Bitter 519

The boy who was the target of everyone’s anger — possibly deservedly so — said nothing. He just stared out from his gigantic spectacles, cowering and hunched up, shivering. It was a bit chilly out on the court, but that wasn’t the cause.

No one was hitting him or pushing him around, not physically, but the pressure of the crowd, and particularly from the guy shouting into his face, was having an effect. Britta knew how hard it was to stand up against that kind of one-sided barrage. He was doing well to have not burst into tears.

“Come on, let’s see you wipe the floor with me now,” said Toby, raging like he was only just getting started.

Shivering Rick said nothing but his stare had a defiant flintiness to it. Deep in the pupil, he was holding onto whatever resentment he held against all the people who made him miserable. Pressure only hardened it, like a chunk of coal being compressed into a diamond. Britta understood it, but she didn’t think it was a good idea to let it be seen like that.

“Who do you think you’re looking at?” said Toby. “You want to try it? Come on then.”

There was a shove, two-handed and hard enough to send Rick slamming into the wall behind the net. The crowd shouted encouragement. Britta wasn’t sure what it was they wanted. An actual fight would be over very quickly.

“Hey, cut it out, Toby!” The voice was loud and clear, cutting through the noise of the excited gathering.

Everyone turned to look, expecting it to be a teacher. It was another student, one Britta recognised, as did everyone. Lucas Garrat. Headboy, captain of the basketball team, swimming team and cricket first team. He was a tall boy with wavy brown hair that looked like he had a fan blowing in his face all the time. He looked exactly how the headboy of a school should look, ready to go on the poster for a movie about school life.

“What the hell are you doing, you twerp?” he shouted at Toby.

Toby was the type to start swinging at the slightest provocation, and he was charged up so it wouldn’t have taken much to set him off, but he was a jackal facing a lion. Britta watched with fascination as the alphas clashed.

“It’s him,” said Toby, sounding whiny. “He’s the one who’s been writing those posts online.” He pointed at Rick, who continued to cower and glare at the same time.

Luas waved his hand like Toby’s words were meaningless. “Why weren’t you at practice last week? We’ve got a championship game on Friday. This online crap is meaningless. Did he hurt your feelings? Is that the problem? Look at you, you’re all soft and out of shape. Have you been running at all?”

Toby looked embarrassed, his pink cheeks flushing pinker. “I am. I will. I was ill.” He shook his head. “This is the guy who’s been messing with everyone. He wrote the posts, we have proof. We can’t let him get away with it.” Toby was trying to shift the attention back onto Rick, but not getting very far.

“What are you even talking about?” said Lucas. “Posts? What? Who cares? Look at him.” He pointed at Rick. “A strong wind would blow him over. You actually want to fight him?” The disgust in his voice was evenly distributed between the two. Toby, for choosing such a weak opponent, and Rick, for being such a weak opponent.

“No,” said Toby defensively and still very much whining. “I was just putting him straight so he wouldn’t do it again.”

“Do what again? Say mean things online? What are you, twelve?” Lucas seemed to have a very low opinion of internet culture and all those who dwelt in it.

He was one of those outdoor types who believed in doing things for real. He had a bunch of school records to his name, and a few county one. Whenever he spoke in assembly, giving out information about upcoming sports events and encouraging (actually demanding) people to come along and support, he made it seem like the most important thing in the world.

Britta had never gone to any of those meets, because sitting on your own in a giant sports arena was not a very fun experience, but she always felt like she would like to after hearing him speak.

The crowd had quieted and Toby was struggling to justify himself. Lucas looked ready to strike down any excuses even if Toby could think of some. People began to wander off.

“Now’s my chance,” muttered Lewis as he moved towards Rick, a friend to offer support, and also ask a few game-related questions. He was shameless.

“Did you even consider,” said Lucas in a calmer voice, “the kind of life he has to live? The only way he can feel noticed is to post shit online, and you’re proving him right. This is probably exactly what he wanted. You want to make him feel bad? Ignore him. No one knows who he is without you pointing him out.”

Despite intervening and preventing Rick from getting hurt, Lucas was doing a pretty good job of tearing Rick to pieces himself. The casual dismissal of his character and worth were far more vicious than anything Toby had said. Britta sighed and turned to leave.

“He’s out of your league,” said Rashida, who had been standing behind her for who knows how long.

“What? No, I didn’t even… Who are you talking about?”

Rashida smiled knowingly, which was always infuriating. “Tall, dark and handsome. He’s going out with the blonde girl whose legs are longer than you. Not even in your dreams.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was just looking.”

“You were drooling and imagining names of babies,” said Rashida.

Logically, Rashida can’t have seen what she was doing from behind, but she had a look of such certainty on her face, Britta couldn’t help wonder if she had been doing what she’d been accused of.

Britta shook her head and walked off, quietly hoping Rashida would let it drop. She didn’t, but it was just small snide comments for the rest of the day, which Britta had no problem ignoring. It was what she’d been trained to do.

Even if she had entertained the idea of going out with the best-looking and most athletic boy in the school, so what? People were allowed to have their silly fantasies, that’s what imaginations were for.

And there was something comforting in knowing he wouldn’t reject her solely based on the way she looked, she didn’t measure up in so many other areas.

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