Curse of the broomstaff, p.2
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       Curse of the Broomstaff, p.2

           Tyler Whitesides
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  “Excuse me?” Mrs. Natcher’s gray eyebrows rose, further wrinkling her forehead and pushing back her impossibly tight hairline.

  “My socks are warm and fuzzy!” Spencer said it loud and clear this time, wondering why Daisy hadn’t come up with a less conspicuous code phrase.

  They had decided that they needed something to shout out in case of an emergency Toxite infestation. Spencer had suggested several phrases that might not seem out of place in a classroom: “I’m downright confused,” or, “I don’t understand this concept.” But Daisy was too afraid that she’d forget. Or worse, that she’d use the phrase in a nonemergency situation. So Daisy insisted on the Gates family emergency code phrase.

  “Your socks are warm and fuzzy?” Mrs. Natcher said.

  Daisy sprang into action, slamming her math notebook closed and jumping to her feet. Mrs. Natcher spun to face Daisy, giving Spencer a moment to gather some Glopified supplies from his desk: a Ziploc bag of vacuum dust, a latex glove, and a chalkboard eraser. He most likely wouldn’t return to the classroom today, and he didn’t want Mrs. Natcher to find anything if she went snooping.

  “I’ve got to go,” Daisy said.

  “You need a note for an early checkout,” answered Mrs. Natcher.

  Daisy shook her head. “To the bathroom!” she whispered.

  “Take the hall pass,” came the usual answer. Without delay, Daisy crossed the room, grabbed the doll pass, Baybee, and ducked out the door.

  Okay, that was not the plan. When the code phrase was spoken, Spencer and Daisy were supposed to help each other leave the classroom. They had rehearsed a number of scenarios that would do the trick. Now Daisy had skipped out the easy way, leaving Spencer to fend for himself. And Baybee, the only real ticket out of the classroom, was gone too.

  Mrs. Natcher swept down the aisle between desks, a piece of chalk still gripped between her fingers. Spencer sat stunned, partly from Daisy’s retreat, and partly from Mrs. Natcher’s advance. He didn’t even realize that he was clutching his Glopified chalkboard eraser until the teacher pointed it out.

  “So that’s what happened to my missing eraser!” She reached for the object, but Spencer pulled away.

  “What? No,” he said. “This one’s mine.” He couldn’t let Mrs. Natcher get her hands on a Glopified weapon. “I brought it from home!”

  “Don’t be ridiculous.” Mrs. Natcher turned up her nose at him. She held out her hand, palm as flat and stiff as a ruler. She wasn’t going to wrestle him for it. “Mine, Spencer.”

  What could he do? Gently, like he was placing the winning block in a game of Jenga, Spencer laid the Glopified eraser on the teacher’s outstretched hand. She closed her fingers around it and returned to the front of the room.

  Even on the best of days, Mrs. Natcher wasn’t the most delicate flower. When upset, Spencer knew she was especially heavy-handed at erasing the chalkboard. All she’d have to do was erase her pie chart, and the whole classroom would fill with paralyzing white dust! Unless he could somehow contain the explosion . . .

  “The correct answer is: 23 more apples than bananas,” Mrs. Natcher said. Without even asking who got it right, the teacher swiveled on her hard heel and slammed the eraser against the chalkboard.

  As soon as the Glopified weapon made contact, Mrs. Natcher disappeared in a puff of white chalk dust. It swirled up her arm, overtaking her face and gray hair bun faster than anyone could react.

  Anyone except Spencer, of course. He had been expecting the worst from the moment he handed over the eraser. As the teacher coughed from within the quickly expanding cloud, Spencer sprinted toward the front of the room, weaving between desks.

  The classroom was a mix of emotions now. The students began talking all at once, some conversations laced with subdued chuckles. Chalkboard erasers were known to puff if not properly cleaned. And so far, the Glopified cloud hadn’t spread enough to look too unnatural.

  Having previously been a victim of chalk dust, Spencer wisely held his breath. He dove into the puff of whiteness at the front of the room, finding Mrs. Natcher’s arm and ripping the eraser out of her grasp. The weapon fell to the floor, and Spencer pounced on it . . . with his lunch box.

  He slammed the metal box closed, wondering what was happening to his sandwich and pudding pack as the eraser continued to detonate inside. The cloud in the classroom was already thinning, Mrs. Natcher leaning against the board. The dust on her face and hands made her look somewhat like a zombie, all pale and creepy.

