Alan walks me up to the front door of a house that looks way too nice for me.
“Impressive. You’ve managed to pass me off to another foster family with surprising rapidity. So, what poor, well-meaning folks have won the troubled child lotto this time?”
He frowns for a moment. “You know, I think you might actually like this one if you let yourself.” His smile crops back up. “They’re great people. Susan’s the head nurse at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital and Paul’s a very good lawyer at a firm whose name seems to escape me every time I try to pin it down. They have a kid around your age, Gabriel—although I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone call him that more than once, he just goes by Boone. Boone was brought into their home,” he gives it a moment’s thought, “nine years ago and they adopted him about a year after that. I’ve been his caseworker for the last five years. He's gifted as well.”
That might be the first interesting thing Alan’s ever said.
Alan smiles, appreciating having my full and less-than-sarcastic attention.
“You’ll have to ask. I imagine it might make for a good conversation starter.”
I make a face and Alan pokes the doorbell. We aren’t left waiting very long before a short woman in bright purple scrubs answers the door with a smile. She looks like she's in her late thirties. She hugs Alan and they exchange quick pleasantries. How do you do? Oh, splendid, Susan! And yourself? Fine, fine. This heat’s almost unbearable, isn’t it? Awful, just awful.
I notice both Alan and Susan are looking expectantly at me and I realize I’ve missed some sort of conversational cue. Whoops.
“Well, fine’s better than not.” Susan says with a smile, offering me her hand. I guess I answered the right question. Go me. I shake her hand. “I’m sure Alan’s mentioned it already, but my name’s Susan.”
I offer a thin smile. “I’m sure Alan’s mentioned it already, but my name’s Wesley.”
I wonder what all Alan’s already mentioned. She seems far too enthusiastic about meeting some bastard teen who’s chewed through eight foster families in fourteen years. Maybe she’s just got a thing for delinquents. Wonder what Boone’s deal is.
“Well, let’s get the two of you inside, just standing out here’s got me feeling a bit soggy.” Susan gestures inside, closing the door behind us. “Paul’s spent the morning shut away in his office and he’ll barricade himself right back in there after this meeting, I’m sure. Not the best time for him to take the day off, but I imagine they’ll be able to make do without him for one day.” I can’t see her, but she’s got the sunshiny sound to her voice that just screams I can’t stop smiling! Guess she enjoys putting on airs, regardless of the quality of the present company. I wonder how long she actually expects I’ll be here. She sounds even more optimistic than Alan. I wonder if she knows this is my last chance.
“Alan, just head into the kitchen, Anna and Boone are waiting there. I’ll go drag Paul out into the sunlight.”
We turn left at the end of the hall into a kitchen that seems torn between old and new. White wood and black countertops offset by lots of stainless steel. The refrigerator door’s open and someone’s rummaging around inside. Past the kitchen, a dark-haired guy who has to be Boone is sitting at a rectangular table. His chin’s resting on his palm and he’s staring out the three windows that look onto the backyard. He grunts when Alan greets him.
Alan turns to the refrigerator. “And is that Anna, hiding over there?”
“Not hiding…trying not to drop the bean dip…Boone will you come here and help me, dammit!”
Before Boone can do anything, Alan’s doing that awkward jogging-in-the-house run toward Anna. He opens the door a little wider and starts fiddling with something. It takes them a second, but they rectify whatever mess was being made. Anna spins away from the refrigerator, a sizeable Tupperware of what looks like a multi-layer bean dip in hand. She’s far more interesting than Boone or Susan.
Bean dip aside, she’s kinda hot. I feel my head tilt a little to the side, but I can’t seem to care enough to straighten up. Her hair’s wavy and reddish and accents her face extraordinarily well. Her eyes are blue…or green…or…I dunno. And then she smiles and my brain goes into vapor lock. Huh. This is a rather unexpected twist.
She laughs and the hair on the back of my neck stands up. “Wesley?”
I think I missed another cue.
“Hey, uh, call me Wes.”
She sets the bean dip on the table and bounces over to what I guess is a walk-in pantry and comes out with a bag of chips. “Well, help yourself to some chips and dip, Wes. You too, Alan.”
I blink. Alan’s still here, isn’t he?
Alan pats my shoulder. "Anna lives nearby. Her family's been friends with the Rhodeses since time immemorial. She's here all the time, I'm sure you'll get along well." He leans over a little and whispers, "She's gifted too," and with a wink he wanders over to the table.
I stare awkwardly as Alan, Anna, and Boone pick at the dip and chat to pass the time. Anna looks up and squints at me for a second, before waving.
“Sitting in a chair is prolly more comfortable than leaning against the counter. Plus,” she holds up a chip that looks like it’s shaking under the strain of holding up all that dip, “we have delicious bean dip over here.”
Boone flicks a few pieces of chip into Anna’s hair. She punches him in the chest.
I pull up a chair. Anna slides the dip toward me, nearly dislodging a chip Boone was in the process of loading up. He makes a face at the back of her head and hurries to retrieve his chip. I wiggle a chip gingerly through the layers. Anna rolls her eyes.
“Don’t be so polite about it; take as much as you want. There’s plenty of dip.”
She overloads another chip and holds it up like she’s teaching a child and smiles. I dig in and am immediately rewarded. Holy hell, that’s fucking delicious. None of the layers are thick enough to overwhelm the others, just melding flavors together. Beans, cheese, sour cream, tomato, black olives, jalapeño, green onion, and ground beef. It’s sweet and savory and salty and sporting a little heat. I might stick around this house just for the dip.
“Who made this? It’s fucking amazing.”
Anna smiles and nods graciously. “Glad you enjoy it.”
Hot and she cooks. I feel like it’s probably a little sexist to judge a woman based on those qualities alone, but who the hell cares? So far, this Anna chick is kicking my ass.
She looks up over my head and smiles. I turn around and see Susan standing in the doorway watching us with a tall, bearded guy who must be Paul. Stealth blown, they wander over to the table. Susan sits, but Paul pulls up short. He puts his hand out.
I’m about to shake his hand when I realize I’ve misread the situation. Pinched between his thumb and middle finger is a little sour gummy. I wave him off.
“Bean dip and sour gummies sounds like a dangerous combination.”
He shrugs and eats it himself before wiping the sour crystals onto his pants and extending his hands for an actual handshake. I triple check that he’s not holding anything in it this time before shaking. He pats me on the shoulder before finding himself an open seat.
“Nice to meet you, Wesley.”
Alan hurriedly tilts a chip into his mouth and claps his hands as he finishes chewing.
“Well, now that everyone’s been properly introduced,” his eyes flit over to Boone, who still hasn’t actually said anything to me, “and we’ve gorged ourselves on a truly delicious snack, I think it’s time to talk about why we’re here.”
I don’t make eye contact with anyone, but I can feel all their eyes on me for a few seconds.
“I really think this is going to be a wonderful match. The Rhodeses,” he gestures toward Susan and Paul, “have a great track record. But, before I start gushing too much, I figured I’d do well to open up the floor to the people who are actually participating in all this.” Alan laughs like he said something particularly clever and glances around the table before stopping meaningfully on me.
When I don’t say anything, Susan speaks up. “Is there anything about us you want to know? I don’t know how much Alan’s told you, but feel free to ask us anything.”
“I was actually kinda curious about what Alan told you about me.”
Alan gives me a frustrated look, but it’s Susan’s reaction that I’m really interested in. Boone keeps looking bored, but he’s looking at me out of the corner of his eye now. Paul’s pulling another gummy out of his t-shirt breast pocket. Anna looks at me like she doesn’t know where I’m going with this. Susan, on the other hand, is smiling like she’s been looking forward to this very question all day.
“He said you’re going to be a pain in the ass and that you take quite a bit of pride in doing so.”
I blink. Um. Okay. Not what I was expecting. People don’t usually give an honest answer to that question. Color me caught-off-fucking-guard.
“So, uh, where am I gonna be going to high school now?”
“Anna and Boone go to Malcolm McDowell so we thought we’d send you there with them.”
Paul perks up. “Makes sure you don’t go into school without knowing anyone.”
“I, uh, what are my sleeping arrangements gonna be?”
Boone frowns and Anna smiles and before Susan says anything, I know I’m horning in on his turf.
“We don’t have enough rooms for everyone, but each room is plenty big so we picked up a lofted bed to put in with Boone in his room.”
“Sounds like you’ve, uh…got everything covered, huh?”
Susan smiles brilliant rays of sunshine at me.
“I don’t wanna drag our new student up to the front of the class like a sideshow attraction, but I would like to take a second to introduce him. In the back there, mind raising your hand for the class?”
I debate ignoring him. It’s not hard for all the people who were here last year to notice the one person who wasn’t, raised hand or not. Then again, it’s probably a bit too early in the semester to be getting on my teacher’s bad side. I raise my hand to head-height.
“Thanks. Class, that’s Wesley Jacobs. Be nice, help him out if he needs it, and introduce yourselves outside of class. Make him feel welcome. You know the drill.”
I get through three classes before one of my teachers stands me up in front of her indifferent class and asks them to say “hello”. I really wish she’d just leave it be.
I get all the way to the passing period before lunch before I figure out this school’s alpha douche. There’s always someone who’s got something to say about the new kid. This one bears a striking resemblance to every other one I’ve met. Broad shoulders, dark clothes, and a thing for pet names. He’s picked out “Foster Kid” for me. His dazzling wit is familiar as well.
Word always gets around that I’m a foster kid, but I’m never sure how it starts. It’s like I’m followed from school to school by a disembodied voice that just can’t help itself. Not that it really matters, I’m new. If someone wants to start shit, they’ll find a reason.
I turn and give him a smile.
