“No!” Seefer Elliot shot up from his pillow holding his hands over his eyes. “I’ll get up. I’ll get up.”
His mom walked away from the window having just thrown open the curtains. Seefer curled up in a ball trying to shield his blinded eyes. The sun’s rays shined into his room with a brilliant luminosity.
“Please…my blanket…I need it.”
Mom had pulled the blanket away five minutes earlier – her first attempt of getting him out of bed. Her maneuver proved to be unsuccessful and required a more convincing means of execution.
“Honey, if you were responsible enough to wake up the first time, I wouldn’t be forced to use such cruel measures,” she said. “You should learn to set your alarm.”
Mom shot him a look of disbelief as she headed out the door.
“I really did! You never believe me.” Seefer didn’t understand how this could happen. He did actually set the alarm. Was the volume on too low? Was it set for 7 p.m. instead of 7 a.m.? He looked over at the clock on his nightstand. The power was on, but something was peculiar.
The hour slot flickered between 7 and 8, while the minutes didn’t look like numbers at all. Upon closer inspection, Seefer got a whiff of something burning. It smelled like a crayon melting on a radiator, not the most pleasant odor.
He mumbled, “Broken. See?” But his mom was nowhere near to behold the proof. There was no surprise in seeing yet another electronic device break in his house. It seemed to happen quite a bit lately.
Seefer remained in bed for a few minutes looking around his room. I can’t get up! Posters of superheroes plastered his walls. I bet their moms don’t pry them out of bed for school. While Seefer’s interests weren’t too peculiar for a 12-year-old boy, they often clashed with his schoolmates who’d rather follow their favorite sports teams instead of the latest adventures of Captain Quasar.
He flipped on the clock’s radio switch. Luckily that function still worked. He had the radio set to a local rock station that pumped classics over the airwaves. He put his arms behind his head and enjoyed the moment of peace. I could stay here all day. His preference for these old rock anthems served as another point of contention between him and the other students who’d rather crank bubblegum pop through their ear buds.
His volatile relationship with his peers added to the many reasons that inhibited his excitement for school. Particularly a day like today. Not only was it a Monday, but a crisp November chill had set in. The house heat hadn’t been turned on yet, so Seefer’s blanket was his greatest comfort. Unfortunately, that was ripped away. To make matters worse, the clocks fell back the day before. His body hadn’t adjusted well to waking up with the sun shining brightly before 6 a.m. It’s unnatural and cruel!
At least one thing kept him looking forward to the day. Harrison Middle School would be hosting its annual Spirit Day, when fun activities and events would replace some of the mundane schoolwork. Since starting the 7th grade at Harrison, Seefer had been looking forward to it. All of the 8th graders talked about the amazing feats of last year’s guests, the Percelli Brothers’ Flying Acrobatic Circus. He hoped that this year’s guest, Korvus the Magnificent, would top that. From the rumors going around, it looked like that would happen.
Students also were encouraged to wear the school colors, orange and grey. He found an outfit that fit the criteria and made his way down to breakfast.
Mom had his favorite cereal, Choco Balls, ready for him on the table. He happily bounced into his seat while his mom scurried around the kitchen getting ready for her day. Something caught her eye that threw her off track. “Seefer?” She stared at him with a look of disbelief.
“Weren’t you wearing that stuff yesterday?” she asked knowing the answer.
“Yes?” he responded, not quite sure of the answer.
“Yes you were. Look at yourself. You are completely wrinkled. You have some kind of stain on the front of your shirt, soiled knees, and I’m sure if I came closer I would smell day-old socks.”
Seefer looked at his outfit and realized that he may have made some oversights in his wardrobe choice. He had on his orange and black button down shirt tactically untucked from his grey cargo pants, but he missed the stains that his mom saw.
“But I have to wear these colors today. This is all I have.”
“Seefer, I know you at least have one orange T-shirt somewhere. You have to start being more responsible. I shouldn’t have to tell you that you look and smell like a railway hobo. And at your age, I shouldn’t have to rip you out of bed.”
