“Oh, look…it’s the freak’s cousin!”
My hearing zeroed in on the sound, and I glanced up from where I was locking my bike to the rack. Students flowed in from the school parking lot – some talking cheerfully with friends, others looking like they weren’t quite awake yet – and I had to crane my neck around before I finally found the source of the contemptuous tone.
A heavyset girl with bad acne stood with a couple of friends just outside the campus fence, sharing a cigarette before the first bell. She wore camo pants, flip-flops and a black T-shirt that read Kill the Patriarchy. I noticed the bottom hem of the shirt was cut three or four inches above her waistband. It wasn’t a good look for her.
“Darlene’s starting early,” Les remarked.
Ab looked over, scowling.
“What’s her deal?” I asked.
Ab shook her head. “Nothing. Just a mean streak a mile wide.”
I turned back toward the scene, frowning automatically. I hate bullies.
A slender girl in a long skirt and a loose, zippered hoodie was trying to squeeze past them through a narrow pedestrian gate. Darlene moved to block her way. “How can you stand to even be in the same house as him?” she taunted. “Or maybe you’re a freak, too – is that it?”
The girl in the skirt just stood there, hugging a binder to her chest with one arm while holding an insulated lunch bag in her free hand. The hood of her sweatshirt was up, and she looked up at Darlene through dark hair that partially obscured her face. I could make out pale skin and brown eyes that were wide with fear. Her expression reminded me of a small animal caught in a trap, and before I even realized it I was weaving my way toward them.
“What…are you deaf, new girl?” Darlene taunted as I drew near. She reached and yanked the binder out of her grasp, flinging it casually behind her and prompting tribal laughter from her friends. It landed open and face down inside the chain link fence, a handful of loose pages floating gracefully to the asphalt like leaves. “You answer me when I’m talking to you!”
“Leave her alone,” I called out, and Darlene turned toward me, her eyes narrowing. “What’s the matter?” I pressed. “Was she trip-trip-tripping over your bridge?”
It took a second or two before her expression registered understanding, and I began to suspect she might not be the brightest crayon in the box. “Mind your own business, asshole!” she snarled. The eager aggression I’d initially sensed from the big girl had dampened considerably, but she hid it pretty well.
“Wow…you kiss your mother with that mouth?” Les asked, stepping up beside me.
“Fuck you, Hawkins.”
He chuckled. “Not in a million years, princess.”
“If you want to push someone around, how about me instead?” Ab challenged from my other side. “It didn’t work out so well for you last time, but hey, I’m up for a rematch if you are.”
Darlene’s friends exchanged a glance and moved tentatively to back her up. One was tall and pear-shaped, wearing a green and yellow tie-dye shirt and jeans. The other was skinny and had spiky hair. She wore a gray sweatshirt with the sleeves cut away and the poo emoji on the front. Classy.
Their combined feelings only amounted to nervousness and fear, though, so I decided to end the situation before it got any uglier. Staring Darlene in the eyes I stepped calmly forward, moving right into her personal space. Just as I figured, she scuttled back, bumping into her friends as all three retreated. “Come on,” I said, turning to the girl they’d been picking on. “Let’s go get your stuff.” I gestured toward the gate and she hurried through.
“There goes the big man!” Darlene called out as we walked away, but there wasn’t much conviction behind it. “You gotta love that white male privilege!” We continued to ignore her, so she pitched her voice to carry over the crowd. “SOMEBODY NEEDS TO TEACH YOU HOW TO TREAT WOMEN!”
Conversations fell silent as everyone in the immediate area paused to see what was going on.
Ab turned. “Yeah?” she fired back. “Well somebody needs to teach you the difference between a bare midriff and a beer-gutriff!”
Laughter erupted all around and I could hear Les chuckle behind me as I squatted, helping the girl pick up her scattered papers. “I don’t know about you,” I confided, “but much more of that and Darlene will lose my vote for homecoming queen.”
She raised her head slightly, looking up at me through dark bangs as I handed the pages over, and I didn’t need my gift to sense her wariness – I could see it in her eyes.
“That was a joke,” I explained, hoping that being friendly would make her feel better. “I’m Ben, by the way.”
Her wary expression eased a little. “Gina,” she murmured, sounding either shy or reluctant, I couldn’t tell which. Then, as if an afterthought, “Thanks.”
“No problem,” I said, rising. “And don’t worry about…”
But she was gone, scurrying away head-down through the crowd.
The bell rang, and Les waved as he veered off toward his first class while Ab and I headed for the sophomore assembly at the gym.
“Beer-gutriff?” I asked after a moment.
She grinned at me.
We parted ways as soon as we stepped inside, Ab heading toward a table with a paper banner reading Last Name A-F while I fell into a shorter line on the opposite side with the rest of the U through Z’s. Their system turned out to be pretty efficient. The line moved quickly, and less than ten minutes after I reached the front I was headed back outside again with my schedule for the semester, hall and gym locker assignments, campus map, and a photo ID that was still warm in my hand. They hadn’t noticed I’d crossed my eyes.
I hiked across campus, passing a room with an open door where the band was slowly running through their first scales of the year. Lots of flutes, trumpets and saxophones I noted, wincing a little at the sound. They were out of tune. It’s only the first day, I reminded myself. They’re bound to get better.
Room 19 was in the next building over and I opened the door, stepping tentatively into my first-period geometry class. The teacher – Miss George, according to the name written on the ancient-looking blackboard – was still going through her expectations while a couple of volunteers passed out books, and she waved me in without stopping. The only desks left open were toward the front (thanks a lot, sophomore assembly) and I dropped into the second seat back in the row closest to the door. Math was my least-favorite subject, but at least I’d be getting it out of the way first thing. I watched as other kids came trickling in, hoping to see Ab or someone else I knew, but by the time Miss George began taking attendance I had decided I was out of luck.
Gina walked in when the teacher was about halfway through calling out names, and she hurried over and slipped into the last open seat, just to my left. I brightened a little, relieved to see someone I at least recognized, but then I gave an inward sigh when she just stared at the desktop after giving me barely a glance. When Miss George called “Gina Lynch?” she replied a soft “Here” without looking up.
So much for finding allies, I decided gloomily. Geometry was going to suck.
Second period was English, which I had with Ab, followed by third period U.S. History with both Ab and Gina. I was also glad to see Vern Ashley, a guy I’d first met a few days after moving to the area, and who sometimes joined our Saturday night fire circle on the beach. He had ebony skin and muscles that made him look like he’d been carved from granite, and even though we’d sometimes talked about him teaching me to lift weights, it hadn’t happened yet. Phys Ed came right before lunch, and there at least I got to hang out with Les (major score!) along with Monica, one of the other girls from Windward Cove. She was lean and athletic from long days on her surfboard, and based on her hair and skin tone I took her for Native American, but I hadn’t got around to asking her yet.
I checked my schedule as I left the locker room, noting that all I had left after lunch was Biology I and then a drama class – my only elective. I’d taken Beginning Drama back in middle school, and while I wasn’t much of an actor, I was fine with building sets, hanging in the background and helping out as a stage hand. It would be a pretty chill way to end the day.
All in all, I figured things weren’t looking too bad as I exited the lunch line in the cafeteria, holding my back pack in one hand and balancing my tray in the other. I scanned the room, looking for someone I knew, and I recognized a familiar cascade of dark auburn hair on the far side. Kelly Thatcher sat at a table by the windows, along with three or four of her cheerleader friends and some guys from the football team. She brightened when she saw me, and I could see there was an open space to her left, but I kept my gaze moving, pretending I hadn’t seen her. I knew that sooner or later she and I would have to talk, but today wasn’t that day. From the corner of my eye I saw Alan Garrett walk over and claim the open spot, and then the pressure was off.
I figured everyone else was lagging behind, so I made my way to a large table near the wall that was mostly open. “Mind if I sit here?” I asked the only occupant, but then I almost immediately wished I hadn’t. The guy was large – probably over six feet, I estimated – though round shouldered and kind of pudgy. He wore a dark, long-sleeved tee with a dragon on it. He glanced up as if annoyed, looking at me over the top of thick, horn-rimmed glasses, and then turned his attention back to the open book in front of him. He turned the page, ignoring me.
I turned to see Gina standing a couple of steps behind me holding her lunch bag. “Oh, hey,” I said. “Just looking for some space.”
She chewed her lower lip, looking uncertain. “You can sit with us if you want,” she offered at last, moving cautiously around me to the table. That earned her a scowl from Mr. Cheerful but she ignored it, sliding into the chair next to his.
“Thanks.” I set my tray down in the place across from them, and then hung my back pack on the chair before dropping into it.
“This is my cousin Darren,” she told me. “Darren, this is Ben.”
“Hi,” I said.
“You know this guy?” he asked Gina, still ignoring me.
I guessed he wasn’t the welcoming type.
She nodded. “Some girls were giving me a hard time before school. Ben and his friends made them stop.”
“What girls?” he demanded.
“It doesn’t matter. It’s over now.” She began unpacking her lunch, and I watched as she arranged a yogurt and a plastic spoon next to a sandwich made of a single slice of pressed turkey on wheat bread.
No wonder she’s so slender, I thought.
Darren looked like he was going to press her further, but then just shook his head. “I told you the people around here suck,” he muttered, and then turned his attention back to his book.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said, and then took a sip from my water glass. “Darlene’s got some issues, but pretty much everyone else has been cool so far.”
He looked over at me with a sour expression, and then glanced down at the meatloaf and mashed potatoes on my plate, wrinkling his nose in disgust.
Maybe he was vegan.
Gina’s expression darkened. “Darlene’s a…” She paused, as if looking for the right word. “A witch,” she finished awkwardly, as if she’d said something crude. She looked down at her food, blushing.
“Yeah,” I agreed, picking up my fork. “We just pronounce it differently where I come from.”
She looked back up, her brown eyes momentarily wide, and then offered a tentative smile.
“There you are!” Les said cheerfully, setting a huge sack lunch beside my tray and pulling out the chair. Ab was half a step behind him, along with Monica and Vern, and they all took places at the table. They were followed a second or two later by Nicole and Kim, two more girls we knew from Windward Cove, and the conversation brightened as we exchanged greetings. Across from me, Darren’s scowled deepened as the table filled up, and I wondered if it was his go-to expression. Gina just retreated into her own space, staring at the tabletop.
“Hi,” Ab said from the chair next to her. “You’re new, right? You took off before we had a chance to meet this morning.”
As she began making introductions, Darren rose abruptly and stalked away, obviously in a state of high pissoff. I wasn’t sorry to see him go.
“Don’t worry about Bubbles,” Les confided, pitching his voice low so Gina couldn’t hear. “He’s always that way.”
I shrugged, turning back to the conversation at the table.
“…and you’ve already met Ben. He’s pretty new too, and just moved here at the beginning of summer,” Ab finished. “So where are you from?”
Gina hesitated, but I could see Ab’s friendliness superpower was already working its magic. I hadn’t met anyone yet she couldn’t get to like her, and the new girl smiled shyly. “Rome,” she answered in a soft voice.
“Italy?” Nicole asked excitedly, moving into Darren’s vacant seat so she could better hear.
The girl shook her head, blushing. “New York. Upstate. My family has…” She paused. “We had a farm there.”
“So what brings you to California?”
Gina frowned, looking down again. “There was an accident. I had to come live with my aunt and uncle.”
It grew quiet as a brief, awkward silence fell over our table. “So have you tried surfing yet?” Nicole asked, grinning.
That salvaged things, and the conversation was off and running again. I relaxed, working on my meatloaf and chiming in every now and then as everyone did their best to make the shy girl feel welcome.
It looked like Gina was part of the crowd.