Billy Gannon could already taste the beating that was waiting for him. It was salty, like a busted nose, and sharp as the metal fork he was pressing against his lip. Buzz and Arrowhead would beat him up today because that's what they did every Saturday. Billy knew what he would do about it.
Billy sat at one end of the kitchen table, and at the other end sat his dad. Morning washed through the window over the sink, splashing October sun onto the walls.
"The Sox clobbered the Yanks again," his dad said, his voice booming from behind the sports page. "Oughta fire that manager."
"Does he have any kids?" Billy asked.
"You don't send the runner in a situation like that," his dad continued. He rattled the paper. "Never bet on a road game."
Billy's fork snapped through the brittle underside of his breakfast. His dad had burned the pancakes again, but served them fluffy-side up.
"Early bird catches the worm," his dad announced, laying the paper flat. "Get out and rake those leaves today.”
"Can't," Billy answered, choking down a wafer of pancake. His dad picked at a hole in his tee shirt.
"Those guys'll beat me up." Billy studied his plate. He knew his dad was staring at him.
"How old are you, boy?"
"Ten," Billy answered. "But there's two of them. I can't fight them both. I need help." He glanced at his dad, whose face was twisted into a frown. Billy looked back at his plate.
His dad snorted. "The Lord helps those who help themselves." He gathered up the paper and disappeared into the bathroom.
In the window, bony fingers of elm tree beckoned. Billy didn't want to look. But something about the leaves—the the way they stuck to the branches, not letting go—made him happy. He turned back to his breakfast. His stomach was churning. He wasn’t exactly sure why, but he knew it wasn't just the pancakes.
The air smelled like smoke and pine sap when Billy crept outside, rake in hand, an old blanket over his shoulder. He had on a blue jacket and his Yankees cap. And, of course, his running shoes.
Every leaf in the neighborhood had found its way into his yard. He had to rake them all to the road, fifty feet from his door, so the leaf truck could vacuum them up. Billy started raking the leaves into a line. When the line got thick and heavy, he raked the ends into the middle, then pushed the pile onto the blanket and dragged it to the curb. He raked facing the road.
Billy didn't know why Buzz and Arrowhead wanted to beat him up, unless it had something to do with Billy's dad calling Buzz a "momma's boy." One day they had all been friends, and then the next day they weren't.
"Kiddo!" Billy looked up. His dad stood in the driveway wearing a white turtleneck under his black leather coat. "Goin' to Jimmy's for a while," he said.
Billy nodded. His dad backed the station wagon into the street.
"And no leaves on that hydrant!" Billy waved. His dad rolled the window up, then sped off. The gash in the rear door was beginning to rust, Billy noticed. Last week, his dad turned too soon into the driveway, sideswiping the hydrant. He blamed the dark and the leaves, but Billy knew he'd stayed too long at Jimmy's Pub.
Billy bent to his raking. He was dumping another pile when Buzz and Arrowhead bore down on him, their bikes spraying leaves behind them. Too late to make it to the house. Billy dropped his rake and ran straight at them. They skidded past him in a sliding turn, then pedaled back furiously. He spun around and ran at them again, but Arrowhead rammed him at the hydrant, knocking him into the leaves. Buzz jumped off his bike, running. Billy tucked himself into a ball, taking most of the blows on his back.
It ended when Buzz planted a foot on Billy's shoulder, pinning him. Arrowhead glowered behind Buzz.
"Wee Willie Winky," Buzz snarled. "If I catch you here tomorrow, I'll run you over."
"If your mommy lets you," said Billy. Buzz pushed Billy on his back and stomped his chest. The stink of Buzz’s dirty wool socks crawled up Billy's nose. Buzz grinned.
"I'll squash you," he said, "like a winky bug." Buzz laughed. Then he and Arrowhead were gone.
Billy fished through the leaves for his cap. He grabbed the rake and shrugged off the hurt. Gotta finish, he told himself, before dad gets back.
He raked madly for a minute. Then stopped and slumped cross-legged on the grass. Who was he kidding? His dad wouldn't care if the lawn was raked. He wouldn’t care if ten lawns were raked, once he got back from Jimmy's. And tomorrow his dad would send him outside again. And tomorrow Buzz would run him over.
Billy lay in the sweet onion grass until his stomach stopped churning. It was peaceful, watching the leaves clown with the trees overhead. The branches reminded him of fingers folded in prayer.
His mother had taught him, whispering clearly. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.... He knelt beside her, repeating the words. Her red hair, flecked with gold, clung to the curve of her neck. It was after she died that his dad started going to Jimmy's and crashing into hydrants.
Billy sat up. An idea came to him, a plan that might save him from a beating. He laughed. Why hadn't he thought of it before?
The next morning, Billy tiptoed out of the house, past his snoring father, and took his position by the road. He wore his Sunday best. White shirt. Tie. Pants. Suit jacket. And black shoes. He wouldn't need his running shoes today.
He took the rake and gathered the leaves into a giant pile. He worked swiftly, carefully. He had to finish before Buzz and Arrowhead found him. They would know he was here. Somehow, they always knew.
Billy stood behind the pile and waited. And soon they came, tearing along the road on their bikes, descending on him. Billy didn't move. Buzz rode straight for Billy, ready to run him down. Still, Billy didn't move.
Buzz exploded into the pile. Billy watched him sail through the air, unseated by the hydrant hidden beneath the leaves. He landed in a crooked heap. Arrowhead crashed on top of him, knocking them both out. Their bikes lay in the road, warped and broken.
Billy stood over Buzz and Arrowhead. He should've been happy, but what he felt mostly was relief. Reddish gold leaves whispered from the trees. Billy grinned back.
Later in the day, he would give proper thanks for his deliverance. Right now, he wanted to go into the house to have breakfast with his dad. He would prepare the table and pour the orange juice until the cups overflowed. He would make the pancakes himself, and would be careful not to burn them on the bottom.
BIO: Robert Meade is a Boston native now transplanted in Mohegan Lake, in Westchester County, NY, with his wife and three children. He teaches at Loyola School in Manhattan. He won the Wordweaving Award for Excellence for his book, Daily Bread: Seven Days to a Healthier Soul. A published author of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, his recent work has appeared in Angels on Earth magazine and online at Guideposts and Apollo's Lyre.