by Emily Cogan
Ben couldn’t believe it. Here it was, the second week of fifth grade, and already he had gotten stuck with cleaning the whiteboards every Friday from here till eternity. Well, at least that’s what it felt like anyway, since the school year always seemed like it was a million times longer than it really was.
And to top it off, it was all that laughing hyena girl Lexi’s fault. She had this fun hair to pull when Mr. Farber was going on and on about his precious science labs. And the spitballs stuck in her hair perfectly since it was so curly. He bet it took her ages to get them out. He could throw stuff at her because she sat in front of him this year, and he could whisper insults to her so Mr. Farber wouldn’t ever hear.
She finally came back into the classroom, dragging in what looked like a very heavy bucket of water. She thumped it down on the floor and he watched as several droplets of water flew out.
“Oh, and thanks so much for helping me carry this!” she exclaimed, glaring at him while she tried to catch her breath.
He smirked and crossed his arms. “Hey, just remember who was the one who thought it would be really smart to write ‘I hate Ben!’ with marker on that brick wall.”
“Yeah, well, whose brilliant idea was it to come by and steal my marker and cross it out and write ‘I hate Lexi!’ right next to it, huh, Pumpkinhead?” Lexi poked him in the stomach, glaring at him.
“Yeah, but you were the one who tried to take it back from me! You should’ve just let me have it. Then Mr. Farber wouldn’t have caught us fighting and we wouldn’t be stuck doing this for the whole entire year. You’re such a bubblehead!” Ben shoved Lexi across the empty classroom, unable to take looking at her annoying face any longer.
Lexi rubbed her shoulder and came stomping back to him. “At least I’m not a dirty, stinky thief!”
Ben paused, because that was something he hadn’t expected. “A thief?”
“Yeah, don’t you remember? Last year. Aiden told everybody that you stole the milk money from the kindergarten one day when you guys were held after school.”
“Aiden lied.” Ben took a shuddering breath, sat down at one of the desks, and stared at it.
“What do you mean?” asked Lexi in a much gentler voice. He could see her approaching out of the corner of his eye.
“Get away from me!” he yelled.
“Like I even want to be near you in the first place,” Lexi shot back. She froze and sighed, then settled into the desk next to his. “I… I didn’t mean that. Why would Aiden lie?”
“Just forget it.”
“Tell me!” Lexi exclaimed, jabbing a fist against his upper arm.
He hesitated, even though he was pretty sure she wasn’t bluffing. “If I tell, that means that you can’t,” he finally said.
“Promise. Cross my heart,” she said as she made the cross sign over her heart.
With eyes that never left the desk, he told her what had happened that day last year as best as he could. “See, Aiden and me were both staying after school that day. That dumb Mr. Anderson made us clean up the kindergarten baby room. Aiden’s the one who really took the money, I swear it. But he told Mr. Anderson that it was me and I just let everybody keep thinking that. ‘Cause nobody would’ve believed me anyway. I have this ‘reputation’ after all, right? And Aiden, I dunno… I don’t think it was his fault. He’s just all messed up ’cause his mom’s always fighting with his dad.”
Lexi kindly looked away so he could wipe his eyes. They were all watery for some reason. And then she said, “You should have told on him anyway. Aiden just walks all over everybody. He deserved it. If it was me, I would’ve pounded him.”
Ben allowed himself to look at Lexi, really look at her, for just a second. “Don’t you ever wish that you could just get away and go somewhere where nobody knows you? Just… start over?”
“Yeah,” Lexi said after a moment. He watched as her eyes slid over to the whiteboards that they still hadn’t cleaned yet. “Like a clean slate or something.”
“I know a good way to start,” a voice said from behind them.
Mr. Farber was standing in the doorway. He crossed the room and knelt down beside Ben. “I remember when that happened last year.”
Ben’s scared eyes briefly met the teacher’s. “Yeah, so?” he said, crossing his arms.
“So, maybe, since you didn’t really take the money, you and Miss Tanner can have a reprieve from cleaning the whiteboards.”
Ben still looked wary as he asked, “Really?” He’d been promised things lots of times, but in his experience, nobody ever kept up their end of the deal.
“Yes, Mr. Wellington,” Mr. Farber replied, and Ben was amazed to see a slight smile on his stern teacher’s lips. “You do have to clean the whiteboards today, however. But hopefully, it will be the last time. A clean slate for a clean slate, you might say.” And then Mr. Farber actually winked at him.
“Shut the lights out when you’re through,” he instructed as he got up and walked away.
Ben and Lexi exchanged glances, and he could see she was just as shocked as he was. She grinned at him, tilting her head in that cute girl way that drove him crazy. “So, which board do you want? Front or back?”
“Why don’t you do both of ’em?” Ben returned with a grin of his own.
“No way! I’m not your slave, Rat Boy!”
Eventually they’d get around to having two clean slates, but for now, he was having too much fun torturing her to really care. And the weird part was, he was actually glad that she was so annoying and she had made him tell her. Because otherwise he’d have to do this again and again for the rest of year.
But then again, he thought he probably would be doing stuff like this for the rest of the year anyway. Because this year she was sitting right there in front of him, practically calling to him.
And there was plenty of time to get even.