I don't remember when I first met him. We'd gone to the same school for long enough. We'd had classes together almost every year. But I couldn't remember when I first noticed him. Or, rather, I couldn't remember when I first noticed him noticing ME. It was a mute point, I suppose. The point was, I could feel his eyes boring into me like the lasers of a sniper rifle. I could always feel his eyes on me.
It confused me, really. I wasn't anything special. Just a thirteen year old guy like the rest of them, but with messy blond hair and bright green eyes. I wasn't good at sports. More often than not, my nose could be found crammed into a book. Needless to say, I wasn't the most social thing around. Just Arthur Kirkland; the kid who would rather discuss the existence of some mythical creature than talk about sports. I was painfully aware that this made me different. No one else in the 8th grade seemed to share my fascination with nymphs and fairies. It took me years to learn that it was best to keep my head down about the subject rather than attempt to find anyone who shared any interest in it.
Even today, I chose to keep my head low as I scribbled in on a scratch sheet of paper. My arm acted as a barrier to keep the guy beside me, Ivan, from being able to glimpse the unicorn that had taken shape beneath my pencil. Across the room from me, Alfred sat there, an arm lazily resting on his twin brother's shoulder. Of the two, anyone's eyes would have immediately been drawn to Alfred first. Sometimes, it was as though Matthew wasn't even there. He was just the tag-along who never seemed to tire of listening to his brother's stories. Today was no different.
"It's not about where we go," I could hear him explaining; as if the knowledge he was about to drop was the most important Matthew was likely to hear all day. "It's about the adventure! Think about it, Matt. Camping in the great outdoors, fending for ourselves, being real men-"
"But... Al... It's just our back yard. And mom's cooking the hotdogs for us. And our yard is fenced. What would we be fending ourselves from?" Matt asked nervously, as if he wasn't used to speaking up against his twin.
"I don't know, bugs?" Alfred sighed in frustration. "But you're missing the point! Don't you want to have some fun, Matt?" Without giving him a chance to answer, Alfred nodded to himself, "Of course you do. Now no chickening out. Not this time."
I knew I shouldn't have been eavesdropping, but I couldn't help it. No one was louder in the classroom than Alfred. He drew attention to himself like flees to honey. Even though others were having their own little discussions, waiting for homeroom to be over so we could get to lunch, I could tell that at least half of them were listening to Al rant and rave to Matt just like I was, though some less discreetly. I didn't dare look up, though. Being caught listening was the last thing I wanted to happen. Still, as I moved my pencil along the shape of a hoof, I felt the familiar prickle on the back of my neck. I couldn't hear him talking any more, and it took all my will power to not look up and return the gaze I could feel was inevitable upon me. It was pathetic. Utterly pathetic. Normally, I was just the small guy who was there, but when Al was around, I couldn't escape the paranoid feeling of being watched.
Turns out, though, you aren't paranoid if someone really is out to get you.
After a minute of forcing myself to keep my head down, I finally chanced a glance at Alfred, only to find his blue eyes, barely hidden behind his glasses, staring straight at me. At first I could have sworn I saw a smile flick across his lips, but then he seemed to stiffen and frown. My face growing beat red, I turned away, pretending to get something out of my back pack before returning to my reclusive position of bending over my drawing. I gulped past the lump in my throat, unable to move as I heard him mutter to Matthew, "Be right back."
Not a moment later, he was hovering by my shoulder. I didn't look up to see him, but I spied him bouncing on the heels of his sneakers through a gap between my arm and the desk.
"What happened to your cheek?" If I'd actually had any, his voice would have shattered any concentration I was actually paying to the sketch before me. I lifted my head slowly; unable to help but notice that Ivan's eyes were on us curiously. Reluctantly, I touched my jaw and turned to look at Alfred, covering up the bruise and scrape that had formed there.
"Nothing," I lied, looking to the left of his glasses' frame rather than in his eyes. This only seemed to make him more determined.
"It doesn't look like nothin'. Come on, what happened?"
"If you don't mind," I murmured in my best attempt to be as polite as possible about the situation, "I think it's not really your business. So..." I looked down, away from his suspicious eyes, and turned back to my drawing. I was positive that he was fishing for some grand, heroic story. It was what he seemed to live for, after all. But it was one I couldn't provide. Instead, I heard him clear his throat behind me, as if to say he wasn't done.
"Why did you pack two lunches?" he asked, pointing to my open back pack. Reflexively, I grabbed it and held it closed, hastily zipping it up.
"Again, not your business. Now if you would kindly leave me be..." I glared up at him, glad I was wearing a jacket and long pants so he couldn't nitpick every scratch and bruise I had. He seemed to stare back at me as if it were his one and only true right and privilege in the world, until I felt like I was going to burn under the scorching scrutiny of his gaze. He didn't seem to keen on letting any of it go, but a moment later he was forced to. The bell signaling lunch finally rang, making my heart skip a beat. Usually, I took my time packing up, less than enthused about what the lunch bell meant, but today it almost seemed better than Alfred's penetrating gaze. I pushed past him and was one of the first out of the room before he had time to ask me anything else.
