[Prologue]: Natalie Steel

            Just by looking at it, you would never think that anything so spectacularly enormous could be a high school cafeteria.  Upon entering the seating area of the cafeteria, past the lunch line— which offered a vast array of foods for the students to choose from—students were caught off guard by the modernized elegance of this dining hall-like cafeteria.
            The size of the room was largely due to the high ceilings that gave the illusion that the cafeteria was actually bigger than it really was. With the impressive height of the ceilings, most students made an understatement when they walked unto the cafeteria gasping, “This place is huge!”
             Indeed it was. Even though the ceilings made it bigger than it actually was, simply stating that the cafeteria was huge, did not do justice to the enormity of the room that was engineered with exceptional craftsmanship and an elaborate flair for the dramatics.
            The cafeteria resembled more closely to a luxurious restaurant, than a dingy cafeteria that most people would associate with high schools. The cafeteria’s interior design was professionally done— from the color scheme of blue and white, to the furniture choice and placement—everything went together perfectly to create a modern looking cafeteria that would make any high school green with envy.   
            Due to the very big windows that were strategically placed wall-to-wall on the east, west and northern portions of the cafeteria, large amounts of natural sun light were allowed to illuminate the room— adding to the fresh, modern look.
            In the very middle of the eastern wall—which was the wall every student saw as they entered into the cafeteria— there were three floor-to-ceiling banners with the top athletes on the school’s sports teams. Showcased by the sun that came through the windows daily, the faces of the most popular and fearsome competitors were plastered on the walls as a symbol of pride and might, serving as a warning to all opposing sports teams that the school was a force to be reckoned with.
            In the center of the three banners was the full body of the schools most prolific athlete, a boy with good looks, the popularity and mad skills: Ashton Hemming. He was the number one football player in the school. The single best Quarterback in the county. Not only did he showcase his incredible skill on the field, but off the field as well. And flirting with the cheer squad was another one of his many “talents”.
            When entering the cafeteria, it was obvious to any student, which table was for the Cheerleaders. The circular table was placed— by specific instructions from Mrs. Rigby, the cheer coach— near three massive windows spanning the height of the eastern wall overlooking the school’s agricultural garden. The tables were stationed at left flank from the first of the three banners, as to not block the shrine that so many teens gather around daily to admire.
            The sign read "reserved". In order to sit at the table, you had to be one of them— the cheerleaders. And not just any cheerleader was permitted to sit at the table; the table was reserved only for the top cheerleaders on the squad. At the table, the most prestigious cheerleaders of the school’s elite cheer squad discussed important and personal business about the inner workings of the team.
            Many of the not-so-important cheerleaders gathered around the table to entertain themselves with the idle chatter and heated gossip that often occupied the queen-bees when cheer squad business was not the focus. Among the top cheerleaders presiding at the honorary table, sat a tall, solid framed girl known around the school as Allie— a girl with natural talent for cheerleading, and a stubborn and charismatic character — but to those who knew her best she was Natalie Steel, a calm, gentle-spirited small town girl.
            At first glance, no one would expect this robust, raven haired Native American to be a part of the cheer squad. Most people associate cheerleaders with platinum blond hair, light skin, blue eyes, the perfect body and a cute country accent. However, Natalie didn’t exactly fit into this category. She had the country accent; everyone in Tennessee had a southern twang to their voice, but she was the biggest girl on her team. Not really the type of girl you would visualize as the peppy pompom shaking, back flipper.
            Yet, she had somehow managed to make the team, and in the long run managed to make it to the top. How? She barely knew herself, but for a former homeschooler, being on the cheer squad was way better than being the victim of verbal abuse and non-stop teasing.
            In fact, Natalie enjoyed the perks that came along with being a cheerleader and took full advantage of her role on the cheer squad. She was the third most popular girl in school, next to Samantha and Shoshanna, had an amazing boyfriend, tons of friends, and had county-wide recognition for her talents. With her high ranking position on the squad, she was expected to come to all the school parties, allowed to skip classes for extra cheerleading practice before big games, and was considered to be the leading patriarch when it came to making consecutive decisions on school fundraisers and dances.
