While the mayor of Middleton had been an obvious first step into research, as well as an incredibly successful adventure, Robbie had troubles deciding on who he should focus upon next. But, as fate would have it, he did not need to go find his next research subject. The research subject found him.
After the Christmas vacation, on an unseasonably warm day in late January, Robbie was once again suffering in gym class, pushing himself to finish the infamous Mile Run within the allotted amount of time. Although he had never done so, and although nothing indicated he would be able to do so today, something in him urged him on, to ignore how his lungs burned every time he gulped down a breath, to forget how his legs wobbled and ached from the physical exertion, to just run, run, run like an automaton and not think and not feel and just run.
Stacey was always bewildered that he did this, because he always did this. She also could not run The Mile while clocking an acceptable time and, since it didn’t matter how late one was, late was late was late, long ago she’d decided simply to walk the whole thing. It generally took her a full twenty minutes to complete her Mile Run and never failed to drive their gym teacher, Mr. Vardeman, to the edge of profanity and barely-suppressed violence.
But something deep and primitive inside Robbie made him actually run and not walk. He always ran the whole mile, sometimes staggeringly, sometimes limping along in what barely could be called a jog, but he ran. It was not honor or even pride. It was not an attempt to prove himself to his fellow runners or even to Vardeman—it was to prove to himself that he could survive. That he could make it. And so, whenever he completed his run and Vardeman shook his head disapprovingly while recording the time, Robbie felt a sudden surge of accomplishment. It was almost as satisfying as the mythical runner’s high that Robbie had heard Catherine mention but that he himself did not quite believe actually existed.
Bill Weaver, however, struggled. He didn’t run much slower than Robbie did, and he always finished well before Stacey ever did, but there wasn’t any determination on his face or strength in his stride. Only sadness, only brokenness, and during one Mile Run poor Bill had even started to cry, with big fat tears rolling down both cheeks as he staggered around the track.
The consequences were severe. Allowing the slight show of weakness in a middle school was no different than dumping fresh, hot blood into a shark tank.
Today’s run was going especially poorly for Bill. He still had a whole lap to run by the time Robbie had finished. The entire rest of the class, except for Stacey, had also completed their laps. This depressing fact only seemed to slow Bill down more. The students began grumbling, and even Vardeman muttered obscenities under his breath, just barely audible. Finally, something in the air changed. The mood among the students resting on the bleachers changed, it twisted, and the very air thrummed with frustration and anger and contempt.
Some of the boys began yelling taunts at the struggling Bill.
“Je-sus! You want us to be out here all day?”
“Move it, Bill! Just hurry up!”
Finally, Mr. Vardeman himself chimed in: “Bill, can you pick up the pace a little more? You’re doing fine, but we really need to get on with the rest of class.”
Bill Weaver ran faster. His alabaster-white legs reached forward in huge, clumsy steps. His jaw hung open like that of a scared deer. Robbie felt a stab of pity, and the urge came over him to stand up and go run beside Bill, to keep him company. But he remained on the cold metal bench where everyone else sat and merely watched.
Then, on the final lap, disaster. Bill had not dared to stop to tie his shoelaces when they had come untied, back on lap three or four, and he tripped on the dangling laces. Already exhausted, he could not regain his balance, and face first he fell into the dirt track field behind Middleton Middle School. For a moment, a brief second, all was silence. Then the silence shattered as the class erupted into harsh, braying laughter.
Robbie stared, horrified. Vardeman ran forward and briskly pulled Bill up by his slender arms.
The rest of the class charged forward as well, like a single living organism, moving as one. Murmurs of “You okay, Bill?” surrounded the fallen student. Then, some boy—no one ever did find out who—snickered and said, “Damn, Bill, it ain’t enough that your daddy beat you up? You gotta beat up yourself?”
Bill went red in the face. He pressed his lips tightly together for several seconds, then bellowed, “Who said that?”
“Bill,” said Mr. Vardeman, the name halfway between a caution and a plea.
