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The Curl

By Jillian Kulp

Distributed by Smashwords



Copyright 2017 Jillian Kulp



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For Maddy K.

Ant and I will always be your friends





CHAPTER ONE: INTRODUCING THE CURL



Tom

Well, isn’t this a trite little plot in my life? Not only my own, but in general. It’s been done so many times before, been told so many similar ways. Stories, books, movies, telly shows – same old song and dance. The new student in a new school, surrounded by new people of his own age, fighting to fit in or whatever. And for me – well, I’ve become used to it now. I’ve come to enjoy the constant change, actually. I love the upheaval, the new beginnings, the unfamiliar faces and loads of opportunities in all sorts of areas. I doubt I’ll ever want to stick around for more than six months at a time, which will most likely fuck with any future relationships – but for now, who cares? I’m only sixteen, not worried about “settling down” at all.


Besides, as with every other time I’ve gone through this cycle, I’m sure this’ll end up the same way: loose contacts, vague interests, but no one to really merit shed tears once we shift environments again. I suppose I’ve not had one solid, stable friendship with anyone since before hitting double-digits age-wise. Not that I mind either – I’m perfectly capable of entertaining myself, of staying interested in life and the world, as a loner, even if I do quite enjoy others’ company.


More easily put, I’m a thoroughly easy-going sort of bloke. I adjust easily and happily, I adapt if and when I need to, and this is probably why so many have told me I have some kind of strange charisma that draws people in.


I just put it down to the belief that I hold that people should, well, be nice to each other. Novel concept, eh? But really, it isn’t as hard as one might think.


So I have very few enemies. On the flipside, because I remain distant – however conscious or unconscious this distance is – I have very few friends as well. Real friends, I mean, not just kids I hang with or go to parties with. (Though there’s always a fair bit of that as well.)
Like I said, people tend to just like me. As well as, they tend to just like me.



I wish I could say that I'm glad at least for my parents, but we disagree on loads, and they’ve never exactly been “parents” in the traditional sense of the word. I may not want for anything material, but I’m not exactly looking out to get a job that’ll allow me the same carefree lifestyle that I have now either – having that non-worry to support us all these years has led me to not care so much about wealth. But my father insists on boring me a few times a month with his endless spiels on why a high salary should be my top priority. Mum can get more than just a bit loose with the booze and false-faced socialising. She’s never quite been much of a real mum, and in fact, in the recent past, has been nothing but downright scary in my opinion – not quite what one would call a “good mother.” They were never real coddling, kid-loving types, and that was never more apparent to me than during events from the previous year.


To be brutally honest, the most I saw them be parent-like was when my mess started a few years ago and they both got round to noticing I wasn’t all there. Of course they managed to take a delicate situation like that and morph it into their own problem – they had failed at being parents, it was all their fault, blah blah blah. Not that they went and changed themselves afterwards. If anything, they've only gotten worse. But they still stick that on me somehow.


Even at my most detached, I felt like shaking them and shouting, “Would you let go of your ownership of this? It’s my head you’re talking about, no one else’s, so let me have it, to myself, please!”


Ah, but they don’t know any better. Besides, I managed to actually frighten them at the time, and I hadn’t even been trying to for once. After all the stupid pranks and poor jokes, the fake spiders and falsely shaved head, the only time I really scared them, unlike when they didn't notice my acting-out for the sake of attention, was just losing it. And that’s when I didn’t want their attention.



Life’s funny like that, I guess. Giving a happy, laid-back guy like me a weird brain, while a wealthy, surface-pretty couple like them got a fuck-up for a son. But all in all, devoid of sarcasm, I’d say I think it’s pretty funny.


As is my constant re-introductions whenever I start at a new school – one I know I won’t find close mates at, since by this age everyone else pretty much knows each other and has their little cliques. But I’m all right with being the odd-man-out, you see, because then people don’t expect you to be a certain way or to hang with certain groups – it’s a bit easier to be a ping-pong ball without the grief from old mates who think you’re abandoning them to become someone else. I enjoy being a chameleon, I’ve done it so often.


So it comes as second nature when the teacher in homeroom asks me to stand and introduce myself to my new classmates; I already have a uniform speech memorised that changes only minutely with each year:


“My name is Tom, I’m sixteen years old, this is my eighth school in seven years because my father is apparently an avid banker on a mission to find the uselessly largest house he can afford, and insists on dragging my mum and myself along with him, so the only actual constant in my life has become my love for music, which has developed into an obsessive passion, and is the sole point in my life that I take seriously. Other than that, I’m just here for a laugh, really, but don’t worry, as you’ll probably only have to put up with my presence for about half a year or so before we uproot and move on again. To sate your curiosity, yes, the accent is real – I am originally from Birmingham, England, a rather ugly industrial smudge on the British map – and yes, the hair is real – who in their right mind would do this to themselves on purpose? I’m not fond of long walks on the beach, as every bird known to mankind mistakes this bush for a ready-made nest, and I’d love a day out in the sun if not for my inherent pale nature and my own paranoia about skin cancer, so I’m currently working on perfecting the art once begun by the Damned – that pale night-time look – so I can go to goth clubs and pick up hot chicks in black leather to make cry over my evidently inexplicable personality quirks, but again not to worry – I usually tend to stay indoors and mind my own business.”


It draws a congenial chuckle or two from the others present, as well as a rolled set of eyes from the instructor, and I can guess he’s already thinking, “Oh, he’s one of these types. Fantastic.”



The remainder of homeroom period is spent looking around at the rest of the students – my classmates, my “peers” – and wondering about their lives. I like to play games where I’ll make up a completely ridiculous backstory for each of them, and later try to find out just how wrong I am.


