Steve lay awake in bed long after midnight, staring at a half moon through the fanlight window opposite. At first, he obsessed about how Rei had obviously fallen for Tess, but not only was Rei a bigger goober than he was, by far, he didn’t go to school with her.
No, the bigger concern was holding Tess’s interest. Steve had filled in all the encounters at the keep. He’d written up the particulars of the giant army and sketched the whole affair with the son, and he’d worked out who the master of both the son and the giants was. But he didn’t know how the party would meet the baron’s daughter. Zadrian had an ambivalent relationship with her father; he’d known that much weeks ago, long before he met Tess. Originally, he’d foreseen her joining the party to add some female energy. He thought he’d enjoy acting out her part to cut Rei down to size. (Rei would overplay the charm even to a pretend woman, he was pretty sure.) Now with Tess in the game, the group dynamics would be more interesting, and more challenging. Playing a girl for two guys with almost no girl experience was not nearly as daunting as doing it for Tess. If he did a good job, he might get her to relax, maybe take Zadrian (and therefore, him) into her confidence. If he screwed it up, she might decide he didn’t know anything about girls and wasn’t worth teaching. Steve realized that he’d tensed up and his breath had gone shallow, high in his chest. What did he really know about women except stereotypes from TV shows and movies? Maybe the safest thing would be to play her like a guy. She was a warrior, after all. Women and men fought pretty much the same.
On Monday, he found Tess in the lunchroom sitting with Beth Forester, a popular girl who’d only spoken to Steve once that he could remember, and that was to insult his bowl haircut the previous year. He hated her for that, but afterward, he did get his mom to take him to a real stylist for a decent cut. Beth wore a blouse and skirt over tights. She had blond hair, a tiny, slightly upturned nose, and striking blue eyes. Most guys thought she was pretty, but he got the idea once that she resembled an undercooked blueberry muffin, and the impression stuck. Compared to the slightly doughy Beth, Tess was a rock star. That day, she’d gone back to her same punk outfit, but the eyeliner was toned down.
He came over to their table. Beth hadn’t noticed him walk up, and her mouth hung open as Tess said hi with a smile. He took a seat between them. Beth continued to gape.
“This is Beth,” said Tess, brightly.
Steve nodded, tried to smile, but his face twitched under the strain.
Tess said, “We were talking about books we’d read: Carrie and Salem’s Lot.”
“Stephen King’s pretty good,” he said, facing Tess. He could warm to the subject, if not to Beth. “He wrote this serial for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that’s terrific, all about a hero in an Old West-type fantasy world where the knights are gunslingers. The hero is a gunslinger, and he’s chasing this mysterious guy across a post-apocalypse wasteland. There are demons and mutants and stuff. The main character’s name is Roland.”
“Like one of Charlemagne’s knights: La Chanson de Roland,” said Tess.
“What’s that?” Beth said, blue-berry eyes pressing out. Steve wished she’d disappear. He could smell her perfume, sugary in a chemical way, like saccharine.
“It’s a really old French poem,” said Tess. “My mom’s into it.”
For Beth’s sake, Steve added, “King got the story idea from a different poem by Robert Browning, but it’s about the same guy.”
“I liked the part in Carrie where the popular kids poured pig blood all over her and she killed them with her powers,” said Beth, pointedly ignoring him.
Sudden embarrassment and anger brought heat to Steve’s cheeks. On petty impulse, he said, “That’s a surprise. I wouldn’t think you’d be into that. Too provocative.”
Tess glared at him. Beth looked at him directly for once. For a second, her face was a blank reflection of her mind, and then she glowered. She obviously had no idea what he meant, only that it hadn’t been friendly.
“So what brings you over here?” he asked her.
“Me?” said Beth and looked from Tess to him as if shocked they had anything to do with each other. Steve’s heart began to pound, and Beth’s face came into sharp focus. He was not the intruder, and resented the empty-headed prettiness that gave her access to any lunch table. He felt more than petty now; he felt reckless.
