Sample text for When bad things happen to bad people / Cynthia Voigt.

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Chapter One: At the Bottom of the Food Chain

Ninth grade stinks," said Mikey. "Big-time."

Margalo agreed. "Stinkius, stinkior, stinkissimus," she said, partly for the fun of trying out her new Latin skills and partly for the fun of irritating Mikey.

"It's overloud and overcomplicated and overpopulated. And it's taking a long time."

It was the third Friday of ninth grade. The ME twins, Mikey Elsinger and Margalo Epps, best friends since fifth grade, sat at their usual table at the rear of the high school cafeteria. The tables farthest back -- back from the entryway, back from the cafeteria lines -- were, socially speaking, the least desirable, the social cellar of high school.

Keeping up her side of the disagreement Mikey reminded Margalo, "Gazillions of people speak Spanish."

"As if you care about communicating with people," Margalo said, and bit into her sandwich.

"Latin's a dead language," Mikey recited, separating each line of the poem into its own sentence to increase the annoyance value. "It's dead as dead can be. First it killed the Romans."

"I told you in June I was taking Latin. You could have signed up for it too."

"And now it's killing me," Mikey concluded. She unwrapped her own sandwich triumphantly.

They both brought lunch from home, Margalo for financial reasons, Mikey from culinary concerns, so for the moment they were alone at the back of the room and could take advantage of the relative privacy to have a nice little quarrel.

In contrast to Margalo's peanut-butter-and-grape-jelly sandwich on lightly toasted supermarket whole wheat bread, Mikey had thick slices of leftover roasted chicken on thick slices of homemade multigrain bread. Between them they also had six Oreo cookies, a banana, an apple, and -- torn between her desire to show off her baking and her disinclination to share, Mikey had brought a double serving -- two generous slabs of chocolate cake with chocolate frosting.

"Thanks," Margalo said, accepting the piece of cake, setting aside her sandwich. When you were hungry, the thing that was going to taste best was the thing to eat first. That was one of the few things she and Mikey absolutely agreed on. After the first bite she offered her usual style of compliment, "Pretty good, Mikey," and waited for Mikey's usual style of acceptance, "I know."

But, "Uh-oh," Mikey said.

Margalo had her eye on the cake in her hands. "Uh-oh what?"

"Uh-oh that."

By now the tables were filling up. Students from all four grades shared each of the three lunch periods, so that all sizes and ages were represented in the cafeteria, all types and both genders, not to mention the usual variety of teenage humanity: blonde and brunette and redhead, both natural and artificial, the hair short, shorter, and shortest or, conversely, long, longer, and longest. (Blondest and longest being considered the best for the female gender.) There were tall students and short students, ranging from skinny to overweight, buff to totally unexercised, and a large mass of regularly sized and normally muscled. (Tallest and buffest being the most desirable for boys, in general.) Although the majority of students were standard Caucasians of one style or another, they were not an overwhelming majority; more than a third of the school was the usual mix of Asian, African American and Hispanic, and by senior year of high school there were as many mixed-up groups seated together as self-segregated groups seated separately. But even in that big, crowded room, the ninth graders were recognizable. They stood out by standing shorter and scrawnier and fewer.

Margalo scanned the room. "Uh-oh, there," Mikey pointed and then Margalo saw.

It was Hadrian Klenk, of course. Somebody -- a big, stocky boy wearing a Star Wars t-shirt (bright red, with an image of the Millennium Falcon, under which was printed HAN SOLO RULES) -- held a full lunch tray up over Hadrian's head, and Hadrian was reaching up to try to reclaim it. The tray passed over to a pair of raised hands behind Hadrian, another boy in another Star Wars t-shirt (black, with an image of the Death Star, and written under it, DARTH VADER RULES) who continued the game of keep-away by passing the tray -- which dropped a fork and knife onto Hadrian's head as it went by -- to a third boy (blue, no image, just YODA FOR PRESIDENT).

As Hadrian turned, still reaching, he was tripped by the first boy which caused him to stumble -- arms outstretched to break his fall -- into a passing girl who was trying to ignore the little scene taking place between her and her table. The girl's plate of salad greens slid off of her tray and bounced onto the floor, spraying her shoes with lettuce and oily dressing. She glared at Hadrian. Hadrian ducked his head and backed away.

