The first day of the term is always the hardest. I've never understood why my gut twists the way it does entering each new class, but it always does. And I then spend the entire day feeling sick to my stomach and lost. I always got the impression that every other student in class was ahead of the game when it came to what was being said. So I sat in the back of class and slouched in my seat and tried to keep my eyes down.
Holbrook Academy is located in the lush English countryside just shy of Wales. In 1925 it was home to the elite, or the children of people who fancied themselves elite. It was founded in 1700 something; I didn't pay attention to the exact date when I was given the tour at the start of my education. It was a building built out of large stones, with expensive marble floors and gilded statues in the hallways. Gargoyles were perched on pillars at the front of the school, and they stared down with menacing eyes at all the students who entered and left. Several years before my time at the school, a rumor started that one of the gargoyles slipped from a pillar and crushed a student, and he now haunts the halls at night. Holbrook used to be a castle, though no one is exactly sure who once controlled the castle or how much of the original castle is left after all the remodeling. Castles apparently didn't come equipped with indoor plumbing or electricity.
I'd been attending Holbrook for two years. I started when I was fourteen, and the place had seemed a lot larger. It's still large, but I rarely got lost in the halls anymore. I had a growth spurt the previous summer, so I was finally what one might consider a normal height for my age. I used to be haunted by the nickname "Biscuit Blakely." I was short and not very trim. Thankfully, that nickname died with my newfound height and retreating waistline. However, it only took George Calloway all of one period to assign me a new moniker: "Boring Blakely."
Despite George's best efforts, I had managed to acquire some friends. Emmett Whitman had been my best friend since we were both still making mud pies in our respective backyards. Our houses in London neighbored one another. Well, as much as houses on our side of town can neighbor one another. As bad as some of the teasing could be, at least I can say with distinction I'd never been shoved in the hall or had my books knocked from my hands. Emmett wasn't so lucky. Emmett wasn't very tall, and he certainly didn't have any extra muscle. In fact, Emmett was so thin sometimes when he'd change in the shower you could see his ribs. No one is sure how Emmett could be so thin; he ate plenty of food--even more than Freddie--and he used to run on the school track team his first year. Emmett was very kind, and he was always smiling. Even when George and his cronies were taunting and jeering him in a corner of the hall, he never seemed to let it bother him. Some days I wish I had been more like Emmett.
My other best friend is Frederick Marlow, better known as Freddie. I met Freddie my first year here at Holbrook in my very first class. He found me after class, asked me my name, and started talking to me. I guess Freddie just never stopped talking to me. Freddie was older than Emmett and me and would be turning seventeen before September was over. Freddie had the strangest hair--it was like someone turned a rodent lose in it. It was a large puffy blond pillow that sat atop his head. He kept it short so the pillow didn't get too big, but sometimes toward the end of the term he forgot to have it cut, and he started to look as if a balloon was inflating around the top of his skull. Freddie and I used to have the common problem of our weight. We were both heavy, and because of that, I think Freddie didn't find it so insulting when the other boys would tease him about his round belly. Freddie was always much heavier than I was. His sweaters never fit right. His mother bought them for him, but she didn't seem to have any idea what size to buy. The same went for his trousers: they were always too big in the waist, whereas the sweaters were too small. Freddie wore a belt, but he didn't always get it tight enough--he claimed it was uncomfortable. I sometimes felt sorry for the boys who sat behind Freddie in his classes.
My name is Paul Blakely. I am the only son of Claire and John Blakely. My father had recently become a successful businessman, and my mother used to be a schoolteacher before I was born. I was often told growing up that I looked like my mother; I had her dark-brown hair that sometimes looked black. And I had her pale skin. My mother's family was French, and she always said it's the aristocrat in us that makes us so dignified-looking. When I looked in the mirror, I thought I looked like a ghost. I had my father's eyes: blue. My mother's eyes were very green, so green that my father called her "Emerald." My eyes were bright blue, and they stood out on my face noticeably. I had thick eyebrows that my mother said I kept stitched together too much. I used to be fat--or what Great Aunt Ellen called "pleasantly plump"--until the past summer. I started swimming, and I had a job in one of my father's factories. "Building character," he called it. At the end of the summer, my mother had me measured for new school clothes, because everything I had was outdated and too big, and the trouser legs were too short. I grew five inches in one summer.
Freddie, Emmett, and I have been inseparable for the past two years. We jokingly called ourselves the Three Musketeers. When we were all together during the afternoon hour for dinner, most of the bullies would leave us alone. Some of them didn't, but you got used to it after a while, and every year you settled into the same routine. I thought that year would be no different. That was until he walked into my third-period algebra class with Professor Wick.
