CHAPTER 1 Monday, Right Before the Train Came
“You gonna shoot that ball or kiss it, Messy?” Ryker Morton leaned toward me on the foul line, grinning so big I could see his ugly pink gums. Chris Sedon snickered, and it kinda sounded like a Madagascar cockroach hiss since his nose had a bandage on it. Trisha Parks roach-hissed, too, even though she didn’t have any bandages on her nose. Acting like a nasty insect was just natural to her, I guess.
They hung together like that when they hassled me, Jerkface and his pet cockroaches, a matched set in their green gym shorts and shirts. You’d think after everything that had happened, they’d give this a rest, but noooooo. Same-old same-old.
I didn’t think Coach Gray heard them bothering me over all the noise from the skirmish group playing half-court behind us. Plus, she was busy hollering for YOU KIDS to KEEP IT DOWN since Coach Sedon, Chris’s dad, was out getting surgery on his hand and she had to do EVERYTHING FOR EVERYBODY SO SHOW A LITTLE RESPECT!
Four nicer kids from our class stood around the goal—Krista Edmonds, Selena Ruiz, Mark Gopal, and Jake Siddiqi. Nobody but Selena looked at me, and when she did, Chris pointed at her. “What do you want, bug-face?” He put his fingers around his eyes, pretending he had thick glasses like hers. “You think Messy here won’t knock you in the face if you tick her off?”
Selena made a rude gesture at him, and Mark pushed her hand down before Coach Gray saw it. I rubbed the sides of the basketball with both hands and looked at Selena, but she looked away.
A little bit of sad squeezed tight in my throat. I tried to be nice like Krista and Selena and Mark and Jake, at least when people didn’t make my brain itch. I mean, I hadn’t even smacked anybody in this year’s class, unlike Jerkface.
Jake glanced in our direction and said, “Y’all are just a bunch of turkeys.”
Did he mean Jerkface and the cockroaches, or me—or all of us?
“Messy Jesse’s a grody pig, not a turkey.” Ryker pointed at my tangly hair as Chris and Trisha laughed. “You’re never gonna get any better at taking a shower, are you?”
Selena made another rude gesture, sort of at Ryker but maybe sort of at me, too, and she walked off with Krista and Jake and Mark following along behind. Coach Gray tweeted her whistle since they hadn’t taken their shots on goal, but they acted like they didn’t hear her.
I positioned the ball and tried not to watch them leave. Jerkface and the cockroaches made some more noise, but I ignored them because Dad said ignoring cockroaches and keeping all the lights on was the best way to make them scurry away.
“See, Jesse-with-an-e?” Jerkface mocked in my voice. “Jesse-with-an-e, like boys spell it. Nobody likes you, Jesse-with-an-e.”
Did ignoring bugs ever really make them crawl off and bother somebody else? Because it had never worked for me. Breaking Ryker’s nose with the basketball so it would match Chris’s, now that would work for me, but when I turned in his direction, Coach Gray gave me a warning blast with her silver whistle.
As if God agreed with her, it thundered outside.
Coach gave me the look and shook her head.
Jerkfaces shouldn’t be able to run their mouths if non-jerkfaces couldn’t defend their tired ears. What was the problem with violence, anyway? It was effective. Bugs made such a satisfying crunch when you stomped on them.
I glanced at the clock. I still had to put up with Jerkface and the cockroaches for seventeen minutes and thirty seconds. That wasn’t much. Then again, it seemed like a lot. Tick-tock. I hadn’t ever heard a clock make tick-tock noises. The clocks at AJS just made clicking sounds. Seventeen minutes. 1,020 more clicks. 1,019, 1,018, 1,017. . .
I got a second blast from the whistle and Coach glared like she’d come over to our group and make sure we regretted making her get up off her bottom-bleacher throne, so I forced myself to face the goal. Then I dug my purple fingernails into the sides of the basketball, squared my shoulders, lifted the ball to my chest, and powered it into the air.
The ball fired off to the left like a broken rocket, almost beheaded Coach Gray, and smacked a bleacher step so hard it sounded like an explosion.
As everybody ducked and covered, I fake-stumbled and ground my heel into Jerkface’s toes.
“Ow!” he hollered, grabbing for his foot, but his cockroaches didn’t hear him over the whoops of the skirmish group and the sudden hard rain on the gym roof.
Ryker snarled and reached for me, but I dodged out of his way. Coach got up, caught the runaway basketball, and bounced it toward Ryker for his turn, all the while making her whistle screech at the top of its teeny metal lungs.
Nine hundred clicks to go until I was Jerkface-and-cockroach-free for the day—but at least I felt better enough to stop counting clicks.
The cockroaches seemed to grasp that they had missed something as Ryker limped to his place at the foul line. They tried to jog toward him, but he waved them off and got ready to make his shot. Jerkface stood a lot straighter than I bothered to do, plus he was taller. His mom had played basketball in college and then gone pro and now she was on the city council, so Ryker thought he was something special every time he touched that ball. Really, all three of the cockroach crew thought they were something special, because everybody knew their parents. Plus, they had muscles and nice clothes and straight teeth and no zits and of course, the newest phones.
Ryker drew in a breath and managed to side-eye me in the process. I smiled at him, as fake-sweet as I could manage. His cheeks flushed crimson.
Coach’s whistle stabbed into my brain over and over again.
Then a strange sound cut under the gym noises, and I thought somebody might be hurt and hollering. I made sure Ryker really was shooting that basketball and not coming after me, then checked the gym to see who had busted a knee.
Everyone was standing or running except Springer Regal, the new kid who had been my new actual friend and fellow detective for a week. Springer hated all things athletic, and he had a note to sit out because he had gotten stomach flu last month, and he told me he planned to ride it for all it was worth. He was tucked in at the very top of the bleachers, resting against the wall with a book as thick as Dad’s Shakespeare compendium, but he wasn’t yelling or anything.
The sound came again, a distant howl, like a pack of dogs or—wait.
Everybody stopped running and yelling.
Springer lifted his head, gazed in the direction of the noise, then looked at me, dread obvious in his wide brown eyes. He stood slowly, holding tight to his heavy book as another round of sirens wailed in the distance. The hairs along my arms and the back of my neck lifted, and despite the gym sweat dripping down the sides of my face, I shivered.
Coach Gray’s whistle punched deep into my mind, followed by her voice, higher-pitched than I’d ever heard it before.
“Hallway!” she shrieked. “Everyone! Hallway now! Go, go, go!”
In a memorable week for Jesse, a devastating tornado comes to her small Kentucky town, she’s faced with the traumatic sight of her dad in handcuffs after a large amount of money disappears from his desk at school, and confrontations with a trio of relentless bullies escalate. On top of that, she gains a solid new friend, a mystery to solve (who really took that money?), proof that her Pomeranian Sam-Sam has important hidden talents, and plenty of evidence that being on the spectrum doesn’t make her dumb, disabled, broken, or incapable of rising to the occasion. –Booklist STARRED REVIEW
This is a deeply smart and considerate little mystery. . . –BCCB
An absorbing mystery about friendship, growth, and heroics. —Kirkus Reviews
Vaught . . . brings training as a neuropsychologist to this sensitively told tale, and she offers a nuanced, normalizing portrayal of Jesse’s autism spectrum disorder alongside her other qualities. Between the charming protagonist, the engaging mystery, and a compelling emotional arc, the result is wholly satisfying. –Publisher’s Weekly