Read an Excerpt
School of Fear 3: The Final Exam
By Gitty Daneshvari
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2011 Gitty Daneshvari
All right reserved.
EVERYONE’S AFRAID OF SOMETHING:
Autodysomophobia is the fear of emitting a vile odor.
The end is not the end. And that is certainly not to imply that the end is actually the beginning or the middle, for that would be most inaccurate. The end is simply far more than a completion point or finish line. The end is a call for courage, rallying those ready for the next journey.
Thirteen-year-old Madeleine Masterson was sound asleep, with her raven locks tucked neatly beneath a shower cap and her serene blue eyes sealed tightly to the world. Only a year earlier, Madeleine had arrived at School of Fear adorned in a netted veil and a belt of repellents, desperate to keep all spiders and creepy crawlers at bay. While the politically savvy London native had shed both the belt and veil after her first summer, there had been quite a relapse as of late. A few days earlier Madeleine had come to blows with a brown and burgundy Balinese spider, culminating in arachnid roadkill on her forehead. The traumatic incident immediately sparked a renewed sense of panic, hence the implementation of the shower cap.
On this particular morning, it was not her usual hallucination of eight sticky feet dancing across her arm that awoke her, but something far more harmless. With her eyes still tightly sealed, Madeleine noticed a pungent scent. It wasn’t that of smoke or any recognizable danger. Thick and musty, the overwhelmingly saccharine odor lingered in both her mouth and nostrils. While Madeleine had always enjoyed the odd sweet, there was something downright nauseating about this smell. Now, if this had been any other day, she would have instantly opened her eyes and satiated her curiosity. But on this particular morning Madeleine could think of nothing quite as frightening as facing the hours ahead.
“Madeleine,” a familiar voice whispered, warm billows of breath cascading against the young girl’s cheeks.
Having no recourse, Madeleine relented and slowly unlocked her eyes. A mere inch from her face was School of Fear’s eccentric headmistress, Mrs. Wellington. And while some people may look good up close, she certainly was not one of them. Thick layers of makeup sat unflatteringly atop the old woman’s deep and jagged wrinkles, showing her skin to be a most merciless record of time past.
“Good morning, Mrs. Wellington,” Madeleine whispered awkwardly before once again finding her olfactory gland overwhelmed by the stench. “Not to be cheeky, but what on earth is that smell?”
“I’ve never cared much for body odor, so I had Schmidty replace my eccrine glands with marmalade and honey. Lovely, isn’t it?”
“But Schmidty isn’t a doctor!” Madeleine exclaimed.
“No, but he pretended to be one quite frequently as a child.”
“That hardly matters.”
“Shush,” Mrs. Wellington replied. “You’ll wake the others. We haven’t time for idle chitchat; you must meet me in the classroom at once.”
Madeleine looked into the old woman’s face and nodded. There was an understandable urgency in the air as Mrs. Wellington prepared to face her two greatest fears: Abernathy, and losing the school. Far more than an estranged stepson, Abernathy was Mrs. Wellington’s lone failure as a teacher—a truth she could barely admit to herself, let alone to the world.
As Mrs. Wellington sashayed femininely into the hall, her cats Fiona, Errol, Annabelle, and Ratty darting rapidly between her feet, Madeleine slipped carefully out from between the sheets. This was not a simple task, for ten-year-old Hyacinth Hicklebee-Riyatulle and her pet ferret, Celery, were curled up at the foot of the bed. Hyacinth—or, as she preferred to be called, Hyhy—was notorious for her obnoxious behavior, as well as for her fear of being alone. Maneuvering cautiously on her tiptoes, Madeleine crept away from her bed and past that of thirteen-year-old Rhode Islander Lucy “Lulu” Punchalower.
Deep in slumber, with her strawberry blond hair covering her freckled face, Lulu displayed a softness she rarely exhibited when awake. The bold young girl was known for speaking without restraint, for never holding back a thought or a roll of the eyes. Of course, it ought to be mentioned that Lulu’s confident façade instantly evaporated where confined spaces were concerned. When forced into an elevator or a room without windows, Lulu broke into unbridled hysteria. The young girl once went so far as to hijack a window washer’s cart to avoid the elevator at a Boston hotel. Unfortunately, Lulu hadn’t a clue how to maneuver the thing and had to be rescued by the fire department. The whole debacle wound up on the nightly news, much to the chagrin of her image-conscious parents.
