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by Cole Parker

Some boys are soft. It's just what is. It's how nature works. Some boys are soft; some are hard. Rugged. The take-no-prisoners type. I guess you could say I was one of those. I was in lots of tussles growing up. I didn't back down. If you're a kid who doesn't back down, you'd better learn to fight. I did.

But being hard, raising my fists when it's called for, doesn't define me like it does some. I don't like to fight, but when it's necessary, I don't back away, either.

Some boys like to fight. A few, not many, like to fight against other boys who are like they are, ones who also like to fight. They like to test themselves, and if they get beat one day, they're ready again a few days later. But there aren't many of those.

Most boys who like to fight are ones who like to dominate. They like being the top dog, like other kids being scared of them, like being able to throw their weight around. They intimidate most other kids, the ones who are softer, the ones who don't want to fight.

Often, most of the time in fact, these top dog types are big, bigger than the average kid. Their size helps them dominate as much as their personality does.

So, what happens when one of these kids meets up with a smaller kid but one who likes to fight, to test himself?

Often the big bully kid will find ways to not have to fight the smaller, eager fighter. When they do fight, both kids usually end up getting battered. Which explains why the bully kid steers clear of those fights. He doesn't want to fight a battle where he'll get hurt or lose face. He wants to dominate, wants to get away with pushing other kids around without any resistance. He gets his jollies from seeing fear and capitulation. Makes him feel big and important. He doesn't want to see raised fists in front of him and a certain eagerness in the eyes of some kid wanting to get into it.

No, he's looking for a kid to dominate simply because that kid doesn't want to fight. That kid's probably scared of him, scared of fighting. There are a lot of those soft boys around.

I don't like to fight. But I will, and I'm good at it, and the bullies at my school are aware of that. They leave me alone. They don't try their intimidation tricks on me.

Our school had soccer teams. I was in my first year of middle school, grade six. I was 11. We weren't just learning the game; there were leagues in town that started the kids when they were six. By the time we were 11, we knew how to play. So our school teams were competitive.

We practiced against the 7th grade kids. They were bigger than we were. That made them a little better because we couldn't match them physically. They took great joy in beating us in the games we played against each other. There wasn't much love lost between the two teams.

Each grade had a separate coach. Their coach was the school's gym teacher. Ours was our English teacher; a woman. She didn't know squat about soccer but liked the $700 extra she made for spending her time as a soccer coach. She was a nice enough woman, a decent teacher who was generally liked, but she had no interest in soccer. During practices, she'd read a book.

It became apparent at our first practice that it was up to us to organize ourselves. We needed someone to take charge. 11-year-olds are a squirrely bunch. We're just starting to feel our oats. We're beginning to get that independence urge with a touch of rebellion, too. It isn't easy trying to control a squad of wiggly, hyperactive tweens who don't really want anyone telling them what to do.

But someone had to take charge. Not me, I thought. I wasn't a leader. Well, I wasn't much of a follower, either, come to think of it. But it would be a thankless task, taking responsibility for getting those hooligans to play as a team.

Then Tim, one of the most vocal of us and without a shy bone in his body, yelled for everyone to shut up, and for some reason, we listened.

"We need someone to take over here so our practices aren't just chaos. We'll never beat the 7th grade assholes unless we are a team. My brother is in 7th and I'm tired of his putdowns. So, let's elect a leader, and let's agree to do what he says. Okay? Raise your hands if you agree."

We all looked at each other, and slowly hands began going up. Kids generally want to be part of something, on the inside instead of standing alone outside; it wasn't long before every hand was raised.

"Who do we want? It should be one of us everyone respects and who knows soccer. Not me. This is only my second year playing. We need someone with experience. So, call out names. Then we'll vote.

That was how I ended up being captain of the 6th grade team, much to my surprise. Why me? I was nothing special. I did know soccer, though, and I guess I may have been a little feisty. Maybe that's why.

The boys more or less paid attention to me. I formed them into forwards and midfielders and defenders. We didn't have a keeper; no one wanted that position, so I ended up in the net. An 11-year-old keeper is up against it because, not even being five feet tall, there's too much net above him he can't protect. But someone had to do it. I chose myself as no one else was interested.

We weren't very good. No, that's an overstatement. We were awful. And every time we played the 7th graders, that was made obvious to us. Our coach would read a book, their coach would shout instructions and fire up his troops, and it was bad. Worse than bad, really. No better way to put it. It sucked. We sucked. We got to hate those games. And we played one every single week.

I could see several of our guys were ready to quit. I didn't want that to happen. Even losing, I liked the game. I kinda liked being in charge, too, which was surprising. I liked that the other kids listened to me. I'd never been all that outgoing. It had been a surprise when my name had been called as a candidate for the job I now had. You never really know what the other kids think of you.

I didn't want kids quitting. At our next practice, I tried to make it more enjoyable. I had them trying new positions. I had them run races, do the sorts of things they do at family picnics and school fun meets. Anything to make coming to practice more fun.

I was just watching, not involved myself, when I noticed a kid off to my right watching as well. I didn't know him, but I could tell he was my age. After a moment or two, I sauntered over to him.

"Hi," I said, "I'm Jonathan," glancing at him then looking back at the kids on the field. I did that, looked away, because I could see right off when I gave my name that he was shy. So shy he wouldn't look at me. So I wanted to make it easier for him. I've always felt compassion for shy boys. Their life is so much more difficult than mine. Not much joy available for the shy ones.

