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With ten minutes left in sixth-grade social studies, Ike Hollingsberry heard the faint bring of the incoming text. Though students at the Branford School in New York City weren't allowed to have their cell phones out in class, Ike wasn't able to resist glancing into his open knapsack to take a peek.
Click the link below to watch what happened to your father on the set of The Fighting Dragons.
Ike sighed. Really? At this point, the only thing to do was to try not to laugh. When would these psycho bloggers leave him alone? The TV studio had made it clear from day one the accident hadn't been filmed.
As his teacher, Mr. Donadio, paced the front of the classroom, holding forth on the meaning of the American Revolution, Ike slipped the phone into his lap.
As expected, he didn't recognize the sender's number. But Ike knew the type — another lunatic with too much time on his hands and nothing better to do than speculate about how exactly his poor dad had died.
He looked up with a start. A black belt in karate, Mr. Donadio had once tossed a dictionary across the room, narrowly missing the heads of two talking students. Ike shuddered. What if the dictionary was only a warm-up act? What if the class terrarium was next?
"What do you think you're doing?" the teacher went on. "You know the rules on phones."
"I'm sorry," Ike stammered. "It won't happen again."
He dropped the phone back in his knapsack.
"Make sure that it doesn't," Mr. Donadio said. He smiled, perhaps a little too broadly. "Let's see whether you know as much about the Revolutionary War as you do about social networking. What year was the Constitution signed?"
Ike had done his reading — and carefully, too. But every time he received one of those strange texts, IMs, or emails, it was hard to focus on anything else.
His voice trailed off.
The answer was so close. He might have gotten it, too. But then he saw her, one aisle over. With stringy black hair and fingernails chewed down to their nubs, Elmira Hand held the dubious distinction of being the Branford sixth grade's biggest fan of The Fighting Dragons. She loved to surprise Ike at inopportune moments with comments or observations about the show. A glimpse of her was enough to wipe all traces of the American Revolution clean out of his head. All he could think about was his dad.
After letting him squirm for a few moments, Mr. Donadio scanned the class. "Who can help Ike out?"
Hands shot up.
"1787," a voice called.
"Very good," the teacher said. Then he tapped Ike's desk.
"Perhaps you can tell us who our country's first president was?"
Laughter flittered across the class. Even in his addled state, Ike knew that one.
"George Washington," he muttered.
"Impressive," Mr. Donadio said. Then to the class. "Let's continue our discussion."
Ike tried desperately to follow the lesson. But how could he focus? It was maddening, actually. The mysterious text wouldn't shed any new light on his dad's accident. Even so, his heart was racing.
Because there was always that small chance.
What if, after all these years, there really was a video? Wouldn't that be amazing? Only four at the time, Ike still remembered walking down Broadway with his mother the day after the tragedy and seeing the papers at the local newsstand. With a crowd of people pointing and talking, it hadn't taken long to figure out what the headlines read.
Children's dragon-riding TV star Cameron Hollingsberry killed on set by fake insect.
Gigantic fake locust mauls TV actor in accidental death.
Star Hollingsberry slain by malfunctioning flying invertebrate.
Even seven years later, it was almost impossible to believe something so ridiculous had taken place. Had his father, a mild-mannered British actor on a kids' TV show, really shown up for work one day only to be killed by a giant fake insect? Apparently so. What made it even crazier were reports that his dad had been engaged in a staged battle at the time, riding a fake dragon.
Somehow while thinking about his father, class had ended. To his dismay, Elmira was leaning over from her desk.
"Wanna grab lunch?"
"Lunch?" he said haltingly.
"Yeah. You and me."
He didn't want to be rude, but the last thing he needed now was to try and eat a Sloppy Joe while taking questions about his dad from the class weirdo. "Gee, sorry, Elmira. I usually eat with Diego and Kashvi. In fact, I'm meeting them outside right now. But hey, another time, okay?"
Elmira objected, but Ike didn't wait. Grabbing his knapsack, he cut into the busy hallway.
As expected, Diego was already waiting, hair a mess, shirt untucked, and his belt missing a good half of the loops — his usual look.
"Yo," he said.
"Yo," Ike replied.
"Ready to eat?"
"Absolutely," Ike said. "But mind if I meet you there today?"
"Sure," Diego said. "Where you going?"
"My locker for a second. Save that seat, okay?"
Turning fast, Ike bumped smack into Kashvi.
"Where're you going?" she asked.
"That's what I asked," Diego said, coming up from behind. "What's up, Ike?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Ike saw Elmira slip by, looking him over. No doubt he needed to move this along.
"Just my locker, guys," he said quickly. "See you in two minutes. Promise."
With that, he was off. Cutting around the corner to the back hallway, Ike glanced over his shoulder at his two buds. Since kindergarten, they had made an odd trio. Diego Miranda, the sloppy nerd who had immigrated with his family from Puerto Rico at age three, Ike Hollingsberry, the short nerd with a British dad and American mom, and Kashvi Changar, the nice- looking Indian girl who was so smart the word nerd didn't come close to covering it. The previous fall, she had taken apart her father's car engine on a dare and put it back together in less than an hour.
