Markus watches the girls' varsity fùtbol game from the stands. The Spring semester is in full swing. The weather is warmer, the sun is brighter, and the days are longer. The winter blues perish and fùtbol is once again on the minds of all students. Northern Valley High School, home of the Vikings, takes pride in both their boys' and girls' fùtbol teams. Being on a varsity team across any sport is a privilege due to the thousands of students enrolled at this single high school.
The captain of the girls' fùtbol team sprints down the field. She dodges left and right. Veryn crosses her legs and twirls, maneuvering the ball in a variety of different ways. Enemy players trip and fall over their own legs, unable to keep up. Only someone who has played fùtbol since childhood could master such techniques.
"Go!" Markus yells. His eyes focus. He watches Veryn's complete control over the ball. He raises his hand to block out the glare of the morning sun.
Veryn sprints across the field with wide strides. The wind blows in her face and her pixie, dark brown hair blows with it. She has quite the athletic build and has more muscles than most girls her age. She is not built like a huge bodybuilder, but still has enough muscle where she does not have to flex to show them off. Her athletic features rest in her legs. If she ever kicked someone, it will send that person flying straight into the emergency room; no doubt accompanied by a large bruise with a side of blood.
Veryn's purple jersey is unique compared to others on the team, sporting a yellow stripe atop her left shoulder. It signifies captain status; though to the other team, it signals the player that needs to be guarded or shut down throughout the entire game. Veryn's tan face shines in the morning sunlight; sweat leaves trails down her face. Despite it being early in the morning, the heat is exhausting. Cicadas can be heard in the surrounding trees but the roar of the crowd drowns them out.
"There goes, Veryn!" the announcer shouts into his intercom. His voice throughout the stadium. Veryn aces the last defender and dribbles past her. She places the ball between her feet and performs a rainbow kick, arcing the ball up behind her and over her head.
Markus jumps out of his seat. His eyes follow the fùtbol as it arcs over her head. "Come on, come on." His eyes glance at the scoreboard above the goalpost before refocusing on Veryn. He pushes his glasses up his face.
The fùtbol descends in front of her. Veryn jumps and flips. She bicycle kicks and her legs fly and dance in the air and connect with the ball, which flies into the top-right corner of the goal. The net whooshes and catches the ball. The goalie is not near fast enough.
"Goal! Goal! Goal! The Vikings pull ahead!" the announcer boasts and his voice booms throughout the miniature stadium.
"Yes!" Markus yells, cheering on his favorite player.
The crowd roars. The loud chants and cheers draw out the sound of anything else. The cicadas are now silent. Markus stands up and cheers, something his asocial, introverted self is not used to doing. Though, whenever Veryn scores, he finds himself up on his feet. It feels awkward for him, like someone else controls his body. Markus never reacts to anyone else scoring unless it is the captain, Veryn. His body acts on auto-pilot.
Veryn's team rushes towards her, tackling her in a sea of hugs and excitement. The smile on her face is like no other, a smile of perfection and happiness. Markus watches and wonders what it feels like to smile like that. While the rest of the crowd continues to cheer as the time runs out, Markus sits back down on the bleachers. Although he does not need to, he looks around, knowing he sits all alone. He is the only one throughout the entire stadium that sits solo. Everyone else sits with friends or at least one other person.
The crowd disperses, the school resuming its normal day. At Northern Valley High School, fùtbol games take precedence over classes and coursework. Markus observes other students walking over to Veryn, getting her autograph on their own fùtbols. He looks down at his own fùtbol and squeezes it in his hands. His eyes dance back and forth between the ball and Veryn.
"Today is the day I get her autograph..." he says under his breath.
Markus takes a deep breath and grabs his backpack, throwing a strap over his shoulder. As he descends the bleachers, a group of other students push him. Markus falls and crashes on the metal stairs. He tumbles and rolls until he face plants into the grass below. "What a loser," a student mutters from the stands.
No one rushes over to help him, but Markus is used to that. Markus grabs his glasses that landed beside him. He puts them on, now slightly crooked, and stands up. He brushes the grass off his jeans and shirt. Markus is used to being bullied, so he does not react or retaliate, but instead looks around for his fùtbol that he wanted Veryn to autograph. He eyes it several feet in front of him. As he walks towards it, Veryn runs and kicks it, sending it flying into the goal.
