So, I wrote a short story for you guys to enjoy. It’s based off an idea I had last week and shared with the TAY thread but I’m not sure if many people noticed it. I don’t really have a title for this short, or at least I don’t have one that wouldn’t give things away. I also don’t have a header image that won’t give anything away either. I’ll try to come back later if I find anything appropriate. So, I think that’s enough rambling for the preview text. Enjoy.

—-

It was five to three. In just a few minutes the bell would ring, the kids would rush out of their classrooms like it was on fire, and shortly after that Ronnie would be beaten to a pulp by the school bully. He should have known better, should have watched where he was going, should have developed powers to turn back time and not embarrass the always angry behemoth in front of the entire school. There was nothing to do now, those stains weren’t coming out of Brayden’s clothes. Though he wasn’t smart enough to not be held back two years he was smart enough to save the beating for after school rather than risk teacher interference.

Ronnie’s eyes glanced up at the clock. Just a couple more minutes until the bell. Time seemed to crawl. Maybe he did develop those powers to control time and he hadn’t figured them out yet. He risked a glance behind him to the back of the room where Brayden sat. The bully spotted him looking and snapped a pencil in his meaty hands and pointed at Ronnie. Was that supposed to be threatening? Because if that was supposed to be threatening... yeah, okay, it worked. Ronnie returned his gaze to the clock.

Gripping his bag tight, Ronnie was out of his seat the second the bell rang and out the classroom door amidst the flood of students. Being near the front of the class and the door was his only advantage as they’d both be wading through the crushing force of bodies on their way to the exit, Ronnie fueled by fear and Brayden by the overwhelming urge to break Ronnie’s face in. As Ronnie pressed his way out into the open afternoon air he began plotting his mile run home. He hit the sidewalk running and shot a furtive look behind him. There Brayden was, just getting out of the main doors.

It was an advantage that wouldn’t last, and Ronnie knew it. It would only be a matter of time before the older bully caught up with him. Brayden was chunky, there was no polite way to say it, but it was the kind of chunk that in a short year would burn away to pure muscle mass and transform dough into brick. Despite his size, Brayden was faster than Ronnie and quickly gaining. The short mile seemed like it might as well be a hundred for all it mattered now. Ronnie’s mind raced, seeking any way out of his situation that didn’t involve Brayden getting hit by a car at the next major intersection.

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Just up ahead came an opportunity. There was an alley up ahead, and though he knew it was a shortcut home Ronnie had been instructed not to use it. It would cut only minutes from the run, but Ronnie had seen plenty of movies on tv that had chase scenes. There’d bound to be some trashcans or something he could knock over as he ran past to slow Brayden down. It was a glimmer of hope down a dank forgotten passage. Ronnie took the sharp turn without hesitation.

As he ran down the alley he noticed two things. First was the brick wall to his right and backs of buildings to his left, leaving nothing but the narrow straightaway for him to run down. Second was the distinct lack of debris to throw in his pursuer’s path. He looked back over his shoulder. Brayden was definitely gaining, he’d be in arm’s reach in a matter of seconds.

Ronnie slammed into a firm yet soft object and bounced back and onto his rear in an ironic replay of the very scenario that got him into this mess in the first place. He really ought to learn to look where he was going. Ronnie looked up to see what he had run into and saw the visage of a woman. She was tall, or maybe she was just average height for an adult? She must have been fit because she look like Ronnie’s body slam had caused any effect to her. She placed a hand on her hip, the other bringing a cup with a straw in it up toward her face. She took a slurping sip out of the cup as she gazed down at Ronnie.

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Ronnie blinked a few times, coming back to reality as he heard Brayden’s footsteps grind to a halt just feet behind him. Ronnie scrambled to his feet and turned to face Brayden. The bully scowled when he saw the adult. “You got lucky today, but tomorrow, your ass is mine.” His brow furrowed and he shot a mean look at the woman, her only response another slurp through the straw and what might have been a slight derisive snort. Brayden skulked back up the alley and Ronnie let out a held breath when the bully turned the corner.

