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Only one week of school was left. I sat staring out the window of my seventh period science class. We'd already taken our tests. Rumor had it that Uncle Verle never bothered to grade them. Even if he did, it wouldn't mean anything: he passed out the exams and then disappeared into the lab area behind the chalkboard. When the snoring was loud enough to reach the classroom, several of the boys pulled out their books and began copying the answers.
After a few moments, I glanced up from my test to check the time, surveyed the anarchy, and asked indignantly, "Is this an open book test?"
The only answer I got was a general snickering. My honesty would never be rewarded. The tests disappeared after class and were never seen again. We would all have A's. No one would complain. Who complains about an A?
At the moment, though, my angry musing was not directed at Uncle Verle's lackadaisical teaching methods; it was Russell Peacock who had me fuming. I couldn't stand by anymore. Something had to be done. The whole horrible scene from lunch kept replaying in my mind. I could see Russell wearing that absurd, black, tangled wig of curls, clutching an arm full of huge books that he wasn't smart enough to read. Poor Margaret. She nearly choked on her frozen pizza, but didn't dare bring attention to herself by coughing. Russell huddled over and scurried between the tables pushing the thick-rimmed glasses he wore back up on his nose as he went. Nobody in the lunchroom needed to be told that he was acting Margaret.
The cafeteria rolled with laughter. Here and there the more kind-hearted wore frowns of disgust, but even the disapproval in theirfaces melted into uncontrollable giggling when Russell's cronies began pulling disgusting items from the hair. Margaret bore it all with unimaginable serenity; eyes downcast, picking at the potato rounds on her tray. I was too astonished at the cruelty of it to do anything but stare opened-mouthed at the perpetrators. And then they pulled a drowned mouse from the snarled locks.
Russell shrieked, "Oh, Mommy, they found you!"
My mouth snapped shut into clenched jaws. Recovering from the shock of the assault, I turned to join the gaze of the throng as it fell on our table and waited expectantly for the response of the small, curly-headed, non-person sitting next to me. Margaret rose from the table. She didn't run out crying with her hands hiding her face. Instead, with all eyes searing her back, she picked up her tray, placed it on the counter, and walked out the double doors.
I was overwhelmed with admiration, pity, and horror. I wished I had Ounatha's wand; I wished I knew how to use it. I wondered if I could get in one good punch before Russell laid into me and then Jack got suspended for defending me. Before my gut reactions got the best of me, vague words of my mother's about wreaking vengeance on the viper while the victim dies floated through the swirling chaos in my mind. The silence of the door slamming shut was broken by the soft clear voice of Mary Beth Perkins.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Russell Peacock."
Russell squirmed, but joked, "Yeah, I know, we couldn't get to the D.I. to buy the right clothes. I had to wear my sister's."
He scanned the crowd hoping to win a few laughs. No one in Mary Beth's line of vision dared snicker openly. In this school, Mary Beth ruled. She was destined to be prom queen for eternity…and she was nice. No, not nice; she was benevolent. Everybody would have loved to find some fault to despise in her to feel better about being so hopelessly inferior. But she was just too good. Not self-righteous, holier-than-thou good…She was more "C'mon-let's-all-play-together," good. Mary Beth broke all the rules of popularity. She never excluded anyone, and yet everyone wanted to be her friend. She handed out friendship like lollipops at the bank.
I popped up, dropped my tray on the counter, and rushed out after Margaret. Mary Beth would handle Russell. Unfortunately, she'd also make him feel better about being the weasel he was. I couldn't help turning to cast at least one stone at the viper, if only with my eyes. As it struck, Russell's uncertain grin turned to a triumphant smirk. I had seen that smile before in a dark place on the face of a beast. I caught up with Margaret at the edge of the side parking lot.
"Margaret, I'm so sorry."
"It's okay," she replied softly.
"It's not okay." I searched for the right words, knowing they couldn't be found. "They don't know you like I do," I offered sadly.
"I know. There's not many of them I really want to know better anyway." Margaret paused for a moment. I still didn't know what to say. I'd had my share of humiliation-I had pointed ears for goodness sake, but that didn't make me any expert on dealing with it. "I'm glad you're my friend. You're not like them; you're the only one who ever asked to sit by me," she added, with a brave attempt at a smile.
I felt worse. "It's my fault, you know. The only reason he does it is because he hates Jack and Will and me; but he's afraid of Jack." I sighed. "Even Will's too popular for Russell to tease."
"It's not your fault, Jane. We don't have much money to buy nice clothes and cool stuff, and I know my hair is a mess, but I don't know what to do with it. My gramma gave up a long time ago."
"Don't you see? None of that matters. He's only mean to you because you're my friend. If I were any kind of a friend back, I'd find some way of giving him what he deserves," I responded bitterly.
"No, you wouldn't. Then you would be as mean as he is. My gramma always says 'Meanness is a sticky business. When you give it back, you always find some of it stuck to your fingers.' We have to be patient and hope they grow out of it."
"You're much too kind, Margaret. Russell will never grow out of it. Besides, people are supposed to be punished for acting badly. He's not even going to get in trouble. Even if he did get expelled, there's only a week of school left; he'd just be getting an early summer vacation."
"Really, Jane, it's okay," Margaret assured me.
"But it's not okay. I mean…your mother . She's dead."
Copyright © 2007 Rachel DeFriez