Different and Cool: Love's a Polygon

By Reid M. Haynes

Note: Some elements of this story are influenced by Japanese Anime (characters with technicolor hair, etc)

The story so far:

In the beginning of 8th grade, Andrew Champion was given a special weeklong project for class; use and discuss your free-will. Paired up with the geeky Tarah Reichardt, he found he had little space to enact his own designs on the assignment. The week went on, and Andy found himself slowly becoming intrigued by Tarah, though he found it difficult to express it under the eyes of peers, even going as far as to participate in a game of keep-away with her notepad. Encouraged by family and using the free-will project as a springboard, he eventually decided to remain friends with her despite disapproval from his buddies.

So it begins...

(Read "Different and Cool" for details)

Journal of Tarah Reichardt; Entry for 11-21-893 A.S.

Me again! It's been a while since I've written to you, but everything's been really busy lately. The season of the Fall Webworm is almost over, and I wanted to catalog it before winter comes. I've been studying them late at night, and if I'm lucky, I'll have all the info I'll need to give it a place among the other insects of autumn in my book. Isn't that great?

Mom says I spend too much time outdoors alone, and that I should be with friends when it's late. But I've never had friends, so I don't think there's anything wrong with doing what I enjoy, right? She's always saying things like that, but she's really big into nature too. Did you know that she once saw a pink katydid in the forests outside the Starlight City limits? She didn't manage to get a picture, but she told me she was positive that's what she saw, so I believe her. I wish I could've been there to see it too.

Actually, that one part's not true: I really do have a friend, now. His name is Andrew, Andrew Champion. I've known him since 5th grade, and now he knows me! He's always so nice, and he's really brave, too. Well, actually he did flinch when I showed him the tarantula that lives in our backyard, but I could tell he was trying not to. He tries really hard at everything.

Whenever I think about Andrew, I just can't stop the smiles from coming. I'll bet this is going to be a great year. I know it!

Softly closing the small writing tablet she off-and-on used as a journal, Tarah took a look behind her through the window of the classroom, outside of which was the games field. The myopic, pigtailed girl haphazardly rubbed her glasses, steamed slightly from the heating system, and returned to watching the 7th and 8th Grades playing various impromptu sports games in the cold fall air. A flash of aqua-green hair shot in between the heads of two basketball players, then quickly disappeared behind the crowd. But even that brief visage was enough to get Tarah out of her seat in a scramble for the door, leaving behind the fish tank she used for transporting animals larger than insects.

Taking big, bounding steps, Tarah made it down the hallway and to the door leading outside. Her face shone with eagerness, a bright point to anyone's day were there anyone around to see it. She fumbled for the door handle, missing it twice before landing her hand on it, pushing it open and letting a stream of early afternoon light soak the hallway. She was not a klutzy person, but the exciting times had the tendency to boggle her nervous functions.

As the door swung against the brick structure that made up Starlight Jr. High, she scampered out onto the sports field. The students darted about the green grass in small groups, trying unsteadily to keep their own individual games going in spite of all the others. Though the gawky girl had made a noisy enough entrance, they gave no notice to Tarah's arrival. Actually, the kids that did notice her were doing their best to avert their eyes as quickly as possible, some taking a few steps away to distance themselves from her.

Tarah frowned slightly at this snubbing, but continued to sort the students out with her eyes, peering over each group in an attempt to spy that aqua-green hair again. She looked between the impromptu soccer game played between two sets of cones, the touch football game that took up the rest of the field, and all the way to the basketball game playing on the blacktop way off to the side. Finally, she spotted a lone lad idly bouncing a blue, rubber dodgeball against a small dirt mound off the side of the main field. She proceeded a few steps, waved her hand up in the air, and called his name. "Andrew!"

Instead of ducking for the nearest cover like the other kids, the boy turned to peer at her, smiling lightly. With a strange benevolence in his eyes, he waved back, his friendly posture indicating that, for once, her presence would not be unwelcome.

Tarah's grin widened, and she quickly closed the distance between the school doors and the boy's spot on the field. Any obstacle, whether it be stray ball or lounging student, was vaulted like a hurdle in the 100 Meter Dash. Stopping a mere six inches from the boy's nose, she folded her arms behind her back. "Hi, Andrew!" she chirped cheerfully, jerking back and forth eagerly.

