~~~Chapter One: Spilled Milk~~~
My locker would not open.
I stood defiantly in the crowded school hallway, struggling with my combination, telling myself over and over again I would not cry. Yet no matter how many times and in how many ways I twisted that stubborn dial, it wouldn't budge. The more I struggled, the more impossible the task became, until I could hardly think straight for sheer desperation. Hot tears stung my eyes. My breath came in little shaky gasps. I fought to stay in control.
"Are you almost done?" A tall girl with a billowy red scarf tied around her neck stared down at me. "I need to get my history book out and you're right below me."
Stunned by the sharpness in her tone, I backed away. "Go ahead."
The girl opened her combination locker in one fluid, well-practiced motion. She pulled out a U.S. History book and a thin folder, then shut the door firmly. Her hair bounced as she whirled to face me. "You're new, aren't you?"
"Y-yes." Her penetrating stare paralyzed me.
"Maybe you should go back to elementary school where they have cubbies instead of lockers. And you've got some milk on your lip." She spun toward her friend who stood nearby, and as they walked off together she muttered, "I don't know why they always put the little kids below me. They can't ever get their lockers open."
I stared after her, so deeply hurt I could do nothing but stand there looking pale and helpless.
And then I did the very thing I had sworn I would not do. I cried.
Students swarmed around me. Not one of them looked twice in my direction. I must've been invisible, or else they must not have cared. Who was I to them, anyway? I was the intruder, the girl who started halfway through the school year and didn't know anything or anyone.
I wobbled on my spaghetti legs, wallowing in the humiliation of my first day at East Appalachian Middle School. The misfortune I had suffered replayed itself over and over in my mind. My father had dropped me off at the secretary's office and disappeared without one reassuring word. An old, stern-faced secretary had walked me to English class and left me standing in the doorway not knowing what to do, while everyone stared at me as if I had suddenly turned into something green and slimy.
Then in math class I answered a problem wrong on the chalkboard, and received not only a grimace from the teacher, but mocking laughter from my amused classmates. At lunch I spilled my milk carton all over the table, and no one offered to help me clean it up. Then I spent twenty minutes during recess sitting on a rubber horse swing in the corner of the playground wishing I could disappear.
And now…well, now the world was falling apart because some mean girl had made me cry and I couldn't open my locker.
The bell rang, and I realized I was alone. I leaned back against my locker and slid to the floor, drawing my knees up to my chest. I hugged myself tightly and cried all the harder. I wished my mom was here to hold me safely in her arms and kiss my tears away. Why did you have to leave me?
"Has your locker got a bad case of stage fright?"
The voice startled me. I looked up to see a scrawny boy with dark, curly hair and big brown eyes. His grin was lopsided, yet strangely reassuring.
"Sometimes these lockers get shy," he said cheerfully, "and it takes a while for them to warm up to you. What's your combination?"
I handed him a tear-stained shred of paper on which I had scrawled the numbers.
"My locker wouldn't open for a whole week." He glanced at the paper, then twisted the lock back and forth. "You have to be gentle, and really patient, and then…" The lock swung open, and he smiled triumphantly. "There you go."
I breathed in awe. "Thank you."
"Sure. Where're you off to?"
"Choir, I think."
"With Mrs. Shockley?"
"Well, how about that? I was on my way over there just now. Would you like to walk with me?"
I wiped my tears, relieved I wouldn't have to find the choir room alone. "Yes."
"Mrs. Shockley is my favorite teacher. You'll like her."
I smiled shyly at him and then, feeling ridiculous, averted my gaze. I pulled my math book out of my backpack and exchanged it for the science book I would need after choir practice. The boy watched me without comment, and it wasn't until I closed my locker door that I remembered the bell had already rung, and we were both late for class.
"What're you doing out here, anyway?" I asked.
"I was looking for you."
I blinked in surprise. "Me?"
"Sure. We're going to be friends."
My stomach did a little flip. "How do you know that?"
"Because God told me."
My brow furrowed. "God doesn't talk to people."
"Sure He does. Hasn't He talked to you?"
The boy pondered this. "Don't feel bad. He'll talk to you some day."
I almost told the boy I didn't care if God talked to me or not, but I didn't want to hurt his feelings. He had rescued me, after all.
"Your name's Ally, right?"
"Yeah." I didn't ask how he knew my name, but I vaguely remembered seeing him in math class when the teacher introduced me.
He nodded approvingly. "Nice to meet you, Ally. I'm –"
"Nathan McCartney!" A stern voice boomed down the hallway. "What are you doing out here? How many times do I have to tell you to stay in your classroom? Are you skipping choir practice again?"
"No, sir," he said calmly. "I'm going to class."
The man leveled a reproachful glare at the boy, too frustrated by his pertinacity to speak.
"And who are you, little miss?" His voice softened as he turned to me. He had gray hair and glasses, and looked important.
"I'm Ally Shepherd."
"Ah, the new student. Has Mr. McCartney been bothering you?"
I shook my head. "He helped me open my locker."
The man grunted. "Nathan, I want to see you in my office. I'm going to call your parents. This is the third time this week, and it's only Tuesday. You know better than to wander the halls during class time."
"But God told me to –"
"I don't care what God told you to do, boy. We have rules here and I expect you to follow them. Now go to my office!"
Nate hung his head and obeyed. I watched him go, feeling helpless and guilty. It was my fault he'd gotten into trouble.
"He was just helping me," I whispered.
"If you need help, Miss Shepherd, you can come to my office. I am always happy to assist my students. Do you know which way to the music room?"
"I'll have my secretary show you. Come with me."
Sighing, I slung my backpack over my shoulder and followed him.