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Exit Strategy of a Wrecking Ball

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After practice, Blaze doesn’t punch the wall, but it’s a near thing. Near thing like he waits until everyone’s gone, then punches his locker in the changing room. There’s a burst of pain in his knuckles, and it just makes him angrier.

He can’t stop thinking about it. How everyone fucking hates him now. Ethan posts a fucking video of him pushing that little jackass and coach reams him out instead. And he gets all the blame. Fuck that. Fuck coach. Fuck Charlie, for deserving it. Double fuck Ethan for posting that video and getting off scot-free with nothing but a tripled follower count and the number of the most popular girl in school.

Oh yeah. Fuck Emily, too, for fawning over Ethan — who Blaze knows couldn’t give a shit about her — and casually averting her eyes every time she’s seen him in the hallway for the past two and a half years.

Blaze shakes his hand out. His knuckles still smart. He cocks his fist back again, slams it into his locker. Once more. Once more again.

There’s something loose in his chest, something screaming you’ve already lost everything. Better to just lose himself in the violence. The clang of skin against metal.

Fuck — fuck, his hand’s bleeding. Fuck, he doesn’t have a, a band-aid, or gauze, or whatever. There’s spots of blood on the yellow metal of his locker. His hand hurts like shit. His knuckles are reddish, turning purple.

“What the fuck did I do,” Blaze mumbles. It seems like it echoes off the gross floor and the gross popcorn ceiling until it’s a chorus. What the fuck is he doing.

Blaze lets himself stand there for a few moments more, hand bruised and a little of the skin torn. His breathing is rough. He still hasn’t changed out of his practice jersey and shorts, but he isn’t expected home until six anyway.

Haltingly, he unclenches his fist. Hisses. Fumbles with his locker to open it —

“What on earth did you do?” And, hah, Blaze knows that voice.

“What the fuck does it look like I did, Charlie?” He turns and straightens himself up. Walks towards him like someone who knows what violence is, and how to use it.

He’s expecting Charlie to cower, to run for the pack of girls that have taken to surrounding him. Charlie just straightens his back in return. “It looks like you got in a fight with a brick wall.” He glances over Blaze’s shoulder. “Or, sorry, your locker.”

“Fuck off,” Blaze says. He’s got most of a foot on Charlie, and it’s more obvious the closer they get.

“You want to hurt me?” Charlie says. “Fine, but that’ll get you expelled. You’re on thin ice, and everyone knows it.”

It feels like a punch to the gut. Blaze takes it the only way he knows to: roll with it and come back harder. “Who’s gonna see? Fucking no one. There’s fucking no one at all here to come and save you.”

Charlie opens his mouth like he’s going to say something. He closes it. Shrugs. Ducks around Blaze to get to his locker, sticks his head in until he comes back out with earbuds. Turns back. “Haven’t you had enough?”

He walks back out. Blaze feels like he’s been left sitting in the dust.

Fingers clumsy and cold, one knuckle scabbing up, Blaze takes off his jersey and starts to change.

He keeps rolling what Charlie said around in his head like a marble. Like poking at a loose tooth. Hasn’t he had enough? Hasn’t he had enough?

School devolves over slow weeks into the monotony it always does, just now with fewer people hanging out with him, or talking to him, or looking at him. He half-asses most of his classes. College is only in the cards for him if he gets a scholarship for basketball, and that’s probably not happening, so. He can let the rage boil under his skin as much as he wants.

You want to sneer at him in the hallway? Burn in hell. Fuck you. What the fuck does he want to do with you, anyway?

Jesus Christ, he knows he’s supposed to beg penance for letting that video be posted, for pushing Charlie in the first place, but it felt so good. Like just for a second, everyone could see Charlie like how Blaze sees him.

Blaze rolls his eyes from where he’s doodling plays in the margins of his history notes. Apparently they didn’t like what they saw.

One of the girls who sits next to Ethan giggles and writes something on her paper, shows it over to her friend. The second girl laughs, louder, looks right at Blaze. “You’re right, he does look like a skinhead.”

