Luke skipped quickly out of the end of English, the last lesson of that morning and made a beeline for the nearest exit that would get him out of the building and onto the path that would take him to lunch.
He tended not to eat the cafeteria food much, perhaps only a sandwich or salad if he ate at all. Why would he, when his Mum's cooking waited for them at home at the end of the day?
So was he hungry that day? Hardly! Frankly, he couldn't have even pecked at a salad. Butterflies winged around his innards, and even a lettuce leaf felt like too much! For the umpteenth time that morning, he checked his watch. His mum would be arriving soon, and having hardly eaten any breakfast either, he knew he would regret it in an hour or so if he didn't grab at least a bite of something, even though he didn’t want to.
"Luke! Wait up!"
Luke turned to see Ryan hurrying after him across the neatly trimmed lawn, cutting the corner of the pathway to catch him up. The way his friend was motoring, you’d think the school cafeteria was giving away free food.
Dragging his backpack with one hand, Ryan waved the other. "Slow up, can't ya?"
With a silent groan, Luke accepted the inevitable. So much for his intention to eat fast and slip away quietly! Reluctantly, he slowed his pace and tried not to let the irritation show as he waited for Ryan to catch up.
"What the hell’s gotten into you today?" Ryan scowled at him, slinging his backpack over his shoulder as he drew alongside.
Luke glowered. "Nothing's up with me. Why would anything be up with me?" He realized he was sounding too defensive and softened his tone. "I just wanna eat—no law against that is there?"
"So why the rush?” Ryan demanded. He looked suddenly suspicious. “Don't tell me you've got a detention? You’ve been acting really weird all morning!"
"Don't be an asshole; why would I be in detention?" Briskly, Luke waved it off and began walking at a normal pace as they strolled past the old Art block and towards the cafeteria which loomed ahead of them. He'd always compared the school’s cafeteria to a rather posh version of a motorway service station; predictable and overpriced, as if the school didn’t already get enough money from their tuition fees!
And God forbid if you should forget to clear your plates away!
The pair joined the still short line, both selecting only a simple sandwich and a drink can. Everything else on offer looked…well, enough said. They found an empty table, then made room for Simon and two of his ninth-grade freshmen friends, Toby Skerrit and Mason Quince, all having joined the line not far behind them.
Luke picked at his ‘meal’ with little of the healthy enthusiasm Simon had for his enormous plate of fries. As he usually did, Toby had brought sandwiches from home, but he was currently helping Simon with his lunch anyway. The Summers brothers exchanged a covert glance, before Simon checked his watch. They both knew their mum would be arriving soon.
“I watched the game last night,” announced Mason with his mouth full. “Man U v. Liverpool!”
‘Grinny Boy’, as Luke often referred to Mason Quince, was into soccer big time, despite having only discovered real football only four months ago now that UK Soccer League games were available on cable. A nice-hearted kid who smiled at everyone, his older brother, Todd, was a classmate of him and Ryan.
Luke rolled his eyes, amused to hear Mase talk about ‘Man U’ like some seasoned pro on the terraces. There was enough of that with their dad, with his blind faith that Arsenal were sure to top the Premiership that year! Despite being—as Luke had recently discovered through a handy google widget—4,204 miles from London, his dad still religiously followed the team he'd supported from childhood.
Simon, however, seemed happy to pick up the topic and the two discussed the game. Ryan, sitting on the end, had that look. The one that said. 'Brits! Strange people. And who the hell cares about soccer anyway?'
After hanging back on the edge of the conversation for a few more minutes, keeping himself from getting bogged down, Luke covertly peeled back his shirt sleeve one more time to check his watch.
At last, it was time.
To no one in particular, he muttered, "I just gotta go do something...I'll catch you guys later." Simon flicked him a knowing look, before turning back to the others to continue the soccer lesson.
Checking that nobody was following, Luke hurried to his locker in relief, knowing that Simon had understood and would do his best to keep Ryan and the others occupied for a while yet. Gathering up his gear, he quickly stuffed it all into his backpack before making his way straight to the school reception.
True to her word, his mum was already waiting.
A few minutes later, he was buckling himself into the family minivan as they headed out of the parking lot.
His mum was upbeat and chatty as she drove the two of them, and he was grateful for the distraction. Soon, she settled down to navigating her way down onto the freeway, and he sat back, musing about how he’d got to what he hoped would be the final leg of the journey; the journey that had probably started five years previously and four thousand and two hundred odd miles away in seat 23D.
