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Mud Flat Press

Return to Freedom
by Alec Clayton

Chapter One

Bitsey can’t sleep. She pulls the thin sheet up to her chin and turns on her side with knees bent. A moment later she flips to the other side and squiggles against her husband, who responds without waking by turning onto his side facing away from her. It’s sweltering in the little tin can of a mobile home, and soon Bitsey yanks the sheet off and sits up on the side of the bed and slips her feet into a pair of fuzzy slippers. For a long time she sits on the edge of the bed shuffling her feet back and forth and looking at her husband while listening to the rain pound the roof, the off-and-on howl of wind. A hurricane is making its way toward the Mississippi Gulf Coast. At least Mississippi is one of Weatherman Donny’s predicted points of landfall. Bitsey is afraid. Maybe they should have evacuated already, but Malcolm had assured her that the following morning would be plenty soon enough. “I think we can trust Weatherman Donny and Sheriff Moss to tell us when we need to evacuate. But you and the kids can go to your mama’s tomorrow if that’ll make you feel safer. Me too if I don’t have to work.”

She looks down at Malcolm’s bony body, the long neck and the clavicle poking out, the tiny little paunch of a beer belly seemingly out of place on such a skinny man. She thinks he’s starting to look old. Do I look that old? Surely not. She thinks it’s odd that for all the hollering you hear from the media and from doctors about losing weight for a healthy body that skinny people look older than fat people—not that she’s really fat, just a healthy amount of meat on her bones.

Bitsey marvels that Malcolm and the kids can sleep so soundly while a killer storm bears down on them. She doesn’t know that only two of them are asleep. Molly, their youngest, is staring wide-eyed at the crucifix she had recently tacked to the wall in the bedroom she shares with older sister, Jamie Lew. She is praying to Jesus, “Save us, Lord, from this storm.” She wonders if there’s something she might have done to bring it on. There’s nothing she can think of. More likely something Justin did. Justin mostly keeps to himself and doesn’t have much to do with her and Jamie Lew, but she suspects some wild and sinful shenanigans on his part when he’s away from home.

A gust of wind shakes the trailer and Bitsey gets up and walks into the kitchen and opens the overhead cabinet and pulls out the bottle of Scotch and pours herself a drink. She carries it into the living room where she turns the TV to the weather channel with the volume turned down so as not to wake the whole house. She thinks about the kids, about how quickly they’re growing up and about Malcolm. She can sum him up in a few words. He’s a good man, but he’s distant. He was never particularly exciting. Well no, she revises that thought; he was pretty damn exciting as a teenager. He was a delinquent on the road to becoming a small-time hoodlum, but then he got reformed, and since then—she has to admit—he’s been pretty boring. She thinks, “I, myself, am a much more interesting person. I’d make a fascinating character in a book. Somebody ought to write about me.”




Bitsey Gardner Ashton has a habit of talking about the most embarrassing things with her teenage children. Usually at the breakfast table, which is about the only time she is ever talkative. No, that’s not always true—sometimes she’s so talkative you couldn’t shut her up if you hit her over the head with a two-by-four. Let’s face it, Bitsey is a lovable kook who entertains and amazes the hell out of her friends, but who can be infuriating with those she loves the most. OK, that’s not always true either. Matter of fact, Bitsey doesn’t talk very much to anyone except her husband and her kids: Malcolm, Justin, Jamie Lew and Molly. And sometimes of course to herself.

She can see already that that mythical writer trying to tell her story would have a hard time figuring out what to say. She’s too complex and contradictory.

Malcolm sometimes calls her a harpy, but never to her face. She constantly criticizes him and their children. As far as she’s concerned none of them apply themselves with proper vigor to saving the world from Republicans, Bible thumpers, warmongers and modern day robber barons—the scourge of the earth in her opinion. Not that she ever does anything about any of them either, except complain. Well what do you want from me, she complains to the writer. I got enough to do just keeping up with three teenagers and trying to survive on the pitiful salary Malcolm brings home from the Piggly Wiggly. The kids are always asking for stuff we can’t afford. Smart phones and I-pads or I-this or that’s, and fancy-name tennis shoes that cost an arm and a leg, and they talk about stuff I can’t fathom like zombies and magicians—why-in-the-world that crap is so popular is something I’ll never get—and something called steampunk, whatever-the-hell that is. And of course the girls are boy crazy, and they’re probably gonna end up pregnant before you know it, and god knows what Justin does or wants or thinks.

