Jessie drove him to school on Monday, although by then he was seeing just fine out of his still-purplish but far less swollen left eye. The cut on his nose no longer oozed anything. His mouth no longer ached. Things were correcting and realigning.
“Great to see you doing better, Duncan,” said Carly. She smiled.
Duncan noticed the array of TARTS buttons on the long strap of her purse. Nice that she remembers my name, he thought. Incredibly bad that she noticed improvement.
“Oh, things still hurt. A lot.” He grimaced in fake-pain as he swung his backpack off his shoulder. “Ohwwoo,” he added for emphasis. “I'm still a little freaked about getting jumped by thaâ”
“See ya, Duncan,” she said, slamming shut her locker. “I've got a meeting. Big TARTS rally. Busy, busy. Sooo exciting!” She raced off.
Duncan watched her float down the hall.
And so it ends, he thought. No walking me to class today. No sympathy caressing. No invitation to lunch. No attention, period. He sighed. Soon it'll be “Dalton” again. And then I'm back to repelling her. And then . . . poof. Nothing. Nada. The empty set.
He opened his locker and fussed with its contents absentmindedly. Minutes before first period, Stew and Jessie ambled by.
“Where's your girl?” Stew asked.
“She's busy being not anywhere near me,” Duncan answered.
“Have you seen her yet?” asked Jessie.
“There were pleasantries. Incredibly brief. Like you'd exchange with a clerk at Kwik Mart. Nothing of substance. It's over.”
“No offense, dude, but âover' implies that it started, which it didn't. You can't act like you broke up.”
“Exactly,” said Jessie. “Stew is the voice of reason. You can't be down, Duncan. You've made major tactical inroads with Carly.”
“She knows your name,” said Stew.
“She engages you in Kwik Mart-style pleasantries,” added Jess.
“She knows you're a kind of a gump who can be easily pushed around,” said Stew.
“That's huge, Duncan,” said Jess. “
She's not just going to forget you're a weenie.”
“Thanks for the encouragement,” Duncan said. He shut his locker and shook his head.
“Don't be so gloomy,” urged Jess. “I can guarantee that no girlânot even beaver-loving activist Carly Garfieldâlikes her men chronically gloomy.”
“I dunno,” said Duncan. “I'm a wreck. Maybe I need to take antidepressants. My mom says they're just a crutch. What I really need is to find a friggin' bully.”
“Can we back up just a sec?” said Stew. “Did I miss some crucial information about Carly and beavers?”
“They're rodents,” said Jess. “Beavers. Just big rodents.”
“Oh, I thought they were mammals,” said Stew.
mammals, dumbass,” she said, swatting him. “It's like that kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, da-da, da-da, da-dum stuff.”
“I thought it was kingdom, class, phylum, famâ”
“No, asshat, it's kingâ”
“Okay, enough!” said Duncan. “The ACTs are in the past. And apparently Stew struggled with the science. But whatever. Let it go. We were talking about me and Carly.”
“We do that a lot,” snapped Stew.
First bell rang. Without another word passing between them, they shuffled off to different classrooms. Duncan kept his head down during Psychology class, making minimal eye contact with his teacher. He did attempt eye contact with Carly, but without success. She answered questions perkily, her attention focused either on taking notes or on Mr. Arnold's lecture. After class, she hurried away. Duncan tucked his books under his arm and walked lifelessly to the boys' lockers for gym.
Physical Education had definitely grown more tedious and humiliating over the years, he thought. To his eyes, Duncan appeared just as pasty and unmuscled as he'd been in fourth grade. All that had really changed about him was his height, and that had changed only marginally. He pulled the ill-smelling Owls T-shirt over his head, then changed into knee-length shorts. He was jostled slightly in the cramped locker room by Kurt Himes, a terminally suburban wannabe rapper removing necklaces and earrings.
“Hustle up, men!” barked Coach Chambliss, their gray-haired gym instructor. He insisted on being called “Coach” despite not coaching anything.
“That dude is old school,” said Kurt under his breath.
“Coach is so old school, he poops eight-tracks,” said Duncan.
