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Walking along the cracked sidewalk with little weeds popping up through the splits, Tommy played catch with himself. The torn baseball would fly up and block the sun for a few moments from the boy’s eyes, then fall back into his tiny hands. The dirty backpack, which weighed more than Tommy’s small body was jerked back. The little boy fell back hard on the concrete with his baseball rolling into the yard next to him. Lying on his back, Tommy was finally able to focus again when the wind came back. A freckled faced strawberry blonde boy three years older than Tommy spit a disgusting clump of flam, saliva, and his lunch into Tommy’s right cheek. Tommy wiped the pile off then tried to get up. The older boy, Richard, yelled to grab the ball. Tommy couldn’t see, but knew it was Richards little helper, Billy. Even though Tommy was only in 3rd grade, he had seen the damage those two could do to elementary kids.
“Nice baseball Tommy-Boy, let's play catch.”
The sting of the baseball smashing dead-on onto Tommy’s left eye caused him to tear up immediately.
“Aww, Tommy-Boy is crying Richard! Maybe we should carry his backpack home for him.”
“What a great idea, Billy!”
Richard unzipped the backpack then dumped all of the cursive practice papers and chewed #2 pencils onto the yard, which had been recently watered.
The three boys turned around to find Sally-Anne, a freshman who had also been a babysitter for Tommy a few times.
“We were, uh, just helping him with..uh.”
“That’s what I thought, now give him his baseball back and go home.”
The ball rolled to Tommy’s feet as he stood. The two boys turned and shoved each other as they crossed the street.
“My mom is going to be mad at me for getting my homework wet.” He bent down to pick up the smeared penmanship.
“I think she will be more nervous about your eye. I’ll walk you home and tell her what happened if you’d like?”
Tommy was still trying to reflect on everything that had just occurred. His mind raced and thought of what was going to happen tomorrow, because he had been saved by a girl. Tommy didn’t want anymore trouble from Richard and Billy.
“No thanks, I can make it.”
“You sure?” She handed him the backpack full of wet papers.
By the time Tommy got home, his mom was already calling around to see if anyone knew where he was. The look on her face was pure fright when he walked in. The nurse set in when Tommy ran to her arms weeping.
“What on earth happened Tommy?”
“It was an accident.”
“Don’t give me that mister. Tell me.” She dabbed a wet washcloth onto the darkening knot.
“It was some older kids, but please don’t tell Principle Thomas, I don’t want to get them in trouble.” Tommy cried harder then. “But they tried to take my baseball.” Tommy’s mother knew how much the baseball meant to him. She held the shaking boy against her apron and cried with him for a few minutes until Tommy pulled away.
“Well if you think you can handle it I won't call. But if it happens again I will go in.”
The two ate in silence that night. Neither felt like talking. The baseball sat in the chair between them as always. When they finished, Tommy usually took his baseball to his room and played army men, but tonight he just felt like thinking. He laid on his bed with the baseball overlooking him on his dresser. When it was time to go to bed his mom came in and gave him a kiss on each cheek. One from her and the other his dad. She turned the light off on the way out and Tommy waited for tomorrow.
On the way to school, Tommy kept his baseball tucked into a secret compartment just in case Richard and Billy would try to find it, only he knew which tab to pull to get it out. He made it until lunch, when he needed to use the bathroom. He put his baseball inside his superman lunchbox and walked to the bathroom. Walking back to the stalls he saw the door swing open in the mirror. Tommy grabbed his lunchbox close before Richard punched hard into the little boy’s stomach. Billy laughed as he fell to the ground.
“Thought you would be safe behind your little baby-sitter did ya? Well where is she now?” Richard sneered as he kicked Tommy’s back so hard the lunch box fell out of his little fingers and smashed into the wall where the baseball rolled out.
“Well, well…you and your stupid baseball Tommy-boy. It's looking a little dirty! I’m going to give it a wash.” Billy picked up the baseball and started walking to a stall.
“Its not stupid.” Tommy squeaked through his ragged breaths.
“Shut up!” Richard yelled, then kicked Tommy’s hip. The little boy yelped. The toilet flushed and Tommy began to cry. As Billy was walking out of the stall, the door opened and a boy one year older then Sally-Anne walked in.
“Hey, what's going on fellas? A little fight...two against one I see. Would you like to fight someone your own size?"
"Leave us alone Bud, were busy." Richard turned back and pulled his fist back for another blow. Before Richard could release, the older boy caught the fist.
