They giggled as they walked past. He didn't look up, but she could tell he thought they were laughing at him. His fingers clutched tighter around the book he had his face buried in.
Everyone but them had already left school. They chatted on, about school, about relationships, but most of all about the party she and Bo were throwing on Halloween.
"Let's get outta here. We're probably bothering the scarecrow," Fiona whispered. Erin and Anne snickered.
"Shh, he can hear us!" Rita warned. She had only joined the school this semester.
The others giggled again, but Sherry felt a pang of regret. Her eyes shifted to the lonely figure. She turned back to her friends and smiled.
"Oh, wait, I forgot something. I gotta run back. I'll catch you guys later."
"Okay, Sher. See ya."
She waved as they left. Soon there were just the two of them left. She hesitated, then sat down next to him on the bench. He looked tense, like he was on the verge of running away.
Neither of them said anything. He flipped the page, taking a few tries before succeeding. She raised her hand and coughed to cover her smile. He was so incredibly awkward.
His looks didn't help any, either. Tall and skinny, with big and unwieldy glasses framing his face. He was the type who would always be picked on, no matter where he was or how he acted. The fact he was a complete nerd just made it worse.
He always stayed late at school if no one bothered to chase him away. Everyone said it was just because he was a nerd, but she wasn't sure. Her momma said he lived alone with his grandma. Sherry had only seen the woman once, when she was little, but it was enough to make her never want to meet the old hag again.
He raised his head. He looked surprised that she'd used his name. It faded soon, however, right back into the disinterested look he always wore.
He had the saddest eyes she'd ever seen. She could never look into them when she laughed. It made her feel like she was kicking a puppy.
He turned his head back down to the book. She looked around the empty hallways. It was eerily quiet. Probably why he stayed here.
She bent down to read the title of the book. Alice in Wonderland. She leaned back up.
"You know, I heard the author was a pedophile."
His jaw clenched but he didn't say anything. She frowned. He was a horrible conversationalist too.
It was painful to watch. Everything about him was odd. He would never fit in at Arlen.
Maybe he'd do better once he finished school. He could go somewhere else, to some fancy university. That's were smart people like him went.
"Got any plans after this year? After you finish, I mean."
He raised his head again. He breathed in audibly.
"I'm thinking about Gotham."
She blinked. Gotham? The mob city?
"The crime capital? Why?"
"Good university. Far away."
She twiddled with her skirt.
His head went back down. She squirmed. He really hated this place so much he was willing to risk life and limb just to get as far away as possible?
"Well, good luck with that," she offered.
"Thanks," he muttered into the pages.
She ran a hand through her hair.
"So, uh. Me and Bo are having a Halloween party. Would you…like to come?"
He hadn't even looked up. She swallowed thickly.
"C'mon. It'll be okay, I promise. I just want you to have some good memories of this place. Please?"
He slowly raised his eyes to meet hers.
"I-I'll think about it."
He was blushing terribly. He stood quickly and muttered something she guessed was supposed to be "Goodbye". He hurried away, walking like each step required a concentrated effort.
She sighed. She wasn't even sure how she was going to make it work. Getting everyone to lay off would be difficult. Bo would need real coaxing.
She sighed again as he left her view.
That boy would be the death of her.
"You lied! Lied! Li-i-i-ied!" Aretha Franklin screams at them. Sherry curls her lip at the radio. Bo turns it off with a practiced, lazy movement. She gives him a deadpan stare.
"I hate you."
"Oh, come on. You thought it was funny. Admit it."
She lets her head rest against the window.
"Yeah. I'm horrible."
He puts a hand on her shoulder.
"Hey. Stop it. It's just old scarecrow. He'll get over it. You'll see. In just a few days he'll be back to his geeky self. Just ignore him."
She glares daggers at him.
"I promised him. I told you that. You said you…" She sighs. "Why did you have to do it?"
He shrugs, a sheepish smile on his face.
"How was I supposed to know he'd freak out like that? The knife was so obviously fake, anyone but him would have figured it out. And c'mon. The look on his face was priceless."
She giggles. It was.
"We're all horrible. What if he commits suicide, or, or, or does something just as terrible?"
He hugs her.
"Don't be scared. He won't." He kisses her forehead. "He doesn't have the guts, anyway." She pushes him away. His hand creeps back onto her shoulder as he talks.
"In a few months he'll move away, meet other people just like him. He'll forget all about this. We'll all meet at a reunion a few years from now and you'll get along fine. He won't hold a grudge for something so stupid. Not that you should care what he thinks."
He strokes her hair, then goes on.
"It'll all be okay, baby. It was just a prank. It was stupid and I admit it. Okay?"
She stares back at him and sighs.
"Okay. I forgive you."
He grins devilishly as he leans closer.
"Baby, you're too good for me."
She moves closer to him, a smile on her face.
Something makes her break off and look up. A twig snapping, leaves rustling loudly, she isn't sure. But it feels as if someone just walked over her grave.
It jumps in front of the car, coming out of nowhere. For one moment everything slows down.
Its tattered clothing moves in the breeze.
The leaves and branches sway.
Its hand rises.
She sees it fully now.
A stitched smile.
Then its eyes.
They aren't just sad anymore.
The air fills with horrific laughter, gunfire, screams and the squealing of tires and everything moves faster, as if to make up for the earlier lull. In an instant the figure disappears and instead a tree rushes up, filling her view, growing larger and larger and…