Will Manson stood up for me today. Against the jocks. Stupid. Nice, but stupid. I wish he wouldn't do stuff like that. It's so wrong. Will's my best friend, though.
Oh, who am I kidding? He's my only friend.
It was gym class, which has got to be the worst of an already bad situation. But I'm pretty used to it. More or less. As much as you get used to a thing like that. I'd just gotten out of the shower, and I was walking back to my corner to get dressed. As fast as I safely could. It doesn't pay to go too fast. It draws them. Like when dogs see a cat running away. It brings out the worst in them.
I got snapped with a towel from behind. Right on the butt. It hurt, but I kept it to myself. It almost knocked off the towel I was wearing, but I grabbed it and held tight. Laughter from the rear, then some comments about laying off the Ho Hos and Twinkies. Nothing I don't hear pretty much every day of my life.
Then I heard Will's voice. He said, "Why don't you leave him alone?"
Really stupid. I was almost to my corner. Then it would have been over anyway. All he was doing was pouring Zippo lighter fluid on the fire. Still, you have to like him for stuff like that. In a weird sort of way.
By the time I looked around, the jocks had him by the throat with his back up against the wall. The usual suspects. There were five of them. I'm not even sure I know all their names. I'm pretty sure there's a Mike and a Dave in there somewhere. Then again, you can't throw a rock into a group of guys without hitting a Mike or a Dave. And you know what? They're cowards. Know how I know? Because they always attack in a pack, like a bunch of coyotes. Only cowards would be sure to outnumber their helpless victim by five to one.
Will isn't fat. But he catches it all the same. I think it's partly being new. Also smart doesn't help. Plus usually when he opens his mouth, something geeky will fall out. He's skinny, too skinny, and has big ears that stick out away from his head. And the worst acne ever. Sometimes it hurts to look at him. But I do anyway. I'm no picnic, either, so I still do. I think if his skin cleared up and he got his ears pinned by a plastic surgeon, he might be okay. If he never once talked.
The chief coward was talking so close to Will's face that you could see Will blink because he was getting spit on. "And what'll you do if we don't, huh, Charlie? Tell your mother? Oh, that's right. You don't have one."
I'll say this for Will. He didn't go at them. I could see how easy it would have been. I could see it on his face. I was thinking, Fight the urge. Be calm. I mean, what good does it do to charge five big jocks? They could just beat you to a pulp and walk away laughing.
I watched Will's face, and it just got redder and redder.
Will moved here from L.A. with his father at the beginning of the school year because his mother left them for some guy. We hit it off right away, because we have three big things in common. We each only have one parent. We each really like to fish. Even though his fishing and my fishing are pretty different things. And, most important, neither one of us has even one other person who wants to be our friend.
He doesn't talk much about his mother. The one time it came up, he just said what he always says about home. "That's life in the Manson family." Will thinks he was shot down before he was even born, because it's so hard to grow up with the name of a famous murderer. I think maybe he's being too dramatic. But I'm not sure he's entirely wrong. He takes a lot of crap for it. That's why they call him Charlie. That should be the worst thing they ever call us.
But you'd think they'd leave you alone about a thing like your mother. I mean, your mother. Damn. Something's got to be sacred. Instead they attack you on just that front. Like they have to call you a space alien for having that happen to you. Otherwise a thing like that could happen to them, too.
It's a theory, anyway. I'm full of theories about the popular guys. I'll never know if I'm right, though, because I'll never be one of them.
Poor Will. I never saw anybody get that red. The guy who was holding him called him Lobster Boy, and they all walked away laughing.
I got dressed fast, and Will and I walked out into the hall together. I always breathe when I get out into the hall. Like I'm breathing for the first time ever. Not that I haven't been tortured in the hall, but gym is worse.
I said, "Why do you do stuff like that, Will?"
He said, "You're welcome."
"Yeah, okay. It's nice and all. But it just makes it worse." The trick is to get small. Never look in their eyes. Never look at them at all. Just look down at the ground and try to get so small you're hardly even there. That's the only thing that helps. Except when it doesn't.
"You're right," he said. "You raise an interesting point, young Ernie." That was a line we heard in a TV movie. We've been using it ever since. "If I really wanted to help you, I'd figure a way to get you out of gym altogether. And I might have just the thing."
"I'm not going to maim myself. If that's what you mean."
While we walked, I did the usual routine where I found lots of reasons to turn my head. If we passed a locker with stickers on it, I turned to read them. If a pretty girl walked by the other way, I followed her with my eyes until my head was almost all the way around. Pure ruse. Not that I don't like pretty girls, but it's not in me to stare. I was watching our backs. Making sure nobody was bearing down from the rear. But you can't just keep glancing nervously over your shoulder. Not unless you have a death wish. That's like the equivalent of bleeding into the water if you're a fish. You become this living, breathing advertisement for sharks.
Excerpted from Diary of a Witness by Catherine Ryan Hyde. Copyright © 2009 by Catherine Ryan Hyde. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.