Read an Excerpt
OTHER BOOKS ABOUT ELLRAY JAKES
EllRay Jakes Is Not a Chicken!
EllRay Jakes Is a Rock Star!
EllRay Jakes Walks the Plank!
THAT HOPEFUL LOOK
“Are you paying any attention to me at all, EllRay Jakes?” Mom asks from the driver’s seat of our car, a Toyota so old they don’t even make them anymore. It’s the middle of April, and we are waiting in a humming line of cars in front of my little sister’s day care.
“Wait. Yeah,” I say, pushing Pause on Die, Creature, Die, my favorite handheld video game. I am almost at Level Six. “What?”
“I was saying, go inside and sign Alfie out,” Mom says. “And tell her to hurry, please. I’m afraid to turn the engine off. Darn car battery,” she adds. I can see the scowl on her face in the rearview mirror. “I have to call the auto club when we get home,” she says. “If we can make it home without having to be towed.”
“Do I have to get Alfie?” I ask, matching Mom’s scowl with one of my own. “I had a sore throat yesterday. And last time you sent me in there, the little kids made me judge a contest out on the playground. Remember?”
Picture a combination of preschool versions of a TV singing contest and a wrestling match and you’ll be close. It was terrible. One kid bit his best friend.
I’m working that sore throat, by the way. It’s the reason I didn’t walk home from school. Now, of course, I wish I had.
“You have to,” Mom tells me, inching our car forward as the line moves. “She’s not standing by the front door, naturally. Not our Alfie. That would be too easy. She’ll be out back with her friends.”
And she REVS the engine a little, as if reminding it what it’s supposed to do.
Kreative Learning and Playtime Day Care is very strict about letting its little kids leave. They either have to be waiting right next to the front door, so the frazzled teacher with the clipboard can check off their names and then watch them go straight out to their car, or you have to walk all the way in and find the right little kid yourself. And then you have to sign them out, but only if you’re on the approved list. That means parking the car, though, not waiting in line at the curb. And today, my mom’s afraid to turn off our car.
When I grow up, I want to be so rich that I can buy a new car every time I get close to needing a new battery. Car batteries are boring things to buy.
“EllRay. Move,” Mom says, her voice growing sharp.
And my mom is usually a very quiet lady.
“Okay, okay,” I say, turning off my game and sliding it under my backpack so no bad guy can leap into the car and steal it when I’m gone.
It’s my favorite thing!
“And make sure Alfie doesn’t forget her new pink jacket,” Mom tells me.
“She hasn’t taken it off in three days,” I remind her as I wrestle myself out of my seat belt. “I don’t see how she could forget it.”
And into Kreative Learning and Day Care I go.
I can’t see Alfie anywhere in the main playroom— naturally, like my mom said. So I head out back. The whole rear play area is more like a giant cage with a fence around it than it is a playground, only there are so many fun things to do there that the kids don’t notice.
I was hoping my sister would be in the covered patio where the battered playhouse and most of the girls are, but oh, no. And Alfie isn’t on the slide or the swings, either. Those are pretty much being swarmed by leftover day care boys, including the kid who bit his friend that other time. A second teacher is trying to keep the boys from clogging up the slide. “One at a time!” she keeps calling out.
There’s a job I never want to have.
“Alfie!” I call out, but she doesn’t answer.
I search the playground with my LASER-BEAM EYES, the ones I use to score so high in Die, Creature, Die. And there she is with three other girls, over in the far corner of the yard, of course, by the tree, the bush, and the rabbit hutch. Alfie’s golden-brown face has a funny expression on it.
I start to yell for her again, so I won’t have to walk all the way over there to get her, but then I stop to watch, because I can’t figure out what’s going on. At first, it looks like all four girls are playing together. But then I see that it’s really three girls who are together, with Alfie on the side, near the hutch. It reminds me of when my mom says, “Dressing on the side, please,” when she’s ordering salad in a restaurant.
The tallest of the three clumped-together girls is Suzette Monahan, who is a real pain, in my opinion, even though Alfie thinks she’s so great. Suzette came over to our house one day, and my mom’s still talking about it.
