Authors: Anna Kerz
Aaron bent to look into his desk. It was filled with books and papers.
Math page. Math page.
He grabbed the edge of a piece of paper that stuck out and tugged with his good hand.
. He tugged harder and tried to wriggle the page out, but as he pulled, he brought down an avalanche of books and papers that mounded on the floor.
Mess. Mess. Big mess.
He stared at the pile.
When Mr. Collins came back, he stopped in front of Aaron's desk.
Not a happy look,
“Well,” Mr. Collins said, “if we're going to start by housecleaning, we might as well start at the beginning,” and he tipped Aaron's desk so that everything inside slid to the floor. Then they started sorting through the pile.
There were three pens, four erasers, two rulers, a pencil sharpener and at least a dozen pencil crayons. Two copies of the same reader, an atlas, a dictionary, a math text and three binders. There were red, green, blue and yellow folders, a broken protractor, two library books and a collection of papers. There were several wads of tissues (some of them used), pencil shavings, a brown, wizened apple core, and a baggie filled with something that might once have been grapes but now looked gray-green and watery and smelled like vinegar.
“I was looking for those,” Aaron said as he pulled the library books from the pile.
“I'm glad you found the library books,” Mr. Collins said as he sifted through the mound on the floor. “But what about the rest of this stuff?” He pulled a piece of paper from the pile. “Look. Here's your math sheet, and here's another one just like it. You have two copies, both started, neither one finished. No wonder you ended up having to stay in.”
Aaron didn't hear. He was holding the broken piece of the protractor in one hand and scanning the pile. “I had the other half,” he said. “Yesterday. I had it yesterday. Where did it go?”
It was almost four o'clock before everything was sorted and back in his desk.
“It's too late to start on that math page now,” Mr. Collins said. “I still have a meeting with the principal. Will you be all right to finish it for homework?”
“Yeah,” Aaron said. He followed Mr. Collins into the hallway and watched the teacher lock the classroom door, but once he was gone, Aaron slumped to the floor.
Loser. I'm a big loser
, he thought.
The irritating buzz of the four o'clock bell reminded him that he should be getting ready to leave. He began pushing his belongings into his backpack. It wasn't easy with one hand, but he did it, and that made him feel better. Next he dragged his jacket to the floor and wriggled inside. Gran had put an enormous safety pin across the bottom to keep the zipper from opening all the way, and he felt pleased that he could put on the jacket and do it up by himself.
He was on his feet, lining up his boots to step into them, when Tufan came along the hall, his head down. He was walking slowly. Mad or sad? Aaron couldn't tell.
Tufan grabbed his own coat and swung into it. Then he went out of his way to stride past Aaron. Their jackets brushed with a swishing sound. Aaron, who was balancing on one foot, trying to slide the other foot into his boot, wobbled.
“Hey!” he said.
“What?” Tufan said, raising his hands. “I didn't touch you, did I? Did I lay a hand on you?”
Aaron's mouth opened. He wanted to tell Tufan he wasn't going to be pushed around anymore, but no words came.
“You should close your mouth,” Tufan said. “You'd look smarter.”
“I'm smart. Maybe I can't do everything as fast as some people, but I'm smart,” Aaron said. He wobbled again, so he put both feet on the floor before he went on. “Maybe you didn't touch me, but you're a bully anyway. And you're mean. I don't like it when you're mean. When you're mean, I don't even feel sorry for you.”
“Sorry? Why should you feel sorry for me?”
Aaron's voice dropped. “'Cause I know your grandmother's sick.”
“You don't know nothing,” Tufan said, backing Aaron against the wall.
Aaron's heart boomed in his chest. He took a breath. “I know,” Aaron said. “I know your grandmother's in the hospital, and I know she's scared.”
A sort of hiccupping sound came from Tufan's throat. He stepped back and rubbed his fist across his chin. “You don't talk about my grandmother,” he said, but this time he didn't sound all that mean. He hiccupped again, then turned and walked away.
