Writing Mini-Lessons: Student Fictional Narrative Samples

These fictional narrative samples were written by Nancie Atwell’s middle school students. These pieces are strong examples of fictional narratives that provide a level of quality for which fifth and sixth grade students may strive. As with any written work of art, none of these pieces is perfect.  Nevertheless, each piece does many things well, and any one piece may serve as a model or ignite ideas for your own fictional narrative.

Don’t Give Up the Fight

I was running. My legs were burning, and when I looked down, they were on fire. Literally. The finish line seemed miles away. Then my clock radio turned on, and my mind shifted, happily, to reality—but only for a moment. As Bob Marley’s voice sang “Get up, stand up,” my mind drifted back into the dream. Now the finish line moved farther away, and my feet could barely lift off the ground. “Don’t give up the fight,” Bob Marley sang, his voice ringing out. But my mind returned again to the dream, and suddenly I fell into a hole that appeared in the track out of nowhere. “Stand up for your rights,” Bob Marley sang. This time I sat up in bed, blue sheets twisted around me. I rubbed my eyes, finally clearing my head of the weird nightmare. Listening to the rest of the song made me think back to my dad’s comment of the night before.

He had asked about the track team, and I had commented that the boys seemed to hate me. My dad had been watching baseball, sitting in his brown leather easy chair. He laughed and said, as a joke, “Beat them up. Slap ’em around. That’ll teach them something.” I had laughed and said, “Yeah right.” Remembering the conversation I repeated those words, “Yeah, right.”

I glanced out my window: clear—or as clear as it gets at 5:00 in the morning in April. I pulled on blue nylon shorts and a smiley face t-shirt, grabbed my running sneakers, and snuck down the carpeted stairs. My parents didn’t mind my morning runs, but I didn’t want to take the risk of waking them up this early.

Once outside, I sat down on the old deck and pulled on my sneakers. My legs were itching to run.

Quickly I tied the laces, then jogged down our gravel driveway. Once I hit the sidewalk, I picked up my pace. I had a track meet Saturday.

Soon my mind was filled with nothing. My pace set, my feet hit the sidewalk steadily as a clock. I passed my friend Lindsay’s house; it was painted white, like most of the houses in Morgan. The grass was mowed, and a well-tended garden grew in the front yard, just like at my house. I spied Lindsay’s silhouette through an upstairs window. I waved but quickly turned back toward my house. It must be six o’clock if Lindsay was up, and the bus came at seven. As I turned the last corner and my house came into view, I spotted my chocolate lab, Hershey, chewing my mother’s rhododendron plant in the front yard. When I jogged past him, he barked a greeting at me and continued chewing.

After school that day, at the Morgan High track, the team gathered around the high-jump mat. Mr. McCoy, our coach, started the roll call.

“Ava?” he said.

“I’m here,” I answered.

“Good,” said Jacob, a runner. “We couldn’t live without you.” He laughed like an evil super hero, while Mr. McCoy continued to call the roll. The rest of the boys snickered at Jacob’s comment and slapped fives. I stared down at the black track as my hands curled into fists. I tried not to punch the thing closest to me, which happened to be Coach McCoy.

“Now, as you know, we have a track meet on Saturday. I would like all of you to practice your events. But remember, boys, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose. Just do your best on Saturday.” Coach McCoy continued his speech about winning and losing, which nobody, including McCoy himself, believed. Along the way he kept addressing us as boys and men. It happened every time, but still my stomach hardened and I clenched my teeth.

“Ava, to the triple jump. Mark, to the javelin. Curt and Adam, to the discus. Jacob, Greg, and Kevin, to the track for the 100 and 200. The rest of you, find an event. I’ll come around and help you,” Coach McCoy ordered. I walked to the pit, found my mark, took a deep breath, and ran, my ponytail streaming out behind me. When I got to the second mark, which is called a bar, I hopped, then took a step and jumped. I landed well, with my hands forward. I walked back along the newly sprouted grass to try again.

“Nice jump, Ava,” Mr. McCoy commented. I turned around.

“Thanks, but I’ll have to do better than that to win Saturday.”

“You will have to do better, to beat the West Pine ladies. They’re pretty tough this year, especially for girls.”

“Oh, I see,” I said with an edge to my voice. I felt my body tremble, and my hands once again curled into fists. I wanted to scream at Mr. McCoy. Why did he, of all people, have to be my coach?

“I’ve got to go see Mark now. Bye-bye,” he said in the saccharine voice he reserved especially for me. When I was angered I always jumped better. I should have thanked him; I beat my distance by two inches, which is pretty good, for a girl.

When I got home I grabbed a Granny Smith apple from the fridge and ran up to my room. I flung my backpack onto the floor and flung myself onto my bed. I wished I had Lindsay’s punching dummy, so I could imagine I was beating up Coach McCoy and the boys like Jacob. But I couldn’t explain any of this to Lindsay. She had tried out for the team with me, but only I had made it. Whenever I talked about track, Lindsay’s face fell. But she would have been the perfect person to talk to. She understood me so well.

The only way to ease this anger was physically. I punched my pillow. My fist hit it with a whap, and the pillow sagged. I can’t deal with my coach any longer, I thought. Tears of frustration escaped my tightly closed eyes. I took a deep breath and focused on the blue spirals on my bedspread. They wove in and out and around each other. My mind drifted from my coach to thoughts of sleep.

“Ava, Ava?” my mother’s clear voice woke me.

“Yeah?” I rubbed my eyes.

“Dinner time.” Mom opened the door to my room. Had I really slept until dinner? I looked at my clock: 6:27 pm. Outside the sun had almost set.

“Were you sleeping?” my mom asked, tucking strands of long brown hair behind her ears.

“I guess so. Track must have worn me out,” I said, surprised, as I sat up in bed.

“Wow, tough practice? Anyway, wash your hands and come down. ’Kay?” Mom said. She sounded surprised. Track didn’t normally wear me out. I figured I was emotionally exhausted. I sighed. Thanks,

Mr. McCoy.

Each afternoon’s track practice became more and more unbearable as I received less and less encouragement from my coach. Even when I came in first in practice runs, Mr. McCoy celebrated only the boys’ accomplishments. Mine were completely ignored. I felt as if I could have fainted dead away and the rival West Pine coach would had been more likely to help me up.

But when I ran, my problems floated away and I focused on winning. My mind shut down except for the running part, and for those few seconds I just ran, stretching my legs and striding forward as though my worst fears were behind me. And they were. My teammates were ready to attack as soon as I made even the simplest mistake. Running was my escape. It was then that my mind melted into nothingness and I could float away. Or when I jumped: for that split second when I was in the air, my problems left me then, too, only to greet me again when I landed.

“How is track?” Mom asked. She was sitting in my dad’s armchair, watching a game show.

“Okay,” I sighed, slumping into the couch.

“Only okay? Don’t you like track anymore?” Mom said, eyebrows raised.

“No, no, I like track. It’s just that Mr. McCoy bugs me, that’s all.”

“What does he do to you?” She seemed worried now. She hit the mute button on the TV.

“Nothing physical. He just bugs me. Don’t worry about it.” I didn’t want my mom to get involved.

“It’s just I am the only girl on the team, so it’s harder.”

My mother smiled. “But you’re good at track. I bet you could beat Mr. McCoy in the 100. I wouldn’t worry about it. Mr. McCoy needs to spend more time working with other runners, who aren’t as talented as you.” Yeah, I thought. According to him, everyone was as talented as me. Or more so. But again she smiled and cocked her head to one side. “If it bothers you that much, I can talk to him . . . ”

“No, no, no, that’s okay. Please don’t.” I shook my head, picturing the consequences.

“Why don’t you write him a letter, or explain how you feel to him? I’m sure he’d understand. Now, up to bed. You have a meet tomorrow.” I sighed. I should have expected this typical parental response.

I stormed out of the room, filled with anger at my mom. Couldn’t she understand about Mr. McCoy? Why didn’t she realize how important track was to me? Didn’t she know it was the only thing that could make me completely happy and the only thing that could make me cry? Didn’t she understand I needed to get better at track? Didn’t she understand anything?

The bus ride to West Pine High School was hot. The whole bus shook as we turned onto a back road. My bare limbs stuck to the vinyl seats, and my cool lunch box rattled against my leg. The bus radio was tuned to some unknown station, which only the bus driver, Rick, was singing along to.

I reached into my backpack for my book, but when I straightened up to read, I ended up staring at the back of Mr. McCoy’s head. He was wearing a Yankees baseball cap. I suddenly hated the Yankees. I stared and stared at that cap until I felt like I knew every line, seam, and crease.

“Hey, Ava,” called a voice from the back. I turned to face the voice. It was Jacob. He was sitting in the very last row with Kevin. He smiled. I immediately turned back around and tried to read my book. The words jumped around on the page as the bus lurched over yet another bump. My heart was beating fast. I hoped that he would just leave me alone.

“Ava,” Jacob called again, pretending to be worried. “Are you dead?” At that the rest of the team sobbed and shed fake tears for my fake death.

