My Life as a Book
By Janet Tashjian, Jake Tashjian
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2010 Janet Tashjian
All rights reserved.
"I DON'T WANT TO READ THIS BOOK!"
Ever since my teacher said I was a "reluctant reader," I spend every waking minute avoiding my mother and her latest idea of how I should use my time. WASTE my time is more like it.
"The librarian said you'd love this book." Mom vaults over a basket of laundry, but I'm too fast for her. I dive out my bedroom window onto the roof of the garage. "One chocolate chip per page," she calls.
"That's the old rate. My price has gone up." As soon as my mother starts to climb out after me, I hoist myself through the open attic window. A few minutes later, I hear her at the bottom of the attic stairs.
"Two chocolate chips per page, but that's as high as I'll go, Derek."
While my mother tries to bribe me down from the attic with chocolate, I rummage through the cardboard boxes to see if there's a stick I can use to shoot my way out. Instead, I find a stack of letters my father wrote to my mother when they were dating — yuck — and some old newspapers. When I open one of them up, the headline reads LOCAL GIRL FOUND DEAD ON BEACH. The newspaper is from Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, and dated ten years ago. (I have to do the math in the dust with my finger.)
I open the attic trapdoor and hang down by my feet. I'm facing my mother upside down, like Peter Parker and Mary Jane in the first Spider-Man movie, except we don't kiss — OBVIOUSLY. I ask Mom about a dead seventeen-year-old girl on an island we've never been to, but she doesn't know what I'm talking about. So I toss down the newspaper. When she picks it up, her expression changes.
"This has nothing to do with you," she says.
"No kidding," I answer. "I just want to know why we have it."
She yanks me down by the waistband of my jeans and catches me before I hit the floor.
"Instead of making up a story, you're going to read one." She tucks the newspaper article into her back pocket, then shoves the library book into my hands.
The thing is, I like to read. If everyone just left me alone with Calvin, Hobbes, Garfield, Bucky, and Satchel, I could read all day. But forcing a kid to do something as private as reading? My teacher, my mother, and the reading tutor — a nice woman named SATAN! — came up with a new reading system for me this year. They had me keep a list of all the vocabulary words I didn't know. Because I like to draw — my father is a professional illustrator — I took their idea and made it my own. So instead of writing the vocabulary words, now Idraw them. Anything to get out of reading.
My parents insist I use this system all the time, so I usually pretend I'm a spy being tortured by Super Evildoers who force me to practice "active reading" or be killed by a foreign assassin. But if everyone thinks I'm spending my summer doing this, they are WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.
If my life were a book, I'd have my own cool adventures instead of reading about someone else's. If I were the main character in an exciting story rather than some kid who has to sit around and READ all day, I'd spend the summer trying to find out how that girl in the newspaper ended up dead.
Torture in the Classroom
The next morning Ms. Williams picks up where my mother left off. She passes out the summer reading list, wearing a demented smile and acting as if she's tossing out free candy. I pretend to smash my head on my desk.
Ms. Williams ignores me. "You'll read three books from this list and write a report on one of them. The way our principal shifted assignments next year, I'm happy to say, I'll be your teacher again in September."
I swear I'm not a troublemaker, but it's like an alien life-form has landed in the classroom wielding assault weapons in each hand. SOMEBODY HAS TO STOP THE MADNESS!
"Are you saying we have you again next year and we have a report due on the first day of school?" I ask. "That's reading andwriting homework! For the summer! It's just not doable on my schedule."
My friend Matt thinks this is funny, but I know he'll enjoy the show from the sidelines without backing me up.
The teacher's voice has that same weary tone as my mother's. "Please tell us about all these summer activities — I can't wait to hear."
"That's the whole thing," I say. "You can't plan when you're going to pelt the UPS truck with water balloons or when you'll dig up worms and put them in Mr. Parker's mail slot or when you'll dip your action figures in paint and flick them at your friend with a lacrosse stick until you're both covered in painty stripes. Summer's like a pajama-and-cereal day — if you try to plan it out ahead of time, you wreck it."
Matt waves his fist in the air as if he's the one giving Ms. Williams a hard time. The teacher places the reading list squarely in front of me. "I'm afraid you'll have to try and fit in three of these books during all that fun."
I like Ms. Williams, but I wouldn't complain if she was kidnapped by crazed bank robbers in need of a getaway car.
The reading list — unfortunately — isn't going anywhere either. I stare at it and wonder what I've gotten myself into. One of the books is about a kid and his dog over summer vacation and all the exciting things they do together and the lessons the boy learns.
I have a dog and — trust me — that stuff only happens in books.
Playing James Bond
Matt and I are at the mall looking at DVDs and comic books. His mother is trying on shoes a few stores down, but we imagine she isn't with us and that we came here on our own.
My favorite clerk, Jamie, wraps DVDs in plastic then seals them with a blow-dryer. When his boss isn't looking, Jamie pretends to stick his finger in the electrical outlet while he aims the blow-dryer at his head so his hair flies around like he's been shocked. I laugh more than Matt does, but that's because Jamie is Matt's older brother and he never thinks anything Jamie does is funny.
