Strange Girl

Pike shared the first chapter of a new work through social media this holiday season. The book is called “Strange Girl”.


I still get asked what Aja was like, where she came from, what it was like to be her friend, to actually date her, whether the stories about her were true, and who — or what — I really thought she was. 
The last question usually makes me smile, a little, probably because I understand it’s hard to talk about her without sounding like a nut. But that’s what I try to tell people who want to know about her. She was a mystery, a genuine enigma, in a world that seldom believes in such things, and now that she’s gone, I think that’s what she’ll always be.
At least to those who loved her.

And to those who feared her.
My name’s Fred Allen and I was a seventeen year old senior in high school when I met Aja. I was heading home on a hot Friday afternoon after a boring first week of classes when I spotted her sitting in the park across the street from campus. I’d like to say I saw something special about her from the start but I’d be lying, although later I was to think she might have been kind of strange.
There was a perfectly fine park bench five feet off to her left but instead she was kneeling in the grass, plucking at a few scrawny daisies, while occasionally glancing up at Elder High’s restless and sweaty student body pouring into the side street or else cutting across the park toward home.
The sweat was because of the humidity, which in our town hovered around saturation level from June until October, when it was vaporized by a brief fall that usually blew by in four weeks or less and was replaced by bitter winter winds that were so cold they’d bite your ass off even if you had the bad taste to wear long underwear to school, which only the principle and the teachers did.
I suppose it could have been worse. Elder could have been in North Dakota instead of South Dakota. All we really knew about our northern neighbors is that they were desperate to change their name to just plain Dakota. For some reason they thought it’d make them sound more inviting — go figure.
Anyway, the thing that struck me about Aja at the start, beside her love of grass kneeling, was that she stared at every kid who walked by her. She didn’t smile at them, or say hi or bat her long lashes or anything seductive like that, she just looked straight at them, which probably made the majority feel uncomfortable. I noticed most looked away as they strode by.
I mentioned her long lashes, and yeah, I did happen to notice she was pretty. Not beautiful but an easy eight plus on my relatively generous scale of one to ten. Even at a distance of a hundred yards I could see her hair was dark brown, shiny, and that her skin was the same color as my favorite ice cream — Hagean Dazs’ Coffee. 
Yet I didn’t equate her with ice cream because I wanted to take a bite out of her or anything gross. It’s not like I felt some mad rush of seventeen year old hormones and experienced first love for the twentieth time. I just sort of, you know, noticed that she looked nice, very nice, and that her long dark lashes framed a pair of large dark eyes that were, unfortunately, not staring anywhere in my direction.
For once I wished I lived on the other side of the park.
What we in Elder called the “Por Side of Town.”
That was my first impression of Aja. Oh, there was one other thing. I did happen to notice that she had on a simple white dress that didn’t quite reach to her knees while in the kneeling position. The thing that struck me about the dress was that — not that it was filthy — but it did look like it could have used a wash.
Introduction to Aja complete. I went home and didn’t give her more than a few hours thought all weekend; and no, honestly, it wasn’t all sexual. I mainly wondered why a girl her age, if she was new to town, wasn’t going to school. It was just a thought. Elder High, MY school, was the only one in town for someone our age.
Monday morning I heard about Aja from my best friend, Janet Shell, five minutes before my first period of trig started. I was taking trigonometry because it was an advanced placement class and my parents were obsessed that I go to college so I didn’t grow up as miserable as they were. 
That was sort of a joke but mostly true. My Dad was a car mechanic at a Sears in a neighboring town of ours, Balen, which actually had a movie theater where the sound system didn’t sound like headphones and there was a selection of eight movies. Unlike Elder’s sole theater, where you had to wear 3-d glasses just to keep from squinting at the sagging screen. 