Blaze feels his mouth twist into something ugly. The girl laughs again. He wants to make her shut the fuck up. He wants them all to shut the fuck up. He wants to shove his elbow into her gut.

Charlie’s voice echoes. Haven’t you had enough?

The rage is still simmering under his skin. Blaze slowly pops every knuckle on his good hand. He shifts his chair so his back is on the two girls.

Mrs. Hargrove is saying something about tariffs, or embargoes, or something. Pencil digging into the flesh of his palm, Blaze goes back to his notes. There’s more whispering behind him. He presses his pencil into the paper until he’s ripping tiny holes in it with each player he draws.

The first girl laughs.

Blaze whips around. “Just shut the f—” he glances at the teacher, whose back is to the class “— shut your mouth, okay! Shut up.”

The second girl grins at him, delighted. “No.”

And there’s nothing he can do. Fucking nothing at all. Hargrove already hates him. Probably most people in this room hate him. Have hated him for weeks. Nothing he can do but stare straight down and let the heat in his bones flake his skin off.

He stares down at his paper a lot, that class. Takes fewer notes than he has in a while.

The bell plays over the P.A., and Blaze shoves his papers into his binder and his binder into his backpack and himself out the door into the crush of people in the main hall. He can feel anonymous before everyone sees him again.

It’s Tuesday, so he goes straight home after school. His parents aren’t home yet, won’t be for a few hours, so there’s no one. He gets himself some Gatorade and leftovers and heads to his room.

He’s just cracking open his precalculus textbook when his phone vibrates, like he’s getting a text. Nobody’s texted him besides his parents in… mental math isn’t his strong suit. Like a fucking while.

Blaze picks up his phone and blinks at it.

hey this is charlie/ it says. you want to hang out some time? calc AB is killing me lol

Opens the message. Rereads it. Whoever this is, you don’t need to catfish me. he sends back.

??? and then another text comes through. trust issues. promise it’s me. saw u punching ur locker

Blaze suppresses a wince. Yeah, okay. He pauses, types again. I’m free until 6.

how far r you from annie’s

Ten minutes by bike, probably. Blaze closes his textbook, gets all his shit into his backpack. The anger from fifth period is just exhaustion now. No, he doesn’t know why Charlie’s texting him, but spending time with anyone at all sounds great. Blaze has gotten his ass kicked before and he’ll get his ass kicked again, but he kind of wants to hear what Charlie has to say.

The next text just says see u there? and Blaze sends back a thumbs-up.

The ride over is miserable and windy, and Blaze wishes his parents didn’t both have commuting jobs so he could maybe drive somewhere literally ever. He throws the padlock on his bike and walks in, welcoming the way the heating in Annie’s is always three degrees too high. The girl behind the counter fake-smiles when he walks in.

Charlie’s gotten a booth, a notebook and textbook already spread over the table. He’s writing and re-writing the same formula, and he looks up when Blaze sits down. “I didn’t think you were actually coming,” he says.

“What else am I going to do?” Blaze sits down, the vinyl squeaking. “You want something?”

“Yeah,” says Charlie. “A study partner.” He turns back to his notebook, which is covered in the kinds of fancy equations people use in movies, with the… long S and the… funky M.

“Kay,” Blaze says. He gets out his homework. “Why the fuck am I here, then?”

Charlie shrugs, doesn’t look up. “Did you hear about what happened with FBLA today?”

“Stop being fucking cryptic!” Blaze is white-knuckling his pencil. He’s going to snap it. He needs to — he loosens his fingers, lets the pencil fall to the table. “What. What happened.”

And Charlie launches into some long winded explanation that involves two teachers, an assistant principal, and four separate accusations of embezzling. Before Blaze really thinks about it, he makes some shitty joke back, and, and Charlie laughs, and he asks him if he remembers anything about exponential growth, and then they’re studying and having a conversation, and for the first time in a month Blaze doesn’t feel like he wants to rip his textbooks up or pick a fight just to watch someone bleed.

The sun is setting. Blaze checks his phone. “Fuck! It’s ten to 6. I gotta go.”

