This is Worm’s first groggy thought even before he opens his eyes. He actually whispers it to his pillow: “No way.” Because the feeling he wakes up with--the same one he went to bed with--makes no sense: he wants to go to school.
But now--eyes open, head clearing--he realizes it’s true. For the first time in his life, he does want to go to school. He deliciously reviews the reasons:
1. It’s a half day--hah!--if . . .
2. . . . if you’re an eighth grader. Then you get to motorize on outta there at the end of fourth period. That’s 11:43 if you’re keeping score. And OMG, does it get any better? . . . Even though he’ll be there, it’ll be like he’s not there. Think it again, Worm: like he’s not there. Why? Because of this dumb, gorgeous thing called Dead Wednesday. He’s been hearing it since his elementary days: if you’re an eighth grader, you get to be invisible. In the past two years he’s witnessed it. No teacher will ask you a question. Nobody will hassle you. You can goof off all you want and nobody will care. Worm has witnessed Frisbees and moose calls flying in the hallways. Eddie himself has said many times: “You can stand on the teacher’s desk and blow a rocket blastoff fart, and you won’t get sent to Discipline.”
Worm doesn’t doubt Eddie. But neither does he care much about the license to goof off. To begin with, he’s not a goof-offer. Plus, he likes the part about being invisible. For Worm is well named. He prefers to be out of sight, underground, watching, listening. A spectator. He walked the world unseen. That would be Worm’s perfect epitaph. He mouths a silent thank-you to the Wrappers.
3. Every minute spent in school brings the end of it closer. Seven days and a wake-up. And then comes the only thing that makes the nine and a half months of school endurable: the ocean, the prairie, the vast Siberia of schoolless time known as summer vacation.
So yeah . . . today . . . today he wants to go to school.
Oh . . . and how could he forget?
4. The fight. Jeep Waterstone and Snake Davis are going to fight at twelve-thirty at the old cannon in Veterans Park. They’ve hated each other since first grade and they’re finally going to settle it.
So Worm has awakened to a day like no other, a day of four beautiful things. He stretches in bed, reviews the beautiful things in his mind. . . .
Every Thanksgiving, when two grandmas and a grandpa show up, Worm’s father stands over the turkey and smothers everybody in a stupid grin and shakes his head as if he can’t believe it and says, “We are truly blessed.” Until that moment passes, Worm is always a tight knot of cringe. But now, for the first time, he gets it. He is blessed.
Worm’s pj bottoms are down at his knees when his bedroom door begins to open. He screams, “Mom!”
The door slams shut.
“You’re never up!” she screams back.
“Well, I’m up today!”
“You’re never up!”
“Every morning I have to drag you out of bed”--he can tell by her receding voice that she’s heading back down the hallway--“every morning of your life. . . .”
Did she see him?
He doesn’t think so. He caught a glimpse of her chin and fingers at the edge of the door, but no eye.
He quickly fumbles out of his pj’s and into his clothes. As he’s pulling on his sneaks, he wonders how many will show up at the fight. All the guys, he figures. And some girls. Shoot--maybe even a teacher or two!
He tugs his laces tight. He smiles. He allows himself a little giggle. He whispers to his sneaks: “I am truly blessed.”
The blessing abruptly ends as Worm walks the plank.
That’s what it feels like: down the hallway, past his parents’ bedroom, down the stairs, through the dining room. Only it’s not a normal dining room. People are already there--strangers--sitting at two round tables, eating breakfast, his mother smiling a whole year’s worth, shamelessly kissing butts. “More coffee, Mr. So-and-So?” “Is the toast warm enough, Miss So-and-So?”
The strangers in his house are writers. They stay in eight cabins in the meadow (which Worm has to mow). Most of them take their meals in his dining room. The rest of the time they’re in the cabins, writing away.
His parents advertise it online:
Just YOU and your MANUSCRIPT
BEAUTY and SOLITUDE
Every morning Worm dreads the endless walk through the dining room. He hates it as much as he hates mirrors. He cannot believe he once looked forward to it.
