The Wrong Side of the River
Do you bite your thumb at us sir?

I’d never been in a real fight, unless you counted the time when Ben and I were playing in the sandbox when we were four and I accidentally threw sand in his eyes and he accidentally bit me. I’d been a pretty good kid since then and I didn’t really want to change that.
Plus, Parry had at least six inches and thirty pounds on me and I wasn’t nearly as confident in my Jackie Chan jump kick skills or Marshall’s jujitsu as I’d led Mom to believe.
The hallway was crowded, but there was no sign of Ben or Marshall anywhere.
“Look, I didn’t tell my dad you’d beat me up,” I began. “He asked who’d done this to me and I told him you did, because, well, you did.”
Parry stepped closer. “I opened the freaking door. It’s not my fault you were standing there like an idiot.”
“I know. I know,” I said. “And I told him that, that it was an accident, but he didn’t want to hear it. The park thing has him on edge.”
“Yeah,” Parry said, pounding the locker next to mine with his fist and not even flinching. “It has me on edge too. And you know what else has me on edge?”
I looked back at him, not sure whether he expected me to ask “what” or not. And before I could figure it out, Marshall showed up.
He scowled at Parry and Parry scowled back.
“Hey, Marshall,” I said, trying to cut the tension. “Solo learned to do a double back flip this weekend. Wanna come see?”
He stared at Parry, like he hadn’t even heard me. “Are you messing with my friend?”
“What if I was?” Parry said, stepping closer.
“I just earned my yellow belt in jujitsu,” he said unzipping his backpack and pulling out a bright yellow nylon belt, which didn’t look all that threatening.
Parry laughed and rolled his eyes.
“Are you laughing because you’re scared?”
Parry grinned and pushed Marshall in the shoulder, making him take a step back. “Not even a little.”
Two friends came up behind him. One, I recognized from the door-in-the- face episode. I was pretty sure his name was Tim. The other was a ninth grader who was probably taller than my dad.
Ben waved and started toward us, but must have thought better of it when he saw Parry’s gang because instead of joining the group he ducked into the bathroom.
Marshall didn’t seem to notice. “We could take you,” he said, lifting his chin in what I’m sure he thought was a threatening way.
“Okay, dweeb.” Parry’s smile widened. “Meet us at the park build site in a half hour and we’ll settle this.”
“Uh, I don’t think…” I started.
“Fine,” Marshall said.
I tried to talk him out of it. Ben did too, once he came out of hiding.
Unfortunately we were unsuccessful. The only real option was to go with him to the park so at least he didn’t have to get pulverized alone.
The park site was surrounded with caution tape. Giant diggers sat in the center of the space, unmoving.
“I’m just saying this isn’t the sort of thing we should be fighting about. It’s our parents’ fight. Let them work it out. Do we really need to get beat up by the basketball team to make ourselves feel better?” I asked.
Marshall popped his knuckles. “You’re not going to get beat up, Julian. I know jujitsu, remember?”
Ben nodded, seeming a little more convinced than I felt.
We looked around the site, which was oddly quiet. Where were the workers? Hadn’t Dad said they were going to start digging the fish pond today?
“Hey girls!” someone shouted. “Didn’t think you’d show up.”
Marshall turned on his heel. “We didn’t think you’d show up.” He looked down at his watch. “You’re like, three minutes late.”
“You’re like three minutes late,” Tim said in a sing-song-y voice.
I tried to look as big as possible, stepping wide and putting my arms out, because I’d once seen an animal show that said gorillas try to look as big as possible to scare off their enemies. I was pretty sure it didn’t work on humans, but it was worth a shot.
Meanwhile, Marshall started doing some sort of dance, raising his arms up in front of him and then kicking his leg and spinning. My heart sank. I had expected jujitsu to look a little more threatening.
Parry laughed. Tim rolled his eyes. The ninth grader growled and punched his meaty hand with his other meaty hand.
All three were more menacing than Marshall’s jujitsu dance, and Ben, realizing we didn’t have a chance, squealed and took off running through the caution tape and down toward the diggers.
Tim stepped forward.
