There was absolutely nothing remarkable about the little suburban town of Mission Creek. When you broke it down, it was just like everywhere else. Bland brick buildings that looked like they had the absolute life sucked out of them, rows and rows of perfectly planted houses in convenient little neighborhoods, the dark shadowy area that housed mediocre and overpriced apartments, topped off by a couple of schools with burnt-out teachers, and a rambunctious student body. The shapes and colors may have changed, and the people may have had different faces, but take away the illusion of uniqueness and it was all the same.
Trust me, I had lived in enough places to know.
Creekside High school was definitely not an exception to the rule.
“I know starting at a new school for your Junior year isn’t… ideal. But promise me you’ll at least try to fit in? I don’t want a repeat of last year.” My father’s gentle voice carried over the rolling sounds of an overworked engine as he pulled up in front of what was going to be the home of my academic career for approximately six to twelve months.
The campus consisted of several detached buildings–each painted the same boring shades of eggshell with turquoise accents, and each in various stages of disarray. They were marked by a letter, but there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the labeling. From where we sat in the parking lot, I could see the D, I, R, and F buildings. Clearly, the town budget did not go into education.
But what else was new?
I grabbed the overstuffed navy blue backpack sitting at my feet–the only new thing in the immediate area, because for some reason Dad thought a new backpack would soften the blow of the move. Every time. “I know, I know. I’ll try. And then I’ll try harder at the next school.”
Dad’s eyebrows furrowed at that little comment–but what else was I supposed to say? Mission Creek was temporary. Just like all the places that came before it. “Theo, I know that moving is hard on you, but my job–”
“Yeah, I know, Dad. Gotta keep food on the table somehow.” The piercing ring of the bell shot through the air, and the loitering teenagers wandering around the open campus who had definitely lost track of time broke away from their respective groups and scurried to their classrooms. “That must be my cue to find the office. Later, Dad!”
“Do you need help finding the office?”
I adjusted the straps of my backpack on my shoulders and shook my head. “Nope! Been to enough schools to know where to find the office building.” Before he could say anything else, I threw a little wave over my shoulder and marched my way to the center of the campus. Creekside was going to take a little getting used to–if only to decipher the complete nonsense that was the labeling system for the buildings–but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. By next year, we would be moving again anyway.
The office building was just as unremarkable as the rest of the school. The dilapidated roof hung just a little too low, and layers of paint melted off the textured walls. The bright blue door was far heavier than it needed to be, and when I stepped inside it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. To the right was a long, tall desk that was sectioning off a small work area that was basically buried in paper, overflowing filing cabinets, and a single overworked copy machine that was practically falling apart and definitely a relic from the 90s. A single young woman sat behind the large desk, not even looking up at me from behind her glasses as she scrolled on her cell phone.
I approached the counter, watching her mouth as she chewed on some bubblegum, blew the occasional bubble, and then scraped the remains off her ruby red lips with her teeth. Eventually, I got tired of staring, so I cleared my throat.
She looked up at me, clicked her tongue, and set down her phone. But she didn’t say anything.
“Um. Hi. My name is Theo Jones. I just transferred here and I need to pick up my schedule...”
The woman let out a heavy and rather unnecessary sigh before wiggling a mouse to woo her dinosaur of a computer to life. “Name?”
She could not be serious. “Uh. Theo Jones.”
“Is that short for something, Mister Theo Jones?” If monotonous had a human form, it would surely be this withering blonde woman.
“No. It’s just Theo.”
“Alright, just Theo. Eleventh grade? Looks like you’ve got Mr. Park for AP English first. Good for you. Building K, room 101. Here’s your schedule. If you have any questions, please do hesitate to ask.” She pressed a few buttons and the copy machine roared to life, filling the air with a concerning grinding sound.
“You mean… don’t hesitate to ask?”
My schedule finished printing, and she shoved it at me without another word. Which, I guess, was an answer to my question. And probably meant I was on my own finding my way to Mr. Park’s classroom. I exited the office and looked down at my schedule. Six classes–I wasn’t taking a Zero period–including all the usual stuff and a random elective I wasn’t actually interested in. Block schedule, which was nothing new, but it worked differently than in my last school. I would have to make note of that.
