Monday, November 21, 2011
Genre: Middle Grade sci-fi
Dear new Everly baby-on-the-way,
Hi. I’m Ben, your dad. I won’t be there when you’re born in eight months, because I’m headed for a tour of duty in Iraq as a field medic for the army. I’ll do everything I can to come back to you.
It was the hat’s fault.
In middle school, the eighth graders are at the top of the food chain, and seventh graders are at the bottom. New kids start at the bottom, but work their way up by being stooges to eighth graders or by being exceptionally cool. As a seventh grade guy who wanted to live to make it to eighth grade, I tried to avoid the food chain altogether. I stayed under the radar, invisible.
Buzz Murphy, one of the new kids, didn’t start at the bottom of anything. In spite of being a girl, she had dazzled Kenmore Junior High by being a year ahead in school and good at every sport known to man.
I tried not to care. It worked until I looked up from my lunch in the school cafeteria on a gloomy Thursday and realized I was sitting at an empty table. My best friend Spencer, another invisible, had deserted me to hover at the edge of Buzz’s crowd a couple of tables away. For the first time, Buzz was sporting a faded, green army hat over her short brown hair. My eyes narrowed. The army and I went way back. Thus, I hated her hat.
Like a moth to the flame, I walked over to the table of admirers, just as she ended her favorite spiel, “—and someday I’ll be flying a helicopters in the army.”
Yada, yada, yada. Like we cared.
Ronald Rosenstein’s eyes bugged out behind his glasses. “Cool!”
I wanted to hit him, but settled for poking Spencer in the ribs with my elbow “With that kind of hot air, she won’t need a helicopter.”
Buzz’s face flushed red with anger. “What did you say?”
I shrugged. “I wasn’t talking to you.”
Buzz rose on the opposite side of the lunch table, towering three inches below me. Every kid in a ten foot radius took a step back. Not me, of course. In the face of the hat, I almost felt brave.
Buzz’s voice was low and dangerous. “I repeat. What. Did. You. Say.” It wasn’t really a question.
I leaned forward. “I repeat. I. Wasn’t. Talking—”
Launching over the table end, Buzz slammed into me with a force that pitched me backwards into Nelson Ribicki and his lunch tray of spaghetti. My head grazed a table leg as we went down under a cafeteria table, sliding through pasta and sauce. Kids scrambled out of the way. Boys yelled and girls shrieked. Someone shouted, “Food fight!”
As we rolled back and forth, and Buzz’s hat fell off. A large red glob of spaghetti sauce dribbled off the edge of the table and landed in its place. I couldn’t help myself, and I snickered.
“Here comes Mrs. Temple!”
I pushed Buzz off and scrambled to my feet, pulling spaghetti off my shirt. The resemblance was so strong that Mrs. Temple, the lunchroom mom, could’ve been a close relative of Atila the Hun. My heart was pounding, but I reminded myself that I hadn’t done anything but talk. I had witnesses.
As I scraped more pasta strands off my shirt, a boy near me yelled, “Duck!”
Instead, I looked up. Just in time to catch Buzz’s fist with my left eye.
Mrs. Temple steamrolled through the crowd, parting it like the Red Sea. She pulled Buzz backwards by the scruff of the neck. “Ms. Murphy! Principal’s office. Now!”
Buzz squirmed, slippery with sauce, but there was no escape from Mrs. Temple’s iron grasp. “And you, Mr. Everly, will report to the principal’s office after you see the school nurse.”
I could just make out Buzz’s smirk through my swelling eye.
Fifteen minutes later, I tried to look small and hurt next to Buzz on the ugly orange plastic chairs just outside the principal’s office. The hurt part was easy. I pressed an ice pack on my bruised eye. Fist fights weren’t my style, so I had that going for me, but Buzz’s being a girl made me look the bad guy. What a laugh.
We sat there in stony silence, smelling like an Italian restaurant and listening to the unhappy rumble of voices from the inner office.
“Well?” Buzz whispered finally.
“You could apologize.”
My jaw dropped. “Me?” I squeaked. “You’re the one who should apologize. Look at my eye!” I pulled the ice pack away.
Buzz examined the eye. “You should stay out of fights. You’re not any good at ducking.”
“If you didn’t have occupational delusions, I wouldn’t be here. Puh-lease. The army? You’ll be lucky if they let you near a jeep.”
A hot flush of anger crept into Buzz’s face again. “Like you know anything.”
“My dad was in the army. I know plenty.”
“My dad is in the army, but they wouldn’t let a moron like you in.”
Somehow we were on our feet, and the receptionist was rounding her desk on an intercept course.
“Yeah? You’ll crash and burn.”
I turned as Mr. Kalinowski opened the door to his office. “Jackson Everly and—”
“Duck!” cried the receptionist.
I looked back, just in time to catch Buzz Murphy’s fist with my right eye.
Dear Jack (or Jacqueline),
I’ll be leaving for Train Up soon. That’s when we get ready to go to a combat zone. It’s not easy, but I don’t mind. We have a great country, and it’s worth fighting for. Being a medic means that someday, someone will get to come home because I was there to help him or her. That’s important to me.
Grandpa will stay with you both until I get back. He’s all the family I have except for you and your mom, but he takes a little getting used to. He’ll probably teach you to garden before you can walk.
I hope you like dirt.
There is no good way to explain two black eyes to your mother, even if you got them from a girl and didn’t hit her back. I think they give courses to principals on how to break bad news to parents without traumatizing them. Mr. Kalinowski assured my mom that I was fine for the day, and since I hadn’t thrown a punch, he let me stay in class.
Buzz didn’t get off quite so easily. The last I saw of her, she was sulking on the ugly plastic chairs, waiting for her mom.
When school was out, I skipped out before Spencer could find me and took the back way home. I didn’t want to talk to him. Traitor.
No one was around when I slipped into the kitchen. I dumped my backpack and headed for the sofa in the family room.
A few minutes later, the back screen door to the kitchen slapped shut with a sharp crack. That would be Grandpa coming in from his garden. Water wooshed in the sink. Dirt would be sliding off his gnarled hands. I closed my eyes and watched him in my mind. Every day was the same. He’d stretch and work the kinks out of his back before heading for his chair in the family room and—
“Jumping Jehoshaphat! What’d you do?"
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