Waiting Against the Wall

Another dance.  Another wall to lean against.  Rosie Coors stared at the milling crowd, looking for her best friend’s face, but she was nowhere to be found.  Maria had promised to meet her by the buffet table, at exactly seven o’clock, a reasonable time to eat dinner.  Rosie has stood there, looking foolish, every now and then grabbing something and stuffing it in her mouth so as to have something to do.

It was now almost nine, the so-called friend had not appeared and tears had formed, fallen and been wiped away countless times.

Rosie though, “I wish I had stayed home.  This is so embarrassing!” Another round of tears fell which wiped away using the sleeve of her old-fashioned cardigan sweater.  She looked at the sleeve, at the holes that were scattered about, and wondered if Maria had seen her, and stayed away, embarrassed to call Rosie friend.

In the background, or maybe it was in the foreground, the band hired by her school’s Activity Director played rap and hip-hop, types of music she detested both because the loud bass beat gave her a headache and because the lyrics offended her sensibilities.

Rosie spotted an empty chair against the wall and hustled over to claim it.

“That’s my chair.”

“I don’t see your name on it,” Rosie responded.  Her eyes traveled upward, past the neatly creased black slacks, starched white shirt, and bright red bowtie.  No othere than the school pariah, Dave Nickols, Geeky Dave, stood there glowering at her. “I’m sitting in it, so it’s not yours.”

 

            “If you won’t get up, then will you dance with me?”  Dave’s tenor voice came out as a shout as he tried to be heard over the noisy band.  “Please?”

“Sure,” Rosie replied.  “I came here to dance, so yes.”

As they stepped onto the dance floor, the band switched to a slow song. Dave placed his right hand on Rosie’s waist and pulled her close.  Step, step, step, they moved.

She smiled as they glided over the floor. Rosie loved to dance, had learned from her father as a child, but had never danced with a boy who knew what he was doing. Whoever would have thought that Geeky Dave would have known how to twirl her under his arm, and then pull her tightly against his chest?

“You’re a good dancer,” he said.

“Thanks.  My father taught me when I was a kid.” She leaned forward, enticed by his cologne, a strange mix of deodorant and something she’d once smelled as she passed through a department smell. Kind of musk-like. Feral. “You’re a good dancer as well.”

“My mom insisted on lessons, which I went to reluctantly because I was the only boy,” he said.  They flew around the floor, in rhythm to the music.  Dave skillfully guided them through the crowds, finding pathways that opened and then disappeared, consuming them like some symbiotic monster.

Rosie’s long-brown hair swirled around her head, flowing like water. When the music stopped she smiled at Dave, whose grin was as wide as a canyon.  “Thank you,” he said.  “I really enjoyed that.”

“Thank you.  Would you like to get some punch?” Rosie reached for his hand before he could scamper away.

“I’m starving,” he said, “so can we grab some food and find a table?” Dave disentangled his hand from Rosie’s, and then placed it in the center of her back. He gently guided her to the food table.  They went down the line, loading up with salads, rolls, and cookies for dessert.

At the end, after stuffing two packages of utensils in his shirt pocket, Dave handed Rosie a cup of punch, got one for himself, then said, “Let’s go outside.  It’s hot in here.”

Rosie led the way through the gym doors.  The cool night air felt good on her flushed cheeks.  “Let’s sit on the benches over by the cafeteria.”

“Sure.”

After taking a few bites, Rosie realized she’d have to be the one to initiate conversation. She was shy, but Dave was known to be practically nonverbal. “Aren’t you in my Chemistry class?”

“Yes.  We’ve had the same science teacher, the same period, since junior high.  Weird, huh? Plus we’re in the same Advanced Algebra class,” Dave said.

“Oh.  I don’t pay much attention to the other students.  They ignore me, so I ignore them. It’s been that way since I was a kid.”

“Yeah, I know what that’s like.”

“I’m sorry that I’ve never seen you before,” Rosie said as she fnished off her potato salad. “Who do you have for English?”

“I’m in Davidson’s AP class. Same as you.” Dave wiped a splatter of punch off his plaid shirt, “Have you decided on a thesis for your term paper?”

