I didn’t want to say it out loud, but I needed Mom to know. “I don’t want to be a nobody anymore, the student the teachers forget exists, and the kid that everyone ignores. Do you know how it feels to even have the Sunday Teacher ignore you?”
Mom didn’t look at me while I talked. Instead, she rummaged through her giant beach bag. “At least no one bullied you. Wouldn’t that be awful always to have to worry about bullies?” She pulled out her oversized sunglasses and put them on. They swallowed her face. Why did she wear such ridiculously large glasses?
I picked at a loose string on my swim trunks. “They’d have to know I was there for that.” The string pulled out, and I rolled it between my fingers into a ball. “I really hope this move to Florida will change things for me, especially with this pool.”
“I don’t want you to set your hopes on it. Every other house here has a pool.”
In my cold home of Colorado, only the super-rich had pools in the neighborhood, and those kids had all the friends. We moved to Florida at the end of July for Dad’s radioactive-something-or-other job. I wasn’t sure what he did, except he worked with radiation.
“You mean I can really invite the entire fifth grade to a back-to-school party?” I asked mom.
“Yes, Tyrone, I already told you this a thousand times.”
“Ouch!” A fire ant bit my foot, and I quickly lifted it from the surrounding swarm. I flicked off a couple more of the little beasts. We didn’t have anything like those in Colorado. Meanwhile, the sun ruthlessly penetrated my skin, feeling like Mom had stuck me in the oven and turned it to broil.
“Hey, you need more sunscreen,” Mom said, shoving the slippery bottle into my lap. We’d only been there a week, and my face had crusted into a grilled red pepper. Mom watched me as I pretended to rub sunscreen on my face and then applied it to my body. I couldn’t put that oily stuff on my zit farm. I would rather start the new school with a red-leathered face than add a thousand zits to the millions germinating in my zit garden.
“What will we eat?” I asked, imagining 500 kids splashing in my pool and running around in my backyard. Mom would break out grilled burgers, hotdogs, chips, fries, candy bars, Coke, cotton candy—
“Pizza from Jack’s Pizza Pie, and—”
“Jack’s Pizza Pie,” I elevated my voice. Jack’s pizza was garbage in Colorado, and I imagined it garbage in Florida as well. “Mom, I am trying to make friends, not push them away.”
Mom took the bottle of sunscreen from me and squirted a blob into her hand. She had darker skin and didn’t burn as quickly as I did. “Jack’s will be fine. They are $5 a pizza. That way, I can buy a ton of them.”
“At least you will make it up in treats, right? Like candy bars, cotton candy, and Coke?”
“Knock off cola, probably no cotton candy, and I can get a bag of miniature candy bars.”
I folded my arms against my chest. “Why are you so cheap?”
Mom’s voice switched to her no-nonsense tone. “If you are going to be ungrateful, then we don’t have to have a party.”
“Ok, boomer, Jack’s Pizza will be fabulous,” I said, laying on the sarcasm.
At least my killer pool would score and lock in a million friends.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
“I put all of your pool party invitations in your backpack.”
I unzipped it. “There isn’t room to put any books in there.”
“Hand them out early. Then you will have room.”
I didn’t realize how painful it would be to hand them out.
“Here,” I said, shoving them in people’s faces.
Most people who took them stuffed them in their backpacks without looking at them or thanking me. “Be sure to read it. It’s for a party—” They would be gone before I could finish what I wanted to say. I felt like an absolute idiot. For each invitation I gave out, it felt like a ten-pound chain of anxiety fastened to me, dragging me. By the time I had passed every invitation out, I dragged 5,000 pounds of uncertainty. I felt like a cheugy.
“I can’t wait for your party.” “This is going to be the party of the school year.” “Let’s be friends.” I had imagined my invitations would bring me friends, everyone surrounding me, anticipating my party, and wanting to form an alliance with the dope new kid. Still, I guess that isn’t how popularity worked. You either have it or you don’t. And once again, I didn’t.
Mom was right. Most of the kids had pools in their backyards or their apartment complexes. The only thing that comforted me was that there wasn’t another Back-to-School party competing with me on Saturday.
I awoke Saturday morning feeling like a clan of fire ants were in my stomach, biting it repeatedly.
“Tyrone, no one RSVP. I have no idea how many pizzas to get. Did any kids tell you they were coming?”
