Robbie Banks stood in the rain, brooding, or at least doing his best approximation thereof. The trees had lost their greenness and now sported faded hues of orange, brown, red, and yellow. The Banks’ front lawn, once thick and full, was thinning. The blue skies of July had slowly turned into the gray skies of September. There were no fall or spring in Middleton, only the two extremes of blistering, drought-ridden summer and frigid, rainy winter.
Shrugging his shoulders to get his bookbag into a more comfortable position, Robbie waited for the school bus. It was not a pleasant wait.
Of course, he dreaded the customary “What You Did Over The Summer” essay. He had done nothing over the summer, except sit for hours in the secluded comfort of the town library, reading, rereading, trying to forget, just for a while, that he was just a thirteen-year-old boy living in a little nowhere town. He read everything from Oscar Wilde to Stephen King, Sinclair Lewis to Tom Clancy, William Shakespeare to Patricia Cornwell. And for a time, it worked. He forgot about the world outside. Robbie frowned. He couldn’t write an essay about that. The other students would think he was psychotic.
He wiped the rain off his face with his jacket sleeve. It was a jean jacket. He’d wanted a leather one, but his mother had said they were too expensive.
She would buy him truckloads of school clothes he didn’t want and didn’t need, but the one thing he did want? Too expensive.
The pale yellow bus pulled up to his house, and Robbie silently got on. Naturally, almost all the seats were taken. He walked down the aisle a way, stopped in front of a tall, ugly boy, and asked if he could sit there.
Robbie continued down the aisle to a smallish, round, red-haired girl. “Can I sit here?” he asked, without any real expectations of an answer in the affirmative.
The girl jerked her head up, wide blue eyes blinking in mild surprise. “Yeah. Sure,” she mumbled and moved her bag to the floor.
Running a hand through his wet hair, Robbie sat down on the edge of the seat. The girl looked out the window. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see her sneaking occasional glances at him. It made him feel a little better for some reason.
When the bus reached the school, and all the children were shuffling off, the contents of the girl’s open bookbag were spilled onto the floor when she heaved it onto her shoulder. For a moment she just stood and gazed sadly at her books, papers, pens, and pencils on the floor of the bus. Then she burst into tears.
Robbie quickly knelt down, scooped all the contents back into the bag, and turned to look at the girl. “Here,” he said, helplessly pushing the bag towards her. “It’s okay. I picked all your stuff up. It’s okay now.”
The girl, sniffling, turned her eyes to him. She launched into a fresh crying jag.
“Hey, you two!” The bus driver was standing up. “Get off the bus!”
Still crying, the girl took her backpack and got off. Robbie followed her wordlessly and, when she sat down on a bench in front of the school, sat beside her.
“Are you going to be okay?” he asked.
“Yeah.” She hiccupped. “I’m perfectly fine. I’m … sorry about this. I don’t usually break down like this.”
Robbie shrugged. “It’s okay.”
The girl turned hostile. “Well, I don’t! It’s just—everything is going wrong today. I’m starting in a new school and I haven’t got a class schedule, I don’t know anybody in this stupid town, and I’m cold and I’m wet.”
“You’re new here?” asked Robbie, his interest suddenly sparked. The girl nodded. “What’s your name?”
“Stacey. Stacey McIntire.”
“Welcome to Middleton, Stacey,” Robbie said ironically, and she smiled the tiniest bit.
“You’ve been here a while?”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “Sort of. I’m not a lifer, though. You’re not really a Middletonian unless you’re a lifer.”
Stacey looked at him, confused. “What do you mean by ‘lifer’?” she asked.
“Born, bred, and raised in Middleton yer whole life.”
She laughed. “Oh, okay. I get it. So, how about you? Got a name?”
“Robert Banks. People call me Robbie.”
Thoughtfully she frowned at him. “That’s a weird way to say it. Do you not like being called Robbie?”
Robbie grinned with appreciation for this red-haired girl. Nobody had ever asked him that before. “No, not really,” he said.
“Well, what do you like being called?”
