Note: Any resemblance to a real person, place, event, etc. is either completely a coincidence, a reference, or used for fictional and artistic license. There will obviously be many made-up places, so please don't ask Siri how to sue Keisha's horrible school over their bad lunches.
Fourteen-year-old Keisha Lewis had gone to Warner New Education Center for so long that she no longer noticed the rent-a-cops by the school gates or the octogenarian lunch ladies who served mystery meat in the cafeteria. Not even the gum stuck underneath the desks of her English classroom, which had once been a detention room, caught her attention. In fact, Keisha had been at the school for about a year and a half, and nothing very different happened from day to day. Or so she thought.
Down at the main office, there was a line of seventh through ninth graders turning in attendance, as usual when the attendance system crashed. In Keisha’s opinion, Warner New Education Center tried too hard to be progressive or different, but still was terrible at it. Case in point the school lunches and the uniforms. Warner called itself a new education center instead of a junior high and high school, had several unisex bathrooms in the high school, and gave tuition breaks for anyone with a good reason to have one. Yet it still served chemical-drenched instant food and made the students wear uniforms, the latter decision made after a gang fight on campus ten years ago.
Which was how Keisha knew the boy sitting in one of the chairs in the lobby was a new kid. Instead of the school uniform, he wore a rock band T-shirt, faded jeans, and beat-up black combat boots. His mother was also giving him a long lecture (which would have been slightly interesting, had it not been too quiet for Keisha to hear), until Principal Kinsley took them into his office.
Keisha tapped her foot impatiently. Why does the office helper always have to take the attendance instead of the secretary? She’s such a snoop. The office helper was reading the attendance sheets to “make sure no one got left off.” Who knows what she’s doing? For all we know, she’s trying to see who’s late, who cut class, and who’s truant and will tell Principal Kinsley to get on his good side. Then she and her friends will sneak out for lunch with the high schoolers and cheat on everything it’s possible to cheat on. Keisha resisted the urge to make a face at the office helper.
For someone who loved adventures, Keisha was bored. Her life had never been eventful, aside from her sister leaving for college in Europe. She could use something mildly earth-shattering, she thought. Adventures. Romance. Action. Dragons. Dungeons. Pokémon. Anything besides this line.
A few moments later, the boy, who looked very nervous and maybe even frightened, and his mother came out of the office and sat down again. Suddenly Keisha wished she didn’t have to go back to band class. He looks so scared. I will find out who this guy is, and I will help him and be his friend because either the Richies or the Knucklebutts will slaughter him, she vowed.
The Richies were a group of “popular kids” whose parents’ value to the school was to foot enough of the bill so the regular students like Keisha were not required to pay as much tuition, and so the scholarship kids had scholarships in the first place. They kissed up to the administrators and pretended to be angels; in reality, they were anything but. While the Richies were the epitome of phony forward-thinkers and completely blindsided by their various privileges, the Knucklebutts were just ignorant bullies. However, neither Knucklebutts nor Richies were official cliques or gangs. Keisha and her friends had only nicknamed them so as the two most obnoxious and well defined, social groups in junior high.
Keisha tossed her braided hair as if to clear the Richies out of her head, then sat down next to the boy. “Hi,” she said brightly. “I’m Keisha. What’s your name?” The boy, still looking at her nervously, said slowly and with a slight British accent, “Hi. My name is Rajesh.”
“Is it your first day?” she asked.
“Y—y—y—” he stammered, and sighed, sounding frustrated.
“So…it’s your first day.”
He did not answer.
After what seemed like a long, awkward silence, Rajesh’s mom spoke up. “Sorry. My son can be a bit nervous at times. I am Mrs. Singh.”
His mom has kind of a different accent, Keisha noticed. “Oh, I don’t mind,” she replied.
“We just moved here from Bristol, and we’ve only been here a week. My husband’s job requires us to move around quite a bit, although never very far. We actually lived in the United States for several years, but the past few we’ve stayed in England.”
“Oh, wow. That must be hard.” It was a lame response, but Keisha could not exactly have said, “Oh, wow. That must be hard on Rajesh. It doesn’t seem like he’s handling it too great.”
“It’s all right. We’ve gotten used to it.”
“It must be hard to move all the time and have to leave your friends behind.” Keisha glanced at Rajesh, who was staring into space, if “into space” included the space between his head and the floor in front of him. “What grade are you in?” she asked him. “I’m in ninth.”
The corners of Rajesh’s mouth tugged upwards in the slightest semblance of a smile.
“He is also in the ninth grade.”
“Cool.” They could use some advice. He could also use a bodyguard or two. “By the way, never ever buy lunch when they serve meatloaf or roast beef or ribs or anything like that. I have no clue what they put in that mystery meat. And if you have classes in room 273, watch out for the gum under the desks. Anyway, I have to go to class now. It was really nice meeting you,” Keisha said.
“It was nice also meeting you. Thank you for your help. I am sure we will find it useful,” said Mrs. Singh. “I have one more question. Are there a lot of bullies?”
Keisha cringed. “Yeah. A lot more than you’d think. It sucks, and it’s not as simple as just hanging out with the right people and not getting involved with the wrong ones.”
“Well, I hope it will not be too hard to find friends.”
“Okay. Bye. See you around.” She waved to him and left. Rajesh waved back, a small gesture. He seems interesting. I hope I have some classes with him. And then I can introduce him to Malia and Marcie and we can all sit together at lunch. And we’ll show him how to deal with the Richies and Knucklebutts and—Keisha opened the door to the band room, entering into the anarchy that typically ensued whenever the director was late.
Apparently, Keisha had a stroke of luck, because a few minutes after she returned to the band room (and just after Mrs. Sherman, the band director, showed up) someone from the administration ushered Rajesh in. Keisha smiled and waved, but Rajesh did not even smile. Poor guy, he’s so nervous. I hope he doesn’t have to sit next to Rory or Kate. Rory and Kate’s parents were the main benefactors and sponsors of the band program, but unfortunately, their kids had received none of their kind spirit. “Class, this is Rajesh. He just moved here from Bristol, England. Rajesh, why don’t you introduce yourself?” asked Mrs. Sherman.
“Say something!” blurted Marcie Rossi, one of Keisha’s friends. Mrs. Sherman gave her the “teacher’s dirty look” that she was famous for. Other than that, she was super nice, at least in Keisha’s opinion.
Rajesh said nothing. His gaze was, again, focused away from the fifty or so pairs of eyes in the room.
Rory raised his hand and asked with false cluelessness, “Is he, uh, unable to talk? Mute?”
Sensing that he was being set up for humiliation, Rajesh’s spark of confidence was immediately gone, and he seemed to shrink further into the new school uniform which he was already swimming in.
“Rory,” Mrs. Sherman said with a warning tone and her infamous Dirty Eyeball. She turned to Rajesh. “You’re going to be playing flute, right?”
“Okay. Why don’t you go sit there next to Malia? Just share a stand for now, and I’ll get you everything you need by tomorrow. We’ve just started a few new pieces,” suggested Mrs. Sherman, trying to change the subject. “Malia, please get him a chair.” Rajesh quietly took a seat next to Malia Sasaki, another of Keisha’s friends and a fellow ninth-grader.
Soon after, Mrs. Sherman asked the flutes if anyone could play a certain few measures. Kate, who was the section leader, volunteered and then proceeded to completely butcher it. “I think Rajesh should show us how to play it. He’s the best out of all of us at that one part,” she urged. I seriously hope Kate’s right. But then again, that would be bad. Sure enough, when Rajesh played the part, the first few notes squeaked (probably from being nervous), then it sounded as if his flute was singing on its own. Keisha was amazed. On the other hand, Kate seemed furious, judging from her hair-flipping and squirming. You dared to one-up Kate? You’re in for it now…
“Double luck” was how Keisha thought of history that day. When the door had creaked open the instant before the late bell rang, who could have walked in but—
“Rajesh, of course!” said Keisha to her friend Marcie during gym. Petite, fiery-haired Marcie was a two years younger than Keisha and in eighth grade.
