Here. Here. Pause. Here. Here. The list goes on. There is only one absentee today. Everyone else is present. Not bad, all things considered. McClaskey had a dentist’s appointment. No surprise there—he’d told all of his teachers about it earlier in the week. What was surprising was the quietly uttered ‘here’ from the dusty corner of the room when he got to the R’s. There was only one R in this classroom: Alex Rider.
Now there is a veiled presence—when he is present, that is. He never speaks voluntarily, not anymore. He keeps to himself. The only person Barry sees him interact much with lately is the smallest boy in the grade, Tom Harris, whose loud, goofy personality seems completely opposite from Rider’s serious one.
Barry isn’t the only teacher who watches Rider. At lunch, they all observe how he mingles—he doesn’t. For the most part, he sits alone, almost always with his friend. When there are no tables available, and the weather outside is frightful, he sits down stiffly, holding himself clear of everyone else—leaning away from the possibility of contact, leaning more towards Harris, who blocks his other side. It is almost like he has an aversion to his classmates.
His classmates also steer clear of him, but he is not completely ignored. They spread rumors. It’s only natural. They are curious; it’s human nature. They want to fill in the blanks, to know and find an excuse that would explain what is happening before their very eyes. They don’t like not knowing. They want to know what is happening to their classmate, who is turning more inwards on himself. He is so different from what he was.
The teachers aren’t deaf. No, not at all. They hear the rumors. Rumors of drugs (dealing or using was still being debated) or of Rider being in one of the local gangs. Some of the teachers even believe them or at least think they hold just a shred of the truth. A few don’t think so.
Mr Barry isn’t so sure.
On one hand, he sees the bruises. The busted lip. The swelling on various parts of his face after some illnesses. Rider always wears long sleeves, but sometimes the sleeves ride up his forearms. There are often nicks and the ghosts of small scars and one or two larger, more noticeable scars. Are they from battles on the streets? Barry remembers the incident with the bullies, about how Rider single-handedly took them on and won, even though they were bigger and older.
There are several layers of scarring that wrap around his wrists. They look like they could be from struggling with handcuffs or binds. A few have seen them, and many students have spread more gossip about how he has been arrested. but escaped.
Barry supposes he could fit the part.
He has been broody. He radiates an unnameable air that warns others to be wary and tread lightly. You can’t pinpoint it, but it makes you uncomfortable. You try to hide it, but he notices, and you can tell. But even worse, he takes note that you can tell. You see it in his eyes—the slight sharpening as he takes in every detail, and you can’t help but feel like you are being examined under a microscope. His face is watchful, and his expression is not openly hostile; you just can’t help but feel this way. You can’t let it faze you. You swallow the slight lump in your throat and divert your attention to the lesson, on the rest of the class as a whole. But you feel the old, familiar prickle of hairs on the back of your neck and a chill rises up your spine.
However, Barry can’t see the drug aspect. At least Rider is definitely not using. He is too clear-headed and focussed for that. The way he takes in his surroundings and examines his peers tells you that. He is smart. You would think that with all of his prolonged absences, his grades would hit rock bottom. They don’t. Once he catches up on the majority of his makeup work, he usually gives the correct answer when prompted. He tries, mostly successful, to not be noticed, therefore not called on. Before catching up, Rider would stiffen in his chair and quietly, respectfully decline to answer. The class would snicker. And though his grades aren’t quite failing, they were nowhere near the level they were before…whatever happened.
But, on the other hand, Barry also sees the reluctance in his demeanor. The stiffness in which he regards others. The discomfort when he was surrounded by classmates. The defensiveness and poster demand he be left alone. Barry sees the weariness on his young face and his and the bags under his tired eyes, thinly veiled. Rider hates people sitting or standing behind him. He tenses at sudden loud noises. He reacts to touch. Sometimes he flinches. Others…
Once, when there were a few extra minutes in class, and the class was being rowdy, Rider was sitting slightly hunching in on himself when one of the boys stumbled into his back. His reaction was interesting: it was like he was a compressed coil under a thumb that was struggling to contain the pressure, and the grip had suddenly slipped, the coil rocketing before a palm could slap it down. He had sprung, like the coil, from his chair, spinning around in a low crouch, already in what anyone could recognize as a fighting stance. When Rider saw the alarmed look of the boy who had crashed into him, he mumbled a rushed apology, excused himself for the restroom, and quickly walked out. Everyone stared as he went out and burst into hushed whispers once he was on his way down the hall.