He turned back to the woman and bowed his head. “Sorry for running into you and thanks for saving me.” He looked down at the spot between their feet for a long moment, waiting for the woman to say something. He looked up slowly, just his eyes at first before he raised his head to look at the woman. She was staring down at him, her eyes a calming deep blue. She looked back up in the direction Brayden had left and cocked her head, her lips forming a frown.

“U-um... I’ll be going then?” Ronnie took a cautious step to his left and stepped around the woman. Her eyes followed him as she took one last slurp of her drink. As soon as Ronnie was past her he broke out into a run, shouted his thanks, and didn’t stop running until he was home.

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—-

The bell rang the next day and just as the day before, Ronnie was out of his seat and pushing through the throng of kids to reach the exit as quickly as he could. He vaguely registered the confused yelps emanating far behind him but didn’t dare to look behind him. There was no question that Brayden, his delayed vengeance common knowledge by now, was on the warpath and anyone standing between him and his quarry was collateral damage.

Ronnie made it out of the school first again and jumped cleanly down the steps to the sidewalk, there was no time for playing it safe. He recovered out of his stumble and put all he had into his run. It was Friday, after all. If he escaped this time there’d be a whole weekend before he saw Brayden again and maybe by then the bully might have calmed down enough to let it slide just this once. And maybe pigs would fly.

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Ronnie’s advantage was no better than it had been the day before by the time he cut down the alley. He knew there were no tricks to slow down the bully down here, but it was still a shortcut home and there was the glimmer of hope that he could outrun Brayden and make it to safety only by shaving these few precious minutes. He looked back, still haven’t learned, and noticed that Brayden was slowing down. Was he getting tired having to chase Ronnie this far for a second day in a row? Ronnie’s spirits raised and he found a new burst of speed at the idea of surviving another day.

Those hopes were dashed almost immediately. As Ronnie approached the far end of the alley, two figures stepped in to block the exit. Ronnie stopped, a task that he almost failed to do at the speed he was going at, and began backing up. The two in his way were “friends” of Brayden’s, perhaps better to be called lackeys, and they had been conspicuously absent from school today. Did they cut classes just to trap Ronnie in the alley? Ronnie looked back and saw Brayden swaggering closer. There was no way out of this one.

“I told you your ass was mine,” Brayden taunted. “You aren’t getting away this time.”

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Ronnie braced himself for what was coming, but Brayden’s advance halted to the sound of slurping straw. Ronnie looked up and his eyes grew wide as he saw the woman from the day before casually sitting on top of the brick wall. She sat up just enough to push herself over the ledge and landed next to Ronnie with ease despite the good eight foot drop. She calmly glanced at the two boys blocking the exit and then to Brayden.

“D-did you wait for me?” Ronnie asked quietly. The woman didn’t bother looking at him, but Ronnie was sure she declined her head just a bit in a nod.

“The hell is that, your mommy?” Brayden taunted. “Ronnie running scared to his mommy?”

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Ronnie took a step forward, still not learning, ready to mouth off in return but the woman stopped him with her arm in front of him. She definitely shook her head that time.

“To hell with this, there’s three of us and she’s just a girl!” Brayden motioned to his lackeys and the three charged from opposite directions.

Ronnie felt more than saw what happened next. He felt himself getting pushed back to the brick wall by the woman. He felt the strength in that one small hand holding him fast. He felt the rush of air as Brayden’s mad charge was countered and his force and weight used against him in a simple counter that tossed the bully into his own goons. Ronnie’s eyes widened and mouth hung agape as he watched the three wriggle out of the mass of limbs they had become.

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“No way...” Ronnie looked up at the woman who had finally released her grip on him. She had even managed to do that without losing her drink! She watched the three get up and slurped loudly through her straw once more.

“She won’t always be here to protect you, Ronnie,” Brayden growled. “And when she isn’t...” He collected his lackeys and as a group they limped out of the alley to go tend to their bruises, both physical and emotional.

Ronnie began to shake in excitement. “Wow! Y-you took him out without even throwing a punch! Can you teach me how to do that?” Ronnie looked up at the woman anxiously and she returned his gaze with her cool eyes. She finally shook her head and began to walk away.

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“Please! You have to!” Ronnie grabbed her arm and she halted. “He’s right. You’re not always going to be here. I have to be able to defend myself or he’ll never give up.”

