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I knew it was time to flee when Ricky Ortega's roar shoved its way down the crowded hallway. It wouldn't be long before he calmed down enough to seek out the one who'd filled his locker with shaving cream.

In lieu of taking the bus home, I opted to walk. Sitting still, even in a moving vehicle, seemed like a bad idea. I only made it about halfway, though, before the ground trembled behind me. I turned around, resigned to fate.

If a bull had married an old-fashioned steam locomotive, and if the product of that union were to mate with an avalanche, that offspring would be slightly less intimidating than an angry Ricky Ortega. His tight jaw and bloodshot eyes told me exactly what would happen next. Frankly, I had it coming.

"I bet you think you're pretty funny," he rumbled.

"As a matter of fact," I told him, "I do." My reputation as an aloof trickster hinged on my bravado, and that bravado was important. See, all it takes to weaken the ironfisted regimes of such bullies is one person who doesn't fear them. Okay, that's not entirely accurate; all it takes to weaken the ironfisted regimes of such bullies is one person who acts like he doesn't fear them. The truth was, I was terrified of Ricky Ortega. More importantly, I was terrified of the pummeling I was about to receive.

I braced myself for it, but nothing could have prepared for what he said next. "I got a joke for you."

I blinked. "Really."

He grinned. "Wanna hear it?"

I nodded and muttered, "This should be good."

"Knock, knock."

Out of sheer instinct, I replied, "Who's there?"

"You're gonna get hit in the face."

"'You're gonna get hit in the face' who?" This part wasn't instinct. I really did want to know the surname of "You're gonna get hit in the face."

I found out the answer when my face exploded a half-second later.

I'd been beaten up so many times in my life that it was practically a hobby. As such, I like to think that I'd become an expert in the various punishments and humiliations inflicted upon smaller people. I'd been punched, slapped, kicked, tripped, shoved, wedgied, and, on one night of rare creativity, duct-taped to a wall. Therefore, what happened to me was just plain baffling.

For starters, I couldn't state with any conviction that it was Ricky who was responsible for my face exploding. It happened so quickly that I didn't see him move. Given the circumstantial evidence, such as his presence and the subject of his knock-knock joke, I felt it was a safe assumption.

I could only tell you what I thought happened. I thought someone had set off a firecracker in my sinuses. I thought someone had splashed a bucket of warm paint on my face. I thought someone had stolen my nose. Weirdest of all, I thought I heard someone crying.

It couldn't be me. I haven't cried while under assault since the third grade. I'd never give the bad guys the satisfaction. Besides, I was too busy collapsing to be crying. Still, it sounded like me, and more than just blood trickled around my cheeks.

On the other side of the pain from my freshly broken nose, Ricky Ortega's triumphant voice shouted, "What do you think about that joke?"

It was my sacred duty to defy him, but the only thing I could actually say was, "Good one, Ricky ..."

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Jeremiah

January 2013

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