“Eww, stay away from us, you robot,” Lydia said. She made a face as if she’d just smelled a used toilet.
Marie held her lunch box with both hands. Her heart raced. She had not been prepared to deal with this level of rejection. This was exactly why she had moved schools. She glanced at other tables in the cafeteria. The other kid’s eyes had started to drift to her and the group of girls sitting at the table. She had to flee.
With a soft sob, Marie turned and quickly walked away from the table without looking back. She made sure she caught the least attention she could, so she looked down at the floor, made no eye contact, and walked to an empty table off in the corner.
Still, she could hear the jeering laughter from the other girls, and she could feel their judgmental leers. At the table, she ate quietly. Every so often, she’d reach to the back of her neck, push her hair away, and feel the rectangular box that stuck out by nearly half an inch. It was a special control box that held some kind of computer that controlled her epilepsies. That’s what father said anyway.
She did remember scary moments when she would lose control of her body followed by a blank memory. She would simply wake up either on the floor, with other people watching, or in a bed somewhere. It had only happened a handful of times, at least the big ones that she could remember.
Now, five years later, she had a stupid black box that stuck out of the back of her head, just high enough above her neck that her hair failed to completely cover it all the time. Everyone saw it, and it was always the focus of attention. If she could have a choice between the blank moments and the box, she’d rather have the blank moments. No one had made fun of her for that.
“Hi,” a boy said, waving his hand at Marie, a smile so large that it defied logic. Even his body seemed to smile. “I’m Jake.”
Marie didn’t say anything. Instead, she brushed her hair so that the box would be covered up and feigned a smile.
“Seat taken?” he pointed at one of the chairs in a table meant to seat at least eight. She was the only one there.
She shook her head.
“So how come you’re all alone over here?”
She didn’t want to talk about it, so she shook her head slowly and went back to eating.
The kid, still with a smile, opened a brown paper bag and took out a sandwich and an apple. “Want it?” he said, holding the apple out for her.
She shook her head again.
“I don’t really like apples,” he said. “They taste weird to me. I don’t know why everyone is always saying they’re the best thing in the world. Even my mom is always saying how they keep the doctor away or something. If you ask me, I think it scares them away. They taste awful. Do you like apples? I actually prefer oranges. Now, oranges are delicious. I love how they’re like happy orange lemons.” Jake finished his sentence by taking a very large bite of his sandwich but then continued talking. “What are you eating? Is that rice? I like rice but my mom doesn’t know how to cook it. She always ends up making soup and it’s terrible when she makes it.”
“They’re not rice,” Marie said, holding one of the two balls on her lunch box. “Mom calls them onigiri.”
“Is that Spanish? I bet it means rice in Spanish. You know, my dad is from Colombia–“
“It’s not Spanish,” Marie interrupted. “It’s Japanese. I’m part Japanese.”
Jake’s eyes widened as if she had said something amazing. “You are Japanese?” he exclaimed. “No way, that’s so cool.”
“Part Japanese,” Marie tried correcting him. She failed.
“I’m so glad I decided to talk to you. I tend to go around, you know. Some of the other kids say I talk too much, but I don’t think so. I think I talk just the right amount. That’s why I move from one place to another. I get to meet people and learn new things. Like today, I learned all about onigiri. So what does it taste like?” Jake had put down his half-eaten sandwich and seemed to pay studious attention to Marie’s food.
“I bet it tastes like rice,” Jake continued. “What’s the green thing anyway? Is it lettuce? I don’t like lettuce. I hope it’s not lettuce.”
“It’s not lettuce,” Marie said. “It’s seaweed. It tastes a little like the sea,” she hinted a smile.
“Oh, I like fish. That’s so cool.”
“Can I ask you a question?” Marie said, her hand reaching to the back of her head.
“Of course. I love questions. Shoot.”
“How come you are okay talking to me? Aren’t you afraid because I’m a robot?”
Jake raised his eyebrow and then laughed way too loudly. Some of the other kids looked but rolled their eyes when they noticed who was the one making the noise. “I’m not stupid. You aren’t a robot. You’re a girl.”
“I know, but people call me that because of this thing.”
“My dad always says that I shouldn’t make stories about people before I meet them. That’s why I try to meet people so that I get to know who they really are. But, now that you point it out, what’s that thing? Is it like one of those cool computers that make you smarter and stuff?”
“No,” Marie said. “It helps me not get sick. Well, it does also help me memorize things a little easier.”
Jake slammed his hands on the table. “No way! That is so awesome. I wish I had something like that.” He got closer to Marie and held his hand by his mouth. “I have awful grades. I bet with something like that I could pass all of the spelling tests.” He sat back down and devoured his sandwich.
“I still have to study. It doesn’t really make me that much better.”
“Eh,” Jake said and stuffed the rest of the sandwich in his mouth. “With or without, people are usually better than me.” He made a fist and knocked his head, taking out his tongue. “I’m kinda dumb.”
“Don’t say that,” Marie said. “You shouldn’t be mean to yourself.”
Jake’s smile wavered, and he looked down.
Marie’s heart raced again. Had she insulted him? “I’m sorry if I said-“
“I hate apples,” he said, taking the apple from the table. He sighed. “I think I should’ve eaten the apple first then the sandwich. But if I go back home with it, my mom is gonna ground me for life.”
Oh, so it had been because of that. Marie sighed. “If you want, we could trade.”
Jake turned his head to the side. “Trade?”
“Yeah. You can take one of my onigiri, and I’ll take the apple.”
“Oh, no I couldn’t,” Jake said. His eyes narrowed and focused on the apple. “I wouldn’t wish this upon even my worst enemy.” He laughed loudly again. “I read that in a book. I like that line.”
“I mean it,” Marie said, pushing her lunch box forward. “I like apples. And my mom makes these all the time.”
Jake’s eyes glistened. “Are you serious? You would trade that for a crappy apple? I feel like I would be abusing of you.”
Marie smiled. “Well, maybe tomorrow you could pay me with something else.”
“Will do!” Jake said, handing Marie the apple. “My dad has all these crazy candies from his country. I’ll bring something that you might like.” Jake held the ball of rice and took a big bite. He nearly squealed in joy. “Oh my god, it has stuff inside.”
Marie smiled. She had never seen another kid so happy by her lunch. Usually they just pointed at her and made weird faces. It was nice for a change, so she watched him eat the food, smiling herself.
“That was amazing. You must tell your mom that she’s an amazing cook. My mom sucks, but she tries. I make my sandwich though. I think I make them better. I love peanut butter and ham sandwiches. Mom says I’m weird and laughs. But I tell you, they’re the best. You should try them sometime.”
The bell rung, and all of the other kids got up and started walking out of the cafeteria. Jake stretched out his arm before leaving though.
“Dad says it’s good to shake hands when you meet someone new because it creates an important bond.”
Marie took his hand.
Jake smiled and shook her hand three times. “I’m Jake Rivera.”
“I’m Marie Ito-Jackson”
Jake’s eyes glistened. “Even your name is amazing.” He let go of her hand and stood up. “By the way,” he bit his lip. “Would it be okay if I have lunch with you tomorrow?”
Marie nodded. “Of course. You owe me.” She smiled.
Jake did a little jump and clanked when he hit the ground. And for the first time, Marie noticed Jake’s leg. She hadn’t been able to see it because he wore pants, but as he walked away, she could tell from his hobble. He had a prosthetic leg.
After closing her lunch box, she reached behind her head and moved her hair a little. He was like her. She smiled and walked to class.