by Kirby Ray
Jay Smith starts high school, joined by her best friends and a most eclectic cast.
CHAPTER 1: Freshman Fever
Despite her best efforts and three months to work, Jay was no closer to solving the mystery of the key than when she started. None of the notes she was able to salvage were of any use to her, and she cursed herself for not taking more when she had the chance. When June passed by, it became apparent that she simply did not have the resources to figure out what the key was for and where it went to, which dampened her mood in spite of the sunny climate. It was somehow more depressing than her grandfather's passing; the young scholar felt that she had failed in her self-appointed mission. Thus, her summer passed by in a malaise so strong, no amount of hot dogs, pool time, or summer reading could cure it.
It did not help that her best friend, Bian Nguyen, was out of the country the entire time, and while emailing back and forth helped in that regard, she wished the other girl was there so she might have someone to confide in. Bian was the only person that knew Jay was still pursuing her grandfather's research, and thankfully for the inquisitive girl, no one else would ever get it out of her stout friend. The two had always been more quiet and reserved than other kids, but the Vietnamese girl took it to another level: she never spoke in class, often avoided eye contact, and had trouble approaching perfect strangers like cashiers or sales clerks. Some would call it bashfulness; her therapist called it social anxiety disorder.
The funny thing was that Bian was extremely talkative--at least in Jay's eyes. Part of understanding came from years of being around each other, but there were also little things that could be seen if anyone cared to notice. There was the way her eyes glimmered when she was excited by something, how her fingers fidgeted when there was something she wanted, and how her cheeks turned a fine pink at the slightest compliment. When people would say that her friend was quiet, the young scholar would ask, "How?"
That was why she was so excited on the first day of school: not only could Jay put the worst summer of her life behind her, but Bian would be back in town; there were so many things she had to tell her, if only her mom was not carpooling them. Her hands twitched and fidgeted with anticipation as they drove up the Nguyen residence, and her eyes lit up with glee when she saw her friend waiting in the driveway. Bian, panicky as always, watched the car coming like a deer in headlights, and Jay could see her fingers tremble in a pitiful attempt at waving.
"I swear, you can hear her knees clicking from here," Yejide remarked with a shake of her head. The matron was amazed at how anxious this girl was after all these years; she was as inconsolable as a dog in a thunderstorm. "You sure she's going to be okay?"
"She's got Rosa and me to keep her company," the young scholar replied with a grin. "How could she not be?"
"If you say so," her mother sighed.
As soon as the Scotts' van came to a stop, Bian clambered in and fastened her seatbelt tight about her. Jay caught a glimpse of her friend to see if three months overseas had done anything for her: same wiry black hair that went just past her shoulders; same sickly pale skin; same stout physique. It was comforting to have that one constant after a summer of sorting through what remained of her grandfather's affairs. Pigs would fly, lions would sleep with sheep, and the Sun would rise in the West before the Vietnamese girl looked healthy. There was, however, one new addition to her friend's look--one that popped out as soon as she was buckled in.
"Did you get a phone?" Jay asked eagerly. This was a big deal for the quiet girl, who never really had much inclination towards one. Bian nodded excitedly and showed off the small device in a robin's egg-blue case.
"My parents...last week...thought it might help," she fumbled in her explanation, no doubt from Yejide's presence. Not that she was afraid of Mrs. Scott--no more so than anyone else, frankly--but she still had trouble talking while other people were around.
"That's so cool! Here, let me put my number in."
Jay's mother glanced to the side as her daughter conversed with her friend, amazed at how much she had changed over the years. The clever young girl had shot up like a beanstalk and now matched Yejide in height, while her puffy hair gave her an extra inch or three. Her thrice-weekly martial arts classes helped to tone her lean body as her baby fat gave way to ropy, gangly limbs. A pair of glasses, newly bought for high school, rested on her button nose. A smart combination red blouse and black jeans helped complete a look that said, 'I'm ready for the new school year'.
Between Bian mumbling about her family vacation, Jay talking about this and that, and Yejide giving the two advice for the first day, they arrived at South Bell High School in no time at all. The parking lot was bustling with activity: parents dropping off their kids, students catching up with each other, and faculty playing traffic cop to help with the flow. After snaking their way through the carpool lane, the girls piled out of the van, though not before Jay got one more piece of advice from her mother.
