Now a seventh grader, Jason finds out the hard way just how different things are where ninth graders are the kings.
Release date: April 1, 2000
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Print pages: 235
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Space Station Seventh Grade
Maniac Magee was not born in a dump. He was born in a house, a pretty ordinary house, right across the river from here, in Bridgeport. And he had regular parents, a mother and a father.
But not for long.
One day his parents left him with a sitter and took the P & W high-speed trolley into the city. On the way back home, they were on board when the P & W had its famous crash, when the motorman was drunk and took the high trestle over the Schuylkill River at sixty miles an hour, and the whole kaboodle took a swan dive into the water.
And just like that, Maniac was an orphan. He was three years old.
Of course, to be accurate, he wasn’t really Maniac then. He was Jeffrey. Jeffrey Lionel Magee.
Little Jeffrey was shipped off to his nearest relatives, Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan. They lived in Hollidaysburg, in the western part of Pennsylvania.
Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan hated each other, but because they were strict Catholics, they wouldn’t get a divorce. Around the time Jeffrey arrived, they stopped talking to each other. Then they stopped sharing.
Pretty soon there were two of everything in the house. Two bathrooms. Two TVs. Two refrigerators. Two toasters. If it were possible, they would have had two Jeffreys. As it was, they split him up as best they could. For instance, he would eat dinner with Aunt Dot on Monday, with Uncle Dan on Tuesday, and so on.
Eight years of that.
Then came the night of the spring musicale at Jeffrey’s school. He was in the chorus. There was only one show, and one auditorium, so Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan were forced to share at least that much. Aunt Dot sat on one side, Uncle Dan on the other.
Jeffrey probably started screaming from the start of the song, which was “Talk to the Animals,” but nobody knew it because he was drowned out by all the other voices. Then the music ended, and Jeffrey went right on screaming, his face bright red by now, his neck bulging. The music director faced the singers, frozen with his arms still raised. In the audience faces began to change. There was a quick smatter of giggling by some people who figured the screaming kid was some part of the show, some funny animal maybe. Then the giggling stopped, and eyes started to shift and heads started to turn, because now everybody could see that this wasn’t part of the show at all, that little Jeffrey Magee wasn’t supposed to be up there on the risers, pointing to his aunt and uncle, bellowing out from the midst of the chorus: “Talk! Talk, will ya! Talk! Talk! Talk!”
No one knew it then, but it was the birth scream of a legend.
And that’s when the running started. Three springy steps down from the risers—girls in pastel dresses screaming, the music director lunging—a leap from the stage, out the side door and into the starry, sweet, onion-grass-smelling night.
Never again to return to the house of two toasters. Never again to return to school.
As for the first person to actually stop and talk with Maniac, that would be Amanda Beale. And it happened because of a mistake.
It was around eight in the morning, and Amanda was heading for grade school, like hundreds of other kids all over town. What made Amanda different was that she was carrying a suitcase, and that’s what caught Maniac’s eye. He figured she was like him, running away, so he stopped and said, “Hi.”
Amanda was suspicious. Who was this white stranger kid? And what was he doing in the East End, where almost all the kids were black? And why was he saying that?
But Amanda Beale was also friendly. So she stopped and said “Hi” back.
“Are you running away?” Jeffrey asked her.
“Huh?” said Amanda.
Jeffrey pointed at the suitcase.
Amanda frowned, then thought, then laughed. She laughed so hard she began to lose her balance, so she set the suitcase down and sat on it so she could laugh more safely. When at last she could speak, she said, “I’m not running away. I’m going to school.”
She saw the puzzlement on his face. She got off the suitcase and opened it up right there on the sidewalk.
Jeffrey gasped. “Books!”
Books, all right. Both sides of the suitcase crammed with them. Dozens more than anyone would ever need for homework.
Jeffrey fell to his knees. He and Amanda and the suitcase were like a rock in a stream; the school-goers just flowed to the left and right around them. He turned his head this way and that to read the titles. He lifted the books on top to see the ones beneath. There were fiction books and nonfiction books, who-did-it books and let’s-be-friends books and what-is-it books and how-to books and how-not-to books and just-regular-kid books. On the bottom was a single volume from an encyclopedia. It was the letter A.
“My library,” Amanda Beale said proudly.
Somebody called, “Gonna be late for school, girl!”
Amanda looked up. The street was almost deserted. She slammed the suitcase shut and started hauling it along. Jeffrey took the suitcase from her. “I’ll carry it for you.”
Amanda’s eyes shot wide. She hesitated; then she snatched it back. “Who are you?” she said.
