Strange Girl CHAPTER ONE
I STILL GET asked about Aja, 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 makes me smile, probably because I understand it’s hard to talk about Aja without sounding like a nut. That’s what I try telling people who want to know about her. She was a mystery, a genuine enigma, in a world that has more trouble each day believing in such things. And now that she’s gone, I think she’ll forever remain a mystery.
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 two weeks 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 wondered if she might have been kind of strange.
There was a perfectly fine bench five feet off to her left but instead of sitting on it like a normal person she was kneeling in the grass and plucking at a few scrawny daisies, while occasionally looking up at Elder High’s sweaty student body as they poured into the side streets or else cut across the park toward their homes.
The sweat was because of the humidity. From June until October, it hovered around 90 percent. But the stickiness was usually vanquished by a brief autumn that blew by in a month 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 principal and the teachers did.
I suppose it could have been worse. Elder could have been located in North Dakota instead of South Dakota. Our northern neighbors were something of a mystery to most of us. I mean, it’s not like anyone went to vacation up there. All we really knew about them was that they were always lobbying to change their name to just plain “Dakota.” For some reason they thought that would make their state sound more inviting. Go figure.
Anyway, the thing that struck me about Aja at the start, besides her love of grass and daisies, was that she stared at many of the students who walked by. She didn’t smile at them, didn’t say hi or bat her long lashes or anything seductive like that. She just looked straight at them, which probably made most of them feel uncomfortable. I noticed the majority looked away as they strode by.
I mentioned her long lashes, and yeah, I did happen to notice she was pretty. Not beautiful in the usual social-media way, but an easy eight or nine on Fred Allen’s 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—Häagen-Dazs Coffee.
Yet I didn’t equate her with ice cream because I wanted to take a bite out of her or anything gross like that. 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 lashes framed a pair of large, dark eyes that were, sadly, not looking anywhere in my direction.
That was it; 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. The thing that struck me about the dress was—not that it was filthy—it looked like it could have used a wash.
Introduction to Aja complete. I went home and didn’t give her more than a few hours of thought all weekend. And no, honestly, my fantasies were not a hundred percent 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 our first period, calculus, started. I was taking calculus because it was an AP class and my parents were obsessed that I ace as many hard classes as possible so I’d go to college and not grow up to be as miserable as they were.
That was sort of a joke in our household but, unfortunately, it was mostly true. My dad sold new and used cars at a Toyota dealership in a neighboring town of ours, Balen, which actually had a multiplex where the speaker system didn’t sound like a jukebox and there was a generous 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 also worked in Balen as an executive secretary for a boss that couldn’t have spelled her job title. My parents were both smart, and they loved each other, I think, 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 whenever I asked about their past made me feel like I was somehow rubbing salt in old wounds. I joke about it now—a bad habit, I still joke about most things—but it did worry me that they weren’t happy.
Janet Shell, on the other hand, was super happy, or else she knew how to act the part, which according to her was all that mattered. She was taking calculus because she was smart and loved math. But she was cool, too. For example, although a straight-A student, she intended to get a C in calculus simply because she didn’t want to get elected our class valedictorian.
Besides hating the spotlight, Janet knew if she was required to give a speech to us graduating seniors, there was no way she’d be able to resist telling us that virtually our whole class would still be living in Elder when our ten- and twenty-year high school reunions rolled around—her way of saying that the majority of us were destined to be losers.
“Have you seen the new girl yet?” Janet asked before Mr. Simon showed up his usual five minutes late. We’d had him as our math teacher three years running. The guy came into class reeking of pot almost every morning until Halloween rolled around, when he’d switch over to some kind of mysterious blue pill—Janet swore it was the stimulant Adderall—and lecture us on three chapters a week instead of his normal three pages.
Naturally, Janet’s question about the “new girl” piqued my interest. I’d been looking for her since I’d arrived at school. Still, I acted cool.
“Nope,” I said, adding a shrug.
“Bullshit. You must have seen her. You just blushed.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Janet looked me over. “Her name’s Aja—A-J-A. It’s pronounced like Asia but with more of a J sound. She’s a total fox, super exotic-looking. She just moved here from a remote village in Brazil. Everyone’s talking about her but I hear she’s not talking much. The word is—she’s not stuck-up, just quiet.” Janet paused. “What do you think? Want to ask her out?”
