Mack of All Trades

by Kristen Bealer

"That man is either insane, evil, or both!" Mack exploded.

"It could be worse," his friend Jodie pointed out. "It's just your middle name, so no one even has to know."

"I'll know," Mack argued, slouching forward and crossing his arms as they sat on his front porch. His life was totally ruined at the tender age of twelve, and it was all his dad's fault. Technically he could have blamed Michael Jordan as well, but that wouldn't be fair. The only thing Michael Jordan did was be incredibly skilled at playing basketball. He didn't force Mack's father to lose his mind and change Mack's name to Michael Jordan Mackenzie.

"I think it's awesome!" his other friend, Kevin, said as he thumped him on the back. "I wish my name was Kevin Lombardi Thompson!" His eyes widened. "Hey, maybe it'll be good luck for you on the basketball team!"

Mack shook his head, glaring at the street in front of his house. "Doesn't matter," he replied flatly. "I'm quitting the team. I can't stand the idea of basketball anymore, let alone playing it. I'm done."

"Aw, man!" Kevin complained. "That sucks! You were, like, the best player on the team! Your jump shots were better than anybody's, even the eighth-graders'."

"I get it," Jodie said, nodding with sympathy. "He's resigning in protest over his father's inexcusable behavior. I respect that." Under her breath she added, "Just wish I could do the same."

"What about the team, dude?" Kevin persisted. "They need you!"

"True," Jodie chimed in, trying to lighten the mood. "Without you, they won't have any black kids on the basketball team at all. I'm not sure that's even legal."


Mack turned toward Kevin and growled, "If you're so worried about it, why don't you sign up to take my place on the team?"

Kevin slumped forward and slowly shook his head. "No way," he replied quietly. "My dad would freak."

"Oh." Mack gulped back any further angry remarks as he remembered that Mr. Thompson had been force-feeding Kevin football pretty much since birth. "He still wants you to try out for the football team next year?"

Nodding glumly, Kevin said, "Yeah. But I dunno if I really want to."

"Then don't." The sudden bitterness in his voice surprised all of them, and Mack himself most of all. "You don't have to go along with what your dad wants. He can't force you to agree with him, and if he makes an ass of himself about it then tell him to go to hell!"

The stunned silence that followed lasted for almost a full minute. At last Jodie quietly asked, "Which dad are we talking about? Because I think you pretty much covered everybody's."

In spite of his anger, Mack let out a small chuckle. "Yeah, well, at least one of us is going to follow through. I'm going to talk to the coach first thing tomorrow and tell him I'm quitting the team."

"You can't quit the team!" Coach Hanson stared at him in horror the next morning before school.

"Yes, I can," Mack replied firmly, although he felt a little sorry for him. Coach Hanson was a good guy, and Mack hadn't been expecting him to be this upset.

"But we had only just enough players to have a full team!" Mr. Hanson groaned and put down the bag of dodgeballs he'd been carrying across the gym. "Now I have to find a replacement on incredibly short notice!" He tilted his head back and closed his eyes. "This is a nightmare."

Mack blinked at him. "Well, I was never really all that good, anyway. I'm sure you'll find another--"

"Not that," the coach interrupted, opening his eyes. "I've just got enough to worry about right now with the school variety show coming up. I still haven't gotten enough volunteers to fill half the acts, and most of the ones I do have are just awful." He glanced at Mack with a wince. "Um, you didn't hear that last part."

"Hear what?" Mack asked with a reassuring smile, but Mr. Hanson still looked as stressed out as ever. "Hey," he asked the coach. "How come you're doing the show? Don't you already do a ton of stuff here?" Mr. Hanson, in addition to coaching basketball, also taught PE and supervised Student Government.

"Yes, and until Glenfield Middle School can afford to hire some more faculty I'm probably going to keep doing even more," Mr. Hanson said with a sigh. "Seems like every penny of the district's funding goes straight to the high school. What the heck are they doing with that money, anyway?"

Mack shrugged. "Look, I'm sorry to do this to you, but I just can't stay on the team. If there's anything I can do to help...." He trailed off when he saw the thoughtful look on Mr. Hanson's face.

"As a matter of fact, there is," the coach replied, suddenly cheerful as he picked up the dodgeballs again. "Meet me here after school and we'll talk about it."

As Mr. Hanson swung the bag over his shoulder and walked away, whistling a lively tune, Mack felt a deep sense of dread.

When he arrived back at the gym after school that day, Mack saw several boys running up and down the court with basketballs. They were shooting, dribbling, and passing while Mr. Hanson observed and made notes on a clipboard.

"Didn't take long for word to spread," he said optimistically to the coach as he approached him. "Looks like you might not miss me much after all."

A boy with curly red hair standing close to the basket hurled the ball as hard as he could. It hit the backboard and bounced back at full speed, knocking the kid flat. Mr. Hanson watched this, then turned a level gaze on Mack.

"Okay, that was...unfortunate. But it could have been worse," Mack offered.

"Trust me; I've already seen worse here," Mr. Hanson replied wearily. "Much worse." To the boys on the court, he called, "All right, Jason, Ricky, and Charles! Take five and catch your breath." He turned to face Mack and asked, "What do you know about Shakespeare?"

Mack wrinkled his nose. "Tights."

Mr. Hanson rolled his eyes. "There's a lot more to it than tights, you know."

"Like what?" Mack asked, starting to feel that sense of dread again.

"Well..." Mr. Hanson gave him a mischievous look. "Hamlet has a skull in it."

"Um," Mack said in confusion, "are you trying to tell me you want my skull?"

Mr. Hanson laughed and shook his head. "No, I don't want your skull."

Mack pretended to sigh with relief.

"I want the rest of you, too."

"Beg your pardon?"

"I need a volunteer to perform a few scenes in the variety show," the teacher explained, then jabbed a finger at Mack. "You are going to be that volunteer."

"Don't volunteers usually, you know, volunteer?" Mack asked. Then he watched as the red-haired boy somehow managed to trip over his own feet on his way to the drinking fountain. The guilt overwhelmed him and he groaned. "Okay, I guess I do owe you for bailing on the team. What scenes do you have in mind?"

