I reached for the glass of water on my nightstand with a slightly trembling hand. The nightmare had paid me another visit. And it was always the same. Sometimes I woke up before the worst part, most of the time I didn’t. I would usually sit up in my bed, drenched in sweat, hearing myself yell. And right as I woke up, I felt I knew the meaning of the nightmare. But then it disappeared.
Just like that day at school, the nightmare mimicked the real-life incident. It always started with me having to go to my locker to get my lunch. My day had been thrown off because I had an early morning appointment with Dr. Evans. He had a conference and was leaving town so we couldn’t meet during our usual time after school. I couldn’t drop my lunch in Mr. Chipchaw’s classroom because when I arrived at school, it was during his free period, so the art room door was locked. I was forced to put my lunch inside my locker – something I tried very hard to avoid.
At lunch time, I approached my locker to get my lunch and I knew something was wrong. My locker door was flung open and my things were thrown all over the floor. A few of my belongings were hanging out the door; a jacket, some extra gym clothes, school supplies, and a couple of notebooks. As I got closer, I could see my lunch pack had been ripped open and my lunch was gone. I cleaned up the mess, fished through my pockets and found I had enough money to buy something in the cafeteria. I had no choice but to buy food and then go to Mr. Chipchaw’s room for the lunch period, hopefully avoiding the bullies in the lunchroom. I first headed to the bathroom by the cafeteria. Although it was not one of the “safe” bathrooms I had mapped out, I needed to go and since lunch had already started, I figured the bullies were probably already in the cafeteria.
I walked into the bathroom and over to the urinals. But a second later Brian Pullman and his friends burst through the door. Brian was the ring leader of the gang and the biggest of the boys. Tall and muscled, he was a good athlete but the rumor around school was that he had to repeat ninth grade for failing too many classes. The next biggest kid was Patrick Reilly. He was almost as tall as Brian but skinny. He had a reputation for starting fights and mouthing off to teachers. The Manning twins were not terribly intimidating, just pudgy and pimply faced. Neither twin seemed to have a lot of gray matter between their ears, they mostly laughed at every stupid comment made by Brian and Patrick, and did whatever the bigger bullies told them to do. The last of the flunkies was Harry Jamison. Kind of a pretty boy who was popular with all the girls. He seemed to have the most sense of the gang. There were also some ninth-grade bullies who sometimes joined forces with the tenth-grade delinquents, but they weren’t around this time.
I tried to quickly remember some of the strategies that Dr. Evans had told me to use if I came face to face with the bullies. And I had been practicing some self-defense with my dad. Acting as casually as I could, I unzipped my fly to take a leak. And I nervously greeted the boys.
“What’s up guys.” I said, acting cool.
Brian walked over to me. “Shut up, Runt.”
Harry Jamison came around to the other side of me. He was holding my sandwich. He took two big bites and then threw it in the urinal next to me. Then he began to piss on the rest of my sandwich. The other three boys all stood behind me and laughed.
Brian came a little closer, he was eating something too. “Good oatmeal cookies, Runt. Did your mommy make them for you?” He laughed.
I gulped, exhaled, and then tried to be brave. “Glad you’re enjoying them Bri, I told my mommy to add extra raisins, just for you.” I could hear the other boys chuckling at my remark.
“I said shut up, Runt, or I’ll shut your mouth for you.” Brian hissed.
Patrick Reilly then reached into my back pocket and grabbed my cell phone. I quickly finished peeing, zipped up my fly and spun around. “Hey! Come on, give me my phone back!”
Patrick Reilly towered over me. He taunted me, holding the phone up high out of reach. “Jump for it, Runt! Come on! Jump for it!”
I did try to jump and reach for it, several times, but Patrick Reilly was an impressive six feet tall at age fifteen. I must have looked like a miniature dog jumping for a treat. The boys were all laughing. One of the Manning twins took out his own cell phone and started to record me. This terrified me as I knew the video would just end up on social media and prolong my humiliation by exposing the incident to the whole school.
Brian stepped in at this point. “Lemme see the runt’s phone.” Patrick handed it over to him and the Manning twin temporarily stopped recording.