“How about I meet her first, then decide?” I said.
“Okay. But I think with this one you’re going to have to act fast. She’s no Nicole. You can’t wait two years to get up your nerve. She’ll go quick.”
I felt a stab of pain that Janet had so carelessly brought up Nicole but hid it. “What makes you so sure? She might be picky.”
Janet wavered. “True. But a ton of guys are going to hit on her. She’s a looker and she’s got money and she 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 beautiful girls.”
“Hold on a sec. You’re the one who says us guys are always judging a book by its cover. Well, what are you doing? So she’s pretty. So she’s got expensive clothes. She could still be a jerk.”
“She’s not, she’s cool.” Janet leaned closer, lowered her voice. “I met her, I spoke to her.”
“Ten minutes ago. We only exchanged a few words but I sensed something unique about her.” Janet paused. “You know the last time I said that, don’t you?”
“Ages ago. When you met me.”
“That’s right. That’s why you need to ask her out.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Mr. Simon stumbled in right then, smelling like Colombian Gold, and told us to open our textbooks to chapter three. It was Janet who had to remind him that we hadn’t covered chapter two yet.
I 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 meant she was more than a pretty face.
I saw Aja in third period, before lunch, in American History.
We were in the same class. Just my luck.
Maybe, I thought, maybe not. My usual seat was in the corner, all the way in the back. Aja came in two minutes after me and sat down in the first row, but the last seat, by the windows. Basically, even though we occupied the same room, she was pretty far away. 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, given the fact that she hadn’t even glanced in my direction when she’d entered the classroom, I was probably just being paranoid.
She looked good, better than good. There were plenty of heads between me and her and all I could see was Aja’s. 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.
Our teacher, Mrs. Nancy Billard, came into the room. A stuffy, old bird if you got on her wrong side, but one of the most caring people you could meet if she happened to like you. She taught AP English on top of history and I’d had her for English the previous year and had won her over with a slew of wild-and-crazy short stories I’d written. She liked students who thought outside the box.
However, those who landed on her wrong side were either flunked or ignored or both. In her AP classes she enforced a strict work ethic. She said anyone who wanted to go to college had to earn it.
“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?”
“Aja,” she replied in a soft voice.
“Is that your 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.”
“Took a moment to remember your family name?”
Aja stared at her and said nothing.
Billard continued. “Well, we’re all very happy you could join us two weeks 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 three. Time we got to the thirteen colonies and their feud with King George the Third.” Billard paused and glanced at Aja again. “Do you have a problem, girl?”
“You’re looking at me kind of funny. I thought maybe you did.” Aja didn’t reply, just continued to stare at her, which didn’t sit well with Billard. “You do know something about American history, don’t you?”
“No,” Aja replied.
Billard blinked, unsure whether Aja was sassing her or not. “Then it’s your responsibility to catch up. This is an AP class—there are no shortcuts here. Read the first forty-eight pages of your textbook tonight and I’ll 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 whenever he yawned. Some might have wondered what he was doing in an AP class. But those who bothered to contemplate the matter probably didn’t know that Ted’s father was best buddies with Elder High’s Principal Levitt and that—despite what Billard had just said—there were always shortcuts available to those students whose parents knew the right people.
Handing Aja her textbook, Ted didn’t simply look at her; he gloated over her face and body before returning to his chair, eliciting a mild chuckle from the rest of the class.
“Thanks,” Aja said. Her voice was not merely soft, it was smooth, cool, confident. She obviously didn’t have to speak up to make a point. Plus her answers to Billard’s questions had been at best evasive, which I naturally had to admire.
Yet I could tell already that Billard didn’t like her and that Aja was probably going to have a hard time in her class. That bothered me, a little, even though she was a total stranger.
Total stranger. Damn. Got to change that fast.
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 her outside in the hallway and walked by her side before she stopped at her locker. Oh no, I thought. I wasn’t ready for this. Suddenly a life-changing choice was 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 preset 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 stuck it out for me to take. “I was told this is the combination,” she said.
