Rough Play Engage

Mom's car pulled up the drive just as we were setting the table. Max had put together some vegetables to eat with the crawfish and dad was hovering in the lounge room, watching the football on mute. There was something of a rule in our house that we didn't watch TV when we ate but Dad bent those rules if the Saints were on.

'Hello my chickens,' mom exclaimed as she dropped her nurse's lanyard and car keys into the papier-mache holder I'd made in 3rd grade. At the time it was supposed to have been a crab but even I wasn't sure what it was now, the paint having discoloured a long time ago. Mom ruffled my hair and I breathed in the familiar smell of antiseptic hand wash. 'Smells good!' She lifted the lid off the pot of crawfish and recoiled at the blast of lemon and garlic scented steam. 'Phooey, good job darl!' She leaned over the kiss Max on the cheek and Max shot me a grin. I thought of the instruments of murder I'd hosed down in the backyard, a big boiler hastily borrowed from the Talcott's.

We were all excited to sit down and eat, so for a long while there was nothing but the scramble of dishing up bright red crustaceans and red potatoes, and of course polite requests to pass the hot sauce.

'Do you have homework tonight?' Dad asked once he'd finished his first serve. Mom gave him a look.

'Yes,' I said, 'just for French though.'

'Some school,' Dad muttered. 'How much are we paying a year, Clair, and they can't even give our kids a steady workload.' I speared a buttery potato on the tines of my fork and used it soak up some of the garlicky sauce. 'When I was a boy we had routine.' Oh Jesus, I thought. When my dad spoke of his past it wasn't something quaint you rolled your eyes at. Dad's lectures more often then not ended up with me politely excusing myself from the table and mom was always too exhausted from work to put a stop to it. We were expected to nod and agree.

Max kicked me under the table without lifting her eyes from her plate and I stuffed the potato in my mouth so that I wouldn't smirk.

'When I was a boy we were expected to study all together in the main room, none of that messing around you kids do up in your rooms on your laptops. From home time til bedtime, that's how long we were made to study and there wasn't any skipping off to talk on your mobile phones either! You kids don't know how to study that's the problem with your generation.'

Mom murmured a 'Les' but he was just gaining momentum.

'We got the strap if we spoke before we'd done our exercises and we got the strap if we were caught wasting time, you better believe it. My brother Louis, he used to draw in his books and whatnot, you know what that got him?'

'The strap?' Max muttered under her breath and I snorted around a mouthful of cauliflower and hot sauce.

Dad continued as if she hadn't spoken, chomping furiously around his food so that he could talk more. 'Of course, all that was on top of football practice. You kids don't know responsibility like that.'

'Oh that reminds me!' I chipped in. 'Mr Holt told me I could try out for lacrosse on Wednesday.'

Max looked up from her plate, eagerly grabbing on to the change of conversation. 'Really? The girls' team?'

I rolled my eyes. 'Yes, Max the girl's team, can I borrow your skirt for tryouts?'

'Ahahaha, you're so funny Ferdy-Werdy.'

I stuck my tongue out at her.

'Max,' mom piped in, 'Be nice to your brother.' She turned to me with a smile. 'He's showing great initiative, pushing himself to do better. I personally think it's wonderful.'

Dad snorted gruffly. 'Initiative would be trying out for the football team. The Talcott's boy next door, he's on the team at his college and he's holding down that restaurant job.'

I bit my tongue to keep from speaking. Yes, well Rory Talcott goes to a public school, isn't that against your morals, dad?

'Hey Max, what, uh, what did Sasha Marin want at school today? I saw you guys talking.'

Max snorted into her drink. 'You still call him that?'

Mom looked up with sudden interest. 'Who's Sasha Marin? Is this a boy?'

'Yes mom,' Max said with an insolent look. 'He's a boy.'

Mom looked chuffed. 'Our little Max, talking to a boy! How about that! Did you hear Les, your daughter's making friends with boys now.'

The crawfish was settling badly in my stomach and making me feel ill all of a sudden. Dad just grunted, eyes on the TV -probably annoyed that we'd stopped him before he could really get into lecture mode.

'Not just any boy, mom. Sasha's dad is a movie star.'

'It's just that one stupid soapy,' I said, bitterly. Albert Marin was one of those square-faced, sparkly-toothed daytime TV stars that every middle-aged woman fantasized about while they drove their 2.5 kids to school in their BMW.

Max made a face at me as mom got up to clear the dishes. 'You know, you don't have to be all sour all the time just because there are people out there more popular than you.'

