Editor’s Note March 2022: We featured John’s story back in 2020 when it was still just a short story. It has since blossomed into a full-fledged novel and we are happy to hear the news! This is an excerpt from the book Cracks of Light, copyright (c) 2021, by John Charles Reedburg. Published by Valorous Books. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.
My elementary school was an off-white graffiti spectacle of a building that looked like it was a semester or two from dying of old age. Walking down the halls made me feel I’d become swallowed alive, passing down into the belly of a fire-breathing dragon until defecated into my 4th-grade class that smelled like urine. I hated going to school. My mother was a drug addict who only made sure I went so she could get a welfare check. While most kids went to learn, I went to have a hot meal. It would have been nice to live like Richie Rich with a robot maid that prepared food and protected you from bullies. Though my reality wouldn’t allow me to be a cartoon. I was Demetrius Deontay Jordan, the weirdest boy at school.
I didn’t have any friends.
Older kids called me “Kung Fu Crack Baby,” all because my mother took drugs and my favorite kicks were a pair of holey karate shoes that were two sizes too big. The best part of my wardrobe was a black Member’s Only jacket that smelled like Old Spice, cigarettes, and cocoa butter that Momma bought from the secondhand store. A day never went by without me being clowned for wearing hand-me-down clothes. Considered a nerd because I was into karate movies and pro-wrestling, Hulk Hogan and Randy “Macho Man” Savage were my favorite wrestlers. I was into Bruce Lee because I thought he was badass and made funny noises whenever he fought.
I liked Hulk because he never backed down from an opponent, no matter how big they were, while Macho Man always screamed cool things to the audience. My favorite karate movies were the Last Dragon, The Karate Kid, and any film that starred Bruce Lee.
Last Dragon was about Leroy Green, a kid in the ghetto who trained to attain the same level of mastery as the great Bruce Lee, my hero. Then one night, his life changes forever when he rescues a famous television personality named Laura Charles. The Karate Kid was a movie about a teenager named Daniel, who was bullied until he stood up and fought for himself. Leroy and Daniel were like me, social outcasts who didn’t have friends. I aspired to be like them and the heroes I looked up to. It was the only way I could get through school.
I had a hard time outside the classroom.
Teachers were never around when I was being bullied.
Once, when it was time for lunch, I followed the smell of chocolate milk and country burgers into the cafeteria. Big fat cricket teeth Tommy and his crew of sixth-grade bullies pushed their way through the line I was standing in. They were shouting and surrounding me.
Tommy snarled, “You’re not allowed to eat here, Kung Fu Crack Baby!”
“Leave me alone,” I said.
Tommy pushed me to the ground. “Get out of my line, Skinny punk!”
I fell to the floor. Tommy laughed, “That’s what you get.”
My voice trembled; it couldn’t conceal the pain, “Why you do that?”
“Because I can,” Tommy said. “I don’t want you in my line.” As I was still laying on the floor, Tommy looked down at me with a smug look on his face, smirking, and standing over me.
Tommy bullied me every day because he knew I was too small to fight back. If he wasn’t pranking me and calling me names, he was punching me or pushing me to the ground whenever he saw me. I even had a Hulk Hogan doll he took from me one day at recess. When I got it back, the doll’s head was ripped off, and its limbs were pulled out of their sockets. Another time he stole my backpack and threw my homework all over the playground. I was too afraid to get revenge, but this time in the cafeteria, I was fed up.
Enough was enough; I was tired of being picked on; it would be the last time Wide Shorts even pushed me or made fun of me. I knew that day would be the day things happened a little differently than usual.
I was a small nine-year-old who didn’t care if that jiggly Dumbo-eared lazy eyed bucktooth fool Tommy from special ed was almost 13. I had fantasies about kicking his ass, though being half his size and never having fought before, I probably couldn’t bust a grape in a fruit fight.
I had a fantasy about a wrestling match between Tommy and me. It was a square-off that was identical to the war between Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant where I played the Hulkster, and Big Drawers was the other fellow.
