Iris stood inside the great big double-wide doorway of the gymnasium-slash-auditorium-slash-lunchroom. It was crazy in there—track marks from wet, muddy shoes crisscrossed the lacquered wooden floor. A miserable teacher sopped up spilled milk right in the middle of everything. Three more teachers wandered the perimeter, keeping an eye on the whole scene, shushing kids when they got too loud, telling a pair of boys to “Cut out the horseplay!” when they started tossing some girl’s orange back and forth over her head.
The acoustics were terrible; the voices from the crowd of kids inside made Iris feel like her brain was an apple on a tray, tipping over and knocking against the side of her head.
Back home in California, no one ever ate lunch indoors—lunchtime was a strictly outdoor activity. On the two or three rainy days each year, they’d eat in their classroom while the teacher played a movie, but other than that, they ate outside at concrete picnic tables, just to the right of a big open field. It was humane. There was room to breathe.
But that was back home. Here in Oregon, where it had rained literally every day since they’d parked the moving van in the long gravel driveway of the farmhouse Iris’s dad had bought sight unseen (except for the video tour on the real estate agent’s website), school lunch had to be consumed indoors.
It was another reason to hate it here. As if Iris didn’t have a long enough list already. Along with the ridiculous noise of the reverberating voices, there was also the smell—the musty, mildewy, earthy stench of too much rain, socks that never did dry out completely, and wet hair.
But she couldn’t just stand there all day. The other kids were starting to turn and stare at her.
There was a table at the far side of the gymnasium, just under a basketball hoop, that wasn’t completely crowded. Iris headed there, ignoring the questioning glances on the other kids’ faces. Ignoring the occasional smile, too. Ignoring everything.
And when she slid into an empty spot near the end of a bench, she ignored the kid sitting next to her—a mouth breather she remembered seeing in her Social Studies class before lunch. She felt him there, though—the aura of his curly hair, the wet-wool scent of his red and blue striped pullover, the weight of him taking up space.
This was Iris’s first day of school, even though September was almost over. Her dad had wanted her to be homeschooled, which had sounded like a good idea to Iris—she wasn’t in a big hurry to be around a lot of people—but after two weeks of trying to do schoolwork at their kitchen table, with her dad sipping coffee and looking over her shoulder, Iris had insisted that her parents enroll her at Linus Pauling Middle School. At home in California, sixth grade meant being the oldest kids at the elementary school. Here, it meant being among the youngest, lumped into the gym at lunchtime with teenagers whose bodies smelled like grownups and who looked at each other in a way that Iris didn’t have all the words for but knew she didn’t like.
Iris pulled out her lunch. The boy from Social Studies class was eating a microwaved burrito. It smelled worse than the packed bodies, worse than the rain. Iris could hear him chewing.
To block out the sound, she took a big bite of her apple and listened to it crunch between her teeth. Iris put all of her attention into eating that apple—bite, chew-chew-chew-chew, swallow. Bite.
“You really like apples,” said Burrito Boy.
Iris ignored him.
“You like the red ones, too, or just the green kind?”
“The red ones are mealy,” Iris answered begrudgingly. It was one thing to ignore a tablemate; another thing entirely to ignore a direct question. She didn’t feel like being that rude.
“Yeah, I think so too,” said the boy. “You ever try a Pink Lady?”
Iris shook her head.
“You should,” he said, enthusiastic now. “They’re the best. They’re crisp like a green apple, but sweeter, like a red. Kind of tangy, too.” Then he added, “My name’s Boris.”
Finally, Iris turned to look at the boy next to her. She wondered if he was teasing her, making fun of her in some way she wasn’t quite catching on to.
But his expression was wide open, earnest. His dark brown curls rioted around his face, there was a flush in his round cheeks, his eyes—as dark as his hair—weren’t laughing at her, but waited eagerly for her response.
Everything about him was doglike—the way he sort of sat forward in his chair, the way he waited for her to answer, the way his eyes stayed on her face.
Unfortunately for him, Iris was a cat person.
She turned away. “Thanks for the recommendation,” she said. “I’ll ask my dad to pick some up.”
She unwrapped the sandwich her dad had packed for her that morning—egg salad. At least there was that.
“Your dad does the shopping at your house, huh?” In typical doglike fashion, Boris didn’t take the hint that Iris was done talking. Not seeming to care that she didn’t answer, Boris continued. “My mom’s the grocery shopper for our family. But I make her take me along whenever I’m around, because she buys all the wrong stuff. Like plain Cheerios instead of the honey kind. Low-fat milk instead of whole.”
Iris didn’t tell Boris that her dad did the shopping because her mother was busy working at the university, doing important research, or that her dad was actually a really good grocery shopper, and a good cook, and even a good gardener. That was the thing her dad had been the most excited about, when they moved—the gardening. “Can’t grow anything in that sandy beach soil. When we get settled in, I’m going to grow all the produce we can eat. Self-sufficient, that’s what we’ll be,” he’d told them both—Iris and her mom—on the sixteen-hour drive up the coast of California, through half the length of Oregon, and plop into the heart of the Willamette Valley. That’s what Corvallis meant, even—Heart of the Valley. And the town was surrounded by farmland. Cows and great big rolls of green alfalfa.
But it had rained every day since they’d moved, and her dad still hadn’t braved the weather to dig his garden.
Iris tried not to feel smug.
Around her, the other kids were finishing their lunches. And they all seemed to know the routine; when a table emptied, they signaled one of the teachers, who came over to fold the table. Then the kids would help push it to the far side of the gymnasium.
A tall, skinny girl with long, skinny braids rolled out a cart full of balls. Dodge balls and basketballs.
A boy with feet as big as Iris’s father’s came over and stared at her and Boris. “You almost finished?” he...