“She’s okay, Steve,” said Tess. “She came over, and I said she could sit here. We’re talking about books.”
Beth turned her back on Steve as best she could while sitting right next to him. Steve’s throat tightened.
“I asked you a question, Beth,” he said, hardly able to speak above a whisper.
Beth rounded on him. “Would you get lost, you creep?”
Steve took a deep breath, and caught Tess’s gaze. She looked worried. When he finally managed to gain his voice, he tried not to sound whiny. “She’s not cool. She thinks she’ll clean you up to join her club. That’s why she’s here.”
“What’s your disease?” Beth said.
“ ‘Disease’? What movie did you get that from, you fatuous cow? You tell me to get lost? Go graze somewhere else!”
Beth got up, nostrils flared. Tess half rose, slumped back, glanced from Beth to Steve with her mouth open, words clearly stuck in her throat. Her brows lifted, pleading, her eyes suddenly distressed.
“When you’re done hanging with this goob, come and talk,” Beth said and then stomped across the lunchroom. Steve watched her sidelong as she reached a table of other slender, well-made-up girls and got into a huddle with them. They shot dirty looks back toward Steve and laughed. One of them, Libby Marshall, caught his eye for a moment and frowned, and he felt the reproof almost like a slap. Every guy in school, himself included, had been in love with Libby, a tall blond with the long, outsized features of an afghan hound but somehow beautiful. He tore his eyes from Libby and briefly caught Beth’s gaze, narrowed and hateful.
“What a bitch,” said Steve, and examined his plate. Salisbury steak. He’d have a hard time choking this down, even in a good mood. The smell was vinegary, not sweet like Beth’s perfume, but similarly cheap and artificial.
He looked up at Tess, who stared back with her jaw set. “Nice going, asshole,” she said.
“What?” His tone leaked higher than he’d intended. He lowered his voice and whispered: “You want to be her friend? She thinks she’s so great, but every idea in her head came out of a TV set.”
“I don’t have any friends here, Steve.”
He took a deep breath. What did Tess expect? She was tough and smart and dressed like it; this was an institution for idiots.… “We’re friends,” he said, just as the thought occurred to him.
“Are we? And how many other friends do I have to give up to be your friend, Steve?”
He felt like she’d gut-punched him. His face got hot and his hands sweated, and he felt sick.
Tess studied him and then subsided a bit and looked away, bereft. “I’m not your girlfriend, Steve,” she said, evenly. The comment stopped his thoughts and made his shoulders feel suddenly heavy and weak. She waited several heartbeats, then cut her eyes his way, seeming to read his feeling. Her brows knit again to crystallize a thought: “But maybe.…”
Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. “Are we friends?” He heard the pathetic, almost whining note in his voice and detested it.
She sighed. “Of course. I’ve just gotta… go now… Okay?” Tess got up from the table. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” She hurried off.
He was so shaken, it took him a while to get himself under control. He knew he was undersized and uncomfortable around people, that he liked things the popular guys didn’t, couldn’t care less about football and soccer and all that stuff. He wasn’t even her intellectual equal, and he supposed he wasn’t that handsome, judging by the reactions he got from the girls like Beth. But Tess had started to respect him, he’d thought. Now he felt every bit the creep that Beth thought he was.
Steve’s day did not improve. In afternoon PE, Eric Noble and Pete Sears, a couple of guys from the wrestling team, confronted him about Beth. “Hey, O’Reilly, you little fag,” said Eric. “I heard you called Beth a fat cow.”
They were all doing warm-up stretches on the gym floor in preparation for laps.
“Yeah, she told me she was pretty upset,” said Pete.
“Not ‘fat,’ ” said Steve, now on his honor but knowing it wouldn’t help. “I said fatuous.”
“What’s that?” asked Eric with no curiosity. He was tall with a narrow, mean face like a fox’s.
“It’s like blissfully ignorant.”
“Well I’m like blissfully going to kick your ass,” said Eric.
