I Am Fartacus
Once, in front of pretty much the whole school, Moby cut a fart so loud it sounded like a phone book being ripped in half.
I was there. It changed my life.
Moby never even acknowledged it. He just walked away like nothing happened, but the rest of us who weren’t already dying of laughter were left to perish from cheddar-flavored colon-gas poisoning. Cutting a gigantic fart in a crowded cafeteria is the kind of thing that can change your whole destiny, but Moby couldn’t have cared less. I knew right then we’d be best friends.
My name is Maciek Trzebiatowski. Don’t worry,
you don’t need to remember how to spell it. It’s pronounced “Maw-check Chub-a-tess-key,” but people call me Chub because that’s the sound “Trzeb” makes in Polish. With a name like that, I know there’s no chance I’ll ever be one of the popular kids, but don’t lose any sleep. I’m over it.
Moby and I don’t want to be popular anyway. As far as I can tell, popularity doesn’t mean much of anything outside the walls of school. What Moby and I want is to show everyone that the popular kid isn’t everything he seems to be.
If we end up becoming infamous in the process, I guess that’s a form of popularity I wouldn’t mind.
I know what you’re asking yourself. Why bother? Why not just blend in like all the rest of the unpopular kids until one day you become the popular kid’s boss?
Why? Because when you are a bald sixth grader with a little bit of a Polish accent, blending in isn’t an option. When you throw in the fact that the guy who used to be my best friend is now the king of the popular crowd and won’t even admit he knows me—let’s just say I have my reasons.
Who is this jerk? You know the kid everyone treats like a superhero. He goes to your school; he goes to every school. He is a foot taller than everyone by fifth grade. His name is usually Steve or Troy, always one syllable for some reason. At my school his name is Archer Norris, but a couple of years ago, when he became the star of the basketball team, he started calling himself the Arch, and it stuck. When you’re that kid, the things you say and do don’t have to make sense; kids will copy you, just hoping some of your popularity will rub off on them. It’s sad, but you know it’s true.
Anyway, just because these freaks are taller, better-looking, and more athletic and have hair (more on that later) doesn’t mean they should be the only ones who get to say how life works in middle school. The fact that their bodies have no sense of timing doesn’t mean they’re the superheroes everyone makes them out to be, which is where Moby and I come in. Every hero needs a villain, so we’ve made it our business to expose the Arch as the ordinary sixth-grade mortal that I know he is. And I’m here to tell you, business is booming.
Batman once said something like, “Light is defined by the shadow it casts.” Archer “the Arch” Norris is the sun at the center of the Alanmoore Middle School solar system; Moby and me, we’re the shadows.
School is back in session after spring break. I use the back door by the Dumpsters so I can hit the back stairs instead of using the crowded main hallway. The hallway is torture for me, and I avoid it at all costs. It’s difficult for people to pick on you in front of a teacher during class. But in the hallway it’s the law of the jungle. In the halls popular kids are like pumas, and I’m like a sloth with asthma and a limp. Something is always trying to take a bite out of my butt.
The stone halls of the ancient building are chilly after sitting empty for a week, and the fumes from cleaning chemicals burn my eyes. Apparently, our janitor, Mr. Kraley, didn’t get the week off like we did. The place might look like an old asylum, but it smells new. I bet the smell makes most people think of clean places. The smell of chemicals just makes me miss my hair.
Everyone is buzzing after a week off school. I have to turn sideways to slide past a clump of giggling girls.
One of them says “Hawaii” and I try not to think about the five days I just spent at my parents’ dry cleaning shop while my classmates were apparently jetting around the globe. I worked on my “character” while they worked on their tans.
A group of guys from the track team are gathered on the landing. I could turn around and take the long way to my locker, but they are so distracted high-fiving one another, I can probably slide past unnoticed. I flip up the hood of my sweatshirt, turtle my head as low as I can on my shoulders, and try to sneak by without any comments.
I’m safely by them when one whips my hood off my head.
“Look, it’s Yoda!” he says.
“Bald, he is,” another one chimes in. The rest of the jocks crack up, even though he sounds more like Miss Piggy than Yoda.
I want to explain to them that Yoda is actually a Jedi Master and could easily destroy all of them before they even knew what happened, but something tells me that would only make things worse. So I keep walking.
