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DAREN AND KAREN: 7th Graders Winning the Worst Year

by Joe Reister © 2017


“You know, it doesn’t look so bad to me,” the girl said, stopping at the corner, and stared at the building on the hill.  “And I don’t care what Mr. Schepsis said, Daren.  It’s smaller than Lincoln.”

“I guess so, Karen,” the boy next to her said, squinting at the building, and then turned back to her.  “But remember that Lincoln had K through 6th and Jefferson is just 7th and 8th.”

“No kidding,” Karen said, watching a crossing guard direct a group of kids at the corner, and saw the long line of waiting cars loaded with even more kids and their smiling parents.  She nodded to the walkers and then stepped into the street, pulling Daren with her as they walked past the stuck cars, the staring parents and the frowning crossing guard.

“Careful,” Daren said, seeing the looks.

“I think we can cross the street all by ourselves,” Karen said, getting to the other side and turning to the school again.  “I mean, we’re thirteen now.”

“Right,” Daren said, moving forward, and noticed half of the students in front of the school sulking.  “That doesn’t look good.”

“No.  It doesn’t,” Karen said and took in the droopy faces on the quieter, younger students and the half smiles and shouts from the older ones.  “This is going to suck, isn’t it?”

“I think so.  Yeah,” Daren said, pulling her forward, and waved back to another boy.  “My mom said 7th grade’s the worst.”

“Great,” Karen said, frowning at the boy, and looked again at the rest of the students.  “You’re still talking to Aaron?”

“We play soccer together,” Daren said and saw another girl walking straight toward them.  “Remember this summer?”

“Still, it’s Aaron,” Karen said, waving to the other girl who nodded back.

Daren waved to the girl too.  “Sharon looks thrilled.”

“Her brother told her 7th graders get beat up the first day.”

“Yeah?” Daren said, their feet hitting the school grounds as he looked for a clear path through the crowd.  “My dad said that’s just talk.”

“That’s what I told her,” Karen said, watching an older girl come their way.  “Sharon wasn’t convinced.”

“Nice jacket,” the older girl said, eyeing her, and kept going.

“Thanks,” Karen said, pulling her leather jacket closer around her as an older boy looked too and laughed.

“Her brother might have a point,” Daren said, glaring at the older boy as Karen pulled him toward Sharon and the main entrance. 

“He might,” Karen said, noticing the even deeper frowns closer to the building.  “But that doesn’t mean we have to put up with it.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Daren said, standing up straight as a different older girl rolled her eyes at them.

“It’s a whole new world,” Sharon said, watching, and gave Karen a hug.

“It sure is,” Aaron said and walked up to them with a grin.  “Just like your brother said it would be, Sharon.”

“Shut up,” Karen said, staring down Aaron.  “Her brother’s a jerk.”

“Marc is a jerk,” Sharon said and laughed.  They all did, and Daren and Karen shared a last look and then frowned as the bell rang and they got pulled in different directions.

They still frowned when they found each other later outside of a classroom.

“Fun day?” Karen said and sighed.

“Fun month,” Daren said and shrugged. 

“At least now you know where all your classes are,” Karen said.

“Yeah,” Daren said, nodding to an older boy in a matching soccer jersey.

“And who the jerks are,” Karen said, ignoring a stare.

“Sort of,” Daren said, high fiving the older boy.

“Have fun in Puleo’s class,” the older boy said, grinning at Karen, and kept walking.

She shook her head.  “He popular on the team?”

“Not really,” Daren said and shook his head too.

“I’m not surprised,” Karen said, turning back to Daren.

“Yeah,” Daren said, nodding, and followed Karen into the classroom.  “You shouldn’t be.”

“That’s because jerks are everywhere,” Karen said, smiling big at the scowling old man at the front of the classroom.  “Even when they get paid to be here.”

“That’s true,” Daren said, eyes on the floor and right behind her.  “So, you going to raise your hand before you call out the answer next time.” 

“Maybe,” Karen said, ignoring all the students who ignored her.  “But I was right.”

“At least you got that going for you,” Daren said, talking quietly.  “Mr. Puleo told me I was going to fail the class last week.”

