â€œI am a socially awkward mandork.â€
â€œNicholas Ambrosius Gautier! You watch your language!â€
Nick sighed at his mother’s sharp tone as he stood in their tiny kitchen looking down at the bright orange Hawaiian shirt. The color and style were bad enough, the fact it was covered in l-a-r-g-e pink, gray and white trout (or were they salmon?) was even worse. â€œMom, I can’t wear this to school. It’s…â€ he paused to think real hard of a word that wouldn’t get him grounded for lifeâ€“ â€œhideous. If anyone sees me in this, I’ll be an outcast relegated to the loser corner of the cafeteria.â€
As always, she scoffed at his protest. â€œOh shush. There’s nothing wrong with that shirt. Wanda told me at the Goodwill store that it came in from one of those big mansions down in the Garden District. That shirt belonged to the son of a fine upstanding man and since that’s what I’m raising you to be…â€
Nick ground his teeth. â€œI’d rather be a delinquent no one picks on.â€
She let out a deep sound of aggravation as she paused while flipping bacon. â€œNo one’s going to pick on you, Nicky. The school has a strict no bullying policy.â€
Yeah, right. That wasn’t worth the â€œcontractâ€ paper it was written on. Especially since the bullies were illiterate idiots who couldn’t read it anyway.
Jeez. Why wouldn’t she listen to him? It wasn’t like he wasn’t the one going into the lion’s den everyday and having to traverse the brutality of high school land mines. Honestly, he was sick of it and there was nothing he could do.
He was a massive loser dork and no one at school ever let him forget that. Not the teachers, the principal and especially not the other students.
Why can’t I flash forward and bypass this whole high school nightmare?
Because his mom wouldn’t let him. Only hoodlums dropped out of school and she didn’t work as hard as she did to raise up another piece of worthless scumâ€“ it was a harped on litany permanently carved into his brain. It ranked right up there with:
Be a good boy, Nicky. Graduate. Go to college. Get a good job. Marry a good girl. Have lots of grandbabies and never miss a holy day of obligation at church. His mom had already road mapped his entire future with no diversions or pit stops allowed.
But at the end of the day, he loved his mom and appreciated everything she did for him. Except for this whole, do what I say, Nicky. I’m not listening to you because I know better thing, she said all the time.
He wasn’t stupid and he wasn’t a troublemaker. She had no idea what he went through at school and every time he tried to explain it, she refused to listen. It was so frustrating.
Gah, can’t I catch swine flu or something? Just for the next four years until he was able to graduate and move on to a life that didn’t include constant humiliation? After all, the swine flu had killed millions of people in 1918 and several more during outbreaks in the seventies and eighties. Was it too much to ask that another mutant strain of it incapacitate him for a few years?
Maybe a good bout of Parvo…
You’re not a dog, Nick.
True, no dog would be caught dead wearing this shirt. Whizzing on it would be another matter…
Sighing in useless angst, he looked down at the crap shirt he wanted desperately to burn. Okay fine. He’d do what he always did whenever his mom made him look like a flaming moron.
He’d own it.
I don’t want to own this. I look like epically stupid.
Man-up, Nick. You can take it. You’ve taken a lot worse.
Yeah, all right. Fine. Let them laugh. He couldn’t stop that anyway. If it wasn’t the shirt, they’d humiliate him over something else. His shoes. His haircut. And if all else failed, they’d insult his name. Didn’t matter what he said or did, those who mocked would mock anything. Because some people were just wired wrong and they couldn’t live unless they were making other people suffer.
His Aunt Menyara always said, no one could make him feel inferior unless he allowed them to.
Problem was, he allowed it a lot more than he wanted to.
His mom set a chipped blue plate on the side of the rusted out stove. â€œSit down, baby, and eat something. I was reading in a magazine that someone left at the club that kids score much higher on tests and do a lot better in school whenever they have breakfast.â€ She smiled and held the package of bacon up for him to see. â€œAnd look. It’s not expired this time.â€
He laughed at something that really wasn’t funny. One of the guys who came into his mom’s club was a local grocer who would give them meat sometimes when it expired since all the guy did was throw it out anyway.
As long as we eat it quick, it won’t make us sick.
Another litany he hated.
Picking up the crispy bacon, he glanced around the tiny condo they called home. It was one of four that had been carved out of an old rundown house. Made up of three small rooms- the kitchen/living room, his mom’s bedroom and the bathroom- it wasn’t much, but it was theirs and his mom was proud of it so he tried to be proud too.
He winced as he looked at his corner where his mom had strung up dark blue blankets to make a room for him on his last birthday. His clothes were kept in an old laundry basket on the floor set next to his mattress that was covered with Star Wars sheets he’d had since he was nineâ€“ another present his mom had picked up at a yard sale.
â€œOne day, Mom, I’m going to buy us a really nice house.â€ With really nice stuff in it.
She smiled, but her eyes said she didn’t believe a word he spoke. â€œI know you will, baby. Now eat up and get to school. I don’t want you dropping out like me.â€ She paused as a hurt look flitted across her face. â€œYou can see exactly what that gets you.â€
Guilt cut through him. He was the reason his mom had dropped out of school. As soon as her parents had learned she was pregnant, they’d offered her one choice.
