By David Lubar
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2015 David Lubar
All rights reserved.
Off the Bus and Into Trouble
All I needed was handcuffs. If my wrists had been chained to the seat, the scene could have been taken straight from one of those movies where they show the bus bringing the new guy to the prison. Of course, there wasn't any need for cuffs on this ride. Fill my pockets with rocks, add a couple more layers of winter clothes — wet winter clothes — and I might push the scale up toward ninety pounds.
The bus driver looked like he weighed three times that much. His wrists were thicker than my neck. He could probably crumple me up like a used tissue and still keep one hand on the steering wheel. No way I was going to cause him any trouble.
So I wasn't in cuffs — but the rest of it felt a lot like going to prison. I was the only passenger on the bus. After a long ride across three counties, we'd reached the main gate at Edgeview Alternative School. A guard out front holding a clipboard waved us inside, then talked with the bus driver for a minute. The two of them reminded me of a pair of dogs who stop for a quick sniff as they pass each other on their way to important doggy missions. I smiled at the thought of the driver wriggling around on his back in the grass.
Once the driver and the guard finished yapping, we rolled through the yard. The building even looked kind of like a prison — big, cold, gray stone, all wrapped up with a high brick fence. Edgeview was the sort of place where people kept broken machines, old tires, and other stuff they didn't need. Yeah, this was a place for things nobody wanted. End of the trip. End of the line. No way I could pretend it wasn't happening.
As the bus stopped near the front door of the building, I noticed all the windows had that dead look of glass filled with wire — the type of windows they use in a gym or a warehouse. A man slipped out from behind the door and walked stiffly down the steps. I got the feeling he'd been watching from inside for the bus to show up so he wouldn't seem like he was waiting. At first, I thought he was real old. As he got closer, I realized he wasn't that much older than my parents — he just moved like he was ancient. He was wearing a dark suit with a bow tie. I never trusted anyone with a bow tie. I didn't trust anyone without a bow tie, either, but I especially didn't trust people who wore them.
The driver leaned over and pulled the handle, thrusting open the bus door. Then he glanced back at me. "Last stop, kid. Everyone out." He laughed. The big, stupid hunk of meat laughed like that was the funniest joke in the world.
I got up. My whole body made little cracking sounds as I straightened out. My spine was having its own Fourth of July celebration, six months late. Thanks to all the construction on the highway, the ride here had taken two hours. That wasn't counting the half-hour trip to the city to meet the bus. Me and Dad. What fun that was. Dad didn't say a word when he handed me over to the driver. He just gave me that where-have-I-failed? look. I didn't say anything, either. I just gave him my how-would-I-know? look. He couldn't wait to get out of there.
"Come on, kid," the driver said. "I ain't got all day."
I grabbed my bag out of the overhead rack and scooped up my jacket from the seat. Mom would have made me wear the jacket. Probably a dorky scarf, too. But it wasn't all that cold for the beginning of January, and Mom wasn't around.
"Move it, kid."
I took my time strolling down the aisle.
"Have a nice life," the driver said as I walked past him. He laughed again, wheezing like a donkey with asthma.
"Have a heart attack," I said. Then I hopped to the ground before he could grab me.
Behind my back, I heard the door slam hard, cutting off the stream of swear words the driver was spewing at me. Some people sure are touchy.
I looked at the stiff little man with the bow tie.
"Hello, Martin," he said, smiling the sort of smile that doesn't mean anything. "I'm Principal Davis. Welcome to Edgeview."
I had no idea what he expected me to say. Gee, nice place you have here, thanks for inviting me. I waited. He didn't seem like the sort of person who would run out of words. I'm sure he had all sorts of wisdom to share with me. I hadn't met an adult yet who didn't have essential advice to pass along.
"Well, you have a bit of settling in to do. We'd better get started." He creaked his way up the steps toward the front door, muttering the basic facts of my life as if to prove he knew and cared. "Martin Anderson, age thirteen, grade eight, hometown is Spencer, recently expelled from Spencer Heights Middle School. Previously expelled from Upper Spencer Junior High, expelled before that from ..."
I tuned him out. To my right, the bus rolled out through the gate and rumbled down the road, carrying the driver back to the free world. I followed Principal Davis inside the building. The entrance was dark, barely lit by two weak bulbs that hung from the ceiling on frayed cords. The air hung down over me, too. Warm and heavy air. I felt like I was breathing soup.
We climbed a steep flight of stairs to the left of the front door. The steps ended in the middle of a long hallway. Something that might have been a carpet a million footsteps ago clung to the floor. More dim bulbs made a halfhearted attempt at lighting the area, revealing walls covered with scrawled graffiti.
"I assume you understand why you are here," Principal Davis said.
"I got on the wrong bus?" I figured a very stupid question deserved an extremely stupid answer.
