CHAPTER 1 .:. KING AND LIONHEART
Taking over this town; they should worry ... His crown lit up the way as we moved slowly
Oh, wow. Okay, hey, no. Is that what we're doing now? Fumbling our insults? I totally hear that it's the end of the school year and you're hitting an Alaskan cruise for most of June, but are you even trying anymore? Three perfect set-ups in a row, and she left me hanging- Who does that? Only to whiplash me with her index finger between my eyes, demanding to know if she could "paushe our engrosshing lesshon and shnap a pictshure of Munroe sho it can be pashted in the dictshionary beshide the definitshon for a-'lively'". And this when I'd done nothing more than shlip—I mean slip—to my feet so I could give my legs a little stretch.
Not that we'd even had much of a lesson for the past twenty-five minutes. Nope. We had Ms. Flap, perched between a canyon of ungraded papers on the edge of her desk… while she stitched actual mouse fur to the mouse pad of her computer. Oh boy. Whenever she glanced up at us, she'd either list off the birthplace of a few Canadian prime ministers, or name birds in reverse alphabetical order according to color. Or she'd share with us her all-time favorite subject: actual rocket science. Yeah, her Ohio state studies class is a nice breather in the middle of the day since I have her right before lunch this year, but after awhile, the routine really wears on ya.
Anyway, Ms. Flap checked in with the class for the first time in a bit when Amanda called every eye in the room on me. Her sewing needle went between her teeth. And then, I think, under her tongue as she aimed a finger gun our way and said, "Well, I don't know about that, Little Miss Peaches. Can you? Or is it 'May you'? You know, I've never been quite sure how the legal system behind that phrase works out when it's March. So, I guess you can. Oh dear, now I'm doing it."
Lively. Amanda picked lively. Was that even a real zinger? It's not even clever. Like- Like- All she did was call up the most generic redhead stereotype in the book! That's… cheap.
She knew it, too– don't tell me she didn't. When we locked eyes, Amanda's were so glazed over, their color fell somewhere in the wedding of olive and mud. Her snaggletoothed grin, glinting with silver braces like crooked white rocks standing next to some gray turtles who were supposed to push the rocks in straight rows and not doing a very good job of it, said this was all part of her morning's evil scheme. Today, annoy Mikey. Tomorrow, drown the world's population in warm, bubbly spit.
Note to self: In the future, abort internal monologues before they get super gross.
Frankly, her halfhearted attempt at insulting me was very insulting, and totally out of character from her usual loathing terror care. And I was totally going to fire something back at her too. It was either that her face belonged in the dictionary next to 'water recycling plant' or 'squirt gun'; I hadn't decided yet. But this time, she just got off easy because The Announcement cut me off with a bzzzt when I shaped the first syllable on my tongue.
"Ms. Flap, send Michael Munroe down to the principal's office at your convenience" ("Hey Mikey, apparently they want to see you down at the Push and Pull Mart for whatever reason. Ooh, when you come back, slide me a pickles on rye and I'll award you extra credit, in addition to the credit I'll pin on you if our local truant officer catches you wandering around the Muckledunk streets").
"Euh, okay." Drat. The art of the insult is all about timing, plus my window of opportunity had just been squandered. I lowered my pointing finger, but leaned my hand on Amanda's desk and squinted as I passed her. She swiped at my ankle with her sharp heel. My big toe slammed a chair leg. Fine. Next time I was biking through town after a rainstorm, I'd make extra sure to splash through a mud puddle that would splatter her from pigtails and freckled cheeks to the hem of her new blue skirt.
When I made it to the door, I touched the handle, but then turned back around. "Ms. Flap? Is it possible to lose your pig ceremony privileges if you get in big enough trouble with the principal?"
She blinked so hard, her glasses almost fell off her nose. "Huh. Like most of the things I teach you little learners about, I have no actual point of reference. I guess it really just depends. The school can't stop you from turning twelve, but we can get you in pretty nasty trouble with the law. I sure hope you don't have a reason to worry about it!"
The intercom system beeped again, so we all looked up. "Ms. Flap, change of plans. Send down Michael Munroe– Now."
Ah, such a simple phrase. My mouth quirked in one corner. Y'know, excitement really does lend wings to one's feet. Was I being summoned to discuss the 'Welcome back from winter break' decorations our committee had never taken down from the south hall, or because last Friday, Amazing Eric and I had flipped everyone's backpacks inside out during lunch and locked them shut with a couple of zip ties each? Or was this about yesterday, when Bobby and I'd handed broccoli disguised in candy wrappers out to the visiting elementary school kids?