Veryn smiles and laughs as her team runs up behind her. Markus sighs, and runs over to the goal, picking up his ball that Veryn kicked. He brushes off the dirt so it maintains its white color. He pulls out a marker from his jeans and walks towards Veryn, but stops walking mid-stride. His nerves start to take over his actions.
"No, today is the day. She is signing it this time," Markus tells himself. He takes a breath and walks forward, continuing his stride until Veryn and a couple of her teammates stand a few feet in front of him. "E-Excuse me, Veryn?" he asks.
Veryn turns towards him, the smile fading from her lips. "Yes? What is it?" Her voice is deeper than other girls.
Markus gulps. He looks down at his worn out sneakers and dirty jeans. His white t-shirt now with covered several grass stains. His short dark hair does not allow the wind to blow it in any direction. A couple of pimples cover his face, but are not really noticeable. His skin is pale and in desperate need of sunlight. "I was wondering if you, and possibly your other teammates here, would sign my fùtbol?"
"Aren't you that nerd that everybody picks on?" Maddie asks.
"Shut up, Maddie," Veryn demands. "I am not going to let you make fun of my fans." Veryn turns to her teammate who spoke. "Do you know he has never missed a single one of our games? He's been here since the beginning when we were struggling."
"Yeah, so what? That can be said for about half of the school," Tessa says.
Veryn sighs. "Of all the other students who are bullied and have a hard time at our school, Markus here is the only one among the bullied that comes to support us," she counters. "And perhaps that can be said about half the school, Tessa. But there is something different when one of the students risks being bullied, tormented, and putting himself further at risk just for the sake of watching our team."
Markus speaks up, "Watching you..." he corrects. He manages to look up at Veryn. Her dark eyes matching her dark brown hair.
"What did you just say?" Maddie asks.
Tessa speaks next, interrupting Veryn, "Oh my.. He is brave. I'll give him that."
Veryn is interrupted again before she can speak. Maddie smirks at him, "Do you really think you have a chance with her?"
"Shut. Up," Veryn demands sternly, sending frightening glares to both Maddie and Tessa. She tilts her head curiously in Markus's direction. "What do you mean watching me?"
Markus steadies himself. Veryn is quite intimidating even from a few feet away. She is taller than him, probably by about half an inch. Her body physique and build puts his to shame. She is no doubt stronger, and any bystander can see this. Her legs could cut Markus in half. Markus, feeling uneasy and self-conscious, begins to withdrawal into his fragile shell he calls home. "Listen, can you just sign my fùtbol? I've been meaning to ask you for a long time, but only now have gotten enough courage to ask you."
The school bell rings in the distance, signaling a five minute warning until the start of classes. Tessa looks in the direction of the bell before she turns and looks back at Veryn. "Come on! We don't have time for this. Nor do you have time for him," she says and motions to Markus.
"We're going to be late!" Maddie urges.
Veryn folds her arms across her chest, her eyes laser focused on Markus like her eyes laser focus the fùtbol during a match. Markus feels her intense stare penetrating his soul; like her stare alone will condemn him straight to the depths of hell. After a few minutes pass, Veryn speaks, shifting her gaze to her two teammates. "I'm the captain of the varsity fùtbol team, they won't punish me. You two go on ahead. As for you," she says, turning back to Markus, "I am not signing a damn thing until you explain to me what you meant. Now, speak."
Maddie and Tessa run off towards the school, afraid of being late. They do not think twice about leaving Veryn. Markus turns and watches them run off as if they are being chased by a killer. He turns back to Veryn. "Just forget it," he says. He puts the marker back in his pocket and walks towards the school.
"Don't think you are getting off so easily," Veryn states. She runs towards him and passes his body, standing in front of him face-to-face. Markus looks down. Frustrated, Veryn places her leg behind him and pushes him hard. He trips over her leg and falls down onto the grass; something that he is all too familiar with doing.
Markus rubs the back of his head. "Glad to see you are a bully just like everyone else."
"Call me what you want." Veryn retorts. "That was me unleashing some of my frustration since clearly you lack the confidence to answer a simple question."
