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The Scream Team was wound for sound.

Seven middle school band nerds had paraded into the minivan for their first bloodletting at Howl-o-Scream. 

With me as chaperone.

Yes, I know. I am a terrible parent.

It was a compromise.

Bee, 12, had begged, six times every day since Oct. 1, that I take her to It, a rated R movie featuring a serial killer clown.

But I don’t take my children to R rated movies.

That’s their grandmother’s job.

I like the idea of keeping my kids kids for as long as possible.

Plus, I don’t do horror movies.

Not since I walked into my best friend’s living room in eighth grade. There, on the TV, was a red-blooded American teen, innocently crawling through a window after some red-blooded American girl. Suddenly – SLOOP! – he was cut in half by the window. I stood watching in horror as the kid dragged himself across the room, trailing his intestines.

I’ve strictly used doors since.

In contrast, Howl-O-Scream, with all its fake, plastic body parts, strobe lights and smoke machines, is decidedly PG-13.

If you don’t count the salty language of all the drunk 30-year-olds staggering behind you in line.

Because, after paying $50 to get in, you will have to stand in multiple lines for an hour just for the privilege of entering a building and having complete strangers scream at you.

(Which, in hindsight, seems a little silly.  I can get the same treatment for free among people I actually know and love just by talking about the president at Thanksgiving.)

Jake N Jimmy, the identical twins who play the trombone and clarinet, began singing loudly in the van.

Bruno Mars, you’re likely thinking. Or maybe Despacito.


They are band nerds.

They were singing John Philip Sousa’s Fantasy on a Theme. And the entire Nerd Herd joined in.

Not jointly singing the melody, mind you.

They were all singing their individual instruments’ parts by memory.

At the top of their lungs.

Perched in the front seat, Bee, a French horn player, began bleating her off-beats like a forlorn sheep.

Jimmy screeched the clarinet melody. Francine’s trilling flute shot straight down my spine. Steffi boomed her bass drum against my seat back while Jake repeatedly punched her with his fake trombone slide.

I glanced in the rearview mirror. I couldn’t figure out what instrument Parul was playing in the back. She just sounded like she was gagging on her braces.  

The Scream Team ended their Sousa tune with a crashing, howling fit of laughter.

“I’m not sure if I should say, ‘That was amazing!’” I said. “Or you are all going to be very lonely in high school.”

They ignored me.

“Let’s play GHOST!” Bee shouted.

Which is actually a spelling game that has nothing to do with Halloween.

Soon the Scream Team was shouting individual letters.

Each added a letter to the ones offered by players before them, trying to force the players after them to complete a real word and lose the round. And while you can bluff by throwing out a different letter if you are clueless or have been spelled into a corner, if challenged, you have to announce the real word you were spelling.

“D!” shouted Bee.

“I!” shouted Jake.

“L!” shouted Jimmy.

D-I-L landed with a thud in Parul’s lap.

“Um,” she said.

A rookie error. The “um” was a dead giveaway. She had no idea where to go.

Dill. Dilate. Dilapidated. Dilemma. Diligence. Dilute.

“D-I-L,” she repeated.

Parul had nothin’.

A desperate bluff was coming for sure. She was gonna just randomly pick a letter.

“Come on, Parul!” Steffi shouted

“OK,” she said. “D-I-L-D.”

Parul. The quietest, politest, most innocent girl in the seventh grade.

Momentary utter silence.

Jake N Jimmy screamed.

I slapped my forehead.

“What?” said Parul defensively.

“OHMIGAHD!” gasped Francine.

Bee looked at me. “Is she spelling something bad?”

“Twenty-six letters and you picked D?” screamed Jimmy.

Parul doubled down. “What’s wrong with D-I-L-D?”

“Never mind!” I said. “Have you considered singing some Beethoven?”


Jake N Jimmy screamed again, choking, their faces going scarlet.

“What is it?” Parul cried.

More screaming laughter.

“Is it really bad?” Bee asked.

“Who knows Mozart’s Requiem?” I shouted.

“WHAT IS IT?” Parul shouted.

She reached for her phone.

“No!” Steffi tried to grab her hand.

Total silence.

“Never mind,” said Parul. “Never gonna get THAT out of my search history.”

Fortunately, we pulled into the parking lot. Piling out of the van, we crowded onto the tram, whose driver assured us of an early death.

