In a case of life imitating art, I published Virus! about a year ago, long before the current pandemic came about. It’s a middle-grade novel and I hesitated to mention it at first (I didn’t want to frighten anyone who might already be worried about getting sick).
But it’s a fun book with a happy ending, so I thought I’d post the first chapter in case you’d like to take a look. (And just for fun, Justin Bieber gets a little attention, like with this line: “Listen to Justin Bieber? He’d rather have rabies!”)
BRADY WILLIAMS poked a finger at the eighth-grade vocabulary list.
“Excruciating,” he said. “The English assignment was excruciating.”
Ethan Brown pulled a face like someone had stuffed a pair of sour gym socks under his nose. “Um, I don’t think Mrs. Poppleton will like that one.”
“Well, say math assignment, then. ‘The math assignment was excruciating.’ ”
Ethan nodded. “Okay, yeah. That’s good. She’ll like that.”
He bent over his paper and began writing.
Brady stretched and turned back to the list. The assignment was to use each of the week’s vocabulary words in a sentence. Which, he thought, was excruciating.
The trouble was that none of the words were, like, normal. They were words that no one ever used.
Actually using words like that in a conversation?
He shook his head.
A kid could get beaten up for talking like that.
HE SIGHED AND got serious with the list. Right away he spotted an unusual word and grinned.
“Climate,” he said as soon as Ethan was ready to write again. “We have a tree, but Dad won’t let me climate.”
Ethan wasn’t really paying attention. He had the sentence half written before he looked up and wrinkled his nose.
“Climate! Get it? We have a tree, but Dad won’t let me climb it?”
Ethan rolled his eyes and began erasing what he’d written.
“Oh, come on,” Brady teased. “This stuff’s agonizing. Gotta have a little fun.”
“Yeah, I know.” Ethan brushed a pile of eraser shavings from his paper. “But my folks are gonna ground me from football unless I get my grade back up. I’ve gotta have an A- by next week or I’m off the team.”
“Paid off during the oral quiz last week …”
“Well, yeah, that’s true.”
The week before, Mrs. Poppleton surprised the class with one of her dreaded oral quizzes. Giving them no time to prepare, she called students one-by-one to the front of the room, gave them a word, and waited for them to correctly use it in a sentence.
It was about as fun as doing burpees outside when the grass was wet. And most of the kids kept their heads down, hoping they wouldn’t be called upon. After several students had stumbled with their words, she called on Brady.
“Debate,” she said.
Without missing a beat, Brady said, “I use debate to catch de fish.”
The class exploded with laughter. One boy—who’d just filled his mouth from a water bottle—snorted the whole thing over the girl in front of him.
Mrs. Poppleton tried to look upset. But then she’d broken down and laughed with everyone else. Best of all, she’d realized it was pointless to go on. And she gave the whole class full marks on the quiz.
BRADY GRINNED, then glanced at Mrs. Poppleton, who was busy grading papers. Around the room, most of the other kids were chattering quietly as they worked. As long as the work got done, Mrs. Poppleton didn’t mind people making a little noise.
Brady looked back at Ethan.
“Can’t stop thinking about the game last night,” he whispered. “Forty-four to seven. … Man, it doesn’t get better than that!”
“And against the best team in the league,” Ethan agreed. He gave Brady a quick knuckle-bump. “I mean, I knew we could beat ’em. But forty-four to seven? We creamed ’em! Tom Brady will play me in the movie!”
“Tom Brady? Not Aaron Rodgers? Sheesh, you’d be lucky to get Justin Bieber.”
“As long as the girls notice, I don’t care.”
“You must’ve thrown for like nine hundred yards.”
“A hundred forty-seven,” Ethan replied. “My dad kept track.”
“Still pretty awesome. Your arm sore?”
“Little bit,” Ethan said. “But what about you? You ran for … what? Four touchdowns? Five?”
“Almost five, though. You popped the ball outta that kid’s hands and ran it all the way to the four-yard line. If that putz with the goofy helmet hadn’t knocked you outtabounds, you would’ve had a sick snatch-n-score.”
“I can’t believe he caught me,” Brady exclaimed. “He must’ve been flyin’ down the field.”
“Oh, he was haulin’, man. And then he hit you like a freakin’ bulldozer. The way you went crashin’ into those Gatorade buckets? I thought you were dead!”
“You’re not the only one. You know how some people see stars when they get hit?”
“I saw super novas! And—I think—I saw Elvis.”
“Elvis Presley. You know, the guy who—oh never mind.” Brady shook his head ruefully. “Anyway, he mashed me like week-old Cream of Wheat.”