Aja didn’t have on ordinary pants; she wore designer jeans that had clearly been purchased far from Elder’s finest clothing stores. Up top she had on an ultrathin maroon sweater; and if it was responsible for her subtle curves, then it was worth its weight in gold. Her silky blouse had red in it as well—a rusty color that made me think of desert sand dunes and romantic sunset kisses and . . .
I was losing it, I suddenly realized. Aja’s big brown eyes were still waiting for me to take her slip of paper. I shook my head and took a breath. Breathing was good, I reminded myself.
“This looks like it might work,” I said. Duh! The piece of paper said: “LOCKER NUMBER” on top. A sequence of three numbers followed: 12–18–24. All the locks in school—all the combinations I’d ever seen, for that matter—worked on the right-left-right sequence. When I dialed in Aja’s three digits, the locker immediately opened. Amazing. I noticed her eyes following me closely and added, “You see how it works?”
“Yes,” 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 break into your locker.”
“Kids do that here?” she asked.
“Some kids do, yeah.” Again, she seemed to wait for me to continue so I added, “Actually, the students here don’t like being called kids.”
“What should I call them?”
“Girls or guys or people. Kids—it sounds kind of young, you know.”
“I didn’t know that but thanks for telling me.”
“No problem. 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 wonder 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 keep breathing and try to act normal. Fortunately, Aja didn’t appear to notice my clumsiness.
“Yes,” she said simply, adding, “I’m Aja.”
“I know. I mean, I heard what you told Mrs. Billard.” Aja nodded and again acted as if she wanted me to keep talking. I added, “She can be a great teacher if she thinks you’re trying. But slack off and she’ll classify you as a loser. Then you’ll be in trouble. She was serious when she told you that she’s going to quiz you on the first two chapters of the textbook. If I was you I’d study tonight. I’d read chapter three as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if she quizzed you on the whole lot.”
“I will.” She looked past me as the student body converged toward Elder High’s courtyard. We had an indoor 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, hot dog, 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.
“Yeah. It’s always after third period. Are you hungry?”
“This bod . . .” 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?”
“Uh-huh. I can show you where they are if you want. If you don’t have other plans, I mean.”
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.
I assumed the language barrier was the reason she had almost referred to herself as “This body.” I was pretty sure that’s what she’d been about to say.
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 finding 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. Why not? I’d just met Aja and already I was taking her to lunch. Not bad for a few minutes’ work. I’d decided to pay for whatever she ordered to show what a gentleman I was.
“Hey, Fred, how’s the demo going?” Carlos asked from the other side of the glass. He was from Mexico and worked three jobs to keep his family of six out of the rain. He was also a genius when it came to playing the acoustic guitar and was helping me to lay down tracks on a new three-song demo I was struggling to put together.
Yeah, I know, so I wanted to be a rock star.
But tell the truth. Who didn’t?
“It’s getting there,” I said honestly, turning to Aja, who was staring at Carlos and not bothering to look at the overhead menu. To his credit, Carlos acted like I showed up every afternoon with a pretty girl on my arm. “Know what you want?” I asked Aja.
She looked at me. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Want a burger? A sandwich? A salad?”
“I’ll have what you’re having,” she said.
“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 three minutes flat and when it was time to pay Aja pulled out a wad of cash fat enough to buy a new car with. I hastily told her I had it covered and she put the money back in her pocket.
Like the rest of town, Elder High was kind of old and kind of poor, and no part of our campus reflected those qualities more than our courtyard. It had no tables, no umbrellas to block the 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, except for our infamous Badlands, which I, personally, happened to love. I steered Aja toward a shady bench located somewhere between where the jocks and the bad boys gathered. Like most schools, Elder High had a variety of clearly defined social groups, none of which had ever shown the slightest interest in attracting me as a member.
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 hers. When I reached for a fry or a sip of Coke, she did the same. She didn’t take nearly as big bites as I did, though. If anything she chewed her food more thoroughly than anyone I’d ever met.
But she only mimicked me for a few minutes before quitting.
“Where are you from?” I finally asked.
Aja pointed north. “I live with my aunt Clara. In a white house by a large pond.”
I had meant where she was from in Brazil but her answer interested me. “You don’t live in the old Carter Mansion, do you?”
“Carter? Hmm. Yes, the realtor told Aunty that was the name of the man who built the house. That’s where this . . . that’s where I stay.”