I couldn’t leave Marshall here alone. I planted my feet and prepared to get clobbered.
“ realize,” Marshall stuttered, “Jujitsu can be lethal.”
The ninth grader rolled his head from one side to another, popping his massive neck. “So can my fists.”
That must have been all the convincing Marshall needed because he took off after Ben, leaving me standing opposite all three Northside boys.
I wanted to say something brave. I wanted to be the hero. But I also wanted to live until tomorrow, so I spun on my toe and took off after Marshall.
“Get ‘em!”
Ben sprinted past the diggers. Marshall tromped about fifty feet behind him, looking over his shoulder every few seconds. I focused every muscle in my whole body on getting me from where I was to where they were. I wasn’t usually a fast runner, but my will to live must have pushed me to be fast enough to stay ahead of Parry and his gang.
I didn’t look back and had no idea where they were, but I could tell by Marshall’s expression every time he looked over his shoulder that they were still chasing us.
Ben had passed the diggers now and was headed straight out of the park. Marshall and I were nearly even and just about to the diggers when his foot caught something and he toppled head over heels onto the dirt, howling in pain.
I stopped running and went back to him, only then noticing Parry and the others were a few feet away. I knelt down by Marshall.
Big, fat tears rolled down Marshall’s cheeks. “It doesn’t feel right. I think I broke it,” he sobbed.
Parry and the big guy slowed and looked less menacing and more concerned. Tim laughed. “Idiot.”
I rolled up Marshall’s pant leg to reveal a swollen ankle.
“We don’t even have to fight you. You’ll beat yourselves up,” Tim laughed.
“Oh yeah,” Marshall said, through his tears. “When my dad hears about this he’ll make sure you get it.” Marshall’s dad was the sheriff, so the threat didn’t feel totally empty.
Parry and Tim smirked, but the big guy looked worried.
“He’ll make sure you’re sorry.”
“What’s he gonna do to us? Take our park away? Oh wait, Julian’s dad already did that.” Tim taunted.
“He didn’t take away anyone’s park,” I whispered.
“No,” said Parry, stepping closer. “He just made it be built in the ghetto where no one will be able to use it but Southside pansies like you.”
I shut my eyes, suddenly feeling exhausted by this whole thing.
“He’s got a cell for kids who do stuff like this,” Marshall continued through his tears. “He’ll lock you up until your parents come to get you. I’ve seen him do it before.” He reached in his pocket and pulled out a cell phone, waving it like a sword.
The big guy looked genuinely terrified at that and took off running back toward the caution tape.
Parry’s expression changed too, but he stood his ground.
Tim shrugged. “Call your daddy. Tell him his son is a crybaby who can’t take care of himself.” Then he climbed into one of the diggers, hung out the opening and shouted, “We are the winners of the world! We own this park!”
“You hooligans!” A voice shouted.
I scanned the perimeter of the park until my eyes fell on a woman in a maroon bathrobe covered in giant pink flamingos. “Get out of there before I call the police!” She glowered at us and honked a horn attached to her walker.
Mrs. Gunderson.
She was legendary Southside. A guy on my street who was five years older warned Ben and I never to walk on her grass. He’d made the mistake when he was our age and she’d turned on a siren that almost made him deaf in one ear. Another kid said she’d shot him with paint balls for attempting to pet her cranky chihuahua. A girl told a story of how she’d knocked on the old lady’s door during a girl scout cookie sale and Mrs. Gunderson had dragged her home by the ear and told her parents if she ever caught one of their children soliciting again, she’d prosecute.
You didn’t mess with Mrs. Gunderson.
Her shouts and the honks were loud and shrill and the sound must have startled Tim because he yelped and tumbled from the digger, scraping his leg. Parry took off toward the other side of the park and Tim hobbled after him, apparently feeling less like a “winner of the world” and more like a little boy who’d been scolded.
Marshall’s eyes got wide and he struggled to his feet and wrapped his arm around my shoulder. “Let’s get out of here.”

Keep Reading

Chapter 10

Thy head is as full of quarrels as an egg is full of meat Romy

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