For the fourth time that week, Jason had been taken off guard. He knew that they were coming – they were always coming. But still, he mentally smacked himself for not noticing such an obvious ambush.
The fog hung thick over the field of Obsidian Public School. There was no one watching the field this morning, not that they would be able to see very far. Jason was on his own, encircled by a swarm of brutal antagonists known as peers. The children laughed and taunted him, some spitting in his general direction.
"It's been at least twenty–four hours since your last beating, Miller." The lead bully spat Jason's name with contempt. Feeling empowered by the fog's darkness, Jason foolishly retorted.
"...and at least twenty years since you learned a new word, jerk–face." The leader's gaze shied away in mock–surprise.
"I'm only ten, dirt–wad. You're so stupid you can't even insult me right!" His hyenas laughed on cue. And then they beat him.
Usually they took turns going after him, letting him put up some semblance of a fight. Not today - not when the odds were already so completely stacked against him. No, today they shoved him to the ground and kicked him until the grass turned to mud and covered his body with filth. The morning bell rang and the children scampered off to their classes, seemingly too ADD to even leave Jason with a parting insult.
Too afraid to tell his teacher the truth about what had happened, he was scolded and forced to sit in the office for the rest of the day.
Since he didn't have any homework with him, Jason grabbed a magazine and just read. He read for hours and hours, skimming over jokes and interesting stories. One article in particular held his attention: it was a military article discussing naval ranks. Having always dreamed of commanding his own army, this was thrilling to him. He absorbed the contents of the article and moved on to a piece on basic military strategy. Jason was loving this magazine. He had it memorized, cover to cover, by the end of the day. When Jason got home that night, he began to draw out some ideas on paper.
The next morning greeted Jason with a flash of lightning and a downpour of rain. He was soaked before he ever got to the bus stop, and completely drenched as he boarded the bus. He passed the kindergartners in the front, briefly glancing at the older kids in the back. They were dangerous. Jason mentally cut off his options of where to sit several rows before he was near those kids.
Children were unusually vulgar about their attempts to keep him from sitting next to them today, so he piled in next to the nearest kid who didn't protest. Jason ignored the child, who was a number of years younger.
"Hey," said the kid. Not to be rude, Jason responded.
"Hi." They both blinked. Jason was eager to block the kid out of his mind and daydream as he did every time he rode the bus, but the kid wouldn't have it.
"I'm Matt. What's your name?"
"Cool. I have an uncle named Jason!" Matt seemed thoroughly excited by this link.
For the next thirty minutes, Jason and Matt talked about everything from school to explosions. Something very rare had occurred this morning – Jason had made a friend.
The boys met regularly from that point onward, both in school and out. They played make–believe games at recess, and played with Lego blocks when visiting at each other's houses. They especially liked having dart–gun wars. The odd thing was, their wars were seldom against each other. Jason and Matt would scale the empty basement, blasting their darts at invisible enemies. Working together – as a team. A few weeks went by like this, and Jason noticed that he wasn't being attacked much anymore. Bullies still taunted him, but they seemed unwilling to attack him with a witness standing by his side. They could have beaten the crap out of Matt as an afterthought, but maybe that wasn't what they were afraid of. This was beginning to make sense.
Nearly a month had passed, and the boys' relationship grew. They were together almost all of the time now, and Matt had even begun inviting some of his other friends to join them. Jason had a small circle of children watching him and looking up to him with respect and awe. He had no idea why. No one else respected him, so why were these kids? He didn't understand, but he liked it.
They began to play games at recess that involved more military themes, and Jason eventually brought that mentality into the forefront of the group. He did something very strange in a group of six and seven–year–olds – he instituted a chain of command. He declared Matt his "Commander," calling himself the "Captain." Several of his earliest recruits were called "Lieutenants," but they really didn't know what these titles meant anyway.
The group fed off of its own energy. The kids would invite their friends, who would invite their friends. Before long, Jason was indirectly in command of nearly twenty kids, with another ten part–timers. With an army of children at his command, he began to run simple drills and test their loyalty.
A number of kids were just in it to see why their friends were so eager to be there. They came, didn't understand, and left. Others though – they believed in the cause. They didn't really understand it, but they trusted Jason's leadership, and they looked up to him like a big brother. For a kid that was used to having no friends, this kind of attention was overwhelming to Jason.
Jason's army had existed for six weeks by the time he deemed a friend worthy of promotion. He trusted almost no one, and this was a big deal to him. He promoted a kid named Eric to the rank of Lieutenant–Commander, a leader among common soldiers. While Jason still preferred Matt over his new officer, Eric held a special place in his heart. It might have been because Eric was an outcast amongst his peers. They excluded and mocked him from time to time, and Jason would not hear of it. Children were scolded and even expelled from the army for talking smack about Eric.
Jason grew to trust him all right, making him his third–in–command.
He was alone today – Matt and the others were being held inside for some sort of assembly for younger students, and they would only be getting half of a recess today. He waited for them aimlessly, sitting quietly in their usual spot. Jason played with the grass and bent fallen leaves. He tore off the heads of dandelions and placed other flowers inside the hollow stem, stem–first. He reached out for a flower in front of him when it was suddenly crushed by a brown boot. He looked up to see a full squad of bullies staring down at him.
