Chapter 1: First Day of School
It was that magical moment when the warmth of day grudgingly gives way to the chill of night. Matt knew it was nearly dinnertime. He imagined his mother standing at their back door, wondering whether to call him in for supper or to let him enjoy a few more minutes of freedom.
He watched the setting sun balance briefly on the western horizon, transforming the restless surface of the sea into a bed of liquid gold. The waves rolled and crashed with the sound of distant thunder as they rushed up the beach before retreating into the sea. Searching for their dinner, sandpipers raced in and out with the waves, constantly keeping their tiny feet mere inches from the frigid water. Overhead, ghostly gulls floated motionless in the gathering gloom, crying mournfully as if lamenting all the sailors lost at sea.
Twilight fell swiftly, and the early evening breeze blew colder as the land cooled and the forest darkened. Matt stood up and brushed the sand from the seat of his cut-offs. He breathed deeply and smelled the surf's salty spray mixed with the decay of kelp and small, dead creatures washed up on the shore. He started slowly up the sand dunes toward the hill where his home lay nestled in a grove of wind-sculpted evergreens.
In a matter of moments, twilight became evening and then night. Although Matt had walked the well-worn path for as long as he could remember, it somehow seemed unnaturally dark and long. The low trees were twisted into forms so strange and fantastic that even the strong winds blowing steadily in from the sea could not have shaped them. He heard his mother calling his name, calling him in from the darkness to the cozy and well-lit rooms of their small sea cottage. She called again, but her voice was garbled. Each time she called, the wind grabbed her words and dragged them away into the black shadows beneath the twisted trees.
Matt tried to run, but the sharp edges of the sawgrass sliced the skin of his bare legs, and thick brambles blocked his path. He tried to push past them, but they tripped him, winding tightly around his legs. He heard his mother's scream, a single, long piercing cry of pain and fear. Then, nothing but the sound of the wind blowing, the trees creaking, and the waves thundering upon the rocky shore...
"Matt!" his twin sister Tina shouted through his bedroom door, waking him from his recurring nightmare. "I called you at least 10 minutes ago. Get up! The school bus will be here in 20 minutes, and I'm going to be on it, even if you're still in bed. And don't expect Dad to drive you; he's already left for work. You miss the bus, and you're walking."
"Alright, Tina, I'm up," Matt muttered as he tugged at the sweat-drenched sheets and blanket that were tightly wrapped around him like some wrinkled snake. It took him a moment to remember where he was.
Then the terrible meaning of the nightmare came crashing over him. He remembered the town drunk who had lost control of his beat-up pickup. How he'd struck his mother as she was picking the wildflowers that grew along the side of the narrow coastal highway. He remembered the endless hours and days in her dreary hospital room, taking turns reading aloud his mother's favorite book in a vain hope that she would hear and wake from her coma. And then the rest blew over him like a wild winter storm, one from which he could neither run nor hide. The dreadful day the doctors declared her brain dead. How his father, Tina, and he had cried as they said goodbye to her before the doctor turned off her ventilator. She had simply stopped breathing.
The days that followed were a blur. There was the terrible funeral followed by a reception with friend after friend and neighbor after neighbor saying a hundred variations of "I'm so sorry." Not knowing what to say, Matt merely nodded as tears silently ran down his cheeks. Finally, he remembered their sudden, unexpected, and unwanted trip to Hawthorne, Indiana, where his father had lived as a child. Some twenty-five miles northwest of Fort Wayne, it was about as far from the ocean as his father could have possibly moved them.
Matt sat up and shook his head, trying to toss off the terrible memories. Quickly combing his hands through his straight blond hair, he put on his glasses and dressed in the blue jeans and flannel shirt that he had selected the night before.
Stopping in the bathroom on his way down to breakfast, he glanced in the mirror and briefly considered his reflection. What he saw was a fifteen-year-old boy of average height and build whose gray-green eyes stared back at him through small oval glasses. While his sister, Tina, was pretty and looked like a younger version of their mother, Matt resembled their father whom Matt felt was neither handsome nor unattractive, merely average.
As usual, Tina had already finished eating. Her single, small strawberry yogurt container sat empty on the counter as she brushed her straight black hair into a long ponytail.
