Spirit Week Shenanigans- Audiobook

Spirit Week Shenanigans- Audiobook

January 13, 2020 1 By William Hollis


Diary of a 6th grade ninja. Spirit Week Shenanigans.
By Marcus Emerson. If you’re thinking about recruiting a dinosaur as your sidekick, I’d
recommend something other than a T-rex. I mean, yeah, they’re totes one of the scariest
dinosaurs that ever existed, but what science dudes don’t tell you is just how vain T-rexes
really are. We had only just reached the vampire queen’s lair, and he was already looking
for a mirror to fix his mask! My name is Chase Cooper, and I’m a sixth grade ninja … trying
to find the vampire queen with my T-rex sidekick. ‘Seriously, broseph,’ Bennie, the T-rex,
groaned. ‘Does this mask make my face look big?’ I stopped in the middle of the dark
hallway, turning around and waving my torch high over my head to get a better look at
Bennie’s face, which was about six metres above the ground. ‘Um, I think your gigantic
tyrannosaurus head makes your face look big. You know those magazine photos are ’shopped,
right?’ I said, spinning around and continuing my trek through the dark hall. ‘My head
does, but my heart doesn’t,’ Bennie whispered. You see what I mean? After a peaceful twenty
seconds of silence, Bennie spoke again. ‘Soooo, you think the vampire queen will have a mirror
so I can check if my mask looks alright?’ ‘Why do you even wear a mask?’ I asked,
starting to feel slightly annoyed. ‘Duh! The same reason you wear yours! To protect
my secret identity!’ For a second time, I spun around to look at Bennie. ‘You’re
a dinosaur!’ I hissed. ‘I don’t think a ninja mask is going to hide the fact that
you’re a two-storey-tall reptile! You’re also the only talking dinosaur in existence.
I think it’s pretty obvious who you are! But whatever, man. I’m almost a hundred
per cent positive that the vampire queen doesn’t have a mirror since vampires can’t see their
reflections anyway.’ ‘But she would probably have one for her guests, right? Like, for
friends she has over for dinner? I mean, not for dinner, but to have dinner with her?’
I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. ‘I don’t know. We’ll worry about that after
we find her. You seriously need to focus – get your head in the game!’ ‘Right,’ Bennie
said, nodding his giant head once. ‘In the game. The zone. The game zone. The zone where
games are played, like, for real, yo.’ A thin strip of light flickered about ten metres
in front of us. Pushing my torch into the soft dirt of the floor, I snuffed out the
flame so Bennie and I were hidden in the shadows. ‘There,’ Bennie said. ‘That’s the
door to her lair.’ ‘Do you think she knows we’re out here?’ I asked, taking one step
forward. ‘I wouldn’t be a very good vampire if I didn’t,’ a voice hissed. ‘Uh-oh,’
I said. ‘Who has come to visit me?’ the voice asked, seeming to come out of thin air.
‘It’s me, Chase Cooper,’ I said. ‘I come from the land of dirty laundry and half-empty
soft drink cans, also known as my bedroom.’ ‘Cooper,’ the voice replied. I could hear
the wicked smile on the face of whoever was speaking. The glowing strip at the end of
the hall burst, flooding the corridor in blinding light. I squeezed my eyes shut, but the light
was so intense that my eyeballs still burned behind my eyelids. Even if I could open my
eyes, I wouldn’t be able to see anything. I heard the sound of the brick walls crumbling
around Bennie and me. It was violent and deafening. ‘Bennie!’ I shouted over the roar of disintegrating
bricks and mortar. ‘You still with me? You okay?’ ‘I can’t cover my eyes!’ Bennie
yelled. ‘My arms are too short! Damn these tiny arms! Are they too short? Do you think
they make me look weird?’ I ignored Bennie’s question and pressed forward, feeling the
ground rumble under my feet. The queen was playing mind games with us and I knew it.
There wasn’t really an explosion in front of us, and the walls weren’t really crumbling
apart. It was all an illusion, planted by the vampire queen. ‘Just keep moving forward!’
I shouted, keeping my eyes closed. ‘Get ready to charge!’ ‘Roger that!’ Bennie
said, stomping his massive legs as we prepared to storm the queen’s lair. I held my breath
and tried to calm my mind, but it was nearly impossible. ‘Forget this!’ I said. ‘Run!’
I stepped aside and let Bennie go first since he was the size of a house. As soon as he
staggered past me, I sprinted behind him. ‘Go! Just break through the door! Once we’re
in the same room as the vampire queen, this illusion will end!’ I yelled. Bennie roared
loudly as he crashed into the wall at the end of the hallway. And then the illusion
of blinding light and melting walls disappeared, leaving Bennie and me behind in the cold air
of the next room. ‘Well done,’ the vampire queen hissed. Dust fell slowly as I jumped
to my feet, scanning the room for the most powerful enemy I’d ever encountered. Robot
James Buchanan and the Ice Queen of Scrag Seven were bad, but the vampire queen was
on a whole nother level. And she wasn’t just a vampire queen. She was a ninja vampire
queen. Two hands gripped my shoulders from behind and tossed me across the room like
a ragdoll. I flipped in midair, barely keeping myself from smashing against the wall like
a bug on a windscreen. Dropping to my feet, I had just enough time to collect myself before
getting tossed across the room again by the queen. ‘Chase!’ Bennie shouted as he leapt
toward me. Catching his rough skin with my hands, I dug my fingers into his scales and
pulled myself to safety on his back. The vampire queen’s voice sliced through the air like
ninja stars. ‘You dare enter my home uninvited?’ Bennie stomped backwards, darting his head
left and right trying to find the queen. Vampires are famously tricky, so she could’ve been
hiding anywhere. Suddenly, black smoke drifted from the shadows and swirled at the spot in
front of me and Bennie. I watched the smoke form a solid shape on the floor. As the vapour
climbed higher, it slowly morphed into a person right before my eyes. It was the vampire queen.
A tattered purple scarf rested on her shoulders and covered the bottom half of her face. The
queen arched her neck, cracking it like she had just woken up. Her eyes met mine as she
took a seat on a cracked concrete throne. Pulling one leg up, she wrapped her hands
around her knee and held it in place. ‘Sup,’ she said as if we were old friends. Bennie
didn’t waste any time. He dove forward hoping to crush her out of existence. His nine-tonne
dinosaur body tore through her concrete throne, but not before the vampire queen burst into
a cloud of smoke, teleporting safely to another spot in the room. I managed to jump off my
sidekick before he ploughed into the wall. ‘Down, boy,’ the queen said as she raised
her open palm. An ice-cream cone materialised above her hand. ‘Who’s been a good boy?’
the queen said, pressing her lips together and talking with a cute baby voice. ‘Who’s
been a good boy?’ Bennie’s weakness was ice cream. Rolling to his back like a dog,
he wiggled both of his itsy-bitsy stick arms like he was trying to get the queen’s attention.
‘Me, me, me!’ he giggled. ‘Yay, ice cream!’ The vampire queen tossed the ice-cream
cone through the air. Bennie sat up and caught the treat in his claw. He lifted it to his
face and stuck out his tongue, trying to get a lick of the ice cream. Bennie often forgot
how it was almost impossible it was for him to eat an ice-cream cone. His short arms kept
him from ever getting a lick, but he kept trying. The vampire queen knew this and used
it against him. So there I was, facing the vampire queen pretty much on my own. There
was no way Bennie was going to take his eyes off his sweet treat. ‘You got lucky with
the ice cream,’ I said, stepping slowly around the vampire queen, keeping a safe distance
from her the entire time. ‘It wasn’t luck,’ the queen sneered. ‘Don’t you remember?
I know everyone’s secrets. It’s my job …’ she said, pausing to pull her scarf
down, revealing the rest of her face. ‘… as a Scavenger.’ I stumbled over my feet, shocked.
I wanted to speak, but my words got lost in my throat. Standing only a metre away from
me was the vampire queen … It was Naomi. She flung her cape off her shoulders and strutted
toward me like she was in a fashion show. ‘Remember when we used to be friends?’
she asked, smirking. ‘Remember all the good times we had?’ ‘Remember when you betrayed
me, and turned out to be one of the most monstrous villains I’ve ever come across? Remember
when you ruined my life by getting everyone to hate me? Remember any of that?’ ‘Kind
of,’ Naomi said. ‘I guess I remember it differently.’ Naomi was just trying to get
me to talk. I shouldn’t have responded at all, but I guess my brain wanted the opposite.
Sometimes my brain thinks it’s smarter than me … I know, right? ‘How can you remember
it differently?’ I said. ‘That’s exactly what happened! You betrayed me!’ Bennie
looked up from his ice-cream cone. ‘Um, what’s this lady talking about?’ ‘Doesn’t
he know?’ Naomi asked, gliding towards me. She moved through the room like she was completely
weightless. ‘Doesn’t he know about … us?’ ‘Dude, this is getting weird,’ Bennie
said. ‘Did you used to go out with her?’ ‘No!’ I snipped. ‘It’s complicated!’
The vampire queen laughed. ‘It’s not that complicated. Tell him, Chase. Tell your dinosaur
sidekick how you and I used to be BFFs …’ ‘No way,’ Bennie said. ‘You and the vampire
queen?’ I stared at Naomi as she continued her approach. ‘That was the past,’ I said.
‘I didn’t know she was an evil, life-sucking vampire at the time!’ ‘Chase,’ Naomi
said with a soft smile. ‘That hurts. Remember when we used to train together? Remember when
we were on the same team? We used to split our French fries at lunch!’ I squeezed my
eyes shut and shook my head. ‘No! It wasn’t real! You were playing me the whole time!
You were playing everyone!’ Naomi’s voice was right next to me. ‘It’s not too late
to join me, you know.’ ‘It’s not too late for you to stop … being a vampire!’
I said defensively, fully knowing how lame it sounded. The vampire queen grabbed my shoulders.
‘I guess we’ll have to do this the hard way.’ Squeezing her hands, she yanked me
closer and opened her mouth, hissing the entire time. ‘Chase!’ Bennie roared from across
the room. ‘NO!’ I shouted. My legs kicked forward, and I was suddenly on my back staring
at ceiling tiles. The hissing vampire queen was no longer there. Instead, I heard the
sound of giggling students drift overhead. ‘Great,’ I whispered, sitting upright,
trying to focus my blurry vision on my friends as they hovered around me. It was Zoe, Gavin,
Faith and Brayden … and they were wearing their pyjamas. Monday. Back to reality. For
anyone just joining our program, let me fill you in … My cousin Zoe is the new school
president. The election was last Friday, so she’s only been president for a few days.
The school has been through a lot over the past few weeks, starting with a scandal that
involved Sebastian, the previous president, and ending with a rigged election that was
uncovered by Melvin, a student reporter. Because of everything that’s happened, Principal
Davis wants to get a little school spirit back in the hallways, so he’s throwing a
Spirit Week. And honestly, it was a great idea. It’s all Zoe talked about over the
weekend. My phone buzzed every ten minutes with a text message from her about a fun school
activity or a great fundraising plan for school clubs. I was happy that she was so excited,
but I was also glad that the messages were from her because every time my phone vibrated,
I was afraid it was going to be Naomi. Naomi used to be one of the best ninjas in my ninja
clan. She also used to be one of my best friends. I say ‘used to be’ because last week she
revealed herself as the leader of the Scavengers, a dangerous group of kids who know everyone’s
secrets and use them to control the school. And she didn’t try hiding it or playing
it off either – she came right out and told me she was their leader. She was like, ‘Oh,
BTW, I’m the leader of a terrifying group of kids who know everything about everyone.
K, bye!’ The Scavengers operate in the background, listening and collecting gossip and discarded
notes. You think your crush is just between you and your BFF? You’d better believe it’s
not. They’re never seen or heard, and most kids think the Scavengers are a rumour. In
fact, none of my friends know the Scavengers are real. Legend says that the Scavengers
have been around since the school was first built a hundred years ago. That’s right,
they’ve operated in the shadows since the very beginning. And Naomi is the current leader.
Every Buchanan School president has been a Scavenger. The Scavengers rig the elections
and make sure one of their own is in power. In fact, a Scavenger would be the president
right now if it wasn’t for Melvin’s quick thinking. Zoe’s the first president that
isn’t a Scavenger. And I’m afraid that Naomi plans on doing something about it. Hopefully
she won’t, but knowing my luck, something will go down. Here’s the part that confuses
me though – Naomi turned out to be the bad girl, but it broke my heart … and I miss
her friendship. Sappy, right? Well, that’s how I feel, and I’m not gonna lie about
it. After I turned down the Scavengers’ (super creepy) invitation to join their club,
they decided to seriously ruin my life. I won’t go into details, but let’s just
say it was the roughest week at school yet. I lost friends and made enemies without even
lifting a finger! But that’s not all … except for Brayden, every ninja in my clan quit and
joined the Scavengers. Ever since I became the leader of the ninja clan, I’ve had trouble
keeping it together. I’m not exactly sure why everyone kept quitting, but I was beginning
to think it’s because I’m not a good leader. Bummer, right? So far, only a handful of people
knew I wasn’t the one behind the mess last week, and that was on purpose. If I went to
the principal about Naomi and the Scavengers, my ninja secret would also be exposed. But
it was mostly because of Zoe that I hadn’t told anyone about the Scavengers yet. She
was so excited about winning the presidency that I didn’t want to burst her bubble with
another ‘situation’. Why were my friends dressed for a slumber party? Did I fall asleep
at a sleepover or something? Where in the heck was I? Those were the questions forming
in my noggin as I blinked back to life. I glanced past my friends and saw the tinted
windows of the cafeteria. Through the glass was a mess of activity as students sat at
tables eating lunch and laughing with each other. ‘Oh, that’s right,’ I said, remembering
that I was at school, and my friends were wearing pyjamas because that was the Spirit
Week theme of the day. ‘Game over!’ my phone chimed from the carpet by my feet. I
snatched it up and looked at the screen. The vampire queen had killed my character. I guess
I got too carried away in the game’s story. You ever do that? Naomi and I obviously weren’t
characters in it, but my brain made it that way. And there wasn’t actually a T-rex sidekick
in the game. My imagination did that too. Here’s a picture of me getting ‘in the
zone’ during an intense part of the game. Mouth open, eyelids peeled back, legs crossed
because I’m about to beat a super hard part. C’mon, we’re all guilty of that, right?
Anyone? A lot of the other kids in the cafeteria were glaring at me, but a few smiled. Even
the school janitor, Ms Chen-Jung, was giving me what looked like a pity smile. She was
a short Korean woman who had been at Buchanan forever. I don’t know how old she was, but
she was retiring at the end of the school year, so that old. How old do you have to
be to retire? Like, ninety? ‘Let’s see,’ I heard Zoe say. ‘If the dream was about
fighting other ninjas, then you had leftover pizza for breakfast. If it was about fighting
a giant-sized robot version of President Buchanan, then you probably ate cold hotdogs.’ Finally,
my eyes adjusted. ‘And what if I was fighting a vampire queen?’ Zoe hummed, placing her
finger under her chin. ‘Hmmm, I’m thinking … leftover cake from family brunch yesterday?’
‘Wait,’ Zoe said, her eyes wide open. ‘Was the vampire queen a ninja too?’ ‘Why’s
that matter?’ I asked. Faith smiled as she leaned one shoulder against the wall. She
snapped her finger at Zoe. ‘Oh, I got this! Leftover cake and pizza for breakfast!’
Everyone laughed and I couldn’t help but smile along with my best friends. ‘Har har,
guys,’ I said, rubbing life back into my cheeks. Pushing my phone into my front pocket,
I said, ‘But you’re all wrong. I wasn’t asleep. I was just zoned out. And, FYI, I
had leftover mac and cheese with awesome sauce for breakfast.’ ‘What’s awesome sauce?’
Faith asked. ‘It’s a secret,’ I said. ‘It’s tomato sauce,’ Zoe said flatly.
‘He squeezes it all over his mac and cheese. It’s nasty.’ Faith’s smile disappeared
completely, as if she had just seen a train accident. ‘That’s the grossest thing I’ve
ever heard,’ she whispered as her face turned white. ‘Are you kidding me?’ Gavin said.
‘Tomato sauce and mac and cheese go together like sandwiches and chips! It’s the food
of kings!’ ‘Not you too!’ Zoe scoffed at Gavin. Faith gulped. ‘Maybe I’m just
against mac and cheese because I got food poisoning from some back in fourth grade.’
‘Food poisoning? Did it give you superpowers?’ I joked. Faith paused. ‘If uncontrollable
barfing is a superpower … then, yes, it gave me superpowers.’ ‘Barfing superpowers?
That would be the worst thing in the world,’ Brayden said. ‘But I’d be the first in
line to see it.’ I cringed at the thought of the worst superpower ever. Can you imagine?
Wait, no, don’t. Don’t imagine barfing on command as a tool against evil. Zoe was
starting to look pale from our conversation. She grabbed Gavin’s hand and held it tightly.
For those of you who are curious – my cousin and Gavin were officially an item. Like, girlfriend/boyfriend.
I would say their relationship doesn’t really gross me out anymore, except that their relationship
still totally grossed me out. I didn’t normally care about those kinds of things, but since
Zoe was my cousin, I saw the situation a little differently. Brayden clutched the straps of
his book bag and kicked my shoe. ‘You comin’ then? Or are you gonna try and catch a nap?’
It wasn’t a secret to anyone that I enjoyed a nap here and there … anywhere really.
‘Don’t blink or you’ll fall asleep,’ Faith said. ‘Ninjas don’t blink,’ I
replied. ‘They have their eyelids removed at a very young age and learn to deal with
dry eyes.’ ‘Yuck,’ Faith said, wrinkling her nose at me. Zoe’s brow raised, concerned.
‘You should really get more sleep at night.’ ‘A ninja never stops training,’ I said,
standing up, but taking an extra second to walk because I felt dizzy. ‘Right, ‘training’,’
Zoe replied, making air quotes with her fingers. ‘You mean video games or late-night horror-movie
marathons.’ Gavin shook his head. ‘I dunno how you can watch that stuff at night,’
he said in his Texan drawl. ‘Them movies scare the hair off my legs.’ ‘Thank you
for that lovely imagery,’ Faith groaned. ‘Thousands of little hairs jumping off your
skinny legs and running for their lives.’ ‘You mean dozens of little hairs, right?’
I joked. Everyone laughed. ‘It ain’t my fault I got smooth ladylike legs!’ Gavin
said with a smile. ‘I’ll make a good swimmer someday!’ ‘But until then,’ Zoe said,
joining the pile on, ‘you’ll make a good model for capri pants.’ Gavin checked his
watch. ‘You’d better get going, Zoe,’ he said, worried. ‘You’ve only got a few
minutes until assembly.’ ‘Oh, thanks!’ Zoe said, turning her slow walk into a speed
walk complete with locked elbows and everything. She shouted over her shoulder at us. ‘See
you guys in the gym!’ ‘You coming too?’ Brayden asked me again. I nodded. ‘Yeah,
I’ll catch up. Save me a seat, okay?’ ‘Got it,’ Brayden said, bumping his fist
against mine. Stretching my back, I waited another second before leaving the lobby. The
bell was going to ring at any moment, and I wanted to see if I could catch Melvin before
he went into the Spirit Week assembly. I kept my eyes down, glancing up to see if Melvin
was around. Most kids hated me so I was worried that if I made eye contact with the wrong
kid, it would mean getting shoulder-checked into the wall. Luckily, I never got checked,
but I got more stink-eyed looks than you could shake a stick at. That’s if you were into
shaking sticks, but you’ve probably got better things to do with your time, right?
Does anybody actually shake sticks at things? Like, who does that? Ugh, never mind. At that
moment, the bell rang loudly over my head. Students flooded the hall, shuffling across
the carpet like zombies in a parade, making their way to the gymnasium. I didn’t see
Melvin, but it was no biggie. I would catch up with him during ninja training later on.
Monday. The gymnasium. I walked into the gym a little late for the assembly. I lagged behind
hoping all the seats would be taken so I’d get to stand at the side of the bleachers.
Too bad my homeroom teacher, Mrs Robinson, was standing by the door; she wasn’t about
to let me hide in the dark. Principal Davis was already speaking, thanking everyone for
attending the assembly that we had no option to skip. ‘There’s an open spot right when
you walk in,’ Mrs Robinson said, pointing me through the door. Great, I thought. Knowing
my luck, I was going to get seated next to some bruiser who punches faces for fun. ‘There’s
a spot next to Faith,’ Mrs Robinson said as she nudged me around the corner. ‘There
you are!’ Faith whispered. When I saw her, I relaxed a little. ‘Hey,’ I replied.
Faith patted the open spot next to her. ‘You told us to save you a seat.’ ‘Oh, right.
Thanks,’ I chuckled. I sat next to Faith and leaned forward to see who else was in
our row. Gavin and Brayden were on the other side of Faith. Next to Brayden was a girl
I recognised, but I didn’t know her name. Every few seconds, Brayden would lean over
to her and whisper something that made her laugh. Suddenly everyone in the gym started
cheering loudly. Zoe’s voice came through the speaker system. ‘Buchanan School!’
she said loudly. ‘I’d like to start off by saying thanks once again for electing me
as your new president. I plan to make my term the most epic term this school has ever seen!’
Everyone cheered, including me. Zoe was definitely the best choice for president. ‘As you know,
this is Spirit Week,’ Zoe continued. ‘But what does that mean? Those are just two words,
right? What do they mean? Does it mean we’re gonna dress funny every day? Does it mean
we’re gonna have assemblies during the week that’ll get us out of class? Does it mean
we’re gonna have competitions? Snacks on the track? Couches during lunch? Ice cream
during assemblies?’ Zoe paused to build some tension. Everyone was on the edge of
their seats waiting for something they could scream their heads off about. And Zoe delivered.
‘Yes!’ she said, slamming her fist into the podium. ‘Yes, to all those things!’
I was so excited I got goosebumps. Zoe wore a smile so huge that I was worried the top
of her head would fall off. ‘This is Spirit Week, people! It’s not a week for the faint
of heart! It’s not a week for those who like peace and quiet!’ she said. And then
she leaned closer to the mic and said, in a serious voice, ‘I’d like to warn teachers
now … if you have a heart condition, maybe it’s best to take this week off.’ Everyone
laughed. Zoe was killing it on the microphone. ‘We’re gonna have games! We’re gonna
have prizes! We’re gonna have assemblies just to get out of class! We’ve seen a lot
this year,’ Zoe said. ‘You’re all good kids, and it’s time to celebrate! Who’s
with me?’ Everyone shouted and clapped. Kids stood up, pumping their fists in the
air. ‘And we’re starting with this assembly today!’ Zoe said as she extended her arm
toward the gym doors. The doors swung open, and five guys dressed in white peddled in
on bicycles. On the front of their bikes were giant boxes with pictures of ice-cream cones.
‘No stinkin’ way,’ Faith whispered. ‘Zoe is easily the coolest kid in school.
There’s no such thing as ‘over the top’ with her. If it’s not over the top, it’s
not Zoe.’ ‘I know, right?’ I said, remembering the T-rex sidekick from my game. ‘Bennie’s
eyes would pop out of his head if he were here.’ ‘Who’s Bennie?’ Faith asked,
staring at the ice cream vendors as they circled the gym. ‘Uh,’ I said. ‘Never mind.’
Faith turned back to me, still smiling. ‘You know you really helped her get this far, right?’
