Last week we announced that Jeff Gunhus’ Jack Templar Monster Hunter: The Templar Chronicles: Book One is our Kids Corner Book of the Week and the sponsor of our student reviews and of thousands of great bargains in the Kids Book category:
Here’s the set-up:
If you’re not a monster hunter, don’t read this book!Seriously, this book is not meant for you. By reading it, you run the risk of attracting monsters to your position and being attacked. So, unless you are willing to join the fight…just walk away.
Still here? OK, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Let me introduce myself. I’m Jack Templar and I’m an orphan.
Recently, I discovered that I came from a long line of monster hunters. You know, vampires, werewolves, zombies, you name it. Turns out there was some kind of truce between monsters and the hunters that kids under fourteen were off-limits. I didn’t find out about all this until the day before my birthday. Yeah, you guessed it, my fourteenth birthday. So, all bets were off. The monsters were coming to get me.
Not only that, but I also found out that if monsters around the world could choose one human to kill, it would be me. Why? I haven’t a clue, but the hunters I’ve met talk about a prophecy and that they think I’m the One…whatever that means. I’d like to find out some day, but for right now, I’m just trying to stay alive.
If you want to hear a story that will scare you, gross you out and forever change the way you look at the world around you, then you came to the right place.
But, if you want to keep the illusion that the world is a safe and orderly place, then get out of here and stop wasting my time.
Do your duty, come what may.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
Yeah, you read it right. I’m a monster hunter. Back before I actually became one, I would have thought that sounded totally awesome. And don’t get me wrong, in a lot of ways it is. But most of the time, I’m either running for my life or hiding in the shadows, praying the monster chasing me doesn’t pick up my scent. And I’m almost always scared to death. In a few pages, I think you’ll see why.
But there are a few things I need to warn you about before I tell you my story.
First, this isn’t a cartoon. These are bloodthirsty creatures who will stop at nothing to kill. They are scary. Very scary. Second, the only way to stop them is to kill them first…and that gets gross and messy. Third, this is all real.
You think I’m kidding, don’t you? I can almost see you smirking as you read this. But this isn’t a joke. Monsters are real and the story I’m about to tell you really happened. If you’d rather walk through life believing that monsters are only found in books or on the movie screen, then you should shut this book right now and go do something else.
I give you these warnings because the story I’m about to tell you isn’t for everyone. Not everyone can handle it. The blood. The gore. The monsters.
This life was thrust onto me. I had no choice but to take up a sword and fight. But you can still walk away and pretend this dark world doesn’t exist. Or you can walk through the door that I’m about to open and find out the truth about the world around you.
But I warn you (and this is a big warning), if you read this book, if you learn about the monsters that roam among us and the hunters who fight them, if you decide to learn the truth, then you will become fair game for the monsters to chase.
Make sure you understand what I’m saying.
If you read this book, you will be part of this world and the monsters will come after you too. You will start to see things that no other humans can see. The shadows will move when you walk near them. The creatures of the night will seek you out, testing the doors and windows of your house, looking for a way in.
And, at some point, they will find you, just like they found me, and you will be forced to defend yourself.
So, think carefully before you turn the page, because once you do, there’s no turning back.
Once a monster hunter, always a monster hunter.
See you on the other side.
If you’re brave enough.
OK, so looks like you were brave enough (or stupid enough) to ignore my warning. I would say congratulations, but that might imply that I think you made the right choice. Just promise that you won’t say later that I didn’t warn you.
See, I don’t want you to be a big crybaby later on and complain to me that you can’t fall asleep because of all the creepy-crawlies in your room. Or that it’s my fault that a werewolf chewed off your left foot. Or that one of your eyes was plucked out by a harpy when you weren’t looking.
I especially don’t want any grief from your parents or from your teachers if you’re too scared at night. I’m going to say it as simply as I can:
THIS BOOK IS TOTALLY INAPPROPRIATE.
I’M SERIOUS. IT IS.
If you think there’s someone in your life who’s not going to approve of you reading about monsters eating people in gruesome ways, or of monsters getting killed in even worse ways, then I suggest you do one of two things:
a) Don’t read the book
b) Hide the book and don’t tell them you’re reading it.