She knows damn good and well that Justin and Jamie Lew and Molly have inherited superior intellect. Of course they have, they got it from her. So why in the world do they act so dumb all the time?

Bitsey expresses her opinions obsessively, often in inappropriate situations, and she speaks without pausing between words as if she’s afraid if she allows a moment of silence she’ll never get to talk again. She often repeats words as if in stutter steps to get her started, such as, “It, it, it, it’s a beautiful day.” And when someone says something profound, which always surprises her because she thinks she’s the only deep thinker in the town of Freedom, she will slowly and breathlessly say, “Yeah (pause) yeah (pause) yeah,” sometimes four or five yeahs and usually with an extra-long pause before the last yeah as if the truth has been slowly sinking in and has finally arrived.

Her opinions are politically and socially radical. She describes herself as an anarchistic libertarian. As a young woman she believed in free love—a term dating from way before her time which she finds quaintly satisfying—and she loves to brag about how she once spent a week in a nudist camp, reveling and pshawing when people act shocked. She has no restraint in talking about sex and bodily functions and never seems to notice that she’s embarrassing her husband and her children who usually respect her opinions but wish she wouldn’t express them quite so much.

When she’s alone with her husband she seldom talks.

Malcolm seldom speaks his mind and usually presents himself as very unsure in his opinions. He thinks of himself, modestly, as a worker-bee who is good at taking orders but not very good at being the master of the house. Most days he goes off to work after breakfast and the kids go off to school, and Bitsey is left alone.

In the summertime when school is out the kids are off bowling or swimming or watching movies at one of the theaters in Biloxi, or the girls are shut up in their room playing video games or texting friends, and when Bitsey is left alone she watches her soap operas and afternoon talk shows and usually has a drink or two. Sometimes more if she’s really down. She gets the miseries easily.

“You’d be depressed too if you were even halfway aware of what’s going on in the world,” she told Malcolm when he suggested she see a counselor. “It’s called situational depression. I’d be crazy if I wasn’t depressed.”

But she was more than willing to see a counselor. She believes in therapy; she believes everyone should see a therapist. She’s been sending her thirteen-year-old to a psychiatrist for more than half of her life.

Bitsey donates money in dribs and drabs to a multitude of causes, Planned Parenthood, the women’s shelter on the Gulf Coast, Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU. Malcolm tells her if she really believes in these causes she should volunteer, which would be much better than just giving money. His money, he thinks but doesn’t dare add. Bitsey has a million excuses for not volunteering, but her only plausible excuse is they don’t have a second car and without one you can’t very well volunteer at organizations whose “local” headquarters are five, ten and twenty miles away. Freedom has no mass transit unless you count a couple of Yellow Cabs.

She doesn’t at all mind mortifying her kids by going on and on about embarrassing things they did when they were younger. Like how funny it was when Justin was two years old and had happily discovered his penis. He would get an erection and play with it in front of everybody. No shame at that age for Justin, but now at seventeen he wants to kill his mama for bringing it up.
“He called it a stiffy,” Bitsey said one day when Malcolm’s boss and his wife were over for dinner. Justin was not there, but both of the girls were. “Did I ever tell you about that?”

“Yes, Mama, about a gazillion times,” Jamie Lew said, and little sister Molly said, “Please, Mama. I don’t want to hear that yucky story again.” Molly, like her father, is a little bit modest if not downright prudish. It tickles Bitsey no end that she can easily embarrass her family.

Malcolm didn’t say a word, but he remembered Justin’s stiffy. They thought it was hilarious fifteen years ago, but they didn’t quite know how to react. What would be the best reaction from a child-rearing standpoint? Was it okay to laugh? Should they talk about it with him? Malcolm thought it was funny but still hoped the kid wouldn’t do it when they had company. Bitsey was astounded to discover that a two-year-old could actually get an erection. Maybe he was a little older, maybe four or five. They didn’t want to scold him or make him ashamed of what was a natural thing, but over the years as Justin grew up they shamed him nevertheless by repeating the story to friends and relatives time and again.



