Hoppy Endings: Son of Juice
Inspired by Maplewood Brewery's India Pale Ale
Standing beside the fridge while Nancy finished setting the table for their family of three, Howard bit off the cap to the dry-erase marker, letting it dangle out of his mouth like a stubby cigar as he drew a fat, unwavering candy-red line through the black-lettered words reading Juice Pants. Above it, countless other lines, each with the same slash slicing through them. Not a mark of completion, but of failure.
He capped the marker, placed it atop the whiteboard stuck on the fridge, and released the pregnant sighed he’d held in the entire ride home from the office. As a courtesy, he’d waited until his wife had departed the kitchen, not knowing his six-year-old son stood in the doorway behind him, wondering exactly what had gone wrong with Daddy’s latest Time-Saver (Daddy had told him this was an ‘umbrella’ word to describe all his ideas, although Tommy didn’t quite understand what any of them had to do with the weather).
They settled down for dinner—Taco Tuesday night, as routine, the mess of ingredients on a sea of bowls and plates in the middle of the table, the combined smell so thick they nearly clogged the nose—where Tommy and Nancy awaited Howard’s inevitable retelling of Juice Pants. Of course, he never jumped straight into it. Rather, he did as all good fathers did, leaning down over the table to match his son’s short stature. He raised an inquisitive brow.
“And how was Sir Tommy’s day?” he said, cracking a smile, tawny mustache curving with his mouth. “Anything you can teach your old man?”
Although he didn’t want to, and it made him feel bad, the second question made Tommy consider responding with something like, ‘I wish I could teach you to stop your Time-Savers!’ He’d never really say that; Daddy cared way too much about his projects. They made him smile a lot. They made Mommy happy, too, but usually in a giggly way—like a silly smile, Tommy considered.
“Nothing really,” he told his daddy, shrugging. “Miss Hudson’s still showing us about addiction and subtraction.”
Nancy chuckled, and her and Howard shared in unspoken amusement. She placed a hand over Tommy’s small one, clarifying: “Addition and subtraction. I think it’ll be at least a few more years before they teach you about addiction.”
Silence swept over the dining room as they focused on their food, finishing their respective taco assembly and wasting no time diving into their creations. Tommy was glad for the stillness. It ended the discussion about his own day, where he’d had to keep telling himself not to mention Billy Burgess. How Bully Billy had found him on the playground again, gathering some friends and encircling him while they once more listened to Billy talk about Daddy’s idea before Juice Pants: Magnet Mate. (Magnet Mate was a Time-Saver that let adults put keys and other metal stuff in their jacket pockets without worrying about them falling out or getting lost. The metal stuff stuck to Magnet Mate. Tommy knew plenty about magnets, at least.) It didn’t seem to matter the idea was from over a month ago. Billy always sang the story like it’d happened yesterday. ‘Maggot Mate,’ he sometimes called it, which usually made his friends burst into laughter, all the while pointing sharp, humiliating fingers at Tommy.
Tommy thought about the thick red line his daddy had drawn on his ideas board tonight, curious if Billy’s daddy, Mr. Burgess, heard about (or worse, saw) Juice Pants earlier today. Mr. Burgess worked alongside Tommy’s dad at the ‘a-counting’ firm, a place referred to in the comfort of their home as The Cage, since his daddy often compared it to jail (to Mommy, at least, although the walls between bedrooms were paper-thin, so Tommy heard more than intended). If Billy’s daddy knew about Juice Pants, he’d definitely tell Billy about it, probably over their own dinner tonight, poking fun at Tommy’s daddy. And then it’d come back to Tommy himself—maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day.
Whenever Bully Billy would decide it’s time for a new joke.
“So . . .” Nancy shattered the silence, mainly wanting to get out and over the undeniable defeat that was Juice Pants. Any longer and the looming weight of it would spoil dinner, she believed. “Let’s have it, Howie. What’s the deal with Juice Pants?”
