Read Runt Online

Authors: Nora Raleigh Baskin

Runt (8 page)

I hope I said ma'am. I mean, I think I did. But I always remember myself being politer in my memories. And taller.

What? I didn't actually say those things. Just saying that I could have. They were all true.

She held up two of her gnarled fingers to demonstrate just how close I was. I appreciated the visual, really I did, but I wanted those disgusting fingers out of my face.

Yup, she did it again. For the sake of humanity, get your fingers out of my face, woman.

Get it? Like an obtuse triangle. She's wide. That makes sense, right?

In her defense, this may have been due to the two giant balls of earwax firmly planted in each of her ears. It was like someone had left a candle burning in there overnight. I swear.

I would think that I had somehow gotten myself into a situation that is a thousand times worse than the one Gregor Samsa found himself in. Also, I would not have responded nearly as calmly.

Seriously, though, why do we always do this to the new kid? Oh, hey sonny, nervous on your first day in a new school with no friends? Well, do you want to go up in front of the entire class and be asked oddly personal questions? Oh, no? Not at all? You'd rather sit in the electrical closet all day? Well, let's do it anyway.

Which I was thrilled about, by the way.

There were so many different things I could have said, so many other things I liked to do for fun. Why didn't I say any of them? It would have made everything so much easier. Video games? Yup, that's a better answer. I bet it still would have turned out better if I had responded with “cooking” or “making origami swans.”

Don't get me wrong, I did like to play basketball then. Still do, I guess. I just wouldn't ever have defined myself by the fact that I like to play basketball. And at this school if you say you like to play basketball in the fourth grade, you're claiming that you're Michael Jordan.

I should have said no. Should have said that I misspoke. Basketball? Me? No way. I meant to say Quidditch. Yeah, with the broomsticks and everything. Yup, that's what I do for fun.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had just entered into a covenant. It was a game in the same sense that Jumanji was a game. Once you're in it, you can't really ever get out.

What I got? I got common sense! Where is your common sense, young Matt? Get out of there. Run! Go hang out in the band room with the band geeks. Go find some science nerds to befriend. Or even just meander on over to the football field and see what's going on over there.

He would have made fun of me mercilessly that day, most definitely. Oh, yeah, you play basketball, huh? Nice handle, nice shot, you suck. Get off my court. But then that would have been it. I would have been out of sight for him, wouldn't have mattered.

They were Skechers. Embarrassing? I wouldn't say so. If I could go back and put on a pair of shoes that day would I have chosen Skechers again? Highly doubtful.

To be fair, it was the tragic, yet ever-so-common in middle school, mushroom cut. Why do parents let their kids suffer the humiliation?

Or if the buffet is closing soon and you're in a rush.

That was one of his favorites. You get it, because I'm a girl? Matt→Madeleine. Yeah, Stewart is a real thinker.

I still don't remember blowing the first one.

Those are always the ones that get you. If you think you crushed a test and then find out you did anything less than spectacular it will be a letdown. Always have low expectations, y'all.

Stewart always had to be in the middle. Of everything. Talk about metaphors, man.

The hollow sound that a basketball makes on a middle school hallway is indelible in my mind. It is equal parts terrifying and rousing. Kind of like the bell sound in
Law and Order
or the theme song from
The X-Files.

It was tuna fish. It smelled bad. It tasted absolutely delicious.

Looking back, I can describe it as the feeling of reaching a tipping point. I'm not sure why but I was nearing it. All these little things were adding up, but they'd never break me. Something much bigger was necessary.

Oh no, the terror of ruining a sixth-grade travel basketball playoff game! How would I ever have been able to forgive myself?


My mother said she wanted
to take me shopping for a new dress for Miss Robinson's wedding. She said that, but she also said if it rains during a wedding that's good luck for the marriage, and I find that hard to believe. The ceremony is this afternoon and, of course, no shopping, no new dress. And bad weather is forecast.

