Electric Boogerloo CHAPTER 1
It’s almost impossible to do a move called Repulse Monkey without giggling, but a summer of tai chi has taught me this: if I want to harness the strength hidden within me, I can’t laugh every time something sounds like the name of a Norwegian rock band.
Last spring, after I got into (and back out of) some trouble at school, my dad made me take up a sport to burn off all my extra energy and build my character. My parents and I moved to the U.S. from Poland when I was little, and they don’t get out much, so when I suggested tai chi my dad didn’t think martial arts qualified as a sport. But when he found out it was free,
he instantly became a fan. My dad likes tai chi because it’s economical. I like it because it helps me focus the energy I used to use plotting against the Arch. Also because I’m as athletic as a three-legged turtle.
I meet my group every weekday morning at the park a few blocks from my house. I’m the youngest person there by sixty years, which is fine with me. Kids my age like to do a lot of running and jumping and throwing, which means sweating. Who needs that when I can keep my dad off my back and never get my heart rate over seventy-five?
The next move after Repulse Monkey is Grasp the Bird’s Tail, but you can’t go right into it. First you have to do a transition move called Hold the Ball. If I can get through that one, I’m usually fine for the rest of my practice. Mrs. Cheung gives me a kind smile while demonstrating perfect form. Tai chi is basically martial arts in superslow motion; I smile back, imagining her kicking a mugger’s butt with her moves sped up ten times.
All this meditation has given me plenty of time to ponder the last school year. Last spring my friends and
I formed a Cadre, kind of like our own personal Justice League, to take down my former best friend turned nemesis, Archer Norris. After he stopped hanging out with me in second grade, he started acting like a totally different person. Suddenly he became Mr. Popular at school. He got taller quickly and became a hero because he was awesome at every sport he tried. He even gave himself the stupid nickname “the Arch,” like he was some sort of celebrity or something.
And the reason he dumped our friendship? I used some chemicals from my dad’s dry cleaning shop to kill the head lice we’d both gotten—and it ended up leaving me a bald second grader. The hair still hasn’t grown back.
When all was said and done last year, my Cadre and I ended up exposing the Arch’s illegal poker career and stopping a major embezzling scheme he was running to pay for it all.
Obviously, the final months of the school year were awkward between us, to say the least.
The problem is, once it was all out on the table, we didn’t have anything to antagonize each other about.
It’s not like we instantly became best friends or anything, but our old archenemy spark definitely cooled, and neither of us seemed to know if we should trust each other again. We saw each other a couple times over the summer; once at the Clairmont, the old-fashioned movie theater my cousin Jarek manages, on the opening night of League of Honor, and once at this very park. Archer, Troy, Nate, and a bunch of other athletic kids were bashing each other’s brains in, fighting over a football, as I practiced Carrying the Tiger over the Mountain with my tai chi friends. My heart sped up when our eyes met, but he just looked away and went back to his game. Who knows? Maybe he didn’t actually see me.
The truth is, years of battling the class hero sort of made me into the school villain. I can’t blame anyone else; it was kind of fun being infamous. But I’ve been playing the villain game so long, I don’t know how else I’m supposed to keep myself occupied at school this year.
There’s scuffling behind me. Herman usually falls over trying to do the move called Snake Creeps Through the Grass, which is hilarious, and I want to
finish my last session before the first day of school on a high note, so I strain my eyes to the side, hoping to witness a clumsy topple. But it isn’t the sound of the only person in Seattle less coordinated than me eating a grass sandwich; instead, it’s a pasty kid in tight jeans and a button-down shirt weaving his way through the maze of elderly martial artists.
My best friend, Moby, rushes toward me, sidestepping my tai chi friends like he’s negotiating a blackberry patch.
“Chub!” he calls.
I ignore him, practicing my focus. Then he’s standing right next to me.
“There you are,” he says, panting from the climb up the small knoll where we practice. “You’re harder to spot with all these other bald people here.”
