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Colder Than Ice
By David Patneaude
ALBERT WHITMAN & Company Copyright © 2003 David Patneaude
All rights reserved.
A Fresh Start
Joshua Snowater?" The secretary looked up from her desk. Her voice was gravelly and loud. She peered at the two kids waiting in the office: Josh and the small boy sitting next to him.
"Showalter," Josh said.
She held the piece of paper at arm's length. "Showalter," she said. "So it is." She pulled a tissue from a box and blew her nose. Trumpet sounds bounced off the walls. The small boy jumped. "Allergies," she said. She wadded up the tissue and shot it toward a wastebasket fifteen feet away. It popped in perfectly, and she raised her fists in triumph. "Eat your heart out, Shaq!" she boomed.
The small boy edged closer to Josh.
"Your teacher, Ms. Murphy, just called," the secretary told Josh. "She'll be sending a student to take you to your classroom in a couple minutes."
"Okay." He played back his dad's words from the night before — a chance for a fresh start. He wanted that chance. He wondered if he could be somebody besides one of the pack — okay student, okay athlete, kind of overweight but okay looking. What would it be like to be somebody?
But that prospect didn't make him less nervous. He wasn't eager to get to his classroom. He wasn't looking forward to any of this: new town on Idaho's skinny panhandle, new school, new teacher, new kids. And a kindergarten-to-seventh-grade school? What was up with that?
Back in Seattle, sixth grade was the start of middle school. Here he had almost two more years with little kids, then two years of junior high before he'd get to the high school where his dad had just started teaching. By then he'd have whiskers and size-twelve feet and be listening to opera.
The secretary stared. "Why the long face, buddy boy?"
"It's only giving up your freedom. It's only sitting at a desk six hours a day while the world dances along without you." She smiled. "It's only school." She went back to her papers.
A kid — a skinny third- or fourth-grade boy with bed-head — skidded into the office and hurried up to the secretary's desk. She took her time looking up, and when she did there was a frown on her round face. "Yes, Mr. Speed Demon?"
The kid waved a piece of paper at her. "I'm supposed to give this to Mrs. Drager."
"I'll do that," the secretary said. "Mrs. Drager is busy."
"My teacher — Mrs. Stanwood — said me, I'm supposed to."
The secretary snatched the paper from the kid's hand. "Our former principal taught me a lasting lesson, young man — my job was to keep folks away from his door so he could do his job. I'm sure Mrs. Drager feels the same way."
The kid's mouth hung open, but he didn't say anything.
"Now go back to your classroom."
The boy shuffled away. Josh felt sorry for him, and sorrier for himself. So far, not so good. So far, this school seemed like a step backward. Mrs. Nordlund, the secretary at his old school, had been a peach. This secretary was more like a prune. But at least it was a short week. The Thanksgiving holiday was coming, and on Thursday he'd have one thing for sure to be thankful for: surviving his first three days. He turned to the kid next to him. "What grade are you in?" "Fuwst."
The kid nodded.
"Your first day, too?"
The kid shook his head. "I have to go to speech ferapy today."
A moment later a gray-haired woman peeked through the door. "Ready, Anthony?"
The little guy bounced up and walked out with his rescuer.
Josh stood and looked at the nameplate on the secretary's desk: Mrs. Benedict. Beyond her, behind a mostly closed door, a woman — the principal, he guessed — was talking on the phone. The name on the door was Mrs. Drager.
Mrs. Benedict eyed him. He sat back down — too quickly. The chair was small — a little kid's chair — and it creaked under his weight. Sensing disaster, he jerked his bottom into the air and waited. The chair stood fast. He eased himself down again, shifting his attention to his ankles, where the legs of his jeans were bunched at the tops of his shoes. They reminded him of the stack of pancakes he'd downed for breakfast.
He'd told his mom no more "huskies," which meant she had to get two sizes bigger — size 18 — to fit him in the waist. "Look at the cuffs," she'd said. "They'll be shredded in a week." But he was old enough to have some say: "This is how all the kids wear jeans; they're perfect," he'd told her. Now he wasn't so sure.