Once outside the classroom, though, my heart started pounding. I clenched my back pack tightly and made my way through the crowd to an emptier hall, already knowing what lay in store for me. I never went straight to lunch. I couldn't. I knew that if I tried to, it only meant I would regret it after school. My stomach formed its usual knots as I turned a corner into one of the more deserted ends of the school. The lack of people always made it worse. So much worse. I could feel my mouth going dry and couldn't hear my own footfalls over the sound of my heart. After rounding one last corner, there he was. Gilbert. Red eyes shown beneath his dark hair, his hands stuffed in his pockets. He'd been waiting for me. In the same spot he did every day. I tried to gulp, but my throat was too dry. Automatically, I stopped at the end of the hall, my eyes wide as I waited for him to notice my presence. It didn't take him very long. As soon as he saw me, there was a smirk on his face. "Right on time," he sneered, shoving off the wall. "Where is it?" Immediately, I plunged my hand into my back pack and withdrew one of the bag lunches, tossing it to him so I wouldn't have to get any closer. I hoped he couldn't tell that I was barely keeping from shivering, hugging my bag way too tight. Distracted, he opened the bag and inspected. He seemed to frown. "This sandwich looks disgusting." I stiffened, clutching the ends of my shirt and waiting for it to come. He wasn't pleased. Once again, I hadn't been able to pack something that would satisfy him. He dropped the lunch to the floor and stepped ominously toward me. I backed up until I hit a wall, shudders wracking my body as fear gripped me from the navel, as if to pull me inside out. When he was a foot away from me, he slammed his hand into the locker, just behind my ear, making me close my eyes as tightly as I could. I wanted to be anywhere but there. I wanted to be far away.
I felt his free hand roughly grab my jaw, and despite myself, I began mouthing, "This isn't real. Fairies are real. This isn't real. Unicorns are real. This isn't real..." But the more I listed, the more I could feel his hot breath on my face.
"Your fantasy world can't save you this time, you little fuck," he snarled, shoving me sideways so I crashed with the ground. My arm broke my fall, but only barely. I couldn't tell if it was sprained or just bruised, just yet. Gilbert towered over me, pulling back his foot for another blow.
"Hey; Buttwipe!" Both Gilbert and my head wiped around to see Alfred standing at the end of the hall, his hands balled into fists in anger. "Get away from him!"
Gilbert snorted and shot back, "Why, is he your girlfriend?" He shot a glance at me that made me whimper. Alfred seemed unbothered.
"Get away from Arthur. Now."
It was that statement that seemed to make Alfred snap. Even though Gilbert had to be twice his size, Alfred rushed at him, aiming a punch square in his stomach. I could hear the air rush from the older boy's lungs and a curse slip from his lips. The rest happened so fast that I couldn't entirely make it out from my position on the floor. At some point, I could see Gilbert punch Alfred twice, once in the mouth and once in the nose, both drawing blood. Al had to have gotten a few good hits in, as well, for by the time a teacher finally found us and broke them apart, Gilbert was limping. Alfred refused to leave my side, so we ended up being escorted off together.
We were the only ones in the nurse's office. Alfred's lip had stopped bleeding, but he still had to press a paper towel to his nose to stop the angry flow there. I tried to keep my eyes on the icepack wrapped to my wrist, but they kept being dragged up to find Al staring at me, even though there was a fresh new crack in his glasses.
"You didn't have to do that," I mumbled, averting my eyes.
He snorted in response - which made him wince at his (most likely) broken nose. "Don't be dumb. Of course I did." There was an arrogance about how he said it, as if it were his one and only duty, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. "If I hadn't stepped in, he would have beaten you to a pulp. And you would be out of a lunch."
"I packed two," I told him quietly, adjusting the ice on my arm. This seemed to make his focus sharpen on me even more.
"Arthur... How long had he been doing this - before today?"
"I don't know..." I squirmed under his gaze, refusing to meet it. "A... a month... or two."
"Arthur!" He dropped the paper towel, causing a trickle of blood to stream down to his lip. "Why didn't you tell anyone?"
Setting my jaw, I got up and took the paper towel from him, cleaning the little trail that dripped down his face before pressing it to his nose. I made myself stare at it instead of meeting his eyes, which seemed to be glaring holes in me. "I was handling it.," I said quietly.
"No, you weren't." He poked my previously bruised cheek. "Obviously."
Frowning, I turned my head away so he couldn't see yesterday's reminder of Gilbert and his abuse. Quietly, so quietly I was half sure he wouldn't hear, I whispered, "It's none of your business."
I felt his hand on my chin, forcing me to look at him. "I'm making it my business." I couldn't pull myself away - he was too strong. I tried, though. Desperate to get away, I gripped his wrist with my iced hand, trying to tug him off. Finally, he took pity on me and released my jaw, instead taking the paper towel from my head so I could stumble away and back to my chair, clutching the ice wrapped to my wrist just as the nurse walked back in.
"The principal is dealing with Gilbert," she informed us, moving to inspect Alfred's nose. "Don't worry. Not even a sprain. Your parents have been called. They'll be here to get you soon." At the wide eyed look on my face, she clucked her tongue and chirped, "Oh, now; don't worry. You aren't in trouble. It's just a formality."
"R-right..." I murmured, looking down. Alfred, of course, seemed completely unbothered, as if butting in and getting into these sorts of fights happened to him on a regular basis. Well, if half the stories he jabbered about in class were true, I guess he must have. As soon as the nurse left, I rounded on Alfred again.
"You don't even care that you got hurt, do you?" I demanded.
"'Course I do," he shrugged indifferently. "But I did the right thing. So... It was worth it. Nobody deserves to be bullied like that." He sounded so sure, so secure in this notion. As if it were just so black and white. Good is good. Bad is bad. Albert was good, Gilbert was bad. Defending good, bullying bad. Somewhere in that logic, it seemed as though he'd decided I was good. I wasn't entirely sure I agreed, or how he came to that conclusion, but there was just as much doubt in me that he might listen if I were to ever argue otherwise. Instead, I let the subject drop and we ended up sitting in silence the rest of the time until our mums finally came to pick us up. I should have savored that silence. It was the last bit I would have around him for a long time.