After Cyrus had finished unpacking, Hayden led him around campus, pointing out many of the same places that he’d seen in every other boarding school. Library. Dining Hall. Gym. Classrooms. Lab. Auditorium. Nothing was exceptionally out of the ordinary, so Cyrus focused instead on Hayden’s commentary, stashing the nuggets of information away for later.
“Sometimes study groups meet there,” Hayden said, pointing at the Arts Center. “They’re a lot more laid back. The art teachers don’t really care if we get, uh, a little creative with our study habits, if you know what I mean.” He grinned slyly.
Cyrus just looked at him. “I don’t actually know what you mean.”
Lowering his voice, Hayden whispered, “I’m friends with one of the janitors, and he’s got as much beer as you can pay him for. And, let me tell you, some of the kids here are loaded.” Letting out a chuckle, Hayden kept walking. “But one time, Coach Jackel found an empty beer bottle in the locker room and had a total meltdown. So you gotta be careful.”
“I don’t drink,” Cyrus answered with no inflection, his hands in his pockets as he shuffled along after Hayden.
Hayden studied him for a brief second, then muttered, “‘Course you don’t,” with a little bit of a sigh. Right about to protest with an outlined explanation of his reasoning, Cyrus was cut off when Hayden added quickly, “So what do you do for fun? You’re obviously not the partying type. What do you do to unwind?”
Cyrus shrugged. “You know. Stuff.”
Hayden pulled a mock serious face and nodded. “Oh, yeah. I know all about stuff,” he said, his statement laden with sarcasm. “I do stuff all the time.”
With a scowl, Cyrus replied, “I read. I listen to music.” He wasn’t about to tell this kid whom he’d just met about his love for drawing. It wasn’t that he was ashamed of his hobby, but Cyrus knew from past experience that saying shit like that didn’t exactly score any points with teenage boys. In fact, the only thing it had ever scored Cyrus were a few bruises and and nickname he wanted to forget.
“Music - now that I can get behind,” Hayden said, nodding with approval. “Do you play any instruments?”
“No. I move around a lot,” Cyrus said by way of explanation. “Hard to pick anything up and stick with it.”
“You can take a guitar with you,” he pointed out. They turned between two buildings and the sun was suddenly out of their eyes, if only for a few steps before they broke out into the open again. “Guitar’s the best. I could teach you a few things, if you want?”
Cyrus shrugged. “Maybe later.”
Hayden shrugged. “Alright,” he said. “Come on, let’s head back around to the dining hall. It’s almost dinner time.”
Feeling obligated to continue the conversation as they walked, Cyrus asked, “How’s the food?”
“Pretty good, actually. Just never, and I repeat, never get the chili,” Hayden said, widening his eyes to display how serious he was. “Especially if I’m sharing a room with you. I will kick you out in a heartbeat, you understand?”
He was grinning, and Cyrus had to crack a smile of his own. “Yeah, I understand.”
After a second, Hayden’s smile faded into nothing. Cyrus dropped his as well, confused until he noticed that his roommate was looking past his shoulder. “Uh oh,” Hayden muttered. It might have been Cyrus’s imagination, but he seemed to cower a little before straightening up and adopting a hardened expression.
“Hey! Gayden!” a low voice called with a snicker. Cyrus spun to find a tall kid with a buzz cut, flanked by two bored-looking boys.
Hayden crossed his arms, shifting a little in front of Cyrus and rolling his eyes. “Like that joke didn’t get old about a year and a half ago, Mike.”
Mike sneered, ignoring the jibe and instead turning his attention to Cyrus. “Who’s the new kid?”
Hayden turned to Cyrus, saying, “Cyrus, meet Dick- I mean, Mike.” His eyes shone with repressed laughter.
“Cyrus,” Mike repeated, either ignoring the shot or missing it. “Dumb name.”
“And ‘Mike’ is real original,” Cyrus deadpanned. One glance at Hayden told him that was the right move. One glance at Mike told him it absolutely wasn’t.
“You tryin’a be smart with me?” Mike demanded.
Cyrus blinked, forcing himself to stay calm. “Not trying so much as succeeding.”
His face morphing into a mask of barely restrained anger, Mike took a step forward, clenching the front of Cyrus’s shirt in his fist. “Listen here, buddy. You’re not off to a real good start,” he growled. “Did your new friend tell you about orientation?”
Cyrus blinked, his heart pounding. He’d tried to face down bullies before and had always come out on the losing end. This time, though, felt different. Cyrus felt the strange need to impress Hayden, to not let him down by losing his nerve in front of these guys. He sighed mentally. Mike was right about one thing - he sure was off to a great start. “No, but I get the feeling you’re about to.“
“There’s only one thing you need to know about it,” Mike said, smiling to show off his perfectly straight, white teeth. It only served to make him more menacing. He leaned forward, hissing in Cyrus’s ear, “I’m the one who plans it.”
Dear God. What had he gotten himself into? He’s just like all the other bullies. Cyrus caught Hayden’s half-worried glance from the corner of his eye. “Well, I’m sure that’s bound to be a blast,” he found himself saying. “Will there be snacks?”
Mike shoved Cyrus away. “Enjoy your time before the sun goes down,” he said, clearly intending to be ominous and threatening. It worked. With a flick of his wrist, he signaled his two friends to follow him as he stormed down the path.
When Mike was out of earshot, Hayden let out a low whistle. “You know what, man? I think I might have been wrong about you.”
“Yeah?” Cyrus asked flatly, his bravado settling into a distracted scowl.
“Yep,” he said, walking at a slow stroll. “Here I was afraid you’d be one of those guys buried in books who can’t come up with a comeback to save his life. But that… that was kind of badass.”
Cyrus’s expression was grim. “Thanks. I’ve just run into one too many like him before.” Whether it was due to the sun soaking into the dark material of Cyrus’s t-shirt or the confrontation he’d just had, Cyrus was beginning to sweat.
Hayden nodded. “They’re all the same. Think they’re big and scary, but they’re not all that smart when it comes down to it.” He paused, looking thoughtful. “Though, I’ll warn you, that kid can punch.” He let out a self-deprecating laugh.
Running his hand through his dark hair, Cyrus sounded tired as he asked, “So what’d he mean about orientation? Do I want to know?”
The deep sigh that Hayden let out was definitely not encouraging. “You probably don’t. We don’t get many new kids here. So, when they do come… Well, everyone sees what they’re made of fast, you know?”
“Pretty much,” Hayden agreed.
Cyrus shuffled his feet, kicking a stray rock out of his way with more venom than necessary. He managed to keep his voice calm as he asked, “So what’ll it be?”
“No idea,” came the quiet answer.
They walked the rest of the way to the dining hall in silence. Cyrus would be lying to say he wasn’t nervous, but, in a way, getting this over with early might actually be a blessing. At least everyone could make up their minds about him early on; it would save the pain of having to do it later.
That way, he could be a freak in peace.
Dinner consisted of chicken barbecue and a baked potato for Cyrus and pizza for Hayden. Trays in hand, Hayden led them towards a table in the corner. “Come on, I’ll introduce you to my friends.”
The table was loud, but seemed friendly enough. Nobody even blinked when Cyrus pulled up a chair. “Hey, guys,” Hayden said with a grin. “Meet Cyrus, my new roomie.”
A round of “hello”s and “welcome”s spread around the table. A thin boy sitting next to Cyrus clapped him on the back. “Hey, Cyrus. Welcome. I’m Parker, the coolest kid in this goddamn place.”
“Self proclaimed,” a slightly heavyset kid pointed out. He nodded at Cyrus, “I’m Rich.”
“Aren’t we all?” another kid snickered. Laughter coursed around the table.
“Rich as in Richard.”
“Yeah, we know,” the kid replied, waving him off. He was short, Asian, and seemed to have trouble keeping his choppy hair out of his eyes. “By the way, I’m Lee. And that’s Tim, Walker, and Fredrick,” he said, pointing at a few of the boys around the table. “I hope you’re taking notes; there’ll be a quiz tomorrow,” he said with a smirk.
“Wow, guys,” Hayden muttered. “Talk about information overload.”
“Eh, he’ll catch on,” Parker dismissed. He leaned over and whispered to Cyrus, “Just remember, Parker equals the handsome one.” He laughed to himself.
Cyrus gave a general nod to the table. “Nice to meet you all.”
“You guys get your schedules yet?” Lee asked. “I got Thompson for history again. Ugh, kill me now.”
“Done,” Walker retorted, making everyone laugh.
“That reminds me,” Hayden said, digging something out of the inner pocket of his blazer. “They gave me your schedule.”
Cyrus took the piece of paper and unfolded it. None of the classes were surprising to him; they were all AP, just like he’d expected. There was only one class that he hadn’t expected to find. “Drawing?”
