My lips are inches away from kissing blue-eyed Heidi Schmidt — the smartest and third prettiest girl in my sophomore class — when my alarm wakes me. Dang it! I’ve had a crush on Heidi since ninth grade, when we sat next to each other in science class. We shared stories about our friends and families. She told me about Booboo, a female Maltese, who slept next to her every night. Lucky dog. But now, since the start of the new school year, whenever I see her in the hallway she just smiles and excuses herself. Sometimes I wonder if she still likes me. “Bere, you getting ready for school?” my father calls into the hallway near my bedroom. “I’m up, Dad. Thanks.” In my bathroom, I stare at my tanned face in the mirror. The peach fuzz and a few patches of dark brown stubble on my chin and cheeks offer no resistance to my new Shillett Laser Razor. Sometimes I worry my beard won’t fill in. I insert a u-shaped oral tray that the Cresgate Corporation says is guaranteed to eliminate halitosis. The device whirs as its lasers clean, floss and whiten my teeth in less than thirty seconds. “When I was your age,” my father once told me, “I had to do all of this manually.” So glad I live in modern times. I shower, dress and check my holographic communicator for messages. One is from Zach Rodriguez, my best friend, who confirms we’ll meet at the state championship football game tonight. Another dozen messages are from corporations trying to sell me stuff. “Tired of carrying your communicator or wearing c-glasses or contacts?” one advertisement asks. “This holiday season ask for the gift that frees your hands — Appsung X, the first communicator implant. Safe. Painless. Easy to use.” Awesome. I’m going to ask dad to get me one for Christmas. I open my bedroom door to the aroma of sizzling bacon and make my way to the kitchen. My 5-foot-3 grandmother, who looks a decade younger than her 59 years, is standing in front of the stove, holding a spatula. Her smile melts my heart. “Good morning, Grammy,” I say, kissing her cheek. “Smells delicioso.” “Morning, honey,” she says, flipping the bacon. “How’d you sleep?” “Great. How ‘bout you?” “Almost seven hours. Not bad for an old lady.” “You’re not old, Grammy. You’re like that cast-iron skillet — tough and ageless.” “That’s sweet of you, honey. But I think I’m becoming more like the bacon: fat and greasy.” I chuckle but quickly counter, “No way, Grammy. You’re probably even tough enough to beat me up?” “That’s why you should always obey your Grandma,” she says, shaking the spatula at me. We are laughing as my father enters the kitchen and joins the ribbing. “Are you threatening Grandma again, Bere?” “It’s the other way around, Dad. She threatened to beat me with the spatula.” “Well, I’m sure you deserve it.” “Spoken like a true tyrant,” I punch back. “Well, if you haven’t noticed, this ain’t a democracy, Son.” I roll my eyes; Grammy laughs; and dad fakes a frown. I help Grammy set the table and serve up plates of bacon, scrambled eggs, fruit and multi-grain toast. “This is the last day of your semester, isn’t it?” dad asks. “Yup,” I respond, chewing a large mouthful of bacon and eggs. “And our football team is playing for the state championship tonight.” “Bere, you shouldn’t talk when your mouth is full,” Grammy softly chides. I swallow and nod. “Bryce, when are you coming home tonight?” she asks my dad. “About five-thirty.” “Okay, I’ll have dinner ready by six.” “You don’t have to set a plate for me, Grammy. I’ll get somethin’ to eat at the game with Zach. I’ll be home before midnight.” “How about 11?” dad suggests. “11:30?” “Okay, but if you’re late,” he grins, “I’ll give Grandma permission to beat you with that spatula.”