"Hey, Tarah," Andy replied, dropping the ball by his foot and booting it away. "Where've you been?"

The energy in her eyes speared out from behind her glasses. "There's a new bug that I just found today!" she told him, moving her arms about animatedly. "I'm so excited about showing you!"

His smile was honest and friendly. "Cool," he said, putting his hands on his hips.

Tarah nodded, then quickly dug in her clothes. She had managed to cram a small bottle in her pocket, which had been in there for two periods. Regardless, the bottle was in fine shape, and so was the insect inside. It was a small cerulean blue bug of the likes that had never been seen before in Starlight City, an ethereal cross between a lady bug and a beetle, and small enough so that both teens had to lean in closer to see it.

"This is the Blue Darkwind Beetle," she said, her eyes only for the small insect encased in its glass confinement. "It's almost exclusive to the meadows outside Neo Aviania, but I caught this one just outside my house. It's neat, huh?"

"Yeah, it kinda is," Andy replied, his eyes widened. And it was hard not to, for anyone with an affinity for insects would have a hard time categorizing this creature as anything but a treasure of the living world. Indeed, it was like a sapphire scarab, almost reflecting the two teens within its shining shell. The sunlight slid upon it and caressed it like a newborn child, kissing its body with tender warmth.

"Did you know it feeds almost entirely on mosquitoes?" she continued. "They say it's one of three reasons that the mosquito hasn't completely overtaken Neo Aviania. Of course, the roving liquorice lizard helps too..." Her eyes blinked a few times, and she let out a giggle of sudden self-consciousness. "Oops, sorry! Am I babbling again?" she said, smiling repentantly at her friend.

The boy only shook his head. "I'm not bored," he responded, looking back towards her with a slightly abashed face. "How can I be, with someone like you?"

Tarah's smile vanished for a moment, her breath catching in her throat slightly. She turned towards Andy, a slightly bewildered look on her face. He caught onto this new undercurrent of emotion, which wiped the grin off his face as well. But soon his soft smile was back, and so was hers.

BWONK! Andy jerked forward as if a gun hammer had smashed into the back of his skull. "Ow!" He held onto the back of his injured scalp, and Tarah looked to the boy in concern. She caught a bouncing shape off the tail end of her vision, which turned out to be the dodgeball he was dribbling earlier. By the raucous chuckling coming from Justin and Slick's side of the playfield, the perpetrators of this act were easy to point out.

"Better watch out for the cool kids, Champion," Justin taunted, putting one hand on his hip in a cocky pose.

"Dodgeball field ain't the place for bug-loving geeks!" Slick added, any potential benevolence in his suggestion squelched by his snickers.

Tarah puffed up in anger, her pigtails dropping like stalactites. "Hey, bugs are important to the ecosystem!" she screeched, glaring fiercely at the duo. "They get rid of a lot of the...uh...other bugs!" They only laughed nastily, the ugly little chortle of camaraderie amongst fellow villains.

"Just ignore them, Tarah," Andy said quietly, shaking his head free of any stars that had accumulated.

"I don't understand," Tarah begun anew, looking down at the bottle cradled within her grip. "What's so bad about having bugs for a hobby? I mean, if it weren't for the Blue Darkwind, at least 75% of the 7th Graders would be covered in bites!"

"Justin and Slick...well, they're just kinda narrow minded." Andy replied, folding his arms behind his wounded head and looking up towards the sky. "I was too, for a while."

"It's in danger too, you know," she continued, her voice taking on a sad tone. Andy peered at her through the corner of his eyes. "Because of Aviania's expansion, the forests where they live are being cut down." A wistful smile forming on her lips. "Maybe that's why this one ended out here. Maybe he just wanted a home."

"I really hate over-development," he groused, a look of displeased agreement on his face. "You know, I think they tore down my favorite forest for a Winston Haynes Joltswagon dealership."

"Oh, the White Swift coalition was very mad about that." Tarah turned back to Andy, her eyes wide. "They're asking the city to set off some land to make a city park so that the wildlife can recover, but the big indutries are blocking it."

"Hum," Andy tapped a finger against his check. "I heard something about the Bishop Corporation being mixed up in that. That's Justin's family."

"Maybe that's why he doesn't like bugs?" she suggested, peering at him.

"Could be," the boy considered, a ghost of a smile on his face.

