Mick walked out of class to see the tableau that had become too familiar this year: Damon had one hand twisting up Colin’s collar, the other point to the other side of the bridge that marked the end of school grounds. “I’m going to be waiting right there after school,” Damon said. “If you don’t show up when school gets out, I’ll find you, and it will be worse.”
“Hey, Damon,” Mick called out as he hurried over. “C’mon, man! What are messing around with Colin for? He’s two years younger than you!”
Damon didn’t turn to look. “Stay out of this, Mimic,” Damon said. Colin, too, was staring back at Damon, eyes growing shiny from hot tears of defiance and anger.
“Look at the poor, little, crying baby,” Damon said. “Thinking about the beating you’re going to get this afternoon? You should have thought of that earlier, punk.”
The scene was frozen. Mick reached a hand out toward Damon’s arm, hesitated, and pulled back.
“Just be there,” Damon said, twisting the collar even tighter on Colin’s neck. Then he abruptly released the cloth and walked away.
“What was it this time, Colin?” Mick said.
“It wasn’t me, this time,” Colin said. “I swear! Heather broke up with him and someone told him it was because I said something about him cheating on the Calculus mid-terms.”
“No! I sit on the other side of the room, how would I even know?”
“Well, crap. What now?”
“I guess I get beat up. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before.” Colin walked away.
Mick stood, staring at Colin’s back. “Well, crap,” he repeated. “Now what?”
“Hey, Mimic! Show us your ‘Mr. Baldridge’!” someone shouted.
Mick sighed, already adopting the mannerisms as he turned and walked toward his classmates heading to Western Lit.
“Ha! That always cracks me up,” one said.
“Yeah, look how he even gets the angle of the head and the bent ring finger!” said another.
“I gotta find another way to be famous,” Mick muttered.
The taste of dust in the air. The smell of sweat and blood drifting on the breeze. The bright glare of the sun, limning the scene: Colin on the ground, clutching his stomach; Damon standing over him, unassuaged anger mixed with exultation playing across his features. Each second played out slowly, like honey dripping off of a spoon.
Mick saw something change, saw Damon make a decision, saw him take a step back, saw him shift his balance to one leg.without thinking, Mick threw himself at Damon, knocking him off balance before Damon could complete the brutal kick aimed at Colin’s mid-section.
Damon swung his fist wildly, forcing Mick to back away to avoid a clout on the side of his head.
“You want to get involved, Mick? You want to defend this prick? You want some?”
Mick shook his head, stood mute, held up his hands in a gesture of surrender.
“Then stay out of my way.”
Damon turned and deliberately aimed another kick at Colin. Mick dove at him, and they fell to the ground fell in a heap with Mick on top. Mick scrambled up; Damon stood more slowly, anger showing in the tension in his limbs. Once on his feet, he assumed a fighting stance.
“Let’s do this, Mick,” Damon said.
“Come on, Damon,” Mick said. “There’s no reason to fight. I didn’t mean to knock you down.” Damon didn’t say anything, but he didn’t start swinging, either. Encouraged, Mick continued, “I just didn’t want to see you kick him. I mean, he’s such a little guy, and you already beat him up and knocked him down. Why did you want to pick on someone so much smaller and weaker than you?”
All the students watching laughed. Damon’s face turned white. Uh-oh. That was a mistake.
Mick took a step back, and Damon moved forward a step forward, aiming a wide swing at Mick’s face. It was easy to block, and Mick did. But now Damon was inside Mick’s reach, and his left arm slipped around Mick’s neck.
“You think you’re funny, huh, Mimic?” Damon hissed into his ear. Mick’s awareness shrank to the arm encircling his neck like an iron bar, the smell of sweat, the hot breath washing over him.
Suddenly, a handful of students stood next to Mick.
“Leave him alone, Damon,” one said. “Come on, man, let him go,” said another.
Damon let go of Mick and stepped back. He looked at the other kids, clearly calculating the odds. He relaxed into normal posture, then his hand whipped up toward Mick’s face. Mick flinched, but Damon stopped the violent move short to point directly at Mick’s left eye.
“This isn’t over, Mimic,” he said. “You won’t always have them around to protect you. I’ll find you alone, and then you’ll get yours. I’ll teach you to keep your nose out of my business.” He glanced at Colin, who had recovered somewhat but hadn’t stepped up. “If you say anything about me, to anyone, ever again, I won’t stop with just a few punches. I’ll kill you.”
Damon broke eye contact and stalked away. Mick rushed to Colin, helped him stand up.
“Are you okay?” Mick asked.
“Yeah,” Colin said. He leaned over and spit a mouthful of blood.
“Let me take a look.” Colin had a cut over his left eye that was still trickling blood, and the eye was starting to swell. His nose didn’t look damaged, but there was a scrape along Colin’s right cheekbone and his mouth had also taken a direct hit; blood kept welling up on his gum line.
“How are your teeth? Any loose?”
