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Bullies, Pancakes, And Sausage

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     “I’m not going to school tomorrow!” I declare, plopping my head onto my pillow and staring up at the popcorn ceiling. Honestly, I don’t really hate going to school. It’s kind of fun, actually. I have class with my two best friends, Tyler and Blake. Don’t get me wrong, 4th grade has its challenges. Oh, and there’s this kid named Cliff in my class. His mom makes him wear glasses and collared shirts every day. He played Little League baseball and was on my team. That dork led the league in strikeouts and didn’t get a single hit all season. He was a statue at the plate. I never let him forget it, I’ll tell you.

     During our morning meeting last Tuesday, while Mrs. Duffy was writing something on the board, Cliff ripped a fart. The whole classroom burst into laughter. Tyler and Blake, who were sitting on each side of him, scooted away so fast I thought they were going to rip their pants. Cliff clenched his butt cheeks and asked Mrs. Duffy if he could go to the bathroom. Later, someone said Cliff might be lactose intolerant or something. It didn’t matter to me either way because he crapped his pants, and it was so funny.

     Even my teacher, Mrs. Duffy, wasn’t that bad. She was nice sometimes, but she had this big mole on her eyebrow. It would hang off the side of her face, and little black hairs were poking out. Every time she slapped that ruler on my desk to wake me up, I couldn’t take her seriously because all I saw was that mole. She wasn’t a bad-looking old lady either, but she was definitely old, at least older than my mom. I think my mom’s 34, so this lady must be at least 40.

     As you can see, I have no reason to ditch school, but tomorrow is different. I made a big mistake. I honestly didn’t know. When we lined up at the end of recess, Mrs. Jackson’s class goes in first for lunch, and then ours. Well, Billy Barnhart, the biggest 4th grader I’ve ever seen, was at the back of the line. He’s so big and strong; he knocked a kid right off his feet with a dodgeball in gym class. No one messed with him. Anyways, as his class began going inside, Billy dropped a red envelope out of his back pocket, and it hit the ground. I was standing right behind him, facing Tyler, waiting to fill my spot in line. When the envelope hit the ground, my eyes got big. I immediately darted for it so I could give it back to Billy. It would put me in his good graces. What kid doesn’t want an ally like that? But before I could get a word out of my mouth, his teacher called him to the front of the line, and the door slammed shut.”

     I picked the envelope off the ground and noticed that it was never sealed. The front was still blank, and it was a dark red color. Since it was Valentine’s Day next week, I figured some girl in his class probably gave it to him because she wanted to be his Valentine. It seemed silly.      Valentine’s Day and girls. Both equally silly.

     Tyler noticed me picking up the card and walked over.

     “What’s that?” he asked.

     I told him Billy dropped it, and I was going to give it to him when I saw him in the lunchroom. Tyler snatched the envelope from me and turned his back.

     “Give it back, Tyler. Billy is going to kill us if we read his stuff.”

     “He’s not going to know,” Tyler explained. He opened the envelope and saw a card with roses on it.

     “See, some girl probably gave it to him,” I said, reaching for it. Tyler nudged his shoulder and turned to block me from reaching the envelope. His eyes widened, and his smile grew. Tyler glanced around to see if a teacher was nearby.

     “Holy shit,” he said, turning to me. “Mike, you’ve got to read this.”

     My mouth dropped. Whatever was on that letter must have been good. Tyler doesn’t usually curse at school, especially at recess. It’s not worth risking losing your recess, the only peaceful time of the whole school day, to say a word like that out loud. Tyler wouldn’t get in trouble anyway. His mom lets him use words like that. My dad told me if he ever hears me curse, he’s going to wash my mouth out with soap, and I believed him.

      “Well, just read it, but do it real quiet,” I said

      Tyler spoke in a normal voice.

     Jenny,

      I think you’re really pretty and you’re good at math. And we both like pizza. Will you be my valentine this Thursday?

      -Billy Barnhart

     I couldn’t control myself and immediately started laughing at the top of my lungs.

     “Mike, look at this handwriting,” Tyler said, pointing at the card. “His handwriting is horrible. He looks like he belongs back in first grade.” We both started laughing, and when I turned around, Mrs. Duffy had the class lining up to go in, and kids were gathering around, listening to Tyler. I realized what was going on. Cliff and Blake walked over. Blake snatched the card from Tyler. “Let me read that,” he said.

     Blake read the card out loud, and all the kids in the class heard it. Carrie Strickland, who I hate, by the way, shouted, “I have after school with Jenny. I’m going to tell her.”

     “No, Carrie, Billy might kill me.” Carrie looked up, turned her head in the opposite direction, and got in her spot in line for lunch.

