You know why I’m contacting you.
You decided to mar your last day of middle school with a reckless decision, one that ordinarily would land you in a day of in-school suspension. Perhaps you thought being a freshman and moving up to the high school would mean you’re exempt from that punishment. You are not.
However, you are hereby offered an opportunity to begin your next year on a better foot than you ended the last. I am willing to allow you to spend the last day of summer vacation at Northbrook Retirement Village for a day of service. You will be expected to care for the needs of residents as well as spend a significant portion of the day reflecting on your poor decisions and what you have learned by helping others in need. This will be demonstrated in the form of an essay to me, due at the end of the day.
This invitation will be extended to several other students who also behaved regretfully. It is my hope that each of you will spend this time not only gaining a greater understanding of your own autonomy but also reflecting on what might have led to—and prevented—the decisions of your classmates.
Enjoy your summer,
JASON “The Nobody”
Jason sits on the grass lawn outside the Northbrook Retirement Village, curled over the sketchbook on his lap and putting off the inevitable as long as possible. A mud-colored Volvo pulls to a stop in front of him; all of the windows are down but even if they weren’t, he’d be able to hear the high-pitched squeals from inside.
“I can’t believe you couldn’t get me out of this!” a girl screeches. Jason doesn’t bother looking up. He’d know Lilith Bhat’s voice anywhere. It had always echoed through the halls of Northbrook Middle School.
“Lily, you need to be held accountable for your actions.” The woman in the driver’s seat sounds distracted. Jason peeks up; sure enough, he can see through the window that her mom’s thumbing through screens on her phone.
“Lilith. My name is Lilith. You gave it to me. Why can’t you use it?”
Her mom sighs, and Jason hears the car shift into park. “Your father gave you that name. I wanted to give you a traditional Indian name—Bharati, another name for Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom.”
“You’re an atheist,” Lilith snaps. Jason bends further over the sketchbook to hide his chuckle, while keeping his eyes on the car. “And, seriously? You would’ve named me Bharati? I’d be Bharati Bhat! That name is awful.”
“It’s your grandmother’s name.”
“Like I said. Even Dida wouldn’t want that for me.”
“You could use a little wisdom.”
Lilith crosses her arms and slams her back against the seat.
Her mother sighs again. “Stop being so dramatic.”
Lilith throws her arms in the air, then whips open the car door. “Don’t be dramatic?” She leans into her mother; she’s about as opposite of Lilith as a person can get, with a dark suit and her hair carefully combed back into a tight ponytail. “It’s like we’ve never met.”
Mrs. Bhat presses her thin lips into a pale line. She slowly closes her eyes. “Perhaps you could use this time to learn something.”
Lilith pauses before stepping out of the car. “I suppose I could.”
She stands outside of the car now, running her hands through her glossy black-brown hair to make sure it’s smooth. She tugs at her dress—it’s bright orange and snug across the top before flaring out. Some girls with Lilith’s soft shape hide under big sweaters or loose T-shirts. But the bright orange is meant to draw attention, Jason knows; everything Lilith does is to get attention. The orange complements her dark skin, and the retro style of the dress makes her look more like a 1950s-era teenager than a thirteen-year-old middle schooler in middle Missouri. “I could use this time to study the elderly, in case I’m ever cast in a time-traveling story. They’re back in vogue.”
Jason hears her mother sigh again, then the Volvo is pushed into drive. “That’s not what I meant. I’ll pick you up at four thirty, Lily.” She peels away from the curb, making the passenger side door slam shut as Lilith jumps out of the way.
“It’s Lilith!” she yells at the retreating car. Whipping around, she spots him. Her eyes widen like she’s never seen him before, even though they had four classes together last year. Jason feels her eyes drifting across him, taking in his shaggy hair and a beanie. “What are you looking at?”
Jason shrugs and smiles with just the right side of his mouth.
His choppy, long hair hangs across his narrow eyes. He nibbles at a hangnail, and Lilith winces at his painted-black chewed-up fingernails.
“You have abysmal cuticle care.”
“I’ll work on that.”
Lilith crosses her arms and stomps toward the door. After shoving the sketchbook and charcoal pencil into his backpack, Jason trails silently behind her. He gives her a lot of space because drama might be contagious and he doesn’t want anything to do with it. He keeps his hands shoved in his pockets, his head bent low, and his posture as slouched as the canvas backpack slung over his shoulder.
“Hey, Picasso.” A girl with close-cropped pixie hair and eyes heavily lined with black makeup is perched on the cement ledge bordering the building’s porch.
