Holding his loaded breakfast food tray, Matt scanned the cafeteria for a place to sit. To his left preened the jocks and cheerleaders, definitely not the group to go near. On his right sat the nerds and assorted freaks of nature – the cripples, rejects, and other assorted dregs of school society. In front of him, off to the left corner, next to the lurking presence of teachers and assistant principals, perched the collaborators. That group, members of student government, yearbook, and newspaper staff, huddled together, whispering and conspiring amongst themselves. Toward the right, taking up most of the cafeteria, sat the normals – those without an agenda and claw marks on the social ladder of success.
The challenge, he knew, was trying to figure out where he fit in. This was his second year at Jamesville High, and despite that, he still didn’t know which peg hole suited him. Last year blew past like a blur, not that it didn’t have moments when time seemed to creep along, like some wishfully forgettable moments in gym class. Unwilling and unable to accomplish even the minimally pathetic goals of Coach Peterson’s PE class, he’d hidden in the bathrooms until dragged out by the perpetually red-eyed coach onto the parquet floors of the gymnasium. There, under the unrelenting stares and incessant hoots of the jocks, humiliation rained upon him as he failed task after task, of jumping, shooting baskets, or even running between orange traffic cones. So he was not a jock, and yet he could do most everything else, particularly math and history, which put him closer to the nerds. He conversed readily with the pedestal-dwelling student government types and even those creatures which engendered mortal fear in all nerds — girls. So he didn’t fit there either.
As his eyes moved over the normals, he spotted a table closest to the freaks section, with one occupant who sat with his back to him. The boy had long brown hair, an olive green army surplus jacket, worn jeans, and scuffed-up combat boots. Probably a misplaced normal, as no one would willingly sit near the freaks. Since no other suitable tables had an opening, it seemed that should be the place to go. If he were lucky, though, the boy would be leaving soon.
Tray in hand, Matt made his way over there, avoiding the glances coming from the freak table – do not make eye contact, they might say something in their simian way. Dodging a crutch and the handles of a wheelchair, he slid into a seat at the table with the lone boy, positioning himself on the opposite side and corner from the boy. Best to avoid contact if possible.
Yet the boy looked up at him and briefly made eye contact.
Clear olive-colored skin and large brown eyes greeted him. “Hello.”
Matt averted his eyes but mumbled back a reply. “Hi.” Hopefully, that will be enough. Much to his disappointment, though, the boy slid down the bench seat toward him.
“Something the matter?”
Matt looked up. “No, why do you ask?”
“You look concerned.”
“No, I just like my privacy.”
The boy sat back, “Really?”
Matt stared at him a moment but did not reply. Please make it stop.
“Is that why you came into a crowded cafeteria?”
Matt growled, feeling his face grow hot, “It is none of your business, really.”
“No offense intended. I’m just trying to get to know you.” The boy leaned forward, “My name is Jonathan, by the way, so if I’m irritating you, at least you know who is doing it.”
Matt narrowed his eyes, but Jonathan’s face registered a slight smile, and his brown eyes looked on with kindness, not arrogance.
“My name is Matt,” he said, digging a fork into some eggs.
Jonathan speared a sausage and munched on it as he looked around the room. “Is it always this crowded in here?”
Matt looked around, most tables were full, but that did not surprise him. “Not usually. Breakfast pizza and mini-cinis days are just popular. The rest, not so much.”
“Where I came from, they never served breakfast, and at lunch, we never had more than a handful enjoying a meal.”
In spite of himself, Matt laughed. “Well, not sure anyone enjoys a meal around here since it is school food.”
Jonathan tapped the hard French toast stick on the tray. “Well, the sticks are a bit hard, I will admit.” He held it between his hands and bent it. With a crunch, it broke into two pieces. “But even the hardest problems can be made into a blessing.” Dipping the halves into pancake syrup, he bit off and chewed the soft center.
Matt watched Jonathan chew the nearly fossilized sticks, which he apparently enjoyed. Odd phrasing this kid has. “Where did you say you’re from?”
Huh? “North where?”
Okay, be mysterious, then. Damned strange, this kid. “I take it you’re new? What grade are you in?”
Jonathan nodded. “This is my first day of eleventh grade. How about you?”
“This is my second year here. I’m in eleventh grade as well. Who do you have for homeroom?”
Matt stopped mid-chew. “Really? That’s mine too. But I didn’t see you in there last week.”
“I just registered. My first class will be Trent for history.”
“Oh, that should be a treat,” Matt said, grinning. “Trent’s a pompous windbag. You won’t learn anything in there.”
Jonathan stared at him. “You can learn from anyone. The only question is whether you will learn the lesson.”
What is he talking about? As he finished his eggs, Matt continued to study the new boy. Finally, he spoke, “Suit yourself, but you might want to take a magazine to look at while he’s boring the crap out of you. Just ask a couple questions to slow the pace down, and he’ll yammer on for fifteen to twenty minutes on most anything.”
Pete will be in Trent’s class with Jonathan. I need to ask him about this new kid. He glanced at his watch. Five minutes until first block. He wolfed down the rest of his meal and washed it down with a carton of OJ. Grabbing his book bag, he slung it over his shoulder. Jonathan ate a few more toast sticks, leaving most of his food untouched.
Noting the applesauce container sitting in a bowl, Matt gestured toward it. “Are you going to eat that?”
Jonathan replied, “Yes, I believe I will.”
Nuts. Oh well. “I have to go,” Matt said. “See you around.” He slipped out of his seat and began moving toward the tray return cart.
Jonathan nodded. “Have fun in chemistry.”
Matt froze. What the? How did he know that was his next class?
“I saw it on your agenda.”
“Oh, right,” Matt said, an awkward feeling creeping over him. This kid was definitely weird. Slipping toward the door, he glanced back at the new boy. Standing next to the freak table, Jonathan offered his applesauce to them. Several hands raised hesitantly, and he handed it over.
What is he doing? I was going to eat that.
With a grimace, he pursed his lips. Don’t feed the freaks, newbie. Like dogs, they’ll just come to expect it. I have to tell him that is not how it is done around here. Jonathan turned and looked his direction. Their eyes met, and Jonathan smiled warmly and waved. Matt flicked his hand in reply, then turned away and stepped into the hallway.
What a nut job. This kid is going to get in all kinds of trouble with his strange ways.