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       Pluto, p.3

           R. J. Palacio
 
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  During break, I ran over to the main office to pick up the stuff Mom should have dropped off by now. But she still hadn’t shown up.

  “I’m sure she just got stuck in traffic,” offered Ms. Denis.

  I shook my head. “No, I think I know what happened,” I answered grumpily.

  It had occurred to me while I was watching the band rehearse.

  Isabel.

  Duh, of course! Daisy just died. Something else must have happened. Maybe something to do with Auggie. And Isabel called Mom. And Mom, like she always does, dropped whatever she was doing to go help the Pullmans.

  For all I knew, she was probably at the Pullman house right now! I bet she’d been on her way back to school with my trombone, science paper, and gym shorts in the backseat of the car when Isabel called, and bam, Mom completely forgot about me. Duh, of course that’s what happened! It wouldn’t be the first time, either.

  “You want to call her again?” said Ms. Denis sweetly, handing me the phone.

  “No thanks,” I mumbled.

  Katie came over to me when I got back to music class.

  “Where’s the trombone?” she said. Her eyebrows were practically touching in the middle of her forehead. “You said your mom was bringing it!”

  “She’s stuck in traffic?” I said apologetically. “She’ll have it when she picks me up from school today, though?” I guess Katie made me as nervous as teachers did. “Can you meet me after school at five-thirty?”

  “Why would I want to wait around till five-thirty?” she answered, making a clucking sound with her tongue. She gave me the same look she gave me when I accidentally emptied my spit valve in her Dixie cup a few weeks ago. “Gee, thanks, Chris! Now I’m going to totally mess up my solo at the spring concert. And it’s totally going to be your fault!”

  “It’s not my fault?” I said. “My mother was supposed to bring me my stuff?”

  “You’re such a…moron,” she mumbled.

  “No, you are” was my brilliant comeback.

  “Your ears stick out.” She made both her hands into little fists and walked away with her arms straight at her sides.

  “Ugh!” I answered her, rolling my eyes.

  And for the rest of the class, she shot me the dirtiest looks you can imagine over her music stand. If looks really could kill, Katie McAnn would be a serial murderer.

  All of this could have been avoided if Mom hadn’t abandoned me today! I was so mad at her for that. Boy, was she going to be sorry tonight. I could picture it already, how she would pick me up after school and be all, “I’m so sorry, honey! I had to drive over to the Pullmans’, because they needed help with yadda yadda yadda.”

  And I would be like, “Yadda yadda yadda.”

  And she would be like, “Come on, honey. You know they need our help sometimes.”

  “Yadda! Yadda! Yadda!”

  Space

  When Auggie turned five, someone gave him an astronaut helmet as a birthday present. I don’t remember who. But Auggie started wearing that helmet all the time. Everywhere. Every day. I know people thought it was because he wanted to cover his face—and maybe part of it was that. But I think it was more because Auggie really loved outer space. Stars and planets. Black holes. Anything to do with the Apollo missions. He started telling everyone he was going to be an astronaut when he grew up. In the beginning, I didn’t get why he was so obsessed with this stuff. But then one weekend, our moms took us to the planetarium at the natural history museum—and that’s when I got sucked into it, too. That was the beginning of what we called our space phase.

  Auggie and I had gone through a lot of phases by then. ZoobiePlushies. PopBopBots. Dinosaurs. Ninjas. Power Rangers (I’m embarrassed to say). But, until then, nothing had been as intense as our space phase. We watched every DVD we could find about the universe. Space videos. Picture books about the Milky Way. Making 3-D solar systems. Building model rocket ships. We would spend hours playing pretend games about missions to deep space, or landing on Pluto. That became our favorite planet to travel to. Pluto was our Tatooine.

  We were still deep into our space phase when my sixth birthday rolled around, so my parents decided to have my party at the planetarium. Auggie and I were so excited! The new space show had just come out, and we hadn’t seen it yet. I invited my entire first grade class. And Zack and Alex, of course. I even invited Via, but she couldn’t come because she had a different birthday party to go to that same day.