     I was hoping things would blow over, but everyone had heard by now. Kids were talking about it at lunch, and I knew it was just a matter of time before Billy found out who picked up the card. He was going to smash me.

     Once lunch was over, I knew I was home free from seeing Billy the rest of the day. I just hoped this problem would disappear. In fact, I completely forgot about it. When we got back to the classroom, we had a spelling bee with our word list for the week, and I got third place. Which really isn’t bad considering I lost on the word “Friend.” It’s so easy to get the “e” and “i” mixed up. At least I wasn’t as bad as Cliff, who misspelled “stairs.” Now I’d feel like an idiot if I missed that one.

      Once school was over, and I was being led to the buses like we do every day, Billy came walking down the hall. He looked so mad at me. That look reminded me of the one my dad gave me when I accidentally hit his car window with a baseball in the front yard. Billy was pissed, and he was coming straight for me.

     “Mike, tomorrow I’m going to kick your ass,” Billy said. I looked around, my feet were frozen, and I could do nothing but mumble and point at myself.

     “See you at recess,” Billy said with a smirk.

     I was panicking. I wasn’t sure what to do or say. I was frozen in time.

     Tyler gets a ride home with Blake from school, and car riders are released last. I walked to the next doorway and told the teacher I left my homework in class and asked to go get it. She told me to hurry.

     Once I got to the classroom, I saw Mike and Tyler getting their bookbags to head to the lobby where the car riders meet.

     “Billy just said he’s going to kick my butt tomorrow at recess,” I shouted at them.

     “I know, he told me,” Tyler said.

     “He told you? When did you talk to him?”

     “He asked me at lunch. I told him you’re the one that found the letter and opened the card,” Tyler smiled.

     Steam was shooting from my ears. “But I told you not to read the card?”

     “Yeah, but he’s not kicking my ass,” Tyler said and slapped me on my shoulder.

     “I had no part in this,” Blake said.

     They both told me they’d see me tomorrow, and we would figure it out.

     As I lay in my bedroom, I knew there had to be a way of getting out of school. My parents never let me stay home unless I had a fever or was throwing up. Billy was going to kill me, and I’m too young to die. I’m not even taller than one girl in my class. I have to live long enough to outgrow these bullies with their cooties.

     “Think, Mike, think,” I said to myself. I got it. My dad will be home soon. I’ll go to the bathroom and make myself throw up. I saw Blake do it one time at school when he wanted to catch a new episode of “Adventure Time.” He threw up all his lunch, and the school sent him home. I can do that, but it sounds scary jamming my finger down my throat, but that’s clearly better than dying.

     I waited until I heard the front door open, and my dad came inside. He went to the kitchen to greet my mom, who was doing her usual. She liked to drink wine out of the box and stand at the kitchen island. She would just stare, or watch talk shows on TV. I didn’t even want to ask her about staying home. Her answer to anything was “ask your father.” She wouldn’t even look at me when she replied.

     Anyway, I heard him coming down the hallway. I got on my knees over the toilet, pinched my first two fingers together, and stuck them in my mouth. Every time it got to the back of my tongue; I’d jerk my hand out really fast. I was scared. I thought of trying again when I heard a knock on the bathroom door.

     “Mike, you okay in there, buddy?”

     I thought quickly, “Yeah, Dad, everything’s fine.”

    Everything was not fine. I was going to be murdered on the playground tomorrow, and I couldn’t even make myself throw up. I was just a big scaredy-cat.

     Maybe I can reason with my dad? It’s my only hope if he doesn’t want me to die.

     I opened the door, and there was my dad standing in his suit and tie. He had black bags under his eyes. He didn’t used to have those, but ever since we got this new house, he has been working so much I kind of think that’s where they came from.

     “Dad, can I stay home tomorrow?”

     “No,” he didn’t even look up from his phone.

     “But Dad, this kid at school, Billy Barnhart, is going to kill me.”

     “He’s not going to kill you, son.”

     He put his hand on my shoulder and asked me what I did to deserve to die.

     “I found a Valentine he wrote to a girl in his class. Tyler read it out loud, and now he’s going to take it out on me.” I dropped my head and stuck out my bottom lip. This was my go-to when I was younger.

     “He’s not going to kill you. He’s just a bully that’s bigger than you. You got to stand up to bullies’ son. I had my run-ins with bullies back in the day, and I’m still here.”

     I could not believe what he was telling me. “But Dad, you’re tall and you have a beard. You never had a bully like this.”

     My dad kneeled to my eye level and laughed, “Son, I wasn’t always tall, and I didn’t always have a beard. When I was your age, I was built just like you.”

     I lifted my hands to my face and saw my skinny arms, and I saw that he was still taller than me, kneeling.

     “So, one day I may be tall with a beard?”