The dogs knew it was coming. They huddled around in the kitchen all day, all of them. Patty-Lou didn't want to go outside to pee this morning, even though it wasn't raining.

“C'mon, Patty,” I tried, holding open the kitchen door. It was actually sunny and beautiful outside.

The calm before the storm, my mother said, but she was still in bed.

Patty-Lou didn't budge. She was a beagle mix, a hound-ish, long-nosed dog with floppy ears and the sweetest face.

“What's the matter?”

Patty was one of our regulars. She was always comfortable here, but her owners did say she was terrified of thunderstorms, and requested that Patty-Lou get to sleep with one of us if she got scared. My mother promised and then winked at me when Patty Lou's mom wiped her eyes and headed to her car to drive away.

Now I had to get dressed. I had to get ready for Miss Robinson's wedding. I didn't know how many kids would show up, but I wanted a good seat. I wanted Miss Robinson to see I was there, that I made the effort so that she could like me again. I had made a special card for her. My mother said I should make it for both the bride and the groom, but I wanted it to be just for Miss Robinson, so I made two.

I wrote a haiku.

I grabbed Patty-Lou by the collar and yanked her. “Now pee,” I ordered. She promptly sat down, making her body as small as possible and looked up at me. If dogs could cry her eyes would be welling up with tears.

“No, no sad-and-puppy face.”

Laurie's mother was coming by to pick me up in twenty-five minutes. I pretended not to see Patty-Lou. “Get outside now. I don't have much time.”

I know you are not supposed to talk to dogs like that, giving out too much information that they can't understand. It just confuses them. All they hear is noise and they freeze up.

Why didn't I lay out my outfit last night? As if I kept believing my mom and me were going to go shopping, all the way up until yesterday? And then up until dinner? And then all the way until I went to bed and got up this morning, five minutes ago. So I put on my last year's party dress. The one I wore to the spring concert and Aunt Joan's funeral. It's fine.

But now I needed to let out seven dogs and feed them all before I left.

I was late. Everything needed to go perfectly. Everyone needed to understand they had to hurry, eat, and do their business. But it wasn't going to be Patty-Lou, was it? She was just going to make me late and make me look stupid, so I kicked her—hard—in the underbelly of her soft unprepared body.

The sound that came out of her mouth was awful, a high pitched yelp escaped in a whoof of air. Patty-Lou followed her front legs, low to the ground, and moved slowly outside, her tail tucked and her head down. She took a few steps out onto the lawn.

“Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no.” I ran out into the soggy grass and dropped to my knees. She didn't smell so good, but I wrapped my arms around her little waist anyway. “I am so sorry. I am so so sorry,” I said to Patty-Lou.

I was getting grass stains on my dress, on my white tights, but I didn't care.

Our lawn was an embarrassment. Torn up from digging, yellow from pee, dried out. In fact, grass only grew in small patches here and there like a blotchy rash. Patty-Lou slowed down, turning her head as if she didn't want anyone to watch her do her business. Dogs are like that. They like a little privacy even though they'd sit right in front of you and lick their private parts all day if you'd let them. But they like to pee and poo in private.

So I looked away, back toward the house, as soon as I was sure she was squatting down and going. And just like that it started to rain. It was just little drops, hitting the concrete in dark circles. I looked up at the sky, which,
when you think about it, is kind of a funny thing to do. It was still sunny outside but the rain pattered loudly. The weatherman on TV was predicting a hurricane. They'd already given it a name. A girl's name.

It used to be that hurricanes were given only girls' names and then someone complained, probably a girl, saying that it gave girls a bad reputation. And now they alternate with boy's names, to try to look fair. And the news was telling everyone to fill their bathtubs with water.
And to stock up on canned food and flashlights. People who lived near the shore were being advised to leave their homes.

But Miss Robinson's wedding had not been canceled, at least not the ceremony part—that was going to start very soon, any minute now, and Patty-Lou hadn't moved. She was sitting still, waiting for me after she peed, like I held all the answers. Like I could really hurt her if she did the wrong thing. Like I was in charge or something. I saw she was starting to shake, tremble like an egg in a frying pan.

There are some kinds of hurt that are just too much to feel.


Jolie liked the monkeys best,
so whenever they went to the Bronx Zoo it was the monkey house the whole family trooped to first. It would also be their last stop on the way out at the end of the day. Jolie always loved the monkeys.

It was hard for Stewart, at least when he was younger, that every whim and every wish of his sister's was answered while his remained secondary, even though Jolie was two years older than he was.

“I'm hungry,” Stewart complained.

“We're going to eat lunch at the cafe. Just be patient, baby.”

He hated being called baby, especially while his sister
was the one in the wheelchair being forwarded, full tilt, to the monkey house.

“But if we don't get to Asia World, there will be a huge line for tickets,” Stewart said. He wasn't hungry at all, he realized.

His dad said, ruffling Stewart's hair, “There's plenty of time for everything. We have all day.”

They passed the zoo center and took the path to the right. Asia World was to the left.

When he was a toddler, Stewart used to cry that he wanted to ride in a wheelchair too. He would scream and bend his body and arch his way out of his stroller or his father's arms, or just writhe around on the ground. His sister would just watch and shake her head.

Oh, Stew. You don't really want to ride in the wheelchair. You need to appreciate what you have. Your legs, your lungs.

But no matter what anyone said, and long after he stopped whining about it, Stewart wanted to be pushed around in a wheelchair, at least every once in a while. Then he started to notice how people looked at his sister when they went out. They either looked or tried to look like they weren't looking. They were disgusted, he could tell, by her running nose and running eyes, her lolling
head. He hated them when they looked, and he hated when they looked away.

He did. He appreciated his legs, and his arms, and his lungs. How he could run faster, faster than most. Participate in gym. Swim and play kickball. His father was so proud of him for making the Biddy-All-Star basketball team in fourth grade. He was unusually athletic, unusually strong for his age. Of course, he appreciated that and he hated himself for it.

“Here we are,” Stewart's mother sang out.

“Again,” Stewart mumbled, but only his sister heard him.

The Monkey House was one of the oldest original buildings at the zoo. It had huge alabaster pillars flanking its majestic entrance. Just above the door, carved in stone, was the bas-relief of a pensive monkey, resting his arm over his bent knee, staring out at the world. Stewart and his family took the handicapped ramp and pushed their way inside, where the outside world disappeared.

It didn't look quite the same as when it opened in 1901. Now the monkeys lived behind glass, or half-glass walls, in as close to real environments as could be created. Living moss-covered trees, thick hanging vines, moisture-filled air,
and monkeys running, jumping, screaming, climbing on branches, and hanging from their tails.

It was crowded with people. Couples with cameras, families snapping pictures with cell phones, people pointing, clapping, ooing and ahhing. Everybody, it seemed, loved the monkeys.

The Internet is rich with monkey videos, especially of monkeys doing nasty things, like peeing on each other, appearing to kiss each other, biting each other, grooming each other, looking and acting as close to human as any animal can. No one knew it then, but by the end of that day, there would be a new video that would go viral within a week and spark an outcry of animal rights activism.

Jolie got out of her chair to stand close to the divide. They were in Madagascar, according to the information plaque. The Squirrel Monkeys were particularly active and vocal, leaping from branch to branch, dipping down close to the body of water below, then flying back up and screaming louder.

One of the monkeys was tormenting the otters who also inhabited this exhibit. The monkey would stealthily climb down his branch, clinging to the wild, fingerlike
roots, and slap the otters on the head as they swam by, then scurry back up the tree with glee. It seemed to Stewart that the other monkeys in the trees looked like they were laughing at the otters' misfortune, again and again. But this time there was some kind of scuffle. The crowd pushed closer to see what was going on.

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