In the morning they had nothing.
As the three walked to school Justin looked cross, Matt looked glum, and Ernie looked miserable. As they neared the gym their moods intensified but didn’t change. They had talked little, mostly only to establish that none of them had come up with a plan to solve their problem. When they stepped onto the school lot Justin said, “Well, for now we’ll have to go with Matt’s plan and just take things as they come.” Ernie just groaned under his breath.
When they reached the gym doors none of them hesitated, but Ernie heaved a great sigh unintentionally revealing what an effort it required of him. As they entered all three automatically looked for Brandon and Todd. And when they found them they saw that the two had definitely been waiting and watching for them, and now regarded them with a look of determined malice. The three friends, even Ernie, met them with calm determined faces as they walked to their usual place on the bleachers and sat down. Now that they had thrown down the gauntlet much of the tension they had felt disappeared. It was even more of a relief when the coaches came in and started them on drills. Working their bodies as hard as they could gave their minds a break somehow. The more they sweated the less tense they felt. And although the boys remained wary when any part of the exercises brought them in close proximity with Brandon or Todd, nothing happened. As a matter of fact Brandon and Todd didn’t even make eye contact when passing to them or receiving from them. Justin didn’t know whether to take this as a good or bad sign. He realized that they had called Brandon’s bluff. Could it have been that easy? Had he folded? Or was he just waiting to make his next move? And if so, what would it be? Even though they were still partly preoccupied, both Matt and Justin were in good form and did very well at everything the coaches had planned for the day. Matt especially caught on very quickly to a combination involving a fake drive then a bounce pass for a lay-up. Not only was the assistant who taught his group the move impressed, even the head coach noticed and called across the floor to compliment him.
Toward the end of the practice the coach had them go through a series of individual drills that they had learned earlier in the week. The boys spread out on the floor and each worked the drills as the coach called them out while the coaches and assistants watched. Justin enjoyed these but he was starting to get exhausted. The coaches had seemed to work them harder today. He was really glad when the coach finally blew the whistle and dismissed them. He jogged instead of ran to the bleachers to meet up with Matt and Ernie and get his bag. The three exchanged a meaningful look as they collected their things and turned to walk out of the gym. They tried to locate Brandon and Todd without seeming to look for them. After they had almost crossed the gym floor they looked at each other again perplexed. Then they took one more look around not even bothering to hide the fact that they were searching the group of departing boys, but Brandon and Todd were not among them. How had they gotten out of there so quickly? They looked at each other again, each one trying to weigh this in his mind. Ernie was the first to speak. “What does this mean?”
Matt answered him. “I don’t know. But come on. We can’t just stand here in the gym. Let’s go.”
Justin knew Matt was right, but he hated walking along blindly, not knowing when or from where the next move was coming. “Ok,” he said, “but don’t let your guards down, guys. We don’t want to be relaxed if they haven’t given up.”
Ernie laughed feebly, “Don’t worry, I don’t know when I’ll be able to relax again.” They all started again for the door and were almost the last ones out. They continued across the parking lot and started down the street, walking in silence with their faces forward, but scanning everywhere constantly with their eyes.
As they passed the library they walked shoulder to shoulder on the wide sidewalk between the lawn and a row of cars parked on the curb. Just as they neared the perimeter of the library property and the last of the parked vehicles, they passed a van. Justin was nearest to the street and therefore the first to catch sight of Brandon and Todd who had been waiting, leaning on the back of the parked van. At the same instant that he perceived them though, Brandon spoke. “Here at last. We were getting tired of waiting.” Matt and Ernie were caught off guard by the voice and looked quickly over their shoulders. Then all three turned to face their tormentors. Matt, rarely caught at a loss for words even when surprised, replied. “Well, you could have gone home to rest, you know.”
Suddenly angry, Brandon pushed away from the van with the foot he had rested on the bumper behind him, “Wait your turn. You first, miss,” stepping directly in front of Ernie. “I thought I told you to stay home today.” Strangely, Ernie seemed calmer now than he had a few moments earlier. He looked more grim than scared and returned Brandon’s stare, but didn’t speak. This seemed to unnerve Brandon a little but he quickly rallied. “Ok, I don’t have time to waste on you. Your brown nosing, mouthy friend needs my attention today, too. So I’m gonna make this quick and painful.” Todd chuckled at this as Brandon pulled back his arm and aimed a haymaker at Ernie. Ernie had no experience with fighting and didn’t even have time to duck. Luckily for Ernie, if not for himself, Matt had been in a row or two, and jumped in between them intending to block the punch with his arm. Unfortunately his arm caught on the strap of his gym bag, which he had tried to drop, and he ended up blocking the punch with his face instead. Ernie staggered back looking stunned. Matt looked furiously at the gym bag as he flung it to the ground and turned his glare on Brandon. Brandon quickly shut his gaping mouth and recovered from his surprise at this turn of events, but as he evaluated Matt’s furious face and clenched fists he seemed to decide to return to a verbal approach. He addressed Ernie, but he was looking at Matt warily. “Well, sweetie, I didn’t know your boyfriend was so dedicated.”
