Hang Ten for Dear Life!
Pssst, hey, Maria,” I whisper to the girl sitting in front of me.
Maria Malki flips her long, bouncy brown hair, then turns around and stares at me, her black eyes looking like they will shoot flames if I dare make another sound. She puts her index finger on her lips and whispers back, “Shhh, Kai!”
I twist my face so it looks like one of those super-sad clowns you see in the paintings at a mall kiosk. Maria’s stony look starts to show a few cracks. Her lips turn up a teeny-tiny bit at the
corners. I see a sliver of opportunity, so I decide that I’m definitely going to squeeze my way in.
Maria’s a rule follower. I get that. I’m a pretty straight-and-narrow kind of guy myself. I’ve only had detention three times this year, and two of them weren’t even my fault. But I admit that I’m not above bending the rules a little. Especially when it involves getting a laugh or two. I live for laughs.
The rule Maria is reminding me about is “No talking during Mr. Bodon’s math class.” He’s pretty strict about it, and breaking it already got me the one detention that I actually deserved. But Mr. Bodon just left the room to go talk to Principal DiBella, and I desperately need to try out some new comedy material, so here goes nothing. . . .
“Hey, Maria,” I whisper. “What’s blue and smells like red paint?”
Maria is not going to break the rule and talk to me, but I can tell she wants to know the punch line when she turns around and shrugs her shoulders.
Katrina, Jaden, and Faris are sitting close by, and they’re all in too.
“I don’t know. What?” Faris whispers.
“Blue paint,” I say matter-of-factly.
Maria drops her head on her desk and groans. My friend Matt snickers from two rows over.
“Dude, that is such a dumb joke.” He laughs. “Seriously, Kai. Did you actually spend time coming up with it?”
“Did it make you laugh?” I ask.
“Well, sure,” Matt says. “Because it’s soooo dumb.”
“Doesn’t matter,” I say. “If it made you laugh, it worked.”
Maria’s head is still on her desk, but I think I can hear the faintest sound of a giggle. Success!
Mr. Bodon comes back into the room and starts writing math problems on the board.
“You have ten minutes to complete these problems,” he announces to the class. “If you need help, come see me in the consulting corner.”
Mr. Bodon’s “consulting corner” is a card table with two chairs that he put in one corner of the classroom. It’s kind of cheesy, but he’s actually one of our coolest teachers. I start writing down the problems he’s written on the board and
I can tell that I’m going to need some consulting with problems two, three, and four.
I finish writing the problems down and I’m just about to close my notebook and head to the card table when a folded piece of paper lands on my desk. I open it and see that Maria has written the formula for figuring out the perimeter and area of quadrilateral shapes on it. Now I can do all the problems on my own. Sweet!
It’s probably a good time to explain that Maria Malki has been sitting in front of me for five years now. We went to the same elementary school, and since my last name is Mori, alphabetical-order seating has pretty much doomed us to being friends. She knows that I never remember to bring my sheet of math formulas, even though I’m supposed to. I know she’s one of the best students, and artists, in our grade.
I guess “doomed” isn’t really the right word, though, because even though we’re really different, like, opposite-ends-of-the-spectrum different (and I’d never admit this to my guy friends like Matt), I think Maria is kind of cool, for a strictly-following-the rules-kind-of girl, that is.
Thanks to Maria, I finish the math problems in four minutes, so I have six minutes to let my mind wander. I should probably start working on a new joke, but I’m not really in the mood, so I just look down at the floor in front of me, which is where Maria’s stack of books and her backpack are. Maybe her books will inspire me.
Another thing about Maria: She is obsessed with animals. I’ve never seen her room, but I’m going to guess she has posters of kittens and tigers and dolphins plastered everywhere. She’s probably drawn a lot of them too, because she’s a pretty amazing artist. Her backpack is covered with bubble-pen drawings of animals that she did herself, and it actually looks like something you could buy in a store.
