“Get away from him!” I shout, swatting at the group of boys with a slapdash paper sword.
The smallest one, Michael, falls to the ground as I attack his head. The other boys laugh at him, at me, and at Haru. Poor Haru who is curled in fetal position, crying. With Michael down, I aim for weak Nikhil, and then chubby Samir. In quick succession, I have the three boys moaning on the playground gravel.
I tighten my grip on my sword, the sword Haru had taught me to make to fight off my nightmares. Sweet Haru who enjoys leading our arts and crafts classes. Haru who deserves none of the treatment that our peers give him. I meet the amused gaze of the leader of the gang of bullies, Lucian Nader. For a nine-year-old, he is more evil than the monsters I’ve seen on TV and read about in books.
“You, too,” I say, sword poised. “Go away and don’t come back.”
The monster smiles wider, showing his sharp canines. He steps forward to scare me, but I don’t move. I won’t move for Haru’s sake. As I stare the monster off, I wonder why such evil things come in pretty packages. Behind the brown hair, green eyes, and gentle features that all the adults adore is a boy who enjoys the pain of others, especially Haru’s.
“Go away!” I shout, startling Lucian. He stares at me for long seconds.
Finally, he turns away. I watch the fallen bullies pick themselves up to follow their leader. Not once does Lucian look back, not to check if the other boys are okay, and not to see me lower my sword. When I see the group pass the distant playground entrance, I let myself turn my back on them to take care of Haru.
My best friend shakes as he clutches his knees to his chest. Snot and tears dribble down his chin onto the playground gravel that must be pinching his side. I offer him a hand that he takes to help him up. I realize too late, though, that he weighs much more than I can lift, so I topple onto the ground beside him. The failure makes Haru cry harder, and then start hiccuping. I can only watch as his brown eyes clear and his breathing evens. Eventually, he stands up on his own.
“I’m afraid of tomorrow, Scout,” he confesses, not meeting my gaze. He wrings his fingers, something he’s been doing more often.
“We’ll face it together,” I tell him, separating his hands.
My heart swells as the sight of Haru’s happiness. He stands before our fourth grade class alongside our teacher, Mrs. Bayley. Although he plays with the hem of his polo, there is a shy smile on his face. When he looks up momentarily, he meets my gaze. With a bright blush, he pulls at some of his black hair to cover his face.
Mrs. Bayley holds in her hands our class’s entry for a school wide drawing contest. “Thanks to Haru’s efforts, we were able to win first place,” she says.
When she begins to clap, the entire class follows. Haru’s light skin fails to hide the red blush that rises from his neck to the tip of his ears. Where it produces a smile on my face, it incites Lucian to whisper meanly to his followers.
“Look he’s blushing just like a girl.”
I shoot him my most scathing glare over my shoulder. Of course, he brushes it off. He’s unfortunately grown accustomed, even resistant, to my defense of Haru.
“He even needs a girl to defend him,” points out Samir, who’s gained more weight since the last year. He is the largest boy in our grade at Edison Elementary School in terms of width, while a boy from another class is the tallest. Lucian is a close second in height.
Despite his size, Samir cannot hold my stare. From Nikhil to Michael to newly inducted Antonio, none of Lucian’s followers can hold my gaze, opting instead to watch the very interesting branches outside the classroom window. It enrages me that they refuse to face me, yet can pick on Haru so incessantly.
“Our pizza party will be tomorrow during lunch. I will also be bringing treats of my own for each of you,” continues Mrs. Bayley. “Haru, you may finish your story.” She returns to her desk and starts tapping away on her keyboard.
The buzz of conversations fill the room as Haru takes his seat beside me. We’ve sat next to each other since kindergarten, when are friendship first formed. At that time, Lucian had been kinder and the rest of his gang a less nosy bunch. I miss when we had all gotten along so swimmingly.
“We need to find more contests for you to enter,” I tell Haru, picking up my pencil. “I know you can win every single one.”
