On the morning of my first day at a brand-new school, excitement swims in my stomach like the bucket of minnows my father and I caught. It was just last weekend, on discovering the burbling stream in the woods behind our new house. A new town. A fresh start. A chance to reinvent myself and be the person I most want to be.
You can do anything.
Even though my father has told me this for as long as I can remember, it is the first time I believe him.
My father walks with me the mile and a half to my new middle school, so that I will know the way for when I have to walk home. When we reach the entrance of the school – a standard, breeze-block affair of rectangles, which pleases me – he makes sure my backpack is zipped up tight and squeezes my shoulder gently. His eyes are watery and a tight smile flattens his lips together.
“Good luck,” he says, bending down so that he is eye level with me. The scent of toothpaste wafts from his mouth, barely masking the smell of old coffee on his breath. “And be good.”
“I’m always good,” I reply, ensuring the straps of the backpack are tied at their maximal point to bare the weight as equally as possible.
My father’s smile widens and he ruffles the hair on my head. “That’s true. Have a good day.
I turn to face the cacophony of over excited children at my back. They rush through the gate in such a whirr of colour and animated babble, I can barely decipher a word. Backpacks hang off one shoulder and brown paper bags are clutched in tight fists. Mock punches are thrown, while others jostle or high-five their greetings.
Without looking back at my father, who I know will be standing there until he can’t see me anymore, I enter the dimmer lighting of my new sixth-grade classroom. Many of my new classmates are already inside, looking at the seating plan and claiming their desks.
I walk over to the seating plan and look for my name. Andrew Simpson. Apparently I am to sit next to a girl called Eliza Woods. And I have been assigned the table directly in front of the teacher. All the better to hear the instructions.
I find my desk and begin removing my possessions from my backpack and placing them neatly into my new desk. Pencil case, ruler, calculator, all aligned in parallel. I close my desk and turn to greet my fellow classmates and new friends.
Most of them seem to know each other already and are engaged in animated conversations. I look around for someone on their own, someone I might be able to approach quietly and form an alliance with. Perhaps it will be Eliza Woods.
A few minutes later my desk mate arrives, breezing into the room, ignoring me standing there beside her as she dumps a grubby backpack on the ground and chatters easily with the other girls. Girls are somewhat baffling to me, even though I understand the biological differences, they tend to think differently to boys, and even smell differently. Like strawberry lipbalm and soap. Perhaps I will be better off forming a friendship with someone of my own sex.
When the classroom is full, the teacher enters the room. The children fall silent and slide into their desks. I shoot another cursory glance behind me, taking one last look at my new surroundings before the lessons begin, and I catch the eye of a boy towards the back. There is something familiar about him. There is something about the beak-ish nose and stubborn curl of his brown hair. I have a good brain for names and faces and I know I have met this boy before.
He is staring at me too, so I know the recognition is mutual. It is only when the teacher calls his name that he looks away, but I think I catch the edge of a frown.
At lunch break, I try to talk to the boy. His name is Emile Hoffman; I looked it up on the seating plan. The name doesn’t sound particularly familiar to me but I’m sure I know him from somewhere. When I call out to him he walks away, across the playing fields, beginning to jog. Perhaps he didn’t hear me.
At home that evening my father asks me if I made any friends. I take time to consider my response. “I’m not sure,” I say. “I thought I recognised someone but I’m not sure where I would have met him before.”
“We’re in a new town, far away from where you spent your summer. He probably just looks like someone you’ve seen before.”
“Maybe you’re right,” I say, as I take a bite out of my perfectly cooked, medium-rare hamburger. The lettuce is crisp and the tomato is so ripe, its juice runs down my chin.
The next morning, I dress myself in a clean outfit. Fashion is so important in order to make the right impression. The t-shirt is black, the lettering of a band I’ve never heard of stencilled across my stomach, and my shorts are made from lightweight denim. I add some gel to my short, blond hair to complete the look, sweeping it into a side wave. When my father sees me he questions whether I am eleven or fifteen.
“All the kids are doing it,” I tell him.
My father just smiles and returns to his newspaper. That crinkling paper sound I’ve come to associate with morning in our house.
I walk to school on my own, having memorised the path yesterday. It is hard to reinvent yourself when there is a parental figure hovering nearby. And showing independence will make me more attractive to winning a potential friend.
“Hi Eliza,” I say, propping my foot on my chair. I try to match her nonchalant attitude from yesterday. She looks at me as if I might have last night’s hamburger stuck in my teeth. A quick analysis tells me there is nothing in my teeth. Brushing my pearly gems three times a day has ensured they remain cavity free. And thankfully I’m not a candidate for braces. Before I can engage her in further conversation the teacher enters the classroom and day two of lessons begins. It is math first, my favourite, and I take out my pencil and ruler, eager to show what I know.
