A Stagnation of Love

Author's Note: Well, here we are again, lol. This is the FOURTH incarnation of this story, but while rereading the first two chapters I wrote, I realized it wasn't right. It's my own fault, I can't write things from the point of view of young children, it never sounds authentic. I really don't like the first two chapters of this story for that reason, so I'm scrapping them and trying to introduce the themes of those chapters from the view of an older Frey. Hopefully this will be the last rewrite :v

Chapter 1

Part 1

March 3, 2004

My name is Frey Johnson. I'm thirteen years old. Not that it matters, Mrs. Daniels said that no one else is going to read this journal, just me. I don't get the point of this assignment if she's not even going to read it. I told her it would be like talking to myself, so it's pointless, but she insisted that I do it. She said that writing down all the things that make me sad and angry will help me after what happened. I know it won't, but it's either this or my English homework, and I've read Tom Sawyer before. It's not a book I really want to read again. I'd rather write about this, even if it doesn't help.

I'm good at writing. I'm good at reading, too. Essays, book reports, critical reading. It's all I've ever been good at. I suck at every science I've ever taken. I can remember all the little rules and equations for math. History bores me. I'm too tone deaf to be any good at chorus or the other music classes. I don't care enough about gym to try and I'm not competitive like the other boys in my grade. I already know everything they teach in home ec. But I've always been good at words and understanding them. I started reading on my own before most of my classmates. I had to. My dad stopped reading to me when I was four, and I liked those stories too much to wait until first grade to be taught how to do it myself. I remembered the stories, I just had to figure out the words. And learning that I could make those words myself on paper had been even more magical than learning how to understand them.

I don't know what I should write about. Mrs. Daniels said to write about the stuff that makes me upset, so I guess I could write about my parents, or about Nate. I don't want to write about him, but I guess that's the point.

I met Nate my first day of school. I was tired because my parents kept me up all night with their fighting. I don't remember a day when they didn't fight, but some nights are worse than others. Sometimes they just bicker or snap at each other. Some nights, like that night, they scream and swear and throw things at each other. On really bad nights, they hit each other. Sometimes Dad throws Mom out of the house and she doesn't come back until the morning, or Mom scratches up his face. Lately, the last two years, it's gotten worse and worse. I know from the looks our neighbors give us the screaming annoys them, but because of my dad's job, they never say anything about it.

That night, they just screamed at each other a lot. I don't remember what it was about, my dad threw Mom out of the bedroom. That happens a lot, too. I thought that after hearing them scream at each other every night, it would stop bothering me, but I still haven't gotten used to it. It still wakes me up at night and it still frightens me. Dad probably threw her out because she didn't want him touching her. When I was younger, that confused me since she didn't kick up such a fuss during the day, just at night, but I think it means she doesn't like sleeping next to him or something. Whatever the reason, it always pisses my dad off even worse than if I break something.

Our house is small and old. There's only one bedroom, my parents' room. My room is the attic. When I told Nate that, he said it was cool, like I lived in a secret room, and that I had the whole place to myself. He would say that. To him, it was cool because even though he lived in a bigger house than me, he had six older sisters before they all left to go to college. When he was younger, there was no room in his house he could go to to get any privacy. But he was wrong. I never lived in a secret room because my dad always knows where to find me, and I can always hear them. I guess it would be worse if I had a room downstairs, but it doesn't matter. It isn't how loud they can scream, it's what they say and how they sound when they say it, and I can hear that just fine up here. I liked it better when I was little, and didn't understand what words like 'fuck', 'asshole', 'cunt', 'bitch', and 'bastard' meant. I liked it better when I didn't fully understand their hate for each other. When Nate and I were in the fourth grade, an eighth grader had told us what all those words meant. Nate had been appalled. I guess no one talks like that in his family. I was just sad.

Even if the shouting is louder downstairs, at least I would have a room with lights. There are no windows in an attic. There is no breeze or heat up here, either, just my mattress, a dresser for my clothes, and a single electrical outlet. The fan I plug into it during the summer doesn't make it any less hot, and even the old electric blanket Nate gifted me with a couple years ago helps during the winter. I stopped being afraid of the dark up here when I was a kid, but I still hate opening my eyes to that. I had a lamp up here once, by Dad broke it. I didn't see the point in finding another one.

Even when my parents eventually stopped screaming at each other, I had a hard time sleeping. It had been hot the night before, so we had kept our windows open. That morning, after Dad had gone to work, it had started to pour. Mom was already on her way to getting drunk and I had been too excited and focused on starting school that I forgot to close the windows. When Dad got home and saw that a bunch of our things had gotten soaked, he had gotten pissed. It doesn't take much to make him mad. If I just walk in my room when he has a hangover or has a bad day at work, he comes upstairs and strikes me. Sometimes, if he's just annoyed, it's just one punch. When he's in a truly bad mood, it's a lot more than that. I have nightmares about hearing that stride, hearing his heavy footsteps walking up the stairs to the attic. I remember once, when I was really little, Mom, back before she had started to ignore me entirely, had told me to just stay out of his way. He got angry sometimes, she had said, and he couldn't control his anger anymore than a person could control feeling tired, so the best thing I could do, if I didn't want to get hit, was make sure I wasn't in the same room as him. I had tried, back then. I had tried so hard to not do things that angered him, to be a good son and stay out of his way. But my mom's advice hadn't been so great. Dad would just find me. That day, when I forgot to close the windows, he found me and threw a chair at me. It hit me in the back and busted up my ribs, so I tossed and turned all the night, unable to get comfortable. I had realized, years ago, that hitting me and hurting me made him feel better. A lot of times, if he was just in a bad mood and it wasn't something serious, he would beat me and that would be it. He would be calmer afterwards. In a way, that makes it ok, I guess. It hurts, and I hate it when he gets like that, but then it's over and it isn't so bad. Sometimes, I wonder if I even deserve it. If I were better, smarter, less of a burden on my parents and their struggle just to make it through until Dad's next paycheck, maybe he wouldn't get angry so often.

But at the same time that I understand that, and as much as I don't want to make him angry like that for doing stupid shit, I don't feel right when he hits me. When I was a kid, it would make me sad and confused, but I accepted it because I loved him. I still do. But lately, every time he strikes me, I feel hate towards him, too. When I was a kid, I used to think that feeling confused and sad about my father was normal, that all kids felt that way towards their fathers, and that all the fighting my parents did was normal. But when I started to go to school, and I saw all the other kids with their parents, I realized that my family was strange. Some kids had it a lot better than me. Others, like Nate, had it just as bad, but in different ways. I used to want to think that Nate hated his parents, too, because that meant those feelings were ok, that I didn't need to feel guilty and that I'm a terrible son for feeling that hate. But now... now I don't want to. I want to believe that Nate never felt things like that, even if I know it' a lie.

I've gone through what happened in my head a thousand times and I still don't understand why it happened. I don't know if I want to understand it. It's different than trying to understand why my parents hate me so much. I can kind of understand that. I'm nothing special. I'm not like those kids in the advanced classes that are probably going to go off to college, get great jobs, and help out their folks. I'm not smart. Being good at writing and reading means shit in the 'real world'. I'm old enough now to get that, and to know that one of the reasons why my dad works so hard that he has to come home late is because he has to support me.

