Fifth grade is not for amateurs.
You have to watch yourself. Kids notice stuff.
What books you read. What sports you follow. What devices you own. And how nerdy you are.
A little nerdy is good; you can fix the game controller. But if you’re the kid who gets the teacher’s website up and running so everyone has more homework . . . that’s too nerdy.
And then there are the subtle things, like how you raise your hand. Should you raise it high and eager? Low and mouselike? Rotate your palm? Flap it all around? Or does your arm come up straight and slow like a log on a pulley?
Same with turning your homework in. Do you put it on the top of the pile? Or the bottom? Do you fold it like a paper airplane and fly it to your teacher’s desk? Deliver it by drone? Or do you send it up the classroom aisle in the mouth of a robotic device?
I could probably manage all this okay if it weren’t for my sisters.
Dakota, the third grader, is the worst.
I finally get up the courage to talk to the girl everyone thinks is cute and Dakota shouts across the playground, “Liam, I need toilet paper from the boys’ bathroom. There’s none in the girls’.”
Izzy, the second grader, is a hugger. The custodian, the crossing guard, my coach . . . Izzy hugs everyone.
Unfortunately, my sisters and I look alike: blond hair, blue eyes, and on the short side, so I can’t hide the fact that I’m their brother.
Then there’s our dog, Cupcake, a black and tan German shepherd with crooked front teeth and shiny black lips. Cupcake has little accidents in our apartment.
Did I mention we live under the landlord?
Not that poor pee control would be a good idea in any house, but it’s especially bad when you live close to your landlord.
Other problems? Cupcake howls when the microwave dings. And Izzy sings all the time.
Luckily, the landlord, Mr. Torpse, is hard of hearing. Once he takes his hearing aids out, Izzy can sing as much as she wants. How do we know they’re out? He turns his TV up so loud it’s like the voice of our principal booming from the PA at school.
We hear every sound Torpse makes. When he belches, shouts at the radio, or goes to the toilet. Plus, he spies on us. He says he only comes downstairs to water the plants, right outside his window, but since there’s nothing to water but dried-up weeds, I wonder.
So I don’t bring friends to our apartment. I don’t tell people where I live. I don’t even write my address on the forms at school.
The only person who knows the truth is my best friend, Dodge, and he won’t tell anyone.
Dodge comes over every day. His grandpa Crash watches us if my mom has to work late. Some days, Crash can’t get out of work either, and then I’m the one in charge for a little while.
I don’t see Crash’s car, so I’m guessing today will be one of those days.
Dodge, Dakota, and I walk from the bus stop. We climb down the steep stairs to our apartment, careful to avoid the rotted wood steps that sink when you step on them. I pull the blue key with the smiley-face sticker out from under my shirt, where it hangs on a string, and I unlock the door.
Inside, I open the patio slider to let Cupcake in. She is crazy excited to see me, jumping all around.
I follow Dodge to the tiny kitchen. Dodge finds the crackers and he’s about to wash them down with lemonade. He squints at the glass. “Did your mom buy a new brand?”
I catch a whiff and then snatch his glass out of his hand. It smells like pee!
“Sorry, um . . .” I run to the bathroom, dump it, and hurry back to pour him some actual lemonade in a new glass.
Who would put a glass of pee in the fridge?
Dakota has been working on the problem of why Cupcake has lost pee control.
She never had a problem until a few months ago. We housebroke her when she was little.
She learned so quickly. What a smart, cute puppy she was. She had the softest fur, floppy ears, and giant paws, and she made funny groaning sounds--like a dog’s version of a purr. The week after my parents split up, Mom got us Cupcake. The first night we had her, she chewed off the top of a Tupperware container and wolfed down the cupcakes inside. That’s how she got her name.
When we lived in our old house, there was a yard for Cupcake. But in January Mom and Dad sold our house and we rented this place. Now the “yard” is a tiny patio with one plant trying hard to grow out of a crack in the cement. When it produces a leaf, Cupcake pees on it and it flops over again.
My job is walking Cupcake. Mom won’t let Dakota or Izzy walk her because it isn’t safe in our neighborhood, but I never worry. Cupcake is the world’s best watchdog. Once, a bodybuilder in a camouflage vest walked too close to me and Cupcake growled. Now when that guy sees me, he runs to the other side of the street.
I never feel short when I walk Cupcake. Though I do wish we’d named her something more ferocious, like Dude or Brute.
“Look, um, I’m sorry about the lemonade,” I mumble to Dodge when we’re out on the street.
Dodge shrugs. That’s Dodge for you. He rolls with everything.
Copyright © 2019 by Gennifer Choldenko. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.