I nod my head toward a park bench, hoping he’ll go wait quietly for me to finish. Like everything else someone’s ever tossed Moby in his life, he doesn’t catch the hint.
He shakes my shoulder like he’s trying to wake me up. “Hellooo?”
I glance at Mrs. Cheung again. Her smile is still there, but the kindness meter is dialed back about three clicks. She speaks slowly. “Does your friend want to try tai chi?”
“No thanks,” Moby says. “My parents don’t let me have caffeine.”
I slap my head, then relax out of the pose I’m holding. My concentration is shot; practice is finished for the day. I lead Moby over to the bench where I left my bag.
“You’re early,” I say, stripping off my silk uniform. My school clothes underneath are a little soggy with sweat, but no worse than usual. “Did you skip your bathroom session this morning?”
Moby digs a handful of denim out of his butt. “No, my parents switched the salad greens from romaine to kale, so it doesn’t take as long.”
I shudder at the idea of Moby being even more “regular” than he already is.
“That’s cool,” I say.
“I guess,” he says, shrugging. “I’ve got lots more free time now.”
Moby’s parents buy him a new wardrobe at the beginning of every school year. Last year the stuff they bought him made him look like a dad from the 1950s. This year the look is slightly more current, but it’s still obvious a kid didn’t pick it out.
“What’s up with your pants?”
Moby looks down at his outfit. “They’re skinny jeans.”
“But you aren’t skinny.”
“It’s a fashion thing,” he says, picking some imaginary lint off the pants.
“I thought they were just too small for you.”
He laughs. “That’s what I thought too.”
Whatever. If he wants to go to school looking like an overstuffed bratwurst, that’s his deal. I’ll stick to 501s and T-shirts.
As distracting as Moby’s new clothes are, my mind is really on what’s going to happen when I run into the Arch at school. Will he leave me alone, or will things go right back to the way they were before, with him and his friends making fun of me and me and my friends doing everything we can to bring him down?
We leave the park and head west up the sidewalk toward Alanmoore Middle School. Moby chatters about his new wardrobe, but all I can think about is what will be waiting for me at school. I have to stay off the principal’s radar this year, no matter what. My dad thinks growing up in America has made me soft. He’s itching for an excuse to send me back to Poland for a summer of hard labor on my Uncle Stan’s potato farm. I used up every bit of luck I had avoiding deportation last year and I don’t think I can deal with that kind of stress again. I’ve given up my desire to be infamous; this year I just want to be a normal student.
I spot Shelby’s front door from a block away. I figure she’ll be sitting on the front porch in one of her Grammie’s dresses waiting for us, but the front porch is empty. As we approach the house I slow down a little bit. I’m not going to knock on her door and invite her to walk to school with us, but if she comes out when we pass I guess it’s okay if she joins us.
We’re almost safely past when she flies out the front door and careens down the porch steps, noodly arms and legs thrashing in every direction at once.
“Guys, wait up!” she calls, even though we’ve
already stopped to wait for her.
I take a step back as she gets close, so she doesn’t accidentally slap me with one of her flailing flamingo flippers. “What are you so excited about?”
“It’s the first day of school!” she practically sings.
I stare at Moby, who looks as confused by her answer as I am. “So?”
“So!” she yells. Moby flinches but doesn’t run away. “So, new faces, new opportunities. This is a very exciting day!”
“What are you talking about? We’ve all gone to school together for years. It’s just another nine months of government-mandated torture.”
Shelby dashes in front of us and stops, blocking the sidewalk. “You guys didn’t read the letters the school district sent home over the summer, did you?”
Moby and I look at each other. I do my best to appear ashamed for not reading the letters. I hold it for a second, but then we both lose it and burst into laughter.
“What kind of kid reads a letter from the school district?” I say, wiping away tears.
Moby shakes with laughter. “Who—gasp—who reads over the summer?”