Mr. Hanson flipped through the pages on his clipboard and pulled out a stack of papers stapled together. "A few key scenes from Hamlet. I've already photocopied them for you. You can start learning them tonight, and rehearsals are after school in the auditorium."

Mack took the papers and stared at them. The feeling of dread was only getting worse. "Uh...great. I'll see you then."

Just before he turned his attention back to the basketball tryouts, Mr. Hanson added, "Oh, and just so you know, you were right: there will be tights involved."

By the time Mack arrived at rehearsal the next day after school, he was nowhere close to having his lines memorized but he'd read through the scenes enough to have a good idea of the plot. He'd checked out a copy of the play from the school library that morning and had spent his entire lunch period skimming through it to fill in the gaps.

So Hamlet's dad got murdered and Hamlet's really bummed out about it, Mack thought. Bet he wouldn't feel that way if his dad had done something stupid like change his name to Hamburger when he was twelve.

"Hi, Mack!" Jodie ran up to him as soon as he walked into the auditorium. "I didn't know you were going to be in the show, too."

"I wasn't until yesterday," he said. "I've been drafted." He gave her an apologetic smile, realizing he'd forgotten she had signed up to be in the show--one of the many, many activities she was involved in. "I should have told you, but I've been trying to prepare for my part." He held up his script. "There's a lot of stuff to learn, and this guy is super long-winded."

She shrugged. "You were busy; it happens. No big deal." Smiling, she added, "I'm so glad you're here!"

"Yeah, Mr. Hanson said he was really short on performers," Mack told her.

"No, that's not...oh, never mind." She shook her head and changed the subject. "Anyway, you're not the only last minute addition." She pointed over her shoulder and Mack saw the same red-haired kid from the basketball tryouts.

Mack started to make his way over to him, and saw that the kid was holding a deck of cards. The boy looked up and saw him, and immediately fanned out the cards and held them out. "Pick one!" he said eagerly. Mack shrugged and pulled one of them out. "Thanks!" the boy said. "Now look at it and put it back." Mack complied, and the kid began to shuffle them. The cards immediately flew into the air, raining down on the dismayed boy like confetti. Glumly he knelt down and picked one of the cards off the floor and held it up. "Is this your card?" he asked hopefully.

"Uh...not even close," Mack replied. "Sorry." He crouched down and began helping him gather up the scattered cards. "My name's Mack," he said.

"I'm Chuck," the boy said, "but all my friends call me Chuck." Something in the way he said it made Mack doubt that Chuck actually had any friends, but he just finished picking up the cards and handed them to him. "So you're going to play basketball and be in the show?" he asked.

Chuck shook his head. "I didn't make the team," he admitted. "So I thought I'd try my hand at magic tricks instead." He frowned down at the cards. "Maybe. I'm still kind of learning," he mumbled.

"Ah, here's my Prince of Denmark!" Mr. Hanson seemed to appear out of nowhere and slapped Mack on the shoulder. He handed Chuck a few pages and pointed to a section, saying, "While you're both here, I'd like you both to run through a scene for me." He took Mack's script and flipped it to the appropriate page and pointed again. "A section of Act Five, Scene One. The Yorick scene."

Mack held up his script and began to read. "'Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio,'" he began, then read through the rest of his lines as well as he could.

When it was Chuck's turn to speak he cleared his throat and said "'What'sthatmylord'" so quickly that it took Mack a few seconds to realize it was his turn again.

"Slow down," Mr. Hanson told Chuck, then pointed at Mack to indicate he should continue the scene. Although Chuck did slow down, he read his lines in a flat, stilted tone with no inflections whatsoever.

"Great!" Mr. Hanson cheered when they'd finished. "Horatio's the perfect role for you, Charles!"

"Hey," Chuck said, looking over the section again. "I've only got four lines!"

The teacher's smile didn't waver. "Like I said. The perfect role for you."

Mack's father had to go into work early the next day, so Mack got a ride to school with Kevin and his dad. Doug Thompson looked at Mack in the rearview mirror as he sped through the streets of Lawndale. "So Kevin tells me you quit the basketball team?" he asked.

"Uh...yeah," Mack admitted, then braced himself for the expected pro-sports lecture.

"Good thinking," Doug replied, glancing briefly at the road and then back at the mirror to grin at Mack's surprised expression. "Basketball's a wuss sport, anyway. Now, football, on the other hand...!"

Sitting next to him in the backseat, Kevin scrunched down and pressed himself against the door like he was trying to disappear into it.

"Uh, actually, Mr. Thompson," Mack interrupted, trying to change the subject. "I'm helping out with the school play instead."

Doug snorted, then cranked the wheel around to take a turn on what Mack was sure was only two wheels, if not less. "What, you mean acting crap? Pfft. Sissy stuff. Now, as I was saying about football...."

Mack looked sympathetically at his friend, still crumpled in on himself and now squeezing his eyes shut.

" whattaya think, Mack? Gonna try out for next year's football team? Never too early to think about it! And my boy could use a good athlete like you beside him! And of course that'll pave the way for joining the team when you're at Lawndale High in a couple of years, so--"

Kevin finally spoke. "Um, Dad? I talked to the coach and he said that, uh, they cancelled football in Lawndale. So there's not gonna be a team next year and I can't try out after all. Sucks, huh?"

Doug was silent for a few seconds, then burst into a roar of laughter. "That's a good one, son! As if this steaming turd of a town would get rid of the one good thing it's got going for itself!" He was still chuckling as he screeched to a halt in front of Glenfield Middle School. "Have fun, boys!"

Mack and Kevin hopped out quickly, half-afraid the man would speed off again before they'd fully exited the car. "'Football's been cancelled'?" Mack asked his friend. "That was really the best you could do?"

Kevin shrugged and pulled on the straps of his backpack. "I gotta tell him something or he'll never let up on me," he complained.

"You could tell him the truth," Mack pointed out. "That you don't want to join the team."

Shaking his head, Kevin trotted into the school without another word.

That afternoon, Mack decided to practice his lines at High Hills Park. He told himself that it was because the fresh air and pleasant scenery would help him learn his role. Deep down, though, he knew it was because he wanted to avoid his dad, who now had two strikes against him. Not only for changing his middle name for "Jordan," but also because that act had led Mack to quit the basketball team, which got him roped into the school play, which in turn meant he was going to have to wear tights in front of a roomful of people--many of them his classmates.

One stupid stunt and your son's dignity goes completely down the drain. Nice job, Dad, he thought. "A little more than kin, and less than kind." There. That's one line learned.

He continued on from that line, pacing back and forth through the park as rehearsed. At first he silently read his lines, then mumbled them out loud, until by the time he neared the end of his soliloquy he begun to really get into the role and found he was reciting his lines at full volume.

"'...and yet, within a month--let me not think on't! Frailty, thy name is woman!'" he denounced a nonexistent Gertrude with an angry scowl.

"I beg your pardon?!" Mack realized he was practically face-to-face with a middle-aged brunette that, lost as he'd been in his part, he'd completely failed to notice until the moment she began shouting at him.

"Oh!" he exclaimed, flustered. "I didn't mean--I was just--" He held up his script, but she ignored it and glared at him instead.

"Young man, I'll have you know that there is absolutely nothing frail about me! Do you think a weak-willed woman could support her family as a high school science teacher, continually encourage a husband who's down on his luck, keep her marriage stable and happy for twenty-one years, and all without a single complaint?"

"No, ma'am," Mack stammered, "but--"

"That's right!" she snapped with a triumphant smile. "And don't you forget it!"

Before Mack could defend himself, she spun on her heel and stormed away, leaving him to wonder what had just happened.

"'Good night, sweet prince,'" Chuck mumbled while Mack lay on the stage floor, pretending to be dead. "'And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.'"

Keeping his eyes closed, Mack thought, If he keeps saying his lines in that monotone, I won't need any angels. His dull acting will put me to sleep just fine. And opening night is in three days! I almost feel sorry for the audience. Then he remembered that he was the one who'd be wearing tights in front of that audience and went back to feeling sorry for himself again.

Lately they'd been rehearsing almost constantly, and just about everyone had not only learned their lines, but had gotten pretty good at speaking them. Chuck, on the other hand, had memorized his part--what little there was of it--but his acting seemed to be getting worse.

He's almost as bad at acting as he was at basketball, Mack thought as the scene ended and he got up from the floor. And the other day Jodie told me he tried out for the debate team...and accidentally switched sides in the middle of the debate. It's like he's going through every activity this school has, trying to find something he's good at.

He shook his head and prepared to run through a different scene. God, I hope he figures it out soon.

This time Mr. Hanson instructed them to practice a scene with Hamlet and Ophelia, played by Jodie. Toward the end of it, Mack made his dramatic exit, leaving Jodie to give the ending speech. "'O, woe is me,'" she finished. "'T' have seen what I have seen, see what I see!'"

"Hmmm," Mr. Hanson said, frowning slightly.

"What's wrong?" Jodie asked, clearly worried by the critical look he was giving her.

"'re whining," he explained gently. "As Ophelia, you've got your family pushing you around and making you do things you don't want to do. You're in love with someone who's either oblivious to it or pretending to be. You don't have any real friends, or anyone else at all that you can talk to about this or ask for help. In other words, you're under a lot of pressure from every side. Do you think you can convey that through your acting?"

Jodie nodded, tightening her jaw in grim understanding.

"Good. Now start from the top, and make sure everyone in the room knows exactly what you're feeling."

Her eyes blazed with something that made Mack slightly nervous, but just as she prepared to start over a door banged open. Everyone jumped, startled, and the tense moment was broken.

"Oh, are you guys still in the middle of a play scrimmage?" a familiar voice called out. "Saw-ree!"

Everyone turned to see Kevin amble into the auditorium. Mr. Hanson groaned at the interruption, but looked at the clock on the wall and shook his head. "All right; I suppose that's enough for today." He waved everyone toward the door. "Same time tomorrow, people."

"Mack?" Jodie took a few steps toward him, but he shrugged apologetically and jerked his head toward Kevin.

"I better go see what he wants," he called over to her, relieved to have an excuse to escape from that burning gaze. "It might be important!" He knew the odds of Kevin having something truly important--or even useful--to say were practically nonexistent, but she was scaring the hell out of him.

Jodie nodded in response, but her whole body seemed to sag down as he backed away. The sight made Mack's stomach feel like it had flipped upside-down and for just a moment he was tempted to run over there and try to make her smile come back. By that time, though, Kevin had trotted over to him with a grin and Mack pushed the feeling away.

"Hey," he greeted Kevin. "What's up?"

"Just wanted to see how the acting thing was going," he replied as they left the auditorium. "Think you guys are gonna win?"

Mack let out a small snort of laughter, although he wasn't certain if Kevin was joking or serious. "Well, if we're lucky we might actually not suck," he said. "But we won't know for sure until Friday night. Are you going to be there?"

Kevin's grin faded as they reached the school exit. "Sorry, man. My dad's dragging me to the Lawndale High game that night. I'd ask if I can get out of it but...."

"...but he'd just say no," Mack finished sympathetically. "Yeah, I get it. No big deal, okay?"

Looking relieved, Kevin said, "Thanks. And good luck!"

"Actually, you're supposed to tell me to break a leg," Mack corrected him as they walked out of the school.

Kevin stopped in his tracks and stared at him. "Dude, what kind of freaky show are you guys putting on?"

Mack shook his head. "It's just a theater superstition."


"Um...a figure of speech."


Mack sighed. "It's just a joke, Kevin."

"Oh!" Kevin started to laugh, but then trailed off. "It wasn't very funny. Next time you should try the one I told you about the sunburned zebra!"

Mack thought about arguing, but then just shrugged and said, "Yeah. I'll do that."

That Friday after school, Mack was pacing the living room and reciting his lines to himself to make sure he knew them all. He still had over an hour before he needed to be back at school, but he was waiting for his dad to get home from work and give him a ride there. He was too nervous to relax so he just kept moving and practicing.

After about the fifth time rehearsing the graveyard scene, Mack started to notice an unpleasant smell. He stopped and sniffed the air a few times before figuring out that it was coming from him. Oh, crap, he realized. I'm sweating from all this worrying and pacing back and forth, and now I've worked up a massive case of B.O.

He headed straight to the bathroom for a shower, then wrapped a bath towel around his waist and went to his room to change his clothes. He opened a dresser drawer and started sweating all over again: he was completely out of clean underwear.

Dammit, Dad, he thought furiously, you swore you were going to do some laundry yesterday!

The thought of going commando while wearing the dreaded tights onstage nearly made Mack faint in horror. He immediately launched into a full-scale search of his entire bedroom. He yanked open every drawer, emptied the closet, and hauled out everything under the bed. In the end he unearthed five empty candy wrappers, almost three dollars in change, an army of dust bunnies, and the book report he'd written on Treasure Island in fourth grade, but no clean underpants.

He had almost given up all hope when he finally came across a brightly-colored gift bag shoved to the back of the highest shelf in his closet. He pulled it down and looked inside to find the gift his slightly batty great-grandmother had given him for his last birthday.

At the time, Mack had been mortified to receive a pair of neon pink boxer shorts covered with Care Bears but at that very moment they were like a gift from God himself. He tugged them on and breathed a quick sigh of relief to find that they fit. He finished getting dressed just in time to hear the garage door open, signaling that his father was home.

Grabbing the rest of his things, Mack bolted out of the house and into the car. "You forgot to do laundry," he muttered accusingly, refusing to look at his dad. "Again."

"I did?" his dad asked in surprise. "Oh...I guess you're right. I was going to, but there was a Bulls game on and I forgot. I'll get a load in first thing tomorrow morning, I promise!"

The mention of the Bulls only made Mack angrier, and he spent the car ride to the middle school glaring out the passenger side window. Once there, he was out of the car almost before it stopped moving and made his way quickly to the auditorium. His fellow performers were all backstage, frantically racing around and making last-minute preparations.

"There you are!" Jodie bounded over, smiling but in that weird way Mack recognized as her "I'm stressed out to the breaking point but pretending everything's fine" smile. "Here's your costume," she said, pushing a bundle into his arms. "Mr. Hanson says it should fit okay, but you might want to try it on now just in case."

Mack shook the bundle out to reveal the costume, including the promised tights. "Great," he groaned. When Jodie let a giggle slip, he balled the clothing up again and huffed, "Easy for you. You get to wear a nice, normal dress for your part."

Jodie stifled another giggle. "Oh, did you want to trade with me?" she asked.

"Don't tempt me," Mack warned, smiling in spite of his annoyance and ever-increasing jitters. Then Mr. Hanson announced that it was almost time for the show to start and everything dissolved into a blur of hectic activity.

Now feeling self-conscious in his tights--which were mercifully more like baggy pants than the skintight nylons he'd been dreading--Mack settled in for a long wait. The scenes from Hamlet were the variety show's finale, so Mack had to sit backstage and watch all the other acts while he waited for his turn.

The first person up was a juggler who dropped more things than not, and things didn't get much better from there. He gritted his teeth through an off-key rendition of Ace of Base's "Don't Turn Around," a staggeringly unfunny stand-up routine, and some very dark and disturbing poetry.

On the bright side, Mack told himself as the next act came onstage, these acts are only going to make mine look that much better by comparison.

At last the second-to-last act, a baton twirler, reached her grand finale by smacking herself between the eyes with her baton. Mr. Hanson signaled to Mack, who took his place onstage with the others for his first scene.

The scene progressed well, and soon the rest of the actors left Mack alone on the stage for his big speech. "'O that this too too solid flesh would melt,'" he began, pacing the stage with feigned despair, "'thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!'" He buried his face in his hands and leaned forward, at which point he heard a barely-audible ripping sound coming from behind him. In that instant, his despair wasn't an act anymore. It's the tights, he realized immediately. They must have split down the back.

He kept facing forward to keep the tear out of view, and slowly straightened up. That's when he found out that the tights were still intact--it was the elastic waistband that had given way. The result was that the already-loose tights quickly dropped to his knees.

Yeah, melting into a dew sounds pretty good right now, Mack thought, looking down in dismay at his Care Bear underpants. Snatching the tights up, he held them in a death grip as he finished his soliloquy as quickly as Shakespeare's vocabulary would allow, but it was too late. He could hear the audience clearly as they began to murmur...and then giggle...and finally guffaw.

His scene over, he bolted off the stage and nearly ran over Jodie in his eagerness to escape. Without a word, she held out a belt and he took it gratefully. He cinched it over his tights just in time to trudge back onstage in front of the still-laughing crowd.

When the show was finally over and the auditorium was empty, Mack--now wearing his regular clothes again--dropped into a seat in the front row and closed his eyes. Leaning back, he took in a deep breath and let it all out in a long, shuddering groan.

He was still sitting there when he heard someone drop into the seat next to him. "Hey, Jodie," he said without opening his eyes.

"Hey, Mack," came her reply. There was a long silence before she said, "You did a great job tonight."

"I wouldn't know," he replied. "I don't really remember much about the show after the Care Bears made their debut."

He heard a faint wheezing sound that he suspected was Jodie trying not to laugh. At last she coughed a few times and said, "I mean it, though. Even after that...incident...your acting was really good. You should feel proud."

Somehow, hearing Jodie laugh at him made the whole night seem ten times worse. "The only thing I feel," Mack said, keeping his voice level in spite of his rising anger, "is humiliated. I just want to sit here and try to think about anything other than how much crap I'm going to take for this and whether or not anyone will have forgotten it by the time I graduate from high school!"

"That's understandable," Jodie replied, and this time there was no trace of amusement in her voice. "So maybe we could go get a burger or something and try to take your mind off of it."

"The last thing I want right now is to be around people," Mack growled, eyes still squeezed tightly shut.

"Okay, then what if I--"

"No!" Mack snapped at her. "Leave me alone!"

After waiting several minutes for a reply and getting none, Mack finally opened his eyes to see that Jodie was nowhere in sight. Good, he decided. "Man delights not me--no, nor woman neither."

His shame and frustration faded, but they were quickly replaced by an even deeper sadness. And no matter how many times he reminded himself he wanted to be left alone, he couldn't shake that feeling.

After a week of "Care Bear Stare!" and other oh-so-clever jokes at school, Mack started to have nightmares about the talent show disaster. One night he woke up gasping for air after dreaming he was being strangled by a pair of Care Bear-adorned tights. He sat up and turned the light on, figuring he wasn't going to get back to sleep anytime soon.

Looking around his bedroom, his gaze landed on the wastebasket next to his dresser. He could see part of the infamous underpants peeking out, mocking him. Throwing them away isn't enough, he realized. I need to really get rid of those goddamn things personally. I need...what's that word? Closure.

At first Mack considered burning them, but the way his luck was going these days he suspected he was just as likely to set the whole house on fire in the process.

Okay, that's out. Flush them down the toilet? Yeah, right. I'd clog the pipes and Dad would probably add the cost of a plumber to my already-huge debt.

The more he thought about it, the more he wanted the underwear to be far away, as far as he could reasonably get them. He thought about all the possible places in Lawndale that one could dispose of unwanted junk and finally settled on the city landfill as the most fitting location. It was way out on the southeast edge of town, and if he got an early start he could get there, bury them, and be back before his dad even noticed he was gone.

Mack felt calmer just thinking about the idea, and settled back into bed after setting his alarm. First thing in the morning, those things are out of my life forever.

Tossing one last shovelful of dirt aside, Mack reached down and picked up the boxers. "'Good night, not-so-sweet boxers,'" he said as he tossed them into the hole, "'and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.'"

He gave the underwear one last jab with the shovel with good measure, but nearly dropped the shovel as it slammed into something much harder than dirt. He heard a loud and ominous "clang!" and before the reverberations had even finished traveling up his arm he saw a rush of water begin to fill the Care Bear underpants grave.

"Oh, no," he muttered, dropping to his hands and knees in shock. The water wasn't stopping; it filled the hole and then began to create a quickly-growing puddle all around it. Mack's sneakers were already starting to sink into the mud, and his stomach had that familiar sinking feeling to go along with it.

Realizing that the problem wasn't going to go away, his brain finally kicked into gear. I need to find help.

Throwing the shovel aside, he jumped up and took off in search of any adult that might know what to do. He ran out of the landfill and up the sidewalk, where he noticed a woman walking away from him. "Wait!" he cried out, racing after her. "You have to help me!"

The woman turned around as he came near and he stopped dead when he recognized the angry brown-haired woman he'd met in the park a few weeks before. "I have to help you?" she demanded. "And just who do you think you are, giving me orders?" She paused and peered at him through narrowed eyes. "Wait, I remember you! You're that arrogant little punk who insulted me!"

Mack reminded himself about the rapidly-growing disaster that he needed to fix right away. "You don't understand!" he insisted, reaching out to take hold of her arm in his panic. "I--"

She yanked her arm away and stared at it. " did that on purpose!" she screeched, waving a mud-stained sleeve at him. Mack looked down at his own hands, which he belatedly realized were covered in mud and who-knows-what-else from the landfill.

"I'm so sorry! I--"

But the woman wasn't paying attention. "It's scumbags like you who give decent men like my husband a bad name! Why, if he was here he would teach you a thing or two about manners!"

Her tirade continued, but Mack only called a quick "Sorry!" over his shoulder as he ran off in search of someone sane. He rang the doorbell at the nearest house and waited impatiently for someone to answer. A sharp-featured man with graying hair and an angry scowl flung open the door and snapped, "What the hell do you want?"

Mack was getting tired of people yelling at him, but pushed his irritation aside. "There's a...problem at the landfill," he explained. "I don't know what to do. Please, come quickly!"

The man sighed and grumbled, "Fine. Just a minute." He walked away at a slow pace that left Mack wanting to howl in frustration, then came back shortly after with a pair of shoes in one hand and a jacket in the other.

Mack bounced up and down on his heels as he watched the man gradually slide one foot into a shoe and then the other. "Hurry!" he urged.

"Show some damn patience," the man harrumphed, taking his time pulling on the jacket. "Young people today. No respect for anyone else." At last the man was ready to go, and trudged along beside Mack as he led him around the back of the house to the place in the landfill where the water leak had started.

When they arrived, Mack saw that the water had already spread over a very large area. He pointed to the site of the damage and said, "I hit something with my shovel and the water just started--"

"You hit a water main, you idiot!" the man cried, finally understanding the urgency of the situation. "And the water's already reached my backyard!"

Mack turned to look in the direction of the man's house just in time to see a very ornate gazebo suddenly drop out of sight.

"My gazebo!" the man howled. "You've triggered a goddamn sinkhole!"

"It's not my fault!" Mack protested, still staring in stunned horror at the place where the gazebo used to be.

"Yeah?" the man snarled. "Then whose shovel is that?" He jabbed an accusing finger at Mack's shovel, now covered with mud and sticking out of the water.

"It''s...." Mack was just starting to consider whether or not lying would make things worse when there was a sudden "glub" and something popped up to the surface from the puddle. He groaned, recognizing the Care Bear underpants.

Only one thing went through his mind at that point. "When sorrows come, they come not single spies. But in battalions!"

"It's not fair!" Mack complained again as he followed his father out of the courthouse. "Everyone knows that landfill is unstable! And that repair guy even said the water main was probably already really decayed anyway!"

"Yeah," his dad acknowledged as they got to the car, "but it was the Director of Public Works' gazebo that got swallowed and he's got some powerful friends. You'll just have to suck it up and do the time."

He was referring to the community service the judge had assigned Mack in addition to a fine, which his father had paid. Mack climbed into the car and shut the door behind him. "Um, I'm going to pay you back, by the way."

"You sure?" his father asked, turning the key and shifting the car into gear. "You're already about four years behind on your allowance."

"Yeah," Mack agreed, "but what's another couple of years' worth of debt? With any luck I'll pay it all off...sometime before I leave for college."

His dad chuckled. "I'll hold you to that."

"And Dad? Uh, thanks. Not just for paying the fine, but for trying to defend me in there." His father had pleaded Mack's case with fierce determination, even though his arguments had gone ignored. Watching him open his checkbook to hand over money Mack knew he could barely afford somehow made Mack's earlier grudges fade into insignificance.

But I'm not going to be introducing myself as Michael Jordan Mackenzie anytime soon.

Out loud, he said, "It worked out pretty great for the city: they just finished putting up their first--"

"--and only--" his father chimed in.

"--and only tourist attraction, and just when they're looking for some free labor to paint the stupid thing I just happened to fall into their lap. Lucky me," he added.

His dad gave him a sympathetic smile. "Apparently Lawndale wants to drum up tourism. And you're going to be the one who puts us on the map, son!"

"And as a bonus, I guess I'll find out how to 'paint an inch thick,'" Mack replied with a shrug. "Although I'd be very surprised if Shakespeare was thinking of giant metal strawberries when he wrote that."

The following weekend, Mack showed up at the site of the newly-built Big Strawberry statue right on time and ready to work. Aside from his dad, the only people who knew about his community service project were Jodie and Kevin.

Jodie had started to offer to come and help before remembering that she had piano lessons, a session with her algebra tutor, an extra-credit English paper to finish, a student council picnic, an origami workshop, and volunteer time reading stories at the library that day. "I'd rather be painting a giant strawberry...with you," she assured him.

Kevin had also been eager to come along, but sadly told Mack that his dad insisted he stay home all weekend and practice passes and kicks.

"Just tell him you don't want to try out for the team," Mack insisted.

Kevin sighed. "I tried telling him they made it illegal for guys named Kevin to play football, but he just reminded me about Kevin Greene and then gave me a noogie."

So on that sunny Saturday morning, Mack found himself facing the Big Strawberry alone. Or at least he thought he was, until a heart-shaped face framed by black hair peeked around the other side at him.

"You here to help?" the girl called out as he approached. He was pretty sure he recognized her from school, but couldn't remember her name.

Mack waggled the paintbrush he'd brought with him. "Yup."

The girl came around the statue, and Mack saw she was carrying two cans of red paint. "I was thinking either scarlet," she said, holding up one can, "or crimson," she continued, holding up the other. "Scarlet is nice and bright, so it'll be really eye-catching and possibly burn the tourists' retinas off. Crimson, on the other hand, is a really deep shade that might look like theBig Strawberry is coated with blood." She lowered the cans and looked at him with a smirk playing around the corner of her mouth. "What do you think?"

He stared at her. "I think you're putting an awful lot of thought into this for someone who's being forced to paint this thing."

"Who's being forced?" the girl asked. "I'm here 'cause I like to paint and I get a kick out of weird crap like this." She set down the can of scarlet--or maybe it was crimson; Mack had already forgotten which was which--and held out her hand. "Jane Lane."

Mack shook her hand and said, "Mack Mackenzie. Well, at least the work will go faster with two of us here."

"You mean three," Jane said, pointing behind him. He turned to see Chuck arriving, a paintbrush in his hand and a nervous look on his face.

"Are you here because you got in trouble or because you like to paint?" Mack asked him.

"Um...I'm here because I thought it might be interesting," Chuck replied, eying Jane with a mixture of fear and fascination.

Jane, oblivious to his gawking, clapped her hands and said, "Let's get started!"

Each of them dipped a brush into the paint and got to work. Mack swiped broad red smears across the strawberry, eager to complete the task as soon as possible. Jane applied the skillful strokes of a professional artist. Chuck kept dribbling paint on himself while trying desperately to keep up with the other two.

Occasionally Chuck looked in Jane's direction and tried to make a comment or tell a joke, but she was focused intently on her painting and the most response he could get was the occasional grunt.

It was well into late afternoon when they neared the end of their work. Jane stood up from where she was crouched to stretch her back in a graceful arch that nearly made Chuck keel over. She glanced into her paint can and sighed. "I'm about out here. Either of you got any more?" she asked.

"I've got some!" Chuck called out eagerly.

"Oh, thanks," she breathed. "You're a lifesaver!"

Chuck snatched up his can of paint and sprinted toward her. He only made it a couple of steps before his foot caught on something and he flew forward into the air and landed face-first in the dirt. The can of paint also flew forward, right out of his hand. It arced neatly through the air before landing upside-down on top of Mack's head, coating him from head to toe with a particularly eye-catching shade of scarlet.

It took several seconds before the whole incident fully registered in Mack's brain. Oddly, the first thing that went through his thoughts was I really hope Dad remembered to do laundry. The second thing was I am going to murder that boy.

Possibly recognizing the danger he was in, Chuck quickly pulled off his T-shirt and handed it to Mack. "Here, you can wipe off with this."

Mack rubbed his face and then the rest of his skin and clothing the best he could, but every visible inch of him stayed red, just slightly muted. Tossing the ruined shirt back to Chuck, he felt a brief flicker of grim satisfaction when it hit the boy in the face and left a red smear across his cheeks and nose.

Seeing the tiny smile, Jane pumped her fist in the air and said, "That's the spirit! Never fear paint."

"Yeah," Mack muttered, "what harm did a little lead poisoning ever do to anybody, after all?"

Chuck picked up the empty can and looked at it. "You're safe!" he called out. "It's lead-free!"

A droplet of paint dribbled down the side of Mack's face. "Oh, good," he replied sarcastically. "In that case, everything's just fine." He shot Chuck a glare that actually caused the boy to take a few steps back. Looking over at Jane, Mack said, "You guys are going to have to finish up without me. I'm going home." His father wasn't due to pick him up for almost an hour, but Mack resigned himself to walking through Lawndale looking like the recent victim of a particularly brutal serial killer.

Chuck hollered apologies after him, which he ignored as he squelched his way down the side of the road in the direction of his house. He tried to avoid the busiest parts of town, and made it most of the way home without being seen by anyone he knew.

"Mack? Is that you?"

Until now, he thought with a groan. He turned around carefully, the drying paint making his movements stiff and awkward. "Oh, hey, Jodie," he said, recognizing his friend.

"I got done at the library early and went to look for you at the Strawberry, but you weren't there." She tilted her head, studying him with obvious curiosity. "What hap--"

"I do not want to talk about it," Mack interrupted fiercely. "This is quite possibly the worst thing that's ever happened to me, and taking the last few weeks into consideration that's really saying something!"

Jodie gave him an indifferent shrug, but her eyes were shinning with amusement. "Oh, so you're a little red. It could happen to anybody!"

Almost growling with annoyance, Mack shot back, "It didn't happen to anybody; it happened to me! And you have to promise me, right now, that you will never, ever, under any circumstances tell a living soul about this!"

"Okay, I promise," Jodie said quickly, but she couldn't hide her smirk.

"I mean it!" Mack insisted. "I'm already a laughingstock, and the last thing I need right now is more fuel for the fire!"

Jodie held her hands up in a calming gesture. "I will not tell anyone about this for as long as I live, even under the most brutal torture imaginable. I will take the secret to my grave, and may lightning strike me dead if I breathe even one word of this to so much as a brick wall. I will be forever silent on this subject, maintaining to the very last that nothing happened, no matter--"

"All right already," Mack finally cut in, smiling a little at last. "'The lady doth protest too much, methinks.'"

"'O, but she'll keep her word,'" Jodie replied, smiling back. Stepping over to stand next to him, she added, "Come on; I'll walk you home. Someone's got to make sure you don't get yourself into any more trouble."

In spite of the paint squishing around his toes, Mack found that the trip home suddenly didn't feel so bad.

"How'd your weekend go?" Kevin asked him before school the following Monday.

"It was...colorful. How was yours?" Mack asked, remembering the football practice Kevin's dad had forced him into.

"Pretty cool, man," Kevin said with a grin. "I threw the ball so hard my dad just about sprained his wrist!"

"Serves him right," Mack muttered.

Not hearing him, Kevin continued, "He said with an arm like mine I could totally go pro one day!"

"Wait a minute. I thought you didn't want to play football?"

Kevin's grin faded a little. "Yeah, I mean no, I mean...." He looked sheepishly at Mack. "I like football. It's just--"

"You don't like it enough to want to join the team?" Mack asked, trying to understand.

Avoiding Mack's gaze, Kevin mumbled, "Well, about the team. See, there's this, um, naugahyde shortage? And since there's no more footballs? The team is going to be--"

"--Cut the crap. What's going on?"

Kevin finally looked him in the eye. "I like football. No, I love football. And I do wanna join the team and be a big football star like my dad. But...."


The words all tumbled out in a rush now, as though Kevin had been holding them in so long they suddenly burst. "But what if it turns out I can't cut it? What if I'm not good enough to join the team? Or what if I get on the team, but I suck and my dad's super disappointed? Or what if--" The flood of words cut off as abruptly as they started, and Kevin stared at the ground. Barely above a whisper, he finally said, "What if I get hurt?"

"Hurt?" Mack asked. "Like how?"

Kevin let out a small sigh. "My dad's got this video at home, Football's Most Excruciating Injuries, and he watches it at least once a week. Like, there's one guy who gets tackled and I swear to God he bends in half backwards! And another guy totally almost gets his leg snapped off. It's really gross! Plus we went to this one Lawndale game where the quarterback hit the goal post so hard he knocked himself out for almost a week." He shuddered. "That could be me, dude!"

Mack took a little time to process the new information before responding. "Okay, first of all, middle school football isn't as dangerous as professional football. I'm not going to lie--you could get hurt playing. But the guys you play against won't be 300-pound giants who can bench press a truck, so the most you're probably going to get is some bruises and bumps."

"I guess...." Kevin still didn't look very confident.

"Plus, don't forget that football players wear a whole lot of protective gear. Things that take a lot of the impact so you don't get pulverized. Just keep the shoulder pads and all that on, and you should be safe, okay?"

From the look on Kevin's face, you'd have thought Mack had just told him aliens had landed. "So...they wear all that stuff to keep from getting busted up?" A slow, wide grin spread across his face as he took that idea in. "Whoa!"

Mack slapped his friend on the back and laughed. "'There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'"

"Yeah, no kidding." Kevin looked sideways at him. "But, uh, my name is actually Kevin." His eyes lit up as another thought occurred to him. "Hey, and I can get one of those helmets, too, so I don't get brain damage!"

"...Yeah. You wouldn't want that."

After a few moments, Kevin looked troubled again. "That's cool and all, but what about the other thing?"

"Hmm? Oh, the 'what if you suck' thing?" When Kevin nodded, Mack smirked. "Well, you do suck."

"Aw, man!" Kevin laughed half-heartedly at the joke, but the fear on his face was plain.

Mack sighed. I am going to regret this. "All right, would it help if I went out for the team, too? I mean, we might both suck, but at least we'll have each other's back, right?"

Kevin's eyes grew wide, and he stared at Mack in amazement. "You'd really do that?" he asked hopefully.

"Sure. Just tell me where and when and I'll be there." And I'll also pray like hell my dad doesn't decide to change my middle name to Irvin next.

"We did it! Woooo!" Kevin cheered, slapping Mack a high-five as they walked off the football field a few days later. "We're gonna be Glenfield Gladiators!" The two began walking home--or rather, Mack walked while Kevin bounced. "We kicked so much butt, man! We were better than every other guy who tried out! Especially that one kid--uh, what was his name?"

"Chuck." Mack cringed a little at the memory of Chuck out on the field, getting constantly trampled by everyone and smacked in the head at least five times with the football. Even his anger about the paint incident disappeared after watching the poor boy take that much punishment.

"Yeah, him. But it was really nice of the coach to let him have the sports announcer job. Think he'll be any good at it?"

"I hope so," Mack replied. He's gotta be good at something, right?

Kevin was too excited to talk about anything that wasn't football for very long. "So next year, we're totally gonna take down the other teams! We're gonna beat 'em down! We're gonna kill 'em!"

"I don't believe this!" screeched a familiar voice behind them.

Mack turned to look, but he'd already recognized the voice of the same angry brown-haired woman who just kept showing up at the worst possible moments.

"So now you're conspiring to commit violent crimes?" she raged. "I should call the police on you, you good-for-nothing lowlife!"

"No ma'am," Mack pleaded, feeling a wave of déjà vu wash over him, "you've misunderstood what he meant. Kevin, tell her...."

He looked at Kevin, who had pulled out his walkman and was now listening to it. Mack could faintly hear the sound of Sir Mix-a-Lot coming from the headphones.

He sighed. I think he'd have just made things worse, anyway. "Look, he was just talking about football, okay?"

"Football?" she spat. "Then it's even worse than I thought!" She shook her head in disgust. "That so-called game nearly led my poor husband astray with its mindless violence and brutality. It's only thanks to my loving influence and gentle guidance that he hasn't gotten completely sucked into it." Drawing herself up to her full (not very tall) height, she fixed him with a glare and added, "I shouldn't be surprised to find a delinquent like you mixed up in that garbage."

Part of Mack knew he should just ignore her and walk away. That tiny rational portion of his brain was telling him that responding to her in any way would just cause more trouble in the long run.

It was very, very wise advice. Mack ignored it. I am so freaking sick and tired of adults trying to tell me who I am or what I have to do. Dad changing my middle name without even asking. Mr. Hanson pushing me into joining the variety show. The Director of Public Works and his cronies forcing me to paint the Big Strawberry. Every single one of them caused me unimaginable humiliation, and I. Have. Had. Enough.

"You know what?" he exploded at the woman, and felt some satisfaction at seeing her anger turn abruptly to shock. "You like to talk about how great your husband is, but I never see him with you. And I bet that's because he's much happier without you around to make him miserable. If I were your husband, I'd be gone so fast it'd make your damn head spin!"

The woman opened her mouth to reply, but then shut it again. Pressing her lips together, she looked him up and down with a combination of rage and...was that fear? At last she said in a quiet, shaky voice, "This isn't over!" before spinning around and swooping off down the sidewalk with what little dignity she could.

Mack watched her go, feeling a sense of hollow victory. I have a feeling she means that, he thought glumly.

"There you are!" Jodie ran up to Mack, slightly out of breath but smiling widely. "I just heard the news! Congratulations!"

He blinked at her. She's congratulating me for telling off a spiteful old shrew?

Seeing his confusion, she added, "The football team? You both made the cut, didn't you?" She nodded toward Kevin, who was nodding his head to the music, eyes closed and oblivious to anything going on around him.

"Oh!" Mack forgot about the confrontation with the angry woman and relaxed. "Yeah. Thanks."

She gave him a playful nudge. "Too bad, though. Now that you're going to be a big football hero you're not going to have much time for us little people." Her eyes darted away for a moment. "Even less time than you've had lately."

Mack snorted. "That's funny coming from you, the girl who fills every possible moment," he teased. "Extracurricular activities...volunteer work...saving the planet from evil alien invaders...."

The joke didn't even get a smile from Jodie. "It's my parents making me do all that," she reminded him sadly, staring at the ground. "I wish I didn't have to. I wish I could spend more time with my friends." She tilted her head up and gazed intensely at him. "Especially the friends who are really, really important to me."

Mack's face felt strangely warm, and he began to fidget uncomfortably as the silence stretched on. At last he let out a nervous cough and said, "Nah, friends aren't all that important. What's important is becoming the first female African-American president of the universe, right?"

It was another attempt at a joke, but this one fell even flatter than the first. Jodie's whole body drooped and she swiveled her body so she wasn't facing him. Before she fully turned away Mack noticed that her chin was quivering and her eyes looked wet.

Watching her, Mack convulsed as a sudden pain shot through him. He wanted to punch something. He wanted to sob like a frightened child. He wanted to scream until his lungs exploded. But more than anything else on earth, he wanted to do whatever it took to make Jodie smile again.

"Jodie?" he asked cautiously, afraid of saying the wrong thing. "It's, uh, going to be okay?"

"I doubt it," she whispered, and each word slammed into Mack, hard.

What's wrong with me? Mack thought frantically. I mean, Jodie's my friend, but I never get this freaked out around any of my other--oh. Oh! Oh, my God.

And with that, Mack's question was answered. Not only that, but he was pretty sure he knew what he could do to help Jodie stop crying. "'Doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt that the sun doth move, doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I....'" He trailed off, too embarrassed to finish the quote.

Jodie kept her back to him, but he could see her shoulders weren't shaking anymore. She stood motionless for so long Mack began to wonder if she'd even heard him, until she very quietly finished it for him. "''"

She still didn't turn around, so Mack edged cautiously around her until they were face-to-face. Her face was wet, but now he could see the most radiant smile he'd ever seen in his life. Feeling equal parts relieved and self-conscious, he started to say, "So are you--"

He never got to finish the sentence, because at that moment Jodie darted forward and kissed him. Even though Mack couldn't see his own face, he knew he was now wearing a smile to match hers.

"Yeah!" The moment was interrupted by a cheering Kevin, whom they'd both completely forgotten about. "'Mack Daddy is about to score!'" he crowed, pointing to his headphones as he watched them with glee. Then he looked again at Mack, and his eyes lit up in a way that Mack strongly suspected was going to cost him big time in the future. "Mack Daddy...." Kevin murmured, still nodding along to his Sir Mix-a-Lot tape.

"What's a 'Mack Daddy'?" Unnoticed by anyone, Chuck had been walking past while Kevin spoke. Kevin, still grinning, leaned over and whispered something in his ear. This time it was Chuck's eyes that lit up, and a strange leer spread across his face as he...growled? Mack wasn't sure, but he knew it couldn't be good news for anyone.

Then he looked at Jodie, still smiling as she ignored everyone else but him. Don't think about the future. Don't think about the past. Think about right now. He smiled back at Jodie. 'There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.'

Thanks to RLobinske for beta reading.