Jimmy plunged through the woods, his breath coming in short gasps. Tree limbs grabbed at him like grotesque arms, their finger-like twigs swiping at his face and leaving it bloodied and stinging. The atmosphere was heavy as he halted and spun around, sucking on air that refused to fill his lungs. Butch was right on top of him, a fist raised to pummel him to dust. He screamed.
“Mommmy.” Jimmy woke up, the tears sliding down his face for the umpteenth time.
His room blinked with light. “Shh, honey.” His mom gathered him in her arms. “What’s the matter, another bad dream?”
He rubbed his face against her. “Uh huh,” he hiccuped. “It was Butch and the guys. I hate him so bad. He’s gonna kill me.”
His mother rocked him like she did when he was a baby. “No, he’s not. And God doesn’t want you to hate; not even Butch.”
“But, what can I do? He’s a gazillion times bigger than me and mean as Mr. Piper’s pit bull. He calls me Squirt.”
“You can pray for him.”
“I need to pray for me, that I don’t become ant food.”
“Jimmy, bullies usually are cowards. They’re insecure. Maybe you can pray that whatever made him like this will change. Maybe you can be friends.”
His mother kissed the top of his head and whispered a prayer. By the time she’d finished, he had drifted off into peaceful sleep.
It was Friday and school was out. The sunny afternoon brought promise. Jimmy’s mind filled with thoughts of croaking frogs and slithering lizards, of playing soldier with Juan and Billy, and of his father coming home this weekend. His father was in the Air Force. He wished he didn’t have to move so often but he was glad he had his new friends. If only he could avoid Butch…
“Hey, Squirt – what’s in your backpack? Dollies?”
Jimmy didn’t even turn around but took off sprinting. He cut through the woods, his only chance of escape. Over the past weeks he’d searched for and found hiding places to provide safety. He also had the advantage of bolting as fast as greased lightning. Being caught wasn’t an option.
Tearing over stumps and rocks, he headed for the gully that served as a foxhole when he played war. Shrubs and vines hid its depth. If he could just reach it in time.
A shriek rose behind him. At first, he thought it was a war whoop, his enemy ready to attack. He slithered on his belly into the hole, his backpack catching on tangled vines. Wrenching it free, he held his breath. Sinister clouds formed overhead, casting ominous shadows around his cave-like grave.
Another scream. This time, he peered through the thicket, listening. Cussing and wailing carried above the trees. The sound of crying grew louder and Jimmy realized it was his own.
“Don’t leave.” He heard Butch’s pleading and the gang’s panicked replies. His body cramped, Jimmy waited for what seemed like hours. The voices ceased, all except for the pitiful sound of the bully’s sobbing.
Backing out of his foxhole, he followed the sound. There was Butch, his foot wedged between two rocks, his face set in a painful grimace.
“Squirt!” Some of Butch’s painful expression was replaced by hope. Rubbing his nose on his shirt sleeve, a half smile formed. “Help me, Squirt…please.”
“My name’s Jimmy.”
“The guys left me. They couldn’t get my foot free. The sissies got scared and ran.”
His eyes darting around, Jimmy spotted a stick and bounded toward it.
“Don’t leave me.”
He scooped up the stick and raised it above Butch’s head. He jabbed it down between the rocks, using it as a lever. Soon, Butch tugged his foot free and Jimmy helped him to his feet.
“What’s your real name?” Jimmy eyed the bigger boy.
“I ain’t sayin’.”
“Well, guess you can find your own way out then…Butch.”
“Okay, I’ll say but you can’t tell anyone, swear?”
Jimmy crossed his heart and hoped to die. “Friends trust each other.”
“Friends?” Butch swallowed, looking uncertain. “Don’t laugh, okay? It’s Clarence. Kinda wimpy, huh.”
“I don’t think so. My dad’s name is Clarence and he’s a fighter pilot in the Force.”
“Yeah, but do they call him Clarence?”
Jimmy snorted. “Nah, they call him Ace.”
Butch howled. He wound his arm around Jimmy’s shoulders and hopped, with Jimmy’s help, toward home. The sun peeked through the clouds. It was a day filled with promise.
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