  But then, the morning of my birthday, Isabel called Mom and told her that she and Nate had to take Auggie to the hospital. He had woken up with a high fever, and his eyelids were swollen shut. A few days before, he had had a “minor” surgery to correct a previous surgery to make his lower eyelids less droopy, and now it had become infected. So Auggie had to go to the hospital instead of going to my sixth birthday party.

  I was so bummed! But I got even more bummed when Mom told me that Isabel had asked her if she would be able to drop Via off at the other birthday party before going to my party.

  Before even checking with me first, Mom had said, “Yes, of course, whatever we can do to help!” Even though that meant that she might end up being a little late to my birthday party!

  “But why can’t Nate drop Via off at the other party?” I asked Mom.

  “Because he’s driving Auggie to the hospital, along with Isabel,” Mom answered. “It’s not a big deal, Chris. I’ll take Via in a taxi and then hop on a train.”

  “But can’t someone else take Via? Why does it have to be you?”

  “Isabel doesn’t have the time to start calling other moms, Chris! So if we don’t take Via, she’ll have to just go with them to the hospital. Poor Via is always missing out—”

  “Mommy!” I interrupted. “I don’t care about Via! I don’t want you to be late to my birthday party!”

  “Chris, what do you want me to say?” Mom answered. “They’re our friends. Isabel is my good friend, just like Auggie is your good friend. And when good friends need us, we do what we can to help them, right? We can’t just be friends when it’s convenient. Good friendships are worth a little extra effort!”

  When I didn’t say anything, she kissed my hand.

  “I promise I’ll only be a few minutes late,” she said.

  But she wasn’t just a few minutes late. She ended up being more than an hour late.

  “I’m so sorry, honey…. The A train was out of service…. No taxis anywhere…So sorry…”

  I knew she felt terrible. But I was so angry. I remember even Dad was annoyed.

  She was so late, she even missed the space show.

  3:50 p.m.

  The rest of the day ended up being pretty much as bad as the beginning of the day. I had to sit out of gym, because I didn’t have my gym shorts and I didn’t have a spare set in my locker. Katie McAnn’s entire table kept shooting me dirty looks at lunch. I don’t even remember my other classes. Then math was the last class of the day. I knew we were having a big math test tomorrow, which I hadn’t studied for over the weekend like I was supposed to. But it wasn’t until Ms. Medina started going over the material for tomorrow’s test that I realized I was in deep trouble. I didn’t understand what the heck we were doing. I mean, seriously, it was like Ms. Medina was suddenly talking in a made-up language that everyone else in class seemed to understand but me. Gadda badda quotient. Patta beeboo divisor. At the end of class, she offered to meet with any kids who needed a little extra help studying right after school. Um, that would be me, thank you! But I had band practice then, so I couldn’t go.

  I raced down to the auditorium right after dismissal. The after-school rock band meets every Monday and Tuesday afternoon. I had only joined a few months ago, at the beginning of the spring semester, but I was really into it. I’d been taking guitar lessons since last summer, and my dad, who’s a really good guitar player, had been teaching me all these great guitar licks. So when Santa gave me an electric guitar for Christmas, I figured I was ready t
o join the after-school rock band. I was a little nervous in the beginning. I knew the three guys who were already in the band were really good musicians. But then I found out there was a fourth grader named John who was also joining the band in the spring semester, so I knew I wouldn’t be the only new kid. John played guitar, too. He wore John Lennon glasses.

  The other three guys in the band were Ennio, who plays the drums and is considered to be this prodigy drummer, Harry on lead guitar, and Elijah on bass guitar. Elijah’s also the lead singer, and he’s kind of the leader of the band. The three of them are all in the sixth grade. They’ve been in the after-school rock band since they were in the fourth grade, so they’re a pretty tight group.

  I can’t say they were thrilled when John and I first joined the band. Not that they weren’t nice, but they weren’t nice nice. They didn’t treat us like we were equal members of the band. It was pretty obvious that they didn’t think we played as well as they did—and, to be truthful, we really didn’t. But still, we were trying really hard to get better.

  “So, Mr. B,” Elijah said after we had all jammed on our own a bit. “We’re thinking we want to play ‘Seven Nation Army’ for the spring concert on Wednesday.”