“Here, lemme save you some trouble and get the ball rolling. How’s your first day been? Blah, blah, blah, liking your classes? Blah, blah, tell you how things work around here. Blah, blah, blah, you got a smart mouth, huh? Blah, blah, I’ll see you after school in the guys’ locker room, bitch. And don’t even think about trying to sneak off on me!”
I turn away while surprise and confusion duke it out for facial expression supremacy. He gets it together quickly enough, all things consider and calls after me. “Hope you don’t get lost on the way, Foster Kid.”
I’m tempted to turn back to him so he can see me roll my eyes, but I’d rather not be late to lunch. Good food or bad, lunch tends to be the best part of the day no matter what school I’m at. Most people just leave me well enough alone. Whatever, at least I’m getting this bully bullshit out of the way early. That’s a plus, right?
Sixth, seventh, and eighth period move along pretty quickly. Anna’s in my seventh period Lit class and waves me down to sit behind her, tells me I should find her in the cafeteria tomorrow if I want someone to sit with. “Maybe if you can avoid saying anything, you might even socialize without offending anyone,” she says.
I don’t hold out much hope, but no straight high school guy turns down an invitation to sit at a hot girl’s lunch table. It’s simply not done.
I’m halfway through putting in my locker combo when I notice someone walking down the hall with a purpose. Tall, blond hair shaved close, hood up—the guy looks like a fucking mugger. He’s probably one of what’s his face’s buddies so I open my locker just as he gets here, letting him feel all kinds of clever when he slams it shut a second later.
I smile. “That's okay, I didn't need anything from my locker anyway.”
Some people get confused when the victim mouths off, but to this guy’s credit he just sneers. He grabs my arm, stares at me for a second, and then shoves me a bit. I stumble toward the door like a good boy.
The locker room’s by the gym, up a level and past the lobby.
A fair few people have turned out for the prize fight. Some are leaning against lockers, others are sitting on top of them, and some people are just standing with their arms crossed. Most of them are talking. Big Man’s standing between three other future-muggers and carjackers. My escort joins him and whispers something to him. Some of the conversations around the room start tapering off.
Alright. Now’s the fun part. Getting him off my ass without actually hurting him. I love changing schools.
Big Guy takes a step forward and everyone quiets down even more.
“Got anything else smart to say?”
I shrug. “Would it be pretentious to quote Custer ironically here or just stupid?”
He laughs and shifts into what’s universally known as the schoolyard fighting stance. A bit lower and more prepared, but not so low as to look like it’s being taken too seriously. I mean, come on. Trying too hard is so weak. When I don’t follow suit or start quivering, he takes a step to the right. I shift my eyes to the left to follow him but don’t move otherwise. He takes another step and when I still don’t move he charges at me. Why does every high school idiot go for the tackle? Does it actually work on anyone?
I don’t spend much time pondering the effectiveness of tackling non-post-humans in a high school brawl. Instead, I inch to the left and raise my knee. I don’t give myself too much credit and say I actually kneed him in the head or anything, I just sort of gently pushed my knee into his path. I hop aside to avoid the human missile he’s turned into. He hits the ground with a solid thunk and slides into the lockers. I roll him onto his back and crouch next to him.
“Hey. Look at me. How many fingers am I holding up?”
He doesn’t seem to understand exactly what’s happening or why I’m asking him this, but he’s got the right answer. I show him two fingers and then five. He gets ‘em both right.
“What’s your name?”
Doesn’t usually take much to flip the power structure around. I look up at my old escort.
“Is that right?”
He looks around, like he’s hoping someone else will tell him if he should be answering my question and then nods. I pat Trent’s cheek.
I stand up and grab my escort by his arm the same way he grabbed me.
“Doesn’t seem like he has a concussion but take him to the nurse anyway. He slipped on a wet spot and smacked his head on the floor, okay?” He nods. “Good. Now fuck off and leave me alone. I’m tired of this shit.”
People are murmuring and milling around. They got their fight, but I don’t think they really know what to do with it.
I have to trek halfway across the school just to find out that I missed my bus. I’m standing in the cold rattling off a string of silent profanities when someone taps me on the shoulder. I jump a little, turn, and backpedal a step all in the same motion. Anna looks as surprised as I probably do, her mittened hand still hovering where my shoulder was. She looks a little concerned.
“Bad first day?”
Well, I look like a spaz now.
“Let’s call it setting a foundation for a better second day.”
She smiles. Her cheeks are rosy from the cold. “Sounds dramatic. You also missed the bus. I should warn you, our bus drivers don’t wait for students no matter how important the foundation they’re laying.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. So what dramatic-sounding endeavor kept you from making the bus?”
“My new idiot neighbor wasn’t on the bus so I had to get off and make sure he wasn’t lost and wandering around a bathroom in some distant corner of the school.”
I smile and hang my head. “It’s a cold, hard world out there. I would’ve left the idiot to fend for himself.”
“Well, I guess that just makes me the bigger man. Now come on, idiot. We’ve got a long walk home.”