Five hours of howl-o-screaming ensued.

Five hours of trailing after eight middle schoolers, who walked and argued about where to go next.

And then walked and argued some more.

While Stan the saxophonist (who met us there and insisted he wasn’t scared at all) trailed behind everyone with his fingers in his ears, nervously waving at zombie nuns with meat cleavers.

“Hi, there!” he squeaked. “I see you over there!”

Five hours of entering haunted houses like Hotel Hell.

And then corking up the line by refusing to enter the next room.

Until their brave chaperone, who doesn’t get scared of a bunch of college kids in red latex scars banging stuff, barreled through the logjam. He pushed through the plastic flaps into an empty room. He poked a fake arm hanging from a meathook in the ceiling and mocked them.

“Look!” I shamed them. “You fools were scared of walking into a completely empty room!”

Until a zombie, in an actual human slingshot, flew out of the wall at 60 miles per hour and breathed on my nose. 

I almost died.

I stayed safely behind Stan the rest of the night.

Until we crawled back into the minivan at 12:30 a.m.


It was completely, utterly quiet on the way home.

Like a crypt.

Then Bee looked at me. “I still don’t know what Parul spelled.”

And the screaming started again.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher


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Secrets to Dropping Your Child Off at College

Thinking back, it began with the maternity room nurse.

A baby had just suddenly arrived in the room. And the fat, pink bundle of thrashing arms and legs didn’t arrive safely bubble-wrapped. I just kept staring, dumbstruck, at the cave from which she emerged, waiting for the arrival of the pamphlet of directions and that little L-shaped hex key wrench that come with any big acquisition. I was about to give my wife a good shake to jar them loose when the nurse offered me the small pair of scissors.

“Do you want to cut the cord?” she said.

I dumbly nodded. And what foolish thing did I think during this momentously momentous moment?

“Wow! I thought it would be squishy.” 

Instead I was cutting through an amazingly solid rope that bound my daughter tightly to her mom.”

In hindsight, someone dressed in black should have struck a gong and chanted, “Note well, dear father, the first of a thousand separations that will culminate in your hugging that baby outside of college dormitory far from home.”

Marking life’s officially sucky deal.

Which is that you’ll invest every moment and every thought into a baby for 18 years just so she can move away and be happy and successful around other people who aren’t you.

But if you don’t do it, even your mama will talk behind your back.

So you go along.

Just like you mindlessly cut the cord because some smart looking lady wearing scrubs handed you a scissors and suggested it’s what every other fool does.

That day you say farewell outside her college dorm won’t come with a little pamphlet or hex-wrench either. Despite the fact that it will also set you back at least 20 grand.

There’s lots of stuff they don’t tell you about college drop-off.

Like bring your own dolly. I’m not talking American Girl here (although one may be useful for the ride home). I’m talking about that thing with wheels that helps you move heavy stuff. Because the college has three of them available for the 7,000 freshmen moving in. Trust me. Just drop the 80 bucks on it. When you’re done, you can always sell it that dad trying to carry three giant boxes of his daughter’s shoes from the parking spot he scored a block from the dorm.

Oh, and avoid your university’s social media sites like Parents of the Class of ’21. These are set up to provide useful information. In reality, they’re filled with crazy, distraught parents just like you.


A mom will post about the mandatory freshmen class “What Is the Good Life,” which offers thought-provoking, philosophical readings on the keys to human happiness.

Ha! Who cares about human happiness when you’re hell-bent on becoming an engineer?

She’ll ask if everyone else agrees that the class a complete waste of time and money because it doesn’t teach job-related STEM skills.

And then another mom will add it’s just a brainwashing class meant to turn all the kids into snowflakes.

And then a third mom will announce her son was forced to read Herman Hesse’s literary classic, Siddhartha, which, she’ll insist, is just teaching perversion. And, having loved Siddhartha, you will find yourself angrily writing, “Metaphorically breast feeding your best friend during a dream sequence is not a sex act!”

And then a college administrator will shut off all further commenting on the string and you realize you’re THAT person. 

In the month leading up to your child’s departure, you will also spend $850 on stuff for her dorm room. (If you have a son, your results may vary. One mom said her son only took three weeks of underwear, a bed comforter and a set of metal kitchen utensils off to college.)

