My thanks to Cole for editing and Ricky for beta reading.
“All right, then. Are you nervous?”
“Mr. Phillips, I'm walking into a school I could never get into on my own with people who -”
“That again, Mr. Stanley?”
“No,” I said with a smile, “I just wanted to say thank you, again. Maybe I also wanted to hear that bit about the rest of them being better than me only if I let them be. It's a good speech.”
“Well, thank you. I've been giving it for years and I'm always pleased when someone actually listens!” he replied with a chuckle.
The school architecture was gorgeous. Grey stone in a Gothic style with tall, pointed windows; it even had gargoyles at the corners. Everything about the school said old money, power and culture. When there was talk about people walking the halls of power, well, the ones walking these halls were the kids of those people. Mr. Phillips smiled and then began to chuckle as he took in the building and I gave him an inquisitive look.
“Oh, I was just remembering an old commercial. Do you know who John Houseman was?”
“No.” I replied.
“He was an actor who made his name with Orson Welles and that crowd – even won an Oscar. He had a very distinctive voice and,” he smiled and laughed a bit more, “he did these commercials for some financial company and he would say – very stiffly and formally – 'They make money the old fashioned way. They earn it.' And I have to tell you, I can almost hear that voice resonating from the facade of this building.
“There is one other thing, one other bit of advice that I'd like to pass on to you.” Mr. Phillips ran a hand across his chin and studied the facade of the building again. “Sean, coming from our school you know what it is to have very little. Poor books, facilities and...well, I'm sure I don't need to go on.”
I nodded my head at him – my school was rated one of the worst public schools in the state and if I could vote for it, I'd give it a zero.
“Here you will find a different brand of the same things, people are people wherever you go. Fear will be projected as arrogance and your peers may act as though their parents wealth, somehow, makes them special. In some ways, it does, but not for the reasons they might think.” He focused his eyes on mine and said, “Sean, until you have a solid sense of your classmates you must be on your guard. The addition of money does not mean a lack of sleaze.”
I took another long look at the facade of the building as I digested that sobering speech. We were buzzed in and I followed my guide, as he seemed to have a sense for where we were going. Mr. Phillips walked to an office and checked us in, then we waited.
“What you said earlier...do you think I can't trust people here?” I asked in a quiet voice.
“I'm just saying that money makes people weird, and to be mindful of that. Some of these kids were born with the proverbial silver spoon in their mouths. It colors their perception of the world, so tread lightly.”
A balding man poked his head out from an adjoining room.
“Is that you, Mr. Sousa?” he asked with a grin on his face.
“Mr. Sousa?” I asked. “I'm Stanley and he's Mr. Phillips.”
Mr. Philips laughed and then turned to me. “Mr. Kincaide and I have a long history, Mr. Stanley. He knows my first name is John, so he's making a very bad musical joke.”
“Jokes are always better when you don't have to explain them,” Mr. Kincaide replied with a pursing of his lips. “Come on in.”
Once seated Mr. Kincaide attended to a small stack of papers which he would sign, and then have me do likewise. The forms were acknowledging the school code of conduct, laptop policy, etc. He then handed me a padded messenger bag with a school owned laptop inside.
“Now,” Mr. Kincaide said, “On the laptop you'll find a folder with school documents such as the code of conduct, dress code, all that you just signed for, stipulating you've received them. Your school schedule is on there as well, although the person I was going to have sponsor you is out sick today.”
“Sponsor?” I asked.
“Yes, it's what we call someone who will help you get acclimated, answer your questions and generally help you get started on the right foot. I know this will be a bit of a culture shock for you, so feel free to stop in any time if you need anything. Mr. Phillips has lobbied hard for you and we were lucky to have a sudden opening.”
“You never mentioned...” Mr. Phillips asked, waving his hand towards the other man.
“One of our scholarships transferred – that's all I can say - privacy. Your Mr. Stanley was next in line, so there we are.” Mr. Kincaide glanced back towards me. “I'll walk you to your locker where you can store clothing items or whatever else you need – the laptop is required in most classes. Then we'll walk you around to your class rooms – I took the liberty of printing a schedule since walking around with the computer out is asking for trouble.”
“I'll let you get to it, then. Call me if you need anything, Sean.” Mr. Phillips said while placing a hand on my shoulder. “I'm proud of you.”
Then he was gone and Mr. Kincaide and I were walking the halls. “Normally I wouldn't be escorting you, as I mentioned – your sponsor is out today. I take frequent walks about the school, so I'll kill two birds with a little tour for you.”
“Thank you. How do you know Mr. Phillips?”
“He taught some of my family. We've always been fond of him – and he was always a teacher that really cared about his students.” He smiled at me as our footfalls echoed off the walls, “you could almost call him family.”
There was dark wood inlaid into the stone walls and marble floors which glowed dully under the lights. The light fixtures were all wall mounted and made of ornate metal and stained glass. It felt surreal in these expensive halls and I felt like an intruder – no, an imposter. I should have thanked Mr. Phillips again, perhaps asked him to join us for the tour.
