Science and English were both in building three for John, and he had last lunch, which meant he ate between third and fourth hour.
Lunch was quiet. He sat by himself and after he finished his lunch, home made sandwiches and a baggie full of chips washed down with apple juice, John worked on his homework and studiously avoided looking up from his book.
Five girls sat down, surrounding John. Three across from him and one on each side. John's neck prickled, too, and he shuddered.
"Cold?" The girl directly across from him coughed and smiled, covering her mouth with straight fingers. "Bless me!" She said.
"Goes in tight," John said, automatically. Then, realizing, he frowned, scrabbled for the German phrase.
"Gesundheit," John said, quickly, "it's German for, uh, for bless you."
"You blessed me?"
The girl, chipper, chewing gum, big blue eyes and sharp shoulders was dressed in a blue and white letter jacket and a thin blue t-shirt. Her mouth twitched. "Sort of? I sneezed."
John frowned deeper. "Look, the moment's gone. Sorry. Hi! I' --"
The chipper girl cut him off, "You're John Osborne, right? I've heard about you. I heard you were friends with Mercedes and that's not good."
"Friends?" John made a Pfft sound. "Not exactly. She went nuts and beat up some poor jock in the hallway this morning."
"She does that."
"Did she tell you about her disappeared crazy gay killer boyfriend?"
"The hell?" John said, "That was a lot of adjectives. is Mercedes's friend crazy-gay, like really-really gay, or crazy loco, and gay? Is he killer sexy boyfriend and you're jealous? Or, does he, like, actually kill people and somehow was also dating a girl?"
"Seriously? Mercedes didn't--"
"What's that?" Mercedes climbed onto the table and sat down cross-legged. John's empty thermos clattered to the ground. "Sorry about that, I'll get it in a minute. Emma and I were just about to go have a chat, weren't we Emma?"
"Emma?" John asked.
"That's me," The chipper girl was no longer chipper. She took out her gum and stuck it on the lid of John's sandwich box. He started to protest but all six girls looked at him with thunder in their throats and his protest wheedled away.
"That's gross. You're gross. John here is my friend. Please leave him alone," Mercedes said. "I'm not wearing my big girl boots today," and John snort-laughed, interrupting her.
"Again with the looks? How are those not her big girl boots? They're huge!" He waved his hands, somewhat frantically, at Mercedes' boots. "Look at them, eff eff es! How are they not big?"
Mercedes exhaled and made a show of relaxing herself before she answered, "Because I've got bigger. Emma knows what I'm talking about, anyway. Don't you, Emmy?"
Emma nodded grimly.
Mercedes chuckled. "Look," she said and put a hand on John's shoulder. "These girls are not good news, and I guarantee they're not after anything you want them to be after."
"What are you talking about?" John said. "Seriously? What is with you?"
"Look." Mercedes stopped.
The ten minute bell rang and the tables around them surged.
"John, you're new to this, aren't you?"
"Duh? I'm a freshman? I need to go. Emma, it was nice meeting you. And, uh, your friends." John stood up and, with a unhappy smirk on his face put his sandwich box into a bag, then stooped to pick up his thermos. He stood and swore and ducked. Someone behind him shrieked and stumbled, there was a scuffle behind him and when he looked back Emma, three of her friends, and Mercedes had disappeared into the crowd.
He turned around again, and looked down. A girl, red hair, heavy eye liner and another blue and white letter jacket was clutching her face, tears streaming.
"Oh my god!" John said, but before he could help her she shooed him away, stood and stumbled away into the crowd, one hand pushing and wedging at people's shoulders, the other pushed against her bloody nose.
"This is ridiculous," John said. Immediately he was flung to the floor, smashing his jaw against a chair as he fell. He started to stand up and was lifted off the ground by a kick to the stomach. "Come on!" He gasped, curled into a ball. "What is this?" He peeked an eye open. No one but the last few students filing through the doors to their class.
John sat up and sighed. He rubbed his jaw. His ribs hurt. The one minute bell rang and immediately thereafter someone behind him laughed.
Phoenix said, "You're actually getting a detention this time."
"Whatever, you already gave me a detention," John stood up. "Besides, you must've seen me get jumped by, uh, whoever just jumped on me. How can I get a detention when I've just been assaulted?"
"I just got here. You could be drunk and asleep on the floor for all I know."
"You're, like, literally insane, aren't you? I'm going to the principal," John said, and started walking toward the doors.
"Freeze or I'll say you were running away."
John laughed at that. He stopped and turned around. "I may be a freshman but I'm not an idiot, I know my limitations and no one with half a brain is gonna think a gimp tried to run away from a security guard."
"Maybe a drunk one."
John turned around and walked out of the cafeteria. "The principal's office!" He shouted as he passed through the doors.
Phoenix watched him leave, hands balled into white knuckled fists.
John looked up and down the gigantic, beige main hall of school three. To his right were the stairs to the front door. To his left were a flight of stairs to the second floor atrium and the administrative offices. In front of him, cases upon cases showcased the past: medals, trophies, state records set by long gone students. Crumbling newspaper articles.