* * * * *
I enter the garage, climb into my two-seat dark blue Genford electromagnetic helipod, and activate its synthetic computer with the command, “Hello Henry.” “Where to, Mr. Bere?” it responds in a baritone voice. “School Henry.” The ceiling retracts and Henry rises 88 feet, enough to clear trees and tall buildings. I can see North Mountain, which is located behind our home. The pod then quietly cruises at forty miles per hour to Joseph R. McCarthy High School eight miles away. The powder-blue sky is filled with orange-tinted clouds and hundreds of other pods traversing to various destinations at different heights in this city of 16 million. On the streets below, workers who can’t afford pods — Paysans — make their way to work mostly in robotic gasoline-powered automobiles that often get mired in traffic jams. But I’m not from a rich family. My dad is an economics professor at Arizona Corporate University and Grammy quit working seven years ago to take care of me after my mother died. We don’t live in Zone 3, where the wealthy live under a geodesic dome with fresh air. We live in Zone 2 with the Paysans and the Klugs, which include teachers, engineers, and low-level corporate managers. “Turn on the news, Henry.” “Yes, Mr. Bere.” A small holographic screen appears two feet in front of me. “... and the air pollution index is extremely high again today,” says a female weathercaster wearing a yellow dirndl dress. “Don’t forget to wear your respirator if you’re going outside today. On the bright side, though, today’s high is expected to reach 86 degrees. Over to you, Genny.” “Thanks, Marsha,” Genny says, straightening her back, which increases the size of her bosom beneath a light pink blouse. “In local news — Arizona Corporate Police last night shot and killed five armed Luminars at a subversive training camp in a remote area of the Mogollon Rim. Eleven others were arrested. No police were killed or injured. Our Jason Swift is at the scene.” Gee, that’s only about 80 miles from here. “Thanks Genny,” he says while standing in front of a smoldering building surrounded by ponderosa pines. “I’m here with Colonel Max Wagner, who led the raid. Colonel, can you tell our viewers what the Luminars were doing here?” The camera zooms in on the Colonel’s face, which has a deep scar in its left cheek. “They were teaching seditious ideas and combat skills to new recruits, Jason. And they were planning to attack the nation’s Capitol in Phoenix. The Luminars are a cancer in our society. And like a cancer, we must eliminate every cell. ... ” “Damn Luminars,” I mutter. “What did you say, Mr. Bere?” Henry asks. “Nothing, Henry. Turn news off.” Seconds later Henry descends into the school parking lot. I check the time: 8:58. Yikes! I’m going to be late for class. I’ll cut through the gym.
2 8:59 a.m. Gymnasium, Joseph R. McCarthy High School
I enter the gymnasium on the north side, where three upperclassmen are playing basketball. I recognize one of them: Otto Wagner, a star offensive lineman on the football team. I walk quietly to avoid detection, but he sees me, stops bouncing the ball, and yells, “Greenie!” A second later his companions are sprinting toward me like coyotes chasing a rabbit in an open field. I bolt for the nearest hallway exit on the south side of the gym. With a half-court lead, I know I can make it, but a basketball crosses my path and I trip. My forearms hit the floor; then my chest. OUCH! “Nice throw, Otto,” cackles one of his minions, as Otto struts toward me. “You could be a professional bowler, ya know.” Otto kneels next to me and grins like a hunter after a kill. “Look at this carcass.” He grabs my right arm and jerks me to a standing position. “We should pummel him with rubber dodge balls,” advises the other sidekick, whose jet-black hair is greased back. My mind races to come up with something clever to bust up this sadistic shindig. “Before you turn me into a target, Mr. Wagner, may I, ah, say something in my defense?” “What?” “Wouldn’t it be more fun beating up on someone your own size?” Otto’s comrades laugh. But Otto gives them a side-eye, which shuts them up. He scowls at me. “Whattaya doin’ in our gym, chink?” “I’m late for class and this was a shortcut. Sorry for interrupting your game. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll be on my way.” I turn and take one step. “I do mind, chink boy,” Otto says, grabbing my shoulder. His racist remark sets me off. “Actually, I’m one-fourth Chinese. And did you know that term is degrading?” Otto ignores my question. “What’s your name, chink boy?” “Bere.” He chuckles and folds his arms across his chest. “What the hell kind of name is that?” “The one my parents gave me.” Otto’s companions laugh again but Otto ignores them. “You think that’s funny, chink boy?” “Can’t say I’d use that line in a comedy routine, but your buddies seemed to like it.” Otto’s cheeks turn pink. “Why you smart ass,” he roars as his massive hands encircle my neck and effortlessly lift my 120-pound body a foot off the floor. I grasp his wrists to minimize the choking, but it’s still hard to breathe. Otto was right. I was a smart ass. I’ve always been a bit irreverent, especially when I’m scared. I’m sure a shrink would tell me it’s my way of coping with stress. But none of that matters right now, because nothing I could say or do is going to stop this inglorious hazing party. So I accept my fate, which now manifests itself in the stars floating around Otto’s shaved head. “Put that boy down!” a girl behind me shouts. “Who are you?” Otto bellows. “Sara Nuechterlein, the vice principal’s daughter.” “No, you aren’t.” “Try me, Otto. I can have you tossed off the football team before tonight’s game. Put him down — NOW!” Otto releases his grip. I fall to the floor, coughing and gasping for air. My vision quickly returns and reveals that my savior is the size of a ballerina and has waist-length auburn hair. She’s wearing black gym shorts and a goldenrod t-shirt emblazoned with a hawk, the school’s mascot . Otto spits at me. “A girl saved you this time, chink boy,” he says, walking away with his buzzard buddies. “But next time I see your egg-roll head, you’re gonna wish you’d never been born.” “Stick the egg roll up your fat butt,” I want to yell, but don’t. Grammy wouldn’t approve. “You okay?” my savior asks, offering a hand to help me up. “Thanks,” I reply, standing. “Are you really the vice principal’s daughter?” “Of course not.” “How’d you know Otto would fall for it?” “Guys like Otto are afraid of girls,” she replies, gracefully placing her hands on her hips. “How do ya know that?” “Because he’s a bully; all bullies are insecure.” “What about guys who are insecure and aren’t bullies?” Her fern-green eyes widen and she grins, exposing a dimple in each cheek. “They’re the ones we smart girls date.” “Even those who still sleep with their teddy bears?” She laughs. “You’re funny, Bere. But I bet your humor gets you in trouble now and then.” “Only when I walk through gyms filled with bullies and courageous girls.” She shows her dimples again. “How can I thank you?” I ask. “You goin’ to the game tonight?” “Of course.” “But what about Otto?” “One cracked nut doesn’t spoil the whole snack,” I say, rubbing my neck. “I’m not missing the most important Hawks game of the year.” “Okay, buy me an ice cream cone after the game and we’re even. Meet me at the concession stand.” “It’s a date.” “Ah — well, I wouldn’t call it a date. I have a boyfriend.” “Sorry — I — ah — I didn’t really mean — ah — I meant we should just have a ice cream meet-up.” She giggles at my awkwardness. “No offense taken.” “I have to warn you, though,” I say, regaining my composure. “I’m a very talented ice cream eater.” “Well, I certainly hope you’re more skilled at that than you are negotiating with bullies.”
* * * * *
I quietly open the door to my government class and tiptoe in, knowing full well that Ms. Gomez, my teacher, has eyes in the back of her head. But she’s still going through the morning school announcements, so maybe she won’t see me. “You’re late, Bere,” she says, without even turning to look at me. How does she do that? “Sorry, Ms. Gomez. I was hung up in the gym.” Smirks emerge on the faces of several classmates who have a reputation for reveling in the misfortune of others. Many teachers would write me up for being tardy. But Ms. Gomez knows I’m a good student and that I like her class. I sit in the left side row, next to the windows and my buddy Zach, who has a big grin on his face until he sees me up close. “Your neck is red, Bro,” he whispers. “You okay?” I nod. “Please stand for the pledge,” Ms. Gomez commands. My 26 classmates and I comply, putting our right fist over our hearts: “I pledge allegiance, to the Flag, of the Corporate States of America, and to the Polity, for which it stands, one Nation, under Gebieter, indivisible, with loyalty and duty for all.” “Thank you, class.” We sit as Ms. Gomez summarizes the day’s lesson. This year, for the first time, she and all teachers are required to use the Appsung X communicator implant. She says she loves it, because she is hands-free. “Today we continue our discussion of the Second Civil War. Appsung, play video of the White House, July 4, 2034.” A 10-foot-wide holographic image appears in the air behind her. The former White House is in flames — a scene I’ve seen a hundred times before. “On this day Luminars attacked the White House, killing the Gebieter, five dozen security personal, and eight members of the Corporate Party of America. The military responded with massive force, attacking Luminar groups across