When We Were Us (Keeping Score, #1)

By: Tawdra Kandle

Chapter 1: Jesse

I knew fifth grade was going to be different the minute I stepped onto the playground that first day.

In our town, there are two huge elementary schools. The kids go to Marian Johnson Primary School from pre-k through fourth grade and then move onto Herbert Andrews Elementary from fifth through seventh grade. It’s cool, you know, but in a way, it means we all start over three times before we graduate from high school, because there’s also a junior high. We go from being the big men on campus back to the bottom of the barrel three times.

So when I stepped onto the newly recovered asphalt at Herbert Andrews—everyone calls it the HA school—I have to admit, I was a little nervous. At MJ Primary, I was a pretty popular kid. At least I had a lot of friends, and the teachers liked me. I don’t know how it happened, but I was able to get good grades and not be labeled as some kind of dork. I think it was mostly because we hadn’t really gotten to the point of labeling each other. We’d all been together since kindergarten—or pre-k, for some of us—and there was a kind of sweet acceptance that was doomed to end.

I saw it ending almost right away on the first day of fifth grade. I was still standing on the edge of the playground, kind of taking everything in, when I noticed a cluster of kids over to my left, standing just beyond the swings. They weren’t just hanging out; I saw a few glancing carefully over their shoulders, watching out for teachers or other adults just the same way my dog looked when he was getting into the trash.

I was curious, and I wandered over that way. I recognized a couple of classmates from fourth grade. But as I got closer, my heart sank. In the middle of the crowd, looking more confused and frightened than I ever saw him, was Nathan.

Nat had always been smaller than me. His arms were thin and gangly, and his face had a pointed look that had been cute during kindergarten, but now only had the effect of making him seem hunted. His hunched shoulders only made it worse.

He was surrounded by five boys who all towered at least two heads above him. They were grinning, but not in a ‘hey, let’s all go play ball’ way. I saw one of them reach out and shove against Nat’s shoulder. Always just a little unsteady, he teetered for a moment, but to my relief, kept his feet.

I was close enough now to hear their voices, the jeering. And for just a minute, less time than it took me to realize I was thinking it, I was tempted to just turn around. Turn my back and pretend that I hadn’t seen it, hadn’t seen Nat in the middle of that mess.

I wouldn’t have done. I’m really sure about that. But before I could prove it—to myself or anyone else, I guess—a blue tornado streaked past me.

“Hey! Get away from him. What are you doing?” Her voice ringing with the righteous indignation of the young, Abby pushed through the little knot of boys and stood in front of Nat. With hands on her hips and curly brown hair flying in every direction, she stood only a little taller than Nat, but she stared up at the boys with fury and challenge.

The biggest of them looked at her with a mixture of disbelief and annoyance. “Leave it alone. Go back and play with the little girls. We’re just welcoming our new buddy to HA.”

“You’re bullies.” Abby always did cut right to the chase. “You’re mean, and you’re stupid and you want to hurt Nat just because he’s different from you. Go away. Leave him alone, or I’ll go get a teacher.”

I held my breath, waiting to see what the boys would do. I saw them exchange glances, and then the leader shrugged. “Whatever. You’re not going to be around all the time. We’ll catch up with him later.” Turning, he stalked off, pushing through the swings and sending them flying.

The other boys melted off, leaving Abby and Nat standing together, alone. I stalked over, ready to yell at Abby for getting in the middle of that, when she turned and spotted me.

“What’s wrong with you?” she demanded. “Didn’t you see what was happening? They were going to hurt Nat!”

“I—I was—“ I looked at Nat, my eyes pleading for some back up, but he was just staring off into the distance, beyond Abby, beyond me.

“I was heading over there,” I finished lamely.

“Yeah, by the time you got there, they would have pushed him down and gotten in some good punches. What were you waiting for?”

“I don’t know.” I pushed a hand through the hair my mom had so carefully combed an hour ago. “It just happened so fast. I saw it was Nat, and then before I could even get in there, you ran past me.”

“It shouldn’t have mattered who it was. They were big kids, picking on someone smaller. You should have stopped them no matter who it was. But then when you saw it was your friend—“ Abby glared at me meaningfully—“your best friend since before you were born, you should have run to stop them.” Like I did. She didn’t say it, but I could read it loud and clear in her eyes.

“Nat.” I could see I wasn’t going to get anywhere with Abby, so I turned to the small boy hunched between us. “What happened? Why were they ganged up on you?”

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