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Authors: Terry Caszatt

Brass Monkeys

By Terry Caszatt

Brass Monkeys
Text Copyright © 2010 by Terry Caszatt

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without express written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

A Mackinac Island Book
Published by Charlesbridge
85 Main Street
Watertown, MA 02472
(617) 926-0329

First Edition

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data on file


ISBN 978-1-934133-30-9 (hardcover)
ISBN 978-1-934133-31-6 (paperback)

Summary: Bumbling, cowardly Eugene, 13, is forced to transfer to a new school in northern Michigan. He has no idea how bad it’s going to get until he meets his scary and frightening English teacher, “Ming the Merciless.” That is the beginning of the most frightening field trip of his LIFE.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and events are works of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any similarities to any person is coincidental.

Cover design and art by Tom Mills

Printed September 2010 by Lake Book Manufacturing, Inc. in Melrose Park, Illinois, USA

(hc) 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
(sc) 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

This book is dedicated to
my wife, Marlene Camille, bright and beautiful light

the old man and the orange bicycle

I was grouchy, gloomy, and totally depressed right from the start, but when we drove down the exit ramp in the blowing snow and I saw the town itself, I felt fifty-nine bazillion times worse.

“Mom, tell me this isn’t it,” I said.

“This is it, honey,” she said cheerfully. “Our new home.” She kept a tight grip on the steering wheel, trying to control the rental trailer we were towing. “Isn’t this simply beautiful country?” She nodded toward a snow-blurred swamp.

I just shook my head. My mom is the kind of person who could drive through the entrance to that hot and fiery you-know-where place and say, “Wow, look at the wonderful scrollwork on those gates!”

At the bottom of the exit ramp, a huge billboard loomed out of the snow. It showed a bunch of gnome-like people who had pumpkins for heads. The sign read

I knew right then I was headed for something weird.

“Boy, I can’t wait to look like one of them,” I said, pointing at the sign.

“Honey, honey, attitude please,” said Mom in that little singsong way, but there was just the tiniest edge to her voice.

When we pulled off the exit ramp we were right on the small main street of Grindsville, but I couldn’t see much because of the blowing snow. Then the wind let up and I saw the old storefronts emerge like a row of grumpy faces.

“Mom, this is so awful. Look at this place.”

“Come on, I kind of like it,” she said. “It’s got a certain charm.”

“Charm?” I said. This was one of her favorite words and I groaned and slumped back. Right then, when I did the slumping, I saw the weirdest thing. Or thought I did. Snow was drifting heavily across the mouth of an alley, but I saw what appeared to be an old bearded guy sitting on a bicycle, just watching the traffic go by. He was covered with snow and looked frozen. I opened my mouth to say something, but then we were past the alley and I let it go. The truth was, I wasn’t sure what I’d seen. Anyway, Mom took up the slack.

“Honey, there’s your new school. Oh my gosh, it’s such a neat, older building, so traditional looking, so—”

“So pathetic,” I said, catching a glimpse of a typical two-story brick school. I knew I sounded whiny, but I didn’t really care. I mean, how would you feel if you were thirteen and moving to a new school in December? How about panic, nausea, and downright hysteria?

“Listen, Mr. Billy,” Mom began, using my nickname for the first time that day.

“I think it’s time to stop whining and realize this is a wonderful opportunity.”

My real name is Eugene Ithaca Wise, and whenever Mom starts up with “Mr. Billy,” it means she’s getting a tad impatient with my attitude. If she calls me “Mr. Billy Bumpus,” it means I’ve gone too far and I’d better shape up.

“Wonderful opportunity?” I whined on. “We could have thrown a dart at the map and done better. Why did we have to end up in such a weird place?”

“Honey, first of all it’s not a weird place,” said Mom in that determined-to-be-patient voice, “and second, I’ve explained why a hundred times. We ended up here because my old high school friend, Doris Avery, lives here and she offered to give me a job in her hair salon. It’s really quite simple.”

“Right, simple.” I rolled my eyes. This was another of Mom’s favorite words. In reality the whole move had been a gigantic mess, and there was nothing simple about it. The truth was, we were homeless, on the road in winter, and it was all my fault.

I won’t bore you with all the gruesome details, but basically this is what happened. At my last school, Harris Junior High, I was expelled for pushing the principal off the gym stage. Duh, of course I didn’t do it. See, we were at this pep rally in the gym and I was in a crowd of kids on the stage and standing next to the principal, Mr. Brigvoort. (The kids called him “Big Wart.”) Just as he was called to the microphone, he sort of lost his balance, and stupid me, thinking I was going to be the school hero, I reached out to save him. But being the primo klutz I am, I only fumbled at his sleeve. When he went over splat, right onto the gym floor, it looked like I’d shoved him.

