20 Fortitude

I hear them whispering in class. It is about me. But I am wearing my mask. When the bell rings I pack my things slowly. I know they will wait for me. When I get outside, they are not in the schoolyard. For a while I wonder if they got tired of waiting, but as I go through the school gate I see them. All four. One of them is leaning against a tree. Another lights a cigarette. They are all smiling. I turn my head down, check that my mask is firmly in place. It seems secure.

They wait for me. I once tried to cross the street, but they just followed. This time it will be different. I have my mask. Harry steps out in front of me.

‘Got any money on you today?’ he says, ‘did your dear mommy give you any? Or haven’t she had enough customers lately?’

The others laugh.

‘Now that her tits are getting all saggy,’ says Peter, ‘she can’t be getting much.’

They all laugh again. My mask is still in place.

‘Come on then,’ says Harry, ‘hand it over.’

I swallow, but my face does not even twitch and I stand still.

‘I said hand it over!’ Harry pushes me. I stumble backwards. Harry pushes me harder. My elbow strikes against the pavement and the lower part of my arm goes numb. At least my mask is not damaged.

‘Why is he so quiet?’ Theo says to Peter. I do not let myself smile.

‘I don’t care,’ says Peter, ‘just take it from him.’

Harry rips away my rucksack. I sit up, but I do not resist. He zips the rucksack open and thrusts his hand inside. He draws back his hand with a cry. There is blood on his fingers. My mask is etched in stone.

‘What the-’ says Peter.

‘My hand!’ says Harry. Peter grabs the rucksack and looks inside. He takes out the knife. Holding it properly. I stand up.

‘What did you think to do with this,’ says Peter, ‘you sick fuck. Did you think you’d kill us?’

I throw myself at him, grabbing the hand with the knife and forcing it towards him. I only scratch him a bit through his t-shirt. He is stronger than me, but I already knew that. I am not surprised when the knife pieces first my arm and then my side. And my mask does not crack. But I can see the fear in Peter’s eyes as the blood seeps into my jumper. I fall to my knees. Peter drops the knife and I allow myself to smile a little.

‘You’re fucking mad!’ says Peter. Harry whimpers over his hand. Then they run. My fingers are clumsy, but they can still dial 911 on my phone. And I can still give them the address. And a few names. Then I let myself fall back. I might convince them that it was attempted murder. Then I let my mask crumble.

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