Authors: Josie Brown
“Everyone, please gather around,” she commands. “It’s time to dole out this year’s volunteer assignments.”
Instead, this crowd of middle school mommies shrinks back against the wall, as if she’s asked us to line up for the guillotine. We have drunk the Kool-Aid, literally (the melted sherbet and frozen fruit ring made it palatable, but I think vodka would have been more appreciated) and figuratively, demonstrated by the fact that we stand here like lambs going to slaughter.
For their sakes, I hope the elementary school moms have a kinder, gentler, dictator.
“Not to worry, people! This process will be harmless. In fact, this year’s theme is ‘Let’s Have a Blast!’” To prove she means what she says, Penelope motions her sergeants-at-arms—Tiffy Swift and the unfortunately named Hayley Coxhead—to come forward with what looks like a wheel made up of individual spokes.
Put at ease, the other mothers coo and smile again.
Frankly, I think their relief is a bit premature. No matter how Penelope tries to dress things up by writing them on those colorful wheel spokes, the same nasty chores await us.
“When I call your name, you’ll come up and spin the wheel. The task it lands on will be yours. If the necessary number of volunteers for an assignment have already been chosen, the spoke will be removed. Fair and square, don’t you agree?”
Heads bob solemnly.
I raise my hand. “Wait a minute! What happened to the old method? You know, we peruse the sign-up sheets and write our names beside the job we want?”
“Too mundane. This is why you’re never chosen for the fun, creative tasks, Donna—because you have no sense of adventure,” Penelope declares. “Time to spin! And may the odds be ever in your favor!”
I know how to kill with one stab of a wheel spoke. Penelope better hope she doesn’t find this out the hard way.
As names are called, the wheel is spun and the number of assignments are whittled down. I wince when I realize that the choice ones are being grabbed up by Penelope’s favored few.
When my own name is called, I make my way toward the front of the room, where the wheel awaits me. I feel like Dead Mom Walking. The wheel looks innocent enough. A slot or two on the Father-Daughter and Mother-Son dance decoration committees are still up for grabs, as are the once-a-month school field trip, and Scrip tallying positions, so maybe I’ll pull something that’s easy to do.
I churn the wheel, close my eyes and pray.
“Donna chose ‘Lunchroom Lady!’” Tiffy intones.
Hayley smiles viciously. “That’s under my supervision.”
Doling out food, and cleaning up the tables afterward? Not to mention, you have to wear the dreaded hairnet.
I look at the others who have also pulled this suicide mission. Is it a coincidence that two of them shared the Siberia table with me at the Hilldale Women’s Club luncheon? These other unlucky winners include all three-hundred pounds of plumpness Lucinda Manley, and Tara Wills, whose fantasy face and figure put her in the sights of Penelope’s husband, Peter. She turned him down, but Penelope still blames her for looking like a living Barbie doll.
I bide my time until the last assignment is given. As the other women filter out, I walk up to Penelope. “I’d like to inspect the volunteer wheel.”
“I don’t know what you’re insinuating,” Penelope sniffs. The looks she exchanges with Hayley and Tiffy imply otherwise.
I take the wheel anyway. I’ll have Arnie give it a once-over. If it’s been rigged, he’ll figure it out.
Then there will be hell to pay.
Suffice it to say what I can do with a spoke is not something to discuss in polite company.
I pull up into Hilldale High’s carpool lane at exactly three-thirty. School let out at three o’clock, so I presume the joint should have cleared out enough that Mary, Wendy and Babs won’t be too disappointed to go home in my mommy mobile.
I am so wrong.
Three much older boys hover over the girls, who are sitting on a bench by the curb. The tallest of these man-boys leans in toward Mary. One leg is propped up on the arm of the bench. His body language reads, “You’re mine.”
If he were looking in my direction, my body language might be just as easily read.
And he’d be running for his life.
When Mary sees me screech to the curb, her coy smile disappears. She doesn’t know it but I’ve tapped open a secret panel holding my spare Glock 23.
Only the look of guilt in her eyes keeps me from pulling it out.
I motion toward the park across from the school, indicating that I’ll be waiting for her there. She nods slowly, and holds up two fingers.
I nod. Yeah, okay, I’ll give you two minutes, and not a second more.
As the car glides past, Mary taps her friends. Reluctantly, they move away from the boys, who wave them off. The girls huddle and whisper as they walk my way. I don’t like the way the boys smile knowingly and nudge each other before heading off toward the gym.
I pull over to the curb and the girls hop in, still giddy.
“Good first day?” I ask.
Wendy giggles. “I’ll say! Right, Babs?”
Her friend’s blush is almost the same shade as her coiling copper locks. “I wouldn’t make too much out of it. Everyone knows Blake McAllister is dating Erin Long.”
“Well, he must have forgotten it, because he was following you around all day.” Mary raises her brows to emphasize the implication.
“Are those boys sophomores?” I ask innocently.
“Well … not exactly, Mrs. Stone,” Wendy answers. The other girls smother their snickers.
Actually, I already have my answer. After snapping a picture of the boys with my iPhone, I then tapped into the school’s yearbook database. With the help of Acme’s facial recognition software app, I’ve ID’ed them as seniors—and very popular ones, at that.
Too popular, in fact. In their junior year, the boy with his sights on Mary won the title “Biggest Player,” while Babs’ admirer was voted “Most Handsome.”
Every other shot of him in the yearbook shows him entwined with the buxom blonde whom Babs is already quite aware of.