My Mom worked in Balen as well, as an executive secretary for a boss that couldn’t have spelled the title. My parents were both smart, they both loved each other, but when I asked why they hadn’t moved away from Elder — like say before I was born — they just told me to pass the salt. What I mean is, the way they fell silent when I asked that question made me feel like I was somehow rubbing salt in an old wound. I joke about it, I joke about everything I suppose, but it did worry me that they weren’t happy.
Janet, though, she was happy, or knew how to act the part, which according to her was more important. She was taking trig because she was smart and loved math. But she was cool, too, devoid of a single nerd gene. For example, although a straight A student, she was purposely planning to get a C in a subject during our final semester so she couldn’t be elected our class valedictorian. 
Besides hating the spotlight, Janet knew if she was selected to give a speech to us graduating seniors there was no way she’d be unable to resist telling our class that the bulk of them would still be living in Elder when our tenth reunion finally rolled around — her way of implying that most of us were destined to be losers.
“Have you seen the new girl in school?” Janet asked before Mr. Secoda, our skeleton thin math teacher showed up his usual five minutes late. The guy came into class reeking of pot smoke almost every morning until Halloween, when he usually switched over to a legal prescription and just show up with glazed eyes.
Naturally Janet’s question piqued my interest. I’d been looking for the girl since I’d shown up at school half an hour early. Yet I acted cool.
“No,” I said, adding a shrug.
“Bullshit. You must have seen her. Your pupils just dilated.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Janet continues to study me. “Her name’s Aja — like in Asia or A-ja, depending on who you believe — and she’s super exotic looking. I heard she just moved here from a remote village in Brazil. Everyone’s talking about her but they say she’s not talking much. She’s not stuck up from what I hear just quiet.” Janet paused. “What do you think? Want to ask her out?”
I tried to keep my voice dry but ended but coughing. “How about I meet her first before I decide?” I said.
“Fair enough but I think with this one you’re going to have to act fast. She’s no Linda. You can’t wait three years to get up the nerve. She’ll go fast.”
I felt a stab of pain that Janet had so carelessly brought up Linda but struggled to hide it. “How come you’re so sure?” I asked.
“She’s a looker and she’s got money and knows how to dress.”
Recalling the plain dusty dress Aja had been wearing in the park, that surprised me. “Really?”
Janet caught the note in my voice. “You have seen her, you bastard. Why do you lie to me when you’re such a shitty liar? Tell me the truth, have you talked to her?”
I sighed. “I saw a new girl last Friday while walking home from school. She was sitting in the park, plucking flowers. I’m not sure she’s the same person you’re talking about.”
“Right. Like this town has a surplus of chicks worth knowing.”
“Hold on a sec. You’re the one who says us guys are always judging a book by it’s cover. Well, what are you doing? So she’s pretty. So she’s got expensive clothes. She could still be an asshole.”
“Impossible.” Janet grinned and leaned closer. “I’ve heard from Mike Cartelli that she pissed off Clara Robbins and that the bitch is already organizing her cheerleader platoon to make Aja’s senior year total misery.”
“Aja just got here. How could she have pissed Clara off?”
Janet nodded. “That’s my point. That’s what tells me we’re going to like her. She’s here two minutes and she’s managed to invoke the hatred of the most vile bitch on campus. Admit it, you’ve got to love someone with that kind of depth.” She added, “Besides, I met her, I spoke to her.”
“To Aja?”
“Duh. We only exchanged a few words but I sensed something unique about her. You know the last time I said that, don’t you?”
“When you met me.”
“That’s right. That’s why I want you to ask her out.”
“You won’t get jealous?”
Janet smiled. “Not unless she won’t let you remain my best friend.” 
Mr. Secoda stumbled in right then, smelling like Columbian Gold, and told us to open our textbooks to chapter one. It was Janet who had to remind him that we didn’t have our textbooks yet. Plopping down at his desk, he ordered her to pass them out. 