Kurt laughed a snorty laugh.
“Tha's cold, bro.”
Duncan walked out of the dank locker room and into the daylight, his head down, hair falling across his face. He and Kurt were among the last students to finish dressing. They crossed the running track and walked onto the practice field, where students had already arranged orange pylons into neat rows. Jessie was dragging a giant mesh bag of soccer balls.
“Hustle up, Mr. Boone!” shouted Coach Chambliss. “Hustle up, Himes! Double time, men!”
They broke into a light jog. Duncan caught up to Jessie and helped her lug the soccer balls to their rightful place in the center of the field.
“Thanks, Mr. Boone,” she said.
“Just doing my part to make sure we all learn the fundamentals of soccer.”
Coach Chambliss blew his whistle.
“Line it up!” he yelled. He spoke with the hyperalert cadence of a drill sergeant. Coach watched as his students formed two lines behind the pylons. “We have a new student joining us today, people, and I'd like to introduce him to everyâ”
He stopped midword and eyed Kurt.
As Kurt often did, and never with positive results, he held his hand over his crotch in a pseudo rapper pose.
“Is your penis bothering you, Mr. Himes?” asked Coach Chambliss.
Students giggled. Kurt quickly dropped his hands to his sides.
“N-nah, Coach,” he stammered. “It's all good.”
“Then do not touch it during class, Mr. Himes.” Coach Chambliss glared at Kurt for several uneasy seconds, then blew his whistle again to silence the gigglers. “As I was saying before Mr. Himes touched himself, we are joined today by a new student. He's recently moved to Elm Forest from Bemidji, Minnesota. Excellent fishing in BemidjiâI myself have visited many times.” Coach cleared his throat and looked for a new face in the group. “Wambaugh, Frederick!” he called. “Is there a Frederick Wambaugh here?”
A hand went up in the back row of students, no more than fifteen feet from Duncan and Jessie.
“Here,” called a deep voice. “You can just call me Freddie.”
“You are âMr. Wambaugh' in this class, Frederick,” said Coach.
-baugh,” said Freddie. “Not W
More uneasy seconds followed.
-baugh, are you proficient at soccer?” asked Coach Chambliss.
“Nope,” said Freddie, smirking.
“Well, you're here to learn. Please come up with Mr. Himes and demonstrate our first drill for your classmates, if you'd be so kind.”
Freddie paused for a moment before lurching forward. He bumped unapologetically into a pair of students as he moved toward Coach. Jess elbowed Duncan and whispered, “Dude, the new kid is built like a
“He's at least a house,” whispered Duncan. “Or a barn. Or a government building.”
Freddie was massive. Maybe six foot five, Duncan reckoned, and two and a half spins on a scale. Freddie's giant feet were like frying pans, and his short black hair barbed like a cactus.
“Himes!” yelled the coach.
Kurt jerked forward and stood near Freddie, who absolutely dwarfed him. It reminded Duncan of a hippo and a small bird.
“This warm-up drill is so incredibly simple that even Mr. Himes and Mr. Wambaughâa new student who has just confessed that he is
proficient at soccerâwill be able to execute it flawlessly.”
Coach walked briskly over to the mesh bag, withdrew a ball with his foot, and popped it into the air, catching it against his chest.
“You will find a partner, stand ten yards apart, and kick the ball back and forth crisply. I expect to see clean trapping and striking.” He rolled the ball to Freddie. “Mr. Wambaugh will now propel the ball toward Mr. Himes, who will trap it withâ”
Freddieâin a surprisingly quick and efficient motionâstepped forward, swung his right leg hard, and scorched the ball toward Kurt, hitting him in the groin. Every boy in class cringed and emitted an “ohwwow” sort of noise. The ball bounded away as Kurt crumpled.
“Mr. Wambaugh!” yelled Coach.
Freddie was bent over cackling.
“Mr. Wambaugh, I do not consider it amusing when students disregard safety in my class!” He pointed at Freddie as he walked over to Kurt. “Incidentally, I hope all of you noticed how Mr. Wambaugh's support foot was planted behind the ball on that kick. Thus, the ball was elevated and Mr. Himes couldn't . . .” He paused, watching Kurt whimper and roll on the ground. “Well, there wasn't much he could do.”
