1:30 AM on a steamy August night in northern New Hampshire, just a few weeks before I started junior high. I was lying on top of my sweat-soaked nylon sleeping bag, groggily contemplating the top of the my tent, which was listing badly to the right. Guess I can forget about an engineering career, I thought.
Beside me, T lay in his sleeping bag, snoring blissfully, apparently immune to the stifling humidity and the mosquitos who have also taken up residence in the tent.
I moved the Timex watch my parents had given me for my twelfth birthday a few months ago back up to my wrist. It was identical to the one my father wore, and was the only thing I wanted.
When I first tried the watch on at my birthday party, it nearly fell off over my hand. When I lifted my arm up, it slid up past my elbow. We dutifully made a trip to a jeweler.
"You got some skinny wrists there, kid," he informed me, shaking his head after his third pass at adjusting the band. "I can't take out any more links without ruining the band."
He turned to my parents. "No offense intended here, folks, but you might consider the girl's model. Same watch, just a little bit of a thinner band. It will fit better."
"NO!" I nearly shouted.
My parents looked over, startled.
"You don't want a watch that doesn't fit, do you?" asked my mother. "Why not see what this watch looks like? Or at least get another one with a different band."
"I like this one. It'll be fine," I said, wincing slightly as the band caught the tiny hairs on my forearm as it slid up and down with every movement.
My father looked at the jeweler, who shrugged.
"I guess we'll keep this one then," said my father with a shrug, handing the jeweler a $10 bill. He handed it back.
"No charge, W." He turned to me. "You change your mind, kid, just come by and we'll get you set up. OK?"
I nodded. "Not likely," I thought.
I checked the watch again: 1:35 AM. "Five minutes?!?" I thought. "I'm gonna melt by - "
Suddenly I heard footsteps pounding towards the tent. I sat up and began to unzip the mosquito netting. Then I felt a jolt. The entire tent crashed down and something fell on top of me, knocking the wind from my lungs. Gasping for breath, I struggled out of the tent.
C & F were lying on the ground in front of the tent. They reeked of alcohol. Two years older than me, both were Eagle Scout candidates. C and I attended the same grammar school.
As they scrambled to their feet, I locked eyes for a moment with C. His were glassy and unfocused. After a moment, he and F lurched off into the woods as a flashlight moved towards us.
"What in the HELL is going on over here?" a voice called out. It was Mr. G, our scoutmaster.
I stood and attempted to right the tent pole, which was nearly bent in half.
"T, are you OK?" I called into the tent as I simultaneously tried to hold up the pole and the sagging tent.
T stirred in his sleeping bag.
"Huh?" me mumbled. "Hey, shut the screen - the mosquitos are gonna get in, man." He rolled over and promptly began snoring again.
Mr. G emerged from the shadows.
"What in the name of…" he said, flashlight panning over the carnage. "Are you and T OK?"
I nodded, then nodded towards the tent. "T is still asleep, actually."
He rolled his eyes. "That boy could sleep through Armageddon. In fact, looks like he just did." He reached over and began to straighten out the tent pole. "So, what happened here? Did you see anything?"
Before I could say anything, C & F lurched into the circle of light.
"What's going on?" C slurred, swaying unsteadily. He turned to me.
"You okay, little man? We just woke up and thought we saw a deer or something run by our tent."
Mr. G stared at them steadily.
"A deer, you say. Mmm." He turned to me.
"Did you see a deer, L? Or was it something - or someone - else?" His flashlight played across C & F's faces. "Maybe even two someones?"
I looked at C. His bloodshot eyes were plaintive. F's eyes were downcast.
I turned to Mr. G.
"Sorry, Mr. G. I was sound asleep. By the time I got out and put on my glasses, whatever it was was long gone."
He gazed at me for what felt like an eternity.
"All right." He snapped the tent pole back into place. "It's late. Better join Sleeping Beauty in there."
He turned to C & F.
"And you two better get your rest too. After all, you're supposed the ones setting a good example for L and the others. Right?"
Without a word, C & F trudged back to their tent. They never looked back.
Four years later
Sophomore year in high school. As mentioned in an earlier post, I worked after school in the office. Most days I would finish somewhere between 4:30-5:00. By then the school was all but empty. The only people typically still in the building were the cleaning crew and a few teachers grading papers in their offices.
And the students who were in detention.
In addition to being quiet and a loner by nature, I was usually the smallest in my class. That was enough to make me a target in grammar school. When I got to high school - an all-boy high school - I may as well have had a bullseye painted on my back.