‘Nah,’ I said, blushing. ‘She would have got here even if I wasn’t involved.’
The ice cream vendors parked their bikes behind Zoe. ‘Before these guys start handing out
ice cream, I have one more thing to say,’ Zoe said. The gym fell silent, eagerly awaiting
Zoe’s next announcement. ‘Spirit Week is a week of competition,’ Zoe said. ‘So
Principal Davis and I would like to announce the Buchanan Games! Starting tomorrow, there
will be a daily knock-out competition for teams of students. There will be four games
in total and the last team standing on Friday will be the winners! Sign ups will take place
at the table in front of the gym after this assembly. Now here’s the best part …’ Zoe
said, glancing at Principal Davis. The principal nodded, giving her the thumbs up to go ahead.
Zoe smiled. ‘The winners will be able to start an official school club of their choosing!’
The applause was loud, but not as big that time. ‘Oh, and did I mention,’ Zoe said,
‘that the winning team will also be given a thousand dollars to spend on their new club?
To make sure it gets that extra special start-up oomph.’ The audience exploded with another
set of cheers, and who could blame them? A thousand bucks is a ton of money for any club!
Could you imagine what I could do if my ninja clan had a thousand dollars to spend on supplies?
Not that I had a ninja clan to lead anymore. Monday. The Gymnasium. Zoe wrapped up her
speech and invited everyone to grab a free ice-cream cone. ‘One chocolate, please,’
I said to the dude on the bike. ‘Not a problem,’ he said, reaching his hand into the portable
freezer. ‘That’ll be two bucks.’ I froze as I held my hand out to get the ice-cream
cone. ‘Oh, I thought … uh …’ ‘I’m kidding,’ the man laughed, handing me the
cone. ‘Now get outta here, I got other customers, y’know!’ My friends laughed from behind
me. They had already got their ice cream and had taken the wrapping off. ‘Funny,’ I
said, just a little embarrassed. Taking the top piece of paper off my cone, I tossed it
into one of the rubbish bins that had been wheeled in from the cafeteria. ‘Zoe’s
makin’ a name for herself pretty quickly,’ Gavin said. ‘This is the sorta thing that’ll
be talked about for years to come.’ ‘Right?’ Faith asked, taking a chomp out of her cone.
She looked at me with a mouthful of strawberry ice cream. ‘You got your work cut out for
ya.’ I was about to take a lick of my own ice cream, but stopped. ‘Me? Why?’ Faith
shrugged her shoulder. ‘I’unno,’ she mumbled. ‘I just thought maybe you wouldn’t
want to live in her shadow the whole time?’ With a smile, I leaned closer. ‘I think
we both know a little something about living in the shadows, am I right?’ Faith looked
at me confused. ‘Huh?’ she grunted, taking another huge bite of ice cream. ‘What are
you talking about? And why are you leaning so close to me like a creep?’ My eyes narrowed
as I froze in place, still leaning. ‘I’m just … I mean … um …’ Twice this year,
the white ninja saved me from trouble, but both times I barely got to speak a word to
the masked vigilante. Last week Faith hinted that she was the white ninja, but that made
me question if I had heard her correctly. ‘But you said …’ I paused, hoping that
Faith would interrupt me so her secret would be safe from Brayden and Gavin. Instead, she
lifted her chin and said, ‘Go on. What did I say?’ ‘Yeah, dude,’ Gavin said. ‘What’d
Faith say?’ I smiled tightly and stared at my ice-cream cone. ‘Nothing,’ I said.
I was so confused. ‘She never said anything to me.’ How frustrating! Was Faith the white
ninja or not? If she was then why was she acting clueless? To protect her secret identity?
I decided to drop it. I’m sure time would tell if she was or wasn’t the secret white
ninja. ‘So are you guys gonna compete in the games this week?’ I asked. ‘I think
you can only compete if you’re on a team,’ Brayden said. He pointed at me. ‘Hey, wanna
team up? Do you guys want to be on a team?’ Faith nodded, smiling. ‘Definitely!’ ‘Why
not?’ Gavin said, cracking a smile. I paused. ‘Y’know,’ I said. ‘I think I’m going
to sit this one out. I feel like I’ve been on my toes since the first day of school.
I’d like to just hang out this time.’ Everyone grumbled, but agreed with me the
way friends do when they’re not really agreeing with you. ‘Besides, I’m pretty sure everyone
still hates me because of last week,’ I added. Brayden and Melvin were the only people
who knew that it wasn’t me who put out the Chase Cooper Newsletter of Secrets – a newsletter
filled with juicy gossip about all the kids in sixth grade, which the Scavengers released.
I never said anything to Gavin, Zoe or Faith about it, but I kind of think they suspected
there was something more going on. I was glad they didn’t push it though. Still staring
at my ice-cream cone, I noticed that it was beginning to melt down the sides and onto
my hand. I would’ve licked it up, but I was all too aware that my friends were still
watching me so I didn’t do anything. ‘You gonna get that?’ Gavin asked. ‘When I’m
ready,’ I said, watching more of the ice cream melt. ‘Like, soon? Because it’s
kind of getting everywhere.’ Here’s a little something about me – I get kind of
shy when I know people are watching or waiting for me to do something. And I wasn’t about
to lick my ice cream while maintaining eye contact with my friends. If that’s not the
creepiest thing to do in the world, then I don’t know what is. ‘This is painful to
watch,’ Faith said. ‘That’s the problem!’ I replied. ‘I’d be fine if you guys weren’t
watching me right now!’ Just then, a girl walked up to us. It was the same girl that
Brayden had been sitting next to during the assembly. She was sporting a bright smile
until she saw the ice cream all over my hand. ‘Oh my god, why aren’t you eating that?
It’s getting everywhere!’ ‘I’m gettin’ there!’ I said. ‘Wait, who are you?’
Brayden stepped forward. ‘Guys, this is Danielle Jenkins,’ he said, and then he
leaned closer to me as he wiped his mouth, and whispered, ‘Dude, do I got any ice cream
on my face?’ ‘Ugh,’ Danielle groaned, tilting her head back. ‘Brayden, call me
Dani. I hate when people call me Danielle.’ ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘Guys, this is Dani
Jenkins, my friend.’ ‘Ohhhhhhh!’ Gavin hollered. ‘Brayden’s got a girlfriend!’
Brayden’s face turned serious. ‘Dude, really?’ Gavin grinned. ‘Hey, Dani,’
I said, trying to make the awkward silence go away. ‘Whassup?’ ‘Not much,’ she
said. ‘Dani’s on the student council with Zoe,’ Brayden said, smiling at Dani. ‘It’s
not that big of a deal,’ Dani said. ‘I’m the student council secretary, so I just take
notes during meetings and stuff.’ ‘Don’t play it down,’ Brayden said. ‘What you
do is important!’ ‘I guess,’ Dani said, blushing. ‘I mean, I don’t just take notes.
I only say that ’cause I don’t like talking about myself.’ ‘You’re not that important,’
another student said, almost appearing out of nowhere, standing on the other side of
me. He pointed at the liquid chocolate that was pooled inside my ice-cream cone. ‘You
got a little somethin’ on your hand.’ My shoulders sunk. ‘I know,’ I said. Brayden
came to Dani’s defence. ‘Who are you to say she’s not important?’ ‘Easy, tiger,’
the boy said. ‘I was only joking.’ Dani stepped forward. ‘This is Colin,’ she
said, and then pointed to another boy standing nearby who was watching us, almost like he
was alien studying a herd of humans. ‘And that guy creepin’ back there is Bounty.’
‘Like the chocolate bar?’ I asked. ‘Like the hunter!’ Bounty said loudly. ‘The
way cool bounty hunter who travels the galaxy!’ ‘But also dies when he falls into the sarlacc
pit!’ I scoffed. Suddenly, Bounty was right by my side. ‘He didn’t die in that pit!
He managed to escape, which means he’s the toughest bounty hunter there is!’ Faith
stared at Bounty and me. ‘Okay guys, cut the Star Wars talk.’ ‘Whatever!’ I said
to Faith. ‘Star Wars is awesome and you know it!’ Faith kept a straight face for
about a second. Then she laughed. ‘Yeah, it’s epic.’ ‘Gavin shook his head. ‘I
can honestly say I don’t have a clue about what you guys are talking about.’ Dani pointed
at the two boys who had nudged their way into our circle. ‘These guys are also on the
student council with Zoe and me. Colin’s the treasurer, and Bounty’s the public relations
director.’ ‘No vice president?’ Faith asked. ‘Not this time around,’ Dani explained.
‘Principal Davis was thinking about letting Zoe hand-pick a vice president since Wyatt
didn’t fare too well.’ Let me tell you a little bit about the kid who seems to have
it out for me. Wyatt is a short kid with a tall ego. He used to be the vice president,
but after Sebastian’s chewing-gum scandal, that changed, and Principal Davis held elections
for a new president. Wyatt’s also the leader of the red ninja clan, which he created after
I was given leadership of his old one. The red ninjas have been training in secret in
the abandoned greenhouse at the centre of the school. Wyatt’s been recruiting like
crazy over the past few months, and I’m not sure why. It’s almost like he’s creating
an army. But for what? I have a feeling that when I’m ninety, Wyatt will still lurk in
the background, spitting wads of paper at me through a straw. ‘Hey, Dani, we should
prob’ly bounce, right?’ Colin asked. He had an odd way about him, almost like he was
hiding something Dani turned to Brayden. ‘I got a lot of work to do,’ she said. ‘I’ll
catch you after school, okay?’ Brayden’s eyes softened as his body melted a little.
‘Sure,’ he sighed. Barf. Just as Dani, Colin and Bounty had left, Zoe crashed into
me from behind. I had to stumble forward to keep from falling over. ‘What gives?’
I asked. She looked panicked as she caught her breath. ‘It’s … it’s …’ ‘The
zombie invasion has started, hasn’t it?’ Faith asked. My cousin lifted a sheet of paper,
jabbing at it with her finger. ‘Wyatt,’ she said. ‘It’s Wyatt. He signed up for
the competition.’ ‘So?’ I asked. ‘That doesn’t surprise me.’ Zoe stopped and
focused her eyes on my hand with the melted ice cream. ‘You know you were supposed to
eat that, right?’ ‘Gah!’ I yelled, frustrated. And then I marched to the nearest rubbish
bin and dumped the cone. ‘Is everyone happy now?’ I asked as I wiped my hands clean
with a serviette I took from the bin. Don’t judge me. Zoe ignored me. ‘So you know how
the winning team gets to create a club that’ll be recognised as an official school club?’
I nodded slowly, connecting the dots. ‘No way,’ I said. ‘There’s no way Wyatt
would be that bold.’ Zoe pushed her lips to one side of her face and nodded back at
me. ‘As part of the registration, students had to fill out a section describing what
kind of club they’d start if they won.’ ‘And Wyatt put down ‘ninja clan’ didn’t
he?’ I asked, already knowing the answer. Again, Zoe nodded. ‘Why would he do that?’
Brayden asked. ‘He’s already got a ninja clan.’ ‘I know,’ Zoe said, finally having
caught her breath. ‘But don’t you see what he’s doing?’ ‘Um, no?’ Brayden
said. ‘Allow me to explain,’ came a voice from outside our circle. Before I turned to
look, I already knew it was Wyatt. ‘I’m sure by now Zoe’s opened her big mouth and
blabbed about my registration form.’ ‘Where’s your girlfriend?’ Faith asked. Faith was
talking about Olive Jones. Olive and Wyatt had been going out for the past few months
and were usually attached at the hip. Wyatt flinched. ‘Things are complicated between
us right now.’ ‘Yeah?’ Faith said. ‘Does that mean she dumped you?’ Wyatt’s jaw
muscles twitched. ‘No,’ he replied. ‘It means it’s nunya.’ Faith cracked a sly
smile. ‘But why start a public ninja club?’ Brayden asked. Before Wyatt spoke, I already
knew what his answer was going to be. ‘Because then,’ Wyatt said, ‘my ninja clan won’t
have to train in secret anymore. We’ll be able to do whatever we want. I’ll operate
the red ninjas right under the principal’s nose, and there’s not a thing he can do
to stop me! As a matter of fact, he’s going to give us a thousand dollars to spend on
gear! Can you imagine what I could do if my ninja clan had a thousand dollars to spend
on supplies?’ I bit the inside of my cheek. I hated everything about this. Wyatt chuckled,
amused by his own thoughts. ‘My ninja clan is going to be so sweet,’ he said, and then
he looked at me. ‘I guess we know who the better leader is between the two of us.’
I wanted to say something witty, but couldn’t think of something fast enough. ‘Blah,’
I said under my breath. Good one, right? Zoe scanned the paper she was holding. ‘It says
that Jake is also competing with a team of his own.’ ‘So?’ Wyatt asked. ‘Soooo
…’ Zoe sang. ‘Doesn’t it bother you that he’s running against you? Or wait,’
Zoe stopped, snapping her finger. ‘If he’s just running because you want him to lose
on purpose, then that’s cheating. I’ll have both of your teams booted from the games
faster that you can say ‘kitten on a kite’!’ ‘Kitten on a—’ Wyatt whispered, confused.
‘I’ve never in my whole life heard that before.’ ‘It’s a real saying!’ Zoe
said, her cheeks flushing with red. Sometimes Zoe makes up weird phrases when her blood
gets pumping. Wyatt shrugged. ‘Whatever. I guess it’s just a good thing that Jake
isn’t part of my … club anymore.’ Jake wasn’t a red ninja anymore? During election
week, Jake pulled my ninja mask off my face, exposing my identity to Melvin – something
I knew Wyatt would be against. Wyatt didn’t follow much of a code of honour, except when
it came to our identities. Wyatt looked right at me. ‘Jake crossed the line,’ he said,
bluntly. Wyatt nodded once, and then walked away. Faith looked confused. ‘I’m not
sure whether Wyatt is a good villain or a bad one. Would a good villain monologue his
entire plan to their enemy?’ ‘His ego is bigger than his head,’ Zoe said. ‘He’s
so full of himself.’ ‘That’s what it is though, right?’ I said. ‘He’s so
sure he’s going to win that it doesn’t matter if we know his plan or not. He’s
basically bragging about his victory before it even happens.’ Zoe held up Wyatt’s
registration papers again, but slid a blank one out from behind them. ‘Which is why
you’re going to participate in these games,’ she said, firmly. Faith lifted her hands to
her mouth, hiding a smile as her eyes lit up. I sighed, taking the blank forms from
Zoe. Honestly the last thing I wanted was to be the centre of anyone’s attention,
especially competing in front of the entire school. But because of Wyatt entering the
competition, I knew I couldn’t just sit around and do nothing. It’s pretty safe
to say that Wyatt winning the games and getting an official club of his own for his ninja
crew was not only bad news for me, but also bad news for the whole school. A small part
of me even thought Wyatt’s victory would’ve somehow been bad news for all of humanity
too, but that’s almost too epic, right? Monday. The wrestling room. Afternoon classes
were shortened so school would still finish on time, which meant that my science class
wasn’t going to start until one. When I saw that I had ten minutes to spare, I headed
straight for the wrestling room. It was the first day of training with my new ninjas,
and I was already behind schedule. A few months ago, I stumbled upon a wrestling room that
wasn’t being used. Coach Cooper said that we used to have a school wrestling team about
ten years back. Since the room wasn’t being used anymore, Coach let me use it for a martial
arts club – that’s right, my ninja clan. Except I had lost every member in my ninja
clan except for Brayden, so membership was at an all-time low. But I didn’t want to
let that ruin my year, so I was trying to be positive and see this as a new recruiting
challenge. Since the beginning of school, all I wanted was to be a good leader. This
was a second chance at doing just that. And it would’ve been great, except that I was
twenty minutes late to the first meeting. Melvin was standing with his arms crossed
when I entered the wrestling room. He was a reporter for the school newspaper, and the
same kid who blew the lid off the rigged election last week. I thought he’d make a good ninja
since he had all sorts of connections with other students from being a reporter. ‘This
is part of the lesson, right?’ Melvin asked, clearly annoyed. ‘Like, you’re showing
us how you’ve actually been here the entire time, but hidden in the shadows, correct?’
I put my hand on my chest, trying to catch my breath. ‘Sorry, guys,’ I said. ‘Some
stuff came up during the assembly and I lost track of time.’ Leaning against the wall
was a girl with her face hidden from view as she looked down at her phone, tapping furiously
at the screen with her thumbs. Next to her was a boy, sitting with his legs crossed,
slouched over and drawing pictures in the dust on the wrestling mat. They were two of
Melvin’s friends that he’d asked to come because he thought they’d fit well in the
ninja clan. ‘You’re twenty minutes late,’ the girl said coldly, without looking up.
‘I missed out on the ice cream because of you.’ ‘Yeah, sorry,’ I said. ‘It won’t
happen again.’ The girl looked up from her phone. She was wearing a mask, but just over
her eyes. It was the kind of mask that superhero sidekicks wore. ‘Better not.’ ‘What’s
on your face?’ I asked. ‘It’s my ninja mask,’ the girl answered, raising her eyebrows
at me like it should’ve been obvious. ‘No,’ I said. ‘That’s the opposite of a ninja
mask. A ninja mask only has holes for your eyes. Your mask is only covering your eyes.’
‘I know,’ she said. ‘I’m not about to mess up my hair by pulling a black sock
over my head. Who made the rules about how a ninja mask should look anyway?’ ‘Ninjas,
maybe?’ I said. Melvin smiled tightly as he approached me. ‘Don’t mind Gidget,’
he said. ‘She has a strong personality.’ ‘Gidget?’ I repeated. ‘You got a problem
with my name?’ Gidget said ‘Is that your real name?’ I asked. ‘Real enough,’
she replied, returning her attention to her phone. The boy next to her jumped up, his
face beaming with a smile. ‘I’m Slug.’ I paused, staring at the boy called Slug,
unsure how to respond. ‘That’s not my real name, of course,’ Slug said as he rocked
back and forth. ‘My sister started calling me that because she thought I moved as slow
as a slug. You know how nicknames stick.’ ‘Oh, cool,’ I said. ‘So you’re okay
with me calling you Slug?’ ‘Yepper pepper,’ he replied, leaning back and stretching his
shoulders out. ‘Your sister sounds like a nimrod though,’ I added, trying to be
funny. Slug stopped smiling instantly. ‘Dude,’ he whispered as he jerked his head toward
Gidget. ‘Not cool, man. My sister’s right there.’ Gidget lowered her phone and stared
at me through the eyeholes on her mask. ‘They’re twins,’ Melvin said, leaning toward me.
Embarrassed, I tried to cover for myself. ‘No! I meant nimrod in the good way!’
‘What way is that?’ Gidget asked. ‘In Iceland, nimrod means, um … a skilled hunter,’
I said. Lowering my gaze, I scratched at the back of my head. ‘Y’know, come to think
it, that might actually be true.’ I jabbed my finger repeatedly against Slug’s head
and looked at Gidget. ‘Can you feel that? Because, y’know … twins?’ Gidget rolled
her eyes and brought her phone back to her face. She grunted, ‘So immature. I really
need to start hanging out with people my own age. I feel so old around you guys.’ ‘Dude,’
Slug sighed. ‘You’re, like, a minute and a half older than me.’ Gidget made a duck
face and wobbled her head back and forth, silently mocking her brother. Slug rolled
his shoulders, loosening his muscles. ‘So when do we get to start punching things? I
like punching things – walls, wooden boards, trees, toast.’ ‘You punch toast?’ I
asked. ‘Heck yeah!’ Slug said with a hearty laugh. ‘Have you ever punched toast before?
It pretty much explodes when you hit it!’ Rebuilding my ninja clan was going to be tougher
than I thought. ‘We won’t be punching toast,’ I said. Melvin squinted at the clock
on the wall. ‘What exactly will we be doing?’ ‘Training,’ I said. ‘Learning about
honour and nobility and stuff.’ ‘And what kind of actual ninjutsu training do you have?’
Melvin asked. ‘Well, besides the fact that I was born into a ninja family, I also trained
for many years with shaolin monks in Japan.’ ‘Really?’ Slug asked as his jaw dropped.
I laughed. ‘No, not really.’ ‘Oh, so …’ Melvin said, still waiting for my answer.
‘Training, yes!’ I said. ‘Mostly internet. A few ninja flicks from the ’70s, but mostly
internet.’ Melvin continued to stare at me. His face was hard to read. I couldn’t
tell whether he was excited or disappointed. ‘Awkward …’ Gidget sang, staring at
the face of her phone still. Finally Slug broke the silence. ‘When’s snack time?
I’m just asking because whatever the snacks are, they have to be a hundred per cent organic,
like, you better have milked the cow yourself if milk is what we’re drinking.’ I laughed.
‘Sure, I milked all the cows for the yoghurt we’ll be eating later.’ ‘Wait … yoghurt’s
made from milk?’ Slug said, slapping his forehead like he was worried. ‘My entire
life has been a lie.’ ‘I’m gluten-free,’ Gidget added. The bell rang in the hallway.
Without looking away from her text messages, Gidget walked toward the exit with Slug and
Melvin trailing behind her. Sighing, I watched them leave. Yup. This might not have been
the best idea I’d ever had. Tuesday. The hallways. I got to school the next morning
about fifteen minutes before homeroom. On Tuesdays, the cafeteria serves bacon-egg-and-cheese
croissants, with a side of hash browns. But the second I stepped into the lobby, I wondered
if I was having another bizarre dream. ‘Move it or lose it,’ a kid wearing an enormous
alien head said. I stepped aside, staring at the strange looking monster as it passed
by. When I looked down the hallway, I saw several other kids wearing heads of other
creatures. The heads swayed back and forth as they lumbered across the lobby. ‘What
in the heck?’ I whispered. ‘Chase Cooper! Take me to your leader!’ someone behind
me said. I turned to look, absolutely terrified at what I saw. It sounded like Brayden’s
voice, but it was a gigantic kitten face that was staring back at me. I choked out a high-pitched
squeal as I jumped back. The kitten stepped forward and sounded concerned as he reached
for me. ‘Dude, it’s cool! It’s me!’ As I stepped back again, I noticed a long
banner hanging from the cafeteria windows. I breathed a sigh of relief. ‘Oh, right.
Spirit Week.’ Removing the giant kitten head from his shoulders, Brayden let out a
sigh. He was sweating like he had just finished running the mile in gym. ‘I don’t think
I can wear this thing longer than five minutes,’ he said, wiping his brow. ‘Unless I want
to sit in a puddle of sweat all day.’ ‘But you could fall asleep in there, and no one
would know!’ I joked. The gears started churning in Brayden’s brain as he stared
off into space with a hint of a grin. He put the giant kitten mask back on, took one step
to the side, and slowly waddled down the hall. I checked the line for breakfast. Luckily
it was pretty short because I was hungrier than a … whatever is known for being hungry,
I guess. Before I could take a spot in line, Zoe came out from the front office. ‘Chase,
wait!’ she said, holding out her hand. ‘Did you fill out those papers for the competition?’
‘Oh, right,’ I said, pulling my book bag off my shoulders. Unzipping the bag, I searched
inside. It looked like a brick of smashed paper was stuffed into my bag. Zoe sighed.