* * *
Nearly five years since they emigrated. Five years already?
Where had all the time gone?
It had been 2003, and he’d been eleven at the time and getting ready to start into year seven—his first year of senior school back in England. An ordinary kid from an ordinary suburb, the Luke Summers back then lived what he felt was an ordinary but perfectly acceptable life.
That is, until his dad had totally RUINED it! At least that was what it had felt like. He vividly remembered the day when they—his mum and dad—had sat him and Simon down and calmly informed them that they were moving.
He'd immediately started calculating the probable suburb, wondering how big his room would be, if he’d still be able to walk to school or whether he’d have to take the bus, and most importantly, wondered what time would he have to get up to make it in!
Then they’d dropped the bombshell. We're moving to America, they'd said.
Pull the other one! He honestly thought they were having him on!
“‘It’ll be good for all of us,” they had both added enthusiastically. “A bit last minute,” they agreed, but it would be new start; a better life for all of them.
His dad worked in the overseas finance section of one of the big banks, and had been asked to go work in some obscure department on the US side. Lo and behold, he and their mum had decided to accept.
And that was it. There was no give and take, nor any suggesiton of a 'dinner table family discussion' that they always said was really important. The company had already bought the plane tickets that would take Luke from his comfortable way of life in the South of England, to make a new one in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
He had been totally fucking livid!
A new life? What the hell was wrong with the OLD one—the one where HE HAD A LIFE!!
“NO! Tell them you WON’T DO IT,” he had screamed. “They can't make you!”
His parents had been firm. “It's already decided,” they’d said.
“It’s all about you isn’t it!” he’d raged impotently. “It’s always about you! What about what I want—or Simon? Why do I even bother being in this fucking family?”
He’d got away with swearing at them once because of the circumstances, but when he did it again, his mum came down on him like a ton of bricks. After that he’d resorted to an angry silence. They’d complained that he was just being difficult and needed to pull himself together and help them pack.
Difficult? Well tough titties!
None of it had changed the inevitability of seat 23D in the middle section of the Delta flight from Gatwick to Atlanta. He’d never been in a plane before, but was so pissed off that he’d refused to enjoy even that!
He continued to give his parents the silent treatment the whole flight, eating the crappy nuts and ignoring the even crappier movies. The four of them had finally touched down at Atlanta Hartsfield airport around nine hours later, with the sum total of eight cases and four pieces of carry-on. And it was still only the middle of the afternoon!
Even then, it had taken bloody hours to get through customs.
None of his mood was improved by the slow inching of the line while he waited to get to the desk. There were visas, questions about work permits, and a single ray of hope when the official looked through his spanking brand-new passport and stared at him intently.
He'd glowered back defiantly, tempted to say something unpleasant.
Go on, throw me out—do us both a favor!
But, instead of putting him on a plane back to where he rightly belonged, the official had brought his stamp down in final judgment.
Sitting for nine hours and then waiting in endless lines had been exhausting. By the time they’d taken the packed underground train through the terminals, and been herded up the escalator into the main arrivals, even he was glad to see the man with the sign with their name on it.
Recovering their eight cases from the conveyor belts, they were driven on the wrong side of the road from the airport, through an unfamiliar city, straight to the house which, on their behalf, the bank had already arranged as temporary accommodation.
They rented there for several months before eventually buying a home of their own. The rest of their belongings were either being held in long-term storage in the UK or were to be shipped across by container. A lot of it he never ever saw again.
But stuff was just stuff. What had really pissed him off was being made to leave all his friends, his school, and the familiarity of his world, to be dropped in the US just north of Atlanta.
Maybe 'dropped' didn’t cover it. DUMPED was better—dumped in a crap place, where he had no friends and no fucking life!
Now okay, eventually even he’d had to admit that the house they finally bought wasn't bad. It wasn’t that their family had lived in some pokey three-bedroom semi in the UK. Far from it, and he'd always thought their old house was pretty good. But this…? Compared to ‘normal’ houses in the UK, this was something else!
They'd sold their UK home easily enough and, with the comparative housing market values and a good exchange rate, his dad had been ecstatic. They did the rounds with realtors, looking at properties and, by that time, even Luke showed some enthusiasm when it came to deciding which one they would buy.
Typically, his dad had been all for ‘investing’ in something that was still only on the market because nobody else wanted it. ‘Do-er Up-ers’, he euphemistically called them. That way, he told their mum, they’d reap the benefit of taking the chunk of change that would be left and investing it for the future.
