Chapter 1: Mr. Boot’s Urgent Message 1 Mr. Boot’s Urgent Message
When you are massively unpopular in school, you will usually wind up with a lab partner who is certifiably bananas. I present to you exhibit A: Gretchen Mousekey. After our biology teacher, Mrs. Grummund, told us to buddy up, the whole class went into this frenzied game of musical lab partners. Gretchen Mousekey and I were the last ones standing.
“Can you… just…. Can you stop that?” I whispered to Gretchen as she cleaned out her ear with one of the toothpicks we were supposed to use for the experiment.
“Why does it bother you?” Gretchen asked. She was sitting so close to me I could hear the toothpick scraping around in her ear canal. That’s the other thing about Gretchen—she has no concept of personal space.
“Why? Because number one, it’s totally disgusting,” I said, “and number two, you’re going to shish kebab your brain.”
Mrs. Grummund had been explaining how to put methylene blue on a microscope slide to look at cells from our cheeks, but now she stopped cold. She clasped her hands in front of her and stared at me. I shut up right away.
All the other kids turned to look at me too, a bunch of them with smirks on their faces. I was public enemy number one after causing Tom, an eighth grader whom half the school was crushing on, to be expelled. Except it wasn’t my fault, not strictly speaking. And Tom wasn’t strictly a boy, not a human one anyway.
“Since you don’t appear to need my instructions, Nell,” said Mrs. Grummund, “you can demonstrate to the class how to examine squamous epithelial cells under a microscope.”
I knew she expected me to cave and grovel. I probably should have, but I was in a strange mood that day. I’d seen something that morning that made me feel all squirrelly inside. And when I feel squirrelly, I get mad. And when I get mad, I do stupid things.
“No problem,” I told her.
I snatched up one of the toothpicks from the cup. While the whole class watched, I scraped the inside of my cheek with the toothpick. It felt like putting deodorant on in public. I wiped the toothpick on my microscope slide, topped it off with a few drops of methylene blue, plopped a cover slip on it, and placed it under the microscope. Boom.
“She’s done this before, Mrs. Grummund,” Leilani objected. She was a tall, square-jawed girl who harbored a special brand of hatred for me. Thankfully, she wasn’t in Mr. Boot’s after-school club, because if that girl knew even a speck of magic, she’d be lobbing curses at me like tennis balls at a border collie. “Nell’s been kicked out of, like, three other schools.”
“Four,” I muttered under my breath.
“She said four schools,” Gretchen corrected Leilani loudly as she worked a toothpick around the outer edges of her ear. “She was kicked out of four other schools.”
There was some giggling in the class, but Leilani was shooting eye bullets at me.
Mrs. Grummund clapped three times. That was supposed to settle everybody down, which you wouldn’t think would actually work with a group of seventh graders, except that it almost always did.
“Nell, please look in the microscope and tell the class what you see,” said Mrs. Grummund.
I pressed my eye to the microscope lens. Several blue-stained globules began to move around. They stretched and thinned and curled, forming spidery words:
THIS IS AN URGENT MESSAGE FROM MR. BOOT.
A few weeks ago, I would have been totally shocked to see those words appear on the microscope slide. But that was before I joined the Last Chance Club, where weird stuff happened on a fairly regular basis.
“Can I look?” Gretchen was standing right behind me, so close that I could smell her Cheerios breath.
“No.” I kept my eye pressed against the microscope so that she wouldn’t nudge her way in.
“Nell, please describe what you see,” Mrs. Grummund said.
“Um.” I tried to remember what a regular epithelial cell had looked like. “There’s some blobby stuff?”
There was an eruption of giggles in the class.
“A good scientist is specific, Nell,” said Mrs. Grummund. “?‘Blobby’ is not specific.”
A loud snort came from Leilani’s direction.
I looked back down at the microscope. The previous message was gone and there was a new one in its place:
THERE WILL BE A GUEST AT THE LAST CHANCE CLUB TODAY. THE GUEST IS NOT A HUMAN. DO NOT STARE. DO NOT MAKE THE GUEST MAD. DO WATCH YOUR MOUTH. (AND BY YOUR MOUTH, MR. BOOT MEANS ME. YOUR SQUAMOUS EPITHELIAL CELLS. GET IT? LOL.)
A nonhuman guest? Well, that was a wide playing field. A nonhuman guest could be just about anything—a Sylph or a Fainting Faun. I wouldn’t have minded seeing one of those. But knowing Mr. Boot it was probably something a whole lot less pleasant. Something with serrated teeth and eyeballs that squirted poison. Plus, not making someone mad was going to be a stretch for the Last Chance Club, since Crud, Annika, and I were basically pros at getting ourselves into trouble.
I looked up. Mrs. Grummund and the whole entire class were staring at me.
“Sorry.” I put my eye back on the microscope, trying to remember what cheek cells looked like specifically. “They are… they’re sort of…”
The cells were reforming into another message now.
“Let me have a look.” Gretchen draped herself against me like a human backpack, pressing her head against mine so that she could maneuver her way to the eyepiece. I stepped on her foot and she quickly backed off.
The new message said:
AND BY THE WAY, THE INSIDE OF YOUR MOUTH SMELLS LIKE A DUMPSTER
Well, I had hummus on a bagel for breakfast, so what do you expect?
Someone in the class screamed, and when I looked up, everyone was staring at me in horror.
My first thought was that I must have said the thing about the hummus out loud. I spend a lot of time alone. I’ve definitely been known to talk to myself. But then I noticed they weren’t staring at me exactly but at something just behind me.
More specifically—since Mrs. Grummund wanted specifics—they were staring at Gretchen’s right ear, which was bleeding like a stuck pig.
“What’s everyone looking at?” Gretchen asked, holding up the bloody toothpick, baffled as to why she was suddenly the center of attention.
“Congratulations, you’ve poked a hole in your ear,” I told her.
The sudden appearance of blood outside the body can really show you what people are made of. John Shultz, a six-foot-tall basketball star and school legend, puked; Mrs. Grummund just stood there with her hand clamped over her mouth. No one seemed to know what to do. But then I remembered the time when a hair stylist had accidentally nicked my ear with a scissor, making it bleed like mad. “Don’t worry, honey, it’s nothing,” she had told me. “The ears are the drama queens of the body.”
So I sucked it up and examined Gretchen’s ear. It was pretty gory. Her ear was filled with blood and it was overflowing and snaking down her jaw onto her clothes. I ran over to the sink, grabbed a few paper towels, and sopped up the blood. That hair stylist might not have been great at cutting hair, but she was 100 percent right about ears. After I mopped all the blood away, I saw that it came from the tiniest scrape.
Since I now appeared to be Gretchen’s self-appointed caregiver, Mrs. Grummund had me escort Gretchen to the nurse’s office. Before we left, I managed to pull the slide out from under the microscope and shove it into my back pocket.
At least I wouldn’t have to answer any more questions about epithelial cells. Now the only thing I had to worry about, besides Gretchen threatening to ask Mrs. Grummund if we could be permanent lab partners, was whether Mr. Boot’s “special guest” was a Moss Neck or a Boggedy Cat or some other terrifying creature, and what it would do to us if we ticked it off. Which, if history was any guide, we probably would.