Meet Alem Reed - black hair, brown eyes, and a bad temper.
After getting kicked out of five high schools for fighting, Alem’s goal of getting a high school diploma was destroyed; that is, until he is asked to attend a secretive new school.
However, when he discovers that the new school is filled with creatures that aren’t human, (and view you as a potentially delicious snack) tough boy Alem needs every fight skill, dry comment, and ounce of wit he’s got if he is going to survive his senior year.
Chapter Four: Of Beaming Smiles and Frosty Glares (Preview)
Nicu Ibunku was definitely different than I had expected. I expected to see some old fat bald guy with a strict holier-than-thou attitude. I was wrong on all accounts.
Ibunku was young for one thing. He was younger than my old man was, or so it seemed. He had bright blonde hair that was almost white. He was tall and be could be considered good-looking but he had intense blue eyes. It was as if he could see through you to your soul. It was a little unnerving, but I forced myself to look him straight in the eyes.
“Ah, Mr. Alem Reed. I've heard so much about you.” Ibunku said pleasantly.
I doubted the pleasantness of his tone. Anything anyone heard about me was probably bad. He wouldn't be here if he had truly heard about my record.
“And it’s good to see you again, Jacob. It's been awhile.” Mr. Ibunku held out his hand. My Dad shook it somewhat stiffly.
“Yes. Mr. Ibunku. It's been quite a long time, hasn’t it?” It felt as if my Dad was pulling the words from his teeth. The old man didn't seem to like Mr. Ibunku, but he was trying to be polite for my sake, I guess. I found this strange because my old man wasn't one to judge a person so quickly. I stared at Mr. Ibunku trying to figure out why exactly Pops had a complete change of attitude the moment Mr. Ibunku walked through the door.
Pops had rushed around the living room picking up old cans of soda, pizza boxes, the random stray sock, and other nick-knacks lying about, while I had washed my face and attempted to look like something the cat didn't drag in and then spit out. Dad seemed calm, if a bit nervous, as we waited for Mr. Ibunku’s arrival at our door. Yet the minute Nicu Ibunku stepped through our front door, the nervousness changed into dislike.
It was obvious. These two knew each other before but surely, this was a good thing. Maybe it was just one-sided? If they truly disliked each other, Mr. Ibunku wouldn't be here. Dad looked sour but Mr. Ibunku didn't seem to notice and continued to act pleasant. He was either dense or oblivious. I wasn't sure which it was. Maybe I won't be attending this fancy private school after all. My stomach sank.
“Dad,” I pleaded silently. “Please save whatever your beef is with this guy for another time.” I needed every bit of help I could find to get into this school. I would do anything except kiss this dude’s ass. I had my pride. An embarrassing incident that occurred when I was seven years old popped into my head. It was one of those hard lessons that stays with you for a very long time. Well, I kept my pride most of the time.
“Ah, well. May I sit down?” Mr. Ibunku asked politely. Damn, that was strike one against me; I should have offered him a seat first before he asked. Now I scrambled to try to make up for it.
“Yes, please Mr. Ibunku.” I pointed to the best spot on our lumpy couch. It was the softest and most comfortable spot on the thing. Mr. Ibunku smiled and sat down delicately but considering his height, the seat gave way under the weight and Mr. Ibunku sunk deep into the cushion. The surprised expression on his face was so funny that I would have cracked up like a maniac if I hadn't been so nervous.
“Well, Alem, is it okay if call you Alem?” Mr. Ibunku asked as he tried to get comfortable and maintain his composure on our couch. I nodded but before I could settle my own nerves, he demonstrated, what I considered to be, a most dangerous and unusual act. It was so foreign to me that it seemed unnatural. The guy smiled at me. But it wasn't an ordinary smile - he beamed.
“Well, Alem, you’re quite infamous here in the secondary school circuit, especially among us administrators. Your name has become a familiar one. I received a call today. How I received it, I really don't know. Not many know my institution's number, as you probably already know. We are rather inconspicuous.”
I think this guy blind-sided me with his cheeriness. I could barely see, in fact, it felt like I was going blind. I had never seen such a bright smile. I wonder what toothpaste he was using, or maybe it was bleach. I wanted to squint but didn’t want to seem rude, so I settled with a scowl. “Is your school new or something? I've never heard of it before.”
“You’ve never heard of it before? Are you sure, never? My word! That's shocking, maybe not for the average populace, but for you? Haven't you heard of me before?” Mr. Ibanku looked confused, and he shot a look towards my Dad as if he hadn't expected this at all.
