Baxter Knowles was back.
How this had come about, Morgan didn’t know. Why it had happened, he could not explain. Heaven’s reasons for permitting such a disaster to occur lay beyond the scope of his limited understanding. There was nothing he could do about it. He could only hope that the tyrant’s return from exile, like Napoleon’s, would be short-lived.
Meanwhile, the facts had to be faced. He had seen Baxter on the schoolyard. He had heard his voice echoing through the halls like the voice of a young Mussolini or Pol Pot. He had even witnessed his election as captain of one of the football squads in Physical Education. Vehemently as his mind recoiled from believing any of this, he couldn’t deny it. In his imagination he pictured the citizens of Needles proclaiming a Jubilee.
One bright spot mitigated the bleakness of the situation. Because there were an odd number of boys in gym class, and because Baxter had drawn the short straw when it came to choosing up teams, Morgan, who was always last to be drafted, had escaped falling under the dominion of his nemesis. And since his team had thirteen members and his captain couldn’t put everyone on the field at the same time, he had been granted a blessed reprieve: he’d been sitting on the bench for the past three days.
He was sitting there now in the bright September sun with a book in his lap—The Life and Times of Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, Also Known As Paracelsus—when a commotion on the playing field forced him to look up from the page. He noted that the rest of his team was shouting frantically. Even his bench-mate was on his feet and yelling at the top of his lungs. Casting his eyes around, he saw the other team’s quarterback doing a wild “victory dance” in the end-zone. But it was neither this, that, nor the other that had roused him to attention.
What had stung him like a pin-prick in the backside was the unmistakable sound of Baxter Knowles’s voice. He could hear it distinctly, raised above the tumult on the field like the whirr of a buzz-saw. The mere tone and timbre of that voice set his pulse to racing. It made his intestinal tract begin to churn. He got up and moved a little closer to find out what was going on.
What he saw made the sweat break out on his forehead. It was a scene all too familiar to him from his own miserable past. On the ground sat a boy he recognized as new to the school—a small, dark boy with delicate long-fingered hands, a thin, sensitive face, and black hair and eyes. Baxter, who was surrounded by his usual gang of cronies, was berating the boy in words that poured over Morgan like a storm of hail mingled with blood and fire.
“What’s the matter with you?” shouted Baxter. “You let them tear a hole in our line! I told you to block, dork! Didn’t they teach you how to block in Madagascar? I oughta—”
All at once, and without warning, the voice fell silent. In the same instant Morgan became aware that Baxter’s eye had fallen upon him. The ranting bully had ceased his raving and was staring at him over the heads of the other boys in the crowd.
Morgan froze. His pulse pounded in his ears. A bead of sweat dripped down his nose. Now I’m going to catch it, he thought. He winced. He braced himself for the expected verbal assault.
But it never came. Instead, Baxter’s face went red to the roots of his strawberry blond hair. His handsome gray eyes clouded over. An embarrassed grin brought out the dimples in his fleshy cheeks. Without a word, he dropped his gaze, turned around, and walked away. Then the bell rang and the rest of his gang scattered.
Tentatively, Morgan edged his way over to the dark-eyed boy and offered him a hand. “My name’s Morgan,” he stammered. “And believe me, I know what it’s like.”
Ten minutes later, when everyone else had gone, he was still standing at the edge of the field, staring out into the street through the chain-link fence. Never in his life had he seen Baxter Knowles behave like that. His brain hurt just trying to make sense of it. However he stacked it, it didn’t make sense. So deep was his reverie that he would have missed his next class had it not been for the sound of a blaring horn. Stirring himself, he looked up to see George Ariello driving by in his old rattle-trap of a truck.
“Hey!” called George, grinning broadly and waving from the cab. “How’s the fishing?”
* * * * * *
(To be continued …)