People watched this, some amused, some pitying, some irritated, and some just relieved that whatever was happening was happening to Hadrian Klenk, not to them. The general opinion about Hadrian seemed to be Poor kid, but you'd think he'd figure it out.

(Figure what out wasn't clear. Things? Life? High School? And what, having figured out whatever it was, Hadrian was supposed to do about it also remained an unanswered question.)

After three Fridays, however, Hadrian had figured out what he could do. He scurried across to the side of the room, making his circuitous way to where Mikey and Margalo sat.

"Who are those guys?" Mikey wondered, watching Hadrian creep along beside the walls.

"I think they're juniors. Or maybe oversized sophomores?"

They kept their eyes on Hadrian, who had reached a corner of the big room.

"I think if Hadrian can just get a part in the fall play," Margalo predicted, "then people will start accepting him. At least some people. At least sort of."

"It didn't happen after last year's play," Mikey pointed out.

"But the part he had in that wasn't -- and besides, last year everybody was all excited about Shawn, who can't even act. He's just handsome."

This opinion Margalo presented with a sideways glance at Mikey, who assured her, "He'd have to be a lot handsomer than he is to justify being such a total twithead."

"Anyway," Margalo continued, reassured that Mikey was still over her big eighth-grade crush on Shawn Macavity, "nobody even noticed how good Hadrian was. Except me. Not even the director. Shawn was all anybody talked about, you remember."

Mikey smiled. I remember that and I remember more, too. "Not after the dance. Not me."

They watched Hadrian negotiate the back of a table.

"I'm going to make Hadrian come to Drama Club with me today," Margalo said. "Now that they've got someone to teach Drama, Drama Club is starting. What do you think?"

"You know I'm playing tennis. Coach Sandy plans to make the regionals again next spring."

"We were talking about Hadrian," Margalo reminded her. "And Drama. And the way -- I don't much like the way people are treating Hadrian in high school."

"I wish he'd just mace those guys," Mikey said.

"Or you could do it," Margalo suggested.

"Or you could think of some way to get at them," Mikey countered.

"Like what?" Margalo asked, sarcastic. "Like, beat them up? Sic Rhonda Ransom on them?" But then once she'd given voice to that sarcastic idea, she couldn't help thinking about it, wondering if it would work and how she would fool Rhonda into going along with it.

"Where do you buy Mace, anyway?" Mikey asked.

"And someone else would just step up to take their places," Margalo realized. "Besides, I bet Mace is illegal at school."

"Or pepper. They can't make a rule against pepper, can they? He could just throw pepper in their faces."

"I can't picture Hadrian doing anything that aggressive," Margalo said.

"Does that mean we have to do it for him?" Mikey asked.

They had determined on the first day of ninth grade to stick together, and they had shaken hands on the deal -- as if they needed to, as if they hadn't been sticking together through thick and thin (a lot of thick, and a lot of thin, too) for four years already, and not a one of those years any easier than its predecessor. On the first day of ninth grade, after the opening assembly and before splitting up for most of the day (they had only Earth Science and Lunch A together), Mikey and Margalo had stood facing each other in the middle of the hall, ignoring the people moving around them. They had faced each other and reached out right hands to shake on it, and they shook, two World War II pilots about to take off on a two-plane mission where they were going to have to be at each other's shoulder -- to guard and defend, also to lead the way -- if they wanted to have any hope of coming back alive.

"I don't know that we have to," Margalo answered thoughtfully, then -- seeing that people were arriving to sit at their table -- she finished hastily -- "but I don't see anybody else doing anything. Of course, they may know something we don't."

"They just think they do," Mikey muttered.

"Yeah, but they may be right," Margalo said as she turned to greet Hadrian. "Hey."

"I'm sorry, Mikey," he greeted them. It was Mikey who loaned him lunch money every day. He repaid her on Monday mornings, before anybody could take it off of him.

