The day begins like any other day at school; trudging in ankle-deep snow and feeling the crunch beneath your feet. A sombre morning, when the orange streetlights are still on.
Martin is carrying his loaded knapsack full of goodies – class binders, his laptop and lunchbox – when he feels exhausted from all the weight. He finds a bench by the soccer field to relax his knees at, and beside him, there is a girl, her jacket hood covering her face.
He has never seen the girl before, but one glance and he could tell she is quite pretty in a sullen way. Her eyes gaze off somewhere, at the players kicking around the ball.. no, beyond that.
He wonders what she must be like. Probably one of those goth-types who is into death metal music, he could imagine.
There's only one way to find out.
"Hi," he goes, a half-whisper amongst the chatter.
She doesn't budge an inch.
"Hey," he says, louder, and she turns to look at him. She has earbuds in her ears – she takes them out.
".. yes?" she goes.
Martin's looking for some excuse to begin a conversation with her. He notices the mist coming out her mouth. The first thing that comes to mind is: "Chilly day, isn't it? I wish they could open the doors to let us in.."
"Oh – I'm fine outside," she goes. "I don't mind the cold."
She has on a black coat with a dark chartreuse scarf.
"I don't like being cold," Martin says, huddling his arms. "I just can't stand when my cheeks and hands get numb. If it was me, I'd.. I'd be still in bed, cozy under all the blankets. And I'd be watching TV on my phone."
The girl giggles. "That's cute. I like winter's crispness though – makes me feel alive."
The events of the soccer match play out, with David booting the ball a mile high into the air (along with a burst of snow), and everyone else chasing after the ball's trajectory like bees.
"What're you listening to?" Martin asks.
"Music," she says, glancing at the player in her pocket.
"What kind of music?"
"It's nothing that you'd like.." she says.
"Well, I'd like to have a listen anyways – how do I know unless I hear it?"
So reluctantly, she hands him an earbud. What Martin hears is a beautiful, joyeous sound – a woman singing about the birds and the bees who flutter through someone's garden at night, and they'd sing a nightly song, their buzzing and chirping in sweet harmony, a song which bugs the houseowner to no end.
The girl is dazzled, seeing how Martin actually enjoys listening to it.
The next song is about a woman's inner pain, and her struggle to overcome it much like how a warrior fights against an endless tirade of monsters who'd tell her she is worthless, and the warrior's blade would slice through them all because nothing they say is ever true.
"They're wonderful, your songs..!" Martin goes.
".. I'm glad you like them," the girl says, beaming at the cheeks. "To be honest, I was a little scared you'd find it--"
"Weird, yes." Her eyes frown.
"Why? I mean, not everyone likes the same things, but that doesn't mean it's bad or weird. It's just.. different. You know?"
The girl seems to ruminate over the word 'different.'
Suddenly, the school bell rings, and everyone is journeying inside.
"Hey, what's your name? I'm Martin--"
But the girl hurriedly leaves, and all Martin can do is watch her departing form. Then he too heads inside where it's warm.
His classes go on as usual. First is his mathematics class where his teacher goes on about Calculus, much like how a geek would gleefully share his card collection, as if it were the most interesting thing in the world. Martin is half-listening, half-daydreaming about the girl. He pictures her like a layered cake, where he's only managed to sample the surface toppings, while the deeper layers are yet to be savoured.
Next is his English class. The teacher resumes where they left off on the 'Romeo + Juliet (1996)' movie, where Leonardo DiCaprio has murdered John Leguizamo in the rain-- er, Tybalt. That was when Leonardo still had his youthful charm, before he went on to more serious acting roles.
The silly thing Martin finds about watching movies in class is that usually, you could manage to relax and allow your eyes to soak in the visuals. But when you have to do a partnered essay on the movie, it's a different story – now it becomes a chore as the English teacher expects everyone to write about how different the movie is, compared to the original Shakespearian play.
Sure, it's a movie, for one. And it's modernized to make it more relatable for today's audiences.
"Think of thematic context!" his teacher goes. "All the motifs, recurring themes, important details!"
And then at lunch, he orders a mucho burrito with vanilla yogurt and fries from one of the food court kiosks. He is about to head over to his usual eating place at the computer lab room, where his friends are, when he spots that girl, passing him by on the opposite end, carrying her food tray to a table somewhere.
He recognises her fey face that was underneath her coat – now he sees her more fully, her cropped blonde hair in a pageboy cut, her black dress and outwear.. there is something about her that gnaws at his feelings, as though he is seeing one of those feral cats that's wandered into his backyard.
Wondering about her, he decides to follow her down the hallways.