Before I can even start this, however, my attention is drawn to a pair of students in the back corner of the room – literally so ostracized, it seems, from the rest of the class that no one else glances their way…even though the slightly smaller, dark-haired one is clearly holding onto a lovely acoustic guitar whilst the blond beside him fixes the first bloke’s long, bony fingers over the strings.


Honestly, it’s more intriguing to me that they have a guitar than the blatant fact that no one else pays them any mind. I feel an urge to go to them, to, say, share some common interest in the instrument.


Alas, my consideration is barreled over when the classroom door opens and my homeroom instructor calls me to the front of the room. As I approach his desk, a large figure looms beside it – definitely my height, if not taller (which is rare), but far more filled out, though his slightly premature facial stubble cannot hide the considerate and openly friendly grin which greets me.


The teacher introduces him as Topher, the class president, who has taken it upon himself to chaperone me around the grounds today and introduce me to new teachers and the like. A rather cordial – however unnecessary – tact which I quite appreciate. No other school has ever shown me this much courtesy, so I gladly shake the proffered hand in front of me and introduce myself – with a fair less verbose explanation than I initially shared with everyone else, mind you. And then, before the first bell even rings, I am whisked off by the nearly adult student to be given a brief tour of the second floor of our school, where many of our first half of the day will be spent in different classes.


This Topher fellow seems such a likable character that I instantly feel relaxed around him. Not that I experience anxiety with these “first days” anymore – I’ve had too many “first days” to even care by now. But he alleviates some of my initial concerns quickly, boring stuff like where classrooms are, when I’ll find time to stop at my designated locker, where my designated locker is, how I’ll obtain textbooks, etc. He is a veritable schoolboy handbook when it comes to rules and regulations – and how to bend them ever so slightly in your favour. For instance, he manages to get himself and me out of the first fifteen minutes of our respective first period classes because I "wanted to know where the boys’ lavatories were on both floors,” and, as class president, he “was obliged to steer the new student in the right direction.”


I rather like the bloke. We have lovely little discussions – over cigarettes in the last stall by the open window – in both lavatories we visit, before he walks me to my first class, about the more social aspects of the school – the clubs, the cliques, the athletics – and, apparently very high on his list, which “birds” are more prone to “opening their wings.”


It’s all very insightful – but not very interesting to me, per se, although it does make me laugh quite a lot.


The teachers are accommodating, even if I am starting in the middle of the year, and even a few other students are helpful. A bloke I almost mistake for a girl, named Anthony – a small, fragile-looking thing with doe-eyes, strange hair and a sweet, soft voice – shares a textbook with me in Physics when the befuddled instructor is appalled to find he has no extras on hand. I attempt to stay slightly more invisible for Calculus, as a book is available (even though Anthony is as well – two advanced courses in a row? Is this bloke-chick smarter than me? I wonder with a smile), and I usually use my first few days to observe and mull over my experiences. But even I am getting restless when no one raises their hands to the teacher’s questions. So, to spare the rest of the class from being picked randomly, I offer my own answers when they are appropriate (good thing I’ve already studied the section they’re on in my previous school, so I don’t look like a fool – just a teacher’s pet). I notice once in Calculus that I inadvertently save the dark-haired boy from homeroom with the guitar from being petrified when he becomes a victim and, before the teacher can rag on him some more for not doing the previous night’s reading, step in – and as the boy’s flushed face gradually loses its red hue, he offers me a grateful nod.


President Topher must be milking his position for all it’s worth, because as soon as every class finishes, he’s right outside the door, waiting to escort me to my next. By third period, I assure him I don’t need an escort, I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out the place.


To which he merely shrugs and points out, “I think you’re fine too – but that won’t let me get out five minutes early, or allow me to be five minutes late.” Said with a twinkle in his eyes.


I can only laugh and shrug back, relenting, “Well, if I’m not the burden here, then have at it.”


But upon seeing my next class, he groans in frustration. “Oh, but we have Literature next – together.”


I feign a sigh. “Oh dear. I suppose no sneaky slip-outs for you this time.”


He quickly scans the rest of my schedule, brow furrowed in serious concentration, then finishes by looking up at me with a grin. “Yeah, but that’s the only one, besides P.E. twice a week at the end of the day.”


I cock my eyebrow at him. “You do realise, I’ll have this down cold by tomorrow. I won’t need a chaperone for the rest of the year.”


At which point we’ve reached our room and slip into adjacent seats as he pleads, “Can’t you pretend to be mentally deficient or something? Say you need a buddy for at least another month or so?”


I wave my stick-like arms in the air helplessly. “I doubt they’d believe me now.


He scrunches his face as he takes another glance at my schedule before tossing it back to me carelessly. “Yeah, guess not, with all those advanced and honours classes. Bloody hell, how d’you manage that with eight schools in seven years?”



I shove my schedule back into my pocket and glance around myself, the epitome of aloof.



“Dunno. Certain schools go at different paces. I’ve gone over the same thing three times in one year, whilst missing something most people learned three years ago. I guess I compensate by reading a lot at home.”


He looks ill for a moment. “Independent study? What a load a’ bollocks.”


“Well, when you’re bounced around more than a rubber ball, y’gotta find somethin’ that’ll stick to ya eventually. I guess.” I trail off thoughtlessly as my gaze drifts around the room, studying my classmates now that I’m not too late to a class to do so thanks to Topher’s secret attempts at cutting (“ever so slightly shaving”). I recognise a few faces from my homeroom and previous two classes so far – including the bashful-looking Anthony, who catches my eye and smiles slightly at my blatant, full-on wave of the hand. Like he’s embarrassed at my attention, but thinks I’m worth the embarrassment to respond with a tiny chuckle between the pen cap he’s chewing on.


