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       Pluto, p.5

           R. J. Palacio
 
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  He jogged out the front entrance toward the parking lot. I pushed Mom’s wheelchair to where he’d pointed.

  “I can’t believe it’s still raining,” said Mom, looking out the lobby windows.

  “I bet you could pop a wheelie on this thing!” I said.

  “Hey, hey! No!” Mom screamed, squeezed the sides of the wheelchair as I tilted it backward. “Chris! I’ve had enough excitement for the day.”

  I put the wheelchair down. “Sorry, Mom.” I patted her head.

  She rubbed her eyes with the palms of her hand. “Sorry, it’s just been a really long day.”

  “Did you know that a day on Pluto is 153.3 hours long?” I asked.

  “No, I didn’t know that.”

  We didn’t say anything for a few minutes.

  “Hey, did you give Auggie a call, by the way?” she said out of the blue.

  “Mom,” I groaned, shaking my head.

  “What?” she said. She tried to turn around in her wheelchair to look at me. “I don’t get it, Chris. Did you and Auggie have a fight or something?”

  “No! There’s just so much going on right now.”

  “Chris…” She sighed, but she sounded too tired to say anything else about it.

  I started humming the bass line of “Seven Nation Army.”

  After a few minutes, the red hatchback pulled up in front of the exit, and Dad came jogging out of the car, holding an open umbrella. I pushed Mom outside the front doors. Dad gave her the umbrella to hold, and then he pushed her down the wheelchair ramp and around to the passenger side of the car. The wind was picking up now, and the umbrella Mom was holding went inside out after a strong gust.

  “Chris, get inside!” said Dad. He started picking Mom up under her arms to transfer her to the front seat of the car.

  “Kind of nice being waited on,” Mom joked. But I could tell she was in pain.

  “Worth a broken femur?” Dad joked back, out of breath.

  “What’s a femur?” I asked, scooching into the backseat.

  “The thighbone,” answered Dad. He was soaking wet by now as he tried to help Mom find her seat belt.

  “Sounds like an animal,” I answered. “Lions and tigers and femurs.”

  Mom tried to laugh at my joke, but she was sweating.

  Dad hurried around to the back of the car and spent a few minutes trying to figure out how to fold the wheelchair to get it inside. Then he came around to the driver’s seat, sat down, and closed the door. We all kind of sat there quietly for a second, the wind and rain howling outside the windows. Then Dad started the car. We were all soaking wet.

  “Mommy,” I said after we’d been driving a few minutes, “when you got in the accident this morning, were you on your way home after dropping me off? Or were you driving back to school with my stuff?”

  Mom took a second to answer. “It’s actually kind of a blur, honey,” she answered, reaching her arm behind her so that I would take her hand. I squeezed her hand.

  “Chris,” said Dad, “Mommy’s kind of tired. I don’t think she wants to think about it right now.”

  “I just want to know.”

  “Chris, now’s not the time,” said Dad, giving me a stern look in the rearview mirror. “The only thing that’s important is that everything worked out okay and that Mommy’s safe and sound, right? We have a lot to be thankful for. Today could have been so much worse.”

  It took me a second to realize what he meant. And then when I did, I felt a shiver go up my spine.

  FaceChat

  The first year after we moved to Bridgeport, our parents tried really hard to get Auggie and me together at least a couple of times a month—either at our place or at Auggie’s. I had a couple of sleepovers at Auggie’s house, and Auggie tried a sleepover at my place once, though that didn’t work out. But it’s a long car ride between Bridgeport and North River Heights, and eventually we only got together every couple of months or so. We started FaceChatting each other a lot around that time. Like, practically every day in third grade, Auggie and I would hang out together on FaceChat. We had decided to grow our Padawan braids before I moved away, so it was a great way to check how long they had gotten. Sometimes we wouldn’t even talk: we’d just keep the screens on while we both watched a TV show together or built the same Lego set at the same time. Sometimes we would trade riddles. Like, what has a foot but no leg? Or, what does a poor man have, a rich man need, and you would die if you ate it? Stuff like that could keep us going for hours.