His face suddenly hot with fear and remorse, Steve decided he’d done enough stretching and got up. Eric got up with him. Steve looked around. No one else seemed to notice what was going on. The gym teacher, Mr. Samson, lounged against a distant wall, absorbed in banter with a knot of flirty girls. One of them punched him lightly on the sleeve of his polo shirt, over his large bicep. Steve turned back, catching a sour oniony scent, to find Eric’s chest thrust almost into his chin. He jerked away, in time to avoid a short, covert uppercut. A vein throbbed in the larger boy’s neck, and Steve’s own heart trip-hammered.
Steve assumed a crouch, like he’d seen in fighting pictures. For gaming reference, he’d checked out picture books on wrestling and karate. Get on the balls of the feet, he remembered. Stance shoulder wide. Hands up.
Eric watched with reptilian calm. He stomped forward. Steve flinched, and Eric chuckled. Steve’s mouth went dry. His stomach felt queasy. Eric weaved back and forth, smiling.
Bounce, Steve thought, calling up a vague memory of a boxing match he’d seen on TV. He hopped — once, twice. He made his own stomp toward Eric, who suddenly fell backward, facing away. For a heartbeat, he thought he’d intimidated him — just before Eric hit him with a low, spinning sweep kick.
Steve’s legs went out from under him. Adrenaline sped his perceptions, slowing things down. The floor swam up. He dragged his arm forward to save his face. It wouldn’t move fast enough. He caught himself wrong on his palm. A spike of ice went up his forearm, and he landed on his eyebrow and cheek, rubbing skin away. The room swam. As if through someone else’s eyes, he saw himself try to plant his injured hand. Pain flared to his shoulder, and his head went terribly clear. His tendons began to swell. Eric scuttled over like a monkey and hissed low, “It was an accident. If you tell, I’ll really kick your ass.” Steve’s face burned where he’d scraped the floor. His left eye watered. He had trouble focusing it.
Eric backed away, and Steve became aware of the PE teacher. “Steve, you okay? Uh oh.” Mr. Samson tucked his clipboard under his arm while he bent and forced Steve’s chin up. The skin around the socket felt raw. The teacher roughly spread his eye open with a calloused thumb and forefinger. The handling felt like sandpaper. “You’ve got a shiner.” The teacher examined his own fingers slick with Steve’s tears and lymph, then wiped them on his polo shirt. “And that eye’s got a burst vessel, but don’t worry. Once, I had too much—” He stopped himself. “It happened when I got sick, but it’ll heal up, no big deal. Bring up your arm.”
Reluctantly, Steve lifted his right arm with his left, the hand dangling loose. The teacher pushed up his fingers. Agony twined his forearm, and he winced and drew back. He got lightheaded and felt like he might puke. “You’d better see the nurse.”
Steve nodded, and was shouldering his way out of the gym door before it occurred to him the teacher hadn’t asked what really happened. He was too grateful even to be indignant.
The nurse appraised his hand quickly and then called his mother. Through the last period, he sat in her office alone with a balloon cast. The final bell rang. Kids stampeded down the outside hall. Someone pressed up to the narrow window, hands cupped around their eyes to see. It was Tess. She waved, and he got up and let her in.
“Alex said he’d heard you had an accident,” she said.
“No, it was Eric Noble. He tripped me in gym.”
“Didn’t you tell the teacher? Wow, your face looks terrible.”
“Have you looked in a mirror?” she persisted. “You really got hurt, and your eyeball is bruised on the side. It’s all red.”
“I deserve it, I guess. Eric was defending Beth. Pete Sears would have too, if he’d gotten the chance. Beth thought fatuous meant fat and told him I hurt her feelings.”
“Beth got these two guys on your case?” He nodded and Tess grew thoughtful. “You’re right. She is a bitch. She fights by proxy.”
“What’s ‘by proxy’ mean?” Steve didn’t care if he seemed ignorant.
“Having someone else do it. That sucks.”
“Forget it, Tess. It’s not like you’re my girlfriend or anything.” He said it like a rebuke, not caring that it betrayed how much she’d hurt him.