But if you have a daughter, the month before launch, your living room will slowly fill with dozens of things you never took to college. Including Christmas lights, which are now a year-round wall decoration even among allegedly classy folks.

Despite all this, you’ll still forget a second power strip and enough hangers.

Which means you’ll go to the nearby Super Target, which will look like it’s been looted. And you’ll still wander around, sticking your nose into all the empty shelves. And you’ll stop every person in a red shirt to ask them if there are any more power strips “in the back.”

And at least two will respond, “I don’t work here.”

The employees will look at you doubtfully until one of them miraculously pulls a power strip out of a shopping cart of mangled trash and he’ll excitedly tell you he just found it behind the Whoppers in the candy aisle. And you’ll excitedly hug him and then you’ll part awkwardly.

And then you’ll return to your daughter’s dorm.

And the last thing you’ll do is take out the bike pump and show her how to fill her new bike’s tires with air (How did you fail to teach her this over six years of riding to elementary school together?). And you’ll realize you’re pumping slowly just so you can stand next to her some more.

Oh, you should also remember to bring a small pair of scissors. This is very important. You’ll use the scissors all day long, cutting this and cutting that. And then, staring at the tag you left on the new bike, you’ll offer her the scissors and ask, “Do you want to cut it?”

And she’ll nod.

And then it’s time.

She’ll wear a brave smile to reassure you.

And you’ll struggle to hide that you’re weeping from the other sweaty family lugging a mini fridge, a storage unit, a desk lamp and three boxes of shoes through the glass doors.

“I’ll be OK,” she’ll whisper.

And you’ll think:

“But I certainly won’t be.”

By Chris Barrett, Publisher


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In the Dead of the Night

Some things happen only after midnight.

Without exception.

Heck, even the moon occasionally tears wildly about the world during daylight. But if your smoke alarm battery is going to die or your child is going to come down with a gurgly stomach twirler, it’s gonna happen just after midnight.

Five minutes after you hit REM sleep.

In one of two ways.

Princess Progeny will sneak in and loom over you like a homicidal maniac, hoping her evil presence will magically pull you back to consciousness. (After all, you’ve foolishly scolded her before about getting out of her bed and breathing on you after midnight, haven’t you?) When that doesn’t work and the gurgle of doom finally builds a full head of steam, she’ll poke you in the cheek. “Daddy, my stomach hurts!”

And just as you're slapping that imagined mosquito off your face and bolting up with a startled, “WHA—?,” she’ll let loose with a furious GA-BLERB!

Not on the nightstand.

Not on the carpet.

She’s gonna hurl directly all over you, the parent who labors nine hours daily to buy her that $60 polyester princess costume she’s worn every day since last February.

This, my friends, is true love.

If still you doubt there is a strong genetic basis to parental love, I ask you this: How many of you still talk to the college roommate who did the exact same thing to you?

If your child’s belly doesn’t sneak attack you, you will instead leap from full-on REM sleep to an NFL-qualifying 40-yard dash down a pitch black hallway in 4.3 seconds.

Because your child who can sleep through an exploding firetruck racing through his room suddenly sits up after midnight. He moans like an elephant giving birth from its trunk and immediately howls his lasagna all over grandma’s heirloom quilt. You’ll leap from your bed. Mid-dash, your foot will successfully locate the single, one-inch LEGO block left behind on 1,800 square feet of floor.

After bouncing off the wall and tripping over the barking dogs, you finally arrive in the bedroom. You hold your breath, suppress your gagging and struggle to emit some semblance of parental empathy.

Because the last thing you want to do is actually touch him without a hazmat suit and respirator. You miraculously help him to the bathtub with actual soothing sounds while your brain is screaming, “Look, kid, I know you’re not feeling well, but you just tidy up over there while I press my face against this nice, cool tile floor and cry.”

Because earlier that evening you saw him licking his little brother’s entire face during an overly exuberant pretend game of “puppy.” And now you’re staring down the full length of an entire week of hell. 

The Smelly Belly Deli will never ever arrive in the middle of their evening bath. It’ll never be as easy as just standing him up, turning on the shower, and cheerfully proclaiming, “My! My! Wasn’t that convenient?”


It must always attack in the middle of the night.

Like the chirping of a smoke alarm battery.

