Eric had a retainer and glasses with the strap-thing that went around his neck so he couldn’t drop them, but he’d eat anything you told him to: crayons, pencils, homework packets with the staples, his boogers, your boogers, anything. That’s why we let him sit with us. We stayed in the cafeteria until the teachers shooed us outside. It was November and crazy cold out, but I think they figured it was okay because it wasn’t snowing yet. They needed their break from us.
Eric was one of the ones who hid in the bathroom stalls. He’d sit on a toilet and read one of his bloody fantasy books. Most of us played soccer even though we didn’t really like it or know how to play. Hundreds of us chased one ball with our hands in our pockets just to keep warm.
In December the snow came up to our waists, and the teachers finally gave us inside recess. Everything we’d gotten into since kindergarten got popular again. Ainslee brought back Cat’s Cradle. She was the only one who could do the actual Cat’s Cradle trick, and we made a circle around her while she gave her seminars. Ben was the best with the yoyo—around the world, rock the baby and all that. I was a pogs fiend. I had the inch-thick rubber Super Slammer, and I would smash through piles of them. We played for keeps, and soon I had almost every pog in our class. They could buy them back with cash or snacks.
We hadn’t gone outside for recess in over a week, and I could tell we were getting to Mr. Perry. He stared at the solitaire game on his computer screen and scratched his bald head until there were red spots. He was the coolest teacher and never got mad, but he started ignoring us. Ainslee was the only one he’d talk to, so all questions and bathroom requests had to go through her. She handled everything so well: running the class, her seminars, and somehow finding time to train for the upcoming Presidential Fitness Challenge. She did diamond push-ups in the corner and slipped out of class during quiet times to run up and down the stairs.
The next week Eric’s dad surprised him during lunch with a huge cardboard box he was out of breath from carrying. He looked just like he should’ve, goofy glasses and blue slacks. We fought to read the label on the side of the box: K’NEX in big letters. I’d only seen K’NEX in commercials. They were like Legos for older, smarter kids. You had to be really smart to do them. Eric dug through the bags of pieces and found the instructions. It was the new roller coaster set with three loops. It was a massive undertaking.
Eric tried to set up the site in our classroom on the tile floor by the sink, but Ben and the other guys kept stealing bags of pieces and playing keep away. “C’mon, guys!” Eric said, reaching with his little arms.
“He’s playing right into their hands,” Ainslee whispered to me, and we came up with a plan. She went and talked softly with Mr. Perry for a minute and came back to announce that the tiled area was reserved for Eric and his roller coaster. You had to have his permission to touch anything, “and…if we can’t handle that we’ll have silent recess until Christmas break,” she added. She was smart and brave and pretty. She wore overalls everyday, and her one pigtail would magically switch sides when you looked away. The truth was that Mr. Perry didn’t care what we did anymore. We could come and go from the classroom whenever, but everyone sat on the edge of the carpet and watched Eric separate the pieces into different piles.
I went to check out a high-stakes pogs game I’d heard fifth-grader Philip Haskins was running out of Mrs. Moore’s room. She was asleep in her chair, and the desks were pushed to the walls to make room for everyone crowding the game. A few looked up at me like I must’ve been lost, but I opened my backpack and showed them the foot-long tubes of pogs, and they cleared a path for me.
They threw official pogs around like they were tootsie rolls. Philip declared my Super Slammer to be illegal, so I had to use a thin plastic one like everyone else. I was nothing without it, and I lost everything, first my official pogs then all my off-brand ones.
I retreated back to the classroom, and Ainslee was too busy helping Eric to notice how sad I was, even when I stood over her holding the empty tubes. They worked fast without talking, and soon the foundation began to take shape. I dropped my Super Slammer on the carpet and said I didn’t want it anymore and heard the guys fight for it. I sat in the corner by the window where I’d held Ainslee after Sonny the class gerbil died, where we’d almost kissed a couple times. I watched the snow pile up and wished it was summer. I wanted to go as high as I could on the swings and forget the room.
But I couldn’t keep away from the action, and the next day I got sucked into a pog game with some first graders. They didn’t understand all the rules, and it was hard to keep them focused. I’d just lost the PB&J sandwich Mom packed for my lunch when Ainslee found me and said Eric wanted me on the crew. She’d never been prettier. I was so grateful, and I hoped it’d been her idea.
We didn’t have class at all anymore, and Mr. Perry didn’t take attendance. He could barely sit up in his chair while he played solitaire. Christmas break was coming up fast, and Eric constantly reminded us we had to hit this deadline. 12/15 took up the whole dry-erase board. I got Ben on the crew, and Eric sat on the counter by the sink and directed us. We trusted his vision. The lunch bell didn’t ring, and we worked straight into the afternoon. We got calluses on our fingertips from snapping the hard plastic together.
