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And Then the World Exploded

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It was an abnormally warm spring day out, the hot sun casting colossal rays down upon the fields of the Cage High stadium field. You might think in weather like this, you’d find the P.E. classes in the indoor gyms, doing push-ups, playing basketball and the like--so long as they had the comfort of air conditioning. You wouldn’t expect to see them outside in the blistering heat, laboring to run laps around the field while their coach yelled them on.

Except that this was exactly what was going on, and it was proving to be quite the task. Your typical jocks were powering through no problem,  in spite of the light sheen of sweat glistening on their skin and the fact that many of them had, by now, developed heavy tans--sunburns, even. But with how fast and how swiftly they ran, you wouldn’t even suspect that they were tired.

Behind them ran your averages, the students who were just trying their best to power through the twelve-lap run their teacher had instilled on them this morning. You could tell they were tired, try as they might to live up to the unbothered jocks. But their sheens of sweat were far from light, and were far more noticeable to the naked eye. It dropped and rolled down their faces in heavy globs, as they panted and struggled to keep up and not be scolded by the teacher, who was watching their every move.

That certainly added a lot of pressure didn’t it? Should just one of them fall behind--or over--he’d be right on their asses, swearing at them to get up and moving before he started kicking them forward. This was maybe the only thing keeping the averages from completely stopping in their tracks, that and the spite to catch up with the jocks, who were more or less used to doing this shit as most of them were involved with the football team.

Next up after the averages were the stragglers, the ones who were barely making it. There were only one of these left, since many of them had already gotten a scolding from teacher, and by now had managed to join the averages--or more impressively, the jocks. Now that itself was an impressive feat, it didn’t seem like many stragglers had managed to get that far, only barely making it up to the averages.

Though, it didn’t seem as if the one straggler left would be making it to either party.

His name was Connor Stern, and he was 119 pounds soaking wet underneath his sweat-stained t-shirt and gym shorts, which appeared to be clinging on for dear life. He had rather gangly arms, that seemed to be flailing every which way as he battled to keep up with his classmates, and long, tapering legs that did little but kick up the dust of the path behind him.

It was for these very visible factors alone that made him the odd one out amongst his group of peers. The jocks themselves were well-built with strong muscles, something that you obviously had to have if you wanted to qualify to be on any team here at the school. And the averages, while not quite as thickly built, were in pretty good shape themselves.

The only reason they’d been slacking behind no doubt because of a lack of effort, and Connor knew that that was not his reasoning for being the farthest behind. Six laps he could do, he’d been proud of himself the first time he’d managed to make it farther than last place...even if he was still kind of close to it.

But twelve laps? Twelve laps was pushing it, he didn’t know how much longer he could keep going before collapsing.  His chest and lungs ached something terrible, and he was sure his heart was going to beat right out of his rib cage before he even made it to the finish line.

And his mouth, oh how dry it was, if he had half a mind he’d simply break loose from the track and runoff to find a water fountain. Just something to quench his thirst and give him a moment’s rest, then he could finish this run no problem. However, the likelihood of him slipping away unnoticed was impossible; Mr. Anderson was watching everyone like a hawk today. If he even dared move one inch away from the field, another lap would more than likely be slapped onto his regime...and he really, really did not want to do another lap.

Connor supposed he could blame these twelve laps on Gavin Reed’s tardiness today; the boy had had a habit to constantly show up late to school, something of which he could usually get away with in other classes provided that a lot of teachers were on his father’s payroll. Mr. Anderson was perhaps the one sole person who had refused the payroll, which meant there were consequences if Gavin dared be twenty minutes late.

That consequence today had been the six extra laps added to their usual routine, and needless to say, nobody was very happy about it. But they hadn’t dared complain either, as their teacher had threatened to add another six should they start whining about it. So, for the past thirty minutes, they’d just been running in complete silence--save for occasional grunts and panting, and the “encouragement” provided by Mr. Anderson.

This itself was mercifully the final lap, howbeit, but even so it didn’t feel as if he were any closer to making it to the finish line. From where he was, Connor could see that several of his classmates were already crossing it, thus provoking him to try and pick up his pace a bit. He wanted to do better today, he so badly wanted to not be in last again.

Everyone always laughed at him when he was last.

Everyone just always laughed at him, regardless of what he was doing.

But try as he might, though, he just couldn’t catch up. His legs were strained to the point of where he could feel them burning, nothing he did was going to make them pick up the pace no matter how much of an effort he put forth. They begged him to stop and he wanted to, almost did, until he saw that more of the boys had crossed the finish line--no, all of them had. All of them were finishing now, Mr. Anderson standing by and waiting with his ever-present impatience intact on his face.

“Connor! Hurry your ass up, we don’t have all day!” he yelled out to Connor, who narrowly missed tripping over his own shoelace. Yelling never helped, yelling never ever helped, why did he do it? It wasn’t going to make Connor run any faster, it just made him want to go in the opposite direction.

His panting broke out into full-on wheezing as he grew closer to the others, another sweat bead blossoming on and trickling down his face alongside the others that had formed. That white line--that white line was so close now, he could almost envision his feet passing over it. But he almost didn’t want his feet to pass over it, not now. Not since he was last.

They were going to tease, they were going to mock him again. He could already see some of the execrable grins on their faces as he neared, could hear their faint snickering. He didn’t want to pass the line, he wanted to go back--he wanted to go back, he didn’t want them to laugh--

But they did.

They all laughed, loud and uproariously, as Connor’s foot caught onto something solid and he planted face first into the path with a heavy oof, his body practically slumping and skidding across the line and straight into someone’s pair of scuffed tennis shoes. He wimpishly pressed his hands against the ground, attempting to push himself up--but his body was so heavy with exhaustion he couldn’t even manage that much.

It was no doubt humiliating to keep laying here, but what else could he do?  He did not want to look at their faces. He knew what he’d see when he did, and he found the red dirt from the path to be much more pleasant in the terms of company right now.

“Alright alright, knock it off, back up--” A large hand--which more than likely belong to Mr. Anderson-- grabbed him by the back of his shirt and swiftly lifted him to his feet, unintentionally gathered red dirt falling in dust clouds from his hands. “Hey, I said back it up, alright? Move!”

The laughing began to die down as the boys did what their teacher had said, and stepped back. The only one who still seemed to be snickering was Gavin, which made Connor wonder momentarily if he’d been the one responsible for making him fall.

Best not to jump to conclusions. Mama Amanda said that was a bad thing to do, anyways. Was it a bad thing to think about his appearance too? He knew that was a bad thing, it was, but he was doing it now. Thanks to his clothes and skin being entirely doused in sweat, the red dirt from the path had stuck in clumps to him. There was no dusting it off, even if he was trying his hardest to.

“What the hell was that, Connor?” He pried at a stuck piece of dirt with his fingernails, startled into looking up as Mr. Anderson seized him by the shoulder, shaking him. “You think just because I turn my back for one minute you get to play Oopsie Daisy?”

“No sir--I wasn’t--”

“Save it, just watch your goddamn feet next time, okay?” Huffing, Mr. Anderson released him and turned towards the others, leaving Connor to woefully duck his head and resume picking at the stuck dirt on his arm. “Alright, laps are over, everyone drop and give me twenty five. I hear any bitching, then its forty five. Are we clear?”

There was a mumble of “yes sirs” and slow nods in response to this.

“Alright,” Mr. Anderson nodded, resuming his post near the water cooler where his clipboard had been hastily dropped. “Get to work then, and no horseshit this time. Got it?”

He picked his clipboard back up and went back to--well, whatever it was he’d been doing before Connor had fallen, while the class went about doing as he’d ordered. Connor was the last to do so, but only because he’d been so enveloped in shame that he hadn’t noticed he was the only one still standing.

Provided that he was just on the ground, it was understandable as to why he wasn’t in a big hurry to drop. But, he’d already made Mr. Anderson upset once today, it’d be better to just hurry up and get this done before he looked up from his clipboard and yelled at him for standing around.

So he dropped down, unfortunately very close to Gavin Reed, who had already propelled through the first ten  push ups with complete ease. He did stop upon completion of the eleventh, watching all too amused as Connor attempted the first. It was a good attempt, even if he had little success with it and ended up falling face first.

As he attempted a second time, he caught sight of Gavin watching him, and quickly turned his gaze back to the ground. No distractions--distractions were bad, they kept you from getting things done. He had to get this done, he could--the laps had been exhausting, but he could do this. He could get twenty five push ups before they were dismissed, and nobody would be able to tease him.

Needless to say, however, the second attempt went about as well as the first had. It really didn’t help that he could still feel Gavin watching him, and so he tried to ignore him, but was promptly interrupted by a tap on his arm. He didn’t look over at first, not until the second tap.

That’s when he saw what had been written into the dirt.

“You eat shit, Connor Stern.”


 

Connor wasn’t able to make it to twenty five push ups before Mr. Anderson dismissed them to the locker room. While seventeen was certainly a higher number than he had usually gotten, it didn’t make him feel any better. Would’ve made him feel better, had he not had that message in the dirt in front of him the entire time.

He’d thought to maybe brush it away, but he was scared he’d fall flat again if he moved either of his hands. And because of this, the message had stayed put, giving Gavin the delight of watching him awkwardly try to avoid looking at it. He himself had kicked it away as they’d gotten up (so Mr. Anderson wouldn’t spot it and scold him), but had obnoxiously winked at Connor before walking off to join his friends.

Well, he supposed he had to give them some credit for that. Ordinarly, such jabs were verbal, he hadn’t really expected Gavin to take the time to actually write it out in the dirt. In fact, it was impressive that he knew how to write at all, provided how often he skipped out on classes. Connor didn’t know what else he could be doing, but it wasn’t his place to know. Mama always told him that private affairs were the Lord’s business and no one else’s, least of all Connor’s.

She said that it was better for him to keep his nose where it needed to be, and that God would punish him should he not do so. The first time she’d told him this, he’d asked her if that was one of the ten commandments in the Bible, but his only answer had been said-Bible being slammed against his face.

That was when he decided to think first before asking her anything else--though in his defense, he’d only been six years old at the time and still learning his verses and commandments. Who could really blame him for asking such an innocent question, when all he wanted was a simple answer. How else was he supposed to know?

Or maybe he wasn’t supposed to know. Not straight away, anyways. Maybe his answers had to be hard-earned.

That was something he could dwell on later when he was trying to sleep tonight, right now all he wanted was to get to the showers intact and clean himself off. He felt dirty--not just with the red dirt and sweat caking his body, but he just couldn’t get that phrase in the dirt out of his mind.

“You eat shit, Connor Stern.”

A daily phrase. A repeated phrase, that or being told he ate ass or that he sucked dicks. He could recall a crumpled up note with a similar saying being passed around in English class once, landing on his desk right as Mr. Perkins had finished writing on the chalkboard. Connor’s cheeks burnt hot as he remembered trying to swat the note off his desk, only to have Mr. Perkins summon him up to stand up and read it.

He hadn’t wanted to. He felt disgusting just reading it in his head, and was so sure he was about to throw up even before he’d said it out loud. But he had no choice, it was his own fault for not swatting it away the minute it landed on his desk. He’d gotten himself into that situation and blaming anyone else wouldn’t have helped any.

That had sent him to the principal’s office, despite not being the one having written the note. His mother had been called a short while later and ended up taking him home, where the rest of the afternoon had been spent with Connor cowering over their makeshift altar as she lectured him on the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah.

It hadn’t been the first time she’d done that. He only hoped it was the last.

Now at his locker, he briefly glanced around to ensure no one was watching him and unlocked it. Scraps of paper with Bible verses were taped inside, alongside several comic strips from some leftover Jack Chick tracts Mama had been handing out recently. His Bible sat atop his neatly folded clothes, which he removed and sat on the close-by bench.

Snickers sounded from behind him and he stood still, waiting for the footsteps to pass before resuming. Sitting down, he removed his stained sneakers and socks, then went about peeling away the rest of his clothes. Shirt first, followed by his shorts, then his underwear, which he hesitated in removing.

Mama always said bad things about locker rooms, that they were a place full of sinful and lustful thoughts. She said it wasn’t safe for a man to undress in one, let alone shower, and thus had warned Connor against using them. They didn’t even have their own shower at home, though Connor was positive there had used to be a shower head attached to the tub before Mama had had it removed.

Here at the school, though, he didn’t have a say in the matter. Mr. Anderson would absolutely refuse to let you leave the locker room unless you’d showered, and he could almost always tell when you hadn’t. So as Mama never asked him if he’d been using them, he never told her.

A whole single minute had passed before Connor had gathered up the courage to slip off his underwear, which he crumpled up and dropped into his pile of dirty clothes on the floor. Just as quick as he had done that, he stood up, snatching a threadbare beige towel from his locker and wrapping it around his boney hips. Gathering up the rest of his shower supplies--which was really just one lone sponge and a bar of soap he’d confiscated from the bathroom at home--he shuffled over to the showers, which by now were mostly empty.

Someone had been using this one recently, he could tell by the tile being wet. He sat his things down on the small shelf nearby, and prepared to unwrap the towel--not before glancing over his surroundings one more time to ensure nobody was waiting nearby to spring on him.

He believed what Mama said about public showers. Surprisingly nobody ever seemed to bother him, except for the times he’d gone into the shower still wearing his clothes; even so, he remained cautious, and would choose to wait until everyone else had pretty much finished. You never could be too careful, no matter how safe your environment proclaimed itself to be. Danger could be waiting around every corner, whether it be in the form of an attacker or ungodly notions.

Fortunately for him, though, anyone who had showered were getting dressed by their lockers and were thankfully minding their own business. This gave him the security to fully disrobe, draping the towel over the ledge separating him from everybody else.

He surveyed the dirt that had dried to his arms and legs briefly, before twisting the spigot. Allowing himself to stand underneath the faucet, Connor closed his eyes and craned his head back, steaming hot water gushing down onto him. It streamed downwards to every sharp angle of his pale, willowy body, curving at his shoulder blades, and stopping ever so slightly at his buttocks--only to slip down them a moment later and seep onto to his legs.

Opening his eyes, Connor reached for his soap bar and sponge from their place on the little shelf, and lathered up the sponge until it was almost entirely consumed in white foam. He began to aggressively scrub at the dirt on his arms, on his legs, until there was a fountain of red spilling into the drain.

He didn’t stop, not until his skin was rosy and clean once more, and there were no signs of sweat nor dirt remaining. And when there wasn’t, he rinsed the remainder of white foam from the sponge, reaching to place it and the soap back onto the shelf. The soap slipped from his hand and fell onto the tiled floor with a loud kerplunk , making Connor take a spooked step back.

He shook his head, sighing, then stooped over to retrieve it. After several clumsy efforts of doing so, he finally managed to recapture the slippery bar into both his hands this time, exactingly and carefully placing it beside the sponge. Connor then reached over to turn off the spigot, but upon doing so, allowed his eyes to accidentally wander back over to the lockers.

He’d only looked at first, since he was almost done. He wanted to make sure everyone was almost gone before he stepped back out. He was going to look once, and then he was going to look away and turn the spigot off. He couldn’t allow himself to look any longer, else he let his mind be filled with the polluted sentiments Mama Amanda had warned him about.

But he did.

Connor did allow himself to look longer, without meaning to and without realizing it.

He was staring. Looking.

A classmate was emerging from one of the adjacent showers, and--oh, what was his name? Connor had been going here long enough to pretty much know everyone’s name, how come he was drawing a blank now?

Nothing but a fuzzy white towel was wrapped around his waist, but just barely enough to cover him. His waist...which looked like it was mostly made out of pure muscle. Solid pecs made up the first half of his torso, firm abs further down led to a pair of wide, well-built hips.

Connor kept staring, his chestnut eyes flicking up and down the classmate’s body as the teen shrugged off the towel and slipped on a pair of underpants, cracking a handsome smile as he began to talk to two other boys--one blonde and one black--standing next to him. Water droplets clung and shone ever so slightly on his brown skin, which he was towelling off.

(look away look away stop looking)

Biceps. He had... strong biceps, that flexed as he reached to pull a white t-shirt over his head. It caught somewhat as he pulled it down, pausing to listen to what his friend had to say--Markus, he’d called him Markus, was that his name? Yes, he remembered it now--Markus Manfred. He sat in front of him during English class, and next to him at Art. He made some of the loveliest paintings, Connor had always wanted to compliment him on them but every time he’d tried to venture over and talk to him he’d lost his nerve.

What would the point be in doing that, after all? Markus was one of the elites of Cage High, he came from a wealthy family--as did all his friends. They all lived on the same street, in the same rich neighborhood. There was no chance that he’d ever notice Connor “Bible Beater” Stern of all people, and there was certainly no way he’d ever talk to him either.

But as of right now, all he didn’t seem notice was his shirt being stuck, as he continued to listen and talk to his friend. He didn’t notice...and this allowed Connor a single second longer of staring.

His head felt...fuzzy. He didn’t know why it felt fuzzy, or why his stomach felt warm all of a sudden. Those impure thoughts, the sinful feelings of lust and longing. They were trying to overtake his mind--well, he wouldn’t let them! He’d look away now, it was rude to be staring anyways, Mama always said it was--

A laugh.

He heard a laugh, and his looking away didn’t last for long. His head snapped back up towards Markus, who was laughing at something the blonde boy had just said. It was...a hearty, lovely laugh, not as cruel as the ones Gavin and others often let out after picking on him. Twice Markus laughed, as he readjusted the shirt he hadn’t quite succeeded in pulling down the first time.

Another flash of his torso, another laugh.

The warm feeling in Connor’s belly began to curl, a painful throbbing suddenly overtaking the lower half of his body. No. No, he had to stop looking. That was it. He had to stop--

Swallowing hard, he was about to grab the spigot to turn the water off, when Leo Manfred suddenly appeared on the opposite side of the shower--making several loud, rapid smacks at the half wall separating him and Connor, frightening him enough to where he practically slipped into a backwards slump against the wall.

“Hey Bible Beater, hurry up! Bell’s in five minutes--” he began to say, but stopped abruptly as Connor pushed himself back up, allowing him full gaze of his entire naked frame. Jaw dropping open, Leo guffawed and took a step back, covering his mouth.

“Oh my god--oh my fucking god, what the fuck, Connor?”

“Huh?” Connor pressed his hands onto the slick tile to keep himself from slipping again, squinting in confusion. “I--I don’t--”

“Oh my god!” Leo repeated again, guffawing even louder as he kept backing up. “Shit, guys! Get over here, Bible Beater’s got a full salute going on!”

“Wha--huh--wait--”

Connor couldn’t speak, couldn’t manage a full sentence without choking, only watching in dumbfound confusion and fear as his classmates all began to crowd around the showers, staring with open-mouthed shock and horror at his shivering, pallid form pressed up against the slimy green tile. The lower half of his body continued to pulsate painfully--something in it, something was throbbing, it hurt.

“Ew, fucking disgusting!”

“Holy shit, get a fucking room, you freak!”

“That’s fucking huge, holy shit--”

They were all pressed onto the half wall now, pouring over him like he was some kind of shop merchandise on display for sale. The color had completely left some of their faces, while others were completely beet red. Some were making gagging noises, others screeching and hollering loud enough to shake the ceiling lights.

Connor pressed himself further against the wall, as if that would do something to protect him. What was going on, what were they laughing at him now for--he didn’t understand! He wasn’t doing anything that warranted a laugh in any way at all!

“Are you--are you hard? In the showers, right here in the goddamn showers?”

“Fucking creep, that’s what the internet is for--”

“Is that why you used to wear your clothes?”

More voices joined in, so crowded together he couldn’t even tell who was saying what--let alone who was who. His vision had begun to swim and everyone’s faces were almost melting together. He wanted to leave, he was going to leave--he didn’t know what was going on but he wanted to leave. He wanted to get dressed, he could hear the bell ringing already.

Another chorus of loud yells erupted as he took a step forward, several boys covering their eyes and letting out shrill, disgusted shrieks. Connor felt his chest begin to tighten and clenched his fists, which hung stiffly by his sides. He attempted to take another step, but was met with the same response.

That’s when Gavin Reed’s voice came soaring over the crowd, hitting Connor like a brick wall.

 Bo-ner!

He appeared from behind Leo and several other boys, hands cupped around as his mouth as he repeated himself a second time.

 Bo-ner! ” he hollered, and boomingly so. “Bible Beater’s got a boner!”

“Wha--huh?” Connor felt so dumb standing there, and he must’ve looked quite dumb too, hunched back into the wall with water dripping from his hair and body. He hadn’t even turned off the spigot, the water was still running. And his face--what was the expression on his face? He was bewildered, that was for sure, he didn’t understand at all what was happening.

He hurt, he hurt so badly. The throbbing was still there and hadn’t stopped.

(what’s happening to me what’s going on someone help)

“Your dick, you dumb fuck!” Another voice shouted from the crowd, but he couldn’t tell who it belonged to. There were so many people talking now. “You’re erect, you’re goddamn erect!”

His entire body stiffened at these words; hands stopping their grabbing at the tiles, feet stopping their desperate sliding as he tried to keep himself from slipping back to the floor.

Slowly, as if he almost dared himself to do so, he tore his eyes from his intruding audience and lowered them to the lower half of his body. Where the pain was, where the throbbing was, and where everyone else was eyeballing him.

That was when he screamed.

For the first time in his life, the constrained and reclusive Connor Stern had screamed. Out loud, shrill, and piercing.

This silenced the other boys, but only out of shock. Provided that Connor was always the silent scapegoat of their jokes, they’d thought it impossible for him to make any other noises that weren’t quiet. To hear him just scream out loud like this was...well, to put it mildly, it was quite jarring.  

Could they really claim surprise, though? It had been bound to happen sooner or later, especially after all the years they’d spent teasing and picking on him since he’d first set foot near them--such as the time they’d all gone to that field trip to the zoo and pushed him into the gorilla enclosure, standing by hollering while he stood there like a dumb bunny waiting for a zookeeper to come rescue him.

Oh, and there was also that moment during Sociology where he’d fallen asleep and someone had pulled his chair out from underneath him to wake him up. And what about all those times he’d knelt to pray during lunch? That always got a few snickers from everyone, so much so that he’d stopped doing it.

But no. It had been none of those things, specifically. Instead, it was this that made him scream, that made him crack. His exposed, gangly body--his junk erect for everyone to see. Everything else had just been a precursor, this itself was the main event.

Unfortunately though, their silence was only fleeting, as Gavin Reed was the first to burst into a laughing fit. There were no mean words or jokes, only harsh, ugly laughter that little by little, began to fill the entire locker room. Connor was screaming some more, but this didn’t silence them this time, they continued to howl and ridicule even as he dropped to his knees, keeling over in agony.

(the pain won’t stop it won’t stop oh god)

Soon enough, his screams transitioned into loud, horrid squalls, and his hands sprawled out on the tile like claws. He tucked his legs together, somewhat resembling a very awkward penguin as he tried to scoot-waddle his way across the shower floor. It hurt, everything hurt, he couldn’t bring himself to stand--only laying hunched over underneath the hot water that continued to pour from the faucet.

Looking up was no better, he was to find little pity awaiting him there. It was no use to scream for help, to cry that he was in pain, nobody was doing anything. Even if he repeated himself several times over in-between his squalling and wailing, nobody did anything except howl and convulse in uproarious laughter.

“Help me! Oh god, help me! It hurts, someone make it stop!” He tried to clutch at it, but that only made it worse. “Someone please! Please, I’m begging you!”

“Aw, you hear that? ‘Ole Stiff-Neck Stern is begging!” Gavin. No, no--anyone but him. “Why don’t we help him out?”

There was a chorus of whooping and baying, as Connor glanced over in astoundment to see that Gavin was leaned over the half-wall, extending his hand to him. It was a mistake to try to grab it, Connor knew that, but he was so despairing that he was willing to accept help from anyone at this point. Anything to get out of here, to run away and hide in the bathroom for two hours until everyone had forgotten about it and moved on to find something or someone else to make fun of.

Tentatively, Connor untucked his legs and reached for Gavin’s hand, placing one foot behind him as he tried to stand up. No sooner had he grasped it, when Gavin abruptly released him and shoved him back, sending him toppling back into the very wall he’d been cowering against earlier. The wind was knocked out of his lungs as he landed flat on his back, briefly dizzying him enough to not realize he was once more fully exposed to everyone.

Because of this, he wasn’t soon enough to hide himself this time, nor was he able to dodge the damp towel someone chucked his way. Someone else threw his bar of soap at him, another threw his sponge. Soon there was a whole barrage of objects being tossed over the wall--toilet paper, more soap bars, condoms--where they had gotten those, Connor didn’t know, probably from someone’s gym bag.

“Cover it up!”

“Yeah, no wants to see your man-junk, faggot!”

He was all but braying with despondency now, turning his body to the side, his arms clasped across his chest as he slid down the wall, crying and wailing hot, sticky tears. More objects were pelted his way, including Gavin Reed himself who was jumping over the half-wall.

“Now wait a minute fellas, we may not have to go to such extremities after all.” He walked over to the spigot, vigorously twisting it around until Connor could feel the hot water pooling around his feet turn cold. “Not that I’ve ever found myself in this situation, but uh, I hear cold water tends to do the trick...”

Gavin removed the detachable shower hose, turning to face Connor with a cruel grin on his face. Connor’s eyes widened in terror, and he scrambled to push himself up, suddenly not caring if he was exposed. He knew what was coming, he knew what was going to happen, he didn’t want it to--

Too late.

Gavin was already on top of him, successfully knocking him down with one swift kick from his cleats. He squirmed underneath him, fingers digging into the floor as he tried to pull himself away, but it was no use. He’d called Leo over alongside Michael Graham, and was yelling at them to pick him up and keep him still.

And like hounds obeying their master, the two boys obliged and grabbed a hold of Connor’s skinny arms, forcefully pulling him to his feet all while he continued to kick and scream.