He looked around to be sure no one was watching, then lifted his shirt to show off his ribcage. “Check out this freakin’ bruise …”
“Whoa!” Ethan’s eyes bulged as he leaned in for a better look. “He did that?”
“Him or a Gatorade bucket.”
“That’s wicked! Does it hurt?”
Ethan whistled softly, then pulled his shorts up over his knee to reveal a purple mark the size of a grapefruit. “Look at this.”
“Wow,” Brady said, marveling at the size of the bruise. “When did that happen?”
“Fourth quarter? When that clod with the hairy arms chased me outta the pocket and down the sideline? And then ran me over like a Mack truck?” He tapped the bruise. “Yeah, I came away with this.”
He grinned ruefully.
“My mom totally freaked when she saw it.”
“I’ll bet,” Brady said. He knew Ethan’s mom was insanely overprotective. She didn’t like Ethan playing football and was always looking for excuses to make him quit. She fussed over minor cuts and scrapes like an ER surgeon treating a javelin through the head.
The ultimate helicopter mom.
ETHAN TAPPED Brady’s left hand, which was wrapped with gauze. “So what’s this? You get cleated or something?”
“What? Oh, this?” Brady lifted his hand and looked it over. “Weirdest thing. I found a ferret in our window well yesterday.”
“You know … one of those long, furry animals that look like a cross between a squirrel and a wiener dog?”
“Yeah, I know what a ferret is. What’d it do, bite you or something?”
“Yeah. I thought it was tame. But when I tried to catch it, it took a chunk outta my hand.”
“Had a little Brady for breakfast, huh? What’d you do with it?”
“Took it to the vet. It had a tattoo in its ear—”
“A tattoo? Like a gangbanger tattoo?”
“No. Like a number. Or a code. I figured the vet would know what it meant. Probably know what to do with it.”
He turned his hand back and forth, giving the bandage another look. “It didn’t look bad last night, but it was kinda red and puffy this morning. So I wrapped it up.”
He lowered his voice confidentially.
“Didn’t want to gross out the girls.”
“Kewl … I hope you don’t get rabies.”
“Yeah, I was worried about that, too. I’ve had a tetanus shot. But the vet thinks I should get a rabies shot, too. You know, just in case.”
“Ouch. What’s your mom say?”
Brady looked around before answering. “She doesn’t know yet.”
“You didn’t tell her? Brady—”
“Shhhh!” Brady gestured frantically for Ethan to keep his voice down. “Man, if I’d told her yesterday, she would have hauled me straight to the doctor. I might have missed the game!”
“I know, but holy cow, Brady … rabies! That’s scary stuff, man! You can’t be messing around with it!”
“I know, I know … I’ll tell her tonight.”
Ethan pulled a face and Brady said: “Really, man. As soon as I get home.”
Ethan frowned, but said: “Okay. I hate to get on your case, but rabies is bad news.” He checked to be sure no one was listening. “I heard about some little kids that found a sick bat and took it to school. And they all had to have shots.”
“It bit ’em?”
“No! And that’s the point. All they did was touch it, but with rabies that’s all it takes.”
“It doesn’t have to bite you?”
“Huh-uh. Not with rabies. That’s why you can’t take chances.” He rolled his eyes. “I can just see you getting rabies and biting someone at the next game.”
“Probably get a ten-yard penalty for giving a kid rabies.”
“At least. Have to put the name ‘Cujo’ on your jersey.” He glanced at a girl across the room. “Has Hunter seen it?”
Brady blanched. “Not yet.”
“Gonna show her?”
Brady pulled a face. “I do and she’ll haul me to the doctor.”
He peeked at Hunter Caldwell through the corner of his eyes. Hunter was the newest girl in the school. And next to Brady’s friend Sid, she was also the smartest. She had the energy of a bottle rocket, and a wardrobe that was the envy of every girl at the junior high, the senior high, the nearby college, and half the women at the local TV station.
The problem was that she was possessive, and she considered Brady her own personal property. Even worse was the fact she was a huge Justin Bieber fan.
Even though he secretly liked a girl named Ellen, he didn’t mind being friends with Hunter. He didn’t mind eating with her at lunch, sitting with her in class, or even talking with her on the phone as long as he didn’t have practice.
But listen to Justin Bieber?
He’d rather have rabies.
BRADY SIGHED. He was about to make another joke, but stopped as he looked across the room. “Oh, oh … somebody’s in trouble.”
Ethan followed Brady’s gaze. Mr. Gum, the assistant principal, had just stalked into the room. The man had once been a marine drill sergeant, and he barked at junior high students like they were green recruits on their first day of boot camp.
The principal marched to Mrs. Poppleton’s desk and rasped something just loud enough for her to hear.
Mrs. Poppleton’s eyes went wide. Her face froze and she stiffened in her seat.