Me and Moby’s lockers are in a bricked-up, dead-end hallway that used to be part of an old stairwell leading from the basement to the library about a hundred years ago. It’s a nice spot because it keeps us out of the main hallway. I quickly scan the area to make sure no one sees what I keep in my locker, then I open it and dig through my stack of supplies.
I save anything and everything I can possibly use in a future plot to embarrass the Arch. I haven’t pulled a prank against him since I propped a gallon of expired milk against the inside of his locker door two weeks ago, and I’m dying to get back to work. I still have a few copies of the eighth-grade health class childbirth video Wondrous Womb from Whence We Came. I swapped one for the sixth-grade Grammar Is Groovy DVD. Most people wouldn’t guess that someone as cool as the Arch faints at the mere sound of the word “biology,” but it’s true. I was hoping he’d watch the video by accident and pass out. Unfortunately, he was home sick the day the class sat down to learn the proper use of semicolons or whatever and got to witness the miracle of birth instead. A couple
of the boys, including a few jocks, cried a little. But without Archer fainting, I couldn’t call that particular prank a success. I consider running the videos over to Ms. Harper’s room for another try, but I seriously doubt I could get away with it twice. Nothing else catches my eye.
Moby arrives and digs in his locker a few doors down from mine. It looks like he’s searching for books, but I know he’s just trying to avoid eye contact with other students.
“You want to come over and finish Watchmen tonight?” I ask.
Moby has to read the good comics at my house because his parents think they’ll turn him into a drooling murderer.
Moby shuts his locker, shoulders his enormous backpack, and sighs. “I can’t.”
“But you only have, like, fifty pages left!”
His shoulders slump. “I got TD tonight.”
Moby’s grandfather lives with them. He’s a retired army colonel and believes in keeping a tight personal grooming schedule. The Colonel is pretty cool—he
unwittingly gives us many of our best ideas for messing with the Arch. The only problem is he can’t bend down and reach his own feet to trim his toenails, so Moby has to do it for him. As the lowest-ranking member of the Dick family, Moby draws toenail detail once a month. He spends a lot of time praying his parents will have another child so he can get out of it.
“Has it been a month already?” I ask.
He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t have to. He shudders like a dog that’s about to throw up, and I change the subject.
“Jarek was over last night,” I say.
He perks up a bit. “Did they get a new movie?”
My cousin Jarek runs the local movie theater, the Clairemont—an ancient movie house that still uses old-fashioned film projectors.
“One came in yesterday. He’ll have it spliced and ready for us to watch it Wednesday after school.”
“It’s not another classic, is it?”
Ever since I convinced him to watch Spartacus last summer, he gets suspicious when he doesn’t know what the new movie is.
“Don’t worry, new release.”
He turns to me, his eyes burning the side of my face. “I hope so. Spartacus didn’t make any sense.”
I’m tired of trying to explain the famous scene where all the slaves claim to be Spartacus so the Romans can’t tell which one really is.
Moby won’t let it go. “I mean, seriously, how can they all be Spartacus? That’s a pretty big mess-up, if you ask me.”
“Mmm-hmm,” I say, hoping he’ll drop it.
He doesn’t. “And if there’s more than one, shouldn’t the movie be called Sparta-CI?” He taps his temple. “Think about it.”
I don’t need to think about it. “Don’t worry, I promise this one is not a classic.”
“Is it age appropriate?”
“I think it’s about owls trying to save the world or something.”
“Sounds lame, but my parents should be okay with it.” Moby’s parents make sure the movies he watches are “age appropriate,” which seriously limits our options.
Moby shuts his locker and grabs my arm. “Wait! Did they get it?”
I shake my head. The “it” he’s asking about is the first trailer for the new League of Honor movie that’s coming out this summer. We’ve already decided it’s our favorite movie of all time, despite the fact that nobody has even seen a single frame of the film yet. Jarek has promised to tell me the second it arrives.
Just thinking about League of Honor appears to wipe the Colonel’s ancient, yellow toenails from his mind. He doesn’t smile exactly, but I know it lifted his spirits.
Jarek has to watch every film before showing it to a real audience to make sure he’s put the film strips together right. We get to watch the movies the day before they’re released. I would probably eat a bag of hair to see movies before they are released. There’s something supercool about knowing things nobody else knows.