And I know that my mom hates me because of what happened the day I was born. She told me once that I ruined her inside when I came out. I don't really know what that means exactly, only that when she gave birth to me, I hurt her, and she can never have anymore kids. It must be true. In our basement are all these things my parents had before I was born, pictures of when they were teenagers. Mom is so pretty in those pictures, and she is always smiling and happy. She doesn't smile anymore, and if she ever has, I don't remember. When Dad drinks, he tells me that they were both happy back then, until I came along.

She can never have someone better than me. I think about that, every time I fuck up, every time I get a bad grade on a test or break a dish because I'm clumsy or Dad hits me for disturbing him. I'll never be anything special, and my parents are stuck with me forever. But no matter how much I try, I can't seem to get any better for them.

I understand those things, but I don't understand why this happened. I hadn't been around other kids that much until that first day of school. I had hoped that I would make some friends, even just one. I had thought that it couldn't be any worse than being at home with Dad. I don't know why I thought that, like Dad was the only one who could hurt me.

I had never been more excited in my entire life than that morning, and I haven't been that excited since. I had spent the last three weeks scrounging for school supplies since I didn't have any money to buy anything and neither of my parents had bothered. They hadn't even talked to me about school, except for a month before when my dad had come home from work and gruffly told me I was going to school and getting out of his hair, finally.

I went door to door in our neighborhood, except for our one next door neighbor who has this big, vicious dog. I've avoided that house since the large mutt had tried to take a bit out of my face just walking past the yard it hadn't been chained up in. Most of them told me to go home and slammed the door in my face while others didn't even answer the door since the section of town we live in is so shitty, but some of them were willing to give me some composition notebooks and pencils even though I was too embarrassed to tell any of them why I needed those things. I hadn't known that the teachers just gave you that stuff. I found an old, black book bag that had been my dad's at some point and stuffed all of it in there.

My parents didn't say anything when I walked out the door that morning. Back then I had worried about it, that I had gotten the date or something else wrong. I had even been frightened that I would be punished later for leaving the house without their permission. Looking back, I know that they just didn't care. I was getting out of their sight for a few hours. Whether I made it to school or knew what I was doing didn't matter. I had been too scared, and too desperate to prove I could do it on my own, to ask them. Nausten is small enough that I knew where the school was, so I could at least get that far.

It takes me twenty minutes to walk to school every day. Not too bad, and I'd rather walk than take the bus. I like walking to school in the mornings, it's quiet, that special time of day when the only thing adults care about is getting coffee before work and most businesses aren't even open yet. I appreciate more now that I'm a teenager, but when I was a kid I liked it, too. It had been early enough in the fall that things were cold, but not miserable like they would be in December. The winter means ducking snow balls and trudging through the heavy wind in my thin jacket and even thinner pants.

But fall is pretty. Not so much where I live, but when you get further north where there are trees and well kept shrubs, all those colors made the walk well worth it. At the right time of fall, I even delay walking back home just to look up at the trees. I didn't delay that morning. I didn't want to start school as one of the only kids that was late. I didn't know what that punishment might be.

I hate the elementary school building. I've hated it since the first time I saw it. We used to have a middle school building, but it burned down long ago, before I was born, and the town decided it was too much fuss to rebuild it. Instead they crammed grades 5-8 in with K-4. Bullying and agitation between the younger kids and the older ones impatiently waiting for high school went way up, and classroom space went way down, but the town saved enough money to build a bigger boardwalk at the beach and whatever the hell else they did with that money, so what did they care? It was just the teachers and kids that suffered, one didn't have big enough salaries to matter and the other would grow out of it.

The elementary school is all white, aged, painted wood with old, stained windows that are covered up with construction paper from various school projects, mostly from the younger grades. I guess when they first built it, it had probably been nice looking, the white pristine and new. But now, decades later, that white could only be called that if you looked past it's the yellow as all that paint and wood had aged. The high schoolers are lucky. Their building is all brick and metal and doesn't come across as an overly ambitious shack.

The outside of the elementary school is better, though. The outside of the high school is almost entirely paved while the elementary has a lot more grass and flowers. We have a playground with a jungle gym and swings while the high school has a track and a couple of basketball courts. I even heard from the older kids that high schoolers don't get a recess, just a lunch. My first day of school, there were a bunch of kids my age playing on that jungle gym, but I didn't join them. I didn't know any of them or the kinds of games they were playing with their friends, and I didn't have any friends of my own to play with. Even after then, I only ever went on the jungle gym where no one else was. It was something I never grew out of, even after meeting Nate.

The elementary school is divided in two, with the left section for the lower classman, grades K-3, and the right section for the upper classman, grades 4-8. There were even two separate entrances, with the grades listed in gold above the doorways. I walked through the right side door, a stone in the pit of my stomach.

I was nine years old when I went to public school for the first time, not five like all of my other classmates, or even four like the kids whose parents had been well off enough to send them to preschool. The year I should have gone to kindergarten had passed me by without me even knowing I should have started school. Neither of my parents had talked to me about it and they hadn't really seemed like they had cared a year later when one of my dad's coworkers had asked him why I wasn't in class like his son was. My father had shrugged it off and said it was fine, there was nothing I was going to learn in kindergarten and it would just be a waste of his time and money. His friend had laughed and agreed with that, telling stories of the art projects his son had brought home and how much of a hassle it was using up his lunch hour to pick his son up from school. Beyond that, it had never come up. When I was supposed to enter the first grade, Dad lost my immunization records and refused to pay the fee to waive them. He spent a lot of nights on the phone with my doctor, yelling, and I don't really remember what came of that, only that by the time it had been resolved I had missed too many days of school to go.

I missed out going to the second grade because I had been laid out in the hospital for two months. Dad had been going through a lot of problems with his job, problems that he had taken home with him. He had been especially cagey those days and it hadn't taken much to get all of that rage directed at me. I don't really remember what I asked him thanks to the concussion he gave me. I just remember the look of anger that had come across his face, turning the father I had mostly loved back then into the monster I grew used to as I got older. I remember having screaming nightmares about that expression. I remember him yelling something at me, but most of all I remember how arm felt when he snapped it, and the sound my head made when he punched me in the temple and I hit a wall. That time he told the doctors that I got beaten up by an older kid.

Last year, I returned to the hospital, that time for a bad case of pneumonia. I got sick a lot when I was a kid, but that time had been terrible. I spent weeks in that hospital bed, coughing up what felt like gallons of fluid, too weak to do much but lay there. At least it had gotten me out of the house and away from my parents for awhile. The year I would have been in the fourth grade normally, my dad had been dead set on getting me into school and so was I. He wanted me out of the house and I wanted to meet people my own age.

When I heard from the school councilor that I would have to take a test to get into the fourth grade, or be sent to the first grade, I was mortified. I guess I just thought that I would be put in whatever grade all the other kids my age were in, I never thought that, because I had missed so many classes and skills I needed to get through the fourth grade, I would be held back. I didn't know what would be worse, to never go to school and be stuck at home like I had been, or to be held back, to be taking classes with six year olds instead of other nine years olds. I wanted to make friends, I wanted to be normal for just a few hours. I hadn't realized back then, the real extent that my father had screwed me.