“No, no! Let me go! Please don’t--”

He sputtered, almost choking as a cascade of cold water was sprayed right into his face. By now, the others had stopped throwing things at him and instead were watching very intently as Gavin kept hold of the faucet towards Connor’s desperately wriggling form. He tossed his head from side to side, letting out one blubbering, pathetic bawl after the other as more and more water was spurted into his eyes, his mouth--his entire face and body. His lower body, and that thing--it was was so cold, it stung.

Everyone could see it now.

But no one stepped in. No one did anything.

They just kept watching, kept hooting and howling; for to them, this was their daily entertainment. This was their favorite television channel, their favorite show-- ”Torment Connor Stern Just for the Hell of It” .  They’d been tuned into it since the day he’d walked up to the Avery Elementary School, Bible tucked under his arm and a blank, deadening expression on his face--presenting himself a target ripe for bullying, persecution, and all other sorts of nasty things.

This had been their channel for almost eleven years, why would they want to turn it off now? Not when there was more torment, and more teasing to be had, oh absolutely not.

(torment torment i’d love to see them burn i’d love to see them hurt like me)

Connor could feel his eyes rolling into the back of his head, and the pain in his lower half beginning to reside. His belly was hurting now, he felt sick. He wanted to just bend right over and wretch, to throw up all over Gavin’s new shoes and then some. He was about to, he was sure he would. He was sure, he could feel the bile beginning to collect at the pit of his throat.

All of a sudden, a loud, rushed bang sounded amidst all the pitiless vociferating, shortly followed by heavy, rushed footsteps that Connor could faintly hear over the tumultuous rushing of the water. Closer, closer the footsteps grew, until Hank Anderson was all but pushing his way into the crowd of cheering boys to see what was going on.

Chapter Text

Hank should’ve known something was wrong as soon as he’d heard that first scream.

He hadn’t thought much of it at first, as it was a boys locker room and that kind of noise was to be expected amongst the muffled chatter. Someone had either shoved someone else into a locker or decided it would be funny to switch someone’s shampoo out for a gatorade--either way, he couldn’t bring himself to care. As far as he was concerned, his responsibility for these little shits had ended after he’d dismissed class, whatever was going on could just keep going on.

But then he’d heard another scream. And another, followed by loud choruses of laughter and howling. He’d kept trying to ignore it, instead choosing to keep his focus on the daily class report he was typing out. Not that he enjoyed typing up these kinds of reports, they always had to be so clean cut and precise, with not a bad thing to say unless it was worded nicely.

But oh, the things he’d say about his students if he were allowed to. If he had his way, this report would certainly be a lot more colorful in that regard, complete with every single swear word that was known to mankind.

But then, that would also add a tenth disciplinary warning to his folder, and he figured he could live without another one of those, let alone another wordy speech from Jeffrey. He’d always told Hank that he was lucky to still have this job after all the crap he’d pulled, but that was perfectly easy for him to say when he wasn’t the one having to coach a rowdy bunch of teenage boys for an hour.

Speaking of rowdy, it hadn’t seemed like things were calming down in there anytime soon. As much as he’d rather leave them to the wolves, the noise was escalating in an alarming rate and Hank knew someone was going to end up with a black eye and bloody lip if he didn’t step in and intervene. God forbid one of the Cage Preps get hurt, then their parents would be all over his ass for not preventing it--even if that technically wasn’t his responsibility outside of class.

So, after double-checking that he’d saved his report, Hank got up from his desk and exited his office, making his way out into the locker room. He could see the crowd gathered around the showers as he neared, and already, he had the feeling that someone’s parent was about to be called over to chew him out.

Sighing heavily, he shook his head and made his way over.

“Alright, hey, what’s going on--for fuck’s sake, will you just move?”

More screaming, and he wasn’t any closer to getting to the front of this crowd. Christ, when did he have an entire army for a class? He was sure he didn’t have this many students, this was absolutely ridiculous. At this rate, if anyone was going to end up getting a black eye, it wasn’t going to be from whatever was going on--it was going to be from Hank himself, though he didn’t exactly enjoy the idea of actually hitting one of his students...but at times like these, the thought was more than tempting.  If it’s what he had to do to find out what was going on, then so be it.

Fortunately, however, it didn’t seem like it would end up coming to that. He soon came across Markus Manfred halfway through the group, standing with his usual entourage of Simon Mathers and Josh Thompson. He had to admit, Markus was definitely one of the more tolerable kids he’d had to deal with over the years, as he had a tendency to avoid fights and crowds incidents like the plague.

Which was why it dumbfounded Hank to see him here, amongst all the unfolding chaos.

“Manfred!” He didn’t even have to grab him, Markus spun around the instant his last name was shouted. “What the hell are you doing--what’s going on?”

“I--it’s Connor Stern, sir, he--”

Connor Stern.

Oh god, he should’ve known.

Why was it anytime something bad happened in this class, it always had to involve Connor Stern? Rich, snotty parents he could deal with, but he wasn’t about to be around when his mother was called down here over whatever it was that was happening. Trying to talk to that woman was like trying to talk to a brick wall.

“Connor? What about him?”

“He--” Markus stopped, eyes trailing over past the rest of the crowd. “I mean, I didn’t see much so I--”

“Bullshit, you wouldn’t be over here if you hadn’t. Now what’s going on with him?”

“He…” Hesitance was as equally heavy on Markus’ face as it was in his voice, and his eyes darted between the front of the crowd again, before coming back to Hank. His friends hadn’t seemed to have picked up on the conversation, but that wasn’t too shocking given how loud it was in here.

“Well?”

“I...shit, it’s stupid, I don’t know. He got an erection in the shower and everybody started throwing things at him--”

“I’m sorry, he got a what now?” Hank interrupted Markus, jaw clenching as he grimaced. He hoped to God he hadn’t heard that right, that was not at all what he’d been expecting and was nothing he was prepared to deal with right now.

“I--uh, an erection? A boner?”

“Yeah yeah, stop, I know what that is, I just--shit. Fuck, I don’t--” Hank rubbed his temples, already feeling the urge to retreat back to his office to get his whiskey flask--something else that could very well get him a disciplinary warning.

A high-pitched bawl bounced off the shower walls, causing Hank to turn from Markus and push his way through of the rest of the crowd, who one by one began to shut up as soon as his hand had made contact with their shoulders. Once he reach the front, he was met with the appalling sight he’d expected; Gavin Reed and his posse tormenting a crying and flailing Connor with the shower hose.

Because that’s what he’d been hoping to deal with today.

He wasted no time in ending it--first grabbing Gavin by the scruff of his neck and tossing him back into the half-wall, the shower hose falling from his hand. He didn’t even have to do the same to Michael Graham and Leo Manfred, they’d let Connor go as soon as Hank had thrown Gavin back. Now the two had ran over to join Gavin, the three of them looking fully ready to slink back into the crowd like scolded pets.

As soon as he’d been let go, Connor had dropped back onto the floor and curled up into a fetal position, pathetically sobbing as shivers racked his waterlogged body. It was a sight that almost made Hank want to roll his eyes; it wasn’t that he didn’t feel badly for the poor kid, he did, but Christ, he was acting like this kind of shit had never happened to him before.

Then again, maybe it hadn’t. Not to this extent anyways, Hank wouldn’t know for sure since he only ever saw Connor during this class.

He reached over, taking the time to twist the spigot off. The water stopped, even though his shoes had already been partially soaked through.  

“Okay…” He placed his hands on his hips, turning back to Connor, who was still hunched over and crying. “Okay, enough of that. You can stand up now.”

But Connor wouldn’t move, staying put where he was. There were some whispers from the crowd, several snickers too. Outside of the room, the bell for next class period had begun to ring.

“Connor--” Still nothing, the same response as before. Muttering under his breath, Hank sighed and crouched, placing his hand on the boy’s quivering shoulder. He attempted to give it a gentle shake, hoping this would prompt him to move, but was instead met with a shrieking howl and a near kick to the face as Connor scrambled to get away from him.

He ended up slipping and falling back on the slick tile in the process, then pushing himself backwards until he’d backed into the wall. Wrapped condoms, socks, and pieces of toilet paper stuck to his arms and legs--things he had unintentionally gathered up in his plight to get away.

Hank was quick to get over to him this time, grabbing him by the shoulders before he could curl back into the same position as before.

“Hey, kid, calm down--” He was barely able to get a word in between Connor’s hysterical cries. “Connor, stop--just, look at me will you? It’s over, they’re not--damnit, will you just stand up?”

Connor hadn’t stopped screaming, now thrashing his head back and forth and resisting Hank’s efforts to lift him to his feet.

The bell was still ringing. More snickers, more whispering.

God damn could he go for a sip of whiskey right now, but since that didn’t seem to be an option at the moment, it looked like he’d have to use his plan b. It was never something he liked to employ--there was a sworn rule that as a teacher, you were not allowed to touch or harm students in any way possible, no matter the circumstances.

Well, shit. Circumstances be damned. He could get written up for this for all he cared, but he had no other choice. Every noise in this room seemed to be bouncing off the walls and straight into his ears, and it was starting to give him a headache, he had to do something.

And that something just so happened to be a sharp, loud slap, right across Connor’s face.

This silenced his cries almost instantly, and he stared straight at Hank with tear-drenched, blank eyes. He hiccuped, a snot bubble dripping from his nose and catching on his upper lip.

Someone chortled nearby, reminding Hank that they still had an audience watching them. He released Connor’s shoulder, snapping his head back towards the gaping crowd.

“Get out of here, all of you.” he hissed. “Now. Go on, move, get to your next classes.”

“But what about Co--” Someone began to say.

“Nevermind him, I said get out!”

They all scurried after that, hurriedly gathering up dropped bookbags and other varying items as they all rushed out the door, talking and murmuring amongst themselves. Hank watched them all until no one was left, waiting until the last boy had shut the door behind him. He then turned back to Connor, whose head had fallen into a slump. He wasn’t screaming now, so much as quietly weeping, and Hank felt his stomach coil.

Fuck, he hated this. He hated this so much.

“Hey…Connor?”

Connor startled, looking back up at him. There was a sizzling pop overhead them, sparks flying from a light fixture on the ceiling as it fizzled and went out.

“Jesus fuckin’ Christ--” Hank cursed, nearly falling back onto the ground himself. He steadied himself, swearing under his breath. Shit, this place was just falling apart now, wasn’t it? He couldn’t begin to count the amount of things that had broken in just a few short days--first it’d been the water cooler at P.E. the other day, then a day before that a basketball hoop had come loose and nearly crashed down onto Leo Manfred.

Someone was making budget cuts somewhere, there was no other explanation for all of this. With all the money they took from rich parents, you’d think they’d have enough to afford proper maintenance--

“What’s wrong with me, Mr. Anderson?”

His train of thought was interrupted a soft whimper from Connor, whom he looked over at with a puzzled expression.

“What do you mean what’s wrong with you?”

“I mean…” Connor’s head wilted and he hugged himself, bringing his knees to his chest. “My body, it...am...am I dying?”

“Are you--what? No! No you’re not dying, you’re just--” Hank couldn’t believe what he was hearing, who got a boner and thought they were dying? He wouldn’t deny they could get painful sometimes, but even so, he’d never actually thought he was dying while having one.

But then, maybe that was just it. Maybe Connor hadn’t known he was having one...a ridiculous assumption, but definitely not out of the question in terms of an answer. Yeah, the kid was seventeen and was well past puberty, there was no way he couldn’t know...but there was also that mother of his, perhaps she hadn’t…

“Shit. Connor…don’t tell me you don’t know…”

His only response was a slow, silent blink. Well, that answered his question easily enough.

“Alright...alright, I see, uh….” Hank cleared his throat.  “Right. Um…okay, here’s what we’re gonna do...if you can manage it, I want you to uh...get up, y’know, clean yourself off, and um...yeah, get dressed. Think you can do that?”

Connor nodded, releasing another sniffle as he rubbed at his nose.

“Okay? Good, good, now uh…” Hank awkwardly stuck his hand out, attempting a pat on the arm--which he soon realized wasn’t such a good idea with the way Connor had suddenly flinched. “I’m gonna go to my office...uh...gotta call someone. Just...come get me when you’re ready to go.”

He stood back up, making a hurried escape out of the showers and back through the lockers to his office. He hated to leave Connor there like that, but he couldn’t stand it any longer--couldn’t stand looking at him. Not with his soppy wet hair, or that putrid green snot bubbling in his nose.

Or that dumb, sad look on his face, god how he hated that face.

He’d seen it so many times before, not just on Connor but from other schoolyard scapegoats that he’d had in his class before. He wasn’t entirely fond of it, and he wouldn’t deny his hatred for them should someone ask him.

At the same time, though...there was something different about the look on Connor’s face compared to the others. Something he didn’t know or couldn’t place.

Whatever it was, he only knew he hadn’t been able to stand being around it for much longer.


 

“Give us this day our daily bread…”

The hallways were mostly empty by the time Mr. Anderson had walked Connor down to Principal Fowler’s office, filled with only a few students here and there. He’d stopped whimpering by now, but the rest of his body hadn’t seemed able to calm down just yet, as it was still wobbling with each step he took. One hand was tautly clenching his bag, the other pulling quite tensely at the silver crucifix that hung from his neck.

He’d been silently uttering the Lord’s Prayer several times on the walk over, trying to calm himself down. It was an involuntary habit he’d picked up over the years, and he didn’t know for sure when he’d started doing it--it was practically an automatic action anytime he found himself distraught. If he stopped, he’d be bound to start crying again...and he didn’t want to.

He was tired of crying. In fact, he hadn’t even realized how tired he was until now.

Eleven years...eleven goddamn years of this shit. Oh, going to public school would be in his benefit, town officials had said. You can’t keep him hidden from the world like this, it isn’t good for him, they’d said. Let him to go to school so he can become everybody’s favorite punching bag, let our kids pick on him because they have nothing better to do with their time.

Well, they’d certainly gotten their way, hadn’t they? He’d gone to their stupid school, and now this had happened. This had happened, and he was so exhausted.

“And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors…”

His head was bowed, eyes remaining somewhat open so he could see where he was going. Mama Amanda always said to close your eyes when you prayed, but Connor didn’t care. God probably didn’t care either, maybe He didn’t even care that he was praying. He could almost picture it now, God sitting on his giant golden throne in Heaven, fingers plugged into his ears all because He couldn’t be bothered to listen to Connor’s shaky recitation for the fiftieth time this week.

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” He gave his crucifix another anxious tug, keeping his head down as he followed Mr. Anderson into the office’s reception area.   “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.”

Glancing back up, he looked in front of him to see Mr. Anderson speaking to a woman seated at a small desk. The secretary, assumably. He didn’t pay attention to what they were saying, and instead bowed his head back down, beginning to repeat his prayer.

“Our Father, which art in Heaven....”

A loud bang sounded at the office window, followed by muted cackles. Connor ignored it, continuing on.

“...hallowed be thy name…”

Another bang, another cackle. Connor looked up this time, and behind him, to see two of his classmates pointing and mock-grinning at him before quickly taking off down the hall, disappearing before Mr. Anderson could turn around to see them--and by that measure, tell them to beat it.

A burning lump formed in Connor’s throat and he deeply inhaled, letting go of his crucifix. No. He would not cry (hadn’t they had enough was it never enough did they have to keep laughing at him was today not enough for them) , he wouldn’t let them watch him cry for a second time.

He was done being their channel for today, they could find another one to watch if they wanted to be entertained that badly.

The door to Principal Fowler’s own office opened a short moment afterwards, a girl with a long reddish-brown ponytail exiting alongside him. Connor recognized her, she sat two rows ahead of him in Chemistry. North Stahl was her name, unless he was confusing her for her sister again. He hadn’t even realized she had a sister until he’d seen them talking in the hall together, up until at that point he’d assumed they were the same person.

Now that he thought about it, he should’ve figured they were different people. Her sister was more likely than she was to wear her rich kid badge around the school, always hanging out with the best crowds and wearing the nicest clothes. You never would have picked North for one of the elites with how much of a polar opposite she was, the only thing that said her status was the fact she was part of Markus Manfred’s friend group.

She didn’t really seem the type to be friends with them, though some people had speculated the only reason she hung around him so much was because they were actually dating. It wasn’t official word and no one had ever asked them, the whole rumor had only started because both of their names had appeared together as candidates for prom queen and king.

Everyone said they were a shoo-in to win this year, and really, why wouldn’t they be? They were both popular, attractive, and from respectable families, everything that a perfect candidate should possess; presenting themselves as a handsome, idyllic couple, one whose photographs would be plastered all across the yearbook.

And for some reason, that thought agitated him.

“You’re lucky I’m letting you off with a warning this time, Ms. Stahl, but please--” North was rolling her eyes, arms crossed as Principal Fowler spoke to her. She was chewing on something, a piece of bubblegum. “You’ve got to quit letting me catch you wandering the halls when you’re supposed to be in your History class. This is getting out of hand.”

“Yeah, sure. Whatever. My mom’ll just pay you to make sure I have good grades anyways.”

“I mean it. I find you out there another time today, then it’s detention for a week.”

“Sweet, gives me less of an excuse to go home and be a disappointment.” There was a loud pop, as the bubble she’d blown exploded in a burst of pink. Shrugging a camo-print backpack up her shoulders, she sucked her gum back into her mouth and started to head for the door, carelessly brushing past Connor and Mr. Anderson.

“Good talk, Jeff. I’ll be seeing you around.”

“You better not--” Principal Fowler started, but she’d already left before he had a chance to finish. His hand having been raised in warning, he heavily sighed as he let it drop back to his side.

“I’m so sorry about that, that’s the tenth time today she's been in here.” he explained. “If her mother wasn’t on the school board, I swear I’d…”

He stopped himself before continuing, rubbing at his temples.

“Anyways, my apologies for the wait. This way, please.”

Ushering them into his office, he stood back while Connor and Mr. Anderson entered, then shut the door behind him before heading over to the file cabinet behind his desk.

“Have a seat.” He offered curtly, beginning to file through several folders in the cabinet. Cradling his bag to his chest, Connor dropped into one of the two wooden chairs the principal had gestured to, while Mr. Anderson sat in the other.

Being in here made him nervous. It hadn’t been the first time and knowing his luck, it wouldn’t be the last either.

(but it’s not my fault this time it isn’t my fault why aren’t they in here instead of me)

“I um, suppose we’ll be needing this…” Principal Fowler pulled out an accident form from a blue folder, picking up a ballpoint pen out of the glass pencil holder on his desk as he came over to sit down. “I’m just gonna need a few signatures to--”

“Ah uh, no, we’re not gonna be needing that, Jeffrey.” Mr. Anderson interrupted him. “I just wanted to get your permission to send Connor home early...he uh, well, this has kinda been a bad day for him.”

“And? Everyone has bad days, I’m sure there’s no need--” Principal Fowler began to object, but stopped at the warning signal that had flashed in Mr. Anderson’s eyes. He glanced to Connor, noticing how flush his eyes and nose seemed to be. His chin stuck out, quivering slightly as he stared right through the principal, eyes nearly looking glazed over.

If that wasn’t visible evidence enough that he was having a bad day, then who knew what else was. Sighing, Principal Fowler pushed the accident form away and dropped his pen back into the pencil holder, reaching over to press a button on his intercom.

“Ms. Berces, would you bring a dismissal slip in here, please?” He released the button, then turned back to Mr. Anderson. “There’d better be a good reason for doing this. You know I don’t like sending students home on a whim, Hank.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know you don’t.” Mr. Anderson stated plainly, hands clasping in his lap as he leaned forward in his seat. “Which is why I wouldn’t have bothered askin’ ya if I didn’t have reason enough to. Trust me, this is needed.”

“If you say so.” Picking the accident form up, Principal Fowler scooted his chair back and got up to put it back in the filing cabinet. During this time, his secretary came in and handed over the dismissal slip he’d requested, and he went back to his desk, sitting down and retrieving his ballpoint pen from the holder.

“Well I do say so. Oh, and uh, Connor,” Mr. Anderson looked over to Connor, who'd been sitting in a trancelike state from the minute they'd sat down. “Don’t worry about coming to P.E. tomorrow, I'm excusing you for the rest of the week. I'll assign you some workouts to do at home, just um...just keep a journal and bring it to me when you come back next week, okay?”

Connor startled, glancing at his teacher with a quick nod. If he were being honest, he’d not even heard half of what had been said to him, having tuned out of the conversation a few minutes after it had started. All he’d heard was that he wouldn’t have to come back to P.E. until next week, and that was more than okay with him.

He’d be fine with not coming back for the rest of the semester, if you asked him to.

He’d be fine with not coming back at all.

Principal Fowler finished scrawling out his signature on the dismissal slip, setting his pen aside as he folded it over and handed it to Connor.

“There we go, just hand that in to Ms. Berces on your way out.” he said. “Would you um, like us to call your parents? So they can come pick you up, that is.”

“N-no, I don’t want--I mean--” Connor quickly shook his head as he snatched the slip from the principal, heart speeding up at the mention of his mother. “Mama’s at work, she can’t come right now. It’d--it’d be too much trouble--”

“Nonsense, I’m sure she can take the time to come get you--”

“No, please.” He shook his head again, almost crumpling the paper in his hand. “I--I don’t live that far, I can just walk back. You really don’t have to call her.”

Principal Fowler exchanged a puzzled glance with Mr. Anderson, who only shrugged.

“Why not, the fresh air might do him some good.”

“Fresh air? Hank, do you know how humid it is today--” Principal Fowler stopped, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Nevermind, alright. If you think you’ll be fine, then you can walk, don’t let me stop you. But regardless, we still have to call your mother. She needs to know what happened.”

“What? No--no, she doesn’t, please.” Connor sat upright, the slip now completely crushed in his fist. “Please, she’ll have to come down here, I already told you--”

“Yes, I know what you told me, Connor. I know.” The principal held up his hands, sighing. He must’ve sighed so much today already, it was surprising he hadn’t run out of breath yet. “But, I suppose if it makes you feel better… I won’t bother asking her to come down here. I’ll just tell her, she at least needs to--”

“No, no--”  Connor jumped out of his seat, nearly dropping his bag in the process. He gathered it back up, arms shaking furiously, and he cast a destitute glance towards his teacher.  “Mr. Anderson, please, please don’t let him call her, she’ll be so upset with me!”

But Mr. Anderson could only look back at him with a helpless glance, shoulders falling into a slump as he leaned back in his seat.

“There’s...shit, there's really nothing I can do about it, Connor, I…” He trailed off, wringing his hands together. “It’s school policy, I’m sorry.”

“Precisely. And it isn’t as if you’re in trouble, at least not from what I’m gathering so far.” Principal Fowler turned towards his laptop, typing something out on the keyboard. “Your mother will have no reason to be angry with you, now if you’ll just--”

“I said no!”

Connor shrieked, suddenly and loudly, bag falling from his hands. Without warning, Principal Fowler’s desk was whisked across to the other side of the room, slamming hard enough into the wall to leave a visible dent. His glass pencil holder also shattered, causing bits of glass and almost every single pen and pencil in it to fall into a messy pile on the nylon rug covering the floor.

Mr. Anderson had jumped out of his chair at this, Principal Fowler recoiling back in shock. The two men stared first at the mess on the floor, then at the desk, then back to where Connor stood nearby, fists wound up tightly and bag laying a heap beside his feet.

He looked up with flustered eyes, glancing between them. But before either of them could say anything to him--whether they planned to scold him or question him, he didn’t want to find out-- he collected his bag and crumpled dismissal slip from where he’d dropped them, and quickly scurried out of the room and back into the main office.

Chapter Text

It took a couple of minutes to register what had just happened.

Hank had expected the kid to overreact to the idea of his mother being called, he sure as hell didn’t blame him. He knew he’d hated it whenever the principal had had to call his parents down over some trivial thing he’d done, everybody did. It meant a scolding on the way home and the revoking of certain privileges, such as television or going out with friends, hell he could even remember being forced to cancel a date once. 

But what about in Connor’s case? He honestly couldn’t even begin to imagine what would happen when his mother was called. True, that what had happened wasn’t exactly his fault, but you’d think it was with the way he’d reacted. Why was he so sure he’d be punished for something he was the victim of, surely his mother couldn’t be that cruel, could she?

Yes. She could. Something told him that she definitely could.

Deciding that wasn’t something he wanted to think about right now, Hank turned back to Jeffrey, who had plucked a couple of notecards from the now-scattered stack on his desk, and had begun to sweep up the broken bits of glass on the floor.

“I...don’t…were we due for an earthquake?” he wondered out loud.

“Hell if I know, guess we’ll find out later if the buses are in the ditch.” Jeffrey winced, having pricked his thumb on some of the glass bits. “Honestly, I gotta wonder if this whole school ain’t just fallin’ apart sometimes…”

“If it is, it’s yer own damn fault.” Hank huffed, moving to set the fallen chairs back into place. “What else are you doin’ with that money the parents give ya, you might as well be doing something useful with it.”

“And I told you plenty of times already, that’s not just something we can do right away.” Jeffrey deposited the glass bits into a trash can that had surprisingly not been knocked over during the explosion. “I would much rather like to discuss it with the entire staff.”

He brushed his hands off, going over to where his desk remained slammed into the wall. Hank sat the other chair up, and went over to help him pull it back into place.

“Well, I’m here right now. What’s stoppin’ ya from discussing it with me?”

“Because it’s just you, Hank.” Both men each grabbed onto an opposite side of the large desk, a large crack revealing itself in the green paint as they hauled it back. “And quite frankly, the only thing I want to discuss with you right now is Connor Stern, and what the hell is going on with him.”

“Your guess is as good as mine, Jeff, you know the kid’s a bit of a basketcase--”

“Oh, I’m aware,” Jeffrey stepped back from the desk, turning to pull his chair back over to it. “I just want to know what’s going on with him today, you weren’t exactly very clear over the phone what happened. That’s why I assumed you’d be needing an accident form.”

