Sore Shoulders / Bill Vernon

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

When Mike, the toughest kid in our neighborhood, came strolling across the Horns’ backyard, I thought, Uh oh. Trouble. He was basically a good guy, but his presence required acknowledgement so Kenny, Gary, Jim and I quit throwing the baseball, turned, yelled hi, and as I expected that tightened my brother John’s jaws. John knew that now he’d be getting even less respect than he’d been receiving before, which had been just enough to shut him up.

Mike, as expected, ignored John, the youngest kid there, kind of brushed him aside while saying hi to the rest of us.

I was my usual self, an altar boy, whispering to John, “Leave him alone, keep quiet,” but that didn’t stop anything. John started right in, “Mike’s a sissy,” repeating it, circling around Mike like an excited puppy, laughing and touching Mike’s clothes. “Look at him! Look at him!”

I told my brother to stop, but he just had to be the center of attention.

Finally, the same old story repeated itself. Mike ended up angry. He threw John to the ground, knelt on John’s arms, sat on his legs, and said, “Dummy, you asked for this.” Mike, who was King of Flinch, proceeded to punch John’s shoulders. Which was okay by me—John was a real pain—except that as his older brother I had to watch out for him. I let Mike have two justifiable swats on each arm because John deserved something. Then I pulled them apart. “That’s enough.”

Mike stood and, as usual, turned his anger on me.

I put my hands up, palms toward him, my upper arms still bruised and sore from the last time we’d played Flinch. “Mike, I don’t want to fight.”

“Too bad.” He wrestled me down and knelt on me as he’d done to John. That made me so mad I grabbed his head, pulled him forward, twisted him sideways, and squirmed real fast and hard so we rolled. As we rolled, he screamed with such panicky pain, I released his head and let him stand up. There was a safety pin stuck through his septum. He pulled out the pin, dropped it in the grass, looked at his bloody fingers, started crying, and ran home holding a hanky to his nose.

I stood and watched him go. It was the only time he hadn’t walloped me and I’d sort of won.

Without warning, John shoved me so I stumbled to the side. “You cheated. You stabbed him with a pin.”

What a dummy, Mike was sure right about that, but I looked at the nutty kid, thought a second, then said, “I was tired of him beating me up.”

“I’m going to tell Mom.” And he ran down over the hill toward home.

After frowning at the other boys, I ran after John. Actually, the use of the pin was an accident. It must have been open, hanging on my sweater, and our wrestling had somehow shoved it through his nose.

I told my mother that it was an accident, but John insisted it was deliberate. She believed him and sent me to my room to “think about what hurting another human being means.” That evening she also took me over to the Torinos’ house and made me apologize to Mike and his mother. I told them I was sorry, that it had been an accident, but as I left, I smiled at Mike and his eyebrows went up.

He got the idea it was intentional. My frowning might have given Jimmy, Gary, and Kenny the same idea. And my unexplained way of claiming it was an accident convinced my brother of it.

These misconceptions were good. I confessed lies to Father Krusling, but I hadn’t lied so no need to confess anything this time. Even better, Mike never fought me again. In fact, thinking I was mean enough to hurt someone on purpose like that, he didn’t bully me ever again. I’d told the truth, but he believed that the truth was a lie. So did the others. What was wrong with that?