That's why it hurts a bit now that I'm a teenager and I can look back and realize that the same man whose actions had kept me from going to school for three out of the four grades I had missed was responsible for getting me into the fourth grade. At nine years old I was pretty proficient at reading and writing. My father would bring me home books that were hand my downs from the people he worked with, and when he had the time during the weekends, he would take me with him to the library to check some out. I taught myself with those books, reading them over and over until even the bigger words became familiar to me. The test I had to take had a section on reading and I finished it quickly. It made me think that I might not have needed to go to those first three grades and I would be fine.

Then I saw the math parts. In reality, now that I'm in the seventh grade, all the things that had been in that test come second nature to me, but at the time my math skills had been as complex as counting on my fingers and knowing what all the different signs were from my books. I could handle 5+7 because I could count at least that high, and I knew my roman numerals from reading, but I hadn't the clue what 122+327 was, how to subtract 100 from 56, how to multiply, or how to divide things. Fractions and geometry were well beyond my scope of understanding at that time.

It had become a horrible nightmare for me. A month before I needed to be placed in my grade, I had trouble sleeping and constantly felt sick to my stomach. I wasn't so worried about having to go to the first grade anymore. I was scared that I would have to tell my father that I couldn't take the test. I imagined his anger, and even worse, I imagined his disappointment. The only thing worse than hearing that you're stupid for most of your life is knowing that you're stupid.

I finally got the courage one day to walk up to him with the test and tell him that I didn't understand any of the math. I had expected him to slap me or call me names, tell me that I was a moron and I deserved to be in the first grade. Instead he sighed in irritation and said, "I guess it can't be helped." He spent weeks going over all of the math problems with me, over and over and over until I could do them myself. He lost his temper with me a few times, but he never hit me, just yelled. Honestly though, those times when my dad was helping me study are some of the happiest memories I have. Sitting at the kitchen table with him, listening to him explain things to me instead of yelling or ignoring me. When I got something wrong, he would get so annoyed, but when I got it right, he would smile and ruffle my hair or pat my shoulder. It made me feel a deep love for him.

I don't know what I had imagined the inside of the school to be like before I had taken my first steps inside. All I had known about school I had learned from watching television after my dad abandoned the tv set to go to work. Those tv shows had always depicted schools as this great, fun place to be, with bustling hallways full of kids smiling and laughing. That morning, the hallways full of colorful lockers and colorful posters had been empty. It had reminded me more of the hospital than the schools on TV.

I was well accustomed to the hospital. Most of the time, Dad ignored me after he hit me. When I had been really little and he had hit me, Mom had grudgingly taken care of it, but after awhile she had just let me take care of myself. But there had been a few times when he had hit me just a little bit too hard, or he had been too drunk to realize what he had been doing and had broken something and he had taken me to the hospital. Most of the time it was one of my arms. I used to find it so hard that when the doctors asked my father what had happened, he had lied about it. What he had done had never seemed like something he needed to hide. It had just been normal to me, but he would pull out these stories and excuses, so naturally that it would even make me doubt my own memories for a moment. I don't know if the doctors bought it each time it had happened, and sometimes it seemed like they were looking at my dad suspiciously, but they never said anything about it.

Beyond that, what I remember of the hospital was it's quiet, empty, white halls. That morning was like that. It seemed like all of the kids were out in the playground, or maybe already in the classrooms. I stood there in the empty hallway and realized that I had absolutely no idea where I was supposed to go. I stood there in the middle of the crossroads of four hallways and felt like a complete idiot before a man walked up to me. He was wearing a tie, so I guess he must have been a teacher.

"You lost?" he asked in a gruff voice that reminded me of my father first thing in the morning, like he wanted to be anywhere but there and talking to anyone else but knew that he had to.

I nodded, feeling incredibly shy and unsure.

"What grade?" he asked in that slightly irritated way.

"Fourth," I responded in a small voice, feeling like the pest my father always told me I was.

"Fourth grade classrooms are closed for flooding repairs," he said in that bored tone people get when they've said the same thing over and over, "All fourth grade classes are meeting in the first grade wing," he pointed to the hallway to our right, "straight down there, take a right past the double doors, your classroom will be there."

"Thank you," I murmured and went the way he had said.

I opened the double doors and walked right to another empty hallway. Again, it reminded me of the hospital, only much sadder because of all the color. It would have seemed more natural if those walls had been painted grey or white instead of the gaudy blue and yellow that I remember. I haven't gone to the kindergarten, first, and second grade section of the school since then, so I don't know if they're still that color.

Worse than the quiet had been when I finally did start to see kids. They were chatting with kids they already knew, and walked as calmly and naturally as could be into different rooms. I didn't know anyone. This was my first day, not theirs, all of them knew where to go. I felt like some alien creature walking in their midst. I had realized then that I really was the idiot that my father says I am. I didn't know what I was supposed to do. I had gotten to the school ok, but now what? Which classroom was mine? Did I need books? What was I supposed to be doing?

I was scared of talking to anyone, but I was more scared about missing my first class, so I walked up to the first teacher I saw in that hallway, a tall woman who was chatting with some other grown-ups. I waited patiently for them to walk away before going up to her. She was pretty in the way my mom had been in those photos in the basement, with a gentle smile, beautiful dark brown eyes, and long dark brown hair. She had a very feminine face, the kind I remember seeing in elves from the picture books I used to read when I was little. When she didn't notice me, I grabbed at her long skirt and very gently tugged on it.

It was the sort of thing my father would have struck me hard for, something he considered incredibly rude. It was one of the many things he couldn't stand, a child pestering an adult. I even flinched when those soft brown eyes fell on me, so sure she would yell at me like my father would, but she smiled at me and kneeled down so I didn't have to crane my neck to look at her.

"What is it, sweetie?" she asked, her tone genuine instead of hiding annoyance or forcing herself to sound nice like some of my neighbors did when they spoke to me.

I always hated it when they did that, taking that same tone with me that they would with their dogs. It always reminded me of how my dad looked at me, like I was too stupid to really understand. Mrs. Daniels never looked or spoke to me like that.

"I don't know where to go," I confessed and I remember feeling completely embarrassed at that point.

Her smile fell into a small frown.

"You're new here, aren't you? Didn't your parents tell you?" she asked.

I shook my head. She regained her smile quickly and took my hand into hers. I don't know why but that reminded me of how Dad's hand felt around mine when we were at the mall or crossing the street. Her hand completely dwarfed mine like his did, but her hand wasn't as big as his, and hers was soft where his was rough.

"What's your name?" she asked me.

"Frey Johnson," I replied automatically in the same taught way all little kids do when a stranger asks for their name or age.

I had already been blushing in embarrassment from her holding my hand, something that if anyone else had done I would have felt insulted by at that age, but seemed to natural to her, but in saying my own name, I flushed a few shades darker. I don't think I've ever liked my name Both kids and adults always give me weird looks when I say it, like they don't believe me. I have no idea why parents picked that name instead of something normal like Robert or Matt. I looked it up once. Frey means God of weather and storms, which makes it even weirder. And it's Scandinavian. My dad's family, a whole lot of generations back, were a mix of British and Scottish, and my mother's family was French. Neither of them are all that close to Scandinavia, so I have no clue.

But Mrs. Daniels didn't seem puzzled at my weird name, her smile brightening.