  Spencer staggered to his feet, gripping his lunch box in both hands. The thing was shaking as pressure built to a dangerous level. He skirted around the edge of the classroom until he reached the window. Ripping aside the thick paisley curtains, he pulled open the glass, pushed out the screen, and threw his lunch box as far as he possibly could.

  Spencer yanked the curtains closed, not even waiting to see if the lunch box exploded. His classmates were crowding around Mrs. Natcher as she coughed and wheezed. They had no idea that Spencer had just saved them from temporary paralysis. And Spencer had a feeling that thank you would not be among the words he’d hear from Mrs. Natcher if he waited for her to make a full recovery.

  Spencer quietly backed across the classroom and pushed open the door. He slipped into the hallway just as Daisy rounded the corner. They stopped, face-to-face—one with a baby-doll hall pass, the other with chalky white hands.

  Finally, Spencer shrugged. “What happened to our escape plan?”

  “Sorry,” Daisy shrugged back. “It was an emergency.” She hefted Baybee as proof.

  “I know it was an emergency,” Spencer said. “That’s why I said my socks are warm and fuzzy!”

  Daisy’s eyes widened. “You mean . . . there really is an emergency? I just had to go to the bathroom.”

  Spencer rolled his eyes. “Come on!” He set off down the hallway, hoping Daisy would follow before Mrs. Natcher came looking. “We’ve got to call my dad!”

  “From the front office?”

  “No,” Spencer said. “It’s got to be more private. Maybe your dad can give us a ride to my house.”

  “But,” Daisy stammered, “you heard Mrs. Natcher. We can’t check out early without a note!”

  Spencer stopped to face her. She hadn’t seen Mr. Clean ride into that prison on a giant Extension Filth. Daisy didn’t understand the danger. “It’s a matter of life and death,” he said. “If you want to go back to class, then do it now and pretend like you never saw me out here!”

  “But I did see you,” Daisy said. “So let’s go.”

  As soon as they burst through the school’s front door, Spencer and Daisy felt the sting of winter on their skin. There hadn’t been time to grab coats—especially for Daisy, who had thought she was just going to the bathroom.

  It was a deceptively bright day, with plenty of sunshine but no warmth from it. Spencer and Daisy ran across the parking lot, trying not to slip on patches of ice. Just outside Mrs. Natcher’s classroom was a cloud of white dust from the chalk eraser explosion. So his lunch box had blown up after all. Good thing he wasn’t hungry.

  Spencer jumped off the sidewalk, his shoes breaking through the crunchy upper layer of snow. “This way!”

  “That’s jaywalking!” Daisy said. “There’s no crosswalk there!”

  Spencer paused in the road. “We’re running away from school and you’re worried about crosswalks?”

  A silver Cadillac suddenly turned the corner, emerging from behind a snow-covered pine tree. Spencer spun around, making eye contact with the driver as the car slipped toward him on the icy road.

  It was Principal Poach. And he had a mouthful of French fries.

  The principal screamed, spraying fries onto the windshield. Spencer dove aside, landing safely in the crusty snowbank as the principal jerked on the wheel. The Cadillac crossed the road, skipped up the curb, and smashed into a streetlight.

  Daisy was at Spencer’s side in a minute, Baybee tucked under her arm. “I’m fin
e,” Spencer said, rising to his feet. “That was Poach. We’ve got to check on him!”

  The hood of the Cadillac was folded around the streetlight. Peering through the driver’s window, the kids saw a streak of red oozing from the corner of Principal Poach’s mustache. His eyes were closed.

  “He’s bleeding!” Daisy said. She thrust Baybee into Spencer’s hand and jerked open the car door.

  But Spencer shook his head, pointing to the McDonald’s bag on the seat and the spewed French fries on the dashboard. “It’s ketchup.”

  The word ketchup seemed to bring Principal Poach around. His little tongue reached out, lapping at the red sauce in his mustache. He muttered something under his breath. Spencer thought it was cheeseburger. Then, suddenly, Principal Poach was completely revived and alert.

  “Twenty-four years I have driven this road to Welcher Elementary and I have never—never—seen such behavior!” The principal struggled to climb from the crashed car, his weight wedging him behind the steering wheel. He threw his bulk forward once, twice. Third time was the charm, and Poach rolled out onto the snowbank.

  “Should have known it would be you.” The principal looked at Spencer as he rose, panting, to his feet. “Should have known you’d be standing in the middle of the road with your baby doll, trying to make me crash.”

  “It’s not my doll,” Spencer said. “It’s Mrs. Natcher’s.”

  The principal’s face, already a reddish hue from anger and exertion, turned a shade of purple as he pointed a hot-dog-shaped finger directly at Spencer. “Stealing Mrs. Natcher’s things, eh? Theft of school property!”

  “We didn’t steal it,” Spencer said, holding out the doll. “It’s the hall pass.”

  “Hahaha!” Principal Poach laughed. The creaking sounds of his wrecked car were working him into unhealthy hysteria. “Hall passes are for hallways, not for roads!”

  “Sorry,” Daisy said. “We got lost.”

  The big man rested a pudgy hand on the crumpled hood of his once-shiny vehicle. “It was new, you know.” He nodded, jowls quavering. “New car. Christmas gift from the missus.” A tear slipped down his ample cheek. “Now how am I supposed to explain the ketchup stain on the front seat?”

  Spencer started backing away. He’d heard about people going into shock after a car crash. But this didn’t look like shock. Principal Poach was going crazy!

  “Suspended!” Poach shouted. “Both of you are suspended for the rest of the month!”

  “Wait a minute,” Spencer said. “What? You can’t suspend us like this!” Getting suspended was for kids like Dez, not hardworking students like Spencer and Daisy!

  “Suspended!” He shooed them away, clearly wanting some time alone to grieve over his smashed Cadillac. Spencer tugged at Daisy’s arm and the two of them began a hesitant retreat.

  “And when you come back . . .” Poach shouted. “No—if you come back . . . you better bring that stolen doll pass!”

  Chapter 3

  “You wouldn’t get it.”

  By the time they reached the Gates home, Spencer had explained everything to Daisy. She might have been terrified by Mr. Clean’s visit to Leslie Sharmelle; she should have been upset by Leslie’s pending escape and the death sentence on Alan Zumbro. But Daisy Gates was hung up on one little detail.

  “We just got suspended!” she said again, walking up her driveway.

  “Don’t think of it like that,” Spencer said. He paused at the edge of the sidewalk, eyeing the big black dog chained to the front porch. “Maybe Principal Poach didn’t mean it . . .”

  A head poked out of the garage beside the house. It was prematurely bald, with a ring of hair around the side that managed to hold its color. Daisy froze, making eye contact with her dad.

  “Early release today?” Mr. Gates asked, strolling down the driveway. He had a greasy tool in one hand and a denim coat flung over his smudged coveralls.

  “Bad news, Pops,” Daisy said. “We just got suspended!”

  Mr. Gates stopped, his eyebrows meeting in confusion. “Suspended?” He whistled through his teeth. “That sounds horrid, Daisy. What happened?

  Daisy took a deep breath. “We ran away from school and then Principal Poach crashed into a pole because Spencer was jaywalking.”

  Spencer rolled his eyes. Daisy didn’t know how to sugarcoat the story. She was giving her dad the hard facts, and Spencer braced himself for the reaction.

  “How long are you out for?” Mr. Gates asked.

  “Rest of the month,” answered Daisy.

  Mr. Gates nodded solemnly. “At least it’s February,” he said. “Shortest month of the year.” He absently wiped a bit of grease from the wrench in his hand. “Was it worth it? Leaving school. Did you have a good reason?”

  Daisy pointed back to where Spencer stood at the edge of the sidewalk. “Spencer’s worried about his dad . . .”

  “He’s out of town . . . again.” Spencer said the last word with a trace of bitterness. “I’m worried about the weather. Got to check on him.”

  Mr. Gates turned to his daughter. “Your mother’s gonna turn the color of beet juice when she finds out you got suspended.” Daisy hung her head, and Mr. Gates glanced nervously toward the house. “I don’t like beet juice.” He dug in his pocket until he found a little ring of keys. “Quick!” he whispered. “To the truck!”

  Spencer and Daisy clambered after him, ascending the red Ford pickup parked against the curb. Daisy claimed the hump as Spencer shook the snow off his feet and hoisted himself into the huge passenger seat. The cushion was worn thin, and a few springs rose uncomfortably against his backside, but Spencer didn’t complain.

  The ignition cranked a few times before Mr. Gates managed to get the truck bouncing down the frosty road toward Spencer’s Hillside Estates neighborhood. The heater was on full blast, but the air hadn’t warmed yet.

  “Why don’t you two stick together this afternoon?” Mr. Gates said. “Hide out at the Zumbros’ for a while.” He tapped Daisy’s knee with a greasy finger. “Mom’s all worked up about that storytime presentation she’s supposed to give at the library tonight. It would be best for everyone if she doesn’t find out you were suspended.” He rubbed a hand along the steering wheel. “At least till tomorrow.”

  Daisy shivered without her coat, clutching Baybee close. “Thanks, Dad. For not being too mad,” she said. “We left for a reason. Spencer’s really worried about his dad.”

  Mr. Gates nodded. “Can’t say I blame him.” He whistled through his teeth again. “Poor kid.”

  Spencer sighed, letting his head rest against the window. Daisy and her dad had an obnoxious way of talking as if they were alone, regardless of who else was listening. It was most awkward in moments like these, when the subject of the conversation was sitting only inches away.

  “You gotta help him through it, Daisy,” said Mr. Gates. “I mean, his dad came back almost three months ago, but I still haven’t seen them down at the baseball diamond together.”

  Daisy pointed out at the crusted snowbanks whipping past the window. “Maybe ’cause it’s winter.”

  “Baseball was a metaphor,” Mr. Gates said. “I’ve just noticed that his dad hasn’t been around much since he came back.”

  “He’s a really busy guy,” Spencer finally cut in. He didn’t want to know where the conversation was headed. He didn’t want to compare Mr. Gates’s involvement in Daisy’s life to his own father’s absence. Alan Zumbro was alive. Spencer was supposed to be happy.

  “My dad’s doing something important,” Spencer said. “And he’s in danger. That’s why we had to leave school.” He stared out the window, his breath fogging the glass. “You wouldn’t get it.”

  Mr. Gates turned up the steep road toward the lavish mansions of Hillside Estates. “I might not get it,” said Mr. Gates. “But the two of you better have this sorted out before you go back to school next month.”

  Daisy nodded. “That gives us . . .” she counted on her fingers, “ten
days to find the package?”

  Spencer tried to nudge her inconspicuously but only managed to elbow Baybee in the head. Why did Daisy have to mention the package in front of Mr. Gates? It was that mysterious parcel that kept Alan away, kept him searching across the country. Kept him from being a real dad.

  Mr. Gates leaned forward, squinting out the windshield. “You guys get a new automobile?” he asked, a half-grin spreading across his face.

  Spencer peered ahead to see a large blue garbage truck idling on the street in front of Aunt Avril’s house, exhaust pipe chugging diesel pollutants into the cold midmorning air.

  The huge vehicle was completely blocking the Zumbro driveway, so Mr. Gates did a quick U-turn in the street to drop off the kids. They jumped out, Daisy nearly slipping on a patch of ice in the road. Mr. Gates waved a greasy hand, and his pickup rolled out of sight.

  “Ooh, good timing.” Daisy turned her attention to the big blue garbage truck. “I always like to watch it dump the stuff.”

  Spencer stepped toward the front of the garbage truck. Straining against the glint on the glass, he saw that the cab was empty. “That’s weird.”

  “Not too weird,” Daisy said. “In my neighborhood it happens every Monday morning and I stand out on the front porch and watch. I’m usually not fast enough to see the part where the big metal claw grabs the trash can, but I get to see it all come tumbling out. And sometimes, if I look really close, I can even catch a glimpse of something that I threw away just a day or two before.”

  “There’s no driver.” Spencer pointed to the empty cab. “And garbage pickup isn’t till tomorrow.” He looked around the truck to the front of Aunt Avril’s house. There was no movement in the windows, and the Zumbro SUV wasn’t parked in the driveway. That meant no one was home but the idling garbage truck.

  “So what’s this guy doing here?” Daisy asked.

  There was a crash, a bang, and the sound of shattered glass, momentarily rising above the monotonous purr of the garbage truck’s diesel engine. Spencer and Daisy dropped to their knees at the edge of the driveway, taking shelter behind an icy bank of dirty snow that had been pushed up by the plows.

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