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Authors: Beth Evangelista

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BOOK: Gifted
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“Way to go, GEORGE!” Sam howled in my ear. “That's the way to do it, buddy!”

I blinked my thanks at him as Drew Lewis delivered a hard congratulatory slap on my spine.

“Man! You're the greatest! You slid just like a worm!”

I doubled over to pick up my glasses. They were still intact, but it was no easy task straightening myself back up. The football had gone deep into my side. So deep that it was still there. I uncorked it and handed it over to Sam with an arthritic little wave.

“You're going?” he cried. “You can't go, you just got here! We need you!”

The look of dumb pleading in his eyes failed to move me. “Unavoidable, I'm afraid,” I wheezed. “I have to keep another appointment.” But I promised to “catch Them later,” and as I limped off the beach, believe it or not, for the first time in my life I forgot to look over at Allison Picone.

Because the face I was dreaming of now, the face I yearned to see more than any other at this moment in time, was the face of Nurse Marcia Kobb.

And I hoped she would have a whole slew of cold compresses in her icebox.

Chapter 10

I don't know how long I spent in the infirmary. I must have slept for quite a while because when I woke up, the sun had sunk pretty low over the trees and I was feeling distinctly better, albeit a little stiff. I doubt if Nurse Kobb believed me when I'd explained the cause of my injuries, but to her credit, she'd put on her best cotside manner and packed me in ice with no further questions.

I pulled out my itinerary. My team had been scheduled for Seashore Study from three to four, but I could tell that it was well past four o'clock.
We must be in Clubs
I decided. “Clubs” was something one signed up for, and since I hadn't signed up for anything, I didn't know where that left me. The only thing I could think to do was go to the “Dining Hall,” where I felt sure there'd be at least one teacher sneaking a between-meal snack who'd be happy to tell me where to go.

I had scarcely crossed the threshold, however, when I found that some kind of club was meeting there. Twenty
to thirty kids were sitting cross-legged on the floor, and Mr. Zimmerman was pacing in front of them, gesticulating with one hand while reading aloud from a paper held in his other hand.
This must be Play Club
, I thought,
or “Zimmerman's Follies,”
as his plays were generally called. This was
not
where I wanted to be. I started backing out of the doorway and was almost free and clear when the waving hand of one of the cross-legged arrested my movement.

“George!” Anita whispered, motioning me to her. I approached reluctantly. “I didn't know where you were. Come sit down.”

“I can't,” I whispered back. “I have to find my club.”

“MR. CLARK! HOW KIND OF YOU TO JOIN US,” Mr. Zimmerman's voice echoed around the room, perforating the eardrums. “WON'T YOU HAVE A SEAT? UNLESS YOU'VE GOT SOMETHING YOU'D LIKE TO
SHARE
WITH THE GROUP.”

Forty to sixty eyes studied me.

“I don't think I'm supposed to be here,” I said, backing away.

He reached for his god-awful clipboard, and I guess he must have found my name because the next thing he said was, “I JUST FOUND YOUR NAME. SO I WOULD SAY THAT
HERE
IS EXACTLY WHERE YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO BE.”

“I signed you up,” Anita mouthed.

“WHAT!” I mouthed back. I sank to the floor beside her.

“I didn't know what else to do! After Free Time I couldn't find you anywhere, and then you never showed up for Seashore Study. It was either this or Arts and Crafts. You ought to thank me.”

“Thanks,” I said. “Arts and Crafts” was stupid and should have been called “How To Make Nothing Out of Something,” but
this
was deplorable!

“NOW, IF MR. CLARK HAS NO OBJECTION, I'D LIKE TO CONTINUE,” the Music Man said, and proceeded to do so.

Having arrived so late, I was completely lost as to what the hell he was talking about, but from the gist of it, I gathered he was getting ready to turn this troupe of teenage no-talents into performers. Performers who would do justice to the short musical play he'd composed with his own fat fingers. The curtain would rise on Zimmerman's Follies on Thursday night, our last night of camp, and instead of being somewhere in the back of the audience hurling tomatoes at the stage, I'd be on it!

