September first, 1984. First day of seventh grade.
Veronica counts herself as one of the luckiest people in the world for the simple fact that her dad can drive her to school and she doesn’t have to take the bus. She looks at the sea of students pouring out from the small buses and she wonders how they all fit in there. Boys jump over and around one another while girls hurry through the school gates in bundles of three or four, giggling hysterically while they share gossip from the summer break.
While she watches the mass of kids making their way inside, all while sitting safely on the wall, she notices Heather Mac, Heather Chandler and Heather Duke strolling past, arms linked, Chandler laughing at something MacNamara says and Duke trying to copy her. She’s never been close to them; despite being in the same class since kindergarten. In recent years, she’s not sure if she’s said more than five sentences to all three of them combined. Still, she gives them a wave, and while Duke and Chandler regard her with a nod, MacNamara waves back.
“Veronica!” an unmistakable voice greets. Veronica turns her head away from the rest of the student body and sees Martha, her long-time best friend, standing in front of her, her cheeks rosy and smile wide and hair in a high ponytail.
“Hey Martha,” she replies, jumping off the wall and letting Martha take her by the hand.
“Oh my gosh I have so much to catch you up on!” Martha tells her.
“I saw you last week!”
“I know, but thing is my sister came back for the weekend and she-”
While Martha continues babbling, she and Veronica exchange smiles and waves and high-fives with passing classmates. They pass Ram and see he got braces over the summer. Veronica still can’t see the appeal but Martha still blushes when he reaches over to high-five them only to swipe his hand away with a too-loud laugh.
They take their seats, third row from the front as usual. Another thing Veronica has to be thankful for is that the teachers haven’t bothered with alphabetical seating since second grade. Then Martha could probably get stuck next to Heather Duke and she’d end up all the way at the back. She turns and takes a look at where she would be sitting, most likely second from the back in a nice little spot where the sun can hit her directly in the face, and her eyes land on possibly the most amazing event ever to happen in Sherwood, Ohio, and certainly in their school; a new kid. His dark hair falls over his face and and he wears a dark leather jacket and faded t-shirt. He doesn’t make eye contact with anyone, just keeps his eyes trained on the book on his desk, tapping out some rhythm with his chewed nails.
“Do we have a new kid?” Veronica asks as she takes her seat next to Martha. Martha turns around and looks in Veronica’s direction.
“I guess,” she replies. She cocks her head to the side while looking at him. “That’s weird. We never have new kids.” Veronica hums in agreement. “He’s kind of cute.”
“Is he?” Veronica asks, leaning over in her seat and lowering her voice. Her mom likes to joke that Martha grew up before Veronica; Martha has fallen down the rabbit hole of boys while for Veronica, they barely register with her. She could listen to Martha go on about cute boys in their grade (mostly Ram if she’s being honest) but so far, not one boy has managed to make Veronica’s head turn.
Until the new kid’s eyes flick up from his book and catch hers and he smiles slightly and she feels something flutter in her chest.
No, she tells herself. She doesn’t like boys and certainly not ones who might have smiled at her from across the room.
Ms Murphy strolls into the room with far too much energy than she should have had given both her age and the hour of day and commands everyone’s attention. Ms Murphy may have a smile on her face but the kids know better than to mess with her. Her reputation precedes her, older siblings often use scary stories about her to scare kids going into seventh grade.
“Welcome back, class,” she announces. “I hope you’re all ready for another year.” She is responded to with begrudging murmurs and half-formed “yes”es, not to mention Kurt and Ram’s snickering and Heather Chandler’s perfectly obvious eye roll. She straightens her back and adjusts her thick-rimmed glasses. “Now, I’m sure you’ve noticed that we have a new student in our class this year.”
Veronica, along with her entire class, turns around and sees the new kid shrink into his jacket. He manages against all odds to avoid the twenty six pairs of eyes on him and keeps a scowl on his face.
“Why don’t you stand up and tell the class a bit about yourself?” Ms Murphy asks and Veronica feels her heart go out to him. She can’t think of anything more mortifying than having to stand up and say “your name and a fun fact about yourself”.
“I’m okay thanks,” he replies with a chuckle.
That sends the whole class off. Veronica claps her hands over her mouth as her sides shake with laughter. Martha is red in the face, her mouth dropped open as she looks from him to Ms Murphy. Around them, some kids sit in slack-jawed awe, some laugh, and even a few applaud. Kurt and Ram holler from their seats. Even the Heathers come out of their little bubble to react, Chandler covering her laugh with her hand while Duke’s jaw is on the floor and MacNamara is on the edge of her seat waiting for the fallout.
Ms Murphy rolls her lips into a thin line. New Kid is already on her radar. He rolls his eyes and stands, hands up to admit defeat, but the smirk on his face shows clear as day she’s not won anything of note. Veronica wonders briefly who will crack first; New Kid or Murphy.
“My name’s Jason Dean,” he introduces. “Or JD, if you want. I moved here from Boston and…” He drums his fingers on the book on his desk, puffing out his cheeks as he blows air out of his mouth. “I like books. And I look forward to learning as much as I can with you over the next six weeks until I leave you all.” Apparently, he’s nothing if not dramatic, since he gives a small bow before sitting back in his chair and saluting Ms Murphy.
“Well, we’re glad to have you in our class, Jason,” she says stiffly. As she drones on with morning announcements and another run about the code of conduct (which has a special emphasis on respect for teachers this time around), Veronica sneaks another glance over her shoulder at Jason, or JD. He’s leaning on the desk, still reading his book, like the rest of the classroom isn’t even there.
He looks up slightly when Ms Murphy moves on to the portion of her speech about paying attention and brandishes a ruler like she wants to throw it at his head. He laughs to himself and looks over just enough to look at her. She gives him a smile, trying to give him a warm welcome. He smiles back and she turns quickly before he can see the pink spread across her cheeks.
Okay. Maybe she might like one boy.
Amid the unruly jungle of the cafeteria, Veronica and Martha manage to find a semi-quiet table near a corner. They, along with Betty Finn, who tags along with them, drop their trays on the table, swing their legs over the seats and begin catching each other up on classes they didn’t have together and recapping what classes they did share.
“Math this year looks awful,” Veronica complains. “I’m never going to get any of it.”
“Sure you will,” Betty says with a bright smile. Veronica and Martha share a glance across the table. Betty is eternally optimistic about this kind of stuff, the cheery, all-American ‘you can achieve anything’ kind of mindset. While it’s cute on Betty, Veronica isn’t so sure about it. “And anyway, the books we get to read in English this year seem super cool.”
“That new kid JD is in our English class,” Martha adds, leaning over her lunch like this was some big secret. “He’s even worse in class than he is in homeroom.”
“What do you mean?” Veronica asked, pretending to be more interested in her sandwich. She hadn’t even thought about JD since that morning, the buzz of the first day of school overwhelming her. And yet here she is now, talking about him and putting the image of his smile out of her mind.
“He’s like… really smart,” Martha answers. “But he kind of acts like he doesn’t care. But then Miss Parker asked him a question and he just rattled off this like… SAT worthy answer.”
“I mean, he would be. He’s been reading that book all day,” Betty reminds them. “He even had it on his lap during class.”
When another lunch tray is put down, right at the end of their table, a phrase her mom likes to use comes to Veronica’s mind. Speak of the Devil, he appears.
JD has seated himself at the far end of their table, on Veronica’s side. Just six seats away from her. He picks absent-mindedly at the lunch on his tray, continuing reading, his book flat on the table, his head propped up on his fist, his elbow resting on the table while he uses his other hand to turn the page.
When she looks back at Martha and Betty, they look nervously at one another and then to Veronica, like some wild animal has sat at their table. After a bit, Martha shrugs and smiles weakly. She pushes her ponytail off her shoulder and takes a deep breath, almost like she is giving herself a small pep-talk.
