Rose McKenna stood against the wall in the noisy cafeteria, having volunteered as lunch mom, which is like a security guard with eyeliner. Two hundred children were talking, thumb-wrestling, or getting ready for recess, because lunch period was almost over. Rose was keeping an eye on her daughter, Melly, who was at the same table as the meanest girl in third grade. If there was any trouble, Rose was going to morph into a mother lion, in clogs.
Melly sat alone at the end of the table, sorting her fruit treats into a disjointed rainbow. She kept her head down, and her wavy, dark blond hair fell into her face, covering the port-wine birthmark on her cheek, a large round blotch like blusher gone haywire. Its medical term was nevus flammeus, an angry tangle of blood vessels under the skin, but it was Melly’s own personal bull’s-eye. It had made her a target for bullies ever since pre-school, and she’d developed tricks to hide it, like keeping her face down, resting her cheek in her hand, or at naptime, lying on her left side, still as a chalk outline at a murder scene. None of the tricks worked forever.
The mean girl’s name was Amanda Gigot, and she sat at the opposite end of the table, showing an iPod to her friends. Amanda was the prettiest girl in their class, with the requisite straight blond hair, bright blue eyes, and perfect smile, and she dressed like a teenager in a white jersey tank, pink ruffled skirt, and gold Candie’s sandals. Amanda wasn’t what people pictured when they heard the term “bully,” but wolves could dress in sheep’s clothing or Juicy Couture. Amanda was smart and verbal enough to tease at will, which earned her a fear-induced popularity found in elementary schools and fascist dictatorships.
It was early October, but Amanda was already calling Melly names like Spot The Dog and barking whenever she came into the classroom, and Rose prayed it wouldn’t get worse. They’d moved here over the summer to get away from the teasing in their old school, where it had gotten so bad that Melly developed stomachaches and eating problems. She’d had trouble sleeping and she’d wake up exhausted, inventing reasons not to go to school. She tested as gifted, but her grades hovered at C’s because of her absences. Rose had higher hopes here, since Reesburgh Elementary was in a better school district, with an innovative, anti-bullying curriculum.
She couldn’t have wished for a more beautiful school building, either. It was brand-new construction, just finished last August, and the cafeteria was state-of-the-art, with modern skylights, shiny tables with blue plastic seats, and cheery blue-and-white tile walls. Bulletin boards around the room were decorated for Halloween, with construction-paper pumpkins, papier-mâché spiders, and black cats, their tails stiff as exclamation points. A wall clock covered with fake cobwebs read 11:20, and most of the kids were stowing their lunchboxes in the plastic bins for each homeroom and leaving through the doors to the playground, on the left.
Rose checked Melly’s table, and was dismayed. Amanda and her friends Emily and Danielle were finishing their sandwiches, but Melly’s lunch remained untouched in her purple Harry Potter lunchbox. The gifted teacher, Kristen Canton, had emailed Rose that Melly sometimes didn’t eat at lunch and waited out the period in the handicapped bathroom, so Rose had volunteered as lunch mom to see what was going on. She couldn’t ignore it, but she didn’t want to overreact, walking a familiar parental tightrope.
“Oh no, I spilled!” cried a little girl whose milk carton tipped over, splashing onto the floor.
“It’s okay, honey.” Rose went over, grabbed a paper napkin, and swabbed up the milk. “Put your tray away. Then you can go out.”
Rose tossed out the soggy napkin, then heard a commotion behind her and turned around, stricken at the sight. Amanda was dabbing grape jelly onto her cheek, making a replica of Melly’s birthmark. Everyone at the table was giggling, and kids on their way out pointed and laughed. Melly was running from the cafeteria, her long hair flying. She was heading toward the exit for the handicapped bathroom, on the right.
“Melly, wait!” Rose called out, but Melly was already past her, so she went back to the lunch table. “Amanda, what are you doing? That’s not nice.”
