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The Kids Wore Red
Word Count: 1768
Summary: Rhonda Burns is the school outcast, and Brent Garbo is the golden boy, but they share a secret in common...
Notes: This story was prompted by Anonymous and sponsored by the Patreon crew!


It had started with Rhonda Burns and Brent Garbo.

Rhonda was known as Fat Rhonda by the nastier kids at school—they couldn't really think of worse to call her, because that would've required they get close to her. Despite being one of the tallest girls in school, she was mostly forgotten by her classmates, drifting through the halls like a sleep-walker, hiding in enormous oversized hoodies and billowing skirts with her frizzy hair obscuring her face. Unseen. Unnoticed.

Brent Garbo noticed her.

Brent Garbo was the school's golden boy. The varsity football captain, in the top ten of his class, blond and tan and seeming to shine with his own golden glow, he made it his business to know something about everyone. It made him feel more at ease to know everyone he might encounter on a daily basis, and despite her desperate attempts to fold in on herself, she was taller than him, which automatically made her ping his radar. Plus, their lockers were right next to each other, deep in the bowels of the moldy first floor, where it was dank and unpleasant and isolated. Rhonda looked like she belonged there. Brent didn't.

Brent wasn't immune to Rhonda's aura of cold fish unpleasantness, so he mostly avoided her, but she always lingered in the back of his mind, a mostly unknown quantity.

One morning, after football practice, Brent came to his locker early, only to find Rhonda slumped at hers, apparently doing nothing but staring at the wall. When he cleared his throat, she jolted and stared at him. It was the first time he'd ever seen emotion on her face, but it was only for a second; then she resumed her usual dead-eyed flatness.

“Oh,” she said. “Hi.”

Brent, who tried to be friendly to everyone (even if they unsettled him), pasted on a smile and said, “Oh, hey, class early?”

Rhonda said nothing. She seemed to be trying to become inanimate by sheer force of will, but then something seemed to throw off her usual stride. (Well, shuffle.) She blinked, she stared. Her face shifted.

She was looking at the bruises on Brent's arms.

And Brent, who had long since mastered his social presence, his smile and charisma and a carefully cultivated history of rough sports, panicked. He adjusted his sleeves, far too quick and anxious to play off, because it wasn't one of his easily-persuaded buddies noticing, but creepy, unfathomable Rhonda Burns, and he didn't know enough about her to know how to persuade her it was nothing.

But she wasn't being creepy or unfathomable now. She was just staring at him, knowingly.

Brent turned around and left, even though it meant he didn't have his calculus books.

Brent spent the next three periods in a quiet panic. He knew it was stupid—what was Rhonda going to do, lurk at him?--but just that it was her, that he didn't know how to play her, was enough to totally throw him off his game. One of his buddies even asked if he was feeling all right, and he had them well-trained not to notice anything. He needed to get it together.

At lunch, he got his game face back on. In his mind, every day was game day, a constant battle of strength, strategy, and charisma to stay where he was: swathed in the protection of his own popularity. Rhonda wasn't going to say anything, he told himself. Of all the people at school, he could count on her to keep her mouth shut, surely—her silence, after all, was one of the few things he did know about her. He reassured himself that he wasn't like her, skulking around the halls like a depressive zeppelin. He was Brent Garbo, the boy who was going places, and he was just fine.

With that thought, he tried to forget about it. And he might have succeeded, if Rhonda hadn't been on the news not too long after.

It was a strange thing, and he was honestly never entirely sure what happened. For a while, cops and reporters and gossip were just everywhere, orbiting like unwanted satellites, and the Burns family was all over the local paper. There were allegations of abuse (what kind, Brent worked hard never to learn) and everyone had an opinion, since Rhonda's parents were well-known (though minor) local politicians. For a while, the hard part for Brent wasn't learning anything about Rhonda, but avoiding learning far too much.

Brent avoided everything involving her that whole time. And not just because he didn't want to know—though he didn't. It was that he could've sworn that his parents were watching him, testing him to see if he was still smiling. His friends, his teachers, all of them were looking at him, he could feel it, and knowing it was just paranoia didn't make it stop. He began to feel like it would never end, but was also terrified about what would happen when it did. It seemed like the whole town might explode over Rhonda Burns.

But then it just… blew over.

