The Boy Without a Tribe
a novel by
Robert Bookout

Chapter One

The Boy Without a Tribe

Who is this guy? Twenty pull-ups and he doesn’t even break sweat. My hands are sweating buckets. Wiping them on my gym trunks doesn’t help, at least not much. Next in line, I wipe them again. It doesn’t help. They’ll slip off as soon as I hit the bar.

Just before he drops from the bar, I catch the basketball tat on his forearm. All of the jocks have one depicting their sport. Some have several — track, tennis, you name it.

Tattoos aren’t my thing, but then, running, jumping, athletics in general, aren’t my thing either. I’m not very good at them. Maybe it’s because all the guys in my school are older, even the freshmen — bigger and faster too. And why is that? Because mom and dad, in all their adult wisdom, felt they had to start me in school before other kids my age. And, as if that wasn’t enough, later on — in the fourth grade to be exact — they chose to exacerbate the problem by getting school to skip me forward a year. For my future, they said. Unfortunately, it was a future that my mom would never see. Months later, a teen driver high on meth, crossing over a divided highway at 100 plus, struck my mom’s car head-on. He lived. She died, instantly.

I’m just finishing my sophomore year here at Excelsior. And I hope it ends better than it started. The first week I discovered the bully, Carlos Estrada, lying near dead outside the school library, bleeding from his nose, from an ear, one side of his face swollen and bruised. He regained consciousness for a few seconds. His eyes angry, locked mine, then suddenly changed to terror, and then closed. They never opened again.

Thirteen now, I’ll be graduating high school at barely fifteen. Then what, college with guy’s already voting age or maybe university where I’ll wade amidst a sea of adults? I can hardly wait.

Not even summer yet, not for another couple of weeks, and except for that freak thunderstorm last week, the heat that came early is threatening to stay forever — global warming or El Nino. Go figure.

Close behind me, Coach ‘Butch’ Parnell’s minty breath parts my hair. His hands grip my waist preparing to lift me to the bar.

Hot and slippery, impossible to reach, my worst nightmare that bar. There are others to be sure — a house where the last light bulb suddenly goes black, eyes in the night staring from low branches, a machete chopping at the bushes where I hide, to name a few, besides the one where not only are all the light bulbs out, every room is strewn with sticky webs set by hideously large spiders, poisonous, that squash invisibly beneath my feet, their webs clinging to my face.

Still, that bar is real. Yet, it’s a nightmare just the same and high up there along with the junk yard Doberman that attacked me last year when walking across town to the skating rink. The German shepherd with him pushed his body against the small opening between the gates of the fence. Secured by a padlock and steel chain, it wasn’t supposed to open. It did — the chain too loose.

The shepherd grabbed my leg in a vice like grip, shaking it back and forth, while the Doberman made a pass at my throat. He missed. Before he could rally for a second pass, a driver in a pickup truck bumped the dogs, sending them scurrying. He gave me a ride home. Still in shock, I never asked his name. I still have the scar from the shepherd’s teeth. But it is the fear of the Doberman that lurks.

“Up we go Bobby.” With barely a grunt, he lifts me up for the umpteenth time this semester. Coach is an ex running back, probably the shortest ever to play pro football. He’s our athletic director, and a sometimes teacher. I manage another quick wipe of my hands on my shirt and then grab the bar. It’s like trying to grip a hot greased rod. I can barely hang on let alone do the required six.

No, I can’t hang on, this I know. But then, just as my fingers are slipping from the bar, second thoughts kick in. Maybe, if I’d tried harder earlier in the year, then maybe… I grasp the bar again, a second effort. One hand stays on just a little longer than the other, but I’m off balance. I dangle then fall. I hit the dirt on my toes followed quickly by my knees then my hands. My glasses fly into the sand. There’s a chuckle from a couple of morons in the class.

Excelsior is a private school. Unlike public schools that have nice foam cushions, we have sandboxes beneath the high bars, sawdust beneath the vault crossbars. On my hands and knees, sifting for my glasses, I feel the sand just below the surface still wet and sticky from that freak storm, but the surface is summer hot.

Summer means camp. And after that, some sort of months-long world trip my dad has planned for the two of us. I’ll be out of school a full four months instead of three. In expectation of the extended summer, I reluctantly quit my part-time usher job at Rave Cinemas. Thereby ending my ability to see R rated films like Constantine that I saw, and loved, earlier this year.