Hadrian was an under-age ninth grader, the victim of not merely one but two grade skippings. He had a big, square head and he moved his scrawny seventh-grade-boy's body with its narrow shoulders hunched forward under his heavy knapsack -- totally dorky looking. No ninth grader should be wearing that kind of shirt, and if a ninth grader for some reason had to, he should have the sense not to tuck the shirt into his pants, and if he didn't even have that much style sense he should at least know enough not to wear a belt. No ninth grader should look like he couldn't wait to turn fifty.

Hadrian sat in a chair facing them, which put his back to the room. Probably he was hoping that no one would notice he was there.

Who knew what might happen to someone like Hadrian in high school? The most visible potential victim in the ninth grade, in a system where everybody took it for granted that ninth graders were the natural prey of every upper class? Anything could happen, and none of it much fun for him.

"I'm sorry that I couldn't -- ," he said, indicating the room behind him and the people in it with a short, jabbing gesture of his head.

"I'm not sharing," Mikey told him.

"That would be out of character. I'll get a banana on my way out. I still have a quarter, and they put out enough fruit for all three lunches. But can I stay even if I'm not eating?"

"Be my guest," said Mikey, waving her hand at the table. As far as she and Margalo were concerned, Hadrian made up for his various and several personal deficiencies by being incredibly intelligent and also interested in a wide variety of subjects. There was nothing Hadrian didn't know something about, and he never pretended to know something when he didn't. But that didn't seem to be a recipe for success in high school, any more than it had been in middle school. The only real difference was that before high school Hadrian had had only one real tormenter -- Louis Caselli, class clown, class idiot, long-time sworn enemy of Mikey, and therefore Margalo. But in high school every grade had its share of bullies. From about the first day of school this Star Wars trio had singled out Hadrian. Everybody knew that.

The Who's Who of ninth graders was pretty short. There was Ronnie Caselli, of course, immediately one of the most popular girls in the school, and her cousin Louis Caselli, known as the biggest goof-off in the class. Rhonda Ransom got noticed as the big blonde, Mikey Elsinger as supposedly an ace tennis player, Hadrian Klenk as the perfect nerd, big brain and all -- the kid was taking Calculus, a junior advanced-level class! And Chemistry for his elective! of all the jerkwater choices. Ira Pliotes was famous as the kid whose father owned a movie theater, Shawn Macavity as planning to be on TV he was so handsome (and didn't he know it), Cassie Davis as the urban nightmare artist bad-attitude chick. Those were the ninth graders the whole school knew. The rest, well, maybe you ran into a couple in an activity or a non-Varsity sport, or one of the mixed-grade classes, like Creative Writing, Band, or Art. But it was hard to tell one ninth grader from another this early in the year. They all looked alike. Except for the ones like Hadrian Klenk who went around looking so weird, it was no wonder he got picked on.

"We don't mind having you here," Mikey assured Hadrian.

"Drama starts today," Margalo reminded him.

Hadrian said, "I didn't tell my mother -- "

"You can call her."

"Tennis started right off, like football," Mikey told them, not for the first time.

They ignored her. "You said you would," Margalo reminded Hadrian.

"We're already playing on tennis ladders, separate for boys and girls, and my guess is the top six players on each will be the varsity squad."

Hadrian shrugged, then looked at Margalo out of big brown eyes, like some spaniel asking for mercy or food.

She was unmoved. "I don't know why -- since we both know what a good actor you are -- you don't do a tough-guy act."

"My Arnold Schwarzenegger imitation?" Hadrian asked with a high-pitched laugh. He made his hands into fists and began assuming body-builder poses in his chair.

They laughed too, but Margalo insisted, "You know what I mean. You could."

"Yeah, but I am acting. I'm acting invisible. It's just that I'm not successful."

"You'd do better to act tough," Mikey advised.

"I couldn't do much worse," Hadrian admitted. "But once I really learn the layout, I'll be able to keep out of harm's way."

"You're coming to Drama," Margalo repeated. Giving him a chance to become a star onstage was the only thing she could think of that might help Hadrian out. She knew it wasn't much of an idea and there wasn't much of a chance. After all, they were just ninth graders. But since it was the only idea and chance around, she stuck with it.

"I've already won two matches," Mikey reported. "That makes me number eighteen on the girls' ladder."

Cassie Davis cut this non-conversation short. She ruffled Hadrian's hair as she sat down beside him. "You're like some friendly little animal," she told him, "all brown and bushy. I can't resist." She reached out again and he drew back, as far away as he could get without leaving the table. For a long moment, Cassie held her pose, forcing him to hold his.

