E J Delaney lives in Brisbane, Australia, and spends many an hour staring out the window. E J’s short story ‘The Sixes, the Wisdom, and the Wasp’ was published in Escape Pod (#612) and shortlisted for the 2018 Aurealis Awards. E J’s middle grade stories appear also in Countdown (May 2020), Blast Off (June 2020), Spider (March 2022) and Touchdown (June 2022). "The Loner" is in Short Circuit #13, Short Édition's quarterly review.

Image of Short Circuit - Short Circuit #13
Holly had been standing in the Time Out corner for five minutes now, and her feet were starting to hurt. She could have sat down. There was a stool for that. But sitting down seemed like something that Jordie-Cherie Treloar would do, or Ebony Urbina.
Not that the princesses ever got in trouble. They were too pretty. Too cow-eyed. (And yes, she included Noah Estay-Banks in that description.) But if one of them ever did get sent to the Time Out— sorry, the Courtesy and Cooperation corner, she bet they'd sit straight-backed on the stool as if making it their own personal throne. They'd lift their chin for an imaginary camera, or maybe brush out their hair some more.
Holly wasn't a princess. She stood, scowling, as Mr Murray droned on about habitats and ecosystems.
And okay, she probably shouldn't have said that Rebekah Jessup and Adrian Fanning and the other bookworms made up their own geek-o-system (first warning). Or that she'd seen Winny Wang-Watson picking her nose, and wasn't that a bad habitat (second warning)? She definitely shouldn't have called Tommi Melville a cube of poo pushed through a round hole (three strikes and out).
"Holly, that's not funny," Mr Murray had said. "We're better than that in 5FM."
Holly wasn't so sure. Everyone had laughed—everyone except Tommi—so didn't that mean it was funny?
She remembered her first day at school. She'd come to Knoorre-Knoorre at the start of Term 2 and Mr Murray had introduced her by her full name: Holly Hogg. Since she was new and a bit chubby around the edges, the sporty kids—Amber Kumari, Steph Gordon, and the others—had straight away started calling her "Holly Hog's Breath"
It was bullying, plain and simple. Steph even made snuffling noises whenever she came near! But Holly had fought back. She had a quick brain and a sharp tongue, and took no prisoners when firing off insults. By the end of the week she had everyone calling Amber "Damper" (and then "Bread Brain"), and had renamed Steph "Steph Gorgon," eldest of the Gorgon sisters (with a face so ugly it turned people to stone).
By the second Friday, no one called Holly anything but "Holly." No one used her second name at all; not even Mr Murray. She was the class clown, an industrial-strength lol-factory. She burnt people.
She was dangerous!
Of course, that also meant nobody got too close to her. Holly wasn't part of a group—not the bookworms or princesses; not even the gamers, though she was levels ahead of Elsie Muggleton and Kate Scott in Budgie Smugglers. No, Holly was a loner. Like Winny Wang-Watson and poor, shy, mumbling Tommi, she was an island of one.
* * *
The next day saw Holly back at her desk, sitting through the first batch of wildlife presentations and trying not to say anything discourteous.
It was hard.
Like when Elsie and Kate showed off their model platypus nest, and the soil pugs they'd spent hours shaping looked exactly like the volcanic landscaping gravel her dad bought from Bunnings. Holly shouldn't have pointed that out (first warning). Or when Adrian's homemade ball of echidna spines reminded her of Steve Bradbury's haircut that time he won an Olympic gold medal for not falling over in ice skating. She knew Mr Murray would find it inappropriate, but she couldn't help calling out, "That's not an echidna. You've scalped Steve Bradbury!" (second warning).
Then there was Tommi Melville.
When it was Tommi's turn, he mumbled something about his mum and hurried from the classroom, returning a minute later with—
A wombat!
In the back of her mind, Holly remembered that Mrs Melville was involved with WIRES. She hadn't expected her to be an actual carer, though, or that Tommi would bring a real, live wombat to school. He struggled forward with it, holding it like an oversized teddy bear.
"Oh my god!" Jordie-Cherie gushed. "It's adorable!"
"How old is he?" Noah asked. "It is a he, right?"
"What's his name?" Ebony demanded.
The wombat hung fat and docile in Tommi's arms. It regarded its audience with sleepy brown eyes and a snout like a squished backside.
"This is Damascus," Tommi said. "He's almost two and we don't know yet whether he'll make it back to the wild, or if he'll have to live in the sanctuary."
Wombats could be fierce, Holly knew. Their claws were seriously strong! But this one seemed content to be held. Tommi's mum supervised from a distance, not interfering.
"Damascus was orphaned as a joey," Tommi explained. "His mother was hit by a car but he was still alive in her pouch. I've helped raise him!"
Tommi's voice was stronger when he talked about Damascus. His shyness disappeared, hidden behind a furry, flabby shield.
"What type is he?" Rebekah asked. "Is he a hairy-nosed?"
In basketball they called that an alley-oop. Almost without thinking, Holly's clown brain jumped into action and she opened her mouth to say, Winny's got a hairy nose. Winny Wang-Wombat!
Beside her, Winny flinched. The joy slid from Tommi's face as if he, too, knew what was coming. Laughter. Ridicule. Damascus squinted at her, wise and weary behind nostrils he could never live down. Suddenly Holly realised:
She'd become the bully!
She jerked back in her seat. When had that happened? As the joke came out she clawed at the words, redirecting their cruelty.
"I've got a hairy nose," she managed— (and yes, the class broke up; but the razzing was kinder, more inclusive). "Not as hairy as this guy, though. He's amazing, Tommi!"
Tommi straightened. "He is, right? Wombats are solitary creatures. Loners. But they can be playful and friendly, too. You just have to get to know them."
Holly nodded. She glanced over at Mr Murray and wondered if she could make some changes to her presentation tomorrow. Bring some laughs at her own expense.
Australia's feral pig problem, she thought. By Holly Hog's Breath.
It had a nice ring to it.

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