Students cluster outside the band room as they wait for lunch to end. Two boys are playing keep away with Will Findley’s glasses. Brock dangles the spectacles high above Will’s reach. Will jumps and nearly snags the glasses, but Brock lobs them over his head into the hands of his fellow thug. The lankier thug shuffles next to me, holding the glasses behind his back with both hands. Will approaches and extends his hand to the boy.
“What do you want?” he asks.
Will doesn’t answer but instead focuses his eyes on his worn-out imitation Chucks; his big toe moves up and down through a hole in the shoe. Will smells like sweat and unwashed clothes I imagine he has worn for at least a week. He pushes oily hair from his eyes and tucks it behind his ear while rocking forward and back on his heels. Still, he says nothing.
“I–I think Will wants his glasses,” I say.
The thinner thug, Cody, punches me in the shoulder. “Then give them back.”
Brock tugs the bottom of his snug, black concert T-shirt to cover his protruding belly, anxious to join the discussion.
“Stop teasing Will,” he says. “Give him his glasses.” Brock’s tobacco-infused breath makes me sick, and the brown juice pooling between his gums and lower lip makes it worse.
“Leave him alone, Brock,” I mumble. “Give the poor guy his glasses.”
“Stop blaming others, O’Connell,” Cody says. “We know you have them.”
Curious student pause and cluster around us. Cody and Brock speak louder for their growing mob.
“O’Connell has stolen Will’s glasses,” Brock announces. “And he won’t give them back.”
“What do you think Will should do?” Cody asks.
“O’Connell’s a wimp. I bet Will could whop him.”
“I think you are right,” Cody says facing his audience. He then whispers loud enough for everyone to hear, “You should beat him up, Will.”
“Leave us alone, guys,” I say, looking at other students for support. They, however, all seem to be amused by the show. “I—don’t—have—Will’s—glasses.”
“We know you do,” Cody says, propping his elbow on Will’s shoulder. “He won’t give them back, Will. What are you going to do about it?”
“Hit him,” Brock whispers.
“Hit him,” Cody says a little louder.
The two boys clap and chant in unison.
“Hit him. Hit him. Hit him. Hit him.”
Will steps toward me but immediately retreats. He surveys the crowd, looking for an escape, I hope. He steps to the gap between Cody and Brock, who are still chanting, but they block his way out. The thugs pump their fists to the rhythm of their cheer until others join the chorus.
“Hit him! Hit him! Hit Him…”
Finally, Will steps up to me, lifts his right hand and lowers it again. He looks at the growing mob that is still chanting “hit him, hit him, hit him” and then he does it.
It was just one slap, but it becomes my defining moment in junior high school. I’ve heard that cool heads prevail, but can I keep cool? Can I keep my head with all of this nonsense about me?
Years of distress and tattered thoughts stored deep in my stomach gurgle and grow until they fill my lungs. Heat grows and pushes past my heart into my throat, threatening to overtake my cool head. I take a deep breath pushing it back down to my stomach.
Don’t let it out. Don’t let it out!
The stunned mob waits for a retaliation. Will and I just stare at each other in shock. I won’t give in to it. Remain calm. Remain calm! My inner pep talk isn’t working, and my struggle to hold that boiling rage deep within causes my body to shake.
“He’s so red,” a girl whispers. “About to explode.”
That’s when I break the unspoken rule all seventh-grade boys try to follow. All of the nicknames, the rumors and the jokes are no longer content to remain buried inside me. They force their way out, first in salty drips from the corners of my eyes. More drips follow until the heftier copper-tainted rage forces it’s way through my left nostril and drips to on my whimpering lips.
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