Authors: Eric Kahn Gale
“No, no, that's okay,” I said. I wasn't in too much of a hurry to meet Clarence, not even under a fake name. What if he recognized me?
Still, I knew I needed to get into that basement. He was the author of The Bully Book, all right. His mother had practically told me so: He's writing in notebooks all the time, has stacks of papers everywhere. Probably working on more Bully Books, maybe a high-school edition. He must have a copy of The Book stashed down there. I just needed a way to get in when no one's around.
As Mrs. Corbinder and I talked, I noticed the security system. Alarms and sensors everywhere. There'd be no way to break in during the day when the house was empty, or the middle of the night.
I had prepared for this. If you can't sneak in when no one's home, you've got to do it when they're distracted. And I had found the perfect excuse when I was looking into Clarence's personal information.
“I hear that Clarence's 16th birthday is coming up,” I said.
Mrs. Corbinder passed the cocoa. “We're having a party for him here at the house.”
“That's great,” I said. “I love birthday parties.”
“Well then, uh â¦” Mrs. Corbinder was trapped; no mother can turn down an 11-year-old boy inviting himself to a party.
“You should come,” she said with a forced smile.
“Really?” I said. “Oh manâthat would be great!”
“Of course, Colin. It'll be wonderful to have you. The more the merrier.”
And so I've got my date. In exactly 23 days, I'll be attending Clarence Corbinder's birthday party, the author of The Bully Book. And during all the distraction of the party, I'm sneaking into his basement and ending this thing, once and for all.
Today in English class, Whitner had us learn about public speaking. He put a bunch of topics into a hat and then made us stand in front of the class, pick one out, and talk about it for 60 seconds.
We had to make the speech up on the spot.
Ruth McNealy went first and I swear she was nearly in tears. Her topic was “What would the world be like if cars could fly?”
I don't know what Whitner was thinking.
For 60 seconds she coughed and stalled and tried to think of something to say other than she'd get to school a lot faster. The same went for Ashley Dickenson when she had to talk about “What if potato chips were good for you?” and Nick Drumme when he was told to describe a world where “Gravity is reversed.”
“Come on, guys,” Whitner said, “this is supposed to be fun. Just loosen up and talk.” Easy for him to say; when you're the teacher, no one makes fun of you when you say something stupid. At least not to your face.
“Eric Haskins.” Whitner called my name. “You're next, buddy.”
“Get up there, buddy.” Jason Crazypants whispered to me. Adrian Noble chuckled.
I just had to get through this. I'd say my stupid speech, they'd all laugh at me, and I'd get on with my quiet life.
Whitner held the hat and I silently cursed him for making me do this. I read my topic.
“What if people didn't have any thumbs?”
Whitner started his stopwatch. I looked at the class; they'd make fun of me no matter what I said, so why worry about it? I just told them what the world would be like, straight up.
“First, Roger Ebert would be out of a job,” I said. “He'd give good movies one mangled knuckle up.
“And playing basketball, everybody'd be like, âHey man, high four!'”
Melody sat in the front row and broke into a high giggle.
“There'd be no more rules of thumb. Humans and monkeys would have nothing to brag about. Video games would be impossible to play and babies would be sucking on their fingers, which probably isn't nearly as satisfying.”
I didn't think the jokes were that funny, but the whole class was roaring with laughter, led by Melody, who was the loudest of all. Whitner stopped the clock. He made the class clap for me like he did for everyone, but pulled me aside before I sat down. “That was really excellent, Eric,” he whispered. “You've got real talent as a speaker.”
Yeah, I thought, I guess I do. I turned a class of bloodthirsty savages into my friends for a minute. They liked my jokes. I looked over at Melody, who was smiling at me. She looked proud.
As I made my way back to my seat, I heard Adrian Noble talking to Ruth.
“Eric Haskins can be funny when he wants to be.” He smiled.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Thanks!” I said behind Ruth's back.
She froze and her shoulders tensed up like a spider had just touched her neck. Ruth turned to me slowly with a look of disgust on her face.
“Hey, get yourself outta here, Grunt,” Adrian said.
Ruth fake-shivered and laughed.
I went to my seat.
I could always be like that, I thought, but you won't let me. I could be funny and nice and have friends, but they want me trapped for some reason.
“That was pretty good.” Jason Crazypants leaned over his desk. “But I'm glad we still have thumbs”âhe pinched my armâ“and Grunts.”
Dad came to visit for the weekend. I'd been looking forward to it for a while, but it didn't end up being what I expected.
We went to Battle Creek to tour the cereal factory, just the two of us. Dad likes to go to places like this and I just sort of watch him have a good time.
But we didn't talk like we used to, or at least I didn't. He asked me a lot of questions. I didn't really give him good answers.
He asked me how things were at school. If anything interesting was going on. “What do you mean by interesting?” I asked.
“I don't know,” he said. “Did you learn anything really mind-blowing or did anything really funny happen in class?”
“Don't think so.” I said. “We're just working on math. I don't think anybody in my class is really funny.”