Coach knelt down to speak softly to Kurt.
“Mr. Himes,” he said, “at this time it
acceptable for you to place your hands over your crotch. But this is not a privilege I extend under normal circumstances. Do you understand?”
“Gughit,” said Kurt quietly. He continued to squirm in the grass, moaning in pain.
Coach looked angrily at Freddie. “Mr. Wambaugh, please return to the locker room and await further instructions. I do not appreciate the attitude I've seen from you so far.”
“Okeydokey, Coach Ch
-bliss,” said Freddie.
He continued chuckling as he walked lazily through the lines of students. On his way, he slugged Donovan Kelso in the armâapparently for laughing too muchâand subtly delivered a crippling wedgie to Tim Matsuzaka.
“Hustle, Mr. Wambaugh!” called Coach. “I expect you to jog!”
“Oh. My. God,” whispered Jessie.
“He's perfect,” Duncan said.
She nodded. “He's beautiful.”
“He has the gift.”
“The best I've ever seen.”
“The best,” he agreed.
is your bully.”
“That's the god of bullies.”
“The golden god.”
Duncan plopped down next to Stew at their usual lunch table.
“You're not dining with Friends of the Beaver today?”
“They're called TARTS,” said Duncan. “And no, I am not. No direct invitation was extended. But Carly is still being cool.”
Jessie slammed her fry-filled cafeteria tray down on the table directly across from Duncan. “Well, did you tell Stew all about him?” she asked, clearly thrilled. She dipped several fries into a pool of ketchup then stuffed them into her mouth.
“No, I haven't yet,” Duncan said. “Stew was making beaver cracks again.”
“Did you tell me about who?” he asked.
“Abugh da poofeh buwwy!” said Jess, chewing, fry bits falling out of her mouth.
“Um, one more time, please,” said Stew.
Jess swallowed, then cleared her throat. “About the perfect bully,” she said. “What are you, deaf ?”
“He really was perfect,” added Duncan. “In every possible way. Girth. Temper. Evident schadenfreude.”
“He's German?” asked Stew.
“No, dumbass,” said Jess. “Schadenfreude: to derive satisfaction from the misfortunes of others. That's our boy all right. So schadenfreudish. You should've seen this guy in gym, man. He'd only been playing soccer for
three friggin' minutes
before Chambliss kicked him off the field. But he left a trail of misery in his wake, and he walked away
. It was awesome.” She crammed more fries into her mouth. “He hid Kurb righ innanads wif a baw!”
“Jess, stop talking with your mouth full,” said an irritated Stew. “It's gross, and you make no sense.”
She gulped down the fries, guzzled chocolate milk, and licked ketchup from her chin. The she belched.
“Gross,” said Stew. “Pink-haired heifer.”
Jessie snickered. “I
he hit Kurt right in the 'nads with a ball!” she repeated. “A total laser that put old Himes down for the rest of class.”
“It was a solid kick,” said Duncan, nodding.
“No way that dude will be able to reproduce,” said Jess.
“Which is for the best,” said Duncan.
“So what's this thug's name?” Stew asked. “And why have we never heard of him?”
“Freddie,” said Jess. “Freddie Wambaugh. He's new to Elm Forest. But he is most definitely
new to bullying. This kid's had practice. Did we mention he's the size of a house?”
“It's true,” said Duncan.
“You'll have to get the straight dope on Freddie from your mom,” Jess said.
“Right,” responded Duncan. “She has
so I assume Freddie is one of her students.”
“Stew,” said Jess, “this guy really was magical. The perfect thug for Duncan's purposes. He's more physically intimidating than ten Perry Hurleys.”
“How's he compare to that Sloth dude?”
“Are you kidding me? Freddie eats a crunchy bowl of Sloths for breakfast every morning.” She leaned across the table to emphasize her point. “There is absolutely no comparison. Freddie is the best there's ever been.”