It gets extremely hot when you’re hiding in metal garbage cans during the summer months. I much prefer either the spring or the fall for that, but today I had no other options.
The kids at school pick on me all the time. They call me names like “weakling” or “four eyes." I thought they might leave me alone because it’s the last day of school, but that just made things worse.
Before class, Bill and Ted put a whoopee cushion on my chair. I guess it wouldn’t have been so bad, if they hadn’t put mustard in it. And angry spiders. And called the local news station to film it.
Right before lunch, Bill gave me a Wet Willy with candle wax on his fingers, and while I was changing for gym, Ted filled my sneakers with Cheez Whiz…then superglued them to the bench.
I had had enough. My fists clenched and my shoes sloshing and sticking, I stormed out of the locker room. The bullies were waiting for me.
“You guys need to stop this,” I said firmly.
“Make me, spaz,” replied Ted.
“Let’s get him!” Bill yelled.
As I ran down the hallway and up the stairs, I could hear them gaining on me. “Come back here, you preppie!”
The teachers I passed didn’t know I was in trouble, and shouted at me, “no running!”
But this time, all I heard was the door shaking. The janitor must locked it, but forgotten to close it! I was trapped.
I’d have been more concerned if we were learning anything new in class, but since it was the last day, all the teachers decided to take it easy. With nothing better to do, I whipped out my Gameboy.
A few minutes later, I heard the door open. Someone was on the roof with me! At first I thought it was the bullies, but it was a voice I’d never heard before.
“Who are you? I won’t come out!”
“Oscar?! Is that you!? I always knew you were real!”
“No, my name’s Loid.”
“You sound more like a Jeff. Are you sure your name’s not Jeff?”
“Like, what percentage?”
“Listen, I don’t know who you are, but I’m not coming out. If I do, everyone will pick on me.”
“Are you more than 70 percent sure about that Jeff thing? Or only a little sure?”
“You’re making a bad case that you’re not Oscar the Grouch.”
I was silent. After a few moments, I thought the owner of the voice had left. But then: “I don’t care who you are. Let’s be friends.”
“So you’re really not going to give me a wedgie?”
“And you’re not going to steal my lunch money?”
“And you’re not going to pour honey on me, wrap me up in a shag carpet, and roll me into a tree under a beehive?”
“I can’t make any promises.”
“Well, two out of three ain’t bad. Okay, I’m coming out!”
I slid the lid off and rested it gently next to the can. I could tell the boy was slightly disappointed that I wasn’t Oscar the Grouch.
He said his name was Ken. “But my friends call me Ninten.”
“What should *I* call you?”
“Ninten! Use my nickname. That’s what bein’ friends is about.”
I’ve never had a friend before. For the first time since mom bought me my Gameboy, I felt really happy. But I didn’t tell Ninten that. Instead, I told him about the bullies, and how I ran away, and how they thought I could use rockets to fly around.
“Rockets, eh?” Ninten asked. “You know, I saw a place that might have some spare bottle rockets on my way back from, uh… Well, let me see if I can get you one.”
Wow! A friend, and now a gift! Maybe this wasn’t such a bad day after all. I started to get back in the garbage can.
“Now don’t go back in there! I want you to stand outside like a normal person and enjoy this view until I get back.”
As he walked out, I heard him mumble, “First Pippie, and now this. I find more friends in large containers than I do face-to-face.”
I had never noticed before, but the view from the top of Twinkle Elementary is beautiful.
About 20 minutes later, the door swung open again. Ninten handed me the coolest bottle rocket I’d ever seen! I knew we had to try it out. I led my new friend down the stairs and into the science room. Nobody was there because everyone was getting ready to leave for summer break.
“Check this out!” I yelled, lighting the rocket’s fuse.
“Shouldn’t we have done this outside?” Ninten asked.
The rocket shot into the air and around the room, lodged itself in a shelf of chemicals, and exploded. Green goo covered the walls, and chairs and desks were lying broken on the floor.
“Yes, outside next time,” I agreed. We slipped out of the room right as a pair of teachers were coming in. I’m glad they didn’t notice us.
“Holy aardvarks! It’s like Mr. Wizard ate Bill Nye and got sick in here!” one of them screamed.
The bell rang, marking the beginning of summer vacation. The hallways swelled with cheering kids, swarming out of the building. Bill and Ted were so excited, they ran right past me. Ninten and I waited for the crowd to disperse before stepping outside.
Ninten tilted his head up, counting the floors of the school.
“This place is huge,” he said.
That’s when I got a great idea! “We should go to Duncan’s Factory. I hear they’re constructing the mother of all rockets.”
Ninten nodded. “With the week I’ve been having, I’d like to have a little bit of fun. Besides, I heard that the trains aren’t running because there’s a huge pile of rocks covering the tracks. I don’t really feel like walking all the way home, so I guess I have some time to kill.”
As we started walking to Duncan’s Factory, a school bus whizzed past us.
Ted stuck his head out the window and yelled something, and Ninten shook his fist. Ted was shocked! It was great.
Duncan’s Factory is really far away. I was always too afraid to go by myself, but I knew the way by heart. First, you follow the train tracks.