“Good teaching,” Karen said, noticing everyone frown at the turned over test papers in front of them.  “That looks like it’s going to be fun.”

“Nice shoes,” an older girl said, clicking her tongue at Karen.

“Chucks are making a comeback,” Daren said and gave her a look.

“Like you’d know,” the older girl said, eyeing him.

“I would,” he said, staring her down.

“Right, and you’re so scary, Daren,” the older girl said and laughed.  “But we’re not on the soccer field, so shut up.”

“Mr. Reece?” Mr. Puleo said, staring right at Daren.

“Sorry, sir,” Daren said, turning to face the front of the classroom as the older girl laughed again.

“Let it go,” Karen said quietly to him.  “It’s just a girl thing.”

He saw Sharon nodding at the desk next to them.

“Well, let’s take a look at how little you’re learning, boys and girls,” Mr. Puleo said, and the whole class turned over their test papers.

“Yeah,” Daren said, smiling, and held up the 71.  “I passed.”

“Me too,” Karen said, but frowned, flashing her 88.  “Great.”

“That’s not a grade to be smiling about Mr. Reece,” Mr. Puleo said, looking right at Daren.  “It’s probably your high point.”

Daren turned to the floor again, and the whole class went quiet.

“He’s such a jerk,” Karen said in a whisper, and Daren nodded.  Sharon too.

“Something you’d like to say, Miss DeMarco?”

“No, sir,” Karen said, her mouth tightening.

Daren pretended to look at his test.

“It’s only nine more months,” Karen said even more softly.  “Remember that, okay?”

“Okay,” Daren said, looking up, and ignored Mr. Puleo’s stare. 

“Look,” the woman said at the front of the classroom as Daren and the rest of the students looked anywhere else.  “Just remember, it’s all normal, all awkward and it all gets better no matter what your friends say, 8th graders tell you or what you’re thinking and feeling right at this moment.”

Karen, Daren and the rest of the students nodded not saying anything. 

“Trust me,” the woman said and stepped forward.  “I was 13 once too, and I remember it being the most awkward, horrible year in mine or anybody’s life.  And let me tell…”

“You know,” Karen said very quietly to Daren as the teacher kept talking.  “This is even more fun than Puleo’s class.”

“Yeah,” Daren said in an even softer whisper.  “So much fun.”

The bell rang and 24 students got up all at once.

“We’ll finish this tomorrow,” the woman said as the students bee lined it for the door.  “And maybe Friday too.”

“Never wanted to play dodgeball so much,” Daren said, stepping into the hallway, and kept walking.  “I’m actually looking forward to getting hit in the face a few times.”

“Right,” Karen said just behind him.  “Because that’s so much fun.”

“Yeah,” Daren said, keeping up his lead.  “More than Health.”

They broke out from the rest of the class, hitting the first stairwell.

“You know Mrs. Bellows is right,” Karen said, trying to keep up.  “It is normal.”

“And awkward,” Daren said, not looking back.

“And I figure you’ve tried it,” Karen said, following him onto the first floor.  “At least once.”

“You figured right,” Daren said, going faster. 

“And you liked it?” Karen said, almost catching up.  “Right?”

“You bet,” Daren said, swerving around a group of laughing girls, and avoided their eyes.  “Can’t stop, actually.”

Karen lost a step to him.  “I think that’s normal, you know,” she said, trying harder to catch up.  “And it’s supposed to feel good or nobody would…”

“Yeah, I know,” Daren said and stopped, turning around as she almost ran into him.  He looked right at her.   “And you?  Are you…”

“No,” Karen said, shaking her head.  “No, it’s a little more confusing for us.”  She swallowed, looking down.  “You know?”

“No,” Daren said, staring.  “Not really.”

Karen stared back.  “It just gets a little messy down there,” she said, shrugging, and looked past Daren.  “Lady wise, okay?”

He turned to the floor.  “Oh,” he said and crossed his arms over his chest.  “What, uh…  When did that happen?”

“This summer,” Karen said, moving forward, and came out of the stairwell.  “After we graduated.”

“Graduated?” Daren said and looked up, starting after her.  “June?”

“Right,” Karen said, walking faster.  “I stayed home for a few days the first time.”

