Teen Fiction

Copyright © 2012 by Eric Kaufman

A Curious Development

By Eric Kaufman

As an idea came to her, she’d lean forward in her seat to jot it down and produce a swift ascending creek. Then as she lost momentum her chair would moan with a slow descending return, and she would slump back into a reclined position. Jared, sitting directly behind her, grew more annoyed with the ongoing fluctuation in Anna’s creativity. He couldn’t decide where to focus his anger, on Anna or her chair. It was more than just the distracting sound that bothered him. She had been his academic rival since the start of seventh grade.
Jared had just about decided on a course of action and began testing out small taps of his foot on the back of her seat. They weren’t hard enough for her to feel, he thought. But the rubber of his Converse against the plastic of her seat made a tight squeak under her ear. Jared smirked at this and played at various rhythms. Anna lurched forward with another brainstorm and her chair cheered her on. Jared lost his smirk and wound up to land a solid kick that would surely knock Anna out of her seat, but before he could let it fly, Anna’s hand went up and she announced that she was finished.
Okay Anna, well done. Please sit quietly while the rest finish up.” Mrs. Fischer stared Jared back into a normal sitting position. Anna, pleased with herself and not sure what to do next, began bouncing her leg which sent her chair into a new type of violent chant. She seemed unaware of it and nobody nearby appeared to notice either.
At lunch, Jared found himself behind Anna in line for the pizza casserole that came only once a month. It was the only time he looked forward to what the school had on offer, so he had reserved his plate in advance. He patiently watched while Anna counted out her coins and stacked them on the steel counter in front of the lunch lady. Clink, clink, clink, clink, clink. Jared was starting to realize that he found every sound that Anna generated, annoying.
Mrs. Dillwing, the lunch lady was in a quick rhythm of removing foil casserole tops and dropping them in the trash beside her. As she peeled the top back from Anna’s casserole and tossed it into the trash, the cheesy top layer stuck to the lid creating a stretchy mess running from the casserole to the trash can. “Oh dear. Let me get you another.” Miss Dillwing dropped what was left of the casserole into the trash and prepared a new one for Anna.
Jared stepped up to the counter and announced that he had pre-purchased a pizza casserole. Miss Dillwing found his name on a list, placed a check next to it, and then paused. “I’m sorry Jared, we’ve run out of pizza casseroles. Would you like something else?” Jared took a cheese sandwich and followed Anna to the lunch tables where he sat at a distance, but within sight of Anna’s pizza casserole. That should have been his, he thought. Hers was in the trash.
Anna, enjoying her lunch, had no idea of Jared’s growing obsession. His lifeless staring at her movements went unnoticed. In the background his mind was working out various schemes of revenge.
Behind him the bang and grind of metal against stone jolted him out of his day dream. The janitor, while clumsily dragging a trash can across the yard, had let it fall over and spill food slop at Jared’s feet. A thought came to him about how he could use the mess against her. But he realized, maybe for the first time, that he didn’t want to hurt her, but rather, her notice him. Be aware. This idea posed problems for him. He only had expertise in pranks and mayhem. He was entering a new arena of cunning. This would require some thought.
Sewing class followed lunch. This was a source of embarrassment for the boys. The school had recently been converted into a junior high, and had limited resources for elective classes. It couldn’t afford to hire enough teachers. For those who played an instrument, there were the usual music options. For everyone else, the year was divided into quarters – woodshop, sewing, cooking, and a bit of German and Spanish. It was the smorgasbord philosophy. Students got to try a little of everything.
Miss Stepping maintained dual roles, teaching geography and sewing. She was a young, hip lady that was easy to identify with. Jared liked her and didn’t mind going to sewing class.
His project was a stuffed hotdog pillow. He was carefully running a felt strip of mustard through the machine. Sewing must be like driving a car, he thought. Pressing the pedal with his foot, he could wind out the engine and make it whine like it was a hot-rod. But now, he was carefully holding his foot on the pedal, trying to keep an even speed. It was a test of skill. An exercise in foot-eye coordination.
Jared was able to become so focused while he sewed. He’d fall into a meditative trance that was mirrored and regulated by the sound and speed of the machine. He and the machine played a sort of tug of war with each other. But it was not a battle of strength. Rather, subtlety. As Jared carefully flexed muscles in his foot to apply soft pressure, the pedal resisted equally using its springs. Together, if they compromised harmoniously, their reward was a soothing even hum resonating through the table. It was this sound that Jared was trying to achieve. Because when he did, his stitches were straight.
Miss Stepping walked past with Anna trailing behind. Anna noticed Jared’s good work and broke his trance. “Nice stitches.” Then she saw what he was making and giggled a little. “Cute pillow.” Miss Stepping stopped and looked back at Jared’s work, then met his eye and gave it a wink.
All the while, Jared was struggling to keep his line. He was in the bike lane, then over the curb and up onto the sidewalk. His car was revving high. He swerved across into oncoming traffic, and then jerked back into his lane. Remembering the secret, he ignored his eyesight and focused on his hearing. Navigating back to the right pitch seemed to straighten out his line and he was back to driving smoothly again.
