Someone’s getting creamed on the front lawn. The large swarm of teenagers chanting, “Fight! Fight!” makes this obvious as my mom and I pull up in front of Boca Linda High.
“Oh, my goodness,” Mom says, looking like she doesn’t want to let me out of the car. “Maybe we should drive around to the other side of the campus.”
I shake my head. “I’ll be fine.”
“I don’t know, Theo…”
But I’m already grabbing my backpack and making my way out. I wave goodbye as I close the door, hope she won’t sit there with the car idling until I’m inside the building. I’m a high school freshman now. I’m entitled to see the blood and guts like everyone else—without my mommy’s supervision.
I walk along the sidewalk, heading towards class, sneaking glances over my shoulder until Mom finally pulls away. The instant she’s out of sight I change course, stepping from the concrete and onto the grass, into the melee. Everyone’s bleary-eyed, their hair still wet from their morning showers. I smell shampoo, deodorant, cologne, breath mints covering cigarette breath. I try to push my way through, but the mass of bodies won’t yield. The few boys or girls who acknowledge my presence do so in a way befitting someone’s pesky younger brother.
“Oh, my fucking God!” says a senior in front of me, to his pal. “Did you see that blond chick that just pulled up a couple of minutes ago?”
“Which one?” asks his friend.
“The one in the Prius. Dropped off her little brother.”
“Oh, her. Hells yeah I saw her. Must be a college cheerleader.”
“Had to be. Nice little titties, fit as fuck. I was just waiting for her to get out and show off that tight little booty.”
“You and me both.”
The boys exchange high-fives, then glance back at me. An “Oh, shit!” expression crosses both of their faces—they must not have realized I’ve been standing right behind them while they fawn over my mom.
Someone taps me on the shoulder. I turn away from the senior jerks to find Ernie’s standing next to me. He’s wearing sunglasses.
“Yo,” he says.
I blink (out of my peripheral vision I can see the senior jerks sidling away). “What’s with the glasses?”
Ernie glowers at me. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing. It’s just that it’s seven forty-five in the morning.” And you look like you’re trying to hide a night of binge drinking.
“So, what? Am I not cool enough to wear shades when it suits me? Is that privilege reserved for rockers and movie stars only?”
“No, I…” I trail off, lost for words.
Ernie sighs and shakes his head. He adjusts his backpack. “Sorry. Long night.”
“Oh.” Right. He’s an insomniac, too. He probably got five hours of sleep last night—though his midnight marathons are intentional. Mine aren’t. And even when I’ve had a bad night I don’t snap at people when they ask me why I’m wearing sunglasses in the morning.
No matter. Eva’s coming up to us now. She’s fresh-faced and energetic, wearing her usual warm-up suit and sneakers combo, her ponytail bouncing cheerfully with each step.
I catch myself beaming and waving dumbly. “Good morning.”
She nods casually at me, gestures at the crowd. “What’s going on?”
“Fight,” Ernie answers, trying unsuccessfully to jump up and down so he can see over everyone else. Each time he jumps, his grandpa sweater gets stuck in a roll of fat, and each time he tries to pick it out without looking obvious.
Eva rolls her eyes distastefully. “How mature.”
She walks away. I watch her go, disappointed. I shouldn’t have smiled so eagerly when I said hello. I should’ve opened with a joke or something. I should’ve shown my own initiative instead of just standing and gawking like everyone else—
I look at Ernie again. He’s stopped jumping, but is still out of breath from the exertion.
“I can’t see shit!” he breathes.
I think I hear someone getting punched.
I say, “I think I hear someone getting punched.”
“That’s it.” Ernie charges forward. “I’ve had enough of standing out here in the boondocks.”
Head down, elbows braced ahead of him, he uses his bulk to open a path; I tag along in his wake. A couple of rude excuse-me’s and a wheezed, “Hey, that fat kid elbowed me in the balls!” later and we reach the inner circle. Two senior boys are thrashing around, bits of mud and grass (and a little blood, I think) staining their clothes. One is brutish, wearing a letterman jacket; the other is a tank top wearing pretty-boy. Both are musclebound.
Ernie and I watch in detached fascination as the pretty-boy is tenderized before our very eyes. Somewhere at the crowd’s perimeter, I can hear teachers and custodians shouting for everyone to disperse. None of us listen, though, and so the adults continue trying to out-yell the adolescents. They either don’t know or don’t care about the schoolyard code—they act as if we’re hindering the process when, in fact, we serve a crucial social function. We’re here to bear witness, to ensure completion, to demand blood before we’re locked away in our stuffy classrooms for the day.
The brute dodges a swing, retaliates with a well-placed punch in the pretty-boy’s face. Cartilage is cracked, teeth are dislodged; the boy’s hair is terminally ruffled. He goes down.
The crowd goes wild, not caring that there’s now a bleeding, whimpering teenage hulk laying on the lawn. In a moment we’re all going our separate ways. After all, the warning bell is about to ring.
“That pretty-boy had it coming,” Ernie says as we head towards the main building.
“How’s that?” I ask.
“Look at him. Tall, pretty, fit as fuck.”
I glance over my shoulder. The school nurse is trying to pick up the boy’s missing teeth with a napkin. In the background, one of the security guards is chasing after the brutish kid, who’s launched into a parkour escape routine. “Not so pretty anymore,” I say, facing forward again. “Why do you think he had it coming?”
Ernie removes his sunglasses and tucks them into his pocket (hall monitors like to cry wolf over things like that). “He gave off the impression that he can take care of himself. Did you see his bulging arms, his massive shoulders? They were screaming, ‘With guns like these, I dare you to try kicking my ass!’ Sooner or later someone was bound to accept the challenge.”
“So, you’re saying he likes to pick fights.”
“His guns like to pick fights. It has nothing to do with him.”
I try to wrap my brain around the concept. “Just because he’s built doesn’t mean people automatically pick fights with him.”
“Oh, it does.” Ernie stops in front of his locker. “Muscle studs get into fights for the same reason fat kids don’t.”
“What reason is that?”
“Fatness is a handicap. You’d never hit a handicapped kid, would you?”
“No, of course not.”
Ernie starts fiddling with his combination. “Why not?”
“It’d be fucked up. He’s handicapped.”
“Ere go, you wouldn’t hit a fat person. If I tell you I hate your shirt, you’d be like, ‘Lay off you fat fuck,
’ and that would be the end of it. If I was tall and muscley it’d be bloody nose and black eye time.”
I say, “That’s stupid. Fat kids get into fights, too.”
“Look at Kevin Smith.” Ernie continues to fiddle with his combination. “He basically tells his fans to suck his dick whenever he does a Q&A. And they love him for it.”
“That’s because Kevin Smith is famous.”
“It’s because Kevin Smith is fat. And because he’s got glasses. He’s got a double handicap. He can be twice as obnoxious.”
I fold my arms. “Is that why you’re an obtuse loudmouth? Because you’re fat?”
“I thought so.”
Ernie finally gets his locker open. There are bags of M&Ms and chocolate chip cookies stacked high. Ernie grabs one of each and stuffs them into his backpack. He closes his locker. “Look around you. Watch the jocks versus the fat kids in the coming weeks and months. Jan’s fucked. He’ll get a black eye before the year is out. Eva, she’s lucky. She’s a girl. Picking a fight with her would be fucked up—like pushing a baby into a well.”
“What about me?”
“You’re good because of the glasses thing.”
The warning bell rings. I start down the hall. Behind me, I can hear Ernie ripping open a bag of cookies.
It’s probably a good thing Eva left earlier.