Mrs. Ingram noticed Alice standing at the door and waved her in.
“You’re the new student?” the teacher asked. “Erin just buzzed.”
“Tell me your name, dear,” Mrs. Ingram said. “Poor Erin tried to tell me about you but, you know…”
Alice did. She imagined Erin’s words drowning in a sea of sneezes. Mrs. Ingram invited Alice to come sit by her as students bustled all around the room. The class seemed awfully busy but then again, it was first thing in the morning.
“Pardon the noise, dear, we’re about to get ready for lunch,” Mrs. Ingram said.
It was nine-fifteen.
“Oh,” Alice said. She did not tell Mrs. Ingram she had finished breakfast half an hour ago.
“Before we go to the lunchroom, I need to tell you about my allergy,” Alice said. At that instant the room grew silent. Every pair of eyes locked onto hers.
Mrs. Ingram peered down at Alice. “Yes, dear? What are you allergic to?”
“Peanuts,” Alice said, holding her EpiPen like a torch.
“Oh,” Mrs. Ingram said flatly. “Well, not to worry.”
Alice worried. Shock registered on the other students’ faces. No, not shock. It was more like, pity? No, disgust. Tears filled Alice’s eyes. “They’re disgusted with me,” she thought. “They hate me because I can’t eat peanuts.” She shoved the EpiPen back into bookbag and felt her chin drop.
“Hey,” a chirpy voice said. “I’m an Epper, too. Come on.”
A tiny boy had appeared at her side. Epper?
“Epper?” Alice asked as she and the tiny boy joined the line headed for the cafeteria. “Being allergic to peanuts does not make me a bad person.”
She would have put her hand on her hip if they had been standing still.
“Right,” the boy said with a little snort. “Me, neither. I’m Stick, by the way.”
“Stick?” Alice blurted.
“Richard’s my real name. I used to go by Rick. Then, they started calling me Stick. I guess you know why.”
Alice stared at him. “Because you carry an EpiPen? Is that where the word ‘Epper’ comes from?”
She was horrified. What kind of school was this, anyway?
“That’s better than what they used to call me,” Stick shrugged. The line reached the cafeteria, which teemed with children. None seemed to mind eating at half past nine in the morning.
“You brought your lunch,” Stick said. It wasn’t a question. Alice patted her bookbag. Of course she had.
“This way,” Stick said, and plunged into the crowd. There were dozens of lunch lines and hundreds of tables, many with just a few kids sitting at each one.
“Can we sit here?” Alice asked as they neared a table near a row of windows. Three girls sat at the table and there were seven empty chairs. When Alice made a move toward the table the girls jerked their heads in her direction. All three were slender, almost frail, and very pale. Their long blonde hair was almost while, with faint pink streaks. The palest one stood up. “This is the Pom table,” she said. “Beat it, Epper.”
Alice couldn’t speak. She felt Stick tug her bookbag strap.
“The Pom table?” she asked.
“Yeah, they have the best spot,” he said. “They think they’re so great.”
They walked and walked. “Are we almost there?” Alice asked. “We’re going to spend the entire lunch period walking around.”
Stick didn’t answer. She had to trot to keep up with him. The room was packed, yet he was able to find every sliver of empty space. In fact he seemed to know which way people would move before they got out of his way.
Finally they reached a long table behind a row of garbage cans. It was crowded, with only two empty chairs. Steamy heat from the cafeteria dishwashers filled the air and Alice started to feel dizzy.
“Why do we have to sit here?” she demanded. “There must be three hundred tables in this room and most of them are half-empty. Why are we squeezed back here in this nasty corner?”
Stick sat down in one of the empty chairs and slid his lunch onto the table. Where had he been keeping it? Alice hadn’t noticed.
“Better take this chair before the Glutes grab it,” Stick said. “They’re always messing with us.”
“Glutes?” Alice asked.
“Over there,” Stick said, pointing at a nearby table. It was also crowded and was shoved next to a roll of stacked chairs.
“Why do the Eppers and Glutes have to sit at these crummy tables at the back of the cafeteria when the Poms get the nice table right next to the windows?” Alice asked, forgetting for a moment that she had no idea what she was talking about.
“It’s just the way it is,” Stick said, balling up his trash. “Come on. It’s time to go.”
How had he eaten so fast? Alice hadn’t even taken her lunch out of the bag. Luckily she wasn’t hungry.
A tall boy stood and wrapped his knuckles on the table. Everyone sitting near Alice grew quiet.
“Listen up,” the tall boy said. “The Glutes are taking the Pom table today. They’re also doing the Blinks and the Sleepers. We’re taking the Splashers and the Sours. I think we’re going to share the Blanks.”
None of this made a bit of sense to Alice, but the kids who had been at her table now began scurrying around. She soon realized they were collecting empty cups and bags from the other tables and chucking them into the trash cans.
“Are you kidding me?” Alice asked no one in particular, since Stick had vanished into the crowd. Kids at other tables began to notice her.
“Hey – check out the new Epper,” one girl said.
“She thinks she’s better than the rest of them,” another one said.
“Hey Epper!” a huge boy at a table near Alice shouted. “Get to work!”
He threw an apple core at her. It bounced near her feet.
“Pick it up, Epper!” the boy yelled. “Go ahead, it won’t hurt you. It’s not a peanut!”
Alice felt hot tears streak down her cheeks. It seemed the entire room was staring at her now. The door leading back to Mrs. Ingram’s classroom seemed a mile away.
“Here you go, Epper!” Another boy threw an orange peel at her. It smacked into her shoulder. Soon other kids began throwing their trash at her, too. Alice searched the room for Stick but couldn’t find him. The other kids she’d had lunch with were now busy picking up trash from the floor as well as from the other tables.
A girl who had sat next to Alice marched up to her.
“Are you just going to stand there?” she barked. “You’re making more work for the rest of us.”
Alice was too stunned to move. She felt a tug on her bookbag strap again.
“Come on!” Stick had appeared at her side. Where had he come from?
“Get me out of here!” she begged. Stick darted behind the row of trash cans and led her out a door she hadn’t seen before. As soon as the door slammed behind her, a carton of milk exploded onto the glass. Suddenly the din in the cafeteria quieted.
“Uh oh,” Stick said. “That’s going to get someone into big trouble.”
Alice stared at him through her tears. He stared back.
“That was milk, Alice. Milk. It could have killed one of the Tollies. I saw it happen once. I mean, I heard about it. But still.”
Tollie? Glutes? Poms? All the crazy new words swam through Alice’s mind. She had never told Stick her name. How did he know?
She didn’t care. She had escaped.
“Hurry,” Stick said, tugging her strap again. “Someone’s coming. We have to hide.”