The bell for last period tolled like a death chime. Tanya ran a hand over my shoulder and didn’t part until the hall split our paths.
“See you after class,” she said.
“Assuming Adrian doesn’t get me first.”
“He won’t,” she added, “and if he does…” Her fist met her palm and cracked in her grip. The imagery brought a smile to her face.
I forced a grin, waved, and pulled myself away from her as easily as you’d pull a band aid. The idea of class without Tanya wound tight in my shoulders and pulled my jaw clenched. Even if the way she fought for my honor scared the crap out of me it was always better that she was there, just in case.
My eyes closed; most of the walk was automatic anyway, so I didn’t need to see. We’d taken our time and cut close to the second bell. We avoided a lot of trouble that way, even if it did mean risking a warning for being tardy.
The words of my therapist rolled through my mind; deep breaths, inhale and exhale to a slow five count, keeping my thoughts rooted in the present. The tile was hard beneath my feet, and I was safe, alone in an empty hall; or so I thought.
“Watch it,” the man snarled.
I opened my eyes to a figure I didn’t recognize; older, gaunt, with heavy eyes and a receding hairline so high it needed a control tower to deflect air traffic. There was a quality about him, like a cross between a teacher and a horror villain. Maybe it was the trim beard, or maybe it was the patches of grey running along his wings. Either way, the look he gave made my skin crawl.
“S-sorry,” I said, and stumbled backward in the direction of the classroom.
Okay, maybe the hallway wasn’t so safe. I made a mental note: if I was going to wind down on the way to class I had to do it with my eyes open. Who knew what kind of creeps were looming?
After turning the corner I arrived at science class. By the looks of it I was the last to take my seat.
I didn’t even have to knock before Mr. Drew addressed me; he didn’t lift his head from the roll sheet. “Sit down, Mr. Cade, and count yourself lucky. If this were college you’d already be marked absent and risk failing the course.”
Not that it was a threat I took to heart; he’d been using that same line since freshman year. Since then it had lost all meaning.
All eyes crawled over me as I made my way to my seat, or maybe it was just the intensity of Adrian’s gaze as I made my way around him; third row back, second table from the window. He was stationed in the second row on the opposite side of the room, and I was relatively safe; at least while the teacher was watching over us.
A minute later and we were into the lesson. Mr. Drew was saying something about minerals, heavier elements; all of this geology stuff that was difficult to concentrate on with that meathead stealing peeks in my direction. What was his problem? I’d never done anything to him; at least not until he’d started wailing on me. Was I so wrong for existing? No, I wasn’t the problem; he was.
I prayed to Tanya like she was a patron saint. At least I knew that she existed; maybe if I prayed hard enough she’d burst through the wall, snatch Adrian in her colossal palm and bite his head from his shoulders. She’d do that, right? I would too, but I felt guilty about it.
Then there was a knock at the door. I looked up with every other eye in the class to the figure looming outside the room. It was the same guy I’d run into before.
Mr. Drew blinked a few times and closed his textbook. “Teddy? What are you doing here?”
“We need to talk,” the stranger said. “It’s important.”
“I’m in the middle of class,” he tried to argue, but the invader stepped inside and leaned toward him.
“We need to talk about the weather,” ‘Teddy’ insisted.
That must have meant something; Mr. Drew looked stunned, placed his book down and followed him into the hall. “Class, I’ll be a moment,” he gasped on his way out.
A hush fell over the room, but was broken when some guy in the front made a joke about a ‘lover’s tiff.’ What was that all about? The springing in my heels made me want to creep for the door and find out, but the fear of getting caught held them down.
Then as if by clockwork Adrian turned so that he could throw a ball of paper in my direction. I raised my arm and deflected it, earning a groan from my corner. This would never have been a problem if Tanya and I had picked the same electives. Some days I was certain that Adrian had picked this subject because he somehow knew it’d be where I was most vulnerable.
“Just you wait, Cade,” he snarled. “You and me, we’re going to have a talk. You got that?”
Right; if by ‘talk’ he meant creating some bruises in the few minutes I didn’t have a bodyguard around, or maybe it would be something else. Maybe that day he only wanted to scare me a little, because fear lingers longer than any wound does.
Mr. Drew returned to the room looking both flustered and furious. He pointed at Adrian. “I saw that, Mr. Dempsey. You just earned yourself an hour of detention after class.”
“What did I do?” he pleaded.
“What did I do?” I mocked under my breath, thankfully without calling attention to myself.
“Don’t play dumb,” the teacher growled. “I saw it all. I heard it all. You can’t leave that boy alone, you do time.”
I might have felt relieved, but did he really have to call me ‘boy’? It didn’t matter if that’s what he saw in me. The word still made my skin crawl. As if I wasn’t already anxious about waiting out the day, suddenly I was screaming for it to end.
“I’ve got basketball practice,” Adrian sighed.
It was a lie, of course; he had practice Tuesdays, Thursdays and casual team meets on Saturday. It’s funny when you get so desperate to survive that you memorize your bully’s timetable.
“Doesn’t matter,” Mr. Drew huffed and turned back toward the counter. “We’re going to have a ‘talk’. You got that?”
Adrian looked back to slather more hate in my direction, but I was immune. It seemed that Tanya wasn’t my only guardian angel. Science class didn’t seem so bad anymore, at least on that day; nobody could know if Adrian would get away with it next time.
To be continued…