Standing outside of math class, I took a good look at him. Grayson was wearing a beanie, with the colors of the German flag. It totally clashed with his striped sweater vest, which was over a plaid shirt. I looked further down. He was wearing corduroy pants, maroon. They were rolled up at the bottom, revealing his pink socks. Compared to his colorful style, he had matte black hair and pale skin, free of any freckles, piercings, or tattoos. I squinted. Hazel eyes.
His gaze came over to me, and I quickly looked away. I did not want to be caught looking at Grayson Jene, the most unpopular kid in 10th grade.
I saw him again at lunch. I sat down with my friends at our table. I guess you could say we were the popular group. It was sad, but I only knew about 6 people’s names, out of the 10 at our table. There was Amanda, Jeremy, Leo, Nicki, Josephine, and I think someone named Ivy. Grayson slung his patched bag over a chair and sat down by himself by the salad cart. The only other person anywhere near him or the salad cart was the lunch lady.
“Mac!” My best friend, Amanda Creves, snapped her fingers in front of my face. She called me Mac, short for Mackenzie. I looked at her, my face already blushing. “Were you just looking at Grayson?!
“No, just seeing what’s in the salad today.” I shoved my peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my mouth so she couldn’t ask any more questions.
Normally, I would be much more defensive. “EW!” I would say. “Grayson? The kid with the dandruff and the pink socks? No way! Why would you think I was staring at him?” Amanda would just shrug and leave me alone.
But I had never really taken a good look at him, scared to be caught. I really just wanted to see what he was like.
I finished my sandwich and started heading over to the salad bar, determined to fully sell the lie to Amanda.
“Mac! I just found this ladybug. Set it in front of him, I want to see what he does!” Jeremy, my boyfriend, rested the little polka-dotted insect in the palm of my hand. Grayson was scared of ladybugs; it was a fact that the whole 10th grade knew. I gulped.
I slowly made my way to his table, thinking. If I didn’t set the bug down, I would probably become unpopular, but I would spare Grayson from humiliation. If I did put the creature down, Grayson would probably run away, and everyone would bother him more than they already do, but I’d still be popular. I uncovered my hand to peek at the ladybug. It moved its twig-like legs around my palm, eager to fly free. Then I came up with an idea. Still walking towards Grayson, I let it discreetly escape, watching it fly away.
“Ow!” I heard him cry. Whoops, I had smashed into his chair. He followed my gaze to the ladybug, then quickly looked away.
“Oh sorry, I was just heading over to my friend.” I nodded straight ahead, then sighed. The only person there was, of course, the lunch lady.
Grayson followed my gaze, but didn’t think it was weird I was ‘friends’ with the lunch lady. He turned back around. “If you were looking to give her the bug, she’s scared of them too,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Ok, sorry.” I turned to leave.
“Wait. Are you Mackenzie Walters, in my math and gym class?” I raised an eyebrow. He knew my last name?
“Yeah… why?” I said.
“Well, everyone around here says you’re smart, so would you mind helping me study for the quiz tomorrow in math?”
I looked back at my friends. They gave me a ‘speed things up’ look, so I turned to him. “You don’t need to study for a quiz,” I said, and walked away, hating myself for doing that.
“What was that little conversation about?” Amanda asked when I sat down. I looked around. Josephine gave me a sympathetic smile. I think there were a few people in this crowd that saw how forceful Amanda was sometimes.
“He caught me before I could put the thing in his bag.” I shrugged, looking back at Grayson. He was looking down at his math book.
“Ok,” said Jeremy, grabbing my hand and intertwining his fingers with mine, sending a chill down my back. I loved it when he held my hand. My ‘friend’ the lunch lady dismissed us, and we went to our lockers.
Friend was a big word to me. A friend was someone who was always there for you and laughed at your jokes. They would never try to hurt you. I thought about that word everyday, wondering about people with no friends. They had no one to lean on.
In gym, Grayson was tying his shoes. He had pulled his pink socks up high, which made me laugh a little. He looked up and quickly looked away. I hoped he didn’t think I was laughing at him. That’s a thing Amanda taught me when we were little. I was laughing with him.
I wanted to make it up to him, but I couldn’t really do that. Not when you’re popular, and he’s not. That just wasn’t cool.
I tripped over my shoelace, swearing on my way down, and Amanda burst out laughing. I looked up, expecting a hand to be reaching out for me, but instead I saw a look in her eye that told me she was laughing at me.
“Hi girls, how was school?” Amanda’s mom, Mrs. Creves, wiped her hands on a towel. “I made some blueberry pie for you two. It has your favorite type of whipped cream, Amanda. Extra whipped.” She winked an eye, but I could tell her heart wasn’t into it. Amanda never respected her. Just like she never respects Grayson, I thought.
Amanda grunted and took the plate. It looked so professional, it deserved more recognition. “Thank you, Mrs. Creves. It looks delicious,” I said.
