If Damon Foxrucker had kept his mouth shut, he would never have met Larry the Rat, but he could no more have done that than he could have sprouted wings. He was just one of those guys who talked himself into trouble. To begin with, he didn't like rules. Well, does anyone like rules? Has there ever been a kid who liked rules? The only reason they follow them is because if they don't, adults get on their case, and they wind up being grounded or forced to do some unpleasant task like emptying the garbage. Damon particularly hated emptying the garbage. He hated it so much he'd offered to surrender his allowance if his folks would put in a garbage disposal, but his mom was on a big environmental kick, and all he got was a long lecture on being responsible for the environment, and how it was better to throw the garbage in the dump than put it in the septic tank. That didn't make any sense to Damon, because his science teachers claimed that dumps rated right up there with devil worship. But what did he know? He was just a kid, right? Fourteen going on fifteen. Nowhere. Too young by forever to drive, too young to do this, too young to do that, and far too old to act like a kid. He'd tried the anti-dump argument on his father, but it was like trying to move a brick with a feather. He didn't agree or disagree, he just ignored it. His mother said he was not thinking logically, but then that was what she said about any thought he had. Which was part of why Damon had decided that life sucked. There was also the matter of his name. Bad name. In eighth grade not a day had gone by that someone didn't get on his case about his name, and usually that had led to trouble of some kind, which was partly why his folks had decided to send him to high school in Wally's Falls. At least that's what his mother kept telling him, but when she explained it to anyone else, she said it was that the high school in Fayette wasn't competitive enough, and she wanted to be sure that Damon got into a good college. She was very big on good colleges, having gone East to Vassar. His father had been the greatest running back ever at Wally's Falls, and then he had gone into the Marines and fought in a war. Damon understood, without anyone admitting to the truth, that the real reason he was going to Wally's Falls was to play football. In Fayette they played soccer. That they could choose between the school systems in either town, was the result of where they lived. The town line went through the exact middle of the house. He did not mention football, nor did he mention the fact that aside from math, his grades, like his life, seemed sort of low grade. His mother did not like football. She was confused. Not that she was unusual in that regard, because all adults were confused, but she seemed more dense than usual on the subject of football. She hadn't even gotten it clear yet that he was a boy, he was big, and he was an athlete. As evidence of adult confusion, he often pointed to a study that showed how teenagers liked to stay up late and get up late. It wasn't their fault, according to the study, but had to do with their biological clock. The gist of the article was that kids would do better in school if they started later and stayed later in the day. The mistake had been in raising the issue in science class after the school board had decided to start school an hour earlier. Mr. Mashee sent him to the office. And then he got into it again in the next class when he asked Ms. Quint, his social studies teacher, why the board had done something so dumb. "There's nothing dumb about it," she said. "It's better for the school, it's better for parents, and it's better for teachers." "But it isn't good for kids," he said. The idea so took her by surprise, that all she could do was huff and puff like a fat old toad. "Well (huff) I can't (puff), I mean (huff) see why (puff)...." "I think we should take a vote," he said. "This is not a democracy!" she shouted back. "But the guy who wrote the article is a doctor," Damon said. "He must know what's right." "It just isn't logical," she said. "Why not?" "You're missing the point." Adults, Damon thought, are big on kids missing the point, and yet they seldom do. He decided to humor her. "What is the point?" he asked. "The point is that this is my job. It's my livelihood!" "Which is more important," he asked, "how something affects your job, or how something affects how kids learn?" His classmates cheered, and that did in Ms. Quint, who insisted on being called Ms. instead of Mrs., a point which Damon had contested in the first week of school, because it also meant having to write "he/she" in his essays. "Damon," she had said, "that is a perfectly logical construction, and you will use it!" "It isn't in the dictionary," he had said. "That is of no consequence." "I'd like a second opinion," he'd said, and that's when she had sent him off to see the principal. And now it was close to happening again. "Damon, you have to learn some respect for authority." "Even when it doesn't make any sense?" "I'm sending you to the principal," she said. Mr. Waters looked up from his desk as Damon entered his office. "Ah, Foxrucker," he said. "A perfect record today. Two classes and two trips to my office." The word on Mr. Waters was that he was a good guy. He'd played baseball all the way to triple-A, and he fished and hunted, and not a father in town didn't think he was the best principal they'd ever had. Which meant the mothers hated him. Well, not all of them, because some of them had sons in