Then I catch, just out of the corner of my eye, the duo from this morning’s homeroom – once again, far in the back corner, as if they’re a ceded island from the rest of the Continental Student Body. But I don’t get much of a look – or a chance to embarrass them by a giddy wave – as the instructor takes over and all my attention is focused on her.


Hey, I may be weird, but I prefer to know what’s going on. Usually.



After a brutal fifth period of Civic Studies (never been my favourite course), the beasts are finally released for a short resting, roaming and socialising period. Oh, and food, of course. I believe this is what most schools call “lunch,” although strolling through the grounds outside, the ever-present Class President stuck on my arm, I hardly see anything which looks remotely like food.

Ah! I spy Anthony in a lone corner behind a berry bush nibbling on what appears to be an actual berry. Not only is it odd to encounter him, even if from a distance, testing the school grounds' wildly grown flora, but it shocks me at all that the boy eats.

Mind you, many would say that about myself, but other than the ManApe with high intelligence beside me and some pub thugs sprawling this tiny little town on the British map alone, I've come to the conclusion that overall, Britain practically is a third-world country – are we all starved or what? Seems every third schoolboy in this entire yard needs a good home-cooked meal...

Except Topher, of course. I'm a little perplexed, but don't dare ask a question, when I turn my head away from the cowering pixie sampling the berries to the brute beside me, only to find my new mate's got an honest-to-God turkey thigh in his mouth. Beefy hand on a thick bone and all.

“Ehhhmmmm...”

He blinks over at my lifted, pointed finger and tilts his head to the side in question. Then he blinks again, as if something has just occurred to him. “Sorry,” he mumbles around the meat in his mouth, and he produces a napkin from his pocket to wipe at his greasy lips. “Tend to get sloppy when they don't serve it off the bone...”

I sigh and shake my head as we pause for Topher to wipe himself down. He chucks the now bare turkey leg into a bin as I plunge my hands into my jeans pockets and survey the land like Columbus discovering America.

What manner of other creature lay before me? Where can I possibly wreak havoc for a few months before jetting off to a new city? When the hell did I start plotting these things like a villain in a Bond film? I need a white cat. And some serious bling.

(Whatever the fuck that is.)

My thoughts are interrupted by a faint strumming sound, and I quietly move towards it, away from Topher as he cleans his hands with more napkins. I slightly round a corner and look past a tree to find the two blokes from homeroom sitting in their usual cut-off island of paradise – well, as much of paradise as one can find in this place during school hours. Again, the blond stops the brunette from playing an awful-sounding chord in order to refix the long fingers on the strings, and then the chord comes out once more lovely...hesitant and uncertain, but lovely. The toothy grin that follows, beaming at the blond for what must be some kind of approval, only makes the other roll his eyes and look away. He catches me staring and narrows his already narrowed eyes even more, tensing up when he knows they're being watched.

But before any confrontation can take place, a walloping hand on my arm nearly sends me to the ground as Topher pulls me back away from the tree.

“Aw'right, mate? I can show you where you can hang out during lunch, now that I've finished mine--”

I pause, even as he tries to drag me, and gesture over my shoulder to the tree. “Why not back there?” I ask.

Topher does a double-take, like he hasn't heard me correctly. Even mutters, “P-Pardon?”

“Back there?” I repeat, trying to walk back in the direction of the pseudomusicians and being jerked back to the class president – rather ungracefully, but then, I'm often compared to an overgrown chicken on speed having a seizure, so this is nothing.

“Ohh, those guys?” he asks, sputtering with a laugh of disbelief. “No, no, no – no, mate, you don't wanna get mixed up with those guys...”

“Why not?” I ask as he continues his laughter and tries to pull me along towards a group of other kids our age – all congregating on the cement steps of the back doors to the school, chattering and passing around colas and chips and crisps. “They seemed pretty interesting--”

“They're not,” Topher sputters again, “believe me, they're really not. Best to just stay away from them—”

“But they had a guitar--”

“Don't matter,” Topher insists, the laughter fading from his voice as he realises I'm not relenting and we come to a stand-still halfway between his group of friends and the two blokes I want to go see. (Strangely, it's dead center on where the berry bushes are that Anthony is still milling around, poking at more berries and watching the scene with a rather detached intrigue, I notice over my shoulder.) “They don't want you there, mate. Better just stick with me.”

Oh, well, now he's gone and told me that, I have to go say hello. That's just how I am. You know: male.

“Why not?” I hedge, inching backwards a bit. “Are they, like, really private people or something? You know, sometimes the most private individuals secretly want to be known – and they can often be far more worth getting to know than the average popular crowd who're more outgoing and social.”

He notices the gesture I make with my chin towards his group of friends and clears his throat, squaring off against me now. “They don't really care, actually, is what I'm trying to tell you. They're simply not very, er...friendly. Or, at least, they're not easy to get along with. Believe me, mate, some of us have already tried.”

This piques my interest even more and my eyebrows lift unconsciously. “Oh? They're quite rude, then, are they? You're sure you just didn't get them on a bad day?”

Topher hesitates momentarily, glancing away, then admits haughtily, “Well... I personally think they're quite daft, to be honest. Nick seems a little more with it mentally, but doesn't seem to like many people. Matt... Well... He's just in his own world, I guess, more than rude. But still... Best not to feed the animals, if y'know what I mean.”

