The air was hot and still, like a warm fuzzy blanket that dulled the senses, making everyone pleasantly sleepy. Even bees veered off their straight course and hummed in lazy loops. The air was thick with pollen; but that was not why Sandy sniffled. She ran up her apartment steps by twos up to the fourth floor. She slammed against her door, sobbing, and grabbed her key out of her black backpack. She fumbled in the lock, her eyes blurry. Sandy burst into her house, throwing her backpack onto the ground. Tears coursed down her cheeks in an ever-steady torrent of water. Running into her room, she created eddies of swirling dust. She was sobbing, trying to catch her breath through her clogged nose. Coughing and hacking, Sandy hurled herself upon the bed.
“Why?! Why?! Why?!”
With each “why” the sadness crescendoed to anger.
Turning over onto her back, she winced as the ponytail holder dug into her head. Yelling her fury, she ripped the holder out of her short red hair and fell back again on her green comforter. Her breathing slowed. She sniffed, but was calmer now.
In a small voice she again asked herself, “Why?”
Her orange tabby, Fireball, uncurled, stretched, and showed his teeth in a large yawn. He walked onto Sandy, purring sentiments.
“Oof,” Sandy grunted weakly. She raised up a hand and started stroking the furry friend. Purring contentedly, he padded in a few circles and settled down on her stomach. He always knows when I need comfort the most, Sandy thought fuzzily. Maybe it’s instinct.
Talking to her cat, Sandy sighed, “I didn’t do it, Fireball. Why would he say that I did it? I barely even know Colin. I would have never done that to anything, much less the band instruments. Mr. Foley knows how much I love the band. Doesn’t he?” Her eyes moistened slightly.
Memories of what she had seen flipped through her head like a slide show. A broken window, the glass shards askew. Trombones bent in half with their bells crumpled. Cases everywhere, open with instruments spilling out like so many marbles. Tubas with dents the size of saucers in their delicate brass: ruined, out of commission. Mr. Foley’s face as he looked at the accused. In that look Sandy remembered sadness and anger, but most of all, disappointment.
Sandy’s pale face sported freckles and scared green eyes that glistened with tears. Those eyes widened in a sudden realization. “And they’re going to make Mom pay! She can’t afford it! She can’t even afford a car much less so many instruments!” Her eyes looked downward. Almost instinctively, she petted Fireball with ferocity. “We can’t afford it.” Sandy jumped up with resolution in her eyes, shoving the cat off. “And gosh darn it! We’re not going to have to try and afford it! I’m going to prove my innocence! I have three days to prove my innocence and by all that’s good and holy I’ll do it if it’s the last thing I do!”
Sandy strode over to her computer. Fireball crossly flicked an ear at Sandy, then loped over to a window seat. He jumped up and settled in the cushions. Unnoticing, Sandy flumped down in her computer chair and pressed a button. The screen began to glow, beep, click and whir. Sandy glared at the computer impatiently; if it made any more noises it would moo. She swirled around in her chair so she faced her cat, who washed himself contentedly.
Sandy started explaining her ideas and thoughts to her cat. The words came out, bubbling over like an eager spring. “Mom will be back in five days, and it’ll take, hmm, about three days for the suspension papers to process through. So I have only three days to prove my innocence. Less, actually. About two days. I have to prove my innocence! It’s my only hope! I need a list of suspects: people in the band who don’t play tuba, baritone sax, French horn, trombones, or tenor sax, considering those were the instruments that were destroyed.” Her brows knit furiously. “What happened that night? Lessee. PTA meeting at the MPR. Nope, too early. When Mr. Foley announced the incident he said it would have been between ten PM and five AM, when the janitors weren’t there.” She gnawed her lip. Then her eyes widened. “The football game at the high school! Duh! She slapped her forehead. Hearing the first couple of notes of the Jaws theme song, she spun her chair around. Grabbing the mouse, she guided her shark cursor over the Jaws desktop to the Word icon. She double-clicked with familiar ease. The computer chugged and clicked as it opened the word-processing program. (She knew almost everyone in the band. That gave her the knowledge needed to make a decent suspect list.) Being a percussionist also gave her a pretty good view of the classroom and anyone who was yelled or glared at, since she was in the back. Sandy started typing the names of the band members who had older brothers or sisters in the high school. As a second thought Sandy typed the names of those people’s friends who may have gone with them. By the time the document was ready to be printed she had about twenty kids’ names typed in front of her eyes. Clicking the print button, Sandy noticed the time: 9:45—time to get ready for bed.
