School is... different from anything I've ever experienced. I've been to school. Small, dirty room with us crammed into a few tables. Books that are falling apart or computer screens that are shorting out. Smells from the other kids because bathing isn't something that happens all that often in a mining camp. Besides, it never really mattered if we were clean; the smells from the mine permeated everything anyway, so nothing smelled clean.
But this is different. All the kids are dressed in the same, bright uniforms. Their hair is all neatly combed; all the girls have these elaborate braids, and those that don't obviously aren't popular. I can tell the hierarchy of everyone right away when I walk into my first class. There a group of beautiful girls sitting in the middle of the class, all clustered around this one goddess with gleaming red hair that's plaited and twisted tighter than the inside of a computer.
She looks at me when I walk, giving me a once over. Her eyes are apprising, like a predator's. The girls around her all turn to see what she's looking at. For a second, there's silence, and then one of them starts to giggle.
Embarrassed, I duck my head and make a beeline for the back so I can hide. I look ridiculous and I know it; all the girls are wearing skirts and knee socks, and I'm wearing slacks. Imam force me to wear the scarf to cover my nonexistent hair and I think it makes me look stupid.
I hear the girls whispering to one another and blush hotly. This was such a dumb idea; I don't know why I let myself be talked into it. As soon as possible, I was leaving. For good, too. If Riddick wouldn't take me away, then I was running away by myself.
I look up through my eyelashes. There's a boy sliding into the seat next to me. He's smiling at me, but his eyes keep flicking to the stupid scarf. "Hi," I say after a second. Then I look down at the computer screen on my desktop and switch it on.
It asks for my login information which, of course, I don't have.
"Just type in your name. Last name, first initial," the boy tells me.
Without thinking, I type in kingj. Immediately, it tells me no such student exists and would I like to try again. "Oh. Right." Kinga works right away. My entire class schedule scrolls before my face.
"Hey, we have four classes together. Cool. I'm Alex, by the way."
"Jack." I have seven e-mails, one from each teacher. They all say welcome to the school, and they look forward to meeting me, and I'd better conform to the high academic excellence of their class. They've all attached information and notes from stuff I've missed in their class and a list of students they think I should talk to so they can help catch me up.
I bet you anything the goddess in front is one of the students on the list. Alex is on the list, too.
The seventh e-mail is from the school psychologist. It informs me that we'll be meeting twice a week starting today to discuss things that have happened in my past.
Translation: your father touched you and you killed him. I'm here to fix you.
Stupid Imam and his big mouth.
"Where are you from, Jack?" Alex asks.
"Around." Then, because that was a stupid to leave it there, I say, "My dad and I traveled around a lot. I don't remember what planet I was born on, even."
"That's kind of neat. I've been here my entire life. It's so boring."
I shrug. "I don't know. Moving around was never so great. Although, sticking around wasn't so good, either." I delete the e-mail from the psychologist and turn to Alex. "Who's that girl?"
"Tiffany. Watch out for her."
"Yeah, I got that." The scarf slips over my forehead. Grunting, I tug it off and shove it into my pocket.
The girls around Tiffany gasp. I glance up. They're all sitting there, gaping at me like fishes.
I feel my face heat all the way to where my hairline is growing in. Ashamed, I meet Tiffany's eyes, expecting the worst from her.
She surprises me. This gorgeous goddess with more hair than I've ever even dreamed of just looks at me, one red eyebrow arched. She runs her eyes over my body, then meets my eyes.
I swallow hard. Giver her a crooked, wobbly smile.
She nods and turns away.
Shaky and sick--it's so much harder facing down a girl my age than a merc three times my size--I let out a long sigh and rest my head on my desk.
"You okay?" Alex asks.
"Yeah." I sit back up and run a hand over my hair. It feels scratchy against my palm. I want to shave my head again, but Imam says no. Riddick refuses to say anything.
"What happened to your hair? Were you sick or something?" he asks. He's real persistent. Friendly, though. Not like the boys back at the camps.
The bell rings and the teacher walks in. Not wanting to get in trouble on my first day, I sit up straight and face front, ignoring Alex's question.
"Good morning students."
"Good morning, Professor Fordman," everyone says in unison.
She smiles. "We have a new student. Audrey King, she goes by Jack. Please give her a warm welcome. Jack?"
