Six Kids and a Stuffed Cat
“Don’t step in the blood.”
I was cramming tissue up both of my nostrils to stem the flow of my most recent nosebleed when a kid tried to sneak in the second-floor restroom at RJ Glavine Middle School without being noticed. Weird since it was a small space, full of mirrors, and I was Right There. The sink area of any bathroom is a hard place to pretend to be invisible.
And we were going to be stuck together for a while. Because this school is insanely paranoid whenever there’s the tiniest threat of a storm. A couple minutes ago, I’d heard the overly cautious announcement warning everyone still on school property after school hours to huddle up and hunker down so the district couldn’t get sued in case anything bad happened. That’s not exactly what they said, but that’s what I heard.
“Attention! A severe weather alert is likely to be issued for the surrounding areas. In the interest of erring on the side of caution and adhering to the guidelines of our prudent insurance liability policy, we strongly recommend that any faculty, staff, and students remaining in the school building immediately seek shelter in the nearest interior room. I repeat: Due to the slight possibility of potentially sudden onset heavy rain, please move immediately to a safe location, away from windows, and remain there until the all-clear sounds. Thank you.”
Good thing I was already in one of the safest rooms in the building, dealing with what can only be described as rivers of blood coursing down my philtrum. That’s the midline groove in the upper lip that runs from the top of the lip to the nose. I know that word because the one on my face is frequently bloody, so it seemed only right to learn its proper name. I’m a very impressive bleeder. And today, I’d left a small trail of blood in the second-floor bathroom at RJ Glavine Middle School and freaked out the new kid, also taking shelter from the—take my word on this—nonthreatening baby storm that was going to miss us by a mile.
“What?” The kid practically climbed the walls trying to dodge the blood after I pointed it out.
“You were about to walk right though the splatter. It’s not nearly enough to be a puddle, but it’s more than a sprinkle.”
I adjusted the tissues I’d jammed up my bloody nose, hoping this kid thought bloody noses made a person seem a little mad, bad, and dangerous to know. I usually aim for being thought of as The Funny One because I’m, you know, inherently amusing. Plus, I overcompensate with humor to distract from the fact that I’m not really a people person.
Lately, though, I’ve been starting to feel my sarcastic take on things has been misunderstood and underappreciated. I thought it might be an interesting experiment to develop a new reputation for myself that didn’t rely so much on levity. I’d have to try it out with a preliminary test subject, of course, and the new kid would be the perfect person to start with. Maybe I could also spin the dorky bloody-nose thing into something mysterious with someone who didn’t know me.
If, of course, I could get the kid to look at me. I glanced from my own reflection to the other one in the mirror. Or at least I tried to. There was zero eye contact. Which was impressive in a pathologically shy kind of way because we were in a restroom with about four mirrors. Our faces were everywhere and yet we still weren’t looking at each other.
“Oh, right, um—” The kid was completely flustered trying to put together a sentence and avoid the Hansel and Gretel–like trail of blood-not-bread I had left in my wake. Oops, me and my bloody philtrum were inciting fear rather than awe; scaring, rather than impressing, the kid. Better take it down a notch, lighten the moment with a joke or two, help make this new kid feel more at ease with me before both of us had stress-induced bloody noses and the room looked like a gory crime scene. I was forced back to being my typical quick-witted and entertaining self before ever really trying on cool as a new image.
“It didn’t come from a fistfight or, you know, a spontaneous aortic rupture.” I paused for the chuckle that didn’t come. “This school has zero tolerance for violence. Not to mention unsupervised cardiac bleeds.” Another pause for the laugh. Another moment of comedic death by silence.
“That’s . . . good?”
Geez, my comic timing wasn’t even appreciated by a kid who was, I should point out, carrying around a backpack with a cat poking out of it. My sense of humor is quickly becoming wasted around here. No one in this entire building gets my kind of funny anymore. I might have to transfer, try to find a middle school that’s a better fit for someone with the gift of the wisecrack like me.
“What happened?” The kid was peering at my bloody tissue with the same revulsion one might reasonably direct toward a person just returned from a serial murder spree or breaking down game after a particularly successful hunting trip.
“Bloody nose. A real gusher this time. What can I say? It’s an imperfect world and I have a deviated septum.” And I bleed when I get worried about peer group interaction. But no one needs to know that except me and my counselor, Cary, who came up with the phrase “peer group interaction” in the first place. I grabbed a roll of toilet paper, dropped it to the floor, and used my foot to wipe up most of the blood. “Good enough. Now it’s just a smear.”
From the kid’s gag reflex after a quick glance at—and then away from—the blood on the floor, I was worried we were going to be dealing with another kind of bodily fluid in a sec. Nope, deep breath, nausea under control, brave attempt to keep the conversation going. “You know a lot of words for blood residue.”
“I get a lot of nosebleeds.” That’s like saying the Titanic took on a little water. My counselor says it’s from social anxiety. Cary’s probably right, but I don’t want to deal with that just yet. Cary calls that avoidance; I call it pacing myself. “A person can do a lot of thinking with their head back and a wad of tissue packed in each nostril.” Good position to avoid facing reality and any kind of personal interaction, by the way.
“You make good use of your time.”
Wow. Look at me: meeting a secret optimist who’s gradually warming to me. My day is definitely picking up. “Hardly anyone ever says that about me. Thanks.”
I heard Ms. Mahoney in the hallway yelling at the few kids still in the building this long after dismissal to take shelter. I’m guessing she was shouting at students; but a she-devil like that could have just as easily been bossing around teachers and coaching staff. Or even directing the principal if she thought he wasn’t toeing the line.
“Did a teacher with a clipboard shove you in here?” I asked, and the kid nodded, looking nervously at the door as if Ms. M. was going to burst in and start ordering us to scrub toilets or clean the grout. Which wasn’t completely unlikely; I’ve seen her do worse in the name of running a tight ship.
“That woman’s meaner than a junkyard dog. No wonder they always assign her to detention duty; she’s hardwired to strike terror in the hearts of, well, everyone. The good news is that we’re totally safe from the storm if we’re anywhere near her: She’ll intimidate any bad weather, like an infantry regiment on the front line of battle.” That’s not at all true, of course, but it’s the kind of reassuring thing a person tells someone whose nerves seem to be stretched a little tight. I’d know all about something like that. The kid was in excellent, and empathetic, company.
“Oh . . . well, that’s good, I mean, everyone should be . . . I dunno, useful in some way.”
“What’re you doing hanging around school so late?”
“It, uh, was, ah, my first day.” I wondered if Avery thought we got graded by how many extra syllables we could cram in a sentence or if there was another reason for the hesitation. Like maybe clinical introversion or social maladjustment. I know those phrases because Cary suggested they might apply to me in our first session.
“Thought so. I’d have remembered the cat.”
“You’re not supposed to see him.”
“Oooooookaaaaaay. An invisible stuffed cat. Gotcha.” Who am I to judge? But bingo on the call of maladjustment. Takes one to know one, I guess. “That still doesn’t explain what you’re doing in school forty minutes after the last bell rang.”
“I hid backstage in the auditorium and fell asleep.”
“As soon as I got here this morning. I slept all day.” No wonder the kid was a twitching wreck. “Is it still considered an official first day if I was sleeping under a costume rack instead of going to class?”
No, my new and trembling friend, you are toast. Instead, I looked thoughtful, pretended to consider the plight carefully, and then nodded. “You were on school property so, technically, you were present. No worries, you’re good.”
“Why are you still here?”
“I’m always here. If I were not here, there’d be no here here. The detention hall would cease to exist if I were not given detention several times a week. The faculty in this school doesn’t get my humor. Apparently, I come off as difficult and challenging to authority.”
“That’s too bad. A good sense of humor is an important quality to have.”
Ah. Socially awkward, but promising. Just like me. “You’d think. But wit like mine is wasted in the eighth grade. My counselor says it doesn’t pay to be subversive in middle school.”
Before my new potential BFF could respond or I could rip out my own tongue for admitting I see a counselor, the washroom door slammed open. Avery practically leapt into my arms but settled for scurrying behind me as a shield.
I turned away from the huddled mess that was Avery hiding behind me and saw who’d entered the restroom. Oh, right: Taylor. Good call, Avery. Everyone should duck and cover when Taylor enters the room.
“If you don’t cut that out, I’ll squash you like a bug.” Taylor’s not anyone’s idea of charming. This was, in fact, one of Taylor’s warmer utterances of the week.
Devon, the recipient of Taylor’s warning, followed Taylor into the bathroom. Devon hasn’t heard anything anyone’s said for years, so, although a threat was delivered, a threat most certainly wasn’t received. Devon was wearing earbuds and playing air guitar. Like always. I really mean it: ALWAYS. Even in class, albeit quietly and as discreetly as it is possible to rock out on an imaginary Fender Stratocaster. Or was it a Gibson? Hard to tell when, you know, it doesn’t exist.
Normally, when I find myself in a small-group situation, I get very uncomfortable. But here, in this bathroom, with these people, I felt right at home, even though I’d just met Avery, Taylor is unpleasant, and Devon doesn’t communicate with people who can be seen. I was, far and away, not the only flaky one in the room, and that brought a level of social comfort I don’t usually experience.
Taylor was still waiting for Devon to respond. Dream on, Taylor.
As if it would help clarify their communication process, such as it was, Taylor bellowed at Devon, “DID YOU HEAR ME?”
Devon not only hadn’t heard anything anyone has said for years, but Devon had also lost the ability to read body language and facial cues. So the fist-into-palm-smacking and red angry face that Taylor was demonstrating as an example of seething rage fell on deaf, or earbud-stuffed, ears. Devon looked up from the guitar, smiled at Taylor, pumped both fists in the air like a rock star, and wandered into a stall to continue playing, one hoped, rather than to partake of the intended purposes of the facilities. Although we were in the bathroom, I sincerely hoped no one would have to use the bathroom. Until the storm was over and the rest of us could leave, of course.
“I wish Devon was playing an actual guitar,” Taylor snarled. “Then at least I could smash it in a million pieces.”
And tell me the brand name if you happened to notice it among the splintered pieces of guitar. But that’s not really the point, I reminded myself, and decided that a six-string connoisseur like Devon would go Fender all the way.
Mason had entered the room behind Taylor and Devon and been watching Taylor disapprovingly. “Some people have no appreciation for the musical arts. It’s sad. Hey, Jordan.” I nodded my hello and then gestured to Avery who was still crouched behind me. Mason leaned over, peeked behind my legs, and waved. “Hi, we haven’t met—I’m Mason. I like the stuffed cat.”
“You’re not supposed to see it,” I said helpfully.
“That’s cool,” Mason casually brushed off the not-really-there stuffed cat like it was the kind of thing someone was asked to ignore every day and, therefore, too trite to waste words mentioning. “I got you covered on the not-seeing-the-cat deal. Very metaphysical; I like it. Have you met Taylor and Devon yet?”
I looked over my shoulder at Avery and said, again very helpfully, “Taylor’s hostile and Devon’s mellow so they make a nice matched set. An ideally balanced subset of the collection of people to be stuck with in the bathroom during a storm.”
Avery didn’t know who to watch, the furious Taylor who was glaring at Devon or Devon who was playing so hard the strumming arm was windmilling. I noticed that Avery started anxiously twisting the cat’s ears, which were poking out of the bag.
Clearly, an introduction to the Land o’ Devon was in order for our new friend. The rest of us have gotten used to Devon’s musical obsession and disdain for engaging on the plane of mutual reality, but, to the uninitiated, Devon might be a tiny bit crazy and, perhaps, a whole lot scary.
“Devon’s the best musician in school,” I said with a little pride even though I had nothing to do with Devon’s talent. “The only problem is Dev’s never so much as touched a real guitar. But look at that showmanship! A forward-thinking entrepreneur would send that act on the road, charge a modest admission at small clubs. Who knows? Maybe even work Dev up to an international major stadium tour gig, opening for world renowned rock gods.”
And then maybe said agent/manager/promoter would notice the droll, and, I think, extremely marketable, humor that is mine and book me a job or series of jobs warming up the in-studio audience for one of the bazillion late-night talk shows. After Cary and I worked through my stage fright, that is. Maybe Devon’s bizarre enough to land both of us at the top of the heap, entertainment career–wise. I’m not counting on it, but I’m not ruling it out, either. Devon might be my ticket to international fame and obscene fortune, or at least widespread social acceptance in this school. Again, if Cary and I can work on getting me able to talk to people without resorting to acerbic commentary that masks my discomfort.
“Your faith in Devon has always been very touching, Jordy,” Mason said with an approving smile.
“It’s your fault Devon’s still wandering around like this, Jordan; you encourage bad behavior to take the focus off of yourself.” Leave it to Taylor to ruin the warm bonding moment we were all sharing. Taylor is exactly like the prank no one sees coming in the middle of the night on the way to the bathroom—unpleasant, abrasive, and shocking.
“Taylor, that was uncharacteristically aware of you,” Mason said, and, bitter though I was about the point, I had to agree. “A little mean, but good eye: Jordan, no offense, does throw others under the bus to avoid the consequences of having a smart mouth and an all-around disrespectful attitude.”
Before I could say, “Well, yeah, sure, who doesn’t,” or even bust Mason’s chops for being hyperintellectual enough to make condescending comments like that in the first place, the door flew open again. My eardrums reverberated painfully from the noise. No wonder Devon likes to play guitar in the restroom—great sound quality and a nice echo.
“Can you believe we’re stuck in the john because of a little rain? Coach canceled practice because of drizzle and a light breeze.” Regan would practice in a hurricane if necessary and doesn’t take kindly to any changes in what has got to be the world’s most carefully mapped out weekly schedule. Regan’s the most active kid in this school. Between sports, student government, editing both the yearbook and the newspaper, participating in the plays and musicals, rehearsing for the orchestra and band concerts, serving on numerous school committees, volunteering in the community, and whatever else I’m sure I’ve forgotten, Regan has every spare moment of the day accounted for until high school graduation and that includes summer vacation and winter and spring breaks.
Regan noticed Devon flailing around on air guitar, studied the fingers on the frets and the rhythm, and then guessed, “Santana?” Mason and I nodded—good guess. Taylor snorted and turned away because that’s Taylor’s response to everything. Avery kept nervously twisting the cat’s ears. Apparently neither Avery nor the stuffed cat wanted to weigh in on Devon’s instrumental inspiration today.
“Better than pretending to be Hendrix, pretending to set the pretend ax on fire,” Regan held up a flat palm in a don’t-go-there gesture. “Now that’s crazy. Speaking of crazy, what’s with the kid petting the stuffed cat in the bag?”
“That’s Avery,” Mason said. “First day here. Seems a little more anxious than crazy.”
“And we’re not supposed to call attention to the cat. It’s the exact opposite of Devon’s guitar,” I once again helpfully pointed out. Man! I have got to get a job being helpful; it comes so naturally to me, I may as well start getting paid for it.
“Which we’re not supposed to see so much as hear,” Mason commented on Devon’s guitar, head tipped, eyes closed, face scrunched in a look of intense concentration, trying really hard, I guessed, to listen for the chords.
“There’s a lot of existential reality in this school,” I told Avery, and hoped I seemed French and intellectual and maybe a little brooding.
“I’m okay with that non-cat and the non-guitar,” Regan said, looking back and forth between Avery and Taylor. “Maybe we can get a picture for the yearbook of Avery and Devon and the nonentities; as editor-in-chief this year, I’m freaking out about how to fill up all the pages. I’ll take anything. Even pictures of invisible felines and imaginary stringed instruments.”
“Everyone in this school except me is nuts,” Taylor sneered.
“And yet you’re the only one in this room failing,” Mason broke the seal on that secret. “C’mon, Taylor, get your books out, let’s finish that book report so we can be one step closer to being free of each other once and for all.”
“Mason is tutoring Taylor,” Regan explained to Avery.
“Taylor’s resisting,” I clarified, because I didn’t think Regan’s commentary gave Avery the full picture. “If Mason were a germ and Taylor were an open wound, Taylor would be studied by the worldwide medical community as the future hope of preventing the spread of infectious disease.”
“Mason’s only working with Taylor to get a recommendation from the principal to attend the mock congress in Boston this summer,” Regan told the one person in this entire school who didn’t already know about Mason’s academic pursuits and extracurricular goals. The rest of us hate Mason for wrecking grade curves, for making all of us look like dopes with the constant extra credit assignments, for always taking all of the honors courses that are offered, and for having a study room in the library on permanent hold for whatever small-group project Mason has once again volunteered to head.
“They can’t stand each other. Two people who loathe each other more do not exist in this world or any universe known to mankind or yet to be discovered. It’s awesome entertainment for the rest of us that they have to work together. We’ve placed bets on how long it’ll take one to smack the other with a thesaurus, and who’ll take the first swing.” I wondered what the current over-under was on Taylor drawing first blood.
“Our school policy is zero tolerance for bullying, so if I should personally witness such behavior, in my role as student body president, I’d have to report it. Was it report it or step in? Hmm, can’t remember.” Regan tried to look as anti-bullying and pro-getting-along as possible. Which just meant trying out a few different kinds of weird and eager smiles in the mirror combined with a furrowed brow for seriousness.
Mason looked up at the ceiling in disgust. “Taylor’s failing English. Our mother tongue. My whole future depends on teaching someone the difference between I-T-S and I-T-apostrophe-S.”
“I’m not failing,” Taylor said. “I’m just not passing by as much as I should be. And you said ‘it’ was an imprecise and meaningless word that takes up space and should be avoided as much as possible. So what’s the big difference if there’s an apostrophe or not if I’m not supposed to use the word in the first place? Geez.”
For a second I thought I was going to lose money when Mason grabbed a book. But the swing never came; instead of whacking the side of Taylor’s head with a good solid backhand, Mason placed the book in Taylor’s hand with a heavy sigh. “Focus.”