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Mrs. Webster called out our names. Finally, she came to mine.
A tough-looking, broad-shouldered guy snickered. "Just in time for what?"
I slumped in my seat. At every school I attended, somebody made a wisecrack about my name.
Mrs. Webster waited for the laughter to subside. Then she said, "That's enough, Mark," and finished calling the roll.
The first class of the new school year passed quickly.
When I got lost on my way to second period, I wasn't surprised. I'd attended the orientation session during the summer, but I'd forgotten most of what I'd been shown. I stopped at the intersection of two halls. I looked down one, then down another. Then I looked back where I'd come from. All the halls looked the same.
A teacher in gym shorts tapped me on the shoulder. "May I help you?"
I uncrumpled my class schedule and read him my room number.
"Down that hall to the end. Turn left. Second door on the left." He pointed.
I hurried through the slow-moving crowd of high school students. A moment later I squeezed into my next class. I'd just dropped my notebook on the first empty desk when the bell rang.
A girl's voice from behind me said, "You're just in time, aren't you?"
I flushed, then turned to see who had spoken, expecting to find someone from first period. I swallowed a smart remark when it wasn't.
I found myself staring into the prettiest pair of pale blue eyes I'd ever seen. "Yes," I said, trying to get the lump out of my throat. "I got lost."
"Me, too," she said. "I was ten minutes late for homeroom. When we came in from the stable, my mother dropped me off at the wrong door and ittook forever to figure out where I was." Her blonde hair hung in loose curls to her softly rounded shoulders and she twirled one curl around her slender fingers as she spoke. Her fingernail polish was chipped.
"I don't remember you from last year," she said. "What's your name?"
"Jay," I told her. I always told people my name was Jay. "What's yours?"
The teacher -- a stocky man with thick glasses and an ugly face -- struck his desk with a wooden ruler. "I expect this room to be absolutely quiet when that bell rings."
The girl behind me leaned forward and whispered into my ear. "Cindy," she said. "Cindy Hamilton."
I didn't talk to Cindy again until class ended.
"You're pretty good at math, aren't you? Nobody else solved as many problems as you did," she said.
I shrugged. I'd always been good at math. "Where's your next class?" I asked.
She looked at her schedule. "Three-oh-two."
"That's near mine," I said. "I'll walk you."
Cindy hesitated, then said, "Why not? Maybe we'll get lost together."
Nobody ever talked to the new kid on the first day; they were usually all too busy with their friends. Cindy was the first person at the school who'd really talked to me and I hoped she would become a friend.
Later that day, I stood at my locker with my lunch bag in my hand. I'd been assigned the locker during homeroom and I'd just come from my fourth period class on the far side of the building.
"Hey, tick-tock, your time's up," said Mark Wakely. Our lockers were only a few feet apart.
"My name's Jay," I said.
"Teacher called you Justin," he said. "What's the matter, don't like your name?"
I didn't answer. Instead, I closed my locker and turned to leave. As I walked away, something struck my shoulder.
"I was talking to you," Mark said.
"So?" I kept walking.
The hall was empty.
Mark grabbed my shoulder. I turned to face him.
"You got any lunch money?" he demanded. "I need a dollar."
"I haven't got any money," I lied. I had two dollars left from a trip to the grocery store the night before. I tried to twist away from him.
"Hey," he said. "When I want a dollar, you give me a dollar." I knocked his hand from my shoulder.
"You want to fight, huh?" Mark was taller than me, and heavier, with a thick tangle of black hair falling into his dark eyes. He doubled up his fists.
"No," I told him. "Just leave me alone."
Mark grabbed my shirt again. I slapped him with my lunch sack. It tore and potato chips scattered across the floor.
He hit the side of my head. I fell. He tried to kick me. I grabbed his foot and pulled off his shoe. Mark hopped off-balance, then fell.
A moment later, Mrs. Webster turned the corner. "What are you doing?" she demanded. "There's no fighting allowed."
She grabbed our wrists and marched us to the vice-principal's office. He saw us separately. I was second.
"You're new here," he told me. "Maybe you don't understand the consequences of your actions."
"I didn't start it," I protested.
He looked at me over the top of his glasses, then wrote something on a sheet of paper. "I'm going to have you spend the week in detention."
"I ride the bus home," I said.