Aaron watched him go, but he didn't think about Tufan for long because, as he started for home, his mind began to fill with happier thoughts.
My friend Jeremy
and meâ¦we're gonna clean out the fish tank. And then
my dad's coming.
He counted off the days on his fingers.
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Four days. Four
more days. And he's bringing a surprise.
“Aaron, come back!” Gran called on Thursday morning as he opened the front door. Her hand reached out to grab the hood of his jacket before he could step out into the gray November morning. He felt himself being hauled in like a fish on a line.
“Where do you think you're going? There's no reason for you to go to school this early.”
“I have to go. Mr. Collins said. He said we have to come early to clean out the fish tank.”
“Clean the fish tank? You've only got one hand.”
“Jeremy and me. We're gonna do it together.”
Gran shook her head. “Look at yourself!” she said. “You look like you just rolled out of bed! You haven't even brushed your hair.” Her eyes narrowed. “I'll bet you haven't brushed your teeth either.”
Aaron tried to wriggle free, but Gran had a good hold. “You're not wearing any socks!” she scolded. “Did you put on underwear? I bet you forgot that too.”
When Aaron didn't answer, she sighed. “I don't know why you think you can clean out a fish tank when you can't get yourself dressed.”
Putting her hands on Aaron's shoulders, she turned him so he was facing her. He squirmed, but she held tight. “Look at me,” she said. She repeated the words until Aaron stopped wriggling and looked into her face. “You have to dress before you go anywhere. Do you hear me?”
He grunted, and when Gran let him go, he rushed up to his room. Gran's steps followed, slow and heavy. He shoved his door closed. He didn't want her to watch as he pulled off his pants to put on his socks and underwear.
She was in the hallway blocking the way to the stairs when he came out. At the sight of her, he sighed and rushed to the bathroom. With his one good hand, he ran the brush through his hair, then swished his toothbrush across his teeth.
Gran made one of those throat-clearing noises to remind him that she was still there, waiting. He groaned and grabbed the washcloth draped across the edge of the tub. It was cold and still damp from the night before. It made him shiver when he rubbed it across his face, but he wasn't going to take the time to run the hot-water tap.
“Done,” he said as he came out. This time Gran stepped aside and let him go.
“Be careful on your way,” she called as he hurried down the stairs.
* * *
When he reached the classroom, Mr. Collins and Jeremy were at the back of the room, Jeremy on a chair beside the fish tank, scooping out guppies with a net.
“Me,” said Aaron, dragging a chair over beside Jeremy's. “Let me.”
“Watch first,” Mr. Collins said. “You can have a turn in a minute.” He made Aaron watch Jeremy scoop out a fish and move it to a smaller bowl before he allowed him to take a turn.
Aaron caught his first guppy in one swipe of the net. “Nothing to it,” he said with a pleased grin.
“Okay,” Mr. Collins said, handing them a small plastic hose. “When all the fish are out, you can use this to make a siphon.”
“I can make a siphon,” Aaron said.
Mr. Collins's eyebrows rose. “Show me,” he said.
Aaron took the hose and pushed the whole thing under the water. A mass of bubbles spread across the top of the tank. “That's the air coming out of the hose,” Aaron explained. “And when all the air is outâ¦when it's out, and the hose is full of water, then the water from the tank will come pouring out.” He turned to Jeremy. “You hold this end under the water, and I'll take this end out andâ¦ta da!”
Jeremy grabbed for Aaron's hand and turned the end of the hose so that the water pouring from the tank went into the bucket on the floor.
“Good move, Jeremy,” Mr. Collins said. “I wouldn't want to explain a flood to the caretaker.”
Aaron snorted. “We could fill the whole room. The whole room. We could make a swimming pool.”
