Sal Rondello walked into his new English class at his new school. School had already started about a week ago, but he himself hadn’t been able to start until now. The teacher (Mrs. Norandi, according to his schedule), stood near her desk, and noticed him immediately. “You must be our new student.”
Sal nodded, hoping she wouldn’t be one of those teachers who announced his existence to everyone in class. Like the last teacher.
“Why don’t you sit behind Russell.” Mrs. Norandi gestured towards a boy a couple tables down. Despite having the entire contents of his backpack displayed neatly in front of him, he had his attention focused on the teacher. Something in Sal’s gut twisted. An emotion he didn’t recognize overcame him. A strong one.
He sauntered past the rows of tables and chairs, taking a chair at the table behind Russell’s, and plopping himself into it.
Russell turned around and smiled. “Hi, I’m Russell.” He held out his hand. “What’s your name?”
Sal crinkled his nose. Now he knew the emotion. Hatred.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
Sal raised his chin. “No, I am not okay.”
“I’m stuck sitting behind you for the rest of the year.” Sal dug into his backpack, and slammed down a notebook and pen.
Russell raised his chin in a similar fashion. “I was going to offer to show you around, and give you helpful tips on surviving this toxic environment they call high school, but if you’re going to be a butthead, then whatever.”
Butthead? Sal let out a loud snort. “Did you just call me a butthead? What is this? Elementary school?”
But Russell ignored his quip, and flicked his long, black hair over his shoulder. A boy with long hair. There was a good reason to hate him. Sal was a boy with long hair. This school wasn’t big enough for two long-haired boys.
The bell rang, signaling the start of class. The teacher started teaching. Thankfully she didn’t bring any attention to him. So Sal kept his attention on Russell, his gut twisting again. It was a good thing no one sat in the empty chair next to Russell, because all of Russell’s items took up the entire table. And it was a good thing no one sat in the chair next to Sal, because Sal wanted to dedicate it to his backpack.
His eyes swept the room. While almost every student had binders and pens out, only a handful took notes like Russell. “Who takes notes in an English class?” Sal whispered, loud enough for Russell to hear.
“Someone who cares about their grade,” Russell whispered back.
“It’s only English,” Sal said. “It’s our native language. All you have to do to pass is write a few essays and read a few books. Big deal.”
Russell whipped his head around. “I need straight A’s, and-”
“Russell!” Mrs. Norandi called. “Is something you and Sal have to say more important than what I’m trying to teach?”
“It’s not my fault,” Russell said, annoyance in his voice. “Sal keeps talking to me.”
“I had a question about surviving this toxic environment they call high school,” Sal said.
“Be quiet, both of you. Or I’ll hold you after class.”
Sal stopped tormenting Russell after that. Directly, anyway. He flipped his notebook open towards the last few pages and wrote:
Reasons to Hate Russell:
Takes notes in an English class
Has long hair
Uses insults worthy of 10 year olds
Sal glanced back up at Russell, his gut twisting again. God, he hated that boy. But he’d have to antagonize him outside of class. Or he could leave him alone. Yes, he didn’t want to risk getting in any serious trouble. He finally got placed with competent foster parents. The last thing he wanted was to get kicked out. Especially since his social worker said he’d end up in another group home if he was. Group homes sucked.
No, Sal would be good and simply show his hatred through ignoring him.
Sal’s “ignore Russell” plan lasted about a week. Right after English one day, at the start of lunch, he spotted Russell wandering the empty hallway alone.
I hate him so much, Sal thought. An impulse struck him. Carefully, quietly, he snuck up behind Russell and...
“Watch out, Rusty Russell! Sal shouted in his ear, and shoved him into the locker. A bang echoed through the hallway as Russell’s shoulder hit steel.
Russell rubbed his shoulder. “What was that for?”
“Ignoring you is boring, so I’ve decided to express my hatred for you in more entertaining ways.” Sal shoved him again.
Russell nudged him aside. “Stop that.”
Sal eyed Russell’s arms, which had more muscle than Sal’s entire body. He made a mental note to add that to his “Reasons to hate Russell” list. Along with the fact he didn’t fight back. He could cause serious injury if he wanted to. “You can always fight back, you know.”
Russell held his nose in the air. “I could, but I, unlike you, am above fighting.”
“You’re just scared you’ll get caught.”
“Alright, fine. You want me to fight back?”
Sal leaned against a cluster of lockers. “Sure.”
“Cuz I’ll do it. I’ll kick your butt.” Russell cracked his knuckles in a menacing manner. Though Sal found Russell anything but.
And what 17-year-old said butt instead of ass? Sal spread his arms out dramatically. “Bring it on, Rusty Russell.”
Russell pinned him against the lockers, drawing his fist into a striking position. Sal involuntarily flinched, but turned it into a grin. “Hi Ms. Humbolt!” he called, waving.
Gasping, Russell released Sal and fled for the bathroom they stood next to. Sal laughed and strolled to the cafeteria, the school administrator nowhere in sight.
As usual, Sal didn’t sit with anyone during lunch. But he was used to being alone. He took a bite of his peanut butter sandwich, eyes scanning the noisy cafeteria. Everyone else seemed to have their own group of friends. Not the stereotypical cliques like jocks, preps, and goths. Just a variety of people brought together through similar interests and class schedules.
It made him wonder what variety of people Russell ate lunch with, but he had yet to spot him. Frowning, he scanned again, Russell nowhere to be seen. Surely he would have left the bathroom by now? His eyes swept the cafeteria a third time. Interesting. Where was Russell?
A voice interrupted his thoughts. “Hi, you’re new, aren’t ya?” Sal looked up to see a boy he had never seen before.
“Can I sit here? Everywhere else is full. My name is Stewart,” Stewart said. “What’s yours?”
“Sal.” Sal barely glanced at Stewart before resuming his search.
“Nice to meet you, Sal. Where are you from?” Stewart set his lunch tray on the table as he sat down. His voice sounded like he came straight out of a 50’s sitcom. The short, curly brown hair and white polo shirt added to the illusion.
Sal wasn’t in the mood to talk. He had a mystery on his hands. “Somewhere where you don’t ask people personal questions about their private lives.”
“I’m sorry. I just thought I’d be nice, since you’re new and have no friends-”
“Do you know that guy, Russell?” Sal asked.
“Well, yeah. Everybody knows him. He’s a swell guy.” Appearing lost and confused, Stewart took a bite of his pizza in a way that indicated that even school pizza was lousy, health food laws be damned.
“Interesting.” Sal rubbed his chin, focusing on Stewart. “If he’s such a swell guy, why isn’t he eating in here with all his friends?”
“Russell never eats in the cafeteria.” Stewart gave his pizza a poke. “I don’t know where he goes during lunch.”
“A mystery!” Sal raised a finger in the air. “Let’s solve it.” With a dramatic flourish, Sal held open his backpack with one hand, and swept his remaining lunch in with his other. After zipping his backpack up, he left the cafeteria. Stewart followed, carrying his apple.
Stewart side-eyed Sal. “Why do we care where Russell is?”
Before Sal could think of an answer, the bell rang.