Six Kids and a Stuffed Cat

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This book is dedicated in memory of

George Nicholson.

He fought for my books.

And I am forever grateful.

Scene One:

“Don't step in the blood.”

I was cramming tissue up both of my nostrils to stem the flow of my most recent nosebleed when a kid tried to sneak in the second-floor restroom at RJ Glavine Middle School without being noticed. Weird since it was a small space, full of mirrors, and I was Right There. The sink area of any bathroom is a hard place to pretend to be invisible.

And we were going to be stuck together for a while. Because this school is insanely paranoid whenever there's the tiniest threat of a storm. A couple minutes ago, I'd heard the overly cautious announcement warning everyone still on school property after school hours to huddle up and hunker down so the district couldn't get sued in case anything bad happened. That's not exactly what they said, but that's what I heard.

“Attention! A severe weather alert is likely to be issued for the surrounding areas. In the interest of erring on the side of caution and adhering to the guidelines of our prudent insurance liability policy, we strongly recommend that any faculty, staff, and students remaining in the school building immediately seek shelter in the nearest interior room. I repeat: Due to the slight possibility of potentially sudden onset heavy rain, please move immediately to a safe location, away from windows, and remain there until the all-clear sounds. Thank you.”

Good thing I was already in one of the safest rooms in the building, dealing with what can only be described as rivers of blood coursing down my philtrum. That's the midline groove in the upper lip that runs from the top of the lip to the nose. I know that word because the one on my face is frequently bloody, so it seemed only right to learn its proper name. I'm a very impressive bleeder. And today, I'd left a small trail of blood in the second-floor bathroom at RJ Glavine Middle School and freaked out the new kid, also taking shelter from the—take my word on this—nonthreatening baby storm that was going to miss us by a mile.

“What?” The kid practically climbed the walls trying to dodge the blood after I pointed it out.

“You were about to walk right though the splatter. It's not nearly enough to be a puddle, but it's more than a sprinkle.”

I adjusted the tissues I'd jammed up my bloody nose, hoping this kid thought bloody noses made a person seem a little mad, bad, and dangerous to know. I usually aim for being thought of as The Funny One because I'm, you know, inherently amusing. Plus, I overcompensate with humor to distract from the fact that I'm not really a people person.

Lately, though, I've been starting to feel my sarcastic take on things has been misunderstood and underappreciated. I thought it might be an interesting experiment to develop a new reputation for myself that didn't rely so much on levity. I'd have to try it out with a preliminary test subject, of course, and the new kid would be the perfect person to start with. Maybe I could also spin the dorky bloody-nose thing into something mysterious with someone who didn't know me.

If, of course, I could get the kid to look at me. I glanced from my own reflection to the other one in the mirror. Or at least I tried to. There was zero eye contact. Which was impressive in a pathologically shy kind of way because we were in a restroom with about four mirrors. Our faces were everywhere and yet we still weren't looking at each other.

“Oh, right, um—” The kid was completely flustered trying to put together a sentence and avoid the Hansel and Gretel–like trail of blood-not-bread I had left in my wake. Oops, me and my bloody philtrum were inciting fear rather than awe; scaring, rather than impressing, the kid. Better take it down a notch, lighten the moment with a joke or two, help make this new kid feel more at ease with me before both of us had stress-induced bloody noses and the room looked like a gory crime scene. I was forced back to being my typical quick-witted and entertaining self before ever really trying on cool as a new image.

“It didn't come from a fistfight or, you know, a spontaneous aortic rupture.” I paused for the chuckle that didn't come. “This school has zero tolerance for violence. Not to mention unsupervised cardiac bleeds.” Another pause for the laugh. Another moment of comedic death by silence.

“That's . . . good?”

Geez, my comic timing wasn't even appreciated by a kid who was, I should point out, carrying around a backpack with a cat poking out of it. My sense of humor is quickly becoming wasted around here. No one in this entire building gets my kind of funny anymore. I might have to transfer, try to find a middle school that's a better fit for someone with the gift of the wisecrack like me.

“What happened?” The kid was peering at my bloody tissue with the same revulsion one might reasonably direct toward a person just returned from a serial murder spree or breaking down game after a particularly successful hunting trip.

“Bloody nose. A real gusher this time. What can I say? It's an imperfect world and I have a deviated septum.” And I bleed when I get worried about peer group interaction. But no one needs to know that except me and my counselor, Cary, who came up with the phrase “peer group interaction” in the first place. I grabbed a roll of toilet paper, dropped it to the floor, and used my foot to wipe up most of the blood. “Good enough. Now it's just a smear.”

From the kid's gag reflex after a quick glance at—and then away from—the blood on the floor, I was worried we were going to be dealing with another kind of bodily fluid in a sec. Nope, deep breath, nausea under control, brave attempt to keep the conversation going. “You know a lot of words for blood residue.”

“I get a lot of nosebleeds.” That's like saying the
Titanic
took on a little water. My counselor says it's from social anxiety. Cary's probably right, but I don't want to deal with that just yet. Cary calls that avoidance; I call it pacing myself. “A person can do a lot of thinking with their head back and a wad of tissue packed in each nostril.” Good position to avoid facing reality and any kind of personal interaction, by the way.

