Stranger Like Me


Jason sank back into his chair, looking at the chalkboard through his hair. The teacher didn't see him this far under the desk. Too bad Danny K wasn't as short-sighted; he'd been throwing spit-balls at Jason's head since spelling started.

"Mrs. Jacobs!"

Jason was pretty sure that every head in the room turned to look at the new girl who sat next to him, waving her arm in the air. Their teacher stopped and when she turned around, she was frowning. Jason wondered just how crazy the new girl was to interrupt like that.

"Mrs. Jacobs, Danny's throwing spitballs at Jason," she announced indignantly.

Jason slid further into his seat.

"And he's been doing it for... for hours and hours now," she continued. "I think he should get detention. There are germs in spitballs."

"Thank you for letting me know, Lian," said Mrs. Jacobs. "Danny, will you please come with me?"

Danny K was cool. Jason knew that in first grade there wasn't really supposed to be cool and not cool but that couldn't be true because Danny K always took the kickball first and he could kick it the hardest and no one said "Easy out! Easy out!" when he went up to the bat.

He wasn't going to get to play kickball this recess.

He wasn't going to get to play kickball any recess, after what happened that morning. Danny K was on the wall and he hadn't stopped looking at Jason like Mom looked at her laptop when she had a deadline and didn't even eat with them. The other boys kept looking at him, too, like it was his fault that Danny K couldn't play today.

Well, he wasn't going to keep the inevitable-that was one of Mom's words-from happening by trying to melt into the wall. Jason pushed off and, as casually as he could, headed for the basketball courts where the big kids could witness anything that might happen.

He wasn't afraid of Danny K. He'd flown with Superman and survived a kidnapping.

He was afraid of what he might do to Danny K.


Jason really wasn't surprised when the kickball crowd followed him, and he was even less surprised when Danny K's best friend Brian grabbed his arm hard enough to hurt.

Jason thought about what Mom and Dad had told him about walking away from fights, and being a bigger person-which is a really ridiculous saying because how can you be bigger than you are?-but it doesn't help when there are four kids who really are bigger than you all hitting and kicking. Jason didn't dare do anything but cover his face and take it, because when he thought about hitting back, he remembered that piano and the time he'd hit his alarm clock a little too hard and it scared him.

Suddenly, there was a high pitched voice and at first he thought it was the school monitor, Mrs. Jaworski, but then this bright red shoe flashed past his eyes and into Brian's kneecap.

"You leave him alone, you big, ugly piece of dog poo!"

The red shoes moved again, this time making contact with Fadhil's bottom. "Let's see how tough you are when you fight someone bigger, huh!"

Her words made Jason smile because she was smaller than him even. She just moved faster.

It was kind of like what Mom said about how bullies are cowards who work in groups and don't like it when you fight back, but Jason had never seen anything to prove her right. (Of course, he was pretty sure Mom was right about everything because there was no one smarter than Mom except maybe Dad or Uncle Perry, and sometimes Mom was smarter than them.) The new girl hit and kicked and bit the boys until one of the big kids playing basketball grabbed her and picked her up. She was still kicking and throwing her arms around, and she looked kind of silly, but Jason just sat on the pavement and watched the group of boys run toward the wall where Danny K was standing. Then he looked at her.

"Um, you can let her go now," he told one of the big boys. She was screaming... evening television things at the boys. Good thing they were laughing too hard to care.

"Are you sure, kid?" asked the tallest boy. "We don't want her scratching you up."

"She was helping me," said Jason. "I'm not s'posed to fight because, um, I beat someone up real bad before and the judge made my mom make me promise never to do it again and they were going to take away my TV if I broke my promise, so I couldn't."

"Why didn't you help him?" the girl-- Lian-- demanded of the boys who were holding her back. "MY daddy says that people who don't help are big COWARDS and they aren't worth the time in the--"

Jason shook his head frantically but she wasn't getting the message.

The boy holding Lian laughed as she said words that Jason would get in trouble for just hearing-and that made him really hope Clark was busy at work right now, or maybe in Japan or some place far away saving people-- and shook her a little. "Easy, kid," he said. "We didn't need to help him, you did just fine."

Lian hit the boy's arm and scowled. "Put me down, right now."

The other big kids were laughing too, and when Lian finally got her feet on the ground, she huffed and tossed her pigtails over her shoulder before coming over to Jason. She reached down and grabbed his hand, pulling on him. "You okay?" she asked.

Jason flipped his hair out of his eyes. "I'm fine," he said with a shrug.

She peered at him like she had X-ray vision, too. "You don't look hurt," she said, seemingly disappointed. "I thought you'd be bleeding and stuff. One of those idiots had hiking boots on."

