Micah tugged the strap closed on his backpack. Everything he needed was stowed there, all the survival gear his dad had taught him to carry. A flashlight, matches, a fire-starter cube, a small tarp, water, a compass, paracord, and some granola bars with a small jar of peanut butter. He unzipped the side pouch and checked again for the coils of camo-printed paracord. If he could only get the chance to use it, then maybe he could fix his life.
A great horned owl hooted nearby, and Micah smiled as the night breeze ruffled his brown hair. His dad had taught him to recognize their who-whoo call during a camping trip, and ever since, he’d always liked owls. Perhaps it would bring him luck.
He strode softly across the patio and down their cement driveway. Earlier that night, Mom had fried them quesadillas and slathered them with guacamole. They’d talked about their day and watched a couple of episodes of an old TV western she liked, which had been fun, even when she made him fold laundry with her. But she tired out early during the week, and she’d already curled up in bed with a book. By nine she’d be asleep, with their faithful German shepherd Nora snoring on the rug beside her.
He hoped what he was doing didn’t make him a bad son, especially now that he was down to only one parent. But he needed to figure out a way to change his life. Ninth grade had become a living hell.
Slapping a label on it—bullying—didn’t begin to cover it. The snide catcalls, the constant insults over his many freckles, people who always looked away as if being tormented were something they might catch—not to mention the frequent texts telling him he should do the world a favor and kill himself.
He’d tried going out for wrestling in the hopes that he’d learn to be less of a target, but some of the worst kids wrestled for the team, so that didn’t last.
Then he’d asked for a punching bag, and he and his mom had hung it from a big beam off their back patio. He’d been practicing with it every day like clockwork for over a month, and it was paying off. He could hit a lot harder than he used to.
All he had to do was catch the ringleader and tie him up. With his reputation for drinking and smoking pot, Jordan was almost guaranteed to let his guard down eventually. His was the loudest mouth, the quickest insult, the sly punch when Micah’s back was turned.
Micah didn’t know what he’d do once he’d settled with Jordan. He was planning on pounding the older boy until he promised to leave Micah be. So far, that had been an unattainable goal. But if he could get even one guy to leave him alone, he’d have done something. Besides just sitting there and taking whatever misery they felt like dishing out to him.
So far, eight nights of watching Jordan’s house had netted Micah nothing but missed sleep. His feet steered him there on autopilot by now, although he still struggled with his thoughts. His mom would want to know what was going on at school, and she’d be hurt that he hadn’t told her already. But it hadn’t happened all at once—it had crept up on him. For a while he’d even hoped ignoring it might make them grow bored with him, but not a chance. Silence was just less painful. They hit more when Micah answered back.
But his mom barely seemed to be coping right now. Even the way she walked had become fragile compared to eight months ago, before the spin-out that ended his dad’s life. He wasn’t sure how much more she could take.
And if tonight went as planned, he wouldn’t have to find out.
Jordan’s neighbor across the street had a weak porch light and a large rhododendron. Micah slipped his folded tarp out of the backpack and sat beneath the sprawling bush, moving one branch back to screen him from casual view. Jordan’s window faced the street, and a light shone through the blinds. He was probably home.
Micah never knew what to do with himself while he waited like this. It was too dark to read, and he didn’t feel like he had any right to pray. The most he could manage was “Please don’t let me screw up too much.” But he had to do something, anything, to change his life. He couldn’t stand it anymore.
He opened a granola bar and dipped it in peanut butter. The salty-sweet crunch promised comfort but bestowed only a passing gleam. He hummed a few songs as he waited and was considering calling it a night when he spotted Jordan’s friend, Alan, walking up to the front door.
After a few minutes spent talking on the front porch, Jordan threw on a hoodie and emerged, leading the way down the street while Alan chattered. Micah took his time following them. They were likely going to the building site a couple of streets down where someone was putting in a short block of new apartment complexes. Guys sometimes went there to drink and do whatever else it was they did between throwing beer bottles down to shatter on the concrete foundations.
A partial skeleton of a building loomed up ahead of him, dimly lit by a few streetlights that cast as much shadow as illumination. Jordan and Alan were already climbing the surrounding chain link fence, and a few minutes later, Micah followed. It was easy to find them again—they weren’t trying to be quiet.
“So, did I tell you about that date I had with Emma?” Alan asked Jordan. Micah positioned himself in the shadow of their second-story perch. Their legs dangled from the doorway above. As they traded random insults along with bragging about the girls they’d slept with, Micah wanted to leave just to stop listening to them. There had to be another way to do this.
But then Alan got to his feet. “Hey, can you do this?” he asked. He walked along a connecting wood beam, only one floor up, but he could still break an arm if he fell wrong. He made it to the other side okay, though, and started balancing along another beam, this one at ground level.
Great. If they both started wandering around, he’d better leave. He might have trouble keeping track of two in the dark. And he didn’t stand a chance if they found him out, and he had to face them both.
A loud crash of breaking wood came from Alan’s direction, followed by a short yelp and then a scream. “O my God, Jordan, you’ve got to help me,” Alan called through tears. “I fell into some kind of hole. A piece of rebar’s stuck into my leg.”
Jordan swore and started to climb down. And just when he reached the bottom, Micah pounced.
He slammed Jordan’s head into a two-by-four and punched him in the gut before he recovered. Micah got in another five punches—each one a glorious blow—before Jordan connected with his ribs, and Micah reeled back.
That had really hurt. He wanted to wade back in, and he tried, but his body was still in shock from the blow. He caught his breath and ducked under a second punch. He came up and buried one fist after the other in Jordan’s gut. Then he kicked Jordan in the hip while he was still wobbling, and Jordan went down on the fist-sized rocks that made up the construction road.
All this time, Alan had been screaming. Jordan looked up at Micah and said, “Please. Call for help, or let me do it. What if he bleeds to death?”
“This, from the guy who tells me to kill myself at least once a week? Excuse me if I don’t pity poor Alan.”
“Look, you proved your point,” Jordan said. “Help me with Alan, and we’ll both leave you alone.”
“Yeah, like that’s going to happen.” Micah took a step forward, and a huge owl appeared overhead, gliding straight for him. Micah ducked as the bird whooshed by–right where his head had been. By the time he stood up, Jordan was trying to get to his feet, and Alan’s screams had changed to thin sobs.
God, how he wanted to hurt them. He wanted them to suffer until they begged for mercy. They should be screaming in pain until they were afraid to do this to anyone else, not just because of him, but for all the other kids they’d tormented. They definitely had it coming.
Alan’s cries changed, softer but somehow scarier, too. Micah stepped forward again, but then stopped. It might be the perfect opportunity to get even, but it would cross a line, and he’d already crossed enough of those. He wouldn’t be trying to get them to leave him alone anymore. He’d be inflicting pain because he could.
Just like they’d done to him.
He looked down at Jordan and held out his hand. When Jordan grabbed it, Micah pulled him to his feet. “Let’s go help Alan,” he said.
The rope might come in useful after all. And he had a bandanna tucked away that Alan could use as a pressure bandage until the ambulance arrived.
Six months later
Micah grabbed a soda from the ice chest and turned around to enjoy the view. Liz had thrown an end-of-school-year pool party at her house, and the dozen kids that made up their informal home-schooling circle were all dressed in swimsuits, including the incredible Stephanie, who sported a navy one-piece that showed off every curve.
He’d been able to walk away from school instead of running away, but even running would’ve been better than staying. Jordan had kept his word, and the pressure had eased up, but school had still been like a prison. Micah was always alone, always trying to find ways to hide that he had no friends, even though it couldn’t be hidden. He’d finally broken down and told his mom.
They’d enrolled him in homeschooling just after Christmas, and at first it had seemed to work out—he did his lessons on his own, and his mom checked his progress in the evenings. But after a month of seeing no one but her, their house had started to feel like a prison, too, with him in solitary confinement. One night he’d started yelling at his mom over nothing at all, just drying the dishes. Then he’d had to tell her again that he was having trouble, only this time he’d had no idea what to do about it.
But his mom had been adamant that there was no reason he couldn’t make friends somewhere else, and they’d gone online together and found a group of other homeschooled kids and parents in their area. He now had friends he could study and hang out with, and the only texts he’d gotten lately were for the next time they’d meet up.
Maybe over the summer they could all find a dance class, and he’d finally figure out a way to sweep Stephanie off her feet.
Why not? Everything else had changed. Anything seemed possible.