“But my clock…”
“Blaming your lateness on an alarm clock is not going to fly with me. Was it your alarm clock that kept you up until eleven reading comic books?”
Seefer was caught off guard. She knew about that? “Sorry, Mom,” he conceded.
“Never mind that. Hurry up so you can get new clothes on. You can’t miss the bus this morning. I have a showing to get to before I pick you up for your doctor appointment.”
“Doctor appointment?” he replied in disbelief. “But it’s Spirit Day. I can’t miss it.”
“You won’t miss much. It’s just a quick check up. They have to keep tabs on you.” She walked over and picked up the coffee pot. It was empty. “Ugh. Why doesn’t anything work in this house?!”
Seefer slurped up his food quickly and ran out of the kitchen. He didn’t want to be around his mom while she was mad and without coffee.
Seefer dug through his drawers looking for something wearable. He found the orange T-shirt his mom was talking about but soon realized she forgot that it was three years old, didn’t fit him, and also had a popular children’s cartoon drawn on it. Surely she was crazy for suggesting it.
He decided to change into some black pants and a grey T-shirt. He stuffed the stained orange button-down into his backpack, and hurried downstairs. He thought he would rub out the stain in the school bathroom and be good to go.
“Seefer! Let’s go! You’re going to miss the bus!”
He looked out the window and saw the bus in the distance. It never came to his house directly, so he had to stand at the end of the cul-de-sac in order to catch it. The town of Camden wasn’t particularly good at providing its young residents with reliable transportation. This made for a huge inconvenience on days Seefer ran late.
He rushed downstairs and saw his mom standing at the open front door.
“C’mon!” She waved him through like a third base coach sending a runner home, then handed him a note. “Drop this off at the principal’s office.”
He landed a quick peck on her cheek and darted out the door in a full sprint. Bus 31 waited just past the stop sign at the end of the road. Not being the greatest athlete, Seefer found running an eighth of a mile a very difficult task this early in the morning. Today he was forced to race, his backpack flailing from side-to-side with each awkward stride.
As he ran past two houses, with two to go, he began to tire. “Wait for me!” he yelled. The bus driver didn’t notice him; however, there were some kids at the back of the bus who could plainly see Seefer sprinting.
Seefer saw Hector Ramirez waving to the bus driver, reassuring him that no one was coming. He hated Hector and for good reasons such as this.
The bus driver, distracted by his obsessive cell phone use, ignored his duties and took the children’s word that nobody was at the stop. He shut the door to the bus. Seefer, with only thirty yards to go, saw the devilish grin on Hector’s face as he looked out the back window.
“Stop the bus!” he yelled.
His plead only ignited a group of hecklers. And then, true to his clumsy form, Seefer’s foot landed in a pothole that sent him flying onto the asphalt. As he lay on the ground with scraped knees and pebbles stuck in his hand, and heard the uproar of laughter emanating from the departing bus.
Hector slid down the bus window and shouted, “Nice one, Seef!”
Seefer’s blood reached a boiling point. He pounded the pavement. “Miffle!” He had never been one to handle his anger well, and this episode was no exception. Since he was very young, Seefer had always let frustrating situations get the best of him. He usually found a way to break, throw or physically beat something nearby. However, when faced with a challenge in front of kids he was supposed to be cool in front of, he would bottle up the rage.
He picked himself up, turned away from the bus and began to head back to the house. Even though he appeared to play it off, his heart raced underneath. He choked on embarrassment and fury, rethinking the whole situation. Why did I let myself fall? Why didn’t I wake up earlier? But before his thoughts went too far, he heard a loud mechanical thud.
When he turned around, he saw the bus had broken down. Steam poured out of its engine. Seefer smirked, thinking that justice had been served. Just as his moment was getting a little bit better, he saw his mom standing outside of the house with raised arms.
“What the heck, Seef? You missed it?”
“It wasn’t my fault. The bus broke down.”
“Well, whatever the case, I’m going to be late for my showing,” she said annoyed. “Hop in the car.”
