I killed two kids at school today.
My first day. I wandered the school grounds, looking for differences. The way the sun hit the grass, the arrangement of litter, the smells.
They came at me from opposite sides. I kept my head down. Part of me knew it would do no good, but I walked and watched from the edge of vision.
"Hey. You. Fat bastard."
On cue. Like a film you've seen before so you know the words before they're spoken. I walked. Kept my head down, looking for differences. I couldn't see any.
"I'm talking to you, fat bastard."
I stopped. But I kept my head down. Still.
A blade of grass. I watched. It differed. Maybe the way the spine curved, or the sheen of green. Wrong, somehow. An insect crawled along the blade's curve. It changed the world. Everything changes the world--the insect on the grass, the shadows over the oval.
They arrived. I heard their breathing. Their dark shadows slanted across the grass. I waited.
"I'm talking to you, fat boy. And when I'm talking to you, you should look at me."
"Yeah. Look at him, fat boy."
I looked at him. He had freckles. A face someone had doodled on, not getting the patches of color right. Dark red hair. Matted, as though he hadn't showered in a week. His eyes were light blue, the color of pale flowers in cold climates. I tried to see beyond them. I can do that. There was only pain, loneliness, and fear. There's always fear.
We stared at each other, the fat boy and the boy with ice for eyes.
And I waited.
"So what have you got to say for yourself, fat boy? Eh? Why'd you ignore me? Too good for me? Is that it, huh? He thinks he's too good for us, Damien."
Damien was small, thin and wiry. An athlete. His eyes were screwed up. I couldn't read them because he was facing the sun. He stood like someone who owned the ground beneath him.
"Yeah, I reckon, Callum. Why do you think you're too good for us, fat boy?"
"I'm just a fat boy," I said. "That's all. I'm not too good for you. I'm not good enough. I'm fat. I'm nothing."
The red-haired boy was confused. It happens that way sometimes. They want the right to attack. But I was agreeing. If they bashed me now, they'd feel bad about themselves. And they wanted their punches to be pure. Righteous.
The red-haired boy shifted, put his hands on his hips.
"Are you being a wiseass, fat boy?"
"No," I said.
"Well, I think you are. What do you reckon, Damien? Is he a wiseass?"
"Yeah. He's a wiseass big-time. You're asking for it, fat bastard. So why don't you say you're sorry? Maybe if you apologize, we'll forget it this time."
The red-haired boy moved in a little.
"Yeah. We need an apology, fat boy."
"I'm sorry," I said.
Callum poked me in the chest with a hard finger.
"You need to show you're sorry. How about on your knees? Yeah, get on your knees and say you're sorry for being such a wiseass."
So I got down on my knees. In the middle of the oval. As though I was praying. I bent my head. The blade of grass was closer now and still wrong. I focused. The insect climbed its plane, the east face of a green mountain. I counted the legs. They seemed right. And then I saw the difference.
It was subtle. The way the light hit the stalk. The sun was behind me, and the boys' shadows pointed away, toward where it would set. But the light on this blade of grass came from the wrong direction. The right side of the blade was polished, burnished by light, and the left shadowed. Wrong. The tip of the blade, curved away from me, should have been touched by gold.
I knew. So I stood.
"I told you to get on your knees, fat boy," said Callum.
I looked at him closely. Once I notice the first difference, even if it's small, others follow, bigger and bigger, until the whole world is different. Callum's eyes were brown now. His freckles shifted into a birthmark on his right cheek. His hair was a darker shade of red. Like rust.
I could take my time, so I turned to Damien. He had shrunk and the athlete was gone. He no longer squinted into the sun, because the sun had moved directly above us. I wanted it that way.
"I'm not sorry," I said. "I haven't done anything to be sorry about. You started this. Not me. So I'm not sorry, and I'm not getting down on my knees."
Callum glanced at his mate. My words were a detour into unfamiliar territory, and he had no map to give directions. I wanted him to bluster. So he did.
"I don't care what you think, fat boy," he said. "I don't give a shit. So you'd better say sorry real quick or . . ."
"I'll be sorry?" I said.
"Yeah," he said.
"Look," I said. "I'll tell you what I think and you'll listen. Every school I've been to, you were there. Sometimes you were taller, sometimes smaller. Your hair changes, your clothes change, but you don't. Not what's inside. It's always dark. I can taste it, that darkness. And it tastes of blood and fear and hopelessness."
"You're weird," said Damien.
"It's time to hit me," I said.
The boys glanced at each other. Nervous. Callum's eyes shifted back to me. One had turned green. His fist balled and he rocked back on his heels to get the weight right. He was scared but he had to punch me now. I'd given him no choice.
His fist swung back, and I put my face forward a little. I watched as the knuckles arced toward me. It was not a bad punch, considering I had chipped his confidence. I'd felt worse. When his fist landed on my cheek, just below my left eye, I felt the bone give. But I didn't fall.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Dreamrider by Barry Jonsberg. Copyright © 2008 by Barry Jonsberg. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.