She bit her bottom lip after hearing the question aloud. It could’ve been the setup to some horrible standup routine. More than a year of hearing her husband’s zany ideas (‘inventions’ seemed a generous label) had steered her away from poking fun at them. In theory, most weren’t half-bad—it was more Howard’s scrappy execution that made them flop like a fish on land until he put them out of their misery. Yet despite this, she had to give him credit: he didn’t let failure linger.
The Time-Savers had begun at the beginning of the prior year, shortly following a night Nancy and Howard had sunk into the living room loveseat, flipping through so much nothing on T.V. until they landed on a show called Whale Tank. Another crappy reality show, by Nancy’s estimation, one in which obscure celebrities with deep pockets were presented with business pitches to invest in by everyday folks. Searching for that ‘white whale,’ as they so appropriately labeled the show’s most-golden ideas.
At the kitchen table, Howard frowned, dramatic and cartoonish. “Another dud, determined by my trusted focus group at the office.” Nancy and Tommy only stared at him, waiting for more. He waved about the soft-shell taco pinched between his fingers, preparing to divulge more. “I overestimated the volume the packets could hold. I pushed for twenty-four ounces. I hadn’t gone higher than twenty in the at-home prototypes. My own fault, really.”
Juice Pants, from what Howard had told them, were designed to limit the amount of times a person needs to go out of their way to stay hydrated throughout a given day. From his perspective, there’s way too much unused real-estate in the average pair of pants. Juice Pants took advantage of that extra space, padding it with bags of liquid of the wearer’s choosing. Nancy had pictured the bag at the end of a catheter the first time Howard shared the idea, which had put her off to it from the get-go.
“And what happened?” Nancy pressed, just needing him to verbalize it. Then it’d be nothing more than another memory, and they’d carry on with the mundane until her husband’s next idea. She shrugged in wonder. “Did they weigh your pants down . . . get them to fall?”
“Worse,” Howard said. At once, his frown did a one-eighty. He let his taco drop to the plate so that he could put both hands in front of his son, tapping his fingers in the air as if to playfully spook the kid. His voice complemented the action, low and vibrating: “I wet my pants!”
Nancy’s eyes widened. “You what?!”
“The biggest bag broke, and the juice ran straight down my leg during a meeting with the ‘ole boss, right to the floor!”
Howard stared at his wife across the table, who’d begun shaking her head in disbelief. Maybe in secondhand embarrassment. He didn’t pay much mind to it, focusing on Tommy off his peripheral, who’d started to chuckle, his small fist held in front of his mouth as if to contain his delight over picturing his daddy with wet pants. A silver lining to Howard’s failed invention—one that’d comfort him until he drummed up the next Time-Saver.
The leap from kindergarten to first grade was the real deal. Before that, Tommy had preschool. Before that still, daycare (he didn’t remember much from that one). First grade began the use of numbers in the titles of grades, and that felt like a big-kid thing. Numbers were serious business, after all, considering his daddy worked with them all day at his adult job.
Tommy had thought that way the first day, anyway. That would’ve been about four months ago now. Walking into class this morning—the day after hearing about Daddy’s wet pants—he compared himself an ant to the world—to the classroom, even. The bright-orange plastic chairs with their shiny metal tubes for legs seemed like gigantic spiders; the cream, individual desks positioned like soldiers in orderly formation, preparing to trample over him, could squish him like a bug. Any joy he’d gotten from his daddy’s story had vanished by now.
Or maybe the people operating these things made him feel this way. His classmates, seated silently at their respective desks, some whispering to one another, a select few seemingly staring at him. Maybe about Juice Pants, if Billy had had the chance to tell them about it already. Maybe about other stuff. Tommy hurried his short legs past them all, dropping his backpack in his wooden cubby at the back of the room. He found his seat (near the back, as he’d one day not long ago asked Ms. Hudson to relocate him; less people could see him back there) and kept his head pointed down at his desk to block out all the bad thoughts. That helped, a little.
The classroom door swung open with a rush of air that reached even Tommy way at the back. Ms. Hudson, whom Tommy thought younger than other teachers at school, maybe around his mommy’s age (pretty and pencil-thin like Mommy, too, but not nearly as pretty, he’d decided), clicked her heels across the floor until she reached her desk. She wrote something on the chalkboard, revealing it only when she stepped aside, turning toward the class to put it on display.
