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Max the mighty, p.1
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       Max the Mighty, p.1

           Rodman Philbrick
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Max the Mighty

  Thanks to Kathryn Lasky, who pointed me in the right direction.



  Title Page


  1. The Whole Weird World

  2. A Girl Called Worm

  3. Back to the Dark Down Under

  4. You Know Who

  5. The Undertaker

  6. Run for Your Life

  7. Heading for Home

  8. Maxwell Kane Is Too Big to Hide

  9. The Prairie Schooner

  10. Maxwell vs. the Ants

  11. The Man with the Crutch

  12. Safe Inside Her Book

  13. There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute

  14. The Python in the Toilet Bowl

  15. Dip Makes a Promise

  16. Sometimes the Truth Is Just Plain Stupid

  17. The Horrible Howl

  18. Keep Us Safe from You Know Who

  19. Wide-Open Country

  20. Chivalry

  21. What the Owl Knows

  22. Magic Believes in Me

  23. The Secret of Chivalry

  24. Officer Friendly

  25. Things That’ll Turn Your Bones into Jelly

  26. Catch a Dragon by the Toe

  27. The Flower-Power Fogeys

  28. Suddenly Worm Says Good-bye

  29. The End of Maxwell Kane

  30. After the End

  About the Author

  Also by Rodman Philbrick


  My name is Maxwell Kane and the thing you should know about me is this: even though I’m a big dude with a face like the moon and ears that stick out like radar scoops and humongous feet like the abdominal snowman, inside I’m a real weenie. A yellow-bellied sapsucker. A gigantic wuss. A coward.

  I’ll do just about anything to avoid a fight. I’m scared if I hit somebody, they might stay hurt forever, or worse. And then they’d haul me off to prison and everybody would say what did you expect, the boy is a bad apple just like his jailbird father.

  Okay, maybe I am a little weird, but if you really think about it everybody is weird. That’s the truth, and if you don’t believe it then maybe you better listen up while I tell you about me and the Bookworm and what happened when the whole weird world was out to get us.

  It started like this. One day after school gets out I’m kind of moping along, minding my own business. Taking the long way home because there’s nothing to do when I get there, so why hurry? I’m making sure not to step on any cracks and my brain is telling me don’t be such a moron, it doesn’t matter about cracks in the sidewalk. But my feet won’t listen and they keep being careful, because you never know about cracks, do you?

  Get a life, my brain says.

  That’s when I hear the girl screaming. She’s not saying anything, just screaming so loud it puts a shiver in my bones. It makes me freeze up and not move and wish I could be invisible, or at least small. It makes me wish I could turn my ears off like you switch off a radio, and not hear anything. Most of all I want to run away and hide somewhere safe.

  Because you can tell from the scream that somebody wants to hurt her.

  The girl keeps screaming and my brain is going, Mind your own business. Somebody else can help her, not you.

  But there isn’t anybody else and the screaming doesn’t stop and before I know it my stupid feet start running over the cracks in the sidewalk, taking me closer and closer to trouble.

  When I get to the corner of the block, I see this gang-banger messing around in the middle of the street. He’s strutting around with his hands behind his back and he’s got this sneering expression like he knows a really funny joke and you’ll never get it.

  “Keep screaming,” he says. “Nobody cares.”

  The scream is coming from this skinny red-haired girl who’s maybe eleven or twelve years old. She’s got bright green eyes and freckles and her clothes are about two sizes too big and she’s screaming bloody murder even though nobody’s touching her.

  “You big creep!” shouts the red-haired girl. “Lunk head! Bug brain! Give it back!”

  “Louder,” the gang-banger says. “I can’t hear you.”

  Then he catches sight of me, and his grin gets wider and wider. “What do you know,” he says. “Dinosaur boy to the rescue. I thought I felt the ground shaking.”

  Before I can stop my mouth from saying something stupid it goes, “Huh?”

