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The Worm Whisperer



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About The Authors

By Betty Hicks and Ben Hatke

Betty Hicks is the author of the Gym Shorts series as well as novels Get Real, Out of Order, Busted! and I Smell Like Ham. She lives in Greensboro, North Carolina. Ben Hatke is the author/illustrator behind Zita, the Spacegirl. He lives in the Shenandoah Valley with his... More

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EXCERPT

1   I’M NOT DEAD
 
Ellis liked everything about his obituary, even if it wasn’t true.
An obituary is what gets written when you die. It’s printed in the newspaper and says nice things—like how you’ve gone to heaven and how the world’s a better place because you’d lived in it. Even if that’s a lie, Ellis thought it was okay, because nobody wants to say bad things about a dead person.
He watched the minute hand on the classroom clock tick closer to three o’clock. Then he folded his obituary in half and slipped it into his book bag. For an obituary, it sounded pretty nice, but still … it had a lot of mistakes in it.
For one thing, thought Ellis, I’m not dead. Even though, just last week, he’d said, “I am so dead.” That’s because he accidentally ripped a hole in his mother’s favorite quilt—the one hand-stitched by his great-great-great-grandmother Hattie May, who’d been dead almost as long as Moses.
Besides the quilt, Hattie May had handed down the best recipe for boiled custard on the planet. Ellis’s grandmother still knew the secret for making it sweet, but not too sweet, melt in your mouth, perfect.
Ellis missed Gram’s custard. Two months ago she and Pops had zipped straight out of Banner Elk behind the wheel of their dream RV, and Ellis had no idea when they’d be back. But they’d mailed him lots of picture postcards because they knew he loved animals. They sent alligators from Florida, coyotes from New Mexico, moose from Maine. He pinned them to the corkboard on the wall in his bedroom.
He’d also watched a million nature programs with his dad before television went digital. Now, their old TV—the one with antennae that stuck up like rabbit ears—was as extinct as a dinosaur. Luckily for Ellis, he could hike the half mile to his pond to watch wildlife there. He went every chance he got.
And, he read every animal or insect library book he could get his hands on. Mr. Turnmire, Ellis’s teacher, said that Ellis was animal-obsessed.
Ellis thought that Mr. Turnmire was word-obsessed. He wrote a new vocabulary word on the board every day. Each word had to have at least four syllables and ten letters or Mr. Turnmire said it wasn’t worthy of their fourth-grade brain power. Mr. Turnmire also claimed that a person with a good vocabulary could achieve anything.
Ellis was pretty sure that wasn’t true. Fancy words couldn’t fix his dad’s back. Or get his mom’s old job back. Or buy a new TV that worked.
The school clock ticked another minute closer to three.
Still … Ellis had to admit, Mr. Turnmire had an awesome dictionary. It was the size of a kitchen sink and weighed more than a baby pig. Every time Mr. Turnmire opened it, he promised, “Meaning and magnitude await!”
Mr. Turnmire was right. Fun words leaped out of it like small miracles. Ellis learned injudicious—a spectacular way to say “stupid.” And regurgitation—a stupendous way to say “vomit.”
Today’s word had been obituary. That’s how Ellis’s obituary had gotten written before he was dead. It was part of an in-class assignment.
Molly had raised her hand and objected. “But Mr. Turnmire, obituary only has eight letters.”
“Ah, but it has five syllables,” Mr. Turnmire replied. “That’s good enough to override the ten-letter requirement—just for today. Never take yourself so seriously that you can’t make exceptions to your own rules.”
Ellis shot up in his seat. “I’ve got one!”
Mr. Turnmire lowered his head at Ellis and said, “Ellison Coffey. Please raise your hand when you have something to share.”
“Sorry,” Ellis apologized, and raised his hand.
“Yes?” said Mr. Turnmire.
“I’ve got one,” Ellis repeated.
“You’ve got one what?”
“An exception to a rule.”
Ellis could tell by the way Mr. Turnmire raised one eyebrow that he didn’t want to hear what was coming next, but he nodded for Ellis to speak.
Ellis cleared his throat, paused for suspense, and said, “Exterminate homework.”