Matt was the one to answer, and his voice sounded restrained. “I’m not feeling too chatty right now, Brandon. Are we done here or do you have something else to take up with me?”
Something in Matt’s tone had a definite effect on Brandon. His voice wavered slightly and he began backing away as he said, “No, I think I’ve made enough of an impression on you today. But watch yourself. You were a little too outgoing at camp today. Let’s go, Todd. We’ve wasted enough of our time on these losers today.” With that he turned to go and Todd, looking a little surprised, turned to follow him quickly. Justin, Matt and Ernie watched them until they passed the library and turned the corner before looking at each other or speaking.
Ernie broke the silence. “That eye is swelling pretty quickly, Matt. We ought to go straight to my house and get some ice on it.”
“Yeah, and then decide how to put an end to this. I think we’re the ones who’ve wasted too much time,” added Justin.
Matt picked up his bag and they turned and continued toward Ernie’s house. Luckily his mom wasn’t at home. They found a note as they walked through the door that told Ernie she’d gone to run errands and go to the store to get some things for his friend’s visit the next day. “Boy, am I glad of that,” he sighed as he tossed his things on the table and headed for the refrigerator. “She says she won’t be home for another hour. I dread telling her about this whole mess.”
“Why didn’t you say so?” asked Matt. “We could have gone on to my house. It’s not like I’m going to be able to keep it from my mom.”
“Because my house is closer and the sooner we get that iced the less subcutaneous bleeding there will be,” answered Ernie handing him the ice pack he’d taken from the freezer and wrapped in a clean dishcloth. “Would you guys like something to drink?”
“Yeah, I could really use something,” replied Matt gingerly placing the ice pack over his eye.”
“Ok, already! Enough nursing and hosting,” erupted Justin. “We’ve got to decide how to settle this thing. Matt, I think we can go after them tomorrow after camp and take care of it pretty quickly with only a few punches.”
Matt looked at Justin with his good eye. “After my mom and dad get a load of me this evening, I’ll be lucky if I’m not grounded and getting chauffeured to and from camp for the next few days. Besides, it’s not my policy to go looking for fights or I could have had one today.”
“I agree with Matt on that point,” interjected Ernie as he handed Matt a cold can of Coke and held one out in Justin’s direction. “It’s not right to go looking to start a fight.”
“Excuse me, but were you guys there today?” Justin asked sarcastically, pushing away the Coke and becoming even more annoyed. “The fight has already started. He threw the first punch. Now the ball’s in our court. Are we just going to stand here and take it or what? He calls us girls. Is that what we are? The two of us could settle this, Matt. I could tell by the way he acted today that we could take them.”
“Maybe so, Justin,” admitted Matt. “I’m not afraid. But I just don’t know if it’s the smart way to handle this.”
“Or the right way,” Ernie muttered looking at the floor.
“Is it right to come home from basketball camp with a black eye?” challenged Justin.
“I don’t know, Justin. But I’ve had black eyes before. It’s not like he killed someone. And I wasn’t kidding about me maybe getting grounded. My mom and dad aren’t going to be thrilled about this.”
Justin wasn’t deterred. “I think we can avoid that if we’re careful to put exactly the right spin on the story.”
“Well, spin isn’t my forte,” asserted Matt. “I usually just tell it straight. It’s easier.”
“And right,” Ernie added quietly.
“I don’t mean lie,” Justin countered, “just emphasize that what Matt did was the right thing, even though the outcome seems bad.”
“Well, we may as well get it over with,” Matt said, “but you don’t really have to help me tell my mom. I mean this thing is my problem, guys.”
“No,” said Justin firmly, “we’re in this together. Isn’t that right, Ernie?”
“Yes, Matt, I do agree with Justin on that point. And though I don’t consider it spin, I’d like your parents to know that you got into this trying to help me, and that I appreciate it.”
Matt put down the ice pack, picked up his drink and said, “Well, let’s go then. I don’t like putting things off.”
A few minutes later they all tossed their empty cans into the trash as they passed through Matt’s garage. As they opened the door they heard Matt’s mom in the kitchen. “Matt, you’re late, sweetie, your soup is as cold as your sandwich.”
“Sorry, mom,” Matt said looking at his friends, “ran into a little, uh, trouble on the way home.”
“What?” Her voice had changed in an instant, and they heard her coming toward the entryway. “What do you mean by trouble?” Then as she rounded the corner, “Matta! What happened to you? Come in here to the window so that I can see how bad it is. Were you two in on this, Justin? You haven’t even introduced me to your friend. Tell me what happened. Now.”
Seizing a break in his mom’s speech Matt said, “Mom, this is Ernie. He goes to school with us and he’s in basketball camp with us. He lives over on Elm Street.”
Mrs. Fisher gave Ernie a quick, tight smile as she nodded at him. “It’s very nice to meet you, Ernie. Now, Matt, what happened?” She turned his head toward the window and inspected his eye, then went to the freezer.
