Aaron is always ready to fight.
Perhaps a summer spent in a less stressful atmosphere will allow him to relax.
Dylan nodded and walked off, Micah joining him before he was out of sight. Aaron watched them go, still seething.
“You sure about this?” Harry asked him in a calm voice. “He’s had boxing lessons here every summer. You haven’t had any! He’s bigger and older than you. What’s the point in getting your clock cleaned in the ring? What are you trying to prove?”
“He’s got it coming. I don’t care if I win or not. I’m going to show him to stop messing with me. Him and everyone else!”
“You’re not making sense, Aaron. No one is messing with you, and certainly not Dylan.”
“You don’t know anything!”
Harry was trying to remain calm. He found it hard to believe Dylan would have been doing anything to Aaron. He knew Dylan a lot better than he’d known Aaron and had done so for a lot longer. “Okay, tell me. What’s he been doing?”
“He’s been giving me crap ever since I got here. Today he almost got me killed.”
Harry wrinkled his forehead. He’d never heard Aaron swear before. Okay, ‘crap’ wasn’t that bad a word, but still it wasn’t like the boy. Of course, he’d never seen him this mad before, either. Well, he thought, maybe a boxing match would settle whatever the problem was here. He’d seen it happen before. He didn’t think this was much of a match, but he trusted Dylan. He wouldn’t hurt the smaller boy. He had a lot of trust in Dylan. The problem here was Aaron, and maybe being knocked on his ass would wake him up.
“Okay,” he said to Aaron. “See you at 2:30. Keep your cool till then.”
» » » »
2:30. Harry, Aaron and Dylan were all at the boxing ring. So too was the entire camp, it seemed. Word had spread, and now there was a crowd around the ring and lots of chatter. Everyone there seemed to know Dylan; few knew Aaron, but they could see his size—and Dylan’s. It was being generally acknowledged that this was going to be a blood bath, and that almost certainly an ambulance would be needed to take Aaron away. Maybe a helicopter. No one seemed to mind that much. The crowd was looking forward to blood and gore and eager to see it.
Harry had dressed both boys in protective helmets and girdles covering vulnerable heads and groins. He’d put boxing gloves on both boys and laced them up. Aaron’s seemed way too heavy for him, but he was ready to fight and had no interest in complaining about the equipment. He was staring intently at Dylan, who wasn’t bothering to meet his gaze. He seemed to be looking at everything and anything but Aaron.
With both boys ready to go and in the ring, Harry laid down the rules. “We’ll have one-minute rounds. When I say stop at any point, you both stop. No wrestling, just boxing. No hitting below the waist. Keep it clean. Three rounds and it’s over. If anyone is knocked down, it’s over at that point. You both ready?”
Dylan said he was. Aaron just nodded, eyes still fixed on Dylan.
“Okay then. Oh, Aaron, let me take your glasses. Can’t wear them in the ring, of course.” He reached up and gently took them from Aaron’s face, knowing that the boxing gloves wouldn’t permit Aaron to do it himself.
Aaron was shocked. He should have realized, but he hadn’t. But he’d never given it a thought. His glasses were simply part of him. He only took them off to swim, shower and sleep, and sometimes even forgot to take them off to shower. In fights he had before, the actual hitting was very brief and usually was to the body, mainly the stomach. A couple of times his frames had been bent, but that was about it. One blow and Aaron was usually on the ground and that was that.
Now, he didn’t have them. He was severely astigmatic; without his glasses, everything was blurry and out of focus. He looked at Dylan, standing five feet from him, and saw a blurry outline.
Aaron never had been a fighter. He’d had to fight. Growing up in the South Bronx, kids had to fight, and he had. He’d been scared at first, but after a few fights he’d lost most of the debilitating fear that he’d initially felt. He’d learned how to manage it. He’d developed a style that had allowed him to put the fear aside. It was his own style, and while not terribly effective, it did one thing he liked: it got the fights over quickly. What he did was run at his opponent, swinging his arms frantically, punching at air and anything in front of him, a wild man in full crazy. His opponent would either be shocked and end up being hit, which usually ended a schoolboy fight, or the guy would fend off the wild swings and hit Aaron, which always ended the fight.
