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It's no fun having your heart ripped from your body, slammed to the floor, and stomped into a puddle of quivering red mush. It's even less fun when it happens three times in one afternoon.
First, Shawna Lanchester pranced up to me at lunch and said, "Did you know I'm having a Halloween party next Friday, Nathan?" She clutched her hands together like she was in danger of exploding from excitement.
I nodded, but I kept my mouth shut. I really didn't want to risk spraying Shawna with ketchup-coated hamburger particles. Girls are really weird about food once it's been chewed even a little bit. Especially girls who dress like they're about to pose for a magazine cover.
I knew about the party. The whole planet knew. Or, at least, the whole fifth grade. Shawna had a big Halloween party every year. I'd never been invited. Nobody at our table had ever been invited. I'd bet nobody at our table had ever talked with Shawna, either, even though we'd been in school together since kindergarten. I was making all sorts of history.
Shawna bounced on her heels. Her light-brown hair danced off her tanned shoulders. "Guess what?"
"Mmmmwwwtt?" That's how what sounds if you keep your lips pressed together when you talk. I tore my dull brown eyes away from Shawna's dazzling green ones just long enough to prove to myself what I'd suspected. Everyone was watching me. Mookie, Adam, Denali, and the other Second Besters at our pathetic table under the leak in the cafeteria ceiling were all staring at me like I'd just won the lottery, or the Super Bowl.
To my right, at least half the nerds had looked up from their chessboards, handheld games, and dungeon maps. To my left, the kids stuck at the Table of the Doomed were watching. Snail Girl—I didn't even know her real name—was staring at me over the top of her Sammy the Snail lunch box. As always, she was dressed in one of her endless snail shirts and wearing snail hair clips. Ferdinand Zweeler flinched when I caught his eye. Ferdinand was so frightened of everything, he should have been named Feardinand. Even weird Abigail, who came here last year from outer space—and still seems to live in deep space—had turned her head halfway in my direction.
The jocks, the skaters, and everyone else at all the large rectangular tables in the cafeteria were watching. I struggled to keep from grinning in triumph. Finally, the girl I'd had a crush on since third grade had noticed me. I wondered whether it was my new spiky haircut. Or the fact that I'd grown two inches over the summer. I snuck another glance at Mookie—the only person on the planet who knew how I felt. He flashed me a thumbs-up.
Shawna smiled. My heart melted.
Her teeth glistened. Her eyes sparkled. Her lips moved.
"You're not invited."
Rip. Slam. Stomp.
My heart splatted to the floor. It lay there, leaking across the tiles like a dropped scoop of raspberry sherbet.
Shawna spun away, grinding the remains of my heart under her heels. I tried to ignore the giggles that burst from Cydnie, Talissa, Bekkah, Lexi, and the other girls at her table, but I had a hard time swallowing.
I risked a quick glance around the cafeteria. The nerds had already gone back to slaying orcs and capturing castles. The jocks had gone back to punching one another. The Doomed were still staring. I guess it was a rare treat for them to see someone else get destroyed.
"Wow, that's totally cruel." Mookie pushed his glasses back up his nose, trapping some of the longer strands of his shaggy hair under the thick plastic frame. "I wonder why she picked you?"
I choked down the rest of my overchewed mouthful as I searched for an answer. "No idea. You'd think it would be enough for her to be popular, without having to crush the rest of us." I wanted to reach for my inhaler, but there was no way I was pulling it out right now.
"Popularity is overrated," Mookie said. "You don't have to be popular to have lots of friends."
Nobody bothered to answer him. We all knew the truth—in fifth grade, popularity was everything. As far as I could tell, part of popularity came from who you were, and part came from what you could do. Either way, the eight of us at the Second Besters table would score somewhere around minus two on a popularity scale of one to ten.