"Is that all you're having?" Matt asked, although he already knew her answer. He couldn't help noticing that the high cheekbones she had inherited from their mother seemed to grow more pronounced each week. Tina had been slender before their mother's death and had been slowly losing weight ever since. Matt was beginning to worry and wondered whether their father had noticed.
"I like yogurt," she replied. "Besides, not everybody eats a mountain of Frosted Flakes to tide them over 'til lunchtime." She took a compact from her purse and quickly checked her spotless face for non-existent pimples. Satisfied, she smiled. "Can you believe it, Matt? It seems like we've been waiting forever for this day, and it's finally here. High school! Football games, school dances, and parties."
It's the first day at a new school in a new town, Matt thought, and she acts like it's still summer, and she's just going down to the boardwalk to meet friends. How can she wall off her memories and act like everything is normal?
Then Matt remembered what had happened several nights earlier. He had gotten up to use the bathroom and had heard the soft sound of crying coming from Tina's room. If he had seen light shining under her door, he might have gone in. As it was, Matt returned to his bedroom and his own dark memories. At breakfast the next morning, her blue eyes had been red and puffy. She might be better than he was at hiding her feelings, but the loss of their mother ate at her, just as it did at him.
Matt wolfed down his cereal and grabbed his backpack. He joined Tina at the curb just as an old yellow school bus turned the corner and passed the dilapidated Victorian mansion next door. The bus stopped in front of them, and Matt followed Tina up the steps.
"Fantastic," he muttered to himself as he looked down the aisle of the nearly-packed bus. Tina paused at the free seat next to an older boy wearing a letterman jacket. He smiled up at her and quickly moved his books so that she could sit down next to him. They were happily flirting before Matt even managed to walk past. That only left three "free" seats. The first was next to a huge hulk of a boy, who sat sprawled across both seats. He looked up at Matt with a bored stare. It reminded Matt of a lion that had recently feasted and was lazily deciding whether a passing antelope was worth leaving the comfortable shade of its acacia tree. Lion boy turned to look back out the bus window and made no move to slide over. Farther back, an older girl looked right through him as if he didn't exist, although she quickly laid her schoolbag on the empty seat next to her. That left one last free seat near the back of the bus, next to the biggest, homeliest girl Matt had ever seen.
Smiling somewhat hopefully and self-consciously through crooked teeth, the girl looked up at Matt. "You're new here," she observed.
"Yes," Matt replied, uncomfortably aware that she extended several inches onto the empty seat. Feeling somewhat embarrassed, he sat down next to her. He would have to ride the rest of the way to school with only half his bottom on the hard, worn-out bus seat.
"I'm Sarah Duffy," she said.
"Matt. Matt Mitchel."
"So, have you seen Old Lady Hawthorne yet?"
"Old Lady Hawthorne. She lives in the old mansion next to your house."
"No one's seen her in ages. Not since she murdered her husband."
"She murdered her husband and the woman who lived in your house."
"What? You're kidding, right? Wouldn't she be in jail, or something?
"They never found the bodies. Most people think she dumped them into Quarry Lake, but I think she probably buried them in her basement."
"Wait. I get it. Feed the new kid in town a story about the house next door, and see if he falls for it."
"No, really. It's true. You can ask anyone."
Matt gave Sarah a skeptical look. "Right..." He turned away and silently studied the other students on the bus.
After a short drive, and picking up a final student, the bus pulled up in front of the school. Matt ended up as one of the last ones off the bus. Half of his rear had gone to sleep and tingled painfully as he limped down the bus steps to begin his first day at Hawthorne High.
The high school was huge compared to the middle school that Matt had attended back in Port Orford, Oregon. The cold Indiana winters had worn the edges off the gray sandstone blocks that trimmed the two-story red-brick building. The tall, columned archway over its front doors was cracked and missing small shards of stone.
After attending a welcoming assembly for ninth-graders in the school's huge auditorium, Matt headed to the office where an overly-friendly guidance counselor gave him his class schedule and locker assignment. After searching several long and crowded hallways and asking a couple of very busy teachers, he finally found his locker and stashed his coat.