“We already did that,” complained Matt as his mom handed him a package of frozen peas and a dishcloth. She frowned and he sighed in exasperation, placed it on his eye and began. “Well, mom, there are these two guys—”
Ernie quickly cut in, “Ma’am, if you don’t mind and if Matt will excuse the interruption, could I please explain how he got the black eye?” Matt’s mother looked a little surprised, but Matt shrugged so Ernie continued. “As Matt was about to tell you, ma’am, there are two boys attending camp who have been trying to intimidate us. I feel it is mostly on my account. I’m not at all athletically inclined, and for some reason this has caused these boys to have great animosity toward me. Because Matt and Justin have befriended me they too, are now being singled out.”
“That’s not right, Ernie,” Matt said in an agitated voice, “they don’t like us because they think we pose a threat to their superiority on the team.”
“That is part of it, Matt. But that has nothing to do with the black eye which is, I believe, what interests your mother most right now.”
“Very much so. Someone please continue,” said Mrs. Fisher very firmly.
Ernie did. “Well, we were walking home today together and these guys were waiting for me, or us. At any rate the one began to slander me. I’m sorry but I won’t repeat it for you ma’am. Suffice it to say it was rude and then he attempted to hit me. He was talking to me and tried to hit me, and neither Matt nor Justin can honestly deny that.”
Matt’s mom looked quickly at Justin and then steadily at Matt, who looked miserably resigned about the way Ernie was telling this, but said nothing immediately.
“Well, ma’am, I am not a fighter by any stretch of the imagination, and would probably have been knocked flat by that punch had it hit me. But Matt reacted quickly and tried to step in and block it. However, the arm he intended to use got caught on his gym bag and he couldn’t get it up in time. The fist landed as you see it. The guy mouthed off a little more but then left. I don’t think he wanted to deal with Matt any more. That’s pretty much it.”
“Is that true, Matt?” asked his mom much calmer now.
“Well, strictly speaking, yes. But, mom, I just want to say it’s not just Ernie’s problem. We’re, I mean, I’m not looking for trouble but these guys are. I don’t know what might happen. They’ve got it in for me and Justin just as bad as Ernie.”
“Ok, Matta,” she said ruffling his hair as if he was a toddler. “We don’t have to talk any more about it until your dad gets home. I don’t suppose it’s accidental that none of you have mentioned the names of these mystery bullies.” She was answered with a respectful but determined silence. “Right. Well, do you guys want some lunch?”
They all realized that the ordeal, now that it was over, had given them ravenous appetites and it felt great to concentrate on the delicious ham sandwiches, potato salad and chocolate milk that Matt’s mom produced from the fridge. The cold soup she pushed to the back of the stove saying it could be warmed up later. Matt’s mom was the kind of cook who didn’t scrimp on anything, and wouldn’t let taste suffer for the sake of making it healthier. The ham was sliced thick, as was the cheese and nutty wheat bread and there was plenty of mayonnaise or mustard and lettuce, tomato, and pickle, if they liked. The potato salad was creamy and heavy on the eggs, and the chocolate milk the way she mixed it with whole milk and plenty of syrup was almost as good as a milkshake. She’d flipped on a little counter top TV to the cartoon channel before she’d started getting their lunch, so they ate in happy silence except for occasional laughs muffled by stuffed mouths. When they’d devoured the last morsel and the cartoon ended, Matt stood up and began stacking the dishes in the sink.
Ernie said, “Wow, Matt, you’re lucky. My mom’s not a bad cook, but it’s usually a bit too healthy if you know what I mean. That was great. Thanks.”
“Yeah, where did your mom go?” asked Justin as he turned off the TV. “We should thank her before we leave.”
“I’m not sure,” Matt answered, “but I’m gonna thank her too. I feel a hundred percent better with a full stomach.”
“Well, I do too,” Justin admitted, “even if we are still in the same fix.”
“I hope you don’t want us to talk about this more right now, Justin,” said Ernie. “I’ve had enough of it for one day. And I imagine Matt really has. If any of us would happen to come up with anything, it could surely wait until tomorrow.”
“You’re right,” said Justin. “And I guess I better get home, anyway.”
“Yeah, me too,” agreed Ernie. “My mom should be in soon.”
“Wait,” said Matt, “I’ll go with you, or you too Justin. We’re in this together.”
“No,” said Ernie, “to be honest, I haven’t decided whether or not to tell them everything yet. There are some things I think I should deal with myself, and I’m not sure they could handle being informed without getting involved.”
“Want me to go with you, Justin? I’ll just tell my mom where I’m going.”
“No, but thanks. I know I have to tell my parents before Sunday when they’ll see your shiner at church, but I’m not looking forward to it, and I think I’ll at least wait ’til after camp tomorrow. Then they’ll have the weekend to cool off in case they decide to talk to the coach or anything.”
“You sure, man? I don’t mind at all coming along,” Matt offered again.
“No, I’m sure. And hey, don’t forget to tell your mom we said thanks for lunch. It was great.”
“Ok, see you guys tomorrow,” said Matt.
Justin and Ernie headed home.