By Claire Cooper
Jerrod is an idiot. No, really. He looks a bit like a sweet potato and has the same amount of brains. If you smacked his head with a spoon it would echo. He’s a criminal, too. On the first day of class, I was behind him in the breakfast line, and I saw him slip an extra Toastette into his jacket pocket. I’m not a snitch, so I didn’t say anything, but when he kept doing it all week I told a teacher. He stared at the floor the whole time she scolded him and didn’t say sorry or anything. Then, out of nowhere, he exploded. He started yelling at the teacher, and he threw down his plate. It shattered. I’d never seen that strong of an expression on his face, and I’ve never seen one since. It was like he was possessed or something. The teacher just stood there and waited for him to finish. He got sent to the office and doesn’t steal food anymore. Mama says to watch out for people like that who don’t respect authorities.
This year I have to sit next to him. It’s like sitting next to a piece of buttered toast. I try to be nice to everyone whether they deserve it or not, so I smile and say hi every morning. He keeps right on doodling on his desk with a sharpie and won’t even look up. He never answers when teachers call on him. He falls asleep most classes and snores.
I like school for the most part. I like answering questions, I like reading, I like eating lunch with my friends, and I even like math. Everything just seems to fit. The desks that line up in rows, the colorful paper on the bulletin boards, the smells of erasers and new books and chalk dust, it all clicks. It all makes sense. And then there’s Jerrod. He’s the bug on the perfectly clear windshield, the piece of hair floating in the chicken noodle soup. He doesn’t help with group projects. He sits by himself at lunch.
Until one day he doesn’t show up. I was expecting something like that. Mama says people like Jerrod usually end up being dropouts. Ms. Carmichael calls me over after class. I stand up straight with my toes turned out slightly like Mama taught me.
“Hi, Ms. Carmichael. I like your earrings.” Her earrings are dangly and sparkly, and I decide I’ll ask for some like that for my next birthday.
“Hmm? Oh, thanks Kara.” She looks up from her desk. “You may have noticed Jerrod’s out sick today. Do you think you could take him his homework for me? Here’s his address. It should be on your way home.” She hands me a folder with Jerrod’s name on it. His address is on the front.
“Of course, Ms. Carmichael! I’d be happy to.” Huh. So he didn’t drop out. It’s weird to think of Jerrod as someone who could get sick, kinda like if your grandpa sat up and sneezed during his wake because he was allergic to the funeral flowers.
Once I’m outside the school’s double doors, I sneak a peek into the folder. The top page is last week’s math worksheet. It’s a mass of red ink. Oh man. I thought you had to try to fail to do that badly. I close the folder and stuff it in my backpack.
Jerrod’s house is on Oak Street. I’ve never been there but I know where it is, so I wave at my classmates and set out. I listen to my feet slapping the sidewalk and skip for a bit to change the rhythm. DA-dum, DA-dum, DA-dum. The golden retriever is waiting for me in the front yard of the house on the corner, and I stop to rub his belly. His name is Bacon, which I think is stupid. I’ve been trying to get him to respond to Nathaniel, but it hasn’t worked so far.
Oak Street is a gravel road, and the rain yesterday has filled it with puddles stained orange from the clay in the soil. I have to go slower here as I hop between dry spots. The houses have the same orange tint to them as the clay and sag in the middle like they know the ground’s going to swallow them up one day.
I check Jerrod’s folder. Number twelve… ah, here we go. I didn’t see the twelve on the mailbox at first because it’s dangling sideways. Mama would be furious if I walked on our grass, but the grass here looks dead anyways and I don’t see a sidewalk to get to the door. I run through the yard, giggling at the dandelion seeds that fly up around me. I’m not sure what color the front door was originally, but now it’s a muddy gray and the edges of the paint are peeling. The doorbell is hanging by a single wire, so I knock instead.
A little girl with her thumb in her mouth opens the door. I can see the blue veins in her face through her skin. She stares at me with eyes that seem too large for her head.
“Uh… Is Jerrod here? I have his homework,” I say cheerfully. The girl nods. “Can you take me to him?”
She steps sideways and I walk past her into the house. It takes a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dim light, so the smell hits me before I can see anything. It’s like someone left a pizza out for a year and then ground it up and sprinkled it all over everything along with a large helping of mold. Once my eyes adjust, I decide that scenario isn’t super far-fetched. There’s a bunch of trash lying around, mostly brownish glass bottles.
The little girl holds a finger to her lips. “Dad’s asleep,” she whispers. I mime zipping my mouth shut and nod.
I tiptoe with the girl through the living room and down a hallway. I don’t see her dad anywhere. He must be sleeping in another room. The girl leads me into the last room on the right. The blinds are open, so it’s brighter in here. Cleaner, too. There’s a twin bed against the wall next to the window and a wooden chair next to the bed. In the other corner, there’s a cardboard box full of clothes with Jerrod’s backpack leaning against it.
Jerrod is lying in the bed, and he sits up when he sees me.
“I brought your homework,” I say, tossing it to him. He catches the folder but jerks his arm back down and exhales sharply. I walk closer to the bed. “I’m sorry you’re sick,” I say. “What’d you come down with, do you think?”
Jerrod flips through the folder. His left eye is shut and looks shiny and swollen, and the bridge of his nose bends in a way that I don’t remember it bending before. He’s wearing a black sweatshirt, but where his sleeves slip up I see purple blotches on his arms.
I hadn’t thought Jerrod would answer me, but he clears his throat. “Flu.” He doesn’t meet my eyes. “Thanks.”
“Anything else I can do for you?” I ask. Jerrod shakes his head. “I’ll… I’ll see you at school then?” He nods.
I hesitate for a minute. He doesn’t say anything else and seems to have forgotten that I’m here, so I turn to go. The little girl is gone, so I find my own way back down the hall and through the living room. I close the door gently behind me and shuffle back through the long grass. I’ll walk extra fast to get home. After all, I still have my own homework to do. Maybe I’ll go over to Leah’s house after and we can ride our bikes. We’ll race each other around the cul-de-sac and pretend we’re airplane pilots and her mom will make us apples with peanut butter. Tomorrow Jerrod will be back at class and his face will look normal and he’ll smile when I say hi. I turn off of Oak Street and back onto the paved road. Back to the green grass and the golden retriever and the things that make sense and fit together.
I stop to throw up into a bush. When I’m done, I take a deep breath and wipe my mouth. It’s okay. It’s fine. I must’ve caught the flu from Jerrod. I choke back a sob and start to run. Mama will know what to do. She always does.
Claire Cooper is a student at Auburn University studying industrial design. She loves all things chocolate. When she is not studying, Claire enjoys dancing, exploring small shops, and getting coffee with friends.