"Oh, you must be Nathan and Helen's son!" she exclaimed, "I was beginning to worry that they had decided to home school you and we'd never get to meet."

I felt my face go searing hot and I felt the urge to go hide under something. I don't really remember why I had gotten so embarrassed just because she recognized me. My dad was one of the only seven cops in Nausten, so practically everyone knew who he was. But Mrs. Daniels was one of the only people who knew my mother by name.

"Well, Frey Johnson," she said to me in a voice as bright as her smile, "I'm Mrs. Lily Daniels, but you can just call me Lily. I'm your teacher this year, so we'll get to know each other well, ok?"

I'm sure I made some kind of surprised or dubious face when she told me to call her by her first name. That was something else that my father had taught me, and my breaking of that rule would have gotten me struck like all the others. Kids didn't call adults by their first names, it's rude and disrespectful. It just made me much more confused than it should have. I couldn't call my teacher by her first name because my dad would have been furious if he ever found out, and I couldn't call her by her last name because she didn't want me to.

At first I even thought she was trying to trick me. My dad used to do that, let me think it was ok to break a rule, but it was only a test, one he would punish me for if I failed. I eventually got over it. I have never called Mrs. Daniels by her first name and I never will.

"Thank you," I blurted out, my struggle to decide whose rules I should follow making me remember my manners.

She walked with me down the hallway, still holding my hand.

"I went to high school with your Daddy, Frey," Mrs. Daniels told me with a gentle smile.

I quickly forgot my fear in my interest. All I knew about my parents when they were younger had come from what I could find stored in our basement. They never talked about it, except for the things they yelled at each other or me. I had never met my grandparents. I don't even know if they're dead or alive some place, refusing to visit for some reason. Maybe they just lived too far away. Even if my parents were stuck in the same town they had grown up in, it didn't mean their parents were.

"You're handsome, just like him," my teacher continued as I gave her my full attention.

I looked down at the ground, not sure what I was supposed to say to that. No one had ever told me I looked anything like my dad before. I have the same pale skin my mom did, and her golden blonde, straight hair. My dad's hair is dark brown, even darker than Mrs. Daniels, and both my father and my mother have grey eyes, although my dad's are much darker. My eyes are green. When I had been much younger, I thought that made me a freak. I'm still not sure why I don't have grey eyes like I should, but I know it's because of some ancestors from both sides of my family, not because I'm strange or even because I'm not really their kid.

"He was so stubborn as a teenager and he was always getting into trouble," she chuckled, "I still can't believe he got into law enforcement and turned out to be good at it!"

I remember being surprised by that. Not to hear that my dad had been stubborn because he was, and not to hear he was good at his job. My father didn't earn a lot of money as a police officer, but he wasn't a beat cop or a grunt. By the time I should have started school, he had earned some sort of medal. I don't remember what it had been for, I had been too young to remember and my father hadn't gloated about it. It had gotten him free beer for a few months and a raise, which had gotten me a new pair of sneakers and my parents a new oven, as our old one had stopped doing anything giving out grey smoke and a foul order. Our new one hadn't been that great, but you could cook with it at least.

Since then, my father had gotten two more medals, one for breaking up a local drug ring and the other catching someone who had been hurting women in our town one summer. That had been all over the news for a week because stuff like that doesn't happen here that much. That last medal had made Dad angry. He had spent a lot of nights at his job, not coming home until the morning, and had expected a promotion for it. I guess he never got one because he had been especially furious for a month after that.

In all that time, I was stupid enough to cross his path just three times. The first time, he hit me in the cheek with his belt so hard my cheek turned a deep blue-black color that was a dark, blood red at the edges and the swelling didn't go down for days. The second time he hit me with Mom's iron and broke three of my ribs. I tried even harder to do everything he asked of me to the letter and otherwise find a dark hole to hide in until his mood passed. Mom didn't fight with him at all that month. The third time... well... the third time I ended up in the hospital and missed the second grade.

What surprised me was hearing that my father had been a trouble maker. I couldn't imagine my dad misbehaving. He punished me for every little rule I broke, and my father had a lot of rules. He was always so serious, I just couldn't see him as anything but that. At nine years, just imagining the looming, powerful man that was my father as a teenager at all had been impossible.

Mrs. Daniels let go of my hand as we walked into a classroom. It looked like all the other classrooms I had seen, only the kids running around in it were my age and the desks were smaller. Most of the kids' attention were focused on the front of the room where two kids were fighting. Well, that had been my impression at the time. But they hadn't been going at each other or arguing.

A girl with brown hair much lighter than Mrs. Daniels' was yelling at a boy with blonde hair that was paler than mine and brilliant blue-green eyes that were wide with fear. The girl had a jar of glue in her hand was approaching the boy with it as he tried to back away. He looked like he wanted to get as far away from her as possible but was too scared to make a sudden move. The whole scene was bizarre to me. The only 'girl' I really knew well was my mother, but I knew enough that boys weren't supposed to be scared of girls like that unless, according to my dad, you were a pussy or a fag. Back then, I hadn't known what cats had to do with it or what a fag was (and I wouldn't know the meaning of that word until last year), but I did understand that it was something embarrassing. And I had no idea what the girl was doing with the glue, but the fear on the boy's face bothered me a lot.

Mrs. Daniels quickly abandoned me to run over to them and stop whatever had been going on. Just like that, the mob of kids dispersed, but the noise didn't. I was used to loud noises and screaming at this point, but I still didn't like the mass of screaming, laughing, running kids in that classroom. All I could think of was that my father would never let me cause such chaos like that, and I had that feeling again, of being different, of not belonging there. Should I be like them, running around and causing a scene, chasing around a friend and screaming with glee?

The noise overwhelmed me and I nervously shuffled into a desk in the far corner. I felt very sad right then. I had wanted to make friends with someone here, but how could I? They all had their own friends, no one needed me. They had had four years with each other, four years I would never have. With all of the running and screaming, none of them came up to me and tried to talk to me. They ignored me like I was something vile and small. I felt very alone, although that wasn't anything new to me, I had just hoped it would be different at school. Nothing had changed. That was the worst part.

I had a thought then, a thought that was probably way out of scope of a fourth grader, but I had it none the less. Nothing was ever going to change. I was always going to be alone, just my parents and me. All these kids were just starting to go to school like I was, but they had had a head start on me anyway. I raised my head as I saw the boy and girl that had been fighting shuffling back to their own desks. The boy looked ashamed and the girl looked annoyed, though it should have been the other way around. The girl sat a few chairs ahead of me and whirled around to look at me, studying me like a child would with an insect they had caught in a glass jar. Like I was something gross and unwanted she had caught.

The girl was pretty, I guess. She wasn't pretty like how my mother had once been, or how Mrs. Daniels was, but the way that a doll was. Her light brown hair was too perfect, the curls not natural but obviously put there by a hair dresser or maybe her mother. Her pink dress was brand new and fair too neat for a child her age, not a single stain or fleck of dirt on it. She looked too perfect, too fake in some way, and the look she was giving me wasn't pretty at all. The dress didn't suit her. Her pretty, fake curls didn't suit her, or rather, knowing what I know now, maybe they did. I had to look down, away from her piercing blue eyes, and I fiddled with the pencils and paper I had pulled out of my father's book bag.