“Well, you assumed wrong. Christ, Jeffrey,” Hank dropped back into the chair he’d been sitting in before--or maybe it’d been Connor’s chair. He couldn’t tell, they’d both gone in different directions when the desk debacle happened. “Do you just always assume I need one of those anytime I come down here?”

“Not always. Only when Connor Stern is involved.” Jeffrey stated, pulling a small drawer open. He nursed his nicked thumb, keeping it curled up until he pulled out a box of bandaids from the drawer. “Now do you mind telling me what exactly happened, and am I going to have to call anyone else’s parents?”

“You’d better, or else I will. God knows I have a few choice words for ‘em…” Hank grumbled, hunkering over in his seat. “Shit, Jeffrey, you should’ve seen it. They were all screamin’ and throwin’ things like it was a fucking pep rally or something--actually, come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen them that lively at a pep rally before.”

“That’s nothing new, Stern’s been their doormat for years.” The principal mused, wrapping a band aid around his thumb.  “But I’m still not seeing what could’ve been bad enough that you had to have him excused--”

“No, Jeff, listen. He was having an erection .”

Jeffrey stopped. His face went pale as he looked back up to Hank.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“You heard me correctly. He was erect, right there in the goddamn showers.” Hank almost shuddered at the memory. Connor’s ungodly screaming, the way he’d been thrashing around like he was an animal about to be taken to the slaughter. It was a sight that was sure to haunt him in his dreams for the entire week.

“I...oh. Oh, Jesus…” Jeffrey fumbled with the band aid box, as he tried to put it back. “I don’t um...that’s…how?”

“Fuck, you and I were in the same sex ed class, Jeffrey, you tell me.”

At this, Jeffrey went even paler and hastily shoved the box away, nearly crumpling it as he shut the drawer. He clasped his hands together atop the desk, though Hank could see that his thumbs were visibly twitching.

“I’m sorry, I’m just trying to process, uh…” He swallowed hard, clearing his throat. “And the other boys, they...you said they were throwing things at him?”

“Oh, throwin’ things, mockin’ him, you name it and they were doing it.” Hank muttered, crossing his arms. “Gavin Reed even had his friends hanging onto him while he sprayed cold water at him...biggest fuckin’ shitshow I’ve seen in my entire life, I swear--”

He stopped himself, sighing heavily.

“And you know what the worst part is...I don’t think that poor kid had any fucking clue about what was going with him.” he said. “He thought...shit, he thought he was dying, Jeff. He actually thought he was dying, I honestly couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”

“Wouldn’t you think, he uh--”

“He would know something about it by now? Yeah, I thought so too.” Hank absentmindedly tugged at one of the strings dangling from his hoodie. “But then I remembered who his mom was and then it all made sense, y’know?”

“Mm...wait, hold on--” Jeffrey had noticed the band aid box was still sticking out, and deftly pushed it back down, which allowed the drawer to slide shut. “If she’s who I’m thinking then...yes, I think I understand now. Amanda Stern, right?”

Hank nodded.

“Well, then that certainly explains a lot.” Jeffrey leaned back in his seat, shaking his head. His fingers were steepled together. “I remember when she came down here and tried to have Connor excused from attending Mrs. Phillips’ class, and all because they were learning about Darwin’s theory of evolution….no, I wouldn’t relive that day for all the money in the world.”

His face overtook a sullen expression, and he sat back up, pulling his seat up to his desk and retrieving his laptop, which had thankfully not been one of the casualties of...whatever it was that had happened.

“Heh, yeah. Don’t forget the time she came down on us for hosting that safe sex seminar last year.” The string Hank had been tugging at came undone as he let it go, falling into his lap. “Forget that it was required for all students to attend...god it’s no fuckin’ wonder Connor didn’t know what an erection was. I bet she never even let him attend sex ed in the first place.”

“I’d believe it.” Jeffrey opened his laptop back up. “But even so, I’m afraid it isn’t our place to question other people’s beliefs.”

“I know, but--”

“But nothing. What they believe--who they worship, that’s their own business. I have half a mind to stay out of it, and for God’s sake--” He cut off Hank, who’d just opened his mouth to protest.  “....actually, no. For your own sake, I advise you to the same.”

Picking up another notecard, he placed it next to his laptop and retrieved one of the ballpoint pens he’d gathered while cleaning up the mess of glass.

“In the meantime, if you can remember them,” he said, clicking the pen with his injured thumb. “I’d like you to tell me who exactly was involved in this ah...this incident, today. So I know who else’s parents I need to inform...you mentioned Gavin Reed as one, correct?”

“Yup. He was at the front of it, as usual.” Hank crossed his legs, not even noticing the fallen string from his hoodie. “Him and his usual gang of Michael Graham and Leo Manfred...and there was also uh, let’s see..Harry Grayton and um, Jason Graff, Dennis Ward...come to think of it was pretty much everyone in my entire class, unless some of them had left already.”

He paused, recalling his spotting of Markus and his friends in the crowd.

“Oh yeah, and you’re not gonna believe this, but…” He sat up, uncrossing his legs. “Markus Manfred was there too.”

“Markus?” Jeffrey’s brow creased as he glanced up at Hank from the notecard he was writing on. “That doesn’t sound like him at all, are you sure?”

“Positive. I mean, he wasn’t really doing anything but, he was in the crowd so...figured I should mention him anyways. I dunno.”

“And did you get a chance to talk to any of them? The crowd, I mean.”

“No. The class bell was ringin’ and I was too pissed to even think straight.” Hank shook his head, exhaling as he rubbed at his eyes. “God, I...ugh. I just needed them to leave, or else I was never gonna get that kid calmed down.”

“Oh, I see…” Jeffrey finished writing, and out of usual instinct, tried to place his pen back into the now non-existent pencil holder. He did, however, soon realize his error and sat it down beside his laptop, turning back to Hank. “I hope you’ll talk to them later, then. I’m already gonna have enough on my plate with their parents, so as much as I hate to say this...their punishment is up to you.”

Hank almost snorted. He knew Jeffrey hated giving him permission to deal with students, in most cases when stuff like this happened, he would push Hank aside and deal with it himself. But, provided that this was a bit of a...tedious situation, it wasn’t like he had much choice. Being principal meant he could do a lot of things, but not everything.

“Don’t worry, Jeffrey, I won’t kill ‘em.” He promised, pushing himself out of the chair. “I mean they might to visit the nurse’s office after I’m done, but….”

“Hank.”

“Hey, relax, I’m kidding.” Hank held his hands up in defense, just now noticing the broken string from his hoodie as it fell from his lap. He stooped over and scooped it back up, shoving it into his pocket. “You could make a novel out of how many disciplinary warnings I’ve gotten, I’m not plannin’ on getting another one right now.”

“I should hope not, I’m running out of reasons to forbid the school board from firing you.” Jeffrey typed something in on his laptop, picking up the notecard and briefly squinting at it before going back to typing. “I’m not saying you can’t be stern with those boys, just...don’t do anything too brash to them. I don’t wanna have to call their parents again after this.”

“You won’t have to, I promise.” Hank reassured Jeffrey as he headed for the door. “Hold me to it if you will, most I’ll probably do is make ‘em wet themselves.”

He gave the knob a twist, pushing the door open.

“Oh and uh, by the way, a light bulb broke, uh, down in the showers. Just thought I’d tell ya before I forgot.”

“Jesus...alright, I’ll send someone to fix it as soon as I can.” Jeffrey sighed as he picked the phone up from its receiver, sparing a quick glance back to his laptop. “Thanks for letting me know.”

“Yeah, don’t mention it.”

With that, Hank left the room, debating on his way out if he should go peruse his whiskey flask now. Not that his headache from earlier was still bothering him, he just really needed a drink after the conversation he’d just had.

To him, it was far too late in the school year to be dealing with this kind of shit, and as much as part of him was dreading having to come up with a punishment for his class...he had to admit that he was also kind of looking forward to it. These trust fund brats had had it coming for a long time now, especially after all the painstaking semesters he’d spent having to constantly corral and referee them.

Whatever he decided on was going to be nothing short of karma for them all, that much he knew...what he didn’t know, was what sort of karma. He supposed that was something he could figure out later.

Right now, there was a whiskey flask that was calling his name.


 

Connor had run immediately to the boys’ restroom following his outburst in Principal Fowler’s office, although he wasn’t for sure as to why. To collect himself, perhaps, provided his currently distressed state of mind. Or to just prolong the inevitable of going home, and waiting around for what he thought of as “Judgement Day”, aka Mama coming home from work.

Could it possibly be both of these things?

Mama said it was a sin to wallow in your own misery and prolong the judgement of your own actions. It was what he was doing right now and while he definitely didn’t feel good doing it, he also didn’t feel good to walk home as of right now. The restroom was practically empty, save for himself and the one lone spider that was crawling around on a cobweb in the stall he’d been sitting in for the past twelve minutes.

The tears had threatened to come back. His throat was burning again, and he could already feel the urge to start reciting the Lord’s Prayer. But he couldn’t bring himself to do so, he couldn’t focus, couldn’t think.

His mind was at a crossroads and he didn’t know what to do.

He thought to pray, ask God to help him decide, but figured God had already had enough of his beseeching today. Besides, it wasn’t like he was going to magically appear in the guise of a burning bush right here in the bathroom just to give Connor the answer he wanted...no, he couldn’t be bothered to do that at all, could he?

Or it was possible that he could simply be asking too much, and had done so too many times. Whatever cards (the lord is gracious and full of compassion but where is it for me i wanna know)   he’d had with God had run out and he was on his own now. He had to be the one to decide if he wanted to continue hiding and possibly risk the chance of someone coming in here and finding him--or if he wanted to leave before the next bell rang.

Connor decided ultimately that the latter option would preferrable, as he didn’t want anything else to happen that would warrant another trip back to Principal Fowler’s office and even more bad things to tell Mama Amanda.

He didn’t need that. He didn’t want that.

The spider had begun to crawl its way over to Connor’s bag as he retrieved it from the floor, slinging it across his shoulder. It scurried quickly back to the safety of its web, while he pushed the stall door slightly ajar to peek out of. No one was in sight, and no one would be for the next few minutes.

The bell hadn’t rung yet, either.

Connor exited the bathroom, heading out into the primarily empty hallway. Any of the lingering students who’d been hanging around were gone now, probably having left for some other classes. There was no around to hassle him while he went to get the rest of his things, which he hurriedly retrieved without much effort. Chemistry books, History books, Math, Art…condoms? Condoms?

There were condoms in his locker.

There were...there were goddamn wrapped condoms, falling in a piled heap from where he’d moved his Biology textbook. For a moment, he could only stand there, frozen, as he stared down at them. Hands shook, fists clenching. Body tightening. A red flush on his face.

He glanced up, to the side of his locker door where even more Bible verses and Jack Chick comics were taped. Only, unlike the ones in the locker room, these were covered by a large sheet of notebook paper. On this paper were red letters, big red letters, that Connor didn’t want to read. He knew what it said, and he refused to read it, refused to even look at it.

A snicker sounded from behind him and he glanced around just in time to see the same two boys who’d scared him at the principal’s office. They looked ready to burst into complete laughter, probably would have if it weren’t the fact they were obviously cutting class and were trying to be discrete about it.

The red flush on Connor’s face deepened even further, as he tore the note off and crumpled it up, throwing it into a nearby trash can. The boys kept snickering at him, and the bell was beginning to ring now. He had to leave. He had to leave, he couldn’t stay here and let everyone see him like this.

And that’s what he did.

Slamming his locker door shut, Connor slid his bag back up his shoulder and walked out of the school building, footsteps pounding furiously against the vinyl tile until the tile transitioned into concrete, and he was outside.

Mr. Anderson had said the fresh air might do him some good, but he couldn’t say that it was helping things. At the very least he was alone, and away from everyone and everything. Well, almost everything. Despite the warning from Principal Fowler, it looked like North was skipping class again, and was seated cozily at a large bronze sculpture of an eagle in flight.

She looked up at Connor as he passed her by, his footsteps having been loud enough to interrupt whatever it was she was listening to on her phone. But he chose not to pay her any mind and kept going, keeping his head down as he continued to walk.

He’d stop at a crosswalk here and there, to wait his turn. And with each stop, he would stare at the sidewalk, observing the content that littered it.

A trail of ants, carrying crumbs of bread, maybe a cookie.

Empty soda cans, candy wrappers.

A few pennies, some quarters.

Cigarette butts, chewed up wads of pink gum--the first of these he’d spotted after exiting the school, no doubt courtesy of North--and many, many plastic bottle caps. He kicked at one of these caps, hand resting on the strap of his bag as he waited for the tiny orange hand on the crosswalk sign to go away.

This was another involuntary habit that he’d picked up, noticing and observing the tiniest of details. It distracted him, helped him when he felt too flustered to pray, and when the angry thoughts were too much.

He knew better than to keep them around, he should snuff them out, he should, Mama would tell him to. She would say to ask for forgiveness and to allow God control of his thoughts.

But he didn’t want to. He couldn’t, and it wasn’t fair. It was easier for Mama, she wasn’t the one having to spend half her days amongst oppressors and tormentors. She didn’t have everyone pointing fingers, or mocking, or jesting.

How? How could she tell him to ask for forgiveness when he wasn’t the one who needed it? He wouldn’t forgive them anyways, he’d spent too long turning the other cheek and quite frankly, they didn’t deserve it. Mama kept saying Judgement Day was coming soon, hadn’t she? She had, she’d said an angel with a sword would descend from Heaven and would punish those whom God found unworthy.

Why couldn’t it have been today?

Why couldn’t that angel have come now, and punished everyone?

It could be his fault, maybe God had changed His mind after all of Connor’s constant prayers and cries, and decided that it just wasn’t worth it anymore.

Still, he wished that angel would come. It was bad enough, having to walk home with everything that that traumatic moment in the showers had brought him, but he couldn’t brush it off. This wasn’t like those other times, as awful as those had been, they were nothing compared to what he’d had to through today.

The boys in the hall, at the principal’s office, snickering at him. Principal Fowler wanting to call his mother. Gavin Reed spraying cold water at him, Michael Graham and Leo Manfred holding him back. The rest of his classmates, standing and watching, and doing absolutely nothing ...nothing than what they usually did, that was. This had been the worst though, and that was saying a lot considering everything else they’d done.

Was it never good enough for them?

Connor knew he didn’t fit in, but he’d tried to, oh god how he had tried. He’d tried from the day everyone had laughed at him when he knelt down to pray over his lunch. Mama had made him promise to be a witness to the other kids, she’d made him promise this the very first day he’d gone to school. She’d given him tracts to hand out, and had carefully instructed him on what to say.

He didn’t do those things anymore though. He didn’t hand out tracts, he didn’t witness to anyone, and mainly kept quiet. He’d quit kneeling to pray, instead uttering a small prayer in his head before eating. The time his desk had been pulled out from underneath him, he’d laughed alongside everyone else, just as he’d laughed when he’d fallen off the tube at summer camp, which itself had been something Mama had been dead set against him not going to.

So many times. So many times he had tried to go against what she said and wanted, and it was all for naught. She didn’t even know he showered at school, even if she’d told him many times over not to. And he knew the thoughts, he knew the sins that could tempt him should he choose to allow them. He’d been careful, oh he’d been so careful…

But then, today had happened. Today, he let himself stare. He let himself stare at Markus Manfred, and he’d let those sinful thoughts into his mind.

And he’d liked them. For a fleeting moment, he’d liked those thoughts, and then the throbbing had started. He hadn’t liked the throbbing. Mr. Anderson had hastily tried to explain to him that it was perfectly normal for his body to be behaving that way, that it was what happened when men were... aroused.

Connor wasn’t certain he liked that word very much. Mr. Anderson hadn’t sounded all too keen in saying it either, like it was just as awkward for him as it was for Connor.

“It means uh...it means that you’re um, attracted to something...or someone. That’s all…” he’d said, and he hadn’t said anything else after that. After that had been when Connor had begun to utter the Lord’s Prayer. It bothered him what Mr. Anderson had said, it bothered him now when he remembered it.

Attracted. Aroused. At the sight of...no, it wasn’t his doing. It was the sinful thoughts of lust, that was all. Mama had lectured him on Sodom and Gomorrah enough times for him to know.

The little orange hand on the crosswalk had at last gone away, and the lights were red, allowing Connor to finally cross the street. He hadn’t realized how long he’d been walking, until he lifted his head to see row to row houses in place of the more formal buildings he’d been walking past.

His head went back down. He continued to walk, his own home was still several blocks down so there was no point to stopping. Ahead of him, on the sidewalk, little Zoe Fern was engaged in a game of hopscotch. She’d hopped all the way to the furthest number and was about to turn around and retrieve the rock she’d thrown, when she spotted Connor walking in her direction.

She dropped her rock, waving eagerly.

“Connor! Connor, come play with me!”

But Connor didn’t stop, or even acknowledge that she’d spoken to him. He kept walking on, past her pail of chalk and over her sloppily drawn hopscotch board. She gasped, face scrunching up as she turned about and spat her tongue out at him.

“Boo! Stiff neck!”

Stiff neck. ‘Ole Stiff Neck Stern wants our help.

Connor whirled around, the anger he’d had stirring in his veins coming to a boiling point. Of course, Zoe hadn’t known any better when she’d insulted him; she was only an impressionable seven year old, and was bound to repeat things she heard her parents say...which, when it came to Connor and his mother, were never nice things.

She’d been bending back over to pick her rock up before he turned around, but it ended up flying up and hitting her right in the face, causing her to fall back with a small cry. Whimpering, she pressed her hand to the red indent left by the rock and fled back into her own front yard, crying out for her mother.

Connor watched her leave, eyes then slowly drifting downwards to the rock. He took a step towards it, watching it intently as if he expected it to move again. He didn’t know how it had moved in the first place, but….he wondered…he wondered if…

No.

No, no more wondering. He’d let himself do enough of that today.

Zoe’s cries were still very much loud and audible from nearby, but he barely heard them as he turned away from her hopscotch board and had begun to walk back down the street.

Chapter Text

The sounds of Tina Turner were abruptly cut off as Audra Manfred pulled her car up to a stop. Taking the keys out of the ignition, she placed them into her jacket pocket and picked up the unfinished iced latte that had slowly been melting in the cupholder.

She’d not meant to let it melt, in fact she’d been intent on finishing it before she arrived. It felt like a waste of money to have bought it and hardly taken any sips out of it, but it had been the last thing on her mind for the entire drive. One small sip had been all she managed before her cellphone had rang, and she’d pulled it out of her purse to find that the high school was calling her.

Her first thought was Leo. Ever since he’d started hanging out with the likes of that Gavin Reed boy, he’d been in the principal’s office more times than she and his father liked to count--that having been the routine since the sixth grade. She dreaded to think of what it could possibly be this time; had he been skipping class again? Or had they found something questionable in his backpack?

Or was it both?

Audra almost didn’t want to find out, but knew she’d chide herself later if she didn’t. So, repressing the urge to let out a heavy sigh, she’d answered the phone and prepared herself for the worst. But with even with that preparation, she couldn’t quite say she was prepared at all when Principal Fowler told her what had happened.

Both.

Both of her sons, involved in the humiliation of a fellow student. Sending him to the point of absolute hysterics.

That was when she’d sat her latte down and forgotten about it. That was why she hadn’t taken any more sips since leaving the coffee shop. She’d gotten off the phone with Principal Fowler just a few short minutes ago, but she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about it, had barely been able to focus on her own driving.

She’d expected this from Leo, he’d been a troublemaker since he was eight years old. But Markus...no, she’d not been expecting this kind of behavior from Markus. Even though Principal Fowler had reassured her that he hadn’t actually been actively assisting in provoking the incident; that is, he’d merely been a spectator amongst the crowd. Regardless, it still didn’t seem like him to just stand back and watch while another person got pushed around. Hell, she could remember him barely being nine years old and getting beat up by another kid at soccer practice, all because they’d been making fun of Josh Thompson’s haircut and he’d decided to stand up for him.

Now, even as a kid Markus had been pretty easy-going, so it’d rattled Audra when she’d come back from the bathroom to find him sprawled out on the grass, the bigger and much more imposing teammate on top of him and throwing punches like there was no tomorrow. How the coach hadn’t noticed this happening was something she still couldn’t figure out, but thankfully, she’d been able to get his attention before someone ended up with a broken bone. The only injuries that had been sustained were a black eye and cut cheek Markus had received from his teammate, which had only required a trip back to the van and some attention from the emergency first aid kit Audra always kept packed in the glovebox.

She remembered asking him about what had happened, amazed even now as she recalled how he’d barely flinched while she applied antiseptic to his cut. She’d been prepared to scold him, launching into the tirade of how violence was never the answer and a lot of other crap she and his father had tirelessly told him and Leo.

“But Mom, I didn’t fight him.”

This had caught Audra off-guard. Anything she’d been trying to say dissipated, and her mouth had hung open for a split second.

Such a little detail to remember from a long ago memory.

Apparently, what had really happened was that Markus had only stepped between the bully and Josh, politely asking them to leave Josh alone. The bully hadn’t done so, and thus, Markus had repeated himself twice, which was why he’d been on the ground getting beat up when Audra had come back.

That was the day she realized just how proud of him she was. With the way he hadn’t seemed to care at all that he’d been hurt and only asking about Josh’s well being, she’d known that he was going to grow up to be quite the selfless young man.

And he had. He’d grown so selfless, and so fast, she almost couldn’t believe how long ago that day at the park had been. Since then, he’d gotten himself several black eyes (in someone else’s defense), and was actively involved in his friends’ lives as well as school activities. She couldn’t count the amount of times she’d found him up late at night, talking with one of them over Skype, and all because they were having a problem with something.

Something that didn’t have to be his business, but he allowed it to be, just as he’d allowed bullies and troublemakers to be his business...which was was the precise reason why she was having trouble wrapping her head around the idea that he’d be nothing but a bystander in this scenario.

It couldn’t be...because of who the student was, could it? Audra couldn’t say she knew Connor Stern all that well, but she knew his mother and that was all she needed to know why the boys had been picking on him. Leo had never had much in the way of kind words while talking about him, but Markus hadn’t really ever said anything, only a bit here and there.

Nothing negative, but it hadn’t been anything positive either. Nothing in Connor’s defense.

Because of that, it was hard to tell why he was standing and watching with the crowd. No conclusion of any kind had been reached during the drive, and all Audra was left with now was her melting latte.

Looking at it now, she wondered briefly if it was worth it to try taking a sip, but decided against it. While she’d been momentarily concerned about the waste of money, she had other pressing issues that were of more concern than that. One was figuring out what to do regarding the school’s phone call, and the other was picking up her husband’s suit from the dry cleaners.

Best to just focus on one thing at a time, even if the phone call was the more pressing issue, it would unfortunately have to wait for later. Carl was leaving to meet with his clients in less than an hour and that was all the time she had to get his suit back home.

Sighing, she sat her latte back down and pulled her purse into her lap, digging through it to locate her laundry ticket, which she then folded back up and slid into her pocket. Better to have this out now before she got inside, too many times had she held up a long line just from digging through her purse, and she’d prefer to avoid that provided the hurry she was in.

She stepped out of the car, pressing the lock button on the keys a couple of times until the car horn beeped, and headed around the vehicle, walking over to the building. A cheerful jingle sounded from the bell as she pushed the door open, nostrils being greeted with that ever familiar scent of soap and fresh, clean clothes as she stepped inside. It was one of the more older businesses in town, you could tell by the age-old tile on the floor and the chipped paint peeling off the walls.  

Carl had constantly told her they could afford to take their laundry to better places, but she didn’t care to. This place had always held a strong sense of familiarity to her, especially since she’d been coming here since Markus was little. There was no point in stopping now, all because she had a bit of money to spend.

Besides, who wanted to blow a lot of cash on their dry cleaning, anyways, when there were more important things in life?

Audra walked up to the register, reaching back into her pocket for her laundry ticket. She dug it out, looking back up only to be greeted by a “gone to lunch” note that had been clipped to one of those drinking bird toys. Sighing, she pressed her hands onto the counter, which creaked slightly from the pressure, and leaned across best she could.

“Hello?”

She was barely able to see anything past the tall racks of plastic-wrapped clothing, but could hear the faint sound of a sewing machine clacking from the back room, which told her that there was someone still here. It didn’t sound like whoever that was was on their lunch break, and was probably taking the time given by such a break to get extra work done before any customers came back.

Well if that were it, Audra certainly hated to interrupt them, but a glance to the clock told her she only had forty-five minutes to get Carl’s suit back home. Leaning off the counter, she stepped back from it and after considering it for a moment, rang the small silver bell placed next to the drinking bird.

“Hello? Anyone here?” she called out again, receiving nothing but the continuous clicking and clacking of the sewing machine. “Hello?”

She rang the bell a second time, tapping her fingers against the counter. Nothing. A third time. The sewing machine stopped, and a pair of footsteps exited the back room, coming out to greet Audra. She felt her throat go dry at the sight of Amanda Stern’s cool, pleasant expression as she stepped up to the register, immediately thinking back to the phone call she’d received just a few short minutes ago.

As many times as she’d come to this place, she’d forgotten Connor’s mother worked here. Maybe because she’d always made it a point to come on days where she either wasn’t working or was stuck in the back. Not because she couldn’t stand the woman, but...well, she wasn’t exactly someone you could hold a nice conversation with. Any pleasantries almost always devolved into something involving God or sinning.

“Mrs. Manfred, good afternoon.” She folded her hands together atop the counter,  long, flowing sleeves billowing behind her as she did so.“My apologies, I couldn’t hear you over the sewing machine. It makes such a terrible racket sometimes.”