I stare stupidly at her until Alex hisses, "Stand up."
Clumsily, I rise, bunching my slacks in my fists. "Hello, ma'am."
"Would you like to tell us about yourself?"
No. "I'm new to the planet. I'm living with an imam. This is the first private school I've ever gone to." Then, before she can make me talk more, I sit back down and duck my head.
More giggles and a strange, awkward silence from everyone else. "Well. Thank you. Jack. Class, please open your books to page fifteen eighty-three and open a new page in Geometer's Sketch-Pad."
Alex leans over to show me how. His breath is hot on the side of my face, and one of his arms rests against mine. "What happened to your hair?" he asks again. He doesn't move after the program is open, and his big green eyes stare right into mine.
I swallow, feeling hot. "I shaved it off."
"You shaved it off?"
A bright grin flashes across his face. "Wicked." Then he sits back down and turns his attention to the teacher.
I make it to gym without ever having to leave Alex's side. He's in my math, literature, and history class in the morning, then physics in the afternoon. I have to fend for myself in gym, which is all girls, computer programming, and art. I can only hope that Tiffany and her gang isn't in any of those classes.
Alex introduces me to all his friends, and they all think it's wicked that my head is shaved. I almost tell them that I did it to look like Riddick, but I'm not that dumb. I mean, sure, Riddick is notorious and kind of famous, especially among boys my age, so it might not be too weird to bring him up. But, at the same time, I don't want anyone to start making connections between Riddick and the new bald guy working down at the spaceport.
"What do you have now?" Alex asks after history.
He frowns. "Good luck. We're all doing gymnastics right now, and Tiffany takes private classes. And gloats a lot." Alex rolls his eyes. "I used to go out with her, but she's really hard to take. And not all that cute."
"I don't know," I say. "She seems really pretty to me."
"Naw. I like girls with real huge eyes." And then, flashing me that huge grin again, he lops off down the hall with his friends, shouting, "See you at lunch, Jack!"
I watch him go. Shake my head. "He's kind of weird," I say to myself. Then I glance around to make sure no one heard me. Bad enough I was the weird bald kid with a boy's name. I didn't need to be the weird bald kid with a boy's name who talked to herself.
Tiffany and three of her friends are in the locker room when I get there. They look at me when I walk in. The hangers on turn and start giggling. Whispering. Point.
I ignore them. Ignore Tiffany, too, just go to my locker and palm it open. While I stuff my books inside, I wonder if maybe I should say something to her. Or at least smile. She was sorta nice in class. At least she smiled at me. And, as far as I could tell, she hadn't once giggled or whispered about me. Not like the others. Maybe Alex was wrong and she wasn't so bad.
But I didn't know what to say to her. Or how to say it. She was so pretty. And bigger than me. Not like Riddick or anything, of course. But big and womanly. Big hips and boobs. She weighed more. I could break her neck, throw her to the floor, beat her up, but I didn't know how to talk to her.
I sigh and start to change clothes.
"Hey," Tiffany says.
Startled, I turn. My shirt is halfway up. I drop it, because I didn't wear the pretty bra and I don't want her to say anything about it. "Um. Hey."
"I'm Tiffany," she says, all smiles and pretty red braids. "Welcome to our school, Jack."
"Thanks." She actually seems kind of nice.
"This is Anne and Jeniece. We're best friends, and since you don't know many people, we thought we'd invite you to sit with us at lunch?"
"Oh, um. Thanks. But Alex already invited me to eat with him."
Tiffany's perfect nose wrinkled and she leaned forward. "Between you and me? Alex is an ass. I don't know what his problem is, but one things for sure, he's a complete child. I mean, he's cute and all, but he's a total bore. Besides. You don't want people to start thinking you're some kind of lap licker, do you?"
I blink, completely lost. "Lap... licker?"
Jeniece giggles loudly. "Yeah, you know. Like a girl who does other girls? It's so gross!"
"You already look like one, you know," Anne adds. "Because you're bald. You look like a boy, and everyone knows that a girl who looks like a boy, acts like a boy, too."
I really don't understand. Like, 'doing' a girl. I had a feeling they weren't talking about ghosting someone.
"So?" I finally say. "I mean, I guess I act like a boy. I like playing rough sports and stuff. And you know what? I like my hair like this."
The two girls giggled nastily behind their heads, but Tiffany was looking at me with her head cocked and eyes narrowed. "You really have no idea what we're talking about, do you? You're, like, a complete innocent. A baby."
I almost tell her that anyone who's killed two grown men and survived a pitch black planet filled with monsters who wanted to eat me wasn't innocent at all, but I managed to bite my tongue. Instead, I just lifted my head and told her, "You know, you may not like Alex, but at least he doesn't make fun of me."
"Oh, just wait, sweetie," she told me, all pitying-like. "He falls in love quickly, but when he decides he doesn't like you anymore, he trashes your reputation faster than anything. Good luck. Come on, girls." Then, braids swinging down her back, Tiffany swaggered off.
I take back my earlier thought. Tiffany is a bitch, and I want to... I don't know. Show her up or something. Grind my heel in her face. Make her take her pretty face and her stupid friends and go cry in a corner because I'm better than her.
Turns out, I'm almost right. Sort of. Alex was right and Tiffany is good at gymnastics. But so am I. Thanks to Riddick and his training, I able to do everything the teachers asks me to. She even moves me to the top group, which Tiffany is in.
"You're fantastic, Jack!" Ms. Hoover, the gym teacher, marvels after I complete a cartwheel, front flip, back handspring combination on the balance beam. "And fearless! It took Anne two months before she could walk across it. And you've never had formal training?"
"No, ma'am," I say, blushing.
"You must join the team," she says. "We need talent such as yours."
"I'll ask. Maybe."
Both Anne and Jeniece glower at me as we change and get ready for lunch, but Tiffany seems more thoughtful than anything. She even says bye to me when she leaves.
Alex is waiting for me outside the locker room. He's watching Tiffany and the other girls walk down the hall. "Was gym awful? If she was, don't think anything of it. Anne's her friend, and Tiffany made her cry ever day during gym when they started gymnastics. So don't, like, let her get you down."
"Actually, no. I mean, she was kind of mean in the locker room, but I'm good at gymnastics." My cheeks heat when I say this, and I can't stop grinning. It'd felt good to be good at something. Like maybe I might have a place here.
"Really?" Alex seems surprised.
"Ms. Hoover wants me to join the team," I say.
Alex's eyes light up and he bounces. "That's great! Tiffany really needs to have someone teach her that she's not the goddess of the universe."
"What's your deal? I mean, why do you dislike her so much?"
Alex shrugs. "She broke my heart and then trampled all over it. So, I want to get her back."
I look at him. "How did she... break your heart?" I ask. I'm fairly certain that he doesn't mean it literally. I'd heard enough people talking about broken hearts, but I wasn't sure how it was done. I'd always tuned out for that.
"Um, well. We were dating. And then she started dating this other guy. Only, they were like making out all the time. At school, and everyone knew but me."
I have to ask. "Making out?"
"Yeah. Kissing and necking. I heard she actually took her shirt off this time they were in the janitor's closet. Bitch never did that for me. So. We broke up. And it hurt. A lot. She hurt me."
He shrugs. "I'm over it now. But I'd still like to see her get what she deserves."
Rich kids are... petty. I can't imagine being upset over some girl for something like that. I mean, like, when they didn't hurt you or steal something from you. I don't understand why he was so upset. I don't understand the whole thing. I can barely wrap my mind around what he's talking about. Making out and kissing and dating someone.
I want to ask what dating is, but I don't. I just keep my mouth shut and go to lunch.
At lunch, they guys ask me about all the places I've been to. I don't tell them much, because I feel weird about the money thing. But what I do tell them apparently makes them think I'm hella cool, so it works. After I'm done talking, I listen to them talk and eat. Imam packed me lunch this morning--something that had never happened before--and it was delicious. I eat my food and they talk and I feel good.
I mostly feel good the rest of the day, too. School's confusing. My locker won't open after lunch. And then I get lost on the way to class. I do okay in computer programming, but then I get to art.
The teacher is this ditzy woman. Unlike the rest of the teachers here, who are all starched and perfect, this one is wearing a long skirt and a bunch of bangles on her wrists. Her hair is long and has flowers woven through it. She's dressed in every color of the rainbow.
"Today," she announces when the bell rings, "we are going to explore our minds." And then she puts on some music.
Everyone starts doing something. Some kids pull out paper and start drawing. Others get paints. A few get clay or something.