"You've been playing with the little kids, have you?" A kid laughed and pointed his blush finger at Jason.
"That's right! They're a lot more fun than you are! And a lot smarter, too." He rose to his feet, trying to find a defensible position. The leader shoved him back down.
"You're not going anywhere, Miller. You're two months late on your pain payments!" Not being one to wait for a bad thing, Jason swung at him. He wasn't very strong, so the hit just glanced off of the boy's arm. The leader didn't wait to be hit again. He punched Jason full in the stomach, making him thoroughly sick to his stomach.
He went to punch Jason again, but was disturbed by a surprising sound – the battle cry of twelve six and seven–year–olds as they attacked his fellow bullies and tripped them to the ground. Triple–teamed, the bullies swung wildly to ward off these new combatants. Two soldiers knocked the lead bully to the ground, and one nicked him in the eye with a quick kick. He pushed one kid to the ground, but collapsed himself when Matt slammed his heel down into the kid's spine. Jason never had to lift a finger as his army beat the squad of bullies, causing them to retreat to a safe distance. They taunted the army briefly as they left, but Matt and several others taunted them right back. Jason laughed along with the rest of his army, glad to be the one making fun of someone else.
He tried to thank his army, but they brushed him off an just wanted to play. They stuck by him, and he loved them for it.
Binomials and trinomials littered the blackboard at the front of the classroom. Their teacher was busy solving some ridiculous problem with more variables than traffic accident, and Jason was lost in thought. Not mathematical thoughts, mind you. No, Jason was dreaming of the day before when his army had finally taught those bullies a lesson. He was sure that they were the best thing that had ever happened to him, and he couldn't wait to get back to them.
The intercom beeped. The teacher dropped her chalk and hit the "talk" switch. The school secretary asked the teacher to "please send down Jason Miller to the office." The class could be heard "ooh–ing" as he stood and left the room. His heart pounded as he walked down the long hallway to the office. What could they want with him?
"Jason Miller?" asked the secretary as he entered the office.
"The Principal is in her office now – she'd like you to go right in, please." His young heart sunk. Going to the Principal's office was never ever good. He walked in shyly.
The first thing that he noticed about the room was the Principal eying him like a serpent. Her tongue seemed to twist unnaturally. The second thing that he noticed was a woman sitting in the chair in front of the desk, across from the principle. The Principle ushered him in, revealing the entire room. What he saw scared him.
His third–in–command, Eric, was sitting next to the woman with a terrified look on his face. Terrified of Jason. He saw a resemblance between Eric and the woman, and he knew she must be his mother. His eyes accused Eric without speaking a word. "What have you done?"
"Jason Miller. This boy's poor mother tells me that you've been recruiting children and telling them that they have permission to fight?" Jason was terrified. He just stared ahead in fear, glancing back to Eric's guilty face every few seconds.
"Well? What do you have to say for yourself?" The Principal's catlike eyes pierced his soul, threatening his continence.
"I didn't really... I mean, I never meant to.... I never told them that..." he mumbled. Tears were forming in his eyes, making the situation even more awkward.
"Jason Miller," said the Principle angrily. "I don't ever want you to go near these children again, do you hear me?" Jason was heart–broken. "I don't want you to talk to them, or have anything to do with them. You will serve three detentions and you will play with boys your own age, and that is final!" He couldn't hold back the tears any longer.
"Now go!" She shoed him out of the room, and he left promptly. He glared at Eric on the way out, a teary glare of betrayal. As much as he had loved and protected this boy, he hated him tenfold. From that day onward, Eric hid from Jason's site, and never once gave him the opportunity to ask the one question that burned in his mind. "Why?"
Jason sat alone today, a general without his army. The war was far from over, but his soldiers had all deserted. The few who had not heard about his fall from grace still showed up for play the next day, but he turned them away. This was as painful for him as tearing away his own skin – telling his only friends that he couldn't speak to them anymore.
Matt ignored the directive for a few weeks, still sitting with Jason on the bus, until his mother told him not to one day.
"He needs to spend time with boys his age, Matthew," she said. On that day, Jason lost his only friend.
As the years went by, the beatings resumed. The former brothers–in–arms nodded to each other sadly in the halls, and eventually they forgot about the union that they had felt in Jason's army. He knew that those days were indeed lost when he greeted Matt one day at school, only to see a dismissive nod in return. Whatever they had shared was now lost forever. No matter how much times passed, Jason never forgot his army. He never forgot the friends that he made, or the games that they played. He tried very hard not to remember Eric's betrayal, but it became intricately linked with his memories of the army.
Eight years later, Jason graduated from High School with a circle of friends and a diploma in his hand. As he left town for the last time, he remembered his army. He wondered who they had become and where they were going. He wondered if they still remembered him, and if they still respected who he had been. He said a silent prayer and closed the door on his memories. Years would pass by without a thought of them, but he would remember them even into adulthood. And as he looked back at his betrayer, Eric, his heart forgave.