Sierra found it strangely easy to listen to her aunt. Maybe she was just intent on listening for any fault in her words, or maybe Shiva was a genuinely good teacher. It was probably both. However easy it was to listen, Sierra couldn’t focus on what her aunt was saying. Her words sounded like the idle chatter of a dense crowd, but her tone came across clearly. Shiva did have a teaching degree, so of course she was good at speaking. She sounded confident and comfortable.
Sierra’s biggest question was why Shiva couldn’t have announced her arrival earlier. Her appearance was a surprise, but not a pleasant one by any stretch of the word.
When the bell rang at the end of class, Sierra didn’t know any more about foreign cultures than she had before. She remained in her seat until the rest of the students had left. Both she and Shiva began talking at once. Shiva stopped.
“Why are you really here?” Sierra asked. “No matter how I look at it, it’s strange to come and live near someone you tried to kill.”
Shiva nodded. “I didn’t think of moving here at first, when I left Africa. It is strange, and I’m sorry for scaring you. I moved here because I wanted to make it up to you somehow. I can’t give you your hand back, and I know your ankle’s not like it used to be.”
“Dad told me that too. Why didn’t you tell me earlier that you were coming?”
“I told Jerry—sorry, your dad about a week ago. He told me he was on a case that didn’t let him come home, so he said he’d e-mail you.”
Sierra walked toward the door and forced a smile. “Dad said you’d leave if I didn’t feel comfortable with you around,” she said.
“The verdict?” Shiva asked with a nervous half-smile.
“I don’t feel comfortable now, like, at all. But I can’t judge you in one day.”
Shiva nodded. “I see. Thank you, Sierra.”
Sierra opened the door and stepped out into the hallway, which was already emptying out. Atemi was leaning against a locker on the other side of the hall. She pushed off it and joined Sierra.
“It’s so suspicious,” she said.
“I used to love her almost to death,” Sierra said. “Today, she acted like she did back then.”
“Don’t tell me you trust her.”
“I’d be lying if I said I did. But I want to. Oh, Atemi?”
“You look ticked off at something. You never look like that. Smile or something.”
Atemi peeled off for her next class and Sierra kept walking. She remembered her schedule and headed up the stairs to the second floor. The art classroom’s door was propped open. Inside, the teacher was already taking roll.
“Sierra Summer?” he said. Sierra caught a glimpse of her eighth grade school picture on his screen.
The bell rang. The teacher’s stern expression slowly morphed into a goofy smile. “Just kidding. It’s the first day; go find a seat. I heard you were already a pretty good artist.”
Sierra looked around and ended up taking a seat as close to the middle of the room as possible. The teacher finished attendance and walked to the front of the room.
“Freshmen,” he said with a flamboyant wave toward the board, “welcome to art.”
At that moment, a video appeared on the whiteboard and the lights turned out. Sierra looked up. There was a projector mounted on the ceiling ten feet above her head. She looked back at the screen. A massive medieval fortress was shown on one half of the screen with a disembodied hand sketching on the other.
“This is one of my seniors from last year,” the teacher said. The video sped up and the sketch quickly began to resemble the picture to its left.
“How’s he coloring like that?” a student asked.
“She’s not drawing on paper.”
The hand stopped drawing. The camera moved over and zoomed in on the fortress a bit. The drawings on the left and right were a perfect match. Sierra noticed that her mouth was hanging open, and closed it. People could draw like that? She’d thought the picture on the left was a photograph.
The camera zoomed out again and showed the artist standing next to a computer monitor. It was a girl of about eighteen. She was fairly pretty, dressed in a long-sleeve white shirt with one of the shoulders cut out.
“I’m recording this to show to my freshmen next year,” said the cameraman. “What did you use to draw this?”
“I used a Wacom Cintiq,” she said.
“And how long did this drawing take?”
“Six hours. It’d be longer if I did it for a print, but I did it in eight hundred by six hundred pixels.”
“What can you tell my freshman about digital drawing?”
“It’s awesome. It takes awhile to get used to if you’ve never done it before, but it’s much easier than traditional drawing once you’ve done it for a month or so.”
The teacher paused the video with a tiny remote and stood in front of the screen. With another press of the button, the lights turned on.
“My name is Art,” he said. “Art Hamilton.”