“Someone’s in love,” she sassed, and threw the runaway basketball to someone on the court.
“Not me. I mean, he’s cool and all that, and I want to be his friend, but do I like him like him? No.” Keisha paused.
“Never knew you were into the quiet type. Or the bad-boy type.”
“I’m not thinking that way. Believe me. Honest!”
“Mmm-hmm. I believe you,” Marcie said sarcastically.
At that moment, the two girls had to head on to the court for basketball.
Dang it, thought Keisha an hour later, after gym had ended. I forgot to pack lunch. Oh well… She hurried to the cafeteria, hoping to seize a spot before the line was too long, and reached it just before a flood of Knucklebutts got there. Keisha watched them cut in line and shove everyone else out of the way. Just then, Kate walked up. “Daydreaming about your next meal, loser?” she sneered and stepped in front of Keisha.
“Daydreaming about the new guy, fellow loser?” Keisha retaliated, smirking.
“Only losers call people like us losers. Which makes you a double loser, and which makes me even more deserving of your spot in the lunch line.”
“You just said people like us. That means you said, only losers call people like you or me losers. If you think about it, you’re calling yourself a loser, which is a very loserish thing to do.”
“You just called me a loser!”
“I never did. I called you a fellow loser, and said you behave was like how losers do, but I never called you a loser. Now give me back my spot.”
Kate walked away huffily, muttering something under her breath.
Keisha finally got her lunch of mac and cheese, carrot sticks, and a carton of juice (because the school’s mac and cheese was the best thing they served and there was almost no way to ruin carrot sticks) and headed to the lunch table where Malia and Marcie were. She weaved through the crowd of students and finally set her tray down across from the two other girls, who made faces at Keisha’s lunch tray. “I forgot to pack lunch,” she explained and sat down.
The three girls’ lunches were as different as they were. Marcie brought whatever she could find in the refrigerator, usually delicious-looking food that she had cooked herself, in various plastic containers. Malia, who wore her shiny black hair in a bob and was blind without her huge round glasses, was a salad girl; and Keisha usually stuck to sandwiches, leftovers from last night’s dinner, or helped herself from the cafeteria whenever she or her mom forgot to pack a lunch; and today was one of those days. Marcie scrutinized Malia’s salad of the day distastefully. “How could you eat that stuff all the time? You’re such a health freak. Not that it’s bad, but I haven’t seen you eat anything that’s not total rabbit food yet,” she observed.
“We’ve been through this before. Malia is obsessive about healthy food. Get over it,” said Keisha before the remark turned into a full-blown argument or Malia’s standard homily on the virtues of eating salad. Just then, Rajesh passed by, and Malia waved to him. “Hi,” she called. “Do you want to sit with us?”
Rajesh waved shyly and sat down next to Keisha.
“So. First of all, meet the best squad at Warner. Marcie, before you say anything else…”
The next two weeks passed by in a blur. Keisha and her friends were studying for midterms…or rather, Keisha and Marcie were reviewing and Malia was going all out, carrying books and notes wherever she went, reading and rereading everything. Keisha did not have the heart to tell Malia that there was a difference between studying smart and studying hard. In fact, Marcie had even suggested that Malia’s endless studying really had no effect on her grades besides that it made feel more secure about them. Finally, after two weeks of teachers, homework, and tests that were harder than the district-issued exams, midterms were over.
That Saturday, Keisha, Malia, Marcie, and Rajesh (who had quickly become part of their group) headed over to the zoo as somewhat of a celebratory expedition. The four of them, decked out in their winter gear, traversed the place from eleven in the morning to four in the afternoon.
As they left, Keisha thought, Something weird is going on. All afternoon she’d felt like someone had been watching them. Even visiting her favorite penguins had not been able to shake her sense of dread. “Marcie?” she asked when they were in the train station.
“What? Crush news?” teased Marcie.
“No,” replied Keisha forcefully. “When we were in the zoo, I felt like some creep was stalking us the whole time.”
Malia inquired, “What creep? If there was one I would have seen him and told us all to leave.”
“I never saw any creep. I just knew he was there. And yes, it was a he.”ere ...