I pierced my breakfast egg, and a dark yellow yoke spilled onto the plate. I didn’t look Mom in the eyes as I shook my head.
“Hmm, well, maybe we can start with four pizzas, and then if we need more, I will send your dad to get some.”
“I don’t think four pizzas are enough for the whole fifth grade.”
Spring. The toast popped up.
“Do you think the whole fifth grade is coming?” Mom turned her back to me and pulled the toast out of the toaster. A little white smoke drifted above the darkened black toast. Mom offered it to me, but I shook my head. I didn’t want that burnt, crusty thing.
A little after twelve, I paced around the pool. Officially, the party should have started fifteen minutes ago, but no one had arrived.
“Don’t worry. Most people show up late.” Mom tried to reassure me, but it didn’t work. Little alligators climbed into my belly to join the ants, and they all had a biting party inside my gut.
Two hours later, when no one showed up, I ran to my room and locked the door. This was worse than Colorado. At least there, I was a nobody. Here, I was the kid that no one came to his party.
I dived into the pool, the water cooling my burning skin. Two months into school, I was still a nobody. I would drown my sorrows. I sat at the bottom of the pool and held my breath as long as I could, submerge, pop up and breathe, then do it again. The colorful tile on the bottom reflected the sun and spread prisms of color. Dad said the tile was probably Moroccan tile, laid in intricate patterns. I noticed a small blue piece breaking away, and I pulled it up and kept it in my hand. When I left the pool, I put the tile in my bedroom.
The tile intrigued me with its iridescent blue and smooth surface. As I got ready for school the next day, I put the tile in my pocket.
At lunch, I unwrapped the tinfoil bundle Mom had packed me. Why Mom? I unveiled a pita stuffed with rice and black beans. I shoved the tinfoil into my pocket and looked around, fearing that the other kids would see my bizarre lunch; compared to their school lunch of chicken nuggets or the fancy lunches their dope moms had packed — not a soggy pita that looked stuffed with maggots and rat droppings. The good thing about being a nobody was no one noticed my lunch. I hid the pita in the brown paper bag, and when our table was excused for recess, I dumped it into the garbage. Another day with a starving stomach.
As I walked to the playground, my pocket vibrated. Had I accidentally kept my phone on me? I didn’t want the teachers to see it and take it away. I jammed my hand into my pocket to turn it off but didn’t find it — only the tinfoil and Moroccan tile. I held them in different hands, and neither vibrated, but when I returned them to my pocket, it again shook and soon heated up. I again pulled them out and looked at them in separate hands – nothing. But, when I placed them together, something happened.
The tinfoil turned red as Mom’s lipstick, and the tile seemed to jump and pulsate. Has anyone seen this? I looked around, and no one had eyes on me. To be safe, I ducked inside a large tire on the playground. The tile illuminated the darkness inside the tire.
“This is crazy.”
I pulled the tile off the tinfoil, and the vibration stopped. The tinfoil turned back to silver, and the heat disappeared. I put them together, and instantly they filled with energy and pizzazz. I put the tile and tinfoil back into the same pocket when the bell rang. The vibration distracted me in class as my pocket felt like I carried the Florida sun, heat, and energy moving into my entire body.
Nothing could prepare me for PE.
“Tyrone,” the gym teacher said after the soccer game. “Come to my office.” I trailed behind him, and he closed the door.
“In my fifteen years of teaching, I have never seen anyone play like you did. It was as if we had a pro soccer player out on the field.”
I beamed at his compliment.
“Seriously, where had that come from?”
Instinctively, my hand patted my pocket, but I shrugged.
“Why have you been holding back? You usually are the least motivated student in your class. Do you play competitive soccer? I mean, the way you sped around the other team with the ball and your aggression, it was golden. Pure golden.” He put his fingers in a tent formation and peered at me over them.
For the first time in my life, I think a teacher noticed me, and I felt lit, even better than the previous weekend I spent with my parents at Disney World.
“It’s Tyrone the Terminator,” the kids said when I returned to class. I am sure my burnt cheeks turned so red they scorched everyone’s eyes.
Kids touched me when I walked by, and they acknowledged me. I was a somebody!
When the bell rang to end class, a kid approached me.
“Wanna ride the bus home with me?” he asked.