the Marines, and they understood about how boys respect the big dog. And Harmon Waters was a big dog. He stood nearly six-five and when he squared his broad shoulders and scowled, you felt like you wanted to find a hole real fast. Men who act like men are surprisingly unpopular with married women. But not even one of the guys he'd thrown out of school, and there were plenty of those because Wally's falls was an old mill town with more than its share of tough guys, had anything bad to say about Mr. Waters. When he laid things out, it was all understandable. If he caught you breaking the rules, you paid the price. No excuses. That he hadn't gotten thrown out, Damon regarded as a miracle, but in fact Harmon Waters had never considered it, despite some pointed remarks from the head of the teacher's union about student disrespect. Mr. Waters regarded Damon as a special case. Granted he had a big mouth, but his thinking always seemed so clear and fair that all he could do was listen carefully, smile, and send Damon back to class. There was also the matter of football, because this was, after all, Harley Foxrucker's boy, and that meant football. More importantly, it meant winning, and it had been a long dry spell at good old Wally's Falls, a dry spell that he expected to see end with Damon. The word was out. He could throw the football, and all he needed was the chance. That raised another issue, but he had decided to deal with that when it came up. "You are a strange guy, Damon," Mr. Waters said. "Most guys that get sent down here have done something I can do something about, but it's very hard for me to tell you not to get into these arguments with your teachers." He turned around and hit several keys on his computer. "But what I don't understand is how your arguments can be so solid and your grades, with the exception of algebra, so mediocre. Can you explain that?" Damon shrugged. The shrug is very important, and he was an expert at shrugging. His mother's mother, who was pretty stiff for a grandmother, opposed shrugging and every time he shrugged, she'd say, "stop shrugging, young man." And usually he just shrugged again, and then she'd turn to his mother. "Grace, tell Damon not to shrug. It is very impolite." And then his mom would say, "Damon, don't shrug." And then he'd shrug. "You can do better than that," Mr. Waters said. "I don't check my work," he said. "And what else?" "Sometimes I don't do it." "Why?" "Have you read any of these books, sir?" Mr. Waters' eyes grew wider in anticipation. "I gotta tell you, sir, they are very boring." Mr. Waters nodded. "I agree with you. Very boring. Dull enough to put a librarian to sleep. But that doesn't matter, does it?" "It should." "But it doesn't." "Just 'cause I'm a kid." "Yup. Absolutely right. Our job is to make sure you don't stay a kid, and the way we do that is to bore you to death, so that you want to get on with things and get to be an adult. Then you can spend your time boring kids." Damon grinned. You couldn't help but grin when Mr. Waters talked that way. He didn't lie, and he made things understandable, even when they didn't make any sense. "Damon, you just have to put up with this and trust us not to feed you stuff because we delight in seeing kids suffer. I won't deny that some of our teachers like to make their students squirm, but for most of us, the only thing we have in mind is making sure you get the best education we can offer...and..." He was interrupted by a dull, thudding sound, and he ran to the window to watch a great cloud of oily black smoke come pouring from the chemistry lab windows. Seconds later the fire alarm went off. "Damn! It must be Thursday." Mr. Waters dashed around his desk and out the door. Damon followed, hoping he wouldn't be noticed. As they ran to the stairs and down to the ground floor, they passed teachers and students filing out of the building. The smoke hung in a black haze in the hallway, and they had to duck under it, and Damon was beginning to think maybe he'd be better off outside, when Mr. Potter burst out of the chem lab, waving his arms as he swam through the smoke. "It's okay!" He shouted. "It's okay! There's no fire!" But with his eyes stuck on extra wide open, he did not look as if everything were okay. In the distance they could hear the siren sound at the volunteer fire station at the bottom of the hill. Suddenly Mr. Potter threw his arms up over his head and screamed. "We need to ventilate! We need to ventilate!" He sounded like a cat with its tail closed in the door. "Sounds like you already are," Mr. Waters said. Mr. Potter was beyond the reach of humor. "Perkins again?" Mr. Waters asked. "It's Thursday isn't it?" Mr. Potter screeched. "That kid is a disaster! Every Thursday he blows up something else. You've got to get him out of chemistry!" Damon thought those were pretty sweet words. To get out of chemistry, all you had to do was blow up the lab. He had never thought life could be so simple. It wasn't. "You know we can't do that, Tom," Mr. Waters said. "Every kid in the place will try to blow up the lab in order to get kicked out of chemistry." Mr. Potter was beginning to calm as the smoke began to wane. "There has to be a way, Harmon, there just has to! This simply can't go on." Just then Larry Perkins appeared, sailing ghost like from the smoke, holding a beaker pouring more black smoke into the air. "I'VE GOT IT!" he shouted, and then raised his right hand, closed it into a fist, and jerked it downward. "YES!" His face was covered with black soot, except