“Do you have any teachers that you hate?”
“No,” I said. “Just Mr. Whitner, my English teacher. And I don't hate him, I just don't like that he's absent every Monday. I don't like the sub they give us.”
I waited for my dad to ask why, and thought about what I'd say if he asked me. I didn't know if I'd tell him the truth.
“But he's a good teacher other than that?”
“Yeah, he's all right.” I thought about the time he helped me during the Bathroom Disaster. If my dad asked me what I liked about him, is that what I'd say? Would I tell him about what's been going on this year?
“What about fights at school? Anybody being stuffed into lockers?” My dad chuckled.
“What?” I said.
“You know, kids gang up on someone, they push them into a locker?”
“No,” I said. “That kinda stuff doesn't happen.”
I felt queasy. My dad doesn't understand how it works, I thought. You don't get locked into lockers and robbed of your lunch money. It's nothing like on TV. It's a lot worse and a lot harder to explain to somebody who has obviously never experienced it. Because that's the only way you could laugh at that kind of stuff, Dad.
I sat in silence the next 60 seconds, wondering if Dad would keep questioning me. What if he said, “Are kids mean to you? Do they make fun of you? Lie about you? Have they hurt you?” I didn't know what I would say.
I decided I'd tell him the truth.
If he asked me, I wouldn't lie.
I wouldn't tell the whole story at first. It'd be too hard to get out. But if he asked, “Are they mean to you?” I'd say yes. That'd lead to more questions and more questions and more, until the whole horrible year was out and in the open.
I waited, holding my breath, ready to tell him the whole thing if he asked me.
“Do you need to use the restroom?” he said.
I looked over at him slowly and shook my head no.
“Okay, 'cause the last stop for a half hour's coming up. I want to catch the news now.”
He turned on the radio, and I sat there listening while the man from the news told me and my dad about stuff more important than us.
Two of Me
My school self and my family self.
At school, I am in control of what people know about me, how they see me, and how we interact.
My family knows me from a less intelligent time. They knew me before I figured life out, and they will always see me as a little kid.
I've got my kingdom at school and that's enough. My aunts can treat me like a baby and my uncles can think I'm a weakling. There's nothing I want from them anyway. When we have family dinners, I'm thinking about the clock.
But you will have a problem when family and school friends mix. Put a sick person near a healthy person. Does the sick one get healthy? Of course not, the healthy person gets sick. I don't want the way my family treats me to catch on with my friends.
So I never let them mix.
You shouldn't either.
Today was Clarence's birthday. I told my mom I was going to the library and biked to his house. It still had that dead look, even with 15 cars parked out front and the sound of music coming from the inside. Newspapers were still taped to the basement windows. Only one of them had a Happy Birthday sticker on it.
An older lady answered the door. “Party's inside,” she said, and I followed her in.
“Colin!” a woman's voice called behind me. “Colin Greene!” I turned and remembered that I was using a fake name. Ms. Corbinder came up to me with a tray of strangely shaped cookies. “Thanks for coming, have a treat!” She was dressed in what I could only describe as a giant black bedsheet that wrapped around her body. “Have you seen Clarence yet?” She wore a demented grin.
“No, I haven't had a chance,” I said.
To tell the truth, I'd been hoping to avoid the kid.
“Oh, I'll go get him, then.” Ms. Corbinder clutched my shoulders with both hands. “Stay right here.”
She disappeared into the blur of the partygoers, and I had to act fast. Stick to the plan: Get in, get out.
I tossed my present on the table with the rest and started searching for the entrance to the basement. People were all around me, blocking my view with their heavy sweaters and drinks in their hands. All adults on the first floor; the kids must have been upstairs. I wondered which Bully Bookers might be there, The Evil Three?
Then the bony elbows and painted fingernails cleared and a path opened up. I could see a gray doorway at the other end of the house. I gripped the key-chain flashlight in my pocket.
Stairs creaked as I went down, and I gave thanks for the loudness of the party. The key-chain light barely brightened the darkness.
I couldn't see more than a foot in front of my face. All I could make out was brown, dirty carpeting, an old chair, and a beat-up desk. No papers. Nothing.
I cursed myself for doing this. What had I expected to find down here, anyway? A handwritten copy of The Bully Book just lying on the floor?
It was then that I hit the cabinet.
An enormous filing cabinet with two double doors. Inside were drawers and drawers packed with rows of papers. My flashlight passed over it all, crumpled notebook leaves, ink-jet-printer papers, school book reports, and personal notes like what kids would pass each other in class. They seemed to have been written by a bunch of people, not just Clarence. I flipped through the drawers and pages madly, trying to find something close to what Daniel had described. The Book.
There were ten drawers and I yanked them all open. I rummaged through each one as fast as I could, and when I determined it was junk, I slammed it shut. Who is this guy and why does he have all these papers? Was this stuff for The Bully Book? Where's the connection?
My flashlight dimmed to a glow, then went out completely. It was pitch black and here I was: in the belly of the beast.