Rhonda recanted. The case died. She paid a few hundred dollars in legal fees for wasting everyone's time, got it expunged from her record because she was still seventeen, and life went on. For a while, Brent expected her to disappear, switch schools or towns, but somehow, it never happened. Everything seemed to settle back into an uneasy normalcy, and everyone acted like it'd never happened. Rhonda continued her trance-like shuffling around school, even more ignored than before, and seemed to sink deeper into her own head.

She also started wearing red.

By this point, Brent had paid enough attention to her to know that she did not wear red. She wore muted earth tones that blended into the background, high school camouflage. But now she started wearing a tattered red hoodie for a school he'd never heard of. On her, it looked like a visual scream.

Brent didn't blame her. He could only imagine what had gone on, but whatever it was, if he'd gone through it, he likely would've been screaming too. Though he knew he'd never be in that situation—long before the Rhonda thing, he'd known better than to try involving cops. But that she'd tried, that she'd dared

That night, he went through his closet. It was disconcerting to realize that he and Rhonda's wardrobe contained the same color palette, but more annoying, it had no red. (Well, why would it?) After ransacking his room and then the attic, he finally found a box of his grandfather's clothes from when he'd died the year before. Gramps hadn't been a big fan of red either, but deep in the box was a red bandanna, so Brent grabbed it and brought it downstairs to wash.

The next day, he wore it to school, carefully twisted and knotted around his forearm like an armband. He was popular enough to get away with the occasional odd fashion statement.

More importantly, Rhonda saw it. For the first time since her recantation, she raised her eyes from the floor, and they shared a look for a moment. And maybe it was his imagination, but he could've sworn she seemed a little more human after that.

Football season was over, so it took a while for Brent to get an excuse to come to school early. But when he did, sure enough, Rhonda was at her locker, wearing red.

“Hey,” he said.

She didn't look surprised to see him. “Hey.”

“Are you okay?”

Silence. It was probably a stupid question.

“What are you going to do?” he asked.

He didn't know why he asked. Maybe he was hoping she'd have a grand escape plan, good enough for him to use too.

Instead, she said, “you shouldn't be talking to me.”

He frowned.

“People will suspect.” Her voice was flat. “You think you're the only one in this school? We're not. There's a bunch of us. And now everyone's paying attention to me.”

Brent didn't know what to say to that. For as long as he could remember, he'd felt simultaneously that he was the only one on the planet, the only kid stupid enough to get stuck in such a situation, and at the same time that this was normal, something everyone went through and it was his fault was not being able to deal with it. He'd always kept tabs on everyone around him, to keep them at arm's length, but it'd never occurred to him to check for any signs they were like him.

“Besides,” Rhonda said, her voice bitter, “didn't you hear? I recanted. It never happened.”

Brent remembered her face when she saw his bruises. “Yes, it did.”

The sorrow on her face cut deep. Then she hid behind her hair, made a horrible snickering noise. “We could make a club,” she said. “The 'nothing ever happened' club.”

Brent blinked. “Actually, that's not a bad idea.”

“I was joking, Brent. That was a joke.”

“No, no, think about it, we could make a club. For… for the red kids, like us. Make it something stupid enough no on will join it otherwise, like… like Parcheesi.”

“Parcheesi?”

“It's a board game, you...”

“I know what Parcheesi is, Brent. Come on.”

He realized that she was actually starting to talk to him like a real person, not someone from a horror movie, but he plowed on. “The point is, we pick something dumb and useless like Parcheesi, which anyone can learn but nobody wants to bother, and then we make it our club so we can get out of the house when we need to. 'Oh, where you going, honey?' 'Gotta go, Mom, there's a club meeting.' I can get Coach Williams to sign off on it, he loves me and he's a total slacker--”

“You need four players for Parcheesi.”

“It doesn't have to be Parcheesi!” Then he sees that she's actually smiling. Rhonda Burns, the most miserable girl in school, is teasing him. “Look, the point is, a club gives us an out, and Williams trusts me to run it and not turn it into a keg party. We could make it about whatever we want; it's just an excuse to get us out.”

Rhonda paused. She seemed to be thinking.

“If I tell you the kids I think are red, do you think you could… you know, charm them in?”

Brent straightened his letter jacket. “Hey,” he said, “I'm Brent Garbo. What else am I good at?”

And the Bridge Club was born.
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