The Elliots pulled up to Harrison Middle School and noticed all of the students filtering into the building with prevalent orange colors.
“So you decided against the T-shirt?” mom asked.
“Mom, that shirt is for like a nine-year-old. I don’t even know why I still have it.”
“I certainly don’t have the heart to throw it away. You used to look so cute in it,” she said fondly, resisting the urge to pinch his cheek.
She softened. “Seefy, I know I get on your case sometimes, but I just want you to know that I want you to live up to your potential. You need to be more responsible.”
Seefer, looking down and away, was impatiently waiting for her to finish her morning lesson. Even though she was icing it up, he could sense criticism coming.
She continued, “Do you understand how your actions affect others? Because you stayed up late, and couldn’t wake up on time, I’m going to be late for work.”
“Can we just save this for later?” he suggested with an attitude.
Seeing that she was not going to get through to him at the moment, she conceded. “Fine. You have a nice morning, okay? Remember to hand in the note. I’ll see you at 10.”
“Can’t wait.” Seefer left the car and started to walk away.
“Love you!” she shouted out of the cracked car window.
Mortified, Seefer turned around with a look like what are you doing?
She signed with her hands, “I love you.”
Some girls near Seefer giggled. He shrunk into his shirt and walked away. His mom drove away happily smiling to herself.
Seefer continued with his head down and walked as fast as he could into the school. It’s bad enough fitting in around here without my mom helping me look like a total tool.
Cassy Smith sat on a bench outside the school. She was decked out in bracelets, a headband, even sneakers to go with the Spirit Day theme. Orange and grey donned her from head to toe. She was quite hard to miss, but Seefer was so determined to get inside, he blew right past her.
He was not in the mood to talk to anyone at the moment, but he felt that Cassy shouldn’t bear the brunt of his bad mood. She was always good to him. Since getting acquainted at the beginning of the year, Cassy was the closest thing he had to a friend. Seefer didn’t have many before middle school – none, really. He welcomed having somebody who didn’t view him as a complete outcast, even if that person wouldn’t be his first choice as a friend.
Cassy was a bit dorky. She acted overzealously in response to things that were mundane to most people. Seefer remembered how excited she was when he lent her a scented colored pencil. She acted like she never saw one before. She laughed herself into stitches about its impracticality.
When they arrived at Harrison together, it seemed like a perfect fit. Seefer felt like he wouldn’t be able to shake his role as the freak, the caricature that followed him throughout elementary school. Here was a girl in Cassy who could care less. He surely couldn’t let her go, but always wondered why it was him she seemed to latch onto in the first place.
“Hey, Cass. Nice outfit.”
“Oh this? Just something I threw together,” she said gleefully.
“Really? You had all of this stuff lying around your house?”
“Well, since I went shopping for it on Saturday, sure,” she said. “I am so psychoed about Spirit Day! It is fun already. Look at everybody.”
“Psyched,” Seefer corrected. That was another thing Seefer liked about Cassy. She comically blurted out the oddest words now and then as if she didn’t fully grasp the English language.
The two entered the school.
“Where’s your orange, Seef?” she asked.
“I’ll put it on in a moment. I have to drop something off in the principal’s office.”
“Okay. I’ll see you.”
Seefer walked into the principal’s office with his dismissal note in hand. No one was at the secretary’s desk. While he waited, he pulled his orange button-down shirt out of his bag and put it on.
The encouraging posters on the wall provided some amusement during Seefer’s wait. One showed a bunch of kids laughing while reading a book. The poster read, “Reading is Fun!” Seefer rolled his eyes. “Okay. Guess I better read then,” he said with a laugh.
Another poster showed a weightlifter drinking a glass of milk. It read, “MILK: Be Mighty!” Seefer scoffed at it. He had drunk milk his entire life, but did not and probably would not ever look like that guy.
Tired of waiting, he left the note on the secretary’s desk. As he turned to leave, a voice called out. “Don’t leave it there, son. Come in, come in.” Principal Witik had popped his head outside his office and motioned Seefer to enter.