As we scan the new action comedies, I tell Matt about the newspaper article I found in the attic. "I want to find out more about the girl who drowned," I say. "Do you think Jamie can help?"
"He's more interested in girls that are alive." Matt points to Jamie blowing the hair of two high school girls giggling by the cash register. Jamie's boss coughs with disapproval and says he's going down the hall for a coffee. That's all Matt and I need to hear.
"Come on, Jamie. Your boss won't be back for at least ten minutes," I say.
Matt starts to hum the James Bond theme song. Jamie tries to impress the girls by being a good brother, so he presses the button that lowers the store's gate. The metal bars come down slowly from the ceiling while Matt and I run through the store as if we're spies being chased by bad guys. Then, when the gate's just a few feet from the ground, we roll under it and escape at the last second.
Jamie waves to us from the other side of the bars and tells us we look like monkeys at the zoo.
"Very funny," Matt says. "Raise the gate so we can do it again."
Instead, Jamie takes packing peanuts from the box of DVDs and starts throwing them as if we're monkeys and it's feeding time.
"Don't be a knucklehead," I say. "Let's do it again before your boss comes back."
But Jamie is focused on the girls and has blocked us out completely.
"Just where you two belong — behind bars."
I turn around and see Carly Rodriquez, the smartest girl in our class. I tell her we're in the middle of re-enacting a James Bond movie, and if she doesn't get out of the way, we can't be responsible for her safety.
She waves a green plastic bag in our faces like she's got the secret code we spies are searching for. "I just picked out my summer reading books. I got two extra ones in case I finish the others early."
Teacher's pet, as usual. I tell Jamie his boss is coming back with the coffee, and he immediately hits the button to raise the gate. When it's a foot off the floor, Matt and I roll back into the store. Carly almost looks a little envious of our game.
Jamie peeks down the hall. "You liar, he's not coming."
"I know." I take a handful of change from the HAVE A PENNY, LEAVE A PENNY tray on the counter, then run down to meet Matt in the poster section. I see Carly at the other end of the store, smiling as she pages through one of her new books. This time I'm the one who's envious.
Why Call Her a Babysitter If I'm Not a Baby?
When my parents leave for their Thursday-night date, I offer my babysitter, Amy, a truce. Usually I torture her by locking myself in the bathroom, running the water, and overflowing the bathtub, or taking my old bike from the basement and riding it down the front hall stairs. Last time I did, I skidded into my father's worktable and his markers ended up all over the house.
"I'll make a deal with you," I say. "If you help me do some research, I'll go to bed on time with no fuss. I swear."
She stops texting her friends and looks at me suspiciously. "Is this for a school project?"
"Kind of." Since my mother grabbed the newspaper article away from me the other day, I searched every wastebasket in the house with no luck. All I can remember about the news story is the date.
When Amy goes back to texting, I stick my face between her and the phone and ask if she can find more information on the computer. She jumps at the chance to use my father's superfast laptop and types in MARTHA'S VINEYARD DROWNING, as well as the year. Several articles pop up, but I finally spot the short piece I found in the attic. The girl's name is Susan James. I ask Amy if there's anything else.
"Why are you asking me?"
I tell Amy I've cornered Mom twice, but she gets angrier each time I ask. I even heard her talking to Dad about it in the den with the door shut.
"'You can always write to the newspaper if you're that desperate to know."
"But then I'd have to WRITE." I decide I don't like Amy's attitude, so I break our truce, grab my dog, Bodi, and lock us in my mother's car. After a few minutes of trying to coax me out, Amy gives up and goes inside.
I scrunch down in the backseat and think about a girl Amy's age who died. I bury my head into Bodi's chocolate fur and wonder what that must've been like for her parents, her brothers and sisters, if she had any, or even her dog. As if he knows what I'm thinking, Bodi moves in closer and puts his head on my leg. I imagine waves crashing on an island I've never been to but then am startled by bright lights behind me. Mom and Dad, home early.
When I jump out of the car, Bodi does too. "We were just cleaning it. What a mess!"
Amy meets us in the driveway and holds out her hand to get paid. "He locked them in again. Plus, he was obsessed with an article about some girl who drowned. Mrs. Fallon, I tried my best, I really did."
My mother gives her a twenty, and Amy is back on her cell before my father can offer to walk her home. I yell across the street for Bodi to stop eating the food Mr. Jennings leaves out for his cat.
My mother holds open the back door. "I have no idea why I saved that article," she says. "I must've been interested in something on the back."
"There was an ad for a furniture store."
"See? I was probably looking at couches."
"On Martha's Vineyard?"
Mom tries hard not to get annoyed. "I know you have a curious mind, but maybe you can focus on something else. Tomorrow's the last day of school — let's have a great summer, okay?" She shoots me that smile she wears when she'd give everything she owns to get me to behave for more than just a few minutes.
I tell her we won't be doing anything in school tomorrow besides watching a DVD so it's fine if I stay home. But she's not buying it and sends me up to brush my teeth.
Later (I didn't brush my teeth) I trace the letters S–U–S–A–N J–A–M–E–S on the wall. Bodi looks up from his spot at the foot of my bed and watches as if he can read. Maybe if he could, the summer reading list wouldn't be such a chore. I tell myself to stop thinking about bad stuff; after all, tomorrow is the start of vacation, the start of sleeping late, the end of being prodded every day by teachers with their mental Tasers to LEARN, LEARN, LEARN.
Tomorrow is also the day I start to investigate what my mother is trying to hide.
The last day of school should be the best day of the year, but it's a disaster. Ms. Williams can't get the DVD player to work, so she points to everything in the room and makes us spell it like we're back in kindergarten. When she points to a photo of Mr. Demetri, I spell T-H-E WO-R-S-T P-R-I-N-C-I-P-A-L W-E H-A-V-E E-V-E-R H-A-D instead. I thought I did a great job with all that spelling, but Ms. Williams is not amused and makes me write out the multiplication tables for punishment. No one appreciates a good joke anymore, that's the problem.
When I get to my locker, Joe Brennan is waiting for me. Joe used to be one of the smallest kids in our school, but he had a growth spurt last fall and now he's the biggest. Joe isn't smart enough to use his new size to shake down kids for lunch money. Instead, his favorite trick is getting in your face with his junk-food breath and making you listen to his lame made-up stories. Trust me, losing your cash is a hundred times better than his fantasy tales about talking gerbils and magic turtles.
I lean against my locker to escape his foul breath. From the orange crumbs nesting between his teeth, I assume he's been eating Cheetos.
"Hey, Derek," he says, "are you around this summer? I'm working on a great story about a cat with wings who's afraid of heights."
"Sounds interesting." I tell him another lie — that I'll be in skateboard camp in Venice Beach and won't be around.
He doesn't buy it. "You'll be hanging around the neighborhood with that stupid old mutt retriever of yours, same as every summer."
"My dog might be old and a mutt, but he's not stupid." I can feel the handle of the locker pressing into my back as I lean away from the orange-y crumbs shooting out of Joe's mouth.
When I burp in his face, Joe finally lets go of my T-shirt. I hurry back to the classroom and run smack into Ms. Williams.
She places a book in my hand. "Consider this an end-of-school present."
It's one of the books from our reading list.
"Since it's not a library or classroom book," she continues, "you can write in it. I made you some notes in the margins. I hope you find them helpful."
"You're giving me a used book?"
She ignores me. "And don't forget to keep drawing your vocabulary words."
Ms. Williams obviously doesn't realize I'm trying to escape because she continues to block the door. We move side to side in the doorway like two old people dancing. As if on cue, Carly appears beside me. She smiles sweetly to Ms. Williams, then shoots me the evil eye to stop blocking the entrance to her precious classroom.
I move out of the way and thank Ms. Williams for the book. When Carly realizes the teacher gave me a present and not her, she lets out a pathetic noise that sounds as if she's been punched in the gut.
"Carly, are you ready to take Ginger home?" Ms. Williams asks.
Carly volunteered — of course — to watch the class hedgehog for the summer. She stands near Ginger's crate like a Secret Service agent guarding the president. Maybe she'll fall asleep with Ginger on her lap this summer and wake up with marks on her legs from Ginger's quills.
When the bell rings at the end of the day, most of the girls hug each other good-bye at the lockers, milking every last second of school time until next September. I vault over the hedge near the school entrance and skid to a halt in front of the crossing guard. When she tells me to have a nice summer, I shout back that I intend to. At home, I throw my backpack onto the porch and let out Bodi. I think about grabbing his leash but decide against it. We're finally free!
Making Fruit Grenades
Matt and I get my markers and draw grids on the avocados piled on the kitchen counter. When we finish, we take them outside and stack them like cannonballs. Then we "borrow" three bags of potting soil from the garage, empty them into the middle of the driveway, and build two large mounds. We take our places behind the opposite hills.
"If we were still in school, we'd be in Social Studies right now." He pelts me with one of the avocados, which lands in green chunks on my sneaker.
I hurl an avocado back but miss. "Even worse than Social Studies, we'd be in assembly watching Mr. Demetri sing stupid folk songs and play his guitar."
I'm not sure if it's our explosion noises that bring my mother out of the house, but when I look up she's standing on the porch watching us bomb each other.
"They are hand grenades," I inform her.
"I got it." She looks at me with that face that tells me I've messed up once again. "I was going to use those avocados for dinner."
I point to the green mush all over the driveway and our clothes. "They're still edible. Why don't you bring out a bag of chips?"
She closes the door without answering and I know we won't be seeing chips anytime soon. Besides, Bodi has already eaten the biggest chunks of avocado off the driveway. (Continues...)
Excerpted from My Life as a Book by Janet Tashjian, Jake Tashjian. Copyright © 2010 Janet Tashjian. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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