The Gathering Storm
Chapter 1 A Time of Change
Beeeep. Beeeep. Beeeep.
That sound . . . It was so familiar. . . .
Mack Kimura struggled to wake up, but the dream wouldn’t loosen its grip. In the battle between dreams and alarm clocks, though, alarm clocks would always win.
Mack opened his eyes, and the beach vanished, the mist melted into nothingness, and the dark shadow receded. All that remained was the horn. But no, even that wasn’t real; it was just Mack’s alarm clock. Somehow his dreaming brain must have made it sound deeper.
What a weird dream, he thought, trying to remember exactly what had happened. Was I, like, some kind of fox?
But the dream was already slipping away, just like the mist that often rolled over the small coastal town of Willow Cove, where Mack lived.
I’ve been watching way too many animal documentaries, Mack thought, shaking his head. Mack’s grandfather, Akira, was really strict about television. The only shows he ever wanted to watch were nature documentaries. They could be pretty interesting, but Mack would rather watch a superhero movie any day. Their nightly arguments over the remote control were just one of the many ways in which Mack and his grandfather clashed. Sometimes Mack found it hard to believe they were even related.
Mack smacked at his alarm halfheartedly until it finally stopped beeping. Hearing the alarm blaring on a hot, sunny morning could mean only one thing: the first day of school was here. Mack had been counting down for days. It’s not that he loved school—he’d rather have summer vacation last all year—but the first day of school meant that his best friend, Joel Hastings, was finally home from his grandparents’ farm upstate, where he’d spent the summer. Mack had missed him a ton.
After Mack got dressed, he slung his backpack over his shoulder and ambled down the hall to the kitchen, where breakfast was waiting for him: a bowl of steaming white rice, a banana, a rolled-up omelet, and a saucer of silvery sardines.
“Big day, Makoto,” Mack’s grandfather said, his wrinkled face grinning. “Sit. Eat.”
Mack sat down and reached for his chopsticks. “It’s Mack, remember?” he asked.
His grandfather gazed at him with eyes that were the color of the ocean on a stormy day. “You can be Mack if you choose,” he said evenly. “I will choose to be Jiji. Or Jiichan, if you prefer.”
“Okay, Jiichan,” Mack said, stifling a sigh. Jiichan was the Japanese word for “grandfather”—it was affectionate, but not quite so affectionate as “Jiji,” which was practically baby talk. One thing was for sure, though: Mack’s Japanese pronunciation was perfect; Jiichan had made sure of that.
Mack poked at his eggs, wishing that his grandfather could just understand. They didn’t live in Japan; in fact, Mack had never even visited the country where his
parents had been born. But Jiichan seemed determined to live like he was still there, even though he’d been in the United States for almost seven years now, ever since Mack’s parents had died in a car accident when he was five years old. It was the weirdest thing: the longer Jiichan was in the United States, the more ferociously he clung to his Japanese heritage. From the silk screens in the house to the perfectly maintained lotus pond and gingko trees in the backyard, everything felt Japanese to Mack—except himself.
Mack picked up his chopsticks and brought a few grains of rice to his mouth. The eggs and banana would be fine, but there was no way he was going to eat even one bite of the sardines. The last thing Mack wanted was to smell like an aquarium on the first day of seventh grade.
As usual, Jiichan seemed to know what Mack was thinking. He pointed at the shimmery fish with his chopsticks. “Brain food,” he said.
“I’m, uh, full,” Mack replied.
“More for me, then,” Jiichan said as he pulled the porcelain dish across the table.
“You’ll be the smartest grandfather on the block,”
Mack joked. He was glad to see Jiichan smile in response.
Mack could just barely hear the rumble of the bus as it traveled toward his house. He grabbed the banana and stood up so suddenly that his chair scraped across the floor. Jiichan winced, but his eyes never left Mack’s face.
“The bus,” Mack explained as he reached for his backpack.