where his safety glasses had left two white rings. That made him odd enough looking to make anyone laugh, but in fact, Larry Perkins was an odd looking guy, however you measured him. He had a big nose that seemed to pull his face outward with it and his ears stuck out and he looked like a... rat. Damon liked him right from the start. He was wild and contagious. Damon fanned away the smoke and looked more closely at this improbable, short, skinny guy, who had the strangest eyes he had ever seen. They were violet, and the irises were streaked with silver that flashed and danced in the light. Perkins had caught the two men so off guard that they couldn't react before he wheeled and disappeared back into the smoke. "Perkins!" Mr. Potter roared. "Yes, sir, right here. Just be a second. I have to stabilize this stuff!" "Does he know what he's doing?" Mr. Waters asked. "He knows more chemistry than I do, it's just that he keeps blowing things up! And he refuses to do any of the regular experiments, and..." Mr. Waters looked around at Damon. "Sounds like your kind of guy," he said. Damon shrugged. "He's new this year, same as you are." From the way Mr. Waters looked at him, Damon knew something unpleasant was about to complicate his life. "A couple of new guys, maybe you could talk to him." "Why me?" He might have liked Larry Perkins, but clearly the guy was a geek, and you had to be careful about getting chummy with geeks. "Maybe you could make him understand about how we frown on people blowing up the chemistry lab." "He looks like a rat," Damon said. Maybe if he was the starting quarterback it'd be okay to hang out with a rat, but after four weeks he was on the bench, and he wasn't even listed as a quarterback. Coach hadn't let him even try out at quarterback because he already had two. What that came down to was simply that his reputation was vulnerable. It must have shown in his expression. "Tell you what," Mr. Waters said. "I've got a deal for you. You talk to Larry about not sabotaging the chem lab, and I'll tell Mrs. Quint that you don't have to use 'he/she' in your essays." Damon grinned. "Deal," he said, still uncertain whether he had won or lost, but guessing that just being able to make such a deal with the principal was going to work in his favor. Sooner or later someone was going to make some crack about his name and there was gonna be trouble. Not a fight, but something. Fighting got you kicked off everything. Lost in his thoughts, he walked back to class along with the other kids, talking and chattering as they came in from the fire drill. He wondered how long it would take to know even half of them. The hardest part was going to be finding a date for the prom in November. No, the hardest part would be finding someone to double with, because there was no way he was going to have his mother driving him to the prom. Out of the question. And even if he found someone to double with, he still had to get a date, and most likely she had to be a freshman, because upper class girls did not date freshmen. As he rounded the corner he almost collided with a girl he hadn't seen before. Only his quickness allowed him to avoid a full head-on collision, dodging just enough to keep from knocking her down, though he still sideswiped her arm, turning her toward him, and causing her to drop her backpack. "Whoa, sorry," he said, and then all he could do was stare like some kind of simpleton. She was so pretty she took his breath away. Her hair was long and black and very shiny, and her light hazel eyes seemed to glow with an inner light. And she was angry. "Why don't you watch where you're going!" She bent to retrieve her backpack. "I...I'm sorry," he said. She snatched up the backpack. "Well you can't just go around knocking people..." she looked at him for the first time. He smiled. "I really am sorry." She softened quickly and a smile began to appear. "Are all football players like you?" "Maybe I should start at the beginning here. Hi, I'm Damon Foxrucker." "I know who you are." "You do?" She smiled. "I'm Jenny Simmons. Our little sisters are good friends." "They are? Wow! I never knew that." "I'm also trying out for cheerleading, and it helps to know who you are going to be cheering for." "Won't be me," Damon said. "I'll be lucky to get off the bench once the whole season." "But your sister says you're a great player." "She said that? Belle said that?" "She did." "I didn't think she knew anything about football." Jenny grinned in the way girls have of grinning that makes you think they know something when they don't. Usually, it pissed him off but now he only grinned back. "I'm sorry about running into you." "It's okay." And then his brain went into scramble mode and he couldn't think of anything to say. How come he couldn't just come up with a line like the guys did in the movies, something smart and smooth? Jenny took over. "It's just a good thing we didn't hit head on. They'd have had to helicopter me to the hospital." He laughed and he could not have stopped smiling if he had wanted to. The crowd in the hall had thinned to a trickle as the students returned to their classes. "I gotta get to class," Jenny said. "Are you okay?" "I'm fine," she said. "But I really do have to get to class." "Yeah, me too." He looked down at his feet. "I'll see you, okay?" "Okay." She turned away and walked off down the hall, and as he watched her walk away, there wasn't the least doubt in his mind about who he was gonna ask to the prom.
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