“Hey chicken legs. What’s the matter? Chickens can’t swim?” The affront to Billy’s thin physique stung. Billy – the tauntee – never considered jerks like Jack – the taunter – would be at a church retreat. He didn’t want to be here, but his parents were spending two weeks with his aunt, uncle, and twin cousins who constantly played practical jokes – some of which could be quite painful. At least there he could escape into his uncle’s library, satiated with books by Heinlein, Bradbury, and other science fiction greats.
If SciFi came in pill form Billy was sure he would be considered an addict. It was an excellent diversion when life got too demanding.
“Go stick your head in crawdad hole.” Jess, a girl he met at last night’s bonfire, came to Billy’s verbal rescue.
“Ahhh.” Jack headed for the lake with his little band of tough-guy wannabe’s.
“Hi Jess.” Billy continued poking the ground with a stick.
“Don’t listen to those losers. I don’t like swimming in lakes either. It’s icky.”
“It’s not that.” Billy looked at Jess’ cute little nose and it’s constellation of freckles. Unusually at ease around Jess, he revealed to her his dark secret why he wouldn’t go swimming, then turned away hastily erasing a tear. Though strictly forbidden any physical contact with the opposite gender, Jess gave his hand a gentle sympathetic squeeze.
“Hey! They’re holdin’ hands.” Everyone turned to look. Some girls sniggered. Billy leapt to his feet and hurried off.
Jess shot Jack an icy stare then headed toward the group of gigglers.
“Hey, wait up. I didn’t mean nothin’. Come on, I’ll get us an ice cream.” Jack wasn’t actually interested in Jess, just jealous of her attention for Billy.
“Look, jerk. Oops, I mean Jack.” She emphasized the sarcasm. “For your information, two years ago Billy’s brother drowned. Billy was there when they pulled him out of the lake. He hasn’t gone in the water since. Now leave me – and Billy - alone!”
“I didn’t Kn…” Jess stormed off before he could finish.
The next day while walking along with Jess and some friends they heard someone yelling. Jack was splashing around and going under, shouting for help each time he resurfaced. Without a second thought Billy jumped in. He reached Jack and grabbed under his arms lifting his head above the water.
“Hey! Get off me pervert.” Jack pushed his rescuer away and laughed.
Stunned, Billy slowly swam to shore. By that time counselor Mike arrived witnessing what happened.
“Jack! Out of the water, now! Hit the shower, then straight to your cabin and stay there until I can get you a ride home.” Jack hesitated in disbelief. “I said now!” Jack reluctantly obeyed. The counselor turned his attention to Billy. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah, but I’d sure like to …”
“Excuse us, ladies. Let’s take a walk, Billy.”
As they strolled around camp Mike told Billy about Jack, how his father would get drunk and punch him and his mother. Jack’s father was now in prison because the last time he hit Jacks mother she went into a coma. Jack was now in foster care.
“I’m not making excuses for what Jack did to you. I just wanted you to know his situation before you pass final judgment.”
Later Billy knocked on Jacks cabin door.
“What do you want?” Jack, lying on his cot, glared through the screen.
“Go away. You’ve caused me enough trouble.” Jack turned away.
“Mike told me about… your mom.”
“He shouldn’t have done that. I’ll get him fired.”
“You know,” Billy stepped inside, “when my brother died I hated myself. I thought it was my fault somehow. I even blamed God. If it wasn’t for my parents and friends praying for me, well, I don’t what would’ve happened to me. But God finally took away the guilt and pain. I still miss my brother, but I don’t blame myself or anyone else. It was just an accident.” He paused. “I talked Mike into giving you another chance. You can stay – if you want to.”
“Why would you do that?” Jack asked with a puzzled expression.
“I’m not exactly sure. I would like to pray with you, though, for your mom... and your dad.”
The last day of the retreat Billy was given an award for his selfless act of bravery.
“I would like to share this with Jack.” Billy announced. “I couldn’t have done it without him.”
Even Jack laughed.
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