"Oh, I'm tough," Jason said. "I fell down the stairs once and didn't even bruise."

"Well, I've jumped off my bike when it was rolling down a hill. I got this scratch, see?" She lifted her skirt to show off a really cool scar on her knee.

"Wow!" said Jason. "That looks like a bite from a monster rat!"

"Really?" Lian looked pleased. "Maybe it was a mutant rat! With diseases!"

"Like the Black Plague!"

"Did you know Ring Around the Rosie is about the Black Plague?" said Lian.

Jason grinned. She was his type of weird.

They were talking about families in class, and Lian liked it when they did that. In kindergarten and pre-school, they made lists of everyone's family members and drew pictures and Lian already knew what the teacher would say, because they always said just what Daddy did-that families come in lots of different shapes and sizes, and nobody's family is the same as someone else's. Both her dads were orphans, which meant her Grandpa Ollie and her Grandpa Bruce weren't related by blood, but that didn't mean they weren't family.

Mrs. Jacobs told them to draw pictures of their families-- Lian loved drawing pictures.

When Mrs. Jacobs asked for volunteers, Lian had her hand raised up first. She was new, after all, so she should share things about herself. Daddy said the best way to make friends was to be upfront. Of course, Papa would always say that being upfront only guaranteed that you got stabbed in the front. Lian didn't know why anyone would want to get stabbed in the front; there were too many bones there to get a good shot.

Holding the picture up under her chin, Lian pointed out the figures. "This is my Daddy; he's a policeman. And this is my Papa. He's Mr. Wayne's bodyguard. And this is my Grampa Ollie and this is--"

"Where's your mom?" asked that stupidface, Danny K.

Lian frowned. She felt guilty because she hadn't drawn Mommy, but Daddy said they could love her even if she did bad things. She hadn't seen her Mommy for years and she didn't really remember her, but Danny K the Butthead didn't need to know that. She wanted to say she didn't have a mom, but she did, so she told the truth like she was supposed to: "My mom's in prison and I haven't seen her in a long time."

The class went quiet. Someone in the back of the room started to laugh and then someone yelled "Convict!" Lian's nose itched and her eyes wanted to itch too, but she stomped her foot.

"Your face is a convict!" she yelled.

"Now, Lian--" started Mrs. Jacobs.

Lian waited for her to say that all families were different and that just made everyone more special, but Mrs. Jacobs just clapped her hands and yelled for quiet.

"Thank you, Lian, maybe someone else would want to--"

Jason said something but Lian couldn't hear him. Slowly, he stood up and turned around to face the rest of the class, his head bowed and eyes covered by his hair. "I think it's cool that Lian has two daddies."

The room got quiet again, and someone muttered something from the back of the room. Mrs. Jacobs cleared her throat and said, "Thank you, Jason-you're right, it is 'cool.' Lian," she said, turning to her again, "thank you for sharing with us. Would you like to finish now?"

Lian didn't really, because her throat felt all tight and her eyes really hurt, but she mumbled her way through it. When she finished, she went back to her seat and when Amanda started showing her picture of her stupid family with her stupid mom and her stupid dad and stupid baby brother, she looked over at Jason. Jason was sitting very still in his seat and looking down at the floor.

She watched him mumble through his picture too, but she couldn't tell if it was because he was still embarrassed about speaking up or if he just didn't like speaking up. Lian usually liked it but not when she was in front of pooheads. Except Jason. Jason wasn't a poohead. So she thought she'd help him out.

"How come you don't call Clark Uncle Clark?"

Jason blinked. "He's not my uncle. He's just Mommy and Daddy's friend."

"I think it's cool that your Mommy and Daddy have a friend staying over," she continued enthusiastically. "It's like having a sleepover forever!"

"What's a sleepover?" asked Jason.

Danny K laughed. "You don't know what a sleepover is? What a baby!"

Lian saw Jason's head sink even as his hands clenched into fists.

"Danny," Mrs. Jacobs said sharply, "that's enough. Thank you, Lian. Does anyone else have a question for Jason?"

Hands shot up around the class, and Lian watched Jason's shoulders hunch up. One of the boys who had been kicking him at recess asked, "Why does he live with you, doesn't he have his own house?"

"No," Jason muttered.

Mrs. Jacobs let two more kids ask questions before she thanked Jason and let him sit down.

As Jason passed her on his way back to his chair, he smiled.

Lian blinked. He had a real funny smile.

No, not funny. Fun. He had a fun smile.

Maybe her new school wouldn't be so bad.

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