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Dustin Thurmond knelt to put away the hammer he had been using and, out of the corner of his eye, he could see Lind Irons skulking in the hallway like a wolf waiting for prey to emerge from its shelter. Dustin’s shelter was shop class; while the rest of the students had run out at three o’clock dismissal, eager to begin their three-day weekend, and Dustin’s friends had invited him out, he had stayed behind to help Mr. Edmunds clean up the shop before the weekend set in. Lind was only lingering with the rest of his North Side gang in an attempt to find out whether or not Dustin would fight him, as the rumor going around said he wanted to.
The rumor was a lie. Dustin wasn’t all that interested in fighting Lind again, for what would be the sixth time, but Lind was always interested in fighting Dustin, as if by beating the wealthier, unofficial king of their school in a fistfight he would somehow better his own poorer status in life. Unable to understand the flaws in his own strategy, he could not understand why both teachers and students looked up to Dustin and down on himself, flocking as much to Dustin’s kindness as away from Lind’s jealousy-fueled thuggishness.
Dustin wanted to fight his own friend Sergio more than he did Lind; if Sergio had never started the rumor in the first place, Lind would not be hovering outside the door the way he was or hounding Dustin’s tracks as he had been for the past week, wanting Dustin to answer the challenge he had not made in the first place. Dustin had been avoiding him, not out of fear but aggravation, although part of him was more than ready for another fight, if it would mean Lind would finally leave him alone.
He had to laugh at the thought; was it even possible that Lind would ever leave him alone? Lind had an entire list of perceived slights he felt he needed retribution for, such as the whole Lucy affair; Dustin hadn’t known that Lind was interested in Lucy, and yet Lind had taken Dustin’s asking her out as some sort of mocking act, aimed at Lind personally. It didn’t help, either, that Dustin always intervened when he caught Lind bullying other students and took the blows so nobody else would have to.
Dustin heard a voice, that of Mr. Edmunds, asking if he was all right, and before Dustin could answer, the teacher added, “Sergio was in here this morning, you know, talking about a fight. Another one between you and Lind.”
Dustin laughed easily, straightening up under the glow of the classroom lights and releasing the hammer he was still clutching. “Sergio can’t control his mouth.” That much was true, at least. “Half the time I don’t think he actually knows what he’s saying.”
Mr. Edmunds looked, troubled, at Dustin; like all the teachers in the school, he was appropriately wary of Lind. “Yes, but you two have fought before. What’s to stop you from fighting again?”
Yes, what was there to stop them? But Dustin only laughed again and said he didn’t want to, knowing Mr. Edmunds would take him at his word. Like the other teachers, he trusted Dustin to almost no end, able to feel the goodness around him that Lind just did not have.
Dustin glanced out into the hallway and found that Lind was gone, along with his pack of the few brutish followers he had managed to gather. The part of him that wanted another fight rationalized it with the thought that maybe one more humiliating defeat would be all Lind needed to stop antagonizing him at last. Theirs had always been a bitter rivalry, and if it was going to end, Dustin figured, it might as well culminate now, senior year.
The more he thought about it, the angrier he got; what right did Lind have to hate him for his status, when Dustin had never done anything to either ask for it or lord it over him? Maybe Sergio had been right when he had started the rumor that Dustin wanted to fight Lind again, one more time for old time’s sake. Maybe bringing the relentless Lind down to his knees would finally put him in his place.
Lind was waiting for him when he left the school building, Lind’s giant comrades gone and Dustin just as alone as he was. Lind wore his black leather jacket despite the cold, the dark green snake up the back glowing faintly in the near-dark. His gray eyes reflected the bright blue of Dustin’s, distorting it, and silently asked the question he had been asking aloud all week. Hesitating a moment, Dustin nodded, feeling the almost uncontrollable urge to start the fight right there--no observers, no supporters, just the fighters waging their seemingly eternal war.
He didn’t, though, only watched Lind nod in return and slink away down the shadowy street, keeping his eyes trained on his foe until he vanished completely into the night.
It had snowed for three days straight before the day of the fight, yet the whispered-about event was still important enough that it drew a small crowd around the school parking lot; they were willing to stand ankle-deep in filthy charcoal-colored slush to watch Dustin win again--Dustin, their unofficial champion, the only one among them brave enough to stand up to Lind.
Twilight was gathering as the observers did, the heavy clouds overhead threatening yet more snow; it wasn’t long before the sea of teenagers parted and Dustin strode through their midst, standing in the yellow glow of a streetlight and flanked by Sergio and two of his other friends, all of them smiling despite the bitter cold. The thought of the fight had been hammering away at him for those three days in the back of his head like an extra heartbeat, and his anticipation was now racing through his veins with his blood.
The instant after he stepped out Lind did, and those gathered fell silent, expecting the ease that had come with the first five fights, which had taken place all around town. They were across the street from the school now, penned in on one side by the street and on the other by oak trees, dead now in the winter frost.
Nothing was said; Dustin met Lind’s glittering eyes for a brief moment and then he stepped out from under the streetlight and swung, just as he had swung his hammer in shop class days before.
The fight was brief and brutal, just as all gathered had expected, little more than bare-knuckled punches exchanged as the snow began to fall again, and though the crowd gave the combatants a wide berth it wasn’t needed. The blows were hammered out hard enough that the fight was over in less than three minutes, and the loser was pinned back against one of the trees and then forced down to his knees on the hard, wet ground, oblivious to the hushed-but-growing roar of those who had gathered to watch, unable to hear anything over the relentless pounding in his head and the laughter of the winner’s pack.
Lind looked down at Dustin, framed by falling snowflakes, and it seemed for a moment like he was about to say something, but in the end he moved away without a word, without even laughter, leaving with the others, who were trickling away cloaked in shocked mumbles, not daring to look back at their champion there on the ground.
Dustin reached up with a trembling hand to wipe the blood from his face, the hand that had only three days ago held a hammer so confidently, back when he had thought it all so easy, another win so inevitable. Sergio reached down to try and help him up but he pushed his friend’s hand away, ignoring the crunch of their shoes as they left him there all alone, his body frozen and beaten, the taste of blood in his mouth, sour with the knowledge that it was his own and that he had failed those who had been looking to him for some sort of protection.
He had lost. Maybe it wasn’t so easy after all.