“No,” I called back over their sobs. “No, I am not dead.” My face turned red as I realized I had just given Jacob the satisfaction of responding to him.

“Shucks,” said a voice different than Jacob’s, probably Kevin. “I thought we’d get lucky.”

“Wow, she’s tough,” laughed Jacob sarcastically. I almost yelled at them. But as the snickers and laughs from behind me continued, I knew I wouldn’t. Then I heard a different laugh, a sort of belly laugh, not like the snickers from behind. I saw the Yankees cap shake. It was then that I realized that Mr. McCoy was laughing, too. Laughing at what Jacob and Kevin had said. Laughing at me.

“You guys are so funny,” Mr. McCoy congratulated them. I squeezed my eyes shut as tightly as I could, hoping with all my might that my tears would not come. I knew my eyes would look swollen and red, but when I opened them, there were no tears. My wish had been granted.

“Okay, everyone, we’re here. Let’s win some ribbons,” Mr. McCoy yelled over the squeaking brakes, as we came to a stop at the West Pine Memorial High School track. I breathed a sigh of relief and left the confinement of the horrible, hot, sticky bus as quickly as I could.

We were late, thanks to all the back roads Rick had managed to take. It was already time to sign in to the 100 meter.

“Your name, please?”

“Ava, Ava Clark,” I said breathlessly. I’d had to run all the way from the parking lot to get to the start on time.

“Okay, you’re in the third heat, second lane,” the official said. Yes, I thought. Second lane was my best. I walked up to my spot and breathed in and out evenly. Finally I caught my breath. Mr. McCoy’s laughter still echoed in my head. I tried to forget about it, but inside I was shaking with anger. I knew I needed to concentrate on my running. The distance was short, and I hoped my run from the bus would leave me with enough breath.

“Third heat up. Remember, girls, you can’t move until the gun goes off. On your mark, get set . . . ”

He paused. My thighs were shaking, ready to run. Bang. The gun went off. Energy burst from my legs, and I was off. My legs pushed, and my arms pulled. All I could think about was running. Then, so quickly, it was over.

“Okay, young lady, stand here.” A young man stationed me on the first mat. It struck me then. I had won. I had come in first. I felt like hopping with excitement, but I was too tired, so tired that I didn’t hear my time. But I felt so wonderful, I didn’t care. I sighed, feeling perfectly happy.

“Congratulations, Ava,” said Jacob snidely. I didn’t have to turn around to know it was him. “Too bad you didn’t win.” My wonderful mood burst immediately. I had to respond.

“I did win,” I said, in what I hoped was a confident voice. But it came out sounding like a kitten’s meow, helpless and scared.

“Oh, yeah? Ava, from here to that tree, does it look about a hundred meters?”

“Yes,” I said uncertainly. It probably was. It was hard to tell because it was close to a hill.

“If you beat me to the tree, I’ll believe you,” Jacob challenged. My heart was pounding, and my stomach felt like it was shaking. Why did I even have to talk to this jerk? I had just won the race, and he knew it as well as I did. I didn’t want to race him. But I knew if I won I would show him I was fast—faster even than him. Then maybe he would shut up and leave me alone. That was all I wanted.

“Okay . . . ” I muttered. I was scared but determined.

“On your mark . . . get set . . . go!” Jacob said. But as we started to run, out of the corner of my eye, I saw his arm come shooting towards me. Before I had time to move away, I felt his hand on my shoulder.

Suddenly he pushed me, hard and strong, and I lost my balance. My reflexes signaled my hands to strike out to cushion my fall. As soon as I landed, pain shot up my wrist like lightning. Ahead of me I saw Jacob. He was almost to the tree, and he was laughing, jogging now because he knew he had won.

I tried to get up, but the pain in my right wrist was too harsh. It just hurt too much. I held in my tears, so many tears I wondered if there was an ocean waiting to be released inside my head. I sat on the ground holding my wrist. When Jacob jogged away, laughing, the ocean was finally released.

The tears rolled down my cheeks, all the tears I had not cried before—tears of anger at my mom and Jacob and my coach, tears of outrage from the teasing on the bus, and now tears of physical pain. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t tell Mr. McCoy. I knew that was useless. My wrist was badly hurt, at least sprained and maybe even broken. By now it was numb with pain.

Suddenly I remembered something. My mother was going to stop by the track on her way back from the school where she worked. She wanted to see me jump. I had told her to come at around eleven-thirty. I glanced at my watch. It was eleven forty-two. I sighed with relief and struggled to my feet.

When I found Mom in the crowd, I ran into her arms and hugged her tightly with one arm. My eyes stung with the beginning of new tears. I closed them, relieved, as I nuzzled my face into her shoulder.

“Ava, what happened?” she asked. I bit my lip, thinking. What should I tell her? I looked into her eyes. They were full of love and concern. I smiled weakly at her. I felt horrible lying to her, but I couldn’t let her know the truth. This was my problem, and it could only be solved by me.

“I fell,” I sniffed.

“Oh, sweetie,” she began, touching my arm in different places, asking if it hurt. And it did.

“You need to see a doctor. Oh, I am so glad I stopped by. Just think what would have happened if I hadn’t.” Her voice was full of worry.

“Okay, Mom.” I wanted so badly to tell her the truth as the tears rolled down my cheeks. But this was a battle my mother couldn’t help me win.

I fell asleep right away when I got home, after resting my arm, in its cast, across my stomach. When I woke in the morning, I was hungry and cold. I felt awful from sleeping in my clothes and on my back. Today was Sunday, so I just lay in bed, thinking about what I might have done and said to Jacob. If only I had stood up to him or ignored him and not raced him. How different would things be? Would I be lying on my bed with a blue cast on my wrist? I couldn’t stop thinking about the what-ifs. But I also couldn’t cry anymore. It seemed to me that maybe the ocean in my head had finally dried up.

“Ava, dear. Ava, are you awake?” my mother asked, quietly interrupting my thoughts.

“Kind of,” I said, yawning.

“Lindsay is on the phone. Do you want to call her back?”

“No, no, I can talk,” I said. Gosh, I hadn’t injured my mouth. My mother handed me the phone.

“Hello?”

“Hi, it’s Lindsay. I heard what happened. Does it really hurt?” she asked.

“No, not really. The painkillers haven’t worn off yet,” I said. Lindsay laughed.

“So, you want to come over today? You don’t have to. I was just wondering.”

“I want to. I don’t know if my mom and dad will let me though.” It would be so good to be with her.

I hadn’t seen Lindsay in a while, I had been so busy with track. I missed her.

“You don’t have to ask. I already did. Sorry. So it’s okay if you come. Your mom said it would be.” I loved the way Lindsay talked, her voice so full of energy and life.

“Great,” I smiled. “When do you want me?”

“How about now?” I could hear the smile in her voice.

“Okay. I’ll walk over as soon as I have breakfast and get dressed.” I decided to push thoughts of Jacob, my wrist, and Mr. McCoy out of my head. I ate and got dressed without much difficulty, though putting on a shirt was hard. I said good-bye to my parents and left for Lindsay’s.

Lindsay was the best friend I’d ever had. We understood each other so well. Often we didn’t even have to speak. Just a simple nudge or a second of eye contact would be enough to say I hate him, or let’s go. When I reached her house, her mom and dad greeted me at the door, crowding me with questions about my “fall.” The crowding was nice though; it was a sign of concern, not mere politeness. When

Lindsay and I finally escaped to her room, we flopped down onto the floor and laughed at nothing.

“How’s track? Besides your arm,” she asked politely, after our laughing attack. I don’t know—maybe it was the sincere concern in her voice, or maybe it was the result of having kept a secret from her for so long, but I began to sob. Lindsay looked surprised but quickly put her arm around me.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“No.” It felt good to say even that much.

“Do you want to talk? Please tell me.” She had the kind of urgency in her voice that only best friends can.

“Yes. I do.” I took a deep breath. And another. In and out, in and out.

“You don’t have to tell me right now, only when you’re ready.” After a moment I was ready. I described the teasing at practice, the lack of acknowledgment, Mr. McCoy’s laughing at me. A couple of times I cried out of pure frustration.

“Ava! Oh, my gosh, you need to tell someone this is horrible Mr. McCoy should be fired how come you didn’t tell me does anyone else know I feel so bad are you okay?” Lindsay blurted. Her run-on sentences became a blur of oh-my-goshes and are-you-okays. I sniffed. “I’m sorry I got carried away.” She reached over to give me a hug. “Are you okay, Ava?”

“Sort of. But Linz, what should I do? What should I do?” We moved closer, settling down forehead to forehead. I felt like a spy plotting a secret strategy.

For two hours straight we talked and laughed and planned and cried. And I wondered why I hadn’t told Lindsay about all of this long before.

