The Art of the Catapult

Johanna Bartley had no friends.

Not, of course, that she needed friends. Because she had other things. Smarts. Good grades. Top rank in all her classes, if she had to guess (and she had; pretty accurately, if the scores everyone shared with each other after each major project and test were true). She’d tested out of eighth grade and straight into high school at the start of the year, and discovered that even now the lessons came easy.

But still. If you were into counting people’s friends, Johanna Bartley came up zeros.

“Why no, Mr. Beadle,” Jess said softly but distinctly, despite the fact that the science teacher was well out of earshot.  Kelly giggled once, muffled in the back of her throat.  “I hardly even study.”

Johanna – the H is silent, she had warned everyone during self-introductions in her very first homeroom as a freshman – was still working her way towards the door, but she knew the line was meant for her. She sniffed more disdain than logistically possible into her small, upturned nose, proving once and for all that appearances were deceiving.

Jess appeared not to notice though Kelly mock-gasped, holding out her paper on the effects of population growth on habitat (a cop-out – easy topic, easy grade – if Johanna had ever seen one), sporting a modest looking A.  Johanna caught the movement out of the corner of her eye, which of course had been the point.  “An A+ again?  But I hardly even tried!”

Kelly always overplayed it, driving home points with irritating blatancy, whereas Jess was classy, in the way that mean yet academic girls often were.  Her class wasn’t so much in her insults as it was in her tone, which matched the model oval of her gentle, perfectly white face, offset by a remarkable, thick mane of black hair (and Johanna hated overused animal metaphors, but that’s the way it went). When she insulted you, you could almost convince yourself she meant it as a shared inside-joke.  It was a talent Johanna hadn’t yet cultivated, and it bothered her that she wanted to.  Beautiful girls – the shallow, overrated ones – annoyed her deeply, mostly because she was self-aware enough to recognize that she not-so-secretly wanted to be one.

Johanna was mixed parts South American, African American, and White American, and all parts thirteen-year-old know-it-all, despite her best efforts not to be.  When she described herself – and she often did, running it through her head like a personal ad, twisting and finding new words that made her average looks more winning – she liked to think of her skin as cinnamon, a word that sounded both pretty and exotic, and her hair as spicy mocha.  Her best descriptors had been picked off the menu at Starbucks, and she liked the term “shot with hazel-nut,” which she used to describe her eyes. Sometimes “honey” or “gold” substituted.

The truth of the matter was that she was a brown-eyed, frizzy haired beanpole, with the basic profile – and appeal – of an ironing board, her hair shoved back with a headband that made her look more like a little girl than she knew, despite her height. No one had noticed yet whether her eyes were shot through with honey or hazel because her eyebrows, large, black, and arched imperiously over her gaze, were the most strikingly expressive thing about her face.

She leveled them now, furrowing her brow with dark irritation as she threaded through the desks, ignoring the childish sniggers that she suspected were directed at her.  Johanna had nearly escaped, giving Mr. Beadle – wiping down the whiteboard – a halfhearted farewell smile he didn’t notice, when Jess neatly side-stepped her at the door.  She pushed past Johanna with a deliberateness that was practiced in its disregard.  Kelly, on her left, was less subtle, and actually slipped a wink over her shoulder as she flipped her caramel hair.  Her nose crinkled, bunching her freckles in an irritatingly cute way as she smiled, but Jessica didn’t bother tossing Johanna so much as a glance as she glided out of the room, Kelly oozing charm at her back.

Johanna checked her watch, realizing that a couple of minutes had ticked by since the bell had rung.  She hated it when they threw her off like that.  Worse, she hated letting them think they had won.  But she’d let it bother her later.  She had to move fast if she was going to make it.

About two months ago, at the beginning of the year (new town, new school, new watch, because Johanna liked always having the time on her wrist) she had carefully set her watch to that of the school’s.  At the end of each period, as the clock inched towards the bell, she planned each exit using a carefully configured strategy.  There was an art to leaving class when no one liked you: first one out and everyone stares at you.  Last one out: look who’s the loser.  She liked to hit the middle of the pack best, squeezing her way between the popular guys and the loners too cool to rush out of anything, to press just into the edge of the theoretically friendly (less so in practice) group of girls who rose, sat down, chattered, and toileted as a single unit.