Did I ever!
“Let me call my mom,” I said, pulling my phone out of the cubby. Of all the days to have the battery dead!
“My battery is dead.”
“No problem,” he said, handing me his. “You can call her on my phone.”
I took it from him, then looked at the numbers on his screen. “I can’t remember her phone number.” I felt sick.
His eyes got big as he looked at the time. “I gotta go, or I am going to miss my bus. Ask her if you can come over tomorrow.” I put my phone in my pocket, and the kid ran off.
“Sit by me, Tyrone the Terminator,” several kids said when I got on the bus. I tripped over my feet as I walked down the aisle and looked at everyone. This had never happened to me before. All I did was play a killer game of soccer in PE. Is that all it took to be popular? I looked at all the empty seats, so many options. Who should I choose?
Harold, the most popular kid in school, patted his seat and smiled at me. How was this happening?
“Dude, what you did on the soccer field was phenomenal.”
I had no idea how to take a compliment, so I shrugged.
Harold showed me his fidget toy as the bus bounced along the route. Everything he did seemed epic. Could I ever learn to be as cool as him?
“Wanna get off at my stop, and we can play some soccer?”
“Let me ask my mom,” I said, forgetting my phone was dead. I pulled it out of my pocket and dropped it into my lap. It was like holding a hot potato.
“Oh, I forgot, my phone is dead,” I said.
“No, it isn’t,” Harold replied, pointing to the screensaver of the Rocky Mountains.
My phone was charged 100%. This made zero sense. I hadn’t been mistaken earlier. It had been dead; it usually was by the end of school.
“What are you waiting for?” Harold said, “Call her.”
We sat in our seats the next day after school, watching the other buses pull out except ours. The bus driver opened the hood, messed around under it, and then stuck his head into the bus.
“Our battery is dead,” he said. “Hang tight.” He went into the school.
Would my Moroccan tile charge a school bus like it charged my phone? I had seen Dad charge our truck battery plenty of times. Usually, I don’t think I would have had enough bravery to stick my head under the school bus hood, but that tile filled me with energy and a personality that couldn’t be stopped.
“Where ya going?” Harold asked as I walked toward the bus exit.
“I am going to look at the battery. When I yell at you, start the bus. Do you think you can do that?”
Harold’s eyes widened as he looked at the keys from the steering wheel. “Yeah!”
I lay the Moroccan tile wrapped in the tinfoil on the battery. How much time will it need? I counted to a hundred, then yelled at Harold, “Start it.”
Vrrrrrrrr. The engine roared to life, and I slipped the tile back in my pocket and walked onto the bus. Everyone cheered for me, and as much as I tried to stop it, I pissed my pants.
What an idiot. How could I do that? Quickly I removed my sweater and tied it around my waist.
“You guys are going to get in trouble,” a girl said.
Harold got in her face and said loud enough for the whole bus to hear. “No one is going to tell on us. Is that clear?”
If I had made that threat, everyone would have ignored it, but when Harold tells you what to do, you do it.
The bus driver looked distracted as he walked toward the bus, but then his head popped up.
“Ahh, he notices the bus is running,” Harold said, jabbing his elbow into mine.
The bus driver peered under the hood, then closed it and came onto the bus, looking like my grandma does when she can’t find her teeth.
“Did someone mess with the bus?”
No one answered.
He scratched his head. “Well, this is a good thing. It would take them an hour to send a substitute bus out. Give me another second to tell them we don’t need it.”
I squirmed in my uncomfortably wet pants, hoping I wouldn’t leave a damp streak behind on the seat. At least Harold got off before me.
“Come home with me,” he said.
I wanted to, but I could already start smelling myself. “I can’t.”
Word spread in the secret underground channels of school, and Harold and I were the school stars for the rest of the week as the boys who fixed the bus. During gym time, I became the lead player in whatever sport we did. Suddenly, I was no longer a nobody. I was a somebody, not just a somebody, but one of the most popular kids at school. Honestly, I didn’t know how to handle it.
The Christmas dance was everything I dreamed it would be, with a hundred girls asking me to dance.
“I am Juliette.” The cutest girl in the school said after she dragged me onto the cafeteria floor. Cheap streamers hung from the ceiling as the teachers stood around the room with hands on hips, just waiting to bust a couple that danced too closely together – total Karens.
