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Derek Whisman
The Gas Masque

Another school year was already flying by when my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Staples, announced our class would be taking a field trip to Samsford Park the following day. I was immediately looking forward to chatting with my friends and playing sports at the park for a change instead of doing spelling words and math problems in a classroom.

I arrived early the next morning, eager to get a good seat on the bus. Unfortunately, my best friend, Jack, had made alternative plans. The moment he found me in the hall, he grabbed my arm and pulled me into the bathroom. That alone was pretty weird – usually one guy doesn’t pull another guy into the potty – but it got even weirder when he slammed a black lunchbox onto the sink.

“Kind of a weird place for lunch, ain’t it?” I said with a laugh.

Jack shook his head and pulled a tall thermos out of the box.

“Sorry, I didn’t bring any food,” he replied. “But I’ve got something here that will really spice up the afternoon. See what you think about this!”

He untwisted the cap and I was immediately overwhelmed by the powerful odor of gasoline. The scent burned my nostrils with every breath I took.

“What’d you need this for?” I said, trying hard not to choke on the fumes as he held the container under my nose. “Afraid the bus will run out on the way or something?”

Jack’s smile turned serious. He replaced the lid on the thermos. “C’mon, Evan. You’re not that dumb, are you?”

Before I could say anything in return, three of our classmates rushed into the bathroom. I expected Jack would try to hide the evidence of his plans, but instead he held up the container as if he were hoisting a trophy into the air. Instead of being surprised, the others cheered and high-fived one another. Apparently, I was the last one to know of this plan.

“So Evan,” John said. He playfully gave me a nudge. “You in or what?”

“In…what?”

“You didn’t tell him yet?” Andy screamed and shoved Jack. “Do I gotta do everything myself around here?”

Andy was the biggest of us all. In fact, you could say he towered above us. Typically, although Jack was the brains for the group, Andy usually was the one who gave the orders. And everybody listened.

“Alright, look Evan,” he said with a slight smirk, “we’re gonna sneak this here lunchbox onto the bus and when the teachers aren’t looking, we’re gonna get wasted!”

I felt my eyebrows shoot up my forehead like they were trying to escape to the other side of my hairline. Their plan sounded ridiculous to me. Anytime my parents filled up the car, the smell of gasoline through the windows made me sick. Now these guys wanted me to breathe it in on purpose? How did that make sense? 

All eyes were on me. The gang waited to hear my approval of the plan.

“Well?” Andy leaned forward.

I searched the deepest recesses of my brain for an exit strategy. I had always considered myself quite resourceful, but now I found my sharp mind failing me when I needed it the most.

I began to stammer. “I, uh…well…”

“All aboard who’s going aboard!” Mr. Staples’ voice boomed in the hallway. “We’re leaving in five minutes!”

Jack panicked and began trying to zip up the lunchbox, afraid Mr. Staples would enter the bathroom at any moment in an effort to round up his class. I turned and followed Andy quickly into the hallway, thankful to have temporarily avoided making any stupid decisions.

As a privilege, the fifth graders were given the right to sit in the very back section of the bus. A cooler was snugly positioned between the last two seats, allowing seven people to ride next to each other. Jack and I found ourselves smack dab in the middle of the cooler seat with Andy and Roger sitting on either side of us.

The trip had just begun when Jack opened the thermos. I watched as he placed his nose and mouth inside of the container and began to take deep, slow breaths. His eyes widened and glazed over. He pulled his head back and passed the tube across my lap to Andy.

“That was wicked,” Jack said, leaning his head back against the window. He motioned for Roger to turn up the volume on the boom box.

“Come on, Evan!” Jack said in a daze. The container was passed back to him. “You haven’t had a turn yet.”

The group nodded its agreement. I had no intention of “huffing” gas, but I didn’t want to seem like a loser either.

“No thanks, man,” I said. “I don’t wanna walk around smelling like gas all day. It’ll scare off the ladies!”

“Come on ya big sissy!” Andy teased. “Why don’t you show us your dress while you’re at it?”

I felt the cold stares of my chemically altered friends fix upon my face. To make matters worse, the small group of four had now transformed into a much larger audience. For whatever reason, the other fifth graders viewed these guys as “cool” and anyone who dared tread against them was most likely shunned. In a small school where the same classmates were always together, reputation was everything. Before long, more kids were turning around in their seats asking if they could take a hit.

“Take it, Evan,” Jack said, nudging me with the thermos. “Go on before it’s all used up.” As my hands reached out to grasp the fuel container, a thought shot through my mind. Was I really going to do this? My fingers began to tighten around the thermos as I caught the attention of what felt like the entire fifth grade class. They were actually encouraging me! My hand took control of the canister and Jack slowly began to unscrew the cap. It was all I could do just to give off the appearance of remaining calm.

In what felt like a flash, the lid was open and the fumes hit my nostrils. I’m not quite sure if it was the fumes that made me dizzy or the fear that gripped me, but it wasn’t long before my head was pounding and my stomach began to twist into knots. I had to think of something fast. 

I could either take my chances with the gasoline or with the mob of my peers watching anxiously to see if I was cool enough to hang out with them. It was then that I made a decision. I could just pretend to breathe in while really holding my breath. That would have to work! I began slowly lowering my head towards the dreaded fumes.

“We’re here!” Mr. Staples interrupted. The bus pulled to a stop. Jack jerked the thermos from my hand, sealing it and tucking it away in his lunchbox. In that moment, I made it a point to thank God for small miracles. At least, for now I was off the hook.

The four companions stumbled off the bus and ran towards the picnic area, screaming hysterically. That’s when I realized that no real miracle had occurred. Sure, I had escaped the crowd’s gaze for now. But meanwhile, all I had to do was look at my classmates to feel something terrible was happening.

Their feeble attempt at playing baseball was particularly disheartening. One person would stand on the mound and throw the ball towards the outfield, while the batter swung at the air and claimed he had just hit a homerun. For a moment it felt as though I were watching some strange Indian tribal ritual unfold before my very eyes. The difference being instead of inhaling a peace pipe’s smoke, they were actually breathing in the same harmful fumes that fueled my father’s car. The sight of their actions was enough to convince me that I wanted no part in their “fun.”

I didn’t know a lot about the effects gasoline fumes could have on the human body, but then again I didn’t need to in order to realize something was wrong with my classmates. Thus another struggle began in my mind. Should I remain loyal to my friends, or betray them for their own safety?

I knew well what I should do. I should find Mr. Staples and have him stop them before it was too late. But, sadly, I knew this was impossible. My friends would never let me forget that I had destroyed their trust. I decided, instead, to wait the trip out.

I must have really been lost in my dilemma because in what felt like an instant, our field trip was over. I had barely moved from my hiding spot behind the picnic tables all afternoon. Hoping the worst of it was over, I hurried back to the bus.

“Where have you been, man?” Jack stumbled into the seat beside me clutching his lunchbox.

“You know me,” I said. “Carrie Thompson asked me to hang out with her behind the picnic tables so I couldn’t refuse.”

“That’s what I’m talking about!” Jack tried pathetically to high-five me. But every time he tried to make contact with my hand, he somehow managed to miss. He and the others had obviously continued their huffing party throughout the day.

I continued to hold out hope that perhaps the gasoline had been used up already. Or maybe, just maybe, they would be too high to remember I had yet to take a huff. Unfortunately, my luck never quite held out that way. Within ten minutes of being back on the road, Andy began to nudge me with the gas container.

“No thanks, man,” I tried.

“Would you just take it already?” Andy said while handing me the thermos, more forcefully this time. I felt all eyes from the group on me.

“Look guys, I don’t really wanna--”

“Wanna what?” Andy cut me off. “You wanna wuss out? Alright, have it your way then, you big baby.”

He jerked the opened thermos from my hands so suddenly that my arm jerked forward along with it. The result was that the thermos dropped out into the aisle, coating the floor with the remaining contents. Before anyone could even process what had just happened, the scent of gasoline reached the bus driver’s nose.

“Does someone have gas on this bus?” the driver screamed. He slammed on his brakes.

Jack quickly picked up the thermos, shoved it into his lunch-box, and then tossed it all out the open window.

“Must be a gas leak!” Jack said.

Suddenly, our driver pulled opened the doors. “This bus runs on diesel. I know the smell.” He sprang to his feet and ran into the street behind us. When he returned, he carried in his hands the black box bearing Jack’s name.

It was at that very moment that I realized something: my clothes were soiled with the smell of gasoline! Jack and Andy had passed the thermos back and forth across my lap several times during the trip. The gas must have slowly dripped onto my clothes.

Mr. Staples immediately snatched the bottle from the driver’s hands and approached the five of us sitting in the back row. He observed each student as he passed, looking for signs that he, too, had partaken in the huff fest. My eyes began to widen as he came closer and closer to us. 

Never in a million years would he believe that I was innocent. And why would he? My clothes smelled of gas, and I was surrounded by the very ones who had carried the container onto the bus in the first place. When finally he hovered over me, the look on his face told me I was done for.

Waiting in the principal’s office that evening was particularly disheartening. My parents had never been called to the school before, and I knew they wouldn’t take the call too pleasantly. 

My mother slammed through the doors (my father was still at work, thank God), her face seeming to disappear behind fully open eyes. I had seen this look only once before in my life – the time I dropped Dad’s hammer on my toe and accidentally muttered a curse word. This time, however, the look was even worse.

“Evan Nathaniel!” she said. “What in God’s name has gotten into you!” If her face hadn’t already tipped me off, the fact that she used both my first and middle name clued me into the full extent of her anger. She pulled me aside from the group and then seemed composed, at least, for the moment.

“I didn’t do anything, Mom!” I said. “I swear!”

She took a long, hard look at me before tilting her head sideways. Wrapping her hands around both of my shoulder blades, she pulled me close to her and began sniffing my clothes. From the moment I sensed her take the first whiff, I knew my testimony was worthless. She tightened her grip on my shoulders and pushed me to a clear glaring distance.

“What is all over your clothes?” she said. “You’re covered in the stench!”

“They spilt it on me! When they were passing it back and forth!”

She leaned in and tried to smell for fumes on my breath. After a moment, she pulled away from me and stood up. “You wait right here, young man,” she said. “I’ve got to go speak with your principal.”

Terrific. Those had to be the worst eight words a kid could ever hear – right behind

“You’re grounded” or “We ran out of candy.”

After what felt like an eternity, my mother emerged from the office with the principal at her side. I immediately felt a bit of relief because I recognized that look on her face. While it still displayed disappointment, it most certainly was not the “I’m going to kill you” look from earlier.

Thankfully, Jack had told the truth: that I had nothing to do with the huffing. While the principal had decided not to suspend me along with the others, he did say that my actions of not reporting their behavior could have jeopardized the lives of everyone on board the bus. One simple spark could have set in motion a fiery disaster. So I wasn’t too terribly upset when he sentenced me to a month of after school detention and a 20-page paper on the dangers of drugs.

I learned two things that day: 1) that my friends were morons – I already suspected this from years of hanging out with them, but this trip certainly confirmed it – and, 2) that I should always trust my instincts. I knew something bad could have happened, but I ignored it so that my friends would think I was cool. But ultimately, who cares what they think? They’re morons!
Derek Whisman, of Big Stone Gap, Virginia, is a former Instructor of English at BSCTC who currently teaches at Mountain Empire Community College.

 

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