Keep your head down. Keep your head down. Just stay unseen and keep quiet.
Fear hangs heavily in the air of the freshman hallway, a scent that is undoubtedly absent in the upperclassman wings of the high school. Frantic students rush to their classes, struggling to navigate the labyrinth of the building. We resemble rats in a maze. The hallway lined with navy blue lockers blurs in my periphery as I elbow my way through the crowd to make it to class on time.
It’s both a blessing and a curse to be so unnoticed that bodies bump into me from every direction. At least they’re all too busy today to make time to harass me the way they did in middle school. My preference is to fade into the white noise. As luck would have it that’s hardly ever been the case. I barely made it through the tweenage jungle.
Survival until now has been based on two very simple concepts: protection and distraction. In middle school, the protection was provided by my buddy Mike, who’s more like my brother than my friend. He’s a big dude, but inside he’s really just a teddy bear. I’ve cried on his shoulder about my tormentors more times than I’d like to admit. The distraction came in the form of my best friend, Jess. She’s pretty and bubbly and no one seems to notice me when she’s around which is exactly why I stuck by her like glue when Mike couldn’t be near.
Mike is a football player, and Jess is popular and social. Our paths have been diverging for the past few years, but this year is a clean break.
I’m terrified of being on my own.
Middle school had been a special brand of awkward torture when neither of them were around. I’d like to think that high school will be a tad different since we’re all a year older, but I’m not getting my hopes up. Having my hair pulled, my glasses stolen, and being taunted with every mean nickname in the book for the past three years has taught me to keep my expectations low.
What I expect is kind of an oxymoron. It’s weird to be invisible while still being the target of verbal and physical harassment. At least I got contacts over the summer, so I don’t have to worry about not being able to see all day because some douche bag decides to play hide and seek with my glasses. I just wish my tormentors would pick a side of the fence already, so I would know what to anticipate on any given day. Either don’t notice me at all and leave me alone, or treat me like an actual human.
Preferably the former.
I mean, I get that my last name is ripe for the picking. I couldn’t even spell it in kindergarten, and most of my classmates still can’t pronounce it. There’s even been a movie made about my crazy heritage. Believe me, I’ve heard that stupid “moose kaka” joke more times than I can count. Sadly, that seems to be the only thing people know about Greek Americans. It was a parody, people! Not real life! Well…mostly not.
I’m nothing special to look at, but I’m not hideous, either. The idea that my classmates feel the need to tease me about my appearance baffles me. My mom always says I look exotic thanks to my year-round tan skin, dark brown hair that’s nearly black with tight curls, and bright blue eyes. She’s always trying to build up my confidence. In reality, I’m just…average.
Except in my studies. There, I excel. It’s not that everything comes easily to me, no. I work my ass off for my grades to make sure that I can escape this hellhole to a bigger and brighter future when I graduate.
My first block of the day is Algebra II. I registered for all the highest-level courses available to a freshman. Mike and Jess weren’t as ambitious, but my other friend Alyssa will be in there at least. We shared almost all the same advanced placement classes in middle school.
According to my map, my classroom and a friendly face should just be down the next hall to the right. As I round the corner, I smash into another student with such force that the full frontal impact flings me back until my butt meets the linoleum with a resounding thud.
I blink the stars from my vision and focus in on two sets of texts and notebooks scattered all over the floor. A vulnerable feeling creeps up my neck without my books to shield me, and it feels like everyone in the hall stops and laughs. Trying to ignore them, I scramble around to collect my things. After all, the bell waits for no one, and I don’t want to be late for my first class on my first day of high school. Even if my classmates don’t like me, I still need to make a good impression on my teachers.
“Shit, shit, shit,” a male voice mutters.
He moves quickly to collect his stuff, then helps me get my things together. He offers his hand to help me up before I’m crushed under the throng of other anxious freshmen. Expecting a trap, I refuse his unspoken offer and rise slowly to my feet on my own.
“I should’ve been watching where I was going.” Tears well in my eyes against my will as I brace for his reaction.
My apology is met with silence. I sniffle and straighten up, expecting to face the wrath of someone who already knows what a clumsy idiot I am. Instead, I find myself looking into a pair of empathetic blue eyes that remind me of sparkling sapphires. My plain blue irises have nothing on these gems.
The boy towers over me. He’s all arms and legs, a basketball player maybe, but definitely not a bulky football player like Mike. His face flushes a bright shade of red, and he averts his gaze as soon as our eyes meet.
It feels like my brain forgot how to speak as I stare at his guarded pools, so my voice comes out in a mere whisper. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to run into you.”
“My fault. Are you okay? Did I hurt you?” His voice is soft and timid, but it’s his question that floors me.
I think I’m in shock. This might be the first time in my school career that anyone has asked about my welfare, let alone helped me. No one’s ever given a crap before.
“Are you new here?” The first thing that pops into my head slips past my lips. He wouldn’t be so nice if he actually knew who I was.
Moments stretch into an eternity as I wait for his response.
He finally glances hesitantly at me. “Yeah…?”
“I’m sorry.” My tongue trips over my teeth as I back pedal. “That was stupid. Of course you’re new here. We all are. What I meant was, I don’t remember you from middle school. Crap, I shouldn’t have assumed you’re a freshman. You’re really tall, so maybe you’re not. But I am. A freshman, I mean.”