Short Fiction for Middle Graders: Frazzled Friday

Note:  I wrote this over 16 years ago to submit to a Christian kids magazine.  After it was rejected, I stuffed it in a file and never read it again, mainly because I hated the title, which originally was Marlin Jenderson and his Adventures in the Valley of the Peanut Butter Sandwich.   I pulled this out the other day and was surprised I liked the story (but still hated the title).  I think my sister helped me with this story originally. If someone would teach me how to write as well as Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson when they wrote Science Fair, I think it would be fun to continue the story of Adam, the unreliable narrator, and Marlin, whom Adam seems to think has “Jeeves”-like powers to solve problems.

Frazzled Friday

Steve looked as if he’d swallowed a jawbreaker whole.  “Tomorrow is Friday the 13th,” he said. “And Tiger is after us.  We’re doomed.”

My stomach hurt.  It couldn’t have been worse if Steve had said, “A tiger is after us.” At least a tiger could only tear you apart and eat you.  Tiger had a hundred ways to make life miserable.

Red moaned and sat down on the curb.  “Maybe I’ll go to the North Pole and never come back.”

“Yeah, right,” Steve said.  “He’d probably hire a submarine and come through the ice under your igloo.” Steve was into submarines.  I thought he’d join the Navy some day.

“Look guys,” I said, trying to stay calm.  “Let’s talk to Marlin.  Marlin is the only kid in sixth grade that never gets picked on by Tiger.”

“Can’t hurt.” Steve shrugged glumly.

“But Tiger will,” Red said.

We found Marlin at his house drawing cartoons for the school newspaper.  Marlin is kind of strange—but in a nice way.  He’s not really weird, like Mason.  Mason answers simple questions like “How’s it going, Mase?” with something like, “Four kilobytes per second. Ha-ha-ha!” He has this weird laugh.

Marlin isn’t “The Class Clown” either. We have one of those. Richie dances up and down like a monkey if we study apes in science and yells out answers like “BBC!” if the teacher asks “What is the English Channel?”

No, Marlin is quieter than Richie—but not too quiet. Not like Shawna (I call her Sh-Sh Shawna), who never talks except to the teacher and her best friend. Even then it’s hard to hear her.

Marlin is smart, too, but he isn’t “The Brain.” That’s Vince Chippermill. Or Amy Graves, but she’s in another class this year so she doesn’t count.

Steve and I (my name is Adam) are normal kids. Red is pretty normal and hangs out with me and Steve, but he’s really The Sloppy Kid. We don’t mind, though, because it makes us look neater than we really are.

Anyway, as I was saying, Marlin was drawing cartoons, and Marlin’s cartoons are mostly puns.  Secretly, I thought they were clever, but most normal people think puns are stupid, so we always groan. Today was no exception.

His drawing showed two military guys looking at some papers.  One guy says, “What do you think of Operation Mosquito Bite?” The other replies, “Scratch it.” We groaned.

“Listen,” I said. “We need your help.”

“Tomorrow’s Friday the 13th,” Red began. “It’s going to be terrible!”

“You’re stupidstitious?” Marlin asked.

“That’s ‘superstitious’,” Red corrected.

“That’s stupid,” Marlin said.  He looked out the window and sighed. “I think it’s time for some new, improved superstitions.  Instead of 7 years bad luck for breaking a mirror, how about 7 years bad luck for breaking a promise? Instead of bad luck for spilling salt, how about bad luck for spilling a secret?”

See what I mean about Marlin being a little strange? Anyway, I explained, “It’s more than just Friday the 13th. Tiger is out to get us! He wants to copy our homework and tests. If we haven’t agreed by Friday, he promised to frame us. Either way we get in trouble!”

Marlin let out his breath in a long whistle.  “Danger looms dread ahead in the Valley of the Peanut Butter Sandwich.”

“You mean ‘dead ahead’,” said Red.

(By the way, “The Valley of the Peanut Butter Sandwich” is what Marlin calls school. It seems normal to us, not weird or obnoxious like it would if someone else said it.)

Steve shrugged.  “Maybe we should just let him cheat.”

Marlin rolled his eyes. “Sure. Besides being illegal, immoral and just plain wrong, you’d be under Tiger’s thumb for a long time.  I think I know a better way.”

Believe me, we were all ears. We spent the rest of the afternoon planning our defenses. We were afraid our plans underestimated Tiger’s brute strength and his willingness to use it, but they were the only plans we had.