“I’ve been thinking about analyzing Steinbeck’s use of light and dark in his novels,” Rosie said.  “Light always indicates that something positive is going to happen to a main character.  It seems to be pretty consistent.  What about you?”

“I’m torn between comparing themes in Dickens’ novels and writing about Angelou’s use of language to create emotional reactions.  Which one do you think I should choose?”

“I don’t know,” Rosie said. She stood, looked around, found a garbage can near a planter, then dumped her remains inside. She dusted off her hands, then, realizing that Dave had followed her, asked, “Do you want to dance?  The band’s playing a slow song.”

Dave reached out his hand, palm up. Rosie gently placed her hand in his.

“He sure is a gentleman” she thought. “How come I’ve never noticed before?”

            As soon as they entered the gym, Dave pulled her close.  Their steps matched as they glided around the room.

For the rest of the evening, they danced, talked, ate, and smiled.

“I’ve had a great time,” Dave said after the band finished playing.  He walked Rosie out to the parking lot. “Do you need a ride home?”

“No. My Dad’s coming.”

Dave’s shoulders slumped. He sighed and without raising his head, asked, “Would you be interested in going out some time?”

Rosie nodded. “How about Saturday night?”

“Great. I’d love to talk more, but I’ve got to go. Thanks for dancing with me.”

“Yeah. I had a great time. Let’s talk Monday. Work out the details.”  Rosie smiled as she watched him walk away. Her senior year finally looked a whole lot brighter.

Ninth Grade Dreams

I wanted to be popular. The type of girl that guys drool over and that girlfriends cling to while giggling hysterically about some life-changing event. One of those guys, preferably someone tall, dark, and not too handsome would ask me on a date. Not just any date, but a late night movie where you tremble in fear when a serial killer sneaks up on a defenseless little kid, and the boyfriend squeezes your hand to show that he’s there to support you. Or maybe he’d take me bowling. No, that’s no good as my dad just might show up and send poisoned arrows our way. Definitely not to a school dance as I have no sense of rhythm.

The guy, probably named Stan, would ask me to go steady after that first date. He’d tell me how much he liked my hazel eyes and slightly off-center smile. I’d smell the shaving lotion on his chin and nod, speechless in the classic sense. I’d wrap my arms around his muscular shoulders, nestle my tear-filled face against his neck and feel his Adam’s apple move up and down as he swallowed back his own tears. He’d pull back a bit, slip off his school ring, and offer it to me as a token of his “like.” I’d smile stupidly and admire it in the fluorescent lights of the theater lobby. Then I’d stick it in the deep pocket of my overcoat so as to not lose it.

The next day I’d beg my mom to take me to Woolworth’s. While she meandered the aisles gathering miscellaneous junk, I’d rush to the yarn section. My eyes would light up at the rainbow of colors awaiting my careful selection. Like every other girl in my school, I’d choose alpaca wool. A sky blue color, the color of his eyes. At home I’d wrap the yarn around and around the ring until it fit snuggly on my ring finger and plan how I was going to show it off at school.

Those were my dreams. There’s a song that tells you to reach for the impossible. It would take a miracle to make any of these things happen, as I was an overweight, painfully shy teenager. I had no friends and was clearly toward the bottom of the social pecking order. Unless I could be reinvented through plastic surgery, fat removal from over 90% of my body, and a hefty dose of makeup, applied liberally to disguise my puppy-dog sad face, the impossible would remain impossible.

So, what did I do? Smiled a lot and changed my hairstyle to a ratted-out bouffant. Dabbed on cheap, yet tasteful cologne and asked my mom to sew more contemporarily styled clothing. Practiced the “cool” walk and the “I-don’t-give-a –darn” egotistical look that the school’s cheerleaders displayed naturally. In a rather foolhardy moment, I submitted my name to run for Student Body Treasurer, thinking that if I plastered my posters all over the campus, that I would rise in social stature.

When you’re unpopular, you are as invisible as Glad Wrap. The odds of ever experiencing that first date decreased daily. Boys weren’t interested in the homely-looking girl who wore glasses that sported wings sparkling with fake diamonds. Or the smart girl who got the best grades in math and who spoke Latin like the ancients. And who could throw further than many of the boys who hung out at the neighborhood park.

