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The ground shook as the herd of apatosaurs thundered past, running for the joy of it. Anteaters and opossums scattered, trying to avoid the huge feet. Despite the sweltering heat, the apatosaurs raced across the lush plains.
A hungry allosaur looked up at the pounding of the footsteps. Hiding in the trees, he watched for a young loner on the outskirts, or an older apatosaur who had fallen behind. But the herd ran together, the young and the helpless in the center, protected by the strong young apatosaurs who ran on the outside.
The lead apatosaur threw up his head and bellowed his triumph at the sky as he ran. One by one, the other members of the herd stretched their necks as far as they could, and shouted their own excitement in shrill, unformed voices.
Cringing, the allosaur ducked deeper into the trees and slunk off to search for easier prey.
"...dinosaur class project."
Miss Baker's words snapped Ryan out of his daydream.
Had the teacher really said dinosaurs? And something about a class project? He glanced down at his noteBook where he had been doodling a herd of apatosaurs. Ryan had been wondering how he could make his model dinosaurs run and move their heads and bellow. Then the other kids would really be impressed with his living dinosaur village. Now he wished he'd listened more carefully.
"You will need to choose partners for this project," Miss Baker was saying. "I want you to work in groups of two, and then prepare your report for the class with your partner."
Miss Baker beamed at the class. "I know you're all going to be as excited about this project as I am," she told them."Especially you, Ryan, with your love of dinosaurs."
Ryan reddened as the other kids looked at him. Chris, who used to be his best friend, rolled his eyes and groaned. Chris was sick of Ryan's dinosaurs. He'd told Ryan he wouldn't talk to him if Ryan even said the word dinosaur. He said Ryan was obsessed with his crazy dinosaur village. Partners, Ryan thought. Well, tripping triceratops to Chris! His ex-best-friend could beg if he wanted, but Ryan wouldn't be his partner if Chris paid him.
"We are going to have the opportunity to participate in a real fossil dig!" Miss Baker said. "Every year, Professor Coolidge from the University does a field training dig for his graduate students on a farmer's land near the campus. This part of Texas is very fossil-rich, boys and girls. Mostly these are common ones, but every now and then a student digs up something unusual.
"Professor Coolidge has said that you may come to the dig as often as you wish with your partner. Each team will be assigned to one of his graduate students and will help them, running errands, fetching things, making yourselves generally useful. Who knows? One of you may even find some new and exciting fossils!"
Ryan slumped in his seat. Fossils, he thought with disgust. He supposed he had to be glad that scientists had found the first ones, or nobody would know that dinosaurs had existed. But Ryan didn't want to be a scientist who studied old bones. Dinosaurs were something alive and exciting! That's why he was building his living village. Fossils were dead and boring.
He saw Kelley Winslow practically wriggling, her black curls dancing and her blue eyes sparkling with excitement through her glasses. Four-eyed bookworm, he thought. He knew the idea was a disaster, if Kelley loved it. She always acted like some important know-it-all scientist. Whoever got her for a partner was going to have a lousy time. Maybe it would be Chris.
"We'll be going out to the dig for the first time this afternoon," Miss Baker said, collecting their permission slips.
Ryan passed his in numbly. He hadn't even bothered to read it, just left it on the kitchen table for his mother to sign. Now he wished he'd paid attention--he could have been sick today. He wondered if it was too late to get sick.
"You'll have an opportunity to meet Professor Coolidge," Miss Baker went on, not noticing Ryan's attempt to look pale and weak. "Then you'll be assigned to your graduate student. From then on, you and your partner will be responsible for getting to the dig on your own, in the afternoons or on Saturdays. It's within easy biking distance if your parents can't drive you, but if any of you have transportation problems, let me know and I'm sure we can work something out."
Afternoons and Saturdays? Ryan's jaw dropped. She couldn't do that to him! That was like--like detention! He had stuff to do when school was out! He couldn't go dig dead fossils for some dumb class project.. He wondered if he could come up with a good reason to be excused from the project for good. Allergies, maybe. Or plague.
"I'll give you a few minutes to choose partners," Miss Baker told them.
Plague would be best, Ryan decided. It was contagious. Anyway, everybody had been treating him like he had plague all year. For some reason, it had been okay to like dinosaurs in fourth grade, but the other kids said it was babyish in fifth. They were into space warriors and aliens. What made science fiction in another galaxy so different from prehistoric dinosaurs right here on earth?
"Playing dinosaurs is boring," Chris had told him. "There's no people."
Yeah, like aliens were supposed to be people. As far as Ryan was concerned, dinosaurs were a lot more real than aliens.
Ryan thought of his living dinosaur village spread out on the floor of his bedroom. Only it wasn't living, yet, except in his imagination. He thought of the dinosaur models that still needed motors, and the volcano that needed lights and smoke and a tape playing rumbling noises. He needed money to make his village come alive, and he needed his afternoons and his Saturdays to earn that money.
He had odd jobs lined up all over the neighborhood, and he'd made a schedule on a big calendar on his wall so he knew what job he had when. This afternoon he was scheduled to mow the lawn next door, and tomorrow he had a job weeding a garden after school. On Saturday he had a big job cleaning out an old tool shed and painting it inside and out. He didn't have time to waste on dead fossils!
Ryan slid farther down in his seat. Nobody would pick him, not even Chris. So what?
Maybe if he were the odd man out, he wouldn't have to have a partner. If he could stay on his own, he could get away with doing as little as possible on the project, and keep up with his own jobs instead. No one in class would miss him. Ryan counted in his head. They had an odd number of kids in the class...
Ryan glanced around quickly. Chris had gotten one of the other boys to be his partner. Ryan smothered the sudden stab of hurt and told himself good riddance. Everyone else seemed to be paired up and talking about the dig. Ryan breathed a sign of relief. He could pull it off!
"All right." Miss Baker clapped her hands for silence. "Now let me make a list of partners."
When she got to Ryan, he spoke up confidently. "I don't have a partner, Miss Baker, but it's okay. I'll just be the odd man out."
Chris giggled on the other side of the room and muttered, "Totally odd!" but Ryan didn't even glance at him.
"Don't worry, I'll still do a good job. You know how much I love dinosaurs."
Miss Baker frowned and looked over her list. "That's all right, Ryan. You're not the odd man out after all. I don't think Kelley has a partner yet."
"But--" Ryan looked around wildly. "I know there's an odd number in class and--"
Miss Baker smiled. "That's true, but Josh is absent today and another group has asked to include him. Given an odd number, I'd expected to have one group of three anyway."
Dancing diplodocus! Ryan desperately groped for some reason not to work with Kelley. Miss Super Science Student wouldn't give a hoot about his living dinosaur village. She'd never give him a minute to himself if she thought it would bring her grade down a tenth of a point.