Elementary kids… and one chubby five-year-old who'd slipped in with a notebook and judgy blue eyes. You know– on the same day her sister paid me sixty bucks to disable the high school security systems and fiddle with a couple of grades. No biggie. I knew I shouldn't have given her that lollipop. Snitch. Hey, had she ratted me out? If I ended up the only one in Muckledunk to ever, ever miss his pig ceremony, I'd be spending the rest of my social life with garbage cans and dead squirrels.
Ooh! Better reason to call me down to the office! After two weeks of me dropping hints, was Principal Freshwater going to personally apologize for the school spelling my last name wrong on the five-minute mile board outside the gym? Hey, nobody knows. Every visit's a mystery! Mysteries are fun.
At least, more fun than the class I was leaving behind, so I couldn't help but pump my fist when I stepped into the hall and the door swung shut behind me. Don't get me wrong– I love Ms. Flap more than most of the eight or nine teachers at Muckledunk Middle. She's distractible, but she really knows a lot when it comes to stuff she's passionate about (Once, I heard her work chicken cordon bleu, the triangular trade, and astrology into the same conversation as bat migration routes). Oh, and because she gets that I have dyslexia and stuff, she never takes off too many points when my spelling is bad. That's really nice.
But, her quirky unpredictability made her pretty predictable after a trimester or two. We never get a lot done. Frankly? I- I could use a couple pop quizzes to keep me on my toes. That'd be great. Pop quizzes are just like free Christmas presents! Except you don't know when they're coming and then they make you sad. I don't get sad all that much. Everything in moderation.
I sipped from a drinking fountain, checked out a bright orange Annual Beast Hunt flyer hanging outside the main office, then smoothed the folds of my sweater vest and headed in. Except, when Maniac the mink snapped at my hand from his carrying crate, I kinda regretted adding more liquid to my body.
My elbow bashed the edge of Mrs. Wallop's desk when I jumped. I always jump. "In so early this spring, Munroe?" she asked, peering over her computer at me. Her red nails curled like a crocodile's paw around its upper corner. Her lips twisted too: Down. "After what I heard of last year's popcorn kernel incident from Principal Fowler, I thought we had until April at least before we caught you committing immature pranks on school grounds."
"Oh, no, haha. I've totally gone straight now that I'm in middle school, Mrs. W.! You can look, but you won't catch Mikey Munroe setting up even the glint of a tripwire. I'm a really good boy with a bright and sunny reputation to maintain if I want to impress the good folks at graduate school someday."
Emphasis on 'won't catch'."
Mrs. Wallop shook her head and waved me through to Principal Freshwater's office. I glanced again at the mink and sucked on my pinky; I swear his teeth grazed it, even if I couldn't taste any blood. He still wore his white winter coat even this late in the season, but patches of brown fur were leaking through like drops of paint. Creepy giant rat. The elementary's mascot had been a blue-footed booby.
I'd seen Principal Freshwater around the school before, but I'd never been inside his office much. Except for the blue swivel chairs and all the huge windows lining the left wall (You could see the bell tower steeple pointy thing on top of Darcy's house out there when the sky was clear), I didn't remember what the room looked like. I came in and found him squished behind his desk, with his body folded into a straining seat like a bristled clam. A white file folder rested in front of him at a crooked angle. He tapped a pen against his other palm.
Huh. He wasn't alone. The school's welcoming committee supervisor, Miss Lighthouse, sat on the low bookshelves under the windows with her hands in her lap, the two-fingered one resting on top of the artificial arm that had all four. 'Lighthouse' wasn't her real name, but she'd moved to America from some other country that I don't remember, and no one can really pronounce what her actual one is, I think. Or we made that up. When I moved towards Principal Freshwater's desk, I tried to study the giant cork board on the wall between them while pretending like I wasn't. According to Amanda's diary, some kids back in the 90s had carved away a secret tunnel into the office behind it– a tunnel that would let you spy on almost every room in the school from the gaps in the ceiling tiles. Sometimes she—Amanda, I mean—acted out on purpose just to get herself sent down so she could get a closer look. It's a good plan. Whoever controls the tunnel controls the blackmail.
Miss Lighthouse swiveled her shining gaze on me and beamed as I rolled out my chair and sat down. "Well, good morning, Mikey Munroe! Okay, settle and breathe. So I know you absolutely adore learning and you're having such an amazing time in Ms. Flap's class, and I'm sure you're very, very psyched for what might be the most thrilling summer adventure of your life, but this is super duper important and we just couldn't wait a day longer to tell you all about it, okay, pumpkin?"
That. That's where her nickname comes from.
"Oooh, it's such a shame you hate traveling beyond town as much as you do, bingo ball! You know, when I was your age, I was out running and climbing in the woods and swimming in the river just constantly. I recorded all my adventures and wrote a book. School is delightful, but the summer season is what really gets me drunk on living such a glorious life!"
With that, she punched the air. The arm that still had all its fingers was a prosthetic, and sometimes it freaks out when it moves too fast. This was one of those times. Principal Freshwater's globe flew off the bookshelf and crashed behind my chair. I winced, but didn't get up to look at it. Instead, I folded my [unbroken, unburned, untouched by insects, uncovered in poison ivy, free of snake bites, fully functional, very safe because I don't take them into the woods unprotected like a crazy person] arms and tried to find his pupils behind his milky glasses.
"Uh… Are we really getting a new student this late in the year? Sir?"
I didn't see any other reason for Miss Lighthouse to leave her classroom. I mean, I was just a fifth grader, lowest on the rungs of middle school, but everyone knew I'd be promoted from a mere member of our welcoming committee to its head next year. It was a win by default; one by one, the rest of the kids had told me flat-out to my face that they wouldn't be coming back.
… Come to think of it, I'd noticed most of them called down to meet with our principal a few days before telling me flat-out to my face that they wouldn't be coming back. In our last meeting, Miss Lighthouse and I had been the only ones to even show up.
I crossed my ankles as my toes curled in.
Principal Freshwater placed both hands on his desk and heaved himself from his chair. Well, he got up, at least. The seat stayed stuck to his, uh, lower half for an extra two seconds before it fell back on its wheels with a clatter. "That… is precisely what we called you down here to discuss today. Our new student will arrive at the end of September, six weeks into the school year. As you well know, Michael, I'm due to retire in a matter of months."
"Really? Weren't you supposed to retire in like, January? And the October before that? And the June before that? And the-"
He adjusted his striped tie with his fist until it reached an angle that said "Shut your yap, punk-to-be, before I transfer you into Coach Glutes' homeroom and obliterate all your chances at a successful future."
As a punk-to-be, I was thereby cowed into shutting my yap.
"Our humble school has been granted a… sufficient amount of funding to ensure our new transfer student feels as though we've actually put forth effort into making him feel accepted in our community. When I leave this job behind, I do not want to be remembered as the man who wiped our town off the map… and into a pit of gnashing teeth, roaring flames, and acid burns. As such, I want to see this exchange program pulled off without a hitch." While he was talking, Principal Freshwater oozed around the edge of his desk and brought his mouth near my nose. "Do you know what 'without a hitch' means, Michael?"
I squinted one eye to block his spittle from my cornea. My gaze darted to the picture frames lined up along the edge of his desk, but no one in the family photos screamed 'Killman material' to me, so I relaxed again. A little. "Uh… That this is a really huge and important job and you're asking me to do it because I handle stress well, I run three of our clubs, I'm like the only kid who still wants to be part of the welcoming committee next year, and you know I won't drop out because when I stay after school I get to use Miss Lighthouse's computer without the constant fear of my parents being able to tap into my browsing history and expose my innermost secrets behind my back?"
In my free time, I tap into people's security systems and jot the codes that work down for future reference. It only takes a few dozen tries, and I've lived here all eleven and a half years of my life. Not the kind of thing any kid wants to surrender to the loophole police.
Placing a hand over the headrest of my seat, Principal Freshwater leaned it all the way down until my back was almost parallel with the floor. His shoe stopped the feet from kicking too high. "It means that if you mess this up for us, Michael… it will be on your meaty head. And that's a lot of head."
"I can't say I entirely disagree, sir," I whispered through the reek of oysters and mayonnaise on his breath. Maybe now wasn't the best time to remind him my last name was spelled with a 'u' and not an 'o'.
"We knew you'd be thrilled to join in the fun, Mikey," Miss Lighthouse purred as he released my chair and my seat sprang forward again. I accidentally screamed and fumbled for the arms, but there weren't any and so my chest hit the lip of his desk. Hard. "Our little town was chosen from among dozens in the area to host the newest delightful member of the Muckledunk community!"
"S-so there's only one new student, huh?" I massaged two fingers over the base of my throat. "Okay, well, that doesn't sound too hard! I've been dreading the day I have to juggle twins."
"Mm, yes… I'm very glad to hear you think that, Michael. Because this strapping new student the state has dropped on our heads… is a Beast."
My mouth stopped breathing. Or technically my lungs stopped breathing… or maybe my brain did. My fingers went rigid under my chin. The sweat froze beneath my arms. The lunch bell rang, and crowds swelled outside in the hall. "Wuh… W-we're getting a what now?"
Principal Freshwater pushed the white folder across the desk until it bumped the twitching fingertips of my other hand. "Muckledunk Middle has been selected as the trial ground to bring the age-old joke, 'A Beast walked into the corner store' into reality… I don't pretend to understand the state's decision, but I'm not about to resign when I'm this close to retirement."