“What do you like to do for fun?” She asked. She slayed her outfit, and my fingers tingled.
Boom. A loud blast interrupted us, and the lights went out. Everyone screamed. The ceiling-to-floor windows saturated the cafeteria in light, and we could still see well.
All the kids surrounded the treat table, trying to figure out what to do without music. Juliette had rejoined her friends, and I had been robbed of a dance with her. After ten minutes, the janitor whispered something into the principal’s ear.
“Listen up, students,” he said. “We will give it ten more minutes, but if we can’t get the electricity back on, you will have to return to class.”
We all moaned. That would be a horrible way to end the year.
Harold elbowed me. “Hey, you think you can start the electricity like you did that bus?”
I had no idea how to do that. Harold had a kid distract the teacher at the east end, as we ducked into the hall.
“Where do they keep the engine or main battery to the building?” I asked.
The emergency doors were closed, locking off this section of the school from the rest.
“I have an idea; I don’t know if it will work.” I pulled my Moroccan tile/tinfoil combo out.
“What’s that?” Harold asked.
“What are you going to do with it.”
“Stick it in the outlet.”
Harold’s eyes went wide. “Bruh, that’ll kill ya.”
“Perhaps, but it would be worth it if I get to dance with Juliette again.”
Slowly I put my hand toward the outlet on the wall, my arm shaking like a smoothie in a blender. Kaboom! Before I realized it, the tinfoil had pushed into the socket, and a bolt of electricity like a sun flare slammed into me, throwing me across the hall. A Loud boom ricocheted off the walls. We heard gasps on the other side of the cafeteria doors.
“Bruh,” Harold screamed, sounding like a girl. He ran to my side. “Are you dead?”
My head filled like a tank had run it over, then returned and crushed my body.
“Bruh, you were like on fire.”
I looked at my skin, expecting to see it burning, but only saw black charred skin, much like the toast Mom usually made.
“How many fingers am I holding up?”
“What is your name?”
“What month is it?”
Harold hit me in the arm. “That was the stupidest thing in the world, but Bruh, it worked.” He pointed up at the lights glowing on the ceiling. “You restarted the electricity.” He pulled me up. “Can you walk?”
“I think so.”
It felt like someone had removed my brain and bones and filled me with silly putty and cotton.
We returned to the cafeteria, and the teacher at the door stopped us.
“Where have you two been?”
“We had to go to the bathroom,” Harold said.
The teacher looked me over. “Why are you so dirty?”
“We used charcoal in art class today,” Harold said, answering for me.
“You at least could have washed up while you were in the bathroom.”
“Do you want us to go now?”
“No. No more sneaking out. You can wash up after the dance.”
“Don’t tell anyone what happened,” I said to Harold.
But he did, and by the time school was excused for Christmas break, everyone had heard about me restarting the electricity. I hoped at least the faculty hadn’t heard. After school resumed in January, I was delighted I didn’t get called into the office.
“You are lucky they didn’t find out,” Harold said.
“No thanks to you.”
Harold put a five-dollar bill into the vending machine, and a bag of cookies and some change came out. The bag crinkled as he tore it open. The sweet smell of chocolate called to me. Hopefully, he will share.
Harold shoved a cookie into his mouth. “Bruh, I think you are more popular than me,” he said as little pieces of cookie crumbs torpedoed out of his mouth.
I tried to look like a sad puppy dog, hoping he would share his cookies, but he never did.
When I got home from school, I studied science at the kitchen table. It was a rare day when I had no friends to play with.
Dad came home and sat next to me.
“What are you up to?”
“Studying science,” I said.
“Ah, I love science.”
“I think you would like this section; it’s on radiology.”
“Ah, yes, I love radiology.”
“We are learning about guy counters.”
“Do you have one?”
Dad smiled as if I had put him on TV. He loved talking about himself, and usually, I didn’t listen. He pulled a little badge out of his pocket.
“This badge is like a mini-Geiger counter. I must wear it whenever I work around radiation. It informs me of how much radiation I am exposed to.”
Dad took his badge and clipped it to my shirt.
“Wow, what is going on?” Dad said, his shoulders stiffening and his jaw tightening. He stared at his badge on my shirt. His face looked like he watched a zombie walk into the kitchen. My heart raced.
