Yesterday was his fourteenth birthday and he had been so happy: His mom had taken him clothes shopping and she'd won really big at bingo the weekend before and she told him he could get what ever outfit he wanted, and, meticulously, he did.
He'd gotten the most appropriate cool kids jeans he could find, and the perfect under and over shirts, and he'd begged his mom for a new coat, for fall and winter and, "I promise it'll be warm enough! Yes! Even in January!" He'd said when she balked at the price.
His mother had smiled at him and asked if there was anywhere else he wanted to go, did he want a new watch or anything? He knew better than to ask for a new mobile phone, so shook his head no and smiled timidly.
She'd said, "Great! Then how about we splurge a bit more and go to your favorite restaurant?"
"What about the meatloaf?" He'd asked.
"We can finish that after our left overs are gone, in a day or two, hey?" Her smile was infectious.
"Really? My Favorite favorite restaurant? We're going there?"
His mom nodded, and they arrived just as a booth was clearing, and she told him, conspiratorially over their ice teas, that they should order the most expensive things on the menu, no matter what, and they did, and it was delicious, and the server remembered his name, and the cute hostess with the glasses and the hips had mussed his hair, and he laughed along with everyone when he blushed, after they sang him their happy birthday song.
But now it was sixth period but he couldn't concentrate on anything, just stared hard at the black board, knuckles white under his long sleeves. Lunch had not gone how he'd imagined it would.
He'd walked up the cool kids' table just like he'd imagined, and tried to sit down, but Mark Jones had pushed him as he sat and he'd fallen off the end of the bench, spilling his Mac'n'Cheese on his shirt, and they'd laughed and when he managed a laugh too, they'd stopped. "Why are you laughing?" Mark asked him.
"That was funny, right?" He replied, smiling and trying to wipe the cheese sauce off his new shirt.
"But you were laughing."
"No. You don't sit there. You stink just like your mom."
He'd started to protest but Mark's cold green eyes knocked the words from his tongue and they fluttered quietly to the floor with his gaze.
Class after lunch was just as bad: Mark and two of his friends were in his next two classes, and they said his name, loudly, then whispered, laughed, glared at him.
And now, the end of the day, and the long walk home. The bell rang and everyone packed their bags, the teacher shouted the homework assignment, which he dutifully wrote down. He swallowed the knot in his throat and zipped up his new coat, all the way, dug his nose down into the high collar and trudged out of the classroom.
As he approached the gate in the fence that lead through the small wood and to his subdivision, his heart raced happily for half a moment: Mark and his two friends were there, waiting on the other side of the fence --he started to wave, but stopped. One of them tapped Mark on his arm. Mark glared at him and rolled up the sleeves of his jacket, cracked his knuckles.
The sun went behind a cloud and a cool breeze pushed a dust devil of leaves around his feet. The knot in his throat came back. He slowed his walking, and stuck his hands deep in his pockets.
His voice cracked when he shouted hello at Mark and his two friends, who strutted toward him.
He stopped walking.
"You." Mark spat.
"Yes?" He asked, trying to sound hopeful.
"You can't be in the same class as us any more."
"I can't switch classes though. It's too late."
"You can. If you don't, for every hour we have to spend in the same room as you, we're gonna spend an hour beating you up. Make sense? Seem fair? An hour for an hour?"
"What'd you say?" Mark roared and reared up, chest to chest with him. Mark's palms stung him, and he stumbled backward, had to skip step not to fall over.
"No." He said, again, louder this time. "It is not okay."
"It's true." A voice, watery and deep, agreed with him from behind his shoulder. "Whatever he said no to, it's a no."
Mark's eyes narrowed. "This isn't you."
"I disagree." came the voice, cold as an Alaskan waterfall. "For every minute you spend beating him up, I'm going to spend an hour beating you up." It quipped, "Make sense?" in a whinge.
"Whatever." Mark spat, it whistled past his ear and he flinched. Then Mark turned around and sulked off.
It took him a minute to come to his senses, to turn around and thank --thank whoever. When he turned around, though, there was no one there.