I find this rather bold assertion of his own view of fellow classmates to be quite demeaning, not to mention off-putting. And I don't try to hide my disdain for his wording as I give him a glaring, condescending stare. "Oh really?" I say thinly, backing away from him slowly. "Well, that's quite a harsh word to use on others your own age, don't you think? Forgive me for assuming, but maybe you simply don't know them very well."

Topher sighs, holding out his arms helplessly. "Look, mate, I'm just bein' honest - y'know, tryin' to help you out."

"Help me out?" I scoff, smiling a bit. "Mate, I know you mean no offence towards me, but believe me, I don't need that kind of help."

He tilts his head to one side, saying casually, "Hey, that's fine. If you really wanna start off on the wrong foot here by being seeing with the likes of them, by all means, you're welcome to it. But I'm warning you - knowing them won't help your reputation any."

I laugh outright this time. "What do I care about my reputation? I've only just started here, and truthfully, I don't think I'll be around long enough for anyone to notice me. Besides, anyone who judges me just by whom I choose to hang out with isn't worth my fleeting time anyway. Wouldn't you agree?" Said with a fair amount of ease and nonchalance, but also with a slight edge of sly arrogance.

Topher's shoulders slump and he rolls his eyes, waving me away. "Eh... Whatever, mate - like I said, help yourself, but I'm not interested really."

I nod, waving in return at his dismissal of me. "Ah. Cheers, then." And I happily saunter back towards the tree he just dragged me away from.

Before I make it there, however, a diminutive figure pops up in front of me from out of nowhere, it seems - although really he was just hiding behind one of the bushes before I got to him.

"Jesus Christ," I gasp, grasping a small shoulder in my hand as I steady myself. "Um, Anthony, isn't it? You sure fit into some small places, don't you?"

He regards me placidly, round eyes glued to me fervently, but only says, "They're really like that."

I blink at him in confusion. "Uh... eh?"

He gestures with his head to the other boys I'm headed towards. "Those two. They really are how Topher describes them."

I furrow my brow, smirking a bit. "You're a believer as well, are you?"

"No, it's fact. It's just that..." He ducks his head slightly, averting his eyes, and smiles a bit. "It's just... they don't mind me so much. But they're not the kindest people either."

I raise my eyebrows at him. "So how did you get in their favour then?"

He shrugs as I let go of him and starts to slink away, hands hidden in his pockets and skinny arms sticking out like a baby tree's branches. "I'm a bit of an acquired taste myself, I suppose." And he continues on until he disappears again, literally like vanishing in the blink of an eye.

With those two warnings in mind, I shrug to myself and continue onward to the pair. And as soon as I'm there, standing above them and smiling my friendliest smile at them, Topher and Anthony's words become apparent within moments.

"Cheers," I greet them as the duo stare up at me, the dark-haired one looking stunned and the blond suspicious. "I'm Tom."

Warily, the blond nods at me. "We know," he says in a deadpan voice. "We were in class today, you know."

The boy with the darker hair continues to stare at me, fascinated, it seems, that I've dared to come within a few paces of him. "Uh...hi," he starts uncertainly, glancing at his partner vaguely, as if for approval. "Uh, I'm Matt." He offers a hand, but with a sharp cough from the other's throat, Matt drops it, along with his head, and pretends to fiddle with the guitar strings.

"Of course," I say, shaking my head like I'm the bloody stupid pratt here. "Yeah, you were there. So you know I'm a bit of a music lover myself, right?" I squat down in front of them and gesture to the guitar. "What kind of guitar is that, Matt?"

The brunette hesitates, his gaze raking up and down the body of the guitar for some telltale sign. "Uh...I'm not sure, really," he blurts suddenly, hopping from his arse onto his knees and lifting it between us so I can study it as well. His voice instantly becomes more animated, almost hyper, as he barrels on excitedly, "It's not mine, really - me dad, he bought it for me brother a few years ago, but he weren't too int'rested in it, so I, like, sort of, um, borrowed it off him..."

I smile knowingly at him, pleasantly surprised by his immediately grabbing personality. "I take it `borrowed' means you nicked it from the confines of a stifling closet space or something."

He shrugs and nods spastically at the same time. "Yeah, basically." He bobs his head towards the blond and goes on, "Nick's just been showin' me some chords on it, I ain't too good yet, but maybe if I keep at it..."

I nod in agreement. "Never hurts to try."

The blond - Nick, I'm assuming - sighs heavily and narrows his eyes directly at me. "What do you want?" he asks sharply - his voice remains cool yet scathing at once.

But I'm not that easily put off. Making myself comfortable on the grass in front of them, asking no one in particular, “So, what does your afternoon look like? I've managed to find some ace elective courses I never counted on finding in a high school--”

“Right!” Matt pipes up immediately, his grin taking up half his face. “I know! I always thought this place was a drag, but when I saw there was an actual prep course for university level film, I was like--” He stops dead suddenly, mouth hanging open and eyes wide as saucers. “Oh shit!” he gasps, slapping a hand over his mouth, and without so much as a Cheers, mate, he's up on his feet and running towards the school, guitar just barely grazing the ground as he lugs it along behind him.

I blink in astonishment – then turn back to Nick, who doesn't look nearly as confused as I feel. In fact, he looks bloody bemused. But when he catches me looking, he stiffens his face back to it once stoic appearance.

Still, I won't let his initial stonewall demeanor push me away so easily. Instead, I cock an eyebrow at him and point to myself. “Something I said?”

“He's supposed to hand in a paper today in that class at the threat of detention – it's not that he doesn't like the class, he'd just forget his head if it weren't stuck to him.”

