Ingrid Levin-Hill sat in math class, her mind wandering pleasantly. She had the best seat in the house -- very back of the outside row by the windows, about as far as could be from the teacher, Ms. Groome. Ferrand Middle School stood on a hill overlooking the river, about a mile upstream from the falls. There was always something interesting to see on the river, especially if you were in the habit of noticing little details. Little details like how the water ruffled up as it flowed around a rock, and a big black bird drifting on the current, wings tucked under its chin, and --
"Ingrid? I trust I have your attention?"
Ingrid whipped around. Ms. Groome was watching her through narrowed eyes, and her eyes were narrow to begin with.
"One hundred percent," said Ingrid, in the faint hope of pacifying Ms. Groome with math talk.
"Then I'm sure you're excited about MathFest."
MathFest? What was Ms. Groome talking about? The word didn't even make sense, one of those contradictions in terms.
"Very excited," said Ingrid.
"Just in case Ingrid happened to miss any of this," said Ms. Groome, "who wants to sum up MathFest?"
No one did.
"Bruce?" said Ms. Groome.
Brucie Berman, middle row, front seat, class clown. His leg was doing that twitchy thing.
"MathFest be my guest," said Brucie.
"I beg your pardon?"
Brucie tried to look innocent, but he'd been born with a guilty face. "Three lucky kids from this class get to go to MathFest," he said.
"And MathFest is?"
"This big fat fun math blowout they're having tomorrow," said Brucie.
"Not tomorrow," said Ms. Groome. "Saturday morning, eight thirty, at the high school."
"Even better," said Brucie.
Ms. Groome pursed her lips, totally focused now on Brucie. There was lots to be said for having Brucie in class. Ingrid tuned out, just in time to catch that big black bird disappear around a bend in the river. No way this had anything to do with her, no way she'd be one of the chosen three. She shouldn't even have been in this section, Algebra Two. There were four math classes in eighth grade -- Algebra One for the geniuses, Algebra Two for good math students who didn't rise to the genius level, Pre-Algebra, where Ingrid should have been and would have been happily, if her parents hadn't crawled on their knees to Ms. Groome, and Math One, formerly remedial math, for the kids out on parole.
Math blowouts on Saturday morning. Who thinks these things up? Grown-ups, of course, the kind with a sense of humor like that warden in Escape from Alcatraz. Ingrid was half aware of Ms. Groome scrawling long chains of numbers on the blackboard, all dim and fuzzy. She wrote a note -- What's the word for stuff like giant midget or MathFest? -- balled it up, and tossed it discreetly over to Mia's desk across the aisle. Mia was the smartest kid in the class, should have been in Algebra One, but she and her mom had moved from New York last year and the school had messed up.
Mia flattened out the note, read it, wrote an answer. The sun, one of those little fall suns, more silver than gold, shone on Mia's hand -- her fingers, skin, everything about her, so delicate. She rolled the note back up, flicked it underhanded across the aisle. Ingrid reached for it, but all at once, so sudden she wasn't sure for a moment that it had really happened, another hand darted into the picture and snatched the note out of the air. Nothing delicate about this hand, skin scaly, knuckles all swollen.
"What could be so important?" said Ms. Groome, unfolding the note. "I'm dying to find out." The sun glared off fingerprints on her glasses, hiding her eyes. She read the note, stuck it in her pocket, returned to the front of the class. Her mouth opened, just a thin sharklike slit. Some withering remark was on the way, but at that very moment, like a message from above, the bell rang.
Class over! Saved by the bell! Chairs started scraping all over the room as the kids got up. Hubbub, and lots of it. Thanksgiving couldn't come soon enough.
"Just a second," said Ms. Groome, not so much raising her voice over the bedlam as cutting through it like an ice pick. Everyone froze. "We still haven't chosen our MathFest team."
Brucie raised his hand.
"Thank you, Bruce. Congratulations."
"Oh, no," said Brucie. "Wait. I was just going to say let's do it tomorrow."
Ms. Groome didn't seem to hear. "Any volunteers for the other two spots?"
There were none.
"Then the pleasure will be mine," said Ms. Groome. She smiled, if smiling meant the corners of the mouth twisting up and teeth making a brief appearance. "Mia. Ingrid. Everybody wish our team good luck."
"Go team," said everybody, in a great mood because it wasn't them.
"But wait," said Brucie.
"I could get sick," Brucie said on the bus ride home.
"What if I forged a note?" Brucie said. "With Adobe Photoshop I could make it look like a doctor's -- "
"Zip it, guy," said the driver, Mr. Sidney, his Battle of the Coral Sea cap slanted low over his eyes, like a ship captain in rough seas. Brucie zipped it; the other choice was walking the rest of the way, as Brucie had learned on the first day of school last year and then had to relearn again just last week. Mr. Sidney stopped in front of Ingrid's house.
"See you, petunia," he said. Girls were petunia to Mr. Sidney, guys guy. Things must have been a lot different when he was growing up.
Ingrid stepped off the bus, started up the brick path to her house. Ninety-nine Maple Lane was the only place she'd ever lived. Not the biggest, newest, or fanciest house in the neighborhood, Riverbend, but there were lots of good things about it. . . .