When I went home that night and climbed into my bed, I lay there sleepless for a long time, nervous about tomorrow. I thought back to the morning a week ago when I had awakened to Bob Marley singing “Get Up, Stand Up.” My dream that morning had been awful, with my legs on fire and the yawning hole in the track. But now I realized how much my dream was like my real life. In my waking hours I was angry and hurt. The longer I kept my secret, the farther away the solutions to my problem seemed, like a finish line I could never reach. But Lindsay’s friendship had awakened me, and now the words of the song pulled me out of my hole and set me free.

The next morning I arrived at school twenty minutes early and did what needed to be done. When I reached my homeroom, I was a couple of minutes late. Mrs. Schafer glanced at me and pointed to my seat, where I promptly found my place next to Lindsay. People around me asked what had happened to my arm. I simply replied that I’d broken my wrist, which seemed good enough for them. I didn’t want to talk. I tried to pay attention to Mrs. Schafer, but my mind was elsewhere. I bit my lip in anticipation.

“While the . . . ” Mrs. Schafer began. She was interrupted by the intercom.

“This is Mr. Hilton speaking. Would Mr. McCoy and Jacob Stone please come to my office immediately?” Lindsay nudged me and let out a whoop, but I just smiled.

Get up, stand up. Don’t give up the fight.

Too Far

“Son, the police called today!” my father yelled from the living room, the second I pulled open the sliding glass door.

“What now?” I asked sarcastically.

“Come here.”

I wasn’t scared. I knew my father couldn’t hurt me. He just liked to yell. This situation occurred a lot, considering I was in trouble so often. I dropped my backpack, threw my coat on the floor, and trudged into the living room.

The sun was receding below the tall horizon of pine trees that encircled our house. A bright light shone from the living room, where my father sat on the couch reading the paper, his small, square glasses pushed down on his nose. He looked serious.

I thought back: I didn’t hurt anyone today, and I didn’t skip school. I’d been a good kid. Then it hit me. I remembered. I reached into my pocket and felt the CD player I’d boosted from Stanley. How did the old man find out? Stanley wouldn’t tell anyone; he was a wimp. My father set down his paper and looked up. I stood in the doorway, leaning against the frame.

“Do you have something to tell me?” he started.

“Ummm,” I pretended to think hard. “No.”

He slammed his hand on the coffee table, rattling the pictures on the wall. “Son, I’m serious,” he continued. “How about four-thirty this afternoon at the mall? Does that jog your memory?”

“No,” I lied. I couldn’t keep on lying and expect him to believe me. The mall security had obviously seen me.

He sat there, perfectly silent, staring into my eyes for what seemed like an eternity, until he finally spoke again. “You know, I can tell. Just admit it.”

I didn’t want to admit it. Something inside me told me to go with the lie.

“Dad, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“What do you think I am, an idiot? I know what happened. They even have a surveillance tape that shows you run up to him, grab his CD player, and take off. You have to stop stealing. You don’t realize how bad it is for your reputation—and ours as a family. How many times do you have to get caught to realize this?” he yelled. He pulled his glasses off and set them on the coffee table. “When are you going to grow up?”

Talk about taking things too seriously. What a jerk. In case he hadn’t noticed, I was grown up. I turned without saying anything and bounded up the stairs and through the hallway into my room.

“Get down here . . . ” I slammed the door before he could finish.

I sat on my bed and thought about my latest offense. It wasn’t that bad; it was a CD player. And it was only Stanley, after all—Stanley the nerd, the mama’s boy, my favorite victim. He was used to it by now. He should have known better than to hang out at the mall with an expensive CD player.

I awoke the next morning at four to the sound of my dad’s one-ton truck pulling out of the drive- way. He was a fisherman and somehow managed to get up early in the morning every day. Of course I fell back asleep. I woke up again at 6:45 to the sound of my mother’s frantic voice.

“SEAN,” she screamed. “Get out of that bed. You’ve overslept. It’s almost seven.” She slammed her fist against my locked door. “Do you hear me?” I was awake but I didn’t bother to get out of bed right away.

The bright sun was shining through my windows, but I could barely hear the birds singing their serenades to who-knows-what over the repetitive screams and the slams on my door. I hoped I wouldn’t get hauled in by the cops today.

“I’m awake,” I muttered, as she continued pounding on the door. “I’m awake!” I finally yelled.

I rushed through my shower, grabbed breakfast, and was out the door to the bus. We lived in the middle of the woods in midcoast Maine—as I like to say, in the middle of nowhere. We were about thirty minutes from the nearest town. I’m surprised the bus came this far, especially since we lived on a dead-end road.

I wasn’t the most patient person in the world. And usually I had to wait for the bus. Today it was a good fifteen minutes late. I stepped through the door onto the high steps and glared at the driver. “A little bit late today, don’t you think?” I said. He didn’t respond, just stepped on the gas before I sat down, tripping me up. I found a seat next to John, my best friend. He was staring out the frosted window.

“Hey, man, what’s up?” I asked.

He didn’t respond. “John, are you alive?” I shook my fingers in front of his face. He turned around and looked past me, unblinking. I could tell he was thinking.

“Yes, of course, I’m alive,” he said. “You know what would be funny?” he continued.

“No, what?” I asked

“Today after homeroom, on the way to math—” He hesitated. “We take a can of soda and pour it on Stanley’s books.” He grinned. “He’ll never know who did it, because, think of it—when we’re switching classes, the halls will be crowded.”

We loved to humiliate Stanley. He didn’t exactly fit in with the crowd. When he did speak, which was hardly ever, he had a strong Southern accent. Supposedly he’d worked with his parents on a farm before he moved here. Almost all his outfits were overalls. He was small, skinny, and scared of his own shadow: in short, the perfect victim.

“Sounds good,” I said, confirming the deal.

When the bell rang to end homeroom, John and I stuck close together. We hurried out the door and waited for Stanley to come out of Mr. Becker’s homeroom. Sure enough, he straggled out last, his canvas backpack hanging off his arm. He walked fast. He was always in a hurry, because of kids like us, I guess.

All the classes were out now. The halls were bustling with kids. John and I snuck right up behind him, walking at the same pace. This was great: he’d never know who it was. Carefully and silently we passed classrooms, weaving in and out of traffic. Doors were wide open. Teachers sat at their desks. I reached forward and opened Stanley’s backpack as we kept moving. He didn’t even notice. God, he’ll be the star of the school; this will be great, I thought.

John pulled out the can of Moxie and poured the thick liquid all over Stanley’s books. When it started dripping on the floor, I had to cover my mouth with my shirt to stop from laughing.

“Let’s get out of here.”

We turned around and ran against the moving crowd, laughing so hard we could hardly breathe.

We stopped running at our next class. Slowly but surely we could hear it start as a low rumble, but soon the whole hall was laughing hysterically. There was Stanley, with Moxie all down the back of his shirt and overalls, his bag lying on the ground, his books brown. He was trying not to cry. This was going to be a moment to remember.

Mr. Benson came running down the hallway and helped Stanley pick up his now-ruined books. A circle of curious kids surrounded them, some still laughing.

“Who did this?” Mr. Benson yelled down the hallway. By now everyone had resumed their paths.

We snickered and went our separate ways to our classes.

When school let out, I met up with John again.

“That was so lame. Did you see his face?” John asked.

“That was cool and everything, but I hope we don’t get caught.”

“We won’t get caught. Don’t worry. We won’t,” he assured me.

“I guess you’re right,” I replied. I probably should have felt bad for Stanley, but I was used to humiliating him, and it was especially fun since he never told anyone. John was right. The chances of getting caught were pretty slim.

It was getting cold out now, so I pulled my hood up and started to walk to the park to use the phone.

The dark came early now, as we neared the end of November. No snow yet, but it was cold. “I’m going to go call my mom. See you tomorrow, man!”

“No problem. See you tomorrow!” he yelled.

Before I’d taken more than a dozen steps, I saw Stanley walk out of the woods. It was getting dark. What the heck was he doing here? I scanned him and his pathetic clothing. He didn’t see me. I had a brainstorm, turned, and bounded after John.

“John, check this out,” I whispered, as I caught up with him. The air smelled strongly of moss and pine trees. We hid behind some thick bushes.

“He must’ve not taken the bus because of us and decided to walk home. That’s quite a long ways to hoof it.” I tried not to laugh. Stanley was walking fast. What a pathetic excuse for a human being.

John and I set down our bags and followed him as he strode back into the woods, darting in and out of the shadows of the trees. Owls were hooting, and the cries of coyotes rose from the earth. We slithered around trees, pursuing him. An owl hooted, and Stanley stopped and looked around. We were panting now, out of breath.

“So, what are we going to do?” I whispered to John. “I don’t know. Let’s see if he has any money,”

We slipped ahead of Stanley and ran right into the middle of his path. We stood there side by side, about ten feet in front of him. He froze. My heart was pounding, the adrenaline rushing through my veins. We were two giant silhouettes against the setting sun.

Not a word came out of his mouth. He turned around to run, but I lunged forward and grabbed his shoulder, pushing him to the ground face first. It was fun playing God. I could do anything to him, he was so small. His body squirmed as I held him down. John grabbed his backpack, tore it off his arms, and went through it, finally finding a five-dollar bill. He threw the bag back at Stanley and stepped aside.

