My hands are covered in a dark red liquid that refuses to come off. It’s stuck there from today’s work, no matter how many times I wash my hands. I feel a bit like Macbeth. Other people might think the stains on my hands are a badge of shame, but to me, they’re a badge of honour. They’re there because I spent my day helping people.
One week earlier:
I’m walking into school with my friends Dee and Masha when we see the graffiti on the front of the school building. In big letters, someone has written “YOUR AWESOME” over a giant yellow smiley-face. I immediately recognise the style. There’s a girl in my class who’s always trying to brighten everyone’s day, and she wouldn’t consider herself above graffiti. It’s sweet, but… “It’s grammatically incorrect,” I say. “Wrong ‘your’.”
“Reina!” Dee elbows me. “Can’t you just once appreciate the message?”
I turn to Masha. “Tell her the grammar’s more important.”
Masha doesn’t say anything. It’s too early in the morning for her to be fully awake yet. I’m not sure why I expected her to be my ally on this, anyway. Masha often says things incorrectly just to get under my skin.
“Masha's right,” Dee says, just as if Masha had spoken. “It is too early to be discussing this sort of thing."
We walk into the building and hurry to the student lounge. Masha wants to make coffee before our first class, and we have enough time, barely.
As Masha works the Keurig, Dee asks me, “What bothers you more, the fact that it’s illegal or that you won’t be the first to chirp at people in the morning anymore?” Dee’s referring to the habit I have of chirping a cheery good-morning to people before they’re fully awake. It drives my friends crazy.
“The grammar is wrong,” I repeat.
“You should fix it, Chippy,” Masha jokes. ‘Chippy’ is her nickname for me. Now that she has her coffee, she’s ready to enter the conversation.
“Chyas,” I reply sarcastically. It’s a Russian word that Masha taught me which essentially means, “Yeah, right, like that’s gonna happen.”
YOUR AWESOME. Every time I enter the school, I see the graffiti leering at me, taunting me. YOUR AWESOME. Ugh. I leave for lunch, so I see it again when I get back. I leave for my afternoon break and see it when I come back from that, too. By the next morning, I’m ready to snap. I’m about ready to go to the office and tell on the girl who put it there so her egregious grammatical error will be dealt with. I hold myself back, though. I know the girl who did it. We’re not particularly friendly, but I know who she is. I know she struggles in school and I know she’s on probation for something. This isn’t the first offence for her, and it’s amazing that she wasn’t caught yet. If she does get caught, things will be bad for her. She might be suspended. She might be expelled. I don’t want to make trouble for her, which is why I haven’t told on her yet. By the fifth time I see her artwork, though, I’ve made up my mind. I’m going to tell.
We have an assembly about vandalism in school that day. We get repeated warnings about how bad it is to vandalise school property, how it shows a lack of respect for the school building, for the administration, for the teachers and students. The principal finishes with a speech about how severe the punishments are for a repeated offender and how they’d be lighter for a one-time offender. Then he says, “While the message itself was not objectionable, vandalism will not be tolerated. If anybody knows anything about who perpetrated this misdeed, please come forward.”
I start to rise from my seat, but then I stop myself. I’m not going to turn the girl in. I know I should, but I can’t. I heard how severe the consequences are, and I can’t do that to her.
I can’t turn her in, but I need to do something about the graffiti. I have no idea how long it’ll take for the school to take it down, and meanwhile, it grates on my nerves every time I walk by it, which is a few times a day. By the end of the week, I’m ready to crack. I notice a near-empty can of spray-paint by the school dumpsters, and I know what I’m going to do. Masha’s words come back to me. “You should fix it, Chippy.”
I wait until school’s over for the day, then tell Masha and Dee to go ahead without me. I don’t want to get them involved with this in case I get caught. I hang around until I’m sure everyone has left, then go outside. I pull out the can of spray-paint and shake it. I look up, choosing my spot. The words “YOUR AWESOME” taunt me.
“No more,” I tell them. “I’m about to win this round.” There’s just enough space to add an apostrophe before the “r” and an “e” after.
“Chippy, stop!” It’s Masha. She and Dee haven’t gone ahead after all. “I didn’t mean it!”
“It’s taunting me,” I explain. “I can’t just leave it there, and I don’t know how to erase it, so I have to fix it.”
That’s when the principal leaves the building. I thought he was already gone, but I guess I miscalculated.
And now I’m caught in the act. Or right before the act. It doesn’t matter. I look like I did it in the first place. I look like I’m about to do it again.
And I’ve dragged my friends into it, despite not wanting to.
“You’re on your own,” Masha whispers when she sees him coming, but she doesn’t leave. Neither does Dee.
“Graffiti is an art form,” Dee tells the principal when he gets close enough to hear. “The walls of Pompeii are covered in graffiti of people’s names and praise for gladiators.”
He’s not amused. “Save it for art class,” he tells us. “And not on a public building.” Then he hauls us inside to his office to give us a lecture.
And that’s why I’m spending my Sunday packaging beets. Masha, Dee, and I took the blame for the graffiti. I was going to say it was all me, but Dee pointed out that nobody would believe that, based on my reputation for being a stickler for proper grammar. My friends bullied me into letting them take the blame with me. We were sentenced to community service, so we’re working at a warehouse filled with various foods to be delivered to those in need. I know the girl who actually did it would have gotten something worse.
“I’ll need you to put eight beets in each bag and tie them, like this,” says a woman whose name tag identifies her as Marge, demonstrating. “If you have any questions, I’ll be over there.” She points to her office, a little room at the front of the warehouse. Then she walks away.
We’re silent for the moment, so we can hear the music that’s playing somewhere in the background as we look at the giant bin full of beets in front of us. It’s a daunting task, especially because it’s cold in the warehouse. I never should have tried to correct the graffiti. I should have just decided to wear a blindfold every time I enter the school.
“Well, ladies? Shall we beet-gin?” Dee asks.
I roll my eyes at her. I love a good pun as much as anybody else, but Dee usually goes way too far with them. “That’s a bit of a stretch,” I tell her, reaching into the bin and pulling out a beet. I open a bag and put it inside.
“A beet of a stretch?” Dee asks, grinning. She reaches for a bag, too.
“You’re just upset because Dee beet you to the first pun,” Masha tells me, and I fake throwing a beet at her. I’m grinning, too, now.
I put the eighth beet into the bag, considering my reply. “I’m just waiting for the perfect way to tie my first pun in,” I say, knotting the bag.
Dee smirks. “Knot that.”
It turns out that nothing beats a beet for punniness. Over the next hour, my friends and I spout more beet puns than there are beets in the bin in front of us—which is saying something, as there are a LOT of beets.
“Beet it,” Masha tells a beet that’s too deformed to let anyone eat.
“What should we do with the deadbeets?” I ask about another deformed beet.
“We should be listening to music while we do this,” Dee says at one point. “It would be more fun to do this with the beet.” Now she’s quoting the name of my favourite colour of nail varnish. It’s called “With the Beet”.
“There is music on in the background,” I point out. I open my mouth to say the inevitable next line, but Masha gets there first, not missing a beat.
“Yeah, but it ain’t Beet-hoven.” She grins. “Beet you to it.”
“Bzzzzt.” I make a buzzer sound. “You already used that one. No repeats.”
“Re-beets?” Dee repeats.
“Knot good enough,” I say. “Tie harder.” By now I’m the one tying all the bags shut, because I’m good with knots and we’ve discovered that it’s faster if we do it assembly-line style. That also makes it my responsibility to make all the knot puns.
Eventually, we finish the job. “Beet-tween the three of us, that wasn’t so bad,” Dee says, and I have to agree. We may have been sentenced (somewhat) wrongfully, but we had a great time with our punishment. And it feels good to be helping people with our work.
We report to Marge, and she tells us we’ve done enough for the day. “Come back tomorrow after school and I’ll have more work for you,” she adds, and we leave, tired and a bit cold but happy.
On our way out, we bump into the girl for whom we’d been covering.
“I heard what happened,” she tells us, shifting from foot to foot. “And I confessed. I couldn’t have you punished when it’s really my fault. But then the principal said he caught you in the act. I don’t understand it. What did he mean by that?”
Dee laughs. “Reina’s a grammar freak,” she explains. “You spelled it wrong, and she couldn’t leave well enough alone.”
“Well, don’t beet me up about it,” I tell her, and the three of us walk away, laughing, while the other girl stares after us, beet-wildered.
Masha, Dee, and I agree that even if we don’t have to anymore, we’ll still go back to the warehouse tomorrow. We had fun, and we were helping people. The only thing that feels better—beet-er, Dee would say—than helping people is doing it together with my best friends.
And I’m glad that the perpetrator confessed, but I’m even gladder that I didn’t beet-tray that girl.