The chaos inside my cluttered bag was enough to send her heart racing. ‘You should let
me clean that out for you,’ she said as she pulled back the opening of my canvas book
bag with her finger. ‘Seriously, I see stuff in there from the food drive we had during
the first week of school.’ ‘It’s my bag of memories!’ I said, yanking out a
stapled set of papers. There was a weird stain at the bottom of the first page, like someone
had set their coffee mug on it. ‘Gross,’ Zoe said, pinching the registration form between
two fingers. I laughed. ‘The really gross thing is that it’s been in my bag since
you gave it to me!’ Zoe’s face went white. ‘Something in your bag is leaking, and you
need to take care of it.’ ‘Meh,’ I said, stretching my back and cracking it while keeping
an eye on the breakfast line. A few other kids had joined it, but it was still short
enough. Zoe scanned the registration form. ‘So your club is going to be … the Moose?
What’s that? Some secret term for ninjas?’ ‘No. Going public with a ninja clan is Wyatt’s
thing. I’d like to keep mine secret, especially since it’s so tiny now.’ ‘So what’s
the Moose?’ ‘Did you read it?’ I asked, pointing at the form in her hands. ‘Just
explain it to me since you’re standing right here,’ Zoe said. The line for breakfast
was getting longer. I could feel my breakfast slipping away from me. Zoe’s forehead wrinkled
as she waited. ‘Are you going to sit around in a room, cutting pictures of moose out of
magazines so you could clip them to the wall? Is this a strange hobby that your parents
should know about?’ ‘Nooo,’ I whined. ‘The Moose is just the name, but I chose
it because I want start a club that represents what this school is all about.’ ‘And what’s
that?’ Zoe asked. ‘The students,’ I replied. ‘It’ll be a club where nothing
is required – no tryouts or competitions. Just kids.’ ‘Okaaaaaay,’ Zoe said. ‘But
what’ll you do?’ ‘Hang out,’ I said. ‘Kids have the most fun when they’re allowed
to just hang out, right? Like, before school in the hallways, or in the locker room before
gym. Or even sometimes during gym class when we walk the track and talk. So I want to have
a place where kids can just come and hang out with each other.’ ‘Hmmm,’ Zoe hummed,
which was a good sign because it meant that she didn’t think my idea was completely
coconuts. ‘Who’s going to join a club that doesn’t do anything? How are you going
to get members?’ I smiled. ‘I’m going to spend the budget on a candy bar. It’ll
be set up like a salad bar, but instead of lettuce and carrots, it’ll have different
lollies. Kids will only be allowed to take as much as a small cup can fit. I thought
it’d be cool if the group only met on Tuesdays and Thursdays too. That way nobody’s binging
on sweets.’ Zoe paused, furrowing her brow. I think she was trying to find an argument,
but couldn’t. ‘That’s … wow, that’s actually not a terrible idea.’ ‘I know,
right?’ I said joyfully. ‘I’m full of not-terrible ideas.’ Zoe waved the registration
form at me as she turned around. ‘Awesome,’ she said. ‘I’ll give this to Principal
Davis and let him know your team is competing.’ Throwing Zoe a thumbs up, I flipped around
ready to get in line for my breakfast sandwich, but of course the line was about three times
longer now. Rolling my eyes, I headed to my locker. Tuesday. My locker. The first bell
went off just as I got to my locker. I yanked on the handle while pressing my shoulder into
the door so none of my stuff would fall out. Sure, we have a locker clean-out every couple
of weeks, but you know how life gets busy sometimes. That and I was pretty sure I was
feeding a small family of rodents living in there. I’m not sure I could live with myself
if I did anything to take food off their table. Squeezing my fingers into the cold, dark,
and somehow damp locker, I managed to scrape the top of my maths book just enough so that
it would tip into my hand. ‘Gotcha!’ I exclaimed as I slid the book out slowly. After
it was free from the locker, I slammed the door shut with my knee. Suddenly, like she’d
materialised out of thin air, Naomi was standing on the other side of my locker door. ‘Whaaaaaaa!’
I screamed, but slapped my hand over my mouth to keep from making any more of a scene. ‘Nice,’
Naomi said. She was leaning her shoulder against the wall of lockers. ‘What’s up?’ I
stared at her for a moment. Did she just ask me what was up as if nothing was wrong? As
if she didn’t end our friendship by betraying my trust? As if she didn’t crush my social
life under the weight of her fist? Naomi smiled softly at me. ‘Look, I know what you’re
thinking …’ ‘Do you?’ I finally managed to say. ‘I wasn’t sure whether I should
talk to you after what happened last week,’ Naomi said. ‘But then I was like, whatever,
right? I know you hate me for what happened, and I don’t blame you, but I want you to
know I’m not mad at you anymore.’ ‘You’re not mad at me?’ I asked, shocked. ‘What
about me?’ Naomi laughed. ‘That’s why I’m here,’ she said. ‘I wanted to say
I’m sorry.’ My heart started beating faster. What was Naomi thinking? That she could just
show up to my locker and say sorry and everything would be fine between us? I didn’t know
what to say. You want to know the truth? Naomi was such a good friend before I found out
she was a Scavenger that part of me wanted to forgive and forget. Part of me wanted things
to go back to normal. ‘I’ve been ordered to give you one last chance to join us,’
she said calmly. ‘If you do then you’ll be forgiven for everything you’ve done.’
That one made me angry. ‘I’ve done nothing!’ I whispered harshly. ‘All I did was respond
to what you put me through last week! I’ll probably be dealing with it for the rest of
my life!’ Naomi pushed her lips to the side, annoyed. ‘Wait a sec, I thought you were
the leader of the Scavengers,’ I said. ‘Who’s giving you orders?’ ‘I’m the leader
of the sixth-grade Scavengers, but there are seventh- and eighth-grade Scavengers that
I answer to. I think there are even Scavengers in high school.’ ‘Great,’ I sighed.
‘This whole thing is going to follow me around for the rest of my life.’ ‘Chase,’
Naomi said with a pleading look. ‘Please join us. Please. I know this sounds so lame,
but I’ve missed joking around with you.’ Naomi had no idea how hard that hit me. I
did my best to keep my face emotionless. Pushing herself off the locker and starting to walk
away, Naomi shot me a look over her shoulder and said, ‘Also, if you don’t join us,
I’m not sure what Victor’s gonna do to you.’ ‘What?’ I said as she walked away.
‘Wait, who’s Victor? Who’s Victor?’ Naomi turned the corner and disappeared. The
bell rang a second time, signalling the start of class, which meant I was totally late for
homeroom. Again. Tuesday. The lobby. A few hours later, I was back in the school lobby,
waiting for the rest of my team on the steps in the nook. The nook was about the size of
a three-car garage with a little set of stairs where kids would hang out between classes
and during lunch. Many students were wearing their giant masks as they gathered in the
lobby. For a second time, I questioned reality. Faith found me first and stood next to me.
She was clutching her book bag straps, smiling at all the students that walked by. ‘Hey,’
I said. She nodded, but didn’t say anything. She wasn’t mad, at least not that I knew
of, so I wasn’t sure why she kept quiet. I leaned my head over so that I was in her
line of vision. ‘Hey,’ I repeated. Again, she just smiled. It wasn’t a fake smile,
like the kind where you just tighten your mouth on both sides and nod. It was a soft
smile. Real. But it was still making me nervous. ‘Why aren’t you saying anything?’ Faith
leaned away from me, staring at me like I was crazy. ‘Why do I need to say anything?’
‘Because not talking is weird!’ I replied. ‘Why can’t we sit quietly with each other?’
she asked. I wasn’t sure I understood, and she could tell. She went on. ‘You ever just
sit with someone? You ever feel comfortable enough with someone that there doesn’t need
to be small talk about the weather or TV shows?’ I thought for a second. ‘My family, I guess.’
‘Best friends are the same,’ she said to me in a way that made me feel stupid for
not already getting it. ‘Best friends can just hang out and be real without having to
say a word.’ I tried to hide my smile, but I was blushing a little. She definitely noticed
but kept quiet about it. Faith was cool like that. Together, in silence, we watched the
giant heads stumble and fumble in the lobby, occasionally bumping into each other. Every
few seconds, a muffled ‘Excuse me’ or ‘Sorry ’bout that’ would filter through
their masks. It was eerie. When Gavin and Brayden showed up, we all huddled together
for a quick team meeting. ‘Guys, these heads are freakin’ me out,’ I said. ‘I’m
not sure I like today’s theme.’ ‘I know, it’s weird,’ Brayden said, his voice muffled
by his kitten mask. ‘But good call on the whole ‘sleeping in my mask’ idea. I zonked
out a few times today and nobody suspected a thing!’ ‘Dude, half our classes were
together this morning! Is that why you barely said anything when I talked to you?’ The
giant kitten mask slowly nodded up and down like a bobble head. Using my knuckles, I lightly
backhanded Brayden’s mask, enough to make him lose his balance, but not enough to actually
hurt him. His dampened laugh came through wherever his air holes were. ‘Ew!’ Faith
said, looking over her shoulder. ‘Look at the mask that kid is wearing!’ My head popped
up like a meerkat. Across the lobby was some kid who had a mask with Wyatt’s face on
it. ‘Who is that?’ Gavin asked, but before anyone could answer, the kid removed his oversized
head. It was Wyatt. Wyatt was wearing a giant mask of his own face. Faith laughed. ‘Talk
about a big head.’ ‘Who does that?’ I said. ‘Who wears a mask of their own face?’
‘Don’t you read his blog?’ Gavin said. ‘He’s been working on that thing for weeks.’
I groaned. ‘That’s definitely one corner of the internet I’d like to forget.’ Principal
Davis climbed to the top step and blew a whistle to get everyone in the lobby to pay attention.
I had never seen the lobby so packed with students. We had no problem filling out the
gymnasium during an assembly, so you can imagine how shoulder-to-shoulder we all were in a
space half that size. Principal Davis tapped on the mic, thomp, thomp, thomp. Zoe was standing
behind the principal, gesturing for another student to join her on the steps. From the
crowd, I saw a well-dressed boy hop onto the top step of the nook, next to Principal Davis
and Zoe. It was Sebastian, the ex-school president. ‘What’s he doing?’ I asked aloud and
to nobody in particular. ‘Zoe told me she was going to give Sebastian a second chance
’cause he asked for it. She thought it would be cruel if she didn’t at least try and
throw him a bone,’ Faith said. ‘But he scammed the school,’ I said. Faith nodded.
‘I know, but she said he was super bummed out and she felt sorry for him.’ ‘Well,’
I sighed watching Sebastian take the place by my cousin’s side. ‘I guess that’s
what makes Zoe so … Zoe.’ ‘Yeah,’ Faith agreed. ‘She really thinks this could
be a new Sebastian, you know, like he’s turned over a new leaf or something.’ ‘Huh,’
I grunted, watching the ex-president stand next to the new president. ‘What?’ Faith
asked me. ‘I don’t know,’ I said, thinking about my ninja clan. ‘Zoe is such a natural
leader. I wish that was something in my family’s blood, that way maybe I’d be a good leader
too.’ ‘You’re kidding, right?’ Faith asked. ‘You’re one of the best leaders
I’ve ever seen.’ If only she knew that my entire ninja clan had left to the join
the Scavengers. ‘I think you’d be surprised at how terrible of a leader I really am. You
know how they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Well, I couldn’t teach a
new dog new tricks.’ Faith folded her arms. ‘Being a good leader doesn’t always mean
being a good teacher.’ I stared at Faith, trying not to look too dumb because I wasn’t
exactly sure what she meant. ‘Yup,’ I said finally. She lightly punched my shoulder.
‘I can tell when you’re having a brain fart so let me explain that a little—’
she said, but was cut off by the crowd of kids cheering and staring right at us. Gavin
and Brayden were standing on the step under Zoe, waiting for Faith and me to join them.
Zoe raised the microphone back to her mouth. ‘Any minute now, guys.’ There were several
other groups of students lined up on the steps too. Faith and I were so into our conversation
that we didn’t even notice that Zoe had obviously introduced the teams. As we joined
Gavin and Brayden, I looked down the line to see who we were going to compete against.
Wyatt was with his team, which was made up of red ninjas. I could tell because all the
red ninjas wore red bracelets, which kind of looked like friendship bracelets. Next
down the line was Carlyle, Wyatt’s cousin. He was almost the same flavour of evil that
Wyatt was, except he had a pirate obsession. He was the only kid in school who talked like
a pirate when it wasn’t ‘Talk Like a Pirate’ day. The rest of his team were wearing pirate
costumes and eye patches too. I recognised most of them except for the shortest student.
I couldn’t see much of her face since it was hidden under her oversized bandana. Sophia
was on the next team. She was a hipster and so were her teammates, so I would’ve figured
that the Spirit Week games would be too main­stream for them. Maybe they wanted to start some
hipster club so they could sit around in a circle playing acoustic guitars and banging
on drums while saying everything was so last week. And finally, on the last team was Jake
and his wolf pack. To put it bluntly, it was a team of bullies who even went as far as
howling when walking the hallways. At the foot of the steps were five shopping trolleys.
Each cart had a helmet hanging from the handlebar. ‘Players, helmets on,’ Zoe said into the
microphone. ‘As they’re getting ready, the other two members of your teams can go
ahead and take their places down the hall.’ I grabbed the helmet from the grocery cart
in front of me as Faith and Brayden sped off down the hall for some part of the game that
I missed the explanation for. ‘What are those guys gonna do?’ I asked. Gavin snatched
the helmet from me. ‘Where’s your head at, dude? Didn’t ya hear Zoe tell the rules?’
‘Totes,’ I said, squeezing my hands around the handlebar of the grocery cart. ‘But
I wanna hear you repeat them so I know you know the rules.’ Gavin pressed air through
his lips, making a pfft sound. ‘Whatever, man. You and I are the ones competing in this
race. One of us rides and one of us pushes to the first checkpoint challenge.’ ‘Cool,’
I said. ‘What’s at the first checkpoint?’ ‘Brayden will be waiting with a bucket of
baked beans and an apple.’ ‘Awesome. Wait … why?’ Gavin took a deep breath as he
clipped his helmet on. ‘We’ll have to bob for the apple in the bucket of baked beans.’
I leaned my head over and stuck out my bottom lip. ‘Pretty nasty, but alright,’ I said,
trying to keep a positive attitude. ‘What’s after that?’ ‘We switch places in the
grocery cart,’ Gavin said, hopping into the metal cage of the cart. ‘Then we race
to the second checkpoint, where Faith will be waiting with a balloon and shaving cream.’
‘Because we need to shave the balloon?’ I said. Gavin glanced over his shoulder as
he grabbed the front of the grocery cart. ‘Bingo, partner,’ he said. ‘What do
these games have to do with Spirit Week?’ I asked, revving the grocery cart handlebar
like it was a motorcycle. The other teams were already set up next to us and ready to
go. ‘Nothing,’ Gavin said. ‘It’s all just a bunch of games to make us all look
like fools!’ I nodded, laughing. Zoe raised an air horn over her head and paused. Everyone
fell silent. Honk! Tuesday. The race. I flinched, and then with all the power I could muster,
I shoved the grocery cart forwards. The crowd was pressed against the walls, hooting and
hollering. All five teams were side by side, banging our carts into each other like we
were driving bumper cars. ‘Watch it, Chase!’ Gavin shouted as he ducked his head lower.
‘You’re gonna crush my fingers!’ Sophia pulled ahead of everyone, thrusting her cart
down the first hallway as kids cheered her on from the sidelines. I stole a peek over
my shoulder to see where Wyatt’s cart was. I was happy to see that he was bringing up
the rear. Hopefully his team would get eliminated first. Jake’s cart smashed into the side
of mine on purpose. He rammed his cart into mine again immediately. I didn’t want to
risk tipping my trolley over so I ran faster to try and get ahead of Jake, but his passenger
grabbed the side of my cart. ‘Hey!’ I shouted. ‘Let go! You can’t do that!’
The kid in Jake’s cart laughed as he jerked our cart back and forth, making it wobble.
Gavin grabbed the boy’s fingers, peeling them away from our cart. As soon as he lost
his grip, Gavin raised his leg over the side of the metal grate and kicked Jake’s cart
away. Sparks flew as Jake’s trolley scraped against the metal lockers. He fell behind
just enough that I didn’t have to worry about a second attack. I’m pretty sure Principal
Davis was going to regret giving this race the go-ahead after seeing what kind of damage
it caused. ‘Easy now!’ Gavin shouted, pointing at the end of the hallway. ‘Slow
down! You’re gonna take the turn too fast!’ Digging my feet into the carpet, I tried slowing
down, but my shoes weren’t getting any traction. They slid across the floor like I was skating
on ice. ‘Dag gummit!’ Gavin shouted, dropping to the bottom of the cart in a fetal position.
Our trolley crashed into the brick wall at the end of the hallway. I flew forward, smashing
into the handlebar. Students in the hall groaned in pain for Gavin and me. ‘C’mon,’ Gavin
said, sitting back on his knees. ‘Jake’s gainin’ on us!’ ‘But,’ I said, clutching
at my stomach. ‘My organs! All of my organs!’ Jake turned the corner with ease, steering
his cart like it was nothing. As he ran by, he laughed. Pulling the cart away from the
wall, I shoved it forward again, doing my best to gain speed with long strides. ‘Okay,’
Gavin said. ‘I see Brayden and the bucket of baked beans just up ahead. Start slowin’
down now!’ This time I took Gavin’s advice. I slowed myself down to a jog and then to
a speed walk until we finally came to a complete stop. Brayden helped Gavin out of the cart.
‘Okay, get the apple! Sophia’s over by her bucket still trying to grab it! You guys
can pull ahead right now!’ Gavin looked at me. ‘Go ahead, you got this!’ I stared
at the bucket of cold baked beans, horrified. A thick bubble formed at the centre of the
slop, and then popped, splashing some of the cold baked bean juice on my clothes. ‘Sick,
man! That thing just burped! I’m not putting my face in that! You do it!’ ‘Absolutely
not,’ Gavin said, upset. ‘Ain’t no way I’m snatchin’ an apple from there.’
‘One of you has to do it!’ Brayden said frantically. ‘If you don’t, then we’ll
lose the race for sure!’ Gavin tightened his lips and looked me in the eye. Holding
his fist in the air, he spoke. ‘Best outta three?’ Kids cheered in the hallway. Sophia
was standing by the side of her slop bucket, her hair and face dripping with baked beans
as she held an apple between her teeth. The only clean parts of her face were the whites
of her eyes as she blinked. She looked like a monster. ‘Fine!’ I said, punching my
open palm with my other fist. ‘Rock, paper, scissors!’ Gavin and I said at the same
time. Gavin threw rock while I threw scissors. ‘No!’ I shouted. I heard Jake laugh loudly
from behind me. His teammate had grabbed the apple from the bucket of beans. Again, Gavin
and I slammed our fists into our palms. ‘Rock, paper, scissors!’ Gavin threw rock again.
I threw paper. ‘Ha!’ I shouted, slapping Gavin’s rock with my open hand. For a third
time, Gavin and I chanted together, ‘Rock, paper, scissors!’ ‘Booya!’ I said, cutting
Gavin’s flat hand with my finger-scissors. Gavin grunted but didn’t waste any time.
He clutched the sides of the bucket and splashed his face into the baked beans, making a nasty
splorch sound. I looked back down the hall we had come from, trying to see where Wyatt
was, but he was so far behind that he hadn’t even turned the corner yet. Gavin pulled his
face from the beans, took a deep breath, and plunged back into the glorious mess of syrupy
goodness. I’m not gonna lie – it was pretty funny to watch. Finally, Gavin stood up straight,
holding an apple in his mouth. Round beans fell back into the bucket as he wiped them
from his eyes. ‘Go!’ Brayden shouted. ‘You can wipe them off when you’re done!’
I jumped into the trolley since it was Gavin’s turn to push. Shaking his head like a dog,
Gavin managed to get enough of the baked beans off his face to see clearly. Then he grabbed
the handlebars and pushed forward so hard that I fell against the back of the cart.
The ceiling tiles flew by as I watched them from the bottom of the cart. It was actually
kind of nice. Tuesday. The second checkpoint. After the second turn, I saw Faith standing
at the end of the hallway next to a desk that had three balloons floating above it. ‘There!’
I said. Gavin turned the cart sideways and slid it to a stop like a car in an action
movie. It was almost like he had done it before. After fumbling out of the cart, I ran to the
desk. Each balloon had shaving cream smeared on it. ‘Okay,’ I said to Faith. ‘What
do I do?’ Faith handed me a plastic scraper. ‘Use this as a razor and shave the balloon
without popping it. You get three shots.’ ‘What happens if I pop all three?’ I asked,
taking the scraper from Faith. ‘Then our team gets a ten second penalty in the race,’
Faith explained. ‘So ten seconds is added to our finishing time.’ ‘Got it,’ I
said, lowering my body into more of a horse stance. Holding the scraper in my right hand,
I took the balloon in my left and turned it slightly. ‘Are you sure you got it?’ Faith
said, cocking an eyebrow. ‘Of course!’ I replied. ‘I’ve seen my dad do this a
million times. How hard could it be?’ I said confidently as slid the plastic scraper
down the side of the balloon’s face. The sound of stretched rubber bounced around the
hallway as little beads of sweat formed on my forehead. The hand holding the balloon
started shaking as my other hand cramped up around the scraper. I guess I was more nervous
than I thought. I could be wrong, but it felt like shaving a balloon was just as hard as
disarming a bomb. Jake had already left the balloon checkpoint. I had no doubt that his
team was going to finish first. Sophia was nearly finished shaving her balloon as her
hipster friends cheered her on from the sidelines. Carlyle and his pirate team were just catching
up to us. Wyatt was still nowhere to be seen, which didn’t actually make me feel better.
The entire race had been so distracting that it was possible he passed Gavin and me without
us noticing. Ever so carefully, I wiped the scraper off on the edge of the desk, and went
in again. There was only one strip I had cleaned off, but nearly thirty seconds had already
passed. ‘Careful,’ I whispered, touching the scraper to the balloon. ‘Caaaaaareful
…’ POP! Shaving cream splattered across my front and my life flashed before my eyes.
It wasn’t very long, and that was kind of depressing. Everyone laughed, covering their
faces and flinching for me. I stood there shocked. He was trying to hide it, but I could
hear Gavin snickering behind me. ‘C’mon, dude!’ Faith said, slapping my shoulder
and bringing me back to the competition. ‘Round two! Go!’ I stared at the other balloons
with shaving cream on them, already stressed and shaky at the thought of doing it again.
Instead, I took the scraper and jabbed the other two balloons, popping them. Faith squealed
a laugh as she covered her face with her arms. Gavin pushed the trolley back up to me. ‘That’s
one way of doing it!’ he said. ‘Now get in! Carlyle’s right behind us!’ I jumped
in, scanning the hall ahead of us. Jake was already gone, probably at the finish line.
Sophia’s cart was turning the last corner. Wyatt’s cart was still out of the picture.
And Carlyle was quickly scraping his balloon clean. There was a short path ahead of us
where the hallway narrowed. It was just wide enough to get our trolleys through. I clutched
the front of the shopping trolley as Gavin ploughed forward into the narrow passage.
There wasn’t any time to wipe myself clean from the shaving cream, and Gavin was still
dripping with baked bean juice. It was the most random, disgusting adventure I had ever
been part of, and I was loving every second of it. Until Gavin caught his shoulder in
the super narrow hallway. Falling forward, Gavin turned the grocery cart and pushed the
handlebar one last time, launching me at a hundred kays an hour down the final stretch
of the race. The cart shook uncontrollably underneath me as I did my best to steer the
steel death trap from inside by leaning left and right. Like a mighty Spartan warrior,
I roared. At least, that’s how I wanted to sound. Pretty sure I sounded like a frightened
three-year old. Students dove aside as my cart barrelled past them. ‘Gangway!’ I
shouted, trying to come up with a plan to stop the cart once I crossed the finish line.