“Nope. That’s true,” she said. Deflated, Steve noticed how tight and sore his arm felt. “You were pretty rough on Beth. I’m not sure you didn’t have it coming. On the other hand….”
“What?” he said.
“Nothing.” She made a wry smile that hardened into a pensive frown. She looked away and crossed her arms. “You know, what she did really bugs me.”
“No, I won’t. I’ll take care of her. Tomorrow I’m going to sit with Beth and her club. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Don’t do it for me.”
“Oh, I won’t.” (He felt thrust out in the cold again.) “I hate people who don’t fight their own battles.” Tess’s green eyes seemed to look through him at something bleak.
“Don’t tell anyone I was tripped.”
“Your mom will get it out of you,” Tess warned.
“You don’t even know my mom.”
As it happened, Tess was right. His mom arrived a few minutes later to pick him up and take him to the hospital, and Tess didn’t stay to be introduced. “See you, Steve,” she called as she went out the door.
“My God,” his mom said. “How did this happen?”
“Who tripped you?” She’d cut right to it. When he hesitated, she said, “I’m talking to his parents, whoever they are, and then I’m making sure he gets expelled. Is this boy bigger than you?”
Steve hung his head. “Yeah.”
“Did he apologize?”
Steve made an amused snort.
“You wait here.”
Several minutes ticked by and Steve felt sick dread as he imagined the conversation that would follow. He could wait for his role in provoking Beth to come out on its own, but he had a feeling that would only make it worse. Also, he didn’t like being the victim.
His mother returned, followed by Mr. Harrison.
“Who tripped you, Steve?” he asked. “Mr. Samson said you’d had an accident.”
He toyed with the idea of saying that Eric had just been goofing around. It might save him trouble. “Eric Noble did it.”
“On purpose?” asked Mr. Harrison.
Steve’s mom puffed air between her lips.
“He did it because I called Beth Forester a fatuous cow at lunch. She’d been sitting with Tess and when I came up, she was rude and said I was a creep.”
“What’s this got to do with Eric Noble?”
“Really? Did you have words with Eric?”
“No. I mean, he called me a fag and said he’d kick my ass. All I did was correct him about calling Beth fat.”
“But you did call her a cow?”
“I meant cow in terms of her being dumb. She’s obviously not fat.”
“Thanks for clearing that up,” Mr. Harrison said dryly. He grew thoughtful. “It sounds like you and Beth both behaved childishly.” Steve shrugged, then nodded. “Should I expect to hear more about this from her?”
“I doubt it. She’ll tell her friends, not you.”
“I suppose. And is Eric her friend?”
“I don’t know. Mr. Harrison, here’s exactly what happened. I said I called her ‘fatuous,’ not fat. He asked what that meant. I told him it meant ignorant, and he said he was going to kick my ass. I tried to leave, and he started threatening me and then kicked my legs from under me.”
“Okay, well, please don’t provoke Beth Forester anymore. I’ll see you tomorrow before school, and we’ll meet with Eric and get his story.”
“I’m not waiting that long,” said Steve’s mom. “I want the number for this boy’s parents.”
“I can’t give that out, but they’re probably listed—in the phone book if not the school directory. I’m very sorry this happened, Mrs. O’Reilly, and you can trust I’ll deal with it. I’m not impressed that Eric didn’t come forward, but I won’t make a final judgment till tomorrow.”
His mother fumed all the way to the hospital. When she’d calmed down, she asked a few questions about Beth Forester. Steve, infected with her indignation, did not bother to cast her in a sympathetic light.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to hear his mom berate Eric’s folks on the phone. As it turned out, Steve had a greenstick fracture in his radius in addition to a sprained wrist, and it was very late when he finally got a plaster cast. The doctor gave him something called Ibuprofen for the arm pain. It didn’t seem to do much, but when he kept his arm still, it didn’t hurt too bad.
By the time he’d gotten to bed, arm nestled awkwardly beside him in a square vinyl sling, his anxiety for the meeting with Eric and the principal had eased, and he wondered, both curious and apprehensive, what Tess might do at lunch.