Shauna Whelan Buckley
Frosted gravel crunched beneath the worn black soles of his shoes with a heavy, monotonous beat. Each footstep took him inches closer to the point of no return, the point he dreaded reaching every morning, the point just inside the school doors.
He paused with his hand on the door handle, the ﬂeeting thought of taking his chances and avoiding school just for today skimming through his head. It quickly evaporated as a bus pulled up by the school gates, and boys in a uniform identical to his began to spill out, like ants pouring out of a nest that has just been destroyed by boiling water. It was too late for him to turn back now.
As soon as he entered the school corridor he could feel the rowdy crowds of students push and shove against him. The air was ringing with harsh shouts and cruel laughs, and right before his eyes he could see gangs of boys pushing other boys into walls of metal lockers, or just straight onto the ﬂoor. It felt like a warzone - and it wasn't even nine o'clock yet.
The years had taught him that the safest way to survive this battle was to skirt through the crowds, nameless and largely unseen. He moved quickly, eyes lowered, not daring to give teachers or the odd friendly boys he knew a good morning nod. He was smaller than average, and quite unassuming in appearance, which made becoming invisible somewhat easier.
He made it to class having taken only a few knocks and sneers, which was not bad at all compared to his usual mornings. He sat down in his usual seat - near the middle and right beside the window. The normally empty seat beside him was ﬁlled with an unusually chirpy boy he recognised from around the school but couldn't quite put a name to. He was mostly relieved that it wasn't one of his usual tormentors - unless, of course, it was someone new to the game.
To be on the safe side, he didn't respond to the chirpy boy's greetings, which led to the gang of boys at the back shouting a few choice insults about him; the 'weirdo who sits by the window' and who 'must have lost his voice'. He just kept his eyes on the ground.
The teacher came in and started class, but that did little to help matters. The boys at the back took to ﬂicking pens and pencils at him, sniggering when they hit their target. He didn't turn around once, instead focusing his gaze out the window, allowing his mind to wander. Distantly, he could hear the boy beside him telling the others to stop, and he wondered why - didn't the boy beside him know it was pointless? Hadn't he been here long enough to know they would never stop?
It would take a complete reversal of order for them to stop. For him - the quiet, unassuming boy - to be on top, to rule to school. Then they would stop. He would make them stop.
He could picture it now; walking along those rowdy corridors, head high, the powerful gangs of boys now scurrying out of his way. They looked at him with respect in their eyes; respect, and fear.
A smile spread across his face - or maybe it was more of a smirk - as he strode into the yard he watched every day from the window of his classroom. The cold, wintery streams of light that bathed the frosty ground in a silvery glow were gone, instead replaced with the hot golden sun of summer. The air was humid rather than cold and crisp; humid and crackling with harsh tension and anticipation.
Herds of boys had followed him out; the same herds who, in reality, sit in the back of his class and throw pencils and jeers in his direction. But now, he was the one in control. He alone held all the power. He was king of the school.
The other boys cowered away as he took a step towards them, and the smile on his face widened. He pulled one out of the crowd, ﬁst clamped on the collar of his shirt. The boy he had chosen was the gang's ringleader, the usual instigator of the torture the other boys would inﬂict, quite possibly the very worst of a very bad lot. He was big and strong, but now his usual conﬁdence had drained oﬀ his face as he shuddered in the shadow of the school's new king.
That new king pulled back his other ﬁst and landed the boy a hit across the face. He didn't let him fall though; that would be too easy. Instead, he hit another and another, until the ringleader's face was streaming with blood. Only then did he toss his to the ground, though he wasn't done yet.
Power and satisfaction coursed through every inch of him as he drew his leg back, ready to inﬂict some more serious pain. Until he felt a new pair of eyes on him, and paused to look around. His gaze landed on the chirpy boy who had tried hopelessly to defend him.
But this boy's eyes were no longer friendly, nor were they full of respect, nor fear. Instead, the boy's eyes were ﬁlled only with disappointment.
Suddenly, he felt smaller than he had ever felt before. The smirk was wiped from his face, the power and pride that had rippled through his bones had vanished. All that remained was an empty, lonely feeling in his chest and the churning discomfort of disgust lodged in his stomach.
By wanting this power, this control, was he any better than the boys who tormented him day in and day out? Had he been born into a different life, one that allowed him to have their power, would he have been just the same? What good would that lonely power have done for him anyway, other than turn him into one of the animals like them?A tap on his shoulder pulled him out of his daydream and back to the present. He blinked a few times, bringing his attention back to the classroom. Class had just ended and the pushing and shoving had already begun again out in the corridor. Life was as it normally was. With one exception.
“Hey,” the boy beside him said. “Hey, James. I seen the lads at the back are giving you a lot of hassle. Is everything okay or is there something I can do to help out?”
He blinked again. He didn’t think this chirpy boy would know his name, let alone bother to ask if he was okay. Slowly he nodded, a gentle smile spreading across his face, much softer than the smirk he had worn in his daydream.
“I – thanks for asking,” he said quietly. “I think I could use a little help, if that’s okay with you.”
The other boy smiled, and suddenly he felt ten feet tall. Maybe, he thought to himself, that power from his daydream wasn’t what he wanted at all. Maybe he just needed a friend.
The other boy put a warm hand on his shoulder and gave it a pat, and a warmth spread through his bones despite the frost outside. Not the balmy warmth of his daydream, but something altogether nicer. The warmth of hope.
He didn’t need a reversal of order at all. He just needed a friend.