Connie Ives didn’t mean to do it. It was all that stupid Madison Mullally’s fault.
It happened during recess. The third graders of Hollybrook Elementary School were playing outside because, despite the fact that it was late December and already below freezing, it was a sunny day and there was fresh snow on the ground and everyone had worn their parkas and boots to school anyways. For the girls of the third grade, this seemed like a perfect opportunity to play out one of their favorite adventures: Annie Rocket in the Ice Caves.
All the girls loved Annabelle "Annie" Rocket, the hero of Aster City and protector of all mankind. She was an ace pilot, a crack shot, and quick wit capable of surviving even the most nefarious plots of the evil Narleps. In her shiny super-boots, all-purpose toolkit, and shock of red hair showing beneath her purple aviator’s cap, she protected the people of Aster City on television, in comic books, and even up on the big screen. She was everything a young girl dreamed of being: brave, but cautious; powerful, but gentle; brilliant, but modest. She was a superhero every inch as good as Superman or Captain America.
All the girls loved Annie Rocket, but Connie loved her most of all. Connie had read every book, seen every movie, and memorized each episode of the television series. She was the only girl in the class who owned every season of Annie Rocket Adventures on DVD (except the new one, of course, which wasn’t over yet), and her knowledge of Annie Rocket’s exploits could be aptly described as encyclopedic. One time she had even corrected an error in the Annie Rocket Wiki, something she was quick to mention to the other girls whenever the opportunity presented itself. When their teacher had them write a "What I want to be when I grow up" paper in second grade, Connie had written one sentence: "When I grow up, I want to be Annie Rocket."
As Annie Rocket’s biggest fan, Connie naturally got to be Annie Rocket on the playground, and she also directed their reenactments of Annie Rocket Adventures to ensure that they remained canon. Today, the girls -- and the few boys brave enough to admit that they, too, enjoyed watching Annie Rocket -- were gathered around the jungle gym, which always served as Annie’s Secret Stashaway hideout. Connie squatted on one of the cold metal bars, calling out character assignments, when Madison Mullally spoke up.
"Why do YOU always get to be Annie Rocket?" Madison asked.
Madison was a recent arrival at Hollybrook. Her first day in Connie’s class had been Halloween day, and Connie had disliked her immediately. All the kids were wearing costumes that day (Connie was dressed as Annie Rocket, of course), but when Madison had walked in she put all their costumes to shame. The new girl had worn a green and white cape, a silver-trimmed jumpsuit, and a satisfied smile on her face. Connie immediately recognized her as Jan Jettster, a character Connie couldn’t stand, since everyone knew Jan Jettster was just a cheap rip-off of Annie Rocket. Plus, Madison’s costume, with its detailed utility belt and authentic Jettster helmet, had obviously been purchased from one of the high-end online cosplay shops, instead of homemade capes and cheaply stitched box store pullovers that all the other kids were wearing. Ever since that day, Connie had found Madison to be irritating, nosey, and generally disruptive of the natural order of the third grade class.
Connie looked down at Madison. "I’m ALWAYS Annie Rocket," she said.
"But why?" Madison persisted.
"Because I just am!" Connie said curtly.
"Well, this time I want to be Annie Rocket," Madison said.
"You can’t be Annie Rocket," Connie explained, taking the kind of tone she would use when talking to a kindergartener, "Because if you were Annie Rocket too, then there’d be TWO Annie Rockets, and there can’t be two Annie Rockets. At least, not unless we were playing the Adventure of the Twin Terror, but then you’d technically be Nega-Annie anyways, and –“
"Then you can be someone else this time,” Madison said. “I want to be Annie Rocket." And she crossed her arms with finality. "Or I won’t play."
"Then don’t. No one wants you to play anyway."
Madison bristled at this. "Oh yeah? Well … maybe I won’t, because Annie Rocket is stupid anyway!"
"You’re just mad because no one cares if you play or not," Connie retorted.
"No I’m not! And I don’t want to play Annie Rocket. She’s for second-graders."
There was an audible gasp from the assembled third-graders. They all looked up at Connie, wide-eyed, waiting to see how she would respond to this challenge to both her authority and to the unquestionable superiority of Annie Rocket. Not wanting to back down and lose face, Connie jumped off of her perch, her eyes narrow. "You take that back."
Madison crossed her arms. “I won’t, because it’s true.”
“She is not for second-graders!”
“She is so. Besides, I’d rather play Jan Jettster."
"Jan Jettster’s just an Annie Rocket ripoff!" Connie retorted.
"No she’s not! She’s totally awesome! She’s not lame like Annie Rocket.”
“Annie Rocket isn’t lame!”
“Yes she is!” Madison insisted. “Annie Rocket is lame! Lame, lame, lame, lame, lame!”
Connie squirmed in the hard plastic seat that stood outside the principal’s office. Beyond the door, she could hear the murmur of voices in conversation. She couldn’t make out the words, but she knew that whatever they were saying couldn’t be good for her. Eventually, the door opened. The principal walked Connie’s mother out. Her mother was a round woman and was usually pleasant to a fault, but today her moth was hardened into a tight line. She and the principal shared a few pleasantries, then he fixed a disappointed look on Connie for a moment before disappearing back into his office.
