All the other kids in the classroom stared at me like I was the antelope. I leaned on the back legs of my chair, the chair back propped against the wall behind me like always, and I froze. There were at least sixteen pairs of hungry eyes pointed my way. I didn’t want to be the antelope. I wanted to be the armadillo.
We’d watched a documentary before lunch — Planet Earth, since every teacher in school had run out of creative juices this close to the end of the school year. Thanks to Mrs. Otts, I was now the antelope and my classmates were a herd of lionesses. Even Jimmy Powels was a lioness for the moment, with his arrogant sneer and spiked hair drowning in gel.
There were so many things that I wanted to scream at them all — so many things I wanted to say. Fuck you, Jimmy! I can smell your body spray from across the room. You won’t catch any antelope smelling like a hyena!
But of course, I didn’t say any of it. I clammed up like I always did and swallowed my thoughts hard. The front legs of my chair slammed down on the off-green linoleum floor with a clatter and a squeak and my teeth rattled together along my jaw.
“June, you have to promise.” The lead lioness, Charlene, stood in the middle of the rows of desks, hands on her hips in her glaring pink shirt. Charlene always wore shirts with plunging necklines, despite the fact that she didn’t have any boobs. She was thirteen. We were all thirteen, so why did we have to make stupid promises like little kids at recess all over again?
“Come on, June,” Jimmy shouted, and his voice cracked like a badly tuned instrument, setting off a whole round of jeers from the rest of the class.
“Yeah, come on, June!”
“You never play along.”
“We wanna pit-cher, not a belly itch-er!” Ramone and his three gremlins chanted from the other corner of the room near the wall. They were definitely the hyenas.
I shoved my chair back, grabbed my lunch kit from the floor, and stormed between the desks toward the front of the class, headed for the door.
Around me, the pack adjusted position. Charlene headed me off. I couldn’t get even five feet from the door without her standing in front of it like she was Wonder Woman.
I pressed my lips together before I could say anything that would dig me further into this god-forsaken hole I’d dug in the barren reaches of middle school’s merciless savanna.
“I. Can’t.” I said it through gritted teeth.
Charlene knew this. She knew I couldn’t make a promise to the whole class. We’d been neighbours since before grade school, which meant we’d been mandatory friends until sixth grade when cooties turned into full-fledged puberty and all girls became rivals in love for boys that weren’t even cute. She knew everything there was to know about me — everything that mattered, at least.
In the dry heat of the savanna, I guess you go for what you’ve got. And Trunk Road Middle School don’t got much.
I rarely made promises to even one person, let alone a whole class full of them. Promises were made to be broken, and I couldn’t afford that. I gripped my lunch kit firmly by the handle.
I’ll show you a pitcher.
I swung my arm back and whirled it at Charlene’s concave stomach as hard and fast as I could.
It smacked her right in the guts. She gasped. Her eyes bulged in her face and I almost laughed, but the adrenaline was working so I darted forwards, scooped up my lunch kit, and headed for the door.
I slammed into the muscular chest of Jimmy-the-lioness-Powels before I could make it. He grabbed me by my twiggy upper arms and shoved me into a chair in the first row. He held me down while the rest of the kids crowded around the desk, chanting his name.
“Jimmy! Jimmy! Jimmy!”
His words shot spit all over my face when he talked. “We know you have to keep a promise if you make one. And if you don’t promise to shut up about Trish, we’re gonna—” He paused just long enough for me to realize that he hadn’t thought about how he was going to threaten me now that he had me. The brief flicker of hope didn’t last. “We’re gonna dunk your head in the toilet.”
I scowled. Really, Jimmy? A swirly?
“Stop it,” Charlene snapped.
We both looked at her. I knew better than to think she was defending me out of any goodness in her grinch-sized heart, but Jimmy looked confused.
“If June doesn’t promise to shut up about Trish, we’ll make her stick her finger in the wall plug.”
My heart dropped into my yellow converse shoes. Even Jimmy looked at Charlene like he was feeling a little bit sick.
“Won’t that … you know, kill her?” he muttered.
Charlene snickered. “Probably not. We never got to find out last time, did we, June?”
She looked at me and I knew at that moment that she was pure evil. She probably did try to steal Christmas like the Grinch.
She hid her braces behind a tight-lipped smile and caked-on enough makeup to look like she was trying to be sixteen, but I saw through all that to the real Charlene underneath:
Charlene De Vil, puppy murderer in cahoots with Cruella, only Charlene dyed all her furs pink.
“Charlene, don’t,” I said slowly.
I couldn’t say “You can’t do that” even though I wanted to. We both knew that she could, and we both knew I couldn’t tell lies. I literally wasn’t capable of it. That was my secret — the one Charlene basically told everyone she ever met because she thought it was funny.
It’s why promises were so dangerous. I couldn’t tell lies, so if I made a promise, I had to keep it. No matter what.
It’s amazing what you can rope a kid into promising when they don’t realize they’re cursed to keep those promises forever.
Breaking a promise would mean I’d told a lie, and my body would probably spontaneously combust or something. I’ve never tested it out on purpose. I didn’t have a death wish. But now Charlene was blackmailing me and I didn’t have much choice. I promised my dad I’d never touch a wall plug when he caught Charlene trying to make me stick my finger in one when we were little. Now he had to leave all my charger cords plugged in because I wasn’t able to get my hands close enough to plug them into the wall myself.
But if someone else physically forced me to touch the wall plug; even just a tiny part of it… I didn’t know what would happen. It couldn’t be good.
After the Crossed Promises incident last year, I didn’t want to find out the consequences. Turns out, when I promise one thing to one person, and then try to make a conflicting promise to someone else, that results in my body puking its guts out until I stop trying to make a promise I can’t keep. Promising Charlene I’d eat all three of her literal mud pies one sunny afternoon at the ripe age of four and a half, and then trying to promise my dad that I would stop eating them in the middle of the first one…
Let’s just say that I puked up a lot of mud that day.
Naturally, when Jimmy picked me up by the shoulders again at Charlene’s insistence and dragged me over to the wall near the teacher’s desk, I started kicking and screaming like a bat outta hell. We weren’t in the savannah anymore. Lion packs didn’t torture their prey — they chased it down and swallowed it up all business-like. But these weren’t lions, they were middle schoolers, and middle schoolers were the devil incarnate so that meant we were in hell. Hades. The Underworld. Whatever.
They were going to force me to break a promise I’d kept for the last eight years without fail. The pack of demons followed Jimmy and Charlene as they hauled me over to the wall plug next to the teacher’s desk. Jimmy shoved me to my knees. Charlene yanked my hand and held my fingers out towards the plug.
“GET OFF ME! GET THE HELL OFF!” I screamed.
The smell of Jimmy’s body spray clogged my nostrils and probably my pores. I wouldn’t be washing that out of my clothes for a while. If I even survived this.
He almost lost his grip on me when thrashed and bashed my knee on the desk. Charlene got my fingers within an inch of the wall plug and the tip of my index finger started to sting. I smelled something burning and my screams turned guttural.
“WHAT is going ON in here?!”
If Mr. Yanto didn’t have such a loud phys ed voice, I don’t think anyone would have heard him. His gravelly roar rumbled through the classroom. Jimmy and Charlene both dropped me at the same time.
The pack of lionesses whirled around as the King of the savanna stomped into the room wearing his signature army boots and khaki cargo pants.
“You, you, and you —” he pointed to Jimmy, me, and Charlene in turn — “There’d better be a very good reason for this.” He was a man who looked more like a stone-chiseled statue with his square jaw. He had the harsh voice of a nicotine-addicted military general. All that was missing was the cigarette dangling from between his teeth, and maybe a rifle propped on his shoulder.
He didn’t need a rifle to take shots at us.
Charlene and Jimmy both started at once. “We were playing a—”
“It was Charlene’s idea, Mr. Yan—”
I screamed over them, squeezing my eyes and fists shut like I could turn into an armadillo. “TRISH FLIRTS WITH MR. N TO GET BETTER GRADES!”
There, that would—
Charlene shoved my whole hand against the wall plug before I could stop her.
Everyone looked at my finger, myself included, like a pack of stunned chimpanzees staring at a dropped fruit before engaging in a battle royale to claim it. There was no battle royale here. My finger didn’t burn right off. I didn’t spontaneously combust into flames. I didn’t even puke. Not even a little bit.
I stared at my hand and then at Charlene and she looked back at me with wide, disbelieving eyes.
The more I thought about it — even as we were escorted all the way to the principal’s office by Mr. Yanto’s clipped and merciless march to inevitably get suspended for violent disruption during the lunch hour — it all made sense.
Why else would dad have told me I was cursed? I was only three. When you tell a three-year-old that they're cursed to have bad things happen whenever they lie — all because Dad caught me sneaking one extra fruit snack pack from the pantry — their young minds don’t know any better. It’s amazing what you can rope a kid into believing when you traumatize them with a lie at an impressionable age.
Dad would probably say it was for a good reason. Well, when I got home, I was gonna spend the entire suspension from school breaking every promise I had ever made to him, just because I now knew that I could do so without dying a grisly death. And when he asked me about it, I’d tell him I had a good reason, too.
“Because I can.”