“We operate on a track system here and you have been placed into track 'G'. The tracks guide our students to their classes so this gets you all to see each one in an orderly fashion. There are a few electives which we can discuss once we assess how well you'll fare here, academically.” He paused and turned to face me. “Your academic record is quite good, but I do feel compelled to add that this school operates at a higher level than you are used to. Additionally our electives run on a quarterly cycle, so you'll have a few weeks until the next group starts. With them ending so quickly it makes no sense to drop you into a class now.”
We walked past all my classes in the order they appeared on my schedule and then he brought me back to my first class. He introduced me to the teacher and then, with less than five minutes left in the class, I found a seat and joined the rush when the bell chimed. Yes, it actually chimed, like an elegant doorbell rather than the fire alarm bell I was used to. I was one of the last to exit the room and was very surprised to find a hand on my chest, pushing me against the wall outside the classroom.
“Carl wants you to wait a second,” a boy with lank, greasy hair said to me. My confusion never manifested into words as a huge hand pulled me around the corner into a busy stairwell and horrible breath rolled over me. I coughed.
“Cash. Now. All of it.”
“I ...” I coughed again, “I don't have any money.” I was confused, afraid and a little sick to my stomach. I mean, this guy was much bigger than I was and his breath or body odor...something just smelled rank. He shoved his hands in my pockets and I felt shocked at his boldness and squirmed.
“Nothing,” he muttered. “Tomorrow, bring iPod, iPad, whatever. Better be in good shape.”
This was better than public school? He and greasy hair disappeared up the stairs, quickly lost in the tide of kids switching classrooms. I glanced around quickly, confirming that no teachers had seen and thus it was my word against his before moving on. It wasn't an auspicious beginning. As my day progressed I confirmed that Carl was the big guy's name and the kid with the greasy hair was Andy something-or-other. Both were in frequent, small trouble through out the day.
Should I say something to Kincaide? If I did, even though it was my word against his, he seemed like the kind of fellow to have a reputation. But if he was here and wasn't very bright, as was my estimation, then that meant he had money enough to keep him here. Money they might not risk losing to an academic scholarship like me. I decided to wait and see what happened next and try to manage it on my own.
After the last chime of the day, as I had denoted it in my head, I opened my locker to see what kind of space I'd have to work with. Once the door was open, I could only groan. A solid mass stared balefully back at me - I think it was a few pairs of old gym socks that had fused with various wrappers and maybe a forgotten partial lunch or two – which was especially nasty when put into the perspective that none of this stuff was mine. I heard a locker slam around the corner. At least that's what I thought I heard, until I realized it was the sound of something or someone being thrown into a locker. Slightly different sound - I'm very aurally astute. At least I am since I was intimately familiar with the sound.
I walked to the end of the hall, and as I approached the corner I heard a few grunts and wheezes. Poking my head around the tiled wall I spotted Carl, some kid with a squashed nose and Andy something or other. A fourth kid came to my attention as he struggled to get up from the ground where he had just been tossed against a locker. So you see, aurally astute. Carl was huge for a junior. Actually, he was huge for a garbage truck. Standing taller than even many adults, he carried himself with an air of a regular, certified practicing bully, or CPB.
Carl's massive paw reached down and grabbed the fourth kid by his dark curly locks and pulled him to his feet. The other two formed a semi circle either to watch or make sure the kid didn't get away from Carl before they got a show. At lunch Andy something or other casually mentioned that the last kid Carl had taken a disliking to had gotten a broken arm. I swallowed, hard.
The right thing to do is to help, I knew that – I wouldn't be here if someone hadn't helped me. Three against one isn't fair, me making it two against three wasn't going to help that much. I just wasn't sure I had the balls to get my head beat in along with short 'n curly's for no other reason than it was the right thing to do. My decision was made for me, in a manner of speaking, when Andy spotted me. He nudged Carl and pointed at me with his chin. Carl's planetary-sized head turned towards me until I fell into his range of vision. He scowled.
“Walk away.” He glared at me and when I failed to move, stuck like a statue as I was, he turned part of his upper body towards me and repeated with even more menace, “Walk away.”
I might have obliged right then. Maybe not. I still knew the right thing to do was to help, and it could be argued that going to get a teacher or some other authority figure would have been help enough. But in the meantime they'd pound him, I figured. I was kind of on the fence between stepping up and pissing my pants when greasy hair made the choice for me.
“Walk away, faggot.”
I suddenly felt less like pissing my pants and more like pissing on his head.
“Well, that's not fair, three against one,” I replied, stepping fully out from behind the corner and into view.
“You think two on three means you won't get your face kicked in?” Andy sneered.
“No, you're right it still isn't fair,” I allowed. I hoped my voice wasn't shaking too much with equal parts rage and fear. “I can give you guys a few minutes if you need to grab a few more friends.” I glanced at my watch. “But my bus will be here soon so you'll have to make it quick.”