"Just remember to put your best foot forward with whoever you meet, Jaybird; you never know who you'll have a class with a year or three from now," the matronly woman reminded her young scholar.
"Got it, Mom," the girl retorted, rolling her eyes once her back was turned. She knew her mother meant well and was right on some level, but she worried about appearances far more than she needed to.
"I'll see you both at 3:30! Love you, Jay!"
"Love you too, Mom," the bespectacled girl replied, waving goodbye as her mother rolled on through the line.
With that, Jay turned and joined Bian in taking in their school for the next four years. South Bell had been built back in the 1940s and underwent several renovations over the next several decades, resulting in an odd mix of the ages throughout the campus. There were four buildings in all: the Admin, which housed the main office and was the oldest of the bunch; the Library, which featured a sizable, two-story collection of books, DVDs, tapes, and even records; the Gym, which also doubled as a home for the arts; and the Tech, which was the newest and housed the most classrooms. Besides those, there was the football field outside the Gym and a fenced-off, unused track tucked away behind the Library. It was imposing for the two freshmen, but they knew they had to walk in at some point.
"You ready, Bian?" Jay asked her friend, who answered her question by shrinking into herself. The bespectacled girl reached out a hand and put it on the Vietnamese girl's shoulder to steady her. "Hey, it's going to be okay. I'm right here, and we're in the same home room; you're going to be okay."
"Damn right she is," a chipper, coarse voice chimed in as another hand clapped down on Bian's other shoulder.
The two girls turned to find Rosa Valdez, the third member of their little trio and easily the most outgoing. They had befriended each other at the start of middle school, when the Latina had invited them to join her at lunch on the hectic first day. Since then, she had always been the instigator for the group, convincing the girls to hang out and do things as opposed to retreating to the sanctity of their homes. Unlike Bian, she had been in town most of the summer, but she had been busy helping out around the family business, which left her with a healthy wallet but not much free time.
This also meant that neither girl had seen her new look coming. When they parted ways at the start of summer, Rosa had been sporting flowing black locks down to the middle of her back, a flowery sundress, and her favorite hairclip to hold back her bangs. Now, she was rocking a boy cut that barely covered her ears, a torn-sleeves, black shirt for a band that Jay and Bian did not recognize, and a pair of jeans that had seen better days. The Latina was stout like her Vietnamese friend, but at least Rosa's build made her look strong and firm, rather than soft and flabby. It was amazing what three months of working in a garage had done for her.
"Waddup, guys?" the newcomer greeted the two as she wrapped them up in as much of a hug as she could manage. "It's so good to see you! You both look great--been keeping busy all summer? I mean, Bi-Bi, I know that you were out of the country and all, but you must have done something while you were over there because you are looking fine! Jay, I'm loving the new glasses--I know you're super-smart, but they make you look even smarter. We're talking, like, Katherine Johnson or Mary Jackson here--super-super-smart."
Both girls let out an inward sigh, relived to know that even if Rosa had made such a dramatic change to her look, she was still the same chatterbox she had always been. Jay returned the hug, leaving Bian trapped in the middle and unable to do much except put her hands on their arms. When they finally let go, the talkative girl told them, "Let's go--we want to get the best seats in homeroom!"
"At least until they re-assign us," Jay reminded her pal.
"I'd like to see them try and move me once I sit down," Rosa retorted with a sly wink before nudging Bian with her elbow. "Besides, I've got to make sure my Bi-Bi is taken care of, right?"
The meek girl ducked her head and quickly typed out a message on her phone, which she then showed to the prattler. It read: I don't want you to worry about me.
"Okay, but the fact that you had to type that out rather than tell me says otherwise," the Latina remarked before pulling her friend in for a side hug. "You're not getting rid of me that easily."
Jay shook her head at the display, secretly amazed at how much they had changed since they first met. When Rosa first patted Bian on the back, the panicky girl had frozen like a statue and required some gentle coaxing to wake her up. Since then, she had warmed up little by little, until she finally got to the point where the constant physical contact was not only okay, but also reassuring.