“Rex.” Jason nods hello.
Rex tilts her head toward the doors closing behind Lilith. “Is there, like, a school meeting going on? First Drama Queen—”
“I think she wants to be called Lilith.”
“What? Anyway, inside I spotted the black kid with the”—Rex presses a finger into her cheek like a dimple and makes a sound—ding—like a crystal goblet being flicked—“with Principal Hardy, probably sweet-talking the nurses into a giving him a foot massage.”
Jason’s eyes crinkle. “Wes is here? He’s, like, class president. I wonder what he did wrong to serve time.”
“You know, suspension? I didn’t mean to offend, like if serving time is something you or your fam—”
“Your political correctness is annoying.” Rex crosses her arms and juts her pointy chin at Jason, who unconsciously takes a step back. “But what are you talking about?”
“Well, Principal Hardy thinks he’s sticking it to us, doesn’t he? Making us spend our last Saturday of summer vacation volunteering with old people since we screwed up the last day of school.”
Rex squints at him.
“That’s why you’re here, right?” Jason asks.
Both turn as a red convertible screeches to a stop in front of them. Without saying good-bye or looking back at the driver, a girl in running leggings and a zipped-up sweatshirt hops out. Jason’s spine seems to straighten on its own when he sees who it is—Ally. His backpack suddenly feels a lot heavier. He never would’ve risked bringing his sketchbook if he had known Ally was going to be here. The bag drops down his arm and he clutches it in his fist while thinking about the drawings of her midkick at the soccer net. At the finish line of the track. Pitching the softball. It’s not that he’s a stalker or anything, or even that he has a crush on the girl. Sports aren’t his thing. Girls, either, if he’s being honest. In fact, he and Ally have zilch in common.
It’s just her face is made for sketching—heart-shaped but with sharp, high cheekbones incredible for shading; thick dark eyelashes framing sea-glass green eyes; even darker eyebrows in fierce straight lines like two slashes across her delicate face; wild hair that moves even more than she does. Drawing her midmovement never truly captures her, so of course he can’t stop drawing her. It’s an artist thing, he tells himself.
“Great.” Rex groans. “Sports Barbie is here, too.”
As Ally trots from the car, she shoves her thick hair back to the top of her head, not bothering to pull the hair all the way through the ponytail holder. When she gets to the stairs, she twists her neck, and Rex and Jason both cringe at the popping sound. Her father yells from the car. “Don’t forget you’re missing practice for this today. You better figure out a way to get in some training!”
The girl scowls, but dutifully sprints up the stairs, still without looking back.
“Ally, right?” Jason says as she passes. Rex’s eyes widen. It’s not like him to offer up casual conversation.
But Ally barely nods. She shoves through the door and into the building.
“Ally, right?” Rex mocks.
“What?” Jason ducks his head, his hair covering his eyes but not the flush across his face.
“Dude. You can’t call me out on not knowing Wes’s name and then say, ‘Ally, right?’ as if everyone and their brother doesn’t know who Sports Barbie is. She’s, like, the most popular girl in school. Maybe in the county.”
“I’m working on my social skills.” He shrugs.
“You hate people. It’s the basis of our friendship.”
“We’re not friends,” Jason says. “I’m just the only person who isn’t scared of you.”
Rex’s eyebrow pops up.
“Okay,” he concedes, “I’m a little scared of you.”
The corner of Rex’s mouth tugs back in an almost-smile. “As you should be, Picasso.” The smile disappears altogether when they hear the booming voice of their school principal ordering Ally, Wes, and Lilith to take a seat in the lobby.
“Guess we better get this over with.” Rex groans. She elbows Jason in the ribs. “Maybe you can spend the day with Ally, working on your social skills.”
Principal Hardy is in the middle of the lobby, standing like always with his hands behind him as he gazes with narrowed eyes at Lilith, who’s applying a layer of lip gloss; Ally, who’s sitting on the edge of the couch with her arms crossed; and Wes, who’s grinning straight back into the principal’s face. Rex whistles as she saunters into the room. One of Hardy’s thick gray eyebrows nudges up when he spots her. He curls a finger, indicating her to move toward him.
Rex shoves a hand through her stubby bangs, makes a fist, and tugs, then trudges toward the principal. “What’s up?”
Hardy crosses his arms. “It’s a positive sign that you’re here.”
“Wait!” says Wes, the boy with the ding smile. “This was optional?” He salutes the rest of the students and moves toward the door.
