With his earbuds blasting music in his ears, Matthew made his way through the throng of morning people. He zigzagged on the sidewalk, avoiding the usual suspects. The postman delivering mail for grown-ups only – he never got any – , the boy that threw the morning papers on doorsteps without slowing down on his bike, just to name a few. He then jumped aside to make room for the huge boarhound he was afraid of since his infancy. The thing was still alive. He and his older brother Adam had a long running bet concerning the day of his passing. He nodded friendly to the woman who jogged here every morning on weekdays, to eat her bodyweight in doughnuts in the bakery just around the corner on weekends. The woman in question looked very self-conscious when she noticed Matthew had spotted her and promptly ran faster. Matthew chuckled.
''Matt, wait up!''
But Matthew never heard him calling, only hearing the latest Ed Sheeran songs. It helped to wake him up. He jumped when somebody suddenly grabbed him by the shoulder. He jerked his arm free and turned around.
''Oh, it's you.''
His brother Adam scowled. ''Doing your little morning dance again? I saw you zigzagging elegantly through everybody you encountered.''
Adam ignored this remark and fell into step beside him. ''Why didn't you wait for me? We always walk to the bus stop together.''
Matthew kept his silence and stared stubbornly ahead. His brother would guess the reason in a matter of seconds anyway and he needed to mentally prepare himself for some relentless teasing. It wasn't always easy to be the brother of the most popular boy of the school.
''Oh,'' Adam said softly, realisation dawning. ''It's because of her, isn't it? You didn't want me around you when you saw her again for the first time after summer? Scared I'll say something to make you look stupid?''
Matthew still didn't speak, but Adam could read his expression from his face. ''Oh, Matt, come on! Do you really think I would do that? I know how much you like her.''
Matthew only mumbled something unintelligible.
Adam slung his right arm over his brother's shoulder. ''You can rely on me, dude. Now quit listening to Eddie here'' – he yanked out the earbuds of Matthew's ears, to which he responded with a snappy ''careful!'' – ''and follow my lead. I can tell in a matter of seconds whether her opinion of you has changed over the summer or not.''
''No, I'm not. You are just too scared to find out how she really feels.''
There was so much truth in that remark that Matthew let Adam win. ''Alright. But no teasing, okay?''
Matthew chuckled. ''You only say that on the really big occasions.''
''This is a big occasion! Now come on, or we'll actually miss the bus on our first day of school.''
When they went around the corner, they saw the bus at their stop already. Both brothers broke into a run and came to a skidding halt just in time. Panting, they said their good morning's to Mrs. Brooke, who had been driving the school bus for as long as they could remember. They had a second bet running just for her, with Matthew thinking she would live forever and Adam thinking she secretly was a vampire. She did have pale skin. Matthew walked just a step behind Adam, but when his brother took his usual seat, he could finally see her and from that moment on she was the only thing he had eyes for. Classmates' greetings weren't heard, slaps on his shoulder weren't felt and he never saw his best friend waving at him. Finally, Helen looked up and their eyes met. Matthew flushed and forgot how to speak. ''Hell – hi,'' he said at last. He flushed deeper, almost a shade of crimson now, when he realized how stupid that must have sounded. He cleared his throat. ''Hi,'' he tried again.
''Hello,'' Helen replied. She smiled at him. ''Did you have a nice summer?''
Matthew nodded, but before he could reply, his name was called.
''Matt! Come sit over here – saved you a seat!''
Matthew snapped out of his reverie, managed to smile at Helen one last time and then fell into a seat next to his friend Oscar. He let out a huge sigh.
''Still hung up on her?'' Oscar asked him with a grin.
''Shh!'' Matthew replied furiously. ''Only you and Adam know.''
Oscar laughed in his face. ''Everybody knows, Matthew. It's all over your face when she walks by or looks at you. And I think she might feel the same way.''
Matthew's stomach did a couple of somersaults, but he tried to sound cool about it. He braced himself when the bus went down a steep hill, so he wouldn't slide out of his seat. ''How so?''
Oscar just shrugged. ''Just the way her face lit up when you entered the bus or when she looked at you just now. Honestly, you're so blinded with love for this girl, you can't even see she likes you back.''
''Am not.'' But Matthew knew arguing was pointless. If Oscar was telling the truth, the whole school knew about his crush on Helen.
''You should ask her out on a proper date!''
''But what if she says no?"
''Then you can finally move on.''
''But what if she says yes?''
''Then you put on your best shirt and you take her on a picnic.'' Oscar clearly had an answer for everything.
''But how does one go about asking a girl out?''
''Matt, give me a break! It's 8 a.m. in the morning, the first day of school. If anybody should be asking me difficult questions, it should be teachers. And please stop using 'one' in sentences. It makes you look like you should live in 18th century London.''