Now, as the sun blazed above the dilapidated limestone mansion known as Summerstone, Madeleine tiptoed down the creaky stairs, the importance of the day that lay ahead weighing heavily on her mind. If Mrs. Wellington and Abernathy did not reconcile, and thereby undermine reporter Sylvie Montgomery’s exposé, School of Fear would quickly and most unceremoniously cease to exist. And as nothing else had worked on her phobia, not even the terribly experimental seminar Brainwashing for Bugs, Madeleine couldn’t afford to lose the school. This was a fact all the School of Fearians recognized: without the completion of the course, they could easily backslide into restricted, panic-filled lives.
By the time Madeleine dashed through the pink fleur-de-lis foyer and past Mrs. Wellington’s wall of pageant photos, her stomach had twisted itself into a highly complicated Celtic knot. Even the sight of the Great Hall, a grand corridor of one-of-a-kind doors, couldn’t distract Madeleine from her mounting anxiety. The airplane hatch, farm gate, giraffe-shaped portal, and countless other creative aberrations fell on blind eyes as she barreled into the ballroom, inside which both the classroom and drawing room were housed.
Immediately upon entering, Madeleine saw Mrs. Wellington, dressed in pink satin pajamas that perfectly matched her eye shadow, pacing nervously in front of the couch. Before her time at School of Fear, Madeleine had never known a woman who reapplied makeup before bed. But Mrs. Wellington was just such a woman and had on the eye shadow, rouge, false eyelashes, and lipstick to prove it.
“Shower Captain—thank Heavens you’re finally here!” Mrs. Wellington exclaimed.
Madeleine delicately smoothed her clear plastic shower cap before looking up at the old woman with irritation. “Mrs. Wellington, I loathe to be impertinent on such a day, but you only asked me here thirty seconds ago. And please stop calling me Shower Captain. It makes me feel like a cartoon character—and not a very attractive one at that!”
“It appears someone woke up on the left side of the bed.”
“I know I shouldn’t ask,” Madeleine said with a sigh, “but what’s wrong with the left side of the bed?”
“It’s not the right side of the bed,” Mrs. Wellington said briskly as her mouth shifted colors. The old woman was a bit of a genetic anomaly, with oversized capillaries in her lips that darkened when she was angry, nervous, or embarrassed.
Madeleine abstained from responding, as she was nearing the end of her perfunctory spider-and-creepy crawler scan of the room. Web-free surroundings normally left the young girl feeling terribly relaxed, but not today. There was simply too much at stake for her to be relaxed. Why, just the thought of being relaxed felt downright irresponsible, almost illegal!
Mrs. Wellington gracefully lowered herself onto the couch, crossing her legs, and beckoned for Madeleine to do the same. As if performing a well-orchestrated dance, the four cats circled the woman’s feet before falling into the sphinx pose. After carefully noting the locations of all four tails and sixteen paws, Madeleine took her place next to Mrs. Wellington, mimicking her teacher’s perfectly vertical posture. As the young girl prepared to ask the nature of the early-morning visit, she focused on Mrs. Wellington’s long, frail fingers, awash in brownish liver spots. It was dangerously easy to forget that beneath the powerful persona lurked a feeble body weathered by time and experiences.
“Madeleine, I asked you here today,” Mrs. Wellington announced, “because something strange is happening to me.”
“I’m quite sure I understand. The possibility of losing the school must be awfully frightening for you; it’s a legacy you’ve worked so hard to maintain. And as for confronting Abernathy, well, I should think it’s normal to be scared after all these years.”
“Need I remind you that I am the headmistress of School of Fear? I know fright better than anyone! As a matter of fact, I recently awarded myself an honorary PhD in the subject, so I can assure you that fear is not the issue. It’s something far more distressing,” Mrs. Wellington said firmly as she grabbed her chest, contorted her face, and swallowed loudly.
“You’re not going to fake your own death again, are you?”
“No!” Mrs. Wellington barked. Then she softened her tone, saying, “Please, Madeleine, I’ve come to you for your sensible British advice. I need help. Something is very, very wrong with me…”
“As sensible and British as I am, I think I ought to wake the others. After all, Theo is terribly adept at diagnosing people, and Garrison is strong should you need help walking, and Lulu knows CPR, and Hyacinth, well, she is actually the opposite of helpful, so perhaps I’ll leave her and the ferret to sleep,” Madeleine babbled uncontrollably, panic seeping into her voice, as she left the room to collect her friends.