A few minutes later I opened my book but spent most of the class digesting what Janet had said. I’d learned long ago to take her insights seriously. Janet was not merely smart; she had an uncanny intuition when it came to people. She said 99.99 percent of the population were sheep. If she liked Aja, it definitely meant she was more than a pretty face.
I met her in third period, before lunch, American History.
We were in the same class. What luck…
Maybe, maybe not. My usual seat was in the first row, all the way in the back. Aja came in a two minutes after me and sat down in the last row, first seat. Basically, even though we occupied the same room, she was as far away from me as possible; and I couldn’t help but think she’d somehow spotted me, remembered me staring at her the previous Friday afternoon, and had gone out of her way to keep her distance.
Of course, give the fact that she hadn’t even glanced in my direction when she came in the classroom, I was probably acting paranoid.
She looked good, better than good. There were ten heads in a straight line between me and her and all I could see was her. Her dark hair appeared a little shorter than last Friday, like she’d gotten a trim over the weekend. But the shine was still there; and her long eyelashes, seen in profile, were amazing. I swear, I could count the times she blinked by the pounding of my heart.
Maybe I shouldn’t swear. Was my heart really pounding? I don’t know, I actually wasn’t paying any attention to it. I was too busy staring at her nose and lips. Yet I definitely felt something when I saw her again. The earth didn’t move but it’s possible it’s rotation in space slowed down a bit. Seeing her I felt as if everything, just for a moment, came to a halt. 
It was an odd thing to experience for a girl I didn’t know.
Our history teacher, Ms. Billard, came in the room; a stuffy old bird if you got on her wrong side but one of the most caring teacher’s we had if she happened to like you. She taught creative writing on top of history and favored me because she got a kick out of the short stories I handed in — one every Friday afternoon. I usually got A’s. Creative writing was an AP class — advanced placement — and Billard was pretty demanding when it came to students she thought should go to college. The rest of us…well, the rest she either ignored or bitched at.
“I see we have a new student today,” she said, glancing in Aja’s direction. “I was told you’d be joining us. What’s your name, girl?”
“Aja,” she replied in a soft voice.
“Is that you first or last name?”
“It’s what people call me.”
Billard cleared her throat, a bad sign. “Then that’s what I’ll call you. But please humor the rest of the class and tell us your full name?”
“Aja Smith.”
“Took a moment to remember your family name?”
Aja stared at her and said nothing.
Billard shook her head. “Well, we’re all very happy you could join us one week late. Another week and you’d have wandered in during the Civil War. Ted, fetch a textbook for Aja from the closet and let’s all open to page forty-nine, Chapter Four. Time we got to the Thirteen Colonies and their feud with England and the writing of the Constitution.” Billard paused and glanced at Aja again. “Do you have a problem, girl?”
“You’re looking at me funny.” Aja didn’t reply, just continues to stare at her, which didn’t sit well with Billard. The teacher snapped at her when she spoke next. “You do know something about American History, don’t you, girl?”
“No,” Aja replied.
Billard blinked, unsure whether Aja was sassing her or not. “Then it’s your responsibility to catch up. Read the first forty-eight pages tonight. I’m going to quiz you on them tomorrow.”
Aja nodded without speaking as she accepted the textbook from Ted Weldon, a football jock with a double digit IQ and a gross habit of farting when he yawned, which made it hard not to believe his two orifices were intimately linked. Ted didn’t simply glance at Aja; he gloated over her face and body before returning to his chair, evicting a mild chuckle from the rest of the class.
They were curious about Aja, I could tell. Her voice was not just soft, it was smooth, cool, confident; she didn’t have to speak up to make a point. Plus her answers had been at best evasive, which I naturally had to admire.
But I could tell already that Billard didn’t like her and that Aja was probably going to have a hard time in the class. That bothered me, a little, even though she was a total stranger.
Total stranger. Shit. I remembered Janet’s warning that Aja would not last when it came to Elder High’s horny guys, and it got my adrenaline pumping.
