He was standing at his locker with his friends quoting cartoons that they were a few years too old for when Jaren Millworth, walking past, took the opportunity to mash his gum into Grayson’s hair, right on the top of his head. Grayson whirled on Jaren who quickly overcame his surprise at Grayson’s aggressive reaction and, dropping his books on the floor, spread his arms and said, “What? What?”
And Grayson knew then that he was about to fight. He had never fought before and it wasn’t something that he’d ever given much thought to, but the time had come. He curled his hands into fists and raised them.
Jaren snorted in contempt, sneered at the crowd of kids that had cohered out of nowhere, and Grayson lunged at him. Jaren flailed with his left hand, Grayson took the hit at the back of his jaw just in front of his right ear, and that’s when everything sped up. With his head flashing pain, Grayson registered that he’d been hit, but before he had time for the next successive thought to come, he’d pinned Jaren against the lockers, holding him upright by his neck, and landed multiple blows to his face and stomach.
Then the school cop and Mr. Firch pulled Grayson off of Jaren, who slumped to the floor, and Grayson’s next thought finally came to him. It was something about keeping his temper, self-preservation, consideration of consequences. It was already hopelessly obsolete.
When Owen came home from work, Donna met him in the front hall and said, “Grayson got in a fight at school today and he’s suspended for two weeks.” She held eye contact with Owen until he understood that the situation was his responsibility.
“How badly is he hurt?” asked Owen. “Is he conscious?”
“He’s fine,” said Donna. “He’s in his room. He already knows he’s not allowed to use his computer.”
“He got in a fight and he’s fine?” Owen paused with his coat on a hanger in his hand, the hall closet door standing open.
His daughter Sophie , who must have been eavesdropping, came around the corner with a big smile on her face. “Everyone was talking about it at school, Dad! Grayson beat the crap out of Jaren Millworth! Jaren smashed gum in Grayson’s hair and then Grayson just snapped off on him! It took four teachers to pull him off of Jaren! There’s still blood stains on the carpet, I saw them myself!”
“This Jaren,” said Owen. “He’s a lot younger and smaller than Grayson?”
“No,” said Sophie. “He’s a senior too. He’s bigger than Grayson!”
Donna glared at Sophie. “This is not something to be proud of, Sophie.”
“Yeah it is,” said Sophie. “Kids I don’t even know were congratulating me. Even some of Jaren’s friends congratulated me. Everyone thought Grayson was just a dork before but now they think he’s got this crazy side.”
“He doesn’t have a crazy side,” said Donna. “Your father and I feel terrible about this. Trust me, Grayson’s not going to do anything like this again once we’re finished with him. Right, Owen?” She turned to Owen who was still standing in front of the open closet with his coat in his hand, lost in thought.
“What’re you going to do to him?” asked Sophie, still grinning. This was clearly a very good day for her.
“I’m going to talk to him,” said Owen. “Immediately.” He finally hung up his coat and walked down the hall to the basement stairs, opening the door and shouting “Grayson!” in a menacing voice before stomping down the stairs in a way that he hoped communicated a sense of righteous resolve to his wife. He knocked once on Grayson’s bedroom door and then stepped inside, closing the door behind him. Grayson’s windowless room was clean and orderly as always. He was lying on his bed and wearing headphones, drumming on his chest along with the music.
When he saw his father, Grayson heaved a sigh and after a long moment took the headphones off and sat up on the edge of his bed. There was a purple bruise on the right side of his face just in front of his ear and Owen saw that there was still a wad of green chewing gum stuck in his stringy brown hair. “Hey, dad,” said Grayson, not looking Owen in the eye.
“How are you feeling?” asked Owen.
“I didn’t want to get in a fight,” said Grayson. “I just went berserk. It was weird.”
Owen nodded. “You weren’t scared of getting hurt?”
“No. I was just mad. I just wanted to punch Jaren. I didn’t think about what would happen to me.”
Owen absorbed this information in silence, then said, “But what about when he hit you? That bruise looks pretty nasty.”
