never out of place. He wore the right clothes. He had a clean complexion and teeth that had been molded and brightened to create a perfect smile. He was a jock and, if you asked most people in school, he was a swell guy with a great sense of humor. Everyone loved him.

“Well,” the bus driver said. “One of you is lying.” He turned to the other students on the bus. “Who saw it happen? Which one spit on her?”

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the majority of the people pointed their fingers at me. But what was surprising is that one person didn’t.

I’d never seen him before, so I figured he was new in town. He was sitting alone in the middle of the bus, his arm draped casually over the seat. He had tousled brown hair, looked to be around eighteen and he rivaled Hastings in looks and physique. But he had something that Hastings didn’t have-a presence. There was something about him that went beyond mere confidence. He had that element you couldn't put your finger on, but which was so powerful, you wished you had it yourself.

“He didn’t do it,” he said, looking at me. He nodded over at Hastings. “It was him. He did it. I saw it go down.'

Hastings had one of two things he could do-lose face and back down in front of everyone, or he could fight. Naturally, he chose the latter and came after the new kid, who immediately stood and showed us all for the first time just how big he was.

He wasn't fat-there wasn’t an ounce of chunk on him. He was just big. Well over six feet. Big shoulders. Big arms. He was wearing a white polo shirt that barely could restrain his chest, which pressed against the fabric and made it stretch. “Think twice,” he said to Hastings, who’d stopped in the aisle when the new kid stood. “You take a swing at me, I protect myself. And I’m telling you now, in front of everyone here, that I will protect myself. Worse, you’ll lose.”

They were only a couple feet apart. Sara had stopped her squealing and now was staring at the new kid, who turned to look at her. “You know who did it,' he said to her with disappointment. 'Why are you being silent? Why not take a stand and tell the driver the truth?”

Her eyes flicked to Hastings, then to the driver, then back to the new kid.

“Nobody likes a liar,” the new kid said. “Especially me. I won’t have anyone near me who lies. Tell the truth. Tell the man who did it.”

She pulled her blonde hair away from her face and twisted it behind her head, forming a knot. You could actually sense her weighing her options-screw over her popular former boyfriend or side with this new guy, who obviously was going to dwarf Hastings' standings in school. She took in every ounce of him and, unless you were blind or dead, you’d be a fool not to see the attraction she was trying to conceal.

“It was Mike,” she said to the driver. “He tried to spit on Moore, but he missed and spit on me, instead.”

'Who's Moore,' the new kid said.

She screwed up her face at him. 'Moore,' she said, pointing at me. 'Him.'

'You say 'him' like you just realized you've got a piece of dog shit stuck on the bottom of your shoe. Why not show him some respect and address him by his first name?'

'I don't even know his first name.'

That was a lie. We've been going to school since kindergarten. We've known each other since we were kids. I just looked at her and shook my head.

The new kid looked at me and, if I wasn't mistaken, there was a hint of a smile on his lips. 'I'm Alex,' he said. 'Just moved here from Manhattan, which I'm happy to be out of. At least, I think, I am. I thought I was getting away from all this. What's your name?'

'Seth,' I said.

'Good to meet you, Seth. How about having lunch with me later? I'm new here and could use a friend to show me around.'

He looked at Sara. 'See how easy that was? I think I might have just made a new friend. His name is Seth Moore, the one who didn't spit on you. The one who didn't call out the guy who did spit on you when every finger was pointed at him. I'd say that's someone worth knowing. I'd say that’s someone I want to be friends with. What's your name?'

She lowered her eyes. She was trying to play it cool, but it was clear she was shaken by being pressed. He was breaking every rule. This isn't how their caste system worked.

'I'm Sara.'

'Perfect,' Alex said. 'So, let me introduce you two, even though I’m pretty sure you already know each other. Seth, this is Sara. Sara, this is Seth. And that guy who spit on you? Until he apologizes to Seth and to you, he isn't worth being introduced.'

But Hastings didn't apologize. Instead, armed with his pissed-off face and his set mouth, he looked down the length of the bus and glared at me.

It was at the moment I knew I was in for it-he'd come for me. He'd get a group of his friends and he’d get me. He'd find that pocket of time when no one was looking and they'd corner me-God knows, it had happened before. As I sat there looking back at him, I wished the day was over now even though it was just beginning.

First day of school and already, I was facing what might be the worst day of my life.

CHAPTER TWO

When I stepped off the bus, Alex came alongside me and slapped me on the back. 'So, that was intense,' he said, while Hastings walked ahead of us. 'That happen often?'

'It's never not happened.'

'Sorry to hear that.'

'I've learned to live with it.'

'You've learned to live with it?'

'I guess so.'

'Nobody should learn to live with that. My older brother did for awhile and I hated it. I couldn't stand what people did to him. But then he put an end to it. You can, too.'

'What was his secret?'

He smiled. 'At first, it was me. I've always been the tall one in the family. But then he found his confidence and decided enough was enough.'

He looked ahead at the school. Crowds were moving past us and I was aware of some people looking back, wondering why I was walking with this guy. Sara was one of them. She turned her freshly cleaned face around, tried for a smile, but because I also was there, all she could manage was a face filled with smiling confusion.

'So, lunch later?' he said. 'I need to go to the office and sign some papers.'

'Sure,' I said.

'And listen to me,' he said. 'Don't take their crap.'

'Easier said than done.'

'We'll work on that.'

Behind me, I could hear my name being called. I turned and saw creepy Jim off to the right. What was he doing here? He was sitting on the hood of his beat-up Buick and sipping something tucked in a paper bag. Pure class. He nodded at me and waved me over.

'You know him?'

'Only by association.'

'He looks like a character,' he said. 'Let's catch up later. What grade are you?'

'Senior.'

'Same here. I'll ask for the same homeroom.'

'That would be cool. See you at lunch.'

I watched him walk away and couldn't help wondering why he'd been so nice. Was it just because his brother was bullied? Could be. Who knows? Best not to question it. It isn't often that I was treated with any sort of kindness and if I was honest, I have to admit that I felt uncomfortable with it. Was there an ulterior motive? I

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