A Rare and Genuine Gratitude
For DS_Flashfiction's "Mute Fraser" Challenge. Thanks to Mia, Julad, Resonant, and Shalott for helping with this.
Ben Fraser raised his eyes, still panting. He darted a quick look at the palm of his hand. The skin was all ripped up, bloody and black with embedded dirt.
Asswipe! Jackoff! Scum-sucking bastard!
The old man took a step or two backwards, took a deep breath, and then went into a stiff-seeming crouch. "Come on, boy," he said, and licked the underside of his lip. "Take me if you think you can take me."
I'm going to fucking kill you, Ben thought. He launched himself forward, instinctively keeping his center of gravity low, and aiming at the old man's legs, wanting to knock him down. But the old man moved fast, stepping out of the way with a nimble twist of his leg—and then Ben was tripping, flailing for balance. Hands grabbed him from behind, hard, and then suddenly Ben was being flung around and slammed into the side of the shed. Inside, the dogs howled.
"George! George! Jesus!" Ben darted a glance sideways. His grandmother had appeared out of nowhere, one hand pressed to her lumpy, old lady's bosoms.
Ben licked his own lower lip and tasted blood. He waited.
"Go in the house, Martha," the old man said calmly.
For a long moment, his grandmother didn't move, and the three of them just stood there, frozen in time, waiting. Ben supposed his grandmother was giving him time to make a run for it if he wanted to, but he didn't want to. This was between him and the old man.
Finally, she seemed to understand this and sighed. "God forgive you, George," she said, and disappeared back around the house, picking her way across the uneven ground with stodgy, deliberate steps.
Once she was gone, Ben lifted his hand and swiped blood away from his nose. The old man just stared at him narrowly, not asking him if he was okay. After a moment, the old man again dropped into his crouch, extending his leathery hands like he was going to catch a baseball. "You want to go again?"
Ben surveyed the situation with narrowed eyes, and tried to strategize the best mode of attack. After a moment he remembered the old man's weak right knee. He feinted right, then hurtled low and left, wrapping his arms around the old man's waist as he tackled him, sliding a little as they slammed together and reeled sideways.
The old man moved fast but not quite fast enough, and as Ben had hoped, his knee buckled and wavered. Ben bent his head and butted his forehead hard against the old man's solar plexus, and then they were both falling onto the gravel—rolling, scrabbling. Suddenly the old man dealt him a sideways blow to the head that dizzied him. He kicked and punched wildly as the old man grabbed him around the middle—strong bastard! Motherfucker!--and hauled him up like a sack of potatoes.
"Have you—" and the old man was gasping now, and that was something, wasn't it? That was something, he'd done something. "Have you—had enough?"
He twisted in the old man's hands and wrenched himself out of the old man's grip, falling to the ground with a painful bang that was entirely worth it. He rolled and launched forward again, this time with fists flying, banging against the old man's rock hard stomach. The old man grabbed his arm, whirled him around, and seized him by the neck of his shirt, hauling him up and half pulling him, half dragging him toward the wall of the shed.
Stifling a sob, Ben braced himself for the impact, more startling than painful as he banged loudly into the splintery old boards. Again, the dogs let out renewed howls of outrage at the disruption. Ben rolled against the rotting old shed wall, gasping, struggling to keep his feet under him, and then stumbled forward again, swinging. There was no power in the assault this time, and the old man caught him easily, half fighting him off, half holding him up. They were staggering together in the yard behind the shed, kicking up gravel and clouds of dust, almost like they were dancing.
Ben took a few ragged breaths and then gathered up his strength for a final assault. He was barely able to land a blow, his weakened arm failing him, his fist glancing off the old man's side. He let out a scream of inarticulate frustration—and then he was sagging against the old man's body, face pushed against his chest, smothering his breath.
"Have you had enough?" he heard the old man whisper. "I can keep going if you can," and the old man was the only one who understood what it felt like to have all this bottled up inside him, to have been screwed over so royally by his stupid mother who'd gone and died on him and his fucking freak of a father who'd sat in the dark for months and scared the royal fucking shit out of him, only to take off for parts unknown five minutes after he'd finally recovered: Hey, Dad—don't let the door hit you on the way out! It had hurt so much, the hard-fucking-fact that his father's new life didn't include him. So he'd been warehoused here with his grandparents—and he had to say please and thank you and censor himself, censor the not-so-grateful, fucking pissed off "you screwed me, you bastards!" part of himself for ever and ever and ever, Amen.
He wanted the old man to slam him into the shed again, maybe just one more time. It felt good. It felt real—like his insides and outsides matched up for a second. But suddenly he was too exhausted to go on, and felt he might fall asleep right there, leaning against his grandfather's strong body. Who else was he going to fight against? How could you fight the dead and the missing? And then a hand dropped heavily onto his head, and Ben stilled at last, feeling a rare and genuine gratitude for the old man's hard sympathy.