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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Breaking Routine by Kai Strand

Changing things up impacts more than just Sandy’s day.
***

“Check your watch,” Sandy predicted.

Hovering on the edge of his front stoop, the man glanced at his wrist before cautiously stepping down.

Sandy counted his twelve steps to the sidewalk. He always took twelve steps. At exactly the same time each morning Sandy watched him perform the same senseless routine. At the sidewalk he hesitated again before making a precise right angle and taking thirty-two steps to the corner across from Sandy’s school bus stop.

Just then the bus pulled up, blocking her view of the man. But she’d seen him often enough to know he would scan the street in both directions before turning a strict 180 degrees and reversing the routine back toward his front stoop. She assumed he picked up the morning paper on the way back inside, but she was always carted away before he reached the front step where the paper lay in wait.

Sandy flopped into her seat. Aaron already sat across the aisle and Jana was immediately behind her. It struck her they were as habitual as the man she rolled her eyes at each morning. She thought about her day ahead and realized that every move was choreographed until she got home from school. She walked a predictable path through the crowded halls. She stopped at the same places to visit with the same kids, everyday. She even had her bathroom visits worked into her routine.

When had she become so structured? Since she didn’t yet count her own steps, she assumed she wasn’t as phobic as the man she watched each morning, but that provided little comfort. In an odd way, his strange repetitiveness had become part of her own morning routine. Had she been influenced by his repetitious behavior?

At the next stop she popped up and strode to a seat farther back and on the opposite side of the bus. Kids eyed her suspiciously and she smirked at her bold move. 

Two stops later, the bus grew quiet as a boy climbed on. Sandy recognized him as one of the rare upper classmen that still rides the bus, but she didn’t know more about him beyond the fact that she was sitting in his normal seat. She swallowed loudly. He loomed in the aisle and gawked at her.

“You’re in my seat.”

“Well, technically I’m not. We don’t have assigned seats. But you can sit next to me.” Sandy smiled sweetly, but her insides churned nervously. What if he caused a scene and made her move?

The boy stared at her with his mouth agape. Sandy pulled her backpack off the seat and crammed it onto the floor at her feet. “There you go.”

The boy sat, but his left side hung over the edge so far he may as well sit in the aisle. 

Sandy smiled to herself and stared out the window at the less familiar scenery.

At school she chose to go straight to her first class instead of stopping at her locker. If it weren’t for the stuffed reptiles lining the shelves behind Mrs. Anderson’s desk, Sandy might have thought she’d walked into the wrong classroom. A plain looking blonde wore a pretty yellow and white checked sweater. She tapped the erasure end of her pencil ceaselessly on a pile of textbooks on her desk. Sandy wondered if she was new to the school.

“Hi,” she greeted, a smile forming naturally at the girl’s bug-eyed reaction. She dumped her backpack under her assigned desk and slid onto the chair.

The girl looked around before answering. “Um…hi.”

As the classroom filled, sweater girl glanced surreptitiously at Sandy. When the bell rang and the teacher took roll, Sandy paid close attention. Her brow furrowed when sweater girl chirped, “Here,” in response to “Ashley Bruin.”

Well, that’s embarrassing. I’ve been going to school with her forever. She must have gotten contacts and her hair is longer than I remember. She’s a major brainiac, too. No wonder she looked at me funny.

When the bell rang Sandy gave Ashley one last shy smile and hurried out of the room, still embarrassed over not recognizing her. After changing for P.E., she stuffed her backpack and clothes into the tiny gym locker and went into the gymnasium. The volleyball nets were set up.

“Cool! Volleyball.” She plopped down next to Miranda. “I’m so glad we’re finished with physical testing. I’m tired of hearing how inflexible I am.”

“Oh my gall, Sandy. I didn’t think you were here today.” Miranda’s forehead wrinkled with concern. “Where were you this morning?”

“I decided to go straight to class.”

“Why? Were you late?” Miranda peered closely at Sandy and pressed hand on her forehead. “Are you feeling okay?”

Sandy chuckled. “I’m fine.” This is fun.

Source: Kai Strand
After P.E. she was forced to stop at her locker to exchange her books. Kyle, the hottest guy in the senior class was squatted down, digging through the pile of books and papers in his locker, directly under hers.

Sandy stood on tiptoe and reached over his muscled mass to dial her locker combo.

He smiled up at her. “Just getting here this morning?”

