Eleven-year-old Fex O’Toole can’t say no to a double dare—even when it means trouble with his friends and the principal.
But when the same kids who like to test Fex dare a four-year-old to jump into a river, Fex realizes the cost of not being able to say no.
|Publisher:||Open Road Media|
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|Age Range:||7 - 11 Years|
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By Constance C. Greene
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1981 Constance C. Greene
All rights reserved.
Fex O'Toole cased the hall, looking both ways as if he were preparing to cross a busy street. The coast was clear. It was recess and the school was empty except for him and the six or seven guys behind him, egging him on.
"How'd I get roped into this, anyway?" he asked, angrily and too late.
"Go on, Fex! Slip in there! Lay it on him!" The voices hissed in unison, sounding like air being let out of a bunch of tires. "Sock it to him, Fex baby!" He felt a hand in the middle of his back, urging him forward.
"Quit it," he said, turning. "This is stupid. I don't want to do it. What's the point?"
"Hey." Barney Barnes, the leader and, sad to say, the brains of the outfit, raised his eyebrows in astonishment. His long, flat face looked as if it had been pasted on top of his short neck, giving him the appearance of a badly made puppet. "He don't want to do it. Whadya think about that?" All the faces assumed astonished looks. They'd never heard anything so amazing in all their lives.
Then a voice, gentler than the rest, said, "I double-dare you, O'Toole. I double-dare you," it said a second time. For good measure. The words came out slowly, sweetly, like honey oozing from a jar. Without turning, Fex knew whose voice it was. It belonged to a girl he hated. She sat a couple of seats ahead of him in social studies. She had a pointy chin and a pointy nose and wore her white-blond hair in a pony tail. Every time Fex walked down the aisle to the blackboard or anyplace else, she stuck out her foot and tripped him. Her eyes were very pale blue, the palest eyes he'd ever seen.
This girl passed a lot of notes. She was an expert at passing notes without getting caught. Back and forth across the seats she passed her many-folded squares of paper to people she hardly knew. Once she'd sent a note to Fex. It said, "Fexy is sexy."
As he opened it, he refused to look in her direction, although he could feel her watching him. He'd torn the note into many tiny pieces and made a big show of piling them up in a heap.
Was it true? Was he sexy?
Fex walked rapidly to the door of the principal's office, tapped lightly, and waited. As he'd expected, there was no answer. He turned the knob. The door wasn't locked. That meant Mr. Palinkas was out to lunch and his secretary was down in the teachers' room getting coffee to drink with her yogurt. She'd be back any minute. The timing was right.
He opened the door and peered inside, hoping some stranger would ask, "May I help you?" In the principal's office they said, "May I help you?" rather than "Can I help you?" A very small but important difference.
He could always make an excuse, say he was looking for Mr. Palinkas and he'd come back later. Sun lay in heavy bands on the floor. Three withered daffodils sat in a glass of water, breathing their last. The Venetian blinds were crooked, the windows needed washing. Mr. Palinkas' desk was neat and tidy, the yellow pencils and the fat red erasers lined up like little soldiers. From the playground Fex could hear shouts and other sounds of enjoyment. He wished he were out there instead of in here.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw the mob swelling up behind him, whispering and jostling one another, acting as if it were Saturday afternoon and they were standing in line to get into the movies.
Barney smiled at Fex, encouraging him. "You're doing great," he said.
Fex took the piece of paper out of his pocket, unfolded it, and laid it in the middle of the blotter where it couldn't be missed. He kept his head turned because he didn't want to look at the crude drawing of a large, ugly pink pig and the caption, which said, "Your a pig, Palinkas." As an afterthought, the inspired artist had drawn a large hand, the middle finger extended, beside the pig's nose.
"Jerks don't even know how to spell," Fex muttered. There was the sound of scuffling down the hall. Barney stuck his head around the corner.
"Way to go," he cheered Fex on. Barney, by reason of being the biggest, strongest, oldest kid in the sixth grade, was the one who laid down the ground rules. He'd repeated kindergarten and first grade and was a natural bully.
"Why pull a stupid stunt like this anyway?" Fex had said. "Palinkas isn't that bad."
"Hey." Barney's eyebrows had shot up and out of sight underneath his hair. "Hey, he's the principal, right?" as if that said it all.
Fex shuddered. Somebody just walked over my grave, he thought. He walked out of the office, past the milling throng, and, almost running, made the stairs just as Mrs. Timmons, the secretary, was coming up, clutching her paper cups of coffee and yogurt.
"Hello, Fex," she said. "How come you're inside on a beautiful day like this?" She liked him because last winter he'd helped her push her car out of a snowdrift.
He gave her a small salute with his hand. "I'm on my way out right now," he said. "See you."
He had time for one turn at bat and hit a perfect line drive. It was a beauty, so straight and fast that no one could've caught it. If the bell hadn't rung right at the crucial moment, it would've been a home run for sure. On an ordinary day that would've made him feel great. But today wasn't an ordinary day. He tramped back inside, keeping his head down.
There's nothing worse than knowing you've been a fool and have no one to blame but yourself. That was the worst of it. When you know better and behave like an ass anyway.CHAPTER 2
On his way home fex cut through soderstroms' yard, hoping their German shepherd was chained and sleeping off his dinner. All was quiet. God was with him. The long grass waved its green tentacles at him, imitating an octopus. Mr. Soderstrom was, as usual, a week behind in his mowing.
Charlie Soderstrom scaled the sides of his sandbox, making guttural noises to indicate his troops were lined up against his dinosaurs and the dinosaurs were probably winning.
"How's it going, Charlie?" Fex said.
Charlie stood up. His stomach peeped out from between his cowboy shirt and his jeans like a little face with only one eye, smack in its middle. He jabbed his thumb down at the bodies of his fallen soldiers.
"They got the flu," he said. Charlie always made excuses for them. "They're throwing up all over my monsters." Charlie was four. His mouth was very red, and curled up at either end when he was happy. Now it had turned itself down at the corners, getting ready for trouble. His cheeks were round with baby fat.
"Tough," Fex said. "Try a shot of ginger ale. It's very good for flu."
Charlie nodded, cheered up immediately, and trotted inside for a shot of ginger ale. His mother left him a lot with sitters when she went shopping or to bridge luncheons. He was good at playing by himself. Sometimes Fex baby-sat when the Soderstroms went out. They paid him. He would've done it for nothing.
Fex crossed the single-plank bridge that spanned the stream, peering down into the bright water. No fish today. They smelled him coming, he was sure, and passed the word along. Then each fish hid behind its own special rock, thumbing its nose (if fish had noses) at him.
Up ahead he saw the outlines of the house, snuggled against the side of the hill. When he got there, he squashed his nose against the window to see inside.
The woman there, bending over, looked up, startled. When she saw him, she dropped the bundle of clothes she was carrying.
"You! Francis!" she hollered. "Stop spying on me!"
The spell broken, he hotfooted it for freedom. But the woman was fleet of foot and long of arm. Even after she grabbed him, Fex's legs continued to churn, his muscles straining against captivity.
"Hey, Mom," he said, "it's only me. Your son, Francis Xavier. What's the matter, can't you take a joke?"
Somewhat reluctantly, she released him. He rubbed his ear, hoping it was still in working order.
"One of these days, Fex," she said, "you'll go too far. You'll pull that trick on someone and they'll think you're an escaped convict and call the police, and from then on it'll be curtains," and she drew her finger across her throat and made a gurgling sound which he fully understood.
"As long as you're here, help me pick up this stuff." They bent and made a big pile of blue jeans, shirts, and underwear. Fex's clothing was marked with red tape, Pete's with blue, and Jerry's yellow. His mother was taking a business management course in adult education and applying things she learned there to her home.
After her first lesson the tempo of living in the O'Toole household had picked up considerably. "The secret is," Mrs. O'Toole told anyone within range, "do not waste a moment. Time is money, as we all know. Every minute counts."
Last year a course in nutrition had commanded her attention. With it came hot cereal, no junk foods, no sugar, whole wheat bread. She stood over them with her arms crossed on her chest, watching them like a prison warden as they shoveled down their throats the goodies she'd decided they should consume.
"Your brain works better if you have a nice hot breakfast," she told them. "None of that sugar-coated, packaged junk for my family." She had become a fanatic on the subject. For snacks they ate saltines. Once, in a sugarless-induced frenzy, Fex had driven an ice pick through the top of a can of mandarin oranges and had drunk the juice like a man straight out of the desert.
No amount of protesting did any good. The only one in the family who escaped was Mr. O'Toole.
"How come Dad doesn't get any?" Fex had asked, noting the jaunty manner in which his father hid behind his newspaper and managed to snag his cup of coffee without revealing himself. It was as if there were nothing behind the paper but a disembodied hand.
"I think Dad needs hot cereal more than we do. We all count on Dad. Where would we be without him?" Fex warmed to his subject. "He brings home the bacon, doesn't he? You should pay more attention to what he eats, Mom."
Dad rattled his paper and stayed hidden. And avoided the hot cereal treatment.
Now Fex and his mother carried the clean clothes up the cellar stairs and into the kitchen.
"How was your day, darling?" She sometimes called him darling when they were alone.
"Lousy," he said. "Absolutely lousy."
"That bad? What happened?"
He shrugged. "Nothing I can put my finger on. I'll take the laundry upstairs," and he grabbed a bundle and climbed the stairs two at a time, before she had a chance to question him further.
After he'd gotten rid of the piles of clean clothes, Fex fell back on his bed and stared at the underside of Jerry's bunk.
Gimme a break, he thought, one crummy break. Not two or even three. One. To see me through.
Through what? He began to kick the wall, as if he were getting even. He concentrated on one fat clown face on the wallpaper that had always irritated him. The clown stopped smiling in that ridiculous way, and Fex felt a small stab of pleasure which increased when he saw that the plaster behind the clown's sad face had begun to crumble. Good. Fex kicked a couple more times, for good measure.
He heard the sound of feet running up the stairs and hastily got up. Whoever it was, he didn't want to be caught lying down in the middle of the day.
"Your mother said you were up here," Audrey said. She stood in the doorway. "You want to come over? I've got some new records."
Audrey lived two blocks away on Perry Avenue. She had short, crisp black hair, very dark eyes, and narrow arms and legs. Her eyebrows, Fex thought, looked as if someone had taken a black crayon and drawn a straight line over each of her eyes. She was two months older than Fex and, he suspected, much smarter than he. They'd been friends since kindergarten.
"Nah." Fex opened his bureau drawer and rummaged through it as if he expected to find buried treasure in its depths. "I got stuff to do."
Audrey crossed her arms and leaned against the door.
"Fex," she said.
"What?" he snarled.
The room seethed with her silence. "Nothing," she said and thundered down the stairs. He heard the front door slam.
That'd bring out his mother, wanting to know what was what. His mother liked to keep her finger on the pulse.
He waited. In a few minutes she called, "Want some cocoa?"
"No," he shouted. "Thanks anyway." He lay down again and picked at the hole in the plaster, enlarging it.
"I don't want any lousy old cocoa," he whispered. "You know what you can do with your lousy old cocoa."
But what good was it to assert yourself, play tough, when there was no one to hear you? He got up, went into Pete's room, and checked all the usual hiding places. No Playboy there. Pete must've taken it to school to show the centerfold. That was some centerfold. Either that or the old man had latched on to it. Fex had thought his father was too old for that kind of stuff. Pete said nuts to that, you're never too old.
Pete thought he knew everything.
Here I am, Fex thought, almost twelve. I'll be twelve next month. Big deal. He thought about the piece of paper on Mr. Palinkas' desk. I don't know anything.CHAPTER 3
Mrs. O'Toole pulled on her gloves. "We'll only be at the Warrens'," she said.
Fex looked at her, then lowered his eyes. "I thought you and Dad were headed for the Academy Awards dinner," he said.
"I'm not overdressed, am I?" she said, looking at herself in the hall mirror.
"You look great, Mom," Jerry said.
Although she hadn't yet left the house, Fex thought his mother already looked like a different person. In her party clothes she shimmered and glowed and seemed covered with a shiny glaze, like a strawberry tart. He felt a trifle shy in her presence. And, although he greatly admired her appearance, he longed for the morning when she'd be herself again.
Mr. O'Toole jingled the car keys.
"You kids behave yourselves," he said, eager to get going.
"Don't call us unless it's an emergency." Their mother pressed her cheek against each of theirs, careful not to smear her lipstick.
"Tell Pete to keep hands off," Jerry said. "When you go out and leave him in charge, he always acts like King Kong."
"Just as long as he doesn't try to climb the Empire State Building," Mr. O'Toole said. He jingled his keys some more.
"No one's in charge," he said. "You're all old enough to look after yourselves."
Fex and Jerry looked at each other. That was a lot of baloney, and they both knew it.
"Be good boys, please," their mother said, and she and their father took off. Fex and Jerry knelt on the sofa and watched the red taillights disappear as the car turned the corner on its way to the Warrens'.
Pete did his usual Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde routine. The minute their parents left, he turned into a monster. Without even drinking a potion.
"All right, you guys," he snapped. "Shape-up time." He whipped out his pad and pencil to take notes on what they did wrong. "Keep your noses clean or else."
Pete was a fifteen-year-old hotshot, Fex thought, the worst kind. He was a sophomore in high school. Girls had been calling him up since he was younger than Fex was now. He was a good athlete, a good student. He was full of himself. When Audrey went to visit her uncle, she sent Fex a postcard. It said, "I used to think nothing was impossible until I met you." That was Pete in a nutshell.
Jerry did what he always did. He took his violin out of its case and tucked it under his chin.
"Not here!" Pete shouted, covering his ears. "Mercy! Have mercy!" Jerry was ten, with the face of a choir boy. Ladies were always patting his cheek, smoothing his hair, driving him bananas. Mostly Jerry was cool and calm. Nothing bothered him. Fex envied him. Jerry got free violin lessons in school. They had to rent the violin, but the lessons were free.
"God knows they ought to be," their father said after he heard Jerry play. Jerry produced the most extraordinary sounds from that violin that Fex had ever heard. Sometimes the house was filled with the mournful sound of a coyote caught in a steel trap. Other times you'd swear someone was locked in a dungeon in the cellar being tortured by experts. Through it all, Jerry smiled as he sawed away. He loved his violin. It was a pleasure to watch, if not listen to him.
Fex figured Jerry didn't hear the same noises his listeners did. Probably to his own ears he sounded like Heifetz. Like most people, he heard what he wanted to hear.
Jerry went upstairs to practice. The telephone rang. It was Sally, for Pete. When the calls first started, Fex listened in on the upstairs extension, hoping to hear some sexy stuff. Pete said, "No kidding!" a lot, and whoever the girl was, she giggled in time to the music in the background. Fex had almost fallen asleep.
Excerpted from Double-Dare O'Toole by Constance C. Greene. Copyright © 1981 Constance C. Greene. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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