Monday, November 14, 2011
Genre: Sci-fi Middle Grade
Dear new Everly baby-on-the-way,
Hi there. 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 will do everything I can to come back to you soon. You can count on it.
Honestly, it was the hat’s fault.
In middle school, the eighth graders are at the top of the food chain. Seventh graders are at the bottom. New kids start at the bottom, but can work their way up by being stooges to eighth graders or by being exceptionally cool in some desirable way. As a seventh grade guy who wanted to live to make it to eighth grade, I tried to avoid the food chain altogether by being invisible, flying under the radar.
Buzz Murphy, the new kid, didn’t start at the bottom of anything. Buzz had dazzled Kenmore Junior High by being a year ahead in school and good at every sport known to man. I didn’t really care, though, 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. My eyes narrowed. Buzz was wearing a faded, green, standard issue army hat pulled down over short, brown hair.
I hated that hat.
Like a moth to the flame, I walked over to the table of admirers, arriving just in time to hear the end of Buzz’s favorite spiel , “—and someday I’ll be flying a helicopters for the army.”
Yada, yada, yada. Like we cared.
Ronald Rosenstein’s eyes bugged out behind his glasses. “Wow! That would be so cool.”
I wanted to shake every one of them, but I poked Spencer in the ribs with my elbow “Buzz is just a normal kid like us except with a bigger mouth.” Couldn’t he see that?
Silence fell over the room, and Buzz’s face flushed red.
“What did you say?”
“I wasn’t talking to you.”
Buzz rose on the opposite side of the lunch table, towering a good three inches below me. Every kid in a ten foot radius took a step back. Not me, of course. I was staring at the army 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, and my brain cleared a little.
“Here comes Mrs. Temple!”
I pushed Buzz away and scrambled to my feet, pulling spaghetti off my shirt. Atilla the Hun had nothing on Mrs. Temple, the lunchroom mom. I wasn’t totally terrified, though. I had witnesses who could verify that I hadn’t done anything but talk.
As I scraped pasta strands off my shirt, someone 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 them like the Red Sea. She pulled Buzz backwards by the scruff of the neck. “Buzz Murphy! Principle’s office. Now!”
Buzz squirmed, slippery with sauce, but there was no escape from Mrs. Temple’s iron grip. “And you, Mr. Everly, will also report to the principle’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 helpless next to Buzz on the ugly orange plastic chairs just outside the principle’s office. The hurt part was easy. I pressed an ice pack on my bruised eye. I didn’t normally get into fights, so I had that going for me. Still, Buzz’s small size made me look the bad guy. What a laugh.
We sat there in stony silence, listening to the unhappy rumble of voices from the inner office.
“Well?” Buzz whispered finally.
“You have time to apologize before we go in there.”
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.”
“Maybe you should shut up once in awhile. Helicopter pilot? Yeah, right.”
“Like you know anything.”
“No one with a brain is going to let you anywhere near a helicopter.”
A hot flush of anger crept into Buzz’s face again. “You obviously don’t know anything about the army.”
“My dad was in the army. I know plenty.”
“My dad is in the army. Bet you wouldn’t have the guts to join up.”
We were on our feet by now, and the receptionist was rounding her desk on an intercept course. Anger exploded in me like popcorn. “You’d crash and burn.”
Mr. Kalinowski opened the door to his office, and I turned to look. “Jackson Everly and—”
“Duck!” cried the receptionist.
I looked back, just in time to catch Buzz Murphy’s fist with my right eye.
When they told me where I was going, I wasn’t sure how to break the news to your mom. Sometimes I feel like I need more courage to face her than enemy insurgents. Let’s keep that between the two of us, okay?
My mom shook her head as we walked into the small boutique she ran on First Street in the business district. “I can’t believe you got two black eyes in a fight, Jackson.”
Ophelia, Mom’s clerk, peered at me around a customer while Mom guided me quickly to a stool behind the counter.
“It wasn’t one fight, Mom. It was two. I got the first black eye in the lunchroom. The second one was in the principle’s office.”
“How efficient,” Ophelia said sweetly over her shoulder. “It saved you having to be sent there twice.”
I removed the ice packs to glare at her. Ophelia’s perfect combination of wavy blond hair, blue eyes, and long dark lashes might make Spencer putty in her hands, but not me. I was a man who knew too much. She went back to helping her customer, so I replaced the ice packs. I could be mad at her whether I saw her or not.
Mom squeezed past me with a box of lingerie. “If you’re going to fight, you should learn to duck.”
I tried to speak clearly through the ice packs. “I didn’t actually get to fight. I just stood there talking until I got hit.”
“What did you say?”
“To make the other kid angry, I mean.”
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