With her long-fingered hands, the nails kept short so they wouldn't interfere with her artwork but painted maroon to make her fashion statement, and her artificially black hair cropped short and then tipped with bright blue, Cassie looked like a witch. In ninth grade she had given up wearing any makeup except heavy mascara and had taken up wearing Dickies work trousers, which were white and stained with many colors in oil and acrylic, pastels and india ink. Her black tank top showed splotches of the brightest slices of the color wheel, white and yellow and red, pea green and aqua. Cassie settled down to her cafeteria lunch of two bowls of fruit salad and a grilled cheese sandwich, plus a container of milk and a basket of fries. "Say hey, Hay, what's new?" she asked.

Hadrian shook his head, Nothing, you already know that. He folded his hands on the table in front of him, studying his own fingers.

Casey Wolsowski joined them at that point, at about the same time as Jace, but not together with him. Jace was together with Cassie, and had been for most of eighth grade, despite her complaints about him and his about her. He sat beside Cassie and reached over to take a couple of french fries, before picking up a spoon to begin on one of the bowls of fruit. "Got you a banana," he told her.

"I took two fruit bowls because that's what I want for my own lunch."

"You like bananas," Jace said, setting the fruit down on her tray and removing one of the fruit bowls to his own.

Casey meanwhile circled the table, to sit with her back to the wall next to Margalo, with whom she shared an interest in reading and the most advanced freshman English class. Round little Casey seemed to spend her life in hiding, behind big glasses, behind shapeless denim, behind a book. Seated, her knapsack at her feet, her tray beside her, she pulled a paperback book out of the big pocket on the front of her jumper. To read, Casey took off her glasses. She opened the book flat on the table in front of her and picked up her fork.

Margalo was always impressed by Casey's ability to eat without looking. She was also curious about the book. It looked old, and often read, and it seemed to be poetry. John Brown's Body?

"Art Club meets today," Cassie told them. "Peter Paul's the advisor. Did you know he shows at a gallery in New York? You should have signed up for it," she told Jace.

He protested. "You hate activities." She shrugged. "You hate clubs." She shrugged again. "Outings," he reminded her. "Outings on buses."

"An artist can't be a hermit. Not if she wants to be relevant to her time."

"Yeah, but I didn't even try out for the soccer team because of you. And now it's too late."

"Hey, man, don't blame me. That was your choice."

"So I guess I'll try Art Club, since we have until the thirtieth to pick activities."

"I'm playing tennis," Mikey told this new audience. They already knew, or would have guessed, and were not interested.

"What's the book?" Margalo asked Casey.

"My grandmother gave it to me."

"Is it good?"

"It won the Pulitzer," Hadrian reported.

"I wouldn't mind winning a Pulitzer," Cassie announced. "But they don't give one for Art. Peter Paul says I've got talent."

"And here I was busting my brain to solve the mystery of your sudden interest in Art Club," said Jace. "While I should really be trying to figure out who walked off with my Oakleys. Those glasses cost my mom a fortune."

"Have you looked in the Lost and Found?" Casey suggested.

He snorted, disgusted. "Get real."

Casey returned to reading while she ate, or eating while she read.

"I wanna show you all something," Cassie said, and reached down into the knapsack at her feet.

"Not this again," Jace grumbled.

Cassie pulled out her eight-by-ten sketchbook, telling them, "If Peter Paul can stick around for all four years, I might just graduate high school."

As if in response to Cassie's declaration, the cafeteria loudspeakers blared out their Attention! signal, a long whistle call. It silenced all but the most talkative students in the big room, and even those were reduced to whispering. People stared up at the two loudspeakers, one on each side of the entryway, as if they were faces with expressions that could be read. Even ninth graders, by the third Friday of the school year, were accustomed to the crackle and buzz and then the long whistle that halted a class in its tracks. (Announcements were never made during the four-minute changeover times between classes because the hallways were so crowded and noisy nobody would hear them. Also, there were no loudspeakers in the halls.)

