"I'm Elliot," the red-haired boy threw over his shoulder as the two of us were making our way through the sparse crowd, heading to the far wall where a few tables still stood unoccupied. Upon reaching one of them, he put his tray down, turned and offered me a hand.
"Nice to meet you," he said.
"You too," I said, hurriedly slamming my tray on the table to shake his hand. It was surprising, to meet someone so friendly so quickly. I haven't had friends for a while—didn’t need any, as I kept telling myself—but looking into Elliot's smiling eyes I felt a tinge of hope that perhaps things could be different here.
He nodded at the table and pulled out a chair for himself. I sat down with my back to the wall—a habit of many years, allowing me an unobstructed vantage point in case of an attack.
"Always a challenge, finding someone to eat with on your first day, right?" Elliot picked a knife and a slice of bread and started spreading butter on it. "I've switched a couple schools in my life, so I know what it's like."
"Yeah." I picked my fork, searching my mind for something to contribute to the small talk, finding nothing.
"There's plenty of friendly kids around here." He gestured around the noisy hall. "I saw you tried to sit with Jesse—that was just a poor choice, dude, other kids are much nicer."
I stared at him. So that was the blond boy's name. I restrained myself from saying it out loud, but even in my head, it sounded beautiful.
"You know him?" I said, returning my gaze to my plate.
He chuckled. "Better than I wish I did." He leaned forward, sandwich in hand. "He's my roommate."
I looked up again. "Oh?"
"Yeah." He took a bite, chewed. "Don’t get me wrong, he's not bad or anything, just picky who he wants to hang out with."
"Is he popular?"
He giggled through his mouthful. "Hmm…define popular?"
I blinked. The concept seemed pretty self-explanatory to me.
"Do many people want to hang out with him?"
That seemed to amuse him even further, and he nearly choked on his food.
"Yeah," he said after swallowing it and putting his sandwich down. "You could say that many people want to 'hang out' with him." He made a quote gesture with his fingers. "But he's picky with whom he wants to 'hang out'." Another air quote followed.
I stared at him. "I'm not sure I understand."
He rolled his eyes. "Never mind, enough about him. He's a senior, so you won’t need to deal with him too much. I'm a senior, too, but I'm also a prefect, responsible for the third and the second floor of our dorm, so…" He spread his arms. "If you need help with anything, or have any questions, I'm at your service."
I blinked, processing this. So, him inviting me to sit together wasn't an act of friendliness as I had thought. He was simply responsible for the floor where I lived and felt obliged to meet his new subject. A hope of gaining a friend dissipated as quickly as it had appeared, and I felt irrationally betrayed.
"So, I figure Mr. Calwin has explained everything to you?" he continued, unaware of my change of mood. "Did he give you the brochure with the rules? Great. The bottom line is, follow the dress code, turn in all homework, be to classes on time, cooperate and respect the students and the staff," he pointed at his chest, clearly including himself in both categories, "and, well, stay out of trouble, and you're cool." His grin widened and he stared at me expectantly.
"Trouble?" I said.
"Yeah, trouble," he said, the smile still glued to his face, but his eyes serious behind his glasses. "Like, being nice to people. Not running in the corridors bumping into them, for example."
I cringed internally. Here was another witness of my yesterday's breakdown.
"It was a one-time event," I said, stabbing my now cold scrambled eggs with a fork, avoiding looking up at him. "New environments stress me out sometimes."
He nodded emphatically. "Absolutely understandable. Yet I'm sure you could find other ways to deal with stress. Visit the gym during your free hours, enroll into one of the sports clubs. You could also take walks in the woods when you need some alone time—just come back before the evening study period. And if you have any troubles or questions, once again—don’t hesitate to ask me. I'm sure we could become friends." He reached out and squeezed my shoulder, still smiling. I almost fell for that smile again, but then reminded myself that befriending people was basically a part of his job description, and the warm feeling dissipated.
There was one thing I wanted to ask him, though.
"If I need to," I said, "where do I find you?"
"The third floor, right above you." He leaned back in his chair. "Room 303."
I nodded, repeating the number in my mind.
So now I knew where Jesse lived.