Look, I’m not a bad guy. I’m not the first hot shot to come through these halls. Bernard isn’t the first dude who ever got roughed up because he had a D&D book in his bag. It’s just the rules, you know?
I actually like Bernard, in an indistinct sort of way. I don’t know him. He’s shaped sort of like a green bean — skinny and curved into a protective hunch — but you can tell he’s pissed off and passionate behind the eyes. No one else in our school has perfected the cold disdain he has when he talks, and he just talks himself right into my fist week after week. I wish he would quit it already.
Bernard can’t throw a punch. He tries — man, you can tell he really wants to hurt me back — but his form is all wrong and he has shitty follow-through. Sometimes, I just want to stop mid-fight and give him some instructions. I almost did once, but I really didn’t want to embarrass the dude anymore.
So I play it up. I hit the ground harder then necessary, ham my way through a couple hits. Whatever. He gets bloodied by the end of the fight and I get to crow around like I own his ass. My teammates jeer and shout like we’re gladiators or something.
You gotta understand, Bernard has been Carson’s target of choice for as long as I’ve lived here, ever since my parents bought a house on the hill when I was in fourth grade. I have no idea what the story is — it’s one of those old cliches that goes something like we were kids and when we hit middle school — but because I’m the Big Guy On Campus, it’s my job to do the actual dirty work, while Carson yells encouragingly from a safe distance.
Anyway, like I said: there are rules. Everyone knows about them. People you’re allowed to hang out with, and people you’re supposed to snub — like Bernard. Even though Alec isn’t on the team, he’s cool; so when school gets out he joins our picnic table by the parking lot where we watch the girls strut by. It’s getting to those last cool days before the bitter cold of winter hits, so all the girls are wearing sweaters and skinny jeans. Alec wolf-whistles at Deanna Sutherland as she struts on by, all auburn hair and green eyes and flirty smiles at the guys. Carson moos at a hefty sophomore girl he’s been terrorizing this year — something his girlfriend set him up to do, I don’t know. I don’t fight all of Carson’s battles.
Man, the girls are great this time of year. Like expected, senior year has been a breeze. Dad’s proud. I’ve got my college applications sent out. My friends are treating me like a king. The coach is the sort of jolly dude that calls me “son,” so long as we keep winning. I’ve just got to make it to the end of the year, and then I can quit playing the game. No more beating up nerds because Dad and Carson say they’re “lower on the food chain.” No more baseball — I like it, but it’s not my future. No more food chain.
Then a little blonde comes running up, her long hair tied into pink-bowed pigtails. She’s got a little button nose turned red with the cold, and a bright yellow coat that hangs to her knees. She’s wearing patent-leather mary janes and white tights, and there are tear stains on her chubby little cheeks.
This little blonde is Evangeline. She’s a year younger than my twin sisters, and my mom does Mommy & Me yoga with her mom on the weekends. They drink coffee and go on playdates. The three little girls tear through our house giggling and shrieking at the top of their lungs at least twice a week.
Evangeline is Bernard’s little sister.
And yep, there’s Bernard chasing behind her, his tattered bag over one shoulder and his car keys in hand. He pauses a few feet back, as Evangeline stops in front of our table and screws up her little face to glare at me. The guys are both perplexed and charmed. There’s a pit in my stomach.
“Why did you hurt my brother?” she demands in that little mouse-squeak of a voice. She’s looking right at me, like the rest of the guys aren’t sitting there. They all turn to look at me as well. Bernard seems to realize the logical problem here as well, because his concern morphs into grim amusement, and he stops acting like he’s about to snatch her away.
No, instead he leaves me sitting there, looking like an idiot while a crying little girl sniffles and frowns at me.
I clear my throat. “I don’t know what — ”
“Right there! Bernie!”
Evangeline runs back to grab Bernard’s hand, and pulls him to the table. The black eye I gave him yesterday is coming along nicely, and his knuckles are still scraped. She points to each injury like she’s giving evidence to a jury. “Look at all those boo-boos! How could you give my big Bernie all those hurts?” She is simultaneously adorable and terrifying.
I wish I could shrink under the table and hide. If she had been a teacher or my dad, I could have pulled off the bravado routine and gotten away with a slap on the wrist. If she were another student, I could just be a dick and blow her off. If she had been my mother, I could have admitted how much pressure I was under to be the cool guy.
But she’s a little girl. I can’t deny her anguish without being an unbearable asshole, nor can I admit fault without becoming a pussy in the eyes of the guys who matter. Carson watches like he can smell the blood in the water.
“I — ”
“He’s really nice, you know!” She sniffles again, and smears the tears on her face with her hands. “He reads me stories and paints my nails and plays dolls with me.”
Alec makes some choking noise at this revelation, his sharp glance shifting to Bernard.
Stop it, you’re not helping either of us! I want to shout at her, but it’s too late, isn’t it? Bernard even looks just a little bit sorry, but not nearly sorry enough. For the first time, I actually want to punch him. Instead, I clear my throat. “It sounds like Bernard is very nice to you,” I say in a slow, measured voice. I clear my throat again and continue, “Sometimes, we’re not always nice to each other. And it’s hard to understand — ”
“You’re a meanie!” she shrieks, and now the girls are looking. More importantly, they’re starting to look at me like maybe I am a meanie. “My momma told me that if I — ” she hiccups and gets caught taking sharp deep breaths before she calms down again, her voice shaking with tears. There is no way I come out of this with any reputation to speak of. It seems like the whole school is watching me as this little girl sobs and rubs the toe of her shiny little shoes in the grass. “Momma said we should call out bullies,” she manages in a much smaller voice, that seems to carry right through the courtyard.
I am the monster at the end of this book. I am a goner, I am dropping down the food chain as every second ticks by.
Even Bernard has clearly had his fill of it, his face gone sour as he reaches down and picks her up. At the same time I stand up and round the table to stand in front of her, Carson on my left. With Bernard holding her up, we’re eye to eye.
“You’re right.” I give her a wide smile that I in no way feel. She stares at me with watery brown eyes. “I’m sorry. I was being a bully. I shouldn’t have hurt your brother. He didn’t do anything wrong.” It’s too quiet. Even though most of the courtyard isn’t really watching on, the people standing nearby may as well be munching on popcorn, for as transfixed as they are on this little drama. “Would you like to hit me back?”
She shudders and rears back like this hadn’t occurred to her, as though a physical retribution wasn’t something she considered. “Hit you?” she asks, her voice gathering a bit of strength.
“Yes. It’s not easy, though; you can’t just ball up your fist and swing your arm.” I only shift my eyes to Bernard for a second. “You have to use your whole body to throw a punch. I can show you, if you want.”
She turns her prim little nose up. “No. I’m not a bully. Learn to be nicer, Faris. Momma says we’ll be visiting tomorrow for cake. Ready to go, Bernie?”
Bernard nods and plants a kiss on her forehead. I swear to God, Deanna Sutherland swoons. “Of course.” He sets her down, and casts me the wariest of glances — just a moment, a small nod of acknowledgment that could mean Thanks or could mean When I do an Internet search about how to throw a punch, I am so coming back at you. It’s hard to say.
Carson stands up and swings an arm around my shoulder a little too hard. “So, are you and Big Bernie BFFs now?”
Oh well. I had a good run. It’s not like I’m the first person in high school to learn that hard way that you’re either in or you’re out.