The Contagious Colors of Mumpley Middle School
WEDNESDAY Day 2
Black widow spiders are horrible creatures. Not only do they have a deadly, venomous bite, but the females eat their mates. The girl spider spins the guy tightly in her webbing so he can’t move. And then she chews him up.
That’s where the name black widow comes from. A widow is a lady whose husband is dead. Or in this case, swallowed whole.
I’m glad I’m not a spider.
Still, who knows what sixth-grade girls are capable of doing to us guys? After all, I’ve never had any sort of romantic pursuit before. This is unproven scientific ground for me. But I’ll take my chances with Roxie. She doesn’t seem like the guy-eating sort.
Which means I’ll continue my trial-and-error
approach, for now at least. Unfortunately, that approach has been all error so far.
Scientific note: When swiping flowers from the school flower bed, check closely for bees.
But when you run into a dead end, it’s best to reexamine the facts. Sometimes a quick summary helps form a sound, scientific conclusion.
What do we know about the test subject?
• Roxie McGhee is the most fantastically glorious girl in the sixth grade.
• She is the star reporter of the school paper, MUMPLEY MUSINGS. And her school-broadcast radio show is heavenly.
• She smells like rosebuds blooming on a dewy morning. (Really. My examinations of dewy rosebuds show an 86.3 percent similarity with Roxie’s aroma, based on a sample of hair I plucked last week. Or maybe the rosebud scent came from her shampoo. I will need to test further.)
I’ll need a new plan to get her to notice me. They say you can’t bake a cake without breaking a few eggs! That is, unless you heat the eggshells to 825 degrees Celsius and melt them, like Mom’s ill-fated scrambled eggshell omelet disaster last month.
But it wouldn’t be science if you didn’t have a few unexpected pitfalls along the way, whether from love or from egg yolks burning through the stove top. That’s why we have fire extinguishers.
Wilmer closed his journal and stared one row up and three seats over. That’s where Roxie McGhee sat, sandwiched between her best friends, Vonda Binkowski and Claire Huddleston. Like Roxie, Vonda and Claire had long, flowing blond hair and gleaming white teeth. They usually wore matching skirts and long socks. But Claire and Vonda weren’t
Roxie. Their cheeks didn’t form small dimples when they smiled. Their blue eyes (Wilmer preferred to think of them as low-melanin-pigmented eyes) didn’t glitter when they laughed. Wilmer imagined swapping seats with Vonda or Claire. He would lean over to Roxie and say something witty. She would say she loved flowers and not to worry about the bee sting on her arm.
But Wilmer hadn’t the nerve. So he stayed where he sat, butt firmly planted behind his desk in the corner of the last row.
The last row was the best place for observation. Back there he could watch everyone in class, away from prying eyes.
Science was all about observation, and Wilmer prided himself on his scientific talents. He was the best student scientist in all of Mumpley Middle School. Despite what Claudius Dill believed.
“We will be doing our final project of the year on medieval diseases,” said Mr. Havendash, the history teacher. He was a short man with a long beard, which he liked to stroke as he talked. “In medieval times all sorts of horrible diseases spread
unchecked, like leprosy and scurvy. But the most dreaded of all diseases was the bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death. The bubonic plague wiped out somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the entire population of Europe. We’re talking hundreds of millions of people. Imagine if a disease like that struck us today!”
Wilmer sat in his seat, half listening to the teacher. Roxie brushed back her hair and smiled, a smile so bright and warm that Wilmer supposed it could generate enough electricity to light up half the town of Mumpley.
Roxie glanced sideways and spied Wilmer staring at her. Embarrassed, Wilmer quickly looked down at his feet. Did Roxie blush? Her face turned pink, a very bright pink—more like an abnormally vibrant fuchsia, to be exact. But Wilmer wasn’t sure, and he didn’t dare look up, in case she caught him spying. Again. He continued to stare at his feet.
His shoe was untied. Which meant a 14 percent chance of him tripping, unless he tied it before class was over.
Roxie’s blushing had likely been his imagination, anyway. Maybe she was just queasy. That made sense. Wilmer wasn’t the type to make girls blush. But queasiness? Possibly.
