"Can I sit here?"
Steve looked up surprised to see who had spoken to him in such a cheery tone. He always ate lunch by himself, everyone knew that. His eyes met sparkling blue ones that belonged to a red headed boy with a goofy smile.
"No" He replied a little too quickly without thinking.
"Ok then" The other boy bounded away to find another more accepting table where he placed his tray down.
Steve ran his fingers coolly through his sandy hair. He didn't care that someone else wanted to sit with him. Not really. He was above all that and anyone who cared about their lunch money knew. Still he couldn't help sneaking a glance at the boy who was sitting a few tables away. He was now chatting animatedly to a table full of drama geeks. Steve sneered and went back to his sandwich.
The next day Steve returned to his usual spot and was about to take a bite of his apple when the same boy came up to him.
"Can I sit here?" He asked with the same goofy smile.
"No" Steve said again, but this time a little more slowly. He noticed that some of those sitting near him had paused their lunches to see how Steve Blade was going to handle this interaction. "No" He repeated, "I like to eat alone" and he went back to eating his apple, signifying the conversation was over. He looked up a few minutes later to find the boy sitting with the same group as yesterday.
Steve shouldn't have been surprised as he was when the next day he was asked the same question.
"Can I sit here?"
Steve's curiosity had gotten the better of him. "Who the hell are you?"
The boys eyes widened. "Mommy says you must never use that word. The Lord doesn't like it"
"Oh yeah?" Steve raised an eyebrow at the boy who was now nodding profusely.
"My name's Connor" The boy said, his smile spreading wider.
"Good for you" Steve said uninterestedly going back to his apple and ignoring the hand that was outstretched towards him.
"I'm new" Connor said, still beaming.
Connor opened and closed his mouth a few times trying to find something to continue their conversation. Steve looked over to the table Connor usually sat at to find all its occupants staring at the scene unfold.
"Do you want something?"
"I just wondered if I could sit here" Connor eagerly replied perching his tray on the edge of the table ready to sit down.
"Well you can't, I like my privacy"
"Oh" Steve watched the smile falter for the first time and followed Connor with his eyes as he sat down in his usual place. Who was this kid? And what did he want? Steve was really hoping he was going to be able to eat his lunch in peace the next day but as he approached his table his heart sunk. Connor was already sitting there waiting expectantly.
"What do you want?"
"Do you want to sit with me?"
"No" He looked around the tables closest to him where he could swear people were spreading out more and closing up the gaps. He sighed and placed his tray down opposite Connor.
"What's your name?"
"Steve? I like that name" Connor beamed. Steve kept his head down and finished his lunch in silence consciously aware that he was being scrutinised. He finished quickly and left the cafeteria with as much dignity as he could feeling many eyes on his back.
He moved quickly through the halls and stopped outside his locker. He opened it and stuck his head in, away from the noise outside, and let out a long breath. Connor's shiny blue eyes and tousled red hair seemed to have burned their way onto his eyes and as hard as he tried he couldn't shake that smile from his memory.
Nobody ever wanted to talk to him. Ever. He was the school bully and he was proud of that title. He could effortlessly walk down a hallway at a busy time and not be pushed or bumped into at all. He liked the way that boys and girls moved away from him, always leaving a spare seat at the back for him.
And then along came this new kid who didn't know how the rules worked. Well Steve would just have to show him then.
Steve put on what he thought was his most charming smile at lunch the next day as Connor approached. "Can I sit-"
"Yes please!" Steve pre-empted enthusiastically clearing a space for Connor to put dpwn his tray. Connor hesitated for a split second then joyously sat next to him.
Steve wasn't used to having conversations with other boys his age, so he just stared down at his mac n cheese hoping Connor would say something.
"You have such pretty eyes"
Ok so he wasn't expecting that. He looked up to see Connor staring intently at him. "Oh yeah?" he smiled nervously, feeling just a little bit flattered.
