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Winston reached school with four minutes to spare. He rounded the wire fence separating Progress Oaks from Shifford Middle School and jogged down the hill adjacent to the school’s parking lot. The main entrance hunched behind a covered concrete entryway, more shady and ominous than inviting. Outside, students waved and shouted, huddled and gossiped, each trying to squeeze in the last few moments of conversation before class started. Parents jockeyed their minivans and SUVs for unloading spots in the turn-around.
Winston’s mind kept churning through the morning’s revelations as he walked through the gradually disbanding crowd. When he gazed absently to his left across the space outside the cafeteria, the caveman part of his brain that automatically stayed wary for wild predators flashed an alert and startled Winston from his thoughts. Sure enough, there was Brian Steinhoff leaning against a wall, surrounded by his mouth-breathing minions. He locked gazes with Winston over the scores of mulling heads, and Winston detected Steinhoff’s smirk.
At six feet tall, the boy stood only an inch or so shorter than Winston. Also like Winston, he was dark-haired and fair-skinned, but he had a thicker build, freckles, and bright green eyes that grew even brighter when lit by the jet fuel of temporary insanity. With his button-collared shirts and leather loafers, Steinhoff dressed like an entitled jock, but he had the attitude of a blackshirt, the crowd that dressed in tattered death metal T-shirts and and mostly spoke in monosyllabic profanity. Steinhoff had turned from being an annoying clown to an outright bully in the fifth grade. Last year, in front of half a dozen of his cronies, Brian had teased Winston over his hair starting to turn white. Then, for no reason at all, it escalated to Winston receiving his first punch in the gut. About once each month since then, whenever he needed a popularity boost, Steinhoff would sense the right time and place to come back for more.
Winston quickly looked away and hurried through the crowd to his locker. He opened it and tossed his backpack on top of the stack of books already inside. No time for neatness. Locker doors banged shut all up and down the hallway as people sprinted for class.
Winston grabbed his textbook for Family and Consumer Science. He’d been too focused on the Stadlerator 7000 yesterday to even think of bothering with the homework, but that would be fine until Monday when their money journals and a two-page paper on budgeting were due. Winston’s journal would take about ten seconds. Income: two computer repairs. Expenses: $150 to Mom for bills and four Burgerville fresh boysenberry milkshakes for himself and Mr. A. It was Winston’s one extravagance, and his mom never objected. She didn’t mind him showing kindness to those in need, but she endlessly lectured about not wasting money on things without real value. It was an idea, she said, whose time had all but vanished.
As Winston slid the textbook out from under his bag, his eye fell on a photograph taped to the inside of his locker door. It and the slip of paper taped above it were the only decorations in his locker. He’d had a teacher help him laminate the picture several years ago to protect it against time and wear. It showed a somewhat younger, smiling version of his mother crouching on the floor behind a ten-month-old Winston. Emerging from the left edge of the photo, a hairy forearm ended in an upturned palm. Winston the toddler had grasped one of the fingers for balance. The moment captured some of his first steps, and his little face radiated delight. It was the only photograph they owned that showed even a trace of Winston’s father, and he ran a fingertip slowly down its edge.
Above the picture, Winston had taped one of Einstein’s quotations: “The important thing is not to stop questioning.”
Winston took one more look at the photo and shook his head. “Answers wouldn’t hurt, either,” he sighed.
The school bell’s shrill clang signaled the start of class. He was late.
~ ~ ~
Family and Consumer Science turned into U.S. History, another exercise in boredom and inhumane torture. Thankfully, this fed into third period Trigonometry. He shared this online class with Shade, four other students, and their supervisor, Ms. Ortiz, who excelled at asking, “Now, what could you google to answer your question?” Shade normally sailed through his classes, often doing his homework within hours of being assigned, but in Trigonometry he needed Winston’s help just to pull “B” quiz scores. It was the only less than perfect mark on Shade’s report card.
