Pete was fat. His face was full of freckles, a messy nest of red hair atop his head. Timid speech stuttered forth from his big, slobbery lips. Often seen wearing a stretched red sweatshirt that barely held the whole of his plump, he’d elicted a roar of afterschool laughter when an older skateboarder kid pointed at him on his bright red Huffy and yelled, “HEY, look at the RED SNAPPER!” From then on, the nickname stuck to him like the cafeteria slop that stained his pants and sweatshirt every day.
It was one idyllic spring afternoon that Pete became a most gruesome casualty of mean-spirited juvenile humanity. He and his friend, a frail, bucktoothed boy named Clayton who wore oversize, floppy hand-me-downs that hung all around his body, were walking their bikes across the street from the lower playground. There on fair-weathered afternoons, when the high-energy bustle of free time reached its few hour plateau, kids would gather around to skateboard, smoke cigarettes, and peacock their burgeoning hormones. Where social ranking was on high contrast, practically the only fun had was at the expense of others.
For fear of heckling, if not physical bullying too, kids like Pete and Clayton seldom appeared around the lower playground, a niche they’d fit into only as social prey. In fact, for many of the children walking home from Captain Elementary, an extra ten minutes of travel time around another corner was well worth the avoidance of any confrontation.
That day, the delinquent skater crowd had not yet gathered at full mass and the energy of their group was anxious for a pecking order to form. The two boys might have mistaken the lack of potential spectators for a sign of safe passage, or maybe they simply had their minds on other things and were not on alert for the peril awaiting them. It started with a typical yet malicious jeer from a towering sixth-grader named Jake. “Hey! It’s Red Snapper! Hey, Red Snapper, get over here boy!” Slightly faltering as he feigned ignorance of the call, Pete attempted to pick up his pace without appearing to run away. “Snapper, I’m talking to you, boy! Come here, Big Red! Come on, faggot!” Jake’s hillbilly tone was prominent and undeniably comedic. His audience held no moral ballast, bursting out of petty snickering into a cacophony of cartooned hyena hysteria.
Clayton’s head remained down. Undoubtedly he felt a small sense of relief that it was Pete who was the center of malevolence and not himself, but quiet tension remained a frozen instinct inside him. Pete, however, could no longer remain silent. As flaccid and misplaced the gesture was, some impulse inside of him combusted and made its way out in the form a barely audible, “Fuck you, Jake.”
It was obviously spoken more as a personal lament than as any kind of underdog stance against Jake’s playground omnipotence, but a terrified blush consumed Pete’s face the next instant as it became clear that with those three words—fuck, you, Jake—he had summoned the stunned attention of every kid on that corner.
It’s incredible how something so meager as a few limp words from a sad case like Pete could explode from its paltry singularity into a stark universe of experience. And unlike the birth of a true cosmos, this symbolic one was not conceived by motherly tenderness or the grace of some all-loving god, expanding slowly into a cruel world of checks and balances; this was spawned by a tubby kid on a bike, forming a quick spiral of unrelenting violence without mercy. For a crystallized moment it was as though the whole of existence stood in awe of this unlikely Orion, but that would remain only in the minds of future artists, philosophers, and anthropologists bearing witness to the tragedy.
An excited wave of “Ooh, damn!”s crested in Jake’s company. In its wake, Jake’s eyes opened with fumes as his chest expanded and transformed his jester’s posture into fully plumed cock fighter. “Damn, Jake, that fat pussy boy over there called you out!” Hampton, a delighted cohort, exclaimed.
“What the fuck did you say to me, Snapper?” Jake’s blind fury subsided after the utterance of “Snapper,” and his humorous hillbilly imitation returned. “You know what, boy? I might just have to come down there and whoop ya!”
“Uh-oh Snapper,” Hampton chimed in to a barrage of chuckles and jeers. “Daddy’s going to take his belt off!” Mortified but still careful to not show himself altogether fleeing, Pete fumbled his grasp on the Huffy’s handle bars as Clayton hopped aboard his own bike and took off at great speed.
Walking away quickly, Pete’s breathing began to labor under the stress of suppressing the adrenaline that was crying out for drastic escape measures. A horribly misplaced endeavor it was to maintain this embarrassing look of cool, and for only the span of about ten paces was the thin veil to remain in place. To the trumpeting support of their boy clan, Jake and Hampton hopped the waist-high brick perimeter of the playground, descended a short slope of grass, and grinningly pounced upon the asphalt plane of Pete and his shiny red Huffy. After a quick sprint, the two sauntered circles around the boy whose whole body seemed to ripple in spasms of apprehension as he pushed the bike ahead.
