Ms. Rothenburger’s first grade class at Pine Lane Elementary School was enjoying storytime in the library that afternoon. The Librarian was reading a funny story to them called ‘A Bad Case of Stripes’. Justin had already read the story - his Mommy had bought the book for him the year before, when she found out that little five year old Justin could read by himself already - but it was one of his favorites so he was happy to listen and laugh along with all his classmates.
‘Poor Camilla Cream. If she would only stop worrying about what everyone else thought and eat her lima beans like she wanted, she wouldn’t have stripes at all’, thought Justin. ‘Although, it might be fun to have rainbow stripes all over you’. Justin didn’t think he would mind being striped. He and his best friend, Daphne, had discussed it before and they already had a plan to paint themselves in pretty stripes once it got warmer out and they could run around in their bathing suits all day so people could see.
Just about the time the Library Lady was finishing the story, the peace and quiet of the Library was disturbed as a large group of noisy older kids carrying boxes and bags of stuff came in through the side doors. The Principal, Mr. Steves, was directing them to the large open area on the other side of the room. They all started moving around the tables and opening up the boxes and making a huge ruckus. It almost distracted from the end of the story and nobody was really paying attention when Camilla Cream finally gave in, ate her Lima Beans and was cured of her stripes for good.
“Ms. Tursi,” Daphne raised her hand as soon as the story was over. When the Librarian called on her, she asked, “What’s going on over there? Who are all those big kids?”
“Those are the winners of this year’s High School Science Fair, Daphne,” the Librarian explained. “Every year, the winners from Pittsburgh tour all the local elementary schools with their winning projects. They’re setting up their exhibits so that everyone here in the school can come in and see them later this afternoon after the assembly. Your class will get to come back in and see them along with everyone else and maybe you’ll see something that will spur your interest in science.”
“I already like science, Ms. Tursi,” Daphne bragged, looking superior. “I’m going to be a doctor and make science experiments and cure diseases and be rich and marry a famous actor.”
The Librarian chuckled a little but agreed that sounded like a great life plan. Justin didn’t know about that. He liked science okay, but he was better at writing and art than science. He agreed that marrying a famous actor sounded good though. He and Daphne had talked about that before too. They had both decided they wanted to marry Brad Pitt when they grew up. Justin thought Brad Pitt was very pretty and would make a good husband.
Justin’s thoughts about the future were cut short when Ms. Rothenburger declared that storytime was over and told them to line up so they could go back to their classroom. Justin followed Daphne over to the spot next to the door where their teacher was waiting for them. As usual, all the kids were talking and laughing and not paying attention to Ms. Rothenburger like they were supposed to. It took quite a while for the teacher to get them in line and quiet. Justin thought they were all being rather naughty.
Right as they were just getting ready to leave, though, they all had to step aside to let in two more of the high school kids who were struggling to carry in a large wooden display that was heaped with tubes and wires and even a couple of large glass jars. It looked heavy. The boys carrying it were straining not to drop it. Ms. Rothenburger quickly told her class to move aside and let the boys with the heavy load through.
As he tried to move to the side, Justin, who was sorta small for his age, got jostled and almost tripped. He started to fall. Instead of landing on his rear end, though, he fell into the bigger of the two boys carrying in the display. Justin’s meager weight didn’t do anything to hurt the big boy, but the older kid did have to take a quick sidestep to avoid dropping his end of the project.
Luckily, the boy seemed pretty strong. He yelled to his friend to ‘Stop, Mikey!’, looked over at Justin to make sure the child was okay, smiled down on the startled six year old, and then, taking a renewed grip on his end of the display, he nodded to his companion to go again. Justin stood there, rubbing at his shoulder where it had knocked against the big boy’s hip. The moment they’d touched, Justin had got a little shock, like the kind you got when you scuffed your tennis shoes along the carpet and then touched a metal door knob. The tingling in his shoulder hadn’t really hurt, but it was surprising, and it seemed to still be prickling a little.
As soon as the big boys had deposited their load safely on a desk, the one boy trotted back over to where Justin was still waiting, kneeling down so his face was on the same level as the tiny tow-headed boy.
“Are you okay? I didn’t hurt you when I bumped into you, did I?” the boy asked. When he noticed that Justin was still rubbing at his shoulder, the boy reached up a big, strong, warm hand and copied the motion. “Is your shoulder okay? I’m really sorry, kid. I just didn’t see you with all that crap in my hands.”
“I’m sure Justin is fine,” Ms. Rothenburger stepped up and answered for him since Justin was too gobsmacked to speak for himself. “That’s quite the science project you have going there. What is it, if I might ask?”
