Erik stared out of the edge of his vision as the brown-haired boy sat, three or four desks away from him, pinching his nose. He stared hard at the homework exercises in the textbook in front of him and did the arithmetic in his head, not quite daring to take his pencil back out of the purple plastic case that had come with his birthday chocolate. It had been two months since his birthday, and the plastic was beginning to crack at the edges, causing the case to creak loudly every time he opened or closed it.
He knew he should get up and do something, that this was the perfect opportunity to talk to him and get to know him – but he couldn’t. It wasn’t that easy, and he was frustrated at himself. He decided to blame Mrs. Frost for volunteering him as Charles’ minder today. He decided that the evil woman knew about Erik’s crush on Charles, and that she was making fun of him by leaving the two of them alone in the classroom.
“Erik?” the boy asked, his voice nasal and vulnerable through the red wad of tissue he was pressing against his face. “Erik, could you please help me?”
Charles was looking at him with a pleading look in his eyes, streaks of blood making their way down his pale face and hands. Erik stared.
“Please, Erik. I need some more tissues. These are already soaked through. Would you please get me some tissues from the toilet?”
Erik nodded once, and stood up. The toilet was just outside of the classroom, and he ran past the urinals to make his way into one of the cubicles. The first cubicle’s tissue slot was empty, so he wandered into the next, where he found an almost full roll of paper. With a bit of tugging, he coaxed the paper out of its nest in the slot, and made to pass by the urinals again.
“Making off with toilet paper now, Lehnsherr?” Sebastian Shaw said, standing in front of him and blocking his way. There was a chorus of laughs as Erik noted two more boys, both of whom he recognised as being friends with the older boy.
“And we thought fishing people’s leftovers out of the trash can was bad enough,” the one with the long hair chimed in.
The buns were wrapped and untouched, Erik thought. It was wasteful, throwing away good food when they could still be eaten. He had been proud of that. His parents had given him worried looks, but his younger siblings had a whole bun each for supper, and he would never forget the smiles on their faces.
“Not to mention making off with the pencils from the lost and found bin.”
Now, that one had been a legitimate theft, but Anya needed colouring pencils for her art class, and he knew how much she loved drawing. Anya wanted to be an artist when she grew up. Erik had helped her fill up the form for the city council art competition and sent off her sketch of their Mama cooking in the kitchen with envelopes and stamps that he had paid for with his own savings – a handful of coins stashed in an old cookie tin in his drawer. She had only five colours to work with, and Mama looked darker than she really was, but Erik thought the sketch was beautiful. He hoped that the city council would have the heart to send it back when they were finished with the judging.
He held the roll of toilet paper close and ran for the door. A long arm slammed against his chest, knocking the air out of his lungs. He closed his eyes, steadied himself with a deep breath, and looked up at Shaw.
“Aren’t the rumours right, Lehnsherr? That your dad’s so poor, your mum has to clean all the toilets in the bars on Farleigh Lane every morning?”
His Mama came home every morning at eight from her cleaning jobs, ever since Papa had lost his tailoring job. Now, Papa worked as a travelling salesman, and Erik and Anya were in charge of cooking breakfast and lunch, and doing as much of the housework as they could. He felt his breathing quicken, and something came loose inside with a vengeance. He clutched at the toilet roll in his left hand, throwing a punch at Shaw’s face with his right.
Shaw caught Erik’s fist in his hand and gripped it, twisting his arm. He heard his joint crack as it was stretched to its limit. Erik cried out in pain as tears pooled in his eyes, blurring his sight. He stepped closer to Shaw against his instinct, and jabbed at Shaw’s stomach with his knee. Shaw gagged, and as his grip slackened, Erik took the opportunity to push him against the wall, running out of the toilet into the corridor.
He would pay dearly for that later, but the toilet roll in his hand reminded him of a more urgent matter as he pushed open the classroom door. Charles was weeping quietly in his seat, and Erik could see why; the tissues had soaked through to the point that the blood trailed down his neck to his collar, staining it with blotches of red. His hands were bloody down to his elbows, and his desk was a mess.
Erik felt a tinge of guilt. He rushed over to the desk and put the roll of tissue down with a little more force than necessary.
“Thank you,” Charles mumbled, and proceeded to roll up fresh tissue in his hand. Erik nodded.
Erik sat down in his seat and looked down at his textbook again, rubbing his sore arm. His skin was turning purple where Shaw had grabbed him, and at his elbow, where his arm had been twisted. He cradled his arm to his chest, not quite daring to straighten it.
He glanced up at Charles.
“Erik, I feel really sick.”
Erik saw the problem straight away. Charles was leaning back in his seat, tilting his head upwards so that the blood dripped down his throat and into his stomach.
“You have to lean forward,” Erik croaked.