“Sit down! No, mister. It’s not,” Mr. Hardy bellows, but keeps his eyes locked with Rex. Wes sits back down.
Rex stares at the principal, but doesn’t say anything. The longer the silence stretches, the deeper Hardy’s face flushes as he waits for Rex to crack and be the first to speak. Instead, she yawns, wide and deliberate. Hardy’s nostrils flare as if he’s keeping his own yawn inside.
The principal speaks softly, probably so only Rex can hear, but of course the other students lean in to eavesdrop. “This is a day where you can show me you have a place at our school.”
“Sorry, Teach,” Rex says. “We’re off to the high school this year. New principal.”
Hardy smirks. “Actually, you’re looking at the new high school principal. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t a chance for you to kick-off the new year with a clean slate.”
Rex slowly blinks.
“I’m going to come down hard on you this year, Rex. No more of your games. I won’t tolerate it, regardless of what you might be dealing with at . . . home.”
Rex’s eyes narrow. Her chin pops up. But she still doesn’t speak. The two of them glare for another long moment, while behind them the other students stare without breathing.
“My money’s on Rex,” Wes whispers. Jason backs away from the other boy.
Principal Hardy grinds his teeth. “Take a seat,” he finally snaps.
Rex backs up, eyes still on the principal, and sinks into the seat next to Lilith.
“You’re on my dress,” Lilith whines, pulling her skirt from under Rex’s legs.
“Whose is it, your mom’s?” Rex doesn’t budge.
“This is vintage,” Lilith says importantly. She yanks on the skirt, pulling it out from under Rex.
Rex hisses like a cat, making two bright red spots flare on Lilith’s cheeks and a laugh escape from Wes. Rex turns her glare on him, but he seems impervious, smiling even wider. Rex claps silently as Lilith, her skirt yanked free, makes a big production of grabbing her satchel—also vintage, plastic with giant peonies—before stomping over to the other vinyl couch in the lobby. She plops down next to Ally, who sighs out of her nose and angles away from all of them.
“Seriously,” Lilith whispers to Jason too loudly to actually be a whisper. Jason’s eyes widen at being directly addressed. “How can you be friends with her?” Ally turns their way, listening in. Jason’s hands fly up like he’s holding back Lilith’s words.
“I’m not!” Jason stumbles to his feet. His head whips between Lilith, Rex, and Ally. Rex stretches out her legs, crossing them at the ankles, and watches Jason squirm. “I mean, Rex, you’re not really friends with anyone, are you? I don’t mean that, either. I mean, you don’t like people. Right? It’s not that I don’t want to be—”
Wes takes a seat next to Rex, rubbing his hands together. “Oooh, this is getting good.” He nudges her. “You’re going to hurt him, aren’t you?”
But Jason’s off the hook as Rex turns on Wes, her lips curling back like she’s about to hiss again.
“Meow,” Wes whispers with another ding smile that only stretches when he realizes he’s thrown her. Rex is first to look away.
Three loud claps from Principal Hardy and four out of the five students turn toward him. Rex stays put, staring at a fish tank instead of the principal and the squat woman in scrubs next to him.14
“Oh, hi there, Rex!” the woman says suddenly. Still, Rex doesn’t move. Jason’s head swivels between the two of them as if looking for the connection.
The woman bounces a little at them, a smile stretching across her face.
“This is Mrs. Mitchell, head of Northbrook Retirement Village,” Hardy says.
“Jeff and I go way back!” Mrs. Mitchell says with a laugh, not seeing Mr. Hardy’s wince.
“Oh, yeah?” Wes says.
“That’s right,” Mrs. Mitchell says. She clasps her hands behind her back and rocks back on her heels. “Jeff here thinks running a middle school is so hard.” She rolls her eyes as she drags out the last two words. “I said, ‘You should try a nursing home sometime if you think you’ve got it rough!’ And that’s how we got here, I guess.”
“That’s one way of looking at it,” Mr. Hardy says without a smile. “Mrs. Mitchell is my sister.”
“And we’re going to join forces today! Jeff and I have so many fun things planned for y’all!”
“You’re not Southern, Trish. We were raised in Pennsylvania. You can’t pull off a Southern accent. How many times do I have to tell you?”
Mrs. Mitchell’s smile stays plastered on her face. “Jeff,” she drawls to the kids, “might learn today how important it is to be warm and homey when prompting a change in behavior.”
Mr. Hardy shakes his head. “I think I’ll stick with my style.”
“Which is what?” Mrs. Mitchell asks.
