Problem was, he'd always punch you in the weirdest places. Left awkward bruises. You'd hold up your fists like the fighters did and he'd aim for the wrist. Not the chest. And that's the rub: He wouldn't want to hit you in places your body was used to. Not the stomach, or shoulder. Nothing cheap like the dick. He wouldn't aim for the face. I didn't even block. But he'd get me turned around and knock the nape of my neck. Our first fight, I thought I'd swallowed my pituitary gland. I felt myself shrinking. One shot was to the bone behind my ear. A bell rang for days. I'd be on the ground with him whaling on my bony ankles. Impossible to stand.
So the second time I'd defended Eileen's honor poorly, after most of the cars had cleared out of the church parking lot and the spectators were only janitors watching from lobby windows across the street, I commended him. I was honest.
"You've got an avant-garde style, man."
He landed one where my arm bends. The opposite side of the elbow. I couldn't even swing.
"If you stop saying things about Eileen 3rd Block I'll buy you food at Al's."
"Don't say her name."
He started walking in that direction. I couldn't tell if we were on, or if he was just headed home; his house was across the street from the shop.
We got a pizza. I paid. I was being reasonable. I tried to explain why I thought the remarks he'd made were offensive, but it bored him. I wanted to find some common ground. I knew he went to Games Club, so I changed the subject to World of Warcraft. He scoffed and corrected me: only FPSs mattered, games with "realistic looking blood", which all-in-all got him onto his favorite subject. Carson wanted to talk pain. He's an expert on pressure points, turns out. He put me in a sleeper hold and it worked. I was gone. I guess Carson finished my slice and then bailed with the rest of the pie in tow, the problem of Eileen's honor unsolved.
Eileen doesn't know me in person, but we're in the same Guild. We do raids together weekly. We kick ass. There's a true synergy with us. I spotted her gamertag on the front of her folder, drawn in heavy marker all graffiti-art style. She's VP of Games Club. I'd love to go to that club some time (my name is on the roster), but I've got anxiety about being in a speaking situation with her. Online I use a British accent. I call our efforts "bloody good". Her character is male, so if I have to address her directly, I call her Guv.
Besides her blonde-streaked 50's quaff, Eileen attracts my attention with her wide face. There's so much of it to look at. Unfortunately, I only see fractions of it every time I'm near her. In history, I sit a few seats back. I can see her right cheek, right ear, a little warm spot of skin above her jawline, just beneath the shadow of her lobe. I get transfixed there. In the hall, if I pass, she's always turning, and I'll glimpse her nose or half her mouth, but it's hard to recall their shape exactly—their shine. Imagination fills in the gaps. Once, when her and Janice gave a report on Greek homosexuality, I got to watch her whole body, straight on, for almost 4 minutes. She'd be a great hugger. I wish they would've taken the five point penalty and gone over time. She doesn't need them. I always offer to pass back quizzes. I've seen it. She'll probably end up at college in another country. She'll call it "University".
When I woke up, Al had closed. It was dark. He'd called my Mom. He was sitting across from me in the booth. And that's because he didn't trust me. A kid who gets in fights. Nor did he want me to sit and wait outside in the cold. And that's because he had a thing for Mom. An ex-girlfriend. They dated back in the day. He told me this. Many times. Mom never confirmed or denied.
Al and I sat in an orange booth and he tried his best to look really put-out. His eyes are always tight. Stubble runs all the way up his cheeks. Mom warns me not to shave too far up or it'll keep growing in thicker until pretty soon I'm wolfman.
"How are you and the ladies?" I ask.
"Should be asking you the same question."
"I don't exist."
"Welcome to the club"
"You meet anyone on Live?"
Al is Mom's age, so forty-four. He's a mild gamer. In middle school, when I'd hang here before practice, we used to chat about Halo. His nephew got him hooked. I've moved onto strategy games. I've got a kickass Alienware desktop system. Al's still on the 360.
"Newsflash, Sonny Jim, girls don't play Xbox," he said.
"I beg to differ. Plus, how can you know?"
"You just know this shit."
"I—in fact—know a girl, Eileen, and she plays WOW."
"Oh, she my age?"
"A junior, Al."
In Becker's World History 11, I'm the only freshman. I tested out of American, took Government over the summer. It's a different environment. Juniors don't have any fun. Most never raise their hands. Eileen sits in the front, Carson is in the back, and I sit to the right in the middle. I hear everything.
Al explained, "Problem is, I can't exactly pick up teenagers. Girls like your sweetheart ain't really the same—"
"She's not my sweetheart," I interjected, "We're in a Guild, yeah. I just don't like when she gets insulted."
"Sure, sure. What I mean is girls is just a whole different breed these days. Like, they ain't the same as women, at least women I known, women like your Mom."
There was an uncomfortable silence and I looked out the window. What was taking her so long? Through our awkward quiet, I heard some muffled language from somewhere outside. It sounded high-energy. I wrapped it up with Al.