Within minutes Madeleine had returned with her groggy and pajama-clad classmates—Theo, Garrison, and Lulu. A self-proclaimed specialist on both death and illness, thirteen-year-old New Yorker Theo Bartholomew maneuvered his pudgy frame to the front of the group. After a quick smoothing of his tousled brown locks, he pushed his smudged glasses up the shaft of his button-like nose and began his examination.
“The doctor is in,” Theo announced confidently as he grabbed Mrs. Wellington’s wrist. “And the good news is I feel a pulse, which means you are definitely still alive.”
“Ugh, Maddie should never have woken you up,” Lulu moaned, already annoyed by Theo’s theatrics.
Rather surprisingly, Theo ignored Lulu, instead focusing all his attention on Mrs. Wellington. “Are you experiencing any sharp or dull pains in your head?”
“No,” Mrs. Wellington responded. “I haven’t had any problems up there since I stopped using tar as wig glue.”
“In that case, I think I can rule out an advanced brain tumor, aneurysm, or cranial abscess,” Theo declared matter-of-factly before continuing. “Have you experienced any tingling in your extremities?”
“ ‘Extremities’ is just a fancy word for arms and legs,” Madeleine explained.
“I’m looking for signs of a stroke, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia—just your basic run-of-the-mill, life-altering illnesses,” Theo said.
“Honestly, half the time I forget I even have extremities, let alone feel them,” answered Mrs. Wellington.
“Interesting,” Theo said as he took off his grimy glasses and cleaned them on his pajama top.
“Interesting? Why is that interesting?” Mrs. Wellington asked impatiently.
“Oh, it isn’t interesting at all. I just like to say that word. Now then, have you noticed any large portions of flesh disappearing from your body?”
“Most definitely not.”
“So that’s a no on flesh-eating bacteria,” Theo said as he rubbed his chin and looked down at the felines lounging around Mrs. Wellington’s feet. “Is there a chance one of the cats might have scratched you, given you a case of the old cat scratch fever?”
“Totally made-up disease,” Lulu mumbled under her breath.
“Actually, Lulu, it’s totally real,” Theo said. “And if you don’t believe me, go on iTunes—there’s a song about it.”
“Sorry, I forgot how credible iTunes is when diagnosing an illness,” Lulu quipped.
“I assure you, Chubby, these cats haven’t had a ragged nail a day in their life,” Mrs. Wellington said. “Have you not seen the kitty spa in the basement? There’s even an artificial tongue to groom their coats.”
“I hate basements… no windows… bad news,” Lulu muttered nervously to no one in particular.
“So that’s a no on cat scratch fever, flesh-eating bacteria, brain tumor, aneurysm, cranial abscess, multiple sclerosis, stroke, and fibromyalgia. Well, I’ve got to say, I’m stumped. This might be one for the record books, or maybe just WebMD, but since we don’t have Internet access, I’m going to have to go with medical mystery.”
“Seriously?” said fourteen-year-old Miami native Garrison Feldman as he stepped in front of Theo. Tall and tanned, with shaggy blond hair, the water-phobic boy had an innately commanding presence. “Why don’t you just tell us what’s going on, Mrs. Wellington? I promise it will be a lot easier than letting Theo examine you.”
Mrs. Wellington nodded and pursed her lips before beginning. “Ever since I learned about Sylvie Montgomery’s story and the plan for me to confront Abernathy, I’ve been having the weirdest sensations.”
“What kind of sensations?” Lulu asked with mounting curiosity.
“Heaviness in my chest, tears in my eyes, a sinking feeling in my stomach. And worst of all, my thoughts keep returning to the past, back to when I first met Abernathy…”
More decades ago than a chimpanzee can count, a widower by the name of Mr. Wellington brought his son, Abernathy, to School of Fear. The boy was in desperate need of help due to a most irrational fear of stepmothers, also known as novercaphobia. But as fate would have it, Mrs. Wellington, then known as Ms. Hesterfield, and Mr. Wellington fell madly in love. Of course, they tried to hide their feelings from Abernathy, but he soon discovered their love letters, which sent him on a downward spiral. From that point on, Abernathy never spent another night under the same roof as his father or stepmother. Instead, he retreated to the great outdoors, choosing to live the quiet life of a recluse.
Greatly weathered by Mother Nature, these days Abernathy sported gray, leathery skin and ragged, sun-stained hair. However, his most notable attribute was a near complete inability to socialize normally. Had it not been for his profound but terribly undiscerning love of music, he would still be living among the trees and squirrels. Rather shockingly, it was the rapture of Hyacinth’s tone-deaf singing that had lured Abernathy back to School of Fear. And once there, he grew rather fond of human company, having spent the last few decades engaged in one-sided conversations with forest animals.