In the first match, Hogan stood up to Andre, even though the giant was much bigger and stronger, at one point beating up his smaller opponent. Hulk held his ground, picked up the Giant, and slammed him to the mat, pinning and defeating him.
In the bout that happened in my head, I did the same thing as Hogan, except I did it faster and better and ring girls were kissing me on the cheeks and saying that they loved me. The audience was cheering and chanting my name.
Tommy would get up from off the mat and sneak up behind me, while the ladies and a roaring crowd still adored me. The women would think I was so suave. I would be smoother than LL Cool J in his “I Need Love” music video, minus his muscles, gold chain, moist lips, and Kangol hat.
While one of the ring girls wiped their lipstick from my cheek, Tommy got closer. I sensed it and moved the ladies out of the way and flung him against the ropes. He bounced off them and ran back towards me. I threw him into a turnbuckle, came over to him, and unloaded several elbows to his frontal lobe and kisser.
The crowd yelled, “Finish him!”
Dazed, Tommy stumbled out into the center of the fight-circle.
It was the perfect time to deliver that front kick to his face. He fell to the mat, belly up with a bleeding forehead in all its gore and glory.
Spectators egged me on. They wanted me to perform a bigger and better move.
They continually shouted, “Leg, drop!”
I obliged by leaping upward, hoisting, and kicking out my leg, while in midair, tightening my quadriceps with as much pressure as I could.
A split second later, I came down hard on his throat with the rear of my calf.
I finished Tommy with one of Hogan’s signature moves.
I stood in the ring, celebrating and posing for the fans. I even had a slogan where I said, “Whatcha’ going to do when Demetrius runs wild on you!”
Then one day, in the real world, I was holding my lunch tray, looking for a seat, when suddenly, I was on the ground. Wiping myself off from the spatters of hamburger, ketchup, and salad stuck to my clothing, I stood to look Tommy right in the eye.
“I’m tired of you picking on me, Fat Boy!” I shouted.
“Don’t call me fat, you little four-eyed motherfucker! I’m not fat. I’m big-boned.”
“Yeah, your bones are big. Just like your ass!” I yelled. Everyone laughed, even a few members of his crew. Tommy pointed at my feet.
“Get out of here with those holey karate shoes.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my shoes,” I said.
“Fool, please, those shoes are the only shoes your Momma can afford because that bitch is a crackhead, and you’re a little crack baby.”
“Forget you, Fat Boy. You don’t know nothing about my Momma!”
Tommy got more in my face. By now, all the kids in the lunchroom had formed a circle around us.
“I know your momma is on crack because my daddy is the dope man who sells it to her!” Tommy continued ragging on me. “I always see her walk up to him on the corner. She probably smokes it with your bony ass!”
“You don’t even know what you are talking about, stupid.”
“What makes me a liar, Crack Boy?!”
“Because my Momma is not on crack. She’s on heroin!” I said.
The entire lunchroom erupted in laughter.
Tommy stood in front of me, dumbfounded. I couldn’t tell if he wanted to laugh or hit me, but either way, I was prepared.
Not only as a wrestling fan but also as a connoisseur of martial arts movies, who would practice karate in his head, I had the perfect move saved for someone like Tommy. The move was a kicking technique called “The Butterfly” I saw in the film The Karate Kid. The main character Daniel got into a fighting stance, by balancing himself on one foot with both of his arms to the side moments before performing a targeted kick to his opponent’s face bringing him down. I knew if Tommy attacked me, I could make that move happen. I got in my stance.
“Prepare to die!” I said. Tommy had his warning.
Even though I was mimicking a fight move from The Karate Kid, everything I said sounded like something Bruce Lee would say in one of his overdubbed films. I guess I had been watching too much Kung Fu Theater.
I spoke with an Asian accent, trying my best to emulate Bruce.
“My body is a lethal weapon, my fat fine fluffy friend. Any enemy that attacks me will succumb to a terrible defeat and die; I am the grandest of all grandmasters. I must warn you. My martial art is my war. If you come any closer, you will experience the wrath of my butterfly. This technique is as beautiful as it is deadly. It’ll make you die a thousand deaths.” I sounded crazy as catshit.