"You're right. You're so right. And Al, thanks for sitting with me, but I think I'm gonna get a breather in the parking lot."
"Sonny, let's just wait here till Mom shows. I don't want you taking off and it's on my hands. I can at least do this right." I frowned and rolled my eyes, a move I learned from my sister. Unfazed, Al kept at it.
"So you love this Eileen? "
"No. No. I just don't like it when good people are treated poorly."
Headlights flared in through the shop windows, so I started for the door. I peered out the window.
"The sis," I said, waving.
Al let out a sigh of disappointment as I opened the door. The bells above it jingled and I was out. The muffled sound wasn't muffled anymore. Two voice somewhere behind the shop. There was yelling. I was alert.
Allison's car was parked on the other side of the lot. She wanted to make me walk for making her drive. I wasn't looking forward to the car ride, a cold shoulder, facing Mom, pretending to feel bad about a punishment. I decided to postpone that runaround.
She killed her engine and sat looking into her lap, texting. I could hear her Sigur Rós blaring from across the lot, but it didn't drown out the words, which I realized were coming from across the street. The sidewalk in front of Carson's. I snuck closer to hear, kept to the shadows of the building. I was tight to the wall like a spy.
In school, I go to Aveidum, which is a club where students get together to learn how to solve bullying with love, positivity, and understanding. We write mantras on post-it-notes and put them places, like the windows in the lobby or above urinals in the boy's room. Mrs. Binter says we need to listen to people's stories. We need to try to feel for them. I'm always listening, though it rarely leads to comprehension. I listen and hear Carson using the C-word or teachers gossiping about how stupid we are. I don't get it. The same goes for Allison's music: she says they aren't singing real words, that it's a made up language. "The words don't translate to anything but emotion," she's explained to me. But still I try to decode it, and all I get are sounds.
I was right behind the corner when I could clearly make out the voices.
High-pitched and fast, "I just don't get what I did wrong." It was Carson.
Soft but enunciating, "I absolutely mean it when I say there's nothing you could have done either way."
"Car, let this go. It's been 4 months."
"If you don't want to be with me then—"
"You don't understand. I can't be with you "
My whole body stiffened. I listened.
Carson: "Then why'd you even wanna talk to me? I've been trying to not think of you at all, really."
Eileen: "Yeah? Like in class you're not thinking about me when you're back there—"
"That isn't me."
"Bullshit. Listen I don't even care. I want to tell you two things. One is easy."
I leaned in closer, my head out of the shadow. I couldn't see Eileen except the back of her head, how the hair faded out into a perfect even line above her crewneck. Carson's face I could make out. It was all twisted. His voice got higher as the expression twisted more.
"First, stop beating up that freshman, Trevor. Just, what is the point? You're gonna get a fine or suspended or something. It's not worth it."
"He starts it. He picks them with me. You don't even know this kid."
"I play with him. He's in the guild. But he doesn't know shit about this school. Let him figure it out on his own."
"I don't even hurt him! I could, though, if you want to try to keep telling me what I can and can't do. You don't have that right anymore."
"Forget it. Carson, that isn't the point, honestly."
The way Eileen spoke with such patient intention was beautiful. Maybe I did love her.
"Fine. I'll leave him alone. But I swear—"
"Second is, Carson, there's something I need to tell you that I've only told Janice about. I haven't even told my Mom. This is going to be a very tough time for me for awhile. But it has to start."
"What are you talking about?"
"I—listen—I wasn't born in the right body. What you see isn't me. I'm going to ask that anyone who cares calls me Evan now."
"Oh my god. You are a—" Carson's face got tight and his mouth was bent open. I prepared myself to run in. I watched his fists to see if they would clench. I wondered if he'd aim for her face. I crouched like a sprinter waiting for the gun.
"You're a fucking...A goddamn..."
I looked around for a weapon and saw nothing; I closed my fists. Thumb on the outside. Follow through the swing. Back up and block. I rehearsed the Youtube video I'd watched before our first fight.
Evan said, "Please, I need you to help me with this. If you don't want to call me that, then just don't call me anything at all. I'm going to get enough shit from other people. But it will help if people that care about me can help with the transition, or at the very least, say nothing at all."
Carson started crying. He looked really weak and little, even though bent over like that he was still taller than me. Carson hadn't ever punched me in the face because he didn't want to actually hurt me.
"This isn't easy, I know," Evan went on. He reached over to hold Carson.
"Don't—Don't touch me."
Evan held him closer. Carson softened, leaned in. He wept and whined. More foreign sounds. What was Eileen to me now? There was no one for me to save.
Alison beeped the horn twice and I ran. So if they saw me it was from behind, running toward a sound I understood completely.
BIO: Tyler Barton lives in Lancaster, Pa. He is co-founder/co-editor of the Triangle, and a substitute high school English teacher. He is also the fiction editor of Third Point Press His work has been published online at Cease, Cows, Wyvern Lit, and The Molotov Cocktail. Follow him @goftyler.