ALEX RYAN TOOK THE LAST SEAT in the back row of the West Creek Middle School multipurpose room. It was the perfect seat. He would be able to make all the funny comments he wanted to the other seventh graders, well out of hearing of any parents or teachers. And he would be as far as possible from his dad. Alex’s dad always chose the center of the first row so that when he made his own comments he could stand up and turn around to address the entire audience. Alex hoped his dad wasn’t going to make any comments tonight. But he knew his dad would. He always did.
The West Creek principal, Dr. Stanley, walked up to the microphone. “Good evening, parents, West Creek seventh graders,” he said. The mike wasn’t working right, so his last words were drowned in a deafening high-pitched squeal.
“I guess he didn’t get his Ph.D. in audiovisual,” Alex said.
Sitting in front of him, Marcia Faitak giggled. She was an extremely pretty girl, with wavy dark hair and large blue eyes. Tonight, however, Alex could see that she had a pimple on her forehead that was covered by pink stuff and the artful arrangement of her bangs.
The music teacher hurried over to adjust something on the sound system.
“Let’s try this again,” Dr. Stanley said. “Good evening, parents, West Creek seventh graders. Can everybody hear me?”
“Yes,” some of the parents chorused.
“No!” Alex called out, though the mike was now working just fine. He couldn’t resist seeing what would happen. As a few parents turned around to see who had spoken, Alex put on an expression of dumb bewilderment. The two boys sitting closest to Alex, Ethan Winfield and Julius Zimmerman, were obviously trying not to laugh out loud. Dave Barnett gave a satisfying guffaw.
The music teacher stepped up to adjust the mike again.
“Is that better?” Dr. Stanley asked.
“Too loud!” a parent shouted.
“How’s this?” Dr. Stanley asked.
“Good!” The parents were sounding a bit impatient.
Alex restrained the urge to yell, “I still can’t hear!” Sometimes he and Dave competed with each other to see how much class time they could waste with worthless comments, but Alex didn’t think he could get away with any more right now.
“What?” Alex asked, just loudly enough for the back corner to hear. “Could you repeat the question?”
Dave burst out laughing and Marcia giggled again, but Alex thought Ethan and Julius were starting to look annoyed. They were best friends and reacted the same way to most things. Maybe the joke was becoming a bit stale. Alex decided to listen to what Dr. Stanley was trying to say.
“It is my pleasure to welcome you all to information night for the seventh-grade outdoor ed experience,” Dr. Stanley went on. “In less than two weeks we’ll be off to Elliot Ranch, from May twentieth to May twenty-third, for four days in the beauty of Colorado’s high country. The seventh-grade teachers are all coming with us—I think they’re starting to get some extra sleep, in preparation.”
Some of the parents laughed.
“So are we,” Alex said. “During math class.”
Dave joined in with a long, loud snore. The snore was an extra good one, and a number of the seventh graders burst out laughing. Alex was glad to see that Ethan and Julius were laughing this time, too.
“Every part of the curriculum has been integrated into outdoor ed this year,” Dr. Stanley said, sending a warning glance their way. “We’ll be collecting soil and water samples: science. Graphing our results: mathematics. Looking at ancient Indian ruins: social studies. Keeping nature journals: English, art. Have I missed anything? Oh, the kids are studying first aid in their family-living classes, which I hope they won’t need. And recipes for large-group cooking, which I know they will need. Our hikes will serve as P.E.”
It actually did sound like fun. Alex had hated the sleep-away camp he had gone to last summer, but it would be kind of cool to go away for four days with all the West Creek kids. And four days of outdoor ed was definitely preferable to four days of indoor ed. Alex loved being outdoors. The best part of his life was running with the track-and-field team.
Alex tuned out as Dr. Stanley explained the details of the program. Casting about for something to do, he gave a quick tug at Marcia’s hair, then swiftly resumed his expression of exaggerated innocence when she whirled around.
“I know that was you, Alex,” she said. She was plainly trying to act mad, but Alex knew she wasn’t really. The blue of her eyes exactly matched the blue of her tiny little tank top.
“What was me?”
Alex shrugged, as if to say: “I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about.”
When Marcia faced forward again, Alex gave another tug, this time to the wild, red curls of the girl sitting next to Marcia, tiny, brainy Lizzie Archer. Lizzie yelped and clutched her curls protectively. She didn’t turn around, but Marcia did. This time Marcia looked genuinely angry. Alex could tell that she didn’t mind if he pulled her hair, but she didn’t want him pulling another girl’s hair.
“Ethan did it,” Alex said.
“I did not!” Ethan protested.
“Boys,” the principal called out. “Settle down back there.” To the parents, he said, “I think these kids are ready for outdoor ed now. All right, parents, any questions?”
Lots of hands shot up, including Alex’s dad’s. Alex hated it when his dad spoke up at school meetings. Usually the questions started with some supposedly amusing remark about “my son, Alex,” which Alex didn’t find amusing at all. He knew his dad prided himself on coming to school events, even though he was a super-busy lawyer in downtown Denver. Sometimes Alex wished he’d stay at his office instead, especially on the track-meet days.
