The Boy with the Lead Boots
by David Turnbull
Where did he come from? Why was he here? And most of all, what was the deal with those clomping, lead covered boots he had to drag himself around on?
Their head teacher had been no help.
All she’d told the school assembly was the poor boy had to wear lead covered boots because of an ailment he suffered, and as a consequence of how difficult this made it for him to walk, he would be zooming around school in an electric wheelchair most of the time.
“Usually she gives more detail,” complained Kaz as the three of them huddled in their favored spot by the far wall of the playground. “Like if a new kid arrives with asthma or something, she usually tells us about their pump and what to do if we see them having an attack.”
Emma twisted her hair around her finger in that annoying way of hers. “Maybe he’s got Kangaroo Foot Syndrome?” she suggested.
Kaz and Marco both gave her a puzzled look.
“There’s this disease called Elephantiasis,” explained Emma. “You catch it from a tiny little worm, and your feet swell up till they are as big as an elephant’s. Maybe there’s another version where your feet grow as long as a kangaroo’s?”
Kaz shook her head. “He’d be more likely to wear clown shoes if that was the case.”
“Well, I was thinking the lead on the boots stops his feet from growing out of proportion and keeps them normal size,” said Emma.
“I reckon he has radioactive feet,” said Marco. “It’s a well known fact that radioactive material can’t penetrate lead. I bet the boots are to prevent his feet from exploding.”
Kaz and Emma rolled their eyes at each other.
“Does everything have to involve explosions?” asked Emma.
“This is no good,” said Kaz. “You’re just going to have to ask him outright.”
“Me?” protested Marco. “Why me?”
“You’re a boy,” replied Kaz. “And he’s a boy. It’ll be better coming from you. If either of us just go up and talk to him, he’ll go all red-faced and bashful.”
At first the boy with the lead boots seemed quite talkative.
“Mike Brownlee,” he answered to Marco’s question what his name was.
“My Dad started a new job,” was the reply when Marco asked why Mike had moved to a new school.
“He’s a culinary whiz,” was the answer to Marco’s question about what new job Mike’s Dad had started. “He’s been appointed as Executive Chef at one of the big hotels downtown.”
Mike looked relaxed, sitting in his electric wheelchair and watching the hustle and bustle of the playground with a somewhat detached air. So Marco felt the time was right to fire off the big question.
“What’s the deal with the lead boots?” he asked.
Mike stiffened in the chair. He looked down at his clunky, lead boots. “I have to wear them on account of my ailment,” said Mike, brushing his floppy brown hair back out of his eyes.
“What is it?” asked Marco.
Mike shrugged. “It’s a long story.”
“I’ve got time,” said Marco.
But as if to contradict him, the bell marking the end of lunchtime recess let out a shrill ring.
“See you round,” said Mike, pushing forward the control leaver on his wheelchair and zooming away.
Mike watched him go, shaking his head in frustration at how close he’d gotten to finding out the truth.
“You should keep pushing him,” said Kaz on the way home that day. “He almost told you.”
“I don’t know,” said Marco. “I’m not that sure he would have. He seemed to be hiding something.”
“Maybe he’s embarrassed?” suggested Emma.
“About what?” asked Kaz.
“His ailment, of course!” said Emma, twisting her hair around her finger.
“Well, he shouldn’t be,” said Kaz.
“How do you know?” challenged Marco. “Maybe it’s an embarrassing ailment?”
“Exactly,” agreed Emma.
“Embarrassing in what way?” asked Kaz.
Marco shrugged. “Who knows?”
“Well, that’s my point,” said Kaz. “Nobody knows. So it’s down to us to find out.”
“You mean it’s down to Marco,” said Emma.
Kaz nodded. “You’ll have to keep pushing him.”
Marco kept pushing, but Mike remained evasive.
“It’s a long story,” he’d say and then clam up when Marco insisted he had plenty of time to listen.
Sometimes it seemed like Mike was close to revealing something. He’d brush his hair out of his eyes and look up at Marco, his mouth poised as if it was all going to blurt out. But then he’d shake his head and tell Marco it it was all a bit complicated.
“What’s so complicated?” Kaz would complain when Marco reported back on the way home from school. “He’s either going to tell you or not.”
Emma would twist her hair around her finger and give her latest theory.
“He’s embarrassed,” she’d say. “He’s not going to tell. It’s something really gross. Maybe he’s got huge, contagious boils, oozing pus between his toes, and if he takes off those boots we’ll all get infected!”
Or she’d say, “He might be like that comic book hero, the Flash, or whatever they call him. If he takes off his boots, he’ll run so fast no one will ever be able to catch him.”
“Maybe, for once, we don’t need to know,” Marco suggested one day.
