* * *
Ruby’s eyes scanned the serving line at the cafeteria. Robert stood next to her, doling out advice on what food was acceptable, what was theoretically edible, and what to avoid. Ruby turned to him and asked for a suggestion, and Robert’s face became a deep crimson.
He must be nervous, Steven thought as Robert nervously fiddled with the hair over his ears. Robert always messed with the hair over his ears when he was nervous.
The unlikely duo of an introverted Robert and a sassy Ruby made their selections and found a table. It wasn’t too far from a taciturn Steven, his stoic expression daring anyone to mess with him. He was aware of Ruby’s eyes falling on him again. Robert was oblivious to her lack of attention as he droned on and on about what courses he liked.
Save for his former best friend and the new girl; Steven took no notice of what was happening around him. What was the point when everyone apparently hated him? He met Ruby’s eyes and quickly looked away. Anyone who didn’t already hate him would, as soon as they heard about Lindsay. The voice made a snide comment, and Steven muttered for it to shut up.
Robert’s rapid-fire lecture on the benefits of raw fish to society at large abruptly ceased when he found Ruby staring at Steven intently. “You do not want to get involved with Steven,” he told her.
“Steven?” Ruby asked. Her eyes met Robert’s. “Why is he always alone?”
Robert shook his head, glanced at his former best friend for a brief moment, and returned his attention to his auburn-haired cafeteria companion. “You don’t want to know.”
Somehow, her emerald eyes twinkled in the light of the industrial cafeteria. She leaned forward to get closer to Robert. Steven saw the tips of Robert’s ears flame red. This wasn’t the first time today that Steven noticed the blush that the new girl brought on to Robert.
“Please?” Ruby insisted.
Robert cracked. “Okay, but I don’t think you’ll be happy with my answer.”
Ruby nodded, her eyes searching Robert’s face.
Robert leaned closer still, and in short whispered words, told Ruby the sordid tale of Steven. He described Lindsay’s suicide, Steven’s arrest, Robert’s brief moment on the stand, the trial results, and the ensuing riot.
Ruby’s face displayed a gamut of emotions: curiosity, shock, disgust, and anger. When Robert had finished telling the tale, the mask of fury pinched her normally lovely facial features. She met Steven’s eyes, and he got up, grabbed his backpack, and stormed out of the cafeteria.
* * *
Steven leaned against the wall next to the classroom. He positioned his backpack to protect his shins. More than one student still felt it necessary to “accidentally” stumble into him. It hadn’t happened as often as it did, but the bruises on his legs were still fresh. If not physically, then at least mentally, he consoled himself. It was just another day in the life of Steven Bass. Each day was another journey of hateful looks, muttered comments, and open hostility. More and more, though, Steven found that he just didn’t care anymore.
The new girl walked down the hallway from the direction of the cafeteria. Her features were terse and when she saw Steven she averted her eyes. Robert hurried up behind her and guided her elbow to give Steven a wide berth. “Come on, Ruby,” Robert said, and they walked down the hall together.
Steven hung his head. The slings and arrows of his classmates didn’t seem to hurt as much as this new shame he felt in the eyes of a complete stranger. Ruby had only just arrived at the school, and already she hated him. Was he destined to spend the rest of his life reviled by his peers? All he really wanted was his old life back. His depression deepened, and he closed his eyes while he waited for the instructor to arrive.
* * *
Steven sat up with a start. His thin blanket was wrapped around his legs, holding him in place. He propped himself up, his elbows sinking in the utilitarian pillow stained with sweat and tears. He blinked a few times and tried to catalog his nightmare. He had dreamed of Lindsay. She kept attacking him. He looked down at where she had scratched his legs, but all he saw were the faded bruises he had received from his peers. Lindsay wanted him to be with her. She wanted him to die.
You should do it. You know it’s what she wants.
Steven flinched at the malice in the voice. It taunted him every day. He flopped back down on his pillow and covered his face with his hands. Why was the voice tormenting him? Why did it want him dead? Steven pressed his index fingers into his eyes until he saw a field of stars. They reminded him briefly of he and Lindsay on the fire escape landing outside of his old apartment lying on a blanket staring up at the night sky, the stars forcing themselves to be seen through the smog of suburbia. Lindsay was always full of wonder as he pointed out the few constellations he knew.
The flash of the happy memory of him with Lindsay started the gears turning in his head. Each thought subsumed into the next. Why did he bother to go to school every day? He never did the assigned work. He always sat alone. Even the malice that showered him every day had started to fade. Now, they mostly ignored him. So why did he insist on going to class each day? Did he want attention? Did he crave other humans in his life so badly that even their ignoring him was enough of a connection?
Or did believe that there was still a chance that maybe, just maybe, someone would see through all the bullshit and actually talk to him? Perhaps even believe in him…
Steven shook his head. A penny for your thoughts, he almost laughed out loud. It was absurd. The idea that anyone would speak to him, let alone believe in his innocence. They made it pretty clear what they thought of him. He was a pariah; an outcast; a being that so disgusted them that they couldn’t even acknowledge his existence. Even his best friend that had stood by him in the worst times had abandoned him. He felt so alone. The loneliness was absolute with only a sadistic voice in his head to keep him company.
As if on cue, the voice intoned, End the pain.
Steven shuddered at the voice in his head. He had made his decision. There was little value in returning to Twin Oaks High School. No one wanted him there. He didn’t want to be there. He curled up into the fetal position and cried silently. He didn’t worry about disturbing his bunkmate. Even in this mecca of lost souls, deviants, and ruffians, he was alone. So very alone.
These thoughts bounced around his brain and faded as he drifted back to sleep. When he awoke a few hours later, more sweat and tears soiled his pillow. Lindsay had harassed him in his dreams once again. She kept telling him to kill himself. The voice was there too, and the message was clear that they both wanted the same thing.
Steven clenched his jaw and balled his fists. He felt rage wash over him. He might be alone, but damn it, he was not weak. Lindsay’s face appeared in his closed eyes. Through gritted teeth, he demanded, “Get out of my dreams!”