1: The Return


Why am I so nervous about today?

The emotion is the same as that day last year when I finally had to get on that bus and face the music after missing a month of school. After getting caught wandering the halls and dragged into the spotlight over an M219 outbreak.

Why should I feel as if they'll still stare? Why do I feel as if they'll still shrink away and avoid me?

They shouldn't.

With maybe the exception of any freshmen on the bus who might have known me in middle school and haven't found out through the grapevine what I truly am, this cohort knows me – remembers last year's craziness. And whether they like me or not – hate what I am or not – they've at least gotten jaded to my presence.

Despite any logic I throw at my paranoia, it refuses to dissipate and leave me to more pleasant thoughts.

I'm too wound up. It's illogical, I know it is, but the nerves still exist.

There are no pleasant thoughts to be found inside my skull. The stronger emotion is pushing out all else. That's always when the darkest ideations come to play, isn't it?

Even the thought of seeing Mandy on the bus upon its arrival doesn't brighten my mood.

Despite it all, I stand stoically at the end of my driveway, waiting for the transport to arrive. There's no use even thinking of repeating what I did last year at this time.

Dad would skin me alive if I pulled that stunt again.

The road bordering our property threads relatively north and south through the small space between the mountains to the east and the sea to the west. As yet, I can't see the transport, but I've evidently inherited the ability to pick even distant sounds out of the background. It's probably a mile away when I hear its distinct engine sounds and the squeal of the occasional airbrake application.

Forewarned, I steel myself as best I can against the butterflies that tickle the lining in my stomach. I run a hand through my hair in another sign of nerves as the yellow vehicle tops the slight rise to the north of me.

Its lights come on immediately, flashing amber, visible even in the bright light of a mid-August morning. As it slows, the stop sign extends as if to high five with the cars that might chance to pass it. None do, and I can see that the bus has backed up at least five people commuting to or from work. I catch a glance of the driver immediately behind the transport and his obvious frustration to be held up by a vehicle making frequent stops.

I leap on board as soon as the door opens. Seeing Mandy, I make my way about half way back, slipping in beside her as she scoots to the right to make room.

"Hey," I sigh, making pains not to look at people around me. I don't want to see initial reactions, not from friends and not from the newbies on the bus. Let me have my delusion for just a few moments longer.

"Good morning!" she replies, beaming. "I like the look."

I glance down, wondering why she would say that when I was wearing much the same over the weekend. Khaki shorts and a pale gray-blue top, leather sandals with a back so as not to get dress-coded.

Why does she sound surprised?

It dawns on me a moment later.

"You seriously thought I would go back under wraps today, didn't you? Like make that a yearly tradition?" I shake my head negatively. "No way."

She shrugs and looks coyly out the window as the transport starts rolling along again.

I laugh despite my tinge of frustration. "It's too hot for jeans and a hoodie, y'know."

Mandy shoots a smile at me once more. "Exactly, hence my statement! It's good that you've gotten over it."

I laugh again and then lean back into the seat. "Well I wouldn't go that far, but I'm not really into futility this year."

After a moment's silence, I get curious enough to start looking around the bus at the other occupants. There's about a dozen fresh or vaguely familiar faces dotted between more recognizable members of this shared trip.

A few see me looking and wave, Lucy and Josh, Andrea, Collette. I smile and wave back, feeling that paranoid little part of my brain finally easing up on the throttle.

I feel Mandy lean on my shoulder and glancing over, I see her extending her greeting to our friends as well.

What I also note is that there are people who were regulars last year on the bus who are no longer riding. I assume, perhaps wrongly, that because they're juniors and seniors now that they'd gotten licenses and are now driving their own transportation to school.

A small twinge of jealousy moves through me.

Not that I think my parents would give me a car just because, anyway. I hear them grumbling about entitlement when they see some of these seventeen and eighteen-year-olds driving top-of-the-line vehicles.

Which is funny, in turn, because I'm pretty sure Dad was gifted a new car when he graduated high school. Mom at least worked for her first car.

Another thing I notice is how well most of the students on the bus are dressed. The freshmen especially. Trying to make that good first impression.

For me? That will not matter one iota. I could dress in a tuxedo for the first day of school and the only thing that would get noticed is the shade and texture of my skin, and the pointed nose and ears.

I have all new teachers this year, and most of them, I haven't met. While they may have seen me around campus, that doesn't mean my being in their class will not come as a shock to them.

That reminds me…

I spin back to face Mandy. "What's your schedule look like this quarter?" There is a small note of desperation in my voice. There would be nothing worse this year than not sharing any classes with Mandy.

