Ever had a bowl of cereal call you a loser?
That’s how my day started.
Sitting alone at a table in the hotel lounge, I stared down into my bowl of Alphabet Puffs. There it was, plain as day. L-O-S-E-R. The soggy cereal bits floated innocently in my milk, like none of this had been planned ahead of time. Talk about bad omens.
I tried to ignore it. It was probably just a coincidence, right? I mean, who ever heard of divining the future out of a bowl of cereal? Cereal wasn’t going to ruin this day for me.
“Morning, Koji,” my dad called across the lobby as he strolled through the revolving glass door. His outfit drew a strange look from the receptionist as he made his way over to join me at the table. He wore his standard, olive-green flight suit with matching green combat boots—the same uniform I’d seen him in since…well, as long as I could remember. Tucking his navy blue flight cap into the big pocket on the leg of his suit, he flashed me a quick grin as he sat down. “Got everything packed up?”
I nodded to the two giant rolling suitcases next to my chair. “Yup. Ready to go.”
“Excellent.” Dad sat back and yawned, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “The traffic is murder out there. It’s going to take some getting used to. Good thing we’re close enough to your new school you can walk. It’ll take me an hour just to get to the university. And that’s on a good day.”
“Did you see our new place?”
He smiled again. “Sure did. I think you’ll like it. Your room has a great view. And, hey, no more sharing a bathroom. You’ve got your own this time.”
“Sweet!” I sprang out of my chair and seized one of my rolling bags. “Let’s go.”
Dad followed, chuckling and rolling my second bag. After checking out of the hotel, we made our way into the chilly, early morning air and caught a cab. It took a minute or two to cram my stuff into the trunk, but then we were on our way, headed for Yonkers, where our new life was supposed to begin.
The streets of New York churned and buzzed with early morning activity as they slid past the back window of the cab. I caught a glimpse of the cabbie eyeing my dad curiously in the rearview mirror. Dad had been getting those kinds of looks basically since we stepped off the plane. Growing up as a military brat, I’d always seen Dad wear flight suits. It was the standard outfit he wore to work every day. In fact, it was weirder if he wasn’t wearing it.
My dad flew F-16s for the majority of his twenty-year career in the Air Force. Basically, that meant two things. One, we moved a lot—more than ten times in all. And two, Dad worked nonstop. He’d always come straight from work to catch the end of my soccer or basketball games, to PTA meetings, or to pick me up from a friend’s house after school. He was usually late, but I didn’t mind it much. It wasn’t because he forgot or didn’t care. Dad worked hard to keep things going for us.
But here, Dad had promised me things were going to be different. This was going to be his last post, his “twilight tour,” before he retired from the Air Force for good. As the Detachment Commander for the Air Force ROTC program at his alma mater, he was supposed to have a much less stressful schedule. That meant no more long night-flying weeks when we didn’t see each other because he couldn’t get home before three in the morning. No more weekends spent doing my homework in the squadron bar, eating a lunch of jalapeño popcorn and guzzling down Gatorade while he caught up on whatever mission he needed to plan to fly the next day. No more being babysat by my grandparents or living as an awkward houseguest with another family in the squadron while he went on TDY trips to Alaska or was deployed somewhere overseas.
This was our chance to finally get comfortable, get into a routine that would last, and build a life that I wouldn’t have to say goodbye to in a few months.
Not that my life had been the norm for a military kid. All I had to do was take a look around and see that things were… different for Dad and me. Nearly all of the other families in our squadrons had moms at home. They brought in food and fresh meals for everyone at the office, hosted big parties over the holidays, cooked delicious dinners, came to every school play and sporting event to cheer on their kids, and made sure the family landed on their feet after the chaos of every move.
I didn’t have that.
It wasn’t all bad though. And it’s not like I was bitter about any of it. This was the way things were, and I was comfortable with it. Sure, the moves were rough. We ate a lot of fast food, lived in hotel rooms until we found a good place to rent, and I had to overlook the few minutes here and there where Dad might come dashing in late because he’d gotten hung up at work again. I had to start over every time with a new school, new teachers, and try to build some semblance of a social life from scratch. But I knew Dad had always done the best he could on his own. We were a team. And things here were going to be different—that’s what he’d promised me.