“Oh, Mrs. Stern--” she stammered, mustering a courteous smile.  “It’s alright, um, I’m sorry if I was interrupting you from your work, I--”

“Oh no, it’s nothing I simply can’t return to later.” Amanda interrupted, returning the smile which...came off just a bit more forced than Audra’s. “Now, what can I do for you?”

“I...um..” Audra unfolded her laundry ticket, which she'd unintentionally crumpled. “Just a pick up, thank you.”

She handed it to Amanda, who briefly looked it over before heading over to one of the clothing racks, which she began to file through. Audra watched her, cautiously, wondering if the school had called her yet. They had to have, Connor was her son and the victim of the whole incident, she should’ve been the first person they called.

Unless they wanted to get the perpetrators out of the way first, that was. If that was the case, then she should probably keep quiet about it. She didn’t want to be the person who had to tell Amanda Stern that her son had gotten an erection in the high school showers...no, she wouldn’t even wish that task on her worst enemy.

“Ah, here we are.” A chink, and Amanda removed Carl’s suit from the rack, folding it over her arm as she returned to the counter. “Forgive me if I’m wrong, but this was due to be picked up tomorrow, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, well,” Audra chuckled, best she could without sounding uneasy. She reached to take the suit as Amanda handed it to her. “That was the plan, until Carl’s clients decided last minute that they wanted to meet with him today. I guess you can’t predict these kinds of things, huh?”

“Certainly not. Only God can predict the days, Mrs. Manfred, it isn’t our place to.” Oop, there it was. That hadn’t taken long. And oh how quickly the look on her face had changed, her smile was less than pleasant now and there was a flash of something dark in her eyes. “All we can do is take each day as He sees fit.”

“Yes...of course...” Audra lowered her gaze, looking over the suit she held. “Of course. I was just saying--”

“Indeed, and what godless days these are becoming as well.” Amanda interrupted with a hum, unclasping her hands. Audra glanced back up at her. “I’ve seen more and more revelry outside this very building than you could ever believe, Mrs. Manfred. Our youth have been led so far astray, I fear it is a sure sign that the end times are at hand.”

“Or...it could just be kids being kids, you never know…” Audra had spoken quietly under her breath, nearly thanking her lucky stars when it looked like Amanda hadn’t heard her. Instead, she’d turned and with a flourish of her skirt, had left for the back room.

Now, Audra knew that from the few social interactions she’d had with Amanda that the woman had a habit to take every social interaction as an opportunity to witness. She could even vaguely remember her coming to a PTA meeting armed with gospel tracts and trying to peddle them off onto the teachers. One of them had joked she must have an endless stash of these things piled up back at home, which Audra wouldn’t have believed if it weren’t for the fact that she always had one ready at any given moment.

Which was why she wasn’t too surprised to see such a booklet clasped in her hands as she emerged from the back room, an unnervingly calm smile spread across her features.

“I believe this may be of interest to you and your husband.” she said, practically shoving the booklet into the one unwilling hand of Audra’s that wasn’t holding the suit. “It’s the first in a series; ‘The Young Person’s Guide to Redemption Thru Salvation’, by the Reverend G. Penwick. I want you to have it, for your sons’ sakes.”

“Oh...oh no, thank you, but I don’t think we need it--” Shaking her head politely, Audra attempted to hand the booklet back to Amanda, only have to it pressed back into her grasp.

“Oh but please, I insist. Think of your children, the path they are headed down. Don’t you want some reassurance they’ll be well prepared for the end times?”

“Well I--yes, but I mean--” Was there a chance? Was there a chance she already knew what had happened? She hadn’t said anything about it so far, but it wasn’t like Amanda Stern to outright say when there was a problem. She felt more like the type who would drop hints until whoever they were talking to ended up crumbling under pressure. “I doubt they’ll be very interested--”

“Oh, their interest isn’t a concern. What’s a concern--” For a second time, Amanda pressed the booklet back, with a little more force than before. “Is their eternal salvation, Mrs. Manfred. It’s important they realize the errors of their ways before it is too late.”

“Mrs. Stern--” Audra stopped resisting, realizing how pointless such a thing was. She’d seen Amanda harass a fellow parent right out the door once, and all because she’d spotted them taking a smoke. “Really, it’s alright. Markus and Leo are both really good kids, I…”

Her mind flashed back to the phone call with Principal Fowler. Leo partaking in the humiliation, Markus standing by and watching. Doing nothing, saying nothing until asked.

(Good kids, my ass.)

“If…” Mentioning this now was such a risk. It was, but she was seeing no other way to escape this conversation. She now only had thirty minutes to get Carl’s suit to him in time. “I mean, if this is because of what happened at the school today, I can assure you that I’m very sorry for it and I promise I’ll talk to both--”

“School? What do you mean?” Any pleasantries slipped Amanda’s expression, and her brows had furrowed together in deep confusion. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure I understand what you’re talking about…”

“I--you mean they haven’t called you yet?”

Before Amanda could respond, her boss, a short, chubby man in his mid-50s, leaned out of the break room. He held the work phone in one hand, the other hanging onto the doorknob which had been left somewhat open.

“Hey, Amanda. You got a phone call, guy says he’s from the high school.”

Hell had surely frozen over with the look Amanda had on her face as she glanced back from her boss, to Audra. Neither woman said a word to the other, only exchanging looks that were as heavy with tension as they were unease.

So….she hadn’t known after all. This whole time...she’d just been going on with her usual bullshit.

And Audra had just shot herself in the foot by bringing it up. Right before the phone call on top of that, oh that was just the icing on the cake wasn’t it?

Maybe this was her cue to leave.

Hastily, she regathered the sliding suit bag into her arms and slid the booklet into her purse. It wasn’t two minutes before she’d left the building and fled back out to her car, not daring to spare another look towards Amanda. Even if she’d probably answered the phone by now, she wasn’t going to risk it.

Because she knew, after Amanda had spoken with Principal Fowler and found out what had happened, it would mean twice the amount of booklets and tracts she usually carried with her. Which also meant that she would have to take Carl’s advice and find a new place to take their dry cleaning, much as she didn’t care for the idea.

She’d been going to this place for so long, it would be so petty to stop all because of some bad blood. And this wasn’t even the first time Amanda had been called over some incident regarding Connor, who was to say things would be any more tense on her next visit?

But then...with the way Principal Fowler had worded it, those incidents hadn’t been half as bad as this one had been. Not half as bad at all…which meant that the aftermath could only end up a lot worse. How would Amanda react to the news of her precious Connor popping a boner in the showers...better yet, what would she have to say about those responsible?

Audra didn’t want to reflect on it, but it was still weighing heavily on her mind, even after she’d gotten into her car and driven away.


 

The clock’s hollow ticking made the room sound so much more empty than it really was.

Connor sat at the kitchen table, Biology textbook spread open in front of him. He hadn’t quite known what to do when he'd first gotten home, as Mama was still at work and it wasn’t quite time for judgement yet. He at first thought he should go ahead and get it over with himself, to go over the altar and begin praying for forgiveness, to go over the verses in his own Bible. That way, when she got home, he could tell her he’d repented. He’d tell her, and she wouldn’t have to lecture him, or make him pray.

She wouldn’t send him off to... that place.

That place...that dark room, it might have been a pantry a long time ago, he didn’t know—but now there was a large alabaster crucifix hanging over it, and a needlepoint with Acts 3:19 stitched into it had been nailed into the door which had been painted over with an ugly shade of brown.

This marked the entrance of the Room of Repentance. It sat menacingly across from Connor, visible from where he sat at the table. The door was shut now, but he knew what was beyond it. He’d been in there enough to have the layout practically memorized by now, so much so that he would always receive a vivid flash of its imagery in his mind anytime he so much as had a bad thought.

He could see it all now, despite trying to focus on his schoolwork. The words swam on the page, vision clouded with tiny black dots that danced around in the text. Yes, he could see it very clearly, he could probably tell you exactly what was in there, without even opening the door.

To start, there was one single light that hung from the ceiling, fixed with a lightbulb that was almost near death.  A second crucifix, alabaster like the first but smaller and crueller, was nailed to the wall. There remained one shelf from the others that been removed, a lace-trimmed cloth draped across it. Another one of Mama’s Bibles, one she’d marked specifically with verses involving repentance and forgiveness. A copy of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Surprised by God’s Judgement” stood in a frame next to the Bible, melting wax candles sat before it.

What he tended to recollect the most vividly, though, were the pictures plastered to the walls. They were examples, Mama Amanda had said, of what happened when sinners didn’t repent and beg for God’s mercy. Connor had used to (and still did sometimes) have nightmares because of these pictures, one in particular being that of the Noah’s Ark one. Faces...so many faces in anguish, clinging to rocks, crying out, pleading in vain to be let aboard the very boat they had mocked and teased Noah for building. Such a sight had stuck with him for a long time, and so once, he’d set out to ask Mama why Noah wouldn’t just let the people onto the boat with him. She’d told him that it was because they had refused to repent and refused to acknowledge their sins. It had been too late for them, and God had seen fit to let them suffer and perish.

“But it was in His plan, you see,” she’d explained, while young Connor had sat at her feet, listening with horrified interest. “He chose to wipe the Earth clean, save for His select few with which the world would be started anew. And someday, when He comes back...He will send his angel to do the same. To purge the world and cleanse it of sinners, once more, and the pure will remain to do His will.”

That had been the first time she’d ever mentioned Judgement Day to him.

And he hadn’t been able to get it off his mind ever since.

Funny how he had harked back to that conversation today, after all that happened and all that he was contemplating. Noah had been mocked at and spat upon by people, all for doing what God had told him. And then they’d been punished. Who was to say the same couldn’t happen to his peers?

The thought intrigued him.

The black dots were fading from his vision now, and he had to blink several times over before they’d gone. Tearing his eyes from the book, he turned his gaze up towards the clock on the wall, which now read 3:15….3:16...3:17. Mama worked from 9 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon, it wouldn’t be too much longer before she came home.

He still had time to pray, he did. He’d decided against doing it right away, deciding to instead use his time to get schoolwork done. It wasn’t like he had much else to do, since they didn’t have a television—save for the one small one Mama would sometimes bring out to play VCR tapes of some of her favorite sermons on, and she would know if he’d touched it without her permission--and he didn’t have a computer or phone to waste any time on.

The schoolwork had really been his only option, as far as occupying his mind and time went. He could’ve prayed first, read the verses first, but...he hadn’t wanted to. Not when he hadn’t done anything wrong, not when he wasn’t even sure he was sorry for...entertaining those impure ideas that had entered his head.

He wasn’t sure at all. He wasn’t sure...he wanted to be sorry, but anytime he thought back to that moment of Markus exiting the showers...he couldn’t be. Not when he remembered the way his muscles had flexed, and how his torso had shone beneath the light sheen of water droplets not yet dried off.

He’d not meant to stare. He’d not, and he hated that he had...but he also didn’t.

The clock hands continued to tick on, and Connor tried to keep all his focus on reading the chapter from his textbook, which was all about something regarding Darwin and his evolution theory. Mama had tried to pull him out of class over it, but Principal Fowler had refused and stated that he needed to attend, even if she didn’t agree with the teachings.

Around 4:15, he could hear a car engine rumbling up to the house. Getting up from his seat, he went and peered out the kitchen window, pushing back the curtains to see Mama Amanda getting out from her boss’ car. Hands suddenly going clammy, Connor clambered back to the table and quickly gathered up all his things--his textbook, his notebook, pencils--and ran upstairs to his room, where he incautiously stuffed them under his mattress.

The front door creaked open downstairs and shut with a light bang. Connor became paralyzed, standing still in the middle of his tiny room as if  he were Isaac about to be sacrificed by Abraham.

Silence. A heavy thud. Something had hit the floor.

“Connor?”

His mouth went dry.

“Connor, I know you’re upstairs. Come down here, right now.”

He didn’t want to. Oh, he didn’t want to go, he couldn’t—his feet had glued themselves to the floorboards. His legs were frozen stiff, his arms as well. It took great effort to make himself move across the room, to the door. Out it, down the stairs, which he walked down very quietly.

Mama was waiting for him when he reached the bottom, perfectly positioned under a ray of light that streamed in through the dirty, cracked windows. She was dressed as she always was, in her long black dress and navy-blue cloak, that flowed around her like the very flood God had brought upon His people. Her big, leather satchel sat beside her on the floor, tracts and booklets all but spilling out from the pockets, and her old, tattered Bible rested in her dark, calloused hands, which were crossed in front of her.

This very sight made Connor’s stomach quiver, making him want to turn tail and run back up the stairs to his room. To hide, and to lock himself in, waiting until he was sure there would be no chance of a lecture or sermon. But he didn't. He stayed there, frozen at the foot of the stairs as he and Mama soundlessly stared across at one another.

This was the calm before the storm. A moment that held a false sense of security to it,  before all hell broke loose.

“Hello, Mama.”

Mama didn’t return his greeting, eyes continuing to bore into him as she took a step away from her bag. The urge to retreat back up the stairs came back, and he gripped onto the stair railing, swallowing down what little spit was left in his mouth.

Mama took another step towards him, tucking her Bible underneath one arm. Her mouth was pressed into a tight line, and it looked she was shaking. There was some great untold sorrow in her eyes, which never left Connor, even as she outstretched her free hand and tentatively placed it on his cheek. It felt cold and rough, her thumb caressing one of the many beauty marks dotted across his face.

“My sweet boy… oh, my poor sweet boy. I’m so sorry…”

“Mama?” Connor’s fingernails dug into the railing, and he could feel his heartbeat starting to pick up. “I’m...I’m not...what’s wrong? Is something wrong?”

(you know what’s wrong you know exactly what’s wrong don’t play innocent)

“You…” Mama’s voice sounded like it was trembling, her caress growing harsh. “You’re a man now.”

Connor all but wilted, right then and there. She knew. They’d told her. It’d been foolish to have some hope that they wouldn’t have, that they would’ve waited until she returned home from work. Though, he doubted that would’ve made much of a difference.

“Mama, I..I’m sorry--”

A flash of black, horrible pain suddenly overtook his vision, rupturing throughout his head as Mama had withdrawn her Bible and struck him with it. His fingernails dragged a zig-zag pattern into the stair railing as he fell back, hitting the bottom stair with a small cry.

Mama had seized him by the arm before he had any time to recover, yanking him back to his feet.

“Let us go to the altar.” she said. “Let us go to the altar now, and pray for your forgiveness.”

“Mama, no, it wasn’t my fault--”

“To the altar. Now, Connor. We must pray.”

“No, let me go--”

He pulled back, refusing to budge as she tried to pull him into the living room. His feet skidded, shoelace catching and ripping off thanks to a nail sticking out from the floorboard. Mama’s grip on him worsened, nails digging through the thin cotton material of his shirt and he shrieked in pain, trying in vain desperation to pry himself away from her.

When she did let him go, it was only to strike him again, which sent him toppling onto the dusty green sofa in the living room. He tried to get back up, tried to run past her into the hall, to escape up the stairs, but she grabbed him and kicked him toward their altar, which was really just an old dresser she’d furnished with various religious memorabilia, including what must’ve been the third crucifix in the house. Unlike the ones in the Room of Redemption, though this one had been hand carved out of wood. Mama had purchased it from a thrift store several years ago. On each side of it sat two white candles, fresh new ones that Mama had bought just a few days ago. A velvety purple cloth was spread across beneath these things, a tiny golden cross and several short Bible verses etched into the trim. On the walls behind it hung posters of Peter Paul Rubens’ “The Elevation of the Cross”  , and Lovis Corinth’s “Red Christ” .

It was a sight that was just as familiar as that of the Room of Redemption, if not more so. Connor couldn’t say which he despised more. His head had begun to pulsate from the impact of hitting it face first, and he dizzily looked up to see Mama coming to stand next to him.

“Mama, I didn’t do anything wrong, please.” His voice was barely a whisper, cracking as he spoke. He didn’t try to stand up, staying put on his knees. It’d be no use to try when she’d only push him down again. “It was them! They were all laughing at me, throwing things at me. It was horrible, I was so scared--”

She ignored him, calmly opening her Bible up to one of her numerous bookmarks.

“The sun was risen upon the earth when Lot entered into Zoar.” She began to read, in that low, smooth tone she reserved only for moments like this or on Sundays when they had services. Connor hated that voice, he hated it so much. “Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.”

“Mama, stop--”

Without taking her eyes off the page, she grabbed a fistful of Connor’s hair and yanked his head back, a choked howl breaking from his swelling throat as she forced him to look up at the carved cross in front of him. Pages flipped, as Mama turned them with her thumb. He wanted to lift his hands, cover his ears so he wouldn’t have to hear the rest. He’d heard it all before, he was sick of it. He was tired of it.

“As the Lord goes on to say in Leviticus; Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination. If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” 

“Stop it, stop, please—I didn’t lie with anyone, Mama, please, please listen to me--””

The Bible clapped shut, and she dropped it atop the altar. She knelt beside Connor, releasing his hair and taking both of his hands into hers. Her fingers tightly inter-wound with his, nails cutting into his knuckles. He whimpered, trying to pull away.

“Let us pray now, let us pray and ask God to cleanse your mind and heart.”

“No, no, let me go!”

Deeper. Her nails dug deeper, and he cried out. Mama closed her eyes, throwing her head up to the Heavens.

“Oh Lord,” She cried impassively, lifting Connor’s struggling hands into the air with her own. “Help this sinning man before me to see the wrongs that he has done. He may have committed the sin of lustful thoughts, and he may have allowed the Devil to tempt him as he did Your Child in the desert, but I only ask that you allow him the same victory over these temptations--”

“Mama, you’re hurting me—please--”

“--and guide him through the paths of righteousness, and redemption.” She brought their hands back down, squeezing Connor’s tightly. There was a little stream of blood falling from a cut knuckle. “Show him, oh merciful God, that this is merely your loving, vengeful hand at work. Show him the errors of his ways, and cleanse him of his sins, so that he will be spared a sinner’s damnation.”

“But I didn’t! I didn’t sin, Mama!” Connor wailed, trying again to pull away. (you did sin you did you liked those thoughts you practically invited them in). “I didn’t do anything wrong--”

“Oh, but you did.” Mama’s head lowered towards Connor, eyes open with an almost sparkling sort of silent anger. “Don’t lie to me, Connor. I can see your sins festering inside of you, I can sense them just as much as God can. You cannot hide your transgressions from God, doing so will only further them and send you further down the path.”

“Ma--”

“You must go, go to the Room and pray for your salvation from these sins, before they take over your heart.” She moved her hands to his wrists, wrapping onto them like cuffs. “I’ve done what I can on your behalf, now you must ask God yourself for his forgiveness.”

“No, Mama. I don’t need it.” Connor was certain his face was beat red now, whether from frustration or his crying was debatable. He should stop talking now, he should stop before he said something bad, but he couldn’t.  “You’re the one who sinned, you didn’t let me learn about it. You let me think I was dying, and you let them laugh at me. You’re the one who needs to ask for forgiveness, not me!”

Mama’s grip on Connor weakened, and the silent rage in her eyes melted into a swimming frenzy. It wasn’t evident anywhere else on her face but there, though Connor thought he’d seen a hint of fear flash them over as well.

“Pray. Go and pray, now.”

“No.”

“Go to the Room and pray, Connor. Beg to be forgiven.”

“No, Mama!”

She lifted her head back to the ceiling, lips tautly pressed together.

“Oh God…” she muttered. “Why have you cursed me with this rebellious spirit?”

Standing to her feet, she regained her hold on Connor’s wrists and began to drag him across the living room floor. He kicked his legs, screaming furiously and swearing at the top of his lungs. They were dirty swears, things he often overheard at school but never dared repeat out loud at the house. Mama forbade such things, less she need another excuse to push him towards the altar.

So doing this now probably didn’t help his cause much. Neither did the pool of spit he chose to launch his mother’s way as she pulled him up to his feet. She hissed, backhanding him hard enough to send him spilling into the Room, whose door was now open and awaiting Connor’s presence. He crashed right into the shelf, causing the Bible and framed sermon to jolt in their places.

Mama was saying something, but his head was hurting and spinning too much to understand what. He only knew she was about to shut the door, he didn’t want her to shut the door. He didn’t want to be left in here, not with the tortured sinners and an angry God.

But alas, he was not quick enough to stop her. By the time his head had paused its spinning and he was able to make any sort of movement, she had slammed the door shut. The latch dropped, sealing him inside.

He was alone. He was alone with the sinners, and an angry God.

Any kind of door hitting or screaming he did was not enough to compel Mama into letting him out, as her footsteps had long since faded away. She wouldn’t be coming back, not for a whole five hours--maybe three if he were lucky. The longest he’d ever been in here was a whole day, and that was only because he’d snuck some candy into the cart when he and Mama had been shopping at the dollar store. He’d assumed she was going to pay for it, but she hadn’t even realized it was in their cart until they’d gotten outside.

Of course, she’d blamed him for that.

The light flickered above him, and he glanced back towards the shelf, around at the dimly lit paintings surrounding him. The agonized souls clinging to the rocks, begging for refuge in Noah’s ark. The rich man pleading with Abraham for a drop of water as he burnt in the fiery pit. Lot’s wife, turned to a pillar of salt.

His eyes at last landed on the crucifix before him, and the box of matches below it. Connor took one of these matches, striking it on the box, and lit the two melting candles adjacent on both sides of the crucifix. A soft, glowing light filled the room, further illuminating the pictures, and the grotesque Jesus Christ on the crucifix, whose face was contorted in the most agonizing expression possible.

Out of all the crucifixes placed throughout the house, it was this one that he despised the most. 

Connor stared at it, lights continuing to bounce off and cast shadows onto the paintings and Bible. The framed sermon glowed, words practically bouncing off the page and onto the lace cloth. One particular passage caught Connor’s attention, and he read it over several times before allowing it to simmer in his mind.

“But then if we allow all this, and think it no injustice in God to punish those once glorious spirits for their rebellion; how can we think it unjust in him, to punish wicked men for their impenitency to all eternity?”

Unjust.

No. It would not be unjust to punish wicked men, would it? It wouldn’t be. The only thing that was unjust was that he was the one being punished, when there were more people in the world far more deserving of it. If God was as merciful as Mama proclaimed Him to be, then why did He continue to allow Connor to be the one who suffered?

Maybe He really had gotten tired of his prayers, after all.

Just maybe.

Slipping back from the shelf and its contents, Connor huddled himself into a corner, where he let his head fall against the wall, where he soon passed out from the immense pain still pulsating throughout his skull.

He didn’t fight it, didn’t want to.

There was no point in doing so, not when God didn’t want to hear his prayers or when Mama wasn’t going to let him out yet. For the time being, he was trapped, and he was alone. Just as he always was.

Chapter Text

Markus never liked to keep things bottled up for long.

He found that doing so would always leave him bothered, and unfocused. Anything he wanted to do or was trying to get done would have to wait until he’d gotten any troubles and issues off his chest first. Until he was sure his head was clear, and he would be able to rest easy, that’s when he went about doing everything else.

He’d hoped that would’ve been the same case today, after what had happened in the showers. But it hadn’t been, not in any way at all. Even if it’d been literal hours since it happened, he found that there was still something bothering him now, despite having sat down to do his schoolwork quite some time ago.

It was stupid he couldn’t focus, this wasn’t even that complicated of an assignment. Mr. Perkins had assigned everyone in the English class to select a favorite poem of theirs to read in class tomorrow, and to also hand in an essay talking about the style of said-poem and what techniques the author had used whilst penning it.

That sort of assignment was an easy A to Markus. He’d had his poem picked out the very day the assignment was announced, all he had left to do now was to finish his essay. He hadn’t meant to wait until the last minute, but being a high school senior meant that he had a fuck ton of homework and projects due this semester. Some things regrettably had to take a back seat to others, and in this case, it was this essay taking a back seat to a Chemistry diagram that had been due this morning.

With that out of the way, he’d figured he could focus on putting enough effort and time into finishing the English essay, and possibly have some time left over to get a headstart on a Math assignment that had just been handed out that day. Then, if he could get enough of that done, he’d polish up some of those unfinished sketches in his sketchpad, and after that, have an hour or two to Skype with his friends before he went to bed.

That’s what his original plan had been, anyways. Until that affair in the showers had occurred, and had become the sole occupant of his mind for the rest of the day.

He’d tried to convince himself it wasn’t a big deal at first. Everyone picked on Connor all the time, what big deal was one more mishap? The guy practically walked around with a “kick me” sign taped to his back, had since elementary school. Shit, Markus could still remember the time he’d knelt down to pray in the cafeteria, and he could remember actually  laughing with the other kids, with his friends.

It’d been funny then.

It’d been hilarious, him and his high-buttoned cotton shirts, the suspenders keeping his pants up. The big, ugly sweaters he’d wear, with those horribly oversized blucher shoes he’d clomp around in. The Bible he carried with him, and the thick stack of tracts held together by a rubber band. His unruly brown curls, that he would always be slicking back with a comb and some hair gel he carried in his bag for some reason.

It’d been an unchanging sight for eleven years now, except for the fact Connor never got down to pray anymore. His Bible was put away in his bag, and he never carried tracks with him. The hair gel had disappeared, so had the comb, and his curls were sprawled out every which way. And his posture wasn’t half as upright as it used to be, his head ducked in constant distress like he was afraid someone was going to strike or laugh at him.

Which they did.

They still laughed at him, they still thought he was funny. And Markus hadn’t paid it any mind, he never wanted to.

Never thought to.

He avoided confrontation if he could, altercations too, and thus had tried his best to steer clear of such things. Such things had become a norm for those in Connor’s presence, though, so much in fact that he was all too accustomed to them by now. They blended in and merged with every other occurrence at the school, becoming as common as anything else that happened each and every day.

That was why he hadn’t been too surprised when Gavin had tripped him up during PE today, or when he’d been struggling to get to twenty five push ups. He’d even expected something to happen in the showers, he always did. Surprisingly nothing ever had, really, except for the time someone had spotted him showering with his shirt and underwear still on, and all they’d done was poke fun for a bit before leaving him alone.

