Brendan ran like hell, the whooping and hollering of the other boys spurring him on. His breath came in ragged stitches and his side burned, but he couldn't stop. They'd beat him half to death if they caught him! Tree branches snagged at his clothing, ripping a hole in his jacket -- ah crap, mother would kill him when she saw that! -- but he didn't slow down.
The path twisted and turned through the dense woods in the park, and he didn't even see the man in front of him until he'd ran headlong into his belly. "Ooof!" they both fell backwards, a little stunned. "Something wrong, little one?" the tall man kneeled down to the boy, dirty blond hair falling over his green eyes. Behind Brendan, the baying of the hounds shut down as they too turned the corner and saw the tall man. They backed up instinctively, not understanding why they were so scared, not like he'd walked in on them actually beating Brendan up! Still, he was a grown-up, and they didn't like grown-ups messing in kid's business.
Not at all.
"I think it's time for you gentlemen to leave," the man said firmly. "Now!" They backed up, glancing at each other, then skedaddled.
"We'll deal with you later, Brendan!"
"Perhaps... and perhaps not," the man muttered to himself before looking down with a smile. "So, little one, how are you doing today?"
Brendan dashed back a few tears to hide them, "Fine, and sorry for running into you like that. I was... I was in a hurry to get home!"
"I think you were in a hurry to get away from them," the man said with a flick of his head. Brendan turned away, but the man grabbed his arm as he tried to leave. "I can help, if you let me."
Brendan looked at him, "What do you mean?" he asked neutrally.
"My name is Eric, what's yours?"
The next day Brendan took a different path than usual home, and as promised Eric met him too close to the school for the bullies to try anything. Third grade was rapidly coming to a close, and in another month it'd be summer, and Brendan would either stay home all season long, or have to face down his classmates. They weren't amused with his behavior, but between the teachers at school being extra-alert for bullying, and Eric walking him home, they had very little room to maneuver in. Small, everyday torments they could pull off, and there was little Eric or his teachers could do to shield Brendan from those, but they couldn't get him alone to beat him up. That much made him happy.
What else was happening made him ecstatic. Brendan had always loved learning, and sports, and now Eric was helping him with both! Between helping him with his homework, showing him new and interesting sports to do, and some other stuff, Brendan now had the big brother he'd always wanted.
And with the last day of school coming up, he and Eric had planned a nice little surprise for the bullies, who still tried to hound him from time to time.
"Whatcha want, Brenda?" Ricky asked as Brendan came up. Brendan stood nose-to-nose with him, and waited for a second.
"What did you call me?!" Ricky shouted, pushing Brendan back.
"Coward!" Brendan shouted back with a shove of his own. "Too afraid to face me one on one, always have to have your friends backing you up!"
"Am not!" Ricky exclaimed as his posse shifted nervously. He had to get this situation under control, now.
And, of course, it was only little, underweight, weakling Brendan. What harm could there be in offering... "Tonight, in the park, you and me. These guys," Ricky jabbed his thumb over his shoulder, "will watch but not fight. Deal?"
Brendan smiled. "Deal!"
Eric sure was smart about this si-college-eee thing. Whatever the word meant.
"Fight, fight, fight, fight, fight" went the chant as several dozen kids formed a circle around Brendan and Ricky. Word had spread quickly that the Grand Bully of the third grade was getting challenged. Some showed up for the blood sports; some showed up to support Ricky and his gang; most, though they wouldn't admit it even to themselves, showed up in hopes that Ricky's reign would be brought to an end.
Brendan smiled a little smile as Ricky walked into the circle. "Ready?"
Ricky just charged straight into him.
Brendan's mother made a big deal over his black eye and split lip when he walked into the house. His dad, on the other hand, gave a great big belly laugh when Brendan told him "you shoulda seen the other guy!" just like Eric had told him to.
Several months later, Brendan screeched at the dinner table as his dad threw the newspaper down on the table, open to the obituary section. He'd seen Eric's picture in the paper! When his dad explained what the obituary section was, and read the article to Brendan, Brendan just about collapsed, wailing. His parents quickly agreed to let him attend the funeral service. It couldn't hurt, and if this really was the guy who'd helped Brendan out with being bullied, they owed the man. Brendan was happier than he used to be, and didn't get beaten up on a daily basis anymore, either.