'What's that supposed to mean? You know I don't care about being popular,' I hissed. Mom had started running the hot water in the sink.

Max gave an exasperated sigh. 'I'm saying maybe if you were nicer and paid more attention to girls than you'd get a reputation like Sasha Marin,' she said mockingly.

'I don't give a shit about Sasha Marin.' I hoped my face wasn't turning red.

'You are such a liar Birdy! You're just being all…moody because I got popular and people like me now, and you can't change!'

I was shocked at how much it hurt to have my nasty inner voice brought to life in my sister's words. She was right. I wanted what she had, to come to school one day and just be noticed. Have guys like Sasha Marin want to bump shoulders with me and girls gossip about whom I was going out with. I wanted to be popular and not have to keep pretending to be a goody two shoes. But that's the way I'd built myself up to be. I was Ferdinand Bellevue: star student, good son, mediocre friend. Totally forgettable.

When I didn't have any retort for her Max shoved her chair out and left me alone at the table with dad.

On the TV the Saints were losing.

-:-:-

I woke up the morning of tryouts with new resolve. Yes things had been confusing. Yes it had come to my attention that I didn't have any real friends and my sister was infinitely more popular than me. But today was about getting on the lacrosse team. And that was something new. That was a change in the rigmarole of Ferdinand Bellevue's boring life.

The first thing I did after I had made the bed was climb on top of my desk so that I could pick the glow in the dark stickers off my ceiling and throw them one by one (and with startling accuracy) into the bin.

Next to go was my old, plastic lunchbox. I said a quick goodbye to it -it had been faithful to me since elementary school after all- before dumping it in with my stickers.

Feeling buzzed, I started to sort through my clothes dresser for my school uniform, making sure to grab a change of clothes for tryouts –a pair of gym shorts and nondescript cotton shirt. The permission form had specified school colors but that would have to wait til after I found out if I'd made the team. Mom had had to take us into the school tailor over the summer to get me us new uniforms. Max needed to go down three sizes and I needed bigger everything, so my school shirts were new and awkward, having not quite lost the manufacturing creases. It didn't help that it was school policy to wear them buttoned up and tucked in. It took a long time, in which I almost lost my momentum, for me to come up with something I could change about it. There was the problem of mom of course, who would lasso me if I tried to sneak out the door with anything less than pristine, regulation uniform. And then there were my own past condemnations. I'd always been desperate to secure Duncan and Sofie's admiration by saying how much I disapproved of people who wore their ties loose, so it would be hypocritical of me to show up like that today…

I ended up settling on plan to untuck my shirt once I got to school. Small, maybe, but at least it was a step in the right direction. Or the wrong direction, I thought excitedly.

Next came the hard part. After I'd Clearasil'd,and brushed my teeth, I made a point to take a good long look in the mirror. When you don't care very much about how you appear to people, you don't really look at yourself all that much. The most I ever saw my reflection was washing my hands after using the school urinals. Even then, the fluorescent lights they used in those spaces made me look red-eyed and pale. I sighed running a hand over my jaw. At least I didn't need to seriously shave yet. It still took a few days to build up stubble. Duncan had complained to me about having to shave every day already, something about his Italian heritage.

My floppy hair, the same chestnut color as my sister's, had definitely gone too long without a cut, and in assessing how much I could change myself I wasn't sure whether it would be cooler to cut it short or let it grow out even more. I thought of how Sasha kept his hair, the way it stood out in soft chunks around his face. Hell, I didn't own gel. Did Max? Abandoning further scrutiny, I crept down the carpeted stairs, hoping I wouldn't wake dad up early. The hall clock had only just ticked over seven o'clock.

Unfortunately Max had keen ears and she caught me in the main bathroom sifting through her allocated drawers for hair product.

'What the hell, Birdy.' She rubbed sleep out of her eyes. Max still wore her old pyjamas; made for a much larger girl the ratty fabric slipped over one shoulder. Her hair was static and messy and for a moment I just soaked the image up, inexplicably happy. 'What?' she asked, voice husky with sleep.

'Nothing,' I whispered back. 'Just, uh, looking for some gel.'

Max's eyes widened. She pushed my hands away from where I'd been rummaging and cracked open the cabinet, placing a small, round tub on the counter in front of me and then turning to face me with a quizzical look.

'So…gel, huh? That's…new.'

I laughed nervously and made to grab the object in question but my sister blocked me, face stubborn. 'You don't use gel, Birdy. It's for "poser douchebags" remember?'

I winced. 'Can't a guy change his mind? C'mon Max, my hair's getting in my eyes, I need to use something.'

Max took a second to mull my answer over and it seemed to please her well enough because she chucked the pot of hair gel at me and whisked out of the bathroom with only a muttered, 'good luck.'

The gel was nasty and weird on my fingertips and smelt of girl's shampoo –too fruity. It was a nightmare to apply. I found a pattern to scooping it with two fingers and patting it into my hair but the gunk kept falling in splats all over the sink. By the time I'd assembled something halfway decent from my fringe, the tub was considerably emptier and the vanity looked like someone had had an ectoplasm fight.

There came a guffawing from the doorway. Max had changed into her school uniform, the version she'd show to mum with the skirt at it's proper length and her tie done up. She was holding her ribs and trying not to laugh, turning red in the face.

'What?' I hissed, rinsing my hands off.

Max came forward, shutting the door carefully behind her so that we wouldn't wake anyone up.

'You look like you've been electrocuted and then fallen into a vat of lube.'

'Thanks Max.' I pouted; squinting in the mirror at the even-enough spikes I'd managed to create from my usually neglected hair. It didn't look so bad. Sure, they were a little stiff and…oh god, I looked like a 90s punk singer. I jammed the lid back on the gel spitefully. Useless crap.

Max gave me a pitying look in the mirror as she squatted down to grab something out of the cupboard beneath the sink. 'Come here,' she said, brandishing a sharp pair of stainless steel scissors at me.

'Uh.'

Max rolled her eyes. 'Don't be such a chicken shit. Here, we'll do it in the bath so we don't get hair everywhere.'

'Have you even done this before?' I asked as I stepped over the bath rail obediently. You didn't argue with my sister once she got it into her head to do something. I switched the showerhead on and ducked just my head under, hating the slimy feeling of rewetted gel as it slid off my strands. I shook my head like a dog afterwards, something that never failed to make Max laugh. It was good to know some things hadn't changed even though I wasn't anything for my little sister to idolize anymore.

'I cut Kelly's hair during the summer. You didn't notice? Typical. Oh, and I cut Vanessa Lefridge's fringe just the other day, you don't know her, she's on the lacrosse team.' I flinched at the lack of sensation when my sister made the first snip and a chunk of wet hair hit the porcelain. I shivered as a cold droplet wound its way down my back.

It took about ten minutes for Max to finally be satisfied with her work but once she'd finished and put the scissors away she turned to me with a smug look. I felt anxious all of a sudden. It felt strange to not have soft strands tickling my jaw line or the weight of it covering the back of my neck. But hell, Ferdinand, you wanted a change and this is it. Take a look at the new you.

I breathed out carefully as I scrutinized my sister's work in the cabinet mirrors, twisting around so I could get all angles. It didn't look how I'd imagined it would. I guess I'd expected something like Sasha's –poufy and wavy. The sort of hair you liked to sink your hands into –if you were a girl. Well, at least it's a change, I thought.

'Wow, you look ecstatic, thanks bro.' I turned at Max's dry voice.

'It's uh…short?'

Max rolled her eyes, as she was fond of doing lately. 'For the first time in your life your hair doesn't look like it belongs on an unwashed hippy and all you can say is it's "short"? Birdy, it's medium length. I gave you bangs and everything.'

I took another look at the choppy strands made dark by the water and lying flat against my forehead. 'I thought it would be, you know, cooler.'

Max chuckled and grabbed the gel once more up off the counter. 'Oh poor, poor brother. Let's dry that hair and I'll show you what to do with it.'

-:-:-

I caught mom as she shuffled around the kitchen yawning, stopping her before she could make my sandwiches.

'I'm just gonna get something at the cafeteria today, ok?' I said, waiting for her disapproval. Mom looked me over, bleary eyes pausing at my new haircut. She broke out into a laugh, hands unconsciously moving to touch. I ducked out of the way; terrified she'd do something to ruin Max's hard work. This only seemed to make her laugh harder as though it were the reaction she'd expected.

'You look spiffy this morning.'

'Mom,' I whined, 'don't say spiffy, say cool -and can I? Get lunch at the cafeteria?'

She took one look at my determined face and smiled over the lip of her coffee mug.

'Ok, chicken. Just don't tell your father I let you eat junk food.'

I was a little taken back at the ease with which she'd agreed with me. I grinned at her as I poured milk on my cheerios. Another thought came to me and, high off the confidence of my success so far, I decided to dive right in and ask.

'Hey mom, can I start driving to school?'