"They're so green!" Connor enthused before giggling shyly and burying his head in his salad. Steve could see the blush clearly spreading across his cheeks.
"Thanks I guess" He said not really knowing how to react, "Umm…yours are so blue?"
"They are?" Connor's face lit up in a way that to Steve made him look sort of…beautiful? No that wasn't the right word. He wasn't sure how to describe it but it made him feel strangely giddy and uneasy at the same time. Steve shook himself internally, he was meant to be making Connor learn who's boss around here.
"Listen, uh, you wanna meet up sometime? Just to uh, hang out or something?"
Connor's smile spread wider. "When?"
"Tomorrow recess? I'll meet you behind the bushes with the blue flowers on them, down by the side of the science labs"
"But we aren't supposed to go there" Connor said quietly.
"Well I am"
"Really? Why?" Connor asked his voice full of unearned admiration for Steve.
"Uh, I have a special pass. Anyway" he said before his lie got too out of hand, "I'll see you there"
He gave Connor a small smile and then left the room a trail of gazes following him.
"Have you made any new friends dear?" Mrs McKinley asked her son as she served him up some funeral potatoes.
"Yes his name's Steve and I love him"
"That's nice dear" she went to the bottom of the stairs and called up, "Ruth! Debbie! Anna! Rachel! Eliza! Scott! Dinner!"
Connor's five sisters and his father came traipsing into the room one by one. Connor was the youngest of six and he enjoyed it immensely. His mother had been longing for a boy ever since the first girl arrived and he was constantly reminded of the pride he would bring to his family when he went on his mission.
"How's school going son?" his father asked through mouthfuls of meat.
"I really like it there dad"
"Have you joined a team yet?"
"Yes!" Connor beamed, "I'm in the drama club"
Mr McKinley frowned down the table. "I meant a proper team, like football or soccer"
"But I don't play sport dad"
"Of course you do! The McKinley's have a proud line of linebackers running through them"
"Let the boy do what he wants Scott" Connor's mother said, offering him the bowl of potatoes, "You said you made a friend Connor? What's his name?"
"I told you, his name's Steve and I love him"
"You can't love him" Ruth said looking at her baby brother dismissively.
"Because he's a boy" Debbie stuck her tongue out from across the table and Connor kicked her, "Ouch! Mom Connor kicked me!"
"You said I couldn't love Steve! Mom I do, I love him and he's my best friend"
"That's very nice dear, but you can't go kicking your sisters" She said gently, "Now in your prayers this evening you must pray especially for god's forgiveness and you must hope he grants it"
"And you must do the dishes tonight"
"But mom it's Eliza's turn!"
"Eliza hasn't sinned today, but you have" she said calmly but firmly.
Connor looked back to his food, suddenly losing all appetite as he began to push strands of spaghetti around on his plate. He cleared the table and went into the kitchen to soak the dishes while his sisters went upstairs leaving his parents alone in the dining room.
Connor didn't mind doing the dishes that badly. It meant he could play with the soap bubbles and make himself a shiny beard with it. He could hear the faint sounds of his parents talking in the next room, but he was too busy watching the pink soap suds to pay attention.
"It's nothing to worry about"
"I don't know about that Mary. Do you remember the Michaels?"
"Of course I do"
"I bet they didn't think it was anything to worry about either"
"It was completely different with the Michaels. He was very clearly one of…them"
"Fashion design isn't so far away from drama club"
"It's just a hobby. He's ten years old for goodness sakes!"
"I can't deal with a scandal Mary, I don't want this to become like that Church incident"
"That wasn't the parent's fault! They had a problem child, everyone knows that"
"We know that because they're our friends, but other people. Well they'll make their own minds up, start rumours and the next thing we know? We're social outcasts and the only household that invites us in are the Cunningham's"
Steve jumped at the sound of Connor's voice. He was a little bit tense, even the school rebel had to be a bit careful when sneaking around where they shouldn't be. Connor was smiling brightly as he sat down cross legged on the grass.
