Jonah made his way into the school as quickly as possible without actually breaking into a run, dodging around packs of kids to lose anyone who might have followed him from the bus. By the time he was sure no one was after him, though, he was completely lost. He couldn’t find the green-eyed girl among the hundreds of unfamiliar faces crowding the hallways. He wandered around for ten minutes, map in hand, before the tone for homeroom sounded. Once almost everyone else had disappeared into classrooms, one of the adult hall monitors spotted him and took him to his locker.
By the time he finally figured out his locker, the tone for first period had sounded and the hallways were swirling with kids again. His homeroom teacher, Mr. Berning, was standing in the classroom doorway when Jonah finally arrived.
“Ah, Mr. Wilder,” Mr. Berning said brightly. “You made it. First day, huh?” He clasped Jonah’s hand firmly in his own, smiling enthusiastically.
“Sorry I’m late,” Jonah said, trying to catch his breath. “I couldn’t find my locker, and then—”
“Welcome to James Buchanan Regional High School!” Mr. Berning went on. He was still shaking Jonah’s hand. “You’re going to love it here. We’ve got a great school, a great bunch of kids. Go Eagles! You’re going to love it. What do you play?”
“Um, music or sports?”
“Anything!” Mr. Berning replied, looking intently at Jonah over his black-rimmed glasses.
“Sports, I’m game for just about everything. And I play piano, and a little guitar.”
Mr. Berning finally released Jonah’s hand to strum a few chords on air guitar. “Great, great! What’s your next class?”
Jonah showed him his schedule.
“Ah! Music Theory. That’s all the way across the school, and you’re already late! Here—Peter!”
He grabbed the arm of a giant in a baseball jersey who was slipping into the classroom. “Peter, this is Jonah Wilder. Jonah, meet Peter Porter. Plays baseball and bass, isn’t that right? Jonah is new, Peter—big first day today! Isn’t that exciting? Would you please accompany him to Ms. Affretando’s music studio?”
“Sure,” Peter agreed amiably, and Mr. Berning wrote out a hall pass for them.
“Don’t blow anything up without me, Mr. B!” Peter called as he and Jonah started down the hall.
Mr. Berning laughed. “Tell Jonah about blowing up pumpkins at the end of the month, would you?”
As Peter led the way through the labyrinth of corridors, he asked Jonah the usual questions about where he was from and why he had moved. He seemed pretty friendly, which Jonah wouldn’t normally have expected from a hard-core athlete like him. He even waited while Jonah stopped by his locker.
“So, what’s up with Mr. Berning and the, uh, exploding pumpkins?” Jonah asked when they got underway again.
“Last Friday of the month, if the class has enough points, we get to blow things up. Mr. Berning calls it Explosion Day. It’s very educational,” Peter explained with a grin. “You just missed exploding eggs with dry ice. Next time we’re doing exploding pumpkin faces, for Halloween.”
A couple of guys wearing sports jerseys and baseball caps lifted their chins at Peter and held out a hand as they approached.
“Porter,” one of them said.
“Campbell, Rusty,” Peter said back, slapping their hands.
After they’d passed, Peter explained that he was on the baseball team with them. “Do you play?” he asked Jonah.
“Uh, Little League, when I was a kid.” His father had signed him up and then sat in the bleachers offering “encouragement” at every game.
“You can still play, though,” Peter said, sounding more as if he were making a statement than asking a question. “You should come to our practice after school today. It’s not an official practice, so it’s pretty casual.”
“I haven’t played on a team since fifth grade,” Jonah objected.
“Just come. Worst case, you can chase down balls and hang out. It’ll be cool.”
“Okay,” Jonah said.
He agreed partly because he didn’t think Peter was going to take no for an answer, and partly to show his mom that he was actually trying to “thrive,” as she put it—because of course she’d want to know every detail of his day as soon as she got home from work. He could only hope that after-school baseball would be enough to distract her from his nearly getting into a fight before he’d even stepped foot inside the school.
~ ~ ~
Although Jonah met a few more friendly kids in his morning classes, none invited him to sit with them at lunch. As he stood at the edge of the cafeteria, his slightly worse-for-wear sack lunch in hand, that left him in the classic dilemma of new kids everywhere: Did he find a seat by himself and hope someone friendly would sit down near him, or did he find a likely looking table of kids and crash their party?
