Author's Note: This story uses real events in my life as a base, and it's possible that some of the characters may recognize themselves if they ever see this - even though their surnames and most of their first names have been changed in a pathetic attempt to protect the guilty ones from being reminded of stupid things they did in their childhoods. . .heh heh. [Toni, to say the least, can think on her feet, an ability I never had, so it has a much more satisfying ending than real life did. : )] It takes place in the spring of 1978.

This is adapted from an unpublished book I wrote called THE HARDER THEY FALL. If readers would like to see more of Toni's adventures, I'll be happy to post more, and would really appreciate feedback. If you criticize, please be kind . . .

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No More Words!

In order for anybody to know what's going on, you have to know who we are. My name's Toni Karlsen and I'll be 13 on July 31; I have two sisters, Jackie who will be 10 in September, and Kristen, who's almost 2. Jackie and I are part of a school carpool along with a bunch of other families in the neighborhood. Then there are the Blair kids, Bryan, a fifth-grader, and Wendy, a second-grader; the Collier kids, Jim, in third grade, and Amy, in second grade (and Wendy's best friend); the Tolands, Corry who's a sixth- grader, and her twin brother and sister, Adam and Andria, in fourth grade; and finally, Jim Collier's best friend Mark Ortlemeyer, whose four-year-old brother Matt thinks he's a member of the carpool as well because he's always with us when it's Mrs. Ortlemeyer's week to drive. Matt's got a smart mouth on him, sometimes worse than Wendy and Amy - and I'll get back to them!

Corry Toland and I are okay friends. For some reason she's also friends with Wendy and Amy, even though they're so much younger than we are. Corry babysits them sometimes, actually, so I guess it helps if you're kind of friends with the kids you sit for. But she takes it a little too far. She still plays Barbies with them and, when they're around, generally acts about the same age they are. The trouble with Corry is that I think she's a little two-faced. If I'm hanging out with her and Wendy and Amy decide to show up, she goes off with them and treats me like an intruder. That hurts, since Corry is the only girl close to my age who lives within two miles of our neighborhood, and I don't have any friends in school. Anyway, Corry kind of plays Wendy and Amy against me, so that now those two little brats have become the bane of Jackie's and my existence. They make endless fun of us in the carpool every morning and afternoon. Jackie, who's a bit overweight for her age, gets upset; I try to ignore it.

But it's hard, having only a fair-weather friend at home and no friends at all in school. We moved here to Alabama almost five years ago from my native Massachusetts, and I've always missed Julie, my best friend back home. I never picked up the local accent, and from the beginning I got picked on by kids who claimed I talked funny and called me "Yankee" all the time. But I'm proud to be a northerner and when they saw that, all the fun went out of trying to turn "Yankee" into a nasty name. So now they mostly ignore me, although I still get stared at when I answer a question or read aloud in class, and I'll hear people mimicking my accent. I've learned to pretend they don't exist.

Even at home things could be better. At least, that's true about my dad, Jay Karlsen. The company he works for requires that if you want to be promoted, you have to move to another state. I'm not even sure just what he does; all I know is that it made us have to move. Not that it matters, because Jackie and I have always known that Dad isn't all that interested in us or Kristen. We've never understood why; Mother won't explain it. I've seen that he stays with us because he truly loves Mother. Dad usually ignores us girls. I mean, we don't go hungry or anything like that, and we always have new school clothes and even nice presents on our birthdays and Christmas. But it would be nice if Dad liked us, too. Fortunately, Mother's the greatest, and she almost makes up for Dad's emotional absence.

Not long ago I decided to do something about Wendy and Amy. It was near the end of the school year and my second year in the carpool. (Next year I'm going into eighth grade, which is in the high school because the new junior-high building isn't finished yet.) Now that I look back, I think it took Linda Lee Porter to make me mad enough to finally do something about them. I write plays on the side and act them out in my room sometimes, and somehow Linda Lee had stolen one of them out of my desk. What she didn't know is that I write two copies of everything, and I still had the extra at home. Linda Lee and her snotty friends were going to perform my play, pretending to our teacher, Mrs. Merwell, that she had written it. I guess she wanted it to be a kind of surprise for the end of the school year, but she could have at least written her own play instead of stealing mine.

To get back at Linda Lee, I had memorized all the lines of the character she was going to portray in the play, and I planned to recite them right along with her while she was performing. To say the least, it was going to take guts, especially with Mrs. Merwell and the whole class right there to see me do it. But Linda Lee needed to be taught a lesson, and this was the only way I could think of to see that she got what she had coming.

So on Friday morning two weeks before school let out, I figured I was all set to go. It was Mrs. Ortlemeyer's week to drive, so we'd have the added attraction of Matt Ortlemeyer's smarty-pants remarks on top of Wendy and Amy's. I was just glad it was the end of the week. Jackie, on the other hand, tried to pretend she was sick so she could stay home, but Mother wouldn't fall for it. In fact, she reminded Jackie, "Don't you need something for that papier-mâché project your class is doing?"

Jackie groaned. "Oh yeah, I have to bring a roll of masking tape."