"A Beast," I repeated as the lower lid of my right eye twitched upwards. I put a finger from each hand behind my head. "So are they like the kind with razor horns"—my fingers moved to my mouth—"razor teeth, and razor claws that my ancestors were always shooting from the town's security tower back in the 1800s?" My dad and I are direct descendants of Muckledunk's most famous Beast hunter, Elias Muckle, and I still have one of his original Beast-pelt rugs on my bedroom floor. We use an antler as a can opener. And I always wear a necklace of claws when I play Elias in the kids' town founding day performance every year. But even with all of that… I dunno! I guess I never thought too hard about how the kids of all those other Beasts are totally real and still alive somewhere under my feet.
"That's the kind."
My thumbnails split a gash in his desk. I blinked through the sweat leaking down my forehead as my leg jiggled. "Are… you sure I'm the best kid for this job, Principal? What if the, uh, Beast finds out I'm a Muckle?"
"Oh, that's simple," Miss Lighthouse chirped. "If no one asks, don't tell. And if you are asked, then you just explain how you're a special and wonderful boy who is very different than his ancestors were. You got that, angel?"
Principal Freshwater rolled his eyes. "Just keep your family history books away from him and keep your big mouth shut. And that's assuming the kid can even read."
I scrunched lower in my seat. He took the file folder and shoved it into my hands again.
"The Beast boy is due to arrive in town this September. Although it appears he may be a full year older than you… we thought it best to enroll him in the classes of your grade level, since you are our welcoming committee representative." Thinking fast, I lifted the file as his finger swung around to poke through it at my cheek with every word. "Don't. Screw. This. Up."
"Y-y-yes. I mean, no. No, no, I won't, sir." When he grunted and stood back, I carefully opened the folder I'd been given.
So. Um. This was our Beast, then. A list had been taped to the left side with his birth date (Not yet translated into our human calendar), contact information (I'd never seen 'klawmail' before), and any known allergies (Swiss fondue was the only one listed). All the usual stuff, like what I'd seen when Swedish exchange student Jerk von Handsome had arrived earlier this year. Over on the right side of the file, Mrs. Wallop had scribbled a note about visa documents and immigration, along with loose currency exchanges and a few common phrases in Beast like "Hello", "I'm not a threat", and "Please don't strip the flesh from my bones". I… didn't think my tongue could wrap itself around any of them. How do you pronounce ~?
Paperclipped on the top, I found a photo. Probably, it was of the new student himself. I noticed the smile curving over his short muzzle first of all. It had teeth. Round teeth. Honestly, he looked a little like a giant guinea pig, with skinny pink chicken legs for arms. I think. And when I saw the golden eyes gleaming close to the sides of his head, the breath came back to my lungs and steadied out. Okay, well, maybe we were getting a herbi… an herb… a plant-eater!
Oh. That makes sense that the plant-eaters would survive, 'cuz Elias might've killed off the Beasts who wanted to gobble humans up.
Two purple horns arced over his head. He wore bright blue fur, fluffy enough that I actually touched it with my fingertip to see. Hey, Beasts had been underground for two hundred years– they could've invented advanced camera technology! You never know!
Bunsen. His name was Bunsen of Iivac.
My leg slowed its jiggling. Snapping the folder shut again, I gave Principal Freshwater a swift salute. "This shouldn't be a problem, sir. I can totally handle this."
He steepled his fingers and pressed his thin eyebrows down. "I don't care for your enthusiasm, Michael. Enthusiastic people make mistakes."
"Aw, but people who take everything too seriously are boring." I hopped to my feet. "Don't worry about a thing. When September comes, so will the, uh… the… success of Mikey Munroe, new head of the Muckledunk school welcoming committee."
Before I finished turning around, Miss Lighthouse kissed me on both cheeks and then crushed me in a hug. "I am so excited to work with you next year! We will definitely have to cook up batch after batch of buckeyes to welcome our new visitors to above-ground Ohio, and we can take them on the lake, and Anti-Gravity World, and host our own mini Goettafest in town- Oh, you and I are going to have the greatest possible time, Mikey. We are going to help so many great people feel amazing about themselves and their brand new home."
Helping people just by being my enthusiastic self? I could do that. No problem!
"Bleh." As I left the office and headed for the cafeteria, I wiped my palm down my entire face. "If I wanted to be doused with saliva, I'd just go and buy myself a llama. Y'know, I always forget 'Freshwater' is just his nickname." I guess this explained why Amanda had a crush on his grandson last year. How did he spit so much so subtly, and without slurring his words? "Eh, maybe he could give her some tips to– Whoa, whoa, wait."
For two seconds, I froze. Well, that's not true- I'm never not moving. I hugged the folder to my chest. Then I turned my head back to the office. The orange Beast Hunt flyer I'd passed earlier fluttered against the bulletin board in the wake of the shutting door.
"That's just wrong."
