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       Wonder, p.12

           R. J. Palacio
 
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  Ex-Friends

  Bleeding Scream? What the heck? Summer Dawson has always been a bit out there, but this was too much. All I did was ask her why August was acting like he was mad at me or something. I figured she would know. And all she said was “Bleeding Scream”? I don’t even know what that means.

  It’s so weird because one day, me and August were friends. And the next day, whoosh, he was hardly talking to me. And I haven’t the slightest idea why. When I said to him, “Hey, August, you mad at me or something?” he shrugged and walked away. So I would take that as a definite yes. And since I know for a fact that I didn’t do anything to him to be mad about, I figured Summer could tell me what’s up. But all I got from her was “Bleeding Scream”? Yeah, big help. Thanks, Summer.

  You know, I’ve got plenty of other friends in school. So if August wants to officially be my ex-friend, then fine, that is okay by me, see if I care. I’ve started ignoring him like he’s ignoring me in school now. This is actually kind of hard since we sit next to each other in practically every class.

  Other kids have noticed and have started asking if me and August have had a fight. Nobody asks August what’s going on. Hardly anyone ever talks to him, anyway. I mean, the only person he hangs out with, other than me, is Summer. Sometimes he hangs out with Reid Kingsley a little bit, and the two Maxes got him playing Dungeons & Dragons a couple of times at recess. Charlotte, for all her Goody Two-Shoeing, doesn’t ever do more than nod hello when she’s passing him in the hallway. And I don’t know if everyone’s still playing the Plague behind his back, because no one ever really told me about it directly, but my point is that it’s not like he has a whole lot of other friends he could be hanging out with instead of me. If he wants to dis me, he’s the one who loses—not me.

  So this is how things are between us now. We only talk to each other about school stuff if we absolutely have to. Like, I’ll say, “What did Rubin say the homework was?” and he’ll answer. Or he’ll be like, “Can I use your pencil sharpener?” and I’ll get my sharpener out of my pencil case for him. But as soon as the bell rings, we go our separate ways.

  Why this is good is because I get to hang out with a lot more kids now. Before, when I was hanging out with August all the time, kids weren’t hanging out with me because they’d have to hang out with him. Or they would keep things from me, like the whole thing about the Plague. I think I was the only one who wasn’t in on it, except for Summer and maybe the D&D crowd. And the truth is, though nobody’s that obvious about it: nobody wants to hang out with him. Everyone’s way too hung up on being in the popular group, and he’s just as far from the popular group as you can get. But now I can hang out with anyone I want. If I wanted to be in the popular group, I could totally be in the popular group.

  Why this is bad is because, well, (a) I don’t actually enjoy hanging out with the popular group that much. And (b) I actually liked hanging out with August.

  So this is kind of messed up. And it’s all August’s fault.

  Snow

  The first snow of winter hit right before Thanksgiving break. School was closed, so we got an extra day of vacation. I was glad about that because I was so bummed about this whole August thing and I just wanted some time to chill without having to see him every day. Also, waking up to a snow day is just about my favorite thing in the world. I love that feeling when you first open your eyes in the morning and you don’t even know why everything seems different than usual. Then it hits you: Everything is quiet. No cars honking. No buses going down the street. Then you run over to the window, and outside everything is covered in white: the sidewalks, the trees, the cars on the street, your windowpanes. And when that happens on a school day and you find out your school is closed, well, I don’t care how old I get: I’m always going to think that that’s the best feeling in the world. And I’m never going to be one of those grown-ups that use an umbrella when it’s snowing—ever.

  Dad’s school was closed, too, so he took me and Jamie sledding down Skeleton Hill in the park. They say a little kid broke his neck while sledding down that hill a few years ago, but I don’t know if this is actually true or just one of those legends. On the way home, I spotted this banged-up wooden sled kind of propped up against the Old Indian Rock monument. Dad said to leave it, it was just garbage, but something told me it would make the greatest sled ever. So Dad let me drag it home, and I spent the rest of the day fixing it up. I super-glued the broken slats together and wrapped some heavy-duty white duct tape around them for extra strength. Then I spray painted the whole thing white with the paint I had gotten for the Alabaster Sphinx I was making for the Egyptian Museum project. When it was all dry, I painted LIGHTNING in gold letters on the middle piece of wood, and I made a little lightning-bolt symbol above the letters. It looked pretty professional, I have to say. Dad was like, “Wow, Jackie! You were right about the sled!”

