Arthur stepped out of the car, stepped into the school, and had to fight down every urge to step right out again.
He knew high school was considered an oppressive force, but this was downright ridiculous. He could feel himself suffocate right when he entered through the doors.
"Come on, Arthur," he muttered to himself, straightening his jacket. "You've switched schools before. You can do it again. Who knows, maybe you'll only stay in this one for a month before being shipped off to God knows where…"
He suppressed a groan before shifting his backpack onto one shoulder, bracing himself, and finally stepping into the school.
This wasn't natural.
The high school was practically silent.
Where were all the rowdy, misbehaving juvenile delinquents? The gossipy girls? The popular bullies?
Dear goodness, he had been watching too many idiotic American movies.
But still, the school was eerily calm. The students maneuvering through the hallways were quiet and stiff, afraid to make eye contact with each other. They barely even noticed Arthur's arrival, which Arthur didn't mind at all. He didn't need another school gaping at his sweater vests or foaming at the mouth at his accent, though admittedly that was a reaction found mostly in American schools than anything else, which he was glad to say he wasn't attending.
Arthur pulled his folded schedule out of his pocket and flattened it out to read it. English class. He certainly needed a good dose of a proper Language Arts class. Ever since he lived in the United States for a brief but painful half a year, he felt as if all his previous knowledge of grammar had been sapped away.
"Pardon me," Arthur said, tapping a student on the shoulder. He turned around, his hair curl nearly batting Arthur on the nose. "Do you know where room two hundred and fifteen is?"
"O-oh!" the student exclaimed. He glanced around nervously as if to catch any predators stalking him. "Yes, I do. That's my class, actually."
"Can you take me there?" Arthur repeated. The young boy nodded feverishly before abruptly taking Arthur by the hand and pulling him forward. Arthur was taken aback by the action, but he couldn't pull his hand away from the other boy's grasp.
"Are you new here?" the student asked as they made their way through the crowded hallway. The student even had to lower his voice to speak as to not disturb the peace.
"Yes," Arthur sighed, following the boy up the stairs to the second floor. "It's rather bothersome to enter halfway through the school year, I'm afraid."
The student nodded, but Arthur highly doubted that he was even listening to him. Arthur shrugged to himself; he didn't expect to be paid attention to. He was the new student after all. No one knew him here, and likewise.
"Here we are," the student announced, nudging Arthur toward a classroom on the second floor. "Go on and introduce yourself to the teacher."
"Thanks," Arthur said genuinely before entering the room. He turned around to face the boy but he had already run off. Arthur frowned to himself. There was certainly something different about this school that he wasn't used to. Pushing the concern aside, he approached the teacher's desk.
"Mrs…." He glimpsed down at the name plate on the desk. "Mrs. Theresa?"
A young woman looked up from her papers to Arthur. "Oh! Arthur Kirkland, aren't you? The new student?"
"Yes," Arthur said. No one else was in the room except him and the teacher.
"Welcome to my English class," she said, smiling kindly. "Ah, your new seat…" She peered over Arthur's shoulder. "Well…the only empty seat we have in this class is—the second seat in the third row."
"Thank you kindly," Arthur said before taking his seat. He sat awkwardly in silence while the teacher returned to her work. He had been in this school building for less than seven minutes and he was already beginning to hate it.
The early bell finally rang. A flurry of quick footsteps sounded out in the halls as students hurried to their first class. Finally, some students were filing into the English class without making as much as a peep. Arthur sighed exasperatedly and shrugged before opening his backpack and extracting his notebooks.
Somebody gave a sharp gasp that surprised Arthur enough to look up immediately. A blond bespectacled boy stood by the doorway, his violet eyes gaping at Arthur as if he saw a ghost. Arthur furrowed his eyebrows confusedly before the boy finally shook back to reality and hastily took his seat behind Arthur. Arthur, bemused by the reaction, turned in his seat toward him.
"Are you all right?" Arthur asked.
"What?" the boy asked, his voice as weak and delicate as a butterfly. "O-oh! Of course…of course." His voice trailed away into nothingness as he directed his gaze to his desk. Arthur pressed on.
"I'm sorry. I must have given you a fright," Arthur said. "Though I can't say I know why…" If it was the eyebrows again, he had no control over it.