After all, Wilmer wasn’t dashing like Zane Bradley, who sat two rows up and four seats over, just a desk away from Roxie and her friends. If only Wilmer were tall and handsome and the star dodge-ball player like Zane. Wilmer’s ears stuck out a bit too much, his hair was just a little too mop-like, and his front teeth were just slightly too far apart. Not that he was a total reject—Wilmer knew it was scientifically probable that he had many strengths that girls found irresistible. He just couldn’t think what they might be.
Wilmer spent the rest of the period staring at his untied shoelaces.
Wilmer’s luck changed at lunchtime. Roxie and her friends sat at the same lunch table as Wilmer and his best friend, Ernie Rinehart. Wilmer and Ernie had sat with the girls yesterday, too. Two days in a
row! Wilmer’s stomach did backflips and spins as he wondered what he should say. Or maybe it was best to keep quiet. Girls liked the strong and silent type.
Wilmer felt he could manage the silent part.
Ernie noisily gulped milk from a carton. Unlike Wilmer, he was neither smallish nor hair-moppish, although his black hair did have the nasty habit of standing up to attention, as if it were saluting a flag. “Are you going to eat it or play with it?” asked Ernie, pointing to Wilmer’s creamed spinach.
Wilmer picked up spinach with his fork and then dumped it back onto his plate. “I guess I’m not that hungry,” he said. “Want some?”
Ernie shook his head. “No way.” He lowered his milk and bit into his SugarBUZZZZ! chocolate cupcake dessert, its green frosting glowing like colored lightbulbs. Bits of glistening crumbs lingered on Ernie’s fingers. “Now that’s delicious!”
SugarBUZZZZ!—the wondrous kids’ snack line that came in twelve fluorescently colored flavors—had been Wilmer’s father’s greatest invention. Or at least his most successful.
But while Wilmer shared his father’s love for science, he didn’t share his schoolmates’ infatuation with sugary treats. Besides, spinach was a superfood, packed with folate and manganese—nutrients that improved brain function. A scientist always needs to be clearheaded. Science might be demanded at a moment’s notice.
“You’re probably the only kid in the world who eats spinach for lunch,” said Ernie, licking his glowing fingers. Finished with his cupcake, he picked up his peanut butter sandwich. Ernie always ate dessert before he ate his sandwich.
“I like spinach. It’s a nutritious treat,” said Wilmer. “Besides, a careful analysis of your peanut butter sandwich will likely find Rattus rattus follicles, as well as fragments of Periplaneta americana.”
“Speak English, please,” said Ernie.
“Sorry. Rat hairs and cockroach parts. Peanut butter is loaded with them.”
“I like rat hairs. That’s the best part,” said Ernie. He bit into his sandwich. “Yum!”
“That’s just gross,” said Roxie. Her voice
reminded Wilmer of a songbird floating along on a meadow breeze, or at least of how he imagined a songbird might sound if it floated on a breeze blowing in a meadow. “I just ate a peanut butter sandwich.”
Wilmer took a deep breath, determined to impress Roxie with his expert food knowledge. “The federal government allows up to one rat hair per one hundred grams of peanut butter. So, statistically speaking, you may have had only one or two rat hairs in your sandwich. And peanut butter isn’t as bad as pizza sauce. The government allows fly eggs in pizza sauce. And insects in chocolate. And trust me, you don’t want to know what’s in hot dogs.”
“I had hot dogs last night for dinner,” said Vonda, frowning.
“I had pizza. And some chocolate,” said Roxie, holding her stomach.
“Oh. Well. Um. Fly eggs have a lot of vitamins, I think,” said Wilmer, squirming. He imagined his face growing as pink as Roxie’s was turning.
“You guys are disgusting,” said Vonda.
Ernie peeled open his sandwich and peered
inside. “I think I see six rat hairs, four cockroach legs, and half a beetle.” He closed it and held it out to Claire. “Want a bite?”
“Get that away from me!” she screamed. Claire was quite good at screaming. Ernie just laughed. Wilmer knew Ernie secretly liked Claire almost as much as Wilmer secretly liked Roxie.
“I’m eating bologna,” said Vonda, taking a confident chomp of her sandwich. “Nothing wrong with this.”
“Actually, most bologna has pig hearts in it. And it’s wrapped in casing made from colons and intestines,” said Wilmer.
Vonda put down her sandwich. “I’m never eating food again.”
Ernie stared at her sandwich greedily. “Can I have it, then? I love pig hearts. Mom makes them for dinner every Thursday.”
Wilmer knew he was kidding. But his comment received the desired groans and shouts of “You’re sick” from Claire.
Meanwhile, Roxie’s face blushed the same vibrant pink Wilmer had noticed earlier. It
reminded him of a glow stick. But then it quickly faded away. Maybe the cafeteria lights were playing games with Wilmer’s eyes. Wilmer needed to eat more spinach: In addition to nutrients that helped the brain, spinach also contained lutein and zeaxanthin, which improved eyesight.
When your father was a food inventor, like Wilmer’s, you knew a lot about food.
“I think I’m going to throw up,” said Roxie, still holding her stomach. Her face started to flash pink, on and off, not unlike a faulty neon sign.
“Pig hearts aren’t so bad,” said Wilmer quickly. “Some parts of the world consider them a delicacy, roasted with potatoes and garlic. My mom once made—”
“No. I mean I really have to throw up . . . ,” muttered Roxie, covering her mouth and running out of the room. Vonda and Claire jumped up and quickly followed her.
“I guess they don’t appreciate science,” said Ernie with a smirk, biting into Vonda’s sandwich.
“I guess I just don’t know when to keep my mouth shut,” said Wilmer with a groan.
Wilmer didn’t dare speak to Roxie again that day. She was back in class the next period, looking a little pinkish but otherwise normal. The day wasn’t a total loss, though. After school Wilmer went to the library for some impromptu research. He decided to get a head start learning about the spread of disease in the Middle Ages. It turned out to be fascinating stuff. Long ago antibiotics and most modern-day medicines didn’t exist, so new epidemics spread often and quickly. The Black Death was the worst but hardly the only disease to wipe out millions of people. In the eighteenth century smallpox killed almost sixty million Europeans, and in the early 1900s the Spanish flu killed as many as one hundred million people.
But Wilmer was starting to think that the most horrible and grossest epidemics must have happened during medieval times. Back then they seemed to pop up all over the place. Germs rapidly spread from person to person, leaving a trail of blisters, chills, fevers, blindness, gangrene, comas, skin lesions, coughs, cramps, nose decay, sweating, swelling,
convulsions, headaches, vomiting, rashes, finger and toe shrinking, and other horrible things, many of which sounded even worse than death.
Wilmer imagined his ears swelling, his nose deforming, and his entire body becoming one oozing mass of bubbling rashes. Maybe Roxie would notice him then (although, he admitted, not in a good way).
To make things worse, doctors back then didn’t know how to stop the diseases, or what caused them. For example, the bubonic plague spread from rats, but no one knew that until hundreds of years later.
Wilmer didn’t think people were in danger of catching the Black Death from rat hairs in peanut butter, though. He hoped not. But you could never be sure what sort of epidemic was ready to spring up anywhere. One could even strike their school without warning. That was why, as a scientist, Wilmer had to be clearheaded. Just in case.
At home that evening, as he entered the kitchen, Wilmer glanced up at the small wooden sign
hanging from the ceiling. It said simply, OBSERVE! Mr. Dooley had hung it years ago. It was a constant reminder of the important link between science and observation.
Wilmer swung his backpack onto the kitchen table, narrowly avoiding his seven-year-old brother, Sherman, who ran around it. Sherman, as always, was completely wired. He pretended to be a cowboy and yelled “Giddyup!” and “Yippy ki ay!” as he raced in circles. Wilmer dived out of the way to avoid being run over. Everyone else ignored him—the Dooleys were used to Sherman’s mindless energy. But Wilmer couldn’t help thinking that Sherman’s energy today seemed even more mindless than usual.
