Everyone else had brought a lunch. They had said they were going to go for pizza on Thursday, but they had all brought lunches to school. Jemma was dismayed. Going to the pizza place alone was socially unacceptable. But she was hungry, and she had her $5 bill, and she would rather be seen there than the Subway or the McDonald’s.
It wasn’t even good pizza, but everyone went there anyway. They sold cheese, pepperoni, or Hawaiian, but everyone got pepperoni. There was strict etiquette around the transaction. It was acceptable to use napkins to sop up the extra grease that pooled in the rounds of meat. It was not acceptable to ask for a refund if you found a long, dark hair nestled in the cheese, from the ponytail of the man at the counter. That would be unnecessarily cheap. But it was okay to throw out the rest of the slice.
The shop was mercifully quiet as she approached. The usual groups of loitering girls were absent. It was always a challenge to pass them. They looked so threatening, with their pin-straight blonde hair and their tanned stomachs emerging from low-rise jeans. They were always laughing, and you never knew if it was about you. She wondered if she would be lucky enough to get her food and leave without anyone noticing.
But there was one table full, right next to the cash register—five boys, including Jake. Her heart started humming, and she could feel her palms getting sweaty. She hadn’t seen them until she was already inside the shop, so she didn’t have time to prepare anything cool to say. She was wearing the wrong shoes. She wished she’d washed her hair.
She calmed herself and headed straight for the counter, pretending not to notice them. She ordered her two slices of pepperoni and a Dr. Pepper, and was struggling to find her money when she heard Jake’s voice behind her.
“May I buy your lunch?” he asked.
She started. He must have been talking to someone else—one of his friends, or maybe there was another girl walking in the door. She decided it was safer not to turn around, just in case.
“Mademoiselle Jemma,” he said in theatrical tones, to snickers from the other boys at the table. She pivoted, and he stood up, grating the plastic chair on the floor. He presented a crumpled $5 bill to her with a little bow and rose, grinning. Her face was glowing hot.
“Um, it’s cool,” she said. “I’ve got some money.”
“Yep, right here,” he said, offering the bill again. The guy at the counter gave an impatient cough into her plate. She reached into her pocket but her lunch money was missing.
“You dropped it!” hooted Anton from the other side of the table. Finally understanding, she took the $5 bill from Jake’s hand, accidentally scratching him in her haste.
“Thanks!” she said brightly, beet red, and left the shop. Once the fresh air hit her she realized she had left the pizza behind.