“The latest iPhone. Sweet. You know, Runt, I wouldn’t have to torture you like this if you didn’t rat on me.”
One of the Manning twins interrupted. “Wait, he ratted on you?”
“He told the principal that I pulled his pants down and that Pat took a video of his pecker and posted it. You were there dumbass!” As Brian said this, he gave Eddy Manning a shove to the shoulder.
“Ow! Okay. I couldn’t remember which time you meant.” Eddy said, taking a step back from Brian.
Brian bent over and got in my face. “Thanks to you, now I’m getting out-of-school suspension and a two-game suspension. This is payback. You brought this on yourself.”
Doing my best not to cower, I tried again to stand up for myself. There was definitely something about being angry that felt better than being scared. I could tell the bullies were somewhat surprised, but so far it didn’t seem to deter them.
I looked Brian directly in the eyes and said with confidence, “No Brian, you have no one to blame but yourself. If you had just left me alone in the locker room, then I wouldn’t have to report anything and you would be playing your games. I realize this cause and effect concept might be a lot for your tiny brain to absorb, but I can’t state it any simpler than this. You’re just going to have to try to keep up.”
The other bullies looked at each other, their eyes bulging. They started to whisper to each other.
“Shut the hell up, Runt!” Brian shouted. He knew I was making a fool of him. Then he glanced around at the other boys and his eyes settled on the twins.
“And you two… you shut up too! Whose side are you on?” He turned back to me and leaned in closer to my face. “It’s payback time, Runt. So here’s the deal, either your phone goes in the toilet or your head goes in the toilet. You choose.”
“Want me to record this Brian?” asked the other Manning twin, Todd.
“No Todd, what are you an idiot?” Brian said, clearly agitated that he didn’t have the same control over the situation that he had enjoyed in the past.
“Go ahead Todd, record it and blast it out on Snapchat and Instagram…I bet you get a lot of likes.” I chimed in, almost smiling.
“Stop being so smug, Runt. And don’t do it Todd, he wants you to, so he has proof. You think you can get me kicked off the team for good, huh Runt? Sorry, we’re one step ahead of you.” And as Brian spoke, he grabbed me by the shoulders and spun me around, so I was facing the closest bathroom stall.
Harry Jamison piped up. “Hey Bri, one of us should probably stand outside the bathroom and keep watch. We don’t need any witnesses.”
“Okay. You go then.”
“Why me? I want to watch.” Harry protested.
“Alright, then one of the ugly twins can be the look out. Just someone get the hell out there!”
And then I offered, “Why don’t I be the look out and then you can dunk the ugly twins in the toilet? I mean you always dunk me, it’s getting pretty tired.”
Harry and Patrick burst out laughing at this remark.
“Nice try, Runt. You’re a real comedian. Todd, get outside now!”
As Todd walked out of the bathroom, Patrick kicked open the bathroom stall door with his foot. The boys crammed themselves in as close as they could to the toilet. Brian took one hand and placed it on the back of my neck. With his other hand, he held my hands behind my back. Patrick Reilly stood by the toilet with my phone. Brian leaned into my ear and almost whispered, “What’s it going to be, Runt, your phone or your face? One of them is going in. Your choice.”
My heart pounded and my face felt like it was on fire. The humiliation over my predicament was as bad as the locker room incident. The iPhone had been a very expensive Christmas gift from my parents. I tried to think quickly. I could always say I dropped my phone in the toilet accidentally. Then I contemplated for a second the idea of my head in the toilet water. They had tried this before, but I always caved to their demands or started to cry and beg. I figured they all expected me to be a wimp and let my phone get tossed in the toilet this time. I quickly made my decision to get my head dunked in the toilet. Besides, none of these kids had any idea how long I could hold my breath, thanks to all the freediving and surfing I did with my dad. And they were clueless that I had been learning how to defend myself.
Brian shook me by my neck, “We haven’t got all day, Runt, what’s it gonna be?”
“Face.” I said, teeth clenched.
“What?” Brian said in disbelief.
“You heard me, face!” I snapped.
Patrick laughed, “Whoa…alright, let’s do this. Come on, Brian.”
“Okay,” Brian said, still surprised.
“Give me my phone back first.” I added.
