The Wrong Side of the River
A plague o’ both your houses!
Julian called me and asked if we could eat lunch together at school the next day.
I could hardly keep the smile off my face. “Sure. I’d like that.”
Actually, I would love that, but if I said so, Julian might pass out on the phone or something.
Maybe he had forgiven me for calling him a friend, after all.
“You know,” I told Julian as we sat down under the big oak tree near the science hallway, “I heard that some kids from Northside are going to flour bomb the diggers tonight.”
Julian sighed and spread out his neat package of cheese sandwiches on his lap. “How is that going to help? It’s just going to make everyone madder and make the whole thing blow up. If this keeps on going, no one will even notice the play.”
“Exactly!” I opened my lunch to find Mom had packed me a cream cheese bagel. Again. “Is she trying to kill me?” I slapped the bagel down on its wrapper and shoved it back in the box.
Julian stared at the bagel. I’d never seen him eat before, but already I could tell he had a thing about food. His own lunch box had at least three regular-kid-sized lunches in it and he looked like he would be happy to scarf down my bagel too. So, I gave it to him.
“Thanks!” he said, adding it to his pile. “What’s wrong with it, anyway? Bagels aren’t usually the first choice for a murder weapon.”
“First,” I said, taking a bite of the apple that was all I had left. “A cream cheese bagel is like at least a gazillion calories. Second, I’m lactose intolerant. She took me to get the tests done. She grumbled at the doctor over the bill. She even went out and bought a truckload of lactose-free snacks so I would not starve to death. And yet she still gives me a cream cheese bagel at least three times a week. I think she hates me.”
Julian laughed so hard he giggle-snorted. “Your mom hates everyone.”
I laughed along with that. “Yeah. She does.”
“How cozy this is,” said Charlotte’s voice. I hadn’t even realized she and Bethany had arrived.
I shaded my eyes from the sun and squinted up at them. “Cozy? Not really. The wind’s a bit cold.”
“Funny, Romy. Why are you eating with the enemy?” Bethany never was the sort to beat around the bush.
“Because I’m hungry and because Julian is not my enemy. He’s not yours either. Read your petition, he signed it.”
“You noticed that?” Julian stared at me with wide eyes. I could tell from his voice he had hoped no one would.
“We appreciate the support from OUTsiders, of course,” Charlotte said, “but they are still outsiders. Make sure you don’t share any of our secret plans with him.”
“Secret plans? You guys couldn’t keep a secret if you tried.” I sighed and crossed my arms. “Okay, this has got to stop. Julian is not an outsider, he is my friend. The park is a stupid bit of dirt that is turning this entire town insane. I will eat my lunch with whoever I like, and I like Julian.”
His ears went red first, so red I swore I could feel the heat from them against the side of my face. Then his nose, and then his whole face. It looked downright painful.
“Calm down, Jul-i-an,” Bethany said, drawing out the syllables of his name like a five-year-old. “You don’t want to puke all over the grass, do you?”
He looked like he might, and part of me hoped he would and aim it right at my supposed best friends.
“Are you going to come and eat with us in the Cafeteria at our usual table, or not?” Charlotte asked.
Bethany pursed her lips together until they went white. She took a deep breath and said, “You should be very careful what side you choose, Romy. Everyone likes you, now, but you don’t want to force them to change their minds.”
Charlotte looked around us at all the kids eating their lunch in the sunshine. “No one likes you two hanging out.”
I followed her gaze, expecting to see nothing but kids eating. Except, it didn’t look quite like that. Almost every kid I saw stared right back at me, and not one of them looked happy. They scowled and pouted and nudged whoever sat next their neighbors when they saw me looking back at them. It made a slimy shiver wriggle down my spine.
“Well, tough for them,” I said. And I really wanted to mean it.
Charlotte and Bethany stalked off with their noses in the air. If I had not just noticed every kid in Jefferson staring at me, I might have laughed at how ridiculous they looked. Now, though, worry gurgled in my stomach.
“You need something more than a carrot for lunch,” Julian said, as if nothing had even happened. I admired that because the same eyes that looked angrily at me, looked deadly when they turned on him.
Kids wore homemade badges now, declaring which side of the Park Wars they were on. Northsiders were supposed to wear red whenever they were out in public, and Southsiders blue. But I wouldn’t be seen dead in anything red, it made my cheeks glow like I was embarrassed all the time. And I noticed Julian wore a green shirt. That made me smile and appreciate him even more.
He passed me a hamburger bun stuffed with salad. “It’s nothing but bun and salad. No cheese, no butter, nothing to hurt your stomach. Go on.”
I hesitated for a second, and then took a big bite. “Delicious.”
We ate in silence for a while, trying not to get vaporized by all the angry stares and whispers. While I ate, a plan formed in my head.
“I have an idea.”
“Mmm?” Julian asked, through a mouthful of my bagel.
“What if you ask Mrs. Kempf if you can take Parry’s spot in the play.”
My bagel nearly killed him then, he came so close to choking to death on it. I thumped him hard between the shoulder blades.
“Me? Romeo?”
“Sure. You know the part perfectly, and Mrs. Kempf is as sick of Parry and how bad he sucks as the rest of us are. The play isn’t far from opening, we have to do something or it will be a complete disaster.”
Julian looked torn between horror and delight. A slow smile spread over his face. “But Parry would kill me.”
I sniffed. “He’s all talk.”
Julian touched his nose and the memory of the bruises that had faded now.
I swallowed another mouthful and said, “I am sick and tired of Parry making me look silly—making all of us look silly. Something has to be done or I’m going to be stuck on stage with him. And,” I looked over at Julian and smiled. “I’d much rather you were Romeo.”
This time, this once, he did not blush or hurl or pass out. He smiled. It was the widest, proudest smile I ever saw. There were bits of bagel stuck to his hardware, but even that didn’t really matter.
“You should smile lots more,” I said. “You’ve got a nice smile.”
Then, he blushed.
We chatted while we finished our lunches, about the play, about Julian’s dog, and about anything but the park. When the bell rang, he helped me to my feet and said, “See you at drama.”
“Don’t forget to get there early and speak to Mrs.Kempf,” I said. “I’ll try and get there early too, to back you up.” I hoped he wouldn’t need it.

Keep Reading

Chapter 19

What light through yonder window breaks? Julian

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