Blood dripped from my nose and slapped the concrete. My heart pounded my chest like a fist. My legs trembled and I fought the urge to vomit. I had run for as long as possible, but my asthma soon put a stop to that. Our family Doctor had always said I was small for my age. I wished on every star, every birthday cake, to be bigger. The boy punching me wished I was a more worthy opponent, I’m sure. Voices. I could hear the other kids yelling things from the circle around us.
“You’re a wimp!”
“Fight back, loser!”
“Grow a pair, you sissy!”
Tears welled in my eyes. More insults. No one at this school liked me much. I overheard my teacher calling me a ‘frail little runt’ once. The kids in my class were the worst. They teased me because my hair was long. They teased me because my mother kissed me as she dropped me off each morning. They teased me for all the reading I did at lunch. I now looked at the book that had been knocked out of my hands; splayed on the ground like the victim of a hit-and-run.
Another blow to my face energized the growing audience. I tried to punch back, but my fist just glanced off the bulky fifth-grader.
“You punch like a girl!”
I recalled the words on page sixty of my battered book. I recited them.
“Qui vocat te.”
“He’s calling his mummy!”
“Nunc age Deo cornibus asperata!”
“What a nerd!”
“Spiritum tuum imple”
My head ached. My vision grew dim; as though the clouds had blocked out the sun. Silence from the crowd. Blood streamed from my temples and into my eyes; when I wiped them clear, the watchers were wide-eyed, as was my tormenter. Searing agony. Squelching and cracking. My head felt funny, like it was the wrong shape. I felt around. Hard things had sprouted from either side of my skull. Horns as large as an elk’s. I knew what to do.
The bully’s face drained of blood; he turned and ran as I charged. The mob parted to let us through. I leant forward, focusing the weight of my horned head toward my target. I felt stronger, faster and keen as an arrow.
The bully weaved through trees, trash-cans and people. Tears streamed across his reddened cheeks. He cried out when I rammed him in the small of his back. He flopped and rolled and then just lay there — sprawled out like my precious book of incantations.
I chased the scattered remnants of the throng. They screamed and ran; I enjoyed it immensely. Teachers stared from a distance; one filmed me with her phone. I scooped up my book and dusted it off; it still smelled of the section marked ‘arcana’, in our library at home.
From that day on, no one teased me about my mum’s kisses. No one even teased me about my antlers. No one ever teased me about my books.