I finally asked, “Isn’t it—unhealthy—to call a bully’s bluff?” to which Marlin quickly replied, “We’re not talking about bullies. We’re talking about Tiger.”

“Easy for you to say,”  I mumbled, but I went along anyway.

In case Tiger tried to smuggle something into our lockers, we rigged up some alarms using junk Marlin saved. He’s a real pack rat.  If anyone else tried to open my locker,  a string attached to a cowbell would sound an alarm.  The motion sensitive floodlight we rigged inside Steve’s locker would practically blind anyone not expecting it.  Unfortunately, the musical greeting card rigged inside Red’s locker door somehow went off when Mrs. Tackenham leaned against the locker to talk to another student.  “Happy Birthday to You” played loudly enough that all the kids in the hallway started singing along.  Believe it or not, today (or maybe it was yesterday) really was Mrs. Tackenham’s birthday, so she was a good sport about it.

We were also on guard in case Tiger tried to get us to start a fight in school. Sure enough, at lunch Tiger spilled milk on Steve’s sandwich. “Sorry,” Tiger growled, “but that was supposed to go down your neck!” Steve took a deep breath and gritted his teeth, but I could see his lips moving as he repeated the phrase Marlin told us to remember:  “A soft answer turns away anger…a soft answer turns away anger…” Steve didn’t think of a soft answer, but saying nothing was better than falling for Tiger’s trap.

One o‘clock—the 13th hour—approached and Tiger was grinning. I opened my desk to get a pen and froze.   A green and black snake was slithering between my books.  I’m not afraid of garter snakes, but this one belonged in the science room next door.

“Adam’s got a snake!” Wanda shrieked.  That might have meant trouble, but Tiger had miscalculated. The teacher was out of the room, and I had plenty of time to return the snake. But when I opened the door that connected our room with the science room, I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

A blizzard of animals met me.  Parakeets, white mice, hamsters, snakes, toads, and—I thought I was dreaming—a potbellied pig, three chickens, two goats and a peacock came squawking, squeaking, squealing and slithering past me into our room.

Most of the kids jumped on their desks and yelled. For once, even “The Brain” didn’t know what to do. He just stared.

In all the confusion, the “Class Clown” was the calmest. He shut the windows so the birds wouldn’t fly out, and got some birdseed to lure them into their cages. He didn’t even yell, “Free food—Cheap, Cheap!” like I expected.

Then I heard a voice I didn’t recognize yelling, “STOP!” I turned and saw Sh-Sh Shawna actually shouting at another student who was about to whack the corn snake with his book.  “DON’T HURT HIM!” She gently picked up the snake to take it back to the terrarium.  Then my attention turned to something even more amazing.

Tiger. Big, scary, mean Tiger was cringing on his desktop.  Below his desk were the white mice, eating the remains of crackers spilled out of his book bag. I couldn’t believe it.  Tiger was afraid of mice! I just shook my head.

The peacock whooped and about a half dozen teachers showed up to add to the chaos. Somehow everything was finally sorted out, cleaned up, and re-caged. To explain how the animals got loose is a complicated story, involving farmyard week, a Vince “The Brain” Chippermill computer program with a Friday the 13th bug, and Tiger sneaking into the science room to steal the garter snake.  I won’t go into the details now.

Although we never forgot the sight of Tiger scared of a little mouse, Red, Steve and I were still scared of his fists. Friday the 13th wasn’t over and there was one more thing Marlin told us to do to stop Tiger for good. We didn’t want to do it. The North Pole idea was sounding better and better.

Even if we wanted to (and we wanted to) we couldn’t avoid Tiger as we left the building that afternoon. Steve and Red pushed me in front. “Adam has something to say.”

“Well? It better be ‘here’s my homework’ and fast!” Tiger sounded impatient. I thought I’d better get this over quickly.

I took a deep breath and blurted out, “We get together at my house to study on Monday afternoons. You can come if you want.” Tiger was silent for a moment. I expected him to slug me.

“Thanks. I’ll be there.” Tiger wasn’t being sarcastic either. He almost sounded grateful. Then he turned and quickly walked to his bus.

I was stunned. So were Steve and Red. In a day full of wild events, that was the wildest. We would still be standing there with our mouths open if Marlin hadn’t come up.

“People aren’t always what you think, are they?” he said.

Then he showed us his latest cartoon.  Two mountain climbers appear to be scaling Mt. Everest. One of the mountain climbers asks the other, “Have you seen the abominable snowman?” The other replies, “Not yeti.” We groaned.

“Well,” I said, “Some things never change.”




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