I don’t even realize it, but while I’m looking at the backpack, I start doodling in my math notebook. Inspired by Maria, I guess. Stick figures are about the best I can do, but I get distracted pretty easily. Doodling helps me focus when my brain would rather be somewhere else. I start with some swirly waves and then add some dolphin fins and starfish, simple stuff. I get so
absorbed in it that I’m totally startled when the end-of-period bell rings. I jump up and accidentally flip my notebook off my desk.
Maria is already packing up her stuff, so she grabs my notebook and sneaks a peek at my doodles. How totally embarrassing! She’s a real artist. I’m a . . . a doodler. And not even a decent doodler. Ugh. She’s totally going to laugh at me. And not the kind of laugh I’m looking for.
“Here, Kai,” Maria says, handing me the notebook.
Wow, not even a smirk. Amazing!
Then she quietly zippers her backpack and starts to head off.
“Uh, thanks, Maria,” I call after her. “See you at lunch!”
Maria turns around and doesn’t even lift her head when she says, “If you really care about ocean creatures, you should come to the Be the Change club meeting later.”
“What was that about?” Matt Vezza asks, shoving me in the back. “See you at lunch, Maria! Is there something you’re not telling me, Kai?”
“What? No, nothing!” I protest. “She just
helped me, so I figured I had to be nice. I’m not rude, Matt!”
“Of course you’re not.” Faris Riley laughs. “Just ignore him.”
Faris turns to Matt and says, “Come on, like Kai would ever like Maria! She’s so quiet—and he’s so loud!”
Matt laughs. “Yeah, you’re right. Kai would just bulldoze every conversation.”
“Gee, thanks, guys,” I say. “It’s nice to know you really appreciate me.”
“Aw, don’t take it personally,” Faris says. “We love you. You’re our favorite class clown ever!”
I should be more upset than I am, but I’m not really paying attention to them anymore. I’m thinking about how I’m going to come up with some kind of a sea creature joke before the Be the Change club meeting.
• • •
When I find Maria in the cafeteria after school, she and Jada Reese are waving their hands while they talk. It’s a girl thing. I decide to watch them for a few minutes. I like to study people’s expressions and gestures so I can mimic them closely. It helps
with my comedy routine. Like, watching Maria and Jada right now, I’m pretty sure I can get a girl impression down pretty perfectly. I move a little closer so I can hear what they’re saying. They’re both too focused on the conversation to even notice me.
“We could have a bake sale to help a local shelter,” Maria says. “Or maybe a poster contest to show why it’s important to help save the animals of the rain forest? Or . . .”
“Those are great ideas, Maria,” Jada says. “But right now we’re all tied up with toy drive for the children’s hospital. I don’t have any time to spare.”
“Well, if you start an animal-charity subgroup,” I suggest, “you won’t have to spare any time. Someone else will.”
Jada and Maria whip their heads around and stare at me.
“When did you join the club?” Jada wonders aloud.
“Oh, I asked Kai to stop by,” Maria said. “The more the merrier, right?”
“Right.” Jada laughs. “So are you going to lead this subgroup, Kai?”
“Um, I think that sounds like a job for someone a lot more together than I am,” I admit. “Like Maria?”
“I’m in,” Maria says.
“That would be great if you can to take total charge of it, Maria,” Jada says. “I have so much to do already.”
“I can,” Maria says. “With Kai’s help, of course.”
“Of course.” I laugh, hoping my cheeks aren’t turning red. “But I have to go now. I’ve got plans . . . you know . . . um . . . this thing . . .”
“Right,” Maria says. “Why don’t you just stop by my house when you’re done and we can brainstorm some ideas?”
“Sorry, I think this, um, thing is going to take a while,” I say cryptically. “Can we meet tomorrow? At the library maybe?”
“Sure,” Maria says. “I’ll make a list of some ideas tonight and bring them with me.”
“Great!” Jada says, already whirling off to talk to another group of kids. “Good luck, you guys.”
“See you tomorrow, Kai,” Maria says, smiling.