But Matthew was not giving up. ''No, don't back out now. You just encouraged me to ask her out. You have to help me prepare.''
''Prepare for the actual date or just the asking out part?''
''That last one.''
''Come one, Matt, grow a pair. Walk up to her during lunch, ask if she would like to see a movie or something and that's that,'' Oscar said with a cool nonchalance.
But Matthew knew him longer than that. ''Don't get all cocky, now, Oz. When was the last time you asked a girl out?''
Matthew was taken aback with this direct answer. ''Last week? Why didn't you tell me?''
''Because she shot me down before I could finish my sentence. It isn't a cool story, really.''
Matthew snorted. ''And here I thought you were the expert.''
''At least I tried.''
Matthew didn't reply to that last remark, but looked out of the window. It was a sunny day, but windy. That was probably his least favourite thing about living in San Francisco. It always was windy. And when autumn came around and the sun went away, it would become rather chilly really fast. Longingly, he thought back to the summer. It had been pure bliss, not having to think about school or anything school-related for weeks on end. The only good thing about the start of the term was that Adam was now a senior, so this would be his last year at Ilion High. Matthew couldn't wait to no longer being overshadowed by and compared to his brother. His thoughts slowly drifted back to Helen, as they always did. He turned his head so he could look at the back of hers. She had braided her long blond hair and Matthew stared at the intricate way the long tresses came together. He wondered if she had done it herself or if her sister Zoë had done it for her. He also wondered if her hair would feel as soft as it looked. He woke up from his day dream when Oscar stood up from his seat.
''We're here, let's go.''
Matthew noticed that indeed the bus had come to a stop and fellow students were filing out, walking into the sunshine. He took a deep breath, bracing himself for the day ahead. He and Oscar walked towards the main entrance of Ilion High. Everywhere friends were greeting each other, hugging and squealing. A few of the richer kids were dropped off by their parents or chauffeurs by car. He and Oscar were in the middle of greeting class mates and sharing summer stories, when something caught Matthew's eye. Headmaster Nestor was making his way through the throng of students, followed by three unfamiliar faces of roughly Matthew's age. He nudged Oscar. ''Look.'' He gestured in the direction of the Headmaster. ''It looks like they are transfer students.''
Oscar nodded pensively. ''They are too old to be freshmen. Maybe they'll be in our class.''
Matthew looked at the three students again, a little closer this time. There were two boys, both tall with a head full of brown curls and a girl, who was a lot smaller. She had shiny red hair and green eyes.
Oscar whistled under his breath. ''She's very pretty.''
Matthew smirked at him. ''Maybe you should ask her out, then.''
''Very funny.'' Oscar turned around to resume the conversation he was having with a classmate. Matthew did the same, but then he saw his brother Adam making out with his girlfriend. He stopped paying attention to the story Oscar was telling and sighed. It was not convenient at all that Adam had a relationship with Helen's older sister Zoë. It complicated everything. Matthew could practically hear the sneers already. ''He can't get a girl of his own, so his brother would've set him up with his girlfriend's sister.'' But he just couldn't help being head over heels for Helen.
The gong sounded, so Matthew, Oscar and the rest of their class made their way to their first lesson of the new term. When Matthew entered the Science classroom, one of the boys he had just seen with the Headmaster was already sitting at a table. Matthew took his usual seat, which happened to be just behind the new kid. The boy with the brown curls turned around and smiled at him. ''Hello. Please, let me introduce myself. I'm Paul.'' He extended his hand, all smiles and polite manners.
When Matthew shook it, he noticed two things. One, Paul's accent was kind of posh, and two, he had a very friendly, easy-going demeanour. ''Matthew,'' he said, introducing himself.
''Nice to meet you,'' smiled Paul.
''Did you move here this summer?" Matthew asked, curious where he came from. But Paul never answered him, already looking around the classroom and observing his new classmates, who were jostling each other and finding their own seats. Matthew still observed Paul and he saw the boy's eyes lit up, as Paul sat up a little straighter. He quickly put a hand through his hair, making his curls even more messier. Matthew followed Paul's line of sight and he saw who Paul was looking at. He suddenly felt as if somebody had punched him in the stomach, and for a moment he couldn't breathe.
Helen – Paul was looking at Helen, smiling at Helen, messing up his curls for Helen. But that was not even the worst part. Helen was smiling back at him. One of her friends whispered something in her ear and they both burst into giggles. Paul turned towards Matthew again, looking very smug. ''What's her name?'' he asked Matt.
But before Matthew could answer him – or punch him in the face; he was still debating which – a girl he had never seen before stepped towards them. 'Hi, Paul,'' she said a little breathless.
Another girl? Matthew thought, perplexed. Who is this guy?