Markus attempts to get up, but Veryn pushes one of her cleats into his chest and forces him back into the ground. He looks up at Veryn, who mimics a victory pose as if she just won a wrestling match. Markus does not attempt to move her leg, knowing those are the strongest muscles in her entire body. Realizing there is nothing he can do, he grabs his fùtbol and tosses it up to Veryn, followed by a marker. She catches both of them. "Can you please just sign it?"
Veryn looks down at him, obvious anger in her face. "Fine." She pulls the cap off the marker and begins to write. She signs her name but she takes longer than usual. She continues to write, and write, and write. After about a minute, half of the entire fùtbol is covered in a message. "There you go." She shoves the ball down towards him too quick for him to block. It impacts his chest and knocks the air out of his lungs. She removes her cleat from his chest and extends her hand down towards him.
Hesitantly, he grabs it. Her grip is firm and tighter than his own. She propels him upwards with ease, standing him up on his own two feet. He has never had the privilege of holding hands with someone, let alone the captain of the fùtbol team. He does not want to let go, but he does to avoid awkwardness. Veryn squints her eyes at him before grabbing her backpack and running off towards the school. Markus watches her run, her long strides closing the distance.
The final bell chimes in the distance. "Whelp, I'm in trouble. But that was definitely worth it." He looks down at the long message that Veryn left on the ball. He decides not to read it, saving it for later. He grabs his backpack and runs towards the school.
Miss Walker turns when Markus walks through the classroom door, fùtbol still in hand. "Oh, great," she starts. "And what's your excuse for being late?"
Markus scratches his head. "I don't really have one I guess." He turns towards the class, realizing they all stare at him. Whispers and chuckles fill the room.
"How about you take a second and think of one?" Miss Walker suggests. She adjusts her glasses, squinting and narrowing her eyes towards Markus. Her black blouse and heels attract all sorts of stares and makes it difficult for both students and teachers alike to avert their gaze. She has a librarian vibe emanating from her presence that makes students and teachers stop whatever they are doing to admire her. Though she dresses like a Goth, she does not act or talk like one. In fact, she is the teacher at Northern Valley High School that has the best student grades. She won the teacher of the year award for outstanding student excellence two years in a row. Despite her librarian and sexy appearance, she is the best teacher at the school.
After a brief silence, Markus speaks, "I was just running late after the fùtbol game this morning. I didn't even have time to go to my locker."
"Right, whatever. Just take your seat. And I will speak with you after class for your punishment. You know the rules." Miss Walker turns and resumes writing on the chalkboard.
Veryn stands up at her desk. "He was with me after the game."
Markus turns to who spoke and stops mid-walk when he sees Veryn. His eyes grow wide. He did not see her when he walked in. A new semester brings different classes and different students to fill them. Gasps of expression spread throughout the room like an audience performing the wave in a stadium. Whispers and laughter follow the initial reaction of the 30 or so students in the classroom. If Markus was not the center of attention, he is now thanks to Veryn.
Miss Walker turns around to face the class. "Everyone quiet down, right now." She looks over to Veryn. "If you are going to make an excuse for him, at least make it believable."
Veryn crosses her arms. She is still dressed in her purple fùtbol uniform. She never had time to change. "Are you calling me a liar, Miss Walker?" Veryn asks.
Miss Walker sighs. "Fine. Both of you sit down and shut up while I finish writing today's lesson on the board."
"Yes, ma'am," Markus says.
Markus heads to his seat when another student appears in the doorway. "Did I just hear correctly? Was puny little Markus here spending time with my girl?" Brett asks.
Markus freezes in the middle of the aisle. He turns to who just spoke, but in his gut, he already knows who it is. Brett, the jockey rugby player, hovers in the doorway. He wears a purple rugby varsity jacket and jeans. Despite the clothes, anyone can tell that he is well-built and possibly dosed on numerous types of steroids. Either that, or he literally stays at the gym all day. Markus is not entirely sure. Brett's hair is gelled in a spike-like hairstyle, a style and trend Markus thought died a long time ago. Brett's bright blue eyes mislead everyone into thinking he is a nice guy, but as everyone knows from a young age, looks can be deceiving. He is only nice to his other teammates and there are no students brave enough to get in his way.
Markus, still frozen with terror, says, "I thought you moved to a different school for a better rugby team?"
