'God, don't you feel sorry for her, looking like that?' Casey remarked.
Casey, Troy and Ramona were standing just in front of Scott and Wayne amid the clamor of clanging lockers. It was five minutes till the first class. Ella carried an armful of books. Her cheap spectacles had slid part way down her nose. She glanced over with a sneer.
Ramona turned to Casey with a snigger.
'Forget God, kid and just give grateful thanks to your genes.'
'You'd think she could do something about her appearance,' said Troy. 'I don't think she's even combed her hair. I think she just lets the whole side down looking like that.'
Wayne whispered something in Scott's ear. They both sniggered.
As Ella hurried by, Scott stepped out in front of her bringing her up short.
'How's your love life, Ella? Are you getting any these days?' he demanded. Ella stood stock-still, aware that a small and curious crowd was forming, as it always did at the slightest hint of any kind of confrontation.
She was breathing hard. She had to in order to stem the rising pulse of panic she was experiencing. She hated this. She hated being the center of attention. It was always for the wrong reason. Her natural defense mechanism came into play. She stared blankly back at Stockton, took a deep breath, pursed her lips, which caused her mouth to distort into a twisted sneer and waited.
Scott had to go on. Unlike Ella he relished wallowing in the spotlight of attention. They always used to say about Scott Stockton that you only had to shine a flashlight anywhere and he'd stand in front of it. He looked at Ella as if she was a pathetic worm, not worthy of serious consideration, belonging to a different planet, a different species. He grinned at her mockingly.
'Ella, baby,' he mumbled theatrically, 'I could do things for you. I could, believe me; if the price was right, of course. We'd have to, you know, negotiate.' He paused as she locked her jaw and an involuntary rush of blood made her blush.
'Hey, sorry, I forgot,' he continued glancing at the others.' You're a scholarship girl, aren't you? No problem. It can be on account. Pleasure now pay later. How about it?'
'Your mind never rises higher than your groin, does it, Stockton?' Ella snapped. 'Which is not surprising seeing as that's where you keep your one and only brain cell.'
'Oh! – Oh, the bitch bites back,' hissed Scott angrily, stung for a reason which wasn't clear to him. 'You really think I'm stupid, don't you?'
'Intelligence and taste can't be bought, Stockton,' Ella retorted. 'Now are you going to get out of my way or do I have to report you for harassment?'
'His old man owns the school, you clunk,' Ramona interjected. 'No one's going to take any notice of any report. You ought to take it when it's offered kid. They say it's supercharged.'
A chorus of cheers and hollers erupted as Wayne started to pull Scott away. Scott shook his hand off roughly and turned back to Ella.
'No seriously, I'm interested in this. I want to know what makes you so brainy. Did they feed you on some special diet when you were a kid? Of course, you couldn't afford real food, right? So what is it? What's the secret formula? Is it some kind of plant food that makes your brain grow but turns you into some kind of creeper?' Scott burst out into raucous laughter.
'Time to go, Scott,' said Wayne. 'This is getting a little out of hand.'
'You don't have to hang around, Wayne,' Scott said.
At that moment Ed Leeming turned the corner and saw the group surrounding Ella. He stood uncertainly, watching the tail end of the confrontation. His first instinct was to shuffle past around the outside of the group but there were too many people in the way. He would be noticed. They would focus attention on him. But he liked Ella. They had a lot in common but it wasn't just that. They had played a kind of cat and mouse game for most of the semester. Neither was prepared to let down their defences till they were really sure they weren't going to get hurt.
Now Ed was watching somebody else getting the Stockton treatment. For once he wasn't in the center of the ring, warding off the blows, blanking out his mind against the taunts, reciting his own personal mantra to block out the world. He heard Ella say 'Let me pass.' He heard the fear in her voice. And it made him angry.
His anger rose like a supercharged steam jet. And it surprised him by its intensity. He stood, just on the fringe of the group, unnoticed. He stared at Stockton's face and he remembered the earlier illusion. He also rekindled his intense dislike for this arrogant rich bully who had everything. Scott Stockton was easy to dislike.
Ed opened his mouth. It was dry. His tongue had stuck to the roof. He cleared his throat. Not this time Stockton, he told himself. No, not this time. Ed did not know where the courage came from. It frightened him. It was like another person had been hiding inside him all along.
'Leave her alone,' he croaked.
For a moment stillness descended that almost made time stop. Then it did stop. Ed saw things in slow motion, the turning faces, the surprise, the shock. He saw Stockton's face contort briefly in anger then in scornful disbelief.
Scott stared at Ed.
'Are you talking to me, Leeming?' he snarled.
'I said leave her alone,' Ed repeated, more strongly this time.
Ella turned to Ed.
'Stay out of this, Ed,' she said.
'Your girlfriend's giving you some good advice, Leeming,' Scott turned to his audience. 'Get Leeming, another brain box on legs. The worm is turning, or is it just running away. Maybe someone should just stomp on that worm and put it out of its misery.'
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