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puddles and stains

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Mike meets Charlie at school, which is as good a place as any. It's raining, has been for the past week, which means the ground is covered in puddles, pipes are always dripping, and the air smells fresh: like pine needles. Mike prefers the indoors (has and always will), which is why he’s not too keen to be stuck outside, but once school ends there's no avoiding it. He’d rather die of hypothermia than stay in a classroom, anyway. So the moment the school bell rings, a sharp piercing sound, he moves to a nearby planter, right outside the school’s gates. The wood is wet, and cold, and soaks through his jeans.

Nine minutes later, the school is a deserted wasteland. Children gone, the last couple cars drive off with a puff from their exhaust pipes, and the few teachers remaining stay inside. It's quiet, and the rain has leveled off to a steady sprinkle. Mike is alone.

He supposes his parents haven't picked him up for two reasons, firstly being the weather: wet roads cause paranoia, and a buildup of traffic on the interstate. Mike reasons that if it is traffic, his mom would be here within twenty minutes. The second reason leaves a lump in his throat, and he doesn't like to think about it.

Instead, he grabs a stick off the ground, its end sharpened to a natural point. It's not five minutes later, poking at a worm, watching it squiggle across the ground in a confused line, he realizes there's someone watching him. Mike looks up. There's a kid, standing feet away. Charlie Bucket, Mike remembers instantly. He knows him from English class, he's quiet and sits in the back, but gets the answers right when called on. Mike can respect that, yet eyes him critically. The boy wears a coat a size too large for him, and holds a brown paper bag. Mike frowns.

“What do you want?” It comes out as a bark, louder than he intended it too. Charlie looks frightened, eyes wide, then sheepish, as if he didn't want to be caught staring.

“You shouldn't do that.” He says eventually.

Mike looks down at the worm, squirming wildly beneath his stick. He finds it hard to keep the amusement from his voice, squinting at the other boy through the rain. “Yeah?”

Charlie nods.

“Why not?”

Charlie pauses, as if considering his answer.

“You shouldn't pick on those smaller than you,” he says finally. His voice is quiet, but there's something laced beneath those words: a moral conviction. Mike glances down at the worm, stands suddenly. He lifts his boot, a shadow falls over the ground, and Mike is poised, ready to slam it down onto the creature and (maybe it's Charlie's face, the way he's watching him. Not quite judgement, perhaps curiosity, but whatever it is burns though Mike's jacket and into his skin and he) puts his foot down. The worm crawls away, ignorant.

“It's just a worm.” Mike says, shrugging, but Charlie’s eyes are glowing.

His eyes are glowing, and for a moment Mike wonders what he sees. Then it breaks, whatever he felt snaps with the crackle of the rain. Charlie reaches into his bag, digs around in it, and pulls out an apple.

“Want it?”

And so it begins, the uncalled tradition that comes close to friendship. After school, they meet, and Mike claims twice he'd never associate himself with Charlie in public. He eats the apple, though.