MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 8
As imposing as it was from the front, Naples American High School was just a stack of three narrow hallways shaped like a horseshoe, each with a single row of classrooms on one side of the hall and floor-to-ceiling windows facing out to the street on the other. Nearly impossible to get lost, Mr. Fazio, my counselor, said. My homeroom was about 15 steps from the counseling office, near the east stairwell.
My homeroom class was a mini United Nations, about two dozen kids, half of them speaking languages other than English. I heard Italian and the Napoletan dialect, as well as Spanish, French and some that I didn’t recognize, maybe Middle Eastern tongues. I cursed myself for being monolingual. Apart from saying “here” when Signora Garibaldi called roll, I didn’t talk much, just hunched down over my desk and doodled in Notebook 19, waiting for the bell to ring.
Second period was P.E. I roamed the halls from one tip of the horseshoe to the next looking for a sign for the gym, trying to catch a whiff of old gym socks, anything, but I couldn’t find it.
So much for my sense of direction.
The hallways were mostly empty, but on my second trip around the first floor, I noticed a girl with short brown Betty Boop hair pulling sneakers out of a locker.
I hated asking for directions. It was up there with my other pet peeves, my purple hair and artichokes. Oh, and looking like a loser, but I’d already accomplished that by walking alone to class and not speaking more than one language. I didn’t want to look lame again on my first day.
But I also didn’t want to be late.
As the girl shut her locker, I cleared my throat. “Um, do you have P.E. next?”
She looked at me and her hazel eyes lit up. “Hey, you’re Eden!”
I stiffened. “How do you—”
The girl took a few steps backward, beckoning me to follow. “I’ll tell you in a sec, but we’re gonna be late unless we run!”
As we sprinted through the hallway, the girl spoke in rapid bursts with no pauses. “Yeah, so my dad’s the ID clerk in Admin, right? Anyway, he said there’s a new girl named Eden and she’s got purple hair – I like it, by the way. It’s cute. Sorta natural. Is that even possible? Whatever. Is that the style in California now? Okay, this way.”
The girl slowed her pace at the stairwell and we bounced down the steps to the empty basement level. There was a small janitor’s closet to the right. A single light bulb hung from the ceiling and someone was bent over the cleaning supplies, rattling around and humming.
“It’s not so bad here,” the girl continued, as though I asked. “I mean, because it’s so small, you pretty much know everything about everyone and it gets, you know, boring. You get used to it.”
A glimmer of light skittered across the hallway floor and my skin prickles. “Did you see that?” I asked.
“Huh?” The girl looked back. “Could be the janitor, Signore Zaccardi.” Without missing a beat, she charged ahead, waving her hand as we passed an open door and the warm smell of fried food. “Cafeteria, multipurpose room, MPR, whatever. Anyway, like I was saying, I’m glad you’re here, we needed new blood.”
I had the eerie sensation that I was being watched, and I glanced back over my shoulder. Aside from us, the hallway was clear. “What does he look like?”
“Seriously?” The girl did a quick double-take to see if I was serious, then burst out laughing. “He’s not some hot young guy, if that’s what you mean. He’s like 80 or 90! Okay, out this door—”
We burst through a double door and I blinked in the bright sunlight. I had to jog to keep up with the girl as she ran around a fence, through a gate, and across a short breezeway to the gym. As we hurried across the gym floor to the bleachers, she checked her phone, panting. “Just in time. I’m Daria, by the way.”
A pretty girl with straight brown hair waved us over.
“Thanks for saving me a seat,” Daria said. “Maria-Grazia, this is Eden.”
“The one you told me about?” Maria-Grazia asked.
“What?” My cheeks burned as I set my backpack at my feet. “But we just met…”
“Don’t be embarrassed. New kids are big news around here,” Maria-Grazia said. “It’s not you, it’s this boring place.” She gave me a half-smile and a half-shrug, which felt super casual after Daria’s high-octane welcome.
But as my heart rate began to slow down, I felt grateful to have people to sit with, to talk to. “Boring?” I said. “But it’s Italy—”
“Shh-shh.” Daria motioned to a paunchy middle-aged man standing, arms crossed, in the center of the gym floor. “Good, he hasn’t started yelling yet.”
Maria-Grazia held up her thumb and two fingers, counting down. “Tre…due…uno…”
“Ladies, ladies!” The man blew a short, violent burst into the whistle around his neck. “You gotta gimme a lot less of this—” he made a talking motion with his hand “—and a lot more of this.” He mimed zippering his mouth shut.
The bleachers went quiet. “That’s more like it. I’m Coach DeNunzio. Most of you know me, but I see a few new faces in the crowd. Here’s what you need to know… If I like you, you can call me Coach Dino. But—” He held up his index finger. “If I don’t like you, you’ll have a lot more to worry about than what to call me.”
The coach lifted his cap and scratched his balding head, pacing. “I love volleyball. I love basketball. I love coaching. But you know what I hate? I hate teaching P.E. You know why? I hate whiners.”
Below us, someone blew raspberries under her breath. Another girl giggled.
Coach DeNunzio stopped and pointed at me. I froze.
