The Hero

The last thing I want to do is fight Carlos Kemp. But after he challenged me in the cafeteria, right in front of Lisa Crosby and everyone else in school, what choice did I have? Now, if I don’t show my face at the roller rink, everyone will think I’m a coward.

It’s a death march, showing up. But I might as well get it over with. Carlos will have his way with me, eventually, no matter what I do. At least I can go out heroically.

But now, lacing up my Chuck’s as my best friend Paul shadow boxes in the living room, I’m not feeling so much like a hero.

Mom’s ceramic angles clink together from all Paul’s hopping around. “My brother says kick him between the legs. Strike first and strike fast.”

When it comes to fighting, Paul has about as much experience as I do. Zilch. I shake my head. “That’s dirty. I don’t want to win dirty.”

He stops hopping, his arms at his sides. “No offense, but it’s your only chance. Have you seen that dude’s arms?”

With my shoes tied, I check my watch. Ten minutes until I’m pummeled into oblivion. Paul plops down beside me, huffing and puffing. “Well, lover boy, I guess we better get down there.”

We hop on our bikes. Inside the house the phone rings and I rush in and grab it, hoping for a reprieve from the governor. Or maybe it’s Lisa calling to wish me luck. Instead it’s Mom. She reminds me there’s a TV dinner in the freezer.

Out of the house, we hit the bike trail that slides behind the school and comes out at the Dairy Queen. Seeing all the cars, the seniors hanging out, grabbing a bite without a care in the world, it only makes me feel that much worst about what’s coming. Next year, I tell myself. I’ll be a junior. I’ll have Mom’s car and I’ll get a job at the Fast Foto booth making nearly three bucks an hour.

But first I need to survive.

Paul tells me to hurry up, as though he can’t wait to see me get my face punched in. For the first time I give his strike-first, strike-fast strategy some thought. But it’s no use. I know I’ll fold as soon as I see Carlos.

This is all Lisa’s fault. Everyone warned me she was no good. With her Farah Facet hair, that smile like a harpoon, it was easy to forget she had a boyfriend named Carlos with huge arms and a skull tattoo on his left bicep.

My chest tightens as we coast into the parking lot. Our tires bite for traction in a chalky cloud of dust as we skid to a stop. My heart hurls itself into my throat seeing Carlos leaning against his primer gray Camaro. His buddies are there, Lisa too, all their roller skates on the hood, as though they have big plans to skate after finishing me off.

Carlos rolls his neck when he sees me. Paul lingers back and I take my time locking our bikes. Music pulses from inside the rink, laughter, dings and pings of pinball, the dee-jay calls for free skate. I force myself not to look at Lisa, to think about her telling me I’m cute right before she kissed me during couples skate.

But she’s the whole reason I’m in this jam. Why I take a deep breath and force myself to march to my death.

Foreigners’ “Hot Blooded” leaks from the roller rink. Lisa turns and that harpoon hits me between the eyes. But it’s what I need. Suddenly, I can do this. One look at her and I’m glad I’m here.

Strike first and strike fast.

There’s no pleasantries. No opening bell. Carlos sneers at me as the crowd follows and soon we’re surrounded. But I’m ready. One look at Lisa and I’m ready for anything.

I put up my hands. Carlos comes in and I swing for the stars. He catches my punch, spins me around punches me twice in the eye.
Fireworks explode. I drop like dirty clothes. A quick kick to my ribs finishes the job and the next thing I know I’m writhing around, gravel clinging to my cheek, my head in a loop.

Blinking to life, Paul kneels at my side. I manage to lift my head as Carlos, all high fives and laughter, grabs his roller skates. He sets his arm around Lisa, who steals a wink and blows me a kiss in passing. I think I have gravel in my ear.

Paul helps me to my feet. “You didn’t strike hard or fast.”

“Yeah,” I say, spitting out gravel dust. I wipe my face. My eye is already swelling and it hurts when I smile. “But I didn’t strike out, either.”

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