“Oh, it’s just my idea for a simpler water purification system that uses chemically amplified solar power to desalinate sea water,” the boy answered, looking slightly shy. “It still needs a little work before it could be implemented on a larger scale, though.”
“That sounds amazing. I can’t wait to check it out later when you’ve got it all set up,” Ms. Rothenburger said and then moved over to wrangle her class back into order again.
“You sure you’re okay, Kiddo?” Brian addressed Justin again. Justin nodded. “Good. And to make it up to you, when you come look at our projects later today, you can be my assistant. I’ll let you be the one in charge of flipping the switch to run the machine, okay?”
“Okay,” Justin answered bashfully, beaming up at the boy with excitement over the prospect of helping out the older kid.
“It’s a deal then. See you later, Kiddo.”
Brian smiled at him, got back to his feet and laid that big hand on Justin’s shoulder again, sending happy shivers through the child’s whole body.
“Brian! Come on. We’ve got to get this contraption you made set up or Mr. Saluka is going to kick our butts. And you know I have no clue how to get the damn thing working,” the big boy’s friend hollered at him from across the way.
“Coming, Mikey,” the big boy, who’s name, apparently, was ‘Brian’, replied. “See you later this afternoon, kid,” he said to Justin and then sauntered off to play with his science stuff.
“Justin! Come along. We have to get back and start on our math lesson,” Ms. Rothenburger ordered.
Justin immediately complied, taking his usual spot right behind Daphne.
And, even though they weren’t supposed to talk while they were in the hallways, Justin couldn’t help leaning forward and whispering in his best friend’s ear. “I don’t want to marry Brad Pitt anymore. I’m going to marry that ‘Brian’ instead. He’s way more pretty. And he smells nice too.”
“My daddy says you can’t say ‘pretty’ about boys,” Daphne corrected him in her usual bossy way. “He says boys are ‘handsome’. Only girls are ‘pretty’.”
“No they’re not. Boys can be pretty too. Brian is pretty. He has pretty hair and pretty eyes and he smells pretty,” Justin insisted, staunchly defending his future husband.
“You can’t smell pretty, dummy,” Christopher commented from his place in line right behind Justin. “And you can’t marry him anyway. Two boys can’t get married, stupid. A boy has to marry a girl.”
“Na-uh,” Justin insisted. “I can marry whoever I want when I’m all growed up. Right, Daphne?”
He knew his bestie would back him up on pretty much anything so it wasn’t a surprise when Daphne stopped walking, turned around and confronted the much larger Christopher. “Justin can marry whoever he wants. And I think you’re wrong about smelling pretty, too. Roses smell pretty. There’s nothing wrong with smelling pretty!”
“Daphne, Justin, Christopher!” Ms. Rothenburger called to them from where the rest of the class was now waiting halfway down the hall. “Don’t dawdle, kids. And you know the rules - no talking in the hallways! Let’s go, guys!”
The three kids hurried to join up with the rest of the class. The group made it back to their classroom and the rest of the morning was spent on math and art lessons. But the whole time, Justin continued to mull over that earlier conversation in the back of his mind. He really didn’t like being told by a big dumb meanie like Christopher what he could and couldn’t do. He thought about Camilla Cream and how she had got so worried over what everyone else thought about her that she gave herself stripes. Not that Justin would mind having rainbow stripes, but he didn’t want to worry about others’ opinions so much he would get sick like Camilla. And he wasn’t going to believe Christopher about anything. Christopher wasn’t the smartest kid in class; he was in the lowest reading group and couldn’t even do easy math problems yet. Justin wasn’t going to listen to him about anything, let alone some silliness about what smelled pretty and who he could marry. What did Christopher know anyway.
So, later on, when they were all back in the library after the science assembly and his Brian looked around the crowd, calling out for his ‘Assistant’, Justin boldly stood up and ran to the front of the group to help. He proudly flipped the switch Brian showed him and stood there, next to the bigger boy, while the high-schooler explained about ‘Chemistry’ and ‘Evaporation’ and other big words. And Justin smiled up at Brian whenever the older boy looked over at him or touched his arm.
He loved Brian’s big, warm, strong hands. Brian DID smell pretty. And Justin was convinced that he was going to marry Brian when he was all grown up. He didn’t care what anybody said. He wasn’t afraid to be different, rainbow stripes or not.
Now, he just needed to figure out how long he had to wait to be grown up enough to get married to his Brian . . .
The Beginning . . .