Baljeet leaned down and switched his alarm clock off seconds before it went off itself. There was no point in listening to it go off when he was already awake. People often asked him why he even bothered setting the alarm if he was always up before it went off, but his reasoning was that it was a failsafe practice in case he actually did sleep in one day. It was one of many of his quirks that nobody seemed to understand.
That done, Baljeet went back to his mirror and looked himself over one last time for the morning. His white, buttoned shirt and khaki pants were impeccably clean and his black shoes, despite now being several months old, were still in very good shape. He smiled at himself, though his satisfaction didn't last long. At fifteen years of age now, he was the very picture of a teenaged nerd; especially when compared to his friends at Danville High. To make matters worse, several of his closest friends had hooked up romantically either just before or just as the school year had begun. As much as they tried to convince him they still enjoyed his company, Baljeet had the distinct feeling that he was very much a fifth wheel to their activities anymore.
The only person he knew he could count on for any kind of attention anymore was the one person whose brand of attention he didn't want anymore. Buford van Stomm, now a rising member of the defense for Danville High's football team, still found some way to torment him on a daily basis. Just before high school had begun, Baljeet had hoped the whole bully/nerd dynamic that had defined their interactions for years was about to end. His first experience being hoisted up the Danville High flagpole by his underwear courtesy of Buford shattered any such hopes.
Just as his angst threatened to truly ruin his mood for the morning, the one thing that always managed to get him back on track wafted by his nose: the smell of his mother making paratha, a traditional Indian breakfast item, in the kitchen. Baljeet shook off his doldrums, grabbed his backpack, and headed for the kitchen where he was greeted with a glass of orange juice and a stack of three paratha sat on a plate waiting specifically for him. His friends had always thought paratha were just a version on pancakes, but only he knew their true wonder. He couldn't fathom a better breakfast item.
"Shubh prabhat, mother," he said as he put his backpack down by his chair and sat down to his breakfast. He didn't speak Hindi often, but he always made sure to say his greetings to family in their native tongue.
"Good morning to you as well, Baljeet," she replied cheerfully. "Are you ready for another wondrous day at school?"
"I certainly will be after such a wonderful breakfast. What kind are they today?"
"Why not taste one and see for yourself?"
Shrugging, Baljeet tore at the top paratha and ate. His spirits leapt as the familiar flavor of spiced potato filled his mouth.
"Aloo paratha! Mother, you know this is my favorite!"
"A four-point-zero student needs his proper nutrition, does he not? Now eat hearty, son. The school bus will arrive soon."
Needing no further prompting, Baljeet attacked his breakfast with great fervor. No matter how the day turned out now, at least there was one place he had where he could know a small form of true happiness.
Lunchtime was break time for everyone who gathered in the cafeteria except, of course, Baljeet. He had his geometry book open next to his tray and was reading it intently as he picked at his lunch. Truth be told, this was now the third time he'd re-read the book that year, but he was not about to chance losing any of the information due to laziness. He was so embroiled in his review of the book he barely registered the pair of trays that had just set down opposite him at the table.
"Much as I love mathematics, I can't say as I've ever found a geometry textbook to be all that compelling to read," Ferb said, announcing his presence to his Indian friend.
"Of course it would be exceedingly uncharacteristic of the most brilliant student in school to not be perusing the pages of some academic tome at all times," added Gretchen with a giggle.
"Hello Ferb, hello Gretchen," Baljeet responded in monotone and without looking away from the book. "I just want to finish this one page and then I will be with you."
The pair knew better than to try to convince Baljeet to abandon his typical routine and instead dug into their lunches as he finished reading. For his part, Baljeet had actually finished the page he was on as they'd arrived. He simply wanted a bit more time to steel himself for interacting with one set of his of romantically-involved friends. Ferb and Gretchen had been increasingly friendly with each other over the past few years. Their transition to high school had seen them decide to finally cement their relationship as boyfriend and girlfriend. They had been quite happily dating ever since. While he certainly bore them no ill will, their relationship was nonetheless one of two that made Baljeet resent his staunchly single status. He counted his blessings that they were the first couple to the lunch table that day and not the other one.
"Where are Phineas and Isabella," he asked as he closed his textbook. "They usually beat you guys to lunch."
Ferb and Gretchen traded a quick glance before responding.
"They had to go see Mrs. Birmingham about their roles for the school play," Ferb said, hoping it was a feasible enough excuse on his brother's behalf.
Baljeet cocked an eyebrow at the notion since he knew for a fact Phineas and Isabella had only minor parts in the production. He looked back down at his food as the truth of the situation dawned on him.
"Oh, of course," he replied.
"Yes," Ferb replied.
"Ferb, could you do me a favor in the future?"
"I can certainly try."
"Just tell me next time that they are too busy kissing in the hall to come to lunch on time."
Ferb blushed in embarrassment for being called on his small lie. "Ah. Heh. Sorry, Baljeet."
"You do not need to worry about covering up for them for my sake, Ferb. I have grown accustomed to being the only single one in the group."
"You could always try to rectify that situation yourself," Gretchen reminded him.
Baljeet narrowed his eyes as he looked at her in disbelief. "Name me one girl in this school who would be caught dead alone on a date with someone like me."
"We're not so popular that we know everyone in school, Baljeet," Ferb reminded him. "So it would be impossible for either of us to know for certain about any girls who might take a shine to you."
Gretchen nodded in agreement with her boyfriend. "Ferb's right. Besides, girls do still like guys who take initiative. I can vouch for that personally."
Baljeet sighed as he packed up his book and stood up from the table. "I appreciate your attempts to encourage me, but the facts do not lie. I am one of the biggest nerds in this school. I do not have the redeeming social graces that people like Phineas or either of you possess. I do not value or hold interest in the same things normal American teenagers do. I may not be unlikable, but I am most certainly un-dateable."
"I'm not sure 'un-dateable' is even a word, Baljeet," Gretchen noted, trying to make light of things somehow. Baljeet merely shook his head at her, picked up his tray, and left the couple at the table to await their other friends. Ferb put his hand on hers as he sensed her disappointment.
"Much as I hate to admit it, this isn't a problem we can solve for him," he told her. "Baljeet is his own worst enemy here."
"Still, maybe I'll ask around a bit with Isabella," Gretchen said. "There's got to be someone around who might take a liking to him."
Ferb smiled at her. "Never one to give up, are you?"
"I'm still a Fireside Girl at heart, even if I've long since retired my sash," She replied with a smile.
Baljeet headed for his locker after dropping off his tray, doing his best to ignore all the various couples that dotted the cafeteria and lined the halls. He reached his locker, spun the combination lock on it through its sequence, and opened it to switch his books out. What he discovered inside was completely mystifying.
Atop his perfectly stacked books sat a sandwich bag full of cookies with a note underneath written on lavender-colored stationery. He slid the note out from underneath the cookies and opened it. The writing was unmistakably feminine.
"No matter what," he said, reading the letter quietly to himself, "know that I will always take care of you. Please enjoy the cookies, I made them myself. I will try to have something new for you later this week. Love…"
Baljeet couldn't make out the signature as it looked to be in either Chinese or Japanese; neither of which he understood. He cautiously took the cookies out of his locker, opened the bag and sniffed them. They certainly smelled like delicious, homemade cookies. He took one out and bit into it.
"Wow, these are fantastic," he said to himself. "Well, whoever you are, thank you for the cookies. They are quite delicious and definitely making this day a little better for me."
Baljeet closed his locker and continued to enjoy the cookies as he headed for his study hall. A female figure peered out from behind the row of lockers and watched him leave. She smiled and found herself blushing. Her attempt at improving his day had been a success. She quickly headed back in the opposite direction and began thinking about what her next anonymous gesture would be.
Something felt off. Buford couldn't put his finger on it, but something was out of sorts. No matter how hard he hit the tackling dummy during football practice, he couldn't shake that feeling one bit. After hitting the showers and saying his goodbyes to the team for the day, he decided to simply get his mind off of the matter by paying a bully-style visit to his longtime nerd.
Ironically, it was only upon said visit that he found out what it was that was off. Baljeet was, for the first time in recent memory, actually smiling when he found him waiting to be picked up by his mother after school.
"What's got you in such a good mood, nerd," he asked brusquely.
"Oh, hello Buford," Baljeet replied in his typical pleasant demeanor. "Nothing special, things have just been not quite so bleak for me over the past few days."
Buford growled a bit. "I'm not buyin' it, so you better come clean unless you wanna enjoy the view from the flagpole again."
"I have no reason to lie to you, Buford," Baljeet said with a mildly frustrated sigh. "If you are so intent on tormenting me as always then please do so quickly."
Now Buford was certain something was going on that Baljeet was keeping from him. What's more, whatever it was had given Baljeet a level of happiness that eclipsed the threat of pain from bullying. There were a limited number of things that could do that, so Buford grasped for what was probably the least likely reason.
"You'd better not have actually gotten a girlfriend," Buford commented, folding his arms.
"You know I do not," Baljeet replied. "At least, not yet."
"I did not stutter, did I?"
"'Jeet, we've been over this before. Ain't no way any girl in this school's gonna date you willingly."
Baljeet shrugged at him. "I am not so certain of that anymore."
"And why's that?"
"It is just a feeling I have," Baljeet said, darting his eyes away from Buford as he spoke. Buford had known Baljeet long enough to know when he did that he was either lying or at least withholding information.
"You're a nerd," Buford said, looming over his target. "Nerds don't get feelings about stuff like this."
"Buford, I have said this to you before but I will say it again," Baljeet said as he stood up. "I have a life outside of you. Whether you choose to believe that or not is your issue. If you would like to discuss this again sometime without threatening me, perhaps I will be more willing to tell you the reason for this feeling I have about this matter; however, my mother has arrived and it is time for me to go home."
Buford watched in disbelief as Baljeet got into his mother's car without further word and headed home. He gritted his teeth watching his nerd drive off home. For once, he realized that brute force wasn't going to get him his answers. A call to Phineas was in order.
As he rode off in the back of his mother's car, Baljeet fished the latest note from his mystery admirer from his pants pocket. This was now the third time he'd gotten such a note along with baked treats of some sort. He was still hesitant to let himself get used to it, but it was nonetheless uplifting in a way he had never experienced before. He only wished he knew who the admirer actually was.
Something was up, that much was clear to everyone at this point. At first, Phineas had dismissed the concerned phone call from Buford about Baljeet's apparent change in attitude as a one-time anomaly. That was now clearly not the case. For the past week, Baljeet seemed to actually be bordering on being cheerful. Any attempts to get the truth out of him as to what was going on had fallen flat. Here, again, was lunchtime and as Phineas and Isabella approached the table they saw Baljeet practically hiding behind his history textbook, which was propped up on the table. Isabella quickly whispered to Phineas, who nodded his approval to her plan and quickly moved to address his longtime friend.
"Heya Baljeet," he said, setting his lunch tray down. "How's the history re-read going?"
"Not bad," Baljeet replied without looking up from the book. "I am up to the Civil War. It is always quite an interesting read."
"Hmm…I don't remember any lavender-colored paper in our history book talking about the Civil War," Isabella added, peeking over Baljeet's shoulder into his book.
Suddenly panicking, Baljeet slammed the book shut and put it down in front of him with his hands atop it protectively.
"'Jeet, we're just curious," Phineas told him calmly. "You've been acting, well, happy. Don't get me wrong, it's a great change for you, but we just want to know why."
"We're all friends here, Baljeet," Isabella added, sitting next to him for the moment. "Won't you please share your secret with us?"
"Just…please do not tell Buford," Baljeet said slowly. "I do not want this getting ruined."
Phineas smiled at the concerned Indian boy and nodded at him. "If Buford finds out it'll be from you, man. Not us. I promise."
Baljeet nodded in consent and re-opened his book to reveal the latest letter he'd found in his locker. Isabella picked it up and looked it over carefully.
"Wow," she said, rather impressed. "No doubt about it, Baljeet, this is definitely from a girl; one who's apparently crazy about you."
"I have no idea who, though," Baljeet told her. "She signs her name on every note, but I cannot read it. It is in either Chinese or Japanese, I think."
"She mentions treats in the note. What treats?"
Baljeet fished the latest baked gift he'd received from his backpack. This time it was a plastic container that, when opened, revealed a pair of chocolate-frosted cupcakes inside with a cherry atop each one.
"Those look tasty," Phineas noted. "They look kinda familiar, though."
"They should," Isabella told him. "Those are Fireside Girl cupcakes."
"Great," Baljeet said disappointedly. "So my admirer was lying about making everything herself."
"No, I doubt that," Isabella said, picking up one of the cupcakes. "It's true the bulk of the cupcakes the girls sell are made at the factory, but to qualify to sell them you first have to prove that you can make them yourself. These cupcakes don't look as perfect as the factory ones, so they have to be homemade."
"So 'Jeet's admirer is a Fireside Girl, then," Phineas said conclusively.
"Well, former Fireside Girl," Isabella added, correcting him. "Where and when do you get the letters and goods, Baljeet?"
"That is the slightly disconcerting part of all of this," Baljeet admitted. "They are always in my locker waiting for me. I have a combination lock on the door and I have never told anyone the combination."
"So it's a former Fireside Girl with considerable baking skills, of Chinese or Japanese descent, and who has their 'Safecracker' patch," Isabella said, compiling all the clues. She considered the information briefly and then nodded to herself. "I think I know who it may be, Baljeet."
"Really," Baljeet replied hopefully. "Who is it, then?"
"I want to confirm it myself first, though. Can you give me a day or so?"
Baljeet frowned momentarily, but nodded in consent. "I suppose I can wait a little longer."
"Trust me, you have nothing to worry about," Isabella told him reassuringly. "I'll go with Gretchen and see what the deal is. Who knows? Maybe we can talk her into coming out of her shell."
Baljeet nodded again, but remained silent for the remainder of the lunch hour once Ferb and Gretchen arrived at the table. He ate his lunch and enjoyed his cupcakes, hoping that someday soon he'd be able to thank the creator of such delicious treats in person, and perhaps even spend some time with them.