Mom frowned. Well there goes my lucky streak. But then, she started to nod. 'I suppose that'd be all right. Your father and I have been discussing the possibility of letting you have the Camry…'

I smiled around my mouth full of cereal. I was so happy I could have hugged her if we'd have been a hugging-sort of family.

'Hold on just a minute there bucko, I know that look. There's no free ride with your father and me, you gotta earn it. You'll have to take your test again and you'll be driving your sister in if she wants it.'

Yes, yes, yes! If I knew Max she'd be driving in with her new friend the Lexus owner and would rather die than be seen rolling up in a 1992 Camry Ultima sedan. Which meant I'd have it all to myself!

I cut mom off with a kiss to the cheek, babbling an excuse about being late for the bus and tearing out the front door in my haste. We'd inherited the Camry from mom's side of the family and dad had been meaning to sell it off.

I was daydreaming about vacuuming the old person smell out of the seats all the way down the street to the bus stop. I was going to head into town after school, maybe stop by a Wal-Mart and get one of those little air-freshener trees, maybe some new mats for the floor. My bank account was nothing to scoff at, never having had much of an interest in anything enough to spend money and dad's side of the family gave generous presents even though they never deigned to visit.

When the school bus arrived I deliberately took a seat up the back amongst some of the rowdier kids who looked a bit put out that I was sitting with them but thankfully didn't go out of their way to bother me. I felt like, if I stared hard enough at the seat second from the front I might be looking at the back of the old Ferdinand's head.

Smiling, I put my headphones in, fingers brushing against my newly short hair where it curled over my ears.

-:-:-

Things came crashing down pretty quickly after that in a series of brutal reality checks.

For starters, St Clementine's has hall monitors whose specific job it is to pick out rule violators for detention. I only made it halfway to my locker before Mr Brandt was pink slipping me with a disappointed look.

'Shirttails in, Mr…?'

I sighed and started pushing my shirt back into the waistband of my slacks. And here we go again. 'Bellevue.'

'Bellevue, what?' Mr Brandt asked annoyingly. Up close I saw that he had small scars around his mouth like you get from acne. His breath smelt like stale coffee, the cheap instant stuff that they had in the teacher's lounge.

'Bellevue, sir.'

Once again, Mr Brandt looked a bit bashful at having forgotten my name but I could see by the hardened set of his mouth he wouldn't relent.

'I don't like your tone, Bellevue. Maybe you should get a detention.' He checked his clipboard, scribbling something additional on the pink slip he'd been filling out for me.

My stomach sank. 'Mr Brandt, today's try outs and-'

'Try outs?' Mr Brandt looked at me sceptically. I could see him chewing it over. 'Well all right. But that shirt better stay tucked in Mr Bellevue and you're still getting a pink slip. I want it signed by your guardian and handed to me in homeroom tomorrow, got it? Good,' He slapped the paper in my hand and stormed off down the hall to harass some other poor students and I breathed a sigh of frustration.

I was late for Geography first period and Sofie and Duncan had already paired up for the semester-long assignment.

'Sorry man,' Duncan said, not sounding sorry at all. When Sofie was busy sketching out their thesis plan he shot me a thankyou wink as if I'd done it on purpose. I growled as I sunk into my seat. We had an odd class and I only recognized a few faces, all of them partnered already. Sofie made a sympathetic grimace when a girl started to beeline towards me and then seemed to rethink it and settled down next to John Hamm, possible the slowest kid in class.

'Hey,' Sofie said, trying to distract me from the funk I was rapidly spiralling into, 'I like the hair. Very suave, don't you think Duncan?'

I managed a weak grin, hand automatically feeling along the shortened clumps at the back.

Duncan didn't look impressed at all. 'I don't know man. It's very, uh, mainstream.'

Sofie looked away, embarrassed and I frowned at my friend's obvious motive. I'm not going to steal your girlfriend dipshit.

Ms Bitch finally got up from her swivel chair at the front of the classroom. I called her Ms Bitch but the name she wrote on the board at the start of each term was "Ms Vitch" -Ms Helena Vitch. Ms Bitch was a bitch because she obviously hated teaching and treated all of us like we wasted her time. She was probably only in teaching because she was looking for a husband out of the rich-ass faculty. Or perhaps out of the student body. Whenever Sasha walked past her desk, she would cross and uncross her legs so that her skirt fabric rode up to show the tops of her stockings. And she always wore high-heel shoes. My mom said only skanks –she didn't use that word exactly- wore heels to work. Then again, hospital regulations meant that my mother had a choice of nurse's slippers or Crocs every day of the working year…

'Too good to be on time like your peers, Mr Bellevue?'

