Once upon a time, there was a boy who knew no fear.
Hi. My name is Mac Dupree. Mac is short for MacAlister, and I’m short for just about everything. My specialties include online fighting games, obscure comic trivia, and a certain personal magnetism. Only problem is, the only thing I seem to attract is trouble.
There are days where everything goes your way. And then there are days that start with you getting tripped in the parking lot. Exactly how I wanted to start the week.
My shins sting. Little bits of asphalt dig into my palms as I push myself up. I’d chosen the wrong day to wear shorts, apparently. My best friend Destin fared better in jeans. It looked like his jacket had torn, though.
Raucous laughter surrounds us. Hyde’s laugh is the loudest. He had taken one of the wooden swords from kendo class and swiped our feet with it when we crossed in front of his truck. He leans against the truck’s hood now, resting the sword across his shoulders.
“Forget to tie your shoes, midget?” he cackles.
“Yeah it’s really hard to find laces for flip-flops,” I return, getting to my feet. I’m a solid foot shorter than he is, three years younger, and I get better grades, which makes me his favorite target.
Hyde isn’t a huge guy – honestly, Destin’s taller than he is. But Destin looks like he’s built out of sticks and a mop, where Hyde has been massacreing people in karate and kendo class for the last two years. Hyde is usually dressed in various combinations of slashed, torn, and singed leather and jean, and has piercings in his lip, one eyebrow, and all over his ears – but his most striking feature is the scar that runs from the bridge of his nose halfway across one cheek. Rumors abound as to how he got it, but no one seems to know for real.
“Maybe you should watch where you’re going,” Hyde grins. His scar crinkles.
“Maybe you should hide behind cars and trip people in the parking lot like a coward,” I shoot back. “Oh wait, that already happened. Get a life.”
He hops off the hood of his car, brandishing the wooden sword. I stand in defiance. Still on the ground, Destin cringes.
“Unless there’s a meeting I’m unaware of,” comes a familiar disdainful voice, “break it up and get inside, people.”
The small crowd parts, startled at the appearance of our English teacher, Mr. Tailor. Tailor looks kind of professor-y with his collared shirts and wire-rimmed glasses, but he has this way of staring you down that makes you just want to disappear. Soda would stop fizzing if he told it to settle down.
The spectators quickly break away and go on to the school, not wanting to arouse his wrath. Hyde’s look sours as Tailor regards us. There are only three people I’ve seen who can exert some kind of control over Hyde, and Tailor is one of them.
“You want to fight, save it for fourth period,” Tailor snaps, looking at us both. “It’s Ikeda’s job to deal with this macho crap, not mine.” He snatches the wooden sword from Hyde. “I catch you with one of these out of the gym again, and it’s detention.”
“Yes sir,” Hyde growls, leaving the scene with a parting glare.
Tailor frowns at Destin. “How long are you going to sit on the ground, Heron?”
Destin scrambles to his feet, a sheepish look obscured by his thick curtain of dark hair. Tailor looks at the ground where he’d fallen. Several downy feathers are being blown away by a breeze.
“My jacket tore…” Destin mumbles.
“Ignoring that you’re wearing a down jacket in eighty degree heat…both of you get inside. Dupree, go get bandages from Ms. Miller before you come to homeroom,” he orders, strolling past us. “If you bleed onto my floor you’re cleaning it up.”
We both hold our breath ’til he’s through the front doors.
“That actually didn’t go so bad,” I say, after he’s out of earshot.
“He must have had his coffee,” Destin agrees. “Lucky.”
I brush off my shorts and wince, feeling my shins stinging for real now. They’re pretty raw, but there’s no blood. I’d probably be okay. I pick my bag back up and gingerly start walking.
I’ve never won a fight with Hyde. I’m not going to lie. It’s honestly pretty stupid of me to keep standing up to him, and I can see it even a few minutes later, as we’re getting our books out of our lockers. But when Hyde’s standing in front of me, being an unmitigated ass, all I can think of is how much I want to punch him in the face. Maybe with a cactus. I grin at the mental image.
Our school is a little different than most. It’s technically a private school, and they like to boast that we have students from all over the world, though a good chunk of the people who go here are local. The people who run the place definitely aren’t from around here, though. I’d heard my mom say somewhere that most of Havenwood’s funding comes from some Japanese company. It’s weird, but I’m not going to complain. The place is honestly really nice, and the cafeteria is choice. The teachers are pretty decent too, even with Tailor being as grouchy as he is sometimes. My only real complaint is the other students.
“Not again,” I groan, rifling around my locker in vain. “The comics I left in here on Friday are gone.”
Destin sighs, his wordless ‘I told you so.’
“And the candy bars? Oh come on!” I’m starving. I really shouldn’t have skipped breakfast.
Our lockers have been pilfered several times each since the school year started. No apparent signs of break-ins, but if it’s not a textbook, it gets stolen, and it’s getting old fast. We’re also having trouble coming up with a culprit. The list is too long.
Besides Hyde, there are a few other juniors and seniors who tend to pick on younger, smaller students. I qualify on both counts, having skipped a grade to be a sophomore. Despite his height, Destin’s whole demeanor practically screams ‘easy target.’ So we’re pretty much doomed on that front.
Then there’s the problem of the local royalty – otherwise known as my sister Hayley’s little clique. She wanders around with her copycat best friend and two rich guys, pretending they’re superior beings. Hayley makes it a point to distance herself from her nerd brother as much as possible. She likes to describe the space around Destin and I as a ‘girl free zone.’
Which reminds me.
“You just remembered what day it was, didn’t you,” Destin says.
“Is she here? Have you seen her?”
“How would I know?” he sighs. “I don’t know what this imaginary person looks like.”
“She’s not imaginary, and she’s going to be the one person around here you’ve never seen before. Duh.”
“If you say so,” he says.
See, I have this problem. I’m all super cool and everything, but I’ve never exactly…ah…had a girlfriend. I mean I’ve had some crushes here and there. Once in sixth grade I kissed a girl on a dare. I’ve just never felt anything close to the adjectives and nouns and verbs people throw around when they talk about what ‘love’ feels like. But…
Well. You know.
Old Ms. Graham lives the stereotype of old lady in a creepy old house who alternates between loading you down with pies and sweets, and telling you stop talking so loud in the library and to floss and brush your teeth three times a day. I’ve been mowing her lawn since I was old enough to handle a push mower. But where most grandparents go on about their grandkids endlessly from the day they’re born, I’d never heard her mention Juliet once until a couple days ago.
That’s not to say I didn’t know she existed. My family has lived in Havenwood my whole life, and the city’s not so large that you don’t still have some small-town gossip. I remember when we were (both) small, Hayley and I snuck downstairs to eavesdrop on a dinner party our parents had thrown, and during a hushed bit of conversation, I first heard that Ms. Bea’s son Simon had a daughter our age.
Maybe it was the fact that they talked about her like she was some secret – that from then on I only ever heard mention of her in passing, in undertones, and never around Ms. Bea. Sometimes they called her “Simon’s girl,” sometimes they called her “Kyra’s girl,” but it wasn’t until last week that I heard her actual name, when Ms. Bea answered the phone while I was helping her move some furniture. She had gradually gone the color of the bleached upstairs walls as she listened to whoever was on the other line. I was really worried she might pass out or something, and she kept alternating between saying, “yes,” “no,” and “are you sure?” Finally she’d hung up and went to an ancient chair that released a puff of ‘in storage forever’ dust as she sat.
“Juliet is coming,” she’d said. She said it like someone had died. I think she’d forgotten I was there, because when she finally did look at me, she seemed shocked and asked me to leave.
And I hadn’t been able to think about anything else since. Well, except when I was getting attacked in the parking lot. But you have to admit that’s distracting.
“She can’t be that tall. Right? I mean look at her grandmother. Woman is tiny. She won’t be tall. Right?”
“Sure,” Destin says. I can tell he’d stopped caring awhile ago, but I can’t stop talking. It’s a disease.
“But your mom is tiny,” I frown, arguing with myself in the absence of his input. “And you’re like a skyscraper.”
“But she can’t be that tall. Right?”
