Robert Arthur was surrounded by strangers.
He stood outside the entrance to Lovecraft Middle School, watching the students pass by, searching for a familiar face. Everybody was talking to someone. Kids were joking and laughingand goofing around. But Robert didn’t recognize a single person.
Earlier that summer, his neighborhood had been redistricted. This was a fancy way of saying that all of his old friends were attending Franklin Middle School, in the north part of town, but somehow Robert got stuck attending Lovecraft Middle School, in the south part of town.
His mother told him there was no say in the matter; it was just the luck of the draw.
“But you’re going to love it,” she promised. “They spent millions of dollars building this school. It’s brand new. State of the art. With a swimming pool and digital chalkboards and everything. It’s such an incredible opportunity!”
Robert wasn’t so sure. He would have happily traded the swimming pool and digital chalkboards for the chance to be with his old friends. He had a hundred different worries: Who would sit with him at lunch? What if he needed help opening his locker? Wasn’t
anybody from his old school here?
Beside the main entrance of the school was a large digital billboard with an animated message:
PLEASE REPORT TO THE ATHLETIC ARENA
FOR THE RIBBON-CUTTING CEREMONY!
It might have been faster to walk through the building, but Robert wasn’t in a hurry. He took his time, circling the outside of the school, marveling at how quickly it seemed to have sprung from the earth.
Six months earlier, this was all abandoned farmland, full of weeds and mud puddles and sticker bushes. Now there was a four-story classroom building, tennis courts, a baseball diamond, and lush green grass as far as the eye could see.
When Robert reached the athletic stadium, the bleachers were packed with spectators: students, teachers, parents, news reporters—everyone in town had come to witness the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Everyone except Robert’s mother, a nurse, who worked the early shift at Dunwich Memorial Hospital. Most mornings she was out the door before Robert woke up, so she rarely attended school presentations or class trips. Sometimes this bothered Robert, but today he was grateful. He knew the only thing more embarrassing than sitting alone at his new middle school would be sitting with his mommy. All the other kids were sitting with their friends.
Robert climbed halfway up the bleachers and squeezed between two clusters of giggling girls. He tried smiling at them.
None of the girls smiled back.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony was already under way. First the mayor thanked the governor. Then the governor stood up and thanked the teachers’ union. Then a bunch of teachers got up and thanked the parents’ association. Then a bunch of parents cheered and
thanked Principal Slater.
Finally Principal Slater stood up with oversized scissors and sliced the long green ribbon in half. At precisely that moment, the clouds turned gray and a low drum of thunder rolled across the sky.
It was weird, Robert thought. Just one minute ago, it had been a perfectly pleasant and sunny day. Now, suddenly, it looked like rain.
Fortunately, the ceremony was almost over. The grand finale was a special performance by the Dunwich High School marching band, complete with drums, brass, and color guard. They paraded across the field playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
Robert glanced over his shoulder, peering up at the bleachers, scanning the faces. There must have been four hundred kids in the arena. He knew that, sooner or later, he’d have to recognize someone.
And then he did.
The worst possible someone. Oh, no
Robert immediately faced forward.
But it was too late. He’d been spotted.
“Hey, Robert! Is that you? Robert Arthur?”
He couldn’t believe his rotten luck. Glenn Torkells?
The one person he knew at Lovecraft Middle
School—and it was Glenn Torkells
? The bully who had
tormented him for years?
“Robert! I’m talking to you!” Definitely
Robert tried ignoring him. His mother used to tell him to ignore the bullies and eventually they would leave him alone. Yeah, right
“I know that’s you, Robert. I got a real good memory and I never forget a face.” Something slimy hit the back of Robert’s neck. He reached up and peeled it off: a half-chewed gummy worm.
“Turn around and look at me.”
Robert knew that Glenn would get what he wanted, sooner or later. Glenn always did. Robert turned around and another gummy worm struck him right in the forehead.
Glenn laughed uproariously. “Haw-haw! Bull’s-eye!”
He was seated two rows behind Robert, looking much like he did back in elementary school—only bigger. He wore the same green army jacket and the same grubby blue jeans. His dark blond hair was still plastered to his forehead, still looking like he’d cut it himself with dull scissors. Glenn had always been the biggest kid in the class, but over the summer he’d ballooned into the Incredible Hulk.
“What do you want?” Robert asked.
Glenn popped a gummy worm into his mouth and began working his jaw. “Dweeb tax,” he said. “Pay up.”
Robert sighed. Glenn had been collecting the dweeb tax for part of fifth grade and all of sixth. It was a one-dollar penalty he imposed on Robert for various “infractions”—tripping or stammering or wearing ugly pants or other “crimes” that Glenn dreamed up.
Robert glanced around, hoping to spot a teacher who might intervene. That never happened at his last school, but he thought maybe Lovecraft Middle School would be different.
No such luck. Everyone was watching the marching band on the field. The girls on either side of Robert were chattering among themselves.
