Thursday, we had a substitute. Mrs. Jonesbury’s daughter got sick and needed her to take care of her kids and stuff. No one knew how long she’d be gone. Maybe the rest of the year. Or, at least, some of us hoped for that.
Miss Kassell looked a lot younger than Mrs. Jonesbury. But she didn’t want to be called Ms. Kassell.
Ms.—Mzzz—sounded like a hive of angry bees to her.
We laughed at that. Personally, it didn’t matter what she wanted to be called. With her friendly smile and sparkling brown eyes, all I could think of was that maybe the rest of the year would be a bunch more fun than the beginning had been.
That had been when Ralph Henry’d entered the picture. If only there was a way to take him out of it. I wouldn’t let myself dwell a nanosecond on Jerri’s scheme.
Was a plan doomed to failure—didn’t matter how much talking and planning went on for it. I tried not to think of rocket ships and super novas, either. But the perfect daydream of him drifting off into space never to be heard from again just was too sweet to pass up!
For he wasted no time trying to impress Miss Kassell.
“Hey, let me erase the board! I’m the best at that! And I can pass out papers too quicker than anyone! My old teacher said I was the best teacher’s assistant ever! I can do everything faster!”
Miss Kassell’s gaze held a familiar quality. Just like everyone else’s when they’ve had enough of his mouth. “Thank you, Ralph Henry but I think I’d like to find out how good the other children are as well,” she said with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “You can all take turns, okay? I’ve read over Mrs. Jonesbury’s notes and I notice some of you have very special talents. Lyn Marie Driscoll, for instance, is a wonderful artist and she also writes poetry. Would you like to tell me about that?”
Lyn Marie, The Size Of A Pea turned bright pink and tried to disappear behind Ralph Henry. The shyest kid in the world, she hated to be called on or have someone pay her any attention. Except for me and Jerrianna. And Micky and Rachel. Although she didn’t really seem to like Micky much. She just kind of put up with him because of Jerrianna and me, I guess.
Kids picked on her because she was so little. I had five-year-old cousins bigger than she was! Other kids, especially the girls, kind of babied her. Some of the boys protected her. Some, like Micky, teased her and protected her both.
She was so shy, she wouldn’t sit up front where she wouldn’t have to look around people to see what was going on. Mrs. Jonesbury put her in the first seat of her row the first day of school.
Poor kid nearly had a heart attack! She couldn’t breathe and she cried so that Mrs. Jonesbury let her go back to where she sat before—with Jerrianna on the left side of her and Rachel on the right. Guess she felt safest there even though Ralph Henry sat in front of her. Me, I sit in the first row on the other side of Rachel and behind Micky.
Mrs. Jonesbury thought it was necessary to separate Jerri and me by miles. She would have liked by classrooms but Mom sided with us and the answer was NO! Neither of us wanted to be stuck with Mr. Bausch for a whole year!
We all informed Miss Kassell of Lyn Marie’s shyness, and she fiddled with her pen a moment then wrote something on the paper. “Ah, I see! Well, we’ll have to work on convincing you that we’d love to hear about your work and listen to a poem one day soon! Jerrianna Kingsley . . . you write short stories. Are you a shy one as well?”
Everyone cracked up laughing at that. Jerrianna wasn’t one bit shy. She loved getting up before the class and reading her stuff. She acted them out, too.
Even kids who were jerks wanted to be in her stories. She put them in, too. I wouldn’t have. They didn’t deserve a place in my precious pages! Not that mine were as good as hers. That isn’t the point though.
“Do you have anything to share with us today?” Miss Kassell asked.
“Well, I’m working on one,” Jerrianna said. “It’s not ready yet.”
“What have you been writing all this time I’ve been talking?”
“Spelling words. I’ve written the sentences we were supposed to do for them.”
“Really? You can share those with us tomorrow when I ask for them. Let’s see, and Benny Goodson. Your special talent is math. After which, says Mrs. Jonesbury’s notes, you sleep the rest of the day.”
Benny lifted up one finger in protest. “Well, not when Jerri reads her stuff. I’m awake then! And for lunch and recess.” Like those were all good points in a resume.
“I’m awake all day, Miss Kassell!” Ralph Henry bounced in his chair. He couldn’t sit still if someone pasted his pants to the seat. “I’m good in math, too! But I’m best in science!”
“I’m sure you are, Ralph Henry.” Miss Kassell replied. “Why don’t you all take out your books now, and we’ll call Ralph Henry’s bluff.”
Just our luck he happened to have actually read the section and had done the questions we were supposed to do last night.
I knew Jerrianna had done it, too, but she just sat as quiet as Lyn Marie for this period. Scribbling away. Answered only if Miss Kassell called on her. Since she actually could focus on both her writing and the lesson, probably Miss Kassell thought she was taking notes or something.
Benny stayed awake for this class and for math. Then he dozed off.