My eyes lock in on her teeth. They’re perfectly white and straight. I’ve never actually
noticed that before, and it makes me remember my mouth full of metal braces. I put my hand over them and mumble, “Bye.”
• • •
I finish up my homework quickly that afternoon. Writing comes really easily to me, so the five-page social studies paper that everyone’s been complaining about takes me only about an hour to finish, and then I spend another half hour on math and science. Then it’s time for my real homework. Comedy!
I entered a comedy contest that WKBL, our local radio station, is running. I have to prepare a five-minute stand-up routine to perform at the Smoke Eater’s Jamboree (a festival to raise money for our fire department). I’m doing a “Did You Ever Wonder?” theme. It’s full of lines like, “Did you ever wonder why we sing ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ when we’re already there?”
My mom is the funniest person I know—no joke!—and she’s been helping me get ready, but I want to write at least another page of jokes. That’s the thing about comedy. You have to write a lot more material than you need, so that you
can cut the stuff that doesn’t really fly and keep only the best stuff. I’m not sure about the “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” line, but I’m going to try it out and see if it makes anyone laugh. Mom first, of course, because I know she won’t let me embarrass myself out there. Besides being funny, she’s brutally honest too.
Dad’s the first to get home, and before he even says hello to me he turns on the rice cooker in the kitchen. My family’s originally from Japan, so rice is part of dinner pretty much every night. Our rice cooker has probably made enough rice to fill one of the Great Lakes.
Pretty soon Mom’s home, and I run some of my new routine by her.
“Did you ever wonder what it would sound like if Kermit the Frog rapped?” I ask.
“Not really. Why?” Mom asks.
I do my best impression of Kermit the Rapper.
“Cute,” Mom says. “But don’t you think the Chipmunks would be funnier?”
Right! My Chipmunk impression is killer. I start to rap again, but this time with a super-squeaky voice.
Dad snorts and Mom cracks up.
“Do I know funny?” she asks.
“You know funny, Mom,” I agree.
Dinner’s ready and the table’s all set when my big sister, Yumi, and her best friend, Val, come bouncing through the door. They’re on the high school gymnastics team, so when I say bounce, I mean it literally.
“How’s good old Sands Middle School?” Val asks, and rolls her eyes.
“Probably the same as when you went there,” I reply.
“I’m sorry,” Val says.
“It’s okay,” I say.
Yumi and Val start talking about this boy they know who used to go to middle school with them.
“Have you seen Troy Mendez?” Yumi asks.
“Yes!” Val screams. “When did he get so cute?”
“Does he still have braces?” I ask.
Yumi and Val both look at me like I have six heads.
“What?” they say.
“Does he still have braces?” I repeat. “I mean, can he be cute with braces?”
“No. He got them off last year,” Val says.
“Why, are you hoping someone thinks you’re cute with braces?” Yumi teases.
“No. I . . . I was just . . . um . . . wondering,” I stammer.
Thankfully, the phone rings and interrupts our conversation. It’s Oji-san, otherwise known as my uncle Kenji. He lives in Honolulu, Hawaii, which is where my mom grew up. Oji-san is a lawyer, just like my mom, and once they get started talking, there’s no stopping them. We finish dinner and clean up and Mom is still on the phone, asking a ton of questions all about her brother’s new case in Hawaii’s environmental court.
I head up to my room to escape from Yumi and Val, and check my cell phone. (We’re not allowed to have phones at the dinner table—strict Mori-family rule.) There’s a text message from a strange number. I tap on it and see: Hey! Library tmrw still cool?
It’s Maria! How did she even get my number?
I agree to meet her—of course—but figure I should do some research before I go to bed, so that I’m totally prepared for our meeting. I start digging around Oji-san’s cases with the environmental court, because I know he’s done some work getting wildlife protection there. It’s kind of a family tradition, actually. Baba, my grandmother, is a marine biologist. She’s studied the breeding cycles of the local fish schools and helped make sure that endangered species weren’t overfished. Maria is going to be soooo impressed!