So this was it. The beginning of freshman year. The beginning of a life far from home. Far from Payne Springs, his grand parents and home made apple pie. But especially far away from his bullies and life long tormenters.
Chandley took a deep breath, shouldered his brown retro school back and felt his heart pounding hard against his tightened chest as he stepped through the wide opened doors of just one of the many New York public schools he’d attend to this year.
His heartbeat stopped within the next few seconds as set foot into the quite impressive building. All of a sudden everything came crushing down on him at once.
There were new students running around, desperately trying to avoid the scary seniors and helplessly trying to find the right classrooms, following their given maps and schedules at the same time. Groups of friends were either already existent or forming right this second. Some of them just casually chatting and laughing, others already looking for prey among the new arrivals.
Preoccupied by his thoughts and even more by the fear of history repeating itself by being bullied all the same, Chandley felt himself paralyzed until someone got a rough hold of his shoulder and pushed him hard against the wall of lockers. “Get out of the way, loser” He heard a deep voice growling and a few others snickering as he was left there, rubbing his shoulder in pain and disappointment, because he was so frighteningly used to this kind of treatment.
“Don’t mind them…I’ve heard they’re really just super insecure and sad deep inside”
Chandley looked up and he was so glad to finally see a familiar face that he smiled regardless of all the doubt he was actually going through.
“And all they really need is a hug?” Chandley raised an eyebrow, looking the girl with the reddish hair up and down. His cousin had gotten prettier by the years and he couldn’t imagine her not being a part of the popular crowd.
Hollie shrugged. “Probably”
They both chuckled and then proceeded to walk side by side for a moment until neither of them could stand the silence anymore. An attempt to break it resulted in both of them blurting something out at the same time and neither of them understanding a word of what the other one had tried to say.
Hollie tried again and this time Chandley let her go first. “So, what’s your first class? Maybe we’ll be together”
Since Chandley hadn’t quite figured out his timetable yet he drew the crinkled piece of paper out from his pocket and simply handed it over to Hollie who immediately began studying it. Her shoulders sank and she bit her lip. “We don’t have any classes together until after lunch” She observed, just a hint of disappointment in her voice. “But we can meet for lunch anyway. I’ll introduce you to my friends and we can join clubs together this afternoon”
Hollie’s excitement was definitely enough for the two of them and Chandley couldn’t wait to meet the people his cousin had spent most of her life with. Even though it was her freshman year too, she had been growing up with a lot of people at this school and knew her way around. Or at least knew people who did. When they were little he had seen Hollie maybe once a year. She had spent some of her summers down in Texas on their grandparent’s farm. But all of this had stopped a while back ago and - before he even knew - he hadn’t seen Hollie in ages. That was until his grandmother had decided that it would be best if he got out of this small town and moved to New York instead. Now he was living with Hollie and her family, his uncle and aunt. Even though he felt that neither of them had changed all that much, there was still this subtle awkwardness between them, because so many years seemed to separate them.
But Chandley was positive that this would pass. Hopeless optimism seemed to run in the family. He could see it in the smile Hollie was throwing at him. “You’re first class is right over there” She told him, pointing at the next door across the hallway. “Mine’s just a couple of doors down the hall. You’ll find the dining hall later?”
Chandley laughed her question off and couldn’t resist laying his arm around her shoulders and pulling her a little closer while they were walking. “It’s not like I’ve never been to school before” He said and gave her a light hug before he stopped right in front of the classroom he was supposed to enter. “You be good and take care. And listen to what the teachers say”
She chuckled. “Oh, you know, I always do that”
They parted and the moment Chandley stepped into the classroom a paper plane came crushing down on his head and he instantly avoided looking at the other students by instinct as he quietly made his way to the only empty chair left in the very back of the room.
Schools generally seemed to have a time zone of their own and time was passing painfully slow once the teacher had entered the room and foolishly demanded silence from the class. Most classes consisted of introductions of the teachers and each student until there was barely time for actual lessons left. Still, Chandley did well raising his hand and providing the correct answers whenever it was needed. He knew that he wouldn’t be able to impress the new classmates with his pure presence, so he’d go for his teachers first. After having to leave his last school for skipping class one time too many it was time to concentrate on his grades again. For his grandmother’s sake at least. Even though skipping class back than had had nothing to do with him being lazy.
After each ring of the school bell Chandley was the last one to leave the classroom, packing his books and pens as slowly as he could to avoid the big crowd in the hallway. This resulted in him sometimes having to rush to the next class so he wouldn’t be late. But he managed it just in time.
As the bell rang for the last time before lunch he was actually the first to get up, even receiving a slightly angry look from his teacher, because he hadn’t officially dismissed the class yet. But Chandley just couldn’t wait to have lunch with Hollie and meet her – and possibly his new - friends. He was wondering if maybe he had already shared one of his past classes with one of them. After all, his new classmates hadn’t been as terrible as he had expected them to be. At least they didn’t know him. They didn’t know about his former reputation in all of Payne Springs and as freshmen in High School they were all in the same boat anyway. For the first few weeks at least. Until the jocks and the nerds would have separated and the rank order would have been established and Chandley would end up at the bottom of it all…as he always was.
