As the peasant woke, he saw that light had not yet tainted the perfectly black sky. He knew that his toil must begin early. In fear of this, he ignored the time and tried to get back to sleep.
“Come on, time to get up. You’ll miss the bus.” His attempt was in vain, foiled by the entrance of his mother. The peasant’s mind raced to find an excuse, any reason in the world not to go. Illness, injury, an edict from God himself… but no, his mother would never accept such evasions. A lad of but thirteen had little recourse in this world.
The yellow behemoth was but the first stage in his torment. It would come out of the darkness, yellow eyes glaring, and belch a noxious cloud of gas before pausing. He would then pass into the bowels of the beast, to be ferried to his day’s burden.
“Kevvie, hon, I’m not driving you to school! Get up!” She mussed his brown hair playfully, and handed him his glasses.
There would be no escaping his fate. He arose from his bed, greeted by the cold November morning, and tripped over the stack of heavy books he had studied last night. The day was begun in earnest.
* * *
The peasant looked around the classroom. The class lord, Mr. DiThomas, had handed out the worksheet ten minutes ago, and he had finished. His furtive glances revealed that everyone else was still working. DiThomas had increased the workload of the class, as his superior stepped up the season’s timetable. “You all must know the judicial system by winter break,” DiThomas had said. It wasn’t his fault, or even his superior’s. There was always someone higher up, demanding more.
Sudden panic grabbed at him. He recalled finishing first yesterday, and twice the previous week. If he finished first once again, the class would certainly take insult.
“Oh, are you done, Kevin? Great.”
Curse the angels above, he had been spotted! Mr. DiThomas arose from his throne-like chair, strode over to the peasant’s desk, and collected the fruits of his labors.
"Great, this looks complete. Go ahead and work on tonight’s assignment.”
No, no, no… why did this happen again? He felt stares of ice, fire, and death on his back. Glaring at him were his classmates, furious at his overachieving completion. His punishment would be forthcoming, suffering debris to be thrown at him for the rest of today’s classes, and perhaps meet with an accident on the field during recess. Of course, it could always be worse.
The only eyes that held no contempt were those of Nora, sweetly and diligently completing her assigned task, oblivious to the rest of the class. The peasant loved her ignorance well, as she would never heap scorn upon him. He sighed misery, and flinched as a rubber band ricocheted off his cheek.
* * *
Entering the dining hall, the peasant stopped for a moment before descending the stairs. He looked out into ordered chaos. The line into the kitchen ambled at the pace of a heard of cows, while those exiting the kitchen scurried as fast as they could to the table where their own kind would be waiting. As soon as the peasant relocated here two years ago, he realized that the clan structure had formed in elementary school, leaving him behind with no chance of entry anywhere. Each clan had its own hierarchy, customs and dress code, and some, like the sports and preps, had smaller clans of women that cleaved to them for support, publicity, and occasional “romance.”
There was one table, full of rejects and unaffiliated others who banded together for support. To sit with them, as he discovered quickly, meant certain doom. Out on the field, a small swath of lawn where recess was held, this small band of outcasts would huddle like sheep, and wait for the barbarians to come. They would then be separated them from each other, and picked on individually. Though such things did not happen every day, one could be sure that a new face in the band would certainly bring the barbarians. Besides, they too were an established clan, not easily accepting of strangers.
Had he arrived earlier, the peasant could have gotten his ration of food quickly, and claimed one end of an empty table for his own. Then, the table would slowly fill from the other end. The cafeteria was small enough that every table was to be filled to capacity, so the peasant would be afforded anonymity. Now, he would have to find an empty seat at a table that would surely be filled with people who didn’t want him around. He had to eat somewhere.
This meal was a safe meal, simple chicken. A safe meal was one that could not spill easily, and would not make a mess if someone slapped his tray up on him. Dangerous meals, like spaghetti or soup, almost always ended up on the front of his shirt one way or another. Balance was hard to maintain, especially with a weighty backpack.
The peasant navigated his way though the labyrinth of tables, dodging hands, feet, and chairs, desperately searching for a sanctuary of some kind. A full third of one table was open, but it was a sport table. If he sat there, he would soon be flanked by more sports or their women. Three seats open at another table could have afforded him a nice buffer zone, but it was a table of popular girls. Those tables were always bad choices; the girls would either mock him or try to get him to be sociable. Both made him look like a fool.
