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The International Writers Magazine: Fiction

The Coward
• Martin Green
Since grade school, Tom Newberry knew he was a coward.  It wasn’t anything he did but what he didn’t do.  He was studious, got good marks and was well-behaved but was also a good athlete and too big to be an obvious target for the school bullies. 

His best friend, Walter Potter, was also studious, got good marks and was well-behaved but was unfortunate enough to be small and look somewhat like a weasel.    He was also something of a wise-ass.   It happened in the fifth grade.    Walter mouthed off to Mike Butler, the largest kid in their class and not one to anger.  Mike told Walter he’d see him after classes in the schoolyard and teach him a lesson.  Tom went directly home after his last class. He told himself that nothing too bad could happen.  If there was a fight, certainly one of the teachers would intervene.  He had a lot of homework to do and couldn’t waste his time.

     Afterward Tom learned that it had been pretty bad.  Mike had smacked Walter around and then pinned him to the ground.  No teacher was around to intervene and Walter wasn’t too popular with the other kids so they actually urged Mike on.    He twisted Walter’s arm until Walter had cried “Uncle” before Mike let him up, then he’d hit Walter a few more hard blows for good measure.  Walter hadn’t come to school the next day and the next week Tom heard that his parents had moved him to another school.   Tom knew he should have been there for Walter that day.  He also knew he hadn’t been because he was afraid of fighting Mike Butler.  He was a coward.

     As a man, Tom was still studious and mild-mannered and still pretty athletic, playing tennis on weekends.  He lived in the suburbs with his wife Alice and they had a five-year-old daughter Mellisa.  He had a well-paying job as a computer programmer and was able to work at home once a week.    Alice worked as a librarian.   On this day she’d suggested that if he had the time Tom could take Mellisa to their local playground in the afternoon. Tom thought he’d done enough work by three and it was a nice sunny day so off they went.

     Tom pushed Mellisa on the swing for a while until she got tired of it.    She said she wanted to play in the sandbox.  She’d brought her pail and shovel.   “All right,” Tom told her.   He sat on one of the benches.  The playground was pretty crowded.  A lot of mothers sat on benches, also a few fathers.     The sun on his face felt good.  He could hear birds chirping off in the distance.  It was all very peaceful. There was a loud scream from the sandbox.  It was Melissa.  Tom ran over as quickly as he could. Melissa was crying. He bent over her. “What’s the matter, honey?”

     “That boy threw sand in my eyes.”

     Tom looked up and saw a pudgy boy of about six standing nearby.    He looked defiant.    “Did you throw sand in my daughter’s eyes?” Tom asked him.

     “So what if I did?    She’s a sissy.”

   “That was a bad thing to do.    You should say you’re sorry.”

     “No way.    She’s a little crybaby.”

     Tom felt defeated.    “Come on,” he said to Melissa.    “Let’s go.    I’ll by you an ice cream.”

     He took Melissa by the hand and turned to go but found his path blocked.  It was a young man, maybe 25, a little smaller than him but muscular and with a sneer on his face.  He wore a sleeveless shirt and had tattoos on his arms.  “What’s the idea of yelling at my kid?” he said.

     “I didn’t yell,” said Tom reasonably.  “He threw sand in my daughter’s face.  I just asked him to apologize.”

     “I didn’t throw any sand,” said the boy.  “She hit me.”

     “Maybe your kid should apologize,” said the tattooed man.

     “He’s a liar,” said Melissa.

     “Hey, who you calling a liar?” said the man.

     This whole thing was getting out of hand, thought Tom.    He looked around and could see that all of the mothers were watching.  “Look, why don’t we just forget about this?” he said.  “Come on, Melissa, let’s go.”

     “He’s a bad man,” said Melissa.    “You have to fight him.”

     “No, that’s not the way.    Fighting doesn’t solve anything.”

     “He’s a sissy, too,” said the tattooed man.   He pushed Tom in the chest.  It didn’t really hurt.   

“Come, Melissa, we’re going.”

     “Daddy, he pushed you,” cried Melissa.

     “It’s all right.   It was nothing.   Let’s go.”

     The tattooed man laughed.    He pushed Tom harder, causing him to go back a few steps.

     “Daddy, don’t let him push you.”   Melissa grabbed hold of the tattooed man’s leg.   He pushed her away.

     He touched her, thought Tom.  He touched my daughter.   He had no idea of what happened next.   He’d heard of people seeing red and that’s what he saw now.   He heard a buzzing in his ears.   Then he heard shouts.   Then he felt hands pulling at him.  The tattooed man was on the ground and Tom was on top of him, hitting him.   “That’s enough.   I think he’s learned his lesson.”   It was one of the other fathers talking.  

     Tom stood up.   His fists felt bruised and he was breathing heavily.   “That kid’s a bully,” said one of the mothers.   “So’s his father.   Thank you.”

     “You beat him up, Daddy,” said Melissa.  “You’re a hero.”

     “Well, I think we better go,” said Tom.

     When Alice returned from the library, Melissa immediately ran up to her, shouting, “Daddy’s a hero.  That bad kid threw sand in my eyes and that bad man pushed me so Daddy beat him up.”

     “What?   Tom, you beat somebody up.”

     “Not really, just a little shoving match.”    He described to Alice what had happened.

     “Well, that guy sounds like a real jerk.    You did what you had to do.”

     “Nobody will bother me again,” said Melissa.  “Daddy is a hero.  He’ll beat him up.”

     “No, fighting is still not the right way.”

     “But you won’t let anyone push me.”

     “No, nobody is going to push you.”

     That night in bed Tom pictured the whole playground incident in his mind.  He knew that he’d just wanted to avoid conflict, get away.  He didn’t know what had come over him.  He guessed some primitive instinct that caused parents to protect their children.  Well, he wasn’t a hero and he’d still rather walk away than fight.  But he wasn’t a coward, not when it came to his daughter, and that made him feel pretty good.

© Martin Green April 2012

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