Between trying to keep Benny awake and Ralph Henry in his seat, Miss Kassell had her hands full. Actually, today she was lucky. Today, he wasn’t pretending to be anything more than a pain in the neck! He might have decided to be a lion tamer or a spy or whatever else his crazy imagination thought up. Really, he could have probably acted out Jerri’s stories if they were plays.
Lucky for Miss Kassell, the rest of us liked her enough not to pull the usual tricks we pulled on a substitute teacher.
When the bell for lunchtime rang, we lined up at the door in fairly decent order.
“Well, Miss Kassell,” observed Mr. Bausch, the other fifth-grade teacher, “I see you’re handling these gremlins rather well. I haven’t had to bang on the wall once this morning!”
Miss Kassell smiled a little, replying, “The novelty is bound to wear off. They’ll be themselves tomorrow.”
“Get them in order now, then. You’ll be sorry if you don’t!” he said as he motioned for his class to head out down the hallway. They marched off like they were part of a military troop. Didn’t look left or right or whisper a sound as they went. They risked detention for a week if they did.
“They call him Colonel,” I informed her.
“I’ll bet they do! All right, class, go quietly along!”
Which everyone did except Ralph Henry. Miss Kassell caught up to him, tapped him on the shoulder. “You’re not the best at this, are you?”
He turned red and settled down. Huh! Mrs. Jonesbury could never get him to walk civilized as she liked to say. Maybe Miss Kassell had some special talent herself, like knowing how to turn idiots like Ralph Henry into living, breathing humans.
Once we were in the cafeteria, Miss Kassell left us to go out in the hallway to talk to our principal, Mr. Frye, for a few minutes.
Right away Ralph Henry started picking on Jerrianna. “Your stories aren’t that great, Jerri-berry. Anybody can write stories. I could write really good ones if I wanted to!”
“Yeah? So, write one!” Jerrianna challenged him.
“Don’t want to! Got other things to do.”
“Then you can’t say yours would be better than mine.”
“They would be.”
Jerrianna looked like she wanted to choke him. “If you don’t write any stories, Ralph Henry, you don’t know how good they’ll be. Just saying it doesn’t make it true.”
“He doesn’t want to write any because he knows they’d stink!” Micky declared. “You brag a lot, Ralph Henry Dalton but we don’t see nothing to back up the boasts! Means nothing just like Jerrianna says.”
“Ho! I could write better than any of you with my eyes closed and no pen in my hand!”
“What a dummy! You can’t write without a pen!”
“Can use a keyboard! Got the best computer ever built! And if I use the speech program I don’t need a pen!”
“Then what’s stopping you from writing, Ralphie?” Rachel demanded. “An empty brain?”
“I got the best grades in the whole school at my old school. So, my brain isn’t as empty as yours!”
“Oh, brother! Your vocabulary sentences are pretty dumb, you know it? Mine aren’t good either. So, I’m not stupid enough to go saying Jerrianna’s stink. She’s really good at thinking stuff up. You’re just jealous!”
Ralph Henry snorted, giggled, and then plain burst out laughing. He doubled over holding his belly. Micky shoved him. Ralph Henry shoved him back.
Ms. Duckworth, the chubby cafeteria monitor, hustled over—as fast as someone waddling like a duck could hustle—and separated them.
“You want to sit with your friends, Mr. Cooper? Mr. Dalton? You two will be sitting at my table if you don’t behave yourselves!”
“Take him! He started it!” Micky blustered.
“I’ll take you both! I see that sort of behavior again from you boys and you’ll be sitting with me for the rest of the year!” She held their gazes for a few seconds just to be sure they knew she meant business and then went off to squash a food fight at the other end of the cafeteria.
The line inched forward. All the way through it, Ralph Henry yakked about anything he could think of that would make him look better than the rest of us.
If his family didn’t have or do something better than we did, he knew a million other people who did. Most of ‘em related to him. All his relatives seemed to be bestselling authors too, and everyone in his family had IQ’s of 275 or more. They had the most interesting jobs—besides writing books—and his parents did interior decorating for the most wealthy and famous people in the world. Which they’d written books about.
Of course, all of this stuff we’d heard ten zillion dillion times before—except for the writing part. That was new. Just the same, all of us were ready to blast him into space by the end of lunch.
No one dared to say anything about wanting to, though. He’d just do something to make Ms. Duckworth notice us, and we’d be in trouble. He didn’t seem to care that he’d be in trouble, too. Didn’t even seem to cross his mind, actually.
“Wish we could do something about him,” Micky grumbled later at recess. “Something that’d make him feel smaller than Lyn Marie! But what’s smaller than something the size of a pea?”
“Cut it out, Micky!” Jerrianna ordered. She put her arm around little bitty Lyn Marie. “People who say stuff like that are smaller than a flea! Smaller than an amoeba! I’ve got a plan. I was going to tell you about it, but now I won’t!”
“Yeah, sure you do!”
“I do. But—tough! You’re out of it!”
“Jerri,” I spoke up, “Mom and Dad said we’d talk about it. They didn’t say you could definitely do it!”