I creased my forehead and kept standing there. The annual Beast Hunt had been a Muckledunk tradition since it was created. That's kind of what made it a tradition. It wasn't real of course… we just rolled it into Easter, scattered a couple thousand plastic eggs around town and the fringes of the woods, broke into pairs and competed for major prizes, then told the usual stories about our ancestors around the fountain until Saturday turned to Sunday and those of us non-church-goers slipped off for home… But if Ohio had just made it legal for Beasts to wander around Muckledunk now, was it still like, fine to call it that? Or tell our town history? Was that… okay?
A Beast Hunt flyer. Outside the principal's office. At the very front of the school building. It must have been an accident. It had to be an accident. My eyes flicked to the video surveillance camera in the corner of the ceiling; a basic IP. This tiny school had too many of them. This tiny town had too many of them. Funny, then, how many people still had no idea my mom and dad were willing to share the websites where the CCTV feed played for the right price– I mean, reason. Adults worried about how well their kid is getting along in school, caretakers checking in on their elders, et cetera. I used to wave at the cameras when I was younger, since my parents and their job are inseparable. I didn't bother this time.
Holding eye contact with the camera anyway, I reached to tear the paper down. It wouldn't stop the hunt or anything, but it seemed the right thing to do just in case any Beasts came by and wanted to see the place where Bunsen would be–
My fingers jerked back from the flyer. Only one person at the school ever emphasized the last syllable of my name in such a signature way. When my shoes touched the tiles again, I whipped around to face her.
"I was totally told to get rid of this! I- I mean. Uh…"
Sophie Sanders. Dark hair. All smiles. Fluttering eyelashes that could attract (and spear) a salmon if a day came when her signature curly-tailed grub lure didn't tempt one over on its own. Taller than all of us—even me—since the minute she'd been born. Literally; it's true.
Two months ago, she and I had done a research project on geese together and everything had been fine. We told jokes, we drew pictures, we laughed… When it was over? Boom. Amazing Eric said that when I talked to her nowadays, I couldn't do it without wriggling like a twitchy fish. Bobby told him that was fine, because Sophie knew how to catch twitchy fish. I'd smiled at them both, even though I hadn't wanted to.
It's weird, y'know. Having a secret crush on your best girl friend. To go from sitting across from her at lunch to sitting with the guys. To go from riding bikes in the park and hanging out to stealing looks and texting memes. To go from talking every day to only talking when you have to. To go from watching movies together to avoiding her as much as possible…
… Wait a minute. Crushes are stupid.
"What?" I stammered when I realized she'd been talking.
Sophie, infinitely patient, pointed at the office's main door with her lunch bag and knit her eyebrows (Not literally. Needles are sharp and that would hurt). "Do you still get to have your pig ceremony in September?"
"Oh… No. I- I mean, yes. I didn't lose it, no. That's not why Principal Freshwater called me down. No. No, I s-still get to have one– you're fine."
Shut up, Munroe.
"Great." She turned to get a drink of water from the fountain, leaving me to hover where I was. I opened my mouth, then shut it. Then opened it. It stayed. My hands kept jittering. I glanced at the ceiling camera again. Knowing my parents, they'd probably check its footage just in time for me to pass out.
"I need to go," I blurted, but Sophie was already talking again. We both paused, said "What?", and I shook my head and told her to go on.
"Are you like, so excited for the Beast hunt next week?"
My eyes zipped back to the orange flyer on the bulletin board. "I, uh, w-wasn't actually going to be in it."
Sophie wiped water droplets from her mouth onto her wrist. "I think you should. It's our last year to register as kids before we have to start one… two hours late like 'adults'." She made air quotes around that last word and stuck out her tongue. "Like, nothing's adult about less eggs and smaller prizes."
"Well, I… I don't have anyone to partner with this year, so I was just going to…"
"I'll partner with you," she said, like she didn't know you can't do that when a guy has a secret crush on you!
"Oh my gosh, YES! Ahaha, I'd love that. I MEAN LIKE! I'd like to do that. Not love. I- I'm not in love or anything…"
Misty would have strangled me. As a girl herself, she knew what almost-twelve boys were Not Allowed™ to say to one, and 'I love you' and 'I don't love you' were both at the top of the list. Somehow. I dunno; she had a steady boyfriend and seemed to be surviving high school so far.
Sophie paused for half a beat to study me. My fingers curled, slipping across the sweat on my palms. Her lips pressed together, thin and pale like the ghosts of worms. I stiffened, but instead of diving into Misty's favorite, "But what did you mean by that?" investigation… Sophie just smiled and let it go (Oh geez, I really, really liked that about her). She linked her hands behind her back. "So my dad's like, in charge of sign ups this year. I can get us registered if you want."
I steadied my breath. Not dead yet. "No, i-it sounds great. Fun! You… you go do that. Ahaha."
"It's 'Munroe'. With a 'u'. That's right, right?"
