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Fiction by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Illustrations by Oscar Herrero
I slip into the lunchroom and grab an empty seat. I’d never dream of sitting with the cool kids, like Jared, who’s the star of the basketball team and gets A’s in, like, everything, or Lucy, who is the captain of the debate team and the girls’ track team.
I’m not the captain of or best at anything. I’m just a regular kid, trying to blend in. But that’s cool. I’ve got friends. One of them, Perry, is sitting across from me right now. He blows a straw wrapper in my direction, and when it hits my chin, we crack up.
Then I spy Owen, the new kid, holding his tray and looking anxiously around for a place to sit. I sure don’t want him sitting here, so I look away. Because added to the fact that Owen is awkward, has huge ears and is terrible at every single sport in the universe, he also stutters.
I hear him say, “I-i-is th-th-this s-s-seat t-t-taken?”
Whoever Owen was asking must have said the seat was taken, because Owen shuffles away. Once Owen is gone, I say to Perry, “I-i-is th-th-this s-s-seat t-t-taken?”
Perry smirks and so do Greg, Lucy and Jenna, who are at the table next to us. Jared happens to be walking by.
“Do it again, Max,” he says. This time I stand up, for full effect. Jared bursts out laughing. “Dude, you’re funny.”
He gives me a light punch on the shoulder. I feel a little bad about making fun of Owen. But Owen’s not around, so what’s the big deal? And anyway, that feeling is nothing compared to the rush I get from making Jared laugh.
The next day, Jared invites me to sit at the table with all the cool kids.
He asks me to do my Owen routine. So I do, and everyone roars, Lucy and Jared loudest of all.
For the next two days, my popularity is skyrocketing. Kids who never talked to me before are fist-bumping me in the hallways, and I’m picked first for volleyball at gym.
On Friday, Jared says, “It’s my birthday and I’m having a sleepover on Saturday. Want to come?”
“Sure.” It’s not cool to sound too eager.
But I’m excited. I’ve never been to Jared’s house, but I’ve heard all about it. There’s an in-ground swimming pool, a ping-pong table and a media room with a 52-inch TV.
All the popular kids will be there. All those kids — and me.
On Saturday, my mom drives me over. Jared’s house is as awesome as I imagined.
Jared’s mom is really nice and she leads me out to the patio, where the kids are hanging out. I check out the sparkling blue pool. Then I hear my name. Jared heads over.
“Hey, dude, s’up?” he says with a grin. I grin back. I’m nervous, but Jared’s greeting takes the edge off. It’s going to be OK, I tell myself. It’s going to be fine.
And for a while, it is. We splash around in the pool. We eat the three kinds of pizza Jared’s mom ordered, and later, the fudge cake she baked. Then we head downstairs where, for the first time in my life, I win at ping-pong.
It’s getting late and although I would never admit it, I’m tired. But Jared’s got two movies ready to play. One is about space aliens in the 23rd century, and the other is a World War II thriller. If I doze off, no one will notice.
Only, instead of clicking the remote to start the movie, Jared pulls out his iPhone and turns to me. “Max, you’re up.”
“Up?” I’m confused.
“Before we watch the movies, we’re going to make one. And you’re the star.”
“I don’t get it.” I’m not tired any more. Not a bit.
“You know. That thing you do. About Owen.”
“Oh,” I say, understanding all at once. “That.”
“Yeah,” Jared says. “That.”
“I don’t know. …” So Jared wants me to mimic Owen.
And now he wants to record it, too.
“What’s the big deal, dude? Just do it so I can capture it for posterity.” He holds the phone aloft.
“And then what?”
“Then we Snapchat it. It’ll be hilarious.” He lets out a cackle and the other guys join in.
“What if Owen sees it?” I ask.
“What if Owen sees it?” mimics Jared. “That’s the point, you jerk. That’s what makes it hilarious.”
“I don’t like it. ”
“What’s not to like?” challenges Jared.
“It’ll hurt his feelings.”
Jared turns to the other kids in the room. “Will you listen to him?” Then he says, “I’m waiting, Max.”
“No.” I can’t believe I’m saying this. My heart is beating so hard that I’m sure the other kids can hear it. “I’m not doing it.”
Jared’s mouth falls open and he seems unsure about what to do next.
“Whatever,” he says abruptly. And instead of the video, he posts a photo of Owen, sitting alone in the lunchroom, with the caption: S-S-STUTTER D-D-DUDE. The other kids egg him on. I just sit there.
Finally Jared plays the first movie and then the second. By the time they’re over, most of the guys are asleep in their sleeping bags. Not me. I’m wide awake. I barely sleep at all.
In the morning, I take only a couple bites of the banana pancakes Jared’s mom is serving. Then I beat a hasty retreat, walking the mile to my house instead of waiting for my dad to pick me up.
For the next few days, I wait for the fallout.
Will Jared start tormenting me now? I’m so jittery, my mom asks if I’m sick or something.
Then it all seems to pass. Jared and his crew have gone back to ignoring me. Big relief.
A week later, I stay after school to help my homeroom teacher. When I’m done, I walk down the empty corridor. Then I hear it — music. I follow the sound to the music room, where the door is partially open. I peek inside.
There’s Owen, strumming the guitar and singing. He’s pretty good. No — scratch that — very good. And he’s not even stuttering!
I stand there listening until Owen looks up. He stops singing.
“Hey,” I say. Owen just nods and looks down at the guitar. “You sound really good.”
“Th-th-thanks.” Owen smiles. I realize I’ve never seen him smile before.
“You make that song up?” I ask.
“Uh huh.” Owen is blushing now.
“Wow.” I’m even more impressed. And just a little envious too. I’ve always wanted to learn the guitar but never gotten around to taking lessons.
“You l-l-like the guitar?”
“Yeah,” I say.
“There’s a-a-another one in the c-c-cabinet. I c-c-could sh-sh-show you a c-c-couple of c-c-chords. I-i-if you want, th-th-that is.”
I grab the guitar and sit down next to Owen.
“P-p-put your fingers here,” Owen says. Gradually, Owen’s stuttering diminishes.
I learn the words to the chorus. Soon I can strum a few of the chords. When Owen and I are singing, Owen doesn’t stutter at all. No, he and I are just making music — together.
For books by author Yona Zeldis McDonough, visit go.boyslife.org/mcdonough