"Now, you insult the rugby team, and you are spending time talking to my girl? You're in for a beating of a lifetime." Brett walks into the classroom. One of the students sitting near the aisle pushes Markus towards Brett. Markus trips from the push, never able to maintain an adequate sense of balance. He is not a coordinated student and any type of athleticism is not his thing. During physical education class, he struggles during any type of event; and not to mention, he is always picked last for teams.
Veryn leaps out of her chair. She runs forward and stands in between the two of them. "Brett, what are you-"
Brett wraps his arm around Veryn's shoulder. "See?" he says. "Even Veryn here wants to join in on the fun." He pulls Veryn and stands her next to him with his arm around her. Compared to Brett, Veryn is shorter than him, unlike Markus, whom she is taller.
"Now that is what you call a cute couple," one of the other students blurts out.
Veryn points at the student who spoke, "Shut up."
"Her two favorite words," Brett confirms. "Now, how about you explain what you were doing meeting with this pipsqueak after your game?"
Miss Walker walks up to the three of them. "Veryn and Markus, take your seats right now. And as for you," she says, turning to Brett. "You may leave. You are not even in this class."
"Can't you see we are busy?" Brett retorts.
Miss Walker remains silent, knowing not to go against the captains of the athletic department. Veryn looks at Brett. "Markus just wanted an autograph. That's all."
Markus looks down at the fùtbol in his hands, remembering that Veryn wrote more than just signing her name. He casually wipes the fùtbol against his clothes to smear and make the words unreadable. "She's right. I just wanted an autograph. Veryn there signs autographs after every game anyway. So, I figured I could get one."
"You figured wrong," Brett snaps. "Have you taken a good, long look at yourself in the mirror? People like you shouldn't even be attending sporting events, let alone interacting with the players."
"Brett!" Veryn yells.
"Quiet, this has to be said. If I ever see you at one of Veryn's game again, I'll-"
"Hurt me?" Markus interrupts, completing Brett's sentence. "Maybe humiliate me? Kill me? I've been to all Veryn's matches, and I've never seen you at any of them. So, how would you even know if I was there or not?"
Brett's face becomes red, his neck shows a throbbing and pulsing vein. "You piece of crap. How dare you. I have been to her matches," he lies. He takes a few steps forward and pushes Markus hard. Markus propels backwards and crashes over two students and their desks. The desks and chairs topple over with a loud racket. Markus and the two students fall to the cold floor.
Veryn winces watching Markus crash over the desks, students, and the chairs. She moves towards the crash, but thinks otherwise and instead remains still, wrapping her arm around Brett. Her eyes show concern, but her actions contradict them. She remains at Brett's side.
Miss Walker runs over. "Brett! What do you think you are doing? You are not even in this class. Now, get out of here or face the consequences!"
"What consequences?" he taunts. "I'm the captain of the rugby team. I am untouchable." Brett looks down at Markus's fùtbol rolling towards him. Veryn bites her inside gum. Her eyes follow it. She is unable to tell if her message is still there. The fùtbol comes to a stop at Brett's shoes, the blank side facing up. Veryn's heart rate increases and palpates in her chest.
"That may be," Miss Walker answers, "but that does not mean you must bully other students."
Markus gets up slowly, checking his head where it impacted the desk and chair on his acrobatic descent to the floor. No blood, but it will leave a mark and add color to his pale body, despite the colors being black and blue. Realizing he is no longer holding his fùtbol, he looks around desperately for it. He stands up just as Brett leans down to pick it up. Markus pauses, but still tries to help the other students who he collided with during the fall.
"Don't touch me!" the girl spits. "I can get up on my own. I do not want your help."
Markus frowns. "Sorry..." He looks over at the second girl, who simply shakes her head. No words needed.
"Well, well, well, what do we have here?" Brett boasts with more curiosity than enthusiasm. Holding Markus's fùtbol in his hands, his eyes scan the portion Veryn signed earlier.
The message is about a paragraph in length. Veryn looks at it, still standing at Brett's side. She sighs in relief when the message, including her autograph, is unreadable, having been smeared beyond recognition. She shifts her gaze over to Markus and notices the marker smears staining the side of his clothes. "Thank you," she whispers under her breath. Markus cannot audibly hear her, but he reads her lips. He gives her a slight nod.