“I don’t know.” He thought for a moment. “I guess just Robert.”
Stacey stuck out her hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Robert.”
“The pleasure is mine, Stacey.”
They laughed. It felt good to laugh.
Behind them, in the two-story, gray brick school building with dusty red trim, the bell rang. They looked at each other.
“I guess we better go inside,” said Stacey. She didn’t sound enthusiastic about the prospect, though.
“Yeah. Guess we better, huh?” Robbie flicked the wet strands of hair out of his eyes. “Look at the bright side. It’s drier in there, and probably warmer too.”
Together they tramped up the stairs to the school doors. Robbie veered to the left, but Stacey remained frozen in the middle of the entrance. He turned around and stared at her in bafflement for several moments before he realized.
“Your schedule, right?”
He returned to her side. “It was supposed to come in the mail a month ago,” he told her, trying to be helpful.
“I wasn’t here a month ago.”
“Well,” he replied, not knowing what else to say. “That’s why it didn’t come, then.”
Stacey sulked, and Robbie was afraid she was going to cry again. He took her by the arm and led her down the hallway to the right, stopping in front of a closed door marked “Mr. Nicolas Carmichael, Principal.” Stacey faced her newfound companion with disbelieving eyes.
“You’re kidding,” she said.
“No. Why would I be?”
“Robert!” Her tone was one of immense frustration at his stupidity.
“I cannot go into the principal’s office.”
Now it was Robbie’s turn for frustration. “Why not? You knock on the door, Mr. Carmichael’s secretary answers it, you go in. It’s simple.”
Stacey sat in one of the plastic bucket seats next to the forbidden door. She sighed and sounded much older than she was. “In all my life, I’ve never been in the principal’s office,” she told him, “and I don’t intend to start now. It’s a bad habit to get into.”
“That is such a bullshit.”
“Maybe. Then again, maybe not. I’m not taking any chances.”
He knelt beside her and said, patiently, “Look. If you don’t go in there, you’ll never get your schedule. If you don’t get your schedule, you can’t go to class. If you don’t go to class, you’ll never graduate from high school. If you never graduate from high school, you’ll have to work at the Seven-Eleven down the street.” Here, Stacey rolled her eyes. “And if you work there, you’ll eventually get shot by some crazy gang member on drugs,” he finished triumphantly.
“You’re not funny,” she pouted.
“Yeah, I am.”
“No, you’re not.” She stood. “Let’s go.”
Robbie looked at her blankly. “Go where?”
“In the principal’s office!”
“Oh. Right. I knew that.”
Skeptically, and with a hint of irritation, Stacey looked at him but decided to let it rest. She knocked on the door and waited. Nothing happened. She knocked again. When nothing happened the second time, Robbie opened the door, and the two of them peered inside. There was a desk near the window, and another door on the opposite side of the room, but no one was present. They went in and sat down at a table in the corner.
Robbie drummed his fingers on the table. Stacey watched the second hand on the wall clock make its way around the clock face in slow orbits. Robbie was just becoming interested in a poster for an essay contest when a short, old woman walked into the room and glared at the two of them.
“What are you here for?” she demanded.
Robbie pointed at Stacey. “She needs a class schedule. She didn’t get one in the mail.”
The woman sat at the desk and continued glaring. “I see. And what are you here for, young man? Do you need a schedule as well?”
“Uh, no.” Robbie felt his ears burn. “I’m just here with her.”
The secretary sucked in her breath in a most unpleasant way.
“For moral support,” added Stacey.
“I see. Well, he needs to get along to his own classes now.” Obediently, Robbie stood and headed for the door. The woman pointed menacingly at the girl. “And all I can do for you is have you wait for Mr. Carmichael to come in. I’m afraid I don’t know how long that will be.”
Stacey nodded forlornly. Then, out of the corner of her eyes, she saw Robbie leaving. “Hey, Robert,” she called.
“I’m glad I met you.”
Risking the wrath of Principal Carmichael’s secretary, Robbie paused in the doorway and gave her a rare, genuine smile. “Me, too. See you on the bus this afternoon.”
Once he was safely in the outer hall, Robbie opened his own schedule. Seventh-grade English was first. With a Mr. Gerald Klein, whoever that was. The class was also on the second floor. So he had to climb a flight of stairs to come in late to a class taught by a teacher he had never met who would probably make him write about his summer vacation.
Great. Just great.
Mr. Klein raised one thin, gray eyebrow when the dark-haired young man walked into his room a half hour late. The boy did not look at him but instead held out his schedule and stated flatly, “I was helping a friend get her schedule changed.”
“Her schedule, huh?” Klein asked with a gentle, amused smile.
The rest of the class snickered, and the boy blushed terribly. Klein made a quick mental note that this student was not one that should be kidded or played around with. This one was more sensitive, needed a little extra care. But that was fine with him—he tended to like these ones the best.
“So, good Samaritan,” Klein attempted again, “have you got a name?”
The boy mumbled something the teacher couldn’t hear.
“Pardon? My hearing’s not what it used to be.”
“I said, Robbie—I mean, Robert—Banks.”
Klein took Robbie’s hand and gave it a firm shake. “Mr. Banks,” he said gravely, “it is an honor to meet you. And I am your English teacher, Gerald Klein. Please take your seat, if you will.”
Robbie made his way to the back of the classroom and sat down. Klein returned to his desk, assigned the students a “What You Did Over The Summer” essay, and marked Robert J. Banks as present on the attendance sheet.
After English was gym class, where the gym teacher, Ben Vardeman, gave out a list of requirements for the class. Comfortable shorts, T-shirt, tennis shoes. And don’t forget deodorant. He then let the kids play with whatever equipment they wanted for the rest of the period. Robbie shot free throws at the basketball hoop on one side of the gym while trying to stay out of the way of the other boys’ soccer game. The girls sat in the bleachers, talking and laughing.
Then, finally, came lunch. He spent ten minutes searching the cafeteria for Stacey, didn’t find her, and decided to take a chance on the school lunch, which consisted of dry baked chicken, mashed potatoes, and green gelatin. A group of obnoxious eighth-graders threw him off the first table he sat down at, so he took his tray out to the hallway and ate there. A few minutes later, Mr. Klein happened to pass by, and he paused at the feet of the sitting boy.
“Robert, isn’t it?” he asked, crouching down to Robbie’s level.
“So, why are you sitting in the hall? Cafeteria too crowded?”
Robbie thought quickly and decided to lie. He didn’t particularly want to lie, but he couldn’t very well tell Klein that he’d been hassled by a bunch of eighth-graders. That was the last thing he wanted to do—establish a reputation for himself as a snitch, and on the first day of school, no less.
“Yeah,” said Robbie. “The cafeteria really should be bigger.”
Klein stood, brushed imaginary dirt from his pants’ legs, and looked skeptically at Robbie. He decided not to push the matter. “See you next class, Robert. Enjoy lunch.”
After lunch, Robbie found out, to his delight, that while his mathematics class was taught by the perpetually sour Ms. Dempsey, it did have one perk: Stacey was in it, too. They chose seats next to each other and spent the whole period passing notes back and forth.
Computer science followed math and rounded out his day. In that class, the somewhat irritable Mrs. Lincoln spent the entire period teaching her inept students to log onto the school computer system and type in their passwords.
Finally, the bell rang and Robbie was temporarily a free man. He climbed wearily onto the afternoon bus and immediately noticed Stacey sequestered in the back. He set his bookbag on the floor beside her and sat down.
Feeling suddenly uneasy, Robbie stared out the window. “Bad day?”
“Yeah, kind of. You?”
They turned and looked at each other. Inexplicably, they burst into a childish giggling fit, causing the bus driver to look in the rear mirror and shake his head. When they had recovered themselves, they sat side by side in mutual silence.
The bus pulled up to Stacey’s stop and she said good-bye to Robbie. Robbie leaned his head against the back window and watched Stacey walk up the driveway, unlock the front door, and go into her house.