She took me to school. I knew she would. I mean, how likely was it that she would drive me off on a quest to find my mother? Besides, I figured I could just head toward the door then slip away after she drove off.
But what I didn’t know—what I couldn’t imagine, even though everyone is always saying, “You’re so negative!” all the time—is that my grandmother would be at school, waiting for me.
She was standing on the steps with the principal, talking. “What’s she doing here?” I cried. “I thought she had business!”
“I think her business right now is you. She’s just trying to help, sweetheart,” Doris said. “Go on in. I’m sure it’s not as bad as you think.”
She was right. It was worse.
I tried not to yell when I got up to them. I tried to smile and look like a nice, regular kid, instead of someone desperate to get out, while old ladies watched my every move. “Grandma!” I said in my voice that was trying to sound OK. “What are you doing here?”
“She’s telling me that you’ve been a bit upset, lately, Alyssa.” The principal tilted her head and look at me like she was trying to figure out how much of what my grandmother said was true. “A new school can be a difficult adjustment.”
“I’m adjusting fine,” I said. “OK, so Grandma, you can go home now.”
“You must watch her,” my grandmother said.
“She will try to sneak away today, but you must not let her.”
My face was burning. A bunch of kids walking in to school stared. “Grandma, please,” I said.
“Thank you for letting us know, Mrs. Cohen. Alyssa, you won’t try to sneak away today, will you?” They both looked at me.
“No,” I said.
My grandmother gave me a long warning stare. “You be good, Alyssa!”
“I will,” I muttered, because it was the only thing that could ever make her go away, then she walked down the stairs, and Ms. Darton took me inside.
“It can be hard starting in the middle of the year,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“And I hear you’re worried about your mother, but I’m sure she’s fine.”
“I’m sure,” I said. But all I could think about was: Adam and Emily? They didn’t mean the Adam and Emily in my class, did they? I had a terrible feeling that they did. Which was: not good. Adam? A giant fat kid who hadn’t spoken once in the whole two weeks since I’d been there, only sat there, looked sad, and gone to detention every single day. Emily? Perfect and snotty, she raised her hand no matter if all the teacher asked was “What’s the date?” She’d already made it pretty clear that she wanted nothing to do with me. But then, so had everyone.
Ms. Darton walked with me all the way to homeroom, and dumped me there. I eyed Emily, in the front row, even though it was just homeroom, and Adam, in the back, looking out the window, his face big and sad. When homeroom ended we poured into the hallway, everyone heading towards math class. Emily went into the hall first—of course—, Adam last, but I made my move. I stood in front of Emily, blocking her when she tried to go around me, until Adam caught up with us, and then I said, “Hey, you guys?” I said it loud enough for them to hear, but quiet enough to make it clear that I didn’t necessarily want other people to hear me. I gave them both a big smile, because I figured if I looked friendly it would help. It didn’t work. No response—nothing. Adam didn’t even look at either of us. Emily just ducked around me, and kept walking. “Hey,” I said a little louder.
“Look, I’m sorry,” Emily wouldn’t look at me when she talked. She just kept going straight ahead. “But we have to get to class, I don’t want to be late.”
“Right, OK.” I tried to think of what might make them help me find my mother. I tried to think of some way to even begin to talk about it. “So, wait, Adam, Emily: Do you guys know anything about…lizards?”
That made her look at me. Like I was crazy, though. “Uh, lizards? No.” She started walking faster. I had to move fast to keep up.
“OK.” I figured: forget about the lizards. And why was I even listening to the lizards anyway? Did I want to go crazy? No, I didn’t. What I needed to do was talk to my mother, or even better, Phoebe, and figure out what was going on. “OK. Do you have a phone I can use? Because I actually really need to get in touch with—.”
Emily stopped then, and took a deep breath. “Look, I’m sure you need friends or whatever, but I’m just telling you right now: I am not getting into trouble over you.” She looked at me to make sure I got it, then started walking again.
I hurried to keep up with her, looking behind me to where Adam was. “You don’t need to get in trouble over me.” I tried to smile again. My mom always tells me I look nicer when I smile. “Look.” My voice shook a little. “I—just, things are a little weird right now, but—are there other kids named Adam and Emily in the school?”
Emily looked at me like I was as crazy as I sounded, shook her head, and walked faster, so I tried him. “Look, Adam.” I grabbed his arm but they both looked so freaked out by that that I dropped it. “Sorry, I don’t mean to offend you or anything, but—you know something, right? Like about lizards?” My voice got smaller. “Or how to get to a phone? It’s really important. Please.”
He opened his mouth but before he could say anything Emily said, “He’s not going to help you, because he doesn’t even talk to anyone anymore, and I’m not doing this.”
“Alyssa.” We all looked up to see Ms. Darton standing in front of us. Aren’t principals supposed to wait in their offices for bad kids to get sent to them? “Is there a problem here?” All three of us shook our heads, even Adam. She smiled at us. We went into the next class.
By the end of the class I was panicking. Because what was I supposed to do? Adam and Emily walked out, and I followed them stupidly to the lunchroom, which was—well, it was a middle school lunchroom. Gross. Loud. Horrible. “Please,” I said to Emily, because at least she talked back to me. “I’m begging you. Please, just sit down with me and Adam and talk to me.”
She sighed, and looked around the lunchroom. I noticed that there wasn’t exactly a table full of people begging her to sit with them, even though she kept looking and looking, and for a second I felt bad for her. “Fine,” she said. “This once.” Adam, as usual, didn’t say anything, he just shrugged, and sat down at a table as far away from everything as he could. We sat down with him, and I sat there trying to figure out exactly what to say, while Emily and Adam ate their gross lunch. I was so stressed out that it took me a moment to realize what was happening. First a milk carton landed near my tray. But you know—weird things happen in lunchrooms. No one else was sitting at the table but us—Adam at one end with his loaded-up tray, and Emily shrunken all the way at the other end so she could pretend she wasn’t sitting with us. I was eating as much and as fast as possible, because with any luck I would be traveling soon, and I’d need the energy.
But then another milk carton landed, milk flying out as it hit. Then a spray of rice or something, small and hard and wet. One of them hit my upper arm and it stung. And I thought: someone is throwing garbage at us. Wait, what?
“Oooh, you hit his girlfriend!” someone yelled from behind me.
“Hey, Adam,” a kid called, “Are you mad cause we hit your girlfriend? Are you going to kill us, Adam?” Shrieks of laughter. Adam’s face stayed still. For a second he closed his eyes, but then he opened them again, and kept eating.
I looked over at Emily and she narrowed her eyes at me like it was my fault. A dirty rolled-up napkin landed on Adam’s tray, and a small cheer went up. Adam looked at it, then picked it up, set it on the table next to the milk cartons, and kept on eating. He almost looked at me, but not quite.
“Ooooh! Don’t hurt me, Adam!” a boy trilled from another table, a light-skinned black boy with a baseball hat and narrow hazel eyes. He was wearing a giant T-shirt with food stains on it that said In Your FACE! and he had weird silvery traces on his skin, like dried mud.
“Go up to him, Ernesto,” someone said. “Just walk right up! I dare you.”
I turned to look at him, but he just stared back at me. “Hey, Adam,” he said. “You’ve got two girlfriends.”
Adam was looking at his tray. “You can just ignore them,” I told him, because that’s what everyone tells you even though it’s totally impossible. But he didn’t say anything.
Ernesto came a little closer. Close enough that I could have hit him if I wanted to. Which I kind of did, except that I had to remind myself that I had other things I needed to focus on. “Hey, Adam,” he said. Then he reached over and jabbed Adam in his big, soft shoulder, and jumped away.
A thrilled cheer rose up behind us. Adam turned slowly and looked at Ernesto. If someone ever looked at me like that I would say, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” about a million times, and never do anything like that again. But Ernesto just looked excited and scared and mean. Then before anything could really happen, the lunch ladies yelled, “Outside!”
What I’d thought was the lunchroom wall turned out to be a set of metal doors. They flung open to the outside, and hot air and sun poured in through the air conditioning. Kids dumped their food in the garbage, ditched their trays and moved towards the open doors like they were magically drawn to the light. I stopped thinking about lunch and garbage and jerks, because I know a chance when I see it. I leaned towards Adam and Emily. “OK, I know I sound totally crazy and you have no reason to do anything I say or even be nice to me, but can you just help me find someone’s phone? Somewhere? I just really need some help right now.”
Kids swarmed past us, while the two of them stared at me. “We’re not allowed to use cell phone on school property,” Emily said, “and I’m not going to get in trouble—.”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it, you’re not going to get into trouble—.”
“There’re some payphones down in the basement,” Adam said. His voice was higher than I’d expected, and sort of rough, like it was rusty. “They’re near the detention room. I can take you down there.”
We both stared at him for a second, I guess because I was starting to think he would never talk, but then I saw Emily getting ready to say no, so I said, “Payphones! Yes!”
“I think it’s a mistake,” Emily said, but we both ignored her.
“So fine,” I said. “You don’t have to come.”
“Wait,” Adam said to both of us. Ernesto streamed by with his group of screaming kids. The lunchroom was emptying fast.
“I should probably do something else,” Emily said, her voice quiet and tense. “I should go to study hall, or do my math.”
Kids kept pouring past us, followed by lunch ladies and security guards, until they were all standing by the open doors. “OK, now.” Adam stood up and collected all the thrown food on his tray. He walked slowly, and dumped it into the garbage, then slipped along the wall in the opposite direction, slow and quiet. I followed him, trying to walk as calmly as he did, and Emily followed us, looking nervous and excited at the same time. When we got to the far corner of the lunchroom, Adam opened a door. We could hear the shouts and whoops of everyone running around outside. The cafeteria, which had been crazy full, was almost empty. “Come on,” Adam said. “If you still want to.” And I slipped through the door after him, Emily right behind me.