Things happened kind of fast then – not like action scenes in movies where the cool stuff goes in slow motion – but more bang, bang. It was like a football play you need to put on replay just to see what happened. Carl's eyes bulged and he turned more towards me, but that may have been because short 'n curly chose that time to punch him square in the balls. Carl teetered and half turned back towards his attacker who sent a second punch into Carl's solar plexus, knocking the wind from him. Carl stumbled backward a step or two with a small gasp and, with wide eyes, sat down heavily on his tailbone and gasping for breath.
Meanwhile the other two were headed towards me, not having seen their ace in the hole get his colossal ass stomped. I tried to breathe, to loosen my body to fight. I wasn't particularly good at fighting, though I'd been told I'm a world-class bleeder. Greasy hair got to me first and got a lucky shot right on my nose. No really, it was lucky. I swear. I did my part and started to bleed immediately. Through the haze I saw Andy something-or-other go down, it looked like short 'n curly had kicked him in the side of the knee from behind and now he was howling on the floor and clutching the knee.
Squash Nose half turned and I launched a punch to his side. Unprepared, he gasped and turned back to face me. Unfortunately for him that left his behind undefended and, with a viciousness I had never seen before, short and curly kicked him in the side right about where I had punched him and he went down with a scream, rolling slowly away from his former victim, more from pain than fear of being hit again. I think when you get hit like that the first time you don't really think there might be more pain coming; your world just becomes the pain you have right then.
Short 'n curly turned from me and headed back towards Carl - who was struggling to his knees – and picked up a book that was splayed open on the ground and a torn backpack which I presumed was his. I wasn't sure on the details, I was busy holding my bleeding nose. Short 'n curly shouldered the ragged pack and clutched the book in two hands, stepped up to the less than upright Carl and brought the book crashing down on the bridge of his nose. Carl, it turned out, was a world-class bleeder, too.
Shorty walked back to me, pulled a tee shirt from his pack and pushed my hands away from my nose. He put the cloth on my nose and an arm around my shoulder to guide me back around the corner. I couldn't leave yet as I hadn't finished with the locker, so I stopped there. He leaned against the open door, hardly glancing at the inside, and focused his hazel eyes on mine.
Why? Was he serious? After that all he wanted to know was why? Wasn't that my line? A low groan echoed from the hallway behind us.
“Are you anti-social?” I asked him.
“I've been called that.” A corner of his mouth curled.
“Sean Stanley,” I said, extending my hand. He took my hand and shook it.
“First day?” he asked.
“That's a strange name,” I replied. I turned my attention to the shirt at my nose, which was soaked, but at least I had stopped bleeding. I glanced at the locker and sighed.
“Really? You don't know me?”
“Should I?” I frowned at him. “I hop in a fight to help you and all you can focus on is if I know your name?”
“If you were me, it would be important to you,” he said, that curl showing at the corner of his mouth again. “But I suppose if it's truly your first day...”
“Short 'n curly.” I replied. Someone groaned again behind us, and there was some stumbling as someone climbed to their feet. His eyes narrowed.
“We should leave before they gather enough wits to try again.”
That hadn't occurred to me. I glanced behind us, took one last glance at the mass welded to the locker, slammed the door shut and grabbed my bag. “Let's go.”
We exited the building and I tossed the bloody shirt into a waste basket. He walked towards a long, dark colored car and I walked in the same general direction. It looked expensive – the kind of expensive you hire someone to drive you around in - as in the fellow that had been leaning on the car mere seconds ago, but was now holding the door open.
“That was bizarre,” I said to my companion. “Where the hell were all the teachers?”
“Most sprint for their vehicles faster than the students,” he replied with a smile. “But we were on the cafe side – the cafe is empty. They all clear out after lunch. I'll give Carl this much, he picked his spot well.”
“See you tomorrow then? Sorry about the shirt.” I said.
He turned and frowned. “Don't you want a ride?”
“Mine's due in ten minutes,” I said with a smile. “I have plenty of time.” He threw his bag through the open rear door and turned quickly to walk back to me. Grabbing my arm he pulled me to the waiting car.
“You're not riding the bus.”
“Why? I have a pass!” I protested, though this was definitely a nicer way to get home, even though I knew I'd feel embarrassed when we got there.
“The bus is unreliable, uncomfortable and it stinks!” he stated firmly. “This is a much more practical way to ride, and much more comfortable.”
“What about the smell?” I asked, just to be contrary.
“Are you implying I stink?” He asked with an arched eyebrow. His mouth did that half curl thing again. “Short 'n curly?”
I shrugged, “I apply temporary names to people until one resolves itself. Short 'n curly is far more descriptive of you than 'First Day'. Don't you think?”
He studied me for a moment, the corner of his mouth doing that trademark curl again. Maybe that was a nervous tic, like Tourette's. Hey, better then yelling out random swear words or clucking uncontrollably like a chicken. He reached out and grabbed my bag, and I pulled back. As I did he stepped forward, put a foot behind me and used my movement to dip me, like a dancer, but spin me all in one smooth motion so I was falling backward towards his car. With a little off-balance momentum to help, I landed on the seat and he was forcing his way in, and closing the door.