‘Get outta the way!’ I was so close I could taste the victory, or at least the only
victory my team could achieve at that point, which would be not coming in dead last. It
tasted a lot like shaving cream. There was only about fifteen metres between my cart
and where Zoe was standing waving a black-and-white chequered flag. Jake was standing with the
rest of his team behind my cousin. Sophia was also there, wiping her face clean of the
baked-bean slop. And there, with a goofy grin on his face, was Wyatt and the rest of his
team. I was right – he must’ve got ahead of Gavin and me when we were distracted by
the checkpoint challenges. It was only down to Carlyle and me, and I could hear him shouting.
‘Yar, matey!’ Carlyle growled. He was only about five metres behind me, waving a
pirate flag as he rode in the metal cage of his grocery cart. The shortest member of his
team was furiously sprinting down the hall, pushing the cart. ‘Outta the way, ya landlubber!’
Carlyle shouted over the sound of metal grocery carts clashing. ‘This victory be in the
palm of me fist! Ye already lost, Cooper!’ The finish line was coming up fast as I sailed
forwards. I could still beat this pirate poser! All I had to do was keep my grocery cart from
falling over. Which is exactly what happened next, as my cart caught something hard in
the carpet. You ever hit a rock with a skateboard? The entire world stops moving for that split
second as you fly through the air, waiting to scrape your palms on the ground. Like a
ragdoll, I tumbled out of my grocery cart, rolling to a stop right in front of the finish
line. Carlyle’s cart rolled past, securing their place in the rest of the games. I crawled
over the finish line dead last. That was it. My team was done, and we were going to be
eliminated with no chance at keeping Wyatt from winning the Spirit Week grand prize.
I could tell by the expression on Zoe’s face that she was disappointed as she helped
me off the ground. Sebastian was already on the microphone announcing the winners of the
race. Apparently Wyatt’s team had come in first place. As I wrung out the shaving cream
at the bottom of my hoodie, Wyatt came up to gloat, already wearing the first place
bright blue ribbon. He was in the middle of slurping a spoonful of cereal that he got
from who knows where. From the smell, I could tell it was Cookie Dough Delight. For the
record, I hate Cookie Dough Delight. It was crispy rice cereal with little balls of dried
out cookie dough. Trust me – it wasn’t as awesomesauce as it sounded. ‘Nice effort,’
Wyatt said. ‘I would give that performance a D minus. Not quite an F, but not far from
it.’ ‘How’d you come in first?’ I said, feeling the weight of utter defeat press
down on my shoulders. ‘I raced a good race,’ Wyatt replied, shovelling another spoonful
of cereal into his mouth. ‘You and Gavin must’ve been sidetracked somewhere along
the race.’ The rock, paper, scissors games must’ve been where Wyatt took the lead.
Gavin and I were so wrapped up that a car could’ve crashed into the building and we
wouldn’t have noticed. ‘And we crossed the finish line way before anyone else did,’
Wyatt said. He waved his hand at someone nearby to get their attention. ‘Was that awesome?
I mean, we did our best and totes came first, but I’m pretty sure we could’ve done better.’
Gross. Watching Wyatt fish for compliments was enough to make me gag. ‘All’s well
that ends well though,’ Wyatt sneered. ‘At least for me and my team!’ Suddenly, everyone
in the lobby gasped. Wyatt spun around so fast that some of his cereal splashed onto
the floor. Principal Davis raised his hands into the air to try and calm everyone down.
‘Students, please!’ he said sternly. ‘Please back away and give us some room.’ Standing
on my tippy toes, I tried to see over everyone, but there were too many people in front of
me. ‘Please!’ Principal Davis said again. ‘Calm down and take two steps back!’ The
students in the lobby did as he ordered and pushed backward. After squeezing myself past
a few of the taller kids, I could finally see what everyone had been shocked by. Carlyle
was standing with his arms folded behind Principal Davis. One of the students on his team was
on the other side of the principal. It was the shorter kid from earlier that I didn’t
recognise and now I understood why. It was because it wasn’t a student! It was the
janitor! ‘Ms Chen-Jung,’ Principal Davis said. ‘You’re retiring this year, and
this is the legacy you want to leave behind?’ Ms Chen-Jung scrunched her face, making it
look like a black hole appeared in the middle of her face. ‘Pirates forever, yo!’ Carlyle
stood silently on the other side of the principal. ‘You know what this means, right?’ Principal
Davis asked Carlyle. ‘That Ms Chen-Jung is fired?’ Carlyle asked. ‘No,’ he said.
‘Ms Chen-Jung is going to be fine. She shouldn’t have played in the games with you, but there’s
no way I’m going to discipline a sixty-five-year-old woman for a silly act like that. You and your
team, on the other hand, are disqualified.’ Zoe stepped forward with a glint in her eye.
‘Which means Chase and his team are still in!’ Principal Davis nodded. I heard Wyatt
crunch down on his cereal. Without looking at me, he said, ‘You’re lucky, but luck
won’t help you next time.’ Faith came out of nowhere and nearly tackled me to the
floor with a hug. ‘You did it! You failed miserably, but still managed to not entirely
lose!’ ‘Yaaay,’ I sang sarcastically as I twirled my finger in the air. Gavin joined
us, cleaning his face off with a towel. Brayden was behind him, walking with Dani. ‘Man,
that was a close one,’ Brayden said. ‘At least you’re not out,’ Dani said with
a smile, staring at Brayden. ‘I just can’t believe Wyatt got first place,’ Gavin said.
‘You guys think he cheated somehow?’ Dani looked at Gavin. ‘Oh no,’ she said. ‘I
watched him turn that last corner. Wyatt ran across the finish line fair and square. Everyone
else saw him do it too.’ Gavin pouted, embarrassed. I took a deep breath and watched Wyatt celebrate
with the other members of his team. I couldn’t believe we had come in last place because
it’s not like we didn’t try. Carlyle had an old lady on his team, and they still managed
to beat us fair and square. This whole thing was going to be tougher than I thought. Tuesday.
The cafeteria. Brayden and I were in the middle of a conversation when we stepped into the
cafeteria, which was bustling with activity. Since the grocery cart race ended early, kids
were told to ‘hang loose’ in the cafeteria. At least that’s what Principal Davis said,
but I think he meant ‘hang out’. Brayden and I stopped right inside the cafeteria doors.
Melvin, Gidget and Slug were sitting at a table at the far end of the other room. I
sighed. ‘I can’t believe the ninja clan is down to a handful of kids.’ ‘Why not?’
Brayden asked. ‘I think it’s better this way.’ ‘Wouldn’t it be better if it were
the size of the red ninja clan?’ ‘There’s, like, a hundred kids in that clan,’ Brayden
said. ‘It won’t be long before it comes crashing in on itself. At some point, someone
will think they can do a better job of running it than Wyatt, and once that happens, the
whole thing will crumble.’ ‘I dunno, man. Wyatt seems to be keeping them together pretty
well,’ I said, feeling sorry for myself. ‘He might just be a better leader than I
am.’ Brayden paused, and I regretted saying something that had to do with feelings. Finally,
he said, ‘Why go big? That didn’t work last time. What if you kept it small? Like
a tightly balled fist? Less is more, right? Don’t you think a smaller band of ninjas
is more effective than an army of a hundred?’ I shrugged. After weaving through the crowd,
we sat with the new members of my ninja clan. Slug leaned his head against one of his hands,
struggling to keep his eyes open. Gidget still had her face pointed at the screen on her
phone. And Melvin was scribbling some chicken scratch in a small notebook. ‘So why aren’t
we training in the wrestling room?’ Gidget asked from behind her phone. ‘Because being
a ninja is about more than how many punches and kicks you’ve thrown,’ I said, dropping
my book bag on the lunch table. Gidget stuffed her phone into the small pocket of her book
bag and hoisted the strap over her shoulder. ‘Later, guys. It’s been a blast, and by
‘a blast’, I mean it’s been supes boring. I’ve got better things to do with my time.’
Great. Another ninja quits my clan. It must be what all the cool kids are doing. ‘What
better things do you have to do?’ Slug asked. ‘I dunno,’ Gidget replied. ‘Deal with
it.’ Gidget walked to the front of the cafeteria and joined a table of other kids who were
hypnotised by their phones. ‘Being a twin must be hard work,’ Melvin said to Slug.
‘It’s easy,’ Slug said, frowning. ‘Gidget might have a chip on her shoulder, but she’s
still my sister.’ Melvin nodded. He turned back to me. ‘So Wyatt came in first,’
he stated. ‘He did,’ I said, still unsure about the whole race. ‘But did you see him
cross the finish line?’ I was hoping that Melvin had some kind of proof that Wyatt had
bypassed the race and just appeared at the finish line, but he didn’t. ‘Yeah. I watched
him and his buddy cross the line.’ I sighed. ‘Tell ya what,’ Melvin said. ‘I’ll
ask around and see what others say about the race.’ ‘You’d do that?’ Brayden asked.
‘Of course,’ Melvin said. ‘I’m a reporter. Asking questions is what I’m best at.’
After that, we were mostly quiet. After Gidget left the clan, I didn’t really feel like
talking about honour and strength and stuff, because honestly, I was beginning to think
I didn’t understand it as well I thought I did. It was only the second day with the
kids in my new ninja clan, and I’d already lost one member. Wednesday. The cafeteria.
After getting dropped off, I went straight into the kitchen to grab some fries and a
juice. I know what you’re thinking – fries for breakfast? Who does that? And my answer
is this – if the school thought it was bad for me, then they wouldn’t make them in
the morning. Besides, the orange juice made it a balanced breakfast, right? Yeah, let’s
go with that. It was day three of Spirit Week. I was actually super pumped about today because
the theme was the future, and that meant I could dress like it was the year 3000. I had
crafted a robot costume out of cardboard, aluminium foil, and flexible metal ducts for
my arms. It looked killer. ‘Chase! Over here!’ Zoe called from a lunch table a few
rows away. I shuffled over to the table that my friends were sitting at. Zoe was talking
rapidly, stopping every few sentences so Gavin could write down what she said. Faith was
munching on a slice of breakfast pizza. She looked up at me with a giant smile, showing
me all the pizza sauce and chewed up cheese in her teeth. It made me honk out a laugh,
which then made her laugh too. Fortunately, she covered her mouth so none of the pizza
would fly out of it. Brayden was in the middle of telling Dani some huge story. When Brayden
gets into a story, he makes big gestures with his hands. ‘Nice costume,’ Zoe said. ‘Those
arms are going to make it difficult to do anything though.’ ‘I know,’ I said,
taking the seat across from Faith. ‘I’ll probably dump the whole thing before going
to homeroom. It’s more trouble than it’s worth. I mean, I know I look way super cool,
but I’m not sure I’m willing to pay the price of comfort for it.’ I stuffed a handful
of fries into my mouth. ‘So … what’s today’s game?’ Zoe chuckled. ‘Nice try.’
‘Come on,’ I joked. ‘What good is having a presidential cousin if she doesn’t help
me out here and there?’ Zoe made a face at me. ‘Is this what it’s going to be
like all the time with you?’ I cracked a wicked smile. ‘Mayhaps,’ I said. ‘Mayhaps
isn’t a word,’ Zoe said as she read what Gavin was writing down. ‘Don’t write ‘mayhaps’!
Don’t give power to Chase’s weird language!’ ‘I like the word,’ Gavin said honestly.
‘It’s goin’ on the notepad.’ I started whining playfully. ‘Come onnnnn, Zoe! Didn’t
you say you owed me for slapping me in front of everyone last week?’ That actually happened.
Zoe narrowed her eyes. ‘I already apologised for that, but you said we were even since
I only slapped you because you took credit for my pizza party. A party pizza, which BTW,
cost almost a thousand bucks of my own money that I scrimped and saved for all year.’
I scratched the back of my head, feeling shameful. It was the Scavengers that were responsible
for snagging Zoe’s pizza party away from her, and since she still didn’t know they
existed, I didn’t want to come clean about exactly what happened. ‘You’re right.
Sorry, Zoe,’ I said, looking down. The first bell went off outside in the lobby. Dani jumped
up from the table as if the bell had scared her. She moved so fast that her knee bumped
against the bottom of the table and she fell off the bench. ‘Whoa!’ Brayden said. ‘You
okay?’ ‘Yup,’ Dani said, laughing at her own fumble. ‘The bell just scared me,
that’s all.’ She bounced up from the floor. ‘I gotta go to the bathroom. I’ll see
you at lunch?’ Brayden blushed. ‘Okay. Later.’ I took the last little handful of
fries on my tray and shoved them into my mouth. I leaned back, chugging the last of my orange
juice. ‘It isn’t a race, dude,’ Zoe said, grossed out. Her comment wasn’t meant
to be funny, but I still laughed … in the middle of a gulp, which made me cough some
of the mixture of OJ and fries out of my mouth. Zoe jumped from the table, covering her mouth
and gagging. Everyone else laughed about it though, even me. ‘Great,’ I said. ‘I
got juice comin’ out of my nose.’ My cousin had her hands on her hips, staring at the
ceiling because she refused to look at my face. ‘Clean yourself up,’ she laughed.
‘That’s so sick!’ Wiping my chin with my sleeve, I got up from the table, pulling
my book bag over my shoulder at the same time. ‘Alright, I’ll go wash the decadent orange-juice-infused
mashed potato off my face,’ I chuckled. ‘I’ll see you guys back here after lunch.’
Wednesday. The hallways. After leaving the lunchroom, I rushed down the hallway to find
the nearest bathroom. Most of the OJ and fries got on the table so there wasn’t much for
me to wash off, if anything really, but losing that last chug of juice left me thirsty. I
turned the corner, looking for a water fountain. Around the corner, I saw Dani walking down
the opposite direction of the hallway, away from the restrooms. ‘Hey, Dani, wait up!’
I called out. Dani stopped in the hall. She spun around and shot me a smile. ‘Hi,’
she said. Have you ever run into anyone and said ‘hi’ because it’s the polite thing
to do, but then you realise you have nothing else to say? That’s what happened next.
I stared at Dani, trying to think of something, anything, to say. ‘So …’ Dani leaned
her head forward. ‘Mmhmm? You called my name and told me to wait up.’ ‘I know,’
I said in a soft murmur. ‘So … what? Did you want to say something to me?’ This was
awkwaaaaaaard. In a panic, I tried to be funny. Pointing at the water fountain, I said, ‘Good.
This is good water.’ Dani’s face went from curious to slightly concerned for her
safety. ‘Okaaaaay …’ At that instant, the restroom door swung open. A small part
of me was relieved because I could use the distraction as a way to escape. But as if
fate had it in for me, Wyatt peeked out. Of course. Wyatt stopped in the doorway of the
restroom, carrying a manila envelope. He had a paranoid and suspicious way about him, but
I didn’t think anything of it because when doesn’t he look suspicious? Another moment
of head-crushing silence passed as the three of us looked back and forth at each other.
Wyatt pointed between Dani and me. ‘What’s going on here? What’re you guys doing?’
‘What are you doing?’ I replied. Not my best comeback, I know. ‘I just went to the
bathroom!’ Wyatt said sternly. ‘That’s not weird. What’s weird is you guys waiting
for me to come out!’ ‘Nasty,’ I said. ‘Nobody was waiting for you.’ Wyatt wiped
his wet hands on his shirt. Please be water. Wyatt stepped out and gave Dani an evil eye.
‘What’re you staring at?’ Dani huffed, shaking her head like she was more offended
than annoyed. Without saying another word, she turned and sped off down the hall. ‘Chicks,
am I right?’ Wyatt said, smashing his palm against the water fountain switch. He slurped
at the rusty brown water that gushed from the fountain. Sick. ‘Whatever,’ I said,
glancing at the clock on the wall. I only had about thirty seconds to make it to homeroom.
I pulled my book bag straps tighter over my shoulders and started to walk away. ‘You
know, it’s not enough for me to win these games,’ Wyatt said. Stopping, I looked over
my shoulder at him. ‘No,’ he went on, ‘I don’t think victory is enough, unless
the victory comes with a side of Chase Cooper’s failure. Mmm, yeah. That sounds good. I’ll
have that.’ I cringed. Wyatt was known to say some pretty messed up stuff, but that
was easily one of the meaner things I’ve heard come out of his mouth. I walked away.
Wednesday. The cafeteria. After meeting up with my team, we headed into the cafeteria
and took our spots on the stage. Zoe was up the front. ‘Who’s ready for a quiz show?’
Zoe hollered into the mic as everyone in the audience cheered. On the stage were the four
remaining teams. Jake’s team were on the far left, Wyatt’s team were next in line,
Sophia’s team was right next to us, and we were on the far right of the stage. Each
table had a microphone and a light-up buzzer placed on top of it. ‘At least this game
is clean,’ Gavin said, leaning back in his metal chair. ‘I was pickin’ baked beans
outta my ears until bedtime!’ ‘That,’ Faith said, ‘is nasty.’ Zoe jumped off
the stage and took a seat at a desk at the front of the cafeteria, facing the teams.
She popped her microphone into a tiny stand on the desk and shuffled through a stack of
notecards. ‘Sebastian is going to come around to each team with a basket. If you have a
phone, please place it in the basket. You’ll get it back at the end of the game.’ Sebastian
stepped out of the shadows, carrying an empty milk crate. ‘No way!’ Jake shouted. ‘How
do I know you’re not gonna mess with it?’ Zoe set down the notecards and leaned forward,
speaking clearly into the microphone. ‘We’ll leave the phones right at the front of the
stage. They’ll be in sight the entire time.’ The members of each team groaned, but did
as Zoe ordered. It made sense – anyone who had a smartphone could easily look up the
answers. After Sebastian set the crate of phones down, Zoe continued. ‘Let’s get
started, shall we? The first team to get to seven points wins. After I ask the question,
players will buzz in if they think they have the answer. Wait until I call on you to answer.
Okay?’ The teams nodded. ‘Okay,’ Zoe said, lifting the first notecard to her face.
‘President Buchanan was never married, so who was the first lady?’ I slammed my hand
down on the buzzer, and then shouted my answer into the mic. ‘His niece! His niece was
the first lady!’ Zoe tightened her lips. ‘I’m sorry, Chase, you weren’t the first
one to buzz in. You have to wait until I call on you to answer.’ I looked at Wyatt’s
buzzer. It was lit up. ‘Wyatt’s team,’ Zoe said reluctantly. ‘Do you have an answer?’
A smile snaked across Wyatt’s face. He stared right at me as he leaned forward and spoke.
‘The first lady during President Buchanan’s term was his niece.’ ‘Nice one,’ Faith
said. At the side of the stage, Sebastian was at a whiteboard keeping score. He drew
a line under Wyatt’s name since Wyatt’s team had scored the first point. The kids
in the cafeteria clapped lazily. ‘Second question,’ Zoe said. ‘Male moose shed
what every winter?’ The buzzers buzzed. ‘Jake’s team,’ Zoe said. ‘What’s
your answer?’ ‘Bones!’ Jake said with confidence. ‘Can anything shed bones?’
Brayden asked, leaning toward us. ‘That’d be freaky,’ I said, shuddering at the thought
of a blob of moose fur slithering away from the bones it had just shed. Jake’s team
gave themselves a round of applause, but Zoe put a stop to that immediately. ‘I’m sorry,
that answer is incorrect,’ Zoe said as students in the lunchroom snickered. Everyone’s buzzers
went off again. ‘Chase’s team!’ Zoe said joyfully. ‘Fur,’ I said. ‘No!’
Faith scolded. ‘Moose shed their antlers!’ ‘I mean—’ I said, but Zoe cut me off.
‘That answer is incorrect,’ Zoe said. Then Wyatt’s buzzer went off. ‘Antlers,’
he said calmly. Zoe nodded at Sebastian who put another mark under Wyatt’s name on the
white board. Wyatt exchanged high fives with each member of his team. Some of them tried
giving him a fist bump instead, which led to that awkward moment when fists are bumping
open palms. Zoe went on. ‘How many dimples does a regulation golf ball have?’ The buzzers
were silent for a moment. ‘How does anyone even know the answer to something like that?’
I asked. Wyatt’s buzzer went off. He spoke before Zoe called on him. ‘Three hundred
and sixty-six,’ he said with his eyes half shut and a cocky smile. Sebastian marked another
point for Wyatt’s team. ‘I golf during the summer with my dad,’ Wyatt said, holding
his palms up as his teammates clenched victory fists. ‘A group of crows is called a what?’
Zoe asked. Wyatt buzzed in … again. ‘A group of crows is called a murder!’ he answered.
‘That’s not right,’ Gavin said, folding his arms on the table. ‘That’s correct,’
Zoe said. Gavin flinched forward. ‘Really?’ ‘That’s so dark,’ Faith said. Wyatt
had four marks under his name on the whiteboard. The rest of us were yet to score a single
point. Zoe flipped out another notecard. ‘How many trips did the Titanic take before sinking?’
‘Is that a trick question?’ I asked Faith as she pressed the buzzer. ‘Zero!’ Faith
said, but covered her mouth instantly. Wyatt’s buzzer was already lit up. ‘Zero,’ he
said. Zoe was clearly frustrated. ‘Correct!’ she said, pretending to be excited. Another
mark went under Wyatt’s name on the scoreboard. Zoe didn’t hesitate with the next question.
‘Who sculpted Mount Rushmore?’ Wyatt’s buzzer went off almost before Zoe was even
finished asking her question. Everyone in the room looked at Wyatt, waiting for him
to speak. ‘Aren’t you going to call on me?’ Wyatt asked Zoe sarcastically. ‘We
can only answer if you call on us.’ Zoe squeezed the bridge of her nose. ‘Wyatt’s
team, what’s your answer?’ ‘John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum,’ he said, slowly and
with perfect pronunciation. Zoe paused. ‘That’s right.’ ‘There’s no way he’s not cheating,’
Brayden said. ‘He’s getting his answers from somewhere, it’s so obvi. He used that
Mount Rushmore dude’s whole name! Gustaf du la Mothman, or whatever!’ ‘But everyone
had to give up their phones,’ I said. ‘Then someone must be feeding him the answers,’
Brayden said. ‘Whoever’s helping him should get thrown in detention for the rest of the
year.’ Wyatt’s team was one correct answer away from victory. I hovered my hand over
the buzzer, ready to push it down before Zoe even finished her next question. Zoe flipped
up another card. ‘How many bones in the human skull?’ Finally, our buzzer went off.