“Forty-seven,” he says, securely shutting his locker.
“Times you’ve said that in the last twenty-four hours,” he says. “It won’t help obsessing over how tall or short she is. It doesn’t really matter anyway.”
I frown, looking into my devoid-of-chocolate locker. Someone is going to pay for this.
“Course it matters,” I say, shutting it and following him down the hall. “Girls don’t like guys who are shorter than them.”
“Never heard you say that either.”
“Just like you’ve never used sarcasm.”
Destin sighs. His thick curtain of bangs hides half his expression, but his body language is always clear. “You always joke about your height.”
“Because it’s hila-a-rious,” I stretch out the word, “and I might as well make the joke before someone else does. And it doesn’t help standing next to the Empire State Building all the time,” I gesture at him.
“Fair enough, but are you sure she’s even coming to our school? She could be at public. You’re more than usually bent out of shape about this. Over a girl you’ve never even seen.”
“It’s this huge mysterious thing!” I say defensively. “I mean nobody says anything about her, even though there was supposedly this whole big ordeal about her parents eloping – old Ms. Graham doesn’t even have pictures of her – and blammo, her dad vanishes and now here she is. Was her dad tall? Do you know?”
If he rolls his eyes, no one could possibly know. His hair obscures it completely. “I have no idea,” he says calmly. “But my guess is that she’s either your height, or about half a foot taller.”
“Why would you say that?” I gasp. “That’s too tall! She’ll think I’m a midget!”
“You can find out for yourself, I guess,” Destin says, “because there are two girls I’ve never seen before.”
I peer around the corner into the foyer, where he’s looking. He’s not kidding; two unknown girls stand among the mix of people. One is short, blonde, and surly looking.
The other is a goddess. She has skin the color of pale milk chocolate, hair that gleams near-black, and smooth, delicate features. She’s looking around in a sort of controlled terror, pursing her plush lips. A flightless angel lost in the woods. I have to help her. My life has no other purpose.
My feet start moving me forward. But before I can even get around the corner, a large, thick-fingered hand reaches out to shove me, and I slam back against the lockers. I glare up at Chase Armstrong, a senior the size and shape of a bear. His name is a little too appropriate.
“You been having fun with my locker, midget?” he rumbles at me.
“Not in recent memory,” I snap, peeved that he’s blocked my view of my Reason For Existence.
“That’s funny. You’re funny. So funny I think I’ll take it out of your hide. Hope that soda was worth it.”
“Soda?” I object. “What soda? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“The one you swiped from my locker, dork. It was in there last night, and now it’s gone.”
“Do I look like I’m stupid enough to smash open the locker of someone who could sit on me to death?”
“It’s not smashed, the lock was picked or something,” he says, his eyes narrowing. “Nerd territory.”
“Our lockers were hacked last night too,” Destin speaks up, though he cringes when Chase’s attention moves to him. “We didn’t do it.”
He regards us both with suspicion. “If you didn’t then who did?”
“Ninjas,” I say offhand, ready to be far away from this conversation.
“Ninjas,” Chase repeats.
Destin coughs. “Yes, our current theory is ninjas,” he says. “It’s part of a conspiracy involving the school’s foreign investors, and it’s only just now starting to affect the students. This is the first of many manifestations to come. It seems you’ve been chosen, just as we have. You’re one of us now,” he says solemnly, patting Chase on the shoulder.
“That’s it, I’ve had enough of you two freaks,” he growls, smacking Destin’s hand away. “Just keep away from my stuff alright?” He storms off down the hall, big arms swinging.
“Nice save,” I tell Destin.
He sighs. “Ninjas? Seriously? Were you trying to get hit in the face so you could show your imaginary girlfriend your manly scars?”
“For the last time, she’s not imaginary, she’s – oh!”
I quickly round the corner, looking for the girl of my dreams, but Principal Umino has already captured her and is leading her away to her office. Opportunity missed. But there will be others. I swipe my unruly blonde hair out of my eyes. The gears in my head start turning.
“Whatever you’re thinking of, it’s a bad plan,” Destin warns.
“Go on to class without me, then,” I say. “Because I think it’s a great plan.”