The Call of Bravery - By Janice Kay Johnson


CONALL MACLACHLAN SLUMPED on the bathroom floor, his back against the tub, a wet washcloth pressed to his face. One eye had already swollen shut, and the other lid barely opened. His nose wouldn’t quit gushing blood. He could taste it in his throat, and thinking about it, he lunged forward barely in time to retch into the toilet. Afterward he stumbled to his feet to rinse his mouth out and then brush his teeth. Neither helped much when blood kept pumping from his nose and running down his upper lip.

He wet then wrung out the washcloth again and lifted it to his face. His hand paused briefly as he caught a glimpse of his face with the swelling, bruising, a puffed lip, two black eyes that were going to be hideous, blood…and tears.

He didn’t cry. He didn’t! He was nine years old, way too old to weep like a little girl. But he felt…he felt… A sob tore its way free and he crumpled again, pressing the cold cloth to his face to stifle blood and tears both.

He’d been beaten up before. He was a shrimp for his age, and hated it. When other boys shouldered him aside or knocked him down for the fun of it, he hit back. Every time, he knew he’d lose, but he couldn’t seem to help himself. He was so full of rage, even he didn’t understand it.

And it wasn’t fair that he was small. His brothers weren’t; Duncan at fifteen didn’t have a man’s muscles, but he had a man’s height. He had to be six feet tall. And Niall wasn’t far behind at twelve. Their mother always said he was growing like a weed. She’d sigh, because usually she was noticing that his jeans were too short. But then her gaze would stray to Conall, the runt of the litter, who wasn’t growing like a weed. Sometimes she looked…he didn’t quite know, and wasn’t sure he wanted to identify her expression. It was too much like she couldn’t figure out where he’d come from. As if he’d followed Niall home one day like an abandoned puppy and moved in without her noticing, until recently, that he was always there.

It was getting worse, too. Not that long ago, she would have yelled at him when she saw him like this, but she also would have hustled him upstairs, cleaned him up and gotten him a bag of frozen peas or corn for his face.

Today when he’d stumbled in the door and Mom saw him, she said, “Not again. What is wrong with you?”

When he fled toward the stairs, he saw his father step out of the kitchen. What was Dad doing home this early? Had he lost his job? Or quit? The surprise on his face changed to disgust, and Con knew what he was thinking.

What’s wrong with you?

He didn’t know what was wrong with him, why he couldn’t be like Duncan, who was smart and athletic. Nobody would be stupid enough even to try to beat him up. Not Duncan. Anyway, Conall’s big brother didn’t get in trouble. He was too controlled, too focused on what he wanted.

And Niall…well, Niall did screw up. He used to be a good boy, too, until Dad got out of prison and things weren’t the same. But even so, he was also the star forward of the middle school soccer team and the basketball team. Dad liked Niall because he played the bagpipe like Dad. In fact, he was better than Dad, Con privately thought, maybe because, like Duncan, Niall had that ability to focus so intensely, he shut the world out.

Niall had Duncan, too. They were friends. When Mom and Dad started yelling, they often disappeared together. Con would look out his bedroom window and see them walking down the sidewalk to the school, one or the other dribbling a basketball. They didn’t seem to remember he was here.

Like they’d waste time teaching him, the runt, to play basketball. Not that long ago, Dad had said, “Usually a boy can start playing the bagpipe by the time he’s nine or ten, but you won’t be able to.” He’d snorted and turned away.

The nosebleed had finally stopped. Conall washed his face again, and decided he really needed ice. He could hardly see at all.

He’d made it most of the way downstairs when he heard Dad yell, “Why are you blaming me? You’re supposed to be raising the damn kids, aren’t you? If that pathetic excuse for