I was dangling my legs in the pool when Linda swam up and blocked me. Something about Linda always made me a little uncomfortable. I wanted her to like me, mostly because none of my classmates lived close enough to hang out after school. Linda lived only two houses down from mine. But this warm spring afternoon, her words made me shiver.
“You’ve got to do what I say,” she commanded, her voice low. “Otherwise, I’ll tell your mom you did it anyway.”
“She won’t believe you,” I protested.
Linda glanced a few feet away at our moms in their pool chairs. We could hear them laughing and chatting. They weren’t listening to us. Linda tossed her wet ponytail over her shoulder. “Oh, I don’t know… maybe she will. And even if she doesn’t, my mom wouldn’t talk to yours anymore either.”
Uh-oh. Linda’s ideas weren’t always fun. And sometimes they were downright mean. “What do you want me to do?” I squeaked.
“You know those new people in the house on the corner?”
“Yeah,” I answered.
“We-ell… they’re such pains,” Linda declared. “All I have to do is put a toe on their precious lawn and they come running out to make sure I didn’t run over their flowers with my skates. I have an idea that will show them.”
Linda pulled me down into the shallow water beside her and whispered her hideous plan.
“Soooo…. you just bring me a bag of your grossest garbage tonight,” she said. “Then, when it’s dark enough, we can pull our stuff down there in my wagon….” Her voice sounded mysterious, like a kid detective. Only she wasn’t solving crimes. She was planning one.
“But…” I tried again. “I don’t like this. What if they see us?”
“Don’t be a baby,” she said flatly. “They won’t.”
Maybe I could do it after dinner when I was supposed to be taking the trash out anyway. But I was feeling sicker by the minute. Why was I doing this? So what, if Linda dumped me. I knew it was wrong. I didn’t even know those people. But it was like Linda had some sort of hold on me that I couldn’t explain.
As Mom and I left, Linda wrapped her dripping arm around my shoulders and laughed loudly like we were best buds. “See you later!” she said.
“Feeling okay, hon?” Mom asked when I could barely eat my dinner.
“I’m just… not… too hungry, I guess,” I said. Now I was lying too! How did I get in this mess?
I pulled the kitchen trash bag to the door. “Be back in a bit,” I called.
Outside, I nearly abandoned the whole idea. But there was Linda, waiting at the end of our driveway. She must’ve known I’d chicken out and she wasn’t going to let me.
“C’mon!” she urged, tugging our cargo down past her house to the corner. The home was dark. “Perfect!” she said in her director’s voice. “Now!”
And suddenly, there we were, tossing all that yucky grossness onto the clean driveway. Lettuce leaves and greasy foil wrappers and wads of smelly tissue landed at my feet. I could hear cans dinging and rolling behind the bushes.
My heart was pounding, and my feet felt glued to the pavement in horror at what we’d just done. Somewhere a light went on in the back of the house. “Run!” Linda cried, yanking the rattling wagon and pulling me down the street. I never ran so fast in my life.
The next morning I truly did feel sick. But somehow I made it through the door, into the car with Dad, and on to school. “Have a great day!” Dad called. I hugged my books to my chest and clunked the door behind me. I didn’t think I’d have a great day ever again.
I flubbed the easiest math problem when Mrs. F. called on me. I couldn’t concentrate on my favorite reading book. I could barely swallow my peanut butter and jelly sandwich at lunch. And by the time I got home, my insides felt as wobbly as Jell-O Jigglers.
Suddenly, I couldn’t hold it in any longer. “I think I did something… terrible!” I blurted on a sob. “And I’m… not sure… how… to fix it.”
Mom just listened, pushing my bangs away from my eyes as I choked out the whole disgusting story. I was sure she was going to be so disappointed in me. More than I was in myself… and that was huge.
But she only looked into space for a moment. “I saw the husband out trying to scrape his driveway this morning,” Mom told me then. “His wife is recovering from a fall she had last month and he told me how glad he was she didn’t trip over any of that slop today.”
I looked into her eyes, miserable. She reached over and tucked her finger under my chin. “I think you know what it feels like to be the new kid in school. And how they feel being new on our block….”
“Yes,” I admitted softly. Then, after a moment, it was like I suddenly woke up from a nightmare. Yes! I did know. And I also knew how much I wanted people to like me and to fit in. So much that I let someone talk me into doing something so unlike me that it left me heartbroken. I had hurt someone for no reason. And like Mom always said, “hurting someone else hurts God, too.”
Suddenly I was angrier than I was afraid. Mostly at myself — for letting Linda talk me into such a plot. I wanted to march two houses down and tell her my own plan. And if she didn’t care to join me, that was her problem.
Linda did go with me, hanging behind as I rang the bell. I stuttered our apology to the woman in her wheelchair. At first, her black eyes flashed, reminding me of dark skies on a stormy day. I could tell she wasn’t sure if we were really sorry, or if someone was making us confess. But after we finished hosing down her driveway she asked us in for lemonade. She told us about her grandchildren, who were our age and lived in another state. I confided how I loved to read and that Linda was a great swimmer. By the time we left, I had a new friend, and dinner sounded good again.
Even Linda seemed relieved. It was almost like she had needed me to stand up to her. Maybe all her crazy ideas were because she tried too hard to feel… important. Because she wanted me to like her, too. I hadn’t thought of that before.
“Hey! Race you to your house!” I dared.
I was through doing whatever old thing Linda said. But after today, maybe, we could be real friends….