No matter how longingly I looked at the athletes and cheerleaders, they uniformly never saw me. In the teenage world, you are who you hang out with, and what popular kid would want someone like me tagging along? Let alone as a girlfriend who hung on your muscular arm and leaned against your chest as you walked her about the campus. Wasn’t going to happen.

Geoffrey, the high school punching bag for pranks and tasteless jokes, stepped up one lunch break and asked me on a date. I put on a plastic smile and attempted to move far away, as the cheerleaders had repeatedly done to others like me. Geoffrey, however, was persistent. He pushed his thick-lensed glasses up his acne-covered nose and smiled. His favorite ratty sweatshirt, dirty slacks, and scuffed black dress shoes stunk almost as bad as his unwashed hair, but not quite.

His belly hung over his belt and his hairy wrists stuck out from his too-short sleeves. Talk about nerd. Geoffrey was beneath me on the social scale, not worthy of a platonic nod hello. The idea of going to the upcoming school dance was no more attractive than sitting in a darkened theater where his body odor would overpower the entire audience. Even so I said yes, despite the interior warning lights that blinked crimson, just to experience that first date.

What a couple we made. Me in my homemade pretend-silk, A-frame, square-necked dress that was in style five years earlier, while Geoffrey wore a black suit two sizes too big accompanied by a stiffly starched white shirt that crinkled audibly when he moved. He placed his left hand on my waist, while gripping my hand in his sweaty right. We stumbled around the dance floor, stepping on each other’s feet accompanied by loud guffaws and barely stifled snickers.

If Geoffrey had thought about asking me to go steady, he must have erased that thought from his mind after a rather emotionless and sloppy kiss while standing on my front porch. All evening I’d thought about what excuse I could offer. The best was that my dad would kill Geoffrey, a likely scenario. After drying the slobber off my lips, Geoffrey simply walked away.

So, I didn’t have to decline the going steady offer. Part of me was disappointed, as it meant that I wasn’t worthy of even his “like,” but the other part of me rejoiced.

Still without a “steady,” I solved the dilemma by purchasing a cheap man’s ring which I wrapped in blue alpaca and wore proudly.  When asked, I wove a magical story of the perfect boyfriend that I’d met while visiting my aunt in Vandalia, more than fifty miles away. My face glowed with an imitated “in love” radiance. I stood taller and blessed the popular kids with an “I’m one of you” sophisticated smirk. I invented dates, details, and dialogue.

Ninth grade turned out to not be too bad. Popularity continued to evade me, but I put on a good show of “belonging.” I experienced a first date, even though it was with the nerdiest boy in school. Best of all, I went steady with my secret self.

A Teacher’s Lament

I spoke with your teacher today,

And this is what she had to say:

Please tell Billy I like him a lot

But not when he licks each tiny spot

Of food off his plate.

It’s just plain gross.

 

It’s not polite to pick your nose

That’s why tissue’s good for blows

Putting snot between his teeth

Makes kids stare beyond belief.

You just don’t do it.

It’s just plain gross.

 

He needs to keep his shoes on his feet

The stench smells like rotten meat.

While in the playground yard

Children find it too hard

To forgive him.

It’s just plain gross.

 

People don’t put their hands on their butts

And scratch until they make big cuts

Blood through the clothes

And a stink up the nose.

It’s just plain gross.

 

 

As far as work, Billy’s losing out.

He wrinkles papers and runs about.

Seldom sits for more than a minute.

Pencils in places where they don’t fit.

He’s failing.

It’s just plain gross.

 

There’s not much more that I can say

Except that you should be on your way

To talk to Billy. tell him I care.

For him I’d go anywhere

To find him help.

He’s not that gross.

A Trying Situation

Jennifer wanted nothing more than to have one good friend. Someone she could rely on to be there for her. Someone who cared for her like no one else.

The problem was that she was the most unpopular kid in school. Dressed in too big jumpers, hand-me-down white blouses and oxford saddle shoes, she was a pariah. Her long hair was always in pigtails or braids, carefully done up by her mother, but not the popular style among girls her age.