“You’re welcome, dear. Oh, I think I hear Amanda going down in the tv room. Go along now, take some juice with you.”
I took the drinks and went down the long hallway, down the stairs, and through the big double doors that led to the tv room. It was more like a theater room. The tv was huge, and there were 2 rows of seats. Amanda was rich, like, really rich. Her dad was the inventor of Mary Dolls, a very popular brand of dolls. Amanda had a whole shelf full of them. We used to play school with them, and my girl, Mariana, was always the teacher. I found her on the wall. We hadn’t played in years; Mariana was coated in dust and her hair was messed up. It looked like Amanda’s little brother Mike had gotten to her and ripped off one of her fingers.
Amanda snapped me out of my gaze. “Let’s watch The Breakfast Club,” she said, as she flipped through the channels.
“Shouldn’t we be studying?” I said, thinking of Grayson. “We do have a math quiz tomorrow.”
She gave me the same answer I gave Grayson. “You don’t need to study for a quiz, Mac. Come on, it’s about to start.”
“I need to go to the bathroom.” I took my math book and went to the study instead. A glass chandelier hung on the high ceiling, and books lined the walls. I scanned through them until I found the school directory. I grabbed the phone on the desk and dialed Grayson’s number. I can’t believe I’m doing this, I thought.
He answered on the first ring. “Hello?”
“Um, hi this is Mackenzie Walters.”
“Oh, hey, what’s up?” Compared to his funky style, Grayson talked pretty normally when not getting attacked by insects.
“I actually did want to study for that quiz, and no one else wants to so…” I closed my eyes, hoping that he would say no, but hoping for him to say yes at the same time.
“Sure!” I heard him rummaging through his backpack.
We studied and just chatted for a good 30 minutes. I was red in the face from laughing. Grayson was actually really funny, when not being attacked by bugs.
“MACKENZIE!!” Amanda barged into the study.
“I gotta go. Bye!” I hung up and turned around. “Yes, Amanda?”
“You said you were going to the bathroom!” She looked furious, but I didn’t feel mad or guilty at all.
“I did say that, didn’t I? Well, I thought you wouldn’t let me study if I told you.” She sped past me to the phone.
“Who were you talking to?”
I squeezed my eyes shut. “Jeremy.”
“Oh I’m sure Jeremy, Jeremy, of all people would study for a math quiz.” She pushed some buttons on the phone. Of course she could see who I called. Why hadn’t I thought of that? “GRAYSON. GRAYSON JENE, THE KID FROM LUNCH?!”
I sighed. “We were just studying. He was the only one who wanted to.”
“Damn right you were studying. With Grayson!” Wow, high school had really changed her. “Do you realize what that could do to my reputation? High school’s important, Mac. At least for me. People are going to have to hear about this, it’s the only way.” She took out her cell phone. I took a deep breath.
“Wait. What if I never talk to him again, I forget all about him except for when I put a ladybug in his lunch bag tomorrow. Please.” Now I felt mad and guilty, but it’s what had to be done.
“Fine.” She smiled as if nothing had happened. “Now get away from that book and let’s watch tv!” She grabbed my arm and led me back to the theater.
“Hi.” I walked up to Grayson and smiled forcefully. He seemed surprised that I actually came up to him in person.
“Hi.” He smiled back a sincere smile.
“I wanted you to try these.” I took out some peanut butter covered strawberries. I felt so bad, because there was a… surprise in there.
“Thanks!” He took the bag and opened it up. I walked away before I could see anything happen.
I heard him reach his hand in the bag, the crinkling sound pounding in my head. It seemed to go in slow motion, Grayson’s hand slowly grabbing for a strawberry.
I can’t do this anymore. Doesn’t he know that I’m no friend! I’m hurting him! Breaking one of my own friend rules! I turned to leave, forcing a smile on my face and nodding to him. I squeezed my eyes shut and walked out of the lunch room. Jeremy grabbed my hand and led me to my locker, where it took me a couple tries to open it because my hands were shaking so much. I didn’t even know how bad his fear was, but if it was bad, it was bad.
Grayson wasn’t in math. I guess it was bad. Nobody seemed to notice, though, him being the most unpopular kid.
At the end of class, we got our quizzes back. I got an A+, the red pen shining on the top of the paper, until another sheet slid on top of mine. C-. Amanda’s.
I paired with her to correct her test. I cleared my throat. “You know, if you had studied with me, you would’ve gotten a better grade, and I wouldn’t have been forced to hurt Grayson.” I lowered my voice to a whisper at his name, because I still had my perfect reputation, and didn’t want to ruin it over a math test.