I drew my knees up, pressed my forehead against them, and shut my eyes. I think if I could have fit my hands around Anita's neck, I would have choked the life out of her right then and there.

And not a single jury on the planet would have given me anything harsher than its deepest sympathies.

The way it developed, though, things might have been worse. Anita and I left Play Club not with scripts but with stage crew directions. Mr. Z must have had the two of us pegged as
super
-no-talents, and for the first time in my life, I wasn't going to argue with him.

“Where to next?” Anita asked brightly, as if we were still the best of friends. I dug out my itinerary wearily.

“Clubs end at five o'clock,” I yawned, “and dinner starts at five fifteen, so I guess we just stand here.”

“Why are you mad?” Anita asked softly. I turned away. She gripped my shoulders, pulling me back to face her. “You're mad at me, George. I can tell.”

“What makes you think that?” I asked, studying the sky. Truthfully, I wasn't mad at her. I was sick of her.

“Okay,” she said, eyeing me stonily. “If that's the way you want it. Go ahead. Be mad, then!” And turning abruptly, with a swift flip of brown frizz in my face, she stomped back into the mess hall.

I felt a little bad then.

Okay, maybe more than a little, but then I was suddenly glad she was gone. The Bruise Brothers were heading my way.

“Look! There's my man,” Sam shouted. “It's the Worm!”

The Worm?
Not a name I would exactly relish, but one I would accept in a generous spirit. Tim Simpson looped a heavy arm around my neck, then gave my head what I believe is commonly known as a noogie.

“We wondered what happened to you!”

“Yo, what's this?” The stage crew directions were ripped from my hand. “You're in Zimmerman's Follies?” Gabriel Arno chuckled, shaking his massive head. “You're into that? That's for geeks.”

“It was an accident,” I replied truthfully. “A horrible accident. I don't know how it happened.”

“Not to worry, buddy. You'll slide outta that situation, 'cause you're the Worm!” It was Sam who said this, and from the way he said it, it sounded as if what he meant to say was “You dah Man,” and all of a sudden I realized that I was one of Them.
They liked me now!
We were friends! I was part of the brotherhood! And even though I still counted myself a little higher up on the food chain (okay, a lot higher up), I thought,
At the rate They seem to be evolving, who knows? They might even catch up to me in a few years!

So when the time came for us to head in for dinner,
Sam, Jason, Drew, Gabriel, Tim, and I (together as a team)
muscled
our way through the Compound and into the mess hall. And after we'd gotten through the doorway, Sam, Jason, Drew, Gabriel, Tim, and I (once again, acting as a team)
crushed
our way through the crowds and into the dinner line.

At least I think that's what happened. Being trapped in the middle of our team, I couldn't really tell what was happening around me. But I think it's safe to say we did a fair amount of
crushing
and
muscling
.

And all I can tell you is,
Boy, did it feel good!

Chapter 11

“Here,” Jason said, shoving a tray into my ribs. I craned my neck and smiled up at him.

“By the way, that was very kind of you,” I said. “Offering to switch bunks with me this morning.”

“We still can if you want,” he said. We moved down the line, and he started slopping macaroni and cheese into a big mound on his tray. I watched him, fascinated. The cheese looked like yellow Jell-O and smelled like chemicals, but maybe that's what built muscles. All I had so far was fruit cocktail and a pair of oatmeal cookies. The two safest foods up there, but probably not great for bodybuilding. I hesitated and put a dollop of macaroni and cheese on my tray, then immediately wished I hadn't. The yellow stuff spread right over into the cookie section.

“C'mere if you want to hear something,” Jason said. He moved to a table, and I followed him. When we sat down, I noticed Anita sitting alone at another table a couple of rows away, staring down at her food, not looking at me, but it felt like she was. My heart bled for her in
that moment, and I wished she could have made more of an effort to mix with other people instead of being such a loner. But I forgot all about her as soon as Jason started speaking.

“Ever play Smear the Queer?”

I shook my head. My eyes must have doubled in size.

“It's a football thing. We play it sometimes just to mess around. See, one of us has the ball, and the guy with the ball has to make it through the line and the rest of us try and take him down. It's fun as hell.”

I gave him a weak smile.

“We're gonna play it tonight, only a
different
kind of Smear the Queer,” Sam grinned at us from the other side of the table. Gabriel and Drew slapped Their trays down next to his while Tim knocked me aside in a sharp, friendly fashion and placed his meal beside mine.

“And guess who the queer's gonna be?”

They all looked right at me. The alarm I felt must have shown on my face because Sam explained quickly, “It's gonna be Mr. Zimmerman.”

I was confused. “I didn't know he was a football enthusiast.”

“He's not,” Sam said. “So we have to play it with shaving cream. Get it?”

“I get it,” I nodded, without the slightest idea what “it” was.

“As soon as he falls asleep … he's
ours
.”

“Oh!” I said, getting it and feeling my eyes grow again. “Where does one find shaving cream at camp?”

“We brought it with us.”

I wondered how They knew the Music Man would be sleeping in Their cabin, but decided They would probably have smeared any unfortunate chaperone They had.

“But won't we get in a lot of trouble?” I asked with a light laugh, trying not to dampen Their spirits. Still, it was an important point and one that I felt should not be overlooked.

“No way,” Sam said. “He won't know who did it. He can't punish the whole cabin, and the other guys won't say nothing.”

“But what about the empty cans?”

“We'll hide 'em,” came the reply, and I could see They'd certainly covered all Their bases. I looked around the room to catch a glimpse of our intended victim, but Mr. Zimmerman was nowhere to be found. He was probably off having his dinner in solitude. At school he always ate by himself in the music room. An
anti
social butterfly. Then I remembered what I had in my backpack.

“Would mustard be helpful? I just happen to have some.”

They looked at each other.

“What kind?” Tim asked. I told him. For some reason They eyeballed each other as though conferring. Maybe this was an important technical detail.

“Cool,” Sam finally said. “You can use that. Unless,” he grinned, “you turn chicken. You're not gonna chicken out on us tonight, are you George?”

“Of course not!” I said, chuckling heartily, a thing I've never seen chickens do. “I do this sort of thing on a frequent basis!” Which made Them laugh, too, like a collection of hyenas, and I noticed the fuller Their mouths were, the harder They laughed. But They were my friends now, so I just looked away.

To my relief, no more was said about the evening's plans, and by the time dinner was over, it was almost dusk. The last two items on the day's agenda were
Movie Time and Monday's Special Activity, a bonfire on the beach. I was hoping that the movie would be something appropriate and inspiring, like
Jaws
. Instead, it turned out to be
The Old Man and the Sea
, killing two birds with one stone for the language arts department, as we just happened to be in the middle of a unit on Ernest Hemingway.

Near the end of the movie, I saw Sam and Jason creep away from Their places on the floor. I wondered what sort of mischief They were up to, but didn't feel confident enough to ask my new best buddy, Gabriel Arno, to clue me in. Gabriel still had an odd way of looking at me, as though he were dying to find out what my vital organs looked like, and I had no desire to show him. He was my friend now, but he was a
scary
friend. It was widely known that Gabriel Arno kept a king snake at home for a pet, and that one day when Larry the King Snake decided, ill-advisedly, to bite his master on the arm, Gabriel Arno countered the attack with a bite of his own, a bite so vicious that the serpent had to be rushed off to the vet for a course of antibiotics. It was
my
policy around Gabriel to always wear a blank look on my face and try never to make eye contact with him, and, of course, to resist biting him on the arm, all of which I did while we watched the movie. By the time Sam and Jason joined us on our walk down to the beach, I had forgotten They'd ever left us in the first place.

The bonfire was blazing away when we got there. I looked past it at the flickering profile of my former friend, Anita, sitting a little way off in the sand, hugging her bent legs and staring out at the dark ocean. I wondered what she was thinking about, then answered my own question. She was thinking about me.

That choked me up a little.


Anita New-Face,”
Drew Lewis exclaimed in a carrying voice, looking where I was looking. “She's not your girlfriend still, is she?” I thought I saw Anita stiffen, but it was too hard to tell in the gloom.

BOOK: Gifted
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