How do you make friends when you are so radically different from everyone else? Jennifer didn’t know.

During recess and lunch, Jennifer followed the popular girls around closely enough that she could hear what they talked about. It was gossip, pure and simple. They made fun of everyone that wasn’t them. They laughed at things the teacher said or did. They chaffed at the teasing of boys, yet encouraged them by their suggestive saunters and shortened shirts.

Jennifer knew that she was often the butt of the snide comments, and this hurt, but yet she still wanted to be part of that group.

At home she practiced the walk. She begged and begged for a haircut until her mom relented and let it be shortened to shoulder length. She brushed her hair every night until it shone. In the morning she brushed it again, making sure there were no tangles, twists or poking out strands.

She convinced her dad to let her get new shoes that weren’t oxfords. It took a lot of work, but boy, did she feel happy when he relented! She saved her weekly allowance until she had enough to buy new shoes. It was May by the time her dad drove her to the store, but it didn’t matter. She finally had shoes like all the other girls wore.

There was nothing she could do about the jumpers and blouses. New ones cost too much, plus the year was almost over and she’d need replacements for eighth grade anyway.

Was it enough? Jennifer hoped so. When she walked on the campus in her new shoes with her new hair, she squared her shoulders and smiled at the first popular girl she saw.

The girl snubbed her. It was subtle, true. The girl, Marissa, looked at Jennifer, smirked, then turned and walked away. Not the greeting Jennifer was hoping for.

Tears came to her eyes, which she hastily wiped away before entering the classroom.

Yes, everyone saw her shorter, more stylish hair. She was sure that they also noticed her more modern shoes. But her clothes were still someone else’s. Her jumper was faded and baggy and her blouse off-white with a pixie collar than no one else wore.

Jennifer skulked to her desk and slid onto her seat, her shoulders drooping.

How to be accepted? She didn’t know.

During recess she went into the bathroom. Fortunately none of the popular girls were there. That quickly changed, however.

Jennifer recognized Susan’s voice first. “Did you see Jennifer’s hair? Not in braids or pigtails.”

“Yeah,” another girl said. “I couldn’t believe that she’d cut off her hair.”

“I loved her long hair,” Susan said. “No she looks more like a boy with that horse-face of hers.”

The other girl snorted. “Come on, she’s not that bad looking. She’s fat, but not too fat.”

“What boy would want to date her? Name one.”

The girls were silent for a moment. “Peter Strauss.”

Chuckles filled the room. “He’s just as fat and ugly,” Susan said. “They’d make a great pair.”

Water gushed from the faucets. Paper towels were ripped from the dispenser, the door opened and shut. Only then did Jennifer emerge. She stood before the mirror and checked out her face. Was she ugly? She didn’t think so. True, her cheeks were a bit puffy. She had a dimple when she smiled. Her eyebrows were thick, but not bushy.

She tossed her hair back and tried to picture a boy with the same cut. No names came to mind until she thought of Peter. His hair was long, shoulder length, like hers. Brown like hers. Straight like hers.

She imagined him standing next to her in front of the mirror. He would be taller, his shoulders broader, his neck thicker, but he was also overweight. He stuttered, while she did not. He spoke in a whisper only when forced to respond by the teacher. Jennifer also spoke in a whisper but she did it because she was easily embarrassed.

“Oh, well,” she said as she shrugged and exited the restroom.

Once outside Jennifer looked for the popular girls. They were clustered together near the teacher lunchroom, their usual place. Jennifer thought about walking over there, but then she spotted Peter leaning against the wall outside their classroom.

“Hi,” she said. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” he said. “What about you?”

Jennifer shrugged. “Hey, what’s your favorite TV show?”

“American Idol. I like to imagine that it’s me up there.”

“Do you sing?”

“Yeah, but only at home. And at church. What about you?”

Jennifer smiled. “Same with me. I have a radio in my room. I keep it tuned to 97.3 because I like the music they play.”

“That’s my favorite station. Want to come over sometime and we can listen together?”

Jennifer thought about the ramifications. If she palled around with Peter she didn’t stand a chance of ever being friends with the popular girls. On the other hand, there was a real good possibility that she’d never fit in with them anyway. “Yeah, I’d like that.”

