Happy Starfish ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Did I tell you how I hate school? This morning in zoology I had to dissect a starfish. The inside of the starfish is green. That’s disgusting enough, but the thing that got to me is the fishy smell. It’s a smell that lingers in my head and my nose. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat any kind of fish or seafood again for as long as I live without being reminded of the green insides of a starfish.
The world is very cruel. That little starfish was probably just minding its own business on a beach somewhere when somebody picked it up and put it in pickling solution where it instantly died. One minute a happy starfish and the next minute a laboratory specimen to be cut open and have its insides probed. If I was a starfish, I would want to live on a faraway island where there were no people and I could die of old age.
After zoology was American history, but I skipped. I thought I was going to vomit and I didn’t want anybody to see me. I went to the boys’ toilet on the third floor where it was quiet and went into a stall and latched the door. I put my hands on my knees, leaned forward and closed my eyes, trying not to think about that starfish.
In a minute somebody came into the toilet whistling. I hate to hear people whistle. It spoiled my concentration, so I just spit into the toilet and flushed without vomiting. I opened the stall door and went to the sink and started to wash my hands.
“What do you think you’re doing?” somebody to my left said.
I turned and saw it was Claude Qualls. If there’s anybody in school I hate, it’s Claude. He’s the class president and a snitch. Mr. Do-Gooder. Mr. Over-Achiever. Mr. Perfect. He has somehow taken it upon himself to keep the rest of us in line. Probably someday he’ll be a congressman or a senator or something if somebody doesn’t kill him first.
“Washing my hands,” I said. “What does it look like?”
“That’s not what I meant, smartass! What are you doing out of class?”
“You don’t look sick.”
He took his eyes off himself in the mirror and leaned in close to me, sniffing.
“Get away from me!” I said. “What I have is probably contagious.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be in American history?”
“What business is it of yours?”
“As class president, I’m supposed to report anybody skipping class.”
“Go to hell!” I said.
He grabbed me by the collar and pulled me toward him, holding his right arm back like he was going to hit me in the face. “What did you just say to me?” he said.
“You heard me. I said: Go to hell, bitch!”
He roughed me up a little bit but didn’t hit me. He finished by pushing me into the sink. The fingers on my left hand bent back painfully.
“You stupid little baby!” he said. “You can be sure that this little episode will be reported.”
“You’re the big man, aren’t you?” I said. “The big man will always be there to tell the rest of us what to do, won’t he?”
“Shut up, you little freak!”
“No, you’re the freak, Claude! Not me! Everybody hates your guts!”
“I’m going down to Mr. Ludlow’s office right now and write up a report stating that you’re loitering in the bathroom when you’re supposed to be in class.”
“I hope you break your leg going down the steps,” I said.
I went to the library to hide out for the rest of the period. I knew that if I sat at one of the tables out front, anybody coming in would spot me right away, so I wandered around in the dusty stacks for a while and then went all the way to the back where nobody ever ventured and sat down on the floor in the corner. I opened a book on my knees so if I heard anybody coming I’d pretend to be reading.
I was starting to feel a little less like vomiting. The quiet and the smell of old books made me sleepy, so I leaned my head against the wall and dozed off like a bum sleeping it off in an alley.
“Here he is!” I heard somebody say in a loud voice.
I jerked awake and saw Claude Qualls looking down at me. Behind him was Mr. Ludlow, the principal.
“I was sure he’d be hiding out somewhere!” Claude said.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Mr. Ludlow scolded. “Sleeping on the floor in the library!”
“I was feeling sick,” I said, standing up.
“You haven’t been drinking, have you?”
“Of course not!”
“Aren’t you supposed to be in class?”
“American history class,” Claude said.
“I was going to vomit,” I said. “I didn’t want to be in class when it happened.”
Mr. Ludlow took hold of my arm above the elbow and squeezed. I was sure I would have a bruise there and I was sorry that Claude was the only one present to witness this rough treatment.
“Skipping class will not be tolerated in this school,” Mr. Ludlow snarled in his best warden-of-the-big-house voice. I could smell his cologne and it was worse than the starfish. “Do you want a suspension?”
“No,” I said. “I just want my high school years to be over.”
“Do you need me to help you with him?” Claude asked.
“No, thanks, Claude,” Mr. Ludlow said. “I can take it from here.”
“Before you tell somebody else to go to hell,” Claude said to me with his demonic smile, “think about who you’re talking to.”
