School started again in September. Joey almost had a heart attack when he discovered that he and Butch had been assigned to the same gym class.
The moment Butch saw Joey, his eyes lit up and his lips curled back from his teeth in a cruelly mocking smile. "Hey, there, Picks. Gonna be just like ole times, huh?"
As Joey slogged around the cinder track, inside the high school football stadium, he could feel Butch's eyes bore like a pair of laser beams into his unprotected back.
After class, Joey was the first one out of the showers. His skinny fingers trembled as he struggled to open his locker. He yanked his street clothes out of his locker, placing his white, cotton briefs next to him, on the wooden bench.
A hand reached out of nowhere and snatched Joey's shorts from the bench.
"Hey!" Joey jumped to his feet and whirled around. Butch danced backwards on the balls of his feet, like an Indian warrior, inside the long, narrow square formed by the low, wooden benches, on all four sides of the room. High in the fingers of his outstretched right hand, he clutched Joey's shorts, like the prized pelt of some dangerous animal he'd just killed in hand-to-hand combat.
"Hey, guys. Look what I've got!"
The other turned and looked. They hooted and jeered.
Joey waited,, until Butch came prancing around his side of the square again. Then he reached out and attempted to grab back his shorts. Butch held them too high. Joey reached too far forwad, almost tripping over the bench and tumbling head-first onto the bare, cement floor. His glaring physical ineptitude elicited another loud outburst of raucous laughter from his classmates.
He cast a furtive glance down the narrow hallway, in the direction of the office. Usually, when Mr. Shaffner, their Phys. Ed. Teacher was in there, the door was ajar. The office door was closed.
Joey reluctantly stepped inside the narrow square and plodded after Butch.
Butch stopped dancing. "You want something, Picks?"
"Give me back my shorts." Joey tried to sound strong and forceful, but his words came out sounding weak and pathetic.
"O-o-o-h-h, Picks is getting brave in his old age," Butch said. "Sure, Picks, sure. I'll give you back your shorts. Please don't hurt me."
Smiling, Butch extended his right hand. As Joey reached out to take back his shorts, quick as a cat, Butch slapped him across the cheek with his left hand.
"Ow!" Joey yelped, exactly as he'd done the first time Butch had hit him, so many months ago. Hot tears sprang to his eyes. He took a step back, recoiling in fear, and touched the fingertips of his left hand to his burning cheek.
All around him, he could hear the other kids laughing. Their laughter hurt him and so did the pain in his cheek. But what hurt him even more than their laughter and the scalding pain in his cheek was the sudden horrible realization that now, everyone in the whole world knew his shameful, little secret: he was a coward, who couldn't even stand a little bit of pain!
Butch joined his laughter with the others. "You want to try that again, Picks?" he asked.
All those months of anger and frustration suddenly seemed to well up inside Joey like a brilliant crimson tidal wave, threatening to overwhelm and destroy him. Without even thinking about it, he balled his right hand into a tight fist and sent it sailing toward the smug, superior smile on Butch's face.
Butch's head flew all the way back on his neck, producing a small, snapping sound, like someone stepping on a twig. Butch staggered back a step.
Butch's expression of amused disdain quickly turned to one of surprise, then shock and horror. Joey was positive he detected a small glint of fear in Butch's eyes.
Joey waded into Butch like a madman, flailing away at Butch's head and body with both hands.
Butch raised his hands to defend himself, but Joey batted them aside. Butch's arms soon hung like a pair of broken pendulumns at his sides. Joey struck Butch on the right side of his jaw, and then on the left side. Each blow rocked Butch's head all the way back on his neck and made him stagger back a step.
Joey hit Butch again and again, and again, fast and furious, driving him across the room. The backs of Butch's knnes struck one of the low, wooden benches. Joey smashed one last right hand against Butch's chin. The back of Butch's head made a sharp, cracking sound, as it collided with the solid bank of grey, steel lockers behind him. Butch's pale, limp body slid down the front of the lockers, landing in a broken heap on the floor.
Joey's knuckles throbbed with pain. He uncoiled his hands, letting them drop to his sides. The locker room was deadly quiet. Joey waited for his hear to stop pounding and his chest to quit heaving, and that feverish feeling to leave his shaking body.
He looked down at Butch. Butch's chin lolled brokenly against his chest and his eyes were shut; he almost looked as if he was asleep. His lips were curled upward, either in a smile or a sneer---Joey wasn't exactly sure which. Large drops of blood dripped from Butch's right nostril and the right corner of his mouth.
Joey couldn't help but smile and shake his head. He wanted to laugh out loud, but he didn't. He'd been afraid of him?
That was when he learned that fear is the chain that binds us all like a dog tethered to a stake.
That feverish feeling finally left Joey's body. With it, went all his fear and rage. Joey felt dark and empty inside. But he also felt clean, purged, somehow. He felt vindicated and triumphant. Above everything else, he felt sad. All he'd ever wanted was for Butch to be his friend. He'd never wanted anything like this to happen.
Joey turned his head. The other boys all seemed to shrink away from him. He saw respect, admiration, and awe in their eyes. He saw fear there, too.
He retrieved his shorts and returned to his locker, and changed into his street clothes.
A pair of sneakered feet pounded swiftly into the locker room. "What the hell happened here?" barked a ferocious male voice. "Who's responsible for this?"
Joey felt that old pinprick of fear raise its ugly head, but he ignored it. "I am," he said, and rose and turned to face his gym teacher, who stood just on the other side of the low, wooden bench. Mr. Shaffner was a short, barrel-chest man, with broad shoulders and bulging biceps. He'd played varsity football in college. His ruddy face looked stern and hard as a rock, but his brown eyes twinkled merrily and one corner of his thick-lipped mouth was curved upward in a mischievous, little-boy smile.
"Good for you," Mr. Shaffner said in a low, conspiratorial whisper. "You know, in the last year or so, you've gained quite a reputation for yourself around here as a coward and a weakling. I'm glad to see that you finally managed to get over it and make fools and liars out of all of them."
Mr. Shaffner placed a warm, heavy hand on Joey's sloping shoulder. "I'm really sorry to have to do this, especially after everything you've been through. But I guess you know I'm going to have to send you to the principal's office." Mr. Shaffner looked and sounded sad. "I just hope that stupid jerk finally learned his lesson---although I doubt it. It's a lot of fun when you're the one doing the beating. But when someone starts beating on you, then it's a whole different story."
Joey glanced over Mr. Shaffner's shoulder and was relieved to see that Butch was standing again, supported on both sides by a pair of concerned classmates. Butch's eyes were clouded and dazed, and his legs still looked wobbly. But other than that, he appeared to be okay.
"You two," Mr. Shaffner snapped at the two boys holding Butch upright. "Get him down to the nurse's office and have him checked out. Make sure he's okay. After that, he goes straight to the principal's office. I'll take care of that little chore myself."
To Joey, he said, "I hope they throw the book at that moron." Then he frowned and made a disparaging face. "Stupid school board and their asinine, zero-tolerance for violence policy. How can they expect a poor kid like you to learn how to stand up for yourself if all they ever wanna do is coddle and protect everyone, all the time? Not to worry, though. I'll be down shortly to put in a good word for you and make sure they take it easy on you. After all the crap you've been through, you deserve a break."
Joey beamed, as he pushed his way through the heavy, wooden door and strode out of the boy's locker room. For the first time in his life, he felt proud of himself. No one was ever going to pick on him, again. He wouldn't let them!