12. Fish to Live

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12. Fish to Live
Freshman Year

No one but the Six ever seemed to agree with me, actually. It became easy to think of things as us against them.

Lunchtime in high school was the worst. Forced to stand stupid at the watering hole, waiting to get my tray filled—carrots, mashed potatoes, fish sticks. In the untamed wilderness of the cafeteria, the snobs stalked their prey slowly. Like hyenas massacring zebras, the hunt began with giggles.

Average enemies. Daily predators of high school.

Girls with sequins like snake scales. Brightly-painted vixens who struck quickly with toxins. Only a few words, except they sunk into you with rattlesnake venom, decomposing you from the inside out while she turned to ask her friend about a purse. Meanwhile, you’re being digested hours before she even eats you.

The boys were different. Pack predators. The bravest traded off turns, getting closer each time, building off each other’s excitement until one drew blood. Eyes glazed over. The blood was a choice: respond like a person, or an animal.

I knew them. They would choose the latter.

The line moved slowly; the giggling increased as food slopped onto my plate. They hadn’t worked up the courage to involve me yet. The bloodlust had to build to a boil. Then:

“Hey Jake,” the tallest of the five said.

“What?” Trying not to show emotion. Yet.

“My older brother is having a party. I was going to invite you to hang out. What’s your cell phone number? I’ll give you a call.” More snickering. Cell phones were one of the many things it seemed practically everyone owned, but not us.

Still, they were being innocuous. Not enough for me to react.

“Who are AC/DC?” One of the vipers in the back asked. To be honest, I wasn’t sure either. It was only a shirt. One of Dad’s even.

“Gross,” another girl murmured. The boy who initiated contact withdrew a cell phone. The flat panel of vibrant imagery bathed his hand in warm, healing light.

I wanted one. But those kinds of things weren’t meant for me.

“Whatever,” I mumbled, and turned around to face the lunch lady.

“Look at his shoes," a boy from the group said excitedly, pointing. My two-year-old pair of Goodwill sneakers was coated in trailer-park muck. “Did you have to climb a telephone pole to pull those down?”

Laughter from the audience. Blood. The event crossed the threshold; other students were staring now, too.

Steven, Kent and Cameron rose from our table to come to my aid. Within moments, the three stood behind me in a show of support. I’d done the same for them before. Today, the prey rebelled.

“Why do guys do this?” Kent asked, stepping in front of me and looking down at the greasy, spiked hair of the gilded jackal who called out my shoes.

“Why do you fuck your cousin?” a kid from the rear of the group quipped, protected by the layer of bodies between him and Kent.

Someone tugged at my sleeve and I turned, frustrated at the distraction, to find Cameron gently pulling at my shirt.

“What?” I hissed.

“Tag. You’re It,” she murmured.

Christ. Of course. Fifteen minutes to change.

I didn’t even think about it—any change would do; I was sick of everything. I turned around and slapped the cell phone out of the closest boy’s hand, sending the device clattering across the ground. Now the entire cafeteria sat riveted.

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