"It's fine!" the nervous boy said hurriedly. "It's just…" He hesitated before distracting himself with his pencil pouch. Arthur shrugged before turning back to the front of the room.
But as more and more students entered the classroom, the more uncomfortable Arthur became. The quiet student sitting behind him was not the only one who reacted strangely to Arthur's presence. Some students gaped at him with shock, others raised an eyebrow at him, one particular boy who looked peculiarly like the student who led Arthur to the classroom involuntarily shouted a curse word the moment he saw Arthur. Arthur tried to act as if none of it unnerved him, but he secretly checked his reflection on the back of his calculator, wondering if it really was the eyebrows that frightened everyone.
"Looks like I will fit in perfectly," Arthur muttered dryly to himself.
"It isn't you," a voice perked up beside him. Arthur spun around, surprised. A blond man with wavy and long blond hair was lounging in the desk beside him, his blue eyes scrutinizing Arthur carefully.
"I beg your pardon?" Arthur said, raising an eyebrow.
"It's just the desk you're sitting in, is all," the other said loftily. "We're so used to it being empty."
"People here aren't very much up to change, are they?" Arthur commented lowly. The blond teen gave Arthur a long look before shrugging and conversing with others.
"Oh yes, and Arthur?" Arthur looked up to see Mrs. Theresa before his desk, holding out a small white book. "We've just begun reading this novel. You'll only have to read the first five chapters on your own. There's a sticky note on the back of the front cover—please write your name on it."
"Thank you," Arthur said before taking the book. The title, Ordinary People, was plastered in tall, bold letters on the crinkled paperback cover. Arthur turned over the front cover and whipped out his pen to etch his name on it. There was only one other name on it—the previous owner's name. Alfred F. Jones. Arthur grimaced before scratching out that name and marking his own. If that Alfred Jones character was the one who so carelessly reduced the novel to such a dog-eared state, he knew whom not to lend his things.
The late bell rang, signifying the beginning of yet another tiring journey also known as a typical school day. Mrs. Theresa closed the classroom door with a resonating bang.
"All right, class, settle down," she said out of habit, even though the students were already soft-spoken as if they were in a chapel.
"As you can see, we've got a new student joining our crew," Mrs. Theresa said casually, shuffling through the haystacks of papers mounded on her desk. She nodded toward Arthur. "Mr. Kirkland, would you mind passing out these essays? Maybe this way you can learn the names of your classmates while you're at it."
"Took you four weeks to grade all our essays," one snarky student commented.
"You know how I am with essays and students like you all," Mrs. Theresa said, handing Arthur the thick pile of papers. Each essay might have been at least six pages.
"All right, let's see," Arthur sighed, standing at the front of the room. "Francis Bonnefoy?"
"Venez à moi, ma jolie," the blond sitting next to Arthur's seat sang. Arthur frowned at the flowery flurry of confusing French before handing him his essay.
"Lovino Vargas," Arthur announced. An embittered boy with auburn hair and the derogatory words hanging off his tongue raised his hand reluctantly, tearing the essay out of Arthur's hands when he approached him. Arthur also handed his twin Feliciano his essay, who nervously took it as if afraid that Arthur might jump him if he dared.
"Gilbert Beilschmidt?" Arthur read out.
"The one and only," a white-haired teen said, lazily raising a hand in the air. Arthur tossed it at him.
"Matthew Williams Jones?" Arthur said. His mind vaguely flicked toward the yellow post-it note in his book. The quiet blond-haired boy shyly raised his hand. Arthur handed it over before turning to the next essay.
"Alfred F. Jones?" Arthur announced.
It was as if an entire boulder came crashing onto the classroom and squelched even the slightest sound or movement.
For a moment, Arthur thought he had said some horrific curse word. People stiffened or shuddered as if they saw a ghost. No one made a sound; it was as if everyone was holding their breath, afraid to cause a single stir in the room. It felt like the temperature in the room dropped several degrees and froze everyone into ice.
"Um…Alfred F. Jones?" Arthur repeated uncertainly, scanning the room for a sign of acknowledgement. Matthew winced in the back and recoiled deeper into his seat. Lovino glared at the chalkboard, his hands clutching his knees under his desk so tightly they were shaking.
"I'm sorry," Mrs. Theresa's voice broke the silence quietly. "Could you give that to me, Mr. Kirkland? He's not in this class anymore."
