Matt jumped thirty feet from one building to the next. The landing was textbook, putting him right in the middle of Magneto’s henchmen. Claws bared, shoulders set, head down, Matt got to work, kicking and punching and slashing with his bone claws. He even grabbed the biggest of the mutants by the arm and launched him in a beautiful curving flight over his shoulders, slamming him into the concrete roof of the apartment block.
“Matt. Mattie, honey. Would you pause that for a minute?”
Matt pressed pause on his controller and turned to look at his mom. She stood next to his dad, who was sitting on the couch behind him. He hadn’t heard them come in – “Extra ninja points,” he thought. Dad had his, “hey buddy, we need to talk” face on and mom had her version of it, her “honey, now you know I love you?” face. Both of which meant that they were going to ask him to do something he didn’t want to.
“Mattie,” began his mom, “you know how Mr. Sanchez at school said maybe you’d feel more confident if you joined a club?” Oh God, thought Matt, they are going to get me to try out for the track-and-field team again. His dad had said he’d be great at the shot put. That all the best shot-putters were big boned like Mattie. Fat, is what he meant but they could never bring themselves to say the word. But Matt knew he was fat. How could he not? One, they have mirrors in the house, and two, there are enough people at school who felt it was their duty to remind Matt exactly how fat he was, not just every day but several times a day, sometimes even by text or on SnapChat if not in school. When he’d tried out for the track-and-field team the coach had made him run laps, even though he only wanted to throw the stupid metal ball. From that experience, Jelly Belly was his name for about two weeks at school.
Over the years, Matt had many other names: chunk, fatso, lard ass, the blimp, the blob, Stay Puff, but one had stuck above all the others. Pork Pie had become his official nickname since fifth grade, only getting worse, through to sixth grade. And that was the real reason his mom and dad wanted to speak to him now, which was also why Mr. Sanchez had recommended he joined a club.
He might not have been on the track team but his mind was quicker than any sprinter. “I’m in the chess club,” said Matt.
“We were thinking of something a bit more exciting,” said his Dad.
“Chess is exciting. You’re a sore loser.” Matt’s dad made his exaggerated offended face. He always lost to Matt and it wasn’t that he let him win. Mattie had a way with chess and math. Grandpa said he was cleverer than the men that made the H-bomb. Mattie didn’t know about that but Grandpa had taught him how to play chess and he could beat most adults.
“Seriously Honey, we think it would do you good. I spoke with Mrs Gonzales and she said Joseph has started something called Brazilian Jiujitsu.” Her voice went up like a question at the end, as if that didn’t sound quite right.
“No,” said Matt. He switched the game back on, turning his back to his parents, hunching his shoulders. He may not be as clever as the H-bomb scientist but he knew he was smart, and he wasn’t about to put himself in another situation where everyone could call him names and laugh at him behind his back.
Matt pinned Sabretooth to a brick wall with one hand and pummelled his body with his free bone claw.
“Hey buddy, don’t turn away from us. We want you to give it ago,” said Matt’s dad.
“No,” repeated Matt, throwing Sabretooth off the roof of the eight storey building.
His dad put an arm around Matt but he shrugged it off.
“Well, Mattie you are going. It is good to try new things. Besides, Mrs Gonzales said Joseph thought it was just like chess.” Matt’s mom had resorted to her “I’m the boss” tone, which both Matt and dad knew was true, she was the boss. Still he wasn’t going to give in without a fight.
“NO,” Matt shouted, throwing down his controller and storming out of the living room.
Saturday mornings are supposed to be for eating pancakes and playing video games in your pyjamas until lunchtime. Instead, Matt found himself standing in a new set of heavy white pyjamas, at the edge of a matted hall without a pancake in sight. His parents had dragged him to an industrial estate on the edge of town. The gym sat between a Honda motorbike shop and a place called Advanced Aquatics, which had tropical fish swimming in a tank that doubled as a window.
