School was an absolute nightmare, but Finnley was experienced at being invisible. Only it was harder this time, because everyone was gossiping about Mia and he wanted to scream at them to stop it. He could hear them calling her names, whispering about how weird she was, with her crazy horse drawings and all her plants. They claimed they’d always known she wasn’t quite normal.
The rumors grew and spread like wildfire in the backs of classrooms while the teachers cleared their throats and continued on with the lesson, pretending that they didn’t know what was going on. It was easier for them that way, but Finnley hated them for it.
Late in the day, passing periods had gotten so bad that Finnley had to shove his way through, snapping at people to get out of the way. He was losing his patience very quickly. When a boy right next to him whispered, “Mia the Maniac,” Finnley spun around and punched him in the shoulder. It was a weak blow since he had little experience in punching, but it was fueled with all of his pent-up anger at those insulting Mia.
The boy looked down at himself more in surprise than anything else — he looked big enough to take even a hard punch without worrying about it — and narrowed his eyes at Finnley. “You’re Mia’s friend, aren’t ya?”
Finnley stubbornly set his jaw. “Yes, I am. What did she ever do to you?”
The kid had the nerve to casually shrug his shoulders. “Nothing. Just telling the truth about who she is. A maniac. Normal people don’t go drawing demon horses and running off into forests. She’s crazy, that one —”
“Shut up!” Finnley yelled at him. How dare they talk about Mia like this? A happy girl who had been a part of the school and unbothered by others before now? What did they suddenly have against her? He clenched his fists again, knuckles whitening. The hall went noticeably silent, and a teacher’s voice was heard from beyond the mass of students.
“What is going on here? Finnley? Jacob? What is the meaning of this?” It was Ms. Lannis, the vice principal. She looked sharply at Finnley, and he realized that the other kid — Jacob, he supposed — had gone on the offensive. He had a sulky look on his face and was rubbing his shoulder with one hand as if he had actually been hurt.
“He punched me, Ms. Lannis,” he mumbled pitifully. “I didn’ do anything, I swear. He just punched me.” Finnley thought he looked absolutely stupid, but Ms. Lannis seemed the hurt shoulder act.
“Well then. Jacob, go on over to the nurse’s office and see if you can’t get an ice pack.” The vice principal’s voice was quiet and soothing, but it hardened as she turned to address Finnley. He suddenly realized that he was still the new student, the untested one, the student who couldn’t be vouched for as a good person yet. He hadn’t exactly made any efforts to make friends other than Mia, both among the staff and the students.
“Finnley, physical violence is against the rules in the student handbook. I’ll escort you down to the Dean’s office. This is behavior which we do not condone in this school.” She walked Finnley briskly down to the office marked ‘Dean’, which he’d never entered before. It wasn’t exactly the type of thing to be included in the brief tour he’d gotten.
He slumped into a faded blue chair by the door as Ms. Lannis stalked off, heels clicking authoritatively against the white tiles of the halls. Since the office was currently empty, Finnley pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head and tried to shrink into it. He was tired of dealing with adults who didn’t seem to know anything. He just wanted to do the right thing.
There was a little snort from the other side of the room and Finnley looked up. Not entirely empty. Sylvie sat haughtily just a few chairs down from him. He wondered why he hadn’t seen her before.
“It took you long enough to get all defensive,” she said, one corner of her mouth pulled up in a smile. Despite the weather turning colder, she wore jeans that were artfully ripped and rolled up at the bottom. Finnley was both surprised and pleased to find that he didn’t want to disparage her for it.
“What are you here for?” he asked her, and she rolled her eyes.
“Obviously for getting into trouble over Mia. Some people I knew when I was younger were reminding me that I used to be friends with her, that mad Mia. I put a stop to it pretty quick, ended up here.” She shrugged and looked away. As if it hadn’t all been about defending her own reputation.
“So is the Dean going to give a detention? A suspension?” Finnley inquired. He had to admit that he never paid attention when the school went over its rules.
“It’s not bad. I’ve already talked with the Dean, and now I’ve just got to wait for my parents to come so they can talk with him and discuss what I did. It’s not bad,” she repeated, then fell silent.
“I didn’t realize that the school was this mean,” Finnley remarked after a moment, thinking of the way those terrible whispers had spread.
“Ha! It’s been this way for a while. You just haven’t had it pointed at you or someone you care about before. It’s happened at least once since you got here, but you never notice unless you’re the target or the perpetrator. It’s absolutely stupid, but it’ll blow over in a few days. Most people haven’t got much meanness in them, they’re just looking to follow the rumors and act cool.”
For some reason the words were comforting to Finnley. It made sense, and it was interesting to see Sylvie on the other side of it for once. She seemed to have a power in the school, but maybe not a bad one. She’d tried to get at Mia before, which was petty, but they had a personal history and it wasn’t like she’d turned the whole school into a mob. There was something about her that rose above the crowd.
Finnley was about to say something back to her, but then the door opened and the Dean emerged, ushering another student out of his office. He sighed when he saw Finnley and Sylvie, and waved Finnley into his office. Sylvie gave him a cheerful wave and he glared back at her, but with a little smile.