Angry all around, they went straight to West Hill Family Medical Center. Roo wanted his own doctor. Roo did not want to be treated by his mother. But Rosie was more confident in her own ability to stitch up her son’s forehead than her son’s GP or whomever happened to be staffing whatever emergency room. And though Penn worried that she was so upset her hands were shaking, that was only so until she had Roo on the table in the treatment room. Then her hands steadied and her eyes focused, and she laid a line of stitches at which even Howie, when he came to check on all of them, whistled in appreciation.

In some ways, it did not seem fair to have this conversation while she had both Roo’s bleeding head and a needle in her hands. In some, it was the only way.

“Hold still.”

“Mom, wait, I—”

“I said hold still. I know you have trouble with authority Roo, but even you must see this is a time to listen to your mother.”

“I don’t have trouble with authority.”

“Have you been fighting?”

Roo paused to consider whether it was too late to convincingly lie about this and concluded it probably was. “Obviously.”

“I don’t mean today.” Rosie irrigated her eldest son’s gaping head wound. “I mean was today the first time?” She looked at his eyes. “And don’t lie.”

“Yeah. I’ve been getting in fights. Some.”

“For how long?” She sterilized Roo’s head.

“I dunno. A few weeks?” The question mark at the end was for whether he was going to get away with the timeline.

“A few … weeks?” Penn shrieked, and Roo was glad he lied.

The first time had been the second week of school—the year before. Derek McGuinness was an asshat. Derek McGuinness called him—and a couple dozen other kids—gay and faggot and fucking fairy. Derek McGuinness called him these things precisely because he thought Roo wouldn’t fight back. It was the fact of Roo’s unlikeliness to fight back that made him those things and that made it safe for Derek McGuinness to call him them. Which meant kicking his ass killed two birds with one stone. How to explain to his parents that there were some things worth defending, some things worth standing up for?

“Why?” said Rosie.

“Why what?”

“Why were you fighting?”

“You don’t understand, Mom. It’s different for guys.”

“Please.” She rolled her eyes.

“You have to be a man.”

“You’re seventeen.”

“You can’t be, like, a wuss.”

“Roo, in this family of all families, you’d think you’d have a better handle on the absurdity of gender stereotyping.” Her needle went in and out, in and out at the slow, steady pace of a heartbeat much calmer than anyone’s in the room. “Remember when your father walked away from Nick Calcutti? That was the bravest, manliest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Yeah.” Roo shrugged, winced. “But Nick Calcutti had a gun. Derek McGuinness isn’t even fast.”

“Don’t move. Who started it?”

Roo was still. He couldn’t quite answer that question. He had thrown the first punch, it was true. But it was more complicated than that.

“Roo.” His mother moved her gaze from his forehead to his eyes.

“He begged me to do it, Mom.”

“He’s hitting kids,” she said to Penn, as if Penn weren’t right there and hadn’t heard himself, as if Roo weren’t lying beneath her busy hands. “He’s seeking out and beating people up now.”

“He called me … something bad.”

“What?” said Penn. “What could he possibly have called you that warranted violence?”

“He said. He said I was gay.” Roo went with the serenest epithet. He didn’t want to say “fucking fairy” to his mother while she had a needle in his forehead, even if it was a quote.

She went white above his eyes. “That’s why you beat him? That’s the horrible, tragic insult you simply could not abide? Gay?”

Roo’s head and mouth held still. His eyes nodded.

“Roo,” his father breathed, “that’s not even…”

“True?” said Roo. “I know it’s not true.”

“Mean,” Penn finished. “It’s not even an insult. All you have to say is, ‘None of your business,’ or ‘No, I’m not actually,’ or ‘What’s it to you?’”

And suddenly Roo was laughing. He tried to look at his parents to see if they were serious, but his mother was clenching his jaw almost as tightly as her own.

“You think I beat him up because I’m homophobic.” Not a question. An accusation.

“Isn’t that what you’re telling us?”

“No. I beat him up because he’s homophobic. He’s out there calling anyone he doesn’t like faggot and pussy, like being gay is the worst thing he can think of. Some kids actually are gay. Or they have gay parents. How do you think they feel? I beat him up so he’d stop being an asshole.”

“Don’t say ‘ass,’ Roo.” Penn was trying—and failing—to keep relief out of his voice.