I sat in the Art class, thinking back to the guy who was watching me. The sheet of paper in front of me held nothing but a series of random lines, scratched out half-heatedly to make it look like I was actually doing work.
My mind reeled through different theories as to who he was as why he seemed so interested in me, yet all of them drew blanks.
I thought about how intently the guy was watching me. How unmistakable his attention towards me was. Even a group of students that didn't know me noticed it.
At that point, I wasn't used to being stared at. Social as I was, unnecessary attention from people that I didn't know was unwelcome and annoying.
"Maybe he thought you were someone else?" Kyle said, lending his opinion to me, as he noticed me pondering the matter.
"I doubt it," I replied, peering out of the window at a tree overlooking the sports field. "He knew who I was..."
I know that by saying that it seemed like I had an overstated opinion of myself, and that was not my intention. I'm by no means a narcissist; at least that's what I think. I've no idea what anyone else thinks on the matter. I was just so damn sure that the guy was focused on me.
Kyle merely shrugged and continued to sketch. "Then maybe he's just a freak."
I didn't respond, instead choosing to watch my friend draw. His style was smooth and neat, very different from my own sharp strokes, when I actually bothered to work in the Art lessons.
It was actually because of his skills in drawing that I first came to know Kyle.
When I was thirteen I took to spending my free periods sketching the sights from the window of whatever classroom I was occupying. After doing this for several weeks, I noticed another student scribbling across his own sheet of white paper. I approached him, to see what he was drawing, and found him a much better artist than myself. That was when I asked him for pointers and, as we talked more and more, we gradually became friends.
Back when I first met him, Kyle Mason was a short boy with pale blonde hair and mossy green eyes. Three years later and the only thing that has really changed in terms of his appearance is his height. He used to come up to just under my shoulders; now he's around the same height as me.
His hands, however, remained comparatively small. Artists' hands I guess. For some odd reason, they remind me of my Father's hands.
I've never given much thought to it but, for a labourer, my Dad has strangely delicate and graceful hands.
But I digress.
Kyle was drawing some kind of flower, based on a photograph set down in front of him. While not much of a bottanist, I guessed it to be a lily.
"You know, as much as I love an audience, I think it would be a good idea if you actually got on with some of your own work," he said, setting down his pencil and leaning back in his chair. "Final deadlines are only in a few months."
I groaned and slumped forwards, thumping my head against the table. "I just don't have any inspiration..."
"Just draw from personal experience," he said, scratching his scalp with the graphite tip of his pencil.
"I don't have any personal experience to draw from," I murmured, half-heatedly. Not anticipating the future irony the statement would draw, I followed this up with: "Nothing exciting ever happens to me."
I used to prefer living my life underneath the radar of the school's social population, or at least as far removed from it as possible, so this statement was hardly surprising. It wasn't that I was withdrawn or private; quite the opposite infact. Nor was it that I disparaged social interaction in general, as was the case with a number of my friends. The reason was simply that I hated drama in all of its many forms. It was better to remove myself from all of it, to save me getting sucked into the many shitstorms that seemed to plague my school.
Unfortunately, this also meant that whenever something exciting inevitably happened, I was always the last to know.
The only time I had ever had a front row seat to any action occurring in the school was in my first year. A fight between a pair of Sixth Formers had spilled out into the school car park. Being one of the closest to the scene, I had one of the best views.
Brutal was an understatement. I've still never seen a pair of guys so covered in blood in my life. One of them was missing teeth. It was five minutes before a teacher arrived to break it up, and by that time one of them was laying with his head underneath the bumper of a car, the other using his tie to yank his head up and slam it into the metal.
I remember feeling shocked, yet strangely intrigued by the fight.
"Then why not draw from photos, like I do?" Kyle chimed in, tilting his head to the side as he looked at me.
"Not my thing..." I muttered, turning my head sideways against the desk.
"Well then what is your thing?"
I thought about this for several seconds, before offering a reply. "Trees."
"Then just draw a tree," Kyle said, apathetically putting forward a solution.
"I can't..." was my response. "Ms Outram says that I've done too many of them already. Apparently I need to show variety in my work..." I sat up and leant back in my chair, twisting my body to face Kyle and drape one elbow over the low plastic back. "You want to know what I wanna know?" He didn't reply, instead sitting staring at me, waiting for me to continue to verbalise my train of thought. "Since when has art been about what other people want, or think you should do? It's supposed to be about what the creator wants and feels. Right?" Kyle nodded. "So why is it that, since I picked this poxy subject, the teachers have done nothing but tell me what I can't do?"
