This isn’t how it starts, but how it ends.
I cough and the bubble at the back of my throat pops. I can’t feel my temple or my cheek from where they’re denting the aluminum locker, but the telltale tinge of copper pennies drips from my nose into my mouth just enough to distract me from the elbow notched into my spine. The fist forcing my face a little deeper into metal. My lip’s so swollen from the first punch — a sidewinder preferred by those who don’t want you to see it coming when they step out of wood shop and into the main thoroughfare that links the senior hallway to freedom — that I can’t feel it when it splits from the pressure. Might be my teeth. Don’t know. Don’t care.
A cloud of semi-digested cafeteria grease and ketchup on his breath. I’d aim for a witty rejoinder, but the pressure in my skull’s too much. I think my jawbone’s getting unhinged, grinding out of the socket from the two hundred pounds of jockstrap behind me.
And then there’s only the swell of delayed pain ebbing back in, and darkness before the speckled high gloss varnish of the floor rushes at me.
High school’s the only place where they will actively try to break your nose along with your spirit.
Mission one accomplished, I guess.
Two minutes later and I’m making spit bridges between the gore on the floor and my face.
Mike — the asshole who’s laid me flat — is halfway down the hall, jockeyed by Gabe. Fists clawing over Gabe’s back. Red in the face but going on purple. They’re both in letters, which makes the splatter up the sleeve cuff even more apparent. Red on white. Red knuckled. Evidence that I can’t really make any use of. Mike is still struggling to get another swing at me as Gabe forces him around the corner.
Gabe doesn’t look back, but the burn of his distaste are coals that have gone dark but are still hot to the touch. I can see it in the set of his shoulders. I can see it reflected in the girls lingering in the corridor. They’re all in uniform; the jocks, the cheerleaders. Fay and Rachel linger against the flanking lockers, all legs and placid neutrality. They must have seen it happen, because these wolves always travel in packs. Joey is a blur of swinging pleats and white sneakers. They squeak too loud. When she leans over me, the fan of her hair lank and golden, there’s a moment where I think she might ask me if I’m all right.
An overhead haloes her head, but I can see the flash of teeth before she purses her lips.
“You deserve it,” she whispers before the glob of spit hits my cheek.