Tarah smiled back. "I'm glad you listen to me, Andrew," she told him. "Most people don't like to talk to me, you know, so it's great you think me and my bugs are important."

"Well, of couse you're important," Andy said, putting his hands on his hips in mock irritation.

At this moment, the school bell rung, effectively cutting off their trains of thought. They both looked around, and found their classmates making their way towards the school doors; slowly, as to stretch out the time between them and their afternoon classes. A couple of students meandered on the sports field for a moment longer; whether it was to organize an end to their game or to stall for time, it wasn't known. Soon, they too couldn't avoid the call of mandatory learning, and joined the others in a river of kids flowing around Andy and Tarah.

"I guess we need to go in," Tarah said, looking down at the grass with a wistful expression on her face. Even if was brief, she had enjoyed the time she had spent with Andy.

"Yeah," he responded, staring at the open doors that seemed to draw him in. He turned back towards the girl with a look that could almost be called apologetic. "Hey, you wanna eat lunch together later?" he asked her, a generous smile tacked on.

That brought a fresh look of excitement on her face. "Sure!" she answered him, smiling back.

A pleased look winked in the boy's eyes, and he nodded confidently. He then strode past her, stepping off the sports field and onto the concrete walkway that led up to the double doors. As he left, Tarah's smile waned in proportion to the increasing distance separating them. Questions tore up the tip of her tongue, sparking like severed livewire in an abandoned power plant.

"Andrew!" she called out to him, wondering if her voice would reach him.

The boy stopped mid-step, stumbling a bit. "What's up?" he asked, turning to her with a look of query on his face.

Tarah then grew pensive, a glimmer of doubt flickering like a candle flame in her downcast eyes. "Those boys...do they...I mean, are you...?" she stammered, suddenly feeling like her throat had a paperweight lodged in it.

Andy seemed to understand nonetheless, and just shook his head with good humor. "Don't worry about it," he said, a calm smile on his lips. "I can handle them."

Renewed confidence flowed through her, and she returned his grin wholeheartedly. They shared a wave of hands, and then the boy proceeded back into the middle school, leaving Tarah waiting alone by the sports field. A brisk breeze picked up from across the blacktop, flurrying her bangs against her forehead. She bore her face willingly to its gentle sting, taking in a chilling breath as her facial features relaxed into a state of vibrant bliss.

"Having someone is so nice," she said to herself, a lonely girl just now learning what it was to be fulfilled with friendship.

Late morning Gym was a rocky affair for the smaller and weaker students, who found themselves repeatedly jostled by their larger rivals. There was a hot temper flowing through those that had been gifted with the athletic aptitude, and they used it like a weapon against their opposition. One might think that, because the class consisted of all girls, that it would be considerably less violent than a boy's Gym session. Not so; the inclusion of a girl's basketball team had piqued their competitive interests, and there was an ongoing effort to impress the powers that be in exchange for a spot in the second lineup.

Tarah tore the sweat-drenched towel off her matted hair, letting it flop down to lick the tiled floor. She brought a hand up to wipe her forehead, her bangs like dew dropped grass post April showers. She took a peek at the rest of the class in the girls' locker room, who were busy congratulating the school basketball star Maru Mari on a brilliant lay-up assisted by one of the other girls from the team. She didn't know much about basketball, but she did know as long as they were over there, they couldn't bother her.

In a middle school where the girls shot up above even the boys, Tarah was one of the smallest kids in her grade, so a few of the bigger girls thought they could knock her out of the running. This wasn't actually true, since she kept considerably active and was not clumsy. However, that didn't stop them from trying to create the illusion she was weak by tripping her up in any way they could. She wondered if it was less that they were trying to win and more that they simply didn't like her.

With a blank expression, Tarah got to gathering up her supplies for the next class. Her towel draped over her shoulder, she reached into her locker for her biology book, her notebook, and her many bug jars. She had an ongoing paranoia of leaving the objects of her hobbies in her other locker in the main building. She likened it to keeping a flighty pet under close eye rather than any real fear of the jars being tampered with.

BWIK! the locker door slammed with a metallic screech, causing the light hairs on Tarah's arm to prickle up. She turned her head both right and left before she spied the interloper: a tall, black-haired girl with a violet streak running through a clump left of her bangs. A stylish black glove embossed with the name "Lydia" covered the hand that had pushed the locker shut, and it was the one other extravagance to break up the uniform monotony of her gym clothes. But this glove, combined with her angular eyes, smirky facade and aforementioned violet streak gave her a somewhat harsh beauty, the kind of beauty that came wrapped and bundled with a villainess.

