Twelve years ago…
As I walked through the doors of Becksworth Academy, I told myself that everything would be fine. I was in high school now. It couldn’t possibly be as bad as middle school, right? Nothing could. It was a new beginning for me. I was going to finally find some friends. I was going to belong and fit in. The best days of my life are ahead of me, I thought to myself as I took in a deep breath and headed down the long hallway towards my new locker, desperately wishing I believed my own internal pep talk.
High school would be just as great for me as it had been for Abe and Margo. That’s what they promised me, anyway. But as I watched the kids rush down the halls talking to each other, smiling and laughing, I realized that I couldn’t trust Abe and Margo. I wasn’t like them. In fact, I was the opposite of them. I loved my brother and sister, but they were both perfect—they weren’t me.
As I made my way to my locker, my anxiety tripled when I saw Lewis Braxton and his crew. They were congregating just a few lockers down from mine. Lew Braxton was my worst nightmare in sixth grade. As the biggest asshole in eighth grade, he made it his personal mission to torment me. Luckily, I had escaped his wrath when he went to high school the next year. Things improved for me in seventh and eighth grade, but only in the sense that the torture had ended. People just started to ignore me. Being ignored was better than being tortured, so I considered it an improvement.
When I saw Lew Braxton standing just a few lockers down from mine, I panicked. I could have just turned around and walked away. I could have just gone to my first class, but I had my violin case in my hand along with a giant folder filled with sheet music. Why did I decide to play the violin this year? What the hell was I thinking? I should have picked something smaller, like the flute or maybe even the piccolo. Either of those would fit in my backpack.
Each year since the sixth grade, I’d picked a different instrument to learn in school. It drove my band teacher and my parents crazy, but music was all that mattered to me and I wanted to learn everything about it. I started playing the piano by ear before I was even in kindergarten and I’d taken piano lessons since then, but I wanted to learn to play every instrument there was. Music was part of me in a way that nothing else was. It was my security blanket, it was the one thing that gave me comfort in uncomfortable situations, and school was definitely one of those situations. This year, I decided to play in the orchestra, stupid me. As I stood at the end of the hall prying the starched collar of my button-down dress shirt away from my neck, trying to decide what to do next, I began to wonder if I was going to be able to get through the next four years.
I had all but forgotten about Lew Braxton. Maybe that meant that he had forgotten me. I was a nobody. I just needed to keep my head down, get to my locker, put my violin and sheet music inside, and make my way to my first class. No big deal, I thought as I forced my feet to move towards my locker.
I kept my head down and reached my locker. I set my violin case on the floor next to me. I even managed to get my locker open it and put my folder of sheet music inside. I was so close to escaping when Braxton pinned me against the locker. He looked at me the same way he looked at me in sixth grade, but his anger seemed more intense. Even when he grinned at me, I could see it. He picked up my violin case and called out to one of his buddies, “Hey Jones, catch,” he said, as he threw the violin towards one of his look-a-likes standing a few feet down from us.
I never understood why Braxton fixated on me. I kept my head down and my mouth closed at all times, but he clearly hadn’t forgotten me. “You’re exactly the same, S-S-S-Scott C-C-C-Cohen, F-F-F-Fairy.” He laughed and grabbed the folder of sheet music from my locker and tossed it over his shoulder and I watched the sixty-four pages scatter over the floor of the hallway as students walked over it like it was nothing. I wanted to push him away from me. I wanted to tell him to fuck off. But I was frozen, frozen in fear pinned up against a locker on my first day of school.
I was afraid to talk. I hadn’t stuttered since the sixth grade, but I didn’t trust myself at that moment. I understood by then from all my speech therapy, that my stuttering was often brought on by stress. I swallowed as he continued to stare at me grinning while he pressed me up against the locker. I wished I could go back in time. I wished I could know when he first noticed me in middle school and hide at that exact moment. I could barely believe he still recognized me.
Just as I resigned myself to the idea that he was going to beat the hell out of me, I saw Marshall out of the corner of my eye running down the hall. I felt like everything was moving in slow motion as he grabbed the back of Braxton’s shirt, spun him around, and slammed him against the locker beside me. I didn’t dare move as he punched the locker right beside Braxton’s face—so hard that his knuckles turned red and a bit of blood appeared from a tiny cut on the top of his fist. Marshall’s whole body was shaking. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing Braxton?” From the corner of my eye, I watched as Braxton raised his hands up in defense with a mixture of confusion and sheer terror on his face.
I was still afraid to move when I saw Braxton wither under Marshall’s hold. Marshall’s eyes were closed, and his jaw was clenched. I could tell he was trying to get a hold of his temper. I noticed Braxton was shaking too. But it was out of fear, not rage, his face had turned completely white. He held up his hands again, “What the fuck, Donavan?” He managed to blurt out with a shaky voice.
“Do you know who he is, dumbfuck?” Marshall growled, shoving Braxton harder against the locker.
Lew Braxton shook his head. “He’s just some fairy—a fucking freshman, what the hell?”
I watched Marshall’s jaw clench tighter as his face flushed with anger. “Wrong, you stupid fucking delinquent. That’s Abe’s little brother. If you ever touch him, talk to him, or so much as come near him again, you are a fucking dead man. You got it?”