It’d been nothing like what they did to him today, and Markus couldn’t stop thinking about it. Hadn’t been able to, not since leaving the locker room.

Had he meant to just stand there and not do anything?

He’d told himself he hadn’t. His friends knew, everyone knew that he wasn’t the one to stand by while someone else was getting hurt. Any other day he would’ve leapt in and put a stop to Connor’s distress, shoved Gavin aside and told Leo off.

He’d wanted to, but he hadn’t.

He’d just...watched. Said nothing. Done nothing, until Mr. Anderson had come barrelling in and shouted his name, demanding to know what the problem was.

It’d felt like he’d been snapped out of a trance when that had happened. Up until that point, everything had been surreal; hearing the screams, flocking over with everyone else. He never did that, he never stayed in crowds longer than he had to. Why had he gone over then, why had he stuck around to watch?

He wished he hadn’t. He should’ve left with Josh and Simon before it happened, then he could’ve just heard everyone talking about it later. He wouldn’t be stuck with that haunting imagery of a naked Connor in Leo and Michael’s grasps, eyes rolling back into his head as he floundered about, screeching like a drowned rat.

It made him feel...guilty. He hadn’t known why it’d made him feel guilty at first, he hadn’t done anything...nothing.

Nothing at all.

He and Leo’s mother had been called about the incident first, and she’d been rightfully pissed over it. She’d hardly said a word to either of them when she came to pick them up from school, but she’d let them have it as soon as they’d gotten home. There was five minutes of scolding, some swear words, before she finally sent them up to their rooms like she had in the times when they’d gotten in trouble as children.

Markus had taken this time to try and start work on his essay, but all he’d yielded out of that were a few small paragraphs. His focus had been all over the place, and so he’d ended up turning to his sketchpad to occupy his time. Not even that had been enough to prevent him from dozing off at his desk, waking up two hours later to hear his mother knocking at his door, and a very rough sketch of...someone, on his sketchpad. It was hard to tell who when all he’d managed was an outline before falling asleep.

He’d gone downstairs to eat following that, but didn’t do much except pick and nibble at his food. Leo had scarfed his dinner down like he didn’t have a care in the world, while their mother was seated across from them, sipping at a full glass of wine--something she never did unless she was really stressed out. Markus couldn’t bring in himself to blame her, it’d be one thing if this was just another Leo mishap...but it wasn’t. They’d been both been involved this time, and it was probably breaking her mind just trying to comprehend it.

The steam had stopped rising from Markus’ steak by the time he finally compelled himself to cut a piece off to eat, but even then it felt like he was about to throw it up. Whether it was from the meat being cold, or from the guilt tearing away at him, he didn’t know. If anything, he should’ve been the one scarfing his food down given that he hadn’t had a direct involvement in Connor’s torment--that was, it shouldn’t be bothering him so much.

Meanwhile, Leo had been involved and the most regret Markus had seen from him was the scuffing of his foot while their mom had scolded them. He’d seemed to have completely forgotten about it by the time they’d gotten to the table, and had finished his steak with complete ease.

Markus on the other hand, had only managed to eat half of his before he excused himself to go back upstairs and finish his schoolwork. That’d been two hours ago, and he couldn’t say he was any closer to finishing or focusing than he had been before eating. At this rate, there was no way he’d be able to get a head start on that math assignment, or talk to his friends.

Though, he doubted they’d be able to talk to him tonight, anyways. North had gotten detention for skipping History again, which had probably led to her being grounded, and Josh’s dad had seem super aggravated when he’d arrived to pick him up, then he’d texted Simon almost three hours ago and not gotten a reply.

It was safe to say they’d all fucked themselves over today, some way or another.

Pushing his chair back from his desk, Markus squared on ankle over one knee, heaving out a tired, heavy sigh. A bleary glance to the time on the corner of his laptop told him it was only 8:15, and he looked back to his unfinished word document. Was there a chance he could finish this in-between classes tomorrow--no, there wasn’t. There wasn’t. He’d screw himself over if he did that.

Perhaps it was time to bring Google back up. He hated having to rely on search engines to get papers done, but this was going to be a half-assed paper anyways. Maybe if he read a few articles it would jog his brain hard enough to put it into concentration mode.

Rubbing his sleep-heavy eyes, he sat back up and pulled his chair back up to his desk. Just as he’d started to type “john keats poetry analysis” into the search bar, a resounding bang sounded from down the hallway followed by pounding, furious footsteps, that sounded like they were tearing a hole in the floor.

Now, he would’ve gotten up to see what the matter was, if he hadn’t known already. Their father had gotten home just around the same time he’d been heading back to his room, and he’d only heard just a tad of the discussion he was having with Leo before he’d plugged in his headphones. Music usually helped him focus on tough assignments, but seeing as it hadn’t really helped that much tonight, he’d turned it off just a few short minutes ago.

He had to wonder, what kind of an escalation point had their conversation reached? Nothing good, that was for sure. Any discussion with Leo almost always ended with a door slam and loud footsteps, amidst accusations and curse words. Then he’d either storm out of the house or to his room, and they wouldn’t see him again until morning.

Judging by the direction of his steps tonight, it’d sounded like he’d gone to his room. Shaking his head, Markus turned back to his laptop but was interrupted a moment later by a quick, soft knock at his door.

“Markus?”

It was his dad. Here to talk to him...obviously.

Obviously.

Because he was in trouble too. It wasn’t just Leo getting the lecture this time around, though Markus could imagine his had been a lot worse provided that he’d been in on the offense. Carl Manfred was not one to take things lightly, regardless of how serious/not serious the problem was. He may have been better at keeping his calm than their mother could, but press him hard enough and he was bound to elevate his voice loud enough for the ceiling to shake.

Those were the times Markus knew his father was very angry. He hoped that wasn’t what he was in store for tonight.

“Yeah?” He bit the inside of his cheek, clicking to bring up an article. “Uh, you can come in, door’s unlocked.”

The door creaked open, a small stream of light pouring in from the hallway. Markus looked over his shoulder, glancing back as Carl wheeled himself into the room. He had a surprisingly calm expression given what he’d just gone through, which he looked up at Markus with.

“Markus, hey, I’m sorry if I’m interrupting you.” he apologized, pushing the door shut behind him best he could. “Your mom said you were trying to get schoolwork done….I really didn’t wanna bother you, but, well...she was rather insistent that I talk to both of you boys tonight.”

He made a gesture towards the laptop.

“It’s coming along well anyways, I hope.”

“I...guess? I mean, it’s coming…” Markus shrugged as he shrunk down the webpage he was looking at. “I don’t know, I’m having a bit of trouble with the last few paragraphs. Mr. Perkins said to rely on our own thoughts for this assignment but...honestly….I’m kind of stuck.”

“You? Stuck?” Carl laughed softly, wheeling himself up next to Markus. “I can hardly believe that, you’re usually so on top of things. There’s a reason your friends are always calling you for help for an assignment, you’ve usually finished before them.”

“Heh, I know, but…” He pulled his hands behind his head, exhaling as he swerved his chair around. “Not tonight, I’m not...but...I’m guessing you already know why though...don’t you?”

Carl nodded. He wasn’t smiling all that much anymore.

Markus half-snorted. Of course he knew already, it was probably one of the first things his mom had told him when he’d gotten home.

“I kind of figured that…” His hands dropped to his legs, which were crossed. “Well, I’m ready if you wanna lecture me...hell, I’m sure whatever you have to say can’t be worse than what you said to Leo.”

“That’s just it, I barely said anything to Leo.” The calm expression was gone too, replaced by a more grim one. “I’m not sure how much of it you heard, but I only asked him to tell me his side of the story. And all he gave me were excuses, alongside a lot of unnecessary shouting…”

That wasn’t surprising, Leo was about as good at handling his anger as North was at not bailing any of her classes. Good to know Markus hadn’t missed out on much by having his headphones on.

“Now, I’m not expecting the same thing from you, Markus, but I will ask you the same question.” He looked up towards Carl, who had folded his hands together in his lap. “What exactly happened in that locker room today?”

“I…”

Markus shifted in his seat, jolting imagery flashing through his memory. The mere mention had brought it all back, when it had just been troublesome words floating in his vision before. Becoming so frustrated at trying to get this paper done had been a moment’s distraction, now he didn’t have that luxury.

At the very least, he didn’t have to keep this bottled up anymore. And then he might be able to actually focus afterwards.

“I don’t think I have much to say.” he said, Carl’s brows knitting together at this. “Mom already told you what happened, and...well, that’s what happened. Leo did what he did, I did nothing. None of us did, Dad, not me, not Simon or Josh. We just watched, that’s all we did, I swear.”

“No need to swear, Markus, you know I believe you.” Carl held up one hand, shaking his head. “However, that doesn’t mean I’m not disappointed in you.”

“Disappointed in me? For what, I--”

“You know what.” Markus’ mouth clenched shut, and he stopped talking. Carl had risen his voice, he knew better than to say anything when he did that. “That’s not like you, Markus, not at all. I’d hoped you would’ve known better.”

Guilt. The guilt was back, burning in his chest just as badly as it had earlier, and he lowered his head.

“Markus. Look at me.”

Back up. He lifted his head back up, just as he’d been told.

“I’m not angry, please understand that.” His father reassured him, his tone having calmed down since his previous statement. “I just can’t wrap my head around the idea of you standing back in the crowd while someone else gets hurt. It’s why I’m disappointed, and why I’d like to hear your side of things.”

“But I wasn’t involved, how could I have a side?”

“Oh you do, and that’s exactly what I mean.” Carl said, hands unfolding. “I want to know why you weren’t involved, why you didn’t do anything--and no excuses, either. Tell me the truth, Markus.”

The truth. What was the truth, and did he dare say it out loud?

He did. He did, and he had to.

“I...I’m not sure.” he silently admitted, though it was an admittance that carried some great uncertainty with it. “I did want to help, for a minute at least. I don’t know what came over me after that though, it just felt like I couldn’t take my eyes off of what was happening. Like it was too horrible to look away from, even if I wanted to.”

The burning increased, chest tightening up.

“And you know, I’ve been kicking myself in the ass all day for it, too.” Hands rested on the armrests of his chair, which he’d begun to swerve back and forth in. “I tried to tell myself it was okay, since Connor gets picked on all the time, you know. I thought it wouldn’t be a big deal and I’d forget about it, just like all those other times someone was mean to him.”

“Mm, and I’m guessing you haven’t?”

“Hell no, why do you think I can’t focus on this?” Markus gave a half-hearted laugh, motioning towards his laptop, which had long since slipped into screensaver mode. He grabbed the mouse attached to his laptop and gave it a mild shake, which brought the webpage back to the screen.

“It’s been bothering me all day, anytime I think it’s gone, it just...comes back…” He respired deeply as he leaned back in his chair, which creaked somewhat beneath him. “I wish it would quit coming back, Dad. How do I stop it from coming back?”

Carl said nothing to that, and Markus thought for a minute that their conversation was over.  His father was never one to give an answer directly, as he liked to give his boys a few words of wisdom and leave them to figure out the rest. Giving them a full answer was like spoon-feeding them, and you could only do that for so long before you realized they were old enough to feed themselves.

That didn’t mean they wouldn’t choke every now and then. And boy, had Markus choked.

“Did I ever tell you about the time I punched a kid in eighth grade?”

What?  

Markus sat up straight, staring in confusion towards his father. Too stunned to reply, he shook his head.

“Well, I’ll tell you then.” Carl hummed, head reclining back. “You might not believe it, but your father wasn’t always that much of a pacifist. I used to get in fights all the time, with anyone I thought deserved it…”

He closed his eyes, as if reminiscing, then opened them back up. They were sparkling, but not in their usual, fond way.

“One day, I was walking through the halls on my way to recess, when this boy from my class ended up bumping straight into me.”  he continued. “I ended up dropping my books and got really mad at him, even though he apologized several times over. Of course, I was too mad to think straight, at least, not with any common sense.”

“What did you do, then?”

“Oh, I told you, I ended up punching him.” Markus tilted his head in disbelief at his father, who only half-shrugged. “What can I say, I was thirteen and a damn idiot. Too much of an idiot to even realize what kind of impact my actions might’ve just had on that kid, in fact, I ended up finding out later on that he was already being picked on by some of the older students.”

“Did you..." Markus swallowed hard. “Did you ever apologize to him?”

“No. His parents had him transferred to another school before I ever got the chance.” Regret. That’s what his eyes were sparkling with, Markus realized. “When I think about it now, though, I wish I had. It might’ve not been enough to keep him from being transferred, but at least he would’ve known someone cared about him.”

The regret had transitioned to a serious thoughtfulness, eyes now shining instead of sparkling as he looked back to Markus.

“Markus, you asked me how to make your guilt go away, right?” he asked, receiving a slow nod in return. “Then do what I couldn’t. Apologize, lend a hand. Show that boy that there’s someone out there who wants to be his friend.”

“But I don’t...I’m not sure I know how to do that.”

“You do. You have it in you, Markus, everyone does. It’s just up to them--and you, whether or not you choose to use it.” He wheeled his chair back, turning it towards the door. “Give yourself some time to think about it, but not too much time. You’ve still gotta finish that essay after all.”

A knowing smile was the last thing he offered Markus before parting from the room, the yellow glow from the hallway melting away as the door closed shut, and leaving Markus back in the cozy dimness of his own bedroom for light and comfort.

He sat there, still, and quiet, for a whole five minutes. Mulling over, and processing words.

Apologize. Lend a hand. Show Connor that someone wants to be his friend.

That couldn’t be too impossible, could it?

He didn’t know. He didn’t know at all.

All he knew was that he had a lot more to think about after he was done with this paper.


 

It was a sweltering, hot summer day in July when it happened. He could remember that much.

 Connor was seated outside, barely visible in the tall grass encompassing his backyard. He was barefoot, with crusty scabs on his feet that had been picked at recently by a sharp blade of grass he’d plucked out of the ground.

 The winds around him were humid and stuffy, smoothly blowing his dark brown curls every which way and tousling them in a manner similar to the way it was tousling the tree branches, and the laundry hanging from the clothesline.

Before him sat two plush animals--a sheep, with cotton spilling from its black cloth nose, and a spotted brown and white dog with tattered ears.  Between them, sat a small, blue ball that was made out of cloth and covered in patches, which he rolled around and kicked at with his feet.

His ears perked up suddenly, picking up what sounded like music coming from nearby. It wasn’t any kind of music he recognized, in fact it sounded very different from what he usually heard on the radio. This piqued the young boy’s curiosity, prompting him to walk over to the white fence separating his home from the neighbor’s.

That’s when he saw her. A neighbor, Miss Echo.

She was lying face up on a pink and white striped beach blanket. Her blue hair, which was tied back into a long ponytail, shone brightly in the sunlight that bounced off of the black sunglasses resting on her face. She wore a two-piece swimsuit, black like her sunglasses but with little daisies on the fabric.

To say it left little to the imagination was an understatement; Connor knew Mama Amanda wouldn’t like it. It was so much more different from what she herself always wore, which mainly consisted of heavy, longish dresses and thick wool capes, which covered her from head to toe. This swimsuit here covered next to nothing of this woman’s body, every curve and angle on full display and glistening brightly with suntan lotion.

Connor pressed himself against the fence, continuing to stare with wide eyes.

He blinked, watching as Miss Echo stirred. She let out a small yawn, head rolling to the side as she reached over to turn down the music that Connor had discovered was playing from a tiny red radio placed beside her.  She sat up, yawning a second time as she stretched her arms over her head--and as she did so, the straps from her top loosened and allowed it to slip somewhat, revealing her breasts underneath.

She didn’t spot Connor at first, not until she turned around from adjusting the knobs on her radio a second time. With a spooked gasp, she pressed a hand to her chest.

“Shi--oh! Hi there.”

She smiled warmly towards him, lifting her sunglasses from her eyes, which were a soft brown. Connor didn’t say anything, eyes moving towards her breasts. Mama wouldn’t be happy if she saw him right now, she never liked him being outside whenever the neighbors were. Especially Miss Echo, and Miss Ripple, and he wasn’t even sure why. They were both very nice ladies, was it because of the swimsuits?

That had to be it. Yes, that had to be it, after all, she’d said women who dressed like that were whores of Babylon. He’d wanted to ask her what that meant, but he hadn’t had a chance to yet...most he knew, it certainly didn’t mean anything good.

“You...your…um...” He poked a chubby finger her way, prompting her into looking down at her chest. Another gasp, and she glanced down, immediately pulling her top back up, shaking her head as she faintly chuckled.

“Ooh, my bad, good thing your mom didn’t come out here to see us, huh?” She tied the straps back, giving them a tug to make sure they were nice and tight this time. “I know I’d never hear the end of it, I keep expecting her to start chucking tracts over the fence anytime I’m out here.”

Pushing herself up, she strode over to join Connor, though the fence was separating them. It hadn’t been there before she and Miss Ripple had moved in, Mama had had it built a short time after they’d came to introduce themselves.

“So what’s up? You uh, playing out here by yourself today?”

He nodded.

“Yes. Mama’s cleaning the house and she didn’t want me in the way.”

“Oh, I get that. My mom was the same way.” Miss Echo leaned against the fence, crossing her arms atop it. “Well, I see you’ve got some little friends with you for company, at least. Do they have names?”

“Them?” Connor squinted back towards where she’d made a motion towards his stuffed animals. “They’re not my friends, they’re just my toys. Mama says they can’t be my friends because they aren’t fleshly beings.”

“Ah, right...right, of course she said that. Well, how about--”

“Connor!”

The back door to the house had swung open, and Mama was stepping out of it. The laundry basket she’d been carrying had hit the ground the minute she’d spotted Connor at the fence, and she began to push her way through the hanging, swaying laundry.

“Connor, what are you doing? Get away from her!”

Her piercing shriek made Connor’s entire little body seize up, and he turned around to see her running towards him, her long skirts flowing behind her in the wind. Her fists were bared, curled up almost impossibly tight, nails digging into her palms deep enough to draw blood. He could see the blood, leaking red and trickling from in-between her clenched fingers--such a sight making all flush and color vanish from his face.

“Connor, what I have told you?!” She grabbed him, staining his nice clean shirt with the drops of blood from her hands. He whined, trying to pull away. “Come with me, come with me right now. We’re going back inside.”

“Mama, no--”

“Now, Connor. We’re going inside now, I don’t want you talking to this woman anymore.” Mama whipped her head up towards Miss Echo, an icy glare shrouding her features. “She is nothing but a temptress, trying to entice you with sinful thoughts. Remember what I’ve told you?”

Connor whined again, fingers digging into the chipped paint he’d been poking at prior. He didn’t want to let go of the fence, didn’t want Mama to drag him away. He never liked to make Mama upset, least of all when it got other people into trouble.

“Ms. Stern, please, we were just talking--” Miss Echo stammered, the back door to her house swinging open as Miss Ripple stepped out with a tray of cold drinks. This was sat on the steps as she took notice of what was going on and hurried over to the fence.

“Hey, what’s going on? Echo--”

“Silence, both of you.” Mama hissed, Connor crying out as she successfully managed to pry him away from the fence. She forcefully shoved him behind her as he started to let out a high-pitched whimper,  his eyes shiny and streaked with tears. There were red marks on his arm, stains on his shirt. “I told you, warned you not to parade your whoreness around my son--as if your living in sin wasn’t enough already.”

“We’re not--”

“I’ll pray for you, I’ll pray that you both find salvation.”

Swiftly she turned, stomping back to the house as she dragged poor Connor along with her, leaving the two women on the other side of the fence, to watch in horrified and stunned silence.

That was all they could do, all they could manage. What else could they figure to do, when such a thing like wasn’t something you witnessed every day? Not cry, it was too real to cry over. Too real and too sudden.

They’d only been halfway to going back into their own home, when the shrillest, loudest cry they’d ever heard pierced through the foggy summer air. Connor had broke away, he’d freed himself from his mother, and fallen onto the porch in a messy, wrinkled heap.

But he wasn’t the only thing. Something else had crashed and fallen onto the porch, something slick, gigantic, and hard.

Ice.

It was a chunk of ice, glittering and melting in the sunlight.

More soon began to fall from the sky, pelting the roof and yard with enough force to make the gutter come loose and smash into the clothesline. Clothes and sheets flew loose into the dirt, and Mama watched, frozen, with appalled eyes. She sucked in her breath, turning her head upwards towards the sky.

“Lord, help me.” she whispered, before spreading her arms apart, wide and open like an eagle’s wings. She knelt, gathering her son into her arms, and fled into the house, the door closing with a bang behind her.

Now what happened following that, Connor couldn’t have told you in exact detail. He recalled only a blur of objects flying past him, as his mother rushed him through the kitchen and towards the altar. Chairs were thrown into the air, the dining room table sliding and crashing into the window. Glass shattered, cabinets opened and plates and cups were tossed about.

She’d dropped him at the altar, hands trembling as she flipped open her Bible and began to read out loud, frantically and rushed. There was a huge butcher’s knife clutched in her other hand, its tip dangerously positioned on top of Connor’s quivering chest and threatening to pierce through his heart at any given second.

He’d sobbed some more, the altar and all its objects collapsing beside them. Mama had screamed and dropped her Bible, both hands wrapping around the knife’s handle. It too slipped free from her, flying and sticking in the couch cushions.

Then the stones. The stones begun to batter the roof, crashing through the windows and into the house. Big ones, small ones, sharp ones.

Rough hands then encircled his throat, and his sobs transitioned into hopeless chokes. All he could see was Mama’s fear-stricken face as he lay there on the floor, which was the last thing he remembered seeing before blacking out.

He’d been close to Heaven that day. So close.


 

It’d been around 8:00 when Mama had finally let him out of the Room.

Connor hadn’t known what time it was before that, only known that it was much more darker than it had been when he’d been pushed in several hours earlier. The candles had long since gone out, and it seemed as if the hanging lightbulb itself had finally decided to expire, leaving him stranded in complete darkness.

That, coupled with horrid hunger pangs and a sudden pressure on his bladder was what led him to start knocking at the door, calling out for his mother. She was downstairs, he knew she was, as he could hear the sounds of Tennessee Ernie Ford coming from the living room.

It’d taken her another ten minutes to come and unlatch the door, and Connor had wasted no time in making a mad dash for the bathroom. Following that, he’d returned downstairs to the dining room, where a chilled bowl of chicken broth was waiting for him on the table. Mama Amanda had already eaten hours ago, but she’d sat at the table with him anyways, perusing her dog-eared copy of John Calvin’s “ The Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life”.

Every spoonful of that broth had been cold and gooey, and he would’ve had half a mind to toss it down the sink had he not been so hungry. He’d asked Mama if he might reheat it, but she’d refused, telling him that two women during the Siege of Samaria had had to eat their own sons just so they wouldn’t starve to death. There was no reason to complain about such a trivial thing as his food being cold, when he was getting to eat a full meal.

Following that, Connor decided against saying anything until he excused himself to go upstairs, which was where he’d been for the past hour and a half. As he had no desk in his room, he was instead seated on his bed, legs tucked up against his chest as he sat against the headboard. One of Mama’s dusty old religious poetry books lay open next to him, as his notebook sat tucked in his lap, his neat, delicate handwriting covering several of the pages.

He’d almost forgotten about this assignment. They were supposed to bring in one of their favorite poems to English class tomorrow, alongside an essay explaining the author’s techniques...an essay, that Mr. Perkins had specifically said, had to be typed and printed. Sure, you could hand in a handwritten essay if you wanted, but that would give you at least five points docked from the entire assignment.

It was downright astonishing, come to think of it.

Most of his teachers were aware he didn’t have a computer at home and was not able to easily access one; if he were lucky enough, sometimes he’d use the school computers, which wasn’t often since Mama Amanda always expected him to go home right after school ended. Some teachers were completely understanding about this and would allow him to hand in what he’d written down on notebook paper, while others, like Mr. Perkins, docked half his grade for the continuous hand in of such a thing.

Connor didn’t think that was fair, at all, and felt that it was quite a shame. This paper he was finishing now had turned out so well, why if weren’t for his lack of a computer and printer...was it possible he’d have enough time to pay the library a visit before class tomorrow? It wasn’t like he had to go to PE in the morning, the most he had to do was drop by Mr. Anderson’s office to pick up the workout schedule he’d written out for him.

Yes, that’s what he would do. He would have time, and it wouldn’t take long either. All he would have to do was copy what he’d written in a word document and print it out. Then Mr. Perkins would have no excuse to not give him the full grade, unless he was only doing it to be petty.  That itself was entirely possible.

Flipping his notebook shut, Connor shoved it back into his bag alongside the poetry book. He slipped the pencil he’d been using back into its case and threw that in too, zipping the bag up and dropping it onto the floor. Swinging his feet over the side of the bed, he stood and walked out of the room, heading back downstairs to the living room.

Mama wasn’t reading anymore, now settled and hammering away at her sewing machine, which was positioned under a paint by numbers of The Last Supper . She was humming along to her favorite hymn-- “In the Garden” by C. Austin Miles , which was playing from the decrepit tube radio she’d snatched up at a yard sale a few years ago.

“Mama?” She didn’t stop working, humming, as Connor walked up next to her. “Mama, I’ve finished my schoolwork…”

He afforded himself a view of the sewing machine, at the dark gray fabric that she was running stitches into. It looked like she was mending some pants, or making a new pair. He couldn’t figure which it was.

“...may I go to bed, now? Mama?”

Mama removed her foot from the machine’s pump, not looking or speaking to him. She freed the pants from underneath the feed dog, and turned to Connor, making a sideways motion with her hand. He blinked, then did as she’d said, standing still as she held the pants up to his waist.

She smiled.

