Wesley Bratcher carried his lunch tray in a hard grip. He walked the center aisle of the noisy cafeteria looking left and right for his sister, Tiffany. Her hair was bright copper, like his, and usually made her easy to spot in a crowd, but not today. Abandoning his search for her, he looked for an empty seat anywhere.
It was the third of September, the first day of school and Wesley's first day as a fourth-grader at Cloverdale Elementary School. Except for his sister, he didn't know a single person here.
He found an empty seat and set his tray down. Three boys about his age were sitting opposite him, talking and laughing. They had brought their lunches from home and their side of the table was a trash heap of paper bags, food wrap, bread crusts and throw-away plastic.
Wesley's progressive parents impressed upon him the importance of respecting the environment and he always noticed when that respect was violated. These three had evidently been raised with no environmental consciousness.
In appearance, they were as different as noon, sunset and midnight, but they all spoke with the Southern hick accent that irritated Wesley to no end. They compounded his irritation by making spontaneous use of baffling regional idioms that tried his patience every time he heard them.
They paid no attention to him when he first sat down. It was rude and it proved that southern hospitality, which he'd heard so much about, was nothing but a crock. After a while, they noticed him and started talking to him, and that annoyed him, too.
The one in the middle had done most of the talking. He was the first to speak to Wesley.
"Hi, you're new, aren't ya? What's your name?" Collar-length brown hair framed his face, which was almost pretty enough to be a girl's.
The assessment was sullen and gratuitous because, except for his face, there was nothing girlish about him.
"Wesley Bratcher. I'm from Chicago." His midwestern accent marked him as an outsider, and he felt a jolt of pride from it.
"My name's John Mark. What grade are you in?"
"We are, too."
The black-haired boy on John Mark's left looked at Wesley with benign curiosity.
"I'm Randy Stevenson," he said. "Do you play any sports? We play baseball and basketball and football."
Randy's eyes were dark and there was something odd about them Wesley couldn't pinpoint. His face wore a sort of neutral friendliness but the eyes gave Wesley the creeps.
"Hey! I do, too!" John Mark said. "Do you know where the skate park is here? It's Skatescape on Powell Avenue. I can tell you how to get there. But it's real small and pretty crappy compared to the ones in Atlanta or Jacksonville or Tampa. 'Course, you can street skate nearly anywhere. I do a lot of that. Do you do any tricks? Right now I'm learnin' all the stuff you can do with a trick called the ollie kickflip. Man, is it cool!"
During the chatter, the boy with blonde hair directly across from Wesley stopped sipping milk through a straw and set the carton down. He cut his blue-gray eyes sharply toward John Mark and showed his teeth in an impish grin. "Jabber, jabber."
John Mark aimed a thumb to the right and told Wesley, "This is Shelby. He don't have manners sometimes."
Shelby slid his eyes -- they were striking but not creepy, like Randy's -- to the newcomer. "Wock here's awesome. Been skatin' since he was six. He'll be state champion someday."
Introductions accomplished, the three boys took up their original conversation where it had left off and Wesley resumed eating in silence.
The Bratchers had moved to Georgia a month earlier. Wesley hated Verona from the moment they arrived. He'd learned nothing during his first morning at his new school to change that.
His table companions behaved like they had been friends a long time. Wesley had friends like that back home and he missed them terribly. He wondered if he would ever find friends among these Georgians--or whether he'd want to.
For about the millionth time since moving here, he was struck by the sheer foreignness of this place and these people. Assailed by a fresh wave of homesickness, he tuned out the talk across the table until something Shelby said caught his attention.
"....and Daddy wants to buy membership in a huntin' lodge in Early County. It's just across the river from the nuculer power plant in Alabama. He said everybody wants to hunt there 'cause you can't miss when you shoot--the deer glow in the dark!"
Shelby cackled and John Mark laughed like a chipmunk, the glint from his braces matching the twinkling in his eyes. But Randy didn't crack a smile. He tilted his head dubiously and said, "It's against the law to hunt deer at night."
Shelby gave him a pointed look. "It's a joke, Mister Spock."
"It's a dumb joke 'cause you can't hunt deer at night," Randy insisted.
Joke or not, Wesley was appalled. "You shoot deer? Like, with a gun?"
"Well, you can't bring 'em down with spitballs," Shelby said. "My daddy got me a Remington model seven Bambi-buster for my birthday. Had to get a used one, but it's a sweet rifle and I can't wait to try it. Deer season starts next month."
Wesley's incredulous gaze fastened on Shelby. "My parents say hunting is barbaric. How can you hunt deer? They don't hurt anything."
Shelby rolled his eyes and didn't answer but John Mark piped up, "Look, think of deer like they're big rats on stilts. They don't have no natural enemies. If people don't kill 'em, they'll multiply into a plague. They'll eat up all the crops and come up in your yard and eat it, and you'll run over 'em on the highway."
Still horrified by the idea of shooting animals, Wesley looked from one to the other of them and asked, "Do all of you guys hunt?"
"Yep." John Mark gave him an an emphatic nod. "But just varmints until this year."
Wesley frowned in incomprehension.
Randy explained. "Squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, little critters like that."
"Oh." Wesley looked down at his plate, his appetite gone. The talk of shooting animals had given him a touch of nausea.
Shelby stuffed his lunch clutter into a paper bag and stood up. "Well. Welcome to Cloverdale Element'ry, yank."
________________Images: Remington Arms Company; U.S. Government; Bacalao via Fotolia.com