I relax a bit and let my shoulders slouch. “Ah. So why doesn't he just hand it in and be done with it?”

Nick actually lets a smirk betray his otherwise uncaring exterior as he mumbles, “Hard to hand in a paper that hasn't finished writing itself. Even when it's two days overdue.”

I nod in understanding. “Oh, I see. So I'm not the one who scared him off, directly – I just reminded him of something he didn't want to think about.”

“Like I said, it's not that he doesn't like it – he just forgets things. He'll have a pristine paper done in ten minutes – he just needs someone to remind him to do it. On the other hand,” he adds flippantly, “you're new...and you have curly hair...so it could've been you too. He's a strange little bugger. The most banal things can scare the shit out of him.”

I don't miss how he emphasizes the specific word, and retaliate with a jovial grin. “Well, that's good to know. I thought he could just tell I didn't shower this morning.”

“It'd never be that,” Nick scoffs, rolling his eyes to the sky. “I have to remind him to brush his teeth.”

I grimace at the thought. “See, that, I couldn't stand. Call me a bit of a nutter when it comes to hygiene, I'll own it...”

He swivels his head a certain way and glares at me out of the corner of his eyes. “Why are you doing this?”

I feign misunderstanding and shrug. “Doing what? Sitting here? If you want, I'll move to where he was--”

“Don't bother,” he snaps back instantly, then goes on, “Talking to me. Why are you talking to me?”

I shake my head slowly, glancing around as if the question takes me aback – as if I haven't been “warned” already by Topher (and, in his own cryptic way, Anthony – though Anthony didn't seem to mind the “bad reputation” Nick and Matt have). “Um...That's normally what humans do to communicate--”

“No, why me?” Nick demands.

I lift my eyebrows as I eye him back and say nonchalantly, “Because...you're there?”

“Is that all that qualifies me?” he hisses, as if discovering some heinous secret of mine. “You came over here. What is it you want?

I shrug again, gesturing towards the building Matt just disappeared inside. “He had a guitar – I was interested--”

“Well, he's gone now and he's taken it with him, so you can leave me alone now.”

I put on an obviously false hurt expression. “But we were having such a fascinating conversation about hygiene--”

“Look, Curly,” he bites out, sitting up straighter to look me straight in the eyes. “Maybe I didn't make myself clear: Go away.”

I pause for a moment; he certainly said it with such intensity that it would have frightened off someone else.

I shift my position to where Matt was sitting – putting me even closer to Nick.

“What d'you think you're doing?” he deadpans, clearly not amused.

“Resting my legs? Warming my arse? He's already made it nice and cozy for me--”

“Aren't you done bothering me?” Nick snipes, throwing a handful of grass at me.

I lean back on my elbows, legs splayed out in front of me, and bask in the (rather dim) sunlight that manages to break through the clouds. “Am I bothering you?” I ask, as if he hasn't already made it clear.

“Is this an Answer a Question with a Question game?”

I catch his gaze again and quirk an eyebrow at him knowingly. “Could it be?”

He leans forward, slouching over his lap to lean against his fists – probably trying to get as far away from me as possible without giving up his claimed spot. “Look, just go back to your class president,” said with a particularly nasty snarl, “let him feel like his title is actually worth something already, will you? Quit nagging me. I've got better things to do.”

I let a few moments of silence pass, allowing the idea to sink in that perhaps there's more to this little secret saga than just clashing personalities – Topher did say that some people had tried to get along with Nick and Matt and it just hadn't worked out. Maybe he was speaking from personal experience. Maybe that's why Nick sounds so personally offended by my initially being around “the president.”

Finally, I blurt out, “Do you play guitar?”

There's a confused twist of Nick's head and he asks, “What?”

I lift myself from my elbows to sit upright again. “Do you play guitar?”

He studies me cautiously, like there's a catch or a joke coming. “...Why?”

I shrug, glancing towards the school where Matt is probably feverishly scribbling away in some dark corner before his next lesson. “Well, he was the one carrying the guitar, but it looked like you were the one showing him--”

“I know enough,” Nick cuts me off. “Why do you care?”

“Well, I'm a musician myself—well,” I chuckle, “`musician'--I like to play, rather. Hopefully one day I'll be good enough to have that title, but until then, I'm just working at practicing and such...”

“Why the hell are you talking to me? About this? Not for advice, I assume--”

“Well, no, but if you play, or he does, maybe we could jam together sometime. It's just interesting to see someone showing up at school with a guitar, carryin' it from class to class—I think it says a lot.”

He stares at me again for another silent moment, then utters, “Are you takin' the piss?”

“Huh? Why would I--”

He seems dead set on believing no one would casually walk up to him of their own free will and start a conversation – he looks positively furious as he leans in closer to me and sneers, “I said, go...away.

He's met his match, then. I smile calmly back and reply, “No.”

Nick blinks in surprise. “What?”

“It's an answer to—”

“That wasn't a question, it was an order--”

“But I'm not a waiter,” I correct him. “I don't take orders. I consider requests...”

“Then I request that you go away.”

“...but I don't always agree to them – as I'm refusing to agree to your request right now.”

Somehow, just by being my same old self, I'm making Nick flustered and baffled – I'm guessing he doesn't know what it means to be nice to someone because you want to be. Even if they spit in your face. That's what makes him so interesting, in fact.

“What makes you think you can act like that!?” he nearly yells in my face.

I shrug, trying to explain, “I'm not trying to be obnoxious, I'm just--”

“But you're pulling it off anyway!”