I stood up. Ms Bitch made us stand up to answer questions. 'No Ma'am.'

'Well hurry up and find a partner. You're wasting my time.'

I swallowed, feeling that famous Bellevue blush start fizzing at my collarbones. A quick look around the classroom told me there were no longer any available partners, a fact which Ms Bitch probably already knew.

'There isn't anyone left, Ma'am.'

The class snickered, Sofie and Duncan huddling together as if they could protect each other from the attention gracing me.

Ms Bitch smiled and I tried not to look at the fleck of red lipstick she'd gotten on her big horsey teeth. 'Well then, I guess that means you get to work alone.'

What? 'Ma'am, the assignment's worth 70% of our grade.' At my side my left hand was balled up into a fist so tightly that my finger joints ached.

'That's your problem, Bellevue. You shouldn't have been late to class. And anyway,' she sneered, 'you're a busy little bee, I'm sure you'll manage by yourself.'

I forced myself to think calming thoughts of Ms Bitch getting crushed to death by her desk, stockinged legs kicking about uselessly while the class watched.

'Ms Vitch. I'm taking AP classes-'

She clapped her hands together sarcastically. 'Oh, well why didn't you say so! I couldn't possibly push the school's star pupil to actually do his work, could I?'

My blunt nails were cutting crescents into the flesh of my palm. 'No, Ms Vitch.'

'I'll make a deal with you Mr Bellevue. Any one of your peers puts his hand up right now and takes your place, gives you their partner, and we'll drop the matter, hnn?'

I didn't need to look around to see that no one was going to stand up. Hell, Ms Bitch knew no one would. I also didn't need to look to see that Sofie and Duncan would be steadfastly avoiding my gaze.

I sat down and Miss Bitch almost crowed with pleasure. Carefully, I drew out my pencil case and set about drawing up an assignment plan, feeling my ears burn as everyone watched, waiting for me to crack. I thought again of Ms Bitch, lying on her stomach with the desk crushing her flat. Maybe her precious high heels would fall of while she flailed about. Maybe she'd be reaching desperately for the leg of my pants, trying to ask for help but unable to, the air squashed out of her.

-:-:-

Duncan and Sofie cornered me in the hall on the way to lunch and I saw the inevitable intervention in their sad, accusing eyes.

I glared back at them. 'Save it.'

I saw the little squeeze of reassurance Sofie gave her boyfriend's hand.

'You know,' Duncan said on the way to recess 40 minutes later with his eyes on my hair as if it would jump off my head and personally romance Sofie away from him, 'she wouldn't have called you out like that if you'd been there on time. Where were you?'

I gripped my wallet tightly in my pocket so that I wouldn't be tempted to hit something, and impulse I was new to. 'I don't want to talk about it.'

Duncan looked offended.

'I think we need to talk about it, Ferdinand,' Sofie said. 'You come to school late, you get a detention-'

'I told you; it's just a pink slip. And Mr Brandt is a jerk anyway. You know that.'

'Well yeah,' Duncan snorted, 'but still… It's not like you to get in so much trouble.'

'Trouble? You guys think that was trouble? Jesus, Dunc, it's not like I came to school with my hair dyed blue.'

Duncan eyeballed my haircut again. 'Close to it.'

'For fucks sake, it's just a haircut.'

Sofie physically recoiled and Duncan looked taken aback behind his stupid Spiderman glasses.

'What's the matter?' I hissed, stuffing my hands in my pockets angrily. 'Never heard the F-word before?'

'What's the matter with you!' Duncan hissed, leaning down as if our minor spat embarrassed him. 'You're acting like a psychopath!'

'What?' I was almost shouting. 'I cut my hair and I'm late to one class and now all of a sudden you think I'm off the rails?'

'Well, how are we supposed to know?' Sofie said quietly. 'You're withdrawn all the time…'

I snorted humourlessly. 'You sound like my parents.'

Duncan jumped in with, 'So your parents agree with us?'

Sofie shot me a quick, apologetic look that told me to not over-react to my friend's statement.

'What Duncan is trying to say,' Sofie said, looking to Duncan for reassurance, 'Is that we're not the only ones noticing a change in you, Birdy. We're worried. We have a right to be, we're you friends.'

'Oh yeah,' I guffawed, 'You guys are stellar. Way to stick up for me back there.'

'Hey, that wasn't our fault. You were late!' Duncan protested. Sofie put a hand on his arm to calm him.

'Oh my god, Duncan. One mark on my otherwise flawless attendance record, what will I do?'