  Mr. Bowles was the after-school rock band adviser. He had gray hair that he kept in a ponytail, and had been a member of a famous folk-rock band in the ’80s that my dad, for one, had never heard of. But Mr. Bowles was super nice, and he was always trying to get the other guys to include me and John. This, of course, just got the other guys even more annoyed at us. And it also made them really dislike Mr. Bowles. They made fun of the way he sometimes talked with his eyes closed. They made fun of his ponytail and his taste in music.

  “ ‘Seven Nation Army’?” answered Mr. Bowles, like he was impressed by the song choice. “That’s an awesome song, Elijah.”

  “Is that by Europe, too?” John asked, since we’d all agreed a few weeks ago—after much arguing—to play “The Final Countdown” by Europe at the spring concert.

  Elijah snickered and made a face. “Dude,” he answered, not looking at John or me. “It’s the White Stripes.”

  Elijah had long blond hair that he was really good at talking through.

  “Never heard of them!” John said cheerfully, which I wished he hadn’t said. Truth is, I hadn’t heard of them, either, but I knew enough to pretend I knew them—at least until I could download the song tonight. John wasn’t so great at the social stuff that goes on inside a rock band. Lots of group dynamic stuff to sort out. You have to kind of just nod and go along if you want to fit in. Then again, John wasn’t very good at fitting in that way.

  Elijah laughed and turned around to tune his guitar.

  John looked at me over his little round glasses and made an “Is it me, or are they crazy?” face.

  I shrugged in response.

  John and I had become our own little group inside this rock band. We hung out together during breaks and made jokes, especially since the other three guys hung out together and made their own jokes. Every Thursday after school, I’d go over to John’s house and we’d practice together, or we’d listen to some classic rock songs so we could sound like we knew as much about rock music as the other guys. And then we’d make suggestions about what songs we could play. So far, we had suggested “Yellow Submarine” and “Eye of the Tiger.” But Elijah, Harry, and Ennio had nixed them both.

  That was fine, though, because I was really into “The Final Countdown,” which had been Mr. Bowles’s suggestion. It’s the final countdown!

  “I don’t know, guys,” Mr. Bowles said. “I’m not sure there’s going to be enough time between today and Wednesday to learn a brand-new song. Maybe we should stick to ‘The Final Countdown’ for now?” He played the opening notes of that song on the keyboard, and John started bopping his head.

  Then Elijah started playing a great riff on his bass, which turned out to be the opening of “Seven Nation Army.” As if on cue, Harry and Ennio started playing, too. It was pretty obvious that they had practiced the song a lot of times before today. I have to say, they sounded amazing.

  Somewhere in the second chorus, Mr. Bowles put his hand up for them to stop jamming.

  “Okay, dudes,” he said, nodding. “You’re sounding absolutely awesome. Killer bass, Elijah. But everyone’s got to be able to play the song for the spring concert, right? These two dudes need a chance to learn the song, too.” He pointed at me and John.

  “But it’s just basic chords!” said Elijah. “Like C and G! B. D. You do know D, right?” He looked at us like we were an alien species. “You seriously can’t do that?”

  “I can do that,” I answered quickly, forming the chords with my fingers.

  “I hate the B chord!” said John.

  “It’s so easy!” said Elijah.

  “But what about ‘The Final Countdown’?” John whined. “I’ve been practicing that for weeks!”

  He started playing the same opening part that Mr. B had just played, but he honestly didn’t sound that good.

  “Dude, that was awesome!” said Mr. B, high-fiving John.

  I noticed Elijah smiled at Harry, who looked down like he was trying not to laugh.

  “Guys, we have to be fair here,” said Mr. B to Elijah.

  “Here’s the thing,” answered Elijah. “We can only play one song at the spring concert, and we want it to be ‘Seven Nation Army.’ Majority rules.”

  “But it’s not what we said we were going to play!” yelled John. “It’s not fair that you guys agreed to play ‘The Final Countdown,’ and me and Chris have spent a lot of time learning it….”

  I have to admit, John had guts talking back to a sixth grader like that.

  “Sorry, dude,” said Elijah, fiddling with his amp. But he didn’t seem sorry.

  “Okay, let’s settle down, guys,” said Mr. B with his eyes closed.

  “Mr. B?” said Ennio, holding up his hand like he was in class. “The thing is, this is going to be our last spring concert before the three of us graduate.” He pointed his drumstick at Harry and Elijah and himself.

  “Yeah, we’re going to middle school next year!” agreed Elijah.

  “We want to play a song that we feel really good about,” Ennio finished. “ ‘The Final Countdown’ doesn’t represent us musically.”

  “But that’s not fair!” said John. “This is an after-school rock band. Not just your band! You can’t just do that!”

  “Dude, you can play whatever you want next year,” Elijah answered. He looked like he wanted to flick John’s glasses off his face. “You can play ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ for all I care.”

  This made the other guys laugh.

  Mr. Bowles finally opened his eyes. “Okay, guys, enough,” he said, holding up his hands. “Here’s what we’re going to do. Let’s see how well you two pick up ‘Seven Nation Army’ today and tomorrow.” He said this while pointing at me and John. “We’ll practice it a little today. We’ll also tighten up ‘The Final Countdown.’ Then, tomorrow, we’ll see which song sounds better. But I’m going to be the one to make the final decision which song we play, okay? Sound good?”

  John nodded yes eagerly, but Elijah rolled his eyes.

  “So, let’s start with ‘The Final Countdown,’ ” said Mr. Bowles. He clapped his hands twice. “From the beginning. Let’s go, guys. ‘The Final Countdown’! From the top. Ennio, wake up! Harry! Elijah, get us going, man! On four. A one. Two. Three…”

  We played the song. Even though Elijah and the other guys weren’t into it, they totally rocked it. In fact, we sounded pretty amazing together, I thought.

  “That sounded awesome!” said John when it was over. He held his hand in the air to high-five me, which I did a little reluctantly.

  “Whatever,” said Elijah, shaking his hair off his face.

  We spent the rest of the class running through “Seven Nation Army.” But John kept making mistakes and asking us to start over. It didn’t sound good at all.


  “You guys sound terrific!” said John’s mother, who had just come in the band room. She tried to clap while holding her wet umbrella.

  Mr. B looked at his watch. “Whoa, it’s five-thirty? Oh man! Dudes, I’ve got a gig tonight. We have to wrap this up. Let’s go. Everything in the lock room.”

  I started putting my guitar in the case.

  “Step on it, guys!” said Mr. B, putting the mics away.

  We all hurried up and put our instruments in the lock room.

  “See you tomorrow, Mr. B!” said John, who was the first to be ready to leave. “Bye, Elijah, bye, Ennio, bye, Harry!” He waved at them. “See you tomorrow!”

  I saw the three of them shoot each other looks, but they nodded goodbye to John.

  “Bye, Chris!” John said loudly from the door.

  “Bye,” I mumbled. I liked the guy, I really did. One on one he was awesome. But he could be so clueless, too. It was like being friends with SpongeBob.

  After John and his mother had left, Elijah went up to Mr. Bowles, who was wrapping up the mic cords.

  “Mr. B,” he said, ultra politely. “Can we please play ‘Seven Nation Army’ on Wednesday night?”

  At that moment, Ennio’s mom arrived to pick up the three of them.

  “We’ll see tomorrow, dude,” Mr. Bowles answered distractedly, throwing the last of the equipment into the lock room.

  “Yeah, you’re just gonna choose ‘The Final Countdown,’ ” said Elijah, and then he walked out the door.

  “Bye, guys,” I said to Harry and Ennio as they followed Elijah out.

  “Bye, dude,” they both said to me.

  Mr. B turned the key in the lock room. Then he looked at me, like he was surprised I was still there.

  “Where’s your mom?”

  “I guess she’s running late.”

  “Don’t you have a cell phone?”

  I nodded, fished my phone out of my backpack, and turned it on. There were no texts or missed calls from Mom.

  “Just call her!” he said after a few minutes. “I’ve got to get out of here, dude.”

 
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