Grayson touched the bruise with his fingertips. “I guess the pain was different than I thought it would be.”
Owen tried to make his voice sound casual. “Would you say Jaren seemed scared of you after the fight?”
“Yeah,” said Grayson. “He was scared of me.”
Father and son smiled at each other.
Owen walked over to Grayson’s computer and lined his keyboard up evenly with the front edge of the desk. Without looking at Grayson, he said, “I just didn’t know you were capable. You didn’t get it from me, I know that.” He looked over his shoulder at his son. “You think TV helped?”
“Helped? What do you mean?”
“Listen, Grayson,” said Owen, pulling out Grayson’s desk chair and sitting on it sideways, resting his hands on his knees. “I hate that kid that Sophie’s been hanging out with. That creep with the eyeliner. Blake.”
Grayson wrinkled his nose. “I don’t like him either. He’s in my Econ class and sometimes when I look up he’s staring at me and then he smirks at me and I know it’s about Sophie.”
“That burns me up,” said Owen, slapping his right fist into the open palm of his left hand. “Does that make you angry?”
“Yeah, pretty angry,” said Grayson.
“I went to the police,” said Owen. “I told them I didn’t want Blake around my daughter, but they said they can’t do anything about it if Sophie wants to hang out with him. But Sophie won’t listen to me. She keeps sneaking around with him. Even if he wasn’t a little rat, she’s too young to hang out with him.”
“Why are you telling me this?” asked Grayson.
“I want you to threaten him,” said Owen. “Tell him if he doesn’t stop hanging out with Sophie, you’ll do to him what you did to Jaren.”
“What if he calls my bluff?”
“It won’t be a bluff,” said Owen with a tight-lipped smile. “Punch his lights out. And don’t tell your mom about this, obviously. She doesn’t want to believe you’re like this.”
“Violent. When you need to be.”
“I don’t know about this, Dad.” Grayson licked his lips. “What if I just got lucky? What if I freeze up?”
Owen knelt next to his son and placed one hand on his knee. “You won’t freeze up, Grayson. I would freeze up because I’m not a fighter. I could never beat someone up like you did today. Punching another person in the face over and over; I couldn’t do that. You’re different than I am. In that you’re a fighter.” He paused. “Or you’re the closest thing to a fighter this family’s got, anyway.” He clapped Grayson on the knee and stood up. “But stay off the computer for another few days or so. Your mom still wants you grounded.”
Owen closed Grayson’s door behind him and went back upstairs. He stuck his head into the den where Sophie was talking on the phone in front of the muted television. He waved his hand to draw her attention and said, “’Hi, sweetie. Everything OK?”
She looked at him as if she knew he was up to something, but finally gave him a patronizing smile and said, “’I’m fine, dad.”
Owen went into the kitchen where Donna was kneeling on the linoleum and sweeping a granulated sugar spill into a new dustpan. She looked up and asked Owen the obvious question with her eyes.
Owen nodded gravely, which was not strictly a lie.
The next day when Blake got home from school, his mother handed him a sealed envelope she had found tucked inside the screen door. It said, “For Blake” on it in neat handwritten script.
“Lame,” said Blake’s big, dumb friend Anthony.
Blake opened the envelope. Inside was a letter written in the same handwriting from the outside of the envelope. Blake read the letter out loud. “Meet me in the alley behind the hardware store. Come alone.”
Blake’s mother straightened her curly black wig and said, “Take Anthony with you, Blake. Never obey a note that tells you to go somewhere alone.” Then, exhausted from so much parenting, she went to the sun room to underline the lies in her copy of her best friend’s memoir with a purple pen.
When Blake and Anthony got to the alley, Grayson was there waiting for them leaning against a dumpster and reading a book. He was wearing a pale blue hat, scarf, and gloves that appeared to be a matching set.
“I thought I told you to come alone,” said Grayson, slipping a bookmark into his book and setting it down on a dry patch of pavement.
“I didn’t read the whole note,” said Blake.
“You skipped the last two words?”
“What do you want?” asked Anthony, stepping forward with his hands half-jammed into his tight jeans pockets.