“How about tomorrow after school? My mom could pick you up.”

“Let’s say Friday. That’ll give me time to ask my parents and get permission. One thing I know is that they’ll want to talk to your parents before then.”

Peter pulled a crumpled paper out of his pants pocket and a pencil from his shirt pocket. He wrote something and then handed the paper to Jennifer. “That’s my number. Write yours at the bottom and tear it off. I’ll ask my mom to call this afternoon.”

When the bell rang, Jennifer was smiling. She had a friend! Her first real friend. Someone who wanted her to come over to his house and hang out. Granted it wasn’t one of the people she’d dreamt of having for a friend, but Peter was a loner like her. Together they’d make an awesome pair.

And that’s all that mattered.

One Special Day

Sherry watched woefully as her classmate Sabrina handed out bright yellow envelopes to the girls in the class. One by one eyes lit up and smiles creased faces as the envelopes were torn open. Squeals of delight filled the air.

Sherry crossed her fingers behind her back, hoping desperately that this time she would be included. As the pile slowly got smaller, she knew, due to years of experience, that once again she would be left out. It didn’t mean she couldn’t dream, however, that things had changed.

It brought tears to her eyes, watching all those happy faces, yearning to be among them as an equal. But she wasn’t equal Far from it. Her old-fashioned clothes made her stand out amid all the rest. Who wore seersucker skirts and gingham dresses?

No one. That’s who.

And her shoes. They didn’t help either. Her doctor insisted on saddle oxfords to support her weak arches. Sherry hated them.

She wanted Nikes or Keds: black and gray or blue and white, with the distinguishing logo on the side so that she could be like the other kids.

Even her hair distinguished her from the pack. Her classmates all had brown or black or blonde hair. But not her.   Bright red curls surrounded her head, forming a wild halo of color. No one else had red hari except for Billy, a rather odd-looking boy who often trailed after her, calling her names, pushing her from behind and pulling her hair while he cackled like a witch.

He was excluded from the boy groups just as she was from the girls.

Sherry had tried to convince her mom to cut her hair, to keep it close to her had so that she didn’t look like a crazy person, but her mom would have none of it. Her mom’s hair was just as red, just as curly, but she saw it as a source of pride, not embarrassment.

Sherry practically drooled as Sabrina neared her on the playground. Only one card left. Only one invitation to hand out. Only one girl not holding one.

As Sabrina walked up to Sherry, the girl’s face broke into a huge smile. Sherry trembled with excitement. This was it! She was no longer an outcast!

Sabrina’s hand slowly extended toward Sherry. Closer and closer the envelope came.

Was this going to be the time when she got invited?

Granted, when she was little she attended quite a few parties, but that was because of the rule that everyone got invited or no one did.

Those were the good days. Days when she didn’t feel different.

But in elementary school things changed. There were no rules, so kids could pick and choose who to invite. As soon as the teasing began in first grade, no invitations ever came her way.

She was in fourth grade now and should have known better. But she got good grades, never got in trouble, never teased other students, never gossiped. Surely the other kids noticed.

And so she smiled back at Sabrina. As the card got close enough to touch, Sherry extended her hand, ready to receive it with the increasing joy she felt welling inside.

Just as Sherry’s fingers neared the edge of the envelope, Sabrina moved past her. “Mrs. Allen?” Sabrina said. “Would you like to come to my party?”

Sherry turned around and looked at the smile on her teacher’s face.

Once again, she stood out. She was the odd girl. The one no one wanted at their party.

 

Fitting In

Jeremiah had always hated the first day of school, but it was particularly worse when it was at a new school. He should be used to it by now. As a child of a military parent he’d never stayed more than two years at any one place.

But what do students wear in Vallejo? At Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, his last home, everyone wore t-shirts with crazy sayings or movie references. Granted, he was in eighth grade then, a time when kids could still be silly, so things might have changed if he’d stayed there for high school. He’ll never know, though.

But he’s got to be prepared. He has to have the right clothes before orientation, which is tomorrow. If he walks on campus wearing out-of-fashion clothes, his entire academic career will be shot.