“You make good use of your time.”

Wow. Look at me: meeting a secret optimist who's gradually warming to me. My day is definitely picking up. “Hardly anyone ever says that about me. Thanks.”

I heard Ms. Mahoney in the hallway yelling at the few kids still in the building this long after dismissal to take shelter. I'm guessing she was shouting at students; but a she-devil like that could have just as easily been bossing around teachers and coaching staff. Or even directing the principal if she thought he wasn't toeing the line.

“Did a teacher with a clipboard shove you in here?” I asked, and the kid nodded, looking nervously at the door as if Ms. M. was going to burst in and start ordering us to scrub toilets or clean the grout. Which wasn't completely unlikely; I've seen her do worse in the name of running a tight ship.

“That woman's meaner than a junkyard dog. No wonder they always assign her to detention duty; she's hardwired to strike terror in the hearts of, well, everyone. The good news is that we're totally safe from the storm if we're anywhere near her: She'll intimidate any bad weather, like an infantry regiment on the front line of battle.” That's not at all true, of course, but it's the kind of reassuring thing a person tells someone whose nerves seem to be stretched a little tight. I'd know all about something like that. The kid was in excellent, and empathetic, company.

“Oh . . . well, that's good, I mean, everyone should be . . . I dunno, useful in some way.”

“I'm Jordan.”

“Avery.”

“What're you doing hanging around school so late?”

“It, uh, was, ah, my first day.” I wondered if Avery thought we got graded by how many extra syllables we could cram in a sentence or if there was another reason for the hesitation. Like maybe clinical introversion or social maladjustment. I know those phrases because Cary suggested they might apply to me in our first session.

“Thought so. I'd have remembered the cat.”

“You're not supposed to see him.”

“Oooooookaaaaaay. An
invisible
stuffed cat. Gotcha.” Who am I to judge? But bingo on the call of maladjustment. Takes one to know one, I guess. “That still doesn't explain what you're doing in school forty minutes after the last bell rang.”

“I hid backstage in the auditorium and fell asleep.”

Interesting. “When?”

“As soon as I got here this morning. I slept all day.” No wonder the kid was a twitching wreck. “Is it still considered an official first day if I was sleeping under a costume rack instead of going to class?”

No, my new and trembling friend, you are toast. Instead, I looked thoughtful, pretended to consider the plight carefully, and then nodded. “You were on school property so, technically, you were present. No worries, you're good.”

“Why are you still here?”

“I'm always here. If I were not here, there'd be no here here. The detention hall would cease to exist if I were not given detention several times a week. The faculty in this school doesn't get my humor. Apparently, I come off as difficult and challenging to authority.”

“That's too bad. A good sense of humor is an important quality to have.”

Ah. Socially awkward, but promising. Just like me. “You'd think. But wit like mine is wasted in the eighth grade. My counselor says it doesn't pay to be subversive in middle school.”

Before my new potential BFF could respond or I could rip out my own tongue for admitting I see a counselor, the washroom door slammed open. Avery practically leapt into my arms but settled for scurrying behind me as a shield.

I turned away from the huddled mess that was Avery hiding behind me and saw who'd entered the restroom. Oh, right: Taylor. Good call, Avery. Everyone should duck and cover when Taylor enters the room.

“If you don't cut that out, I'll squash you like a bug.” Taylor's not anyone's idea of charming. This was, in fact, one of Taylor's warmer utterances of the week.

Devon, the recipient of Taylor's warning, followed Taylor into the bathroom. Devon hasn't heard anything anyone's said for years, so, although a threat was delivered, a threat most certainly wasn't received. Devon was wearing earbuds and playing air guitar. Like always. I really mean it: ALWAYS. Even in class, albeit quietly and as discreetly as it is possible to rock out on an imaginary Fender Stratocaster. Or was it a Gibson? Hard to tell when, you know, it doesn't exist.

Normally, when I find myself in a small-group situation, I get very uncomfortable. But here, in this bathroom, with these people, I felt right at home, even though I'd just met Avery, Taylor is unpleasant, and Devon doesn't communicate with people who can be seen. I was, far and away, not the only flaky one in the room, and that brought a level of social comfort I don't usually experience.

Taylor was still waiting for Devon to respond. Dream on, Taylor.

As if it would help clarify their communication process, such as it was, Taylor bellowed at Devon, “DID YOU HEAR ME?”

Devon not only hadn't heard anything anyone has said for years, but Devon had also lost the ability to read body language and facial cues. So the fist-into-palm-smacking and red angry face that Taylor was demonstrating as an example of seething rage fell on deaf, or earbud-stuffed, ears. Devon looked up from the guitar, smiled at Taylor, pumped both fists in the air like a rock star, and wandered into a stall to continue playing, one hoped, rather than to partake of the intended purposes of the facilities. Although we were
in
the bathroom, I sincerely hoped no one would have to
use
the bathroom. Until the storm was over and the rest of us could leave, of course.

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