Being a somewhat shy sophomore, Sandy felt her cheeks flush. “N-no, I-I just haven’t s-stopped here yet.” Great, now he thinks I stutter!

“Good thing we don’t run into each other often.” He slammed his locker shut and stood. His towering height made Sandy feel puny. “You can barely reach your locker with me down there.”

Determined not to sound like a simpleton, Sandy said, “Oh, we could just switch lockers if our schedules had us here at the same time.”

He nodded. “Good thinking.”

Someone called Kyle’s name from across the sea of kids.

“See ya around.” He stepped into the tide and the current parted for him as if he were Moses.

Okay, I’m completely convinced changing my predictable schedule was the best idea I’ve ever had.

Sandy floated into her next class on a cloud of happiness.

At lunch that afternoon, Sandy decided to stick with the normal routine. If she made too big a change it might disrupt the entire lunchroom hierarchy. But lunch took an unexpected turn after all. It was as if she’d thrown a pebble into her daily pond and the ripple effects were starting to rock her boat.

She stuffed in with her fourteen friends around a table designed to seat ten. Three different conversations buzzed at the same time. Suddenly all the talking died away and everybody stared over Sandy’s shoulder. She turned to find Ashley Bruin behind her, red as a beet, examining her retro saddle shoes.

“Hi, Ashley.” Sandy felt as uncomfortable as Ashley looked.

“Um, Sandy, I thought maybe you and your friends might vote for me for sophomore representative on the student council.”

The kids stared blankly at Ashley. As the awkwardness grew, Sandy knew someone had to say something. Trying to sound enthusiastic, she said, “Tell us why we should vote for you.”

Ashley outlined her goals for student council all the way through to their senior year when she hoped to organize a student work program in the city’s government offices as well as internships in Washington DC the year after they graduated.

“Wow, Ashley. You’re so focused! I really admire that,” Sandy said.

“You do?” Ashley and a few of the other kids asked at the same time.

“Yeah! You obviously know what you want and have figured out what you’ll need in order to accomplish your goal. I think our class would benefit from strong leadership like that. You’ve got my vote.”

The group nodded and murmured their agreement. Benny said, “Hey Ashley, I’m interested in politics. Do you have any suggestions of what I could do now to get involved?” Ashley walked around the table and the kids budged over to make room for her.

Sandy was smiling over the unexpected alliance when Kyle passed the table and flashed his winning smile. “Hey, locker buddy!”

“Hi, Kyle.” She was careful not to stutter, but unable to stop her traitorous cheeks from coloring again. Miranda gave her a pointed look, so Sandy whispered. “He doesn’t even know my name.”

Just then Kyle turned and walked back. “Hey, Sandy, are you going to the Masq dance?”

“Uh-huh.” Shock reduced her vocabulary to grunts. Is this a cruel prank, am I being set up to be the butt of a senior joke?

“Are you wearing a costume?” Kyle asked.

“Uh-uh.” Terrific, now he thinks I’m a caveman.

“Great, I’ll see you there. Save me a dance, okay?” He lit the room with a grin and turned back to his friends.

Sandy stared after him while her friends gawked at her. All she could think was that she must have lobbed a boulder into her pond to create ripples this big.

She coasted on autopilot for the next two classes, unable to concentrate on anything besides images of Kyle standing over her at the locker or talking to her at lunch. She joined the human race again when she walked into her history class. History was her favorite class because not only was it the last class of the day, but they also had the coolest teacher.

Mr. Burris was a free-flowing, hippie type of guy. He never seemed to have a prepared class lesson, yet they always learned something interesting. Sandy became so immersed in the action of his lessons that she was often startled when the bell rang her back into the modern world. Mr. Burris also allowed them to sit wherever they wanted, so Sandy decided to end the day disrupting one last routine.

Vance groaned when he walked into the classroom. “Not the front row, Sandy. We hate the front row, remember?”

“Not today we don’t. You can sit in back if you want.”

He sighed heavily and plopped his books on the desk next to her.

A very shy girl, Tina, sat on Sandy’s other side.

Mr. Burris raised an eyebrow at Sandy and Vance when he sauntered through the door as the bell rang. He walked over to Tina and held out his hand. “Miss Tumbler, please join me at the front of the room.”

Sandy felt fear emanate from Tina as Mr. Burris escorted her to a chair at the front of the class. He hung a skull and crossbones symbol around her neck. Then he wrapped swastika armbands around Sandy and Vance’s arms.