It was all Aaron knew how to do, and he would do it again against Dylan, a kid who was bigger than he was and, from hearing all the talk he’d heard, an experienced and skilled boxer. There was a difference this time, though. His other opponents had been just that, kids to fight because he had to. This time he had something else. He hated Dylan. He’d never hated his other opponents. This time he did, and this time, he wanted to hit and hit hard.
He decided that not being able to see him clearly wouldn’t matter. He was sure he’d eventually lose. But he wanted to hit Dylan more than most anything else he could ever remember wanting in his life. He wanted to hit him, and to hit him hard.
While Aaron was getting himself together, Dylan was taking peeks at his opponent and wondering how it had come to this. How could he fight Aaron? The kid was 20 or more pounds lighter than he was and more than three inches shorter, and it looked like the gloves he was wearing were almost too heavy for his skinny arms. Dylan had been coming to the camp for several years and taken boxing lessons every year. It had been a long time since he’d even had a bout against an evenly matched opponent. This wasn’t a fair fight at all. He didn’t want to hurt Aaron. He didn’t understand why Aaron hated him so much but knew he did. He could see it in his eyes. This was going to be hard, taking care not to hurt him.
Harry said, “Ready? Then go!”
Dylan stood still, his hands up in a defensive posture about shoulder height, his knees slightly bent, feet evenly spaced and set so he could move in any direction. Aaron was nothing like that. He came charging at Dylan like a crazy man, his mouth open in a rictus, his arms going all over the place.
Dylan, having advanced toward the center of the ring, now took a hesitant step backward, and Aaron was there, swinging wildly as hard as he could, each swing throwing him more off balance. He could barely make out where Dylan was, and the wild swings of his arms weren’t helping that at all. He threw roundhouse punches, upper cuts, crosses, just blow after blow, hitting nothing but air as Dylan, not throwing a single punch, kept dodging and backing away to avoid the boy windmill as best he could.
He’d backed away enough that he felt himself on the ropes. Not wanting to be trapped with a wild man in front of him, he faked moving right and went left instead, no farther away from Aaron but expecting the boy to take the fake and be leaning the other way.
Aaron never saw the fake. He never saw Dylan at all, just the blur in front of him. He was still swinging his arms full bore, but his arms were quickly tiring, and his right arm, after another futile swing, had dropped low, his hand down below his waist. Frustrated, he brought it up sharply into as hard an uppercut as he could manage.
It caught Dylan right in the crotch.
Dylan went down like he’d been hit with an ax handle, moaning and holding his gloved hands to his pain. The boys in the crowd, who’d been screaming as the fight had progressed, were suddenly silent, watching Dylan as he toppled over onto his side, raised his knees protectively, still clutching himself.
Harry rushed to him, got down on the mat next to him, but all he could do was speak encouraging words. He doubted Dylan was badly injured, but his pain was real at the moment. The padded protection both boys wore would have prevented any serious damage to his sensitive parts, but he knew it didn’t take much of a blow in that part of a boy’s anatomy to hurt.
Aaron had no idea what had happened. He’d felt his glove make contact, and then couldn’t see Dylan in front of him any longer. He expected a blow to come at any moment from one side or the other, and when it didn’t, he dropped both dead-tired arms, letting them dangle at his sides. Then he turned, looking vaguely around, but not looking down. Why should he do that? Dylan should be standing up just like he was.
Then he heard a voice from the crowd, one he recognized as Micah’s nasal, high-pitched squeak. “He hit in the nuts! Low blow! That’s the dirtiest thing I’ve ever seen! Right in the nuts.” And then, to top it off, he started booing as loud as he could, anger making it sound worse.
It only took a moment, and then every kid watching was booing, too.