We made huge progress everyday, and the structure got bigger and bigger but didn’t look any more like a roller coaster than before. I didn’t want it to seem like I was questioning his judgment, but I had to ask Eric if I could take a quick look at the instructions. “Oh, I threw those away forever ago,” he said. Only people working on the project were allowed inside the classroom. Everyone else waited outside the doorway and begged for a chance, including Philip Haskins and his crew of fifth graders who’d bullied their way to the front. Mr. Perry pushed past them all, but Eric said his fingers were too big to handle the pieces.
After working all morning one day, I went to get a drink from the water fountain, and when I came back Mr. Perry was blocking the doorway. He said my help was no longer needed. I told him I had to talk to Eric, but he said it was Eric who’d instructed him not to let me through. I told him that couldn’t be because I’d been nothing but loyal and hardworking, but he just nodded toward the mass of kids behind me. I walked down the rows of bums lining the hallway and got pelted with spitballs. A protractor whizzed past my head like a frisbee and shattered on the wall.
I sat down at the end of the line and looked at my watch. December 20th. Christmas break had started five days before. I suddenly felt exhausted from the grueling weeks of labor and started to drift off until I thought I heard a noise that sounded like Ainslee. It sounded like the cries she’d made when Sonny passed. I got up and walked closer, and Ben stepped in front of me and said, “What’s up, man?” with a fake smile. He’d been cut from the crew a while back, but I think he’d somehow worked his way back into Eric’s favor. Maybe he was Eric’s man on the outside, feeling us out for anti-Eric sentiment. I didn’t respond and he got right in my face. I turned around and started back for my spot at the end, but then I thought about Ainslee all alone with him. I made a break for it and flew by Ben and ran straight at Mr. Perry. He held his arms out but I slid headfirst between his legs.
Ainslee was in our corner, and I yelled for her. She lifted her head and her face was wet, and her scrunchy barely hung on to her limp pigtail. I put my arm around her, and she cried onto my neck like before. Mr. Perry picked me up off my feet and cupped me to his chest like a football. I kicked, and I saw Ben pulling Ainslee by the arm. We were chucked out into the hallway, and the door slammed behind us. We heard Eric yell and Mr. Perry beg and promise there would never be another breach.
Ainslee said he’d fired her for no reason too, after everything she put into the project. I scratched her back and said he’d clearly gone crazy with power. A few minutes later Ben and Mr. Perry stumbled out into the hallway, and the door slammed shut again. Mr. Perry stood with his face an inch from the door, waiting, but it stayed locked, and we heard Eric grunt and smash stuff. This went on for weeks.
Mr. Perry sat by himself at the other end of the hall, and Ainslee worried about him. He’d lost a lot of weight, and he was talking to himself. He pulled on his side-hair until it stuck straight out. He’d been the coolest teacher, and I was worried about him too, but I had to get away from that classroom.
We hadn’t been eating. We hadn’t been breaking for lunch, and suddenly we were so hungry. Me and Ainslee wandered the school and tried every doorknob and went into every unlocked classroom. We knocked desks over and emptied them out onto the floor. We rifled through teachers’ drawers and feasted on bags of leftover Halloween candy. This only awoke our hunger, and we were drawn to the cafeteria without thinking. We climbed over the counter and found a case of chocolate milk in the fridge and fish patties in the freezer. We stared at the frying patties in the pan and took them off while they were still cold inside.
We sat at the table we always sat at and stuffed the patties in our mouths with our hands and chugged chocolate milk and chucked the little empty cartons on the floor. There was enough to last us forever, and I promised Ainslee I’d never touch another pog again. Soon I was full, and I couldn’t help but wonder if Eric had finished, if the cart could really go around the loops and not fall off the tracks. How big was it?
I thought I heard something like a faraway gasp, but I didn’t trust my senses anymore. Ainslee’s eyes got shifty, and she pushed her tray away. She stood up and stepped over the table bench. “I just feel like standing,” she said and massaged her stomach and burped. There was another gasp, maybe.
She took off. I chased her, but she was in such better shape. All that chocolate milk sloshing around in my stomach gave me a cramp, and I had to stop and walk. The gasps echoed louder through the dark halls, louder and louder, Mr. Perry’s deep gasp. I turned the corner onto our hallway and was blinded by the light coming from the open doorway. Ainslee made some kind of sound, but I couldn’t tell what it meant.
She didn’t turn her head away from it when I came in. My eyes cleared up, and the K’NEX structure was bigger than Mr. Perry. It was the head of a smiling girl. She had one pigtail and was beautiful, an ode to his secret love. “I couldn’t let you see it. That’s why,” Eric told Ainslee, and she took his hand, and they went inside her head and made sounds like none of us were there.