“Hey! This is called kidnapping!” I said hotly.
“It's a ride home, ungraciously accepted.” He replied. “Also, as a new student, you may not know that there are some public-school kids that ride that particular route as well. They don't much like us private-school types.”
“I wonder why,” I muttered as I sank into the seat.
“Because we can spot rhetorical questions that they will attempt to answer?”
“Then why say it?”
“To see what you'd say.”
“What is this, a test?”
“Most things are. I think it's pretty interesting that someone with, apparently, nothing to gain stepped in to help me in a fight. No one does that, so I'm curious.”
“No good deed goes unpunished,” I muttered as I pushed my bag in between my feet and looked away from him and out the window. “Where are we going?”
“Home, likely. Be harder to get to your own, unless you have an address?”
I sighed - he had me. Without knowing where he lived – and given the school and the car – it would be nowhere near my address.
His corner curl was back and he repeated the address to the driver, who made no verbal response, but the car began to slow and move into a turn lane. I looked out the window at the passing buildings and the few pedestrians rather than look at him. My neighborhood wasn't nice, even for my old school. I figured I'd take some shit for being the kid in a Goodwill uniform, but I falsely thought I could keep my home – and parent – out of it.
“So, my new friend, what is your scholarship contingent on? Grades? Athletics? Or was this a political thing? It's unusual, you beginning now, given it's mid-year.”
“I'm not answering any questions.”
“What? Why not?”
“Why?” I felt my eyes bugging out. “I helped you and you kidnap me?”
“Are you always this dramatic? Oh, and, you answered a question.”
I crossed my arms and huffed out a breath. He burst out laughing.
“I should have let them pound your face in.” I muttered.
“Oh, come on.” His laugh died out and his corner curl was back. “This face is much too pretty, but they wouldn't have succeeded anyway. Carl is big and slow; I was just assessing the other two.”
“Greasy hair and Squash Nose.” I muttered.
“You have terrible short term names, do you know that? Lee uses some expensive product in his hair to give it that greasy look; trust me - it's an improvement. Andy Horowitz is of the Dalton Hills Scandal Horowitz's – appears he got his father's intelligence.”
“Dalton Hills Scandal?” I asked, curious despite myself.
“Mm. Seems Daddy had a thing for the ladies, but the secretary he 'enticed' over Mojito's with a chaser of Rohypnol? Turns out she worked for the local mob, who was watching Mr. Horowitz. He was in real estate, Dalton Hills was supposed to be a huge money maker and the mob had contracts. I understand the dental bill was incredible.”
“I don't really...”
“No, not really something that gets found out and put on the evening newscast. Money does that.”
The car pulled to a stop and I glanced out at my apartment building. The other door opened and I sighed, resigned to dealing with whatever judgment would now be passed on my residence. I stepped out and shouldered my bag while he joined me.
“So, about 7:45?”
“Tomorrow morning? You can't go back to the bus, not now.” His mouth curled again. “No. I think not. See you in the morning,” he said and extended his hand, which I accepted by reflex. “Harrison St. Cyr. Now, that's much better than short 'n curly, wouldn't you say?”
“I don't know. I kind of liked it my way.”
“You're very strange,” he said with a frown. “Out of the ordinary for sure, Mr. Stanley.”
“Sean is fine.”
“Indeed. 7:45 then.” He climbed back in the car and, leaning toward me, said, “I'm not short.” Then the door closed and he was gone.
Curious. I headed up to the 8th floor by the stairs and entered our apartment. The air was stale and there was a lingering, sour smell of body odor, cigarettes and bourbon. I walked quietly, shedding my shiny dress shoes by the door, and entered the cramped living room. The television was on, but the sound was off and a game show was in progress. On the opposite side of the room my father was stretched out on the couch, asleep. He was in his usual uniform of undershirt and boxers and, oddly, one sock. Maybe he'd thought to go out today, put on the sock, and then started drinking instead.
The open bottle of Monarch bourbon was on the coffee table, and an 'old fashioned' glass sat with a spot of the amber liquid at the bottom. He was snoring lightly, hand stretched towards the full ashtray. I kept going past the bath and bedroom to the kitchen. I set my bag on the small table and put a pot of water on the stove for pasta. As I sat to do my homework, I wondered if the smell of food might rouse my father. I hoped not.
I hit the sidewalk at 7:30 so I wouldn't miss my bus, but was somewhat surprised to find Harrison St. Cyr's car already there. The door popped open and I reluctantly moved to it.
“Somehow, I thought you might insist on taking the bus – if nothing else you proved you were stubborn yesterday.”
“Yesterday I felt sorry for you. Today, not so much.”
“Oh? I think that may be the first time anyone felt sorry for me. I have coffee – do you drink coffee?”
“Well, if you're going to bribe me...” The promise of the hot beverage pushed me over the edge and I climbed into the car. A small tabletop, more like a ledge, had two travel cups in holders. He removed the one closest to him and sipped.
“Cream and sugar is in the drawer underneath.”
I doctored my coffee and sipped – good coffee is always a little too hot to drink at first. I also admitted to myself that it tasted better than the instant I got at home. Harrison stayed quiet for a moment, allowing me to take a few sips of my drink before he started in again.
“So, I'm curious. Why were you so against accepting a ride home yesterday?”
“I don't live in a nice place, unlike most of the people at school,” I admitted. “I figured it wouldn't look like much, comparatively speaking.”
“I didn't realize that mattered.”
“Look,” I said while putting the drink into its holster and turning to face Harrison. “I don't know what game you're playing or what rules you live by, but I know my position. Even though I will have the opportunity to get a great junior year in and put this school's name on my transcript, I'll be surrounded by my financial and social betters. Maybe living in a shithole like I do doesn't mean much to you because you never had to. I know I'm not one of, well, your world. I don't fit.”
I stared defiantly at Harrison, daring him to challenge me. His eyes stayed on my face, but I didn't get the impression he was studying me. It was more patient than that and, when I finally broke and turned back towards the coffee cup, he spoke – quietly and unhurriedly.
“Well, that makes two of us. I wouldn't be too disappointed about not being like the people you will share classes with, after all three of them attacked me yesterday. As far as anyone being your better – in any sense of the word, well...I would just refuse to accept that.” He sipped again and fixed me with a curious look. “I have never seen anyone do something that wasn't planned to benefit them. That you would tells me that you are either naïve or simply a good person. I've heard about good people – thought it was a rumor, mostly – but then here you are.”
“Look. I just saw Carl...”
“How did you know his name? Wasn't yesterday your first day?” he asked sharply.
“Yes.” I said slowly. “I had a run in with him right after first class. He tried to rob me, and when he found out I didn't have any money, he threatened me, told me to bring electronics from home for him. Joke's on him,” I said as I lifted the drink again, “I don't have anything like that.”
“Ah, Carl. Has the makings of a great petty thief or a low level enforcer that dies young.” Harrison mused. “I haven't figured out how he makes his grades, but I assume he bullies someone into most of it. Still, he must have some spark of intelligence to pass the tests.”
“Yeah, well, I don't know what I'll do about him today.” I said. “I heard a rumor he broke some kid's arm.”
“Which track are you?” Harrison asked.
“Let's go to the admin center; we'll get you moved.”
“I don't want to make waves, and I don't want any pity. I can take care of myself,” I protested.
“You won't make waves, I will. I don't pity anyone and while I'm sure you can, I can do it better.”
I chewed on this for a moment. He could handle himself in a fight, that was true, but at what price did his help come?
“In exchange for?”
“You said you'd never seen anyone do anything that wasn't planned to benefit them. So, what are you getting?”
“I suppose a friend. Imagine that.”
We arrived at the school, and when I exited the car with Harrison there were some people taking note. Just what I needed. All the same, the only people I knew here were Harrison, greasy hair – I mean Lee – Andy 'Squash Nose' Horowitz and Carl. Given that, I decided to stay with Harrison and see how things played out. We went right to what would normally be called the school office, but here was called the 'Administration Center'. A woman looked up as we entered and Harrison stepped right up, not a bit of hesitation on his part – he was all confidence.
“Good morning. I'll be sponsoring our new student, Sean Stanley, but it seems he was put into the wrong track. Would you be able to adjust that?”
“Were you assigned as his sponsor?” she asked while tapping on the keys of her computer.
“I wasn't, but he and I are acquainted and that does make acclimation so much easier. Had I realized he was starting here so soon I'd have been sure to let someone know that I'd volunteer.”
“Track D is a little full...” She brought a hand up to her face.
“I can promise that he will hardly be noticed, I'll see to it personally.”
“I'll just make a note of that, Harrison. I'm sure Mr. Edgington will be pleased to see you take responsibility for something.”
“No doubt. Speaking of responsibility, my friend here was trying to clean someone else's mess out of his new locker.”
“I'll speak to maintenance,” she replied with a slight roll of her eyes. She printed off a new schedule which Harrison accepted and brought to me. “Let's go. Teachers are all the same, just a different order – you can swap electives later if you like.”
“Uh. Thanks, Harrison.”
“Pleasure. Let's head out, shall we? Angelina gets antsy if I'm late and I'm in no mood for antsy today.”
“Is that your girlfriend?” I asked as we walked to class.
“Yes and no.”
“You recall our conversation about people not doing anything without a motive? Usually self-serving?” I nodded and he continued, “Angelina is a shameless social climber. I wanted to sleep with her, the rumors about her skills were rampant, and there you have it.”
“So...wait...you're both using each other?”
“That's a solid description.”
“Then why bother with the pretense of...what...dating? Are you dating?”
“All part of the masquerade, Sean.” He turned to face me and clapped me on the back with a wide smile. “We are all decent, upstanding future pillars of society!”
“Yeah but...” My mind churned and I said perhaps the part that made the least sense to me. “So sleeping with you is worth social points?”
“You sound surprised. My feelings may be hurt.” We walked into the room which had several circular tables. Harrison led me to one and had me sit to his left. A shapely girl with long, dark pigtails – of all things – sat to his right.
“Where have you been? Did you get caught in traffic?”
“I made a friend. Angelina, meet Sean Stanley.”
“Oh,” she dragged the word out. “Hello there, Sean!”
“Relax, Angie, he's not playing the game.”
“Everyone plays, and don't call me that. It sounds so slut-like.”
I coughed, trying to hold a laugh back. Harrison's mouth pulled up in the corner again and Angelina gave me a suspicious glance.
“What do your parents do?” she asked.
“My mother passed away,” I replied. This was not true, but I had no plans to blurt out my personal history.
“How fast did your father re-marry? Mine waited five weeks.”
“All right, let's get to our seats. Miss Bynum? Off you go.” The instructor, dressed in a full suit, glanced sternly at Angelina, who scuttled to another table. Another boy took her seat next to Harrison. “You there. Mr. Stanley, was it? Has something changed?”
“Yes, Mr. Edgington.” I stood and approached him with my new schedule, “Harrison has volunteered to be my sponsor.” I wondered if that meant the teachers would judge me, too, and how. “And I was moved to track 'D' this morning.”
He took the sheet and looked it over skeptically. “St. Cyr?” he asked.
“True enough, sir.” Harrison replied.
“Well, I'll be stuffed. Be seated then, let's get on with it.” With that there was no time for chatter or introductions around the table, and the class-change times were small enough that we had to hustle to the rest of them until lunch.
The lunchroom was more like a restaurant than a school cafeteria. The only thing it retained was that you picked your own food – but the décor, the table settings, all of it spoke of a professional service. I had lunch assistance, which meant I didn't have to pay, and Harrison saved me a seat.
“Any observations to share?” Harrison asked.
I chewed for a moment before answering. “Honestly, yes, but I don't want to be offensive so I'll keep it to myself.”
“I appreciate you being tactful, but between us you can say what you like. I'll only ask you to guard your tongue when others are present, if you feel the remark might be...complicated.” He nodded his head toward some approaching classmates and said, “Speak quickly.”
“I don't get Angelina and her attitude that she's not a slut. I'm not trying to offend either of you, but isn't what she's doing with you kind of the definition?”
“Hm. 'Whore' might be more accurate. I'm not entirely sure she enjoys the sex acts she engages in. Her payoff isn't monetary so I'm sure prostitute is inaccurate as well. I probably fit the classical definition of a slut more than she does, frankly.”
I burst out laughing, the carrot shavings from my salad coming out my nose.
“Classy. Word is you're sponsoring?” one of the students asked as she arrived and put her food down. Three others quickly sat around the table, filling it up.
“He was a bit shocked about my loose sexual morals.” Harrison offered matter-of-factly.
“Who wouldn't be?” another agreed. “Anthony Moreland,” he said while offering a hand. I extended my own.
“So, how did you meet our Harrison?” the first asked. Her smile didn't quite reach her eyes.
“He's a fellow pugilist,” Harrison offered.
“Really?” said the third, a boy with one blue and one green eye. “He doesn't look like a fighter.”
“I think of him more as a verbal pugilist,” Harrison said like I wasn't even there. “Witty.”
“Can't he answer for himself?” the girl asked, with a bit of snark I thought.
“Harrison handles all my non-witty duties.” I replied and went back to my food. The table grew silent for long enough that I noticed before it resumed.
“So then I take it he's met Angelina? Did she throw herself at him?”
“No,” Harrison frowned. “I had hoped she would, though.”
I coughed on my food again.
“He finds it strange that she and I are not emotionally involved,” Harrison explained to the others.
“Sean, Harrison doesn't get emotionally involved in anything. Angelina just wants to move up the ladder – trust me, this was clear to both of them when it started.” Anthony stated matter-of-factly.
“So,” I said while trying to recover from my shock, “Who is next up from you then, Harrison?”
“You're the new guy, I was hoping it would be you. But perhaps she'll try for Wellington or Ausmus. Social ladders are subjective, so it depends on whose bed best serves her interests. I'm bored with her, though.”
“How do you get bored with getting laid?” Andrew asked.
“Simple. Sleep with yourself and you'll know.” Harrison replied.
“Okay, random news article for lunch today is...” said the boy who wasn't Andrew. I couldn't think of a good temporary name for him, since his main feature seemed to be his mismatched eyes. I'd just call him Herb until I found out otherwise. His eyes were closed and he poked the screen of his phone and then looked down to see what he'd hit.
“What?” asked snotty girl.
“They found a body. Some dude nailed upside down on a cross.” He handed over his phone, which made it's way around the table – Harrison passed it to me without looking. A picture accompanied the story that showed writing. On a wall, presumably near the man, it said 'Upon this rock I will build my church'.
