The Girl in the Corner
A young man discovers that his scars are what someone else needs.
Marcus saw her almost every day, though he had never yet spoken to her.
During the lunch hour and study periods, he liked to take his work out to the school courtyard, a well-tended miniature park where the seats were placed back among the bushes and in the shadow of the two big oak trees, partially screened by the plants from the central patio, as well as from each other. But there was a gap in the hedge beside his favourite place, and from there he could see her, sitting tucked away in a corner of the courtyard, her face buried in a book.
She was there almost every lunch hour, always alone, always reading. And while Marcus used the time to catch up on his studies, he always found his eyes drifting over to her.
She was not beautiful, though she wasn’t exactly plain either. Her skin was clear and pale, her hair a light brown, her figure thin and unremarkable. “Cute” was the word Marcus would have used if asked to describe her. Yes, definitely cute, with her big dark eyes and her habit of sticking her tongue out as she read.
Her name was Paula. That much he knew because she was in some of his classes, though he didn’t see her much there. She always sat in the back of the class, and never volunteered information or asked questions, or did anything to draw attention to herself. Most people forgot she was even there. Meanwhile, Marcus was always placed in the front of class, right under the teachers’ eyes where they could watch him.
Marcus didn’t much mind his class placement. Just like he didn’t mind the whispers and anxious looks that sometimes followed him in the halls. When you came to an upscale private school with a criminal record in tow, you had to expect that sort of thing. The old him would have resented it and probably smashed some heads to show it, but then, his old self never would have come to St. Mary Mercy in the first place. He wasn’t that person anymore. If he ever got irritated by any of it, he just chalked it up as penance and reminded himself that he was lucky not to be serving an extended jail term.
Maybe that was why he liked seeing Paula there in her corner, reading to herself. Something about her seemed so perfectly innocent, so far removed from the world he’d known. She would never have survived a minute at his old school.
He’d never approach her, of course. Odds were he’d only scare her. That was how a lot of people here reacted to him, since Marcus was, if he were being honest, a rather alarming specimen. He was heavily built and thick with hard muscle, and his face, partially paralysed by a blow from a chain, was fixed in a permanent half-scowl. More than that, everything about him testified that he’d come from a world most of his classmates could scarcely imagine; a world where people got knifed in the parking lot and where teachers risked having their brains beaten in by their students. Marcus hadn’t been going to St. Mary Mercy long enough for them to get used to his presence, and even kids who were physically larger than he was tended to give him a wide berth. A small, shy girl like that and she’d probably panic if he so much as said hello. Worse, he might ruin this quiet spot for her if he went and butted in.
So he simply sat there at his usual seat in the courtyard, quietly studying while stealing looks over at the quite girl in the corner. Occasionally she would smile or laugh at whatever it was she was reading. Such moments seemed like small treasures to him, for it was so rare to see her smile.
It was a crisp, bright fall day, and Paula was at her usual place. She was reading what looked like a science fiction novel today. It occurred to Marcus that she never seemed to be reading anything school related. Probably she just wanted the chance to escape for a half-hour or so. As he thought this, it suddenly struck him that she never seemed like she was very happy.
“Hey, Nick, check it out.”
“That’s Paula, isn’t it? From third hour English?”
Marcus’s attention snapped to the two boys standing a little ways off on the centre patio. They weren’t paying him any mind, probably because a bush partially screened him from view. In any case they were intent on Paula.
“She’s cute, isn’t she?” said the first boy.
“She’s okay. Not too hot though,” Nick replied.
“I know; the super attractive ones are always so damn confident,” his friend groaned.
“I hear she’s really shy.”
“You heard right, at least I guess so. Don’t think I’ve ever heard her say a word.”
“Perfect! Cute and zero confidence. Just how I like ‘em.”
They grinned at each other, then set off for where Paula was sitting.
Anger stirred in Marcus’s heart as he watched them, and his hand balled into a fist. The poor girl only wanted to be left alone. Why couldn’t these jerks let her be?
They had reached her now. He couldn’t quite make out what they were saying, but he saw her startled reaction as they addressed her. The one called Nick sat down on the bench next to her and pointed to her book. Marcus could practically hear the mocking pseudo-interest as he asked about it. The other boy was bending over her, casually blocking her in.