Filing that tidbit of information away in my brain for later reference, I grimaced even further. “Sorry, I can't say I have.”
Now, he was the one frowning and he locked eyes with my Dad who looked extremely uncomfortable.
“I'll make some coffee.” Dad got up, ignoring Mr. Ibunku’s silent inquisition. Something had definitely transpired between those two. The question was, though, what exactly was it and when?
“Ah, well anyway, Alem, my school is quite special. In the past, this school has been very, let’s say selective for a lack of a better word, in the choice of students who make up our student body. I've fought for years to have more diversity and this year I've finally got my chance. I want you to attend my school.” He beamed at me again and I was blind.
“Hey, that sounds great and all,” I stuttered, being slightly overwhelmed, “but I’m quite certain that we don’t have the kind of money it would take for me to take you up on your offer.”
“That’s nonsense, young man. Now, you listen to me. Don't bother worrying about that stuff. I already talked to your dad about it on the phone just a few moments ago. I want diversity among our student population. My hope is that by teaching true tolerance for difference, our students will unite themselves in a common pursuit of peace. You can help me bring that goal to fruition at our school and I want you there. Looking at your grades, I can see that you're a very capable student, with decent grades. You just need some motivation, a challenge, and some interesting classmates. To me, that is all worthy of a full scholarship.”
He was definitely lying now. My grades were mostly C’s and B's, with a rare A in PE and Art, sprinkled here and there over the years. That isn't scholarship worthy at all; at least I didn’t think so. However, I couldn’t exactly call him out on this lie. So I just sat there motionless, agreeing when necessary and speaking when spoken to, just waiting for the catch.
He can lie to himself all he wants as far as I’m concerned. I’m getting a full scholarship. “No strings attached, right?” I narrowed my eyes. This was it, the moment that would make or break our deal, because as much as I was excited, this guy had suspicious written all over him. I am certainly not the type of kid to trust people, or situations such as this one, blindly. This guy could be blowing smoke up my ass for all I knew.
The guy shifted. Ha! I knew it. What's the catch?
Mr. Ibunku scratched his head. “Alem let me be frank with you. I'm quite nervous to speak about my establishment in such a way, in so public a manner.” He waved his hands around. “This is my first year as headmaster, or principal, as they call it here, you know.” He looked into my eyes. “You, being who you are, considering your background, and your image, will face a lot of prejudice in my school. Your classmates and peers may not respect you at first, or to be frank with you, they may hate you for simply being who you are. If you and your father decide to take me up on my offer, it’s going to be very difficult for you, but I’m afraid a full scholarship is all I can do. I can’t protect you once you’re there. That will be up to you; and you will have to be smart and figure things out without the benefits of your fists. I believe that they can learn a thing or two from you. I have faith in you. If you choose, you can find a way to show them the errors in their thinking, in the way they regard your kind. But I know you can defend yourself quite well. Your record proves it.”
He actually read my record and still wanted me to come. What in the world? Not only did he want me to come, he was asking me to be prepared to defend myself. What was he implying? “But…”
I snapped back to attention. He looked me straight in the eyes. I felt instantly on guard when I looked into his eyes. “But, I want you to give your word that you will—what do they say—stick it out till the end of the year. Please come to my school.”
My head went blank. He was practically begging me to come to his school. Little did he know that he didn’t need to beg. I could hardly believe what was happening. But I was still suspicious: What kind of school was his anyways? And what type of rich snobby kids was I going to have to deal with? I pressed my lips into a thin line, contemplating my future. There was no way in hell I was going to pass this up. My promise to my mom, before she died, was like an open wound, waiting for attention. I would not let some rich snobby idiots stand in my way.
“What kind of problems will I face at your school anyway?” I asked slowly.
“Well, to describe it simply, there are wars.”
I blinked once. “Excuse me?” I was searching his face for some sort of clarification.
Mr. Ibunku sighed. “They could best be described as wars of race, politics, desire, and other radical motivating factors. You will be the only person of your kind at my school.” He was speaking to me as if we had already accepted. But what did he mean when he said a person of my kind? Was this guy already stereotyping me? He had sounded so cool and rational, but if that wasn’t prejudice, then what was?
