“Who wants to go first?” Mrs. Hoary finally asked after a morning of eternal delay. Thirty-one hands shot into the air and thirty fell with a groan when the teacher chose Mary Lou Greebe. Daren sighed. Mary Lou was always first and her “tells,” if one could call them that, were always dumb. And not once did the teacher punish her for lying.
Mrs. Hoary sent her to the corner for telling the class how a flood had wiped out her house last Friday. A far-fetched story, especially since it hadn’t rained a single drop for two weeks. Daren laughed to himself as Mary Lou slinked into the corner, remembering all those other times he’d filled the same space. He knew how Mary Lou felt—confused, angry, ashamed.
“Why does everyone always pick on me?” he’d once demanded from deep in the corner.
“Because you’re a storyteller,” Mrs. Hoary had answered. “A little fibber.” She didn’t realize that kids liked him even less when he didn’t tell stories.
But now it was Mary Lou’s turn to splash salt water on the cinder blocks. He smiled.
One after another of Daren’s classmates took the spotlight in front of the room. Warren Roe showed off his fossil collection, grinning non-stop at the “oohs” and “ahs” as he held up trilobites, brachiopods, petrified coral, and crinoid stems imprinted in the black shale. Marcy Weaver told a wicked cool story of how her cat spit up a fur ball. “It was awesome,” she insisted. Kathy Myers passed around some homemade cookies that made Daren want to spit up his own fur ball.
While the cookies progressed around the room, Tree Trunk, hand covering his right eye, snuck into the classroom like a gorilla tip-toeing through a church service. Mrs. Hoary slayed the roving beast for being tardy by taking away his turn at Show-n-Tell. He spent the rest of the time moping at his desk, sucking down Kathy Myers’ cookies as if they were actually edible.
Finally Daren’s turn came. He scooped up the shoebox and bounded to the front of the room.
“I got this yesterday.” Daren removed a fist-sized wedge of white marble from the shoebox. He held it up. “It’s a piece of a gravestone, see?” He pointed to the weathered characters etched onto its surface. “Says ‘BORN 17’ and the rest is gone, but it’s old for sure.”
Daren smiled nervously at Mrs. Hoary. She leaned forward in her chair, shoulders raised, mouth scrunched into an expression that said, “Be careful, Daren Lloyd Jensen.” He knew that look well, understanding he had little room to blur the boundaries of truth, despite his excitement. You must show them to change them, the old man had said. Daren refocused his attention on his wide-eyed classmates and continued.
“And what’s more …” he took a breath. “It’s magic.”
Mrs. Hoary sat back with a huff. Her mouth fell open. A buzz spun around the room.
“This rock can make all my dreams come true,” Daren continued. “All I have to do is wish, and poof! I get what I want.”
Melissa Rogers raised her hand slightly. “How do you know, Daren?” she asked, her voice soft and quivery. “How do you know it will make all your dreams come true?”
“‘Cuz an old man in the woods told me so. He said this was his stone, but I could have a piece of it if I wanted.” You must show them. Daren looked at his feet. “And because of the snake.”
“Snake?” Melissa said, squirming.
Daren glanced at Mrs. Hoary. Her face radiated the color of cherry Kool-Aid. He redoubled his effort to keep all exaggeration out of his story, focusing only on the truth.
“Yeah, a snake,” he said, looking back at Melissa’s freckled, questioning face. “On my way home last night, I saw a garter snake all squished on the road. So I pulled this stone out of my duffel bag and said, ‘I wish this snake were alive,’ and poof! it puffed up and crawled away. Never did catch ‘im, though.”
“Daren Lloyd Jensen!” Mrs. Hoary screamed, slamming a fist onto the desk. “You are lying!”
“But … but I can show—”
“No!” she roared, standing now. “You’ve shown us quite enough already, young man. You’ve had your warnings and I assume you’ve had your fun, but it’s time you learned a lesson called ‘telling the truth.’ I cannot believe …”
His teacher’s words clattered like hail against his eardrums, but he didn’t listen. Why doesn’t she believe me? Tears trickled down his flaming cheeks. I am telling the truth. And it was the truth. The snake did crawl away, escaping into the weeds. When he arrived home, his Mom had served pot roast and red potatoes—just what he’d wished for. And his Dad had even bought him a new pair of Nike Bruin lowtops, exactly what he had wanted. Plus, he’d finished all his math homework. In fact, he’d completed all the exercises in his math book, to the last page, and he understood everything. It was magic. Good magic. So how come no one believed? No one ever believed.
“… now, young man.” Mrs. Hoary pointed, not at the corner, but at the door.
“To the office. Go! And take that silly rock with you.”
Mary Lou Greebe snickered. Melissa Rogers shrank in her seat. As Daren stomped out the door, he caught Tree Trunk staring at his shoebox, his right eye now calm. His menacing grin had returned.
Mr. Harper, East Meadows Elementary School principal, sentenced Daren to a half-day suspension.
“And tomorrow,” the principal said, picking up the phone. “We’re going to have a nice little chat with your parents.”
Daren sank deeper into the black vinyl chair, hugging the shoebox to his chest, and watched Mr. Harper’s fingers pound out his home phone number on the buttons. He made a wish. … Darn, he thought, as Mr. Harper caught the phone cradle before it slid off the desk.
A puzzled expression washed over the principal’s face.
“Told you it was true,” Daren mumbled.
“What’s that?” Mr. Harper stammered, then, “Uh, Mrs. Jensen? Um, we’re sending your son home right now. … No, nothing like that, just a disciplinary measure. …”
Daren’s rear-end tingled in anticipation as he trudged toward home. Normally a half-day off would be groovy, but now all he could think about was survival. “I didn’t lie,” he mumbled, holding the shoe box tightly to his chest. “I—”
Something slammed into him from behind. Daren hit the blacktop hard, sliding on his stomach as a crushing weight fell onto his back. “Hi, twerp,” Tree Trunk wheezed.
“Get … off … of … me!” Daren panted. Gravel pressed into his chest. His ribs groaned.
“Ooh, temper, temper,” Tree Trunk said. “I’ll get off as soon as you give me that neat-o rock of yours.”
“Wha—?” Daren gasped. “What rock?”
“This one.” Snickering, Tree Trunk shoved the piece of marble into Daren’s face, clobbering the bridge of his nose. “Guess I really didn’t need to ask for it, since you threw it on the ground.”
Daren squirmed and kicked, blood pouring from his nostrils, but the massive weight pinning him to the ground wouldn’t budge.
“Finders keepers, losers weepers. Ain’t that right, twerp.”
“No!” Hot tears merged with the blood on the asphalt.
Tree Trunk snorted. “Now maybe all my wishes’ll come true. For once.” The weight lifted, leaving Daren lying in the bully’s shadow. He looked up just in time to see Tree Trunk tuck the stone under his shirt. “Thanks, twerp.”
“It won’t work for you, jerk wad,” Daren sobbed. “It only works for me!”
“Uh-huh. Keep yapping, twerp. Maybe someday someone will actually believe you. Not today, though.”
The bully tromped up the road. Daren raised himself onto his knees, gasping for breath as his archenemy just walked away with his stone. All his anger and frustration boiled to a festering head. He was tired of being Tree Trunk’s punching bag, fed up with stolen lunches and sick of dealing with the Charles Atlas wannabe trudging away from him right now. Three strikes and you’re out. But this time it wouldn’t be Daren Lloyd Jensen. Oh, no. Not this time.
“Hey, Parker!” Daren yelled.
Tree Trunk spun around.
“Yeah,” Daren said, choking back his tears. “Yeah, you dork. I’m gonna make a wish, something I’ve been wishing for, for a long, long time. I’m gonna show you.”
The color drained completely out of Tree Trunk’s face. “But … but you can’t,” the bully sputtered. “I got the stone.”
“And I told you it won’t work for you.” Daren’s eyes darted to the lump under Tree Trunk’s T-shirt. “When are people gonna learn to believe me?” He stretched his hand toward the bully’s torso.
The T-shirt stretched away from Tree Trunk’s stomach. His mouth dropped open and his right eye exploded again into a raging twitch. He tore at the bulge under his shirt.
“Stop it!” he screeched as his T-shirt flew up around his head. The piece of marble thumped to the road and slid toward Daren.
Daren snatched it up. “And now for my wish.”
He looked at Tree Trunk …
… made a wish …
“I believe you! Don’t do—”
… and laughed.
Show-n-Tell the next day was like watching oil turn into asphalt. Mary Lou Greebe told how her father had replaced a fuse in their downstairs fuse box with a penny. Marcy Weaver droned on and on about feline grooming. The only break in the monotony was Kathy Myers’ surprisingly good date squares, which she later confessed were made by her mother. Warren Roe forgot his fossils, making the entire experience a living H-E-double toothpicks. While one after another of Daren’s classmates put each other to sleep, Mrs. Hoary sat quietly at her desk and smiled. How does she do that? he thought.
Daren looked around the room, counting the number of classmates who’d yet to share their trifling tales. His eyes stopped on Roy “Tree Trunk” Parker’s empty desk. He hadn’t bothered showing up today, and Daren had heard rumors he’d never made it home from school yesterday, either. Poor Roy, Daren thought as he walked to the front of the room, cradling the orange-and-white shoebox in his scraped-up arms. Poor, poor Roy.
Mrs. Hoary’s smile faded when Daren placed the familiar shoebox on the podium and opened the lid. “Today I have something really cool,” he said. “Not a magic rock, but something I found yesterday that everyone will believe.”
He reached into the box and pulled out a gigantic bullfrog …
With a twitching right eye.
Copyright ©2015 by David C. Hughes