Cold cereal, p.1
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       Cold Cereal, p.1

           Adam Rex
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Cold Cereal


  COLD CEREAL

  ADAM REX

  DEDICATION

  More than ever, for Marie

  CONTENTS

  Cover

  Title Page

  Dedication

  And Now a Word from Our Sponsor

  Prologue

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  Chapter 40

  About the Author

  Other Works

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  AND NOW A WORD FROM OUR SPONSOR

  CLOVER

  Is this any way to start y’r day?

  GIRL

  It’s Clover!

  CLOVER

  Top o’ the mornin’ to ye! Time to put some burlap in yer lap!

  Part of this nutritious breakfast!

  CLOVER

  Burlap Crisp—another good cereal

  from the good folks at Goodco.

  There’s a Little Bit of Magic

  in Every Box!

  PROLOGUE

  In the busy airport, baggage turned slowly on a carousel. A crowd of people stood around it, arms crossed and waiting, some of them staring at a silent television bolted to the ceiling. The closed captioning at the bottom of the screen was seven seconds late and often misspelled, so though the newscasters were back and reporting on the death of billionaire Sir Peter Humphreys, the words still read:

  BURLAP CRISP—ANOTHR GOOD CEREAL FROM

  THE GOOD FILKS AT GOODCO//

  THERES A LITTLE BIT OF MAGIC IN EVRY BOX.

  The people were passed by an airport employee in a stiff airport shirt carrying a cage that couldn’t ride on the baggage carousel because there was something living inside. People stole glances at the pet carrier in his hand and said “Cute, a little dog” and “Look, somebody’s dog was on the plane.” Then he set the cage down by a cluster of unclaimed bags and went into an office for some paperwork.

  A woman with a tight ponytail that hoisted her face into a permanent, painted grin bent in front of the cage.

  “Aw, hewwo, widdle Chihuahua,” she said. “Hewwo.” Then she rose to go wherever it is people like that come from.

  Next at the cage door was another woman, wearing a sweatshirt decorated with an appliqué hot dog.

  “Oh, Martin!” she called over her shoulder. “It’s a dachshund! Just like the one I wanted at that pet store! Come see! Martin!”

  When it became clear that Martin was not going to come see, she left, and immediately another face appeared. A man’s. He peered into the pet carrier, looked over his shoulder in disbelief at the hot dog woman, then back in the carrier again.

  “You ain’t a dog,” he told the thing in the cage. “You a tiny little man.”

  The tiny little man in the cage, the tiny old man in a red tracksuit with a face like a rotten apple, brightened and turned to the door.

  “You see me, lad!” he said. “Don’t you? Lord, it’s been a while. Quick, now, an’ open the door.”

  “Not a dog,” the man muttered. “A little man in a box.”

  “Quickly, lad! Let me out! She’ll come for me soon!”

  The wide face only stared back.

  “Thing is, see, you somebody else’s little man. You ain’t my little man. Maybe you supposed to be in that box.”

  “Please, lad,” the little old man pleaded. “I’ve been kidnapped. I’ve been in this chicken coop for three days. I’ll… I’ll make it worth your while. Riches. Gold! Anything that’s in my power t’ give—”

  But the man outside the cage was already getting up. As he stood he said, “None of my business,” and walked away.

  The caged man pressed his face against the cold door and watched him go. Then a little fist clutching a Barbie doll struck him in the nose, and he withdrew to the back of the carrier.

  “Puppy!” screeched the girl with the Barbie as her face filled the door. “PUPPY!”

  “I must be in New York,” the little man said. “I always hated New York.”

  CHAPTER 1

  “Lucky,” said Polly at breakfast. Scott looked up from his cereal and frowned. It was just the two of them in the kitchen, but “lucky” seemed like such an unsuitable word that he was tempted to see if someone was standing behind him.

  “Me? Lucky how?”

  “You’re going on a field trip,” Polly reminded him. “On your first day of school. The girl down the street with the cool bike told me that my class is doing the president’s Physical Fitness Test.”

  Scott understood. Privately he thought the president should mind his own business about how many chin-ups everyone could do, but his mom was always getting after him to set a better example for his sister.

  “It’ll help you make a good first impression,” he told her, borrowing a phrase they’d been hearing from Mom a lot this past week. “Because you’re so good at sports.”

  “Well …,” said Polly. “Well, you’ll probably impress everybody in dork class with your dorkness.”

  “Shut up.”

  “Hey,” said their mother as she entered the kitchen. “Don’t tell your sister to shut up.”

  “But she called me a dork—”

  “Maybe if you listened to her more she wouldn’t have to get your attention that way. And don’t call your brother a dork.”

  Polly said, “Sorry are you going out with Daniel tonight? Are we having videos and scrambled eggs and—”

  “I don’t need a sitter,” said Scott.

  The look on Mom’s face brought them both up short. “I … won’t be seeing Mr. Trumbull anymore,” she said. “But we can still have video night. Yeah?”

  So he was Mr. Trumbull again, thought Scott, and he knew his sister thought it too. He wasn’t to be called Daniel now. Soon Scott would forget the man’s name, just like what’s-his-face. A pall fell over the kitchen, an unscheduled Moment of Silence.

  Polly broke the silence, but then she usually did. “Is it because we moved? It’s only ten miles.”

  “No, no. Things had been building toward this for a while. Leaving Philadelphia was just the … last straw, you know?”

  For a while it seemed impossible to say anything but the wrong thing. Leaving Philadelphia and their old school behind had been sort of a last straw for Scott, too. But it was a curious requirement of Mom’s new job at Goodco that she live in the company’s town of Goodborough, New Jersey, alongside all its other employees.

  He raced his last few cereal puffs around in the milk with his spoon. “It’s not ‘dork class,” he said finally. “It’s called Project: Potential.”

  “Yeah. That’s much better.”

  Scott glanced at the clock. “I have to go,” he said, rising from the dinette.

  “It’s kind of early still,” said Mom. “This schoo
l starts later than your last one.”

  “I know. But I wanted to get there before the other kids to … meet my teacher and stuff.”

  Polly dork-coughed into her hand.

  “That’s a good idea,” Mom said, smiling. “See you tonight.”

  Three schools in three years, thought Scott as he pedaled through the crisp November air. They should give me a punch card. Five schools and I get a free soda.

  He steered toward the local park, down the storm drain shortcut he’d discovered yesterday, dodging broken glass and a man with a rabbit head, up the embankment toward the gap in the fence and was that a man with a rabbit head? Scott braked hard, grinding a black snaking skid behind him. The rabbit-man stopped, too, and looked back. His tweed pants and white dress shirt were creased and dirty. His necktie was askew. His rabbit head was a rabbit head.

  Around the rabbit-man the air looked vivid and alive.

  “Hey! Kid! Thtop! Thtay there!” He picked his way back through the garbage and glass on big rabbit feet and rushed toward Scott, who tensed and tried to stand up on his pedals to get away; but there was no time. In an instant he had a five-foot-tall rabbit-man all up in his face.

  “You’ve got to help me!” said the rabbit-man in a throaty warble. “Hide me!”

  “Um—”

  “They’re coming! I don’t want to go back! I don’t want to go back!”

  Scott dismounted and let his bike clatter to the ground. He stepped backward, stumbled, and fell against the grassy hillock behind him, and the rabbit-man pressed close.

  “Okay, calm down,” he said. “Everybody calm down. Nothing to be afraid of. What I need…”

  “Y-yes?”

  “… ith for you to take me to your houth…”

  “What?”

  “… and hide me … in your baythment.”

  Scott was leaning back as far as he could without falling over, his chin against his chest, breathless. When he finally inhaled, he smelled sweater and cookies.

  “You’re not real,” he said softly, closing his eyes. “You’re imaginary. You are a … neurological event.” And sure enough, when Scott opened his eyes, the rabbit-man was gone.

  No, there he was. A little ways off now, running toward the drainpipe again on his swift, imaginary legs.

  “THTUPID KID!” shouted the rabbit-man, and he disappeared into the pipe.

  The things he passed shimmered and changed. The air itself seemed to flinch and shiver at his touch. Dead leaves uncurled and flushed with new life; broken glass appeared, for a moment, to be bright jewels; a stray cat was a unicat.

  Scott blinked and looked again, but it was only a cat, of course. What had appeared fleetingly to be an animal with a single spiraling horn in the center of its forehead was merely a smoky gray housecat, thin and twitchy and watching Scott with blue-green eyes. Then it suddenly and theatrically began to clean itself in that way cats do when they want you to know what a big deal you aren’t. Scott whistled to get its attention, but the cat turned its back to him and licked its paw with such ferocious indifference that he soon gave up and pushed his bike into the park.

  “Not today,” he whispered as he walked. “Come on. Please.”

  A large white van was creeping through the soccer field, right over the grass, and the man in the passenger seat studied Scott through tinted goggles. Rose-colored glasses, actually. Scott kept his eyes on the horizon and breathed great mouthfuls of calm air.

  Thirty minutes wasted, and now he fidgeted in his orange plastic chair. He hated the first day at a new school. Around him other kids were chattering, excited about the field trip maybe, staring at Scott like he was a brightly colored fish, describing their weekends. But Scott only watched the empty chair at the front of the room and nervously traced his fingertip through the grooves of a swear word carved into his desktop. Some former student had left it there, maybe years before, but it pretty well summed up his feelings. The word could have been a jittery neon sign buzzing inside his chest as he waited for the new teacher to arrive.

  And now he was getting a headache, of course. Of course. Perfect.

  Specifically, he got migraine headaches, which was a useful thing to know—the word didn’t mean much to most of the other kids, but from their parents it drew gasps and unexpected charity. Once at parent-teacher night the mother of a fifth grader had become so flustered by the word that she’d given Scott five dollars.

  He’d get a pain behind his eye, another at the base of his skull and down his neck. And then there were the hallucinations, the seeing-things-that-weren’t-there.

  “We call them auras,” a doctor had told him and Mom. “A lot of people get them before getting a migraine. Not all, but a lot. I understand they can be scary, but they’ll be a signal that it’s time to take one of these pills I’m going to prescribe for you.”

  In the present, in class, Scott fished a small pill case out of his pocket and removed a white triangular pill. He took it without water and felt it draw a bitter chalk line down his throat.

  “What happens to other people when they get these auras?” Mom had asked. Scott understood that what she’d really wanted to know was if anyone else claimed to see a mermaid in the community pool, like Scott had the week before.

  Some people saw strange lights, the doctor had told them, or distorted shapes. Zigzagging lines. Some even smelled odd smells or heard things. It was different for everyone.

  In the end Mom had left it alone.

  The pills usually worked. Scott prayed they would work against the nauseating tendrils that were just now beginning to twist themselves through the back of his neck.

  And now the door opened and there she was, a petite woman with a mess of papers in her hands and a pencil sticking out of the bun in her black hair. By the end of the day there would be three pencils in that bun and Scott would think she was pretty, but for now he only frowned and thought, Where were you? I got here a half hour ago to tell you about my name, so where were you?

  “Sorry I’m late,” Ms. Egami said to the class. She dropped her papers, which scattered in that special way papers do when one is running late. She gathered them as the briefly quiet students began to stir as if someone were gradually raising the temperatures of their desk chairs. “Quiet down,” she said, and produced the class list to call roll.

  This is it, thought Scott.

  “Brett Adamson?” said Ms. Egami.

  “Here.”

  It’s not as if I’m at the end of the alphabet, Scott thought, chewing his lip. I get called almost right away, when everyone’s still paying attention.

  “Jamie Cassanova?”

  “Here.”

  Probably next.

  “David Christiana?”

  Okay, next then.

  “Here.”

  “Sco—Scottish Doe?”

  Kids all around him were snickering, looking his way, whispering comments to each other behind their hands.

  “Here,” said Scott.

  “Is that right?” asked Ms. Egami. “‘Scottish’?”

  More snickering. Giggling, even.

  “I prefer Scott,” he said. Not that it mattered. They’d been told that his real name was Scottish, and it would take them the whole rest of the year to forget it.

  “Wow,” said Ms. Egami. “Scottish Doe. Scottish P. Doe.”

  Scott flinched. There were middle initials on the roll?

  Now she’s going to ask—

  “What does the P stand for?”

  Laughter was batted back and forth like a squeaky balloon as the kids shared their private thoughts about what the P did or should stand for.

  “That’s enough,” Ms. Egami said to the class, but she was obviously new to teaching and hadn’t yet learned how to scold and make it stick. It was only a second before the balloon was in play again. This had to end.

  “PAUL,” Scott said, a little too loud. “The P stands for Paul.”

  The P might as well have stood for “pin” or “p
orcupine” the way it took the air right out of the balloon. The class was silent. There was nothing funny about the name Paul and never would be.

  “Oh,” said Ms. Egami, and she sounded almost disappointed. “Paul. For a second I thought it might be … something else.”

  “No.”

  “Oh, well. Right. Allie Fabares?”

  “Here.”

  The roll call went on, and Scottish Doe, whose middle name was not Paul, exhaled slowly and sat back in his seat.

  Three sixth-grade classes crammed into one big yellow bus for the field trip to the Goodco Cereal Factory, so when Scott stepped up and through the doorway, he found that most of the seats were occupied by kids who already had all the friends they needed or would ever need. Except for a seat right up front, on which sat one very small and delicately pale eggshell of a girl. And exactly no one else.

  Scott glanced around the rest of the bus. He caught a few students looking his way and mouthing “Scottish” to their neighbors, as well as some shorter, sharper words that seemed just now like the clacks of locks or the clicks of closing doors. He could walk down the aisle of this bus like the stranger-come-to-town in a cowboy movie and watch all the locals hide behind shutters and rain barrels. Or he could just sit down next to the girl nobody liked and take his cooties like a man. He sat down next to the girl.

  She flinched. Quickly made and then broke eye contact. In that moment Scott could see that her eyes (which, years later, her driver’s license would claim were brown) were really very nearly pink. Her hair was as thin and blond as corn silk. She was not short or skinny so much as small, tiny boned. Her head was wired with orthodontic headgear, such that she looked to Scott a little like a lab mouse caught in a trap. Which she was, in a way, but we’ll get to that.

  “You must be new,” she whispered.

  “Yeah. I’m Scott. Scott Doe.”

  “Emily Utz.”

  The bus cleared its throat and rumbled forward. Scott risked a look around the bus and found that everyone appeared to have forgotten him. He had a talent for being forgettable.

 
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