Read an Excerpt
An Awful Morning – Weird Kitchen – Worst Field Trip Ever – Bullies on the Bus – A Missing Friend
What Lee Jones should have suspected when he entered the City School’s multipurpose room was that the most awful morning of his life was about to get much awfuller. But Lee made a mistake that’s far too common. Brushing his hair before school, Lee convinced himself that his life was so horrid already, it couldn’t possibly get worse. Right?
Let’s back up a bit and see precisely how awful Lee’s life was that morning before it took a turn for the worse.
In less than a month, Lee would graduate from the eighth grade, all in all a good thing. He was excited to start high school, yet was a little nervous, too. Even though he’d be staying at the City School, only moving from the fourth floor to the fifth, and even though he knew a lot of the high school kids already, freshman year was a bit of a mystery to him. Going to high school seemed like entering a big dark cave through a narrow tunnel. You could get lost in there and never find your way out. But this was a minor awfulness for Lee, the usual sort of stuff you face in life. Not great but doable.
The true awfulness about starting high school was that Lee would be going into that dark cave alone. His very best friend—and pretty much only friend these days—Joan Lee, was transferring to Starr King Prep in the fall. Joan and Lee had attended the City School together since pre-K, but it wasn’t until sixth grade, on the first day of middle school, that they became best friends.
That day, both of them running late because neither could open their lockers, they found themselves next to each other in the hot lunch line in the basement cafeteria. As they pushed their trays along, they talked about their stupid lockers and the new teachers and last summer and were there going to be real dances and were eighth graders as cruel as they were supposed to be.
When they arrived at the dessert station, however, both Lee and Joan reached for the same Rice Krispies square, which happened to be the last Rice Krispies square. Joan held one side of the white plastic plate, Lee the other, and they commenced debating over who had dibs. Joan suggested that since she was first in line, the Rice Krispies square was hers. Lee claimed he only let Joan go first because he was a gentleman, so Joan should repay his good manners by letting him have the Rice Krispies square. Joan said she never asked him to be so polite; Lee said he couldn’t help himself. Joan tugged at the plate; Lee tugged back.
Later, they sometimes wonder if they would have become friends or not if they had shared that last Rice Krispies square. Maybe if they had broken the square in two, middle school would have turned out different. Lee would have taken his half, Joan hers, and they would have gone their separate ways.
But that possibility never had a chance to arrive. Because right at that moment, Trevor McGahee, the biggest sixth grader in the history of sixth graders, reached between Joan and Lee, snatched that Rice Krispies square off the white plastic plate, and proceeded to lick it with his big gross tongue. Trevor had claimed his dessert. Welcome to middle school. Ew.
Joan and Lee each let go of the plate, then looked at each other, then gave each other THE SHUDDER. Both of them shook a little, both raised their shoulders a little, both made a disgusted expression, and both let out low moans. This was the first time they shared what they would later call a LOOK. Joan and Lee soon discovered they could carry on an entire conversation with one shared glance, one simple LOOK. If it hadn’t been for that last Rice Krispies square and for big dumb gross Trevor, they might never have known that.
Joan and Lee did eat lunch together that day and started hanging out all the time—no big deal. They still had their other friends, but in middle school, they found that friendships and alliances changed on a weekly, if not daily basis. Oh, the other kids gave them a hard time, a boy and girl being best friends and all, but since this was middle school, the other kids would get bored quickly and move on to giving some other kids some other hard time about something else. Joan and Lee developed a LOOK to cover all this, THE MIDDLE SCHOOL, which roughly translated as, “Hey, it’s middle school, whacha gonna do?”
Their friendship was not a perfect one, but true friendships never were, Lee figured. What often helped build a friendship were the differences between the two friends, and Joan and Lee were opposites in many ways. Lee, Joan would probably say, was a little too laid-back, a little too “Whatever, dude.” Joan, Lee would happily tell you, was wound up way too tight, a homework-eating-robot machine. They were perfectly mismatched. Even their names said this, mirror images that were also opposites—Lee Jones, Joan Lee.
But despite their differences, maybe because of them, they both knew that their friendship was THE ONLY THING that made the murky swamp of middle school possible. All those cliques and romance dramas and popularity death matches—ugh!
But now Joan was leaving. Her parents had developed “serious reservations” about the City School’s “commitment to calculus” and were switching her to Starr King. Joan refused to ask her parents to change their minds. She would stand up to anybody in the world, Lee knew, except her parents. And no matter how much Lee’s parents told him that Joan’s transfer was “best for everyone,” and no matter how much he and Joan made promises to stay FRIENDS FOREVER, Lee suspected that such promises were impossible to keep. Deep down he feared that come the fall, he would never see Joan again. Their lives would be even more different than they were now.
Joan lived in San Francisco’s Presidio Heights, which is a very posh neighborhood, and Lee lived in the great flat streets of the city’s Sunset District, a neighborhood not known for its poshness. Joan’s enormous house looked out over the Presidio, the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge; Lee’s house looked out over Eighth Avenue and May Lee’s Free Chinese Delivery.
Where the City School was packed into a five-story sardine can downtown, Starr King Prep sprawled over acres of playing field above Ocean Beach. The schools’ athletic teams even played in different leagues, so he and Joan wouldn’t see each other at games. As an unspoken rule, Starr Kings and City Schoolers did not hang out together. It was highly unlikely that Lee and Joan would “run into” each other, no matter how often their parents told them otherwise. The size of the world was going to push them apart.
But Joan transferring was not the awfullest of the awful things this foggy May morning. The most awful thing about this morning had arrived just the night before at dinner. It arrived with a sudden, sickening quiet and some very strange behavior on the part of Lee’s kitchen.
He and his parents were sitting at the kitchen table, and Lee was just about to tear into a big and juicy BLT, when his mom began to speak ever so softly. The softness in her voice should have been Lee’s first clue, but BLTs can be distracting.
“Honey,” his mom said, “your father and I have, well…”
Lee set down his sandwich. Everything seemed to stop. He looked over his dad’s shoulder out the kitchen window. He could see the sky there, it was a foggy evening, and he knew the world outside that window was still going on, cars and buses and planes and dinners and all the rest. But here in this kitchen, everything had stopped. Lee’s father stared at his own BLT; his mother held a glass of water to her lips; the lamp above the table hung empty and airless. Then, very clearly, as if she were actually there, Lee saw Joan’s face pop up in the kitchen window. She and Lee exchanged a big old WHAT NOW?
His mom spoke again; time tripped forward.
“Your father and I,” she said, looking straight at Lee, “we’ve decided that it’s best for everyone that he and I get a divorce.”
The first thing Lee thought was, Whenever you hear an adult use the phrase “best for everyone,” you should run as far and fast as possible. The second thing he thought was, A divorce, really? Then the kitchen did that funny thing again, and everything seemed to stop. Well, Lee stopped, but his parents went on.
For what might have been hours, Lee and his parents sat at the kitchen table, not eating their BLTs, that’s how weird it was. Lee sat; his parents talked. They wanted, they said, to help him understand, make him know that everything would be all right and nothing would change. They went over everything again and again—“the time had come,” “drifted apart,” “things change,” “things won’t change,” “a shock they knew,” “only to be expected.”
It didn’t matter what they said because Lee was still wandering around in the moment when his mom first said it was “best for everyone” and “divorce.” His parents were going forward in time, Lee could tell, but he was stranded in the past, where he was just about to bite into his BLT and the word “divorce” had never been spoken.
So Lee nodded and hmmmed and yessed and told his parents he understood, and that he was all right. That was some other Lee listening to them, some future Lee.
Some part of Lee eventually moved forward; he went to his room and did his homework and got ready for bed. All he really wanted to do was call Joan, but that was not allowed after dinner, part of his “homework contract.” And so he did what any self-respecting eighth-grade boy would do at such a moment. He went to sleep.
The next morning, however, neither homework nor sleep could keep Lee stuck in the past where life was still good and his parents were not getting a divorce. While he brushed his hair in front of the bathroom mirror, the crushing truth of the present punched him hard in the gut—his parents were getting a divorce?! He was flooded with a rush of feelings—rage and fists, sorrow and tears, and something that was like laughter, the kind of laughter that just won’t stop and scares you.
Lee tried hard to make his life flash before his eyes, to recall all the great family memories he knew he possessed. But nothing would come—no picnics in Golden Gate Park or at Ocean Beach, no long afternoons in the backyard with his parents barbecuing and reading, no movie nights and all that popcorn, no nothing. He could not get to the past, where everything was the way it was supposed to be. There was just now, staring into the mirror and the sickening fact that his parents …
Lee had to get out of this house. He did his best to push the whole stupid divorce thing down and down. He ate breakfast and rode to school with his parents—who would just not stop talking—and all the while he concentrated on the two very good things that would happen that day.