“We know a little about adding numbers up after last week,” she began, pointing at the chalkboard. “Now we’re going to learn about the opposite . . . subtraction! Making numbers smaller—at least in most cases.”
The lesson began, and while Tommy really wanted to understand subtraction, to tell his daddy he did the numbers like him today, he found himself looking away from Ms. Hudson’s steady writing on the chalkboard. He kept catching glimpses of Billy Burgess staring back at him from two rows up. Those awful green eyes, almost yellow like a slithering snake’s, narrowed in on him. That prickly red hair, sticking up on top like a roaring flame. That nasty smile with his two big-kid front teeth sticking out from the rest, something else that made him feel small.
Once Billy recognized the attention (two of his Bully Buddies had caught wind of what was developing, too), he began tearing pages from his spiral notebook, careful enough so it didn’t pull Ms. Hudson away from the front of the room to investigate the matter. With each piece of paper, he’d lock eyes with Tommy, crinkle it into a ball with both hands (it reminded Tommy of a snowball, even though it was summer outside), and tuck it into his tan khaki pants. It only took minutes for his pant-legs to resemble bulging balloons, and the simple sight sent his buddies cackling under their breath, under palms pressed against their mouths as if to silence themselves.
Tommy ripped his focus away for the rest of the lesson. Every now and again, Billy would peer over his shoulder, hoping to draw one more laugh at Tommy’s expense—to pat his tubelike legs, stomp them around a little for show. Tommy kept his attention on the blackboard. The joke was making fun of Daddy—of Juice Pants, doubtless—but it made his eyes water as if it’d been him wearing the liquid-packed pants yesterday. Paying mind to the lesson helped a bit, distracted him, but every time he blinked he pictured Billy poking fun, his buddies laughing. And the day had only just begun.
Recess followed up with lunch—every kid’s dream. A taste of freedom, of the no-school life. For every kid besides Tommy, he guessed. He’d learned to dread these periods almost most of all, thinking them more detention (for him and him alone) rather than playtime and food time. Once the bell rang, the big hand and the little hand both pointed all the way up, he would start his internal timer. An hour of back-to-back punishment.
The first day after one of Daddy’s Time-Savers was always the worst. It meant kids laughed the hardest, Tommy often hearing it in their bellies instead of just their mouths. Sometimes, when Billy would tell them the story of a Time-Saver for the first time, a kid or two would end up lying on the playground’s wood-chips, rolling around in them from laughing so hard. The harder they laughed, the more Tommy had to fight back tears.
“Too scared of the slide today, Tiny Tommy?”
Tommy spun around from the red-brick wall he’d been leaning against. He’d been staring off at the huge, metal-bar-covered clock above the school’s entrance off the blacktop, a dozen kids playing in between him and it. Now, his neck was cranked up a tad, trapped in those snake eyes again. Bully Billy stood at least a few feet (centimeters? inches? he didn’t have a good grasp on that yet) taller than him, and right now the kid terrified him more than ever. Arms crossed, nose crinkled. Right in front of him, rather than a few seats away.
Behind him, four friends instead of just the two from class. They were copycatting Billy, arms folded over their chests, too. Like little helpers to a bad guy—a superhero’s villain. They were Billy’s minions. Only, Tommy was no superhero. He was only Tiny Tommy, and with the villain right in front of him, he could only stand there and listen to everything that’d come out of his beaver-toothed mouth. No superpowers to save him.
“We were looking for you on the playground,” Billy went on. “Did you like my pants during class?” He snorted at that, a grin growing. Tommy glanced down at his khakis, no longer stuffed with balled-up paper. Probably he’d emptied them before any teachers saw. “I’m sure they weren’t as bad as your daddy’s Juice Pants. My daddy said they gave him a big butt. A big one! He told me it was like he’d eaten too many cheeseburgers. He said your daddy waddled around all day!”