“Thanks a lot, Sandy,” Vance hissed.

“Today’s lesson is the Holocaust.” Mr. Burris instructed everyone to shun Tina and treat her as an inferior. They slowly identified the “Jews” among them and either Vance or Sandy hung a black sash over their shoulder to represent their execution. Near the end of the lesson it looked as if an angry artist had slashed black paint across a disappointing canvas. Finally after ostracizing Tina throughout the entire class period, Mr. Burris instructed Sandy to hang two sashes on her.

“Why two?” Her voice was barely a whisper.

“Miss Tumbler represents the mothers with children who were executed after having spent years in hard labor camps.”

Sandy trudged toward Tina, regretting her choice to disrupt her seating pattern. Tina’s eyes brimmed with fear. Sandy hesitated. “This sucks, Mr. Burris.”

“Fight, Tina!” Melanie called from the back of the room. “Don’t just let her kill you.”

The class was quiet except for a couple of muffled sniffles. Sandy raised the sashes over Tina’s head and then whirled toward Mr. Burris.

“Why did they do this? Why did they follow these horrible orders?” She threw the sashes on the floor. “I can’t do this anymore.”

Mr. Burris smiled. The bell rang. The students breathed a collective sigh of relief. Tina stood and ripped the skull and crossbones from around her neck. Sandy spontaneously threw her arms around her. “Fight for yourself, Tina. Only you can truly stand up for yourself.”

Sandy rushed from the room swiping at a few surprising tears. At her locker she grabbed her homework and hurried outside, eager to shake off the emotional lesson. The bus was already crowded. Sandy dropped into the first empty seat.

“Hey, Sandy!”

She turned to see who belonged to the unfamiliar voice. The boy she’d coerced into sitting next to her that morning was perched on the edge of his usual seat.

“Aren’t you gonna sit with me?”

“Uhhh, sure I guess,” she said.

The boy stepped into the aisle so Sandy could slide next to the window, then he sat down. This time he didn’t hang out into the aisle as far.

“How did you know my name?” Sandy asked.

“I saw you talking to my sister at lunch today, so I asked her.”

“Who’s your sister?”

“Ashley. My name’s Andy.” Ruddy apple cheeks highlighted his blue eyes. His long, shaggy brown hair was in no particular style. Nothing about him was in or out of style, he was just him.

“Why doesn’t Ashley take the bus too?”

“She works in the library before school and has chess club after school. She told me what you did for her today. I wanted to say, thanks.”

“You mean voting for her? She totally earned that.”

“No. Talking to her. Kids outside her group of friends, they just don’t talk to her. She ran up to me after first period to tell me. I should’ve guessed then that it was the same girl who disrupted my own morning.”

Sandy grinned.

“It was my idea for her to ask for your vote. When I saw her sitting at your table during lunch, I almost fell over. You made her day.”

“It was nothing, really.”

After Andy’s stop, Sandy sat alone, staring out the window. What a great day she’d had. Maybe she should never be predictable again.

***

Three months later the ripple effects of that day were more evident. Ashley won the spot of sophomore representative on the student council. She and Benny were dating. Being a ‘Holocaust survivor’ gave Tina the confidence to make new friends. Sandy had the privilege of being her first. Vance was suddenly an outspoken advocate for student rights.

Sandy danced with Kyle more than once at the dance though they didn’t start dating. Her parents would never let her date a senior. But she was spending a lot of time with Andy. He’s only a junior and doesn’t drive, so he passed the parent test. Sandy doesn’t head any committees; that isn’t her thing. But she is involved in a few. She actively recruits members and lobbies for support on issues.

And she consciously disrupts her routine on a regular basis.

***
Kai Strand writes fiction for kids and teens. Her debut novel, The Weaver, was an EPIC eBook Awards finalist. Her young adult title, King of Bad, soared to the publisher's #1 spot in its second month and stayed on the Top 5 Bestsellers list for eight months. She is a (very lucky) wife and the mother of four amazing kids. The most common sound in her household is laughter. The second most common is, "Do your dishes!" She and her family hike, geocache, and canoe in beautiful Central Oregon, where they call home. Learn more about Kai and her books by visiting her website: www.kaistrand.com.

She loves to hear from readers, so feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments, send her an email, or visit her facebook page, KaiStrand, Author.