It seemed like they looked at each other forever. It was like she was looking for something, peering straight through Ronnie into his soul. Still, Ronnie didn’t waver, and returned the stare as hard as he could. Finally, the woman nodded. “Come back. Tomorrow.” She slipped her arm free of Ronnie’s grip and continued to walk away.

“Alright! Tomorrow!” Ronnie turned to leave and made it two steps before he turned back. “Wait, what time... tomorrow?” The alley was empty. He looked up to the top of the brick wall and saw the woman’s cup sitting there alone.

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—-

Ronnie arrived in the alley the next day before noon to find that it was empty. The woman wasn’t waiting for him and he immediately felt foolish for believing that a random stranger hanging out in a back alley would teach him how to fight. He waited a few minutes, looking up and down the alley in anticipation of her arrival. Maybe she wasn’t going to make it, or maybe she meant to show up at the same time he had the past two days? Ronnie leaned against the brick wall and watched the shadows slowly creep along the ground.

“Patient,” the woman said softly, causing Ronnie to nearly jump out of his skin where he stood. She had appeared beside him without giving any indication that she was there. She may as well have been a statue or just another shadow. Ronnie recovered, wondering just how long he had been standing there waiting. It felt like forever, but couldn’t have been more than a few minutes.

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“I didn’t know what time you wanted me to show up so I just came as soon as I could.” Ronnie looked around. “So, are we doing this here?” The woman nodded. They stood in silence long enough for Ronnie to begin shifting from foot to foot nervously. “What... um... what should I do?”

“Show me.” The woman brought her hands up in front of her in loose fists as she lowered her stance. Ronnie looked at her for a moment. Was he supposed to just take a swing at her? He had never been in a fight before, at least not any where he had the opportunity to throw a punch. Awkwardly, Ronnie clenched his fist and swung at the woman.

Ronnie nearly stumbled, off balance as his punch was swatted away. The woman watched as Ronnie regained his footing, waiting for his next move. He frowned and tried a heavy left hook. Once more his attack was deflected and he was forced to recover. The exercise in futility was quickly getting to him and Ronnie threw a wild punch. He was parried for a third time, but continued his assault and swung again even as he stumbled. He felt the world around him turn completely and the next thing he knew he was on his butt.

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“Wrong.” The woman shook her head.

“Wrong? But... that’s how Brayden fights, and he wins every time.”

The woman shook her head again. “He is built like a rock, and fights like a rock.” She offered her hand and helped Ronnie back to his feet. “You are not a rock.”

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“Then how should I fight?”

“Fight like water.”

The woman put her hands up again and nodded to Ronnie. He looked up at her, confused by her instruction but understanding that she was willing to teach him. He tried to match her stance, how she didn’t clench her fists tight but kept them relaxed, and tried to punch again. She moved slow this time, catching his arm and stopping his momentum. She went through the motion, going at a pace Ronnie could keep up with, of redirecting his attack away from her center.

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They returned to their stances and the woman threw a mock punch, moving her arm slowly and letting Ronnie catch it just as she had his punch, guiding him through the parry and nodding as he performed it correctly. Ronnie felt a ball of excitement growing in his chest. This was actually happening. The woman was teaching him how to fight and he’d win against Brayden and he wouldn’t have to worry about being bullied again.

“No more going easy.”

“What?”

Her next punch came fast and and knocked Ronnie clean off his feet. Despite the speed it was a perfectly controlled punch and the only thing that hurt more than his rear was his pride. When he got up and back into his stance the woman struck again. He got up again and immediately went on the offensive. The world spun just like before and he was on his butt once more. It continued for some time, Ronnie getting up and being immediately tossed to the ground by a punch or a parry.

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“Are you even going to give me a chance?” Ronnie finally snapped after getting up for the umpteenth time. “You’re not teaching me anything, you’re just throwing me around.” The woman regarded him for a moment and shrugged her shoulders. “Forget it, this was a stupid idea. What does ‘fight like water’ even mean?” Ronnie shook his head and stormed out of the alley, leaving the woman and all thoughts of fighting behind.

—-

When Ronnie returned home it was later than he thought it would be. He must have waited in the alley far longer than he should have. The house was quiet, the unmistakable feeling of being empty. He stepped into the kitchen and found a note stuck to the fridge by magnet. He pulled on the bottom of the note, slipping it free of the magnet, and read it. It was a note from his father. He’d be working late, of course, and dinner was in the fridge.

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Ronnie opened the fridge and peered inside. It was mostly empty, like always. A half gallon of milk a week past its expiration, a handful of condiments of varying age, and a half a pack of hot dogs in a zip lock bag. Ronnie closed the fridge and looked around. No buns to be seen.

He spotted a pile of mail on the table and flipped through it. Electricity, second notice. Water, second notice. Phone, final notice. Junk, junk, and more junk. He tossed the stack back onto the table and marched up to his room. At least here, in his own fortress of solitude, he could pretend things were alright.

—-

Ronnie arrived in the alley the next day, unsure why he was even there. Part of him had accepted his fate due the next day. He’d be beat to a pulp, perhaps even extra pulpier due to the antics that woman had caused, and that would be the end of it. If he was lucky, he’d be able to avoid Brayden for the rest of his school career. It was only, what, another seven or so years?

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Ronnie sat down against the brick wall and watched the ground until a pair of feet settled in his view. He looked up and saw the woman, watching him with curious eyes. It was like she was a computer that couldn’t process a formula and had frozen up. She finally sat down beside him, her knees up against her chest and her arms wrapped around her legs.

“No training today?” She asked.

“No training today.” Ronnie picked up a stone and tossed it against the far wall. “Why does everything suck so much?” He asked out loud. The woman didn’t reply, so Ronnie picked up another stone and tossed it. “Ever since Mom left things have been getting worse. Dad has to work all the time and we still barely have enough money to get by. It’s not like I’m old enough to get a job, there’s nothing I can do to help. And school was the only place that sucked less than being at home and now that jerk won’t leave me alone.”

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Ronnie patted the ground, looking for another stone to throw. The woman held her hand out, a stone resting on her palm. Ronnie took it and tossed it at the wall like all the rest. “Why are you always here in this alley anyway?” The woman handed him another stone and he hesitated tossing it, waiting for her reply.

“I lost something,” she finally said.

“Lost something? Your home?”

“That too.”

Ronnie handed the stone back to the woman and she peered at it then at Ronnie. He nodded and she tossed it just as Ronnie had been doing. The slightest hint of a smile appeared at the corner of her lips.

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“Well, whatever you lost, I hope you find it.” Ronnie looked up at the cut of sky between the alley walls. “You’re a really good listener for an adult. The counselor at school is supposed to listen but all he ever does is pretend while he doodles in his notebook. I’ve seen the things he draws. I think he needs counseling.”

The two sat in silence for a long time. Ronnie barely knew anything about this woman, didn’t even know her name, but he felt content in being near her. He rested his head against her shoulder and sighed. “I should probably go home now,” he finally said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but I hope I see you again.”

The woman nodded. Ronnie got up and left the woman sitting alone in the alley. She picked up another stone and tossed it against the wall. “Stay safe,” she said softly.

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—-

The bell rang signaling end of the school day and Ronnie escaped the classroom with relative ease. Brayden was somewhere behind him, the looming presence that would not relinquish its hold on him. Ronnie had come to the conclusion that this game of cat and mouse couldn’t last forever and if he had to go down he’d do it on his own terms. Bursting out of the school Ronnie tossed his bag aside and stood his ground in front of the school.

When Brayden emerged among the throng of kids he spotted Ronnie almost immediately. He approached Ronnie with a swagger. He knew that today was the day he’d finally get to dish out the beating. “Finally given up?” He taunted.

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“I’m done running,” Ronnie announced and held up his hands in loose fists as he lowered his stance. “Lets just get this over with.”

Brayden laughed. “You’re going to fight me? Scrawny chicken-shit Ronnie finally grew some balls.” Sensing the imminent fight, a circle of bodies was beginning to form around them. It was a strange occurrence that seemed to happen whenever there was a fight, no matter where in the world or how old the combatants. If there was to be blood, there would be an audience. “Hope you’re ready to have your ass beat in front of all these people.” Brayden taunted.