I had glanced briefly, unimpressed, at the camp brochures my dad left in my room. Without much input from me, he found a place to stash me for the first three weeks of summer, a church camp. Some hellhole with moronic counselors, baseball, horses, and of course, bullies. Something, another thing for me to endure while he slips off to some tropical paradise, lounging, sipping one of those fruity drinks with the little paper umbrella floating: relaxing. Except if a kid were doing the same thing, they’d call it loafing. Successful adults don’t loaf. They relax. Only bums loaf, bums, and kids. My dad is successful.

 “Ah, here they are.” I pick my glasses out of the sand — a light prescription designed to correct astigmatism. I’m supposed to have laser surgery next year so I won’t have to wear them anymore. Blowing the sand off, it’s damp and sticks to the glass. Resorting to wiping them on my shirt between my thumb and index finger, I feel the wet sand cutting microscopic scratches in the polished lenses.

“Come on chubby get out of the sandbox,” Matt yells.

Thinking to myself, ‘name’s Bobby you creep,’ adjusting my glasses, doing my best to ignore Matt’s insult, I brush at the sand embedded in my knees, then at the tiny scar on the inside of my thigh where the implant is located. Doctor Malloy had talked my dad into it. I objected at first. But dad insisted. And he was right. It hadn’t hurt. It just left me sore for a couple of weeks afterward.

“Or maybe we should just bring you a little pail and shovel? Let you play in the sand, build a little castle maybe.” Laughter erupts from his cronies. Some of it sounds forced. It wasn’t that funny. The rest of the class stands by, uneasy, a potential scent of blood in the air.

“That’s okay Bobby.” Support from my friend Lance. “It was a good try Bobby.” Nobody argues with him, especially not Matt. This has been Lance’s first year here at Excelsior and it will be his last. Two years older than me, he’s not quite sixteen. Like me, he was skipped forward a year in school. Lance is a senior. He’ll graduate this year.

Matt would fold if Lance came to my rescue. But I know that moral support is all that Lance can give me. If he intervened, I’d be the laughing stock of the school. Maybe I am already, I don’t know, but that would clinch it.

Lance Malloy is athletic, tall, with long swimmer’s muscles. Yet next to Matt, he looks slight. But there is no way that Matt would dare challenge him. Matt is a bully. He’s not about to pick on someone like Lance. He knows that Lance came out of South Central. He knows that school’s reputation and Lance doesn’t have any scars to attest to his attendance. What he doesn’t know is that Lance would probably avoid a fight. He doesn’t believe in fighting. That’s what he recently confided. He hasn’t always been that way though. This is recent, his proclaimed pacifism. I think it started when he switched over to Excelsior. I know that he was involved in a few altercations at South Central, a couple he admitted to instigating. Maybe he wanted to reform. He’ll fight, but only as a last resort, and only if no other option is available. I pressed him into admitting that.

Big for the tenth grade, big and freckle faced, Matt is about the right size to be a junior or maybe even a senior. I picture Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer to look like Matt. Tom always seemed like a bully to me, taking delight into beating up other kids, yet they foist him on us as a fictional folk hero. Go figure.

Matt used to hustle for Carlos Estrada. Until his death, Carlos had been the head bully. All the other bullies, including Matt, had paid tribute to him. The biggest and meanest kid in the school, he was getting a cut off everything they extorted. But the good thing about Carlos — Carlos had rules. He assigned victims to each bully, and limited the amount of extortion. It was kind of like dues. You knew what to expect, when and who to pay. He brought order.

Though I’d seen Carlos strutting around campus, I had managed to stay out of his path my freshman year. But I found out later that that was probably unnecessary — supposedly, he didn’t pick on anyone except the other bullies. Nor would he pick fights either. That is, unless an opponent met his criteria. They had to be bigger, if not bigger then stronger and with a reputation for being tough — the guys he chose to fight. At least that’s the legend of Carlos.

The bad thing about Carlos — Carlos was brutal. Brutal, and fast. In a fight, if Carlos were involved, you could count on someone going down, and you could count on Carlos hitting him on his way down — hitting him at least four more times before he hit the ground.