'It's not just that, Ferdy,' Sophie said. I could have laughed at the sombre expression she was sporting. 'You spoke back to Ms Vitch in there. You never used to speak back to teachers.'

I let out a small moan of frustration. 'And you don't think what she did in there was just a little bit unprofessional Sof? She obviously has something against me and you two just let it happen! You didn't even try to stick up for me!'

Sofie looked sadly contemplative but Duncan just rolled his eyes.

'Oh, c'mon. So now we were supposed to take a bullet for you? Like you'd do the same.'

'Actually Dunc. I think that's exactly what friends are supposed to do.'

'That's ridiculous.'

'Well if you think that, maybe you're not a real friend. How do you feel Sofie?'

'Don't put this on her!'

'Oh, so you can stick up for your girlfriend and not me, huh Dunc?'

'Calm down Ferdinand,' Sofie said as her boyfriend spluttered for an answer. I was suddenly aware of just how much my voice had risen. Sofie sighed. 'Is this about what happened before the summer?'

'You mean Duncan sleeping with my date?' I blurted before I could stop myself. I don't know why I said it. I'd spent the entire holidays trying to summon even a mote of jealousy over the whole debacle.

Sofie gave me a stern look. 'You told me to go home with him, remember?'

'Yeah, you weren't interested,' Duncan said and I felt a twinge of sympathy for Sofie. Duncan was too hot-headed to figure out what she'd implied of him but Sofie certainly felt the sting of his admission.

'It's not about that.'

'Then what is it about, man. You spend all class staring out the window at the darn parking lot. You don't want to hang out. You don't talk to either of us anymore.' He stopped listing off of his fingers with a drawn out sigh. 'Sofie told me about the other day –with the freaks-'

I shot Sofie a look. 'They're not freaks. They're just…ok, so they're different. So what of it?'

'They're dangerous, Ferdy!' Sofie hissed. 'They're loners. That guy, Lola Macky's boyfriend, Mr Brandt caught him loitering on school grounds the other day and they confiscated a knife off him! You don't want to get mixed up with people like that.'

'Are you telling me who I can't be friends with?' I asked, thinking of the way the mysterious Valmont had laughed with his head thrown back like nothing was more pure, more intrinsic to him than pleasure.

Duncan laughed with disbelief. 'Are you saying you even want to? They're a bunch of psychopaths.'

'At least they're having fun,' I spat, more out of stubbornness than truth.

'You can't mean that,' Sofie said. 'Don't tell me you found that horrible, misogynistic thing that that boy said funny.'

I rolled my eyes. 'It was just a joke.'

'About beating a girl up, man! What kind of sick shit is that?'

'Oh, so you went and complained to him just because I laughed at one stupid joke? Is that how it's going to be? You two running off at lunch to make out and share your little concerns about me?'

Sofie had the sense to look ashamed. 'Listen, I'm sorry if we've been ignoring you-'

'Oh don't bother. I couldn't give a shit that you two are together. I'm just saying I want to maybe…make some new friends. Shake things up.'

Duncan looked disgusted. 'It's our senior year, man. You get good grades. You're in almost all AP classes. I'd kill for your life. Why are you suddenly so determined to screw it up?'

Anger tickled deep in my stomach. 'Shows how well you know me,' I said. 'I'm miserable, you guys. Can't you see that?'

'Your sister thinks maybe you just need a girlfriend,' Sofie said.

'Forget it, Sof,' Duncan said. 'He'd probably not interested in that either.'

A pulse began to tick in my temple. 'And what do you mean by that?'

'You know what I mean.'

'No I don't actually, Duncan. But please, tell me.' I felt hot, hot but alive, like the anger was bringing me closer to my friends than trying to be harmonious with them had ever accomplished.

'Birdy…' He sighed, looking defeated. 'I don't…'

'No, go ahead Duncan. Call me a fag. God knows you never defend me when Souleymane says it.' My voice came out screechy and abrasive and a few people looked up from their lunches.

Sofie's eyes were fixed on the ground, gears whirring in her head.

Duncan too looked embarrassed. 'I think you need to chill out for a bit.'

'Yeah,' I said snidely, 'Maybe I'll go smoke some weed with your friend Derrick DuPont.'

Duncan looked horrified. 'You don't mean that do you?'

Well no, I didn't. Derrick DuPont's dreadlocks smelt catastrophically bad. I wondered where Derrick DuPont would even be, if he'd let me share a smoke with him or if he'd tell me to get lost. No. I could admit to myself that I was still too pussy to do weed. I hadn't even smoked a cigarette yet. Just imagining it made me feel guilty. Or giddy. I made a mental note to figure that one out.