The town of Freedom in Freedom County was like a country all its own. It had been settled by freed slaves right after the Civil War and for almost a hundred years was run by crooked politicians and rum-runners, which meant in some ways it was not significantly different from many another town, but it did differ in certain particulars. Earl Ray Lawrence, known to one and all as Pop, and his father and grandfather before him—both of whom had also been called Pop in their day—had each been the power behind all the politics and most of the money in Freedom County since a poor sharecropper named Jedadiah Lawrence opened a small country store called Lawrence Grocery and Mercantile in 1866. From Jedadiah the store and the family’s increasing power and wealth passed through his son Talmedge Johnson Lawrence to T.J.’s son Earl Ray.

Pop was the power behind the power. The grunts on the ground responsible for the day-to-day workings of Freedom County were the county sheriff, Randy Moss, a succession of minor politicians, and a lovable black man named Sugar Rogers who owned a funeral parlor and ran what was affectionately known as the Negro Mafia. Everybody loved Sugar Rogers. He, in cahoots with Pop, had a hand in most of the gambling and liquor sales in Freedom County. But he didn’t live in Freedom. Hardly anybody in town knew where he did live, but they knew it couldn’t be far. Neither did they know anything about his family life. Sugar’s wife and daughter and his business dealings were different countries with no diplomatic relations.

Until the 1930s Freedom was the only fully integrated town in a wholly segregated South, but in the thirties and forties a number of wealthy white families from the industrial Midwest moved into the area and soon the town became almost as segregated as any other Mississippi town, complete with separate schools for blacks and whites. Yet, despite pressure from some segments of Freedom’s new white population, a few public facilities, including a couple of restaurants and the town swimming pool, remained color blind. The local schools voluntarily desegregated a full decade before any other schools in Mississippi. Interracial marriages were not unheard of either, even though they were not legal in Mississippi until the Supreme Court ruled on it in 1967. Malcolm Ashton was a light skinned black man, and his wife, Bitsey, was white. Their daughters, Molly and Jamie Lew, looked white; Justin’s mixed racial heritage showed more clearly than did that of either of his sisters.

Storms were not uncommon in Freedom. There had been half a dozen flash floods during Malcolm’s life, and they had felt the fury of Camille and Katrina and some lesser hurricanes. The early morning sky that day looked to have been painted by Matisse or Derain. It was streaked with a wash of muted pink at the horizon that bled upward into a strange greenish glow, a momentary lull in the rain that had been intermittent for three days and steady for at least twenty-four hours.

Eight miles north of town in his room in the rundown Bateman Motor Court Sonny Staples was dead to the world. If he had been awake to see the strangely colored sky he would have fallen down on his knees and prayed to Sweet Jesus saying, “Lift me up, oh Lord, to my heavenly reward,” because to Sonny any strange weather phenomenon was a sign the rapture was at hand. Being pretty darn sure he would be among the blessed when the rapture came, Sonny was anxious for its arrival. But Sonny was not awake that morning. He had got himself stewed stupid the night before and was sleeping as heavily as a bear in winter. That would soon come to an end, however. Hung over or not, storm coming or not, he had promised to work his church-sponsored free coffee service at the rest stop north of Freedom that morning. It was six-thirty. His alarm was set for eight.

