Thirteen years old
The moment I open my locker, I grab the black beanie that I’m forced to remove every morning and slip it on my head, feeling like I can breathe again. The no hat rule in school needs to go. It has been around since the big guy’s days. Heck, it’s been around since Papa George’s time.
Enough is enough, I say.
A hat never hurt anyone. They allow jerky kids to attend but not hats? I’ve considered starting a picket line about this but I promised the Big Guy I’d stay out of trouble. So I will suffer through a few hours without it.
Once that bell rings though, all bets are off.
The slam of my locker echoes through the nearly deserted hall. I sling my book bag over my shoulder and carry my skateboard under my arm. Pushing through the double doors, I drop it and jump on, gliding down the wheelchair ramp.
I veer right, heading in the direction of the gym. A slight breeze on my face offers a small reprieve of the afternoon heat. Just before I zone out completely, a familiar voice snags my attention, bringing me to a stop.
“Nice bow tie, dork.”
Butch Lassiter. The biggest jerk in school.
“Give it back!”
“Or what? You gonna cry for your mommy?”
Stomping on the end of my skateboard, I head towards the voices. Rounding the corner of the building, I find Butch and two of his friends, Simon and Levi, picking on the new kid, Jasper.
He showed up at school today in a fancy car with his own personal driver. If that didn’t draw everyone’s attention, his trendy dress shirt and bow tie sure did.
Personally, I dig his style. It’s unique. Different from everyone else. And if there’s one thing Faith has taught me, it’s to stand out and be unique. Even when the world tells you not to.
“I mean it, give it back!”
Jasper reaches for his bow tie that Butch ripped from his neck but he gets held back by Simon and Levi. That’s when Butch throws a punch to his stomach.
My skateboard drops from my hand and I storm closer to them. “Let him go, Butch!”
Everyone’s eyes snap to me.
“Well, if it isn’t Ru-Ru-Ru-Ruthie,” Butch says, mocking my stutter that I’m usually pretty good at concealing.
I cross my arms over my chest and glare at him. “Let him go.”
“Or what? You gonna get your big bad SEAL Daddy after me?”
“I don’t need to. I’ll kick your ass myself.”
The three of them laugh while Jasper drops his head in defeat.
“He’s not even her real Dad,” Levi taunts. “Her Dad is dead, just like her Mom. She’s an orphan.”
My fists clench at my sides, nails digging into my palms. “Shut your mouth. You d-d- don’t know anything.” Angry tears prick my eyes, hating that I let the comment upset me.
Butch stomps toward me, his steps threatening. “Get out of here before you get hurt.”
If this turd thinks he intimidates me, he’s got another thing coming.
“Not until you let Jasper go.”
“It’s okay. You can leave,” Jasper says, fearing for my safety.
“Listen to him, bitch.” Butch shoves me, hard enough that I stumble back and fall on my butt.
That’s all I need.
My blood pumps violently as I push to my feet. Dropping my book bag from my shoulder, I charge at him and grab the back of his shirt, yanking on it with all my strength. He catches his footing and turns on me, dark fury igniting the hate in his eyes. “You’re goin’ down.”
I don’t give him the chance and strike out first, my fist connecting with his face. His howl of pain pierces the air as he covers his nose. Within seconds he comes at me again, fists swinging. I duck and deliver a blow to his groin, making him drop to his knees.
“Look out!” Jasper shouts the warning.
I spin around to see Simon charging for me. I lean back to dodge his fist but am not fast enough. His knuckles graze my cheek, knocking my glasses from my face.
My eyes water in pain but my anger overpowers all other emotions. When he swings again I dodge his fist and drop to the ground. My leg sweeps out, knocking him off his feet. He lands face first into the pavement, an agonizing groan following.
I wince, knowing that had to hurt.
Levi comes at me next. I brace myself, knowing I’m not going to make it to my feet in time and that’s when Jasper intervenes. A roar rips from his chest, as he leaps off the pavement, jumping onto Levi’s back.
“I got him! I got him!” he yells, barely managing to hang on.
Levi bends down, flipping Jasper over top of him.
“Oh shit, I don’t got him.”
His back hits the concrete hard. Levi straddles him, raining punches down on his face.
I push from my spot and put him in a headlock, pulling him off Jasper.
“What on earth is going on out here?”
Releasing the head that I’m currently crushing, I turn to find Mrs. Langley, the Principal, looking furious as she takes in the scene before her.
Butch, Simon and Levi run off, leaving Jasper and me to her wrath.
Great, like she needed another reason to hate me.
“Mrs. Langley, I can explain.”
“Why am I not surprised to find you involved in all this?”
“It’s not her fault,” Jasper speaks up. “She was protecting me. Butch and his friends were—“
“Save it. Both of you get to the office now.” She stalks off, refusing to listen to a word we have to say.
Jasper and I share a look before climbing to our feet. I grab my book bag and skateboard while he picks up my glasses and hands them to me.
“Thanks.” I put them back on, the frames sitting crooked on my nose.
“I should be the one thanking you,” he says, falling instep next to me.
“You don’t need to. It was nothing.”
“Oh, it was something, all right. Where did a girl like you learn to fight?”
I let his ‘girl like me’ comment slide. “I have a great teacher.”
“Let me guess. Mr. Miyagi?”
I chuckle, picturing the Big Guy as a small Chinese man. He’s far from it.
Once we enter the school, Mrs. Langley orders for us to take a seat. “Don’t move. I’m going to call your parents.” Her heels click on the tile floor as she heads into her office and slams the door.
Jasper turns to me, extending his hand. “The name is Jasper.”
“Ruthie,” I tell him, accepting his gesture.
“Ruthie?” he repeats, rearing back in surprise. “You sure don’t look like a Ruthie.”
“Tell me about it,” I mumble, not caring for the name myself. Though, it’s way better than Ruth Jean.
“I picture you as a Xena or…Cat Woman. Something like that. I mean, even Lois Lane can be tough.”
“Well, if it’s any consolation my dream is to become a big reporter one day.”
“I think it could suit you. You can force people to talk with that right hook of yours.”
The ridiculous comment has me bursting into laughter. If he only knew how much I hate violence. The last thing I ever want to do is hit someone. Only if they deserve it and I’m left with no other choice.
“Well, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll call you fighter girl…or maybe Lois Lane.”
I relax back into my chair, crossing my scuffed up chucks over one another. “Whatever floats your boat, Fancy boy.”
“Fancy boy?” he says, sounding unsure whether to be insulted or not.
I glance over at him. “The bow tie is pretty fancy.”
“Hey now, don’t diss the threads,” he says, straightening the collar of his shirt. “I’ll have you know it’s a fashion statement and very popular in other parts of the world. By the time it comes here, I’ll have already rocked it.”
“No judgement from me,” I say, raising my hands in front of me. “I actually dig the outfit.”
“Ah, so she’s not only tough but smart.”
I smile at his observation.
“Well, for the record, I dig your beanie. It’s very…skater girl.”
“Thanks.” I chuckle, but can’t deny that it’s a pretty good description of me.
His eyes shift toward the office where Mrs. Langley still sits. “So how much trouble are we in?”
A defeated sigh leaves me. “You’re probably fine. She doesn’t hate you. Only me.” It’s why she didn’t call back Butch and his crew when they ran off. I’m sure she’s thrilled to blame this on me. I don’t know what I ever did to her but she is always on my case.
“Trust me. I’ll get more than enough flak from my Dad. I don’t know whether he’s going to be madder about the fact that a girl saved my butt, a white one at that, or that I was over powered by bullies.”
I glance over at him, not knowing which is worse to hear. “He shouldn’t be upset about any of it. There were three of them and one of you. It’s not a fair fight.”
“Trust me. That doesn’t matter to my father. I’m a man after all,” he mocks, deepening his tone. He tries to play it off as a joke but there’s no denying the hurt in his eyes.
We fall silent, awaiting our impending doom. A few moments later Jasper gasps, his sharp intake of breath pulling my attention his way. I find his eyes fixed over my shoulder, widened in fear.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” I ask.
He blinks, his jaw hanging slack. “Sweet Jesus, who the hell is that?”
Turning, I look behind me to find Cade coming toward us, looking as badass as he is. His strides are long and determined and tattoos on full display, thanks to the muscle tank he wears. And his expression is just as hard as the rest of him. To most people he’s terrifying and threatening.
To me…he’s everything.
“That…is my dad,” I tell Jasper, pride thick in my voice.
“That man is your father?”
“He’s more than that. So much more,” I whisper, my eyes remaining on my best friend.
Cade storms into the office, stopping just in front of me. He grips my chin gently and turns my face to the side, assessing what I’m assuming is quite the welt that was left by Simon.
Rage dances in his hazel eyes, his jaw locking. “Who did this to you?” Before I can tell him his furious gaze snaps to Jasper. “Did you do this?”
Jasper shrinks back into his chair, shaking his head frantically. “N-no, Sir. I swear it wasn’t me.”