Since the modern smoke detector’s invention in 1963, not a single one of its batteries has ever died between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Last week I was dreaming I was still working at a high school  job at a fast food joint. A hellaciously crowded fast food joint. My manager, who was Pee Wee Herman, kept barking at me. Barking. Barking. Barking. While the French fry fryer kept chirping that it was done.

Barking. Chirping. Barking. Chirping.

I woke with a start at 2:15 a.m. “What was that?”

My wife groaned, “It’s the smoke detector.”

And then she just lay there waiting for the neighbor to do something about it.

Here’s the evil thing about smoke detectors. They’re skilled ventriloquists. They emit a single chirp and you’re absolutely, positively sure it came out of the one in the hallway.

And you stand beneath it.

And wait.

And wait some more.


And you rush into the master bedroom and look up.

And wait.

And wait some more.


Now you’re in the living room staring at the ceiling.

And you wait.

And wait some more.


And, after waiting beneath all nine smoke detectors in your home, it chirps and you’re back standing beneath the stupid one in the hallway.

Now you climb over the minivan, the garbage cans and the Christmas decorations in the garage to pull out the step ladder. You set it in the hallway, climb and nearly fall to your groggy death. You catch yourself, pull the battery, climb down and just as you’re folding the ladder –


Now you’re climbing to reach the one in the master bedroom and nearly dying for the third time.

You get down. Having learned your lesson, you wait.

And wait some more.

Then you give a little grunt of triumph. You fold the ladder and climb back into bed.


Go ahead. You have my permission to curse.

It came from your wife’s closet, where there’s no smoke detector. It suddenly dawns on you: the battery back up to the burglar alarm has died.

The burglar alarm whose control panel is located behind 20 pairs of shoes, 10 plastic bins of saved elementary school art projects, three bags of saved gift bags, more Christmas decorations, three forlorn and empty Easter baskets, a box of your wife’s late grandmother’s macramé projects and a once used sewing kit.

It’s only when you start moving all her stuff that your wife leaps out of bed to carefully supervise.

The next day, you give a little grunt of satisfaction as you hook up the new $30 home burglary battery. Then you reinstall the smoke detectors you had so unfairly blamed. 

And that night you crawl into bed extra weary and sleep deeply until 2:15 a.m.


And you discover some fool invented smoke detectors that hold a charge for two beeps AFTER you pull their batteries.

And now you’re in the hallway again, staring up.

And waiting.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher


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Getting My Grit On

There is an ever so slight chance I might be a, um, helicopter dad.

This surprises me.

Because I’m also the dad who, after early release Mondays, received calls from the friendly ladies whose job it is to fight off the helicopter parents storming the gates at Westchase Elementary.

“Mr. Barrett, this is Luxor the Magnificent from the Westchase Elementary front office. I have your daughters here, in the front office, alone and near tears, wondering if you have legally abandoned them?”

Causing me to overturn my desk chair and largely dislocating my shoulder.

“I am already on my way!” I would lie. “I didn’t forget! I was detained on the phone with the British prime minister when my neighbor’s house caught fire, forcing me to rescue and revive their cat using specialized feline CPR techniques. But I am only 75 feet away now!”

Then I’d show up panting in the front office, about four apparently unwalkable blocks from our home.

“You forgot us again,” the youngest would say.

“I did NOT forget you. There is a difference between forgetting children and losing track of the time. When working, I enter a higher plane of consciousness, devoid of temporal awareness.”

“You completely forgot us,” the second would echo.


After they ratted me out, I’d get a third lecture at dinner.

I waved goodbye to Luxor the Magnificent. “Thank you for not calling DCF.”

This was a few years back, around the time the nation’s psychologists were appearing on the morning talk shows to encourage Gen X parents to instill grit in their pampered children.

Which is not accomplished by walking them to middle school.

Or, in front of his crush, wiping a chocolate pudding stain off your son’s Star Wars shirt with a tissue you’ve officially licked as a Seventh Grade Busch Gardens Field Trip Chaperone.

Or by volunteering in the high school cafeteria in order to help your freshman finagle that extra tricky foil top off his rainbow yogurt.

My apologies. Saying such things makes me feel superior.

Because while all those helicopter mamas were lining up on Linebaugh an hour BEFORE early release Mondays, I was busy instilling grit in my daughters.

