Stupid and Brave
Their laughter wriggles into my locker, bounces on my books, and points to what’s going on a few steps away.
“You're gonna ignore me, huh?” Kent says to Nathan, his mouth twisted in a smirk. The other kids lean toward the two boys, forming a cluster of glowing phones, dog-eared books, and wild hairstyles. Kent’s finger crawls up the kid’s shoulder and fixates at a point, icy and sharp. Nathan stiffens, taut like a wire, his voice hitching in his breath.
I glance at my shoulder and shrug off the phantom touch. My throat tightens like a fist as I turn away from the scene, digging my nails into my palms and squeezing my eyes close. Maybe if I stay like this for a few more seconds, time will teeter and pause. Their voices will fade and my legs will carry me away.
A giggle pierces the air and I jerk — it’s one of the many girls surrounding Kent. I lower my gaze, not wanting her sight to slice into me, and shake the hair out of my eyes. Dandruff drizzles from my head and I stare until everything in sight splits in two and my eyes sting. Shaking my head again, I pull out my chemistry textbook.
“Screw you,” Kent says, his voice sharp like a razor. I wince.
If only Nathan would melt, dissolve into a pool of liquid flesh on the floor, bubbling and staining everyone’s shoes. I wish he’d disappear so I could walk away and leave behind the phantom finger sticking into my shoulder. I don’t need it reminding me of why I left my old school. But it’s more than that — it’s also the question probing my mind and the words bulging in my mouth. Why am I not saying something? I could be brave. I can see myself doing it — slamming my locker door, swinging around, marching to the other high schoolers.
“Leave him alone,” I’ll say, loud and clear. They’ll stare, glance at each other, raise their hands in apology, and back away. No, wait. They’ll stare, glance at each other, raise their hands, and barge into me. They’ll press their hands over my mouth, cramming my words down my throat. And everything will go back to how it was at my old school.
The kids surrounding Kent laugh when he leans down to whisper something to the kid. Nathan’s eyes flit around, fall on me, and flutter away. They rest nowhere and plead nobody. I wonder who shattered his expectation for help. He can’t have forgotten, because I remember perfectly who shattered mine.
They shove me against a wall in the girls’ bathroom and stuff socks into my face, giggling. The stink snakes up my nose, making my eyes prickle. Fingers fumbling, I grab at the socks, at their skirts, at musty air. I pinch flesh instead.
“Ow!” one yells. She bangs me against the wall and pain spreads in the back of my head.
I slide down, the peeling paint cutting into my back. My palms cover my face, wet and snotty. Through the slits between my fingers, between socks and swishing skirts, her face appears near the sink. Her eyes widen, and she hovers, picking at the edge of her notebooks. Knobbly-kneed and hairy and short, she’s lucky to go unnoticed as it is.
I mouth a word. “Please.”
She bites her lips, then mouths, “sorry”. She walks away. She leaves.
With one hand, I tug the hem of my shirt, unsticking it from my damp skin. My fingers grip my textbook, slippery and shaking. For a moment, a laugh rises in my throat like bile. It’s all the same. Nothing changed except the school and my position in the drama.
Kent yanks Nathan aside and grabs a book from his locker — Great Expectations. He holds it from the cover page, and the weight of the pages rips it near the spine.
“That’s — that’s from the library,” Nathan whispers, his voice cracking. Sweat glistens on his freckled face.
“Is it now?” Kent says.
I press my forehead to the cool metal of my locker door, hoping it’ll leach the heat from my face. There it is — a thump in the direction of the other kids, a gasp, more laughter.
My textbook falls on my feet. I step back, pick it up, shut my locker door, lick my lips, and walk away. My cheeks flush as I push my shoulders back and look ahead. It’s strange. It’s strange not walking with my eyes stuck to the gray linoleum floor.
I quicken my pace when I hear the footsteps, stumbling between a jog and a walk. And I’m too slow, I’m too slow. Kent seizes my shoulder and I spin to face him, pressing my book to my chest.
“Hey, you saw what was going on?” He glances at a teacher. “We were just messing around, you know.”
I inch back, nodding, loosening my grip.
“Yeah — yeah, I know,” I say. “I mean . . . who reads Great Expectations anyway?” I read it two years ago.
Kent smiles, then jogs into a classroom. He has green eyes — green like the bruises that formed on my stomach the day after I left my old school. I swallow hard. The taste of too much mint and foul breath, the former failing to mask the latter, mingles in my mouth.
Nathan walks down the corridor, head down, hugging his books to his chest — hugging himself, really. His feet drag along the floor and he slinks towards the walls.
I straighten. “Hey!” I yell to him, with a smile plastered to my face. “See you at lunch, okay?” I turn away before he reacts, but I can imagine him blinking, figuring out what I just said.
I walk into the classroom, where a few kids talk to the teacher and others stand in groups. Kent sits near the back, laughing with four boys and two girls.
I scoot around the desks to reach him, my heart thudding.
“Um, hey,” I say.
“Hey.” He raises his eyebrows.
I could be brave. No, you’d be stupid, my brain tells me. But I’d be brave, I think. And stupid.
“Nice shirt.” Still stupid.
I take a deep breath and look behind myself, where Nathan stands near the door, staring at a ‘No Bullying’ poster. If I begin preaching, they’re just going to start on me. I’ll be the one trapped near lockers. It’ll be the same as it was at my old school.
Nathan picks the seat nearest to the door and sits there, shrinking into himself.
Most likely, nothing I say is going to change anything. They’ll just bully him more and begin on me too. I should walk away, simple as that. I’ll just have to mouth a ‘sorry’ to Nathan later on and then avoid him at lunchtime. That’s a sensible thing to do, right? It’s almost as if the taste of old socks curls around my tongue and fastens it in place.
“Hello?” says Kent. “Need anything?”
Don’t be stupid, my brain whispers, straining on each word. And I am stupid. I disobey it.
“Listen up,” I say. I look back at Nathan’s limp form, take ten seconds to catch his eye, smile as wide as I can. My dry lips crack and whiten and hurt, but I am brave. I turn to Kent. “We’ve got some stuff to settle.”
Tejal Doshi is a high school sophomore from India who writes speculative and realistic YA fiction, as well as poetry. Her work is published in Blue Marble Review, The WEIGHT Journal, and Cathartic Youth Literary Magazine. Other than writing, she is passionate about mental health advocacy, and has an interest in math and commerce. She also makes brilliant jokes that nobody laughs at.