First, and most important, he would get to talk to Joan about this whole silly divorce business—what were his parents thinking? They were perfectly happy; everyone knew that. It always helped to talk to Joan, even when they were talking about nothing.
Second, they would be doing this talking at California Dreaming, their favorite amusement park in the universe. Today was Eighth Grade Getaway Day, and the park would be filled with graduating middle schoolers from all over the Bay Area. Lee and Joan had promised each other that NO MATTER WHAT they were going to ride the Vortex this year. Seriously.
So, unfortunately, Lee was feeling pretty good when his parents dropped him off at school, and without the tiniest good-bye to them, he melted into the stream of students that flowed through the City School’s front doors. Today had to be better.
Joan wouldn’t be at school yet, she was always late, so Lee snagged their usual place, a window seat on top of the shelves where the board games were kept. This was where Lee and Joan had been sitting all of eighth grade—off to the side, on the edge of things, removed from the larger herd. They sat in the back row at assemblies, in the far corner of the lunch yard, and high in the visitors’ bleachers at basketball games.
It’s not that they were antisocial or anything, they just didn’t like being crushed by all the squealing and crying and manic text messages. All that gossip—you could have it. Besides, they agreed, the view from the edge of the herd was so much better, so much more to see and talk about there. Off to the side, that was their world.
Lee saved their spots and watched the herd at work. You didn’t have to be a genius to know this was a field-trip day—the running, the screaming, the laughing, uck, that smell. Even more so, there was a vibe in the air that said, “We are outta here!”
Mr. Ruszel, Lee’s homeroom teacher (but otherwise a pretty cool guy) stood before the assembly and clapped five times: One! Two! Three, four, five! Like well-trained lab rats, the students clapped in response, then fell quiet.
“Okay,” Mr. Ruszel said, taking a deep breath. “Here’s the good news.”
No, not that, not “the good news.” Starting with “the good news” was never good. Right up there with “best for everyone.”
The good news was that there would still be a Getaway Day. Lee’s stomach dropped far and fast, and not in a fun, oh-my-God, roller-coaster kind of way.
The bad news? They were not going to California Dreaming. There had been a mix-up with the deposit check.
The sound of sixty-seven eighth graders being cruelly disappointed all at once might be spelled something like this: “Awwwwww-oooooohhhhh-oooo-aiiiiii!” But spelling really can’t make a word as loud and terrifying as the sound that now swallowed MPR4. Imagine the sound of a jet plane—an angry, sulky jet plane—landing in your living room.
Now, Lee thought, this is as low as it goes. Can’t get no lower nohow.
You should never think that, never, not out loud or to yourself.
The field trip, Mr. Ruszel said, their one and only, once-in-a-lifetime Eighth Grade Getaway Day had been changed to … Fort Point. To understand the horror of this choice, it helps if you’ve attended school in San Francisco. Fort Point is a Civil War–era, well, fort, which sits under one end of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was, Lee admitted, a pretty cool place, but he and the other eighth graders in MPR4 had probably been there a combined total of a million times. And Fort Point was no California Dreaming, especially on a foggy May day like today. They would freeze to death.
It took Mr. Ruszel about nine years to get everyone quiet and moving. Lee let himself be pushed along the halls and down the stairs, then he darted for the second bus. Always take the second bus, Lee and Joan had come to agree. It’s the safest bus, less crowded.
He grabbed an aisle seat, to save the window for Joan. She would pop up any minute, he knew, apologizing profusely. They had a lot to talk about. At least that, at least Joan would be here.
But she wasn’t popping up. And she had better pop up soon. If you missed a bus for a field trip, you had to spend all day in the library, by yourself—without computer access!
The bus’s engine growled to life—no Joan. And then Trevor McGahee’s face appeared over the seat in front of Lee. It was not a pretty face, to be sure. Apparently, Trevor had not got the memo about the second bus being the safer one. Or maybe he had.
“Move your butt, loser,” Trevor said with a sneer he practiced in the mirror every morning. “Your loser girlfriend’s not coming. We’re taking that seat.” Trevor and his goons—his goons were always right behind him—laughed.
The bus actually pulled away—without Joan. Trevor’s goons squished Lee against the window.
Copyright © 2012 by Lewis Buzbee