“Yep,” Parker said. “They think you need a fine arts to round you out, or whatever. It’s not so bad.”
Trying to hide his excitement, Cyrus nodded and took a bite of his food. At least there would be one class to which he’d look forward to going. In a flurry of papers, everyone began swapping schedules, figuring out who they had class with. There were just as many smiles as disappointed faces, Cyrus noticed as he watched, not participating until Hayden slid his paper over. “We’re in a lot of the same classes,” he said. “Even drawing. I think all that’s different is English.”
Cyrus looked surprised. “You’re in Calculus II?” In every other school, Cyrus had been a year ahead in math. Even more surprising was the fact that Hayden would be the one to be advanced. There was something about him that made him seem less like the studious type and more like a guy who skipped class on occasion.
“Yeah,” Hayden replied, his sheepish smile hinting that he was embarrassed to admit that he was good at math. “There are three or four others who are in it too; it won’t be just us.”
“Huh,” Cyrus muttered. He looked down at his food, but found his appetite had already diminished. Enjoy your time before the sun goes down. The words settled like a pit in the bottom of his stomach. Cyrus turned to Hayden, asking, “Do you mind if we go? I’d just leave myself, but I’m not sure I quite know the way back to the dorms yet.”
Hayden was standing almost before Cyrus finished talking. “Of course.” He glanced at the rest of the guys. “See you later,” he said, nodding at those who reciprocated with goodbyes.
Cyrus gave them an awkward nod before picking up his tray and following Hayden out. On their way back to the dorms, the two fell into an easy silence. After several long minutes, Hayden broke it by saying, “You look nervous.”
“I’m not,” Cyrus shot back immediately.
Hayden frowned. “Listen, just so you know, I don’t agree with what they do to the new kids. A lot of the others don’t either, but…” he trailed off with a shrug. “What I’m saying is that whatever it is that they want you to do, I’ll help with if I can.”
Instantly suspicious, Cyrus glanced at him sharply as they entered the building and climbed up the stairs towards their room. “Why would you do that?”
Caught off guard, Hayden replied, “Because you’re my friend?”
“I met you three hours ago,” Cyrus scoffed. “I hardly think that makes us friends.”
Shrugging, Hayden responded, “Okay, fine. I’m doing it because I’m a nice guy and we’ll probably be friends someday soon. Why’s it matter anyway?” he asked, pulling a key from his pocket and jamming it in the door.
Cyrus was quiet. He wasn’t going to make friends this year only to be let down like had happened every single time in the past. It was a simple inevitability that his “friends” would at some point get bored with him and leave, and the chances of that happening sooner rather than later only increased with the popular ones like Hayden. For a little while, Cyrus would seem mysterious, interesting, but it wouldn’t last. It never did. “I won’t be needing your help,” he snapped.
“What?” Hayden asked in surprise, turning to look at him as they stood in the doorway. “Why not?”
“Because I don’t plan on participating in whatever it is that they have ready,” Cyrus said. If he refused to go along and was shunned for it, that would be that. Then he could just fade into the background and disappear.
Hayden’s eyes widened. “No, Cyrus, you don’t want to do that. You don’t know these guys; they’ll-“
Feeling a sudden and unjustified flash of anger and annoyance, Cyrus cut him off. “Listen, I said I don’t need your help. I don’t need your advice, and I don’t need you to be friends with me. We’re roommates, that’s all. Okay? I can take care of myself.” As soon as the last word left his mouth, Cyrus felt a pang of guilt. Here was someone trying to befriend him, and he had pushed him away. He wondered if it would hurt to give Hayden a chance. You’ve made that mistake before, Cyrus reminded himself. He didn’t take back his words.
Still, looking at the shock and hurt in Hayden’s brown eyes was uncomfortable. Slowly, his face hardened. “Okay, then. Excuse me for trying to be friendly.”
Without another word, Cyrus pushed past him, going into the bedroom and closing the door. He let his heartbeat run rampant for a moment before trying to calm himself. Pulling out a Jim Croce record, Cyrus inserted it in the player and directed the needle to its edge. His fingers were shaking so much that it skipped a good thirty seconds into the song.
-don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind. You don’t pull the mask off that old lone ranger, and you don’t mess around with Jim.
Cyrus closed his eyes and lay back on the bed. He let the music wash over him, calm him. This was the song that always provided a mental soundtrack to his confrontations with bullies. There was something about it that emboldened him.
And, if his shaking hands were any indication, Cyrus was going to need all the help he could get.