The story of Fran continues in book 2 of my Bully Dogs series of middle-grade novels, YNK (You Never Know). Read on as Fran gets a new look, a first kiss and a revised perspective on her relationships with boys, girlfriends, parents, and dealing with a different kind of bullying.
Yeah, raining in Seattle, on the very day you’d hoped it wouldn’t. I tug my hood tighter, but long strands of hair are plastered across my face. Big, wet drops ping on the sidewalk as I slog the three blocks to Saint Mary’s, the same old route since second grade. Five years.
But it’s funny how your life can change from upside-down one minute, then right-side again. Just last year, it was the bully dogs that chased me almost everyday to school. Those dogs of my neighbor terrorized me. When I confronted Mr. Wessenfeld about his golden retriever, black Lab and cocker spaniel, I ended up with a job walking all ‘Three Musketeers’ after school. Athos, Porthos and Aramis are a handful, for sure, but they mind me, most of the time, and I really do like them. And to be honest, I really like the twenty-five dollars I earn each week.
I gladly would have paid for some sunshine, since it is class pictures today. I get enough grief about how I look from Marcy, always quick with the zinger. She made my life miserable, especially during volleyball season, until I phoned her and asked her if we just couldn’t call a truce and agree to dislike one another. I am so dis-like her! I can’t understand what my friend Annie finds so enthralling about Marcy and her group. When Annie is at school, she is one of ‘them’, and after school she is her other self, the one I’ve known forever.
And there she is, huddled with Marcy, Ursala and Sue, out of the rain beneath the eaves of the gym. Any other morning I would have gone to the front of the rectory and sat on the steps reading until the bell rang. But Annie has been staring at me for the last five minutes and I can hardly ignore her as she waves at me.
“Fran! Come here and see Marcy’s new charm!” Annie is careful not to step away and get wet by a raindrop. It might run her mascara.
“Oh, hi, Fran,” Marcy intones. “Got rain?” She turns her celly with the heart-shaped charm personalized with her name and embedded with a blue Swarovski crystal at my face, then whips it away and starts texting.
“Nice,” is all that I can manage.
Annie, Sue, and Ursala are intent over their cellies, fingers flying over the tiny keyboards at an impressive rate. They’re all texting each other.
“See ya,” I nod at Annie and she looks up briefly to nod back as I go on my way.
I stand before the mirror in the girls’ bathroom and sop my hair with a paper towel. I say a silent prayer to thank God I at least had a hairbrush with me today. Fat lotta good it would do.
Dusty, the new girl in our class who got promoted to sixth grade at mid-term, walks in and leans over the sink to peer in the mirror at herself. “Hmm,” she flips away a few wet strands of her long, auburn, curly hair, misting me. “Oh, sorry!” she turns and faces me. “I didn’t mean to get you wet!”
That strikes me as funny and I burst out laughing. “Please! I wouldn’t want to get any wetter!” I dramatize, flinging my own dull brown locks around, spraying the mirror with droplets.
We both are chuckling as we unzip our backpacks, pulling out our blue uniform sweaters, which are at least dry. “Hah! Great minds think alike!”
Dusty and I are about the same in our reading group, only she’s a lot smarter than I am, especially in math and science, and she’s good at sports. But she never seems to care what others think about her; she’s nice to everyone and everyone is nice to her. I’d like to know how she manages to go along her own way without ever getting stung by gossip. I snap my sweater smartly before pulling it over my head. I glance at Dusty and envy her naturally curly hair already fluffing out nicely. “At least you’ll look good for the pictures.”
“C’mon, Fran, you look fine. That’s the bell!” Dusty swings her backpack onto her shoulder, barely missing me. “Oh, sorry!”
I cram my hairbrush into my backpack. “It’s okay.”
The longest hour is first class. We file in and put away coats and slots our cellies, except me, in a box with our name on it. My empty little cubby hole is between Sue and Tina, an obvious black void.
Annie turns to me before she takes her seat. “Fran,” she whispers, although I’m not sure why she feels it is necessary to whisper, “call me later, okay?”
“Okay,” I whisper back, “on your celly?”
She either pretends to ignore the sarcasm or doesn’t get it. “Yes!” She heaves a sigh. “I wish you had your own!”
Well, so do I! I shrug and take my seat, mulling over a strategy to put before my mother to convince her I need a celly, when our teacher, Mrs. Hammershaw comes bustling in the classroom with an armload of books and papers.
Just then, before she says anything, a celly is chiming the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. Exasperated, she glares at Mike as he darts to the corner to silence his phone, but not before he checks his incoming message.
She smacks down a pile of books onto her desk. “Before we do anything else this morning,” she walks to the front of her desk and leans against it, facing us, “let’s have a discussion about etiquette. Especially,” she looks pointedly at Mike, “cell phones.”
There is a collective groan. Mike’s neck reddens as he stares at a blemish on his desk.
“What I have noticed among my students and especially the eighth graders, is groups of friends will be talking and texting at the same time. It seems to me that this is rude. I’d like to hear some discussion on this.”
It was quiet for the longest minute before Rachel raised her hand. “Mrs. Hammershaw, we don’t consider it rude. It’s just our way of communicating.”
Steve did a cursory wave before he spoke. “No one thinks anything of it, Mrs. H. It’s acceptable to us.”
Heads bob in agreement. Tina speaks when Mrs. Hammershaw nods. “It’s like a good way to keep everyone on the same page, even if one friend goes to another school, then that friend can stay informed.”
There are murmurs of ‘good point’ and ‘yeah!’
“And,” Steve pipes up again, “we’re just a ring away from our parents!”
I don’t think Mrs. Hammershaw is that dumb to think any kid is texting his Mom or Dad constantly. But still, I log that as one I can put on my list to present to my parents.
The discussion continued basically in the same vein. Mrs. H did not say much other than “Hmmm….”, with a raised eyebrow, until it was time to move onto the assignments for the week. Pushing away from the desk, she shook her head, scanning the classroom. “Let’s leave it at this: there is peer etiquette and social etiquette. Be advised that it is not acceptable to tweet, twitter or text when in company other than your peers.” She turned to the board and began writing furiously against the clock that signaled the end of the period.
Marcy, Ursala, Sue, with Annie right behind them, bolted for the bathroom to primp before the picture taking session. Dusty fell into step with me as we walked to the auditorium.
“Well! Wasn’t that enlightening this morning!” She pretended to flip open a celly and text. “Fran, you have mail!”
“Oh, darn it! I can never find the stupid thing when it rings!” I frantically search for my imaginary phone. “Oh, wait, here it is!” I mime opening it. “Oh, how sad! I haven’t a clue how to turn it on.”
Dusty bursts out laughing as she takes her place in front of the line, being a “C” for Conner, behind Mike Connelly, and I go behind Tanya Redmond, like I have for the last five years. Being ‘Reed’, I’ll never move to the front, but I’m not at the back; sometimes I wonder if my personality has been determined by something as immutable as my last name.
Of course, the first take I had my eyes shut. The photographer heaved a sigh and with a forced smile, prodded me. “Just relax, uh,” he looked at his clipboard, “Fran, and smile easy. Look at me!”
I thought fleetingly of mimicking his cheesy grin, but decided it would be fodder for the cannon mouths should the picture be really awful. I almost lost it though, when mental images of Three Musketeers popped up; fortunately for me, the photographer caught me with what my mother and Granny would gush about is a sweet, wholesome smile.
Granny always has ‘constructive criticism’ which I basically ignore. “Fran, this is such a beautiful picture of you! Only, your hair could have been combed a little neater.”
I stop myself from rolling my eyes as I know it infuriates my mother and I want to get her on my good side. “Granny, I did brush my hair. But it rained on my way to school. I can’t control the weather.”
“Why don’t you take an umbrella?” Old Mother Sensible says.
“Because, mama, no one uses an umbrella.”
“A smarter some one would use an umbrella to stay drier than the others,” she retorts.
Granny, who usually, but not this time, takes my side, puts in her two cents. “You don’t have to be like everyone else. You be the smarter, trend-setter of the crowd!”
Oh, yeah! Right! But I don’t say anything and I don’t roll my eyes and I smile with what I hope is a patronizing smile I learned from my mother. “You’re absolutely, one-hundred per cent correct! And,” this I’ve learned from my father, “I’ll consider it.” Which I have no do intentions of doing.
Granny plops two caramels into my hand and I peck her on the cheek. “Thanks. Gotta go walk them puppies, Gram. See ya!”
I do a half-twist to look over my shoulder at my mom. “I’ll take the long route with the dogs and be back in an hour.” I don’t need a rain coat, as the sun is shining brightly. Springtime in Seattle.
The black Lab, Aramis, is hanging over the fence, woofing loudly, as I approach the gate. The smallest, the cocker spaniel Porthos, rushes at me and I brace myself for his impact as the mid-size golden retriever, Athos, leans on my right side, his tail swishing against my legs.
“Hey, guys, how goes it?” I yell above their whines and yips. It takes a good five minutes to do the greeting thing with them. Pat, pat, push, push, no lick, no jump, calm down, pat, pat, good boy, good boys.
Aramis and Athos are patient as I connect them to their tandem leash, but the cocker spaniel runs in circles as I attempt to corral him. “Por-thos! Sit!”
As if. This is part of our routine; Porthos runs amok and I snatch him up and clip the leash on his collar before we can leave. Often I don’t even talk with their owners, either Mr. or Mrs. Wessenfeld when I come get the dogs, but always when we return one or both will come out and we’ll exchange a few words. Mr. Wessenfeld and I are big readers and he likes some of the same books that I do, so we’ll do a trade. He’s got a collection of mysteries and classics that would make a librarian ecstatic. I’ve got dibs on a short story collection of Mark Twain’s that Mr. W promised he’d let me have this week. Hopefully, today, as I just finished the last of Philippa Pearce’s book, Tom’s Midnight Garden. I won’t get to the library until Saturday, if my mother will take me.
The dogs pull me out the gate and the race is on to the first posted message of their dog day. They sniff, circle, sniff and pee on the bush. I am not real thrilled about scooping up their deposits, but it’s part of the job. I tie each dog’s little bag onto his collar and let him haul it around.
A newspaper whizzes by, landing exactly in the middle of the Miller’s front door welcome mat. My friend, Dean, skews his bike to stop beside me. The dogs are yipping and wagging into a tangled mess trying to get Dean’s attention.
“Hey! Fran!” he yells, jumping off his bike into the fray. He rough-houses with the Three Musketeers for a few minutes before he pushes one, then another dog aside. “Wha—what’s up?” Dean stutters.
“Not much. Just walkin’ the dogs.” In only a moment, one careless moment, I didn’t hold Porthos’ leash tight enough. He shot away after a squirrel, his leash whiplashing behind him.
Aramis and Athos strained to follow, but I at least had sense enough to rein them in tightly. Dean hopped on his bike and sped away, his voice trailing behind him.
“I’ll ge—ge–get him, Fran!”
I hurried as much as I could with the other two laggards. “You can do that on the way back!” I groused tugging them away from the tree. Dean was out of sight and I had a horrible thought that he might not be able to get Porthos. And then what would I do?
But as I rounded the next corner, I could see Dean with Porthos squirming in his arms, trying to hold onto dog and bike simultaneously.
I ran up to Dean and grabbed Porthos. “I’ve got him. Thanks!”
Dean bent down to pick up his bike as I crouched down to secure Porthos’ leash. Our heads butted and we both looked at each other nose to nose. Had I never noticed that Dean had azure blue eyes and incredibly long, black eyelashes? And he smelled like freshly mown grass.
“Sorry,” I whispered. I didn’t move away, nor did he.
Aramis, right beside me, woofed, knocking me off balance when he lunged between Dean and me, his tail flapping against my face and Dean’s.
“Thanks, again, I really don’t want to think about how that might have played out!” I pulled myself upright and dusted myself off. I barely had time to look back at Dean before the dogs streamed ahead, looking for another message board.
I’m not really sure what had happened, but I had a funny feeling, a tickling sensation throughout my body and it seem like I floated along with the current. I hadn’t paid much attention to the time, either, and it was way later than I should have had the dogs out.
Mr. Wessenfeld loomed over the gate as I ran up the driveway. “Franny, old girl, your mother called. She was worried about you being gone so long. Everything all right?” He opened the gate and the dogs bounded in, a cacophony of doggy chatter drowning out most of whatever else Mr. W might have had to say. He pointed to the book on the ledge of the fence.
I picked it up. Mark Twain. “THANKS!” I screamed, as I darted for my own house.
“I’m home!” I announced as the door whacked shut.
“I noticed!” barked my mother. “Fran, you’re a lot later than usual. I got a little worried.”
My hands fluttered like butterflies around my face as I desperately tried to be myself. “Porthos got away from me and ran three blocks before Dean could get a hold of him. Lucky for me, Dean was delivering papers and he could catch up to the little turd.” Oops, probably shouldn’t have said that.
But my mother just laughed. “Well, a knight on a shining bike, huh? Lucky for you.”
My Mom stood awfully close to me and I hoped she couldn’t read me too clearly. Sometimes she’s way too perceptive, but not always.
“You know, Mom,” I draped my arm around her shoulder and relished the look of her surprise, “if I had a cell phone, I would have called you.”
She narrowed her eyes at me and puckered her lips. “Hmm,” she planted a kiss on my forehead. “We’ll see.”
My Mom has the most limited vocabulary: ‘no’, ‘maybe’, ‘we’ll see’. It is most exasperating.
“Finish your homework. Practice the trumpet. And, call Annie back. She says it is important.”
“Okay.” I pick the phone up and start dialing on my way to my room. “Hey, Annie, what’s up?”
“Fran! I’m am so excited! I got a gift certificate to have my hair done at the Hair Palace. You know, where you can see how you look in whatever style on the computer!”
“Way cool, Annie!”
“And my Mom is going to let me get highlights! What do you think about red? White? Blonde is so everyday-way, ya know. But really, I want you to go with me! You and I can have a girls’ spa day!”
Oh geez, now what am I going to do? It seems Annie has been on this get-Fran-improved kick since she’s been hanging with Marcy’s club. “I dunno,” I hesitate.
“You can afford to do it, Fran. You don’t have to spend all your money on books.”
That irritates me just a little when Annie assumes so much about me and my habits. “You know, Annie, I’m trying to convince my Mom to get me a celly. She might go for it if I pay my fair share. Didn’t you just tell me this morning that you wished I had one?”
“Yes, but I bet your Mom would like you to get a nice hair cut, too,” Annie must have reconsidered how that came off because she hurried to add in a softer voice, “Fran, the guys are talking about you. Like how you’re kinda cute and all.”
Now at this point I am supposed to ask, most excitedly, ‘Who’s talking about me?’, and be all flattered and flustered to be considered. And by the guys who hang around with Marcy, like Brain, that wanksta! I don’t care what any boy at school thinks of me. Except Dean, and we’re friends. We shoot a basketball at his lopsided hoop above his garage and say very little, as a rule. He lives with his Dad; all I know is that his Mom left them and moved out of state. Dean never speaks of her and I don’t ask.
“Fran, please? Please say yes. I just know it’ll be the most fun!” There’s a pause long enough to be a statement. “Besides, we don’t spend much time with each other.”
I guess Annie misses me as much as I miss her. “All right, all right. When?”
“Yay!!” she squeals. “Oh, I just know you’re going to like the way you look! Saturday at ten.”
I might have said something about making the appointment for us before I’d said I would go for it, but I just felt too good about the day to let a little thing like an assumption get in the way.