It didn’t help that a couple of hot-shot ninth graders started yelling, “He pushed him! The little butt-brain pushed him!” Before I knew what was happening, I was hauled to the office by several outraged teachers and two days later the school board met to discuss my situation. Which wasn’t good.

I guess I still could have saved myself at the meeting. The board told me all I had to do was “tell the truth” and admit I had pushed Mr. Brigvoort off the stage, and they would “take that into consideration.” But I couldn’t admit to a lie, and I was so mad I froze up and stood there crying like a fool. I remember Brigvoort saying in a puffed-up way, “Some people like to cause trouble, don’t they. But boy, when the old lightning strikes, it’s funny how they turn into cowards.”

Boy, it’s more funny how adults can’t seem to get it right. The truth was, I was a coward from the start, scared of practically everything. I mean, I had spent my entire thirteen years trying to avoid trouble, but still that “old lightning” seemed to come out of nowhere to nail me in the tail feathers.

I even began to recognize the warning signs that led up to one of those bolts. I made up a word, “pingeroo,” which means, “Uh-oh, I feel something weird in the air.” If I said “big fat pingeroo” that meant the bolt was building up. If I simply said “roo,” it was probably too late to get out of the way.

Mom made a last-minute appeal to the board, and it might have helped, but then a “concerned neighbor” came in and testified that I had been playing “demon music” in my basement. Oh, right. As if playing some cool Spanish tunes on my trumpet was a crime. When I tried to explain what kind of music I liked, one of the board members said, “Why don’t you like rock and roll or that stuff they call hippety-hop? That’s what normal kids listen to.”

Hippety hop?
That’s when I lost my temper and said, “Yeah, well, maybe I’m not normal.”

Mom said later that snippy remark was the deciding moment. Even though she had passed out free samples of Herbal Gold Emulsion (the fiber that promotes regularity) to the board, they voted 7 to 0 to expel me. So here we were, just a week before Christmas on a blizzardy day, pulling up to the only stoplight in Grindsville, Michigan, the most depressing town in the entire universe.

“Mom, look at that,” I said. “All the heads are missing from the parking meters. You’ve got to admit that’s wacky.”

“Not necessarily,” countered Mom. “It could be a simple sign of hospitality.”

I looked over at her. I thought maybe, just maybe, there was a hint of humor there. But no such luck. She was serious.

“Oh darn, what’s the name of Doris’s salon?” Mom was eyeing the buildings.

“I don’t know,” I said. “‘Curl ‘Em Tight,’ or something like that.”

“Don’t be silly. It was something serious. Shoot, she told me it was on the main street and easy to find, but I don’t see it. I’m going to have to stop and ask.”

“Mom,” I said, “let’s just cruise around. We can find the place on our own.” I had the desperate hope that if we couldn’t find it, maybe we wouldn’t stay.

But she was already pulling into a parking lot next to a row of old, mostly vacant, stores. “That laundry’s open,” she said. “I’ll just pop in and ask.”

Frankly, I don’t know how she could tell it was open. It was barely lit and I couldn’t see anybody moving around. Mom got out and went inside and I saw a lady stand up and start talking to her. I sighed and started to go through my music CDs.

I had just popped in my favorite,
Spanish Knights
, and was really getting into “Malagueña,” my all-time favorite song, when a man appeared at the entrance to the alley across from me. First there was nothing but blowing snow, then suddenly he was there and staring right at me. I sat bolt upright. It was the old guy I’d seen sitting on the bike. I was sure of it.

He had a gray beard and wore some beat-up pants, a green stocking cap, and a faded Navy pea coat. Now he seemed to see something off to his right and he jumped back into the alley. I waited tensely and a few seconds later he popped into view and began gesturing frantically at me. I think I made a big facial “Whaaat?” All at once he gave up in frustration. He disappeared momentarily into the alley and then came out and headed quickly down the street pushing … yup,
the bicycle
. It was a pukey orange-colored thing and there was a large brown suitcase riding in the front basket.

This is where it got totally bizarre. He stopped and looked back at me one last time. That’s when I saw the thing hanging from his belt. I shook my head in disbelief. Even with the snow swirling around him like a ghostly cape, I knew what it was. It was a sword.

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