His mom and dad were still filling in paperwork in reception, while a dozen kids ran around, jumping and rolling on the floor. Matt didn’t know anyone and stood apart. There were two adults in the hall, one with a black belt on and the other a brown belt. The two adults spotted Mattie trying not to get spotted. The younger one, with the brown belt, walked over with a big grin on his face.
Matt saw the smile and buried his eyes into the padded mats under his feet, bracing himself for the insults he was sure were coming.
“Hi there. Matt, isn’t it?” said the brown belt. Matt kind of bobbed his head and, without moving his lips or lifting his eyes, made a quiet affirmative noise. “I’m Derek. This is your first time, right?” Matt shrugged. “Cool. Well, if you’ve got any questions I’m your guy. Okay?” Another shrug.
Matt could feel he was being set-up. The worst ones are when they pretend to be nice to you, to get you to open-up. Then when you join in and start having a good time they humiliate you in front of everyone. Give them nothing, that’s the secret and Matt, like all people who had learnt the same secret, learnt it the hard way. “So, what are you into?” asked Derek, taking a seat on the padded floor in front of Matt. (Give them nothing.) Matt shrugged. “Your mom said you like chess and comic books.” Yeah, Matt did, and he looked up with the horrifying feeling that his own mother had just betrayed him, that she had fed them everything they need to destroy him. Derek with the brown belt was still smiling and about to say something more as he caught Matt’s eyes, believing he’d found a way in, but the man with the black belt whistled.
It was a loud, piercing whistle that cut through the hubbub of playing children and chatting adults, silencing them all. He followed it up with, “Okay, let’s get rolling.” Matt had no idea what that meant, but all the other children lined up at the edge of the hall and Matt copied, joining the end, trying to stay unnoticed. If he could just get through this next hour with the least amount of pain and humiliation, he’d fake an injury or make up something to get out of it next time. He was out of luck.
“Today we have someone starting their first class,” said the black belt. “Everyone give Matt a big Jiujitsu welcome.” They all started to clap and look at Matt, who had blushed and he wished his curly hair wasn’t curly so that it would have hung over his beet-red face.
“Remember,” the black belt went on, “the bravest guy on the mats is the one who steps on them for the first time. So, everyone help out Matt today. We hope you have a great time, Matt, and we’re honoured to have you. At least you know a couple of people already. You’ve met Derek and your buddies Joseph and Mike are here.”
Matt looked up trying to hide the panic on his face. Firstly, he’d forgotten Joseph was supposed to be here. Secondly, Mike was no friend of his. Mike and Joseph often went to the library at recess to hide from Matt. Well, not exactly Matt, but people like him. Matt looked around and found Mike was further up the line wearing a yellow belt. Mike smiled and waved at Matt. Matt looked for Joseph. How could he have missed him?
As if on cue, Mrs Gonzales and Joseph in his white pyjamas and yellow belt hurried into the hall. Joseph kicked off his shoes at the edge of the hall, bowed and joined the line next to Matt, giving him a nudge. A million questions raced through Matt’s head, and another million excuses too. “How do I get out of this?” he thought.
“Nice of you to join us, Joey. Let’s get moving,” said the black belt and there was no escape for Mattie.
They started to run around the hall. Matt felt uncomfortable. They had to jump and touch the floor and turn around. The first time he changed direction when Victor, the black belt, shouted “one-eighty”, he bumped into Joseph who hadn’t turned quickly enough. Matt said sorry as other kids bumped into the back of him. Picking himself up, Joseph laughed. Victor, shouted “keep running guys, “and “nice fast feet, Matt.” Matt cringed inside, feeling the tears wanting to well up at the adult’s sarcasm. Things only got worse.
Matt could see his mom and dad watching from the benches at the side. Dad stuck up his thumbs.
