School ended on the 16th of June. As Joey hopped down from the bus, that last Friday afternoon, he swore he could feel an invisible pair of chains drop away from his wrists and ankles.
FREE! FREE!! FREE!!! His mind shouted the word, over and over again. The next three months seemed to stretch before him like a golden eternity. No more Wayne or Butch---at least, not until next September. And who knew? With any luck, they might forget all about him, by then.
Joey and his mother went to the municipal pool on a sweltering afternoon in August. After a brief swim, Ellen waddled off the refreshment stand to buy herself and her son an ice cream cone. Joey stretched out on his towel and closed his eyes, and prepared to soak up some sun.
A dark cloud suddenly seemed to pass between him and the sun, bathing his body in a cold, foreboding shadow. Joey opened his eyes and saw Butch Kilabreski towering over him. Water dripped like rain drops from Butch's corn-colored hair and that all-too-familiar pinprick of white light glowed like frozen fire in his eyes.
Butch grinned. "Hey, there, Picks. Long time no see."
Butch bent down and yanked Joey's towel out from under him, sending Joey tumbling backward into the grass. He twirled Joey's towel into a tight, little rope. And then he started to strike Joey about his head and shoulders with it.
"Ow! Hey, cut it out!" Joey cried. Each blow felt sharp and stinging as a bullwhipe against his tender flesh. The only thing Joey could think to do was cover his face with his hands and arms, and curl his body into a tight, little ball. Otherwise, he was sure Butch would have put out one of his eyes with the pointed tip of the towel.
"YOU LEAVE MY SON ALONE!"
Suddenly, the blows stopped falling. Joey opened his eyes and dropped his hands to his sides. Glancing to his right, he saw two fresh ice cream cones lying abandoned in the grass.
He was amazed to see that Ellen had somehow managed to grab hold of the loose end of the towel and was tugging on it with all her limited strength. Her eyes were pinched shut and her clenched jaw was set in a rigid line. An ugly, blue vein bulged like a wriggly, blue worm in the middle of her forehead and her puffed-out cheeks were rapidly turned an icy shade of Arctic blue.
Butch held his end of the towel in one outstretched hand and grinned at Ellen, laughing at her, behind his malicious smile.
He released his end of the towel. Ellen sailed backward and downward, landing on her chunky bottom in the grass.
Butch paused another second to admire his handiwork. His malevolent smile grew wider and brighter, and so did the gleam in his eyes. Then he just turned and ran away. Joey saw him dart like a rabbit between two green wooden benches. Joey heard a loud, resounding splash!, as Butch's long, lithe body struck the blue-chlorinated water in the pool.
Ellen groaned as she rose from the grass, rubbing her bruised bottom with both hands. Her expression of shame, humiliation, and recrimination was more than joey could bear and he averted his eyes from her angry eyes. Ellen grabbed her towel and floppy straw hat, and stormed off toward the women's shower room. Joey waited a moment or two. Then he picked up his towel and trailed after her, taking his time.
Frank stood underneath an old elm tree, next to a metal bicycle rack, just a few feet away from the fenced-in pool area. He'd been an unwilling witness to the entire tragic incident.
"It's a pity they don't teach boxing in school any more," he thundered at his son. "Maybe that would make a man out of you."
Frank, Ellen, and Joey piled into their station wagon and prepared to leave the park. At the same time, Butch and Wayne and several of their friends left the pool area. They removed their bikes from the metal rack, under the old elm tree and started to chase after the Duduka's station wagon, pedaling faster and faster, until they were parallel with Joey, who as usual, sat all alone in the back seat. Turning his head, he could see them pointing at him, smiling and laughing at him. Joey saw their lips move. He was certain they were making lewd and derogatory comments about him.
"There are your friends," Frank growled at his son. "Why don't you say, 'Hi,' to them? Give 'em the finger. Do something. Anything!"
Frank reached the red stop sign, at the park exit. He waited impatiently, while the traffic flowed in an endless stream up and down Main Street. Butch and Wayne and their friends stopped and waited, too.
Finally, there was a break in the traffic. Frank gunned the engine, tromping his foot down hard on the gas pedal. The old station wagon shot out of the park, in a wide, crazy arc to their left, and zoomed like a rocket up the hill.
Joey feared that Butch and Wayne and their gang were going to try and follow them up the hill. Instead, as one, they turned to their right and started to pedal at a furious rate of speed down the sidewalk. Joey assumed they were headed for Mr. Hanks' pharmacy, to try and see how much candy they could pilfer without the old man catching them. Joey didn't care where they were going. He'd never felt so glad to get out of a bad situation in his life.