To Malcolm Ashton, who was awake and looking out to the north through the rain-streaked window of his trailer home, it was as if the whole world were radioactive. The barometric pressure made him feel like his insides were going to explode. He was pretty sure there wasn’t any damn rapture coming, because he didn’t believe in the end times or heaven or hell or a god in heaven; although he did believe in the teachings, if not the divinity, of the man called Jesus. He was pretty sure that what was coming was a hurricane. He knew because Weatherman Donny had been talking about it almost non-stop for two days on Channel 7.
Even that early and even with wind off the Gulf and the constant rain, the thermometer outside his trailer registered in the eighties. Three miles to the south and east of the Ashton’s mobile home a fierce wind blew off Little Bay and flattened the grasses on the shores of Walker Cove. Along the nearby coastal waters from Pascagoula to Bay St. Louis shrimpers were busy securing their boats. The wind made landfall and picked up speed as it rushed up Liberty Street where it was funneled between the rival high schools, Booker T on the left and Freedom High on the right. Already an inch of water covered the surface of the football field. The wind swept downward and hydroplaned across the wet grass and then rose against the press box on the west side bleachers and ripped off the cloth banner that said “Revival Meeting Sept. 1 at 10 a.m.” The banner flew across the gym and slapped upside-down on the wall of the Booker T cafeteria. Another mile and a half farther to the northeast the weeping willow outside Malcolm and Bitsey Ashton’s ratty little trailer home was dancing to a frantic rhythm. Rain pounded the metal side of the trailer in a solid sideways sheet. And then it slacked off, but only slightly.

Bitsey had finally gone back to bed at four o’clock that morning and was now fast asleep. Malcolm pushed himself up to sit on the edge of the bed and felt along the floor with his bare feet for the slippers he remembered leaving there when he went to bed. The phone rang. He picked up the receiver and mumbled, “Hello.”

It was his boss, Fred Dalton, calling from the Piggly Wiggly. “Ain’t no use a coming in this morning. We ain’t gonna open up. Bubbles and Sparkles have done hightailed it out of town, and I reckon you and yours better do the same while the getting’s good.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m gonna batten down the hatches.”

“Then I’ll help you.” He was now standing next to the beatup old easy chair, but he hadn’t sat down. He stretched the phone cord over to the bed to get down on his knees and look under the bed for his slippers.

“Ain’t no need for you to come in,” Fred said, but Malcolm said, “Ain’t no need for you to do it all by your lonesome neither.”
Bitsey stirred awake when the phone rang. She pushed herself up and adjusted her pillow and asked, just as Malcolm hung up, “Was that Fred?”

“Yep.”

“What’d he want?”

“Said he needs me early. Just gonna be me and him this morning.”

“That man’s a slave driver. It’s bad enough that he wants you to work at all on a day like this. Ain’t suitable for man nor beast out there. I bet that snooty bitch Marybeth ain’t coming in today and not that other kid neither.”

Malcolm reached far under the bed to retrieve his slippers.

His father, dead now all these many years since the backhoe he was driving flipped and landed on top of him, was a light-skinned black man married to a blonde with skin as white as cream, so Malcolm’s family was a second generation mixed marriage, which was unusual even for Freedom.

Malcolm was wearing old boxer shorts and nothing else. The early morning light made the sweat beads on the back of his neck glisten. It was a steaming hot morning following a humid night. He thought about humidity: Is there such a thing as humidity above a hundred percent? Wouldn’t that just be soup? But that’s what it felt like to Malcolm. That’s why he hadn’t been able to sleep. That and his dread about the coming storm. Had to get his family safely out of town. Had to help his boss secure the store. He was beholden to all of them, and he did not take his responsibilities lightly.

He muttered, “How in tarnation did them slippers get way up under there?”

“The cat must a dragged ’em,” Bitsey said.

“I got to go in early and you got to get going too, so go get the kids up.”

Bitsey pulled herself out of bed and slid her feet into her fuzzy pink slippers, which were right where she had left them. For reasons they could never fathom the cat loved to play with his slippers but never touched hers. Must have been the smell of his. Bitsey liked to tease that he had the stinkiest toe jam south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Like Malcolm, Bitsey was wearing nothing but underpants, a pair of his boxers, white with a Valentine’s heart print. She liked wearing his boxers because they let more air in. She would sleep bare ass naked, but if she did that he wouldn’t ever leave her be. Bitsey was a good deal larger than Malcolm, with a solid gut and large breasts that drooped ever so slightly. Malcolm loved to bury his face between them.

She had just turned thirty-nine last week.

She threw a lightweight robe over her shoulders. “I’ll get the girls up. You wake Justin and put the coffee on.”
Their bedroom was at the front of the mobile home. To get to the kitchen and the bedroom that the girls shared they had to pass through the living room where Justin slept on the couch. He’d kicked the sheets off. He was wearing nothing on his boney body but tiny red and purple thong underwear that did little to hide an obvious erection.

