Lunch was five minutes late. The only one who noticed was Wayne, and nobody really paid attention to Wayne anymore. Except to laugh at him.
Ms. Flamiel kept talking about multiplication tables and place value, but Wayne’s eyes were glued on the clock. The classroom had an analog clock, and Ms. Flamiel was probably betting her students wouldn’t be able to read it. Wayne had learned that four months ago. Yah had spent a whole Saturday afternoon teaching him. Then they’d watched Power Rangers.
Wayne wriggled in his seat. Lunch was supposed to happen five minutes ago. He wanted to say something. He needed to say something. He was going to say something.
He’d interrupted her, but she didn’t seem too upset. “We raise our hand when we want to ask a question.”
He stuck his hand in the air and said, “Ms. Flamiel, lunch is five minutes late. I did all my work, Ms. Flamiel, may I be excused?”
Ms. Flamiel blinked. She looked up at the clock, as if noticing it for the first time. “Oh. I’m so sorry, sweetheart, I didn’t realize. But you know we go to lunch as a class, and we’re not done with the lesson just yet, so hold tight, okay?”
Wayne squirmed. Now it was six minutes late.
When he was finally in the cafeteria, Wayne stood on a cafeteria chair to see over taller people’s heads. Where…?
Yah saw him looking and waved ferociously. There was already a tray in front of the seat opposite him, so Wayne started making his way through the maelstrom of kids. He tried not to stab his elbows into anybody. He hoped he hadn’t.
Third graders didn’t normally sit with the fifth graders (and Wayne definitely felt eyes on him as he sat down), but he’d been called “baby” enough times that it didn’t bother him that much anymore.
“Hey, hey, Waco Kid! Your morning go okay?” Yah talked around a mouthful of grilled cheese. Wayne nodded as he stabbed a broccoli. “Anybody pick on you?” He shook his head. “That’s good. Can’t have my li’l pardner getting bullied.” Wayne bit the nice dark top off the broccoli with a little smile on his face.
If the other fifth-grade kids had snuck peeks when Wayne came over, they were full-on staring when a little second-grade girl came right over to their side of the cafeteria.
“Hiya. Lunch line was soooo long. I am a young lady! I can’t believe they didn’t just let me go in front of them.” Dory hopped onto the seat next to Yah and made her lips smack super loud when she kissed his cheek so Yah pretended to gag. She wiggled her fingers at Wayne, who returned it. She picked up her pizza. “Gross, this is so greasy. I’m gonna break out for sure.”
Yah swallowed. “You don’t even know what breaking out is. You just read about it in Mom’s…” He paused and cleared his throat. “…those old Cosmopolitans you found in the attic.
Dory stuck her tongue out. Yah did, too. “I know enough to know it’s bad. It can leave scarring.” She shuddered, gingerly picking off a pepperoni with a napkin to shield her fingers.
“Sounds pretty bad, little-est sis. The whole situation does sound scarry.” Wayne didn’t get the joke, but Yah was laughing, so he started to let bubbles come up his throat and pop in his mouth.
“Of course you take his side,” Dory huffed, crossed her arms, and pouted at Wayne. “Menaces, both of you.”
Yah put his arm around her, pulled her close, and pressed a kiss to the top of her head. As he pushed her back to her seat—ruffling her hair for good measure—he said, “Aw, c’mon, Dory-thy, you know we love ya.”
Dory just sniffed and picked up her pizza again.
Wayne stopped poking at his grilled cheese (which kind of looked like a beehive now, with all the dents in it) and actually ate it. It wasn’t as good as Mom’s, but he guessed he had to make do.
The after-school bus ride was okay. Wayne sat near the back, while Dory and Yah were further up front, but he didn’t mind too much. He had his comics.
His seatmate had stopped trying to talk to him a week after school started (and had called him “a weirdo freak”), but Ms. Flamiel always said to focus on positives, so Wayne had a whole hour all to himself. His favorite comic was Sandman: he didn’t always understand what was happening, but he felt a yellowness in his chest whenever Death showed up. Death and Dream were almost like regular people. Death was Dream’s older sister, taking care of him and protecting him from stuff that could hurt him. Kind of like how Yah always watched while Wayne used the scissors. Or how he only let Wayne have one Sprite every day. And how even on nights when Yah said he couldn’t do anything else, not one more single thing, he found the energy to read to Wayne. No one else read just right… not after Mom.
Today, Sandman was talking to Rose Walker and telling Rose she wouldn’t ever wake up again. Wayne wondered what that would be like. He could do anything in a dream—grow monkey feet or watch a movie in any language or fly. But he wouldn’t really be in control. Dream would. And Dream got mad more often than Dory did. The Dreaming wouldn’t be a great place to be forever. Wayne decided visiting is just fine.
