When Bullies Collide
It was a stormy Monday morning in which our story begins. Thomas suddenly awoke to the sound of loud pounding at his bedroom door; his aunt Mimaleen was calling him from the other side.
"You'd better be getting ready in there!" she shouted, pounding a bit more. "If you're late again that teacher of yours will have us both in detention."
With a great groan, Thomas rolled out of bed so exhausted he could barely open his eyes as he stumbled lazily through the darkness of his room. On the way to his closet he tripped over a small pile of dirty clothes and fell face first into the carpet. A second later he was blinded as the door swung open and the light clicked on. Rolling over on his back, he peered up at the fuzzy outline of his aunt. She was a tall, slender woman with smooth white cheeks, bright green eyes and very thin eyebrows that seemed to be permanently arched in disapproval. Yet despite her somewhat menacing appearance, Mimaleen was in reality, a very kind and patient woman.
"Up all night again?" she asked, half smiling and half scowling. "I'm serious this time Tom. Nightmares or no, if you're late for school again, you're grounded. You've got five minutes to be downstairs and out that door, now get moving." With that, she turned and stomped out of the room. The moment she was out of sight, Thomas immediately flipped over on his hands and knees and thundered across the floor like a frantic dog.
Less than four minutes later, barely conscious with his hair uncombed and laces untied, Thomas hopped down the stairs on one foot while trying to shove the other into a shoe. As he hit the landing he snatched up his book-bag, dashed down the hall and ran straight through the front door and down the steps.
"Wait, what?" Thomas jerked his head around to look back at the front door. "Did I just? No, that's not possible." For a moment he stared at the door. How tired could I be? he thought. He slowly walked back up the steps, reached out a hand and pressed it against the wood. It was solid. He pushed again, this time a little harder, but still the door wouldn't budge.
"Wake up Tom," he said slapping himself in the face. If I didn't know any better, I could swear I just ran through – but suddenly he was startled out of his thoughts by a loud hiss of escaping air followed by the shrill squeal of brakes. He turned just in time to see the bus to school rounding the corner at the end of the street. Thomas never actually rode the bus. He preferred to avoid his classmates as much as possible, and the mere thought of being surrounded by them, locked inside an inescapable tin can only made him nauseous. He only ever used the bus as a way of telling how much time he had. Today he knew that he would have to take the shortcut through the forest behind his neighborhood.
Jogging along in a tired stupor, he made his way through the trees with hardly an upward glance. Thomas had taken this route so often that, by now, he could have done it blindfolded. His only hope at the moment was that the school janitor, Mr. Prinn, might have remembered to leave the back gate open for him so he could sneak past one of his biggest daily obstacles: the McClarren brothers. Joseph McClarren was an older boy, big and mean and the most popular kid in the whole school. But that was largely due to the fact that all of the other children were simply afraid of him. His younger brother, Eric, was the same age as Thomas. But he was not as piggish as Joseph. In fact, he was quite the opposite. Eric was smaller than most of the kids in their class and very scrawny. Together they terrorized any who got in their way. But their favorite target, above all, was Thomas. At the same moment the school bus pulled up to the front gate, Thomas arrived at the back entrance. He was relieved to see that Mr. Prinn had not forgotten him after all. The back gate was wide open and the McClarrens were nowhere in sight. He slowly moved out from under cover of the thicket and had one last look around to be sure it was safe. Out of pure instinct, Thomas' feet nearly took off without him as a voice shouted out from within the trees somewhere behind.
"There Joe! He's over there!"
The jig was up. Thomas knew his only hope was to make it into school before the McClarren brothers could catch up to him. As he ran, he glanced over his shoulder to see Joseph and Eric barreling through a cluster of bushes and charging after him. He was almost there, less than twenty yards from the gate. The footsteps from behind grew closer and louder.
"Get back here you!"
Only ten yards away, he was almost...
By the time he had realized what happened, Thomas was lying on his back in a lot of pain. With water and mud stinging his eyes, he squinted up at the brawny, dimwitted face of Joseph McClarren.
"Betchya thought you was real smart, eh creepy?" Joseph pressed his fat boot harder into Thomas's chest. "That was a dirt'y trick, tryin' to sneak in the back entrance." He then lifted Thomas onto his feet and forced him around to face his younger brother.
"What'd we tell ya bout tryin' to avoid us creepy?" Eric puffed up his puny chest and propped out his elbows like an old west cowboy. But Thomas simply sniffed indifferently.
"That I should get stronger bug spray." Just then, he felt a fat hand grip around the back of his neck and all the air being forced from his lungs as Joseph socked him stiffly in the stomach. Thomas fell down on all fours, gasping for air while Joseph stood over him shaking his arms over his head and shouting like a TV show wrestler.
"Call me a bug one more time creepy! I dare you!"
"C'mon now Joe," said Eric, tugging at his older brother's sleeve. "There's no need to get so rough. It was actually kinda funny."
"You back off twerp or you'll be next." But Eric did not back off. Much to Thomas' surprise, Eric pushed himself between him and Joseph.
