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"FRIENDSHIP IS FORGED" HERE
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His first full length novel!
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A SPECIAL SNEAK PEEK INTO THE "CHAMPION OF DREAMS"
A young girl on a journey to save the world!
And avoid eating casseroles.
Ashley's eyes popped open as she tossed aside sleep like the blankets now crumpled on the floor. Cupping her hands, she raised them to her mouth and blew. The foul odor made her toes curl.
“Poisoned!” Her hand shot to her forehead as she collapsed into the pillows. “It's a tragedy,” she continued to moan, “to die at such tender age, to have never built my dream tree house or had a mohawk. Who could have done this to me?”
Ashley whipped her head around and glared at a teddy bear dressed in a dark suit. “This was your work, wasn't it, Count?” The Count's full name was 'Count Malodor Please Let Me Throw Him Away the Third', named by her father due to the fact that he continually reeked after having milk spilt on him.
“These teeth were brushed clean right before bed.” Ashley wrinkled her nose, “Now, they smell like sour old baloney covered in mayonnaise and left in the sun for a week. What did you do to me?”
The Count said nothing.
Ashley smacked a petite fist into the bed. This made her mess of curly, brown hair fall over her eyes. She gazed through the strands at the cold, unmoving eyes of the stuffed scoundrel. “What, no gloating? No snappy monologue on how you've finally destroyed me? I tell you this, Count, you haven't won yet.”
She chewed her bottom lip, not taking her eyes off the posh little villain. “So, if stinking breath is the side effect of this poison of yours... then maybe mouthwash is the antidote.”
She jumped out of bed and charged into battle. “To the bathroom!”
With fist-pumping dance moves, Ashley scrubbed her teeth and spit mouthwash impersonating a gingivitis-fighting fountain. She nearly screamed as she bounced into the kitchen, “Fear not, mother, I conquered the poison.” After four leaps, she launched herself onto a chair, claimed the largest spoon at hand, and started wolfing down a bowl of cereal.
“The poison?” her mother asked, handing her a glass of orange juice. With practiced ease she untied her spotless apron, folded it neatly into a perfect square and placed it back in the drawer.
“That's right!” Ashley mumbled through a mouth brimming with breakfast. “One more fiendish plot of the Count's destroyed.” Ashley raised her glass of OJ in a toast and chugged half of it.
“The Count...when will you let me get rid of him?”
“When I discover from whence he came!” Ashley nearly screamed, spraying bits of cereal across the table. “I'd rather battle the villain I know, than leave myself open to a new fuzzy foe.”
Ashley looked up at her mother with steady eyes. “We need to investigate the Build-a-Bear Workshop. I have a lead.”
Her mother giggled. “If you behave and can be good at school, I'll think about it.” She snapped a clean cloth out and wiped the cereal bits off the table. “And, you can start by chewing slower. Mouth closed, too, young lady. You're as bad as your father.” She shook her head. “No one's going to steal your breakfast.”
“Maybe they are. That could be Count Malodor's next plan, cereal theft.” Ashley laughed through a mouth now filled with shredded wheat. “Cereal killers have to start somewhere.”
Her mother chuckled. Across the table she noticed Ashley’s half empty glass of OJ and the two pale pills resting next to it on a napkin. “Sweetheart, you know you need to take those with food.”
“Sorry.” Ashley forced down a large gulp of cereal. “I just didn’t want to spoil the first few spoonfuls. I’ll try not to forget again.”
Ashley shoveled in the last bite of cereal and jumped from her chair.
“Ashley...” her mother stretched the two syllable word into an entire speech of motherly threats. “You still forgot to take your pills.”
Ashley stared at the two tablets. They were pale mouse droppings; a sign of a complete infestation of worries nibbling away at the home's foundation. With a flick of her wrist, and a small frown, Ashley snatched them up. Into her mouth they went with the last of the juice swallowed in exaggerated gulps.
“Those are for your own good. We want you to be able to pay attention in class and not have another episode like yesterday.” She walked over with a comb and carefully attempted to untangle Ashley's thick, curly hair. Her own hair was just as curly, yet to Ashley's amazement she somehow managed to keep it under control.
“Dang it!” The curse rang out from the hallway. “Where are they?”
Her mother sighed. “Go get your jacket, sweetie. I'll see what your father lost today.”
“Morning, Dad.” Ashley hurried down the hallway, then up to the closest at the top of the stairs.
“Morning, darling,” Richard mumbled as he flung his untucked shirt aside to once again check his pants pockets. With a savage tug, he turned them inside out, as if punishing the pockets for not holding his keys.