             Not only was she a cheerleader, but Natalie spent much of her free time studying to maintain her 4.0 grade average, was the captain of the school’s debate team, editor of the school’s paper, and the school’s yearbook “picture girl”. No one had the skills to organize and delegate like Natalie. However nice it was to live lavishly on a thrown of temporary power, Natalie never understood why cheerleaders had, what seemed to be, an in-bred desire to inflict cruel and unusual punishment upon unsuspecting victims.
            Even though she detested bullying, she did nothing about it—other than watch at a distance hoping not to get dragged into the conflict. She wondered, wished and hoped she could do something. She knew she could do something, but she was too afraid to go beyond her comfort zone to defend the people being plagued by the bitterness of her cheer squad.
            Sitting down at the “special” table, Natalie opened her small satchel lunch and took out a ripe Banana and a small sandwich. She was the only one there at the moment, which she relished considering that the table was usually was surrounded by chattering girls. As she took a bite of her sandwich, her moment of pleasurable solitude was short lived as the annoyingly high-pitched shrill of Shoshanna broke the silence:
            “You won’t believe it, Allie!” Shoshanna said using Natalie’s cheer squad name. She ran up to the table out of breath, her pale cheeks rosy red. She put a hand to her heart and the other on the table, stabling herself as she tried to catch her breath. “You’ll never guess what I just heard.”
            Natalie put down her sandwich and wiped her mouth. She stared blankly at Shoshanna as she chewed. She motioned with her hand for the girl to spill the beans. What was so urgent that it couldn’t wait for me to finish eating? Natalie wondered. In the meantime, while Shoshanna caught her breath, Ashton Hemming made his war over to the cheer table walking proudly; chin held high, chest puffed out, and his stride on the verge of being provocative. Natalie rolled her eyes as the conceited peacock, aka Ashton, “strutted” his stuff across the cafeteria.
             “Sup?” he asked as he stroked his dirty blond mane. He walked up behind Natalie, leaned in and, put his both hands on the table, trapping Natalie in the middle, her head resting on his rock solid chest. He kissed her on the cheek and then sat himself down beside her. Natalie smiled in embarrassment; she still wasn’t used to having a boyfriend, much less receiving a peck on the check.
            “Hey Ash,” Shoshanna said hurriedly. “Allie, are you ready to hear the big news?”
            Natalie shrugged her shoulders and said, “Okay—shoot.” Honestly, she wasn’t that interested in what Shoshanna had to say, but there was urgency in the girl’s voice that sparked her interest. “…stop, Ash.” Natalie said pulling away from Ashton. She fought to free herself from his grasp, but he held her tightly, lips puckered as he moved towards her attempting to steal a kiss. Natalie shoved him off of her, gave him a nasty look and said, “Keep your hand off of me.” She then turned her focus to Shoshanna who anxiously waited for Natalie’s unreserved attention.
            “Allie, I hate to ruin your day, because it appears to me that you’re enjoying your day. It would be a shame to ruin a perfect—”
            “Cut to the chase, Shosh.” Ashton said haughtily. “We don’t have all day.” He rolled his eyes in an agitated motion, leaned on one elbow as he played with Natalie’s hair with the other. Natalie swatted his hand away and turned to face Shoshanna.
            “Oh, yes, um, sorry about that. Anyway, I just got news that Gracie Lewis, a girl in the science—she’s also on the debate team—committed suicide last night. And guess what!”   Shoshanna chocked on her words. “There’s a rumor going around that we—I mean Samantha, Ashley, Fiona, and I—had something to do with it.”