“You tell anyone,” I whispered in Stanley’s ear, my hot breath stinging his face, “you will die.” I was amazed at my threat. I knew I could never kill him; I could never kill anyone. We took off, running as fast as we could, back to where we’d left our stuff.

“Well, that wasn’t worth it,” I said, panting. “Hey, we got five dollars!”

“Yeah, five dollars, big deal,”

We never looked back. But I felt a twinge of worry. Could we push Stanley too far? How far was too far?

Stanley didn’t come to school the day after the incident. I guess he needed a day to rest up. I decided it was his problem, not mine. In this life you learn to put the past behind you and to worry about the future. But still, somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew I shouldn’t have threatened him. I had gone too far, even for me.

Stanley didn’t show up for school the next day, either. I was starting to get a little nervous. I called John up after school.

“Wazzzzzzzuuuuuuup,” he answered.

“Hey, I’ve been thinking,” I hesitated. “I’m starting to get nervous about Stanley.”

“No worries, mate,” he said, in his pathetic attempt at an Australian accent. “He’s just a baby, that’s all.

“No, I’m not joking around, John. I feel weird about this,” I said. “Lighten up, for gosh sake. It’ll be fine.” At that, he hung up the phone.

What a little creep: he’d hung up on me. I was more anxious now. John didn’t care about it, so I was on my own.

On Friday Stanley finally returned to school. He acted even more scared than usual, and he stayed near teachers at all times. He wouldn’t let anyone else get close to him.

Finally it was sixth period. I thought, it’s Friday; why doesn’t this class let out early? I sat slouched at my desk, rolling my pencil back and forth, back and forth, paying no attention whatsoever to the teacher, just the clock on the wall. I tried to convince myself that school would eventually come to an end, but it seemed hopeless. My hand shot up in the air.

“Ms. . . . ” I started, but she interrupted me.

She had had enough. I had already asked her about sixteen times if I could go to the bathroom, and we didn’t have the best relationship in the world anyway. She was writing something on the board at the time, but she instantly stopped, dropped her chalk on the floor, spun around, and slammed her fists against her desk.

“What!” she yelled.

“Well, I’m sorry. I just need to go to the bathroom,” I said, kind of concerned for her mental state.

“Go ahead. Do whatever you want to. See if I care. Go. Get out of my sight!”

“Okaly dokaly.”

I stood up and strolled out of the classroom, laughing the second I shut the door behind me. The hallways were silent. Not a soul occupied them. I took my time. I wasn’t in class now. This was better—anything was better. I headed toward the bathroom near the office. The door was wide open, and someone was inside. Silently I slid through the doorway and slipped into the nearest stall. I peered through the crack in the dirty door.

Stanley was running around the bathroom, picking papers up off the floor. He was freaking out.

There must have been something really important about them, or he wouldn’t put the pages back in his backpack after they had touched the filthy floor of the bathroom. He was panting and seemed almost scared that someone might see the papers.

I quieted my breathing and focused on the pages he was frantically collecting. What could be that important? He picked up what he thought was the last page and ran out of the bathroom. I waited until the sound of his footsteps disappeared down the hall, then stepped out of the stall. There was one piece left underneath the sink. Well, I thought, I’ll get to see what old Stanley is so paranoid about.

I looked around, checked to make sure no one was in sight, and snatched the piece of paper up into my pocket, just as the bell rang. Classroom doors flung open, slamming against the doorstop. Kids rushed by the bathroom, running to their lockers, desperate to be the first ones out of school. I stayed in the bathroom until the rush dwindled down to the last few kids who strolled by, talking in their small groups. School was out for the weekend, and I was psyched. I was free, finally. But I was also dying to know what was written on the piece of paper. I decided not to risk reading it in public—I’d save it for home.

When the bus arrived at my house, I jumped off and yelled, “John, I’ll call you,” over the rumble of the diesel engine. He gave me a thumbs up and put his headphones back on. When I entered the house, I rushed up to my room. I was anxious to know what Stanley was so panicked about.

I turned my stereo on and sat down on my bed, throwing my shoes off onto the floor along with my dirty laundry. I reached in my pocket and unfolded the paper. The sound of Godsmack rang in my ears. My parents weren’t home yet; they hated my music.

I read the note, then let it slip from my hands. I was frozen. Then sweat formed in beads on my forehead. Godsmack was still screaming from my speakers. Stanley’s scribbly handwriting was plastered all over the sheet, and what he had written was permanently engraved on my brain. What could I do? Who could I tell? I ran to the phone and called John.

“Wazzzuuuuup?” he answered.

“John, you will not believe this.” I was panting, out of breath, scared. My words were choppy. I wanted to say too much at once. I couldn’t believe what I’d read. We’d pushed him too far. I shouldn’t have threatened him. My heart was pounding as I thought back to all the pranks we’d played on him. We had pushed him too far.

“I found a piece of paper in the bathroom I saw Stanley try to pick it up but he was in a hurry he rushed to get them all but he forgot one.” My words ran together. I didn’t stop for a breath. I still couldn’t believe it; I wouldn’t let myself believe it. “John, he’s planning to kill us. You have no idea how scared I am. I have to tell someone. I’m at the top of his list, then you. He’s going to shoot us, John. We’re going to die!”

“Man, calm down. You don’t even know if it’s real. It could be just a prank someone is playing on us,” John said.

“Stanley playing a prank? This isn’t a prank, man. This is serious. Whoever I tell won’t believe me, anyways. I don’t know what to do.”

It was true. I didn’t know what to do. I stared at my watch: 2:45. Should I call the police? No, they wouldn’t believe me. I was in a bad situation. The police would never believe me, not with my record. I didn’t even know if the note was real. But from the way Stanley’d been rushing around to make sure he had them all, it sure seemed like it could be. Just then I heard my mom’s car pull in the driveway.

“John,” I said on the phone, “I don’t know what to do. Just stay home tonight. I’m going to tell my parents.”

I slammed down the receiver, snatched up Stanley’s paper, and ran downstairs. My mom came wobbling through the door with an armload of groceries.

“Mom this guy at school Stanley is planning to shoot John and me and I don’t know what to do.” Again I ran my words together, but she understood what I was saying.

“Are you kidding?” she laughed. She actually laughed at me. “What are you trying to do, get him arrested or something?” She laughed again. “Just how far can you push that poor kid?”

She thought I was lying. I couldn’t believe it. My own mom didn’t believe my story. What was her problem? When I pulled the sheet of paper from my pocket, my hands were shaking. I was scared, really scared, for maybe the first time in my life. My mother set down the bags of groceries, snatched the folded-up paper from my hands, and unfolded it. She had a look of disbelief in her eyes, then confusion. My mom didn’t show emotion very well. She frowned as she read.

“Oh, my God. I’m sorry I didn’t believe you. You just . . . ” I interrupted her.

“It’s okay. I know what you’re thinking. Why should you believe me, right? But what should we do now? I don’t know. I’m scared. You have no idea how scared I am.” I broke down and cried for the first time since third grade.

My mother called the police right away. At first they were doubtful, given my record, but my mother convinced them this wasn’t a hoax. They said an officer would drive to our house. For the first time in my life I was relieved that something was in the hands of the police.

I sat down in front of the TV to pass time, but I couldn’t concentrate. I was itching to know what they would find, if anything, at Stanley’s house. I stared at the clock on the wall, counting the passing seconds.

A trooper arrived minutes later. He introduced himself as Officer Bradley. We shook hands, and I unfolded the note to show him. He read it slowly. He called on his radio to two other officers and instructed them to drive to Stanley’s house and search his room. Then he sat down, and my mother made him a cup of coffee.

“You know, I’m a bit unsure about this, given the fact that you stole a CD player from him the other day, and you have a long record . . . ”

Luckily, the phone rang, interrupting him just in time. I couldn’t hear the person on the other end of the line, but I sure knew Officer Bradley looked surprised.

“Son, you are very lucky you came to the police in time,” he said after he hung up. My heart skipped a beat. I was dying to know what they found.

Bradley filled me in. “They found two firearms in his home, a pistol and a shotgun, both loaded with ammo. They also found a detailed account of a planned school shooting and another list of victims. He’s been taken into custody.” He hesitated. “You’re safe now, but if you hadn’t told anyone, you could have died.”

I didn’t know what to think now, whether to be scared or relieved. Mostly I was confused. I thought about the pranks we had played on Stanley, the Moxie and stealing the CD player, the name calling and physical abuse. I realized that John and I had bullied him, and that you can push someone too far.

We had done more than our share to push Stanley over the edge. We had inflicted so much pain on him that he actually wanted to kill us. For the first time ever, I felt what it was like to be in someone else’s shoes. I realized how life could be made so painful that someone would try to take matters into his own hands. I knew it hadn’t been right to make myself feel big and powerful by terrorizing another person, by humiliating him time after time. I had pushed Stanley too far.

I had sent him off the edge. Now, the question was: What would happen next? Who would I become? How would I have to change, so I wouldn’t ruin another person’s life, or my own? Suddenly I understood what it meant to grow up.