"It's because they're control freaks." Kyle began to spin his pencil around his fingers. "Well some of them, anyway... They're good at particular styles, and so they think that everything looks better in those styles. It's why we had to go through three months of that Pop Art bullshit last year... Thank God that's over. I swear if I see another painting of a can of soup again, I'm going to scream."
We spent the remainder of the lesson complaining about the Art staff in the school, occasionally veering off to consider a focus for my project and, unfortunately, consistently drawing blanks.
By the time the bell rang, the only thing on my sheet of paper were a series of random graphite lines.
Stuffing my things into my bag, I gave Kyle a quick wave as he lingered in the classroom. My next lesson was History and that was on the opposite end of the school, meaning I had to hurry if I was going to be on time.
Slinging my bag up onto my shoulder, I pushed through the crowd and exited the Art block.
So focused was I on getting to my next class that I had all but forgotten the guy that had been watching me, only an hour earlier. I would soon be reminded of that.
The southern and northern buildings of my school are separated by a large series of multipurpose sports courts, formed from black Tarmac. To get to my History classroom, I had to cross this space accompanied by close to half the population of the school.
Amongst the shouting and chattering of the hundreds of students I, at first, failed to realise that the voice was directed at me.
It was closer this time, coming at me from my right, just outside of my peripheral vision. This time I knew that someone was calling out to me, however it wasn't a voice that I recognised.
Turning, I came almost face-to-face with the Sixth Former that had been staring at me earlier.
Seeing him closer, I was now able to study his features. He had a very sharp chin and defined cheek bones. Peering from beneath his lowered brows were a pair of dark blue eyes and hanging across his forehead was a dark brown fringe.
Briefly stopping, I looked him up and down.
"Can I help you?" I asked, narrowing my eyes.
I had to look down ever so slightly at him, my being one of the taller students in the school, and him standing at average height.
"You're the guy that's always with that blonde girl," he said, ignoring my question.
At first I didn't know who he was talking about. As I've said before, I get on better with girls than guys; a lot of them being blonde.
"The one with the highlights," the guy persisted. "The tall girl."
"You mean Mia?" I asked. I was getting a strange feeling from the guy but I just couldn't put my finger on what it was.
"Yeah," he confirmed.
"What about her?"
"I was wondering if she was seeing anyone," he said, as I was nearly bowled over by the statement.
Something about a guy two years older than me, asking after a fourteen year old didn't sit right with me. The feeling that I was getting grew. "Too young for you, mate."
Without another word, I turned away from him and began to walk away.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and rounded back on the Sixth Former. He had an odd intensity in his eyes.
Shaking off his appendage, I dismissed him. "I don't wanna be rude, but I've got a class now. So if you could kindly fuck off, I'd appreciate that."
I know it sounds like I was being a dick and, truth told, yes I was. But that wasn't without good reason. I didn't like being late and he was holding me up. Worse than that, he seemed strangely interested in a friend of mine that I felt rather protective towards.
"Look," he said. "I'm just asking a question."
Already not a fan of him, my tone was sharp and my voice quick. "Who even are you?"
"My name is Liam Moore. But what's that got to do with if she's single or not?"
He was obnoxious. That wasn't good for my temperament.
"Nothing, I just want to know a name, so I can tell her who to avoid."
I moved to walk off again, but this time felt his hand on my arm. The force being exerted was far more than necessary. I could feel his digits digging into my skin, through the black material of my blazer.
Liam was clearly much stronger than he looked.
"Look kid," he said, not yet releasing his grasp. "It's a yes or no question. It's not like I'm asking you for her number or anything, so just tell me, alright?"
Other students slowed around us, glancing our way. I knew that if he kept hold of my arm, we would start to draw a crowd.
Something inside me stirred.
I did not like him touching me.
My response was so full of weight that, in hindsight, it surprised even me. Not once breaking eye contact, I ground out the phrase: "Get your hand off of me."
A group of people stopped and began to watch us, almost as if they expected the conflict to turn physical.
Liam didn't get the hint.
Looking back on it now, it was probably because he was so much older than I was. Sixth Formers (at least in our school) were typically either respected or feared by the lower Years. Usually both. He was used to having younger students back down and give him what he wanted.
"Just answer me and I won't have to get you in trouble. I have friends who are Prefects, and I can make your life very difficult."
The fact that he was too old no longer seemed relevant, when it came to Mia. I didn't want this type of person anywhere near my friend. Age had nothing to do with it. He was an asshole, plain and simple.
I was just about to reply, this time utilising far more expletives than before, when a sharp voice snapped me back to the real world.
"What are you doing here? Class has already started!"
Liam's hand released my arm, just as Mr Payne dispersed the crowd of onlookers, like a flock of pigeons.
The Head of Design & Technology walked over to us and began to address me. It's only then that I realised that the Sixth Former has obviously fled.
His well-oiled curtains of hair and his dead front tooth caught the light as he cocked his head to the left. "Michael? This isn't like you. Why aren't you in fourth period yet?"
"I had..." My eyes flicked in the direction that Liam had left. "A bit of a problem."
"Nothing too bad, I hope?" he asked, lowering his eyebrows in a concerned fashion. "It's not like you to get bothered by anything."
Mr Payne is a man best described as both incredibly caring and inhumanly terrifying. Should you find yourself lucky enough to be on his good side, he is one of the most supportive and friendly teachers in the entire school. However, if anyone is unfortunate enough to get on the wrong side of his temper, the best advice I could give you is to run and never stop.
Mr Tait throws his fits and yet, despite being very sudden and very loud, they're not terribly intimidating. Mr Payne, on the other hand, is a very different kind of creature when it comes to dealing with a student that pushes all of the wrong buttons.
To this day I can still vividly remember him punching a (still rotating) wall-mounted power sander. His knuckles still have the scars.
"Nothing I couldn't handle," I replied, surprising myself with my own confidence and self-assurance.
"Glad to hear it." Quickly pulling out his notepad, Mr Payne scribbled down a quick message before tearing it out and handing it to me. "Give that to your teacher. Though I doubt you'd get in trouble for being late, anyway. After all, this is the first time I've ever seen you so much as lag a step."
"Thanks, sir," I said, holding up the note and beginning to make my way to class.
"Don't let it happen again!" he called after me, only half serious.
"He seriously said that?" Dom asked, sweeping his hand through his hair and pushing his fringe back.
"Guy sounds like a right dickhead," Paul added.
Kyle was sat off to the side, examining his blonde fringe for split-ends; distracted from the conversation.
"What's an eighteen year old doing, asking after a Year 9 girl anyway?" Dom said, an uncomfortable expression spreading across his face.
"Maybe he didn't know she was that young?" Jamie interjected, offering another possibility. "She's quite tall."
"I doubt it," I replied. "He knew enough to talk to me about her. Not to mention I told him she was too young."
"Weird guy..." Dom muttered, glancing sidelong at me as his blue fringe tumbled back down over his forehead.
"You think he'll come looking for you again?" Paul asked, a twinge of concern in his voice.
"I dunno, probably..." I lay back on the grass and clasped my hands behind my head, beginning to cloud-gaze.
We were sat on a grassy hill, overlooking the multipurpose sports courts where my earlier encounter had occurred. Behind us was the small, three room, building where music classes were held. Dom was sat in the shade of an overlooking tree, shielding his fair skin from the sunlight, while the rest of our group sat (or in my case lay) in the sun.
Jamie took off his blazer and rolled it up, before joining me in laying down, tucking the black material underneath his head.
"What are you going to do if he does? Come looking for you, I mean." Jamie turned his head, atop his makeshift pillow, to look at me.
"Probably the same thing I did last time?" I groaned. "I'm not used to shit like this... Why can't he just leave me alone?"
"You're telling me, that if he ignored you and went straight for Mia, you wouldn't care?" Paul adjusted his glasses and lifted an eyebrow.
"I don't know what I'd do," I replied. Thoughts swam in my head, as I began to imagine and play through numerous different scenarios. The whole ordeal left my mind numb. "Can we just not talk about this right now? I really can't be bothered with it..."
"How are you so chilled out all the time?" Dom questioned, chewing slightly on his lip ring. "If I were you, I'd be freaking out that a Sixth Former was after me."
"He doesn't have the capacity to feel stressed," Jamie interjected. "You've seen him when it's time for exams. Everyone else is shitting bricks and he's sat napping in a corner."
He wasn't lying. Stress, to me, was always just like water off of a duck's back. Sure I worried about things, but in the long run nothing ever bothered me an awful lot. I found it incredibly easy to move on and calm myself down.
The other guys are still baffled by it. Jamie is the only one that really understands it. That comes with the territory of being my oldest friend.
I've known Jamie since Primary School. It was so long ago that I've actually forgotten how we met.
Jamie Murrell has a pair of the brightest blue eyes I've ever seen in my life. Like shards of glacial ice. By far his most striking feature, I sometimes find myself wondering if I'm just imagining them glowing.
There was a shout from the sports courts below us as someone scored a goal, in one of the three games of football being played.
Dom craned his neck to look down at the games and clicked his tongue piercing against his front teeth. "Never got why people liked that stupid sport so much..."
"It's a social thing," offered Paul, as a response. "A lot of people like it, so a lot of people like it. It's popular because it's popular."
"It's not a bad sport," Kyle said, finally tuning back into reality. "There's worse ones out there."