From the little Marcus could see of her face, Paula looked bewildered, alarmed. Helpless.
They were scaring her. Probably they didn’t mean any real harm...no, more likely they just didn’t think about it. But she was disturbed nonetheless.
And, he realized, it was more than that. It wasn’t just a matter of having to put up with their boorish behaviour; she would never be able to sit and read in that spot again after this. If a thing happened once, it makes you wonder if it’ll happen again. From now on, sitting in that seat in the corner, she’d always be wondering whether someone was about to come and hassle her, never able to fully escape from her troubles as she had before. The place would no longer be safe to her.
He knew perfectly well what that sense of safety meant. He had himself taken it away from plenty of people. Now these jerks were taking it away from her.
Marcus suddenly stood up and marched across the courtyard. Neither Paula nor either of the two boys noticed him coming. Paula, for her part was looking straight down at the ground, trembling.
“Come on,” said Nick. “Let me walk you home tonight. You look like you’re nervous about something….”
“Hey,” said Marcus in a soft but dangerous voice. It was the voice he had previously used as a signal that someone was awakening the monster in him, and that violence could be at hand.
Nick and his friend turned around, and almost immediately he saw the colour drain from their faces as they swore under their breath. Nick hastily stood up and they both took a step back. Marcus deliberately did not look at Paula, but kept his eyes on the two boys.
“Are you guys bothering my girl?” he demanded.
They stared at him.
“Y-your girl?” stammered Nick.
Marcus, keeping his eyes fixed on them, set his hand on the back of the seat, behind Paula’s shoulders.
“Yeah,” he said. “You have a problem with that?”
“No, no!” said Nick’s friend hastily. “Not at all. We were…”
“We were just asking where the bathroom was.”
Marcus sat down on the seat next to Paula, putting his arm across the back and still eying the two boys dangerously.
“It’s that way,” he said, nodding. “Better hurry before you piss yourselves.”
Nick and his friend nearly tripped over each other in their haste to escape.
As soon as they were out of sight, Marcus withdrew his arm. He could sense Paula’s body, rigid and trembling beside him.
“Sorry about that,” he muttered, looking straight ahead. “I didn’t mean anything by it. Just figured it’d be a way to make them back off and leave you alone. You okay?”
She nodded, swallowed hard, and stammered out a, “T-thank you.”
“You’d think guys at a place like this’d have more class,” he grumbled. “Anyway, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“You didn’t scare me,” she said.
He looked at her in surprise. She certainly looked nervous, but she met his gaze frankly.
“Surprised,” she said. “But I was already scared enough. Honestly, when you said that, I...I didn’t know what to think. But I wasn’t scared of you.”
“Well, I’m glad of that at least,” he said. He self-consciously touched the paralysed side of his face. “Makes for a bit of change.”
“What...what made you do it?” she asked. “If you don’t mind my asking, I mean.”
“Just didn’t like to see them bothering you,” he answered with a shrug. “I noticed you like to read here, and anyway, you didn’t look like you were having a good time.”
She stared straight ahead and swallowed hard.
“No one… I mean, I’ve never had anyone do something like that for me. I’ve only hoped that if no one noticed me, no one would….” She stopped as though catching herself and flashed him an anxious look.
“Sorry,” she said. “You don’t want to hear me talk about that.”
“I don’t mind,” he shrugged. He thought of saying that he’d like to hear more about her, but after what he’d just done…no, that wouldn’t look right. In fact, the longer he stuck around, the more awkward it would be for her.
“Well, anyway,” he muttered. “I guess you’d rather be alone. So, if you’re really okay….”
He stood up to go.
“Uh!” she stammered, half reaching out to him. “Actually….” she blushed crimson. “I-I was just thinking...if they come back and you aren’t here, then...then that might look strange, right? So...so maybe you could stick around for a bit? If you’re not busy, I mean?”
She looked up at him with anxious appeal, and he felt a grin tug at the working side of his face.
“I suppose you’re right,” he answered, and returned to the seat beside her. “And I’ve go nowhere better to be.”
She smiled shyly.
Man, he thought, she really does have a nice smile.