Standing in the cafeteria line to pay, Sally Little hid her face when she saw the young man standing nearby.
She couldn’t chance his recognizing her. She had no doubt who he was, though she hadn’t seen him for over a decade. The panic attacks had finally subsided, but she’d never forgotten Creech.
Now, her nightmare stood almost in reach of her. There was no mistaking his hulking physique, and the same red hair. Even back then, at thirteen years old, he’d been bigger than many men. Who else could it be?
His size wasn’t what disturbed her. A violent bully, he’d terrorized the children in her town. And he singled her out, vowing revenge for what she did.
Sally became famous at her school, at eight years of age. She saw Creech beating a defenseless kid, pinned on the ground. A circle of screaming kids watched as he pounded their helpless friend. Until Sally stopped the fight.
Creech’s threat still haunted her, eleven years later.
Her mother moved the family to another town, and Sally never saw him again. Until now. She never expected to see him in the state university student union cafeteria.
Sally considered leaving the line. But she’d already ordered her ice cream. They knew her. She was a regular. Her cone was almost ready. There were people around. If she left, what then?
Her skin crawled. She could feel him behind her. Frantic, she rummaged for cash in her purse. The cashier moved toward the register with her cone. As Sally moved to pay, Creech stepped up and handed the cashier a five dollar bill.
He said, “I’ll get that, miss. Keep the change. Thanks.” He took the cone.
“That’s mine. What are you doing?”
“My treat. If you don’t mind.” Towering over her, he offered her the cone.
“I do mind.”
“Aren’t you Sally? Sally Little? Lincoln Elementary?”
She felt trapped. Sally took the cone and followed Creech’s gesture toward an open table. He pulled out a chair for her.
She stopped. “What do you want, Creech?”
He smiled. “To say hello to an old acquaintance. And cancel an old debt.”
She scowled. “You don’t owe me anything.”
He chuckled. “Please sit. Can’t we talk for a minute?”
Ready to bolt at the slightest provocation, she sat. Her look said, ‘Well?’
Creech sat across the table from her. “I owe you much more than a mere ice cream cone, Sally.”
She shook her head. “What are you talking about?”
“I know you’re busy. But please, hear me out. You helped me change my life.”
“I was angry and fearful and took it out on anyone I could.”
“I was a bully, you remember?” Sally became impatient. “You probably know bullies don’t act from their strong sense of self.”
This admission surprised her. She listened.
“My life was a mess. You’ve heard of…” He searched for the words. “You were a kid. I must’ve looked a giant. But at home I was a worm.”
“Well… Pop beat me. Often. And in turn, I beat others.”
Sally settled into her chair. “Wow…”
Creech pointed to her cone. “Go ahead. It’s dripping.”
Sally saw melted ice cream streaming onto her hand. She began to lick around the cone.
“I forgot a napkin…”
Creech offered his handkerchief. “Don’t worry, it’s clean.”
She dabbed her hand and mouth and offered it back to him.
He waved it off. “Keep it.”
Sally stared at him. “That’s terrible, Creech.” She stopped. “I never knew your first name.”
She repeated it. “Joseph… But what do I have to do…?”
“Everything, Sally. You changed everything.”
“Yes you did. I haven’t been in a fight since that day.”
Her mind stopped. “You mean…?”
“That day I met you, my life changed. I know it’s been years. But I saw you here and had to say something.”
She licked her cone. “I don’t get it. How?”
Creech leaned in. “You remember that day?”
Despite years spent forgetting, Sally instantly recalled the incident. She chuckled as she looked at the cone in her hand.
“I’d bought my favorite cone at Russell’s.” She pointed at her cone. “Rocky Road, if you don’t know…” He smiled. “I heard a commotion and went to see what all these kids were screaming about. I was little, and threaded my way to the center. You were pounding a kid about half your size.”
Creech nodded. “What did you do?”
“I yelled. But you wouldn’t hear my tiny voice over everyone else.” Creech nodded. “So I did the only thing I could. When you punched him, I stepped forward and plopped my ice cream onto your head. You didn’t even realize. You only stopped when the kids started laughing.”
Creech leaned back and laughed. “That’s right. Everyone laughed and pointed.” Sally nodded. “I didn’t get it. I felt no pain. But I thought blood was running down my face. I wiped at it with my hand and saw it was white.”
“Everyone chanted ‘cone head, cone head…’” Sally couldn’t help but laugh. “I’m sorry… You looked like a giant, angry, red-haired unicorn.”
“When the cone plopped on the ground, that’s when I noticed you.”
“Everyone laughed at that. And that’s when I got scared.”
“I let the kid go. I stood.”
“I never saw anyone so huge. You could have juggled three of me.” Creech remembered. “You wiped your face with your sleeve and came toward me.”
“No one knew what to expect.”
“I thought you were going to tear me apart.”
Creech nodded and looked at the floor. “I wouldn’t hurt a girl.”
She said, “You didn’t.” Creech shook his head. Sally said, “Everything went quiet. The air was electric. You smiled, and said the strangest thing. I couldn’t believe it. You asked me to marry you.”
Creech could only smile and nod.
Sally shook her head, still in disbelief. “I was flabbergasted. I didn’t even point out I was only eight.”
Creech laughed. “I was crazy.”
“I said no. No one would marry you, if that’s how you act.”
“And then you said you didn’t care how long it took, but you’d get even for what I did. It was chilling. You terrified me.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“I remember. That’s exactly what you said.”
Creech put his hands up in surrender. Sally licked her cone.
He said, “What I remember, and I’ve thought about it for years… I said, ‘I’ll repay you for what you did.’”
Sally scowled. “Yeah. So?”
He leaned forward. “Sally, in that instant, I saw my life. You made me see I was becoming Pop.” Sally settled in her chair. “That’s why I bought your ice cream today. To pay you back for that one you ‘gave’ me.”
They both laughed.
Holding up the remnants of her cone, Sally asked, “You got your revenge buying me this?”
“Right, all part of my diabolical plan. Want some sprinkles?”
“It’s a bit late for that, Creech.”
“Okay. Next time.” They laughed again.
She smiled and nodded. “I’m not big on sprinkles anyway. Rocky Road stands alone.”
“That same day, I moved to my Aunt Mary’s. Had to get away from Pop. Never went back.”
Sally held her cone up like a torch. “Powerful stuff, Rocky Road.”
Creech got serious. “So, what’s your major? Any ideas?”
“Got my eye on pre-law.”
“Really? I’m prepping for my bar exams.”
Sally couldn’t hide her surprise. “What? A career in corporate?”
“Oh… I would have…”
“No. Victims need a champion. Everyone wants to believe they’re the victim. I know about that. But there are real ones.”
“Everyone blames society. But boiled down, you’ve got two individuals acting with kindness, or not. It’s a choice.”
“Please don’t take this wrong, but I’d hate to face you in court.”
He laughed. “Physical intimidation can only take you so far… But Sally, you make a formidable opponent.”
Sally balked. “Me?”
“I’d want you on my team, any day. No one expects to get beaten with a scoop of ice cream.”
Sally laughed. “Not just any ice cream, Bub. Rocky Road.”
Creech smiled. “I’ll keep that secret weapon in mind.”
They looked at each other for a moment.
He said, “We’re both busy. I need to go. But I hope you’ll accept that ice cream cone as a very late payment on an old debt.”
She smiled. “You are free and clear. Expunged.”
He gave her his phone number and offered advice on navigating the intricacies of law school. Sally promised to take him up on that.
They shook hands and smiled.
He said, “Thanks, Sally,” and left.