the country. The CPA declared a nationwide curfew and then ... ” I stop listening — not because I don’t respect Ms. Gomez. She’s a great teacher. But I’m so tired of hearing the same lecture year after year. Why do government classes repeat the same story over and over? They seem to think we students are dumb. I stare out the window at a dying saguaro. Two of its graying arms are sagging, as though it’s trying to cushion its descent before being absorbed by mother earth. All of the saguaros in the Senora Desert are drying, according to the CPA, because of a fungus created and planted by the Luminars. They want to overthrow the CPA and create a collectivist state, where everyone is a robot. They are so evil. I feel a bit guilty for flirting with Sara behind Heidi’s back. But, hey, Heidi and I haven’t even had a date, so why should I feel guilty? Besides, lately, I don’t even know if she likes me. “Bere?” I turn my head toward Ms. Gomez. “Ahhh — yes?” “Did you hear the question?” “I guess I didn’t.” Giggles pepper the room. “Why did the CPA eliminate voting rights?” That’s an easy question. “Because people aren’t smart enough.” “And you agree?” Ms. Gomez follows up. “Well, who wouldn’t? Before the war, the two major political parties couldn’t agree on anything. Everything was polarized. Government was chaotic. Now we have order, stability, and —— ” “No voting rights,” interrupts Kira Baker, an honor’s student who often speaks up in class. “We’ve lost our right to choose our leaders.” Several students gasp, including me, because Kira is advocating chaos. “People have plenty of choices,” I retort, riding the wave of outrage. “They can decide to do well or not in school, go to college, choose a career, pick a spouse. Duty and obedience are more important than voting. Voting creates chaos.” “Voting gives people hope,” she kicks back. “To what end? So people can bicker and fight about everything?” “Voting didn’t create chaos, Bere. False news reports did that. People need to respect each other’s opinions.” “You sound like a Luminar, Kira.” Several students snicker. “I’m not a Luminar.” She frowns and folds her arms. “I’m a loyal American, like you. It’s not a question of whether people are smart enough to vote. It’s a question of whether they deserve the right to govern themselves.” “You’re a Luminar, all right,” I retort. “I bet your parents are too.” The room falls eerily silent, and I instantly regret my accusation. But Kira doesn’t seem to respect the state or her duty to it. How can someone so smart be so dumb? “Okay, enough of that,” Ms. Gomez scolds, looking at me. I turn my eyes to the floor. “But the debate between Kira and Bere raises an important question for all of us: Is giving up the right to vote a price worth paying to reduce societal conflict?” “Of course,” says Burt Cumberlin, whose father manages the dealership where my dad buys his pods. “It prevents tyranny of the majority.” A half dozen others agree. No one supports Kira.
* * * * *
“What happened to you?” Zach asks me as we leave the room. But before I can respond, Ms. Gomez calls me. “Bere, may I please see you for a second?” Zach grins and whispers: “I’ll wait in the hallway, bro.” I stare at the floor as I walk toward her, hoping she’ll take some pity on me. “I realize that you and the rest of the class are very patriotic, but you could have been nicer to Kira. When you criticize a person but not their argument, you’re committing a logical fallacy — an ad hominem attack. Next time, provide reasons why you don’t think voting empowers people.” “You’re right, Ms. Gomez. I went overboard. I’m sorry.” “Don’t apologize to me — apologize to Kira.” “Yes, ma’am. I will.” “And one more thing.” She reaches for a paper on her desk — the one I wrote about Joseph McCarthy for extra credit. Oh, crap, I must have screwed it up. Her face is expressionless as she looks at the paper. “In all my years I’ve never seen a term paper like this.” “I’m sorry, Ms. Gomez, I worked hard on it but —— ” “You have superb writing skills, Bere. Where did you learn to write like this?” She drops the paper into my hands, which has a “10” in the top right corner. “I guess I learned a lot from my dad. He’s a professor and has edited a lot of my stuff through the years.” “You criticized McCarthy for falsely accusing people of being communists. How did you know about that?” “My grandmother gave me a book about him. He wasn’t as truthful as some of my teachers have claimed. But he was still a great man. I’m sure our high school wouldn’t be named after him if that weren’t the case.” “I suppose not,” she says, raising her eyebrows. “But that’s a debate for another time. Have you thought about a career in writing?” “Not really. I wanna be a Vorster and live in Zone 3.” “Nothing wrong with aspiring to be a top-level executive. But maybe you can combine writing with something in management — maybe strategic communications.” She smiles. “It was a pleasure having you in my class, Bere. Have a wonderful holiday.” “Thanks. I will — and you too, Ms. Gomez.” I enter the hallway, which is bustling with students scurrying to their classes. “What happened?” Zach asks. “Ms. Gomez chewed me out for being mean to Kira and —— ” “Not that,” Zach interrupts. “What happened in the gym?” “Otto Wagner. He picked me up by my neck.” “Why?” “Because he’s an asshole.” “You gonna file a complaint?” “What good would that do? Administrators only take action when a bully injures someone. Besides, Otto might make my life even more unbearable next semester. And I’d be cast as a wimp — which I am, of course, but don’t tell anyone.” Zach chuckles. “That makes two of us, bro.” “But wimpiness has its advantages, dude — a cute girl saved me.” He grins. “Come on, bro, tell me more.” “She told Otto she was the vice principal’s daughter, and he released me when she threatened to have him suspended from the team.” “Wow, saved by a girl — and a cute girl.” “But there’s only one problem.” “What’s that?” “She’s got a boyfriend.” Zach’s grin disappears and he scratches his head. “Well, seems to me there’s only one solution to this problem, bro.” He pauses, which irritates me. “You need to get Otto to beat you up again. After that, she’d be putty in your wimpy hands.” Zach bursts out laughing. “If you weren’t my friend and I wasn’t a wimp,” I counterpunch, “I’d have you pinned on the floor right now.” “Thank goodness you’re a wimp,” he says. “Gotta go, Zach. My chemistry teacher isn’t as nice as Mrs. Gomez. See you tonight.” As we part, my mind turns to Kira. Ms. Gomez was right: It was wrong of me to accuse her and her parents of being Luminars. I need to apologize for that. But I’m right about self-governance. Voting produces nothing but chaos. Only corporate executives should rule — well, maybe some teachers, too. My dad’s a good leader. But the laws would have to be changed for —— “Hey Bere,” a girl calls out, interrupting my thoughts. I stop and turn. “Heidi — Hi — Wow, you look great in that blue dress.” “Thanks,” she says coyly. “You goin’ to the game tonight?” “Yeah. You?” “Well, of course,” she says, tilting her head back. “Maybe, I’ll, like, see you there.” “I hope so.” She smiles and wraps a lock of her chest-length hair behind her left ear. Wow, I wasn’t sure she still liked me. Man, girls are hard to understand sometimes.3 5:44 p.m. McCarthy Indoor Football Stadium “Hey, Bere. Up here.” Zach is waiving at me from the upper section of the bleachers. He’s surrounded by Hawks fans dressed in black and goldenrod t-shirts. I nod instead of wave, because I’m carrying a tray of tacos and power drinks. I look for Heidi as I climb the bleachers but don’t see her. “Oye amigo,” Zach says when I arrive. “Cómo estás?” “Todavía estoy vivo,” I reply with a heavy English accent. We fist pump. “So tell me more about this girl that saved you in the gym.” “Her name’s Sara. Gorgeous auburn hair, down to her waist. I’m buying her an ice cream after the game.” “So maybe she’s thinking about dumping her beau. Why else would she have asked you to buy her an ice cream?” “Not everyone has an ulterior motive,” I say, “besides, I’m not too upset about it. Heidi asked me whether I’d be at the game.” “Are you buying her an ice cream, too?” I frown. “Hey,” Zach says, grinning, “maybe you could meet both of them after the game. It would save you some time.” “Well, at least I have a girl who wants to meet me.” “Hey, you’re not the only Casanova around here,” he says, biting into a taco. “Eleanor wants to meet me after the game.” “No kidding? That’s great, dude.” “But who knows what she wants. Girls are hard to read.” “Tell me about it. Give me a physics textbook any day.” We chuckle and take another bite of our tacos. The game begins and for the next three hours Zach and I become part of the fanfare — screaming in joy when the Hawks move the ball down field or score a touchdown; moaning in feigned pain when the accursed Scottsdale Vandals get the better of us. I keep looking for Heidi but don’t see her. The game is tied. Two seconds left. A fumble. A Hawks player picks it up and powers past three Vandals to score a touchdown. Hawks fans jump to their feet and roar in triumph as the announcer says: “Ladies and gentlemen, that was Otto Wagner who scored the winning touchdown.” Why does the bully always get to be the hero? Why can’t we wimpy guys win one once in a while? “There's a party at Coyote Creek,” Zach says as we climb down the bleachers. "Wanna go? Can I ride with you?.” "Sure. But I have to buy Sara an ice cream first.” “Can I meet her? I need to make sure she’s good enough for you,” he teases. “Sure, dad.”