“Where you going there, Bacon Fat?” A satisfied smile marked Jake’s face after improvising the new nickname. “Why don’t you throw that piece of shit Huffy down and say again what it was you said back there?”
“Whoa there, Snapper boy, better listen to him and come clean!” Hampton said as he menacingly batted his palm with a stick he had just picked off the grass. Raising it slightly, he made a convincing quick thrust with his shoulders to fake the onslaught of a clubbing. Already completely gripped by fear, Pete succumbed to a drastic flinch and suffered yet another hoard of cruel laughter from the growing assembly of children around the scene.
Unable to continue his feeble resistance any longer, Pete frantically made a fumbling motion to mount the bike and hightail it out of there. But Jake, standing at least a foot taller than his victim, grabbed the handlebars before the overweight boy could strain his leg over the bike shaft. Tearing the bike away with one strong arm, he tossed it aside and in this same motion brought the other hand down in a swift and merciless SMACK across Pete’s already reddened face.
It was like a dam had exploded from that slap that rung and echoed around the street, and the uproar of approval was immediately consumed by a heart-wrenching wail.
“Leave me ALONE!” Pete awkwardly screamed through shock as he stumbled towards the Huffy lying on its side. In most of the witnesses there must have been a terrible choke of empathy, for the resonance of Pete’s wail was something tuned perfectly for the guts. But still, these potential allies to his misfortune remained silent or hid their compassion beneath their cheer. Jake relented for a moment and in his eyes could be seen a stunned look of regret for his actions, but like a gladiator standing above a still-breathing victory, he knew by instinct that there was no backtracking from the final blow. Whatever amount of Pete’s pain was now reflecting in his awareness, a stronger sense in him remained to monument his alpha deeds. He gave Pete a shove and stepped back slightly. Hampton, though, had not yet satisfied his own rile.
“Where you going Snapper?” he spoke sadistically through clenched teeth as Pete mounted the Huffy. “No you don’t!”
He shoved the stick across Pete’s chest a couple of times, but Pete, already well beyond the threshold humiliation had no reservations to hold him back. “Leave me ALONE” he screamed again, this time with a thundering determination for a fast getaway. But just as Pete was mounting a good speed, Hampton struck with demonic precision.
Sprinting a few steps behind, he made a diving play and with an outstretched arm he thrust the stick perfectly into the spokes of the Huffy’s front wheel. Pete, on his last pedaling motion, was unaware of the stick making its way around the wheel. He believed he was outracing Hampton toward escape, and as his nervous thrust had finally been given this release, he greatly accelerated with each revolution. As the stick caught the frame, locking the front wheel to a complete halt, the red Huffy buckled violently, then pivoted up around the locked wheel and catapulted Pete headfirst into the hard asphalt.
Hampton’s eyes flickered as he stood up and witnessed the perfect success of his play, but when he looked over at Jake, the two boys shared an “Oh shit.” And while a chuckle tried to make its way out of them, a stronger force choked it out of reverence for the sheer situation. A gnawing fear gripped their senses as they realized the possible extent of injuries Pete may have suffered.
A shocked silence broken only by gasps gripped those on the street for the few moments that Pete’s face remained planted on the hard ground. It appeared as though Pete’s neck had broken, for it was in erratic contortions that he made his first movements after the fall.
The Huffy laid behind, rear wheel spinning. Perched above the wreck, its spokes glistened in the warm sunlight as its human counterpart sat twisted in a tangled heap with the handlebar column and splintered stick.
No one made a compassionate gesture towards Pete as he lifted his face off the ground, nor did anyone offer assistance to him as he painfully moved to stand. Fear and cowardice suspended action as they stared at the gruesome picture of Pete, dark blood flowing thickly all the way to his pants. The blood on the ground, coagulating over pebbles and chunks of dirt where his face landed, gave the impression of strewn gut matter amongst which lay two unmistakable little teeth. Pete was crying as profusely as he was bleeding, the pain of absolute humiliation as severe as the various physical wounds. He limped towards the Huffy and bent down beside it. His head bobbed up and down in tearful convulsions as he grasped for the handlebars.
Hampton backed away slowly. Jake stoically placed his hand on Pete’s shoulder and said, “Come on man, you’ll be cool.”
“I hate you,” Pete said coldly, shaking the bully’s hand off his body. Standing up as Jake backed off, he lifted the wrecked Huffy and dragged it away.