He ignored my guess and kept walking, leading me up a second flight of steps. The wall felt rough, and the dull green paint had flaked away in a couple of spots. The odor of old varnish on the second floor gave way to the sharper stench of unwashed clothing as I climbed higher.
I tried again. "I won a contest? I wrote the winning essay? I'm the tenth caller? I got the highest score in Final Jeopardy?" This was fun. And as long as I kept talking, I wouldn't have to think about where I was going.
"These are the living quarters," he said, still ignoring my guesses. "After you've gotten settled, I'll have someone give you a tour of the school." He stopped where he was and I caught up to him. Actually, I almost ran into him. His suit smelled like dusty mothballs.
"I know," I said as the perfect answer hit me. "I'm here because you need an assistant. The place is too much for you to handle by yourself. You just aren't up to the job."
Oops. That one got rid of his smile. His face turned mean and angry for an instant — the sort of meanness that needs to lash out and cause pain. I could almost hear his teeth grinding together. Unlike the smile, this was an honest expression. This was Principal Davis at his finest. If he'd been a cartoon character, steam would have shot from his nose and ears. But, like a true professional, he hid the anger quickly. "Well, now ... no point standing here chattering. Let's get you —"
He never finished that sentence. From down the hall, we were interrupted by a shout: "FIRE!"
Telephone Conversation Between the Parents of Martin Anderson
Richard Anderson: Hi. It's me. I got the kid to the bus. I stopped at the office on the way home.
Dorothy Anderson: Do you think he'll be okay?
Richard Anderson: Who knows? I hope this place does him some good. Heaven knows nothing else has worked. I'll tell you, my old man wouldn't have let me get away with anything. He'd have smacked me a couple of good ones with his belt. That always kept me in line. I don't know where the kid gets that mouth of his.
Dorothy Anderson: Martin's not that bad.
Richard Anderson: Tell that to the last three schools he's been kicked out of. Tell that to the scout troop that threw him out. And while you're at it, try telling it to his Little League coach. You know how bad that made me look when he mouthed off to the coach?
Dorothy Anderson: It's my fault. I just know it. I saw this psychologist on a talk show, and he said —
Richard Anderson: Forget that nonsense. And don't blame yourself. Or me. It's not our fault. It's his fault. We're good parents. His sister is turning out fine. We did everything we could. Listen, want me to pick up a pizza on the way home?
Dorothy Anderson: I guess. Yeah, that would be nice.
When I heard the kid shout, "FIRE!" my brain said, Get out of here, but my feet said, Freeze.
My feet won.
Suddenly, kids were running all over the place. Along both sides of the hall, doors flew open and kids popped out, almost like they were throwing a giant surprise party. Far down at the end of the hall, smoke drifted from a room. There wasn't a lot of smoke — just a trickle — but any smoke is bad if it isn't supposed to be there. At least the fire wasn't between me and the stairs. I relaxed when I realized I wasn't trapped.
"It's Torchie's room," one kid said. "He did it again."
Principal Davis sighed. "I told them to make sure he didn't get any matches," he said. "Can't anyone around here carry out a simple order? Do I have to do everything myself?"
"Coming through," someone shouted from behind us.
A guy raced up the stairs carrying a fire extinguisher. He sprinted past us and hurried toward the room. I followed, trying to slip my way through the crowd that had gathered at the edge of the smoke. I managed to squeeze next to the doorway and catch a glimpse inside the room. A small fire smoldered on a desk. It looked like a bunch of papers were burning. A kid stood pressed against the far wall, staring at the fire. I figured that must be Torchie.
"I didn't do it," he said. "Honest, I didn't do nuthin'." He raised his hands in a display of innocence. A trickle of sweat ran down his forehead, past his right eye. It stopped, finally, at his pudgy cheek. Red hair, also damp, drooped in clumps from a wandering part that ran along the center of his scalp. It was the sort of face a ventriloquist would have loved. "I didn't do it," he repeated.
Yeah, right, I thought. And I'm Abe Lincoln. In the room, the guy with the fire extinguisher let fly with a stream of foamy spray, knocking out the blaze pretty quickly. He spun toward the crowd of kids and spouted out words I never would have expected. "Quick, what have we learned here?"
Nobody said anything. I sure didn't.
"Come on," the man said. "This is easy. What three things are required for a fire?"
"Heat, fuel ..." a small kid at the back of the crowd said. I couldn't believe the guy was turning this into a science lesson. He had to be a teacher, though he sure wasn't dressed like one. He wore a T-shirt with PRINCETON on it in big orange letters hanging above a picture of a tiger. The shirt was tucked into a pair of jeans. The frayed jeans cuffs hung over scuffed shoes, the same way his ragged mustache hung over his upper lip.
"Right! Heat and fuel. That's two. Come on, one more," the man urged. He took a real deep breath.
"Oxygen," someone else said.
"Exactly!" The guy held up the extinguisher. "So we smother the fire to deprive it of oxygen. We can also stop a fire by lowering the temperature or removing the fuel. Remember that." He gave the desktop another short blast. Then he turned his attention to Torchie. I wondered if he was going to blast the kid with a stream of words the way he'd blasted the fire with a stream of foam, but he just sighed and said, "Philip, we need to work a bit harder on this problem of yours." He tucked the extinguisher under his left arm and held his right hand out, palm up.
Torchie — I guess his real name was Philip — opened his mouth as if he was going to protest. Then he shrugged, reached into his pants pocket, and pulled out a disposable lighter. "I really didn't do nuthin'," he said as he dropped the lighter in the man's hand. "Honest."
What a loser.
The man didn't say anything more to Torchie. He put the lighter in his own pocket, then turned back to the crowd and said, "Okay, guys, it's all over. Nothing else to see. Move along." He sounded like a city cop trying to get people away from an accident, but I sort of liked that.
"Well," Principal Davis said, coming up behind me, "this works out rather nicely. Now that you're together, allow me to introduce you to your roommate. Martin Anderson, meet Philip Grieg."
My roommate? Oh crap. This had to be a joke.
Torchie looked at the principal and spewed out the double-negative denial yet again. "I didn't do nuthin'." His eyes shifted over toward me as if he hoped I could leap to his defense. Keep dreaming, fireboy.
"We'll deal with that issue later, Philip. For now, why don't you be a good lad and show Martin around the school. I have to get back to my office."
With that, Principal Davis marched off, leaving me alone in the company of Philip or Torchie or whatever his flaming name was. I stared after the principal. That was it? Hi. Bye. Rip me from my home and shove me here. I had no choice except to turn back to my new roommate.
Now that it was just the two of us, I figured Torchie would find a different song. No such luck. "I really didn't do it," he said.
Sheesh — he needed a sign with that printed on it. Or one of those big pin-on buttons. Then he could just point whenever he wanted to claim he was innocent. I waited for him to change the subject. He wiped his face with his sleeve. It didn't do much for his face, and it left a big wet blotch on his shirt.
"Didn't do nuthin'," he said.
"So I heard." This was just great. They'd put me in a room with a kid who liked to start fires. Fantastic. If I'd known ahead of time, I'd at least have brought some marshmallows. We could have toasted them. Hot dogs would be nice, too. As it was, I hoped I didn't end up getting toasted myself. Man, we'd be a great pair if that happened. Torchie and Toastie.
I glanced at the window to make sure it was big enough for me to squeeze through in an emergency. As far as I could see, there wasn't a fire escape. At least there weren't any bars. On the other hand, this was the third floor, so I hoped I'd never have to use the window as an exit.
One of the two beds in the room was under the window. From the rumpled look, and a couple of burn marks on the sheets, I figured it was Torchie's. The other bed, along the opposite wall, was unmade, but a pile of sheets and blankets were stacked on it, along with a photocopied booklet that said Welcome to Edgeview on the cover. I took a quick glance through the booklet, saw nothing important, then tossed it into the small garbage can next to the bed. There wasn't much else in the room, just two old wooden desks, two small dressers, also made of wood, a pair of lamps, and a closet. A picture of Mars, torn from a magazine, was taped to one wall near the foot of Torchie's bed. Great. Except for the lamps and garbage can, everything in the room looked flammable. To top it off, the place already smelled like the inside of a fireplace. I tossed my bag to the floor by the closet.
"What are you here for?" Torchie asked.
"What do you care?" I asked back.
He shrugged. "I don't know. Just wondering. Figured, being roommates and all, I should get to know you. And maybe you'd want to know about me. Some of the people here aren't too friendly. Not me. I like people."
I held up my hand to shut him off. "I'm here because I seem to have a bit of a problem respecting authority. That's how they put it. Well, that's how the polite ones put it. I've also been called a major pain in the butt, a disturbing influence, a smart mouth, and a snotty-nosed little puke, among other things." I didn't bother adding some of Dad's more colorful phrases. There was no point telling this fire freak my life's story. Not that he'd care.
I stared at the charred pieces of papers scattered around the desk and the bits of extinguisher foam dripping slowly onto the rug. What a mess. It looked like a giant cow had let loose with one monster of a sneeze. "And you're here because you have a hard time with math, right?"
"Huh?" Poor Torchie seemed a bit puzzled.
"Just kidding." I could see this was going to be a lot of fun. I reached down toward my bag. But I didn't want to unpack yet. That would make it real. "So, you feel like showing me around? Principal Davis didn't exactly give me a detailed introduction to the place."
"Yeah. Sure." Torchie led me into the hall and started giving me the tour of Edgeview Alternative School. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Hidden Talents by David Lubar. Copyright © 2015 David Lubar. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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