When class was over I caught up with Aja outside in the hallway and walked casually beside her for a minute before she finally stopped at her locker. Shit, I thought again. A life changing choice was suddenly upon me. I could either keep walking and live the rest of my days in regret or I could stop and pretend to have a locker next to her. 
I did the latter, spinning the dial on the lock like it was pre-set to my favorite radio station. Only the volume never came on and the locker never opened because I had no idea what the combination was. Fortunately, Aja seemed to be having trouble with her own locker and I was able to swoop in and rescue her. 
“It’s not opening?” I asked, way too casually, and with a stupid grin on my face. 
Aja pulled a slip of paper from her pants pocket and handed it to me. “I was told this is the combination,” she said.
Aja didn’t have on ordinary pants. As Janet had shrewdly pointed out, she appeared to come from money because her pants were part and parcel of an expensive suit that had obviously not been purchased anywhere within fifty miles of Elder’s clothing stores. 
Aja’s top was an ultra thin maroon sweater; and if it was responsible for her subtle curves, then it was worth its weight in gold. Her silky pants had red in them as well, a rusty sunset color that served as the foundation for a pretty print that made me think of sand dunes and cacti…
And an oasis when my out of control stare struggled to move from her big brown eyes to the paper she was trying to get me to take. I shook my head and took a breath. Breathing was good, I had to remind myself.
“This looks like it might work,” I said. Duh! The piece of paper said: “LOCKER NUMBER” on the top, and was followed by a sequence of three numbers: 12 — 18 — 24. All the locks in school — all the combinations I’d ever seen, for that matter — worked on the right-left-right mechanism. And when I dialed in Aja’s three digits the locker immediately opened. I noticed her following me closely and added, “You see how it works?” 
“Now I do,” she replied, and it was only then I realized she’d never had a locker before. She deposited her book inside and closed it. Out of habit, I reached up and spun the dial.
“You can’t be too careful,” I said.
“Your lock. You need to spin it to clear the combination.” She didn’t respond, just stared at me. Again, I felt the need to add something. “So no one will be able to break into your locker.”
“Kids do that here?” she asked.
“Some kids do, yes.” Again, she seemed to wait for me to continue so I added, “Actually, people here don’t like being called kids.”
“What should I call them?”
“Girls or guys. Kids — it sounds kind of young, you know.”
“I didn’t know that but thank you for telling me.”
“You’re welcome. By the way, my name’s Fred Allen. I’m in your history class. I sit in the back.”
“I saw you.”
“You did?” God, the way I asked the question, the sheer amount of enthusiasm in my tone, it was like she’d just told me she’d found a heart donor that could save my life. I reminded myself again to breathe and try to act human. Fortunately, Aja didn’t appear to notice my nervousness.
“Yes,” she said simply, adding, “I’m Aja.”
“I know. I mean, I heard what you told Ms. Billard.” Aja nodded but once again appeared to wait for me to continue so I added, “She can be okay if she thinks you’re trying. But slack off and she’ll classify you as a loser. She was serious when she told you that she’s going to quiz you on the first three chapters of the textbook. If I was you I’d study.”
“I will.” She looked past me as the student body converged toward Elder High’s courtyard. We had an indoors cafeteria but no one ventured inside before the first snow came. The school lunch staff didn’t mind. They kept a half dozen windows open where you could order a decent hamburger, hotdog, or sandwich if you had the money. Since I was on a strict budget, I usually brought a brown bag from home and just picked up a Coke from one of the vending machines. In fact, my lunch was waiting for me back at my real locker, although I felt in no hurry to get to it.
“The kids…the girls and guys have lunch now?” Aja asked.
“Yes. It’s always after third period. Are you hungry?”
“This body…” She suddenly stopped. “Yes.”
“Bring anything from home?” I knew she hadn’t because I’d seen the interior of her locker and it had been empty. She shook her head and for the hundredth time waited for me to go on. I added, “Then you should probably pick up something at the windows.”
“Are you going to these…windows?”