“You will not have much protection other than yourself. I want more kids like you for this very reason. But so many others will refuse to send their children, their heirs, and their fortunes, if I allow more than one of you within the doors.” He smiled humorlessly, almost hopelessly and dejected. “Sometimes it appears that's the only thing they can agree upon, sometimes.”
I stared at him. “Wars?” I repeated to myself silently. Was this guy serious? Did he say race wars? That made me a bit uncomfortable, being a black dude and all.
He continued his appraisal of the situation, unaware of the monologue streaming through my head. I was trying to keep up with him, while trying not to get lost in thought. My dad had been gone quite a long time for just making coffee. I wonder what he thought about all of this.
“My school is, let’s say, to be considered neutral territory. However, while the fact is that most of the school's population, divided into several camps, has had a long standing history of hatred towards the other, but they are forbidden to act on it.” Mr. Ibunku beamed at me again, but now I saw a contradiction in his brightness. This news was hardly anything to smile about. This was the kind of stuff for made-for-TV movies and nightly news broadcasts. My gut flip-flopped like a somersault and left a wave of nausea. I would have to deal with rich snobby kids who wouldn't know what hard work was if it bit them in the ass, but in exchange I would get to keep my promise to my momma. But this was going to be a pain in my ass.
“Then, why do these kids go to your school, if they don’t like the other kids there?”
Mr. Ibunku stared at me. “Well, this situation is a result of the treaty of course, don’t you know?”
I thought to myself quickly and silently, “What treaty is he talking about? I don’t remember any treaties.” Not wanting to sound ignorant, I lied. “Oh, of course, it is because of the treaty! Right, I was confused for a second there.” I would look up this information later.
Mr. Ibunku nodded in understanding. “Yes, I forgot how your kind has such short memories.”
I bristled. For all his talk about diversity and unification, he sure liked to point out my differences. Why did he keep referring to my kind? Honestly, it was as if he didn’t consider himself human. I sighed. Well, I didn't really have a choice here. I needed my diploma and I would deal with the consequences.
“Mr. Ibunku, I want to go to your school, regardless of the problems I'll face.”
If I thought his smile beamed before, how exactly do I explain that one? It was kind of scary in a way. It was awfully scary, which made me wonder again, what I had just agreed to.
Suddenly, the sound of glass shattering came from the kitchen. I faked a cough and tried to smile. Inside, I was angry with pops. That old geezer! Was he just eavesdropping on our conversation? I could have used some help! Yet, there he was hiding.
“Wonderful. This is wonderful news. I'll have your room, uniforms, and class list prepared tonight and…”
I interrupted him. “My what, room, uniforms, did you say? Huh? I don’t remember you saying that I would live on campus.” Was that part of the bargain? That part came as a further shock, considering everything else that he had just thrown at me. Now it felt like he was throwing the kitchen sink at me.
“Why yes? I thought I mentioned that at the beginning.” He slapped his forehead. “Oh, I must have explained that to your father. Yes. Well, the Institution of Harmony requires that all of our students live on campus. This is an effort to assist with the unification process and to prevent unfair advantages present in any sort of conflict.” He paused a moment. “Is that fine with you?”
I was in a state of shock actually. No, it wasn’t fine. I had assumed that I would walk or take the bus to school. I never considered, not for one second, that I would live in a dormitory with those creeps. The tables had turned on me. I would have to give up my haven, my dad, this crappy couch, and Mr. Chang. What would I do for smokes? I mean, who would take pity on me? If I didn’t have Mr. Chang for that, oh, wait a minute. What am I thinking? Stupid Mr. Chang and his pity. Stupid crappy couch. This changed a lot of things. But what about my Dad?
“That's fine,” I heard myself say. I would have to explain to Pops later. Where was he anyway?
Mr. Ibunku flashed me another one of those unnatural smiles. I really needed to get use to them, but I still found them so unnerving..
“Unfortunately, you might be rooming alone because the room assignments have already been decided and agreed upon. I’ll try to put you in an area that will be most suiting to your needs and that will make you feel as welcome as possible. Hopefully this will help to make your transition easier. Do you have any more questions, Alem?”
I rubbed my arms that were folded across my chest. I was leaning back in my chair, soaking in the enormous blow I had just received. Everything would be okay I guess. I simply didn't have the energy to worry about the unknown dangers that awaited me. I was going to school! I would fulfill my promise and graduate. This whole thing was a blessing in disguise. No one knew how much this meant to me. The school could be on the freaking moon and I would show up for class, wearing a space suit, with my lunch packed with stomach enlarging junk. Nothing could keep me away now. I had heard it all. “Um, no more questions, I don’t think so, sir. Thank you.”
