The line was moving too fast and Craig was getting panicky. He was only five kids away from the front and he could hear the photographer’s inane chatter as he positioned one of Craig’s classmates on a stool in front of the camera. Craig patted the top of his head with his hand and felt hair sticking up in all directions. His mother would be furious if he appeared in the school yearbook with disheveled hair. There might even be grounding.
“Mrs. Gomes,” called Craig.
“What, Craig?” Mrs. Gomes used Craig as an excuse to disengage herself from a girl whining about an imagined slight from over two weeks ago.
“I need to comb my hair,” said Craig.
Mrs. Gomes scowled. “Use the comb they gave you.” She pointed at the curved plastic comb in Craig’s hand. It was already missing teeth.
“It doesn’t work. I need to get my hair wet for it to stay down.”
“No you don’t,” said Mrs. Gomes. “No one’s going to the bathroom.” She turned on her heel and walked toward the back of the line where another scuffle had broken out between the Jimson twins.
Craig deliberated for only a moment and then he was moving, stepping out of line and ducking around the corner behind the back of the photographer who was trying to coax a smile out of one of Craig’s most thoroughly orthodontiaed classmates. He half-jogged down the hall and made it around one more corner before he felt safe slowing down. He breathed easier, but his heart was still racing. The hall was empty, but he knew he’d be in trouble if a teacher or administrator caught him without a pass. He needed to get into the bathroom, get his hair in order, and get back in line as quickly as possible. If his escape was discovered, Mrs. Gomes would throw a fit and then his mother would throw another fit when Mrs. Gomes told her about the incident in the weekly behavior report that she sent home with Craig per Craig’s mother’s request.
Craig pushed open the door to the boy’s bathroom and stepped inside. There, in the middle of the bathroom, a skinny eighth-grader with a spider-web patterned ski-mask pulled up off of his face was standing over an open duffle bag and struggling to load a pistol. When the eighth-grader saw Craig staring at him, he froze, eyes wide, and then said, “Dang it.”
Craig took a step backward towards the door, but the eighth-grader waved the as yet unloaded pistol at him and said “stop!”
Craig stopped and said, “I just came in to comb my hair. For picture day.”
The eighth-grader eyed him for a moment. “OK,” he said. “You can comb it.”
“I don’t have to,” said Craig.
The clip suddenly slipped into place in the butt of the pistol with a loud click and the eighth-grader said, “Ah-ha!” He held the pistol up in triumph and grinned at Craig. “Got it!”
Craig didn’t smile back.
“Hey,” said the eighth-grader. “Check this out.” He reached down into the duffle bag and pulled out an even bigger handgun. He brandished a pistol in each hand and said, “Locked.
Craig forced a weak smile. “Where’d you get those?” he asked.
The eighth-grader’s expression soured. “You’re not gonna rat me out, are you?”
“No way,” said Craig.
“Really?” asked the eighth-grader. “You swear you won’t?”
“I dunno,” said Craig. “I’m not a very good liar. What if somebody asks me?”
“Well, yeah,” said the eighth-grader. “If someone asks you and you lie and tell ‘em you don’t know anything about it and they can tell you’re lying, then that’s not really your fault as long as you try.”
“That’s what I’m saying,” said Craig.
The eighth-grader pointed the guns into a mirror over one of the sinks and tried to look menacing, but he couldn’t hold back his smile of pleasure. “What grade are you in?” he asked.
“Sixth,” said Craig.
“Wanna be my partner?” asked the eighth-grader. “You can watch my back and warn me if someone’s sneaking up behind me.”
“Umm, nahh,” said Craig.
“OK,” said the eighth-grader. “There’s a knife in the bag. It’s pretty good. Want it? I’ve only got two guns and I want ‘em both. Sorry.”
“That’s OK,” said Craig. “I’ll just go back to the photographer. Like nothing happened.”
“You’re cool,” said the eighth-grader. He tried to twirl his guns on his index fingers and failed. “Let me study your face for a second so I recognize you when I’m shooting and don’t kill you on accident.”
Craig stood motionless while the eighth-grader stooped down so that he was looking Craig right in the eye, his freckled face a picture of intense, cartoonish concentration. The urinals all flushed simultaneously as part of their automatic cycle and Craig jumped.
“OK,” said the eighth-grader. “Got it memorized!” He tapped the side of his head and flashed a warm smile. Craig turned and left the bathroom in a daze as the eighth-grader pulled his spider-web ski mask down over his face.
The hall was still quiet and empty. As Craig walked, he pressed both hands down on top of his head and held them there, hoping his hair would stay in place. As he retraced his steps back to the hall where the school pictures were being taken, he could hear the muffled buzz of his classmates’ chatter growing louder. He poked his head around the corner and saw Mrs. Gomes at the far end of the hall trying to control the noisy group of students who had already had their pictures taken and were now doing a poor job of remaining quiet and patient while they waited for the three kids left in line to take their turns with the photographer. Craig slipped around the corner and stepped back into line without Mrs. Gomes noticing.
“Where were you?” asked Lizzie, the girl ahead of him in line.
“Fixing my hair.”
Lizzie sneered. “Well, it still looks crappy.”
“Shut up,” said Craig. “I don’t care.” But he did care, and now Samuel, the kid just ahead of Lizzie was sitting on the stool, folding his hands, tilting his head at an unnatural angle while the photographer cooed compliments at him. The photographer pressed the button on the little hand-held device connected to the camera by a black cord.
And then Lizzie was up, and her smile was terrible, but the photographer gushed about it, he was nuts about it, he told Lizzie she was very, very, very pretty, and Craig was pawing frantically at his hair, raking it with his fingers, clawing at his scalp.
“You’re up, buddy.” The photographer grinned at Craig through a salt and pepper beard.
“I can’t,” said Craig. “Not until I fix my hair.”
“It looks fine,” said the photographer. “Have a seat on the stool.”
Craig, helpless and defeated, climbed onto the stool and looked into the dark, impassive lens of the camera. This couldn’t happen, he had to stop it somehow. “My hair,” he said. “My mom’s gonna be mad...”
“Stop talking,” said the photographer. “Smile.”
A loud popping sound came echoing through the halls. Then another and another, in quick succession, and someone might have been shouting.
“I said ‘smile,” said the photographer.Snap.