  Then, in the fourth grade, we started FaceChatting less. It wasn’t a thing we did on purpose. I just started having more things to do in school. Not only did I get more homework now, but I was doing a lot of after-school stuff. Soccer a couple of times a week. Tennis lessons. Robotics in the spring. It felt like I was always missing Auggie’s FaceChat requests, so finally we decided to schedule our chats for right before dinner on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

  And that worked out fine, though it ended up being only Wednesday nights because Saturdays I had too much going on. It was somewhere toward the end of the fourth grade that I told Auggie I had cut off my Padawan braid. He didn’t say it, but I think that hurt his feelings.

  Then this year, Auggie started going to school, too.

  I almost couldn’t imagine Auggie at school, or how it would be for him. I mean, being a new kid is hard enough. But being a new kid that looks like Auggie? That would be insane. And not only was he starting school, he was starting middle school! That’s how they do it in his school—fifth graders walking down the same hallways as ninth graders! Crazy! You have to give Auggie his props—that takes guts.

  The only time I FaceChatted with Auggie in September was a few days after school had started, but he didn’t seem to want to talk. I did notice he had cut off his Padawan braid, but I didn’t ask him about it. I figured it was for the same reason I had cut mine off. I mean, you know, nerd alert.

  I was curious to go to Auggie’s bowling party a few weeks before Halloween. I got to meet his new friends, who seemed nice enough. There was this one kid named Jack Will who was pretty funny. But then I think something happened with Jack and Auggie, because when I FaceChatted with Auggie after Halloween, he told me they weren’t friends anymore.

  The last time I FaceChatted with Auggie was right after winter break had ended. My friends Jake and Tyler were over my place and we were playing Age of War II on my laptop when Auggie’s FaceChat request came up on my screen.

  “Guys,” I said, turning the laptop toward me. “I need to take this.”

  “Can we play on your Xbox?” asked Jake.

  “Sure,” I said, pointing to where they could find the extra controllers. And then I kind of turned my back to them, because I didn’t want them to see Auggie’s face. I tapped “accept” on the laptop, and a few seconds later, Auggie’s face came on the screen.

  “Hey, Chris,” he said.

  “Sup, Aug,” I answered.

  “Long time no see.”

  “Yeah,” I answered.

  Then he started talking about something else. Something about a war at his school? Jack Will? I didn’t really follow what he was saying, because I was completely distracted by Jake and Tyler, who had started nudging one another, mouths open, half laughing, the moment Auggie had come on-screen. I knew they had seen Auggie’s face. I walked to the other side of the room with the laptop.

  “Mm-hmm,” I said to Auggie, trying to tune out the things Jake and Tyler were whispering to each other. But I heard this much:

  “Did you see that?”

  “Was that a mask?”

  “…a fire?”

  “Is there someone there with you?” asked Auggie.

  I guess he must have noticed that I wasn’t really listening to him.

  I turned to my friends and said, “Guys, shh!”

  That made them crack up. They were very obviously trying to get a closer look at my screen.

  “Yeah, I’m just with some friends,” I mumbl
ed quickly, walking to yet another side of my room.

  “Hi, Chris’s friend!” said Jake, following me.

  “Can we meet your friend?” asked Tyler loudly so Auggie would hear.

  I shook my head at them. “No!”

  “Okay!” said Auggie from the other side of the screen.

  Jake and Tyler immediately came on either side of me so the three of us were facing the screen and seeing Auggie’s face.

  “Hey!” Auggie said. I knew he was smiling, but sometimes, to people who didn’t know, his smile didn’t look like a smile.

  “Hey,” both Jake and Tyler said quietly, nodding politely. I noticed that they were no longer laughing.

  “So, these guys are my friends Jake and Tyler,” I said to Auggie, pointing my thumb back and forth at them. “And that’s Auggie. From my old neighborhood.”

  “Hey,” said Auggie, waving.

  “Hey,” said Jake and Tyler, not looking at him directly.

  “So,” said Auggie, nodding awkwardly. “So, yeah, what are you guys doing?”

  “We were just turning on the Xbox,” I answered.

  “Oh, nice!” answered Auggie. “What game?”