  The gang-banger loves it. “Huh?” he says. “Is that dinosaur talk for ‘I’m retarded’?”

  That’s when I notice the skinny red-haired girl is staring at me. It’s not a friendly kind of stare — she probably thinks I’m one of the gang-bangers, or maybe a retard like he says.

  I go, “Leave her alone.”

  “Take it easy, Maxi Pad. We’re just having a little fun,” the gang-banger says. “You got a problem with that?”

  The girl shakes her fist at him and goes, “Give it back or else.”

  The gang-banger looks at her puny little fist and smirks. “Oooh,” he goes. “You gonna hit me?” Then he dances around, taunting her, and I see he’s got hold of this small green backpack. A girl’s backpack, for carrying school stuff.

  “Give it back to her,” I say.

  He crosses his eyes and makes an oink-oink noise. “Pig boy,” he says. “You better go home to Granny.”

  I try to grab it but he darts away, his teeth flashing white because he’s having such a good time. “Moron Max,” he laughs. “You’re scaring me.”

  The red-haired girl makes a move but she can’t touch him.

  “Bookworm, bookworm, ugly little bookworm,” he chants.

  “Shut up!” she says. She’s so mad her eyes look like they’re full of green electricity.

  “Worm girl!” the gang-banger cackles. “Whattaya have in here, worm food? Is that it?”

  He opens up her backpack and roots around inside with this totally mean look on his face. Then he goes, “Whoa! What have we here?”

  He pulls out a couple of paperback books and tosses them over his shoulder. Pages scatter and blow away like white leaves.

  “Oh, you’re real tough,” the girl says. “You can beat up a book. I bet you never even read a book.”

  Then the gang-banger whistles and pulls something else out of the backpack. A hard plastic helmet with a light on the front, like miners wear so they can see in the dark.

  “Don’t you dare touch that!” the girl shouts. Then she goes mental and tries to grab the miner’s helmet.

  He grins and ducks away. “Finders keepers!” he shouts. “Losers weepers!”

  But Worm isn’t weeping, she’s going nuts. Jumping up and trying to grab the helmet. He keeps dancing away, laughing in her face.

  I wait my chance, and when he isn’t looking I get behind him and lift the helmet off his head.

  “Hey!” he bellows.

  But I hold the miner’s helmet up high and he can’t reach it.

  “Gimme that,” he says, “or I’ll punch your lights out.”

  “Try it.”

  The gang-banger curls up his fists and sets up on his feet like a boxer and for a moment I think he really is going to punch me. Then he looks at the girl and he looks at me and he spits on the ground by my feet.

  “Who cares about your stupid junk,” he says, and saunters away like he couldn’t care less. Like he’s the coolest dude in the whole wide world because he ripped up a book and scared an eleven-year-old girl.

  The girl has eyes like green laser beams and this fierce look on her freckled face, like she thinks I’m the enemy, too.

  I go, “Here,” and give her the helmet.

  The way she holds it in her hands, you know it means something special.

  “What’s it fo
r?” I ask.

  “None of your business,” she says. And then she hugs the scratched-up old helmet to her chest and runs away, her thick red hair flying up like it wants to wave good-bye.

  My brain didn’t know it yet, but that’s when trouble really started, the day I met a girl called Worm.

  The first thing I do when I get back to the down under is backflop on my bed and stare up at the ceiling while my brain goes, You idiot, now the gang-bangers will be after you. You’re toast, you moron, toast!

  The down under is this room in the basement, with cheesy paneling and an old rug that smells like low tide. Not that I’m complaining. The down under is my very own place, my hidey-hole from the big bad world. My grandmother wants me to move upstairs, into the light of day, she says, but I tried that for a while and thanks but no thanks. If things get really bad I can still crawl under the bed and just veg out until my brain starts working again.

  There’s all kinds of books and games and junk lying around, but I’m not really in the mood. All I want to do is stare up at the ceiling and try to figure out why a scrawny girl would make such a big deal out of an old miner’s helmet. I mean, she really went ballistic over it, right? Totally bonkers.

  “Maxwell! Are you there?”

  That’s Gram, who raised me ever since my mom died. She’s calling down from the cellar stairs like she always does. Just checking to see I’m not doing something stupid, like making my own firecrackers, which I don’t do anymore since we had that small explosion. Really small, but I guess it sounded pretty bad from upstairs.

  “Supper’s almost ready!” she calls out in her cheery grandma voice. “Your favorite, spaghetti and meatballs!”

  That hasn’t been my favorite for about five years, but I haven’t got the heart to tell Gram because she tries so hard. She and Grim are old and out of it — they’re my grandparents, my mother’s people — but they’re okay most of the time. Grim still has this way of looking at me sideways, like he can’t believe his poor dead daughter gave birth to this huge beast of a boy. Monster Max, the thing in the cellar. But mostly he’s a pretty neat old dude, if you don’t mind hearing stories about the war for the umpteenth time, and how when he was a lad the grass was greener and the air was cleaner and nobody wore T-shirts with rude words on them.

  No bad T-shirts back then, I say, just those yellow stars they pinned on six million people who got sent to the gas chambers. And he’ll shake his head and say I give up, the boy reads too many books. Like he’s been testing me and I passed. Because once upon a time I couldn’t read worth beans, and like he says my brain is now this big sponge that soaks stuff up, and he’s still kind of surprised I’m not as stupid as I used to be.

  Of course, if Grim knew I’d been messing around with a gang-banger, he’d figure I really was retarded after all.

  The next time I see Worm is on the bus. Normally I walk home from school, but that day the whole junior high went on this field trip to the Museum of Science, where they’ve got a lot of neat stuff like a giant see-through model of the human intestine, and robots that talk like R2-D2, and this really excellent planetarium where they can make the stars look like dragons breathing fire in the sky.

  The bus is super crowded, so I never notice Worm until we’re almost home. She’s all scrunched up in one of the seats way down in the back, reading this paperback book. A thick one, too. All around her the other kids are going mental and making faces out the window and yelling goony stuff, but she never takes her nose out of that book.

  When the bus driver finally comes to her stop he opens the door and waits, like he knows what happens next. The really strange thing is, Worm gets up from her seat but she never stops reading. She walks down the aisle with the book up close to her eyes and she doesn’t look anywhere else, not even at her feet to see where she’s going. Like nothing is going to stop her reading, not even for as long as it takes to get off the bus.

  She keeps reading even when some of the other kids make fun of her. “Bookworm, bookworm, ugly little bookworm.”

  Worm acts like she doesn’t even hear them. As far as she’s concerned she’s not even there, she’s walking inside her book and nobody can touch her.

  Because of what happened when I saved her miner’s helmet, I’m figuring she’ll at least glance at me when she goes by, but she doesn’t even notice me. Which if you know how big I am is like not noticing an elephant in your living room.

  Weird. Definitely weird.

  Even when she’s off the bus she doesn’t stop reading. She walks away from the bus stop, heading for the crummy end of town, but she never takes her nose out of that book.

  “Hey, Frankenstein, what are you looking at?”

  “Nothing,” I say, but everybody laughs.

  They go: “Max and Bookworm sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!”

  But they’re wrong, because I’m not going gooey for any girl.

  No way.

  The next day I’m hanging around the park. It’s not much of a park. Just this sloping-down grass place by the old millpond, with a statue of a guy on a horse. Some Civil War general, and he’s pointing his sword at the pond like he’s going to chase the ducks away. The whole statue is this rusted green color except for his hat, which is white where the birds are always crapping on it.

  I’m sitting on this bench by the edge of the pond, tossing pebbles into the water and thinking it’s a good thing it’s Saturday, because it’s way too nice for school. Sometimes I like to stare at the way the sun glitters on the water, these jagged bits of light that float like diamonds or something, and if you look at it long enough you feel sort of hypnotized. Like somebody has cast a spell and when you wake up the world will be changed into a better place.

  So I’m sitting there kind of zoned and not really thinking about anything when a familiar voice says, “I heard they call you Freak the Mighty.”

  I look around and there she is. The Bookworm. Sitting on the bench and staring at me with these really intense green eyes. Eyes so hot and bright you can almost feel the heat.

  “Freak the Mighty was two people,” I tell her. “Kevin and me.”

  “Who’s Kevin?” she asks.

  And so I tell her about my best friend Kevin Avery, a three-foot-high kid with a brain like Einstein, and how the other kids called him Freak because he had leg braces and this crummy disease that meant he couldn’t grow. How I used to act so dumb that everyone, including me, thought I didn’t have a brain, until Kevin showed me how to think. And how the two of us became Freak the Mighty and went on a lot of cool adventures, slaying dragons and fools and walking high above the world.

  “Cool,” she says. “So where is he now, your little friend Kevin? Did he move away or something?”

  I don’t really want to talk about it, but there’s something about the way Worm listens that makes it okay. “He died,” I tell her. “Last year.”

  She just sits there for a while, thinking about it. Then she goes, “What a crummy deal.”

  “Yeah,” I say. “It was.”

  “So,” she goes, “now you’re Max the Mighty.”

  For some reason that makes my ears burn hot. “I’m just Max,” I tell her. “Just plain Max.”

  Worm has this sort of smile on her face, like she knows a secret about me, and she’s about to say what it is when a worried voice calls out.

  “Rachel! Leave the nice man alone!”

  I turn and see this woman perched on a bench nearby. She looks real nervous, like she’s going to leap up any second and scream for the cops. Like because I’m big and goofy looking I might be a pervert or something.

  But before I can get really steamed up I notice the woman looks familiar. She looks a lot like Worm, only older and sadder.

  “Rachel!” the woman says.

  Worm goes, “It’s okay, Mom. He’s from school.”

  The woman gets up from the bench and comes over. She’s wearing this long, old-fashioned black dress and she’s got this stiff-legged
way of walking, like her feet are hurting and she doesn’t want them to touch the ground.

  When she gets closer I notice these dark bruises under her eyes, and right away I know there’s something scaring her and it’s not just me.

  “I’m sorry, sir,” she says, in a low sweet voice that’s even sadder than her eyes. “I thought you were a stranger.”

  She’s calling me “sir” like I’m a grown-up, and that makes me feel a little weird. I sort of like it and don’t like it at the same time. The trouble with looking like a grown-up is the older I get the more I look like my father. Looking like your father is okay unless dear old Dad happens to be Killer Kane and he’s in prison for murdering your mother. Which means people look at me and think maybe I’ll grow up to be just like him, or worse.

  Worm goes, “We’ll be safe here, Mom.”

  She thinks because I got the gang-banger to leave her alone I can make her safe all the time. What a joke. If she knew what a sapsucker I really am she’d get a head start and never stop running.

  “Safe?” I ask. “Safe from what?”

  “Never mind that, Rachel,” her mom says. “We mustn’t involve this young man in our troubles.”

  But her mom sits down, too. The three of us together on the bench like we’re waiting for a bus. Which is sort of strange but okay.

  It’s quiet for a while, and then Worm pipes up, “You know what that pond reminds me of? The Wind in the Willows. Remember how Daddy used to read me that story?”

  “I remember,” her mom says, kind of wistful.

  Worm roots around inside her backpack until she finds a dog-eared copy of the book. She flips through the pages but you can tell she’s practically got the thing memorized, she’s read it so many times. “Remember how Mole and Badger and Rat like to row around in their little boat? And Mr. Toad is always acting so grand and getting into trouble?” Her voice is going higher, like talking about the story is making her feel like a little kid again. She turns to me and says, “Remember?”

  “Um … not exactly,” I say.

  “You never read The Wind in the Willows?”

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