Johanna had missed her window now, and she found herself dodging around shoulders and elbows to get past the boys she usually beat out the door.  There was a general jostle because all the grades let out at once, and Mr. Beadle’s classroom was located in the main hall that acted as a highway for all core curriculum.  Out here she wasn’t nearly the tallest, which made her feel less conspicuous as she ducked a disgustingly cuddly looking couple that was feeling up things that should not be felt in public.  She burst out of the melee and into her quiet corner of Lewis and Clark.

Thank goodness, she realized.  He wasn’t here yet.

While Lewis and Clark had a high standard of education for a public school and the best reputation in the county (her parents preferred private schools, but the move had happened too suddenly for her to make any of the waiting lists on time), what they had in good teaching and material coverage they lacked in space.  The freshmen had been assigned partners for their lockers, shoved in out of the way corridors that saw neither sun nor teachers.  There simply wasn’t enough hall space for all the lockers they needed, and private book space had become a privilege of the upper classmen.

Several students stood lounging about, casually, as though they had all the time in the world (four minutes until the bell for next period rang, she’d checked), and she made her way to the back, mentally shaking her head.  People wondered why she did well in school?  Maybe because she cared.

Her surreptitious once-over confirmed that, while not empty, the hall was still safe.  Johanna had figured out near the beginning of the year that assignments had been made alphabetically, but it didn’t change the fact that the soulless secretary who worked the books in the principal’s office had to have developed just enough personality to hate her.

The locker door banged against its neighbor as she started sifting through her stack of books, glancing once at her watch.  Bachman, Tom didn’t always show up (for classes even, if you could believe that) but it wasn’t good pushing her luck.  By the state of the locker he was in school today, and her neatly prepared stacks had been through Hurricane Tom. She suspected the process started with a general dump of his backpack contents, and ended when he finished dragging his things into one enormous pile with hers, possibly with a backhoe. She had stopped leaving homework in here after the second day.

Johanna pushed a crumpled and creepily stained parent-teacher conference notice (she’d been seeing these since the start of the year and they had never, as far as she could tell, made it past the bottom of the locker) to his half of their space with her index finger, afraid it would poison her. The Art of the Catapult followed – Tom was definitely in school today; he took the dog-eared, also creepily stained how-to project book with him everywhere he went, like some stupid security blanket – and finally spotted what she was looking for. Johanna carefully extricated her English textbook, swooped up in one fluid move, and ran into his knees.

The fluorescent light cast shadows into his leering grin, weakly highlighting the sandy color of his hair, which was more dirt than dirt-blonde. Too short to be cool, it consistently looked like someone had been at it with a weed whacker.   She grabbed the heavy book with long fingers and shot out of her crouch, feeling the throb where his bony knees had made contact with her collar and escaping the potent view up his nostrils the position had afforded her.

Johanna may have been tall but Tom was taller, with two years and a growth spurt on her.  And that, perhaps, was their shared problem – not their social ill grace, but their age.  Neither fit where they were supposed to.  One too smart for her age, the other too completely bone-headed to even make it through summer school.  It had gotten out, goodness knew how, that they were friends, or at least worth labeling together.  That, she thought, had been Jess: Stretch and Gumby.  It didn’t matter which was which and no one had ever said who was who, but Johanna had always suspected that Tom was Gumby, with his clubby hands and feet.  Where Johanna’s limbs shot stick-like and straight from her clothes, Tom had the look of inexpertly pulled taffy.

“Good morning, Jo-Hanna” he said, emphasizing the H. You could hear the huff of air that followed it, like the overdone gasp of a man dying of thirst in the desert. May it choke him.  “I haven’t seen you all day!”

But yeah. There was the matter of their social ill grace too.

That they hadn’t seen each other all day was, of course, because they’d only been through one period. Johanna took Environmental Science while Tom attended Earth Science.  “Earth Science” was code for stupid class.

“Gotta go,” she said, clutching her book to her chest and moving to walk past him.

Tom’s foot shot out with a twiggy jerk. His foot met the locker that made up their kitty corner, clanging sharply. His sneaker slid into place with a black, squeegeed smudge.

“I haven’t seen you all day,” he repeated slowly, like she was the stupid one.

And that was three minutes till the bell.

“Let me through,” she demanded, tone, though imperious, almost convincingly unconcerned with the clock.

Tom Bachman, casually taking up the corner in which Johanna was trapped, folded his string bean arms across his chest and showed off his canines.  “Say hello first.”

She tried to push past him, but he shifted like he was stretching and his knee blocked her not-so-sneaky yet valiant attempt.  She set her mouth, speaking through her teeth. “Hello. Let me through.”

Tom loomed into her space.  He smelled like P.E., cigarettes, and attitude, which was to say that Tom was Bad News, white trash, and had every right to be in his locker space.  On the one hand, someone hadn’t really been thinking when they assigned bully and victim a place together.  On the other, it did tie up a couple of loose ends pretty neatly.  If sadistically.

“Hello…who?” he asked.

Two minutes and fifteen seconds.

She clutched her literature book in her arms and looked past his shoulder to the slowly draining hall.  In about two minutes and ten seconds (give or take) they would be sitting in class, never once having looked her way.  She tried not to sound desperate, or mad, couldn’t figure out which one she wanted to sound like less, and ended up sounding like she was both.  “Let me through.”

“Hello, Tom,” he emphasized, like she needed him to spell it out for her.  “You’re not trying to get through, are you?”

Her brow dropped over her eyes.  “You are so—”

“Overpowering, I know.”  He grinned.  “I’m not in your way, am I?”

“Yes you are!” she snapped.

He looked mock-surprised.  “That is so hurtful.”

Johanna knew you couldn’t hurt this boy with a crowbar. For the first week and a half it hadn’t been so bad being his locker partner – he rarely showed up, left her lunch alone Mondays through Thursdays, flicked paper at her in class but otherwise acted like she didn’t exist – but then late one Friday afternoon she’d found The Art of the Catapult on the floor of the girl’s bathroom. She’d known it was his. Everyone did (it was literally the only book that ever made the rounds between his house and school), and he was unpopular enough that she suspected it was someone’s idea of a prank. He’d been long gone by then, so she’d taken the book home with her.

She’d read it over the weekend because she couldn’t help herself. Johanna devoured the history and hopefully skimmed the mechanics, even if the page on general safety rules ultimately stopped her from building anything. Since she hadn’t been able to finagle any adult supervision from either Mom or Dad, she’d spent a couple of hours regluing the binding back together. It bugged her to see books mistreated. Especially since she suspected that it had been stolen from a public library, if the “PROPERTY OF BILLINGS PUBLIC LIBRARY” stamped onto the front page was anything to go by; she’d have returned it herself but Billings was two hundred some miles away and the library staff there had likely given up hope of its return years ago.

That Monday she neatly deposited The Art of the Catapult on Tom’s half of the locker, in better condition than when she’d found it. And if she’d thought he was annoying before, it was nothing to what he was like after. She must’ve broken some unspoken rule of an incomprehensibly uncivilized tribe, because he’d been punishing her ever since. He’d taken to following her around, disappearing unexpectedly only to show up in random places, always leaning against the wall like he was now, his arms crossed as he demanded, with a grin in his voice, that she give him back his stuff.

It only took Tom one class period to systematically chew his way through a pen that looked suspiciously like the one she had left in their locker earlier that same day, but it was a lesson well learned.  Now she left only her books behind, and that was because her backpack was too small to hold them all.

“I wish you would just go away!” she tried again, scowling.

“Oh wow,” he said, putting a hand to his chest.  “That one was really cutting.”

One minute, thirty seconds.

Her knee bounced up and down.  She was deathly afraid of warnings, and certainly didn’t want one now for being late.  She tried to push past him with her hand, but he shifted again so that she ended up half squashed between him and the locker before pulling back.  “Why do you have to be the world’s biggest jerk?”

Tom showed her his teeth.  “We all have our talents.”

“You really suck.”

He appeared to think about it.  “You know, I think that one actually hurt.”

The second hand crept down to the one minute mark and everything hit Johanna at once.  The humiliation of having this boy follow her around everywhere, her perfect record about to be ruined by some jerky idiot, and the fact that no one in this freaking hall cared that she was trapped in a corner by Gumby, the star of creepy green clay animation, because they were all too self-absorbed to try and care about someone other than themselves.  It wasn’t a realization unfamiliar to her, but the utter unfairness of it hit her in a way that it never had before.

Tom didn’t know hurtful.  He didn’t know the cruel things someone could say to make every piece of carefully done homework seem like a joke.  Her life meant nothing to these people.

The Art of the Catapult came to her suddenly. With the right force and torsion, even a single volley could buckle a stone wall.

Take this, Johanna thought.

She could feel the tears pricking in her eyes, but she let him have it anyways.  “You’re a jerk.  You think that anyone cares when you act mean? Or cool? Or funny or…or anything at all? News flash: you’re not cool or funny. And the only reason you get away with being mean is because no one cares.”  She was working into her anger now and realized, with no small amount of relief, that she no longer felt like crying.  “No one cares if you smoke—” she said the word like it could actually give her cancer, “—because no one even thinks about you if you’re not in the same room.  You say mean things to make sure people can’t help but think about you after you’re out of sight, but you’re as forgettable as your words.”  A blatant lie – words stuck, but she didn’t want him to think that he was winning.  Too many people had beaten her today.  “You know what?  No one cares.  No one cares at all.  They don’t even think about you.  And…and you’re going to let me through and you’re going to let me pretend you don’t exist too.”

There was a silence in which Tom, his face carefully blanked, cocked an eyebrow at the wall across from which he leaned.  He didn’t look at her. “I don’t care what people think of me.”

Everyone cares what people think of them,” Johanna snapped.

He seemed to take that in with casual indifference, but the hands gripping his arms were convulsively squeezing and releasing the stringy muscles.  “I thought you were better than the rest of them.”

She felt taken aback.  She had won. She had shot her missiles at him and he had crumbled away like nothing.

Johanna opened her mouth to say something – what, she didn’t know, all she really had to do was walk away – but she closed it when she realized that her surprise had nothing to do with winning and everything to do with the indifferent look on his face. He wouldn’t even meet her eyes.  She had seen that expression a thousand different times, that wall-papered on look he got when teachers yelled at him, when the girls giggled and whispered and shot him glances, when no one would pass him the ball in P.E.

But he had never given it to her.

She got it in a flash of clarity, like that moment when she did just a little bit of mental shifting and she suddenly understood the day’s math problems.  Tom did know hurtful. Knew it with every insult that he pretended to ignore. Knew it as well as she did.

Knew it like every kid who didn’t have friends knew it.

The question came out before she could stop it, full of some mix of disbelief and amazed incredulity. “Do you want to be my friend?!”

She checked herself as he shifted business-like to block her in more effectively, though she wasn’t trying to get out.  He was blanking her.  He had never—

And she got that she was hurt too.  He had thought that she was different. Better.

I am, she thought.  I am better.

“Wait,” she tried, putting up her hands as though to shove off his blank look.  She didn’t know how many chances she had and she needed this to come out right.  “I said that wrong.”  She hadn’t, of course, but she had changed her entire world view about five seconds ago and was still down-shifting.  “Do you want to be my friend?”

Ooh.”  He put on his best girl-gossip voice, a talent he used to mock Jess and the rest of them when he caught them sniggering behind their hands.  “Don’t feel sorry for poor—”

“No,” she cut him off, needing him to get it.  “Really.  Really,” she tried again, for more emphasis.  She felt stupid suddenly, and tried to make it less needy.  “I mean, we already share locker space so it’s not as if we don’t already, you know, hang out, kind of, and really it doesn’t matter if no one cares as long as one person does so—”

Tom laughed, almost nastily, but his eyebrows had moved back to their cocky perch above his eyes and he was looking at her again. His lips couldn’t hide his teeth.  “You are such a pre-teen.”

She scowled.  “I’m thirteen.”

“But pretty obviously pre-pubescent,” he clarified.  “That makes you a tween.”

She tried to sneer but it turned into anger.  “Fine then. If you’re going to be like that—”

With a shift of his awkwardly long legs, he pushed himself away from the lockers, straightening with his arms still crossed to give her access to the now empty hall.  “Five seconds.”

She narrowed her eyes at him, trying to process him.

“Four,” he said. “Three, t—”

The bell swallowed the “two,” ringing long and hard, and she jumped as though someone had just slapped that late warning to her forehead.

“Whoops.” He leaned into her, teeth grinning.  Teeth couldn’t grin, but his were positively glowing, and she could think of no better way to describe it.  “Off by two.”

Johanna was officially tardy for the first time in her life.  She leapt forward, running down the hall as though she could get the time back that way, hearing his ragged tennis shoes squeak off the hallway floor as he followed, one step behind.

“You—! I can’t believe you, you’re such a—”

“—bad influence already,” he filled in for her.  “You don’t know what you just got yourself into.”

“Catapult crews could change the course of a battle with only a few shots, she quoted privately to herself, wondering who had just laid siege to whom. And who exactly had won. Do I know what I’ve just gotten myself into?

“I take it back,” she told him, but he laughed and Johanna Bartley, with her one stupid friend, smiled all the way to English class.

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