The end of lunch was punctuated by a hand descending on Stephanie’s shoulder.

She jumped, then glanced over her shoulder.  Ms. Delaney smiled at her.  “Stephanie, I’m sorry to startle you.  Principal Delaney would like to speak with you after class.”

“Yes, of course,” Stephanie said.  She watched, a little warily, as Ms. Delaney shifted her gaze to another student and began to walk away, saying, “David, a quick word. . . . ”

Why didn’t she wait until the end of the day? Stephanie wondered.  Ms. Delaney continued to circulate around the lunchroom, speaking to students.

“Does she always do that?” she asked Aurelia.  “Deliver messages at lunchtime, I mean.”  It seemed highly irregular; Ms. Delaney, and indeed the other teachers she had met, went out of their way to befriend and communicate with students.  At her old school, they would have just done the minimum–unless–

Ah, but this isn’t my old school.  She tried to relax and listen to Aurelia’s response.  It wasn’t her old school, and old suspicions weren’t necessary.

Right?

Stephanie: Strike 3

October 25, 2012

Aurelia was nice.  Quiet, but nice.  She was certainly very different from the other students, who were still averting their eyes and sliding aside whenever Stephanie passed.

As if I didn’t exist.

Stephanie was beginning to get used to the thought. As if I didn’t exist. Well, she did exist, and just ignoring her wouldn’t change that.

As Aurelia had noticed.

Why did she volunteer? Stephanie fiddled with a strand of black hair as Aurelia quietly pointed out the high school cafeteria.  It’s obvious that everyone else is shunning me.  Did she feel sorry for me?

Well, she’d take a pity vote right now.  Pathetic, she knew, but the summer had been rough with only her family bothering to talk civilly to her.

Stephanie absently asked the server for lasagna, still thinking.  It was possible that this was another tactic by the other students to ostracize her by giving her a friend–and then, when life didn’t seem so miserable after all, the “friend” would turn on her.

If my brother could hear me now, Stephanie thought wryly as she paid for her lunch.  He always jeered at her for jumping to conclusions, for developing conspiracy theories without the facts to back them up.  Though in this case, it was a valid idea:  Kids (and teens!) can be amazingly cruel, as she had noticed.

But it didn’t seem like Aurelia would do that.

So maybe. . . if this wasn’t a conspiracy. . . maybe Aurelia was truly willing to stretch out a hand to a girl in need.  And maybe. . . just maybe. . . after the guiding gig was done, she would be willing to be actual friends.

Stephanie smiled as she took a seat at a table.  Maybe this year wouldn’t be so bad after all.

School was just as bad as Stephanie imagined it.

New Bruntum Preparatory Academy had advertised a “wholesome learning environment” and “friendly atmosphere” in its brochure.  It was the sort of place that rich parents would entrust their little darlings to.  By all rights, Stephanie should have fit right in, but there was, of course, the not insignificant fact that she’d been expelled from her last school.  Even though it wasn’t her fault.

“Just be yourself,” her mother had suggested before pushing her and her brother out the door.  Which would have been great advice. . .

. . . except for the fact that everyone was completely ignoring her.

Stephanie sank down in her chair as Ms. Delaney finished calling roll.  It was just a half hour into the first day, and already the other students were treating her coldly.  To tell the truth, she had expected some pointed glares, some snide comments, anything but this complete silence.  It was worse than anything else they could have done.  And maybe that’s why they do it, Stephanie realized.  Though I can’t think of a reason why. . . .

“Stephanie Blake?” Ms. Delaney called.

“Yes?”

“This is your first year here, right?”  Ms. Delaney looked at her speculatively over her glasses.  “You’ll need a guide. . . .  Is there anyone who’d like to volunteer?”