Gary writes “Grit Fiction,” because life isn’t always smooth. His stories are characterized by wit, wordplay, and plot twists that will leave the reader guessing.

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BULLY THE KID

I’m a horrible father. Husband. Ex-husband. Human being. I knew this long ago. Even before the first of a billion times the kid’s mother told me. Back when we used to talk. Or, when she used to shout, and I would pretend to listen.

My best move as a father was not being one. I did that boy a huge favor, being absent, forfeiting custody and all visitation. He will grow up safe from me and my toxic influence. Once a year, he crosses my mind. I wonder if he kept the only existing photo of us together, the one where he’s wailing and tiny and red-faced in his little hospital blanket and knit cap, and I’m faking a smile when I’m actually terrified.

When I got the call from his mother, first thing I did (after muttering “Dammit”) was mentally confirm that I’d mailed the check this month. Hundreds of dollars each month, and what do I get for it? Letters? Emails? Christmas cards? Nope. I get emergency calls only and no other contact. It’s worth every penny. I’d made the current payment, I’m sure of it, right after I deposited the cash from the last job. It had been satisfying. I rubbed my bruised knuckles, savored the memory. Then I remembered the phone.

“What’s wrong, Jessica?”

“Jimmy,” she says. I almost laugh. Nobody has called me “Jimmy” for a long time. “It’s Camille!” she says, launching right in like she always did. Non-stop melodrama with this one, I remember from our brief time together.

“Dammit.”

(That was me said that.)

What happened to the kid we had foolishly made, I wonder? It couldn’t be good. She wouldn’t have called otherwise, this woman who thought it a good idea to name a boy Camille. I’m sure that made his life easy. Now he must be, what… teenaged? Something like that.

She tells me he’s in middle school, so I was right. Or close to it, at least. The years have fled even quicker than she had.

Camille’s having trouble, she confirms, her breathless torrent of words assaulting my ears like the sound of a leaf blower. It’s a five-minute-long unpunctuated sentence. I haven’t missed this.

Then one word jumps out from her panicked rant, sharp and painful. It penetrates deep into my calloused core.

“Bully.”

I clench my teeth. Reflexively, my hands become fists, imagine punching a hole in the wall, or better yet, punishing flesh and bone. I’ve never been the greatest listener, but she just said the right word to the right person. This is exactly what I do; show people the error of their ways, show a bully an even bigger one. I will not let this child, this stranger who shares my blood relive my middle school experiences.

The way I ate knuckles after school my entire year of sixth grade. The time a kid hit me with his ten speed on the sidewalk right by the parked buses full of jeering kids. Or when I was flung by my backpack into a drainage ditch. I remember how I learned to pack my books in my duffel bag before seventh period, so that I wouldn’t have to make a trip to my locker when school let out. That head start sometimes saved me a beatdown, if I ran fast enough. My heart, racing while I watched the second hand on the clock at the front of the class make its final slow sweep. Stomach churning, legs twitching. Breaking into a sweat before I’d even began to run.

Since those early formative years of my life, I have built a wall of muscle, for protection and for profit. An extensive rap sheet of violent crimes, miles of broken bones between who I was and who I am. Reminiscing makes my insides burn for the duration of my cross-country drive. Rage has long been my motivation. I’ve kept it burning inside me through the night and into this morning’s drive to the kid’s school. Among the few useful parts of his mother’s hysterical plea, I learned the time and place for making an intervention. I peer through the thick brush just off the school grounds, see them on the footbridge.

He’s skinny, dammit. Tall, nearly my height. He’d be towering over the bully were he not shrinking back. So pale and frightened. Fragile, like he might break even before the guy grasping his shirt front hits him. He won’t get a chance to do that; I know that much.

The kid has glasses, too, dammit. I remember how tough that had made my childhood. How the ridiculously thick plastic things would come flying off when I got hit (often), followed by trips to the optical shop for repairs, being scolded the entire time. Then my Dad put a stop to it, his solution adding to my humiliation. A black strap that went around my head, to hold my glasses onto my pimply face. Good times. I snap my attention back to the present.

He’s crying, dammit.

I’m going to put a stop to it, keep history from repeating. I barrel through the brush, part wildfire, part charging animal. Pure fury.

Both kids are startled. I hope the bully is soiling his baggy shorts as the snarl falls off his face. I close on the pair quickly, grabbing the bully’s shirt. He is cursing and flailing at me and I feel none of it.

It’s a proud moment, as my son the coward takes the opportunity to flee. I watch for a moment, his gangly limbs propelling him away across the rough sidewalk. No “Thanks, Dad,” dammit.

The bully starts to struggle, and I turn my full attention back to him. The anger I’ve left in check so far is ready to erupt. I could easily break this kid, fracture bones and psyche; give him some hurt to think about for a long time. No conscience to stop me, or to condemn me later.

I raise him off the ground to my height. I’m going to put the fear of me into him, and enough of it to last his entire lifetime.

He chokes out something that I can’t quite understand. “What?!” I demand, loosening my grip slightly for a second, giving him minimal oxygen.

“What did you just say?” I shout again, after giving his voice a second to jump back into its box.

“Dad,” he repeats. “What. The. F.”

Dammit.

END