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Authors: Lynne Jonell

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BOOK: The Secret of Zoom
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“Sometimes a very
long
answer,” Christina said cautiously.

“At least you've got a father,” said Taft, a flush rising in his neck. “Anyway, so what if Danny's a little slow? He's
good
. And he tries harder than anybody.”

“Listen, I didn't mean—” Christina began, but the whine of a powerful engine cut her off.

The yard boss blew his whistle. The slumping shoulders of the orphans straightened to attention. And as a long black car pulled up with a crunch of gravel and its tinted window rolled down, their wavering voices rose in what sounded—improbably—like a cheer.

 

Give me an
L
!
(clap, clap)

Give me an
L-E
!
(clap)

Give me an
L-E-N-N-Y
, and then a Loompski!
(stomp, stomp)

He's the Happy Orphans' daddy

(He's a goody, not a baddy),

When we see him we're so gladdy—

Lenny Loompski!
(clap, stomp)

 

The car door opened. A gray-trousered leg (the trousers were a little tight) kicked out, followed by the sausagelike body of Lenny Loompski. He straightened, his mirrored sunglasses glinting, and moved his head slowly back and forth, scanning the ranks of orphans.

“Who,” he rasped, “composed that poem?”

The yard boss tapped his hands nervously together. “Didn't you like it? I picked the one I thought was best, but if you'd rather hear another”—he snapped his fingers at the nearest orphan. “You, there! Recite the poem you composed in Mr. Loompski's honor!”

A small boy stepped forward, twisted the end of his ragged shirt between his hands, and piped, “Loompski, Loompski, he's our man, if he can't crush you, no one can—”

Lenny put up a hand. “No, I liked the first one. That was a real Happy Orphan welcome, Crumley!”

Crumley bobbed his bristly head some ten or twelve times. “
All
our orphans are happy orphans, Mr. Loompski.”

In the bushes, Taft glanced bitterly at Christina. “They wouldn't dare be anything else.”

Lenny put his hands on his hips and stood with his legs apart. “But
which
happy orphan composed this splendid poem in my honor, I wonder?”

“Here, you!” the yard boss shouted, and a slight girl with tangled brown curls stepped forward to stand at the front of the line, her eyes dark in her pale face.

“But what's this? She's not
smiling
!” roared Lenny Loompski, with a jolly laugh that echoed against the bricks.

The girl swayed as his voice blasted. She stretched her lips over her teeth and turned up the corners with her fingers.

“What's your name, little orphan?”

The girl looked up. “Dorset,” she said, her voice high and unsteady.

Lenny patted her on the head with several blunt thumps.
“And you wrote that poem all by yourself? Just for Lenny Loompski?”

Dorset staggered slightly and nodded, her smile still frozen in place.

“Because?” urged Lenny Loompski, bending over her until his sunglasses almost touched her face.

Dorset shut her eyes. “Because you're a wonderful wonderful person,” she recited, “and . . .” She faltered and appeared to swallow hard. “And we
love
you, Mr. Loompski.”

“Good, good! And . . . anything else?”

Dorset glanced at the orphan behind her, who leaned forward to whisper in her ear. “Oh! And when you win the Karsnicky Medal, everyone else will know how wonderful you are, too.”

Lenny Loompski chuckled and turned to the yard boss, his fat cheeks bunched. “See that Dorset gets a special treat today. Here at the Happy Orphan Home, we
reward
creative writing!”

“Yes, sir!” Crumley stood up straighter. The girl's smile became real. The ranks of children moved restlessly.

Hidden in the bushes, Christina turned to Taft. “She can't
really
love him?”

“Of course not,” whispered Taft. “But she knows she'll get extra food if she pretends.” He shrugged. “I've written a few poems for Lenny Loompski, too. Only I could never bring myself to say he's going to win the Karsnicky Medal. He's not even a
scientist
.”

“So Dorset's special treat is—”

“Tonight, at least, she won't go to bed hungry.”

Outraged, Christina glared at Lenny, at the yard boss, at the shabby starveling children. No wonder Taft was mad all the time. She was starting to feel furious herself.

Lenny, though, seemed terribly pleased. He flung out his arms, his flat face pink. “Is that how you really feel?” he cried. “Do you
all
think I'm wonderful?”

“You're wuuuuuuunderful, Mr. Loompski!” bellowed all the orphans together.

“Then here's another special treat for
everyone
—an extra hour of school, right now,
before
you collect trash!”

The orphans raised a ragged cheer, waving their thin arms in the air.

“You can type in
all
your poems on the computer,” Lenny said, raising his voice, “and print them out for me. I'll be able to see just how much you admire your Happy Orphan Daddy!”

He started his car and drove slowly toward the electrified gate, waving out the window like a president on parade. The gate clanged behind him, the horn blasted a last farewell, and the snarling black car disappeared up the mountain road.

The yard boss barked an order. The orphans turned, line by line, and filed up the front steps. Danny followed, looking eager, but Crumley pulled him out of the line.

“Not you.”

Danny lifted his heavy head. “But I don't push in line . . . and I can sharpen my own pencil . . . and I know A . . . B . . . C.”

“Well, sometime you might learn D, too, but not today. Today I want you to scrub plastic toys. There's a whole pile out back in the wheelbarrow. Get your bucket, boy.” The
bristle-headed man slapped him on the back and disappeared through the large double doors, whistling between his teeth.

Christina glanced at Taft. His face was pale, and his fists were clenched.

“He wants to learn just as much as anybody,” Taft said, very low. “More. It's not
fair
.”

Christina watched as Danny lumbered around the corner of the large brick building, bucket in hand. She didn't really understand why the orphans were so eager to have lessons—she wouldn't mind if she had fewer, herself—but she supposed that if she had to work instead of learn, she might prefer to learn.

Taft elbowed her in the ribs. “Come on. He's going around to the back. There's a place near the stream where the fence comes up close.”

Christina wriggled after Taft through the weeds. “But what if he tells someone he's seen us? Can he keep a secret?”

Taft shook his head. “We won't show ourselves. I just want to see if he's okay. You know, see if he's got any bruises.”

C
HRISTINA
lay flat on her stomach among some weeds on a little rise of ground and looked between the humming strands of the electric fence to the swirling water just beyond.

The stream, coming from some source higher up the mountain, twisted and turned behind them with a rush of foam. But as it approached the flatter land near the orphanage, it calmed, spreading out into a small, irregular pool fringed with reeds and tall stalks with purple flowers. The water still moved and eddied, but sluggishly, and in one spot a flat, jutting boulder had created a backwash, a place where leaves and half-submerged branches and other detritus piled and stuck fast, leaving the stream free to take up its course again on the other side. Farther on, the land sloped and the stream became noisy once more as it ran down the mountain, joined with other rivulets, and became at last the river that flowed like a blue and gray snake winding through the valley town of Dorf.

Danny climbed out onto the boulder, his bucket banging at his hip.

“There's a good place to dip his bucket on the other side of the rock,” Taft whispered in Christina's ear. “I only had to show him that once, and he never forgot it. If it's anything he can do with his hands, Danny remembers.”

Christina could see that the jutting boulder, which set up a logjam for trash on the near side, was balanced by a swirl of deeper water on the far side. But Danny sat down, pulled something white and purple out of his pocket, and began to dance it up and down his arm.

“Is that a . . .
bath
toy?” Christina glanced at Taft, who looked embarrassed.

“It's a rubber cow,” he mumbled. “I saved it from the trash for him once. He sleeps with it every night.”

The cow was back in Danny's pocket. Now he lay on the boulder with his feet hanging over the deep water and reached his hand down into the piled river trash.

“What's he doing?” Taft popped his head up. “No, Danny! Put that down—that's glass. You'll cut yourself!”

Danny opened his hand with a guilty start, his mouth falling open. “Taff!” He scrambled to his feet and stood on the boulder, irresolute, his arms hanging. “Why are you over there, Taff? You went away on the truck!”

“I got free, Danny. Get down! Pretend you're getting water. Somebody might be watching from the windows!”

Danny sat down obediently and picked up his bucket. “You went on the truck and then you got free?” He blinked twice, looking at his friend.

“Yes, that's right. Now dip the bucket, Danny. Get some water and don't look over here. What were you doing, picking up glass? You know I've told you never to do that!”

Danny, his tongue between his teeth, lowered the bucket carefully into the deep water and let it fill.

“I thought you weren't going to show yourself,” murmured Christina.

Taft turned, exasperated. “What, you want to let him bleed to death?”

“He wasn't bleeding at all. He was just picking up a—” Christina peered through the weeds. The narrow cylinder Danny had found lay on top of the pile, glinting in the sun.

“It's a test tube,” Taft said disgustedly. “Somebody at the lab farther upstream must have dumped a bunch long ago, because they all ended up buried in that pile. Danny fished around in it once and found a broken one, and he almost
did
bleed to death before I found him.”

“Oh.” Christina squinted at the test tube. She could see the crack in it from where she was, and the jagged top edge. Taft had been right to stop Danny, but—would Danny know enough to keep the secret? Or would he tell that he had seen Taft?

Danny pulled up the sloshing bucket and turned his head carefully sideways. “Are you coming back, Taff?”

“I will sometime, Danny. When I can find a place for us. Then we'll both be free. But until then, no more glass, you understand?”

Danny's eyes clouded. “Not even in my pocket?”


Especially
not in your pocket,” said Taft.

“But it says A . . . B . . . C,” Danny said. “I can
read
it, Taff.”

Taft narrowed his eyes until his lashes looked like a fringe. “
Danny
,” he warned.

Danny's hand went guiltily to his jacket pocket. “You said I could hide things, Taff.”

“I said you could hide the rubber
cow
. Show me what else you have.”

Slowly, reluctantly, Danny pulled out his hand. On his palm lay a test tube, unbroken, with a black stopper at one end.

“Throw it here,” said Taft in a terrible voice. “Danny, Danny, what if you'd cut yourself again and I wasn't there to help you?”

“I'm sorry, Taff,” said Danny, and his eyes welled up with tears. “I just wanted to practice my A—”

Christina yanked at Taft's elbow. “Someone's coming!” she hissed.

Taft ducked back into the weeds. “Don't tell anyone I was here, Danny!” he said urgently. “Just wait for me and I'll get you free!”

Danny nodded, mumbling something that sounded to Christina like “truck” and “free,” and then lifted his bucket as the girl named Dorset approached.

“What's the matter, Danny?” She held out her hand to help him clamber down from the boulder. “The boss wants to know why you aren't working. We can never play with the toys, you know.”

“I know,” said Danny. He smiled at her. “I'll start now. But first I got to throw something.”

He wiped his eyes and turned. “I sure hope somebody finds this who knows their A . . . B . . . C . . . ,” he said loudly, and threw the test tube across the water in a high, turning arc.

Christina went hunting for the test tube as soon as Dorset had gone back inside.

“What's the point?” asked Taft, watching Danny in the distance as he scrubbed a heap of small plastic toys and laid them in a cardboard box. “It's just an old test tube. I can't believe those scientists dumped them in the stream. You'd think they'd know better.”

BOOK: The Secret of Zoom
8.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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