It had happened between classes. Cops at first said that he had fallen down the steps. Hit his head. Then later, forensics determined the cause of death. He hadn’t hit his head at all. Somebody had clobbered him. Brutally pummeling him hard upside the head near his ear, right where the jaw connects. Pummeled him a bunch of times — murder, they said.

The police speculate that his assailants held him to keep his head from hitting the concrete steps while repeatedly striking him. What with, they couldn’t say, other than that one of his assailants wore a ring. A ring with the face of a coin, a penny, left its imprint on his skin. Also, they might have used a weapon, but definitely not a hammer or hard weapon, something more pliable. Keeping his head off the concrete protected his skull. They either were trying to keep from killing him, or just wanted to prolong the pain.

It’s still an open homicide case. No weapon found, no ring, — I personally have never seen anyone wearing a ring featuring a penny and can’t imagine why anyone would want one — no witnesses either. At least none came forward. So, nobody knows for sure what happened. But everybody at school figures that some of his underlings became tired of his rules, or of paying him off. I think they are wrong.

It must have happened fast. So I figure it was just one guy instead of several. Kids were almost constantly up and down those steps. The assault couldn’t have gone on for long.

Without Carlos, order became chaos. Matt, for instance, hits me up for money every time he sees me. Before, that could never have happened. He would have collected once a week and always the same amount.

All the other bullies, and there are several, seem to have for the most part pretty much followed Matt’s lead into chaos — collecting on whim, punching for no reason.

Typical bullies. I can’t imagine which one of them would have had the courage to challenge Carlos in the first place, or the power to overcome him if they had. Had to have been a senior, a big guy, but even then, I can’t imagine anyone holding Carlos immobile while beating him. Of course, several of his followers could have attacked him. That’s what the police seemed to conclude. But to me, that seems unlikely. That would have made a racket, drawn a crowd. No, it had to be one guy, a senior.

And not Lance, the attack had come the first week of school. Lance, just transferred, barely had enough time to find his way around, let alone have a problem with Carlos. If he did, he would have sidestepped. He wouldn’t have beaten the guy’s brains out.

But then, maybe it could have been Matt. I wouldn’t put it past him to have figured out a way to distract Carlos and then hit him with something before he saw it coming. He even seemed guilty. For days afterward he could be seen high-fiveing other bullies, gloating about something, the death of Carlos maybe.

Matt either started school late or was set back a year, probably the latter, maybe both. He’s big, fast, and coordinated. In another time, Matt might have been gladiator material. He’d gladly fight anything or anyone smaller or slower. He’s a bully and mean to the point of being cruel. He’s the guy they’d let into the arena to slaughter the unarmed peasants, not the fighter that would challenge Spartacus. But still, clobber him with his back turned — yeah.

Yeah, Carlos was a bad guy. But, in my opinion, whoever killed him did justice a hard turn. Actions create reactions. The murderer unleashed the rabid dogs of sloth and greed — here at Excelsior anyway.

I’m getting out of the way of the next guy in line for the high-bar. Matt is glaring at me. Ignoring him, I brush one last time at the sand embedded in my knees then wipe my hands on my tee shirt.


“CRETIN,” I MUMBLE under my breath, a little louder than intended, a little louder than healthy. I’m moving just slow enough to appear insolent. I know I’m doing it, but I can’t help myself.

“Watch who you’re callin’ names punk.”

I give him a blank look. I should have never done that. It sets him off. Incensed, the gladiator lunges toward me. In his haste, he trips. Falling to one knee further fuels his fury. Nostrils flaring, uncontrollably angry, his face instantly reddens as if somewhere someone flipped a switch to add a bucket full of color, beet red, to his otherwise pale complexion.

I stare at the deep trench his impact has dug in the sand, unearthing the damp soil beneath the surface.

“You jerk off…” Still on one knee, switching to the other, having trouble finding the words to express his anger, “…little prick…” he spits out.

Avoiding eye contact, I look back down at the trench. If you look a Doberman in the eyes, he thinks that you’re challenging him.

“Duck!” Lance yells.

I don’t.

I look up instead. Up into a handful of sand thrown from deep in the trough where his knee had landed. Wet and sticky, flung at close range with the added strength his angered body has acquired, it catches me full force in the face. My glasses shield my eyes, but a large clump catches me in the mouth. I feel the grit on my teeth. Sputtering, I spit sand, the way I did that time at the beach when I accidentally chomped into a windblown ham sandwich. Only this is worse. My lips and face sting incredibly.

