I hadn’t noticed him all year.
I could say it just wasn’t my thing. I kept to my sports and academics. My objective of high school was to get out and go to college. Boys were a distraction on that radar.
To this day, though, I wish I had noticed earlier.
It was the Thursday before Valentine’s Day that year. I remember because my best friend, Lia, was mourning over the idea she did not have a date that year. I told her to just give me the chocolates and we could go to a movie.
“But, Kristy!” Her lower lip quivered. Pouting. Always the drama queen. “I’ve always had a date for Valentine’s!”
I only rolled my eyes. “Maybe a change in pace will be good for you.” I slammed my locker shut, ready to go to my next class.
That was when I saw him.
At first glance, he was nothing abnormal. Brown hair that hung over his eyes, tight pants and shirt, worn skater shoes. He hunched over, arms crossed, as though protecting his chest. Something was clenched in his fist.
I blinked, and then rubbed my eyes. The lights must have gone out for a second. It happened again. His entire body fizzed like an old TV trying to get a channel on the right frequency for viewing.
Without thinking, I grabbed him. The flickering stopped. I felt warmth under my hand. He was solid, and very real.
He looked up, startled. I let go quickly.
“Sorry!” I said. What had I done? “I don’t know… well…” How was I supposed to say I thought he was going to disappear into thin air?
“Do you know him?” Lia looked at me smugly.
I shook my head. “Well, no, I just—“
The bell rang. The boy stared at me, though I could not see his eyes, as he shuffled past us.
We were late to class.
It had been on my mind all through AP Biology. He wasn’t a ghost because Lia could see him, too. People don’t just fizz out of existence.
As soon as the bell rang, I raced out of the classroom. Lia normally met me by her locker before lunch, but I needed this to be resolved. I went back to the hallway where it started.
He stood where I last saw him, but this time, other students surrounded him. Friends? I came to the quick conclusion that was a no.
“Why do you even come to school?” A girl jeered. She flicked a piece of candy at him. “You’re an eyesore.”
A boy quipped in. “How about don’t even get out of bed?”
That got a laugh out of the group. All of them pelted the boy with hard candy. When they were out of ammo, they told him to pick it up. He did. Then they started it again.
My blood grew cold. I was shocked. Who says that to someone? And makes him do that? I realized that with each word, my new acquaintance clutched his chest tighter and tighter; his image flickered rapidly.
That got me scared. And angry.
“What is wrong with you?”
They all turned to me. My anger fueled my sudden bravado to call these bullies out, but having six pairs of eyes bearing into my skull had me take a step back.
“Mind your own business, fatso,” said a boy. His hair was perfectly gelled to not move a millimeter.
“It’s muscle, moron.” I stepped forward, locking eyes with each one of them. “Leave the kid alone, or take your chances with me and your manicures.”
Apparently a bizarre moment of reckless companionship to this boy was enough for the group to shrug off and leave. They dispersed, saying they were bored with the situation anyhow.
The boy looked at me through his bangs. The edges of him shimmered in and out, but most of his form held.
I touched his hand. It held a cell phone. A red mark formed on his knuckle from a hard candy. “Are you alright?”
He nodded, averting his gaze.
“You should really speak up when they do that.”
No response. Maybe he can’t speak? That’s an odd thought.
“What’s your name?”
So he can talk. “My name is Kristy, Nigel. Are you off to lunch? Want to join me?”
Nigel shook his head and then walked away, like before. I watched his back until he turned the corner.
At lunch, I told Lia of what had happened in the hallway.
“I think it was rude of him to not even say, ‘thank you’!” She swirled noodles around her fork.
“He’s a guy.” That was the practical solution to that problem. The fuzzy imaging, though, made this situation less than rational. “Guy’s don’t like the whole ‘saved-by-a-girl’ thing.”
“Still rude.” She gasped. “What if you meet again, he apologizes, and you fall in love?” Her eyes got dreamy and she clasped her hands over her heart at the thought of possible drama.
I rolled my eyes and fixed my attention to my salad.
Lia had already moved on from her new daydream. “I say forget about that ungrateful lout and stick to saving those you know from the lowlifes of high school.”
I could not help but give a short laugh at the idea. “’Those I know’ wouldn’t become targets of the ‘lowlifes’ because they have a group of friends with them 24-7.”
“Then you have nothing to worry about!” My best friend took out a list of names. She tapped her finger on the table. “How about Fred from trigonometry class as a date for Valentine’s Day?”
“No. Blind. Dates.” Eventually Lia would have to get the idea. “So I shouldn’t worry about the piece of corn stuck in your teeth?” I asked, pointing at my incisor.
Lia squeaked and dug into her purse for her compact. She pulled it out, gasped at the offending crump, and rubbed it out.
“Worry about me and no one else!” She attacked me with a hug causing my tray to slide forward and almost spill my milk. “I’d be lost without you!”
I laughed, expecting such a reaction, and patted her on the head. “Alright. Now let me get back to my lunch.”
I couldn’t find him again until the next day. Friday. Lia was chanting ‘TGIF’ and telling me her battle plan for snatching some guys for Valentine’s Day tomorrow.
Lia looked to where I pointed. The bullies were back, surrounding Nigel again by the lockers.
“Come on, Kristy.” She shied away. “There are so many!”
“Then go get a teacher.”
As I approached, the situation elevated. The crowd started shoving the boy against the wall.
“Stop this!” I forced my way through to Nigel. “Leave him alone!”
Everyone glared at me for intruding again.
“He’s fine,” a girl spoke. When she crossed her arms, I could see a tattoo of a bass clef on her upper arm. “He doesn’t talk back, so he's okay with is, so don’t interfere!”
“Of course he can speak!” I clenched my fists.
“Really now?” A boy taunted. He poked at Nigel. “Come on, boy, talk!”
Nigel opened his mouth.
“He can’t!” A girl in pigtails giggled.
His image flicker violently.
I had to do something, but before I could react, someone threw a pencil. It connected with Nigel’s temple. Blood dripped from the wound. Everyone laughed. Nigel held his head, but didn’t cry.
“See! He doesn’t even feel it!”
I had enough. Another boy lifted a pencil to shoot, but I grabbed it out of his hand and threw it to the ground.
“How can you even think of hurting another person?” I felt the anger in my chest turn my face red. I sucked in my breath in short bursts. My heart was a combination of a blizzard and a desert storm. “Apologize to Nigel, then leave him along, or I go and get the teachers.”
Again they laughed. The sound rattled off the lockers and seemed to echo through the halls. Nigel’s form no longer fluttered, but turned transparent. I grabbed his hand. I was alarmed to find it was the consistency of cotton candy.
“What kind of name is that?”
“A name like that shouldn’t exist.”
I blinked. What was wrong with these people? Nigel squeezed his chest. The edges of his body began to fade.
A girl tried to push Nigel again. I grabbed her shoulders, shoving her into her peers.
“Hey!” A red-haired girl shouted. “Calm down, girl.”
“What’s your problem?” A boy asked, holding the girl I had pushed.
“Obviously you!” I yelled. They couldn’t take the hint quietly, so I guessed I had to spell it out. “Do you see what you’re doing here? You shove Nigel and laugh. I shove this girl and you get all
defensive. What makes him different than her? You won’t even let Nigel speak up for himself!”
I couldn’t believe they were going to continue that. “This!” I pointed. “This is Nigel-“
I blinked. He wasn’t there. I touched the air where he stood. Nothing. His cell phone lay on the ground. Slowly, I knelt down and picked it up.
“What’s going on here?” The principal arrived, Lia at his heels. He assessed the situation, and pointed to a few others and me. “Come to my office.”
Apparently, I started the fight. Something about me trying to steal one of the girl’s boyfriends. Didn’t want to be lonely on Valentine’s Day, right? No one would listen, so I just shut up and accepted it. I was given detention for all of next week to think about my actions.
When Lia saw me walk into the lobby, she jumped out of her chair.
“I never knew you would get so excited over a boy!” She giggled, and then waved a finger. “Really, though, you shouldn’t go after someone’s boyfriend. I can hook you up with any single boy in the school—“
“How can you believe that?” I snapped.
Lia’s eyes grew big. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t you remember? You saw him!” I grabbed her shoulders. “They were bullying him—“
Lia laughed. “Oh Kristy, you have such an imagination! You shouldn’t get into fights over something that doesn’t exist.”
I searched her face. Looking for what, I don’t know. Recognition? Belief? Sanity?
Nothing like that shone.
My hands covered my face. I rubbed away at my anxiety and anger. When I let them drop, there was only a twitchy smile.
“Meet you at the diner? I need to get my homework from my locker.”
She smiled her brilliant, credulous smile. “See you there!”
When she was gone, I pulled out the cell phone. It was one of those new ones with Internet access on it. I weighed it in my hand. Solid. Real.
I scrolled through the message logs. It was all there and more. Insensitive remarks to this kid, hidden by "Anonymous," internet users who had no filter for their hateful words. The dates on the posts told me Nigel had been fighting this cyber-battle for almost a year. Alone. Somehow, I ended up seeing the transactions in real-time.
My eye caught the final message Nigel posted.
“I’ll do it.” February 10, 20XX, 3:27 AM.
Tears filled my eyes. I couldn’t see the screen anymore.
He wasn’t real. Literally, in the time I knew him. He was rejected and tormented out of existence before I even saw him.
No part I played would have made a difference.