“How many times have I got to tell you to quit staring at me?” he roared, or at least that’s what I thought he’d said. It was hard to hear with the ringing in my ears.
Pressed against the locker I could feel the steam burning into my skin. With one hand pressed against the metal the other tried to pull away the arm stretched across my neck.
I opened one eye to the face of Adrian Dempsey, my lifetime tormentor and all around idiot grinding his teeth. Why he hated me in the first place was a mystery; all I knew was that I’d become the scapegoat for every evil that had been inflicted upon him. In the living hell that was high school he was my devil, and I had no sympathy for him.
“You were staring first,” I choked with a wink. I wasn’t scared of him; not anymore, and hadn’t been for years.
The crowd that was gathering began to make Adrian nervous. He let go and stepped away; he probably wanted to intimidate me and nothing more. There was no way he’d do anything extra stupid while there were witnesses around; he had a basketball career to think of.
I could still feel his disgust as he pulled away, dripping like saliva from the jowls of a dog. Even though I was teasing him I could see the cogs turning in his head as he wondered, does this little queer really want me? A thousand sick thoughts were probably flashing behind his eyes, but he didn’t even seem to consider how much I hated him back.
Stumbling away he left me alone to collect my breath.
“Gods, what a jerk…”
It had been years since my first encounter with Adrian and it had only gotten worse over time. Even then I couldn’t make sense in it. What did he see in me that inspired such fury?
Down the hall he found Tanya and collected her with his shoulder. Whatever beef he had with me he had with her so long as she was sticking by my side.
“Watch it, #&$%face,” she hissed and nursed her arm. Immediately she turned to me with a look that demanded every detail, no matter how small.
“I didn’t start it,” I told her.
“I know. He’s the one with the problem.” Grabbing my shirt Tanya led me away from the congregation. “What I don’t get is why you put up with it. You’ve been taking it since grade school. How come he isn’t constantly walking around with a broken jaw?”
“Firstly, it’s because I’m not violent like you are,” I scoffed. “And second, I get enough crap at home without adding suspension to the list.”
“Call it self-defense. With your history nobody would doubt it.”
The idea was tempting; not that I could put a dent in a mountain like him, but damn would it would feel good to try. Rage boiled in my fingertips, clenching my fists so tensely that they’d explode. Sometimes I really hated being married to the high ground.
Every few moments I looked to my wrist, praying that an hour would skip ahead. School was suddenly unbearable, restricting like a collar fit too tightly around my neck. Tanya and I made our way to the football field where the taste of springtime made the yearning for freedom even worse.
“You can’t let him get to you like this or you’ll never finish school,” Tanya said, “and unless one of you gets transferred, or expelled…”
We climbed the stands, stepping over each row until we could see houses outside the fence. A handful of senior athletes ran back and forth while my best friend and I sat on the top row and picked bits of flaking blue paint off the wood.
“Something bad is going to happen to him one day,” she said. “It’s karma.”
“You won’t even have to lift a finger. He’ll have brought it on himself. Whatever happens will have been a long time coming.”
She could see my anger. Why did she always try to reason with it? It wasn’t as though it could be talked away. Then again I wasn’t going to turn her down; even when I wanted to satisfy that primal urge she could expect me to do the right thing.
“I brought your comics back,” Tanya said and reached into her backpack. From it she removed a small stack of books with bent covers.
“What did you think?” I asked.
“Mostly awesome, but the X-Men stuff reads like a bad soap opera. Seriously, this is what you’d get if ‘Days of Our Lives’ had time travel.”
Grabbing a title from the top I gave it a flick. “I kinda thought that was the point.”
“Why do you even read this stuff anyway?”
“Isn’t it obvious? I’m in it for the massive boobs on nearly every page, just like any other supposed guy.”
Tanya scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Don’t be that person, JC. It’s not you.”
“Sorry,” I murmured and began turning through the pages of ‘the Invincible Iron Man’ instead.
“You know what I think it is?” she observed. “Well, it’s mostly geeks and weirdos and people like that who read this stuff, right? I mean, no offense to you or anything because geeks and weirdos are awesome, but it seems to appeal to people who don’t know how to stand up for themselves a lot of the time. I’m sorry if that sounds mean…”
“That’s alright,” I shrugged. “I don’t stand up for myself most of the time. That’s usually your job.”
“Even though you know I can’t be your back-up spine forever.”
She stopped, pried the book out of my fingers and regarded me oddly. A die hard comic collector would have blasted her for bending the spine, though I wasn’t that attached to the five dollar pile I’d grabbed at the thrift store.
After a minute of staring I broke the silence. “What?”
“Just wondering,” she said. Her gaze was unshakable.
“Wondering if you’ve ever really seriously thought about being a superhero.”
I laughed. It seemed like such a stupid thing to say. “Sure! I mean, who hasn’t? If I could be anybody I’d probably either be Green Lantern or the Flash…”
“No, that’s not what I mean,” she said. “I mean have you, as in Kaira who is sometimes Justin, ever dreamed of being a superhero? As in the kind of person who doesn’t take it from jerks like Adrian.”
Her question had taken me completely off guard. What was a discussion about comic books had become one of those confronting moments that didn’t have an answer.
“Yeah,” I said pushing a response from the hollow in my chest. “I’ve thought about it.”
“So why don’t you do it?”
Was she serious? “What kind of a question is that? I can’t be a superhero! For starters I don’t even have any powers.”
“Batman doesn’t have powers. Daredevil doesn’t have powers. Captain America doesn’t have…”
“Okay, if you want to get technical about it, Captain America is physically enhanced by the super-soldier serum and Daredevil has weird radar senses,” I interjected.
“You didn’t do Batman.”
“He’s also fictional,” I told her, “and yeah, I know there are actually a lot of superheroes running around in real life all over the world, but I’m not one of them. I’m just a stupid kid with an easy target painted on his forehead.”
“Her,” she shot back.
“Don’t correct me with my own preferred pronouns,” I snapped, smiling for a flash before pouting again.
Tanya leaned back and left me to wallow in my guilt. It seemed like she resented her role as bodyguard, not that she’d ever admit as much; and even though there was a lot more to our friendship than that I didn’t know how else it could be.
“I just want you to have a better life than this, JC,” she said.
“Me too,” I told her, though I was sure that that was never going to happen. Even if I was Kaira 24/7 the world wasn’t a kind place to women like me, which sometimes makes you wonder what the point is.
For a moment her scowl eased as a fresh point entered her thoughts. “What about Green Arrow?”
To be continued…