“What is going on, Dad?” He got me worried.
“It has to be broke. There is no way. Hold on,” he said as he returned to his car. He held a large Geiger Counter like the ones in my science lecture. He turned it on, and it made all sorts of noises, and the numbers on the meters went crazy.
“What is going on, Dad?” I asked as my hands gripped the underside of my chair.
“Where have you been?” Dad snapped.
“What do you mean?” My voice raised.
“You have a radiation category four going on, close to a five. I don’t get this, but both meters say it. Where have you been? How do you feel? Do you feel sick? Do you feel sick to your stomach? Have you been puking? Do you feel weak?”
“No, I feel full of energy, fantastic, really.”
Dad towered over me. “Where have you been?” He seemed like a cop from the movies, interrogating me.
Tears burst out of my eyes, and my voice wavered. “I don’t know, Dad, I don’t know.”
“Somehow, you have had a massive radiation exposure or radiation on you right now. Where have you been?”
Instantly I knew what Dad was referring to. The Moroccan tile was in my pocket, but I didn’t want to give it up yet.
“I think it’s the tile in the pool.”
“That is ridiculous.”
“No, Dad, I think it is.”
Dad put his Geiger in a waterproof bag and measured the tile at the bottom of the pool to appease me.
“That is not it. Think again.”
Dad’s frantic behavior scared me. I hadn’t planned on telling him about my tile/tin foil, but he forced it out of me. I pulled it out of my pocket and dropped it on the table. Dad put the Geiger counter on it, and it jumped around like it had jumping beans inside it.
“That’s it. That’s it. What is it?” Dad asked, pulling the tinfoil off the tile.
“I don’t know, but they fill me with energy and power whenever they are together.”
I explained to Dad everything I had done with the tile combination.
Dad shook his head as a tear slipped out of his eye. “Your principal contacted me about all those incidents, but I told him he was delusional. There was no way you would take it upon yourself to fix the battery on the bus or restart the electricity at your school dance. How long have you been exposed to these deadly levels of radiation? You might die, and I could have done something about it initially, but I didn’t listen.” He rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes.
I had never seen Dad cry, and this scared me.
“I could have stopped this long ago.” Dad put his face in his hands. I placed my arm over his shoulder, and he hurried away.
“What are you doing, Dad?”
“I am sorry; hold on.” He ran to his car and returned with a led apron over his body. “You have so much radiation trapped in you. You are dangerous to be around.”
Dad took my tile/tin foil to work, and his scientists analyzed it. He had all the Moroccan tile removed from the pool and moved into his lab.
“I am sorry, you can’t go to school until your radiation levels drop,” Dad said.
Just like that, I was cut off from all my friends. Mom and Dad wore led aprons and wore Geiger badges when around me. The most incredible year of my life ended as the worst school year of my life. I was forced to homeschool.
By the start of sixth grade, my radiation levels dropped enough that Dad sent me to school. I expected to resume my social status as the school king, but everything was vastly different at the new middle school. My legend stayed at the elementary, not following me. Most of the kids I knew had changed over the summer, suddenly thinking they were all grown up and too good for everyone. I immediately resumed my title as a nobody. And the worst, Harold had moved away.
I pouted about this for the first month.
“You can try having a pool party,” Mom said as she helped me brainstorm ideas on how to get friends again.
She was right. I had spent the first month back to school waiting for the kids to come to me. I reminded myself that I had been popular, and it wasn’t just the radiation that had got me, friends. I had learned how to socialize and had done a pretty good job. I just had to trust myself and do it again.
I decided to host a Halloween costume party. I gave invitations to the entire school, hoping at least ten people would attend.
“What have you done?” Mom growled as she gave Dad two hundred dollars to buy more pizzas. “I think your entire school showed up.”
I smiled as I took a bite of Jack’s Pizza, my fake mustache pulling off onto the slice.
I had done it! I was no longer a nobody but somebody, and I didn’t need scary radiation levels to do it.
I didn’t know if I was going to die early from my deadly radiation exposure. I still felt great for the time, and Dad kept a close eye on me.
“I am sorry I failed you,” Dad often said, as his eyes always filled with tears.
“It’s okay, Dad. We are never promised a future. All we have is this very moment, and I plan to live my moment to the fullest.”
And I did.