“My God! Cover that up,” Bitsey said. Justin turned on his side and pulled the sheet back up to his chest. None of the Ashtons gave a second thought to running around with little or nothing on. When it came to nakedness they were as blasé as animals in nature. All but their youngest girl, Molly, who, along with her newfound piety, had recently discovered modesty. The rest of them thought nothing of running around half dressed if not all the way buck naked. But Justin’s erection was a little much even for Malcolm and Bitsey.

Malcolm stared at the protrusion as if mesmerized.

“What are you looking at?” the boy asked when he opened his eyes.

Bitsey refrained from voicing her thoughts, which were: It’s a Goddamn pissing match. What’s with it with men and their equipment anyway, and what’s with their obsession with size? Damn. Next thing you know they’re gonna be asking me to get out my tape measure. And another thought hovering inarticulate in her mind was: Seems like just last week he was a baby playing with his stiffy.

Justin rolled over to his side and tightened the sheet around his body.

“Get up, boy,” Malcolm said. “You got to get going.”

“Gimme a break,” he murmured.

Bitsey pushed past them to head to the girls’ room. She tapped lightly on the door once only and then she pushed the door open.
The girls, Molly, thirteen, and Jamie Lew, seventeen, were curled up in a flop of arms, legs and hair in old twin beds they had since they were much younger. Jamie Lew’s hair flowed all the way down to her hips, said hips being at the moment a bed for their scrawny black cat Jezebel, who was sound asleep on top of her.

Jamie Lew was naked; Molly was wearing short pajama pants and a T-shirt. Both girls had inherited their mother’s soft, round body, puffy cheeks and big breasts and hips. They both struggled to keep their bellies relatively small. It was a battle they were so far winning, but they both knew they’d eventually get to be as big as their mama—not that their mama was fat. “We Ashton girls are pleasingly plump,” Bitsey liked to point out.

Molly was deeply tanned from spending summer afternoons sunbathing at the pool. She longed for dark skin and thought it unfair that she had not inherited African features from their father’s side of the family as she had recently become infatuated with the history of Africans in America and wanted to identify herself as black. She hated that she looked so damn white. The only thing remotely of color she could see when she looked in the mirror was a head full of thick reddish-black hair. She had soft, full cheeks and deep dimples. Her round nose was flat on the tip as if pressed with a spatula. She thought it was hideous, but others thought it cute. Both girls were more attractive than they thought they were, each in her own way; they looked nothing like sisters. Jamie Lew was taller. She had high cheekbones and a barely noticeable cleft in her chin.

That strange early-morning light washed across their bodies. Jamie Lew stirred a bit and tried in her sleep to reach for the sheet her mother had yanked away, but Molly remained so dead to the world that she might as well have been in a coma. “Ya’ll wake up now,” Bitsey said. “Come on now. Get a rise on. We’re going to Mama Gardner’s.”

Getting the girls out of bed—especially Molly—had always been a battle. Bitsey had long since given up on waking them gently. She grabbed an edge of the sheet that was partially covering Molly and jerked it away.

“We know that,” Jamie Lew muttered.

“Well we got to leave early. The road’s gonna be jammed up worser’n hogs at a trough.”

Jamie Lew dragged herself to a sitting position. The cat hopped off the bed and skedaddled. Finally showing signs of life, Molly felt around for the discarded sheet and pulled it up over her head, burrowing in like some kind of rodent.

“Dammit, girl. I mean it. Rise and shine.”

Jamie Lew said, “I ain’t going out there if Justin’s naked.”

“Well you’re naked too.”

“Last time I walked out there and seen him naked like that he had a boner. Gross.”

“He’s always got a boner,” Molly said. “He’s disgusting.”

The inevitable stiffy talk ensued, and then Bitsey said, “He’s dressed already. Like ya’ll oughta be,” hoping she was right.
Jamie Lew got up and pulled a T-shirt over her head—an extra-extra-large that hung halfway down her thighs—and she headed for the door. Her T-shirt had a picture of the band Green Day. In the front room Justin stepped into a pair of tight jeans and stumbled toward the bathroom. He bumped into Jamie Lew, who was just emerging from her room. “God. Watch where you’re going,” she said, and they raced for the bathroom. Justin got there first and slammed the door behind him. Jamie Lew stood outside the door squirming and pleading for him to hurry up.