"So I guess ya won't mind gettin' pummeled by dad," Eric said with a sneer. His chest was now puffed up just as far as it would go.
"You'll have a hard time tellin'em after I knock all your teeth out!"
"Just leave'em here so he'll get in trouble again."
As Eric and Joseph went on arguing, Thomas got to his feet hoping that he might have the chance to make a break for it. But deep down he knew Eric would be blamed for letting him get away, and even though Thomas didn't like Eric very much, he still didn't want to see anyone beaten up on his account.
"I said leave him alone Joe." For a brief instant it seemed to Thomas that Eric had won the argument. But just then, Joseph arched his head upright and a cool unnerving grin crossed over his fat, dimwitted face.
"So ya wanna be friends with Creepy then eh?" With a quick, rough shove, he knocked Eric backwards into Thomas and together they fell into a large puddle of muddy water. Thomas righted himself just in time to see Joseph pass through the school archway laughing and snorting stupidly.
"Hope you two twerps enjoy your detention together," Joseph said as he slammed the gate closed and locked it. It was all over. For a long moment, Thomas stared down at his waterlogged book bag and thought about what his aunt Mim would say when she found out he was late again for school and that he had gotten another detention. He'd definitely be grounded for a month. Not that it mattered much, as Thomas never really went outside the house anyway. At that moment, Thomas' only comfort was knowing that he wasn't alone. Eric was sharing this mud puddle with him and although Thomas had only ever met Mr. McClarren once or twice, he was positive that whatever punishment he might receive from his aunt, Eric's would certainly be worse. Finally, he pushed himself up out of the mud, and dragged his soggy pack onto his shoulder. Eric didn't seem to want to be left there alone in the mud, so he too dragged himself out of the puddle. Together they marched along at a sluggish pace, looking as if they'd just crawled through a pig pen.
"You know," said Thomas, breaking the silence between them like a gunshot. "Your brother can be a real-" but he was suddenly interrupted by Eric's book bag smacking into the back of his leg.
"You just shut up," cried Eric. "I should'a just let Joe pound you."
"Then why didn't you?" shouted Thomas, swinging his own bag into Eric's shoulder. "I didn't need your help."
"I just wanted you to get in trouble," Eric replied holding up his bag, ready to strike again.
"Oh, and that's supposed to make me feel better then, is it?" Soon the argument spilled over into a full on backpack melee. Pencils and papers soared and books and binders flung until they were eventually hitting each other with nothing more than two empty pieces of mushy, muddy cloth.
"If you would'a just kept your mouth shut," said Eric as he threw his empty pack in Thomas's face. "You wouldn't have gotten yourself hit, but you just had to say that bug thing didn't you?" But even as Eric said this, he couldn't help but betray a little giggle, and despite Thomas' own anger, he couldn't help but join in.
"I guess I did ask for it," said Thomas as he handed Eric a mud soaked math book. "But it sure was worth it just to see the look on his face,"
"I was shocked he even got the joke to begin with."
Together they laughed as they picked up their things and continued on to the front gates of the school. It began to rain just as they had arrived, but as they stepped though the archway, two cold, bony hands clapped down on their shoulders. They looked up to see Mrs. Blintel, the most hated teacher in the whole school. With a sinister and satisfied grin she uttered but one word, "DETENTION."
Thomas absolutely hated serving detention. The room smelled like old socks and the desk chairs were very uncomfortable. However, today he found it to be far more tolerable having someone else to pass the time with. For the entire two hour period, as Mrs. Blintel sat grading test papers at her desk, Thomas and Eric quietly swapped a single piece of crumpled paper back and forth. Before long it had become so crowded with short jokes and tiny comics that there was hardly any space left to write in. Thomas was just filling in the last tiny piece of corner with a joke he'd thought up when...
"Alright then," said Mrs. Blintel as she adjusted her thick round glasses and peered down at her wrist watch, "you two may go." In a quiet ruckus, Thomas snatched up his bag and followed Eric in a dash for the door, but only inches from freedom they both came to a skidding halt. Mrs. Blintel was blocking the exit. Thomas always felt his skin start to crawl whenever he looked at Mrs. Blintel. With those pasty cheeks and that shiny chin she reminded him of a wax statue. Her glasses made her eyes as big as boiled eggs. But the thing that bothered Thomas most about his teacher, was the way she could speak without moving her lips.
"If either of you are late tomorrow," she said in an almost threatening whisper. "You'll both be suspended. Is that understood?"
"Yes ma'am," they replied, and then Thomas followed Eric out of the room.
"Is it just me," said Eric as they passed through the school gates, "or does Mrs. Blintel smell a bit like old cheese?"
"Cheese mixed with really strong laundry detergent," Thomas replied through a laugh.
"Reminds me of Joe," said Eric, "only without the laundry soap." But just then he stopped laughing and walking. Thomas might have asked why if he hadn't also realized that Joseph was standing directly in front of them. Apparently, he'd been waiting for them and the look on his face was enough to let Thomas know that he had heard every word.
"So I stink do I?" Joseph's pudgy face was scarlet and he was breathing like a bull ready to charge.