A Different Tune

The orange and yellow flame traveled from its place below the pick guard, up the neck of the guitar, and licked my wrist and fingers. The bright, artificial adornment was intense against the purple body of the guitar. I had been practicing for the last thirty minutes, and my wrist burned from positioning it at a ninety-degree angle for such a long time. The tips of my fingers were raw from pressing them against the six metal strings. Whenever I practiced for jazz band, the sheet music dissolved in the air around me with every note I played, with every chord I strummed.

Exhaustion interrupted my playing. I filed the sort-of-memorized sheet music in its folder and set my guitar down in happy defeat. Diminished and augmented chords still echoed through my mind; their peculiar and eerie sound made my room feel silent and dark.

My homework was finished long ago. The alarm clock beside my bed digitally tick-tocked to 11:30 P.M. My unmade bed, pathetic with its twisted sheets, looked like the most comfortable place in the world. I switched off the overhead light, walked blindly to my bed, crawled in, and reached for the quilt.

The next morning the screen door slammed shut behind me as I was halfway across the front lawn. My breath made ice crystals when I exhaled the sharp, cold air. My backpack felt like an unnecessary burden: I had packed my algebra and French books, for the two classes I had on Tuesdays through Fridays, but never Monday. I walked as fast as I could to my bus stop, where Rowan would be waiting for me. I shifted my backpack to an easier angle.

“Hey, Brian,” Rowan greeted me. His face was red from the cold. I jogged the last couple of steps and threw my backpack to the ground.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Nothing much,” Rowan said. I knew he was lying; there wasn’t “nothing much,” going on, not since what had happened on Friday. A car, or maybe the bus, interrupted my thoughts as its vehicle sound came around the corner. I hugged myself, trying to keep the warmth inside my coat and the autumn breeze out. I hoped it was the bus, so I could warm up for real. But it wasn’t, just an old, beat- up car that thundered past Rowan and me at top speed.

“Hey, Brian, I think we should talk with Patrick again today and see if he wants to get together with us and practice.”

“Practice for what?” I replied dumbly. I wasn’t paying attention to Rowan; all my attention was focused on trying to get warm.

“You know, this band thing you and Patrick and I have been talking about?” Rowan said to me as if he were educating a two-year-old.

“I never talked to him before last Friday, but sure, I guess,” I said sarcastically.

Last Friday at lunch, Rowan and I sat with Patrick, a new guy who entered Morrison High in the middle of October. He seemed cool. He was a freshman, like Rowan and I, but I never noticed him until Rowan had approached him. He was a drummer who happened to play in the school’s jazz band; so did I.

On Friday at lunch the three of us got to talking about a radio contest that this local station, WOPS, was sponsoring. They were asking listeners to send in an original recording of what they thought would be a good jingle for the station. Patrick, Rowan, and I decided that WOPS played some pretty decent songs and that we’d get together and try to come up with something.

Rowan and I had been talking about starting a band ever since his dad had showed him the basics of the bass guitar over the summer. We were always talking about how we needed someone who could play the drums, someone who could keep a beat. And now Patrick had come on the scene.

I heard another tell-tale sound of a vehicle approaching our corner. This time it was the Morrison High bus.

*             *             *

“What is his problem?” I whispered to Rowan as the principal walked by us, his usual death glare plastered on his face. I think every student in our high school disliked Mr. Harriman. Everyone knew his nickname, Mr. Hairy Man. Even the teachers made fun of him behind his back. He was just so boring and rigid. His nickname was a contradiction, since Mr. Harriman didn’t have a hair on his head. He was bitter towards his job. He had no favorites: every student was on his list.

“I don’t know. I bet he’s like that crazy kid in that movie. You know, where the kid says he has a friend named Tommy who lives in his mouth and hides in his stomach? What was that movie?” Rowan became silent with thought.

I emptied my unnecessary books into my locker as Rowan babbled on about Mr. Harriman’s psyche. “Hey, Brian, what was that movie called? You know, when the family is in that hotel . . . ” I watched Rowan’s face transform itself into an expression of deep concentration. “The Brightness!” he yelled at the top of his lungs. My face immediately turned red. The halls were packed with students, mostly upper-classmen. I think even the people in the office heard Rowan’s exclamation. Rowan really didn’t have any shame. I, on the other hand, had enough for both of us.

“Calm down, Rowan. The movie’s called The Shining,” I said.

“Yeah. I bet Mr. Harriman has a little ‘friend’ that hides in his coat pocket and tells him to be as strict as he can and if he doesn’t abide by the rules he’s going to have to pay the piper.” Rowan widened his eyes and crunched up his face. “Just like my tiny friend Vicky,” Rowan said in a menacing voice. He had always been crazy and random, especially towards figures of authority. But whenever he had these outbursts, I just tried to smile and laugh along, like any good sidekick, even though inside I was mortified.

*             *             *

“Do you honestly think that is real tuna?” Rowan asked, with a sideways glance that said, “You’re crazy if you put that sandwich in your mouth.” Patrick was sitting with us again; he seemed to be making a habit of it since Friday.

“Patrick.” Rowan put on his serious face and got right down to business. “Tomorrow, when jazz band is over, we’re going to stay in the music room after Mr. Mettee leaves, all right?”

“Sure, that sounds good,” replied Patrick, looking down at his sandwich.

*             *             *

“Hey, see you later at practice,” Rick Millen yelled across the music room to Patrick. Rick had just finished cleaning his trombone and was about to place the two brass pieces into the soft velvet of his trombone case.

“Okay,” Patrick semi-yelled back.

“What sport are you playing?” asked Rowan. “Cross-country,” Patrick replied under his breath.

“Really? I run long distance in the spring for track,” I said.

“Cool,” said Patrick. “And are you sure that Mr. Mettee said it was all right that we’re in here after jazz band?” Patrick asked.

“Yeah, he won’t care,” Rowan said carelessly. It was like Rowan not to ask permission. “So, you haven’t asked him?” asked Patrick, alarmed.

“Well, no, but—”

“It doesn’t really matter, okay? Let’s just try to get something together for this WOPS thing,” I intervened, before anything else was said.

It was forty minutes later when Mr. Harriman entered the music room. He informed us that Mr.

Mettee had left the building half an hour before. He also told us that for the next five days we would be spending our afternoons in Room 112 on detention.

At lunch the following day Patrick said he was grounded for a month. His parents told him that they had moved away from the city to avoid trouble, but it seemed to have followed them here to Vermont. I told Patrick that nothing had followed his family here; Rowan was the trouble. Rowan wasn’t with us at our usual table. For once, Patrick and I were Rowan-free.

Our conversation began with me recalling some of Rowan’s numerous and legendary misdemeanors.

By the time he joined us, we had begun resenting his persuading us to stay in the music room after band. By the time Rowan got settled in his seat, I was beyond mad.

“So, why don’t we all just meet at my house and practice?” he asked. He had no idea that Patrick and I had been talking about him behind his back.

“I am grounded. I told you last night,” I reminded him. “Yeah, me too,” added Patrick.

“Well, we still have to find someone to sing the words to our jingle, right? I mean, we won’t win the contest if we don’t have a vocalist,” said Rowan.

“Yeah, we’ll find someone. I just don’t see why we have to go through all this trouble just for some stupid contest,” I responded.

“What’s with the bad mood?” Rowan asked. “Nothing. When is detention again?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Why don’t we just go to my house after school, skip detention, and work on the song a little bit—”

“Hold on. I’m not skipping detention just so I can get more detention,” I said, raising my voice.

“Okay, it was just a thought. Hey, we could always skip town and join a carnival,” Rowan said in his usual happy voice. “Anyway. I think we should go to detention. You know, check it out to see who the really troubled kids are at Morrison.” Rowan ended with a laugh. I plastered a smile on my face and looked at Patrick; his fake smile wasn’t very convincing, either.

When the lunch bell rang, I tried to picture the “troubled kids” that Rowan imagined populated our school. I couldn’t think of anyone, except Rowan. I remembered the summer when I went to an actual carnival with Rowan, back when we were in grade school. We’d gone into the hall of mirrors, where we could see ourselves in all shapes and sizes, but everything was distorted. I figured that’s how Rowan’s conscience was. He didn’t worry about the consequences of his actions, because he couldn’t see them for what they were.

By the time Patrick and I entered Room 112 that afternoon, separately from Rowan, I had cooled off a little.

“Rowan Mills,” droned the supervising teacher. “Here, sir,” Rowan said in his happy tone of voice.

I scanned the room, examining the other poor, unfortunate souls. There were three others in the room. A freshman girl was the only one I recognized. I had met her at orientation. She had dark brown hair, but I couldn’t quite place her name.

“Nicole Banks,” the teacher said.

“That’s it!” I said in a hushed voice to Patrick. “What?” said Patrick, glancing around the room.

“I met that girl.” Patrick stared at me. “At freshman orientation. She was in my group, when we talked about our likes and dislikes and what we were looking forward to . . . ” I explained. “You got it? Well, this girl, Nicole, talked about how she was looking forward to high school because the music program at her junior high was so slack.”