Colin reached up a hand and searched, then shook his head. “I don’t think so.” He spit another mass of bloody saliva.
“Crap. Let’s get you to the school nurse,” Mick said.
“I’m okay. I just want to go home and get cleaned up before my Mom comes home.” He made a shushing gesture with his hands. “Yeah, I know I can’t hide the eye, but I can at least keep her from having a heart attack from the sight of blood.”
Mick put a supporting arm around Colin’s shoulder, but Colin shrugged it off, then started walking way, a little gingerly, a little hesitantly.
“I can get home by myself, Mick,” Colin said. “You don’t really want to be associated with me. It will just bring you trouble.”
“I’ve already got trouble!” Mick called.
“More trouble!” Colin called back over his shoulder.
Crap, Mick thought. Now what?
Mick turned toward home, thinking about Damon and what it might be like to take a beating. Colin didn’t look good, and if history was any guide, Damon would do even worse to him for the knock down and humiliation in front of a crowd.
And what would he do about Colin? They were best friends a few years ago, but Colin had grown more abrasive and mouthy, until they weren’t really friends any more. Still, if a guy was being a jerk, you mocked him, or you pulled him aside and talked to him; you didn’t pound on him with your fists to try to shut him up. Mick couldn’t fight every battle, but he could help Colin.
Or maybe taking a punch for him wasn’t actually helping. Maybe Damon would finish on him and then put Colin in the hospital, as a lesson.
It didn’t matter. Mick wasn’t going to let Damon hurt Colin without going through him. Sooner or later, Mick was going to see his blood in the dirt.
With that realization, Mick looked up and realized he had walked past his house without thinking and ended up at the local park. The weather was perfect, so families and individuals were out in force. The sound of children’s laughter drifted with the breeze, seeming incongruous with the violence of less than an hour ago.
Mick saw a middle-aged Chinese man dressed in white, working on some form of martial art. The whip and snap of linen with each crisp sweep of the arm or thrust of the leg was audible even at the distance of 30 yards. Mick watched, entranced, as the man completed a series of moves. Mick could almost count the attackers, could almost see them aim kicks that the man gracefully slipped around, could almost hear the bodies thud heavily on the turf as the man’s foot hooked an imaginary ankle and pulled.
Mick started watching the angle of the man’s shoulders, the crook of fingers on his left hand, the flatness of the palm of his right. He noted the distance of the step the left foot took before the right would swing around in a smooth arc, and how that provided power for a punch to the midsection of an invisible foe. He felt he could almost sense a logic behind the moves, too complex and vast to grasp, but there nonetheless, like the man was the figurine on a colossal astral clock.
The wind started picking up, and the fabric of the man’s clothes snapped louder. Suddenly, some papers stacked on the ground near the man were caught in a gust, and flew toward Mick in a scattered stream.
The man stopped his exercise and began chasing the papers. Mick snagged two out of the air, then chased down a third. He stood to look for more, but the man had caught up to the other dozen, more quickly than seemed possible. The man smiled at Mick and began to walk toward him.
Mick glanced down at the top paper, and saw crude drawings of stick figures in red, with blue and green points. Motion was shown in black dashed arcs. Some specific angles of joints were marked and arrows showed direction between the blue and green points. Mick felt a tingle run through his body for just a moment, maybe a chill, or a ghostly surge of energy. It subsided as quickly as it came.
Mick noticed the man holding at his hand, the smile become frozen and maybe even strained, slight puzzlement showing in his eyes. Mick smiled and handed the papers back.
“Sank you, young man. Verr helpful.”
“No problem. Hey, what were you practicing? Tai’chi?”
“In a way. It is nossing, just a way of keeping my joints loose despite advancing age.”
“Do you…” Mick hesitated. “Do you think you could teach me?”
“Alas, I’m sorry, not possible,” the man said, his face showing anything but regret. “My fadder taught me wis strict requirement to teach only close family. Unless you would like to marry me? I need someone to replace my fiance.”
“Hah. No, I think I’ll pass on that,” Mick said. “Thanks, anyways.”
“No, thank you for your assistance,” the man said. “You have a good heart.”
Mick gave a little wave, then walked home, thinking about what he saw. He unlocked the door to a home devoid of life, then lay down on the couch, suddenly exhausted. He closed his eyes.
The figures from the paper danced behind his closed eyelids. Each picture was clear, each red line glowed like fire, the green and blue dots glowing like LEDs. Mick felt the awareness that he was dreaming, but felt caught in the action. The black arrows grew, changed, and became pulsing flow of yellow energy. The stick figures swelled and took on three dimensions, expanding into bones, muscles, and blood vessels, with the embedded blue and green nodes.
He crooked the fingers on his left hand, felt the flow of yellow energy increase from a blue spot on his elbow to the green spot in his wrist. Something shattered with the ring of crystal, and Mick sat up, fully awake.
Something was different, but Mick wasn’t sure what it was. Something was different about him.