It was a beautiful Sunday morning. Unfortunately for Oliver, he had to spend that morning scrubbing the floors of the Fish N Stuff restaurant.
“Why do they have to drag us in so early?” he complained. “No one’s here anyway!”
“It just means we can get home earlier,” his mother explained. “Just do your job. The manager won’t be happy if you complain too much.”
Oliver sighed. “Yes, Mother.”
His mother, Maria Santos Palmiero, was one of the waitresses for this shift. As Oliver’s only parent, she was used to working long hours here. However, her income was so meagre that Oliver also took the job to try to make some extra money.
After what felt like hours, a pair of men arrived as their first customers.
“Welcome to the Fish N Stuff,” Ms. Palmiero greeted, putting minimal effort into a smile. “What would you like?”
“Two continental breakfasts,” answered one of the men.
“Two continental breakfasts to stay!” she called out, before turning back. “Please wait while we prepare your order.”
As she walked away, the other man whispered to his buddy, “Why did we get the ugly one?”
Oliver overheard that insult and was prepared to rush over to the table to deliver a piece of his mind, but was stopped by his mother.
“Remember what I told you,” she whispered. “Don’t say anything. It’ll only make it worse.”
Reluctantly, Oliver backed down, glaring at his mop. His mother warned him about the amount of jerks that ate at this restaurant, but hearing the constant snide remarks about his mother, both to her front and back, was no less easier now. Especially so when around noon, they came from an old adversary.
“Why do we have to eat here?” Abigail whined. “Their food sucks.”
“My dear Abby,” her mother replied. “It’s Lucas’s turn today to choose lunch. Besides, we can’t be so spendthrift. People who waste money so frivolously end up working…here.”
Mrs. Smith smirked in Ms. Palmiero’s direction before emphasizing her last word.
“What a pity,” her husband added. “Couldn’t find a man to support her, so she’s stuck doing teenager work.”
“Welcome to Fish N Stuff,” Ms. Palmiero interjected monotonously, trying to act as if she never heard their insults. “What would you like?”
“The Super Salmon Burger, if you please,” Lucas stated.
“One for me too,” Abigail added.
“The Caesar salad, dear,” Mrs. Smith requested. “It’s imperative that I watch my weight.”
“Fish and chips,” Mr. Smith finished. “Try to have it cooked properly this time.”
“Very well,” Ms. Palmiero said as she tallied up the order. “Your food will be here in 10 minutes.”
Oliver was close by, his blood boiling. I can see where Lucas gets it from, he thought.
A bored Lucas suddenly turned around to see him in his wet and dirty uniform.
“Fancy meeting Stacy’s boyfriend here,” he chuckled. “As if you couldn’t be any more of a loser.”
“At least I’m doing something other than being an ungrateful, spoiled brat,” Oliver retorted.
“Ungrateful? Moi?” Lucas sneered. “I’m plenty grateful…that I’m not stuck working in this dump. My schedule’s full enough as it is.”
Oliver looked on in shock.
“Yes, that’s right. Not just the Gamer Club, but piano lessons, soccer practice, the robotics club, my dad’s Chamber of Commerce events, should I go on?”
“Okay, fine. I get it. But that doesn’t make you good at them. We lost our last game because you kept showing off and hogging the ball.”
Lucas growled. “It’s not my fault the rest of you keep screwing up.”
“Now, now, Lucas,” Mr. Smith interjected. “Be nice to our janitor. He’s probably stuck here for the rest of his life.”
“Yes, dear,” Mrs. Smith added. “It’s a pity his mother never instilled in him a sense of personal responsibility. Laziness runs in the family, I guess.”
“His mother?” Abigail asked. “She’s our server, right?”
Oliver cringed. “Yes,” Mrs. Smith answered, and the entire family broke out in roaring laughter.
“Figures you’d also be a momma’s boy,” Lucas chortled. “You really need to stop hanging out with that Stacy girl. She’s been a bad influence on you.”
