This Is Not a Werewolf Story
Chapter 1 THIS IS THE CHAPTER WHERE THE NEW KID RUNS SO FAST, RAUL DECIDES TO TALK
New kid. New kid. The words fly around the showers and sinks. I can almost see them, flying up like chickadees startled from the holly tree in the woods.
All the boys are in the big bathroom on the second floor, washing up before breakfast. The littlest kids stand on tiptoe to peek out the windows that look onto the circle driveway.
I pick Sparrow up and hold him so he can see. He’s the littlest of the littles, but the kid is dense—like a ton of bricks.
I can’t believe my eyes. No kid has ever come to the school on the back of a Harley. Not in all the years I’ve been here, and I’ve been here longer than anyone. The driver spins the back wheel, and a bunch of gravel flies up.
The new kid is holding on to the waist of the driver. He must have a pretty good grip, because the driver looks over his shoulder and tries to peel the kid’s fingers away one by one. Then the driver takes off his helmet.
We all gasp, because it turns out the driver is a lady with long straight black hair.
Next to me Mean Jack whistles. “What a doll!”
Mean Jack thinks he’s a mobster. A made man, that’s what he calls himself. I call him a numbskull, but not out loud.
The pretty lady turns her head again and says something. The new kid folds his arms over his chest. He just sits there with his helmet on, waiting for her to roar them back down the hill to the freeway and freedom. His black leather jacket is way too big for him. Pretty Lady keeps talking. She looks angry the way moms look when they’re doing something they don’t want to do but think that they have to. The kid’s helmet jiggles left to right. No, he’s saying. No. No. No. No.
That’s how I felt when my dad brought me here. My chest hurts just thinking about it, and Sparrow starts to weigh as much as a blue whale. I hoist him up onto my shoulders. Sparrow reaches down and pulls on my ears. “Fanks,” he says.
Sometimes Sparrow makes an “f?” sound when he should make a “th” sound. You can’t try to explain it to him because it makes him sad. The last thing I want is for Sparrow to be sad.
I can feel Mean Jack getting ready to say something rude, so I shoot him a warning look that says something even ruder.
Nobody teases Sparrow about the way he talks when I’m around, but Jack’s the kind of kid who forgets what’s good for him.
While I’m making sure Jack remembers, everyone starts to shout and cheer.
The new boy is making a break for it.
He’s jumped off the bike and is racing toward the edge of the cliff. We all run to the windows on the other side of the bathroom to watch. The grown-ups below freeze, but a second later they come running around the corner to watch too.
“Come back here!” The words float out and pop in the grass. It must be Ms. Tern. When she yells, you can tell she knows you’re not ever going to do what she wants.
Ms. Tern’s bubble-yell is gas in the new kid’s tank. His knees and elbows crank and turn. It’s like watching a plane just before liftoff.
My heart soars. It really does. I read that saying the other night, and when I see the new boy run I remember it. Now I know what it means—your heart ruffles and beats like a pair of wings. I feel like I’m flying beside him, racing away.
And where he’s heading and how fast he’s running, man, that kid even has half a chance.
The school sits on a cliff that looks like the letter M. See how it has two points at the top, a left one and a right one? Well, the school is at the tip of the left point,
about three hundred feet above the beach. Between the left and right points, the cliff drops straight down to sharp rocks and water. Even if you could swim across the ravine to where the other point juts back out of the sea and scale the cliff, you’d get to the top and find yourself at the far end of White Deer Woods. Let me tell you, because I know it for a fact, no new kid would survive in there for more than an hour.
But the new kid is heading to the left of the left tip of the M. That side slopes gently down to the water. There’s a zigzag path that leads to the beach. You’re wondering what happens once he hits the sand, right? Well, there’s only one way to go—left, along the water’s edge to Fort Casey. And Fort Casey is just what it sounds like—an old military fort. There are tons of barracks and guns and tunnels built into the cliff. It’s a big park now. All the new kid will have to do is walk into any one of the fifty tunnels and just sit tight. If he doesn’t mind killing time in the dark, chances are good he’ll be able to hide from everyone.
Well, at least until the grown-ups find some flashlights and get a search going. Then it’s all over for him. He’ll meet his fate here like the rest of us. But until then, the race is on.
The girls, whose bathroom is on the other side of the building, must have heard the commotion. They all come out onto the grass to watch.
The kid is running like he’s never heard of Consequences.
“Go, kid, go! Go, kid, go!” everyone starts chanting.
I don’t say it out loud along with them, but I’m thinking it so hard it’s like I’m praying for him.
Then, right before the new kid hits the zigzag path, Mr. Tuffman runs out the side door that leads from the gym.