The first period's warning bell rang as Matt shut his locker door. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his padlock. The key should have been in the lock's keyhole. It wasn't. Thinking the key had fallen out, he reached into his pocket, but the key wasn't there. He tried his other pocket, but it was also empty. Starting to panic, he thought back. The last time he remembered seeing the key, it had been lying on his desk next to the padlock. In his rush to dress and get downstairs for breakfast, he must have overlooked it.
With no time to consider what to do, he carefully lined up the padlock's rounded shackle with the hole and hoped that no one would notice that it wasn't really locked.
Then Matt was off, searching through the rapidly-emptying hallways for his freshman American history classroom. After a few false turns, he found it just as the final bell rang.
There were only three empty desks left in the room. Grabbing an empty chair next to a window, Matt picked up the history textbook that had been lying on the desk and quickly flipped through its pages. It was thicker than his books back in middle school, and the print was smaller. Clearly, classes were going to be harder now that he was in high school.
Matt opened his backpack and removed the file folder of printer paper that his father had given him the night before. He made a mental note to remind his father that he really needed notebooks rather than some office supplies his father had brought home from work.
To prepare for class, he took out a sheet of paper and placed it on his small, graffiti-covered desktop. Halfway through writing "American History" and the date at the top, the tip of his pencil suddenly jerked sideways, tearing right through the paper. Angrily lifting it, Matt saw the name "Clayton Cartwright" crudely carved into the surface of the desk. Wondering why anyone would be so stupid as to ruin his own desk, Matt crumpled the torn paper, took out a new sheet, and began searching for a smooth place to write when the teacher rose and introduced himself.
"Good morning class. My name is Marcus Thompson, and I will be teaching American History this year." Tall, with the build of a basketball player, the teacher was in his early twenties. He looked as though he should still be sitting in a college classroom rather than standing in front of a class of his own. He picked up a piece of paper from his desk and continued, "Raise your hand and call out 'here' when I read your name."
Matt looked around his new classroom as the other students responded one by one when they heard their names. It was strange to not recognize a single face. They all stared back at Matt when Mr. Thompson spoke his name. I guess they think it's weird having a stranger in their room, too, Matt thought to himself.
He wasn't really paying much attention to the steady recitation of names until the teacher said the name "Clayton Cartwright," and a deep voice answered "Here."
Matt turned around, and there at the desk immediately behind the empty chair next to him, he saw the same big and muscular boy who had taken up two seats on the bus. It suddenly dawned on Matt why the desk directly in front of Clayton had been empty when he entered the room. Apparently, everyone else had known better than to sit in front of Clayton. The carving on Matt's desk made it utterly obvious that this wasn't Clayton's first year at Hawthorne High. In fact, given his size and the fact that he needed a shave, Matt guessed that Clayton had been held back more than once. While a couple of students passed out the books, Matt idly wondered how old Clayton would be by the time he eventually graduated.
Once the roll call was complete, Mr. Thompson walked around to the front of his desk. Leaning back against it, he swept his eyes over his students and began. "In this class, we will be studying American history. Now many of you probably expect to be spending the year memorizing names of presidents and dates of wars - things that happened long before you were born and have nothing to do with you. I wouldn't be surprised if some of you are expecting history to be boring, irrelevant, and something you just have to tolerate because the State of Indiana requires it for graduation. Well, that is not an unreasonable expectation." He paused, glancing briefly around the room to gauge his students' reactions. Several students stared back with a mixture of surprise and confusion, having never heard a teacher say anything negative about his own class.
Mr. Thompson continued. "It is true that I will be teaching you the who, what, when, and where of important historical events. But in this class, we are also going to dig a little deeper. I intend to teach you the why of historical events. Why did these events occur, and why should we care that they did? Why is America the way it is today? Without understanding the past, it's very difficult to understand the present and almost impossible to predict the future."
"Because I just moved to Hawthorne, and we're all new to Hawthorne High, I thought it might be interesting to spend one class looking at the local history of our town before we take on the history of our entire country. So with that in mind, I met last week with some members of the Hawthorne Historical Society. I spent several hours at the public library going through back issues of the town newspaper. Of course, I also spent quite a bit of time googling Hawthorne on my computer. In other words, I did a little historical research, and what I discovered is quite interesting."