Aaron didn’t understand what was going on. He did know the boos were aimed at him. He had no doubts at all about that. He saw Harry tending to Dylan and finally saw Dylan was down on the mat. He heard the catcalls and the booing get louder. He thought about what Micah had yelled and did remember hitting Dylan just once. Had he really done this?
He walked over to Harry and Dylan and without a word, dropped his protective gear, using his teeth to rip open the Velcro holding his gloves on his hands, had Harry give back his glasses and climbed out of the ring. The booing while doing this told him he needed to be prepared for some nasty words or even some jostling. Instead, as he climbed out, the crowd of boys parted and became entirely silent. Every eye was on him. No one was smiling. He walked through the throng feeling strange, now with a full understanding of what had happened. It was why they were booing, why Dylan had been lying on the mat. The silence and the stares, the weirdness of it all, the excess adrenalin in his system—all of it made him feel disoriented and foggy.
Aaron was lying on his cot when Shaun came into their cabin. Aaron glanced up at him, then closed his eyes again.
Shaun walked over to him, then sat down on his own bed. Shaun was quiet for long enough that Aaron had to open his eyes just to see what the boy was doing. What Shaun was doing was staring at him, but his eyes were steady and calm, not a bit angry or accusatory. Aaron stared back, waiting for him to say something. They both were silent for a few moments until the pressure got too much for Aaron. “What?” he said. His voice was hoarse.
“What happened out there?” Shaun asked, his voice soft and even.
“You saw what happened!” Aaron couldn’t keep his emotions out of his response.
“Yeah. I saw. Everyone did. What I want to know, though, is what I didn’t see. I want to know why. Tell me that. I know you, Aaron. What I saw wasn’t you. Look, I’m on your side. You should know that. You’re going to be in some shit, and my being on your side and standing up for you means I’ll be in it, too, so I really would like to know why you did what you did.”
Aaron sat up. He felt himself calming down, still rattled by his emotional state but with his anger now dissipated. Having a friend who was saying he was behind him no matter why Aaron had done what he’d done made a big difference in his mood.
Aaron sighed. “I didn’t hit him like that on purpose.”
“You didn’t?” Shaun shook his head, not quite understanding.
“No. Shaun, I couldn’t see him! Harry took my glasses. I was just swinging at anything that moved. I had no idea what I was swinging at. No idea where Dylan was. Everything was a blur. What happened was completely accidental. But no one is going to believe that, and I’m not going to waste time explaining it. Let ’em believe what they want. Screw ’em all.” His anger was flaring again. It had been a normal condition for him back home. Here, it hadn’t been needed much. Now it felt natural.
“I can pass the word around. I know lots of kids here. They’ll understand.”
“No. Don’t tell anyone.” Aaron sat up straighter. “It’d sound like an excuse and phony. I’m tired of this place anyway. I’m going to see about going home.”
Then he lay back down and closed his eyes again.
» » » »
Aaron didn’t go to the campfire that evening. Dinner had been bad enough. He’d been eating with other campers since Dewey and Frank had left, different ones each meal, and gotten to know some of the boys. He’d even joined Shaun and his jock friends once. Now, no one wanted him at their table and made sure he knew it when he walked up to them, tray in hand. Each rejection stung.
He ate by himself until Shaun came in with his friends. Aaron could see Shaun talking to them, saw them all shaking their heads; in the end, Shaun came and joined him by himself.
“You don’t have to sit with me,” Aaron said, feeling very glad the boy had, but thinking it wouldn’t help Shaun’s rep any.
“Everyone will understand. We share a cabin. That gives me an automatic Get Out of Jail Free card.”
Shaun told Aaron he should go to the campfire. If he isolated himself, things would never get better. But Aaron didn’t have the stomach for it. He remained in the cabin, alone. He was thinking he’d see what tomorrow would bring.
He realized, when it was too late, that he’d made a mistake. Tonight he’d have to go for his nightly shower when he usually did, which was when a lot of boys went for theirs. He saw immediately that he should have gone during the campfire. Now, it was too late for that.