And whatever you do, don’t let them read it. That would be the worse thing. Imagine if you started to read this book, then you got it taken away from you before you got done. You’d have monsters looking for you and you’d have no idea how to fight them. You’d be a sitting duck.
So, are we clear? No parents. No teachers. No crybabies.
If you’re still in, turn the page and I’ll tell you a story you’re not going to believe.
Although I was born to be a monster hunter, for most of my life I didn’t know any more about it than you do right now. I mean, I knew about monsters. Who doesn’t? There are monsters on TV, in the movies, books, comics, you name it.
What I didn’t know was that they are actually real and that dozens of them were secretly living in my small town waiting for me to turn fourteen…so they could kill me.
Yep, you heard me right. And not only kill me, but there were elaborate plans on how to do it in the most painful way possible. Fortunately, monsters tend not to be very creative, so I’m pretty sure that all their ideas where just different ways to eat me. But still, it’s the principle of the thing. I mean, what had I ever done to them?
The day before my birthday was when I got the answer to that question.
It started like any other day. I woke up in a panic, realizing that I hadn’t done my English homework. After this initial realization, I quickly moved from panic into guilt, then right into acceptance, and then finally back to sleep. (Don’t judge me. I know you do the same thing.)
And that’s the best sleep, too. Right during the time when you have to get up. I don’t know if it’s the same for you, but I dream a lot more during that sleep. And, on some days, I can control my dreams a little. I clearly remember my dream that morning. It was about Cindy Adams, the cutest girl in the whole school.
Come on! You can’t fake me out that you’re not into girls yet (or into guys if you’re a girl awesome enough to be reading this book). So I don’t want any “ewww…that’s gross” comments during the love story parts of this book. Don’t worry, there aren’t that many. And some of them are super cool.
Anyway, like I was saying, this dream was about Cindy Adams, the cutest girl in school. In real life, the real Cindy Adams wouldn’t give me the time of day. But in my dream, I walked right up to her, even though she was surrounded by a group of her girlfriends, and took her by the hand.
“Come on,” I said. “We’re hanging out together.”
She smiled and nodded her head. Her friends stared as she held my hand and walked away. More than just her friends, the whole school was watching. Cindy Adams was holding my hand like she’d been my girlfriend for years.
Once we were out of sight, I decided to try my luck. I stood in front of her, toe to toe, and leaned in for a kiss. She blushed, but didn’t slap me, start laughing, or run away screaming. (All possible scenarios in my mind.)
She was going for the kiss. Leaning in. Eyes closed. Lips parted…to reveal a row of jagged, pointed teeth in her mouth!
I tried to step back, but she had me by the arms, her fingers digging into my skin. When her eyes opened, they glowed red. She snarled at me, her teeth growing longer, sticking out of her mouth. She pulled me to her to bite my throat, when…
I sat up straight in bed, yelling at the top of my lungs.
My Aunt Sophie came running into my room.
“What is it?” she said.
I lowered my hands from my neck, realizing that it had just been a dream. I was glad that no-one was trying to rip my throat out, but I was a little disappointed that I’d only imagined the whole Cindy Adams thing.
“Uh, nothing,” I said. “Girl problems.”
Aunt Sophie smiled. “You’re turning fourteen tomorrow. That’s when the real trouble starts. Come on. Breakfast is ready.”
Aunt Sophie left and I dragged my lazy bones out of bed and into the bathroom. That’s when I noticed something strange. The kid in the mirror looked pretty much the same as yesterday, only…bigger.
I was the same height, but somehow overnight my muscles had grown larger. Not massive. I wasn’t suddenly going to be mistaken for a bodybuilder as I walked down the street, but something had definitely changed. It’s not that I looked like a wuss before, but there was nothing going on with my physique to brag about. But this morning? Whoa. I was looking good. I flexed for myself in the mirror, marveling at how my biceps formed into a big lump on my arm.
“That is so cool,” I said to myself in the mirror.
Forgetting breakfast (not to mention my English homework), I pulled on my clothes and ran down to our basement where we had a weight bench. Aunt Sophie had gotten it for my last birthday, telling me that if there was ever a year when I wanted to work out and get stronger, this was it.