Creekside was a bit of a maze, but I managed to find the K building two up and three over from the office–next to what appeared to be the gym. Thanks to my little office detour, the class had probably already started, which meant interrupting the teacher and making a spectacle of the whole thing.
Admittedly, that was my least favorite part.
I took a few deep, calming breaths before allowing myself to reach out and open the door.
Again, my eyes were forced to adjust to the painful fluorescent lights. Not that I had a particular interest in seeing thirty pairs of judgemental eyes all fall on me at once. As I stepped into the classroom, the sound of waves filled my ears, and those aforementioned pairs of eyes opened and turned in unison to watch me enter the room.
The door shut behind me, and all the eyes blinked in unison, and I think I saw my life flash before my eyes.
Mr. Park stood up from his desk to the far left of the classroom, and he used a little remote to turn down the sound from the projector. “Can I help you, young man?”
I shifted on my feet and tightened my grip on my schedule, the paper crinkling in my hands. “Yeah, um, I think I’m in this class? My name is Theo, I’m new.” You would think with how much experience I had, this would be the easy part.
It was not.
Mr. Park clapped his hands together. “Oh, that’s right! Sorry, sorry, you caught us right in the middle of our morning meditation.”
Mr. Park slipped out from behind the desk and walked over to me, all the eyes in the room following the movement. He was a tall, scraggly, balding man with glasses and a wardrobe from 1975. He hummed, tapping his finger to his chin as he looked around the classroom for a spot to store me. “Ah, yes, you can take a seat right over there–Jace, could you raise your hand so Theo can find his way to his new seat?”
I turned my attention to the careful rows of desks, tracing the room until I caught sight of the boy meant to show me the way. Our eyes locked together, and the blood rushed from my face down to my toes.
I had been to more than enough high schools to know how they worked. And there was absolutely nothing subtle about the way Jace screamed ‘top of the food chain.’ Okay, so the letterman jacket was a very good clue. So was his chiseled jaw, perfectly styled brown hair, and ocean blue eyes. Everything about him oozed popularity–which meant he was the last person I wanted to associate with.
After a moment of silence and an embarrassing nudge from the teacher, I made my way to the fourth seat in the third row and dropped my textbook-filled backpack to the floor, wincing at the loud sound it made. Mr. Park gave a satisfied nod and returned to his desk, announcing that we would be continuing the meditation and focusing on letting the waves guide us to our inner truth–whatever that meant.
Alright, so it wasn’t exactly a standard start to the day, but having a weird teacher definitely didn’t make Creekside different from any other school I had been to. Maybe it threw me off my rhythm–a little–but it was just as temporary as any other school I had been to. I fished my notebook and a pencil out of my backpack, the robotic sound of waves buzzing in my ears. It was nothing like the real ocean, which was at least a five-hour drive from where we were.
I swatted at the air, aiming for whatever pesky fly had wandered into the classroom.
Oh, wait, the fly was a person. I turned my attention to Jace, who had leaned over his desk and way too far into my personal space. The students around us had already closed their eyes again–a few even going so far as to lay their heads on their desks–and Mr. Park seemed too wrapped up in the meditation to notice.
“You said your name is Theo, Right? I’m Jace.”
I raised my eyebrow. “I gathered. When Mr. Park called you Jace.”
Jace did not let the venom in my words phase him–in fact, he held out his hand, his thick and callused fingers reaching for mine. “Must suck starting school two weeks into the semester. If you need anything, I can show you around!”
I looked down at the outstretched hand and pointedly ignored it. “Thanks, but I think I got it.”
Jace’s friendly smile slipped, but before he could say a word, Mr. Park raised a hand. “You don’t find your inner self by chit-chatting, boys!” He never opened his eyes, but I swear he could see right through me.
Alright, so Creekside High was going to take a little getting used to. But it was nothing I couldn’t handle. At the end of the day, it was just high school.
It wasn’t like anything was going to be different.
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