With each new line, Billy’s audience laughed a little louder. One of them had even thrown their head back toward the sky with Billy’s ‘waddled.’ It went on that way for another five minutes, Billy making more comments and pulling his pant-legs outward and dancing around with a funny face on. Tongue out and crossed-eyed by the end of his terrible show. Tommy tried to focus on keeping his eyes dry. He tried to think about the recess bell, counting as far as he could (he got to 120 before he had to start back from zero, the numbers to follow slipping his memory) to blur out Billy’s mean words and movements.
The bell sounded, a vibrating ringing that reached the brick wall they were standing near, all the way to the playground beyond that. Every kid went silent at that—even Bully Billy. Mr. Powers, the gym teacher, was already making his way down the steps below that giant clock, motioning for all the students to head inside.
Lunchtime. One half of detention remained for (Tiny) Tommy.
The first-graders were on their own for each and every class, recess included. A neighborhood of tiny people, moving about from room to room, stuck together from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The cafeteria being the only exception. During lunchtime, they were joined by the second-graders. If Tommy considered many of his classmates (Bully Billy included) giants, then the kids a grade above him were skyscrapers, heads buried within the clouds as they strolled past him to take their seats with mile-long strides.
As usual, Tommy found an open spot at the outstretched bench-table near the center of the cafeteria. Mainly, the second-graders and first-graders sat apart, both groups pretending the other didn’t exist. That wasn’t the case for Tommy’s table; his had kids from both grade present, mixed in together as if there weren’t any grades at all. As if second weren’t much bigger than first. Like two firsts put together, he thought, putting Ms. Hudson’s lesson on addition (not ‘addiction,’ he reminded himself) to the test.
“You want my grapes?” a second-grader beside him muttered, giving Tommy a gentle nudge to the arm. He held out a plastic bag, full of sad purple grapes that’d collapsed in on themselves. Begging to be tossed in the trash at this point. “They still have the grape taste, they’re just squishy and mushy and get sticky stuff on your fingers. I can’t eat them all the time, ‘cause of that.”
Tommy shook his head, offering the kid a gratuitous smile. No one talked much at this table, and Tommy decided most kids around him probably were like him. Quiet. Focused on learning. Maybe even picked on a little like him, too. While he didn’t want that for anyone else, the possibility comforted him. It made him feel like he wasn’t so small—not with others around him. At least sort of.
He dug his hand into the brown paper bag in front of him, finding himself with an appetite despite the confrontation on the blacktop, the one in the classroom, and the others surely to come from Billy and his buddies throughout the rest of the day. One by one, Tommy pulled out the items his daddy had packed for him.
A PB&J sandwich, that nasty brown crust sliced off. How he liked it.
A bag of Cheetos, which never had enough inside (he didn’t understand why Chester Cheetah made the bags so big, if he wasn’t going to fill them up all the way).
A baggie of apple slices. He’d eat those first (to get them over with).
And finally, a juice box.
He kept this last one in his hand for awhile, studying the green box with narrowed eyes. Reading ‘Juicy Juice’ on the front, part of him wishing it just outright said ‘Juice Pants.’ It made him feel full, like the food he’d pulled out of the brown bag had disappeared straight through him, into his stomach. But there it all rested, atop the eggshell-white table. It made him grab the brown bag, preparing to crumple it into a tight ball—not dissimilar to how Billy had crushed-up those pieces of notebook paper before shoving them down his pants.
The bag slipped out of his hand, landing back on the table, its weight taking him by surprise. It wasn’t empty yet. He widened the top and shoved his hand back inside, reaching deep down, staring up at the cafeteria’s tall ceiling as he fished around. He grabbed ahold of something—no, he thought: two things—and fished them out.
His stomach filled up some more. Like the second-grader’s mushy grapes had entered him now, too, making him feel yucky. He stared at the second box of Juicy Juice he’d pulled out, then darted his attention over to the other one already on the table. His grip loosened, allowing the box to fall while the something-else he’d found in the bottom of the bag—a folded piece of paper—remained tucked in between two of his fingers. He unraveled it, gave a quick glance around the table (no, everyone at the quiet table was face-down in their lunch), and took his time reading the handwritten note:
Your Pops had a juice left over from yesterday.
