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Authors: Beth Evangelista

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BOOK: Gifted
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And then it happened. The first assault on my person. It happened before the buses were even in motion. I was next in line to board. Anita was in front of me, and I was watching her rather wide posterior advancing rather too closely to my face as she climbed up the steps when suddenly two things happened in rapid succession: I heard
the words “Ladies first, Georgette,” hissed in my ear, then a foot shot out of nowhere and kicked my legs out from under me. I fell forward, and just as the bottom step of the bus rose quickly to meet my face, an arm shot out from the other side of nowhere and caught me around my chest.

“You okay, George?”

I gaped as my benefactor pulled me to my feet. It was Sam Toselli. Over my head he yelled, “What did you do that for, you idiot?” I turned to look up at Gabriel Arno, a defensive tackle for the football team who'd obviously missed his calling as a kicker. Sam bent down, picked up my backpack, handed it to me, and then made a clumsy pawing gesture on the front of my jacket, as if he were dusting me off, which made me gape again. This was not the same person who, as recently as Friday, had offered to rip my lungs out through my nose and then ram them back down my throat again. This was somebody new. Was the ape evolving?

“Thanks,” I told him, still gaping while mounting the steps.

This needed thinking about. Maybe my future wasn't as bleak as I'd thought.

Chapter 5

I'd like to say that during the bus ride to Cape Rose I came up with Plan B, and that upon our arrival I would be only moments away from spraining my ankle, or knocking a tooth out, or slipping into a coma and being ambulanced home. I'd like to say that, but I can't. I had too much to think about.

Anita and I had a seat sort of in the middle of the bus, and Sam and his henchmen were all the way in the back. Now, ordinarily this proximity would not have prevented Them from heckling me, but They didn't. They didn't utter the faintest peep, which made me think furiously well into the second hour of our trip. It was baffling.

Sort of like the photograph in my closet gallery of Sam Toselli and me with our arms around each other's necks. My mom had snapped the picture back in the fifth grade when the two of us were enjoying a brief friendship. We were cocompetitors for the Pennsylvania Junior Scientist Award, us and about five hundred other fifth-graders statewide, and we spent a lot of time together
working on our projects. It boggled the mind to look back on it. Sam had been quite nice then, and actually happy for me when I won first place even though he didn't get so much as an honorable mention. It's funny how things change. When I say “funny,” what I mean is “peculiar.” I think I kept the picture to remind myself that truth really is stranger than fiction. And now
this
.

Anita spent much of the drive writing like crazy in her journal. I knew she wanted to be a writer one day, but if you'd asked her, she would have told you she didn't like to think about the future. The present was bad enough. At one point curiosity caught me in its grasp and I leaned over her lap to sneak a peek, but all I saw were the words “Anita and George” etched inside the cover of her notebook, each flowery letter in a different colored marker. Anita gasped and slapped the notebook to her chest. I looked away quickly. I was only going to ask why on earth I didn't get top billing, but I let it go. She's so touchy when she's writing.

She must have been writing the sequel to
War and Peace
, nearly filling up an entire spiral notebook with hardly a pause. I divided my time between chewing over recent events with the Bruise Brothers and rereading
A Tale of Two Cities
, my favorite book of the moment, though not really rereading it. More like picking out my favorite chapters and reading them, and avoiding the ending, which I'd always thought was kind of a letdown. What fascinated me about the book was how two characters trade identities, and one of them not only takes on the other guy's punishments but seems to get some sort of kick out of doing it. Pure fiction, I know, but just imagine it! Where could
I
find such a person?

So, what with Anita, the Bruise Brothers, Charles
Dickens, and gazing at the back of Allison Picone's dainty golden head, my time riding the bus to Cape Rose was completely taken up. Before I knew it, we had turned off the main road and onto a gravel drive that snaked through a vast seaside woodland. The drive ended in a parking lot, where the buses proceeded to dump us and hightail it out of there in a swirl of stones, leaving us to trek the eighth of a mile or so over rough terrain through the forest to the campsite on foot.

My first impression of camp, after we'd left the wooded path and emerged into dazzling sunlight, was sand, sand, and nothing but sand. It was ridiculous! I mean there was forest all around it, so why they built the barracks on a sand trap instead of knocking down a few useless trees and building on solid soil was beyond me. I hate sand! When it gets in my hair, it takes weeks to get rid of.