I made them WAIT 12 minutes for me to pick them up for their four-block, air-conditioned car ride back home.

That’s got to be two and a half pounds of serious grit right there.

In recent weeks, as my oldest prepares to leave for college for the first time, I’ve enjoyed logging on to my newest Facebook group, UF Parents of Class of ’21.

One mama posted a selfie of her sitting alone on her sofa next to a large box of wine. “This is me,” she wrote to thousands of complete strangers who will now never hire her, “after dropping my oldest son off at Summer B session.”

Rush week starts in mid-August and this woman is already busy vicariously hazing herself.

Another selfie is of a pot-bellied dad in bike shorts and helmet beside his pained-looking daughter, wearing a pink bike helmet and actual wrist guards. “Riding with my Baby Gator this morning to teach her bike safety on Gainesville’s streets!”

“That’s a good daddy!” a parent commented before the crickets commenced.

Another mom posted a selfie that her freshmen texted to her from outside a classroom: “So proud of my Amber, who successfully got to class this morning all the way ACROSS campus!”

Several folks commented by posting a half dozen praying hands emojis.

Another parent posted a photo sent by her son. It showed his dorm room filled with a half dozen girls and guys, lounging around and looking about as social as millennials can while staring at their cell phones. “Frankly I thought he’d be studying. Cause for concern?” she posted.

Another parent weighed in. “In college I think this is considered pretty normal.”

Dozens of other posts consisted of motherly requests for specific dormitory window and closet measurements.

I think back to the big-haired 80s and try to imagine my mother – a woman who birthed and raised six children while working full-time – calling my college to request dorm window measurements.

The same woman who, when I asked what I should pack all my stuff in to take to college, handed me three large Hefty garbage bags.

Which, upon my emptying them on my dorm bed, did not cause me to cry out in alarm, “But mom! Where did you put my curtains!”

My mama buried me in grit.

Except this past June, Number One boarded a plane for a five-week study abroad program in the Yucatan. She’s been crawling around Mayan pyramids, wading through mangrove swamps, living with a Spanish-speaking sponsor family, negotiating the bus system in Mérida and fending for herself while slowly being drained dry by mosquitoes.

All without wearing any wrist guards.

And it’s just killing me.

She put up a good front, but I could tell she was nervous in Miami’s airport, where I began sniffling like a baby once she passed alone through security. (My mother, however, apparently arranged for the non-air conditioned elevator in Miami International’s exterior parking garage to get stuck between floors to re-gritify me.)

Number One sent me an app invitation later that night. She wanted me to track her on Life360, apparently so I would know exactly where to bring the ransom when a cartel kidnaps her.

So, now, in between chuckling at the first-time college parents on Facebook, I keep hitting the refresh button on the stupid app.

I’ve gotten better.

When her icon appears in the middle of a vacant field in rural Mexico, my brain no longer screams, “That’s where her body’s been dumped!

Instead, it mutters that not all Mexican mangrove swamps have 4G coverage.

“Just 15 more days,” I keep telling myself.

Tomorrow it will be 14.

And if I survive this and she returns in one piece?

I’m gonna buy some dorm curtains.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher


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Marching Band Rules

It’s 5:30 p.m. on the second week of June and the Nerd Herd piles into my minivan with a grunt.

Normal children would be going out for ice cream on a summer night.

Or catching fireflies.

Or standing in a mob outside the mall’s movie theater entrance making nervous all the white-haired folks that Dillard’s entrance regularly burps up.

Not the Nerd Herd.

They are sacrificing a perfectly humid, scorching Tampa evening to become lightning rods in T.R. Robinson High School’s student parking lot, conveniently located 12 parsecs away in South Tampa.

Decked out in hats, sunglasses, shorts and T-shirts, they are glowing with the sparkling sheen of sunscreen mixed with mosquito repellant.

And staggering beneath their CamelBak water pouches.

Necessary to avoid melting into a puddle of human goo.

“You look like a retirement home headed for a day at the beach,” I say. “But without all the sand, any of the saltwater, the homicidal jet-skiers or that enormous family that’s always blasting Reggaeton from their tent beside us.”

I wait for a response.

“Which they just squeezed into the five-foot gap we politely left between our tent and that other quiet family’s, leaving the entire fifty yards of empty beach to our right to a single pelican,” I add.