A few kids snickered. “Seriously?” one asked. Mr. Hamilton opened his wallet and showed his driver’s license to the class. Sure enough, his name was Art Hamilton. Sierra couldn’t quite make out his birth date, but he looked even younger than Shiva. Probably in his late twenties at the very most. He had short brown hair and a handsome face that remained void of wrinkles, and probably would for another fifteen years.
“Can we call you Art?” Sierra asked, raising her hand.
“Yes, you can. And by the time you leave your senior year, you'll be employable in the art industry.”
Art was Sierra’s new favorite class and Art was her new favorite teacher. She left the classroom happy, looking forward to it the next day. She had one more class left before lunch: math. She trotted down the stairs and located the freshman math room. Upon entering it, she guessed that it wouldn’t be near as fun as art. With Art. The room was all gray and brown. The only light color was the whiteboard.
The teacher was old. Much older than Shiva and Art. He was already bald, probably in his fifties. While he couldn’t do much about his age, Sierra thought he could probably take a hint from Art and make the room just a bit more colorful.
The teacher didn't stand up from his desk. He began calling out students' names just after the bell rang and ended up marking three students tardy.
“I am Mr. Olsen,” he said in his deep, steady voice. “My rules are the same as everyone else's. Now everyone take out a sheet of paper. I've got some on my desk in case you pulled an Atemi.”
“An Atemi?” Sierra blurted out.
“Your sister never brings anything to class on the first day of the trimester just because she can get away with it.”
Sierra didn't want to get up and get a piece of paper now. She knew her sister sometimes planned to be unprepared, but there were some shoes she just didn't want to fill. As it stood, however, she had no way of surpassing Atemi’s low standard.
“She dragged you into it, didn’t she?” Mr. Olsen asked. Sierra shrugged.
“She said it was—”
“The only day you could go to school unprepared and get away with it. I know. Your sister is a brilliant girl, but she’s stubborn and lazy. I’d appreciate it if you followed that first trait of hers and not the other two. Here’s some paper.”
Sierra reluctantly walked to the front of the room and took a sheet of paper, along with at least ten other students. When everyone else was back in their seats, Mr. Olsen continued:
“Write your names on your papers. Then, number the lines from one to twenty.”
He waited while his students followed his instructions. Sierra glanced up at him once. He was writing out some kind of equation on the whiteboard.
“Everyone look up here when you’re finished.”
Sierra looked. On the board was an equation she had seen near the middle of last year in Atemi’s math book.
“Solve this for X in your heads. If you can’t, don’t worry. This is only an evaluation of your mental skills. You will not be graded.”
Sierra stared at the equation. There were two lines of numbers and letters. The top was in standard slope-intercept form and the bottom was random. To their left was a curved bracket. Atemi had shown her the work last year, but she couldn’t remember any of it.
As it turned out, she was able to solve five of the twenty equations by the end of class.
“Anyone who got twelve or more correct, you are free to leave this class with full credit. That was your final exam.”
“Good. I’d hate to pass anyone with a D. Before the bell rings, I’d like to remind you that you need to pass this class to graduate and that you need to do your homework to pass this class. That is all.”
About a minute late, the bell rang. Sierra wandered toward the second floor cafeteria, where she found Atemi waiting in the lunch line a few spots in front of her. She looked back at Sierra and left her spot. Her expression was back to normal after the Shiva incident.
“Hey,” she said. “How’d you like art . . . with Art?”
“I’ve got a new favorite class,” Sierra replied. “Art is, like, the coolest name ever.”
“Isn’t it? I’ve got English with Shiva next period. Hey, come to think of it, is she a good teacher?”
Sierra shrugged. “Yeah, I think. I wasn’t really listening to the lesson.”
“I’d be surprised if you were. Anyway, we get free lunches on the first day.”
“Ah! Speaking of your first day philosophy, you’ve got quite a reputation with Mr. Olsen.”
Atemi gave a sheepish grin. “That guy, huh? He was pretty surprised that I passed his exam on the first day.”
“Wait, wait—you did?”
“Yeah. I got fifteen outta twenty—a C. I didn’t want a C, so I just stayed in class and got an A at the end of the trimester.”
“Oh. He did say you were ‘brilliant.’”
“And stubborn and lazy.”
“That’s more like him!”
