Curse of the broomstaff, p.7
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       Curse of the Broomstaff, p.7

           Tyler Whitesides
 
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The garbage truck idled at the corner of the block, its passengers keeping a close eye on the school as they waited for the phone to ring.

  Penny drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, her green eyes never straying far from the clock on the dashboard. “It’s time to think of a backup plan,” Penny said. “In case your little friend doesn’t call back.”

  “He’ll call,” Daisy said. “Min’s the best.”

  Penny sighed. “It’s been almost two hours. I say we give it another thirty minutes. At eleven thirty, we go in, mops blazing.”

  Spencer looked at the cell phone in his hands. He hadn’t let go of it since Penny had handed it to him for the first call. She didn’t believe in Min because she’d never seen him in action. The Asian boy could rewire a computer in his sleep. Getting a message to Aaron at school would be child’s play. But Spencer did wonder what was taking so long.

  The phone vibrated in his hand, the screen lighting up to show an unknown caller.

  “Hello?” Spencer said.

  “Greetings.” It was Min, his voice as steady and businesslike as ever.

  “Did you get a message through?”

  “All is in order. Aaron stands ready to assist you.”

  Spencer smiled. “Great! What’s the plan?”

  “Walter is most likely being detained in the janitor’s closet,” Min said. “In order to rescue him, we’ll need to lure the temporary janitor out, giving you time and safe passage to find him.”

  “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Spencer said.

  “It has already been arranged,” said Min. “At precisely eleven thirty, Aaron’s class will go to lunch. Once in the cafeteria, he has agreed to create a janitorial diversion, by any means necessary.”

  “Is that your way of saying that Aaron’s going to start a food fight?”

  “Regardless of the mess that Aaron makes, you must be otherwise engaged. Do not go near the cafeteria. Find the janitor’s closet, rescue Walter, and get out.”

  “Easier said than done, Min.”

  “To facilitate your entrance, I have some simple directions,” said Min. “Enter the school through the front doors. Take your first left. Follow the hallway until you pass the bathrooms, then take a right. The janitorial closet is at the corner.”

  “Wow.” Spencer was amazed at Min’s detailed instructions. “How’d you figure that out?”

  “I found a satellite image of the school and determined the year it was built. Then I overlaid a series of standard school blueprints from that era until I found a match.”

  “Min Lee, you are a genius!” Spencer said.

  “Did you ever think I wasn’t?” Through Min’s tone on the phone, Spencer could imagine his face, mouth tilted in an arrogant smirk. “One last thing. If you are approached by Triton Charter School staff, you and Daisy are in Ms. Bellingham’s class, room 17.”

  “Got it,” Spencer said, glancing at the clock. “It’s almost time.”

  “On behalf of the Organization of Janitor Monitors, I wish you luck.”

  “And I say thanks,” said Spencer. “On behalf of education’s future.”

  “Until next time,” Min said. Without waiting for a response, he hung up the phone. Spencer grinned.

  “What did he say?” Penny asked, taking her cell phone from Spencer and tucking it away.

  “In ten minutes, me and Daisy are going through the front doors,” Spencer explained.

  “Okay.” Penny nodded. “Bernard and I will come in through the back, meet you in the hallway.”

  “No.” Spencer shook his head. “You two have to wait in the truck and watch out for the Pluggers.” The giant Extension Toxites were probably still behind. But Spencer didn’t know how long it would take the Pluggers to travel from New Forest Academy, and he didn’t want to be taken by surprise again.

  “I’m not sending you in there alone!” Penny clearly didn’t want to miss out on the action.

  “We belong in there!” Spencer said. “We’re kids. It’s the middle of the school day. If you and Bernard go in armed, the office staff will be all over you.” Spencer took a deep breath. “We’re going to do this the old-fashioned way. Just me and Daisy, some latex gloves, and a food fight.”

  “Where are we going to get the food?” Daisy asked.

  “That’s Aaron’s job. He’ll be in the cafeteria.” Spencer clapped his hands. “We’re losing time. Let’s go.”

  In a moment everyone was standing on the sidewalk next to the garbage truck. Bernard didn’t have much to say about the plan, but Penny was spewing precautions and safety tips.