Mr. Thompson looked around the class. "How many of you know why the town is called Hawthorne?"
No one raised his hand.
"No one? Okay, how about this? You all know the Hawthorne House, our town's infamous haunted house. Can anyone tell me why it was built?"
Matt's ears picked up when he realized that the teacher was talking about the old mansion next door to his house.
One student tentatively raised his hand.
Mr. Thompson glanced at his roster of students. "Yes, Mr. Harper. Do you know why it was built?"
"Er... So someone named Hawthorne could live there?"
Several students snickered and one muttered, "Great guess, Captain Obvious" under his breath.
"Well, that's true as far as it goes, but there's more to the story. We come now to perhaps the most interesting question. Does anyone care to guess why it looks abandoned when one might expect that someone would have fixed it up and turned it into a fancy bed and breakfast?" He paused, looking once more around the room. "Anyone?"
"Well, here is what a little historical research revealed. The town of Hawthorne was founded in 1826 by a man named Ezekiel Hawthorne when he opened a general store for local farmers. As the area's largest landowner, Ezekiel was also the wealthiest man in the county. He was not known for being a modest man, so he named the small village that grew around the store after himself." Mr. Thompson smiled and said, "So now we have the answer to our first question. Ezekiel Hawthorne, the man who founded it back in the 1820s, named our town after himself." Mr. Thompson walked to the blackboard and wrote, Ezekiel Hawthorne named our town after himself.
"Ezekiel Hawthorne built a large home for his family here in town, but it was not the Hawthorne House we have today. A book I borrowed from the Hawthorne Historical Society had an old picture of the two-story wooden house that stood on the same site where the Victorian brownstone mansion now stands. When Ezekiel Hawthorne died, his eldest son, Harold, inherited everything. Known as an ambitious man, he worked very hard to increase his family's fortune. I found some old land titles and deeds that show that Harold Hawthorne soon owned most of the town including two saloons, a hotel, stable, and several other businesses. During the Civil War, the growing town of Hawthorne supplied men, wheat, and corn to the Union Army. But in those days, the town was not yet connected to any of the Midwest's railroads. To sell their crops, the local farmers had to haul them using nothing but horse-drawn wagons that weren't much faster than a slow walk. It would have taken farmers nine long hard days to make it down to Indianapolis or twelve days to reach Chicago, where they might be able to sell their produce for a higher price than they could locally. That is why Harold Hawthorne invested most of his family's fortune founding the Northern Indiana Railroad Company. And it was a good investment. Within a couple of years, his railway lines connected Hawthorne to Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland."
While Mr. Thompson paused to take a sip of water from the bottle on his desk, Matt tried to imagine what it was like to make such a long trip without a car or even modern roads. What did the farmers do for food and drink? Did they just pull off the side of the road at night and sleep under the wagon? What did they do if it rained?
Mr. Thompson looked briefly at his notes and continued. "Upon Harold's death, his eldest son, Henry Hubertus Hawthorne, inherited the family fortune and businesses. Henry Hawthorne was a proud man who felt that he had outgrown the town his family had built. He left Hawthorne and moved to Chicago, where he became a member of that city's elite."
"Now, here's another question for you. If the Hawthorne family left Hawthorne for Chicago, then who built the Hawthorne House mansion? The answer involves a chance meeting that ended in an unlikely marriage. You see in 1910, Henry was on a hunting and fishing trip along the coast of Maine. There, in the small fishing village of Deer Isle, he met Rhiannon Llewellyn who by all accounts was a very charming young woman. Henry extended his stay, and one month later, the two were secretly married against the wishes of her parents. Apparently, they did not trust the stranger who wanted to take their daughter far away where they might never see her again. And Henry did indeed take his new bride back to Chicago, and there is no record that the two ever returned to Deer Isle or that she ever saw her parents again.
"But in Chicago, things did not go as Henry planned. Despite living in what must have seemed unimaginable luxury to Rhiannon, entries in Henry's journals clearly show he was worried that his wife was falling into a deep melancholy. First, she was never accepted by the members of Chicago's nouveau riche. Their marriage was quite scandalous, partially because their engagement was appallingly short according to the customs of the time. More shockingly, she was from a poor family from a tiny village in Maine that no one had ever heard of. Rhiannon also found Chicago to be far too crowded, noisy, and full of strangers. She longed to live in a small town that was more like the village where she grew up.
