Blake Savage knew exactly how horrid the school year would be even before he walked onto campus. Every year seemed to get worse as hormones took over more and more of his classmates brains. It only took moments after he walked through the gate and onto the pristine, sprawling grounds for the usual swarm of desperate, slightly unsound girls to gather around him.
Of course, being surrounded by females couldn’t really be considered torturous. At least, not by many, and Blake was not among those rare few. Rather, the irritating bit was that the females generated too much attention. He couldn’t do anything on or near campus without everyone knowing. And not a few of the assholes he’d pissed off – and there were quite a few of those, as, it turned out, most teenage boys did not appreciate their exes or crushes hanging around another guy – seemed to thrive off making his life miserable.
Still, it wasn’t the glares, or the doe-eyes stares that truly irked Blake. It was the tedium of it, the boredom of being forced to sit through hour after hour of lessons he already knew by heart. He didn’t need anyone to explain them to him twelve times, unlike some people. Then again, every once in a while – a long while – they would actually study something of use to him. And he had always gotten to light the burner when they did chemistry labs, because his partner would rather flip her hair and bat her eyelashes at him than actually do the assignment.
People always seemed surprised that he had a brain, as if being sick meant that all his brain cells had fried out. Or, considering his illness, maybe they thought he’d never had any to begin with.
“Nice hair,” Zack snickered, bumping Blake’s thin shoulder. The boy looked longingly at his friend’s dark black locks, which were either styled to look messy and unkempt, or he’d actually just rolled out of bed. Blake’s own hair was longer, hanging limply over his forehead, so that he could just see the blonde dyed into it.
“Nice face,” Blake shot back, driving his elbow into Zack’s side. This was how they always were, the only real relationship Blake had. Zack was one of the few who actually knew him, knew every dark secret, every hidden fear.
As the larger boy mock stumbled, hunching over as if in pain, Blake glanced back at the now large group following them at a distance. It was the further, much less friendly group, however, that caught his attention. Laughing brightly, he turned back toward Zack. “You’re harem’s grown since last year, hasn’t it? You’re like a magnet, I swear.”
“Speak for yourself,” he groused. “They were just following me because I got here earlier.”
First day of school, Blake thought with a pang of irritation. Really? You couldn’t give me like, two fucking minutes? He wondered how he would keep it from Zack, keep his friend out of it. It wasn’t that he didn’t need the help, or that he didn’t want it, or trust Zack. But Blake knew that he could take care of himself, that if he always relied on someone else, someday no one would be there and he’d panic, fail, and someone would get hurt because of it. No, it was better if he learned to deal with adversity now rather than later, when it really mattered.
The silence stretched, but it was not uncomfortable. Blake had known Zack almost since birth, and the bond between them rarely required words. Still, when he caught Zack looking back over their shoulders a little too frequently, Blake knew he’d been caught. “They still not l-”
The bell rang, cutting him off midsentence.
Waving quickly, Blake hurried to the math and science building, heading straight to his first class – Physics. The day was as horrifyingly, mind-numbingly useless as he’d thought it would be, with every teacher simply discussing their syllabuses, telling the students to bring pencils or pens and paper. As if he’d forget to bring something to write with. How stupid exactly did teachers seem to think their students were?
Like, toddler with brain damage stupid.
After the second period ended and the two-thousand odd teenagers rushed out into the quad for lunch, Blake hung back by his locker. He’d be kicked out after ten minutes, as per school policy, but he’d enjoy the solitude a little longer. The cool metal of the door felt good against his forehead as he rubbed his aching, dry eyes. The contact lenses might have been a necessity, but they were certainly irritating.
Zack found him there a moment later, resting a hand softly on his shoulder. Blake hated the way Zack was touching him, as if he’d break or blow away in a strong wind. He wasn’t that fragile, and he certainly wasn’t a child. Being sick didn’t make him weak, either.
“You doing okay?”
“Fine,” he retorted, anger – at himself, at his sickness, at his parents for passing it on to him, at the world in general, in whatever god existed, for saddling him with this curse – made the reply sharper than he’d intended, and he sucked in a quick breath to apologize.
Zack’s laughter stopped him with his mouth half-open. “Finally,” he gasped, his shoulders still shaking. “I thought you’d be weird and quiet all day.” Turning, Zack began to lead him out of the building. “The next time you decide to go pansy on me, warn me first, k?”
Blake nodded before lowering his head and using his hand to shade his eyes from the glare of the sun. It reflected off the white surfaces of the buildings, shining twice as bright as it usually did. The stabbing pain in his head throbbed in time with his heart and his breathing sped up, but Blake forced himself to relax before he worried Zack. The pain was nothing new, nothing he hadn’t dealt with before.
Still, every moment of the twenty-odd minute break was a lifetime of agony, and the last class couldn’t start soon enough. He and Zack were in the same class for Latin III, so they went together, immediately claiming their usual seats as far from the windows as possible. The first twenty minutes of the period were then spent creating a seating chart based on where the kids themselves had chosen to sit. Each called out his name in order from the door, slowly moving back through the room.