Mr. Gum lifted the radio he used to talk with the office. He turned his back and began speaking, his voice low enough no one could hear what he was saying.
Like everyone else in the room, Brady was focused on the man like a laser beam. Something was obviously wrong. Not only that, but—
He just looked at me!
Brady felt the hair prickle on the back of his neck. The assistant principal had turned around again. His eyes flicked across the room and Brady was certain that—for a split second—they’d focused on him.
The room suddenly felt unusually warm.
What’s going on?
Brady glanced at Ethan, then looked back at the principal. The man was looking away now, and though he seemed casual … he almost seemed too casual.
Like he knows something’s wrong, but doesn’t want to worry anyone.
And he almost seemed to be trying not to look at Brady.
Mr. Gum’s radio beeped and he held it to his ear. He listened for a moment, spoke a single word, then turned and looked at Brady.
“Mr. Williams? The principal would like to see you in his office.”
Brady blinked as his blood turned to ice. “Me?”
“Now,” the former marine snapped, the drill sergeant to a lazy recruit. “And don’t stop on your way there!”
Chills crawled along Brady’s spine like huge, hairy spiders.
“Mr. Williams,” the man barked, “Mr. Huff wants you now!”
Brady stood and nodded. “Should I take my backpack?”
“Now!” the man snapped.
More confused than ever, Brady gave Ethan a worried look, then kicked his pack beneath his desk and walked from the room. He felt the eyes of his classmates boring into his back as he left.
WHAT’S GOING ON? Brady wondered as he walked down the hall.
He defied Mr. Gum’s orders and stopped at the drinking fountain.
It didn’t make sense: whenever a principal needed to give someone a good chewing out, he just called the kid’s teacher over the intercom. Or maybe sent an aide to the kid’s room with a note. Never once had Brady seen a principal actually show up to collect a student in person.
Am I in trouble or something? he wondered. What did I do?
And—something else occurred to him—why isn’t Mr. Gum coming with me?
Brady stopped and looked around, noticing for the first time that the halls were empty. Deserted.
Weird, he thought.
Even in the middle of class there were always people in the halls. There was always someone heading for a bathroom, getting a drink, or retrieving supplies from a locker. And that was in addition to the troublemakers who’d been kicked out of class and told to sit in the hall.
Not a soul.
Brady glanced around as he walked, the sound of his footsteps echoing hollowly against the aluminum lockers that lined the halls.
The classroom doors …
Brady stopped and looked up and down the hall. The doors to the classrooms all opened outward. And most teachers left them open during class.
But today …
Every door in the hall was closed.
It’s like we’re locked down or something, he thought.
He turned and saw that someone had quietly closed Mrs. Poppleton’s door after he left.
He felt a cold knot begin twisting in his stomach. Something was obviously wrong, but he had no idea what it could be.
He rubbed the ferret bite on his hand—
Feelin’ kinda itchy …
—as he walked. He came to an intersection and noticed that the math and science wings were deserted, too.
And the doors are all closed here, too!
Brady stopped, thinking it over. With violence in schools occurring more and more often, most schools had lockdown procedures. Whenever there was a threat, teachers shut and locked their doors until the building was safe again.
But why now? Brady wondered. If we were locked down, Mr. Gum would have known it. He wouldn’t have let me out of the room.
He was about to move on when there was a sound: the click of a boot on the tile floor. He turned as a man dressed in camouflaged army fatigues stepped into the hall behind him. The man had a face like granite (no expression at all). And he had a weapon (a pistol or something) strapped to his belt.
And clipped to the other side … well, it looked like a gas mask.
Brady stared at the soldier for a moment—
Is it career day or something? Someone’s dad returning from Afghanistan? The National Guard recruiting eighth graders to fight ISIS?
—then realized the man’s expression wasn’t completely granite. There was a flicker of … what? Concern, maybe?
Brady wasn’t certain, but it seemed the man didn’t want to come any closer. Brady frowned—
Navy SEAL you ain’t, dude!
—then continued walking toward the office, the soldier following at a wary distance.
Brady began walking faster, the soldier’s boots clicking ominously behind him. He turned the corner into the school lobby and froze.
Mr. Huff—the principal—was standing on the far side of the lobby. Normally a firm but friendly man, his face was drawn and twisted, lined with fear. A dozen soldiers holding rifles were standing around him.
One of the soldiers, a man with stars on his cap—
—was glowering at Brady through cold, hard eyes. His voice was sharp as broken glass.
“Is that him?”
Mr. Huff was staring straight at Brady, his eyes wide with terror.
“Yes, that’s him.”
And then: “Hurry … get him!”
So there you go! Like I said, it’s a fun story with a happy ending. I hope you’ll take a look!