“Where do you think you’re going, skinny?”
“Yeah, pretty boy. Where you going?”
Tobias flushed, but he kept walking. Engaging with the girls would only encourage them. If he ignored them, they might leave him alone.
“Hey, we’re talking to you,” one of them said.
He didn’t want to look back at them. That would be an acknowledgement that he knew they were talking to him. He kept his eyes on the sidewalk. He reached into the pocket of his jacket, fumbling for his headphones. Then he’d have an excuse not to hear them.
“Boy, she said we’re talking to you.”
There were at least five of them. He’d caught a glimpse of them, sitting on a stoop as he’d walked by on the sidewalk, but he’d immediately chosen to ignore them. He had avoided all eye contact. It hadn’t done him any good. They had catcalled him, whistled, even, in a bizarre, teenage parody of what gross older men did to younger women.
He heard their footsteps behind him. Tobias sped up his own pace, but they matched it, apparently determined to follow him. He didn’t know what they wanted. Teenagers, boys and girls alike, could be stupid. He knew that all to well: he was one, if barely. These girls were all only a few years younger than him.
“You think you can just ignore us?”
“Yeah. We know you can hear us, skinny.”
Something hit his back. It bounced off of his jacket. It wasn’t large, and it hadn’t hurt. By the sound as it hit the sidewalk, he suspected it was a pebble, perhaps taken from the rocks around the trees set into the sidewalk.
That bothered him. It meant that the girls were escalating. It meant that they might not just leave him alone, no matter how well he ignored them. Still, he really didn’t want to deal with this. He just wanted to pretend it wasn’t happening. He wanted to be home, or at least back at his friend’s apartment, not here dealing with these stupid girls.
“Girl, I can’t believe you just did that!”
“Yeah, how are you going to just ignore a rock like that?”
“Girl you didn’t even turn around! You’re not just deaf. You’re numb, too?”
“It ain’t that cold out. Come on.”
Girl? They were calling him girl, now? He was not a large guy. As they had pointed out, he was thin, but he’d been gaining some muscle mass training with Jake, David, and Cassandra. He didn’t think he walked like a girl. He had smooth, clear skin and admittedly delicate features, and he liked his hair to look good. He’d just come from a haircut, so the short waves of it fell perfectly across his head right now.
All in all, he felt unmistakably masculine, but apparently he didn’t fit their idea of a man.
Another stone hit him in the back. This time he felt it more. Perhaps it was heavier, or perhaps it had just struck his shoulder blade at the right angle. He began to fear physical violence from them, now. Throwing pebbles at his back wasn’t so bad, so long as they didn’t really mean to hurt him, but if they through one as his head, that could be dangerous even if they weren’t brave enough to actually mean to harm him.
He turned to face them. “Why are you doing this?” He said it in the most disdainful way possible.
He identified their leader immediately. It was easy, because all of the other girls looked at her to answer. They didn’t do it obviously. Most of them kept up their tough facades, with only a flickering glance her way.
She stepped forward, her entire body rolling with a pretentious, sexual confidence. He almost laughed at her, because she was obviously putting on an act for the benefit of her friends. He changed his estimation of their age. They were teenagers, but quite young — each perhaps five or six years his junior, young enough to feel like they could get away with anything.
Young enough to know that, if they pushed him the right way, he would be the one getting in trouble, not them. Not just because they were girls, and not just because he was older than them. Now that they’d heard his accent, they would be even more confident.
“You don’t belong here,” the leader girl said. She had a piled-up mane of curly blond hair, styled like that of a much older woman, which he suspected was supposed to make her seem more mature. She also had a pile of makeup, the poor application of which served to have the opposite effect.
“Yeah, brownie,” said another girl. “This place ain’t for you.”
He almost laughed at her, because while his own skin was indeed a rich shade of brown, hers was even darker, edging almost toward black. Her friends, on the other hand, were all lighter than both her and Tobias, especially the leader.
He failed to hide his amused expression.
“You think we’re funny?” the leader girl said. She wore large golden hoop earrings. All of them wore large earrings, since that was coming into fashion among their age group, but hers were the largest. He wondered if that’s what made her the leader.
Tobias sighed. “I do,” he said, though he regretted the admission immediately.
A chorus of “oooohs!” and “no he didn’t!” erupted from the gaggle of girls. They moved closer to him. The leader gestured dramatically, and the girls on the sides moved to surround him. The skin of his face and back felt hot. He hated confrontation, and his foolish comment had only made this worse.
“We’re not joking around here,” the leader said. “What do you think is funny?”
She moved far too close to him as she spoke. He could smell her breath and her sugar-sweet perfume, as well as the sickly, toxic smell of her hair products. She spread her hands wide, her claw-like nails curled threateningly.