The class cheered.
Ellis’s chest puffed out—exterminate was one of last week’s vocabulary words, and he’d made the class cheer.
“Exterminate?” asked Mr. Turnmire.
“It means get rid of,” said Ellis.
“I know what it means,” said Mr. Turnmire.
Ellis knew that homework was probably here to stay, but it never hurt to ask. Without homework, he’d have more time at the pond to watch for ducks, foxes, groundhogs, deer, turkey—last week he’d seen a bobcat.
And, with no homework, he’d have more time to help his parents.
“No homework?” asked Mr. Turnmire, stroking his chin. “Not ever?”
“Well,” said Ellis, trying his best to sound convincing. “Just no homework on days that end with the letter y.”
Mr. Turnmire snorted. The class was quiet. Ellis could practically hear them naming the days of the week inside their heads: Monday … Tuesday.… Finally, they laughed.
“Nice try, Ellis,” said Mr. Turnmire. “No homework?” He shook his head. “No way. But you get an A for effort. Way to use your brain!”
Ellis glanced around to see if everybody had heard Mr. Turnmire compliment his brain. Some pumped their fists. Others rolled their eyes. Randy gagged.
Alice was writing obituary in her vocabulary notebook. Ellis thought her hair was the exact same color as honey.
“Who’d like to use the word obituary in a sentence?” asked Mr. Turnmire.
Ellis searched his brain for a funny sentence. But there was nothing funny about death, so he burped.
The class laughed. Alice kept writing.
Mr. Turnmire sighed. “That’ll do, Ellis.”
Randy waved his hand in the air and said, “I have a sentence: ‘Since Ellis is so dead, can I write his obituary’?”
“Hmm,” said Mr. Turnmire. “Good idea.”
Ellis’s heart skipped a beat. Did Mr. Turnmire want him dead?
“I want you all to write each other’s obituaries.” Mr. Turnmire paused and thought a minute. “You’ll draw names. Each of you will write the obituary of the classmate whose name you draw. But remember”—he raised one finger into the air—“obituaries honor a person. All your comments must be kind.”
While Mr. Turnmire collected everyone’s names on slips of paper, Ellis looked around the room and wondered whose name he’d get. He didn’t know enough about anybody there to sum up a whole life.
Molly was picky and sometimes bossy … but nice. George was fun, had big ears, and his dad had a CB radio in his truck. Alice was quiet, except when Randy bullied somebody or stomped on innocent ants, and then she’d shout, “Stop!” She had shiny hair, got good grades, and twice she’d checked out the same library book as Ellis. He thought that meant she liked animals and insects just like he did. And Randy … well, Randy was a jerk.
Ellis drew a name out of the basket as Mr. Turnmire passed it. He unfolded the paper and read, “Randy.” He reached out, trying to put it back, but Mr. Turnmire had already moved up the row to the next desk.
What could he write about Randy? Bully? Pea brain? Stink breath?
After a lot of thinking that made his head hurt, Ellis wrote:
Randy sang in the church choir. He liked playing tag at recess and was dearly beloved by his mother, his father, and his dog.
Ellis ended with a big fat lie and wrote,
He will be missed by everyone.
George drew Ellis’s name. He wrote:
Ellison “Ellis” Coffey lived his whole happy life in Banner Elk, North Carolina. His family ran a blueberry farm, and that’s why Ellis’s fingertips looked like ink. He loved animals and insects. He was very funny and had lots of friends. Mr. Turnmire called him our class-clown-but-with-brains. The world was a better place because Ellis lived in it.
Ellis wished it were true.
He had lived his whole life in Banner Elk. He was funny. He did love animals. And he picked a lot of blueberries. Sometimes he squeezed them too hard, so his fingertips got inky-looking. But George was wrong about everything else. Ellis’s life wasn’t all that happy. He didn’t have friends—just people who thought he was funny. It wasn’t the same thing. And the world was not a better place because he lived in it.
The minute hand ticked straight up to three o’clock. Ellis slung his book bag over one shoulder. Time to go home. He wished he didn’t have to.


 
Text copyright © 2013 by Betty Hicks
Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Ben Hatke

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