“Where are you from? West End?”
She stared at him, at the flap-soled sneakers. Back in those days the town was pretty much divided. The East End was blacks, the West End was whites. “I know you’re not from the East End.”
“I’m from Bridgeport.”
“Bridgeport? Over there? That Bridgeport?”
“Well, why aren’t you there?”
“It’s where I’m from, not where I am.”
“Great. So where do you live?”
Jeffrey looked around. “I don’t know… maybe… here?”
“Maybe?” Amanda shook her head and chuckled. “Maybe you better go ask your mother and father if you live here or not.”
She speeded up. Jeffrey dropped back for a second, then caught up with her. “Why are you taking all these books to school?”
Amanda told him. She told him about her little brother and sister at home, who loved to crayon every piece of paper they could find, whether or not it already had type all over it. And about the dog, Bow Wow, who chewed everything he could get his teeth on. And that, she said, was why she carried her whole library to and from school every day.
First bell was ringing; the school was still a block away. Amanda ran. Jeffrey ran.
“Can I have a book?” he said.
“They’re mine,” she said.
“Just to read. To borrow.”
“Please. What’s your name?”
“Please, Amanda. Any one. Your shortest one.”
“I’m late now and I’m not gonna stop and open up this thing again. Forget it.”
He stopped. “Amanda!”
She kept running, then stopped, turned, glared. What kind of kid was this, anyway? All grungy. Ripped shirt. Why didn’t he go back to Bridgeport or the West End, where he belonged? Bother some white girl up there? And why was she still standing here?
“So what if I loaned you one, huh? How am I gonna get it back?”
“I’ll bring it back. Honest! If it’s the last thing I do. What’s your address?”
“Seven twenty-eight Sycamore. But you can’t come there. You can’t even be here.”
Second bell rang. Amanda screamed, whirled, ran.
She stopped, turned. “Ohhhh,” she squeaked. She tore a book from the suitcase, hurled it at him—“Here!”—and dashed into school.
The book came flapping like a wounded duck and fell at Jeffrey’s feet. It was a story of the Children’s Crusade. Jeffrey picked it up, and Amanda Beale was late to school for the only time in her life.
Later on that first day, there was a commotion in the West End. At 803 Oriole Street, to be exact. At the backyard of 803 Oriole, to be exacter.
This, of course, was the infamous address of Finsterwald. Kids stayed away from Finsterwald’s the way old people stay away from Saturday afternoon matinees at a two-dollar movie. And what would happen to a kid who didn’t stay away? That was a question best left unanswered. Suffice it to say that occasionally, even today, if some poor, raggedy, nicotine-stained wretch is seen shuffling through town, word will spread that this once was a bright, happy, normal child who had the misfortune of blundering onto Finsterwald’s property.
That’s why, if you valued your life, you never chased a ball into Finsterwald’s backyard. Finsterwald’s backyard was a graveyard of tennis balls and baseballs and footballs and Frisbees and model airplanes and oneway boomerangs.
That’s why his front steps were the only un-sat-on front steps in town.
And why no paperkid would ever deliver there.
And why no kid on a snow day would ever shovel that sidewalk, not for a zillion dollars.
So, it was late afternoon, and screams were coming from Finsterwald’s.
Who? What? Why?
The screamer was a boy whose name is lost to us, for after this day he disappears from the pages of history. We believe he was about ten years old. Let’s call him Arnold Jones.
Arnold Jones was being hoisted in the air above Finsterwald’s backyard fence. The hoisters were three or four high school kids. This was one of the things they did for fun. Arnold Jones had apparently forgotten one of the cardinal rules of survival in the West End: Never let yourself be near Finsterwald’s and high school kids at the same time.
So, there’s Arnold Jones, held up by all these hands, flopping and kicking and shrieking like some poor Aztec human sacrifice about to be tossed off a pyramid. “No! No! Please!” he pleads. “Pleeeeeeeeeeeeese!”
So of course, they do it. The high-schoolers dump him into the yard. And now they back off, no longer laughing, just watching, watching the back door of the house, the windows, the dark green shades.
As for Arnold Jones, he clams up the instant he hits the ground. He’s on his knees now, all hunched and puckered. His eyes goggle at the back door, at the door knob. He’s paralyzed, a mouse in front of the yawning maw of a python.
Now, after a minute or two of breathless silence, one of the high-schoolers thinks he hears something. He whispers: “Listen.” Another one hears it. A faint, tiny noise. A rattling. A chittering. A chattering. And getting louder—yes—chattering teeth. Arnold Jones’s teeth. They’re chattering like snare drums. And now, as if his mouth isn’t big enough to hold the chatter, the rest of his body joins in. First it’s a buzz-like trembling, then the shakes, and finally it’s as if every bone inside him is clamoring to get out. A high-schooler squawks: “He’s got the finsterwallies!”*
“Yeah! Yeah!” they yell, and they stand there cheering and clapping.
Years later, the high-schoolers’ accounts differ. One says the kid from nowhere hopped the fence, hopped it without ever laying a hand on it to boost himself over. Another says the kid just opened the back gate and strolled on in. Another swears it was a mirage, some sort of hallucination, possibly caused by evil emanations surrounding 803 Oriole Street.
Real or not, they all saw the same kid: not much bigger than Arnold Jones, raggedy, flap-soled sneakers, book in one hand. They saw him walk right up to Arnold, and they saw Arnold look up at him and faint dead away. Such a bad case of the finsterwallies did Arnold have that his body kept shaking for half a minute after he conked out.
The phantom Samaritan stuck the book between his teeth, crouched down, hoisted Arnold Jones’s limp carcass over his shoulder, and hauled him out of there like a sack of flour. Unfortunately, he chose to put Arnold down at the one spot in town as bad as Finsterwald’s backyard—namely, Finsterwald’s front steps. When Arnold came to and discovered this, he took off like a horsefly from a swatter.
As the stupefied high-schoolers were leaving the scene, they looked back. They saw the kid, cool times ten, stretch out on the forbidden steps and open his book to read.
About an hour later Mrs. Valerie Pickwell twanged open her back screen door, stood on the step, and whistled.
As whistles go, Mrs. Pickwell’s was one of the all-time greats. It reeled in every Pickwell kid for dinner every night. Never was a Pickwell kid ever late for dinner. It’s a record that will probably stand forever. The whistle wasn’t loud. It wasn’t screechy. It was a simple two-note job—one high note, one low. To an outsider, it wouldn’t sound all that special. But to the ears of a Pickwell kid, it was magic. Somehow it had the ability to slip through the slush of five o’clock noises to reach its targets.
So, from the dump, from the creek, from the tracks, from Red Hill—in ran the Pickwell kids for dinner, all ten of them. Add to that the parents, baby Didi, Grandmother and Grandfather Pickwell, Great-grandfather Pickwell, and a down-and-out taxi driver whom Mr. Pickwell was helping out (the Pickwells were always helping out somebody)—all that, and you had what Mrs. Pickwell called her “small nation.”
Only a Ping-Pong table was big enough to seat them all, and that’s what they ate around. Dinner was spaghetti. In fact, every third night dinner was spaghetti.
When dinner was over and they were all bringing their dirty dishes to the kitchen, Dominic Pickwell said to Duke Pickwell, “Who’s that kid?”
“What kid?” said Duke.
“The kid next to you at the table.”
“I don’t know. I thought Donald knew him.”
“I don’t know him,” said Donald. “I thought Dion knew him.”
“Never saw him,” said Dion. “I figured he was Deirdre’s new boyfriend.”
Deirdre kicked Dion in the shins. Duke checked back in the dining room. “He’s gone!”
The Pickwell kids dashed out the back door to the top of Rako Hill. They scanned the railroad tracks. There he was, passing Red Hill, a book in his hand. He was running, passing the spear field now, and the Pickwell kids had to blink and squint and shade their eyes to make sure they were seeing right—because the kid wasn’t running the cinders alongside the tracks, or the wooden ties. No, he was running—running—where the Pickwells themselves, where every other kid, had only ever walked—on the steel rail itself!
ONE BY ONE MY STEPFATHER TOOK THE CHICKEN BONES OUT OF the bag and laid them on the kitchen table. He laid them down real neat. In a row. Five of them. Two leg bones, two wing bones, one thigh bone.
And bones is all they were. There wasn’t a speck of meat on them.
Was this really happening? Did my stepfather really drag me out of bed at seven o’clock in the morning on my summer vacation so I could stand in the kitchen in my underpants and stare down at a row of chicken bones?
“Look familiar?” I heard him say.
“Huh?” I said. I wasn’t even sure he was talking to me. I wanted to go back to sleep.
He said it again. “Look familiar?”
He swept his hand over the bones. “These?”
“What about them?”
“Ever see them before?”
“These bones!” he sort of yelled.
He picked up a leg bone and drummed it in front of my eyes. “I know you did it, Jason.”
He stuck the bone under my nose. I could smell it. “Jason. I know you did it.”