“That’s fine, Claude,” Mr. Ludlow said. “You may go now.” To me Mr. Ludlow said, “Proper disciplinary action will be taken at the appropriate time but, for now, you may go to your next class, and if you even think about skipping class again you’ll be faced with a three-day suspension. Think what that will do to your scholastic record and to your chances of getting into a good college.”
My next class was gym class, which I hated more than all my other classes put together. I went to the locker room and changed out of my “street clothes” into the ridiculous gym togs: baggy red shorts that hung down to my knees, a stretched-out tee shirt and grass-stained high-top tennis shoes that were too small for me and made my toes hurt.
While we were all standing around waiting for the teacher to arrive so the class could begin, I spotted Claude Qualls about twenty feet away, bouncing a basketball. When he saw me, he gave me a look of bemused hatred and I mouthed the words go to hell. There wasn’t any way he could not know what I was saying.
The physical education teacher was Mr. Upjohn, or “coach,” as he liked to be called. He was four feet, eleven inches tall and he looked like a troll in a fairy story who hides under a bridge.
“All right now, everybody!” he yelled and blew his whistle. “Time for warm-up!”
As bad as the warm-up was, it wasn’t as bad as the game of volleyball or basketball that followed. We stood in rows as Mr. Upjohn faced us and directed us in the knee bends, sit-ups, pushups, and jumping jacks.
It was during the jumping jacks that I vomited on the floor, a thick green mass that looked exactly like the insides of the starfish. Everybody stopped jumping up and down and looked at me. I bent forward to vomit again and fainted face down in what I had just deposited on the floor. It was only the second time in my life that I had ever fainted. The first time was when I was eight and had the flu.
When I regained consciousness, they were all standing around in a circle watching me. I had really spiced up their boring old gym class. Mr. Upjohn was kneeling beside me, waving a bottle of smelling salts under my nose.
“He’s coming around,” he said.
“I want to go home,” I said.
“Can you make it to the nurse’s office?”
“She doesn’t like me. I pushed her down the stairs once.”
As I stood up, Mr. Upjohn took hold of my arm. “Go get dressed,” he said, “and go see the nurse.”
“I don’t know,” I said, wobbling for effect. “I feel like I’m going to faint again.”
“Claude!” he barked. “Go with him and help him get dressed!”
Claude stepped forward, ready once again to fulfill his role as student leader.
“I don’t need any help from him!” I said. “Just give me time!”
I went down to the deserted locker room, cleaned the vomit off my face and out of my hair and put my clothes back on. As I was leaving the locker room, I noticed the door to Claude’s locker was partway open. I approached the locker, pulled the door open all the way and looked inside. There, on the top shelf, was Claude’s expensive gold wrist watch. I slipped the watch into my pocket and deposited it in a trashcan on my way to the nurse’s office.
I walked into her office and vomited again, all over the floor. Now, I have to tell you, there’s nothing like vomiting to get people’s attention. You can say you’re sick, but dramatic vomiting leaves no room for doubt.
The nurse dropped what she was doing and came running with a kidney-shaped metal pan. She told me to lie back on the cot and she put a wet cloth on my head. When she took my temperature and saw I had a fever, she called my mother and told her to come and get me.
When I got home, I kicked off my shoes and got into bed. My mother stood in the doorway and harangued me, as usual.
“Why did you choose today of all days to be sick?” she asked.
“I figured it was time,” I said.
“Algebra test today?”
“No, I failed that last week.”
“Well, I have to tell you,” she said, “sometimes when you say you’re sick I don’t believe you, but today you look sick.”
“Thank you,” I said.
She called the doctor and described my symptoms. From my bed, I could hear her yapping into the phone in the other room for a good ten minutes. After she hung up, she came back into my room. I pretended to be asleep until I heard her breathing and opened my eyes.
“He said it sounds like you have a virus that’s making the rounds,” she said. “It’s contagious and he said to keep you at home in bed for a few days.”
“I always liked Dr. Fain,” I said.
“He said that after the nausea passes I’m to give you anything you want to eat or drink.”
“I want a champagne cocktail,” I said, “and a steak medium rare.”
“But the main thing,” my mother said, “is to keep you quiet and in bed.”
I groaned for good effect and my mother went out of the room and closed the door.
I remembered my conversation earlier in the day with Claude Qualls in the boys’ toilet. He had stuck his snoot in my face and I hope he caught what I had, only ten times worse. He would be distraught at the thought of missing any school, while I, on the other hand, loved it better than anything.
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp