John Joseph Alabaster silently scanned the cafeteria as he looked for a likely spot to spend the next 45 minutes in hopeful obscurity.
Too close to the door and you were an obvious target as soon as one of your oppressors walked in. Too far from the door and any hopes of potential intervention when things got ugly disappeared altogether.
It was his father’s fault really. He’d gotten behind and had to come to school early to finish grading some papers. His mother had been heading to town and didn’t want to leave him home alone. Really, you’d think he was five. What did they expect him to do?
Not show up at school, probably.
So here he was, almost an hour before class started in the only room available as the library, his room of choice, was closed for inventory.
Make the best of it Alabaster. Sit down. Read a book. Pretend to relax.
The book was a new one, The Blackened Skull, by Attima Copperhead. John Joseph stuck his knapsack under the table, quietly re-arranged his chair so his back was to the wall and started to read.
The book was good, really good. But then he always enjoyed Copperhead.
He didn’t even hear them coming.
“Well surprise, surprise,” remarked the sneering voice of Elliot Lee, “What’s the worst student at St. Francis Academy doing at school this early?”
“Studying?” suggested Sam Botto, his skinny sidekick.
“What’d be the point?” Elliot snarked. “He’s too stupid to learn.”
John Joseph took a deep breath and scanned the tables around him. The few other students in the room were either snickering or staring pointedly at the tabletops in front of them. Other victims were always easy to spot. When a predator showed up, they usually froze, afraid to move in case they were singled out.
“Well he must have been doing something,” Elliot commented. “His knapsacks bursting at the seams!” He nudged the bag under the table with the tip of his polished shoe. Bottles clanked. A wicked smile spread across his handsome face.
“What’ve we got this morning, Sam?” he asked.
“Magical Sciences, first thing,” Sam responded. “We’re supposed to be producing a magical reaction out of common household supplies, remember?”
Elliot nudged the bag again with his foot. A satisfying clink resulted. “Glass containers, Alabaster?” he asked, not waiting for an answer. “Fragile. So fragile.”
“The chemicals ate through the other containers,” John Joseph muttered. “Glass seemed the best bet.”
“A competent student wouldn’t need corrosive materials to obtain the proper results, would he Alabaster? But then you’re the farthest thing from a competent student this school’s ever seen.”
He brought back his foot and kicked the bag hard. A muffled smash, followed by a gushing sound brought a broader smile to his face.
“Did you a favour, really. You would have mucked the entire thing up anyway, embarrassing yourself and your teacher. This way you can just say you had an accident on the way to school,” he tipped his head dangerously. “No thank you Alabaster? Nothing?”
“Thank you for what?”
John Joseph’s tormentors froze. The smiles disappeared off their faces like images glimpsed in a flash of lightening. John Joseph’s eyes had been frozen to the table. He hadn’t even noticed his dad approaching. He was definitely losing his touch.
“They were just reminding me about a science experiment that’s coming up Dad. That’s all.”
“Well that was kind of you boys,” his father responded, his eyebrows shooting up. “Didn’t realize you were so concerned about your fellow students.”
“A-a-a-always, Wizard Alabaster,” Sam stuttered. “A-a-a-always!”
Elliot grabbed Sam by the arm. “Well, we’ve gotta go,” he said. “We’re meeting somebody.”
“Another lucky student you’re helping?” Wizard Alabaster asked.
“Yeah, yeah, that’s it,” Elliot muttered as he turned and loped for the door.
John Joseph’s dad pulled out a chair, sat down and lowered his head so he could look his son in the eye.
“Everything okay, son?” he asked.
“Fine Dad,” John Joseph answered. “Just fine.”
“You know you can talk to me if things get rough. You do know that don’t you?” he glanced over his shoulder at the rapidly disappearing Elliot and Sam.
“I know you’re always there, Dad, I know that,” John Joseph responded. He also knew that if he told his father about this latest episode, his tormentors would be punished (as usual), but instead of stopping, things would just get worse.
It was time to change the subject. “What are you doing here?”
Teachers were rarely in the cafeteria, even when they were “on duty”. They seemed to find the thought of students, food and minimal supervision too much to handle.
“Came down for a cup of tea,” he answered. “Some idiot decided to fiddle with the teakettle in the staff room. Thing pours our hot milk now and I don’t have the time or the inclination to fix it. Great for hot chocolate, but not what I’m looking for at the moment. Well, I better be off. Try and have a good day, alright?”
John Joseph smiled weakly. “Yeah, Dad, I’ll try.”
Wizard Alabaster patted his son’s shoulder as he headed for the cafeteria counter.
John Joseph nudged his pack underneath the table. It continued to slosh. Another failing mark, but it wasn’t his first, or his last. He should be used to it by now. He was concocting his latest excuse when he heard a soft cough beside him.
“Ahem,” said an unrecognized voice, “Can I sit here?”
John Joseph raised his eyes slowly from under the table. There was a strange boy standing across from him. He had dirty blonde hair, dark brown eyes and a friendly grin. (At least he thought it was friendly, he rarely saw one in person.)
“Sure,” he answered. “Make yourself at home.”
“Thanks,” said the new kid. “The name’s Alexander. Alexander Blunt. I’m new, just started today. Little overwhelmed really.”
“John Joseph Alabaster,” John Joseph replied. “As for the overwhelming part, you’ll get used to it.”
Alexander pulled out a chair and plopped himself down. John Joseph glanced around. He could see his father over by the lunch counter, chatting away with Mrs. Umagon, the head chef.
“Guess I’ll have to,” he said. “We moved here this week and it looks like we’re staying.” He glanced around the ornate room. “It’s a lot fancier than my old school.”
“Where’d you go?” Asked John Joseph.
“Holloway’s, in Sturgeon Falls,” Alexander said. “You’ve probably never heard of it. It’s not very big.”
“You’re right, I’ve never heard of it. Why’d you move here?”
“My dad’s from here,” Alexander replied, “and when my grandma got sick, well, Dad figured we needed to come home. It’s going to be a big transition, fitting in and all.”
“It’s a good school,” John Joseph stated.
“Oh, I know that, “ Alex answered, “but it would be nice to hang out with someone who’s been here for awhile. Who knows the ropes you know. Like, maybe during a sleepover?” He glanced over at the counter where John Joseph’s father was laughing loudly while sipping on a steaming cup of tea.
“I could see how that could help,” John Joseph agreed.
“So what do you say?” Alex asked.
“To what?” John Joseph said.
“To coming to my house for a sleepover on Friday?” Alexander said. “That way you can fill me in on everything I need to know about St. Frances Academy, right? You can come home with me after school and hang out, like I said.”
“A sleep over, really?” John Joseph repeated. “Friday night?” He knew there was something going on this weekend, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember what. And how important could it be? Heck, he was being invited on his first sleepover!
“Sure,” he spouted. “Sure1 Definitely! Sounds like fun.”
The school bell rang with a deafening clang.
“What’s your first class,” John Joseph asked as he reached down to grab his misshapen knapsack.
“Mythical Realities,” he stated. “You?”
“Magical Sciences,” John Joseph answered with a relieved grin.
“Well, if I don’t see you in the halls. I’ll see you on Friday on the front stairs right after school, okay?”
“Sounds great,” John Joseph said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
And other than being terrified, he sort of was.