“See you,” Charlie says, picking his head up from where it’s pillowed on his textbook. For all he’s acing the class, Charlie apparently despises math more than anyone on Earth. Except maybe Blaze.

“Yeah,” says Blaze. He laughs the whole bike ride home.

It… kind of morphs into a habit, after that. Avoid eye contact with everyone at school, go to practice and barely talk to anyone, bike to Annie’s and spend two hours and ten minutes there remembering how to breathe.

Blaze knows he probably deserves it, all things told. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Isn’t his brain only supposed to be developed at, like, 23? He fucked up, okay. He fucked up. Charlie’s kind of a cool dude, and hitting him was fucked up.

It sounds more obvious when you say it out loud, okay?

Kind of fucking wild that the only person who’ll give him the time of day is the one guy who’s supposed to hate him. Or who has a reason besides peer pressure to really hate him.

At least their school lets them eat lunch wherever, so he can camp out under one of the dead trees by the shed where he doesn’t have to see fucking Emily holding hands with Ethan and making cow eyes at him. Blaze really should have known they’d get together eventually. Their own tiny club of not-giving-two-shits-about-him-anymore.

Another stick falls on his head. He pulls it out of his hair. The grass is going to start getting his pants wet soon. Sitting outside sucks, but at least the murals on the school are pretty.

Blaze eats the last bite of his sandwich, pulls out his phone. He basically only uses it for 1010 anymore. It’s only ten minutes until the bell rings, and from there it’s only two hours until school ends, and then it’s only ten minutes until Annie’s.

The girls from history have finally given up on starting shit with him, which makes it mostly bearable. His grade’s getting better, too. Apparently focusing as hard as you can on the teacher to ignore the people sitting behind you is a great way to remember, like, Spanish viceroyalties.

He’s at Annie’s before he loses his mind. Win.

“Hey, man,” he says as he slides in. Charlie’s there before him nearly every day. God knows how he does it.

“How’s it going?” Charlie says. “Please tell me world history is better than APUSH.”

“Why the fuck do you take so many APs, man? You hate them.” Blaze rifles through his bag, pulls out his Chem Honors homework.

“College,” Charlie says. “Parents. I like suffering.”

“Yeah okay,” Blaze says. “You tell me if you’re ever suffering too much, and we’ll see if I can beat someone up to solve it.”

“Beat up Manifest Destiny for me?” Charlie’s typing furiously on his laptop. His textbook is bristling with post-it notes.

Blaze whips out his calculator. “First let me beat up stoichiometry, and then I’ll see what I can do.”

“Mmmkay,” Charlie says, and they both hunker down. Charlie mumbles under his breath whenever he’s writing, which is kind of funny, and Blaze keeps meaning to give him shit for it but it always seems a little… sus. Something he shouldn’t be noticing too much.

“I’m sorry about being a shithead,” Blaze blurts. “Y’know, a while ago. Sorry.”

Charlie gives him a weird look, then shrugs. “Back then.” He stops, gestures, starts again. “Every time I looked at you, I was worried you would bring a gun to school, you know?”

“Fuck,” says Blaze. “Fuck.”

Blaze stares down at the symbols and numbers and shit on his paper. It all looks so meaningless. Would he have shot up the school? Shot himself?

“Okay,” Blaze says. “Why do this?” He gestures between them. “You should fucking hate me. I would.”

“You’re not stupid enough to beat me up again and get yourself expelled. The worst you could do was say no. Just math.”

“You hate math,” says Blaze.

Charlie rolls his eyes. “Fine, then. Strategy. Game theory.”

“Congrats, bro. Your plan worked.” Across from him, Charlie mouths bro like he does every time Blaze says it. “See? We’re bros.”

“Yeah,” Charlie says. “Congratulations. You’ve figured out what having a friend is like.” And Blaze feigns being mortally injured by his cruel words, and Charlie laughs like Blaze knew he would. It cools something inside of him.

Even if it’s just with Charlie, just in this moment, he thinks he’s found equilibrium.