~Stars at Dawn~
Chapter One: New Kid
If there was one thing that Annie Whitman hated more than anything in the world, it was bullies. Though she had never been bullied herself, she hated seeing other kids victimized in class or on the playground. That was why when shy and awkward Todd Smalls arrived for his first day at Harlem Elementary school in the middle of winter, Annie watched him closely from her favorite spot on the playground's most coveted swing.
Todd was small for a third grader. With skinny shoulders, thick square glasses, and curly, dark chocolate hair that dipped into his downcast eyes, it was evident to Annie that he was nervous about being the new kid. Her teacher, Mrs. Donnelly, had told her class that Todd was from Alaska, and that each of them were to do their part to make him feel welcome. Unfortunately, the bigger boys in Annie's class began to tease him for his long hair and over-sized hand-me-downs. Todd was so skinny that his sweater hung limply off of his shoulders and his jeans, which appeared to have been intended for someone twice his size, pooled at his ankles because of their length.
Annie knew right away that Daryl Collins, the biggest bully in school, would target Todd as his new victim. He made fun of Todd's big glasses and even claimed to have seen his mother plant a huge kiss on his cheek right before dropping him off at school.
Later that day, Annie watched Todd open his locker, stick his head inside, and secretly cry into the jacket hanging on the hook. Because of this, Annie raced over to her favorite swing that overlooked the entire playground during recess and watched Todd pace desolately along the white painted lines of the outdoor basketball court. She spied on him to make sure that Daryl left him alone.
However, her assurance was short-lived. Daryl appeared as soon as he noticed Todd pacing alone. He then proceeded to storm towards the basketball court with a group of his nasty friends in tow.
At once, Daryl ordered his friends to throw pebbles at the disadvantaged new kid. In a meager attempt to protect himself, Todd lifted an arm to shield his face from the oncoming attacks, but Annie appeared at his side just before the first stones were cast.
"What do you think you're doing?" she snapped, stepping in front of Todd like a human barricade. Daryl and his friends lowered their fists, which were full of tiny stones, and shook their heads.
"Come on Annie, we were just going to play with him," Daryl insisted, trying to sound innocent. She looked up at Daryl, who was double her size, and made a face.
"You were being big jerks, that's what you were doing," she corrected, placing a defensive hand on her hip. "Why don't you get out of here and leave him alone?"
Daryl eyed her narrowly, his spikey blonde hair stiff in the winter breeze. "How are you going to make me?" he growled. Despite the obvious threat in his voice, Annie remained unfazed.
"You heard what Mrs. Donnelly said the last time she saw you picking on somebody. She said you will be banned from gym class for the rest of the year if she catches you at it again."
For a fact, Annie knew that Daryl was good at sports and was equally aware that he would hate nothing more than to be expelled from gym. With a frown and a twitch from his angry lower lip, the bully dropped his rocks on the ground and commanded his friends to do the same. Then he marched away, his anger steaming after him as he went.
Once he was out of her sight, Annie turned around and fixed her gaze on Todd. The two of them stood in hesitant silence for a moment, but it was Annie who spoke first.
"Are you okay?" she asked kindly.
Todd nodded shyly, his dark, spiral curls bobbing in his eyes beneath the rims of his glasses. With the sleeve of his bulky sweater, he wiped his nose and sniffed. Nervously, he shuffled his feet on the pavement and looked around the playground, as if trying to reassure himself that Daryl had truly disappeared.
"I'm Annie, by the way."
"I'm Todd," the small boy said, making eye contact with her reticently. His eyes were slightly swollen from crying earlier that morning.
Annie smiled, combed a wisp of fiery red hair away from her face, and asked, "Would you like to swing with me?"
Todd paused for a moment and thought about it. To Annie, it seemed as if he was searching for a reason to trust her. Of course, she did not understand why. All she had done was ask him a simple question. After a little hesitation, he shrugged his bony shoulders and said, "Okay."
Cautiously, he followed her over to the swing set where they spent the remainder of recess swinging as high as they could into the frigid air. To Annie's delight, Todd warmed up to her quickly. As they swung, they laughed in exhilaration, fog billowing from their mouths as they whooped and tried to measure who could swing the highest.
After the bell rang, issuing the end of recess, they reluctantly hopped off their swings and dawdled behind the rest of the children heading back to their prospective classrooms.
"I wouldn't worry too much about Daryl. He's just a stupid boy. He will leave you alone if you tell him to," said Annie as they slowly strode back towards the school.
Todd stared miserably down at his sneakers and shrugged his shoulders in agreement, but did not reply.
"Besides, you can play with me at recess. We can stick together, and that way he won't bother you anymore."
"You mean I can be your friend?" he asked, surprise clear in his voice.
Annie grinned unquestionably and said, "Of course you can be my friend, silly! That way we'll never have to be friends with anyone else."
Todd smiled timidly and said, "I like that idea."
As they followed the rest of the children into the school building, Annie took Todd's hand in hers and vowed from that day forward that she would never, ever let go.