The cafeteria was a buzzing hive of unfamiliar faces. Everybody seemed to know somebody; all the round tables were occupied by at least a handful of people, and he didn’t recognize any of them—until he spotted the girl from the bus, sitting at a table with a handful of other kids.
Even from a distance, he could tell that they were the type of kids who had found themselves left standing when the music stopped in that great game of musical chairs that was the high school social scene. Everyone else had a group to belong to: the only thing holding their group together was their shared inability to fit in anywhere else.
He was scanning the room for better prospects when the girl saw him and waved him over. He felt both relieved and doomed as he approached the table.
“Hey, Alaska,” he called.
She looked amused at what he’d called her.
“Well, I don’t know your real name,” he explained. “Just that you’re from Alaska.”
“I know your name: Jonah Wilder!”
“How did you know that?”
“It was written on your backpack.” She grinned, lazily peeling a slice of orange.
Jonah flushed. That must have been his mom’s doing.
“Come on—you can sit with us,” she said. “This is Penny, Franklin, Pelé, and Trudy.”
Jonah took a seat and glanced around the table as he unpacked his lunch. They were a motley bunch. Penny was a small girl whose round face and red overalls made her look about ten years old. Franklin, wide-eyed and surprised-looking under a mess of curly red hair, instantly reminded Jonah of a rooster, while Pelé might have been a mouse, the way his eyes darted around; he even nibbled at his chicken sandwich with quick little bites.
Those three seemed shy or maybe a little wary of Jonah. But Trudy—black-skinned, all arms and legs, hair done up in braids and beads—made a show of giving Jonah the once-over.
“You’ve got something on your cheek,” she said, dropping French fries into her mouth.
Jonah touched a hand to his face, feeling for what it might be.
“Other cheek,” Trudy directed. “Now up a little. Higher. Little higher. Yeah, there.”
Jonah rolled his eyes. “That’s a mole.”
“Oh!” She giggled hysterically. “That’s all right, we like moles. Your mole can sit here, too.”
Pelé shook his head and whirled his finger in the “crazy-loco” sign.
Trudy ignored him. “Where’d you pick up this one, Mirabelle?”
“I think I’m going to go by Alaska from now on, actually,” the green-eyed girl replied. “I kinda like it.”
Trudy made a face. “I’m not calling you Alaska.”
“But I never liked Mirabelle. Alaska is cool.” She waggled her eyebrows. “Hey, get it? ‘Alaska is cool?’”
“Hardee-har-har. Where’d you pick him up, Alaska?”
“I didn’t pick him up anywhere,” Alaska replied, biting into the slice of orange. “We kind of fell in together on the bus this morning. Today’s Jonah’s first day at good old James Buchanan Regional.”
“That right?” Trudy said, giving Jonah another look.
“Our deepest condolences,” Franklin said mournfully.
Jonah shrugged. “It doesn’t seem that bad, actually.”
“Jonah’s in a band,” Penny piped up. Turning to Jonah, she said, “I was in Ms. Affretando’s Music Theory with you this morning.”
Ms. Affretando had asked him a few questions when she was introducing him to the class and the subject of the Panda Banshees came up—although, to his relief, she hadn’t asked him for the band’s name, which Jonah had always been iffy about. It had been Danny’s suggestion.
“A real band? Really?” Alaska asked.
Jonah nodded. “Just a few of us in someone’s garage. We weren’t that good.”
“What was the name of the band?”
Dang. Jonah took a big bite of his ham-and-cheese sandwich and chewed slowly, trying to think up a better name.
On the other hand, what did he care? He swallowed and cleared his throat. “The Panda Banshees.”
As expected, that got snorts and laughs all around the table.
“It wasn’t my idea,” Jonah protested. “I wanted to call us Ghost Opera.”
“That’s not bad,” Alaska said, but Trudy was not impressed.
“Oh, please,” she said. “I can list ten band names cooler than that in sixty seconds.”
Which she then did—or began to, anyway; people kept interrupting her with their own suggestions, which got increasingly outrageous.
“What about—what was it that you called Bull on the bus this morning?” Jonah asked Alaska.
Her eyes lit up. “Oh yeah! That would be a good band name: ‘The Burping, Blasphemous Dogs.’”
Pelé had gone wide-eyed when Jonah mentioned Bull, as if he’d just thought of a really good name—but that wasn’t what came out of his mouth after he gulped down the mouthful he’d been chewing.
“You’re the kid who beat up Bull on the bus this morning!” he said, pointing a finger at Jonah.
That hushed everyone up. Jonah just blinked in surprise.
“How you talk, Pelé!” Trudy exclaimed. “You can tell just by looking at him that he didn’t lay a finger on Bull.”
Penny examined Jonah doubtfully. “You can?”
“No bleeding, no broken bones, no bruises. Ergo and therefore, no fight with Bull.”
“I didn’t say he fought him, I said he beat him up,” Pelé insisted. “I heard it in the locker room. George McLackey and Brian Stoker were all like teasing Bull about getting beat up by a freshman half his size. Like, ‘quickest take-down ever’ and ‘They’re not asking for your wrestling trophy back, are they?’ That kind of stuff.”
“Well, I was there,” Alaska said. “The only person who beat anyone up was me and Mr. Shakespeare. Bull and some other kids were throwing stuff at Jonah and me, but I used my extensive knowledge of Shakespearean insults to fend them off.”
Jonah ducked his head and coughed. “Actually, Bull and I kind of had a second act after you got off the bus.”
“What?!” Alaska exclaimed. “I told you not to fight him!”
“Well, I didn’t,” Jonah snapped. “He grabbed me from behind, like this—” He demonstrated on Franklin, who hunched his shoulders in surprise. “—and he fell on his back when I broke free. End of movie. Roll the credits and all that.”
Alaska narrowed her eyes at him.
“Maybe it’s end of movie for you, but Bull is looking for a sequel,” Pelé said matter-of-factly. “He was saying how he’s gonna get you back.”
Trudy shook her head regretfully and gave Jonah a pitying look. “It all comes of running with the wrong crowd. Mirabelle’s bad enough, but her and Shakespeare are the dog.”
“Alaska,” Alaska corrected her. “But, Pelé, how’d you hear Bull say all that? Bull’s in tenth grade. You don’t have gym with him.”
“Prentiss locked Pelé in a locker after gym again,” Penny said. “We have gym together the period before the tenth graders, so he was still trapped in the locker when Bull and those guys arrived.”
“Oh, Pelé!” Alaska gave him a sympathetic look.
“Those no-good, dirty, rotten scoundrels got me again,” Pelé acknowledged. “But there was a bunch of towels and gym clothes in there, so I kind of took a little nap. When I heard the tenth graders come in, I was going to shout for help, but then I heard Bull and them, so I was like, what’s the point?”
“What’d he say?” Trudy prompted.
“He was mad. At first he was boasting how he’s gonna get this kid and beat him up and all like that kind of talk that those kind of guys do, but then the other guys are like, ‘No, no, you’ll get suspended from the team,’ so then Bull says he’ll do it after school, like take the bus home and get off at your stop and pound the juice out of your gallbladder and break your fingers and stick your tongue to a freezing pole and rip it off and stick bugs in your ears and pine needles under your toenails and—”
“Okay, I get the basic idea,” Jonah interrupted.
“But then those guys are like, ‘No, you’ll still get in trouble, and then the wrestling team won’t go to state, wah, wah, wah,’ so then they start talking about how to do it under the radar—like stealing your homework and egging your house and maybe roughing you up a little every day on the bus, but not enough to get in trouble, stuff like that.”
Trudy fake-yawned. “That is so old school. They should steal his clothes out of his gym locker so he has to wear his gym uniform the rest of the day.”
“Or make up a blog by him,” Franklin said. “Something embarrassing, like bad rhyming love poems to, um, Miss Andrews—”
“—and then spread it on Facebook!” Trudy added.
Penny tapped her chin. “That would be traceable. It would be better if they swiped his phone without him knowing and posted weird Facebook updates on his account. The only problem would be how to swipe his phone.”
Franklin waved a hand. “That would be simple. Someone distracts him while his locker’s open, someone else sticks chewing gum in the lock so it doesn’t quite latch—”
“Or they could just stuff him in the locker,” Pelé suggested. “No one ever gets in trouble for stuffing a kid in a locker.”
Jonah held up his hands. “Uh, yeah, so—excuse me, but whose side are you guys on, anyway?”
“Oh, this is all purely hypothetical,” Penny assured him innocently. She was waving the spoon from her pudding cup around pedantically. “We often have little hypothetical discussions about this and that.”
“Guys, guys!” Alaska waved her hands to get their attention. “We should be thinking of ways to stop them! We have to help Jonah out here.”
An awkward silence fell over the group as Alaska looked from face to face for agreement. No one said anything.
And then no one said anything some more.
Franklin slowly raised a tortilla chip to his mouth and bit down.
It made a very loud crunching noise.
“We do?” he said, arching an eyebrow.
“Come on, people!” Alaska pleaded.
Trudy took a swig of water. “Sorry. I’m already lined up for detention this week. I can’t get into any more trouble, and Bull is nothing but.”
“I heard he made a substitute teacher cry once,” Penny said.
Pelé just looked down at his half-empty lunch tray.
Jonah was embarrassed for them. He focused on his apple and chips, all business-like. “I don’t need anyone’s help,” he said. “If Bull touches me again, the next thing he’s going to remember is waking up in the emergency room.”
He said it matter-of-factly, but with enough heat to make the others shift in their seats uncomfortably. In their faces he could see them recalculating their first impressions of him. They were thinking maybe he was a little more dangerous than their usual company.
He wondered if they could somehow tell he’d beaten up other kids before. He counted them all in his head. Six, if you counted the time he’d knocked down that loud-mouthed know-it-all of a sixth grader, Shelley Winter.
Six, if you didn’t count the time he went after his father.
Trudy picked up her tray and stood up to go. “Don’t worry about Bull,” she told Jonah. “He’s full of it. He talks big, but next week he won’t even remember your name. Just lay low, and it’ll blow over.”
The words had barely died on her lips when Jonah noticed the assistant principal—the same guy who had toured Jonah and his mom around the school—working his way over to their table.
He didn’t look like he was making a social call. He looked for all the world like the sheriff in an old Western—the weather-beaten face, the steel-blue eyes, the salt-and-pepper mustache. All he needed was a star and a gun holster.
He laid a firm hand on Jonah’s shoulder.
“Mr. Wilder,” he said. “I need to see you in my office for a few minutes.”
Jonah slid his eyes over to Trudy in a What Were You Saying About It Blowing Over? kind of look.
“All right,” he said, and to himself he was thinking that this had to be a new record for him—half a day between walking through the front doors to walking through the principal’s door.
The assistant principal scanned the lunch table. “And Mirabelle Delacroix?”
Alaska raised her hand, ever so slowly. She looked stunned.
Trudy slapped Alaska’s hand down. “Actually she only answers to Alaska now. Don’t ask me why. I’d trade my old name for ‘Mirabelle’ any day of the week—except for now, since you’re looking for someone named Mirabelle and I think the last time you and I had a little chat in your office we agreed that I’d better not come back anytime soon, right, Mr. Pincer? If it’s someone to discipline you want, Alaska, née Mirabelle, is the gal for you.” And she clapped Alaska on the back.
“That’s fine, Trudy,” Mr. Pincer said dryly. “I only need to borrow your friends for a few minutes—now, please.”
Jonah and Alaska stood and followed Mr. Pincer out of the cafeteria, attracting curious stares and a few not-so-subtle comments. Judging by her pale face, Jonah guessed Alaska was the type of kid who never got in trouble. He wasn’t sure what she had to worry about—she hadn’t touched Bull.
Mr. Pincer led them through the busy administrative suite and ushered them into his small office. Family pictures and posters with inspirational quotes covered the walls. “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” So said Mahatma Gandhi, apparently.
“Wait here,” Mr. Pincer said, indicating a couple of orange plastic chairs positioned in front of his desk. He ducked out of the office.
Jonah glanced over at Alaska, who looked like she’d swallowed a stone. Her eyes were glistening, and she bit her lip.
“Hey,” Jonah whispered, “this is no big deal.”
She glared at him contradictorily.
“Look, I’ve been in the hot seat more times than I can count, and I’m telling you, this is no big deal. Just let me do the talking—I’ll say you were an innocent bystander, which you were.”
Before she could reply, though, Mr. Pincer was standing in the doorway again.
“Are these the ones?” he asked, beckoning someone in the hall to come look.
The figure who appeared in the doorway was none other than Bull Grubinski, holding an ice pack to the back of his head.
“Yes, Mr. Pincer,” Bull said, mild as butter on grits. “These are the ones who jumped me.”
|Did you like this preview chapter of Angeling? Share it on your social network using the buttons below. This chapter is a work in progress; your constructive comments are more than welcome. See the Angeling book page for more chapters as they are released, or sign up to receive Angeling chapters and book release news by e-mail.
P.S. And for the record, exploding pumpkins is actually an honest-to-goodness science geek pastime — see for yourself: