“What gives?” His friend stood up, aiming his voice at the jocks.
“What up, losers? Mommy forget to pack your helmet?”
Apple pulp covered the chess club boy’s hair and shoulders, while the remainder of the offending fruit rolled around on the ground just near his feet. “That’s it,” he said, and with teeth tight in his mouth, jumped up and grabbed the apple.
“Just leave it, Dominic. It’s not worth it,” one of his friends said.
“No. I’m sick of this.” His knuckles turned white around the apple.
No one in the room seemed to have moved; I think they were bracing for an all-out war. But someone should have done something. If even one person stood up for that boy, just once, maybe those jerks would leave him alone.
I pushed my chair out, and as I took a step toward him, Emily squeaked, “David? Don’t!”
My eyes flicked from the apple that was in Dominic’s hand, to the other side of the cafeteria where juice rained in a shower over the jocks, a million tiny pieces of apple sticking to the wall behind them.
David’s arm came back down to his side, his shoulder still leaned into the throw, when the whole room erupted—every person, sitting or standing, started clapping and cheering. Even the helmet-comment jock raised his thumb.
David took a few pats on the back and shook a few hands, and when he looked at me again, his eyes betraying fake amusement by displaying anger, I closed my gaping mouth and walked up to the chess-kid. “Hey? Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he moaned and sat back down, rubbing his head. “Those guys are just assholes.”
“Yeah. They had no right to do that. I’m so sorry. If I hadn’t moved, it would’ve hit me.”
“Guess it’s good you moved then.” He gave me a smirk, his whole face still red.
I smiled softly at him. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
He nodded and shifted his black knight to another square on the chessboard. “I’m used to it.”
“Yeah, but it was cool what David just did,” one of the other guys piped up, still laughing.
“Right. Today. But tomorrow he’ll just be a big jackass again like the rest of them.”
A bucket of realisation flooded over me like heat. “Really? He’s a bully?”
The boy glanced at David, then shook his head; not a no, but maybe more like he was shaking it at himself, then went back to his game, ignoring me.
David turned quickly away then, dropping his head, tension making a stiff line across his shoulders.
“Is that true?” I sat back down in my spot.
“Really, Ara,” Emily said. “He sits with the jocks, but he’s not like them at all. Anymore.”
Anymore? I searched his face for a second, but he kept his gaze on the table between his wrists. Ryan and Alana looked back at their food, making sideways glances at each other. “So what’s the big deal, then?” I shrugged and looked at Emily. “Why are you all acting strange?”
Emily took a breath to speak, but David cut in. “Because I was a jackass, Ara.” He turned to me, and a flicker, resembling disgrace, fluttered under his eyelids. “When I first came to the school, I used to do stuff like that all the time.”
“Oh, okay. Well…” I blinked, studying the side of his face. “I still don’t get it. You’re not like that now, so—”
“I had hoped it might be some time before you learned of this. You know what they say—about first impressions.” David looked at me with those big, green eyes, and all I could think was how unfair it is that guys have thicker, darker lashes than girls.
“I doubt Ara’s first impression of you is that you’re a jackass, David,” Emily said.
My eyes went from her to David again, humour-laced confusion making them smaller. “Wait, you were worried about my first impression—of you?”
I wanted to laugh. “Um. I’ve already decided who I think you are and, David?” I looked over at the chess club boy. “What you did for that kid—it was really nice. Jackass-jocks, they don’t do things like that.”
“And neither do fragile, very breakable young girls.” He grew taller in his seat, his tone sharp.
I inhaled a huff of insult through my open mouth. How dare he? Fragile? Breakable? “I can take care of myself, thank you,” I scolded. “How’d you even know I was gonna throw it back at them?”
“I could tell—from the way you charged forward, guns blazing.”
“Really, Ara. You should avoid revenge throws when it comes to fruit at this school,” Emily warned.
“Yeah,” Ryan added. “We’ve had kids hospitalised with lemons in places they don’t belong.”
I cringed, hiding my disgust. “Well, thanks, but I’m fine. I know how to hold my own.”
“Sure. Until you hit the wrong person in the head and they come after you,” Ryan said.
I doubted they’d come after a teacher’s daughter. “I’d be okay. I’ve done self-defence training.”
“Yeah, well, kind of. My friend’s a cop, so he taught me how to fight off bad guys.”
“Cool. You should teach us some moves.” Emily motioned to herself and Alana.
“Won’t matter, Ara,” Ryan said. “If they know you’ve done self-defence, they’ll make a point of showing you how weak you really are. And you’re like—” he presented me with a flat palm, “—tiny. They’d pin you in two-point-one nanoseconds.”
David glowered at Ryan then looked back at me, turning his whole body to face mine. “Look, the fact is, they don’t care who you are or who you hang out with. If they get it in for you, you might as well leave the school.”
“Precisely why it was just better for all if I turned it into a game.”
“Well, I don’t need someone making those decisions for me. If I want to get myself in trouble, that’s my prerogative.” I folded my arms, sounding too Aussie on the last word.
After a second, David breathed out through his nose, his shoulders sinking. “You’re right. I’m sorry I stepped in; it was not my intention to offend you. I just didn’t want—” He swallowed hard.
His jaw went tight as his eyes narrowed, tracing every inch of my face like I was the most irritating person in the world.
“It’s an apple bomb,” I said. “Get over it.”
“It’s not the apple bomb issue I have a problem with.” He sat back a little, gaining distance. “It’s you and your altruistic need to get yourself marked as a target.”
Altruistic? Me? Boy, he so did not know me. I cleared my throat, half aware of all the eyes at our table baring down on David and I. “And why would that irritate you so much? You don’t even know me. I’m not your problem.”
My words only made him rub his brow; he took a long breath, turning the tension around the table into dense air. “Ara. You just don’t get it.”
“Don’t get it? Don’t get what?” I wanted to stand up so I could yell louder. “That you had no right to play white knight and step in when I was going to help someone. I am not a little girl. I can take care of myself.”
He opened his mouth then closed it quickly. “You know what, fine. Go ahead. Throw a damn apple at them and see what they do to you.”
“Fine.” I unfolded my arms, stood up and grabbed the apple off Alana’s plate.
“Whoa!” David had his hand on my wrist before I even drew it back by my side. “I was bluffing, Ara.”
A smirk formed laughter in the back of my throat, my shoulders shaking with the sound. “And I was calling your bluff.” I pointed at him, letting him take the apple. “You should see the look on your face.”
Emily and Ryan laughed too, but Alana just looked ultimately worried. David, however, drew a breath to support a probably very massive serving…
“So, Ara?” Emily interjected. “You moved over here from Oz. Why?”
David snapped his mouth shut, and my posture drooped a little—not likely noticeable, but enough to make me feel smaller. We both sat back down with a little too much weight in the slump. “I—uh.” I wanted to say mind your own business. As I scanned the room, wishing the jocks would throw a banana or something, David reached across to grab the salt from my tray and knocked my milk carton flat. Everyone jumped back just as brown rivers spread across the plastic table, trickling onto the floor, right where our laps had been.
“Ara, I’m sorry. That was an accident.” He lifted our trays out of the mess, shaking his head. “I’ll get a sponge.”
After he walked away, I looked at Emily and we both broke into laughter.
David didn’t know it, but I owed him—big time.
When the bell rang, I stacked my dirty tray on the trolley and smacked straight into David’s chest as I turned around. “Oh, David, you scared me!”
“Sorry.” He smiled and placed his tray on mine, staying awkwardly close to me. I took a half a step back so I could look up at him without straining my neck. “Are you okay, Ara?”
I crossed my arms over my chest and hunched my shoulders a little. “Why would you ask that?”
He looked around the almost empty lunchroom. “I’ve seen you avoid the topic of your family and your home twice today.” He stepped closer—close enough for me to discover that the top of my head only just met his mouth. “I just want you to know that I am an excellent listener.”
“I—” I couldn’t speak; he was way too close to me. His lips nearly brushed my hair as I nodded, and the heat of his breath—with an underlying cool, like he’d just had a mint, yet warm and sweet—trickled over the bridge of my nose. I took another step back from him, afraid I might accidentally stand on my toes and kiss him. “I…um. It’s nothing. I’m fine. I just—” really should’ve made up some elaborate lie before I came to this school, is all.
“Okay, Ara.” David took a deep breath and looked to the side. “Like I said, I’ll be here when you want to talk. I—I can see there’s something bothering you. I don’t have to know you to notice that.”
“Well. That’s…a little bit concerning.” I laughed it off. “Look, when I need a friend? I promise, you’ll be the first person I come to.”
“Okay.” He looked into my eyes for a long moment. I wondered what he could see there. I’d been told my emotions displayed themselves on my face, but for my sake, I really hoped not. “Come on.” David ushered with a nod. “Let’s get you to class.”
The shrill peal of a whistle summoned football practice to start behind me, and the dull thud of a boot on the ball made my skin itch to be off the field. But I wasn’t ready to go home, so I perched myself on a tree stump at the edge of the road and looked across at the white house. It was a different world over there; the maple trees lined the paths on both sides of the street, and behind them sat quaint little houses—whimsical yet mysterious—like something from a fairytale. They were pretty much all the same as my dad’s, just different colours; some grey, some olive green, but mostly white. The kind of houses that, on the fourth of July, had flags hanging from the porches, and kids running from the long, grass-lined driveways waving sparklers around. Dad’s house was the only one with a hedge fence, though, since, thanks to Vicki’s aversion to Man’s Best Friend, we were the only family on the block without a dog. Instead, we had an overfed cat, whose one value was keeping my feet warm in winter. I could see his tail sticking out from behind the gutter over the porch—the same place he was sitting last time he fell from the roof. Stupid cat.
I looked up, squinting in the sun. “Hi?”
“Do you live around here, or are you lost?” asked a boy who looked remarkably like my brother.
“Uh, yeah—I live just over there.” I pointed across the road.
“Hm.” He nodded, thoughtful. “That’s pretty cool. Ours is brown.”
I chuckled. “Yeah, it’s only blue because it’s supposed to be good luck.”
“Yeah.” I nodded. “Well, red’s actually good luck. But, I didn’t have the heart to tell my mom. She’s old—she gets confused,” I joked.
“Should just paint it red, then tell her it’s blue. She probably won’t even notice.” He smiled down at me and extended his hand. “I’m Spencer, by the way.”
“Well, I better go. Later.” He flipped his chin before walking across the road, disappearing into the shade of dancing maple leaves.
Dad was right. I nodded to myself. The kids here weren’t so bad.
“You can go in,” someone muttered sarcastically from behind.
“Cat’s up on the roof again.”