Author:S. Walden

“How hard is it to make your goddamn bed, Jer?!”


He didn’t wait for a response, an explanation. He never did. He lunged for his son—his tried-and-true modus operandi—tackling him to the floor in a heap of flailing limbs and desperate grunts.


“Get off!” Jeremy yelled, pulling his body into a protective fetal position.


It was instinctual. He went for the position first, even in the last year after he started lifting weights. He knew he was stronger—not that spindly boy from two summers ago—but he still felt weak, and he was too afraid now to test the strength he’d been building. His father was larger, anyway—towering over most people at 6-foot-7. Thick as Paul Bunyan, but an embittered, alcoholic Paul Bunyan. A dangerous Paul Bunyan.


First blow to the gut. Jeremy expected it, but he kept his fists by his face. There was no way he’d expose his face again and give his father the opportunity to inflict more permanent damage. The unsightly scar he sported now resulted in years of teasing and bullying from his classmates.


Second punch to the ribs. He hissed and squirmed, trying to push his father off.


“You wanna live here? Then make your goddamn bed!”


“News flash! I don’t wanna live here!” Jeremy roared, feeling his father’s fingers wrap around his throat.


It was the surge of miraculous adrenaline one experiences when pinned beneath a car. It erupted from the force of determination—I won’t die today!—and exploded through his hands. He thought he lifted his father in the air and threw him clear across the room. In actuality, he punched his face hard enough to invite a few precious seconds for escape—Mr. Stahl rolling off him onto the floor.


“One, two, three, four,” Jeremy whispered. “Five.”


But he didn’t run. He sat up on his knees and glared at his dad.


“Don’t ever touch me again,” he warned.


Mr. Stahl snorted. “Tough guy now, huh?”


“I mean it, Dad.”


There was a long stretch of silence where both men studied their injuries. When Mr. Stahl sat up, Jeremy jumped to his feet, positioning his hands by his face for a fistfight.


“I know you mean it. I’ve been watching you.”


“Watching me?” Jeremy asked.


“Pumping iron. I see you. I figured one day you’d beat me to death.”


He struggled to his feet, clutching the side of his face that showed the first signs of bruising—deep purple flooding the surface of his thin, leathery skin.


“You’d deserve it,” Jeremy spat.


Mr. Stahl winced. The words stung, hurting far worse than the bruise.


“I know, son,” he whispered. He massaged his head, and Jeremy knew the hangover was fast approaching.


Just like that, the fight was over. Typical scenario: Mr. Stahl would fly into a rage, take it out on Jeremy in a matter of seconds, come to, and offer a pathetic apology. Until the next episode. It happened every time he drank.


“I, uh . . .”


Jeremy lowered his fists and pushed past his father.


“I’m sorry, Jer.”


“I know,” Jeremy replied, searching the room for his book bag.


Mr. Stahl cleared his throat. “Lemme take a look at your stomach.”


“No way.” He found the bag, shoved in a few notebooks, and headed for the front door.


“School today?” he heard his father call.




“Oh, I’d forgot,” Mr. Stahl mumbled.


Jeremy rolled his eyes as he made his way out the door. So his father wouldn’t have punched him like a pi?ata had he remembered today was the first day of school? Gee, Dad, you’re so thoughtful.


He hopped on his bike and turned the street corner toward Ridgeview High. It was the only high school in the tiny town of Mountainview, Utah. Nestled at the base of the Wasatch Range, the town boasted a much larger population until T.A.C.—the largest tactical rifle accessories manufacturing company in the state—closed its doors on the heels of a corporate tax hike. Thousands of workers were laid off. Jeremy’s dad would have been among them had he not broken his back on the job a few weeks before. No need to find work. He stayed put. On his couch. Collecting beer bottles and disability checks.


The south side of the school came into view, and Jeremy hit the brakes, his heart twisting in paralyzing confliction. He hated that school and all the people in it. Except for her. He didn’t want to go in, and yet he couldn’t wait. Just to see her. She made it better, though he still felt mildly ashamed to walk the halls.