Ike hated to lie to them. Yes, he truly did want to drop his history book in his locker so he wouldn't have to schlep it to math. He also wanted to dodge Elmira. But mostly, he was too plain embarrassed to tell Diego and Kashvi the real reason he needed a minute to himself.
"I know it's hard," his mom had told him once. "But try not to think about what happened to Dad so much."
She had a point. Even after all these years, thoughts of his father came with a mountain of pain. Then again, how could an eleven-year-old boy not think about his dad?
After shoving his history textbook into his locker, Ike reached for his phone — legal during lunch hour — and called up Facebook. What else could he do? He had never known his dad all that well. But sometimes he just missed the guy.
Ike typed "Hollingsberry." A glowing picture of his father taken a week before his death popped up on the screen. His dad was dressed in full fighting regalia, atop a giant dragon.
Ike scanned down the page. A heading read:
Fan page of actor Cameron Rupert Hollingsberry who died tragically on the set of The Fighting Dragons.
Misty eyed, Ike glanced at the photo. Aside from the bright green eyes, he and his father had little in common. Although his father had been tall and broad with a strong jaw, Ike was skinny and one of the shortest kids in his class. Yes, his dad's golden armor, mighty shield, and brilliant sword were only props — Ike knew that — but even so, his father's powerful image, coupled with his fame as an actor, never failed to make him feel small by comparison. After all, Ike was no hero. Sure, he was a nice boy, and a decent student with a couple of good friends. But powerful? Brave? Not a chance. He could barely find the courage to kill a cockroach in his bedroom, let alone a monster locust from the back of a fire-breathing dragon.
Ike scrolled further down the Facebook page. He wasn't the only one who looked up to his dad. Not only did his fans think him a hero, but they still posted about it. Three from just that morning.
At 8:21 AM, DragonLove wrote:
"We love you, Cameron. The only good locust is a dead locust."
At 8:34, LucyLucy penned:
"OMG, I LOVED this brave man Cameron Hollingsberry. Remember Episode Four when he ripped out that locust's guts with his sword then used a piece of the antennae as dental floss? That was drama."
Then at 9:01 El-Peg 2 wrote:
"Hey, Dragon Fire-Breathing fans. Who out there besides me thinks the whole show was real? I say Cameron Hollingsberry really did fly a dragon. I say he really did kill those giant bugs. I say the whole show was a set-up. Am I crazy?"
Ike grimaced. Yes, he thought. You ARE crazy.
It was weird enough that people were still so obsessed with the show. But the ones Ike couldn't take were the fans who thought the whole thing was real. Nutcases who wrote weekly blogs like, "How Cameron Rupert Hollingsberry Saved the Planet" or "The True Inside History of The Fighting Dragons." Other posts were online, too, being updated every day.
"Hey ... There you are."
Ike sighed. Busted. Elmira, the one like a gnat he couldn't shake.
"Hey," Ike said.
He tried to move away from his locker, but the girl blocked him.
"Just a second," she said. "What was that text?"
Ike blinked. "What text?"
"I saw you looking at it in class. The one that had a link to your dad."
Ike focused on Elmira more directly. She had nice pale blue eyes and a friendly smile, he had to give her that. Of mixed race, she also had beautiful light-brown skin. But these more attractive features were coupled with off-beat ones — largish ears, a smattering of freckles, impossibly dry lips — that made her look more odd than pretty.
"What're you doing looking at my texts, anyway?"
Elmira smiled. "If you hadn't had your phone out illegally in class, I wouldn't have been able to look. So your fault."
Ike frowned. It was pure Elmira logic — annoying, even if largely correct.
The girl leaned closer.
"Do you think your dad fought and killed those locusts for real?"
If only he could teleport straight to lunch. As it was, Elmira had him cornered — never a good thing. Along with her obsession with The Fighting Dragons, she had memorized the guest-star cast list of every Star Trek episode from the original series through Voyager and claimed to own thirty editions of The Lord of the Rings, some in foreign languages. This was a girl who had stood up in front of his English class and quoted the opening passage of The Outsiders in Elvish. A true oddball.
Even so, despite everything, Ike had always considered Elmira essentially harmless. Now he reconsidered. Was she one of those conspiracy freaks, too? Did she think his dad had been some sort of world savior?
"Listen," he said, "I don't want to be mean, but here's the deal. My dad was a Shakespearean actor who was offered a weird role in a kids' TV program where he flew a fake dragon to save the Earth from a horde of fake locusts. Get it?"
"Sure, I do, but ..."
"Everything was fake, okay? Fake. Then on the sixteenth show, he died in a weird, tragic accident and it went off the air. That's it. He wasn't anything special. So please, just shut up about him. And shut up about the locusts, too."
Elmira's pale-blue eyes went wide. "So you want me to shut up, is that it?"
Annoying and also dense. "I have to go eat. See you later."
Ike cut around Elmira and hustled down the hall.
"But wait," Elmira said. "I have something to tell you. How about lunch? Have lunch with me?"
"Sorry," Ike called over his shoulder. "Like I said, I'm sitting with Diego and Kashvi today."
"But you sit with them every day," Elmira called. "And this is important. Tell you what — you get your tray and I'll find you later. I'll find you."
Ike kept walking.
Find him? He seriously hoped she wouldn't.CHAPTER 2
This was shaping up to be a terrible day. As promised, Elmira Hand had found Ike at lunch. To her credit, she had waited for him to finish his second helping of Sloppy Joes. She had even waited for Diego and Kashvi to clear their trays. Elmira had waited so patiently, by the time she appeared, Ike had forgotten about her altogether. But the minute Diego and Kashvi got up, she'd swooped in like a hair chewing, fingernail-biting bird and perched herself firmly across the lunch table.
"So here's the thing," Elmira was saying. "I think your father was a genuine real-live hero, not just an actor. In fact, I'm sure of it. See, I've done the research. I can back this up. Maybe you've seen my blog?"
"Elmira Speaks. Google it. No, forget it — don't Google it — I'll sum it all up for you right now."
Ike was determined not to let himself be drawn into a conversation.
"Sorry," he said. "I have to go."
"Go where?" Elmira said.
"Math. We have a quiz."
"But class doesn't start for ten minutes."
Ike once again looked Elmira over. For a girl who was generally ignored, she clearly wasn't someone to be underestimated.
"Or tell you what," she went on. "If you're in a hurry, I'll walk you there."
"No, no, don't walk me." Ike sighed. He had a chocolate chip cookie to eat anyway — might as well get this over with. "So really? You have a blog, is that what you were saying?"
Elmira smiled, proudly — a nice, open smile. Ike didn't think he had ever met someone with such a striking combination of strange and beautiful features.
"Do I have a blog?" she exclaimed. "Sure, I do. But first, hey, are you going to eat that cookie or what?"
Ike blinked. "My cookie? Yeah, why? Do you want some?"
"Only if you aren't having it," Elmira said. "I know. We'll share."
Without waiting for a reply, she broke off half and popped it in her mouth. Ike was almost surprised when she didn't down the rest of his milk in a single gulp.
"So," she said, wiping her mouth on a napkin. "I know I shouldn't have been looking at your text in social studies but I was so now we should finally talk. I mean, we've known each other since kindergarten, right? But we've never really talked, have we?"
Ike remembered a few conversations, but they hadn't been long or memorable — mostly Elmira talked at people. Though unclear on the exact details, Ike knew she had lost her parents at a young age and had been raised by a grandmother who spent much of her time travelling. Then there was her aunt's job, Sanitation Commissioner of New York, a position Elmira had used to talk the driver of a city street sweeper — a truck that brushed trash from the gutters — into giving her rides to and from school. No question about it, Elmira was weird all around.
"Listen," Ike said. "I appreciate that you care about The Fighting Dragons. It was a cool show. But you know, nothing personal, I'm just not that into talking about it. Bad memories, you know?"
When Elmira nodded gravely, Ike thought she was going to get the hint and leave. Instead, she took his hand.
"It's been hard for you, hasn't it?"
Ike yanked his hand away.
"Are you missing what I said? I don't want to talk about it."
Elmira leaned forward, eyes wide. "Not even if I could prove to you that your dad was an actual hero? It is my belief your father really did fly a dragon. A real one. He really did save the world from those giant locusts. And better yet, when the locusts come back you're going to be called to duty, too — to fly on your own dragon and save the world all over again. And I might get to help."
Ike would have thought anyone else was joking, but Elmira wasn't known around school for her sense of humor. And she certainly wasn't smiling. In fact, eyes wide, fists clenched, her entire being radiated complete belief in what she had just said. Which meant only one thing. She was crazy.
Ike looked around, desperate for an escape. Unfortunately, Diego and Kashvi were long gone. Worse, seated at the only occupied table in the cafeteria were Harrison Opal, a red-haired boy, and his two main goons, Dirk Sher and Molly Willowinski. Large for their ages and with equally big attitudes, Harrison and his two sidekicks caused ninety percent of the grief in the Branford sixth grade.
Ike briefly closed his eyes. No, this was most definitely not his day — trapped by the class loser, fully on display to the class bullies. Given Ike's own relatively low social standing, it was the last thing he needed. To make matters worse, when he opened his eyes, Ike saw Harrison, Dirk, and Molly looking his way with an enormous collective smirk.
It was time to shut this down.
"Bye, Elmira," Ike said, reaching for his tray. "I've got to get going."
To Ike's surprise, Elmira grabbed his arm and pulled him forcefully back to his seat.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Royal Order of Fighting Dragons"
Copyright © 2018 Dan Elish.
Excerpted by permission of Vesuvian Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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