"Oh, it's with a 'u', b-but you can spell it with an 'o'. If you want. It's fine. I mean, whatever, right?"
Sophie nodded and smiled and disappeared into the cafeteria, her lunch bag bouncing against her leg. The door shut. I shoved my fingers through the largest two flops of my hair, dropping any fears of my parents spying on my love life.
"Well, I just agreed to spend an entire Saturday with a girl I can't hold a conversation with. That probably won't come back to haunt me."
I left the Beast Hunt flyer hanging.
Before opening the door to follow Sophie, I peeked through its window to see who else was on the other side. Amanda stood in the middle of the floor, retying the ribbon that crowned her pigtails as she told off a bully from one of the other classes. He had Willy dangling by the ankle. She had blood dripping from her nose, so it was obvious who was winning. No one hits a Killman and avoids turning over like half of their entire life savings in apology.
So maybe it would be best to make my call now, and eat later. Plus, then Sophie wouldn't think I was stalking her. I took my phone from my back pocket and stepped away. After scrolling past a dozen calls from Amanda, I found the number I was searching for and pressed it with my thumb.
No, it didn't. But the alarms did. "Mikey," hollered my mom from the other end of the line, "is everything okay, sweetie?"
"Uh… y-yeah. Everything's cool. I'm eating lunch right now. Y'know, with all my friends." I wasn't usually a bad liar, but when it came to my mom, I always crossed my fingers under my sweater when I say one so she doesn't know. Otherwise, she'd find out. Even through the phone. I wrapped my thumb in the hem of my sweater vest. "So, uh, were you testing the sound-detecting security systems, or…?"
Mom replied, but I couldn't make out the words. Glass crashed in the background. I fidgeted my feet when my dad shouted that for the purposes of this conversation, he was probably all peachy keen.
"Yeah, good luck with that. Hey, so, something huge has kinda come up. There's these Beasts a-and now I want to get a new rug for my room, 'cuz I don't think–"
The alarms snapped off. Voices snuck through the line in puffs like Pop Rocks in milk. "I can go with Misty," I prompted when my implied question went unanswered. "If you could just give me the code to the safe in your room, I'll get the money. I can do chores to help pay for it. I can clean the rain gutters. I'll practice my violin without complaining. We'd just be going two towns over…"
"Honey, be brave and– That's it." My mom blew out a sharp breath. "If you and your sister want to go catch a movie or anything, that's between you and her. Just bring the money!"
That… hadn't been the question. Funny. Mom didn't have the attention span to listen to me all the way through, but when just one person in Muckledunk starts a rumor, she's the third to know about it. I cleared my throat. "Well, what about the drone?"
"What?" I heard the phone shift to her other hand. "Oh. Muffy's back at the hotel, and we're going to be awhile longer than originally planned. So don't you and Misty exhaust all the good movies at the theater, because Dad and I will be back from the convention in two more weeks, and we can all hang out together then. Okay, sweetie?"
"So, two more weeks, or two more months? 'Cuz sometimes when you say–"
Static on the other end; it sounded like sparkler fireworks. Dad yelped. Mom squeaked, then tried to cover it up by raising her voice. "Be a good boy and don't stray any further than Elias's tower; you know how dangerous the deep woods are. You may think bears are cute, but they'll yank your inner guts out in a swipe and not even wash their paws before or after. Got it?"
My stubby nails tapped the phone's plastic case. "A-and you'll be in town for my pig ceremony, right? I mean, I know it's early to make plans when it's not even going to happen until September, but you have to be…"
"Mikey." Her tone turned soft. I heard her ponytail swish as she spun her head in Dad's direction. Probably to mouth, Our son's going all touchy-feely on me again. Help! After a couple of seconds, she said, "You'll be coming of age, sweetheart. We'd never miss it. Our plan is to have it recorded on all the spare cameras we can find. Mikey? You know we love you, gingersnap. Don't you?"
I nodded, my fingers clenched beneath my sweater.
"Was that a yes? Did you say yes?"
"Yes," I whispered. My fingers dropped.
"Super! Now, I'm off to find a toilet plunger or rope so I can drag your father out from the rubble. Oh, the joys of installing your own inventions. Feisty critters sometimes, aren't they, robots? … Don't tell our clients I built this spazmatron. But there should still be some chicken nuggets that we left you on Friday in the fridge. See you soon. Huggies and smooches!"
She hung up before I could open my mouth to respond. Oh, well. The getting-money-from-the-safe thing had turned out to be a bust, but at least I'd tried. Guess now my choices were either I try appealing to Misty's kinder nature, or get used to walking on splinters or whatever for the next couple of months, 'cuz I'd be taking that rug up to the attic anyway. I mean, just in case, right? With an outgoing family of four, random club members and gossiping neighbors walk in and out of my house all the time.
