Ryan stepped out of his car, holding onto his backpack strap. His heart was beating wildly, and his stomach was full of butterflies. He barely heard his mom tell him to have a good day, and later, he wasn’t sure if he had responded or not. He walked up to the front doors of his new school, the butterflies migrating up to his throat. He pushed open the big black doors, taking in all that was around him. Groups of kids huddled around tables, laughing and talking. It was awfully overwhelming, so Ryan slipped away to the bathrooms. He stumbled into a stall and locked the door, breathing hard. He felt like a coward, hiding in a bathroom stall, not ten minutes into his first day. He wearily looked around the stall, feeling like he was going to puke. Then his eyes landed on a framed piece of paper hanging on the door. In big, bold letters, Ryan read, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present.” -Bill Keane
Ryan stared at the quote, his mind racing. Suddenly, a spike of courage put a small smile on his face. At that moment, he decided he would treat this day, his first day back, as God’s present to him. He straightened and took a deep breath. You got this, he assured himself. He unlocked the stall door, took another deep breath, and walked out of the bathroom.
Ryan set his books on a desk near the corner of the room. He sat in the hard, black chair and tried to look busy. He wanted to make friends, but he was afraid if someone talked to him, they might think he was weird or something. So, instead, he grabbed his book and pretended to read his book. He was instead looking out of the corners of his eyes, watching the other students converse and laugh. He noticed almost all the seats were filled except the one to the left of him and the one in front of that one. Ryan’s heart shed a tear to know this, and he prayed he would make at least one friend before the end of the day. Then, he turned his gaze to his pages, but he couldn’t read the words because his eyes were brimming with tears. Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry, he told himself. Then, a couple folders and a notebook were dropped on the desk beside him. He jumped, not expecting that seat to be filled. Then, a nasally laugh rang from the person beside him.
“You’re jumpy! Can I sit here?” Ryan looked up at the kind face of the boy who was talking to him. He had messy blond hair, light brown eyes, and a large nose. He wasn’t exactly attractive, and Ryan recoiled slightly at being friends with him, if that’s even what he wanted. Then, Ryan felt a tidal wave of shame and guilt. Minutes before, he’d been praying for a friend. Now, one comes and wants to sit with him, and he wasn’t jumping up and down with excitement like he’d imagined, but instead was recoiling.
“Sure!” Ryan squeaked, his voice an octave too high. The boy smiled and sat down.
“What’s your name?” The boy asked kindly.
“Ryan. And yours?” Ryan responded.
“I’m Cooper. What’re you reading?” He asked, leaning over the desk to look at the cover. Ryan closed the book so he could see the cover, and noticed it was upside down.
“Oops,” Ryan said. “I wasn’t really reading,” he said, laughing slightly.
“I can see that! Oh cool! Harry Potter!” Cooper said enthusiastically. “Are you at the part where Snape-”
“Well, well, well,” said a girl’s voice from behind them. “Cooper and a newbie, geeking out over a silly book.” Laughs rang out.
Cooper and Ryan turned around, and three girls wearing skinny jeans and lip gloss stood in a triangle, staring them down.
“Beat it, Maya,” Cooper said meekly. The ringleader (Ryan assumed that was Maya) laughed again. “I’m sure I can beat you up,” she said. She started toward him, but an older man stepped into the room. Maya and her friends pretended like they weren’t about to beat up Cooper, and they sashayed back to their desks, talking and laughing like normal. Ryan’s eyes followed the girl on the left of Maya. She was very pretty, and she looked back over her shoulder at Ryan and Cooper. Ryan blushed ever so slightly, and it seemed to Ryan she did to. But at that moment the man walked to the front of the room, his shoes clacking on the hard floor. He was wearing a tie and jacket, and his shoes were shiny. His graying hair and beard were neatly trimmed, and his thick glasses made his eyes look very big.
“Welcome to your first day of school! I’m Mr. Barlow.” He boomed in a low voice. “I know this day is probably going to be a yawn-a-thon, because every class goes through the same procedures and blah blah blah, but just bear with me here.” The next hour, and the classes following, were very similar. Then came lunch. Ryan and Cooper, who happened to be Ryan’s lunch class, walked into the crowded cafeteria. Ryan and Cooper sat at a small, round table and opened their lunches. They started chatting about their favorite Harry Potter books, when Maya and her friends came over to their table.
“Harry Potter again?!” Maya sneered. “How boring are you guys! Glad I don’t hang out with you!” Her friends cackled like witches and walked back to their table. Ryan was surprised to see his fists and jaw clenched. Cooper huffed and looked at his lunch.
“So, their jerks I take it,” Ryan said, trying to lighten the mood.
“Yep. Ever since fifth grade,” Cooper muttered crossly. Ryan frowned, and was wondering why. He wanted to ask, but Cooper didn’t really seem in an explaining mood then. The rest of lunch was very quiet at their table, except for the occasional huff from Cooper. Ryan quickly learned that those girls weren’t the only ones who made fun of his new friend. They were the worst about it, but an occasional look in Cooper’s direction, then a malicious laugh. Ryan felt his teeth clench harder and harder each time something was done to Cooper.
A few weeks later, Ryan had finally begun to feel like he was at his school; just the same boring classes and assignments every day. His mom found a new job, and they really began to truly settle to their new life. Then came the quarterly school dance.
Ryan didn’t really like school dances, and he wasn’t planning on going. That is, until Maya’s friend (the one who was always walking on her left) approached him the day before the dance. She was about a head shorter than Ryan, with short strawberry-blond hair and hazel eyes. She was very quiet, and she seemed genuine. Then, she said the most unexpected thing to Ryan.
“Um, yeah. And you are...”
“Rowan. I... uh...was wondering if you...uh...are going to go to the dance tomorrow?” Ryan blushed and looked away.
“Um...I guess so,” he answered, his palms sweating. Then her tone had a snarky undertone attached.
“Are you going with Cooper?” Ryan had had quite enough of people acting like he was lower than them, just because of an untold secret that happened in their fifth-grade year.
“Well, if there was one person in this whole school that I would want to hang out with, it would be him.” Then he grabbed his books and stormed off. He felt a little bad, but he was sick and tired of people treating him like a second-class citizen. Later, Cooper kept asking him what was wrong, but Ryan didn’t want to upset him.
Then, before they went home after school, Cooper asked if Ryan was going to the dance. Cooper wanted him to come because he was going to try asking a girl named Mia to dance, and he just wanted at least one friend there. Ryan reluctantly agreed, though he promised himself he would stay far away from Maya and Rowan.
The next day, school seemed to go faster than Ryan would’ve liked. In no time at all, he was getting ready for the dance. His mom came into his room and said, “I want you to have fun tonight! And say hi to Cooper for me!” Ryan’s mom and Cooper had met when they had to do a partnered science project earlier in the year. About twenty minutes later, Ryan was standing in the doorway of his school, looking in at the dim lights and crowds of the dance. He was just thinking that it might not be too late to go back to his car when an excited Cooper came bounding up to Ryan with an excited expression.
“Hi! Cool place, isn’t it?” Cooper asked, obviously trying to act nonchalantly.
“Yeah! Wish it could be this cool all the time,” Ryan joked, partly to ease Cooper’s nerves, but mostly to calm his own. Ryan and Cooper walked onto the dance floor, which was just the gym. There were kids laughing and teasing, dancing and talking, eating and drinking. There was a large table near the DJ stand piled high with cookies and candies and cupcakes, and fruit punch and some weird green juice that looked like gnome puke. Ryan felt his stomach rumble, and he said to Cooper,
“I’m going to go grab a snack. Want anything?” At first, Cooper didn’t answer, but then Ryan saw why. He was watching Mia talking with her friends by the stage. Ryan nudged his friend and said,
“Go get her! Just be cool.” Cooper stood a little taller and straightened his collar. “I’ll be by the snack table. Good luck!”
Ryan walked to the table and loaded his plate with chips and treats. He decided he would try a sip of the gnome puke, but immediately wished he hadn’t. He tossed the cup and was about to take a bite of his cookie when he heard a commotion near the stage. Shouts and hollers filled the air, and Ryan, like everyone else, ran to see what was happening. Just as he’d feared, people were jeering at Cooper. There were many kids videoing with their phones, but Ryan couldn’t tell exactly what they were videoing, and of course the one right up front was Maya.
A tall boy, who Ryan was pretty sure was named Zach, was the closest to Cooper. He said something, shaking his head, and poked Cooper in the chest. Cooper recoiled and said something that only made everyone laugh. Then Zach and Cooper exchanged remarks, and Cooper did something that Ryan never would’ve expected from him. He socked Zach straight in the stomach. Ryan knew exactly what was going to happen next, but he couldn’t allow that. Zach raised his fist toward Cooper, who cowered, and Ryan got there just in time. He smacked Zach’s fist, shoving it straight into his own jaw. Zach staggered, shocked. Then he regained his balance and threw a punch at Ryan. A hard one. It hit him straight in the mouth, and Ryan immediately tasted blood. The other kids started chanting, Fight! Fight! Fight! Ryan put all his anger from the past bullies to Cooper into the next punch. Zach was about to punch back again when the teachers arrived. Everyone scattered like a timebomb had hit the floor. Mr. Barlow and Mrs. Grace came in between the two boys and stopped the fight as quickly as it had begun.
Then they were both escorted into the principal’s office. After a long confession story and a two-day suspension, the boys were banned from the dance and their parents came to pick them up. Ryan couldn’t face Cooper, so he left without a good-bye. When Ryan got in his car, his mom gave him the most puzzled face ever. They talked about it, but she didn’t seem too mad. He still got punished, but he was expecting a lot worse from her. She could get scary sometimes.
Before bed, Ryan was scrolling through his social media that had been posted an hour ago. Of course, Maya had posted it, and it was the video of whatever the fight Ryan had gotten himself into was about. Ryan felt sick just looking at it, but he forced himself to watch it. He couldn’t understand what anyone was saying, but he saw the fight, and when he was expecting to see himself some in the middle of it, the video stopped. Then it started again. The part where he defends Cooper wasn’t even in there! He bristled at this, not because he wanted to be cool, but because Maya clearly wanted everyone to see the negative, sad piece of the story. Then Ryan noticed the number of likes. 437. Then he disliked it and threw his phone on his dresser. He angrily climbed into bed and fell asleep.
The second day of his suspension, Ryan was video calling Cooper. He told him that Ryan shouldn’t have done what he did, and all that jazz. But when Ryan asked why they’d been fighting, Cooper pretended that his mom had called him to dinner. Later that evening, Ryan was looking at social media again. He saw the video again and was about to scroll farther down and not watch it when he saw himself in the video. It was the whole thing! And then, Ryan noticed the number of likes. 482. He smiled knowing Cooper would like to see this, so he shared it with him. Then he read the comments. They said things like “Go Ryan!” and “Zach’s a jerk!” Then, he noticed who had posted it. Rowan. Maybe she wasn’t so bad after all.