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“She’s such a jerk,” Lindsey said, glaring across the playground at a tiny blonde girl and her curly-haired companion, who were shooting equally hate-laden looks toward us. Lindsey looked away disdainfully, her smooth, dark hair swishing down to form a curtain between her and the rest of the world. Her intense brown eyes turned on me, expecting an immediate agreement.
I nodded miserably, wishing I was back in my classroom, where Lindsey couldn’t get at me and I had a wonderful teacher to tell me about volcanoes. I liked volcanoes. I liked the way they stored up magma in a chamber underground, with layers and layers of rock on top, and when they were all full up and there was too much pressure, the least little earthquake could make the magma go shooting up to the top of the earth’s crust, where it spewed everywhere in rivers of lava.
Sometimes I wished I could shoot rivers of lava, too.
While I thought about volcanoes and lava, Lindsey kept talking. I tuned back in just in time to hear, “…do you think I should do?”
I think you should leave me alone, I thought. Out loud, I said, “Well, maybe you should just leave her alone. Like with macaroni and cheese that’s too hot. If you let it sit on the counter for a while, it cools off, but if you try to eat it right away, it burns your mouth.”
Lindsey favored me with a sardonic look. I had learned the word “sardonic” just the previous day, when I was looking through the dictionary for “sarcastic.” As it turned out, the two words were synonyms. Lindsey had made fun of me for using a dictionary. “Who cares what words mean?” she had asked sardonically, giving me my first opportunity to use my new expression. “Nobody uses dictionaries. You’re such a freak, Casey.”
Now, like I said, she gave me a sardonic look. “What are you talking about?” she scoffed, her voice dripping with scorn. “She’s going to burn my mouth? I’m not going to kiss her, stupid.” She turned away from me, folding her arms. I slumped a bit, sighing quietly. Lava would burn your mouth, I thought. If every time you said something mean, lava came out of your mouth, you would never be able to talk again.
A sturdy girl with light brown hair came stumping over to where we sat on the big metal irrigation pipe next to the fence. She stood in front of Lindsey with her hands behind her back in a kind of first-grade politeness. There was a long silence while Lindsey pretended she didn’t see the girl. Finally, Lindsey sneered, “Well?”
“She says that she doesn’t want to talk to you,” the girl replied immediately. “She says that you’re mean and she never wants to see you again.” Lindsey glared at her, and she looked down, shifting from foot to foot. “Sorry, Lindsey. That’s just what she said.”
“Fine,” snapped Lindsey, jumping down from the top of the pipe. “You tell her that I don’t care if she doesn’t want to see me again. She’s the one who’s wrong. I hate her.” She watched the blonde girl across the playground steadily. “And tell Story that I thought she was my friend.” The brown-haired messenger girl nodded and stumped off. Lindsey hopped back up onto the pipe, smiling smugly. “That’ll show her,” she said.
“Show her what?” I asked. The smile changed to a glare, and I deflated. I looked away, back out at the messenger girl, tugging absently at a strand of my orange hair. I liked my hair like I liked volcanoes. It was wild and orange, like magma, like I could turn it into whips of fire and burn away everything bad in my world. Lashing whips of fire would make people stop lashing out at me.
The messenger girl’s name was Bailey. The blonde girl was Andie, and the girl with wildly curly hair was Story. The five of us had been best friends practically since we were born. We had called ourselves “the Kitty-Cat Club” ever since I could remember, despite the fact that Bailey and I both hated cats. I had once put forth the idea of calling ourselves “the ee club,” but had received only blank looks. When I had tried to explain that it made sense, what with all of our names ending in an “ee” sound, I got a lot of eye rolls and sardonic comments.
I didn’t even know what Lindsey and Andie were fighting about this time. They did this about once a week, escalating a little argument into a huge fall-out full of cruel statements, cold silences and Bailey running back and forth as messenger.
Without warning, the harsh ringing of the school bell came shrilling from the squat brick buildings across the playground. I couldn’t hide the relief that washed across my face. Lindsey noticed, and turned her cruel attentions to me.
“Why do you look so happy?” she demanded, her brown eyes staring at me like a hawk’s. “You look like you want to go back to class.”
I swallowed guiltily. “It’s just… It’s just that I…” I trailed off under that icy stare. She looked as though she wanted to spit on me, but was way too cool to do so.
“You actually like school,” she sneered. “Nobody likes school. You’re such a freak, Casey.” There it was again, that awful phrase. You’re such a freak. I was such a freak. Such a blessedly odd, knowledge-loving freak.
“I don’t like school,” I blustered. “It’s boring. It’s just that it’s… it’s so hot out here.” I loved the heat. “I don’t like the heat.”
“And you don’t like Mr. Huggins, either, do you?” Lindsey asked, still watching me closely.
I liked Mr. Huggins. I liked learning math in his class. I liked hearing him read Junie B. Jones books during story time. I liked learning about volcanoes from his drawings on the chalkboard.
“Of course I don’t like Mr. Huggins. He’s….” My throat closed up, and I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t lie about Mr. Huggins, not when he was so nice.
“He’s what?” Lindsey asked. Her icy eyes bored into mine, freezing me where I sat.
“Mean!” I burst out. Mean, mean, mean, that’s what you are, I wanted to say, but couldn’t. So I left it hanging there.
Lindsey smiled. “Good,” she said. Without so much as a backward glance, she slipped off of the pipe and ran off. I watched her go, waiting until the duty teacher blew his whistle at me, and then I burst into the air and raced to my classroom. The kids were still lining up next to the wall when I arrived. I slouched into the back of the line just as Mr. Huggins opened the heavy metal door.
As I walked into the room, head hanging, one of Mr. Huggins’ big hands came down onto my shoulder. “Are you all right, Casey?” he asked me, leaning down from his enormous height to peer into my face. Guilt pinched my stomach, and my throat, and everything else in between. I only nodded. I slid away to my seat, where I looked down at the desk in silence.
The memory of Lindsey’s satisfied look kept crackling across my brain, making it impossible to concentrate. I gritted my teeth and squeezed my eyes shut. Maybe I was a freak. But worse, I was a coward. I had just proved that by betraying my teacher to save myself.
I hated doing what Lindsey said. I hated it with all my heart. Every time she made me say something that I didn’t want to say, or do something that I didn’t want to do, I could feel tears pressing up inside of me. Some day I knew I would let those tears go, scorching down my face like lava, and then maybe Lindsey would be sorry, and I would laugh like lava, too, hot and wild. But for now, I was stuck under Lindsey’s thumb, like magma in an underground chamber with rock on top, without any earthquakes to shake me free. I would have to wait, wait for the day when I could finally, finally erupt, shoot free and burn away everything bad in my world with rivers of hot, pure lava.