Thad picked up his books for third period from the shelf in his yellow locker, then paused, feeling eyes staring at him even before he turned to look.
As soon as he saw Sam, he knew what was coming; the sneering, derisive comments, his books slapped out of his hands, the welling up of tears he dared not show, the humliation of knowing he would do nothing to defend himself.
Sam swaggered over, hands innocently in his pockets, feigning a friendly smile.
"Well hey, there, Thad," he said. "Getting ready for class I see. Oh, and look how pretty your homework looks."
Thad felt blood rush to his face, his stomach clenched and his heart pounded, but he said nothing, just tried to calmly close his locker and maybe, just maybe, get away this time with just the demeaning words.
"Hey, I'm TALKING to you!" Sam nearly shouted, grabbing his book-laden arm and twisting him so (of course) the books went flying.
"Here, lemme help you with that," Sam said, bending over and half-heartedly grabbing at homework sheets that somehow escaped into the wash of feet sweeping through the corridor. "Oops. Well, that's okay, the teachers all LOVE you. They won't mind if you lost your homework this time."
Sam paused, as if something outside himself had drawn his attention away from his victim, then threw a vicious elbow into Thad's stomach and stalked away as Thad doubled over.
As the pain subsided and his breath came back, Thad scrambled among the indifferent feet of classmates in the hallway, picking up books and scattered papers.
"That wasn't so bad," he sighed to himself, almost relieved. After all, Sam hardly ever picked on him twice in one day.
Straightening, Thad raised his eyes, wondering who might have been watching his humiliation this time. Nobody met his gaze. In some ways, maybe that was worse that seeing a laughing throng.
Outside, on a dirt road that scrolled away from the school, Sam was sprinting for home. Even as he panted for breath, he cursed under his breath at his own stupidity.
"My old man is gonna kill me if I'm late again," he thought.
Sam's father, who proudly proclaimed himself a self-made man who never finished the 8th grade, had been out of work for three months. Those months had become a living hell for his son, who was expected to wait on him hand and foot, school or no school. Today it was the laundry -- a duty that had fallen to Sam when his mom started working at WalMart to make ends meet.
Sam burst into the dingy kitchen 15 minutes late, already formulating excuses. But he could tell by the disgusted look on his father's face that talking would be in vain.
A leather belt was already unrolled on the kitchen table, breathing menace like a rattlesnake. A minute later, the whistling sound of the belt and Sam's sobbing apologies reached the air outside the house -- unheard even 100 yards down that dusty road.
Fifteen years later, maybe 20, a middle-aged Thad tells his son how to stand up to bullies (as he had never done).
And a sobbing Sam repents of years of abuse and throws himself on the mercy of Jesus.