“Yes, I think this should fit you just fine.” she said, with a nod to confirm her words to herself. “I’m not sure if I should’ve tightened the hem some more, but I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see…”

She glanced upwards to Connor, smile dissipating. His eyes had away to the floor, mouth pressed into a somber line. The pants crumpled into her lap, and she reached up a hand, cupping it around his chin.

“Connor?” He had no choice but to look at her, she was lifting his head. The great sorrow was back in her eyes, the same sorrow he’d seen when she’d gotten home that afternoon. “I know, your heart is troubled. Mine is too. But please believe I took no pleasure in what I did to you today, only know that it was what needed to be done.”

“I know it was, Mama. I know.”

“Many other children can’t say they have the fortune of having a parent who looks out for you as I do.” She continued, thumb caressing his chin. He wanted to yank his head away from her so badly, but didn’t. “All I want is to protect you from falling into Satan’s clutches, and from travelling down the wayward path. You do understand what I mean, don’t you, Connor?”

“Yes, Mama.”

“Good...that’s good.” Mama Amanda let go of his chin, clasping one of his hands. She squeezed it, not as roughly as she had at the altar, but enough to make Connor want to recoil. He didn’t though, just as he hadn’t jerked away when she had him by the chin.

“You may go to bed now, don’t forget to say your prayers.”

“I won’t.”

She released his hand, not before pressing a kiss to it first. Her lips felt bitterly icy, and he shuddered. But Connor didn’t let go, not until she had.

He could hear the sewing machine start up again as he headed into the bathroom to brush his teeth, and her voice, which was not humming this time, but softly singing along to the next hymn on the radio. “There’s Power in the Blood” , that was it. He’d sang it enough times during their Sunday services to know it by heart.

It soon became muffled as he walked into his room and shut the door. He went and looked out the window, out at the dark sky outside, then drew the curtains shut and went about changing into his pajamas. He always left them folded neatly on his dresser every morning, so they wouldn’t be wrinkly later on.  The clothing he wore during the day would go into the wicker basket propped up in front of his bed, alongside his other dirty clothes that Mama hadn’t washed yet.

He stepped back from the dresser, unbuttoning every single little aggravating button on his itchy cotton shirt. Off that went, followed by a plain white undershirt, then the cumbersome suspenders that held his pants up. The pants came off next, falling into a pillowy, baggy pile. Socks, shoes, which he kicked away.

The only thing that remained was his silver crucifix, until he slipped into his pajamas. After buttoning up his top, he pulled the crucifix out from underneath the fabric and held it in his hand, staring down it, and then at himself, in the miniscule black-rimmed mirror placed on his dresser.

It was a bad habit, his staring was, but many a time he found that he couldn’t help himself. Oft times it got him into all sorts of trouble, but the only person watching him right now was God, so he didn’t care.

Beauty was vain, Mama always said it was.

But that’s not what he was presently thinking about.

In lieu of lamenting about his pale, awkward features, he was thinking about today. There was so much to think about, and he hadn’t much time to come to think of it. Earlier had been full of homework, then Mama had come home and he’d spent the rest of the afternoon and evening locked away.

He thought of everything that had transpired, from the showers, to the Room. The lightbulb that had broken. Principal Fowler’s desk sliding into the wall, his glass pencil holder shattering into a thousand bitty pieces. The stone that had smacked Zoe Fern in the face.

His dream.

It’d come to him when he’d passed out, after Mama had pushed him into the Room and he’d hit his head. It was as if someone had taken a hammer and started breaking down the bricks that blocked him from properly recollecting, setting loose a whole part of his memory, a forbidden part that been left long locked and stashed away.

That summer day, back in July. He’d been five years old, playing outside while Mama had cleaned the house. There’d been a lady with blue hair, and a daisy-spotted swimsuit. Ice, big chunks of it, falling from the sky. Tables, chairs, hitting the wall. Stones pelting the roof.

And a knife. He remembered a knife, hovering over his chest.

It felt strange to relive it in such vivid detail, but not too strange to wonder why he’d forgotten about it. Mama had never talked about it or mentioned it to him, thus allowing it to become a gradually suppressed memory.

Until now.

Until today.

Connor had sworn not to wonder anymore than he had before, but now that he’d started, he couldn’t stop himself. Couldn’t stop the avalanche of bunched up words and pictures falling through his mind.

(The lightbulb. The desk.

The pencil holder. The stone.

The water cooler, and the basketball hoop that had broken the week before.

Stones. The stones, the ice. Tables, chairs--)

He sucked in his lower lip as he glared at his reflection, which wobbled to some slight extent.

(Was it me, it couldn’t be. It couldn’t be me.)

He unhanded his crucifix, letting it drop against his chest. Wobble, the mirror wobbled again.

(Face. Hate it. Hate it, don’t want to look anymore. Don’t want to think.)

Crack.

The mirror had split, something akin to a huge bullet hole having appeared in the very middle of it. Thin, lengthy lines spread out from the hole to the edge of the frame, which spun around twice and crashed to the floor.

Connor jolted back, almost tripping over his school bag.

(The lightbulb. The desk.

The pencil holder. The stone.

The water cooler, and the basketball hoop that had broken the week before.

Stones. The stones, the ice. Tables, chairs.

Now the mirror.)

Holding his breath, his eyes darted between the shattered mirror, and his door. Mama hadn’t heard it, had she? There didn’t seem to be any indication that she had, her footsteps weren’t coming up the stairs and she wasn’t calling his name. All that he heard was her singing, and the muffled clicking coming from the sewing machine.

Once he’d given himself the all clear, he went about cleaning up the mess best he could. He wasn’t about to go downstairs to retrieve the broom and dust pan, not when he’d have to give Mama an explanation. Instead, he pushed the mirror aside, and carefully brushed away the shattered glass pieces with one of his shoes, which he disposed of in the waste paper basket also placed in front of his bed.

When Connor went to pick the mirror up, all that remained of the glass were a few jagged slices here and there sticking out of the frame. He was careful not to prick himself, placing the frame back onto the dresser, where broken remnants of his reflection stared back at him.

He went to bed after that, only sparing a short prayer in his head as he turned the lamp off and pulled the covers up to his chest, turning over on his side.

Had God been hoping for more than sparse words tonight?

Too bad.

That was all Connor had for Him. True, this day had been far too long, but he had far too many questions, too many thoughts, to think or say otherwise.

None of them were things He could answer or solve, anyways.

Chapter Text

The day began as it always did.

Markus woke up around 7:15 in the morning, showering, dressing, and eating breakfast, all in that order. He’d then gone back upstairs to retrieve his school things, which included printing out his finished English essay. He’d meant to print it out after finishing, but it’d been 12:45 by the time he was done and he’d just found himself too tired to do so, vowing instead to print it out as soon as he’d gotten up in the morning.

After tucking it away it in his notebook, he’d headed across the hall to Leo’s room to see if he was awake. It wasn’t surprising that he hadn’t come downstairs for breakfast, nor was it surprising to find his room unlocked and empty. His bed was made and his backpack wasn’t anywhere in sight, which suggested he’d gotten up and left a long time before Markus ever had.

Whether he’d left sometime during the night or the early hours of the morning was arguable, though. With how he’d stormed off to his room after he and Carl’s conversation, Markus wouldn’t have been shocked if he’d just up and ran off to spend the night with one of his friends.

Regardless, Markus figured he’d see him at school later on. That was, unless Gavin had convinced him to bail class and smoke pot behind the building again...oh yeah, because that had clearly worked out so well for them the last time that happened. But then, maybe they didn’t care. Maybe that was preferable to them instead of attending PE, provided that the entire class was likely in for a good, wordy lecture today.

That thought had been in the back of Markus’ head the more he’d thought about what happened, but he tried not to focus too much on it. After that talk with his dad the night prior, it had not occurred to him that there was a good possibility of him receiving another one from Mr. Anderson.

Would the school allow it? After all, their parents had already been told, and they’d all been subsequently lectured and/or punished. What was left for them to do?

He didn’t know for sure, but he didn’t say anything about it either. Wanted to, but didn’t know how to, as he sat in the backseat of Josh’s car. He and the others had shown up around 7:30 to pick him up, just a short time after he’d gone upstairs and found Leo gone. North had called shotgun and was seated in the front seat, rambling on about how her parents had given her their usual “you’re embarrassing us and you’ve gotta stop” lecture. Josh was driving (as it was his car), and Simon sat beside Markus in the back, thumbing through Instagram on his phone.

You’d think nothing bad had happened the other day.

Nothing much had been said of it so far, except Josh asking Markus how he’d fared with his parents. Turns out neither he or Simon’s parents had been quite as forgiving, not believing their claims that they hadn’t been directly involved in the incident. The conversation ended up turning into something else entirely after that, as North had began her own rant involving her parents.

It was like it always was. Except that it wasn’t, not with the issues chewing at the back of Markus’ head. These issues had almost cost him an entire night’s sleep, and he couldn’t say he was decided yet on what to do. It was such simple advice that he’d been offered, yet his brain was treating it like it was a goddamn Scrabble game.

Apologize. Lend a hand. Show Connor that someone cares, and that someone wants to be his friend.

Straightforward words, yet so complicated at the same time.

Would Connor even be willing to let Markus talk to him? He kept to himself so often, and with his past habits of trying to witness and pray in the cafeteria, nobody often approached him...unless it was for other reasons, of course. What was the chance he would believe any apology Markus offered him, he would likely think it was another trick or joke with how much he’d been belittled over the years.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s why Markus didn’t know what to do yet.

“Josh, turn the fucking AC off. My nose is iced over--”

“I--shit, North, it’s not even turned up that high--”

He startled, turning his eyes to the front seat where North was currently fighting with Josh over the AC controls. It was concerning at first, that Josh didn’t have both hands on the steering wheel, until he’d realized they’d stopped driving and were parked next to a small building-- Expresso, to be precise.

It was the first place they’d usually stop at before school, and had organized a schedule of whose turn it was to buy coffee on what day of the week. Mondays were Josh’s day, Wednesday was Simon’s, Thursday was North’s--and on Fridays they would conduct a game of rock paper scissors to decide.

Today, however, was Tuesday, and that was Markus’ day.

He managed to interrupt Josh and North’s argument long enough to get their orders, and headed inside after Simon had requested his. He didn’t have to struggle much to remember, they each always got the same things every week unless there was some new seasonal flavor out that they wanted to try.

The pleasant scent of coffee beans and freshly baked goods made Markus feel right at home as he pushed the door open and walked inside. There weren’t too many places to hang out in their small town other than this place, the arcade and movie theatre. You had to travel a few miles into the neighboring towns and cities if you wanted anything better or glitzier.

Markus had never really felt the need to do that, though. He could if he wanted, he could certainly afford it--but just as his mother was content to take their laundry to the Press N’ Clean, he was perfectly content to hang out with his friends at Expresso. The furniture carried some wear and tear to it, and the books on the shelves could be qualified as ancient, but he didn’t mind it one bit.

What he did mind, was the sight of his brother seated at one of the tables.

He passed Leo by as he walked to the register, but he hadn’t seemed to have noticed him. Tina Chen, a girl Gavin usually hung out with, sat in front of him thumbing through a paperback, while Michael Graham was chewing into a chocolate-filled croissant. Gavin himself was nowhere in sight, though his bag was hooked on a chair adjacent to Leo’s.

Shaking his head, Markus decided against going over to confront him (he couldn’t say he was in the mood, and he doubted Leo would want to talk him right now) and resumed his trek to the wood-top counter, where a bored girl with choppy bangs was slumped over and mindlessly scrolling through her phone. She looked up when he cleared his throat, shoving her phone back into her pocket. Markus told her everyone’s orders, having to repeat himself twice as she barely seemed to be paying attention.

“That’ll be $16.40.” she mumbled after he’d finished, sounding half-awake. He felt a bit bad for her, she seemed to be the only employee here right now and looked like she was going to pass out at any given second from either exhaustion or disinterest. “For here or to go?”

“To go, thanks.” Markus dug out his wallet, pulling out a crumpled twenty dollar bill, which he handed over to her. “Oh, and you can just keep the change.”

She shrugged a half-hearted thanks, placing the cash into the register before stepping away to start work on the drinks. Markus slipped his wallet back into the side pocket of his backpack and turned around, leaning back into the counter with hands pushed into his jean pockets.

He glanced back over to Leo, who was laughing at Michael, who’d apparently almost choked on a mouthful of croissant. Some crumbs had flown onto the pages of Tina’s paperback and she was giving Michael an earful now. He started to curse at her, mouth still full of food, and Leo was picking up a plastic cup of coffee. His eyes met Markus’ from across the room as he took a sip, and he immediately looked away.

It looked like he’d been right in assuming he didn’t want to talk to him, but he felt oddly compelled to walk over anyways. Had started to, when subjacent footsteps began to catch up to him.

“Fuck, well will you look at what the cat dragged in…”

He stopped and looked around, seeing Gavin standing there behind him. Leo looked almost relieved at this and went back to sipping at his drink, and cackling as Michael and Tina were still cussing each other out.

“Gavin...hi.” Markus looked to the girl behind the counter. It didn’t look like his orders were ready just yet. “Erm, how’s it going?”

“You tell me, you weren’t the one who had your ass beaten last night.” Gavin snapped, and very bitterly. He crossed his arms, turning his nose up at the other teen. “At least, not from what Leo told me. He said he got his ass handed to him, while you only got a slap on the wrist.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call it that--”

“Then what would you call it?” Gavin interjected as he passed by Markus, heading back to the table where the others were. Tina and Michael shut up as he plopped down in his seat. “Oh wait, that’s right. You wouldn’t call it anything, because you didn’t do   anything .”

He picked up his own coffee cup, taking a long, hard gulp from it.

“Me on the other hand, all I could’a done was spit once and my old man would be slapping the shit out of me.” he went on. “Which I wouldn’t say is what I did but...hell, what do I care anyways. This shit ain’t anything new.”

That statement propelled Markus from his spot in the middle of the room, causing him to take several baffled steps towards the table. How could Gavin say such a thing when it was, it was something new.  They’d never teased Connor to this extent before, and the school hadn’t had to call anyone’s parents in a long, long time...really, now that Markus actually thought about it, the last time someone had ever been called was when Harry Grayton had thought it would be a funny idea to push a distracted Connor into the gorilla enclosure during a field trip to the zoo.

If anything, what happened yesterday was no better than that, if not horrendously worse.

“How can you say that?” he questioned, causing most if not all eyes at the table to turn towards him. The only one who didn’t look at him was Michael, and that was because his phone had just buzzed. “Did you even hear the way Connor was screaming? He’s never screamed like that before, hell he was practically wailing.”

“So what? It’s about time he stopped being such a stiff neck, anyways.” Gavin huffed, drops of coffee splashing out from cup as he sat it back on the table. Some of these drops narrowly missed staining the pages of Tina’s book. “Shit, like I heard people saying his mom was fighting to keep him out of Sex Ed but damn, I didn’t believe it until yesterday. You should’a seen his face when he figured out what was goin’ on, it was something right out of a Looney Tunes cartoon.”

“I saw more than I wanted, trust me.” Markus mumbled as his jaw clenched, and he wondered if his order was any closer to being finished. He didn’t want to think back to yesterday, not when he’d spent the entire night doing so.

“Anyways, I don’t really give a fuck about it.” Gavin scooted his chair around, muffin in hand. He took a bite out of it, crumbs sticking on his chin. “I mean, who acts that way over an erection? A fucking erection, really? If anything, I was doing him a favor by spraying him. Everything would’ve been fine if you guys had just given it a couple of minutes.”

“What do you mean--”

“Cold. The water was cold, dumbass.” He spoke with his mouth full, more crumbs spilling out. Tina had returned to reading her book, Michael still on his phone. Leo was looking out the window. “Google it, sometime. Shit’s supposed to help with that kind of stuff.”

“What kind of--yeah, sure. Okay, but I don’t think spraying him in the face did anything to help him out.” It was taking everything within Markus to not walk over there and smack that muffin out of Gavin’s hand. He looked so smug, sitting there and taking huge bites out of it. And he knew it too.

God, he was lucky Markus had more self-control than that.  

“Oh no, that was just to see how he’d react.” Gavin shoved the last bite of his muffin into his mouth, cocking his head to the side. “Shit, Manfred, I don’t know why you’re so worked up over this. You aren’t any saint yourself, you know. The whole thing was kinda your fault anyways.”

“How--I don’t see how it’s my fault, I was nowhere near Connor when it started--”

“Nah, but you were near enough for him to see you getting changed.” Gavin brushed the crumbs off his hands, picking his coffee back up. “How’d you think he got a boner in the first place?”

Markus felt his face turn warm.

“I...you don’t know it was me he was looking at. It could’ve been anyone.”

“Except that it wasn’t. Right, Leo?” Gavin nodded over towards Leo, whose head turned at the sound of his name being said. “Go ahead, tell him. Tell him what you told me.”

“Me? Why do I have to fucking tell him if you already know--” He shut up at the warning look Gavin must’ve been giving him, Markus couldn’t tell since he’d turned his head away. “Alright, sure. Fuck it. Yeah, I saw him looking at you, but I didn’t think he was actually having a boner until I started talking to him.”

“But how do you know he was looking at me--”

“Because I know, Markus, god.” Leo rolled his eyes, which he also narrowed at his brother. “Wouldn’t be the first time either, I swear he ogles you any chance he gets. You’ve just been too far up your own ass to notice.”

Markus wanted to snap back, telling Leo that the only person here who were up their asses was him and Gavin. He considered himself like his father when it came to getting angry, maintaining a better hold on his fury. Press him enough, though, and he was bound to snap at some point.

It was only lucky timing that the girl at the counter was finally calling out his order, thus giving him the excuse to depart from the table and the conversation accompanying it. He hadn’t grasped how much his hands were shaking until he retrieved the drink tray, or how red his face was until he caught sight of it in the reflection from the door as he headed outside.

Simon was the first one to take notice of these things when Markus climbed back into the car. He asked if something was the matter, prompting North and Josh to look back in the rearview mirrors and wonder the same things.

Despite this, Markus found that he couldn’t give any of them a true answer.


 

Connor had stopped by Hank’s office just a few minutes shy of 7:50.

He hadn’t said or done much, running off just as soon as he’d been handed the workout schedule he’d been promised. Hank couldn’t blame him if he’d wanted to hurry away before his classmates showed up, they were bound to laugh at him on sight.

How they bore the nerve to keep up doing such a thing he couldn’t figure, especially after what they’d done to him yesterday. Had any of them stayed up all night, tossing and turning because of remorse? Or had they slept peacefully like the shitty little brats they all were deep down inside, not caring that they’d pushed a fellow student to the brink of near hysteria.

Half and half, most likely.

Hank easily qualified for the first half, with what a troublesome night he’d had. It’d felt like an eternity before he was ever able to fall asleep, and even then he still couldn’t get that revolting imagery from the showers out of his head. Connor crying, laying curled up on the floor and jolting at every touch. The way he’d back into the corner, braying like a donkey. The toilet paper and wrapped condoms clinging to his sopping wet body.

His own furious reaction. The slap.

He was regretting that slap, hadn’t actually stopped to think how much he’d regretted it until Connor had shown up to his office that morning, wearing that same, solemn expression on his face. If he hadn’t taken off so quickly, Hank would’ve liked to apologize to him, or had the chance to explain his actions to some kind of extent.

He’d taken no pleasure in it. He really hadn’t.

What he was going to take pleasure in, was the remonstration he had in store for his class this morning. After all the years he’d spent playing nice and kissing ass, he was fully ready to let them have it today. No more coddling, no more mild curses or disguised scoldings. No more Mr. Nice Guy.

If they’d thought he was a hard-ass before, then they hadn’t seen anything yet.

The Period One bell was ringing outside his office, and one by one, his class began to shuffle into the locker room. There was the usual chatter that one would be accustomed to hearing from teenage boys; talk about girls, jokes about their anatomy, and the occasional meme being shown from someone’s cellphone. Some of them were throwing empty drink containers into the trash-can, while others didn’t look half as finished.

All this came to a halt as soon as Hank exited his office and came into the locker room, throwing the door shut behind him with a powerful bang. He wasn’t carrying his usual clipboard with him, as he did other mornings, having left it behind on his desk next to his whiskey flask. He’d taken a sip before leaving, and the taste was fresh and burning on his tongue.

“Christ, will you look at this...” he remarked, hands going to his hips as he stood amongst the now very quiet and sullen crowd of boys. Only a bit of chatter remained, while others cast glances over their shoulders while they changed. “What a shit bunch to send out to graduation you all are…”

He spotted Gavin chatting it up with Leo and Michael, a cigarette sticking out of his mouth.

“Hey you, Gavin Reed. Last I checked this place is a no-smoking zone, get that crap out of your mouth.”

“Yeah. Okay, sure.” Gavin took another drag from his cigarette, sneering his teacher’s way. A cloud of smoke parted from his lips, Leo and Michael looking as if they were about to gag on it. “And what’ll happen if I don’t?”

“I really don’t think you want an answer to that, kid. Put it out, I can wait.”

And he did, he stood back and waited while Gavin begrudgingly did as he was told, taking the cigarette from his mouth and dropping it to the floor, stomping on it with his cleats. A few of the other students were snickering, but stopped as soon as Hank started to roam the room.

“Now let’s see...oh yeah, graduation. That’s a whole month from now, isn’t it?” he said, passing by several boys who were watching him warily. “Can’t imagine you’ve had a lot of time to think about much else, huh? What with all those...senior year assignments you gotta do, not to mention prom. Tell me--and er, be honest, how many of you’ve already got dates?”

Several hands shot up at this.

“Oh good, that’s real good.” Hank nodded, stopping at the front of the room. “Well then, how about we skip track and field today? Huh? Maybe that’ll give you guys a chance to go out and buy corsages for your dates. Can’t take your date to prom without a corsage, after all.”

Some of the students who’d been warily watching him seemed to relax at this, others nodding and grinning their agreements.

“Or...you could always improvise, y’know, and make one.” Agreements came to a halt, confusion taking its place. “I’m sure there’s some wet toilet paper leftover in the trash that you could use, with the condoms in your bags. I hear those things are a favorite of yours these days.” 

Faces flushed scarlet, and heads began to drop. The grins went away, the nodding stopped, and everyone began to mumble shamefully amongst themselves. Gavin on the other hand, got up from his seat on one of the benches and began to walk towards the door.

“Hey. Wait just a minute, Reed.” Hank stepped in front of him, arms moving from his hips to crossing over his chest.  “Where do you think you’re going?”

“Anyplace where I don’t have to hear this bullshit, that’s where.” Gavin snidely replied, nose upturned. He tried to push past Hank, but was subsequently caught by his arm and thrown against one of the dull yellow lockers. Everyone winced and gasped loudly, a few “oh shit”s and “jesus christ”s the most discernible out of all.

It took Gavin a second to process what had just been done to him, then his face went a beet red. An angered rage shone over his grey eyes, and he started sputtering. He was taken aback, he clearly hadn’t expected this to happen. Hank wouldn’t have been that shocked if he’d been gloating about his misdeeds to everyone around the school like he was some kind of goddamn hero. How could he do that and not expect any kind of repercussion?

“You fucking asshole ! You can’t treat us like this!” he screamed. “You’ll get in trouble, I’ll tell my parents--”

“Do I look like I give a damn, you little shit?” Hank snapped darkly. “Look at me, I’m serious. I don’t give one single damn at all what you or anyone else says. I threw my teacher’s hat off the minute you lot showed up for class today, so don’t think for a single minute I’m wearing it right now.”

He let go of Gavin’s shoulder, stepping back from the locker and turning to face the small crowd that had gathered.

“That goes for all of you. I mean it.” he said, taking a mental note on how many of them actually looked guilty. Most looked like they’d just crapped their pants, too fearful to move should they be the next one slammed into a locker. “Pointing and laughing is one thing, but what you all did yesterday was beyond fucked up. In fact, I think every fuckin’ one of you should be downright ashamed of yourselves for it.”

Those who weren’t looking at the floor were looking elsewhere, anywhere but at their teacher. Markus’ eyes seemed to have drifted off towards the showers, like he was in thought or something.

“So what if Connor Stern got an erection, big fuckin’ deal. It was nothing to harass him over.” Hank continued, starting to move amongst the room again. “Did you forget he’s human, like the rest of you? He’s a real, feeling person, with wants and needs, not some emotionless robot. What you did to him was needlessly cruel, and not to mention, really fucking immature on top of that.”

He halted in front of Markus and his friends. Their eyes made brief contact, before he went back to surveying the rest of the group.

“And even if you weren’t involved, even if you say you didn’t do anything--” he said. “That doesn’t make it any better now, does it? Look, Connor has never done anything, to any of you. Nothing except exist. What’s stopping you from being a respectable human being and showing him some kindness? Nah, that would require some decency on all your ends, and somehow I doubt you guys even any have of that left.”

Gavin was muttering something under his breath, something about his father being a police lieutenant. Fists were clenched by his sides.

“Shut the fuck up!” His murmurs shut down, as Hank spun and growled, just mere inches from his face. Fists unfurled as he recoiled, head smacking the locker door, and he groaned.  “One more word out of you and I’ll kick your fuckin’ teeth in, you understand me?”

Gavin, apparently figuring that his teacher had gone insane, said nothing.

Hank stepped back from him, turning his attention back to the rest of the class.

“Now, as far as punishment goes...Principal Fowler was gracious enough to leave it up to me to decide, though after he heard what I had to say we ended up having to work out a bargain. See, my original idea was a two day suspension followed by a week of community service... and to bar all of you from going to prom.”

Mouths dropped open. Everyone began mumbling and griping to the person standing next to them.

“Yeah, that would’ve gotten where you hurts, wouldn’t it?” Hank chuckled deeply, unable to contain his amusement. It’d taken ten years of teaching, but he’d finally gotten the satisfaction of having to watch his class scrape their jaws up from off the floor. “As I said before, however, Principal Fowler and the rest of the school board were not quite as enthusiastic about the idea as I was. So, we ended up discussing it and decided on a one week detention instead.”