D was a year ahead of me, and, using the logic known only to bullies everywhere, chose me as his target. At first it was the usual petty nonsense - knocking my books out of my hands in the hallway, banging into me with his shoulder as he walked by, and so on. And, as with all cowards, he always had one or more cohorts to help out.
One late fall afternoon I was making the 15 minute walk to the bus stop in the deepening twilight. My high school was in an old, semi-deserted industrial area, so the traffic was fairly light at 5:30 PM.
From behind me I suddenly heard a voice call out.
It was D. And P, one of his buddies.
I picked up my pace. I heard their footsteps quicken. In a moment one of his friends was beside me. He was nearly a foot taller than me.
"Hey, a******. He's talking to you. You f***** deaf?"
D strode up on my other side and wrapped his arm around my shoulder.
"Hey, faggot. Didn't you hear me a second ago?" He turned to P.
"Must be thinking of getting his ashes hauled."
I shrugged his arm off my shoulder.
"Leave me alone, D."
Now P grabbed my arm.
I pulled my arm away. He grabbed it again and yanked me closer to him.
"I asked you a f***** question."
I shoved him as hard as I could. Caught off-balance, he staggered back and fell back into some bushes. I started to run. D caught up with me and shoved me to the ground, scattering my books across the sidewalk. A car drove by; the driver slowed down momentarily, glanced over, then drove on.
He turned to P. "I think faggot here needs to learn some manners, don't you?"
P smirked. "Yup."
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a switchblade. Staring at me, he flicked it open.
I looked at the knife for a moment.
Something in me snapped. I don't know if it was adrenaline, or defiance, or God knows what, but I started to laugh. Hard. D & P looked at each other in amazement.
I stood up and picked up my backpack. I started to walk away. D walked in front of me.
"Where the f*** do you think you're going?"
I stepped around him and started walking again, still laughing to myself.
P came up on my other side, holding the switchblade at his side. He looked at D uncertainly.
I turned to D. "What? You two clowns are going to stab me, here, on a public street, with cars going by? You know what? I don't think you or princess here actually have the balls to do anything."
I turned to P, arms outstretched.
"Go ahead, a******. I dare you."
He stared at me in disbelief. I nodded.
"Yeah, that's what I thought."
The bus stop was across the street, where a handful of people stood waiting.
P, seeing the people, hastily folded up the knife and slipped it in his pocket.
"You're f***** crazy, man."
I blew them a kiss as I crossed the street to the bus stop. "So long, fellas. Have fun together!"
"Do you have any idea how foolish that was?"
Brother G was glaring at me from behind his desk. It was the following morning. I hadn't told my parents - I didn't think it would do any good - but I knew I had to say something when I got to school. When I arrived, he was already waiting for me at the entrance with a somber expression. After telling me he'd already called my first period teacher to excuse me from class, he brought me to his office.
"I know, Brother. I don't know what I was thinking. I'm just… sick and tire of his garbage, and of being picked on, and… everything."
"And… I don't know, I could just tell they were trying to scare me. I really don't think they have the guts to actually do anything."
He rubbed his temples.
"D & P came here this morning, you know. With their parents."
He smiled without mirth.
"D claims you pulled the knife on them."
"Are you serious?" I said in disbelief.
He nodded wearily.
"I'm half their size, Brother! And there are two of them! Why would I - "
He held his hand up.
"I know he's lying. And I told them so, in so many words. Given their respective track records, I'm not inclined to cut either of them any slack, particularly Mr. D."
He paused. "And of course it goes without saying that I know you're telling the truth."
"Thank you, Brother."
"You're welcome. Unfortunately, my hands are tied here. It's their word against yours, and there are no witnesses. I'm sorry. "
"So what do I do now, Brother?"
He stood up and came around the desk.
"Well, as you said, they're probably more bluster than anything else. And for what it's worth, neither of them are long for this school. One more slip-up - and there will be another slip-up with those two - and they're gone.
"But I would still watch your back. From now on you don't walk to the bus stop alone. If no one is around to go with you, both Mrs. B and Mrs. S have offered to drive you home." He smiled. "And if all else fails, even Brother D and I could deign to drop you off. For a nominal fee, of course."
I smiled. "Of course."
"I'm sorry I can't do more. And I'm sorry you have to go through this."
"I know, Brother."
He started to open the door, then paused, his hand on the door knob.
"Do you remember when I sat in for Brother L in your religion class a few weeks ago?"
"Do you remember what we talked about?"
"Umm… karma, right?"
"What do you think about it? Do you believe in it?"
I considered the question for a moment.