Dinner was on time. Wayne felt all yellowy inside as he watched Ted pull the tray of chicken nuggets out of the oven and pile them on a plate. He sat on a barstool and swung his feet, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
“Josh! Get your sister and come downstairs! Your brother’s already here!”
Yah’s name suddenly felt like it had to burst out of Wayne’s mouth. So he let it. “Yah, Yah, Yah, Yah-Yah, Yah, Yah.”
“Whatcha need, Waco Kid?” Yah came bounding into the room, Dory right behind him. “Were you calling for me, bud?” Wayne shook his head. “Just sayin’ my name to say it?” He nodded and held out his arms. Yah helped him off the stool and ruffled his hair.
They were about to start a tickle fight when Ted rapped the table, quietly enough that Wayne didn’t startle too bad. “Let’s sit down and get dinner started, okay kids? All three of you have homework to do before bed.”
“We know, ‘Dad,’” Yah said, rolling his eyes. “Homework, homework, chores, homework, doesn’t make me wanna die at all—” (Wayne thought about Death. Yah would like her. He’d probably make Dream mad though.)
“Hey. I don’t want any sass from you, Joshua. I may not be—”
“Yahshua.” Everyone turned to look at Wayne. Everyone’s eyes were on him. Looking. Watching. Staring. His face felt like it was going to burst into flames, so he pulled the tablecloth over his head to hide. He was crying now, and it felt like someone kept squeezing his lungs so he couldn’t breathe right. He’d spilled his juice and nuggets and baked beans all over the table, and he knew he was in trouble for that. He just wanted Ted to say Yah’s name right, everybody didn’t have to stare at him like that.
“What was that for? Goddamn idiot.” Everyone at the table flinched. Ted didn’t seem to notice, since he threw his arms out and started yelling. “That was our last clean tablecloth! And just what are you gonna have for dinner now, huh?” Wayne shrugged, scratching a fingernail through the bean juice soaking the cloth. Squishy. “Stop doing that. It’s disgusting. Go to your room and do your homework.”
Wayne nodded, stood up, and walked out staring at his feet.
He could feel them all watching.
It took every blanket in the house, but Wayne finally managed to get his little palace right. He crawled onto his bottom-bunk bed and became a medieval peasant, hiding in the King’s basement and stealing what food he could get away with. Fighting off the rats was kinda gross, but he always won and that felt good.
When that stopped feeling fun, he went to the Wild Wild West. He didn’t have a pistol—Ted hated guns and even hated jokes about them—but his Super Soaker would at least stun anyone coming to look for him. He was an outlaw, a huge Bounty on his head. (Wayne wasn’t sure what that was, but he knew about the paper towel, and just assumed a sheriff would wrap his head up in it if he was caught.) He’d been dodging the law all over the West for months. Right now he was hiding in Crawlin’ Critter Cave, a dark place known for its bug infestation.
He was wriggling to get all the millipedes off when—
Wayne poked his nose out of the blanket palace and peeked through the hole it made. He saw a pair of jeans with a stain. It was Yah. (Of course it was; no one else called him “Waco Kid.”) Wayne shoved one hand out and strained until Yah took it and squeezed.
“Can I sit by you, pardner?” Wayne squeezed once, for yes, and he felt the bed give a little on his right. “Ted didn’t mean to get upset. You know that?” Wayne reluctantly squeezed once again. “We got the stains out… mostly. Dory and I. Bleach is useful stuff.” There was a long quiet, and Wayne felt the itch of invisible bugs again. He wiggled a little, but it didn’t really go away. “You, uh… you gonna keep all our blankets the whole night?” Two squeezes, and Yah huffed, an almost-laugh. “Well then, c’mon, dig your way outta there. We have to figure out whose blanket is which. I mean, which blanket is whose.” Wayne popped his head out and looked up just in time to catch Yah winking.
It was already 7:38, so Wayne hurried to the bathroom to brush his teeth (making sure to hum the ABCs three times before rinsing) and go potty. He curled up in bed and watched Yah pull a chair over to the bedside.
“Whatcha want tonight, Kid? We got “Phantom Tollbooth,” you liked that one.” Wayne thought a minute, then shook his head. “Not in the mood, huh? Well, how about restarting “Wizard of Oz”? You really like my Cowardly Lion voice.” Wayne chewed a thumbnail. Yah made a silly face and said in a deep, dopey voice, “C’mon, lil bro, make a decision already. We wanna see the Wizaaaaard!”
Wayne giggled, parroting the fun word. “Wizard. Wiiiizard.”
Yah lifted the book. “You want this one, kiddo?” Wayne nodded, smiling. “All right. “Chapter One: The Cyclone. Dorothy lived in the midst of the Great Kansas Prairies…””
He fell asleep with Dory in her corner bed and Yahshua snoring on the bunk above him, yellow swirling through his brain.