“Okay,” Daren said a few steps behind her.  “I wondered why you were out.”

“Right,” Karen said and stopped, looking straight at him again.  “I didn’t think you’d want to know.  It’s, uh, kind of disgusting at first.”

“Um, okay,” Daren said, staring at the floor yet again.  “And you’re the first one?”

“No,” Karen said and laughed.  “No, not even close.  Sharon started in Miss Clay’s class?”

“Miss Clay?” Daren said, frowning and still not looking at her.  “In fourth grade?”

“Don’t tell her I told you that, though,” Karen said, turning to the girl’s locker room, and then looked back at him.  “It’s kind of personal, okay?  Really personal actually.”

“Yeah,” Daren said, looking up again, and nodded.  “Of course.”

She nodded too, not saying anything.

“I don’t remember that,” Daren said, shaking his head, and his eyes narrowed.  “In Miss Clay’s class?”

“Why would you?” Karen said, matching his look.

“Yeah,” Daren said, blinking.  “Right.”

Karen shrugged.  “I’ll see you,” she said and went into the locker room.

“Yeah,” Daren said, standing there as the door slammed shut, and then heard the sidelines roar as the soccer ball hit the back of the net and his team rushed onto the field.  He turned to see Karen screaming on the sidelines with everyone else when Aaron caught him in a bear hug from behind and lifted him high.  The rest of the team shouted his name, then hoisted him on their shoulders and carried him to the other side of the field.

“It’s going to be a while.”

“I know,” Karen said and turned back to Sharon.  “And I’m not getting into that mess.”

“They’ve got to calm down, hear from Coach and then clean up,” Sharon said, staring at the team, and then smiled at Karen.  “It takes about 20 or 30 minutes.”

“It’s not my first game, Sharon,” Karen said, seeing the team put down Daren on the other side of the field as an older girl walked toward him.  He raised a hand to Karen and then half smiled at the girl.

Karen shook her head at his reddening cheeks.

“Come on,” Sharon said, pulling her away as the sidelines broke up into smaller groups.  “We’ll see him tomorrow.”

“Right,” Karen said, seeing Daren demonstrate his kick to the older girl, and then watched Aaron punch him in the arm. 

“Great,” Sharon said, watching, and shook her head.  “Let’s go.”

But Karen saw Aaron point Daren in her direction, smile at the older girl and then yell something she couldn’t make out.

Sharon saw the same thing as Aaron dragged Daren away from the older girl and toward to the coach.  “He can be such a tool.”

“Yes, he can,” Karen said and saw Aaron punch Daren again in the cafeteria.

“Ow,” Daren said, just holding onto his food tray.

“Daren, what are you slumming with these chicks for?” Aaron said, smiling at Sharon, and winked at Karen.  “We’re eating with the team, pal, like coach said we should.”

“Hey,” Karen said, giving Aaron a look.  “You want to knock it off?”

“Chicks?” Sharon said next to her, and Aaron pointed at them and laughed. 

“You need to back up,” Karen said, stepping right into Aaron’s space.  “We were talking here, and I don’t remember inviting you to the conversation.”

“Yeah,” Aaron said and laughed again.  “And I don’t remember caring what you think, Karen.”

“What?” she said, and Daren stepped in between them.

“Footballers eat together,” Aaron said, right in Daren’s face.  “That’s what coach said, Daren.  Remember?”

“Did the coach tell you to be rude too?” Karen said, looking Aaron right in the eye.  “Because I don’t think...”

“Excuse me?” Aaron said, looking right back.

“I’m trying, but it’s hard,” Karen said and rolled her eyes as Sharon laughed.  “Really hard.  What with all the terrible flirting.”

“Flirting?” Aaron said, making a face.  “What are you…”

“Not with me, dummy.  Daren,” Karen said and stepped back, shaking her head at both of them.  “Although I thought you liked girls because, you know, you keep staring at us.  But whatever team you’re on is fine with me, Aaron.  Really.”

Aaron frowned and took a step toward her.

“Okay,” Daren said, pulling him back.  “Let’s go eat with the team, Aaron.  Like coach said.”

Aaron went along with Daren, but looked back.  “You can piss off, Karen.  That smartass stuff isn’t cute anymore.” 

