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Of Mice and Nutcrackers
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Of Mice & Nutcrackers

Chapter One: Waiting Room

The baby next to me sounds like a machine gun. Ack ack ack ack ack. She’s an ugly baby: almost bald, with gummy brown eyes, a bubbling nose, and a wide-open toothless mouth. Her tonsils waggle as she coughs again. Ack ack ack ack ack.

“There, there, sweet pea,” says her mom.

Sweet pea.

The hospital walk-in clinic is filled with coughers. Also sniffers and wheezers, moaners and drippers. It’s December. Flu season. Kids clutch dirty toys. Parents
wipe runny noses. Cartoon characters stare down from the walls. They don’t care. They’ve seen it all before.

“Peeler!” calls the nurse. She has orange hair and black eyebrows. Good makeup for Halloween. Too bad it was weeks ago. She should put on her Christmas makeup soon.

“Bernard Peeler.”

“Right here,” says Dad. He’s holding my kid brother Bernie in his arms. Bernie’s one of the wheezers. That’s why we’re here. His breathing was bad this morning, when I left for school, and it got worse through the day. Dad didn’t even let Bill and me take off our coats when we got home from school. “We’re taking Bernie to the hospital,” he said, in that tone of voice that means no arguing.

I didn’t say, “But I’m thirteen; I can stay home by myself.” I didn’t say, “But I have homework.” I didn’t say anything. I turned around and walked back out the front door.

Bill said, “Aye, aye, sir.” He’s been saying that for a while now. He thinks he’s a sailor. Last summer he was an astronaut, always saying “roger,” or “affirmative,” or “Houston, we have a problem,” but he’s been watching a lot of sea stories on tv lately. And there’s this comic book series set on a sailing ship, with cannons and cutlasses and mizzenmasts. Last month he changed his personal e-mail address from Astrocoolboy to Not_unjolly_Roger. I’m getting tired of larboard and starboard and splicing the main brace.

“Bernard Peeler!” says the nurse again.

Dad stands up. Bernie wheezes in his arms.

The ugly baby beside me goes off again. Ack ack ack ack ack.

Bill paces up and down in the waiting room. His pants are wet at the bottom from the crust of slush that covers the sidewalks.We were supposed to get a major snowfall last week, but it wasn’t major, and it wasn’t really snow. Now it isn’t really anything at all.

He stops pacing suddenly – the way he does everything. He slumps into Dad’s chair and picks up the nearest book. A fat one, with a lamp on the cover. Bill is eleven: not much of a reader, not like me, but he likes to pretend. He starts turning pages. I open my knapsack. I take out my “Nutcracker” notebook.

Usually The Nutcracker is a ballet, with music you recognize from “Bugs Bunny” or “Walt Disney.” My mom took me to see it when I was seven. I don’t remember anything about it except the strawberry ice cream at intermission. It came in a silver dish, and there was a rolled-up wafer cookie in the middle. Mmmm! Anyway, our class – 7e – is doing a musical play based on The Nutcracker at the winter concert next week. I’m the director because it was all my idea.
I wrote it – actually, I wrote the words. Tchaikovsky wrote the music. My best friend Patti is Maria, the heroine. Miss Gonsalves, our teacher, plays the piano. We’ve been rehearsing in the classroom for weeks. Tomorrow we get our first chance onstage in the
gym. I can hardly wait.

I go over my notes from today: Justin likes doll too much. Justin is a slender well-dressed boy who sits in the front row of the class and raises his eyebrows a lot. He plays Maria’s brother Fritz, who gets an ugly nutcracker for Christmas. He’s supposed to toss it aside because he’d rather play with his toy soldiers.

Only Justin can’t help smoothing down the fur on our nutcracker doll’s hat.

I wonder if we could get a different nutcracker doll. An uglier one. I’ll ask Patti’s mom. She works in a gift shop. And I’ll tell Justin again.

Next note: a single name, circled twice. Jiri. Oh, dear. He only has five lines, but he keeps forgetting them. I probably shouldn’t have given him a speaking part. I thought and thought about it. Patti was against the idea, but I like Jiri, and he begged me to give him
something to say. I’ll have to talk to him too.

Next note: a phone number. I’m supposed to remind Trinley’s mom, who’s sewing the costume for the Mouse King, that we need it next Monday. Also to remind her that Essa, who plays the part, is really small.

Directing is more complicated than you think. It’s not just bossing people around.
Bill’s lips are moving as he reads. His eyebrows are down, and his mouth is open. He really seems interested.

“What’s the book about?” I say.

“A storm at sea.”

Figures.

The nurse calls the machine-gun baby, who gives me one last cough on her way out. “There, there, sweet pea,” says her mom.

I think about the atmosphere in the hospital waiting room: a thick soup of germs, spiced with menthol and eucalyptus and dirty diapers. I try to breathe very lightly, through my nose. Maybe, if I take little breaths, the germs won’t find their way down into my lungs.

Brad from my class comes into the waiting room, with his mom. He has golden hair – not blond or yellow, but gold, like a sunset. I can’t decide if I like Brad or not. He smiles a special smile at me, like he’s more interested in what I have to say than anything else in the world. A personal-for-me smile – and that’s nice. And then I’ll see him talking to Miss Gonsalves, or to my friend Patti, and he’ll have the same special smile on his face.

Patti doesn’t like him. She says his hair is the same color as margarine.