"Seats, now!" Mrs. Daniels said, not cruelly or harshly, but with enough power to her voice that all the other kids scrambled to their desks.

Again I was struck with that feeling that I was the only one missing something. All the other kids seemed to know what to do, probably the same things they had done their previous years, and sat quietly in their seats, although some looked like they were on the verge of exploding with energy. I didn't have that urge, and I certainly didn't have that energy. I just felt incredibly nervous and out of place, so I did what I had always been taught to do; I kept my head down and stayed quiet until my name was called, then I merely raised my hand like all the others. I didn't pay any attention to the names of my classmates.

Even though I was anxious about the other kids, I decided that the classes were fun. In some ways I miss it. Now that I'm in the seventh grade, we have to change classrooms and teachers every block. I miss just having Mrs. Daniels as my only teacher. That first day, we got to paint and learn how to write in long roman numberals, something that I never really picked up on. I never really understood the purpose of it, honestly. My parents didn't write like that, and Mrs. Daniels didn't either, and it's not something that I needed to know as I got older. My favorite time was, of course, reading time. I wasn't that great at painting. I wasn't terrible like some of my classmates were, but it was nothing special. Math was weird and I didn't really get it that well even after my dad's tutoring, even though Mrs. Daniels tried to engage us by using amusing scenarios for all the word problems.

But then we moved on to reading. I don't remember exactly what it was we had read, some short story. Mrs. Daniels had gone down the rows, making each of us read one paragraph of the story. A few of my classmates, the blue eyed girl included, struggled with a few of the words, but I didn't. The books I had to read at home had been just as hard, but I had learned those words out of necessity, and it had helped. Mrs. Daniels told me what a good reader I was, and I felt incredibly good about it. It had been the only time anyone had told me I was good at something since my father had told me 'good job' with a rare, soft smile when I had read our address from an envelope in the mail, or when I had gotten my sneakers tied without his help for the first time.

Mrs. Daniels' praise earned me a soft glare from the blue eyed girl who had stumbled through some of her words. That glare looked much more at home and natural on her than her curls or dress.

"Saren Elizabeth Parker!" Mrs. Daniels snapped at her.

The girl turned back around at that point and we returned to math. I forgot about it as we delved into more painful multiplication and division, at least until Mrs. Daniels got called away by another teacher. She shouted at us to mind ourselves and the second she left the room, the class devolved into chaos again. Everyone scrambled out of their seats and reformed their groups of friends, chatting loudly, chasing each other around the classroom, and drawing on the chalkboard. I thought briefly about walking up to one of those groups of kids and saying hi or something, but I was too scared. Instead, I looked at the window and watched some squirrels play out there. They reminded me of my classmates, mindlessly running around, but less loud.

I felt someone looking at me suddenly and looked away from the window. It was Saren, looking at me with the same intense expression she had earlier. It was a frightening look on the pretty girl. I don't know why, but she reminded me of my father, which was preposterous. But still, she scared me like he did when he was angry and I didn't like being under that creepy stare.

"Where are you from?" she finally broke her silence with a stern, demanding tone, crossing her arms over her chest in a pose that she was trying to make intimidating.

Although I didn't like her looking at me, and she weirded me out, in a way that pose was funny. She was the same size as me after all, but there was a hardness to her blue eyes that also made me feel wrong.

"Here," I said, confused by the question.

"Nu-uh," she said, poking me in the shoulder as I turned in my desk to look her in her creepy, ice-blue eyes, "You're a no good liar! I've lived here my whole life and I've never seen you! You're a liar!"

It shouldn't have hurt. I didn't know this girl, so why should it hurt me that she thought I was lying? My father called me a liar all the time. Sometimes, when I told him about something interesting I had seen or heard about, he would call me a liar. Or just tell me to shut up and I would know that he didn't believe me. Kids are all liars, he would say gruffly. When I had, very proudly, told him about the first sentence I had been able to read on my own he had said, 'don't you fucking lie to my face.' That had hurt more than all the other times. He called me stupid, bastard, fucker, piece of shit, all things that hurt more than some girl I had just met accusing me of lying about something that didn't really matter, or make any sense to me.

But it did. It hurt because she was the very first person my age I had ever talked to and even though she knew nothing about me, she had immediately assumed the worst about me. And she had said it loud enough for the rest of the class to hear. did they all think I was a liar? That thought had made me feel ashamed, like her accusations were true. Even worse than feeling embarrassed or ashamed, I felt angry at that moment, more than I had ever had before in my short life.

I hated her then. I had never hated anyone before, not even my dad. I had felt sad about him hitting me and the yelling he and Mom did, but I had never felt anger and hate fill me like that before then. It was a terrible feeling. When she jabbed me in the shoulder, I wanted to punch her, like my dad had done to me hundreds of times. That frightened me. My father's anger had always scared me, so feeling it in me was terrible. Was this really how he felt all the time, I wondered. I felt sad for him, that he felt like that, when I didn't like feeling it myself. I didn't want to be that way, I didn't want to strike anyone. I had been too young then to put the feeling into words, but my rage repulsed me. I didn't want to be like my father.

I didn't hit her. I couldn't. Just the thought of it made my stomach feel like ice. I wanted to hit her, shove at her, scream at her, do something , but I couldn't even move. It was just like how I felt when Dad punished me, like I was paralyzed. It was so stupid. My father was one thing. I knew what he was capable of, he was bigger than me, and if I talked back to him or tried to hit him, and the thought to strike my own father hadn't even entered my head back then, but Saren was little, so why couldn't I at least speak up, tell her to cut it out?

"I'm not a liar," was all I could say, in a weak, pathetic voice. I couldn't even look her in the eyes, "I've always lived here."

I thought about explaining it to her, that I had just been sick and hadn't been able to go to school until now, but my voice was stuck in my throat. My eyes darted to hers, but they were still hard. There was a kind of... excitement there now, a glee that I couldn't understand. Did she enjoy this? Why couldn't she just leave me alone?

"Yes you are!" she jeered, jabbing at me again with her finger, "You're a great, big liar! I never saw you at pre-school, kindergarten, or any of our other classes!"

I stared at her blankly. I think I had understood, at some level, that this really wasn't about her thinking I had just moved to Nausten and was pissed I was lying to her, but I had never really interacted with other kids before, and besides my father, I had certainly never been bullied before. The blonde boy who had been fighting with Saren earlier, and who had been watching us this whole time with a hesitant and guarded expression, walked up to us. Immediately, Saren's entire expression changed when she saw him. That coldness and glee remained, but there was also hate there. It startled me. I was used to seeing that on my dad's face when he was angry at me, but what had the boy done to her to have her not just dislike him, but hate him that much?

"Saren, stop it," he said, but his voice was terribly shy and even I could feel the fear there, "not everyone can afford pre-school, and there are kids here that never went to kindergarten with us. There are lots of other reasons why he didn't go to this school the last few years, it doesn't make him a liar," even though his voice was small, his tone was also terse and irritated, but when she glared at him, he just looked like he wished he had never stood up for me and wanted to melt back into the crowd.

"Shut up, Nate," she snapped at him, "This isn't your business. Unless there's something else you want to say?"

