I loved to run. I never felt so free as when I was racing the wind with the sun on my face and no particular place to go.
Running from my ex–best friend because he was dead set on trying to tie my legs into a square knot didn’t fill me with the same exhilaration.
“You’re roadkill when I catch you, Hector!”
I thought of at least three devastating comebacks to shout over my shoulder, but I needed to save my breath to stay ahead of Blake Nesbitt. He loved to run too, and for as long as I’d known him, he’d been a little faster than me.
It had started in the locker room. I’d just finished changing out of my school uniform into my gym clothes when Blake attacked me for no reason. I was so surprised that I stumbled to the side, which was the only reason I managed to avoid his punch. I couldn’t believe that Blake was actually trying to hit me! I’d never seen him hit anyone before. I turned to the other boys for help, but they looked away like they were too scared to get between me and Blake. With no help coming, I made a break for the door.
The moment I hit open air, I put on a burst of speed and sprinted toward the PE field, looking for somewhere to hide. I couldn’t let Blake catch me out in the open or I was a goner for sure. I could run for the bleachers, which wouldn’t offer much protection, or try for the trees at the edge of the field, but if Coach caught me there, Blake would be the least of my problems.
There was one other place I could hide. Behind the field stood the old clergy house, a two-story building with filthy windows that screamed, I am definitely haunted! It was the last original building from the 1950s, when St. Lawrence’s Catholic School for Boys had been built. There were rumors of a ghost that lurked around the old clergy house, and I was a believer, as were most of the boys at St. Lawrence’s. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have gone within ten yards of that place, but I hoped Blake’s fear of the ghost would keep him from following me. When I reached the building, I skidded to a stop to catch my breath.
“Hector! Over here!”
And then I stopped breathing. The hot, humid air grew chilly. The skin on my arms turned to chicken flesh, and the hair on the back of my neck rose. I looked around to make sure it wasn’t another boy playing a prank on me, but I was alone behind the clergy house, as far as I could tell, and I didn’t recognize the voice. It grated across my ears and felt like an itch in my brain.
“Hurry up, Hector!”
I was imagining things. That had to be it. Because the alternative was that the ghost at St. Lawrence’s was talking to me and knew my name.
A shout from the field broke me from my stupor. Blake was getting closer. I didn’t know what to do. Follow a ghost I couldn’t see or take my chances with Blake? I had no idea what the ghost wanted with me, but Blake’s intentions were pretty clear.
“This way, Hector!”
I chose the ghost.
Quickly but quietly, I crept around to the rear of the building, sticking close to the wall. When St. Lawrence’s was founded, the clergy house was where the priests lived. Now the school used it to store desks, textbooks, sports equipment, and whatever junk they didn’t need at the main building. Not that I’d ever been inside. It was strictly off-limits to students. Derrick Boyd swore he’d snuck in once and that he’d seen spiders as big as footballs scurrying around and slimy black mold growing on the walls. Derrick also claimed his sister was an android, his parents were international art thieves, and that he’d caught a great white shark while fishing at the beach, so I doubted he’d ever actually been in the clergy house.
It didn’t look like I was getting in either. Both the knob and the dead bolt above it were locked, and no matter how hard I shook the door, it didn’t budge. “If someone’s there, please let me in!” Shutters covered the first-floor windows, probably to keep out kids like me.
I was toast. The kind that’s so burnt you can’t save it no matter how much peanut butter you cover it with. A wave of hopelessness washed over me. It was like someone had scooped out the happiness inside me and left me empty. I wanted to quit. Blake was going to win anyway. In fifth grade, I’d been taller than Blake, but he’d sprouted a few inches over the summer, leaving me the runt of the sixth-grade litter. He was bigger and stronger and faster than me. I should give up now.
There was a click, and when I looked, the dead bolt was unlocked.
“What the . . .” I reached for the knob again.
