A full week passed before things calmed down enough Taylor began to feel comfortable at Willow Prep, though the sight of Parker and Lil J every morning in Crypto twisted something inside Taylor's gut. Even worse was the daily sight of Isadore Chatham, sometimes walking around with Parker arm in arm, sometimes sitting across from each other. Taylor couldn't be sure if it was because he wanted it to be so or that it truly was, but he felt Isadore didn't seem nearly as excited and happy about Parker as Parker was about her.
Taylor was sitting at a table, alone, during lunch covertly watching Parker and Isadore, hoping no one saw him doing so, when someone sat next to him, nearly scaring him half to death as a tray banged down on the table.
“Sup, T.“ Winston said. It was the first time anyone had sat down near Taylor during lunch. Taylor couldn't think of what to say.
“Yeah I get that a lot,“ Winston said, laughing as he helped himself to some of the uneaten food on Taylor's tray. “Man, where did you get tots?“
Taylor looked down at his plate, at the food he hadn't noticed, including a pile of tater tots. “Um, I guess my mom put them on there.“ Taylor said it distractedly, looking at Isadore.
“Your mom? What is she the lunch lady or something?“ Winston said laughing, as he plucked up and ate another tot.
“Yeah. She is.“ Taylor said, looking hard at Winston, daring him to say something awful. Winston paused then said, “Well compliments to her. I love tots.“ Taylor snickered.
“What's with the eyeballs on Izzy?“ Winston said when he saw what Taylor was staring at.
Taylor gulped and for a moment considered telling Winston a lie, but that was not his strong suit, in fact, of all the aspects of hacking, the social aspect was Taylor's weakest link, likely his only one.
“I dunno man. She's... pretty.“ Taylor said popping a tot into his mouth. One of Winston's eyebrow's shot up. “Oh?“ the handsome boy said. “You do realize she's with Parker, right?“
“Duh.“ Taylor replied.
“Well, she's a friend, you know. Sort of.“ Winston said quizzically.
“Sort of? What do you mean?“ Taylor said, intrigued. Winston was not smiling. It was odd.
“Can't really talk about it, old boy.“ Winston said the ever present grin returning. “Super secret spy stuff, ya know? I'd have to kill you or some other cliche.“
“Whatever. I don't need to know anyway.“ Taylor said, trying to sound dismissive, but his eyes lingering on Izzy gave him away. With a sigh, Taylor focused on Winston instead. Winston was good looking and, Taylor suspected, quite wealthy but for some reason the other boy had not been able to parlay those advantages into success in social circles. Other than the photo on the Willow Prep website, Taylor had never seen the handsome teen talk to any other students outside class. Taylor wondered if maybe Winston just wanted to know Isadore Chatham and made up the rest, used the photo as some kind of alibi.
“Why did you call her Izzy?“ Taylor asked.
“That's her name. She says only the police would call her Isadore.“ Winston responded, though his attention was elsewhere. Suddenly he got up and said, “Thanks for the tots, T. Gotta run, old boy!“ And he was gone.
Taylor got in a routine, and found despite his rocky start and the distress of being transplanted as poor, white trash from Channelview to Manhattan he was enjoying Willow Prep, rather despite himself. Crypto was a blast even with occasionally insulting comments from Parker, said low and backhanded. The large, handsome boy seemed intimidated and maybe even afraid of Tate. Taylor thrived in the class. His only real competition quickly turned out to be exactly what Winston had said, the Behrstable twins and Winston himself. Though after two weeks Taylor knew he was the best of the lot.
Friday afternoon Tate dropped a bomb on Taylor.
“So, that's it for today, mateys.“ Tate began, “but I do have a bit of an announcement. Everyone knows CryptoCon is coming up in a few months and the Willow Prep team has a title to defend. As such I would like to announce my choices for the team.“ Taylor was already packing up his book sack, only half paying attention.
He knew what CryptoCon was, but also knew it had been Parker and the Behrstables, according to Winston, who represented the school for the past three years. They were all seniors. Tate smiled, devilishly, and with a flourish aimed his laser pointer first at Philomena Behrstable. She seemed to take it as her due. Winston laughed, scoffed really, and went back to typing whatever he was working on. Taylor looked over to Phaedra, Philomena's sister who was managing to look bored, excited and haughty, all at the same time.
