“They’re going to beat the crap out of him,” said Lewis, like it was a perfectly normal thing. He seemed far more concerned that there might be a scratch on his laptop.
“Why? Because he’s got the game and they haven’t?” It was ridiculous. The idea a boy would be beaten up because he had a toy and the other kids were jealous, it made Britta feel angry.
It wasn’t just that she had experienced bullying and empathised with this boy’s predicament — she had no intention of running to his rescue like a hero defending the weak — it was the sheer stupidity of it. How did inflicting pain on someone make your life any better?
“He’s been leaving messages on the school boards,” said Lewis, “telling everyone they’re losers and how he’s going to be a master mage by the time the rest of us get to play, and he’ll wipe the floor with us all. Haven’t you seen the posts? He’s been spamming all the forums with them. Thought he was being clever by using a smurf account.”
Britta’s indignation faded somewhat. If the boy had been taunting and trying to provoke people, it became a little easier to understand why they might want to use him as a punching bag. It still wasn’t right, of course, but it became less of a mystery.
“No, I don’t use the forums.” It wasn’t surprising Britta had been unaware of this campaign of abuse. The school had its own social media platform, a place for kids to chat in a safe and friendly environment. Britta avoided it. There were nuclear dump sites that were less toxic.
“I’m going to have a look,” said Lewis. Britta was horrified he would want to go spectate and her face must have indicated as much. “I just want to see who it is. He might be willing to talk about the game, I mean after the teachers come and break it up.” He checked his watch. “Should still be plenty of time.”
He headed off in the same direction as the others. Britta followed him, not really sure why, perhaps a morbid fascination with the art of bullying that seemed to be so ingrained in school life. And outside school too, maybe.
She wanted to see how this kid handled it. Maybe she’d pick up a few pointers.
“You’re going to be nice to him so he thinks you're his friend, aren’t you?”
Lewis looked offended for a moment, but then he realised there was no point. “So what if I am? Most people like talking about their interests. It’s not like I’m going to hate on him for being one of the lucky ones. You know, you could invite me round to yours for tea or something.”
“Why would I do that?” said Britta, startled by the sudden attempt at socialising. No one had ever asked to come to her house before. “Oh, wait, you mean to meet my dad.” Obviously, there would be a simple reason for it.
“Yeah,” said Lewis, like it was inconceivable there’d be any other reason. “It wouldn’t take long. I’d have all my questions ready.”
She almost felt sorry for him. He was so desperately keen on the game, and the sad thing was that it would not only live up to all of his expectation, it would exceed them.
“No,” said Britta. Indulging his obsession wouldn’t do him any good. Plus, the idea of him and Dad sitting at the kitchen table nerding out filled her with unease.
When you made as much effort as Britta to control your life so that people couldn’t be mean to you, letting your defences down for even someone as harmless as Lewis just wasn’t worth the risk.
“What if I wrote some questions down? Do you think he’d respond?”
Britta was sure Dad would not only answer the questions, he would do so in essay form with citations (referencing other posts he’d made in the past).
“Maybe,” said Britta. “Write them up and I’ll give them to him. I can’t promise anything. And you can’t tell anyone.”
Lewis’s eyes lit up. “No, of course not. Thanks, Britta.”
Doing people favours was also risky. They were never as grateful as you’d thought they’d be. Somehow, owing a debt, even if it was something trivial, became an issue. But in this case, she was curious to know what kind of questions he’d ask.
There was noise coming from up ahead. Shouting and laughing and people freaking out in high-pitched voices. It didn’t sound like actual physical fighting, which was a relief.
As they turned the corner the doors to the outdoor basketball court were open and a crowd had formed under one of the nets. One boy’s voice rose over the rest.
“Think you’re a wizard, do you? Going to cast a spell on me, are you? Bet you wish you could turn invisible now.” The speaker was a tall blond boy. He was very pink in the face and he had tight curly hair, the kind that would turn into an afro if he let it grow out. Toby — Britta knew him from the school sports teams. He was on all of them. Winning teams went up on stage during assemblies to receive their medals and shown-off as something to aspire to.
The crowd was very much on his side, shouting abuse. The target of which was a boy from the year below Britta’s. His name was Rick, that was all she knew about him, and the only reason she knew that was because he was sort of famous. Every school had one, the kid that was so weird you couldn’t help but notice.
He had greasy black hair that couldn’t possibly be from natural causes, he had to apply oil to it every morning, probably from a chip pan. Dandruff coated his shoulders like a blizzard had just passed through. His glasses were from some previous decade, but not retro cool. These were large and an odd fleshy colour. They looked like he’d got them out of his nan’s handbag. His clothes were too tight, his shoes were too big, and his front two teeth stuck out like he was doing a rabbit cosplay. And, of course, he smelled weird. Not stinky, more like an old closet that hadn’t been opened in a long time.
Everything you’d want in that one kid at school who everyone remembers and no one ever talked to in case whatever he had was contagious.
Britta couldn’t recall anyone giving him a hard time, though. He was so weird, everyone left him alone. Even bullies felt sorry for him.
At least, that was Britta’s impression. Apparently, Rick had issues. If he had been posting messages mocking other students, even if he had good reason to be upset, things wouldn’t improve from this kind of behaviour.
Of course, he did have an escape route. No matter how bad it got here, he could run away to the virtual world and live his life however he wanted. It was a sad way to avoid facing your problems, but Britta understood the appeal. It was exactly what she had done.