Darren Milar sighed as he walked into the schoolyard. All around him kids were laughing, running, and playing. The sound of tetherball chains as they clinked against their metal poles rang out as Darren passed. When kids started school again, they were sometimes nervous, excited, or a little sad. But that was nothing compared to what Darren felt.
Ever since kindergarten, Darren had been the outcast. The nerd, if you had to put it that way. Other kids had had loads of friends, and turned against him. Darren had only one friend, Ian, and Ian was just as nerdy as Darren, without the glasses and braces. The start of school meant Darren was back to rude notes on his locker, people laughing at him in the corridors, and Ian telling him to ignore them. But he couldn't ignore them, and already Darren knew, the second he walked into the schoolyard, that he was off to the start of another terrible year.
And so it was, another terrible first day back. In the corridors, even kids younger than him, sixth-graders, laughed at him. As usual, in classes, teachers told him that he had extraordinary talent, while people sniggered and pointed behind the teacher's back. Ian is never laughed at, thought Darren, looking around at Ian. He was sitting, working in his math book. How does he do it? thought Darren desperately.
* * *
Later that night in bed, Darren lay propped up on pillows, looking at the stars. He had heard that there would be shooting stars tonight. He was thinking of a wish, and it wasn't hard. He closed his eyes and whispered, "I wish I was popular at school."
But when he opened his eyes, nothing had happened. His wish hadn't come true.
* * *
The next day at school Darren had totally forgotten about his wish. He and Ian were talking when suddenly, a hush fell over the blacktop. That was not normal, even the tetherball chains weren't clinking. Darren and Ian stopped talking and looked up. Standing in front of them was the prettiest girl Darren had ever seen.
She had long red hair that reached nearly to her waist, and eyes as green as jade. A few freckles were scattered across her nose. She could have been a model if she hadn't had the ugliest scowl on her face, if her faded jeans weren't torn at the knees, and if her Good Charlotte shirt was still black, instead of a smoky gray. Darren was paralyzed. He didn't know whether she was an angel or a devil.
Fortunately, he was spared the moment of trying to speak because the girl asked him, "You go here?"
"Y- yes," he stammered.
"Good. Then you'll be able to tell me where the principal's office is."
She looked at him like a tiger examining its prey.
"D- down the hall, f- fifth door past the water fountain." He thought he must look like an idiot, stammering next to her speaking confidently. She didn't even thank him, just walked away, leaving him and the rest of the school staring after her, her sandals clip-clopping loudly on the dead-silent playground.
When the bell rang ten minutes later, the school was still frozen in awe at the girl's entrance. Darren was suddenly the center of attention for once, and people kept asking him about the girl, because he had seen her best. Then, in history, Darren finally got to learn about her.
"Class, we have a new student today" said Ms. Kent, after the class had settled down. "She has been on vacation in Mexico, up until yesterday. Dear, would you like to come and introduce yourself?"
The girl walked up to the front of the class. "My name is Claire Guerrerro," she growled. "I like punk rock bands. My favorite color is black, and I play the guitar. Any questions? Good." She walked back to her seat.
"Well then," the teacher replied, "I'm sure you'll all be very nice to Claire. Now please open your book to page 102 ..."
But barely anyone was listening. Claire opened her book and didn't look at anyone. Darren had a bad feeling in his stomach, and gulped. Just one more person to pick on me.
Soon Claire did become the most popular kid in school, but she chose her friends carefully, and they were almost all boys. If Darren thought this was bad, the worst was yet to come. Two weeks after Claire arrived, Darren came to school and looked around at their usual table. It was empty. This was odd, because Ian was usually dropped off by his older brother Alec pretty early. Darren sat down, and looked around for Ian. He found him quickly, but his heart sank.
Claire's group, which was usually prowling around and scaring sixth-graders, was now sitting down at a far-removed table. They were talking to (Darren shut his eyes tight) . . . Ian. Darren couldn't believe it. Claire had taken his best friend from him. Now Ethan Lowell was talking to Ian, who pointed at Darren. The whole group looked over and laughed. Zach Parker said something, and the group cracked up again. Darren felt like crying. He tried to sit with them at lunch, but Ethan Lowell said, "Sorry, no room here, but there's a spot for you at the nerd table." Ian looked uncomfortable, and shifted in his seat.
Marilyn Fisher said, "Don't worry, Darren. I'm sure you'll find a place to sit." He didn't realize she'd put a KICK ME sign on his back.
* * *
The days passed, and Darren became more and more miserable. He tried sitting with his sisters, but they talked about fashion and other girly stuff. He tried as hard as he could to be friends with Claire, and he was practically down on bended knee. One day as he sat on the swing alone, he thought back to the night of his wish. Why couldn't it have come true? he thought.
Then, his luck changed.
He was trying to fall asleep one night, but he kept thinking back to his wish that hadn't come true. Desperately, he thought, maybe a shooting star will come tonight. He thought of the same wish, and closed his eyes. When he opened his eyes, he gasped. A shooting star had just flown by!
* * *
The next day in biology (with Claire) the teacher assigned them to do reports in groups. People were catching each other's eyes and grinning. Darren looked hopefully at Ian, but he was staring determinedly at Ethan Lowell.
"I will assign you into groups of two. Once you're in a group, decide what to do a report on and how to do it. Now let's see, Ethan Lowell, Melissa Holmes. Zach Parker, Julia Davenport. Claire Guerrerro . . ." She paused, looking around the room. "Darren Milar."