“Yeah, so?” Patrick said.

“So . . . she sings! We could ask her to sing the WOPS jingle,” I finished.

“Hey, I’m not sure I’m even going to do this song thing for that radio station,” Patrick said reproach- fully.

“Look, we’re almost finished. All we need is someone to sing the lyrics and record it; then we’re done.” I was mad at Rowan for getting us into trouble, but he was still my best friend. I knew how much this radio contest meant to him—maybe because it meant a lot to me, too.

“Okay, fine.” I could tell Patrick was annoyed, maybe a little bit angry. I took a seat next to Rowan and whispered to him about Nicole.

“Okay. Are you going to speak to her?” asked Rowan. “Wait. Let me get a piece of paper, and I’ll draw out a plan.” Patrick took a seat in the desk on the other side of Rowan.

“Okay, you go here,” Rowan, talking to Patrick, indicated a place where the pencil sharpener would be on his map of the room. “Pretend you’re sharpening a pencil, but don’t be obvious. You’re going to watch Brian’s back while he goes in for the kill.”

“The kill?” Patrick said with a waning smile.

“I’m just using the official terms. Geez. Now, you, Brian, go up to Nicole.” Rowan drew a line from our three desks to where Nicole was sitting. “Then you say something like, ‘Remember me from orientation? Wanna sing some song that my buds and I made up for a radio contest?’” Rowan changed his voice, imitating mine.

“Yeah, I’ll say something along those lines,” I replied.

“Tell her to meet us in the band room at three tomorrow,” Rowan said.

“After band? Did you forget? We’re suspended from all after-school activities,” I said in a defensive tone.

“No, we’re just going to ask Mr. Mettee if we can use his recording microphone for a little while so we can get this thing over with,” explained Rowan.

“Hey, what are you going to do?” Patrick asked.

“I’m going to distract Mr. Supervising Teacher,” Rowan said with a devious smile.

“How?” Patrick and I said at the same time, just as Rowan fell from his chair and landed on the floor.

“Ow. God. Help. I think . . . I broke . . . my wrist . . . ” Rowan wailed as Mr. Supervising Teacher came to his aid.

“Uh, let’s go to the nurse’s office. Come on, get up.” He helped Rowan onto his feet. Rowan was cradling his “broken” wrist.

“Nobody get out of line while I’m gone,” the teacher barked, as he and Rowan exited the room. “Oh, my word. I am not doing this. Is he crazy?” Patrick pleaded.

“You don’t have to pretend to sharpen your pencil. I will just . . . go up to Nicole and ask her,” I said, my face reddening. I avoided talking to girls as much as possible. My face always got red, my palms sweaty. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

“Okay, but I think I’ll go to the door and be lookout for any teacher who might come by,” Patrick said.

“Okay. Let’s break,” I said. Patrick got up and walked to the door. He gave me the thumbs up. The coast was clear. I made my way to Nicole, weaving through the desks.

“Um,” I could feel my face reddening. “Hey, do you remember me? I’m Brian. I think we might have met a couple months ago at freshman orientation.” She looked up from her reading and frowned. She used her thumb as a bookmark.

“Yeah, I remember you. You play the guitar, right?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” I said. “Uh, well, do you still sing?” I asked, getting right to the point. “Um, yeah. Why?” she said, her eyes questioning.

“Oh, well, a couple of my friends and I are sending in this recording of us playing, to a radio station, to see if they’d use it as their theme jingle, or something. We have a little band going on. And we have the lyrics figured out, but none of us can sing.” My voice was racing.

“Yeah?” she said.

“Oh, yeah. I was wondering if you’d want to sing on it. Maybe we’d win. I mean, you still sing, right?” I was lost in my own nervousness; I could tell because I had started to repeat myself.

“Sure. I guess. I have nothing better to do. I was kicked out of chorus, and I keep cutting classes and getting detentions, so maybe it would be fun,” she said. I couldn’t tell whether she was serious or not.

“Okay, great. I’ll meet you tomorrow after school, at the end of jazz band practice, in the band room?” I said, making up where and when on the spot. “Why were you kicked out of chorus?” I asked, as an after-thought.

“Oh, too much talking, and I skipped too many practices. It wasn’t—” She was interrupted by a panicked cough coming from the direction of the door. It was Patrick, trying to get my attention. He was motioning for me to get back to my desk. Someone was coming.

“Okay, meet me at four. Sound good? See you later,” I said turning around, not waiting for an answer.

I made my way back to my desk. “Is she going to sing?” Patrick asked, taking his seat.

“She said she would. I told her to meet us in the band room at four tomorrow,” I said to Patrick, who was looking over his shoulder to see who had just entered. It was Rowan and the teacher; Rowan was cradling his “hurt” arm.

*             *             *

“You came?” I said in an astounded voice. Nicole entered the band room a little after 4:00.

“Yeah, I’m here,” she drawled. Rowan, Patrick, and I had discussed whether or not she would actu- ally show, on account of the reason Nicole had been assigned to detention in the first place.

It was weird practicing with someone singing to our music. It took at least a dozen attempts for the four of us to get in sync. Finally we started recording. We were halfway through the jingle when Mr. Harriman entered the band room. The recording was still going on when he motioned Mr. Mettee over to a corner, where they had a brief discussion. Our jingle was only a minute long, and by the time we’d finished, Mr. Harriman had approached us.

“What’s going on here?” he asked.

Before anyone else could speak, Rowan piped up. “Well, we’re conducting a science experiment on baldness, you know, so some school leaders could be a little nicer to the students at their school. That’s why we’re in here with musical instruments.” I was stunned that Rowan could be so openly disrespectful. Mr. Harriman was steaming. I looked around at Patrick. His eyes were closed in disbelief. I mouthed, “What are you doing?” to Rowan, but he didn’t notice or pay attention. He just stood tall, wrapped in his air of defiance.

“Excuse me, young man. That is no way to talk to an authority figure,” Mr. Harriman countered.

“And what are you four doing in here? Aren’t you supposed to be in detention? Right now? All of you?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Then go there. Now.” Mr. Harriman left the music room with one last, fuming glance. “What’s your problem!” I screamed at Rowan.

“Nothing. That guy’s a jerk,” Rowan yelled back.

“Look, I’ve had enough of this,” Patrick said. He picked up his drum sticks and backpack and ran out the door, probably to detention.

“You probably got all of us a week more of detention, all for your stupid idea of winning a stupid radio contest,” I said to Rowan, my eyes narrowing on his. We both knew this was our first big fight, and maybe our last. When I turned my back on Rowan for the first time ever, packed up my guitar, and left for detention, I saw him and Nicole out of the corner of my eye. They were laughing at me.

*             *             *

The sound of the telephone rang in my ears. It was a week after the whole fiasco with Rowan mouthing off at Mr. Harriman. I hadn’t spoken to Rowan since, but I had seen him in the halls at school, his hand lightly grasping Nicole’s. Someone told me they’d been caught smoking behind the school and were on permanent detention. Rick, the guy Patrick knew from cross-country, had taken Rowan’s seat at our table at lunch.

“Hello?” I said, putting the portable phone to my ear.

“Hello, this is Michael T. from WOPS Greatest Hits,” said an unfamiliar voice. “Is this a Brian Bell?” he asked.

“Yeah?” I said.

“Well, I’m calling to tell you that you and your friends have won the WOPS theme song contest,” the man said, in a voice that sounded like I had just won a million dollars.

“Oh, great,” I said in a not-so-thrilled tone.

“Well, I just phoned Rowan Mills, and he said that you’re in charge of the band,” said Michael T.

“Really?” I asked skeptically.

“Really. So, Brian, what’s the name of the band?”

“Um.” I thought of what had happened to the four of us over the past month. “The Split, that’s what we’re called,” I said.

“Oh, that’s an interesting name. Okay, Brian, I’ll be making a trip to Morrison High on Monday. Then I can interview you and your friends, and the jingle will be aired on Wednesday.” Michael T. ended his agenda.

“Um, well, I don’t—” I began.

“Sorry, Brian, I’ve got to go. See you Monday.” I heard a click on my end of the receiver.

I awoke the following Tuesday morning to the sound of Nicole singing on my clock radio. I lay in bed until the jingle was over. Then I heard Michael T., asking each of us how we felt about winning the contest. I heard our mumbled replies and then Rowan’s voice. “Oh, we’re all good friends. We met Nicole in detention, but that’s a long story.” I remembered Rowan’s face as he tried to encourage me to say something positive.

“Oh, yeah, we’re all great friends,” I heard myself lie.

“Now, what’s your favorite radio station?” Michael T. asked. We had to do this part a couple of times. First Patrick wouldn’t say anything. Then the second time nobody said their “favorite radio station” with sufficient “spirit,” as Michael T. put it. The third time the four of us shouted, “WOPS!” The third recording was the one they aired.