I dry my eyes and look at Shelby. Her hands on her hips tell us she is not amused. She actually looks kind of hurt. Apparently she is the kind of kid who reads those letters.
“Shelby,” I say, regaining my composure, “I’d rather eat a bowl of toenails than read a letter from the school.”
She folds her arms over her chest. “Well, then I guess you guys are in for a few surprises today,” she says. She spins on her heel and storms away down the sidewalk.
I don’t like the sound of that. My activities at school have always required me knowing exactly what is going on. But I’m planning on turning over a new leaf this year, so maybe it won’t be that big of a deal if I’m not on top of everything.
I know one thing for sure: there’s no way I’m going to chase Shelby down and give her the satisfaction of hearing me ask what those letters had to say.
Moby and I don’t talk the rest of the way to school.
The only sounds are the cars whizzing by and the rhythmic shwip-shwip-shwip of Moby’s skinny jeans rubbing together as he walks.
Alanmoore looks the same as it always does, kinda like a church and a mental institution had a baby. Pangs of nervousness like I felt in the past when I saw my school flare up in my guts. This year is going to be different, I remind myself.
I decide to start seventh grade by walking in the building’s front door instead of the back, like I always have. Moby doesn’t question the move; he just follows me.
We pause in the stone entryway.
“It’s a new year,” I say.
“I know,” Moby replies.
“Let’s make it a good one.”
He shrugs. “Okay.”
I reach for the knob. “Here’s to staying out of trouble.” But as I touch it a tiny blue spark stings my finger. “GOAT FARTS!!!” I scream, more surprised than actually hurt by the static shock.
“The Colonel says that’s from scuffing your feet
on the ground like a dirtbag when you walk,” Moby explains. Moby’s grandpa is a retired army colonel who lives with them. He can spot a dirtbag from miles away.
I’m not going to kid myself. I might know things are going to be different, but this building probably feels like it owes me a little payback for years of pranks, like stink bombs and plugged toilets. I can take whatever bad karma I have coming my way.
I grasp the knob again; this time there’s no shock. The heavy door swings inward on squeaky iron hinges and we step into the main hallway for the first time as seventh graders.
The echo of first-day chatter is deafening. We weave our way through the knot of incoming sixth graders and make our way to the back staircase that leads to our lockers on the second floor. I think about what Shelby said about new faces. I don’t recognize anyone here, but it doesn’t surprise me, since they were all in grade school somewhere else last year.
On the second floor I make a beeline for my locker. Shelby’s comment is starting to bug me, and I want to drop off my bag and find her to ask her what she
meant. I slam the locker shut and scan the hallway. I do recognize some faces: student body secretary Sam Hardwick, Rooney Filbert, and that kid with one continuous eyebrow who everyone calls Bert (as in, “Hey Bert, where’s Ernie?”).
At the far end of the hall, in the middle of a crowd of high-fiving jocks, is my old nemesis. I watch him for a second, looking for some clue to whether I’m still looking at his phony persona, the Arch, or if he’s back to just being plain old Archer Norris. From this far away it’s hard to tell. He looks up from his welcoming committee and our eyes meet. I’m about to duck into the crowd and hide when something odd happens. Arch quickly averts his eyes, and then he slips away, leaving several hands un-high-fived.
Then I spot another face I recognize noodling her way through the crowd toward us. Apparently Shelby’s done punishing us.
“Did you figure it out yet?” she says smugly.
“What? The new faces thing?”
“Yeah, a bunch of sixth graders, big deal.”
She folds her arms again. “Not just that. Since you aren’t going to figure it out on your own, and since I forgot to bring the letter with me, I’ll just tell you.”
Moby and I put on our most uninterested looks.
“Okay, do you guys remember when that levy for school funding failed last November?”
“Oh yeah,” I say.
Shelby’s look brightens.
“But I always remember that as the day I didn’t care about boring stuff like school levies, instead.”
Her brow flattens into a line. “Anyway, the vote was a real nail biter at fifty-two percent—”
I wave my hand to cut her off. “So it failed, and—?”
