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What Is In A Name And Bloody Knuckles
Phil was exactly the kind of guy you’d imagine when you thought of a thirteen year old kid named Phil. His hair was cropped short, his contacts itched, his skin always seemed just a little too tightly pulled over his cheeks, and his figure was so scrawny you could see the knobs of his knees from a mile away.
It wasn’t that he was a loser, per say, but he was no Romeo among his fellow classmates of Beacon Middle School (not that there were many of those anyway). Beacon was a small town – the kind of town where everyone said “bless your heart” and whispered about your personal life behind your back while they sat in those creepy hair-drying salon chairs that always looked to Phil like something from an alien sci-fi movie. It seemed to Phil that he was the only person in all of Beacon that wasn’t noticed by anyone – even the ladies in the alien invasion chairs – and if he was being honest, he liked it that way.
But of course, even in Beacon, things never really end up the way they were supposed to.
Phil’s street was like a postcard cul-de-sac – Phil once said that you could practically smell the suburbia. All of the houses looked the same and were painted the same “off-white” color that anyone with a brain – or rather, the other kids on a block – would just call “chez de watered down pee”. They didn’t really know what that meant, but French just made it funnier. The neighborhood was home to just about every single kind of person that could come from a place like Beacon. The older kids, one of which was the illustrious and more than a little terrifying Mitch Carley, would ride around on their cheap bikes, tossing cigarette butts into the wind like Phil tossed his candy wrappers and shouting rude words to everyone they passed. There were the stoners, the gothic rebels, the dorks, the nerds, and the preppy kids that played football - who were really the only ones who had any chance of escaping Beacon for college.
And then, thankfully, there were the normal kids – the ones who somehow had managed to turn out reasonably sane living in a place that small filled with people so strange. Phil knew them the most, though they were few, and they talked every once in a while before Phil went back inside and did his homework or fought with his sisters over how long they were allowed to shower in the morning before he was allowed to pee on their beds.
And then there was Gabe.
Gabe was in a category all his own – the complete opposite of Phil. The ladies in their alien headdresses whispered about him coyly over the whir of the machine above their heads and he’d heard Gabe’s name more times from his Grandma’s mouth than he’d heard his own. Worst of all was the nickname. Phil, whenever it had tickled Mitch’s fancy to address him, was generally referred to as “Cheesesteak”. Had something to do with his name sounding like “Philly”. But that was a dumb nickname, and it was pretty obvious that Phil was not a heart attack you could buy for a few bucks at a baseball game, so he didn’t mind. But Gabe’s was something far worse, because it directly called out Beacon’s worst-kept secret:
Gabe the Gay-bie.
It wasn’t like he ever said he was homosexual, and it wasn’t like he was really old enough to act on anything anyway, but he was younger, he was smaller, and that made him easy pickings for the circling hawks that were gossiping old women and the likes of Mitch Carley. Phil never much liked the way Gabe was treated, but he stayed out of it, as he did with all other things, thinking only that you didn’t get left alone in a town like Beacon by making scenes.
That is, until a sobbing Gabe Sunders barreled into him as he was walking down the road.
Gabe suffered from the same extreme scrawniness as Phil did, but his fragility was only enhanced by his small frame – his head barely reached Phil’s shoulder. A head that Phil felt ram into his chest when the smaller boy stumbled into him.
“Gabe?” Phil asked, pulling Gabe away from him and holding the quivering boy by the shoulders. The skin around his eye was red and swollen, already beginning to turn a sickly, purplish-brown. “Are you okay? What happened to your face?”
“Muh-m-muh-Mitch,” Gabe spluttered, salty tears pouring from his eyes and snot trickling from his nose. “He puh-puh-“ he continued before halting, sucking in a loud, rasping breath, “-punched me really hard and-and-and took my bi-bike!”
Phil didn’t know what to do. Dealing with crying people was not in his list of talents. But seeing Gabe there, sniveling and sobbing like a lost child only seemed to spark a kind of anger in Phil he’d only experienced once or twice before – he wanted to hit something. Why did people like Mitch Carley get to run around, hurting people and making life a living hell for everyone else? Why did kids like Gabe and even Phil have to live with their only option in life being “don’t catch anyone’s attention or get hurt”? It just wasn’t fair. Gossiping old ladies were one thing – hitting a poor kid was another.
All these thoughts swirled in Phil’s mind as Gabe clung to him, still sobbing. Phil wasn’t about to lecture the guy about personal space, so he stood, stewing in his anger at Mitch Carley and everyone else like him as Gabe soaked his tee-shirt to the bone with salty tears. Then – the harsh brrrring! of a bicycle’s bell.