Sighs of relief. Color was coming back to their faces.

“But, there is one little catch to this detention.” The sighs caught in a number of throats, color fading away just as fast it’d came back.“Instead of sitting on your asses in some random classroom, you’ll be out on the field, and under my supervision. One hour every day, starting today. And I guarantee that by the time I’m finished with you, you’ll practically be hugging the water fountains.”

The mumbles and gripes were back, looks being exchanged. Gavin crossed his arms, snorting, and shaking his head.

“Fuck that, I’m not coming.”

“Of course not, I wouldn’t expect you to anyways, Reed.” Hank eyed the boy, whose eyes were shining bright with nothing but discontempt. “But just know if you don’t, then that’s your name scratched off the prom attendees list. And the rest of you can also expect the same thing if you don’t show up, not that I’m sure it matters to half of you, but...you only get to go to your senior prom once. It’d be awful stupid for you to miss it over something like this.”

No one had anything to say to this.

“Right, okay then. Finish changing up, maybe give yourselves some time to think about what I said.”

He left following that, leaving the crowd of sullen teenage boys to resume changing. A wave of heavy silence smothered the room like a thick fog, until Gavin turned around, yelling as he struck a random locker several times over with his fist.

“Goddamnit, god-fucking-damnit, that son of a bitch--” He hissed in pain, stooping over as he turned around towards his classmates.  “It was just a joke, he’s taking it too seriously! Guys, Leo, come on. It--it was just a stupid joke, right?”

“Are you serious right now?” Markus stepped forward, even though Josh gasped and grabbed him by the arm to hold him back. “Did everything I say at the coffee shop fly out of your head, already? It wasn’t a joke, he was screaming .”

“Who fucking cares? I don’t care!” Gavin kicked at someone’s dropped water bottle, sending it flying underneath one of the benches. “Leo, Michael, you guys don’t care right? You guys agree it was a joke?”

“Y--yeah. Yeah, sure we do.” So quick to nod and so quick to answer. Both Leo and Michael nodded, though the look on their faces seemed to be the opposite of their answer.

“See? Now look, Anderson can’t get away with this. There’s no way.” Some people had finished dressing and were heading outside. Michael and Leo were amongst them.“My dad’s a cop, I’ll--I’ll tell him what happened, he’ll come down here and sort it out. He’s good at that sort of thing, you’ll see. He won’t get away with it, not if I--”

“Enough, Gavin. Enough. Just let it go, and shut the fuck up, okay?” Someone remaining in the crowd--Markus, said. His friends stood waiting for him by the door, anxious expressions and all. No one had ever told Gavin to shut up and not walked away with a black eye--Markus least of all (and he wasn’t one to normally do so either, telling people to shut up was more North’s thing), so they possessed more than enough reason to look that way.

They must’ve been somewhat relieved when Gavin didn’t end up punching Markus, and all he ended up doing was grumbling and swearing to himself as he opened his locker back up and retrieved his gym bag from inside it.

“Fucking shit...fuckin’ bunch of sissies…” he grumbled, shutting the door with enough force to make the entire row of lockers rumble and shake. “Stern ain’t gonna be so lucky next time, I’ll make damn sure of that…”

Throwing his bag over his shoulder, he pushed past Josh and Simon and stormed out of the locker room.

 

Chapter Text

Connor couldn’t say he understood printers very much.

Computers were one thing, it’d only taken some help from the librarian and a bit of his own trial and error until he was able to work one by himself. He’d always wondered why they’d never had one at their house; Mama didn’t seem to be against technology, since they did own a television and a radio. But then, the television was only used to play VCR tapes from Mama’s collection of sermons, and she’d never once changed the radio station to anything different.

Perhaps it had less to do with technology and more to do with the potential of sin. That was the one conclusion Connor could manage to come to, and why he’d never bothered asking her. Mama had a tendency to see sin everywhere, even in the most innocent of things. Asking her why, how, and where she saw such sins would just result in an hour long sermon.

He’d already had his fair share of those.

He didn’t need any more of them.

What he did need was help with this printer. He’d come to the library a few minutes after dropping by Mr. Anderson’s office to pick up his workout schedule, relieved to find it mostly empty minus the librarian--Mrs. Chapman, and a couple of other students. Sitting down at the furthest computer he could find, he’d pulled his notebook from his bag and had gone about copying what he’d written into a word document. 

Doing so hadn’t taken too long, once he’d figured out how to format properly, it actually wasn’t until he’d gone to print it out had he run into problems. 

Click to save, click to print. 

Select which printer he wanted to use, go to the printer and retrieve his paper. 

Only when he’d gone to do that, there’d been no paper waiting for him, or any sign that one was about to be printed.

Connor was glad hardly anyone else was here, he probably looked like an idiot trying to figure this out. Buttons had been pressed, been smacked, but this had yielded nothing. Nothing except a couple of muted snickering from a girl who was seated at one of the other computers, and a dirty look from another one who, judging by the amount of papers and books she had out on the table, was studying for a test.

Five minutes. Five minutes he’d wasted, and the hour until his next class was gradually ticking down to forty minutes. He didn’t have time for this, it wasn’t like he’d be empty handed should he decide to give up and hand in his written paper, but he didn’t want to get a half-assed grade either, not after he’d worked so hard to ensure the paper was thoroughly detailed and free of spelling errors.

He looked over to the librarian’s desk, where Mrs. Chapman was seated. She didn’t look busy, but provided the amount of times he’d had to go over and request her assistance, he didn’t want to bother her. He hated to, although she never seemed annoyed with him. Not even after the first time he’d tried to use a computer, thinking it was a small television, and had come up to her desk asking how to insert a VCR tape into it.

Surely, she wouldn’t have minded helping him out with the printer. It wasn’t like he had much in the way of options, otherwise.

Deciding he didn’t have the time to contemplate it, Connor approached her, though significantly tentative about it. Faintly, he cleared his throat, and she glanced up from the box of files she’d been sorting through, immediately smiling up towards him. After he explained what was going on, she walked with him back to the printers, where she also spent a good five minutes trying to get the ancient machine to work. Nothing much came of it, except for the confirmation that it was indeed broken, as she’d originally thought it was. 

“Probably jammed up again or something, who knows.” She huffed, shaking her head as she took a step back from it. “Nevermind, these things happen. I’ll just mention it to the janitor next time he comes around, though it honestly might be time to throw the whole thing out…”

She offered a sorry smile to Connor.

“I’m sorry, honey, really. But, as long as you have your paper already written elsewhere, I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

“Yes ma’am--” (o sure that’s all well and good not at all it’s gonna cost me half my grade) “--thank you anyways.”

She went back to her desk, and Connor defeatedly walked back to the computer he’d been using. This was fine, this was absolutely fine. No big deal. These things happened, she said. This wasn’t the first time the printer had broken, not the first time he’d turned in a handwritten essay. What else could he do, he couldn’t wait. The janitor wouldn’t be coming until much later, not enough time for him to wait for it to be repaired. 

He’d have to settle with extracted points today, much as the idea bothered him. Ah well, what further damage could it do to his grade, it wasn’t like he was teetering on the verge of a C- or anything. He’d be lucky if he were able to hold onto that grade before the semester ended. 

(fucking perkins just wants an excuse to fail me he never liked me anyways)

Connor stopped, mid-piling his things back into his bag. Had the computer monitor….it vibrated, he’d seen it vibrating out of the corner of his eye. There was a tiny crack at the bottom of the screen, which had faded into screensaver mode.

He thought back to what had happened to his mirror the other night. How it’d wavered, spun, and broke. Broke like the lightbulb in the showers, like Principal Fowler’s pencil holder, and the basketball hoop in the gym. 

Chewing his lower lip, he took a glimpse of the clock on the wall. Thirty minutes. He still had thirty minutes until class.

He still had questions too. 

And he was in a library.

Waveringly, he placed his bag back onto the floor and sat down at the computer. He shook the mouse, stirring away the screensaver (which wasn’t anything spectacular, just the school’s logo bouncing around from corner to corner), and clicked out of the word document with his essay in it. Didn’t need that anymore.

Double-clicking brought Google up on the screen, and he sat there staring at it for a minute, trying to determine what it was exactly that he wanted to look for. Answers, yes, he wanted answers to his questions, that much he knew. But what to search...that's what he couldn’t work out.

The mirror broke, the lightbulb broke. 

The ice had come down from the sky, the stones pelted the roof. 

He remembered that, he remembered the table flipping over, and one of the chairs nearly hitting Mama. How she’d tried to stab him, how he’d heard her shriek something about him being possessed by “the devil’s power” before he’d passed out.

Power. Something about power. 

That’s what he had to search for.

He carried out numerous searches and rephrasing of said-searches before he was able to find what he was really looking for. One article led to the next, which led to a video, followed by another video, and so forth. It was the viewing and title of one more video that led him to his final search.

Telekinesis.

That was the word in the video’s title, and he didn’t know it. An online dictionary’s definition put it as “ the supposed ability to move objects at a distance by mental power or other nonphysical means”. 

Move objects, by nonphysical means. By mental power... mental . Mental was mind, and minds held thoughts. And Connor had thought these things, these strange happenings that had been going on around him. He’d thought about the mirror breaking, because he didn’t want to look at his reflection any longer. He’d imagined the stone hitting Zoe Fern in the face, the very minute she’d called him “stiff neck”, then it’d actually happened. 

He’d thought about the desk slamming into the wall when he’d gotten angry in Principal Fowler’s office, thought about the pencil holder shattering. He’d been scared when Mama held the knife over him, and then it had flown out of her hands and into the couch cushions. He’d wanted it to get stuck, he hadn’t wanted to get hurt. 

Had he done that...had he done any of that?

It seemed impossible and ludicrous all at the same time, but...maybe it wasn’t. 

Maybe not all.

Connor exited the web browser, bringing up the library’s book catalogue and repeating the same search. Five books, there were at least five books on the subject. That was good, that should be all he needed. He didn’t have as many questions now as he’d had last night, not much left to answer. 

The Period Two bell began to ring just as he’d started to write down the books’ ISBN numbers, leaving him to hastily put away his notebook and shut the computer off. Mrs. Chapman wished him well with his essay as he left, and he thanked her, sliding his school bag up his shoulder as he hurried off into the hallway to join the sea of students who were piling out from other classrooms.


 

On most days, Markus liked to be at least five minutes early for class. It meant having enough time to get his things organized on his desk, and let him avoid being called out for ripping open a plastic package of mechanical pencils that he’d had to buy on the way to school all because he’d forgotten his pencil case at home, and it was too late to turn around to go back and get them.

That wasn’t today, though. Today he’d remembered to bring his pencil case, and it was a good thing he had, especially considering that Mr. Anderson had made the class stay an eight extra minutes for suicide drills. He’d said that it was a small taste of what he had in store for them after classes finished today, but Markus couldn’t help but wonder if it’d also been intended as a punishment for a certain someone’s outburst in the locker rooms that morning.

There was a good chance it had been.

His father had always said you couldn’t talk sense to people who didn’t want to hear it, and what had occurred was shining proof of that. Even after being practically thrown into a locker and threatened with violence, Gavin was no closer to seeing the error of his ways than pigs were to flying. He was convinced that what he and the others had done to Connor was nothing more than a stupid joke, and no one was going to tell him otherwise.

And Markus wasn’t going to. He didn’t want to, nor did he see the point since he’d only be wasting his breath. He’d wasted his breath in Expresso, and wasted it telling him to shut up, when he knew that Gavin couldn’t and wouldn’t ever do so. 

There was simply no reasoning with people like that. None of any kind.

Markus hadn’t seen him since then, but he also wasn’t expecting to see him in English class either. No one had seen him, not since he’d charged out of the locker room. Simon figured he’d probably gone to hide in the bleachers and smoke until he’d calmed himself down, North making a quip about it while Josh laughed. 

But Markus hadn’t laughed, he couldn’t bring himself to. Not after what Mr. Anderson had told them. His words were now mixed in with Carl’s, and they were doing nothing in helping him figure out what to do about Connor. 

He hadn’t been at PE, which...wasn’t at all unexpected, so he’d thought that might give him more time to think, to decide on the right words to say before he saw him in English class. Now Markus didn’t consider himself to be very selfish, but he’d almost half-hoped that Connor had decided to skip school altogether and chose to stay home instead. 

He wouldn’t have blamed him, and it would’ve given him even more time to think--he needed more time than a day, he needed more than a few hours. He needed Connor to be far away, for at least a week, then maybe he’d have worked up a decent enough apology for him.

But no. Connor wasn’t home, he wasn’t far away. He was seated upright at his desk, in the middle of the room, and was the first thing Markus’ eyes perceived as soon as he and his friends entered Mr. Perkins’ classroom. Josh had forgotten his textbook and went to retrieve it from his locker, while Simon and North walked ahead, still joking and snickering about Gavin and the bleachers. 

Markus, however, was frozen. Motionless, standing suspended in the doorway as other students passed him by. Connor was writing in his notebook, only stopping to flinch as Jason Graff and Parker Trent passed him by, one lightly smacking him on the back of the head while the other guffawed, making a jerk off gesture with his hands. They retreated to their desks before they could get caught, leaving Connor with both eyes twitching as he dolefully lowered his head and resumed his writing. 

Markus felt his grip on his backpack strap tighten, muscles in his hand tensing. His father’s words echoed in his mind, Mr. Anderson’s words joining them, and he thought for a very brief minute that he should go over and talk to him. He could apologize now, get it over with if he wanted. Clear his conscience, smooth things over. Maybe offer to let Connor sit with him and his friends at lunch. 

Could he do that, could he manage it?

No. He couldn’t. Not at the moment, anyways.

The Period Two bell had ceased its ringing, and Mr. Perkins was almost finished writing on the blackboard, prompting Markus to abandon any idea he had of approaching Connor right now, and to instead go over to his desk and get his assignment properly organized. There was a good chance he could be called up first to read, and he didn’t want to be spilling papers on his way to the front of the classroom.

An apology could come later...not too much later, though. After all, where was the guarantee of how much longer that chance would be around?

Mr. Perkins turned from the chalkboard, placing the piece of chalk he’d been writing with on its ledge right as Josh returned from his locker and hastily stumbled into his seat, with just enough time to avoid being marked tardy. If you even dared to be one minute late in this class, that meant permanent shit on your school record...which would be really,  really  terrible to have if you planned on applying to a decent college. 

“Well, I have to say, I’m impressed to see most of you here today,” Mr. Perkins said, as he moved around to the front of his desk. He folded his hands behind his back as he did so. “I would’ve thought a good portion of you would’ve still been at the library, trying to make last minute improvements on your assignments. I can only figure that’s the case of those still absent…”

As expected, Gavin’s chair sat empty. Leo’s was also empty, in fact Tina and Michael seemed to be the only ones of the group who’d bothered to show up. 

“For the time being, however, I’ll be content to hear from those of you who are actually here.” The teacher continued, unfolding his hands. “You should have finished the assignment by now, unless a whole weekend wasn’t enough for you. Though, I can’t even bring myself to feel sorry for you if that’s the case.”

Grins cracked, eyes rolling amongst stifled snickers.

“No, I’m serious. You’re all seniors, if you don’t have a proper handle on assignments by now, then I greatly fear for your college educations.” The snickering stopped. “But nevermind, that’s a topic for a whole other day. For now, we’re going to go ahead and get started, despite ah...the circumstances of certain students not being here…ahem, so, who would like to go first?”

Nobody raised their hand. Markus hadn’t realized so, having been caught up in flipping through his notebook in order to get to last week’s notes. He caught notice upon reaching back to his backpack to get out his poetry book, spotting North with her phone out and discreetly hidden underneath her desk, other students either doing the same or looking completely disinterested in their surroundings. A quick glimpse at Mr. Perkins saw his feet tapping impatiently, and his eyes intently scanning the class. He looked on the verge of calling names out at any second. 

Exhaling lightly, Markus sat his book down and raised his hand to prevent that from happening. The day had already started out rough enough, he’d already gotten a scolding from one teacher and he quite frankly wasn’t in the mood to get one from another all because everyone else couldn’t take initiative.

“Yes, Markus. Come right up.” Mr. Perkins looked almost alleviated, feet tapping coming to a halt. North snorted next to Markus and made a teasing remark under her breath about him being a suck-up, while he extended her an inconspicuous middle finger and gathered up his book and paper, sliding out from his desk and heading to the front of the classroom.

“You can just hand me your paper now, I’ll give it a quick look while you’re reading.” The teacher extended his hand to take Markus’ essay, and headed back around his desk to retrieve his reading glasses. “Remember, we want enough time for everyone to read today, so only read the excerpt you highlighted.”

“Yes, sir.” Markus nodded, steadying the book in his hands. It was a heavy book, and very old--so old that the cover was beginning to fall apart, and he’d debated on if he should attempt to bring it to class or if he should leave it home and not bother risking it crumbling to pieces in his backpack. 

“The piece I’ve chosen to read is John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale. ” he began, clearing his throat. 

“My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,— 
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.”

Sunlight streamed in through the windows, making the dust particles floating around in the air near onto visible. Most of the class seemed locked on to what he was reading, while others were still on their phones. He couldn’t tell who exactly, though, as his eyes were mostly concentrated on the text. 

“O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim: 

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget 
What thou among the leaves hast never known, 
The weariness, the fever, and the fret 
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; 
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, 
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; 
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow 
And leaden-eyed despairs, 
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, 
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.”

He finished, closing the book. Classmates gave a weak round of applause, and Mr. Perkins was nodding approvingly, though Markus wasn’t sure if it was because of what he’d said or what he’d written in his paper.

“Excellent selection, Markus. Very excellent, I must say.” the teacher remarked, taking his glasses off. He settled the paper next to a stack of folders on his desk. “And from what I’m reading in your paper so far, you really seem to have a great understanding of Keats’ poetry. You could easily be looking at another solid A+ on this assignment.”

“Thank you, sir.” Markus closed the book, sliding his bookmark back into place. “I mean, I wouldn’t consider myself an expert but…”

“Nonsense, you aren’t giving yourself enough credit.” Hot air. That’s all that was, even Markus knew that paper wasn’t one of his best. Mr. Perkins would say anything nice to the more “elite” students if it meant getting in good graces with their parents.“Class, what do you think? Any erm, comments, or questions regarding Markus’ choice of poem?”

Nothing. No one. Josh looked preoccupied with getting his book and paper out and ready, while North was still on her phone. Tina tapped a pencil against her desk, looking like she wanted to say something but wasn’t sure what. 

“Anyone? Anything, at all?”

A whole thirty seconds of dead air passed, and Markus was beginning to consider heading back to his seat. Had begun to do so, when a small, quiet voice from the back of the room stopped him dead in his tracks.

“....I thought it was beautiful…” 

Parker Trent snorted, several other students giggling alongside him. Markus looked past them to see Connor, mouth pressed into a tight line, as he kept his eyes lowered towards his desk. 

“I’m sorry, what was that?” Mr. Perkins leaned forward in his seat, brows creased. “Can you repeat that, please?”

“I...me?”” More giggling. Connor looked up to the front, a startled shine in his eyes. “I just...I said that...I just said that I thought the poem was beautiful…that’s all, sir.”

Mr. Perkins pushed his chair back, getting up from his seat. He squinted, then put his glasses on, looking to verify that it was indeed the very silent Connor Stern who’d just spoken. 

“Beautiful...hm. Incredible...absolutely incredible.” he remarked, shaking his head as he once again slipped his glasses off. “I do believe that’s the first time all semester you’ve actually said something. Not anything relevant, per se, but something . Why, if I’d known it’d take a Keats poem to get you to talk, I’d have had you studying him earlier on in the year.” 

Laughter popped up from several desks, startling North from looking at her phone, and she quickly slipped it back into her backpack. Markus looked over at Connor, whose face had drained of any and all its color. Had he not been seated, he would have definitely fainted by now. 

“But, in any case, Connor, I’m afraid what you said is hardly what I asked for.” Mr. Perkins said, going back to sit down. “I don’t disagree that the poem was beautiful, but as far as that comment being helpful or a question...well, to me it just sounded like your own infatuated train of thought, and I sincerely doubt that anyone here is very interested in hearing that.”

More laughter from the desks, Connor looking even paler and causing Markus to feel a twinge of bother in his chest. 

“Okay then, if no one else has anything to say...or any heh, follow ups on Connor’s comment…” Mr. Perkins sounded like he was trying to refrain from a snort. Asshole. What a fucking asshole, he really showed his true colors when he wasn’t talking to the elites, and he didn’t bother making a point to hide it either. “Then I guess you’re done, Markus, thank you. You may go ahead and return to your seat now.”

He tucked the book under his arm, jaw tensing, and he nodded. 

Do something. Say something.

It was his own voice this time. Not his dad’s, not his teacher’s. And he wanted to listen to it, he did, but his tongue felt numb, his face burning warm.  He stayed silent, as he slid back into his seat, dropping the book back to his desk with a heavy thump. His expression was tense enough for North to take concern, and she whispered something to him under her breath about it, but he didn’t hear her.

“Alright, well. Who’s up next?” Mr. Perkins was scanning the classroom over again, as Markus went to pick up his backpack. He started to stuff his poetry book back into it, hitting a snag with some misplaced notebooks. Behind him, he heard Connor scribbling something onto a piece of paper.

“Connor?”

The scribbling came to a stop. The pencil fell, rolling across his desk, over his notebook and catching at where a dusty leather book was placed. 

“Since you seem to be in such a chatty mood today, why don’t you go ahead and come up?” A priggish smile was on the teacher’s face as he settled back against his desk, arms folded.  “Oh, but only if you were actually bothered enough to do the assignment. Can I assume you were?”

Markus stopped zipping up his backpack at this, feeling the same numbness and warmth come over him. Somehow, he’d expected this. He had, knew as soon as Mr. Perkins had poked fun that he’d be calling on Connor next. And Connor seemed to have known it too, because when Markus glanced back around to look at him, the color was back in his face and not in a good way, either. 

Both cheeks--no, his entire face--were ablaze and flushed. His eyes shone over with annoyance, something Markus couldn’t say he’d ever seen before. He looked like he wanted to snap, but his mouth stayed shut, and he picked up the dusty book, causing the pencil to resume its rolling journey to the floor.

Sniggers and shushes as he walked up to the front of the room. Shoulders hunched and head bobbed downwards. A deep sigh, form straightening and head upturning as he passed several of the desks. He handed a folded piece of paper to Mr. Perkins, then turned, almost robotically, to face the class as he flipped open the book. It looked closer to falling apart than Markus’ book had, the pages looking sharp enough to give someone a papercut. 

“I have selected an excerpt from Paradise Lost --”  Connor began, in a low and monotone voice. Someone snickered. “--written in 1663 by John Milton.”

“Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat--”

“A little louder, please. If you can manage.” Mr. Perkins interrupted, causing more snickering. It didn’t look like he’d even begun to read Connor’s essay yet, which remained unfolded in his hands. Markus saw Connor’s grip on his book slightly tighten, knuckles going a pasty white.

“Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed,
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos: or if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my advent’rous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian mount, while it pursues--”

Some students were whispering to each other, others continuing to snicker. Perkins had started to read the essay, though he was shaking his head. Connor continued to read, and Markus strangely found himself intrigued to listen further. 

“--Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
And chiefly thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for thou know’st; thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: what in me is dark.”

The book clapped shut. Connor wrapped his arms around it, and his form went back to its former crumpled state, glancing feebly back at his teacher for approval...which it didn’t look like he’d be getting.

“My...goodness, Connor. What an...um, interesting selection.” Mr. Perkins hummed, folding the paper back up. “I wasn’t aware we were in for a sermon today. If I’d known I would’ve brought some hymnals for us all to share."

Someone near Markus let out a loud snort, others doing the same. Even North looked like she was trying to stifle a laugh, and he recognized Josh’s snickering too. Markus felt his jaw clench and the same numbness consume his tongue, the same warmth flush over his face. 

Say something. Do something. Lend a hand, for fuck’s sake. 

“I...I mean...the poem’s one of my favorites and…” Connor looked at a loss for words, almost choking on the ones he was saying. “I just thought I’d--”

“Ah, no need for that. No need at all, I’m sure there’s enough of that rambling in your paper.” Perkins held up his hand, giving the dejected Connor a dismissive wave. “And from what I’m seeing of it so far, I can already tell you it won’t be an A….but, I digress. Class? Anything for Connor and his...selection?”

No one. Nothing. Except for more giggling, snickers. Laughter, exchanged looks of teasing. Jason Graff made some crude remark, nothing that Markus wanted to hear again. 

Instead, he felt the numbness wearing off his tongue. The warmth growing stronger in his face. 

And something slipped.

“...assholes…”

He hadn’t realized he’d said it, not until his classmates had suddenly fallen quiet. North was looking wide-eyed at him, and Simon looked ready to slide down into his seat, Josh’s hand frozen mid-air as he’d been taking a sip of water from his water bottle.

Connor, on the other hand, looked more stunned than horrified. Not at all what Markus had expected from him, any other time he'd look violently ill if anyone within his radius uttered a swear. Now he just looked ...mildly surprised, if not in an astonished stupor. The book looked ready to slip from his hands, too.

Mr. Perkins seemed to be the only one who hadn’t heard what Markus had said, which was shocking given his constant eagle-eye surveillance of the classroom. He’d raised his eyebrows, standing from the desk in curious confusion.

“Markus? Something you’d care to share with the rest of the class?”

“Huh? Me?” Shit. Shit. Poor timing, real poor timing that he’d finally decided to listen to his inner voice. Was there any chance of bullshitting his way through this? Perkins would detect a lie, he was practically a walking lie detector. Markus had already gotten on his bad side once before, his first semester. Disagreeing over what Shakespeare had really intended with Romeo and Juliet. 