The friends shared fourth period PE before lunch. Today was Friday, and that meant a 1.5-mile neighborhood run. Winston found running almost effortless, but it was even easier for Mr. Gillford, who usually spent running time on the phone in his office, leaving one sick or injured student to operate the stopwatch. Because half of the students walked the route and chatted, Winston’s ability to run the trek in under ten minutes — nine if he tried, eight if he was really working at it — left a lot of spare time until class resumed. Only two other boys in Shifford could come close to his speed, and both competed at the state level. The track coach, Mr. Adams, had watched Winston during gym class, and he would always leave disappointed when Winston refused to join the track team. The idea of prancing around in baggy shorts and a tank top at the expense of his robotics studies made him want to break his ankle. He loved the feel of running, loved having the wind on his face as he pushed his body into that strange, rhythmic flow that made the world slip by in a blur beneath him, but he had no desire to compete. If he was going to compete for something, it would be winning the robotics tournament.
Brian Steinhoff could run a 1.5 in eleven minutes. That gave Winston just enough time to catch his breath before the larger boy entered the gym, panting hard, sweating, and saw Winston across the hardwood looking as if he’d just gotten out of bed, like running a mile and a half was nothing at all. Winston saw the boy’s features harden and his nostrils flare. He put his hands on his knees, chest still heaving, and studied Winston.
One by one, more runners stumbled into the gym while perpetually sprained Susan Crossman called off their finishing times. Winston tried to look occupied with reading the gym message board filled with sports announcements. In the other corner, near the bleachers, Steinhoff was back to breathing almost normally and chatting with his friends. Every so often, one of them glanced in Winston’s direction. Not good.
Winston tried to monitor Steinhoff from the corner of his eye, but one new notice grabbed his attention: the lineup for the school football team. Practice had started in late August, but final positions were only now being announced. Shade had landed his familiar spot as middle linebacker, a position he’d held since the third grade, often going head-to-head against kids a foot taller and fifty or seventy pounds heavier. Shade was absolutely fearless on the field.
Winston’s eyes flicked back and found that Steinhoff had left his former location. Winston groaned.
“Cha-a-ase.” Steinhoff drew out the name, turning it into a taunt. The boy, dressed in designer from his hair spray to his air-spring soles, led a group of ten or twelve across the gym. Winston was too slow. He should have been in the corner so they couldn’t surround him. As it was, they formed a half-circle, forcing him to stay against the wall.
Steinhoff approached Winston, who still stood facing the football announcement, reading it over and over.
“Deaf much?” Steinhoff asked, grabbing Winston’s collar and spinning him around.
Winston’s heart hammered as fast as when he’d been running. Maybe faster. He hated confrontation. The pain of getting hit wasn’t that bad. The idea of getting hit, of being mocked so violently, made Winston’s breath come in short, erratic bursts and his mind go blank. Unfortunately, his mouth seemed to take orders from a different area of his brain that felt more anger than fear.
“Sorry,” said Winston. “I was just waiting for you to say something interesting. For once.”
The terrified side of Winston’s brain blurted, Why on earth did you say that? Are you trying to get us killed?
The angry side had no answer. It saw everything in slow motion, waiting. It always waited. His mother had instilled in him a terrible dread of giving into anger and making a scene. Keep your head down, she always advised. This too will pass, and you’ll be standing. Just stay calm and keep your head down.
Of course, at over six feet tall, keeping his head down often proved difficult.
After a moment, comprehension dawned on Steinhoff’s face. He wasn’t stupid. That was part of the problem. But he did have trouble believing that anyone could talk back to him in such a way. When it fully registered, Steinhoff reached out and grabbed two fistfuls of Winston’s T-shirt. He began backing up, taking Winston with him, allowing the other boys to form a more isolating circle around him. They were pack animals hunting as animals had hunted weak prey for millions of years.
“So we’re dancing now?” The words emerged unwanted from Winston’s mouth.