  The next day, we went back to Skeleton Hill with Lightning. It was the fastest thing I’ve ever ridden—so, so, so much faster than the plastic sleds we’d been using. And because it had gotten warmer outside, the snow had become crunchier and wetter: good packing snow. Me and Jamie took turns on Lightning all afternoon. We were in the park until our fingers were frozen and our lips had turned a little blue. Dad practically had to drag us home.

  By the end of the weekend, the snow had started turning gray and yellow, and then a rainstorm turned most of the snow to slush. When we got back to school on Monday, there was no snow left.

  It was rainy and yucky the first day back from vacation. A slushy day. That’s how I was feeling inside, too.

  I nodded “hey” to August the first time I saw him. We were in front of the lockers. He nodded “hey” back.

  I wanted to tell him about Lightning, but I didn’t.

  Fortune Favors the Bold

  Mr. Browne’s December precept was: Fortune favors the bold. We were all supposed to write a paragraph about some time in our lives when we did something very brave and how, because of it, something good happened to us.

  I thought about this a lot, to be truthful. I have to say that I think the bravest thing I ever did was become friends with August. But I couldn’t write about that, of course. I was afraid we’d have to read these out loud, or Mr. Browne would put them up on the bulletin board like he does sometimes. So, instead, I wrote this lame thing about how I used to be afraid of the ocean when I was little. It was dumb but I couldn’t think of anything else.

  I wonder what August wrote about. He probably had a lot of things to choose from.

  Private School

  My parents are not rich. I say this because people sometimes think that everyone who goes to private school is rich, but that isn’t true with us. Dad’s a teacher and Mom’s a social worker, which means they don’t have those kinds of jobs where people make gazillions of dollars. We used to have a car, but we sold it when Jamie started kindergarten at Beecher Prep. We don’t live in a big townhouse or in one of those doorman buildings along the park. We live on the top floor of a five-story walk-up we rent from an old lady named Doña Petra all the way on the “other” side of Broadway. That’s “code” for the section of North River Heights where people don’t want to park their cars. Me and Jamie share a room. I overhear my parents talk about things like “Can we do without an air conditioner one more year?” or “Maybe I can work two jobs this summer.”

  So today at recess I was hanging out with Julian and Henry and Miles. Julian, who everyone knows is rich, was like, “I hate that I have to go back to Paris this Christmas. It’s so boring!”

  “Dude, but it’s, like, Paris,” I said like an idiot.

  “Believe me, it’s so boring,” he said. “My grandmother lives in this house in the middle of nowhere. It’s like an hour away from Paris in this tiny, tiny, tiny village. I swear to God, nothing happens there! I mean, it’s like, oh wow, there’s another fly on the wall! Look, there’s a new dog sleeping on the sidewalk. Yippee.”

  I laughed. So
metimes Julian could be very funny.

  “Though my parents are talking about throwing a big party this year instead of going to Paris. I hope so. What are you doing over break?” said Julian.

  “Just hanging out,” I said.

  “You’re so lucky,” he said.

  “I hope it snows again,” I answered. “I got this new sled that is so amazing.” I was about to tell them about Lightning but Miles started talking first.

  “I got a new sled, too!” he said. “My dad got it from Hammacher Schlemmer. It’s so state of the art.”

  “How could a sled be state of the art?” said Julian.

  “It was like eight hundred dollars or something.”

  “Whoa!”

  “We should all go sledding and have a race down Skeleton Hill,” I said.

  “That hill is so lame,” answered Julian.

  “Are you kidding?” I said. “Some kid broke his neck there. That’s why it’s called Skeleton Hill.”