Thankfully, she wasn’t interested in any of those properties and had short-listed three that nearly made his dad choke!
But she got her way, and they'd ended up in a big place; it was detached, with an enormous backyard and a lawn that actually needed a ride-on mower to cut it all! They even had a huge, airy basement with more square footage on that one level than could be found in most ordinary houses in England.
Their house was a relatively new build, and, unlike many of the other wooden, flaky-paint houses they'd toured, it was brick built. Everything seemed more spacious and more open plan than any of the places he remembered back in England. There was even a huge, open, wood-burning fireplace, though after they experienced the sweltering heat of a Georgia summer for the first time, he had no idea what the hell anyone would need with one!
Gone too were the days of queuing up for the loo!
There was a big family bathroom but, on top of that, his parents’ room also had its own en-suite, and he and Simon even shared a bathroom just for them, set between them and accessible from either of their bedrooms.
Did everyone here live like this, he wondered? He didn’t really know, but grudgingly appreciated the house anyway. Okay, if he had to live there for a bit, all in all, it was bloody good!
At first, he had prayed that his dad's job would be temporary; a year maybe? A year would be okay, he decided... with a trip down to Disney World to top it off. After a year, he could still go back to his friends and his old life. Everyone would think it pretty cool and welcome him back like a well-travelled hero, letting him drop instantly into everything as it had always been.
But the year passed; and then another passed; and then more, until it was becoming entirely possible that they might be staying for good.
But, like all kids, he was more resilient than he realized. He and Simon had settled into their new life without really expecting to. More importantly for him, their house was in a sub-division close to where several of his newly-made school friends lived. They settled into that new school, too. A fee-paying, private school. The Academy.
An 'all boys' institution, The Academy had been chosen for them based on a number of recommendations through his dad's contacts at the bank. Schooling was high on his parent’s priority list Luke knew, and he learned in time that it had been one of the key factors for them (particularly for his mum) in deciding to move the family to the States in the first place. Though he hadn’t known it at the time, she'd been quite reluctant to uproot the family, but education pressed all her buttons.
Back in the UK, they had been attending the local comprehensive schools. The primary school had been okay, and he had been personally quite happy with the senior school, mainly because all his mates were going there.
Not his mum and dad. They were not impressed with it... not AT ALL!
In the transition from primary to senior school, they had tried hard to get him somewhere ‘better’, as they called it. But ‘better’ was outside of their catchment area and, much to his personal relief, had been denied.
So instead, they pulled a fast one and the family had cut loose and left the country in early June, pulling both of the boys out of school before the end of the school year. At the time, the only upside that he could see was that he missed having to take the stupid SATS!
It gave them the summer to settle in.
His dad was obviously being paid well in this new job, because they had enrolled the two of them at the rather swanky private school. Luke saw the price tag once and his chin had dropped!
He and Simon were welcomed into the new school for the start of the sixth and fifth grades respectively for the new term beginning in mid-August—but not before both he and Simon had taken an entrance exam, and even been interviewed prior to being admitted.
The idea that you had to have some kind of 'getting in' test to go to school seemed ridiculous—as if anyone cared enough to want to be there that much!
And then to have to pay for that privilege each day, too? FREAKING MADNESS!
The test had been surprisingly ‘testing’. It took half the morning, covering various subjects and had put to bed his belief that American kids were all Hollywood airheads. He felt he'd done pretty crap and, despite his distaste of being in that country, was disappointed with himself (particularly because he knew Simon had probably aced it without even breaking a sweat).
Expecting the worst, it had been quite a surprise—and unexpectedly a relief—when they still accepted him. However, in the admission papers, some cold hard facts came to the fore. The first was that school started at 07:30 on the dot!
HOLY SHIT! He never even got out of bed until eight! He could even push it till 08:30 and still make it for nine if he missed the shower and legged it, but what bloody idiot decided to start school at 07:30 for fuck’s sake?
At least they were out by 2:30 in the afternoon, which was way better than 4.
Then it had been made clear that students at this school were expected to wear a uniform. Okay, no big deal, he'd been wearing school uniforms all his life. However, they also pointed out that for all students, including him, hair had to be well off the collar.