Enjoy the extra sugar . . . but don’t tell Mommy!
Tommy crumpled the note. He tightened it within his enclosed fist, trying to make it smaller still. Hoping he’d open his palm and find it gone, destroyed. But there it was, once more reminding him of Bully Billy, somewhere a table or two behind him. Maybe the kid would rush over and see the note, yanking it out of Tommy’s tiny hand. He’d stand on one of the tables and read it aloud to the entire lunchroom—loud enough for the rest of the number-grades to hear outside of the cafeteria.
No way, he told himself. He pushed himself out from the connected bench, keeping the crumpled note hidden within his fist. He gathered his lunch together, shoving it all back in the brown bag. With a quick glance over to the rest of the first-graders, he didn’t think he could spot Billy. That was good; probably it meant Billy couldn’t see him, either. The black, open garbage bin across the cafeteria called to him, begged him to come over and give him the note (along with those juice boxes). And Tommy very much wanted to feed it, to prevent his daddy’s note from getting seen by anyone else.
He took off, trying not to draw any attention to himself. He reached the garbage soon enough, its mouth wide, hungry for a lunch of its own. Only, peering down into it, Tommy thought it full. Too full—much the way his own (empty) stomach felt right now. A kid could come up to throw away their own lunch to find the crumpled note in there, even dig inside the brown bag and find those juice boxes. They’d first unravel the note, read it to themselves, then turn and shout it to the rest of the lunchroom. An awful vision.
Tommy tightened his fist some more, the one holding the note. He scanned the expansive cafeteria, hopeful there’d be another garbage in sight. There wasn’t. Just this one, way too full to hide his note for good. He tried to suck in a heavy breath, but all the sour, stale scents coming off the messy garbage can entered his mouth instead. Enough to make him feel even more sick, thinking now that probably he should go and find the bathroom.
The bathroom! Tommy realized. The one right outside the cafeteria didn’t only have a trashcan of its own; it had a toilet. And a toilet meant his daddy’s note could go bye-bye forever. He could flush it down far and away, to a place where no one could ever find it. And maybe he could eat his lunch in there, juice boxes and all. No one around to see them.
He approached Mr. Powers, standing like a police officer by the cafeteria’s exit, his meaty arms crossed over one another as he watched the room, making sure no one was getting into any trouble. Tommy raised his closed fist, the one clutching the note, as he kept the lunch bag hidden behind his back.
“Mister Powers,” he called.
Mr. Powers’s eyes widened, searching around at first until he realized the call had come from below. He looked down at Tommy, curious: “Tommy? What’s the matter?”
“Can I go to the bathroom?”
He glanced behind him, then back at the first-grader. “Son, you’re going to have to wait. Someone’s already went to the bathroom, and you know only one—”
“I really need to go now,” Tommy begged. He dropped it to a whisper. “It’s an emergency.”
The gym teacher debated it. Eventually, he stepped aside, leaving Tommy with a reminder as the pocket-sized student rushed past him: “Don’t forget to wash your hands, kid!”
The bathroom door flew open, feeling light as air as Tommy hurried inside. Feeling as though kids were somehow scurrying after him, realizing he held behind his back a paper bag with juice boxes inside, something else enclosed in his other hand. But the door floated closed behind him, and he couldn’t hear any sneakers squeaking along the tile floor outside. Complete silence, covering him like a warm blanket.
He should’ve felt fully relieved at that, but his heart quickly resumed its racing a moment later, banging like drums against his chest. The note had to be tossed down the toilet. Only then would this one potential problem be done with. At the reminder, Tommy leapt across the tight bathroom, from the sink to the closed stall door in one go, shoving his shoulder against it upon contact like one of the football players Daddy sometimes watched on T.V.
The metal door went all the way to the wall, crashing against it with a thunderous crack, only to drift back toward him again. He put a hand out to stop it from hitting him. As he did, he noticed someone else inside the stall, standing over the toilet with pants ruffled around his ankles. Only underwear covered him below his red t-shirt, whitey tighties (as they were very formally called around the school) with a pattern of countless orange basketballs over them.
“Billy?” Tommy said, hearing his voice crack in confusion.
Billy had already snapped his head backward from the crash of the stall door. He scowled at Tommy, his green eyes now colored with a bit of red. His face had gone a lighter red, too. Pink like a pig’s, Tommy compared it. That wasn’t all: his cheeks had went wet with lines of dripping water. Tommy wondered if Bully Billy had splashed his face before coming into the stall to go to the bathroom, maybe too excited about all the jokes he’d have to tell about Juice Pants after lunch. Maybe practicing them in here.
And then, almost too sudden to notice, in the blink of young Tiny Tommy’s eyes, Bully Billy’s face relaxed. It sunk, and both his lips and nose began to twitch uncontrollably. It was only then that Tommy put it together: the big, tough first-grader had been crying in here. The sight of Tommy had made him even more upset. A steady stream now, quicker droplets drifting down his deflated face.
The sight almost made Tommy grin. He wanted to—really, really wanted to. Probably, he’d even earned it, dealing with all of Billy’s jokes. Jokes meant to hurt both Tommy and his daddy. Despite this—despite everything—he forced his mouth to remain flat. He kept his eyes from thinning in bemusement. The longer Tommy stood in the doorway of the stall, the more Bully Billy seemed to shrink. The top of his head close to Tommy’s now, no longer a few feet (inches?) closer to the ceiling; those grownup front teeth hiding behind quivering lips; the spiky red hair atop his head a little more brown now, as if its fire had begun to fizzle out.
“What happened, Billy?” he pressed.
The rest of Billy’s body followed suit with his shivering lips. Gauging the warm temperature of the bathroom, the image in front of him explained itself at once. Billy quivered out of embarrassment, fear. It reminded Tommy of the way he himself had vibrated every time Billy Burgess crossed his mind. His attention traveled down Billy’s bare legs to the floor, noticing how the kid’s khakis were darker—much darker—in the very center of the piled fabric.
Every first-grader’s worst nightmare had happened to Bully Billy: he’d peed his pants.
“You better not say anything!” Tommy’s tormenter cried, a bit of spit crawling out the sides of his mouth.
Tommy raised his hands in innocence. “I’m not telling anyone,” he assured. He did what he’d seen Daddy do on occasion: putting an invisible key to his mouth, twisting it, and throwing it over his shoulder. “I’m sorry I walked in on you.” He spun his sneakers around, ready to leave (and yes, he meant what he’d said).
“Tiny—” Billy called out. He stopped himself there, waiting for Tommy to turn around. “Tommy . . . I can’t go out there like this. I tried wiping my pants with paper-towels. I even shook them in the air for a few minutes, hoping that’d make them look less wet.” He dropped his chin to his chest, checking out his ankles. “But they’re still soaking! You have to help me.”
Facing his enemy again, Tommy now started to feel taller than Billy. He lingered, relished in that final plea: ‘You have to help me.’ Playing pretend that he hadn’t seen the kid’s wet pants was one thing. A nice thing. But helping Billy? That seemed a bit much, their relationship considered. Besides, how could he lend a hand, anyway? Take off his own pants and give them to his bully? No, that was silly. And there wasn’t enough time to let the pants hang out to dry; Mr. Powers would come in here in a few minutes if the two weren’t back in the lunchroom. Wet pants didn’t mess around that way.
Wet pants! The words lit up in front of him, bold and bright. They’d been carried with his daddy’s tone, too—for obvious reason. He’d made Tommy laugh at the dinner table last night with those words, leaning into the tale of his failed Time-Saver in a light way. It’d looked like Daddy wet his pants at work after something went wrong with Juice Pants. Exactly what had went wrong, Tommy wasn’t quite sure. But the recollection didn’t leave him—those words still illuminated between him and Billy. They made Tommy clutch tighter the brown paper bag at his side. He took the hand with the note and shoved it in his pocket, letting the crumpled piece of paper stay there.