The editors at the station made our uncomfortable conversation sound happy and light. I listened to the rest of the interview with the winning band, The Split. They sounded like friends. But what I heard behind the façade—me, an actual member of The Split—well, that was a different tune.

Breaking the Surface

I walked out to silence in the pool area and sat down on the bench, which looked as though it was about to collapse. Our swim team always sat here before practice—at least the people who arrived first did. There wasn’t enough room for everyone.

I drummed my fingers impatiently on the rough wood. I was antsy for practice to start; I had missed it on Tuesday because of a cold, and I wanted to start up again. There was a meet on Saturday. The white tile was freezing under my bare feet, so I lifted them onto the bench and wrapped my arms around my knees. Finally people began to trickle in. When I saw my friend Sarah coming out of the locker room, I waved to her to come sit next to me.

“Hey,” Sarah said. “What’s up?”

“Not much since the end of school,” I said. “What happened in practice on Tuesday?”

“Not much; we did the usual,” she said. “But there is a new girl, Laura. Didn’t I tell you about her?” I shook my head.

“Well, she’s really fast.”

I felt a knot tighten in my stomach. I was the fastest on the team. She couldn’t be faster than I was. I realized what I was thinking, and I tried to push the thought away. I knew it didn’t matter if I were the fastest or not—the team’s score was what was important—but the knot in my stomach stayed.

Sarah and I talked about our day and the classes we shared. When more swimmers joined us on the bench, we started to discuss Saturday’s meet. I noticed Laura right away at the edge of the group. She had blue eyes and light brown hair, like mine. She was listening, but she wasn’t saying anything.

“I’m a little nervous,” one girl said.

Most everyone, including Sarah and Laura, said, “Me, too.”

“I’m not,” I said, and it was true. I never got nervous before meets. I was fast, and I almost always came in first.

Kathy walked over. She had been the coach of the swim team longer than I had been on it, which was a long time, since second grade. We quieted down. She watched us for a second, then started into her usual speech about how it didn’t matter what place we came in, and that we should be proud of whatever place we earned. I didn’t listen to it anymore; I practically knew this pep talk by heart. I glanced over at Laura a couple times; she was listening carefully to what Kathy was saying. I thought she looked nice.

After what seemed like forever, Kathy finally said, “Let’s start swimming.” As everyone trooped to the starting blocks, I went over to say hi to Laura. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Maggie.”

She smiled. “I’m Laura.” There was an awkward silence. Then she said, “You’re not nervous about the meet? That’s amazing. I always get nervous.”

I shrugged. “I guess I’m used to it. Besides, I’m a pretty strong swimmer.”

We got in line. When it was my turn, six of us climbed onto the starting blocks. I pulled my goggles over my eyes and adjusted them until they were perfect. Laura definitely seemed nice.

I heard the sound of Kathy’s whistle and dived in. I swam as fast as I could, even though Kathy always told me to save my energy for meets. I loved going fast; it was one of my favorite things about swimming. I didn’t know how much further I had to go. I didn’t care. I swam, breathing every few strokes.

Before I knew it, I had touched the cool tile at the end of the pool. I pulled my goggles to the top of my head and looked around, positive that I was first, but I always liked to make sure.

I was amazed to see Laura already climbing out of the pool and heading down to the starting blocks again. My feelings instantly became a jumble of annoyance and admiration, but annoyance definitely outweighed admiration. How could she have beaten me? I was the fastest. I climbed out of the pool and walked as quickly as I could, without running, to the other end. I needed to beat Laura. She was just about to climb up on the starting block and smiled when she saw me. I didn’t. She walked over.

“You have an amazing freestyle,” she said. “You could beat me in a second if I wasn’t doing the backstroke.”

“Uh, thanks,” I said, not sure what else to say. She had beaten me, but she still thought I was a great swimmer. It didn’t make sense.

As we headed back towards the lines, Laura talked to me about how she was, speed-wise, in all the different strokes. She sounded confident. I didn’t add any details about myself; I just listened.

I got in line for starting block three, and Laura lined up for block four. We would be swimming next to each other, and I was sure that I would beat her this time. I told myself that I hadn’t been trying       to swim my fastest, and that if I did, I would beat her. By the time I climbed onto the block, I had thought of every possible excuse as to why she had beaten me. I waited for the whistle.

I dived in at the sound of it and swam as fast as I could make myself go. I felt as though I were   flying through the water. I put my head up more than usual this time. I wanted to see where Laura was. I never could tell though. Suddenly, I felt my hand grip the end of the pool. When I stood up, Laura was climbing out. She had beaten me again.

I was in shock. I heaved myself out of the pool slowly, then waited for Sarah, who was climbing out behind me.

“She beat me,” I said, trying to hide my anger and frustration. “Twice!” “So?” Sarah said. “You beat me all the time.”

I clenched my teeth and marched angrily to the other side. I was fuming.

On Saturday morning I found myself awake at 5:30, with no hope of falling back asleep. I was nervous about the meet, which was extraordinary. I climbed out of bed, wide awake, and went downstairs in my pajamas. I walked into the quiet kitchen. I didn’t like being awake this early. I wasn’t hungry, but I cut a bagel in half and put it in the toaster oven anyway. I poured myself a glass of orange juice and didn’t bother to put the container away. I wished it were six o’clock p.m. The meet would be over then. I told myself there was nothing to worry about. It was only a meet. But Laura had shaken my confidence.

The toaster dinged, and I took my bagel out. I spread cream cheese on both halves. Why was I so nervous? I couldn’t understand it. I started pacing and eating. I focused my thoughts on swimming and winning. Suddenly Daniel, my little brother, was in the kitchen with me.

“Did I wake you up?” I asked. “Nope,” he said, and yawned.

I was barely finished with the first half of my bagel, and I was full. “Do you want it?” I asked, offering him the other half.

“Thanks,” he said and sat down at the table to eat it.

I left the kitchen and walked to the family room, where I turned on the TV. Everything on every channel was stupid, but I watched a cartoon anyway. It took my mind off the meet.

Our team walked out to the pool. I felt sick to my stomach, and I was ten times more nervous than I’d been that morning. Sarah was walking next to me. She was biting her thumbnail. She only did that when she was tense.

“Are you nervous?” I asked, even though I knew the answer. She stopped biting her nail. “Yeah.”

“Me, too”

Sarah laughed. “You, nervous? You’re kidding, right?”

“Nope,” I said.

She looked shocked.

We sat down on the bench. I was jittery. I bounced my knee impatiently. I wanted to get this over with. I would be doing two freestyle races, a backstroke, and a breaststroke. I wasn’t that nervous about the front crawl; it was my best stroke. For some reason I was terrified about the backstroke. I didn’t know why. I was perfectly good at it. I glanced over at Laura. She looked okay, not terrified, like I felt. I knew that she would be swimming in backstroke, butterfly, breaststroke, and a medley.

“Are you feeling okay?” I looked up to see Kathy staring down at me with a concerned expression.

Not really, I thought, but I said, “Yeah, I’m fine.” She nodded but didn’t look convinced.

Before I knew it, before I wanted it to happen, somebody called out my backstroke event. I stood up and walked over to the starting blocks. My knees were shaking. I was happy that I wasn’t swimming against Laura, but I was still terrified. I climbed onto the starting block and dived in when the whistle sounded.

I didn’t think while I swam. I focused on the ceiling. I went as fast as I could, but I always did that. It was automatic. Left arm, right arm, over and over again. Finally, I was finished. I was thrilled just to have made it through the race, and when I looked up, I saw that I had come in second. A swimmer from two towns over had beaten me. I heaved myself out of the pool. I couldn’t believe it. I walked back to our bench. Sarah was smiling.

“You came in second,” she said. “That’s great!” “Yeah, great,” I said sarcastically.

“I’m lucky if I ever place,” Sarah said. “Second is great. Even if you don’t think so.” I frowned.

I placed first in my other races, but I was still unhappy with the second. On the bus ride home, everyone was talking about their events. I said I had won three and lost one. They nodded and said “good job,” without much enthusiasm. They knew my usual pattern: first place after first place, with an occasional second. Even though they knew my pattern, I took satisfaction in the fact that I had done better than any of them.

But then somebody asked Laura how she did.

“I won firsts in all four of mine,” she said. Then she blushed.

She had won all four? I was supposed to be the best. I slumped down in my seat, furious.

In the background I heard everyone congratulating Laura on her wins. I pulled out my book and got ready to ignore the world. I opened it and began to read. It was hard to focus; the bus was bumpy and everyone was talking loudly. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Laura coming towards me. Great, I thought.

She sat down next to me. “You did great!” she said. “You were awesome doing freestyle.” “Gee, thanks,” I said sarcastically. “Why do you care how I did?”

“I was just trying to be nice,” she said, obviously hurt.

I kept reading. I wanted her to go away, but she didn’t. She sat there. I couldn’t stand it any longer. “Just leave me alone!” I said, trying not to yell.

“What?”

“I said, leave me alone!” “But . . . ” Laura started. “Go away!”