"Henry must have truly loved his wife because he gave up Chicago and all the business opportunities it offered. One year after their son Morgan was born, the couple returned here to Hawthorne, which had barely a fifth as many people a hundred years ago as it does today. No longer satisfied with his old family house, Henry had it torn down in 1912 and had the Hawthorne House built in its place. According to the Hawthorne News Gazette, he spent what the townspeople felt was an outrageous amount of money building his new mansion. According to a website I found on famous mansions of the Midwest, Henry had the brownstone brought all the way from Wisconsin, the Art Nouveau stained-glass windows from Tiffany's in New York, and the paintings and furniture from France. Six years later, Henry and Rhiannon's daughter Vivianne were born in their new mansion on Hawthorne street. And thus, we now have the answer to another of our questions. In 1912, Henry Hawthorne built Hawthorne House for his wife Rhiannon because she wanted to live and raise her children in a small town like Hawthorne instead of a big city like Chicago." Mr. Thompson turned and wrote the words Henry Hawthorne built Hawthorne House in 1912 on the blackboard.
"And now for our final question. Why has Hawthorne House been allowed to fall into such a state of disrepair that many now think of it as Hawthorne's haunted house? This question is harder to answer than the others because the facts only provide circumstantial evidence. According to the newspaper articles and legal documents I found, the downfall of Hawthorne House began in 1937 when Henry and Rhiannon were killed in an automobile accident. Their 26-year-old son, Morgan, inherited the house, but he didn't want to live in a place that constantly reminded him of his parents. He gave the house to his 19-year-old sister, Vivianne, and moved to his mother's ancestral home on Deer Isle, Maine. Unlike her brother, Vivianne Hawthorne chose to stay in Hawthorne and eventually married a man named John Carter in October of 1941. Two months later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States entered World War Two, and John Carter was drafted. When the war ended in 1945, John Carter returned home, and nothing out of the ordinary happened until two years later when John Carter and a young woman named Mary Collins mysteriously disappeared. According to newspaper articles of the time, Ms. Collins lived next door to the Hawthorne House and was Vivianne's closest friend. Shortly after their disappearance, Vivianne Hawthorne filed for divorce, claiming she had discovered her husband was having an affair with Mary Collins, and that they ran off together when she confronted her husband. The divorce was granted, and Vivianne Carter once again became Vivianne Hawthorne. And today, she still lives alone in Hawthorne House, a recluse who no one sees except for the man who delivers her groceries."
Mr. Thompson paused to let the class consider what he had told them. "So where does that leave us? We know that in a relatively short time, Vivianne Hawthorne lost her parents, her brother moved back to Maine, and her new husband was drafted and away for four years. To top it all off, he had an affair and left her for her best friend. In other words, Vivianne Hawthorne had been abandoned by everyone she had ever cared for. Alone inside her home, why should she care how her yard and the outside of her house looks to others?"
Mr. Thompson ended his lecture and remained silent for a minute, while his students considered for the first time what it might be like to be "Old Lady Hawthorne," the 'witch' of Hawthorne House. Matt did not have to wonder what it was like to lose someone you really loved. He already knew.
"And that, class, is an example of historical research. It deals with all five Ws: not just with the questions of who, what, when, and where. It also seeks to answer the question why. Why an event happened and why it's important." Mr. Thompson walked back to the chalkboard and wrote those five words.
"Now it's your turn to write about a historical event. Take out a piece of paper and spend the rest of the period writing a paragraph about a past event that was important to you. The event can be anything. It can be something good like the birth of a brother or sister, the move to a new house, one of your parents getting a new job, or a special family vacation. It can even be something bad like an accident, injury, illness, or even the death of a pet. Just remember the five Ws and write what the event was, when and where it happened, who it involved, and why it mattered. That way, you can begin to get a feel for what history is all about before we start with American history tomorrow." He looked up at the wall clock and continued, "You have 15 minutes 'til the bell rings. Hand your papers in on your way out." With that, the teacher turned back to the classroom and began erasing the chalkboard.