He doesn't notice it at first, but he hears the other students whispering to each other, with the occasional glance at the girl, and then he realises that the girl is the butt of their jokes. It makes his stomach churn.
"That's the weirdo girl..!" Martin manages to overhear.
He feels a little pity for her.
The girl rests at a secluded spot by the lockers, where she slurps her pasta and drinks from her bottled water. Martin debates whether to join her for lunch; it'd be strange if he'd asked, since that would likely imply that he's been following her. But still, he'd like to cheer her up since eating lunch by yourself can be rather gloomy.
She must not have that many friends..
He starts approaching the girl, but before he could get there, a band of other girls and guys turn around the corner – he recognises some of their faces from the band and cheerleading squads. They stop by the girl, standing, leering over her.
"How's it going, Clare?" one of them says.
"Nice lunch, Clare!" another says. "Care to give me some of your fries?"
The girl is quivering, back against the wall. A look of mixed fear and anger shows on her face. ".. get your own fucking fries," the girl says.
"What was that, Clare?"
"She said, 'Get your own fucking fries.'"
"Oooooh. Is that how you wanna play, Clare? Is that how you wanna--" The boy lands a kick to the girl's shoulder, knocking her against the locker's side.
The rest of the gang join in with brutalizing her, and all Martin can do is quiver with fear while watching the scene play out to its horrific end, hiding by the janitor's closet.
Eventually they get tired of beating her, and they leave her with scruffles on her dress, scratch marks over her neck and bruises on her face.
"Anyone want some fries?" one of them goes, holding up a pack of fries in the air.
Martin glances at them with contempt. They don't notice him as they pass by down the hallway, and for good measure, he gives them a raspberry behind their backs before heading over to poor Clare, who is crying, her pasta sauce spilled over her tray.
He pulls out a tissue from his pockets (usually saved for when he gets nosebleeds) and gives it to her.
"Those maricons are animals," he says. "I bet they'll grow up to be garbagemen in the future.."
Clare doesn't say anything. She just wipes her eyes and continues sniffling.
"I know some of those guys," Martin says. "They're from the band and cheerleading squad – listen, I'm sorry for what they've done to you. I've got.. some of my fries and yogurt if you want some." He hands her his pack of fries, which Clare takes, hesitantly at first, and then she begins wolfing down on them like there's no tomorrow. The sight of which makes Martin smile.
"It's always been like this.." Clare goes, once she's done. "They'd come and take some of my lunch, or if I sit somewhere more public, I get people talking about me."
"That's no way to live," Martin says.
"I wish I never have to come to school." Clare's eyes redden with sadness. "Every day, people tease me because of who I am, a strange, unsociable person. In classes, in the hallways. I hate it."
"That's because the majority of everyone doesn't know any better," Martin goes. "They expect everyone else to be just like them, and then they come across people like you and me. I got teased too, my first years here, and I saw others getting harassed. Then I learned how to find nice people."
Clare glances at Martin.
"I'll be your friend here, if you want," Martin says.
"You'll be my friend?"
"Absolutely. And my first act as your friend is to get you some medical help. Those bruises on your face look like they must hurt."
Martin takes her to the nurse's office where the in-school nurse (Dr Reily) wipes away the dirt, cleans Clare's wounds and patches her up with some gauze.
"What happened?" Dr Reily asks.
Clare looks down, as if unsure what answer to give, or if the nurse would even listen. So Martin answers, "I saw her getting pummelled by a group of people. Enrique, Gina--" and he gives out a list of names. "All that over her fries.. meng.."
A look of trepidation crosses over Clare's eyes. (Non.. don't tell her..) but I have to.
"Is that so?" Dr Reily is scrawling notes with a heavy hand. "This is pretty serious – is this the first time, or has this happened before?"
And Clare mutters, "Yes.. it's happened before. Dozens of times, really."
"Why didn't you go to a teacher about it?"
"Because.. the teachers never do anything." Anger rises through Clare's voice. "The most they've ever gave anyone on my behalf is a light slap on the back. It's like they make so much light out of it that they never grasp what's going on – most everyone here hates me."
"I don't," Martin goes.
"—they hate the way I dress, the way I'd always be staring off somewhere, when I curl up to myself whenever anyone wants to talk with me.. there's nothing anyone can do." There is a kind of despair in her eyes, a hopeless and bleak despair that is colder than any winter. "I'm just an aberration in the school's population."
"No," Martin goes, rebelling against the despair's chilliness. "I don't believe that, not for one instant. Those people may come and mock you, but they'll never see the angel who you are. You're an angel, Clare. That's the truth. So what if people don't realise that? Ugly ducklings are really just swans in hiding."