“We might as well make him feel welcome,” she says before turning her body so she faces JD. She looks to Veronica and Betty for encouragement. Betty doesn’t do anything but press her hands together and look warily in his direction, but Veronica nods. Martha breathes out sharply and puts on a broad smile.
Martha Dunnstock, the girl whose huge heart outweighs her nerves. No wonder Veronica loves her.
“Hi,” she says, just loud enough so he can hopefully hear. After a beat, nothing happens and Martha’s face begins to fall. Then he frowns, picking up on the lack on a response and looks up tentatively at the three expectant faces watching him. Well, two and Betty looking at her lunch tray.
“Greetings,” he replies, lazily saluting them with two fingers. Martha nods, still smiling, but Veronica can see her tense shoulders, her sleeves covering her joined together hands. Huge heart, not so huge confidence.
“You’re Jason, right?” she says. Martha shoots her a grateful look.
“Or JD, if you prefer,” he replies. Something about his tone of voice tells her that it’s very much what he prefers.
“I’m Veronica,” she introduces. “Veronica Sawyer.”
“Nice to meet you, Veronica Veronica Sawyer,” he says, making her laugh. He smiles back at her, easy and light. His eyes move to the seat beside him, but the doesn’t move.
“I’m Martha,” Martha adds. Her voice is quieter than usual, but JD still hears and gives her a nod.
“Betty Finn,” Betty says, her voice small. She her hands clasped in her lap and avoids eye contact with him. JD smiles at her too, but it’s tighter and his gaze moves back to Veronica and Martha.
“So what brings you to Sherwood?” Veronica asks, hoping to clear up the tension.
“My dad’s work,” he sighs. “Yeah, um… Wherever he goes I go.” He spread his hand on the cover of his book and drummed a beat out with his fingers, rolling his lips into a thin line.
“Boston sounds cool,” Martha says. “I’ve never been there.”
“It was, I guess,” he says. “Then good old Dad decided we needed to pack up and move out before I could try out for the soccer team.” He lets out a low chuckle, his smile barely reaching his eyes. Veronica shifts in her seat and looks to a nervous looking Martha and Betty.
“Are you trying out for soccer here?” she asks, fully aware of how ridiculous she sounds, but she’s almost desperate to keep this conversation going.
“Nah,” he answers. “I’ll be gone by the time practice starts up. Not really good for the team if one of them disappears, ya know?” He grimaces slightly and looks down, avoiding their eyes, while Veronica searches for the right words. What exactly can she say to that?
“Oh,” is what she ends up saying. He shrugs and leans back in his chair, pushing his hair away from his face. “So you’ve moved around a lot?”
“A bit,” he answers. “Before Boston was LA. And before LA was Chicago. Planning on getting a fridge magnet in every state I live in. The one day when I own a fridge I can put them all up.” He laughs to himself, the sound dark and flat and humourless. “Sorry, I just realised I forgot to get one before I left Boston. Guess I’ll have to circle back some time.”
“You lived in LA?” Betty asks, her eyes beginning to light up. “That’s so cool, I’ve always wanted to go to LA. I mean, I’ve only seen it on TV, but it looks awesome, beaches and celebrities and all that.”
“Don’t believe everything you see on TV,” he replies. “I did live near a beach but… You know, never got time to go down before we had to leave.” He picks at the foot on his tray and pops a fry into his mouth, shrugging. “Food was better in LA, though.”
Veronica laughs and opens her mouth to tell him that frankly, this is cafeteria food at its best, how they always make an effort at the beginning of the year, and what he should remember if he wants to get the good stuff, until two painfully familiar figures show up at the end of their table, matching jackets and haircuts, one brunet and one blond, and Martha’s cheeks turn pink. Ram and Kurt. Westerburg middle school’s resident Tweedledum and Tweedle-just-as-dum.
“Hey,” Ram says, smacking JD on the back of the head. He blinks but otherwise doesn’t react; he just keeps looking straight ahead.