I had used it a little, but mostly it was just another place where we stored our basement junk.
I grabbed two forty-five pound plates and slid one on each side of the bar.
I eyed the bench press with those big weights on each side. The bar was another forty-five, making it one hundred and thirty-five pounds. No way. The most I had ever done before today was just the bar and twenty-five pounders, and that almost did me in after lifting it once.
Even though I was feeling strong, weirdly strong, I decided that I was being too optimistic. So I slid the forty-five pound plates off, replaced them with twenty-five pounders and lay down on the bench.
With a deep breath, I heaved the bar up, balancing it over my chest with locked arms. Slowly, I lowered it, half-expecting it to drop like a rock and crush me. But it didn’t. I rested it on my chest for a second and then tried to push it back up. My arms shot up like there was no weight at all.
I smiled, and banged out five reps right in a row. No sweat.
I racked the weight and sat up, looking at my arms in wonder.
You know what I did next, right? I grabbed the forty-five pounders and put them back on. I lay on the bench, looking from side to side at the giant weights, having second thoughts. Then I decided to go for it.
I grabbed the bar, lifted it off the rack and, straining more than last time, I lowered it to my chest then raised it back up. Ten times.
“What are you doing down there?” Aunt Sophie shouted from upstairs.
“Coming!” I yelled as I racked the weight.
I felt my chest muscles, not sure what was happening to me. But liking it. Whatever was going on, I wasn’t asking many questions. I decided to just go with it. Maybe this was what turning fourteen felt like.
“Jack Smith!” Aunt Sophie yelled.
I decided I would worry about it later. I ran upstairs and dug into the huge breakfast of bacon, eggs and toast that my Aunt Sophie had fixed. She poured me some juice and combed my unruly hair back with her fingers. She sat at the table, sipping her coffee, looking just a little sad. Even though I was jazzed about what had just happened, I was concerned.
“Anything wrong, Aunt Sophie?” I asked.
She shook herself out of her thoughts and smiled at me. “No, nothing wrong. Tell you what. Tonight’s your last meal before turning fourteen. You can have anything you want. What’s your pleasure?”
“Anything?” I asked.
“Pepperoni and pineapple pizza from Papagallo’s and a giant bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream,” I said.
“Really? I mean, even if it was your last dinner ever, that’s what you’d choose?”
I thought about that melted cheese in my mouth, the tangy red sauce, spicy pepperoni paired up with the burst of sweetness from the hot pineapple. Just thinking about it right now is making me hungry.
“Yep, that sounds perfect to me,” I said. “Can I invite someone over?”
“I’d like it to be just the two of us tonight, is that OK?” Aunt Sophie said.
There was that sadness again. I stopped eating. “Are you sure you’re OK?” I asked.
She nodded, but tears welled up in her eyes. She grabbed a dish and took it into the kitchen. Sometimes, when she looked like that, I wondered if she was thinking about my dad. I always had to remind myself that when I lost my father, she also lost her little brother.
My dad had been a soldier, some kind of special branch of the Army or something. One day, according to Aunt Sophie, because I was too young to remember, some of his buddies knocked on our door with the news that my dad had been killed. It was some big Army secret how he had died. Aunt Sophie said she didn’t know. But in the back of my mind, I wondered if she really did know and she was just keeping it from me.
I obsessed over my dad while I was growing up, always thinking of new ways that I could solve the mystery of his death. No matter how often Aunt Sophie asked me to leave it alone, I swore that when I got older, I would do everything I could to uncover the truth.
Don’t get me wrong; I missed having a mom too. She died when I was born and all I have left of her is one photo taken from a distance. But I think having Aunt Sophie basically as my mother made it a lot easier. And she’s awesome. She’s into fishing, rough-housing, playing baseball. She even comes to all the father/son events at school where we beat the other teams at sports, showing up all the jock dads.
Still, even with Aunt Sophie, I grew up feeling the loneliness that only an orphan can feel. That aching sense that something that is supposed to be there, just isn’t. And worse, that it will never be. Into that empty hole, I put all my anger and my frustrations and I used it to focus me on the one thing I wanted more than anything else in life: to find out what really happened to my dad. It may not be true, in fact it’s probably not, but part of me wants to believe that when I figure it out, the hole will go away and the loneliness will be gone forever. I can only hope.