Matt, suddenly on his feet, grabs me by my shirt, jerking me onto tiptoes.

“Pansy bastard…”

He’s right in my face, jerking me back and forth. Looking down at the bully tattoo at his wrist, a bulldog’s face, I hear a ripping sound. It’s my shirt. The strong odor of Big Mac and fries blast my nostrils. Spittle from his angry words sprays my face, glasses. His hands release my torn shirt and in one quick movement, clutch my throat.

Instantly, my body begins to vibrate. I’m shaking harder than any cold a snowstorm could muster, but some perverse emotion is starting to like the feeling. It’s as if a giant belt hooked to an enormous vibrator is wrapped around my body, shaking every fiber, rattling my teeth. I’m kind of light and numb at the same time. My body quivers with intensity unlike anything I’ve ever known.

“How about I jist…”

That’s all I hear. There’s a magnificent flash of light. I must have looked directly into the sun. Next thing I’m flat on my back — the football at the bottom of a huddle — looking up at Matt, Coach, and several students including Lance. Coach is talking but I have to close my eyes to listen. The words don’t match the movement of his lips. I don’t quite comprehend — something about damage to the central nervous system — and certainly don’t see the relevance of, given that I’m lying here flat on my back and suspect that the damage is limited to little more than my pride. Opening my eyes again, I look up at Coach. He’s talking to Matt. His voice sounds muffled. It has an unreal quality, echoing as if he’s in a ceramic chamber or talking on a cellphone in a tile bathroom. Though his voice at first didn’t sound like his, it does now. Suddenly, like a film coming into sync with the sound track, the movement of his mouth and the sound of his words match.

“Whoa, hold on mister.” He holds his arm straight out, his palm flat toward Matt, like a crossing guard stopping traffic. “How about you just back off…”

Coach is looking Matt in the eyes, locking them to his. He doesn’t see Matt’s foot move just enough to flick a little more sand in my face. Still holding his arm straight out, holding him back, his eyes still locking Matt’s, he offers his other hand. Vibrating like the wire on a steel guitar, I clasp his hand. He pulls me up. I come up weightless, incredibly light on my feet.

“Thanks,” wiping more sand from my mouth, it has a strange beefy taste reminding me vaguely of prime rib.

Lance tosses me a towel.

“You’re bleeding.”

Catching it, I begin offhandedly patting my face. Pulling the towel back, I notice the blood staining the white fabric. My knees begin to wobble. My head feels lighter than it should and pinpricks of light are flashing in Coach’s silhouetted face. The way Lance is looking at me, I must look like I’m about to biff the ground. I saw a guy standing in a line outside in the sun one time just before he passed out. His face went pale, his body stiff as a board. He sort of swayed back and forth a little, a branch in a breeze, then, like a felled tree, went face forward into a hedge. I feel myself start to sway. I look around for the hedge.

 “Looks a lot worse than it is,” Lance reassures me.

There isn’t a hedge close by. I take a deep breath and force myself to stop swaying.

“Something sharp in the sand, a piece of glass, a small rock maybe… Put some pressure on it. It’ll stop.”

I do.

Coach grabs Matt’s arm.

“This is going to get you expelled mister.”

No! A voice in my head screams. Getting him expelled isn’t going to make him go away. He lives not two hundred yards from me.

“What? Expelled! You hear what the little twerp called me?” He’s sounding a little more collected, still pissed, but more collected. The beet juice red, from what I can tell with his back to the sun, his face in shadows, is beginning to fade.

“No. Actually I didn’t. Just what was it that could have elicited a physical response as violent as the one you just demonstrated mister?”

“A creep… n somethin’ else…he called me.”

This whole thing is escalating. I offhandedly throw the towel aside, hopefully before anyone notices the blood. Holding my finger against the cut has pretty much stopped the flow. But still, you don’t want to be bleeding while surrounded by a pack of salivating wolves.

My mind is racing, looking for a way to diffuse the situation. If the school expels him, I’ll have an enemy for life. It’s bad enough the bullying, having lunch money extorted, being yelled at, intimidated. I can handle that. Matt does that to just about anyone smaller. But if he’s expelled, things here at school won’t change that much. Someone else will just take over where he left off. And then there would still be Matt, living almost right next door. What I won’t be able to handle, will be becoming, exclusively, ‘Matt’s special project.’