‘Chase’s team,’ Zoe said. ‘Twenty-two!’ I said, wildly guessing. ‘Correct!’ Zoe
said, doing her best to conceal her excitement. Sebastian put a mark under my name on the
scoreboard. ‘What does a meteorologist study?’ Zoe asked. Again, I slammed my buzzer before
she finished speaking. ‘Meteors!’ I said after Zoe called on my team. Zoe gasped, and
I knew I had got the answer wrong. Wyatt’s buzzer went off again. He looked at me with
pity. ‘I’m afraid a meteorologist studies the weather, Chase.’ ‘Correct,’ Zoe
said, tapping her notecards on her desk. ‘Groaaaan,’ Faith sighed. ‘It’s fine,’ I said, trying
to remain positive. ‘We just have to not lose in order to stay in the games. We’ve
got one point already – only six more to go.’ I raised my fists and pretended to
cheer. ‘Yay, maths!’ Zoe continued. ‘Wyatt’s team wins, but there are still three teams
remaining, which brings us to sudden elimination.’ ‘Sudden what?’ I repeated. ‘Sudden elimination,’
Gavin said. ‘It means—’ ‘I know what it means!’ I said. ‘First wrong answer
loses!’ ‘Not exactly,’ Zoe said. ‘In this version, the last team still in is the
loser. I’ll ask the question. One team will answer. If they get it right, they advance
to tomorrow’s game. If they get it wrong, they won’t be eliminated, they’ll just
remain in the quiz for the next question.’ I sat forward, hovering my hand over the buzzer
again. Jake and Sophia did the same thing over their own buzzers. Wyatt and his team
left the stage through the side doors. Zoe took a breath. ‘What year did World War
II end?’ Our hands all slammed on the buzzers, but it was Jake who hit it first. ‘1492!’
he shouted. ‘Wow,’ Faith said. ‘That’s so wrong that I’m embarrassed for him.’
‘Incorrect!’ Zoe said, and then immediately asked the next question. ‘What’s the largest
country in the world?’ Hands slapped buzzers across the stage. Jake got to it first again.
‘Texas!’ he said. ‘No!’ Zoe said, pointing at Jake’s team. Gavin stood from
our table so quickly that his chair slid backward. ‘Texas is a state, not a country! What’s
the matter with you?’ Zoe flipped another card. ‘Name a species of bird that can’t
fly!’ Hands slammed on the table, but Sophia answered before Zoe called on her team. ‘Penguins!’
I looked at Jake’s buzzer, which wasn’t lit up. Neither was mine. That meant it actually
was Sophia’s turn to answer. ‘Correct!’ Zoe shouted, getting excited. ‘Congrats
to your team, Sophia. You’ve secured a spot in tomorrow’s game.’ Sophia’s team celebrated
with hugs as they left through the side door. Only two teams remained on stage – Jake’s
team and mine. ‘What’s the main ingredient in glass?’ Zoe asked. I slammed on the buzzer,
but Jake beat me to it again. ‘No!’ I snipped. ‘Glass!’ Jake answered, fully
realising he meant to say something else. ‘I mean—’ ‘Incorrect!’ Zoe said,
shaking her head while holding back a laugh. ‘Glass is the main ingredient in glass,
huh?’ Faith hollered. Zoe jumped in with the next question. ‘What’s the closest
star to Earth?’ The buzzers were silent for a second. I think Jake and I were confused
by the question. Everyone in the cafeteria stared at the stage, waiting for one of us
to answer. ‘One of you might as well press the buzzer,’ Zoe said. Faith pushed my hand
down on the buzzer. ‘Chase’s team,’ Zoe said. ‘What’s your answer?’ I looked
at Jake, whose eyes looked like they were shooting lasers at me. ‘Well?’ Gavin whispered.
‘Just answer. If ya get it wrong, Zoe’ll just ask another question.’ ‘But I don’t
want to get it wrong!’ I said. ‘Then what’s the hold up?’ Faith asked. ‘The answer
is Proxima Centauri!’ ‘First of all,’ I said, ‘it’s amazing that you know that
much about stars.’ Faith blushed. ‘But second, I think this is a trick question,’
I said. ‘The sun is the closest star to the Earth.’ ‘Oh, right,’ Faith said,
knocking on her head. ‘I knew that.’ ‘But what do you think Zoe is asking?’ Faith
shrugged. ‘Go with your gut.’ Leaning forward, I tapped the microphone with my finger,
and then answered. ‘The sun. The sun is the closest star to the Earth.’ ‘Correct!’
Zoe shouted. ‘Gah!’ Jake screamed, flipping his table upside-down. Jumping over his flipped
desk, he started running at me with eyes on fire. Thankfully, Principal Davis stepped
onto the stage before Jake could get to me. The principal gave Jake a single look that
made him back down instantly. ‘Congratulations to Chase’s team,’ Zoe smirked. ‘You’ve
secured your place in the games set for tomorrow afternoon.’ I sat back, exhausted but smiling
with my team. Wednesday. The lobby. Earlier in the day, I had told Melvin and Slug that
we were going to skip the wrestling room since there wouldn’t be much time to train. They
were both waiting patiently on the top steps of the nook. ‘Sup, guys?’ I said, dropping
my book bag on the carpet next to Melvin. ‘Nada,’ Slug said. ‘Are we going to
train in front of all these kids? Are they going to be part of the training? Are we going
to have to sneak between them and go unnoticed? First one caught loses? Oh, what if it’s
you that loses?’ ‘Easy there,’ I said. ‘We’re not training out here, or at all
today. I just wanted to meet you guys so I could tell you that.’ Melvin sighed. Slug
looked upset. ‘Why aren’t we training? This is day three of being in your ninja clan,
and we’ve punched zero things. Zero! Zero is the number of things we have punched!’
‘Spirit Week has kept me pretty busy,’ I explained and then looked at Melvin. ‘Speaking
of which, you find out anything about Wyatt?’ ‘Not yet, no,’ Melvin said. ‘And I can’t
even promise that I will find something. It was just a hunch.’ ‘But did you see him
in the cafeteria just now?’ I asked. ‘He totally owned that quiz show!’ Melvin cocked
one side of his mouth. ‘Yeah, but unless we find some solid evidence that he’s cheating,
there ain’t much we can do about it.’ ‘How about just going to the principal?’
Slug said. ‘I think it’s best if we have a bit of that evidence I was just talking
about,’ Melvin said. ‘Otherwise we’re just pointing fingers.’ ‘Do you have any
leads at all?’ I asked. ‘That kid on student council – I think his name is Colin? He
seems like a shady dude.’ ‘Colin?’ Melvin repeated. ‘You think he’s got somethin’
to do with Wyatt winning the race?’ I nodded. ‘And maybe even winning the quiz so easily
too.’ ‘Alright,’ Melvin replied. ‘I’ll see what I can dig up about him, but again,
I can’t promise anything.’ ‘No, I know,’ I said. ‘But at least we’re trying.’
Slug groaned, rocking back and forth on the top step of the nook. ‘Duuuudes, this is
so lame! When are we going to knock some heads around?’ My eyes skimmed over my shoulder,
hoping nobody heard Slug. ‘C’mon, man. We’ll never knock heads around. Besides,
there are other important things to deal with first.’ ‘But why don’t we just go confront
Wyatt?’ Slug whined. I paused. ‘Because I’m pretty sure Wyatt would answer with
a flying kick to my face!’ ‘Isn’t that what we’re here for though?’ Slug said.
‘If we’re ninjas, then why don’t we go do ninja things?’ ‘Ninjas didn’t
just fight, y’know,’ Melvin said. I was surprised. ‘Real ninjas choose the peaceful
path.’ ‘C’mon,’ Slug said with a half smile. ‘A real ninja would’ve got in there
and baked a cake of butt kicking already.’ I shook my head, confused. ‘That doesn’t
make any sense!’ Slug took a breath as he stood on his feet. ‘I’m done with this,’
he said flatly. ‘My sister was right. This is the most boring thing ever. I thought you
were going to teach me how to kung all the fu, but I guess I was wrong.’ I didn’t
know what to say, but I knew I had to say something. ‘Thank you for your time,’
I said, feeling a lump in my throat. Slug pushed passed me and disappeared into the
crowd. Melvin raised his eyebrows at me. It was a ‘what’re you gonna do?’ face – a
question I didn’t have an answer to. After only three days, I had lost two out of three
of my new ninjas. In my head I saw a commercial for Wyatt’s red ninja clan, complete with
voiceover, ‘Two out of three ninjas agree – Chase Cooper’s ninja clan sucks straws
compared to Wyatt’s red ninja clan! The red ninja clan will also prevent gingivitis.’
Maybe I just wasn’t cut out for the ninja lifestyle? I’d had hiccups before, but it
was never as bad as the last couple of weeks. The Scavengers had really kicked my butt last
week, and I was still feeling the bruises. And I was really feelin’ it deep in my gut.
It was absolutely possible that after this week was over, I’d hang up my ninja robes
for good. Thursday. My locker. The next morning, I took the same path as usual through the
front doors with a half-sprint to my locker in hopes of making it to homeroom on time.
Things were eerily quiet in the hallway, but that was pretty normal when the bell was seconds
away from ringing. Slamming my locker shut, I jumped back in surprise because Naomi had
somehow materialised out of nowhere. Part of me wondered if she really did have the
ability to transform into a puff of smoke like the vampire queen. Was it possible that
the game was somehow based on my life? Nah … ‘Heeeey,’ she sang as her face held
the saddest smile. I tried to act cool, but my voice cracked. ‘What?’ ‘I just wanted
to say hi,’ she said. ‘And also give you one last, last chance to join The Scavengers.’
For a split second, I thought about saying yes. If I were such a terrible leader, maybe
I’d be a good follower. But funnily enough, my honour got the best of me, which was probably
a good thing. ‘No thanks,’ I said, zipping my book bag up. ‘The nail that stands up
will be hammered down,’ Naomi sighed, shaking her head. ‘Ever hear that saying?’ ‘No,’
I said. ‘You’re the nail,’ Naomi said. ‘The Scavengers are the hammer.’ Just
then, I felt two powerful hands grip my shoulders and yank me backwards. I struggled, trying
to break free, but other hands grabbed my arms and legs, lifting me into the air. ‘I’m
sorry,’ Naomi said. ‘I gave you a chance. Two chances, even!’ ‘Naomi, seriously!’
I begged, squirming. ‘This isn’t funny, dude!’ Naomi ignored my plea. ‘I’m sure
you’ve wondered why we haven’t said anything to you this week. The truth is, we’ve been
planning.’ The three kids holding me up were strong, definitely stronger than me.
No matter how hard I tried twisting around, I just couldn’t break free. ‘Put me down!
Let go of me!’ ‘Don’t struggle,’ Naomi said. ‘It’ll only make things worse.’
‘Naomi, please!’ I said. ‘What’s happening?’ One of the kids spoke from under me. ‘Victor
says hello.’ I couldn’t see who it was that spoke, but I recognised his voice immediately.
It was Jake. Great, right? He got booted from the red ninjas just to join the Scavengers.
But the fact that Jake was a Scavenger wasn’t the thing that bothered me most. It was the
name he uttered. ‘Victor?’ I heard Naomi’s voice again. ‘He’s an eighth grader here
– the leader of all the Scavengers. And he’s not happy with you.’ Then I heard
the sound of duct tape getting torn from a roll. And the only reason you hear it in the
hallway school was because something terrible was about to happen. ‘Oh no,’ I whispered.
Thursday. Still at my locker. The bell went off at exactly 9:15, clanging directly over my head. Classroom doors swung open as kids
began flooding the hallway. I could hear gossip and giggles come from clusters of students.
The giggles stopped for a moment when they saw me, but instantly turned into loud, honking
laughs when they realised what they were looking at. Humiliated, I continued to struggle, but
it was impossible to move. Why? Because Naomi’s friends had duct taped me to the wall. My
feet were literally hanging off the floor. A small crowd of students gathered around,
pointing and laughing. I did my best to ignore the jokes and insults that were hurled in
my direction. A few of them even had their phones out, taking selfies with me in the
background. Great, just what I needed – internet exposure. I was pretty sure this meant I’d
have to move to the mountains and live off the land. Y’know, lumberjackin’ and stuff.
A girl smiled at me after snapping a selfie. ‘Thanks for the laughs,’ she said. Her
name was Regina. Everyone knew her as the selfie queen. ‘You’re welcome,’ I said
sarcastically as she walked away. And where the heck were the teachers? How come they
were always around when you didn’t need them, but when you were actually in trouble,
they were nowhere to be seen? ‘Chase?’ I heard Zoe’s voice from the group of students
hassling me. She pushed through the crowd, shocked at what she saw. ‘Yo,’ I said,
humiliated but trying to be cool. ‘Wanna hang out?’ Zoe choked out a laugh. ‘Now
I know why you weren’t in homeroom,’ she said, grabbing at a small section of duct
tape around my hand. She yanked up, tearing it away from the wall. Funny how duct tape
works. I had been struggling to free myself for thirty minutes with no luck at all. Yet
one tug from Zoe, and the whole thing falls apart. That’s not physics – that’s magic.
I dropped to the floor. I felt like little needles were poking at my skin in the places
where the tape had been the tightest. ‘Thanks,’ I said. I knew I shouldn’t have felt stupid,
but I couldn’t help it. ‘Who did this?’ I asked. ‘Wyatt?’ I paused. Telling her
that it was Naomi would lead to too many questions about why she did it. Zoe knew Naomi had been
a good friend of mine, and for all I knew, Zoe still thought that. ‘No,’ I said.
‘I actually don’t know who it was. Some eighth graders I think.’ At least that part
was the truth. ‘Seriously?’ Zoe said. ‘Eighth graders are messing with you now?’
‘Didn’t you get the memo?’ I asked. ‘Everyone hates me now.’ ‘Aw,’ Zoe
said like she was talking to a five-year old. ‘You’re giving yourself too much credit.
No one cares.’ ‘You think so?’ ‘I know so,’ she said. ‘That whole stunt
last week with the newsletter? Everybody’s over it. Sure, there might be one or two kids
that still hold a grudge, but as for ninety-nine per cent of them? Already forgot about it.’
‘Somehow I doubt that,’ I said. ‘It’s that one per cent you’re worrying about,’
Zoe continued. ‘You’ve probably made some new enemies, but only time will tell, right?’
‘Then I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,’ I said, and then asked, ‘Do
you know anyone at the school named ‘Victor?’’ Zoe stopped, staring into space while thinking.
‘Victor? Victor … Victor …’ she repeated while tapping her chin. ‘Y’know, I’m
pretty sure there’s an eighth grader named Victor. Yeah, now that I think of it, he’s
the dude who wears a name tag every day.’ ‘A name tag? Why?’ ‘Beats me,’ Zoe
said. ‘I guess he wants people to remember his name. Is he the one that duct taped you
to the lockers?’ ‘No,’ I said honestly. Zoe sighed, the kind of sigh that meant she
knew I was keeping things from her, but she didn’t press the issue. Zoe walked briskly
down the hall. ‘You’re lucky I was on my way to the student council room, otherwise
you’d still be on display like a piece of art.’ ‘And I thank you for that,’ I
said, following behind. I was still finding bits of small duct tape on my clothing that
I kept having to pick off. ‘There are some papers I need to grab for the Buchanan Bash
next week,’ Zoe explained. ‘Plus the student council room was out of cereal so I need to
put an order in for a couple more boxes of it.’ ‘You guys get cereal?’ I asked.
‘Sure do,’ Zoe said. ‘Since we meet super early, I thought it’d be nice to provide
a light breakfast – y’know, kind of like a reward for coming to school before sunrise.
It’s that new cereal, Cookie Dough Delight.’ ‘Ew,’ I said. ‘I hate that stuff.’
‘Really?’ Zoe said. ‘But you’re such a sugar junkie! You add milk to your chocolate
syrup!’ ‘I don’t know how anyone likes that stuff,’ I said. ‘It’s little balls
of dried up cookie dough. It’s like space station food.’ Zoe stopped. ‘Again, another
reason for you to love it so much you’d marry it.’ ‘The day I marry dried up balls
of cookie dough is the day that I …’ I paused, trying to come up with something clever.
‘Die …’ I said finally. ‘Wow,’ Zoe said frowning. ‘I thought you were gonna
take the funny road, but instead you took the dark road. The really, really dark road.’
Zoe turned the corner and waved goodbye. ‘Any chance you’ll tell me what game we’re
playing today?’ I hollered. ‘Not even a little!’ Zoe shouted without looking back.
Thursday. The track. Faith, Gavin and Brayden huddled with me on the track as we waited
for Zoe to announce the next game. It was down to three teams – Wyatt’s, Sophia’s,
and mine. Wyatt and his team were seated at a bench on the side of the field, pointing
and laughing at different kids that walked by them. Pinned to Wyatt’s shirt were two
first-place ribbons. Sophia and her team were sitting nearby in the field, slowly plucking
out single blades of grass and letting them fly away in the chilly breeze. ‘It’s freezing
out here,’ Faith said with folded arms. ‘Ain’t so bad,’ Gavin commented, stuffing
his hands in his pockets. Brayden was distracted, looking over his shoulder every few seconds.
‘Are you expecting someone?’ I asked. ‘No,’ Brayden said, shaking his head.
‘I was just seeing if Dani was out here yet.’ Faith put her balled up hands against
her mouth, blowing hot air into them. ‘Oooooh!’ she crooned. ‘Someone’s got a crush …’ Brayden
pouted. ‘Do not!’ he said. ‘Dani’s just super cool, that’s all. She’s into
really old horror movies too.’ ‘You gonna ask her out?’ Faith asked, her eyes sparkling.
Brayden continued scanning the field for Dani. I think he was blushing, but it might’ve
just been the cold air. ‘Hey, subject change,’ Brayden said looking at me. ‘A little birdie
told me you missed homeroom this morning ’cause you got taped to a wall!’ Gritting my teeth,
I looked at the ground. ‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘Maybe not.’ ‘Maybe yeah,’ Faith joined
in. ‘Everyone’s talking about it. I wish I would’ve been there to see it.’ ‘I’m
sure the pictures will circle around the school,’ I groaned. ‘There were so many camera flashes
that I almost went blind.’ Everyone was quiet for a moment. I wanted so badly to tell
them it was Naomi and the Scavengers, but I couldn’t. Instead, I said. ‘That tape
pulled out almost all of my arm hair, so I guess something good came from it.’ ‘Having
no arm hair is good?’ Brayden asked. ‘Now Gavin won’t feel so left out,’ I said,
jokingly. Gavin glared at me. ‘Really? We’re still joking about that?’ Suddenly, Brayden’s
eyes lit up and he waved his hand. Dani was waving back from the side of the field. The
two other dudes from student council were with her, puffing hot air into their hands.
Colin, the student council treasurer, watched the field carefully. I wondered if Melvin
dug anything up on the kid. I’d have to remember to ask after the game. Zoe’s voice
came from the front of the field. She was standing on one of the benches, holding a
megaphone. ‘Hello, everybody!’ Zoe shouted. ‘Today’s event will be a scavenger hunt!’
A chill ran down my spine when she said ‘scavenger’. Mrs Robinson, my homeroom teacher, approached
my team and presented a small white envelope that was sealed with a gold sticker. ‘The
three remaining teams will receive an envelope from a teacher,’ Zoe continued. ‘Keep
them sealed until I know all of you have it. After that, I’ll fire off the air horn,
and the scavenger hunt will begin!’ Faith took the envelope from Mrs Robinson. Raising
the envelope over her head, she blocked out the sun to try and see through it. ‘Any
luck?’ I asked. ‘Nope,’ Faith replied. ‘Inside each envelope will be a riddle that
your team will have to solve,’ Zoe said. ‘The solution is the clue to where you’ll
find the next envelope. To prove that you made it to each checkpoint, there will be
a token to collect. Once you’ve solved the last riddle and got the last token, return
to the track. Last team back is eliminated, so act fast! Oh, and there will be a surprise
challenge at the end of the hunt. I’ll spare you the details, but don’t let that strike
fear into you. Be ready for anything!’ ‘What’s she talkin’ about?’ I asked Gavin. ‘C’mon,
man. Zoe must’ve told you something about this hunt, right? You guys are, like, together.’
Gavin sighed heavily and shrugged his shoulders. ‘She’s good at keepin’ secrets when
she wants to.’ Sophia and Wyatt had their envelopes and were waving them at Zoe. She
lifted her air horn high over her head and sounded the horn. Faith tore into the envelope.
She pulled out the slip of paper and read the riddle. ‘Take my skin off, and I won’t
cry, but you will. What am I?’ ‘A monster?’ Gavin joked. Faith laughed. ‘But the riddle
says that we’re the ones taking the skin off.’ ‘What do we take skin off of?’
I asked, looking for Wyatt’s team, but they weren’t on the field anymore. They were
already running back to the school. ‘C’mon, guys! Wyatt’s team already solved the riddle!’
‘No way!’ Faith said. ‘Zoe just honked the horn, like, five seconds ago! We barely
even opened the envelope!’ ‘Skin, skin, skin,’ Brayden repeated tapping his knuckle
on his forehead. ‘Fried chicken? What else has skin?’ ‘Apples, potatoes, bananas
…’ Gavin said. ‘Onions!’ I shouted so loud that Sophia’s team heard me too.
‘Onions don’t cry when you take their skin off, but they always make me cry!’
‘Crybaby,’ Brayden laughed. Faith bolted with the envelope in her hand. ‘The kitchen!
The next clue is somewhere in the kitchen!’ Sophia’s team was sprinting across the field
too, headed towards the cafeteria doors. ‘Next time, don’t shout the answer, okay?’ Brayden
said. ‘If we lose this, we’re done for. Sophia’s team will go up against Wyatt’s
team tomorrow, and I think we know that Wyatt will do whatever he can to win.’ ‘Roger,
roger,’ I replied. Brayden was right. Shouting my answer was a rookie mistake. If I wanted
to keep Wyatt from creating a public red ninja clan, I was going to have to focus. Thursday.
The kitchen. When we ran through the doors of the kitchen, staff were still in the middle
of cleaning up. Lunch ladies and gentlemen were spraying huge metal pans with water,
blasting off crusted cheese and meat from today’s meals. Principal Davis and Zoe must
have let the kitchen staff know there would be a bunch of sixth graders rifling through
their stuff because all the adults acted as if we weren’t in there. ‘Onions,’ Faith
said, searching the room with her eyes. She ran up to one of the lunch staff and shouted
like a maniac. ‘Where are your onions?’ I was impressed by and afraid of the person
Faith became during the competition. The man waved his hand, gesturing to the back of the
kitchen. We sprinted past everyone and turned the corner, just in time to see Wyatt rip
open his second envelope over a pile of torn up onions. ‘You weren’t supposed to hack
up the onions!’ Gavin said, slipping across the floor on onion juice. ‘You can’t prove
anything!’ Wyatt said as he waved his teammates out the side door so they could solve the
riddle without anyone hearing. ‘He stomped on every onion!’ I said, starting to feel
the burn in my eyes. Gavin slid around, scraping the floor with his palms, desperately searching
for a second envelope. ‘I can’t see! My eyes! They’re burning!’ Faith was on the
floor too, but she was holding her knees and rocking back and forth while wailing. Sophia’s
team slid across the floor and crashed into the wall behind us. They groaned together
in pain, trying to figure out what just happened. I dropped to my knees and pushed aside all
the crushed onions. It was one of the nastiest things I’d ever done in my life. For the
record, I’ve cut onions before – I’m no stranger to that. What I was a stranger
to was rolling around in about a hundred crushed onions, feeling even more onions burst apart
under me. A river of tears streamed down my cheeks as I frantically searched for the second
envelope. With all the tears and groaning in pain, the back of the kitchen must’ve
looked like a roomful of sobbing kids. Suddenly I felt the sharp corner of an envelope hiding
under a puddle of smashed onions. ‘Got it!’ I shouted, raising it high over my head while
keeping my eyes shut. ‘Faith, take it!’ I felt a hand snatch the envelope from mine.
‘Good!’ I said, keeping my eyelids clenched tight. ‘Now help me up before you open it.’