“What do you suppose that inscription means?” I asked the table.
“I was just going to look,” Herb said with a smile. He tapped on his phone for a minute, then glanced at me as I was the only one paying any attention to his news. “I just did a search, I guess the bible refers to it when talking about Saint Peter, the first pope.” Herb said.
“A religious killing?” I asked.
“Best kind,” snarky girl said. “Bring on the lions.”
After lunch I had some free time in the library as I didn't have an elective yet to fill the time. I needed to get that set up within a week or so to get credit – the second semester started in just two and a half weeks. I honestly didn't expect to have trouble with the work – I knew I was a good student and I actually liked the steady comfort of studying and learning. My biggest worry was dealing with my classmates and, specifically, Harrison.
My worry stemmed from his apparent realization that he could act in such in a shitty way towards his fellow students, like Angie, but did it because he felt it was normal. I barely knew the guy, but treating an intimate partner that way seemed weird. He had associates, like those at lunch, but I wasn't sure they were his friends. But if that was someone's habit, didn't it follow that their thinking and habits would force them to continue that behavior, even if their academic mind realized they were being a tool? Being honest with myself, I realized that – as tools go – Harrison was being very kind and seemed genuine with me. Was I being gullible or was he being genuine? A mix of both, perhaps?
I did feel that I owed him the benefit of the doubt. While the forced taxi service was annoying – even illegal the first time – he did seem to mean well. Perhaps I was a science project to him, because I didn't behave as expected. I didn't have enough information to make a final judgment, but I genuinely enjoyed Harrison's company. I liked that he hadn't made a snide comment about my shitty apartment building and hadn't said a word about my clothes being crappier quality than his own. In fact, when it came to class distinction, Harrison wasn't being snobbish in the least. Except for that forcing me into the car thing – maybe I should just try to get over that.
I had a hard time wrapping my head around the disdain for his sex partner, though, insofar as she was a person he chose to have an intimate act with. After meeting her, even if someone were to be charmed initially – somehow I can see how that interest might decline rapidly. I can even understand just wanting someone because they were hot, or because you heard they were good in bed. Shallow, perhaps, natural in some respects, but understandable. I found his attitude was a little off putting, but it was also refreshingly direct. It was funny, really, the amount of charade that went into him saying this with – apparently – no pretense. Very enigmatic was Harrison, and I do enjoy a good mystery.
I met Harrison again in the next session and his friends from lunch - Snarky, Anthony and Herb - were already there. I took a seat and Snarky sniffed and looked away from me while Anthony was speaking to Harrison.
“So it's all true? She will really do that?”
“Anthony, stop questioning and go get her.” Harrison said with finality.
“Where were you last session?” Herb asked me.
“The library. Mr. Kincaide said I could have electives after they saw how I handled the academics. I don't think that will be a problem, I like school, but I need to get a handle on the workload quickly so I can get in place for next quarter.”
“Do you have any idea what you want to take?” Herb asked. Harrison frowned.
“I haven't looked at the list. Is there anything you've liked?”
“I took theater for a quarter and I took a conservation class, which was really nice because we were outdoors several times for that.”
“Holden is a science and nature geek,” Harrison said, his mouth curling in the corner again.
“I am,” Holden admitted with a smile. “It was how I found out all about my heterochromia iridium,” he said proudly.
“It's the only hetero thing about you, Holden,” Harrison said with a pat on the shoulder.
“What is hetero...chrome...” I asked, completely leaving alone that Harrison had just outed his friend to me, a relative stranger.
“Heterochromia iridium is the scientific name for a person with two different colored eyes,” Holden replied while pointing a finger to each as if I hadn't noticed. Perhaps he thought I might not have. I pondered, briefly, what kind of person has a physical inconsistency that stands out and doesn't expect others to notice it? Someone so secure as to not notice those things in others? Or someone so secure that they simply don't care? Or a coping mechanism born of the mean spirited who enjoyed pointing out differences?
“Does it imply anything serious?” I asked.
“Holden is always serious. Stick around him and you'll probably die of it.” Snarky said.
“I meant, is it a marker of other conditions? Like pre-cancerous or...”
“Oh, no, not at all. Just a genetic curiosity,” Holden assured me.
“That's Holden in a nutshell,” Harrison said while mussing Holden's hair.
“Jesus, if you two want to fuck, just go,” Snarky muttered.
“You're extra bitchy today, Queen. Who pissed in your Wheaties?” Harrison asked.
“Don't call me that, asshole.”
“She woke up. It always disappoints her,” Holden stage whispered.
“Holden, I'll kick your ass until you sprinkle fairy dust around the school if you don't shut up!”
“That's the problem,” Harrison said smugly. “She wants to fly.”
I looked at him in confusion but Holden giggled and filled me in.
“Peter Pan. You need fairy dust to fly.”
“Shut it, Tinkerbell!” Queen snarled.
Before things degraded further the chime filled the room and the instructor began the lesson. We all tapped away on our keyboards, taking notes, and I was suddenly mindful of the difference – the massive difference – in the level of learning between my old school and this one. Everything was electronic here – even the chalkboards were screens that responded to the instructors touch – and our laptops had screens that spun around to become tablets as needed. The coursework was also heavier, both in the amount of work assigned and the depth at which the material was covered. I was in heaven.
After only a day and a half the changes in workload, teaching quality and educator enthusiasm were apparent and all were top notch. Not only that, but while the instructor went about the business of the lesson, there was no talking amongst the others. There was key tapping as notes were taken, and the room seemed to be more focused on the task at hand than I had seen in other school classrooms – where most lessons are met with boredom or disdain with the possible exception of sex ed.
I also found myself taking curious looks at Holden, wondering more about him and his story – and the fact that he was openly gay. I also made a mental upgrade to Harrison and his quality as a person in my head; he was obviously not allowing something like sexuality to be a deterrent to him. He was definitely complex.
In the last session Harrison was almost immediately distracted by a classroom assistant – a student teacher – there to help and observe. She was a few years older than us juniors, perhaps nineteen or twenty to our estimated sixteen- to seventeen-year-old range. Harrison was enraptured and seemed to require an undue amount of assistance.
“How would you like to bet she's in college and broke it off with her high-school sweetheart so she could have a mature college man? Imagine her disappointment to find all men are pigs? And now, perhaps, she is rebounding?” He glanced at me and smiled. “She's just waiting for a man to treat her like a real woman.”
“And you would be that man?” I asked.
“God's gift, if you believe in such things.” He smiled.
I grunted in response.
“Oh, she was a cheerleader, just look at that short skirt.” He stood quickly, “You'll have to excuse me,” Harrison murmured as an afterthought and began making his way to the older girl. As he did so, I tried to picture what he was gaining, if what he said was true about doing everything for some personal benefit. Beyond sex, I wasn't sure. Perhaps I'd ask him on the way home.
“Jesus, Harrison is such a slut,” Queen commented.
“He has no chance,” Holden laughed.
“Still, has he got no shame? She'll see right through him!” Queen huffed.
“Why does he call you 'Queen'?” I asked.
“That's what he calls me for short, when he thinks I'm being cranky,” she muttered.
“The full title is 'Queen Bitch of the Universe',” Holden supplied.
“Which is totally unfair!” she snarled.
“You are cranky today, though,” Holden pointed out. She flipped him off and stood from the table and obtained a bathroom pass.
“She'll go smoke now,” Holden lamented. “I have no idea what's stressing her so much.”
“So her aggression is...abnormal?”
“No, not for her. She's just more...focused about it today?” Holden shrugged. “So how did you meet Harrison, really?”
So I told him, 'ride home ungraciously accepted' and all. Holden smiled at the end of the story and glanced over at Harrison, who was busily engaged with the college girl.
“Harrison is actually a pretty good guy. He does some really classless things sometimes, but day-to-day he's about a thousand percent better than the rest of our class.”
“How did you meet?” I asked.
“Harrison's grandparents are very into society functions. We met at one boring affair after another. Eventually we realized we actually enjoyed each others company and started meeting on purpose instead of at the old people's whim,” Holden said with a smile. “So you transferred in mid-year - where did you go before?”
“Uh...” I still didn't want to say, it wasn't comfortable in this setting. But, I realized, I would always be the scholarship kid anyway so I might as well be honest and own who I was. “I went to General Grant High. I'm here on academic scholarship.”
“Oh, so you're smart? Excellent! Do you like science too?” Holden asked with some excitement.
“I do,” I admitted, “I like learning in general.”
“Have you had any other trouble from Carl and Co.? Oh, that was just yesterday, wasn't it?”
“Yeah. I haven't seen him.” I sighed, “To be honest I'd rather just avoid it. I'm not much of a fighter – I can do it if I have to, but victory is anything but certain.”
“I understand. Harrison spoils for fights, sometimes I think he actually wants someone to beat the crap out of him,” Holden said with a smile and then covered it with his hand as Harrison returned to the table.
“Sean, are you busy Friday after school?”
“Just homework. Why?”
“I'll need your help with today's lesson, being that it's due Monday,” he said and then allowed his mouth to curl again. “I'm afraid our student teacher is all boob and no brain so I've missed anything that I was supposed to learn. Please, don't be ungracious about accepting my request.”
“It's not really a request, when you put it that way, Harrison.” I replied.
“Glad we understand one another,” he said with a cheery smile.
“So she was a dud?” Holden asked.
“Academically. I'll see her Saturday night, however.” He smiled at Holden. “She thinks glow-in-the-dark condoms are fun.”
So, another cheap, emotionless hook up for Harrison. I felt embarrassed to have mixed emotions on the subject – I felt badly for Harrison that these encounters were meaningless and yet jealous that I wasn't having a few meaningless encounters of my own.Next Chapter