“You do?” I said as he sat beside me.

He nodded. “Is something on your mind, new girl?”

“A lot of things are, but only one of them’s bothering me right now.”

He clasped his hands together on the table in front of him. “I’m all ears.”

I tried to think of something funny to say, but couldn’t. “I’m sorry about before.”

“Before what? Before the beginning of the world, before the coming of Christ?”

“Ha-ha.” I slapped his forearm, noting the silkiness of his skin just below his sleeve. “No, about before, when I choked up.”

He laughed. “Oh, don’t worry about that, pretty girl. I have a tendency to...” he smiled, “...over-share.”

“Not really. All you said is you like me.” I dipped my shoulder a little, feeling funny about saying that out loud. “And I just choked because no one’s ever said that to me before.”

“Well, it wasn’t a confession of love. Like can mean many things.”

“I know.” I just wished it was a confession of love. “And I guess...in that sense, I actually like you too.”

He grinned, making a thin line of his lips. “Good. Then, friends?”

David frowned then, looking down as my belly added its two cents. “Hungry?” he said.

I wrapped my hands over the rumbling. “Uh, yeah, just a little.”

Though the rest of the school was unbelievably free of clichés, given that I’d expected a High-School-Musical type scene when I first arrived here, the cafeteria was not. The buffet style cabinets, the old ladies in hairnets, and even the giant hall with long lines of plastic picnic tables, looked just like something out of a movie. Nothing like the old window-in-a-wall we had at my old school, where you could buy pies and wraps and that’s pretty much it.

“This is so much cooler than back home,” I said, sliding my tray down a few seats to sit at the centre of the empty table. The warm weather had attracted most of the students outside today, so we had free pick of the room.

David slid in next to me. “Cooler would be if they hired enough kitchen staff to accommodate the great number of students.”

“I thought they did just fine.”

“Today, yes,” he said. “But it usually takes until the end of lunch period to be served, and half of us end up eating in class.”

“Oh, why was today so quick then?” I looked back at the now empty buffet—all the kids seated, eating, aside from a few dregs gathering by the drink machine or buying dessert.

“Of a sort.” David covered his smile with a fist. “Half the football team is serving detention in the kitchen.”

“Something about ditching paper cannons.” He picked up a corn chip and held it near his mouth. “You planning to eat?”

“Oh, um, yeah.” I straightened my tray and leaned my elbows on the table. “So, what’s the deal here anyway, like, social hierarchy? I’m guessing they’re at the top.” I pointed to the group of well-built jocks at the corner of the room.

“The guys having the fruit war?” He smiled as a piece of banana hit the glass window then slid down into a pile of pulp on the floor. “That’s the other half of the football team, and yeah—” he nodded, looking away from them, “—they’re pretty much the top of the food chain. Fourth on the list would be these guys.” He waved at one of the girls at the table in front of us. “Music class. They pretty much hang out together. The lowest ranking would be the boys behind you.”

“Let me guess.” I smirked, looking at their paper-wrapped sandwiches and milk cartons beside the chessboard. “They’re the chess geeks.”

“Well, the whole scene is self-explanatory, but the ‘Chess Club’ jacket was a dead giveaway.”

“Yes, I suppose it is. Do you play?”

“Oh, yeah. I do. Should I be sitting with them?”

“No.” He chuckled. “Unless you want to wear fruit juice home every day.”

I shrugged. “Strawberry would look rather fetching on me, I think.”

“Your hair smells like strawberries,” he said, and I wondered quietly how he could smell that.

“So where do you fit in?” I asked.

“Hey, guys.” Emily perched herself on the seat across from David.

“Hi,” I said, then shovelled a mouthful of lasagne into my gob—an offering for the empty hole in my belly where a green ogre dwelled.

“Hey, do you guys mind if Ryan and Alana sit with us?” she asked. “They’ve got new-girl fever.”

After Emily signalled them over, she leaned forward and a bright grin lit up her caramel eyes. “So, what’dya think—a new love blossoming, or what?”

New love? My head burned as if a warm towel had just been wrapped around it.

“I think you might be right, Emily,” David said, a sassy smile twinkling in the corners of his eyes. And as I was about to grab both cheeks and run screaming like a girl at a boy-band concert, he redirected his gaze to the pair walking toward us, standing as close to each other as possible. “I don’t think either of them has figured it out, yet, though,” he finished.

Emily sighed, gazing dreamily at Alana and Ryan, while I caught my breath.

“Hey, all.” Ryan bumped knuckles with David, then sat down next to Emily, sliding Alana’s tray closer to his.

“Hey, Ara—so cool what you did to Mr Grant, today.” Ryan pointed gun-fingers at me. “I’m sure it’ll go down in high school history: The Newbie Bites Back. Part One.” Beneath his docile tones, he made himself sound like the voice-over for a movie trailer.

“I wasn’t biting back,” I said with my mouth a little full, “not really. I was just…politely not taking any crap.”

“So noble.” Ryan nodded, lost in awe. Alana sat quietly beside him, not making any effort to stand out.

“So, Ara?” Emily said. “We just finished French class—are you taking French this semester?”

“Nope. Foreign languages just don’t click up here.” I tapped my head. “My friend tried to teach me some French once…it was bad. I sounded like I was spitting insults at someone who made me hungry.”