Well, those words fueled Micky’s interest. If my parents knew about it and said they’d talk more about it then it must be worth his time, too.
But Jerrianna wouldn’t tell him a word.
She just walked away with Lyn Marie and Rachel, and joined some other girls who were jumping rope. Micky and I kept walking toward the ball field.
“So, what’s her plan, Jeoff? Must be one that’s actually doable! Although I wouldn’t mind sending the jerk to the moon or somewhere way, way, way, way, away!”
“Yeah, me too! The further the better! How about the Delta Quadrant?” We were Star Trek fans, me and my family. Micky, too.
“Is that far enough?” He thought about it a second. “Maybe. So—what’s her plan, my man?”
I had hoped he’d be sidetracked by the Star Trek reference, but of course, it didn’t work. “Uh—I can’t say.”
Micky backhanded my shoulder. “Hey! Come on, I’m your best friend! Best friends are loyal to each other!”
“Yeah, well, twins are loyal to each other, too. And don’t tell me it doesn’t count if it’s a sister! She doesn’t tell anyone stuff I don’t want her to, so don’t try making me!”
“Yeah, well, probably your parents will find something wrong with her plan, and we’ll have no choice but to blast His Bragginess into space!”
Leaving the blacktop area of the playground, we joined the kickball game going on in the ball field. Mr. Bausch had charge of that while Miss Kassell patrolled the blacktop area where besides the jump rope games, other kids played dodge ball or tag or hopscotch. Another bunch of girls formed a circle, started performing an intricate hand clapping thing in time to a catchy chant. I let it fill my ears so I wouldn’t have to pay so much attention to Micky’s begging.
For a while, Micky concentrated on the game when our team played out on the field. Soon’s we put the other team out, though, he started in on me as we trucked toward the dugout. “Look, she doesn’t have to know you told. Just give me a hint!”
“I don’t know . . .”
“Jeoff, we’re friends. Best buddies. Come on!”
“So? She and I are from the same family. You get to go home. I am home!”
“I’ll keep it secret! Really. If the plan’s good, I’m on her side. And, look, you know I don’t mean anything when I tease the Pea. It’s just kind of fun to watch her turn such a hot pink. Really, she’s okay. Honest. I mean that!”
“Go tell her!”
He ignored that. “Jeoff! Just a hint! We been friends since preschool, we’re practically brothers!”
Well . . . put like that . . .
Seeing he’d taken down my defenses with that reasoning, he chipped away at them some more. “Brothers are closer than best friends. Should be closer than a sister even. Even a twin!”
I cracked. I shouldn’t have, but . . . “Okay.” Taking a deep breath, I blurted, “It involves air hockey, my mom, and a cat.”
He drew back slightly as if I were speaking Japanese or something. “Air hockey . . . your mom . . . and a cat. What cat? You don’t have a cat.”
I decided that I’d given him enough of a hint. Decided, too, that he didn’t need to know the whole story about Malley. Too late, I realized the advantage of keeping a secret weapon secret. Even from practically brothers.
If he happened to connect the dots, figure out we now had a cat who could supposedly play air hockey like a champ, he’d think the idea was as crazy dumb as I did. He’d lose it and tell everyone. That was one of Micky’s worst faults. Blowing up and acting way before his brain kicked in.
We’d be back at square one—if we’d actually ever left it to begin with.
Our class beat Mr. Bausch’s class 5-1. Ralph Henry threw taunts at them until Mr. Bausch threatened to have him held after school for a week to learn good sportsmanship. Didn’t shut him up. The end of the period bell drilled though the air, and Miss Kassell came to drag him away before Mr. Bausch could make good on his threat.
“But we were the best players, Miss Kassell! They really stink!”
“You really don’t need to stand there and rub it in their faces, Ralph Henry. Someday, someone’s going to get tired of listening to you and challenge you. And that someone will be the best at whatever it is, and he, or she, will make you wish that you had never opened your mouth in the first place!”
“Nobody’s gonna do that! They’re too scared to do that!”
“Yeah,” said Miss Kassell, planting him in line in front of me. “That’s what I thought once!”
For once, Ralph Henry shut his face completely.
“What?” Micky poked me. “What’s that mean? She was like him once?”
I stared at Miss Kassell’s retreating back. How could anyone that pretty and who seemed so cool ever have been anything like Ralph Henry Dalton? She couldn’t, I decided. “Nah. She just said that to shut him up.”
“Yeah. Worked, too. Maybe we could tell her about your sister’s plan! Hey, maybe she’d like to come watch!”
“Don’t be dumb. Teachers don’t come to kids’ houses. Besides we’re not ready enough yet.” Who wanted a teacher there to see a plan blow up in its creator’s face?
“Why not? Your mother’s a whiz at air hockey! She could make Superman cry mercy!”
He seemed to have forgotten there was also a cat involved.
I didn’t remind him. Probably take a month or so for Jerrianna to perfect her plan and convince Mom and Dad to give into it. No sense in losing pals before I absolutely had to.
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