"Oh, uh."

She swings her back pack onto her lap and quickly opens the smallest pocket to pull out a small tablet. She boots and searches in it and then leans closer to show me her email.

I pull out my net-phone and wake it up from its sleep, revealing the already booted schedule on mine.

"Mrs. Mondragon – Trig, looks like we got her together. Mr. Duluth – US History. Mr. Camino – Chemistry, Ugh I heard he's hard. Mrs. Palmer – Swim Team…"

"You got back in?" Mandy whispers excitedly. "That's awesome!"

"Yeah," I shoot her a small frown. "Though I'm being told I won't be able to compete."

"What?"

I shake my head, a bit angry even when I understand their reasoning. "They say I have unfair genetic advantage. So I can practice, I can letter in it, but I won't be competing in meets."

"That's not fair," she whines, protective of me.

"No, it's totally fair. They're right. Even if I did it exactly like the rest of them, I'm still a more powerful swimmer. Doesn't mean I like it, but it is fair."

"I wouldn't stay on the team," Mandy growls. "What's worth is it?"

"I get to swim every day on school time?" I smile widely at her.

My answer startles a laugh out of her.

I shrug a moment later and pull her schedule closer once more to compare the rest of the list.

"Looks like we've only got two together at all this year."

"Distance makes the heart grow fonder." She grins, hugging my close elbow.

I pat her hand and smile down at her.

"Okay, we'll go with that." I lean into the padding again. "We'll just meet up at our usual spot on the lawn at brunch then."

"Sounds good."

We finish this conversation and in the silence I look out the window seeing New Fresno High school growing larger on the horizon. When we stop, people are actually eager to get off the bus.

Strange.

But it always seems that way with a first day of the school year. Excitement to see old friends, nerves about how the classes will go, whether the teachers will be ones you'll remember for all time or want to forget immediately.

I smile and shake my head to no one.

Mandy reaches for my hand as I step off of the bus, and with a widening grin, I wrap it up in mine. We walk casually up the main walk of the school, watching the gaggles of students already forming their cliques.

There's the occasional stare. Though at this point I'm not sure if it's because of my appearance, changed from even June, or the fact that Mandy and I are official and showing it off.

My chest warms at the latter, and I let myself believe that's the reason for the eyes that follow us as we pass by. I'll keep believing it until someone tells me otherwise, and even then, I may hold onto the delusion.

As we enter the main building, the noise increases exponentially. Groups and gaggles cling to the walls, and, not wanting to spread lengthwise and lose the ability to communicate with friends, the larger ones spill into the ever narrower path between them, until the hall is nearly impassable. Mandy falls behind me through one of the tighter parts, pulling my hand behind my back so as not to lose contact with me.

I'm happy to note most don't pay me more than a passing glance. The more extreme reactions are absent – no parting of the Red Sea today because of the young gemue on campus. I sigh, the sound of it lost in the cacophony echoing above us.

The bottleneck opens up towards the quad situated between the buildings. Mandy moves back to my side and we open our stride in an effort to get to our spot from last year. I want to see the gang before the first bell of the first day rings, and I know they'll be looking for us there.

Part of me harbors a fear that some juniors or seniors will have claimed it. My fear is unfounded, and I have to remind myself, like the reservations, our patch of ground was the one passed over by other kids last year, because it's in the open and fully exposed to the sun. In the middle of August, no one wants to sit in direct sunlight.

Except us.

'Cause we're crazy like that.

I smile to no one at that thought.

There's still some dew on the ground, probably from one last sprinkling before thousands of feet beat the grass to death. It's beautifully luscious and thick. Should be a comfortable seat later. Right now we just stand close to one another looking around for the others.

Corbin's the first one to bust through the milling crowd.

"Dudes!" he bellows throwing up both of his arms above his head and nearly dropping his tablet in the process. He closes the distance with a skip and a hop before wrapping us both in an enthusiastic hug! "Good to see you, amigos!"

I smile back. "You too!"

"How was Mexico?"

"Big and loud and full of family. Too much good food!" He grins and boogies in place a minute. "Dad took me marlin fishing."

A stifle a disturbed laugh, because the marlin that comes to my mind, while a fish, I'm sure is not the one he's speaking of.

Besides – Uncle Marlin's dead.

"Did you catch one?"

He nods and his dark eyes get large. "Fought it for three hours! Dude my arms were rubber when I was done!"

"I bet!" Mandy chimes in. "I wouldn't have been able to hang."

"I almost didn't!" He flashes a large smile at her. "Dad wouldn't let me give up the pole! Was convinced it was a world record or something."

