Sheer terror scaled my spine. I’d let my guard down, and somehow in all my daydreaming, the Piranhas had snuck up on me.
“Oh, no,” I said under my breath.
I knew my only hope was to run, so I kicked up my feet and took off. But of course a tiny pipsqueak like me was no match for a bunch of athletic jocks and I was easily overtaken.
It was Don Danier who caught a hold of my jacket sleeve, tearing it a bit at the cuff before getting a strong hold of me.
“Why’d you run?” Danier said, spitting on me as he spoke. He grabbed me by my hair, yanking me backwards.
I squealed like a baby girl.
“We just want to play with you, that’s all,” Danier said, and he dragged me over to the school yard bleachers where the rest of the Piranhas were waiting.
“Leave me alone!” I screeched. I knew begging them for mercy wasn’t going to work, but I had to try something.
Josh Lamburt was leaning nonchalantly against the bleachers, sucking on the chewing tobacco in his mouth.
“I don’t know,” Lamburt said, forming his words slowly. “I don’t know if we should waste our energy on a little piece of nothing like this turd.”
He spat some brown slime onto the dirt beside him.
Standing beside Lamburt was Scott Downing, a greasy looking guy with crooked, yellow teeth. Downing was staring at me with his cold, black eyes, a lit cigarette dangling out of his mouth.
“Yeah,” Downing said. “He can’t put up a fight.”
“Please,” I said, begging them again. “Just let me go.”
I tried squirming out of Danier’s grip, but he backhanded me in the mouth, and I felt a light trickle of blood running down my chin.
The slap scared me, but I knew I could be in for much, much worse. I was terrified, and desperate to get away, but I felt powerless as the Piranhas closed in on me.
I once saw them take on this Native kid from Eaton, a town a little ways southeast of Prairieville. The kid played for the Eaton Warriors, a top rival team hated by the Piranhas and everyone else in Prairieville. I guess he told Lamburt he was a pansy, or something like that. It shouldn’t have been a very big deal, but, that poor bastard, the Piranhas beat him within an inch of his life.
He wound up in the hospital for a week, and we all heard later how his mother cried and begged him to tell the police what had happened, but the kid refused to say the Piranhas were behind it. Telling would likely mean a worse beating, he knew.
Of course, everyone around Prairieville knew exactly who was behind it and those already afraid of the gang grew more paralyzed in their fear, including me.
“Look at this sissy boy,” Danier said. “I bet he still sucks on his mama’s tits at night.”
I hated it when anyone said anything about Ma, but I knew I’d better keep my mouth shut unless I wanted to wind up in a casket.
Lamburt moved closer to me from behind the cast of shadows. He was taller than me, and a great deal broader. I felt as though he was a giant pine tree and I was nothing more than an acorn at the bottom.
“I got this dog at home,” Lamburt said, “he’s awfully hungry all the time. I think he’d like some bones to chew on. Maybe I should let him chew on you!”
When he said “you” Lamburt poked a long finger into my chest, hard enough that I fell backwards a little.
He flashed me an evil grin. The rest of the gang watched and I waited to see what he’d do next.
Suddenly, Lamburt jumped forward, landing almost on top of me.
“Boo!” he said.
I yelped, and then started to cry, even though he hadn’t even touched me. All of them began laughing hysterically.
But the laughs stopped abruptly when Lamburt dug into his right pocket, producing a switchblade which he flicked open in front of me, showing me the sharp knife.
“I’m only going to cut you a little,” he said. “I promise.” I was about ready to piss myself, sure as the prairie wind that Lamburt was going to stab me.
The rest of the Piranhas looked frightened themselves. Even for them, knifing someone would be extreme.
“What are you boys doing?” a booming voice suddenly called from beyond the bleachers.
Lamburt immediately flipped his switchblade closed and dropped it back into his pocket.
I looked up to see a large man standing by the north school entrance, leaning on a cane. I was never so happy to see Mr. Dryden.
He may have been the brunt of a lot of classroom jokes, and not very threatening for the most part, but he was still a teacher, and for that reason, he commanded some authority on school grounds, even for the lawless Piranhas.
As Mr. Dryden neared, Lamburt backed off of me slightly. The teacher’s eyes were bulging out of his head.
