“Mommy! Mommy! Billy punched me in the nose!” The screen door slammed behind the little boy as he ran into the kitchen of the modest ranch-style house where he lived with his mother and father. Once safely inside, he wiped his nose on his forearm and seeing the blood cried out again, louder this time. “Mommy! I’m bleeding!”
Phyllis Bradford was in the basement folding laundry. Dropping the half-folded sheet, she hurried up the wooden steps leading to the kitchen. Bobby ran to her, wrapping his arms tightly around her legs and burying his face in the folds of her denim skirt. She placed her hands on his shoulders and gently pushed him away to see how badly he was hurt. His face was streaked with blood, mucus and tears and there were a few drops of blood on his new Spiderman T-shirt—a present for his sixth birthday.
Realizing he was more frightened than hurt, she smiled comfortingly and ran a hand over the stubble of light brown hair shaved close in a buzz cut. "Let's go get you cleaned up." Taking him by the hand, she led him down the short hallway connecting the living room and kitchen to the rear of the house. When they reached the bathroom, she picked up the washcloth hanging on the towel rack and ran cold water over it. Lowering the toilet seat lid, she sat down and began gently wiping the boy’s face.
Suddenly Richard Bradford appeared in the doorway. “What happened to Bobby?” he asked. At the sound of his father’s voice, the boy stiffened and pressed closer to his mother.
“Billy McGwiggan punched him.” Phyllis replied, hoping this would be enough to satisfy her husband’s curiosity.
“Why'd he hit you?” Richard asked, stepping into the bathroom to get a closer look at his son’s injuries.
“I didn’t do anything—honest. He got just got mad and then he punched me right in the nose.”
“What'd you do?”
“I ran away.”
“Why didn’t you hit him back?”
Unsure of how to answer, Bobby looked at his mother, his eyes pleading for her help.
“Answer me! Why didn’t you hit him back?” Richard demanded, his voice growing louder as his irritation with his son increased.
“I dunno, Daddy.”
Phyllis placed her arm protectively around the boy’s shoulders. “He was hurt and frightened so he ran home. Don’t make more of this than it is.”
“Goddamnit, Phil! Do you want him to grow up to be a fucking coward?”
“He’s only a little boy.”
“He’s old enough to learn he shouldn't let some bully use him as a punching bag." His arm shot out and he grabbed Bobby by the arm, pulling him away from his mother. “We’re going to Billy’s house and you’re going to call him out.”
“Please don’t do this, Richard.”
Ignoring his wife’s plea, he dragged the terrified boy out of the bathroom, down the hall and out the front door. Bobby’s short legs couldn’t match his father’s grown-up strides and he kept falling down. Each time he fell, he was yanked to his feet and dragged along—his sneakers scraping against the concrete sidewalk. When they reached the McGwiggan house, Richard released his grip on Bobby’s arm and gave him a shove forward. “Go ring the doorbell and when Billy comes out you punch him as hard as you can.”
Bobby sat down on the sidewalk and began to cry. “I don’t wanna hit him, Daddy. I wanna go home!”
Ruth McGwiggan appeared in the doorway and the clicking of the screen door lock could be heard as Billy peered out from behind her. “What’s going on, Richard?”
At the sound of her voice, Richard's anger subsided. “Get your butt up off that sidewalk and get home,” he barked, filled with humiliation that this weak sniveling creature was actually his son.
Bobby scrambled to his feet without looking at his father and began to run as fast as he could. He raced past his mother, who had been watching from the porch, into the house and down the hallway to his bedroom. He flung himself on the bed, pulling his knees up against his chest and covering his head with his arms. After a few minutes, the frantic pounding of his heart slowed and he reached for his pillow. It felt cool and soft against his cheek. It’s wrong to hit somebody. Why did Daddy get mad at me instead of Billy? He’s always getting mad at me. He’s mean and I hate him!
Phyllis waited until she heard the sound of the lawnmower starting up in the backyard before hurrying to her son’s room. Bobby was asleep and she sat down on the edge of the bed and gently stroked his forehead. His dirty tear-stained face was peaceful now and her heart ached with the love she felt for him. Dear God, she prayed, placing a hand on her stomach, please let this baby be a girl.