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As the ship's bell clanged for the third time, Ben ran his tongue back and forth across the porcelain caps that covered his front teeth, a nervous habit. And he was nervous because he was late. Again.
When she was being the art teacher, Ms. Wilton was full of smiles and fun and two dozen clever ways to be creative with egg cartons and yarn -- but in homeroom she was different. More like a drill sergeant. Or a prison guard. Still, maybe if he got to his seat before she took attendance, he might not have to stay after school. Again.
The art room was in the original school building, and Ben was still hurrying through the Annex, the newer part of the school. But the long connecting hallway was empty, so he put on a burst of speed. He banged through the double doors at a dead run, slowed a little for the last corner, then sprinted for the art room.
Halfway there, he stopped in his tracks.
"Mr. Keane -- are you okay?"
It was a stupid question. The janitor was dragging his left leg as he used the handle of a big dust mop like a crutch, trying to get himself through the doorway into his workroom. His face was pale, twisted with pain.
"Help me...sit down." His breathing was ragged, his voice raspy.
Ben gulped. "I should call 9-1-1."
"Already did, and I told 'em where to find me," the man growled. "Just get me...to that chair."
With one arm across Ben's shoulders, he groaned with each step, then eased himself into a chair by the workbench.
"Sh...should I get the school nurse?"
Mr. Keane's eyes flashed, and his shock of white hair was wilder and messier than usual. "That windbag? No -- I broke my ankle or somethin' on the stairs, and it hurts like the devil. And it means I'm gonna be laid up the rest of the school year. And you can stop lookin' so scared. I'm not mad at you, I'm just...mad."
As he snarled that last word, Ben saw his yellowed teeth. And he remembered why all the kids at Oakes School tried to steer clear of old man Keane.
A distant siren began to wail, then a second one. Edgeport wasn't a big town, so the sound got louder by the second.
From under his bushy eyebrows Mr. Keane looked up into Ben's face. "I know you, don't I?"
Ben nodded. "You helped me and my dad scrape the hull of our sailboat two summers ago. Over at Parson's Marina." He remembered that Mr. Keane had been sharp and impatient the entire week, no fun at all.
"Right -- you're the Pratt kid."
"I'm Ben...Benjamin." He tapped his tongue against the back of his front teeth a few times.
The janitor kept looking into his face, and Ben felt like he was in a police lineup. Then the man suddenly nodded, as if he was agreeing with someone.
He straightened his injured leg, gasping in pain, pushed a hand into his front pocket, then pulled it back out.
"Stick out your hand."
Startled, Ben said, "What?"
"You hard a' hearing? Stick out your hand!"
Ben did, and Mr. Keane grabbed hold and pressed something into his palm, quickly closing the boy's fingers around it. Then he clamped Ben's fist inside his leathery grip. Ben wanted to yank his hand loose and run, but wasn't sure he could break free...and part of him didn't want to. Even though he was frightened, he was curious too. So he just gulped and stood there, eyes wide, staring at the faded blue anchor tattooed on the man's wrist.
"This thing in your hand? I've been carryin' it around with me every day for forty-three years. Tom Benton was the janitor here before me, and the day he retired, he handed it to me. And before Tom Benton, it was in Jimmy Conklin's pocket for thirty-some years, and before that, the other janitors had it -- every one of 'em, all the way back to the very first man hired by Captain Oakes himself when he founded the school. Look at it...but first promise that you'll keep all this secret." He squinted up into Ben's face, his blue eyes bright and feverish. "Do you swear?"
Ben's mouth was dry. He'd have said anything to get this scary old guy with bad breath to let go of him. He whispered, "I swear."
Mr. Keane released his hand, and Ben opened his fingers.
And then he stared. It was a large gold coin with rounded edges, smooth as a beach pebble.
Outside, the sirens were closing in fast.
"See the writing? Read it."
With shaky hands, Ben held the coin up to catch more light. The words stamped into the soft metal had been worn away to shadows, barely visible.
He read aloud, still whispering. "'If attacked, look nor' nor'east from amidships on the upper deck.'" He turned the coin over. "'First and always, my school belongs to the children. DEFEND IT. Duncan Oakes, 1783.'"
Mr. Keane's eyes flashed. "You know about the town council, right? How they sold this school and all the land? And how they're tearin' the place down in June? If that's not an attack, then I don't know what is."