“Ram, buzz off,” Veronica says. He looks at her like he wasn’t even aware she was sitting there and rolls his eyes.
“Hey, no need to be like that, Ronica,” Kurt says. “We’re just here welcoming our little Jackson Dean here to Sherwood, Ohio.”
“Jason,” he reminds them.
“Jason Dean is my name, I said it only three and a half hours ago and somehow I doubt anything else went in your brain in that time.”
You could hear in a pin drop in that cafeteria. JD keeps staring straight ahead, but there’s a smirk on his face now. She should hope nothing else happens and Kurt and Ram’s brains work for the first time in twelve years and they walk away, but then again, a small part of her hopes for something else.
Ram’s eyes narrow, his shoulders tense and he leans on the table, far too close to JD’s face than she can imagine he likes. In one swoop, he knocks his book off the table. JD’s eyes follow it as it skids across the floor and slides to a halt in the middle of the cafeteria. He finally moves and looks up at them, his expression far too tense. His moth is set in a thin line and everything about his face looks like a carefully constructed mask that is far too easy to break.
“You’re very lucky I marked my page,” he whispers. He pushes himself up from the table and goes to pick it up, his sleeves hanging over his hands, his steps controlled and fast, pushing his way past people and keeping his eyes down, avoiding everyone looking at him. He picks it up slowly, brushing dirt off the cover and goes to sit back down, but Kurt and Ram decide to meet him in the middle.
Veronica can see what’s coming. They’re twice his size and obviously outnumber him, not to mention have been the star athletes of their class since second grade. He doesn’t stand a chance.
“That book good?” Ram asks.
“Yes. I’d let you borrow it when I’m finished, but it might be a little above your brain capacity for now.”
So long, JD, it was nice knowing you, I will always mourn the fun we could have had, Veronica thinks when Ram readies himself to take a swing at him. Kurt grabs him from behind and Veronica feels her gut twist at the injustice of it all. She should, and frankly wants to, march over there and give Kurt and Ram a piece of her mind but she feels rooted to the chair, trapped inside her own body.
But as it turns out, he doesn’t need her help.
He wrenches his arm free and smacks Ram across the face with his book. He stumbles back, clutching his cheek while JD looks at him with a mile-wide smile. He twists and gives Kurt the same treatment, causing him to let him go. When Ram takes a run at him JD lands a kick in a very painful place and whips around to kick Kurt in the shins. Ram continues lying in pain on the ground, biting his lip to keep himself from screaming, while JD decides to ditch the book and takes a swing at Kurt with his bare fists, all while the cafeteria waits with a collective held breath.
Veronica should not be interested in this crap. She’s seen boys fighting before, out in the yard, mostly athletes kicking the snot out of each other for fun or kicking the snot out of each other over some stupid argument. It’s dumb, immature and messy. She should not be interested in this kind of stuff, she never has been.
But with this kid?
He can punch real good. She kicks herself for underestimating him; she thought he’d be done for in two seconds, but he may well walk away the victor, especially with Ram currently immobile and Kurt having the seven hells beaten out of him. If he can take on them, she imagines he can take on anyone he wants to.
With everyone’s eyes fixed on Ram and Kurt getting their asses handed t them on a plate, Veronica reaches into her bag and gently lifts her diary out. She keeps her eyes on the scene in front of her; JD punching a stumbling Ram in the jaw, knocking him back onto the table behind him.
Dear diary she writes. I know pretty much nothing about this new kid. Other than he likes reading and might not like moving around. But…. She pauses and takes a look up at him. A teacher is storming across to them. In a few minutes, the fight will be broken up and all three of them will be dragged off to the principal’s office, and then the nurse’s office for two of them. He’s still going, landing a punch in Kurt’s gut. He doesn’t show any signs of stopping, either he’s crazy, or fearless. But… I think I want to know him a bit more. I think he could fight for me. And I’d fight for him. Just if he fought for me first.
