The Bad Apple
At exactly 11:17 every Fish Stick Tuesday, I raise my hand in algebra class and make a very important announcement.
“Seamus Hinkle,” Mr. McGill will say, peering at me over the tops of his dusty glasses. “To what do I owe the honor?”
“I need to use the restroom,” I’ll say.
“I need to go on a permanent tropical vacation. Is there a pass for that?”
This is Mr. McGill’s idea of a joke. Not bad, considering he’s a math teacher who memorizes pi for fun.
“The period’s almost over,” he’ll continue. “Don’t worry about coming back.”
And this is my idea of the perfect response. Mr. McGill never seems to recall that we’ve had the same exact conversation many times before, and neither do my classmates. Sometimes I think it’d be nice to be more memorable, but on Tuesday mornings, it’s always better to be forgotten.
My routine goes off without a hitch, week after week, until Mr. McGill drops his favorite calculator while taking a bubble bath. According to the e-mail he sends all his students, the calculator no longer multiplies. So he takes the day off to repair it.
And we get a substitute.
Her name’s Miss Parsippany. She has curly blond hair, big blue eyes, and a bad case of first-day jitters. By 10:45 she’s dropped—and broken—eight pieces of chalk. At 10:57 she claps two erasers together to clean them and is nearly suffocated by a thick white cloud. At 11:09 she asks for help setting up the laptop projector, and when no one volunteers, she plugs the inside corners of her eyes with her pinkie and thumb to keep them from leaking.
I feel bad for her, but I’m also encouraged by her fragile emotional state. Every second counts on Fish Stick Tuesdays, so
at 11:15—two minutes ahead of schedule—I raise my hand.
“Oh.” Miss Parsippany grabs the edge of the desk when she sees me, like she’s afraid of falling down. “You have a question?”
“I need to use the restroom,” I say.
“But there are”—she sifts through a stack of papers, many of which slip from her grasp and float to the floor—“seven minutes left in this period.”
I grab my backpack and start to stand. “Don’t worry. I’ll just go to lunch from there.”
I stop. Miss Parsippany’s watching me, her blue eyes wide, her mouth partially open. At first I think she’s about to be sick in Mr. McGill’s circular file, but then her eyes relax and her mouth closes.
“You can’t,” she says again, her voice firmer.
“But I always do. This time, every Tuesday.”
Her eyebrows lower. “You have to use the restroom at the same time every Tuesday?”
To someone who actually pays attention, I can see how this might sound strange.
“You do,” a low voice says somewhere behind me. “Why is that?”
“Little kid, little bladder,” another voice says, making the room swell with whispers and giggles.
I know those voices. The kids they belong to are the same ones I’m trying to outrun.
“Please,” I say as my face burns. “I really have to go.”
“Well, I’m sorry. You’ve made it this long, you can make it another few minutes.”
Just my luck. Saying no to me is the one thing for which Miss Parsippany feels qualified.
I stand there, unsure what to do. Part of me is tempted to bolt for the door, but a bigger part locks my feet in place.
So I drop back into my chair. I watch the second hand click around the wall clock. And at 11:19 and forty-five seconds, I throw my backpack onto my shoulders and crouch above my seat, one foot in the aisle.
The bell rings. I run—and am immediately stalled by a gaggle of girls. I veer to the left, but the girl on that end flips her hair over her shoulder, and it catches me in the eye. I veer to the right, but the girl on that end is texting and keeps swerving into the narrow open space between her and the wall. I try slipping between the girls in the middle, but they’re packed tightly
together, as if connected by their shiny belts and silver hoop earrings.
Eventually, they make a slow turn toward the courtyard, and I dart past them. I move as quickly as I can, but the hallway’s crowded. By the time the cafeteria comes into view, it’s already 11:25—and I’m four minutes behind schedule.
I burst through the doors and then stop short. It’s even worse than I feared. There are at least thirty kids in line—thirty kids I should be in front of. That’s why I leave math early every Tuesday, to get a head start.
And bringing up the rear is my biggest enemy, my arch-nemesis, my worst nightmare—at least on Monday nights.
He’s everything I’m not. Tall. Strong. Able to talk himself out of trouble despite a seriously stunted vocabulary. In fact, there’s only one thing in the entire world that Bartholomew John and I have in common.
Not just any fish sticks. The kind Lady Lorraine and the kitchen crew of Cloudview Middle School make, with crunchy outsides, flaky insides, and an aftertaste that lasts for days.
“Want a boost?” Alex Ortiz, Bartholomew John’s sidekick, asks when I come up behind them. He puts one hand on top of the other, palms up, and squats.
“Or a rocket launcher?” Bartholomew John adds without turning around.
I’m standing on my toes to survey the situation up ahead and now drop to my heels. I don’t answer them. They don’t expect me to. We all know that’s not how this works.
It takes eleven agonizing minutes to reach the lunch counter. I try not to stress by focusing on the comforting aromas of grease and salt, but that only reminds me of what I’ll likely be missing.
“It’s fish stick day?” Bartholomew John asks loudly when he’s next in line. “Alex, did you know it was fish stick day?”
“Nope. What an unexpected surprise.”
This exchange is for my benefit. There was an unfortunate incident a few weeks ago, at the beginning of the school year, when Bartholomew John loaded his plate with the last of the fish sticks and I tried to swipe some from his tray. In true Bartholomew John style, he made a big fuss by telling Lady Lorraine, the cafeteria monitors, and eventually the principal that I came up out of nowhere and shoved him aside to steal his food. For extra
sympathy points, he added that his family couldn’t afford to go out to eat and that he saved his meager allowance to buy lunch as a special treat.
Never mind that if I tried shoving him aside the force would send me crashing to the floor. Or that both his parents are lawyers. His lie got me after-school detention for the first time ever. The only good thing about the whole situation was that Bartholomew John seemed to forget about it, until today.
Darn that Miss Parsippany.
“This batch is extra yummy,” Lady Lorraine says, sliding a spatula through the tray. “Got distracted by a rat the size of Texas and forgot I had ’em in the fryer.”
“Fantastic.” Bartholomew John grabs the fish sticks she scoops on his plate and shoves them in his mouth.
My chest tightens as she gives him another serving, and another, and another. He clears his plate as fast as she fills it. I manage not to panic until the slick bottom of the tray appears, and then a hot heat shoots from my head to my toes, like I’ve just been dipped in Lady Lorraine’s fish fryer.
“There’s more where that came from,” she says when the tray’s empty.
I fan my face with a stack of napkins. Bartholomew John belches. The sound’s gross but reassuring; I’ve learned from past experience that as delicious as they are, there are only so many fish sticks one human stomach can handle.
“This is it until next week.” Lady Lorraine drops a new tray on the counter.
“Is it fat?”
I tear my gaze away from the fish sticks and look at Alex’s finger, which is pointing to a corner of the kitchen.
“And hairy?” Alex continues. “With a tail that could lasso everyone in this room?”
“It is,” Lady Lorraine says grimly. She tears off her hairnet, grabs a spatula, and spins around.
For a second, I actually believe Alex saw a rat. I’m so busy watching Lady Lorraine creep toward the empty corner that I almost miss what Bartholomew John does next.
He takes a carton of milk. Opens it. And empties it over the remaining fish sticks.
“Calcium.” He crushes the carton in one fist and tosses it on my tray. “Helps you grow.”
I stare at the milk carton. I want to pick it up and hurl it at
him, but I know it won’t do any good. Instead I slide my tray past the soggy fish and take my only remaining options: a salad and an apple.
In the cafeteria I sit at an empty table in the back of the room. I take a notebook and pencil from my backpack, push my tray aside, and start a list.
HOW TO GET REVENGE ON FISH HEAD
1. Start another list of—
That’s as far as I get before a commotion on the other side of the room makes me look up. Bartholomew John and Alex are standing inches away from three members of the boys’ soccer team. They’re all yelling at the same time, so I can’t tell what they’re arguing about, but I see Bartholomew John shove the team captain, who shoves him back. Alex throws a low punch at another kid, who punches him back. Soon fists and limbs are flying, and students and teachers swarm toward the fight from around the cafeteria.
Troublemakers, I think. Hoping Bartholomew John gets what’s coming, I climb on top of my chair for a better view.
And then I see her. Miss Parsippany. Pushing through the crowd.
She’s going to try to stop them. She managed to say no to me, and now she thinks she can break up a brawl that even the biggest male teachers are afraid to get near.
I usually don’t act without significant forethought, but there’s no time for that now. Keeping my eye on Bartholomew John, I snatch the apple from my lunch tray, bring my arm all the way back, and fling it forward.
In the next instant, the fight’s over.
And Miss Parsippany’s on the floor.