Friday, February 22, 2013

An unlikely ally

     This is the third of three Ben excerpts that formerly comprised chapters one and two of Gar! Read excerpts one and two to refresh your memory.
     In this final excerpt we see Ben struggling to forge his own path at school and at home while he works to unravel the mystery of the meteorite that wiped out Ada.

* * * *
     At lunch Ben emerged from the stairwell leading down into the basement-level cafeteria. He looked for a place to sit. The ceiling was low, and Ben unconsciously hunched as he walked. He found a half-empty table near a corner of the room. He pulled out a chair.
     “That seat’s taken,” said a little girl at the other end of the table.
     “You sure?” Don’t let a seven-year-old boss you around. “What about this one?” Ben pulled out the next chair.
     “It’s taken too, and if you try to sit with us, I’ll call my big brother over here.”
     “Go ahead.” Ben sat down.
     “Jerry!” the little girl screamed. “Jerry!”
     “Sarah, what’s going on here?”
     “Oh, hi Mr. James. He’s crowding,” Sarah said, pointing at Ben. “Now our friends can’t sit with us.”
     “What’s you name, son?” Mr. James asked.
     “Ben, are you new here?”
     “Aren’t we all new here?” Ben asked.
     “Hey! We’ve got a live one.” Mr. James chuckled. “Ben, I’m Mr. James, assistant principal. What grade are you in?”
     Ben looked irritated. “Fourth grade.”
     “Ah, I know who you can sit with! Follow me.”
     Ben stood reluctantly.
     Sarah said, “Don’t forget to push in your chair.” She stuck her tongue out at Ben.
     Mr. James walked down an aisle of tables and stopped in front of Danny Saunders and his friends. “Here we are. Gentlemen, how are your lunches?” Mr. James asked.
     “Pretty good, Mr. James. Mom packed me egg salad,” said Danny. He crammed a bite of the sandwich into his mouth.
     “Well, I have someone I’d like you to meet.” Mr. James stepped aside. The boys saw Ben standing awkwardly. The yellow glow of the cafeteria lights made everyone look sick. “This is Ben. He’s new in town. Danny, I thought you could take him under your wing?”
     Danny stopped chewing and smiled. Bits of egg were stuck at the corners of his mouth. He elbowed his friends on either side. “Sure thing, Mr. James. Come on over and sit with us, Ben.” One of Danny’s friends patted the seat of an empty chair.
     “I knew I could count on you boys. Enjoy your lunches now.” Mr. James turned to Ben. “If you have any questions about our new school, come see me in the main office.”
     “Sure.” Ben sat down slowly.
     Mr. James walked away with a smile on his face.
     Bobby, one of the boys sitting at the table, said, “So, weirdo, couldn’t find any friends? Had to have old man James find them for you?”
     Ben ignored the comment, opened his lunchbox, and began eating a cold chicken leg. He looked up and could tell the boys were planning something. He asked, “So, what have you all been doing these last couple of weeks? I haven’t seen any kids in town.”
     “No one said you could talk!” said Danny.
     “Yeah, don’t talk, Benji!”
     “Fine.” Ben scooted back. Out of reach, he finished eating his chicken.
     Danny put his fist in his other hand, “Man, if Mr. James wasn’t watching us, I’d shove that chicken bone down your throat. Find another place to sit tomorrow.”
     Ben looked around the cafeteria. He didn’t see any friendly faces. In fact, none of the kids looked Ben’s way. The only people who looked at him were the adults. Ben saw an unoccupied table by the garbage bin. I guess that’s where I’ll sit from now on.
     “I think you’re done,” Danny said.
     “Yeah, scram, weirdo.”
     Ben picked up his lunchbox and went out to recess.
     I don’t want to be friends with any of these kids anyway.
* * * *
     A few weeks later, Mrs. Birch announced, “Students, today we are going to start doing research for our first science presentation!”
     Ben watched his classmates. No one groaned or talked after Mrs. Birch announced the project. They just waited for further instruction.
     “That means we’re going to the library. Mrs. Trumble and the other librarians will show you how to find information on a scientific topic so you can present it to the class!”
     The students cheered. Ben was surprised by their excitement. I guess they really like field trips.
     The library was a few blocks away from the school. To get there, the class walked single-file through a newly landscaped park. On the way, Ben thought about what he wanted to do his project on: meteorites. He noticed that his classmates were talking about other things, not their projects. That’s not what they did. They’ll wait for more instructions and then…try to follow them. Ben didn’t think his classmates were stupid, just obedient.
     When the class arrived at the library, they were led to a rug and asked to sit. They did. Ben was not surprised to see the big sheet of paper entitled, “Topics in Science” tacked on the wall in front of them. Ben read through the list of topics while his classmates settled in.
     Ben raised his hand. “Mrs. Birch?” he asked.
     “Yes, Ben?”
     “Are those the only topics we can choose from?” Ben pointed to the list.
     Mrs. Birch started, “Well—”
     “What’s your name young man?” asked one of the librarians.
     “Hello, Ben. I’m Mrs. Trumble, the head librarian.” She gave Ben a cold smile. “Mrs. Birch, did you know I’ve never met Ben before.”
     “Really? Well, Ben just moved to town.” Mrs. Birch looked flustered. 
     “Have you never been to story hour, Ben?” Mrs. Trumble asked.
     Story hour! What the heck? “No.” Ben was annoyed that no one was answering his question. He shook his head.
     Mrs. Trumble narrowed her eyes at Ben before she turned back to Mrs. Birch and the class. “Mrs. Birch? Let us begin.” She smoothed the ruffles on her shirt with her hands.
     Mrs. Birch said, “All right, children. Let’s settle down everyone and give Mrs. Trumble your full attention.”
