Keepers of the School We the Children
CHAPTER 1 Promise
As the ship’s bell clanged through the school’s hallway 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, Mr. Keane 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.”
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 he 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 the hallway.
“Move!” the woman barked. “We’re getting him out of here!”
Mr. Keane let go of Ben’s wrist, and Ben 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. Hendon came into the workroom and said, “I’m glad you were here to help him, 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.