His mother claims that when he was really little, he used to entertain the dining room writers by singing “I’m a Little Teapot” for them, complete with adorable gestures. Worm has no memory of this, and the older he gets, the more he doubts it’s true.
What he does remember is his mother introducing him to each week’s new batch of writers:
“This is our son, Robbie. You can thank him for your fresh towels each day.”
Followed by a blitz:
Things came to a head one day a year ago when his mother roadblocked him and introduced him to some supposedly famous writer of books for kids: “Robbie, this is Gwen Nevins.” To Worm’s horror, the lady put down her fork, wiped her mouth with a napkin, and stood as if Worm was some big shot or something. “Robbie,” she said, “nice to meet you,” and stuck out her hand. Worm heard his mother say, “Robbie devours your books.”
Worm sent her his Look of Surprise. “Do I?” he said, and gave the writer’s hand a limp fish and escaped into the kitchen.
His mother never introduced him again.
Now, on this second Wednesday in June, he practically sprints through the dining room and almost makes it before some old lady quacks, “Hi there, young man!” He sends his signature response--a quick up-flip of his hand--and he’s into the kitchen.
He feels his daily microsecond of relief--and then, as always, it’s gone. For all he’s done is go from one stage to another, one spotlight to another.
Worm doesn’t consider himself a hater. You have to care to hate. You have to give a crap. And frankly, there’s not a whole lot Worm gives a crap about. But there is one thing he does hate with a passion, maybe even more than school: he hates being the center of attention. In the spotlight.
“He’s just shy,” his mother has said to people a thousand times, explaining his behavior. Worm is sure there’s a better word out there, but he hasn’t found it. He knows why he’s shy these days, to the point where it’s hard to believe he’s ever been anything but. And even though he increasingly believes his mother is lying about him performing “I’m a Little Teapot,” he sometimes curls himself around a secret he can’t tell: he kind of likes it. It weirdly fascinates him to think he might have once been different. Whatever happened to that little teapot?
The kitchen is just slightly better than the dining room.
Worm’s father looks up from his coffee with a face that can only be described as thrilled. “The Wormster!” he belts. Worm responds in his usual way: he doesn’t. Which, as usual, does nothing to slow down the runaway train of his father. “Seven days and a wake-up!” His dad has talked calendar like this since he was in army boot camp, counting the days. “Gimme a W . . . gimme an O. . . .” Worm sits down at the table, chugs his orange juice in the hope that looking occupied will divert the attention. It doesn’t. “Who says worms are slow?”
Worm’s nightmare: someday when he enters a room, his father is going to jump up and clap, cheer, whistle, and throw confetti. He was a cheerleader in college.
Dining room, kitchen. This is why Worm hates--maybe he is a hater--school-day mornings.
And why he’ll be celebrating this time next week. Two and a half months of sleeping in, deleting all this from his life. There’s no spotlight in bed.
But to be fair, fatherwise, Worm understands. He knows his dad isn’t really ragging on him. It’s just the way he is: wordy, smiley. He can’t help himself. Before he and Mom started the writers’ retreat, he was a salesman. Office products. Now in his spare time he acts in plays at the Barleycorn Playhouse. And to his credit, how many fathers would call their kid Worm?
To his mother’s credit, she at least treats him more like a regular human being than a star of stage, screen, and writers’ retreats. This morning, glory be, she even apologizes to him. “Robbie, honey. Sorry I snapped at you up there. I was just so surprised . . . you usually--”
“No problem,” he says. Says it in a way that kills any oncoming speech and sends her to the counter for his cinnamon toast. She lays two slices on his plate. He hurries to butter them while they’re still hot. Butter sinking into cinnamon swirl toast. Life is good.
Until she speaks again. “Robbie . . . did you notice anything?”
“Uh . . . no?” he says.
“It’s something we’re not doing, Dad and I.”
“I give up.” He’s chewing away. Damn if he’s going to let his toast get cold while he has a stupid discussion.
“We’re not not talking to you. We’re not ignoring you.”
How do you respond to something like that? “Thanks,” he says mouthfully.
“Dead Wednesday? Ring a bell?”
He hopes his silence, his concentrated chewing, will send the message.
“Earth to Robbie?”
He gives up. His breakfast is ruined. “It’s just a school thing,” he points out.
“Well, not totally,” his father chips in. He’s a master balancer. He always manages to support both his wife and his kid. “It’s supposed to be a whole-town thing.”
Worm knows this, but he has no intention of getting into a debate about it. He stands up, grabs his backpack, remembers he won’t need it today, figures, OK, you wanna play that game . . . , pointedly dumps his backpack on the floor, pointedly neglects to go brush his teeth. If he’s invisible, so are his teeth and backpack.
Of course she won’t let it go. “I know parents who say they’re going to ignore their kids all day long. Starting at breakfast.”
“That’s stupid,” he says. He doesn’t believe it . . . and wonders who.
“It’s about safety, honey. Growing up. Responsibility.”
“It’s bull . . .” He says it in a way that tells them they’re lucky he’s leaving off the back half of the word.
He’s almost tempted to hang around and watch the look on their faces. He heads out the kitchen door, his father calling, “You da Worm!”
For four minutes every school day, Worm is king of the world. It’s the only benefit he can think of to living so far out in the boondocks. He’s the school bus’s first stop. And last coming back. For four minutes it’s just him and the driver.
There are reasons why Worm likes being first get-on and last get-off:
1. Nobody can see where he lives. Prehistoric farmhouse. Eight Abe Lincoln log cabins. Old outhouse converted to toolshed that still looks like old outhouse. Woods. Black bears. Caterpillars the size of fingers.
2. For four minutes he gets to pretend he’s a superrich kid being chauffeured around in the world’s longest limo.
3. He has (on the morning ride into school, at least) the whole busful of seats to pick from. He always sits in the second-to-last row, by the window on the left side. He doesn’t worry about the seat beside him. Everybody knows it’s Eddie’s.
4. For four minutes he gets to watch and think. That’s how Worm sees himself: as a watcher-thinker. (The Worm Knows All.) Probably because he’s an only child living in the boondocks; what else is there to do? Every day he looks forward to sighting his first human. (Parents and retreating writers don’t count.) He experiences daily something denied to kids who live in town: the mini thrill of entering civilization.
But not today.
Today Worm has barely settled into his seat when he hears the ping in his pocket. Text. Mother.
Sorry . . . forgot . . . you have to come straight home today when they let you out. Just take the bus.
He almost laughs. This is an easy one:
Her: No choice. No argument. Sorry.
And miss a free half day in town with Eddie? Miss the fight? Seriously?
Her: Robbie! I need you here!! Dad will be away!!
Her: Aunt Rita. Helping her move.
Him: i have plans
Her: Sorry! I’ll make it up to you. I triple dog promise! YOU MUST!!!
He kills the cell, stuffs it in his pocket.
Texting upside: easier to say no. Texting downside: they can always reach you.
His mother is actually doing it, glooming up a perfect day. The speech at breakfast--she’s got him feeling guilty (slightly) for thanking the Wrappers as he got out of bed this morning.
The bus stops for kid number two: Stephanie Win. His four minutes are over.
Seven more stops, and now . . .
. . . Forrest Avenue.
No stop. No slowing down. No pointing. No indication that anyone realizes what a special line they are crossing. But Worm knows. Forrest Avenue is the northern boundary of Amber Springs.
Every day the street sign reminds him how badly he wants to live on the other side of Forrest. In town. Civilization. At every stop from now on, he will envy the kids who board the bus. They don’t know how lucky they are.
Up and down the bus you can tell the eighth graders at a glance: no backpacks. No need for them today.
A muted ping in his pocket. What did he expect--his mom would give up? Worm sticks his tongue out and quickly withdraws it. It’s an embarrassing leftover habit from his little-kid days. Worm was one of the last boys in his grade to get the low voice. He likes girls, but unlike Eddie and other hunks and Romeos, he has had no real experience with them. He knows he trails the pack in the maturity race. He also knows that’s one reason why he likes to hang with Eddie. With Eddie he feels a little older, a little more manly, than when he’s alone.
Copyright © 2021 by Jerry Spinelli. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.