MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
I bolted toward the chain-link fence. Red shot for the gate. In full stride, I slipped my backpack down my shoulders, and as soon as Red grabbed the metal post and spun into the schoolyard, I flung the bag over the fence.
Red caught it by the straps just before it touched the grass.
"Boo-yah!" I hammer-fisted the air.
"Bam!" He held it up. "Every time, Mason Irving!"
Mason Irving. That's what Red calls me. Everyone else calls me by my nickname, Rip.
I held out my fist. Red gave me a pound.
At 7:25 every morning, I meet Red at the end of his driveway, and we walk to Reese Jones Elementary. Orleans Lane to Key Place to Niagara Drive. Then when we get to RJE, I toss my bag, Red catches it, and we zigzag through the portables-the second- and third-grade classrooms-and head for the new playground.
It's our walk-to-school routine. Red likes routines.
But this morning wasn't like other mornings. Because today was the first day of fifth grade.
At RJE, all the fifth graders have Ms. Hamburger, and yes, that's her real name, and no, I'm not going to make any jokes, because if you go to RJE, you've heard them all. Ms. Hamburger's been teaching fifth grade ever since RJE opened twenty-five years ago.
"I hope Ms. Hamburger lets us sit at the same table," Red said.
"I heard she assigns seats at the beginning of the year."
I grabbed the granola bar from my jeans pocket, snapped off a piece, and flipped it to Red.
"I hope Ms. Hamburger lets us bring snacks to class," he said. "I hope she lets us keep water bottles at our table."
We reached the walkway to the playground.
"You ready?" I said.
"Ready as I'll ever be, Mason Irving."
I shook out my hair and brushed back the locks above my ears. "On your mark, get set..."
We whipped our bags onto the benches and tore across the sand toward the jungle gym. We speed-walked the balance beam and then split up-Red darted for the climbing wall; I went for the monkey bars. I swung across the rungs, two-at-a-timed the steps to the upper deck, and waited for Red. Then we dove for the spiral slide. I went down first.
"Boo-yah!" I shouted.
"Bam!" Red followed.
Obstacle-coursing the jungle gym is another part of our walk-to-school routine, our favorite part.
We scooped up our bags, and as we left the playground, we tapped the wooden posts with the solar lights. Two summers ago, when the community built the playground, Red and I helped put in those posts.
I pulled the granola bar wrapper from my pocket and crumpled it tight.
"Irving with the crossover dribble," I said, pretending to announce the play-by-play. I made a move for the garbage. "He stutter-steps toward the key ... breaks right ... shoots ... nothing but the bottom of the can! Oh, what a move by Rip!"
"We're playing basketball," Red sang-the intro song from Xbox. "We love that basketball."
Not only was today the first day of fifth grade, but it was also the first day of the fifth-grade basketball program. Red and I were playing hoops together for the first time.
Until now, Red hadn't been allowed to play hoops at school.
We turned onto the sidewalk in front of the school and headed up the circular drive. Like always, we timed our arrival perfectly, reaching the doors just as the first buses pulled up and the first bikers and scooter riders pulled into the racks.
Red likes being on time. He does better when he's on time.
"Where's Ms. Darling?" he asked, tightening his fists into knots. He shook them next to his eyes. "Where's ... where's Ms. Waldon?"
I looked around. "I don't know."
The principal, Ms. Darling-yes, that's her real name, too-always stood between the double doors, saying good morning and telling kids, "Take off your hats when you enter the building." Ms. Waldon, the parent coordinator, always sat at the desk under the announcement monitor in the main hall.
But not today.
We strutted down the K-1 hallway-fifth graders strut, especially down the K-1 hallway-and then headed up the stairs by the bathrooms.
The K-1 hallway staircase is the only staircase Red uses.
On the second floor, we passed the library and sped up as we got closer to Room 208, Ms. Hamburger's room.
"You ready?" I asked.
"Ready as I'll ever be, Mason Irving."
When I reached the doorway, I stopped dead in my tracks.
The person standing in front of the classroom was not Ms. Hamburger.
Text copyright © 2015 Phil Bildner