Aidy Adler had never received a gold star at school. Three years at Our Lady of Lourdes and not a single star. His teachers rewarded his classmates with stars for the slightest good behaviour: for clearing away their dinner trays after lunch; for not forgetting their PE kits on Wednesdays; for smiling. Every day, undeserving children were rewarded not for exceptional behaviour but for things they were supposed to do.
It was torture for Aidy seeing every purple jumper except his own covered in stars; at home time, he seethed and flushed hot with embarrassment as his classmates rushed to their parents congregated by the school gates, and puffed out their chests, beaming with pride.
Sometimes, his teachers even awarded each other stars, inventing some ridiculous reason to do so, and accepting them with an exaggerated surprise that made Aidy sick (“Oh wow, thank you, Mr Strongman,” “No, no, thank you, Mrs Leigh”). After Ms Dockett had awarded the caretaker a star for exemplary ladder use, Aidy had concluded that the whole star system was stupid, that gold stars, alluring as they were, were meaningless.
And yet he wanted one all the same.
Aidy, it was fair to say, wasn’t a particularly good boy. He showed no interest in his work, he answered back, and he disrupted lessons when he didn’t get his way. He’d even got into a fight last year with that stuck-up thinks-he’s-so-tough Josh Lemke (who wasn’t acting so tough these days).
Yet Aidy was always the first to admit that he was a troublemaker. And that made him an honest boy. And so, it was true, as Aidy had often pointed out, that he’d done enough over the years to deserve at least one gold star. This week alone, he’d tidied the stationery cupboard and alphabetised the books in the class library. He’d even scored well in his SATs recently, much better than any teacher had predicted he would. Surely that was enough to merit a star?
The teachers, though, had it in for him, none more so than Mr Boyle. His attitude as nauseatingly colourful as his sweaters, Mr Boyle had had it in for Aidy from day one. Aidy wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was because, on his first day in class 3B, when his name had been called during registration, he’d answered by blowing a raspberry so loud the class next door had heard it. Or maybe it was because, in a stroke of genius, he’d intentionally misspelled Mr Boyle’s name on the covers of all of his workbooks (‘Mr Boil’).
Or maybe it was because, behind his friendly demeanour, behind his kind smiles and his cheery good morning everyones, Mr Boyle hated children—children like Aidy—and wanted to see them suffer.
It was a Thursday afternoon, the end of the school day, when Aidy decided to take matters into his own hands. It had been a day for gold stars: Lucy Winslow had earned one for zipping her coat all the way up, and Darryl Knight for tucking his chair in. Aidy on the other hand, despite being on his best behaviour, hadn’t received anything.
As the home time bell clanged, and the class, chattering, spilled out into the corridor, Aidy hung back, making sure that he was last to leave.
“After you, Mr Boyle,” he said, holding the classroom door wide. Mr Boyle, who monitored home time on Thursdays, strode past him with a thank you—and a thank you only.
Aidy waited until he’d gone, then slipped back into the classroom.
“Hmph,” he muttered, rummaging through Mr Boyle’s desk drawers. “They’re in here somewhere.”
The roll was in the bottom drawer. Aidy took it out and peeled off a star. It flashed on the end of his finger like lightning, like a meteor shooting through the night sky, and his fingertip crackled and his arm jerked as a magical surge ran up his arm.
“Look what I got today!” said Aidy, opening his coat for Mum to see. A gold star twinkled in the middle of his chest.
“That’s wonderful, sweetie!” said Mum. “I’m so proud.”
A hotness suddenly creeped up the back of Aidy’s neck; he shouldn’t have spoken so loudly. He should’ve waited until they were in the car, away from the school, away from any teachers, before revealing his star to Mum.
Mum took his hand. “What did you get it for?”
“Erm,” stalled Aidy, looking over his shoulder. Mr Boyle stood chatting to Ms Dockett, well out of earshot. Aidy grinned. “For being myself.”
He kept his jumper on all evening, glancing down at his star throughout dinner and television time. Only when it was time for bed did he take his jumper off, folding it neatly (which he’d never done before, preferring to leave his uniform in a heap on the floor) and placing it on top of his chest of drawers, where his star would catch the light of real stars trickling in through his bedroom window.
