Monday, August 1, 2011

Undefeated (A Short Story)

I was seven years old, sitting in the library window at Linden Elementary School, minding my own business, when he rambled over and sat on the sill next to me.  Michael Horn was my cousin’s next-door neighbor bully, who always wormed his way into our games, so that he could dominate and humiliate us.  He was a little bigger and faster than us, which made him even more confident and assertive.  We usually tried to avoid involving Michael in the games we played, but found it difficult to dribble the basketball quietly, and when he heard us playing, the fun came to an end.  As he sat down next to me at the window, I flinched out of habit, covering my chest to deflect the blow that often came unsolicited.
            “I dare you,” he said, as he looked out the window.
            “Dare me to what?” I stammered back.
            “I dare you to jump,” he said, now pointing at the ground, with a grin on his face.
            At that moment, absolutely no thought of actually jumping even remotely entered my mind.  There is no way I would ever jump, I had first thought to myself, as I looked to the land below.  Being that the library was on the first floor, it was only a six foot leap to the grass.  Yet, like a high diving board, it seemed a lot higher when you were looking down.  If I had to jump, if say the school was on fire, I was pretty sure I could, and would, do it without hesitation, and survive without harm.  It was at that moment that I saw Michael reach into his pocket.  He scanned the room for Mrs. Alvin, the gray-haired librarian, before pulling out the small piece of dark green paper.  It was about the size of a quarter, but as he began to unfold it, I recognized Abraham Lincoln.  He held it up to his face and smiled like a shark.
            “Five bucks if you jump” he said, still grinning widely.
            “No way,” I answered, quickly adding, “What am I gonna do after I land, run home?”
            He pointed to the front door of the school, which was right next to the library window  less than 50 feet away.  The two large wooden doors were closed, but they were never locked during the day.  I could hear the gears turning in Michael’s head as his plan developed.  I expected next to smell smoke.
            “It is so easy.  Here is how you are gonna do it,” he said as he poked me in my chest.  “The doors are unlocked, you simply land, roll and dart back in before anyone ever sees you.  By the time you get in, I will cross the library and quietly open the door for you.  You sneak back in. I give you the five bucks.”
            “Yeah, sure you will,” I replied.
            “It will be great, it will be the easiest five dollars you’ll ever make,” he said.
            “No way,” I said softly, as I actually began to consider it.   I knew I could make the jump, not even having to roll.  The front doors were big, but opened quietly, and the office door, which faced the front of the school, was usually closed, obscuring the view.
            “You are not gonna open the door for me,” I said, realizing, and pointing out the obvious weakness in his plan.
            “Sure I will.  Not only that, but I will go to the bathroom right now. When I come back in, I’ll try to leave the door a little open.  I will drop something into it to jam it.  Watch me,” he said, as he jumped from the window sill and walked toward the door.  After he asked the librarian for permission, he left the library and I listened for the metallic click as the door closed.  The click was loud and more noticeable than ever.  So loud, in fact, that I was surprised when nobody else looked up when they heard the clamor.  I noticed my cousin David get up from a table and come over toward me.
            “What did Horn have to say?  Did he go to change his diaper?” he asked, as he got to the window.  He leaned into it and took a deep breath.  It was the middle of May, and the hint of summer was in the air.
            “He said he’d give me five bucks to jump out of the window, run in the front door, and back into the library,” I told him.  “When he comes back from the bathroom, let’s see if he can jam the door so that it doesn’t click shut,” I added excitedly.
            “Don’t do it, he’ll just bust on you,” warned my cousin.  “He is a dick.”
            “I know, but think of all the packs of baseball cards we can get at Al’s (the neighborhood store we passed on the way home) with that five bucks.  We could even get doughnuts and Marathon bars.” I asserted.  The info sunk slowly into David’s head.  Gradually, he looked down at the ground, and then over to the front door of the school, and lastly, to the library door.
            The library door opened with a creak and we spun around to see Michael, grinning as he came in.  He was holding a crumpled ball of paper towels in his right hand.  Calmly, he bent down and dropped it as the door closed.  There was no click.  The door looked shut, but there was no click.  Michael was noticeably joyful, as he bounced toward me.  As he got closer, David went to leave, and as he walked away, he looked back at me and slowly shaking his head from side to side.  Michael approached, and I could feel the tension start to build.
            “Well fart licker, are you gonna do it?  It’s super easy now.  You just jump, run and bang you are back inside before old Mrs. Alvin ever notices you are gone,” he said, suppressing most of his smirk.
            “I dunno,” was all that I could say.  My plan was still under construction.
            “If you’re not gonna do it, I’ll get your retarded cousin to do it.  He’d lick a piece of dog crap for five bucks,” he added, scanning the room for David (who was hiding behind a book).
            I started to think that David probably would do it, if given the opportunity.  I also started to think that if David had the five dollars, I would most likely get less packs of baseball cards and candy, if any at all.  I was not prepared for the offer to be time-limited, as I had planned to really think it over before committing.
            “There he is,” said Michael, as he spotted David behind an oversize baseball book.  As he feigned to make his move, I heard myself say, “I’ll do it.”
            “Now we’re talking,” he said, as we settled back onto the sill to prepare for the stunt.  He pointed to a spot in the grass and we both agreed I could land softly enough, to spring me toward the front door. We glanced over towards the library door, which though it had not moved, added the element of time.  If I were going to go, I would have to go soon.
            “Do it.  Do it now.” Michael said forcefully.
            “I dunno,” I countered. I was building up my courage.
            “C’mon, you don’t have all day,” he said.
            I noticed that I was shaking, which meant that I was actually thinking of going, which, in turn, surprised me.  Quickly, I ran through the motions in my head, estimating that the entire stunt, from jump until library reentry, could plausibly take less than ten seconds.  I could do this, I thought.  I made a last scan for any potential onlookers, seeing only David peeking towards us with interest, over his book.  I looked at Michael and put out my hand for him to shake it.
            “Five real dollars, given to me, today.  Right after I get back in,” I said with as much conviction as I could muster.
            “Five bucks.  Yours.” He said as he squeezed my hand hard.
            “Promise?” I added, as we let go.
            “Promise.” He said, smiling and brimming with anticipation.
            I took a deep breath and scanned around one more time.  Room, check.  Ground, check.  Door, check.  Michael Horn, check.  Five bucks, check.  I jumped.
            I landed on my butt, putting my hand in what I hoped was mud, and sprang upright.  As I took my first step toward the front door, I heard someone yell.
            “ Mrs. Alvin!  Mrs. Alvin!  Lee jumped out the window!” came the booming, concerned voice of Michael Horn.  As I burst through the front door and turned to make my quick left into the library, the office door sprang open, and a tall, angry man in a suit sprang in my direction.  I leapt into the library.  Upon seeing me, Michael pointed at me and yelled, “There he is!  He came back!”  I saw David at the table with his head facedown.  Mrs. Alvin waddled over, looking confused.
            The principal was mean, and he yelled at me for a while and asked me if I was stupid.  My dad was even meaner.  He yelled for a long time, and assured me that I was, indeed, very stupid.  The principal, who was friends with my grandfather, told him of my stunt at a Lion’s Club meeting.  My Grandfather, who was also my dentist, was not pleased at all.  Grumpa (as we called him during those grumpy years) was angry with me, and he let me know it.  Like the others, he brought up the subject of my stupidity.  I took the disapproval, and the spitefulness, and I bottled it up and hardened on the inside.

            Less than a year later, I was outside on the school playground during recess when fate came calling.  We were playing dodge ball, with those dangerously heavy rubber balls always used in gym class.  Not everyone was playing, but my cousin and my neighbor Johnny and I were all having fun.  Some little kids were also playing, so we threw lightly at them, so as not to hurt them.  Michael Horn came over, announced that he was now playing and grabbed a ball from David’s arms, causing everyone to scatter.  The little kids simply left the game becoming spectators. I had a ball, which I held at my side, as I sprinted toward the swings, looking for cover.  David saw me from across the yard and started running my way.  Horn saw him and turned like a hunter, lifting his ball like he was loading a gun.  He did not, however, see me.  David clutched at his ears as he ran, yelling “Head Safety!”  I sprung from the swings and set my feet as Horn let loose his cannon, which sailed just over David’s head, skimming his hair.  I then hurled my ball as hard as I could, and for a split second, I saw Horn’s eyes turn slowly as it approached, surprisingly fast.  The sound the ball made as it smashed into his nose could best be described as a juicy crunch, like stepping on a mouse.  Time stopped as Horn sank to his knees, holding his face.  Blood seeped through his fingers and dripped down his arms onto the black asphalt.  He looked around, trying to focus his rage.  When he caught sight of me, standing with my arms at my sides and my mouth open, he sprung like an attacking lion in my direction.
            Punches were thrown and I turtled, and quickly, we went to the ground in a heap.  His blood was everywhere, and it covered my shirt and got on my face as we rolled around on the hot asphalt.  Black grit and dirt dug into my arms as he climbed on top of me, and I could sense the impending doom.  A fleeting thought ran across my mind as I hoped desperately to keep all of my teeth.  Suddenly, like Batman, out of nowhere came the gym teacher, Mr. McCabe, who swooped in, grabbing Horn off me like a cop reclaiming his police dog.  As I assessed myself, I quickly surmised that I was essentially unhurt, and that I had escaped with only minor damage.  I jumped to my feet and began cleaning myself up, picking small rocks from my elbows and wiping blood from my cheek, thrilled to know it wasn't mine.  Kids came from everywhere to pat me on the back and tussle my hair as Michael was dragged away, spitting, swearing and bleeding.  David stopped crying and smiled as he wiped the snot hanging from his nose on the back of his arm.

            Michael Horn was suspended for a week, and a month later, he moved away.  There would be other bullies like him, but I learned to keep my distance, and pick my battles.  I was in secong grade when it happened, and to this day, that was the last actual fight I was in (somehow, I picked no battles).  

            I may be stupid, but I am undefeated.  

            I am one and oh.

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