Little by little the Ashton family dressed and gathered in the front room. Malcolm and Bitsey and Justin drank coffee, and the girls ate cereal. The television was on. It had been left on all night. Mary Ann Wilson was blathering about eating yogurt and doing yoga on her Channel 7 morning show “Back Bay Morning.” The Ashtons had packed the car the night before with just about everything they could cram in except for Jamie Lew and Justin’s laptops, which would be the last things to go. God forbid they’d be disconnected from the Internet for more than half an hour. Justin was already texting somebody—probably Abdul Taylor, Malcolm thought, or that skinny girl he’d seen with him down at Little Don’s, the one that played Sleeping Beauty in the school play.
Channel 7 switched to Weatherman Donny’s storm report. There was a blurry picture of someone standing in front of some kind of railing with a lot of gray in the background. The picture broke into hundreds of little digital bits and the screen went blank, but Donny’s voice could still be heard saying, “This is Weatherman Donny, Channel 7 News coming to you from a pier on the gulf in Biloxi. We seem to have lost our video feed. It’s eerily dark and quiet where I am standing. The highway and the beach and clubs are deserted. The only sound is the pounding of wind and rain.”

Suddenly both audio and video went blank. Channel 7 was off the air. Malcolm switched channels and found a weather report from a New Orleans station. A meteorologist was saying the hurricane was now listed as a category three, it was south of Mobile and headed northwest, expected to hit land near the Mississippi-Louisiana border. That would put Freedom very near the eye of the storm. That station switched to a sports report and Malcolm flipped channels some more until he found another station reporting on the storm. They said the hurricane was swirling in a holding pattern a hundred miles offshore south of the Mississippi-Alabama border. The outer perimeter of the storm was over the barrier islands. It was WDAM in Hattiesburg. The weather girl was saying everyone within fifty miles of the coast should evacuate. The picture switched to Freedom County Sheriff Randy Moss reporting from the lobby of a hotel saying “If you can’t get out on your own call the storm hotline and someone will arrange to help you.” He read out the storm hotline number as it scrolled across the bottom of the screen.

A clap of thunder shook the trailer. Malcolm said, “It’s time to go. Everybody in the car. Let’s go. Come on, now.”

Jamie Lew said, “I need to get like a change of clothes and like my makeup and my book.”

Both girls quickly shoved their chairs back and stood up.

Molly said, “My diary. I can’t leave my diary here.”

“Did you take your pills?” Bitsey asked.

“Yes, Mama, I took my pills,” Molly said with an obvious twinge of disgust.

Molly had always been rebellious, stubbornly ignoring her parents’ orders—especially her mother’s. “She’s just moody. She’ll grow out of it,” Malcolm had argued, but Bitsey thought she was bi-polar. She started sending her to a child psychologist when she was six years old, and she started seeing Dr. Phelps when she was thirteen. She hated him. He always wanted to talk about sex, and sex was the last thing she wanted to talk about with that ugly old man. He wanted to know if she masturbated. He wanted to know if she had erotic dreams. He had started asking about those things about the time her breasts started developing, and she thought that was why. It was at about the same time that he started prescribing a variety of different drugs, plus he had recommended vitamins and things like St. John’s Wort and Ginkgo Biloba.

The girls rushed to their rooms to grab the things they believed they absolutely had to take with them.
Justin said, “Gimme a second. I gotta pee.”

“You just did,” Malcolm said.

“Well I gotta do it again.”

“You shouldn’t have to pee so much,” Bitsey said. “Next week I’m going to take you to Doc Duvall and have him give you a complete checkup.”

Ignoring his mother, Justin pushed away from the table and took one last sip of his coffee and headed to the bathroom again. From behind his skintight jeans cupped his butt cheeks.

Kids at school teased him about his flamboyant dress, the flowery shirts and skinny pants and his penchant for purple. He knew the torment would stop if he’d just give in and dress like everybody else, but he was stubborn. He figured he had a right to dress any damn way he wanted to. Toward the end of the previous school year they’d taken to calling him Toro. At first he didn’t know why they picked that name to torture him. It didn’t seem to mean anything that he could think of, but when some of the boys started holding their hands up to their heads in imitation of horns and charging at him like a bull at a matador, bumping him and knocking him around, he figured it out that they thought his tight jeans and purple shirt made him look like a bull fighter. That wasn’t so bad. He actually thought it was sort of fun. He could be a bull fighter, he thought. He could be dashing and brave. But the other kids wouldn’t play right. The bull was supposed to go for his cape, which he would swirl to his side in a graceful balletic motion. Would they see that as gay? Of course they would. When they kept bumping him and wouldn’t stop when he asked them to, he tried at first to laugh it off, but soon—despite his mightiest intentions—he started crying, and then they started calling him crybaby and saying, “Ooooh look at the big bad matador crying like a girl. That’s so gay.”

“Quit it,” he said. He stood his ground and started pushing back. He might be quick to cry, he couldn’t help it, but he was no pushover. Justin was a big boy, a little bit skinny but no wimp. The other kids picked on him because he never fought back and because they thought of him as a scrawny weakling, even though in the past year he had bulked up some and could probably hold his own in a fight with any one of them if he chose to fight back.

He had been set back a year in school because he had missed a lot due to illness back in elementary school and had never been able to catch up. He should have graduated from high school already, so the kids decided he must be stupid and told him so.
Four of his classmates pinned him against the side of the building one day and started slapping at him. It looked like it was going to escalate into flying fists and he knew he was probably going to get hurt—again. He wondered where in the hell the teachers were. They were always there until you needed them. He made up his mind to fight back this time. He figured they might beat the crap out of him, but what the hell. He told himself he’d go down fighting. He punched his assailants and grabbed at them, and he felt the satisfying jolt of his fist slamming into somebody’s cheekbone, and he wondered for a second why he’d never fought back before. It felt good to get a few solid punches in. But then he felt hard punches to his mouth and his eye and punches to his gut that took his breath away, and he clutched at his stomach and doubled over in pain and dropped to his knees, and finally his friend Abdul came to his rescue. Abdul had seen what was happening, and he crossed the school yard and stepped in between Justin and the bullies and said, “Ya’ll want to fight. All right, let’s have at it. I think the sides are a little more even now.”

Justin’s tormentors immediately turned and fled, because Abdul Taylor was huge. Nobody messed with Abdul.

After that Justin hung out with Abdul as often as he could, and he avoided everyone else as much as possible. He quit going to the bowling alley and the skating rink. He started staying at home and working out a lot. He made a barbell out of a piece of pipe and pair of coffee cans filled with concrete. He lifted weights and did crunches and pull-ups and started running every evening—half a mile on his first run and working his way up to six miles by August. He also started eating more with an emphasis on proteins and carbohydrates hoping to bulk up like Abdul. He hated to admit that his friendship with Abdul was one sided. Abdul always had some excuse when he wanted to do stuff with him. He always had to work or go somewhere with his father or he had a date with Beulah Booker. He was with Beulah almost constantly throughout the summer following their senior year, meaning Justin was left alone.

Sometimes Justin hated everyone, most of all himself.

None of the Ashton children was extremely popular or happy. Jamie Lew was something of a loner and a book worm and had consistently been at the top of her class since first grade. The other kids called her brown nose and teacher’s pet. She was shy, and she thought of herself as ugly. She had close set eyes that didn’t always appear to be focusing perfectly, which was a sometimes off-putting feature, but she was quite attractive. Jamie Lew was in love with Abdul Taylor but knew she couldn’t compete with Beulah. If Abdul even noticed her at all it was as Justin’s weird little sister. Molly was shorter with more of a puffball body. At thirteen she had the largest breasts of any girl in school, which caused unwanted attention from the boys, who either made fun of her big boobs or tried to grab them. The other kids sometimes referred to her as happy-go-lucky, but she was not always as happy as she appeared. She laughed a lot, but not always appropriately, and sometimes threw temper tantrums for no apparent reason. Her mother criticized her unmercifully. “You’re fat. You eat like a pig. Why can’t you be smart like your sister?” It seemed she could do nothing right.

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