“You boys get the hell out of here!” he hollered.
Lamburt gave Mr. Dryden a dirty, meaningful look, then signalled to his cronies and they all took off on their BMX bikes.
“Georgie,” Mr. Dryden said, his eyes filled with pity for me. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I’m all right.”
Except the wet drops between my legs, I thought.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do about those boys,” Mr. Dryden said, sighing to himself. I knew it wasn’t the first time there’d been a school yard incident involving the Piranhas.
Mr. Dryden looked around the compound. Seeing no one else, he leaned in on his cane and looked me square in the eye.
“Georgie,” he said. “You shouldn’t let those assholes bother you. In fact, you shouldn’t let anyone push you around.” He had one hand on my shoulder, his eyes locked with mine.
I nodded my head and didn’t say a thing, but inside I wished Mr. Dryden would just leave me alone. I was grateful that he cared about my plight with the Piranhas, but I didn’t think he quite understood the situation. I wasn’t “letting” the Piranhas pick on me -- there was just no way I could stop it from happening.
“You stick up for yourself next time,” Mr. Dryden said, and then he patted me on the back before hobbling back inside the school.
Sure, I thought. If I stuck up for myself, even a little bit, the Piranhas would pulverize me. There was no way I could get them off me, not unless I had about 15 guys backing me up. And since Willie was really my only friend, that wasn’t going to happen, especially because backing me up would mean betraying the Piranhas and an instant beating for him, too.
It was nice advice, but I couldn’t do what Mr. Dryden suggested. Instead, I was certain I’d spend the rest of my days at Prairieville Composite looking over my shoulder.
For a long time after Mr. Dryden had gone, I sat on the bleachers with my backpack, staring off at the empty ball diamond ahead of me. The grass around me was still green, but the leaves on the surrounding trees were starting to turn yellow.
I wondered what my father would have said to me if he were alive. Would he have told me to stick up for myself too, or to just run away? I didn’t know. Dad died before we got to the part about bullies. The only person I trusted for advice was my brother Jon. There was no way in hell he’d ever let anyone push him around.
Jon rarely went to school, and if he did, he usually got kicked out again. He likely wouldn’t ever complete his senior year, and probably wouldn’t ever leave Prairieville. But in my mind, my brother was the smartest guy around.
He had this way with cars, bringing home old wrecks and fixing them up in the backyard garage. Recently, he found his true love.
It was a rusted up ’69 Chevy Corvette Stingray with huge holes ratted out in the vinyl, exposing the seat coils. The wheel wells were totally bent out of shape and she was missing some major organs, but that car was Jon’s baby.
He spent hours working on it and always had friends stopping by to help him. A couple times I spied on them and almost got high myself from where I stood behind the cracked door. One time Jon saw me peeking in and threatened to beat me senseless, but that didn’t stop me from hanging around when I felt like it.
Jon kept a poster of that Chevy in pristine condition hanging on the garage door for inspiration. It was his dream to fix his up to perfection and drive it off to Mexico or someplace like that, leaving his troubles far behind.
I would’ve gone with him in a second if he asked me to.
After I’d wallowed long enough in my shame for letting the Piranhas scare me enough to mess my pants, I started the walk back home.
Once there, I passed the squeaking gate and barking Bruno, and noticed the garage light on. I knew Jon would be inside.
He always gave me crap for busting in on him, especially when his friends were over, but I walked in anyway.
“Get out of here, Squirt,” he said immediately from behind the popped hood.
I stood at the doorway, waiting for him to change his mind.
“I said get out of here,” he repeated sharply. But I knew if I was stubborn enough, I’d eventually get my way.
“Jon, I just gotta talk to you about something,” I said. “It’s important.”
“I’m busy, Squirt,” he said.
Squirt was a nickname that started a long time ago, way before any of the bad stuff happened. I was around four and Jon would’ve been seven. Dad was still alive then and my sister Emma was just a toddler.
I was too young to remember much of it, but Ma told me Jon took his time getting to like me, and one day when she told him he had to be nice to me, Jon said he didn’t have to be nice to that “Little Squirt.”
He started calling me Little Squirt from then on, and as the years went by, it shortened to just plain “Squirt.” After that, there was no getting it off me. No matter how old I got, I was always Squirt to Jon, but only to him.
“I just need to talk to you for a little,” I said.
“All right,” he said finally, sighing loudly. “What is it?” He got out from behind the dented hood and grabbed a dirty towel from his work bench, using it to wipe his wrench. He had grease all over his chin and looked a bit sweaty. He must’ve been in there for a couple of hours already, I thought.
“Well, I, I’m…” I started. I wanted Jon’s advice, but it was hard for me to admit what was going on at school. I didn’t want my brother to think I was a sissy, just like the Piranhas said I was.
“Spit it out, Squirt,” he said. “I ain’t got all day here.”
“Nothing,” I said.
“Nothing, my ass,” Jon said.
“Okay,” I said, exhaling nervously. “The thing I wanted to talk about is some stuff that’s been going on at school.”
“Well, I can’t help you if your marks are no good,” Jon said.
“No, it’s not that,” I said. “It’s those guys at school, the hockey gang. They’re after me, Jon.”
My brother put his wrench down and wiped the grease off his chin with his sleeve.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Well, there ain’t nothing I can do about that,” Jon said. “Just try not to piss ’em off, I guess.”
I really expected to hear some words of wisdom right then, or at least some assurance that Jon had my back. I was kind of heartbroken that he was just shrugging it off.
Jon went back to his work, but when he looked up again, he must’ve seen the hurt in my eyes.
“Hey, Squirt, don’t worry about it, man,” he said. “Just mind your own business, and they’ll keep off.”
The problem was that I did mind my own business, and that wasn’t stopping them at all.
“I don’t have a dad to tell me what to do,” I said. “All I got is you, Jon.” I was hoping that would appeal to his heart, but I immediately felt guilty for putting that on him.
My brother stood perfectly still. I knew I’d hit a nerve.
“We’ll talk about this later,” he said. “G’on inside.”
I always dreaded the first few steps I had to take in the house. The odds were always fairly good that Ma would be passed out somewhere, and I hated seeing it.
I played outside with Bruno for a few minutes, scratching him behind the ear. Poor Bruno. He spent most of the day tied up to a post. I promised myself I’d take him for a walk later on.
After I couldn’t procrastinate any longer, I went inside, kicking my shoes off as I always did.
“Ma?” I said. “I’m home.”
I didn’t hear anything.
“Ma?” I called again, and searched through the house.
Sure enough, there she was on the couch, fast asleep with drool hanging out of her mouth.
“Aw, ma.” I said, sadness washing over me.
There was no telling what time she might get up. It was already 4:30 p.m. and there was no sign of any supper on the go.
I looked in the fridge. It was of course just as empty as it had been at lunch time.
My stomach growled fiercely.
I decided it was going to be up to me to find something to eat. But it was a depressing situation, because I’d spent all of my money on that damned magazine.
Then I remembered the loonie I found in the school yard just before the Piranhas caught up with me. But what the hell could I buy with just a loonie?
I decided I had to have a look, and picked up the Bruno’s leash from where it was hanging in the porch.
“Hey, where you going?” Jon asked as I left the house again, untying Bruno from his post. My brother was standing by the garage doorway, still holding his wrench.
“To get something to eat,” I said. Jon watched me walk down the back alley towards Perry’s Bakery.
I loved Perry’s. Everything there was baked fresh every morning, and anytime I could have a taste of it was a real treat.
It only took me about five minutes to close the six block distance. I was so damned hungry, I knew I had to hurry or my stomach might start eating itself so I ran almost the whole way, Bruno happily jogging along with me. I didn’t even think about the Piranhas because I was too busy starving.
I tied Bruno to a bike rack near the bakery door and pulled the heavy door open.
Inside, a portly woman wearing an oil-stained apron stood behind a glass counter displaying a plethora of savoury goods.
“Got anything with meat?” I asked her, remembering that Dr. Baker said I should eat more protein.
She was a Ukrainian broad that had started up at Perry’s a while back. Poor thing could hardly speak a word of English.
“Meat? What kind meat?” she asked in a heavy accent.
“Any kind, I guess,” I said. I wasn’t all that picky about it, really.
“We have sausage roll,” she said, though I could barely understand her.
“How much?” I asked.
“We have many sausage roll,” the woman said, the excess fat under her chin jiggling as she spoke.
“No, I meant how much money,” I said.
“One dollar, fifty cent,” she answered curtly. “No tax.”
Crap, I thought.
I held the loonie flat in the palm of my hand. I was fifty cents short.
That Ukrainian must’ve noticed the sad look on my face and felt pity for me.
“Here,” she said, digging out one of the sausage rolls from behind the display case with a pair of tongs. “You take. Only one dollar for you.”
She placed the sausage roll in a small white paper bag and handed it across the counter. Grease from the pastry and meat immediately starting pooling in circles at the bottom of the bag. It smelled divine.
I eagerly handed her the loonie and pulled the sausage roll out. Before the baker finished ringing my money through the register, I’d scarfed down the entire thing.
She seemed shocked, and the look of pity returned to her eyes.
“You poor, starving, skinny little boy! Here,” she said, stooping back under the display case. She pulled out another sausage roll with the tongs and put it in my hands. “This one on the house, m’kay?”
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said, genuinely grateful. I smiled my biggest smile, holding the roll carefully in my fist as I pushed through the heavy door back out into the world.
As soon as Bruno saw me and smelled the sausage, he started sniffing at me and pawing at my fist.
“Sorry, boy,” I said. “I’m not going to share this one with you.”
I think I must’ve really disappointed old Bruno, but there was no way he was going to get my sausage roll.
I grabbed the leash again and started towards home, much slower this time. I walked and ate, enjoying every bite of my bonus pastry. Along the way, I kept my eyes and ears peeled, but no bullies bothered me this time.
When I arrived back at the squeaking gate, I could hear Jon yelling.
His voice was coming from inside the house, and I hastily tied Bruno back up to the post, leaving him there barking as I went in.
“How can you let them starve?” I heard Jon saying. “They’re just kids! They can’t fend for themselves. At least you could get off your lazy ass and put some groceries in the house so they could make a sandwich. There’s never a God damned thing around here to eat!”
“You have no idea what I’ve been going through!” I heard Ma bite back. “Jon, how dare you talk to me like this! Where`s your respect? You don’t know what it’s like to be a single mom. You just don’t have a clue.”
I was horrified, because my little sister Emma was probably at home, listening to this mess going on.
Ma was bawling now. I could hear her sobbing through her words as I walked down the hall.
“I hate you,” I heard Jon say finally. He didn’t seem to see me as he rushed by me in the hall. I could see he had tears in his eyes too.
When I walked in the room, I felt my heart sink as I saw tiny Emma sitting there on the love seat, looking so small and helpless in her little blond pig tails and jump suit. Ma was standing there, looking past me at the hall door where she’d watched Jon walk out. There were tears streaming down her face, her eyes smudged from running mascara.
Finally, she saw me.
“Georgie,” she said, staring at me with a dead look in her eyes.
Jon was right in a sense. Ma was the only one with access to the welfare money and the child tax credits she received because of us. We never saw any of it ourselves. She used a huge chunk of it on her booze and prescriptions, though she would never admit to herself or to anyone else just how much.
“I never wanted you guys to go without,” she said to me. “I was going to make supper... .”
“I know, Ma,” I said, walking over and giving her a hug. “Why don’t you lay back down and rest.”
“Well, what will you eat?” she asked, rubbing the tear drops off her cheeks.
“I already ate,” I said. “Emma can go over to a friend`s house for supper, can’t you Emma?”
She nodded, sitting in total silence.
“Okay,” Ma said. “I’m really sorry. It’s just I’m feeling very tired today.”
“We know, that, Ma,” I said. “It’s okay.”
Ma went back to her spot on the couch and was snoring again in a few short minutes.
Emma phoned her best friend Jennifer Hall who lived only a few blocks away, and her parents agreed that Emma could come over for supper.
My sister was putting her boots on in the porch when I heard her calling me softly.
“Georgie,” she whispered so Ma couldn’t hear, even though she was dead to the world.
I walked over to the porch.
“Yeah?” I said.
“I hate her too,” Emma said, her bright blue eyes looking so sad and empty.
“No you don’t,” I said.
“Yes, Georgie” she said, looking me square in the eye the way a 12-year-old girl has no business doing. “I do.”
My sister grabbed her coat from the hall porch and left.