She looks back and sees one teacher dragging JD away from the fight by the arm. She yells something at him, but whatever it is, Veronica doesn’t catch it. She keeps looking at him, thinking the unthinkable; imagining him with her, standing in front of her, shielding her from the horrors of middle school, taking down the people she can’t.
All of which, of course, would have to happen after he gets dragged off and handed out however many detentions and lectures from the principal.
If he’s still alive she adds.
She doesn’t see JD again after that. She sits in her geography class, trying to distract herself by focussing on the formation of rocks, which surprisingly doesn’t work. She silently calls herself stupid for thinking so much about some boy she barely knows, some boy who really should be considered trouble by pretty much all accounts. And yet…
The teacher excuses herself for a moment, getting a call from the office, instructing them to keep working while she’s gone.
“Dude, I saw that kid JD knock Ram out cold with one punch!” someone insists.
“Kurt started crying,” another girl says. “Like, real actual tears.”
“I thought it was kinda hot,” a third pipes up. “You know, swinging fists and stuff.”
“Veronica sure thought it was hot.” The unmistakable voice of Heather Chandler. Veronica feels her stomach drop slightly and her hand goes to her cheek, hoping she’s not blushing. She opts to ignore her, scribbling down labels on a diagram. “Hey, hey Veronica. Veronica. Veronica?”
“What?” she sighs, painfully giving in to the Queen herself. She turns and sees Heather leaning forward on her desk next to Heather Duke, two desks behind her.
“Come on,” she says. “You liked that new kid. Everyone saw you. He sat at your table.”
“I barely know him,” she replies. “Yeah he sat at our table but just because no one else was there.”
“And yet you started talking to him,” Duke reminds her. Chandler side-eyes Duke but remains silent, more interested in watching Veronica squirm.
“I was being friendly,” she explains. Not that you would know what that’s like she thinks.
“Oh get over yourself, you should have seen the way you were drooling over him,” Chandler insists.
“I don’t drool,” she fires back. At least she hopes she doesn’t. “Anyway I don’t even know that much about him.”
When the classroom door opens, she says a silent prayer of gratitude. Chandler closes her mouth, the sly remark dying on her tongue, but she raises her eyebrows when she looks at who walked in.
Mr Matthews enters, leading JD in. He drags his feet slightly, scowling. Mr Matthews looks incredibly pissed as he leads him to his new seat. Just in front of Veronica.
“You all know Jason Dean, our new classmate,” Mr Matthews says. “Now, as we were. We were on the formation of sedimentary rocks…”
Veronica can practically hear Heather laughing at her. She almost laughs at herself the way her heart begins to beat faster when he sits in front of her. But the crazy thing is, only part of her cares. Part of her wants to fall back in line and forget about him. Make it through middle school, keep hanging out with her (still unpopular but at least acceptable) friends, fly under the Heathers’ radar. And the other part of her wants to keep looking at him and keep getting to know him and maybe be driven even further underground with him.
When class ends, she goes to leave, but he touches her shoulder gently, toying with his paper schedule in his hands and a nervous smile on his face. He looks so different form the boy she saw in the cafeteria it’s dizzying.
“Sorry,” he says. “I was just hoping you could… do you know where Miss Firth’s room is? I have her next. History.”
“Yeah, I have that too,” she replies. “I can walk you.”
“I’d like that,” he says as they start walking. She expects to fight her way through the crowd, but they part for him. In fear or awe, she’s not sure.
“So… that thing you pulled in the cafeteria was pretty severe,” she tells him, hugging her diary to her chest.
“Well the extreme always seems to make an impression,” he admits. “Though it did earn me a week of detention. Apparently I got a light sentence given I’m new here. They’re phoning my dad, so that’ll be a nice dinnertime conversation.” He takes a deep breath, bites his lip and squares his shoulders before putting the smile back on.
“Oh, wow,” she says delicately, wondering what to say. “How do you like the school so far?”
“I’ll admit when I first started I wasn’t crazy about it,” he says. He looks over at her. “But I might like it more than I first thought.”
Okay, maybe this time she is blushing. Still no drool, though.