Braxton’s eyes grew wider and he glanced over towards me while his face turned an even paler shade of white. He nodded. “I didn’t know. I swear, man, it’s cool.”
Just then, I saw Coach Welch jogging down the hallway, as he bellowed, “Donavan! Braxton! What in the name of—what’s going on?” Marshall let go of Braxton’s shirt and pretended to smooth it out.
He looked over his shoulder back towards Coach Welch, “Braxton and I were just having a conversation, Coach.”
“Well, I’m glad you two like conversing so well. You can continue the conversation in detention today.” Coach Welch said, catching his breath as he looked back and forth between them. “Congratulations boys, you managed to get detention on the first day of school before the first bell has even rung. A stellar start to the new year.” He shook his head and turned to walk away.
Before Marshall pushed Lew away, I heard him whisper, “Get the fuck out of my face, before I do something we’ll both regret.”
I stood there frozen. I watched Marshall bend over to pick up my sheet music. I knew I should have helped, but for some reason, I couldn’t move. It wasn’t long before most kids in the hall had stopped walking over it and began to help Marshall pick up the scattered sheets of paper littering the hallway. Once they were all collected, Marshall straightened them and handed them to me and then walked across the hall to retrieve my violin case.
His bright emerald eyes never left mine as he walked towards me. When he handed me the case, I felt his warm fingers cover mine as butterflies fluttered through my stomach. “You okay, Scottie?” He asked as I peered up at him. He had to be at least a foot taller than me.
He was the most beautiful person I had ever known. His sandy blondish-brown waves were wild and unruly. I watched as he ran his fingers through his cashmere locks, with his knuckles still red and bleeding, as a slow smile crept across his face, giving me a rare glimpse of his dimples. I adored those dimples that hardly ever presented themselves almost as much as the few freckles that were sprinkled across his perfect nose.
Marshall Donavan was the second most popular guy at Becksworth Academy. He was a football player and easily the best-looking guy to ever walk through the halls of the most prestigious private high school in Connecticut. It was almost laughable that he even knew who I was. He shouldn’t even be seen with me. But there he was…smiling at me. Coming to my rescue.
Everything inside my fourteen-year-old heart wanted to believe that it was because of me. Because he cared about me. But even then, my immature brain knew he wasn’t doing this for me. It was all for Abe, my big brother—the most popular guy at Becksworth Academy, the captain of the football team, the student-body president, Marshall Donavan’s best friend. Even though I’d never had a friend like that, I knew Marshall was honor bound by some bro-code, requiring that he protect his best friend’s little brother.
I looked up at him as he gazed down at me with an impossibly perfect smile that was waning. His brow furrowed. “Scottie?”
“I-I-I’m okay.” I managed to offer.
“That guy’s a prick. Don’t let him get to you, okay?” Marshall grimaced.
Marshall squeezed my arm and I smiled up at him, “I’m all good.”
“Yeah?” He looked at me with concern in his sea green, perfect eyes and I felt like I was going to melt.
I cleared my throat as I shoved my violin case into my locker. “Really Marsh, I’m fine.”
When I turned back around he was still inches away from me, studying my expression, his brow furrowed. I looked up at him. He was nearly a foot taller than me. I noticed a dark bruise under his eye. My hand shook as I raised it and gently brushed my thumb under the bruise. I didn’t have to ask how it happened, I already knew, but he lied anyway. “Caught an elbow during practice.”
I nodded and swallowed hard. “Mom’s making spaghetti tonight.”
“It’s all good, Scottie. I’ll be there. Don’t worry.” Marsh smiled at me. He knew how much I worried. He always tried to tamp down my anxiety. But it never worked. I always worried. “Listen…if anyone else starts shit with you again, you call me or Abe, if we’re not around.”
I shook my head. “It was my fault. I should have known better. I shouldn’t have picked violin this year. I’m so stupid.”
Marsh’s eyes filled with anger. “Stop it, Scottie. This isn’t your fault. Lewis Braxton is a fucking coward and a pretender. Don’t change. You got it? Don’t try to be something different for those assholes. Okay? Just be you.” He ruffled my hair.
I couldn’t help but stare at him, his emerald eyes sparkling, as he smiled down at me, begging me to hear him. I wanted him to kiss me. I knew it was a crazy thought. But I couldn’t help it. I forced myself to turn my back to him as I felt my cheeks turn red. He was a popular senior. I was a nerdy freshman. He was Abe’s best friend. I was a guy. He liked girls…
I trod down the hall towards my first class. I heard him call out. “Scottie.” I turned to see him smiling at me. His dimples were in full view. His wild, wavy hair was going in a thousand different directions. His hands were in the pockets of his khaki pants. His white dress shirt was too tight and pulled across his chest. The faded navy blazer that displayed his broad shoulders hung open casually. It was frayed around the cuffs and lapel and the Becksworth emblem ironed on the breast pocket was peeling around the edges. His dark tie was pulled loosely around his neck, with the top button open at the collar of his wrinkled shirt. He was perfect. Everything about him. Perfect.
I pulled on the starched collar of my brand-new dress shirt and wondered how it would feel to wear an old, second-hand soft shirt like Marsh’s. I felt heat rising to my cheeks again. “Yeah?”
He winked at me. Marshall Donavan winked at me. “Just be you.”