The rattling, noisy school bus ground to a halt on the cold, windswept country road. Tony, Tie Li, and Kim clamored aboard and began searching for seats among the chattering children lining the long aisle running the length of the vehicle.
Tie Li seemed to be walking a few inches off the ground. What other girl in school had the honor of being escorted by two big brothers? She figured she must be the luckiest person in the entire world.
Kim found a place near the back and, as promised, Tie Li squeezed in beside him. The only seat left for Tony was several rows forward. He started to sit down, but suddenly realized the bundled body waiting next to the window, right beside where he had to sit, was a girl!
“Hi, Tony.” A soft voice spoke from under the red scarf wrapped around the young traveler’s mouth. Dark curls protruded from under her colorful cap, framing a pair of big brown eyes.
Tony looked up and down the isle, searching in vain for another empty seat, but none was available, “Hi,” he said nervously, resigning himself to the fact that his worst fears were coming true. He’d have to sit next to a girl all the way to school.
The boy settled into his place, keeping as far away from the form by the window as possible. He placed his lunch pail, gloves, cap, books, notepad–anything he could find–between him and the girl. Tony didn’t mind computers, test tubes, cows, chickens, old people, and winter storms. But girls weren’t high on his list of things he wanted to keep company with, to say nothing of sit next to.
The girl ignored Tony’s attempts at segregation. “You ready for today’s algebra test?” she asked. Then waving her hand in the air she quickly added, “Oh, that’s right. You always get A’s in school. I wish I was smart like you.”
Tony glanced at the girl, then out the window. “What makes you think I get all A’s in school? You don’t even know me.”
“Yes, I do,” the girl responded, encouraged by Tony’s weak acknowledgment of her existence. “I sit two rows behind you in home class. I’m Laura. Laura Bates. Last week you knocked my eraser off my desk. You picked it up and said ‘I’m sorry’ and everything. You’re a real gentleman.”
Tony squirmed. “No, I don’t remember. I’ve got to do some reading. ” He picked up a book and leafed through the pages, then settled into silence.
After a few moments, the girl tapped him on the arm.
“What?” he said without looking up.
“How do you do that?” Laura bent over the pile between them, her cap nearly touching his cheek.
“Do what?” Tony responded, leaning away from her.
“That,” she said, pointing at the open book. “How can you read up-side-down? Isn’t it harder that way?”
Tony felt his face burn with embarrassment. He flipped the book over. “I . . . I was just studying the pictures. I wanted to see what they looked like from a different angle.”
“Oh. ” The girl sat back in her seat. “That makes sense, I guess. I’ll have to try it sometime.”
Tony closed his eyes in frustration. That was stupid, he thought to himself. Why in the world was I looking at my book up-side-down? I think I’m losing my mind.
He glanced at the girl. She was watching the snowy landscape speed by beyond the frost-framed window. It’s all her fault, he concluded. She made me get confused or something. Women. They’re weird.
He looked at the book in his lap, then closed his eyes again. It was one of Tie Li’s. Worst of all, it was her second grade grammar book. The picture he had been so intently studying showed a dinosaur and elephant talking together under a large palm tree. Tony wished a big hole would open up and swallow him then and there.
A few rows back, Tie Li sat proudly next to her older brother, hoping everyone would notice how handsome he looked in his new coat and cap.
“You will like this school,” she said for the twentieth time, “The teachers are very nice, and they play fun games at recess, and you get a big locker in the hallway, and you can listen to records in the library, and–”
“I know,” Kim smiled. “Someone already told me all about it.”
Tie Li grinned up at him. She let out a contented sigh. “You will like this school.”
The day moved slowly, as some days do. Kim reported to the registrar’s office, filled in and signed numerous forms, talked with several counselors, took a short test, took a long test, ate lunch with Tie Li and Tony, took another test, was assigned a locker, gathered an armload of books, and finally, with more than enough fanfare, was left standing before dozens of staring eyes in Mr. Parson’s 8th-grade classroom.