“That’s one big house. Is it just the two of you?”
“Bart lives with us.”
“Bart is Bart. He takes care of things.”
“Is he 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.” Aja added casually, “I ran into her in the jungle.”
“The town where I was born is surrounded by jungle.”
“And you just sort of bumped into your aunt?”
“Are you saying she’s not your real aunt?”
Aja sipped her drink. “She’s as real as you and me.”
I frowned. “This was in Brazil?”
I wanted to continue my line of questioning but we got interrupted right then by Dale Parish and Michael Garcia, two close 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 he was a natural and kept improving in leaps and bounds every month. Mike—he’d been banging on anything that made noise since he’d been a kid. No joke, he was like a force of nature onstage. We were lucky to have him. I kept expecting to lose him to a louder and more successful group.
Yet Mike swore he’d never leave us. He had faith in my singing and songwriting abilities.
Unfortunately, he also had a temper and was unpredictable. He missed plenty of practice sessions, even a few paid gigs. We never knew which Mike was going to show up. If he was loaded, on pot or beer, we knew the “Beast” was in the room and we’d better watch out. But when he was sober he was the nicest guy. The swings could be stressful.
Worse, Mike 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 Wilson, 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.
“Who do we have here?” Mike asked, straddling the bench beside Aja like it—or she—was a 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 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 “The Corpse.” He was way beyond skinny and pale. Onstage, under a harsh spotlight, he almost looked transparent. But the boy sure could play. That was all that mattered to me.
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 the drums. Guys, this is Aja. She’s from Brazil. This is her first day at Elder High.”
Aja nodded in their direction. “I enjoy music.”
“But do you like musicians?” Mike asked, teasing. “That’s what I want to know. Besides, what the hell are you doing with Fred? Did he tell you he’s such a wuss that he won’t go onstage—and I’m talking practically every single gig we play—without me swearing that I’ve got his back?”
“I’m afraid it’s true,” I admitted. In the band, during shows, once Mike got going he created such a ferocious rhythm that he drowned out any flat notes I hit on my guitar or with my voice.
“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, she 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 a lot more friendly.”
Her comment caused my heart to skip.
She’d smiled at me?
Mike was suddenly curious about her accent. “¿Hablan español en el lugar de Brasil de donde vienes?” he asked.
“No muchos. Pero algunos,” Aja said.
“¿Pero creciste hablando portugués?” Mike asked.
“Sim,” Aja said.
“What the hell are they saying?” I asked Dale. He’d taken four years of Spanish at school 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 if they spoke Spanish in her part of Brazil. Aja said, ‘Not many, but some.’ Then Mike asked, ‘But you grew up speaking Portuguese?’ And Aja said, ‘Yes.’ ”
“Why the sudden interest in Aja’s background?” I said. But Mike ignored me and continued to speak to Aja, who appeared to fascinate him.
“Your accent—you remind me of my grandmother,” Mike said. “She could speak half a dozen languages. She sounded like she was from everywhere, and nowhere, if you know what I mean. Sort of like you.”
Aja lowered her head. “Ninguém do nada.”
“What was that?” I asked quickly.
Apparently she’d answered in Portuguese, which neither Mike nor Dale understood. 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 to my surprise it wasn’t uncomfortable. I suspected Aja had spent most of her life alone and wasn’t bothered by quiet.
“I apologize for Mike,” I said. “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—ends up making money at it.”
“But it’s what you want to do,” she said.
“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 to 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 fun for you?” she asked.
“Being onstage? Sometimes—when I forget what I’m doing and that people are watching me. Then I love it. 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 at me and because she didn’t blink often, it was a bit disconcerting. “Play for me sometime,” she said.
There. I’d practically begged her to ask but now that she had I wished I’d kept my mouth shut. I shook my head. “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.”
Her response caught me off guard. “Huh?”
“I told you about Bart.”
“I know, I heard you. But he actually told you how to behave while you were at school today?”
Aja 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 wouldn’t appear weird to the rest of you.” As if to reassure me, she reached out and touched my arm. “He was trying to help.”
The instant she touched me, 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. I noticed 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. I worried that my peculiar sensation had not passed, after all. Again, I had to remind myself that 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.