Faith’s voice came from across the room. ‘What’re you talking about? I didn’t
get it yet!’ ‘Oh no,’ I said, forcing the lid of one eye open. I was fighting against
my natural instinct to keep the eye closed. Through blurry vision, I saw Sophia and her
team leave through the same door that Wyatt’s team did. ‘Sophia stole it from me!’ ‘Get
mad about it later!’ Gavin sobbed. ‘Right now we gotta find that last envelope!’ ‘I’m
looking! I’m looking!’ I screamed, spreading my body out on the puddle of onions on the
floor. ‘I can’t breathe! It’s too strong!’ ‘I have it!’ Brayden’s voice shouted.
‘This was a terrible idea!’ Faith shouted, snatching an onion off the floor as proof
that we solved the first riddle. ‘Terrible!’ Bursting through the door, we found ourselves
in the west hallway and to our surprise, a bunch of sixth graders were cheering us on.
It was like the race on Tuesday when students were allowed to cheer in the halls during
the competition. Brayden ripped off the top of the second envelope, and spoke. ‘Riddle
me this,’ he said with a pitchy squeal. ‘Quit messin’ around and gimme that thing!’
Gavin ordered. Competitions can bring out the worst in friends. Through squinted eyes,
Gavin read the riddle. ‘What has a ring, but no finger?’ Faith opened her hand in
front of her face and jokingly sang about single ladies. ‘What the heck wears a ring
with no fingers?’ I asked. ‘Saturn?’ Brayden said. ‘The science room?’ I suggested.
‘No,’ Gavin said. ‘If Saturn were the answer, then the telescope on the roof could
be the next checkpoint too. The answer has to be obvious.’ ‘Right,’ I said. ‘What
else has a ring, but no finger?’ ‘There’s a ring around the bottom of the toilets,’
Brayden said. ‘Gross,’ Faith snipped. ‘Onion rings? A ringing bell?’ I said,
thinking aloud. ‘A telephone rings too,’ Brayden said. Like a bug bit the back of her
leg, Faith jumped. ‘Oh! There’s a broken-down payphone in the dungeon! That’s gotta be
the answer!’ ‘Boom!’ I said. Faith pointed her finger high into the air and shouted with
a booming voice. ‘To the Dungeon!’ Thursday. The dungeon. A few minutes later, we were
running down the steps into the lowest level of school. It was always cold and damp no
matter what time of year it was, which is why most kids called it the Dungeon. ‘The
payphone is back by the orchestra room,’ Faith said, taking the lead. I whipped my
hands back and forth, trying to dry the onion juice off, but it was no use. We were walking
sponges of stink. Turning the corner at the far end of the first hall, Faith stopped.
‘There it is,’ she said. ‘But Sophia’s team is already there.’ ‘Any sign of Wyatt?’
I asked, peeking around the corner. ‘No,’ Faith said as she stepped out into the open.
Sophia and her team were standing next to the broken payphone, staring at the riddle
from their envelope. Underneath the phone was a single envelope, which meant Wyatt’s
team had already come and gone, and Sophia’s team must already have their envelope. The
envelope was taped to a handset that wasn’t hooked up to anything. That must’ve been
the token we were to collect. So far we had some crushed onion and a telephone handset.
We walked up to the payphone, and I took the envelope and stupidly slid my finger under
the flap. It was at just the perfect angle to give me a paper cut. ‘Knights of the
round table!’ I hollered as I flinched and dropped the envelope. ‘Ohhhh, the onion
juice makes it worse! It makes it worse!’ Faith sucked air through her teeth as she
looked away. I stared at the microscopic cut on my finger as Brayden grabbed the envelope.
‘I’m no use, you guys,’ I said, taking quick breaths. ‘Go on without me.’ ‘Quit
yer bellyaching,’ Gavin said. ‘Brayden! Read the riddle!’ Brayden curled a creepy
smile, as he spoke in the same high-pitched voice as before. ‘Riddle me this —’ ‘Just
read it!’ I shouted. ‘The more I dry,’ Brayden said, ‘the wetter I become.’ Sophia
and her entire team looked up from their envelope, about a metre and a half away from us. It
was totes obvious they were trying to eavesdrop on our answer. Shuffling together as a group,
we inched toward the end of the hall. Brayden grabbed the unattached handset and brought
it with us. We stopped at the corner, but could still hear shuffling feet. When I looked
back at Sophia’s team, they all snapped their attention to random places in the hall.
Her team was still about a metre and a half away from us even though we had moved away.
‘Can’t even be slick about it?’ Faith said, raising her head from our huddle. ‘It’s
fine,’ I said, ‘Let’s just figure this out and get going. We probably won’t beat
Wyatt’s team, but as long as Sophia is behind us, we won’t lose.’ ‘Agreed,’ Gavin
said, nodding once. ‘So what gets wetter the more it dries off?’ Brayden asked, rolling
the handset back and forth in his hands. Everyone fell silent, stumped by the riddle. ‘So
as something gets drier,’ I said aloud, ‘it also gets wetter. That doesn’t make
any sense.’ ‘Wait,’ Faith said, snapping her fingers. ‘I think I … yeah, I think
I got it.’ We stared at her, waiting for the answer. ‘Go on,’ I finally said. Faith
leaned closer so she could whisper quietly. ‘I think it’s a towel.’ I face-palmed
myself and then whispered to my friends. ‘Of course! A towel dries things! As it dries
things off, it gets wetter! Booya!’ ‘I’ve got it,’ Sophia said in a deadpan voice.
She had overheard us. ‘The answer is a towel.’ Her team sprinted down the hall. Faith stumbled
out of our huddle. ‘You little cheaters!’ she shouted while running away. ‘Wait up!’
I called out, chasing after Faith with Gavin and Brayden behind me. ‘Where can we find
towels?’ ‘The janitors closet!’ Faith said. ‘Ms Chen-Jung ain’t gonna be too
happy ’bout that!’ Gavin shouted. Sophia’s team dashed down the hallway and cut the corner
hard. Faith slid around the corner on her shoes, able to pick up her pace again once
she turned. Gavin and Brayden were bookin’ it behind me. ‘The main janitor’s closet
on the first floor is where we’ll find the last clue!’ Faith shouted super loudly.
Great, Faith. Why don’t you let the whole school know where we’re headed? At least
that way they’ll know why Sophia’s team beat us so easily! At the stairs of the dungeon,
Sophia leapt wildly, skipping two steps between each stride. Her teammates weren’t as athletic,
and took to the stairs rapidly shuffling their feet. Faith grabbed the handrail, and stomped
her foot on the first step, but came to a complete stop after that. ‘What’re you
waiting you for?’ I said, jumping onto the staircase, clearing three steps. Faith put
a finger against her lips. With her other hand, she pointed straight up. The sound of
Sophia and her team running desperately to the janitor’s closet on the first floor
rumbled through the brick walls. Gavin and Brayden stopped behind Faith at the bottom
of the steps, clutching their stomachs, trying to catch their breath. I sighed, throwing
my hands in the air. ‘What?’ I asked. About three seconds later, the stomping footsteps
faded out, which meant Sophia’s team was out of earshot. Faith took a deep breath,
smiling. Jogging up the staircase, she checked the lobby to see if it was clear. Besides
a few students watching the scavenger hunt, it was nearly empty. ‘The towels aren’t
in the janitor’s closet,’ Faith said. ‘What?’ I asked, confused. ‘Wait … what
?’ ‘All Sophia’s going to find is a bunch of mops and cleaning supplies,’ Faith
explained. ‘The riddle wants us to go to the locker rooms.’ ‘Whoa,’ Brayden said.
‘That’s brilliant! You sent Sophia’s team on a wild turkey hunt!’ ‘Goose chase,’
Gavin corrected. ‘Sure did,’ Faith said proudly as she sped up her pace. ‘But we
should keep moving. It won’t take them long to realise there aren’t any towels in there.
And even less time if Ms Chen-Jung is there.’ We ran through the lobby and into the hallway
where the locker rooms. I looked back and forth between the girls’ and boys’ doors.
‘Which one?’ I asked. ‘Do you think it matters?’ Gavin asked. ‘I bet any towel
will do.’ ‘You got a point,’ Faith said, pushing against the girls’ locker room door,
but it didn’t budge. ‘This one’s locked. We’ll have to go into the boys’ locker
room.’ ‘Um,’ I said, hesitantly. ‘Maybe you should just meet us at the track?’ ‘Nuh-uh!’
Faith snipped. ‘We’re a team and we do everything as a team!’ ‘Don’t say I
didn’t warn you,’ I gulped, pushing the door to the boys’ locker room open. Gavin
and Brayden laughed at the face Faith made when the putrid smell of the locker room hit
her. ‘What is that? It smells like a wet dog just rolled around in some wet socks … and
then pooped all over the place!’ Suddenly, Sophia’s voice echoed down the hallway.
‘There! You think you’re so smart, huh? I knew there weren’t any towels in the janitor’s
closet! I just wanted you to think I didn’t know!’ Faith gasped. Pinching her nose and
shaking her head, she ran through the door. Brayden, Gavin and I followed her lead. Thursday.
The last token. Inside the dark locker room, we made our way down different aisles separated
by gym lockers. We split up so we could find the towels we needed to win the race. The
locker-room door swung open and creaked shut. Sophia and her team were also in there. ‘Come
out, come out, wherever you are,’ Sophia eerily sang. I heard Faith complain. ‘Why
are all the floors wet? Like, every step I take is in a puddle! What am I stepping in?’
Some of Sophia’s teammates complained and groaned about the smell too. I turned the
corner, surprised by someone’s shadow, but it was just Brayden. ‘Any luck?’ he asked.
I shook my head. ‘Normally they’re just sitting out on the table in front of the coach’s
office, but I don’t see any.’ ‘I bet Wyatt hid them,’ Brayden said. My heart
sunk. ‘If you were Wyatt, where would you hide them?’ Gavin and Faith came around
the corner, joining us. ‘Wyatt probably hid the towels,’ Brayden said, nodding.
‘Course he did,’ Gavin said. ‘Sounds like our Wyatt.’ ‘Don’t call him ‘our
Wyatt’,’ Faith snipped. ‘We just can’t think of where the towels would be though,’
Brayden added. And then a light bulb switched on in my head. ‘They’re probably in his
locker,’ I said, pointing at Wyatt’s locker. Brayden spun around and looked through the
metal grate. ‘Yep,’ he said. ‘There they are. Two perfectly folded, bright-white
towels.’ ‘Any of you got a locker key?’ Gavin asked hopelessly. ‘Or better yet,
know his combination?’ Faith ran her fingers along the metal grate of the locker, studying
it carefully with her fingertips. Then she stopped and blinked. Stepping back, she brought
her elbow up and rammed it into the bottom corner of Wyatt’s locker. The door flipped
open. Gavin, Brayden and I stared at her with our jaws dropped. ‘I learned that little
move back in the war,’ she joked. Brayden snatched the towel on top and grabbed the
door to the locker. He started to shut it, but I stopped him. ‘Wait!’ I said. ‘Leave
it open for Sophia.’ ‘But we’ll win for sure if she can’t get to the last towel!’
Brayden said. I shook my head. ‘If we shut it, we’re just like Wyatt.’ Brayden nodded.
Then he ran to the exit of the locker room with Gavin by his side. Narrowing my eyes
at Faith, I stared at her for a second, hoping she might give in and just tell me she was
the white ninja. When she smiled cluelessly back at me, I asked, ‘You are, aren’t
you?’ ‘I’m what?’ Faith asked, smiling. ‘No idea what you’re talking about it.’
As she jogged down the aisle to the exit, Sophia’s team rounded the corner and spotted
the last towel in Wyatt’s locker. ‘Grab it!’ she commanded. I ran toward the exit,
jumping through the door with Sophia’s team on my tail. Outside, my team was standing
at the edge of the parking lot, staring at the track. The crowd was cheering for the
last two teams to finish the hunt. Wyatt’s team was already resting on the benches at
the side of the track. ‘Why aren’t you guys going?’ I asked, skidding to a stop.
Gavin pointed toward the track. ‘Because of those.’ At the bottom of the hill were
two sets of giant bowling pins standing right next to each other. At our feet was an empty
book bag with a skateboard next to it. About three metres away from us was another book
bag and skateboard. I wasn’t surprised to see two lines in the grass that led from the
parking lot all the way down to another set of pins that had been knocked over. Wyatt’s
team must’ve ridden the first skateboard. ‘Oh,’ I said. Sophia’s team burst through
the exit of the men’s locker room. They were a bunch of confused hipsters, staring
at us like, ‘Why are you guys still up here?’ Immediately Sophia’s eyes darted to the
skateboard that was next to us, and then at the bowling pins down on the track. Like a
boss, she shouted, ‘Human bowling!’ I looked at my team. ‘Who’s gonna do this?’
All eyes were on me, but nobody answered. It didn’t take a genius to know what they
were thinking though. Sophia took the empty bag and stuffed the three scavenger hunt tokens
into it. ‘Fine,’ I said, not wanting to waste another second. I grabbed the bag off
the skateboard and slammed our tokens inside the bag. ‘I’ll do it!’ Brayden and Faith
stepped back to give me room. Sitting on the skateboard, I stuck my arms through the straps
of the book bag and stared at the pins down the hill. ‘Ready?’ Gavin asked as he put
his hands on my back. ‘Nope!’ I said, gripping the sides of the skateboard. Sophia’s
team pushed against her back as she rode the skateboard. ‘Too bad!’ Gavin shouted as
he forced me forward. As we gained speed down the hill, he said, ‘In case you die, I just
want you to know you’ve been an awesome bro!’ Feeling his hands release me, my skateboard
flew forward. ‘Thaaaaaaaaank youuuuuuu!’ I shouted through my teeth. The hill to the
track was surprisingly bumpy. When you walk along the ground, you hardly even notice the
uneven ground. Sophia and I were neck and neck, racing towards our own set of pins at
the bottom of the hill on the track. The line of students started about halfway down the
path on both sides of us. The further down the hill we rode, the faster we went. For
a second, I was afraid I’d shoot back in time if my skateboard went too fast. From
the corner of my eye, I saw Sophia clutching her skateboard. She was close enough that
I could hear her teeth chattering. Down on the track, I saw Zoe with an excited smile
on her face. Principal Davis was standing by her side with a grin of his own. Wyatt
and his team looked bored, waiting on the bench for the hunt to be over. Everything
was looking pretty good as my skateboard pulled forward. That is, until I felt Sophia’s
foot scrape my back. When I looked behind me, I saw that she was right on my tail, swinging
one foot back and forth, trying to get me to fall off my skateboard. ‘Are you crazy?’
I shouted, feeling my board wobble underneath me. She didn’t answer as she continued to
swing her foot at me. Every time I looked back at her, I expected to see an angry girl
staring daggers at me, but it was far more terrifying than that. She had no emotion on
her face whatsoever. Blank and devoid of human expression – like a robot sent from the
future to ‘take care of me’ because I would grow up to be the leader of the human
resistance. (C’mon, you’ve seen The Terminator, right?) My skateboard shook violently under
my butt as the wheels rattled over the dirt. The cold air stung my cheeks and Sophia’s
foot swung at me again. ‘Stop that!’ I shouted, but it was too late. I felt the front
of my board dig into the dirt, stopping me instantly. No wait, that’s not right – it
stopped the skateboard instantly. I, on the other hand, shot forward like I was fired
out of a cannon. Sailing through the air, everything was peaceful and silent. I even
had enough time to see that Sophia had also tripped herself up because her skateboard
smashed into mine. And just like me, she was flying over the grass … coming straight
at me with eyes burning red. Shooting both hands forward, I watched in horror as her
skin changed from a pale fleshy colour to a super shiny liquid metal. I tried to land
on the ground, but I was still flying too fast, unable to do anything but watch as the
hipster gained on me. Her fingers suddenly morphed into long metallic blades that she
snipped towards me, the same way everyone does with scissors before using them. Somehow
she was able to speed up, gaining on me quickly. Dirt and grass flew everywhere as she used
her machete fingers to tear into the earth, nearly at my feet as we both flew through
the air. ‘It’s no use! The machines have already won!’ she shouted, pointing her
sword finger at me. ‘Give up now, Chase!’ I raised my fist. ‘Never!’ I screamed.
The back of my head thumped against the grass, and all the chaos ended instantly. When I
opened my eyes, I was staring at the principal’s face. Gavin, Brayden and Faith were standing
next to him. Humongous white bowling pins were spread out around me too. ‘Never what?’
Zoe asked, kneeling next to me. My fist was still over my head. ‘Um …’ I said, lowering
my arm and sitting up, shaking another daydream from my head. ‘Nothing.’ Sophia was still
halfway down the hill, stuck in the dirt. ‘What happened?’ I asked. ‘You torpedoed
off your board and rolled into the bowling pins,’ Gavin explained. ‘After Sophia
kicked your skateboard, she lost balance and fell on the hill.’ ‘Huh …’ I grunted.
‘So … did we beat her?’ Zoe nodded rapidly, giving me such a bright smile that made the
air feel less chilly. I breathed a sigh of relief as I stood up. Everyone on my team
was celebrating with cheers and high fives. Even Zoe, who wasn’t on the team, joined
in. It felt good to make it through the second-to-last competition for Spirit Week, but I wasn’t
going to be happy until the last game of the week was over. Thursday. The cafeteria. Back
in the lobby, I was standing near the entrance of the cafeteria, leaning against the wall
and minding my own business. Melvin was supposed to meet me there after the competition to
go over some more ninja stuff, but I couldn’t find him anywhere. With my luck, he’d probably
decided to quit too. Kids were scattered pretty evenly between the lobby and the cafeteria.
Those who didn’t feel like standing were sitting at lunch tables. I stepped up to the
tinted glass window and peered through. Maybe Melvin had already gone into the cafeteria
before I got there. ‘Dreaming of what it’s like having friends?’ Wyatt asked from behind
me. I turned around. Wyatt was standing at the entrance of the cafeteria with the rest
of his team. ‘What?’ I asked. Wyatt pointed at the glass window. ‘I saw you,’ he said
snidely. ‘Creepily watching other people and wishing you were part of their group.’
‘That’s not—’ I said. But Wyatt cut me off, sounding a lot like a baby. ‘Are
too! Are too, are too, are too!’ His team chuckled and bumped fists. I nodded, rolling
my eyes. ‘Okay.’ ‘You should forfeit now,’ Wyatt suggested. ‘It’ll save you
the humiliation of defeat. I mean, I know you’re used to it by now, but I seriously
think you have a problem. Like, maybe you’re addicted to it?’ His face softened with
a genuinely concerned look. ‘Chase, are you addicted to being the school loser? Because
if so, I can help you with that.’ Wyatt was beginning to get on my nerves. Actually,
Wyatt had never been off my nerves. ‘Oh yeah? How can you help?’ I asked. ‘My
best advice is to have you quit the games cold turkey,’ he said super seriously as
he stepped closer to me. And then he softly slugged my shoulder. With a sad smile, he
said, ‘Just give up, kiddo.’ I stared back at the short boy before me, feeling my
insides twist with anger. Wyatt’s team managed to come first every time, which could’ve
meant two things – either he was somehow scamming the system to win, or his team was
actually good at the Spirit Week games. Either way, I felt the crushing weight of defeat
on my shoulders. There was a huge part of me that did want to back out now. The last
game was less than a day away, and with Wyatt’s record, my odds for winning were pretty slim.
Gidget and Slug had suddenly appeared. They looked back and forth between Wyatt and me
as we stared each other down, wondering what was going on. If my team competed in the last
game, we might lose in front of the entire school. Wyatt would win, and he’d get his
public ninja clan. If that happened, then there’s no telling what kind of evil schemes
he’d be able to get away with. But if I quit, I could just disappear into the sea
of other students and float my way through the rest of school until graduation. The more
I thought about it, the better it sounded. No more getting singled out. No more ninja
clan to worry about. No more attention. No more humiliation or embarrassment. No more
anything. ‘Dude,’ Wyatt said, snapping me away from my thoughts. ‘It’s been like
a minute and half. Are you going to say something or just keep staring?’ I paused. ‘Nothing,’
I said. ‘I’m not going to say anything.’ ‘Good,’ Wyatt said, turning around. He
raised his hand, snapping his fingers at his teammates. They obediently followed their
master through the cafeteria door. Wyatt reached into his back pocket and pulled out a crumpled
bit of yellow paper, tossing it into the bin next to the entrance. At the exact same time,
I saw Melvin step out of the cafeteria doors. His arm was slung around a small pile of textbooks
that also had his notepad on top. He was so busy scribbling some chicken scratch onto
the paper that he didn’t even see Wyatt. When they collided, Wyatt freaked. ‘Why
don’t you watch where you’re going?’ Wyatt shouted like a maniac, throwing his
arms into the air. Melvin looked up from his notepad, confused. ‘What? I’m sorry, I
was just—’ Immediately Wyatt snatched Melvin’s books from him and slammed them
into the rubbish bin. Then he turned around and continued his tirade. ‘You almost made
me fall! Is that what you wanted? Were you trying to do it on purpose?’ Melvin stuttered,
unsure of what to say. And me? I was already dashing to get between Wyatt and Melvin. I
didn’t have a plan, but I knew I couldn’t waste time trying to think of one. Stepping
between the two boys, I smiled at Wyatt. ‘It was an accident, alright?’ Wyatt stepped
forward, pushing at my shoulders. ‘C’mon, man. Gimme a reason!’ ‘I’ll give you
a reason to walk away,’ I said, realising everyone in the lunchroom was staring. ‘Because
you and I have a showdown tomorrow, and if you throw any punches, you’ll be disqualified
in a heartbeat. You might as well not even show up to the game if that happens.’ Wyatt
took a breath, slowly leaning back. ‘C’mon, guys,’ he said, gesturing to his team. ‘These
dandelions aren’t worth the trouble anyway.’ As Wyatt and his squad walked away, I reached
into the bin and grabbed Melvin’s stuff, along with bits of rubbish that had stuck
to his books. ‘Did he just call us dandelions?’ Melvin asked. ‘Yeah,’ I said, doing my
best to wipe off the nasty mixture of mashed potatoes and spaghetti sauce from Melvin’s
textbooks. ‘He says weird things like that all the time. Sometimes they make sense, but
most of the time they don’t.’ ‘Thanks,’ Melvin said, taking his books from me. His
notepad was still in one piece, but it was soaked in corn juice. ‘Sick.’ Melvin and
I sat at one of the empty tables near the stage. ‘So I’m still looking into the
whole thing about Wyatt winning these games so easily,’ Melvin said, ‘but I’m not
coming up with anything. It looks like he’s just really good at leading his team.’ Grunting,
I leaned forward, burying my face in my hands. ‘I was afraid of that.’ ‘Which makes
what I have to say even harder for me,’ Melvin choked out. I peeked between my fingers,
already knowing what he was gonna say. ‘What?’ Melvin wasn’t the kind of kid who skirted
around a subject. He was a straight-to-the-point kind of guy, which was why I respected him.
‘I quit,’ he said. ‘But I saved your butt back there,’ I sighed. ‘And I appreciate
that,’ he replied politely. ‘But I don’t think this whole ninja thing is for me.’
‘So that’s it then? You’re done?’ ‘Well, yeah,’ Melvin said. ‘That’s
what quitting means.’ A knot formed in my throat. ‘Well, that does it. Worst. Ninja.
Leader. Ever.’ Melvin stood up. ‘Thanks for helping me out with Wyatt back there.
