Excerpt from The Boy Next Door
I can’t believe it.
Yesterday confirmed a sad fact: I really do need glasses! When I could barely identify the enormous, fuzzy E at the top of the eye chart, Dr. Wexler wrote me a prescription right there on the spot. He claims I have something called astigmatism. It sounds painful, but it isn’t. At least not yet.
But I can’t think about that right now. It’s time for my first school carnival meeting. The sky-blue sheet of paper taped to the door of room 12C reads SCHOOL CARNIVAL MEETING, HERE, 2:45 P.M., so I know I’m in the right place.
Of course I have to stand on my tiptoes to read it.
It’s already 2:35 and there’s a line up and down the hallway, but the teacher hasn’t even unlocked the door yet. I recognize a few other kids from my English and social studies classes, but none of my good friends are here. Leslie is more into drama club, and today is Christina’s first day of tennis. There are some older kids from my neighborhood here, but I don’t recognize anyone else. I notice this one girl, leaning up against the wall. She has long brown hair like me, but it’s down, flowing around her shoulders. She’s reading a book. Then she looks up and sees me.
“Hey, are you here for the carnival sign-up” she asks me.
I nod and smile, not knowing what to say. My brother Todd always says, “When in doubt, smile.” Todd’s a huge dork, but he’s really smart about some things.
“This is my third year doing this,” the girl says.
“Wow,” I reply. I could have come up with something better than that, couldn’t I?
“I’m Valerie, but you can call me Val. Who are you?”
“Taryn,” I manage to say.
“Cool name,” Val says. “So, what — are you a sixer?”
I assume she means sixth grader. I just nod again. And smile. My cheeks ache from smiling so much these first three days of school.
“How was your weekend?” Anthony asks as we stroll into the cafeteria with Peter.
“Boring,” I groan. “But J.D. got me a new portable goal for soccer. We set it up in the backyard.”
“Nice!” Peter says. “Your old net had all those holes.”
We stop at the lunchroom bulletin board and check out the specials for the day.
“What do you think they really put in the Browned Meat loaf Surprise?” I wonder out loud.
“Meat,” Anthony says.
“And loaf,” Peter adds.
I grab my stomach and pretend to laugh at their dumb joke. Then I motor inside the lunchroom and grab a bright blue, jet-washed tray.
“Have one of these,” Anthony teases, dangling a blackened banana in my face. Nasty.
“No, thanks very much,” I say, grabbing a container of chocolate milk, a brownie, and a toasted bagel with cheese instead. I figure that as long as I get one or two food groups at lunch, I’m doing okay. I might have to start bringing my lunch from home.
We’re headed toward a side table in the main area of the cafeteria when someone grabs my elbow. It’s Walt from soccer tryouts last week.
“Congrats, Jeff,” Walt says, extending his hand for a shake.
Both of my hands are busy holding my tray, so I grunt in his direction. “Thanks.”
“Coach Byrnes think you’re an ace,” Walt goes on. “But you know that already.”
“Yeah?” I ask, trying to act super-modest.
“Yeah. All the guys on the team are impressed. Why don’t you come over and sit with us?”
I shoot a glance at the table where Walt’s pointing. The entire soccer team is sitting there, shoulder to shoulder.
Peter pushes me from behind. “Go ahead,” he whispers.
“Nah,” I stutter. “What about you guys? We always eat together.”
I look back at Anthony. He nods that I should go, too. Then I turn back to Walt.
Maybe I’ll try out the soccer table — just this once.
I leave my friends behind and follow Walt to the table. He tells everyone to shove over and I nod hello. Then I sit on the corner edge of the table bench and rip open my milk carton for a slurp.
“That’s your lunch?” some beefy-looking kid asks me. I see a plate of the surprise meat loaf on his tray, half-eaten.
He must be an eighth-grader. He must be really brave, too, to eat that.
“Um, I’m not that hungry,” I explain, severely grossed-out by the black crust on his slab of loaf. That must be the surprise part.
The soccer table guys talk about one thing at lunch: soccer. They tell stories about Coach Byrnes and share secrets about crazy things that have happened at Westcott soccer games in the past. They talk about shopping for cleats. They talk about backfield, midfield, and goals. I listen quietly in the corner. In some ways, it’s like my dream cafeteria experience, only I don’t really have much to add. Not yet, anyway.