He stared at her, bemused be her behavior. He had seen people act like this in movies and in videos on the internet, but it had always seemed so far removed from real life. He knew there was a reason Cassandra had encouraged him to be careful, visiting Seranno, but again: the threat had seemed distant and unreal.
Now, here was a manifestation of it, come upon him in the form of these teenage girls he couldn’t stop thinking of as idiots. After all, what sort of sensible person thought sitting next to the sidewalk and harassing people who walked by was acceptable in any way? What did they hope to gain from this interaction?
When he didn’t answer, the girls grew more agitated.
“She asked you a question!” said a girl to his left.
“Yeah, answer her, girly boy,” said another, to his right.
“I would rather not,” he said honestly.
“‘I would rather not,’” the leader parotted, doing a terrible impression of his accent. “Who even talks like that?”
“People with an education,” Tobias muttered. He felt his cheeks and forehead burning hotter and hotter. He wasn’t mad, or even frightened, but he was nervous and, oddly, embarrassed.
“The fuck did you just say?” the leader said.
“Girl, school is for losers,” said another.
“He think he better than us,” said another. “The fuck he is!”
“I don’t think I’m better than anyone,” Tobias said. He felt himself shaking, slightly — but still, not out of fear of being harmed. He didn’t think these girls really wanted to hurt him. Even if they did, he doubted they were brave enough. For some reason, he’d always cared too much what people thought of him. He was shaking because he wanted to come up with better responses, but he couldn’t, in the heat of the moment.
Maybe tonight, when he was in bed, he’d come up with all the perfect things he should have said.
“Nah, you’re just trying to get out of it, now,” said the leader.
“You brownies always think you’re better,” said the dark girl. “Well, you ain’t better than shit, and this ain’t your city!”
Tobias reached into his pocket for his cell. He didn’t know who he was going to call, but perhaps just the act of getting it out would scare them away.
“Put that away,” the leader snapped. “You think you’re getting out of this now?”
She took her earrings off. That was a sign Tobias knew from movies. He suspected that’s where she, too, had learned it. He thought it likely she was still posturing, especially because she put as much drama into her act as possible. She pretended to rip the earrings off, though in reality she took great care not to damage them or her ears. She thrust them to her nearest lackey, who took them readily.
He ignored her command. He brought his cell from his pocket anyway, glancing between her and the screen as he tried to think of who it might be wise to call. He could call the authorities, he supposed, but he didn’t know enough to say for sure whether the girls had done anything illegal as of yet. He could call Cassandra, but she was all the way across the ocean. He could call his friend, but he was at work.
He turned on the camera and held up the device, turning so that he recorded all of their faces.
This took his focus away from the leader, who walked right up to him and, to his surprise, pushed him. He stumbled back, but he didn’t fall. The circle of girls shifted to put them in the center once more.
“Turn that shit off!” she demanded.
“No,” he said. He centered the shot on her face.
“Girl, I didn’t give you permission to record me,” she said, holding up her hand, fingers splayed, to block the camera.
“I’m not a girl, and I’m recording you for my own protection.”
She was still several feet away from him, having never closed the distance again after she pushed him. Tobias thought back to something that David had taught him about fighting. She was building up to actually fighting him, giving him a little bit more aggression with each action. She would expect him to do the same. If she came at him again, he had to surprise her.
She spun dramatically, throwing her hands up in the air. Tobias again wanted to laugh at her, because her ruse was utterly obvious. At the end of her spin, she rushed toward him, fist held up and ready either to punch him or to knock the cell out of his hand.
The distance between them gave him plenty of time to react. With his thumb, he cut the recording. Then he created a wall between them.
She slammed into the wall full force. She couldn’t have known it would appear, after all. He’d given them no indication that he was Powered. Her fist struck the bricks first, followed by her face and body. She fell to the ground, crying.
The girl, for intents and purposes, had just punched and run full-force into a brick wall, though as Tobias had projected it, it was formed of blue-glowing force rather than anything more physical. As soon as she dropped, he dismissed the wall.
The other girls scattered. He formed two blanks to chase after them — human figures, unclad and sexless, which he called blanks because of their plain facial features and their dead expressions. They were formed of the same blue force as the wall. He could create more detailed people, but it took more effort that it was worth.
The blanks chased the girls away. Tobias made no effort to actually catch them. His breath caught in his chest when he looked down at the injured girl, who had curled into a fetal position at his feet.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
He meant it, too. He hated hurting people. He liked to believe it was unnecessary. He’d know that she would run into the wall, but he hadn’t imagined it being quite so visceral. When he replayed the moment in his mind — which he already knew he would be doing for the the rest of the night, week, and month — he could still hear the sickening crunches as her wrist, and then her nose, had struck the illusory bricks.
“Get away!” Her voice came out a scream, strangled by her sobs.
This time, he listened to her. Tobias walked away.