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Authors: Emily Ecton

Project Jackalope

BOOK: Project Jackalope
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To my teachers: Queen Eleanor, BJ Davis, Gloria Needlman, Lilla Fano

And all teachers who encourage kids to write.

jack·a·lope \ja-kə-lōp\

noun (plural jack·a·lope or jack·a·lopes)

Definition:

1) A mythical animal resembling a rabbit but with the antlers of an antelope, goat, or deer

2) Horned creature depicted in the folklore of the American West, most notably Wyoming [likely origin]

3) A crossbreed of a rabbit and antelope

4) An imaginary animal, e.g., unicorn, Sasquatch, and Loch Ness monster

See illus.

1.
Gross Candy Weakens My Defenses

First off, I should apologize to Safety Officer Webber. After eight straight years of Student Safety Days and Stranger Danger warning checklists, you’d think I’d be able to recognize a red flag when I saw one. But no, when confronted with an actual real-life threat, I totally missed it.

Just so you know—it’s not like I’m a total loser. I’m not saying I’m brain surgeon material or anything, but I’m pretty much one of your basic junior high types. You know, there’s the brainy kid, always getting extra credit and ruining the grading curve. Then there’s your typical sports star, always breaking records and getting clapped on the back or patted on the butt in the hallway. And then
there’s that guy in the back of the class, inspecting a Life Saver covered in pocket fuzz and trying to decide whether it’s too gross to eat. That kid? That would be me.

I only mention the Life Saver because that’s what I happened to be focused on the day that I missed the warning signs. It seemed important at the time. The Life Saver in question was at least six months old and, as I ultimately decided when I got home, not too gross to eat. (I was wrong about that, too.)

So when I bumped into the strange man in the suit taking pictures of our mailboxes, he didn’t really register. And believe me, he should’ve, because this building is on the National Registry of Boring, it’s so lame. In this place, a guy in a suit is big news. But no, I didn’t wake up to what was happening until I saw the second man. And I was trapped.

So, as I’m sure Safety Officer Webber would tell you, I had every reason in the world to be on high alert when I came inside and barreled into Mr. Suit. But instead, I bounced off of him like a volleyball, patted Boris the hallway gargoyle on the head, checked his mouth for a
not-so-secret secret message (blue paper, which meant a message for me from my weird neighbor, Professor Twitchett), popped the filthy candy into my mouth, and then spent the trip up the stairs gagging and looking for a place to spit it out.

It wasn’t until I’d decided to sacrifice Professor Twitchett’s note and was in the act of spitting the slimy candy into the paper that I was even aware of the footsteps behind me. Right behind me. I heard them just a second before I felt the man’s breath on the back of my neck.

The muscles in my back immediately tensed up, and it was all I could do not to break into a run. Because breath on the neck means you’re close. Too close. Closer than any normal person gets. I crushed the note and stuffed it into my pocket and gave a casual glance behind me, kind of an unspoken “Hey, bub, back off” kind of glance. The man’s mouth curved into a smile. I’m guessing I don’t have to tell you it wasn’t a friendly smile.

This would be a good time to tell you that I’m not easily freaked out. I watch horror movies with the best of them and only have two, maybe three nights of
nightmares afterward. I can take it, that’s what I’m saying. But when that man smiled at me, I had to suppress a full-body shudder.

I gave a tough-guy nod and strolled casually to my door. That’s what I was going for, anyway. But I know that if I’d been auditioning for the role of me, I would never have been cast in the part. Putting my hand in my pocket, getting out my keys—everything I did felt completely stiff and unbelievable. I just knew I looked like a total phony.

It wasn’t until I got to my door and glanced back down the hallway that I saw the second man. He was wearing a suit, too, just like the first one, and he was standing at the opposite end of the hall, watching me with cold, hard eyes. Not doing anything else, just watching.

I forced myself to look away and focus on the keys in my hand. I unlocked my door, taking my time and deliberately not looking at either Mr. Suit. But as soon as the door was open, the panic took over and I lurched inside. I slammed the door shut and double-bolted it, trying not to think about what I’d seen as I’d hurried inside. The first man, the one on the stairs, hadn’t moved at all.
He was still just standing at the top of the stairs, watching me, with that smile on his face.

I eyed the dining room table. It looked too heavy for me to move in front of the door myself. The double lock would have to be enough. I put my ear up to the door, but I couldn’t hear anything from the hallway. Well, nothing but that I’ve-got-my-ear-up-against-something ocean noise. I don’t know what I was expecting anyway. I was just being paranoid. Too many scary movies, maybe. They probably weren’t even there anymore. I was being such a wuss, getting all worked up over a couple of weirdos.

The thing was, it just didn’t make sense for them to be here. Confession time—my building isn’t really on the National Registry of Boring. It’s not on anything. And there’s nobody here that guys like that would want to visit. On the first floor, you have Mrs. Simmons, who doesn’t have all her socks in the drawer, if you catch my drift. (If you don’t, I mean that she’s a little bit crazy.) As far as I can tell, she doesn’t leave the building, ever. Not since the day she moved in. Maybe not in her whole life, if I had to guess. (Well, except for that moving-in part. Which
actually wasn’t that long ago, now that I think about it.)

Across the entryway from her, you have Agatha Hotchkins and her mom. Agatha’s in my grade, and with her personality, it’s not like she gets a ton of visitors. I’ll just leave it at that. (Okay, let’s put it this way. If Agatha had seen my crusty old Life Saver, she would’ve had to pull out a Life Saver at least two years older, covered with pocket lint, mold, and maybe even some snot for good measure.) Agatha’s the one who had the bright idea of leaving color-coded secret notes for each other in the mouth of Boris the concrete gargoyle downstairs. Except secret notes aren’t that much fun when they’re sitting right out there where anyone can see them. And when you’re not really friends with the person you’re getting notes from. (And when you’re over seven years old.)

So a fancy Suit guy visiting one of them? Not likely. And I don’t know that I’d call what those Suit guys were doing visiting anyway.

Upstairs, it’s just me and my parents, Professor Twitchett down the hall, that flight attendant lady who’s never home, and the couple across the hall from us, the
Garcias, the ones that make cookies on Saturdays. Mr. Garcia is your basic khaki-wearing office worker type. He’s also the in-bed-by-nine type, so not a huge collective social life happening on the second floor either. (Well, I can’t really say about the flight attendant lady. But for the sake of argument, let’s just assume she’s a social outcast too.) So it’s not like Mr. Suit would want to hang out with anybody upstairs. Unless the flight attendant lady has some kind of secret crazy wild life that I know nothing about, which I guess is possible.

It was probably all a big mistake. Wrong address or something. But I double-checked the door handle to make sure it was locked, just in case.

I shrugged off my jacket and went to get a drink to get the gross Life Saver taste out of my mouth. I was on my third swig from the orange juice carton when I remembered Twitchett’s note.

I groaned. Whatever it said, I wasn’t doing it. That was all there was to it.

A few months ago, Professor Twitchett adopted me as his personal errand boy. It used to be Agatha, but
they had some kind of falling-out. I don’t know what she did exactly, but it had to be pretty bad, because Twitchett completely banned her from his apartment and doesn’t even speak to her now. He even changed the locks. (Which made me laugh, because really, Twitchett? Changing locks? Agatha’s been able to pick locks since fourth grade, and Twitchett was the one who taught her. I know because that was her end-of-the-year show-and-tell project. Went over like gangbusters.)

I pulled the spitty note out of my pocket and shook the Life Saver remnant into the trash. Then I smoothed the wrinkles out and read it. Twitchett’s always had his quirks, using code names and whatever, so I figured it would be typical Twitchett, weird and random and totally out there. But it wasn’t what I expected.

Igor, (My code name. Don’t ask.)

Please excuse my presumption, but I took the liberty of breaking into your apartment while you and your parents were out. You will understand that I had no choice but to leave one of my experiments in your care.

Guard it well.

TELL NO ONE.

I will be in touch to retrieve it soon.

Prof. FrankenTwitch

Make no mistake—No one includes our friend Agatha.

I crumpled up the note and threw it into the trash, trying not to notice how big the apartment suddenly felt. Twitchett had been in here. Without anyone knowing. He’d left something. And I had a bad feeling I knew where.

My bedroom door was open just a crack, which definitely wasn’t the way I remembered leaving it. I crept up to the door and listened carefully.

Let me just be blunt—Twitchett is kind of a wack job. He’s always talking down to me like I’m this stupid kid and acting like his errands are all important and top secret. You know, here’s the cash, use this code name, don’t be seen talking to me, come in through the back, blah blah secret spy blah. Like anybody cares if I go buy him a package of cotton balls and peroxide, right? He thinks that the made-up secret
junk is the whole reason I do it, but really I’m in it for the extra cash he slips me when I come back with his top secret tube of Preparation H. (He said it was for the baboons at the zoo, but come on.)

So leaving secret notes and hiding things in weird places? Typical Twitchett. But he’d never actually broken into my house before. It creeped me out.

I listened until I felt like my ears were going to pop off, and then I carefully pushed the door open with the toe of my sneaker. At first glance the room looked just like I’d left it that morning—pile of clothes by the hamper, papers all over the desk and chair, comforter partway on the floor. It wasn’t until I was kicking the comforter out of my way that I realized everything was all wrong. That comforter had definitely been all the way on the floor when I left. I remember, because I caught my shoe on the edge of it on my way out and dragged it behind me for a couple of steps. I froze and stared at the comforter like it was going to jump me, but it just lay there like, well, a comforter.

Taking a deep breath, I edged over to the bed and poked at the comforter with one finger. It was draped over what looked like a shoebox. Except bigger, so maybe for boots.

I clenched my fists. Twitchett had no right stashing his weirdo experiments in my bed. And why would he even do that? Just because his apartment was too much of a pigsty? (Yeah, I know, pot calling the kettle black. Don’t start.) And knowing him, it was probably something foul-smelling or slimy that he’d read about online. I’d probably have to fumigate the room. Get a new mattress, at least. Well, that was it. Extra cash or no extra cash, I was done. He could get the Garcias to run his dumb errands from now on.

I was already planning my angry rant as I scooped up the box and opened it. And then closed it again. Quickly. Because whatever I expected, it wasn’t this. I never expected Professor Twitchett’s experiment to stare back at me. And blink.

BOOK: Project Jackalope
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