The first thing Arthur Clayton faces as he walks into math class is Andy McBurnet and his gang, sitting on the teacher’s desk just before the bell rings.
“-and then, after he punched me in the face and gave me this scar-” he points at his left eyebrow arch, “I took my baseball bat and hit him in the nuts!”
As usual Andy has his group of fans who applaud his courage. It isn’t that Arthur hates him, but the boy has the ability to get under his skin easily. He is noisy and shows off more than his stories are worth.
“What is it, Clayton? Got somethin’ to say?” Andy yells at him.
Arthur isn’t shy, but he likes silence and serenity. “Nothing,” he mumbles, before taking his seat in the third row in the middle of the classroom. He fist-bumps with his best friend Brice – the rest of the class calls him the Giant, even Andy stands still when Brice stands up.
“You’re jealous ’cause my scars makes me look nice.”
Arthur brings his hand up to his torso. He can’t help it, it is a stupid reflex he wishes he could get rid of but years of bullying are hard to leave behind.
“What was it again? Blue Baby Syndrome? How could they tell anyway, since you’re black? Is that why your scar looks so ugly?”
Next to him Arthur sees Brice’s grip on his desk tighten. “Drop it, he’s not worth it,” he mutters to him.
“Arthur’s got multiple heart surgeries,” Brice snaps anyway. “And you, what’s your excuse? Stumbled down the stairs?”
“Shut up, faggot.”
Brice stands up and the whole class holds its breath – except Arthur with his bag on his thighs, getting his pencil case out as if nothing was happening.
A girl with long blond hair enters the room. “Go back to your seat, Andy,” she says, “Mrs. Jackson is coming. And if anything, your scars make you look stupid.”
The girl is tall and thin. She is also what her classmates would define as pretty, enough for the loud Andy to shut his mouth and for Brice’s face to break into a smile. “Hi Annie!” He greets her.
But Annie never smiles back. She rushes to the very end of the classroom and sits alone. Brice is still looking at her when Mrs. Jackson arrives, Arthur pulls on his T-shirt to catch his attention.
“Thanks,” he whispers.
Arthur and Brice have been friends since the eighth grade. Andy is far from being the only bully in Arthur’s life: being black, short and puny and, on top of that, being exempt of any physical education was too much at the time for some other kids. It had never been too much of a problem before middle school, but it got serious as soon as Arthur had wanted to be trendy and his new loose T-shirts revealed the keloid scar cutting his thorax into two. Small kids were curious, but teens…teens could be cruel. Brice has never been like that though.
Unlike Arthur, Brice is shy and gifted with an infinite gentleness. Ironically, he’s also the first person everybody sees when they enter the room. Despite their differences Arthur saw from the first glance how similar they were – hunched under the weight of the others’ gazes. They exchanged their clumsy first words after Brice saved his neck during a bad fight, and they were always seen together since, along with Annie.
“She still hasn’t spoken to you?” Brice murmured in between lines of math equations.
Arthur shrugs. “Why should I care?”
“She’s your best friend!”
“You haven’t spoken to your best friend in months,” Arthur retorted.
It happened one day, without warning, about a month ago. Annie had gone silent overnight and hadn’t given them any clue. In a matter of days their trio had shattered, and while Brice is still desperate to put the pieces back together, Arthur blames Annie for everything. They were happy before she messed everything up.
“Claig lives in the other side of the country! Plus, childhood friends aren’t the same. Our moms bought our pampers together.”
Mrs. Jackson clears her throat; Brice meets the teacher’s eyes and immediately red colours his cheeks as he grows quiet. After a couple of minutes of silence, a paper pellet lands on Arthur’s copybook.
‘Shut up, Fagots’ it reads.
Andy is looking at them from the first row, grinning.
“There’s a typo,” Brice comments.
“I’d rather say no one taught Andy how to write properly.”
“Boys!” Mrs. Jackson shouts. “It seems you’ve finished exercise twenty, dare to share your results?” She points at the blackboard with the piece of chalk she’s holding.
Before Brice has time to negotiate, Arthur walks up to the front of the class and takes the piece of chalk in his hand. He knows how uncomfortable Brice is when he has to speak in front of the class and each time Arthur takes his place, he feels like saving him like Brice did so many times when they were kids. If he doesn’t mind the glances anymore, it’s all thanks to Brice.
They are always silent when he stands in front of them, and Arthur wonders why sometimes. Do they pity him? Are they scared of his ugly scar, bombing up from underneath his shirt?
He’d rather have people laughing at him like Andy does, people that are not afraid to treat him like a normal person, like someone who doesn’t have to hide. He is alive thanks to this scar. It is the reflection of doctors’ work, knowledge and time spent on his baby heart. It is a part of him, part of his history, part of what makes him the man he is about to become.
The only one who isn’t looking at him when he answers the questions is Annie. And it hurts more than any remarks on his scar he got during his scholarship.
“There’s definitely something wrong with her,” Brice told him two weeks ago, pensive. He was right and Arthur saw it too, but he knew Annie like the back of his hand; she wasn’t the type of girl to talk when she didn’t want to. He was her best friend, so she would talk to him about it eventually. That was what best friends are were for, right?
Now, after one month of being given the silent treatment, Arthur realizes it isn’t the biggest scars that hurt the most, but the ones we can’t see. People deal with these kind of scars differently: some are loud and use decoys, some create new scars to hide old ones, some keep everything inside, some put words on them.
“Annie, we really miss you,” Brice says as the class ends. “Do you want to play on my Xbox, or watch a movie, maybe?”
But Annie is already far, far away, untouchable and unreachable. “I’m sorry, I already have plans for tonight,” she answers, her voice monotonous, empty, and it is as if she isn’t even there anymore.
Annie takes the bus back home. She sits against a window at the end of the car and puts her iPod on shuffle mode. She puts her head against the glass, her beanie protecting her from the small but repetitive shocks. When she comes back home her little brother is playing in the living room, and the TV is on but no one is watching. Her father must be in the garden again, planting lettuce and radishes.
She takes the stairs and lays on her bed, closing her eyes. She only wakes up for dinner. Her brother grips his cutlery strongly, showing how hungry he is.
“Pasta again!” He whines. Their father gives him an apologetic smile and comes back from the kitchen with grated cheese.
Contrary to her little brother, Annie is not that hungry.
“Dad,” she stops him before he can sit down. “You forgot to remove Mom’s plate again.”
He looks truly sorry this time, and Annie can’t blame him. She can’t blame anyone for eating in front of an empty seat. Arthur and her aren’t best friends for nothing, they are often on the same wavelength – sometimes what hurts the most are the invisible scars.