He stopped talking and sat still. He seemed to soften, and when he spoke, for a moment he sounded almost childlike. "I know I'm just the guy who cleans up and all, but I love it here, with the wind comin' in off the water, and bein' able to see halfway to England. And all the kids love it too -- best piece of coast for thirty miles, north or south. And this place? This is a school, and Captain Oakes meant it to stay that way, come blood or blue thunder. And I am not giving it up without a fight. And I am not giving this coin to that new janitor -- I told him too much already." His face darkened, and he spat the man's name into the air. "Lyman -- you know who he is?"
Ben nodded. The assistant custodian was hard to miss, very tall and thin. He had been working at the school since right after winter vacation.
"Lyman's a snake. Him, the principal, the superintendent -- don't trust any of 'em, you hear?"
The principal? Ben thought. And the superintendent? What do they have to do with any of this?
The sirens stopped, and Ben heard banging doors, then commotion and shouting in the hallway leading from the Annex.
The janitor's breathing was forced, and his face had gone chalky white. But he grabbed Ben's wrist with surprising strength, and pushed out one more sentence. "Captain Oakes said this school belongs to the kids. So that coin is yours now, and the fight is yours too -- yours!"
The hairs on Ben's neck stood up. Fight? What fight? This is crazy.
Two paramedics burst into the room, a woman and a man, both wearing bright green gloves. A policeman and Mrs. Hendon the school secretary stood out in from the hallway.
"Move!" the woman barked. "We're getting him out of here!"
Mr. Keane let go of the Ben's wrist and he jumped to one side, his heart pounding, the coin hidden in his hand.
The woman gave the janitor a quick exam, then nodded at her partner and said, "He's good to go -- just watch the left leg."
And as they lifted the custodian onto the gurney and then strapped him down flat, the old man's eyes never left Ben's face.
As they wheeled him out, Mrs. Henson came into the workroom and said, "I'm glad you were here to help him out, Ben. Are you all right?"
"Sure, I'm fine."
"Well, you'd better get along to class now."
Ben picked up his backpack and headed toward the art room. And just before he opened the door, both sirens began wailing again.
© Andrew Clements 2010
Moment of Silence
"So, what do you know about Duncan Oakes?"
Jill Acton stared across the lunch table at Ben and stopped chewing the bite of tuna salad sandwich she had just stuffed into her mouth.
"Captain Oakes," Ben said. "What do you know about him?"
Jill took a glug of milk, wiped her mouth on the sleeve of her rugby shirt, and said, "I know he's a weirdo -- a dead weirdo. And he was rich. And he probably enjoyed making small children miserable, or else he wouldn't have turned his big old building into a school -- it should have been a prison. Or a pet hospital. Anything but a school. Okay, that's too harsh. I guess I'm just ready for a long break. Like a whole summer."
"You really think Oakes was weird?" asked Ben.
"What -- you don't?" said Jill. "Who has himself buried in the middle of a school playground? And who designs his own giant tombstone so it has a place for a seesaw? And then sticks iron rings everywhere so kids can climb all over it? I'll tell you who: One seriously weird old lunatic."
Ben nodded thoughtfully as he finished his second piece of chocolate cake. Even though the sixth graders ate lunch last, there was usually plenty of cake left, and Ben loved cake. And he always ate dessert first.
Jill had a good point about the captain's tombstone. It was a massive dome of gray granite, about eight feet across and almost five feet tall -- except where it was notched for a seesaw. The seesaw board had been removed years ago for safety reasons, but the gravestone was smack in the middle of the playground at The Captain Duncan Oakes School, and kids still scrambled all over it every day during recess. It was definitely an odd spot for a man to have himself buried.
Jill narrowed her eyes, took another huge bite of sandwich, and mumbled, "Hacomyowrinressedncapnoakesalvasudn?"
Ben didn't want to discuss that, so he shrugged, and took his own huge bite of grilled cheese.
Truth was, he had been thinking about Captain Oakes the whole morning. And about the gold coin. And the writing on it. And about everything the janitor had said to him.
Was he supposed to be doing something about this stuff? Like getting Mr. Keane's phone number, or maybe going over to his house to talk some more? Because there were tons of questions. It was all just so...weird. Jill had picked the right word.
He glanced her way, and the tuna sandwich was gone. Now she was destroying half a dozen carrot sticks. Ben was sure the guys he usually ate with had spotted him, sitting here with her. They had to be wondering why. Couldn't be helped. Right now he needed some real brain power -- and she was smarter than all of 'em put together.