“So that’s it then?” Kaz snapped back. “You just want to give up without ever finding out the secret of the lead boots?”
“I’m not saying I shouldn’t keep talking to him,” Marco replied. “In fact, I quite like him. He has all the same computer games as me. And he has a great sense of humor.”
“So you want to be friends with him?” asked Emma.
“That would work,” said Kaz.
“I’m not going to be friends with him just to get him to tell me his secret,” Marco hissed back.
“It would still work though.” Kaz grinned.
Mike started coming round to Marco’s house to play computer games every Saturday morning. It was kind of funny because, under the circumstances, Marco’s mother was forced to abandon her embarrassing habit of asking his friends to take their shoes off at the door and kind of ironic as well, because the lead boots had the potential to do more damage to the wooden flooring than a pair of everyday sneakers ever could.
Although Kaz and Emma pestered him every Monday morning to spill the beans on what he’d found out, Marco had long since stopped asking about Mike’s ailment. He really wasn’t that interested any more. Mike was a great guy, and if he had stuff he wanted to keep to himself, that was fine with Marco.
All that changed one Saturday.
“I’m not going to come round here next week,” said Mike. “Instead, I want you to meet me out by the meadow behind the old soap factory.”
“Why?” asked Marco, looking up from his game console.
“I think you’re ready to find out about my ailment,” came the unexpected reply.
“I am?” cried Marco.
Mike nodded. “And bring those two girls you always walk home with.”
“Kaz and Emma?”
Mike nodded again.
Marco, Kaz, and Emma met by the rusted gates of the old soap factory. Kaz paced back and forth.
“He won’t come,” she said. “I know he won’t come.”
Emma yawned and twisted her hair around her finger. “I’ve been up all night thinking about all sorts of new theories about his feet.”
They heard the low electrical hum of Mike’s wheelchair.
“Told you,” said Marco and shot Kaz a smug glance.
Mike glided around the corner.
“We have to do this quickly,” he said, bringing the wheelchair to a halt. “I need Marco to help me across to the middle of the meadow, and you two to stay here to keep a watch for anyone who might come along.”
Kaz looked crestfallen.
“Don’t worry,” Mike assured her. “You won’t miss out. From where you’re standing you’ll finally get to know my big secret.”
Kaz blushed, started to say something then clamped her mouth shut.
Slowly, step by laborious step, Marco helped Mike across the meadow, the lead boots crushing blades of grass and leaving deep, fat footprints in the soft soil. Kaz and Emma waited with the wheelchair by the factory gate, Kaz pacing up down, Emma twisting her hair around her finger.
“Far enough,” said Mike when they’d gone five hundred yards or so.
He sat down and produced a long length of nylon rope from the backpack he had been carrying. “Tie this to my ankle,” he said. “Make sure it’s good and tight. And do it over my socks. I don’t want to get rope burn.”
Marco did as he was asked.
“Now I’m going to take my boots off. Make sure you have a good grip on the rope.”
Again Marco did as he was asked. A million questions were forming in his head, but he somehow sensed that by going along with what Mike wanted, he’d get the answers to them all.
Mike untied the laces on the lead boots and kicked his feet free. Immediately, he began to float upwards. Marco was so shocked by this bizarre turn of events, he almost let go of the rope. At the last minute he tightened his grip.
Mike was now floating slightly above his head.
Over by the factory gate he could hear Kaz and Emma crying out in surprise.
“I was born lighter than air,” Mike called down as his hair flopped down over his eyes. “When I was a baby they had to put stones in my diapers to stop me from floating out of the crib.”
“So the boots are to keep you grounded?” asked Marco, his mouth wide in awe.
“Exactly,” replied Mike, twisting slowly around as a gentle breeze came buffeting across the meadow. “But it’s great to kick them off sometimes and just fly free. My parents and all the specialists I’ve seen are the ones who call this an ailment. But I think it’s a blessing. Now let out the rope so I can go higher.”
Marco let the rope pass slowly through his hands.
Mike went up – ten feet – twenty feet – thirty feet into the sky.
Swaying back and forth like a kite in the wind, he began to laugh with such careless abandon that Marco couldn’t help but laugh too. He heard Kaz and Emma joining in.
Joyful laughter echoed back and forth across the meadow.
The lead boots lay empty and forgotten on the grass. And Mike’s ailment was forgotten by all the friends, too.
1. What did the head teacher tell the students about why one boy had to wear lead boots?
2. Why did the three friends think Marco should be the one to ask the boy about his boots?
3. What did Mike say whenever Marco asked him about the boots?
4. What did Mike ask Marco to do with the rope?
5. What was Mike’s ailment?