Amanda tilted her face down to hide her smile, but Emily and Danielle stopped laughing, their faces reddening.
“I didn’t do anything.” Emily’s lower lip began to pucker, and Danielle shook her head, with its long, dark braid.
“Me, neither,” she said. The other girls scattered, and the rest of the kids hustled out to recess.
“You girls laughed,” Rose said, pained. “That’s not right, and you should know that. You’re making fun of her.” She turned to Amanda, who was wiping off the jelly with a napkin. “Amanda, don’t you understand how hurtful you’re being? Can’t you put yourself in Melly’s shoes? She can’t help the way she is, nobody can.”
Amanda didn’t reply, setting down the crumpled napkin.
“Look at that bulletin board. See what it says?” Rose pointed to the Building Blocks of Character poster, with its glittery letters that read CARING COMPASSION COMMUNITY, from Reesburgh’s anti-bullying curriculum. “Teasing isn’t caring or compassionate, and—”
“What’s going on?” someone called out, and Rose looked up to see the other lunch mom hurrying over. She had on a denim dress and sandals, and wore her highlighted hair short. “Excuse me, we have to get these girls out to recess.”
“Did you see what just happened?”
“No, I missed it.”
“Well, Amanda was teasing and—”
Amanda interrupted, “Hi, Mrs. Douglas.”
“Hi, Amanda.” The lunch mom turned to Rose. “We have to get everybody outside, so the kitchen can get ready for B lunch.” She gestured behind her, where the last students were leaving the cafeteria. “See? Time to go.”
“I know, but Amanda was teasing my daughter, Melly, so I was talking to her about it.”
“You’re new, right? I’m Terry Douglas. Have you ever been lunch mom before?”
“So you don’t know the procedures. The lunch moms aren’t supposed to discipline the students.”
“I’m not disciplining them. I’m just talking to them.”
“Whatever, it’s not going well.” Terry nodded toward Emily, just as a tear rolled down the little girl’s cheek.
“Oh, jeez, sorry.” Rose didn’t think she’d been stern, but she was tired and maybe she’d sounded cranky. She’d been up late with baby John, who had another ear infection, and she’d felt guilty taking him to a sitter’s this morning so she could be lunch mom. He was only ten months old, and Rose was still getting the hang of mothering two children. Most of the time she felt torn in half, taking care of one child at the expense of the other, like the maternal equivalent of robbing Peter to pay Paul. “Terry, the thing is, this school has a strict zero-tolerance policy against bullying, and the kids need to learn it. All the kids. The kids who tease, as well as the allies, the kids who laugh and think it’s funny.”
“Nevertheless, when there’s a disciplinary issue, the procedure is for the lunch mom to tell a teacher. Mrs. Snyder is out on the playground. These girls should go out to recess, and you should take it up with her.”
“Can I just finish what I was saying to them? That’s all this requires.” Rose didn’t want to make it bigger, for Melly’s sake. She could already hear the kids calling her a tattletale.
“Then I’ll go get her myself.” Terry turned on her heel and walked away, and the cafeteria fell silent except for the clatter of trays and silverware in the kitchen.
Rose faced the table. “Amanda,” she began, dialing back her tone, “you have to understand that teasing is bullying. Words can hurt as much as a punch.”
“You’re not allowed to yell at me! Mrs. Douglas said!”
Rose blinked, surprised. She’d be damned if she’d be intimidated by somebody in a Hannah Montana headband. “I’m not yelling at you,” she said calmly.
“I’m going to recess!” Amanda jumped to her feet, startling Emily and Danielle.
Suddenly, something exploded in the kitchen. A searing white light flashed in the kitchen doorway. Rose turned toward the ear-splitting boom! The kitchen wall flew apart, spraying shards of tile, wood, and wallboard everywhere.
A shockwave knocked Rose off her feet. A fireball billowed into the cafeteria.
And everything went black and silent.
Copyright © 2011 by Lisa Scottoline