“Look, you're putting this all on me, and that's fine – yes, I'm choosing to stay here and be verbally abused by someone I barely know. But I think it's very telling that you get so upset that someone's actually trying to talk to you. Besides, you could just as easily get up and walk away as I could. If it bothered you that much.”

His lips pressed into a thin line, he sputters out, “But this is my spot.”

Ah – a territorial issue, is it? “Your spot?” I glance around us, pretending to look for something. “Is there a tag somewhere?”

“I always—we always sit here,” he corrects himself. “Can't you tell? It's the very space everyone else avoids. Doesn't that tell you something?”

I smirk and nudge his arm. “People avoiding you? Can't be your charming personality driving people away, can it?”

He throws some more grass at me. “Sod off!”

“That's the spirit!” I giggle, tossing some of the grass back. Then I continue on with my real business – this childish banter about whose spot we're sitting on is starting to bore me. “So, d'you want to jam sometime or what?”

He heaves a sigh and lowers his head, staring down at the ground between his legs. “What.”

“I said, do you--”

“I heard what you said,” he snaps again. “That was my answer.”

“Ah. Okay then.” I get to my feet and wipe the grass off, pulling a pen and my schedule from my pocket as I do so. “Your mate – his name's Matt, yes?”

He snorts in derision as I write my number on the back of my schedule, tearing off that section of paper. “He can barely play yet--”

“Practice can help that,” I remind him. “And practice is more fun when you do it with other people. Here,” and I reach down to grab an unwilling hand, shoving the paper into his tight fist. “Give him this for me...”

As I fix myself up again, he stares down at the number and then up at me, giving me an expression of false pity. “You're one of those strange types who don't register rejection when it's offered, aren't you?”

“...and tell him to call me if he wants to jam sometime.”

I adjust the backpack on my shoulder and run a hand through my curls before glancing down at him with another sly smirk. When he doesn't answer or give any sign that he's willing to do as I ask, I inform him, “Oh, and I'll probably run into him again and just as him myself, seeing as I'm in that film course with him that was mentioned earlier, so you may as well not bother tossing it out.”

Nick's sneaky smile withers and he pounds his fist holding my number into the ground. “Wanker.”

“You're welcome to join us if he's up for it,” I offer sincerely.

He lifts his head again, assuring me quite politely, “Think I'd sooner vomit blood, thank you.”

I nod, ignoring his attitude – I've got enough of my own. “Nice to meet you too. Cheers, then, mate.”

And as I walk away, still in my happy-go-lucky mood I've been in all day, I hear him mutter behind me, “Bloody psychopath, this one is.”

Hm. He may have a point there. It makes my smile come a little easier.



As the bell announcing the end of lunch period rings, I note that Topher is nowhere to be found to escort me to my film class. I smile to myself and find my way to the correct room on my own, pleased to find Matt already seated at a desk - a little flushed, with a typed paper in trembling hands, but he's there all the same. I slide into a seat beside him and nudge his arm.

"Oi," I greet him, and he gives me a shy, crooked smile. "Finish it, did you?" I nod to his paper.

"Yeah," he snickers, shaking his head. "Didn't think I'd make it, but just barely... Sorry for running off like that, I just, well, y'know..."

I shrug nonchalantly. "No bother, mate. Nick explained it to me."

His eyes grow wide in shock as he stares me down. "Nick did?"

I nod.

"Y'mean he... He talked to you?"

I cringe, tilting my head to the side. "Eh... I think that might qualify as talking, but yeah, just barely. At least, I got that much out of him, between some interesting name-calling and threats, anyway..."

Matt groans and slumps in his seat. "Aw, blimey... I'm sorry for him, mate, really - I mean, it's just how he is, all cautious 'n all, but still, he needs to be a bit nicer--"

"Don't apologise," I assure him quickly. "Not your job to apologise for someone else. Besides, I get it - it's just how he is, as you said. He probably has his reasons for being that way, and it's not my responsibility to judge that. That's fine. Not everyone has to be Mr. Nice Guy."

"But you din't even do nothin' but say `hi'--"

"Well, for some people, that's enough to put them off."

He scoffs and straightens up some. "Well, despite him not being the kindest bloke around, he is a good friend. To me, anyway," he corrects himself falteringly.

I chuckle at this, nodding, "Oh, I'm sure he is. To you."

Matt hesitates, then glances at me uncertainly. "He didn't, like, freak you out or nothin', did he?"

"Why?" I ask immediately, unfazed. "Is there a problem between you and me if he did?"

Matt bites his lip, wincing. "Well...not really...I hope..."

I sit back in my seat, stretching my arms and yawning. "It takes a lot more than some surly teenager to freak me out, mate. I've seen worse stuff in me head than what he could hurl at me." He's silent as I relax; I can feel his questioning eyes on me. Instead of furthering that part of the conversation, though, I turn to him and ask outright, "Oi, you think you'd wanna jam sometime?"

Matt's quizzical stare morphs to disbelief. "Eh?"

I motion to his guitar, now tucked behind his chair, and inform him, "I play a bit too. Just thought maybe you'd like someone else to practice with."

"Uhh...Nick's been showing me - well, trying to show me--"

"That's fine," I assure him. "He can come too if he wants - though it seems he'd rather swallow broken glass at the moment, according to something he mentioned at lunch..."

Matt whimpers and looks ill with sympathy, which I laugh off.

"No, it's no bother. I was wondering if you'd like to. I've got some pretty nifty guitars..."

"Guitars?" Matt repeats, flabbergasted. "Did you say, guitars? As in, plural?"