Professor Wick was the sort of teacher who was passionate about his work when no one else was. He taught algebra at the third and fourth level. He was a short man, with a balding head that he tried to cover by combing four or five long hairs across the top. He had big bushy eyebrows that grew so long and thick they actually almost rubbed the edges of his squinty spectacles. He had a long, thick nose that was matched only by his long, thick chin. And he was never seen without a pipe in his mouth, which caused him to mumble half his lessons. I was terminally confused in algebra.
My algebra class that term was the third period of the day. That was worth noting because by this point in the day my stomach has turned itself over so many times I found it hard to walk, much less concentrate.
Professor Wick began the period promptly at 10:00 a.m.
"Is everyone ready for some algebra today?" he asked. There was a collective groan from the students, followed by the sounds of books being set heavily on old wooden desks.
I sat in the back of class, as always. I sometimes found it hard to concentrate, and when you sat in the back of the class and kept your head down, there was less of a chance of being singled out and humiliated. Professor Wick was not prone to doing this as often as some teachers. The period slipped by slowly, I tried to take notes, but they eventually deviated into nothing but senseless doodles, so I gave up. Professor Wick wrote on the chalkboard hurriedly, and his handwriting, much like his speech, was garbled and made almost no sense. As he almost never turned around to look at the confused expressions on his students' faces, he didn't slow down or offer much explanation.
Thirty minutes into class, I had resigned myself to my fate. I had already managed to fill an entire sheet of paper with doodles, including a less than appropriate drawing of a menacing letter A eating the number three. It was at exactly 10:33 a.m. that the class was disrupted. The door to the lecture hall opened and then closed loudly, and in walked someone unlike anyone I'd ever known.
He was tall and lean; he walked casually, as if he wasn't in any hurry to get where he was going. He had sand-colored hair that was longer than any other boy's at Holbrook. He wore his tie lose, and the top collar button was undone on his shirt. I could see the tails of his shirt poking out from under the sweater we all wore as part of the uniform. He'd slung his blazer over one shoulder, and it swung behind him as he moved. He headed directly toward the professor, who still scribbled, unaware of anything going on, across the blackboard.
It wasn't until the whole class had erupted into rumors and whispers that Professor Wick noticed anything was going on. He paused and then turned to stare. His awkward face was scrunched, and when he pushed his spectacles back up his nose it squished some of the longer hairs on his eyebrows. He scratched at his cheek with a chalk-covered finger and left a thin white line of residue behind. He took a folded slip of paper from the new boy's hand and read it over carefully.
"Very well. Welcome to algebra, Mr. Coleridge. I believe there is a seat available in front of Mr. Blakely." When Professor Wick pointed at me, I shrank further into my seat.
The new boy, Coleridge, nodded and headed back toward my seat with the same casual stride he'd used before. He clearly didn't seem interested in hurrying so the lesson could continue. As he neared my desk, I noticed his skin was tan, as if he'd spent the entire summer on the beach. I also saw that his eyes were brown; they were a different shade of brown than any I'd known. They were almost like melting chocolate and caramel--strange warmth came from them. He must have caught me staring, because, just before he sat down, he smiled at me. His smile was different as well--lopsided, as if he only used one half of his mouth to do it, and the side that smiled had a dimple in the cheek.
My face felt hot as I turned my eyes back to my drawing page. I spent the rest of the class with my head down. When I dared to steal furtive glances at the new boy, he didn't appear any more interested in the science of mathematics than I was. He was sitting back in his seat with one arm draped over the back and the other propped on the desk, with a pencil twirling in his long fingers. Once he glanced back at me and smiled. I stopped watching him after that.
The rest of the day didn't seem quite as horrible. I arrived early to my sixth-period class due to its close proximity to my fifth. I was not pleased to discover it would be Professor Olsson teaching. There was nothing wrong with Professor Olsson except that he had an annoying habit of asking the students what they think. He picked inopportune times and chose a student to give his own opinion on the text. As a result, most people tried to sit in the back of his class.
Because I was one of the first students to arrive, I chose a desk in the back, as far from Olsson as I could get. I had a piece of paper and the latest book of poetry required for reading on my desk. I had it open to a page to appear busy and carefully used a pencil to draw tiny birds and flowers in the margins of a William Blake poem about innocence. I was aware someone had sat at the desk next to mine, but I did not know who until he spoke.
"You're in my algebra class, aren't you?" the boy asked.
I looked up, surprised. Very few people talked to me outside of my friends. And when they did, it almost always ended in mocking ridicule. When I looked over, I saw Mr. Coleridge from my algebra class. He was leaning toward me, and his sloppy grin was on his face.
"Uh... uh, yes," I stammered, feeling my face flush.
"I'm Will." He held his hand out to me. His fingers were long and slender, and his palms were wide.
When I shook his hand, mine was considerably smaller, and despite the rough calluses my summer employment had given me, they weren't as strong, either. "Paul Blakely," I said after a moment's hesitation.