“You’re dead, Hector!” Blake Nesbitt burst into view around the corner. I didn’t think; I just ran. But this time I wasn’t fast enough. I made it as far as the field before Blake caught up to me. He tackled me from behind. We hit the grass, and I barely had time to flip onto my back before he was straddling me, pummeling my stomach and ribs. I was so shocked that he was actually hitting me that it took me a second before I remembered to defend myself.
“I know it was you, Hector!” Blake spit the words, his rage accelerating them to the speed of bullets.
I struggled to get free, but I was better at running than fighting, and look how well that had gone. “I didn’t do anything!” There was no way I could escape, so I did my best to protect my face.
“You burned my science project!” Blake shouted. “Musser gave me a zero ’cause I had nothing to turn in!”
The boys from the east and west sixth-grade classes gathered around to watch Blake clobber me. A few even cheered him on. I kept hoping Alex or Gordi or Evan would break up the fight, but they never came.
Blake dug his knee into my thigh. “Admit it! Admit you set my science project on fire!”
Blake Nesbitt only lived a few blocks from me, so it had been easy to bike to his house, hop the fence into his backyard, where he’d spray-painted his project and left it to dry, and light the diorama on fire. I’d felt a sense of justice watching the dinosaurs melt into puddles of plastic at the base of Blake’s papier-mâché volcano. And even though I’d had a good reason for destroying Blake’s project, a teeny-tiny part of me felt guilty Colonel Musser had flunked him.
“Your project was probably so bad that it lit itself on fire!” Okay, not that guilty.
As Blake pulled back to take another swing, a meaty hand grabbed his wrist and lifted him off me. I scurried backward, sore but unbroken.
Coach Barbary loomed over me and Blake, looking down on us like Zeus from Olympus, prepared to smite us with a bolt of lightning. “You boys have exactly three seconds to explain what’s going on, or you’ll wish you’d never been born.”
Yeah, it was way too late for that.
Coach Ulysses Eugene Barbary had probably started shaving in the first grade. Every day, he wore a polyester polo shirt tucked into polyester shorts at least one size too small, knee-high white socks and sneakers, and a whistle on a cord around his neck. A bristly jungle of fur spilled from the V of his shirt and crawled up his neck, where it mingled with his bushy beard, and his muscled arms were thicker than my chest. I suspected there was a bear hiding in the branches of Coach Barbary’s family tree.
“I asked you boys a question, and I expect an answer. Promptly.” Coach Barbary’s voice was a raspy low growl.
I stole a glance at Blake. He had his eyes aimed at the ground and his lips pressed tightly together. Even though Blake had started the fight, I didn’t think it was a good idea to tell Coach. This was between me and Blake, and I still hoped I could get through to him.
Coach Barbary shifted the full power of his glare to me. “On your feet, Griggs.”
Breathing hurt, and I winced as I stood.
“Suck it up,” Coach Barbary said. “I’ve got a two-year-old nephew who can throw a harder punch than Nesbitt.”
The other boys snickered.
Coach Barbary towered over me and Blake, giving off angry-dad-on-a-road trip vibes. “Fine. If you boys won’t talk, then you can run--”
Blake finally broke his silence. “That’s not fair!”
“And if neither of you tells me who started this fight, then you can keep running every day until one of you talks.” Coach crossed his arms over his chest. “Go on. Get moving.”
Despite the pain, I took off after Blake, jogging laps around the PE field, broiling under the scorching Florida sun. Every agonizing step was a reminder that Coach was essentially punishing me for being used as a punching bag. But there was no arguing with him. If Coach Barbary had any humanity, he kept it deep down in his fungus-infected little piggies.
Blake’s longer legs gave him a slight advantage, and I expected him to leave me behind. Instead he fell in beside me. He was radiating hatred, broadcasting it like a radio tower, and I had no way to tune it out.
Like I said, Blake used to be my best friend.
I was in the middle of fourth grade when my mom got remarried. My stepdad had two sons--two and three years older than me--who went to St. Lawrence’s, and my mom decided that even though I wasn’t Catholic, it would be convenient if we attended the same school. So she pulled me away from my familiar world and dropped me onto this alien planet with no girls where I was expected to attend mass and wear an ugly uniform. Being the new kid was bad enough, but most of the boys at St. Lawrence’s already knew each other and weren’t interested in getting to know me.