“This makes no sense.” He ran a hand through his short, dark beard as his other hand searched the hooks on the wall, the only other place the keys should have been. The hooks clung to the wall but did not support his keys.
“Of course, that would be too easy,” he grumbled, slidding his glasses back up his nose while bending his lanky body over to rip through the junk drawer. He flung aside a bundle of pens and called out, “Martha, where are my keys?”
Ashley's mom forced a smile, straightened her crisp floral blouse, and called out from the kitchen, “Just use the spare.”
“I can't.” Richard shoved the drawer back into the small table. “I lost it. Last week. Now I can't even find the spare I made of the spare.”
Ashley giggled from the landing. She could see the local locksmith tirelessly making mounds of the same key for her father who lost them as quickly as he handed them over. At least he'd be impossible to lose. She could just follow the trail of keys.
Martha took a deep breath, wiped off the counter, and walked over with his travel mug. “Richard, honey, stop for a second, you've got to calm down.”
“Calm down? If I’m late for work again…” His words trailed off. Ashley knew he was imagining his irritated boss waiting for him, a memo in hand, and clicking his pen in frustrated repetition. Click, grumble, Click, grumble….Her dad loved to imitate his boss around the dinner table. Richard shook his head and snatched his tan jacket from the wall tearing through each pocket.
Martha softly took the coat and held his hand. Her touch was gentle but firm. “Did you ask Ashley?”
“It wasn’t me,” Ashley chimed in. She leaped down the steps two at a time with a light red jacket in her hands. Her pants were rolled up, freeing her skinny tanned legs to kick out. This also displayed knees that were skinned so frequently they seemed to have scabs tattooed on their boney surface. To her it was a mark of pride, a sign of adventure. In the entire sixth grade she knew no other girls with scabby knees, besides the ones who nicked their legs when trying to shave for the first time.
“Check your shoes, Dad.” Ashley offered as she jumped down the final three steps, her curly brown hair trailing behind her as if it were a parachute slowing her decent.
“That’s ridiculous.” Richard peered into his shoes. The loafers were shined, though slightly scuffed, and sitting in the left shoe was his keys. His brow furrowed, “Why’d you put them there?”
“Didn’t.” Ashley skipped over to the table and grabbed a pair of gloves. “I saw them while I was coming down the steps.”
“They must've fallen off the hook and landed there.” Martha scooped them up. She re-tucked in her husband's shirt and had him bend over so she could straighten his tie. Whenever he was frustrated, it seemed to flop about as if it were trying to escape. Finally, she handed him an omelet wrapped in tinfoil and a napkin.
As he rushed out the door, he gave his wife a kiss and called out, “Bye, Ash, try to be good at school today.”
“Bye.” Ashley waved, hoping her smile would keep her from having to vocally consent to good behavior for the day.
“That's right.” Martha zipped up Ashley’s jacket. “I don’t want to get any more phone calls.”
“Aww mom, for the millionth time it wasn’t my fault,” Ashley protested. “Valerie-”
“Should have gone to the principal!” Martha yanked the zipper up the final four inches and handed Ashley her lunch. She walked her to the door and continued, “I’m glad you stood up for your friend, but that’s not how a civilized lady should act. Speaking of which, would you please unroll those pants?”
Martha sighed, bent down, and unrolled each pant leg. Ashley hated the jeans. They were stiff, far too tight, and made it hard for her to do more than ‘Walk like a lady”, meaning no skipping or jumping.
But Ashley couldn’t complain. Not after being let off the hook for what happened yesterday.
With her pants unrolled, Ashley kissed her mom and jumped out the door. Her best friend Valerie was waiting for her at the side walk, nervously shuffling her feet. Despite looking anxious, Valerie wore a giant grin plastered between chubby cheeks. This made Ashley relax. She must not have gotten in too much trouble, either.
Ashley carefully walked down the steps. Martha's eyes blazed upon her back with the intensity of a sniper’s laser scope. Now was not the time for skipping. She waved bye to a worried, but smiling mother and hurried off with Valerie.
“Excellent, your mother was smiling. That is a fantastic sign. So you didn't get in too much trouble?” Valerie's spoke so fast Ashley wondered if they should walk quicker to keep up with her voice.
“Nah, nothing too bad.” Ashley shrugged as they turned the corner and got safely out of sight. She reached into her pocket and pulled out the gooey, bitter remains of her pills. There was no way she was swallowing them. They made her turn into a tree stump, as if the best part of herself was cut away and she was left lifeless and unmoving. She hated them, even if they would help her 'fit in with the other kids'.
“Here you go.” Valerie tossed over a water bottle to wash off the acidic sludge.