"Uh, yeah. It's sort of payment for me behaving, I guess you could say," I cough, and rub discreetly at the metal bracelet hidden under my sleeve. "Anyway, I've got those, and we've got a piano as well."

At this, Matt's jaw drops, and he gapes at me with unhidden awe. "Do you? A real, like, piano?"

I chuckle, adding humourously, "Well, and a toy xylophone, if you want to get specific--"

But he doesn't hear my teasing. "'Cause I started out on that! I loved playing! I know more about piano than guitar, really, though I do want to learn guitar, but if you've got a piano..."

I giggle at his rapid-fire response and try to cut in again, but he keeps rambling before I have a chance. Hey, I guess it pays to have friends with shiny toys, right? But I kid...

"We used to have one too - well, before me dad left, I mean - had to sell it last year to pay rent, I was devastated, I was, but I still remember..." He trails off, ducking his head shyly. "Oh, um... I mean... We had to, um...make space...for the hovercraft..."

I roll my eyes and wave away his discomfort. "Oh please - a hovercraft?"

He shrugs lamely. "First thing that came to mind..."

I lean closer to him and assure him quietly, "Oi, mate, it's no bother. So your family ran into some trouble - happens a lot. No need to be ashamed."

He swallows hard, lifting his head slightly. "It's just, you said before, well... Sounds like you come from...uh...some money..."

I blow a raspberry and lean back, crossing my hands behind my head. "Technically, yeah, I come from a wealthy family - but believe me, mate, that ain't all grand pianos and fancy guitars neither. Apparently it includes a sleazy drunken mother, but I hadn't known about that when I asked to be born to a coupla richies."

He quirks an eyebrow at me and I laugh outright. "No, forget it. Just...don't make no difference to me if you're sellin' stuff to make rent or feel like a bloody lost speck of dirt in a uselessly big house. I just wanna play music with someone. You up for it?"

He hesitates again, and now the classroom is filled up. As the instructor walks in, I drop my arms to my sides, wince when the clang of my bracelet hits the metal bar on my desk, then release a breath of relief when Matt doesn't seem to hear.

"I'm not very good," he whispers, and I shrug as if to answer, So?

Instead of leaving the loaded question up to him to decide right away, I reach over and grab a notebook from under his arm, scrawling my number on it as the instructor starts his lecture, then hand it back to Matt with a smile.

"Gimme a call when you're up to it," I whisper back, then direct my attention forward.

There. No real pressure or nothin', right?

Matt

I'm not even listening to Nick rant about why he got another detention in his last period today as we walk home. Most of my books are tucked away in my backpack, and I've got the guitar slung over me shoulder too, but in my hands I hold the notebook this new bloke Tom wrote on in Film Studies a few hours ago. I stare at the number and mull over the thought of calling him tonight while Nick gripes about the bloody treacherous witch who didn't appreciate his witty remarks about her fat arse after she criticised him for not having his homework done today. I've heard this story about twenty times this year so far anyway, I know the ending. He'll go to detention, it'll be boring, and then he'll work out the new plan for his next one.

It's useless to talk him into the idea that a stack of detentions to fuel a badass reputation isn't quite as worth the effort as actually doing the homework and maybe getting into a quality university someday. So I keep me mouth shut and continue considering whether I should call Tom tonight or tomorrow...if at all.

Which brings me to my next dilemma. When there's a pause in Nick's feisty monologue, I lift my head finally and ask, "Hey Nick?"

"Hm?" he grunts, empty hands tucked behind his head as he stares up at the sky - he knows I haven't been listening, but as I've given up trying to talk him into something good, I suppose he's given up trying to actually get me to pay attention to something for more than two minutes.

"Is it all right if I..." I hesitate, swallowing hard, before finally squeaking out, "...like Tom?"

There's an empty silence, and he looks absolutely puzzled when I dare a glance sideways at him. "Huh?"

"Tom," I go on. "That new bloke at school?"

He looks exasperated at once. "I know who he is, Matt."

"Yeah. Well, him. Can I like him?"

His paces slow and he turns to look at me too - like I've just gone mad. "What on Earth are you talking ab--"

I know where he's going with this, so I cut him off before he can start with the whole You're an alien, aren't you? spiel. "Well, it just seems like you don't really, like...like him very much..."

He scoffs, shrugging his shoulders with exaggeration. "I barely know the psycho, why should I like him?"

"Well," I hedge, trying to put the insult towards Tom to the back of my mind, "see, thing is, um, I kind of do like him. An' I was just wonderin' if that was, like, okay with you."

He stops in his tracks fully and stares dully back at me when I follow his lead. "...You know you're completely insane, don't you?"

I slump my shoulders. Everyone's insane in his mind, I guess. "But is it--"

He throws his arms back up in the air helplessly and nearly yells, "Yes, it's all right! Jesus! You don't need to ask me if you can like someone, ya know!"

I lower my head - partly because I feel stupid, and partly to hide my sneaking smile. "Oh... Well, 'cause, like, you seemed a bit angry when he came up to us today--"

"Look, Matt," Nick interrupts in his deadpan voice, like he's talking to a child and getting bloody sick of it, "just because I'm not fond of someone doesn't mean I'm going to stop hanging out with you if you are. That's just stupid, y'know?"

As he starts walking again, I try to let this sink in, then slowly follow after him. "Oh. Okay. I just wanted to make sure--"

"Why?" he asks sharply, but with a dour chuckle in his tone. "You think I'd ditch you for something like that? What kinda idiot do you think I am?"

I catch up to him and lift my head, throwing him a shit-eating grin as I answer smartly, "The kind of idiot who dislikes someone for coming up and saying hi."