Wow. In a couple of months, Beasts might be walking in and out of my house all the time. Well… Minus the part about how a lot of us had ancestors who'd been killed by Beasts back before they were driven underground, they couldn't be that scary. I mean, they could've chosen to wipe out our entire town, but they diiidn't!
I checked the cafeteria window again and straightened the file folder beneath my arm. Even if the busy season for security system checks was coming on now that the heat of summer had started to roll in with the early Lake Erie tourists, no real rush. Mom and Dad would come home and I'd get a new rug soon.
What's another word that means 'not soon'? Eventually? Yeah, that.
With Amanda still distracting the school bullies, I had a straight shot to the lunch counter. Pizza day, at least. Pizza's really good! Especially with pop, which I only get on certain days, 'cuz I'm not the kind of kid who's supposed to overload on sugar. Today was one of those days. I found Roscoe Rickson's number with my thumb while balancing my tray and folder in the other hand. It took me until I'd paid for my food, but he did eventually pick up.
"Your sister says you're a nosy creep, Michael."
"Aw! Tell her I only call you when I know you two are hanging out, 'cuz if you're around she won't answer when she knows it's me." I clutched my tray, eyeing the cafeteria's busy benches. The popular clump had claimed one corner, Sophie and Betty another. Social outcasts circled like sharks for either an open seat, or an ounce of bravery. To Roscoe, I said, "Can I talk to her about family stuff?"
"Your brother says it's family stuff."
Mumbles. I spotted my handful of friends at a different table than usual and started walking. Slow, though, 'cuz of the phone between my shoulder and ear, and the folder and tray in my hands. And like, I had to go the whole way around Amanda and her rival bullies still arguing over Willy in the middle of the lunchroom, and that meant slinking along the wall.
"You still there, Mikey?"
I wrinkled my nose. "Yep. Still here."
"Misty wants to know if it can wait 'til she gets home."
"Oh, so she's calling your house 'home' now?"
A nervous noise. Misty grabbed the phone from Roscoe and spat her usual spiel about how dead I was if I told Mom and Dad she'd only come home one night in the last three. I hung up in the middle of it and stuffed my phone away. I guess not waiting for the other speaker's good-bye is genetic.
Bobby and Amazing Eric pounced on me the minute I set my tray at their table. "So did anyone tell you about Amanda yet?"
"What? Tell me what?"
Eric rapped his knuckle on the table. "The irritating Amanda Killman unproudly presented us with the news that she's been stranded here all summer. Mere moments ago, she received a life-changing call from her mother that–"
"Her cruise was attacked by a sea monster," Bobby summed up. Eric tossed him a sideways glance.
"I wanted to be theatrical with this, but yes. They had to cancel everything."
"Cancel? For real?" I yanked the tab off my pop can. "Oh, gosh. Any chance she's rescheduling?"
Bobby shrugged. "Scared the other ships. I think tons of passengers are withdrawing their reservations. Here, I pulled up the article on Beastwatch. Read it and weep."
I eased his phone away. "Uh, no. Just give me the run-down while I eat."
Eric lifted his hand before Bobby could start. "Now that all of us, sans the wonderful Willy, have arrived, I have a grand announcement to make."
"Yeah?" I asked, pushing the pizza slice into my mouth. "Hit me."
Amazing Eric, being Amazing Eric, hopped to his feet on the bench. After revealing that he hadn't stuffed any tricks up either sleeve, he said, "I am officially off the market. One week ago today, I requested my lovely assistant, Mallory Lyle, do me the honor of becoming my Beast Hunting partner, and I have just received word from a little birdie that she said yes."
We applauded politely, as much as we could around our food. Eric accepted it with a sweeping bow, rolling his top hat from his shoulder down to his hand. "Lucky," Bobby said, picking up his milk carton. "She's got that old dirt bike. You'll snatch a lot of eggs, zipping around on that."
"It's a really cool dirt bike," I murmured.
Eric snapped his attention back to me. Plopping down again, he said, "Hey Mikester, are you and our Radiant Robert teaming up again this year? I mean, you're not going back to Amanda, are you?"
I glanced at Bobby. He held his arms up in surrender.
"Hey, this year I got smart and didn't even ask. No one wants to go with the chubby kid who can't keep up."
"We don't think you're fat. Anyway, if that were true, people wouldn't be asking me either." I dropped my gaze to the table. "I'm just not sure…"
Their smiles fell. Bobby elbowed my ribs. "Come on, Mikey. Last year to get that head start on the eggs. You gotta."
I pushed the tops of my toes to the floor through my tennis shoe. "Well, see… Sophie caught me out in the hall today. A-and she asked me, so I said yes–"
They both started babbling, but I cut them off with, "I mean, I said 'Yes' in a panic, and I just don't know if I should do it."