“And they had to shut down Trondson Middle School, which meant they had to rezone the district.”
I have never been less interested in a series of words than the ones coming out of Shelby’s mouth right now. “So?”
“So, one third—well, thirty-six percent of the students, to be exact—now have to go here!”
I know two things about TMS: having them out of
the picture will make Coach Farkas happy, since they are our track team’s biggest rivals; and Trondson has a reputation as a pretty rough place. Who knows which third of their students we got—the good third, the bad third, or the ugly third?
I’ll have to swing by and get the scoop from Principal Mayer later. Last year, our principal was involved in the same poker league as the Arch. The league was run by a crooked bookie named Mace who loaned people money and then cheated to win it back from them. Moby won second place in the regional tournament as part of our plan to take the Arch down. We ended up using some of the money he won to pay off both his and Mr. Mayer’s debts to Mace, so you could say Mr. Mayer owes me one.
For now, I just sweep the hallway one more time to see if I can spot any obvious transplants. I can’t lie; I’ve spent the last few years so focused on my anti-the-Arch mission, I haven’t really gotten to know many of my classmates. I’m about to stamp Shelby’s surprise with a big Who cares? when something catches my eye.
The first thing I notice is the hair: straight-cut
bangs framing porcelain cheeks. Then the eyes: big, black, shiny, and almond-shaped, covering half of the face. I lose my breath. I didn’t think this would happen to me until I was much older, but here I am on the first day of seventh grade face to face with the comic of my dreams.
I’m standing a few short steps away from a mint copy of the legendary comic book writer Tatsuo Kobayashi’s masterpiece, Ronin Girl number one. I might faint. I don’t recognize the girl holding it; she must be new to Alanmoore. She actually looks a little bit like Ronin Girl, except she’s wearing leggings and a T-shirt instead of a samurai kimono. I look back at the comic, which is properly sleeved. This kid knows her stuff. I cock my head to read the title for one hundred percent confirmation, and I have to stifle an involuntary squeal when I realize I can’t even read it because it is written in the original Japanese!
Shelby snaps me out of my trance.
“Ew!” she says, poking my shoulder. “Stalk much?”
She clearly doesn’t understand the subtle difference between stalker and connoisseur.
I must meet this person and find out how she came into possession of the Holy Grail of rare Japanese comics. She puts the book in her locker. Now’s my chance to introduce myself. Out of habit, I scan the hallway for the Arch before stepping into the crowd. I spot him instantly. His hand is in his locker, but his eyes are on something else. He’s locked on to the new student too, only I don’t think he’s interested in her comic book.
He breaks his creeper gaze and looks at me, giving me a small smile I can’t interpret. He nods and then disappears into the river of kids looking for their first class. When I look back to Ronin Girl’s locker, she’s gone. Our fateful meeting will have to happen some other time, hopefully before the Arch gets to her.
I turn to Shelby and do a bad job of hiding my giddiness. “This is a pretty good surprise.”
She pushes her glasses up and gives me a disappointed look. “Oh, there’s more,” she says.
She’s about to spill it when the squelch of the PA speakers splits the air. We all quiet down to hear Mr. Mayer’s first “Good mooooorning, Alanmoore” of the new school year.
Only the voice over the speaker isn’t Mr. Mayer’s. It’s a woman’s voice, and there is no cheerful “Good morning.”
“This is your new principal, Mizzzz Lockhart.”
Instinctively, I look over at Moby. He does not like change of any kind, and this is the sort of thing that can send him scurrying off in search of a hiding spot.
The icy voice on the PA continues. “I look forward to meeting each and every one of you in the near future. Most of you in the halls.” She pauses. “But no doubt some of you will insist on meeting me in my office instead. I’m sure you know who you are.”
My scalp flushes. All of my tai chi Zen is officially spent.
Shelby gives me the smug look again. “—And that’s the rest of the surprise.”