by Sherwood Smith
Joe stretched out his hand to grab the little book off the library shelf and his fingers bumped against another hand.
He stared at the freckled fingers under his own brown ones as though they’d somehow sprouted from the books. A thin wrist attached to the hand. His gaze traveled up the wrist past a shabby blue sleeve to meet the unfriendly blue eyes of a girl.
He snatched his hand away. “Yuk!”
“I saw it first,” the girl whispered fiercely. Her gaze shifted to the shelf and she reached again, but this time Joe was faster.
He grabbed the little brown book and slapped it up against his jacket. Then he scanned the category sign at the top of the bookshelf. It still said ADVENTURE STORIES. He glanced over his shoulder at the regular fiction area, where all the books with the pink covers were shelved, wondering if this girl had somehow gotten lost.
Her freckled cheeks flushed with anger. “Give it back,” she said in a low voice. “Go play video games or something.”
Joe snorted. “Finders keepers.”
“I found it first,” she muttered even more fiercely, one of her shoulders hunching as she darted a quick look around. “Give it to me.”
Why was she acting like that? No one paid them any attention. Most of the boys were having a shoving fight at the drinking fountain near the Sports section, and a gaggle of girls stood by the vampire stories, yakking away.
Joe looked at the redhead again, trying to remember her name. She always sat at the back of English class. She was glaring at him so nastily he was tempted to shove her out of the way and say, “Make me.” He couldn’t stand girls, from his older sisters to the giggling squads who hogged up the hallways. But there was something about the corners of her mouth that reminded him of his little brother when he was about to lose it and start bawling. So he just shrugged and said, “We can share it.”
She blinked as though he’d hit her. The anger faded out of her cheeks, making the freckles stand out like they’d been painted on.
“I’ll read it tonight, and hand it off to you tomorrow,” he said.
Her lips parted, but before she could speak a screechy laugh ripped at them from behind. “Oooh, lookie there. The Goat’s got a boyfriend.”
McKynzi Kerne and the rest of her gang had left the vampire books. McKynzi’s pals giggled like crazy, but McKynzi just cracked her gum, smiling like a shark. “Gettin’ desperate, huh, Joey?” McKynzi sneered.
“Whatever.” Geez, Joe hated girls. They were so freaking weird.
He was about to jet when he happened to glance at the redhead—Nan something, he remembered. She looked sick, her shoulders hunched, and her fingers clutching her books tight. That stance reminded him even more of Benny when their sister Mar Tee picked on him.
Joe spoke again. “Aw, can it, McKynzi.” Raising his voice slightly, he added, “You’re gonna bring Ms. Murata on us.”
Sure enough, the teacher looked over in their direction.
At once the girls moved off, McKynzi faking a studious expression as she ran her fingers over the books next to her. Her clones whispered and giggled after her.
“Tomorrow,” he muttered to Nan Something, and got outa there.
He didn’t look back—and she didn’t say anything or try to catch up. Later, when the class walked back to their room, he did a quick take down the line. Nan was at the end, walking with her head lowered, and a couple of library books in her arms.
He glanced curiously at the little book he’d checked out. Just a skinny book, with a worn brown cover, and the words Barefoot Pirate printed in gold along the spine and on the cover. The author’s name had worn off—the lettering couldn’t be made out.
He hadn’t even looked inside. The title had been enough to draw his interest when he’d gone browsing along the shelves; he’d been over the small collection in the Adventure section enough times he thought it impossible that he could have overlooked this one. It certainly wasn’t new. Maybe some kid in the older grades had had it over the fall semester, and just turned it in late?
Whatever, he thought, as the bell rang and he swept his books under his arm. He was just glad he got it. He needed a good adventure story. With luck it might even have magic in it. Too bad it was such a short one.
From around the corner of the administrative building Nan watched Joseph Robles get on the bus. Her eyes stung, and she angrily scrubbed her knuckles over them.
“You stupid creep,” she muttered under her breath. A hot tear spilled across the back of her hand. She wrenched away and ran into the girls’ bathroom before someone saw her and started making fun of her babyish tears.
Why was it that every time she found something, or did something special, someone just had to ruin it? Why had she been born under a curse?
That book was special—she’d felt it the moment she saw it. She knew every one of the titles in the small Adventure section by heart now. The librarian frowned on stories about magic, or other worlds, or sci-fi, and the few books in the Adventure section were all that was left from the librarian who’d retired last year. As soon as these looked even faintly worn, Nan had discovered when overhearing the librarian talking to a teacher, they’d be replaced by good books. Solid books about real children learning useful things.
Nan had been at this school only four months, but she’d already read everything on those shelves at least once—and this little brown book, Barefoot Pirate, had been new. Not just new; the one time she touched it, it felt different, somehow.
And some stupid, popular, sports-nut creep boy had grabbed it first.
Nan shoved her fist into her open mouth, trying to stifle a sob forming deep in her chest that threatened to strangle her if she let it out.
When Joe walked into his house, the first thing he noticed was the warm air and the smell of baking chicken. After the sleety freeze of his walk from the bus stop, it was welcome. Less welcome, but completely familiar, was the noise. There was the television, and underneath that, the faint but steady thump-thump of his oldest sister Maria’s stereo upstairs. As he passed by the kitchen, he heard his mother talking on the phone, trying to be heard over the sound of the television in the den.
Nobody was in the den watching the TV. Joe cruised through and flicked it off. He knew his mother wouldn’t notice one way or the other.
As soon as the television was off, the voices got louder. Sharp voices—the shrill one of his little brother, and the angry shriek of his second sister. He started for the stairs and the rise and fall of the voices resolved into words.
Mar Tee said nastily, “…and just wait until Joe gets home. When he sees what you’ve done with his stuff, he’ll ream you, you stupid little brat.”
“He will not,” Benny yelled back in a high, ragged voice which meant he was in tears.
Cocking his head, Joe wondered if—for once—his mother would get off the phone and stop Mar Tee from picking on the kid, but no. Mom laughed and went on yakking ninety miles an hour. As usual. It was up to Joe—as usual.
“And you get out of here, you little rodent,” Mar Tee snarled. “Go home! Find somebody else to play with!”
Joe was halfway up the stairs when a small figure hurtled down toward him. He put out his arm and stopped the little boy, who stiffened, his eyes magnified behind his huge glasses.
“Wait a sec, Jordan,” Joe whispered. “Wait right here.”
The little boy collapsed like a punctured balloon onto the stairs.
“And that’s another thing,” Mar Tee yelled even louder. “Why do you have to play with that gross-looking little dork? Do you want people to think you are a dork? If you don’t care, at least you could think of someone else—I don’t want my friends seeing him and thinking we have nerds in our family!”
Joe stepped into the room he shared with Benny, and when the two dark heads swung in his direction, he said, “That’s because your friends are all dorks, Martha.”
Mar Tee’s opened her mouth, her face reddened, then without another word she shoved violently past him and marched to her room. Knowing she’d have loved to stay and fight it out, Joe grinned. It was her own fault she’d sworn before the whole family a few weeks ago that on her fourteenth birthday she was to be called Mar Tee, and nothing but Mar Tee, and if anyone dared to address her as Martha, she would not speak to them.
With Mar Tee gone, Benny sank onto the bottom bunk, trying to swallow sobs. Joe said nothing, first surveying the room, which looked like a cyclone had hit it. Both beds had been stripped, and the sheets and blankets lay in a tangle on the floor under a scattering of heavy toys. But nothing that really mattered—all his drawings of imaginary creatures, his space ship designs—on the walls and on the desk had been touched.
“What was it, a tent?” Joe asked.
Benny sucked in a ragged break and nodded hopefully. “I d-didn’t think you’d be mad, not about the sheets,” he said. “Me’n Jordan were making a hideout, with rooms and everything. But we didn’t mess with your good stuff. And it was cool, till she came in. She said yukky stuff at Jordan—”
“I heard. Tell ya what, Ben, if you don’t stop being such a wimp around Mar Tee she’s always going to pick on you.”
Benny sniffed again, then said, “What can I do? She came in to get one of your DVDs, and screamed because she couldn’t get to the desk, and said she’d tell Mom.”
“Listen, Ben, it’s your room. And mine. Not hers. She’s got her own room now—”
“Yeah, and it’s not fair to you,” Benny said, looking belligerent. “It was supposed to be yours.”
“You said it,” Joe muttered, remembering the horrible scenes Mar Tee had thrown in order to get the old study for herself, once Dad’s new study had been built over the garage. He bit back the bitter comment he was about to make, knowing Benny would repeat it next time he had a fight with Mar Tee—and Joe knew he’d be the one to get into trouble. “Anyway, you can throw her out if she barges in uninvited. There’s nothing in here she needs to see, and she’s not welcome. Got it?”
Benny nodded violently.
“Then let’s get the blankets and stuff put back before Dad comes home, so she can’t snitch. I’ll ask Mom if you can borrow the spare blankets to make your tent. Okay?”
Benny brightened up at that, and started struggling with the mess of sheets and blankets on the floor. Joe ended up having to help him restore the room to order. Halfway through the job Benny’s friend Jordan appeared, peeking timidly around the door to see if Mar Tee was still lurking somewhere about
Jordan was also eight, a skinny, pale kid with orange hair and buck teeth as well as those thick glasses that made his watery blue eyes look like marbles swimming in cloudy water.
“Hi, Jordan,” Joe said. “C’mon in. You can give us a hand.”
Jordan was quite ready to help. The two small boys were soon chattering away, punctuating their talk with squeaks and beeps—being robots or aliens, Joe realized finally. He looked away, hoping they wouldn’t see him grin.
When the room was once again restored to order, the little boys went down to watch TV, and Joe was left alone at last. He raced through his homework, enjoying the feeling of expectation that the library books gave him. Two of them he’d already read—a couple of science fiction ones he’d really enjoyed—and then there was that new one, Barefoot Pirate.
As his glance fell on it, he remembered having seen Nan Choate hanging around by the side of the admin building, glaring at him, when he’d climbed onto the bus at three. Weird, he thought. If she thought he’d break his promise, what good would nasty looks do? But then he remembered Mar Tee’s fits about her need for privacy, and her threats that she’d run away if she didn’t get her own room, yet it seemed to him that ever since she got it she was never in it. She was either hanging around the den watching idiot TV shows on the bigscreen because her laptop screen was too small (she said), or else harassing Benny, or fighting with Maria, or else listening to their mother’s phone conversations on the sneak. Girls are just plain weird, he thought. Nothing they do makes any sense.
He dismissed Nan from his mind. She’d get the book tomorrow—no big deal.
Copyright © 2010 by Sherwood Smith
by Sherwood Smith
$1.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-053-8