This time, there’d be no looming expectation of another painful goodbye when it was time to leave for the next base.
This time, it was forever.
It was six o’clock when our cab pulled up to the front of a narrow, red brick house with a big cement staircase out front. It stood on a quieter street traffic-wise, but there were still people strolling the sidewalks in both directions. Our new house was tall, narrow, and had three levels. A big, circular window looked out from the top floor.
I unloaded the bags while Dad paid the driver. Then, together, we walked up the front steps and opened the door. It swung in slowly, creaking on rusty hinges. Inside, dim morning light trickled through the wood blinds. The air had a funky, stale smell, like no one had been in here in a long time.
“Not bad for a rental, huh?” Dad said as he closed the door behind us. “There’s plenty of space. Kitchen and living room are down here. My room is on the second floor, yours is on top. There’s a little courtyard out back, too. Pretty cool, huh?”
“Yeah,” I replied, peeking into the kitchen.
It was pretty nice. Old but cozy. The dark floors were weathered, and little bits of plaster had chipped off some of the walls, but everything looked clean. At least, as much as I could see through our mess of stuff. Cardboard boxes were stacked from floor to ceiling in every room like giant, brown building blocks. The couch and both recliners still had plastic wrap around them.
We had a lot of work to do.
Dad rolled my suitcase to the base of the stairs. “I had them put your stuff up there for you and grabbed a few things from the supermarket around the corner.” He glanced down at his watch. “You’ve still got a few hours before school starts if you want to start settling in, but I need to get going.”
“Right,” I recalled. “One-hour commute.”
He groaned, his shoulders slumping and head rolling back with dread. “Anyway, you’ve got all the information for your school, right? Think you can handle it?”
Dad dropped a set of house keys into my hand, snagged an arm around my neck, and pulled me into a gruff hug. “Good. You watch out for yourself today, okay? This place isn’t like Arizona.”
“No kidding. I haven’t seen a single cactus yet.”
He was smirking when he let me go. “All right, I’m gone. Give me a call if you need anything. Oh, and lock up when you leave.”
I waved a hand dismissively. “I’ve got this.”
His expression softened and I caught a hint of sadness flickering in his eyes. “I know you do. Have a good first day, Koji.”
I waited until I heard him shut the front door before I let out a sigh. The bad cereal omen had me worried. It didn’t matter how many times I’d been the new kid—another new school filled with strangers was still daunting. And I always did something extraordinarily stupid on the first day that sealed my fate. It never failed. Sometimes it seemed like the universe was out to get me, although this was the first time it had taunted me by sending messages in my food.
I gnawed the inside of my cheek as I climbed the stairs to my new room. A new school meant a new chance and a clean slate—which normally would have been a good thing. Not for me, though. Cereal omens aside, I didn’t need any extra help making myself look stupid in public. Whether it was tripping on stairs, falling out of busses, spilling mustard down my shirt, walking into the wrong classrooms, or going the whole day with my shirt on backwards, I had a long-standing track record of terrible first days. And this was my last chance, so I couldn’t afford to screw it up. Whatever impression I made here was going to stick.
No pressure, right?
My new room was at the very top of the stairs, just where Dad had said it would be. Long and narrow, the room’s far wall was dominated by the huge round window I had seen from outside. It had a pretty awesome view of the city. The place was bigger than my room in Arizona, which was nice, and the tiny bathroom across the hall was all mine too.
The movers had already assembled my bed frame and plopped the mattress on it. My computer desk, rolling chair, and bookshelves sat against the opposite wall. Somehow the movers got the positioning just how I liked it, with the desk in the middle and the shelves on either side. Dad must have insisted on that. I still had plenty of leftover wall space to display my vintage Marvel posters and Gundam Wing wall scrolls.
A grin wriggled across my lips as I cracked open the first two boxes, surveying all my pristinely wrapped collectable action figures. The other boxes held my comic books and graphic novels. As soon as school was over, I could start setting everything up. Visions of gaming grandeur danced in my head as I pictured my TV mounted on the wall right above my dresser. I could set up my consoles, display my inventory of classic and vintage games, and Dad could help me set up the surround sound. This place would feel like home in no time.
Weaving my way through the towers of boxes labeled KOJI’S ROOM, I looked around for one that might have clothes in it. I used the house keys to cut open a few boxes and dug around to find a nice pair of jeans, a shirt that wasn’t too wrinkled, and my favorite navy blue canvas jacket. It all smelled like cardboard and packing paper, of course, but at least it was clean.
The hot water in the shower took some finesse to figure out. The handles were ancient, and I couldn’t tell which one was hot or cold because the lettering had been rubbed away probably decades ago. The old pipes made weird groaning noises when I turned them on, and I got a few blasts of ice-cold water to the face before I got the balance of hot and cold right. With that trust bridge officially in embers, I made a mental note to test the temperature with my hand before getting in next time.
I dried off with a beach towel since I couldn’t find the normal bath ones and hurried to get dressed. My favorite pair of black-and-white converse sneakers—the ones with my lucky Dragon Ball Z laces—was the perfect finishing touch to my “first day of school” ensemble. I wiped a few smudges off the toes before I went fishing through the boxes again to find my old school backpack. Lucky for me, it was in the second one I opened.
I dropped the bag on my bed and double-checked to make sure I had everything I needed: a few blank notebooks, a calculator, pens, pencils, my wallet, a spare phone charger, a little cash just in case. That should get me through the first day. I zipped up all the pockets, grabbed my phone off the desk, and charged for the door at full steam.
This was it, day one of my sophomore year, and there was no way I was going to screw it up. Look out New York: Koji Owens has arrived.
I threw open my bedroom door and immediately tripped. My face met the hardwood floor with my backpack smacking me in the back of my head on the way down. For a few seconds I just lay there, asking myself if this was the cereal again.
“No!” I declared and pushed myself up to my knees, whipping around to figure out what I’d tripped over. An uneven floorboard? A nail? One of my precious collectable action figures that had fallen out of a box?
Dead center in my bedroom doorway, like someone placed it there for me to find, sat a little package about the size of my fist, tied up neatly in a purple handkerchief. A gift? Who would leave me something like this sitting on the floor?
“Very funny, Dad!” I yelled down the stairs. “You could’ve just handed it to me!”
No answer. Dad had already gone. There was no one else home.
A tingly, nervous, swimming feeling rose in the pit of my stomach. It was a prank. It had to be. Dad had obviously snuck back into the house while I was in the shower and left it for me. I’d just missed it on my way back to my room. Right. That explained everything.
Picking up the package, I tossed it into the top drawer of my desk to open when I got home. If today went anything like all my previous first days at a new school, I might need something to cheer me up later. Then I could give Dad a hard time about making me trip.
I slid the drawer closed and bounded for the stairs, opting to slide the last few steps on the railing before I jogged for the door.
* * *
The front of Saint Bernard’s Catholic School appeared through the tapestry of modern buildings like an ancient monument to a bygone era. The high, Gothic-style towers, stone archways, and tall stained glass windows were a stark contrast to the sleek, urban area surrounding it. It was like something straight out of a superhero movie—an academy for gifted kids that could walk through walls and shoot lasers from their eyeballs. I expected to see a charming old guy in a wheelchair waiting just inside the door, ready to hand me a spandex suit and ask me what my secret superpower was. Somehow, I doubted cereal divination counted.
I hesitated on the curb across the street, watching as a bunch of other high school students about my age wearing gray-and-red uniforms filed up the steps and through the front doors.
My mouth scrunched. Dad hadn’t said anything about uniforms.
Actually, he hadn’t said much about this place at all. Only that it was supposed to be a really good school and I was lucky to have gotten in with my grades. Dad grew up in New Jersey, not far from here, so he knew a few of the admissions council members from when he was in college.
A couple of guys dressed in the school’s uniform walked past close enough to get a good look at my future attire. Pleated slacks? A blazer? They carried the same bags and even had their hair parted and combed in the same exact style. Freaky.
I swallowed hard. Was I joining a cult? My sweaty hands curled into fists. Whatever happened, I had to stay positive. This was going to work. It had to.
I took a deep breath and started toward the front steps.
A loud, scraping crash behind me made me come to a flinching halt. I turned back, staring down at a girl who’d just tumbled onto the sidewalk from the backseat of a slick black sedan. She wore the same red-and-gray uniform, and a big, oddly shaped case lay on the ground next to her.
“Hey, are you okay?” I immediately stepped over and offered a hand to help her back up. “That looks kinda heavy. Need any help?”
The girl blinked up at me in surprise. The second our eyes met, my heart started racing like I’d been electrocuted. She was gorgeous. Lengths of thick golden blond hair fell down her back in loose, shining curls, and her wide, upturned eyes were a dark, stunning shade of bluish green. She was like something cut straight out of a magazine—almost too flawless to be real.
She hesitantly put her small, slender hand in mine and let me help her to her feet. While she stood there, dusting off her pleated gray skirt and examining a fresh tear in one of her stockings, I darted over to grab the huge, hard plastic instrument case.
“I can manage it—really, you don’t have to do that,” she protested and leaned in to try to stop me. Her hand brushed mine again.
My throat went dry. Had she felt that? Our hands touching for just a moment?
I stared at her, trying to remember how to talk while my face flushed like someone had lit my hair on fire. Alarm bells screamed in my head. I had to say something—now! Before it was too late. Something cool, something suave…
“A-are you sure? I really don’t mind,” I croaked. Okay, not my best line, but at least it wasn’t embarrassing. Progress!
She studied me for a moment, those enchanting, catlike eyes darting over my features like she was trying to read my thoughts. Then I saw the corner of her mouth twitch with a brief, faint, but glorious smile. “Okay. If you insist.”
“No problem. I was, uh, just on my way inside, too. Lead the way.” I grabbed the case and started lugging it along, following her up the stairs and into the school.
“I’ve never seen you around before. Is this your first day?” She flicked those dazzling sea-green eyes back at me again, taking another hard look at my clothes.
“Uh, yeah. Actually it is.”
She opened the door to let me by first. “Welcome to Saint Bernard’s, then.”
The school’s main hall was unbelievable. My eyes roamed the domed glass ceilings, marble floors, shiny fixtures, and sloping, red-carpeted stairs, and I slowly set her case down just inside the door so I could take it in. It was like a scene from a Victorian era film. Everything was so elegant and steeped in a sense of elegant antiquity. Basically, the last place in the world a guy like me should be going to school.
Seriously, what was I doing here? Dad was out of his mind if he thought I would ever fit in at a school like this.
I was so busy turning in circles, my jaw still slack as I took it all in, that I didn’t notice the group of students watching me. That is, until one of them giggled. I stopped short, almost crashing into the golden-haired girl who had paused to watch me gaping. Embarrassing.
“You’re late.” A short, sprightly looking girl swaggered up to us with a coy smile playing over her features. Her auburn red hair was arranged into long, silky smooth pigtails, and her light brown eyes glittered with a few flecks of gold. “What happened? I thought you were going to let me copy your notes.”
The blond girl beside me ducked her head slightly. “I’m sorry. Mom and I were…” Her brow furrowed slightly as she stole a peek at me out of the corner of her eye. “It doesn’t matter.”
The redhead nudged my new acquaintance and tipped her chin in my direction. “Claire, who’s this? A friend of yours?”
Claire—so that was her name.
She blushed and shook her head, making her golden curls swish. “No. I mean, we only just met. He’s new.”
“So I see.” The redhead gave a sly little smirk as her eyes traveled down to my sneakers. “Nice shoelaces.”
Somehow, I got the impression that wasn’t really a compliment.
“Thanks,” I answered anyway.
“You should probably go to the main office and let them know you’re here,” the blonde suggested quickly. When she reached for the handle on case, her hand brushed mine again and I got a warm, tingling feeling in the pit of my stomach. Had she done that on purpose? No—surely not.