Brett squints his eyes, trying to make out the message. He turns to Veryn. "This is your handwriting. What did you write on here besides signing your autograph?"
"I was making fun of him, obviously," Veryn states coldly. "What else would I write?"
Markus, now having wished he read the message, feels his heart sink down into his stomach. Brett lets out an obnoxious laugh. "That's right. I forgot you hate students like him. Since we clearly can't read it, how about you tell me and the rest of the class what it said?"
Markus's face becomes more pale than usual, already knowing what comes next. He makes a dash for the door, but Brett moves to block his path. He grabs Markus's shoulders and forces him to turn around. Now, facing Veryn, Brett shoves him forward, coming to a stop in front of her. Markus stares into her confusing, dark colored eyes. "Please, don't..." he begs.
"Say it!" a student in the back of the room yells.
"Yeah, say it, Veryn!" a second student yells from the middle of the room.
The entire classroom erupts into a chant, "Say it! Say it! Say it!"
Veryn holds up her hand to silence the class of students. "Oh, I gave him an autograph, but since it was Markus here asking for it, I decided to write a bit more."
Markus looks down to the ground. "Stop... Please."
Veryn pushes him. "Look at me when I insult you," she demands. Half the class smiles and laughs.
Brett approaches Markus from behind. He grips Markus's neck and forces him to look at Veryn; holding his head stationary to prevent movement. "I got you, babe," Brett says. "He isn't going anywhere."
Veryn stares at Markus, her dark eyes resemble a void. "I wrote about how pathetic he is," she begins. "That he is a waste of space and air. He is a loser who always sits by himself whether it be at lunch, in class, or watching a fùtbol game in the stadium. He must never go outside considering how pale he is. On top of that, he does not have any friends and he never will. He is useless and deserves to be bullied every day since he is so strange and weird. See him breathing? That's him taking in our much-deserved oxygen."
Markus stares at her in utter shock. His lips quiver and his eyes fill with a salty substance. The best thing, or perhaps the only thing he can do, is look away from her with his eyes. The rest of the class points at Markus and erupts in laughter. Miss Walker observes, powerless to intervene.
"Oh, that is not all," Veryn continues. "I know that he watches the varsity fùtbol games only so he can observe me. He practically stalks me throughout the entire match. Do you all understand how creepy that is?" Veryn points at him, her index finger an inch from his face. "He honestly thinks he has a chance with someone like me. No, Markus, there is not a chance in hell of that ever happening. In fact, you will never find someone that you may call yours. You will be forever alone with no one to talk with but yourself."
Markus feels a tightening in his chest. A lone tear escapes down his face. He opens his mouth to speak, but no words come out. He is unable to summon the will to look Veryn in the eyes and continues to look away.
Some students fall to the floor from laughing too hard; their eyes are closed, but fill with tears from all the humility. Brett leans in, placing his lips right outside Markus's ear. "Seriously? You were trying to get with my girlfriend? You are a piece of garbage. Damn crybaby."
"That's enough!" the principal states boldly, standing in the classroom doorway. His voice booms and echoes throughout the entire room. The laughter ceases. The students on the floor quickly get back in their seats. All students erect their backs and sit-up straight. Principal Arjin grabs Brett's shoulder, pulling him back with incredible force and releases Markus from his grasp.
Brett turns and looks at principal Arjin, expelling a puff of air out of his lungs in frustration. He pulls Arjin's hand off his shoulder and remains silent.
Principal Arjin is quite young to be the principal of a school; let alone this school with thousands of students enrolled. He is in his early thirties, and can relate quite well to all types of students that walk through his halls. Such is the reason the board appointed him as principal a couple of years ago. It was a gamble, but one the board is glad they risked. His bald head reflects the lights in the classroom. He has dark brown eyes and a tough, overall demeanor. Every day, he wears an expensive Italian suit, taking pride in both his appearance and role as principal. He is not fat, but a bigger man and big boned.
"Sir," Veryn begins, "If I may-"
"No, you may not. I have heard enough come out of your mouth." Arjin interrupts. He turns his attention to Markus. "Are you alright?"
Markus is silent, though settling down. He wipes his face with his hand and looks up, exchanging a brief glance with Veryn. He looks at the fùtbol on the ground and kicks it hard. It smacks Veryn in the leg.