A woman's voice reeled off five names in rapid succession, four boys -- Bill Somebody, Walter Somebody Else, a Daniel, and a Martin -- and one girl, Janice Timmer. "Report to Mr. Robredo's office at the end of Lunch A," the voice instructed the five.

"Way to go Janice!" someone cheered, and a few people applauded and whistled, causing the faculty members on lunch duty to move closer, like a flock of birds gathering in the sky, ready to fly towards trouble.

After a reminder about where the Late Activities buses departed from, the loudspeakers gave a closing whistle and fell silent.

Immediately, conversations roared back to life. The noise of trays being stacked and utensils and plates being tossed onto the conveyor belt added to the confusion.

"Like any ninth grader is going to get to do anything in any activity," Cassie told them. "Or club, either, unless maybe something like the Community Aid Club."

Casey disagreed from behind her book. "On the literary magazine everyone gets to help with proofreading. In pairs. And we all vote on every submission."

"The magazine comes out, what? Twice a year? Art Club is actually an open studio. It's really just extra studio time. Peter Paul sets up subjects, still lifes, problems to solve, and he's talking about live models in the spring. He only wants people who are serious about art," she warned Jace, before saying to the rest of them, "Look at this." She opened the sketchbook to show them three small sketches, all on one page: one of an ear and the hair around it, one of a braid, and one of a hand.

They passed the sketchbook around, and Cassie watched their reactions as she explained, "The assignment was a portrait, in pencil."

"She -- what else, right? -- she did something entirely different from everybody else," Jace remarked, but whether it was pride or irritation in his voice wasn't clear. When, like Jace, a person has become a cynic by osmosis, not nature, it isn't always clear what his sarcasm means. "Like this," and he pulled out his own sketch pad, opening it to a drawing of Cassie's face -- a lot like her in the eyes and hair. You'd recognize her easily if you knew she was the one Jace was likely to want to draw. Nobody said anything.

"That's Mikey," Hadrian said, turning back to Cassie's sketches and indicating an ear you could barely see behind a section of thick braid. Although it wasn't shown in the picture, there was probably a hand pulling the braid forward, but the braid was the star of the sketch. That braid knew its own mind. That braid knew where it was going and how to get there. "It is Mikey, isn't it?"

"And that's me," Margalo said of the ear with hair tucked smoothly behind it, everything neat and orderly, except that the whorls of ear seemed to curl into secret places and disappear there.

"See?" Cassie asked Jace.

"But who's that, the one with the finger like God's finger on the Sistine Chapel?" asked Casey, and then she guessed, "Peter Paul?"

"You should have done the top of his head," Jace said. "With that bald spot he tries to hide."

"Those are really good drawings," Hadrian said.

Cassie nodded, agreeing. She folded the sketchbook closed.

Not to be outdone, Mikey reminded them, "Coach Sandy wants the team to get to the regionals this year. We might even win and go to the statewides. Because this year I'll be on the team."

"Right," said Cassie. "I'm sure she won't notice that you're a ninth grader."

"Sports are about how you play, not what grade you're in," Mikey told them, not mentioning the speech Coach Sandy had made to the people who came to sign up for tennis on the second day of school. About learning the game and doing the drills. About serving your time on the bench to earn your position on the team. Once the coach saw the kind of tennis Mikey played, she'd change her tune. "Coach Sandy knows how to win. She played pro tennis."

Cassie was the cynic by nature. "If she's so good, what's she doing coaching a high school sports team?"

"A person might ask the same about Peter Paul," said Jace.

Cassie shook her head pityingly at him. "Art's different. Art's harder."

Casey looked up from her book to ask, "What's easy?"

Responses surged at her from both sides, and from across the table, too. "Cheerleading." "Computers." "Cooking." "Football." "Business." "Teaching." "Politics, once you're elected." "Math." "Science."

Everyone named things they had no interest in trying to do or talent for doing.

Casey didn't add anything. She put on her glasses and looked at them all, letting the variety of responses speak for themselves.

They were speaking to deaf ears. "Reading," Mikey concluded, glaring at Casey.

Copyright© 2006 by Cynthia Voight

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
High schools -- Fiction.
Schools -- Fiction.
Bullies -- Fiction.
Tennis -- Fiction.
Sports -- Corrupt practices -- Fiction.