"Whatcha got there, Terrible Tarah?" she said in a voice dripping with bad humor. "Some friends to keep you company on the long trip to Dorksville?"

Tarah was a mite startled by Lydia's abrupt entrance, but answered without shame. "They're the new bugs I wanted to show the biology teacher," she spoke quietly. "I'm going to set them all free tonight."

The other girl's eyes narrowed in a fashion that would befit the snootiness of the meanest sorority girls. "I'm sure that coot'll love to bask in the glow of a no-life," she drawled, her hand lazily sliding down the locker door it had closed. "Might make him feel better about his boring job."

A lot of comments could fly past Tarah harmlessly, but she could see that Lydia was just egging her on. Averting her eyes, she went back to gathering up her school supplies, methodically sorting them with the jars on top of the books on top of the binder. Projecting an aura of quiet frostiness, she kept her back to the girl as she gathered all her things, including her overalls and shirt, and walked off to a stall where she could change out of her gym clothes without being harassed. Her pace was brisk, but it wasn't quite speedy enough to evade her tormentor.

"Too bad you're such a flat shrimp, otherwise you wouldn't have to change in there," Lydia commented as she walked beside, her hands clasped behind her back in a look of mock-innocence.

"Leave me alone," Tarah responded, her voice devoid of any passion.

The violet-stripped lass brightened with a visible burst of confidence. "What's wrong with a little talk between schoolmates?" she chirped, her cackle lending to her crow-like appearance. "It's as close to friends as you're gonna get."

The bespectacled girl waited for a moment at the door to the stall, the response coming unbidden. "I know what friends are like," she said quietly.

"That Champion guy?" Lydia almost guffawed. "Oh please! He's only there because he feels sorry for you. He'll get sick of being with you on the lowest rung of the popularity ladder soon enough."

"That's not true!" Tarah suddenly squeaked, turning around harshly with a stamp of her foot. "He likes me, he likes me a lot!"

"Heh, if you ask me, the kinds of girls he likes are more like me, or Mari Mari," Lydia said, flipping her hair in a decidedly vain gesture. "You know, the older, more developed ones."

At the last comment, the fire within Tarah's heart took a hard stamping, and she nearly choked on the fumes. Her eyes shivered with doubt, and she felt a lump start to form in her throat. Lydia's eyes widened a bit at this reaction, then reared back from the girl in disgust. "Oh God, don't tell me you're into him?" she cried, gathering even more attention from the onlookers in the locker room. "Even a dope like him would think a hickey from you would be like a bug bite."

That was it for Tarah. She quickly pulled open bathroom stall, and hustled in with a grievous look in her eyes, slamming the door shut in Lydia's smiling face a moment later. "I'll be here when you get out," Lydia taunted, putting a hand to her mouth as if to emphasize her voice. Then, her eyes sparkled with a sly mirth. "Bug bites, oh now that's a pun!"

If this had only been an isolated incident, it would have been quickly forgotten: Tarah was good at shaking off the effect of her peers' taunts from long practice. As it actually was, however, Lydia's attack on her was the F minor prelude to the elaborate symphonic work entitled "Jeers from the Outside." The conductors were Justin and Slick.

It happened just as Tarah was leaving the school for home. Right before she headed down to the long sidewalk that lead to the street, she had picked up a few odd creatures to examine, so her earlier good mood was restored somewhat. She was almost ready to seek out Andy again and show him her latest bounty; Colt-eyed Caterpillars were rare at this time of year. Upon finding him, however, it was obvious he was busy with some other friends right then.

"...getting a little dorkier everyday, Champion," Justin Bishop finished up his jibe, pushing on Andy's temple and forcing him to lean his neck.

"Yeah!" Slick chortled, leaning over the shoulder of the silver-haired boy. "You might make high Dork King this time around!"

"Ha ha, funny," Andy responded, looking warily between the both of them. "Come on, cut it out."

Tarah frowned. Although he was putting up a tough front, she could tell Andy was unnerved in this situation. He was looking back and forth not only to keep the two troublesome teens in view, but also for his ride home, to sweet escape. And what was wrong with Justin and Slick? She knew they weren't friends with Andy anymore, but why did they keep picking on him like that?

