I burst outside, already thinking about what I will do from now to supper - play with my dog? finish building my tree fort? call on one of my friends? - when I notice a group of boys clustered in a circle and yelling. Their excitement draws me, but not because I share it - already I feel a tightness in my belly. These are the rough boys, the ones who pick on others. They don't like me, and I don't like them, but they leave me alone because they have found I have a quick tongue and can make them look foolish in front of our classmates.
My dread is justified. As I approach their circle, I see one of the leaders jumping up and down, with another boy's head caught between his knees. The boy is on his knees, crying, hurt and unable to free himself while the others jeer and encourage the boy who has trapped him. I stare a moment, horrified, feeling my own head hurt just watching.
I am not a fighter. Physical confrontation frightens me. I could never throw a punch. But I cannot turn away, either - the boy's pain is too real to me. Without thinking, I run up and grab the cap from the head of the jumping bully and smack him across his ear - in case grabbing his hat didn't get his attention. Then, clutching his cap, I whirl and take off for home.
Behind me I hear the jeers of the boys change to surprise, then laughter, now turned on their leader. It's unthinkable for a girl to best one of the toughs, to intervene in their sport. He has to let go of his victim and follow me; I have his cap. His mom will ask what he did with it. I hear the furious bully start racing after me.
I want to drop the hat right now. He'll stop and pick it up, giving me time to get away. But I can't: I have to lead him away from his victim, give the weaker boy enough time to escape. I clutch the cap tightly and run for my life.
Is he gaining on me? He'll beat me up if he catches me. I am terrified, running as I''ve never run before, holding the cap I want desperately to let go of. Way down the street I see my house. I sprint towards it, my heart pounding as I race for safety. I can hear the bully breathing at my back. He's bigger, faster than me.
One short block from my house I drop the cap. I've done the best I could for their victim. I dare not look back to make sure the bully stops for his hat, but charge toward my house, not even slowing till I'm at the door, yanking it open and tumbling inside where I stand gasping for breath.
As my heart begins to return to normal, I slowly smile.
Do you remember a time when you empathized with someone, even if you didn't want to?