Blake was the exception. We both liked comic books, and we were obsessed with JRPGs like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. He introduced me to some of his friends and offered to show me the ropes and keep me out of trouble. It turned out he was usually the one who got us into trouble, but I didn’t mind. We spent the rest of the school year and all summer together. Blake was my first real best friend. I’d never met anyone I felt I could talk to about anything, even embarrassing stuff. But Blake always listened, and he never laughed. We became inseparable. I thought we were going to be friends forever.
Until two weeks ago.
“You started this,” I said.
“If you leave me alone, I’ll leave you alone. Okay?”
Blake’s sneer was venomous. He acted and sounded nothing like my best friend. “No deal. By the time I’m through with you, Hector, you’re gonna regret ever lighting that match.” He shot forward, lengthening the distance between us.
“I used a lighter,” I said, but Blake was already too far gone.
I sat in the back of my stepdad’s cop car thinking about how everything had gone so wrong. My stepbrother Jason was beside me, telling a story that involved pizza sauce shooting out of someone’s nose, and he was laughing so hard he was snorting. Jason was in eighth grade, and he looked like his dad--round-cheeked and freckled--though he still had all of his hair. The sound of his voice made me wish I didn’t have ears. But I tried to ignore him so I could think about what had happened at the clergy house. The dead bolt had been locked, and then it wasn’t. The ghost had to have unlocked it, but I couldn’t come up with a good reason why it had tried to help me.
“Hector got into a fight during PE.”
Hearing my name dragged me from my thoughts. I rounded on Jason, anger flaring. “Shut up!”
Pop looked at me in the rearview mirror as he drove. Only half his attention was on the road, and he was constantly drifting into other lanes. “Did you win?”
It had felt weird calling my stepdad by his name, but I hadn’t been comfortable calling him Dad, either. My dad lived in Texas. I only got to stay with him for part of the summers and some holidays, but I didn’t want him to think I was replacing him, so I’d settled on calling my stepdad Pop.
Before I could answer Pop’s question, Jason said, “Heard he cried to Coach Barbary.” He rubbed his eyes and fake sobbed.
“Is that true?” Pop asked.
“No,” I said.
Pop glanced back at me again. “No, you weren’t in a fight, or no, you didn’t cry to your coach?”
“It wasn’t a fight,” I said. “Blake and I just had an argument.”
Jason punched me in the arm. He and Pop called it “playing,” but playing with my other friends rarely left me with so many bruises. “Heard Coach made them run laps.”
One of the disadvantages to attending a small school with my stepbrother was that it was impossible to keep secrets. If there were advantages, I hadn’t discovered them.
“I thought you and Blake were friends,” Pop said.
I hung my head and mumbled, “Not anymore.”
“You’ve got to learn to stand up for yourself, Hector,” Pop said.
Jason snickered. “He’d be better off learning to run faster.”
I hugged my backpack to my chest and didn’t speak again until Pop missed the turn to my piano teacher’s house. “Where are you going? I’ve got a lesson today, remember?”
“We need to pick up new cleats for Jason before baseball practice.”
It felt like the air in the car had gotten thinner. “I can’t miss my lesson.”
“Don’t get worked up about it. Your mom will call your teacher to explain.”
Jason elbowed me in the side. “You’re such a pianist.” He left the T mostly silent and laughed.
“It’s done. Enough whining about it.” Pop had made up his mind that Jason’s baseball practice was more important than my piano lesson, and I couldn’t change it.
“Whatever,” I mumbled barely loud enough for Jason to hear. “At least I get to play at my practices.”
Jason waited until Pop was distracted to hit me as hard as he could in the thigh. I bit my lip and blinked back tears. “Dead leg,” he whispered. Louder, he added, “Geez, Dad, maybe we should take Hector to his stupid lesson. He’s so upset about it that he’s crying.”
Copyright © 2024 by Shaun David Hutchinson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.