I’ll definitely be rooting for your team tomorrow. Good luck.’ He wasn’t sarcastic
when he said it. I rested my chin on the cold lunch table and watched the other students
talking and laughing with each other. There was so much that happened behind the scenes
at this school, and I was beginning to envy the kids who didn’t have a clue about any
of it. Friday. Outside. ‘So he just up and quit? Just like that?’ Brayden asked, sitting
on the opposite side of the bench I was on. We were outside, killing time before going
into the school. The sun was bright and the air was cold and dry. Perfect weather if you
asked me, which you didn’t, so I’m just sayin’. ‘He did,’ I said to Brayden.
‘So it’s just down to you and me.’ Brayden nodded slowly, watching the other kids gather
at the front doors. ‘Unless you’re quitting now too,’ I half-joked. ‘Course not,’
Brayden said. ‘There’s no way I can go back to normal life after being in your ninja
clan. You know how boring it would be? Normal school? Barf!’ ‘Hey, guys,’ a boy’s
voice said as his shadow crept toward our feet. When I looked up, I saw Brody Valentine
standing over me. I sort of considered him a friend, but I didn’t really know anything
about him. We had zero classes together and only occasionally saw each other in the hallways.
Faith and Zoe were friends with one of his friends, Maddie, so he’s really just a friend-of-a-friend.
‘What’s up, dude?’ I asked Brody. ‘Typical things, y’know. Same stuff, different day,’
he said, breathing out small puffs of fog in the frigid air. Unsure of how to carry
on the conversation, I nodded. ‘Cool,’ and then repeated it slower. ‘Cool.’ Brody
laughed, looking like he shared the exact awkward feeling I had. ‘So Maddie told me—’
he stopped. ‘You guys know Maddie?’ Brayden and I nodded. ‘Well, she told me you were
having a rough couple of weeks,’ Brody said nervously. ‘I know this might be weird,
but if you ever need anything, just let me know. Seriously, anything.’ I wasn’t sure
why, but that simple act of reaching out to me was enough to brighten my morning, even
if just a tiny bit. It was such a small gesture from Brody, but it meant so much to me, like
others actually cared about how I was feeling. I made sure to take a mental note about what
I was thinking – be cool to everyone, all the time, because everyone needs it even if
it doesn’t seem like they do. I should put that on a t-shirt. Finally, I said, ‘Thanks,
man. I’m good.’ ‘Alright,’ he said, puffing out his chest. ‘Well, the offer
still stands, ‘kay? For both of you.’ Brayden smiled. ‘Cool.’ I nodded. We both watched
Brody go through the school doors. Friday. The hallways. That afternoon, I was outside
the gymnasium doors with Zoe and Faith. Gavin and Brayden were already inside the gym waiting
for the games to begin. ‘Any chance you’ll tell me what the final game for today is?’
I asked my cousin, hoping that she’d actually give in this time. ‘You only have to wait,
like, ten more minutes, and you’ll find out along with everyone else!’ Faith said.
‘I know, right?’ Zoe huffed, folding her arms. ‘You’ve been trying all week to
get special treatment just ’cause you’re my cousin. Not a chance in heck, son!’ ‘The
school year isn’t over,’ I said. ‘There’s still plenty of time.’ Zoe and Faith laughed.
Sixth graders pushed past us, clearing out the halls and entering the gym. No sign of
Wyatt’s team yet, but that didn’t mean much. They were around. I heard Principal
Davis giving announcements about sitting space and how everyone needed to be clear of the
centre of the gym. And then I saw it. A flash of red from the corner of my eye. It was so
quick that I wouldn’t even have noticed it if I were a regular student. But I wasn’t
a regular student. I was a ninja. The red blur was all the way down the hall. If the
blur had been any other colour, I would’ve ignored it, but it was red. I had an inkling
that it might be someone from the red ninja clan. I folded my arms and stared at the end
of the hallway as Faith and Zoe blah blah blahed back and forth to each other. The flash
of blur happened again, but this time I saw exactly what was going on. It was one of Wyatt’s
red ninjas chasing after another student. I think I even heard the faint sound of someone
shouting for help. I turned back to Zoe. ‘Hey,’ I said quickly. ‘You guys head in there.
I have to, um, y’know, bathroom break.’ I tend to say too much when bending the truth,
which was why I added, ‘Hope there’s a plunger in there! Am I right?’ My brain
screamed in my skull. Why would you say that? Zoe and Faith both looked horrified. ‘Okaaaaay,’
Zoe said. ‘TMI, but good luck with that.’ ‘Thanks,’ I said as I lowered my head
like an embarrassed dog. ‘I’ll catch up.’ ‘Well, hurry up!’ Faith said. ‘The last
game’s gonna start soon.’ ‘And you don’t want Wyatt to win by default if you don’t
show up,’ Zoe said. ‘If the entire team isn’t there, then it’s an automatic forfeit.’
‘I get it,’ I said, nodding. ‘Just head in and I’ll be right behind you.’ Zoe
said something else, but I missed it. I knew was that she was a little annoyed that I was
being pushy, but I didn’t have any time to waste! The red ninjas were up to no good,
and I had to check it out! I glanced down the hallway on both sides of me to double-check
I was really alone. I reached into the hood of my sweatshirt for my ninja mask. Gripping
it with my fingers, I pulled it down over my face. It was go time. Friday. The empty
hallway. At the end of the hall, I poked my head around the corner before diving out into
the open. The coast was clear, which was kind of a bummer since I was trying to find someone.
Just then I heard the sound of a girl calling for help again. It came from one of the empty
rooms down the hall. Without waiting another second, I dashed to the room where the noise
was coming from, but to my surprise, there was nobody there. ‘Uh, hello?’ I said,
feeling like I might have just walked into a trap. By this point, it could’ve been
anyone setting me up – the red ninja clan, the Scavengers, Jake and his wolf pack. The
voice came again from one of the rooms behind me. ‘Help me!’ I spun in a circle, confused
because I swore I had heard the shout coming from the room I was looking in. ‘What’s
going on?’ I asked aloud, carefully stepping across the hallway to the next open door.
Without warning, a girl jumped out of the dark room. I freaked, throwing my arms in
the air to protect myself. The girl smashed into me, sending us both to the floor tumbling.
When the dust cleared, I looked at my attacker. It was Brayden’s friend Dani. She stared
at me, terrified, but then I remembered I was wearing a ninja mask. ‘What’s going
on?’ I asked, my voice muffled from the black cloth over my face. ‘Are you okay?’
Dani’s hands were shaking as she looked past me. ‘Them!’ I didn’t need to turn
around to know there was probably a boatload of red ninjas standing behind me. But I did
anyway. In the doorway were about ten red ninjas, arms folded, eyes piercing, and legs
uh … standing. The red ninja at the front of the group knocked his knuckles together.
‘Look what the cat dragged in.’ I jumped to my feet, helping Dani off the floor. ‘Run!
I’ll take care of this!’ Through tears in her eyes, she looked at me nodding. Then
she dashed down the hall without saying another word. Placing my feet firmly on the carpeted
floor, I clenched my fists, holding them at my side. Nodding my head once at the red ninjas,
I growled. ‘Let’s dance.’ All ten of the red ninjas looked amongst themselves,
confused. Just so you know, that was all part of my plan – confuse the red ninjas by making
them think I was up for a fight. In their confusion, I would take off like a bolt of
lightning. Which is exactly what I did. I was halfway down the hall before they noticed
I had escaped. ‘Ha!’ I shouted. ‘Suckers!’ At that moment, a second group of red ninjas
jumped out of another room in front of me. ‘Whoops,’ I muttered, skidding to a stop.
So there I was in the hallway, two herds of red ninjas wearing blue jeans on both sides
of me. I kept whipping my head back and forth between the two herds, trying my best to come
up with some kind of awesome ninja plan. I ran to one of the empty classrooms nearby,
twisting the door handle. Of course, it was locked – my luck wouldn’t have it any
other way. The ninjas were closing in on both sides of me. This was going to be bad. Like,
bad. Like, worse than getting duct taped to the wall bad. I leaned against the door, feeling
dizzy. It felt like I was having a bad dream. Wait. Maybe I was having a bad dream! I shut
my eyes and banged the back of my head against the classroom door. The thud travelled through
my body and the red ninjas flinched when they saw me do it. Okay, brain. Time to wake up
… like, any second now. The red ninjas continued their approach. Some of the fluorescent lights
overhead had burned out, which cast eerie shadows of the ninjas along the floor and
walls. Man. I was about to get my butt handed to me, and I even gave them a head start by
bruisin’ up my noggin. down. And then the door clicked. My heart nearly leapt out of
my chest. I jumped forward as the door flew wide open. There, standing in the doorway,
was the white ninja. ‘Come on!’ the white ninja said with a husky voice. I did as the
white ninja commanded and ran into the classroom. The white ninja slammed the door shut, turning
the lock. ‘Thanks,’ I said, looking for another way out. The only door in the room
was the one we had just locked. Along the back of the classroom was a set of tall cupboards
built into the wall. On the counters were mixing bowls and spatulas. ‘Don’t thank
me yet,’ the white ninja said. ‘Wait, how’d you get in here if that’s the only
way in?’ I asked. ‘I dove in here and locked the door when I saw you getting chased,’
the white ninja said. ‘Let’s just say it’s in my best interests to look after
you.’ ‘I totally know it’s you!’ I said with a huge smile under my mask. It had
to be Faith, right? I mean, all signs pointed to yes, didn’t they? ‘You think you’re
fooling me, but you’re not!’ The white ninja stepped further into the room, scanning
the sides for an exit, ignoring me. ‘Don’t bother,’ I said. ‘There’s no other way
out. We’re stuck.’ ‘Not good,’ the white ninja growled. ‘Stupid. Stupid, stupid,
stupid!’ ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself!’ I said. ‘Those red ninjas can’t touch
us as long as that door remains locked.’ As if the door had been waiting for its time
to shine, the latch flipped, unlocking with a clunking sound. ‘Awesome,’ I said. The
door creaked open and I watched the red ninjas enter, blocking our only escape. ‘I’m
not sure what you’re planning,’ I said. ‘But you’re going to be pretty disappointed
if it’s a fight you’re looking for.’ The red ninjas parted, creating a path for
someone. It was Wyatt. Of course it was Wyatt. It was always Wyatt. ‘Then it’s a good
thing nobody’s looking for a fight,’ Wyatt sneered as he patted at all three of his first
place ribbons pinned to his shirt. ‘Isn’t that right, Chase?’ In order to show Wyatt
and the red ninjas that we weren’t looking for a fight, the white ninja and I sat on
our knees, placing our hands on our thighs. ‘Shouldn’t you be getting ready for the
last game?’ I asked. ‘I could ask you the same question,’ he replied. He turned
quickly – probably on purpose so his ribbons would flourish a bit. He faced the white ninja.
‘And you … you’re something of a mystery, aren’t you?’ The white ninja said nothing,
but I could tell they were getting nervous. Their chest was moving up and down quickly,
taking rapid breaths. Wyatt leaned closer to the white ninja’s mask. ‘Who are you?’
‘Leave her alone!’ I snapped. I hated that Faith had been caught up in this mess,
and it was my fault. If it weren’t for me, she’d be in the gymnasium, safe and sound.
With a smile, Wyatt stood tall. I exhaled slowly, relieved that he was going to leave
her alone. But instead, he clutched the top of her ninja mask and pulled it off her face.
In that moment, my brain completely fizzled out. I felt like maybe I was seeing things,
because Faith was supposed to be under the mask … but it wasn’t Faith. It was Zoe.
Friday. Prisoners in the classroom. My cousin remained perfectly still, resting on her knees
with her hands on her thighs. She stared at the floor, angry, but unflinching. ‘No stinkin’
way,’ Wyatt whispered, holding back shocked laughter. I felt the exact same way. Wyatt
looked at me and said something, but I didn’t even hear him. All I could do was stare at
Zoe, decked out in a white ninja costume. Somewhere in my brain, there was an error
message flashing: not responding. ‘Wow,’ Wyatt said at last, tossing the white ninja
mask at Zoe’s feet. ‘Ya think ya know a gal.’ ‘You don’t know anything about
me,’ Zoe whispered. Wyatt laughed. ‘I know you’re the president! I know that if
word gets out that you’re running around with your cousin dressed as ninjas, you’ll
lose your position in office! Ya like apples? How ’bout them apples?’ Zoe didn’t say
a word. ‘This is just too good,’ Wyatt said. ‘That’s fine. I’ll figure out
how to deal with all this after I win the final game.’ ‘The game won’t start unless
Zoe’s there,’ I said with confidence. Wyatt shook his head. ‘Not true,’ he said.
‘Principal Davis will take the lead when he sees that Zoe’s gone.’ Zoe looked at
me. ‘He’s right. The game will still go on.’ ‘It doesn’t really matter,’ Wyatt
continued as he turned to me. ‘When Davis finds out that someone is missing from your
team, you’ll forfeit.’ ‘That’s why I’m down here,’ I said, understanding.
‘You never intended there to be a fight.’ ‘Oh, of course not,’ Wyatt said. ‘I
knew I could count on you to be honourable and take your place in the land of defeat.
I knew you’d rather sit here and lose the game instead of throwing punches.’ I wasn’t
sure if I hated that Wyatt was right, or if it was actually cool that he was. ‘Pretty
brilliant plan, right?’ he gloated. ‘I mean, either way, you lose! If you decide
to fight your way out of this, you get suspended, which is an automatic disqualification. And
if you decide to be noble, you’ll just sit here until my red ninjas allow you to leave,
which will be long after you’ve already been disqualified because of your absence.
Man!’ Wyatt said triumphantly. ‘I. Am. Brilliant!’ ‘Gross,’ Zoe whispered.
Wyatt laughed. ‘Get comfortable, sugar, because you’re gonna be in here until after
the assembly.’ He looked at Zoe’s white ninja uniform. ‘Why white? You stick out
like a … well, like a white ninja.’ ‘Black isn’t my colour,’ Zoe replied coolly.
‘Red might suit you,’ Wyatt said. ‘Pfft!’ Zoe huffed. ‘Haven’t you heard? White
is the new black.’ ‘Sure,’ Wyatt chuckled quietly. ‘I’ll call you when there’s
a snowstorm.’ ‘Like red is better?’ Zoe asked, arching her brow. ‘Better than
white,’ Wyatt said like a baby. ‘Is not.’ ‘Is too.’ ‘Nuh-uh.’ ‘Uh-huh.’
‘Nuh-uh!’ ‘Uh-huh!’ I seriously had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep myself
from laughing. ‘Whatever!’ Wyatt shouted. ‘I don’t have time for this!’ Zoe and
I watched Wyatt cut a path through his red ninjas again. Before he stepped out the door,
he turned. ‘You should’ve just given up, Chase.’ With that, Wyatt disappeared into
the hallway. Most of the red ninjas went with him. The leftovers stood with their arms folded
right inside the entrance, poking their head out every few seconds to make sure no one
was coming. ‘So …’ I sang, a little amused. ‘Look at you!’ ‘Don’t even,’
Zoe said. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I asked. Zoe rolled her eyes. ‘I’m not
the white ninja. You know I’m not interested in all this.’ I frowned. ‘Um, what?’
‘You heard me.’ ‘Except that you’re right next to me wearing white ninja robes.’
‘Faith asked me to do this as a favour for her,’ Zoe said. ‘And since we’re besties,
I couldn’t say no. That and the fact that you’re my cousin and needed my help.’
‘I knew it!’ I said through my mask. ‘Faith is the white ninja!’ Zoe made a ‘duh’
face. ‘She told me you already knew.’ ‘Kind of,’ I said. ‘I mean, yeah, totally.
I totes knew it was her, like, the whole time. Super totes.’ ‘So …’ Zoe said. ‘What’s
the plan, boss?’ I looked at the red ninjas at the door, and then back at Zoe. ‘I don’t
have a plan this time,’ I admitted. ‘I think it’s over. All of it.’ Zoe’s face
shifted from worried to angry. ‘Are you serious?’ I pulled my ninja mask off my
face, feeling the cool air touch my cheeks. ‘These last couple of weeks have a been
a nightmare.’ ‘Well, I’m not gonna say I didn’t notice you acting all paranoid,’
Zoe said. ‘I don’t know how much longer I can keep going,’ I said honestly, only
because she was family. ‘And now look at me. Held prisoner in an empty classroom by
a gang of red ninjas so their leader can win the Spirit Week games and make his ninja clan
an official school club. I’m probably the most horrible leader that ever existed.’
Zoe sighed, looking angrier. ‘Pretty sure there’s been worse.’ ‘I don’t mean
it like that,’ I said. ‘I mean, I’ve pretty much failed to be a good leader.’
Finally, Zoe’s face turned red. ‘Would you stop having a pity party for yourself?’
‘Huh?’ I grunted, confused. Footsteps thumped down the hallway. There was a dark
blur in front of the door, and then the sound of footsteps squeaking to a stop. Melvin’s
face peeked around the corner. Maybe the universe was cutting me a break! When Melvin saw Zoe
and me, he’d go back and find help! ‘Dude!’ he said as he bounced through the door, holding
a crinkly yellow envelope over his head. He wasn’t wearing his suit jacket, and his
shirt was untucked and dishevelled like he had been working all night. ‘I’ve got
brain-popping news!’ ‘Melvin, wait!’ I shouted. ‘Don’t come in here!’ Melvin
didn’t listen, taking quick steps to reach me. ‘I have proof that Wyatt cheated! He
knew all the locations for the scavenger hunt and all the answers for the quiz show!’
The door to the classroom slammed shut. Melvin spun around. ‘Uh-oh.’ My hope that he
would save the day petered out. ‘Yep,’ one of the ninjas said with arms folded. I
could tell it was a girl under the mask from her voice. She pointed at the spot between
Zoe and me. ‘Sit.’ Melvin raised his hands as if he were surrendering. ‘Sure thing,’
he said, taking a knee. ‘Not a problem.’ I stared at the floor, not wanting to say
a word. It was possible that the gymnasium was already celebrating Wyatt’s victory.
‘What were you doing down here anyway?’ Zoe asked. ‘Shouldn’t you be in the gym?’
‘Shouldn’t you?’ Melvin snipped. ‘You’re the gosh darn president!’ He turned his
head to look at me. ‘And you’d best get down to the gym unless you’re planning to
forfeit!’ I said nothing. Melvin’s face softened. He understood. ‘So that’s that,
huh?’ Again, I said nothing. ‘What kind of proof do you have that Wyatt cheated?’
Zoe asked. Melvin tossed the wrinkled yellow envelope he was carrying onto the floor. ‘It’s
all right there,’ he said. Zoe’s eyes followed the envelope as it fell to the carpet.
‘What’s that?’ ‘That,’ Melvin said, ‘was the thing that Wyatt threw into the
bin yesterday.’ ‘The bin?’ I repeated. Melvin smiled. ‘Yep. Wyatt tossed it out
just before I bumped into him. Remember that? And then he dumped all my books in with it.
Well, when you grabbed my textbooks, you accidentally grabbed his envelope too.’ ‘What’s in
it?’ Melvin paused, his smile growing more satisfied. ‘Oh, nothin’ much, except for
the exact locations of each token for the scavenger hunt plus all the answers to every
question in the quiz yesterday.’ ‘Are you kidding me?’ Zoe asked, her jaw dropping.
‘Where’d he get the envelope?’ My face warmed and I could feel my blood pumping faster.
Wyatt had been cheating. ‘No idea,’ Melvin said. ‘He could’ve got it from anywhere.
He might’ve stolen it from someone. What I’m still confused about is how his team
won the race on Tuesday. How’d he get to the finish line before everyone else?’ Zoe
shook her head. ‘His team hit the checkpoints. They got the apple from the baked beans and
shaved the balloon!’ ‘Funny thing is,’ Melvin said, ‘when I asked around, nobody
actually saw Wyatt finish those challenges. And with a bunch of red ninjas on his team,
it’s not impossible that the kids standing at those checkpoints just did them when no
one was looking.’ ‘That explains how Wyatt got to the finish line early,’ I said. ‘I
mean, he had enough time to pour himself a bowl of cereal before I got there.’ ‘What?’
Zoe asked, confused. ‘Cereal?’ ‘That Cookie Dough Delight stuff,’ I said. ‘So
gross, but it’s trending so everyone pretends to love it.’ ‘No way …’ Zoe whispered,
staring into space. ‘No way!’ Melvin snapped his fingers. ‘That’s the same cereal the
student council room has, ain’t it?’ ‘Ummm …’ I hummed, still confused. ‘Do you
know where the student council room is?’ Zoe asked with a smirk. ‘Right around the
corner from the finish line, down the narrow hall that everyone had to pass through at
the end.’ ‘Wyatt must’ve cut through that room as a shortcut!’ Melvin said. ‘He
probably poured himself a bowl of cereal since he had plenty of time to kill!’ ‘And he
stole the envelope while he was in there?’ I asked. Zoe shook her head. ‘No, besides
staff, there are only a couple of kids who have a key to get into that locked room. And
they’re both in student council.’ ‘Whoa,’ I said, looking at Melvin. And then I whispered
quietly while covering my mouth so Zoe couldn’t read my lips. ‘You think it was Zoe?’
‘No, you idiot!’ Melvin said. ‘I was kidding!’ I said, bumping my head with my
palm. ‘My bet’s on Colin. Somethin’ about that kid has been off since I first
met him.’ ‘No,’ Zoe said softly. ‘Colin and Bounty don’t have keys. It’s just
me and the secretary …’ ‘What?’ I asked, suddenly remembering who the secretary
was. ‘That can’t be right. The student council secretary? But that’s—’ At that
moment, the shadow of one of the red ninjas fell over us. It was the ninja that had ordered
Melvin to stay in the room earlier. The other two were still peeking their heads out the
door, telling muffled jokes back and forth to each other. I expected the red ninja to
tell us to keep quiet, but she didn’t. Instead, she pulled her mask up, just enough to expose
her face. It was Dani, the student council secretary. ‘Oh my god,’ I whispered, utterly
floored by the fact that Brayden’s crush was a member of Wyatt’s red ninja clan.
Dani opened her mouth, and then paused. At first I thought she was angry that we were
onto her. But she wasn’t. She was afraid. Frantic, even. ‘Please don’t tell Brayden!
Please! It all started as a ploy, but I actually think Brayden’s super cool! And cute, but
whatever! Just please don’t tell him!’ ‘Bros got a code, sister,’ I said. ‘I
know, I know!’ Dani whispered back. ‘But what I’m asking you to do is forget about
the code? Please! I’ll do anything!’ Melvin leaned back and whistled. ‘So that day in
the hallway,’ I said. ‘When you were outside the boys’ bathroom …’ ‘If you’d
got there five seconds sooner,’ Dani said, ‘you would’ve seen me push that envelope
under the bathroom door. I’m the one who gave it to Wyatt.’ Right at that second,
we heard a loud POOF! come from the front of the room. The doorway quickly filled with
chalk dust so thick that it looked like a snowstorm. Maybe that was the advantage of
wearing white ninja robes. Dani pulled her mask down again. It was like someone opened
the window at a chalk factory on a windy day. Within seconds, I couldn’t see my hands
in front of my face. I felt sorry for whoever the teacher was that used that classroom.
It was definitely going to look like a white Christmas once the dust settled. Suddenly
I felt two hands grab my arms and pull me backwards. I heard Zoe and Melvin grunt but
there was no way I could see them through all the dust. Was it the Scavengers again?
