0 CE: Childhood Ended
Spend a year by the phone and mailbox, waiting for a call or letter. Mom, desperate, gets back into the beauty pageant business. Doesn’t win, but finds a husband. We move: Beufort, Indiana. First day of sixth grade. First period science class. It’s a small town; I’m the only kid the others don’t know. Teacher embarrassingly introduces me to the rest of the kids at the front of the room. Thirty-two pairs of eyes skewer me. Somewhere, a bubble of chewing gum pops.
“You can take the empty seat, right there in the second row.”
Dirty tennis shoes on a dirty linoleum floor. A rickety chair. A huff and an elbow on the desk, palm smothering face.
Me’n’the kid next to me don’t talk. I don’t even look at ’im. ’Til teacher asks us a question, and he’s the first one with an answer.
“Igneous!” he shouts. I give a back-throated grumble. Know-It-All. Teacher’s Pet.
We don’t speak for four days. Finally, that Friday:
“Hey, what’s your problem? You sick or something?”
My head’s been glued to my desk the entire week. Face down, lying on folded arms, disassociating.
I peek at it him from the crack above my elbow. It’s a death glare.
“My mom packed me an extra snack today. Want some? It’s homemade cosmic brownies.”
He pulls a plastic baggie out from his desk and offers me a rainbow-studded chocolate square.
I look from the brownie to his face. He seems nice enough. Bright, innocent eyes. A fair, neutral smile.
My stomach growls just then, and I snatch the sweet treat from him. I shove it into my mouth, chew, and tears form as the flavor hits me. It tastes like Mammaw Charley’s brownies from back home. I haven’t tasted something so good since we moved to this Hell.
“That’s dewiwous,” I say through a mouthful of mashed-up, molten chocolate. I quickly wipe my cheeks with the back of my hand so he can’t see them glistening. I’m finally sitting up and looking at him for the first time since school started. He’s blinking at me, eyes wide. “Whaw?” Crumbs fly.
“I didn’t actually think you’d eat it,” he says finally. “I kinda wanted the extra for myself.”
I swallow. Loudly. It sounds like a toilet flushing.
“Well...” I don’t know what to say. I’m stung, but too jaded to be surprised. Of course his “nice” gesture was insincere. “Nice” is synonymous with “obligatory sentiment.” I shoulda known. I shoulda known.
“It’s okay, though,” he interrupts my thoughts. “It’s no big deal. Don’t worry about it.”
I meet his eyes. His tan, freckled face is flushed. He’s giving me that look I get from adults when my brothers and I are in the grocery store checkout line, counting pennies to get a loaf of bread and a box of generic corn flakes.
I turn away to look at anything but that look. Clock, window, desk. I sigh.
“Thanks, anyway.” It popped out of my mouth: a mumbled thought.
“Like I said, don’t mention it.” He waves his hands defensively. “I only wanted it as a snack before football tryouts. I didn’t really need it.”
I snap to attention. My heart leaps.
“Football? You guys have a football team?” My wild, wide eyes boring into his make him jump.
“Uh, y-y-yeah. Our school has a flag football team. We play other local middle schools.” A pause. This is my chance! Finally, something to do! I’m practically frothing at the mouth. “Why? Do...you play?”
“Yes! I’ve been playing since I was five, on a parks’n’rec team in my hometown, plus me ‘n’ Dad practiced all the time.”
“Whoa! No way – me too!”
“When’s tryouts? And where?”
“After school, like I said.”
“Well, DUH! But, like, what time? And where? We don’t have a football field!”
“It’s at the high school, right after school lets out. At like...four o’clock, I think?”
I bite my lip. If I can walk there from here, if it’s not too far, and I can practice in the clothes I’m wearing – good thing I wore my sports bra – then maybe I can make it on time, but I’ll have to tell Mom why I was late getting home, and Zennen’s not going to like that, and then I’ll have to deal with his BS –
“D’you...d’you want a ride? To the field? My mom’s picking me up from school. Do you take the bus? She can drive you, it’s no problem, probably. She’ll probably have snacks, too. She always does when she picks us up.”
“Uh...Are you sure that’s okay?” I wind a lock of bushy hair too tightly around my index finger. I let it loose and rewind repetitiously. “I’ll walk, I really will.”
“It’s fine! My mom’s really nice. She’ll totally be okay with it. Plus, it’s kinda a hike to get there. D’you even know where it is?”
“Okay, that’s fine. D’you need some practice clothes? I might have my gym uniform in my locker, you can borrow it, we’re about the same size – ”
“Calvin!” Teacher snaps. “Is there something you’d like to share with the class?”
“Oh, no, ma’am.” He shakes his moptop like a wet, shaggy dog shimmying off water.
Mrs. Whoever turns her bespectacled glare on me.
“Stephanie, I understand you’re new, so I’ll count this as your Mulligan. But next time I catch you talking, you’re getting written up. Got it?”
The class snickers. I know I’m blushing. But I can redeem myself. All hope is not lost.
“It’s Stevie,” I correct her. “Like Stevie Nix.”
“Oh? Listen, young lady, you’ll respond to whichever name I’m pleased to call you.”
“Go ahead, but I won’t answer.”
The class is now on the edge of its seats, eyeing the exchange like a ping-pong match.
Old Mrs. Whatshername puckers, mutters, “We’ll see about that,” and resumes her podium pontifications on the evils of the Trail of Tears. The tension in the classroom releases, and I settle back into my chair, heart pounding. That was the Old Me coming out, right there. The Me before he left. It was exhilarating. It was liberating. It was terrifying.
My right arm is prodded just then. I glance to the side. It’s Calvin, signaling for a fist-bump under the desk. Well, well, well. Teacher’s Pet is secretly a Rebel. I return the gesture and nod, grinning. Stick with me, Kid, and you’ll go far, I think.
After school, I take him up on his offer: we ride together, including his four younger sisters, in his mom’s station wagon, to flag football tryouts. We chow down on homemade chocolate chip cookies. I wear his gym clothes. We both make the team.
And that marks the beginning of our long and beautiful, but ill-fated, best friendship.