“I’m so concerned, Aaron.  As usual,” Karen said and turned to Daren.  “And it was great talking to you this month, Daren.  Again.  For like the second time.  Thanks.”

Daren’s face sank.  “Look,” he said, watching her, but kept walking with Aaron.  “I’m sorry.”

“You should be,” Karen said, her face sinking too as she pulled out a book from her backpack and cocked it back.  “Because you used to know better.”

“He did,” Sharon said, grabbing Karen’s arm, and stopped her from throwing the book.  “But it’s not worth Ms. Dybas’ office, right?”

“Right,” Karen said, lowering the book, and nodded.  “And I know you’re right.”

“What?” Daren said, sitting next to her.

“I said Sharon was right, and I’m sorry she’s out today,” Karen said, leaning back in the plastic chair, crossing her arms over her chest and staring at the ‘Principal’ sign on the door in front of them.  “I probably wouldn’t have hit Aaron with that book at lunch if she’d been here.”

“Yeah,” Daren said and saw the school secretary shake her head across from them.  “That was not smart.”

“He shouldn’t have punched you again,” Karen said.  “That’s like the tenth time, you have a giant bruise, and I’d had enough.”

“It’s not a big deal?” Daren said, shrugging.  “It’s what guys do.”

“Except when you punch him?” Karen said, turning to Daren.  “Then you get in trouble.”

“I wasn’t going to let Aaron hurt you, Karen.”

“Please.  He wasn’t going to hurt me, Daren.


“And you broke his nose”

“Yeah,” Daren said and turned to Karen.  “You know, he’s scare of girls, right?”

“So is every other 7th grade boy, Daren,” Karen said, and the secretary laughed, covering her mouth.  “Even you, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to let him...”

“Aaron’s got a lot going on, Karen,” Daren said.  “You know his parents are…”

“Whatever,” Karen said and shook her head.  “Look, I appreciate you sticking up for me, but...”

“I was protecting him, Karen,” Daren said and gave her a look.  “You would’ve knocked him out with that second book, and…”

“That was kind of the point, Daren,” Karen said and looked back.  “Because you need protection too.”

“You’ve been saying that since I was three.”

“You’ve been pathetic that long,” Karen said, and smiled.  “You know that, right?

“Yeah,” Daren said and smiled back along with the secretary.  “Well, thanks for joining me.”

“Mrs. Bellows didn’t give me much choice.”

“Yeah.  Well, I guess we’re in a lot of trouble, aren’t we?” Daren said, and they both looked at the secretary.

She nodded. 

“At least it’ll up our cool factor,” Karen said, losing her smile as the principal’s door opened.

They both sat up straighter.

“I can explain, Ms. Dybas,” Karen said, leaning forward.  “You see I was reading...”

“Yes, Miss DeMarco,” Ms. Dybas said, her face tight as she watched Karen and Daren’s faces sink even further.  “I’m sure it had something to do with your love of reading.  It always does.  Doesn’t it?”

Karen swallowed.

“We.  Are.  In.  A.  Lot.  Of.  Trouble,” Daren said under his breath.

“Yes.  You.  Are.  Mr. Reece,” Ms. Dybas said and gestured them forward with a wrinkled finger.

Daren and Karen both stood up and walked slowly into the office together.

“I can’t believe you’re still in trouble,” Karen said, standing behind Daren, and watched him dig a shovel deeper into the snow.

“Yeah,” Daren said, scooping it over his shoulder, and looked at the long driveway in front of him.  “Aaron forgave me the next day, but my parents said I still haven’t learned my lesson.”

“You’re not alone.”

“Really?” Daren said, looking back at her.  “Babysitting doesn’t seem that big a deal.”

“I’m doing it for free,” Karen said, frowning, and pointed to a house down the street.  “And the Shaws have three kids.”

“Yeah?” Daren said, grinning.  “Their twins just turned one, right?”

“Plus, a two-year-old,” Karen said, taking in a breath, and let it out slowly.  “All still in diapers.”

Daren looked at her and laughed.  “That’s got to be a whole lot of diapers,” he said, turning back to the driveway. 

“It’s not as bad as it sounds.”