"Like what?" Dom persisted, pushing his hair out of his face again.
Kyle pondered the thought for several seconds. "Competitive midget tossing."
We all burst out laughing.
I decided not to inform Mia of her "admirer" in the registration period after lunch. I thought it best she didn't know, just yet.
My final class of the day was a double period of ICT. Truth told, it was one that I had woken up that morning dreading.
Thankfully my teacher had taken ill and I was spared the lecture I would have, undoubtedly received. At least until the following Tuesday.
Shifting my bag on my shoulder, I walked through the school gates, amidst a gaggling crowd of students. My vision was blocked from all directions. Everyone was crushing forwards to get as far away from the school as was humanly possible. No one paid any mind to their surroundings at all.
Thus, I was surprised to feel the newly familiar sensation of a hand on my shoulder.
"I hope this time you're feeling a bit more co-operative, kid," came a voice from over my shoulder.
I gritted my teeth and attempted to shake off the hand.
Liam's grip tightened, holding me in place. Around me, the students poured either side of my body, like a river around a rock.
Turning around, I moved to look down at the Sixth Former, when I realised that he was flanked by two other students. Neither of them wore the uniform, meaning that they were more than likely the same age as him. Both of them were taller than me.
In spite of the feeling of intimidation welling up in my gut, I squared my jaw and looked Liam dead in the eye. "The answer is the same as it was earlier." Without thinking about the repercussions of the comment, I added: "Take your paedo bullshit and get out of my face."
At first I didn't even register that the one on the left had hit me.
I stood, momentarily stunned, until the sting started to spread across my right cheek.
The sonofabitch had slapped me.
My face broke into a dumbfounded expression as I glanced up at the Sixth Former. I could feel a heat radiating off of my skin, as it slowly began to turn pink.
Around us students stopped and began to pull their friends aside, until a sizeable circle had been cleared. Dozens of faces stared back at me when I quickly glanced around myself.
Liam took a step forward and looked up at me. "This could have gone a lot easier."
Without a second's hesitation, he punched me in the gut. Flinching forwards, I bent at the waist and grabbed at my stomach. My earlier assistion that he was stronger than he looked was proven correct.
I still have no idea what came over me. What I did next shocked everyone that was looking on.
I started to laugh.
Even when the second punch landed square in my face, I carried on laughing.
"What, are you fucking retarded?" I managed to spit out, in-between chuckles. "You want to ask a girl out, and you think the best way to go about that is to beat up one of her best friends, you f-" He punched me in the face again. "F- Fucking idiot?"
Either side of him, Liam's two cohorts broke into confused expressions. They clearly weren't used to seeing someone laugh off a beating.
Infact, I don't think anyone was.
As opposed to the usual shouting and chanting that usually grips a crowd watching a fight, no sound could be heard from our onlookers, save for a concerned murmur every so often.
It was after the third punch to my face that I decided to swing back.
The only problem was that, up until that point, my experience with fights had been limited exclusively to watching them, rather than participating.
My left was slow and telegraphed, meaning that it was incredibly easy for Liam's right hand friend to grab my arm and hold me back.
Another punch caught me in the sternum.
Yet still I laughed.
Peering out of my eyelids, closed and creased from laughing, I caught Liam's expression. I remember him looking oddly afraid.
At the time I was confused by that, but now I know why he looked the way he did. When you are trying, with all your might, to physically hurt someone and they choose to laugh it off, you begin to think that your punches aren't working. It creates doubt and unnerves the person dishing out the beating.
Did I laugh, knowing that this would be the effect? No. No I didn't. Honestly, I have no idea why I was laughing. But somehow it was working.
That much I knew.
Even in spite of the blood roaring in my ears as my heart pumped frantically, I knew that it was working.
Liam attempted one last punch to my jaw.
As his fist connected, I lifted my right arm and, without missing a beat, cracked him back with all my might.
It was so sudden and unexpected that his friends didn't even think to try and grab me again.
Taking a step back, I readied myself to launch another strike, but the chance to throw it never came.
Liam staggered back, tottered once, and fell in a heap.
Several students gasped.
The chuckling escaping my lips died down as it dawned on me what had just happened. I was left standing with a bemused expression on my face, looking down at the unconscious Sixth Former.
A trickle of blood dripped down my chin, from the corner of my split lip.
"Map?!" suddenly cried out a voice, from the crowd. Turning slowly towards it, I spotted Dom pushing through the uniformed bodies, shouting. "Map! Fucking hell, what did you do?!"
Half dazed, I turned from him and looked down at Liam. Crouched down next to him, his two friends were trying to wake him up.
The words escaped my lips in a strangely casual, if not minorly confused, manner. "I think I won a fight..."