Sierra grinned. “He definitely seems like the type to conflict with you. Or your type. He’s all serious and stays on topic all the time and you’re, like, not at all.”
“You got gym last block, right?”
“The choir room’s right next to the gym. If I get out early, I’ll come play dodgeball with you guys.”
Sierra took a tray from the table and went through the lunch line, picking out whatever foods she liked.
“You can do that?” she asked, resuming the conversation a bit late.
“Well, yeah. The choir teacher doesn’t like to ‘wear out our voices’ or anything. We usually just do our own thing for the last half hour of class.”
They took a seat near the windows. The windows provided a clear view into the school courtyard. A few students were hanging around and eating lunch down there. A single oak grew out from the very middle, shading the students and casting shadows into the cafeteria.
“They grew a tree in the courtyard?”
“Yeah, obviously. It’s pretty cool, isn’t it?”
Sierra nodded. “Has anyone climbed it?”
“Apparently, some dumb kid tried it five years ago and got hospitalized for a few months. Before we adopted you, even.”
From her seat, Sierra could see inside a few of the first-story classrooms. A few kids lingered at their desks, finishing up whatever they were working on. Only the first day and they already had to stay after class.
“Is it only freshman on the first floor?” Sierra asked.
“Nah, the gym and the choir room are down there. So’s the tennis courts, if you ever wanna do tennis. I think there’s a computer lab down there, too, and every class uses that from time to time.”
Sierra looked around the cafeteria. The lunch line was almost gone and some students were already leaving.
“What does everyone do for the rest of the lunch period?”
“Whatever they want.” Atemi pointed out the window, toward the library on the other side of the building. “I usually read books or play around on the library’s tablets. You can also play whatever sports you want. We have an open campus, so we could go home and play video games if we wanted to.”
“Really? How long do we have?”
“That’s a long time.”
“Not really. You’re gonna wish we had at least two.”
Sierra finished eating in about ten minutes. Atemi had finished a few minutes earlier. Together, they threw away their trays and walked around to the library. Inside, there a few rows of shelves full of books. The librarian, a woman in her thirties, didn’t even look up from her computer and food as the girls walked in. Behind her, a shelf was full of laptops, netbooks, and tablets.
“Hey,” said Sierra, approaching the librarian’s desk. “Do you have any ‘Cintiq’ tablets in here?”
The librarian looked up. “Are you albino?”
“No, she’s wearing red contacts and dyed her hair white while staying in the house the entire summer to get as pale as she is,” said Atemi, picking up an iPad. “C’mon, Jen, she’s my sister. I told you about her last year.”
“I see,” said the librarian. “What’s a Cintiq, anyway?”
“Never mind,” said Sierra. She walked around and picked up an iPad. “Can I borrow this?”
Sierra sat beside her sister at a round wood table beside a row of computers. She mimicked Atemi’s actions to turn on the device and picked it up from there.
“Are these like mini-Cintiqs?”
Atemi raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that the thing that one girl drew on in the intro video for Art’s art class?”
“Remember how the school couldn’t afford one dollar shower curtains?”
“There’s not a single Cintiq model available for under a thousand dollars. According to Art.”
Sierra shrugged. “There goes that idea. Can these things do multiplayer?”
“Depends on the game. Open up Worms or something.”
“Where is it?”
Sierra found the game and touched the icon. “You can set it all up and stuff, right?”
“Yeah. Just click the network game thing.”
The game started up. Sierra had played it before, though not on a tablet device. “Controls?” she asked.
“Touch and hold to move. Tap your worm to jump. Double tap to backflip. You already know what the icons do.”
Sierra lost the first game and won the second. They made it halfway through the decisive third before the bell rang. Atemi fired off one last shot, but Sierra had already disconnected. “We’ll finish this later,” she said.
“That next shot was gonna kill your last worm.”
Sierra’s English class was on the first floor, so she descended the stairs again. Atemi followed her halfway down, silent until she came to a stop.
“Sierra,” she said. “If I had known Shiva was gonna be teaching your foreign cultures class, I'd have failed it on purpose last year so I could make sure she doesn't hurt you. But I can't do that. When we get home, I'll teach you some martial arts.”
“Um . . . okay.”
Atemi smiled grimly. “C'mon. I don't wanna lose my only sister.”
Sierra looked away. “Yeah.”