"I said I would," John thought to himself and started toward the stairs. A hand grabbed his shoulder and roughly pushed him forward, John started to totter, but the hand held him up.
"Let's go then, drunkie."
"Seriously? I was going there anyway. Please let go of me."
"No. Walk," and Phoenix pushed him forward again. "You're getting suspended for this."
"For what?" They walked up the stairs, in a slow, jittery, gait. "What is wrong with you?" John asked, but no answer came.
The floor to ceiling windows surrounding the door to the principal's office were clean, but cracked, their safety wire bent. The door was fresh paint royal blue, but the dents in the middle were still obvious. Inside the light was the dim yellow of a salt rock.
Phoenix shoved John bodily through the door, grabbed and redirected him into a chair with a, "Sit."
To the secretary, Phoenix said, "This one's trouble."
The secretary, a gray haired, woman with spectacles and thick lipstick eyed John suspiciously. She narrowed her eyes and said, "I'll watch him carefully."
Phoenix slammed the door shut and was gone. The secretary laughed, shook her head and turned back to her computer. The waiting room was a cozy square with the secretary's desk on the far wall, next to a hallway with one door on either side. It was lit by a duo of salt lamps on either side of the secretary's desk.
After a few minutes of sitting in silence John stood up. The secretary eyed him. He sat down. She chuckled. after another minute she said, without looking up from her screen, "Tell the truth but don't embellish the truth. Just state the facts and you'll come out okay in the end."
"Sure thing kid."
More minutes tick-tocked by. Just as John was about to stand up, Mercedes barreled down the hall, pulling on a thick coat that looked for all the world like a sci-fi movie prop. The coat hissed and tightened as she passed John. She yanked the door open and stopped. She looked over her shoulder. "John," she said, "You are gonna do just fine here," and she cackled and careened all the way down the corridor, and jumped, kicked off around the corner, was gone.
"Osborne, John," A man's voice, wiry, airy, authoritative wafted down the hall. "Come in."
"Yes sir," John stood and stretched and walked down the hallway. His palmed were damp and his ears burned a little as he opened the door and blinked. The Principal's office was sparse, white, bright from lamps in three of the corners and large windows that took up most of the far wall. The Principal's desk was made of thin brass and steel rods, had a laptop and three healthy bamboo shoots on it. In front of the desk, stood two large chairs like gigantic half carved eggs with sticks shoved through them. The wall to John's left was floor to ceiling bookshelf, with the colorful copies of what John assumed were every year book ever produced at the school.
"Huh," John said.
"Please sit Mr. Osborne," The Principal said and gestured at the two comfortable, half egg chairs in front of his desk.
"From birth?" The principal asked.
"From birth, or more like Ms. ZZZZZZZZ[Mercede's last name] ah, figure?"
"Huh," John said. He put his hands on his knees.
They stared at each other for what felt like an hour before the principal blinked and said, "Well, that was a poor conversation starter. My name is YYYYY. Phoenix brought you in, eh?"
"No more sir?"
"Thought we were past formality, what with you pointing out my limp and all."
"Touché. Do you know how many kids attend this school? About five thousand. That is larger than many community colleges, but it is a high school. We do the best we can, but the fact that you're here is a sign of something, John. I talk to maybe four hundred kids a year, usually only once, with, hah, exceptions."
"Mercedes is an exception?"
"She is. She is an exceptional exception."
"Is that a good thing?"
"It's just a thing."
"Who is she?"
"She's a senior, or maybe a junior, this year. Do -- did you hear about the Halloween disaster?"
"With the kids and the fire in the house? Yeah."
"She lived through it."
"Huh. I heard there weren't any survivors."
"Reports were . . . confused on the details."
"No kidding." John stopped, his eyebrows rising without his consent. "Why are you telling me this?"
"She mentioned meeting you today."
"Should I be worried?"
"Why are you here, precisely?"
"I think the security guard Phoenix? I think he --"
"We don't bother with gender with Phoenix."
"Like I said, I think, uh, Phoenix has it in for me. I was late to class, to first hour, and then someone jumped me --"
"Who? Grey sweater? When?" YYYYY leaned forward. "When did this happen?"
"Just before I came to your office, actually."
"And Phoenix brought you here?"
"I was going to come anyway, because of the way, uh, I was treated, but yeah. Phoenix brought me."
"How many suspensions did Phoenix give you?"
"None, but two detentions."
"I have to let those stand, but I'm glad you didn't get suspended on your first day of school."
"Me too, sir."
"Well. Keep it up, Mr. Osborne. I am sorry about the detentions. I don't think it's particularly fair, but I won't ignore my security officer's choice. Do try to make it to class on time tomorrow, and the rest of the semester."
"Also, it's a good thing today is the first day of classes. I remember being a teacher and not much happens the first day of class. A syllabus gets passed out, names and ice breaking activities happen. You'll be fine. And," he laughed, "You'll have detention to dedicate yourself to homework."
"Get to fifth hour, son."
The bell marking the end of fourth hour rang.
"Yes sir. Thank you sir. For not suspending me, sir."
"You're welcome. Go. Don't dawdle."