            “Are you sure about this?” Natalie asked in alarm. Gracie Lewis had been the best debater on the team; she was a straight a student and was headed to Yale University on a full scholarship at the end of the school year. Something wasn’t adding up. Why would a girl, who had her whole life ahead of her, suddenly end it? “…and what is this about you having something to do with her suicide?”
            “Oh, Allie it’s all our fault!” Shoshanna said sitting down in a panic. 
            “Calm down, Shosh. How is this your guys’ fault? What did you do?”
            “We never meant it to go this far. We were just having a bit of fun—even Ash joined in from time to time—by picking on her.”
            Natalie was horrified. She knew that they were picking on Gracie, but never to that extent. This was why Natalie didn’t want to get involved in this type of stuff. She reasoned that it was better to be innocent, than to have any part in the situation, whether it was in defense of the victim or the attacker. But, she just didn’t understand why a strong, determined girl like Gracie would do such a thing. There had to be more than that to the story…something must have triggered this desperate desire to end her life. But what was the reason? Natalie further questioned Shoshanna about what they had done to Gracie. Turns out, the story didn’t get any better. The girls—Samantha, Ashley, Fiona and Shoshanna—had been sending Gracie hate mail, constantly stole her clothing after gym, and verbally abused her, all in the name of having a good time.
            “Okay, maybe we were relentlessly harassing her, but we didn’t mean anything buy it. We were just having fun. We can’t help it that she couldn’t take it.” Shoshanna twitched nervously, wringing her hands together. She was flushed and perspiring a great deal, no amount of deodorant would come close to stopping the flood of sweat that dripped from her blouse.
            “This is crazy! I cannot believe you guys would stoop to this level.”
            “Why do you care, Allie? You are the innocent one. Did you know that we could possibly go to jail if they find out, huh? Yeah, I am not looking forward to that, Allie.” Shoshanna gave Natalie a pleading look. But what was Natalie supposed to do? She had no control over the situation, and was barely able to wrap her mind around the whole ordeal.
            “I didn’t do a thing.”
            “Hey, don’t sweat it.” Ashton said trying to comfort Natalie. He touched her arm gently, running his had along the contours of her arm, starting from her hand up to her bare shoulder. He attempted to kiss her neck, but Natalie slapped him, “Stop, you pervert!”
            “Hey, Natalie, you didn’t do anything wrong. You don’t have the guts to, never did.” Ashton said still trying to schmooze his way into Natalie’s affection. “You just stood there and watched as they tore into Gracie. But you are not the one to blame. You’re reputation isn’t tarnished. You have nothing to worry about.”
            “Yes, it is my fault. I could have done something about it, Ash. I could have stood up for Gracie. I could have defended her like a real friend would have. Instead I watched her from the sidelines as she was shredded by the sly remarks and taken advantage of by Shoshanna and those other girls I am not ashamed to call my Cheer Squad sister. That’s the thing. I didn’t do anything.”
            Natalie shook her head and looked Ashton square in the eyes. He was taken aback by her feverish passion, as she accused herself for the death of one of her debate team members. She was torn. How could I have let this happen? She asked herself. Of only she had done something to help, stepped in and defended Gracie. Had Natalie shown Gracie the love that she so desperately needed then maybe she would still be alive. But because Natalie was so worried about what other may think of her going against the flow, she was never able to save Gracie, to show her hope and give her a friendly shoulder to cry on. From this day forward, I will not stand and watch why people get bullied. Lord, If you will give me the courage, I want to stand out and befriend those who so desperately need love and support. I want be the light, Lord and shine bright for you. Help me to do that, because I do not have the courage to do it on my own.
            The only way to save a life, is to whiteness to those in need, is to get out there, go against the flow, trust in God and let out light shine. Natalie was resolved to never let peer pressure distract her from her mission...to be the light in a world shadowed by darkness. Natalie was willing to taking a leap of faith, step out of her comfort zone, rise up and stand out, because that’s how the lost get found. I am ready when you are. I am ready to set the world on fire, Lord—for you.


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