“Like I said, lets just do this.” Ronnie wanted to run, wanted to push his way through the crowd and get away, but he ignored the voice in his head that was screaming to flee. The circle of people wouldn’t have let him get away, even if he tried. They might as well have been a burning circle trapping him within.

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Brayden charged Ronnie like a bull and swung his arm hard. Ronnie could see the blow coming in slow motion, a tight-clenched fist aimed right for his face. “Fight like water,” he whispered to himself and closed his eyes tight. The pain that should have blossomed outward from his nose never came. There was a gust of wind and the sudden deafening silence of the crowd. Ronnie opened his eyes and saw Brayden standing in shock a few feet away.

The bully charged again and swung hard only for Ronnie to catch the oncoming fist, side step and redirect Brayden’s momentum, letting him run right past and into the crowd. The throng of people acted like rubber and they pushed Brayden back into the center. Brayden was growing angrier by the second. The fight should have been over after the first punch but Ronnie was still standing. Full or rage, Brayden advanced and began punching in a flurry.

Ronnie parried right and deflected left. He couldn’t fully prevent every attack but he took the hits that got through in stride as they struck with less accuracy and strength as they could have. Somewhere in the barrage there was an opening and Ronnie slipped between a punch and slammed his fist with everything he had into Brayden’s throat. The bully fell backward, gasping hard to recover his breath.

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“This is over,” Ronnie said, winded. “I’ve just shown half the school that I can stand against you in a fight. They’ll all know by tomorrow and no one will let you live it down. So just... leave me alone. Alright?” Ronnie blinked a few times. That didn’t really sound very threatening, but what was he supposed to do? Beating up Brayden while he was down wasn’t going to solve anything. With Brayden was still on the ground wheezing and unable to reply Ronnie slipped through the crowd, retrieved his bag, and ran.

—-

Ronnie arrived in the alley in record time, bolstered by his victory over his bully. He burst into the alley full of excitement.

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“Hey! Are you here?” He asked out loud. “Guess what! I won! Well, I mean, I’m here so obviously I won. But it worked! I fought like water and he was all ‘I’m gonna squash you’ and I was all ‘pshaw’ and took him down!” Ronnie’s excitement slowly dissipated as he realized that he was completely alone. “Are you even here?”

He looked up and down the alley and waited for a few minutes but the woman never showed up. He crossed his arms over his chest and frowned. She had always been there before, why wasn’t she now? He looked up and saw the woman’s cup resting on top of the brick wall. What was over that wall anyway? It was a good eight feet high and there was no obvious way to scale it. Ronnie jumped, but that was a stupid idea. What was he even thinking that he’d be able to jump up on top of it...

Ronnie walked up and down the alley, checking the wall, until finally he spotted a brick in the wall that jutted out slightly. He placed his foot on it and stepped up. The top of the wall was still very far away. He continued searching the wall and found a place he could just barely get the tip of his shoe into. As he raised up on his toes he found a spot to grab onto and held fast as he grasped for another foothold.

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Just as his foot found a spot to step on he lost his grip and fell from the wall. Luckily his bag softened the fall. Unwilling to give up, Ronnie tried again. He reached the same point as before and climbed even further. His hands finally reached the lip of the wall and he found solid purchase for his feet. He struggled to pull himself up over the wall but he succeeded at last. He rested on his stomach on top of the wall and caught his breath. Going down the other side would be easier at least. Ronnie hung his body down the other side and dropped the remaining length of the wall to the ground. Now he’d finally see if the woman was hiding here.

When Ronnie turned around to inspect his new surroundings he wasn’t expecting what he saw. There on the other side of the wall was a large body of water. As he walked closer he saw a sign.

“Public water supply. No Trespassing.”

Ronnie looked out over the lake and frowned. He turned around to leave, wondering just how he’d make it back over the wall again, and his foot brushed up against something. He looked down and noticed a pile of stones. Ronnie picked up a flat stone and examined it for a moment. He looked back at the lake and tossed the stone. It skipped a few times before plopping into the water.

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“That one’s for you,” Ronnie said out loud. “Thanks.” He sat down in front of the sign and looked out at the lake well into the afternoon until security finally found him and escorted him out. They didn’t even question the handful of rocks he took with him. Ronnie never saw the woman again, but he’d never forget her.