Matt crossed his fingers before the door opened. But as he made his way onto the cheese wagon, his hopes for a relaxing morning ride went out the window. Four rows back, under an unruly mop of black hair, a pair of ferret-like eyes glowered at him—Kurt Lowermilk. Leigh blinked at the sight of the overgrown sixth grader, a veritable man-ape, then shot into the first available seat, furthest from Kurt as he could get. He sat on the outer edge, so Matt couldn’t slide in next to him.
“Move over,” Matt implored.
Leigh avoided his eyes and shook his head, “No.”
Damn you. He scanned the available seats, and only two became apparent, the one in front of Kurt, and the one in front of that one. Bingo! Now if he will stay put, I might have a chance. He moved quickly to his goal, avoiding the feral eyes leering at him.
Dear God, if Kurt moves, hit him with a lightning bolt.
From behind, the scrunch of plastic seat answered him.
“Hey pussy,” Kurt said, spraying spittle on the back of Matt’s neck. “How come you aren’t sitting with your boyfriend?”
Matt froze. And so it begins. To punctuate his despair, Kurt’s dog-paws flicked his ear with a thwack. Sharp pain radiated down his neck. “Ow,” Matt jerked forward, cradling his ear. “Stop it, Kurt.”
“Stop it, Kurt,” the boy taunted in a falsetto voice. He smacked Matt in the back of the head, causing him to strike the seat frame ahead of him. “What are you going to do about it, pussy?”
Nothing. Matt rubbed his forehead. Not a damned thing. So, he slid down in the seat. The ape-man’s arms kept flicking and slapping him. As he wiggled further down into the seat, the slaps changed to painful jabs. He felt the bus change direction. From experience, he knew it must be the drive into the school drop-off. Drops of spittle sprayed the side of his face. Suddenly the seat lurched upward, nearly tossing him off it. If nothing else, Kurt was predictable. Kneeing the seat always happened as the bus made the turn into the school. Again and again, the seat bucked until the brakes hissed.
Matt jumped up and darted toward the aisle, but the man-ape’s sharp elbow greeted him, knocking him back onto the seat. He rebounded to see Leigh leap out of his seat, but Kurt reached out and seized a handful of the boy’s hair.
“Owwwwwww,” Leigh whined.
With a shove, Kurt tossed him back into his seat and stepped toward the front of the bus.
Bus driver Chuck shifted in his seat. “What’s going on back there?”
“Nothing sir,” Kurt said as he pushed past other kids and toward the bus steps. “I think the little ones are having a lover’s quarrel.”
Chuck looked at Kurt, “I’m on to you, Lowermilk.”
Kurt gave him a toothy smile, “Yeah, whatever.” He stepped off the bus and headed for a low cinder-block building labeled Gaines Middle School.
Shaking off his bruises, Matt slunk toward his first class. He slipped inside Mrs. Linn’s fifth-grade classroom, and walked to his cubby, depositing his jacket and lunch bag. With some effort, he stuffed the lunch into the arm of his jacket, to avoid getting it stolen by the cubby trolls, who made a habit of stealing bagged lunches from those–like him–who couldn’t afford to buy school lunch. Then he grabbed a coffee can with a piece of masking tape across the face of it, spelling out “Matt Stevens.” He looked at it in disgust, all that was missing was the word–Loser! Oh well, it’s what he had. With a quick grab, he seized the can and slid into his seat.
The Wilson twins, Cassy, and Carla looked at him, then at the coffee can. Cassy sniffed and pinched her nose shut. “Ewww, what stinks?”
He paused to consider his options. The daily pecking order throw-down had begun. So he peeled the plastic lid off and held out the coffee can. “Cowpie. Want it? It’s fresh.”
Cassy recoiled dramatically. Carla rolled her eyes but suppressed a smile.
Matt chuckled. Made ya look. He pulled his pencils and erasers out of the can as Cassy placed her pink David Cassidy book bag on the table.
When he glanced up, Cassy said, “Why don’t you get a decent bag for your stuff?”
Duh, cause we’re poor.
To salt the wound, Carla spoke in a low whisper, “Cas, his family probably can’t afford it.”
Cassy kept her eyes on Matt as she answered loudly, “Why not? His daddy is an officer in the Army. Don’t they get paid … something?”
“You know my dad is retired,” Matt shot back, his face becoming hot.
“Oh, right, he doesn’t do anything now.” She feigned surprise. “In fact, he doesn’t live at home anymore.”
Carla’s eyes shot daggers at her. “C’mon Cas, stop it.”
The corner of Cassy’s mouth ticked upward. “Didn’t he marry his secretary?”
“SHUT UP,” Matt shouted, banging his balled-up fists on the table.
Silence. Uh-oh. The whole class looked at him as Mrs. Linn slowly rose from her seat. “Matt Stevens, we don’t talk that way in class. Do you understand me?”
He looked at the ground. “Yes, ma’am.”
She pulled out a pink slip of paper and scribbled on it. “Take this to the office, immediately.”
He nodded, slipped out of his chair, and made his way to collect the referral. “What do we say?”
He stared into her dead eyes. “Sorry,” he said with utterly no remorse, intent or meaning whatsoever. There are you happy?
She frowned. “Be off with you.”
Matt darted to the hallway and made his way to the principal’s office. At the entrance to the inner sanctum, he pulled up sharply at the sight of the secretary, Mrs. Nix, whose high blue hair contrasted sharply with the redness in her reptilian eyes. She glared at him over a set of cat-eye reading glasses, connected by a chain to the scales on her back, or, so he supposed.
“What brings you here?” she asked between chews of gum. At least he hoped it was gum. Leigh said she ate children, which he hoped wasn’t true unless the unfortunate victim happened to be Kurt Lowermilk. With a quick glance, she spotted the referral, and ripped it out of his hand.
Her eyes slithered over the note. “A troublemaker, huh?” She smiled, in her usual grotesque fashion as a gap appeared between her false teeth and gums. With a withered tongue, she adroitly pushed the upper fangs back into place. “Well, we got what will cure you,” she said wagging a bony finger toward the bench in front of a door labeled, “Clinton Younder, Principal.” He could hear voices behind the door.
“Honestly, Dwight,” came Younder’s booming voice. “Why are you always in here?”
“Why are you always giving me shit, man,” came a drawling response. Matt immediately recognized the voice of Dwight Agar, otherwise known as Dewey. The only kid in school that regularly told adults where to go, how to get there, and what impossible anatomical feats to do with corncobs.
“None of that talk Dwight. You know the drill. Let’s get this over.”
“Son of a bitch,” Dewey said tiredly. Sounds of movement reached Matt’s ears, followed by a loud SMACK, and an ear-splitting yelp from Dewey. This happened at least four times as Matt cringed lower and lower on the bench. De Fuhrer was in superb form today.
Silence, followed by sniffles, preceded the door opening. Dewey shuffled out, rubbing his backside, his face and eyes red. He looked at Matt and managed a small smile. “Got his excellency warmed up for you.”
Matt shook his head. The kid had balls, though they were probably inflamed and bruised. Younder stuck his golf-course tanned head out the door, “Dwight, go back to class, and I don’t want to see you again this week.”
As he turned his attention to Matt, Dewey flipped the bird. Matt’s eyes darted to Dewey and Younder seeing the movement, whipped around, but the boy deftly changed his gesture to scratching his nose. The Principal glared at him. “You heard me. Get to class.”
Dewey saluted. “Yes, suh.” He then tore off into the hallway.