Luckily, Dr. Stanley called on another parent first, a mother who asked about the cost of the program and if there was any financial aid available. Alex didn’t recognize her, but he could only imagine how embarrassed her kid must feel. Why didn’t she just scream at the top of her lungs, “We’re poor! We’re poor!”
“How much adult supervision will there be?” another mom asked.
“We plan on having at least one parent for every twelve students,” Dr. Stanley said. Alex hoped one of the parents wouldn’t be his dad.
Then Alex heard Dr. Stanley call on his father. He steeled himself for what would come next.
Sure enough, his father turned to face the audience, as Alex had known he would. “I have three questions,” he said. Alex could have predicted that, too. Once his father had the floor, he held on to the floor.
“First, West Creek’s standardized test scores this year lagged behind East Creek’s by three percentile points. Don’t you think instructional time should be spent building test-taking skills rather than traipsing around in the woods, scribbling in ‘nature journals’?”
The principal gave a long, droning answer to that one. Through it all, Alex’s dad looked mildly amused, as if to say, “Gotcha!”
“Second, how much taxpayer money is paying for this?”
Dr. Stanley gave another long-winded answer that didn’t seem to satisfy Alex’s dad.
“Third, don’t you think four days is too long for some of the kids? The last time my son, Alex”—here it came—“went to a sleep-away camp, he called home partway through, begging us to come and get him.” He gave a low chuckle. Some of the other parents joined in appreciatively. “I mean, we’re talking about kids here who still sleep with teddy bears, some of them.”
Alex felt himself flushing a painful, dull red. He hadn’t begged to come home from the camp last summer; he had asked. And that camp had been awful: all the other kids had seemed to know everybody, and he hadn’t known anybody, and he had gotten off to a bad start with this one mean counselor on the first day.
And he didn’t sleep with Mr. Bear, he just had him on his bed. Under his bed, usually. Mr. Bear didn’t count as a teddy bear. He was more like a punching bag, when Alex needed to hit somebody. Or a pillow, when Alex needed something to squeeze. His mother called Mr. Bear a “comfort object.” She had an old stuffed bunny as her comfort object. Alex’s seventeen-year-old sister, Cara, had Kirsten, her favorite American Girl doll. Everybody in Alex’s family had a comfort object, except for Alex’s dad.
His dad didn’t need comfort objects, but everyone who lived with him did. There was food for thought there.
“I think our students are ready for this,” Dr. Stanley replied. “And certainly parents are more than welcome to join us. And teddy bears, too,” he added with a smile.
Now they would all think Alex slept with a teddy bear. He waited for one of the guys to make a crack. Alex knew what he would have said if one of their parents had made the teddy bear remark. “What’s your bear’s name, Zimmerman?” “Have you been sewing lots of cute little clothes for your teddy, Winfield?” “How’s Teddy-Weddy, Barnett?” None of the guys said anything. Alex had a terrible thought: they felt sorry for him.
Finally Dr. Stanley called on another parent. Alex didn’t listen to the question.
Marcia turned around. “I sleep with a bear, too,” she confided. “His name is Puffles.”
Puffles? I sleep with a bear, too?
Dave couldn’t hold back any longer. “What’s your bear’s name, Alex? Wuffles?”
Alex tried to think of something funny to say, something that would make clear to the others that he didn’t sleep with a teddy bear, had never slept with a teddy bear, and never would sleep with a teddy bear. For once, his gift for comedy failed him.
As Marcia turned toward Lizzie, she touched her bangs on their strategic place over the pimple on her forehead. Even though Alex knew Marcia had only been trying to help, he had to lash out at somebody. He couldn’t just sit there, in utter humiliation and shame.
“Hey, Faitak,” Alex said, loud enough for the others to hear.
“I think you have some kind of a puffle on your forehead. Is that a beesting? Or an insect bite? Or—wait—it couldn’t be a zit, could it?”
Marcia stared at him. Then her face crumpled. She jumped up from her folding chair, pushed her way to the aisle, and ran out into the hall.
Great. Girls couldn’t take a joke. But the stricken look on Marcia’s face had given Alex a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. He felt even worse, if that were possible, than he had before.
“What did you say to her?” Ethan asked. Ethan could get on this knight-in-shining-armor kick, where it was his mission to rescue all damsels in distress—usually from remarks made by Alex. There was a time when Ethan was always rescuing Lizzie. Now, apparently, he was going to start rescuing Marcia.
Alex thought fast. The best defense is a good offense, his dad liked to say. “All I said was, ‘I think Ethan Winfield likes you.’”
“Right,” Ethan said.
Alex knew that Ethan and Julius didn’t really like him. It wasn’t as if he liked them all that much, either. Despite the Wuffles remark, he and Dave were pretty good friends, and the girls liked him, too, especially Marcia. Or at least she used to. Why had he made that stupid crack about her pimple? He wouldn’t have done it if his dad had known when to quit.
Alex didn’t want to go away with these kids for four days to outdoor ed, with everybody asking him why he hadn’t brought his dumb bear. He wanted to transfer to a different school, in a different state. And with a different family. Well, maybe he’d keep his mother and sister. But he wanted a different father. A different father, definitely.