Give up the baby or give up her nice home in Kenner, her education and her family.
For reasons he still didn’t understand, she’d chosen him.
It was something Nick never let himself forget. But one day he was going to get all that back for her. She deserved it and for her, he’d wear this godawful shirt.
Even if it got him killed…
And he’d smile through the pain of it until Stone and his crew kicked his teeth in.
Trying not to think about the butt-whipping to come, Nick ate his bacon in silence. Maybe Stone wouldn’t be in school today. He could get malaria or the plague, or rabies or something.
Yeah, may the smarmy freak get a pox on his privates.
That thought actually made him smile as he shoved the grainy powdered eggs in his mouth and swallowed them. He forced himself not to shiver at the taste. But it was all they could afford.
He glanced at the clock on the wall and jerked. â€œGotta go. I’m going to be late.â€
She grabbed him for a bear hug.
Nick grimaced. â€œStop sexually harassing me, Mom. I gotta go before I get another tardy.â€
She popped him on the butt cheek before she released him. â€œSexually harassing you. Boy, you have no idea.â€ She ruffled his hair as he bent over to pick up his backpack.
Nick put both arms through the straps and hit the door running. He launched himself from the dilapidated porch and sprinted down the street, passed broken down cars and garbage cans to where the streetcar stopped.
â€œPlease don’t be gone…â€
Otherwise he’d be doomed to another â€œNick? What are we going to do with you, you white trash dirt?â€ lecture from Mr. Peters. The old man hated his guts and the fact that Nick was a scholarship kid at his snotty over privileged school seriously ticked Peters off. He’d like nothing better than to kick him out so that Nick wouldn’t â€œcorruptâ€ the kids from the good families.
Nick’s lip curled as he tried not to think about the way those decent people looked at him like he was nothing. More than half their dads were regulars at the club where his mom worked, yet they were called decent while he and his mom were considered trash.
The hypocrisy of that didn’t sit well with him. But it was what it was. He couldn’t change anyone’s mind but his own.
Nick put his head down and ran full speed as he saw the streetcar stopped at his station.
He picked up speed and he broke out into a dead run. He hit the platform and leapt for the streetcar. He’d caught it just in time.
Panting and sweating from the humid autumn New Orleans air, he shrugged his backpack off as he greeted the driver. â€œMorning Mr. Clemmons.â€
The elderly African American man smiled at him. He was one of Nick’s favorite drivers. â€œMorning, Mr. Gautier.â€ He always mispronounced Nick’s last name. He said it Go-chay instead of the correct Go-shay. The difference being Go-chay traditionally had an â€œhâ€ in it after the â€œtâ€ and as Nick’s mom so often said, they were too poor for anymore letters. Not to mention, one of his mom’s relatives, Fernando Upton Gautier, had founded the small town in Mississippi that shared his name and both were pronounced Go-shay. â€œYour mom made you late again?â€
â€œYou know it.â€ Nick dug his money out of his pocket and quickly paid before taking a seat. Winded and sweating, he leaned back and let out a deep breath, grateful he’d made it in time.
Unfortunately, he was still sweating when he reached school. The beauty of living in a city where even in October, it could hit ninety by eight a.m. Man, he was getting tired of this late heatwave they’d been suffering.
Suck it up, Nick. You’re not late today. It’s all good.
Yeah, let the mocking commence.
He smoothed his hair down, wiped the sweat of his brow and draped his backpack over his left shoulder.
Holding his head high in spite of the snickers and comments about his shirt and sweaty condition, he walked across the yard and through the doors like he owned them. It was the best he could do.
â€œEw! Gross! He’s dripping wet. Is he too poor to own a towel? Don’t poor people ever bathe?â€
â€œLooks like he went fishing in the Pontchartrain and came up with that hideous shirt instead of a real fish.â€
â€œThat’s cause he couldn’t miss it. I’ll bet it even glows in the dark.â€
â€œI bet there’s a naked hobo somewhere wanting to know who stole his clothes while he was sleeping on a bench. Gah, how long has he owned those shoes anyway? I think my dad wore a pair like that in the eighties.â€
Nick turned a deaf ear to them and focused on the fact that they really were stupid. None of them would be here if their parents weren’t loaded. He was the scholarship kid. They probably couldn’t have even spelled their names right on the exam he’d aced to get in.
That was what mattered most. He’d much rather have brains than money.
Though right now, a rocket launcher might be nice too. He just couldn’t say that out loud without the faculty calling the cops on his having â€œinappropriateâ€ thoughts.
His bravado lasted until he reached his locker where Stone and crew were loitering.
Great, just great. Couldn’t they pick someone else to stalk?
Stone Blakemoor was the kind of creep who gave jocks a bad name. They weren’t all like that and he knew it. Nick had several friends who were on the football teamâ€“ starters no less, not seat warmers like Stone.
