by Michael D. Brooks
It was a typical Saturday in July. The yellow sun high up in the sky attempted to boil anyone who dared spend time soaking in its rays. The air was hot and steamy even though it had not rained in almost two weeks. The grass had gone from a luscious bright green to a sickly-looking dirty brown. The oppressive heat and humidity were two reasons why my friends and I spent our time hiding out under the protective canopy of the pecan trees down by the old Adams House.
The Adams House was a rundown derelict left over from a time when women carried parasols and men tipped their hats when ladies passed them by on the street. No one had lived in it for years. Most of the shutters had fallen off. The once majestic front porch was in a rotting stage of decay. The white paint on its brick exterior had long since cracked and peeled away and all of the windows had been broken out by kids who had thrown stones at them for target practice.
Rumors persisted that the house was haunted. But the little group of misfits I hung out with found gathering near the house comforting and protecting. The city had decided long ago that it was cheaper to simply let the house crumble and fall to the ground rather than knock it down. But the house seemed to have a mind of its own and defiantly resisted Father Time and the city officials.
There was something about the old house which drew us to it. It no longer fit in with the times or the community of houses surrounding it, but it dared to stand its ground.
It was in the shadow of the Adams House and under the shade of the trees that my friends and I spent our summer days. Those of us who were gathered that July day were members of a clique — at least that’s what we liked to say. The rest of the kids at the high school we all attended simply called our motley group the “nerd herd” because there was nowhere else we fit in.
There was Keith Saunders, a pale, round kid who looked like the Pillsbury dough boy and spent most of his time sucking on his asthma inhaler; and Maureen Rivers, who was so tall and skinny she looked like Popeye’s wife with braces on her teeth. Akeem and Hakeem, the Williams twins, resembled that geeky kid Steve Urkel from that TV comedy where he got on everybody’s nerves and loved cheese.
Our oddball group included Mary Plimpkin, whom the so-called cool kids called scary Mary. Granted, when they passed out good looks, Mary missed her chance to get some, but that was only because she got a heaping helping of brains instead.
Then there was Brandon Tillman. He was a redhead with matching freckles, the smallest of us in the group, and being a freshman, the youngest. He never spoke—at least none of us ever heard him speak, as though he had taken a vow of silence after his parents died when he was a kid. Needless to say, he was picked on because of his size and because he wouldn’t speak up for himself. I rounded out the group that day. I ended up with this club because I was a bit of a loner and really didn’t fit in with the other kids either.
Because none of us fit in at school individually, we inevitably drifted toward each other, desperate to be a part of something. It was one of those birds-of-a-feather kinds of thing. In fact, every kid in the school who did not fit in usually found their way to our group. And we found comfort in each other — which is why on this particular day those of us gathered by the Adams House were annoyed by the sudden intrusion of the school’s bully.
That was another reason why we hung out near the old Adams place: everyone else was afraid to come near it, but we identified with it. The mysterious house had stood up to the ravages of time and even survived an aborted attempt to knock it down. So when Trenton Santiago rode up on his motorcycle accompanied by a couple of his cronies and started taunting us, I started feeling a bravado I had never felt before.
“Hey, what do you know? It’s the nerd herd. I heard you losers hung out at this old dump.”
I didn’t know which was worse, his sorry attitude or his fake Latin-lover accent. He also seemed to feel he could do as he pleased because he was a senior and the star quarterback. With him at the helm, our school had beaten Bishop Michaels every year for the city championship. But none of that mattered to the rest of us. We just wanted him to leave us alone.
For some strange reason I could not explain, I didn’t feel afraid of him that day. The lack of fear confused me because I had always felt afraid of him. It was at that particular moment that something in me decided that enough was enough, and it wasn’t going to allow me or my friends to be intimidated by him any longer. Being bullied at school was one thing, but being bullied in my own sanctuary was something else all together.
“Get lost, Trenton.” I couldn’t believe that what I’d been thinking had somehow found the strength and courage to burst forth from my normally tacit lips.
“Excuse me? Did one of you dorks just diss me?”
“Yeah, jerk. I said get lost.”
“You must be out of your mind. Do you know who you’re talking to?”
“Yeah. The horse’s patoot on the motorcycle. Oh, wait. I am talking to the back end of the horse, right?”
The look of surprise on Trenton’s face was priceless. He looked as though he’d been slapped across the face by his mother. He shut off his engine and kicked out the stand on his motorcycle. I had no idea what had motivated me to put my physical well-being at risk. The looks on my friends’ faces told me I was a goner. The thoughts running through my head told me I was going to get my butt handed to me and I’d probably be choking down some teeth.
But for some inexplicable reason, I couldn’t keep my thoughts from screaming in my head and carelessly careening past my lips; no matter how hard I tried. I felt I was outside of my body, looking at myself saying things I didn’t want to say out loud. I felt like some kind of ventriloquist’s dummy, and someone else was speaking through me.
I watched Trenton dismount his motorcycle and angrily stride over to me. That was when the fear I should have initially felt finally took hold of me. I wanted to run, but my feet wouldn’t budge. I swear I felt the grass reach up and entwine itself around my feet so I couldn’t run. It was like watching an accident about to happen in slow motion.
He looked like one of those ticked-off bulls from one of those Bugs Bunny cartoons. I never saw the punch, but I did see a flash of light and felt his fist connect with my left eye seconds before my head snapped backward. All I heard was the crack my neck made.
Until that moment, I had never felt so much pain. I don’t remember falling, but I do remember seeing a hulking figure in a black leather jacket standing over me before I felt the heel of his boot crash down upon my stomach. The pain was unbelievable. I thought the punch to my eye was the worst pain I had ever felt. The stomp to my stomach was excruciating.
“Leave him alone.”
I barely heard the challenge, but it sounded like it came from Maureen.
“What was that, you little wench.”
“I said leave him alone, you big jerk.”
Somehow I found the strength to crawl to my knees and looked up with my remaining eye in time to see a determined Maureen standing her ground. She had that deer in the headlights look in her eyes and a look of sheer consternation across her face. Her posture displayed a stubborn defiance, but the frightened look on her face told me she couldn’t believe the words had come out of her mouth and now she might have to pay a painful price backing them up.
Between all of us, we didn’t have a single backbone. So why I said what I did and what Maureen said came as a complete shock to all of us. Her challenge to Trenton diverted his attention from me.
“Are all of you dorks looking to get your butts kicked? Because I’ll be glad to break all of your scrawny little necks.” He glanced back at his pals for reassurance and support, but the looks on their faces seemed to reflect a measure of surprise at his vicious attack on me and disgust at Trenton’s course of action. It was one thing to bully a bunch of misfits; it was apparently something else to brutally beat them up for attempting to defend themselves in an unprovoked attack.
“Yeah? You and what army?” The air around us seemed to go stale at that moment.
This time the challenge came from Keith who must have sensed that Trenton was not getting any backup from his companions. Keith was flanked by Akeem, Hakeem, and Mary, who placed themselves between Trenton and Maureen. I painfully staggered to my feet and stood next to my friends bracing for another attack.
Everyone in our crew stepped forward to challenge him. We stood tall, strong, defiant, and determined, drawing a proverbial line and daring him to cross it. He could have probably beaten most of us, but not all of us.
However, Trenton was so surprised by the sudden show of joint resistance that he stopped advancing toward us. He turned to look at his companions, neither of whom made the slightest effort to join him in his endeavor to manhandle us. They simply rolled their motorcycles backward away from him.
When he returned his attention to us, the smirk that had graced his face quickly faded. It was replaced by a look of genuine fear like he had seen a ghost. It warmed my panicked heart. He seemed to be looking beyond us. I just wished I could’ve seen his face more clearly with both of my eyes. The one he hit me in had swollen completely shut. I had no depth perception, but what I could see was more beautiful than any sunset.
“What’s wrong, Trenton? I thought you were going to kick our butts, you little wuss. Are you the pantywaist everyone says you are?” This time Brandon issued the challenge. It was the first time any of us had ever heard the kid speak.
“Yeah, are you the pantywaist we all know and love to hate?” I did it again. I spoke words I didn’t want spilling forth for everyone to hear — especially Trenton. He actually seemed unsure of what to do next. It was one against many because he wasn’t getting any help from his so-called friends.
After weighing his limited options and deciding to quit while he could, he said, “You losers aren’t worth the trouble.” He flipped us his middle finger then turned to walk back to his motorcycle.
At that instant we all heard a loud crack from overhead then watched in astonishment as a large, dead branch, that had been hanging securely in the trees, suddenly fell onto Trenton’s motorcycle and knocked it over.
“My bike!” His outburst sounded almost like a whimper. He ran faster than an Olympic gold-medal sprinter to reach his motorcycle.
He pulled the branch off his dirt bike, returned it to its upright position, and carefully examined it. The damage it had sustained included a broken turn signal, a smashed rear view mirror, a rip in the leather seat, a dent in the gas tank, a twisted handlebar, and scratched paint.
When he was satisfied nothing more serious was wrong with it, he mounted his motorcycle, roared the engine to life, turned to his comrades and said, “Let’s go.” Then he screeched up the dirt road like a motocross racer as a plume of dry dirt trailed behind him marking his rapid departure.
His two comrades, who seemed reluctant to join him but eager to leave us alone, followed Trenton but kept their distance from him. Our little band of misfits watched as they all rode over the hill and out of sight.
We all heaved a collective sigh of relief and were silently confronting our fears when we heard what sounded like stifled, satisfied snickering coming from the old Adams House. We all looked at each other with confusion and renewed fear. Was it true? Was the place really haunted? We never actually believed the stories ourselves, but the sound remarkably resembled snickering.
It was only then that we noticed that the wind had picked up and storm clouds were gathering. We all decided that the sound we thought was snickering was nothing more than tree branches and rain-starved leaves scraping against the side of the house.
Copyright © 2009 by Michael D. Brooks