Excerpt: Chapter 1

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Najah knew the answers, but she held back. She could have easily earned an A on the test, but a C seemed more average—not good, not bad, just ordinary. Sitting at the front of the class, certainly not by choice, she pretended to read questions she had already answered. The test, like all the others, was easy for Najah.

Gazing around the room, she noticed her classmates struggling with their calculations and erasing their scratch paper where faulty formulas rendered incorrect solutions. Wearing blue jeans, a T-shirt, and gym shoes, her hair pulled into a thick, cottony afro puff, Najah’s goal was to blend in and not stand out. Unfortunately, she was oblivious to how remarkably noticeable and extraordinary she was.

Distracted by the sudden noise spilling into the classroom, Najah looked up, as did the other students, when Principal Stanley walked in with a new student. She sank a little in her seat, sliding down, hoping not to draw attention to herself. It was tough enough being the principal’s granddaughter, but it was even more difficult that most of her classmates seemed to despise her because they thought she received special treatment simply because of that fact.

Principal Stanley introduced the new student to the teacher in a near whisper, not wanting to disturb the testing students. But it was too late. She’d already caught everyone’s attention. The students looked inquisitively at the new boy who stood fairly tall for a sixth grader. He wore black Timberland boots and black jeans with a black pullover hoodie sporting the Nike logo. His jet black hair was curly and cut very low.

Rick tossed his backpack and test booklet on the table that stretched across the row of seated students then dug around for a pencil. The shifting and crumpling of paper in his backpack was loud and disruptive. Najah reached back from the row ahead and handed him her extra pencil. He smiled and nodded graciously as he accepted it from her. The students sitting in the immediate vicinity sighed and rolled their eyes at Najah, one even throwing a balled-up piece of paper at the back of her head.

“Nerd girl,” Chelsea whispered at Najah just loud enough for her cronies to hear. “Why bother taking the test? You’re going to get an A anyway, teacher’s pet.”

Chelsea and her friends giggled. Rick watched the commotion while Najah ignored them. She was used to their taunting.

“Settle down,” Mr. Jones said from the front of the class, his eyes trained on the row behind Najah.

Najah had finished the test thirty minutes before she turned it in. She preferred not to be the first one. After a few of the high achievers handed in their tests, Najah followed suit. She shoved her pencils and erasers into her backpack along with her water bottle and carried her test to Mr. Jones, who looked up from his book long enough to give her a smile of approval before turning his attention back to the pages of the book. Najah kept her head down as she whipped through the corridors of Washington Middle School. Some students lingered near their lockers talking about YouTube videos, tests, video games, and as usual, Najah as she walked by.

paws

Rick’s height was intimidating to most of the students, and he used it to his advantage as he rushed down the crowded hall of the middle school. He was losing pace, though, weaving in and out of the small gaps between his classmates as he tried to catch up with Najah, who walked as fast as most people jogged. He finally caught up with her at the bike rack. She saw him approaching and stepped back cautiously. Rick extended his hand gesturing for her not to worry. She unlocked her bike and snapped the lock around the neck of the seat.

“Hey, thanks for helping me out back there,” Rick said.

Najah shrugged, “No big deal. Just come prepared next time.”

He smiled at her no-nonsense tone. “I will.” He paused. “Well, I just wanted to say thanks,” he stammered when he noticed her getting impatient. He reached out to shake her hand. “I’m Rick, by the way.”

Najah was tentative. She scanned him up and down as if examining him for defects. His puppy-like brown eyes seemed to indicate sincerity. She shook his hand. “I’m Najah.”

“Najah—that’s a nice name.” He smiled, but she adjusted her helmet on her head, swung one leg over her bike, and pushed off.

“Gotta run, Rick,” she said into the wind.

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Najah locked her bike against the light post, unstrapped her helmet, and pulled it off as she ascended the stairs to her grandmother’s house, which was where she had lived for the past two years while her parents did missionary work in the small villages of southern Malawi.

“Hey, Naj!” Reginald shouted.

Najah tossed her backpack onto the porch next to the door.

“Where’s your grandmother?” he asked.

She shrugged, not wanting to engage in conversation with him but deciding to answer anyway. “You know she’s at the school. What do you want, Reggie?”

Reginald continued, “You want to see something cool?”

“No, I’m not interested,” she said and walked toward the door.

“Come on, you’ll like it.”

“Not interested.” She figured it was either a practical joke he wanted to pull on her, usually involving something gross like bugs and worms, or he wanted her to follow him to some place they shouldn’t be. Either way, she knew it wouldn’t be worth the trouble.

“Okay. I just thought—” Reginald began, but Najah cut him off.

“Reggie, my grandmother expects me to come home directly after school. I can’t leave the house. Not at all.” She continued up the porch stairs and reached for the screen door.

“Oh, so you do everything your grandmother tells you to do?”

She stopped in her tracks. “No,” she sighed, “but I’m not into being grounded.”

She also knew Reginald could be a troublemaker, having been in a lot of trouble for hanging out with the older kids, vandalizing Miss Sophie’s property, and all sorts of other destructive behavior. No, she didn’t want to go anywhere with Reginald to see anything. Reginald was trouble, and she didn’t want any part of it.

“Just tell her you went to the library or something. I got your back if you need an alibi,” Reginald offered.

Najah shook her head, still declining. She had no intention of lying to her grandmother. Besides, Grandma always had a way of knowing when someone lied to her. And Najah wasn’t willing to risk disappointing her grandmother. She just wanted to stay low-key until her parents came back and got her, which she hoped would be soon. Then she could be with her friends again.

She went inside, directly to her bedroom, and lay across her bed. The beep from her cell phone jarred her as she began to doze off. She looked at the message.

REGGIE: Just in case you change your mind, I’ll be by the bridge.

She smirked and set her phone on the bedside table. Then she rolled onto her stomach and started her homework.

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Najah's Quest Copyright © 2015 by Michele Kimbrough. All Rights Reserved.

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