Matt stopped listening when Mr. Thompson said the word "death." What am I supposed to write? Matt wondered. That Mom went out to pick flowers and never came back? That I spent an eternity at the local hospital waiting for her to wake up, and she never did? Maybe I should write about how Dad changed when he realized that she was gone forever and knew he would never see the ocean again without thinking of her. Or how he'd fled to Hawthorne, taking Tina and me back to this little town where he grew up.
Matt couldn't stop his awful thoughts from rushing through his mind. No more beaches and climbing on the rocks. No more sand dunes. No more forests and hills. No more long walks alone along the cliffs. No mother!
What did I do last summer? Last summer, I watched my Mom die, and now I feel like I died, too. But unlike her, I'm still breathing, and there's no ventilator to turn off.
Matt felt a big finger poke him in the shoulder, dragging him back to the present and the blank sheet of paper on the desk in front of him. "Hey, new kid, what's wrong with you?" Clayton's low voice whispered from behind him. "Are you having some kind of fit or something?"
Matt saw the teardrops splattered on the paper and realized he had been silently crying. Clayton must have seen his shoulders shaking. Matt angrily turned around and hissed, "Mind your own business!"
Clayton fell silent for a second, surprised that anyone would dare speak to him like that. But then he noticed the tears rolling down Matt's cheeks. "What's the matter?" Clayton whispered back, "Is the little crybaby going to throw a temper tantrum just because he's got to write an itty-bitty paragraph?"
All the pent-up emotions of the last few weeks welled up and washed over Matt. "I told you to mind your own damn business!" he shouted, jumping from his seat and turning to stand with his hands balled into fists, glaring down at Clayton.
"That will be quite enough, Mr. Mitchell!" Mr. Thompson commanded as he walked swiftly over to stand between Matt and Clayton. "We do not allow that kind of language here. You can discuss losing your temper and your inappropriate choice of words with Principal Tanner." He wrote a brief note, handed it to Matt, and walked back to his desk.
Matt could feel everyone's eyes watching him as he shoved his history textbook, pencil, and paper into his backpack. He wondered how many heard Clayton whisper, "I'll deal with you later" as he turned and stalked out the door. Damn, Matt thought, this is just great! My first day, and I'm sent to the principal.
Matt trudged to the school office, nervously asked to see the principal, and was told to take a seat. After waiting for what seemed like forever, the bell marking the end of the first period rang, and the principal's door was still closed. A few minutes later, the bell rang again, marking the beginning of the second period. Ten minutes later, Mr. Tanner finally walked in, opened the door, and motioned Matt into his office.
"So, what brings you to me on your first day of school?"
Matt silently handed him his teacher's note.
"Losing your temper and cursing in class. I assume that Mr. Thompson has informed you that such behavior will not be tolerated here at Hawthorne High."
Matt nodded sheepishly.
"Do you want to tell me what happened?"
Matt thought it over for a second. One day in, and he was already getting a reputation as a crybaby who couldn't control his temper. The last thing he needed was to get a reputation as a snitch too.
"No, sir. It was something personal. It won't happen again."
"See that it doesn't, Mr. Mitchell. As this is your first day and first offense, I will let you off this time with just a warning. However, one more outburst or incident of cursing, and you will have an in-school suspension, and I will have a talk with your parents. Are we clear on this?"
"Yes, Sir" Matt muttered, hoping that Clayton would forget his threat and let Matt keep his promise to the principal about no more problems.
"Okay, Mr. Mitchell," the principal replied, looking up at the clock on the wall. "You can go. Stop by the front desk, and Mrs. Fletcher will give you a hall pass for your teacher, explaining why you're late." Matt picked up the note and left to wander the empty hallways in search of his Algebra I classroom.
When Matt finally found his class, only a few empty desks remained. He looked around the room but didn't see Clayton, who must have had a different class that period. Matt handed the principal's note to his Intro to Algebra teacher and took an empty seat, trying hard to ignore several students from his American history class who were staring at him. He opened his book and did his best to fade into the woodwork for the rest of the period.
Third-period biology went significantly better. For the first time, Matt shared a class with Tina, who liked all things science, almost as much as he did. "Hey, Sis," he said, as he took a seat next to her.
"Hi, Matt. How's your morning been?"
"It sucked. How was yours?"
