Pin It I thought that the fight would’ve stopped Doug’s bullying and cheating, but it didn’t, he only seemed to get worse. Even if Doug didn’t physically push me around, he still bragged about how much better he was than me at everything and made it a point to make me feel about as low as pond scum when it came to do anything that required size or strength.
I tried my best to avoid him but it never worked—mostly this was for two reasons. First, there are only so many places to go when you’re seven years old and still haven’t learned how to ride a bike, and second, there was basically nothing out here in the country that would keep Doug distracted. He couldn’t watch TV because ours only received three-and-a-half stations (the half station only worked when the sky was overcast). Not that it would’ve helped anyway because the only things on during the daytime were soap operas and I couldn’t imagine Doug ever watching those.
Mom had a pretty nice stereo but this was no help either, we weren’t allowed to mess with it to play any tapes and most of the radio stations were full of static—not that it would have mattered, I don’t think Mom would have let him listen to his stations even if they weren’t. The only thing that seemed to take his mind off of how bored he was and give him any pleasure was to continually torment me.
I made it a point to start taking long hikes up the creek for hours on end and exploring the woods with my dog, Grizzly, a half German Shepard-St. Bernard mix that got his name because he was nearly as large as a bear himself. I recalled the time, when we had lived in Rockford, Washington just a year before when a boy who lived up the street named Robert had been throwing his shoes at Grizzly for fun. Robert would laugh and laugh as he watched my dog move away and find someplace else to lie down.
“Leave him alone,” I warned. “You’re gonna make him mad.”
Robert had laughed and picked up his shoe again. “That old worthless dog wouldn’t do anything!” He threw the shoe that hit my dog on the shoulder.
“Knock it off, Robert.” I said again.
Robert ignored me and took off his shirt next and threw that at Grizzly as well. Grizzly started to walk away, still trying to ignore this annoying kid. Robert seemed to think that the way Grizzly kept moving away from him was the funniest thing he had ever seen and he was practically rolling with laughter. He then started taking off his socks to throw them at my dog as well. I was beginning to wonder if he would be wearing any clothes by the time he was done, at the rate he was taking them off and throwing them at Grizzly I figured he had about another 30 seconds. Grizzly moved away from Robert again, but this time he gave a warning growl which I think was his way of saying, Listen here you stupid kid, if you take off any more of your clothes and throw them at me, I’m gonna have to bite you.
“Robert,” I said. “I’m serious, he’s getting mad.”
Robert stuck his tongue out at me. “Mind your own business!”
I stood and walked to the porch with a shrug. If Robert wanted me to mind my own business, then I would. Robert ignored me and ran over to Grizzly to rub his stinky sock in the dog’s face. I wondered why Robert always liked to torture animals, I figured that maybe it was because he had older brothers who treated him like dirt, but I couldn’t be sure.
Grizzly gave another low growl as Robert approached but Robert didn’t notice it. Maybe he just wasn’t listening, or maybe he was just really stupid…I’ll never know for sure which it was but as Robert tossed his sock in Grizzly’s face, my dog decided that he’d had enough.
Grizzly let go with a bark and jumped up from the ground, whisking out of Robert’s way and then he bit him on the back. It took Robert about two or three seconds to realize just what had happened. Then he began to scream, a high-pitched scream that echoed and reechoed through the neighborhood—it sounded like somebody was torturing a cat. Robert leapt to his feet, still screaming and gripping the part of his back where Grizzly had bitten him. Grizzly hadn’t actually been trying to hurt Robert but was just letting him know that he was tired of the way he was acting and meant business. Robert leapt around the yard, still screaming bloody murder. This in turn got Grizzly excited, thinking that it was now part of a game. My dog leapt around Robert, barking and nipping at him that made Robert scream even more and run around the yard, trying to get away from the dog.
After a few moments, a man burst into our yard. It was Robert’s dad who had been out in his yard planting trees or weeding. “What’s are you doing!” He demanded as he snatched up his son who was shirtless, shoeless and sock less holding the back of his neck where there wasn’t even a mark, but the way Robert was carrying on, you’d have thought my dog had bitten his head clean off.
“I’m just minding my own business.” I said. Which is exactly what his son had told me to do. Robert’s dad seemed plenty mad and stormed out of our yard like the devil himself was on his heels.
I slid off the porch railing and put my arms around Grizzly’s neck. “Good boy.” I said. “You didn’t bite him until you had to.”
As I thought of this memory, I couldn’t help but smile. I wondered, could I sic Grizzly on Doug just once? It seemed like a great idea at first but then I thought better of it, Grizzly only bit Robert because Robert was bothering him…was there a way I could trick Doug into being mean to Grizzly? No, I told myself, I wouldn’t let else be mean to my dog…I would bite Doug myself first.
I did find that best way to avoid Doug was to never be at home but breeze in only long enough to catch a quick sandwich at lunchtime. Good old peanut butter and honey. I’d have preferred just a plain slice of bread with nothing on it, but Mom wouldn’t hear of it.
“You’d eat nothing but bread for breakfast, lunch and dinner if I let you.” Mom had said one day. I couldn’t argue with her either because she was right, to me a slice of plain bread was the best meal any kid could ever ask for.
But as I was saying, I had found a way in which I could avoid Doug for nearly the whole day. Nighttime was something totally different though. Doug had taken over my bed and forced me to sleep on the floor and sometimes wrestled me to the ground, “all for fun.” He would say whenever Mom or Dad had come in to check on us. I loathed going to bed and would always try to stay up as late as I could.
It was late in the afternoon about three or four days later when Doug and I had another serious run in. I had just eaten lunch and was preparing to head out again on another hike when I passed my sister’s bedroom. I noticed that Doug was sitting on Shawna’s bed, looking at the bedspread before him. He was looking at something but I couldn’t tell what because his back shielded it from view. Being somewhat curious, I stole quietly into the room and looked over his shoulder to see what he was looking at. He had my checkerboard sat before him and was staring at the pieces as if engrossed in an important game and was contemplating his next move.
I stood there for a minute before tiptoeing back to the doorway. I bumped something with my foot because it made a sound and Doug turned and saw me.
“What do you want?” he snapped.
I kept walking. “Nothing.”
As I left the room I heard him call out, “Wait just a minute, Jason!”
I paused for a moment then turned back. “What?” I asked cautiously
Doug motioned to the checkerboard. “Wanna play?”
I studied his expression carefully, I’d expected some slanderous remark, after all, Doug hadn’t had one nice thing to say to me since he’d been here and now here he was, acting like we were the best of friends. Why was he suddenly being so nice? The only thing I could figure was that he was bored out here with nobody to play with and this was softening him.
I stepped uncertainly into the room.
“C’mon, it’ll be fun.” He persisted with a friendly smile.
I couldn’t believe that he was smiling. I also couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I was stepping into the lair of a dangerous animal. Still, if he were will willing to offer and play, shouldn’t I? I sat down on the bed across from him, the checkerboard separating the distance between us. “Alright,” I said. “But I’m red.”
I sat down on the edge of the bed and reached out to move one of the red checkers. Doug stopped me, grabbing my hand. Surprised, he let go with another smile that had all the sincerity of a crocodile’s. “What you think about making a little wager before we begin?”
“A wager?” I asked, unfamiliar with the word.
“A bet,” Doug clarified, grinning away like the Cheshire Cat.
“What sort of a bet?” I asked.
Doug pretended to be in deep thought. Finally his face lit up, “Oh, I don’t know, maybe something like, the winner gets the loser’s dessert tonight?”
I smelled deeply and noticed, for the first time, the thick sweet aroma of rhubarb crumble drifting in the air. It smelled wonderful. Yesterday, the girls and I had discovered a patch of wild rhubarb growing on the far side of the creek. Mom had told us that if we picked it, she would make the crumble.
Doug must have noticed Mom making the crumble earlier. I figured that he probably wanted to eat as much as he could because Mom had yet to give us any sweets since Doug and Tracy had come. I imagined that he was suffering from a sugar withdrawal. A bet like this didn’t really bother me; after all, I wasn’t such a bad checker player and was fairly confident that I would win.
Despite my flash of confidence, something inside was warning me no to take the bet. I opened my mouth to tell Doug that I had changed my mind but something stronger in me desperately wanted to show him up. Just the day before, Doug had proved to Dad that he could not only out-run me, but out push-up me as well. The way Dad was beaming over Doug you would have thought that he’d won a gold medal at the Olympics. “Did you see that?” Dad had said. “Why don’t you try to run like that, Jason?”
“Because I’m not an ape.” I whispered under my breath.
All night I was forced to listen to Doug’s bragging about just how amazing he really was. More than anything I really wanted to put him in his place and show him that he wasn’t as good at everything as he thought. Ignoring the nagging I felt pulsing through my body, I said, “Deal.”
Doug and I shook hands to seal the bet.
After we had shaken hands, Doug graciously let me make the first move. I slid my first checker to the left side of the board. Doug mirrored my move on his side. I moved another checker; once-again Doug copied my move exactly. This went on for the first few moves of the game until it became impossible to copy me without losing his own pieces. Several moves later Doug succeeded in making the first jump and winning one of my checkers. He smiled triumphantly, thinking he was really something. His smile faded on my next move when I double-jumped him.
Outside the room I could hear Shawna and Tracy taking about something but I ignored them, all my concentration was centered on the game with Doug. The game wasn’t just over dessert, it was for respect. If I lost, Doug would always know that he had the better of me, whether or not I had won the fight. But if I won, it would show him that I could beat him at something else as well and he wasn’t nearly as amazing as he believed he was. Doug jumped two more of my checkers but I didn’t care, in the process he had moved one of his checkers from the home row, opening it up for me to get a king. Not long after I had first been introduced to checkers I discovered that if I didn’t move any of my checkers from the row closest to me for as long as I could, it kept my opponent from getting crowned and then having to worry about a king who could move in any direction.
I smiled broadly as I was crowned first and then used that king to jump two more of Doug’s pieces.
Doug sat and studied the board as my king moved towards several open checkers of his. The king was out and about to show no mercy on the men before him! It was obvious that Doug was losing, but surprisingly he wasn’t the least bit upset about it. In fact, he was just sitting there with a blank expression. I began to wonder if he was sick. A sinister twinkle appeared in his eyes as I jumped another of his checkers and laid it in the pile I had accumulated.
“It sure is pretty outside today.” Doug said, eyes trailing to the window behind me. I turned and looked through the large picture window overlooking the driveway. The yard was empty except for a few birds sitting on the fence, in the gentle breeze, the tire swing hanging from the weeping willow swayed to and fro. It was a beautiful day outside. As I looked out at the beauty around me, I resolved that after the game I would bury the hatchet with Doug. Maybe I’d even ask if he wanted to build a fort together, after all, if he was going to be this nice maybe I’d like to be around him.
I drew my eyes from the window and back to the game as Doug was making his next move. He slid one of his black checkers into an open spot in my home row. “Crown me,” he said triumphantly.
I blinked. I could’ve sworn I hadn’t moved any checkers from my home row... maybe I’d moved it earlier when I wasn’t paying attention. I brushed it off as I crowned his checker. I reached to move my king and discovered that the square it had previously occupied was now empty.
After a quick scan of the board it was obvious—my king was missing.
“Where’s my king?” I asked.
“I jumped it on my last move.” Doug said offhandedly.
Could he have? No, I’d watched him make his last move and it wasn’t anywhere near my king—in fact, there was no way he could have captured it. It was then that I noticed several more of my pieces had vanished as well. Doug had moved the pieces when I’d looked out the window!
“You nasty little cheat!” I said, “You moved the pieces!”
“I did not,” he said. “You just have a bad memory.”
“You did!” My voice was beginning to reach a shout. “You switched them when my back was turned!”
Doug shrugged. “We didn’t make up any rules saying that you couldn’t switch the checkers.”
“That’s a rule everyone already knows.” I protested.
Doug shook his head. “Not where I’m from.”
I’d like to tell him where he was from! My voice was no longer beginning to reach a shout but was there full throttle and my temper was flaming. Doug had cheated and now had the gall to sit there and say that everything was fine! I’m not sure what I said next but it must have been pretty awful considering the shocked expressions on the faces of Shawna, Tracy, and Dad who had all materialized in the doorway.
“What’s going on here?” Dad demanded, it was evident that he didn’t appreciate the use of language like that in the house, after all, that was his job.
I opened my mouth to explain but Dad came to his own conclusion. Before I could utter a single word, Dad caught me by the arm and practically carried me out of the room. As I was whisked past Shawna and Tracy, Shawna shot me a sympathetic look. I was ushered past them down the hallway to my room where the door was forcibly shut behind us.
I fully expected Dad to come unglued—whenever Shawna or I got into trouble he usually didn’t waste idle time with explanations or listening to pleas of mercy. Dad’s theology with punishment was short and simple, make it hurt and make it quick.
I was pretty scared as we stood together in the room. Dad was towering over me like the giant willow tree outside. He didn’t appear angry though, it was more…tired. We stood there for several silent moments. I stared at the orange carpet on the floor, I wondered just why someone had picked orange…was it because it was on sale because it was so ugly or was it because—Dad’s voice broke into my thoughts.
“Here’s seven dollars,” he said as he reached into his back pocket and took out his wallet. He took out several one-dollar bills and tossed them onto my bed. “Why don’t you run away?”
I was really surprised as my dad said this and I looked from my dad to the money and then back to him again. I couldn’t believe he was saying this. Where would I go? Seven years old and living on the road? What would happen to me? Would I end up like those homeless guys I’d seen on television, scrounging meals from people’s garbage cans? Suddenly, Mom’s split-pea soup and lentils didn’t seem so bad after all.
I wasn’t sure what I could say so we just stood there. The silence as so loud that I could hear the sounds of my own heart beating in my ears. I wondered if Dad could hear it too. Finally I was able to squeak out, “I don’t want to go.” My voice was barely over a whisper.
Dad’s face softened and he suddenly looked tired. “Then why can’t you get along with your cousin?” he asked, stuffing the money back into his wallet.
“Doug started it,” I protested. “He cheated in the game because I was winning.”
For the first time since Doug and Tracy had been here Dad was actually listening to what I was saying. Taking the silence as a cue to go on, I continued. I told him everything Doug had done to me over the past few weeks, from the bragging to pushing me around.
When I finished, Dad stood up. “Well, then Doug needs to learn that I’m serious about punishment and won’t tolerate the way he’s acting.” He took off his belt and held it in one hand. I backed up and cowered against the wall, making sure my bottom was away from him. I couldn’t believe it, after everything I had told him about Doug I was still going to be spanked. Spanked for something that wasn’t my fault. I felt hot tears coming to my eyes, it just wasn’t fair! It should be Doug in here with my dad getting spanked, not me!
Dad stepped towards me, brandishing the belt like a horsewhip. His voice was calm as he spoke to me. “Now, do I really have to hit you, or can you make it sound like I am?”
A ray of hope illuminated that corner of the room where I stood. I swallowed the lump that had formed in my throat; “I can make it sound like you are.” I said quietly.
“Then you had better scream like I’m beating the tar out of you.”
With this, Dad turned towards my bed and swung the belt so savagely it scared me even though I was on the other side of the room. The leather cut through the air with a whooshing noise and cracked as it hit the mattress.
Dad hit the bed another four or five times and with each crack of the belt I would let out another blood-curdling scream, like Dad was beating the living daylights out of me. It was actually pretty fun, with each hit I would try to outdo my previous cry and make it sound like I was literally being tortured.
Dad stopped and began to re-loop his belt around his waist. He moved towards the door and looked at me with a smile hidden away beneath his unkempt beard. “When you come out of this room, you had better look like you sounded.”
With this he left the room. As he passed by my sister’s room, Doug, Tracy and Shawna were all pretending to be playing checkers—but they really weren’t. There was no way they could concentrate on anything after my little performance from the next room. Dad stopped in the doorway and looked at the three of them with silent eyes. His gaze paused when he reached Doug.
“Any more problems and I will take care of it, whoever it is…get it?”
Doug swallowed hard and nodded his head. “Yes, Uncle George.” He said.
Dad waited for another moment, allowing his words to sink in, then returned to reading his newspaper in the living room. While this was happening, I slipped from my bedroom into the bathroom. I crawled up on the sink and looked at my reflection in the mirror. I began to rub my eyes with my fists good and hard to make sure they were red and puffy, and then I dribbled some water from the faucet down my cheeks. I was amazed just how real it looked! If I hadn’t been in the bedroom myself, I would have thought Dad had really whipped the tar out of me. I practiced making my bottom lip quiver slightly and uttered a sob with a bunch of sniffling sounds, like when you’re really trying to hold in a cry. I practiced for nearly a minute before I opened the bathroom door and stepped into the hallway. The house was so quiet I could hear the clock ticking away in the living room.
As I passed my sister’s room, I glanced inside. Shawna winced when she saw me and Tracy was crying herself. Doug’s expression was the most shocking of all. His eyes were as round as fried-eggs and his face had gone completely white. He liked his lips nervously as I let out one of my well-practiced sobs and continued to the living room with a slow measured pace, like walking really hurt. When I reached the living room, Dad looked up from his newspaper long enough to shoot me a quick wink. I smiled and had to cup my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing.
As I went outside I whistled for Grizzly and headed in the direction of the creek. I smelled the fresh air blowing into my face and watched the huge clouds billowing in the blueness above me. I had to smile; after all, I had the greatest Dad in the world.