Chapter OneFRUSTRATIONS GONE WILD
The air grew ripe with the smell of a silent but deadly fart. Sam Digby knew instantly whom to blame. He shot a glare at his best friend.
"What? Don't give me that look," Zach whispered.
"What's with you? You've been dropping air biscuits all day. I heard how you cleared the room in sixth period French."
"I can't help it. I had burritos last night. You know what they do to me. Now shut up. Mr. Bad Toupee is looking this way. If he catches us talking, we're hosed."
"I know. Just tell your butt to be quiet. I can't take much more." Sam turned away and zipped his mouth shut. Their civics teacher, Mr. Hancock, didn't think twice about handing out detention to students caught talking or not paying attention in class. The school year wasn't even a quarter of the way over and already nine of his classmates had received the little pink slips. He had no desire to get one. School was boring enough as is; getting more of it would be just plain idiotic. This day was, thankfully, almost over. All he needed was for the final ten minutes to tick by, and he would be both weekend-bound and, more importantly, detention-free for another week. He could certainly pay attention that long. He only hoped Zach's butthole would stay quiet.
As it turned out, it didn't. Finally, the school bell gave the familiar three dings signaling the end of the day. Sam stuffed his textbook into his backpack and gave another glare toward Zach. The pair tucked in behind Lester Thompson's fat butt and headed for the door.
"Mr. Digby. Mr. Crunkert. Not so fast ..."
"Aw, man. We almost made it, Z." They turned to face their less-than-favorite teacher.
"So, Mr. Hancock. What's up?" asked Zach.
"I have one word for you, Mr. Crunkert: Beano. They sell it at the grocery store. I suggest you use it."
"Yeah, sorry. Won't happen again."
"I hope not. Good afternoon, Mr. Crunkert."
"Oh, right. I'll wait for you by the bus, Sam." Zach headed for the door.
"Now then, Mr. Digby, I should congratulate you. You successfully managed to not pay attention for five consecutive days. That has to be record."
"Sorry, Mr. H. I've been tired lately. You know, up late studying and stuff. Us freshmen gotta think about our future." Lying was not one of his best abilities, but if it got him out of detention and kept him from being grounded for the weekend, it was worth it.
"Uh-huh. Well, if that's truly the case, then how about telling me about Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg? Give me the principal parties involved and what significance it played in the overall battle."
Sam gave a quick glimpse at the clock. "Normally, I'd jump all over that, but there's not enough time. I've got a bus to catch. Besides, Zach's butt fumes gave me a headache. I can't concentrate on anything right now."
"Fine. Then I guess I'll see you after school on Monday for detention. Two days ought to do it, don't you think? I'll let Principal Newman know of our arrangement." Mr. Hancock took a pink pad out of his desk drawer and scribbled a few words onto it. He tore off the top sheet and handed it to Sam. "Be sure to give this to a parent and have them sign it for Monday. You'll have to be picked up late."
"Gee, thanks. And I didn't get you anything." Sam took the piece of paper.
"Mr. Digby, I don't normally give out this lecture so early in the school year, but I fear you are headed down a very dangerous path. The ninth grade is difficult as is; by not paying attention, you are only making it tougher. If you're having problems adjusting to high school, perhaps the school guidance counselors can offer you some assistance."
"No, I'm good. I'm just tired. I'll do better." Sam stuffed the note into his pocket. "See ya Monday." He headed out the door and made a beeline for the bus. Zach's skinny, blond-haired body was waiting for him by the bus door.
"Dude, you totally got busted. So are you and Mr. Hancock going to be spending more time together?"
"Yeah. He gave me two days."
"Two days? Ouch. Sucks to be you." The pair climbed the steps to the bus and sat in their customary seat. "So is this gonna hurt our plans for the weekend? Your birthday is tomorrow, in case you forgot."
"No, you don't say. Really?"
"Shut up. I'm serious."
"It better not. My dad knows I've been waiting for this weekend."
"I still say you're lucky. I had to save my allowance to get a new PS3, but you're getting one for your birthday. That's just awesome."
"I just hope that one of my friends gets me the new Call of Duty game—hint, hint."
"I'm on it. Don't worry. You just act surprised. So what are you gonna tell your dad?"
"The truth, I guess. Maybe that'll score me some points. All I know is that this is total bull. Like I was the only one slacking off. Anthony Marinelli was practically snoring, and nothing was said to him."
"Yeah, well, Anthony Marinelli is also on the soccer team. And you know who coaches that."
The pair stated in unison: "Mr. Hancock."
"Thank God it's Friday, Zach. I need a break from this place." After waiting for the last of the neighborhood idiots to board the bus, Sam finally got his wish and headed for home. The bus ride from school was his favorite part of the entire day. Not only did he get to talk uninterrupted with his friends without having to worry about school, but he also got to sit directly across from Jennifer Peterson. Girls used to be something to throw spitballs at, but not anymore. Jennifer was a sixteen-year-old goddess of epic proportions—a total hottie. Life was way more interesting with her brown curly hair and awesome figure sitting across the aisle. Every time he saw her, his heart skipped a beat, his armpits got all sweaty, and his you-know-what played peekaboo with his underwear. Unfortunately, she had only two interests: Taylor Lautner and jocks. He was pretty sure he wasn't the first, but since she had yet to see his awesomeness at Wii Sports, there was hope. It was only a matter of time before she noticed his coolness—or at least he hoped it was.
"Dude, stop staring," said Zach. "Just go talk to her."
"Nah. Not right now. I'm working up to it."
"You've been working up to it ever since school started," said a squeaky voice from the seat in front.
"So? What's it to you, Lenny? At least I'm trying. Go back and suck on your inhaler."
"Oh, sure—make fun of the asthmatic." Lenny popped his head up and put his elbows on the back of his seat. "It's not my fault I can't breathe. I was born with a genetic abnormality."
"Dude, I've known you since, like, kindergarten. Why is it you only need your inhaler when girls are around? The only 'genetic abnormality' you have is a case of bad nerves."
"Don't forget irritable bowel and bad vision too, Sam."
"That's right. Good call." Sam and Zach exchanged high fives (an obvious sign of teenage coolness).
"I can't help it. They get me all excited." Lenny pushed his glasses up and collapsed into his seat. He took another puff from his inhaler. "I swear ... these high school girls are gonna be the death of me."
"Whatever. Anyway, Sam, we gotta make sure your router and modem are working. That way we won't have any delays when we hook up the PS3 tomorrow. We're gonna need to access the PlayStation Network and download the new interactive maps. What time can we hook up later?"
"Umm, not sure. I have karate at five. Probably gonna have to wait."
"I thought you had your lessons on Monday and Wednesday. Since when are they on Friday?"
"Dude, where have you been? My lessons have been every day of the week since March." He wiped his brown hair out of his eyes. "I wasn't advancing like I was supposed to be. Apparently, I'm still not, 'cause Master Narita is constantly tellin' me, 'Oh, Samuel-san, you not concentrating. You so far behind. You still too pudgy.' I know my dad wants me to get a hobby, but this is bogus."
"I think I'll start calling you the Karate Kid."
"That's what I feel like. My dad's gonna flip when he hears about detention. It's gonna interfere with my lessons. Maybe I'll get lucky and he'll just cancel 'em."
"Well, I hope things go okay." The bus slowed. Zach grabbed his book bag and stood. "Text me later and let me know what happens."
"Will do. Don't forget Lenny. Is he still breathing up there?"
"I heard that, Sam. I hope you never develop breathing problems. See how you like it."
Zach grabbed Lenny by the strap on his backpack. "Come on, inhaler boy. You can hang out at my house till your dad gets home. I think there's leftover pizza in the fridge. Later, Sam."
"Later, guys." Sam bent over to retie his Sketchers while the bus cruised to the next and final stop. He waited for Jennifer to stand and then joined in behind her. Today was a good day. She was wearing skinny jeans and a tight pink sweater. His insides were screaming yum, yum, yum, but that probably wasn't the best thing to say aloud.
As he headed for home, Sam felt it again—that nervous, stomach-turning sensation that plagued him for months. The cause of such feeling was twofold: his dad's desire to hound him about his every move, and the ever-constant feeling of being watched. He hoped just once his dad would cancel his lessons or ease up a little, not so he didn't have to learn karate, but because it would signify a change and perhaps that change would also mean the end to the prying-eyes feeling. Unfortunately, he never got so lucky.
Sam never told anyone about these new developments. Sure, he made fun of his dad and had a few laughs about his overprotective ways, but he never told others. He couldn't tell others about the real fear lurking inside his chest. It wasn't the cool thing to do. How exactly do you tell your friends this and not open yourself up for attack? It's not like he could just slide it into conversation. "Hey you're right guys, Cosmo's Pizza is the best, and oh, by the way, I think I'm being watched." No matter how he sliced it, the words just didn't fit. Besides, he never saw anybody directly; maybe his paranoia was off base. But then why the feeling every time he stepped outside? Why did he feel like a thousand invisible eyes were focused on him? A few times, while cutting the grass over the summer, he swore he saw people staring. When he looked up, nobody was there. Maybe they were never there to begin with? Once, when he took the trash out, he thought he heard his name called, a whisper riding the cold wind. He saw no one. The cul-de-sac was empty, only the glare from the various streetlights was visible. Was he going insane? Did he dare tell his friends and dad about this? He somehow knew the answer without having to say it. No way.
Sam rounded the corner onto Bohr Street and walked across his front lawn toward the porch. Just like previous days, his dad had left work early and was sitting on the steps waiting for him. Here we go again.
"How was school? Learn anything good?"
Sam said nothing. He just handed his dad the note.
"Just read it. And don't go nuts."
"I make no promises." His dad read the note. "Detention? Sam, what did you do?"
"Nothing. Zach was farting in civics class and distracted me."
"Really, Sam?" His dad glared at him with wide eyes.
"Okay, fine. I wasn't exactly paying attention either. But I wasn't the only one. I think Mr. Hancock has it out for me." Sam two-stepped his way onto the porch and pushed through the front door. He just wanted to go to his room.
"Don't turn your back on me, Sam. School is for learning, not goofing off."
"Thanks for the tip. Like I didn't know that." He headed upstairs.
"Don't get smart with me. Get down here. We're not done discussing this."
"What now?" Sam followed his dad into the living room and sat on the couch.
"I don't know. You tell me. Something obviously is going on."
"C'mon, Dad. Leave it alone. It's only one detention. Okay, technically it's two, but it's one occurrence. You're freaking out over nothing. It's not gonna happen again."
"Yeah. You're gonna have to pick me up late from school on Monday and Tuesday. I don't know what you wanna do about karate."
"I talk to Master Narita tonight and see what he recommends. Look, Sam, I've notice how preoccupied you've been lately too. You're going through a difficult period right now. Girls are now way more interesting, your body is changing, hormones are raging—"
"Dad, please stop."
"I'm just saying that I know things are hard. You're not in middle school anymore. You went from being the top class to the lowest all within one year. It's tough. I know what you're going through."
"Somehow I don't think you do."
"I wouldn't be so sure. Try me."
"Maybe another time."
"Sam, talk to me. It's the karate, isn't it? I know, it's not your thing. You'd rather do something else. I get that. It's taking time away from your friends, and you're upset. Right?"
"That's partly it. It's not like I enjoy getting my butt kicked by smelly, sweaty idiots for an hour. I can think of, like, a thousand other things I'd rather do."
"Point taken. But I've already paid for the entire year. Finish out this year, and then we'll see. Personally, I think you should give it more of an effort. Martial arts build strength and confidence. Master Narita says so."
"I hate to break it to you, but being a coward is far easier."
"Enough with the sarcasm, Sam. Now head upstairs and change. We'll stop and grab dinner on the way."
"Fine. I'm done here anyway." Sam wasn't in the mood to discuss things further. It wasn't like it made a difference anyway. His dad rarely changed his mind or agreed with him. In his fourteen years of existence, he could only remember one time when his dad actually saw things the same way, and that was over the fact that Charmin toilet paper was way easier on your butt than the cheap dollar store stuff. His dad was never gonna see things his way this time. He grabbed his karate uniform from his bedroom floor and gave it a quick sniff and shake to make sure it wasn't too ripe and that all the Doritos were removed. After a few figure eights in the toilet and a quick change, he headed downstairs for what was sure to be another fun-filled evening—not.
Chapter TwoMEMORIES AND MAGIC
A bottle of perfume that smelled like oranges and a sandwich bag containing a dried purple flower—these were all the belongings Sam had of his mom. He knew of only one other person raised in a single-parent home (Lenny), and he couldn't ignore how their lives differed. Lenny at least knew his mom, and had Christmas and other holidays with her. The every-other-weekend visits appeared to give his life some normality. Not for Sam though. Fourteen—and soon fifteen—birthdays passed, and nothing ever appeared in the mailbox. The phone never rang to offer congratulations or even a quick, "Hi, sorry I couldn't be there. Your present is on its way." What happened to her? Why doesn't she at least write or even call? Does she even care about me?
Sam thought about these questions over and over again, but never came to any conclusions. He could tell his dad missed her. The fact that he never gave a good answer when asked about her, and quickly changed the topic was proof to that. And then there were the sneaking glimpses he caught of him smelling the perfume and smiling as if he was remembering and still experiencing the greatest joy ever known. When Sam put the two together, the evidence was overwhelming. But still, he couldn't make his dad talk about her if he didn't want to. Some emotions are just too painful to discuss. Even though it made him angry, he was going to have to stick with staring at the flower and sniffing the perfume in solitude as a way to keep her existence alive.
Sam reburied the perfume bottle in his underwear drawer and stuffed the baggie back between the ripped pages of The Lightning Thief. He changed into a sweatshirt and a semiclean pair of jeans from the floor and started down the stairs; the unmistakable raspy voice of Mrs. O'Malley forced him to stop. Hearing her meant two things: she still smoked way too much, and he had been left with a babysitter. His overall good mood changed to one of plain suckiness. It wasn't that she was mean or anything—more like old, way too boring, and completely unable to grasp anything that he ever said.
He was about to head down to try and convince her that Cap'n Crunch was a perfectly nutritious breakfast when he heard another voice—a much deeper, manlier voice. It wasn't his dad's. He was sure of that. Whoever it was, he wasn't happy and was making Mrs. O'Malley aware of his feelings. Sam couldn't help but sit on the top step and eavesdrop.