"Hey man, you're late." As Michael's voice was, at best, a quiet shout, I wasn't surprised by the teacher's glare in reaction to it. I rubbed absently at the beginnings of a headache forming right between my eyes as I slumped behind my desk.
"My alarm clock didn't go off," I whispered in reply, purposefully turning my attention to the teacher, who was looking only slightly ruffled by the disruption as she continued droning on about some ancient war or another. I wished rather fervently that I could have stayed in bed all day rather than face school and, more importantly, Heather. But skipping just wasn't an option. I could already hear my father's voice in my head when he found out.
"That's a coward's way out, Jason, and I didn't raise you to be a coward." I jumped; even in my mind my father's voice was never below a bellow.
I sighed and slid further down in my chair, pulling a notebook and pen from my book bag so I could at least pretend to be taking notes. I've found teachers grow rather upset if you don't at least keep up the pretense.
"So how did things go with Heather?" I gritted my teeth as the pounding in my head grew stronger. I should have known better than to expect Michael to be patient about this.
I took a moment to answer. To be perfectly honest, I wasn't all together sure what the correct answer was. How had things gone with Heather, really? She hadn't done what I'd expected her to do at the news, which was to pick my brains out through my nose with tweezers and then stand laughing triumphantly over my corpse, but she hadn't seemed very happy with me either. She'd shouted a lot, which had caused her mother to come into her room to ask what was the matter, and that had only furthered my embarrassment and, if I'm perfectly honest, my annoyance.
I despised myself for feeling that way, since I'd been the one panting after her in the first place, but it was the truth. Why hadn't I seen how obnoxious she was before I'd asked her out? I have a feeling that's something I don't really want to think about, since remembering that part of Heather makes me almost regret ending it.
"Okay, I guess. I'll tell you about it at lunch." I sighed gratefully when Michael nodded and didn't pry further. He'd become quite protective in the past year, and it was beginning to grow tiring.
I smiled in relief with the rest of the class when the bell finally rang and I managed to escape the classroom with Michael at my heels. He disappeared down the other end of the hall, and then reappeared over my shoulder as I traded books with my locker.
"New kid transferred in today. I think Laurent wanted you to show him around, but you weren't there." Michael leaned casually against the lockers beside mine, as the crowd in the hallway surged around us.
"I already told you my alarm didn't go off, Michael, what more do you want?" I asked exasperatedly as I slammed the locker closed, slinging my bag over my shoulder and pushing myself forward into the throng of students.
"You should be more careful." Michael stepped a little ahead of me, using his large frame to push a path through the thick crowd of people.
"So what about this new kid?" I said quickly, before Michael could chastise me further. He glanced backward once to send me a stern look that let me know in no uncertain terms that the conversation wasn't over.
"He just moved here apparently. I don't know much about him, really, but he reminds me a little of Simon."
"Simon?" I let out a disgusted breath and shook my head. If the kid is really anything like my stepbrother, I'm pretty glad I missed out on showing him around.
"I said he reminds me a little of Simon, not that they shared the same DNA, Jason." Michael shoved open the doors to the cafeteria, causing some lingering freshman to have to leap quickly out of the way. I smiled apologetically at them as I followed Michael to the table near the window that we always sat at.
"Even a slight similarity is too much to bear." Michael just shook his head and dropped his backpack onto the chair beside mine before heading to the line of students waiting for food. He cut in near the front, and no one was brave enough to challenge him. I couldn't blame them; Michael was well over six feet tall, and stocky. He wasn't really fat, just rather large and well muscled, though I knew for a fact that he'd never so much as lifted a paperweight to get that way.
"Hey, Jason." Graham plopped into a seat opposite me with a wide grin and his girlfriend, Diana, sprawled herself over his lap. "Where's Heather?"
"I don't know." I ignored Graham's wide eyes and instead focused on digging out my own lunch, which consisted of a cherry soda I'd snatched from the fridge that morning. It had spent all morning being jostled about in my bag, so I really shouldn't have been surprised when I opened it and was promptly sprayed with sticky liquid. A little reached my face, and quite a lot was left dripping from my fingers.
With a few muttered curses, I stood up and stalked out of the cafeteria, ignoring the laughter Graham was trying unsuccessfully to stifle. I ripped open the door to the boy's bathroom and glared at my reflection in the mirror over the sink. It just made me angrier so I focused on washing my hand and face instead. I took a few seconds to calm myself down and then carefully dried off with a handful of paper towels, tossing them carelessly in the general direction of the trash can.
I didn't know if I was ready to venture out again, but couldn't see how hiding would make me feel any better. Besides, if I stayed gone too long Michael would just come looking for me. And then I'd get another of Michael's famous, hour-long lectures, and I was already in for one after being late to school today.
I brushed some wayward hair out of my eyes, smiled convincingly at my reflection, and then strode toward the bathroom door. I was just reaching out to grasp the handle when the door suddenly swung open, smacking my chin and knocking me off balance. I let out a small cry as I went down, arms flailing about wildly, and heard some unidentifiable cursing from above me. My fingers caught on the edge of a sink, jerking my body to the side so that it was my ribs that took most of the impact instead of my back and head. For a few seconds I could only lie there, dazed. Then I groaned and rolled onto my back, finding a pair of worried blue eyes staring down at me from only a few inches away from my face.