“We’re glad to have you with us,” the smiling teacher encouraged after introductions were over. “Your seat is over there, by the window. We’re just beginning our history lesson for the day. We’ll give you time to settle in before we continue.”
All eyes followed the new student as he made his way toward the empty desk by the window. If only someone would say something to break the awful silence. Kim shuffled along, his load of books and papers making
him feel awkward, uncoordinated.
Suddenly, his foot caught on something. He felt himself falling forward, unable to stop. He saw the edge of his desk coming straight for his face, but there was no time to protect himself.
He hit hard, the shock sending bright flashes of light arching across his vision. Then, it seemed he was falling a great distance, from some high pinnacle. He saw his books floating by, his papers and pencils spinning in space just beyond reach. With a final bone-jarring crash, he sprawled across the floor, hot searing pain shooting from the right side of his face and running down the entire length of his body.
He fought for consciousness. Waves of nausea swept over him like an ocean tide. A bodyless face appeared close to his, its eyes narrow, cold. It was speaking to him in a hoarse whisper. “My uncle was killed by one of you slant-eyed monsters. You just watch yourself. You hear me, monster? You just watch your step.”
The face seemed to swim in a darkening sky, then all went black. Kim felt as if he were floating in space, like he wasn’t attached to anything. He could hear voices, but they seemed far away. Echoes drifted through his mind. Formless shadows moved in and out of a revolving universe of black and gray. Then all was quiet, still, motionless.
“Kim?” A gentle voice called from somewhere in the silence. “Kim, can you hear me?”
The boy tried to move, but pain kept him rigid.
“Kim, I’m Nurse Anderson. Can you hear me?”
Light began to seep in around the corners of his vision. He saw a fuzzy form bending over him, speaking his name over and over again.
Another voice joined the first. This one he recognized. “Kim, Kim! Wake up. You wake up now.” The voice began to cry. “Please Kim. Please, wake up now.”
It was Tie Li. He tried to smile, but the pain forced him to give up the effort. He opened his eyes a little farther. A woman wearing a white cap looked down at him. Sudden relief showed on her face. “He’s coming around. Look, he’s awake.”
“What . . . happened?” Kim spoke through the throbbing ache in his swollen jaw.
Tony stepped up beside the bed. “Somebody tripped you. You were on your way to your desk and some idiot tripped you.”
Kim began to remember. Yes. He was trying to get to his seat as soon as he could. Then he fell. He saw the edge of the desk coming toward him. He couldn’t stop. He couldn’t . . .
Kim stiffened as Tony’s words sunk in. Someone had tripped him. Somebody in that room had stuck out his foot and tripped him.
Kim sat up, the pain nearly knocking him off the examining table. He grabbed Tony’s arm, and in one move, landed on the floor, his legs nearly buckling under the strain. He staggered toward the door, the screams of Tie Li and the nurse grinding in his ears like fingernails on a blackboard.
The hallway was almost empty. Most of the students were out by the buses, waiting to board.
Kim staggered to the front door and kicked it open with his foot. The glass shattered as the door struck the outside wall. Students scattered in all directions as Kim emerged from the building and stopped at the top of the stairs.
Silence gripped the assembly. No one moved. All eyes were on the boy with the discolored, swollen face standing at the entrance to the building. Kim searched the sea of faces, fighting to keep his vision clear, and to remain on his feet.
“I know you’re out there,” he called, steadying himself against the stabbing pain punctuating each word. “I know what you look like. We will meet again. If you want to keep a war alive that ended years ago, that can be arranged. But know this. ” Kim’s finger swept the crowd. “Wars are deadly for both sides. Your battle is coming. It always does.”
Kim turned and stumbled back into the building. Slowly, the faces in the crowd melted into activity once again as students continued their afterschool routine. All, that is, except one. This face remained motionless, staring at the place where Kim had stood. Its eyes grew narrow. Its lips formed a thin, tight line. Below, knuckles turned white inside gloved fists. For the mind behind the face, Kim’s words rang true. The war was far from over.