I met Tommy Fallon down by the water after sundown, to settle things with our fists. Half the kids in school showed up at the shallow creek on the outskirts of town. He was bigger and a full grade older than me. Our beef was over a girl. I can’t even remember her name now, but Tommy I will never forget.

He rolled up his sleeves, cracking those big fat knuckles that could pound me into pulp. I tried to breathe, pretending I didn’t care what those powerful fists might do to me. Tommy never lost a fight. Not once. Every kid in school knew that trading blows with Tommy was a death sentence. Two older kids had tried to take him, and neither showed their face at school for a week after.

Tommy flexed his arms like he was stretching before a run. He stepped up to the edge of the stream, the tiny trickling brook murmuring between us in the purple afterglow of sunset. My pulse jumped in my throat. All my pals and half the girls in school came to watch. If I ran now everybody would know. My knees shook. No matter what, I promised myself that I would not cry. No matter what Tommy did. He leaned his big, meaty head across the stream and made a smug face.

“Hit me,” he taunted.

He put his hands behind his back.

“Take the first shot, free of charge. I’ll stand here and take it, but after that I get a free shot at you.”

I shook my head. It had to be a trick. He would come at me with all the fury of hell. Tommy grimaced.

“I ain’t joking! Gimme the first hit, no questions asked. Then stand by and take the same.”

Raising an eyebrow, I tried to keep a stoic face. I often toyed with my dad’s old punching bag and I knew how to put my weight into my fist. Maybe I could knock Tommy down before he even took a swing at me. Maybe. I nodded my consent.

His eyes sparkled the moment I agreed. I should have known then and there that it was too late. I drew back my fist as Tommy bent low over the stream, giving me a clear shot at his head. I decked him as hard as I could, right in the jaw. The smack of bone hitting flesh resounding through the glade. Everyone stood silent.

A sting ran through my fingers as Tommy reeled backward. I hit him hard, probably harder than he thought I could. He sprawled on the grass beside me, his head rolling off his shoulders like a lopsided soccer ball. My face blanched white.

Tommy’s cranium came to rest several yards away. I couldn’t think, couldn’t move. No, no, no. It’s not possible. Somehow, I’d knocked Tommy’s head clean off his neck. There was no blood.

Tommy’s eyes blinked and a crooked grin spread across his face. I staggered back, those glittering hazel eyes of his leering up at me. His body crawled toward the missing head and righted his skull back atop his shoulders. Like the way I used to screw on a doll’s head for my sister when she busted one of her toys. Only now Tommy stood straight and tall, like nothing happened. He sneered.

“My turn.”

He wrapped one palm around my throat, drawing back his fist. If my life didn’t flash before my eyes then something happened very much like it. I remembered my first steps, the day my kid sister was born, and a whole bunch of other things I thought long forgotten. Tommy glared down at me, his prey.

“Why don’t you run? Why don’t you squirm, boy?”

I didn’t answer. I gave him one shiner, and gave him my word that I’d take one myself. But my head wouldn’t grow back. Tommy’s grin faded.

“I must have fought a dozen guys and each of them ran away after the first punch, but not you.”

“And I ain’t gonna.”

I shut my eyes, knowing Tommy’s fist would come down like an anvil against my skull any moment. God, I wished I was safe at home, but Tommy’s challenge stirred something inside me. If I was to die in front of my pals and all the girls at school, I’d die standing up.

He released his grip on me, as though all the power had gone out of his limbs. I opened my eyes to see Tommy sauntering off into the woods. One kid shouted after him.

“Ain’t’cha gonna knock his block off, Tommy?”

Tommy glanced at me over his shoulder, his crooked head wagging.

“I could hit him, but I can’t beat him.”

Tommy disappeared into the woods. Only then did I realize that in all the fights Tommy ever had, he never threw a single punch. Always he took a blow, and after that the other boy was so scared over Tommy’s size, he peed his pants and ran.

The girls crowded around me in a circle, whispering to themselves. My pals clapped me on the shoulder, saying I was the first to lick Tommy Fallon. But I knew better.

Tommy didn’t show up at school the next day. Or any day after. No one ever saw him in town again. His folks’ house was abandoned and eventually foreclosed. The grownups never believed their kids’ stories of how Tommy’s head rolled off. Parents chided their children for lying, but the adults gave each other sidelong glances, each hearing the identical story repeated by other children. I said nothing. No one ever picked a fight with me again, and each year the newest crop of kids in school would whisper when I passed by. The kid who called Tommy Fallon’s bluff.

Mark Noce is a Technical Writer by day and Fiction Author by night. He writes novels about historical fiction, ranging from pirates to the colonial frontier to the American Civil War. He also writes contemporary short-stories.

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