"Come on, Connie," her mother snapped, and then stalked out the door. Connie sullenly followed her mother out to the waiting car.
"I can’t believe you bloodied another girl’s lip," her mother said once they were inside.
Connie slouched into the passenger seat and crossed her arms. "It wasn’t that much blood," she groused.
"It shouldn’t have been any blood," her mother shot back. She did up her seatbelt, then pulled her cellphone from her purse. "I mean, honestly, Constance, what were you thinking?"
Connie didn’t answer. Sometimes, her parents asked questions like that, obvious ones where no real answer would satisfy. She found it best just to look remorseful, which she did.
Connie’s mother dialed a number into her phone., held it to her ear, waited for an answer. "Yes, hello, Gretchen Mullally? This is Deborah Ives, Connie’s mother. I just wanted to call and say how sorry I am about what happened to Madison today." She listened for a second. "Yes, of course. Well, you should know that that Connie is very remorseful -- ” She glared at Connie ” -- and that she’s going to be facing some very strong punishment at home."
Connie couldn’t hear what Mrs. Mullally said in response, but based on the way her mother’s face dropped, it wasn’t very nice.
"Now, Gretchen, I’m sure she didn’t mean ... well, yes, but surely you don’t think she meant for ... I think you’re reading far too much into this. I don’t -- What? Now that is going too far! I will not have you -- no, no, I will not let you talk about Connie like that! I don’t think -- "
Connie’s mom held the phone from her ear. Connie could hear the tinny sound of Gretchen Mullally’s voice, though not her words. The woman was clearly shouting. After a moment, her mom ended the call, cutting Madison’s mom off in mid-rant. "What a truly unpleasant woman!" she said.
"Her kid is no better," Connie offered.
Her mom nearly smiled, but quickly recovered. "That’s no excuse for what you did today, young lady."
"It was an accident!" Connie repeated.
"You’re saying that you didn’t mean to hit her?"
"No," Connie said, then muttered, "I didn’t mean for there to be any blood."
"Connie," her mother said, "Please. Have you forgotten what day it is?"
"No, Connie, I mean what day it is. As in, it’s December 22nd. Christmas is only three days away."
This caught Connie’s attention. "I know that. What about Christmas?"
"Well, Connie, I don’t think Santa Claus would be very happy with what you did today. Do you?"
Connie was fairly certain this was another one of those questions that didn’t really require an answer, so instead she just sunk further into the seat and avoided eye contact.
They passed the rest of the ride home in silence. The whole time, her mom’s last words stuck in Connie’s head. Why did she have to invoke Santa Claus? Connie was usually a very well behaved little girl. Her teachers always said so during parent/teacher conferences. And why wouldn’t she be? After all, she had the best role model in the world: Annie Rocket, who was always polite and brave and selfless. Connie prided herself on being like Annie Rocket, but even Annie Rocket sometimes had to resort to violence. If only that stupid Madison Mullally hadn’t started it!
This Christmas was an especially important one for Connie and her love of Annie Rocket. Just in time for the holidays, the Akimbo toy company had released the most awesome Annie Rocket toy yet: the actual Secret Stashaway playset! It was huge and detailed and had twenty moving parts. And, most importantly, it came with an exclusive Annie Rocket figure: Annie Rocket with her Blue Bomber Cape. "The Adventure of the Blue Bomber Cape" was Connie’s absolute favorite episode of the show, and she NEEDED to have that figure for her collection.
But now she’d punched stupid Madison Mullally, and maybe she wouldn’t get the Secret Stashaway playset after all.
By the time they pulled into the driveway of the Ives’ suburban home, Connie had convinced herself that it was all over. She’d been naughty, and Santa Claus MUST know, and she was never going to get Annie Rocket in the Blue Bomber Cape. Christmas was going to be a complete disaster.
Connie spent the rest of the night in her room, first at the command of her mother, and then because she was too wrapped up in her own thoughts to come out. She had tried to distract herself by pulling out the giant storage tub under her bed that held all of her Annie Rocket action figures, but it was a rare night in that she just couldn’t enjoy them. Instead, the thoughts that had started on the car ride home continued to echo in her head.
She had been naughty. It was nearly Christmas. She wasn’t going to get any presents. She wasn’t going to get the Secret Stashaway Playset. All because of stupid Madison Mullally.
Connie refused to accept that. There had to be some way to fix this before Christmas. Throwing a punch had been naughty, sure, but Connie had been nice all year. Didn’t she get credit for all those other days where she didn’t punch Madison Mullally?
But there had been blood. That was probably bad.
As her mind tended to do in moments of stress and trouble,
As she drifted off to sleep that night, dressed in an oversized Annie Rocket t-shirt and buried under an Annie Rocket comforter, Connie began to put together a plan. Christmas was still three days away. There was time to redeem herself.