theo tate &. eva armstrong
october 2006
school of hard knocks
High school felt like it would go on forever. Perhaps some part of it had something to do with the fact that Theo, throughout his entire schooling experience, had never been in one place for too long. If he'd been lucky, it might have made it all seem shorter, more exciting, more filled with new things and new faces. And there was a part of him that did like it — appreciated that he'd been lucky enough to see parts of the world that, without the wandering nature of his mother, would have had to wait until much later in life, if ever. Theo would look back in years to come and understand that the two of them were lucky — beyond lucky — to even get to do it, but sitting there, in that moment in the quad outside his newest school, Theo didn't feel so lucky at all.

Or maybe it was less unlucky and more an unrelenting sense of duty that Theo had never and would never be able to shake, no matter how many times it got him into trouble. The unluckiness came after, more often than not. Theo was by far the youngest in this new school year, ahead in class and smaller than most of the other boys, still holding out for a growth spurt that would inevitably only take for a few years and then peter out well before he could ever reach the lofty goals of six feet. Height and considerable lack of strength in comparison to the bigger, more well-practiced bullies in the school weren't things that crossed Theo's mind when he threw himself into the middle of the newest situation.

The situation involved three older boys shoving around a younger, jeering and laughing and preventing him from making his way back into the (theoretical) safe confines of the school hallways. Theo had been sitting reading a book for all of three minutes before he saw, and any sense of self-preservation — and the undeniable urge to try to keep his head down at a new school — went very quickly out the window, because a half second later he'd tossed his things to the side and thrown himself in the middle of the group, back to the younger kid, face screwed up to scold.

"What's your problem? Are you bored? Did you lose all the rocks rattling around in your head?"

"Who the fuck are you? Who the fuck is this kid?"

"I'm Theo Tate and I guess that makes you a shit for brains—"

To be fair, it was the most words he'd ever gotten out before getting punched in the face. At least by that point the kid he'd jumped into defend had skittered off to eject himself from the problem, so that was — a win, Theo supposed, eating a mouthful of dirt and spitting out grass and blood and doing his very best not to yelp when a boot caught him in the ribs.

No, instead he said: "Harder, I can barely feel it. You couldn't possibly be the team kicker, could you?"

It came out with a garbled bit of laughter which was silenced again by another punch and another kick, and Theo dazedly wondered if maybe he was the shit for brains.

The thing about high school was that it was guided by hierarchies. Theo was new, at the bottom, and an unknown. There was no reason why he should be protected or liked, even.

There should be no reason that a pair of booted high heels should have come in, or that a girl's voice coyly says, "Shouldn't you be picking on someone your own size? What's the matter with you?"

There's a scuffle of feet, and the girl's voice rings out again, louder, "I said what is wrong with you? He's new. Leave him alone."

Theo'd rolled a bit, curled in on himself to protect his tender stomach and ribs, but there was no need — well, not anymore, not once a new voice had joined the mix, though this one sounded further away, more out of place.

The kicking slowed, sneakers shifted around in the dirt, and through the ringing in his ears he could make out some of the conversation — some whined, "C'mon, Eva, it's no big deal. He was asking for it." And a chorus of, "We're not doing anything," which — Theo made a face from down below, fairly sure that it was obvious that they were doing something.

What he did catch, crystal clear, was a short, derisive, snarled, "Stuck up bitch," as the guys took themselves in the opposite direction, but it wasn't directed at him but at the new voice instead, and Theo rolled over, back onto his back, with every intention of saying something to their departing backs, but all that came out was a vaguely joking and very nonthreatening, "Yeah, you better run."

Theo pushed himself into a sit, wiped the back of his sleeve against his bloodied lip, and winced up into the sun and the face in front of it. Eva, apparently. He smiled weakly at her. "Hi."

Her eyes met his: a little colder, but not purely anything spiteful. Curious even, as she formed a smile on her face. "Hey, new guy." She crouches down to offer her hand, nails a bright chrome, in clothes that were expensive and maybe not entirely suited for a high school girl. Not that it mattered as she tried to help him up, shouldering a duffle bag as she did. "Nurse's office isn't too far. You want me to walk you?"

Looking around, there was nobody else in sight that seemed to have any intention of stepping in to help. The weedy little kid Theo had stepped in for had disappeared altogether and he couldn't say he blamed him. The girl, though — hand outstretched enough for Theo to reach up to grab it with only a moment's hesitation — at least she'd helped. And, apparently, was still helping.

He steadied himself back on his feet, a little hunched with a hand against his stomach, and he couldn't quite school away the look of surprise that crossed his features at her offer. He blinked once, then smiled.

Theo answered with a soft, "Their review of you was off the mark."

Then cringed again, smiled with a bit more warmth, and answered for real: "Yeah. Yes. Thanks."