     During the next half hour, Mrs. Trumble spoke vaguely about how the students would prepare for and present their chosen science topic to the class. She pointed to the white sheet with topics listed. The students nodded. No one acted out. No one asked questions.
     Why are they like this around adults?
     Mrs. Trumble dismissed the class to start their research.
     As the students started moving around and talking, Mrs. Birch said, “Remember, you need to tell me what topic you will be presenting before we go back to school. If you don’t have one, I’ll choose one for you!” She was looking at Ben.
     There was a cart of books set aside for the students. The class lined up to select books on their topic. Ben walked past them toward the card catalog.
     Maybe Mrs. Birch will let me do meteorites.
     Ben looked up meteorites, but was surprised when he found nothing. He tried “asteroids”, then “falling stars”, then “outer space”, and “shooting stars”. Nothing. He tried a title search using the same words. There were a few books on “astronauts” and “space”.
     Ben walked past a shorter line of students who were struggling to find books on the cart without assistance.
     “I can’t find rockets. Where’s rockets?” Danny Saunders asked.
     Ben went to the science section of the library. He looked over his shoulder and saw Mrs. Trumble glance his way. He slipped behind the stack he was looking for.
     She’s the spookiest librarian I’ve ever met. And that voice! She’s worse than the robot people cleaning up around the gash...  
     Ben looked through two shelves of science books, but didn’t find anything on meteorites.
     Wait, I know!
     Ben walked over to a set of encyclopedias. He took out the ‘M’ volume.
     “Mrs. Birch? Look.” He brought the book to his teacher. “Can I do meteorites?” He showed her the topic in the encyclopedia.
     “Why would you ask? You know it’s not on the list, Ben.” Mrs. Birch turned away to help students who were unable to help themselves. “Hold on Stephanie. Danny asked first.”
     Ben thrust the encyclopedia at Mrs. Birch again. “But—”
     “Ben! You heard Mrs. Trumble. We’re only presenting topics on the list.” She pushed the encyclopedia aside. “Now, you’d better hurry up or I’ll pick a topic for you.” Mrs. Birch took two steps away from Ben, moving on to the next problem. “Danny, let’s take a look at this book. See, it’s called ‘Blast Off.’” Mrs. Birch pointed at the title.
     “Yeah. So?” Danny said.
     Ben carried the encyclopedia back to the reference section.
     “I’ll take that,” said one of the librarians, lifting the book out of Ben’s hand. “You know what is on the list?”
     “Bridges,” Ben said.
     “Yes, bridges. But, since you like meteorites, there is a topic left that I thought you might find more interesting.” The librarian glanced around.
     Ben looked at her. She was paying attention. “What’s your name?” he asked.
     “I’m Mrs. White. So, do you want to guess?”
     Ben looked back at the big sheet of paper. There were deep red lines drawn through the topics that had been picked. Ben saw what Mrs. White meant. “Rocks,” he said.
     She whispered, “That’s right—”
     Mrs. Trumble called from across the room, “Mrs. White? I need your assistance.”
     Mrs. White looked nervous for a moment.
     “Thanks,” Ben said. “I’ll give it a try.”
     Mrs. White gave Ben a quick smile and walked away.
* * * *
     “Ben! Dinner’s ready.”
     “I’m working on my project, Mom. Can I eat later like Grandma?”
     Ben’s mother turned the knob on his bedroom door. Ben was sitting in the middle of the floor with books spread around him.
     “You’re still working on that rock project? You’ve been doing nothing but reading those books for two weeks. Don’t you think you know enough about rocks by now, dear?”
     “Yes, I’m working on my rock project. And no, I can never know enough. There’s a lot to this…more than rocks.”
     Ben’s mother looked uneasy.
     “Can I just come down later?”
     She sighed. “All right, I suppose so. I’ll put another plate in the oven.”
     Ben had read about igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks, and was trying to place the meteorite in one of those categories. He was having trouble. I don’t know enough yet. At the same time, Ben was trying to find out how the gash in the earth had disappeared so quickly. From what he had read, it would take hundreds of years for that to happen. Soil doesn’t just ‘grow’ like a vegetable. There must be some explanation for all of this. I just need to know more. Keep reading…
                                                                       * * * *
     “Like I was saying, there are three kinds of rocks: Igneous—”
     “You’re an ignoramus!” someone near the back of the classroom shouted.
     “Students!” Mrs. Birch scolded.
     Ben ignored the comment and continued his presentation. He had an array of rock samples that he had collected on the table in front of him. He picked up examples of each type of rock as he talked. He held up a sparkly gray and white rock and stepped to the side of his hand-drawn rock cycle poster. “This is granite, an intrusive igneous rock. So, what does that mean? And how does it get here, to the surface? Like this.” Ben moved the rock along a pathway on his diagram and explained how it was formed.
     “Where’s your volcano? That’s where it comes out, dummy!” Danny said.
     “Well, that can happen,” Ben said.
     “I know. I just said it!” Danny laughed. His friends joined in.
     “Danny Saunders! Out in the hall!” Mrs. Birch pointed.
     “Aww, man.” Danny pushed his desk away and walked toward the door.
     Mrs. Birch followed Danny into the hall and closed the door behind them.
     Ben stood awkwardly in front of the class. “I guess I’ll keep going,” he said. “So, now that this igneous rock is at the earth’s surface, there are a lot of things that can happen to it.” Ben pointed to a branching pathway on his diagram.

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