Before he can reply, Michael butts in. “You’re nothing special.”
Antonio follows. “Yeah, Scout doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She’s barely passing.”
“If anything, she’s too stupid to know what she’s talking about,” joins Nikhil.
I turn around completely and rise from my seat. “So what if I don’t pass this class? I won’t be spending the rest of elementary and maybe middle school stuck to Lucian.”
Lucian, who had quietly been following the conversation, perks up at the mention of his name. He meets my gaze head-on. “At least they won’t be following a runt like Haru,” he says. He shifts his gaze to the back of Haru’s head and loudly adds, “And they won’t need a girl to protect them.”
The snickers from the four boys drowns out my retort. As Mrs. Bayley silences them, I glance at Haru. His smile is gone, replaced by the frown he seems to continually wear.
For the rest of the school day he exchanges only a few words with me.
Haru is sad again.
I see it in the slouch of his shoulders as we walk home. In his hands, he grips his torn drawings. They had been hung up in the main entrance of the school, the highest on the wall because they were the best. But that hadn’t stopped some determined bullies from ripping them down to only deface them further with slurs.
“We can get them back,” I try to reassure Haru. “Mr. Silas taught me how to make a stink bomb. We can plant it in their lockers.”
He doesn’t look up from the sidewalk stretching before him. His silence the past few days frightens me. Ever since Lucian had pointed out that I was Haru’s protector, my best friend spoke less and less with me. His smiles were fewer, yet his art was heartbreaking. His sadness was palpable in the dark colors he painted with, in the gloomy scenes that were produced.
“Haru,” I call. He doesn’t offer me a backward glance. In fact, he shrugs my hand off when I reach for him. Speeding ahead, he crumbles up the remnants of his masterpiece and tosses it in a trash bin.
As I pluck the pieces of the artwork from the bin, I can’t help but compare it to our friendship.
“Scout, we need to finish this,” reminds Lucian. He snaps once, twice in my face before I’m woken from my reverie.
“Sorry,” I say. He hands a second tape dispenser to me, which I use to carefully tape the sides of the paper buildings. Along with the other paper buildings, we’ll have our own small city that we know the surface area of thanks to geometry. The project could have been finished a week ago if we hadn’t wasted time talking rather than working.
I watch Lucian work when he isn’t looking. To think we had been on opposites sides for so long. In some ways, I’m happy that Haru and I no longer speak to each other. In other ways, I’m concerned about his well-being without me there to support him. For once, we are not in the same class, but the worst of the bullies are thankfully with me for the entire day.
“I know you’re staring,” Lucian says, not looking up. Just as I am, he is taking his time to make the edges of the buildings align neatly. When he finishes his current building, he meets my gaze.
“Thank you,” I say abruptly, “for everything.”
Understanding is quick to flood his face, along with a bit of guilt.
“In a way it’s my fault. If I hadn’t started bullying Haru in third grade, then you two would still be friends.”
His eyes snag on something behind me. When I look over my shoulder, I see Haru walking down the school hallway, his gaze downcast. He enters his classroom without noticing us watching.
“He’d also be a lot happier,” adds Lucian.
Although he resumes his work, I see the pain in Lucian’s face. I want to tell him that it isn’t his fault, but that isn’t true. What happened to Haru was everyone’s fault. The bullies, the bystanders, and me. And, like a coward, I’m afraid of what’ll happen to Haru.
The laughter reaches me from down Edison High School’s many hallways. Lucian and I both turn in the direction of the rambunctious group making their way down the hall. At the center is Haru, whose black hair is for once not covering his face. He is smiling, his hands moving wildly as he talks to his friends.
“High school has done him well,” says Lucian, shutting my locker. He holds my hand as the group passes.
Amidst the chatter, Haru somehow finds my gaze. The smile he gives me makes my heart swell, like it had years ago. He’s found his own friends, his own comfortable place in this school.
I couldn’t be happier for him.