Tommy looked at me and said, “This little nigga’s crazy.”
“No one’s crazy, fat boy, I am just one with the wind,” I said.
Focused, more comfortable, standing in my pose, I took a deep breath and exhaled. If the fight that was about to happen were a scene in a karate movie, this would be the part of the film where I glow like Bruce Lee in Last Dragon. I was ready to strike.
“Come get this whooping! My foot must become one with your behind.”
Ole’ fatty fat moved in close to pounce.
Still standing in my stance, I executed the kick. Except I didn’t hit my target. Instead, my shoe flew off and hit the school principal, Dr. Jackson, in the face as he headed over towards us. Jackson, a balding man with a receding hairline that complemented the longish dried-out Jheri curl he sported with his frequently worn pin-striped polyester suits. Funny thing is that he reminded me of Leroy’s archenemy Shonuff in Last Dragon. Shonuff was an evil Kung Fu Master who gave the protagonist a hard time. So, when my shoe struck the principal’s face, it was a score for Leroy and a blow to all bullies.
But as usual, when I came back to reality. Everything wasn’t the way I imagined.
All the kids were laughing. Dr. Jackson now stood in front of me and Tommy, sneering, fuming, and growling under his breath in his Jamaican accent. The only thing I could say was, “Sorry.” But that wasn’t going to cut it.
Dr. Jackson replied waving his finger at me. “You, little one, your tail in serious trouble, boy. Bring forth yourself, and the overgrown big one. Him no still be in as much trouble as you. Back home, they would make you find your stick. Then beat you under a plantain tree with it.”
I wish I could’ve stopped my shoe from coming off. But the funniest part is that despite envisioning myself in a scene from Last Dragon and performing a kick from The Karate Kid, I had a moment where I saw myself as a wrestler yelling from the top buckle inside the fight circle after a match, pointing to the audience and celebrating my victory. Though in reality, kids were standing around, watching me scream, flexing my scrawny muscles in the middle of the cafeteria like, “Demetrius the Conqueror is now your champion. I’m a bad man.” I held my make-believe belt in the air, yelling out for the next challenger, “Who else wants some of this whoop ass?” Dr. Jackson came over, pulled me by the arm and yanked me out of my dream. “Come here, you fool.” Holding Tommy with his other hand, he dragged us in tow to his office. I tried to pull away, but Jackson was too strong.
“Stop! Dr. Jackson, I have another move I saw Bruce Lee do it in The Chinese Connection.”
“Small one, the fight’s over, and you’re too black to be Chinese.”
Tommy blurted, “Dr. Jackson, it wasn’t my fault.”
“Yeah, it was,” I said. “You’re always picking on me.”
“Oh, I see,” Jackson noted. “We’ll figure it all out once we get to the office,” he confirmed, still pulling us along as we argued.
Sounding innocent as he could, Tommy spewed out another tale, hoping Jackson would believe him. “Demetrius pushed me to the ground, and he talked bad about my mother.”
I refused to let that to ride. “He’s not telling the truth, Dr. Jackson. He’s the one who started everything.”
“I know little one.” Jackson looked over at Tommy, smirking, “Big one, mon. I don’t believe you. Your lies are bigger than the size of your pants. Maybe, if your mother didn’t feed you so much, you wouldn’t be so large for your britches.”
“But I’m not lying. That little punk pushed me,” Tommy said.
“Child, I was born at night, not last night. That little one, he don’t push a big mon like you. Hush up with your tales, boy, or they come haunt you. Understand? Off to the office you both still come.”
As Tommy and I were being hauled away to Jackson’s office, Tommy looked over at me and uttered the words, “I hate you.”
“I hate you, too,” I said back.
It was the last time I ever got picked on.
John Charles Reedburg holds an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University, an MFA in Screenwriting and Directing from Chapman University, and undergraduate degrees in Communications and Journalism from California State University and El Camino College. He is a Los Angeles native who works as a producer in television and digital media. He has also optioned several screenplays and is the director of music videos, film, and various short form content. He can be reached on his Facebook page. This is his first feature on The Fictional Café.