Whenever Wilson Williams had a problem, he talked to his hamster, Pip. He had had Pip for only two weeks, but already she understood him better than anybody else in his family did.
"Multiplication was hard enough," Wilson told Pip on the first Saturday morning in April. "But now we have to do fractions."
Pip twitched her nose.
"Even worse, Mrs. Porter is giving us a huge test in three weeks."
"But that's not the worst thing."
Pip scampered across Wilson's bedspread. Luckily Wilson had his bedroom door closed so that she couldn't escape and get lost.
"Wait," Wilson said to Pip. "Don't you want to know what the worst thing is?"
He scooped up Pip and held her in both hands, facing him, as he leaned back against his pillow. Her bright little eyes really did look interested.
When Wilson had gotten Pip, her name had been Snuggles, but he had changed it to Pip, short for Pipsqueak. Pip's brother, Squiggles, was the classroom pet in Wilson's third-grade classroom.
"The worst thing," Wilson said, "is that my parents are getting me a math tutor."
Pip's eyes widened with indignation.
"I know." Wilson set her down on his knee. Instead of scurrying away, she sat very still, gazing up at him sadly. But no amount of hamster sympathy could change that one terrible fact.
A math tutor! That meant Wilson would go to school and do fractions, and then after school he'd go see Mrs. Tucker and do more fractions. He'd have fractions homework for Mrs. Porter and more fractions homework for Mrs. Tucker.
And suppose his friends at school found out. Nobody else he knew had a math tutor. There were other kids who were bad at math. There were other kids who thought fractions were hard. There were even other kids who thought fractions were impossible. But Wilson had never heard of any other kid who had a math tutor.
Wilson picked up Pip again and stroked the soft fur on the top of her little head. Pip was the only good thing left in Wilson's life. From now on, the rest of his life was going to be nothing but fractions.
"Now, come on," Wilson's father said at lunch. "Cheer up. The point of a math tutor is to help you."
"You've been struggling so much," his mother went on. "First with multiplication, and now with fractions. A math tutor will make math come more easily to you."
Wilson's little brother, Kipper, who was in kindergarten, spoke up next. "Can I have a math tutor, too? Wilson and I can share the math tutor. Like we share Pip."
Wilson stopped glaring at his parents and started glaring at Kipper instead. It was annoying enough to have a little brother, but Wilson had to have a little brother who happened to love math, and who was good at it, too.
To the left of Kipper's plate sat his beanbag penguin, Peck-Peck. To the right sat his beanbag alligator, Snappy.
"What's a math tutor?" Kipper made Peck-Peck ask in a deep, growly voice. For some strange reason, Kipper seemed to think that was how a penguin should talk.
"Does a math tutor toot on a horn?" Kipper made Snappy ask. "Toot! Toot!" Snappy's head bobbed up and down with each cheerful toot, as if he were an alligator tugboat.
"Mom!" Wilson complained. "Make Kipper stop!"
But instead of giving a warning look to Kipper, she gave one to Wilson. "Kipper's just playing." Then she actually leaned across the table and spoke directly to Snappy. "No, Snappy, a math tutor doesn't go 'Toot.' A math tutor helps people learn math. A math tutor has a very important job."
This was too much. Who else lived in a family where adults had serious conversations with beanbag alligators?
"Toot! Toot!" Snappy said again, apparently not even listening to the answer to his own stupid question.
"That's enough, Kipster," their father said.
Wilson was grateful to him for trying, but it was already too late.
"May I be excused?" Wilson asked.
"You haven't finished your grilled-cheese sandwich," his mother said.
"I'm not hungry." Anymore, Wilson added to himself.
Before Peck-Peck or Snappy could make any further brilliant remarks, Wilson pushed his chair back from the table and fled to his room to have an intelligent conversation with Pip.
Wilson's best friend, Josh Hernandez, came over at two. As if Wilson's mother was sorry for not standing up for him at lunch, she took Kipper for a long bike ride so that the two older boys could play undisturbed.
Wilson didn't have a video game system, and he wasn't allowed to watch TV on playdates, so he and Josh tried to build the world's fastest race car with some junk in the garage. His dad made microwave popcorn, and Wilson and Josh had a contest for throwing popcorn up into the air and catching it in their mouths. Wilson won, with seven straight mouth catches to Josh's four. He began to feel more hopeful about his life.
"Do you have an idea for your science fair project yet?" Josh asked, after missing another popcorn catch. April was science fair month at Hill Elementary.
"Nope." Wilson had been too busy trying to talk his parents out of making him have a math tutor. "Do you?"
Wilson could tell Josh was waiting for him to ask what it was. "What is it?"
"I have to warn you," Josh said. "It's not just a good idea, it's a great idea. Are you ready?"
Wilson nodded. He couldn't believe Josh thought his idea was so wonderful. Usually Josh thought everything was terrible.
"All right. Here it is. At what temperature does a pickle explode?"
Okay, Wilson had to admit, Josh's idea was wonderful.
"You could do something about popcorn," Josh offered. "Who is better at catching popcorn in their mouths, boys or girls? Or kids or grownups? Or dogs or cats? Or kids or dogs? Or--"
Wilson shoved him good-naturedly. "I get the idea."
"You could even thrill Mrs. Porter and use fractions," Josh suggested. "Like: cats catch half as much popcorn as dogs. Or grownups catch half as much popcorn as kids. Or--"
This time Wilson shoved Josh harder. It was fine for Josh to joke about fractions. Josh was pretty good at math.
Of course, to be fair to Josh, Josh didn't know that Wilson was about to become the only kid in the history of Hill Elementary to have a math tutor.
Wilson was going to make sure that Josh never found out.