Beyond the Scars
I gripped the edge of the locker room bench tighter as my body swayed ominously and took the time to regain my balance before I reached for the pair of clean jeans resting next to me on the bench and leaned over to slip them on. I was trying really hard to breathe through my mouth because there was still a spicy odor coming from the discarded jeans on my other side and if I inhaled through my nose it made my eyes water. It probably would've been smarter to change my shirt first, but I had always rationalized that it was best to get the more difficult stuff done first. And keeping your body balanced on a thin slat of wood while trying to slide jeans up over a pair of worthless legs is even harder than I just made it sound.
I was just maneuvering the waistband over my hips when the locker room door opened. I looked up fast enough to catch a glimpse of Puck's face before he turned his head down and covered his eyes with a hand. "Whoa, sorry to interrupt your happy time, dude, but you know there are plenty of more appropriate places for that where you won't be bothered," he said with his usual condescending bite.
"What?" I glanced down and realized that I was sitting there with my pants open around my hips, one hand tightly gripping the bench for support and the other pulling at the crotch of my jeans. My face felt like it had caught fire as I figured out what he thought he was seeing. "Oh. No, oh God, no. It's not – I'm just getting dressed."
"Oh it's you," Puck said and laughed. "You know, most people get dressed before they come to school." He lowered his hand and I watched as his eyes flickered from me to my chair and back. "How'd you get clear over there?"
"Considering that my chair is only a foot and a half away, 'clear over there' seems like a gross overstatement," I pointed out. Puck didn't look as amused as I was so I decided to change tact. "It's kind of funny that everyone assumes I never get out of this chair. I mean, you don't think I sleep in it too, do you?" The look on Puck's face said pretty clearly that the thought had crossed his mind. I sighed. "I use my arms and pull myself out. It's easy once you learn the tricks."
Puck just nodded and stepped the rest of the way into the locker room, letting the door swing shut behind him. His nose wrinkled. "Why do you smell like the garbage disposal of a Mexican restaurant?"
I plucked at my sweater vest, which was stained the same red as my shirt and the jeans that I had tossed aside earlier. "Got another lunch tray dropped on me," I explained. "I think it's Chile con Corpse. Whatever it is, you should give it a try sometime; it's a really great female repellent."
"How do you do that?" The abruptness of the question threw me off but not quite as badly as how serious his voice was.
"What, get lunches dumped on me?" I asked in confusion. "It's not all that difficult when your head is level with most people's waists and Finn's knees."
"No, I meant–" Puck looked like he was regretting staying anything, but I waited because I knew he never does anything halfway. "I meant how do you take all this so easy? You get harassed constantly and just make jokes about it like it doesn't matter."
This was not the sort of question I'd been expecting at all, so it took me a while to come up with an answer. Finally I shrugged, saying, "I just learned, I guess." I paused to tug off my sweater vest, grumbling as it smeared that red mystery sauce on my cheek and glasses. I threw the vest onto my dirtied jeans and whipped my glasses clean on part of my shirt that had been protected from the cafeteria food. "I've been like this for a while," I continued when Puck didn't say anything, "and I will be for the rest of my life, so I learned to adjust. Making jokes makes it hurt less. Everyone has their ways of coping." I glanced over my shoulder to where Puck was leaning against the row of lockers behind me. "You should probably find your way if you're going to stick with glee."
Puck scoffed and folded his arms on his chest. "People don't dare make fun of me," he said confidently but I could see the defensiveness in his eyes.
"Really?" I asked skeptically, starting on the buttons of my shirt. "How many times have you been slushied?"
When Puck scowled I thought I might have just gotten myself into trouble. The probability of finding myself locked in another porta-potty was just flashing through my mind when Puck growled, "Three." I managed to keep the relief of not getting murdered off my face, and instead I gave him a 'told you so' smile and returned to my shirt buttons.
I slipped out of that shirt as well as my undershirt when I realized the soupy food had seeped through. I had leaned over to grab the clean shirts from where I'd set them on the bench when Puck spoke again.
"Wow, what did you do to piss of Freddy?" he asked in surprise. I froze and didn't need to look over my shoulder to see what he was staring at; thick, knotting white scars that wrapped around my right side and across my lower back in jagged, uneven lines.
