It was the moment of truth. The next morning, with Sam in the new uniform my mother had bought him, we set off a few minutes earlier than usual, saying goodbye to my parents at the door as if we were just normal schoolkids rather than soldiers of fortune setting out on a daring mission of revenge.
We walked in the direction of school. When we reached the corner, we looked back and gave my parents one last wave. We turned out of sight. Then we doubled back to the park.
Tyrone was already at the shed. Jake was late.
We nodded a greeting to one another. Without a word, Sam reached into the new shoulder bag my father had bought him for school and took out the plastic bag containing his change of uniform.
"Time for the new me," he said in a matter-of-fact way, then disappeared into the gents' bathroom at the back of the shed.
Two minutes, three. Jake arrived, his shirt hanging out, his hair a mess.
"Overslept," he said. "Where's Sam?"
Tyrone nodded in the direction of the locked door. "Changing into a girl," he said.
I glanced at my watch. We had eight minutes to make the ten-minute walk to Bradbury Hill. "We've got to go," I called out, as casually as I could manage.
"All right," Sam snapped. "I'm fixing my hair, OK?"
Jake sighed. "Women," he muttered.
The lock drew back and Sam emerged, stuffing his old clothes into the plastic bag. "Let's go," he said.
Jake stood in front of him. "Final checkup," he said.
We gathered in a semicircle, inspecting the new Sam. My first impression, frankly, was that he was a bit of a disappointment. Back in the sitting room, when he had made his debut in a skirt, he had looked the real thing. Now he was more like a boy in clumsy disguise. His hair was tangled. The skirt looked a bit long. Worst of all, the white shirt seemed to be billowing outwards like a sheet in the wind.
"Isn't there anything you can do about that?" I tugged at the shirt. "Like, tuck it in at the back?"
"It's way too big," Sam said. "What was it with your sister, Jake?"
Jake looked embarrassed. "She was kind of well-developed for her age," he said.
"Great," Sam muttered as he tried to cram the shirt into the waist of his skirt. "Trust you to have a sister with oversize gazungas."
"I know what we could do," said Tyrone. "I'll bring a couple of pairs of socks tomorrow. You can shove them down your front."
Sam's eyes flashed dangerously. "You know what, fat boy? You can shove them where the sun don't shine." He raised a warning finger, then seemed to hesitate, shifting his attention from Tyrone to something behind us.
An old woman with a small dog on a leash was standing on the path, looking at us, an expression of busybody concern on her face.
I remember the days when this park was nice. No litter, no dogs roaming like wolves, no swearing. It was a pleasure to come here.
Some people think that one shouldn't worry about such things as bad behavior and nasty language, but I'm afraid that I'm a bit old-fashioned about that sort of thing.
That morning, when I saw this young girl, surrounded by boys, clearly frightened and pale-faced and angry, it made my blood boil. I knew I couldn't just walk by. It's not in my nature.
The old biddy stood there with this terrier, both of them looking at us really defensively, as if we were criminals or something.
"Are you all right, love?" she called out.
We looked at one another, confused.
"Excuse me?" said Matthew.
"I'm not talking to you boys," she snapped. Craning her neck like some kind of bird, she looked beyond us to where Sam was standing. "Are these boys bothering you, dear?" she asked.
It took a moment for Sam to understand. Then he smiled. "Nah," he said.
"That's all right then," said the woman. Darting one more hostile look at us, she walked on. Trouble was, Sam, being Sam, couldn't leave it there.
"Lady, I could whup their sorry asses anytime," he called out.
The woman glanced back, startled, then scurried on, tugging her little dog behind her.
Sam was swaggering ahead of us, hands in pockets, skirt swishing aggressively, like no girl ever did, or ever will.
We followed, each of us with the same thought in our mind. Since no one else was going to say anything, I decided that it was down to me to have a word with Miss Samantha.
"Hey, Sam." I hit a casual, this-just-occurred-to-me tone. "Maybe it would be a good idea if you kind of acted the part too."
Sam started whistling through his teeth-another thing I had never heard a girl do.
I tried again. "I mean, for instance, you didn't exactly behave like a normal girl back there when you talked to that woman."
Sam laughed and kicked a tin can that was on the pavement into the road.
"That's because I'm not a normal girl, doofus," he said.
"The thing is, Sam, if you don't go with this thing, we're all going to be in deep trouble," said Tyrone. "There's no point in dressing up female and acting more male than ever."
"It was your plan, guys," said Sam. "It's kind of late to be wimping out."
"It's not that," I said. "But if this is going to work, you're going to have to be a bit ..." I hesitated, groping in my mind for the right word. "A bit ... girly."