"You've only been with me since this morning.." Clare's lips tremble. "How can you mean all that?"
"Because.. I absolutely refuse to be like those animals who'd hate you. Never.. I never want to believe that you are doomed to be misunderstood."
Martin grasps Clare's hand tightly. "And if there is anything I can do to convince you that, I'd do it without hesitation."
You don't notice it at first. But something inside Clare changes. Like a spark has been lit inside her.
"Clare," the nurse goes. "I will report what's happened to the principals. Hopefully, you'll have more happier days here." She gives a smile.
It is tomorrow morning. It's gotten so cold that the teachers decide to let everyone in early. Martin notices the posters all over the school hallways, advertising an evening Christmas dance for this Friday.
Normally, Martin would shrug off the event and stay at home, because he wouldn't have any girl to hang out with. With Clare in mind though, he decides to give it some thought – Christmas dance is almost as important as the Summer prom, and he'd imagine he'd be able to make some good memories with her.
He'd have to dress up fancy though; it's semi-formal attire, and all he has at home is this one-piece suit zipped up in a bag. He hasn't worn it in a while; he wonders if he could still fit wearing it..
Martin scours the halls, looking for Clare. He bumps into his friends David and Lucho who are just walking rounds in a circle path – asks them if they've seen Clare. She has blonde hair, and maybe she's wearing a black dress.
They don't know about her, unfortunately.
"Are you suddenly seeing a girl, Mart?" Lucho goes. "Is that why you haven't shown up for lunch before?"
"It's.. I've only met her yesterday," Martin says, "but it's actually kind of a long story.."
"I think we've got time, tell us!"
So Martin starts explaining to them the situation with Clare – how he met her by the bench, all the things that made him fascinated about her, and when he brought her to the nurse's office after a group beating.
"I made a promise to her that day," Martin says. "I want to show her that people can still be good to her. That she should never have to be afraid of getting bullied. She's beautiful, meng. Oh, if you guys meet her.."
There's still ten minutes before classes start.
"Why don't we go look for her?" Lucho goes.
By luck, David spots her in one of the classrooms, already sitting at a desk, reading a novel. ("That her?" "Yep.")
They enter. Martin notices she's got on some black eyeliner this time. As they come closer to her, she gets more and more buried in the pages of her book, shying away from them.
"Clare--!" Martin greets.
She glances up, recognising him, and her eyes light up with warmth. "Oh, hey. For a second, I thought you guys were--"
"No no, these two are my friends," Martin goes. "David, Lucho – this is Clare."
"Howdy!" Lucho shakes her hand, smiling. "Nice to meet you."
David meekly says "Hi."
Clare seems to scrutinize them from head to toe. Lucho, with that smile that comes out of nowhere, would be the kind of person you'd easily be able to get friendly with. David meekly stands, gazing off some distance aways yet still receptive to the situation at hand.
"You've seen those posters over the hallways?" Martin goes. "About the Christmas dance?"
She doesn't look too enthused about it upon first mentioning, until she realises just what he is about to ask. "What about it?"
"Well.." Martin blushes a little. "Do you want to go, with me? For a dance?"
A mixture of happiness and hesitation rushes through her. "I.. the dance.." She pauses. "People there are going to poke fun at me and you."
"So? Ignore them! That's not hard to do. If they try anything funny to you, Lucho and David can come along as our bodyguards."
"Right!" Lucho goes. "Damn.. I don't have a dance partner.."
"Go dance with David! Bodyguards shouldn't complain!"
"As long as I'm around, I won't let anything happen to you," Martin says. "All that suffering you've been though, it is going to take a turn around, starting right now."
The bell rings, and they have to leave for their classes. Clare glances at them going for the door – she hears Martin say, "Just remember; if you can find even an ounce of happiness, all the pain and sadness won't matter."
And for her Physics class, the teacher's voice seems to die out of her awareness. Einstein's theorem of gravitation and energy.. what good does an abstract theory do against Martin's words? An ounce of happiness.. and all the pain and sadness won't matter.
She'd like to believe it with all her heart, really believe it, a glimmer of hope, and yet, there is always that dark spot in her mind laughing at her.
(it's more like all the happiness in the world won't matter)
(drowned away under pain)
Of course, Clare tries to fight it off, that goblin. Struggling against the icy rapids. With what little strength she has left-- sooner or later though, she'll fall victim to the void.
The warmth drains from her hands and legs, leaving them numb. She wants to curl up in a ball.
Picture yourself, held in his arms – he'll help carry you into the light.
Clare winds up forgetting to take notes for the class; instead she folds a piece of notebook paper into origami, a paper phoenix which she colours out with highlighter. She puts that into her pocket for later.