"Was it?" I ask, completely curious. That's a big deal.

Corbin deflates. "No… felt like wasted effort. It was only six hundred pounds!"

I glance at Mandy, grinning. "'Only' he says." I return my gaze to Corbin, tilting my head. "You do realize that's twice as heavy as the three of us put together?"

We all laugh. "Yeah," Corbin adds as the laughter dies, "but when the blue Marlin record is nearly two thousand it seems really small."

"Well, I guess there's that."

"And then… after all that work, they released it!" He shakes his head at the same time he lifts his arms and lets them flop noisily against his thighs. "Why'd I even bother?"

"To keep them from going extinct?" I rejoin.

"Mmm."

"Hello, Mikael!"

The oddly pronounced version of my name makes me twist quickly around.

"Rowan!" We all say it in near unison.

She's dressed much like the rest of us, shorts and a school appropriate tank top. Her mottled grayish-green skin darkens only a little on the undersides of her arms, she stands out, but seems much more comfortable this year about her appearance than when she came to school at the end of last year.

Atop her bare head, she has one of her fancier wraps, brass and gold beads adorn the tags and several woven strips, making music as she moves and looks around. This one is purple, like her top

Her eyes crinkle and her mouth gapes, her version of a smile. Her cheeks darken some, though I have no idea why she's embarrassed.

As she come closer I wrap her shoulders and pull her into a quick one armed hug. She smiles up at me again as I grin down on her.

"Welcome back!" Mandy adds enthusiastically.

"Thank you!"

"Has Evan started college yet?"

Rowan shakes her slightly oversized head in the negative. "He willnae start until the end of the month." She rolls her dark eyes, only noticeable when some of the rare whites show. "It's all he and Papi can talk about though."

"How're you settling in to life on land?" Mandy says, slipping over next to her and stringing her arm through Rowan's.

"I did spend time with Papi, and Mami last year, Mandy," she has a slight tone of admonishment, to which Mandy flushes. "But this year will be harder because I will spend all year away from Mom and Dad."

"I'm sure you'll get to see them every weekend at the very least.

"I know," she looks a bit downtrodden, "but I still miss them."

"Speaking of," Mandy says, frowning. "Where's Kelly?"

"Uh, you didn't hear?" I ask, normally she's got her ear to the ground.

She glances over at me and a lost expression settles into her face. "Noooo…"

"He moved last month." I frown, realizing how much I'm going to miss having him around. "Somewhere up near Stockton."

"No!"

I nod. "His dad got a better paying job so they had to pack up and go."

"You staying in touch with him?" Mandy asks, seeming to sense my mood over the hole in our circle of friends.

"Of course. He's been my friend almost as long as you have."

Rowen changes the subject as she peeks around my frame, watching the swelling crowds. Her gaze takes on an expression of dismay. "I dinna realize the school had so many people."

Blinking and breaking myself out of my funk, I follow her gaze. "I dunno, I don't think it's that much more than last year."

I catch a glimpse of Cory skirting the group closest us. I frown, part of me wishing he had moved instead of Kelly. I'm still miffed about how ungrateful he ended up being after the pool incident.

I'm not sure whether it was that or that Rowen joined our circle, but Cory doesn't hang out with this group anymore. My brow furrows, actually I can't say I've seen him hanging out with much of anyone lately.

"Actually," Mandy chimes in breaking my contemplation of Cory's isolation. "There's a hundred and fifty more kids this year than last."

"Woof. Class sizes are going to be huge, then." I suppress a grimace at the news. "Dad says there are going to be about ten more gemues this year," I add. "Though I haven't seen em, yet."

"In a population of three thousand?" Corbin's brows furrow. "Good luck, man."

"I mean, I'll meet them eventually," I answer. "They've roped me into being a student liaison for them."

"Roped?" Mandy puts her hands on her hips. "As I recall, you volunteered."

I snort. "I was being sarcastic."

"Of course you were."

"The point is I wanted to meet them in a less official capacity."

"You will."

Before we can say more the bell for first period rings.

I glance at her. "Eventually."

She smiles and stands up on her toes. I give her a quick peck on the lips, starting away until our fingertips can no longer touch.

"Here we go," I mutter.


A/N: Hot off my keyboard. Sorry for the delay, but as always with writing a completely new story, I simply cannot force a chapter out of my brain. It takes it's own course to the next chapters' completion. This is one of the reasons I can't do things like NaNoWriMo or Camp Nano. Self imposed deadlines I can deal with, externally imposed deadlines kick in a stubborn streak in my muse!

All of this is still pretty much set up exposition... the meat of the story is yet to come...

More as I can!