"Hey," I lean over and whisper to the person next to me. Unfortunately, it's Anne. "What are we supposed to do."
"Don't talk to me, lap licker."
I sigh. Turn to the person next to me. It's a boy. "Hey..."
"What's wrong?" the teacher asks, swooping down on me. She studies my face. Then her long, colorfully painted nails trace over my face. "My, my. You're such a pretty little thing."
I bristle. I think I bare my teeth.
She blinks, then drops her hands. "I hope you feel comfortable enough to do some modeling for us as the term progresses." She steps back.
I don't know what to say. "Uh. What am I supposed to do?"
She smiles. "Just paint or draw or create whatever you feel. Allow the music to guide you."
Weird. But I just pick up a pencil and start drawing.
What I draw, though, apparently isn't what Ms. Art Teacher wants to see. Because when she sees it, I get sent to the counselor much earlier than my appointment.
"So, Audrey. Welcome."
The counselor is a woman. She's got gray hair and wrinkles all over her face. And her hands are all knotty and veiny.
I've never seen a woman as old as her. I didn't know they lived that long.
"My name is Jack," I say. I look down at my hands.
"Jack. That's an interesting name. Where's it from?"
I shrug. "My dad called me that. I don't know why."
"How do you like school, Jack?"
"It's okay. Not like the schools I used to go to. Better, I guess. Harder."
"Have you made any friends?"
"I guess. There's this guy in some of my classes. He's nice."
"Any of the girls?"
"Ah. Well, yes. Girls your age can be rather judgmental towards people who are different from them. However, at this school, we don't allow bullying. We have a zero tolerance policy. If any of the girls bully you in any way..."
"I can take care of myself," I say, looking up at her.
She just smiles and says, "Nevertheless. If anyone bullies you, tell a teacher. Tell me."
"Yeah, sure." I slide down in my seat and pick at lint on my slacks.
"So. Jack. I spoke with your guardian yesterday, and he told me a bit about your past. He asked me to help you. To talk about what happened, and..."
"That's debatable. Do you know why you were sent in here?"
"The teacher didn't like my drawing."
She held it up. "This is not the type of drawing one generally sees coming from a thirteen year old."
I look at it. I drew a picture of my father being killed by one of the monsters. Like it did Shazza. I'm at the bottom, standing next to Riddick, but I didn't draw his face. There's blood on me. And Johns' body, which was torn apart on the ground. It's not the best drawing, but you could tell what it is.
"The boy next to me was drawing something with guns and stuff."
"Jack, I feel Miss Kuhn was inappropriate for sending you in over the picture. You're right; I've seen boys draw similar pictures without having them sent to my office. She is being sexist." She put the picture on the table. "Tell me about it."
I look at her.
She's looking at me like Imam does. All calm and unjudging.
Suddenly, I felt safe with her.
I lean forward. "That's my dad." I point at his body. "That's a monster on the ship I was on. I mean, after we crashed, the planet had all these monsters. They ate everyone but me and Imam."
"Did they eat your father?"
I shake my head. "He was already dead." I think about telling her I killed him, but I don't want to be sent to the slam. "This guy was." I point at Johns. "He was going to kill me. Give me to the monsters so he could be safe."
"How do you feel about that?"
"Fucking fantastic," I tell her, meeting her eyes.
Her lips twitch. "Of course. Is this you?"
"You don't have any hair in the picture."
I shake my head. "I want to shave my head again. Like I did on the planet."
"I like it. It's easier. Stronger."
She sat up. "Stronger?"
"I guess. People think I'm a boy." I look down, though, at my books. The uniform doesn't hide them. "Guess not any more."
"Do you feel you're weak?"
"I'm not weak." Again, I bite my tongue so I don't tell her what I can do. But I do say, "I can defend myself. I'm being taught."
"Self-defense? That's wonderful. Who's teaching of you?"
Her eyebrow hit her hairline, and I don't know why. She looks at me a long moment. "A friend? This friend?"
The way she says friend is weird. Like she means something totally different when she says it. Only I don't know what.
"Yeah, that friend. And I don't want to talk about him." I close my mouth, pressing my lips together real tight.
"Very well. Let's talk more about your father. Is that all right?"
"No." Then, "I hate him. I do. He hurt me."
And even thought I don't want to, I tell her. Everything.
Well. Everything except how he died.