He’s hauling toward that new kid like a Bugatti Veyron (the fastest street-legal car in the world, if you didn’t know). Mr. Tuffman was in the Olympics. Three times. He didn’t break any records, and it was a long time ago.
He was in the Olympics. Three times.
We all groan. Jack says a bad word. I set Sparrow down. My back is killing me.
Here they come. Consequences, kid. Nobody wants to find out about them from Tuffman. Mean Jack says Tuffman lost his last coaching job because kids kept disappearing during the 5K runs. I always wonder. When they say “disappear,” do they mean the kids got lost but showed up at school later? Or do they mean disappear like never seen again?
I can’t look away. It’s all over for the new kid.
But then it’s not.
“What the—?” Jack says first.
We all look. The kid’s legs have started moving so fast that they’re a blur. They look like the spokes on a bicycle wheel. He’s flying, practically, and he’s halfway down the path. Everyone’s yelling again.
“Go, kid, go!” the chant starts up again. My skin gets little bumps, and we’re all pumping our fists and jumping for him.
But I know Tuffman. And I can tell by the way he’s running with his back perfectly straight that he has a lot more juice in him. See, now he’s just chugging along. It hurts because of some old spinal injury, but he can go a lot faster. The pain just makes him meaner once he gets you.
And once they’re both on the sand, he’ll catch the new kid in under a minute.
In fact, just now, I notice Tuffman lean forward from the waist. Oh yeah. He’s putting on the speed. I’m gonna hate this part.
Then the back of my neck tingles. The hair on my head stands straight up. Something is about to happen—a magic kind of something that only happens in White Deer Woods. Not hocus-pocus magic with witchy-poo hats and green fizzy drinks, all right? We’re not talking werewolves and vampires, either. When it happens it makes you notice things that must have been there all the time. And once it’s happened to you, you can never stop noticing.
Tuffman’s sprinting. New kid’s flying, or just about.
From nowhere a crow darts down and zips right in front of Tuffman.
Right. In. Front.
I see, plain as day, one of its wings slap up and down against Tuffman’s face. Slap slap. That was no accident. Crows don’t sucker punch Olympic athletes. I move my eyes a little to the left, then a little to the right. Nobody else noticed. A crow just homed in on the gym teacher like a heat-seeking missile and nobody noticed. It wheels around and taps Tuffman’s neck with its beak.
Tuffman goes down. Splat, face in the dirt. A huge cheer goes up from the boys in the bathroom. Tuffman’s toupee soars through the air and ends up sitting on a round little huckleberry bush. The crow with the attitude swoops down and takes a peck or two at it. Okay, everyone notices that.
We all hoot, we’re laughing so hard. Some boys are on the floor, bent over, so happy it hurts. Tuffman has made every one of us puke, blush, or run out of gym with a bellyful of sad.
“Who’s the punk now?” Mean Jack keeps saying.
It’s still happening.
From the corner of my eye I see a dark cloud outside the windows across the room. At the far end of the circle driveway a bunch of crows—a “murder” is what you call
a group of them—flap up from the old oak tree, clapping their wings.
I watch the crows swarm. I’ve got what’s called “qualms.” It means I’m worried about what just happened and what’s coming next. Not because Tuffman’s eating dirt. I should have qualms about that. We’re all gonna pay in a big way once he stands up, spits a mud loogie, and starts picking the bird lice out of his toupee.
No, if I’ve got qualms, it’s because those crows and the way they’re acting remind me of White Deer Woods magic. Woods magic belongs in the woods. Not in the real world. I don’t want my two worlds running into each other, even if it means seeing crusty-shorts Tuffman get some feathers stuck in his teeth.
The new kid jumps from the path onto the driftwood pile. The sky is filled with long low slices of white clouds. A skeleton sky is what I call it.
The crows circle above him, muttering and tumbling on the wind.
Oh, I’ve got qualms all right.
In the bathroom the boys keep cheering. But I feel very still inside. Scared, but excited, too. For the first time since I found the magic in White Deer Woods, I feel the power of it here at school, in the beat of the black wings against the bone-shaped clouds.
What if everyone found out about the woods magic? What if everyone found out the truth about me?
I watch the grown-ups below. Not one of them notices the crows.
Then the new kid looks up and raises a fist like he knows we’re up here. We all shake our fists back at him and yank the windows up so we’re sure he can hear us.
“Go, kid, go!” The chant booms out across the driveway and over the field and down the zigzag path. I’m part of it. This time I’m yelling too.
Maybe the woods magic is everywhere all the time. Maybe it’d be good if everyone knew. Maybe everyone would like me more if they knew.
The grown-ups look up at us now. But we don’t stop yelling, even when we see the dean shove his hands in his pockets and start to walk back to the main entrance. He thinks he’s gonna come up here and shut us up, but nothing will.
Now the new kid stretches both arms above his head and laces his fingers together like a champ taking in the applause from his fans.
And that’s when the security guard from Fort Casey rushes at him from behind and tackles him.
We all stop cheering. The new kid is face down in the sand. I know what my dad would say about that. I can hear his voice in my head still. The new kid made the fatal error of celebrating victory before it was his.
The dean must have phoned the Fort Casey Visitors’ Center and asked them to send one of their guards in our direction.
Jack swears and points to the path. Tuffman is walking the rest of the way down to the beach, holding his hair in one hand and wiping the blood from his nose with the other. He picks the kid out of the sand and starts marching him up the path back to the school.
Even from here we can see that the kid is crying. Not just a few tears either. He’s bawling his eyes out, bent over at the middle. He’s sobbing, sniveling, blubbering, driveling. Halfway up, Tuffman stops, squats down, and shakes a finger in his face.
A shiver goes through the room, up and down every spine.
I don’t want to go to PE today.
I look up, but the crows have gone back to the woods. The woods magic has left the real world.
“Loser,” Mean Jack says. Then he remembers his mobster act. “Mortadella,” he sneers in his thug voice.
Pretty soon, all the boys who had been cheering the new kid on are calling him a jerk and a poser, a show-off, and, worst of all . . .
“What a crybaby,” says Little John.
Little John is one to talk. He cries when a crayon breaks. I’ve seen every boy in this room cry, and me
too, and not just in PE when Tuffman “accidentally” sends the baseball smack into your front teeth.
But I’ve never seen one of them outrun Tuffman the way that kid just did.
“Shut up,” I say.
The room goes totally silent. Not a boy moves. I guess you could say that I’m not a big talker. In fact, I don’t think I’ve said a word to anybody in a month or more.
“Shut up,” I repeat. “If I hear even one of you make fun of the new kid for crying, you’ll be crying yourself. I guarantee it.”
I pat Sparrow on the head and walk out of the bathroom, slamming the door behind me.
In the main hallway on the second floor I cross paths with the dean. He’s breathing pretty hard.
“They got him,” I say.
The dean stops dead in his tracks and just stares at me. Then he smiles. He wipes a trickle of sweat from the side of his face and leans toward me.
“Thank you, Raul. Thank you for informing me.” He talks real quiet, the way you do when you’re trying to get a rabbit to come out of the blackberry bush and eat the lettuce in your hand.
I keep walking toward my room. I’m glad me talking makes him so happy, but I’m not gonna do it again
just because I like him. Talking is useless. One minute everyone says they love you and the next minute they forget all about you. Nobody listens, and everybody lies.
The only truth is in the woods, and nobody will believe it anyway. Look how they can stand under a sky full of crows on a mission and not even notice.
After a second I hear the dean panting behind me, trying to catch up. Huff, huff, huff. The dean needs to take a few laps with Tuffman, if you know what I mean.
“Raul,” he says. He sounds like he’s had an idea. “I’d like you to take the new boy under your wing. I think you may have a lot in common. Will you help him settle in?” The dean’s eyes bug out even when he’s not excited about something, but when he is, they look like two big marbles.
I know what he’s thinking. He doesn’t think I’m gonna help the new kid. He thinks the new kid is gonna help me.
But I nod, mainly so that he’ll stop looking at me like that.
“Wonderful!” he says with a huge smile.
He doesn’t stop. Now his eyes are the size of alien moons. It’s freaking me out. What if they pop?
I’m about to open the fire door to the boys’ wing when I hear Dean Swift say something that makes my eyes pop. I have pretty good hearing. Once, after she
took the headphones off me and stopped fiddling with the dials, the nurse told me she thought I could hear sounds from a mile away. She kind of whispered that like it scared her. But I heard her.
So I can hear the Dean even though he’s halfway down the hall. Now, usually when Dean Swift is talking to himself, it’s about the refraction of light or bioluminescent fungi or mapping the human genome. So I don’t listen too closely because no matter how well I hear it, I don’t understand it.
“I wonder. Birds of a feather flock together,” Dean Swift is saying to himself.
That gets my attention. Didn’t he say I could take the new boy under my wing? Why’s he talking about birds again?
Did he notice the crows? The thought paralyzes me.
“They will be the best of friends. There is strong evidence that the new one has secrets too.” Dean Swift’s key turns in the lock.
I push through the fire doors and walk down the hall to my room, chewing on his words like a dog with a bone. I wonder about the new kid’s secrets.
Did he say “too”? Does that mean Dean Swift knows what the woods magic does to me?
And if he does, why isn’t he afraid of me?
And if he’s not afraid of me, could he help me?