My second impression of camp was how much it reminded me of pictures I'd once seen of Angola State Prison. Only this facility had slightly less charm.

The living quarters consisted of four single-story cement buildings opposite an identical row of structures with about fifty feet in between them, an area labeled “the Compound” on our maps. Each building was separated into two distinct “Cabins,” and letters were painted over the doorframes to distinguish which was which. One latrine per sex stood at the end of each row of cabins. Running lengthwise through the Compound and separating the boys' lodging from the girls' was the mess hall, or “Dining Hall,” as it was euphemistically called on our maps, and it had a big red banner draped across its roof proclaiming, “Welcome to Cape Rose,” just to rub our noses in it. At the very edge of the Compound, against a backdrop of very realistic-looking sand dunes, stood “the
Administrative Office Slash Nurse's Quarters,” a newer-looking two-story building. I assumed this was what the faculty of Parks Middle School was using as a place to stash their beer coolers and as a secret hangout.

Our first order of business was to transport our gear to the cabins and then to proceed directly to the “Dining Hall” for orientation and lunch. I trailed the Bruise Brothers at a safe distance and looked behind me to see Anita lumbering beneath her baggage, gazing gloomily at me, probably wondering if she would ever see me alive again. But when I got to Cabin F, none of Them so much as looked my way. My luck was holding out.

Or so I thought.

Eighteen faculty members had been assigned to chaperone this trip, and not once had I considered which of them might be sharing my cabin until my eyes beheld a terrible sight. In the cabin doorway, blocking the sun with his short, spherical frame, stood Mr. Peter Zimmerman, the Music Man. I had to squint to see what he was doing because the sunlight bouncing off his hairless dome made my eyes water. A clipboard hid his face, fortunately, but his bleating voice gave him away. He was taking attendance. And no matter where my name fell in the lineup, I knew that I would be called last.

“Arno … Barton … Dunfee … Lewis … Romero … Simpson … Sussman … Toselli … Tucker-Vaughn …” He looked up and sniffed the air. “Oh,” he said, “and, er … Clark.”

See? No subtlety at all. I shot back with a snappy, “Hear, hear!” just to show that I could be equally annoying. He let the clipboard drop to his side and scowled at me. Then he scowled at the rest of the room.

“My friends,” Mr. Z said, kidding himself, “for the
next five days this cabin will be your new home. But you are not to treat it as such. This cabin is going to stay neat as a pin. I repeat,
neat as a pin
. Now say it with me.” He held up his hands as if to lead a choir. When nobody chorused “neat as a pin,” preferring to snicker instead, Mr. Zimmerman froze us with one of his uglier looks.

“Cabin inspections,” he bleated sharply, “will be performed daily, and the rules will be strictly enforced. They are posted on the wall here to my left. We will review them together tonight at bedtime. On the bunk that will be yours, you will find your name along with a packet of study sheets that you will need in order to complete the science course this week. Now it is time for you gentlemen to get organized. At my signal you may commence unpacking.
Quietly
.” He pressed his lips together, eyed each of us stonily in turn, and clapped his flabby hands four times.

We all scattered, simpering quietly, in search of our bunks. Our new home was a rectangular room with whitewashed walls and five pairs of bunk beds placed end to end down the long walls, two on one side and three on the other. Smack dab in the middle of the floor stood Mr. Zimmerman's cot. If it hadn't been for the open doorway and the two unbarred windows, I realized that our new home could easily have doubled as a prison cell in one of the less-cushy third-world prisons.

I found my name. It was on a tag hanging from an upper bunk. This presented a problem. It wasn't that I had a fear of heights, although I did. The problem was kind of medical. I had never been one to sleep straight through the night, having always needed to get up at least once or twice to answer a call from nature. So a bottom bunk was going to be a necessity.

I turned around to locate Mr. Z. He was moving his cot out of harm's way toward the opposite wall. Really throwing his back into it. I walked over and stood beside him.

“Mr. Zimmerman,” I announced. “I have a problem.” He didn't answer me. He didn't even look up. I repeated my statement a little louder, then had to keep on repeating it until he finally gave me his attention. As did everybody else.

“What is it, George?” he asked in a sarcastically patient sort of way. “Can't find your bunk?”

“It's not that I can't find it,” I said. “It's that I don't like it.” I wished the others would go back to their own business. “You see,” I whispered candidly, “I have a terrible fear of heights.”

The Music Man gave his bed a fierce final push against the wall and straightened up to look down his nose at me. He loved doing that because I was the only person shorter than he was. “I guarantee, George, that by the end of the week you will have gotten over your fear. You have to face it if you want to overcome it.”

“But I don't want to overcome it,” I said reasonably. “I want to move to a lower bunk!” If my dad had been there instead of a hundred and ten point nine miles away, the guy would never have argued with me.

A figure came up beside me and put its great big hand on my shoulder. It was Jason Barton.
One of Them
.

“I'm willing to switch with George, Mr. Zimmerman, if it would help.”
Jason gave my shoulder a little squeeze
. “I'd rather have the top bunk anyway.”

Mr. Z couldn't look down on Jason, since Jason was about a foot taller, so he added a touch of steel to his voice to remind us of who was in charge.

“The beds in every cabin here at camp have been assigned for a reason. Otherwise, everyone would want what he couldn't have. George will stay on the top bunk and Jason will remain on the bottom, and by tonight”—he gave us a smirk—“the two of you will be too tired to care.”

Jason shrugged at me, and together we walked back to our beds.

“We'll switch tonight after he falls asleep, if you still want to,” he whispered in a conspiratorial way. And then, without any warning at all, he picked up my sleeping roll and hurled it gently to the top bunk, after which he went about his own unpacking.

I stood there with my mouth open. A big day for gaping, I know, but this was giving me the creeps. Ignoring me was fine. I couldn't have asked for anything more. But this sudden kindness of Theirs was beginning to feel sinister.

I couldn't help wondering when the other shoe was going to drop … and if I was going to see it in time to duck.

Chapter 6

The mess hall was packed by the time cabin f got there, but I had no trouble spotting Anita standing alone on the other side of the room waiting for me, clutching a brown paper lunch bag with both hands. My lunch bag, a neon green thermal one, was crammed discreetly in my armpit. Everyone was to have packed his or her lunch in a disposable bag, and you would have thought that the principal's wife could have followed school directives, but apparently not. Anyway, I joined Anita, and together we surveyed the room. It was filled to capacity with cafeteria-style tables and benches. The teachers were all lined up in a row of folding chairs on either side of a portable movie screen, and Mr. Harris, that elderly man of science, was about halfway down the center aisle, tinkering with a film projector.

In spite of the crowd, I knew we'd have no trouble finding seats. We never did. Whenever I sat down at a table, the kids already there would automatically jump up to go squish in at another table. I used to take this
personally, but not anymore. Ever since They became famous for torturing me, the other kids did whatever they could to stay out of the line of fire, and I couldn't really blame them. I would have done the same thing.

But today would be different. I could just feel it. So when I noticed there was room at the table
They
occupied, well, call me daring, I nodded to it and led the way.

“George!” Anita whispered, without moving her lips but giving me lots of eye contact. “Are you out of your mind?”

“What did you say?” I asked rather loudly. “I didn't quite catch that.”

And it was just as I'd predicted. Nothing adverse happened. And not only that, as we were taking our seats Drew Lewis and Tim Simpson actually slid over to give us more room! Anita's eyes almost popped out of her head.

“Now I've seen everything!” She hissed in my ear. “What in the world is going on?”

I quietly filled her in on recent developments, then settled in comfortably to watch the film
Protecting Our Important Sand Dune System
with the rest of the guys. The movie was entertaining enough. It starred a cartoon hermit crab whose name I failed to catch, the leader of “The Dune Patrol,” which turned out to be a collection of equally verbal marine organisms hell-bent on stomping out erosion up and down the Eastern Seaboard. What I was supposed to learn from this I didn't know, except that I wasn't about to go anywhere near the dunes without a serious weapon of some kind. (I even made a joke to this effect, and They all laughed! Anita just sat there in a kind of trance.)

BOOK: Gifted
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