Mrs. Dooley stood by the stove, throwing random foods into a giant pot. Short and thin, with rosy cheeks, Mrs. Dooley was always at her best around the kitchen. Or at least at her happiest. Considering all the cooking she did, it was a little surprising that she was so thin. But then, Wilmer’s youngest brother, eighteen-month-old Preston, was the guinea pig taster of most of Mrs. Dooley’s concoctions. And Sherman ate enough for everyone.
Standing on her tiptoes, Mrs. Dooley tossed six whole lemons, four strips of bacon, an old comb, half a bottle of malt vinegar, four pickles, a wrench, and three pieces of a jigsaw puzzle into the tall pot as she hummed the warning theme from Jaws, the movie about a killer shark. Da-dum. Da-dum. It was the music that played before the shark ate someone. It was a discouraging omen. Wilmer wondered if it meant they were all doomed if they ate dinner. The kitchen smelled faintly like sarsaparilla, lingering from the bizarre sarsaparilla scallop strips his mom had whipped up a couple nights before, and the sarsaparilla turnip muffins she had made for lunch.
Mrs. Dooley had a particular fondness for sarsaparilla. It had the scent of root beer, with a hint of licorice. It smelled a lot better than some of her other ingredients. Wilmer thought back in horror to the dreaded pickled cabbage and saffron tofu burgers from two weeks before.
His mom continued humming away. What she lacked in normal recipes, she made up for in enthusiasm.
Mr. Dooley stood in the room too, washing his hands in a sink piled with dirty dishes. Scattered among Mom’s bowls and graters and mixers were tubes and cups and flasks from Mr. Dooley’s downstairs lab. The pile grew higher and higher throughout the day, to be washed every night only after Wilmer went to bed. He was always surprised when he came down to an empty sink at breakfast.
Tonight Mr. Dooley was wearing his lab coat inside out, and only one sock. Wilmer assumed he had spent the day hunkered down in his basement lab working on his latest invention, whatever that was. Wilmer’s father kept most of what he did a complete secret. Although Mr. Dooley hadn’t had any breakthroughs since SugarBUZZZZ!, he said his next invention would “revolutionize the very fabric of eating forever!”
He had said the same thing after the last six inventions, including the flying pizza, the remote control ham, and the incredible walking pudding cup, the last of which still gave Wilmer nightmares.
Mr. Dooley turned around and smiled, dripping
water onto the floor. He was tall and lanky, but forever stooped from years of peering down into microscopes. “Good morning, son,” he said to Wilmer.
“It’s evening, Dad,” said Wilmer. “And you’re dripping.” A small pool of water formed next to Mr. Dooley’s lone sock. Sherman, who was still sprinting around the table shouting out cowboy phrases, narrowly missed stepping in the puddle as he rounded the corner. Wilmer imagined a manic and frenzied Sherman slipping on the water, soaring into the air, and crashing into the refrigerator.
“Nice observation!” said Mr. Dooley approvingly, before bending down and wiping the puddle with a napkin. His swipe ended a split second before Sherman stepped in the exact same spot, yelling, “Rustle up the cattle, pardner!” Mrs. Dooley grabbed the napkin from Mr. Dooley’s hand, sniffed it, and then threw it into the pot on the stove.
Wilmer hopped up onto the counter to avoid being barreled into as his brother rounded the corner again.
Meanwhile, Preston Dooley sat in his high chair at the kitchen table. Mrs. Dooley removed
what appeared to be a shoe from her pot and handed it to her youngest son, who gnawed on it.
“Orange zest!” screamed Preston.
“Wonderful idea,” sang Mrs. Dooley, tossing three oranges into the pot. Wilmer wished he had eaten all his creamed spinach at lunch, rather than playing with it. He was not looking forward to dinner.
“I call it Soupy Shoe Surprise,” said Mrs. Dooley as she ladled dinner into bowls. “With a hint of orange zest.”
“Orange zest!” squealed Preston with pride.
“What’s the surprise in Soupy Shoe Surprise?” asked Wilmer.
