Authors: Bob Balaban
An imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published in the United States of America by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, 2013
Text copyright Â© Balaban & Grossman, Inc., 2013
Illustrations copyright Â© Andy Rash, 2013
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
The creature from the seventh grade : sink or swim / by Bob Balaban ; illustrated by Andy Rash.
Summary: “Shortly after spontaneously morphing into a giant mutant dinosaur, 12-year-old Charlie Drinkwater discovers he's not the only creature in town”â Provided by publisher.
[1. Self-acceptanceâFiction. 2. StealingâFiction.
3. PopularityâFiction. 4. Middle schoolsâFiction. 5. SchoolsâFiction.
6. CousinsâFiction. 7. Family lifeâIllinoisâFiction. 8. Humorous
stories.] I. Rash, Andy, illustrator. II. Title. III. Title: Sink or swim.
PZ7.B1793Crs 2013 [Fic]âdc23 2013010721
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
To Miles and Henry, two terrific kids who care about doing the right thing
To Jorie and Merrick, my two favorite seventh graders
THE FOLLOWING IS
a list of things that I was afraid of when I was in sixth grade. I hope you are sitting down because this is going to take a while. Here goes:
Swimming; standing up in front of the class and giving oral reports; the dark; mummies who come to life three thousand years after they were embalmed and decide to kill you for absolutely no reason except that they are a mummy and you aren't; Craig Dieterly, my nemesis, who is scarier than an entire army of zombies and blood-sucking vampires combined; eating liver, the most frightening food on the planet except for maybe rhubarb, the other most frightening food on the planet except for maybe tapioca pudding, which is like eating mucus with fish eyes in it only worse.
Wait. There's more:
Insects that sting you; insects that look like they
sting you even they don't actually have stingers (like praying mantises and dragonflies); finding yourself alone in the elevator with certain people like Amy Armstrong, the cutest girl in Stevenson Middle School and possibly the universe, and trying to have a conversation with her and getting nowhere; meteors from outer space hurtling toward earth at supersonic speed that could wipe out life as we know it. And last but not least, in case you forgot: swimming.
Now that I am in seventh grade I am learning to develop strategies to help me deal with some of the things that I was afraid of when I was younger. Like Dr. Craverly, our school psychologist, says, “We cannot always conquer our deepest fears, but if we work very hard and do exactly what our school psychologist tells us, sometimes we can turn them into our friends instead of our enemies.” And sometimes we can't.
This is a story about how it's not just dreams that come true. It's nightmares, too. What you are about to hear actually happened to me. My name really is Charlie Drinkwater. I really do attend Stevenson Middle School, grades five through eight, in Decatur, Illinois. Craig Dieterly really does hate me. And no matter what your parents tell you, monsters really do exist and sometimes they even jump out at you from the bushes and try to grab on to your leg when you least expect it.
Read on if you dare.
“I CAN'T WALK
Balthazar this morning, Mom,” Dave pleads. “I have to get to school early for my physics makeup exam.”
Balthazar looks up at my older brother with his sad brown eyes and whines. Nobody ever wants to walk him. He's a great dog, but he can't be rushed. He has to sniff every single bush, tree, and fire hydrant in the neighborhood before he'll even
about getting down to business.
“But it's your turn, Dave. You've got to.” Mom races around the kitchen, cleaning up the breakfast dishes. “Fred, turn off that TV this minute. You barely touched your eggs.” My dad sits glued to the little TV set on the counter like he does every morning. “A balanced breakfast is the beginning ofâ”
“Shhh, Doris,” Dad interrupts. “I'm watching something important on the news.” My father slurps his coffee, shoves all of his eggs and bacon onto a piece of toast, and gulps everything down in one huge bite. “Somebody broke into Howard Dieterly's fish store this morning and stole all of his salmon.”
“You'll get an ulcer if you keep eating like that, I swear.” My mom turns off the TV, grabs my dad's plate, and hurries over to the sink. “Charlie, please make sure to be extra nice to Craig Dieterly at school today. I know you two don't exactly get along, but if
father's store ever got broken into, I'm sure Craig would be extra nice to you.”
“Yeah, sure, Mom.” Boy, does my mom not get it. If
dad's store ever got broken into, Craig Dieterly would probably throw a big party to celebrate the occasion and invite everybody in my grade except me.
“Why can't Charlie walk Balthazar?” Dave asks. “That's what little brothers are for.” Dave hands Balthazar a piece of bacon under the table.
“No people food, honey,” my mom orders. “Bally's stomach is still upset from the pumpkin.”
That would be my jack-o'-lantern. I left it out for so long that it rotted and got pumpkin goop all over the front steps to our house, like it does every year. Balthazar scarfed down a whole bunch of it and then barfed all over the wall-to-wall carpeting in the living room. And now every time he burps it smells like Halloween all over again.
“I walked him yesterday
the day before, Dave,” I reply. “He's your dog too, you know.”
“Don't fight, kids.” My mom reaches over and pats Balthazar reassuringly. “Any minute, Bally, I promise.”
My dad turns the TV back on. “Quiet, everybody, they're interviewing the police. I want to listen to this.”
“You can hear all about Howard Dieterly and his salmon when you're in the car on the way to work.” Mom flicks off the TV again. “Go upstairs and get dressed, Fred. You can't go to the office in your pj's. And put a little speed on. Remember, you're dropping me at my appointment this morning, and I don't want to be late for it.” She wipes her hands on a dish towel.
My mom runs a small catering company called Slim Pickings. She has this big meeting today with Mr. Hollabird. He owns a chain of health-food kiosks called Beautiful Bites. She's really nervous about it. She is hoping to convince him to carry her delicious new line of fat-free low-calorie desserts.
Mr. Hollabird's only son, Grady, is in my grade. He is famous for (A) getting the biggest allowance in the middle school (I am not allowed to tell you how much because my mom says it's rude to talk about other people's money) and (B) eating potato chips and Fig Newtons for lunch every single day for the last three years in a row. My mom says he only does this to torture his father.
“I'll give you three dollars and my solemn promise to walk Balthazar for the next two days if you take him out this morning.” My brother pulls out his wallet before I even have a chance to reply.
“Four dollars and three days and it's a deal.” I hold out my right claw. Dave shakes it gingerly. It's really sharp.
Speaking of claws: did I mention that I spontaneously morphed into an eight-and-a-half-foot tall, seven-hundred-and-fifty-pound mutant dinosaur two weeks ago during Mr. Arkady's science class? It was like
, only instead it was
. I sprouted claws, flippers, and an eight-foot tail. I used to be the dorkiest kid in seventh grade. Now I'm the dorkiest lizard.
According to my mom it's genetic. Only no one else in my immediate family got the dinosaur-instead-of-teenager gene. She also says it's permanent. I'm still trying to get used to it.
is the operative word here.
“Deal!” Dave exclaims. He is out the door faster than you can say “sometimes having a big brother can lead to a positive cash flow.” I throw Balthazar's leash on him and go get my coat.
“What do we always do before we leave the house in the morning, Charlie?” Mom raises her eyebrows meaningfully.
“I already made my bed, Mom,” I answer hopefully. “You didn't even have to ask. Can I go now?”
“I have two words for you, Charles Drinkwater.” My mom points to the bathroom. “Brush your fangs this minute and I'm not kidding.”
“Do I have to, Mom? Please!” She won't even dignify the question with a response. Balthazar lies down in the middle of the floor and whimpers in protest while I brush and floss every single one of my sixty-three razor-sharp monster teeth. And
I take the poor dog out for his three-zillion-mile walk.
Half an hour later, I am rushing like a maniac to Stevenson Middle School. I don't want to mar my perfect attendance record. When you are the only mutant dinosaur in your grade, sneaking quietly into your classroom after the bell rings is not exactly an option.
I careen down the block, crashing through neatly piled heaps of brilliantly colored fallen leaves. I'm going so fast I nearly trip over my enormous tail. My breath comes out my long, bony snout in puffy white bursts. It's only the second week in November, but already it's threatening to snow.
A mere two weeks ago I was the skinniest kid in the entire middle school. As soon as the temperature dropped below seventy degrees my lips would turn blue and my teeth would start chattering. I had to wear mittens on top of my mittens. But now that I am a mutant dinosaur, winter weather doesn't bother me a bit.
Pretty soon I arrive at the intersection of Lonesome Lane and Cedar Street, where my two best friends, Sam Endervelt and Lucille Strang, are standing on the curb, waiting for me. “Where've you been, pal?” Sam asks when he sees me.
“We've been waiting for you forever, Charlie,” Lucille chimes in.
“I had to walk Balthazar. It's a miracle I even got here.”
“We figured you were out catching breakfast lizards, or whatever it is you mutant dinosaurs do every morning.” Sam chuckles and tugs at the fake nose ring he always wears. He thinks it makes him look trendy or cool or something. Trust me, it doesn't. His dyed purple hair and black fingernail polish don't help much, either. He looks like Gomez from the Addams Family no matter what he does.
Sam, Lucille, and I have been walking to school together ever since second grade, when we formed a local chapter of the Junior Scientists of America and insisted on wearing our official lab coats and matching propeller beanies everywhere we went. The rest of the class decided we were off-the-charts geeky and refused to be seen in public with us ever since.
There are worse things than being the three most unpopular kids in Stevenson Middle School, grades five through eight. Only at the moment I can't think of any. My friends and I keep track of our popularity on a pretend graph we keep in our minds. Our combined score is currently minus two hundred. And getting lower every day.
“Come on, guys.” Lucille looks at her watch. “First period's about to start. Let's get this show on the road.” The light changes and we hustle across the street. Lucille is over six feet tall and ultra skinny. She has these unbelievably long legs. It's really hard to keep up with her.
We are across the road and halfway down the block when someone calls to us in a high, squeaky voice, “Hold your horses!”
Alice Pincus races up to us, followed by a bunch of the other popular kids in my class. The girls are called One-Upsters. They travel in a mindless pack and never hand in their homework on time. Their favorite expression is “way cool.” Their favorite color is “bright and sparkly.” They hang out with the popular boys, who are called Banditos.
Banditos travel in an equally mindless pack, have an average IQ of ten, and can rarely be found without their Gatorade. Their favorite hobbies are hitting people on the arm and lighting farts.
Lucille, Sam, and I belong to a clique, too. We're called Mainframes. We get good grades and teachers like us. You can always spot Mainframes in a crowd. We're the ones everybody's trying to avoid.
“Hey, Charlie!” says Rachel Klempner, one of Alice's best friends. “Let's hang together at recess.” Rachel drags Larry Wykoff, her boyfriend, along like a startled poodle on a leash. To say they are inseparable is putting it mildly. If those two lovebirds are apart for more than sixty seconds they have to be given CPR.
I don't even bother to reply. Rachel Klempner is a complete and total liar. She wouldn't hang out with me if she was dying of a rattlesnake bite and I had the antidote.
“What do you guys want?” Sam asks.
“We're looking for suspects,” Alice Pincus replies curtly.
“What are they suspected of?” Lucille asks.
“Bad things. Duh.” Alice rolls her eyes. “We're in the middle of a crime wave, Lucille, in case you haven't noticed. Craig's dad's fish store just got broken into, and we're not going to rest until every last criminal in this town is safely behind bars.” Alice Pincus may be the littlest girl in middle school, but she makes up for it with a big attitude.
“What are you going to do, Alice, arrest them with your pencil?” Lucille doesn't like Alice Pincus. The feeling is mutual.
“This is no laughing matter,” Rachel Klempner warns.
“Look, Alice,” I begin. “I'm really sorry Mr. Dieterly's fish store got broken into this morning, but one robbery does not a crime wave make.”
“Yeah, well, for your information, Charlie, Marvin O'Connor just got robbed, too,” Rachel Klempner snaps.
“Uncle Marvin? Really?” I am stunned. Marvin O'Connor is married to my mom's sister, Harriet. They're two of the nicest people in the world. They're also really strange. “Two crimes in one morning? What did the robber take?”
“A bag of your uncle's stinky old used shoes,” Alice Pincus answers. “We just ran into him on our way to school. He was on his way to report the incident to the police and told us all about it. I took notes.” She pulls out a little yellow pad and starts flipping through it.
“I bet you did,” Lucille says drily.
“What would anybody ever want with Uncle Marvin's used shoe collection?”
“That's exactly what we were wondering, Charlie.” Rachel Klempner stares at me suspiciously.
“Is Charlie's uncle okay?” Sam asks, tugging nervously at his nose ring.
“He's fine. We're not so sure about the shoes,” Larry Wykoff jokes. He's the class clown. There's one in every grade. It's written in the student bylaws.
Lucille checks her watch and starts walking toward school again. The rest of the group follows her.
As we make our way down Cedar Street, the One-Upsters and Banditos are careful to keep their distance from me, Sam, and Lucille, just in case anyone notices them walking to school with us and thinks they have lost their collective minds.
“What exactly did Uncle Marvin say to you, Alice?” I duck to avoid a low-hanging branch.
“I thought you'd never ask,” Alice replies. “Your uncle said he was on his way to his insurance company to have his used shoe collection appraised this morning.” She peers down at her notepad and reads aloud. “Quote: âI'm alone. The street's deserted. At approximately seven forty a.m. I hear the perpetrator's footsteps approaching from behind. I turn into an alley and try to elude the stalker. I can feel the evil pursuer's hot breath on my neck when all of a sudden a large bony hand reaches out from nowhere, grabs my shoe collection, wrenches it from my trembling fingers, and disappears into the morning mist without a trace.' End quote.”
“Are you just saying this to scare the bejesus out of us, Alice Pincus?” Lucille asks. “Because if you are, you're doing an extremely good job.”
I quickly add “stalkers with bony hands who pursue you down alleys” to my list of things I am afraid of. Life just keeps getting scarier.