“Huh, huh. I can show you where they are if you want. If you don’t have other plans, I mean.”
Finally, she flashed a smile. “I don’t have any plans, Fred.”
I liked how she said my name and loved her smile; nevertheless, I groaned inside thinking how hard Janet would be laughing if she could see me now. Honestly, my nervousness made no sense. Sure, Aja was pretty, and, sure, I liked her, or at least I thought I did. But she was the new girl in town, a stranger from another country, and English was obviously a second language for her. She should have been the one stumbling all over the place.
Yet she was as calm as when I’d caught her picking flowers.
I escorted her to the windows and if I’d been forced to critique my stride I’d have to say I looked like an extra on “The Walking Dead.” I was definitely taking time to find my cool gear. But eventually I began to calm down and by the time we’d waited in line and it was our turn to order I was feeling pretty good about myself. And why not? I had just met Aja and already I was taking her to lunch. Not bad for a few minutes work. I’d already decided to pay for whatever she ordered to show what a gentleman I was.
“Hey, Roger, how’s the demo going?” Carlos asked from the other side of the glass. Carlos was from Mexico and worked four different jobs and a hundred hours a week to keep his family out of the rain. We’d gotten together several times in the last year because he was a genius when it came to playing the Spanish Guitar and he occasionally tutored me on my guitar, besides laying down tracts on a new CD I was struggling to put together.
Yeah, I know, I wanted to be a rock star. 
But tell me the truth. Who didn’t?
“It’s coming, it’s coming,” I said, turning to Aja who was staring at Carlos and not the overhead menu. To his credit Carlos acted like I showed up every afternoon with a pretty girl. “Know what you want?” I asked Aja.
She looked at me. “It doesn’t matter.”
“You must have some preference.”
“I’ll have what you’re having.”
“I was going to have a turkey sandwich with fries. And a Coke. That sound good?”
Aja nodded. “That’s good.”
Carlos whipped up our sandwiches in five minutes flat and when it was time to pay Aja pulled out a wad of cash from her pocket that looked large enough for me to buy a new electric guitar with, and amp. Yet I told her I had it covered and she didn’t put up a fight.
Like the rest of town, Elder High was kind of old and kind of poor, and no part of the campus reflected those qualities more blatantly than our miserable courtyard. It had no tables, no umbrellas to block the midday sun, no drinking fountains. Only peeling wooden benches that, if you were lucky, managed to catch the shade of a nearby tree. Of course we had trees, the whole state did, and Aja and I were lucky enough to find a shady bench located somewhere between where the jocks and the bad boys hung out. 
For a few minutes I had Aja all to myself but I wasted them because all I did was eat and watch her eat. It was during this time I noticed that she seemed to be following my lead. When I unwrapped my turkey sandwich, she unwrapped her’s, and when I reached for a fry or a sip of Coke, she did likewise. But she didn’t take nearly as big bites as I did — if anything she chewed her food more thoroughly than anyone I’d ever met before — and after a short time she quit copying me.
“Where are you from?” I eventually asked.
Aja pointed north. “I live with Aunt Beckon. In a white house by a large pond.”
I had meant where she was ultimately from but her answer interested me. “You don’t live in the old Carter mansion, do you?”
“Carter? Hmmm. That was the name of the man who sold Aunty the house. That’s where this bod…that’s where I stay.”
“That’s a big house. Is it just the two of you?”
“Bart lives with us.”
“Who’s Bart?”
“Bart is Bart. He takes care of things.”
“Is he like a housekeeper? A butler?”
“Yes. He’s been with Aunty since before I met her.”
“How old were you when you met your aunt?”
“I was small.”
“Wait a second. Are you saying she’s not your real aunt?”
Aja sipped her drink. “She’s as real as you and me.”
I frowned. “Who introduced you to her?”
“We just ran into each other.”
“Was this down in Brazil?”