  Even though Spencer wanted to go unarmed, Penny filled their pockets with vacuum dust. She produced two latex gloves from a pouch on her Glopified janitorial belt. Spencer and Daisy felt significantly safer as they pulled them on. As long as they each wore a glove, no one would be able to catch them.

  “Give me your coats,” Bernard said. When the kids hesitated, Bernard explained, “You don’t want to look like you just blew in from Kansas.”

  “But we are in Kansas,” Daisy said.

  Bernard beckoned for the coats again, and Spencer and Daisy handed them over.

  “Wait!” Daisy suddenly seemed to remember something important. She clambered into the garbage truck, and Spencer saw her reaching behind the seat for a moment. When she emerged from the cab, an old familiar friend dangled in Daisy’s grasp.

  It was Mrs. Natcher’s hall pass, Baybee.

  “You brought Baybee?” Spencer raised an eyebrow.

  “I put her in the duffel bag,” Daisy said. “I couldn’t leave her behind! What if something happened to her?” Daisy tucked Baybee under one arm. “Besides, if we’re going to go wandering through the halls of Triton Charter School, then we’d better have a hall pass.”

  Spencer rolled his eyes. “It doesn’t really work like that. Baybee isn’t exactly a universal hall pass. Outside of Welcher Elementary, she’s just a doll.”

  Daisy’s forehead wrinkled as she contemplated this. But it was Penny who cut in.

  “Actually, I think it’s a good idea.” Penny reached into her belt. “It’s one more way to sneak in some weaponry.” She snatched Baybee and turned the plastic doll upside down. With a swift jerk, Penny pulled down the diaper. Spencer looked away, embarrassed. Daisy gasped.

  A razorblade sword extended from Penny’s other hand. Before anyone could stop her, she spun the blade around and sliced a gash in the doll’s bottom.

  “Penny!” Daisy was distraught. “That’s toy torture!”

  Penny closed the razorblade and dropped it back into her belt. At the same time, she withdrew a chalkboard eraser. Lining it up, Penny gave a push, sliding the dangerous eraser through Baybee’s bum and out of sight. Then she pulled the diaper over the cut and handed the doll back to Daisy.

  “If things go wrong in there, just pull out the eraser and detonate it,” Penny said.

  “I’m not pulling anything out of Baybee’s diaper!” Spencer made a disgusted face.

  Daisy held the doll protectively, as though Penny might grab Baybee and start slicing again. Bernard pulled a pocket watch from his charred overalls.

  “Lunchtime,” the garbologist said. “Better get going. And may the force be with you.”

  “Force?” Daisy said. “What force?”

  “Haven’t you seen Star Wars?” asked Bernard.

  Daisy shook her head. “Too scary for me. I don’t like outer space.”

  “For someone who doesn’t like outer space,” Bernard said, “you sure seem to spend a lot of time there.”

  “Come on!” Spencer said, pulling Daisy away before she had a chance to figure out what Bernard meant. The kids jogged to the front of the school while Bernard and Penny climbed back in the garbage truck.

  “Stay close,” Spencer said as he pulled open the school doors. They slipped inside, grateful for the warmth on their bare arms. Luckily, the secretary was distracted, and they sneaked past the front office with no trouble.
Spencer turned left and headed down a long hallway.

  The resonant rowdiness of the cafeteria was behind them. Spencer hoped that Aaron already had a mess going so the janitor would be gone by the time he and Daisy reached the maintenance closet.

  “And where are you two headed?”

  Spencer froze, Daisy bumping into him as a teacher’s voice sounded behind them. He turned to face the speaker as she strode toward them. She was a sharply dressed black lady, about his mom’s age.

  “Think you can ditch out on lunch duty?” the woman said.

  “It’s okay,” Spencer said, trying to keep composed. “We’re in Ms. Bellingham’s class.”

  “And we have a hall pass!” Daisy held out Baybee by one arm.

  The lady put her hands on her hips. “Looks like we got a couple of smart alecks.”

  “No, really,” Spencer said. “You can ask Ms. Bellingham.”

  The woman’s face tightened. “I am Ms. Bellingham.”

  A lump formed in Spencer’s throat as his eyes strayed to the name tag on a lanyard around her neck.

  Ms. Julia Bellingham.

  “Oops,” Daisy said.

  “The way I see it, you have two options,” Ms. Bellingham said. “We can either take a trip to the principal’s office, or you can go back to lunch duty.”

  Spencer could think of a third option—to run. But that would most likely lead to a chase, and then they would never have time to rescue Walter.

  “But we’re not on lunch duty!” Daisy said.

  “Then how do you explain this?” Ms. Bellingham reached out and grabbed Spencer’s arm. She held up his hand, sweaty under the Glopified latex glove. Spencer could have easily slid through her grasp, but he didn’t want to raise suspicion.

  “Everyone takes a turn on lunch duty,” the teacher said. “So let’s head on back to the kitchen and do your part.”

  Min’s only advice had been to stay away from the cafeteria. But as Ms. Bellingham pulled the two kids down the hallway, Spencer realized that the plan was about to change.

  Chapter 13

  “We won’t forget this.”

  The lunch lady was a man. He was burly and greasy, with gray chest hair sprouting out the top of his shirt. He acknowledged Spencer and Daisy with a wave of his rolling pin as Ms. Bellingham motioned them into the kitchen.

  “What do you think we have to do?” Daisy whispered as the kitchen door closed behind them. “We don’t have lunch duty at Welcher Elementary.”

  “We’re supposed to help serve lunch,” Spencer said. “I had to do this at my old school.” There were four other kids in the kitchen. They stood at the serving counter, handing food under the plastic sneeze guard to their classmates.

  “HAIRNETS!” the lunch man yelled. Daisy jumped as he slammed his rolling pin onto the countertop. In three steps the big man was looming over them with a hairnet and apron in each hand.

  Daisy had some trouble trapping her thick braid under the hairnet, but in a moment, she and Spencer were ready for lunch duty.

  The lunch man pointed one hairy finger at Spencer and shouted, “SPAGHETTI!” Then he turned to Daisy. “MEATBALLS!” Then he lumbered back to the rolling pin, as if his one-word instructions were sufficient.

  Daisy had threaded her apron strings under Baybee’s arms so the doll dangled at her waist. “Come on, spaghetti man.” She strode past Spencer and approached a steaming vat of meatballs at the counter. Spencer was at her side, and before they knew it, they were serving spaghetti and meatballs to the students of Triton Charter School.

  Between each serving, Spencer stole a glance into the cafeteria. The students were pretty rowdy, but food wasn’t flying yet. The rambunctious behavior made sense as Spencer caught sight of six or seven little Toxites skittering around the cafeteria. The presence of the creatures was more evidence that the temporary janitor at Triton Charter was working for the BEM. A Rebel school would have had those Toxites under control.

  In a way, the creatures would be helpful today. The Toxites in the cafeteria would make the students far more likely to join in the food fight.

  But Spencer grimaced. Why hadn’t the fight started yet? For a moment, Spencer wondered if Aaron had chickened out. If he didn’t make a mess soon, the BEM janitor would never leave the maintenance closet. Spencer mindlessly served spaghetti as he scanned the tables for his Monitor friend.

  “No way!” said one of the students as a few noodles slipped off the side of his tray. Spencer’s attention turned back to his serving. Standing on the other side of the plastic sneeze guard was Aaron.

  “There you are!” Spencer said.

  “I got held up in class,” Aaron said. “Had to finish a writing assignment.”

  “Make sure to get extra sauce and meatballs,” Spencer said, ladling a second serving of noodles onto his tray.

  “But I really wanted pizza today,” Aaron said, glancing down the line to the students serving pepperoni pizza. He shook his head. “I don’t know if I can do this, Spencer.”

  “Of course you can,” Spencer urged. “All you have to do is get somebody to throw back at you. In a couple of minutes the place will be a mess and no one will remember who started it.”

  “What if nobody throws back? What if I’m the only one?” He was shaking. “I’ll get suspended! Banned from the cafeteria!”

  “They’ll throw,” Spencer promised. “Everyone’s looking for an excuse to start a food fight.” Spencer leaned forward. “You know how important this is, Aaron! Remember New Forest Academy? Remember what they did to us there?”

  Aaron nodded. Wordlessly he slid his tray along, accepting extra sauce and meatballs from Daisy. Spencer watched him stop at the salad bar, heaping lettuce and tomatoes onto the corner of his tray. Aaron glanced toward the kitchen one last time. Spencer caught his eye and gave a silent nod of encouragement.

  Aaron suddenly whirled around, lifting the tray above his head and flinging his lunch into the air. It was an excellent spread, showering more than half of the tables with red sauce, meatballs, and spaghetti noodles.

  The cafeteria fell silent. Students turned in their seats, expressions of shock and disbelief on their faces. Aaron lowered his tray and backed up to the salad bar.

  “Come on, throw something back,” Spencer muttered under his breath. “Somebody throw something . . .”

  There was a war cry at Spencer’s side. He turned to see Daisy leap across the kitchen counter, duck under the sneeze guard, and hurl a handful of meatballs at the back of Aaron’s head. Her aim was mostly off, sending three of the meatballs splattering onto the table by the salad bar.

  Then, with the rowdiness of school lunch and a haze of Toxite breath in the cafeteria, a full-scale food fight broke loose.

  A flying fruit cup hit Daisy in the shoulder, flinging pineapple chunks into her ear. A piece of pizza struck Aaron in the chest, and he went down under the salad bar. Somebody’s steamed broccoli hit the ceiling, while the corner table was caught in an onslaught of stringy spaghetti.

  “CAFETERIA!” the burly lunch man roared. He raced from the back of the kitchen, brandishing his rolling pin. Spencer couldn’t let the lunch man break up the food fight. Not when it had just started getting good!

  Spencer grabbed the huge pot of red sauce. Heaving it off the serving counter, he knocked it to the kitchen floor, covering the tiles in Ragu. The lunch man slipped in the sauce and went down, rolling pin flying out of his hand. His momentum carried him across the kitchen and smashed him into the serving counter. The force of impact tipped the pot of noodles.

  “SPAGHETTI!” yelled the lunch man as fifteen pounds of wet noodles landed on his head. Instantly, two of the lunch duty students were onto Spencer. They grabbed his arms, trying to pull him down. But Spencer’s latex glove was not a normal lunch duty glove. He slipped out of their grasp like Jell-O.

  The kitchen was no longer safe. And even though the cafeteria was a virtual war zone, Spencer decided to take his chances out there. He do
ve across the serving counter, grabbing the vat of meatballs as he slid under the sneeze guard.

  Spencer had thrown at least a dozen meatballs when a piece of pizza slapped him in the face. Before he could recover, the vat was swiped away by another student, forcing Spencer to retreat.

  He slid through fruit juice and ducked under the salad bar. Daisy was hunkered low, a couple of olives in each hand. Her head was covered in Ragu. Reddish noodles wrapped around her neck like an edible scarf.

  Aaron was next to her, one eye squinted shut, Thousand Island dressing oozing down his face. He had half a banana in one hand and some steamed broccoli in the other.

  “I’m really starting to wonder if this was a bad idea,” Aaron said to Spencer as a lunch tray clattered to the floor next to him.

  “Take it up with the president of the Monitors,” Spencer said, dodging a cucumber slice. “This was Min’s planning.”

  “I don’t know how much longer we can hold out!” Aaron hurled his broccoli like green grenades. “You guys should get out of here while you still can!”

  “Not until that janitor shows up!” said Spencer.

  “Is that her?” Daisy pointed across the chaos of the cafeteria. A lean woman in blue coveralls was rolling a cleaning machine into the lunchroom.

  “That’s her!” Aaron shouted. “Now go! I’ll cover you!”

  “Thanks, man,” Spencer said. “We won’t forget this.” Spencer slid out from under the salad bar just in time to see a big pair of sneakers tromping forward.

  “SALAD BAR!” roared the lunch man.

  “Not you again!” Spencer reached into the salad bar and grabbed a bottle of dressing. Squeezing with all his might, he sent a stream of white shooting from the bottle and into the lunch man’s face.

  “DRESSING!” He blundered, trying to wipe his eyes. At the same time, Aaron pitched his half banana under the big guy’s foot. The lunch man toppled with a grunt.

  “Is he okay?” Daisy asked, scooting out from under the salad bar.

  “I bleu cheesed him!” Spencer said, throwing down the empty bottle of salad dressing.

  Spencer and Daisy sprinted across the filthy cafeteria. Teachers and staff were everywhere, getting caught in the crossfire as they tried to break up the massive food fight. Twice, teachers reached out for Spencer and Daisy, but the Glopified latex gloves made them uncatchable.

 
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