His eyes. Barry had only seen those eyes on two people previously, one being his own father, who had served in the military. Both of those people had had the eyes of a soldier. Rider has eyes similar to theirs. Eyes that seem bottomless. Full of emotions. Pain, loss, fear, tragedy, suffering. Bitterness, wariness, suspicion, and anger, all rolled into a chaotic little package. They are fascinating.
Branches whip past his face and the ruckus as he crashes through the brush should have been deafening, almost drowning out his own panicked breaths. There’s a faint snap in the distance. Panther? Bear? Badger? He glances around, but he can’t see any of his friends. Where is he? He stumbles on, his right leg throbbing with each thud of his heart. The sun is setting, but the forest canopy has already blanketed the ground in darkness.
He sets up for the night in a tree, surrounded by the eerie silence. There is no firing of guns, no cries of pain, no bombings. His ears are still ringing, which puts him on edge. He can barely hear. What if someone sneaks up on him during the night?
Now someone is following him, he limps on tiredly. Where are they? Where is safety? He stumbles into a clearing. He can see the thick smoke. Fresh. He hears a muffled crack behind him, and he reacts on instinct, raising his rifle...and the enemy is dead. Dead. His first kill. He stumbles back…
And wakes up with a gasp.
One day, after another long sick leave, Rider comes back. He’s jumpy, and Barry can tell that he snatches in every little detail around him. He shies away from the windows. He jumps at the screech of a pencil sharpener and then pauses to close his eyes and take a deep breath. He’s not paying any attention, and Barry can see open concern on Harris’s face whenever he takes a glance at him, which is often. Barry doesn’t even take the risk of calling on him to answer a question. Something is clearly bothering the young Rider boy, and Barry finds relief in the blatantly obvious fact that Rider has at least one loyal friend. A friend who has stuck by him and clearly knows something about whatever has been going on with him.
During lunch on that warm and sunny day, a rarity around these parts, Barry spots Rider under a shady maple tree. Barry nearly misses him; Rider blends in well with the shadows. His friend isn’t with him, and he is holding a mostly-eaten jelly sandwich. As Barry limps towards him, he registers the black and blue bruising on the back of his right hand, not quite covered by the band-aid.
Barry asks permission to join him, and Rider, raising an eyebrow, gestures to a raised tree root close to him. Barry grunts slightly as his knees creak into the low sitting position. Rider is silent, watching curiously from beneath shaded eyes. He is guarded, but not nearly as defensive as Barry would have expected. Barry is surprised to feel an odd mix of gratitude and warmth.
Rider regards him silently, with carefully interested eyes. Barry comments about the mild weather and Rider indulges him. They talk for awhile, mostly it’s just idle chit-chat about the weather and other dull conversation fillers. Rider says he likes the peace and tries to enjoy it whenever he can, giving a wry grin as if at some inside joke. Barry chuckles in agreement, thinking about how the loud lunchroom is not the place to go if one wanted to hear their own thoughts, what with the majority of the students in there gossiping about their favorite pop singer or about how much of a blast the last party was. They make small talk. Barry learns a few things he was not previously aware of. Alex is a pleasant young man who has a wry sense of humor that sneaks into a conversation. He is a boy who has had to grow up too fast; it is in his very demeanor. He talks to the teacher as though to an equal, like it is natural and he does not have to drop into a student voice, laced with insincerity and .
As lunch is about to end, they get up and Barry gently places a hand on Alex's shoulder, ignoring the slight tensing. Alex turns to look at him. Nothing is said between them, but one look can share a litany of information. The look Alex receives from the teacher’s sad, old eyes is one of compassion, respect, and understanding. One of sadness, but not pity.
The veteran Daniel Barry now knows why his attention was drawn to this boy, and why he was so fascinated with him. He should have recognized it when he first noticed Alex’s eyes darken with new depth. He should have accepted that he saw the same eyes he glanced at every morning in the mirror on Alex. Though Barry’s ice blue eyes were so different from Alex’s chocolate brown ones, they both carried the same veil which didn’t quite manage to mask the deep shades of pain from each other. Barry had tried to reason with himself and say it was not likely. Now he knows. Deep in his aching bones, he just knows.
Daniel Barry knows nothing of the circumstances, but he realizes that whatever happened must firmly hold down its side on the scales in order for this great tragedy to happen. The weight of the world. The weight of lives. Barry had gained acceptance that he had learned from his experiences, and he carries his burden willingly and with pride. He vows that he would be there for Alex, if only as someone who would not treat him as though he were a pariah.
Two soldiers stood in the cooling air, a fresh-smelling breeze bringing the promise of rain.