“Yeah,” Daren said, digging again.  “I heard the first one’s the worst.”

“Said by someone who’s never changed a diaper,” Karen said and stuck her tongue out at him.

Daren stuck out his tongue back.  “Except for my grandfather,” he said, throwing back more snow.

“What?” Karen said, doing a double take.  “You really…?”

Daren turned back to her with another grin.

“Shut up,” Karen said and punched him in the arm.

“Really?” Daren said, looking right at her.  “That’s what started all this.”

She laughed and nodded to the house next door.  “I heard you’re shoveling us out next.”

“Yeah.  My dad’s hired me out.”

“My mom said he’s keeping the money?”

“Until April.  Then I’ll have learned my lesson,” Daren said and started shoveling again.  “I guess.”

“At least this should be the last big snow.”

“Yeah,” Daren said and turned back to her again.  “But my mom volunteered me at the church pantry every Tuesday and Friday until the summer.”

Karen saw Daren’s dad in the front window and looked away.  “I’d hate to see what they’d do if you really hurt Aaron.”

“You’re telling me,” Daren said and nodded to the Shaw’s house. 

“Right,” Karen said, seeing Daren’s dad open the front door, and started down the street.  “But at least you’ll have some money in April.”

“Yeah,” Daren said, noticing his dad, and dug even deeper into the snow.  “Then this will all be worth it.”

“If you say so,” Karen said, laughing, and so did Daren.  

Aaron laughed too, staring right at Daren’s now slicked back hair.  “You did what again with it, buddy?” he said, keeping Karen in the corner of his eye.  “Shellacked it with half a bottle of gel?”  He reached out a finger, just dabbing Daren’s head.  “It’s practically a helmet, pal.”

“What is your problem?” Daren said, turning to him.

“You look like a girl,” Aaron said, laughing again, and leaned back in his chair as Karen leaned forward.  “That’s all I’m saying.  A girl.”

“I think he looks pretty,” another boy said.  “A pretty, pretty boy.”

“Excuse me,” Karen said, shutting up the other boy with a look.

“He’s right,” Aaron said and tilted his chair back even further away from her.  “He is a pretty, pretty boy.”

“It’s called product, you idiots,” Sharon said, glaring at both of the boys.  “It’s stuff you buy if you work to make money like Daren did, and then want to impress girls.  It’s something neither of you morons would know about.  Because you’re idiots.”

Aaron and the other boy both stared at her.

Karen turned to Sharon and laughed.

“Um,” Daren said and turned to her with a smile.  “Thanks.”

Sharon smiled back.

“And it’s certainly better that the bowl haircut you’ve got, Aaron,” Karen said loudly, looking right at him as half the class laughed.  “You’ve had that since preschool.”

“Miss DeMarco,” the teacher said, not looking up from her computer. 

“Sorry, ma’am,” Karen said and saw Aaron’s face sink.  “Sorry, Aaron.”

He looked away.  “No problem.”

Karen shook her head and turned back to Daren.

“You want to knock that off?” he said, giving her a look.  “I’m fine.”

“Sorry,” Karen said and her eyes narrowed on his hair.  “And actually, you’re a little off.”

“What?” Daren said, looking back at her.

“You want it to be symmetrical,” Sharon said, leaning over to Daren, and pushed the hair off his forehead.  “Now you look fine.”

“And it’s worth the $7.99,” Karen said, giving him a wink, and smiled.  “And the walk to Walgreens.”

“I think that’s enough, Miss DeMarco,” the teacher said and stood up. 

“Yes, ma’am,” Karen said, but kept smiling at Daren.

So did Sharon, and Karen noticed it in the low lit school cafetorium as she took in the balloons, the snacks and the punch: with all the girls on one side and all the boys on the other.

Daren noticed Karen on the other side of the cafetorium and waved.

Sharon saw and nudged Karen.

She turned, taking in Sharon with her black dress under a white cardigan.  “You look good,” she said, smiling, and turned back to the boys.  “But enough is enough.”  She started forward, the entire population of 7th grade wannabe dancers staring at her as she walked alone across the cafetorium. 

“Hey,” Aaron said on the other side, grinning and swallowing hard all at the same time. 