     “Of course, you’re a spitting image of your dad; you just haven’t started growing yet.”

     “If I don’t die tomorrow,” I said.

    My dad stood up and laughed. “You will be fine. I got to answer some emails. Why don’t you get washed up for dinner?”

     My dad was wrong; I was not going to be fine. Billy was going to turn me into minced meat. So, what if one day I may be tall with a beard? It won’t happen if I get creamed tomorrow.

     I went to my room and decided to skip dinner. They wouldn’t notice if I ate or not anyway. My dad eats in his office, and my mother eats in front of the TV. We used to eat as a family in our other house, but since we moved here, everything has been strange. Mom and Dad used to close their door at night, but now they sleep with it open. One time when I was in third grade, I couldn’t sleep, and I opened their bedroom door. Dad was on top of Mom doing God knows what. They both looked me dead in my face and screamed, “Get out.”

     Whatever they were doing, I didn’t mind because my mom would always make sausage and pancakes the next morning. She was always in a good mood back then. This was all around the time my parents kept asking me if I wanted a brother or sister someday. Come to think of it, they haven’t asked me that in a long time. I can’t even remember the last time I had sausage and pancakes for breakfast. It seems like all my mom does now is drink wine out of this box in the fridge, and my dad just works. If my dad can stand up to bullies and grow a beard, I’m sure he will get things back to normal soon.

     The next morning, I woke up and brushed my teeth. I looked in the mirror one more time before Billy smushes my face in. My father was already gone to work, he usually was. Then I got my lunch box from my mom and a toaster strudel and got on the bus.

     The morning was going by so slow I could see the hand on the clock move each minute, anticipating my mutilation at 12:15 p.m. We do reading and spelling in the morning. I usually don’t get a chance to talk to Blake and Tyler much, but today was different.

     Blake asked, “What are you going to do?”

     “There’s nothing I can do,” I said.

     “I don’t have enough time to teach you how to fight, or I would,” Tyler said.

     I cut my eyes at Tyler. “This is your fault.”

     Tyler looked surprised and smiled. “Don’t blame me, man. It’s your funeral.”

     Our special area today was gym. It was my favorite one, anything but art. The teacher is so boring. As we lined up to go down the hall, I saw Mrs. Jackson’s class coming from the opposite direction. I could already see Billy because he towered over the other boys and even most of the girls. He was staring at me, and he looked angry. I swallowed the lump in my throat. When he passes by, just tell him you’re sorry. Maybe he will show me some mercy.

     Suddenly, I heard Mrs. Jackson say, “Line leader, stop at the corner.” The line began to come to a halt. Our class was lined up waiting to get water after all the running in the gym. We were going to be here forever. I was going to be face to face with Billy. I looked up and wondered why God was picking on me. Billy stopped right in front of me, only the center of the hallway separating us.

     “Billy, I’m sorry, man.” My voice was shaking.

     “At recess, I’m going to kick your ass.”

     I raised both arms with my palms facing him. “You don’t have to. We can work this out.”

     Billy smiled. “I should right now.”

     Out of nowhere, I heard an adult, and there came Mrs. Jackson.

     “Billy, how many times do I have to tell you about talking in the hallway?”

     “I wasn’t talking,” Billy explained.

     “I heard you. Do you need to go back to 3rd grade where students must blow bubbles in the hallway?” Mrs. Jackson scolded.

     “But he was talking to me,” Billy raised his voice.

     Mrs. Jackson looked at Billy sideways. “Since you want to be disrespectful, I’m taking the first five minutes of your recess.” She was saying a bunch of other things to him, but my line began to head towards our classroom, and I couldn’t hear. But I could see Billy staring through the teacher. He looked even angrier, watching every step I took. Just staring. I thought that extra five minutes had bought me some time.

     When we got back to the classroom, I couldn’t help but stare out of the window and ask God to let Billy not kill me. I promise not to fall asleep at church anymore, but I’ve broken that rule too many times. I was on my own.

    When we got to the playground, Tyler and Blake came over. We could see Billy under the tree by the door. This is where the teachers stood, and there was a concrete bench where kids who lost their recess sat. I could see Billy staring at me. Tyler and Blake looked over at him.

     “We got your back, man,” Tyler said.

     “He can’t take all three of us,” Blake said.

     “He probably can,” Tyler yelled back.

     “I appreciate it, guys. We will fight him like the Power Rangers.”

    “I’m the green ranger!” Blake shouted.

     “No, I’m the green ranger,” Tyler yelled back.

     While they were arguing, I saw Mrs. Jackson point to Billy and then the playground. He was looking dead at me, walking in a straight line in my direction.

     “He’s coming,” I told Tyler and Blake.