Wes’s hand shoots in the air, but Mr. Hardy cuts him off. “Don’t answer that, Wes.” He clears his throat, then continues, “Mrs. Mitchell and I have worked to help coordinate today’s activities.”
“Activities?” Ally asks. “I thought we were helping to clean or something.”
“No, no,” Mrs. Mitchell says, her smile stretching even farther. “We have so many fun activities planned. I feel that contributing to society is what brings about change, not isolating people for wrongdoing. So we’ll be doing fun things—crafts, preparing meals, maybe even something artistic—I just can’t wait!” She claps like a walrus Jason once saw at a zoo.
“You’re going to love it here!” Mrs. Mitchell continues. “It’s so fun and so well run that you’ll never want to leave.”
Principal Hardy forces a crack-in-cement smile despite the audible groan from every student. “Mrs. Mitchell says she wouldn’t miss an opportunity to have you interact socially with residents.”
Jason’s eyes flick between Hardy and Rex, who stood up abruptly at Mrs. Mitchell’s words. Hardy shakes his head ever so slightly, eyes locked with Rex. She slumps back into the seat. No one but Jason seems to have noticed the exchange. Jason’s fingers drum on his backpack as he leans against an armchair, a safe place outside of the drama on the two couches.
“Our seniors love to talk with young people,” says Mrs. Mitchell, bouncing a little more. “First, I’ll pair you each with someone who could use a great listening ear.” She tugs on her ear and winks. Rex slams her head on the couch back.
“Interview them, ask questions, get to know them,” Principal Hardy instructs.
Lilith runs her hands over her dress so the pleats stay smooth. “That’s exactly what I was planning to do—approach this as research for future method acting.”
“Acting?” Mrs. Mitchell claps her hands together. “You’re an actress?”
Lilith nods and says, “I’ve been the lead in all the community and middle school productions.”
“I thought that new kid, the blonde, was going to be the lead last time?” Wes cuts in.
“That was a last-minute casting change,” Lilith says primly. That’s one way of putting it, Jason thinks but keeps his mouth shut. “The point is,” she continues, “yes. I am an actress.”
“Casting change?” Ally says. “I heard you went all Hulk backstage?”
“Oh,” says Mrs. Mitchell, saving Lilith from replying. “The residents here love performances!” More frantic bouncing, this time with claps. “You could put on a skit for them!”
“A what?” Ally and Rex say at the same time, then scowl at each other before turning to glare in different directions.
“A skit.” The smug smile stretching across Principal Hardy’s face is Grinch-like and slow. “I like the sound of that. I’m also going to need a full-page letter—front and back—from each of you outlining what you learned throughout the course of the day.”
“Yes!” Mrs. Mitchell cheers again. “At four o’clock, we have a half hour allotted for entertainment. Generally, we play bingo or charades, but I know the residents would much prefer watching an original skit!” She squeals. “Especially if it’s inspired by their own lives!” Clap, clap, clap. Bounce, bounce, bounce. “Oh, this is fabulous.”
“Fabulous,” Wes echoes, and the dimple disappears from his cheek as he shakes his head. All four turn Rex-like death glares on Lilith, who once again straightens her dress.
“Thanks a lot, Lily,” Ally hisses.
“Okay,” Mrs. Mitchell says, “let’s meet our seniors! You can get to know them while helping to serve breakfast. If you’ll leave your bags here, I’ll have one of the aides put them in the meeting room where you’ll be having lunch.”18
The kids slip their phones into their pockets and drop their bags in front of Mrs. Mitchell, all except for Jason. “I’ll hang on to mine,” he says.
Lilith grabs her satchel back, too.
Mrs. Mitchell claps and bounces again, then turns, making her way past the giant tank full of tropical fish and down a hallway. Principal Hardy sighs and swoops up his arms like a conductor. The students groan and follow her. That is, all except for Rex, whose eyes stay locked on the fish tank, where a fat purple fish glides backward and then rushes forward into its own reflection again and again. Jason pauses beside her.
Hardy clears his throat. Silently, Rex stands and trails behind the rest of the group toward the cafeteria.
“Don’t worry,” Hardy says as Rex passes. “We’re staying off the third floor.”
“As if I care,” Rex snaps, and barrels ahead, elbowing Jason to the side.
“What’s on the third floor?” Jason asks the principal.
But Principal Hardy just shakes his head. Under his breath, he says, “Don’t forget why you’re here, Jason.”
—Midwest Book Review
—Jonathan Rosen, author of Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies