I first met Ingrid in the seventh grade. We were both enrolled at Holy Cross Elementary school, a Catholic private school. I was the nerd with glasses and the knobby knees and the voice that couldn't decide whether it was treble or baritone. She was the bully with buck teeth and blonde pigtails.
I was down on my knees in the playground, the glasses having been knocked off my face by my friendly classmate Jose. I was blind as a bat's grandmother and couldn't see where my glasses had landed. The next thing I knew, a foot landed in my face and I landed on my back with a breathless "oof!" that sounded somehow comical, like something from a cartoon. Only I wasn't laughing. I was crying. Jose was now on top of me, punching me repeatedly in the nose. There was both dirt and blood in my mouth.
"What's going on here?" came the strident voice I recognized from my third period Social Studies class. It belonged to the girl with buck teeth and blonde pigtails, the one whose hand was perpetually in the air, the one who always had the right answers. The one who cut everyone else in line in the cafeteria and nobody bothered because she was taller than the tallest boy in the whole school. If anything, I was more scared of her than of Jose.
'Why don't you mind your own business, Beaver."
That was the name everyone called her behind her back. This may have been the first time anyone had dared to say it to her face.
"What. Did. You. Just. Say," she growled. I was inching away from Jose, having found my glasses near a bush. I could dimly see that a large crowd was gathering around us, the noiseless hush of their attention gathering more students.
I shoved my glasses back on and winced. The nose was definitely broken. But at least I could see again. And Jose was looking mighty nervous. I watched him gulp and stutter over a response. Watched her hand flash forward and (wonder of wonders) karate chop him. Watched him crumple to the ground in a messy heap.
Watched her head my way, a purposeful look on her face.
Before I could even blink, she was reaching out a hand towards me. I'll admit it -- I flinched. So would have you after having witnessed the Karate Kid in action.
"The name's Ingrid. I think you're in my Science class."
"A-A-Actually, it's Social Studies. And my name is Jack."
"Whatever. It's nice to meet you, Jack."
Her hand was warm in my hand. Her smile was warm, too. I smiled back nervously but then stopped when I realized the action made my face hurt.
"Come on, Jack," she said, now holding on to my arm with a resolute grip. "Let's go get you some ice."
I wish I could say that Ingrid and I were inseparable from that day on, but that wasn't the case. Our friendship built up slowly. After she took me to the nurse's office that day, we would nod to each other in the hallway, plus there was that one time she let me borrow her pen when mine ran out of ink during class. But for the most part, we went back to our separate lives.
Until the day Tropical Storm Irma came to town.
I remember the day because we were under a tropical storm watch and school let out early, right before lunch.
I was packing up my books when a shadow suddenly loomed over me.
The shadow cleared its throat and said, "Hey, Jack."
I looked up and saw Ingrid there, shuffling her feet. I stood there staring for maybe a minute because it was such an uncommon sight, seeing Ingrid look so uncomfortable.
"Um, can I help you?" I asked as I shouldered my book bag.
She shuffled her feet and cleared her throat some more. This was definitely not typical Ingrid behavior.
"I was just wondering what you were up to, you know, now that school's letting us out early."
"Well, I'm not up to a whole lot. Just going to go home and maybe watch TV, see if we're in the dreaded 'cone.'"
"Oh, it's just something meteorologists invented to try and predict who's going to get hit by the storm or not. This morning, we weren't in the cone, but you never know. A lot can change in a few hours when it comes to tropical storms."
"You sure know a lot about tropical storms, Jack. Are you going to be a meteorologist when you grow up?" She'd stopped shuffling her feet and her eyes had a mischievous twinkle in them. I noticed for the first time her green eyes had yellowish flecks in them. It made her look almost tigerish.
We stood there awkwardly for another minute while the other students exited the classroom. They were chattering excitedly, their spirits buoyed by the sudden release from school, and a few of them kept casting curious glances our way.
"Ingrid and Jack, do you have someone coming to pick you up? I need to close up the classroom now," our Social Studies teacher Brother Anthony said, jangling a set of keys in his hand.
"Yeah, my brother's coming to get me," I replied.
Brother Anthony turned expectantly towards Ingrid. "How about you, Ms. Gundt? I know your mom works late. How are you going to get home?"
Ingrid's face turned red and she started doing the feet shuffling thing again.
That was the moment someone else entered my body and opened my mouth, saying the words, "Oh, no, Brother Anthony. She's coming home with me."
I registered in some dim part of my brain that Ingrid was looking at me, but I was too busy being shocked at myself to do anything about it.
Brother Anthony smiled at me. "Well, that's really nice of you, son. Both of you stay safe now. It's already getting pretty windy outside. Let me walk you out to the parking lot."
He ushered us out into the hall, and sure enough the winds had picked up significantly since morning. Ingrid's pigtails lifted straight up, like she was Pippi Longstocking or something, and we all laughed, including Brother Anthony.
He walked us as far as the parking lot, where my brother Joe sat in his old Chevy smoking a cigarette while the car idled.
Brother Anthony nodded at the Chevy. "Is that your brother, Jack?"
"Yep. He went to Holy Cross Elementary, too, but he's a senior at St. Theodore's now. He swears I'm adopted and not really his flesh and blood."
Brother Anthony smiled again, his eyes crinkling into crow’s feet at the corners. "Sounds like flesh and blood to me. Well, you both take care now."
"You, too," we both chimed back.
As Ingrid and I clambered into the back seat, I was careful not to look directly at her. I still hadn't gauged her reaction. I figured she wasn't upset because she had come with me. I hoped I hadn't done anything wrong.
"Hullo, Jack." My brother greeted me with the cigarette hanging carelessly from his lips. "Who's the little lady?"
"The little lady's Ingrid and she has asthma, so would you mind putting out the cigarette? Thanks."
Joe cocked an eyebrow but threw the cigarette out the window all the same.
Ingrid cranked open her window and sat back with a sigh. It was a relieved sort of sigh and it made her sound a lot older than her twelve or so years.
Joe waggled his eyebrows at me in the rear view mirror and I had to bite my lip to avoid laughing.
I felt a hand on my arm. "Thanks, a lot, Jack. My mom works at a hospital and she doesn't get home till real late. I normally stay in the after-school program and then take a bus. But I'd much rather go home with you."
I looked at Ingrid for the first time since I'd told Brother Anthony I was taking her home. I checked her face for any sign that she was making fun of me or being mean in any way, but there was none of that there.
"Sure, no problem," I said. Now I was the one clearing my throat and shuffling my feet.
"You got any video games?" she asked.
"Only about a thousand."
My brother chimed in, "Most of 'em mine and don't you forget it."
I groaned and slid down in my seat.
Ingrid laughed and asked my brother what systems he had.
We talked about video games all the way home, stopping to pick up some pizza.
I don't remember much else of the day. I remember it rained a lot, and we lost power for maybe an hour or two, but nothing major. I remember we played some games on my brother's Nintendo. Ingrid was really good at fighting games, better even than me. My parents came home from work and were probably surprised to see a girl in the house, but they didn't bat an eye. Ingrid's mom came to get her after 7 PM, and she was so grateful to me for taking her daughter home, she kissed me on the cheek.
But that wasn't what made me blush like a lobster. That happened after Ingrid kissed me on the cheek, too, before skipping out the door after her mother.