Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the direction of my life completely flipped that Friday afternoon in early March. Well, arguably it was the move to Santa Isadora that changed it.
My first week in ninth grade at Redwood High School passed almost without incident, which seemed like a win—until Friday afternoon. It was March ninth, and we had just moved to California. My new math teacher asked me to stay after class for a few minutes as he wanted to give me some worksheets for the weekend to assess how much I knew of their curriculum. Usually, that would ruin a weekend, but math came easily to me. And honestly, I had nothing else to do.
I exchanged books in my locker and hobbled outside to find a small crowd around the racks where my bike was locked up.
Everyone was gathered around two kids. I couldn’t see who they were, but one was insulting the other. My bike was locked up in the middle so I couldn’t leave.
I whispered to an Asian guy I recognized from my class. “What’s going on?”
Warily, he eyed me up and down. “Bruno Vincent and his buddies from Baker are here. Luckily it ain’t me he’s picking on. But sucks for Jermaine.” He motioned to the black kid that I could now see was getting pushed. “As long as Jermaine doesn’t lip off, Bruno won’t do much. He wants guys to fight back.”
The bigger kid, Bruno, looked a year older than me and wore a dirty white shirt and jeans. He had spiky blond hair and his pock-marked face had the look of a permanent scowl.
Though athletic in his own right, Jermaine was a little shorter and looked to be shaking.
“Come on, Wilkins, ain’t you gonna say something? Anything? I insult your mom, and you don’t care? Don’t you have any family honor?” Bruno shouted as he cornered Jermaine up against the bikes in the rack.
I recognized Jermaine; he was also in my class. He was arched backward over the seat of a mountain bike. “B-Bruno, I don’t want any trouble,” he stammered. “You know that.”
Bruno paced back and forth with a hateful grin, surveying the kids in the front row of the expectant crowd. “Now, Jerk-Off—I mean, Jermaine—you sure seemed pretty cocky at our last soccer game when you scored against us. I think you need to back it up now. Don’t you worry these kids will think less of you if you don’t stand up for your mother’s honor? Doesn’t that bother you?”
Jermaine shook his head.
“You look worried. Are you going to cry? Surely you won’t cry in front of so many kids?”
The crowd closed the circle, hungry for a fight.
My temperature rose, muscles tensed. Where were the teachers?
Bruno leaned closer and faked a punch. Jermaine flinched and covered his face. When Jermaine’s hands came down, his eyes were glassy.
“Oh, oh, there’s my Cry Baby. Right on cue. See, I figured maybe by this point in life I couldn’t make you cry without actually hurting you. But look at that, tears from Jerk-Off!”
Jermaine swallowed hard and wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt, still bent backward awkwardly over the bikes.
Rage boiled up inside me. I looked at Kevin. “Why don’t you help him? Isn’t he your buddy?”
“No point, bro. If I step in, I’ll accomplish nothing except getting a beating. Bruno’s two goons are waiting for someone to be a hero. Best if nothing happens.”
I considered saying something, but Bruno was big and menacing and I was skinny and weak. Not to mention I was the new kid and pathetic at fighting. Keep quiet and blend in. That was always my motto. So I just I stood there, shaking, adrenaline rushing through my veins, hoping for someone to help him.
“Come on, Pansy, do something. Push me. Hit me. Anything.” Bruno kept leaning his face in close to Jermaine’s.
Jermaine tried to look brave, but he was trembling. I couldn’t take it and stepped forward.
“Hey!” I yelled. “Jermaine is plainly scared of you. I think you’ve proved that to everyone here. Why not just leave him alone?”
Bruno turned and his eyes lit up to hear someone call him out. He looked at me and squinted. “Huh?”
Everyone was staring at me. “I’m just saying, clearly you’re way stronger and he doesn’t want to fight. Let’s just say you win, okay?”
He gave me a funny look. “Are you new here? Is this a joke?”
“Yeah, I’m new. I’m just saying . . .” I limped over to the center of the crowd.
Bruno started fake laughing. “Wait. So you want to take his place. That’s what you’re saying? You want me to break your other leg?” he asked, referring to my limp. I’d been born with LLD, a leg-length discrepancy. My left leg was an inch shorter than my right, so it was almost impossible to walk without a limp.
I shook my head. “No, not at all. Just saying you win. Jermaine gives up. I give up. Everyone hears it, loud and clear.”
Bruno eyed me. “Where you from? What’s your name?”
“Does it matter?”
“It does if you don’t want a fist in your mouth,” he said.
Not that I cared; my history was public. “My name is Teavan and I just moved here from New York. Are we good now?”
Bruno smiled an unfriendly smile. “New York? Oh, all fancy-like, aren’t ya?” He circled me. “What’s your last name?”
I figured if I could get him talking I could chat my way out of this. “Laurent.”
Bruno’s eyes went wide, a look of surprise on his face, and he stopped pacing to stare at me.
He shook his head, whistling. “Are you serious? Please tell me you’re related to Hub Laurent?”
I sensed we were making progress. Maybe our families were friends.
“Yeah, that was my grandfather. We just moved into his place.”
Bruno smiled. An ear-to-ear, genuine smile this time. “You have seriously just made my day. My week. My month.”