OK. Enough of that. I don’t want to make you think this story’s going to be all mopey. Let’s get on with it. I’ve got to tell you about the first monster I saw that day.
After gulping down enough food for three kids, I grabbed my book bag and ran out the door. The town of Sunnyvale was pretty rural. Our house was set back several hundred yards off the road and backed up to an old-growth forest. Trees lined our gravel driveway and our nearest neighbor was far enough away that you couldn’t see another house until you got out to the main road.
Once at the end of the driveway, it was less than a quarter mile to school, so I could easily walk to class. Most days, I ended up running because I was late. I glanced at my watch. There was no way I was going to make it on time. I tightened my book bag straps and sprinted up the gravel driveway.
Just like when I was lifting the weights, something felt different. My legs were like springs, pounding out long strides as I ran. I was easily going twice as fast as normal. I pushed a little harder and found that I had one more gear left and could go even faster.
I stopped when I reached the road, panting, but not tired. I looked behind me. A trail of dust hung in the air the length of the driveway, just like in a comic book when someone has gone super fast. I grinned. It was pretty cool.
I walked over to the first house on the street. It was empty and the lawn was overgrown with weeds, but it had a basketball hoop set up in the driveway. I slid my book bag off my shoulders and grabbed a ball half-covered in the tall grass.
I sized up the hoop. With a quick look around to make sure that no-one was watching, I bounced the ball a few times, then ran up to the hoop, jumped…and slam dunked it.
I’m not talking about barely getting over the rim and having the ball dribble in, either. I two-handed that bad boy into the hoop like I was an NBA all-star. The day before, I had only been able to get a handful of net with my best jump.
That was the first time I felt a little bit scared. Whatever was happening to me was happening in a big way. And it clearly wasn’t normal. But, honestly, I didn’t feel that scared. Mostly, I just felt totally awesome about it.
Even from a block away, I heard the first bell ring at my school. I grabbed my backpack and ran up the street, unaware that I was about to meet my first monster.
At first, the monster appeared to be just a normal man walking toward me. I didn’t recognize him, but like I said earlier, Sunnyvale was a nice, quiet town, so there was no reason for me to be suspicious. I was just running by him, enjoying my newfound speed, when this guy stuck his foot out and tripped me.
I tumbled headfirst toward the cement. I was going down hard and I knew that hitting that sidewalk was going to hurt. Bad.
But then the weirdest thing happened. Without thinking, I twisted my body in midair, reached out and found the ground with my hands, spring-boarded off the cement and landed back on my feet, staring at the stranger who had tripped me.
I mean, it was like I had turned into an Olympic gymnast or something.
The stranger looked at me curiously, only mildly impressed by my tumbling skills. I wanted to demand why he had tripped me, but one good look at him and I somehow knew better than to say anything. I felt a chill pass through my body and my skin dimpled over in goose-bumps. I felt a little dizzy and I had to fight down a sudden impulse to turn and run. Whoever this guy was, every fiber in my body was telling me that he was bad news. I should have listened to my instinct and just gotten out of there, but I couldn’t stop myself from staring at him.
The stranger was pale white, with long, colorless, almost transparent hair down to his shoulders. His face was angular, with high cheekbones and a squared chin. I thought he might be an albino, because his eyes were a blue so pale that they seemed colorless. He wore an old-fashioned duster jacket that hung down to his knees and covered black trousers and heeled, leather boots. The outfit made him look like he had stepped out of a different time.
And then there were his hands. They were too long for his body and each finger was capped with a long black fingernail. He raised one of his weird hands in my direction and pointed one of those long black fingernails at me.
“Good,” the stranger hissed, “your change has begun. It will make things more fun when we find you tomorrow.”
Then the stranger smiled and that’s when I saw them. Long, pointed canine teeth, just like the vampires have in the movies. I couldn’t believe it, but not for the reason you’re thinking. At this point, I had no reason to believe that I was looking at a real-life vampire, so I assumed the teeth were fakes…and that the guy was a total freak. It’s one thing to see people walking around town as vampires on Halloween. But when they did that in the month of September, it was just plain creepy. No wonder I had goose-bumps.