"Fuck," I muttered, scrambling backward and sitting up.
"Are you all right?" the stranger asked in a quiet voice. I nodded once, pressing a hand against my side to assess the damage. As I did, I took a closer look at my accidental assailant, but didn't recognize him. He looked near my age, though as we were both in a high school bathroom, that wasn't really surprising. He was wearing black sneakers, dark jeans that almost fit him too tightly to be acceptable, and a dark blue sweatshirt that made his eyes stand out. His hair reached just past his shoulders and was an unusual shade of red that managed to be both dark and bright at once, an obviously unnatural shade that immediately brought Simon's dyed black locks to mind.
"Fine," I muttered. I had a feeling I knew exactly who the kid was, though Michael hadn't given him a name.
"Are you sure?" I nodded again. The stranger stood and then offered me a hand. I hesitated, and then finally took it and allowed myself to be pulled to my feet.
"Thanks," I said. I started toward the door again, before I saw the untouched tray of food on the floor that the new kid was bending to pick up. "Why'd you bring that in here?"
"To eat it." I couldn't tell by his quiet voice if he was being sarcastic or not, but I had a feeling he was.
"Isn't that unsanitary?" I asked. The guy didn't answer, and I sighed. I remembered very well being the new kid in the lunchroom and felt the dreaded words leave my mouth before I could stop myself. "Why don't you eat with me and my friends?"
"Even after I've broken your ribs?"
"It was an accident," I said, shrugging, before I caught the faint smile on his face.
"Yes," he agreed.
"What's your name?" I asked abruptly, only a little startled by my own question, as I hadn't meant to ask it. I could only assume I'd grown tired of calling him "the new kid" in my head.
"Skye. And you?"
"Skye?" I echoed. "Isn't that a girl's name?"
"It can be." Skye's lips were twitching, I noticed, as though he was struggling not to smile.
"Yeah. Well, I'm Jason."
"Jason," Skye repeated in a soft voice that made me quite uncomfortable. "Nice to meet you, Jason." He thrust his hand out and I grudgingly shook it. Skye's skin was strangely soft, what I would have expected on a girl. I realized after a few seconds of contemplating this that I'd held onto Skye's hand a bit longer than necessary and quickly pulled away.
"Well, let's get to the table. I have a feeling they'll be sending a search party for me if I'm not back soon." I couldn't be certain, but I thought I saw faint amusement in Skye's pale blue eyes. It only left me feeling more annoyed with myself for inviting Skye along in the first place, but I could hardly take it back. Maybe I could just introduce Skye to Simon and get rid of him that way. They seemed a lot alike, anyway, with that infuriating smirk always lingering on their faces.
I was being unfair, I knew, comparing this near stranger to one of the people I hated most in the world. I had no idea if they were really similar, but lately I'd found that little things were beginning to bother me more and more, and Skye's dyed hair was one of them. I really couldn't help it if the dislike I felt for Simon was invading my opinion of Skye.
I glanced at the table, unsurprised to find it was nearly full by now. I was absently trying to decide where to pull a chair up for Skye when I spotted Heather, sitting beside Michael and glaring at my empty chair.
I froze in midstep, causing the end of Skye's lunch ray to bump against my back.
"Nothing." I started to continue forward, and then stopped again. Fuck it all. I didn't want to face Heather yet. I knew she would only start screaming at me again, and I just didn't feel like going through that in the middle of the cafeteria. If that made me a coward, then I'd be a coward.
"Jason?" I nearly jumped at the voice; I'd forgotten about Skye.
"Sorry," I muttered. "Could you, umm, do me a favor? To make up for nearly breaking my back and all?"
"Maybe," Skye replied slowly, watching my face cautiously.
"Could walk over to that table and pick up my backpack and bring it back to the bathroom. Just tell my friends I'm in the nurse's office or something and they sent you to get my stuff." When Skye didn't answer right away, I quickly added, "Please?"
"All right," Skye said with a sigh. "But you'll have to carry this." Without waiting for a reply, Skye thrust his tray into my hands and headed for the table. I found myself gaping after him for a few seconds before I quickly scurried through the cafeteria doors and out of sight.
I felt a little odd sitting on the bathroom floor with a tray of food in front of me, but I was more concerned with what was taking Skye so long. I hoped Heather hadn't interrogated the truth out of him. She could be quite convincing when she put her mind to it, and I didn't hold much hope for Skye's resolve if she put any effort into it.
I blinked, only a little startled when Skye walked into the bathroom with a book bag on each shoulder, alone. I smiled gratefully as Skye dropped my bag on the floor beside him.
"Are you going to hide in here all lunch period?" he asked in response.
"They'd probably find me," I muttered. I sighed and pushed myself to my feet. I really should have stayed home. "I'll sneak out through the window I guess until class starts again. Graham and I did it once in ninth grade and it worked then. Sorry for…umm…leaving."
"I'll come with you," Skye said, and I could only gaze at him silently.
"I…all right." It would probably be useless to argue; Skye looked like a stubborn sort of person.