I wanted to continue my line of questioning but we were interrupted right then by Dale Parish and Michael Garcia, two friends of mine; actually, two members of a band I’d formed — HALF LIFE. Dale played bass and Mike was our drummer. Dale had only been playing a year but could mimic most songs he heard on the radio, and Mike had been banging on anything that made noise since he was a kid. As a result, he was the real deal and we were lucky to have him. Mike was as creative as he was powerful and I kept expecting to lose him to a louder and more successful rock group. 
Yet Mike swore he’s never leave us. For some reason I couldn’t begin to fathom, he had faith in my singing and songwriting abilities.
Unfortunately, Mike had a temper and was unpredictable. He missed plenty of our practice sessions, even a few paid gigs. Worse, we never knew which Michael was going to show up. If he was loaded, on pot or beer, we knew the “Beast” was in the room and we’d all better watch out. But when he was sober he was the nicest guy.
Mike, however, caused Dale constant grief. Because Dale was in love with him and Mike didn’t have a clue. On the surface it seemed impossible, since they’d grown up together, but the truth was Mike didn’t even know Dale was gay. And Dale had begged me and our keyboardist, Shelly Mace, never to tell him. 
Carlos had warned me — and Carlos never lied — that Mike often hung out with a Hispanic gang in Balen that controlled most of the area’s drug traffic. If anything was going to tear our band apart, I knew it was going to be the tension between our drummer and bass player.
“Now who do we have here?” Mike asked, straddling the old bench beside Aja like it — or she — was horse he was anxious to ride. Dale nodded to me and smiled uneasily in Aja’s direction but remained standing.
Physically, the two couldn’t have been more unlike. Mike was dark skinned, short and stocky, and could bench press more than Elder’s heartiest jocks. If a swinging chick was looking for a bad boy who really could rip holes in the sheets, Mike was it. While Dale — well, I never met a more gentle soul in my life but there was a reason his stage name was “Corpse” and whatever medicine he was taking for his acne wasn’t worth the co-pay.
I spoke up. “Aja, these are two musician friends of mine, Mike and Dale. We’re in a band together. Dale plays bass and Mike drums. Guys, this is Aja. She’s from Brazil and this is her first day at Elder High.”
Aja nodded to both. “I enjoy music.”
“But do you enjoy us music makers?” Mike asked lewdly. “That’s what I want to know. Besides…what the hell are you doing with Fred? Did he tell you he can’t even climb on a stage without me reassuring him that I’ve got his back?”
“I’m afraid it’s true,” I admitted.
“Fred has more talent in his little finger than the rest of us combined,” Dale added.
Mike slapped me on the back. “Yeah, Fred’s the only one in this town that’s going places. Take my word for it. So how did you two meet?”
I assumed Aja would remain silent, given her habit, and that I’d have to answer. However, Aja stared Mike right in the eye and said, “We met last Friday in the park. He was watching me pick flowers and I smiled at him but he ignored me. But today he’s acting a lot more friendly.”
Her comment cause my heart to skip.
She’d smiled at me?
Mike was suddenly curious about her voice. “¿Hablan español en el lugar de Brasil de donde vienes?” (Did they speak Spanish in your part of Brazil?)
“Sí. Muchos idiomas.” (Si. Lots of languages.) 
“¿Pero creciste hablando portugués?” Mike asked. (But you grew up speaking Portuguese?)
“Sim,” Aja said.
“What the hell are they saying?” I asked Dale. He’d taken four years of Spanish at Elder High but his real knowledge of the language had come from hanging around Mike’s family. Dale leaned over and whispered in my ear.
“Mike asked her if they spoke Spanish in her part of Brazil. Aja said, ‘Yes. Lots of languages.’ Then Mike asked, ‘But you grew up speaking Portuguese?’ And Aja said, ‘Yes.’” 
“Why the sudden interest in Aja’s speech background?” I interrupted Mike. But he ignored me and continued to speak to Aja, who appeared to fascinate him. 