"It was just a joke," said Eric through a nervous chuckle. Thomas felt his stomach begin to turn in anticipation of what was coming next. Together they watched in terror as Joseph stalked back and forth in front of them, flexing his fists and pumping his shoulders up and down.
"C'mon Joe, we were just havin' a laugh," said Eric, apparently trying in a last effort to calm his brother. But before Eric could say another word, Joseph lurched forward and rammed him like a football player. Eric hit the ground hard like a rag-doll. Joseph then turned on Thomas and a split second later he was once again buckled over Joseph's fist.
"Now that's what I call funny," Joseph said as he began laughing obnoxiously. But at that moment, something strange was beginning to happen. Although Thomas knew he had just been hit and he knew that by now he should be in a lot of pain, the only thing he felt was heat. His cheeks burned and it felt as if his blood was starting to boil as if somewhere deep within his chest an ocean of fire was swelling. Everything around him became hazy and muffled. Even Joseph's laughter seemed to echo distantly in his ears. Suddenly something grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and stretched him upright.
"What...what's he doin' Eric?" Joseph asked, taking a step back.
"How should I know stupid?" Eric cried. "Maybe he's really hurt."
Another searing wave ripped over his body and Thomas felt his arms pull out straight to either side. Everything was burning. From his feet to the tip of his head, even his eyes felt as though they were on fire.
"You - you cut it out creepy, or I'm gonna-" but suddenly a loud scream blared out through the haze as the light and sound slipped away – until there was nothing.
Thomas suddenly awoke with the feeling that he was drowning. He quickly sat upright, gagging and spluttering as he looked around. He had no idea how long he'd been lying on the ground. It was raining now and he was still in front of the school. But nothing could have prepared him for what he saw next. A short distance away, he spotted the McClarrens sprawled out unconscious on the muddy ground. Streams of dark smoke poured upward from their blackened clothing and Joseph was missing both of his eyebrows. Thomas was at a loss. He couldn't begin to imagine what could have happened. The only thing he did know is that he would be to blame for the McClarren's barbequed appearance. In a panic, he snatched up his schoolbag and took off down the road. All the way home he ran as fast as his legs would carry him. As he ran, his head began to ache and his mind became crowded with questions. How long had I been there? he thought. And how did Joseph and Eric get burned like that? Finally, he arrived at his front door completely exhausted, his head pounded horribly. For a long time, he stood staring at the front door. He knew his aunt would be home now and he would have to tell her about being late for school again and getting another detention. But more than that, he was feeling rather awful for leaving his new friend behind in such a terrible state. Suddenly, the front door swung open. Thomas looked up to see his aunt scowling down at him, arms folded and eyebrows shaped in that familiar arch of disapproval.
"Just where have you been young man?"
Thomas hesitated for a moment, trying to decide as quickly as possible which answer would get him in the least amount of trouble.
"I'm sorry Mim. I had to stay for detention again." Thomas only ever referred to his aunt as Mim. Although she never bothered to ask why, somewhere deep down she always knew that in Thomas' mind, what he was really saying was "mother." Mimaleen gave a heavy sigh and smiled sympathetically.
"What are we going to do with you Tom?" She then flinched, seeming to have only just noticed the shambled state of Thomas' hair and clothing. "You look awful. What have you been doing?"
"I was knocked-" Thomas stopped and then started again. "I fell - into some mud," he lied. Mimaleen picked at his shirt and sweater, making various expressions of disgust.
"Well these are ruined," she said, taking a step back and patting her hands on her dress. "Go upstairs and wash up. Supper'll be ready in a few minutes. Then maybe you can tell me what really happened."
He arrived in the kitchen downstairs. His aunt was already sitting at the table, sipping a cup of tea and reading a book. Just as he sat down, Mim popped up and strode across the kitchen, returning shortly with a large plate full of steak and mashed potatoes. As she set down the plate she placed her hand under his chin and forced him to look her in the eyes.
"You know Tom," Mim said, shaking her head before returning to her seat, "this is really getting out of hand."
"I know," Thomas replied, poking at his steak with a fork.
"You look absolutely exhausted and you've been late to school every day for the past month-"
"I know Mim, but I-"
"Don't interrupt," said Mim, swatting the table with her finger. She paused for a moment, placing her hands flat on the table and taking in a deep breath. "I'm sorry," she continued. "I'm just getting rather frustrated with all of this. I'm trying Tom. I really am. But I can't help if you won't tell me the truth."
Thomas continued staring at his steak. How could he tell her the truth when even the truth sounded like a lie, or worse, like he was going mad? He had no idea why he was having such terrible dreams, nor could he explain how he ran straight through a solid door as easily as one passes through air. It was all so very confusing, not to mention disturbing. But perhaps the most confusing and disturbing question on Thomas' mind: what really happened to Joseph and Eric McClarren? After a long moment of silence, he finally spoke.
"I'm sorry," he said, setting his fork back down on the table. "I'm not feeling very well. May I be excused?"
With a slight huff of irritation, Mim simply smiled and patted Thomas on the hand. "I'm not letting you off that easy. But I suppose it can wait till tomorrow. Go on then, off to bed with you."