It all started on the stairs outside my English classroom. I was late and I wasn't watching where I was going, so I ran smack into my best friend, Kelly. There were pencils bouncing down the steps, folders spewing their contents on the floor, and pens escaping only to be crushed underfoot by passing students.
Mr. McPherson, my teacher, was less than pleased when Kelly and I walked into class two minutes after the bell. He was even angrier when, five minutes later, I couldn't find my homework.
It was the best report I'd ever written. When I'd left school that morning, I'd triple-checked to make sure it was in my English folder. Now I checked all of my other folders, too, and my binder, just in case I had misplaced it when I dropped my things. But as I dug through my backpack with increasing dread, the report refused to turn up.
Mr. McPherson stood at the head of the classroom, his arms crossed. "Your report, Miss Jackson?" he asked impatiently.
I looked up with a sick feeling in my stomach. It couldn't be in the hallway; we'd picked up everything in sight. So if it wasn't at home and not in my bag... then I had done the unthinkable.
I, Lydia Jackson, straight-A student, had lost my homework.
"I don't have it, sir," I squeaked.
Mr. McPherson heaved a short sigh and strode back to his desk.
"I will give you until Friday to turn in your report, although it will detract from your grade. I'm sure the report will turn up."
I glanced back into my backpack in despair. I had never missed an assignment before. Friday was two days away. There was no way I could find my report by then, and writing it over would be impossible.
Then I realized something. If it isn't at home... and I didn't leave it in the hall.., and if it isn't in my bag... then someone stole it.
As soon as I thought it, I knew exactly who had done it: the new girl who sat in the back of the classroom, who had long, dark hair that was always in her stony gray eyes. Lately, she'd been tossing shy glances in my direction, but they had made me a little nervous because I didn't understand why she picked me.
She was strange. She never talked to anyone, and people said she'd been caught shoplifting. She got terrible grades in English, and hardly ever turned in her homework. I knew she hadn't brought in her report today. And she'd bent down to pick up my stuff in the hallway. If she could get my report and copy it down at home, she could turn it in late and still get a decent grade.
As I sat in my seat, oblivious to the class, I felt a cold, hard lump of hate settle in my stomach. That awful girl had stolen my prize report. And I was going to get it back, no matter what it took.
* * *
“You’re kidding!" Kelly cried, leaning towards me, her gaze incredulous.
"Well... I don't know that she took it," I amended. "But what else could have happened? I know it isn't at home, and she's the only one who would dare."
Kelly glanced over her shoulder at the girl, who sat by herself in a corner of the cafeteria, her dark hair falling like a curtain in front of her face. I saw her unzipped backpack sitting by her feet.
"It's got to be right there," I breathed as we stared at the backpack. "It would be so easy to just walk by and snatch the report. You could spill your milk over there, or something."
"I don't know," Kelly hesitated. "Maybe we should just ask a teacher to check. She probably put it in her locker."
Kelly was probably right, but I was still seething over my humiliation in English. Maybe if I could turn my report in today, Mr. McPherson would still give me full credit.
"No," I decided. "I want it back now. We'll walk by her table on our way to the trash can and drop our tray. You make a fuss, and I'll go through her backpack. It'll be over in a second."
Kelly was still uncertain, but we went on with our plan anyway. As we strode past, Kelly hooked her shoe around the girl's leg, collapsing to her knees and dropping the tray.
"Oh, man! I can't believe this!" she cried as the girl turned to glare at her. "Oh, I'm so sorry!"
I bent over the backpack and started to rifle through it, but the girl turned back to her lunch, and saw me out of the corner of her eye. She whirled around and grabbed me by the shirt. I found myself dangling from her grasp.
"What were you doing in my stuff?" she hollered.
"Give my report back!" I yelled. "You stole my report!"
Her eyes widened in disbelief. "You thought I stole your dumb report? Why on earth would I want it?" I noticed several lunch monitors closing in on us.
"I bet you're going to turn it in yourself," I said, "since you get bad grades in English!"
I could hardly believe myself. Nothing that bratty had ever come out of my mouth before. It didn't surprise me when she gave me a hard shove.
Then I was on the floor, my shoulder smarting where I'd hit the table. Half a dozen teachers were crowded around me, lifting me back up. Kelly stood nearby, her tray of trash still strewn across the floor, eyes wide in horror. But what jumped out at me the most was the girl, standing aside, her fist still clenched, her stony eyes boring holes into mine.
It was then that I saw something new in her expression: hurt.
"I thought you didn't believe them," she hissed at me. "No one ever talks to me, but I thought that you, at least, didn't believe all the stories. I guess I was wrong. I guess you're just as bad as everyone else."
Then I was hustled away, leaving her to stand alone in the middle of the crowd.
After the nurse cleaned me up, I went to the principal's office.
"Well, Lydia," he addressed me. "What do you think about the scene in the cafeteria today?"
"I really thought she had my homework," I whispered. "It made so much sense. She doesn't get good grades in English. But I was too rash and... I should have waited. It could have been anyone else. I should have asked everyone before accusing her."
The principal nodded. "That's right. I can see that you've been thinking this over. Now let me tell you about Kaitlyn. She was transferred from her old school in the middle of the year. Kaitlyn is very shy and has trouble making friends, so the other children started telling stories about her."
"I'm really sorry," I mumbled. "I don't know what got into me."
"You realize that I can't let this go unpunished," the principal said.
"No sir," I agreed.
"You will have a week of after-school detention. Kaitlyn will be joining you."
"Yes sir," I replied.
I left the principal's office with mixed feelings. I felt worse than before about what I had done to Kaitlyn, and I wasn't looking forward to telling my parents about the detention. But I was getting a chance to try to make up to Kaitlyn, which was something I had been sure would never happen.
I stared out the bus window at the trees whizzing by. Kelly tapped me on the shoulder, and held out two tattered sheets of notebook paper.
"Um..." she hesitated. "I found this in the hall, after math class."
It was my report. There were shoe marks all over it, a water stain on the first paragraph, and a tear right down the middle of the second page. I was going to have to rewrite most of it.
It sort of reminded me of my situation with Kaitlyn. Looking back, I realized that we might have had the beginning of a friendship started. Then, in the blink of an eye, it had been stepped on, stained, and torn. Now I had a second chance to build it back up. It would take time and care, and it wouldn't be easy. But it could still happen. All I had to do was try.
"Thanks, Kelly" I said, folding the pages and carefully sticking them into my backpack. Maybe I could take the report into detention, and offer to help Kaitlyn with her own homework while we were there.
It wouldn't be much, but it was a start. And that was all I needed.