Alex was the smallest boy in his class. He knew that his eyes were a little too close together and that his front teeth were a little too big. His thick glasses and the stiff clothes his mother bought him, which hung off his small frame like a sandwich board, only made things worse. He ran when he could, when the other kids decided it was his turn, but he never made it very far. He wished he could fly but then again, he thought getting pulled down from high up would only hurt worse. He wanted what he knew he couldn’t have, to be left alone, to be free.
“Well, if it isn’t the Blind Beaver,” said a greasy voice. Gordon was twice as big as he should’ve been and he used shoe polish to turn his blonde hair black. He never traveled alone. His cronies formed a circle around Alex, jeering and spitting at the small boy in their midst. They had tormented Alex for years, for as long as he could remember. But Alex never said a word, not to anyone. You only talk about fights you win. Everyone knew that. Alex was tired of being silent.
Once they warmed up, Gordon and his friends were smiling and laughing. They were having fun, more concerned with one another than with their victim. And so the first punch came as a total surprise not only to Gordon, who stumbled backwards and clutched at the pain in his jaw, but to all of them, Alex included. He couldn’t believe he had done it. He couldn’t believe it had worked. Heartened by the success of his first strike, he went in for another and then another and another as Gordon staggered. Time, interrupted by adrenaline, slowed to a crawl and Alex’s field of vision widened to encompass a ring of shocked onlookers. He felt the satisfying pain of his knuckles driving into Gordon’s ribs, he saw the wide-eyed faces around him and he felt each breath that screamed up from his lungs, giving voice to his rage.
And then the interruption was over. His fists no longer struck their target and were, instead, grasped tightly in Gordon’s fierce grip. The circle of goons that had seemed so clear and distant was now a muddled mess, close at hand. And, once more, Alex had fallen silent. He was aware of a great pain growing in his hands. He knew that he had lost.
They pinned his arms at his side. He struggled. Gordon stood before him, a dark smear across his lower lip and a searing hatred in his eyes. He spit blood into Alex’s face and then, with practiced rhythm, punched right into Alex’s gut, left into the same spot and then right at Alex’s chin, returning the blow he had received. The first punch knocked the struggle out of Alex, the second took his wind and the third put him on the ground. His head hit the asphalt, breaking his glasses and scraping his brow raw. He didn’t feel it. His mind was numb, trapped in his body but unable to hear or feel or think any thoughts more complicated than, “No.” He opened his mouth to say the word but his tongue was heavy and unresponsive. Gordon crouched before him and the sound of crunching gravel was so loud in Alex’s ears it blinded him.
“D’you think you’re someone?” Gordon asked. He squinted at Alex lying before him. “Because you’re not.” He kicked Alex once more in the stomach and then, at Gordon’s signal, a kid with broad shoulders stepped forward and pulled off each of Alex’s shoes. Alex thought that he should kick out and resist. He decided against it or maybe it was that he couldn’t remember how. The boy tied the laces of Alex’s shoes together and then he swung them like a sling, launching them up onto the power line that ran down the alleyway. Alex’s eyes followed the shoes, watched them as they spun up, up, up and then around and around and around until they hung from the line, rocking lightly above him like a metronome, hypnotizing him and transporting him from that dirty alleyway to the clear blue peace of the summer sky.
“You go where I say you can go and you do what I say you can do. D’you understand that?” Alex stood up though it was hard to keep his balance on bare, faltering feet. “You touch me again and I’ll kill you. D’you understand that, you little shit?” Even as Gordon spoke to him, Alex turned his back. Steel bolts stuck out from the utility pole and they captured Alex’s attention in a way that Gordon’s words no longer could. He placed his hands and then his feet on the surprisingly cool metal, one after another, over and over again. “The hell’s he doing?” asked a voice from below. It was washed away by the wind before Alex heard it.
Reaching the top rung, Alex turned to his left. His shoes hung there, above a small crowd that he did not see. He stretched out but the laces were too far. “He’d better not,” said an unheard voice. If he could only reach a little farther he could grab the shoes. There was a buzzing in his ears that made it hard to concentrate but he tried to focus on the laces. If only he could reach them he’d be safe and whole and they’d finally leave him alone. Somehow he knew that. He reached as far as he could and it still wasn’t enough. He felt like he was going to be sick but he was so close. He swallowed to keep from vomiting and then leaned out again. There was a lurch in his stomach and, instinctively, he grabbed the wire. The sky crackled. “Oh, shit,” said a chorus of voices that quickly scattered. Alex didn’t hear them. They never bothered him again.