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By @SophietheWriter

Chapter One: Lea

The end of school comes with both difficulties and triumphs. But for me, my difficulties outnumber my triumphs by a lot.

           It all is because of my friend Teri Shelton.

           I sit in the stands, looking out towards the gym. A group of cheerleaders dances across the yellow floor, sweaty yet elegant at the same time. Beside me, Teri stares at her phone, totally entranced by a YouTube video on books. I shake my head, eyeing the pamphlets on my lap uncertainly. I can’t stop wishing that someone would help me.         

           I sigh. Teri looks up and blinks. “You okay Lea?”

           I meet her gaze. “Not really. Their practice is almost over, and I haven’t given even one pamphlet to someone.”

           Teri smiles at me, her fingers hovering over her phone. “C’mon, just ask around.” She gestures at the people sitting around us. “There’s bound to be one person wanting to help pick up litter.”

           “We’re planting trees this year,” I tell her sourly, but Teri is back on her phone and smiling at the screen, the same smile she just gave me. I stand abruptly, my fists balling as I stand and hold the pamphlets close to my chest. I turn to a girl standing behind me, chatting away with her friend. I clear my throat.

           “Hi there,” I start. “I—My name is Lea, and I’m part of a group called HealTheEarth.” I pick a pamphlet and hold it out to the girl. “This year’s challenge is to plant trees, and I need a partner—”

           “I’m sorry,” the girl cuts me off, “but I don’t believe in that.”

           I stop, struggling to respond. “What?”

           The girl tosses her head back as though it’s the simplest thing in the world. “As if planting trees makes a difference, because there’re no trees in the city, and we can still breathe.”

           My eyes narrow. She’s an idiot. “Well, can you tell your friends?” I wave at the girl standing nearby, who is pointedly ignoring me.

           The city girl purses her lips but takes the pamphlet. “Sure, why not.”

           The tightness in my chest lessens for only a second before I see the next people sitting nearby—Jo and his friends.

           I have always liked Jo—he cares about the earth, like me, and he loves animals, like me. He does a lot of sports, mostly basketball, so every time I finally feel like I can talk to him, I chicken out in the end. But I heard he’s interested in environmental groups, and if I gather enough courage, I might find a partner.

           I reach down. Tap Teri’s shoulder. “Should I ask Jo to help me with the project?”

           At this, Teri whirls around to face me. “Are you kidding me right now?”

           My cheeks heat. “No. I might actually this time.”

           Teri places her hands on my shoulders. “Lea, you better, and if you don’t, I swear I’ll make you regret it for the rest of your life.”

           “Thanks a lot,” I mutter.

           Teri smiles again, the one she always gets when she wants to go back to her own world. “Okay, I’m watching.”   

           I glance at Jo, then back at Teri, who is now hunched over and typing something in. I roll my eyes, hug the pamphlets to my chest, and step forward. Then step back. I close my eyes.

           C’mon. No hesitations. You can do this, just talk to him. He’s like you. He’ll understand.

           I inhale slowly, something my mother always tells me to do when I’m stressed. On the exhale, I roll my shoulders back and take the plunge.

           But standing in my way is Breelie Harrett, holding out her own set of pamphlets and grinning widely at Jo. “I was wondering if you would like to be my partner for this project I’m doing.”

           My breath hitches. I hesitated too long. Jo nods up at Breelie and takes a pamphlet, humming to himself all the while. I curse at myself. Had I gone one-second sooner Breelie Harrett wouldn’t have Jo as her partner at all.

           Breelie turns around. Sees me gawking and smiles. She waves her fingers at me before skipping down the stands, her long brown ponytail bouncing along behind her.

           “Oof.”

           Teri nudges my shoulder, reminding me she had been watching the whole time. She puts a hand on my back and leads me down the stands.

           “It’s alright,” she says. “Jo isn’t that smart anyway.”

           “I don’t care how smart he is,” I mutter. “I shouldn’t have hesitated.”

           Teri doesn’t say anything more. She understands my problem, and her presence is enough to comfort me a little. I only wish she was the one to be my partner as she had all those years before.

           But Teri is grown up now. She has changed a lot, and since this is the last day of school, I wonder what she’ll be like next year, in grade eleven. It’s too much to stress about, friends and the project and what’s happening at home. I shrug away from Teri and walk on, away from the stands and into the hall.

           I’m so engrossed in my thoughts that I don’t notice when he trips me.

           I crash to the ground, my pamphlets scattering along the white tiled floor. Pain rockets up my jaw and I wince, struggling to get up. A red sneaker steps in front of me, and I follow up from the sole to scrappy jeans to a dull David Bowie hoodie and meet the gaze of the school loser—Graves.

           He crouches down and picks up a pamphlet. His black eyes dart across the paper before he crumples it up, smirking and raising his brow. “Stupid propaganda, that’s what it is.”     

           I spit out a glob of blood while footsteps echo behind me. Teri’s high-pitched gasp echoes down the hall, and she grabs my shoulders, helping me up. “Seth, your such an *******,” she snarls. “Get out of here if you have nothing better to do.”    

           Seth stands and stretches. Beside him are two guys I never noticed before. One looks like a toad, the other a praying mantis. They both watch Seth as though he’s a legend. In my case, he would be a nightmare.

           Seth lifts his chin and studies me once more with those beady black eyes. “Ben, Kal, let’s go,” he murmurs, turning away and taking his goons with him.

           I stumble into Teri, holding onto her for dear life. My head pounds and the world spins below me. I see my pamphlets on the floor, being trampled by the cheerleaders coming back after practice. My eyes sting.

           “It’s okay Lea,” she says, hugging me. “You’ll find a partner. Don’t worry.”

           Her words are kind, but the thing is, I don’t believe them one bit.

       

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