In just three days, it will be Christmas. Despite the bright and cheery decorations twinkling in the streets, wreaths on doors, and Christmas trees peeking through windows, Hector doesn't feel one... [+]
Jason reached behind himself to pat the stapled-on tail. It was still there. He swung it around a couple of times, reveling in the quiet swoosh. He watched Kimberly high-five Stephen, whose silver face paint had already started to flake off. He wanted a Kimberly high-five.
“Ok, my little man,” his dad said, turning Jason around to look at him. “Are you ready to go out there and knock ‘em dead?”
Jason cringed into his hot soft onesie.
His dad laughed, mustache waggling. “That’s the spirit! I’ll be rooting for you!”
He legged away, leaving Jason trembling. He didn’t want to knock anyone dead. He hoped that nobody died in the audience. It was bad enough that he had to learn what that word meant just that autumn, and now that he knew, he didn’t want to see it ever again.
Jason swished his tail some more. Kimberly high-fived Dewain, whose straw kept falling out all over the chorus room floor. Stephen scratched his nose and wiped off a big stripe of paint. Then Kimberly skipped over to the little boy trembling in the lion onesie.
“Hi, Jason!” she said. He noticed that her mom had let her glue two little jewels near her eyes so that they glittered. Her gingham dress swayed and her little basket looked crisp and light.
“What’s in there?” Jason asked, unable to look into her jewels.
Kimberly giggled and opened the basket. A small black stuffed dog sat inside.
“It’s Toto!” she said. “But he’s missing an eye. Shhh, don’t tell.”
He gaped at her until she ruffled her gingham and skipped away again, towards Courtney, whose mom was struggling to wrangle her long enough to slap on a pink tiara. How did Toto lose his eye? Did he also die? He watched Courtney’s mom finally slide the tiara over a series of stiff, sprayed curls. Would Courtney’s mom die too?
He looked down at his fuzzy hand. Kimberly didn’t high-five him. Probably she thought he was too furry and dumb. He pulled off his hood and let his head feel the air conditioner.
“Jason, keep that hood on for the show!” Ms. Vetnar called. “Otherwise nobody will know who you’re supposed to be!”
Personally, Jason thought the tail was a big hint, but he didn’t say anything. He just retreated back into the hood and let the sweat start up again in his hair. It felt cold. He twisted around a few times to set the tail in motion. It flapped around satisfactorily.
“Oh no, Jason, your little tail is falling off,” Courtney’s mom said.
He immediately stopped twisting. He heard a sickeningly light thud as something tail-shaped flopped to the ground.
Kimberly giggled to Courtney, the two of them sparkly and pink and resplendent and unbroken, as they watched Jason circle around and around, unable to see the grounded tail around the hood flopping into his eyes.
“Jason, stop!” Ms. Vetnar commanded. She knelt down next to him and he looked at her eyes through her thick glasses, easier to peer into than shiny jewels. Mrs. Courtney’s Mom took the opportunity to grab the tail from where it had slid under a stack of chairs during his frantic shuffle.
“I told John he’d have to do better than staples,” Mrs. Courtney’s Mom muttered to the drama teacher. “But he told me he could make a costume for his little boy, thank you very much.”
Jason didn’t know who John was even though he’d heard a few people call his dad that sometimes. He sniffed miserably. He missed his tail and a lot of things.
Ms. Vetnar tutted. “It’s got to be hard for you, isn’t it, Jason?”
It is hard to live without a tail, especially when all the other kids had tiaras and straw and moms.
Mrs. Courtney’s Mom led Jason over to her big makeup case. She pulled out a teensy little plastic container that had thread and needles in it, and carefully chose a brown thread that sort of matched the fuzz on the onesie. Kimberly dusted off the tail her mom handed her, looking very serious. Jason watched.
“Five minutes until places!” called a voice, and they all looked up to see the assistant principal poke his jolly red head into the room. Jason started to panic. How could he have his tail back in only five minutes? It takes longer than that to replace things!
He thought Mrs. Courtney’s Mom might have muttered a bad word, but her mouth was around the bundle of thread, so he couldn’t tell. He quivered.
After an eternity of two minutes standing still, Mrs. Courtney’s Mom leaned back self-satisfactorily and announced to Jason that he was now in possession of a tail again. He reached back to give it a test twirl, but Courtney yelled “STOP!” and he got scared. Then he and all the other kids were shuttled off by the assistant principal to stand behind a big curtain.
The sound of excitable parents shifting restlessly on folding chairs filled the air. Jason could even hear it through his big furry hood. Kimberly kept jumping up and down, clacking her little red shoes together. Finally, the assistant principal walked out on the stage and made a few announcements. They all sounded like gibberish to Jason. Then Kimberly flounced out.
She sang about bluebirds flying over the rainbow so sweetly that Jason felt sad. He really did hope there was a somewhere out there.
Courtney shushed past in her pink dress, casting Jason one last cursory glance to make sure his tail was still attached. Dewain tumbled out onto the stage shortly after, straw all akimbo, and cracked the audience up. Stephen stiffly joined him. Then it was time for the lion.
Jason padded out from behind the curtain. The golden lights caught him under the hood and blinded him. He pulled the hood down over his eyes and grabbed his tail for moral support. Kimberly, Dewain, and Stephen stood there gawking at him, all straw and tin and sparkling shoes.
Jason’s voice came out littler than he had ever heard it.
“If I were king of the florist,” he said.
The audience roared with laughter. He wasn’t a brave lion. He was a funny lion. He swished his tail and it came off in his hand.
“My, what a scary lion!” Kimberly said, shaking her pigtails at him. He thought he heard Ms. Vetnar feeding him his next line, but the hood was so hot and the lights were so bright and his tail was in his hand.
Then the worst thing happened. He ran.
He raced past Kimberly, who stood with her glossy mouth in a perfect O, and Dewain, who tried to reach out and stop him but slipped on his own straw pile, and Stephen, who couldn’t have reached out if he wanted because he was stuck in silver cardboard.
“Jason!” a dad voice said from the crowd, but then he was through the velvet warm safety of the curtains and into the chorus room.
He slumped to the floor by Mrs. Courtney’s Mom’s caboodle kit, cradling his tail.
The door creaked open.
He sort of hoped it would be Kimberly. Maybe she had stopped the whole show and clicked away in her sparkling shoes to be with him. Maybe she had taken Dewain and Stephen with her, with Courtney floating along behind them, and they’d all huddle around and tell him that it was ok, they didn’t have to do the show anymore.
He also sort of hoped it would be Ms. Vetnar and Mrs. Courtney’s Mom because they both smelled like the flowers his mom used to like and it would be nice to snuggle into that smell some more.
But the smell that entered the room on carefully settled feet was the smell of burnt dinner and shaving cream.
“Hey, little man,” said his dad.
He crouched down and pushed the hood off of Jason’s head. His hair was drenched and so were his eyes.
“I’m proud of you,” his dad said.
Jason clung to the tail. “Why?”
He didn’t even sing his whole song. He wasn’t sparkly like Kimberly or Courtney or funny like Dewain or silver like Stephen. He was just a scaredy-cat. And his dad used this word “proud” like it was supposed to mean something.
“Because you’re so brave,” his dad said.
Then he picked up his courageous lion and the two of them stepped out into the night, bravely leaving the auditorium in chaos.