Wildly Bill’s eyes jumped from face to face, trying to find the culprit. But whoever had uttered the taunt remained stone-silent now.
“Who said that, goddammit?” he demanded again.
Mr. Vardeman took a step back, looking uneasy. “Bill, why don’t we get you down to the nurse’s office? Okay?”
Bill stood there for a few moments more, the wild expression frozen onto his face, then he took off at a full sprint for the woods that lay behind the track field and the school.
Vardeman cursed again. “Bill! Class isn’t over yet!” Then, helplessly, he added, “Bill, get back here!”
Something in Robbie snapped. While Vardeman began berating his remaining students, Robbie took off after Bill. If Vardeman yelled after him, too, he didn’t hear.
It was not hard for Robbie to follow Bill, even though Bill had the head start. He had only to listen for the sound of broken twigs and rustling branches to know in which direction the other boy had gone.
Robbie finally found Bill crouched down under a massive buckeye tree, a carpet of dead, rotting leaves spreading out around him for yards in any direction. Bill’s head was buried between his legs, and his shoulders shook. Robbie got down beside him and, hesitantly, reached out to lay a hand on Bill’s shoulder. Violently, Bill wrenched free, and his shoulders shook all the harder.
“It’s all right,” said Robbie. He did not know what he meant by this. He did not know what, exactly, was all right or even that anything was all right at all. It just seemed like something he should say.
“Okay,” said Bill, his voice hoarse from crying or running or both. “Okay.”
Robbie shifted uncomfortably, trying to find a position where the bark of the buckeye tree wouldn’t scratch him. He looked back toward the school, toward the track and his class and Mr. Vardeman, and he wondered if anyone had followed him. He wondered if anyone was going to. He almost wished someone would.
“I hate them,” said Bill suddenly. “I hate all of them.”
“And I hate my dad.”
Robbie turned to look at Bill. “No, you don’t.”
“Yeah, I do.”
“But he’s your dad.”
“I don’t give a damn. You think I give a damn? Hell, no.” Bill wiped his sleeve across his wet, puffy face. “He never cared about me. Why should I care about him?”
“But … he’s your dad,” Robbie protested, faltering.
Bill hunkered down even further. His face hardened, first the eyes, then the jaw, then the rest. He clenched his fists. “Robbie?” he whispered in a strangely breathless voice.
Robbie didn’t answer this time. Instead, he shifted position again. His legs were starting to ache from all that running, and the ground felt hard and cold and unforgiving.
“Robbie, I’m gonna kill him.”
Robbie drew in a sharp breath but still didn’t speak.
“Someday, I’m gonna be bigger and stronger than he is,” Bill continued, solemn and deathly quiet. “When he hits me, I can hit him back. I’m gonna take Chris’s baseball bat, and I’m gonna hit him in the nuts. Then his stomach. Then his head. And then I’ll kill the son of a bitch. So help me God, I will.”
They sat there under the buckeye tree, silent and still, Robbie’s dark eyes locked staring into Bill’s milky blue ones, for several long moments—Robbie did not know just how long, exactly. Then Bill stood up, brushed off his gym sweats, and offered Robbie a hand up. Together, the boys slowly began tracing their way back through the woods and toward the track field.
“Think Mr. Vardeman will be mad at me?” asked Bill. “For running off and all?”
“I dunno. Maybe not. He was yelling at everybody when I left.”
A squirrel cocked her head at the two boys as they walked past her tree. Other than the squirrel’s inquisitive chattering, and the slight rustling of leaves and twigs, everything stood quiet as the boys passed out of the woods into the open air of the school grounds. The track field, now deserted and empty, crunched under their sneakers as they crossed it.
Bill suddenly turned to Robbie, smiling. “Hey, Robbie? You want to come to my house after school? Maybe we could study or watch a movie or play a game or do something else.”
A slight hesitation. “Sure.”
Robbie looked into Bill’s still-red face, looked into those too-pale eyes, brimming with hope and pain and fear. He forced himself to smile back, and he only felt sick a little.
“Yeah,” he said.