But Karen passed him by to take Daren’s hand.  “Your mom made you take dance lessons, right?” she said, pulling him forward.  “Right?”

“Right,” Daren said, walking with her to the middle of the cafetorium, and took in a deep breath.  “But it was my dad.  He didn’t want me to embarrass myself at my first dance.”  He looked around at all the eyes on them.  “Like this.”

Karen laughed.  “Good,” she said, nodding to him.

“Of course, I think he was counting on you to get us started,” Daren said, nodding back.

“Of course,” Karen said, and Daren pulled her closer with everyone watching.

They moved to the music, her hands on his shoulders and his on her hips, stepping back and forth in a slow circle.

“Nervous?” she said, looking up at him.

“Yeah,” Daren said, aware of all the eyes.  “You?”

“No,” Karen said, but nodded again, and found another smile.  “Life’s too short.”

“That’s what my dad said,” Daren said and smiled too, pulling her forward, swinging her back and then pulling her close just as the song ended.  He shrugged.  “I think.”

“Nice,” Karen said with a bigger smile, holding him close for a moment, and then laughed.  “Your dad’s a pretty smart guy.”

“You think?” Daren said, seeing other kids come out on the dance floor.  “I’m not so sure.”

“I am,” Karen said, still smiling.  “And you should listen to him more.”

Daren stepped back, looking at her.  “I’ll see what I can do,” he said as Aaron approached them from one side and Sharon the other.

“That was so cool,” Aaron said, very loudly, and spun around, almost falling into Karen.

She frowned as Sharon held out her hand to Daren.  “Want to dance?”

“Yeah,” Daren said, taking her hand.  “Okay.”

Karen watched them smile at each other and then turned to Aaron’s big eyes. 

He shrugged.  “You want to…”

“Fine,” she said, taking his hand, and they smiled too.

Then they all let out a giant shout, bursting through the school’s front doors, with Karen and Daren leading the way. 

“Have a good summer,” Aaron said, his fists pumping as he ran past them.  “We are done with 7th grade, losersssssss.”

“Ugh,” Karen said and shook her head.  “He’s such a…”

“See you at practice,” Daren said, waving to Aaron, and shrugged at Karen.

“I am not going to miss him.  At all.”

“You danced with him three times at the May formal,” Daren said, shaking his head.  “And one was a slow dance.”

“She was being nice,” Sharon said a step behind and pulled them into a big hug.

Daren blushed and Karen hugged her back. 

“See you tomorrow?” she said.

“Yes,” Sharon said, heading to a waiting car, but looked back.  “It’s going to be a great summer.”  She smiled.  “See you, Daren.”

“See you,” he said, waving, and smiled back.  “Sharon.”

Karen laughed as he turned back to her.

“What?” Daren said, catching up to her at the corner and the crossing guard. 

“Busy year,” Karen said, looking at Daren.  “A crazy one, even.”

“Yeah.  I guess so.”

Karen shrugged.  “We learned a lot, grew a lot, and found out...”

“… that we’re not in charge,” Daren said, taking her hand, and started across the street as the guard nodded.

“I’m all right with that,” Karen said, yanking him forward, and held onto his hand even after they hit the sidewalk.

“You sure?” Daren said, keeping up.

She didn’t say anything as they walked, their hands growing sweaty until they turned at the next corner and she let go, looking him right in the eye.

He looked back.  “I guess we’ll be in charge next year?”

“If we want,” Karen said and nodded.   

Daren nodded too.  “Until then I’ve got about a dozen lawns to mow every week, including his,” he said, waving to the man sitting on a front porch.  “Hey, Mr. Shaw.”

Karen waved too.  “If it helps, I’m taking care of his kids all summer.”

“Fun times,” Daren said and they both laughed.  “The two-year-old potty-trained yet?”

“No, and I’m so looking forward to it,” Karen said, still smiling, but shook her head. “But this time I’m making money.”

“Good stuff,” Daren said, turning to his house.  “And soon enough 8th grade.”

“Not too soon,” Karen said and turned to hers.  “I’ll stop by after dinner?”

“Okay,” Daren said, opening his front door, and nodded.  “See you then.”

“Right,” Karen said, looking back, and nodded too.  “It’s going to be fun.”




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