“You hear that?” he asked. “That’s a whiner.” He shook his head and paced again. “Let me repeat: I hate whiners. But you know why I teach P.E.? To turn those whiners into winners. That’s my goal: to turn each of you into a winner. And I can only do that if you listen and obey. Repeat that, would ya? Listen and obey.”
He held a hand to his ear and waited while we warbled, “Liiiisten…and… obeyyyyyy…”
Daria and Maria-Grazia answered in Italian, then English. I shrank down, convinced I was the only monolingual person in the school besides Troy and Shawna, who would be popular regardless of language. And Wayne, who was fluent in dork.
“Not so hard, is it?” Coach DeNunzio grabbed a clipboard and yelled out some rules. Then he said, “Volleyball starts next week. If you’re interested, try-outs are at the end of this week. Okay, now I’m gonna call your names. When I do, come and get your fancy, mandatory P.E. uniform.”
When he got to the Cs, Daria winked at me. “I’m next but I’ve gotta ask Coach a question. Be right back.”
After she collected her gray t-shirt and a pair of navy blue gym shorts, Daria put her hands on her hips. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but her mouth moved at warp speed. Coach DeNunzio stepped backward, puzzled.
“Perche’ no?” Daria raised her voice, now talking with her hands as well as her mouth.
Meanwhile, Coach DeNunzio stood still, eyes on his clipboard, shaking his head. “Enough, Daria, basta! Fine, you have five minutes to shower and change instead of three. Hear that, everybody?” He held up a hand and wiggled all five fingers. “Cinque minuti! Sheesh. Okay, next victim is DellaLuna… Eden DellaLuna?”
Daria waited for me while I collected my P.E. clothes and we climbed back onto the bleachers together. “Nicely done,” I said.
“I know, I talk fast, right? My mom says it’s ‘coz I’m half-Italian. I have twice as many things to say, you know, having to translate everything into two languages, so I compensate by talking twice as fast. It’s not so hard ‘coz – hey!”
A wad of paper pegged Daria and she recoiled, smoothing the back of her head.
Maria-Grazia motioned behind us and we turned to see three girls sitting in the back row, snickering. On one side was a mousy blonde who held a hand over her mouth, shaking with laughter. On the other side, a pimple-pocked girl with vampire-red hair let loose a loud, fart-like laugh. In the middle was a girl with yellow-green eyes, like citrine, long black hair and skin as pale pink as the inside of a shell.
When they saw us looking, the blonde turned away, clearing her throat, and the redhead stuck her tongue out. But the girl with the yellow eyes stared directly at me.
An instant loathing curdled inside me. “Who’s that?”
Daria turned back around, her face flushed. “The blonde is Heather. Dumb as a stick.” She cupped her left hand under her right elbow and made a whirring motion with her right hand straight up in the air, an Italian gesture I don’t know. “The wannabe punker is Candace—”
Maria-Grazie interrupted, “I hear she likes to sniff hair spray.”
I wrinkled my nose. “What?”
“I know, right? And the other one…” Daria leaned in. “The pretty one – ugh, I hate to say that because I can’t stand her –is Nyx. No one you need to know, I assure you.”
The last student got her uniform and Coach DeNunzio clapped his hands together. “Mm-kay, volleyball tryouts are on Friday. Come and try out, even if you’ve never played before. Oh, and remember….No what?”
“Whiners!” we yelled.
“What do I want?”
“That’s right.” The coach looked at his watch. “We’re a little early, but I’m sick of talking. Get out of here. Especially you.” He squinted his eyes at Daria and shooed us out of the gym.
“Are you gonna try out?” Maria-Grazia asked as we shoved the uniforms into our backpacks.
“For what?” I asked.
Daria mimed hitting a ball over a net. “Volleyball. My dad plays in the base league with Coach Dino, so he’s a friend of our family and I kind of can’t get out of it.”
“Nah, I don’t think so.” I followed them down the bleachers. “I’ve never played. Plus, my brother’s kind of the jock of the family.”
“Come on, you have to,” Daria pleaded. “Most of the good players graduated or moved, so Coach Dino told my dad he’ll consider anyone with a pulse. He’s that desperate."
“I’m not really a team sports person.” I was trying to be nice. I didn’t want to tell them it seemed dumb, all that running back and forth just to hit a ball over a stupid net.
“But the games are in, like, Sigonella—” Daria said.
“In Sicily,” Maria-Grazia added.
Daria nodded. “And Rome and northern Italy. So we get to travel a lot.” She put her hands together, praying. “Just try out.”
“Okay, whatever,” I said. “But I’m not promising anything.”
Daria flung open the gymnasium door. “Great! I think it could be—”
Nyx and her friends hovered in the passageway between the gym and the school. The redhead, Candace, scowled in my direction while Heather, the blonde, chewed on a fingernail, eyes to the ground. Nyx stood in our way, engrossed in her phone, pretending not to see us. It was obvious she expected other people to watch out for her, not the other way around.
Daria and Maria-Grazia exchanged exasperated glances and squeezed past, grazing the fence with their arms to avoid her. I followed suit, keeping my eyes down, but a surge of anger bubbled inside me.
A safe distance away, Daria seethed, “I have never liked that girl.”
I glanced back; Nyx sneered at me. Under my breath, I said, “I have a feeling I’m not gonna like her much, either.”