While Ben was still chewing, the intercom speaker on the wall of the cafeteria crackled, followed by one clang from the ship's bell.
"I need everyone's attention for an important announcement."
It was the principal, Mr. Telmer, and the cafeteria quieted down a notch or two.
"For many years Mr. Roger Keane has been head custodian here at Captain Oakes School. His wife just called me to say that he was taken to the hospital this morning with what seemed like a simple problem, but it became more serious. And I'm sad to tell you that about an hour ago, Mr. Keane passed away. He was a good man and a hard worker, and I know all of us will miss him. So let's please take a few moments of silence together now while we remember Mr. Keane."
The lunch room went completely still except for the humming of the milk cooler.
Ben felt like the cafeteria was spinning. He could barely breathe. Dead? He was dead? They had talked, just a few hours ago. And now...he was dead.
After about twenty seconds, the principal said, "Thank you, and I want everyone to have a safe afternoon."
As the cafeteria came back to life, Jill narrowed her eyes at Ben. "You look like you're gonna be sick. Are you okay?"
Ben nodded, and tried to smile. Then he took a drink of milk, but it tasted sour and bitter. He felt dizzy.
"Are you okay?" Jill asked again.
"I'm fine," he said.
But it wasn't true.
Ben got up to go dump his tray, and in the front pocket of his cargo pants he felt an unfamiliar weight banging against his leg -- the gold coin.
And as he headed out for recess, there was the new janitor, tall and thin, standing beside the playground door. He was leaning on the handle of a big dust mop -- probably the same mop Mr. Keane had used this morning. As a crutch. Before he died.
Ben and the janitor made eye contact, and Lyman nodded slightly, his long face expressionless. Then he reached out with his foot and pushed the door open.
"Thanks," said Ben, and went outside, forcing himself not to run his tongue across his front teeth.
A brisk on shore breeze was blowing, and he pulled in deep breaths of cool salty air. He was one of the first kids on the playground, and he walked straight for the big rock with the name OAKES cut deep into the stone, each letter eight inches tall.
Grabbing one of the iron rings, he put the toes of his sneakers into the flat groove made by the bottom of the E, pulled himself up, and clambered to the top. The granite was warm from the late April sunshine.
Ben looked past the south corner of the old brick building, through the oak and maple and beech trees, across the school's front lawn to the harbor wall. And then his eyes reached all the way out across the blue waves of the bay. A wide open view like this usually calmed him down, helped him think clearly. Today it wasn't working, and Ben knew why. He'd probably been the last person at school to talk to the old guy. Before he died. And the man had been so serious about everything, and so...trusting. And how had Ben responded to him? Fear. Plus a little disgust. He'd almost been glad to see him go.
And that talk with the janitor hadn't been some ordinary little chat. Ben had looked into the man's eyes while he swore to keep a secret. Then he had accepted a token, a gold coin. From a dead man.
And on that coin, there was a direct command from Captain Oakes -- another dead man.
Then there had been talk of the attack on the school. And talk about fighting to defend the place.
He could still feel Mr. Keane's grip on his wrist.
During the past eleven and a half years, nothing had prepared Ben for something like this. So he tapped his tongue against his capped front teeth and kept looking out to sea.
He heard someone climbing the rock from behind, and a few seconds later Jill sat beside him.
She was quiet for a minute, then said, "Is this about your parents?"
Ben shook his head. "Nope." No way did he want to think about that, not today.
His mom and dad were going through some problems, and Jill was the only other kid at school who knew about it. Ben sort of wished he hadn't told her. He understood that she wanted to be a help, but if he ever got the least bit quiet or thoughtful, she always assumed he was worried about his parents' separation.
And he was worried about it. But not constantly.
"So what's bugging you?" she said. "Is this about old man Keane? I mean, I'm sorry when anybody kicks the bucket -- it's a lousy thing. But sad stuff happens all the time, so why stress out about it? That's what I say."
Ben had to smile a little at the way she put it. "Yeah, I guess that makes sense."
After a few seconds, Jill said, "So...this must be something else then -- I know. You're all scared about the big social studies test this afternoon, right?"
That made them both laugh, because Ben was a total brain in that class.
He jumped down off the gravestone and looked up at her. "Listen, I'm fine. Really. But thanks for asking. And now I'm going to the library and review some more for that big test...because I'm so scared about it. Later."
Walking away, Ben felt a little better, and he was glad Jill had come looking for him. But he needed more time alone. He had a lot to think about.
© Andrew Clements 2010