I can’t decide … was it one big moment or was it a series of small ones that woke me to my disillusion?
I never questioned, I never stopped to think, I just did what you told me to do as we sat on the thin metal strip that constitutes a bench. Despite the bus shelter being new, the air inside it still hangs with the stale odour of old rubbish and an accumulation of bodily odours.
'Don't zip your jumper that high,' my big brother scolds, grabbing the zip of my fleece and undoing it completely.
'I'm cold,' I mumble, moving the straps of my new bag to try and stop them from cutting into my shoulders.
'Do you remember what I told you?' James asks quickly, glancing at me before getting up and moving outside the shelter in preparation to board the approaching bus.
'Yeah,' I mutter feebly, resisting the urge to fold my arms across my squirming stomach - remembering rule number seven.
The bus comes to a shrill halt and the door opens with a heavy pooosh of air. I remind myself of rule seven as I trail behind my big brother up the steps of the bus. Already, everything is bigger … the bus, the pupils, even the bags they carry.
Looking furtively around as I follow my big brother up the aisle, we, the new first years are easy to pick out: small, nervous and rigid in stature. My gut lurches with panic as James takes a seat next to his friend, with a loud exchange of hands slapping together, and I realise he has no intention of sitting next to me. He doesn’t even look up to see the terror on my face as I realise that the only seat left is three rows behind him and next to a boy who was questionably the most terrifying man-child I'd ever encountered. I approached him reluctantly, the bus lurching violently and swinging me like a child on a rope swing into my seat ... or, to be more accurate, face planting me onto it.
Over the coming months, after what you counted as my first major error, I did everything you instructed. When people asked me questions I gave them the answers you’d given me, I even answered the questions you didn't instruct me on with answers I thought you'd use. I studied you, the way you moved, the way you talked, I absorbed and replicated it all. It worked to begin with, being your little brother gave me some fame and I made friends but I was never able to keep them the way you did. I couldn't replicate your loud confidence, your no mess attitude or your intelligence with authenticity. I copied everything else though, even the way you slapped and grabbed at the girls’ bodies at every tangible opportunity.
Every morning I sat next to the man-child, Alister Duke, known always as the Duke. I assure you it wasn't out of a blossoming friendship but necessity. I swiftly came to realise that Duke’s not a morning person when my cringeworthy 'we must stop meeting like this' on my third day of sitting with him was met with a glower. By home time though, Duke was one of the popular ones who sat at the back of the bus, just like James, holding court with their lesser beings stretching out before them. Duke seemed to be known by all, liked by all, he had something my brother didn’t … I came to learn it was respect.
'Here...' Dave, my latest and longest lasting friend, said nudging me from across the aisle to get my attention. I followed his gaze to the seat in front of me, knowing immediately by the stickers on her school bag that it was BTT: Big Tit Tess.
Knowing instantly what Dave was implying, I stood up and leaned over the back of the seat and said loudly 'All right BTT?' my hands grabbing at her chest before she squirmed away.
I laughed at her the way James would have. The rest of the journey was taken up with Dave and me grabbing her ass. I beat Dave by getting in a full-on squeeze when she stood up to get off the bus. I wore my smile like a badge of honour as I leaned down to get my bag and caught Duke's cold gaze.
'Your brothers a twat - stop trying to replicate him' Duke said dispassionately, heaving his bag off the floor between his bulky legs.
I looked at him utterly dumbfounded, I'd never heard anyone criticise James. Amongst the crowds of people getting off the bus, I pause to look around for BTT. My eyes spotting her standing next to the railings at the front door and for the first time in weeks I look at her, not with potential mischief but, with observation. I acknowledged the head that was curled into her rounded shoulders and her arms that were wrapped tightly around her middle as though trying to shrink inside herself.
I stumble forward a step as a hand slaps my back. I whirl around with a glower of indignation which instantly vanishes from my face when I see the hand belongs to James.
'I saw you with her,' he says tipping his head in BTT's direction. 'Maybe you’re not such a mistake after all.'
I look at Tess and the frame of her which I had deformed.
'… You're a twat,' I say loudly to James, in front of all his friends.
Zipping up my hoodie as high at it will go, I turned and hasten away for fear of backing out of doing what I knew was right; of backing back into the person I wasn’t ever supposed have become.
'I'm...I'm sorry,’ I stutter as I reach Tess.
I hasten away before she can reply - too afraid of her reaction but, nonetheless, finally feeling free to simply be me.