It had rained. School was out for the day and Russell had left the school building. Most people had already gone home, but he had to stop by the library to return a few books. Puddles littered the sidewalk headed towards the parking lot. Russell wore his usual Doc Martens, which had a thick outsole; optimal for puddle-stomping. He was about to experience the satisfaction of stepping into a particularly deep one when something pushed him. His leg wobbled, and he fell over onto the mud-soaked grass.
“Shoot!” Russell looked around for the culprit to find Sal staring down at him.
“Sorry,” Sal said in mock apology. “Didn’t see you there.”
Russell inspected himself. The right side of his black plants were covered in mud, and some of it had splattered onto his black jacket. He ran his hand over the side of his face to wipe off any mud splatters that might have gotten on his face. Unfortunately, both his hands were covered in the stuff. “Dang it!”
Sal clutched at his stomach, howling with laughter. “What dumbass wipes their muddy hands on their face?”
Russell glared at Sal, and did a quick survey of the area to make sure no authority figures were around. “Why don’t you give me a hand?” Before Sal could speak, Russell grabbed the sleeve of his hoodie, and yanked downwards.
It was Sal’s turn to fall. He struggled to stand back up, but Russell pushed him back down, and got to his feet.
“What the hell is your problem?” Sal asked, sitting upright. “I said I was sorry.”
“You did that on purpose!”
“No, this is on purpose.” Sal jumped up, yanked Russell’s hair, and ran. Russell chased him down and tackled him, pinning him down on his back.
“It was just a joke, Rusty Russell,” Sal said, panting and struggling to get out of his grip. For a second, he seemed impressed, but he sneered up at him instead. “I thought you were above fighting.
“Shut up.” Russell released his hold and got up, lip curled. Feeling extra daring, he gave Sal a swift kick in the shin before heading for the parking lot. And smiled, in spite of it all. It was the first time he ever stuck up for himself. Maybe he should try it more often. He opened the trunk of his car to pull out a towel, which he laid over his seat, and shoved his jacket in his backpack.
On his way home, he fretted over how his parents would react to his muddy appearance. His dad was probably still at work. But his mother… Maybe she’d be in some other part of the house. And he could sneak in the bathroom undetected to shower off. There was just the matter of his mud-stained clothes. There was no hiding that from her. Unless he showered in his clothes to get the mud off, and then threw them in the washing machine. He’d put in the rest of his laundry too, and do it tonight. That could work.
Upon arriving home, he stepped out of his car, grabbing his backpack and towel with him. He toweled off the worst of the mud, shoved the towel in his backpack, and kicked off his shoes before opening the front door. No sign of his mother in the family room or kitchen. He crept down the hallway, passing various crosses hanging on the wall. The bathroom door was open. He took a step inside and…
Russell slammed the door. “I have to go to the bathroom real bad!”
“Was that mud on you? What’s all this mud on the floor?”
Russell shoved his backpack in the shower, and looked down at his socks. The bottom of his pants had dripped mud onto them, which must’ve dripped onto the floor.
“Russell! Open this door!”
“I’m trying to pee!”
“I need to talk to you.”
Russell stared in the mirror. A bit of mud still streaked his face. He turned on the faucet and washed it off.
What to do about my pants? Maybe he could hide his muddy leg behind the door. And so he opened it just wide enough to show his clean half. “What’s up?”
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Why are you home so late? You were supposed to be home a half hour ago.”
“I’m sorry. I got caught up with something at school.”
“Why didn’t you call me then? That’s the whole reason I got you that phone.” She squinted up at him. “Is that mud in your hair?”
Russell responded by chewing his thumbnail.
His mother pinched the bridge of her nose, eyes squeezed shut. “How did you get so muddy?”
“I’m not muddy.”
“Your hair is full of it.” She glanced down at his feet. “And so are the bottoms of your pants. What happened?”
“Nothing happened,” Russell snapped. “I accidentally stepped in a mud puddle.”
His mother folded her arms. “Don’t use that tone with me. I thought I raised you better.”
Russell wanted to argue. Wanted to talk back. But he also didn’t want his father to get involved later. So he held his tongue and apologized instead. “Can I take a shower?”
“Make it quick,” she said. “You’re already cutting Youth Group close.”
Russell groaned inwardly. He had forgotten all about youth group at his church, which his parents had forced him to attend every Thursday since he was old enough to join. Now he was the oldest person there, the second oldest being 15. He was already annoyed enough with his latest interaction with Sal, and now his nagging mother. “Since I’m going to end up late anyway, can I skip it?”
“You’re not skipping it.”
* * * * *
“What was your problem yesterday?” Sal asked Russell at the start of English class. “Tackling me down like that. You never fight back.” Sal did his best to act upset, but failed to hide a hint of impression in his voice. He’s so strong. An unfamiliar ache hit his chest, and he shook the feeling away. Jealously, that’s what it was. “You’re so weak though. It’s pathetic.”
“Seriously?” Russell said. “You couldn’t even push me off of you.”
“Of course I could. You just caught me off guard.”
“I barely had to run to catch up with you. You’re so slow.”
“I was going easy on you.”
“You look so stupid when you run,” Russell said. “It reminded me of this GIF I saw-”
“It stands for Graphics Interchange Format. It’s those video pictures you see online-”
“Yeah, yeah, I know what a GIF is,” Sal said, pronouncing GIF with the hard G sound. “What I don’t know is why you’re pronouncing it like peanut butter.”
“Because that’s how you pronounce it.”
“What? Jraphics Interchange Format?”
“Well, you don’t pronounce giraffe as guh-raffe,” Russell said. “Gin is pronounced with the J sound. Therefore, it’s pronounced JIF.”
“That is the lamest argument I have ever heard.”
“The creator of the format said so himself. It’s JIF.”
“I take it back. That is the lamest argument I have ever heard.”
Russell waved his hand. “Whatever.”
Now Sal had something else to add to his “Reasons to Hate Russell” list. And after class, he stormed straight through the cafeteria to the table Stewart sat at.
“Stewart!” Sal slumped into the chair across from him, and slapped his hand on the table. “How do you pronounce G-I-F?”
Stewart acted as if Sal storming in and slapping tables was an everyday occurrence. “Gee Sal, it depends on who I’m talking to. How do you pronounce it?”
“GIF,” Sal said, emphasizing the hard G sound.
“Then I pronounce if GIF,” Stewart said, also using the hard G.
“What if I pronounced it JIF?”
“Then I’d pronounce it JIF. I don’t know why everyone seems to care so much. It’s just a file extension.”
“Just a file...” Sal ran his hand over his face. “GIFs are more than just file extensions. GIFs are a lifestyle.”
“It’s just the way people argue about the pronunciation. They act like they’re fighting over abortion laws.”
“Well I’m pro-hard G sound. Unlike Russell.” Sal spat upon saying Russell’s name. “Russell thinks it’s pronounced like peanut butter.” He pulled out his peanut butter sandwich, waving it around. “Does this look like a GIF image to you?”
“Exactly.” Sal took a dramatic bite of his sandwich. “This is what JIF is.”