Then, you head past the creek.
After you go through a big thicket, you’re almost there.
Ninten and I made the trip much faster than I thought we would, and soon, we could see the factory.
“Wow! It’s great!” I said.
“Wow, it’s creepy,” Ninten replied. “Does Duncan have a side project making Halloween decorations or something?”
I got so excited, I began to run towards the factory. A hand on my shoulder yanked me back, and I almost fell down. At first I was afraid Ninten had lured me out here to bully me, and my heart sank.
That’s when I saw the stray dog snarling in front of me.
“It looks like he’s protecting the factory!” I exclaimed. “What do we do?”
“We fight!” Ninten pulled a boomerang out.
“But… I’ve never been in a fight before.”
“Fighting is easy. Just use your boomerang.”
“But I don’t have one!”
“Don’t have one…? Oh, I see! You use baseball bats then.”
“That’s barbaric!” I yelled. All the while, the stray dog inched ever closer.
Ninten looked confused. “Well then, just… hit it with your hand!”
“What if I hurt him?”
“You’re just looking to knock some sense into him, that’s all!’
I gathered my courage and looked the dog straight in the eyes. The last thing I remembered is it lunging towards me.
When I woke up, I was in a cool, dark place. If I were a bottle of olive oil or hydrogen peroxide, I’d have been I heaven. Ninten was standing over me.
“Your first fight didn’t go so well,” he explained.
“Where am I?”
“After that dog jumped on you, I shooed him away and dragged you in here, in the factory. Turns out all he wanted to do was play fetch. I guess he just played too hard for you.”
I sat up and looked around. Wow! Duncan’s Factory was amazing!
My enthusiasm waned as Ninten and I traveled through the maze-like halls, looking for the giant rocket I heard about. It was like backpacking through the Sahara, only with more dust.
Also, every rat, robot and piece of scrap metal wanted to hurt me! Ninten tried to protect me with his boomerang, but everything would just go around him and straight for me. I can only assume that robots survive solely on a diet of quivering childflesh.
After what seemed like hours (Ninten told me was only about 15 minutes), we found it: the hugest, most beautiful “Boom-Bomb” brand rocket I’d ever seen. I shed a tiny tear down my dusty, bruised face.
A man wearing a lab coat stood with his back to us, looking down at a clipboard. I was scared that he’d kick us out. Ninten called to him.
“That’s quite the rocket,” he said.
“Yes,” returned the man. “It is.”
The man didn’t turn around. Ninten’s hand hovered over the boomerang tucked in his belt. “Who are you?” he asked.
The doctor let out a single chuckle. “You can call me… Dr. Groovy!”
Classic rock ‘n’ roll music started playing from out of nowhere, and the doctor threw his clipboard in the air. For the first time, I noticed his long, red hair and out-of-control hippie beard.
“How do you keep finding me?!” Ninten exclaimed.
“Like, let’s get the party started!” he screamed. He pointed at me. “Do the honors, man!”
“Ninten, what the heck…?”
“It’s fine,” he sighed. “He’s weird, but he’s not dangerous.”
The hippie motioned towards the rocket. My heart began to beat so hard I felt like I’d just come out of gym class. This is it! I was going to fire the biggest bottle rocket ever! I pulled the leaver, and in a fiery flash, it was gone!
“Far out!” said the Hippie. “I aimed that thing at the pile ‘o rocks blocking the trains! I bet you could like, ride the rails now, man!”
The strange man smiled at us, said good bye, and walked away.
“I guess I can go home now on the train,” said Ninten. “Let’s check it out.”
The walk back to civilization was pretty uneventful. We were tired, and we didn’t talk much. I was psyched about getting to fire off the big rocket, but sad that my only friend was going home.
Half way to Union Station, and I was lost in thought.
“Do you hear that?” Ninten asked. I snapped out of it.
“A low rumbling sound, like a school bus.”
We stopped and listened. Sure enough, I heard it too. And the unmistakable sound of a truck horn.
Then we saw it.
“That’s…Optimus Prime!” Ninten exclaimed. “Optimus! Over here, buddy!”
The truck barreled towards us! I started screaming, but Ninten thought I was cheering and joined in too.
“That is NOT Optimus Prime!” I yanked on Ninten’s shirt and dragged him past the busted up rocks and debris from where the rocket hit. The path was too narrow for the giant truck to fit through. Its horn bellowed sinisterly, like a wild animal.
“Goodbye Optimus!” Ninten yelled. “Till all are one!” Ninten looked at me, beaming. “He’s more than meets the eye, you know.”
After that, it wasn’t long before we were standing in Union Station.
“I guess so.”
Before he could get to the ticket window, an old woman waved at us and walked over. “Are you boys going to Snowman by any chance?”
“No, I’m headed back to Podunk,” Ninten said.
“Well, I found this hat with the name ‘Ana’ written on the inside. I think the owner lives in Snowman.” She handed Ninten the hat. “I bet she really misses it.”
Ninten stared at the headgear. I could tell he was pondering something.
“So, what now?” I asked.
“Now we go to Snowman.”
All photography by Matt except “Garbage Can,” courtesy of nuchylee / FreeDigitalPhotos.net.