I decided that I had seen enough of Mr. Weirdo. I backed up slowly, then turned and got the heck out of there. I heard the man laugh softly as I ran away, but I didn’t stop to look back; I just ran as hard as I could to school and got myself to class.
The school day passed even slower than usual. I tried to focus but all I could think about were my new abilities. On top of that, Mr. Weirdo’s comment kept rumbling around in my head. The more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that somehow the stranger had known about what was happening to my body. Your change has begun. But how could he have known? What was my change? And if it had only just begun, what was going to happen next? Just how much was I going to change?
More importantly, since he got the part about my change right, I started to worry that there was truth to his other comment: It will make things more fun when we find you tomorrow. I had no idea what that meant, but it certainly didn’t sound good.
I decided to keep all this to myself until I could figure out what was really going on. It was pretty easy to keep it a secret for the first half of the day, but then lunchtime came around.
Usually, I sit with the same two guys at lunch. Will Akers and T-Rex Boyle. In the hierarchy of middle school popularity, I’d say my crew fell right in the middle. OK, maybe a little below the middle. We weren’t the super cool kids that everyone immediately identified as school royalty, but we weren’t part of the geek squad either.
Well, maybe T-Rex was, but we liked him anyway. He lived with his ancient grandma who insisted on making his clothes for him. Her eyesight wasn’t so good and her hands shook, so the outfits he wore sometimes looked like a berserk machine sewed them. T-Rex was chubby, almost to the point of being completely round. While that alone set him up to get picked on by some of the jerks in school, what really did him in was the way he picked his nose all the time.
It was a nervous habit for him, but he did it so much that we all wondered what he was looking for up there. Those two holes were mined so many times an hour that there just couldn’t be any nuggets left to dig out. Still, that didn’t stop him from doing it. One day, Will started calling him ‘T-Rex’. You know how a T-Rex has those itty-bitty arms? Will decided that if only he was a T-Rex, then he wouldn’t be able to reach his nose and all his problems would go away. When his grandma started calling him T-Rex too, we laughed about it for an entire afternoon and the name stuck.
T-Rex was still in line when Will and I headed off to our usual table in the corner of the lunchroom. I say usual, but Will was often in detention instead of the lunchroom. He was constantly in trouble because his mouth ran full-time and typically went twice the speed of his brain. You know how sometimes inappropriate things come into your head but a little voice stops you from blurting it out because you know it might be rude? Well, Will didn’t have that little voice. He just let it all out there.
My Aunt Sophie said Will had short-man’s disease, a diagnosis that had me worried when I first heard it. I thought she was talking about an actual illness eating away inside of him. But then I googled it and got a good laugh at it. All it meant was that short people sometimes over-compensated for their size by being really aggressive.
Will was one of the shortest, if not the shortest, kid in our grade. Heck, probably in the grade below us too. But in his mind, he was the tallest guy on campus. And he had big plans for himself. His goals knew no bounds. He didn’t want to make the football team; he wanted to be the MVP. He didn’t want to be a millionaire; he wanted to be a billionaire.
And, you know what? Listening to him talk about it, you believed him. Whatever Will lacked in height, he more than made up for in confidence. He was like a miniature pit bull, small but with a big bite.
But there was another side to Will that most people, not even the teachers, knew about. He lived at home with his dad since his mom had taken off a few years ago. And there was not a single good thing to say about Will’s dad. He mostly stayed to himself, locked up in their house as it slowly fell into disrepair, the weeds waist high in the front yard, the family car a rusting hulk in the driveway. The only way I knew Will’s dad was still around was that Will would show up for school with a fresh row of bruises up and down his arm.
That day was one of those days. Dark, nasty marks covered his upper arm and neck. I nodded to them and Will shrugged and pulled his sleeve down. “The old man’s still pretty quick when he’s angry,” he said.
“You should tell someone,” I said.
“Same old crap. I can handle it,” he said. “I just can’t wait to get out of here, you know? That’s all I want.”
“We’ll go together,” I said. “You pick the college.”
“College?” Will laughed. “Are you trying to be a good influence on me or something? Besides, of course I’m going to college. I’m just not sure you’ll be able to get into the ones I’ll get into.”
We shared a laugh. We both knew Will’s report cards seemed actually allergic to As and Bs. Oh, he was smart, maybe too smart for his own good. It was just that his intelligence wasn’t the kind that could be measured well with standardized tests. He was street smart though. And he was tough.
“Sometimes I wonder if I can wait that long, you know? Sometimes I just want to hitch a ride and just go. Anywhere but here. Anywhere at all.” Will poked at his food, lost to his thoughts. I knew that he could use a distraction.
“Want to hear something crazy?” I asked.
I described my morning of lifting weights, speed running, dunking basketballs, and meeting total weirdoes. When I was done, I waited as Will thought over everything I had told him.
“That was cool,” he said. “Can you tell me a story about a giant and a beanstalk next?”
“You don’t get it,” I said. “I’m not making this up. This all actually happened.”
“You’re so full of crap,” Will said.
“No, I’m telling you the truth,” I said. “It’s kind of freaking me out.”
“OK, let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’re not a huge liar.”
“That’s big of you,” I said.
“What you’re describing is basically the onset of superpowers as outlined in the origin stories of countless comic book heroes. Did you get bitten by a radioactive spider recently?” Will giggled. “Maybe injected with an experimental formula by a mad scientist?”
“I shouldn’t have even told you,” I said.
My eyes wandered, as they usually did at some point during lunch, to the table where the utterly gorgeous and most divine creature in the universe sat nibbling on her lunch. Cindy Adams. Ouch, just looking at her actually caused me pain. Something deep in my gut twisted over on itself every time I saw her.
I don’t know if it was that golden blonde hair, the sparkling green eyes, her perfect white teeth that flashed every time she smiled. Or maybe it was that, on top of being beautiful, she also had the best grades, played sports so well that the coaches for the boy’s teams were always trying to recruit her, and was an all-around cool chick.
To my horror, one of her friends caught me staring and nudged Cindy. She looked up before I had a chance to look away. Totally busted. Rookie move, staring like a stalker at the hottest girl in school. Nice.
But she just smiled and gave me a little wave. BAM, it was like ten thousand volts of electricity tore through my body. It felt so good, so utterly great, that I immediately thought I would be sick.
Just then, there was a crashing sound at the far end of the lunchroom followed by a roar of laughter. I looked up and groaned. Dirk Riggle, the biggest bully in the school, had set his sights on T-Rex.
Dirk looked like he had hit puberty right after learning to walk and started working out that same day. He wore super-tight shirts just to make sure we all remembered that he had enormous arms. And he beat one of us up every now and then so we remembered he wasn’t afraid to use them.
Normally, we were able to steer clear of Dirk and his evil band of bully henchmen, but without me there to protect him, somehow T-Rex had fallen into Dirk’s mean-spirited web.
By the time I noticed something was going on, Dirk had dumped an enormous tray of what looked like mac-n-cheese, jello and maybe some mashed potatoes down the front of T-Rex’s shirt. Even from where we were sitting, we could hear Dirk’s man-like voice.
“You’re supposed to eat your lunch, fatty, not wear it,” Dirk said, playing to the crowd who laughed nervously, thankful they weren’t in T-Rex’s shoes.
“Just walk away, T-Rex,” I whispered. “Just walk away.”
But T-Rex stood there, paralyzed with fear, gobs of food dripping off the front of his shirt onto the floor. And then it happened. The worst possible thing. His hand started to slowly move toward his nose. It was like he was fighting an internal battle to stop himself, a battle he was clearly losing.
“Oh, please,” I whispered. “Don’t do it, T-Rex.”
But he did. A pointer finger right up the left nostril, digging around like he was trying to scratch his brain.
The expression on Dirk’s face couldn’t have registered more delight. Not even if he had won a million dollars. A chance to completely demoralize another human being, in front of the entire school no less, was better than five Christmases for Dirk Riggle.
“Nose-picker! Look, everyone! Fatty’s picking his nose!” Dirk nearly screamed.
Now, most of the school, at one point or another, had seen T-Rex pick his nose. It was what T-Rex did. But the combination of the food on his shirt, the nervous energy about being one look away from being Dirk’s next victim, and just how blatant a nose pick T-Rex was performing, made the lunchroom explode into a chorus of laughter and jeers.
Poor T-Rex just stood there, finger lodged in his nose, looking helplessly around at dozens of kids pointing their fingers and laughing at him. Big tears sprang to his eyes and rolled down his cheeks. This took Dirk to a whole new level of ecstasy.
“Look at that, the fatty nose-picker’s crying. Are you crying, little baby? Bwaa-waa-waa,” Dirk said.
I’m no hero. I’m embarrassed to say that I had walked past Dirk and his goons picking on some poor kid dozens of times before and had done nothing. But seeing T-Rex crying, frozen in place so that the torture seemed like it would never end, was just too much for me to bear.
I climbed up on my chair and was about to yell something when I heard Will’s voice come from right next to my ear, “Shut up, you big bully! How about you pick on someone your own size?”
The lunchroom went completely silent. Every head in the room turned in our direction, including T-Rex, who was so shocked that he stopped crying. Everyone wanted to see had lost their mind and called Dirk out.
Dirk wanted to know the exact same thing. “Who’s the dead man that said that?” Dirk demanded.
“Over here, loser,” Will shouted back. “Leave him alone.”
I looked around nervously, hoping that a teacher would show up as the crowd parted and Dirk marched toward us, his little band of followers right behind him, literally licking their chops at the beat-down they were about to witness. I climbed down off my chair and stood next to Will. This wasn’t going to be pretty.
Dirk reached us and stopped inches from Will’s face, staring him down, eye-to-eye. Well, Dirk basically looked straight down because he towered over him. Dirk was so worked up that he was breathing hard like he had just run a race. His face was red and he looked like he really wanted to hit something. And that something was Will’s face.
“You’re even uglier up close,” Will said.
“OK, tough guy. Enjoy your time in the hospital,” Dirk barked.
Dirk let out a yell and swung one of his massive fists. Will ducked the first one, but the second landed with a thud right in his stomach. He folded over, the air knocked out of him.
I thought that would be it. But Dirk had other ideas. He stepped up to kick Will while he was down.
I grabbed two of the lunch trays off the table nearest to me, intending to use them as shields. Unfortunately, gobs of food flew off the trays and splattered all over Dirk.
The lunchroom fell into a hush. Dirk wiped the food from his face, now even redder than before.
“I was just going to hurt your little friend here,” Dirk said. “But I’m gonna kill you.”
He leapt at me and I brushed him aside using the trays in my hands. Dirk crashed into the chairs and fell to the ground in a tangle.
For the first time, the lunchroom cheered.
Dirk’s henchmen rushed to his aid and lifted him up. He pushed them away, snarling like an animal. He charged at me.
But he had learned his lesson and stopped in front of me this time, his hands up like a boxer. He swung a right hook; I bashed a lunch tray into the punch. He jabbed with his left. Again, a deflection with the trays.
Frustrated, he unloaded a barrage of punches and kicks. I parried each one with an effortless block with my lunch tray shields. I don’t know how I was doing it, but I was doing it.
Finally, Dirk took a step back to regroup, his knuckles bloody from pounding the tray.
“I bet you’re not so tough without the trays,” Dirk said.
That was when I knew I had truly lost my mind, because the second he said that, I threw the trays on the floor and said, “I’ll take that bet.”
Now, you should know that this was the first real fight I had ever been in. Sure, I had wrestled with friends and gotten into a few pushing fights during sports and stuff, but I had never once been in a real, true-blue fight before. And that wasn’t because I was such a tough guy that people ran away from me. To tell the truth, before that day in the lunchroom, I was usually the person doing the running.
But seeing T-Rex standing there, tears running down his face, being embarrassed in front of everyone along with seeing Will hurt, woke something in me that must have been there all along. I just didn’t know it was there until that moment.
Dirk swung at me and I raised my left arm and blocked it. Another punch and I brushed it off with my forearm. Then, almost like I was watching it happen in a movie, I saw my right fist shoot out and connect with Dirk’s nose.
Dirk staggered back, holding his face. Then blood gushed out from between his fingers. He lowered his hands and everyone could see it; his nose was bent crooked to the side. It wasn’t only broken, it was really broken.