"Actually Freddy has four claws and if I remember rightly there are five on me," I said, forcing my typical deadpan so he wouldn't know how uncomfortable I was talking about it. I had learned a long time ago that the less you cared, the less people bothered you about things. When I looked over my shoulder, Puck was squinting at my back and I caught him mouthing numbers as he counted them. It was kind of sad how intently he was focusing just to count to five, and I tried not to smile at that thought as I pulled a fresh undershirt over my head.
"So is that where it happened?" This time I didn't need him to elaborate before I got what he was asking. Without looking up, I nodded. "What happened?"
I couldn't stop myself from glancing back at him this time because the compassion in his tone was so unreal I had to check that it was still Puck behind me. He had that overly thoughtful look on his face, with his brow pulled down like he was angry but there was something nice in his eyes I'd never seen before. I couldn't believe it, but he really seemed like he wanted to know, like he cared about what had happened to me.
"Car accident," I explained as emotionlessly as possible. "I had turned sideways in my seat to talk to my mom. The truck hit my side of the car and the door buckled into my back. I've been in the chair ever since."
What was I thinking, telling that to someone like Puck? I had avoided talking about the car accident with anyone since it had happened, and now I had just spilled it to, of all people, Noah Puckerman. To distract myself from the insanity that must have just overtaken me, I went back to dressing.
By the time I'd finished the buttons and Puck still hadn't said anything, I was starting to get a bit nervous. I looked back at him and his expression was so thoughtful it looked out of place on him. When he caught me looking he put on his normal cocky smirk. "Ouch."
Weirdly enough, Puck's response, sarcastic as it had been, made me feel better. It was kind of nice to finally have someone not pitying and coddling me, even if that someone was a guy who used to torment me and still occasionally indulged in it. I laughed as I gathered my stained clothes and tossed them into the locker standing open in front of me. "Yeah, well, we all have our scars," I agreed.
Instantly Puck tensed and his hand slipped up toward his shoulder before he seemed to notice what he was doing and moved it back. I knew why; I had seen the scar that curved across the back of his shoulder like a talon. Of course with how little he wore shirts, so had most of the school as well as a pretty good percentage of the adult female population of Lima and the surrounding towns if rumors were to be believed. Modesty never had been his strong suit. I wasn't positive where the scar had come from, but I had taken an educated guess. After all, it was common knowledge that his dad had been at the top of the ladder when it came to the Lima-Losers.
Judging by the look in his eyes, half anger and half alarm, my guess was a really good one.
Turning forward again, I bent over and forced my shoes back on. "But hey," I started, keeping my voice casual as I tied my laces, "it's not the scars that make us; it's how we overcome them. Right?"
When I sat up and looked over again, Puck had that 'so deep in thought he looks like he's about to rip someone in half' expression on again. I was admittedly impressed by how much he was chewing over what I'd said. Let's be honest, Puck is not exactly what most people would call a philosopher. Or intelligent, really. Finally he shook his head, smirked, and said, "What are you, a fortune cookie on wheels?"
I laughed. "Something like that." I knew that in his own way, Puck had just agreed with me. It was a weird thought, that I could agree on anything with the Neanderthal jock that was so fond of tossing my friends into dumpsters or giving out slushie facials, but we'd somehow done it. I was still puzzling it over as I checked that the brakes were still on my chair and then hauled myself over. I had just arranged my feet on the rests when something occurred to me. "So why are you in here? I'm going to assume that it's not for the company."
Puck looked like he had suddenly remembered something and he turned to one of the lockers behind him, opened it, and retrieved a small tin. "Forgot my dip."
"Oh, right." I made sure all of my stuff had been put away and then released my brakes. Puck left the locker room in front of me, but to my surprise he stopped and held the door for me. I muttered a quiet "thanks" as I rolled past.