Grayson looked past Anthony at Blake and said, “Leave my sister alone.”
Blake laughed. “Tell her to leave me alone. You think I want that skank hanging around all the time?”
“Cut her off,” said Grayson. “That’s what I’m saying.”
“What are you gonna do about it?” asked Anthony, taking another step toward Grayson.
“Don’t fight him,” said Blake. “Grayson’s a psycho. You heard what he did to Jaren Millworth?”
“I think he’ll find out soon enough I’m not Jaren Millworth,” said Anthony, and he took his hands out of his pockets, balled them into fists, and rushed Grayson.
Blake didn’t go over to Anthony’s crumpled form until after Grayson had told him once more to avoid Sophie and left the alley massaging the swollen knuckles on his right hand.
Anthony moaned and spat blood through his fattened lips as Blake crouched next to him. “I think I’m gonna have to miss school for a few days,” said Anthony.
“I’d better skip too,” said Blake, patting his friend on the shoulder. “I’ll nurse you back to health with illegal drugs.” The fact that Anthony didn’t laugh meant he was really hurt.
Blake hadn’t answered his phone in two days and Sophie couldn’t understand it. Sophie’s mom was out scrapbooking with her scrapbooking friends for the rest of the evening, so Sophie told her dad she needed to return a pair of jeans to her friend Misha and then walked over twenty minutes in the cold to Blake’s house. When she knocked on the door, Blake’s mother answered wearing a sparkling green thing that was either a robe or a dress. Her wig was askew.
“Blake doesn’t want to see you,” said his mom. “He sent me to the door to tell you that because he’s scared.”
Sophie heard Blake yell, “No I’m not!” from somewhere in the house.
“He’s scared of me?” asked Sophie.
“Go home,” said Blake’s mom. “Before he gets so scared that he has to sleep with the lights on.”
“Shut up, mom!” yelled Blake.
Then his mom closed the door in Sophie’s face.
When Sophie got home, she found her father in the den sitting in front of the kind of movie that passes for an action movie even though the characters spend most of the movie in front of computers typing and downloading secret files. The room was dark and Owen was staring at a spot on the wall above the TV. He didn’t notice Sophie watching him.
Her voice dripping with accusation and contempt, Sophie asked, “What did you do to Blake, Dad?”
Owen jolted with surprise in his easy chair and then, as Sophie’s question registered, he composed his face and asked, “Why? What happened?”
“He’s scared to hang out with me!” said Sophie.
“Maybe he just realized the age difference is a bigger issue that he originally thought,” offered Owen. “Perhaps he came to his senses.”
“I know you did something, Dad! You had no right to butt in! What did you do?”
“Sophie, here’s how it is. I think your brother might have done something to Blake or a friend of Blake’s. Grayson’s figuring some things out about himself right now. He’s experimenting, in a way, and no one really knows how it’s going to turn out.”
Sophie covered her mouth with her hands, her eyes wide with shock. “Grayson beat up my boyfriend? You told him to, didn’t you!?”
“That worthless punk is not your boyfriend and I’m not sure exactly what happened,” said Owen. “I just asked him to have a word with Blake. If someone got beaten up, I’m sure he or she had it coming.”
“Grayson!” shouted Sophie, stomping out of the den and into the hallway toward the basement stairs. “Grayson, what did you do!?”
She turned around and saw her father standing in the doorway to the den. “I would advise you,” he said, “not to upset your brother.” Sophie stared at her father and, in the light of the hallway, she noticed his split lower lip and the white butterfly bandage on his chin for the first time. He hadn’t been injured when she’d left for Blake’s house. Sophie couldn’t read her dad’s face. It was a jumble of pride and embarrassment and satisfaction and fear and she didn’t know what else.
She stood at the top of the stairs and looked down into the dark basement. All she heard drifting up to her were the tinny sound effects of Grayson’s computer game.
“I thought he was grounded from his computer,” whispered Sophie.
Even though Owen answered in a whisper, it seemed to echo in the hallway. “He was.”