“Does he drink heavily with dinner every night?” Spencer asks Elf.

Nothing is as snarky as a marching band.

The dashboard’s external thermometer still reads 90 degrees.

At band orientation earlier that month, the director offered some highly important Marching Band Rules via PowerPoint.

Rule Number One: “I KNOW IT’S HOT ALREADY.”

We begin the long drive to practice.

“Man, it’s going to be hot,” says Elf.

“Super hot,” agrees Jacob.

“Hotter than hot,” Spencer says.

I wonder whether to break it to them that in two months they’ll be marching around under the same late day sun in black wool band uniforms.

With capes.

But I don’t.

Rule Number Two: Never cry right before band practice.

Proper hydration is essential to surviving a Florida marching band practice.

I’m really not sure why high schools in the South have marching bands.

Bands in the north march merely as a matter of survival.

High school football games are so long that by November the backsides of northern bands were collectively frozen to the bleachers. So long ago they started running around the empty field at halftime to ward off gangrene.

At least until the annoyingly perky, overachieving flute section insisted they start spelling stuff.

OK, I don’t actually know for sure if this is true, but it’s based on real life experience. On my gut instinct.

Which makes it more accurate than actual historical fact.

I know this because my high school band didn’t march. We were a mere “pep band.” We just sat in the stands, frozen in proper peppy position.

Because we were far too uncoordinated to play and walk at the same time.

We didn’t even have a proper band uniform. We just wore shiny gold lame jackets printed with “Scranton Prep Pep Band.” We looked like our band director had just interrupted league night at South Side Lanes and handed the bowlers random instruments.

But if he’d actually done that, his band would have sounded better than we did.

The Scranton Prep Pep Band passed every Friday nights from 6-11 p.m. sitting on Northeast Pennsylvania frigid metal bleachers we would never have dared lick.

It’s frankly amazing most of us have gone on to birth actual humans instead of Carvel ice cream cakes.

But I still loved band.

It represents four of the most memorable and incredibly meaningful years of torturing cheerleaders that I’ve ever had.

What more could a geek possibly hope for out of high school?

At the beginning of the year, the cheerleaders would come to band practice to tape a few of our cheer songs. They then choreographed highly demanding routines involving flips and twists and human rhombuses.

The immobile pep band, however, was filled with a bunch of nerdy smart aleks who listened to their poor band director, at best, once weekly.


Because we were teenagers.

Or it might be because Mr. Mortelli, a drummer from a local wedding band, was completely and utterly tone deaf.

Mr. Mortelli as pep band director made about as much sense as an orchestra teacher being put in charge of shop class.

After the Scranton Prep Cavaliers scored, Mr. Mortelli whirled around in the bleachers and shouted to the cheerleaders “On Wisconsin!”

Or “Notre Dame Victory March!”

He’d cue us at a reasonable tempo.

Which was far too easy on the cheerleaders, who seemed to be enjoying themselves.

So I’d nod at my best friend Jimmy in the trumpet section and we’d signal everyone.

And we’d go faster.

Mr. Mortelli’s face would register alarm.

And faster still.

The first couple of times Mr. Mortelli even tried cutting us off to reestablish his authority.

We just kept hurtling down the tracks of the Notre Dame Velocity March.

You really have no idea how quickly some high school girls can triple backflip.

Mr. Mortelli just gave in, conducting faster and faster, to make it look like he was in charge.

When we came to a crash-bang close, he would glare at us.

And the cheerleaders would shout and shake their little cheerleader fists.

By late October, the cheerleaders had gotten properly conditioned. They stopped shaking their fists. That’s when Jimmy would lean forward and whisper. “When we get to measure 50 of Notre Dame Victory March, everyone switch to measure 30 of On Wisconsin.”

We were about 20 measures in before Mr. Mortelli even realized we were playing a different song. The cheerleaders were smashing into each other, walking around dazed on the sidelines. 

It was glorious.

I finally pull the Nerd Herd into Robinson High School’s lot and Elf and her buddies gulp the air conditioned air one last time. “It’s gonna be hot,” she says.

“You’re going to have a great time,” I say.

She looks at me. “How do you know?”

“Because marching band rules.”

By Chris Barrett, Publisher


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