He glares back at me with narrowed eyes, but says nothing. His lips press together in that thin line that means he's actually feeling bitter now - not just acting like an arse, but is about to become one.

"What?" I taunt him. "It's true! All he did was introduce himself--"

"I just don't trust people who're overly friendly right off the bat, okay?" he mutters, the bitterness abating as he looks at the ground and actually speaks honestly. "I dunno if I like him or not - like I said, I don't even know him."

"But you don't want to even try to," I point out.

"What?"

"You don't seem like you want to get to know him - it's like you've already written him off. You never even gave him a chance--"

"Look," he huffs, "I just don't go for all that friendship, male-bonding bullocks. You know that."

I consider this, and I know by now it's true - he's not one for bearing his soul or anything. But still, some things just don't fit into place. "But what about me then?"

"What about you?" he mumbles, kicking some dirt-sullied snow into the air.

"Well, why'd you decide to like me then?"

He smirks and glances over at me briefly. "I never said I did, did I? You just never went away."

Oh, you bastard. Pullin' this one on me again, eh? I stiffen my whole frame and start walking faster, snapping over my shoulder, "Thanks. Cheers, mate."

As I put some distance between us, I can hear him whining behind me. "Oh, come on, Matt -- you know I'm kidding--"

"How do I?" I shout back, still moving at a faster clip. "Sounded genuine enough to me, so I'll just stop hanging 'round and bugging you then--"

"Oh, stop it," he sneers, but I can hear him jogging to catch up to me now. "Matt... Matt! Where're you going!?"

I just realise now that I've passed the street we usually turn on to get to our houses, but I don't care - I keep going. "I dunno!" I call back angrily. "But if I'm that annoying, why should you c--"

A hand grasps my shoulder and spins me around, nearly causing me to drop my guitar on the icy pavement. Nick's giving me another You're losing it, mate, look, but at least he seems a bit more alarmed than usual.

"I wasn't serious, you twat! Let's go back, eh, you're being stupid--"

I drop my backpack off my one shoulder (but am careful not to drop the guitar) and wave the notebook in my hand at him accusingly. "You're being stupid!"

Aren't we just the most mature young adults there ever was?

He holds his arms out helplessly again. "I was being an arse on purpose, you dolt! It's what I do! You know that! I didn't mean it!"

Both of us huffing to catch our breath, I eye him up warily, letting my arm fall to my side again. "Really?"

"Yeah, really! God!"

I slowly, reluctantly, pick up my backpack and start walking back with him. After a few steps, I hazard, "So I'm not a pain?"

"Of course you are--"

"Oh for--" I drop my bag again and whirl around.

He grabs my arm and keeps me from marching away again. "But I don't mind it! Christ! That's just who you are, y'know? I accept that about you!"

I roll my eyes and jerk myself away from him. "Oh, fuck you!"

Nick reaches out and yanks my coat sleeve in the direction we're supposed to be heading, even snagging my backpack for me. "I like that you're a pain, okay!? God!" And he starts pushing me forward to the proper street, like I'm some bawling toddler who doesn't want to go to bed but Daddy's had enough and is taking charge. "Make me get all soppy, why doncha!? Yes, fine, I like you, I like you hanging 'round and making an arse of yourself, like this very second! You wouldn't be you otherwise."

I try to turn around to glare at him, but he forces me forward again. "That's not very complimentary," I sniffle.

"Maybe," he grunts. "But at least it fits with me being a mean little prick, huh? We don't fit anywhere else, Matt, that's why we're a good match."

I sigh, clutching my notebook to my chest. "'Cause no one else wants us 'round, is that it?" I hope Tom's number hasn't been smudged away.

"Partly," he concedes. "But also 'cause..." He hisses wordlessly, then growls, "Oh, Christ, you're gonna make me say it, aren't you?"

"Say what?" I ask innocently.

We've gotten back on our steady pace again, round the corner to the street where our houses are. "We balance each other out, okay?" he finally confesses with a snarl. "If you didn't have me watchin' out for you and tearin' you down all the time, you'd be way too out there to stay grounded in this world. You'd, like, walk into a bus because you're in a rage or somethin', like just now."

Really? There was a bus? Thank God I didn't see it, I'd've wet meself.

"And," he goes on, "if you weren't hangin' 'round all the time, I'd... I'd just..."

I cock my head to the side curiously. "What?"

He really does not want to say this. So I'm biting my lip to keep from smiling as I wait for him to say it. "Man... Well, I just wouldn't give a shit 'bout anythin'. Okay? Is that mushy enough for you? You make things easier, even when you make 'em harder, which is somethin' I'll never understand, but yeah, there you go - you remind me of why I should care."

I turn my face to him and let him see my smug grin.

"Oh, shut up," he snaps.

"You like me!" I giggle.

"Sod off."

"You won't say it outright, but you do! You like me!"

He shoves me by the shoulder, and as we've reached our side-by-side houses, he chucks my backpack at me as well. "Shut it!"

I snicker as he leaves me at my stoop and continues on to his own without looking back to check on me. "Okay, okay, fine," I call to him. "Have it your way."

He pretends to ignore me as he hops up to his front porch and unlocks the door.

"But I do know now--"

"Fuck off, wanker!" And he slams the door - proverbially - in my face.

Well, good to know I've still got one friend. Now I wonder if I can make a second.

CHAPTER TWO: THE CURL’S TWISTS

Tom

I awaken on the morning of my second day of school with a splitting headache. I recognise this pain. I've had it before. Too many times. I hate it when this happens.


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