But Tate's pointer drifted in lazy circles around Phaedra and snapped away like lightning to land on Winston, who was oblivious. A loud harrumph came from Tate which brought Winston's head up.
“Eh?“ Winston mumbled, when he saw the pointer trained on himself he looked a deer in the headlights. “What?“ He looked over at Taylor who was smiling encouragingly at him.
“OH! Sweet.“ Winston said grinning huge and giving a double thumbs up to Taylor, and in that moment of pure geekdom Taylor understood a little more of what separated Winston from other teenagers at Willow Prep. It was endearing to Taylor.
Looking around Taylor saw Phaedra and Parker were now eyeing each other warily. The team consisted of only three members and with two already chosen that meant one of them wasn't going. Philomena looked pleased, if distant. Tate smiled and twirled his pointer some more, clearly enjoying his chance to add some suspense to his, and their, day. Heads turned, following the pointer, a buzz built up.
When the pointer stopped on Taylor he stared at it. His first thought was Tate was stretching the suspense a bit by letting the pointer rest on him for so long. He realized it wasn't a joke, mostly by the sour, resentful looks mirrored Parker and Phaedra's faces. They were definitely not pleased. Winston actually whooped, fist-bumped the air.
“Well, now we've taken care of that, class is adjourned.“ Tate announced and the bell rang as if on cue. “Have a good weekend, mateys. If I could see my new team members for a moment, please?“
The rest of the class filed out, except for Taylor and Winston who approached Tate's very, very cluttered desk; the entire top completely covered by sheets of print-outs, bills, and lines of code, diagrams, flow-charts.
“The event is several months away, but I expect you two to work even harder between now and then. We'll have a team meeting once a week and I'll give you a little assignment to work on at home. I hope you boys don't let me down, but I don't expect you will. You're easily two of the most talented programmers I have ever taught.“ Tate twisted the word "programmers" in an odd way and Taylor felt sure he wanted to say, “hackers.“
Taylor couldn't help himself, he beamed at Tate and at Winston. It seemed surreal. Tate droned on for almost five minutes about the team activities, the responsibilities and the teamwork involved as he admonished the boys to make sure and get along with Philomena.
“I know she can be a bit...“ Tate struggled over a word, which was not usual for the very smart man, “abrasive. But she's brilliant and we've won every year she's been here, thanks in large part to her. So make nice, OK?“
The boys nodded, assured Tate they would “make nice.“ They left the classroom.
As soon as Taylor was out the door a hand grabbed him by the shoulder and threw him hard into a set of lockers. The clang was loud and caught everyone's attention, all the students walking to class froze, realizing a confrontation was in the offing. Someone delicately whispered “fight.“ After all it was a prep school and fighting was very much outside the norm.
“You think that's how it's gonna o down, then noob?“ Parker said through clenched teeth, pushing hard on Taylor's chest with his muscular forearm. The boy was not just older than Taylor, but significantly larger, more muscular, and stronger. Had Willow Prep had a football team Parker would have been its star bully. Taylor swallowed hard, nervous. He wanted to tell himself he wasn't scared, not really, but he had never been in a real fight. His schools in Channelview had all been quite large and he had had no problem fading into the wallpaper. Fighting had never been his way, nor being a smart-ass where people could overhear. Witty repartee was not something Taylor did well. Instead he would use his computer skills to harangue the people who noticed him and decided to be cruel. His actions had caused several bullies to not graduate on time and others to be removed from their sports teams, while some Taylor had just hacked their Facebook page or personal website defacing them. He had never been caught doing any of it.
“How what's gonna be?“ Taylor managed to get out, though his voice chose that moment to crack and go up an octave. Parker sneered.
“You are gonna go back in there and drop off the team. Understand?“ Parker snarled, still through clenched teeth.
Taylor's vision swam. Quit the team? No way. Absolutely not. Some measure of defiance must have been plain across his face because Parker pushed harder, his forearm riding up to press against Taylor's throat. Taylor coughed. He could see Philomena and Phaedra a few feet away heads tilted towards one another as they watched, like curious, distant insects. A crowd had developed around the two boys now, but unlike any fight at Taylor's previous schools, the crowd was silent and nervous, several teens looking around to make sure no staff was around.
