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art by Alan Bao

Ten Seconds

Max had the worst malady any middle school kid could have: he was different. Not different in a visible way; teachers at least tried to quash that kind of teasing. They were less proactive about protecting students that could see into the future, even a mere ten seconds.
Ten seconds of precognition was hardly the most useful gift in the world. Max could predict the answers to questions the teacher asked during class, but not on tests. Knowing where the kickball was going didn't keep him from being picked last every time. And being innately difficult to prank only made him a favorite target.
Wednesdays were usually the worst. Fridays he was largely ignored while kids looked forward to their weekend adventures, adventures they recounted to friends in detail the following Mondays. He always dreaded midweek. So it was extra nice that it was a Wednesday that Belinda Johnston joined the class.
Most of the class had finished their spelling homework and Max could hear several boys and even one girl behind him plotting a simultaneous spitwad assault. He knew he was the target. He was always the target. Ten seconds warning was enough to evade a single spitwad, not eight. He was trying to decide if telling the teacher was worth the effort when he realized the door was about to open and the fattest twelve-year-old any of them had ever seen was about to walk in.
The joke wasn't even his idea. Someone else--a girl only a rung above Max on the social ladder--was going to say it and the class was going to laugh and cheer. Cheer for another pariah? Why couldn't they cheer for him? Didn't he deserve, for once in his life, to not feel alone?
"Thar she blows!" Max shouted, stealing the joke.
Everyone looked up in time to see fat Belinda Johnston waddle through the door. Half the fabric of her t-shirt was lost within crevices at her breasts and waistline. Her glasses pinched her face like a red marshmallow in tweezers. She leaned backward. She breathed through her mouth. Everything about this girl begged for harassment.
The class erupted. Max had heard the sound many times, but for once it was the cheers and not the laughs that belonged to him. To his surprise, this felt no better.
The teacher made Max stand in the corner for ten minutes, as if he was a naughty first grader. Ten minutes of secret thumbs ups and nods of approval. It was the most miserable ten minutes of his life. When he was allowed to return to his seat, he found Belinda in the desk beside his.
"Sorry," Max said, not just because the teacher had demanded it.
"No prob," Belinda said. "I knew you were going to say it."
"You did not," Max said. "Ten minutes ago you didn't even know me. Anyone that did know me wouldn't have expected that."
She shrugged. At least Max assumed that's what caused the ripple through her chins. "You were staving off a spitwad attack. I don't blame you." She turned around and handed the boy behind her an open marker. He hadn't asked for it, she just did. The boy seemed as puzzled as Max, but he took it.
"How could you know about the spitwads?" Max said.
"I'm special."
The boy behind Belinda giggled. "Yeah, speeecial." He smacked himself in the chest with a limp wrist. He had forgotten the marker in his haste to score the joke and smeared ink all over his shirt with the gesture.
Belinda smiled and took the marker back.
Max did his best to stifle a laugh while the boy wiped vainly at the black marks. He turned back to find Belinda carefully placing three sheets of notebook paper on the floor between their desks.
"It's hard to catch me by surprise," Belinda said. "I'm always ready."
"Not for this bunch." Max knew a kid from the back row was already planning another strike. "You can't always be ready. And these jerks are relentless." Max felt a little ashamed at his sense of relief that Belinda was already becoming the new favorite target.
The teacher turned away and the back row boy made his move. A classic gum-in-hair welcome to the new fat girl. He crouch-ran to her chair, slipped on the paper on the floor and landed on his tailbone.
Max stared at Belinda while the gum boy stood, rubbed his butt, and hobbled back to his seat. "You really knew?"
Belinda winked a pudgy eye. And for the first time in his life, Max did not feel alone.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, December 26th, 2011

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