What kind of CRAP RULE was that he complained bitterly as he was sat down in the chair at the local hair salon! The dirty blond locks were carefully tended to look unkempt, although he had to abide by his mum's rule that his hair had to be clean. Long, messy and slightly wavy, it had been his trademark look for years. He was Luke Oliver Summers and to his mates in England, Luke Oliver had been 'Lol', or more usually, Lolly. His hair was his look, and to be forced to have it cut down was a bunch of crap just because of a school rule! It was NEVER like that at his old place!
His mum, still irritated by his previous educators, said she wasn’t surprised and told the lady to cut it short and well off the ears!
However, despite early mornings and draconian hair regulations, Luke had to admit that the school wasn't that bad, and he quickly made friends with kids who seemed in awe of the British kid who used to live near London.
On the very first day of the semester (one of many new words that were tossed at him) his mum drove him to the main Middle and High School campus (Simon had started in the Elementary campus, several blocks away) The principal himself had met them at reception and escorted him to his new class. After being formally introduced, he’d sat down, as self-conscious as hell, with heads twisting all around the room to get a glimpse of him.
Even so, it really surprised him how friendly they were. That would never happen back in England! There, if a new kid arrived, it was better to treat them with a lot of suspicion until you found out what they were really like. New kids had to earn the right to join existing friend-groups. It took weeks, even months!
Here, they almost fell over themselves to welcome him and help him out if needed. His class size also dropped from thirty-three to twenty. It was actually surprisingly nice.
Living where they did just north of Atlanta, near Roswell, wasn't bad either. At first, usually his mum or dad drove them to school, or sometimes they caught a lift with someone else as they got to know them. Many of their friends from school lived nearby and there was a huge mall not far away, too.
Gradually it all grew on him.
One day, he realized he quite liked his life there; the people, the house, the friends, the school, the lifestyle, cable TV... even the weather was nice!
* * *
Extract from Luke's Diary:
If you ever want to know about the weather, then you could keep a Brit from the London area talking for hours.
Bottom line? The crap weather in the UK was something I did NOT miss.
Here, it was almost always sunny—about as sunny as it was wet in England, which meant going brown, not rusty! Mind you, sometimes it got TOO hot and sticky for comfort. Then, we were all thankful for air-con that kept the house cool and made it possible to sleep at night.
Water was a lifesaver too—swimming pools, I mean.
Sadly we didn't have a pool ourselves, but there was a communal one in our subdivision, and several of our friends had them in their backyards. It was all a million miles (well, not quite) from foggy London town where, with his passion for sailing, the only one who had ever spent much time on or in the water, was Simon.
The truth was, I didn’t plan on feeling settled at all – in fact, quite the opposite. Somehow, my new home kind of snuck up on me. The cranky emails back and forth with my friends in London became less frequent, until they just dried up. Life became familiar: the days, the places, the routine, the friends.
I remember during our second Christmas there, Mum reading out a bit of a letter that came with the card from her brother, asking us when we were next coming home. It struck me then that we were home, and I never really looked back.
Okay, the grass wasn't really proper grass—not like in England—and the red fire ants were bloody demons, but other than that, Atlanta had become where we belonged.
* * *
At the Academy, other than having to get in by 07:30 each day for Homeroom attendance to be marked off, what came as a complete shock to Luke was homework.
Lots of it!
All the freaking time! He got landed with two or three assignments a day, and more at weekends and, what's more, they were expected to even do it!
Good God, it was relentless! In his old school, they were sometimes given homework, but he and his friends always felt that it was up to them whether they bothered with it. Call it personal choice. If you didn't get round to it, who cared? Certainly not the teachers.
At the Academy, his expectations were radically realigned!
An official 'School Learning Contract' existed, though he never remembered being invited to sign anything. It was an agreement between those who taught (the teachers), those who learned (himself), and those who should be minding their own bloody business (his parents!). Outnumbered two to one, he didn't stand a chance.
Holy shit, he was only eleven, but it felt utterly brutal! If you didn't get it done or started lagging behind, there would be detention. If it deteriorated further, then parents would be called in and 'measures' taken. Ya-de-ya-de-ya…whatever…
However, after the first few times that happened, he was reeling in shock! They actually crapping well meant it, and expected you to 'achieve' at the Academy whether you liked it or not! Yet, by the following year, though he hated to admit it, his friends back in the UK wouldn't have recognized the new, shorthaired, rather sun-tanned Luke Summers, who studied hard and discovered he actually did have the ability to stay focused and achieve.
He even managed a social life. In fact, he even began to enjoy it!