“Shut up, Runt.” Brian replied. “Pat, put his phone back.”
Patrick shrugged and then slipped my iPhone back inside my pant’s pocket.
Brian’s hand tightened around my neck as he pushed my face toward the toilet bowl. I took a big breath and closed my eyes as my face then most of my head was submerged in the water. I could hear the muffled laughs around me and although I didn’t resist the pressure on my neck, I tried wriggling my hands but this only made Brian’s grip around my wrists tighten. I could tell that Brian didn’t really have a good grasp of my hands, but up until now, I went along with it because I knew I was out numbered.
I calmed myself as I held my breath under the water and then slowly and carefully slid my feet together so there was almost no space between them. This gave me more stability as I prepared to lift my right leg and balance on my left. I knew Brian was straddling me and that he was much bigger, so if I tried to kick him in the balls, there was too much distance to have an impact. Brian’s knee was closer. And my dad taught me that the knee is an ideal self-defense target, vulnerable from every angle and easily out of reach from my foot being grabbed. Plus, Brian’s hands were busy on my neck and around my wrists.
I counted to fifteen seconds and then I quickly lifted my right leg and forced my right foot backwards and slightly to the right, striking Brian hard and close to the knee. I heard a muffled but loud “Ow!” and then Brian released my wrists and neck. I got my head out of the toilet and then landed a hard elbow to Brian’s groin. Brian yelled and stepped back. I scrambled up on top of the toilet and then scaled the bathroom stall wall. I jumped down into the next stall, but the boys pushed open the door to the next stall. So I jumped up on that toilet and scaled the next stall wall.
Harry tried to burst into the third stall but I quickly locked the stall door and as the boys banged on it and tried to bust it open, I hit the floor and crawled out of the stall and leapt toward the bathroom door. One of the boys grabbed my shirt and I felt someone grab my leg but I had already partially opened the bathroom door. I was small enough to squeeze through the narrow opening, quickly turned, pulled hard on the door knob and shut the bathroom door, keeping the rest of the boys inside the bathroom.
I held on for dear life as the bullies inside tried opening the bathroom door. The door banged open and shut and I knew I would lose this fight. I looked over at Todd who stood next to me, his arms crossed over his flabby chest and belly.
“A little help, Todd?”
Todd laughed and shook his head no.
I pretended to see someone past Todd and said, “Oh no, here comes Mr. Slater!”
And as I said this, Todd spun around and I let go of the door and took off down the hallway like a rocket. I sprinted down the corridor and headed toward the art room. I could hear the boys behind me. Being small, I easily dodged in between other students while the bullies crashed into everyone. And then as I started to turn a corner, I was tripped and fell flat on my face. The long and lanky arm of Patrick Reilly had grabbed my foot and taken me down. I whacked my face hard and when I looked up, I saw my own blood on the floor, dripping from my nose and top lip. I got to my knees but then felt the hand of Patrick Reilly begin to pull me up by my underwear.
The wedgie became more painful as Patrick lifted me off the ground and the rest of the bullies caught up and surrounded us. They erupted into uncontrollable laughter at the sight of me about a foot off the ground, dangling by my underwear. I didn’t fight, it was too painful, so I just hung there. Suspended and defeated.
That day at school, Patrick dropped me and pushed me down hard to the floor. Then the bullies all walked away laughing. But my nightmare takes a different direction. In the nightmare, I'm still suspended in the wedgie, but I begin to feel very light headed and I hear a loud thumping. My lungs are suddenly on fire and my whole body feels as if I’m being crushed. Over the bullies and the other students laughing, I can hear my own heart pounding loudly in my ears. It races against a slower and mysterious thumping. And then there’s another sound, like a soulful call. It’s oddly familiar, almost soothing, but I can’t quite identify it. And then for a moment, I am in another place. Almost floating. I think I hear a girl’s voice and she’s singing, but I can’t place the song. This is when I usually wake up.
Once again, I’m sitting up in my bed, shaking. I touch my nose to see if it’s bleeding, like that day at school, but it’s not. I know I’m reliving that terrible day again in my dream, but it’s always so real and I want to cry. So I just sit on the edge of my bed for another minute as the remaining fog from my nightmare evaporates, leaving me scared and wondering what it all means.