The boy blushed darkly at her threat and backed off, not wanting to fight with her anymore than I had. I realized that no one else in that classroom was going to distract her, and in a moment all of her terrible attention was going to be on me. I managed to get two steps past her, but she noticed my feeble attempt at escape and grabbed my arm, shoving me back against my desk. I wanted to shout at her that she shoved like a boy, to see how she liked to be called names and embarrassed, but I was too scared of her. That other boy, Nate, clearly was, so it felt natural to be scared of her, too.

"I am not done talking to you!" she yelled at me with a petulant pout, her blue eyes bright in a very frightening way.

I realized it then that she really was enjoying this. This was fun to her. Did my dad enjoy it, too, when he mocked me and hit me, when he hurt me? That thought was just too terrible for me. but in a way, Saren Parker did remind me of my father, especially when he drank, which was frequently. Completely focused, irrational, and incapable of understanding. That comparison made me take a step back away from her and for the first time since she had accused me of lying, and with my ribs still throbbing from my dad's abuse the night before, I didn't feel like a coward for trying to get away from a nine year old girl. One of the very first lessons my father had unintentionally taught me was that sometimes being a coward and running away was safer and smarter than being brave.

"Well, where are you from? Answer me!" she demanded, her voice rising in part anger, part excitement.

"I'm telling the truth!" I protested.

I felt so frustrated, like nothing I said mattered, just like with my parents, and I realized I was on the verge of tears. I wasn't a liar, I wasn't, but she didn't care. Why was she doing this, and why to me? She didn't really care where I was from, I don't even think she cared if I was lying, and I couldn't figure out why. I heard a few snickers from the crowd of kids that had formed around us and they felt like daggers in my chest. Was all this just one big joke?

"No, you're a liar, I know one when I see one and you look like a liar, too!" she crowed, as though she had come to some brilliant conclusion that she was intensely proud of.

She suddenly shoved me against my desk again, but much harder. My sneakers slipped and I fell, hitting the back of my head on the hard desk, just bad enough to black out. It must not have been for very long, because when I opened them again, Mrs. Daniels still wasn't there and my classmates were still crowded around us, watching with great interest as Saren sat on the floor next to me in an oddly graceful and ladylike posture. She was nearly sitting on top of me and had a black marker in her hand. I had no idea where it had come from.

Saren grabbed my bangs and harshly tugged them away from my face. I smelled the strong stench of the marker and felt the wetness on my forehead as she wrote something there. I struggled against her, not knowing what was going on, but hating the sound of my classmates' laughter and the feel of her small hand pulling my hair. My vision finally cleared enough that I could see the crowd of kids. Some were giggling and watching Saren write on my face like it was the funniest thing they had seen. Others were just watching with a dull, non-expression, like they were sleepwalking, or they had seen this so often they were bored.

I had an epiphany then, a big thing for a nine year old. No one was going to help me. No one helps anyone, despite what I heard from adults, TV programs, and books. People might donate toys and food and money to 'those less fortunate,' but when someone right in front of them needed help, they never bothered. Even if the person knew you, they wouldn't help. I could be friends with all of those kids, and they would have kept staring and giggling. I understood that then and I understand it even better now that I'm a teenager.

When I had been a child and Dad had been hurting me real bad and had screamed for help, Mom never came to help me. She just stood and watched. She didn't even try. She doesn't do that much anymore, although her drinking has gotten a lot worse. When I got really scared of Dad's rage as a kid, I had tried to run from him a few times, before it had sunk in that I could never really get away from him. He would just catch me and hit me out on the lawn, the farthest I had ever gotten from him. My neighbors had never helped me. My cries had brought them out of their houses and peering out the windows, but all of them had just watched.

I had quickly learned as a child that asking for help was pointless. No one wanted to help, they just watched, some of them even liked it. If I screamed, no one would come to my aid, not even Mrs. Daniels. Asking for help just got you hurt worse. The way my classmates watched as Saren finished writing on my face reminded me of my neighbors watching my dad beat me in our front yard, or my mom watching as he struck me bloody with his belt. Those blank stares, like they were watching television, some of them excited, others dull, like it was a rerun to them.

But out of the sea of those blank and curious stares, I caught Nate's blue-green eyes. His were different than everyone else's. He had that same look like he had seen this before, but his eyes weren't dull. They were bright with tears and fear, sympathy without pity, and most of all, empathy. I remembered how frightened he had acted around Saren and quickly realized she had done this to him, too.

That realization should have made me feel terrible, knowing that she had hurt him like this, but it didn't. It made me feel better, relieved. I hated myself for that, but it's the truth. It felt good knowing I wasn't the only one she had gone after.

"There!" Saren exclaimed, standing up and twirling the black marker in her pale hand like she thought she was some kind of artist, "Now everyone knows what a little liar you are!" she laughed. It was a horrible sound, shrill and mocking.

What had she done? I got to my feet like I had been shot, not wanting to give her the chance to do anything else. So what if she had done something terrible to my face, so what if everyone was laughing at me, I told myself. It was fine, I was fine. I felt the hot tears that I had been fighting to keep at bay finally burst out of me and stream down my cheeks. They only made her laugh harder. The only word I can really use for the expression on her face then is pride. I bolted, and unlike before, Saren didn't try to grab me. I ran out of the classroom as fast as I could, but the laughter just followed me.

In the hallway outside the classroom, I had no idea where I was going. All I cared about was finding a mirror so I could see what was written on my forehead, and getting as far away from everyone as I could, some place no one could gawk at me. Although I had no idea where I was going, I eventually found a set of bathrooms. They were easy to spot, the only ones in the hallway that weren't the typical amber-gold color of all the other wooden doors, but a gaudy blue and pink.

Maybe it had been for the benefit of the kindergarteners who couldn't read the words on the doors 'boys' and 'girls' just yet. But all of the kindergarteners had to be escorted to the bathrooms by an adult, so that didn't make any sense. Maybe the people who had been in charge of painting the school had gotten fanciful or bored, I don't know. I just know is that, even the first time I saw those doors, I thought they were ugly as hell. I only had to put up with those doors for this year, though, before moving on to the grades 4-8 section of the school where the bathroom doors and lockers are all painted the our town's colors; blue for the boys and grey for the girls.

In case anyone does read this stupid thing, and I don't see why anyone would, we have the stupidest mascot ever, a silver and blue nautilus. Whenever our high school football team goes against our neighboring town and rivals, the Brownstone Bears, the person wearing their mascot outfit does this crude skit of eating shellfish. Which is pretty accurate since we've never won against them once. Apparently. I've never actually been to any of the games and I probably never will. For one, I'm still not in high school and don't know anyone on the team, and two, it's the kind of social event that kids like aren't welcome at.

I went through the blue door. By some miracle, there were no other boys using the bathroom, I even checked all the stalls to make sure. I didn't want to talk to anyone, I didn't even want to see anyone. No one had been nice to me, or wanted to talk to me, just gawk or laugh. That isn't really fair, since Saren was the only one of my classmates that had actually spoken to me, but it was how I felt back then. And they had laughed. That was what hurt me the most, that laughter. I had been scared and humiliated, and it had been a big joke to everyone. If a person laughed at you when they were crying, I think it's a fair assumption they weren't going to try to be your friend after that. That realization brought fresh tears to my eyes.