* * * * *
Most of the fans stay for a post-game rally in the stadium. Zach and I make our way down the bleachers but I still don’t see Heidi. We exit into the hallway and make our way to the concession stand. Sara is standing next to it, leaning against the wall. She’s wearing a teal knit sweater, plaid A-line skirt and loafers. She looks awesome, but I hold my compliment. “Hi Bere. Great game, eh?” “It sure was. Sara, this is Zach Rodriguez, my best friend.” Zach’s eyes are big. If he were a cartoon character, he’d be drooling. “Nice to meet you, Zach,” she says. “Nice to meet you, too,” he responds. “You know, Sara,” I say, “I don’t even know your last name.” “McMillan.” “That explains the red hair,” Zach blurts out. Sara giggles and I gently roll my eyes at Zach, who’s blushing. “It’s okay,” she quickly adds and smiles. “Zach is right. My father traces his roots to Scotland and my mother is Irish.” “I’m Swedish and Mexican,” Zach says. Sara and Zach are staring at me, waiting for my response. If I don’t declare my ethnic heritage, we will all feel awkward. “French and Chinese.” We find ourselves grinning uncomfortably until Zach saves the day. “Hey, I’ve got to find Eleanor. Nice meeting you, Sara.” “My pleasure, Zach.” “Meet me at my pod in a half hour,” I say to Zach as he sprints away. “Seems like a very nice guy,” Sara says. “Yeah, he’s all right as far as Swedes go,” I say with a straight face. She looks at me to see if I’m teasing, and then giggles. “Zach is the best kind of best friend. He always has my back. Been that way since he lost his father and I lost my mother.” “I’m so sorry to hear that.” “A long time ago,” I say, looking away from her. “Let’s get some ice cream.” She orders a coffee ice cream cone and I order chocolate. We exit the stadium on the south side of the high school. I reach for my communicator, which falls out of my shirt pocket onto the sidewalk. I need an Appsung X implant. My communicator indicates the pollution level dropped this afternoon, so we don’t need our respirators. We walk toward a concrete fence that separates the school property from a road. “Did you see who scored the winning touchdown?” Sara asks, slowly licking the tip of her ice cream cone. “Unfortunately, I did.” She laughs. “My dad once told me that life isn’t fair, especially if you sit around and let it happen.” “Your dad sounds like a smart guy.” “He’s a professor.” “Mine too. In what field?” “Left field,” she giggles. “Honestly, I can’t understand what he’s saying half the time. He’s a geologist.” “Mine’s an economist. Do you know why God created economists?” “I sense a punch line coming,” Sara says, licking her cone. “In order to make weather forecasters look good.” She musters a laugh, which suggests to me that she is not the kind of person who shames people for bad jokes. Our eyes briefly lock before I change subjects. “What’s your favorite class?” “Marketing. I wanna be a Vorster and live in Zone 3.” “Hey, me too — I mean I want to live in Zone 3,” licking the side of my cone, which is dripping. “I’m not sure what kind of Vorster I want to be. Ever been there?” “Only once. The dome is beautiful, isn’t it? The air — so fresh, and it’s so green in there. My dad was giving a lecture about the Superstitious Mountains,” she says, looking up at the stars. “Did you know that some Apache Indians believe there is a hole in the mountains that leads straight to hell? They say that’s where dust storms come from.” “That’s probably where the Luminars live,” I say, instantly regretting my comment. Her forehead wrinkles. “You don’t like Luminars?” “Not especially.” “Do you know any?” she asks, licking the ice cream completely around the top of the cone “Ah, no, I guess not.” “Then how do you know you dislike them?” “Because they started the Second Civil War.” “How do you know that?” She bites into the cone. “Well, that’s what they us taught in school.” “Do you always believe what you hear in school?” “No, but why would teachers and textbooks lie?” I finish eating my cone. “My dad always says that we shouldn’t judge people until we walk in their shoes.” “But what if they have athlete’s foot?” I say, trying to lighten the conversation. She grins. “My dad would say that’s even a better reason to walk in their shoes. Then you really understand their problems.” “So take your shoes off.” She looks at her feet. “My shoes are too small for your feet.” “Are you saying I have big feet?” I smile. “No — I have small