Both Blake and Zack used the same aliases they’d developed before entering the school two years ago. Blake’s father had helped them fill in the supposed details of their imaginary lives and leave paper trails, even forge documents.
After making the chart, the class passed as the others had, with most of the kids dozing off, and the slightly crazed teacher prattling on obliviously about the joys of the ancient world and long-dead languages. She was amusing enough that, while this had never been Blake’s favorite class, neither was it the worst.
Finally, when the dismissal bell rang, Zack practically jumped out of his seat, pulling Blake with him as he almost ran for the door.
Day one, survived.
“You’re brother asked me to give you a lift home because he’s working tonight,” Zack said, his tone overly light as they pushed through the overly packed hallway. Blake nodded and glanced around, watching the rest of the students chatter and gossip and go on with their ordinary, boring lives. They never knew, never could have known, exactly what monsters stood in their midst. Even if they had, they wouldn’t have believed.
Then they were walking out the front gate, heading toward the crosswalk and, beyond that, the senior lot. The junior lot, along with Zack’s dark grey Mazda, were past that, a good ten minute hike made perilous by the student drivers. Just as they stepped onto the asphalt, Zack stopped short. The security guard motioned for them to continue, gesturing impatiently, but he didn’t move. Blake grabbed his arm nervously, and it seemed to wake him from the trance.
“Son of a bitch,” Zack mumbled, stepping back onto the side walk. He glanced over at Blake. “Meet me at the car, spot 315,” he called, already hurrying away, tossing the keys over his shoulder. Blake caught them without a word and followed his friend’s path. He watched as Zack ran up to one of the freshman girls who was walking slowly toward the street.
He was waiting beside the car when they finally showed up. Drew stopped early, turning back toward the school and waiting there. The lookout, Blake realized. So they already knew that Zack wasn’t with him. At least they’ve gotten smarter since last year.
The last time Jason’s group had tried to attach Blake had been around Christmas, just after Brad’s girlfriend had broken up with him. She’d confessed to Blake less than two days later, and despite his outright rejection, she’d joined his following. Brad had been so furious, he’d ignored Zack’s warnings, and had ended up in the hospital with three broken ribs and a fractured wrist. Zack had only kicked him once.
Now, it seemed, the lesson had been forgotten, or at least put aside. Or maybe it had been learned. This time they had at least waited for Zack to leave.
Jason, Brad and Peter continued toward him slowly, swaggering with confidence. Blake knew that, to them, he looked pale and skinny and weak. An easy target. He honestly didn’t understand what anyone saw in him, either. Still, he knew he was better looking than Peter. The kid could scare babies with that face. Or truck drivers.
Jason and Brad were better; Jason was a football player, covered in layers of muscle, while Brad looked like the average kid – a few pimples, long hair he constantly flicked out of his face, and a slightly crooked nose. Drew was the best of them, and they all knew it. It was why he left the fighting to the others. Couldn’t risk damaging his pretty face, of course.
The close they came, the more Blake hated them. Hatred wasn’t the best thing to feel before a fight, but he just couldn’t help it. He imagined Jason’s smug grin twisting into a shriek as he burned him alive. He practically smelled roasting flesh. And it disgusted him. Blake shook his head to clear it, driving out the sickening, murderous image. This wasn’t who he was. He didn’t light people on fire, only empty buildings and cars and factories and warehouses, and once a library. But he’d never killed anyone.
They didn’t sense his shifting thoughts at all as they approached, fanning out around him. When Peter grabbed one arm and Jason the other, Blake didn’t move. He didn’t think he could handle himself if he did. He had thought the monster inside himself contained, but maybe it never would be. Maybe he’d dream and dream about killing, until one day it came naturally. One day he wouldn’t be able to stop it. One day he’d…
Brad’s fist broke him from his despondency. It slammed across his face like a brick, whipping his head to the side and making him see stars. He slumped where he stood, supported by the two holding him. “God Bradley,” he laughed through the pain, spitting out a mouthful of blood. “You hit like a girl.”
His feet came up then, scoring a solid blow to Brad’s chin that sent the bigger boy stumbling back. Without pausing, Blake used the momentum of the kick to flip himself over, supported entirely by Jason and Peter, and wrapped his legs around the former’s neck. They finally reacted, relaxing their grips. Peter’s knee slammed into Blake’s back, but he barely felt it through the adrenaline. Jason fell to the ground, and a quick kick knocked him out of the fight.
“One down, two to go.” Blake’s cheek throbbed in time with his heartbeat, a rapid, fluttering rhythm, and his back was beginning to feel the blow as well, but he pushed the thoughts away.
He took two steps and slid, sweeping Peter’s feet out from under him. The hulking boy fell against Zack’s car hard enough to leave a dent, and he dropped to the ground like a stone. “Two down.” Blake stood back up and grinned at Brad, who took a nervous step back. “Want to try your luck one-on-one?”
And then it happened. His heart stuttered, the breath leaving him in a rush, and he was stumbling. Blake caught himself against the side of the car and fought to stop falling, to catch him breath, to keep consciousness. The sun burned hotter in the sky and every ache burned like poison. Brad smiled.
And then his fist came down.