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Jesse always sat in corners. For one thing, corners were often the safest place to be. Nobody could creep up behind him. He also learned a lot just sitting there and watching, although some people didn't like it when he did. When he was six or seven, one of his foster mothers, who drank six-packs of beer for her lunches, stomped over to the nook where he was sitting and walloped him over the head. "Stop looking at me like that," she said.
This morning, Jesse sat at his usual desk in the back of his ninth-grade home room at Prairie Progressive. The other students settled into their seats, chattering about their plans for the coming weekend, ignoring him. They were all midwestern white, and he was...well, he didn't know what he was, exactly, except he wasn't white and he sure wasn't midwestern. He had skin the color of weak tea, high cheekbones that could have been copied from an Aztec carving, round black eyes like an Asian, and black curly hair tinted with reddish streaks, as though it had been singed by fire. But this wasn't why they ignored him. After all, the popular star running back on the football team was one of the several Hispanics in the school, and the student body vice president was an Asian American. No, it was simply that Jesse was not only the newest student, but he was also from California, which was not just out of state but another country altogether.
Jesse stared out the window at the churning, tumbling clouds. He'd spent most of his life in Los Angeles, and he wasn't used to this prairie weather. Two months in Longview with his latest foster parents and he'd already found out the sky here had a temper like one of those wild elephants on National Geographic. Big and slow and then bam, it was charging down on you. The local weatherman had said the weather was going to be fine. Fine for a tornado, maybe. The way the light was fighting with the shadows, with clouds zooming in to close a patch of sun and a ray bursting out from another spot, it seemed as though some cosmic battle was going on. The trees closest to the window shook in the wind, but on the other side of the street, the trees were still.
"All right, everybody, let's quiet down," Mrs. Bender said. "I have some announcements."
As usual, nobody paid attention. It took Mrs. Bender several hollers at increasing volume to get everybody to shut up.
The classroom door opened. Jesse turned to look. A tanned blond girl stood to the side of the doorway, glancing into the room. She wore thick glasses and clunky earrings. Her books were stuffed into a basket of woven reeds.
"Excuse me," she said.
Mrs. Bender looked up from the papers on her desk. "Ah, there you are."
"I went down the other hall."
"Never mind, you're here." Mrs. Bender waved her in.
The room fell silent as the girl entered. Betsy Keelan whispered, "God. Fashion disaster."
Jesse didn't see anything wrong with her clothes. Half the girls in the class were wearing jeans, and as for the girl's red blouse, it had all the right curves in the right places. She stood by Mrs. Bender's desk, looking down at her strapped sandals.
Mrs. Bender stood. "Everybody, this is Honor Clarke. A new student. Her parents have just arrived from China and so she's joining us late." She smiled at the girl. "Honor, why don't you tell us something about yourself?"
Honor glanced up at Mrs. Bender. "Not China. Bali. That's in Indonesia. My dad was killed. That's why we're late." She had a slight accent, each word fully enunciated, the consonants crisply pronounced.
"Oh my, I didn't know," Mrs. Bender said. "I'm so sorry to hear that."
Andy Turnbull straightened his thick shoulders. "Indonesia? Did terrorists blow him up or something?"
Mrs. Bender gave him a warning look. "Why don't you just take a seat, Honor?"
Honor ignored her. With her forefinger, she pushed her glasses up her nose and blinked at Andy. "Actually, people said black magic. We got his body back but not his head."
Jesse jerked upright. The wall clock's tick-tick-tick swelled to fill the silence.
Mrs. Bender took a deep breath to say something, but Honor rode right over her. "My mom's an anthropologist who studies witchcraft and black magic and the Bali police thought she might have done it, so that's why they held her and why we're late. Any more questions?"
There weren't any. Mrs. Bender gestured toward the desks. "We're happy to have you, dear."
Honor walked to the back, twenty pairs of eyes following her. Out of the three empty desks, she picked the one next to Jesse. Sitting sideways on her chair, she put down her basket and took off her glasses to clean them on the hem of her blouse.
Jesse squinted at her earrings. Were those scorpions? They were scorpions, all right, little ones frozen in plastic cubes with their stingers raised. And frozen in the plastic bracelet around her wrist was a long black centipede with yellow legs and a big red head.
She put on her glasses and looked at him. Her eyes were gray, the color of thin ice over dark water. After a slight hesitation, he wriggled his fingers in welcome. It was the least he could do, now that he wasn't the newest student in the school. "Hi," he whispered.
Her eyes widened in sudden alarm. She shrank back a little and hissed words under her breath that he didn't understand, something urgent and challenging, almost hostile.
"What?" he said, more confused than offended by her reaction.
She stared at him for a moment longer, her alarm fading, and then straightened in her chair.
He lowered his hand. "Fine, then," he muttered.
Yet there was a little itch in the back of his mind. It wasn't just her odd reaction. He'd never seen her before in his life. But it was as though he knew this girl from somewhere.Copyright © 2008 by Richard Lewis