The midafternoon sun caught Patrick’s eyes and made them water. The intense heat on his face reminded him of his mother, opening the oven to reveal something delicious baking inside. She’d been dead nearly two years, but the memories had not yet even begun to fade.
It had been a long, trying day for Patrick. Another fight, not of his making, had broken out, and as usual, he’d been the one blamed. ‘Disrespect for authority’, his last report card said.
“They can all blow me,” he muttered.
At barely 13, his build was easily described with one word: scrawny. Pre-adolescence had gifted him with a few more inches in height, pushing him up to a none-too-impressive five feet, five inches, and had added nothing in weight. If anything, he’d lost a few pounds. The last two years had not been good to him.
Needless to say, he’d lost the fight, and now sported an impressive bruise by his right eye. He’d also scored a detention, which would earn him another bruise, this time from his father.
Even in the relentlessly sunny day, the metaphorical black cloud was settled over his head. At the back of his mind, he hoped the cloud would rain on him and cool him off.
Don’t be sad... the voice was incorporeal, yet right beside him. Patrick didn’t need to turn his head to know his brother’s presence was with him. Ryan had never left Patrick in the months since he and their mother had died.
“I’m not sad,” Patrick told his brother’s ghost. “I’m pissed the fuck off.”
Ryan giggled. The wraith was still eleven years old, puffy-cheeked and shorter than Patrick now was. It was a comforting constant.
Patrick rolled his eyes and kept walking. He wasn’t going to let one of the bullies from school get the best of him outside the school.
“I was talking to you, weirdo.” This call came from closer behind him, and Patrick knew if he didn’t turn around he’d be caught from behind.
“What?” he asked as he turned to face the boy named Steve. This boy was a year older, a head taller, and about twice as wide as Patrick. It was the never-ending playground cliché, the rite of passage of every scrawny kid in the Empire.
“You cost me a detention today, you queer.”
“You started it and you know it!” Patrick’s mouth was forever writing checks it couldn’t cash.
Steve shoved him. “I’d have no need to start it if you weren’t so damn queer.”
Patrick staggered back, thrown off-balance by the weight of his backpack, but instead of falling on his ass he was caught by another pair of strong arms that held him trapped between Steve and whoever was his lackey of the day. Oh great. This again.
Steve pulled his fist back and was about to let it go when a female voice interrupted. “Oh please! Can you be any patheticker?”
Patrick wasn’t sure ‘patheticker’ was even a word, but at the moment he didn’t care. Standing farther up the sidewalk, watching them, was a skinny girl with tanned skin and her dark red hair in two messy braids. Her hands were on her hips and her skirt was rolled up at the waist until it came to just above her knees, like a lot of girls at Patrick’s school did.
He wasn’t familiar with the girls. His former school hadn’t been co-ed. But he’d seen the red braids. The girl had an almost exotic look to her, with faintly slanted black eyes.
“Whatever,” Steve said, and punched Patrick in the stomach. The air went out of him in one dizzying rush, and he doubled over, held up by the other bully.
“You know, I can understand how having a tiny little peanut can make you hate the world, but beating him up isn’t going to solve your size problem,” the girl said.
This got Steve’s attention. “Shut up!” he shouted. “Don’t think I won’t hit you just ‘cause you’re a girl.”
The girl laughed. “I’d like to see you try, motherfucker.” She tossed her book bag on the sidewalk and stepped closer to Steve. “Come on. Are you afraid of me, Stevie?” She smiled sweetly and tilted her head, looking innocent. “I’m just a girl.”
“You’re a witch!” Steve replied.
“Nah. If I was a witch I wouldn’t need to do this.” She put her hands on his shoulders and shot her knee into his crotch.
Patrick had caught his breath in time for the other bully to let go of him and take off running. “She’s a witch!” he cried. Steve was on his knees, crying like a little girl.
The girl put her hands on her knees and bent before him, grinning. “If I see you bothering him again, I’ll do worse than that, Stevie. And then I’ll tell the whole school how you got your ass kicked by a girl, again.” She left him there to recover and picked up her book bag.
“You okay, kid?” she asked Patrick.
“I’ll live.” He frowned at her. “I just got rescued by a girl. Thanks for making the rest of my life impossible.”
The girl’s eyebrows shot halfway up her forehead. “You think your life’s hard? Try being a girl.” She snorted and whapped him on the side of the head. “Try saying thanks next time, you might make a friend or two. Looks like you need some of those.” She put the strap of her bag over her right shoulder and started walking away.
“Wait!” Patrick called. He wasn’t exactly grateful, but she’d meant well. She was right about one thing: he hadn’t had any friends since Ryan. “What’s your name?”
She stopped, eyed him for a moment, then smiled. “Rikki. Not Raquel. Rikki.”
“Okay. I’m Patrick.”
“I knew that,” she replied, and kept on walking.