Before Thatch took his seat–front corner of the class, since his surname was Adams–he checked the chair for a wad of gum or a more exotic unpleasantry, like a strip of denim with pins poked through it. Someone had emptied the pencil sharpener on it. Thatch brushed the shavings into his hand, dumped them in the trash, and sat down as if nothing were wrong.
A group of large boys wearing JV jackets milled around the doorway. They talked in raucous voices and forced their female classmates to brush past them. Thatch was grateful he had arrived before them. If he had to walk through them, he would have ended up with a stinging red welt on the back of his neck, or his jeans around his ankles. He pulled out a worn copy of Foundation and leaned over it, raising his arm to hide his face from them. He managed to drown out their voices until the bell rang, and they dispersed.
“Isn’t that right, Horse?” A sharp elbow dug into his shoulder, knocking him off balance. One of the JV boys, Allen Dancier, jeered down at him as he sat down. “Just say yes,” he advised.
“I won’t,” Thatch replied, rubbing his arm. He had learned long ago, “yes” and “no” were both potentially humiliating answers.
“Sissy,” Allen muttered, taking the seat directly behind him.
“Asshole.” Thatch held his breath, bracing. But Allen did not retaliate. Not immediately.
Mrs. Knox assigned a chapter in their history books and began to write a list of ancient civilizations on the board. Thatch skimmed the chapter and leaned back, his textbook in his lap with Foundation open inside. After five minutes, he heard Allen shifting around in his desk.
“Pssst! Hey, Horse.”
Thatch ignored him. He re-read the sentence he had been on.
“Horse,” Allen hissed a little louder. Maybe if Thatch ignored him longer, he would grow loud enough for the teacher to hear. “Sissy-boy.”
Thatch’s eyes were now fixed on the same word.
Thatch clenched his teeth.
“Allen, may I help you?” Ms. Knox paused in the middle of Nubian and turned.
“Just asking for a pencil,” Allen replied.
Mrs. Knox wasn’t convinced. She stared at him before her eyes slid to Thatch.
“I’m on my last pencil,” Thatch said, holding up the three-inch nub that somehow had to last him until summer. At the beginning of the school year, his mother brought him some meagre supplies–often second-hand. When they ran out or were stolen, they did not get replaced; Thatch was usually too ashamed to ask for more. He and his mother did not talk anymore anyway.
“I will loan you both pencils when we begin the assignment.”
“Thanks, Ms. Knox!”
Thatch blinked at this unexpected generosity, too surprised to express his gratitude. His relief was short-lived: He discovered Allen did have a pencil when he started jabbing Thatch’s back with the tip. When Thatch did not turn, Allen leaned forward.
“I was sayin’ earlier that people who work close to animals–like horses–they’re more likely to get venereal disease,” Allen whispered. “You know that’s true, don’t cha, boy?”
Despite Thatch’s determination to ignore him, his muscles twisted like wires.
“God knows, girls wouldn’t keep you company, even if you did show interest in ’em…”
Thatch lowered his burning face. He tried to swallow the bitterness that tightened his throat. Why would they notice he didn’t harass the girls like they did?
“Maybe your ma keeps you company…” Allen continued.
Thatch’s ears tingled with heat. He was certain if he asked to go to the nurse, Mrs. Knox would notice the heat and allow him to leave. But he didn’t trust his throat to work properly; If he opened his mouth, he would only croak.
“Personally, I’d take a horse over your ma.”
Thatch clenched his fists. His muscles were twisted like charged springs.
“But not a sissy-boy like you… not a faggot.”
Inhaling slowly, Thatch stared at the woodgrain of his desk, worn and scratched from years of use and vandalism. His skin was so hot, he was certain if he didn’t cool down somehow, his brain would boil. Allen fell silent. The tightness in Thatch’s throat loosened, but his face remained hot. Sure he would be able to speak now, he rose his hand.
“You know, I hear your uncle’s a pretty good-lookin’ guy.”
Like a spring releasing, Thatch’s raised arm swung. The back of his hand caught Allen across the face. Thatch didn’t realize what had happened until he was twisted around in his desk, hand throbbing. Allen stared in shock. A bright red splotch spread across his pale face.
“Thaddeus Adams!” Mrs. Knox cried. Thatch deflated. What a way to show his gratitude…
“I–I’m sorry–” he stammered, looking between the teacher’s disappointment and Allen’s anger. “I didn’t–”
With a roar, Allen lurched forward. He grabbed Thatch’s shirt and dragged him to the floor. Thatch raised his arms to cover his face. He was surprised at how light Allen was when he sat on him. His blows glanced pathetically off Thatch’s arms.
Thatch was accustomed to far worse.
The students surrounded them in a rumble of shouts and scraping desks. Mrs. Knox was screaming beyond them as they chanted: Fight! Fight! Fight!
Taking a deep breath, Thatch braced himself against the floor and thrust his fist up. He made contact. Allen fell still. When Thatch peered around his shielding arms, his breath caught in his throat: He thought he had hit him in the shoulder or something, but dark, thick blood flooded down Allen’s face, staining the white wool of his JV jacket. His eyes drifted out-of-focus. With a groan, he slid off Thatch’s torso and fell sideways.
The classroom fell silent, except for Mrs. Knox sobbing somewhere beyond the crowd. Thatch pulled himself free of Allen’s legs, looking around in disbelief. He was surrounded by wide eyes and gaping mouths. Turning, he found several angry, glaring boys in JV jackets. With a gasp, Thatch sprang to his feet and shot toward the door. Rough hands grabbed his arms and dragged him back down.
Thatch and five other boys sat in chairs lining the wall of the front office. Four of them–the four latter assailants–scowled at the secretary as she tapped incessantly on her typewriter, debating whether they could pop Thatch one while she appeared distracted. Allen, who had regained consciousness soon after the fight, sat next to Thatch. A blood-stained tissue was shoved up one nostril, and his nose was significantly flatter than it had been that morning. A deep purple bruise spread under one eye.
Each boy sat low in their chairs, knees far apart, arms crossed over their chests. They formed a line of faces covered in bruises, cuts, scrapes, busted lips, oozing eyebrows. A sixth boy had been sent directly to the nurse with an almost-detached ear. Thatch, however, looked relaxed: His legs were stretched in front of him, crossed at the ankles, his copy of Foundation open in his lap. Only a couple of bruises and a busted knuckle betrayed his involvement.
They had all been suspended for the remainder of the week. One-by-one, angry or distraught parents arrived to collect their student. Thatch didn’t notice Jed until he was hovering over him, blocking his light.
“Fightin’, huh?” he asked.
“Yeah…” Thatch sighed. Remembering the insult that started the fight in the first place, Thatch felt deflated. Despite the chill in the air, Jed wasn’t wearing a shirt under his overalls. Thatch’s face did not only burn from humiliation: He might be avoiding the many bullies at school for the remainder of the week, but he would have to deal with the one at home.
“They said you started it.” Jed glanced over the other boys. They would not meet his steely eyes. “Who finished it?”
Thatch’s face burned. He hid it by leaning to slide his book into his rucksack. “I did.”
Allen shifted in his chair, but said nothing.
“Well, there’s that,” Jed sighed. “C’mon, boy, daylight’s wastin’.”
With a deep breath, Thatch stood and swung his rucksack over his shoulder. Allen shifted again, shooting him a glance.
“Sorry.” It was barely audible.
Thatch paused. He would not have believed he heard it, except Allen looked abashed when their eyes met. Nodding, Thatch replied, almost as quietly, “Me too.”
He wasn’t really now, but he knew he would be by the end of the week.
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