“And whaddya know, Gay-bie’s got himself a boyfriend!” Mitch Carley called, approaching the pair on Gabe’s bike, a cigarette hanging lazily between his teeth, “You goin’ crying to your boyfriend, Gay-bie?” Neither Phil nor Gabe responded – the latter seemed to be incapable of speaking; only heaving deep, wet breaths – but Phil did manage a glare as he detangled himself from Gabe’s grip and ran out into the road – directly in front of the incoming bike.
Mitch slammed backwards on the bike pedals, stopping just short of where Phil was waiting.
“What the hell, kid? Do you want me to whoop your ass too or wh– “ Mitch began, but his words were cut short when Phil’s fist swung directly into his stomach. The larger boy coughed, falling backwards onto the pavement as the bike clattered to the ground, resting his hand over the space where Phil had hit him. In all the time it took for him to recover, Phil saw and took the opportunity to hit him again – this time directly in the face.
Some of the other older guys from the surrounding houses wandered over to see the commotion, and Phil was scared for a split second before he realized that they didn’t seem to care much about Mitch or his face. They simply stopped a few yards away and simply watched the show, taking long, leisurely pulls on their cigarettes. And so Phil continued to punch and kick, feeling the skin on his knuckles splitting from the force of his blows. He expected Mitch to fight back more than he did, but Mitch barely got a punch in. Phil just kept hitting him, fearing the larger boy’s wrath should he leave any time between blows for Mitch to retaliate.
He only stopped when Mitch’s eyes rolled back into his head and his body, limp, slumped back onto the pavement – unconscious.
The older boys around Phil looked on with something like appreciation, making comments about the scene in front of them as if talking about the weather, like “I always knew that Cheesesteak kid would snap one day” and “Who knew the twig had such a good right-hook?” It wasn’t until the demanding sound of a police siren filled the air that the older boys scattered. Gabe was staring at Phil, shell-shocked, and Phil was staring at his knuckles, which were cut and so covered in blood that he couldn’t tell if it was Mitch’s or his own.
“The hell is going on here?” the police officer demanded, pulling Phil off Mitch so fast he almost felt his arm pop out of its socket. Mitch was starting to wake up.
“I beat up Mitch Carley,” Phil admitted, tasting the words on his tongue as if trying to prove them to himself. He had beaten up Mitch Carley. The police officer gave him a harsh look and focused his attention to the groaning boy still lying on the pavement.
“Come on, son, let’s get you home.”
“Can’t…I don’t’ wanna…not like this…Dad’ll give me the belt, he sees,” Mitch replied, his voice raspy, and suddenly beating up Mitch Carley didn’t seem like a good thing at all. Intense guilt flooded over Phil, ripping him away from his adrenalin-induced high.
“I…I’m sorry,” Phil said, a sigh in his voice as he rubbed his hair back, hissing when the contact stung the cuts on his hands.
The police officer told the straggling viewers to scram, and the Gabe, who still stood in the middle of the street, sucked in a few more sniffles before sending Phil a look of gratitude and running toward his house at the other end of the cul-de-sac. The officer took Phil next, dragging him home by the arm while Mitch waited in the police cruiser, cleaning himself up. He only let Phil go once his dad had heard every ounce of the story uninterrupted, finishing with a deep glare at Phil as he said, “This ever happens again, boy, and there’s gonna be hell to pay.”
“Boy, you better be drunk, else I’d call you insane,” Phil’s father demanded once the officer had gone.
“I’m sorry, sir, I – he hurt my friend. Decked him in the face. I just thought I’d return the favor.”
“Don’t you get smart now, you hear me? You’re gonna go to school tomorrow and you’re gonna apologize to that little brat, you hear?”
“Good. Now get your ass up to bed – I need a beer.”
As Phil lay in bed, trying to find sleep, he thought about Mitch Carley. He’d have hell to pay, all right – there was no way he was getting off easy for this one. In a day or two, he’d have it much worse than Gabe. But if Phil was being honest, he was kind of okay with that.
So much for not being noticed, he thought to himself, a small smile creeping onto his face. This’d be one for the Beacon history books: “Scrawny Kid Beats Up Mitch Carley and Lives to See Another Day!”
But he couldn’t help but think that Mitch’s dad wasn’t going to let his son off so easily as Phil’s father had him. When he got to school tomorrow, he’d be covered in bruises Phil wouldn’t remember giving him, but neither of them would ever say anything about it. Phil could only hope that even though people would keep teasing Gabe for who he was, maybe Gabe wouldn’t mind it quite so much as he used to.
And Phil would never be just Phil anymore. The old ladies would click their teeth at him as he passed and the older guys would give him looks when he ran home. From tomorrow on, Phil would be noticed, because he was the kid that beat up Mitch Carley.
But try as he might, Phil wouldn’t know until tomorrow exactly what that really meant.