Chapter One: Curly
“Jones!” The loud boom of Mr. Blarf’s voice caught the attention of the entire year-five class. Mouths dropped open as their teacher flung a pencil across the classroom.
Curly ducked too late. He rubbed his head before he dared to sneak a look at his teacher. Blarf stared straight at him, nostrils flaring, his face bright-red.
The teacher approached Curly’s desk. “Tell us, Curly Jones, how can I get you to listen in class? More pencils to the side of the head? One in your ear, perhaps?” Spit escaped the sides of Blarf’s mouth. He stopped in front of Curly, a long wooden ruler in one hand. He smiled slyly, before slamming the ruler down on the desktop.
Curly’s heart rate raced. The class remained silent, all eyes focused on him.
“Sorry, sir,” Curly murmured.
The ruler whizzed past Curly’s nose, crashing onto the desk. “And what is it you’re sorry for, Mr. Jones?”
Curly’s eyes darted around the room. He’d been concentrating on his math worksheet, he had no idea what he could have done wrong. The other kids stared straight ahead. No one came to Curly’s rescue.
He looked back at Blarf. “I’m not sure, sir. I was concentrating on my work.”
The teacher swiped the worksheet from Curly’s desk and tore it in half.
A lump formed in the back of Curly’s throat. “But, I’d nearly finished. I only had one sum left.”
“Next time listen and you won’t have to start again.” Blarf moved away from Curly’s desk and turned his attention back to the rest of the class. “Now, which one of you little slugs can bring Mr. Jones up to speed?”
A hand in the front row shot up.
Blarf pointed at the child. “Fine, Zac. Speak.”
Zac crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, a smug smile on his lips. “Mr. Blarf told us a sick joke. Only losers missed it.”
Curly kept his mouth shut. As much as he’d love to tell Zac exactly what he thought of him, he knew better.
Blarf let out a hiss. “Don’t keep us in suspense, boy. Tell Jones the joke.”
Zac grinned. “It was: which animal runs around the classroom, stealing answers? A cheetah of course.”
The class burst into laughter. Blarf laughed with them and high-fived Zac.
Curly shook his head. He was in trouble for that?
Blarf’s smile disappeared as he returned his focus to Curly. “Joke not funny, Mr. Jones?”
Curly shook his head.
“You think you’re above us, don’t you? Think you’re too important to laugh with your class?”
Curly grabbed the underside of his desk. This was crazy. He’d been working hard while most of the class mucked around. Now he was in trouble.
“Cat got your tongue, Mr. Jones?”
Blarf wasn’t going to give up. Curly glanced at the clock. Still ten minutes until the end of the day. He took a deep breath. “No, sir. I didn’t laugh because it’s an old joke and not very funny.”
“Is that right?” Blarf moved back in front of Curly’s desk and held up a whiteboard marker. “Class, this marker has a special power, one that allows it to identify idiots.” Laughter rippled around the classroom as Blarf pointed the marker at Curly. “That’s right, isn’t it, Jones? My magic marker is pointing at an idiot, wouldn’t you agree?”
Curly was silent. Why did Blarf constantly pick on him? It really wasn’t fair.
“I said, wouldn’t you agree?” Blarf repeated.
Curly nodded slowly. “If you say so, sir. But what’s that strange looking thing on the end of it?”
The laughter increased in volume as Blarf turned the marker around and examined it. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Jones. I think it just looks like a normal . . .” He stopped, his face turning a deep shade of red as he realized the marker now pointed directly at him. He glared at the students, his lips pursed as if he was using every bit of self-control to not explode.
“Jones—” Blarf spat the word out. “I suggest you leave, now. Right now.”
“It’s not three o’clock yet, sir.”
Blarf’s hand shook as he pointed to the classroom door. “Get. Out.”
Curly swept up his books in one arm and, without looking back, hurried from the classroom.
Curly unchained his bike and wheeled it toward the school gate. He couldn’t wait to get home. Blarf was a lunatic. Having to put up with him for the rest of the year would be torture.
“Hey, Jones,” a voice shouted from the school building. “Don’t move. You owe me.”
A shiver ran up Curly’s spine. That voice definitely belonged to the hulking form of Tom Smiggins. Only one year ahead of Curly, the sixth grader was twice his height and twice his width. His punch, however, was at least three times as strong. Like most of the younger kids, Curly had been on the receiving end of Smiggins’ punches since the first grade.
Curly’s leg trembled. Smiggins’ usual demands were money, which he didn’t have, food, which he didn’t have, or his bike, which Curly wasn’t going to give him. The last time Smiggins took Curly’s bike he’d found it a week later, upside down in the muddy creek that ran behind the school.
Would he dare jump on his bike and pedal away? He’d pay for it tomorrow, but at least he wouldn’t get a beating today. He turned and snuck a look over his shoulder. Smiggins was halfway between him and the school building. Curly threw one leg over the frame of his bike and at the same time raised a hand in Smiggins’ direction.
“Hey Tom,” he called. “Can’t catch up this afternoon. I’ve got to be somewhere else.” His feet found the pedals and he raced out of the school gate, away from Smiggins, away from Blarf and away from the nightmare of school.
Curly rode through the leafy streets, turning left at the Welcome to Ponchy sign toward his house in Pickapear Grove. Curly had lived in Ponchy for the entire eleven years of his life. The same street, the same house, the same cat, the same parents. It was boring and predictable. The same postman had delivered the mail for the past eleven years, the same neighbors lived on either side and the same garbage truck driver appeared like clockwork at 7 a.m. on a Tuesday. Curly thought it should be renamed Samesville, as nothing ever changed and nothing exciting ever happened.
Curly turned his bike into the pebbled driveway of number thirteen Pickapear Grove. The grass was cut to a perfect length. The hedges were trimmed to exactly the same height and white flowers, the exact same shade of white as the house, filled the garden beds. No color, no excitement. Just boring.
Curly propped his bike against one of his mother’s garden statues and pushed open the dull-white front door of the house. He was hit with the smell of baking. He inhaled. Chocolate cookies . . . or perhaps cake? He made his way to the kitchen and stopped in the doorway. Every inch of the kitchen counter was covered with clear plastic containers full of baked goods. At a quick glance he could see muffins, brownies, cupcakes, cookies and a chocolate cake.
A note was propped up against the containers. Curly reached over and took it. His mother loved leaving notes. He quickly read it and shook his head. Was she serious? She’d gone out and now expected him to deliver all of this to the new neighbors, at number seventeen. They hadn’t even met them yet. Surely she should be the one to welcome them to the neighborhood?
Curly sighed and stacked the containers one on top of the other. He knew it would be easier to just deliver the food than to argue about it later.