Sam stopped and turned to face us, chewing all the while. "I agreed to wear a skirt, OK?" he said quietly. "Nobody said nothing about acting girly."
Before any of us could reply, he was walking on. "This is just the way we modern girls are," he called out. He jabbed the air in front of him, as if punching some invisible enemy out of the way. "If you can't hack it, that's your problem."
On the way to school that first day of the new term, we made a big decision. No, actually, scratch that-it wasn't a big decision. It was pretty small.
"I've been thinking," Zia said suddenly. "I think I'm through with the Sheds."
"Tell me something new," said Elena. "We're all through with the Sheds."
"I mean, I'm not going to give them a hard time anymore. It's my good resolution for the term. Those boys have suffered enough."
"Ah, poor little things," said Elena.
I had been thinking along the same lines. The whole Burger Bill/police thing had made me feel bad.
"I'm with you, Z," I chipped in. "I heard that poor old Tyrone got grounded for a week."
"You don't mess with the Bitches," Elena muttered.
"Think about it, the Bitches versus the Sheds," said Zia. "How sad is that?"
Elena looked at us. "OK, we'll just ignore them," she said. "Let them get on with their miserable little lives."
"Or," said Zia patiently, "we could actually apologize-put the whole thing behind us."
"Cool with me," I said.
"No way." Elena shook her head decisively.
Zia and I glanced at one another and said nothing. The fact is, El was never quite as tough as she liked to pretend.
After no more than thirty seconds, she shrugged moodily. "Whatever. Maybe it's time for a new chapter."
She walked ahead of us with the air of someone who had sorted out a problem all on her own.
We were a couple of minutes late. The playground was already empty. We ran to the school hall and pushed the door. Everyone was in place, awaiting the arrival of Mrs. Cartwright, the principal, and her staff. As the four of us made the long walk up the center aisle to the remaining free seats in the front row, I was aware of a rustle of interest on each side. I glanced to my left to see Sam smiling this way and that, as if he were some kind of royalty. There was no doubt about it-far from being embarrassed about the whole cross-dressing thing, he was enjoying his moment as the center of attention.
I noticed Matthew walking between the rows of seats. I was just about to make some comment about how typical it was that they'd be late when I remembered that the boys formerly known as the Sheds were meant to be friends, so I kept quiet.
Then I saw this blond girl striding ahead of them, cool as you like. My only thought then was-and who is she?
Notice her? How could anyone miss her? She walked through that hall as if she owned it.
She was chewing gum. That was the first thing I noticed. Bradbury Hill isn't the strictest place, but there's this big no-gum rule that all the teachers enforce as if sticks of gum were drugs or something. And here was this new kid, chewing away in assembly, on the first day of the term.
You've got to admit, that's attitude.
I didn't see her. I was probably asleep at the time.
She was a babe. All the guys looked, and most of them were thinking pretty much the same thing. Well now, what do we have here?
We took our seats, Sam slumping down beside me with all the feminine poise of a boxer taking a break between rounds.
The teachers trooped in and took their places in a double row of chairs at the back of the stage, and moments later Mrs. Cartwright-better known as the Carthorse-made her appearance.
When you first see the principal, it's not the jet-black dyed hair, the broad shoulders, or the brisk, quick-paced walk that you notice but the big, saintly smile on her face. Someone at teaching school must have told her that the best way to deal with kids is to grin your way out of trouble at all times, because Mrs. Cartwright goes about her daily life at school with the goofy, happy air of someone who has some wonderful news that she just longs to tell you.
The effect, when she is dealing with what she likes to call inappropriate behavior, is weirdly scary because, the deeper trouble you are in, the wider the smile on her face. As if playing up to her reputation as a grinning psycho, the principal allows herself now and then to blow her stack, raging at the entire school in assembly when a particular bout of inappropriateness looks as if it might get out of hand. It is rumored that when the stress of school life becomes too much for her, she steps into a storage closet in her office, closes the door behind her, and screams her head off for a couple of minutes before emerging, calmer and with the famous smile back on her face.
So the Carthorse launched into her start-of-the-year speech. There was a bit of chat about the summer vacation and some guff about the school play that was due at the end of the term. She introduced a couple of new teachers, a woman in her twenties and a porky, middle-aged guy who was taking over Year Seven. Then she did something rather unexpected and scary.
After she had introduced the new teachers, she gave us a big, all-inclusive grin and said, "There is someone else I would also very much like to mention at this point. A significant new arrival in Year Eight."
To my left, Tyrone groaned quietly.
"He's joining us from his school on the west coast of America," the principal was saying. "I'm sure you'll all go out of your way to make him feel very welcome."