“Hurry up, Nerdbert,” Glenn said. “You think you’re the only kid in this school who owes me?”
Earlier that morning, Robert’s mother had given him an extra five dollars of spending money, to celebrate his first day as a middle school student.
Robert retrieved one of those dollars and passed it to Glenn. His tormentor shook his head and smiled, revealing flecks of chewed-up gummy worm in his teeth.
“It’s gonna be two
dollars here in middle school,” Glenn explained. “We’re not little kids anymore.” Chapter Two
After the marching band had finished playing, Principal Slater directed the students to find their lockers and then proceed to their homerooms.
As the bleachers emptied, Robert moved nimbly through the crowd, careful to stay several steps ahead of Glenn Torkells.
He noticed a girl hurrying alongside him.
Looking at him.
She was short and skinny, dressed in a white T-shirt and blue jeans and carrying a beat-up skateboard. She had dark brown hair that fell past her shoulders and wore a dozen jangling bracelets on her wrists. She smiled, revealing a mouthful of metal braces.
“You’ve got worms in your hair,” she said.
“Gummy worms. In your scalp.”
Robert reached up and shook them loose. “Thanks.”
“You’re gonna have to stand up to him.”
“Stand up to who?”
“You know who.”
Robert flushed. Was there anything more embarrassing than getting advice on bullies from a cute girl?
“Glenn and I are friends,” Robert quickly explained. “That’s just a stupid game we play. I owed him two dollars from the other night.”
“He called it a dweeb tax.”
“See, that’s part of the game.”
The girl wasn’t buying it, Robert could tell.
“I’m Karina,” she said. “Karina Ortiz.”
“I know,” she said. “I heard him taunting you.”
“He wasn’t taunting me.”
“Friends don’t throw chewed-up gummy worms in your hair,” she said. “I was there. I watched the whole thing.”
“Well, maybe next time you should mind your own business.”
The words came out louder than Robert intended. Karina raised both hands in a defensive gesture, like he’d just come at her with his fists. “Hey, suit yourself,” she said. “You just looked like you needed a friend, that’s all.”
Karina dropped her skateboard to the asphalt, pushed off with one foot, and quickly zoomed away from him, swerving around the other students with remarkable balance and precision.
Almost immediately, Robert wished he could apologize and somehow take the words back. But it was too late. Karina was the first friendly person to approach him at Lovecraft Middle School, and he’d managed to scare her away.
He followed the crowd of students up the stairs and into the central corridor of the school, a frenzy of color and sound and energy.
Instead of bulletin boards, the hallways of Lovecraft Middle School featured large high-definition LCD screens with animated announcements of soccer tryouts and chorus practice. Sleek metal lockers lined the walls; instead of old-fashioned combination dials, they had ten-button digital touch pads. Up and down the hallway, kids were lining up to stow their backpacks and lunches.
Robert walked to his locker—A119—and entered the passcode he’d received in the mail. Each button made a satisfying chirp when he pressed it, and then the locker door opened with a gentle pneumatic whooooosh
In the distance, Robert heard a girl shriek, but he thought nothing of it. Girls in sixth and seventh grade were always shrieking about something or another.
His new locker was divided by a metal shelf into two sections. There was a tall bottom section with a hook where he could hang his coat and a short top section, near the air vents, where he could store his brown-bag lunch.
Robert studied the top section and blinked.
Perched on the shelf, twitching its nose, was a large white rat.
Elsewhere in the hallway, another girl screamed. Then another, and another. A teacher yelled, “Get back!” and Robert felt something brush past his legs. He stumbled away from the locker as the white rat sprang toward him, landing on his chest and leapfrogging over his shoulder.
“Get it off me!” someone shouted.
“There’s another one!”
“It’s in my hair!”
More rats brushed past his feet—there were dozens now, darting under sneakers, gnashing their teeth, squealing and snarling and stampeding down the hall.
Up until this moment, Robert’s life had been fairly quiet and ordinary. He had the same interests and hobbies as a million other twelve-year-old boys. He spent his days in school; he spent his nights doing homework and messing around on the computer. He’d never experienced anything that might have prepared him for a swarm of wild rats.
Yet while the rest of his classmates were freaking out, Robert remained calm.
He understood he had just two choices: He could scream and panic like the rest of his classmates. Or he could sit tight for a few moments and hope the rats would charge toward the nearest exit.
Which is exactly what happened. The stampede reached the open doors at the end of the hallway and fanned out across the lush green lawns surrounding the school. The students watched after them, awestruck.
“I don’t believe it,” said the boy standing next to Robert. “They spend a trillion dollars building this place and it’s already full of rats? How’s that possible?”
Good question, Robert thought.
He knelt to study the inside of his locker. The metal walls and floors were intact; there were no gaps or cracks or holes. There were no places where a rat might have squeezed its way into his locker.
Robert knew middle school would be strange, but this was ridiculous.
Copyright © 2012 by Charles Gilman. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.