Jiichan nodded, but there was an expression on his face that Mack couldn’t quite figure out. “Yes,” he said. “I heard it too. Have a good day at school, Makoto. . . . Mack.”
“Thanks, Jiichan,” Mack said. He opened the screen door and bounded down the front steps two at a time. When the bus stopped in front of his house, Mack saw that Joel had already snagged their favorite seat—right side, seventh row.
“Makoto, my man!” Joel bellowed as Mack got on the bus. He thrust his hand into the air. High slap, low slap, behind-the-back slap.
Then Mack elbowed Joel and said, “It’s Mack, remember?”
“Right. Sorry about that,” replied Joel. He scrunched
up his nose to adjust his glasses. “It’s gonna be hard to remember. Makoto is such a cool name, dude. Why would you ever want to change it?”
Mack shrugged. How could he explain to Joel, whose family had lived in Willow Cove for six generations? Joel, who always fit in so easily? This year, Mack finally decided he was done with being known as the Japanese kid with the weird name. Starting in seventh grade, he was going to be Mack.
Mack reached into his backpack and pulled out the envelope he’d received a whole week ago. It was still sealed, in perfect condition.
“I can’t believe you waited,” Joel said, a note of awe in his voice. “I mean, I only had mine for ten hours, and it’s been torture.”
“You didn’t open it, though, did you?” asked Mack.
“Of course not,” Joel replied. “You think I’m going to mess with tradition and jinx us?”
Mack grinned at him. Ever since first grade, he and Joel had been best friends—and ever since then, they’d been in the exact same class. Last year, when they moved up to middle school, Mack was sure their lucky streak
would come to an end. But somehow, Mack and Joel had beaten the odds and were in all the same classes together.
Would their luck hold out for seventh grade?
“You ready?” Joel asked. “One . . . two . . . three!”
At the same time, the boys ripped open their envelopes. Mack’s eyes darted back and forth as he read his schedule. First period, English. Second period, geometry. Third period, earth sciences. Fourth period, band. Amazingly, Mack’s and Joel’s schedules were a perfect match—so far.
“I’ve got social studies for fifth period,” Joel said. “Then lunch.”
Mack nodded. “Me too.”
“Seventh period, gym,” Joel continued. “You too, right?”
Mack stared at his schedule. The words were clearly printed there: Independent Study: Physical Education. The hint of a frown crossed his face.
Mack’s silence told Joel everything he needed to know. “Oh, no,” he groaned. “Seriously?”
“I—I don’t know,” replied Mack. “What’s an independent study?”
Joel grabbed Mack’s schedule. “Dude, what is this? Some kind of experimental gym class or something? And who’s ‘D. Therian’? I thought Coach Connors taught all the seventh-grade gym classes.”
“A new teacher?” Mack guessed. The name sounded familiar, but Mack didn’t remember a Coach Therian from last year.
“I can’t believe our perfect streak ended over gym class,” he said. “That’s weak.”
But Mack wasn’t ready to accept it. “Maybe it’s a mistake,” he said. “I’ve never even heard of independent study classes at school. There’s just, you know, gym. This has to be a mistake.”
Joel looked doubtful. “I don’t know,” he replied. “That would be a much bigger mistake than a typo or spelling somebody’s name wrong.”
“It could happen,” Mack protested. He twisted around in his seat to talk to Eddie and Miles, who were sitting in the row behind him. “Guys, what do you have for seventh period?” he asked.
“Gym,” Eddie replied. Beside him, Miles nodded.
Mack leaned across the aisle to ask Juliet and Maya
and then Ethan and Reese. All of them had seventh- or third-period gym with Coach Connors. Soon, the entire bus was talking about Mack’s unusual gym class.
“I’m sorry, buddy,” Joel said, shaking his head.
“What for?” Mack asked, sounding more confident than he felt. “Now I know it’s a mistake.”
Joel raised an eyebrow.
“I mean, come on. If it was an actual class, there would be somebody else on this bus who’s in it,” Mack pressed on. “When we get to school, I’ll go to the main office and ask them to fix it.”
“It’s worth a try, I guess,” said Joel.
Mack glanced down at his schedule again. Those words—“Independent Study: Physical Education, D. Therian, Ancillary Gym”—were all he could see. The longer he thought about it, the less sense it made. Nobody even used the ancillary gym anymore—not since the larger gym had been built a decade ago. In fact, everybody kept saying that school was going to renovate the ancillary gym and turn it into a greenhouse for a new gardening elective. So why would Mack have a class scheduled there? And he had never even heard of a
teacher at Willow Cove Middle School named Therian.
D. Therian, Mack thought, squinting at the schedule.
No wonder he knew that name: Dorina Therian was one of Jiichan’s mah-jongg buddies. Every Thursday night, Jiichan and his three best friends gathered around the kitchen table to play mah-jongg. Mack loved his grandfather’s game nights—for him, they meant pizza for dinner and complete control over the TV. Mack had known Ms. Therian since he was a little boy. In fact, he’d seen her just four days ago at Jiichan’s most recent mah-jongg party. She’d given Mack a lemon square and pinched his cheek as she told him to run off and play, like he was still five years old. With her tiny frame and deeply wrinkled face, Ms. Therian seemed like the last person in the world who’d be teaching a gym class. And wouldn’t she have mentioned something to Mack about starting a new job at his school?
A sudden punch to his shoulder jolted Mack from his thoughts.
“Wake up! We’re here,” Joel said.
Mack shook his head, realizing that half the kids had already filed off the bus. Mack would have to hurry if he wanted to get his gym class changed without being late for homeroom. He couldn’t imagine that Jiichan would be pleased if Mack got a tardy on the very first day—that was one lecture Mack would do just about anything to miss.
“Catch you in homeroom, buddy,” Mack said to Joel as they were swept into the stream of kids entering the school. Joel flashed him a thumbs-up and continued down the hall toward his locker while Mack turned left toward the main office. I hope there’s not a big crowd today, Mack thought.
Mack was in luck. The only other person in the office was Mrs. Logan, the secretary. She smiled at Mack over her glasses. “Good morning, Makoto. What can I do for you?”
Mack reached into his back pocket for his schedule, which had gotten pretty crumpled from being passed around on the bus. “It’s about my schedule,” he said as he tried to smooth it out on the counter. “I need to switch my seventh-period class.”
“I’m sorry, Makoto,” Mrs. Logan replied, not even
glancing at the schedule. “Switching classes isn’t allowed.”
The disappointment hit Mack harder than he expected.
“But,” he began again, and then swallowed hard. For once, the manners Jiichan had drilled into him over the years were about to come in handy.
“I understand, Mrs. Logan,” Mack said politely. “It’s just that I think there might be a mistake. I don’t even know what ‘Independent Study: Physical Education’ is, and all my other friends have regular gym with Coach Connors—”
Mrs. Logan was already shaking her head. “We can’t bend the rules,” she explained. “If we let you switch a class, then we’d have to let the next person who asks also switch a class, and then everybody would want to custom design his or her schedule. It would be a logistical nightmare.”
“But why was I assigned to independent study?” Mack asked. “I didn’t sign up for it. No one else I talked to is in it—”
“I am,” a new voice spoke up.
Mack turned to see Fiona Murphy standing behind him. “You’re in independent study for phys ed too?” he asked in surprise.
“Yeah,” Fiona replied.
Mack turned back to Mrs. Logan. “Fiona, me . . . Who else is in this class?” he asked.
She eyed him over the top of her computer screen. “Well . . . ,” Mrs. Logan began. “I’m really not supposed to share information like that. But since you’ll be finding out during seventh period, anyway . . .”
Mrs. Logan typed quickly and then peered at the screen. “?‘Seventh-period Independent Study: Physical Education,’?” she read. “?‘Makoto Kimura, Fiona Murphy, Gabriella Rivera, and Darren Smith.’?”
Mack’s eyebrows shot up. He couldn’t think of a single thing he had in common with Fiona, Gabriella, and Darren. Fiona was supersmart—like, scary smart—and took all accelerated classes. As for Gabriella, everyone in Willow Cove figured she’d make it to the Olympics before she graduated from high school. She was that good at soccer—and that determined to succeed, too. And Darren? He was popular with everyone,
not because he wore the coolest clothes or anything like that, but because he was honestly, genuinely nice. Darren always waved and smiled at Mack in the halls, even though they barely knew each other.
“That’s got to be the most random group of kids at Willow Cove Middle School,” Mack said.
Mrs. Logan fixed him with an indulgent smile. “That’s because it is,” she replied. “Physical education class assignments are generated by the computer. I just print out the schedules.”
“But one class for only four students?” Fiona spoke up. “Wouldn’t it be easier to assign us to the other gym classes?”
Mrs. Logan’s expression didn’t change, but her smile looked strained. “The vice principal sets up the classes. The computer schedules the students. I then print and mail out the schedules,” she explained, reciting the words as if she’d said them a thousand times before. “What brings you to the main office today, Fiona? I suppose you’re also here to request a switch?”
Fiona shook her head. “Actually, it’s my locker,” she explained. “It’s stuck.”
“Oh,” said Mrs. Logan, sounding relieved. “That’s something I can handle. What number is it? I’ll send the janitor to take a look.”
“Five oh seven,” Fiona replied.
Mrs. Logan dutifully wrote it down on a memo pad. “Now, off you two go, or you’ll be late for homeroom,” she said kindly but firmly, and Mack knew there was no point in saying one more word about Independent Study: Physical Education.
“Thanks,” Mack and Fiona said at the same time. They glanced at each other and grinned. Mack reached the door to the office first and pulled it open.
“Do you have Mr. Morrison for homeroom too?” Mack said as they hurried into the hallway. Some kids were still hanging out by their lockers, but the crowd had thinned out. Mack wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to get a tardy on the first day of school.
Fiona nodded in response. “He’s not so bad,” she said. “I heard Mrs. Williams gives tardies if anybody is even talking when the first bell rings.”
Mack groaned, shaking his head.
Just then, someone pushed past Fiona.
“Hey!” Mack yelled.
The boy turned around without stopping, flashing them an apologetic smile. It was Darren Smith. “Sorry! Homeroom! Williams!” he yelled as he kept running.
“That explains everything. You okay?” Mack asked, turning to Fiona.
“Yeah, Darren gave me a shock when he rushed by,” Fiona said, then, seeing Mack’s expression, “What?”
Mack stifled a laugh. “Your hair” was all he could get out before cracking up. Pieces of Fiona’s wavy hair were standing straight up from end to end. “The shock must’ve been pretty . . . hair-raising,” he added with a grin.
Fiona elbowed him in the ribs before smoothing her hair back in place. At the far end of the hall, he heard a scoff from Daisy Park, Katie Adair, and Lizbeth Harris. They were the coolest, most popular girls in Willow Cove Middle School—and they were also some of the meanest.
“Looks like the Pony Patrol is ready to prance into seventh grade,” Fiona said suddenly, in a voice so low that Mack wasn’t even sure he had heard her correctly.
“Did you just—” he began, but Fiona put her finger to her lips. Mack saw her eyes sparkle with mischief. Who would’ve thought Fiona had a snarky side? Mack wondered. Everybody called Lizbeth and her friends the Pony Patrol because they always wore their hair in perfect ponytails—but nobody Mack knew would ever dare to say those words aloud and especially so close to them. Somehow, though, Fiona seemed completely unconcerned, even as Mack glanced furtively at Lizbeth and the other girls. Gabriella Rivera was also part of their clique. In fact, she should have been right next to Lizbeth, but Mack didn’t see her anywhere. Weird, he thought. Maybe she’s got Mrs. Williams for homeroom too, unless she’s sick or something.
Why else would anyone miss the first day of school?