“Why don’t you just shut up?” yelled Oliver.
His words echoed throughout the restaurant. The manager, who was standing in the kitchen, rushed over to the scene to tell him off, with his worried mother following behind her.
“Please excuse us,” the manager informed the Smiths, intimidated by their contemptuous faces. “We apologize for the behaviour of our custodian. I assure you it won’t happen again.”
“Good,” Mr. Smith responded. “Your standards are low enough as they are.”
Ms. Palmiero gave her son a sad, disappointed stare as he walked off with the manager.
“Sorry for disappointing you, mom,” he replied.
She turned back to her customers, embarrassed by the scuffle.
“Has no one educated you on proper parenting?” Mrs. Smith asked in a mock-offended tone, with a wicked smile on her face. “You need to refrain from coddling that little brat.”
“They did what?” Stacy yelled at Oliver, exasperated.
The Games for Everyone club had just found an empty classroom to meet in for lunch hour. Stacy and Oliver were talking about his recent mishap while Tori was quietly listening.
“Yeah, it sucks,” Oliver replied. “Luckily, it was just a warning. Next time, I’m toast.”
“It’s not fair,” Stacy complained. “You have to stand there taking all their bullcrap, but the minute you try to defend yourself, you get all the blame.”
Oliver sighed. “I hate having to work with my mother. I mean, I love her and all, but it’s embarrassing for people to point it out.”
“Look, Oliver, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Stacy reassured him. “You’re doing it because you care about her, and if some jerks think that makes you a loser, well, they’re the real losers.”
“I don’t understand why being a momma’s boy is a bad thing,” Tori added. “I think it’s nice, really, that you care about her so much.”
Oliver looked at both of them, cracking a strained smile. “Thanks, guys.”
“You’re lucky to have her,” Stacy remarked. “She’s a lot better than my dad, to say the least. Speaking of which, Lucas’s parents are a piece of work, aren’t they?”
“You thought he was bad,” Oliver answered. “He’s nothing compared to them.”
“Aren’t they those jerkwads that write for the local paper? My dad’s constantly shoving their opinion articles in my face.”
“Yep, Robert and Marilyn Smith. Still following their articles to see if there’s someone they don’t hate other than people as rich as them.”
“I have no idea why you do that to yourself.”
“Eh, it’s a bad habit. And we have to keep up with the news for Social Studies anyway.”
Tori sighed. “My mom reads that paper too.” She stared sadly at her sketchbook. “She doesn’t like to see me drawing. Says there’s no future in it.”
Oliver, seeing her sad expression, tried to comfort her. “Aww, c’mon. Your art is great. Maybe a little rough, but nothing that can’t be fixed with a bit of practice.”
“It’s not that,” she answered. “Mrs. Smith wrote an article about how no one wanted to hire students with liberal arts degrees, and Mom takes it really seriously. She’s been trying to push me to do something useful instead.” She sighed. “But I don’t know what else I’m good at….”
“I’m sure you’re good at a lot of things,” Stacy responded cheerfully. “You’ve still got plenty of time to figure out!”
“Maybe,” Tori replied, but still looking down.
Stacy went on. “Sometimes, I wish my dad would pressure me more. Whenever I tell him I want to be a programmer, he just laughs.” She mockingly imitated his deep, masculine voice. “You? A programmer? You can’t even keep your head on straight and yet you think you can handle all that code?”
Tori suddenly winced. “I’m sorry. I was being selfish, wasn’t I, complaining about my mother when your dad is like that.”
“Not at all!” Stacy answered. “I know it’s hard for you too, being told you can’t do what you love. It’s my fault for bringing up my dad.”
“Anyways,” Oliver interjected, wanting to steer the conversation someplace else. “How’s that poster coming along?”
Tori opened her backpack and pulled out her concept art. It depicted a tall, thin, and handsome man with long black hair courageously raising his sword to the moon, with a scared-looking blonde girl tugging at his side, hoping he would defend her. Both Stacy and Oliver had a puzzled expression when they saw the girl.
“Why does she look so weak?” Oliver asked.
“She’s scared,” Tori explained. “But it’s okay because she has her valiant knight to protect her. I’ve always wished that someday, a guy like that would come and rescue me.”
Oliver was still confused. “Why is that your fantasy? My daydreams are about taming dragons and scorching my enemies.”
Tori paused. “It’s all I have going for me,” she said quietly.
Stacy stared at her, nervously thinking of what to say in response. “Not that your design is bad or anything,” she began. “It’s nice. But I don’t think it’s the right fit for the club. We want to treat everyone as equal here. How about something a little more fun?”
“Like a festival, maybe?” Tori asked.
“Sure!” Stacy replied. “You’re the boss, after all.”
“Okay. I’ll work on it tonight.”
“How was your day?” Lydia asked Stacy through video chat. She was wearing a long white coat over a black tank top, her hair dyed sky blue.
“Oh dear,” Stacy answered back, overwhelmed. “Oliver nearly got fired yesterday just because he yelled at Lucas’s family, even though they were mocking him and his mother first.”
“People can be so unreasonable sometimes,” Lydia commiserated. “Why is he taking that job?”
“His mother doesn’t have a lot of money, but she wants to send him to university to make a better life for himself. He’s trying to save everything he can.”
“Still, it’s going to be hard to raise the money on restaurant work alone.”
“I know. I really want to help him somehow. Set up a donation drive…or something.”
“Well, let me know what I can do to help. I’ve got a fair bit of money lying around.”
“Thanks, Lydie, but you really shouldn’t. We’ll try to raise the money ourselves.”
“Very well. But if you change your mind, let me know. I’ll be here if you need me. Say, how’s Tori?”
“She’s still working on the poster.”
Stacy paused. “You know, something bothers me about her.”
“She said that all she had going for her was to be rescued by some handsome guy.” Stacy’s voice became quiet. “I didn’t know what to say. I know it’s her dream and she can think whatever she wants, but…it’s hard to see her with so little confidence in herself.”
Lydia paused. “It’s nice of you to respect her wishes. But yes, it is a little off-putting. She has her art going for her, doesn’t she?”
“She thinks it’s useless because she can’t get a job with it.”
“Nothing’s useless. Everyone has something to give to the world. I have computers, and my friend Willow has made a good living off her clothing store. Besides, weren’t you happy that she turned out to be an artist? Clearly, her skills are valuable to you and Oliver.”
“They are! How’d I forget about that? We’d be nowhere without her!”
Lydia smiled. “I remember when I started learning programming. It was all because of a computer scientist at the university who greatly contributed to our city planning. I wanted to be just like him; you could say, impress him. Not in that way of course.”
She paused for a while, thinking of how to continue her story. “But in the end, it’s up to you. A handsome prince can help you along the way, but you are your own person, and so is Tori. Only you can find your own way in life.”
“Who was that scientist?” Stacy asked.
Lydia was silent, with that same smile on her face. “It’s a long story. In any case, it’s been nice talking to you again. Good luck with the club.”
Stacy was unpleased by her evasive response, but smiled back anyway. “Thanks again, Lydie. Bye!”
“Hope to hear from you soon!” she said before she disconnected. “Don’t forget to send me the poster!”
Stacy stared at her blank screen while thinking about what Lydia said. Suddenly, she had an idea….
The next day, Oliver, Ren, and Tori were eating lunch together in the commons area.
“So you’re Tori,” Ren greeted with a smile. “Nice to meet you. I’m Ren.”
“Um…nice to meet you too, Ren,” Tori answered nervously.
“I heard from Oliver that you’re a great artist,” he continued. “I hope you can show me someday.”
“Okay,” Tori replied. “Just don’t expect too much.”
“Hey, I’m easy to please.”
The two became silent. Tori returned to her sketchbook as Ren turned to Oliver. “Sorry about Lucas,” he told him. “Tried to talk some sense into him, but he’s ridiculously stubborn.”
“I know,” Oliver interjected.
“And yeah, his parents are pretty annoying,” Ren continued. “Ask Dad and he’ll rant about them for hours.”
“Really? He’s always so chipper in class. What did they do to him?” Oliver asked.
“Well, it’s not just one thing,” Ren explained. “The Smiths have nothing but contempt for the liberal arts, so you can imagine what they think of Dad.”
“Wow, it’s amazing you managed to be friends with Lucas then.”
“Thing is, Lucas has his problems too. He keeps complaining to me about how no one trusts his talent, how everyone thinks he just gets by on his money.”
“You mean he doesn’t?” Oliver remarked sardonically.
Ren sighed. “I know it’s hard for you to understand, but a lot of people hate the Smiths, and Lucas and his sister tend to get caught up in it. It’s especially hard for Abigail….”
Tori flinched at the name.
“You know her?” Ren asked.
“S-she’s my classmate,” Tori replied anxiously. “We don’t get along very well.”
“Oh. Sorry about that too.”
Ren looked at his watch. “Oh, I gotta go. Got band practice. See ya guys. Hope we can talk some more some time, Tori!”
“I do too! Bye!” Tori called to him.
Ren turned to Oliver for a brief moment. “By the way, don’t let the Smiths get to you. Dad said your introduction essay was great, and he understands how busy you are. He says he’d always willing to help if you get stuck.”
“Oh really?” Oliver responded, surprised. “Great to hear. I knew he was cool.”
“He is. Anyway, see ya at soccer practice!”
As Ren ran off, Tori turned to Oliver, with a puzzled expression.
“So, why do you have to work such long hours?” she asked. “It’s your last year of high school. You should enjoy it while it lasts.”
“I know,” Oliver replied. “Trouble is, my mom and I don’t have a lot of money, but she’s determined to help me go to university. It ain’t pleasant, but you take what you can get. Hopefully one day, I can save enough money for my ticket to a better life for my mother and I.”
“What degree are you planning to take?” Tori asked.
Oliver looked nervous. “Uh, I’m still thinking about it. Not sure what I’m good at yet.”
“Oh,” Tori gasped. “You and me both.”
“It’s okay,” Oliver responded. “We still have time. Say, have you finished the poster?”
Tori took out the poster design from her backpack, now featuring a Japanese lantern festival with a cheerful boy and girl in yukata at a video game booth, greeting the viewer. “What do you think?” she asked.
“That’s amazing!” Oliver exclaimed. “I think it gets the message across perfectly, but we’ll have to see what Stacy thinks.”
Tori smiled. “Glad you like it! I wanted people to imagine some place fun, and what’s more inviting than a festival?”
A familiar obnoxious voice interrupted their conversation. “Hey there, Momma’s boy! Got yourself a new girlfriend, did you?”
Oliver glared back at Lucas and Abigail. “For your information, Lucas, Tori and I are just friends. Stacy too. I guess you wouldn’t know what that’s like, since the only girl who wants to be around you is your sister!”
Abigail fumed back at Oliver, his words having struck a nerve. “At least we have some taste in friends. I can’t believe of all people, you chose to sit with air-brain. I’m surprised you can even talk to her while she’s daydreaming about cartoon freaks.”
Lucas glanced at Tori’s poster. “You idiots still think anyone else wants to join your pathetic club?”
“Tori here just did,” Oliver snapped.
“Who else?” Abigail sneered.
Oliver paused, knowing full well that she was their only new member, but dreading having to give that answer.
“Figures you’d have to pick from the bottom of the barrel,” Abigail chuckled. “No one cool has any time left for your stupid club.”
She turned to Tori, her expression turning harsh. “Listen, you little freak. You think you’re such hot stuff, but no one is impressed by your lousy drawings. Everyone can see that you’re just a phony.”
Tori quivered in fear, tears streaming down her face. “Why do you hate me so much?” she cried.
“Why?” Abigail answered in a mocking tone. “Because you’re pathetic. You never pay attention in class, you do nothing but daydream your life away, and whenever you have to deal with any problem, all you know how to do is cry. You are the reason us girls have such a bad reputation, and I’m embarrassed to be in the same class as you.”
Tori, unable to control her tears, covered her face and turned away. Oliver was furious.
“So what?” he snapped. “You think you’re so strong, picking on Tori like that? She never did anything to you!”
Lucas, seeing the situation unfold, was getting concerned at his sister’s sheer vindictiveness. “Forget it, Abby,” he called out, trying to defuse the situation. “She’s not worth it.”
As they both started to walk away, Abigail gave one last glare to Tori as they both turned away.
Stacy suddenly entered the scene with a handful of cupcakes. “Hey guys, what did I miss?” she asked, before seeing Tori’s crying face. “Oh.”
“Lucas and his sister were just here,” Oliver explained, shaking in anger. “What she said to Tori…ugh, she’s such a…jerk!”
Stacy walked over to Tori. “It’s okay,” she reassured her. “We’re here for you. You’re better than what you think they are. We know how it feels. Lucas went after both of us, too.”
After a while, Tori started wiping away her tears. “You know, I sort of feel sorry for Abby,” she told them. “She seems so…hurt.”
Oliver was unnerved by her words. “Look, I know you want to see the good in everybody, but some people are just jerks. You need to look out for yourself too.”
“I’m sorry,” Tori cried. “That was a stupid thing to say, wasn’t it?”
“Wait, you don’t need to apologize…” Oliver retorted, taken aback.
“Oh, I’m sorry…” she immediately repeated, before blushing in embarrassment when she realized what she just said.
Stacy tried to cheer them up with a nervous giggle. “We’re…gonna have to work on that.”
The trio decided to meet in Stacy’s room after school, where she was ready to announce her latest idea.
“So I was thinking of setting up a donation drive for Oliver’s university fund,” she began.
“You don’t have to, Stacy,” Oliver interrupted.
“Hey, we’re friends, right? That’s what friends do. Anyway,” she continued. “I wondered how we were going to raise money. I mean, cookies, pah, that’s so cliché. A club like ours deserves something more creative. More special. More…geeky.”
She turned to Tori. “That’s where you come in.”
“Me?” Tori responded in astonishment.
“I was thinking, we should have a craft sale. It’ll be a great way to show off what the club is about, maybe even get some people interested in joining. Obviously, you’re the best artist here; your poster is awesome by the way. Would you mind contributing some of your art?”
“But everyone hates my drawings,” Tori protested. “That’s what Abigail told me.”
“Who cares what she thinks?” she snapped. Seeing Tori flinch, she paused for a while to regain her composure and put on a smile. “Look, we thought no one would join our club in the first place, but here you are! Sure, Lucas and Abby may be stuck-up jerks, but not everyone is like that. I’m sure there are plenty of other geeks in Pollock Secondary and other schools that would love your work. We just haven’t met them yet. And we’ll never know if we don’t try.”
“Still, Stace,” Oliver added. “We’re making Tori do all the work?”
“Of course not,” Stacy responded while holding up an Origami for Dummies book. “We’ll contribute some stuff too.”
Tori thought it over. “But what if people laugh at me?”
“Tori,” Stacy demanded. “How are you ever going to become an artist if you keep everything to yourself? Don’t just think about people laughing at you. What if you missed potential fans just because you were too scared to meet them?”
“Guess you’re right,” Tori replied. She put on an awkward smile. “I’ll try my best then.”
“Awesome!” Stacy yelled. “How about you, Olly?”
“Your idea is nuts,” Oliver remarked. “We’re at the bottom of the social totem pole here, and you expect people to buy stuff from us? Then again, I guess that also means we’ve got nothing else to lose. I’m in.”
“Excellent,” she said as she smiled mischievously. “I knew you’d understand.” Stacy brought out a stack of papers, some art books, and other supplies. “Let’s get started then.”