Still, when you thought of an arrogant jock-rock, Stone was aptly named. It was definitely a self-fulfilling moniker his parents had labeled him with. Guess his mom had known in the womb that she was going to birth a flaming moron.
Stone snorted as Nick stopped beside his group to open his locker. â€œHey Gautier? I saw your mom naked last nightâ€“ shaking her butt in my dad’s face so that he’d put a dollar in her G-string. He got a good feel of her too. Said she’s got a nice set of-â€œ
Before he could think better of it, Nick swiped him upside the head with his backpack as hard as he could.
And then it was on like Donkey Kong.
â€œFight!â€ Someone shouted while Nick wrapped Stone in a headlock and pounded him.
A crowd gathered round, chanting, â€œfight, fight, fight.â€
Somehow Stone escaped his hold and hit him so hard in the sternum, it took the breath from him. Dang, he was a lot stronger than he looked. He hit like a jackhammer.
Furious, Nick started for him only to find one of the teachers suddenly between them.
The sight of her petite form calmed him instantly. He wasn’t about to hit an innocent person, especially not a woman. She narrowed her eyes at him and pointed down the hall. â€œTo the office, Gautier. Now!â€
Cursing under his breath, Nick picked his backpack up from the tiled beige floor and glared at Stone who at least had a busted lip.
So much for not getting into trouble.
But what was he supposed to do? Let the weasel scum insult his mom?
Disgusted, he entered the office and sat in the corner chair outside the principal’s door. Why wasn’t there an undo button for life?
Nick looked up at the softest, sweetest voice he’d ever heard. His stomach hit the ground.
Dressed all in pink, she was gorgeous with silky brown hair and green eyes that practically glowed.
Oh. My. God.
Nick wanted to speak but all he could do was try not to drool on her.
She held her hand out to him. â€œI’m Nakoda Kennedy, but most people call me Kody. I’m new to the school and kind of nervous. They told me to wait here, then there was a fight and they haven’t come back and… I’m sorry I babble when I’m nervous.â€
â€œNick. Nick Gautier.â€ He cringed as he realized how stupid he sounded and how behind he was on her conversation.
She laughed like an angel. A beautiful, perfect… I am so in love with you…
Get a grip, Nick. Get a grip…
â€œSo have you been going here long?â€ Kody asked.
Work, tongue. Work. He finally choked an answer out. â€œThree years.â€
â€œYou like it?â€
Nick’s gaze went to Stone and the others heading in to the office. â€œNot today, I don’t.â€
She opened her mouth to speak, but Stone and crew surrounded her.
â€œHey, baby.â€ Stone flashed her a cheesy grin. â€œYou new meat?â€
Kody grimaced and sidestepped them. â€œGet away from me, you animals. You smell.â€ She raked a repugnant stare over Stone’s body and curled her lip. â€œAnd aren’t you a little old for you mom to be picking out your clothes for you? Really? Shopping at the Children’s Place at your age? I’m sure there’s some third grader dying to know who bought the last navy I-zor shirt.â€
Nick bit back a laugh. Yeah, he really, really liked her.
She went to stand by Nick and put her back against the wall so that she could keep an eye on Stone. â€œSorry we got interrupted.â€
Stone made a sound like he was about to vomit. â€œWhy are you talking to the King Loser Dork? You want to talk about ugly? Look at what he’s wearing.â€
Nick cringed as Kody examined the sleeve of his shirt.
â€œI like a man who takes fashion chances. It’s the mark of someone who lives by his own code. A rebel.â€ She cast a biting glare at Stone. â€œA real lone wolf is a lot sexier than a pack animal who follows orders and can’t have an opinion unless someone else gives it to him.â€
â€œOooo,â€ Stone’s friends said as she got the better of him.
â€œShut-up!â€ Stone shoved at them. â€œNo one asked you for your opinions.â€
â€œNakoda?â€ The secretary called. â€œWe need to finish with your schedule.â€
Kody gave Nick a last smile. â€œI’m in ninth grade.â€
Her smile widened. â€œHope we have some classes together. Nice meeting you, Nick.â€ She made sure to step on Stone’s foot as she walked past him.
Stone yelped and mumbled an insult for her under his breath. Then he and his three friends sat down in the chairs that were opposite of Nick’s.
Ms. Pantall waked past them to go talk to Mr. Peters.
They’re going to cream me over this…
As soon as she was gone, Stone tossed a wadded up piece of paper at him. â€œWhere did you get that shirt, Gautier? Goodwill or did you find it in a Dumpster? Nah, I bet you rolled a hobo for it. I know you people couldn’t afford something even that tacky.â€
Nick refused to rise to the bait this time. Besides he could handle insults directed at him. It was the ones against his mother that elevated him to fighting mad.
And this was why most private schools had uniforms, but Stone didn’t want to wear one and since his father all but owned the school…
Nick got to be mocked for the clothes his mom thought were respectable. Why don’t you ever listen to me, Mom? Just once…
â€œWhat? No smart comeback?â€
Nick flipped him off… At the same exact moment Peters came out and saw him.
Lady Luck is definitely on vacation today.
â€œGautier,â€ Peters growled. â€œGet in here. Now!â€