Brad was fine in school this afternoon, but now he’s holding one hand in the other, cradling it.

His mom is checking in with the nurse. “My name is Ogilvy!” she says, in a loud voice. “With an O.”

How else could you spell the name? I wonder. Pogilvy – only the P is silent, like pneumonia. Or
psoriasis. Or Psmith. I wonder if that’s what the machine-gun baby has: pneumonia.

Hey, Brad notices me. I wave at him. He tries to wave back with his good hand, winces in pain. Poor guy.

“Who’s that, dear?” asks his mom. She frowns in my direction.

“A friend of mine from school,” says Brad.

His mom looks from me to Brad, then comes right up to where I’m standing. “What’s your name?” she says.

I tell her.

She nods, filing me away. “I like to know all about Brad’s friends,” she says.

Not much to say to that.

“What happened to you?” I ask Brad. He looks embarrassed. “Hangnail,” he mutters at
last.

“What?”

“A bad one. See?” He shows me. There’s some blood on his middle finger.

“Oh, yes,” I say.

Brad’s mom stares at me.
“Looks like you should be okay for tomorrow’s rehearsal, though.” Of course Brad is the star – the handsome prince transformed into a nutcracker doll.

“Rehearsal?” Brad’s mom makes it sound like a dirty word. The way I’d say “cockroach.”

“Uh, Jane and I are doing a project together in school,” says Brad. He shakes his head at me. Why? I wonder.

“What kind of project?” his mom asks. “Why do you need to rehearse?” Again she emphasizes the word.

“It’s The Nut –” I begin, but Brad interrupts.

“About nuts,” he says, quickly and loudly. “A project about nuts. For science class.” He smiles at
me – the special one.

“Nuts?” says his mom.

“Sure,” I say quickly. I find myself playing along. I don’t know why – maybe it’s the smile. “Nuts. All about nuts. Peanuts, chestnuts, cashews. Say, Brad, I found out where Brazil nuts come from today. Do you know where Brazil nuts come from? I’ll give you a hint.”

“Ogilvy,” says the nurse.

“Come on,” says Brad, dragging his mom away. He looks back for a second, shrugs his shoulders. I wave good-bye.

Weird.

Bernie’s looking better when he gets back. “Hi, Bill,” he says. “Hi, Jane. I can breathe now. See?” He breathes in, and starts to cough.

“Careful,” says Dad.

Dad’s not looking so good. His face is redder than usual, and he’s taking a long time doing up Bernie’s snowsuit. His hand trembles on the zipper.

“Come on,” I say to Bill.

“In a minute,” he says. “This is interesting. The storm is so bad they’re going to throw this guy John overboard.”

“Why?”

“He’s a stowaway, and they figure he brought the storm.”

“What are you reading?” asks Dad, looking over.
Bill holds up the book with the lamp on the cover. The Bible.

Dad laughs. “That’s not John, it’s Jonah.With an a.”

Bill peers at the page. “Oh, yeah,” he says. “How did you know?”

“I used to go to Sunday school,” says Dad. “Now, let’s get home. It’s almost dinnertime, and we have to get Bernie’s prescription.”

“Could I take this book with me?” asks Bill. “I want to finish the story.”
“I think we have a copy at home,” says Dad. “Somewhere.”

A dark December evening with the streetlights on and a cold wind whistling up your sleeves and down your collar. I shiver. A shadow flits over the snow as we walk across the hospital parking lot. Big and black and spooky – the shadow, that is. The snow is white, though it looks blue in the streetlights. There isn’t a lot of snow – just enough to cover the ground, and collect in the folds of the garbage bags piled high by the curb.

“Avast!” says Bill, grabbing my arm to stop me. He points up into a big bare tree behind us. “D’you see that bird?”

“No,” I say.

Dad is pushing Bernie in the stroller. They’re ahead of us. Dad’s head is down. He’s hunched over. From the back he looks like an old man.

“It’s a raven,” says Bill. “The bird of doom.”

“Bill – shut up!” I say.

“They say the raven hovers around houses of ill luck. Someone inside . . . that place there is very ill.” He points dramatically.

“Bill, that’s the hospital,” I say.

“You see!” he says. “That proves it.”

I stare up into the tree. The bare branches look cold and spooky. “It’s not a raven, anyway. It’s a duck, or something.”

“A raven,” he insists.

I make a quacking sound. “The duck of doom!”

Bill snorts with laughter.

We stop at the big drugstore on Copernicus Street and get Bernie’s prescription, and some cough drops for Dad – the kind that taste horrible. Bernie doesn’t try to climb out of the stroller, like he usually does.

The houses are close together on our street. I can tell ours even from a distance because it and the house beside it – we share a roof – lean into each other, like friends with their arms linked.There’s a light on in our house. The front door opens. A beam of gold shines out from the hall onto our front walk. Mom stands in the doorway. She must have been watching for us. The
beam of golden light makes her red-brown hair shine like a halo. She waves. We wave back.

From right overhead comes the most hollow mournful croaking sound. Scary as anything. It
sounds like an old coffin door swinging shut – right on you. I jump. So does Bill.

“That wasn’t a duck,” says Bill.

______________________

Excerpted from Of Mice & Nutcrackers by Richard Scrimger Copyright © 2001 by Richard Scrimger Excerpted by permission of Tundra Books. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher

 

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Published by Tundra Books

Cover artwork used with permission.
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