“Mom? Can you take me shopping?” he asked when he spotted his mom cleaning the bathroom.

She sat up, brushed hair out of her eyes and said, “What do you need?”

“Clothes.”

“You’ve got plenty of clothes. Why do you need more?”

“I don’t know what kids wear here and the only way to find out before the orientation is to go to the mall. Whatever’s in the stores is what kids will be wearing.”

She sighed. “Let me finish here and then I’ll take you.”

Jeremiah went into the kitchen and fixed himself a peanut butter sandwich. He poured himself some water and took an apple from the bowl. He carried it all to the front room where he turned on the television, shuffled through stations, eventually landing on a baseball game.

“Let’s go,” his mom said several minutes later as she picked up her purse and keys. “We’ve got about an hour before I need to begin dinner.”

Within minutes they were at the outlet mall, one of those that sold discounted designer labels. Jeremiah found two awesome shirts and a pair of shoes at the Nike store, two shirts at Under Armour and one at Adidas.

“Thanks, Mom,” he said. “I didn’t want to look like a dork.”

She smiled as she drove toward their military housing. “You’re not a dork.”

“Anyone can be one if they don’t wear the right clothes.”

At home Jeremiah removed the tags from his new clothes and put them in his drawers. Then he got out his bike and rode around his neighborhood looking for kids his age. He was sure there would be some since this was the family housing section. For the longest time he saw no one, but on a third trip around the block he spotted a couple of teenagers standing in front of one of the units.

Jeremiah stopped next to them. “Hi.”

They stared at him like he was crazy.

“I’m new.”

They snickered. “Yeah, we figured that out as soon as we saw the bike.”

Jeremiah looked from side to side and saw no bikes. Okay. So he’s already discovered one rule here: nobody rides bikes. “Do you go to Fairfield High?”

“Yeah.” The blond haired boy said, “I’m Josh. I’m a sophomore.”

The black haired one said he was called Trevor and he was a freshman.

“So am I,” Jeremiah said. “Are you going to orientation tomorrow?”

“Yeah. It’s required,” Trevor said. “Besides, I’m new here, like you.”

“Do you walk to school?” Jeremiah asked.

“Nah. Our moms are friends now, so they’ll take turns driving us.”

Jeremiah wanted to ask for a ride, but that would be dorky. “Well, I’d better go. Maybe I’ll see you.”

When he got home, he told his mom about meeting the boys. She was happy for him. “The best part?” Jeremiah said, “They were both wearing shirts like my new ones. Now I know I won’t stand out.”

The next day Jeremiah was ready early. He was wearing his new shoes and the Adidas shirt. He felt pretty confident that he would fit in.

They arrived about twenty minutes before the orientation began. In the office she filled out some forms and picked up an information packet. Jeremiah was given his class schedule. Using a map they walked around campus, following his schedule, so that he’d know where to go. Jeremiah knew he could have figured this out on his own, so se was glad when his mom left.

He went into the gym where the first session was being held. Trevor waved to him, so he climbed up the bleachers and sat next to him.

“So,” Trevor said, “let’s compare schedules.”

It turned out that they had PE and English together. Considering that there were eight hundred or so freshman, that was pretty good. “Maybe we can study together,” Trevor said. “I struggle in English but I’m awesome in Algebra.”

“Sure,” Jeremiah said. “That will make it a lot more fun.”

“I’ll ask Josh, but maybe you can join our carpool.”

Jeremiah nodded. “That would be great.”

They stayed together for the rest of orientation, even getting into the same small group led by a senior. When there were breaks they talked about their interests. Trevor played baseball while Jeremiah wanted to be on the football team. Jeremiah liked horror movies but read fantasy. Trevor also liked horror movies and played video games.

By the time the morning was over, Jeremiah knew he had a new best friend. He smiled as he climbed in his mom’s car. “Guess what? I’m going to fit in here just fine.”

Nighttime Adventure

It was not a dark and stormy night but rather a clear spring evening, the sun just going down, rays of golden light streaking across the sky. It was a night for being out, for great adventures, for having fun before the expected rains began to fall the next morning.

And so it was that Jon Michaels and Steve Johnson huddled against the back wall of the high school, obscured by shadows that had fallen as the sun slowly sank below the horizon.