"It's Sophie Sanders, Mikey. You like her."
"No… I really don't think I should."
"You're turning twelve!" Bobby exploded. "Mikey, come on. I may not have what it takes, but you were gonna go far, kid."
Eric snapped his fingers in front of my nose. "Hello, descendant of Elias freaking Muckle ringing any bells in there?"
"You've got dreams! Don't go giving that up."
I slid Bunsen's white folder Eric's way. He opened it while Bobby leaned across the table to see. They saw the first few lines and the picture. Then both looked up. I nodded.
"You're not serious," Eric said.
Bobby shook his head. "No. Not happening. I could maybe see it if it were another town, but not Muckledunk. I mean." He held up his fingers, framing me in a box. "Muckle. The first Beast to see your red hair is going to bolt for cover."
"Or kill me on the spot."
"Or kill you on the spot."
Eric had gone back to reading, his finger skimming along the page with his eyes. As he slid across to the other side of the folder, he said, "It sounds from this like he isn't moving here until September. The Beast Hunt will be over and done with next week. I don't see why you have to cancel on Soph. It's not like they're gonna know. Just don't start a conversation with, "Oh by the way, around here we pretend we're killing your kind when we have our Easter egg hunts."
I picked at the hem of my sweater vest. My bouncing leg rattled the whole table. "I dunno… Is that okay?"
"It's Sophie Sanders," the two of them said together, and Eric went on with, "She likes you, Munroe. Don't go back on your word now and reject a girl like her. Sophie's not really one of the popular kids, so she doesn't play their leading-you-on kinds of games. It'll hurt her feelings if you bail out."
He passed back the folder, and I fiddled with it as I struggled not to blurt anything out before I'd gathered my thoughts. "I mean, someone's gonna have to address this at some point, right? When all kinds of Beasts start actually moving here–"
"If," Bobby interjected.
I tightened my lip. "When all kinds of Beasts start actually moving here, we can't just keep calling things 'Beast hunts' like that. Like, that's really mean."
Eric scratched one side of his neck, avoiding eye contact. "Yeah… But who's going to tell the Eastons that after four generations, they have to alter the whole way they advertise their menu?"
"Oh, changing that part's easy. Instead of calling their pasketti 'Beast entrails', they can just call it 'pasketti'. Problem solved."
"'Spaghetti'," Amanda corrected as she walked past us with her empty tray, though between her braces and all the spit, it came out more like "shpaghetti". I didn't even have to look at the word, but all its letters made me dizzy. I stuck out my tongue.
Bobby tapped his fork against his hand. "So. Who wants to tell the town that we can't dress up pigs like Beasts and shoot them when we turn twelve anymore?"
"Well, I can do it. I'm the one who brought it up."
That was Amanda's voice again. I twisted around to see her facing us now, still holding her tray in one hand. She'd upturned the other one. Her mouth dangled. Her eyebrows scrunched together in a peak. After blinking twice, she focused her stare on me. "You're going to do what?"
I opened my mouth, but the only thing that came out was, "Uh…"
She shook her head, diving forward. "You can't just end the pig sheremony, Munroe! It'sh tradition, all the way back to Prishcilla Muckle and Benjamin Dunk themshelvesh, practically. Thish is our whole hishtory." The tray came down on the end of our table with a slam. Amanda hunched over it, knuckles flaring into white. Her pigtails dangled like ropes from the gallows. "My whole family ish flying acrossh the world to shee me when I turn twelve."
"So that's what, like… three people?" I made jazz hands. "Oh my gosh, you'll get to see your mom again. Call Bob and Ken! Not like you get to visit her twice a year."
Amanda ground her teeth until they squeaked. She leaned closer, which made me lean back, clutching Bunsen's file to my chest. "Ooh, just to clarify, Mikey Munroe, I have had my sheremony dressh picked out shince before I wash born. My mom shot her pig. My grandma shot her pig. And sho help me, a mailman who fought rain and shleet and shnow couldn't shtop me from shooting mine. I am getting my moment, and you are going to have to pry that dressh from my warm, dead fingersh."
Bobby raised his hand. "Don't you mean 'cold'?"
She pulled back with a snort. "If I'm going to chooshe, I'm dying in lava sho you'll die too if you try to hunt me down, hello."
I braced my cheek against my hand. "I'm just saying, I think Beasts might find the whole part about us shooting a pig after we've dressed it up to look like one of them kinda offensive. Wouldn't you? I don't get why this concept is hard."
"Who caresh what Beastsh think? They're underground!"
I curled my toes inside my shoes and stopped bouncing my leg. Amanda's eyes went from me to the white folder in my hands. The finger gun snapped out, aimed between my eyes. "Hang on a shuspicious shecond here. What'sh thish?"
Sweat poisoned the skin behind my ears. Oh, shoot.