Principal Witik was a decent man, a portly fellow who bumbled around the hallways looking to have a good conversation with any student who would listen. Children usually redirected their paths to avoid a talk with Witik. Everyone had heard his stories, yet he would repeat them as if he was telling them for the first time.
Seefer knew what was coming, but it was too late. He was caught in the current and had to accept his fate. “Yes, Principal Witik?”
“Mr. Elliot, come in here for a moment. What seems to be the trouble?”
“No trouble, sir. I have to drop off a note. I’m leaving for a doctor’s appointment today.”
Reading the note, Witik said with disappointment, “Today of all days? Such a shame!”
“Hopefully I’m back in time for the assembly,” said Seefer.
“Still with the headaches?”
Seefer was surprised Principal Witik remembered some of his headache spells from the last few months. Mr. Witik always seemed so scatterbrained, but Seefer supposed that his frequent visits to the nurse’s station next door were probably enough for him to be familiar with the situation.
“No, a checkup…I think…I don’t know. My mom’s in charge of that stuff.”
“Ah, yes, well I know how it is. When I was a boy…”
Oh boy! Seefer sensed the beginning of a long Principal Witik story. Then a small miracle occurred – a knock at the door!
“Can I help you?” Principal Witik asked.
A man entered the room dressed in navy blue from head to toe. His uniform was soiled and stained, completely unpresentable. He held a folded pair of work gloves in his hand that he twisted nervously. His face looked as worn as his clothes, both were greasy and battered. “I am Pavo. Here about the…”
“The new custodian, of course!” Principal Witik interrupted. “I nearly forgot!” He summoned him into the room.
He turned to Seefer, “I’m sorry to cut you short. Thank you, son.”
Sorry? Seefer couldn’t be happier with the excuse to leave the office.
“No trouble, sir.” Seefer got up to leave, but Pavo made it difficult to get through the door. He stood there, stone-faced, barely acknowledging Seefer’s attempt to leave.
“Excuse me, sir.”
Pavo was in another place at that moment. He snapped out of his daze and let Seefer pass, but gave him a once over as he walked away.
Seefer overheard Principal Witik say as he left the office. “Pavo, my dear man, have a seat.”
When Seefer left the office, he bumped into Cassy, who was still waiting for him in the hallway. “What took you so long?” she asked. “Why is your shirt stained?”
“It’s nothing. Principal Witik got a hold of me.”
“Oh boy. His talks can be murderers,” she said.
“Killers,” Seefer corrected as they began walking to homeroom.
“Oh right. Luckily that guy came in. What did you have to do in there anyway?”
“I’m leaving for a few hours today,” he said sadly.
“You’re going to miss Korvus the Magnificent?”
The thought of missing the assembly ate at Seefer. From what he’d heard, Korvus the Magnificent was one of the greatest acts in the entire state. He dazzles the crowd with hypnosis tricks, lasers, and science experiments that cause explosions.
“My mom thinks I’ll be back before it starts,” he said.
They arrived at class. The room was about three quarters full at the moment and their teacher, Mrs. Cody, shuffled through stacks of paper. She was a younger woman who had kids of her own. Seefer liked her because she often called in for a substitute due to scheduling problems with her babysitter. She was also a decent teacher and kind of nice, too.
Seefer sat down at his desk in the row nearest the window. Cassy veered off to her place three spots behind him.
As they settled in, the students from Bus 31 filtered into the classroom. A couple of girls looked annoyed, while some of the boys were excited by the morning’s events. Hector was the last one to enter. His desk was one over and one back from Seefer’s. Naturally, this seat arrangement was the source of great anxiety to Seefer, who always felt like he was being watched.
Seefer’s neighbor, Jona Miller, asked Hector, “Where’ve you been, Hec?”
Hector, with a suspicious look at Seefer, answered, “Bus broke down.”
“What are you looking at me for?” Seefer asked.