He began toward Billy, letting the memory of Juice Pants guide him.
“What are you doing?” Billy raised his voice. He retreated toward the toilet a little.
Tommy held the bag in front of him as he went onward, loosening his grip on it so he could send his other hand digging inside.
“If you think giving me your lunch is gonna—”
“Just quiet,” Tommy said, surprising himself with the way it came out. He felt the box inside, the sloshing liquid within it. He pulled it out and put it near Billy’s face. “Here’s what we’re going to do.”
Billy’s face twisted. “Drink juice together?”
“No.” Tommy’s voice was firm. Confident. Unwavering in the face of his longtime bully. “We’re going to give you Juice Pants.”
At first, Billy scoffed at the idea, looking so very close to whipping together some new insult before throwing it carelessly at Tommy. Nothing came out of his mouth, though. He merely stood there, listening to the small kid in front of him. Watching him dig in that brown bag, pulling out a second juice-box. A baggie holding a PB&J sandwich came next out of the little magician’s hat. Billy kept still (as instructed) even when Tommy rushed out of the stall, returning a few moments later with a rubber band he’d managed to source. Proceeding to assemble everything in such a seamless way that made Billy wonder if the kid had done this countless times before. It was—and he kept this word at a distance—impressive.
Two minutes later and they were out the bathroom door, hurrying across the vacant hall back toward the cafeteria. The collective, indiscernible chitter-chatter grew as they reached the open entryway. Standing in the middle of it, spinning around at the sound of two pairs of squeaking, squealing sneakers behind him, was Mr. Powers. He crossed his arms again, blocking Tommy and Billy’s path.
“Everything go all right in there, gentlemen?” he said with a lifted brow. He glanced down at Billy’s pants, the darker, damp spot going from his groin to partway down one of his thighs even more evident than before.
“Mister Garrison needs to look at the bathroom faucet, Mister Powers,” Tommy remarked about the school janitor, nocking his head toward Billy. That newfound confidence hadn’t yet left him. “It splashed out of the sink and got all over Billy. I saw it myself.”
Mr. Powers seemed to question this, still assessing the spot on Billy’s pants. He shook his head, coming out of it—maybe realizing he didn’t care to know if that wet area was because of something else or not. He stepped aside, gesturing for the kids to pass on by. “Just hurry up and finish your lunch, boys. Time’s a-tickin’ until that bell rings, and you know I can’t let any food out of this room.”
They nodded at this in unison and carried on, into the depths of the cafeteria. As they neared the tables, they began to part ways, Tommy headed toward the table at the center, Billy back to the one on the side of the room. Before they were too far from one another, Billy paused where he stood, flipping halfway around to catch Tommy still on the move.
“Tommy . . .” he called, at a soft level that only barely reached the kid. “Thanks for the help. You didn’t have to do that.”
Tommy didn’t say anything, only giving him the slightest single nod. Acknowledging the gratitude as well as agreeing that, yes, he definitely hadn’t had to do that. He’d helped his bully, and in reality it’d only hurt himself some more. Essentially, he’d intentionally set Billy up for another, perfect, elaborate joke. He’d even told him what to tell his buddies.
Tommy tried to ready himself for what was to come, returning to the bench-seat at his table with an attentive ear. Any minute now, he’d hear Billy cry out from the side of the room, cackling at how he’d made his own version of Juice Pants, wetting himself with the copycat invention on purpose to reenact Tommy’s daddy’s wet pants at work. His buddies’ laughter would follow, echoing all across the open cafeteria. Everyone but Tommy laughing, soon after.
But time ticked on without interruption to the constant, steady chatter of children. The clock above the lunchroom entrance moved, eventually prompting the dismissal bell to whistle across the room. The first- and second-graders rose from their tables, and the discussions dwindled as Mr. Powers began herding the students out of the lunchroom, toward their respective classes to follow.
The remainder of the day seemed to mirror in normality. As if it were just another day of school, with Billy Burgess and his buddies blending in with the rest of the classmates, not a chuckle overheard between any two of them. Not that Tommy had ceased to worry about the situation, fully expecting the dynamic in the room to change at any given moment. Readying himself for Juice Pants jokes that never arrived.