Steve, the older of the two, had bulk and brawn on his side. He played football, basketball and baseball, the star of all three. The golden boy, the most popular kid in school, but not necessarily the brightest.

Jon, on the other hand was slim with narrow shoulders and hips. His head barely came up to Steve’s abs, but what he lacked in size he made up for in dexterity. His fingers flew over the keyboard, tapping out code faster than any other kid in school, even faster than his teacher.

For some unknown reason the two dissimilar boys were friends. Had been since Jon moved into the neighborhood during the summer before freshman year. Shortly after Jon climbed out of the family’s minivan, Steve showed up. Four years later they were still friends.

Tonight, however, would test the strength of that friendship and Jon knew it. Success depended upon him and he was so nervous that his teeth chattered.

Steve stabbed Jon in the chest, pushing him up against the wall. “Look, you can do it. You’ve practiced it a hundred times.”

“No, I can’t,” Jon whined. “My hands are shaking.” He held both hands out for inspection and then stuck them in the pockets of his baggy jeans.

“Just remember the steps,” Steve said. “It’s not rocket science.” He turned Jon around to face the downspout. “All you have to do is shimmy up, find the door and pick the lock. Piece of cake.”

Jon attempted to step away, but Steve had him trapped. “What if I can’t climb this thing? What if I get caught?”

“It’s Sunday night. There’s no one on campus. You won’t get caught.” He smiled encouragingly and slung his arm over Jon’s shoulders. “We’re buds, remember? Buds help each other out. I’ve been keeping you safe from the bullies, now it’s your turn to save me.”

Jon sighed. “What if there’s an alarm, hunh? I’ll be caught while you run away.”

Steve wrapped Jon’s hands on the spout. “Climb.” He held his interlaced fingers together, forming the first step of the climb. “Do it. Now.”

Jon put his right foot in Steve’s hands and using his own, pulled himself up to a standing position.

“Pretend it’s a rope. Use the clamps as leverage.”

Jon climbed, but it wasn’t easy. The bricks left his knuckles red and raw. His sneakers slipped over and over, causing him to slide down several inches each time he moved his hands up. The spout, despite being made of metal, seemed fragile. Jon was afraid that it would collapse, sending him flying to the ground where his body would break into a thousand pieces.

Because of his fear, it seemed to take forever, far longer than either boy had imagined.

The plan was simple. Scale the spout. Pick the rooftop lock. Go down to the first floor where English classes were held. Pick the lock to Grady’s classroom. Find the test on Grady’s desk and take just one copy. Then go out the front doors even though it would set off the alarm and run like heck. By the time the cops showed up, both boys would be sauntering down Main Street as if nothing had happened.

To prepare they had watched videos on YouTube about picking locks with nothing but a hairpin. Getting the pin was easy: Steve took one of his mom’s when she was watching television.  She’d never miss just one.

Unfortunately it took ten before they successfully picked the first lock, then another three before they could do it in five seconds or less. With his nimble fingers Jon was the fastest, which is why he was now scaling the spout.

Up and up Jon went, moving slower than a snail, but making progress. Steve whispered encouragement, not daring to shout for fear that a passing neighbor might hear noise and investigate.

It was scary enough waiting until all the groups of kids shooting hoops had left. Steve and Jon had joined in, pretending to be interested in the activity, all the while silently hoping that the others would soon give up and go home but it wasn’t until sunset that the playground was finally empty.

Jon reached the roof and slithered over the small wall at the top. He landed heavily on his left side, temporarily pinning his arm under his body. It hurt like heck. Added to that was the pain from the scrapes, the cramps in his legs and the persistent shaking of his entire body.

He lay there for what felt like hours but was probably only a minute or two. Once his breathing had stabilized, Jon stood, leaned over the wall and waved at Steve. But Steve was not there.

Jon looked all over for his friend, but couldn’t see him huddling against the fence or by the wall. He shrugged. “Might as well get to it,” he said.

Jon had never been on the roof so he had no idea what a maze of pipes and vents it was. He had to zig and zag to avoid tripping or banging against something. On top of that was the bank of solar panels that created deep shadows.