Amanda snorted. “Mac, I really don’t care about this stupid quiz. Just give me the answers.” She went to reach for the paper, putting an innocent smile on her face. “So I can learn from my mistakes.” I shifted it away from her. She tried to grab again, anger growing on her face. I moved it again. “Fine!” She finally gave up. “But you’re going to pay. I’m going to tell everyone about Grayson and you, especially to Jeremy, unless you call Grayson and tell him that his studying didn’t work, you got a C-, and you don’t want to do it ever again.”
I felt like I was going to cry out in frustration. Didn’t she know I’d already done too much damage? It was pointless to call him and lie. I wanted to give in so badly, but found the word “fine,” slipping from my lips. “You can watch me do it after school.”
As I promised, Amanda followed me out to the parking lot, crowded with kids. I turned to face her, taking out my phone, but I couldn’t move. Jeremy was with Amanda. Why was Jeremy with Amanda??
“Hi!” I finally managed to squeak out. “Uh, w-why are you here?” Amanda got what I was asking.
“Well, Jeremy heard about your C-, and felt so bad, he thought that Grayson deserved a little teasing, too.”
I know I should’ve felt relieved that it was nothing more than that, but if he thought that Grayson deserved a teasing, then wouldn’t he know I studied with him? Jeremy took my hand, but I didn’t feel the chill I usually felt. I sighed and picked up the phone. I dialed Grayson’s number. Amanda and Jeremy were smiling.
It rang for a minute, but then his mom’s voice came on. “Hi, you’ve reached the Jenes. Sorry we can’t answer, but just say who you are and we’ll try to get back to you! Thanks, bye.” Even worse. I had to leave a message on their home phone, where his whole family could hear.
“Hi, it’s Mackenzie.” I glanced over to my friends. There was that word. My friends that weren’t there for me. The friends that didn’t laugh at my jokes. The friends that would hurt me if they had to. Jeremy and Amanda were no friends. I had none. Except Grayson. He was a friend, maybe my only one.
“Call me back.” I started to walk, then run, out of the parking lot, but got tugged back. I turned my head. Amanda was holding onto the hood of my sweatshirt, and Jeremy was standing next her, his arms crossed.
“Get away from me!” I cried. I was sick of them controlling me. “Let go!”
“But you didn’t do it!” She held on. “That’s it! I’m telling the world.” She finally faced the whole 10th grade. I braced myself.
“Mackenzie Walters is dating Grayson Jene! How stupid is that!? He’s changed her into a hippie girl who’s afraid of making a phone call, and studies! Mackenzie and Grayson suck! Mackenzie and Grayson suck!”
Only a few people joined in, but they were just Amanda’s followers and admirers. The rest of the people just stared at her in disbelief. It took all my will not to laugh, so I ran away, letting her think that she got to me.
As I was walking home, the girl from my lunch table, Josephine, walked up to me. “You know, that was pretty funny and a little embarrassing on her part, what your friend Amanda did out there.”
I snorted. “I know, but I don’t care about her. She’s not my friend.”
“Even if someone was mean to you doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t care! Always follow the golden rule: treat people how you want to be treated.” We stopped walking.
“Josie.” She corrected me.
“Josie,” I started again. “I would care if she was hurt; I don’t care that she’s humiliated. But thanks for the quote.” I really wasn’t in the mood to talk, but apparently she was.
“Oh, I’m sorry if I came off as trying to control you,” she said sincerely. “I don’t want to be an Amanda.” I smiled at that one.
“Hey,” she said. “Ok, I’m practicing to be a comedian.” She cleared her throat very professionally. “What do you get when you cross Amanda and a sheep?” She paused. “An annoying sheep!”
It was so stupid, I busted out laughing. “Spectacular,” I said, and we started walking again.
“You know,” I said. “I was going to go to the ice cream place. To eat away my troubles.” She giggled. “I was going to call Grayson, too. Do you want to join us?”
For a second, I thought I saw a flash of worry on her face. It better not be because the name Grayson came up. I tested her.
“We could… not invite Grayson if that makes it better?” The look on her face was confused, but then she tossed back her head and laughed.
“That’s not what I was worried about. I’m lactose intolerant. Do you think they have sorbet?”
I smiled. “I’m sure they do.”
Grayson called back. “You knew I was afraid of ladybugs!” He cried into the phone. “How could you put dead ladybugs in that bag? I thought you were different, Mackenzie Walters.” My stomach lurched. I had forgotten about that.
“Grayson, I like you. Amanda and Jeremy pressured me to put the bugs in the treat, but I’m done with them. I’ve already made two new friends! One of them is named Josephine, and she’s very nice. The other one is really nice, too. He wears a beanie with the colors of the German flag. I think his name is Grayson Jene.”
He laughed. “What did you want from me?” I took the forgiving hint in his voice as an advantage.
“I wanted to go to the ice cream place with you guys.” He sighed a dramatic sigh. “I’ll be there.”
Josie and Grayson got along great. I think they both just needed some friends, as did I.
Friends. That, I realized, is now what I have.