“Lean forward. That will let the blood drain out of your nose, and you won’t feel so sick.”
Charles complied, and Erik watched as the amount of blood flowing into the tissues increased. Charles gave a whimper.
“Could you please talk to me?”
“Anything, just... please.”
Erik stared down at his textbook, and read the first thing that came to his sight.
“Four friends are racing together down a flight of stairs. Alasdair goes 2 steps at a time, Bernhard 4 at a time, Carlyle 5 at a time, and David 6 at a time. The only steps which all four boys step on are the top step and the bottom step. How many stairs in the flight were stepped on exactly once?”
Erik glanced at Charles, who now sat facing Erik and seemed to be listening intently.
“Well, the first thing we need to do is to work out how many steps there are on this flight of stairs, since we need that information to work out how many times each step is stepped on. The number of steps on the flight would be... would be the lowest common multiple of 2, 4, 5, and 6, which is... which is...”
“Which is sixty, because that’s the lowest number there is that you can divide by all of those numbers. Charles, you’re good.”
Erik felt his face go hot. He’d always known that Charles was intelligent; he answered every question that Mrs. Frost would let him answer, and finished his work on time. He seemed to be the only person in their advanced math class who did math on the same level as him. It was a simple fact about Charles, but saying it out loud felt like a confession.
Charles beamed. “So the next step is to...”
“...work out exactly how many out of those sixty steps were stepped on exactly once.”
“Let’s do this manually. It would take more time if we do.”
Erik nodded. Ignoring the stab of pain in his arm, he opened his plastic case, took out a pencil, and began to write on a fresh page in his notebook.
“Step 1 - nobody steps on this one, because all of them are going down at least 2 steps of stairs at a time...”
“Didn’t you say they all step on the top step?”
“Yeah, but that’s the top step, not the first step – the top step would be step 0, so it doesn’t count.”
“Ohh right. You’re smart, too.”
Erik looked up and beamed at Charles before continuing. “Step 2 - only Alasdair steps on that, so that’s one... step 3 - nobody steps on that one... step 4 - both Alasdair and Bernhard step on that one... step 5 - only Carlyle steps on that one, so that’s another one...”
“So two so far.”
Erik nodded, marking the relevant steps with an asterisk.
“Yep. Step 6 - both Alasdair and David step on that one, step 7 - nobody, step 8 - Alasdair and Bernhard, step 9 - nobody, step 10 - Alasdair and Carlyle, step 11 - nobody, step 12 - Alasdair, Bernhard, and David...”
The classroom door opened with a click. Mrs. Frost walked in with the school nurse, the former ashen-faced at the sight of blood all over Charles and his desk. Erik stopped writing and froze as the nurse fussed over Charles, standing him up and whisking him away, presumably to the toilet to wash himself. The nosebleed didn’t look so bad anymore.
Erik fiddled with his pencil as Mrs. Frost walked over to his desk. From her posture, he realised how it looked from her point of view – Charles with his nosebleed and tear-streaked cheeks, Erik in his seat, scratching away at his notebook.
“Erik, why are you doing your math homework? I asked you to help Charles!” she chided. “Why can’t you be caring? Why is that so difficult, Erik?”
He looked down at the floor.
“I’m very disappointed in you. Go home. I don’t want to look at you.”
He bit down on his tongue, blinking away the tears that threatened to overflow from his eyes. He stuffed his things into his bag and walked out into the classroom, where Anya stood, looking at the math project posters on the wall and waiting. He quickly fixed his expression into something he hoped was more neutral.
“Anya! I told you not to come to the upper primary block!”
He put his left hand to his hip and frowned at his little sister, who stood, pouting. He put his right hand on his thigh, arm slightly bent to secure his aching joint.
“But you were so slow!”
“So? You should have waited! There’s mean kids up here.”
Anya sighed – an odd sound, coming from someone so small. “There’s mean kids everywhere. Let’s go home.” She grabbed at his right elbow.
“Ouch!” Erik cried out, as the pressure caused white hot pain to rush and up and down his right arm. Anya let go, and looked up at her older brother in concern.
“What happened, Erik?”
“You’re bruised,” she mumbled, wincing, and laid her hand on the limb in question, gentler this time. “And it’s warm. You’re hurt.”
He looked down at the offending limb and was slightly shocked to find that it had turned the colour of an eggplant. He trained his lips into a smile as he looked back at his sister.
“It’s fine. I fell on it during lunchtime, that’s all. It’ll heal by itself.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” Erik nodded, and pointed towards the other end of the corridor, which led to the school gate. “Race you to the gate!” He sped off, taking care not to swing his right arm too much.
Erik smiled to himself as he heard his sister’s footsteps, close behind him. It didn’t matter what Mrs. Frost or Sebastian Shaw and his cronies thought. Charles had smiled at him and called him smart – and that was enough.