She headed to class. Atemi was definitely a strange girl, especially today. She usually switched moods quickly, but she'd never been so depressing before. She had never even seen Shiva outside of photos, and even then, Shiva was fairly pretty. Being honest with herself, Sierra realized that she hadn't done her share of uplifting her aunt since being adopted.
Sierra scuttled into the freshman English classroom just as the bell rang. The teacher was a middle-aged man with graying hair and a long neck beard. Like Mr. Olsen, he didn't do much to dress up his classroom.
“Sierra Summer, I presume?” he asked. Sierra stopped halfway between sitting and standing.
“I hope you're about twenty times more organized than your sister. If not, at least let your performance match your actions.”
Sierra nodded and sat down. She reached into her desk and pulled out a thick English book with a picture of some old guy on the front. Sierra guessed he was some old language expert from a long time ago.
“Class, my name is George Reed, and if any of you are going to text in my class, by God you're going to text with proper grammar.”
Sierra grinned. At least this guy had good humor about texting in class.
“If I catch any of you texting, I will temporarily seize your phone. If your spelling and grammar are not one hundred percent accurate, it's confiscated for the rest of the day. In extreme cases, I will write your message on the board and have the rest of the class correct it. Proper English is a dying language, and I will not have the generations I teach grow up spelling like undereducated children.”
At least he was passionate. Remembering how Atemi's text messages usually went and purposely forgetting about her own, she sympathized with him.
“I have two unique rules in my class, and I've already told you about one of them. The other is this: if you are late, you have to improvise a story and tell it in front of the class. Last year, Atemi Summer had to do this more than twenty times.”
Sierra remembered her sister telling her about improvised stories last year. So this was what she was talking about. She raised her hand.
“Were my sister's stories any good?”
“Sometimes. She couldn't structure a story to save her life, but they were at least all interesting. Moreover, she enjoyed it.”
“Sounds like her.”
The class continued with a simple overview of the trimester. They would write stories, poems or songs, and essays, along with movie and play scripts if they had time. Sierra wondered how she could come up with enough stories to fit all of the projects. She would probably go with her usual method and pick a Bible quote and think of a story to support the theme.
Mr. Reed then lectured on the importance of proper English in a world of improper techniques. He pointed out that cell phone companies charged more for longer texts, and therefore, the better deals went to the people who would throw away their knowledge of their language and fall to lazy curse of “text talk.” Sierra saw his point, but didn't see it as the massive epidemic that he had it made out to be.
Finally, he stressed the importance of creativity in a world of rip-offs and cheap “alternatives.” Sierra probably could have given this speech herself, as she could name about a thousand rip-offs of webcomics she read. Then again, she'd be surprised if anyone else in the class knew what she was talking about. Maybe if she dropped an Okami or Call of Duty reference in somewhere.
The thought of Okami triggered Sierra's daydreams, and she played around in her imagination until the bell broke her out of her happy place. She left the English room and walked across the hall to the gym. Spotting a few friends from middle school, she sat with them on the bleachers.
“Hey,” she said to Micaiah Airen, a redhead from Australia. “This is, like, the first class I've seen someone I know in.”
“Same for me,” said Micaiah. Her light accent was somehow comforting. And Sierra thought she was already comfortable. “Do you know if we're playing dodgeball today?”
Sierra shrugged. “Atemi said we were, but she had this class last year.”
“I see. I'd rather play something not quite so . . . painful.”
“Ah, don't worry. The teacher wouldn't let you get hurt.”
As it turned out, Micaiah did end up getting hurt. The teacher, who had previously introduced himself as Brandon Appleseed, rushed out onto the basketball court with several paper towels and pressed them against Micaiah's bleeding nose. Luckily enough for the remaining players, she hadn't bled on the floor, and the game resumed as soon as Micaiah was off the court. The first ball thrown curved and hit Sierra in the side of the face. Sierra walked off the court and sat beside Micaiah against the wall.
“I hate this game,” she said after a deep breath.
“Dodgeball is a guy game,” Micaiah confirmed. “Let's see if we can hear the choir. I've always wanted to hear your sister sing.”
The girls moved down the wall, but ultimately, couldn't hear anything.
“Maybe they're not singing yet?” Sierra guessed.