“You’ve still got your star on,” said Mum next morning, in the car. She pulled into a space opposite the school gates.
Aidy, in the passenger seat, deflated. He’d hoped she wouldn’t notice. He’d tried removing the star from his jumper twice already this morning, before he’d come down for breakfast, then again before they’d left the house. He’d picked at it with his fingernails, scraped it with a ruler, even tried biting it off with his teeth.
“It won’t come off,” he said, anxious now. If Mum had noticed it, others would too.
Schoolchildren skipped past his window.
“That’s all right,” said Mum, unbuckling her seat belt. “No one will mind you wearing it again today.”
Registration had barely begun when someone noticed the star.
“Mr Boyle! Mr Boyle!” shrieked that tell-tale Hannah Longstaff. She grabbed Aidy’s arm, pulled it away from his chest. “Look what Aidy’s got on his jumper!”
Aidy yanked his arm free; all eyes were on him, had seen his star, knew what he’d done. He flushed hot, wished he were invisible.
“Thank you, Hannah,” said Mr Boyle, getting up from his desk. “Here.” He peeled off a star from the roll and stuck it to Hannah’s jumper. “For being my eyes and ears.”
Hannah admired her nastily-earned star.
“And you, Aidy,” said Mr Boyle. Aidy closed his eyes.
What was the punishment for stealing? Writing lines after school? No, worse than that. No break times for a week? Expulsion?
Something pressed lightly against his chest. He opened his eyes.
A second gold star twinkled on his jumper, beside the one he’d stolen yesterday.
Mr Boyle sneered. “For using your initiative.”
The eyes fixed on Aidy bulged wide. Aidy gaped, stunned to silence.
Mr Boyle plastered a third star onto his chest. “For not asking questions.” Then he turned on his heels and went back to his desk. “Good morning everyone,” he said casually. “Let’s take the register, shall we?”
As Mr Boyle began calling names, Aidy, ignoring the eyes narrowing about him, tried removing the second and third stars. Like the first, they were well and truly, inexplicably stuck.
Aidy looked up. Mr Boyle towered over him, smirking. He slapped another star onto his chest.
Soon enough, Aidy was being rewarded with gold stars for anything and everything.
“For sitting still.”
“For never having been to Mexico.”
By morning break, his jumper was covered entirely in stars, front and back, collar to cuffs, not a speck of purple to be seen. After break, with no room left on Aidy’s jumper, Mr Boyle began on his trousers, until they too were covered in stars. By lunch, Aidy was treading galaxies, an astronaut walking the Milky Way.
By the end of the day, he was smothered in stars, and not just his clothes: his hands shone, as if they’d been gilded; his lips glittered, stitched together by stars; even his hair sparkled. Only his eyes and his nostrils remained free from gold.
“Do you want another?” asked Mr Boyle, turning the roll of stars over in his hands.
Aidy, stiff at his desk, barely able to move for stars, shot his classmates desperate looks. They glared back at him enviously.
“Well?” said Mr Boyle.
Aidy shook his head. He shimmered under the classroom lights.
“Are you sure?” Mr Boyle asked.
Grinning, Mr Boyle peeled off two stars from the roll.
“For answering truthfully,” he said, and placed them over Aidy’s nostrils.
Aidy smelled glue, then he couldn’t breathe. His lips were stitched shut, his nostrils sealed. Panic exploded in his chest like a supernova.
He fumbled at his nose with gilded hands. Mr Boyle stood over him, unconcerned, corners of his mouth curling upwards.
Aidy’s eyes began to burn. His limbs went limp. Underneath all the gold, his face was as purple as his jumper.
Mr Boyle peeled off two more stars and leaned in close to Aidy.
“For having learned your lesson,” he said.
As the stars on the ends of Mr Boyle’s fingers slowly moved towards him, Aidy saw himself reflected in his teacher’s eyes: a shuddering mass of collapsed constellations, a great contraction, the entire universe caving in on itself.
Aidy screamed a muffled scream.
Then everything went black.
Charlie Jones is a writer from Merseyside, UK. His stories have appeared with Teleport, Samjoko, Dead Sea Press, and Liquid Imagination.