"This is a nice place"
Steve nodded looking between the flowers on the bushes and the boy seated in front of them. He became uncomfortably aware that the flowers matched the blue in Connor's eyes. No. He steeled himself. He was here for a reason and that reason was to teach this boy a lesson.
"The thing is Connor" He took a deep breath, "The thing is, people don't usually talk to me. They don't like me"
"I like you"
"Yeah I know, but the thing is you shouldn't"
"I'll show you why. Close your eyes"
Connor obediently closed his eyes. A split second later he gasped in pain as he felt a fist connect with his face. He reached up with both hands to his nose where he felt something wet there. His eyes filled with tears as he struggled to see Steve through them, his hands still clenched.
"W-w-w-wha-what was that for?" He murmured through the tears. Steve was looking from his hands to Connor's tear and blood stained face unable to speak. Then he scrambled to his feet and ran away, stumbling as he went.
Connor appeared before him at lunch later that day. Steve never looked up but he could feel Connor's presence standing over him. He didn't want to meet his eye, maybe if he stared at his lasagne long enough the shadow would disappear.
"Oi McKinley!" He heard a voice behind him say. He turned around to see a group of boys a few years above grinning with mirth as they looked over. "Decorating your face are you?" He heard a group of laughs from behind him and some of the surrounding tables as well.
Steve brought himself to meet Connor's gaze. There was the faintest half smile on his face but it was hidden by a large band aid concealing his nose. His eyes were also brimming and his cheeks noticeably wet.
The laughs had made their way closer to their table and Steve twitched uncomfortably. "Who did it then McKinley? I want to give him a medal"
Steve met Connor's eyes for a fraction of a second.
"I tripped" he said simply.
Steve couldn't tell if Connor was doing him a favour or not. He definitely wasn't grassing him out but, there was no reason he should be hiding this from these boys.
"It makes you look pretty McKinley" Connor's bottom lip trembled and he struggled to not whimper.
"Yeah!" The boys joined in the agreement and further laughter. It made the hair on the back of Steve's head stand on end. The leader, was advancing and was pretty much in Connor's face now. Steve didn't like this at all. Not least because of all the attention they were attracting.
"Aww look he's crying. Poor baby!"
The boys had circled Connor now and Steve could no longer see him, but he could still hear him. The sniffles that floated out from the group made him feel sick and also guilty because he knew this taunting would not have happened if he hadn't put that bandage there.
"Leave him alone" His voice was so soft and small that he couldn't even remember if he'd said it at all. Either way it made no difference to the gang so he tried again. "I said leave him alone!"
There was a silence punctuated only by the occasional soft sniff from Connor. The group rounded on him and the last thing he remembered was the expression on Connor's face. He couldn't quite work out what it meant. Surprise? Admiration? Hope? Before he got a good look the world around him went black.
He woke up in a nurses office, staring up at a poster that advertised Crest toothpaste for a healthy smile. He moaned as he felt a pain directly on his face like cotton wool mixed with needles was being pressed there.
He was vaguely aware of another person in the room with him. He also became aware that that person was softly stroking his hair. He closed his eyes, frowning as a wave of pain came over him, before he managed to open his them. He might have guessed. Connor McKinley was smiling down at him, softly working through his hair. He surprised himself by not getting him to stop.
"Ahh Steve you're awake" A young nurse entered carrying a small dressing. "Now sit still while I fix this up"
Steve winced as a bandage was wrapped round the bridge of his nose not realising he was gripping Connor's hand the whole time.
"Now I won't ask questions, I know what you boys are like, but you must be more careful. You're lucky they didn't do any more serious damage" She smiled kindly at him, "This will heal in no time but you must leave the dressing on for a week and don't pick at it"
Steve groaned, a whole week with this thing on his face, it would be torture. How was he ever going to explain this to his mom?
As if reading his mind, the nurse handed him a small envelope. "Here's a letter to your parents explaining how to care for the dressing" She finished fixing the bandage, "There, all done. You look like twins!"
