"I'm not going to hit you."
"Yeah, you are." He motioned Hudson toward him. "You've never gone to a public school before. I have to make sure you can defend yourself."
So that's what this was all about. "Seriously?"
"We've raised you in a bit of a bubble, and eighth grade can be brutal. I haven't slept good in the last two weeks since you started."
Hudson snickered. "You woke me up—because you can't sleep?"
"C'mon, wise guy. Let's see what you've got. Hit me."
There was no way. "I might hurt you." Might? No, he definitely would.
Dad laughed quietly. "What do you weigh now, one-twenty?"
"One thirty-two." Maybe more after the spaghetti tonight.
"Okay, so I still outweigh you by sixty pounds. Trust me, you're not going to send this guy to the hospital." He tapped his stomach. "C'mon. Right in the breadbasket. Take a swing."
"I don't see the point."
"Made any friends yet?"
Hudson shook his head. Not that he hadn't tried.
"With no friends, some will see you as an easy target." Dad shrugged like the solution was obvious. "You've got to know how to take care of yourself. Just in case."
For some reason the whole thing struck him as incredibly funny. "You always taught me to solve problems without fighting. Does Mom know you're doing this?" Dumb question. Why else would Dad be doing this in the middle of the night?
"Stop stalling. Hit me."
Hudson pictured Dad going to school in a day when hallway or cafeteria brawls would break out. He was so out of touch. "It's different now."
Dad's face got dead serious. "Times change. People don't." He hesitated. "I'll bet you already know who the alpha male is at Southfield."
He pictured a wolf. Zachary Wolfe to be exact. PTO president's son. Brainy. Charmer. All-around jerk.
He'd seen Wolfe torment Steve Adashek just because he smiled too much. Adashek hadn't done much smiling since. But Wolfe did—along with Mitch Zattora, Brett Scurto—aka Skirt—and others he'd seen following Wolfe like a pack. It made Hudson want to puke. "I haven't seen one fight. Nothing physical like that. Just verbal stuff."
"It may not come to this," Dad said as he made a fist, "but there's a social order—and the kids in power expect you to respect it...or they'll make sure you do."
"It's not like that," Hudson said. "But if something changes I'll sign up for your self-defense lessons, okay?"
"That'll be too late. Be nice. Be kind. I'm all about that. But when somebody gets all in your face—you have to deal with it right then. It's a pop quiz. It comes without warning—and the grade will stick. If they push, you need to push back. You never let them get the last word in. That's all I'm saying."
Hudson had no intention of becoming a casualty. But Dad had to be wrong about all this. "How do you know so much about it?"
"Dads know, okay? Maybe I've been there." He took a wide stance and bounced a couple of times on the balls of his feet. "Let's say one of them shoves you." He pushed Hudson's shoulder with the flat of his hand. "What are you going to do?"
The hot water heater kicked on with a whoosh—casting an orange glow on the pale concrete floor.
Dad poked him. "Stay focused when somebody faces off with you. Don't let him score a sissy shot on you."
This would be a perfect time for Mom to walk down the stairs. Hudson glanced behind Dad.
"Never take your eyes off him. Ever." Hudson laughed.
"I was just looking—"
"For help? Forget about it. Don't look for a teacher. Don't look for a friend. This is between you and the bozo in front of you. Right here. Right now. You've been shoved. What are you going to do?"
Hudson shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe—"