Ryan and David chuckled to themselves.

“That’s a pity.” Emily propped her cheek against her hand. “I was kinda hoping we’d have someone to take the spotlight off us for a while.”

“Yeah. Our teacher, Mz Sears—” Ryan pointed his chip at me, “—Total cow.”

“Uh, Em?” David frowned. “You know that doesn’t mean cow, right?”

“Well, what’s being a cow got to do with a spotlight?” I asked. Unless she was a Broadway cow.

“Oh, nothing.” Emily sighed. “I just thought she might play nice in front of a new kid for a while.”

“Sometimes, but she’s just so finicky. Everything has to be done a certain way. If you don’t follow her rules to the T, she goes all PMS on you,” Emily added, then looked at Ryan.

“Yeah. She’s so stuck-up, Ara, like you wouldn’t believe. She came from some private school in the city, and she just doesn’t understand our ways.” Ryan waved his hands about in the air, making ‘scary fingers’.

Alana shook her head and smiled into her salad.

“Well, I come from a private school. I’m not stuck-up, am I?” I asked.

“You come from a private school? No way.” Ryan leaned back in his seat, making a cross with his index fingers.

“Yes way.” I sipped my choc-milk to wash down my lunch. “It’s nothing like this place. A different world.”

“So where did you go to school?” Alana finally spoke up.

“Yeah, you have a bit of an accent there. What is that? English?” Emily leaned in slightly, as did Ryan and Alana, and the eager curiosity in their eyes made me want to smile—until I looked at David. I wasn’t sure if he didn’t care, or didn’t want to know, but he sat still, with his fingers clasped just in front of his simple smile.

“Okay. Promise you won’t laugh.” I pointed at them.

Ryan crossed his heart. Emily crossed her fingers, laughing already. Alana and David waited patiently.

“I’m…from Australia.” Almost closing my eyes, I awaited the onslaught of giggling—but they just gawked at me.

“No way? You’re all the way from Oz? You’re totally like Dorothy,” Ryan said.

“Yeah, um, Dorothy was from Kansas,” I said. “If anything, I’d be the Cowardly Lion.”

“No, the Tin Man. Didn’t that Aussie guy play the Tin Man in that movie?” Emily looked up at the ceiling as though her answer would be there.

“No way—Tin Man? Ara has too much heart,” Alana added. “You saw her play the piano?”

When Alana ditched a piece of lettuce at me, David’s hand shot out and caught it—right in front of my face. My mouth dropped and everyone else burst out laughing. “Nice catch, David.”

“Yeah, he used to play baseball,” Emily said.

“Really?” I turned to look at him.

“It was—” he stood up and reached across the table to drop the lettuce on Alana’s plate, “—a long time ago.”

“So, all the way from Australia, hey? You don’t sound Australian,” Emily said.

“Actually, I do. Just not so much anymore.” I smiled softly. “I’ve spent the last month or so working on my accent, but you can hear it when I get upset.”

“No.” I shook my head. “I just didn’t wanna draw any extra attention to myself.”

“So, is it different over there to, like, how school is here?” Emily held a forkful of carrot just in front of her mouth.

“Yeah. In ways. I mean, we have our school year from January to December and we break over summer as well, except it’s over Christmas.”

“Christmas in summer?” Ryan stared into the distance. “Weird. But cool.”

“Actually, it’s not cool,” I said. “It’s really bloody hot.”

Emily and Ryan stared at me blankly.

Alana stifled a soft giggle. “Summer is hot, Ryan?” She nudged his arm. “Not cool?”

I looked at David, who shook his head. Emily and Ryan did the same, half smiling.

“Okay, that goes in the vault as the worst joke of the week.” Ryan pointed at me again with his ketchup-covered chip.

“But you did sound very Australian when you said bloody,” Emily added.

“Yeah, say it again?” Ryan leaned forward, turning his ear toward me, making a funnel of his hand.

“She’s not a circus freak, Ryan.” Emily pushed his hand down.

“Thanks,” I mouthed, and with my belly full, all my pre-rehearsed questions came flooding back. “So, where do you guys normally sit?”

“Well,” Emily chimed in, “David sits with the giant, incredibly gorgeous guys throwing food at each other.” She grinned at David. “More like monkeys, really. And I sit with that group out there by the tree.” She pointed to the windows covering the back wall of the cafeteria. Outside, in the sunshine, a large group of cliché-ridden boys and girls gathered under a big oak tree, laughing and throwing water.

I wondered where that placed me if I hung out with one from each group.

Emily’s voice trailed back in suddenly with my attention span. “Ryan hangs out on the basketball courts, mostly.” She looked at Ryan for confirmation; he shrugged with a small nod. “And Alana hangs with those guys.” She pointed to the Music class kids.

“Cool.” I nodded. “Well, thanks for keeping me company today, you guys. I would’ve felt like a total loser sitting by myself.”

“That would never happen.” Emily tilted her head to the side. “Someone would’ve come and talked to you. If they could get past David, that is.” She threw him a mock annoyed stare.

David grinned and leaned back in his chair, resting his hands behind his head. “Can you blame me? I kinda like fresh meat.”

I inched away from him jokingly, and a sudden whoosh of air brushed past my hair, impacting something that screeched loudly. Silence washed over the room. We all turned to the kid behind us, who sat straight again, rubbing his head.