Lil J spoke, just above a whisper. "Pummel him!“
Taylor gulped, but not because of what Lil J had said. Izzy Chatham had pushed her way through the crowd and was now looking hard at Parker and Taylor her face confused. She walked up and put a soft hand on Parker's shoulder. She leaned forward and whispered something into his ear. The pressure on Taylor's chest and throat let up and Parker edged back. “I'm not kidding you, noob.“ Parker held up a large tanned hand, pointing hard at Taylor. “Quit the team or it's your ass.“
Lil J laughed and said , "Yeah!“ Then they melted into the crowd.
“What is going on out here?“ Tate said, “You kids go to class.“ He looked at Taylor, his eyes narrowed and he snorted in annoyance before going back into his classroom and shutting the door. Taylor rubbed the aching little spot on his chest as Winston tried to console him.
“Man he was pissed!“ Winston said, smiling. “What're you gonna do? The last time someone pissed Parker off he beat the snot out of him after school.“ Taylor sighed. This was turning into a bad teen movie.
“I'm not quitting the team. “ Taylor said, surprised at the firmness in his voice, it was certainly stronger than he felt, he was sure his knees were about to give way. He and Winston walked down the hallway away from Crypto, Taylor tried hard not to notice the insistent stares of his fellow students and Winston just smiling and being oblivious.
Great, they're all staring at me again!
“I'm not quitting.“ Taylor repeated, more for himself than for Winston.
Winston nodded. “But what are you gonna do about Parker?“
“I don't know. I'll figure something out.“ Taylor mumbled. “Right. Well, I'll see you tomorrow then!“ Winston said, smiling large and waving goodbye as he wandered off towards his second period.
Taylor wove through the throngs of staring kids until he was past the mass and alone in a hallway, most of the other students already inside classrooms. Lost in his thoughts Taylor nearly ran head first into the Behrstable twins. Neither girl made any move to get out of Taylor's way, both arched a single, opposing eyebrow menacingly.
“You really should quit the team...“ Philomena said. Taylor remembered Tate's remonstrance to “make nice" and swallowed back what he had been about to say and remained silent instead. Phaedra nodded along with Philomena.
“It's really best for all. You're a freshmen. You'll have three more years to do CryptoCon, it's the last year for Phae. You understand, right? You're new here and on a scholarship. You don't really want to make enemies, right?“ Phae nodded along sycophantically as if Philomena made sense explaining a basic concept to someone mentally impaired. Taylor's anger rose. First Parker, now these two? He knew that he couldn't lash out. That would definitely get him kicked off the team, which was what they wanted and he be damned if he gave them what they wanted. Not by choice. Not if he could help it.
“I'm sorry.“ Taylor croaked. “I don't want to quit. Besides, I'm better than Parker.“ He wanted to say that he was better than Phae as well. It felt rude to say it to her face, regardless. Of the two of them Philomena was clearly the better, Tate saw it, everyone knew it. Taylor suspected himself better than Philomena also, but he had yet to best her in class in anything like he had Parker and Phae.
Philomena looked taken aback as though she couldn't believe she had heard what Taylor had said. Her right eye twitched and her head tilted further, turned slightly. It was a universal expression among teenagers which meant, “Say what?“ Phaedra was studying her sister, gauging her reaction rather than actively reacting herself.
“This shouldn't be about what you want, Taylor Zachary.“ Philomena said finally. “This is what is best for the team. We've won every year Phae and I have gone and there's no need to risk that. You must see how that is selfish on your part.“
Her tone was reasonable-adult talking to petulant child, and Taylor resented it. If anything it just made him more obstinate. He shook his head in the negative.
Philomena's lips pursed and Phaedra, catching her sister's mood copied the expression. “If that's how you want it, I suggest you watch your back. And you might want to tell your mother to look for another job.“ Philomena turned, flipped her long, lustrous blond hair. Phaedra emulated her but added an insolent, condescending stare as well. As Taylor watched them go, he was goggle-eyed. the bell rang for second period. He was late for class. He ran.