He was proud of the panels, though. It was nice to know that his school was embracing the new technology.

When he reached the door, Jon took out one of the hairpins which Steve had straightened using a pair of pliers so that it would easily slip into the keyhole. Jon bent down until he was eye-level and stuck the pin in the slot.

Jon maneuvered it as he had practiced, waiting nervously to hear the satisfying click, but nothing happened. He moved it up and down, side to side, over and over, taking way more time than any of the practice locks had taken. Finally, it happened. The click. Jon felt it and heard it. A sound so small that it there had been any noise, he wouldn’t have heard a thing. But it was there. It was real.

Jon turned the knob and pulled. The door opened and best of all, no alarm sounded.

It was dark inside, so Jon pulled a mini flashlight from his pocket, turned it on and flashed it around. There was nothing texcept a flight of narrow metal stairs, pretty much what the boys had expected.

He carefully went down the steps, wondering when he might trigger an alarm. But nothing happened. No screeches, no wails, no sirens.

Jon came to another door. He picked it, much quicker this time and pulled it open. That’s when it happened. The alarm went off so loud that it hurt his ears.

At first he froze, standing as still as possible, hoping the noise would end if there was no movement. But that didn’t work, so he ran down the remaining two flights of stairs.

At that point he had a decision to make: get into Grady’s classroom and steal the test or make a run for it out the front doors.

Steve would be angry if Jon didn’t get the test, so he headed to the room. As the alarm wailed, Jon calmly picked the lock. It only took one try. He ran in, found the test in the center of the desk and then took off down the hall and out the front doors.

As planned, he ran toward the trees next to the schoolyard fence and ducked behind the first one. He crouched down, making himself as small as possible. He hoped that his black clothes would make him invisible.

From his hiding place he saw a cop car pull up in front of the school, soon followed by another. Two cops got out of the first car, paired up and headed around the back of the building the remaining two went to the front. Jon watched their flashlights bounce as they walked. They scanned every window, most likely searching for a breech.

Jon had watched enough cop shows to predict what would happen next. He knew that once they found the unlocked doors, they’d search the neighborhood. So he took off running, hoping to find Steve huddled behind a tree or boulder.

He didn’t. He was alone with the stolen test tucked under his shirt.

When Jon came to the end of the trees, he stuffed his hands in his jeans’ pockets and strolled across the park as if nothing was wrong, even though the test seemed to burn his chest.

He came out on Second Street and turned left. He passed Melanie’s house which was lit up, a light on in every window. She was a senior like him, only super good at socializing. The type that belonged to every club on campus. Jon would have liked to be her friend, but he was invisible to her.

Next was Luke’s house. He was two years younger, but in his senior year. One of those super smart kids who skipped grades, graduating from middle school at twelve.

Jon strolled across Alder, waiting as a cop car zoomed by, lights flashing. He was surprised that the town had so many cops, then thought that maybe the chief had called for backup. That scared him so much that he almost peed his pants. He ducked behind a bush in front of a dark house and urinated against the wall.

Before stepping out, thankfully, he looked left and right. Another car went by, this time using its beacon to scan both sides of the street. Jon ducked down, making himself as small as possible, even though the smell of his urine gagged him.

He stayed like that until the streets were quiet. When he thought it was safe, Jon headed to Steve’s house.

When he threw a rock against Steve’s window, Steve opened it and stuck out his head. “Did you get it?” he asked.

“Yeah. But I almost got caught.”

“Hand it over.”

“Not until I get to look at it first. That was the deal,” Jon said, “and I’m sticking to it.”

Steve extended a hand and pulled Jon inside. “Let’s look together,” Steve said. “That way if anything happens to it, we’ll both have seen what’s on it.”

They sat on the bed. Jon took it out from under his shirt and smoothed it out. They bent over the paper, eager to find out what questions Grady was asking.

“Wait a minute,” Steve said as he shoved Jon in the chest. “You got the wrong test.”

“No,” Jon said. “I took the one from the middle of the desk, just like you said.”

Steve pointed at the top of the paper. “Read it.”

“First period. College Prep Junior English.” Jon fell back on the bed. “All that for nothing.”