"All right, vamanos!" the prattler declared as she gestured onwards. "Our homeroom awaits!"
The girls made their way to the second floor of the Library Building, where they found the door for Room 204 wide open and their teacher, one Royce Kilpatrick, waiting for them with a beaming smile. They were fortunate enough to get in while there were still three free seats on the far side of the room, which they quickly claimed as their own before anyone else. While Bian and Rosa shared phone numbers with each other, Jay took the opportunity to study the rest of the class--the ones who made it before them and the ones that slowly trickled in. It was a motley crew, to say the least; no two people were similar, save for the twins at the back of the room.
Likewise, two people that stuck out to her the most were as radically different as could be. The first was Warren Harvey, heir to the Harvey Family, one of the richest families on the East Coast. It was a surprise to see the son of such a wealthy lineage in a school like South Bell, but his parents had held a major press conference to announce that Warren would be attending as a sign of solidarity while his family donated to the local schools. He sat prim and proper in his seat, hands folded and feet planted firmly on the ground, as he nodded politely to everyone that walked by.
Whoever picked out his clothes had a sense of humor, as everything about him made him look like walking money. He wore a striped golf shirt that was the exact same hue as a crisp dollar bill, golden brown pants, and silver-tinted loafers. His copper hair was combed back into a sleek, chic wave and held in place with gel that cost more than some people made in a week. On his wrist was a watch that looked sensible at first, but actually had a leather strap that cost as much as a pair of branded sneakers. Everything about him reeked of money; Jay could practically smell the cash from across the room.
On the other hand, one of the last people in the room before the bell rang was the bulky Davide Ooley, one of the highest ranked prospects for the football team. Jay could not give two thoughts about South Bell's football team, but her father had been watching with a keen interest and often talked about how the up-and-comer would be a big win for the team. The boy was massive for his age in terms of height and weight, not to mention strong as an ox; it was little wonder that he had handed a starting position on a silver platter.
The African American boy was decked out in a canary-yellow Hawaiian print shirt, one that Bian would have been swimming in yet fit him snug as a glove; a pair of khakis that could have fit Jay in one leg; and running shoes that were worn from constant practice and exercise. His hair was buzzed down to a slight layer of peach fuzz, and his cheeks were flush from having run all the way to the classroom. When he found a free desk, he just barely squeezed into the tiny thing; the wood biting into his middle like a tight belt. Seeing him reminded Jay of the stories her grandfather told of the giants that walked among the Primogenitors, and if Davide did not have any giant in him, then she was a monkey's uncle.
Finally, when the bell announced the start of the day, Ms. Kilpatrick closed the door and made her way to the front of the room. She was a young woman, likely a year or two out of college, and almost as wide around as she was tall, yet she still carried herself with an air of professionalism. Her corduroys squeaked together as she waddled to her desk and lounged against the edge.
"Good morning, everyone!" she cheerfully announced to the full classroom. "My name is Ms. Kilpatrick, and we're going to be seeing each other a whole lot for the next year. I'm so happy to have you all here--this will be my first year with South Bell, so it's going to be a learning curve for us both, I think. Today's going to be a little funny, schedule-wise, but if you have any questions, I'll be more than happy to answer them for you. Now, how about we go around the room and introduce ourselves, hm?"
A typical icebreaker, one that Jay had been going doing ever since elementary school. She listened intently as each one of her classmates stood, shared some little fact about themselves, and sat back down. Some tried to be funny, some were quiet, and some were loud, but all were anxious and jittery, no doubt from having to stand in front of a room full of perfect strangers. All were interesting in their own ways, and the studious girl made mental notes about each: he liked classic movies, her favorite food was cheeseburger pizza, and so on.
"My name is Warren Harvey, and the last concert I went to was the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the Netherlands back in July. My favorite food is pizza with squid ink dough, White Stilton cheese, foie-gras, truffles, caviar, and gold leaf" the richest boy in class admitted, which earned more than a few curious stares from his classmates as he sat down meekly.