I stood in front of one of the many small mirrors that was hanging over each little sink, all at convenient height for someone a bit smaller than me, and I pushed my blonde bangs away from my face. The walls in the bathroom were an eerie white, but peppered with little handprints, each a different brilliant color, and the bathroom stalls were blue with little fish painted on them. The obviously cheerful colors and fish just made me feel worse as I stared at my wide eyed reflection. On my forehead, in letters so large and thick that even someone half blind could read them from several feet away, was the word "LIAR" written in black marker.

I sniffled, the sound echoing in the empty room, and a few more tears escaped my reddened eyes despite my trying very hard to hold them back. I don't know why seeing it shocked me so much. It was rather obvious and uncreative, but it was still so hateful. Seeing it there, and remembering the malice on the girl's face that had put it there, made something hot and painful burst in my chest. I couldn't keep my tears at bay anymore.

This wasn't how my first day of school was supposed to happen! I remember very clearly thinking that with a great deal of sadness. I was supposed to make friends, have fun, and all the other things that kids got to do in those television programs I had watched. School was supposed to be someplace I could go to, to get away from my problems at home. Instead, my problems had followed me here. If I had been old enough to get the bitter humor in that like I am now, I would have laughed through my tears in that bathroom. Saren hadn't hit me like Dad does, and she hadn't hurt me in that very special, vulnerable way he does, but she wanted to hurt me like he did. She had that same contempt for me that I just couldn't understand.

'Liar,' I read. It wasn't true, but that didn't matter. Anyone who saw it would believe it. I felt something swallow me up, some heavy emotion that made me want to leave the school right then and never come back. Now I can put it to words. Despair. Hopelessness. I had gone to school just wanting to get along with the other kids, to be like everyone else, but I would never be like them. Not anymore, Saren had seen to that, so had my father... all those missing years. Everyone would just remember me as the liar, the boy with the words on his forehead, the one who had cried because of one girl. I would always be a freak. Who would want to be friends with a liar?

I snatched a bar of soap from the sink I was standing in front of and started to scrub at my forehead viciously. It wouldn't really matter if I got it off, and I knew that. They would remember, and they would tell everyone else about it. I was the freak that had lied, the kid no one knew and no one wanted to know about. As I scrubbed at my forehead, I felt my tears come harder and faster down my face. I couldn't get them to stop. My forehead became bright red, but the black print didn't fade at all. When I saw that, I gave out a frustrated cry, throwing the soap angrily into the sink where it slid and fell on the floor.

Rage filled my stomach, that same anger I had felt at Saren before. It made my stomach hurt, but I didn't try to pick up the soap to continue my scrubbing. Even my tears were angry, but I also felt a deep sadness. My hands were covered in green soap suds and rubbed at my forehead with them. I didn't care that I was getting soap in my hair and eyes, making them burn with more than tears. I didn't even care that I was scrubbing my skin so hard that it was starting to speckle with blood. I could feel a tiny trickle of it go down my face but told myself it was just water.

Just as quickly as that anger and desperation had filled me, they left me. My hands fell down at my sides like I was a marionette whose strings had been slashed, the green suds tinged pink with blood. I just stood there in front of the mirror, crying and feeling like an absolute idiot. I didn't want to go back out there. I wanted to crawl into a hole and never come out again. Even with my long bangs, how could I possibly walk out of that bathroom with those letters on my skin? If it had been a TV show, Mrs. Daniels would have come bursting in and hugged me, maybe told me that everything was ok, she would make sure that Saren was punished for what she had done.

But she didn't. And somehow I knew she wasn't going to. After all, she might know my father and mother, but to her, I was a stranger, too. A freak. I could hear a few people walking by the bathroom out in the hall, but I felt completely alone. The quiet was terrible, like the quiet after my father beat me or when my parents stopped screaming. I looked at my reflection. I looked terrible and I didn't recognize myself, my dark green eyes large, my bangs plastered to my blood speckled face. I started to scrub at it again, squeezing my eyes shut so I didn't have to look at myself, and the stinging pain from the soap was actually kind of comforting.

I didn't understand anything, why my parents fought so much, why my dad was always so angry, why Saren had done this to me, why my classmates had laughed at me, but pain I understood. I was used to it. I had another realization when I had looked at the word on my forehead. I would rather be hit than laughed at.

"You're not going to get it out that way," a small but mature and familiar voice said from behind me.

I opened my eyes and saw the blonde boy, Nate, reflected in the mirror. I had been petrified at the thought ot someone coming into the bathroom and seeing me cry like this, but for some reason he didn't make me feel defensive or want to run away again. Unlike Saren's piercing gaze, his sea green eyes were soothing somehow. Maybe it was because he didn't seem to judge me, or because I knew that Saren had hurt him, too. Maybe it was because he seemed to be as lonely as I felt, or didn't have many friends, just like me. Or maybe it was just because he had been the only one of my classmates who hadn't smirked, giggled, or outright laughed at me.

I turned from the sink to look at him eye to eye. Although he didn't make me feel as self-conscious as the other kids in our class, I felt suspicious and couldn't figure out why he had come looking for me. He looked at my forehead in shock and I felt a surge of anger, bitterness, and sadness go through me. He understood what it felt like to be picked on by that girl, but he was still gawking at her handiwork. Had she sent him here to do something else humiliating to me, or was he just here out of perverse curiosity?

"You hurt yourself," he said in a pinched, pained sort of tone.

All of my unjustified anger at him became shame. He hadn't been gawking at the word on my forehead. He had been looking at the blood, my handiwork, not hers. I shrugged off his concern.

"Doesn't hurt that badly," I murmured, still feeling embarrassed at judging him so quickly.

It wasn't a lie. What tiny amount of damage I had done to my skin stung more than it actually hurt. I was used to bruises and broken bones. This was nothing to me. I studied Nate while he looked at my forehead, obviously more worried about the blood than I was. I hadn't realized it before, but while I was a bit thinner than Nate was, he was a bit shorter, his blue-green eyes bigger and his skin paler. My blonde hair was a dark gold, messy and a bit long at my shoulders from not getting it cut for awhile, while his was neat, short, and very pale, just shy of being a yellowish-white. He was dressed a lot more nicely than I was, so I was sure he lived in the north side of town where the families that made good money, or at least a lot more than mine did, lived.

I probably should have been just as angry at him as I was with Saren. She might have humiliated me in front of our entire class, and written on my forehead, but even though what she had done had seemed to upset him, he hadn't tried to stop her, just like everyone else. But I wasn't. Adults always say that when you see something bad happen, you should try to stop it. When you don't, they tend to get pissed at you, like you're just as bad as the person who did that bad thing to begin with. But it's really not that easy.

When I was eight, I had been walking around the neighborhood. My neighbor's crazy dog had gotten out and my other neighbor, Mr. D'Angelo, had let his terrier out to use the front yard. Mr. D'Angelo's dog and the crazy dog, Brutus, can't stand each other. Even though the terrier was much smaller, he went after Brutus. Brutus grabbed the terrier by the throat and whipped him around like a rag. I had watched the whole thing from across the street, not sure what I was supposed to do.