"I never really thought about it, I guess. But it seems to me that good is punished and evil is rewarded pretty consistently, Brother."
"I don't blame you for feeling that way. But things have a way of evening out. It may take a long time, and you may never know about it, but they do."
He opened the door.
"Have a good day."
"You too, Brother."
The next day, as I was walking to the library for my free period, my friend T caught up with me.
"Man, did you see D and P yet today?"
He chortled with glee.
"Dudes look like they got in an acid fight and lost. D's got a busted arm, and P must have 100 stitches just in his face. "
"Really? What happened?"
"Don't know. Don't care. But you know what? Couldn't have happened to a better pair, right? Later, man."
"Yeah. See you around."
Brother G had told me he didn't need me after school the next day, so I was walking to the bus stop with several friends. From behind us, a horn honked, and a voice called out.
I turned around as the car pulled up.
C sat behind the wheel, smiling, the leather sleeves of his letter jacket pushed up on his arms. Two of his fellow linebackers sat in the back seat. They nodded at me.
"Hey, C! What's happening? I didn't think you seniors were allowed to talk to a lowly sophomore?"
"I won't tell if you won't." He opened the door.
"Hop in. I can give you a lift home. I just have to drop off these two numb nuts off first." He gestured to the back seat. "They forgot to leave a trail of bread crumbs this morning, so they'll never find their way home if I don't."
They simultaneously raised their middle fingers.
He shook his head in mock sadness.
"See this? I carry their a**** on the field and off, and this is the thanks I get. Hold on, little man; the sooner I get rid of these two the better. Stupid is contagious."
We peeled off down the street, tires screeching.
Several minutes later, his other passengers having safely disembarked, we headed off.
His hands drummed on the wheel as we drove. After a few moments he spoke up.
"So, how are things, little man?"
"OK, I guess."
"Not what I hear."
"Yeah. Heard you had some trouble with D & P the other day."
"How did you know that?"
He looked over at me.
"It's a small school, little man."
"OK. Yeah, I had a run-in with them."
"Run-in? You mean they jumped you."
"I… yeah. Whatever."
C took a breath.
"Why didn't you say something?"
"I.. I guess I should've fought back more."
"Fought back? For Christ's sake, they pulled a knife on you! And there are two of them, and they're twice your size to boot. How the hell were you going to fight back?"
"I don't know. I guess… it's my problem. Besides, I hear they're out of commission for a while now."
C stared straight ahead. Slowly it dawned on me.
"You did that to them! Didn't you?"
He tried not to smile.
"Well, I had a little help."
"Your friends in the back seat?"
"They may not be good with directions, but they have other, uh, talents."
"Apparently. So what happened?"
"Well, like I said, it's a small school. Word got out about that little stunt they pulled with you. Then I asked around a bit more and heard about how D's been hassling you. Bastard." He shook his head angrily.
"Anyway, football practice and detention end around the same time. So yesterday, when D & P came out to the parking lot, we had a little welcoming committee waiting for them."
"What did you do?"
"Well, let's just say we… uh, persuaded them that it was in their best interest to leave you alone. Or else."
"Or else what?"
"Next time we come with six guys, not three. And next time we don't stop with one arm either."
I looked over.
"C, why… I mean, I never said anything to you about this. I wanted to - "
"First of all, I f****** hate bullies. You stood up to two of them, even with a knife pulled on you. You're half their size, but you have more guts than both of them combined."
We pulled up to a red light. He turned to me.
"But most of all… I owe you."
"You don't owe me, C."
"The hell I don't. I owe you big time. I screwed up, and you didn't say anything."
"Well, I couldn't really see anything without my glasses."
"It's me, little man. You know damned well who knocked the tent over. Just like you knew what would happen to my chances of being an Eagle Scout if Mr. G found out."
Well, I - "
He held his hand up.
"Let me finish. No Eagle Scout, and I probably wind up in public school, not here. And without getting into this school, then I probably don't get into college either. So yeah, I'd say I owe you."
"Well, thank you."
"You're welcome. You know, I always wondered if I'd ever get a chance to pay you back. I'm glad karma was on my side."
"Karma? Funny, you're the second person to mention that the past few days."
"Is that a fact?" A small smile played across his face.
I looked at him quizzically.
"Well, like I said before, it's a small school, isn't it?"
I started to say something, then thought better of it. We pulled up in front of my house.
He extended his hand. We shook.
"Watch out for those deer on the way home, C. I hear they can wreak havoc."
"Will do, little man. Later, my friend."
I watched until his taillights disappeared.
A terrific song from what, sadly, was their only album: