Written By: Jen Klein
“That’s what I’m—”
“Salt is not the flavor. It’s the flavor enhancer.” Mrs. Alhambra holds up a red plastic bowl—like the kind you buy for a picnic—and shakes it at him. “You’re going to give someone a heart attack with this!” The bowl and its contents make a loud chunk when they drop into the trash can.
“Yes, ma’am,” Oliver says. He heaves a sigh and turns in my direction. I jerk my gaze away, speed-walking past the classroom and down the hall.
If today was the first day of school, I would probably be on Mrs. Alhambra’s side right now. But I’m not. Sure, Oliver surrounds himself with helmets and muscles, but it doesn’t mean he’s exactly the same as those Neanderthals. He seems different.
At least, a little different.
Three minutes later, I’m in the stairwell with Itch, whose hands are again trying to tease beneath the hem of my shirt. I kiss him before pulling away. “I have to get to class.”
He frowns. “Don’t we still have time?”
“I don’t want to be late to physics.”
“You and your good-girl ways,” he murmurs.
I reach up to ruffle his shaggy hair. “I’m not a good girl about everything. Are you still coming over tomorrow afternoon?”
“Is your mom still going to be out?”
“As far as I know.”
“Then I’ll be there.” He drops a last kiss onto my mouth before heading for the steps. “See you at lunch,” he calls back over his shoulder.
? ? ?
I am already seated when the bell rings and Oliver rushes in at the last minute. Even though I’m staring straight ahead at the whiteboard with my hands folded primly before me, I can see him trudge past in my peripheral vision. Mrs. Nelson pushes up from her desk and asks us to take out our books. There’s a rustle of paper and the creaking of chairs as everyone does what she asks.
This time, I don’t need to risk a glance back to confirm that Oliver is looking at me. After all, I know that when he arrived at his lab table, there was something sitting in the very center of it.
Something I placed there.
A peace offering.
Or rather a piece offering.
It’s Oliver’s last piece of gum. The one he gave me this morning.
? ? ?
“I was wrong about the prank,” says Itch. We are sitting in our place on the bleachers—all of us but Shaun, who is eating onstage with the theater kids—and watching what’s happening on the field. “This is the stupidest tradition at our school.” I have to agree with him.
“This is the stupidest tradition at any school,” says Lily.
Darbs and I both nod vigorously as a hundred upperclassmen cheer and pump their fists in the air from the center of the bleachers. The graduating football players are busy marching five younger guys into the center of the field for what’s affectionately known as shearing: when the senior football players cut the hair of their newest varsity teammates, who—this year—are all sophomores.
A row of chairs has been set up, and the cheerleaders are showing off their supremely helpful skills by placing buckets of soapy water by each one. Ainsley settles one of the sophomores into a chair before squeezing a sponge over his head. Water drips over his hair and darkens his shirt. We can hear Ainsley’s laugh all the way up here. It sounds high and sweet and clear. The wet sophomore even laughs along with her.
“God, I hate that,” says Lily.
“PMGO,” Darbs adds.
“What?” says Lily.
“It’s something I’m trying out,” Darbs tells her.
I can’t take my eyes off the sophomores. “Look how they suck up even while they’re in the act of being demeaned.”
“Gotta be a good sport about it,” Itch says.
“Or it only gets worse,” I say.
Oliver is down there, of course. He’s watching Theo goose-step the smallest sophomore to a chair and plop him into it. When Theo waves him over, Oliver obliges, plunging his hand into the nearest bucket for a sponge.
“They don’t even use warm water,” says Darbs. “It’s ice cold.”
“In good news,” says Itch, “it’s hot today.”
“Nothing about this is good news.” I watch Theo hold out his hand to Oliver, who gives him a can of shaving cream. Theo assumes a widespread pose behind his victim. He shakes the can before his crotch in a suggestive manner.
“No,” says Lily.
“Please don’t,” says Darbs.
Theo lets out a theatrical groan and squirts the shaving cream all over the sophomore’s head. Beside me, Itch gags.
“That is so gross,” I say. I am disgusted by the way everyone casually accepts this public humiliation. I want to run down there and snatch the can and punch Theo in the mouth, but I’m smart enough to know it wouldn’t change a thing. It wouldn’t save the sophomore and it wouldn’t break the tradition. It would only embarrass us both.
So much for Oliver being different.
Oliver hands Theo some sort of shaving device so he can get to work on the hapless head. Theo starts over the ears, and—thank God for small favors—at least he’s going slowly so as not to cut the sophomore. All the others appear to be just hacking away at the hair of their victims, but Theo seems to have some sort of plan.