Steve looked up at the identical bandage staring at him from Connor's face. He resisted the urge to punch him again, just for having that impenetrable smile consistently planted there.
"What have I told you about fighting dear?"
"I wasn't fighting, I told you, I tripped" Connor was fiddling with his fork, trying not to meet his mother's disapproving gaze. She sighed and smiled sadly at him.
"You may think you know more than me Connor, but I'm sorry to say that it's simply not true. I know a fight when I see one"
"Mom I wasn't fighting!" Connor protested more urgently now.
"You know what the Lord thinks about lying don't you Connor?"
Connor nodded slowly into his plate.
"Tonight you must pray to Heavenly Father asking for his forgiveness for violence and lying"
"Yes mother" Connor said meekly, carrying his plate to the sink.
"Oh and Connor? Your father wants a word before bedtime"
Connor dropped off his plate and then went into the living room where he found his father reading the paper.
"Oh yes son, how was school?"
"Ok I guess, I tripped" he pointed to his nose.
His father smiled grimly. "Yes your mother told me. Sit down Connor I want to talk to you"
Connor sat in the chair next to his father. It was much too big for him and he sunk down low into it, having to lift his arms high to reach the arm rests.
"Well it's good to see you got into your first fight. Now your mother will tell you the Lord disapproves of fighting but, personally I think a healthy spat here and there is character building. Don't you agree son?"
"I wasn't fighting, I tripped"
"You're not in trouble son, but one thing I would tell you. You need to defend yourself, you can't just sit there and get punched"
"Yes father, I'll remember that for if I ever get in a fight. Which I didn't today. Because I tripped"
"Don't get smart with me young man, I'm just giving you some healthy advice. Anyway, I want to talk to you about something else"
Connor looked at his father expectantly, silently racking his brains for the memory of anything he'd done wrong.
"Now Connor, can you tell me the main difference between your new school and your old school?"
Connor thought hard for a few seconds before confidently replying. "This one's in Utah and the old one was in Colorado"
"Well yes but there's a more important difference"
"There's a drama club at this one?"
Mr McKinley shifted awkwardly in his chair shaking his head. "No. It's more about the people at your new school. What's different about them?"
"Steve is here" Connor smiled assuredly, looking to his father for some kind of recognition.
"No no…no" He was beginning to think the conversation was a bad idea already, "You may or may not have noticed Connor but at your new school there are girls. And the thing about girls, well you see, the thing about girls…" Mr McKinley proceeded to tell his son the thing about girls for a full hour. Connor listened obediently, understanding some parts and being thoroughly confused by others.
When he was finished he went back to his paper and motioned for Connor to leave. As Connor reached the door he turned back with his signature asymmetrical grin. "You don't have to worry about any of that stuff dad"
Mr McKinley raised his eyebrows and smiled slightly. "And why's that?"
"Because I don't feel that way about any of the girls at school. I like Steve instead"
His father froze but for his fists which were now clenched and shaking around his paper. "Son if that's true" he said in a strained voice, "Then you are on the right road to Hell"
Connor blanched. He hated having to hear about Hell especially when it was his father talking. They showed pictures and told stories about it at Sunday school. The reason they went to church every week was to avoid going there and even that wasn't enough. Connor was taught that God was constantly watching so you must never try to slip anything past him.
Connor looked at his father who now had his eyes fixed on a spot on the wall slightly to the left and then sprinted from the room. Once there he fell to his knees and began his prayers fervently. His usual half hour session was extended to over an hour. He felt his knees grow sore and his arms ache but he carried on praying until he'd confessed to God nearly every thought he'd had that day, sin or not.
He climbed into bed still shaking slightly and drew his favourite stuffed animal towards him tightly. Little did Mr McKinley realise, but that talk and those words had sparked a new chapter in Connor's life. A chapter that began with the hell dreams, the first of which was going to happen tonight,