“It wasn’t,” I assure him, saving poor Jasper from crapping his fancy pants.
“Tell me what happened.”
I’m about to do just that but Mrs. Langley walks out of her office, chin lifted. “I’ll tell you exactly what happened, Mr. Walker. I walked out of the school to find Ruthie engaged in a fight with three other boys. She even had one in a headlock.”
It isn’t until she finishes that Cade turns and acknowledges her. “I didn’t ask you. I asked my daughter.”
The tightness in his voice does nothing to stop the butterflies in my tummy, just like it always does when I hear him call me his child.
Mrs. Langley’s back stiffens but she’s smart enough to keep her trap shut.
Cade’s eyes shift back to me. “Go ahead. Tell me what happened.”
“I was leaving school when I heard Butch and his friends picking on Jasper.” I jerk a thumb at the boy next to me, letting him know whom I’m talking about.
Jasper gives him a timid wave.
“Two of them were holding him back while Butch punched him. I told them to leave him alone. They didn’t, then they attacked me. Obviously, it was their mistake,” I add, knowing he’ll back me up for using my fists since it was necessary.
Cade looks around the office before bringing his attention to Mrs. Langley again. “Where are the others?”
“What others?” she asks stiffly.
“The little assholes who started all of this.”
She lifts her chin. “They were already running off by the time I got there. They looked pretty hurt so I was unable to ask them what happened.”
“I tried to tell you but you refused to listen to Jasper and me,” I shoot back. No way am I letting her act like she even gave a chance for explanation.
“Well, that’s your story, Ruth Jean.”
I grind my teeth, hating that she used my full name.
“And mine,” Jasper says, speaking up.
“We’ll see about that.”
“Yeah we will,” Cade says, his voice now dangerously low.
I know that tone well. It’s the calm before the storm.
“If I didn’t know better, lady, I’d think you have it out for my daughter.”
“That is simply not true.”
“Bullshit!” Cade bellows, making all of us jump. “Instead of punishing the right kids you haul in the victims and try to pin the blame on them. My daughter kicked their ass because they deserved it and since you aren’t dealing with their parents, I will. I’m also going to file a complaint against you with the school board.” He takes a step toward her, making her retreat back, her eyes widening nervously. “You pushed too far this time. Stay the hell away from my daughter. Or next time, I’ll do more than file a complaint. I’ll press charges for harassment.”
Mrs. Langley swallows timidly, her earlier confidence gone.
Cade points at me. “Get your stuff and lets go.”
Reaching down, I grab my book bag and skateboard then spare a quick goodbye to Jasper. “I’ll see ya tomorrow?”
He nods. “Yeah, thanks again for helping me.”
Standing, I don’t bother looking in Mrs. Langley’s direction and follow Cade out of the office. He’s quiet, but his anger is loud.
Halfway to his truck, I grab his arm, pulling him to a stop. “I’m really sorry, Big Guy. I know I said no m-m-ore fighting,” I stop, frustrated with myself for the stutter.
“You don’t need to apologize, kid. You know how I feel. I’m proud of you for helping someone who needed it. It was the right thing to do.”
I smile back at him, happy to know he’s not disappointed in me. I’ll take anything from him, including anger but not disappointment. That would kill me.
“Come here.” He pulls me in for a hug, his strong arms bringing me the love and safety I never had until he and Faith came along.
One I crave every day.
He drops a kiss on my beanie covered head. “Come on, kid, let’s get out of here.”
Minutes later we walk into the gym. It’s not until now that I’m finally able to take in my first full breath, releasing all the tension from the last hour.
This is my place. My sanctuary. It’s where I fit in and there’s not many places that I do. This is why I come almost every day. Not only to hang out with my dad but all the guys here, in some way, have impacted my life. They love me for who I am and think I’m cool.
“Well if it isn’t our little scrapper,” Sawyer announces, jumping down from the ring. His amusement vanishes when he spots my swollen cheek. “Who the hell did this?”
“Some punk and his buddies.”
“A guy hit you?” Jaxson says, his eyes sparking with anger.
“Yeah but don’t worry. They look a lot worse than I do,” I relay proudly.
Sawyer drapes an arm around my neck, pulling me in close. “That’s what I like to hear. Your dad has taught you well.”
I look over at Cade and find him watching me, his expression soft which is something rare to see. “Yeah, he has.”
What many don’t realize though, is other than teaching me how to defend myself, he taught me to love who I am, flaws and all. Both he and Faith have. And that means more than anything else ever could.
He will always be more than my dad, he’s my best friend.