"I see," Arthur said softly before returning the paper to Mrs. Theresa. He continued passing out the essays as the classroom was trapped in a stiffer silence. Arthur's mind would not leave the event even when the lesson began and he was supposed to be concentrating on the book. Alfred F. Jones…the same one previously owned and ruined the book that was now in Arthur's possession. What was so special about him?
When class ended, there was no excited dash for the door or sighs of relief. Everyone moved like tin soldiers, soulless and empty. Arthur felt extremely exposed and uncertain in the midst of all these strangers. This had to be some sort of alternate reality. Surely he was drugged, kidnapped, and secretly slipped into a world of robots and he was being tested by his fairy friends. This couldn't actually be reality.
"She would forget something like that," he overheard Romano mutter to Feliciano. Feliciano bowed his head and quickened his steps. Arthur furrowed his eyebrows but did not raise a question. He doubted that it would make a good impression.
"Um, excuse me?" Arthur tapped Matthew's soldier. Matthew jolted with surprise before turning to Arthur. "I'm terribly sorry, but could you please help me find room one forty-nine? I'm having trouble finding my way here."
"Of course," Matthew said shyly. "Just follow me."
Arthur nodded and obediently dogged Matthew's footsteps. Up close he could see that Matthew's face was a shade grayer than most people and that there were dark, sickly shadows under his violet eyes. He fought down the urge to inquire.
"Matthew Jones, am I correct?" Arthur said casually, giving a try with the small talk.
"Yes," Matthew murmured. "Arthur Kirkland? Where did you move from?"
"The question is where have I not moved from?" Arthur sighed. Matthew tentatively smiled before bowing his head.
"So…" Arthur tried again, though admittedly his willpower was being sapped away by the second. "Does Mrs. Theresa always take a long time to grade essays?"
Matthew licked his lips nervously. "Um, I guess. Well—sort of. Yes, most of the time."
To Arthur's surprise, the cell phone in his backpack suddenly blared God Save the Queen loudly like a bullhorn. In comparison to the deadly silent hallways, it was as loud as the trumpets of Judgment Day. Arthur's face immediately turned beet red as he quickly fished through his backpack. Students cast him confused and rather amused glances as they passed him through the hallway.
"Please—pardon me," Arthur stuttered as he fumbled to pull out his cell phone that was still screaming the British anthem in a horrifying falsetto. He angrily flipped it open and pressed it against his ear.
"Hello, Arthur Kirkland speaking, how may I help you?" he grunted through gritted teeth.
"Jerk!" a familiar voice screeched from the other end, still prepubescent and innocent. "You took my lunch, didn't you?"
Arthur gave an exasperated sigh. "Peter, I'm in the middle of school. You know that."
"It isn't a good enough excuse for you to take my lunch!" Peter Kirkland whined. Arthur squeezed the bridge of his nose frustratingly. Secondary school-aged brothers—how could anyone stand them? "Your lunches are always disgusting because you make them yourself!"
"I'll have you know that spotted dick is delicious!" Arthur snapped. "You should be glad you're eating it. I'm stuck with your plain bread and butter sandwich."
"You could have at least chosen something to eat that had a better name," Peter whined, his voice crackling in the cell phone. "What am I supposed to do if kids ask me what I ate for lunch? Tell them I'm eating spotted—"
"I've got to go, Peter!" Arthur said hastily. "I need to get to class! See you after school!" Before Peter could squeeze in another word, Arthur clamped the cell phone shut and let out a sigh.
"I'm sorry," Arthur said through gritted teeth. "My little brother thought it necessary to call me in the middle of class to complain about his lunch."
Matthew cracked a small smile. "How old is he?" he asked as they continued on their way.
"He's twelve," Arthur sighed. "Brothers. Can't live with them…can't live with them still."
Matthew let out a nervous laugh that made Arthur frown with bemusement. Matthew's chuckle was extremely strained as if he could barely force it out.
"Have you got any siblings?" Arthur asked curiously.
Matthew's smile immediately fell from his face. He stared blankly before him as if everything was sapped out of him in a split second. For a moment Arthur was convinced that Matthew must have died walking and all that was left was an animated corpse. It only lasted for a brief moment; Matthew shook back to reality. He glanced at Arthur and hesitated before shaking his head.
"No," he said tiredly. "I don't have any brothers."
He didn't speak for the rest of the way.