“Babs, Wendy, I’m sure your mothers would feel as I do—that you should take a few months to meet as many people as possible, boys and girls. That way, you have time to test the relationship and establish friendships with those you can trust.”
The girls purse their lips to keep from laughing.
Mary sighs. “Mom, you just don’t understand.”
I turn to her and murmur, “Yes, I understand perfectly.”
The tone of my voice warns her not to argue.
Except for the faint honks of other cars’ horns emanating through the windows, the rest of the ride is enveloped in a heavy silence.
As I pull into Babs’ driveway, Mary turns to her friend. “I forgot to write down the link where our Poli-Sci teacher posts our semester assignments. Can you text it to me?” Her smile is innocent enough, but her wink is anything but.
So far, I’m hating high school.
“When does Aunt Phyllis get here?” Trisha demands. “I want her to help me with my school project.” She holds up a large cardboard sheet entitled ALL ABOUT TRISHA.
“Any moment now,” I promise. “She said right after dinner, but before bedtime.”
I take the board from her. It is divided into six large squares, each labeled with a number from one to six. “What goes into each square?”
“The most specialish things in my life! They are called ‘mo-men-toes.’” She savors each syllable, as if doing so is creating a memory, too.
Jack pulls her into his lap. “It’ll be hard to tape your teddy bear to cardboard, without it bending.”
She chuckles. “I don’t need to put
up there. I’ll find a picture of me holding him, maybe when I was a baby.” She kisses Jack on the cheek. “You can help me choose things to put on my board. But I’ve only got a week to do it, so we have to work quickly.”
“It’s a deal. I work well under pressure. Ask your mom.” He winks at me. “We’ll begin right after dinner—if it’s okay with your mom to break protocol, just this once.”
I smile. “Sure, I’ll make an exception, just this once. In the meantime, Trisha, why don’t you work on your New Words sheet?” Homework around the kitchen table before dinner is a family tradition, no cell phone calls or texting allowed until every assignment is completed. Trisha is as happy as a clam to finally have been initiated into this rite of passage, especially since I’m making her “specialish” meal of all: meatloaf and rosemary roasted red potatoes.
Not Mary. Yes, she loves my meatloaf, too, but she’d much prefer to be upstairs in her room, so that she can text her friends without my knowledge.
Jeff looks up from the table, where he’s working on his math homework. “Hey, can you help me, too? I’m running for class president and I need planks in my platform. So far I’ve got ‘Freedom from Tyranny,’ ‘Power to the People’ and ‘Democracy, not Dictatorship.’”
Jack and I look at each other, then back at Jeff.
I smile down at my son. “I’m so proud of you, Jeff. But you do know we live in a democracy, right?”
He scowls. “Not if Cheever wins the election. He’ll run our class like a tota … totali …”
“Totalitarian,” Jack offers.
“Right! Like a totalitarian regime! Someone’s got to stop him, but everyone’s afraid of him.” He shakes his head. “Not me.”
“The nut doesn’t fall far from the tree,” I mutter.
Jack snorts. “This from the woman who is about to ask Arnie to analyze Penelope’s Wheel of Pain.”
“My son and I are cut from the same cloth. We like righting wrongs.” I tweak Jeff’s nose. “I’m so glad I can be an inspiration to you.”
“That’s what you think,” Mary murmurs just loud enough for me to hear. She turns to Jeff. Feigning innocence, she asks, “Hey, who’s teaching Civics this year?”
“Miss Bliss,” Jeff answers warily.
When his older sister wraps her arms around herself and makes kissing sounds, Jeff turns fire engine red.
I quit pummeling the meatloaf. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Relax, Mom. All it means is that he’s like every other boy in the sixth grade—He’s got a crush on Miss Bliss.” She scoots her chair closer to his. “Let me guess, she’s taking the winner to a special lunch, off campus.”
He slams his book shut. “Yeah, okay, what of it? That’s just one of the perks.”
She bats her eyes. “I’ll say it is. Just make sure the
seats you at a table that doesn’t have a glass top. You wouldn’t want to scare Miss Bliss off with a tent in your pants.”
I almost drop the meatloaf on the way to the oven. “Okay, that’s it, Mary! Up to your room. We’ll call you down when dinner is ready.”
Mary practically runs up the staircase. She’s on the third step when I bark, “Leave your phone here, and you’re forbidden to use email or IM accounts. No Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—nothing.”
That stops her cold.
“I mean it. Drop the phone on the couch.”
She’s so angry that she starts to throw it, but reconsiders. Like all teens, her cell is her lifeline out of the Stones’ desolate outpost in Siburbia.
Everyone is quiet as she stomps her way up the stairs, and over our heads on her way to her room.
Finally Trisha turns to Jeff and asks, “How do you make a tent in your pants?”
His face is flushed to the roots of his hair.
He’s saved from answering by the creak of the back door as Aunt Phyllis enters. She practically stumbles under the weight of the box in her hands, plopping it down on the kitchen window seat. “Sounds like a party in here! What did I miss?”
Before Trisha can field that hot potato, Jack smacks his hand over her mouth. In unison, Jeff and I shout out, “Nothing!”
Her stare registers her obvious suspicion. “Okay, if you say so,” she sniffs.
“Jeff was telling us he plans on running for class president—against Cheever.”
Aunt Phyllis nods. “Good! Little bastard needs a comeuppance, and you’re just the boy to give it to him.”
“Will you help me with my platform, Aunt Phyllis?”