“If we can eat it without getting sick!” exclaimed Mrs. Dooley. Wilmer wasn’t sure if she was joking.
The family sat down around the table. Sherman bounced on his chair; even when sitting, the boy couldn’t stop moving. Preston slurped his soup with great enthusiasm.
Wilmer looked into his bowl. His purplish green glop made disturbing slurping noises.
“You’ve done it again, Maggie,” said Mr. Dooley with a warm grin and a lick of his lips. “Delicious! So, Wilmer. You’re going to win the science medal this year, right? Any ideas yet?”
The sixth-grade end-of-year ceremony neared, along with the coveted Mumpley Sixth-Grade Science Medal. Awarded to the top student science entry, it was the most prestigious of all the sixth-grade awards. Mr. Dooley had won it when he was in school, and he expected Wilmer to follow in his footsteps. The trophy was displayed proudly among Mr. Dooley’s many science awards on the mantel over the fireplace.
“I have an assignment at school with possibilities,” said Wilmer. “We’re studying Middle Ages diseases.”
“Like when your hair starts growing in weird places and your knees hurt for no reason?” asked Mr. Dooley.
“No, I mean diseases from the Middle Ages. Not diseases you get when you’re middle aged.”
“Oh. Too bad,” said Mr. Dooley, who plucked a hair from his nose and sniffled.
Wilmer shook his head and looked into his soup. It still bubbled and burped, but Wilmer’s stomach growled even louder, so he risked a taste.
He had to admit, it was pretty good. The orange zest added just the right kick.
After dinner Mr. Dooley stretched out on his recliner and waved Wilmer over, inviting him to sit on the ottoman. Mr. Dooley’s thick, black-rimmed glasses made his eyes seem twice as big as they were. Whenever he saw his father, Wilmer vowed to eat even more eye-boosting spinach than ever.
“What do I always say, son?”
“ ‘Where are my car keys?’ ”
“Yes, well, besides that. Observe! That’s what makes great scientists. We can learn plenty from observation, son.” Mr. Dooley leaned back on the leather seat. “Have I told you that the idea for my fluorescent snack line, SugarBUZZZZ!, came from observing fireflies?”
“Only two hundred sixteen times.”
“Yes, there I was,” said Mr. Dooley, staring out
the window and lost in thought. “Outside, sneezing. I was allergic to flowers and wondered what would happen if I crammed an entire flower up my nose. It was a poorly conceived experiment. But then a firefly flew by. Of course I knew they glow because luciferins combine with oxygen to form oxyluciferin, and so on. But I was drinking orange soda at the time, which proved to be extremely difficult while sneezing and holding a flower in my nose, and I wondered what would happen if my drink glowed. And the rest is history.”
“That’s really interesting, Dad,” said Wilmer, yawning and looking at his cuticles.
“The point is, um . . . I forget. That glowing orange soda is much more fun than regular soda?”
“I thought the point was observation.”
“Right, that’s what I meant. Thank you.” Mr. Dooley’s absentmindedness was legendary in the Dooley household. “Observation! That’s what makes great science. I bet you could use this Middle Ages unit as a jumping-off point for some new perspectives on our world today. Look around you. Observe! You’ll have a great new idea for a science
experiment in no time. The Mumpley Sixth-Grade Science Medal awaits!”
Wilmer nodded. He needed to start his own trophy collection. He hated staring at Dad’s award shelf all day long. After all, Wilmer wasn’t getting any younger. Mozart composed music when he was only five years old! Picasso completed his first painting when he was only eight! At eleven years old, Wilmer was an old man compared with them. It was about time he carved a path for himself.
Of course, Wilmer also thought about Roxie. Girls admired guys who won trophies, even more than guys who gave flowers. Maybe winning the medal would impress her. He couldn’t be strong, but he had his brain, and that counted for something. At least, he hoped it did.
He just needed a great science project idea for his entry.
Wilmer looked at Sherman, who once again raced around the kitchen table. He squinted. Had Sherman’s ears begun to glow yellow? He wasn’t completely sure. Wilmer sat back and observed.