It started with a bully.
His name, ironically, was Raphael. Big brute of a fellow, one I’d jokingly nicknamed Wreck it Raph which he didn’t care for but laughed along anyway because, as big as he was, my temper was known to be short and my friends list was pretty long. It always pays in spades to be popular, especially in the sixth grade.
I’d been out behind the school with Trey to smoke some pot he scored from his brother’s medical stash. It was pretty chilly but I took off my hoodie, tucking it into my bag in the hopes of it not smelling too green as we lit up the joint. A few puffs in, we were chuckling and freezing cold. My teeth had been chattering bad enough that the weed wasn’t even hitting that great anymore and I was about to head back toward the school when I saw Wreck it Raph shaking down some shrimpy kid down under the bleachers by the football field.
I’d already stumbled to my feet when Trey caught my pant leg muttering, “Yo. Not your battle.”
I just laughed. “When was my last good fight?”
“Your dad’s gonna kill you, you know,” he laughed and I just chuckled. It’s not even that I like to fight—it’s just that there’s big idiots like Raph all over our school and, well, I don’t like ‘em much. Never really cared for a bully and besides, the poor kid was already bleeding from his nose. When I ran up on him, the kid shook his head no, eyes wide with terror. Poor thing, probably trying to save me from the mongrel stealing his lunch money.
Almost thoughtlessly, I kicked Wreck it Raph, knocking him sideways since he wasn’t expecting the hit. “What’s up?” I asked, c*****g my head to the side as I surveyed the scene. Poor guy, he had to be younger than us, a kid. He was so short. “Picking on little kids ain’t cool, man.”
When Raph dove for me, I lifted my knee in time to make contact with his nose, managing to knock him sideways again, on hands and knees. He and the kid he’d been picking on were in the same position now, both gushing from their faces, and I realized I was a bully’s bully. Bully’s bully. I snorted. Something about that was comical. My snort turned to laughter and I heard Trey laugh from further back, closer to the building. God, we were high.
“Why are you protecting a fag?!” Raph snapped as he rose back to his feet. He’d regained his bearings a lot faster than the little kid did but that was to be expected, I guess, being your average brute and all. “He likes boys!”
I rolled my eyes, gesturing to the kid searching for something on the ground looking like Velma from Scooby Doo. Another snort at the thought. “He’s like six.”
“He’s in our grade, asshole,” Wreck it Raph growled.
For real? Scrawny kid. “So you want to fight or what?” I asked, getting annoyed with all the banter. I wasn’t here to talk and Raph wasn’t a good conversationalist anyhow. Raph growled angrily, coming at me with a punch and I smiled, stepping back and adjusting my body. That’s more like it.
. . .
When I came to, I was vaguely aware of somebody dabbing at my nose.
Damn. Did I lose? Hazy, I tried to sit upright but my body felt heavy and my head—oh, my f*****g head. It felt like I’d been hit by a truck.
“Idiota,” a woman muttered, pushing me back down against something soft. A couch? “Don’t try to sit up. I’m sure you’re concussed.”
Blinking rapidly, I stared into light brown eyes. It was a petite Spanish woman in . . . scrubs? I tried to sit up again, panicked. A hospital? Dad would kill me. Oh, he’s going to kill me. When I realized I was on a couch, in a house, it only freaked me out more. Was I kidnapped? What the—my eyes shifted to a familiar boy. Small, thin framed, slouched. He had an ice pack pressed to his face, his nose swollen from being broken. Oh.
“I’m Phil’s mom,” the woman went on to say. “He told me you helped him.”
Annoyed, I muttered, “He was getting his ass whooped by Wreck it Raph.”
“What’s the boy’s name?” she said, staring down at me pointedly.
Oh. Damn. I didn’t mean to snitch. Swallowing, I just shook my head.
“You better tell me boy. I wouldn’t want your mom to find out about what you were doing out behind the school.” Her eyes narrowed. Oh s**t. I moved to glare at her son, thinking he must’ve told when she said, “You stink. I could smell it the moment I got to you. And don’t go looking at my son funny, he’s the one who called me in the first place to keep you out of trouble.” She pressed a cold compress to my face and I gritted my teeth, letting her help me sit up all the way, kicking my legs down so I could sit normally.
“Raphael,” I said, shrugging.
She squinted. “Raphael then. I knew it. I’ll have to talk to his mother about this.” The woman got up suddenly, storming out of the room, leaving me alone with the kid.
He met my gaze and gave a slight nod in response. Dark eyes, caramel hair, fair skin. He looked girly enough. Maybe Raph wasn’t off the mark.
“You gay?” I asked, quirking a brow. He frowned, cheeks flooding with color as his eyes snapped down. He looked mad. “Guess not,” I muttered, looking down at my feet.
“Why did you start a fight?”
