If he calls me that one more time, I'm going to scream. No one ever greets me with a friendly smile or a “Hello, Neil!”any more. Instead, the teachers flash friendly grins when I walk by them in the hallway. I know they're forced--their tightly raised chins and dead eyes say as much. The kids don't bother with pretending; their burning scowls follow me everywhere I go. The bathroom. The classroom. The cafeteria. Every day. It never changes.
Neil doesn't exist to them. It's just me, a freak.
My fingers dig into the edge of the table as my teeth grind together, biting back the raw urge to scream, or better yet, burn this place down. Before me, the cold cafeteria food mocks me; the dry meat and oozing potatoes turn my stomach sour, and I've barely had a bite. How could I, with his footsteps drawing closer and closer with every panicked heartbeat? The kids at the other tables quickly turn to watch me, eager for the afternoon’s entertainment. The girls huddle together in tight, judgmental knots. They whisper and wrinkle their noses at us in indignant disgust, but they stare all the same, waiting for what comes next. Unable to look away. The same boys who steal my gym clothes and who scratch crude drawings of me on my desk jeer loudly for a fight as they hang back on the sidelines. They don’t dare touch me right now. In the cafeteria, I am his prey and his alone.
My shoulders brush my burning hot ears as I slump, that giant red target on my spine weighing heavier than usual.
He's here. There's no escape now.
“Freak.” Wilson’s thin fingers cut into my arm like piano wire. My eyes stay trained on the wall before me, but I know he's looming over me with trademark sneer. “Hey,” he says again, his grip tightening. “Look at me when I talk to you, freak.” Without warning he shoves my face down with his left hand, straight into my full tray of food before I could even think of a retort. Mashed potatoes block my mouth and nostrils like a gag, and the cold metal of the fork presses against my cheek, the sharp tines sparkling dangerously close to my eye.
A normal kid would pull themselves out of the mess and sit up proudly in attempt to save face. A brave kid would fight back. But I am neither, and so I stay still, holding my breathe tightly, more afraid of the coming storm than being thought of as a coward.
Being a coward is the least of my worries.
Wilson’s fingers wind through the coarse black hair that spikes from the crown of my head and jerks me up. His spit spatters the back of my neck when he hisses angrily. “What did I say?”
Potatoes fall from my face as I whisper, “Look at you when I talk.”
I don’t want to look.
He grabs me by the chin and yanks my head around, forcing me to stare straight into his beautiful brown eyes. Framed by an angry army of freckles running along his snub nose and round cheeks, they glow with an unearthly brightness; soft blooms of golden light shine around his pupils, softening the icy concentration that threatens to freeze his handsome features. Even to me, the victim of four long years of torture, his maliciousness screams of righteous justice. It can't be helped; that's who he is. It is everything I can do to keep looking him in those horribly beautiful eyes, instead of cowering and begging for his judgement. It is what I deserve, after all. But the inhuman in me springs to life as his pale lips twist into a snide smile, and I raise my chin, ever so slightly. “What do you want?” I ask, staring boldly. If I look away, I lose it all. Pride. Anger. Courage. I have to cling to the little that I have left, or I'll disappear. A ghost of a human.
He sneers. “You see that?” he hollers to his adoring audience. Their eyes glow with enthusiasm as they watch him put the pariah in his place, but they lack the glow of his angelic grace. “The reaper has finally found his tongue!” The crowd's raucous boos fill the cafeteria. Not a single teacher looks our way. They sit at their table, pointedly ignoring the commotion, even though Wilson now has my arm bent backward, his fingers digging like iron into my soft, warm flesh.
“I’m not a reaper,” I grit out. Just saying the word makes my face sting with embarrassment. I'm not.
He shrugs and yanks my arm sharply, laughing shrilly as he does so. “Reaper’s kid is just as bad, freak. Where is your dad, by the way? Is the big bad reaper gonna come save his stupid kid?”
An angry burst of strength allows me to jerk my arm free, and I glare venomously at him. He smirks, because he's winning. My response means he's struck home--even though he already knew the answer to his question. He knows where my dad is, and he knows that he’s definitely not coming back for his useless excuse of a son. He made that clear the day he left.
Wilson draws conspiratorially close to me, the stale pepperoni of his breath washing over my senses. “Besides…” His lips bump against my ear, and I shiver at the touch. “You’ll be a reaper someday. Your dad may love that pretty student of his more than you or your mom, but he'll come back for. You're still his little reaper brat.Your dirty blood can't deny that.”
My father's arm around a different woman's shoulder, her black hair fanning out like liquid onyx down her back. I'm not supposed to be here. I'm not supposed to see this.
This isn't supposed to happen.
“Shut up!” The scream rips apart the murmurs, the ceiling, the invisible bonds holding me back. My chair falls to the ground with an aluminum clatter, and he falls with it. Everything goes white, like the white at the center of a flame, and then suddenly, I am on top of him, scratching at his face, at those freckles, and his eyes. Those horrible, glowing eyes. “Shut up shut up shut up!”
Adult hands haul me off him and press me into the cold, gritty floor, like a criminal with telltale blood on his hands. Something in my nose gives, letting out a hollow crack, and the iron taste of my own blood fills my mouth.
It took them five seconds to take me down.
And yet they hadn’t even tried to stop him.
The same hands that thrust me into the concrete smooth Wilson's rumpled clothes and wipe away his tears. “He attacked me,” he sobs into a female teacher’s blouse as she runs comforting fingers through his shining auburn hair. “I don’t know what I did to set him off.” They all nod and murmur reassuring words into his ears, even though they saw the whole thing. They heard every word he said, but somehow I am still the villain.
Because how could a guardian do wrong when a reaper's blood was in the room?