Cooper ran the top of his hand under his nose. It came away crimson with blood. His nose throbbed and every time it throbbed he felt fresh wetness on his upper lip. He stared up at the boy standing over him, hands on his hips. He sneered, but Cooper stared back at him unflinching. "That's what you get for flirting with my girl," the boy, Luke, said. "And don't let me catch you doing it again," he warned, "Or I'll pound you even worse." Coop pushed himself to his feet and grabbed is fallen backpack. Slinging it back over his shoulder, he gave Luke another withering glare before he headed for home, still wiping his bleeding nose on the back of his hand.
He had no idea what Luke was talking about. He'd never flirted with Lara before in his life. He was eleven, what did he know about flirting anyway? Lara was nice to him in their science class. She'd been assigned to be his partner while they dissected frogs. Coop liked her, but not in the way that Luke seemed to think he did. He trudged home, kicking at dirt clumps on the gravel road, dust swirling up around him. He hated Luke. He always picked on him. If it wasn't about Lara, it was about something else. Just last week Luke had accused him of being gay. Cooper wasn't sure what it would matter even if he was, but the bigger boy seemed to think there was something wrong with it. Something worth making fun of him for.
He told his parents about Luke only after they prodded him. They could tell from the look on his face when he got home most of the time, that Luke had been problematic that day. Today, they would absolutely know something had happened. He pulled the screen door open and stepped inside, letting it slam behind him as it jerked back on its spring. "Don't let him goad you into a fight," his dad had always said. "That's what he wants. He wants you to fight back. It's not as fun to pick on someone who doesn't react." Only his dad's advice didn't seem to be working. Luke still picked on him almost every day. "You're better than that, Cooper," his mother had said, "He's a bully, but you have to be the bigger person. You don't want to get kicked out of school because you got into a fight, do you?"
He wanted to please his parents, they were always there for him and provided him with everything he could ever need. He was old enough now that he understood they had adopted him. He had been born in a country very far away, and his birth parents hadn't wanted him. He had to remind himself whenever he got frustrated with Marcia and Jacob, that they did want him. "Cooper?" he heard his mother call down the stairs, "Is that you?" "Yeah, mom," he called back as he opened the refrigerator and rummaged around for the fixings of a cheese sandwich. "Fix yourself a snack and then attend to your chores, please," she called down and he mouthed the words along with her. She said them every day. "Yes, ma'am!"
He dropped his backpack on his desk in his room and went into his bathroom, cheese sandwich hanging out of his mouth. He grimaced at the sight he found in the mirror. Blood had dried and caked on his upper lip, even running down onto his chin. Setting his sandwich on the sink, he turned on the water and gingerly rinsed his face. His nose hurt, but it didn't look crooked so he didn't think it was broken, but he could already see the beginnings of a black eye. With a sigh, he wiped his face and grabbed his sandwich, heading for the barn.
Cooper was using a pitchfork to throw hay into the troughs for the cows when he saw a small figure in the barn's doorway. She was silhouetted against the fading sun, but he knew who it was. He leaned the pitchfork against a wall and rubbed his hands on the sides of his jeans as he approached her. "Hi, Lara," he said, stopping a few feet away from her. "Hi, Coop," she said, giving him a bright smile. It faded quickly, though, she must have caught sight of the skin darkening around his eye. "Luke do that?" she asked, gesturing to his face. Cooper nodded. "He's not even my boyfriend, you know," she said angrily. "He just tells everyone that."
This information didn't surprise Cooper, but he wasn't sure what he was supposed to do with it, either. Sometimes it felt like Luke just wanted an excuse to beat on him, it didn't matter if the excuse was valid or not. When he didn't say anything, Lara looked at the ground and scuffed the toe of her sneaker against the dirt. "Anyway, I just wanted to say I was sorry he hit you. I'll tell him not to do it again but I don't know if he'll listen." Cooper just nodded. "Well, guess I better be goin'. Talk to you at school tomorrow. Bye, Coop." He watched her walk away until she disappeared and then he returned to his chores.
He was carrying eggs into the kitchen when he heard his parents talking. They weren't speaking in the hushed tones they often used when they knew he could hear so he was sure they didn't know he was there. As he put the eggs away, he could hear his father saying something about still running in the black. He'd heard them talk about the farm as if they weren't going to be able to keep it before, but his father's tone was different now. It sounded less forlorn and more jubilant. His mother's exclamation of "Oh, Jacob!" sounded happy, too. Cooper sighed. For a little while he thought maybe he was going to be able to get away from bullies like Luke. But from the sounds of things, he was going to have to keep dealing with them.