I stepped on top of the trashcan and pried open the window. I pushed the screen out and slid one foot through and then the other. It wasn't far to the ground, as the cafeteria was on the first floor. Skye dropped both our backpacks out the window, and then carefully lowered his tray into my hands before coming out himself.
"That was fun," he said, grinning as he took his tray and backpack. I rolled my eyes, but smiled back.
"Yeah. Makes me feel like I should be in a James Bond movie or something."
"If only," Skye replied wistfully.
"Dream of being a spy someday?" I asked as we started toward a cluster of trees that would block us from view from the school.
"Something like that," Skye said, a small, private smile taking over his face. I decided it was probably wiser not to ask and settled myself on the ground, leaning against a tree trunk. Skye sat across from me, tearing open his carton of chocolate milk and downing it in nearly one gulp.
"Don't you have anything to eat?" Skye asked after a few seconds. I shook my head.
"I never eat lunch. You have chocolate milk on your face." Skye grinned, licking it away with his tongue. For some reason, the motion left me feeling a little lightheaded.
"Well, you can have some of my pizza," Skye offered, holding one slice out to me. I shook my head.
"I hate pizza," I said. "But thanks."
"Hate pizza?" Skye echoed incredulously. "Sacrilege! What kind of person hates pizza?"
"Well, how about some chips then? Sour cream and onion?"
"Thanks." I took the bag and ripped it open. I was surprised to find I was actually feeling a little hungry. But then, I hadn't had breakfast, since I'd been so late waking up and had completely forgotten it in my rush to get to school.
"Sure. So who are you hiding from?"
"Heather," I answered between chips. "She's…she was my girlfriend, but I broke things off yesterday."
"Was she the little blonde hellion eating salad with no dressing?" Skye asked. He had pizza sauce dripping from his mouth and stuck his tongue out again to remove it. It took me a little longer than necessary to answer.
"That's her." I chuckled a little when I realized what Skye had said, wondering how Heather would take to being called a hellion.
"She looked pretty pissed. You must have been quite a catch."
"Hardly," I snorted, nearly spraying the ground with chewed up bits of potato chips. "She just doesn't like to lose. And she'd probably consider being dumped on the same level as losing."
"How unfortunate," Skye murmured. He seemed more interested in his pizza than my explanation, but once I started talking, I found it difficult to stop.
"She's so controlling, I thought she'd drive me crazy. She always had to have me meet her at her locker between classes, every day. And we had to eat lunch together, and spend an hour at her house after school 'doing homework', and spend every Friday night going on a date somewhere, and Saturdays studying together somewhere. I could have killed her."
"Then why did you go out with her?"
"I don't know. She looked good from far away, I guess. And I didn't really mind it at first, because I wanted to get to know her better. And then I got to know her better and decided I probably should have stayed away."
"Dating's hard, isn't it? You don't want to date people you don't know because they could turn out to be people you can't stand, and you don't want to date people you know well because you could ruin a good friendship."
"Exactly." I sighed, licking potato chip residue from my fingers.
"Use a napkin," Skye ordered, slapping my hand away from my mouth.
"Oh, the way you do when you get food all over your face?" I asked dryly as I took the napkin Skye held out to me.
"Touché," Skye replied with a wide grin. I found myself unconsciously grinning back.
"So you're new here, right?" I asked.
"And here I thought I was so good at hiding it."
"Where did you move from?"
"Florida," Skye replied, leaning back, pizza finished, and wiping his face with a napkin. "What about you? Have you always lived here?"
"No. I moved here when I was twelve." I crumpled up the empty chip bag and dropped it onto the tray. "Thanks. Those were some good chips."
We lapsed into silence, though it didn't seem at all uncomfortable to me. Skye was surprisingly east to talk to. He didn't make me feel like I had to constantly pretend to be someone else, the way most of my other friends did. And he didn't make me feel I was just an obligation the way Michael did.
I knew Michael didn't mean to act the way he did, but it was there all the same. It was my own fault, really. I'd made Michael believe it was his duty to watch over me, and I'd even been grateful for it at first. It had made me feel safe then. But now that I'd finally learned how to take care of myself, Michael's protectiveness was just a little degrading.
Both Skye and I jumped when the bell rang, loud even from outside the building. We laughed a little at ourselves and stood up.
"What should I do with that?" Skye asked, pointing with his foot at the tray.
"Just leave it," I said, shrugging. "What class do you have next?"
"Chemistry, I think. Hang on." Skye shoved his hand into his pocket and unfolded a small slip of paper I recognized as one of the school's schedules. "Yep. Chemistry with a Mr. Berkley."
"Me too. Come on, I'll show you the way."
"All right." Skye smiled and my stomach lurched in a strangely familiar way. I knew the feeling from somewhere, but I couldn't quite remember where it was. I paused, lost in thought, as I tried to recall when I'd felt that way before. "What are you doing?"
"What?" I jumped at Skye's voice. I have to stop doing that. It was a habit I'd picked up years ago, forgetting everything around me as I retreated into my mind. I'd used it for less harmless thoughts then. "Nothing," I said quickly, forcing a smile. "Let's go."