Fifth grade was tough, and throughout the year, I was becoming increasingly toxic. Radioactive, even. I started out with a couple friends, but I had a math-related crying incident in September. I singlehandedly (singlefootedly?) lost multiple kickball games. And I spent way too much time helping our school librarian reshelve books during recesses. By Christmas, I had one straggler friend who still visited me because I had a big yard. By March, even he was gone.

The end of the year was fast-approaching, and I was very alone. I ate lunch by myself, and even our librarian politely told me that she didn’t need my shelving help anymore. Yearbooks were coming out soon, and the best I could hope for was a handful of ‘have a good summer’s. I needed to fix myself, and I needed to do it fast.

During my friendless, librarian-less recesses, I sat on the empty tetherball square and I wrote a list of ideas in my journal:

Save someone.
Bring pet ferrets to school like Trevor did.
Tell everyone I have a disease.
Learn how to play effing kickball.

I had seventeen ideas on how to make friends, and they were all terrible. Then I remembered one glorious day in fourth grade. I came to school with a new Goosebumps backpack. It was a tie-in from Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, and even though some of the rubber scarabs were missing, everyone thought I was the coolest kid in the class. It lasted a day, unfortunately, because stupid Nick Ramirez stole it. I cried on the bus ride home, but before that, I was Christian god-damn Slater.

I sat there, staring at my journal, and it was like the heavens had parted over the tetherball square. I finally had a path to becoming popular, and that path was Goosebumps.

When I got home, I sat in front of the TV. There, up on our massive 30-inch screen, was the answer to all my problems. Two actors exactly my age were eating Taco Bell nachos. Then they ditched the nachos and started playing with limited-edition Goosebumps toys. There was a board game, a 3-D puzzle version of Welcome to Dead House, and best of all, a rubber replica of Cuddles the evil hamster from Monster Blood II. And this wasn’t any old Cuddles. This Cuddles had actual green vomit spewing out of its mouth. It was beautiful. Master artists like Rembrandt or Lisa Frank wouldn’t have the skill to create such a powerful symbol of raw, glorious popularity.

With that hamster, I’d be the single coolest kid in all of Bullhead City Elementary. Unfortunately, my mother didn’t understand. She said that she’d spent hours fixing up meatloaf and she refused to take me to Taco Bell, despite the fact that in the entire history of human civilization, meatloaf had never taken more than thirty minutes to make and it has never, ever come with cinnamon crisps. I begged her, but she wouldn’t budge. I only had one option left.

I asked Dad.

By then, I was nearly in tears, but he finally agreed to drive me if I promised to also eat Mom’s meatloaf. Then he told me that I was too old to cry over fast food. So I sucked it up, wiped my face, and rode in my dad’s pick-up to Taco Bell.

As we waited in line, I stared at the display case. Sure, all the toys were much smaller than they seemed in the commercial (I guess they picked tiny kids to be the actors), but they were beautiful. And in its rightful place on the top shelf, Cuddles lorded over them all, its blast of frozen vomit raining down on the other, lesser toys.

I ordered the kids’ meal and Dad got a burrito. I guess he wasn’t interested in meatloaf either. We sat in the corner booth and I ripped the pack open like a pirate discovering treasure.

But there, right in front of my eyes, was a 3-D puzzle of Dead House. It wasn’t even 3-D yet. It was just little cardboard pieces. Dad asked me what was wrong. I told him that I couldn’t bring a puzzle to school and I’d die alone.

When we went back to the counter, I explained the situation rationally and clearly. There had been a mistake and I’d gotten one of the crappy toys instead of the one I deserved. The lady explained that the toys rotated every day, whatever that meant, and this was the one I got.

I tried to be calm in the face of her irrational, cold-hearted response, but I couldn’t form the words to explain how her callousness was ruining my life. Dad looked at me, deeply embarrassed, but I couldn’t help it. My life was falling apart in front of me and I had zero control over my tear ducts or the rambling words coming out of my mouth.

Eventually, the woman grumbled something and handed me a new toy. It had worked! Against all odds, I’d been gifted with Cuddles the vomiting hamster. I gladly handed back the stupid puzzle and Dad took me home before either of us could finish our meal.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. What if I had too many friends? What if I had to buy a pocket calendar to keep track of all my future sleepovers? What if the evil mastermind Nick Ramirez snuck into my classroom to strike again, even though he’d been held back because he’s basically illiterate?

The next morning, I went to school groggy and bleary-eyed, but I was hopeful, too. Today was the day my life would finally change. Without saying a word, I placed Cuddles in the front of my desk. If its vomit were real, it would have dribbled onto the orange carpet.

Miss Scott did her morning greetings and we listened to Principal Miller talk about end-of-year tests and whatever. The whole time, I kept looking around to see which lucky student would be the first to notice Cuddles. Natalie Brockheimer sat next to me, but she didn’t say anything. She was really religious, though, so she was probably too afraid to admit how much she liked a vomiting monster. Mike M. and Michelle sat in the next pair of desks, but they didn’t say anything either.

As the class wore on, no one noticed my beautiful display. We got through math and science and the third chapter of Where the Red Fern Grows and it was like both Cuddles and his vomit were invisible.

Then, right before the recess bell, I noticed something horrible. Mike M. glanced at Cuddles, and then he looked away. He’d noticed my display, and yet he didn’t react. Maybe the same was true for everyone else in class.

What if I’d been wrong all along? What if I had the world’s greatest toy and no one cared?

Just to check, I casually slid Cuddles across my desk, angling him so that his vomit was pointed directly at Natalie Brockheimer’s arm. She looked at it for a second, then moved her arm away. She didn’t care either.

I had misjudged everything! I’d be friendless forever. Cuddles wasn’t some magic totem. It was a chunk of plastic that came free with a meal.

With horror, I realized that it was happening again. I was about to cry, and this time, it would be worse than September. I wasn’t crying over homework anymore. I was crying over my ruined life. A single tear broke through, running from the corner of my eye to the corner of my mouth. It tasted salty. It tasted like defeat.

The bell rang.

I couldn’t let anybody notice the weeping mess I was crumbling into. But before I could rush out of my seat, Trevor grabbed the back of my chair. I hadn’t even seen him approach. It was like he’d teleported there.

Trevor, the boy with the ferrets, the third most popular kid in class, was blocking my exit. “Hey,” he said.

I didn’t trust my own voice, so I just nodded at him and prayed to God that he wouldn’t notice the second, third, and fourth tears tumbling out of my eyes.

“Nice hamster,” he said. “I freaking love Goosebumps.” It was just small talk on his way out of the room, but it was enough to keep the rest of my tears in place.

I went outside to play tetherball by myself, but after a while, I decided to rejoin the kickball boys. I didn’t score any home runs, but I didn’t embarrass myself either.

For the next few weeks, I kept Cuddles on my desk. He looked out over the whole classroom, and no one else ever mentioned him. That didn’t really matter, though.

By the time we did our yearbook signings, I got three ‘have a good summer’s and fourteen other responses that were much more personal. Natalie Brockheimer even wrote that it was nice to sit next to me, though she spelled my name wrong.

On the last day, both Trevor and Mike M. asked if they could come over sometime. Trevor even said he’d bring his ferret, the one that hadn’t died yet.

I said sure.

The school year ended, and I wasn’t the most popular kid in school, but I was okay. I wasn’t radioactive. Maybe I never had been.

And Cuddles is sitting up on my bookshelf now, its beautiful green vomit frozen in place, forever raining down on everything it sees.


Evan Purcell writes the YA novel series Karma Tandin: Monster Hunter. His first film, an indie horror called Remember is set for filming in January.