"What? Your first day in high school isn't even half over. How could it suck?
"I'll tell you later."
"Okay..." Tina said, giving him a skeptical look.
By the end of the period, Matt was pretty sure biology was going to be his favorite class, although he wasn't looking forward to dissecting a frog. The only animals he wanted to cut were the ones that were cooked and ready to eat.
After class, Matt decided to drop off his morning books in his locker on his way to the cafeteria. But as he approached, he noticed that his locker door was slightly ajar. Rushing up, he yanked open the door to discover that his new coat was gone. Matt's trick of lining up the shackle of the padlock with the hole hadn't fooled at least one young thief. Matt slammed his locker door in frustration, but it clanged back open. Adding insult to injury, the thief who had stolen his jacket had also locked his padlock to his locker so that the door couldn't shut. Afraid the same thing that happened to his coat would also happen to his books, Matt left them in his backpack, closed his locker door as far as it would go, and stormed off to lunch.
By the time Matt finally arrived at the cafeteria, it was crowded with scores of students talking and eating. The lunch line was long, and by the time he got to where they were serving the food, the pizza and tacos were gone. Matt was f****d to settle for a piece of overcooked meatloaf that looked as if it had been left over from the previous school year. One of the cooks added some cold, crusty mashed potatoes topped with gravy with the consistency of pudding. Matt picked up a couple of cartons of milk, paid for his lunch, and carried his tray into the cafeteria to look for a place to sit.
Matt scanned the room for Tina, hoping to tell her about his run-in with Clayton and being sent to the principal's office. The cafeteria was almost twice the size of the one at their middle school back in Oregon, so it took a while for him to spot her. He finally found Tina near the back of the cafeteria, sitting quietly at one end of a table filled with girls who were all talking with each other. Some of the girls were giggling as they watched the boys at the next table when they thought the boys weren't looking.
Matt shook his head with a mixture of frustration and concern. Tina was smart, maybe even smarter than he was, although he'd never admit it to her. She excelled in math, taking Algebra II while Matt took Algebra I. He also knew that both of them would ace biology. Looking at the giggling girls sitting at her table, he couldn't help hoping she'd find some friends who viewed school as more than just a place to meet boys.
Matt turned and eventually found a seat at the end of a table next to a bunch of older students. The meatloaf had dried out and tasted as bad as it looked. Somehow that seemed appropriate, given how his day was going. Matt was washing his third bite down with his milk when he heard a familiar voice coming from the end of the next table. He looked up from his tray to see Clayton Cartwright, sitting with his broad back to him and talking to two other boys. He recognized one of the two from his algebra class. The pointy-nosed, little ferret-faced freshman was Dylan Jones.
"Colin, did you get a look at the fat pig sitting at the table behind you?" Clayton asked the tall blond boy with a cruel face who sat opposite him. "She should hide her face in a bag if she's going to come in here where people are trying to eat."
Matt looked over and noticed it was Sarah, the girl he'd sat beside on the bus ride to school. Although she tried not to show it by looking down at her lunch, it was clear from the pained expression on her face that she'd overheard Clayton's cruel remark. Matt felt a twinge of guilt remembering how he'd been embarrassed sitting next to her. Okay, so she could lose a few pounds and get braces, but no one deserved to be treated like that.
Clayton's friend, Colin, glanced over his shoulder at Sarah and then turned back to continue eating. "Sooey, pig, pig, pig!" he called between mouthfuls.
Dylan laughed and said, "Oink, oink."
A few seconds later, Matt and Clayton both noticed a short, skinny boy wearing glasses who was walking towards them carrying his tray of dirty dishes.
"Nerd alert," Clayton said to Colin, who had his back to the boy. "Nerd approaching, arriving in three, two, one."
The countdown reached zero just as the small boy passed Colin, who suddenly stretched out his foot. The boy tripped, his tray of dirty dishes and leftovers flying from his hands in a low arc straight at Matt. Time seemed to slow as Matt began to push himself back, but Matt wasn't nearly fast enough. The boy's tray crashed into Matt's, sending the remainder of both lunches cascading into his lap. When Matt stood up, he was wearing blobs of mashed potatoes while streams of milk and gravy ran down his pants and onto the floor. In disbelief, Matt looked up to see all three of the bullies laughing at him.