Hollie wasn’t waiting for him at the entrance to the dining hall. He was left alone as he was lining up for his lunch, not really looking forward to whatever the grumpy lunch ladies had in petto for him and once he had received something that was supposed to be chicken nuggets and some sort of mushy peas served with it, he awkwardly stood at the side of the hall trying to find Hollie or at least another free spot between all the other students.
He was about to give up and turn around to rather have his lunch in the school’s restrooms as he had done ever so often before as he heard a voice calling out for him.
“Chandley, over here!” Hollie was waving at him from across the room, pointing to a free seat at the table she had occupied. Chandley smiled in relief and balanced his tabled through a couple of jocks that thankfully ignored him rather than pushing him or laughing at him.
“I’m sorry, but you need to be really fast reserving your table” She apologized right away while Chandley sat down in front of her.
“It’s alright” Chandley waved his hands. “It’s just all…a little bit bigger than what I’m used to” He admitted and Hollie nodded understandingly. “Oh yeah right, you went to one of those prestigious private schools” She rolled her eyes jokingly, but chuckled right after.
“Christian private school” Chandley corrected her before he shoved a fork full of mashed peas into his mouth and frowned in disgust right after. He felt that there was a huge difference between any other private school and a Christian private school. Just like there was a difference for an animal to live in a Zoo that was at least trying to come close to the standards of its natural environment and between an animal having to live in a cheap cage from the pet store that only tried to tie it down and take all of its freedom by giving nothing back. It was a drastic comparison and he felt bad immediately after thinking it. But it was so heavily based on his bad experiences that he just couldn’t help it.
Chandley decided to give the chicken nuggets a try and was hoping deeply that what he was about to consume actually was chicken when Hollie was already waving at someone else, motioning him to join them at their small table.
Chandley didn’t get a chance to turn around and see who was approaching them as a tall boy with broad shoulders popped up right behind Hollie, reducing her slim body to nothing compared to the giant figure he was. The red letterman jacket he was wearing gave away that he was one of the jocks and by his looks alone…he was clearly a senior. His brown hair was long enough to be tied into a loose ponytail, some stubble down his chin made him look older than he probably was and his grim expression made Chandley anxious that he came here to steal their lunch.
That was until Hollie got up to wrap her short arms around his chest and bury her face into the soft material of his jacket. “I haven’t seen you all summer” she scolded him, still not letting go. “Where have you been?”
He accepted the hug and didn’t let go until Hollie did, finally answering her question as he sat down. “Oh, here and there. I’ve been taking my brother to the outskirts of town. Had to get out of here for at least a little bit” He shrugged and put a chocolate pudding from his plate onto hers. Now she had two desserts. “I brought you extra chocolate pudding” Hollie thanked him with another brief hug and all of their gestures combined seemed so natural to Chandley that for just a second he felt like he wasn’t supposed to be here. So Hollie was best friends with a senior…and a jock on top of that. Maybe she was one of the popular kids after all.
“Matt?” Hollie nodded towards Chandley. “This is my cousin, Chandley”
Matt greeted the blonde boy with a smile and a nod, but refrained from shaking his hand. “I’m Matt” he said. “Nice to meet you. You’re from Texas, right?” Matt ignored that Hollie had told him all about her cousin already or maybe he had already forgotten.
“Yeah…I came here to finish High School”
“Sounds like an odd thing to do…” Matt remarked, but didn’t question Chandley’s decision further and began eating his lunch instead.
Chandley knew that it was weird to transfer from a private school to a public school. Even if said public school was in Manhattan. Or probably because it was. But then again…nobody knew that he just hadn’t been welcome among a whole crowd of Christian boys and their conservative teachers. Things were bound to be better here in New York. Even just a little bit.
“What about you?” Chandley asked rather quickly, mainly to push the conversational topic away from himself. “Why aren’t you sitting with the others?”
Matt shrugged, still chewing on the rather rubbery chicken, so that Hollie took the answer from him. “He doesn’t like them” She whispered as if there was an actual chance for any of the football team loudly laughing and talking at the other side of the hall to hear them.
It struck Chandley as weird that Matt would wear his letterman jacket and even be a part of the whole team if he didn’t like his team members, but who was he to judge? “And you’re calling me odd?” He chuckled. “So why even be in the team?”
Matt shrugged once again, but this time it was his turn to explain himself. “I kick ass” He laughed, a rough and short laughter. “And our team captain doesn’t like that. It’s fun” Coming from his mouth it seemed like the most natural and self explanatory thing in the whole world, but Chandley still couldn’t get behind Matt’s reasoning.
Hollie sighed loud enough to make both Matt and Chandley look up. “Yeah, but you’re overdoing it sometimes. Alec can be…” She seemed to look for the right words to say without having to curse “…mean, but you’re supposed to be a team and not constantly fight each other. I really don’t know how the coach keeps you two in his team”
“He’s Alec’s father. That’s how”
Chandley was looking back and forth between Matt and Hollie for as long as the conversation lasted. Then silence fell back over the table of three. But not for long. Hollie didn’t even bother to swallow her last bite as she started talking again, pointing the tip of her fork to Chandley. “You know what? You should try out for the team this afternoon” Hollie seemed proud to have come up with this idea, but Chandley wasn’t nearly as convinced as she was.
“Me?” He repeated in disbelief and Hollie nodded eagerly. “I’m not really the type, am I?” He argued, chewing his lower lip nervously. His gaze grazed Matt who was calm, eating his lunch as if he was the only one in here who couldn’t taste how awful it actually was…or simply didn’t mind.
“I don’t know…football is not all about defence, you know. We need some fast runners too”
“You see? I’ll try out for the cheerleaders too, so we’ll still be together. Plus, you already know Matt. He can throw in a good word for you”
There was really nothing Chandley could do or say to change her mind and maybe it wasn’t a bad idea all together. He needed to get himself out there if he wanted things to change this year. The least he could do was try. Matt seemed nice enough and Chandley already liked him simply for being Hollie’s friend. Her best friend, even.
“I’ll give it a shot, I suppose…” Chandley finally said and Hollie was about to jump up from her seat to give her cousin the biggest hug.
“Now let’s check what classes we have next” He added quickly to change the subject. At least he wouldn’t be alone anymore.
Classes after lunch passed surprisingly faster with Hollie by his side. They would talk about their new teachers and classmates, slip each other notes under the desk and whisper each other the correct answer whenever they were taken by surprise by the teacher.
The burning orange afternoon sun was long out as the school bell rang one more time to dismiss the students for today. Out in the hallway preparations to get the new students to join all sorts of clubs had started. While Hollie and Chandley were actually heading for the football field outside, they were stopping every now and then to check out other clubs. For a moment Chandley seemed to have lost his cousin because he had been standing with the cooking club for just a little too long. When he turned around to look for Hollie again, someone was blocking his way. By his appearance alone Chandley assumed that he was either a freshman like himself or maybe a sophomore, but definitely not older than that. He was about the same height too and therefore rather small, but a head full of messy, bouncy curls added to his height. He was twirling a top hat between his fingers, but made it stop as he drew a little brochure from the inside of the head and handed it to Chandley. ‘Magic Club’ was written in the most horrible Microsoft Word font that Chandley had ever seen at the top of the paper.
“We meet every Friday at 4pm” the boy explained and Chandley could make out a Spanish accent in his voice. Only now he realized that the poor boy had been chatting away for at least a minute since he had handed out the flyer, but Chandley hadn’t even been listening and felt terrible for that. He was still looking out for Hollie, though. At the same time he couldn’t help but notice that there didn’t seem to be anyone else around belonging to the so called ‘Magic Club’. Suddenly feeling pity for the boy in front of him, he frowned.
“How many members do you have?” He asked, only a hint of worry in his voice.
The boy suddenly went quiet, licked his lips and made all kinds of faces before a cheerful smile lit up his face once more. “You see…it’s not really about how many members we currently have…it’s more about how many members we are go-“
“One and a half” The boy was interrupted by another boy, probably of the same age, suddenly standing right beside him. He didn’t look half as enthusiastic as his friend.
“Come on, Flavio. Don’t put yourself down. You are a full member of this club”
“I can’t even do magic, Celio”
“You would, if you’d let me teach you!” Celio threw his hands up in exasperation.
“But I don’t want to”
“And, you see, that is your prob-“
Neither of them was taking any note of Chandley anymore or heard him mumbling “Thanks, guys, I’ll check it out” with no intention of actually doing so.
At least he was reunited with Hollie again, once he had turned away.
“You ready?” She asked, her eyes and cheeks glowing.
“I guess” Chandley muttered, not convincing anyone, including himself. He frowned as they passed a wide opened door that had music, singing and laughter emerge from it. “What club is that?” Chandley slowed down a little bit, trying to get a glimpse into the room, but Hollie tried to pull him farther along, her impatient excitement making her so much stronger than she looked.
“The drama club” She whispered and Chandley was terribly confused by the hushed tone she was using.
“What’s so bad about it? It sounds like fun…why don’t we check it out?”
“No…” Hollie shook her head repeatedly. “You’re either with the jocks or with the drama club. You can’t be both. Everybody knows that.
Chandley’s confusion still wouldn’t clear up. “So, what…are they, like, meeting at the same time, or what?”
Hollie was still shaking her head. “No, they just don’t like each other. I know it’s weird. I’ve seen some of their plays and even talked to some of them…they are really good at what they’re doing and seem nice enough too. It’s just…this weird number one rule” She ended her speech with a light shrug and there seemed to be nothing else to say.
Obviously, Hollie preferred the football club and the cheerleaders, because Matt was with them and Chandley preferred any club that allowed him to be with at least one person that he actually knew. Even if it didn’t necessarily suit his natural talents.