Steinhoff took the insult to his masculinity and thrust Winston away from him. Someone behind him caught Winston’s weight and shoved him back toward Steinhoff in the middle of the ring.
In that instant, Winston thought of his mom and her fear from this morning. He flashed on Mr. A’s reaction to his little mental trick with the walkie-talkie. Everywhere he went today, no matter what he did, fear followed. The thought deepened his despair, but within that swirling blackness blossomed something small and hot.
Winston would never be sure if the stumble of one foot over his heel was the result of natural clumsiness or if some bubble of rage clinging to the floor of of his brain had finally heated enough to break free and float to the surface. Whatever the cause, Winston lurched forward two steps shy of Steinhoff. His hands came up, scrabbling for balance. As he stumbled, the heel of his right hand flapped up into the air, seemingly at random, and collided with Steinhoff’s jaw.
The sound of teeth snapping together was loud enough to echo around the otherwise silent gym. The boy’s head rocked back, and his hands flew to his face. When he opened his mouth, dark blood flowed between the boy’s teeth.
Winston regained his balance and stared at what he’d done. He had never struck anyone in his life.
Oh, God, he thought. I’m dead.
Strangely, Steinhoff did not bellow. Like a true pack leader, he did not lose control. His hands balled into fists. His lips curled back in a bloody grimace. What should have been a scream of pain turned into a long, low growl that seemed to elevate the lust for violence among the other boys. They stepped forward to tighten the circle. Winston felt sure that in five seconds he would be on the floor, arms covering his head, two dozen feet pounding into his body. Things had never gotten this bad before.
But Steinhoff wasn’t done taunting his prey yet. He took another step forward and slammed an open hand into the center of Winston’s chest, knocking him backward again.
Winston lurched, arms pinwheeling. More hands struck him, this time to the side. He never got the chance to catch his balance or think of how to escape, if that was even possible. The group pushed him randomly from one to another like a rubber ball.
Boys smiling, eyes wide. Cruel laughing. Faces spinning by as the overhead gym lights turned into white streaks in his vision.
Winston couldn’t tell how long this lasted. It might have been five seconds, but it felt like half an hour. Finally, a hand caught him by the shirt and held him still.
Winston blinked and found himself looking into Steinhoff’s smiling face. A rivulet of blood snaked down from the corner of his mouth and spattered the front of his shirt. Holding him still with his left hand, Steinhoff drew back his right. The knuckles on his fist stood out white.
Winston was no longer breathing. He was paralyzed. There wouldn’t even be time to try and cover his face. There was only a half-second to see Steinhoff finish taking in the rest of his deep breath and notice that his pupils had closed to near pinpricks in those two circular fields of brilliant green.
Then Steinhoff was gone. In a rush of sound and motion, his hand vanished from Winston’s shirt. The boy’s body hinged at the waist, collapsing, and flew away from Winston.
Shade bellowed. His high voice rang through the gym with a frantic “aaagghhh!” as he sliced between the backs of two ring members. He put his right shoulder into Steinhoff’s abdomen and lifted the larger boy clean off the floor. Legs pumping in a blur of brown, arms wrapped around Steinhoff’s middle, Shade forced his burden through the circle and knocked two other boys sprawling. He kept on pushing for another few steps then stopped. Steinhoff’s body flew off of him, hit the gym floor, and slid squeaking for a dozen feet.
Shade walked up to Steinhoff, who remained in a fetal position, arms curled around his midsection. Face slick with sweat, Shade wavered unevenly on his feet. His chest heaved wildly, and Winston knew that he must have just come in from running his mile and a half. Shade could sprint fifty yards with no problem, but distance running didn’t suit his body. Somehow, though, he’d come into the gym, seen the situation, and found the energy for one last, amazing play: a perfect quarterback sack. His coach would have grinned with pride.
Shade pointed an index finger at Steinhoff’s head and made sure the bully saw him. “And…stay down!” he panted.
He turned his back on Steinhoff and gave Winston a wobbly thumbs-up. Still dazed, Winston barely managed to lift his hand and offer one in return.
Of course, that was the moment Mr. Gillford picked to return from his phone chat, take in the scene, and blow three eardrum-straining blasts on his whistle.
~ ~ ~
True to his old school roots, Mr. Gillford didn’t send anyone to the principal or vice principal right away. These were boys. The reason boys fought, so he said several times each year, was because they had too much energy making them crazy, which in turn was a result of too much video gaming. Of course, that didn’t explain why boys fought in the days before video games, but Winston wasn’t going to be the one to point that out.
After isolating Winston, Shade, and Steinhoff as the main perpetrators in the class’s shenanigans, Mr. Gillford sent Steinhoff to the school nurse to ice his tongue. Winston and Shade struggled through sit-ups, push-ups, and jumping jacks in the corner for 15 minutes while the rest of the class finished reviewing the core concepts of leaping over hurdles.
By the time class was over, Winston wanted to collapse. He could do jumping jacks and any other aerobic exercise for days, but repetitive strength maneuvers, such as sit-ups and push-ups, left him trembling. Shade was the opposite. He could do sit-ups for hours and failed to understand why other people couldn’t even do a few dozen.
At last, Mr. Gillford blew his whistle and sent everyone to the locker rooms.
Shade was already half-undressed by the time he reached his basket. He had no reservations about being naked or who might see it, and Winston admired him for not caring what people thought. Meanwhile, Winston was incredibly self-conscious. He knew his ribs stuck out, and he didn’t have the muscle definition to make it work. He had thighs like pencils and a chest like a cardboard paper towel tube.
Despite his lifelong discomfort around water — his mom called it a phobia — Winston was usually one of the first into the shower and almost always the first one out. Today was no exception. He felt under even heavier scrutiny than normal because of the fight. On a day when all of Steinhoff’s friends would be studying him closely, as if looking for little bull’s eyes, the last thing he wanted to be was naked among them. Of course, the sooner he finished, the sooner he would have to visit Vice Principal Sengupta.
Winston didn’t know if anyone was really watching him. Maybe he was just paranoid. No one talked to him except Shade, who hummed along merrily while soaping himself. Winston only hoped there was some protective aura cast by Shade that would last throughout the day. As for tomorrow…he didn’t want to think about that.
Winston always left his towel hanging on the waist-high tiled wall separating the showers from the rest of the locker room. That way, it was within easy reach to throw around his waist as soon as he rinsed off. Not today, though. No sooner had Winston dried his face than he saw his towel had vanished.
He looked around. The showers were dimly lit with recessed, yellow bulbs, and steam offered only a bit of obscurity. No one glanced at him, but no towel was visible anywhere. Shade still had soap all over his face.
Trying for a tired sigh, Winston walked carefully around the tile partition, resisting the urge to hunch over and wrap his arms around himself. He searched the towel racks for a spare. There were none. Either he could air dry or walk all the way across the locker room to the used towel bin by the exit.
There was a third choice. He ducked into the locker aisle where he and Shade had adjacent bins. Quickly, he started to dial in the combination on Shade’s padlock. Shade was funny about his towels and always preferred to use his own. Pale gray and practically big as a door, it featured the blue star of the Dallas Cowboys. Shade probably wouldn’t mind just this once.
Winston’s fingers fumbled on the last number, and he had to spin the dial around and around to reset it. He leaned over more, getting closer to the lock, and started again.
A noise like a firecracker going off ripped through the cement room, and Winston felt as if he’d been shot in the right buttock. He reeled forward. His chest bashed with a loud clatter into the locker bins, and he cried out in pain. One hand flew to his butt, feeling for injury. He half expected it to come away wet with blood, but there was none.
Laughter erupted. Winston looked up to see Brian Steinhoff, still wearing his gym clothes, walking past the aisle, one twirled white towel still dangling from his hand. There was a large “oops!” expression on his face. Rory Davis, one of Steinhoff’s favorite cronies, followed close behind.
Then Rory stopped, and the laughter died on his lips. He stared at Winston’s rear.
Shade appeared from behind Rory and shoved him none too gently aside.
“Beat it, jerks!” Shade called after them.
Shade turned back to look at Winston. “Please tell me you’re not going to use my…”
Then his words failed, too, and he gawked at Winston’s butt. His lips parted, but nothing came out except “uhhh.”
Winston looked down. In the spot where Steinhoff’s towel whip had snapped Winston, the blue was so intense that it was nearly white. From this center, it radiated outward in a fading pattern. The roughly circular glow was perhaps two or three inches in diameter and still growing.
Too shocked to think about the sting or his embarrassment, Winston tried to cover the area with his hand. The sapphire glow showed plainly around his palm and between his fingers. This was not like any injury he’d experienced before. Whatever caused his regular bruising had suddenly jumped to a terrifying new level.
“Winston,” breathed Shade, still dripping and buck naked. “Your butt is blue.”
The murmur of other boys climbed from whispers into audible amazement.
“I know!” exclaimed Winston. “I don’t—! It’s never—!”
Looking past Shade, he saw that Rory had returned with a cell phone and was fumbling with it, likely trying to turn on the camera app. Steinhoff elbowed Rory in the side, urging him to go faster.
“Can we talk about this later?” hissed Winston. “I could use your towel — and less attention!”
Half-coming out of his daze, Shade turned and saw the others watching. “Back off!” he said, waving his arms and stomping at them. In eighth grade, no boy argues with an angry-looking, sopping wet, buck naked linebacker. The crowd, including Rory and Steinhoff, quickly dispersed.
Winston had the combination right this time. He pulled the lock away and wrenched the bin open. Reaching inside, he yanked the towel out and threw it around his waist, sending a T-shirt and socks flying.
“Do not get your junk on the star,” said Shade.
Winston bit his lip and looked about, searching for anyone still trying to spy on him. He chanced another peek at his injury. The skin glowed brightly enough to cast a soft glow through the towel.
“What is that?” asked Shade.
“I don’t know!” whispered Winston. “Sometimes I get a little blue tinge around cuts or whatever, but nothing like this! I always thought it was bruising or something!”
“That’s not blood, Winston. That’s…”
Shade looked from Winston’s butt up to his face. His eyes grew wider. “Oh, wow.”
Shade absently grasped the hair above his ear. “Oh. Wow.”
Gradually, a grin spread across Shade’s features. He took another step closer to Winston, again looking from his friend’s posterior back up to his face. “It’s true. I knew it.”
“For the—” Winston wanted to scream at him. “You knew what?”
Shade pointed at the gray star, which happened to be covering the glowing miracle underneath. “Winston.” His voice dropped so low that Winston could barely hear him. “I always wondered, but this confirms it. That feeling thing you do with gadgets. Your math brain.”
“You’re in the same class,” Winston interrupted.
“Because of you — and you never study!” He ticked more points off on his fingers. “Your running speed. You never get sick.”
“Mom makes me take vitamins.”
“The way street lights turn off sometimes when you go under them.”
“No, that’s your—” Winston groped for the phrase and found it. “—subjective bias. That happens to everyone.”
“And those stripes in your hair. Dude. You’re not human. You’re like…an X-Men mutant.”
“I am not a mutant!”
“You are. Or if not, then…” His eyes widened with reverence. “Then my best friend is an alien. That is so…” He exhaled the word with ultimate pride. “…awesome!”
William has been working in the tech field since 1991, when he began his long journey through working for a manufacturer's rep, being a distributor, moving into retail and corporate sales, shifting into journalism, and gradually transitioning into content marketing. In 1997, he sold his first articles to local computer magazines. By 1998, he was a full-time tech freelancer and now produces content for several of the industry's top companies.