That evening I was getting ready for my inaugural karate match when I heard a burst of laughter from the hallway, followed by a string of incoherent jeers. I quickly tied the belt on my robe and stuck my head out into the corridor. What I saw made my stomach clench.
Just outside the stairwell, Danielle was sprawled on the floor with a dozen library books scattered around her. Cheryl and her unscrupulous friends hovered over her, laughing. It was easy to decipher what had happened. Incredibly mature girl that she was, Cheryl had obviously tripped Danielle on her way up the stairs.
Incensed, I stormed past the other onlookers and helped a trembling Danielle to her feet.
“Are you okay?” I asked as she dusted herself off.
“I’m fine,” Danielle replied, her face an embarrassed red.
I shot Cheryl a withering glance as I helped Danielle gather her books.
“I’ve got it,” Danielle told me, even as I piled half the heavy volumes into the crook of my arm.
“Can’t you find somebody else to persecute?” I demanded, glaring at Cheryl.
“Oh, but Danielle just makes it so much fun!” Cheryl said, causing another round of laughter.
Danielle turned on her heel and ran down the hall, slamming our door behind her.
“Congratulations, Cheryl. I think you just beat the all-time record for infantility,” I told her. “How old do you feel right now? About five? Six?”
Cheryl clenched her jaw and stared at me with her piercing eyes. “You’d better watch what you say, New Girl. Maybe I’ll find someone else to pick on.”
“Oooh! Ominous!” I said facetiously. Then I turned and tromped down the hall, back to our dorm room.
I found Danielle sitting on her bed, her arms crossed over her chest and her legs crossed at the ankles. She stared resolutely at the ceiling, trying not to cry, and didn’t even acknowledge me when I walked in.
“I’ll just put these over here,” I said, stacking her books on her desk.
“Thanks so much for your help,” she said flatly. “I can take care of myself.”
I blinked, taken aback. “I . . . I know you can,” I said quickly. “I just didn’t want to leave you alone out there. Cheryl has backup. So should you.”
“Yeah, well, I just looked like a total wuss.”
“Danielle, I’m sorry,” I said, sitting down on the edge of my bed. “I was just trying to help.” I felt as if a huge gulf had opened up between us. I had no idea that I was perpetrating an insult by defending her. Who knew Danielle harbored so much pride?
“Don’t be mad,” I told her. “Next time I won’t intervene. I swear.”
Danielle let out a sigh and sat up a bit. “I just . . . I despise this place,” she said, pulling at the fraying edge of an old, gray throw she had on her bed. “Why did my parents have to send me here?”
It was a rhetorical question so I remained silent. Outside the door a few girls giggled and I imagined that the story of what had just occurred was making its way through the dorm like a contagion. Girls really can be so crass sometimes.
“Just forget about Cheryl,” I told Danielle. “She’s an idiot and so are her friends.”
“At least she has friends,” Danielle said, her desolate eyes filled with tears.
My heart went out to her. It must have been totally awful, being sent away against her will and then, to add insult to injury, the entire student body turning around and deciding to hate her.
“I’m your friend,” I said. “And so is David. And I don’t know about you, but I think we’re superb. Especially compared to Cheryl’s entourage.”
Finally, Danielle relented. She cracked a smile and rolled her eyes in my direction. “I’m sorry I snapped at you,” she said. “I’m just so sick of them.”
“Me too. And I haven’t even been here a week,” I told her, reciprocating the smile.
“You know what I’d like?” Danielle said, sitting up and throwing her legs over the side of the bed. “Let’s do something chill tomorrow. We could take the bus to the mall and hang out and be total gluttons at the food court.”
It sounded like a great plan to me, but I was swept through with an acidic sense of guilt. I wasn’t exactly free tomorrow. And after what had just happened to Danielle, I could foresee that she wasn’t going to react well to what I was about to tell her.
“Actually, I already have plans for tomorrow,” I said.
“Really?” Danielle asked. “What?”
“I’m kind of going snowboarding with Jon Wisnewski,” I told her.
Danielle looked befuddled. “You’re kidding.”
“Well . . . he asked and I haven’t been boarding in forever so—“
“Fine. Go,” Danielle said, lying back down again.
“Can we defer the mall thing until Sunday?” I asked, standing up. “Or . . . maybe you can come with us! Do you ski at all?”
Danielle scoffed. “Oh, yeah. Me hanging out with Jon Wisnewski and his friends. Sure.”
“Why not? I haven’t even met his friends and I’m going,” I said. “It could be fun.”
“Please! They’d laugh me right off the slopes,” Danielle said. “Look, obviously you’re just better at making friends than I ever was. You should enjoy it.”
Her words were kind, but her voice was still brittle. On some level I understood where she was coming from. She’d been here all year and had only David to talk to. I’d been here a couple of days and it seemed like I was turning into Miss Popularity. Still, she didn’t have to take it out on me. If only she knew the real reason I was hanging out with these guys.
For a split second I entertained the urge to tell her. To let her in. It would make her feel so much better and I would have someone to discuss the investigation with—a confidant. But then, her best friend was one of the potential culprits. I couldn’t count on her silence. And if David was tipped off it would be devastating to the whole operation.
“Well, I’ll be back tomorrow night,” I said, fidgeting with the end of my belt. “We can hang out then.”
“How charitable of you,” Danielle said.
Then she turned and faced the wall, shunning any further advances I might have made. I tried not to roll my eyes. I had really liked Danielle in the beginning, but she was turning out to be almost as immature as Cheryl. She was sweet and all, and I did feel sorry for her situation, but I had just gotten here and she was bemoaning my other friendships as if I were betraying her trust.
Well, there was no way I was going to stand there and try to coddle her. I grabbed my keys and gym bag and headed out the door, thankful that I had a karate match to go to. In the past five minutes I had built up some serious aggression that was in desperate need of release.