I sneered. 'It's got to be more fun than hanging out with you.' Give me something, I thought desperately. Fight me. Let there be some other side to you that understands the anger I feel every single day.

Duncan looked at me sadly. 'This isn't like you, man. You're supposed to be nice.'

'Nice! I hate being nice. I'm a nobody because I'm nice!' I yelled. A few more people dropped their forks to eavesdrop.

Duncan frowned. 'C'mon Sof. I can't talk to him when he's like this,' he said with another disgusted look in my direction. No! Nononono! Don't leave. Fight me!

'Hey Duncan,' I called as my friend went to turn around. 'What do you tell a woman with two black eyes?'

Smack!

It wasn't even a good punch. Neither Duncan nor I had ever been in so much as a wrestling match before and it showed. Half way through he appeared to rethink the momentum of his fist and his hand slackened, his knuckles rapping against the edge of my jaw, thumb scraping after them awkwardly. It didn't even stagger me, merely baited the snapping dog of my anger. Bizarrely, my first thought was to reach for his head with both hands as if I could just grab onto his hair and pull his skull apart in two halves. But I never got that far, Mr Brandt's voice booming around the cafeteria.

'Bellevue! Snyder! Drop it this instant!'

Sofie tried in vain to pull my white-knuckled hands off her boyfriend's scalp. It was only the awareness of her genuine ineffectualness –I'd never realized I was so much stronger- that brought me back to rationality. What had I been about to do? What had I even been trying to do?

Mr Brandt's stomping footsteps as he hurried to reprimand us further dissolved any residual anger I had and I was suddenly horribly aware of every eye in the room fixed on me.

Mr Brandt wrenched us apart by the backs of our school shirts with unnecessary force. Duncan was panting heavily, his face pinched with rage.

'I want to see you both at Detention.'

'But tryouts-!'

'You don't want to finish that sentence Bellevue.' He turned to Sofie. 'Get him to the nurse's station,' he said, jerking his head at Duncan. There was smear of blood at his hairline from where I'd scratched him in my desperation to attack his scalp like a lunatic.

'Dunc…' I tried, but my friend shook his head, turning his back on me and storming out of the cafeteria, Sofie hurrying after him.

'I'm very disappointed in you, Bellevue.'

'Oh, can it, sir!' I barked, noting the crow of excitement that came from the watching crowd. 'You can't even remember my name!'

Mr Brandt looked startled. I pouted, eyes on the floor. Here it comes.

'Come with me,' he said simply, hand fisted in my sleeve so that I didn't have much of a choice.

His office was big like every other teacher at St Clementine's, but crowded –I noted with some surprise- with books. Books of every kind like he was some kind of scholar or collector. I'd never seen so many old tomes outside of the State Library.

'Take a seat,' Mr Brandt said gruffly.

I sank obediently into the chair across from his desk, my anger fled and been replaced with sinking dread. My father's livid face appeared suddenly in my mind's eye, imaginary spittle flying from his lips as he yelled. Oh God. I looked up to find the homeroom teacher merely watching me patiently over his steepled fingers.

'Uh, Mr Brandt…'

'I'm sorry, Ferdinand.'

My head jerked up. What?

The teacher sighed. 'It was cruel, forgetting your name. I was a kid too once, believe it or not, and something like that…I'm sorry.'

I swallowed. Very funny, now where's that famed Brandt punishment? Two days on the rack or beheading at dawn?

'Do you need to see the school councillor?' he asked suddenly, blue eyes piercing.

'Uh. No. I don't uh-'

Mr Brandt nodded. 'It's all right, I understand. I wouldn't want to talk about it either if I was your age.' He smiled fondly to himself at some memory. He had chosen to lean at the edge of his desk nearer my chair rather than sit behind and from such a short distance I again notice the faint scars on his face, a face that was not so old as his reputation always painted him to be in my imagination. He looked to be in his early 30s.

'Um. What are we talking about here sir?

I considered me for a moment, made to say something and then seemed to change his mind. 'Never mind. I hope you realize that I'm still going to have to give you a detention for this.'

I moaned. 'But Mr Brandt-'

'Yes I know. You have training. Which is why I'm assigning you to C-stream detention with Ms Hollings –it's 20 minutes earlier you see, so you'll be able to make your tryouts.' He ran a hand through his hair. 'It's probably better to keep you separated from Mr Snyder anyway. He'll be serving out his own detention with the B-stream students.'

