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Authors: Nancy Etchemendy

The Power of Un

BOOK: The Power of Un
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The Power of Un

Nancy Etchemendy

Copyright

The Power of Un

Copyright ©2000 by Nancy Etchemendy
Cover art to the electronic edition copyright © 2010 by RosettaBooks, LLC

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

First electronic edition published 2010 by RosettaBooks LLC, New York.
ISBN e-Pub edition: 9780795310195

For Max & Claire

With special thanks to Lianna and Ray Bennett, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, the Tuesday Night Writers, and my editor, John Allen
.

—N.E.      

1
STRANGER IN THE WOODS

S
tories used to be easier to start before I found out about the innermost workings of the universe and all that stuff—I mean, back in the days, maybe a week ago, when I was just Gib Finney, a regular guy with a bedroom full of birds’ nests, stringless yo-yos, baseballs, half-eaten Baby Ruths, and computer parts.

The Power of Un changed everything. Not just obvious stuff, like my leg, which is very broken because of it. That’s the reason I’m lying here in a cast on a cot in the backyard, staring up at the autumn stars. The Power of Un also changed everything I thought I knew about the world. Big things, like what’s good and what’s bad and what lies ahead of me. Little things, too. For example, before all this, I never would have wondered if my whole future
depends on whether I slurp up this marshmallow that’s floating in my cocoa. Sometimes it just about drives me crazy.

Because of the Power of Un, I realize this story has about a million possible beginnings. Maybe it started a year ago, when my little sister, Roxy, went on a class trip to the animal shelter and became obsessed with dogs. Or maybe it began the day my best friend, Ash Jensen, and I saw a carnival poster in the window of my mom and uncle’s hardware store and we swore on a dead sparrow that we’d go no matter what. But I guess the clearest place to start is with that spitball I shot at my math teacher, Ms. Shripnole, known among her students as Ol’ Shrapnel.

That stupid spitball changed my life. Who knew? Not me. Not at the time, anyway.

But in order to understand the true meaning of the spitball incident, you first have to know what happened between me and Rainy Frogner earlier that fateful Friday.

    On the morning in question—October 27—Lorraine Frogner and I sat practically nose to nose, whisper-shouting at each other in the science lab at Mitchell Rutherford Middle School. I have no idea why Mr. Maynard assigned us both to the same table. I’d never been able to hide my irritation with Rainy Frogner, though I sometimes wished I could. It often
made me look like an idiot, and who wants to look like an idiot?

I’m not sure why she had this effect on me. In spite of her unfortunate name, Rainy Frogner has her good points. She’s smart, for example, and she’s generous. She’s lent me lunch money more than once. And she isn’t exactly ugly. In fact, she’s pretty easy to look at. She has this really unusual combination of shiny black hair and mint-green eyes. Still, I’d often catch myself thinking of her as the most pestiferous girl on the planet. I got into arguments with her all the time and when I tried to figure out why, I could seldom find an exact reason.

That day, though, I
did
have a good and exact reason for arguing with her. She was on the verge of ruining our science experiment. We were supposed to do a lab project with potato skins, and we could take our choice: dunk them in water, pour ammonia on them, blow-dry them, dip them in lemon juice, or figure out something original. Since original stuff is my idea of serious fun, I convinced Rainy we ought to pour salt on our potato skins.

I had a pretty good idea what would happen, I’ve watched my dad salt potatoes in a pan before he fries them. He makes a mean hash brown, and he says one of the keys is not to salt them too much at first, because if you do, the salt will draw out all the water, and you end up poaching them instead of frying
them. Salt does that—draws the water out of stuff. Like when you put it on slugs, which I’ve only done once, and it made me puke. But I’m getting off track.

Rainy thought we ought to pile the skins in a mound and lightly salt them—like she wanted to keep from making a mess or something. She’s kind of obsessed with neatness and with doing things
correctly
, which, I guess, are two of the things that bother me about her. I thought we should spread the skins out, then really pour on the salt. Experiments in which hardly anything happens are boring, and I was hoping for big results.

“Come on,” I said. “If it gets messy, I’ll clean it up.”

Rainy’s reaction shocked me. She said, “Gib Finney, you are so bossy and mean! Why does everybody always have to do things your way?”

“What are you talking about?” I said.

“We’re already using salt, just because
you
wanted to. You’re so selfish! You never think about what somebody else might want.”

“I am
not
selfish! I just want a good experiment. We should use plenty of salt because if we don’t, nothing’ll happen.”

Like I said, we were whisper-shouting at each other by that time. I didn’t like being called selfish. My face was getting hot—I really wanted to yell or throw something, and it was taking a lot of effort not to.

Then Rainy said, “O.K. Have it your way.” She
picked up the box of salt, opened it all the way, and turned it upside down. The potato skins got covered, all right. So did everything else, including my lap and the floor. There was no way to tell what was happening to the skins, so the experiment was useless anyway. And I had to spend a lot of time under the table with a whisk broom and a dustpan. On top of it all, Mr. Maynard gave us points off for horseplay. By the time the bell rang, I was having a hard time thinking about anything except Lorraine Frogner’s head exploding. Which is probably why I did what I did (or more accurately, didn’t do what I didn’t do) during the Spitball Incident later that day.

    We have math with Ms. Shripnole every afternoon at two o’clock. I wish we had it in the morning, because you have to concentrate in order to do math. By two everybody, including Ol’ Shrapnel, is tired and wants to be someplace else. On Friday afternoons it’s the worst.

The classroom was a little too warm, because it was an Indian summer day and the sun was pouring through the windows. Ash and I pretended we were working on decimals, but to keep each other awake, we passed notes back and forth, making plans for the carnival that night.

I opened my binder to get a fresh piece of paper, and a forgotten soda straw fell out. I like to keep
straws around; they’re good for so many different things. Stick them in a glass of water and make volcano sound effects. Blow bubbles with the hand soap from the bathroom dispensers. Scare flies. The possibilities are endless. But what I love most about them is that anytime you need a little excitement, you can shoot things out of them. Like spitballs.

Ash hid a grin behind his hand as he watched me take a fat, juicy wad of paper and load it into the straw. I had no idea that, seated in the desk on my right, Rainy Frogner was doing the same thing, with me as her target. Spitballs aren’t something Rainy generally does. She hardly ever gets in trouble, but now she was risking it for the second time that day. She must have been pretty mad at me.

I waited till Ms. Shripnole turned around to write something on the board. Then I took careful aim, blew out that big, wet glob with all the force in my lungs, and hid the straw as fast as I could. My plan was to hit her in the back. It would stick there, all the kids would laugh, and she’d have no idea why. It wasn’t the most admirable thing I’ve ever done. It definitely wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done, either. Believe me, I spent a lot of time regretting it later.

In the course of a split second, two unexpected things happened. First, I felt something cold and wet hit my cheek with a lot of force. It was Rainy’s spit-ball, and it stung. Then mine hit Ol’ Shrapnel.
Unfortunately, she’d just turned around at the worst possible instant, and it hit her directly in the forehead.

The whole class gasped as if it were a single organism. Before any of us could take another breath, Ms. Shripnole’s face went through a series of contortions, beginning with surprise and ending with fury.

“Who did that?” she demanded, casting her gaze around the room like a laser beam.

To my considerable surprise, the laser came to rest not on me but on Rainy, who was still holding the straw she’d shot me with. It all took such a short time, I doubt anybody in the room had a clear idea what had happened except Rainy and me and maybe Ash.

“Lorraine Frogner!” said Ol’ Shrapnel in a tone that would have made even the principal shiver.

“But … but I didn’t do it. Gib did it!” Rainy waved her straw in the air while she made this claim.

“Lorraine, it is bad enough to do such a thing in the first place, but to deny it under these circumstances is far worse.”

I could have stopped the whole scene at that point just by standing up and admitting I was the one who’d shot the offending spitball. It would have been the right thing to do. But I was angr

‘d spent a chunk of the morning on my hands and knees under a lab table. And I could still feel the cold sting of Rainy’s spitball on my cheek. So I squinted at her and sat still. I let her take the blame for what I’d done, thereby sealing my fate.

Have you ever watched a spider walk across a web on a misty morning? It might only step on one tiny strand of silk, but the whole web moves. Then far on the other side, a dewdrop might fall and jiggle other strands of silk or maybe even break one. The whole shape of the web can change because of that one eensy step.

That spitball was a spider step. It was just one little thing, but it made other things happen, one after another, till the whole shape of my life was different. And not in a good way, either.

Ash had a soccer game after school that day, so our plan was to meet at his house after dinner, then walk over to the carnival. We had a lot of ideas about what to do once we got there—play the games, get lost in the House of Mirrors, eat way too much junk food. We’d heard that the fortuneteller, Madam Isis, was spookily great. And we wanted to ride the rides, of course. There was a new one we’d never been on called the Devil’s Elevator, and it was, supposed to be pretty good. Jeffrey Hargrove said it made his big sister barf, which was an outstanding recommendation.

After school I went home, dumped my books, and said hi to my dad, who usually comes home around three from work at his rare books store. Then I did a bunch of stuff just to kill time till dinner. I played “doggy” with Roxy, which I hardly ever do. Who in his right mind wants to pretend his kid sister is a dog?
It’s bad enough if you have to take a real dog for walks, feed it, and brush it. Doing those things to a dog-obsessed six-year-old is totally weird. But I was in a good mood, so I said yes when she asked me. After that I shot some hoops above the garage door. When I came back inside, my dad was on the phone, looking serious.

“Oh, don’t worry,” he said. “These things happen. Gib can take care of Roxy. Hope you feel better soon.”

He hung up, and I could see from his face that he was about to tell me something he knew I’d hate. “That was Lorraine Frogner,” he said.

At first I wondered what Rainy was doing on the phone with my father. Would she seriously complain to my parents about the spitball thing? Then I remembered she was baby-sitting Roxy that night because Mom and Dad were going out and so was I. My stomach did a somersault and ended up somewhere around my vocal chords.

BOOK: The Power of Un
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