* * *
PART TWO: TUNING THE NOTE
It was yet another beautiful summer day as Sandy trudged up her apartment steps. She flipped open her mailbox and took out the letter inside. Junk. She sighed and let one shoulder of her backpack slide off. With a little twist, Sandy swung the backpack to her front and opened the smaller pocket. She wiggled her hand in it, feeling for her key. Triumphantly, she held up the silver key and stuck it in the lock. She bit her lip and mumbled to herself, “Right, left, right, turn and push.” The door swung open. Sandy walked down the hallway to her room. Fireball followed her in and looked up expectantly. Sandy smiled and scratched his head. Walking by her desk and grabbing the printout she had made last night, she wrestled her algebra textbook and a pen out of her backpack. She layered the paper on top of the book as a hard writing surface. Sandy flumped down in her big comfy armchair and Fireball jumped onto her lap. Awkwardly, Sandy raised the book and paper above her cat. Sandy frowned as she looked at the list.
“Lessee. How could I narrow it down?” Sandy looked at her friend. “Do you have any ideas? I.M.! That’s it!” She pressed a button on her computer, got up, and started pacing.
“Everyone in my whole class is connected to AOL Instant Messenger! I’ll just log on with my screen name that I don’t use: Drumstik99.” Fireball yawned. “Yes, I know it’s boring. That’s why I don’t use it. Anyway, when I log on I’ll ask who went to the game. I know who has what screen name.” Sandy looked at her watch. “Busy hour is just about to start.” She chewed her lip impatiently. And with a fluidity gained from practice, she logged on to Messenger and hunted for names she knew. “Aha!” she cried as she spotted a familiar name on her Buddy List.
Unconsciously, she murmured aloud what she typed. “Hey calvin&hobbes! Did you go to the football game at the high school on Monday?”
She chewed her lip impatiently until the digital answer jerked across the screen. Sandy read it under her breath. “Hi. Yeah. I had invited Rory and my girlfriend Katie but they couldn’t come.”
Sandy crossed those people out on her list, then typed another question. “Do you know who else went?”
She read aloud his answer, “Kyle went. I think Shelby went too. No, she had a doctor’s appointment.”
Bye, Shelby, Sandy thought.
“That’s all I can help you with. Sorry.” He paused in his typing. “Who are you anyway?” Typing quickly, Sandy thanked him and said goodbye. Immediately, she logged off Instant Messenger.
Sandy unconsciously swayed from side to side in her chair. “Who has motivation? Ryan plays clarinet. He’s a nice enough guy, but I can’t cross him off the list for being nice. He has gotten yelled at for forgetting a mouthpiece. Andrew’s just an all-around jerk. He gets everyone mad at him, including all his teachers. But he seems pretty laid back. I doubt he’d do it; he has more of an I-don’t-care attitude rather than a malicious one.” She put a small X by his name, showing that it wasn’t likely. “He doesn’t even care about his grade. Matthew could have done it. Mr. Foley yells at him, like, twenty times a day. Matthew would be really mad at Mr. Foley. Todd, no,” Sandy shook her head and smiled wryly as she crossed him off. “He’s so meek and spineless, he wouldn’t even hurt a fly. Kevin’s pretty weird. He’s a special-ed kid, not for any particular mental problems, he just has anger problems. He’s kind of ticked at Mr. Foley for not getting into advanced band. I’ll keep him on, just in case, but I kind of doubt he’d do it. Bryan is probably a really good candidate. He already has a criminal record. And I heard he’s gotten stoned before.” Fireball blinked at her. “It could happen!” She silently ran through the rest of the list in her mind. “Brian, Kevin, and Matthew seem like the only suspects that would work. I’ll hack into their e-mail. But I’ll do that later. First I’ll break into Colin’s. He was the jerk who pinned it on me. Good thing his e-mail is on Hotmail.com or I’d never get in.” Riana hadn’t told her how to hack into Yahoo! e-mail addresses yet. Sandy let her mind wander briefly. Riana was a tenor sax, which was one of the instruments destroyed. She refused to talk to Sandy after Sandy had been the one accused. Riana had been her best friend, Sandy thought, her eyes slightly bleary; would they ever talk to each other again?