"Its Ben not Bud...Bud." Ben twisted the fist behind Richard’s back almost to his hip. Richard yelled to let go, but Ben pulled harder. "Doesn't feel to good does it?" By this time Billy was sneaking to the door, but Ben caught him in a headlock.
"Stop it please!" Tommy cried through his short breaths. The sight of everything was too much and the little boy was in too much pain he didn't care if his enemies got revenge right now.
All three boys turned to Tommy still lying on the floor. Ben dropped Richard and Billy who fell to the ground then scooted out the door, Billy accidently tripping Richard in the hallway.
"You ok kid?"
"I don't think so..." Tommy started crying but every heave sent a throb from his side throughout his entire body.
"What hurts?" Ben sat down next to Tommy and put his arm under between the tiny shoulder blades. Tommy felt safe with the boy's arm giving him support.
"My side..." Tommy put his hand on the throbbing spot. Ben placed three strong fingers over the rib and could feel the bump.
"Ok kid, it looks like you're going to have to go the nurse and maybe a doctor. Are you ready?" Tommy nodded and Ben slid his other arm under the boy’s knees. Tommy yelled when Ben lifted him up. They took a second to breathe and Ben started to the door.
"Wait! My baseball is in the toilet." Ben didn't give the statement a second thought and turned to the stall Tommy pointed to. While still keeping Tommy upright Ben managed to grab the soaking baseball and dry it on his shirt. Tommy held tight to the ball and gripped it with every step and every throb.
After a phone call to his mother, the nurse came to the bed Tommy was laying on. Ben had gone back to class, but not before telling Tommy he was really glad he had met him, even though it was a bad deal.
"I'm really glad you were there too. Thanks Ben."
"No problem little man. How about after you get feeling better we play catch?" Tommy knew he meant with his baseball. No one had touched the baseball, except for himself and Billy. Then he remembered how Ben grabbed the ball out of the toilet and felt it would be ok.
"Thanks." Ben gave Tommy a scratch on the head then left the office. He didn't go back to class however.
Principle Thomas was reading paperwork when Ben stormed in. Principle Thomas was so startled by the outburst he knocked his coffee over the desk.
"Ben what's the matter? Those were important papers!" Principle Thomas was frantically picking up the soaking papers.
"Do you know Tommy Maxon?"
"Oh yes the boy whose father died."
"No the little 3rd grader."
"Yes, I know him. His father died of cancer last year. It was quite the deal. The boy moved here last year, because his mother thought something fresh would be helpful for the boy. Why are you asking?" By now, Principle Thomas had given up on the papers and had gotten up to refill his coffee. "Why are you asking Ben? Is the boy doing ok?"
"No sir, I found him in the-"
"How the hell does this happen?" Tommy's mother burst into the room crying. "This is one of the safest schools in the state. Did you know the same two boys beat Tommy up last night when he was walking home? Did you?"
"I'm sorry Ms. Maxon but I don't know what has happened to Tommy, would you please explain?" Principle Thomas took another sip of coffee.
"Explain! My baby has a broken rib and more bruises then most people have their entire life! How could you just now be finding out about this?"
"I'm sorry Ms. Maxon, but Ben just came in to tell me." Ben stood up to shake the trembling woman's hand.
"Hello Ms. I walked in on the fight. How is Tommy doing?"
"Thank you Ben, the nurse is calling the doctor. You look familiar..."
"Yeah I'm dating Sally-Anne and have picked her up from your house a few times." Tommy's mom smiled. "What a nice girl. Tommy told me you pulled his baseball out of the toilet and stopped the boys?"
"Yeah he really likes that ball. We're going to play catch once he's feeling better, if that's ok with you?"
"He would really like that...it was the last thing his dad gave him before he passed away so he keeps it close all the time...to remember I guess." Principle Thomas had gone back to his papers.
"Do you even care? My son was beat up by two of your students! Are you going to do anything?"
"Oh, uh, well if you give me the names I'll talk to them."
"I don't know their names! And talk? They should be suspended!"
"Its Richard and Billy sir."
"Oh well they are regulars, so it will be nothing new Ms. Maxon."
"Actually Principle Thomas it is, my son won't be coming to school for a few weeks and I don't expect them to be here when we come back. They are a danger to everyone." Ben was standing next to Tommy's mom not sure if he should stay or go. He began walking out, but Ms. Maxon stopped his arm. So he stayed.
"Oh please don't go that far."
"Mr. Thomas Sir, a little boy has a broken rib." Principle Thomas looked at Ben.
"Why are you even still here son, go back to class." Ben turned.
"No, he can stay. He is part of this and I already trust him more then I trust you."
"Well if that's how you feel then maybe you should just handle this with him." The old man sat back down and sipped his coffee, which was now cold.
"Thank you for your time." Ms. Maxon walked out calmly and Ben followed.
Outside the nurses office Ben said goodbye.
"If you need anything Sally-Anne has my number. And tell Tommy I can't wait to play catch."
"Thanks Ben." She gave him a hug and a smile. Ben turned and walked down the hall to his last class of the day. Sally-Anne was in it with him and he told her the story.
Late that night after Tommy got home from the doctors, with a broken rib and fractured hip, a knock at the door caused Ms. Maxon to leave his bedside and answer it. She screamed and tried to stomp out the flame on the welcome mat. Her slipper stuck to the bag and the flame reached up her leg. She was screaming as she ran to the hose and sprayed the fire out. Her slipper was covered in dog poop and her leg was red and black. She looked around to see two boys on their backs across the street rolling around.
"What's wrong mom?"
"Oh nothing I'll be right in." She glared at the monsters, then went to her room to changed her clothes to pants and put a layer of Aloe Vera cream on the burn. That night Tommy couldn't sleep so she stayed up and read to him. When she was in the middle of The Rabbit and The Hare, Tommy stopped her.
"I wish dad was here." Tommy's mom laid the book down and put her arm under Tommy's head. Tommy remembered the feeling he had when Ben did the same and wished for a strong arm to rest his head on. Tommy pulled the baseball out from under the covers which had never left his side even during the x-ray at the doctors. He held it up to his mother and she accepted it. It was the first time Tommy had offered it to anyone.
"I don't think Dad wants me to carry it with me everywhere anymore."
"Why do you say that?" She felt the leather and ran her fingers over the red lace.
"Because when I carry it I get hurt."
"You know, just because you can't feel the baseball doesn't mean that Dad isn't here. He's always inside you." She patted his chest.
"Yeah I know...you can keep reading." Tommy fell asleep a few pages later.
The next few weeks were hard, but at the end of the second week, Tommy went back to school. Nothing had happened to Richard or Billy except for a stern talk by Ben. He made sure that Tommy Sally-Anne and himself would be looking out for him. Tommy made it until the weekend with only glares from Richard and Billy. His mom had been picking him up and dropping him off every day. After a few more weeks. Tommy said he could walk by himself. Ms. Maxon agreed only when Ben said he would walk with him the first few days just to make sure he wouldn't get too tired.
It was a Tuesday and Tommy hadn't seen Richard or Billy for a week. Ben was still walking with him, not because of the stamina issue but because both loved the company. Tommy had begun to believe that it was over and began making new friends. It was lunch again and Tommy needed to go to the bathroom. He asked one of his new friends Robby to go with him.
They were laughing about a joke they had seen when they walked into the bathroom. Standing next to the sink was Richard. Both boys tried to turn and run but Billy was standing by the door and pulled them in, then slammed the door.
"Look whose feeling better! We are so happy for you! And you made a friend...how cute." Richard lifted up his lunch box and set it on the sink's rim. "So how have you been Tommy-Boy? You and Bud seem to be getting along nicely...but he's not here now is he?"
"I don't like this Tommy." Robby started to cry and Richard motioned to Billy. The door unlocked and Billy let the kid go with a shove. Tommy was praying that Robby wouldand run tell Ben not, Principle Thomas.
"Please let me go, I never did any-"
"Shut up! Yes you did. You were born and that was enough. Where's your little ball? Or do you have a new toy?"
"It's not a toy."
"I said shut up!" Richard reached into the lunchbox and pulled out a pistol. Tommy backed up to the stalls and tried to get in, but they must have locked them from the inside.
"Hey Richard, what are you doing with that? Don't do it!" Billy must not have heard the entire plan, because he looked just as startled.
"This kid thinks he can just get away with things and hide behind his mommy. Well not anymore he can't. Just you watch." Richard aimed the gun at Tommy's feet then moved it slowly up his legs to his stomach, heart, mouth, then forehead.
"Hey what's going on in there?" It was Principle Thomas. Tommy's prayers were not working.
"Please! I won't say anything. Just please don't!" Tommy whispered through his wet face.
"Yeah this is a little too much Richard."
Richard was smiling as he pulled the trigger.
Sometimes bad things happen. Most of the time it's good. But when there's more bad than good it's hard to be happy.
*3 days later Richard and Billy entered the doors of the harshest juvenile detention
center in the country.
*3 weeks after her son’s murder, Ms. Maxon decided to be with her husband and baby.
*3 years later Ben and Sally-Anne had a boy, named Tommy.