Jared walked his hotdog pillow to his locker to swap it for his science book. He took a moment to inspect his stitching for the day. The mustard was finished. Tomorrow he could begin with the ketchup. He followed the stitch with his finger until it came to an imperfection. The stitch that ran like a super-highway had become a mountain road with a hairpin turn.
He thought about memory triggers. This stitch would always remind him of Miss Stepping and Anna. He decided it wasn’t going to bother him, and that it would be a good memory like the scar on his elbow that reminded him of his mother’s pride. He had caught it on a nail while climbing onto the roof to enter the house. His mother had locked her keys inside and Jared was able to save the day.
After school Jared and his friends hung out by the bike racks near where students waited for the buses to arrive. Their conversations vacillated between disgust for girls they knew, and admitting they thought some were cute. Tanya and Sarah approached. This was unusual because boys and girls rarely socialized outside of class. Jared and his friends stopped what they were talking about and waited for them to speak. They wondered what they could possibly want, but anticipated unpleasantness. “Are you guys going to the dance?” they asked. “Maybe,” someone spoke up, which surprised the rest of them. The boys had no intention of going to the dance. “Are you?” again from the boys side. “Probably,” the girls answered, and then walked away. The boys looked at each other in puzzlement. Was that a friendly invitation, or a survey? The boys talked it over and concluded that attending the dance might be interesting, after all. It was agreed that the boys would go together as a group of friends. Safety in numbers.
Jared found himself back at school the next day, again inspecting his hotdog pillow by the lockers. He was early and had time to kill by himself. Thinking about the sound of the sewing machine, he began humming to replicate the pitch. He concentrated on keeping his hum as even as possible. Then he played at it with different pitches until he dropped his voice down as low as he could get it. Keeping his hum steady while at the bottom end of his range was challenging. He decided to slow his hum as much as possible until it resembled a croak. Slow and low, this was the ultimate test of control, he thought. The vibrations coming from his throat had slowed down so much that each one was like a pluck on a vocal cord – a guttural tick, tick, tick.
Eww, are you burping?” Anna was beside him. “No, I was just humming.” Jared was startled and realized that his noises must have sounded disgusting. Feeling the need to explain further, he began again. “See, like this,” he demonstrated. “How do you do that?” She tried to mimic his sounds. “Hum in your lowest voice, then make it slower and slower.” He showed her again.
Soon the two of them were playing with the cacophony. They would see who could hold their stream of noise the longest before losing breath. One would change pitch suddenly to create an ugly harmony against the other. A teacher walked past giving a sideways look and they both broke into laughter. Jared fell into self awareness and the spell was broken. “I’d better get going.” And he walked away.
During science class Jared couldn’t help but notice Tanya and Sarah passing notes across the room to each other. Each time one was received, it was followed by a giggle and a glance in Jared’s direction. It may have been because he was watching them that they would look up in his direction. Or was it that he was the butt of their jokes? Jared was about to find out. The latest dispatch had been intercepted by the teacher, and in this class notes were often read aloud as a deterrent.
Not this time. It dropped straight into the trash. A wave of blood flashed through Jared’s body. It carried feelings of guilt and spread them to his tips. He felt as though he had gotten away with a crime, like he was maintaining a secret from the rest. But he wasn’t sure what it was. Apparently the girls had some idea.
He felt things swirling around him, things that were having an effect on the outcome of his life’s events. Out of a need to put himself back in control he decided to act before anything else could happen to spoil things.
The next morning, Jared sat near the back of the bus rehearsing what he would say. He was only a few blocks from school, and the nearer he got, the more nervous he became. The grumbling noise from the bus matched the churning in his stomach. He felt sick with fear and excitement. The sooner he could act, the sooner he could be free of this feeling. His focus turned from rehearsal to recovery.
Suddenly he noticed that Anna was sitting across the aisle and two rows forward. She had been there all along and he hadn’t seen her. Impulsively he jerked his body toward her and leapt out of his seat. He had planned to sit down next to her and spit out what he had to say, but he tripped over himself along the way and planted his face into the edge of her bench and then rolled onto the floor. She screamed.
Jared gathered himself up and placed his body more carefully onto its intended target. The vinyl covered cushion gasped as it exhaled an enormous breath of air it had been holding in. “Anna, will you go to the dance with me?” Jared blurted out. He instantly felt relieved. He almost got up and left without waiting for a response, feeling as if he’d completed his mission. Anna, taking a moment to absorb the calamity started laughing. Between breaths of laughter she squeezed out, “Okay. Okay Jared. Yes, that’ll be fun.”