Sweet relief flooded every inch of my body as I stood to leave.

'Ferdinand.'

I halted. 'Yes sir?'

'I…I overheard some of your conversation. Ferdinand, it might be difficult for you now but things do get better. You don't need to go seeking trouble just to make things…clearer,' he said cryptically.

I nodded, at a loss for something appreciative to say to that.

'I'll speak to Ms Vitch for you about your assignment load. Have you considered that perhaps she is pushing you because she knows you are capable of the extra work?'

'I'm busy with other thing sir,' I said through gritted teeth. Mr Brandt nodded thoughtfully.

'I suppose you are. Does your father know you're trying out for the lacrosse team?'

Oh of course. My father played golf with some of the more influential men in Louisiana. It made sense that his name would have considerable weight with my teachers.

'Yes.'

'Well good,' he said, clapping a hand on my shoulder. 'I'm sure he'll be very proud of you. Athletics are after all, an important part of a balanced lifestyle. And I've found that they can make things such as this easier –being part of a team.'

I frowned. 'Things such as what, sir?'

Mr Brandt's eyebrows shot up and he looked at me searchingly, hand still resting on my shoulder, its weight unnerving. When he didn't find whatever he was looking for he coughed nervously, withdrawing. The bell sounded.

'Well, you better run along,' he said, voice once more stiff and formal. 'I hope you know I'll be contacting your father about the incident.'

'What! Mr Brandt, you know my father will take it the wrong way!'

'Fighting isn't tolerated at St Clementine's. My hands are tied I'm afraid. Now hurry up, I don't want to hear that you were late for another class today.'

I stormed out of Mr Brandt's office feeling twice as unsettled as I'd been when I entered it. What had he been insinuating with that hand on my shoulder. Those sympathetic looks… I snorted angrily through my nose as I walked, headed not for my French class but for the bathroom instead. When I got there I slammed my way into a cubicle, throwing my bag onto the tiles so viciously that a few items clattered out. Whoever had been in the stall next door left in a hurry and I waited for the door to close before slamming my fist into the cubicle divider –the punch for Duncan that had been aborted earlier.

Something on the ground caught my eye –the lip ring. I kicked it through the gap under the stall door and listened to it skitter satisfyingly and pressed my hand over my mouth, sinking down with my head tipped back against the divider.

It felt a lot like crying, the hysterical feeling that welled up in my throat and made my hands shake. I ran my fingers through my too-short hair over and over again, trying to soothe the tumble of thoughts. It was at the edge of my mental grasp –what Mr Brandt had been prompting me for, but whenever I came too close to calling it by its name my brain blocked it out, forced my thoughts to redirect.

'Who does he think he is?' I murmured to myself. The tiles were disgusting and damp and felt cold even through my school slacks. I flexed the hand I'd hit with. The knuckles weren't even reddened. Pathetic. And what right does Brandt even fucking have talking to me like that! I thought. Does he want you to break down in his arms and cry about how confused you are? He's probably a fag you realize. He probably lures boys into his office all the time and makes them feel like he's there friend so that they'll suck him off. I giggled. He probably keeps the yearbook in his desk drawer and whacks off to it. Yeah, he's a flamer, that's why he's got all those books!

I grabbed a biro that had fallen out of my bag, not thinking too hard about what it might have been resting in as I got to my feet. Still giggling I began to scratch away at the plastic paper dispenser, watching as the words revealed themselves in blue ink.

"Mr Brandt is a gay paedo"

I sniggered, finishing up my masterpiece. Even if nothing changes, I thought, even if you're still a nobody at the end of this year. Even if Sofie and Duncan forget your name and no one recognizes you at reunion twenty years later. This writing will remain. This will testify that you existed.

I took one last shaky breath, putting myself back together and preparing what I'd say to Madam Pierret about my tardiness. I felt better. I'd go to tryouts so that I had something to pacify dad with when he scolded me, and after that I'd figure out a way to make things right with Sofie and Duncan.

Max was wrong, I thought as I straightened my uniform, making sure my shirttails were tucked in. You can't force change. All you can do is follow the path right for you and trust that things will get better.

On the way out of the bathroom I paused, looking down at the packet which had skidded to a rest under the sink. On impulse I bent down and scooped it up. It would go in the bin when I got home and from there the trash, and my sister wouldn't be able to sneak it into my bag anymore.

I checked my hair in the mirror. Straightened my glasses. Forced a smile.

A/N: Thanks for reading and for putting up with emo!Birdy. I promise he hasn't reached his full potential ;) Part II coming soon…