“Thanks.” Ashley smiled at her best friend. It was Valerie's idea to stuff the pills into her cheek and pocket them when her mom wasn't looking. Valerie was great at thinking up that kind of stuff. It was another one of Valerie's plans that helped get Ashley out of trouble for what happened yesterday.
Valerie's green eyes sparkled in the early autumn light. “So, I can only assume that things went exactly as we planned. Come on, tell me how it went?” The words raced out, each one competing to finish the question.
“Well...,” Ashley paused. She waited for the frustration and excitement to build to a crashing point on Valerie's face. Her lips quivered back and forth between frown and smile so rapidly her pale cheeks turned red from the exertion. Eventually, Ashley smiled and continued, “It went great! I made sure to use the buzz words you told me to. I said I was standing up for you like a good friend and proper lady should. She was glad I showed character. I don’t think my mom would care what I did as long as I was lady like.”
Valerie emitted a squeal of triumph and the two instantly matched pacepace like a miniature marching band. They began their walk to school humming a silly tune that included belly-slapping percussion and a puckered-lip raspberry solo. It was perfectly unladylike.
Gray brick buildings and dark speeding traffic swarmed all around the girls. Corner stores cleaned their sidewalks with roaring leaf blowers that would shift the leaves one way and the wind would toss them right back another. The girls found it all very amusing.
They turned off the main road, away from the chorus of morning machinery, and onto the quiet street which lead to the school and metro parks. Most adults didn’t care about either of these places so the quite was only interrupted by laughing children, the screams of a few frustrated parents dropping off their kids, and chirping birds. Ashley appreciated the similarity between these noises.
“So what happened with your parents?” Ashley asked.
“Oh, they were definitely mad.” Valerie kicked a stray rock off the sidewalk and into the gutter. She then glanced over at Ashley and grinned. “But I was able to calm them down. Though they're talking about driving me to school from now on and having me join an afterschool sport.” At the word sport Valerie’s round pale face twisted into a tight grimace. It was a look that Ashley thought only her sour pills could achieve.
“You know that won’t happen, Val. Adults are too busy, especially your parents.” In the three years Ashley had known Valerie she had only seen her parents a handful of times. They were both dentists and ran a very busy private practice. They rarely made it home until well after supper. Nonetheless, she would have to try to keep Valerie out of trouble.
“Besides,” Ashley continued. “I think he’ll leave us alone. Bullies are just cowards and he won’t forget what we did to him.”
“What you did to him.” Valerie bent over and grabbed the rock from the gutter. She carefully placed it in a flower bed and chuckled. “I feel guilty just kicking a rock into the gutter. How am I supposed to fight a bully?”
Valerie sighed. “You embarrassed him, in front of everybody, even his goons! He’s going to want payback. I think he can smell my fear. He’s an animal.”
“And so am I!” Ashley roared and jumped in mock pounces until she brought a smile back to Valerie’s face. “We’ll teach him that when someone messes with you they’ll have me to answer to.” Ashley pointed to her chest with a skinny thumb.
Valerie chuckled. Ashley was the boniest, knobbiest kneed girl she’d ever known. But, she was also Valerie's champion friend, who would stand up for her no matter the odds and that made Ashley ten feet tall in her eyes. “Thanks, Ash.”
The two friends resumed their humming and finished their walk to school.
The wide brick building that was their middle-school stretched before them. Each dark-tinted window seemed to stare out. To Ashley, they looked like a hundred glistening black eyes of a giant insect. There was also a small playground that had barely been used in years. Swings, slides, and monkey bars stood lifeless without children, like the shedding of a snake's skin, forgotten and discarded yet still a testament to past life.
They’d arrived five minutes early. The crowd of kids waiting to get in rapidly grew. Children piled out of cars and buses. In the middle of the chaos of running screaming kids, Valerie noticed a young boy gawking at them.
“We're not the droids you're looking for...” Valerie waved one hand in front of the kid's face.
“Um, what? Sorry...It’s just....” He turned to Ashley. “You’re that girl who stood up to Sid.” The boy's pockmarked face turned red as he spoke and he shuffled his feet back and forth. “He’s been stealing my lunch for years.” His eyes stayed on his feet. “I . . . I just wanted to say thanks.”
The boy cautiously smiled and shambled off, disappearing into the crowd.
“Well cool, I'm glad he feels like we helped him.” Ashley said.
“Yeah, but I wish he'd of joined us yesterday.” Valerie glanced at the kids around her. “You know, if we could get a tenth of these kids to help, I think Sid would back down.”
Ashley raised one of her tiny fists, “What, you don't think I can take Sid on my own?”
Valerie shook her head, “I don't think a steamroller driven by a rhinoceros could, let alone all of his goons.”