Who else hated me? Oh right, everyone. I heard the red ninjas shouting to each other. Dani’s
voice was in the mix. ‘What’s going on?’ ‘Watch the door! It’s gotta be his ninja
clan!’ ‘Impossible! He doesn’t even have a clan, does he?’ ‘Something touched
my leg! SOMETHING TOUCHED MY LEG!’ The kid dragging me across the floor lifted me into
one of the cupboards along the wall. We went from complete white-out conditions to pitch
black, so my eyes had a hard time adjusting. The cupboard clicked shut quietly as the red
ninjas continued panicking in the room. ‘They’re gone!’ ‘Cheesy rice! Wyatt’s gonna blow
a fuse!’ ‘We gotta find Chase before he gets to the gym! Come on!’ The door to the
classroom slammed shut, and then it was silent. In the dark cupboard, I heard the shuffling
of feet and some whispers. ‘Are they gone?’ Zoe whispered. ‘Yepper pepper,’ said a
boy’s voice. ‘Yepper pepper?’ I said. ‘Slug?’ ‘Yepper pepper!’ Slug replied.
Then came Gidget’s voice. ‘Alright, dudes. Seriously, quit sayin’ that.’ Faith’s
voice came from further down the cupboard. ‘Oh my god, I’m gonna freak if I don’t
get out of here. Move it, people!’ The cupboard door swung open, and we all poured out onto
the carpet. The room still had a light cloud of chalk dust drifting through the air. I
stood up, looking at our rescuers, Faith, Gidget and Slug. ‘What’re you guys doing
here?’ I asked, looking at the twins. Gidget was the first to answer, even though she was
already staring at her phone. ‘Meh,’ she said, like it was nothing. ‘Faith changed
our minds about you.’ ‘Changed your minds?’ ‘Yep!’ Slug said with a goofy grin. ‘We’re
totally ninjas now. I mean, we’re in your ninja clan.’ I didn’t know what to say.
‘But … you all quit,’ I said. ‘Right,’ Gidget sighed. ‘And Faith changed our minds.’
Faith stared at me like I was just supposed to get it. ‘But—’ I began. Gidget spoke
before I could get another word out. ‘Look, dude. You’re more awesome than you give
yourself credit for. Faith helped us understand what being a good leader means, but more importantly,
you showed us what it means.’ Slug nodded, but said nothing. Gidget lowered the phone
and looked me right in the eye. ‘You might not be a good teacher, and by that I mean,
a really awful teacher. Just the worst.’ Faith folded her arms. ‘Not helping.’
‘Right,’ Gidget said. ‘Anyway, you lead by example, which in my opinion, is the best
kind of leader. You keep going, even when you could easily quit. You never give up.
You might be a terrible teacher, but you’re an amazing leader. You choose to do the right
thing every time, even when it’s uncool.’ I looked at Faith, finally understanding.
Faith nodded. ‘It’s time to rebuild your ninja clan the right way.’ ‘With us,’
Slug said proudly. My heart swelled and goosebumps appeared on my forearms. It was like I was
coming back to life. If I were in a movie, the sun would shine on my face as my black-and-white
world filled with colour. I’d never felt more awesome in my life. ‘Guys,’ I said.
‘I don’t know what to say.’ ‘Then don’t say anything,’ Faith said, slugging
me in the arm. I clutched at the spot she punched. ‘Wait!’ I said, looking at Faith.
‘You’re the white ninja!’ ‘Duh!’ Faith said. ‘We went over that last week!
Remember? I said ‘you’re not the only one with secrets,’ and you were all like
‘blah blah blah blah’ and stuff.’ I shook my head. ‘Girls can be confusing sometimes.’
‘It’s only gonna get worse as you get older,’ Zoe joked. ‘Let’s finish this,’
Melvin said. ‘I’ve got proof that Wyatt cheated. All you have to do is get it to Principal
Davis.’ ‘Who’s in the gym right now,’ Zoe said. I grabbed the envelope from Melvin’s
hands. ‘On it!’ Faith, Zoe and I ran to the door and checked the hallway for red ninjas.
It was all clear. And then, as if our lives depended on it, we all raced to the assembly.
Friday. The gymnasium. Principal Davis was sighing heavily into the microphone when Faith
and I finally made it to the gym. ‘This means Chase’s team forfeits. Wyatt, it looks
like—’ ‘Wait!’ I shouted, running to the centre of the gym. ‘We’re here!
We’re both here!’ Faith huffed and puffed behind me, catching her breath. Wyatt and
his team were already at the centre of the gym. When he saw the crinkled yellow envelope
in my hand, his face turned white. He knew exactly what it was. ‘Cutting it pretty
close, don’t you think, Mr Cooper?’ Principal Davis asked into the microphone from the front
of the gymnasium. I nodded, raising the envelope in my right hand, while clutching at a cramp
in my side with my left hand. ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I have—’ ‘Of course,’ Wyatt
said, just loud enough to cut me off. ‘Of course you can’t beat me. You’ve never
been able to beat me.’ I stopped, waiting for Wyatt’s monologue. ‘Remember your
first week here?’ he asked quietly as he came closer. ‘I kicked your butt, man. And
I could do it again and again, but you’re too much of a goody-goody to take me on. Go
ahead and tell on me, dude. That’s why you’ve lost your ninja clan. That’s why you’re
a terrible leader – you just keep crying to someone else in charge.’ My jaw twitched
and I ground my teeth. ‘The principal’s right there,’ Wyatt growled. ‘Your team
don’t stand a chance against me and my red ninjas anyway. Dodgeball’s a man’s game.’
Looking at the red dodgeballs on the floor, I lowered the envelope. ‘What’re you doing?’
Faith asked. ‘Leading by example,’ I replied, turning away from the principal. Once Faith
and I met with Brayden and Gavin, the principal spoke into the mic again. ‘Five minutes
to prep. After that, the game begins.’ ‘Why didn’t you go to Principal Davis?’ Faith
asked. ‘What’s she talking about?’ Brayden said. I looked at Brayden, remembering that
Dani wasn’t who he thought she was. ‘I have proof that Wyatt cheated all week.’
‘Oh!’ Gavin said. ‘That’s awesome, right? That means we win, doesn’t it?’
I shook my head. ‘It does, but that’s not how I want to win. Let’s show Wyatt
what we’re made of for once. I’m tired of getting walked all over. No fists, no fighting,
no trouble. Just an honest game of dodgeball. We can win this.’ After a moment of looking
at each other, my friends all agreed with me. We were about to play the most important
game of dodgeball we’d ever played in our lives. In front of the entire school. No pressure,
right? Friday. Dodgeball. Coach Cooper blew the whistle, starting the game. Wyatt’s
team sprinted toward the red rubber balls sitting in a line at the centre of the gym.
My team raced towards the same goal. Our shoes squeaked loudly on the freshly polished floor,
but the noise was mostly drowned out by the screaming kids in the bleachers. Wyatt’s
team was faster, and made it to the dodgeballs first. We dove out of the way, avoiding the
first wave of attack. Rolling across the floor, I had to slide my body quickly to avoid a
couple more balls that were thrown at me. Wyatt must’ve given the order to take me
out first. I saw Faith slide on her knees, grabbing a red ball and bringing it to her
face to deflect one that Wyatt had thrown at her. It bounced off her ball, making the
classic PONG sound. Faith did a backwards somersault to get back to her feet. Then she
clutched the ball with her right hand and swung it around once in a huge circle, flinging
it across the gym like she was pitching a softball. A kid from Wyatt’s team tried
catching the ball so Faith would get out, but she had thrown it too hard. It bounced
off his hands and flew into some kids in the crowd. ‘Out!’ Coach Cooper shouted after
blowing into his whistle. Faith fist pumped while jumping up and down. She looked at me,
excited to have the first out. Suddenly, a red ball nailed her square in the cheek. ‘No!’
I shouted, reaching my hand out. Stumbling back, Faith rubbed her cheek, but had a smile
on her face. She rolled her eyes and shook her head like she was more embarrassed than
upset. ‘Serves me right!’ she yelled. Brayden and Gavin were taking quick steps
to the centre line, their fingers gripping their dodgeballs. Gavin went with a simple
overhanded approach, but his ball sailed a little too high, missing his target. Brayden
threw his arm out wide, sending his ball toward the ground. His strategy was to try and throw
it low enough that it was impossible to catch, hitting the target just before bouncing on
the floor. If you weren’t paying attention, his ball would hit you, but if you saw it
coming, all you had to do was lift a leg to dodge it. That’s exactly what Wyatt did.
He stepped over Brayden’s ball like it was no big deal. Whipping both hands over his
head, he chucked a ball at Brayden. Brayden stepped backwards to get out of the way, but
caught his shoe on the floor. He fell to his butt as Wyatt’s ball soared over his head,
missing him. It would’ve been a victory for Brayden except the rest of Wyatt’s team
noticed he was helpless on the ground. Wyatt and his team concentrated all their fire on
Brayden. It was like a rapid-fire dodgeball machine, all aimed at one kid. Brayden froze
up, cowering on the floor as dodge balls rained down upon him. He didn’t stand a chance.
The whistle was blown again. ‘Out!’ Coach Cooper shouted, pointing at Brayden. ‘Down
to you and me,’ Gavin said. ‘If we can catch one of their balls, we can bring someone
else back in,’ I said. ‘That’s risky.’ ‘It is, but worth it if we can pull it off.’
Gavin nodded, and sprinted toward the centre line of the gym. ‘Wait!’ I said. ‘I
didn’t mean to try and get them to hit you!’ Gavin slid to a stop, bouncing on one foot,
waving his arms around to keep from tripping. Wyatt’s team grabbed the dodgeballs on the
floor. They each took a few steps toward Gavin and then shot their dodgeballs at him. Gavin
was impressive. He sidestepped the first few balls. They were coming at him too fast to
try and catch. Grabbing a stray ball off the floor, Gavin stood up, only just blocking
another ball from hitting him. Chucking the ball at Wyatt, Gavin continued to taunt the
opposition by running back and forth along the centre line. I zigzagged towards Gavin
as balls bounced past me. I raised a ball over my head, looking at Wyatt. He was crawling
along the floor reaching for his own dodgeball. Throwing it with all my strength, the ball
sailed through the air at the leader of the red ninjas. Wyatt looked up. Instantly, he
dropped his body to the floor, avoiding it by millimetres. Scooping up a ball of his
own, Wyatt twisted his legs out and jumped off the floor like some kind of snake. ‘Out!’
Coach Cooper shouted again, pointing at one kid on Wyatt’s team. Gavin had his fist
in the air. ‘Boom!’ he said, and then pointed at the kid. There were only four kids
left in the middle of the gym. Everyone in the bleachers leapt to their feet, cheering
and stamping. The other boy on Wyatt’s team was sprinting toward me with his dodgeball
drawn back over his shoulder. He surprised me, which made me freeze up when he threw
the ball at me. Raising my arms instead of diving, the ball hit me right on the shoulder.
I heard Wyatt laugh as I shuffled backwards. Coach Cooper blew the whistle, and I took
a breath as I started my walk to the side of the gym with Faith and Brayden. ‘Over
the line!’ Coach Cooper shouted, pointing at the feet of the kid who had got me out.
‘You’re out! Chase, you’re still in!’ ‘Come on!’ Wyatt shouted, holding his
open palms out at the kid who was off sides. Faith screamed excitedly, jumping up and down
with Brayden. The coach pointed at me. ‘Get back in there,’ he ordered. I spun around
and jogged back toward Gavin who had his hand in the air, waiting to give me a high five.
Suddenly, Gavin’s knees buckled as a PONG! echoed across the room. A red dodgeball rolled
out from behind him. Gavin dropped to his knees and fell flat on his face as Wyatt stood
at the centre line. Gavin groaned in pain as he rolled to his back. ‘Out!’ Coach
Cooper shouted again, pointing to Gavin. ‘I know, I know,’ Gavin said, pulling himself
up and heading to the bench. The entire crowd was roaring. I couldn’t tell if they were
cheering for Wyatt or me, or if they were just screaming to make noise. It was down
to Wyatt and me. Taking a ball off the floor, I stepped towards the centre line where Wyatt
was already standing with his own ball. I flinched – my name was written on Wyatt’s
dodgeball in black marker. I don’t know when he had the time to scribble it out, but
I didn’t care. I was more concerned about the fact that he did it at all. Honestly,
that was a whole new level of creepy that I wasn’t comfortable dealing with. ‘Looks
like it’s just you and me,’ Wyatt said, making sure my name was facing me. I nodded
once. ‘Looks like.’ ‘You won several battles,’ Wyatt said. ‘But you’re losing
the war. You know that, right?’ I remained silent. Everyone was still cheering as the
two of us stood at the centre of the gym, simply talking to each other. ‘I know all
about you and Naomi,’ Wyatt said suddenly. Mentioning Naomi was like a punch to the gut.
I had to blink rapidly to keep focus. ‘What about her?’ ‘You really stirred the pot
with the Scavengers,’ Wyatt said, rolling his dodgeball in his hands. ‘You know about
the Scavengers?’ ‘I do now,’ Wyatt said with an evil grin. ‘Thanks to you.’ ‘What’s
that supposed to mean?’ ‘Let’s just say, Naomi and I have similar interests.’
The crowd grew impatient, chanting in unison. ‘Hur-ry up! Hur-ry up! Hur-ry up!’ Wyatt
took a step back, clutching his dodgeball as he did. ‘What’s that mean?’ I shouted,
not caring if anyone in the gym heard me. Wyatt glanced to the side of the large room.
Naomi was against the wall with her arms folded, watching the game from the side of the gym.
I felt my knees grow weak. At that instant, Wyatt’s dodgeball said hello to the side
of my face. In dodgeball, the word for ‘hello’ is PONG! along with searing pain. I wouldn’t
recommend visiting the land of dodgeball. Time slowed to a crawl as my brain tried to
understand what was happening. My world turned bright red and smelled like dirty rubber.
The flash of red turned to white that faded slowly as I stumbled backward. I was out.
I had lost. Wyatt had won. He beat me. Not fairly or squarely, but he beat me. My cheek
was on fire as the world spun circles. I saw the frozen faces of the crowd gasping in horror
at how hard Wyatt had chucked the ball at me. Even Coach Cooper flinched with his hand
over his mouth. Losing my balance, I tripped over, falling backwards to the floor. Wyatt’s
ball seemed to hover over me as if someone had pushed the pause button. Wyatt was dusting
his hands off like he had just finished a job well done. Faith shouted my name from
the side of the gym. Brayden and Gavin were slouching on the bench, already looking defeated.
Naomi was still at the side of the bleachers. She was emotionless. Cold. James Buchanan
was dancing a jig and swinging in circles with a penguin in a tuxedo. Okay, maybe that
last thing was just in my head. I landed on my butt with a whimper as the world started
playing at normal speed again. The kids in the bleachers were so quiet that you could
hear a bird fart. And then I saw Gidget and Slug at the doors of the gym. The twins who
quit my ninja clan, and then decided to stick around because they liked how I never give
up. Oh … I never give up. I couldn’t give up. Even now. Even when the dodgeball game
seemed lost … I could still win. Glancing up, I watched as gravity pulled Wyatt’s
ball back to the earth, but it wasn’t directly over my head. When it said, PONG! to my face,
it bounced off at a slight angle, and it had now started its descent. If that ball hit
the ground, then the game really would be over. I flipped to my stomach and launched
myself across the polished floor, sliding to the spot where Wyatt’s ball would land.
A gasp came from the crowd as I rolled to my back. The ball landed perfectly in my hands.
‘Ouuuuuuut!’ Coach Cooper screamed in a high-pitched voice, pointing at Wyatt. Everyone
on the bleachers jumped to their feet again, screaming cheers, but I couldn’t hear any
of it. My ears were still ringing from how high-pitched the coach’s voice had been.
Even Ms Chen-Jung was celebrating at the back of the gym, waving her mop back and forth
like a flag. As I got to my feet, I saw Wyatt from the corner of my eye, throwing a tantrum.
Faith smashed into me, giving me a massive hug. Brayden and Gavin joined her, nearly
knocking me to the floor. Everyone was there – even Zoe and Melvin had made it safely
back to the gym. Gavin rubbed his hand back and forth on top of my head. ‘That’s how
it’s done!’ ‘Boom!’ Brayden said, slugging my shoulder. I was speechless as
I clutched the dodgeball close to my stomach, afraid to drop it because I didn’t want
to take any chances. ‘Are you alright?’ Faith asked, looking at the death grip I had
on the ball. ‘Yeah, dude,’ Brayden joked. ‘What’d that ball ever do to you?’ Rubbing
the ball burn on my cheek, I smiled. ‘Oh, right,’ Brayden laughed. ‘It totally sucker-punched
you in the face.’ We all laughed. Wyatt’s voice sliced through the cheers and laughter.
‘That doesn’t count!’ he screamed. I spun around and saw the leader of the red
ninja clan stomping across the gymnasium floor, coming straight for me. There was no way he’d
try to start a fight in front of this huge crowd, right? Was he that bold? Good thing
I didn’t have to find out. Principal Davis cut Wyatt off, stepping in front of him. And
guess what? Dani was right next to the principal. She was out of her red ninja robes and back
in her street clothes. ‘Guys, look,’ I said, pointing to the principal. I couldn’t
hear what they were saying since the cheers from the crowd were still so loud. All I knew
was Wyatt’s eyes grew to the size of watermelons as his mouth moved quickly. He just kept shaking
his head and making gestures at Dani. Dani’s face was stone cold. She stood with her arms
crossed, rolling her eyes every couple of seconds, and then saying something in response.
Brayden stopped behind me. ‘What’s the deal? What’s Dani doing out there?’ Brayden
didn’t know that Dani was a red ninja. Principal Davis gestured to the side of the gym. Wyatt
tried arguing again, but stopped once the principal started tapping his foot. Dani kept
her head down as the principal turned to her. She nodded slowly, and then looked up at me
… no, at Brayden. Principal Davis looked back too, and his chest fell like he was sighing.
He nodded at Dani, and she started jogging over to us. ‘Dani,’ Brayden said. ‘What’s
going on? What just happened?’ Dani paused, her eyes soft and wet. ‘I’m sorry,’
she said with a quiver in her voice. ‘I haven’t been honest with you.’ ‘What
are you talking about?’ ‘I was helping Wyatt this week,’ she said. ‘That’s
how he was winning.’ Brayden’s jaw dropped as he stared at her. ‘But why?’ Zoe asked,
not angry, just genuinely curious. ‘Wyatt offered me the lead position in the ninja
club he was going to start when he won. I was going to run the entire thing if I helped
him. I made the wrong choice, but …’ she looked at Brayden. ‘I’m sorry. It was
so dumb of me. I got greedy.’ Brayden was silent. ‘I made the wrong choice this week,’
Dani said again, ‘but I hope that doing the right thing in the end can make up for
it? Or at least start to?’ And then she looked at me. ‘Lead by example, right?’
I blinked. Dani was working with the bad guys this week. Some would even say that she was
a bad guy, but what happens when a bad guy stops being bad? Dani was suddenly the answer
to that question. She took a stand and did what was right, even in front of her peers,
and let’s face it – there were tons of red ninjas watching from the bleachers. She
didn’t just stand up to Wyatt – she just stood up to all of them. Which was probably
why Brayden had a funny grin on his face. ‘You just did the coolest thing I’ve ever
seen anybody do,’ Brayden said at last. Zoe nodded, and then said, ‘You can’t
be on the student council anymore.’ ‘What?’ Brayden cried. ‘Come on! She did the right
thing!’ Dani grabbed Brayden’s hand. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Zoe’s right. I still have to
pay for what I did, and I’ll happily do it. I’ll probably get detention or even
suspended because of cheating, but I’m okay with it because I know I’ll never do it
again.’ Man. Dani was awesome. ‘You and your friends showed me that it’s way cooler
to be cool to everyone,’ she said, looking at all of us – Brayden, Zoe, Faith, Gavin
and me. ‘So I hope you guys don’t hate me because I’d really like to be part of
your group.’ Brayden smiled at me. I knew exactly what he was thinking. ‘Y’know,’
I said. ‘Word in the school is there’s another ninja clan that’s looking for new
members. You might be exactly the kind of kid they’re after.’ Dani smiled with a
twinkle in her eye. ‘But do you think I’m good enough for the white ninja clan?’ I
stuttered. ‘I … no, I mean, not them … mine.’ Dani laughed. ‘I’m just kidding.’ ‘I
bet if you volunteer to help with the Buchanan Bash next week,’ Zoe said, ‘I could get
Principal Davis to go easy on your punishment.’ ‘Cool,’ Dani said. The ex-red ninja turned
around and joined Principal Davis. Together, they walked out of the gym. Wyatt was at the
door, waiting for the principal to come get him, but he wasn’t alone. He was leaning
against the wall talking to Naomi. I knew they were talking about me because every couple
of seconds, Wyatt would look across the room at me. What do you get when you mix Wyatt’s
red ninja clan with the Scavengers? Trouble. I turned back to my friends, but something
else caught my eye. At the far end of the gym, opposite Wyatt and Naomi, I saw a figure
in the shadows near the exit. I only noticed him because the reflection in his glasses
glinted at me. Squinting, I tried to focus on the boy’s face, but it was too dark to
make out anything except for his glasses and a small white square on his shirt. The longer
I stared, the clearer the square became … The square on his shirt …I think it read … Victor.
Great. I looked away immediately. I couldn’t tell if Victor was looking at me or not, but
whatever. It was something I didn’t need to deal with that day, or hopefully ever.
Once the crowd calmed down, Zoe took the microphone and officially announced that my team had
won the Spirit Week games. She went on to explain a little bit about the club I wanted
to start – the one with the candy bar. I took a seat on one of the bleachers at the
side of the gym. Faith joined me. ‘What’s up?’ she asked. ‘What’re you thinking?’
I took a deep breath. ‘Nothing,’ I said, smiling. To my surprise, my smile wasn’t
fake. I wasn’t sure what was in store for my future. The Scavengers weren’t finished
with me, that much was clear. Wyatt and his red ninjas were still growing. Jake had a
chip on his shoulder about me and was also a member of the Scavengers now. And some eighth-grade
Scavenger named Victor had just joined the Chase-Haters Club. But I was still smiling.
‘Nothing’s up,’ I said, looking at Faith. ‘You’re not alone in this,’ Faith said,
reading my mind. I nodded. ‘I know. It’s good to know I have a friend … and a white
ninja that has my back.’ Faith smiled, blushing. ‘You’re gonna have to tell me all about
it,’ I said with a smirk. ‘I will,’ she said. ‘But it can wait. Right now, you
have a victory to celebrate and a new club to start.’ Instead of getting up and joining
the crowd of students hanging out on the gym floor, I decided to sit and watch everyone
carry on as if nothing was wrong – as if this school didn’t hold terrifying secrets
that would rock them to their core if they had any idea. Faith pulled out her phone and
brought up the camera. She leaned closer, holding her phone out in front of both of
us. I made a dorky face. Faith paused, lowering her phone. ‘Can you just take a normal picture
for once?’ ‘Uh, yeah,’ I said. ‘Sorry. Go ahead.’ Lifting the camera up again,
Faith snapped a selfie. ‘Did you make a dumb face?’ ‘No!’ I said right away.
‘If you did, I’m posting it online,’ she said. Faith stayed with me. She didn’t
say anything else, but she didn’t need to. After all, best friends are the ones who can
just hang out and be real without having to say a word.