"We got a great gift for you today," Justin told him, and there was a certain manic glee in his normally cool exterior, as if he had been waiting all day to say that. "Even gave up our cigarette break just to get it ready."

"I handcrafted it!" Slick piped up, his exuberant manner crying for the spotlight.

Justin grimaced at this, and simply reached into his satchel. It was a fairly manly satchel filled with cigarettes, pilfered test answers, and many other unsavory things suited to the boy needs. Nevertheless, the object that he pulled out was an oddity when compared to the rest of the renegade paraphernalia; bright yellow and littered with sequins. It was like something that would have been constructed for a casino showgirl, if the constructor was about six and had only glue and tape to work with.

"May Poindexters and Melvins bow down!" Slick announced loudly, as Justin placed the object on the beleaguered Andy's head. "All hail the Dork King!"

The blond boy's megaphone voice gathered the attention of a sizable crowd of students, who all stopped their conversation to view the show. Then, one by one, they all started chuckling, louder and louder, until it seemed the entire 8th Grade had erupted at the sight of the newly-adorned Andy. Tarah's face knotted in confusion, the object out of focus and indefinable. She took off her glasses and rubbed them, blinking twice before she placed the hooks back on her ears to get a better look.

It was actually a crown, a paper crown fit for a worker at a unhealthy fast-food restaurant. Though the sequins provided a certain carnival-level charm, it was the zinger wording in the middle that stole the show. "FOUR-EYED GEEKS ARE MY INSPIRATION" read in clear, bold letters, written by a black, permanent marker. Next to the text was an exaggerated recreation of Tarah's face, with swirlies on the glasses, a goofy smile, and altogether a look that would suit the real Tarah had she been a joke character in a children's anime.

Andy's face had erupted in a flush of crimson, looking around at the rest of the kids like he had just done a terrible deed in front of them. He took a look at his reflection in the glass, and grimaced like he couldn't stand to look at it. Then he looked at the crowd, filled with the laughing maws of students, the restrained smiles of amused teachers, and the sorrowful face of a pigtailed, bespectacled girl. Tarah's frown radiated unhappiness and the shared humiliation of both of them.

Tarah and Andy's eyes remained locked for a moment more. Then, Andy broke the two-way gaze and tore the crown off his head. "I don't believe this," he muttered, red-faced embarrassment giving way to red-faced anger. Crumpling up the thing in his hands, he tossed it furiously at Justin, who was still whooping it up along with Slick. Then, he took off to the other side of the carpool line, the mocking voices following him all the way.

Tarah took in the outrageous spectacle with trembling eyes, and clenched her fists in anger, hard enough to dig the nails into the skin and make it somewhat painful. She stared with uninhibited fury at Justin and Slick, as if her glasses would magnify her needle-like gaze into some sort of heat ray. A small consolation was Maru Mari walking up behind Justin and clocking him on the back of his head. "Idiot," Mari barked, her face sweet and pretty even with the scowl set upon it, and it made Tarah feel better.

But not nearly enough.

The edge of downtown Starlight City wouldn't win any awards for cleanliness. Many of the buildings, once housing high-end stores and specialty services, had fallen into disrepair, becoming little more than dilapidated structures lining the pothole ridden streets. It wasn't quite a slum, and there was usually a lot of workmen laboring on the area via the new city order for cleaning up the town. Still, it would take at least two more years before this part of town would resemble anything other than a scene in a commercial about adopting third-world children.

Moving in between a pair of girders aligned parallel on the ground, Tarah walked along the left side of the street, her eyes somewhat downcast. Her path took her safely outside the yellow caution tape and cones set up for the few people that came through the area, but the possible danger only mattered on a basic level to her. She paid little mind to the chatter of construction workers and the grating sounds of equipment, letting it turn into white noise in the contours of her brain. Her hands were stiff, and grabbing tightly onto the straps of her extra-large backpack, squeezing them roughly.

If someone asked Tarah what she was doing in this part of downtown, she would bring up the old plant nursery that still operated despite bad business. She would then cut the monologue short, because there was no point in being excited about your hobbies with such a heavy heart. She was still really worried about the carpool incident, but she couldn't talk about it yet, and was having a bit of trouble even thinking about it. Her mind had formed a knot consisting of Andy, Lydia, Justin and Slick, and maybe only a city-wide walk would loosen it.