The peasant settled on a table near the back that was always vacant until the end of the lunch rush, due to its poor condition. The built-in bench along the side sagged in most spots, and the table’s laminated finish was pock-marked liberally with holes. As of yet, only four people were sitting there, mercifully too engrossed in their own lives to notice the arrival of the peasant.
The peasant whirled around relieved to see Andy Sakelston standing behind him, and not some violent clan warrior. Andy was one of the rejects he had met early on, and had a decent rapport with. As Andy and the peasant harbored no ill will towards each other, they considered themselves friends.
“Other table’s full today. Mind?” Andy sat down, as the peasant noticed that the outcast table had been half taken over by the skaters, leaving Andy adrift to fend for himself. The two ate, and conversed in a kind of clipped speech that conveyed enough information, but not enough so that anyone could eavesdrop easily. The barbarians loved to eavesdrop, and then break into the conversation. No matter the subject, be it homework, family or TV, the barbarians always had something to say, and it was usually loud and caustic.
“Finished early today. In gov,” the peasant said.
“Probably.” This was the customary warning disclaimer among the two, signifying that one was going to get it out on the field, so the other should stay back. They finished lunch, bused their trays, and headed outside.
* * *
They stood by the pine trees, hoping they would afford some camouflage. All it could do was buy them time. Today, the barbarians would come. The peasant wasn’t the only one who had aroused their anger; two other outcasts had been grouped with some barbarians in Consumer Living, and had protested taking dish duty for the third lab in a row. Instead of scattering, they huddled, as they always did, waiting.
“Hey! Kev! We want to talk to you.”
The attack had begun. The barbarians had flanked, coming from behind the pines, unnoticed. Two of them, both taller and skinnier than the peasant, pointed and advanced on him quickly. He backed away from them instinctively, and they sped up. Too late, he realized that there would be another barbarian waiting for him. One of them pushed him, and instead of going backward, his legs stopped against something as his upper body torqued towards the ground, sped along by the weighty backpack. The gray sky laughed at him on his way back. He looked and saw that, indeed, a barbarian had been waiting for him to be flushed out, and had simply bent over as the peasant had been pushed. This barbarian stood up and laughed, acid in his voice.
“What an asshole! Oh, man, you’re stupid!”
The three had grouped up, and were mocking him while keeping an eye out for the monitors. It dawned on the peasant that hiding behind the pines had hid him from the monitors more than from the barbarians. Next time, he would not make the same mistake.
He got up, brushed himself off, and looked to see what they’d do next. He started to walk away, hoping they’d forget him. Almost as soon as he had turned his back, he found the ground rushing up at him as he felt a foot tug at his leg and a hand push at his back. This was sport to them, nothing more. Tormenting the weak made them feel more powerful, as though their dominance was linked to it.
The monitors blew their whistles, signaling the return to class. The barbarians and the peasant lined up to reenter the school. He noticed Nora looking at him, concerned at his grass-stained pants and bleeding lip. She couldn’t understand, of course, and he only felt worse from her seeing him like this.
* * *
As the peasant stepped off the bus, alone, it left its customary stench on his clothes and smoke in his eyes, reminders that it would return tomorrow with the certainty of death and taxes. He trudged the two blocks home in wet socks, as the resident of the seat behind him had poured the contents of a water bottle into his shoes. He could do nothing in retaliation but look back, seeing the mock innocence and slight snicker of his current tormentor, a bigger guy from his grade with a white hat worn brim backwards. He noticed that most of the more affluent barbarians wore such hats, and in such a manner. The peasant remembered to remain vigilant of this.
He entered his dwelling through the garage, threw his shoes by the others, dropped his socks by the dryer, and hurried upstairs to his room, backpack in tow. It was like an anchor on his back, slowing him. With luck, neither his mother nor his two younger sisters would intrude into his solitude. Tonight was a night for self-pity and brooding.
“Kevvie? Kevvieee!” The voice belonged to his youngest sister, Sarah. Her brown hair and sad face were very much like the peasant’s own, and it irritated him. She stood in the doorway, holding a book.