"Good one, Colin! Killed two birds with one foot!" the little toady Dylan crowed, grinning like he'd cracked the funniest joke of all time.
"Hey, it's the crybaby from first period I told you about," Clayton taunted. "Did you enjoy your little talk with the principal?"
Matt was fuming and about to yell something nasty about Clayton's IQ equaling his age when he saw the cafeteria monitor quickly walking his way. Leaving the trays where they were, Matt abruptly turned and stormed out of the cafeteria, trying hard to ignore the snickers and stares of the students around him.
On reaching the hallway, Matt ran to the nearest bathroom, hoping that no one in the hall would notice he was wearing what was left of his lunch. Once there, he looked around for a paper towel dispenser, but the school had hot-air hand dryers instead. With no other choice, Matt went into a stall, wadded up some toilet paper, and used it to wipe the food off his pants. Although he'd successfully removed most of the mashed potatoes, the toilet paper disintegrated when he tried to scrub off the gravy stains, leaving his pants covered in dozens of white flecks of wet paper. By the time he'd wiped them off with his hands and stood for what seemed like forever under the hot air dryer, Matt was left with a damp food stain on the front of his pants and painful calf muscles from standing on tiptoes so that the hot air from the dryer could reach his crotch.
The rest of Matt's day wasn't much better. He got lost twice trying to find his afternoon classes and was late both times. Colin, Clayton, and Dylan were in several of his other classes and made a point of loudly commenting on his stained pants as he entered each class.
Eventually, Matt's first day at Hawthorne High was over. His mood was as dark as the storm clouds rolling in overhead when he walked out the school's front doors. The wind was rising and the temperature dropping as Matt searched for his bus and any sign of Colin and his minions among the crowd of students that had gathered there. His only decent luck during the entire catastrophic day was being able to quickly find his bus, sit down near the driver, and have the seats around him taken by the time Clayton finally sauntered up the steps. The bully was unable to do more than make a rude remark as he passed. Matt couldn't wait to get home.
"What happened to your coat?" Tina asked, as the twins exited the bus in front of their house. "And what did you do to your pants? You look like a slob."
"I forgot it at school," Matt lied, hoping that his coat would turn up later in the school lost and found.
Standing on their front porch while Tina unlocked the door, Matt glanced past her at the dilapidated Victorian mansion next door. Wet and shivering, he felt like he had about as much of a chance of fitting in at school as the Hawthorne House had of fitting into their neighborhood with its neat rows of cookie-cutter houses.
Over dinner, Matt told his father and sister about his horrible day. But he didn't mention his missing coat. Although he and Tina weren't supposed to know, Matt had overheard their father discussing the family's finances with Uncle James. Their mother's massive medical bills, the outrageous cost of her funeral, and their move to Hawthorne had wiped out all of his mother's meager life insurance and much of the family's savings. Without the income from their mother's pottery shop, the family was barely making ends meet. There was no money for a new coat unless absolutely necessary.
After Matt had finished, Tina gave her brother a concerned look. "When we were in biology class, and you said your morning sucked, I thought you were probably overreacting. I was wrong. Your day really did suck."
Exhausted from a stressful day at work, their father was considerably less sympathetic. "Now, Matt, you can't let your first day get you down. From what I've been told, Hawthorne High is an excellent school that'll do a great job of preparing you for college if you just apply yourself. Besides, every school has bullies. You'll just have to stand up to them or learn to stay out of their way.
"Matt, the best thing to do is to make some new friends," Tina added, trying to act as if she were several years older than him instead of the actual seven minutes that separated their births. "Find your own group and try to fit in."
Easier said than done, Matt thought. Matt's father had never been as sympathetic as his mother, and the conversation just made him miss her more.
Matt left the dinner table early, went up to his bedroom, closed the door, and turned on his computer. He selected a playlist to fit his dark mood, and Ocean Breathes Salty by the indie rock band Modest Mouse began to play. "Your body may be gone / I'm gonna carry you in / In my head, in my heart, in my soul." Listening to the lyrics, Matt decided that he hated Indiana and Hawthorne High School. And he hated Clayton Cartwright most of all.