Veryn winces. "Ow-" She reaches down and rubs her leg. Markus shoves past Arjin and Brett and runs out of the classroom.
Brett walks over to Veryn, who now has a blank expression on her face. He grabs her wrist with his hand and raises it high into the air. "Victory!" he yells.
The students cheer and applaud Veryn, who pays them nor their applause no mind. Instead, her gaze lingers on the empty doorway Markus just escaped through.
Principal Arjin watches Markus run down the hall from the doorway. He lets him go, deciding not to stop him. He turns back to Veryn and approaches her, seeing Brett raising her arm high into the air.
"You honestly think you've won something, Veryn? If that's the case, you should raise your arm higher," Arjin taunts.
Veryn rips her arm away from Brett's hand. "I had no choice..." she defends. Her voice trails off. "I had to say those things."
"There's always a choice," Arjin answers. He turns his head to the class. "You know, it is rather funny. You all say, think, and act based solely on what other students think of you. Take Veryn here for example." He turns back to face her. "She said those things for one reason; okay, maybe two reasons. One, it was what Brett expected and wanted her to say. And two, it's what all of you expected her to say. She acted and said those hurtful words to Markus because she cares what others think of her. Markus? He does not; and that is evident in how he has not changed who he is, nor changed his behavior despite constant bullying."
The class falls silent. Finally, a few moments later, Brett opens his mouth, "Didn't you see him crying? He definitely cares what others think of him."
"Is that so?" Miss Walker questions, walking towards Veryn, Brett, and principal Arjin. "Don't mistake crying for weakness. Would you not be sad if those hurtful words were said to you? In front of a whole class for everyone to hear?"
"Absolutely not," Brett answers. "Because I would never let myself become that much of a loser or wimp."
Arjin sighs. "All of this over a damn autograph. Unbelievable." He walks and stops in front of Veryn, who has remained silent. She stares out the window. "Is this how you treat your biggest fan?"
Veryn's gaze shifts to Brett, whose face shows annoyance. Her gaze alternates between him and Arjin. "I did what I had to do."
Arjin notices her shifting gaze and confirms his own theory. "I see," he answers. "Hardly behavior worthy of a captain."
Veryn looks down at the floor, a lump forming in her throat. She opens her mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. She walks over to Brett and gives him a kiss on the cheek. She feels both Miss Walker's and principal Arjin's stares penetrating her very person; judging her current action with the highest possible criticism. Now, the class watches her walk over to the fùtbol Markus kicked at her. She leans down and picks it up, examining it as she walks back to her desk and sits down.
Brett smirks. "Flatten and get rid of that ball whenever you get away from principal Arjin. I'll see you later, babe." Brett exchanges a cold look with Arjin before exiting the classroom.
Arjin turns to Miss Walker. "Sorry you had to be a part of this. You may resume your lesson. Though, much of your class time has been wasted already."
Miss Walker nods. "Thank you, sir."
Veryn sits silently at her desk, not bothering to acknowledge Brett's remarks. Staring at the fùtbol in front of her, she curses herself under her breath and begins to think. Arjin is right. She does care immensely what others think, but she has come too far to risk her captain status. She moves the fùtbol underneath her desk and places it between her feet. Controlling the ball without thought, she dribbles and kicks the fùtbol up and down in front of her. Due to her height, her legs and feet extend out in front of her desk. The fùtbol dances in the air, bouncing up and down in various heights and patterns. Her hand scribbles notes as Miss Walker starts her class lesson; though, not on schedule.
Principal Arjin's eyes follow the fùtbol as it dances in the air at Veryn's feet. He sighs to himself, lucky he happened to be passing by when he heard the commotion in the classroom. He turns and walks out of the room, heading towards his office now that order has been restored. He looks around for Brett or Markus, but both are nowhere to be found.
On the other side of the school, Markus dashes through the hallway. He sprints as fast as his legs can take him. The purple lockers on each side of him blur due to his speed. Let's face it, running down any hallway, especially one like hotels, makes anyone feel like the Flash. His vision is also blurred from the remnants of tears. He stops at the boys' locker room, unable to sprint for long periods of time. He heads inside and stops in front of one of many sinks. He turns it on and splashes water onto his face and washes off his glasses.