“Because things always seem to go wrong around you, Seef,” Hector speculated. “I saw you run for the bus, take a huge digger, and the next thing I know we’re all stuck on the side of the road.”
Hector’s suspicion wasn’t too far off. A pattern of trouble seemed to follow Seefer since they met. During the first week of school, Hector and his cronies cornered Seefer in a bathroom. His outwardly wimpy appearance and tendency to be a loner made him an easy choice to bully. When they had him surrounded and cowering, the automatic flushers on the urinals activated and sprayed the boys, drawing any attention away from Seefer. Even though the geyser of disgusting toilet water surprised Seefer also, he was cunning enough to slip out during the distraction.
Ever since that event, Hector has had his suspicions about him. He couldn’t put his finger on what exactly he didn’t like about him, but he simply hated anyone different than him. And Seefer was his antithesis.
“Oh yeah, Hector, I broke the bus and made you wait in the cold,” Seefer retorted with thick sarcasm. There were far worse things he’d like to do to Hector.
“Look, weirdo, just remember I’m always watching you,” Hector threatened.
Seefer, without a witty comeback, made a doofy face that mocked Hector’s mannerisms.
“That’s enough, boys,” Mrs. Cody said. Hector sat at his desk and Seefer stopped with the faces.
Mrs. Cody continued, “I know all of you are excited about the festivities today. In order to participate, we are going to have to be diligent in getting our work done this morning. Let’s all get our science books out now so we can begin immediately after the pledge.”
Taking the queue from their teacher, the students plugged their ears. The lousy PA system crackled and squealed before every morning session when Principal Witik’s voice boomed over the loudspeaker.
“Students of Harrison, good morning. Let us all rise for the Pledge of Allegiance. ‘I pledge allegiance…’”
Seefer seldom followed along with the Pledge. He found it more interesting to watch and time the raising of the flag. He would watch the selected person come out of the school and cross the white stone fringe of the flagstaff. That’s when the timing started. Then he’d stop once they left the area. The best time he’d seen this year was eight seconds.
Apparently, the new custodian, Pavo, had the honors this morning. He walked out to the flagpole, and crossed into the garden beneath it. He unfolded the flag, secured it to the rope’s clips, and raised it up the pole. He did pretty well for a newbie. Seefer was impressed, but he did notice something odd. Pavo had hung the flag upside down.
Does he not notice? Pavo looked at it as he anchored the rope. Apparently not, since he ignored it and walked back into the school. What a flub for a first day flag-raiser, Seefer thought. However, he did it in nine seconds. Not bad for his first time out.
“…and justice for all.”
The class finished the pledge of allegiance and sat down. Mrs. Cody didn’t miss a beat. “Okay, class. Page 78. We left off on Friday talking about differences between plant cells and animal cells. Can anybody give me a quick recap?”
Typical of the first class on Monday, only one student raised her hand. That one hand belonged to Sally Thompson, an enthusiastic girl at the front of the class who always strained herself trying to get chosen for answers.
“Okay, Sally,” said Mrs. Cody.
Sally started, “Well…plant cells have a hard exterior known as a cell wall. The cell wall…”
WOOM WOOM WOOM WOOM!
The classroom lights flickered followed by a pounding bass sound from the school PA system. The students in the room turned and stared at the room’s PA speaker with curious faces. Then everything stopped. The lights remained on. The bass noise disappeared.
“What the…?” Hector asked.
“Watch your language, Mr. Ramirez,” Mrs. Cody reminded Hector. “But to answer your question, I have no clue.”
The students remained paused waiting for something else to happen. When nothing more occurred, Mrs. Cody went back to business. “Okay, kids. Let’s cont–”
Suddenly a high-pitched sound blasted through the room. Everyone plugged their ears to avoid the ringing. The noise wasn’t exactly painful, but much like brakes on a train, it was loud and annoying.
That second noise ended quickly, and the students settled down, but it was only the start of more excitement in the class.
Cassy shouted out, “Mrs. Cody, I think something is wrong with Seefer!”