“And their horrible B.O.” Ashley feigned terror and choked on the air.
“Or their greasy hair, ewww.” Valerie wiggled her fingers like tentacles. “In a few minutes we’ll be safely inside and won't have to find out.”
Ashley raised her eyebrows. “I never thought I’d actually want school to get started.”
Someone shrieked from within the crowd. The girls stopped laughing. They couldn’t see a thing. The older kids towered above them. All they could do was listen as a pleading voice squealed, “Please, just take it and leave me alone.”
The shy kid from just moments before came stumbling through the crowd, tears dripping down his cheeks and a massive red welt on his arm. Ashley was pretty sure who gave that boy his bruise. Her fists clenched.
Sid and his goons forced their way through the crowd. Besides the whole wanting-to-kill-you part, they would have looked comical. All of them were too large, puberty making limbs seem longer than necessary, and with that growth came a forest of pimples. The acne was white against their tanned faces and looked ready to burst. Ashley feared they might pop and ruin her jacket.
Sid draped his arm around Trisha, a tall girl wearing a tight tank top. The skimpy shirt revealed far more than she had to display. They both had long blonde hair and wore matching belt buckles in the shape of a raging bull. They were several years older than Ashley, maybe thirteen or fourteen she guessed.
Most of the goons had hair gelled in the front creating a ramp off their foreheads, wore matching overlarge shirts, and carried more lunches than they could possibly eat in one day. In the middle was the biggest kid in the entire school, Sid. Sid's real name was Nathan Sidney, but everybody, even the teachers, called him Sid. It did seem more fitting. He was too twisted to be a Nathan.
It was rumored his uncle had one of those giant factory farms and Sid got into the growth hormones they gave the cattle. That was why he was built like a bull, and why he was so mean. Teenager hormones were crazy enough. Add bull hormones and you have a monster that no after-school special could handle.
As they walked, children forced their younger siblings behind their backs. The only exception was a short boy playing a video game. He didn't see the pack coming and bumped right into Sid. Everyone gasped.
One massive, meaty hand shot out and grabbed the boy by his curly-hair. “I love the classics, the Rolling Stones, Scarface...” Sid yanked the boys jacket and shirt up exposing the pale, goose-pimpled flesh of his torso. “and, of course, the wedgie.”
Sid worked out. “Let me hear you count my reps.” With each seam-ripping underwear curl the poor boy shrieked the number. Once he got to ten it was mostly just sobs. Sid dropped him. “I can't imagine you have much of an appetite when your Fruit of the Loom are filled with bruised berries.”
The boy hesitantly stood and handed over his lunch money. The goons laughed. It made Ashley sick.
Sid smirked with delight, though when his gaze fell upon Ashley, the smug smile vanished to be replaced by a nose-wrinkling scowl. He stared at her for a good three seconds before noticing Valerie trembling behind her; the girl's flushed red cheeks seized his attention as easily as a bullfighters flag.
Sid lifted one hand, stopping his goons. The other hand lazily brushed through the air, shooing Ashley. “Move aside, maggot.” He pointed over her head. “I have unfinished business with your blushing friend.”
“No.” Ashley’s squeezed Valerie's hand.
He looked down at the thin girl standing in front of him. “Trying to be tough again?”
Ashley squinted her eyes in a look she hoped was menacing and spoke in her best Clint Eastwood growl. “I did more than just ‘try’ last time, punk.”
Someone chuckled, causing Sid to spin and glare into the crowd. The kids shuffled back, as if Sid, with just a glower, could cause a bruise.
Ashley gulped and stepped closer. “I'm not scared of you, Sid. So unless you want another trim you should leave us alone.”
More kids snickered, remembering yesterday’s fight. It had started when Sid had taken Valerie’s lunch money. Ashley had walked right up to him, in the center of all his goons, and demanded he give it back. When he refused, and tried to throw her to the ground, she used a pair of safety scissors to cut a chunk out of Sid's beloved hair.
Sid knew he had to make her pay. Now, he eyed the two girls. “What do you think, boys, should we teach them a lesson?”
“Yeah, let's get 'em,” one goon said.
“I think we should lop off their hair. See how they like it, Sid,” Trisha added.
The goons shuffled forward, eyes sparkling with glee. One of them shoved his ridiculously overlarge shirt to the side and pulled some scissors from his pocket. Valerie grabbed a fistful of her red hair as if she could protect it.
Sid raised a hand and again the goons stopped. “Nah,” he said, “I have a better idea.”
Sid looked from side to side, smiling at all the children watching them. Half were wishing they weren’t there and the other half were hoping to see a fight. The boy continued, “I was thinking about yesterday.”