We’re about to start planning snacks for our latest private premiere when we hear Shelby behind us.
“What’s happening Wednesday after school?” Shelby Larkin asks. Her voice stops us cold.
We’ve been here too long and she’s found us. I glance at Moby without turning around. His eyes plead with me.
“Nothing, Shelby. Moby is gonna come over and read the last fifty pages of Watchmen.” I try to look busy in my locker.
“Hmm. Will that be before or after you watch the new movie at the Clairemont?”
My scalp flushes. I shut my locker and turn to face her.
If someone figured out how to genetically splice an eleven-year-old girl with a flamingo, Shelby would be the result. All her clothes are from thrift stores and smell like funeral parlors and old perfume. Today she has a sweater buttoned around her neck, but her arms aren’t in the sleeves. Shelby has been trying to get invited to the theater since she found out about our deal last year. So far Moby and I have been able to fend her off. I have no idea why she wants to hang out with us anyway—it’s not like I’ve ever been nice to her.
She pushes her glasses up her nose and leans down
so we’re eye to eye. I try not to blink as she peers into my soul.
After a moment of the human-lie-detector routine she is satisfied that I’m lying and straightens up. “Uh-huh, that’s what I thought.” She folds her arms and stares some more.
I tell myself not to sweat as her bird eyes bore into me, but it’s no good. Beads form on my bare head. I have to get away before some roll down into my eye. I’m an awful liar and it shows.
I start to say, “Let’s go, Mo—” But when I turn, Moby is gone. He knows if we stick around, Shelby will eventually get the truth. After that, how long before we give in and let her come with us to a screening? Moby has slipped away, leaving me to deal with the flamingo.
Well played, kid.
I’m about to suggest she earn her ticket to the screening by trimming the Colonel’s toenails when the intercom crackles. An earsplitting squeal is followed by the voice of our principal.
“Good moooorning, Alanmoore students. This is
Mr. Mayer.” The intercom is ancient like the school, so kids move closer to hear. I know a chance to escape when I see one, so I slip away from Shelby’s soul-searching stare as soon as the speaker catches her attention.
I weave my way through the crowd of students. I’m itching to get down to the pranking, but I gotta find Moby and decide what we’re going to throw at the Arch next.
I hear chunks of the announcement whenever I walk near a speaker.
“Assembly . . . blah, blah . . . elections . . . blah . . .”
I know exactly where to look for Moby. He’s probably in his favorite stall in the upstairs boys’ room, avoiding Shelby (and everyone else) until the second bell rings. I’m starting up the staircase with my head down, deep in thought, when I run into something very dense.
“You should watch where you’re going,” the Arch says, pushing me away.
I catch the railing and stop myself from tumbling backward down the stairs.
“Chubby-Jet-Ski?” he asks. He knows how to say
my name. He messes it up on purpose so nobody thinks he knows me. Plus, thanks to him I’m the only bald kid in sixth grade, so who else could it be?
“What do you want?”
“From you? Nothing. I’m just surprised I didn’t find a dead fish or something in my locker this morning.”
I roll my eyes but also mentally add dead fish in locker to my list of potential pranks.
“Vill vee see you at zee assembly?” he says.
Since he turned into the Arch, he feels the need to point out my accent. The way I sound makes most people assume I’m Russian. It takes a special kind of stupid to think I sound German.
The fact that he actually acknowledged my existence to tell me about the assembly is worrisome.
“Do I have a choice?”
He thinks for a minute. “I guess not.”
I try to step around him, but he moves to block me.
“Get a good seat. You’re gonna want to hear real good.”
“Well,” I correct. You would think people could at least learn to speak their first language properly.
He glances past me and does a chin raise to some kids coming up the stairs. Then he eyes me like he’d probably look at a dead fish in his locker. “Whatevs, Commie!” He pushes past and high-fives the kids on the landing. I think about explaining to him that Poland is a parliamentary republic, not a Communist country, but the second bell starts ringing. More sweat forms on my head as I take the stairs. I don’t like the idea of a special assembly, and I really don’t like the fact that the Arch is so excited about it. He knows I’ve made it my mission to ruin his undeserved reputation, and he is not about to let me get away with it.
If there’s one thing I know to be true, it’s this: There isn’t much room to hide something up your sleeve in a cutoff muscle shirt.