I called out, “Mom. I’m tired.”
My mother sang in from the dining room, “Don’t call me-ee—” like I was some stranger.
My stepfather said, “Know how I know it was you, Jason?”
“Me what?” I said.
“You who ate the chicken. My chicken. For my lunch.”
“I’ll tell you then.” He counted on his fingers. “One: because it wasn’t Mary. She hates chicken.” (Mary is my cootyhead sister.) “Two: it wasn’t Timmy. He doesn’t steal. Yet, anyway.” (Timmy is my little brother. He does too steal. My dinosaurs.) “And three and four: it wasn’t your mother, and it sure as heck wasn’t yours truly.”
“Who’s that?” I yawned.
He yelled again. “ME!”
“Hon-ey!” My mother’s voice came floating in all sing-songy. “Neigh-bors.”
Was this really happening?
He toned it down again. He pulled the bone away from my nose. He stared at it. He smiled at it. He kissed it. “I would have loved you,” he whispered.
I wasn’t surprised that my stepfather talked to a bone. Not only is he a teacher at the community college, but he also does amateur acting. So you never know when he’s serious. His name is just right: Ham. It’s short for Hamilton, and it describes the way he acts pretty good too.
He went on whispering to the bone: “I would have taken you to lunch today. It would have been beautiful. Delicious. But Jason—ah—Jason did not want us to be together. He did not want me taking you away from home. He wants me to get a fast pickup at the cafeteria, not to mention a nice case of heartburn.”
“Can I go back to bed?” I said.
He didn’t seem to hear me. He said, “Am I that mean to you?” Silence. “Jason?”
“What?” I said.
“Answer my question, please?”
“I thought you were talking to the bone.”
“What was the question?”
“Am I that mean to you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Am I a cruel stepfather?” I waited, on purpose. “Well?”
“Nah,” I said. “Not really.”
“Okay, so”—he put the bone down, put his hands on my shoulders—“what do you think’s going to happen if you tell the truth?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Think about it. Seriously.” He was being the teacher now. “I’d like to know what’s inside your head. Do you think I would string you up against the rafters in the cellar?” I tried to twist away but my shoulders wouldn’t move. “Come on, seriously. Is that what you think?”
“Nah, I guess not.”
“You guess not?”
“Nah. Just kiddin’.”
“Well then, do you think I’m going to beat you?”
“I guess not. Nah.”
“Okay. So far so good. Do you think I would—uh—throw boiling water in your face?”
“Put your head in the washing machine and turn it on?”
“Nah.” I laughed.
“Run you over with the car? Chop your arms off? Force your mouth open and dump a thousand Brussels sprouts down your throat? Make you kiss Mary? Is that what you think?”
“I thought we were supposed to be serious,” I said.
“Right. Okay—okay—now. Serious again. Just what is it you are afraid might happen if you tell me the truth? Exactly what?”
I shrugged. “Nothin’. I guess.”
“Aha!” He clapped his hands. “That’s right! You are absolutely right. Nothing at all is going to happen to you. Not a thing.” He put the bones back into the bag. “Okay, look: we won’t even talk about these anymore. Just don’t do it again, okay?”
I shrugged and started to walk away. “Okay,” I yawned, “but I didn’t do it.”
All of a sudden the top of me stopped. Then the rest of me. He was palming my head. I was stuck there facing my mother in the dining room. She was misting a fern.
Finally the hand went away. I heard the refrigerator door open. I felt the cold. I wished I had more than underpants on. I heard a strange sound. Sort of like an animal or something. Croaky. It was his voice. It turned into words.
“… I hid it. See? There. I hid it right there… good as I could. I figured, I said to myself, ‘Put the chicken in the bag and hide it there… in the crisper… under the cucumbers… and nobody will find it. Nobody. Nobody looks under the cucumbers. Nah. Who would look there? And then, then when you come down in the morning, there it’ll be: your lunch.’ But I came down”—his voice was whispery amazed—“and they were gone. I took out the cucumbers—”
I heard something plop onto the kitchen floor, I didn’t have to look; I just knew it was a cucumber. Then the others came plopping, one by one. My mother was poking her head into the fern, misting like mad. I could tell she was cracking up.
“—sure enough: gone. And then I saw the bones.” The refrigerator door closed. “Somebody… had eaten my chicken. But nobody did it. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?” He laughed. I pulled in my toes. “A contradiction in terms. A logical impossibility. How can something be eaten and there not be an eater? To be consumed without a consumer. Impossible, you say. Aha—but no! It has happened here. Right here in this kitchen. Sometime during th. . .
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