  “House of Asterion.”

  “Cool. What level are you on?”

  “Um, I don’t know exactly,” I said, scratching my head. “Second maze, I think.”

  “Oh, that’s a hard one,” Auggie answered. “I’ve almost unlocked Tartarus.”

  “Cool.”

  I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Jake was poking Tyler behind my back.

  “Yeah, well,” I said, “I think we’re going to start playing now.”

  “Oh!” said Auggie. “Sure. Good luck with the second maze!”

  “Okay. Bye,” I said. “Hope the war thing works out.”

  “Thanks. Nice meeting you guys,” Auggie added politely.

  “Bye, Auggie!” Jake said, smirking.

  Tyler started laughing, so I elbowed him out of screen view.

  “Bye,” Auggie said, but I could tell he noticed them laughing. Auggie always noticed stuff like that, even though he pretended not to.

  I clicked off. As soon as I did, both Jake and Tyler started cracking up.

  “What the heck?” I said to them, annoyed.

  “Oh, dude!” said Jake. “What was up with that kid?”

  “I’ve never seen anything that ugly in my life,” said Tyler.

  “Hey!” I answered defensively. “Come on.”

  “Was he in a fire?” asked Jake.

  “No. He was born like that,” I explained. “He can’t help the way he looks. It’s a disease.”

  “Wait, is it contagious?” asked Tyler, pretending to be afraid.

  “Come on,” I answered, shaking my head.

  “And you’re friends with him?” asked Tyler, looking at me like I was a Martian. “Whoa, dude!” He was snickering.

  “What?” I looked at him seriously.

  He opened his eyes wide and shrugged. “Nothing, dude. I’m just saying.”

  I saw him look at Jake, who squeezed his lips together like a fish. There was an awkward silence.

  “Are we playing or not?” I asked after a few seconds. I grabbed one of the controllers.

  We started playing, but it wasn’t a great game. I was in a bad mood, and they just continued being goofballs. It was irritating.

  After they left, I started thinking about Zack and Alex, how they had ditched Auggie all those years ago.

  Even after all this time, it can still be hard being friends with Auggie.

  8:22 p.m.

  As soon as Dad wheeled Mom into our house, I plopped down on the sofa in front of the TV with my half-finished McDonald’s Happy Meal. I clicked the TV on with the remote.

  “Wait,” said Dad, shaking out the umbrella. “I thought you had homework to do.”

  “I just want to watch the rest of Amazing Race while I eat,” I answered. “I’ll do my homework when it’s over.”

  “Is it okay for him to do that?” Dad said to Mom.

  “It’s almost over anyway, Mommy!” I said to Mom. “Please?”

  “So long as you start right after the show’s over,” she answered. but I knew she wasn’t really paying attention. She was looking up at the staircase, shaking her head slowly. “How am I going to do this, Angus?” she said to Dad. She looked really tired.

  “That’s what I’m here for,” Dad answered. He turned her wheelchair around toward him, reached under her, wrapped his other arm around her back, and lifted her out of the wheelchair. This made Mom scream in a giggly sort of way.

  “Wow, Dad, you’re strong!” I said, popping a french fry in my mouth as I watched them. “You guys should be on The Amazing Race. They’re always having divorced couples.”

  Dad started climbing the staircase with Mom in his arms. They were both laughing as they bumped into the railing and the walls on the way up. It was nice seeing them like this. Last time we were all together, they were screaming at each other.

  I turned around and watched the rest of the show. Just as Phil the host was telling the last couple to arrive at the pit stop that they have been eliminated, my phone buzzed.

  It was a text from Elijah.

  Yo chris. so me and the guys decided we’re dropping out of after school rock band. we’re starting our own band. we’re playing 7NationArmy on Wednesday.

  I reread the text. My mouth was literally hanging open. Dropping out of the band? Could they do that? John would go ballistic when none of them showed up at band practice tomorrow. And what did that mean for the after-school rock band? Would it be just me and John playing “The Final Countdown”? That would be awful!

  Then another text came through.

  do you want to join our band? we want YOU to join. but ABSOLUTLY NOT john. He sucks. We’re practicing at my place tomorrow after school. Bring your guitar.

  Dad came downstairs. “Time for homework, Chris,” he said quietly. Then he saw my face. “What’s the matter?”

  “Nothing,” I said, clicking off the phone. I was kind of in a state of shock. They want me in their band? “I just remembered, I need to practice for the spring concert.”

  “Okay, but it needs to be quiet,” answered Dad. “Mom is out like a light, and we have to let her rest, okay? Don’t make a lot of noise going up the stairs. I’m in the guest room if you need anything.”

  “Wait, you’re staying here tonight?” I asked.

  “For a few days,” he answered. “Until your mom can get around herself.”

  He started walking back upstairs with the crutches they had given Mom in the hospital.

  “Can you print out the chords for ‘Seven Nation Army’ for me?” I asked. “I have to learn them by tomorrow.”

  “Sure,” he said at the top of the stairs. “But remember, keep it down!”

  North River Heights

  Our new house is much bigger than our old house in North River Heights. Our old house was actually a brownstone, and we lived on the first floor. We only had one bathroom, and a tiny yard. But I loved our apartment. I loved our block. I missed being able to walk everywhere. I even missed the ginkgo trees. If you don’t know what ginkgo trees are, they’re the trees that drop these little squishy nuts that smell like dog poop mixed with cat pee mixed with some toxic waste when you step on them. Auggie used to say they smelled like orc vomit, which I always thought was funny. Anyway, I missed everything about our old neighborhood, even the ginkgo trees.

  When we lived in North River Heights, Mom owned a little floral shop on Amesfort Avenue called Earth Laughs in Flowers. She worked really long hours, which is why they hired Lourdes to babysit me. That was another thing I missed: Lourdes. I missed her empanadas. I missed how she used to call me papi. But we didn’t need Lourdes after we moved to Bridgeport, because Mom had sold her floral shop and no longer worked full-time. Now Mom picks me up from school on Mondays through Wednesdays. On Thursday nights, she picks me up from John’s house
and drops me off at Dad’s place, which is where I stay until Sunday.

  When we lived in North River Heights, Dad was usually home by seven p.m. But now he can’t get home before nine p.m. because of the long commute from the city. Originally the plan was that that was only going to be a temporary thing, because he was going to be transferred to a Connecticut office, but it’s been three years and he still has his old job in Manhattan. Mom and Dad used to argue about that a lot.

  On Fridays, Dad leaves work early so that he can pick me up from school. We usually order Chinese food for dinner, jam a little on our guitars, and watch a movie. Mom gets annoyed with Dad that he doesn’t make me do my homework over the weekend when I’m with him, so by the time I go back home on Sunday night, I’m always kind of grumpy as I scramble to finish my homework with her. This weekend, for instance, I should have been studying for my math test, but Dad and I went bowling and I just never got around to doing that. My bad.

  I got used to the new house in Bridgeport, though. My new friends. Luke the hamster that’s not a dog. But what I miss the most about North River Heights is that my parents seemed together then.

  Dad moved out of our house last summer. My parents had been fighting a lot before that, but I don’t know why he moved out over the summer. Just that one day, out of nowhere, they told me that they were separating. They “needed some time apart” to figure out if they wanted to continue living together. They told me that this had nothing to do with me, and they would “both go on loving me” and seeing me as much as before. They said they still loved each other, but that sometimes marriages are like friendships that get tested, and people have to work through things.

  “Good friendships are worth a little extra effort,” I remember saying to them.

  I don’t think Mom even remembered that she’s the one who told me that once.

  9:56 p.m.

  I listened to “Seven Nation Army” while I did my homework. And I tried not to think too much about how John would react tomorrow when I told him I was joining the other band. I mean, I didn’t think I really had a choice. If I stayed in the after-school rock band, it’d just be me and John playing “The Final Countdown” at the spring concert, with Mr. B playing drums, and we’d look like the world’s biggest dweebs. We were just not good enough to play by ourselves. I remembered how Harry was trying not to laugh when John played the guitar solo today. If it was just the two of us up there, all the kids in the audience would be trying not to laugh.

 
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