Mother got it out of the kitchen junk drawer and handed it to her. That's when we heard the car horn out front. Mother handed me a dollar bill and gave Jackie two quarters, and shooed us out the door. We're always the last ones to get picked up on any week except Mother's, so as usual, we had to squeeze in and try to find some room. Before I realized it, I found myself sharing a seat with Wendy and Amy, the two little punks themselves.

"Eeeewwww," squealed Wendy, shrinking away from me as if I were contagious. "It's Toni Karlsen."

"And her sister, Fatty," Amy added. This was an ancient refrain and so overworked by now that I wondered why it still bothered Jackie so much. Even now she squirmed in her seat. The fact that Andria Toland is Jackie's best friend made no difference, because Wendy and Amy aren't afraid of Andria and don't care that Andria hates them as much as Jackie does. I've always thought Corry could learn something about loyalty from her sister.

"Fatty Pants, Fatty Pants," sang out Matt from up front. Mrs. Ortlemeyer told him to keep quiet, but of course he didn't listen to her. He did at least stop picking on Jackie and started badgering Mark and Jim about something.

As for me, I ignored the punks as usual and kept going over my lines in my head; I wanted them to be perfect when it was time for me to ruin Linda Lee's performance. But Wendy and Amy kept making more and more nasty remarks, about both me and Jackie, and giggling their miniature heads off. I couldn't concentrate on my train of thought and finally got completely fed up.

I reached over to Jackie, who sat in front of me, and pulled the roll of tape out of her hand, saying, "I need to borrow this for a minute." I didn't even think about what I was doing; it just happened. I ripped off a nice big piece and swiftly taped Wendy's big mouth shut before she could stop me. I'd never reacted to their needling in any way before, and she was too stunned to do more than stare at me. That gave me enough time to tape Amy's mouth shut too. And then I let them both have it, loudly enough for everyone else to hear.

"I wish you two little idiots would just shut up for a change!" I snapped. "You've been running your mouths and proving how stupid you are all year long, and everybody's sick of it. Can't we go just one day without listening to you little punks screaming gibberish all the way to school and back? Maybe this will keep you quiet." Just then Wendy reached up to remove the tape, and I smacked her hand as hard as I could. "Leave it there!"

Wendy's eyes filled with rage; Amy, the follower and thus easier to subdue, was red-faced and crying. I kept a sharp eye on both of them the rest of the way to school. Nobody else said a word, not even Mrs. Ortlemeyer. She must have been happy to have those brats silenced, too. In fact, I think I saw her smiling.

Jackie and Andria thanked me several times on the way from the car to classes, and even a couple of the boys congratulated me on getting the best of Wendy and Amy. The whole thing gave me so much confidence that I got enough courage to carry out my plans against Linda Lee Porter.

As soon as the play began and her character appeared, I loudly recited Linda Lee's first line right along with her. She glared at me in outrage but tried to keep the show moving. But I wasn't giving up. Mrs. Merwell began to look at me sternly, but even that didn't stop me. I wanted Linda Lee to get mad enough to protest, so that I could tell my side of the story.

Finally she quit right in the middle of the play and yelled at me, "Stop ruinin' mah play, Toni Karlsen!"

That's what I was waiting for. "You mean MY play, you thief," I shot back angrily. "I saw you the day you stole it out of my desk!"

"Just a minute, girls," Mrs. Merwell spoke up. "Toni, that's a very serious charge. Are you sure about this?"

"I saw her do it," I insisted. "She waited till we went to lunch one day. I forgot something and had to go back for it, and that's when I saw her steal it. She just left the room before I could catch her in the act."

Out of nowhere a shy voice spoke up. "I saw her too," said Sharon Lattimore, a very quiet girl who'd been new in school a couple of months before. "I was in the cloakroom getting my lunch money out of my jacket pocket, and I heard noises in here, so I looked out the doorway. And there she was at Toni's desk, taking some papers out."

Before I had a chance to get accustomed to someone actually taking my side, one of the other girls who was in the play with Linda Lee spoke up. "It's true, Miz Merwell," said Myra Campbell, whom I knew as one of Linda Lee's usual gang. "Ah di'n't see her take it, but she showed it to me an' Mary Anne an' Brenda, and said she was gon' play a mean ol' joke on Toni Karlsen. She said Toni deserved it for bein' stuck-up. But Ah don' wanna git in trouble for bein' in a play that got stole." In spite of her heavy accent I got what she said. I was even more astonished.

"Is this true, Linda Lee?" Mrs. Merwell asked. Linda Lee hung her head and nodded silently. "Well, then you'll stay after school and we'll discuss this. You owe Toni an apology. Myra and Sharon, thank you for your honesty."

I wound up with a new friend that day. Sharon Lattimore and I ate lunch together and I discovered that she'd moved here from Michigan, so she felt as out of it as I did. We talked about how so many kids think shy people are stuck-up when they're just afraid to talk, and our families, and how much we missed our old homes. And we discovered that we live only two streets apart from each other. We decided to hang out together over the summer.

So my seventh-grade year ended much better than I ever expected it would. Now I can only hope that eighth grade won't be as scary as it sounds. At least Sharon and I will be facing it together.