I sat in fourth-period social studies, spacing out. The three branches of government were boring. We'd done them last year at my old school, and I figured I already knew all there was to know about them. I had much more important things to worry about. I needed to fill my quota by the end of the day or I might lose my job, and I did not want that to happen under any circumstances. Not that I particularly liked my job, but someone had to do it, and I figured it was best for everyone involved if that someone happened to be me. I moved to Oceanside, California at the start of this school year. The kids at Oceanside Middle School are nice kids, on the whole, but sometimes they get some strange ideas.
From what I understand, one of them had the idea that Oceanside wasn't a 'real' school because it lacked certain things. The kids decided that at the start of this school year, which was just last week, that they'd have a meeting at the first break to decide who got what position. Since I was the 'new kid' I knew I'd be a prime candidate for the new 'class bully' to pick on. Add that to the fact that I'm slight and kind of brainy, and there's no way I'd be safe. I've read enough books to know how these things work. There was only one way for me to avoid a life of torture, so even though I'm usually a really nice guy, as soon as I knew what was going on, I applied for the position of class bully. I was scared that I wouldn't get it because someone had to be the new kid, but Evelyn Bates, a girl who's lived in Oceanside her whole life, was delighted at the opportunity. "Can I be the new kid? Can I? Oh, can I?" She'd asked excitedly. "I've always wanted to be the new kid!"
"Great," Winston Turner, the self-appointed class president, had said. "So we've got a bully and a new kid. Next! Who wants to be the class clown?"
Winston may or may not have been the one who had the idea, but either way, he was coordinating it. We had a class president, a class clown, a class bully, a class gossip, a class weirdo, a new kid, a teachers' pet (and no, the teachers didn't get to pick that one, Winston did), a class snob... I didn't even know all the jobs involved in making Oceanside into a 'normal' school. Don't tell Winston I said this, but it's definitely not normal.
"Mr Gardner!" The voice of my social studies teacher broke me out of my thoughts like a laser cutter breaking me out of a jail cell, except in this case I'd rather stay in the cell. "That's the third time I've asked you, young man! Are you going to answer me?"
"Um, no?" I squeaked, my face turning bright red. I looked down at my desk. I probably knew the answer to whatever Ms Kent was asking, but without knowing the question, I had no chance of getting it right, so I decided I wouldn't answer.
"Correct." Ms Kent surprised me by smiling, though her smile looked a little vicious to me. "I see you were paying attention after all. Please do a better job of showing that in the future. Madison, can you tell me which branch does?"
"Legislative?" Madison asked.
Ms Kent smiled again. "Excellent."
As Ms Kent went back to explaining which branch did what and who was part of each branch, someone pushed a note onto my desk. I didn't bother reading it. I didn't want to get in more trouble, and it was probably blank anyway. As part of the campaign to make Oceanside a normal school, Winston had decided that people needed to pass notes way more often, so people had taken to passing blank pieces of paper around the classroom. I felt someone glaring at me. Glancing over my shoulder to see who it was, I spotted Winston, looking mad. I quickly passed the note to the person on my other side to make him stop, but regretted it when I remembered: Georgia was the class goody-goody. Oops. Just as she started waving her hand in the air, to tell on me, no doubt, the bell rang. Lunchtime! I jumped out of my seat and raced for the hallway with everyone else. In the flow of students hurrying out of class, Winston brushed against me. "You are not the class dreamer," he muttered.
"We have a class dreamer?!"
"Of course." Winston looked smug as he vanished from sight among the throng of students.
When I'd gone what I judged to be a safe enough distance, I slowed my pace to a walk. We weren't supposed to hurry to the cafeteria because we were all supposed to hate school food. The cafeteria food was actually pretty good, but when Winston found he couldn't persuade the lunch ladies to make disgusting slop he settled for having everyone except the class weirdo pretend to hate it.
"Miles!" I turned around to see who had called me. It was Evelyn, hurrying to catch up. "Can you show me the cafeteria? The hallways are sooo confusing, and I still can't find my way." Baloney. Evelyn had been going to Oceanside Middle School since fifth grade, and Oceanside Elementary before that. If any seventh-grader was ever used to the sprawling, twisting hallways in the school, she was. I wasn't sure if she was just enjoying her new status as new kid or if she was actually trying to help me find my way. I was reasonably sure I could find my way on my own, but being class bully before I really had any friends was a lonely job. Still, I knew I wasn't supposed to help people. I sighed.
"Evelyn, I'm a bully. You know I'm not supposed to help people. Find it on your own."
"But this place is so confusing! I'll get lost!"
"I can't. I have to figure out a way to bully at least three more people before the end of the day or I might lose my job."
"Hmm." Evelyn grinned. "Show me the way to the cafeteria and I'll help you with that."
I didn't want to accept her help, but I was kind of desperate. I'm usually pretty creative, but coming up with ways to bully people without alienating them was proving much harder than I thought it would be. I didn't want to lose any potential friends. "What sort of help?" I hoped Winston wouldn't find out, but if he did I was planning to tell him that any good bully needs a few henchmen.
"You can force me to eat that disgusting cafeteria food!" Evelyn suggested as she twirled her brown ponytail thoughtfully. "I can say I brought lunch from home but you stole it and left me no choice."
"Fine." I had to admit it was a good idea. This way, Winston couldn't say it wasn't good enough because he was the one who had told everyone to hate the cafeteria food, and anyway, stealing lunches was a classic bully move. There was one problem, however. "What about the fact that you didn't bring lunch from home? I can't skip lunch!"
"Say you're still hungry." It seemed that Evelyn had an answer for everything. "Or that you stole my lunch out of spite but couldn't eat it because it had cooties or something." Cooties. Now that was a good idea. Of course I knew that cooties don't really exist, but I was willing to bet they were all over the place in 'normal' schools.
"Fine," I agreed at last, and we started the trek to the cafeteria. "Just so we have our story straight, I chucked your lunch in the garbage can in the hallway." I pointed to the nearest trash receptacle. "That one."
When we got to the cafeteria, we each grabbed a tray and filled it with the meal of the day: a roll, an apple, milk, and macaroni. Evelyn and I found seats together. I claimed it was so I could keep bullying her, but we both knew it was because I didn't have anyone else to sit with and I was tired of sitting alone.
“Two more victims to find today,” I said, biting into my steaming roll. The roll was soft, chewy, and delicious. “Ew.”
“Ew,” Evelyn agreed, making a convincing face. If I didn’t know there was no way possible that she actually disliked it, I’d have been taken in. That girl was a good actor. “You’re the worst.”
What? What had I done? Oh, right. “That’s what you get for existing, newbie.” It wasn’t great, as threatening remarks go, but from what I’ve read, bullies aren’t supposed to have the best one-liners.
A scrawny kid with glasses came up to us. It was Avery Wright, the class weirdo. I didn’t know him too well, but based on what I’d observed in class, he seemed pretty smart. I figured he might have been made class smart-person or class brain or something like that, but Winston obviously thought that was part of being class president and refused to let anyone else have the title. So Avery was made class weirdo instead. It figured. He wasn’t even particularly weird, at least not more than any normal kid.
“Miles, I need a favour,” Avery began, sitting down across from me. He had brought his lunch from home in a brown paper bag, and he crinkled and uncrinkled the paper as he spoke.
“I can’t help people,” I reminded him. “I’m the bully.” It really was a pity. Under different circumstances, Avery and I might have been good friends. He seemed like my kind of guy.
“That’s what I need help with.” Apparently just crinkling his lunch bag wasn’t enough anymore, because Avery started ripping small bits of it off the edges instead. The poor guy looked really upset about something.
I sighed. I was sick of not being allowed to help people with things, but there was nothing I could do. I didn’t want to lose my job. Then his words registered in my head. Maybe there was a way I could help him, after all. “What do you need, Avery?”
“Can you steal my lunch? I really hate tuna.”
That was it? Why had he been so nervous about asking me? I was a bully. It was my job to steal lunches, and there was no harm in doing it if the kid asked me to.
“You’re the class weirdo,” Evelyn reminded Avery. “Why do you bring lunch from home if you hate it? You can get away with a lot, you know. And why are you acting so nervous?” I was wondering the same things, but I was too shy to ask.
Avery looked around the room to make sure nobody was listening. His posture immediately relaxed, and he laughed. “Acting is the keyword,” he admitted. “I overheard you two talking about quotas in the hallway, and I thought I would help you out.” Avery grinned and opened his lunch bag enough so we could both see it was empty.
“The nervousness was a bit much,” Evelyn told him while I was trying to find words to express myself. Here I was, a bully and a new kid, though not technically the new kid, and this guy who barely knew me was coming over to me to help me out, pretending the whole time that I was doing him a favour. I was really touched, but I didn’t know how to express it. Luckily for me, I didn’t have to figure it out so quickly. Evelyn was still talking. “That was some good acting,” she was saying when I tuned in again. Coming from Evelyn, that must have been a big compliment. Based on what I had seen in the last week, she knew what good acting was.
“I’ll do it,” I agreed suddenly, playing with my macaroni. “Thanks.” As much as I hated to, I added, “But you should probably go. You probably shouldn’t be seen talking to me.”
“Hey, I’m the class weirdo,” Avery reminded me, parroting Evelyn. “I can get away with a lot.” He grinned, and I grinned back.
“Thanks,” I said again. I grabbed Avery’s lunch bag away from him, then jumped up and darted out of reach.
“Hey, give that back!” Avery was immediately back in the role of scared victim.
I gave him my most menacing leer, but I could tell it wasn’t very good. “Come and get it, then.”
He got up and chased me around the lunchroom. I let him almost catch up several times, then sped out of reach again. When we’d both had enough, I chucked the empty bag into a trash can. “Go digging for it if you want it that much!”
Avery gave me a sour look, then turned and trudged away. It was so realistic that I felt guilty even though I knew it was all an act.
When I got back to the table where I’d left my lunch, Avery was already there, talking to Evelyn. I slid into my seat and picked up my fork. “How’d I do?”
“Okay, but you’ve got to work on that leer,” Avery told me. “And you should have tripped me at least once. I could have taken it.”
“Letting him almost catch up was a good idea,” Evelyn added. “You’ve got to bully one more person today, right? We’ll make sure that performance is even better.”
I considered trying to convince them to leave again. Winston wouldn’t be happy about them staying. A bully wasn’t supposed to be friends with his victims. On the other hand, as everyone kept pointing out, Avery was the class weirdo. And Evelyn was the new kid, so she could claim she didn’t know any better yet. Besides, even if I told them to go, I didn’t think they would listen, and anyway, I didn’t want them to. I might have been the class bully, but that didn’t mean I had to actually bully anyone. After all, if pretending to hate the cafeteria food was good enough, pretending to bully people should be good enough, too. And I may not have been the best actor, but I knew two people who would only be too happy to help me learn.