After running they rolled around on the ground. Victor, the black belt, had them doing forward rolls, then backwards rolls and then a weird thing where they scooted down the mats kinda on their butts. They called it shrimping. And worst of all, Derek, the brown belt was like Matt’s personal torturer, showing him how it should be done, all with a smile so everyone in the room could see how much of a douche bag he really was. He felt like the dyslexic kid, Daniel, in English class, who had a special tutor. That is never a good thing. It gives them something when you should give them nothing. Everything Matt did was wrong. He felt awkward and clumsy and, worst of all, he felt fat. Sweat wet Matt’s curly black hair so that it clung to his red face, and every movement wobbled his belly. He was sure, even with the baggy white pyjamas, everyone could see how gross and stupid he was.
Looking up at the clock only fifteen minutes had passed. He wasn’t even halfway through this purgatory.
They paired off and Matt had to go with Mike because they were a similar size. But while Matt had “puppy fat”, as his mom would say, Mike was big in that sports way. This was going to be awful. Mike put out his fist and Matt flinched back. A big smile grew on Mike’s face and Matt knew what was coming; this was it, the end.
“Nah, you punch it like this,” said Mike. He took Matt’s hand and bumped his fist into Matt’s. “It’s how we say hi.”
Victor and Derek stood in the middle of the hall again. At least everyone was looking at them now and not at Matt. The two adults gripped each other’s pyjamas on the collar and sleeve. For a moment, it reminded Matt of Bane grabbing Batman. Turning his hips in one quick movement, Victor threw Derek in a curving arc over his shoulders. Derek landed on the mats with a loud slap. At first, Matt thought Derek might be hurt, or dead, but not only did he move, he sprang back to his feet as though nothing had happened. Then Matt realised that he was going to have to do this with Mike and he was about to die, or if not die then be seriously injured, and apparently, this was okay with absolutely everyone. In fact, his parents were in on it. They had brought him here, brought him here to his death, in a twist far more blatant than Peter Parker’s lack of action leading to Uncle Ben’s demise.
“Think, think,” Matt’s eyes darted around the room. Could he just run out? That would probably be even more humiliating but it was an option. Maybe he could make himself sick? Or…
“Anyone need to see it again?” asked Victor. Several kids put their hands up. “No problem,” said Victor, who had an accent, like most supervillains.
Then Matt realised something. Derek wasn’t that big, not for an adult at least and he just stood back up ready to be thrown again. Victor grabbed Derek’s pyjamas, saying something like, “Anyone can do this. It’s all about your hips,” and Derek went sailing through the air again, landing with a bang. Matt swallowed, waiting for Derek to cry out but he didn’t. Instead, the brown belt span to his knees, the jacket of his pyjamas pulled wide open from the throw and Matt saw it. His eyes grew wide and more questions rushed in, as though his mind had been opened to something for the first time. Derek covered his Wolverine rash-guard t-shirt neatly and stood up.
They paired off, Matt and his arch-nemesis Mike – okay, maybe not arch-nemesis, but at least one of his minions. They faced each other, mano-a-mano. “Do you want to go first?” asked Mike? Matt nodded. Mike put out his fist. Matt bumped it with his. Derek walked up to the two boys.
“That’s it, grip there and there,” said Derek. “Then turn your hips into him and…”
Matt spun on his feet, putting his back to Mike, while pulling forward with his hands. It was just like a computer game or a comic book only way better. Mike lifted off the ground with hardly any effort, flying over Matt’s shoulders in a beautiful curving flight and slammed onto the padded floor like a supervillain on a concrete roof of an apartment block.
“Brilliant! Good job, Matt,” said Derek, walking off to help someone else.
“That was great,” said Mike. “Go again.”
“Okay, thanks,” Matt smiled back, taking his grips.
– End –
Once Dan was an academic but the sentences proved too long and the words too obscure. Northern Ireland is where he now lives. But he was born in England and raised in Byron’s home town, which the bard hated but Dan does not. They named every other road after Byron. As yet no roads are named after Dan but several children are. He tries to write the kind of stories he wants to read and aims for readers to want to turn the page. Dan has a huge passion for middle grade fiction and helps to run STORGY KIDS.
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