The next morning at school, when Steve shouldered through the front entrance, Mr. Harrison intercepted him, and together they scanned each busload of students coming in. Steve helpfully pointed out Eric where he slouched behind a group of chatty boys with Pete Sears, keeping a low profile. When Mr. Harrison called his name, Eric looked satisfyingly guilty. He stared for a moment at Steve’s cast as if he recognized his own work. Pete dithered a bit, and then said goodbye to Eric looking relieved.
“Yeah?” Eric said as he arrived. His face was already going pale.
“Come into my office, both of you.”
Once they were shut in, the principal got to the point. “Did you trip Steve?”
“Yeah. It was an accident.”
“You didn’t mean to trip him?”
“I didn’t mean to break his arm. And he’d been hassling Beth Forester.”
“Did you see this happen?” The principal’s face was stony.
“No, she told me. He called her a fat cow.”
“Did she say why?”
“Did you call Steve anything?”
Eric opened his mouth, then shut it.
“Did Steve call you anything? Did he provoke you?”
“He made some smartass remark,” Eric said, straightening a little as if gaining courage.
“Did he say that he called Beth ‘fatuous’ instead of fat? Is that the comment?”
Eric’s shoulders slumped. “I guess.”
“I can’t remember, but it seemed like he said something and I got up in his face; then he started bouncing around like he wanted to fight.”
“Did he throw a punch?”
“So what did he say, you think?”
“He—he called me stupid.”
“Did you call him stupid, Steve?”
“Did anyone else hear your conversation?”
“Pete,” said Steve.
“You and Pete are friends, aren’t you, Eric? So if I ask Pete if Steve called you stupid, what would he say?”
“He’ll back me up,” Eric said, defiantly.
“What if I ask him whether it was an accident? And suggest you might have just been goofing around? Would he back you up on that?”
“Then I’ll do that. You can wait here. I’ll tell him that I was wondering if it might have been an accident and that I just want to know exactly what was said by whom.”
Eric shrugged. “Okay.”
“ ‘Okay’?” Mr. Harrison said in a stern voice, eyes narrowed. Eric sat up. “You think Pete will tell me that Steve called you stupid if I don’t prompt him?” Before Eric could answer, he went on: “Did you already tell Pete what he should say? Because if not, is that the story you trust him to tell?” Eric’s brows knit and his mouth tightened. He looked down. “Or would calling you stupid be the last thing he’d put in Steve’s mouth, given that Steve was confronted by two larger boys looking to make trouble?” Mr. Harrison let this sink in. “Would you like to revise your story, or would you care to be held in detention for the rest of the day while we go over the details and then find out you’re lying to me?” Eric didn’t answer. “Did Steve provoke you — not Beth, but you? Did he call you stupid?”
“I warned you, Eric, about bullying people after your last suspension. What do you think’s going to happen now?”
“My dad’s gonna kill me.” Eric’s eyes began to water.
“If you’re serious about that comment, we can discuss this further. In any case, Steve, you can go to class.”
* * *
That lunch Tess had arrived just ahead of him. He caught sight of her as he got his food and left the line. She’d dressed much the way she had for their adventure, and as she made her way across the cafeteria, she drew the head of almost everyone. In the center of the floor, she paused and looked around as if indecisive, then went to the long table where Beth’s clique had installed themselves. She chose a seat with a small empty table behind it. Steve waited till she had the attention of all the girls and then sneaked up without being noticed and sat with his back to her, close enough to hear the conversation.
“Mind if I sit here? I’m Tess.”
“No, go ahead,” said Emma Wilson in her familiar husky voice. “Nice to meet you,” she added, and introduced herself. Emma, Steve reflected, would probably be okay to Tess. A tall, attractive girl, half-black half-white, who played softball, Emma never seemed to have anything to prove. Both girls and boys responded to her confidence. He’d had a crush on her for a year, but she never had any reason to talk to him and the few times he’d attempted conversation, she’d been merely polite, that is, until the one day a few months ago, when she’d said that he was “not bad-looking but kinda weird.” That wasn’t impolite either, just honest, but he avoided her after that.
Beth spoke next: “Oh, hi, Tess. Wow, I almost didn’t recognize you.”
“Yeah,” said Emma. “This is a good look for you. The boys seem to have noticed. Watch out. A lot of them are jerks.”
“Yeah, like who?”
“Tom Howell. He likes to snap your bra strap while you’re walking down the hall. He doesn’t bother me anymore. I told the teacher, and the next time he did it, I kicked him in the nuts.”
“Nice one,” said Tess. “You’re a jock, right?”
There was a pause. “How about you?” Emma said. “We’re finishing softball, but you might get into volleyball next year. You’re tall enough.”
“Cool,” Tess said. “Say, Beth, what do you think of Eric Noble?”