We were all second best—or maybe second worst—in some way. Mookie Vetch was the second-fattest kid in the fifth grade. I was the second-skinniest boy. Adam Kessler was the second-smartest kid, Denali Sherborg was the second-funniest girl, Jenny Chung was the second-best singer, Jerome Tully was the second-messiest kid, and Armando Cadiz was a triple-threat second bester who was the second-best dresser, the second-worst chatterbox, and the second-fastest reader in class.
The fattest kid, the skinniest boy, the funniest girl—they all had some kind of recognition that made them visible. Being second didn't mean anything. I guess it was sort of like being vice president. To tell the truth, Mookie wasn't all that fat, and I wasn't all that skinny. We pretty much weren't all that much of anything, except unnoticed.
"Typical bullying behavior," Adam said. "She's putting you down so she can feel better about herself."
"Thanks." I already knew that. Every kid who'd ever been picked on knew that. Our parents told us that. Our teachers told us that. Cute animated reptiles and vegetables on television told us that. It didn't help.
"I guess right now, she feels totally great about herself," Denali said.
The rest of the table laughed. I smiled, but it wasn't real.
When the bell rang, Mookie and I headed for gym. We had it three times a week, together with the boys from Mr. Walpole's home base. I'm not sure who decided it would be a great idea for kids to load up on grease-coated meat and deep-fried starch, topped off with a huge bowl of butterscotch pudding, and then do sit-ups. If I ever run into that genius, he's going to get kicked real hard in the stomach. Not that violence solves anything.
"Move it!" Mr. Lomux screamed as our class shuffled out the gym door toward the track. "We can't afford to waste time." Blue veins, like tiny candy worms, bulged on his shaved head.
"Seven?" I asked Mookie.
He squinted and started counting on his fingers. "I see eight."
"Oh, man—that's bad." We could always tell how angry Mr. Lomux was by counting veins. "I've never seen more than six." That was way back in third grade, when he'd made us do too many jumping jacks during a heat wave and half the class puked on the gym floor.
"I think he's stressed about field day," Mookie said.
"I heard that the school board is threatening to transfer him to the lower elementary school if he loses again." Our school, Belgosi Upper Elementary, had a big competition each year against Perrin Hall Academy in Hurston Lakes. The entire fifth grade of each school competed. They'd beaten us six times in a row. Hurston Lakes whomps our butts at everything. They have three elementary schools and at least five private schools.
East Craven is one of the smallest towns in New Jersey. All we have is Belgosi Upper and Borloff Lower. People keep moving out of town. Dad said it's all because of money. People who have a lot move to Hurston Lakes. People who want to spend less move across the river to Pennsylvania. Either way, people are leaving. Ours is the smallest fifth grade ever, with 144 kids in six classes.
"I need four captains," Mr. Lomux said. "We're going to break up into teams to practice."
A bunch of hands shot up.
"Pick me! Pick me!" Mookie screamed, waving his arms like he was trying to flag down an airplane.
A ninth vein appeared.
I didn't bother raising my hand. We're all supposed to get a chance to be a captain. But Mr. Lomux mostly picks the same sort of kids over and over. Today he picked Mort Ivanson, who's really fast; Rodney Mullasco, who's really big; and the Decker twins, who are the stars of the basketball team.
The four of them studied us like shoppers searching for the best melon in the supermarket. As their eyes flickered past me, I realized there was something much worse than not getting to be a captain.
I imagined myself standing alone on the edge of the field, watching everyone else join a team. Don't let me be picked last. Not today, when I was still waiting for my heart to crawl from the cafeteria floor and back through the gaping hole in my chest.
I tried to catch Mort's eye. He was the nicest of the four, and the only one I'd ever hung out with—even though it was way back in second grade. He looked at me and smiled. This was great. Maybe I'd be picked first for a change. That would help save this from being a totally rotten day.
The captains began making their picks. Mort pointed at me. I started to trot over to join him. Things were finally going my way.
Excerpted from MY ROTTEN LIFE by David Lubar
Copyright © 2009 by David Lubar
Published in August 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.