Only at the very end of the day, shortly after that final bell sounded—the call of freedom to all the students in all the grades in the building—did reality seem to finally poke its nasty head out from behind Tommy. Or rather, in front of him, as two of Billy’s buddies approached him, blocking his path in the middle of the hustling-and-bustling hallway. He felt his face wince naturally at this, as if preparing itself for a verbal punch to the cheek.
“Billy told us about the Juice Pants you made him,” one of them said. And boy, how Tommy’s fearful face had already begun to feel pained. Awaiting the punchline. “We were wondering . . .”
“Can you make us some?” the other kid finished the thought.
Tommy’s eyes widened, only barely. Still cautious, but now filled with a trifle of curiosity. “What?” he said, a whispered word almost meant for himself.
The first kid clarified: “Well, we know the sample you made him broke, leaking onto his pants. But he said they worked out well before that. He said it’d be a good way to sneak drinks and snacks out from the lunchroom.”
“Into class, even!” the other kid roared. “That’d be awesome!”
The worry within Tommy had settled more and more with each new comment from Billy’s buddies. The kids that had (so many times) rolled with amusement at Tommy’s expense, at Billy’s tough tunes about the countless Time-Savers from over the last year. Now, they seemed to shrink as well—like Billy had, in the bathroom. And they stayed that way for the rest of their short interaction, doubling (and then tripling) down on their request for Juice Pants of their own.
“I don’t think I can have any more until next week,” Tommy finally told them. “I need to make sure they don’t break again. Better ones than Billy’s from today.”
They thanked him, then went on their merry way, leaving Tommy to head toward the front of the school to walk home after what he thought a long, long, long day of school.
Right before he stepped outside, a double-tap reached his shoulder. He spun around, finding Billy standing there. The lowered sun from beyond the doorway splashed onto the kid’s head, making his red hair appear more on-fire than ever. His backpack hung down from just one of his shoulders, the other strap dangling free. A quick glance down revealed his tan khakis had gone completely dry. He wore a rather stoic expression, of which Tommy didn’t know what to make.
“You told them I made the Juice Pants for you?” Tommy said.
“Maybe I did,” Billy suggested, a bit of bite having returned. “Maybe I didn’t. Either way, don’t go bragging about it.”
“I won’t,” Tommy said, and motioned to leave again.
“But I could use an extra Juice Pants setup or two,” the red-haired kid continued, drawing Tommy back. “Please, I mean. Just in case. And if it’s fine, cranberry juice is my favorite.”
A grin broke on Billy’s face. On the kid once called Bully Billy. The grin didn’t fit him, Tommy thought. A sort of warmth existed in it that he’d never seen on the kid. And maybe he’d never see it on Billy again. That didn’t really matter either way. Because right then, Tommy felt tall.
Later that evening, just after Howard had tucked in his dear son for a night’s rest, his bare feet fumbled from the carpet onto a surface that seemed to slide, coming with it a swiping swoosh sound. He reached down in the dark room, landing his hand on a few scattered sheets of paper that he figured Tommy had left fanned out on the floor.
He kept the papers at his side as he left the room, careful to seal the welcome darkness within Tommy’s bedroom with a gentle closing of the door. Standing in the hallway, Howard lifted the several papers in front of him, blinking a few times as his vision tried to adjust to the new light.
Drawn in blues and reds and blacks and other colors of crayons were various shapes filling the pages. There were arrows pointing to many of these shapes, with labels at the tail-ends of them.
A rather random sight, seemingly doodles from the blossoming mind of a young kid. Until he flipped to another page. Similar sketches resided on this one, although at the very top, written large in black crayon (without a big, red slash going through the words), two words told him exactly what he was looking at.
He smiled wide, finding himself unable to shake it (although, he wasn’t trying to) as he gathered the sheets and slid them under his sleeping son’s doorway. Thinking about how he’d created something—someone—one-of-a-kind after all. A living, breathing invention. Did any other creation really make a difference when positioned next to that?