“Contestants, you must tell me the truth,” Mrs. Wellington now implored her students, or, as she saw them, “contestants in the beauty pageant of life.” “What’s wrong with me?”
“Am I the only one who thinks that’s a loaded question?” Theo asked with a furrowed brow.
From the back of the ballroom came the unmistakable sound of Mrs. Wellington’s manservant, Schmidty. In balancing his enormous polyester-covered belly and elaborate comb-over, Schmidty had developed a very distinctive shuffle.
“Madame, must I explain what’s happening to you again?” Schmidty called out from across the room, the portly English bulldog Macaroni waddling close behind in striped blue pajamas.
“It’s not meningitis, is it?” Theo asked, stepping away from Mrs. Wellington. “Because my neck is already feeling a little sore.”
“No, Mister Theo, it’s something far more common…. Feelings,” replied Schmidty.
“Don’t listen to him; I’ve got plaque on my teeth smarter than he is!” Mrs. Wellington said indignantly.
“Okay, we definitely need to find a dentist who makes house calls,” Lulu grumbled with unmistakable repulsion.
“Madame is experiencing emotions such as sorrow, regret, and melancholy for the first time in decades, and understandably she’s rather overwhelmed,” Schmidty explained as the old woman wiped away tears.
“Abernathy hates me,” Mrs. Wellington muttered. “My own stepson despises me, and soon the whole world will know that I failed him as both a parent and a teacher. The school will close and there’ll be nothing left for me in this life!”
“No way, Mrs. Wellington! We’re not going to let that happen,” Garrison stated confidently. “You and Abernathy are going to work things out. It’s like the Red Sox–Yankees rivalry; it’s time for this to end. And once it does, we’ll show Sylvie Montgomery that her information is wrong, and she’ll have no choice but to kill the story.”
At that moment, a light snorting sound reverberated through the room, coming from the far window. At first no one paid it any mind, but as the sniffing grew heavier, Mrs. Wellington turned her head in curiosity.
“The pig is back!” the old woman screamed, deftly jumping to her feet and grabbing a nearby lamp and flinging it at the window.
EVERYONE’S AFRAID OF SOMETHING:
Swinophobia is the fear of pigs or swine.
Not only did Sylvie Montgomery sound like a pig, she also very much resembled a member of the swine family. Her rosy complexion, drooping midsection, and dome-shaped derriere, complete with a protruding tailbone, were rather striking. But in truth it was her nose, thick and bulbous, that cemented her piglike appearance. Her nose dominated her face, making it nearly impossible to notice any of Sylvie’s other features. But she didn’t mind, for that swollen spherical snout was her secret weapon. It alerted her to the presence of classified information, which Sylvie then tenaciously went after, relentlessly digging until she got to the bottom of the story. And with a mere three weeks until her article was to go to press, Sylvie was determined to uncover every last fact about Mrs. Wellington, Abernathy, and the school on the hill.
As Sylvie peeked through the window of the school, the lamp Mrs. Wellington had hurled in her direction crashed to the floor with such thunder that Schmidty and the students actually shrieked. Sylvie withdrew from the window, waddling quickly away before Mrs. Wellington could lob anything else at her.
“Might I suggest using a tad more emotional control when meeting with Abernathy?” Madeleine said delicately to Mrs. Wellington.
“But you’ve got to admit she’s got pretty good aim for an old lady,” Lulu noted admiringly.
“Spoken like a true juvenile delinquent,” Theo replied judgmentally to Lulu, who rather expectedly rolled her eyes in response.
“Come on, we better get dressed. Abernathy will be up soon,” Garrison said to Lulu, Theo, and Madeleine, while Mrs. Wellington and Schmidty remained seated in the drawing room.
“I can’t believe Abernathy’s sleeping in the basement,” Madeleine said, shaking her head in disbelief.
“Um, hello? The kitty spa is down there. I bet that place is pure luxury. Plus, there’s the artificial cat tongue,” Theo said excitedly as the group made their way into the Great Hall.
As the pudgy-cheeked boy pondered the mechanics of building a synthetic tongue, Madeleine fretted over her clothing options for the day ahead. She had watched enough C-SPAN to know that the Abernathy-Wellington summit warranted a smart outfit. However, just as she decided on a navy dress with white piping, the sound of glass fracturing erupted through the Great Hall. After exchanging tense glances, the foursome dashed down the remainder of the corridor and into the foyer. There they were met with a rather disturbing sight: Abernathy smashing one of Mrs. Wellington’s famed pageant photos with his heel. The gangly, gray-skinned man had a permanent hunch from staring at his feet, and in his old flannel shirt and dirty jeans, Abernathy appeared very much out of place amid the grandiosity of Summerstone.
“Abernathy, what on earth are you doing?” Madeleine asked as her blood pressure skyrocketed. The girl had yet to brush her teeth, and already the day was spinning wildly out of control.
“Oh, my bad. I bumped into the wall by accident,” Abernathy said in his squeaky, high-pitched voice. Although the many years of living in the forest had prematurely aged him, his voice remained that of a boy on the cusp of puberty.
“My bad? People who have spent decades in the forest don’t say my bad,” Theo scoffed to the others. “I think he’s been holing up at the Ramada Inn off the interstate, watching cable television and ordering room service. This whole thing is one big con!”
“Actually, Celery taught him that. Pretty cool, right?” Hyacinth said as she bounded down the last of the stairs wearing her ubiquitous pantsuit and with her ferret perched on her shoulder. “And FYI, Celery and I are pretty peeved at you guys for deserting us. You know how much we hate to wake up alone! Besties don’t leave besties, remember? Do I need to sing the ‘Besties Forever’ song again?”
“Oh, that would be lovely,” replied Abernathy, the sole person ever eager to hear Hyacinth’s off-key voice.
“Unfortunately, I think there is a slightly more pressing issue at hand,” Madeleine said seriously.
“Breakfast? I couldn’t agree more,” Theo replied.
“No,” Lulu answered. “We need to hide that picture before Mrs. Wellington sees it. This is not how we want to start the reconciliation.”
“I’m really sorry, guys,” Abernathy chirped, staring intently at his feet. “It was an involuntary reaction. Sort of like when you see a squirrel about to get run over by a car and you dart into the street to save him. It just felt like the right thing to do.”
“Squirrel-cide is a terrible thing to see,” Theo lamented dramatically.
“I hate… her,” Abernathy growled as he focused on another of Mrs. Wellington’s portraits on the wall. A bitter and angry expression overtook his ashen face. Much like a wild animal, he appeared to be running on instincts alone. It was hard to believe that this was the same man who only moments earlier had spoken timidly of rescuing a hypothetical squirrel.
“Well, this should be a piece of cake,” Lulu said sarcastically. “I don’t know what we were worried about.”
“Um, Abernathy refusing to forgive Mrs. Wellington, ruining any and all chances of saving the school,” Theo responded earnestly, then paused before saying, “Oh, wait—that was a rhetorical question, wasn’t it?”
Two hours passed before Mrs. Wellington was finally prepared to meet Abernathy face-to-face in the ballroom. For the occasion, she donned a bright yellow dress and petticoat along with a soaring feathered cap. Schmidty worried that she looked a great deal like Big Bird from Sesame Street, but didn’t have the heart to tell her as much. Of course, it certainly didn’t help that her makeup, applied by the legally blind Schmidty, perfectly matched her outfit.
In preparation for the morning summit, Mrs. Wellington demanded that Schmidty make actual Casu Frazigu, also known as maggot cheese. Ever since the cheese had been outlawed for a wide variety of health reasons, he had merely flavored food to taste of Casu Frazigu. However, sensing the fragility of her mood, Schmidty decided it best not to argue. Instead, he tricked Mrs. Wellington by using overcooked granules of rice as a stand-in for maggots.
Believing the Casu Frazigu to be real, Lulu, Theo, Garrison, and Madeleine inched away from the vile delicacy. Theo even went so far as to move the snacks he had brought away from the cheese, worried that an overactive maggot might make the jump.
As the students huddled around the table, Mrs. Wellington, Schmidty, and Macaroni sat stoically on the couch. While waiting for Hyacinth to return with Abernathy, her personal singing companion, Garrison took a moment to remind his peers of the plan.
“As soon as Abernathy enters, I want everyone smiling at him. We need to make him feel welcome,” Garrison whispered. “And remember, be patient—we can’t just jump right into the whole ‘you guys need to work this out’ speech. First we need to say hello, make some small talk, maybe even have a snack—”
“Let’s not forget who brought the non–Casu Frazigu snacks: me!” Theo interrupted while literally reaching his arm around to pat himself on the back.
“But these aren’t the most mature people; it’s rather plausible they might immediately start yelling,” Madeleine said perceptively. “In truth, there’s really no telling what they’ll do.”
“If they get rowdy, I say we break out some Styrofoam bats and just let them go at it,” Lulu added.
“I don’t think so,” Garrison quickly countered.
“Um, don’t knock it; we did it in family therapy,” Lulu said in response.
“With all due respect, Lulu, from what we’ve heard of your family, the exercise doesn’t appear to have been terribly effective,” Madeleine assessed candidly.
“Yeah, I guess you have a point. But it was really fun, one of the best times of my life,” Lulu said, staring wistfully off into space.
The faint sound of Abernathy and Hyacinth singing Christmas carols suddenly rippled through the ballroom, instantly grabbing everyone’s attention.
“Mister Abernathy certainly enjoys Christmas tunes,” Schmidty said with a nervous smile, and Macaroni tilted his head at the sound of the tonally challenged duo.
“A terribly odd affinity considering he’s Jewish,” Mrs. Wellington mumbled. “He had a bar mitzvah and everything.”
“Being open to other faiths is a wonderful quality,” Madeleine offered optimistically.
“About that bar mitzvah: Did he get a lot of gifts? Not that I am basing my conversion to any religion on the gift-to-child ratio. However, there is no denying that eight days of Hanukkah to one day of Christmas is pretty compelling,” Theo said emphatically.
“Trust me, no one thinks you’re picking a religion based on gifts,” Lulu said with a roll of her eyes. “We all know it’s coming down to the food: Who has the best, and the most of it?”
As Theo prepared a retort, the tone-deaf twosome entered the ballroom. They were met with six tense faces—seven if they counted Macaroni. Instantly unnerved by the room’s many scrutinizing eyes, Abernathy trailed off while staring keenly at his shoes. In stark contrast, Hyacinth continued to sing with all the enthusiasm of a Broadway star on opening night.
“Miss Hyacinth,” Schmidty said loudly, “perhaps now would be a good time to rest your vocal cords.”
“I go by Hyhy, remember? I know you’re old and could die at any second, but we’re still besties, and besties call me Hyhy!”
“Thank you for those extremely uplifting words, Miss Hyhy,” Schmidty replied drolly.
“Hey, Abernathy,” Garrison jumped in, offering the biggest smile humanly possible. “How are you? How’s everything going?”
Abernathy continued to stare at his shoes, seemingly oblivious to Garrison’s greeting. Undeterred, Garrison turned toward Mrs. Wellington, once again offering a massive smile.
“Mrs. Wellington, how are you? You look really… yellow. I mean, nice in yellow,” Garrison rambled awkwardly.
For the first time in her life, Mrs. Wellington ignored a compliment and remained totally and utterly silent. Everyone in the room quickly grew ill at ease, inadvertently setting the stage for Theo, who cleared his throat in an embarrassingly theatrical manner. It sounded like a cat with laryngitis trying to dislodge a hairball.
“As the MC—that’s master of ceremonies, for those of you not up-to-date on your acronyms—I would like to welcome you—”
“Wait a minute. No one made you master of ceremonies,” Lulu interrupted Theo.
“Let’s not get caught up in details, Lulu. Now, as I was saying, I brought sourdough bread, cookies, scones, and crackers. That’s right, people, I am talking about carbohydrates! And I think we can all agree that if carbohydrates were a religion we’d convert—”
“Theo, if I may interrupt, I feel we’re getting wildly off course here. This is about Abernathy and Mrs. Wellington,” Madeleine said, adjusting her shower cap.
“As usual, Maddie’s right,” Garrison agreed, unintentionally strengthening the young girl’s lingering crush on him. “Mrs. Wellington, Abernathy, let’s just sit down and talk about this like adults, or at the very least like angry ballplayers.”
“Celery wants me to point out that we’re not technically adults.”
“How many times do I have to tell you that thirteen is considered a man in many cultures?” Theo asked with frustration. “And the fact that I am not a member of any of these cultures does not make it any less true.”
“Sorry. Celery and I are super age-conscious now that we’re in the double digits. Actually, don’t say anything,” Hyacinth said, putting her hands over the ferret’s ears, “but she’s only four. I don’t have the heart to tell her that she’s still in the single digits in human years. You know how desperate she is to fit in.”
“And you said I was off-topic? She’s talking about a ferret with an identity crisis,” Theo huffed to Madeleine.
Up to this point, both Mrs. Wellington and Abernathy had successfully managed to avoid even the slightest eye contact. Abernathy was still very content staring at his shoes, while Mrs. Wellington dabbed her misty eyes with a monogrammed pink handkerchief.
“Mrs. Wellington,” Garrison said kindly, “I know this is hard, but someone needs to start this conversation. You’re the teacher; what do you say you give it a shot?”
“Yes, I suppose I could do that,” Mrs. Wellington replied, trembling with emotion.
The mere sound of her voice ignited a burning sensation in Abernathy’s toes, which quickly rose through his body. As the heat reached his head, he lifted his eyes and looked at Mrs. Wellington for the first time. His face flashed red, his eyes narrowed, and his lips quivered. Then, in a wholly unexpected turn of events, Abernathy began to growl at the old woman.
The raw emotion that had plagued Mrs. Wellington all day quickly evaporated as her stern aloofness returned. It appeared both parties were falling back into their long-held dynamic of hostility.
“How dare you growl at me? I am the headmistress of this school, as well as your stepmother, and as such demand to be treated with respect!” Mrs. Wellington spat out harshly.
“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” Theo said to Mrs. Wellington. “That was probably just Abernathy’s stomach; after all, he’s been eating twigs and beetles for decades. I’m sure he has a wide variety of gastric intestinal issues.”
“That wasn’t my stomach, young boy,” Abernathy responded quietly to Theo.
“Young man,” Theo corrected Abernathy.
“I meant no offense—well, not to you anyway. Just her.”
“How dare you call me her?” Mrs. Wellington snapped.
“I suppose it would be more appropriate.”
“I will have you know that only this morning someone mistook me for a woman of twenty.”
“Madame, it hardly counts when that someone is you,” Schmidty interjected from a few feet away.
Paying Schmidty and the others no mind, Abernathy once again started to growl. As his tone grew more guttural, Mrs. Wellington countered by hissing with the ferocity of a feral feline.
“You are both far too old to behave in such an undignified manner,” Madeleine interjected. “Now, I’m sure we can solve this civilly, over a cup of tea.”
“And some cheese sandwiches,” Theo added.
Still staring intently at Mrs. Wellington, Abernathy bared his green-tinted teeth and snarled.
“Celery thinks we should tell Abernathy about whitening toothpaste. It’s probably not available in the forest,” Hyacinth offered in her usual peppy tone.
“Would anyone care for a cookie, or a piece of bread?” Madeleine asked with a cracking voice, desperate to distract Abernathy from Mrs. Wellington and vice versa. “Theo is right; we all think much more clearly on a full stomach.”
“That’s why fat people are so smart,” Theo interjected proudly. “As a matter of fact, I think I’ll title my memoir Full Stomach: How Food Made Me Fun, Fabulous, and Fierce.”
Ignoring Theo, Madeleine approached Abernathy with the tray of food. Much to everyone’s delight, he picked up a cookie. Eating was most definitely a good sign—or at least that’s what they thought before he jettisoned the cookie at Mrs. Wellington, knocking her wig askew in the process.
“Cookie down,” Theo whimpered quietly to himself as he mourned the loss of the sugary treat.
Mrs. Wellington corrected her wig while seething over the indignity of the situation. She then grabbed a piece of bread and lobbed it directly at Abernathy’s gray face.
“In case you’ve forgotten, there are starving children in Africa, and maybe even one in here, so put down the food,” Theo said with the seriousness of a hostage negotiator.
“I told you we needed Styrofoam bats,” Lulu called out to Garrison as the action escalated.
Much like in a war zone, artillery was firing so rapidly that one could hardly keep track of who was lobbing what. The air was a veritable sea of cookies, bread, crackers, and crumbs. Once the food was finished, the floor literally covered in culinary casualties, Mrs. Wellington grabbed the jug of milk and splashed it directly into her stepson’s gray face. As milk dripped slowly down his body, the old woman cackled evilly, prompting Abernathy to grab the sole remaining item on the table, the Casu Frazigu, and smash it into her yellow-makeup-covered face.
Both Abernathy and Mrs. Wellington had abruptly transformed into coldhearted warriors, leaving behind absolutely no sign of the sheepish man or weepy woman from before.
“Get it together!” Garrison screamed judgmentally at the soggy twosome. “You guys are grown-ups.”
As Mrs. Wellington brushed large chunks of Casu Frazigu off her yellow dress, she looked crossly at Abernathy and muttered, “Barbarian.”
“Mrs. Wellington, need I remind you that you are the teacher in this room?” Madeleine asked disdainfully.
“Not anymore,” Garrison added. “As of right now, Mrs. Wellington and Abernathy are the students and we’re the teachers.”
“What a day!” Theo said excitedly. “First an MC and now a teacher; my résumé is pretty much building itself.”
“This isn’t Cuba, contestants,” Mrs. Wellington snapped. “Coups are illegal.”
“Mrs. Wellington, you can either accept us as your and Abernathy’s teachers or lose everything you’ve worked for; the choice is yours,” Madeleine stated firmly.
After a few seconds, the Casu Frazigu–drenched woman nodded her head in agreement. Madeleine then offered Lulu a knowing glance. The freckle-faced girl turned to Abernathy, who had once again averted his eyes.
“Abernathy, unless you want to wind up as some circus freak being hunted by the media like Bigfoot,” Lulu said with certainty, “you need to do what we say, got it?”
Abernathy quickly nodded his head in agreement, clearly terrified at the idea of being exploited by the press. All eyes, except Abernathy’s, then turned to Garrison for the details of the plan. Feeling an enormous amount of pressure, the tanned boy began to sweat as he did when presented with an ocean, lake, or pool view. After receiving a reassuring smile and a nod of the head from Schmidty, Garrison quickly wiped his upper lip, shook off his doubts, and rose to the occasion.
“Let’s keep this simple,” Garrison declared. “Abernathy needs a makeover both mentally and physically, so he can appear somewhat normal. And if we can’t actually get him to forgive Mrs. Wellington, we’ll work on getting him to pretend long enough to undermine Sylvie Montgomery’s story.”
“Celery’s worried the plan sounds a little vague,” Hyacinth squeaked sprightly.
“Hyacinth, much like your sense of tact, I’m sure details are forthcoming,” Madeleine said coldly.
As Hyacinth whispered animatedly into her ferret’s ear, Theo quietly muttered out of the side of his mouth, “What about the old woman?”
“I think Lulu may have been on to something with the Styrofoam bats,” Garrison responded half-jokingly, still unsure how to handle the opposing personalities of Mrs. Wellington and Abernathy.
EVERYONE’S AFRAID OF SOMETHING:
Coulrophobia is the fear of clowns.
Continuing in his natural role as leader, Garrison designated an area of expertise for each student. It would not be easy to smooth Abernathy’s rough edges while also mending his highly fractured relationship with Mrs. Wellington, but the students had no choice but to try. After all, Mrs. Wellington was more than a friend and teacher; she was the sole person who had ever helped them with their fears.
Madeleine was assigned to academic tutoring, most notably world events Abernathy missed while living in the forest. The globally minded girl realized she had her work cut out for her when Abernathy mentioned the Berlin Wall and the U.S.S.R. in present tense. It appeared that while living among the trees and squirrels, far from newspapers, television, or radio, the man had missed the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1991 dissolution of the U.S.S.R. But perhaps even more jarring than missed world events was his technological illiteracy. The gray-skinned man had never seen a cell phone or a BlackBerry, nor had he heard of the Internet.
As for Abernathy’s physical appearance, self-proclaimed fashionista Theo demanded to be in charge of overhauling his wardrobe. Basic social skills such as eye contact and small talk fell to Lulu. While she herself lacked a great many social graces, Garrison believed her tough personality would be an asset in breaking through to Abernathy. Hyacinth was designated the man’s on-call singing partner, while Garrison was to handle sports. The athletically inclined boy held firm that all normal American males had a basic understanding of baseball, basketball, or football. Much to Theo’s annoyance, Garrison refused to add figure skating to that list.
As for greasing the wheels of friendship between Abernathy and Mrs. Wellington, the details were much cruder, even—dare one say it?—fuzzy. The feeble plan consisted of group-therapy and hypnosis sessions led by Schmidty. While the comb-over–topped man lacked any psychological or hypnotic credentials, he offered his services, and considering the options, the students blindly accepted.
“I don’t think we should do this without a proper plan name. Maybe ‘Mrs. Wellington and Abernathy Get Their Groove Back, ’ or ‘Project Groove’ for short,” Theo said while enjoying a Casu Frazigu–free lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches and green beans with Madeleine, Lulu, Garrison, Hyacinth, and Schmidty. Mrs. Wellington and Abernathy had both chosen to eat in their rooms to avoid each other.
“Oh my gosh! Yes! We should make matching tee shirts, too,” Hyacinth said excitedly.
“No plan name, no tee shirts. We don’t need any more distractions, got it?” Lulu responded firmly to Theo and Hyacinth.
Excerpted from School of Fear 3: The Final Exam by Gitty Daneshvari Copyright © 2011 by Gitty Daneshvari. Excerpted by permission.
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