He looked around at the walls — pictures of mountains and lakes and famous people reading books; posters with rules for dealing with bullies; a sign that said MOUNTAIN VIEW SCHOOL, HOME OF THE HIGHCLIMBERS, above a case filled with trophies and ribbons and plaques and newspaper articles.
He got up carefully and walked to the case. Some of the awards were for sports, some were for classroom stuff — spelling bees, math competitions. One newspaper article, yellowed with age, was about a girl who had placed second at the state spelling bee. A new one reported on a boy — Corey Kitchens, age thirteen, student council president at Mountain View — who had won a countywide free-throw contest and was moving on to the state competition. Josh studied the photo of the kid: Free-throw Championship T-shirt, ball tucked under his arm, trophy held high, cocky smile on his face.
Josh pictured himself in the photo: ball, trophy, T-shirt (just a little tight), regular smile on a round face. He could shoot free-throws, maybe better than Corey Kitchens. After all, Josh had practically grown up in gyms. Maybe someday he'd be the free-throw champ. Maybe he'd get chosen for student council. Maybe he'd even have a thin face and clothes that fit.
A clock near the door read 9:20. His mom would be at her new job in Coeur d'Alene, his dad would be at the high school. His sister, Lindsay? Preschool, where she'd probably made a dozen friends by now. It was harder in sixth grade, when everybody already had their friends, old and new. He thought about his old friends — Charles, Ahmed, Little Joe. What were they up to? They said they would miss him, but did they? They had each other; right now he had no one, and no prospects.
Yeah, he could wait for that student to come and get him. Even with only Mrs. Benedict for company.
He heard voices in the hall. A tall woman in a long green coat walked into the office, followed by a kid about Josh's age. His hair was the brownish color of Josh's, but the resemblance ended there. His skin had the fragile, almost-white, almost-shiny look of eggshells, and he was thin and small. He glanced toward Josh, but not really at him, more like over his shoulder. Josh found himself staring at the kid's eyes — the brightest, bluest blue he'd ever seen, as if they had lights behind them.
The woman went up to the counter and waited for Mrs. Benedict to look up. She didn't. "My son is beginning school here today," the woman said finally.
Mrs. Benedict squinted at the woman and kid. "Name?"
"His name is Silverthorn. Mark Silverthorn."
Mrs. Benedict smiled. "Now that's what I call a name." She leafed through some papers.
"Next Monday," Mrs. Benedict said. "Not due until next Monday."
"We were able to arrive earlier. Is that acceptable?"
"The earlier the better!" Mrs. Benedict roared. "The early bird gets the chocolate!" She wrote something on a piece of paper.
"Good," the woman said. "Will you take him to his teacher?"
"Oh, I don't do that. I'm needed here. I'm kind of like the moat, and Mrs. Drager's office is the castle. There's a student coming to get Mr. Snowater, though." She nodded in Josh's direction. "They'll be in the same classroom."
The woman turned to look at Josh for the first time. Her skin, her eyes, were the same as Mark's — eggshell pale, glacier blue. "Wonderful," she said, smiling. "Perhaps you two can get acquainted." She gave her son a quick hug and a long look. "I'll see you at home this afternoon, Mark," she said, and walked out the door.
Mark turned toward Josh, but his eyes still avoided Josh's face. They focused their blueness on the wall behind him, and for an instant Josh had to look to see what was so interesting. Nothing but plain old paint. "MR. SNOWATER?" Mark said. His voice was high-pitched thunder — louder than Mrs. Benedict's, even — rolling around the room, getting under Josh's skin.
Josh forced himself to stand. He shook his head. "My name's Josh Showalter." He took a step forward and stuck out his hand, but Mark flung up his hands shoulder-high, like little shields. He threw back his head and laughed uproariously, as if Josh had just poked him with a long stick in his most ticklish place.
Josh dropped his hand. What was up with this guy?