“I jist threw some sand …” Matt stammers something else that I can’t quite catch. I’m having difficulty staying on my feet. I can’t really see Coach and Matt. They’re just silhouettes against a bright light — the sun? I feel myself began to sway again, and then force my body to behave.

“My fault,” I confess, “I shouldn’t have mouthed off, saying that about his mother and… all,” I lie. I can almost feel my nose growing longer. I’d cross my fingers behind my back, but I’m afraid I’d lose my balance.

“What about my mother, creep!” Matt yells, incensed anew, his body straining against Coach’s grip.

“Nothing, I didn’t mean for it to be a euphemism for something bad…” Shrinking back, I try to explain. “I didn’t mean anything by it… about your mom, I mean. I’m sure she’s nice.” Everything I say seems to be coming out either wrong or misinterpreted by Matt. He’s a little dull, but I hadn’t suspected him to be quite so stupid. Doesn’t the jerk know that I’m trying to get him off the hook?

“It wasn’t jist some whatever-en-ism,” Matt retorts.

“I’m a little fuzzy. I think…used the wrong word.”

“He called me a name, and you heard him… said somethin’ wicked about my mom. Used one of those words nobody’s ever heard of. Like he’s always doing. Like he thinks he’s smarter’n everybody else.”

Wicked? Nobody, not even Matt, could call anything I might have said wicked. Even if I’d really said something about his mom, something nasty maybe, wicked no. And I know I used the wrong word, my brain somewhat scrambled, but euphemism is not exactly a foreign word. Lots of kids use it.

I know I must be looking at him incredulously, because it’s pissing him off. He’s getting angrier. He’s now red against the sun, the beet juice returning.

“All right, enough! Both of you!” Coach Parnell barks. “Bobby, watch your mouth. Don’t be saying things you have to take back later, or that someone else might take wrong.”

“Yes sir.” I manage.

Matt is silent, but I can feel his angry glare.

“Matt, I’m warning you. I ever catch you throwing something, swinging something or even aiming something at another student ever again, you’re going to find yourself finishing school in a juvenile detention facility! Got that?”

“Yeah,” Matt mutters.

“Go get showered!”

Matt pushes past me. In my mind’s eye I can see the ‘I’ll get you later’ look on his face.

Great! No expulsion but I’m still his target. Terrific!

Coach Parnell takes me by the shoulders, turning me to face him, bends his knees a little so he can look me right in the eyes.

“You call him a creep?”

“A cretin,” I reply.

“Well, that wasn’t very bright now was it?”

“I said it to myself. I didn’t intend for him to hear. I guess he thought I meant something different…” I explain with as much sincerity as I can muster. “Like maybe… creep,” I offer, “but I didn’t mean for it to come out, out loud.”

“Look Bobby, you shouldn’t be calling people names, that’s true, but what he did was assault. I think I know where you’re coming from. You don’t want to make the situation any worse than it already is. And I understand that. But if later you get to thinking about it and maybe you want to talk it over with your father, maybe have him do something about it, let me know first. Okay?”

I’m looking down at the ground, trying to act as contrite as possible. I shake my head in a no gesture. I know Coach really doesn’t want to go there. I, for one, certainly don’t.

“It was nothing. He wouldn’t be interested. Dad would just tell me that I should have stood up for myself, like he would have.”

My dad grew up in a poor neighborhood on streets rampant with gangs and drugs. He somehow survived and despite only a high school education, Forbes considers him one of the top five hundred wealthiest men in America. He would never have let someone like Matt get away with pushing him around.

Coach straightens up, but he keeps a hand on my shoulder.

“I’m supposed to report this.”

I hear the reluctance in his voice. Coach definitely doesn’t want to go there.

“No,” I plead. “Please don’t report it. It was nothing really.”

“Okay, but let me know if you change your mind.” He seems hesitant to let it go at this. I certainly don’t want him to report it or take it any further. Hopefully he reads the sincerity in my voice.

“I won’t change my mind.”

Looking up past Coach Parnell, I see Matt entering the locker area. He’s no longer just a silhouette. He raises his hand in a one-finger salute.

                                                       End of Chapter One

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