We are working from out textbooks today and the class is soothingly quiet, save for the automatic fan that whirls quietly in the corner and the occasional scrunching of paper from a pupil. I feel an itch at the back of my neck. A drop of sweat runs down my hair line and I swipe it away with my fingers. The sweat is gone, but I still feel an odd, physical sensation at the back of my neck. I look up and behind me. Emile Hoffman is staring at me. Perhaps he has decided he wants to be friends after all.
After lunch, which I eat under the shade of a willow tree in the vicinity of Eliza Woods and her posturing friends, I spy Emile Hoffman on the field playing capture the flag with some of our classmates.
I put my empty lunch tray in the bin, careful to retrieve a dropped fork that has been left abandoned by its side, and make my way to the enthusiastic game to join in. I walk up close to Emile Hoffman. It takes a moment for him to notice I am there. He jumps when he sees me.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” I say.
His eyes are wide and I can see his heart pounding through his ribs.
“I thought I might be able to join in your game,” I say, and prop a friendly smile on my lips.
Emile Hoffman looks me up and down for a few seconds and I realise this is the crucial moment. Will I be accepted among my peers?
“No,” he says quietly, but fiercely. So it is decided. “I know who you are.”
I can feel the frown form on my forehead as I try to place where we have met before.
“From summer camp,” he provides for me.
“But that was so far away from here.” I’m still searching my data banks for the correct memory.
He shrugs. “My grandparents live nearby.”
“I’d really like to make a friend,” I say. I know it’s not the normal way to do things in sixth grade, not if you actually want friends, but I’m not sure what else to say.
“No,” he says, louder. He takes a backwards step. “I know who you are. Don’t come near me.”
“Did I do something to upset you at camp?” I ask. The thought leaves my mouth dry.
Emile Hoffman barks out a short laugh. “I will fight you if you don’t leave me alone.”
We seem to have gone from an amicable conversation to threats in the matter of mere seconds.
“But I won’t fight you. It’s not allowed,” I say.
He laughs again. “All the better.” Then he turns his back on me to reconvene his game.
I walk away, a salty moistness stinging my eyes, wondering if Eliza Woods would refuse my friendship if I offered it to her too.
Dinner with my father that night is subdued. I don’t tell him of Emile Hoffman or his threats. I know it would concern him and we’ve only just begun our journey in this new place. I can’t let him down already. I will simply have to try again with Emile and figure out what it is that I might have done during the summer that has so upset him.
My father has always taught me to plan for every eventuality. Probability and statistics are just numbers, but the concepts appeal to me. I have several approaches figured out in my head about how to make the situation better with Emile. But none of what I foreplan actually transpires. Instead, something far different takes place, something far darker than I expected. Something irrevocable that causes me to be removed from my new school after just three days. And it isn’t even my fault.
On the third day, again at lunch time, I approach Emile Hoffman during his game of capture the flag. This time he is expecting me and he flies in my face and starts hurling unrepeatable words at me, his spittle flying onto my cheeks.
I let him rant and shout. And then when he stops and he is breathing heavily, I ask him again what I have done to upset him so.
“I know who you are,” he says again. “I know what you are.” He spits on the ground.
“I am a boy, like you,” I reply calmly. I have been expecting this.
“Not like me,” he says, saliva dribbling down his chin and pure hate shining in his eyes. At least, I think it’s hate. I’m not sure yet.
With no further warning he leaps forward and punches me in the face. Something sharp grazes against my skin and then a warm liquid trickles down my cheek.
The boys behind him leap back in horror, shouting that a teacher needs to be found. Emile himself looks terrified. Was he not expecting me to bleed?
“I was there, when they made you, at the electronics camp, in the summer, with my father. I was there. I know you can’t bleed.”
“But I’m the newest model,” I say. “My father made me to be as life-like as possible. I breathe, like you, I eat, like you, I sleep, like you and I bleed, like you.” I tuck the flapping piece of my cheek back into my face. And I hurt, like you.
My cheek continues to sting. The pain surprises me. I am tempted to hit him back, but I’m not allowed to fight.
Suddenly my teacher is there, and my father.
“Perhaps it is too soon,” my teacher says. “I don’t think they’re ready yet.”
“I wish people wouldn’t be so afraid of new,” my father says, looking at the dust on his shoes.
He reaches for me, pulls me close to his chest. He strokes the back of my neck muttering; ‘there, there, everything is ok now,’ and then the world goes dark.