He places his hands on the sides of the sink and gazes at himself in the mirror; his face still red. The red color is very prominent and stands out on him more than any other student in the school. He runs his hand through his hair and stares into the mirror, hating the reflection that stares back. His tiny pimples on his face seem like mountain ranges, not helping him feel better. His lips are chapped and red from constant biting, matching the flushed color present on his face. One of his many nervous habits.
He hears the locker room door open, accompanied by a voice, "Heads up, coming through."
Markus splashes another dose of water on his face to clean himself up. He grabs a towel and turns to the open door. The physical education teacher and varsity wrestling coach walks through the door. He looks around the locker room before laying eyes on Markus. "Oh, it's just you," he says. "What are you doing in here? Don't you have class right now?" Coach Dimitri asks, his green eyes scanning Markus's face. "Why is your face all red?"
"Don't worry about it," Markus answers.
"Right," he nods, "Whatever you say, kid."
"Kid?" Markus repeats. The word lingers on his lips. "Do you and the other teachers even think of me as a student? Or maybe a puppy that was abandoned on the side of the road unable to return home? An educator calling one of his students a kid is without a doubt inappropriate." Coach Dimitri ignores him and pulls a large dolly carrying multiple purple mats. They look like wrestling mats, or the larger mats that are used for wrestling or fitness exercises. Markus's eyes follow the dolly. "What are those for?" he asks.
Coach Dimitri stops at the doorway leading into the gymnasium, deciding to finally answer. "Don't you remember? Once a month we have self-defense class. Are you sitting it out again? That might not be an option this time."
Markus hears the criticism in Coach Dimitri's voice. "I would rather not get tossed around anymore than I already do daily. Why would I bother participating when I get thrown around, pushed, and beat up anyway? This is just another excuse for someone to do just that, but this time with permission from a damn teacher. If I were to learn how to defend myself, that will just make me even more of a target. Thanks, but no thanks. I'll take the fail grade for the day."
"That garbage you just said is the worst reasoning I have heard all year. You have to start somewhere. You might as well make it today." The coach pulls the dolly through the door, disappearing. The door slams shut.
Markus sighs and sits down on the bench, thinking to himself. His thoughts overwhelm him and jump to the worst possible conclusion. If he does learn to defend himself, that will make him more of a target than he is now, if that is even possible. It could not possibly help his current situation. Of the thousands of students at this school, he is prime target number one for many, obvious, reasons.
The bell brings his mind back to reality. He sighs, knowing that physical education class is next; or rather, self-defense class. This ridiculous class is the school board's brilliant plan to combat bullying and the high student population at Northern Valley High School. The school board is not the brightest, having not even visited the school in the past few months. So, clearly, they know what is best for the thousands of students enrolled here.
Other male students make their way into the locker room. Some of them pay Markus no mind; while others send glances, stares, and whispers in his direction. That's the thing with a very large school, rumors spread like wildfire. Sometimes, wildfires rage with such power, that firefighters, park rangers, and other authorities are powerless to put them out. Authorities can throw water and dirt on the wildfires all they want, but the flame will persist.
Markus walks to his own locker and opens it. Though not necessary, Markus wears his P.E. clothes underneath his current clothes so he does not have to change in front of the other students. A note falls out of his locker onto the floor. He bends down and picks it up. He opens it, and after reading it, immediately crumbles it up and throws it into the trash basket nearby.
"I'm surprised you actually made that into the trash can. How about you go ahead and throw yourself in there as well?" a student says from behind. Though a different voice from Brett, Markus recognizes the voice of Ralph, the sidekick. Markus turns around and is met with a fist slamming into the locker next to him. He flinches, though he expected something to happen.
"Hi, Ralph," Markus says, not deviating from his normal greeting.
Ralph squints his eyes, his eyebrow twitches. "Do you know what today is?"
"I'm aware. Do you know who isn't participating like usual?"
"Oh, see that's what I wanted to talk with you about." Ralph leans in closer, his breath not doing him any favors. His long, dirty blonde hair extends to his neck and it has not been washed in some time. He is sporting the typical white t-shirt and purple athletic shorts that stop at his knees. Ralph and Markus have the same colored eyes, but Ralph has cuts and bruises on his body from either Rugby practice, a game, or something else entirely. "You see, Brett and I have made special arrangements to make sure that you are required to participate today. So, if you think you are going to skip, think again."
A shiver of fear runs up Markus's spine at the thought of engaging in combat. Though, the instructors stress to only use the training learned in the self-defense course, that has not stopped other students from using outside training or martial arts to inflict pain. Such is a part of the reason Markus fears this day every month. "They can't make me participate. So, whatever you have planned, go for it."
Ralph laughs and walks around him, heading into the gymnasium. Markus drops his jeans and auto-changes into his purple shorts. He never changes in the locker room anymore because of a prior incident. Now, on days he is required to have P.E. class, he wears his purple shorts underneath his jeans. He shoves his jeans into his locker and walks into the gym, the bell signaling the start of the period.
Northern Valley High School has multiple different gymnasiums scattered throughout its large campus. This one is the largest and can hold larger P.E. classes throughout the day. The school color, purple, is splashed on the walls with various varsity jerseys hanging from the ceiling. Several large, purple mats are scattered throughout the gym and conceals most of the actual floor. Markus looks up to the ceiling and sees Veryn's name on a jersey flying first in line. He scuffs and refuses to look at it.
The female students emerge from their own locker room on the opposite side of the gym. Markus watches Veryn emerge in the crowd. Both of their eyes momentarily meet, but he is met with a blank expression. He looks away. At least a hundred students are scattered throughout. They all move to their assigned squad positions and sit down.
Coach Dimitri stands in front of all the students. "This month, the self-defense portion of P.E. class is mandatory, unlike the previous sessions last semester. So, if you elect not to participate in today's event, you will fail this course." Whispers and muttering occurs throughout the class. Coach Dimitri raises his hand in the air to silence them. "As I'm sure you all know, you need this credit to advance to the next grade."
Markus looks at Ralph, who sends him a wicked grin. "Crap..." Markus mutters under his breath.
"As always, we begin these sessions with a demonstration. Veryn," Coach Dimitri says. He turns to her.
Veryn jumps up from her squad position. She walks towards the coach and stands beside him. She faces the student body. The boy and girl gym outfits are the same; purple shorts, a white t-shirt, and gym shoes. "Yes, sir."
Coach Dimitri smiles. "Since Veryn here has the highest marks in the self-defense category, she will take part in the demonstration to make sure no one gets hurt." He leans over to Veryn, who stands erect at his side. "Speaking of, have you changed your mind about joining the wrestling team? We would be happy to have you."
Veryn smiles at the compliment and turns to face the coach. "No thank you, I am not joining the wrestling team."
"You've managed to either outwit, pin, or out-maneuver practically everyone on the team. Please?" Coach Dimitri begs.
Veryn shakes her head. "No, thank you. Although I enjoy martial arts in general, fùtbol is the only sport I truly love." She shifts her attention to Markus, this time not averting her gaze. Markus gets a funny feeling in the pit of his stomach. He looks over at Ralph, who sends him a choking expression and runs his thumb across his neck.
Coach Dimitri turns and points to Markus, "Markus will be her opponent for this demonstration since he holds the lowest possible score in this category, having never participated in these classes last semester."
Half of the class erupts in laughter, knowing full well what the outcome of this will be.
"Someone call 911! We'll need an ambulance!" Ralph shouts.
More laughter erupts from the students, echoing back and forth across the gym. He does not have a choice. He must participate. To be held back because of a physical education class when he maintains a 4.0 grade-point-average is ridiculous and will surely have a negative impact on his life. He takes two advanced placement courses for crying out loud. Markus stands up; his legs resemble jelly and shake back and forth.
"Come on!" Coach Dimitri yells. "We don't have all damn day."
Markus nods, and slowly walks over to the mat Veryn stands on. Both stand a few feet apart.
Rather than playing on their phones like most students, all of them are glued to the demonstration in front of them. Veryn smirks and speaks first, "Remember, I have your fùtbol hostage. If you manage to successfully block my assault, you can have your ball back."
Markus summons the courage to speak, to his surprise and to everyone else, "With your autograph?"
Veryn raises her eyebrow, not expecting such a response if a response at all. "Oh? Fine. With my autograph."
Some of the students begin recording with their phone as Coach Dimitri smiles, finally seeing Markus up on the mat. "Begin!" he shouts.