Then I reach over, turn off my alarm and grab a tissue. It was set to go off in ten minutes. Most mornings I had been getting up at 6:30 to work out. Today I started a little earlier. I took off my pajamas and changed into work-out clothes, grabbed my sneakers and made my way to the kitchen. I nibbled on a few blueberries and then took a swig of orange juice directly from the container while I scrolled through some play lists. Once my music was set, I shoved a handful of Granola into my mouth, put on my sneakers and stepped through the sliding doors and out onto our backyard deck. I quickly moved a small pile of fitness equipment from the shed and plopped myself down on a yoga mat and started to stretch, earbuds in and Matisyahu playing.
As the sky brightened, my father stepped onto the deck. He stretched and yawned. We had put together a pretty serious work out routine for weekday mornings, transforming the backyard into an outdoor gym. My mom thought we were insane but she was outnumbered. Two pairs of TRX suspension bands hung from a tree and scattered about the lawn were balance boards, medicine balls, kettle bells, a plyometric box, a Bosu ball, and power fitness ropes. But by far, our coolest contraption was the hanging surfboard.
My dad and I had taken an old long board and drilled holes into each end. We threaded the bands through the holes and then fastened the ends around two trees. The board was suspended like a tight rope. We’d gotten the idea from the American Olympic skier, Lindsey Vonn, the best female skier in the world and a woman so strong, she races on men’s skis. But it was her unbelievable training regimen that gave us the idea for the hanging surfboard. Vonn had actually kept this part of her work-out a secret from her competitors and trained in hidden facilities. Her coaches had attached two tight ropes or slack lines to opposite walls. Vonn would balance one foot on each line, squat, and then while keeping her balance she would throw a stability ball against a wall. What a beast.
When we finished, my dad and I did a cool down and he brought up plans for the weekend. “Listen bud, I know you were hoping to head out to San Miguel Island this weekend, but it’s going to be too foggy and rough in the channel. All of the outfitters have cancelled.”
I whined. “Come on. Really? That stinks. But I guess a good storm means big waves. Can we surf this weekend?”
“Possibly, we’ll keep an eye on the wind. The break might be too big for us by the Point, but I’m sure we can find something smaller to ride. Hey, jump on the surfboard for a few minutes.”
I followed my dad over to the hanging surfboard. My mom stepped out onto the deck and sat down to watch us as she drank her coffee. I saw them smile at each other. I quickly scaled the large shade tree and confidently stepped onto the surfboard. The board didn’t wobble as I stood in the middle and started to do some squats. Surfing requires its own special kind of strength, power, and stability.
Dad and I spent a lot of time working on my arms and shoulders for the paddling, and core strength and balance for the riding. Mom, the yoga instructor, helped me take all of this to the next level. She had started bringing me to her stand-up paddle board yoga classes in the harbor. It’s a popular form of exercise where students practice yoga postures while floating on stand-up paddle boards.
The hanging surfboard in our yard mimicked this. My parents watched as I worked my way through some poses. I liked this strange board practice more than I wanted to admit. It made me feel strong and in control. Everything else in my life was so unpredictable and left me feeling small and weak.
While I showered, Dad made oatmeal and protein shakes and Mom made my lunch. After breakfast, I grabbed my backpack, my skateboard helmet, my skateboard – a new cool longboard that Dad gave me from his surf shop, and I headed off for school. Mom hugged me like I was leaving for a week. I knew she was still stressed about me going to school alone. Since the bullying had been revealed, there have been too many torturous dinner discussions about how I was going to get to and from school. Because we lived under a mile from the high school, I didn’t qualify to ride the school bus, so I was a walker.
My parents repeatedly offered to drive me both ways, but I flat out refused. And it wasn't because they thought it was too far, they worried about the other walkers bullying me. A couple of the walkers belonged to the tribe of bullies at school. But with the backing of Dr. Evans, I was able to refuse the rides. My dad came around quicker than my mom, but eventually they both understood that the sight of me being dropped off and picked up at school each day, when we lived so close, was a sign of weakness. I didn’t want anyone to think my parents were babying me. I couldn’t give the bullies any ammunition. I needed to show strength, not fear.