His voice was so soft. He cleared his throat, trying to speak louder this time. “If you knew you couldn’t win, why did you start a fight?”
I just chuckled. Who doesn’t love a little thrashing every now and again?
“You’re weird,” he muttered, voice soft again.
I probably wasn’t supposed to hear. “You should fight. Or try to anyway. Why didn’t you even try?” Glancing up at him, I set my jaw, taking in his startled expression. “It’s better to take a beating with pride than to just lay down and take it.”
His eyes flickered back down to his hands.
“You’re so little,” I muttered. “I thought you were a third grader.”
Oh, his face got redder. He’s mad. For some reason that was amusing. Scrawny little thing probably shat himself when Wreck it Raph barreled toward him. “You’re Phil?” I wondered, trying to place him. “You new here?”
He gave a slight nod. “Moved here at the start of the school year.”
Well at least that makes sense. “Cool, I’m—“
“Theo Blackwell, I know,” he muttered.
I smiled. “Ah, so my reputation proceeds me.”
“More like your temperament,” he muttered.
Well, excuse me—
“Phil!” his mother called. He rose to his 4’ 5” stature—just reiterating how small the guy was—and shuffled out of the room. There was some noise, pots and pans, stuff moving about. I found myself glancing toward the door, thinking about just ditching but he obviously knew who I was and if his mother wanted to, she could easily call mine up and remind her that I’m the bad child of the bunch. Not that it was hard to be, my older sister Violet is basically a recluse. You can’t do bad things if you literally do nothing. I slumped back on the couch, filled with dread, when I heard, “Theo! Come eat!”
Oh. Alright, that’s definitely the best option. Rising to my feet unsteadily, I stumbled over to see a set dining room table with rice, beans, and avocado salad. It smelled so good. Okay, fine, so maybe there was something here worth staying for. Taking a seat across from them at the table, I just stared at the bowls, watching as Phil’s mom rose from her seat, muttering something in Spanish as she dumped a mountain of food on my plate. “Thank you,” I said, wide eyed. Oh, we eat at the Blackwell house, yes we do, but not homemade Spanish cuisine. This was something else.
When I took a bite of the rice and beans, I closed my eyes humming.
“Good?” Phil’s mom asked.
“You made this?” I said, shoveling more food in my mouth.
“With Phil, yes,” she said, smiling over at him, nudging him with her elbow.
“You can cook?” I asked, looking him over.
He just shrugged, eating daintier, smaller bites. “He’s shy,” his mother said with a sigh. “I used to be like him when I was little. Hopefully he grows out of it soon.” She nudged him playfully again.
Phil frowned, not looking at me. Huh, so he’s shy. Probably because he’s a pipsqueak.
“So why did you intervene during that . . . incident?” Phil’s mom asked quietly.
“I don’t like bullies,” I said with a shrug.
“Did you know you’d get beat up?” Phil’s mom asked seriously. Phil chuckled beside her and she shot him a look that made him quiet up quick. I could tell this was one tough lady.
I smiled, even though it kind of hurt my split bottom lip. “Uh, kind of?”
“What does that mean?”
“It means it was worth a shot.” I chuckled. “I remember breaking his nose though.”
“Luck,” a soft voice muttered.
I frowned at Phil, noticing the way he was smiling toward his food. For a small punk who was getting his butt whooped a couple hours ago, he sure is mouthy. “Yeah well, this food made everything worth it,” I grinned sweetly at the woman. She smiled back and I thought I’d like to marry a woman who could cook like her. Come home to a smorgasbord of delicious food every night. “So where’s Phil’s, er, dad?” I wondered innocently. Or not so innocently. I mean the woman could be my future wife. Who knows?
“We don’t talk about him,” Phil muttered. Well, that’s ominous.
His mom’s smile seemed tense as she said, “So . . . I’m sorry, what’s your name again?”
“Theo,” I offered, wondering if I was about to get scolded.
“Oh—wait, Theo? Is your mom’s name Olivia?”
“Yes?” I said, scrunching my brows.
“Oh! Then you live right down the street from us,” she said, suddenly chipper. “Your mom is such a sweetheart. We’ve bumped into each other a couple times at the gym.”
“Cool?” My mom has been working out with my future wife? Does that mean this relationship is pre-approved?
“Wow, so to think Liv’s son is just as tough as she is,” Phil’s mom was grinning.
“People say I take after my dad,” I offered, shrugging.
“I should call your mom after we eat,” Phil’s mom offered, making me go rigid in my seat. She must have noticed me tense up because she laughed. “I’ll tell her you stuck up for my son. You’re a hero Theo. The rest we can keep our little secret.”
I relaxed, glancing toward Phil who had no comment this time, keeping his head ducked down. Chewing, I looked at him and mulled it over. If we were friends I could come over for dinner whenever I want to, right? Plus I’d get to see his mom more often. That thought made me grin.