     They both darted in opposite directions. It was just me and Billy staring dead at each other, and he was closing the distance. I decided it was better to run. I was on the four-square court, and that concrete would hurt to fall on. I turned and ran to the swings where there’s sand.

     Billy ran after me, and he was closing the distance. He was faster than me, so I started to zigzag to see if I could fake him out. He kept getting making ground no matter what I did. I was so close to the sandbox when I felt a strong push in my back. I could feel my feet leaving the ground, and then I fell.

     I landed face first. My eyes were covered with sand, and some of it got in my eye. It hurt, and then I heard teachers shouting, “Billy.”

     I picked my face up and turned over. My elbow was scraped and bleeding, and there was sand all over my clothes. Mrs. Duffy walked over and asked me if I was okay, and they sent me to the nurse. I got my elbow sprayed with this stuff that stung really bad, and they called my mom to tell her what happened.

     When they sent me back to class, none of the kids said anything about it. Apparently, Billy cried in front of the whole playground after he pushed me down. He told the principal that I embarrassed him and now he will never get a valentine. The whole playground was laughing at seeing the toughest kid at school cry. Since I provided that hilarious moment, the kids in my class gave me a pass.

     When we went to line up to go home, Tyler and Blake came over and patted me on the back.

     “I’ve never seen you run that fast,” Blake said.

     “Yeah dude, you were one of the fastest kids on the playground in that moment,” Tyler added.

     “Not fast enough,” I told them as I turned to show the scrape on my elbow.

     “You weren’t fast enough to outrun Billy,” Cliff blurted, overhearing our conversation.

     “Shut up, Cliff. He would have killed you. Plus, you’ve got a Mickey Mouse polo on. You’re so stupid,” I shouted.

     Cliff looked down at his polo. “My mom bought me this because I’m about to have a baby sister. Mom wanted me to know they still love me the same.”

     I paused. Cliff was having a baby sister. How could Cliff get a sister, but I don’t have one? “Well, good for you, Cliff. Now you can go away,” I shouted.

     Later that night, I was in my room organizing my Lego collection when I saw the car lights turn into the driveway. My mom already told me Dad would talk to me when he got home. I was kind of nervous because I didn’t exactly stand up to him, but I did survive. I heard the front door open, and I peered out my bedroom window. He put his keys on the counter and waved to my mother in the kitchen. He walked straight to my room. I turned and ran to jump in my bed. As soon as I landed, Dad walked in.

      He sat at the foot of my bed and turned to me.

     “The school called and said you got pushed down on the playground today.”

     “Yes, sir, you told me to stand up for myself.”

     “And you did, didn’t you?” he said.

     “Well, sort of. I ran,” I spoke.

     “But you survived. If you stood there, it could have been worse. The principal said he’s a big kid.”

     “He’s huge,” I raised my hand in a circle.

     “Smart move then. Sometimes you’ve got to run to live another day,” he laughed.

     He picked up my arm and looked at my scrape. “You’ll live,” and got up to leave.

     As he was walking out of the room, I blurted, “Why does Cliff get a baby sister and I don’t? That’s not fair.”

     My dad turned around and faced me. “Maybe one day, son. Mama and Daddy are so busy right now.”

     “You’re always busy. Ever since we got this house, all you do is work.”

     “Son, somebody has to pay the bills,” he stared at me.

     “Then let’s go back to the old house. We don’t even use all these extra rooms,” I said.

     “We can’t go back to the old house; someone else owns it. This is our house,” he stepped closer to me.

     “Then let’s go back to living the way we lived in the old house. Back to when we used to eat dinner together. Back when you and mama used to do stuff with me. I miss mama making me pancakes and sausage. I miss when mama used to smile, and you weren’t so stressed. I even miss you asking me if I want a baby brother or sister. I told you yes.”

     My dad just stared at me. He didn’t know what to say. After what felt like a million seconds went by, he sat down on my bed and turned to me. “You’re right. I’ve been neglecting you and your mother, trying to pay for this house. And for what? Empty rooms we don’t use,” he turned his head towards me. “I’m sorry, son. You’re right.”

     He promised to take me to spring training when they open camp next week. He then hugged me and left my room. I don’t think he went to his office after that. I can usually hear him in there when I’m in my room. Instead, I heard him and my mother talking. I finished organizing my Legos and went to the bathroom to brush my teeth before bed.

     When I walked by my parents’ bedroom, I noticed the door was closed. I had a huge smile on my face. Whatever they were doing was gross, but I thought about getting those pancakes and sausages before school tomorrow.

     I switched off the light and lay in my bed, staring at the popcorn ceiling. I couldn’t help but think to myself how hard it is being in the 4th grade. In another year and a half, I will be in middle school. How will I ever survive?

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