"You'll have to make other arrangements," he said as he handed me the paper. It gave the name and room number of the teacher supervising detention the first week of school: Mr. Landsdale, my math teacher. "If this happens again, I'll have to call your parents. Do you understand?"
The rest of the day evaporated in first-day confusion. In detention after school, I sat across the room from Mark Wakely and quietly did my homework. When the clock struck four, Mark quickly left the room. He was nowhere in sight by the time I left the building and began my long walk home.
Summer's heat had lingered into the early fall and I was sweating heavily by the time I'd walked the three miles to Stone Creek Estates, the mobile home park my father managed. It was east of town, across the highway from Rocking Horse Stables, sandwiched between the two-lane highway and Stone Creek.
I tromped into the kitchen of our mobile home and dumped my books on the table. My father called to me. I stepped through the batwing doors into his office.
He sat behind his massive desk nervously fingering an unlit cigarette. "Listen to this," he said. He rooted through the scraps of paper littering his desk, found one, and read it aloud. "What do you get when you cross a lion with a road runner?"
"I don't know," I said. I wasn't in the mood for his jokes. "What?"
"A lion down the middle of the road." He laughed.
I thought about it for a moment. "It's not funny," I said.
He stared across the desk at me, then silently reread the joke. "Okay," he said. "I've got another one."
"I have homework to do." I left him sitting behind his desk as I headed for my room. Before long. I heard the clatter of typewriter keys.
Before he became the park manager, my father and I lived above a tavern. We shared a bedroom with his filing cabinets and ate dinner with his typewriter. When we moved to the mobile home park all that changed. For the first time in my life, I had my own room.
I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and carefully combed my hair away from the bruise on the side of my head. When I touched it with my finger, it hurt, so I stopped poking and combed my hair first one way, then another. Finally I found a style that almost completely covered the bruise.
After dinner, I visited Hana Schmidt.
"Wie gehts?" Hana asked in her thick German accent.
"Okay," I answered. I sat on her couch with her dirty-grey cat draped across my lap.
Hana tottered in from the kitchen holding a small plate of pastry. "Apple strudel," she said. "I made it today for you."
After handing the plate to me, Hana sat in a chair on the other side of the room. Her thin, boney fingers tightly clenched the arms of the chair as she lowered herself to the cushion. "You don't look so good," she said.
"I got in a fight today," I said, my mouth full of pastry.
"Gott in himmel!" She looked at me, squinting to see through the darkness of her living room. "You are hurt bad?"
"A bruise. I'm okay," I said. "But I got a week's detention."
"Did you tell Papa?"
"Nah. He doesn't understand." I swallowed the last piece of pastry and wiped my mouth on my shirt sleeve. I said, "I met a girl today, a real fox. Curly, blonde hair. She sits behind me in math class."
"This girl, does she have a name?"
"Cindy." There wasn't much else to say. After all, I'd only talked to her for a few minutes before and after class. I said, "She's gorgeous."
Hana studied me for a moment. "You are handsome yourself, Justin. You are a... a hulk."
"A hunk?" I said. "Not really." I stood, pushing the cat to the floor. "It's getting late. I have to finish my rounds."
"Auf wiedersehen," she said as I let myself out.
Hana, despite our age difference, had become my best friend. Every night before bed, I visited with Hana, then walked around the mobile home park, checking yard lamps. If any had gone out I changed the bulb or made a note that something more was needed.
In fact, I did many things that should have been my father's responsibilities -- an arrangement we'd come to after my mother's death, even though we'd never talked about it. At thirteen, I took over the cooking and the house cleaning. By fifteen, I did most of the grocery shopping and balanced Dad's checkbook. He had retreated into a fantasy world where everything turned out right in the end. It was almost as if he believed the stories he wrote.
But I didn't believe them. I knew better.
Before long, I returned home. My father had gone into his office after dinner to work on another short story. I told him all the yard lights were okay, then I went to my room.
I had the master bedroom and my own bathroom. Posters of rock groups that no longer existed covered the walls. Above my desk I'd mounted a cork board where I'd pinned half-a-dozen notes to myself and a photo of my mother.
Later, laying quietly in bed, I thought of Cindy. And of Mark. And of a rather less than ideal first day at another new school.
Copyright © 1998 by Michael Bracken