I tried to swallow, but I found that my mouth was dry.
"Sam Lopez." Mrs. Cartwright peered into the audience, shielding her eyes with her hand like someone scanning the horizon. "Where is he?"
For a few seconds there was a restless stirring in the ranks as everyone looked around them for the new boy.
Then slowly, coolly brushing something from his skirt, Sam took to his feet.
"I'm here, ma'am," he said.
We laughed. That first assembly is always a rather tense occasion, and when this Sam character turned out to be a girl, it broke the atmosphere. It's good when something happens that makes an administrator look a bit stupid, and if that administrator happens to be Mrs. Cartwright and she's standing up in front of the whole school doing her Hitler-at-a-youth-rally act, it's very good indeed.
The American girl looked around at us and grinned, which made us laugh even more. It took several seconds for the Carthorse to restore order.
Mrs. Cartwright's smile became even more fixed and phonier than usual.
"I was under the impression that Sam Lopez was a boy," she said.
"Not this Sam Lopez, she ain't," said Sam, and there was more laughter in the hall.
"You're Sam Lopez, as in Samantha?" she asked.
"Nope." Sam kept to his feet, now clearly enjoying the moment. "I am Sam, ma'am. Sam is what my mom called me."
"She christened you Sam?"
"She was a feminist, ma'am."
The mention of Sam's late mother, or maybe the reference to feminism, seemed to fluster Mrs. Cartwright. "Ah, good, interesting-well, that's the first surprise of the term." She laughed in a tinkling, fake way. "Now that we've discovered exactly what sex you are, Bradbury Hill welcomes you, Sam Lopez."
"Thank you, ma'am." Sam sat down slowly.
Fifteen minutes into the new term and he had already made his mark.
It is an important occasion, that first assembly, and frankly I was not very pleased that an administrative error had caused a distraction. As I explained to Steve Forrester later, the fault was not entirely mine. Mrs. Burton had called me during summer vacation. I was not on the ball. The American child had changed schools so often that there were no records of his-of her-past education.
It seemed to me that Mrs. Burton had been referring to a boy, but I assumed I had mistaken "he" for "she." There had been no reason not to assume that Sam was short for Samuel.
As for the child herself, I was vaguely aware that she was showing rather less respect than I would have liked but then, to be fair, this incident of gender confusion had been unusually public. I assumed that her apparent rudeness was a cover-up. Sam was a shy thirteen-year-old girl. I honestly believed that.
Normally I don't like show-offs, but there was something about the new girl that made me want to get to know her. The way she went, "I am Sam, ma'am," when she said her mum was a feminist, like she was shocked that she had to explain it. I suppose it was just that she acted like most of us would like to act in that situation.
It should have been her that was made to look stupid. Instead it was old Carthorse. I was, "Hey, I could get to like this girl."
Sam was flirting with danger. Every kid in the hall knew that-every kid, that is, except for Sam Lopez. And it wasn't the principal that was the problem.
I woke up in the middle of assembly and there was this brat, this new brat, behaving like she was totally it. Who did this skinny little ponytailed dork think she was exactly? It was time for her first lesson in the facts of life at Bradbury Hill.
We were among the last of those emerging from the school hall after the principal had finished her speech. Sam walked beside us, now and then smiling at those who stared at him.
"Stick close to us," Jake murmured, but Sam was having too good a time to pay any attention. As we crossed the playground, the unavoidable, muscular presence of Gary Laird loomed up between us.
It would be wrong to say that Gary hung out with a rough crew. He was a one-man rough crew. He hung out with nobody because he liked nobody and nobody liked him. Six foot and full of himself, with cropped dark hair, he was like a cartoon version of a teenage thug. When it came to spreading fear, Gary was top of Year Ten, unrivaled by lesser, smaller thugs. Others bullied out of fun or boredom-for Gary, it was a career, it was a vocation.
"Hey, Yank chick," he called out.
Sam kept walking. Gary strode beside him across the playground, a towering, mighty figure.
"Want a date, Yank chick?" Gary taunted.
Sam stopped walking. "What exactly is your problem?" he asked, his eyes narrowing dangerously.
"I've heard all about American girls." Gary chuckled nastily.
"C'mon, Gary," said Tyrone. "She's new."
Gary ignored him. "Everyone knows about Yank girls."
"What do they know?" Sam asked.
Either the question was too difficult for Gary's apology of a brain to process or something in Sam's manner gave him pause. He changed his line of attack.
"Are you chewing gum, Yank chick?" he said in a low voice.
"Yup," said Sam.
"I don't like people chewing in my face. It's not respectful, see."