At that moment, a violin began playing. It was a newer-sounding melody, but Sierra could remember hearing it a long time ago. She couldn't place its name, however. The choir began to sing. Sierra recognized her sister's clear alto voice immediately, but she didn't think Micaiah did.
“It's a nice song,” she said. “Is your sister singing?”
A few moments later, the choir faded out and Atemi sang alone. Though she heard Atemi's voice every day, Sierra still found her sister's singing to be beautiful to a point of being almost unfair. She didn't sing enough at home.
“Is that her?” Micaiah asked. Sierra nodded.
“Yeah,” she whispered. “Listen when she hits the high notes.”
At that moment, Atemi sang:
“Dance me into the night . . . underneath the moon shining so bright . . . turning me into the light.”
“Whoa,” said Micaiah. “Shining so bright indeed. That's Dark Waltz, isn't it?”
“Now that you mention it, yeah. You should drop by after school. I'll ask Atemi to sing that again.”
They listened as the choir picked up in the verse again. A different girl sang the next chorus. She was good, but Sierra liked her sister's voice better. Biased or not, she knew what pleased her own ears.
“We should join choir,” said Micaiah.
“Yeah. I'd be pretty bad, though. All the vocal talent in my family went to Atemi.”
“Isn't that what practice is for?”
Sierra considered joining the school choir. She did want to learn to sing someday, but on the downside, she'd be trying to learn in front of people she'd rather not learn in front of. Atemi was already good and had been for awhile. She had nothing to worry about.
Two senior guys were left on the court, each dodging and throwing in turn. Sierra returned her attention to them when the choir stopped singing. She picked out the one to her left and decided to root for him because he looked slightly less arrogant. He ended up losing, but Sierra didn't care much. In the next game, she managed to get a good throw in. Her ball bounced off a guy's shoulder as he was leaning down to avoid a slightly faster shot—only to be caught by the senior she hadn't been rooting for last match. Again, she walked off and sat beside Micaiah, who hadn't moved.
“I'm not good at this game,” said Sierra.
“And neither am I.”
“You got hit in the wrong place. I just can't play, period.”
“If I could dodge, that wouldn't be a problem.”
“True.” Sierra flexed the fingers in her mechanical hand. “It'd be awesome if I could get some kinda mech superpower with this thing.”
“Ah, yeah, your hand is prosthetic, isn't it?”
“Yeah. Like from Star Wars.” Sierra waved her hand at Micaiah. “You will play and win next round.”
“I'm not the droid you're looking for,” Micaiah replied with a smirk.
Sierra looked up at the clock. There was half an hour left until the end of class. She sighed and rested her head against the wall.
“Atemi said she'd come in and play if she got out early,” she said.
“I suppose that'd motivate you to play better?”
“It would. I think.”
As if on cue, Atemi and two other kids walked into the gym. “Mr. Appleseed!” Atemi called. “Can we join?”
The teacher shrugged. “Go for it!” he called. “We're starting a new game as soon as—whoop, Anderson's out. Join whichever team you want—just not all three on one.”
Atemi joined Sierra's team, of course. Everyone lined up on the walls while Mr. Appleseed set the balls in a row down the center line. “Word of advice,” said Atemi. “Stay on your toes.”
“I do,” Sierra said. “I just can't react very fast.”
“Are your really on your toes?”
Mr. Appleseed blew his whistle. Micaiah and Sierra stayed back while nearly every other player rushed for the balls. Atemi returned a moment later with two balls. She tossed one to Sierra.
“Throw sideways if you wanna curve it,” she said, and threw hers overhand. She took a step back and sidestepped a ball, letting it bounce off Sierra's chest before looking back and grabbing it out of the air.
“Still in,” she said. “Catch it next time, though.”
Sierra spent most of the match watching Atemi dodge and throw. Once, she caught a ball and threw it, but it went way high and bounced off the backboard on the other side of the court.
Two games later, Mr. Appleseed blew his whistle and dismissed the students to the locker rooms. Like Atemi said, the girls' showers had curtains, which Sierra gratefully used. She hadn't even begun to sweat, but she took advantage of the opportunity and washed the stickiness of the ice cream out of her hair. Making a point not to linger, she turned off the shower, wrapped herself in her towel, and made way for the next person. Seconds later, the bell rang.
“Come on,” said Atemi. “You've got some work to do.”