Authors: Tony Abbott
Copyright © 2006 by Tony Abbott
Reader’s Guide copyright © 2007 by Little, Brown and Company
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: June 2007
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
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Praise for Firegirl
* “Leaves a big impact.”
* “This is a thoughtful exploration of a brief interlude’s lasting impact.”
“In this poignant story, readers will recognize the insecurities of junior high and discover that even by doing small acts of kindness, people stand to gain more than they lose.”
“A touching story of friendship that is easy to read yet hard to forget.”
School Library Journal
“Understated, beautifully written, and deeply moving,
is a book that young readers will treasure for its ability to illuminate the elements of the human spirit that we all have in common.”
“Prolific fantasy author Abbott has created a realistic wallflower struggling to bloom.”
“It’s a beautiful story, a sad story, brilliantly written, a story you’ll never forget.”
—Newbery Honor winner Patricia Reilly Giff
“[A] powerfully moving achievement.”
Golden Kite Award Winner
Texas Bluebonnet Award nominee
It wasn’t much, really, the whole Jessica Feeney thing. If you look at it, nothing much happened. She was a girl who came into my class after the beginning of the year and was only there for a couple of weeks or so. Stuff did get a little crazy for a while, but it didn’t last long, and I think it was mostly in my head anyway. Then she wasn’t there anymore.
That was pretty much it.
I had a bunch of things going on then, and she was just one of them. There was the car and the class election and Courtney and Jeff. But there was Jessica, too. If I think about it now, I guess I would say that the Friday before she came was probably the last normal day for a while. As normal as things ever were with me and Jeff.
It was the last week of September. The weather had been warm all the way from the start of school. St. Catherine’s has gray blazers, navy blue pants, white shirts, and blue ties, and it was hot in our uniforms. I sweat most of those days, right through my shirt, making what some of the kids called stink spots under the arms. We weren’t allowed to take off our blazers in school, even when it was hot, so mine always got stained from the sweat.
Like most afternoons, I got off the bus at Jeff Hicks’s house. We jumped from the top of the bus stairs and hit the front yard running, our blazers flying in our hands.
“You ever smell blood?” he asked, half turning to me.
Jeff had been my friend for about three years, since the summer after third grade. As we went up the side steps to his house, I remember thinking that he asked me off-the-wall questions a lot.
“What?” I said.
Jeff always said some strange thing, then waited, and I would ask “what?” so he could say it again and make a thing about it. He reached the door first.
“Did you ever smell blood?” he repeated.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Sometimes my mom comes home from the hospital all bloody from the emergency room —”
We rushed through the side door, making a lot of noise in the empty kitchen. Jeff’s house was always unlocked, even though it had been empty all day.
“— some guy’s guts on her shirt,” he said. “It’s so gross. It’s the coolest thing. So, did you ever smell blood?” He yanked open the refrigerator door.
“I don’t know. Maybe. When I cut my finger —”
“That’s not enough. I mean a lot. A whole glass of the stuff.”
I felt my stomach jump a little. “A
of blood?” I said. “Who has
He pulled out a tumbler of red liquid — blood? — from the refrigerator and began drinking. He drank and laughed and drank. I finally realized it was cranberry juice. The juice sloshed all down his chin and onto the front of his white shirt.
His shirt had little blots of red spreading down the front as he was dripping juice and laughing and watching me, until I laughed, too, at the whole thing.
“Stupid,” I breathed. “How long did you have that glass waiting in there?”
Laughing even harder, he put the dripping glass on the kitchen table and wiped his mouth on his cuff. “By the way, I went for a ride in it last night.” He went to the basement door and pulled it open.
I was still looking at the glass on the table. “Huh?”
He jumped down the stairs to a room with a TV and paneling. There were dark wooden shelves on the walls piled with stacks of his comic books.
I was right behind him. “You went for a ride in what?”
It was that game again. But I already knew.
“Duh. In your brain,” he said. “My uncle’s Cobra. I thought it was all you ever thought about.”
“Yeah? The Cobra?”
He snickered as he went to the shelves. “The Cobra.”
A Cobra is a classic sports car from the 1960s. I love Cobras. Not the skinny kind they made for a couple of years, but the fat one. You see them every once in a while. A Cobra is low and all curved and super-fat, like a chunky bug that’s pumped up like a balloon. It isn’t a family car. It’s just two seats, a steering wheel, and pedals on the floor. It’s a machine. The racing tires are really fat. The wheel wells over each tire flare out like big, angry lips. The front end of a Cobra looks like a snake, with two headlights like eyes and a big mouth (the radiator hole) that could suck the pavement right up into it. It’s the nastiest-looking fast car on the road.
I love Cobras. I’ve built plastic models of them. I’ve bought magazines about them. I once went to an auto show with my father, and they had a red racing Cobra there. The shine was so thick it seemed like if you dipped your finger into it; it would be hot and wet. But they wouldn’t let you get near enough to touch it. “As if it’s so hot it’ll burn you,” I remember telling my father. He laughed. Cruise nights at a drive-in restaurant in the next town sometimes had a Cobra, too.
That past spring, Jeff had told me his uncle had an original Cobra, and I was totally floored. He had restored it from a used one he bought in New York, where he lives. I had never seen the car, but Jeff told me it was a red one.
“The kind you like,” he had said.
People don’t really talk to me much in school or notice me, not even adults. My mother says it’s because I don’t “get out there.” But Jeff and I had been friends for a long time. We never really said much to each other, but we did stuff almost every day. I always got his jokes, and I think he liked that. I remember feeling it was so cool that he knew I liked red Cobras.
Jeff had said his uncle sometimes brought it up to his house, and he got to ride in it. But I didn’t get why I had never seen the car.
“I’ve never even seen your uncle,” I said.
Jeff was flipping through a stack of comics he had taken down from a shelf. He chose one and slumped in a chair with it. He didn’t say anything.
“I don’t have an uncle,” I went on. “I don’t get the whole uncle thing. It’s just me and my parents. Neither of them had sisters or brothers.” He still didn’t say anything, so I just kept on babbling. “Uncles always seem like these guys who get to have all the cool stuff fathers never get to have.”
Finally, he dropped his comic into his lap and looked at me. “Yeah, well, my Uncle Chuck has a Cobra. And he’s coming over next weekend.”
I think my heart thumped really loudly. “Saturday? Next Saturday?”
He shook his head. “No, the weekend after. The ninth I think my mother said. Maybe we’ll drive over to your house in the car.” He pushed the comic book off his lap.
He got up. “My mom said she got me two
the one where he bites through to another world. But she hid them because I yelled at her. Let’s find them. I need to get all the school junk out of my head.”
“Really? You mean it about the car? The Cobra? You’ll come over and we can ride around in it?”
“Sure. Let’s check her bedroom.”
Monday morning, I slid into my seat in Mrs. Tracy’s classroom.
It seems strange now to think that I didn’t know anything about Jessica Feeney then. She was only a few minutes away, and I had no clue that she even existed. I had spent most of Sunday sitting on my bed with my car magazines around me. The window let all the warm air in, and I remember wondering if it would still be warm thirteen days later when the Cobra came.
My seat in class was the first one in the first row by the hall door. It was odd that I was even in the first seat. Where you sat in all the classrooms at St. Catherine’s was alphabetical. In every year before, there were kids sitting in front of me. Bender isn’t usually the first name. Kids with last names like Anderson or Arnold or Baker were some of the ones who sat in front of me in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade.
Two years ago, a girl named Jennifer Aaron sat at the head of the first row. She probably always had that seat, I thought. But I also thought it was strange because I had heard that Aaron was a Jewish name from the Bible, and why would a Jewish girl be going to a Catholic school? When I told my mother about her, she said I should just go ask her. But I never did find out. Jennifer transferred to public middle school last year, and two girls from the other class, Tricia Anderson and Cindy Bemioli, were in front of me for sixth.
Jeff hadn’t been on the bus that morning, but he was already sitting in his seat next to me at the head of row two.
He didn’t say anything when I said “Hey.” He just sat there quietly and chewed his fingernails, which he did a lot, without thinking. I guessed his mother had driven him in because he missed the bus. She probably wasn’t happy about it and so they probably had a fight. Jeff seemed to get mad a lot more since his father went away. Usually, I just left him alone, and pretty soon he’d be okay.
Right now his head was bent to the side, and he was turning his fingertips in his teeth. His tie was loose around his neck, and his top shirt button was undone. I remember thinking that his mother must have washed his shirt over the weekend, or it was an extra one because there were no spots on it. Maybe they had a fight about the shirt, too.
His legs dangled out into the teacher’s area at the front of the classroom. Mrs. Tracy had asked him a couple of times already that year to reel his legs back in under his desk. He was stretching them out when she came in just then.
“Scoot your legs in, Jeff. Your slouching will curve your spine,” she said. “You’ll be a stooped-over old man by the time you’re thirty.”
She walked past and set down a pile of papers on the middle of her desk.
an old man!” said Jeff, taking his fingers out of his teeth and half looking around and laughing.
I snickered when I saw him joking. Maybe he was okay again.
Mrs. Tracy narrowed her eyes at him then smiled. “You’ll feel different when you’re that age….”
“I know,” he said. “I’ll feel old!”
“All right, all right,” she said, but the class cracked up anyway. Another busload of kids came in after the second bell rang. Melissa Mayer, who was sort of chubby like me, came in laughing with Stephanie Pastor, who looked a little like a boy if you saw her from the right side. Kayla Brown plopped a paper on the teacher’s desk then sat behind me. She was freckled and had red hair and was as small as the girls in fifth grade.
Rich Downing came running in and jumped into his seat behind Kayla as if he was trying to win a race. His jacket was under his arm, and his shirt was coming out in the back. When he tucked it in I saw the same little V-shaped rip at the top of the rear seam of his waist that I had seen for the last couple of weeks. I knew that Rich was trying not to eat as much so his pants wouldn’t tear on him, but it was happening anyway. The pants I was wearing that year were ones I had gotten last spring and that weren’t too tight, so I wasn’t in trouble yet. Like Jeff, Rich liked to crack jokes in class, but he was never as quick or as funny as Jeff.