Lacey Spaczinski wasn’t sure she could carry it all onto the school bus, but she knew she had to. She couldn’t look bad to the other girls. Not on her birthday.
With great care, she began to climb the three steps from her stop on the corner of Route 9 and Harris Road, where she was the only child picked up. There was no way she was going to let anything happen to the artfully decorated box she held in front of her like it was filled with high explosive.
Lacey peered up at the windows on the bus and saw heads bobbing up from their phones to see who was coming on, but also to see what the colorful thing the farm girl was bringing on this time. The bobbing heads reminded Lacey of the Wack-a-Mole game at the county fair last summer. Sometimes she wished she had one of those rubber hammers to play it while she walked down the aisle to an open seat.
Or at least an open seat where she would be allowed to sit.
“‘Morning, Lacey. What ya got in that pretty box? Here, lemme help ya,” said Mrs. Heim, the driver of the school bus that had this route on the very fringe of Lacey’s district.
“Thank you, Mrs. Heim. Lacey said, carefully handing over the box. These are cupcakes my Grandma made for my class. Today’s my birthday.”
“Oh my, well happy birthday, Lacey. How old are you now” Mrs. Heim said as she held the box so Lacey could do the slip-slide-turn in order to get her heavy backpack around the corner and ready to begin the gauntlet to a seat somewhere near the back half of the bus.
Mrs. Heim handed Lacey her round box and returned to her driver’s seat while Lacey took a deep breath and began her trek down the aisle.
As the bus lurched out into traffic, Lacey fought to keep her balance, her backpack weighing nearly half of what she did, all the while keeping her box level and steady in front of her.
Inside the bus always reminded Lacey of one of her Grandpa’s old truck, the air tasting of fuel oil, leather and sweat. The truck still stood, its wheels resting on concrete blocks, behind the farmhouse where she lived with her Grandma. And she recalled it was on her birthday three years before that she moved there from Des Moines.
“Whatcha got in the hat box, Spaz? Some Little Fairy on the Prairie bonnet from back in Iowa?” sneered Brian Phalen, who was two years older than Lacey, yet in her class.
“You’ll see later, Brian. I promise.”
“What if I wanna see now, Spaz?”
The bus slowed as it was about to make another stop and Lacey almost lost her balance again.
“Lacey, honey, I thought you’d already found a seat. Will you please sit now so we can get rolling?” Mrs. Heim said as two more kids climbed on the bus and headed her way toward friends holding seats for them.
“Will you move it, Spaz? You’re in my way,” said Schuyler Shields, the queen of the bus, whose pubescent ladies in waiting were holding her throne in their section at the rear of the bus.
Schuyler pushed Lacey toward an empty seat on her right and she toppled on top of another student who was studiously ignoring the daily push and pull of rampant preteen, compressed, neo-hormonal conflict there on bus #31.
Lacey’s festive yellow box toppled with her. It’s colorful round top she had worked so hard to decorate with rolled and folded paper strips flipped off and four pink-frosted cupcakes came rolling out onto the lap and phone screen of Jerry O’Rourke.
“Jesus Christ, Spaz. What’re you doing? Look at my screen now. It’s a freaking mess. And, hey…cupcakes!”
Jerry grabbed one of the birthday cupcakes and shoved it into his mouth, paper wrapper and all, biting off about half of it.
“Hey, she’s got cupcakes. I hope you brought enough for the whole bus, Spaz,” Schuyler said, pulling the box from Lacey’s hands. Lacey couldn’t fight the theft. She lay facing up, her legs dangling out in the aisle, trapped between two seats by the weight of her own backpack, as helpless to resist as a turtle on its back.
“Stop! Don’t, those are for my…”
But no one was listening, except Mrs. Heim, who saw the aisle behind her clogged with students and pink balls or something being tossed from seat to seat.
“Hey, that’s enough back there,” Mrs Heim shouted as she made her way down the aisle. “Everyone get into a seat. Now!”
And, as the scrum halfway down the bus began to clear, she saw Lacey’s legs still out in the aisle and her pretty yellow box, empty and bent, between her feet.
“Oh, honey. What happened” Mrs. Heim said as she helped slip the straps of the backpack off Lacey’s shoulders, and pulling her to her feet.
“She pushed me and I fell and my cupcakes, my birthday cupcakes, they took them all.”
“Well, not this one,” Jerry O’Rourke said as he held a lopsided cupcake, it’s festive decoration as smeared and distorted as the expression on Lacey’s face.
“Who pushed her?” Mrs. Heim said, scanning the bus. “Was it you, Brian?”
“Why’s everyone always blamin’ me? We don’t just call her Spaz because her name’s Spaczinski, ya know. Clumsy bitch just tripped and they all came out. I can’t help it if they scattered all over the bus.”
“No, it was…it was…Schuyler pushed me,” Lacey said.
“Wasn’t me, Mrs. Heim. I was just going back to my seat and she just tripped. Amiright?” Schuyler said, looking at the nodding heads of her retinue.
“Okay, I don’t want to hear one sound the rest of the way to school. I’ll be making a report to the assistant super about this,” Mrs. Heim said and headed back to her seat at the front of the bus.
Lacey sat in the seat next to Jerry, her backpack lying at her feet, her yellow box, or what was left of it, on her lap. The salt of her tears mingled with the sweet smudge of frosting on her lips. If she wasn’t so distressed, it would have reminded her of the kettle corn her Grandma would buy her at the fair.
Lacey looked into the box and saw those interior yellow walls now wore smears of pink and white frosting. Not a cupcake left to share with her new classmates. Not a chance to make herself a bit more popular, at least for one day, when they tasted the love she and her Grandma had put into their baking and decorating. Not a chance to be anything other than ‘that new girl from Iowa.”
At school, her teacher, Mr. Smithson, wished her a happy birthday and led the class in a rendition of “Happy Birthday to You,” that sounded as empty and warped as the yellow hat box in her locker.
She thought the day would never end. Or it couldn’t quickly enough.
At dismissal, she boarded her bus and sat in the only seat left to her, backpack at her feet, mangled box on her lap. Once again she was next to Jerry O’Rourke.
“Oh, hi and happy birthday, Spa…I mean Lacey,” he said, looking up from his phone. “Sorry about what happened this morning. Didn’t mean to start a feeding frenzy and all.”
But Lacey only sat there, here head down, staring at her box, looking neither left nor right, up nor down.
“I really am sorry. Last year I was the new kid. And they treated me like shit until they found out I was the guy kicking everyone’s ass on Madden, Minecraft and now Fortnite. Now they treat me with a little respect and some fear when they see me online. I think I know what might bring you a little respect, too,” Jerry said.
“I don’t do video games, Jerry. I do art and bake.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“Here,” Jerry said, and pulled that last cupcake, the one he showed Mrs. Heim that morning, from his shoulder bag. “I want you to taste this.”
“I’ve tasted my cupcakes before, Jerry.”
“No, I want you to taste it like you’ve never had one before.”
“What do you…”
“Just do it.”
Lacey dipped her finger into the lopsided frosting and brought it to her mouth for a lick. It wasn’t sweet like cotton candy, nor like sugar from the bag. The butter from which she made it had imparted a slight saltiness to it, though nowhere near like her combined tears and frosting taste from the morning.
“C’mon, Lacey, bite into it with your eyes closed.”
“Oh, all right,” Lacey said, and took a small bite from her cupcake. It still held the moisture and bounce to her bite it would have while it still sat safely in her yellow box. If someone could turn vanilla ice cream into something soft, spongy and warm as the inside of a shoulder bag, that’s what she was cupcake’s flavor spoke to her. That and…
“Hey, is that one of those cupcakes from this morning?”
It was Brian Phelan’s voice.
“Let me tell you, Spaz. Those things were un-freaking-believeable. Best breakfast I ever had. Did you make those?”
“Uh huh,” Lacey said, still with a mouthful of cupcake.
“Well, if you ever make any more, I’d love to have some,” he said, without a crumb of insincerity.
“Lacey, I think we found your hook for respect,” Jerry said. “It’s your baking.”
“And Spaz, I mean Lacey, if you get me some of those cupcakes or whatever you wanna bake, I’ll make sure those bitches leave you alone,” Brian said. “Just sayin’.”
“See what I mean? And I heard two of those ugly step-sisters in the back talking about how pretty this box you decorated was. They’ll never admit it to Schuyler, but don’t be surprised if one of them sneaks up and talks to you about it in art class,” Jerry said.
“So you think that baking to finance Brian’s protection racket and being only acceptable to be spoken to in secret is respect?” Lacey said.
“Baby steps, Grasshopper. At least they know you by more than Spaz now. You gonna finish that cupcake?” Jerry said.
When she got off the bus and walked into her grandmother’s house, Lacey was met by the aroma of cake wafting from the kitchen.
“Welcome home, honey. Did everyone enjoy your cupcakes?” her grandmother said.
“Um, they went fast, Grandma. Everyone loved them.”
“Good. Thought I’d make us a little cake, too. Plus, I left out the bowl if you want to lick some leftover frosting,” Grandma said, pointing to the silver bowl on the kitchen counter.
“Thank you, Grandma.”
“You’re welcome, Lacey.”
“Grandma? Since Mommy went away I haven’t felt like anyone likes me. No one wants me around ‘cept you. I don’t think I could make it without you.”
“Oh, don’t be silly, honey. It just takes time. None of the boys and girls talk to you? Not one?”
“Well, there is one boy. But I think he was just being nice.”
“That’s how it starts, honey. They’ll come around. Just be Lacey. You’re a lovely girl. Cute, smart, have a good heart and you’re…”
“A great baker,” they said in unison and laughed.
“I had a great teacher, Grandma. The best,” Lacey said. She grabbed her grandmother in a hug and planted a kiss on her cheek. It was then she recalled that special something she couldn’t place when she tasted the cupcake Jerry gave her.
It tasted like Grandma, she thought.
This piece is in response to Week Five of Sarah Salecky’s Six Weeks, Six Senses Summer Writing Project. This week, we were asked to use the sense of taste, basing it one three photos. One of them is the fancy box up top of the story. This one was harder than the others, but I was determined to write something. I think I wrote “something,” what it is I have yet to figure out.