  Julian narrowed his eyes and looked at me like I was the biggest moron in the world. “It’s called Skeleton Hill because it was an ancient Indian burial ground, duh,” he said. “Anyway, it should be called Garbage Hill now, it’s so freakin’ junky. Last time I was there it was so gross, like with soda cans and broken bottles and stuff.” He shook his head.

  “I left my old sled there,” said Miles. “It was the crappiest piece of junk—and someone took it, too!”

  “Maybe a hobo wanted to go sledding!” laughed Julian.

  “Where did you leave it?” I said.

  “By the big rock at the bottom of the hill. And I went back the next day and it was gone. I couldn’t believe somebody actually took it!”

  “Here’s what we can do,” said Julian. “Next time it snows, my dad could drive us all up to this golf course in Westchester that makes Skeleton Hill look like nothing. Hey, Jack, where are you going?”

  I had started to walk away.

  “I’ve got to get a book out of my locker,” I lied.

  I just wanted to get away from them fast. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was the “hobo” who had taken the sled.

  In Science

  I’m not the greatest student in the world. I know some kids actually like school, but I honestly can’t say I do. I like some parts of school, like PE and computer class. And lunch and recess. But all in all, I’d be fine without school. And the thing I hate the most about school is all the homework we get. It’s not enough that we have to sit through class after class and try to stay awake while they fill our heads with all this stuff we will probably never need to know, like how to figure out the surface area of a cube or what the difference is between kinetic and potential energy. I’m like, who cares? I’ve never, ever heard my parents say the word “kinetic” in my entire life!

  I hate science the most out of all my classes. We get so much work it’s not even funny! And the teacher, Ms. Rubin, is so strict about everything—even the way we write our headings on the top of our papers! I once got two points off a homework assignment because I didn’t put the date on top. Crazy stuff.

  When me and August were still friends, I was doing okay in science because August sat next to me and always let me copy his notes. August has the neatest handwriting of anybody I’ve ever seen who’s a boy. Even his script is neat: up and down perfectly, with really small round loopy letters. But now that we’re ex-friends, it’s bad because I can’t ask him to let me copy his notes anymore.

  So I was kind of scrambling today, trying to take notes about what Ms. Rubin was saying (my handwriting is awful), when all of a sudden she started talking about the fifth-grade science-fair project, how we all had to choose a science project to work on.

  While she was saying this, I was thinking, We just finished the freakin’ Egypt project, now we have to start a whole new thing? And then in my head I was going, Oh noooooo! like that kid in Home Alone with his mouth hanging open and his hands on his face. That was the face I was making on the inside. And then I thought of those pictures of melting ghost faces I’ve seen somewhere, where the mouths are open wide and they’re screaming. And then all of a sudden this picture flew into my head, this memory, and I knew what Summer had meant by “bleeding scream.” It’s so weird how it all just came to me in this flash. Someone in homeroom had dressed up in a Bleeding Scream costume on Halloween. I remember seeing him a few desks away from me. And then I remember not seeing him again.

  Oh man. It was August!

  All of this hit me in science class while the teacher was talking.

  Oh man.

  I’d been talking to Julian about August. Oh man. Now I understood! I was so mean. I don’t even know why. I’m not even sure what I said, but it was bad. It was only a minute or two. It’s just that I knew Julian and everybody thought I was so weird for hanging out with August all the time, and I felt stupid. And I don’t know why I said that stuff. I just was going along. I was stupid. I am stupid. Oh God. He was supposed to come as Boba Fett! I would never have said that stuff in front of Boba Fett. But that was him, that Bleeding Scream sitting at the desk looking over at us. The long white mask with the fake squirting blood. The mouth open wide. Like the ghoul was crying. That was him.

  I felt like I was going to puke.

  Partners

  I didn’t hear a word of what Ms. Rubin was saying after that. Blah blah blah. Science-fair project. Blah blah blah. Partners. Blah blah. It was like the way grown-ups talk in Charlie Brown movies. Like someone talking underwater. Mwah-mwah-mwahhh, mwah mwahh.

  Then all of a sudden Ms. Rubin started pointing to kids around the class. “Reid and Tristan, Maya and Max, Charlotte and Ximena, August and Jack.” She pointed to us when she said this. “Miles and Amos, Julian and Henry, Savanna and …” I didn’t hear the rest.

  “Huh?” I said.

  The bell rang.

  “So don’t forget to get together with your partners to choose a project from the list, guys!” said Ms. Rubin as everyone started taking off. I looked up at August, but he had already put his backpack on and was practically out the door.

  I must have had a stupid look on my face because Julian came over and said: “Looks like you and your best bud are partners.” He was smirking when he said this. I hated him so much right then.

  “Hello, earth to Jack Will?” he said when I didn’t answer him.

  “Shut up, Julian.” I was putting my loose-leaf binder away in my backpack and just wanted him away from me.

  “You must be so bummed you got stuck with him,” he said. “You should tell Ms. Rubin you want to switch partners. I bet she’d let you.”

  “No she wouldn’t,” I said.

  “Ask her.”

  “No, I don’t want to.”

  “Ms. Rubin?” Julian said, turning around and raising his hand at the same time.

  Ms. Rubin was erasing the chalkboard at the front of the room. She turned when she heard her name.

  “No, Julian!” I whisper-screamed.

  “What is it, boys?” she said impatiently.

  “Could we switch partners if we wanted to?” said Julian, looking very innocent. “Me and Jack had this science-fair project idea we wanted to work on together.…”

  “Well, I guess we could arrange that …,” she started to say.

  “No, it’s okay, Ms. Rubin,” I said quickly, heading out the door. “Bye!”

  Julian ran after me.

  “Why’d you do that?” he said, catching up to me at the stairs. “We could have been partners. You don’t have to be friends with that freak if you don’t want to be, you know.…”

  And that’s when I punched him. Right in the mouth.

  Detention

  Some things you just can’t explain. You don’t even try. You don’t know where to start. All your sentences would jumble up like a giant knot if you opened your mouth. Any words you used would come out wrong.

  “Jack, this is very, very serious,” Mr. Tushman was saying. I was in his office, si
tting on a chair across from his desk and looking at this picture of a pumpkin on the wall behind him. “Kids get expelled for this kind of thing, Jack! I know you’re a good kid and I don’t want that to happen, but you have to explain yourself.”

  “This is so not like you, Jack,” said Mom. She had come from work as soon as they had called her. I could tell she was going back and forth between being really mad and really surprised.

  “I thought you and Julian were friends,” said Mr. Tushman.

  “We’re not friends,” I said. My arms were crossed in front of me.

  “But to punch someone in the mouth, Jack?” said Mom, raising her voice. “I mean, what were you thinking?” She looked at Mr. Tushman. “Honestly, he’s never hit anyone before. He’s just not like that.”

  “Julian’s mouth was bleeding, Jack,” said Mr. Tushman. “You knocked out a tooth, did you know that?”

  “It was just a baby tooth,” I said.

  “Jack!” said Mom, shaking her head.

  “That’s what Nurse Molly said!”

  “You’re missing the point!” Mom yelled.

  “I just want to know why,” said Mr. Tushman, raising his shoulders.

  “It’ll just make everything worse,” I sighed.

  “Just tell me, Jack.”

  I shrugged but I didn’t say anything. I just couldn’t. If I told him that Julian had called August a freak, then he’d go talk to Julian about it, then Julian would tell him how I had badmouthed August, too, and everybody would find out about it.

  “Jack!” said Mom.

  I started to cry. “I’m sorry …”

  Mr. Tushman raised his eyebrows and nodded, but he didn’t say anything. Instead, he kind of blew into his hands, like you do when your hands are cold. “Jack,” he said, “I don’t really know what to say here. I mean, you punched a kid. We have rules about that kind of thing, you know? Automatic expulsion. And you’re not even trying to explain yourself.”

 
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