Tarah let out a miserable breath, stopping on the side of the road for a moment to gather herself. Then, she continued the long hike to the bus station, where she would catch a ride home and turn in early for the night, right after Swampman Earl's Safari on the nature channel.

A glimmer of color caught the corner of Tarah's vision, and she instinctually turned to catch sight of this healthy splash amidst a sea of concrete and rubble. It was that familiar flash of tell-tale aqua-green hair, and by narrowing her eyes, she could make out the boy traveling on the right side of the street, nearing the corner. "Andrew...Andrew!" the girl called out, breaking into a gait that carried her halfway across the street in a hurry. He didn't hear her, and continued round the bend, forcing Tarah to start running after him.

Tarah made good time to the intersection, her hopeful fervor driving her like a jaguar hunting its prey. Whatever problems were brewing at school, Tarah and Andy were essentially alone now, where they could talk away from any judging eyes. She was sure Andy would like that.

Her initial conception proved invalid in the end, when she caught up with him at the next street. Andy was there, standing in front of a large planetarium that had stopping showing the stars for some time. And he wasn't alone, either. Leaning against the gateway was an older girl with long, leaf-green hair, a baseball cap with bat wings sticking out from the sides, and a benevolence that belied her role as the most popular girl in school.

"M-Mari?" Tarah stammered to herself, her jaw going slack for a moment.

The two were speaking now, and Tarah quickly shrunk back out of sight behind the corner. She peeked behind a brick building, hoping she hadn't been caught spying. Seeing them involved in their own matters, she tentatively tiptoed forward beyond the corner and closer to the couple, putting a hand to her ear to help her catch what they were saying. She could just make out snippets of what they were saying, and her mind automatically formed them into a conversation.

"...things that only you can help me with," Andy was saying, his tone recognizable as serious even from this distance. "Tarah can't know about any of this, you understand."

Mari was now talking, her posture strong and receptive, but Tarah couldn't make out a word of what she was saying. Andy started speaking again, quietly enough so that the pigtailed girl couldn't tell what he was saying either. The boy paused for a moment, obviously trying to steel himself for what he was going to say next. The next words that came out of his mouth were crystal clear to her, and chilled her to the bone. "I need you."

On Mari's part, the statement seemed to startle her slightly, who blinked her large eyes in wonderment at the proclamation. She then slowly started speaking again, with Andy adding his two bits a moment later. Then, she put a hand strongly on his shoulder, smiling with utmost fondness. Andy smiled back appreciatively, looking like he had just gotten rid of a large weight from his shoulders.

The two stood at the entrance to the planetarium a moment more, entrapped in the wrappings of camaraderie. Then, Mari turned around and entered the large structure, letting the door swing wide behind her. The ocean-haired youth wasted no time in following her in, putting out a hand out to catch the door. Once inside, the door slowly pushed itself shut until it fell into place within the steel frame, the nearly soundless impact heard by Tarah as a route permanently closing off to her.

Tarah nearly toppled over, her legs shaking and her hands clenched into tiny fists. Her eyes watered over with emotion, and she shook her head fiercely to try to regain control of herself. Swallowing hard, she took a deep, shuddering breath, and turned her gaze back to the planetarium, still abandoned by all pretenses. But she knew who was in there, who was with whom, and she couldn't look at it any more and broke off into a run, away from the building, the downtown area, and Andy and Mari.

In the time approaching midnight, the streetlights shone down across the streets and sidewalks, illuminating a lush, but lonely community. As a subdivision a ways from the city, it was filled with mainly compact, affordable houses for well-off young couples and small families who liked a lot of trees in their neighborhood. The Reichardt residence was a small, one-story as well, its chief bragging right being the baby ash tree in the front yard. The light from a window broke through the misty darkness around the house, the young girl beyond the glass the only one with the energy, and the suffering, to stay awake.

Tarah lay flat on the single bed, her arms outstretched to either side, staring intently at the white, drywall ceiling. Her small room was largely a nature-enthusiast's dream, packed with volumes of encyclopedias stuffed with ladybug bookmarks, posters of various exotic animals, and several potted plants next to the window. What normally gave her comfort though was ignored tonight in favor of the blank ceiling that acted as a marker board for her thoughts. Morbid thoughts were they.

She should have known something so wonderful couldn't last. Deep down, she knew people thought she was a locust in the middle of a field of wheat, and that they didn't like her. Andy had tried to like her, but he was a stalk of wheat too, and had to stay alive. Now he was with Mari, where he was safe and happy.

Tarah's eyes squeezed shut as she tried hard to keep from crying. She couldn't and wouldn't blame Andy. He was the nicest boy she ever met, the only one who would be seen with her in public. He always tried so hard, so who could fault him for finally falling? Lots of animals died when they were hunted for too long.

The girl felt the rush of blood pumping through her veins at her thoughts about Andy, bittersweet feelings overtaking her miserable despair. Tarah felt distant from Andy, but he was the closest person in her heart just the same. Though she had always managed to get by without real friends, right now she needed someone to talk to. Her hand had already started reaching for the phone before her mind had registered it, and upon finding her hand on the reciever, she completed the action and quickly brought it up to bear.

Rapidly dialing Andy's number, she brought the phone to her ear and waited, her face wrought with tension and worry. The familiar sporadic buzzing of the rings seemed to taunt her, like some otherworldly God that bore her as much ill will as her classmates. On the fourth ring, it clicked, and a warm voice came through the speakers. "Hello, this is the Champion house," it said, carrying with it a sort of clouded tiredness.

Failing to come up with the name of the speaker, Tarah bumbled through the conversation as best she could. "Is this Andrew's aunt?" she asked, bringing the phone closer to her mouth. "Can Andrew come talk?"

"Tarah, is that you?" Aunt Mary asked, sounding a bit surprised. "I think Andy's asleep, wait a moment and I'll see if I can get him." Tarah felt the bump of the phone being put down on the other end, and listened to Mary's footsteps as they drew further away. The girl waited with baited breath as she listened to the hiss of appliances and other unknown sounds from Andy's house. Fifteen seconds later, she could hear someone fumbling with the phone, and she drew closer to the receiver with desperate longing.

"...lo?" a muffled voice mumbled, sounding like a cross between an urban zombie and a broken oboe.

"Andrew?" Tarah said, her mouth perking up into a hopeful smile.

"...arah?" the boy gurbled, confusion leaking out of his voice. "Wha...what time is it…?"

"It's eleven-thirty-three O'clock," she replied, after taking a look at her bedside clock. An affirmative moan came from the speaker, and Tarah wondered if he would have to talk a bit slower for her to hear him. " Andrew...are you okay?" Tarah asked hesitantly, almost like a doctor talking to a tricky patient.

"…fine, fine," he responded, almost mechanically in his manner. "...you doing alright?"

"Oh definitely!" she cried, trying to put as much old energy into the proclamation as possible. "There's a new show on the mating ritual of the north Starlight Buzzerbugs coming up, and once I see it, I'll be able to go the uptown woods tomorrow and find some myself!"

"…Izzat so...?" Andy said, obviously trying hard to pretend he was more than a mite awake.

"Yeah," she said, her grin waning into a slightly melancholy smile on her lips. A slight silence fell between the two of them, as Tarah struggled with finding something to say. "Uh, Andrew?" she tried, the words feeling lumpy on her tongue. "I'm sorry they were teasing you at carpool..."

"..it's alright," came the response a moment later. "...wasn't your fault."

She only felt a tiny bit relieved at the fact he wasn't blaming her, but tried to bluff a positive attitude. "Okay," she said, and let out a nervous giggle. Andy laughed along with her, a kind gesture that only he would show. Tarah felt like crying.

The silence picked up again, and Tarah found she had nothing felt to say. "Uh, I better go now," she spoke up somewhat awkwardly. "Let's talk some more in school tomorrow, okay?"

"'…kay," Andy affirmed, and Tarah could hear him stifling a yawn.

"Goodnight, Andrew," she told him, her voice radiating with hidden warmth.

"'Night." he mumbled.

After she heard the click of the line being disconnected, Tarah fell backwards on the bed, emotionally drained. Her mouth formed into a pained, wavering line, and her eyes overflowed with her exhausted sentiments. A single tear escaped and trailed a path down her cheek and along her chin. "Sweet dreams, Andrew," she whispered, though only the lizards in their case were around to hear her.

Next Up- Part 2