“Your accent — you remind me of my great-grandmother. She could speak over a dozen languages. She sounded like she was from everywhere, and nowhere, sort of like you.”
Aja lowered her head. “Ninguém do nada.” (No one from nowhere.)
“What was that?” I asked quickly.
Apparently she’d answered in Portuguese, which neither Mike nor Dale knew; and when I asked Aja what she’d said, all she did was shake her head like it didn’t matter.
Dale flashed Mike a sign that it was time to split and Mike, knowing my bad luck with girls, bid us a quick farewell. When they were gone Aja and I returned to eating our sandwiches and fries. A long silence settled between us but it was not uncomfortable. I suspected that Aja had spent most of her life alone and was not bothered by quiet.
“I apologize for Mike,” I said finally. “He can be a handful when you first meet him.”
“He has a fiery spirit.”
“I suppose that’s where all the smoke comes from.”
Aja turned her big brown eyes on me. “They look up to you. Are you that good?”
I assumed she was asking about my musical abilities and shrugged. “As far as South Dakota is concerned, I could be the next Mozart. But if I performed at a club in Los Angeles or New York or Seattle I’d be laughed off the stage.” I took a gulp of Coke. “Trying to make a living as a singer/songwriter is probably the most irrational ambition a guy can have. One in a million — no, one in ten million — end up making money at it.”
“It’s what you want to do.”
Aja nodded to herself. “Then you’ll do it.”
I chuckled. “You haven’t even seen us play.”
The remark was far from subtle. I was hoping she’d bite and say she’d like to come to a show. Also, it wasn’t by chance that I’d switched from talking about me versus talking about the band. If she didn’t bite, then she was rejecting Half Life, not me. So went my crazy logic. The truth was I’d brought up being a musician to impress her. It was shameless, I know, but I figured I had to play what cards I held.
“Is it play for you?” she asked.
“Being on stage? Yes and no. Sometimes — when I forget what I’m doing and that people are watching me, judging me — then I feel a real rush. But most of the time I’m way too self conscious and can’t wait until the gig is over. Seriously.”
Aja continued to stare and because she didn’t blink often; it was bit disconcerting. “Play for me sometime,” she said.
There. I’d practically begged for her to ask but now that she had I wished I’d kept my mouth shut. “I’m not a solo artist. Better to see me in the band.”
She nodded but I didn’t think she believed me.
“How about you?” I asked. “What’s your favorite hobby?”
She hesitated. “I don’t have any hobbies. I just…enjoy things.”
“What sort of things?”
“Bart told me to watch out for questions like that. He said they’d get me into trouble.”
“Huh?” I mumbled.
“I told you about Bart.”
“I know, I heard you. But he actually told you how to behave while you were at school today?”
She nodded. “He spent the weekend trying to teach me what to say and what not to say.”
“Isn’t that a little weird?”
If my question bothered her, she showed no sign. “Bart said he had to teach me so I don’t seem weird to the rest of you.” As if to reassure me, she reached out and touched my arm. “He was trying to help.”
Again, like when she’d entered history class, I felt something odd, a lapse of sorts, where I had trouble focusing. The scene around us, the guys and girls walking back and forth across the courtyard, they didn’t stop but they did seem to slow down. I shook my head to clear it and the sensation eased up, somewhat, and I noticed that Aja had taken back her hand. I had to struggle to get out my next remark.
“I should meet this guy. Maybe he can help me with my weirdness.”
Aja suddenly stood, leaving what was left of her food behind on the bench. She wasn’t tall but at that moment she could have been standing on a chair and looking down at me, and I worried the unusual sensation had not passed, after all. Again, I had to remind myself she was new to the school, the stranger in a strange land, but right then I was certain I had it all wrong, that she was more at home in Elder than I could ever hope to be.
“I’m glad we got to talk, Fred. I hope I see you again soon.”
With that she turned and walked away.


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