feet, and, besides, I only let boys try my shoes on during a second date.” I chuckle. “So this is a date?” “Did I just say that?” she rhetorically asks and giggles nervously. “I forgot that this was just an ice cream meet-up. My apologies.” “I’m not sure I want to forgive you,” I say. “I might need another date to — ” “Bere,” she screams, as something hits my body, sending me face down into the dusty grass. Can’t breathe — wind is knocked out of me. I look up and can feel ice cream running down the right side of my face Otto — that son of a bitch. He’s grabbing Sara’s arm. She throws her ice cream at him, which hits him in the forehead but has no affect on his aggressive behavior. “Lemme go,” she screams. “You lied to me, bitch. I’m gonna teach you a lesson, and then I’m going to teach your chink boy a lesson.” He tries to kiss her. She swings her left hand at his face, but his forearm deflects the blow. I catch my breath and rise to my feet. “Hey, dim wit. Why don’t you try picking on someone who’s almost as ugly as you?” Otto releases Sara, turns and walks toward me, hands out and cupped. He’s hoping for a lead role in “Hang ‘Em High 2.” “Run, Sara,” I shout. “Run.” But she ignores me and yells at Otto. “Stop it. Leave Bere alone.” I want to run, but I can’t abandon Sara. So I stand my ground and defend myself the only way I know how: by thrusting my right knee up and between his legs. Otto screams, grabs his crotch, and falls to his knees. “You son-of-a-bitch,” he moans. “You kneed me.” “And you needed it, jackass.” He groans. “I’m — gonna — kill you!” I dash toward Sara, whose eyes are humongous, like she needed more visual evidence to confirm what she just saw. “You just kneed him in the — ” “Wizzak,” I interrupt. “Yup. But I think it’s better if we leave now and talk about that later.” She grins and nods. We clasp hands and run as fast as we can to the east side of the school; then north, toward the dying cactus I daydreamed about this morning. We are both nearly out of breath. I look back. “I think we’re in the clear.” We slow to a brisk walk near the front entrance of the school and giggle nervously about what just happened. A streetlight illuminates Sara green eyes, which are a deeper shade of green than they were when we met in the gym. “Thanks, Bere,” she says, still trying to catch her breath. “Just returning the favor.” We stop and stare at each other for several seconds before I realize I’m still holding her hand. I release my grip and lower my eyes. “Sorry — forgot you have a boyfriend.” “I’m not entirely sure about that.” “Whattaya mean?” “He stood me up tonight. He’s out with his buddies.” “Is he ill?” “What do you mean?” “How can a bunch of buddies compare to you?” She smiles and touches my hand, which sends a tingle up my arm. “You know, if I didn’t have a boyfriend, I’d hug you right now.” “And what would you do if your boyfriend were here?” I ask, testing the waters of commitment. She pulls my head toward hers and purses her coral-colored lips. I smell jasmine and close my eyes to enter paradise, but a brassy voice behind me pulls me back to earth. “B-E-E-RE! What are you doing?” The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. “Ah — Heidi. Hi. Ah — ” “I didn’t realize you had a girlfriend,” she declares, as a mist forms over her dark brown eyes. “I don’t — this is Sara — a friend — Sara, this is Heidi.” My two potential girlfriends awkwardly nod at each other. “I’d better get going,” Heidi says. “My friends are waiting.” “Wait, Heidi, I can explain.” “I thought you like me,” she declares, as a mist forms over her dark brown eyes. One of her girlfriends, standing next to her, stares at me like a hunter looks down the barrel of a rifle. “Let’s get our of here, Heidi.” They turn. “Heidi, I can explain.” “Honestly, I don’t want to hear it,” she says, turning her head back. “Leave me alone.” She and her friend briskly walk off. Sara releases my hand. “I should go, Bere.” “Wait, Sara, let me explain. Heidi and I aren’t dating. In fact, we’ve rarely spoken to each since last school year.” Sara ignores me and jogs toward the parking lot on the west side of the school. I chase her. “Sara, wait. Please. Let me explain.” She stops, turns and stabs her left index finger into the air twice. “If you didn’t have a relationship with Heidi, why did she get so upset? You may be good at eating ice cream and bringing down bullies, but you know nothing about relationships. I have to go.” ... (More to come)