“I can handle it from here,” she added quietly, avoiding my gaze. “Thank you very much for your help. The main office is down that hall and to the left.”
I opened my mouth to reply, maybe offer my name and ask for hers, but she was gone with her redheaded friend before I could get a word out. I watched them walk away and join another group of students like I didn’t even exist. The redheaded girl’s laughter echoed around the room as they climbed the stairs and disappeared. No one looked back.
Well, so much for that.
I stuffed my hands into my pockets and followed her directions until I found the office where the headmaster’s secretary sat behind a claw-footed mahogany desk. She peered at me over the rim of her narrow reading glasses as I walked in. Once again, I got the full-body scan—like they’d never seen someone in street clothes before. She also seemed to take a similar interest in my shoelaces.
I blushed and looked down at the floor. “Uh, hey. I’m supposed to be starting today. I’m Koji Owens.”
The secretary stood and waved me over to her desk. “Yes, we were expecting you. Right this way. The headmaster would like a word with you. When you’re finished, I’ll have your materials ready and you can go get fitted for your uniforms.” She guided me to a door at the back of the room and opened it, standing by with what seemed to be a forced smile.
I hesitated, staring at the gold placard hanging on door that said HEADMASTER in gold letters.
“You’ll be just fine.” The secretary’s brow arched, as though she could sense my apprehension and wanted me to hurry up. “This meeting is routine. We are a small school, and Headmaster Ignatius likes to go over our rules and policies with new students personally.”
“O-okay.” That didn’t sound so bad. I managed to smile back at her before I went in.
The secretary shut the door behind me, and suddenly I was alone in a dimly lit office. Heavy shades covered the bay windows on the far side of the room, grand bookcases arranged with leather-bound tomes lined the walls, and polished wood plaques, awards, statuettes, and weird little figurines under glass cases were displayed throughout the room. A few of them looked like the kinds of old artifacts you’d see in a museum. Some of them even looked like they might be Egyptian, not that I was an expert.
Behind another big claw-footed desk sat a stiff-looking man in a tailored suit and tie. The clear block of glass on the edge of his desk had the name GERARD IGNATIUS engraved on it in swirling letters. He was probably around my dad’s age, but his cold, severe expression made him seem much older—like his features had been chiseled out of stone. His dark eyes glittered in the gloom as he scanned me from head to toe, finishing with disapproving snort. I guess he had noticed my shoelaces, too.
“Mr. Owens, I presume?” He beckoned for me to sit in the chair directly across from his.
The expensive leather squeaked as I sank into it. “Yes, sir.”
He opened a thick dark red folder with a golden crest leafed onto the front and studied its contents with a pursed lip. “I understand your father is a colonel in the Air Force?”
“Yes, sir,” I repeated.
“Average grades at a public high school. Below average scores on your placement tests. Average IQ, average SAT score, below-average athletic ability. Hmm,” Headmaster Ignatius murmured as he flipped through the pages. Pausing, he looked up with narrowed eyes. “Your father has quite a few friends on the admissions board, I understand. That is the only reason I can logically use to justify your presence here.”
My palms started to sweat.
The headmaster shut the folder and placed his hands on top of it. “Let me be clear: this school is not a joke. Not to me, and not to any of the students or teachers. There are expectations for your conduct and performance, and regardless of who your father knows, you’ll be expected to meet those expectations.”
“You will arrive every morning on time, no exceptions, unless you have a doctor’s excuse in hand. Even on those absent days, you’ll be responsible for making up whatever work you miss. We enforce a strict dress code and infractions will not be tolerated. No jewelry apart from a modest wristwatch or conservative religious medals is allowed. No absurd hair colors or styles. Only black dress shoes are permitted; absolutely no sneakers or tennis shoes.” He paused there, as though making a point about my footwear choice today. “You’ll be given four sets of uniforms, which are to be clean, properly ironed, and without any tears or stains. These uniforms are to be worn whenever you are on school property or attending a school-related event. There are no exceptions unless another faculty member or I give you explicit permission.”
I was starting to wonder if I should be writing any of this down.
“You’ll be issued a bag to carry your things in. Please have it monogrammed with your name in gold as soon as possible. Cell phones and other electronic devices are to be left in your locker during school hours. We have a firm policy on this. The first time you’re found using a phone in class, it will be confiscated and returned only after you’ve served an hour of detention. The second time will result in a meeting with your father. The third time will be suspension. Do you understand?”
I swallowed hard. “Yes, I understand.”
“Excellent. It goes without saying, Mr. Owens, that we are one of the finest private high schools in the country, and we intend to keep it that way. I expect you to behave like a mature, mentally competent individual.” The headmaster pulled a piece of paper out of his desk drawer, folded it crisply in half, and handed it over to me. “This is your class schedule. You’ll be required to take at least one elective class of your choosing per semester. Be aware that some of these classes also hold meetings or require practice sessions that take place outside normal school hours, and you will be expected to attend. You have until the end of the day to decide your elective. Once you’ve chosen, come back and let my secretary know.”
I glanced at the schedule quickly. Geometry, Chemistry, Economics…it all looked pretty standard. That is, until I spotted elective stuff near the bottom of the page. Fencing? Debate Team? Chess Club? Ballroom dancing? Robotics Club? Tennis?
“You are fairly tall for your age—perhaps you would perform well on the swim team,” the headmaster suggested.
I folded up the paper again and tucked it in my coat pocket. “Oh, uh, actually I can’t swim.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Not at all?”
“No, sorry.” I chewed on the inside of my cheek.
Luckily, he didn’t seem to care enough to ask why. “Well, there are plenty of other options for you to choose from.”
I assumed that was it and the meeting was over. But when I started to get up, the headmaster spoke again. “I understand you were involved in a physical altercation at your last school?”
Headmaster Ignatius leaned forward to rest his elbows on his desk. He laced his fingers together and let his chin rest on them, watching me with an ominous, probing smile. “The other boy involved was sent to the hospital. You were suspended for a month. In fact, the only thing that spared you from being expelled altogether was the fact that, according to bystanders, you had been taunted and physically assaulted previously by this particular student.”
My shoulders tensed. I hung my head and stared at the floor, my heart pounding so hard I could feel it in my fingertips. I should’ve known this would come up again.
“There are police reports, reports from the other students who saw the fight, and even one from your father. But you didn’t make a statement,” he said. “So in your own words, I want to know what happened. Why did you beat him so badly? You certainly don’t strike me as a fighter. Or at the very least, not an instigator.”
My pulse roared in my ears. Every beat made my skin feel hot and my breathing become deeper. I focused on the tops of my sneakers as I fought not to let my mind go back to that day.
“He kept getting in my face and calling me names,” I growled in spite of myself. “He told me to go back to…” I stopped, setting my jaw as I tried to keep my voice steady. “I-it doesn’t matter. He said a lot of things. None of it matters now.”
“So you hit him?”
“No. Dad told me just to ignore it; some people are just like that. But I saw him doing the same thing to another girl from our class. She’d just moved from Korea and didn’t speak much English yet. He kept grabbing her and trying to scare her. I told him to stop. So he punched me in the stomach and spit on me.” Slowly, I lifted my gaze to meet the headmaster’s. “Then I hit him.”
The headmaster and I stared at one another from across his desk while the seconds ticked by, counted noisily by the grandfather clock in the corner of the room. Every muscle in my body drew tight, and heat bloomed through my chest like wildfire. I didn’t understand what this had to do with anything. It was one fight more than a year ago. I’d never gotten into a situation like that before then, and I hadn’t done it since.
At last, Headmaster Ignatius leaned back in his seat and nodded slowly. “I see. While you may believe your actions were justified, you should take note that I will not tolerate any physical altercations like that at this school. Any infraction, regardless of the reason, will result in anyone involved being expelled.”
I squeezed the straps of my backpack until my knuckles turned white. “Yes, sir. I understand.”
“Heroics are best saved for outside the school, Mr. Owens. I can’t allow street justice to prevail here,” he said as he waved me off. “You are dismissed.”
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