I could hardly believe what I had said. Laura stood up. She looked confused and sad. She walked back to sit with Sarah. I didn’t care. I went back to my book.

After another fifteen minutes on the bumpy bus, we finally arrived at our Y. From the window I could see Mom waiting for me in the car. She usually came to meets, but tonight she had to stay with Daniel because Dad had to work late. I grabbed up my stuff and bolted off the bus and into my mom’s car before Sarah or Laura could catch up with me. “How was the meet?” Mom asked.

“Okay,” I said, pulling the car door shut and buckling my seat belt. “Only okay? Maggie, what happened?” Mom said.

“Nothing,” I said. “I’m just tired.”

“What place did you come in?” Daniel asked from the backseat.

That was the one question I didn’t want to hear. I was trying to put the backstroke race out of my mind.

“Three firsts and a second,” I said quickly, to get it over with. Mom’s face lit up. “That’s great!” “Mm-hmm,” I said, and we didn’t talk about it for the rest of the car trip.

The next day, I was feeling a little better. I decided to call Sarah, to see if she wanted to go to the movies or come over or do something—anything but swimming. I picked up the portable phone from its cradle and carried it up to my room. I dialed Sarah’s number, and after two rings her mother picked it up.

“Hi,” I said. “It’s Maggie. Is Sarah there?”

“Sorry, Maggie. Sarah went rollerblading with a friend a little while ago,” her mom said. “Do you want me to tell her you called?”

“That’s okay,” I said, and we hung up.

I wondered who Sarah was with. She and I always hung out together. Who could it be? Since I didn’t have anything better to do, I started my homework. But as I took my books out of my backpack, a nagging question formed in the back of my mind: was Sarah with Laura?

On Monday, when I got to school, I couldn’t find Sarah anywhere. We usually met by her locker, but she didn’t show up. When I heard the bell, I guessed she was sick. Maybe I’d given her my cold. I rushed off to class. But when I got to homeroom, I saw Sarah sitting in the front row. Maybe she just forgot? There wasn’t a seat near her, only one in the back. As I walked to it, I tried to catch her eye. She didn’t look my way. She was talking and laughing with another girl.

When I looked to see who it was, I saw Laura. Why was Sarah hanging out with her instead of me?

I was her best friend. I sat down at my desk and ripped a piece of paper from my notebook.

Sarah,
Where were you? I waited until bell!!
Maggie

I folded up the note and acted like I was going to sharpen my pencil. On the way, I dropped the note on Sarah’s desk. She didn’t even look at it. I “sharpened” my pencil and started back to my seat. The note lay unopened on the floor. What was going on?

As I sat down, our teacher, Ms. Anderson, took roll call. I barely noticed when she called my name. The girl next to me, Anna, had to nudge me to say “present,” like the rest of the class. I was lost in my thoughts. Sarah hadn’t read my note, and she wouldn’t catch my eye. Was she mad at me?

When the bell rang, I jumped up and ran after her. “Sarah! Wait up!” I called.

She didn’t look back. She and Laura kept walking down the hall. I ran after them, not looking to see if there was a teacher nearby who could get me in trouble.

“Sarah, wait,” I said, grabbing her by the arm.

“What is it?” she said. She ripped her arm away. She sounded angry.

“You didn’t meet me before school, and you didn’t read my note. What’s going on?” I felt like screaming.

Sarah bit her thumbnail. She was nervous. “Don’t you know?” she said. Her voice was soft, but it was shaking with anger.

“No!” I said. “Tell me. You’re my friend. I need to know.” She was my friend. Pretty much my only friend. I needed her.

“You won’t understand.”

“Sarah, tell me!” This time I yelled.

Laura had been looking uncomfortable through this whole thing. I could tell that she didn’t want to get in the middle of it. She said, “I, uh, have to go. See you later, Sarah,” and rushed down the hall.

I watched her go, then asked, as calmly as I could, “What won’t I understand?”

Sarah took a deep breath. She looked like she wanted to run away or bite her thumbnail some more.

Instead she blurted out, “You’ve been acting like such a snob.” She looked relieved to have said it but terrified to see my reaction. “Sorry.”

“A snob?” I asked. I thought back; when had I been a snob? Sarah saw the confused look on my face.

“During swimming?” she supplied. “On the bus? Don’t you realize how horrible you’ve been? To Laura and to me. It’s not easy being your friend.” Her voice was cold.

My heart sank. “Sarah, it’s just that—”

“All you think about is winning and being better than everyone. You’ve never asked me, or congratulated me, on how I did in a meet. You’re always too obsessed with what YOU are doing, with whether YOU are number one.” I could tell she was furious and that she had been planning this speech all weekend.

“But Laura always wins,” I pointed out desperately.

“She doesn’t care. She doesn’t take it that seriously. She just likes to swim. She’s nice.”

The bell rang, and Sarah bolted off. I stood there in shock. My classmates rushed past me to their classes, but it didn’t occur to me to go to mine. Sarah didn’t want to be my friend anymore. The realization hit me, and I ran to the bathroom. I locked myself in a stall and sobbed. I was so confused, and I had no clue what to do about Sarah. I sat down on the seat and tried to control my crying. It felt terrible to realize that nobody wanted to be my friend.

Sarah had always been there for me. We had been friends since kindergarten. Why had she decided to end our friendship now? I was crying less hard as Sarah’s words echoed in my head. Don’t you realize how horrible you’ve been? I thought back over the past couple of days: the practice, the meet, the bus. I had been horrible. I felt helpless and small. What was I going to do? I could try and talk to Sarah and Laura, but would they listen? I knew they didn’t have any reason to.

I decided I’d head to class and deal with it from there. I had missed almost half the period already. I stood up, unlocked the stall, and walked out to the sinks. I saw how blotchy and red my face looked in the mirror. I wasn’t sure I could go to class like this. Behind me, I heard the door creak open. I turned around to see who it was. It was Laura.

She looked surprised to see me.

I wasn’t sure what to say. “Uh, hi,” I said lamely.

“Hi,” she said. For a second she looked concerned, but I was positive that she was just as furious with me as Sarah was. I knew I had to say something to Laura. I didn’t want her to think I was horrible. I wanted to apologize, to say something, but what?

I took a deep breath. “Laura, look, I’m sorry. I acted like an idiot.”

Laura looked surprised, as if she weren’t expecting me to say something like that. I knew what she was probably expecting was more rudeness.

“It’s just that you were faster than me, and I was mad,” I said. “I know. I figured that out,” she said. She didn’t sound angry.

“Laura, what am I going to do?’ I said. I felt like crying again. “Sarah’s so mad at me.”

“I know,” Laura said as the bell rang. “Come with me.” She grabbed my arm hard. “What?” I was shocked.

“Come with me,” she urged.

I gathered up my books from the sink and followed her out the door. She led me through the halls towards the cafeteria. People glanced at us uncertainly. I didn’t mind. I knew that I would have done the same if it were someone else with red eyes being dragged through the halls.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“We’re going to talk to Sarah,” she said.

I stopped in my tracks. “Are you kidding? She won’t listen to me.”

“She will,” Laura said, as she took my arm again and started half dragging me toward the cafeteria.

Part of me wanted to talk to Sarah and beg her to be my friend again. I needed her. The other part of me dreaded another confrontation. What if she wouldn’t listen?

Before I could work out an answer, we were in the crowded cafeteria, headed straight towards the table where Sarah was sitting, obviously waiting for Laura. She looked up at Laura and smiled when she saw her. Then she noticed me, cowering behind Laura, and she looked angry.

“Why did you bring her?” Sarah practically spat the words at Laura when we reached the table.

“Because she needs to talk to you,” Laura said.

“I don’t want to hear it.”

I felt like running to the bathroom again so I could cry some more. Sarah didn’t want to be my friend anymore. I was positive she wouldn’t listen to anything I had to say. Laura seemed to sense my need to run, so she gripped my arm even tighter. I was stuck.

“You have to listen to her, Sarah. You guys are friends. You’ve been friends forever,” Laura insisted. She pushed me forward. “Talk to her.”

I swallowed. I wasn’t sure what to say. Sarah glared at me.

“Sarah, I’m sorry,” I said to my shoes. “I know I was an idiot. I never even considered that you might have feelings about your races. I was too absorbed in my own record and where I placed. I have been a snob. Please, don’t be mad anymore. You’re my best friend. I need you.”

I was scared to see her reaction, but as I looked up at her face, she was smiling. A feeling of relief rushed through me.

Suddenly I remembered a game Sarah and I had played when we were eight and had competed to see who could stay underwater longer. I thought of how I’d watched her through the aqua pool water, fearing that I would surface before her. Even then I’d wanted so badly to win. Then, after a while,   when I wasn’t sure I could hold my breath a second longer, just as I was about to give up and declare her the winner, Sarah would break the surface. I concentrated hard on staying under another two seconds, so I could beat her soundly. Then I broke the surface, and my lungs had filled with fresh, crisp air.

Now I had broken another surface. I loved this feeling of pure, fresh air in my lungs better than any victory over Sarah or Laura or anyone.