“You broke my nose!” Dirk wailed.
I stepped up closer to him. “And if you ever pick on another kid at this school, I’ll do it again. Understand?”
For a second, it looked like Dirk might decide to keep fighting, but then he nodded, turned and walked out of the lunchroom. The other kids stood silently as he walked by, glaring at him. I don’t know what I was expecting, but when he finally cleared the cafeteria doors and left the room, the kids turned and stared at me.
They didn’t cheer. They didn’t thank me for coming to the aid of every past and future bullying victim of Dirk Riggle. They just stared. Even Cindy Adams, who I was secretly hoping would be particularly impressed with my heroics, stood with her friends, whispering quietly to them, looking at me nervously.
It was the first sense of what has now become part of my everyday life. People want help when they are in danger, but after the danger has passed, people fear you if you’re different. It doesn’t matter if you’ve just rescued them from a bully or just saved their lives by skewering a werewolf with a sword right in front of them. Fear beats appreciation. Every time.
As if on cue, two teachers walked in from the side door of the cafeteria, one of them laughing at something the other had just said. The kids, breathing a collective sigh of relief, returned to their tables and went back to eating. I looked behind me and Will was there, looking upset.
“I could have handled it myself,” he said. “I didn’t need you to jump in.”
“I was just giving you a chance to get your wind back and I got a little carried away,” I said. “I know you could have taken him.”
Will nodded but looked at me weirdly. “All that stuff you were talking about this morning was for real, wasn’t it?” he said.
So, even Will, who I had gone to pre-school with, was keeping his distance from me, looking me over like I was some kind of freak.
I shrugged. “Nah, I’ve just been watching some old kung-fu movies. You should check ‘em out.”
I walked away, leaving him scratching his head. Honestly, I was a little mad at his reaction. The other kids didn’t bother me so much, but when your best friend looks at you like you’ve got cooties, it bums you out.
The one person in the room who I figured wouldn’t treat me like I was some kind of leper was T-Rex. I walked up to him while he was dabbing the food off his t-shirt.
“You OK?” I asked.
T-Rex spun around like I had just poked him with a sharp stick in the butt. He stepped behind a chair. A small gesture but one that told me a lot. He was just as freaked out as the others.
“OK, well, I guess I’ll talk to you guys later then,” I said, turning my back. Man, I had fantasized about standing up to a bully before. I’d even thought about doing it in the lunchroom in front of the whole school. What wasn’t in my fantasy was how miserable and alone even my best friends were making me feel. Maybe the hero business wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. And that was a total bummer.
“Wait, Jack,” T-Rex said.
I turned and his face was bright red. Tears welled up in his eyes. He pushed the chair out of the way, took three quick steps to me and locked me up in a bear hug. I could feel the cold dampness of the food on his chest soaking into my shirt, but I didn’t care. A hug couldn’t have felt better than the one I got that day from T-Rex. (Well, maybe a hug from Cindy Adams could have been better. I’m just saying.)
The bell rang and the other kids stood up and filed out. But Will and T-Rex circled around me, patting me on the back and talking a mile a minute. I smiled, going from feeling totally alone to getting my crew back.
“You guys,” Will said, “we should hang out tonight and celebrate.”
“I can’t,” T-Rex said. “ My grandma hasn’t been doing so well. She’s been forgetting things a lot.”
“Maybe she’ll forget you’re supposed to do your homework and let you come out,” Will suggested.
T-Rex looked upset. I nudged Will to get him to take it easy. “Why don’t you guys come over to my house? We’re having Papagallo pizza and ice cream.”
I remembered that Aunt Sophie wanted to have a special dinner with just the two of us that night. But she was easy going and I knew that she liked both Will and T-Rex.
“That’s closer to my house. I guess I could leave her alone for a little while,” T-Rex said.
“How about you?” I asked Will.
“Are you kidding? My dad won’t even notice I’m gone,” Will said.
“Awesome. Party at my place then.”
Will and T-Rex both high-fived me then we grabbed our books and headed to class.
Even now, thinking back to that day, it’s hard to believe that one of us was going to be dead in less than twenty-four hours.