Sandy waited impatiently, drumming her fingers on the desk, as the dial-up connection revved up.
* * *
Sandy looked at Colin’s inbox. He had some unopened junk mail, a webring newsletter, and a reply e-mail from his friend called “Re: Guilty.” It sounded possibly helpful. She opened and read a short heartfelt message from the friend.
That bites, man.
Sandy rolled her eyes. That was worth clogging the guy’s inbox for. Sandy scrolled down and read the original message.
This guy caught me drinking on the way home from a football game. He had smashed through the window in the band room and was trashing all the instruments there. He was yelling so loud like he was nuts or something. He was yelling something like, “I’m not a wimp! I’m not spineless!” He told me that if I didn’t say that this girl in my class did it he’d tell my parents I was drinking. I don’t want to get in trouble, so I did it. I’m feeling kinda cruddy about it.
Grimly, she printed the e-mail out.
“It sounds like Todd, but I’m not sure. I feel so bad. We’ve all generally ignored him, and assumed it was cool, but it must hurt him real bad inside. I’ll talk to him tomorrow, we’ll get this fixed.”
* * *
PART THREE: ON A HAPPY NOTE
The sun’s rays shone pleasantly warm on Sandy’s glowing face. She swaggered casually down the street, the keychains on her backpack tinkling. Sandy had her pair of favorite sunglasses on her eyes; underneath, her eyes twinkled. Sandy had pulled out her drumsticks and happily drummed on fenceposts, ceramic pots and statues, and any other random thing that stayed still for thirty seconds. She hopped up her apartment steps using both feet; pausing at each step to drum merrily on the railing. Sandy skipped to her door and opened it.
She ran into her room and shouted “Wahooooooooooooo!!!!!!” Fireball, who had been asleep on Sandy’s bed, yawned and stood up. He stretched and looked up, blinking at Sandy. Sandy smiled back radiantly.
“Colin told Mr. Foley who did it,” Sandy shouted exuberantly. Fireball meowed as Sandy sat down on the floor, her legs outstretched.
“Todd was the one who really did it.” Sandy frowned. “He really isn’t spineless, and he should get all the more respect for that. The Assistant Principal, Colin, Todd, the counselor, Mr. Foley and I all had a meeting. The entire story came out, including Colin’s problem. Poor Colin,” Sandy sighed. “His parents are divorced, and he has such a hard time. And poor Todd, whom we all ignore. Colin is in a rehabilitation clinic, and his parents are very angry at him. I feel a little guilty, but it had to be done, right?” Her eyebrows knitted together in a frown. “I’m going to be really nice to Todd from now on, and Colin. I’ll see if I can let them in my circle. It’s the least I can do.” Sandy lay back on her bed. “You know, Fireball, in real life there is not just black and white. Everything is just varying shades of gray, not one particular one being good or wrong.” Sandy lightened up, smiling dryly. “Of course, when the Assistant Principal finds out I hacked into Colin’s e-mail, and she tells my mom, I’ll probably have the computer taken out of my room.”
Sandy looked up at her ceiling. As one famous guy said, whose name Sandy forgot, “Once the mind is stretched, it can never go back to its original size.” (Something like that.) Sandy’s mind had stretched greatly, and even though she may try and shut out the new feeling of empathy, she could never return to the innocence of thinking everything and everyone was as they seemed.
Fireball purred, interrupting her thoughts, and looked up at Sandy, closing one eye in a wink. And though she had seen him do that a hundred times before, this time seemed just a little more special; like he knew all along that everything would turn out all right.