Bang! The instructor slammed the window closed.
Steven ignored it and sat staring at a blank screen. His mind’s eye played images across its matte features. Lindsay smiling; Her blank stare when he found her; angry faces, yelling at him; and Robert’s tear-filled eyes when he declared that he couldn’t be his friend anymore.
Steven’s fists clenched, and his knuckles blanched. He didn’t know what to do now. Lindsay killed herself, and now everything was sideways. Steven lowered his forehead to the cold surface of his desk. He took a deep breath, and then another. What would he do? Was he responsible for Lindsay’s death? Did he miss some sign? Was it really his fault? If even Robert thought he’d done it, maybe he had…
The instructor shuffled by and placed a bundle of paper on Steven’s desk. He mumbled his thanks, but the teacher scowled and moved on. He wondered why she even bothered. He hadn’t done any homework since his release from jail. Robert sat stoically with the rest of his classmates. Steven was a pariah, separated from the other students by a buffer of empty desks.
Steven willed Robert to turn and acknowledge him, but Robert’s clenched jaw was visible from Steven’s angle. Steven returned to his worksheet. It only took a moment for Steven to brush it aside. He had no intention doing any work today, or any day. He put his head down and listened to the sound of pencils on paper.
* * *
Steven set the plate on the customer’s table and scurried away. He wasn’t fast enough to escape her comment about him being rude. He marched back to the kitchen. The chef paused from filling orders to deliver Steven a sideways glance, and then returned to preparing food.
Steven filled two glasses with ice and water and delivered it to a newly seated customer. The patron looked up at him, and his companion elbowed him in the ribs. She hissed, “Ask him!”
“Are you Steven Bass?”
Steven nodded, his pen poised over his order pad.
The couple frowned, stood, and walked out of the restaurant. Steven stared dumbfounded as another customer refused to be waited on by him. This was the third time this happened, and his shift wasn’t even two hours old.
Steven turned to see the restaurant manager beckoning to him from the office. Steven gulped and trudged to the office. Kevin Kanai was his name, but everyone only referred to him as “Kanai.” Kanai sat on his desk opposite one of the chairs at his desk. Steven slumped into the chair to await the inevitable.
“Steven, I’ve seen the reactions from the customers to you.”
Steven nodded. “I didn’t say or do anything, I swear.”
Kanai shook his head. “Steven, we both know why these customers are leaving.”
Steven sighed, slouched in the chair, and crossed his arms. Just do it, already, he thought.
“I hate to do his, Steven,” Kanai started, but Steven interrupted.
“Please don’t. I can wash dishes or something in the back, he pleaded.”
Kanai raised his hand, palm toward Steven. “People will know that you’re here. I have a business to run. I’m really sorry, but I have no choice.”
“There’s always a choice,” Steven began.
Kanai stood. He had made up his mind. Kanai and Robert both knew what kind of person Steven was. Steven deflated in the chair. Kanai, evidently unable to comfort his employee, patted Steven on the shoulder. “Take a few moments to gather yourself.”
Steven nodded, stood, and walked out of the office. The walk from the office to the front door was painful. All eyes were focused on him.
Steven’s eyes snapped open. The memory of his firing faded, he transitioned from aggressive sleep to the classroom fell asleep in. The classroom was empty save for a few whispering voices. David and Leonard sat on desks next to Robert’s talking to him in hushed tones. Steven wiped the drool from his lip, grabbed his backpack, and headed for the door.
“Where’re you going, murderer?” David sneered.
Steven paused but continued toward the door.
Leonard leaped up, ran to the door, and closed it, placing his body in Steven’s path.
“Please let me by,” Steven pleaded.
Leonard laughed and looked over Steven’s shoulder. “What’s wrong, murderer? Are we scaring you?”
Robert watched from his desk. When Steven turned and met his eyes, Robert’s attention returned to the papers in front of him. David pushed Steven’s back, and Steven stumbled forward. Leonard arrested his fall by pushing him back. “You got away with murder, are you happy now?”
“I didn’t kill her,” Steven whispered in despair.
Leonard stepped forward. “What’s that, murderer? I didn’t hear you.”
Steven cleared his throat. “I. Did. Not. Kill. Her,” he said through clenched teeth.
Leonard grinned, smitten with his bullying. “Of course, you didn’t. It was all a big misunderstanding.” He shoved him again, this time with more force than before. Steven tried to dodge, but Leonard grabbed him, swung him around, and pushed him against the door.
“Come on, man, we used to be friends,” Steven pleaded.
David walked up and punched Steven in the kidney. “We don’t stay friends with murderers.”
Steven couldn’t even double over and wheeze – Leonard still held him against the door. Where were the instructors?
Leonard ham-fisted Steven painfully in the ribcage. His other hand wasn’t enough to hold him up, and Steven collapsed to his knees. Steven looked up and saw Robert’s eyes squeezed shut. He looked determined not to watch but did nothing to stop David and Leonard.
David’s fist collided with Steven’s cheek. Steven felt a tooth loosen, and blood pool inside his mouth. Another hammer to his eye and Steven’s vision doubled. Blood trickled down his cheek from the corner of his eye. Leonard kicked him in the stomach and Steven collapsed to the floor.
David and Leonard took turns kicking Steven. He tried to curl into the fetal position, and through the blood and tears, he saw Robert, eyes still closed, wince each time a sneakered foot made contact. Robert refused to do anything to keep his former best friend from being beaten in the classroom.
When David and Leonard felt they had delivered the appropriate amount of punishment, they high-fived, picked up their backpacks, stepped over Steven, opened the door and sauntered through. Steven lay on the floor his blood and tears commingling.