Claire exploded. "What?!" she screamed. "I can't be with Darren, he's a geek, and can't I please be with Ethan or Zach or Ian? Please, Mrs. Titan, I'll do anything!"
But Mrs. Titan held firm, and after ten minutes of earsplitting rage, Claire grudgingly gave in.
They decided to do a report on an underwater creature. Since they lived in Half Moon Bay, Darren would pick Claire up at her house at four o'clock, and they would go from there. Both of them also grumbled about being together, because no one wants to be partnered with a geek, and no one wants to be partnered with the person who stole their best friend.
But even right after school got out, there was a change in the atmosphere around Darren. Instead of people laughing at him, people shot him awed looks in the corridors. Kids whispered to each other behind his back, and Darren heard one kid say to the other, "You see that kid in the red shirt? With the glasses and braces? He got Claire Guerrerro as his partner. Claire Guerrerro!"
"Whoa. Totally awesome, dude," said the guy's friend.
Later that afternoon, Darren set off to Claire's. He was really nervous, especially after the attitude people showed him after school. What if he screwed up somehow? Then what would the people at school say?
"398, 400, 402. This is it," Darren said to himself, looking up at the house. It was pretty big, and because of all the fog outside, the windows had faint yellow glows in them. In one of the windows, someone was moving. Darren could see the person bending down, and a long mane of hair fell down beside it. Darren moved closer to the porch, and knocked. He heard the sounds of dogs barking, and someone hurrying down the stairs. That person said, "Shut up for a second, Tiny, hold still," and the door opened.
Claire was standing there, holding a massive dog's collar, as he strained to get close to Darren. She panted, "Tiny only barks at you if he doesn't know you." She shoved Tiny back in, and shut the door. They started walking briskly, to keep warm.
"You named your dog Tiny?" said Darren as they walked past the ice cream shop in town. "But he's massive!"
"Yeah, well," Claire shrugged, "he's nothing compared to my other dogs. They're not really mine anyway, they're my brothers'. I have three brothers and they got dogs for Christmas last year. Tiny, Timid, and Shy they call them. I got a cat, and his name is Reggie. He loves to hunt, and brings me back dead lizards and other small, dead animals every day."
By now they were at the ocean. They took out their notebooks, and took notes on crabs, as they seemed to be everywhere. Darren was looking for more, when he tripped over a large rock, and fell right into Claire, knocking her over.
That moment, something must've popped in Claire. Darren expected her to be really angry at him, and start yelling, but instead she cracked up laughing. Tears streamed down her face. Darren, bewildered, didn't know what to do, so he laughed right along with her. From that moment on, Claire didn't make fun of Darren, but treated him like an equal. They talked, and talked, and soon Darren realized she wasn't the tough, bullying girl she imagined. Deep down, Claire was a normal girl, but her brothers had spent so much time with her that she had adapted to being like them. When Darren felt really comfortable with her, he asked her the question he'd wanted to ask for the past two months. "Claire?" he asked. "Can I ask you a question?"
"How come you stole Ian from me?"
Claire looked at him, apparently puzzled. "Was Ian your friend?" she asked.
"Yes. My only friend. The only person who would bother to listen to what I have to say."
"I'm sorry, Darren. I didn't realize he was your only friend. It must've been bad for you without him. But now, trust me; you'll have more than one friend." She smiled down at him, and Darren felt happier than he'd ever been.
They finished their notes, and walked home. On the way there, it started to rain. When they got to Claire's house, they were soaking wet. Claire invited Darren in.
Darren was introduced to Tiny, Timid, and Shy, Claire's dogs. Shy barked at him when he first petted her, but she quieted down when he gave her a cookie. He also was introduced to Reggie, but he only saw a glimpse of the orange cat, because Reggie had gone out to catch salamanders that came out from the rain. Darren was beginning to think that this actually wasn't a dream, and it was real.
* * *
The next day at school, Darren walked past his own table where he used to sit. He walked past the tetherball courts, the basketball courts, and very nervously approached Claire's table.
"Why aren't you sitting at the nerd table?" asked Ethan Lowell.
"Or why aren't you kissing up to the teachers since you have extraordinary talent?" smirked Zach Parker.
Ian looked pretty uncomfortable and couldn't meet Darren's eye.
"You aren't cool enough to sit here, geek," taunted Marilyn Fisher.
"Hi, Darren. Come and sit down," said Claire.
Everyone looked at her. Darren sat.
"Are you insane?" questioned Ethan.
Ian looked a great deal happier.
"No one in their right mind would sit next to that nerd!" spluttered Zach.
"You were just complaining about him yesterday!" cried Marilyn.
"Yeah, well, once you get to know him . . ." Claire caught Darren's eye and grinned. The rest of the group looked at each other and shrugged. It turned out Ethan, Zach, and Marilyn were normal too, just trying to act like Claire to be her friend.
When the bell rang, he went to his locker, and where there'd been a "Nerd Convention at This Locker" sign, there was now a note, signed neatly by (Darren pinched himself to make sure he wasn't dreaming) Christi Feller, his crush, asking him if he wanted to get some sodas after school. At that moment, Darren knew life was going to be a lot better.
* * *
The next year, Darren walked into the schoolyard once again. Kids still ran, shouted, and laughed as he passed. The worn-out tetherball chains still clinked as he walked by. But no one laughed and pointed at him this year. For the first time in his life, Darren was welcomed back into a group of friends that didn't laugh at him, they laughed with him.