It was still lunch period so I headed for the cafeteria. If I was lucky I might be able to snag something to eat off Tina or Kurt's trays. He wasn't talking, but I could hear that Puck was still walking just a little behind me. Once again, I decided it was best to not ask questions and just go along with it. As I rounded a corner I saw a backpack swinging toward my head and I reflexively lifted my hands to protect my face – I had broken too many pairs of glasses in the past by taking a heavy bag to the face. But at the last second a hand flew in and grabbed the backpack, jerking it upwards and startling the guy carrying it.
"Hey watch where you're swinging that thing, Richards," Puck snapped at the guy and then released the bag. Richards just snorted and turned away, rolling his eyes and laughing loudly at something his friend said.
"Thanks," I said in surprise. As if today wasn't turning out weird enough already…
Puck shrugged. "No problem, dude," he answered casually.
"You know, you aren't quite as much a jerk as people make you out to be," I informed him.
I was rewarded for my boldness by Puck's surprised expression. Then he laughed and said, "You're not half bad either, for being a total nerd." I laughed and realized that, in the strangest way it had ever happened, I might have just made a new friend.
We passed another hallway and I glanced up when I noticed that Puck's steps had faltered. He was scowling and staring down the hall, but I couldn't see whatever he was looking at because Finn and Quinn were talking, or it looked more like arguing actually, in the middle of the walkway and it's practically impossible to see anything around Finn. Honestly, he's huge.
"You – uh – you alright there, Puck?" I asked awkwardly, a little unnerved by the return of his brooding frown.
Puck didn't look away from whatever he was staring at when he spoke. "It's how we overcome our scars, right?" he asked.
"Um, right," I said, a lot more than a little weirded out now. I glanced down the hall again; Finn had left now but I still couldn't see anything that might have captivated Puck's interest so much.
There was suddenly a determined look on Puck's face. His voice was so low I wasn't sure I was meant to hear him as he said, "No one's gonna call me a Lima-Loser again." He took a step forward and called back over his shoulder, "See you at rehearsal, Wheels."
"Yeah, see ya," I said. Alright, so all those theories about Puck being insane: confirmed. However I was kind of touched that he put so much faith in what I'd said about scars. Judging by what he'd muttered to himself, whatever he was heading off to do was an attempt at throwing off the born-in label of Lima-Loser. There couldn't be anything wrong in that. "Good luck," I said under my breath. If only beating my scars was so easy.
Turning back in the direction I'd been heading, I saw a familiar splash of neon colors ahead of me. I tried to ignore the way my stomach suddenly flipped. "Hey Tina," I called after her. She stopped and looked back at me, smiling.
"H-h-hey Artie," she said brightly. "I was looking for you. Mercedes told me w-what happened. Are you okay?"
"Yeah I'm fine," I said calmly. I wondered how Mercedes had known about the lunch tray incident; I didn't remember seeing her. Then again I had had chili in my eye, so I suppose there were a lot of things I hadn't seen. The bell conveniently rang at that moment. "Can I carry your books to science?"
Tina smiled and handed me her books, which I set on my lap. Then, like she always did, she stepped up behind my chair and grabbed the handles, pushing as she leaned on them and talked to me over my shoulder. My stomach was flipping again and I knew it had less to do with the fact that I was starving from missing lunch and more to do with the fact that her voice was so close to my ear I could feel her breathing on it.
"Tina?" I asked suddenly. "You know we've got that big science test next week, maybe – well, would you want to come over Friday and we can study together?" As I glanced up her smile was so big it was all I could see.
"Y-y-yeah!" she said enthusiastically. "That'd be great. I could really use help with this s-stuff."
"Okay cool," I said and that fluttery feeling was suddenly a lot stronger. It always acted up around Tina and I knew why. She was pretty, in a punkish way, and she had a beautiful smile. We were great friends and we both shared the love of music that had brought us to glee. Most importantly, we shared something; we were both set as outcasts because of our disabilities.
It occurred to me that maybe this could be my way of beating my scars. Puck could break away from the Lima-Loser image his father had left on him, and I could just not let my scars from keeping me away from a normal life. Sure, my life would never be completely normal, unless maybe they invented some way to fix paralysis, but I could still do the things normal people do. Like go on dates and have a girlfriend.
Yeah, I thought, as I looked up at Tina telling me about something funny Kurt had said, even scars like mine can be beaten.