“You were talking to him yesterday, right?”
“Ugh, really?” said a third girl, and Steve realized with a skip in his pulse that it was Lydia Marshall.
“He’s another jerk,” said Emma. “He beat the crap out of Kathy Garcia’s little brother.”
“I wasn’t talking to him,” said Beth. “Well, he might have been in a group of people I was talking to. Who told you I was talking to him?”
“Is he the guy with the black buzz cut?” said Tess. “I heard someone say ‘Eric.’ Maybe I got him mixed up with someone else.”
“No, that’s Pete Sears.”
“Ah, he’s the guy, sorry,” said Tess. “Is he your boyfriend?”
“God I’m sorry,” said Tess, and to Steve she sounded almost sincere. “I just thought . . .”
Silence descended on the table. At length, Emma said, “What made you think Pete was her boyfriend?” She laughed as if the idea were ridiculous.
“Well, the way Beth talked to him, I guess I got the wrong idea.”
“Who told you that? You weren’t around!”
“What were you saying to Pete?” said Emma with frank curiosity.
“I told him and some other people about that guy, Steve, that Tess was sitting with yesterday, remember? That guy was a creep. Are you his girlfriend, Tess? Did you come over here to get revenge for him?”
“Yeah, partly. I did,” Tess admitted. The table went quiet, and she continued: “He didn’t put me up to it, though. When I heard that he broke his arm, I asked what happened. Eric Noble and Pete Sears were sticking up for you. Eric threatened to beat him up. He also called him a fag, and tripped him. That’s how he got his arm broken and his head banged up.”
“Whoa,” said Emma.
“Well, he probably is a fag,” said Beth. She got a couple of giggles.
When Tess replied, the first notes of anger rose in her voice, much to Steve’s satisfaction. “I understand why you came over here yesterday and told all your friends he insulted you. You were mad. But you didn’t stop. You went to a couple of the skuzziest guys in this school and whined to them about how you’d been bullied so that they’d do something about it. If anyone uses other people for revenge, it’s you.”
“I didn’t whine,” said Beth.
“Yes, you did. You either: a) whined, or b) flirted with them, or c) both.”
“How do you know? You weren’t even there?”
Tess assumed a mocking falsetto: “ ‘Guys, I’m really upset . . . Well, I was minding my own business and Steve O’Reilly came over to the table where I was sitting with the new girl, the one who dresses like a skuzz, but she’s okay, you know . . . He was really rude and wouldn’t leave . . . He said I was fat . . . And a cow.’ ”
Lydia said, surprised, “But how did you hear that?”
“I’m just guessing. But it sounded just like that, didn’t it?” said Tess in a neutral tone that Steve could just read as mocking. She was bold to talk to Lydia like that; Lydia could be intimidating. “Remember?” Silence. “You mean you do remember?” Tess barked a laugh, amused and incredulous. “You were there?”
“Your boyfriend is a creep,” said Beth.
“He’s just a friend, but you know, you will never be my friend, because you flirt with bullies so they’ll fight for you, and someday you’ll go to bed with them to get what you want.”
“What are you suggesting?” Beth said in a lofty tone. “Are you calling me the ‘h’ word?”
Tess laughed. “No, I’m calling you the ‘w’ word. Learn to spell, you fatuous w-h-o-r-e.”
“Whoa,” Emma said.
“You’re a bitch,” said Beth.
“Emma, sorry to mess up your lunch.” Steve heard the scrape of chair legs on the floor behind him. “It was good to meet you. But you know, she’s right, I am a bitch and you probably don’t want to be my friend. Oh, and Beth, if you whine to anyone or flirt with them to get me beat up, or tell some teacher on me, I will kick the crap right out of you, personally.”
* * *
Steve couldn’t help but look over his shoulder. The other girls caught sight of him, their faces blank. Tess spun around with her tray and plopped into the chair beside him. They ate in silence. Tess kept her head down. Her face was flushed. The other girls all got up together and left. “So?” Tess asked. “Are we cool now?”
He nodded. A few more seconds passed. “You really are a bitch,” he muttered. Tess looked up sharply, her expression wounded. “And,” he added with a smile, “you are completely awesome.”
“Thanks,” she said, and then shrugged and grew a bit distant. Finally, she got up. “Just don’t go out of your way to piss off any more girls, okay? I’ll see you around.”
When she left, the sounds of the cafeteria blurred into one nonsensical, manic burble. Misgiving slowly began to weigh on him. She’d had to fight his battle, hadn’t she? That’s what her parting shot meant: he couldn’t fight Beth, because he didn’t have any way to get her back. Only Tess could do that. But what was the price? Tess had defeated his enemy but now she’d lost respect for him. How was he going to fix that?