After Mr. D'Angelo had come back from the vet where his dog had died from it's injuries, he had screamed at me that I should have pulled the dogs apart before it had gotten serious. I know he only turned on me like that out of grief, and because he was too scared of Brutus' owner to try to sue him, but at eight years old I had felt awful, like his dog's death really had been my fault. AT the same time, I had also understood that if I had tried to separate the two fighting dogs, I would have gotten my hand bitten off at the very least, and there was little I could have done to restrain Brutus.

So I could hate Nate for not trying to help me, but I understood it. Saren just would have gone after him, too, and I'm sure there was really nothing he could have done to stop her. I could have punched, and he could have, too, but neither of us had. Besides, and honestly this was much more important to me than him trying to stop the bully, and I would even go as far to say it had truly cemented our early friendship, he hadn't laughed.

"D... do you know how to get it out" I asked shyly, daring to let a little bit of hope in, that a veteran of our shared bully could help me.

He smiled at me and that painful anger and hopelessness tht had burst in my chest retreated a little bit. This whole time one of his hands had been behind his back and he revealed a bottle of something to me. Nate approached me with it and a part of me was fearful, wondering if he was going to pull a prank on me after all, but his smile was so soft and friendly. I just couldn't bring myself to be distrustful of him. He was small and skittish, subdued and quiet, but he was also very likeable, non-threatening, safe. I just couldn't imagine him doing something cruel to me, unlike Saren who I hadn't liked the first time I had seen her threatening him with that bottle of glue.

I fell back into an old habit of mine, relating people to animals. I had always preferred animals to people since I was a toddler and I had come across a stray puppy during one of the walks my dad had taken with me at the beach. Those walks are some of the only good memories I have of my father, and that day was one of the best, a day he hadn't been angry with me. He had even let me play with the puppy for awhile. I had thought about asking him if we could have taken it home, but I had known he would say no and I hadn't wanted to make him angry. Nate reminded me of that puppy, only he was like one that had been hit a few times too many but was still sweet. He never quite got rid of that quality as we got older.

"The soap here isn't strong enough to get rid of marker," he told me, "But this stuff works better. They keep it in the janitor's closet, but the janitor knows me, so he let me take it and didn't ask why. When Saren and I were in pre-school and kindergarten together, she'd stay up through naptime and draw on my face," he whispered, his face blushing an uncomplimentary red. With his pale skin, his blush made him look like a cherry.

"Why is she so mean?" I blurted out suddenly as he opened the bottle's lid, making him pause, and I couldn't keep my voice from wavering a little.

Nate gave a little shrug, but I saw the same pain that had been in my voice on his face. It made his eyes, normally the same shade of sea glass that shops here sold to tourists in the summer, turn dark.

"I don't know," he admitted, "Our parents are friends and they've made us play together since we were babies, but she and her older brother have always been like this to me, even though their parents are really, really nice. It's just the way they are, I guess," he said in a pondering way, as though he was actually wondering about it.

"What are you doing?" I asked nervously as he walked over to the sink, grabbed some paper towels, and wetted them.

I didn't think he was going to prank me anymore, but I could smell the stuff in the bottle he had. It reminded me of the hospital and the things the doctors had done that they said would make me better, but had made me hurt a lot worse.

Nate gave me that same soft smile and I instantly felt reassured. It was a stupid reaction, I know. I didn't know him and a smile didn't mean anything, but his just had that effect on me. I didn't want to believe that someone who was cruel like Saren was could smile like that.

"I need to clean the blood off first or putting this stuff on your skin will make it hurt more. It probably will anyway," he explained.

I felt... I don't know how to describe it. Warm inside, I guess, knowing that he even cared enough to not want to hurt me. He didn't know me anymore than I knew him, but he actually did seem to care, I couldn't understand that. But it still made me feel good. I had never met someone like him before, who wasn't just pretending to care because he needed to.

"Why'd you scrub so hard anyway?" he asked me as he gently wiped at my forehead with the paper towels, even taking the time to get the soap out of my bangs. The water stung, but it was pleasantly warm and the attention felt oddly good, like when my father took care of me when I had had pneumonia after I had been released from the hospital.

"I thought it would be like doing the dishes," I told him, "and if I just scrubbed hard enough, it would just come off."

I didn't tell him how frustrated I had been, how angry and unconcerned about hurting myself, that I would have scrubbed even harder than I had if it had gotten those words off. I didn't think that I needed to explain that to him. He giggled a little at my explanation. I grew to find that little laugh of his cute, but I rarely ever heard it from him.

"Well, you hurt yourself. Be more careful!" he scolded like he thought he was my mother, although my mother had never said something like that to me.

Be careful. My mother had stopped regarding my presence by then and what little advice she had ever had for me had waned. I told Nate that once, that he acted more like my mother than my mother ever had. He had just smiled that warm, but mature smile of his and said that he was glad I had someone to mother me and he didn't mind. It had made me happy. I hadn't realized it when we first met, but that was how Nate was, sweet and kind, but with a soul of someone four times his actual age. It made him mature and very responsible, a great adult, but a terrible child. This last month, I've wondered again and again if he had been different, less worldly, Saren's bullying might have rolled off him better, but it hurts thinking that.

Nate started to put the cream from the bottle onto my forehead. It stung and made my skin tingle, and when he scrubbed at it with the paper towels, it hurt worse, but I didn't even squirm. He did that three more times before washing my forehead of the stuff. It smelled gross, like something an old person had to use. I eagerly, and scared, looked at myself in the mirror. My skin was still red, but the blood was all gone and, more importantly, the only evidence of the words that had been printed so clearly and boldly on my skin were a few black smudges here and there.

If I hadn't had the image of that word, LIAR, imprinted in my brain, I wouldn't have been able to tell anything had been written there at one point. And really, with my long bangs, even the black smudges were barely visible. I felt such relief, such happiness and gratitude that I hugged Nate tightly with a little squeak. He didn't seem to mind my sudden exuberance and even hugged me back a little.

"All better now?" he asked as I let go of him.

I nodded excitedly.

"I thought I'd never get it off," I said and I couldn't help the tremor of fear that I had felt at that thought.

He giggled again, but this time it sort of sounded sad.

"It would have come off sooner or later," he assured me, "but probably not for weeks. It's easier this way," he shuffled his feet a little, looking up at me a bit shyly, "My name's Nate Millen, by the way."

"Frey Johnson," I said and for once, my name didn't bother me that much. He didn't even make fun of it.

"We should get back to class," Nate said, suddenly realizing that we really shouldn't have been out of class, "If Mrs. Daniels finds out we left, she might call our parents," he warned.

I felt a little bit of fear at that, knowing how pissed my father would be if I got into trouble at my very first day here, but I had an even bigger fear.

"Even if they can't see it, they'll laugh at me," I murmured.

I didn't want to go back in there, I didn't want to hear that laughter and see the malice in that girl's eyes again. But then Nate took his hand in mine and almost immediately I felt better, like just having one person who had helped me and hadn't made fun of me gave me a bit of courage.

"Yes they will," he said, his honestly a bit cruel, but I liked it a lot better than if he had lied to me, "but I won't."

End Part 1

Author's note 2: As you can see, I changed quite a bit and I hope it makes the story a better read. I've decided I'm going to stick with this story for as long as I can, see how far I can get before I move on to the next story. This story has collected dust for quite some time, lol.