The universe is clearly on my side—or on the side of my new novel! On Sunday we got hit with a blizzard and when I woke up Monday morning, I had NO internet access and NO cable. What’s a girl to do with no web and no TV? Write, of course. I’m past the 9000-word mark on Ship of Souls and thought I’d share a little with the world. My friend Marvin spent part of his Christmas Eve emailing me German curse words—I needed to know how Nyla would say, “Keep your filthy effing hands off me, you effing prick!” If you happen to speak German, let me know if this translation works for you.
Nyla’s a sculpture made of onyx and silver. She wears skintight clothes—mostly black—with strategically placed holes held together by safety pins. She came to school one day with a full head of hair; the next day, the sides and back of her head were shaved, leaving a silky horse’s mane on top of her head. Nyla flipped it to the side so a curtain of black hair fell over her right eye. Next day the mane was cropped short, spiked, and streaked with red. I can’t even count all the piercings Nyla’s got. Rings loop up the outside of her ears and huge black plugs fill her earlobes. She’s got both eyebrows pierced, a diamond stud in her nose, and a silver ball that rests under her lower lip. I think her tongue might be pierced, too, but I’m not sure ’cause Nyla’s never spoken to me.
One day this creep slipped his arm around her waist as she walked down the hall and Nyla threw him against the lockers and cursed him out: “Du Drecksack! Nimmt Dein dreckige Finger weg Du schwanz.” That’s right—Nyla cursed him out in German. He’s lucky she didn’t slug him—with all those silver rings on her fingers, she’d have left a serious dent in that prettyboy’s face. Nobody messes with Nyla. She’s beautiful, but she’s fierce.
On Thursday I come out of the lunch line with my tray of crappy food and Nyla smiles at me. That’s right—at me. I smile back and then Nyla nods at the empty stretch of bench to her left. To her right is a loud group of misfits, all of whom seem to belong around Nyla. At first I think it must be a mistake—is Nyla really inviting me to sit next to her, or is she just stretching her neck? I don’t want to look like a total reject, but Nyla’s eyes are locked on mine and her smile grows wider as I start walking over to her table.
“Hey, D. Grab a seat,” she says.
I know I’m smiling like an idiot, but I can’t think of anything cool to say. I take a seat next to Nyla and try to look at the other kids she’s hanging with. Regine’s a track star. Melvin rules at chess. A couple of kids are in the drama club, and the others—combined—have almost as many piercings as Nyla. As soon as Nyla opens her mouth, they all quiet down and wait to hear what she’s going to say. “Hey, everybody—this is D.”
The other kids turn and look at me. Some smile, some nod, some say “hey,” and one girl with blue extension braids gives me a salute. Then a seventh-grader with the biggest Afro I’ve ever seen points at me and says, “Hey—I know you.” I shove at least half my corn dog into my mouth so I don’t have to say anything. I’m pretty sure that sitting next to Nyla doesn’t come with automatic immunity from insults.
“You’re in the Math Club,” he says. When I nod, he goes on. “My sister says you’re, like, some kind of kid genius—a total Math freak!”
I look down at the carton of milk and bowl of canned pineapple on my tray. Aside from Nyla, these kids aren’t exactly what I would call “cool.” But they clearly know and like one another—they’re friends. Which puts me on the outside. I brace myself for the usual nerd jokes.
Then Nyla slips her arm around my shoulder. “A Math freak, huh? Then it’s official—you’re one of us, D.”
I smile at Nyla but I’m not really sure how to feel. Should I be proud that I belong with a bunch of self-proclaimed freaks? Or should I try to salvage my social reputation by getting up and sitting somewhere else—even if that means eating alone? I finally decide that I’d rather be seen with the wrong kind of kids than be totally invisible.
A skinny kid wearing preppy clothes suddenly whispers, “Hottie alert!” and everyone at the table quiets down. I’m so busy looking around for a cute girl that I don’t notice Keem’s heading over to our table.
“Hey, D. What’s up?”
I nearly choke on a chunk of pineapple but manage to cover my mouth before a piece of half-chewed fruit flies out and lands on Keem’s new kicks. I feel like I must be dreaming—two of the most popular kids in school talking to me on the same day! “Not much,” I stammer nervously. “Just having lunch.”
Keem stands there awkwardly. He glances at Nyla but she’s flicking a bottle cap along the tabletop. The girl with the blue braids watches the cap zoom right off the end of the table and yells, “SCORE!”
Keem finally gives up on trying to make Nyla notice him. “See you later, then. Four o’clock, right?”
“Right. I’ll meet you in front of the library.”
Keem nods, glances at Nyla one last time, and then walks away. Crushed.
I turn to Nyla and find her watching Keem’s back. “Friend of yours?” she asks with her eyes still glued on Keem.
“Tutee,” I say before cramming all the remaining pineapple into my mouth. I don’t want to talk about Keem.
The kid with the giant Afro says, “Two tea? What’s that mean?”
“I’m tutoring him in Math. I’m his tutor, he’s my tutee.”
Afro-kid nods like he’s impressed. “What’d I tell you? The kid’s a Math genius.”
A skinny kid cradling a skateboard says, “Yeah—and look what they make him do: teach the dumb jocks how to count to ten!”
“Keem’s not dumb.” I’m not sure why I said that, but it’s too late to take it back now.
Nyla turns to the skater kid. “What’s the Freak’s Golden Rule, Jamal?”
He drops his eyes and mumbles, “Don’t be a prick.” Then he looks at me and says, “Sorry I dissed your friend, D.”
I’m about to say, “Keem’s not my friend” when a girl with a shaved head and a bolt through her nose says, “My brother plays ball in the park with Keem. He gets mad respect—on and off the court.”
The girl with blue braids looks straight at Nyla and says, “He also gets any girl he wants.”
Nyla sucks her teeth, but her eyes find Keem sitting with the other jocks on the far side of the cafeteria. “We’ll see about that,” she says, then gets up and carries her tray over to the trash.
The noise level in the cafeteria seems to drop a notch as Nyla walks down the main aisle and out into the schoolyard. Some of the freaks get up and follow their leader. Others stay and finish the crappy school lunch. A quiet girl with long locks slides along the bench and asks if I can help her with her math homework. I say “sure” and think maybe I really do belong here with the rest of these outcasts.