Boys saw him come into the changing room and moved away. They wouldn’t even look at him. When he went into the shower room and took an empty showerhead at a four-man shower stanchion, the other two boys there immediately left to find another place. The entire room, which was usually very noisy with kids shouting to each other, became quiet. Only the sound of running water could be heard.
Aaron showered as quickly as possible, then left. As soon as he stepped out of the shower room, the noise blossomed, a cascade of happy shouts and friendly chatter. Of the many things that could make him feel alone and unwanted, that certainly was one of the most unmistakable and the most hurtful.
» » » »
The next morning, breakfast was the same as dinner had been. Shaun was the only one eating with him, the only one who’d meet his eyes or not turn his back when Aaron approached.
When they were done and back outside, Aaron said, “Thanks for trying to help, Shaun. But don’t ruin your time here trying to look out for me. This is sort of how my life back home is, too. I’m not shunned there, but I am alone, and I know how to handle that. Go find your friends.”
“Really sure. Go on. I’ll be fine.”
Looking very uncertain, Shaun hesitated, then turned and walked off, leaving Aaron alone. Aaron took a deep breath, then went to talk to Harry.
He found him in his office. “Oh, good. Aaron. I was going to find you. I’ve seen how you’re being treated. It’s got to hurt. I don’t know why you did what you did to Dylan. I’d like to say that isn’t who I thought you were, but I realize I don’t really know you all that well. I knew you were angry, but that? You really surprised me.”
His voice wasn’t the calm, pleasant, supportive one Aaron was used to. Instead, it was a very matter-of-fact, serious, adult voice that Aaron hadn’t heard him use before. It felt like a slap in the face to Aaron, and it was all he could do to keep his eyes focused on Harry’s. He wanted to be strong, to maintain his silence, but found he couldn’t.
“It was an accident,” he said.
Harry sat up a little straighter, and his eyes seemed to sharpen their focus. “An accident? Tell me about it.”
Aaron hated having to explain. He was still at an age where he thought that people should accept him, trust him, believe in him without his having to talk his way into getting acceptance. Perhaps it was misplaced pride, but he considered himself a good kid until he was provoked. Why couldn’t people see that? And why would Harry need an explanation from him? This hurt more than the boys’ efforts to isolate him. He’d thought of Harry as a friend. And he needed that at the moment. Needed it badly.
It surprised Aaron that what he felt was hurt, not anger. Before he’d always had his anger at the ready to act as a shield. Now, when he needed it, it seemed to have left him defenseless.
But Aaron wasn’t feeling strong enough to hold his head up and accept Harry doubting him. So, he explained what he’d done in the ring. He hadn’t meant to tell anyone. He’d told Shaun and that was enough. It seemed to him a matter of pride. Now, though, he explained it again, and though he began with a simple declarative sentence, he ended his explanation with the same one, one that had already been part of his statement: “You took my glasses.” Except this time it was said with no accusation of wrongdoing at all—and no anger. Just sadness. With his voice close to breaking.
Harry got out of his chair, walked over to Aaron, pulled him out of his chair, and hugged him. “I’m so sorry, Aaron. I didn’t know how much you needed those glasses. I’m sure in the heat of the moment, you couldn’t even try to stop things and tell me. You were mad, I said go, and you did your best. I applaud your courage. But now, you have to let everyone know it was an accident!”
“No. If they don’t like me, I’m not going to beg them to. And worse, they’d probably never believe me.”
“But I know what you’re saying is true. I’m sure they’ll understand if you give them a chance.”
“I’m not going to lower myself to begging for understanding. I was going to come in here and ask to be sent home. But now, after going through this again and seeing how unfair everyone is being, I’m not going to do that. I’ll spend the rest of my time here as planned, and if it has to be on my own, I can do that. I do that at home all the time.”
Harry shook his head, then said, “Well, at least tell Dylan.”
That brought a reaction from Aaron. He’d sat down after the hug, but now jumped up again. “No! Never.” Then he turned and walked out of Harry’s office.
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