“I’m sure you were.” Ashley looked at the uneven chunk taken out of his long hair. He had obviously been to a barber who tried to disguise the chop job.
“Yeah,” he continued while still seeming to measure her up. “You’re little, but tough…and quick. So, I’m going to make you an offer. We’ll be leaving the middle school soon. Someone like you could run this place when I’m gone. And, of course, give me a cut of the lunch money.”
The crowd stared at her.
Valerie squeezed her hand.
Sid leaned in and whispered. “It's that or I pound you. I know you don't want that. And...I don't want to either, you're a girl. But I do need this lunch money and if I have to smash you to keep it rolling in, I will.”
Ashley knew there was only one answer she could give when the odds where this far against her. “No way.” She crossed her arms. “How about this instead; leave us alone or ELSE all of us will show you what we think of bullies.”
The goons fell into each other laughing.
Sid hissed at Ashley, “Bad choice girl, bad choice.” He turned to the crowd and roared, “None of them are going to help you! Though I hope one of them does.” Sid's smile stretched wide, displaying his dark red braces and the tips of his pink gums.
Most of the crowd began to shuffle and shift their eyes from Ashley. She knew she was on her own today. Sid pointed at the two girls and demanded, “From now on your lunch money is mine.”
Valerie tugged on Ashley's sleeve. She looked ready to vomit. “The odds are against us, Ash. Let's just give him our money. Maybe live to fight another day.”
“No,” Ashley said and scowled up at Sid.
Sid grabbed Ashley by the collar, causing her to drop her sack lunch and backpack. He lifted her off the ground and glared at her. “You don’t have any scissors this time. Now tell your pudgy friend to hand over your lunches!”
Ashley kicked and wriggled but Sid didn't even flinch. He frowned at her, paused for a moment, then brought one hand back. She braced herself for the pounding that was to come. Instead there was a scream.
Valerie threw herself at Sid. Her green eyes were wide with terror as she lunged at his waist. She didn’t knock the giant boy over, but it did make him drop Ashley.
Valerie gasped, “What am I doing!” Her eyes opened wide as she stumbled back, “Ash, get a teacher!”
Ashley looked around. There was no time. The horde of kids around them would slow her down too much and Valerie would get hurt. She looked down at her empty hands and the ground around her. She needed something to stop him.
She saw her lunch lying several feet away. There was no time to grab it. As she began to turn away, the bag snapped open and a banana shot into her hands. Her jaw fell open in shock. “What the-” She shook her head; there was no time to question how it happened.
“You want my lunch?” Ashley screamed.
Sid turned from Valerie. As he did, Ashley dove onto him, shoving the banana into his face. The bruised produce burst, sending pale yellow goo into his eyes.
Ashley seized the opportunity and kicked. This time she paid special attention to her aim and her foot shot toward his raging bull belt buckle. Of course, to get there it traveled between his legs and met quiet a bit of resistance where the limbs connected. The bull went cross-eyed.
“Bruised berries aren't so funny now.” Ashley spat.
The morning bell cut through the chaos, startling kids from the fight. Those watching turned into a stampede toward the school. In the rush, Sid got knocked to the ground. Ashley watched the shy kid with the bruised arm scurry over, snatch his lunch money, and hurry off with the flood of children.
“Who was that?!” Sid roared. “No one steals my lunch money.” By the time he got to his feet and wiped the goop from his eyes, Valerie and Ashley were gone. Only his goons remained.
“Ash, hold up.” Valerie was bent over struggling to catch her breath. “I...can’t...believe I attacked him! And how did you get that banana? Your lunch was almost five feet away. It was like magic!”
“I don’t know . . . it was all happening so fast.” Ashley wiped the banana off her hands. What did happen? She wondered. It was fruit . . . magnetism. Guess I really needed potassium... She shook her head. “The banana must've fallen out of my bag.”
“It must have.” Valerie shuffled her feet. “What are we going to do? He’ll be waiting for us after school.”
“And I’ll just have to be ready,” Ashley tried to say bravely.
“I don’t want you getting hurt, Ash. This is all getting pretty crazy.” Valerie squeezed her into a soft hug. “I’m going to the principal's office.”
“No, we shouldn't have to handle this.” Valerie hurried down the hall. “It's best to let an adult know.”
Ashley frowned. To her, a few bruises and detentions were worth stopping this bully. But she knew Valerie wasn't used to all this...adventure. To Valerie, studying was an adventure. This violence was too much for her and her parents would be furious.
The tardy bell echoed down the nearly empty hallway. Ashley rushed off to class. She had no idea that by tonight bullies would be the least of her worries.