot that day during senior week, the wolf pack decided to retaliate. Travis remembered in vivid detail the expression of fear on Kent’s face as eight seniors surrounded him, laughing as Kent cowered back. “Let me have him,” Travis had muttered, and the others stepped back. He reached out and picked Kent up with relative ease, the smaller boy’s bony body crumpling against him in a mixture of fear and defeat. Travis carried him over to the open dumpster, aware but not caring about the cliché nature of this high school prank, and released Kent into the concoction of spoiled food and pencil shavings and who knows what else.
It had all happened so fast; so fast that it was only noticed by a few surprised students who appeared empathetic but too frightened to do anything about it. No teacher witnessed it. As much as Travis wanted to count the prank as a victory, to revel in the roaring laughter of his idiot friends, he couldn’t help but feel a phantom pang in his stomach. He remembered the sounds of struggle behind him, as Kent tried to pull himself out. Travis wanted to find it funny, but instead he just felt empty.
Even after several years, Travis could never shake the feeling of that day. He never told anyone about the guilt, but he never wanted to talk about the prank either. Whenever the wolf pack brought up the look on Kent’s face or the way he smelled when he finally got out, Travis changed the subject. He couldn’t risk his reputation, but he didn’t want to feel that pang in his stomach again. He tried to forget about it as he graduated, went to community college for a little over a year before dropping out, then spent the next ten or so years working at an auto body shop until he was laid off and left with nothing but a meager amount of money, a small room in his parent’s basement, and his drawings.
Travis had always kept his love for art a secret, fearing the ridicule that would inevitably come if one of his friends discovered a sketchbook or a comic strip. So he illustrated quietly, in his room late at night or in his car with the doors locked. He knew he was quite good, and his skill only developed as he spent the slow hours at the auto body shop drawing anything he could think of. After he lost his job he kept himself occupied with colored pencils and charcoal and ballpoint pens. He worked with basic design software on his outdated laptop. Travis began to believe his art was the only thing keeping him sane as his funds, hygiene, and will to live decreased simultaneously.
Then, one day, as Travis walked down a street in his hometown he had been down so many times before, he noticed a new store had appeared: Cityplus Solutions. It was some marketing company that Travis otherwise would have passed without a second glance, but he noticed a sign in the window that stuck out to him. GRAPHIC DESIGNER NEEDED, it read. BASIC KNOWLEDGE NECESSARY. INQUIRE WITHIN.
Travis took a deep breath, considered his life for a moment, and then entered the building believing he had nothing to lose. It smelled fresh and sanitary, and all of the furniture looked clean and new. He went up to the large counter and said hurriedly to the man standing there, “I’m looking to apply for the graphic design position. Can I speak with the manager?”
“I am the manager,” the man replied. He held out his hand and squinted at Travis. “My name is Kent Schmidt.”
Travis felt his body seize up, and the pang in his stomach he felt that day in the parking lot returned tenfold. His breathing staggered, and when Kent asked Travis what his name was the words sounded dull and garbled, as if they were underwater.
He hoped Kent didn’t know his name was when they were in high school, but it wasn’t a very likely chance. Different possible responses bounced around in Travis’ mind until he finally decided to swallow his pride. His life now did not look like his life at North Copperdale High. No longer did he have power, or eight friends following his every move. He didn’t have much, but he did have an opportunity.
“My name is Travis Hogan,” he said softly. Kent did not say anything at first, but Travis noticed as the recognition dawned on the face of the man in front of him. Kent nodded and seemed, like Travis, to be choosing the correct way to respond. Travis wouldn’t be surprised if he was told to leave on the spot, the freshman-turned-manager finally making good use of this power to exact revenge.
“Travis Hogan,” Kent repeated. Then, surprisingly, he laughed. “I remember you. Yes, and I remember that dumpster dive. My hair smelled like ranch dressing for a week.”
Travis coughed uncomfortably. He really wished Kent would just throw him out now, and save him the embarrassment. But, then again, why should Kent show any pity?
“I’m sorry about that,” said Travis. As the words came out, so did the guilt he had held inside him for so long. It sprayed and sputtered, staining the air like dark ink. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I regret doing that to you. I really do. And I’m not saying this now just because I desperately need a job.”
Travis saw Kent considering the former bully in front of him. Travis still had a foot or so and probably 50 pounds on Kent, but if success and power were translated to stature, Travis would be David and Kent would be Goliath.
“I don’t even know how long ago that was,” Kent said. “Yeah, I was pretty pissed at the time. But we were all just stupid kids. And you’ve certainly given me a funny story to tell my friends. So just forget it. Let’s talk about graphic design.”
And then life continued as it always had for Travis, but the ever-present, always-lurking pang in his stomach had been replaced by a warm feeling of extreme gratitude for someone who did not owe him anything.
Travis since decided that he would never fully be able to repay Kent, but the least he could do was bring him coffee every morning they both came to work.