CHAPTER ONE 71:38
Parker had been a student at River Creek Middle School in Upstate New York for only five days, but he already knew that he hated it. It wasn’t just that he missed his school and friends back in England, or the farmhouse he had grown up in, or even that he had been forced to move less than an hour away from where his mother had died. Mostly, he thought, as he sat at his desk listening to the whispers around him, it was that he had never felt so alone.
Parker watched as Jenna skipped to the front of the class. She twirled around, sending her two brown plaits flying out on either side of her head, then looked at her friend in the front row and giggled.
“Whenever you’re ready,” said Mrs. Ford.
Mrs. Ford clasped her hands and leaned over her desk, beaming as if this was the presentation she had been waiting for. It would have been more believable if she hadn’t done exactly the same before every one of the twenty-two presentations that Parker and his classmates had already sat through. He wondered if Mrs. Ford would perform the same gesture for the twenty-third presentation: his. He was hoping not to find out, at least not today.
Jenna gave a small cough, giggled again, then began to read from the single handwritten piece of paper in her hand.
“The person I admire most is Missy May. . . .”
At the mention of another celebrity’s name, Parker’s heart sank. He looked up at the clock. Eight minutes left.
“I think she’s an amazing singer and role model for girls my age. Her songs are amazing and she never stops smiling, even though she has to smile for photographers all day. . . .”
Parker’s eyes followed the red second hand as it moved, painfully slowly, around the face of the clock.
“My favorite song is ‘Happy La La Land.’ The lyrics are amazing. . . .”
If Jenna could just keep repeating the word amazing for five more minutes, thought Parker, he would be able to go home and rewrite his presentation before their next class.
The funny thing was, of all the assignments he had been given so far, this one had been the one he had been least bothered about. Back at his old school in England, he had been assigned the exact same piece of work. Parker had written down as much of his previous talk as he could remember, added a few extra details to bring it up-to-date, put it in his bag, and thought nothing more of it. But now almost the entire class had delivered their presentations, and so far every single one had been about a celebrity. He knew it was a petty thing to worry about, and it wouldn’t have bothered him back in his old school, but it was just that after having been completely ignored the entire week, he didn’t want the first time he drew attention to himself to be for the wrong reason.
“And that is why I admire the amazing Missy May. Thank you for listening.”
Parker’s head snapped up. She was finished? That can’t have been more than two minutes, he thought. He looked up at the clock and saw that he was right.
“Great job, Jenna. Maybe a little short on time and facts but excellent delivery,” said Mrs. Ford. Jenna grinned and skipped back to her seat and to a smattering of weary clapping.
“We have time for one more.”
Oh no, thought Parker. He bowed his head low and slid down as far into his chair as he could without falling to the floor.
There was a brief pause, and then he heard Mrs. Ford asking somebody what was the name of the new boy at the back. There was no answer.
From the corner of his eye he saw Mrs. Ford making her way toward him. He waited until she stopped at his desk and only then, reluctantly, did Parker look up.
“Parker? It’s your turn,” said Mrs. Ford.
Parker hesitated. He wondered whether if he explained that he really didn’t want to do it, she would let him off. Before he had a chance to ask, however, Mrs. Ford leaned down.
“Did you do the assignment?”
Parker nodded. “But, I, um—I don’t think I properly understood what we were meant to do. Would it be okay if I did it next week?”
Mrs. Ford didn’t seem to have heard him, and then he realized why: she was too busy reading the paper on his desk. He quickly put his hand out to cover it, but it was too late.
“I don’t see what the problem is; it looks wonderful!”
Parker could feel the eyes of the whole class on him. He lowered his voice.
“It’s not about a famous person.”
Mrs. Ford gave a small laugh. “Oh, honey, that’s absolutely fine. Now come on, up you get.”
Parker grimaced. He slid the paper off his desk and walked slowly to face the class. For the first time during class, the room was completely silent. Everybody, Parker realized with a sinking feeling, was watching him attentively—curious to find out about the new student, he supposed.
Mrs. Ford was already back at her chair, hands clasped and smiling once again. She gave him a nod, and Parker, shoulders hunched and looking down, began to talk.
“The person I admire most is my father—”
“A little louder, Parker. We can’t hear a word you’re saying,” interrupted Mrs. Ford.
Parker took a deep breath and started again, still looking down, but this time in a louder voice.
“The person I admire most is my father, Dr. Geoffrey Banks. . . .”
As soon as he said it, a wave of muffled laughter traveled across the class.
“The reason I chose my father . . .”
There was some more stifled giggling. Parker clenched his jaw and looked over at Mrs. Ford.
“You’re doing fine,” she said, glaring at somebody sitting in the last row.
“The reason is that not only has he brought up my sister and me on his own for the last three years, but also that he has done this while working on some of the most important research that’s going on right now in the science world. My father . . .”
There was another wave of muffled laughter, and Parker felt his whole body tense. He turned to Mrs. Ford, who motioned for him to keep going.
He took a deep breath but didn’t look up. It’s just a few minutes, he told himself, then you can forget this whole thing.
“My father is a molecular biophysicist,” continued Parker. “While still a student at Cambridge University, my father and mother, who was also a scientist, were on a team that worked on sequencing DNA. DNA is the molecule that instructs each cell in an organism to tell it what to do and can . . .”
As Parker began to explain what DNA was, he saw a girl at the side rolling her eyes in boredom, and another one smirking. He turned and saw a boy—Aaron, if he remembered correctly—leaning over and whispering something to the boy sitting next to him. They were both grinning.
In that moment, Parker decided he didn’t even care about the grade he got for this. He just wanted it to be over. He looked back at his sheet and ran his finger down the page until he got to the final paragraph.
“My father’s work has influenced everything from DNA testing to cloning. I admire him very much—as a person and for his work—and, because of his influence, I also hope to be a scientist one day. Thank you.”
Parker was already halfway back to his desk before most people realized that he had finished. There was no applause.
Red-faced, Parker sat down. He folded his arms and didn’t look up, even when Mrs. Ford thanked him for his brief but interesting presentation. He felt like such an idiot. If only he’d chosen an astronaut or someone who everyone knew, he thought. And yet, feeling his embarrassment begin to turn to anger . . . It hadn’t actually been that bad. Sure, he’d chosen his dad, but his dad had an interesting job. In his opinion, choosing Missy May was far worse. It was only when the bell went and everybody jumped out of their seats and started to rush past him to the door that he realized they hadn’t been laughing at his choice of subject.
“Farth-uhhh,” he heard somebody say in a mock English accent. Everybody around him started laughing. A couple of other people—Parker didn’t look up to see who—repeated it.
Parker felt his face burning as he realized they weren’t laughing at what he’d said but at how he’d said it. Right now, even though he’d chosen him for his presentation, Parker hated his dad for making them move here.