“Where do you think you are? The fashion capital of Mars?”
I identified the voice through the buzz of the school cafeteria before I had even turned around. Once I was looking him in the eyes, I smirked. “Don’t you have better things to do than theorize about Martian fashion, Brad?”
“Clearly you don’t,” he replied.
I batted my eyelashes. “Well, I’m just not as important as you.”
Brad rolled his eyes and maybe he would have left me alone, but then he saw Kevin. He smiled at me like a predator baring its teeth at its prey before saying, “Hey, Kevin! Why is your sister such a weirdo? She looks like she escaped from a circus.”
My twin looked at me with tired concern. He was used to this. We were both used to this. Brad was just being his normal self. I hoped Kevin would just leave it alone.
Instead he set down his lunch tray at his usual table, walked over to us and said, “Brad, go pick on someone your own size.”
“What, someone like you?”
“Why can’t you just leave us alone?”
“Why don’t you make me?”
Kevin rolled his eyes. As if talking to a toddler, he said, “Oh, does the big bad bully need some validation? A chance to feel strong and powerful over —”
And that was when Brad punched him in the face.
I yelled, rushing to Kevin’s side. “Kevin! Kevin? It’s me. It’s Marla. Can you hear me?”
“Stop shouting,” he mumbled. “I’m fine.” The skin around his left eye was already turning dark purple, like the sky before a thunderstorm. He was not fine.
I whipped around to unleash a fury on Brad that I hadn’t been able to muster on my own behalf. “You pompous, arrogant jerk! Why did you hit him? Because of my clothes? How on earth is that logical? How on earth does that get you anywhere other than suspended? Seriously, if you’re going to be evil, at least go for evil genius. Evil doofus doesn’t get you anywhere in real life. This isn’t a cartoon and you won’t be fighting a platypus anytime soon!”
Brad blinked at the Phineas and Ferb reference. I could almost see his blood boiling beneath the surface of his skin, lighting his eyes with barely contained rage. I think he would’ve swung at me, too, if my tirade hadn’t drawn the attention of the teacher on lunch duty, not to mention the surrounding students.
“What’s going on here?” Mrs. Robinson squinted at us through her lavender readers.
“Brad punched my brother,” I said before anyone else could manage to speak.
He didn’t react. Mrs. Robinson took that as evidence of his guilt.
“Off with you to the principal’s office.” She turned to Kevin. “Are you alright?”
He nodded. “I might go to the nurse and grab an ice pack.”
The teacher gave a curt nod and then marched off in the direction of the principal’s office, presumably not trusting Brad to actually turn himself in.
Later that afternoon, as we walked home from school, I kept my hand on Kevin’s shoulder to help guide him as he held the ice pack over his slightly swollen eye. As we turned onto our street, he said, “Marla, why can’t you just dress like a normal person? I’m happy to take the hit for you, I’ll do it again and again, but wouldn’t it be easier on you to just blend in a little more?”
I touched my free hand to the bright red beret that sat atop my head and looked down at the rest of my outfit. I was wearing a red turtleneck under a black and white checkered jumper. I had on black tights and red converse and I had kept my oversized, fuzzy green jacket on all day even though it was late April.
Quietly, I said, “To quote the Addams Family, ‘Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.’”
Kevin sighed heavily. “Marla, you know I’m trying to —”
“Yes, I know! You’re trying to help me. But I don’t need that kind of help. I know what I’m doing and I didn’t ask you to take any punches. Mom and Dad taught us to help people when and where we can. I’m fifteen years old, I’m five foot two and I weigh a hundred pounds. There’s not much I can do. But I’m thick skinned and I can draw the attention of bullies away from people who can’t cope with it as well.”
Kevin was quiet until we got to our front door. Before walking inside, he told me, “I’m your big brother, even if it’s only by twenty minutes. You’ll never have to ask me to take a punch for you.”
The next morning, I woke up and put on an oversized blue sweater with fuzzy clouds sewn onto it. I paired it with my red beret and a flowy pair of plaid pants. I wondered which planet Brad would accuse me of being from today and which teachers would stare at me in confusion. When I walked into the kitchen to grab breakfast, I found Kevin sitting at the table and all my wonderings disappeared. He’d covered up his black eye with an eyepatch that looked as if it had been specifically made for a pirate Halloween costume.
He winked at me with his uncovered eye. “You’re not the only one who’s thick skinned.” Then he got up and walked toward the front door, calling out over his shoulder, “Let’s go!”
I grinned, rushing to follow him. “Aye, aye, captain!”