"James," I heard him breathe.

We stood together, watching. Eventually, I asked, speaking to the field and not him, "You new here?"

"Yes. Just moved here."

"6th grade?"


I paused, not wanting to wear him out, then asked, "Don't suppose you play soccer?"

For the first time, I heard some life in his voice. "I do."

"Hey, that's great. I'm, well, they made me the captain of the team. We're not very good, but we are getting better. If you want to join us, we'd be happy to have you. How about it?"

I stole a glance at him. He was looking at me. Maybe he wasn't quite as shy as I'd thought. Or maybe he just liked soccer.

"Right now?" he asked.


He had shorts on and sneakers. I called three of the boys over and introduced them all, then asked them to play some two on two keep-away together. I wanted to see how James looked.

It was amazing. James might have been socially shy—how much I wasn't sure yet—but on the field, it was like Lionel Messi or Christiano Ronaldo had decided to warm up on a kids' soccer field.

Needless to say, we had a new member of our team. The decision I had to make was where to play him. Striker? Midfield? Even defense? He'd be outstanding and help us wherever he played.

He was still shy meeting the others, but his skill was so apparent that the other boys took to him immediately. Practices became more intense because just that sudden there was hope we might actually win a game, a game against our blood rivals, the 7th grade bullies.

When he got near the net in practice, there was no way I could keep his shots from hitting the cords. He wouldn't hit it over me, either. He was accurate enough that he could put it just out of my reach effortlessly.

He took to grinning when he did so, an awkward, self-deprecating, fun sort of grin. I took to liking him very much. He was soft and quiet, but he raised thoughts in my head and in my groin that I'd never felt before.

I was a pretty good ball handler, one of the better on the team, and with James playing, I was wasted in the net. I moved another kid there, one of the forwards who'd been out of place, and I took his spot and moved the other forward to midfield, installing James on the other wing. Suddenly, we had a more formidable offense.

Enough to give the 7th grade team problems? Well, maybe; maybe not. We'd see on Friday.

It was a chilly day, Friday. We came out of the locker room together, a little more enthusiastically than usual. None of us thought we could win, but perhaps, for the first time, we'd be competitive. Maybe they wouldn't be ragging at us the entire game. For the first time, maybe Tim could shut up his asshole brother.

Play started. They were bringing the ball up the field nonchalantly, much as usual. We were all falling back on defense, as usual. Tim's brother was on James' side of the field and received a ball passed to him. He moved to go around James and just that sudden, James was taking the ball up the field toward their goal and Tim's brother was standing still, looking confused, wondering what had happened, how his pocket had been so cleanly picked.

I was on the other side of the field, running alone. Their midfielder and defense collapsed on James, and he rather niftily fed the ball to me. Their keeper moved to cut down my angle, the group that had been swarming around James shifted to me. I set my feet to take the shot, then passed the ball to a wide open James.

James hadn't never missed when he was shooting at the goal behind me. He didn't miss then, either. 1-0, the sixth grade.

We were walking back to our positions for the next kick-off when I heard someone shout. "Hey, I know that guy. His name is James. He was kicked off his team because he's gay!"

James was walking next to me. He stopped. He turned so his back was to everyone else. He put his face in his hands. He began to sob.

I did the only thing that made sense. I hugged him, pulled him close to me, comforting him. I also looked at their team, at the kid who'd called out. He was one of the ones I'd mentioned earlier. One of the kids who loved to intimidate. Bigger than anyone else on the field. A bully.

I was furious. How dare he yell that out! How dare he crush James this way! He was coming toward us. Laughing. Still shouting.

"Crybaby!" he yelled. "Crybaby faggot."

I couldn't take this. I couldn't allow it. I glanced at their coach. He was smiling! Smiling! The kid came up to us. I didn't know his intentions, but whatever they were, I was pissed, and he had no business coming anywhere near James.

"One more word," I said, seething, "and you'll be on your back."

"Oh yeah?" he said. I'd let go of James. I was standing with my back to him, facing the bully. I was hot; my face had to be bright red. He pushed me. I hit him as hard as I could, first in the stomach and then the nose. I'd only been half right. He went down, but not on his back. He was on his knees, one hand on the ground keeping him from falling all the way down, one on his face, blood dripping from between he fingers.

The coach wasn't smiling any longer. He was up and running across the field, his eyes focused, coming at me.

I couldn't believe it—he was intercepted by the woman being paid to coach us. She got to me first and turned to look at the coach. She had fire in her eyes. "That's your son on the ground, isn't it? The 7th grade bully? Well, he started it, both verbally and physically. I'm going to see he gets expelled. I hope you go, too."

The coach was so mad he was quivering, but he had no idea what to do, how to respond. He couldn't hit her; she was half his size and a woman. He couldn't hit me; I was 11. All he could do was tend to his son, which, after a moment of indecision, he did. He helped him off the field.

The game was over, and as the score was one zip in our favor, we'd won!

What happened with James? Nothing. Well, not really nothing. He stayed on the team. None of us cared if he was gay. Well, that wasn't true, either. I cared. But that's a story for another time.

The End


This story is part of the 2023 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: About Number Seven…". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 24 March 2023 to 14 April 2023 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.

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2023 Inspired by a Picture Challenge - About Number Seven…

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