To say that Suzette is used to getting her own way is putting it mildly.
Today, Suzette has a long arm slung over each of the other two girls’ necks. Alfie is turned away from them, staring down at the ground. Her shoulders are slumped. She’s kicking at the dirt like that’s the most interesting thing in the world to do, and some stuff goes flying through the air.
And I suddenly remember my old nursery school in San Diego, and the rabbit hutch we had there, and Fuzz-Bunny, who was so kicky and grouchy that no one could even go near him. Hutches use heavy screens instead of regular hard floors on the bottom, so the rabbit poop—little pellets—just drops down onto the ground, where it’s easy for teachers to rake it up. Rabbits’ tidy poop is probably the only reason they are such popular day-care pets.
You’re not supposed to play with the pellets, though. Or even kick them around.
And Alfie is usually so easily grossed-out. What’s the deal?
One of the girls who has Suzette’s arm hooked around her neck has a fluffy halo of brown hair. She reaches out toward Alfie, and she starts to say something. Alfie turns around. I know that hopeful look on her face, too—like it’s been raining all Saturday, but the sun just came out.
But then Suzette yanks away the reaching-out girl, and she whirls both girls around like the three of them are on some lame carnival ride.
And Alfie is left just standing there.
Her smile goes behind a cloud. Even her new pink jacket looks sad.
“Rabbit poop girl,” Suzette cries, tossing the mean words over her shoulder like a Die, Creature, Die grenade. “Stupid pink jacket,” she shouts, piling on the insults. “Poop jacket!” she adds. Then she starts to haul her two captives away.
And these are Alfie’s friends?
“Hey, Alfie,” I call out as loud as I can, making sure the other girls can hear me. “Mom’s waiting out front for us. And we’re gonna do something really, really fun! With ice cream at the end of it! After we go shopping for dolls!” I add, inspired.
There. That ought to get ’em.
“EllWay!” Alfie shouts. And she starts running across the playground like she’s never been so happy to see anyone in her whole life.
We’re only talking four years so far, but still.
I am going to have some explaining to do about fun, ice cream, and dolls once Alfie and I are buckled into our sputtering car. But it’ll be worth it, seeing the look that’s pasted on Suzette Monahan’s mean little face right now.
She’s jealous! Good.
But what is going on here at Kreative Learning and Playtime Day Care?
Probably nothing, I tell myself as Alfie throws her arms around me, giving me a surprisingly strong hug. Most likely, it was just some stupid game they were playing.
They were just having fun. Weird girl-fun, but fun. Weren’t they?
And I put the whole thing in another part of my mind as I sign out Alfie and we head for the car.
Level Six, here I come!
“What’s up with Alfie?” I ask my mom a week later, after a perfect dinner of tacos, tacos, and more tacos. This happened because tonight was Taco Night, a popular new tradition on Wednesdays in my family. And then we had applesauce. It is my turn to help with the dishes, but instead of Alfie sticking around and pestering Mom and me, like she usually does, she has slumped off to her bedroom like a sad little comma with a dark cloud over its head.
My third grade teacher Ms. Sanchez said today that commas are our friends, because they break up long sentences and make them easier to understand. But I’m a short sentence guy.
I’m eight years old, and we live in Oak Glen, California. I go to Oak Glen Primary School, and as you already know, Alfie goes to Kreative Learning and Playtime Day Care, “featuring computer skills and potty training,” my dad always likes to read from the big sign out front. He has almost stopped complaining about how they spelled “creative” wrong, because what’s the point?
They must think it’s cute, Mom says.
Alfie goes to day care because Dad teaches about rocks in a San Diego college all day, and my mom writes fantasy books for grown-up ladies.
That fantasy book thing is why Alfie and I have such unusual—okay, WEIRD—names, by the way. “Alfie” is short for “Alfleta,” which means “beautiful elf” in some ancient language hardly anyone speaks anymore. And I’ll tell you about my name some other time. Maybe.