But, that had been a long time ago. Before Perkins had known who Markus’ father was, and decided to play nice towards him. He figured he had good a chance as any to get away with bullshitting him this time, and besides, words did tend to be his strong suit when he needed them to be.

“I said...uh…” He sat forward in his seat, spotting Connor’s pencil having rolled up next to his chair. Without as much as thinking about it, he leaned sideways and scooped it up, tapping it against his textbook. “I said that I thought Connor’s selection was...uh, was awesome. I think that uh, the poem is...um, I think it does a good job of blending elements of both hierarchy and obedience as its theme. Wouldn’t you agree, sir?”

His friends--scratch that, the entire class --must’ve been looking at him like he’d grown a third eye. He didn’t have to look at them to know, could feel it without doing so. Perkins seemed to have bought into his answer at least, but even he himself look a little befuddled by it.

“Really, well that’s uh…” He cleared his throat, shoulders heaving a slight shrug. “That’s certainly one way to see it, Markus, I’m not sure if I...huh...anyone else care to follow that up?”

Nope. It didn’t look like it, not if you were going off of everyone’s silence. Connor was staring transfixed at Markus, still seemingly trapped in his stupor, and only snapped out of it once Mr. Perkins saw fit to dismiss him. He trudged back to his desk, passing Markus by. Arms wrapped and clutching his book, eyes meeting his. 

They locked. For a brief, fleeting moment, they locked. Connor’s soft brown ones onto Markus’ one blue and one green. 

Something glittered. 

Something slipped.

He’d felt something else slip somewhere inside him, but he couldn’t say or tell what. It wasn’t an angry slip, not like the one he’d had when everyone was having a chuckle at Connor’s poem. 

He didn’t know what it was. 

And he couldn’t have told you should you have asked him. 

All he knew was that it’d slipped, and was stirring. Stirring deep, even after Connor had gone and settled himself back into his desk.

Chapter Text

Class ended at approximately 10:15, as it did most every day. The rest of its time had been fairly uneventful following Connor’s reading of his poem, and had trudged by just as slowly as any other run-of-the-mill classes before it. Nearly everyone bolted from their seats as soon as the bell had rung, and begun to collect their things before heading out the door and back into the hall. Mr. Perkins was wiping the blackboard clean with an eraser, a stack of essays placed on his desk next to where his reading glasses sat, waiting with great anticipation to be fully read and graded. 

It was arguable, though, just how many of these papers would receive the grade deserving of them. Markus couldn’t say he cared much if you’d asked him, so many of these teachers felt a pressure to let the more elite students pass or else their parents would threaten to cut off funding. 

In that regard, his grade felt less earned and more shoved towards him. 

That was a thought that had troubled him more times or another, but thanks to previous and prior events, that was not the thought troubling him now. Not what was on his mind as he stood up from his desk, swinging his backpack back over his shoulders and prepared to join his friends at the back of the room. 

“Shit, do you think Perkins is gonna dock points for not including a works cited page? I didn’t think we’d need one, since it was supposed to be our own thoughts...” Josh fretted, as Markus walked up to him and the others. “I can’t remember if that was included in the assignment guidelines or not.” 

“I don’t remember either, but I honestly don’t care.” North pulled a wrapped stick of gum from her backpack pocket, unwrapping it and popping it into her mouth. She crumpled the wrapper up in her hand, cramming it into her hoodie pocket where there was no doubt several others crushed and waiting to be properly disposed of.  “You know he’s just gonna take points off for any crap he doesn’t agree with, your essay will probably be down ten points before he ever gets off the first page.”

“Oh god, if that’s the case then I can already see the red pen marks…” 

They talked on, walking out of the classroom. Casual after class banter, discussion of what their suspected grades might be, stopping in the halls long enough to decide where they would hang out in the few minutes they had to spare until their next impending class. Behind the bleachers was out of the question since Gavin was probably still there and even if he wasn’t, there was a good chance it reeked of cigarette smoke. 

“The library’s always an option, I do have some books I need to return.” Simon suggested, adjusting his backpack straps. “Maybe we could head there first, figure something out while we’re there.”

“Uh... yeah, I don’t know about that. We kinda got kicked out the last time we were there.”

“Actually, North, that was no one’s fault but your own.”

“My fault? Bitch, how dare you--”

Josh ducked, arms crossing over his head in defense as North swatted at him with her backpack, which she’d been in the process of putting back on before his statement had propelled her into her need to fight for her honor. Having held the unofficial title of group peacemaker since first grade, Simon stepped in to intervene while Markus stood back near the classroom entrance, chuckling at the sight while inattentively tossing around a pencil in his hands.

He nearly didn’t realize he was doing it until he’d almost dropped it, and he looked down, brows furrowing as he could’ve sworn he’d packed away the couple of pencils he’d pulled out during class. This couldn’t have been one of his...though it did resemble the same sort of standard number two pencils that he had in his case, complete with the same golden-brown color and pink eraser to it. 

Only it looked like this one had half the eraser chewed off, which made Markus’ brows crease even further. He never chewed his pencils, the last time he’d done so had cost him an already-loose tooth. Turning the pencil over in his hands, he was just barely able to make out the tiniest initials written onto the side. 

C.S. 

Connor Stern.

Shit.

This was Connor’s pencil. He hadn’t realized he was still holding it, had forgotten he’d even picked it up after it’d rolled off of Connor’s desk.

Tentatively, he glanced back towards the classroom. Connor wasn’t at his seat, but his things were still at his desk. Of course he hadn’t left yet, Perkins was no doubt lecturing him about handing in a handwritten paper again. In that case, maybe Markus could just slip in long enough to put the pencil back without being noticed—

No. 

The slipped-something in him quivered, the one that’d fallen when he and Connor’s eyes had met, when everyone in class had laughed at him, and the determined voice that had interrupted his thoughts during class joined it. 

No, it had said. 

No, don’t do that. Use this as your chance, Markus. Apologize, like your dad said. Show you care, be kind. Why, the opportunity was practically presenting itself, how dare he think of continuing on in this same ignorant mindset when he’d already made a step towards apologies earlier on?

He had. He had made a step, hadn’t he? He’d spoken up, he’d not meant to, but he had… if he could manage to do that much involuntarily, what was stopping him from doing something voluntarily except his own cowardice?

That had to be it. He couldn’t think of anything else.

“Markus?”

The pencil almost slipped from his grasp and he gripped it, swallowing hard as he looked back to his friends. 

“Hh—yeah? What’s going on?”

“What’s going on? Seriously?” North huffed, popping a gum bubble that exploded in a small burst of red. “Library, we’re going there. You coming?”

“Erm…” He glanced back around again, seeing that Connor was heading back to his desk. His downturned head and reddened cheeks told him that the conversation with Perkins had been exactly what he’d thought it to be. “Actually...yeah, uh, you guys go ahead without me. I gotta take care of something first.”

North sucked her gum back into her mouth, raising an eyebrow. 

“What do you gotta--”

“It’s just—I don’t know, it’s something, North. Don’t worry about it.” He was trying not to look back at Connor again, but he could hear the zipper on his bag being pulled back. “I’ll be along in five minutes, okay?”

Next eyebrow raised. A look of suspicion appearing North’s face, and she shrugged.

“Okay. Okay, sure. Well,  I guess we’ll be waiting, then.” She pulled her backpack back on, popping a gum bubble slightly larger than the last. “Come on, guys, let’s go.”

“Right, coming.” 

“Please tell me you’re gonna spit your gum out before we go in--”

The three of them walked away from Markus, beginning yet another long winding discussion that could be heard even as they were halfway down the hall from him. They suspected something, for sure. He could tell they did, North had glanced at him over her shoulder before they’d disappeared down the next hall...he supposed he couldn’t blame her. Even he knew that he hadn’t been acting like his usual self today, and that was more than enough reason for them to be concerned.

He’d give it until lunchtime before they started to press him about it.

Until then, there were more urgent matters at hand...not that giving a pencil back was considered to be something terribly urgent, but this was his chance to correct a wrong. A chance to let his mind finally be free of the guilt that had been weighing it down for the past twenty-some hours since the showers incident had occurred. And maybe it would give Connor some peace of mind too, even if Markus still wasn’t sure he’d be inclined to accept his apology considering almost no one had ever bothered to apologize to him before and mean it. 

This might end up being a first for both of them.

He was just getting back up from his desk when Markus went to approach him. Head bowed, locks of dark brown hair obscuring his eyes which were concentrated on the contents of his unzipped bag. By the looks of things, the zipper had either gotten caught on the fabric of the bag or against one of the books inside it, Markus couldn’t tell. 

“Hey...Connor?”

A thud. The bag slipped from Connor’s hands, though it was hanging from his shoulder so all it really did was smack into the back of his chair. He glanced up at Markus with a startled wince, as if he were expecting some sort of crude remark or blow to the face. 

Because of course, that was what he was accustomed to getting when people talked to him. 

“Huh?”

He spoke in a faint, subdued voice, gathering the bag back into his hands. With one hand he brushed the locks of hair from his eyes, inadvertently allowing Markus a better look at his face, which was almost always obscured from his vision with how often his head was lowered. Dark, weathered bags hung under his eyes, suggesting a poor night’s sleep. Lips not quite full, but bright pink and pressed together. Skin pale as always--and now Markus noticed for the first time, the tiny splash of freckles on his nose and the various moles and marks dotting the rest of his face. 

Dare his mind allow him such a thought, he didn’t think Connor was that bad looking. A bit plain, perhaps, but not awful, not in the slightest, and not at all like those horrid caricatures he’d seen scrawled onto the bathroom stalls.

“I... er…” Markus tried to smile, he wanted to smile, to put Connor at ease.  He looked quite uneasy and panicky, a bit terror-stricken too. A combination of all those things put together. “Um... I uh, here... here, your pencil. It fell off your desk when you got up to read your poem, just thought I’d give it back.”

He extended the pencil towards the other boy who looked at it—and Markus—as if he were offering him a vial of poison. Eyes squinting in...something...suspicion or confusion, Markus wasn’t so sure. Whatever it was remained, and the pencil was taken from his hand, Connor slipping it back into his bag, which he managed to unsnag from whatever it was caught on in the first place, and zipped it back up.

“Thank you…” he murmured, releasing his bag to flop awkwardly by his side. He didn’t look at all eased by Markus’ smile, pupils wide and face depleted of the red formerly smothering it. It was something akin to a deer in the headlights sort of expression, if you had to precisely define it. 

“You’re uh, you’re welcome...actually, um,” Connor was beginning to leave, Markus hurrying to keep up with him. He was moving quite briskly, no doubt in a hurry to be rid of any potentially unpleasant company.  “Actually, hey, I wanted to thank you too…”

They stopped in the doorway. Connor lifted his head, looking at Markus with a mystified expression to replace the formerly cautious one. 

“You...you wanna thank me? What for?”

“For what you said about my poem. I know it wasn’t what Perkins was asking for, but…” Markus shrugged, slipping a hand into his jeans pocket. “It was nice. I appreciate it.”

He said nothing. Just blinked. Jesus, was this the first time someone had ever bothered to hold a decent conversation with him--actually, yes. Yes it was, that was a question Markus could easily answer himself after spending eleven years watching the exact opposite happen to him. His brain cells were, in all probability, imploding on themselves from the fact that this conversation was even happening in the first place.

“I also um--” Shit. Shit, he was walking away, he’d started to walk away again. Perkins was snapping at them to stop blocking the doorway and to get out of the classroom, Markus quickly obliging. He caught up with Connor, who was probably intent on heading to his locker and being left alone.

“Hey, hey wait—wait up, there’s something else--” Connor stopped, going rigid right there in the middle of the hall. He didn’t turn to face Markus entirely, only turning his head back to look at him. He looked leery, ready to turn back around and to keep walking.

“About...uh, what happened yesterday, in the showers...” Several students passed them by, offering confused and curious glances but not stopping long enough to see what was going on. “Look, I just wanted to...to say sorry, I guess. I didn’t mean to just...stand around, it’s just that...well, I mean, if there’s anything--”

“Stop it.”

He did. Markus did stop, jaw snapping shut in surprise. There was a weary bitterness in Connor’s voice, so much unlike the monotone everyone knew him for. Something horrid, awful, flashed over his eyes, and Markus felt the slipped-something tremble.

“I...what? Connor, I’m--”

“Do you really think I’m that stupid?” Steps. Connor was taking several steps towards him, hands firmly clutching his bag strap. His knuckles were going white, just as when he’d been holding his book. “No, I know what you’re trying to do, and I’m not falling for it. You’re not sorry, none of you ever are.”

“But--”

“No! No, stop, I—I’m—look, I’ve got some things I’ve gotta do before class so—would you please just leave me alone?”

He turned away, preparing to continue his march back to his locker. Markus stayed standing in the middle of the hall, in a dumbfounded daze, but the slipped-something trembled again, causing him to break out of it and persist after the other boy. 

“Wait, Connor I--” He reached to grab his arm, more students passing by with quizzical expressions. “I’m not tricking you, I swear I’m not--”

“I said leave me alone! Connor shrilled, yanking his arm free of Markus’s grasp. At the same time and without warning, a locker door near them swung open, and several papers and books fell out of it, startling the girl who’d been conversing with her friend next to it.

“What the hell was that-” She sighed, kneeling, and began to gather the papers, her friend quickly joining her. Markus glanced over at the mess, then back to where Connor had been standing in front of him, only to find that he’d taken off

Well.

That hadn’t gone how he’d wanted. How he’d expected yes, but wanted? 

Definitely not. Definitely not at all. 

Because instead of a clear conscience, he only felt as though he’d just made things worse.


 

There were only a few times in the week when the stadium field would see activity. One would be P.E. class in the morning, sometimes football practice or baseball practice in the late afternoon. In-between classes it sat mostly empty, save for if the janitor had finally stopped putting off the menial task of hosing down sports equipment, or if a few students decided to hang out on the bleachers before their next classes started. 

And seeing as it was currently in-between classes at the moment, this was the exact picture currently set upon the field. Equipment--mainly things for track and field—were lined up on the track, the janitor standing lackadaisically before them with the hose in his hand.  Student groups of about four or five were doled out amongst the bleachers, textbooks, notebooks, and papers were strewn about as some attempted to last-minute study from them before their next class. Others conversed with their friends, only having to stop midway to chase after a piece of paper that had flown loose from their binder. 

It shouldn't have come as a shock to anyone to know that Gavin was not sitting amongst any of these groups. 

He never was, normally, and had instead been leaned back up against the bleachers for the past hour. The butt of a Marlboro sat propped between his fingers, the tips of which had just started to stain a puke yellow. A dark, dirty substance was caked under his nails, but whether it was ash from his cigarette or dirt from his surroundings, you couldn't exactly tell from a first glance.

What you could tell, from a first glance, however, was that he was angry—wait. No. 

No, he wasn’t angry. He was  pissed

His friends had unquestionably known him long enough to know when he was pissed, which was why none of them had said a word to him for the past ten minutes. As soon as the bell had rung to let them out of English, Tina and Michael came to join them--him and Leo, behind the bleachers, as that was where they always hung out for most of the day, but instead of sharing cigarettes and quips about their peers and teachers, the entire group was seated--or standing--and not sharing or saying a single word. 

Truth was, none of them wanted to say anything, nor did they dare to. Trying to speak around a pissed-off Gavin Reed was the equivalent of stepping on a lego, as either way, you were gonna be in pain very shortly. 

So with that being the fact, it really wasn’t worth trying. And none of them had bothered, thus allowing the next ten-now-thirteen minutes to pass by as slowly as possible. 

Tina sat on the ground, legs crossed as she scrolled through her phone, Michael standing next to her with his hands pressed into his pockets, head bent, and foot kicking up a small pile of dirt. Leo was seated on an upturned recycling bin, hunched over with his knees pressed to his chest. A pile of Gavin’s discarded marlboro butts had accumulated by his feet, but he didn’t complain about them, or the smell.

There were about six, last he’d counted, six soon turning to seven as Gavin cursed and tossed his current cigarette to the ground, not even bothering to stamp it out. Ashes fluttered about, some settling on the ground, some on Leo’s sneakers. He would’ve thought to protest, but knew better than to do that right now.

He’d be better off explaining the stains as his own, rather than having to explain why he’d come home with a black eye for the hundredth time.

“That son of a bitch—that fuckin’ bluenosed goody-two shoes!” Gavin kicked at the bleachers suddenly, causing a loud clang to rattle all throughout them. Tina squealed, dropping her phone out of fright, and Michael startled, hands flying from his pockets. “It’s all his fault! Screamin’ like a goddamn goat, I should’a just kicked his face in so he’d stop--”

“Gavin, c’mon. You know that would’ve only made things worse.” Leo muttered. He began to kick at the pile of marlboros, unintentionally allowing more ash to tarnish his shoes. His mom was going to throw a fit, she’d just bought these for him a few weeks back-- 

“I—shit, I don’t fucking care! Would’ve served the little bitch right!” Tina dove to retrieve her phone, as Gavin stormed forward, grabbing fistfuls of his unbrushed hair in frustration. “Fucker can’t take a joke—he’s never been able to take a joke...God, like, you would’a thought we were killing him or something!”

Hands collapsed to his sides, fists curling and uncurling. He began to twitch, tapping his foot at an erratic pace, before whirling back towards his friends.

“And--and fucking Anderson. Did you see him, acting like he’s tough shit—fuck, fuck! I hate them, him and Stern! This whole goddamn school--” He growled, fumbling through his jacket for his cigarette pack. “They’re all a buncha pussies, that’s all they are. That’s all they fucking are, thinking they can get away with this bullshit…”

“But they won’t! Right?” Michael dared to pipe up, from his spot next to Tina. Gavin glared at him, and he shrunk back. “...I—I mean, you said you were gonna tell your dad…maybe he…”

“What? Fuck no I ain’t telling him! He’ll fuck me up the minute I mention anything about getting in trouble again.” Gavin pulled a stick from his pack, shaking his head. “I only mentioned him so Anderson would back off, and erm, that clearly didn’t work the way I wanted it to.”

He stuck the Marlboro in his mouth and held his hand out towards Leo, who jumped up from his seat and pulled out his lighter from the left pocket of his jacket, handing it over to him. He took it, having to flick it twice before it turned on, and lit his cigarette, taking a long drag from it.

“Nah, the way I see it...we gotta handle this ourselves.”


 

The hours went and came. Classes passed by drearily, without so much usual focus and concentration on Markus’ end. He’d sat at his desk, taking down notes, and answering questions to his best extent, hoping to have found some kind of concentration after his attempt at apologizing had gone so terribly. He’d hoped, so inanely, that he’d somehow managed to give himself some peace of mind for the sole fact that he’d at least tried ...but no. 

No.

There was no peace of mind to be had, because he’d tried , and he’d failed . Connor, as expected, hadn’t believed a word he’d said, and now he was right back at the starting line of not knowing what to do. 

He knew he had to try again, much as part of him didn’t want to.

This was going to take effort, given that Connor was...Connor, and given his track record of being tricked, had every right to be as guarded as he was. He’d considered giving it another go after History, but Connor had immediately made a beeline for the door and taken off before he could even get up from his desk. 

Finding him now wasn’t shaping up to be much of an option either, as it didn’t look like he was anywhere to be found in the cafeteria. At least, not from what he could see from where he was sitting, and getting up to find him later was simply not an option right now. 

He’d searched whilst standing in the lunch eyes, eyes scanning over the vast sea of students, trying, hoping to spot Connor somewhere. He always sat at the same table, a couple down from him and his friends, so he’d hoped that maybe he’d be able to go over and talk to him before he sat down, attempt a take two at apologizing. 

But no. No such luck. Connor’s table was empty, and Markus had been left to go join his friends. He’d thought to maybe wait a bit, excuse himself to the bathroom so he could go look again, but decided not to. He was already acting suspicious enough right now as was, and leaving in the middle of eating, and his friends’ conversation, would not help at all should he decide to do that. 

He couldn’t, not when they were already so suspicious of his frequently shifting mood today. All day they’d either questioned him and/or given him matching expressions, so he’d tried to play it off as a bad case of senioritis, that he was only stressed over all his assignments, and insisted that there was nothing else going on. 

Too bad for him, that they’d all known each other since first grade. Which meant that they knew when he was lying, but they’d never outright say so. It was more or less a matter of time to them, waiting to see how long it would be before he would say something. They would only ask him themselves should he remain quiet, act oddly, or make excuses.

Which was what he’d done and was continuing to do right now. 

They said nothing of it at first, didn’t seem like they were about to until Markus wondered out loud if anyone of them had seen Connor anywhere. He hadn’t meant to ask, hadn’t meant to let it slip out like that—but he also had a bad habit to think out loud without meaning to sometimes. 

None of them seemed too bothered by his question, though North had briefly casted a suspiciously raised eyebrow his way, similar to the one he’d seen from her when he’d excused himself from going to the library earlier.  Simon mentioned that he’d seen Connor heading out of the cafeteria while he’d been getting his drink, but he didn’t know where he’d gone off to. 

Markus almost got up right then and there, but had to mentally remind himself that even if he had some indication as to where Connor had run off to, he actually didn’t know where. Not to mention there was no way he could get away with up and leaving, not with how he’d been acting lately. 

Which, not at all to his surprise, ended up being the next topic of conversation. 

He’d been right in guessing they’d confront him about it at lunch, he just figured they’d been waiting for the right moment to do so. 

So he complied to tell them. 

It was all he could do, really, now that he’d let Connor’s name slip, there was no way he’d be able to skirt around the issue for much longer. 

“Okay, yeah. So, I’m not able to get it off my mind…”  he admitted dolefully, merely picking at the fries on his plate. With the slipped-something still flopping around in his stomach, he felt closer to vomiting than to attempting to eat. “What happened yesterday, I mean...and after what my dad and Mr. Anderson said, I don’t know. Normally I’d just brush these things off but…”

He dropped his fork, shrugging.

“I can’t. Not this time.”

“All right, but is it really that big of a deal though?” North questioned, taking a huge bite out of her sandwich. She chewed as she spoke, voice sounding muffled beneath chomps of watercress and cucumber. “I mean, we’ve all known Connor since elementary school. He’s a magnet for this kinda shit, if anything we should be desentized to it by now.”

“Considering how horrible that sounds, I almost don’t wanna agree…” Josh said. He was in the process of peeling an apple. “But North’s got a point, Markus. Yeah, what happened was awful, but is it any different from any of the other crap Connor’s been put through?”

“It is!” Markus’ sudden snap startled Josh into dropping his apple, and Simon, who’d been fighting to open a chip bag for nigh on to five minutes now. “Fuck, I’m...sorry, I’m sorry, alright? I just can’t get it out of my head...Connor screaming like that, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him that terrified before.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard him scream either, he’s always taken it so quietly. Tell me, how is it the same as anything else we’ve done to him, Josh?”

“Well I—wait, we ? What do you mean we?

“Yeah, what are you going on about?” Simon chimed in, gathering back up the chips that’d scattered from his bag. “We’ve never done anything to Connor, not since we’ve known him.”

That. That’s what I mean.” Markus pointed out, having picked his fork back up and resuming in stabbing his fries. “We’ve never done anything, nothing except stand back and watch while it happens. How come we do that, how come we’ve never tried to step in and put a stop to any of it?”

“Uh, because we’ll get our asses kicked?” Simon offered, North snorting from in front of him. “Seriously, Markus, Gavin was ready to hit you for just talking in Connor’s defense. Imagine what he’d do if you actually tried to fight him, you’d be coming back to school in a body cast.”

“God, but it’d be so worth it, wouldn’t it?” North interjected,  brushing crumbs off her hands. “Imagine being the one who finally got to hand Gavin Reed’s ass to him, that’d have to earn you some kind of cred in the yearbook. Like...shit, I’d gladly do it myself if Fowler wasn’t breathing down my neck all the time.”

“Mmmhm, and what exactly would that change?” Josh said, setting his apple down. “Say Fowler wasn’t breathing down your neck, and you did get to be the one to to do it ...I doubt that it’d make Gavin any less of an asshole than he is now.”

“Right.” Markus picked a fry off his fork, nibbling at it. “Which...which is why its not on Gavin to have a change of heart…”

He took a bite and swallowed hard, his food feeling like rocks going down his throat.

“Maybe...maybe it’s up to all of us instead.”

“Us?” Almost all three of his friends spoke at the same time, each with the same puzzled expression. 

“Why not? Someone has to.” 

“Yes, but why us?” North nearly choked on her next mouthful of sandwich, smacking her fist against her chest. “We’ve never hurt him, what do we have to apologize for?”

“What do you think, North?” Markus straightened in his seat, crossing his arms atop the table. “Think back to what I said. We’ve never stepped in to help him, to see if he was okay. Never tried to be his friend. All these years we’ve done nothing , and what for?”

He stabbed at a couple more fries, before dropping his fork again, sighing heavily. His friends were quiet.

“I keep thinking back to what my dad told me… about that kid in his school, and how he wished he’d done something to help him…” The slipped-something was settling down. It wasn’t quivering as much anymore. “... and—and I understand if you guys don’t get it... but... I just don’t want to hold that same feeling of regret for the rest of my life.”

It was gone. The quivering in his stomach had stopped, but he knew it’d only be back later. Even so, it felt good to have finally said all of that out loud.

He looked back up to his friends, who were still quiet. Each exchanged looks with one another, wondering, curious looks... questioning looks, and Markus couldn’t help but wonder if they were telepathically discussing something he didn’t know about. He had to wonder it sometimes, or if they’d all known each other long enough to where words weren’t needed in times like this.

Finally, he saw North giving Josh a nod, Josh doing the same to Simon. They all looked towards Markus, sullenly and calmly.

And once again, it didn’t seem like words were needed to figure out what they meant.