Another boy trudged into the office. He was nearly as big as Josh, nearly as wide. His face was round and freckled and topped with reddish-blond hair. His jeans bunched at the ankles, too. He gnawed nervously at his fingers.
"I'm here for the new kid," he said to Mrs. Benedict through his knuckles. But before she could say anything, he spotted Josh. He stopped gnawing. His face froze, then broke into a broad smile. "You're the new kid?"
"One of 'em. Mark's new, too."
The kid ignored Mark. He just looked Josh up and down. "You're big," he said. "You're big."
Josh nodded. Where did this guy leave his manners?
"You're in sixth grade?"
"Uh-huh," Josh said. "So's Mark."
"What do you weigh?"
"Same as you, probably."
"I think you're heavier. Twenty pounds, maybe."
"So?" What was this guy's problem? Was there anybody normal in this school?
"Nothin'." The smile faded. "Just curious."
Mrs. Benedict held up some papers. She looked at the newest, weirdest arrival. "Both of these gentlemen, Mark Silverthorn and Joshua Showalter, are to go with you, Alex. Give these forms to Ms. Murphy as soon as you get to your classroom."
Alex took the papers. "Okay. Can do. Right away, Mrs. Benedict." He'd lost his trudge; he hurried across the office. "Let's go, guys."
Josh grabbed his backpack and followed them out the door. "Long faces are for horses, buddy boy," Mrs. Benedict called after him.CHAPTER 2
Two of you?" Ms. Murphy, young and dark-haired, met them at the classroom door, wearing a smile. Friendly, Josh thought with relief. Normal, maybe. "Where did you find two, Alex?" Alex handed her the papers.
"Good," she said, shuffling them through her fingers, glancing. "Now who's Mark and who's Joshua?"
"I AM MARK." Mark's voice bounced around the classroom, reminding Josh of the booming voice of a guy who peddled fish at the Pike Place Market in Seattle.
Ms. Murphy blinked. "We're glad you could join us early, Mark."
"I am, also," Mark said, gazing over her shoulder. Ms. Murphy reached out her hand to shake, but Mark's hands flew up again. His head tipped back. He laughed raucously. Ms. Murphy's arm hung in the air. The classroom went silent. Mark stopped laughing and stared out the window, as if wishing he were somewhere else.
"And you're Joshua?" Ms. Murphy bravely held her hand out to him, and he took it. They shook. He looked her in the eye, the way his dad had taught him. Maybe Mark didn't have a dad.
They'd moved to the front of the classroom. Josh could feel a couple dozen sets of eyes on him. He checked the bottoms of his jeans to see how much they were bunching. He sucked in his stomach. "Josh."
"Nice to have you here, Josh," Ms. Murphy said. "Before you both sit down, would you mind telling the class where you're from, and what brought you to Rathdrum, Idaho?"
Josh didn't like standing up in front of people and talking. But he figured he had no choice. "Seattle," he blurted out. He couldn't remember what he was supposed to say next. He looked around the room for a friendly face. In the back corner sat a blond girl with glasses. She smiled at him, amused but friendly.
"And what brought you here, Josh?"
Josh kept his eyes on the girl. She smiled again. "My dad's a teacher. He got a job teaching and coaching basketball and track at Lakeland High School. He's been here since school started. The rest of the family had to stay in Seattle until our house sold. Now my mom's an accountant in Coeur d'Alene."
"Any brothers or sisters?"
"A sister. Lindsay. She's four."
"Good. We hope you're happy here." She turned to Mark, who was staring out the windows. "Mark?"
"Is it snowing?" he said. Every face in the room shifted hopefully toward the windows. Josh squinted his eyes, but he couldn't see even a flake of snow.
Ms. Murphy looked out at the sky. "The weatherman says later in the day is a possibility. Nothing now, Mark."
"I don't like snow," he said, and a murmur moved across the classroom like a wave. Looks passed between kids like secret notes: What kid doesn't like snow?
"Where do we sit?" Mark asked.
"Can you tell us where you're from, first?" Ms. Murphy said.
"Minnesota," Mark said.
"And what brought you here?"
"My father's job." So Mark did have a dad.
"And what does he do?"
Mark hesitated. "He helps families."
Ms. Murphy studied him for a moment, as if she was about to ask him what that meant. Then she thought better of it. "Interesting. Brothers or sisters?"
Mark spread his arms wide, his hands open to the class. "I BELIEVE WE ARE ALL BROTHERS AND SISTERS." More looks — smirks this time. Josh edged away from him. Ms. Murphy stared, as if she wanted to peer inside his skull.
She studied one of the papers in her hand. "Oh," she said under her breath. "Oh." She glanced at Mark, who was back to gazing out the window. "Thank you both for sharing," she said finally, attempting a smile. "Class, can we give them a sixth-grade welcome?"
The class cheered and clapped while Ms. Murphy escorted Mark and Josh to their chairs. They were to sit together at a table with the blond-haired girl. The nametag taped to the surface in front of her said "Skye Fisher, Rookie."
"Skye, why don't you show Mark and Josh where to find supplies so they can make nametags," Ms. Murphy said. "The rest of you can read silently while I take care of some paperwork."
On the way to the supply cabinet, Josh noticed Alex's smile, aimed his way. It felt good to have a stranger glad to see you. He smiled back.
Josh and Mark made nametags: "Mark Silverthorn, Rookie," and "Josh Showalter, Rookie." Skye suggested the "rookie" part because they all were new to Mountain View. She'd started in September.
"We can be the rookie table," she said. Josh wasn't sure he wanted to be known as a rookie; he was trying to fit in, not stick out. But he would go along with it, at least for now.
When they were done, Mark pulled a fancy-looking camera — black with lots of chrome and buttons and glass — from his backpack and began messing around with it. He took pictures of Ms. Murphy, Skye and Josh, and some other kids, who shared whispers and those smirky looks again. When Ms. Murphy's back was turned, they held imaginary cameras to their faces and took imaginary pictures of the scene outside the window. Imaginary snow, Josh figured. He expected Ms. Murphy to say something to Mark, but she acted as if having a classroom photographer was nothing new to her.
After silent reading they had math, then language arts, where Ms. Murphy talked about cinquain poetry. Josh already knew how to do the math; he'd already learned about cinquain poems at his old school. He felt a little better. So far the work wasn't harder here. He wouldn't start out at Mountain View behind everyone else.
The wall clock moved to 11:10. The lunch bell rang.
"You guys play soccer?" Skye asked, getting up from her chair.
"Fullback," Josh said. "My team just finished its season 9 and 1." He didn't say anything about the long minutes he'd spent on the sidelines while the coach let the other guys get most of the playing time.
"Awesome," Skye said. "If we hurry through lunch, we'll have a lot of time for soccer. Recess doesn't end till noon."
"I've seen soccer," Mark said. He slipped his camera into a case, slung it over his shoulder, and stood.
Skye gave him a little frown, then headed for the door. "Let's go."
They wolfed down lunch in a noisy cafeteria that smelled just like the cafeteria at Josh's old school. Outside, the playground was big and grassy, with bald patches of sandy mud. The far half had soccer goals at each end. Two groups of kids were gathered in the center of the field.
"Come on!" Skye said. "They're already choosing up!"
They jogged to the field. The air was frost going into Josh's lungs, white vapor coming out. Snow weather, maybe.
They angled toward the bigger group. In it were some boys and a few girls Josh remembered from his class, and other kids he didn't recognize. Some looked older. Seventh-graders, probably. He felt the new-kid-at-school lump getting bigger in his throat.
Everyone was just standing around. "What are you guys doing, Hallie?" Skye asked one of the girls.
"Waiting for Corey's little meeting to break up."
"Why do we always have to wait for him?"
Excerpted from Colder Than Ice by David Patneaude. Copyright © 2003 David Patneaude. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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