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As Madison Finn glared at the writing on the blackboard in Mr. Gibbons's classroom, the words blurred together. Her eyes watered, so she reached into her orange bag for a tissue.
Today's Mental Floss
If an international airliner crashed exactly on the U.S.—Mexican border, where would authorities be required to bury the survivors?
Madison blinked. The answer didn't come easily. And now her nose was leaking. Why wasn't the cold pill Mom had given her that morning at breakfast working? Forget the cold pill. Why wasn't her brain working?
"Mr. Gibbons always asks such random stuff," Egg Diaz whispered to Madison. Egg was one of Madison's best guy friends. He was a whiz at video games, computers, and complaining.
"Like my brain isn't tired enough," sniffed Fiona Waters, one of Madison's best girlfriends. Her nose was running, too. "Mental floss sounds painful."
"Shhhhh!" Madison said. She didn't want Mr. Gibbons to catch them talking when they should all have been working out the answer.
Unbeknownst to her pals, Madison secretly loved all the brain twisters and obscure homework assignments Mr. Gibbons offered in his class. They made her think differently. She liked that. Unfortunately, that day's "floss" had all three friends super stumped. They would have to wait until the end of class for an answer. The three pulled out their copies of The Outsiders for class discussion.
"Before we get started, I have a special assignment for you," Mr. Gibbons announced to the room with a wink. "It's a creative research project that the entire seventh grade will be working on...."
"Oh, no," a boy in the back of the room groaned. "Isn't it early in the year for a research project?"
Mr. Gibbons chuckled. "Quite the contrary, Mark," he said, shuffling the stack. "Early on is a perfect time to get serious about your work. Don't you all think so?"
Now everyone in the room groaned.
Row by row, Mr. Gibbons passed out sets of stapled yellow pages. On the top page, Madison read the bold, blue headline, "Cross-Curricular Seventh Grade Webpage Project." She glanced over at Egg with a half grin. Together, she, Egg, and their other friend Drew Maxwell, worked on the school website together. Maybe this assignment wouldn't be so awful after all....
"As you can see," Mr. Gibbons continued. "This isn't really an English assignment. It covers all subjects. The twist is that you'll be doing your paper online and with a team of students. Your other seventh grade teachers will be discussing more with you today."
Madison's eyes scanned the page.
Suggested Webpage Topics:
Egyptians and the pyramids
UFO sightings: real or hoax?
Sinking of the Titanic
The origins of baseball and how the game has changed
Saving the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge
Magic and optical illusions
Ben Franklin's inventions
Be creative. But think smart. No web essays on extreme sports, serial killers, video games, or biographies of current celebrities, rap stars, or sports stars. All topics must be approved first.
Although it seemed like an interesting project, Madison found herself staring into space, or at least into the space on the linoleum floor between the two desks in front of her. It was getting harder and harder to think about work—or anything else—when her ears felt this hot.
"Maddie?" Fiona sniffled again. "You don't look so good."
"Huh?" Madison grunted, turning around to face her friend. She coughed. "Yeah. I don't feel so good."
"Did you see Aimee this morning?" Fiona asked. "She isn't feeling so good, either."
Aimee Gillespie was Madison's and Fiona's other best friend.
"Ladies?" Mr. Gibbons said as he came and stood between them. "Can I help you with something? Do you have questions about the handout?"
Fiona let out a loud cough. "Um ... not exactly."
"Gee, that cough doesn't sound too good," Mr. Gibbons commented.
"I'm sort of sick," Fiona admitted.
"There are a lot of sick kids in school today," Mr. Gibbons mused.
"I know. Madison is sick, too," Fiona added.
Right on cue, Madison wiped her eyes and nose with wadded-up tissue.
"Oh, I get it," Mr. Gibbons said with a smile. He scratched his head and pointed to the classroom door. "Maybe you two should take a walk ... to the nurse."
Fiona let out a satisfied squeak as Mr. Gibbons walked back to his desk to fill out a hall pass.
"You're good, Fiona," Madison said under her breath. She reached down for her orange bag with another loud sniffle.
"You always get to escape," Egg said. "Typical."
"Oh, Egg," Fiona said, holding back more sniffles. She cocked her head to the side and laughed a little. Even sick, Fiona found ways to flirt with Egg. They'd been "dating" since seventh grade started. Of course their dates mostly consisted of group trips to Freeze Palace, the movies, and the library, but they were still happy to be called a couple.
No one in class seemed to pay much attention to Fiona or Madison as they headed for the door. Everyone else was too busy reading and talking about the new webpage project.
"Look over that work sheet, you hear?" Mr. Gibbons told Fiona and Madison as he handed them the hall pass. "And read chapters eight and nine in The Outsiders. I hope you're back in class tomorrow."
"Um ... Mr. Gibbons?" Madison asked before walking out. "What was today's floss?" Normally, Mr. Gibbons gave kids the answer at the end of class. Madison couldn't leave without finding out.
"Ahhh. The floss! Today's was a really tricky question," he said quietly, so that no one else in the room would hear. "Read it carefully again, Madison. Think. Why would anyone bury survivors!"?
"Duh!" Madison said groggily. "That's a good one.
"How do you think this stuff up?" Fiona asked with a cough.
Mr. Gibbons shook his head. "Get thyselves to the nurse's office, young ladies, before we all catch your bugs, okay?"
Madison slung her bag over her shoulder and followed Fiona to the staircase. Together they headed to Nurse Shim's office, otherwise known as The Dungeon, because it was located in the basement at school. Sometimes kids called Nurse Shim the Dungeon Keeper. Entering her dark office was like entering a prison with checkpoints and sign-up sheets and NO TALKING signs posted everywhere. She was the ogress of Far Hills Junior High, and everyone knew better than to cross her.
"Hall passes, pah-lease!" Nurse Shim cried as soon as Fiona and Madison entered the office.
At the front of the office sat a very large desk, chairs, and a giant, fluorescent floor lamp with a lampshade like a turban. In the back were a few musty-smelling cots. Along the side walls stood cabinets half filled with bandages, tissues, cotton balls, and other first-aid items. The school had used to store aspirin and other medicines, but then the rules had changed. Medication was no longer distributed on the premises.
Madison and Fiona quickly produced their passes and sat down in a couple of the metal chairs in front of Nurse Shim's desk. Since they both complained of fever and chills, each girl was given a thermometer to check her temperature.
"One hundred and one degrees," Nurse Shim said as she read Fiona's thermometer. Madison's was close to 102. "I guess we're sending you gals home."
Nurse Shim picked up her telephone. "What's your mom's number?" She asked Fiona first. Fiona wheezed a little as she repeated the number and watched Nurse Shim dial.
"Hey! Fiona! Maddie! What are you guys doing here?" a voice called out from the doorway.
Madison and Fiona whirled around to see Aimee standing there. She had her backpack and coat in her arms.
Nurse Shim grabbed Aimee's pass, too. "Sit," she barked.
Aimee rolled her eyes and sneezed. "I feel so-o-o gross," she mumbled to her friends, collapsing into a chair. "Why are you here?"
"This so weird," Madison said. "We're all sick at the same time. What are the odds of that?"
"I'd rather be anywhere but here." Aimee sneezed again.
"What a weird coincidence. Like fate or something. Don'tcha think?" Fiona said, rubbing her nose.
"Excuse me, ladies," Nurse Shim interrupted with a scowl. "Miss Waters, I spoke to your father and he will be coming to school to get you. Now, what about you, Miss Finn? Whom should I call?"
"My mom is in a work meeting," Madison said. "And I don't know where the meeting is."
Madison didn't want to admit that she'd left a slip of paper with all of Mom's contact information on the kitchen counter at home.
"What about your father?" Nurse Shim asked.
"He's away on business," Madison said.
"Can't you call your mom on her cell phone?" Fiona asked.
Madison shook her head. "She doesn't have it. It broke last week."
Nurse Shim tapped her fingers on her big steel desk. "Without a parent's consent, you cannot leave the school," she said, clucking her tongue.
"I have an idea," Aimee cut in. "Call your dad on his cell and then call my mom. I know he'll give permission for her to come get us both."
Much to Madison's relief, Aimee's idea was a slam dunk. Nurse Shim got the permission she needed from Madison's dad, and Mrs. Gillespie agreed to pick up both Aimee and Madison. She told them she would meet the girls in front of the school in fifteen minutes.
Aimee, Fiona, and Madison gathered their belongings and headed toward the front lobby as Nurse Shim waved them on with a grunt. Two other kids with sniffles and hall passes were waiting for her immediate attention.
As the girls made their way to the front lobby, the bell rang for the changing of classes. Kids poured into the hallway, rushing to lockers and classrooms.
"Maddie! Fiona! Aim! Over here!" a voice called out. It was Lindsay, their other BFF, heading back to her own locker. "Where have you been?" Lindsay asked, juggling a stack of books in her hands. Lindsay was usually heading to or coming from the school library and media center.
In response, Madison, Fiona, and Aimee coughed at the same time.
"Are you three sick?" Lindsay asked.
Madison rubbed her nose. "Don't I look like Rudolph?" she said. "My nose feels redder than red."
"Wow. You should go to the nurse," Lindsay suggested.
"We just left. She sent us home," Fiona said.
"We're on our way to the lobby...." Aimee said.
"How did you all get sick at the same time?" Lindsay asked.
Madison shrugged. "Lucky, I guess."
"That's the bell. I'm late. Somebody call me later!" Lindsay said, dashing off to her next class.
As they turned another corner, Madison nearly collided with Ivy Daly, her archenemy, otherwise known as Poison Ivy.
"Excuse ME!" Ivy cried when Madison nearly knocked her over. "What is your problem? Oh, wait! I know what your problem is...."
Madison let out a loud, hacking cough.
"Ewwwww!" Ivy said, taking a step back. "Get away from me. I don't want your germs. Disgusting."
"Gee, thanks," Madison said as the enemy turned and retreated to her own locker. Madison felt clammier than clammy. There was no question about it: she had to get out of school—now.
"She's the one who's disgusting," Aimee scoffed.
Hart Jones came up behind Madison and thwacked her on the back. She turned, stunned. Madison didn't want Hart to see her that way, looking like death warmed over.
"Hey, Hart," Madison mumbled, staring down at the floor. Her head was really spinning now—and it wasn't just because of the fever. Since the beginning of junior high, she'd had a huge crush on Hart. Lately the burning question was: did he feel the same way?
"Where are you headed?" Hart asked when he spied her coat and orange book bag.
"Headed? Oh. Home." Madison coughed again. "You?" The only words she produced were monosyllables. She sounded like a computer recording.
"Me? I'm off to second period...." Hart said. He stared down at his sneakers and bobbed from side to side. "Hey, did you get that research-paper assignment in first period?"
Before she could answer, Madison felt a sneeze coming on. "Aaah ... aaah ..."
She quickly bit her tongue. It was a trick Gramma Helen had taught her: if you bit the very tip of your tongue you could short-circuit sneezes, itches, and all kinds of twitches.
Unfortunately, it didn't work this time.
"Aaah ... CHOOOOOOOO!"
Hart took a slow step backward and glanced down at his sweater. Madison was afraid to look.
From down the hall, Chet Waters, Fiona's twin brother, came running. "Hart!" he cried. "Wait up!"
"Here comes bigmouth," Fiona groaned. "We better split. I can't deal with Chet right now."
"Yeah, let's go," Aimee said, tugging on Madison's sleeve. "My mom will be waiting downstairs for us."
Madison smiled. Hart smiled, too. He didn't seem fazed at all by the sweater sneezing incident. In fact, he looked right into Madison's eyes, like he was staring through her.
"Hope you feel better soon," Hart said.
As they walked away, Aimee grabbed Madison around the waist and leaned in close. "Way to flirt, Maddie," she whispered.
Madison gasped. "What?" she said. "I wasn't flirting."
"Well, so what? He was," Aimee said, pinching Madison's arm.
Fiona laughed. "Definitely," she said, pinching Madison's other arm.
Madison had kept her crush a secret for a long time, but now her friends knew everything. Lindsay knew, too. And it was better that way. It was too hard to keep big secrets from best friends. Plus, like Aimee had said, it was kinda obvious.
In the school lobby, the three BFFs sat together on a wooden bench, waiting for their parents and comparing aches and pains.
Aimee pulled out the same yellow research-paper sheet that Madison and Fiona had gotten in Mr. Gibbons's class and waved it in the air. "What do you think about this project?" she asked her friends.
"Way too hard," Fiona chimed in. "On top of all our other homework, too!"
"Could be fun though, especially since it's on the web," Madison said.
"You think everything about the web is fun," Aimee teased. She blew her nose loudly.
Madison rolled her eyes.
"But what's with the 'team' thing?" Fiona asked aloud.
"Knowing my luck, I'll get teamed with Poison Ivy. That would be the worst," Madison said.
"I thought we could pick our own teams," Aimee said.
"Really?" Madison said.
"If that's true, then why don't we do the project together?" Fiona said.
Madison's mind started spinning in a whole new direction.
"You mean, me, you, and Aim as a team?" Madison asked. "Cool."
"Unless you'd rather team up with Hart...." Aimee said.
Fiona laughed so hard she started to cough.
"Very funny, you two," Madison moaned. She wiped her nose.
"There's Mom!" Aimee shouted, pointing across the school parking lot. Pulling in directly behind the Gillespie minivan was Fiona's dad, driving their family car. He honked.
"When can we talk more about the project?" Fiona asked as she headed toward her dad's car.
"Just E me later," Aimee suggested.
"And E ... aaah ... CHOOOOO!" Madison sneezed again. "E me, too," she said, eyes watering.
Aimee held the door open for Madison. Both girls waved good-bye to Fiona.
Warm and breezy September air blew outside the school building. Of course, Madison had chills and hot sweats at the same time, so she wasn't really sure what the real temperature was.
Besides, Madison had other things on her mind.
And all signs seemed to indicate that Hart had Madison on his mind, too.
Excerpted from Three's a Crowd by Laura Dower. Copyright © 2004 Laura Dower. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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