"I'm Davide Ooley--starting Defensive Tackle--and I like action movies and curry rice," the football player succinctly told his classmates before plopping down in his desk. Jay wondered just how many bowls a boy of his size could get through before he felt full.
When it came time for Rosa to take the floor, she held up one finger while she chugged down a bottle of iced coffee. She stifled a belch before sliding out of her desk and greeting the class, "S'up? I'm Rosa Valdez of Valdez Auto fame. Don't really have a favorite food, but my favorite movies are ones with good chase scenes, especially on motorcycles--that really ratchets up the tension, since it's just you, the bike, and nothing else. I saw one this past summer where these guys were chasing each other through a crowded street in Dubai, and they started--"
"Thank you, Rosa!" Ms. Kilpatrick interrupted. "I would love to hear more about that movie some other time, but I think your friend would like a chance to introduce herself to the class."
The loquacious Latina turned back to Bian, who bit her lip and shook her head, and replied, "I'll do the talking for her, if that's okay. She's Bian Nguyen, and I'm drawing a blank on what her favorite movies or foods are, so I'm just going to say she likes Westerns and oysters Rockefeller. Yeah, I think that's right."
No one knew what to make of the bizarre introduction; a few people laughed, a few people guffawed, but most people were silent. As Rosa took her seat, she turned to give her friends a thumbs up for what she felt was a job well done, only to receive a bug-eyed stare from Bian and a facepalm from Jay. Their homeroom teacher raised an eyebrow at the curious display but simply remarked, "Very...interesting. Thank you for that, Rosa, but I think you might need to spend a bit more time with your friend."
Finally, the more scholarly in the trio stood up and addressed her fellow classmates. "Hi, I'm Jaiyesimi Scott, but you can call me Jay. I like adventure movies, pop, and chicken sandwiches--grilled ones, preferably. I'm really looking forward to this year, and I hope that we can all be friends!"
It was her attempt to put her best foot forward, but it felt so awkward and forced for the girl who could count how many friends she had on one hand. If her words had reached anyone, it did not show; her classmates looked like they wished they were anywhere but there. Tough room, this 204.
"Looks like we've got the cast here!" Ms. Kilpatrick remarked with a clap of her meaty hands. "I know that it can be weird introducing yourselves in front of a whole room of people, but I assure you that by the end of the year, you're all going to be fast friends."
Despite the cheerful assertion, the current attitude in the room screamed, 'Fat chance of that happening.' The students glanced back and forth between each other, studying the people they would be seeing two times a day for the next nine months. Jay wondered what must have been going through their heads throughout the ice breaker as they learned little, meaningless details about each other. Would anyone remember that Tracy Infantino liked sweet foods while her twin Charlie enjoyed sour, or that Nick Sweeney had done three different community theater productions this past summer? It felt like a meaningless exercise to her, and the sentiment was apparently shared by many.
Their teacher turned around and handed out papers to be distributed to each desk. "I know there was a lot covered at orientation a week or two ago, but for those who weren't able to attend, we're going to take some time today to get you settled in. If you take a look at that top page there, you'll find--"
Before she could continue, the intercom screeched and the reedy voice of the principal came over the old sound system. "Attention, faculty and staff--please turn your TVs to Channel 5 for an emergency broadcast. Repeat--faculty and staff, please turn your TVs to Channel 5..."
The urgency of the announcement sent the room into a nervous frenzy, with students pulling out their phones to see what was happening while Ms. Kilpatrick tried to work the remote for the TV. One of the girls in the middle of the class announced, "Oh my god, aliens have invaded!"
"It's not aliens--it's robots!" a boy across from her corrected.
"It's robot aliens!" came a third, who waved his phone in the air.
Jay and Rosa were crowded around Bian's phone as the Vietnamese girl searched for information on whatever had transpired. Pictures of some giant aircraft out in Armenia popped up, along with images of what looked like riot police marching through a crowded city street. None of it made any sense--the pictures, the stories and theories, and all the explanations tossed around by her classmates. It took their homeroom teacher blowing a whistle to get their attention.
"We've got a live broadcast, everyone--settle down and listen," she instructed her students, who all anxiously obeyed, scared beyond imagination at what was transpiring before their very eyes.