“Luckily, this aquarium isn't that big,” said Mr. Collins as he pulled the hose from the tank. “Finish scooping out the fish. You can siphon out the water when they're all out. Since you know what you're doing, it shouldn't take long. It'll be as easy as falling off a log.”
“Falling off a log!” Aaron laughed.
Jeremy nudged him. “It's not that funny,” he said.
Aaron stopped laughing, but he repeated Mr. Collins's words. “It'll be like falling off a log. Like falling off a log.”
“Are you two going to be all right on your own?” Mr. Collins asked. “I have to see Ms. Masilo for a minute.”
“We're good,” Jeremy assured him.
“All right then.” Mr. Collins walked to his desk for some papers. “See how far you can get. I'll be right back. Just don't make a mess,” he said as he left.
As soon as Mr. Collins was gone, Aaron grabbed for the net and swiped it through the tank to catch another guppy. This time the fish in the tank darted to the sides, and no matter how hard he tried, they slipped over, under and around the net. Aaron pushed it behind them in circles, round and round, until the water began to spin and guppies swirled in a miniature whirlpool.
“Cut it out!” Jeremy warned.
Aaron leaned closer to the tank, determined to catch at least one more fish.
“Let me try,” Jeremy said reaching for the net. But Aaron wasn't ready to give up yet. Trying to avoid Jeremy's hand, he raised his elbow and jerked it to the side. It hit Jeremy's face with a sharp
” Jeremy said, clapping his hand over his nose.
Aaron was shocked to see fine threads of blood appear between Jeremy's fingers and flow down the back of his hand. “Sorry. Sorry. Sorry,” he said, holding out the net as a peace offering.
Jeremy cupped his hand around his chin and pinched his nose. Then he climbed from the chair and walked to the teacher's desk, where he grabbed a handful of tissues and wadded them to his nose.
“Sorry, Jer,” Aaron said again, his voice pleading.
Jeremy grunted. “I should have known not to get too close,” he said in a nasally voice. But Aaron could see that the look on his face wasn't happy.
When Mr. Collins came back, Aaron was on the chair holding one end of the hose under water while Jeremy stood on the floor aiming the other into the bucket. His right hand still held bloodstained tissues to his nose. “What happened?” Mr. Collins asked.
“Iâ¦Iâ¦,” Aaron began.
“Nosebleed,” Jeremy cut in. “It's okay. I get them all the time.”
Mr. Collins frowned, but he didn't ask any more questions. “We'll check the temperature of the water after school,” he said. “If it's warm enough, you can put the guppies back then.”
* * *
At the end of the day, Mr. Collins was busy getting the class lined up. He didn't see Aaron push a chair to the back of the room. He didn't see him climb up beside the guppy bowl. Jeremy did, and he hurried to stand beside Aaron.
“It'll be easy to catch you this time,” Aaron said, talking to the guppies. “Like falling off a log.” He picked up the net and scooped out two of the tiny fish. They gasped and flapped as they were lifted from the water.
“Aaron, wait! Mr. Collins has to take the water temperature first,” Jeremy said, reaching for the net.
Aaron jerked his arm away. This time Jeremy ducked, but the sudden movement unbalanced Aaron. He wobbled. With the net in his left hand, he needed the one covered by the cast, to hold on to something to keep him from falling. His fingers closed over the edge of the fish tank.
“Don't!” Jeremy said. The warning came too late.
There was a grating sound as the tank scraped along the counter. The water inside sloshed, and a small wave splashed out on the far side, drenching the counter. Aaron's body tipped. He gripped the side of the tank with all his might as it slid to the edge. The second wave washed out, soaking him from the knees down. Then they fell, Aaron and the tank, with an enormous crash, and what felt like a tsunami of water washed over him and Jeremy.
Mr. Collins and the kids who had been putting on their coats in the hallway came streaming back when they heard the noise. They found Aaron sprawled on the floor, dotted with blue aquarium pebbles, and Jeremy on his knees trying to rescue the two guppies in the net.