"Nice to meet you, Paul," he said and drew his hand back.
"Everyone calls me Blakely," I said quickly. It was true. No one called me Paul except my parents, and this was probably due in part to the fact that there were several boys at Holbrook named Paul.
"Your name is Paul, isn't it?" he asked, one eyebrow lifting on his angular face.
"Well... yes... but--"
"Then I'll call you Paul." He leaned back in his seat and glanced to the front as Professor Olsson scribbled something on the blackboard. Will did not appear open for further conversation on the subject.
I turned back to my work and scrunched myself a little further into my seat.
"Sit up straight or you'll hurt your back, Blakely." It was Freddie; he was pushing past a row of desks to take a seat beside me. Professor Olsson was the only teacher at Holbrook who didn't seem impressed with Freddie's outstanding marks or the way he offered to help after class. It had been well established our first year that Professor Olsson, in fact, disliked Freddie very much. Olsson's class was the only one in which Freddie did not sit in the center of the front row.
I groaned as I sat up more in my seat and tucked my previous sheet of paper, covered in my drawings, between the pages of my book of poetry. Freddie must have noticed the small sketches in the margins as I closed the book, because he said, "You know you shouldn't draw in your books like that."
I sighed heavily and shrugged. "I can erase them later."
"You'd better." Freddie squeezed into the seat next to me. Given his bulk, he was surprisingly agile and managed to wiggle himself into the desk with some degree of dignity.
I turned my eyes back to my own desk in time to see the sheet of paper disappear from between the pages. I reached out to snag it, but the thief was faster.
"That's mine!" I protested.
Will held the sheet away from me and studied the page with his eyes. I reached for the page again, and he smacked my hand away without looking. When I leaned in closer to reach across him, he put his hand over my mouth to keep me from protesting again.
"These are rather good," he said finally. I stared at him from my awkward position, stretched away from my desk with one hand balanced on his to keep me from falling out of my seat. And his hand over my mouth kept me from doing anything but glaring up at him.
When he put his hand down, he offered me back the sheet. I snatched it from his hands and quickly sat upright. "You shouldn't look at other people's work."
"Are you an artist?" Will asked. He was leaning toward me, which gave me no reprieve from his company.
"No, I just like to draw things," I said, folding the paper into small squares so I could hide it in the pocket of my blazer.
"I think that makes you an artist." Will was smirking.
"Shush, both of you! Class is about to start! And I don't want him to call on me!" Professor Olsson had a history of being cruel to Freddie. He had a habit of calling on Freddie to answer the most difficult questions, and always when Freddie least expected it. This had led Freddie to be rightly paranoid of the professor.
The class ended with Professor Olsson assigning several pages of homework, plus an essay due at the end of the week. I gathered my books in my arms and waited for Freddie to get his together. Freddie always took longer than anyone else to get his things together.
As we left the classroom, I heard Will call my name. "Paulie!" He hurried up behind us and fell in step alongside me.
I stopped to look at him. He ran his hand through his slightly long hair. It unsettled it slightly, and even the palm oil used to keep it slicked back wasn't enough to keep a single strand from falling forward. My hair was nothing like Will's; my hair was kept short so that the dark strands didn't obstruct my view when I had my head down, which I did often.
"Everyone calls him Blakely," Freddie said with a hint of animosity in his voice.
I looked at him sharply; there wasn't any reason for Freddie to be mean to Will. Freddie gave me a pointed look, his eyes going wide and his lips pursing together like they did when he was mad.
Will didn't appear fazed. "I call him Paul," he said casually and turned his attention back to me. "I don't know anyone here, and I'm sort of lost as to what that algebra professor was saying...."
"Professor Wick," I offered without thinking to let him finish his sentence. I blushed.
"Right. Wick." Will nodded; he was smiling at me again. "I think he mumbles when he talks. So I missed half the lecture."
"You weren't there for half the lecture," I reminded him.
"Right. So I'm doubly behind. You mind helping me out with the assignment?" Will reached up and rubbed the back of his neck.
"Blakely doesn't get good marks," Freddie interjected over my shoulder.
"I get good enough marks!" I protested, glancing back at him.
"Not in arithmetic," Freddie said. He was right; I never got good marks in algebra.
"He's right," I said, looking back at Will. "I'm really not very good at algebra."
"Some other time, then," Will offered with a smile. He smiled at me a lot. He turned and strolled down the hall in that particular way I had identified as belonging solely to him.
"Who's that?" I heard Emmett say as he shuffled up behind us. Emmett always seemed to drag his feet when he walked, as if his shoes were too heavy. "He's new. Where did he come from? Greek mythology?" Emmett spent too much time reading plays about Greek gods and sex.
"He's a prat," Freddie said with a sour frown.
"That's Will," I said, watching him turn the corner down the hall.