“Very well, I see we have come to an agreement then.” He reached inside his briefcase and pulled out a large stack of papers. My eyes glazed over a bit. He couldn't expect me to read all that. That writing looked tiny and I was just a kid. It probably wouldn’t make any sense anyway. I mean what could possibly take up so much paper?
“I want you to read all this information. It will help explain the rules, the history of the conflicts, and the culture of the different societies in attendance at our institution. It will probably be familiar material to you, but it may answer any questions that arise after I leave. Just read the instructions and follow them to the point. It's very important. However, if you still have questions, don’t hesitate to come by my office.” He paused, “And since the entrance is somewhat deep into the city, a car will pick you up here at nine thirty tomorrow morning. Does that sound okay to you?”
I was barely even listening to him. All I could think was that I'm going back to school, and this time I’m going to a fancy private school! Who would have ever thought? My silent excitement and relief expressed at my own predicament drowned out what Shiny Teeth was saying, so I barely caught that last detail. What he said forced a pause on my inner celebration.
Did he say free transportation too? This was getting ridiculous. How bad could this school be to merit all of this special treatment, extra care, and attention? This dude was pulling every trick in the book to make sure I came to his school. This left a nervous feeling in my gut. Those kids must be plain awful if, in exchange for my attendance, I get this type of royal treatment. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to deal with the prejudice and bias that Shiny Teeth had just described to me, but maybe I would be able to just shut it out, and ignore the rotten apples. It seemed like the simplest solution. And if that didn’t work, then I would figure out plan B.
“Oh, yes, a car will come, of course. Thanks, that's fine.” I said.
Mr. Ibunku quickly handed me the monstrous stack of papers. “Here you go, Alem.” When he passed the papers to me, he lightly touched my hand for a second. The feeling of his skin on mine was strange. It reminded me that he was, in fact, a real person for the first time since he entered our apartment. But at the same time, it felt like I had been touched by a bag of cold air, like there was nothing physical to his touch.
I shook it off and turned to the stack of papers in my hand. I did not intend to read all of them. I would sign wherever I saw the little x followed by a blank. I'm still a minor so they can't legally hold me to a contract anyway.
Then my dad appeared out of nowhere. “Here's your coffee, Mr. Ibunku.”
“Nice timing Pops,” I said to myself.
He just looked at Mr. Ibunku frostily. The alarm bells in my brain started to go off. Frosty glares and my old man don’t mix. He is a kind soul. Maybe it was a good thing that he wasn't here earlier. What was up with those two? Mr. Ibunku didn't acknowledge the frosty expression coming from my Dad. But I had a bad feeling about this.
“Well, thank you Mr. Reed, but I'm afraid I must be going.” Mr. Ibunku said in a hurry. So, maybe he did notice my dad’s hostility, because he stood up rather abruptly. “Though, would you mind walking me back to my car to give directions to my driver, please?”
If it didn’t actually happen, I would tell you that it wasn’t possible, but with Mr. Ibunku’s kind manners, my pops’ frost glare became one hundred degrees colder. In that instant, my bad feeling grew worse. Pops wouldn't do anything to mess this up for me, would he? There was no way Pops would screw this up, but what was he so bitter about?
“I'll see you tomorrow then, Alem. Have a good rest.” Mr. Ibunku smiled at me and my dad followed him out the door. Then I was suddenly alone.
I jumped; I danced; I wanted to kiss something! I was getting another chance. I wanted to shout from the rooftops! The angels were singing: I would fulfill my promise! It felt like anarchy, a revolution, or a coup d’état! I was the underdog and I was getting another chance! When the dust settled, and my high returned to normal, I quickly made a mental list of what I needed to do.
First things first, as the expression goes. When Pops got back in, I would definitely need to ask him about his deal with Mr. Ibunku, if they were enemies, or if there was something I should know, before I sold my soul to him. I thought Mr. Ibunku was a likable guy, even if he was a little strange. The one thing that bothered me though was that he kept referring to me as my kind.
The second thing I needed to do was take a look at those papers. I stared at the large stack and sighed. I hated the thought of all those papers.
The third thing I needed to do was take a piss. No, wait. I better reprioritize. Glancing back at the papers with an evil eye, I ran off to the bathroom before Dad got back. I didn’t have a second to lose.