“What, Sarah?” His voice was meant to hold an edge that would frighten the girl away, but it just made her giggle.
“You’re silly. Um, will you help me? Daddy won’t be home until later.”
“No! I have to do my own homework.”
“Please? I want to get done so I can watch TV tonight.”
“Just get out.”
She stomped out of his room, pouting. He hated being mean to his sister. Just one more thing to hate himself for. Suddenly, some hormone-induced flood of emotion surged over him, and he slammed the door shut, rage and self-loathing welling up in his eyes...
“Kevin! Do NOT slam doors!”
Well, he’d been spotted by one sister and one mother. Janie, the middle sister would probably be by soon, and then his misery would be complete. Nothing changed, life just rode a tide of despair for him.
Dinner came with the arrival of his father. The family gathered at the table, Mother brought the food over, and they repeated a prayer each one knew through memorization.
“How was everyone’s day?” Father asked, smiling under his mustache.
Sarah and Jane recounted their day’s adventure from elementary school, tales of stories read and pictures painted. Sarah complained that the peasant was unwilling to help with her math. Father offered to help later. Janie’s soccer team had a game tomorrow; Mother would drive.
“How about you, Kevin?”
He grunted a noncommittal sound, which he hoped would end any inquiry.
“Oh, come on. I want to know what goes on in your life!”
Unfortunately, Mother had been on an involvement kick, afraid that Kevin might possibly change without her knowing it.
“Nothing’s going on.”
“Oh. Okay. Umm… oh yes, a friend of yours called, Nora I think.”
The peasant looked up. “When did she call?”
“When you were in your room. Oh, I’m sorry dear, I thought you didn’t want to be disturbed.”
Janie looked at him, saw the expression on his face, and said, “Ooh, I bet he likes her!”
“I do not,” he said, adding a note of finality that seemed comical from one so young.
Everyone laughed. At him. The peasant’s own family had turned on him.
His mother, at the end of a giggle said, “Oh, it’s nothing. We think it’s cute!”
“Shut up, SHUT UP!” His face was red, and he could feel his eyes wetting. Why couldn’t it all just stop?
“Hey, calm down there buddy!” his father demanded.
“NO! Stop it!”
He rushed upstairs, tripping on his way. “You’re just like the rest of them!” he muttered on his way up. He heard his parents discussing what was to be done, deciding it was just hormones, but Father figured school had something to do with it. “No,” Mother said, “he would have said something.”
Within a half hour, Father had come upstairs to talk. The peasant ignored him, grunting agreement every now and then. I’m alone, he thought, no one understands or cares. He could call Nora, but she wouldn’t care either. He would have cried himself to sleep, but it wouldn’t make any difference.
* * *
The day had progressed as any other, but last night’s fight with his family had made his nerves raw. Nothing was going right. The whole world was wrong. At lunch, the peasant sat with Andy again. Andy was lucky enough to have escaped unscathed yesterday, and respected the peasant enough not to say anything about it. Today’s lunch was mostly hazardous, fake Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes. A carrot slice whizzed past the peasant’s face.
He looked over, and saw that, instead of feigning ignorance to avoid suspicion, his assailant had locked eyes with him. The peasant recognized him. He was a recent recruit to the more violent arm of the sport clan. His jet black hair was puffed up from his head, revealing the malicious eyebrows and hawk nose. He was staring at the peasant demonically, as a cat toys with its mouse. Both knew what fate would befall, but the predator prefers the prey to know it well in advance. The peasant had done nothing today, stepped on no one’s toes. Why should this person be mad? His gut wrenched as the puzzle resolved itself. This person was in his math class, and eighth grade math class in which he was not only a seventh grader, but one of the top students. yesterday, some quizzes had been handed back on which the peasant had again set the curve. His current antagonist must have seen his score.
This situation was volatile beyond all others. To out perform an elder student was bad enough, but this eighth grader might have failed. The peasant didn’t have to go to the field. Still, if he waited, the eighth grader could have some friends ready for tomorrow. Today, he’d have much less backup. Gathering backup meant embellishing the story and gaining support. Might as well take the chance today.
Andy got up, bussed his tray, and went to speak with some associates in the reject clan. A dazzling pair of blue eyes stopped the peasant as he rose to leave the table. “Hi Kevin. Can I sit here?” Nora was speaking to him. Impossible. So many times he had run through this scenario, and his mind was blank.
“Uh… sorry I didn’t call you back,” he finally stammered.
“It’s okay. It was just about what’s due in government.”
The peasant was incredulous. It was a dream, an angel sat in front of him. He just looked at her. She had red-brown hair, just long enough to frame her oval face, complementing her brilliant blue eyes.
“So, I guess I’ll see you later?” Nora asked, waking the peasant from his musings.
She got up, carrying his eyes along with her. Andy tapped him on the shoulder. Somewhere, the peasant heard a bell tolling.
* * *
Outside, Andy and the peasant stood together, talking and waiting in the middle of the field. Each clan had its own circle out there, and finding a space to stand among them was harder than finding a seat inside. Eventually, the two were forced out, banished again to the pine trees. The peasant said nothing to Andy about Nora. There was nothing to say, anyway.
Out of the crowd came the eighth grader, flanked by two barbarian escorts. They waited until they were out of sight of the monitors, and then rushed them. The escorts dealt with Andy as the peasant was punched solidly in the gut, doubling over, all the air evacuated from his lungs. The eighth grader smiled cruelly, his eyebrows arching like claws, as he shoved the peasant to the ground.
“Fuck you, shithead.”
The peasant tasted dirt as the barbarian shoved his face into the turf, and ground his face in it. The eighth grader aimed a kick at the peasant’s stomach, but one of the barbarians signaled that the monitors were looking again, and the three quickly made their way back to the miasma of mindless talkers in the playground. There were too many people around, the monitors hadn’t seen a thing. Besides, thought the peasant, what would they have done if they had seen him any way?
Andy had been pushed all the way back to the reject clan, and stayed with them. The peasant was alone on the grass. He looked up, and saw Nora staring. She had seen the whole thing, witnessed his humiliating defeat with silent fear and fascination. She quickly turned away, and blended into a group of friends
The whistles sounded, and the multitude lined up. While processing in, the peasant felt something hit his neck, and then flow down. He grabbed at it, and felt warm, sticky spit on his hand. He looked back and saw the eighth grader, nodding with a fiendish smile under piercing eyes. That’s right, the eyes said, your future is mine. I decide when you feel pain, I decide whether or not you enjoy any happiness. In me, your life is forfeit.
* * *
The peasant was at his locker, trying desperately to get his books together as bodies pushed past him, ignorant of his existence. Math was next, and the eighth grader would be there. Humiliation stung at the peasant’s eyes, and his legs wobbled as he felt anger coursing through him. He gathered his books, nearly thrown off by their weight, and stormed towards the math room. His mind was a blank with anger, frustration and hopelessness.
No, he would not let his life be dictated by these tyrants. He would rebel, and now was the time, when all rational thoughts were replaced with demands for vengeance, thoughts of violence. He readied his weapon, a math book. His mind focused on the task ahead, the peasant did not notice the footsteps behind, following him.
He entered the room, already full, and spotted the eighth grader, talking to some friends, the hawk nose moving up and down as he spoke. Something alien seized his brain as he ran up to the eighth grader. His hair flayed across his face, the glasses left his nose to break on the ground. With a mighty yell, he raised the heavy algebra book, and brought it down with a satisfying thwack on the back of the demon’s head. The eighth grader’s knees buckled, and he hit the floor, collapsing like an empty sack.
The class just stared at the peasant, his form strengthened by the book in his hands, and the body at his feet. The peasant’s face, twisted with fury and power, slowly rose to see Nora, standing in the doorway, one hand at her face and the other dropping a note, addressed to him. She turned, walking away as quickly as she could.
The peasant’s hand released the book, which fell inches from the crumpled eighth grader’s form. All of the vigor flowed from the peasant, as he fell to the ground, weeping.
From the author: Just a piece of fiction for a class, torn from my own tortured, pitiful adolescent years. You'd think I'd have let that go by now, wouldn't you? Well, by writing this, I kinda did. Good for me. And good for you.