Summary: When Francine is involved in an embarrassing toilet paper incident that Fern witnesses, Francine swears she’s going to get in trouble. Fearing the worst, she nearly drives herself mad trying to keep the incident a secret. Can Fern help her recover? Rated G.
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Francine had done a bad thing, a funny thing, but a bad thing.
As she left the girls’ bathroom, she accidentally tracked a roll of toilet paper into the hallway. The roll was unseen, sitting beside a stall in the inevitable event that someone’s roll would go out. The first sheets clung to the floor, and when Francine stepped on the paper, it stuck to her shoe too. She never felt the roll bobbing and rolling behind her, unraveling into a long marathon of paper that tracked from the girls’ washroom all the way to her locker.
Fern was the only one in the hallway. Francine remembered her getting a pass earlier that day to go to the library during reading time, as her book was due. She was on her way back now and her eyes locked on Francine, then on the paper trail, and then on the entire situation.
“Oh no, oh no, oh no!” Francine gasped, kicking the paper off her shoe. It unstuck, landing in a disheveled pile in front of George’s locker. “Fern, we can’t tell anyone. I’ll be the laughingstock of the entire school.”
“Let’s clean it up,” Fern offered. “Mr. Ratburn won’t mind the extra time.”
But when the girls met up and began walking towards the mess, several students entered the hallway from another class. Immediately, they were questioned about the paper, but both girls decided that a lie was the best way to cover their tracks: They said they had no idea how the paper got there.
An investigation began, but when no damage was found, they decided the trail was created by accident, and that whoever tracked the paper around probably didn’t mean to.
But Francine didn’t know that. The entire day, she kept an eye out for Principal Haney or the superintendent, maybe even a cop or two. She’d done a bad thing, and she wanted to be innocent, but she didn’t see how she could be.
Her nervousness grew. She became paranoid, and on their way out of Lakewood Elementary that afternoon, Francine threatened Fern to keep her from telling. Fern gave Francine a perplexed look at first, but then she gave a fearful nod. Fern had forgotten about the incident; it was merely toilet paper to young Fern Walters.
But it was more than that for Francine Frensky. She was a liar and a thief. Mr. Morris would notice the missing roll. He’d replace it, but he’d keep an eye out for a toilet paper bandit. She’d have to be careful not to do it again, which meant only one thing: She could not go to the bathroom at school, not ever. She’d have to skip liquids at breakfast and lunch, but that would mean more milk for Catherine at home and an extra drink for a friend at school, probably Buster since he was always hungry, thirsty, or both.
Francine couldn’t keep the incident from her mind. She had to prevent a fallout, and nightmares helped provoke her to be as cautious as possible.
The next morning, there was a different mess in the hallway, this time from a bird that had accidentally gotten into the school, but Francine was growing more and more paranoid. When the students were told to be on the lookout for the bird, Francine stared at her desk, refusing to look at the poster with a picture of different Elwood City birds. In fact, the morning’s lesson was about that poster, and her decision not to look caused her to fail a pop quiz before lunch.
With her spirits low, her mind started going to the worst possible scenarios. What if they found out she’d tracked toilet paper into the hallway, then decided she must be the mystery bird, and then she was expelled? She couldn’t be expelled. Catherine would never let her hear the end of it.
Fern noticed her friend’s distress, and she decided to take matters into her own hands, especially when Francine spent her recess cornered at the back of the playground. She went inside and found Mr. Ratburn in the classroom. He didn’t mind giving her a moment of his time, and when their conversation was finished, both decided they had to interfere to keep Francine from driving herself mad.
When the two emerged on the playground, the only person who noticed was Francine. She immediately tried running away, but the gate leading to the street was locked tight, and she couldn’t jump over the fence without getting her jeans dirty (something her mom was always scolding her about).
Francine was trapped, and she began yelling at Fern and calling her a traitor.
“Francine, please, just follow me inside,” Mr. Ratburn pleaded. “This isn’t about a punishment or anything. I simply want to talk to you.”
Francine could tell she was cornered. Like a sick animal, she hung her head and followed the two inside. When they arrived at the classroom, a songbird was caged up, his cries loud and distressed. Francine eyed the poor bird carefully. Why wouldn’t they just release it?
“Francine, I thought you’d want to see our culprit for last night’s mess,” Mr. Ratburn said calmly. “His mess was an accident because he was trapped. Your mess was also an accident. You didn’t mean to cause it, and no one is blaming anyone. You’ve let your imagination get the better of you, and I assume you’ve not only ruined your daily participation grade, but you got a lousy lunch and little sleep last night,” he guessed. Francine nodded solemnly. “Fern knew this and decided to tell me about your thoughts. Fern is a good friend to you, Francine. She wants you to know that it’s okay. No one even knows it was you except the three of us, and quite frankly some messy toilet paper is the least of my worries.”
“I’m sorry I betrayed you, Francine, but I didn’t want you to hurt yourself,” Fern said sympathetically, her face still in a worried expression. She wanted Francine to still be her friend, but she couldn’t tell what she was thinking.
Finally, Francine spoke, “I get what you’re saying, and I did act a little goofy. Do you mind if I go home early and cut through the park to release the bird? I’m really hungry, and he seems like he wants his family back.”
“Let me speak with Mr. Haney on the matter, then we’ll see if your parents approve. I don’t mind you going this one minor time, but let’s try not to do this again,” Mr. Ratburn said. Francine nodded, picking up the cage and walking with Mr. Ratburn to Mr. Haney’s office. Everyone approved of Francine’s plan, and soon she was in the park with the bird.
“Looks like we both can be free now, little guy. Don’t go back in there, okay? That place will drive you crazy,” Francine smiled, opening the cage door and watching the songbird soar into the woods. When he had fluttered out of sight, Francine returned home and tended to her needs. After microwaving a pizza and filling her growling stomach, she drank almost an entire bottle of soda before crashing on the couch. She fell asleep and her dreams were calm and free, just like the songbird.
Theme 016: Covering for a Friend
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