J. Robert King


Incorrigibles

Incorrigibles

I wrote this novel for my three boys and read it to them at bedtime. They loved it. They now are 21, 20, and 18, and fine young gentlemen, all. I am now posting this story for free, a chapter a day, for all parents who have brilliant children who like bedtime stories (because, as you will find, this story requires very bright children). I give you this novel with the words of my exemplar, C. S. Lewis, from his dedication to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:

My Dear Lucy,
I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall still be your affectionate Godfather.

C. S. Lewis

Chapter 1: Permanent Record

in which Mrs. Lemonhurtz is

boggled by a boggle

Benjamin Gosling sat alone in the principal’s office. Dread pinned him to the wooden chair. He stared at his reflection in the big white desk in front of him. On top of the desk was a plaque that said “Lemonhurtz.”

That was the principal’s name: Mrs. Lemonhurtz. Ben didn’t hold it against her. With a name like Gosling, he couldn’t be too critical. And since he was small for a sixth grader—and quiet and shy, too—he made it a rule not to hold anything against anyone.

Sadly, Mrs. Lemonhurtz was the kind who held everything against everyone. In the center of her desk, she had set out Ben’s permanent record—a folder filled with papers about everything he’d ever done wrong. Mrs. Lemonhurtz had two filing cabinets full of permanent records, but Ben’s folder was the thickest. Today, it would get even thicker.

Ben heard her heels clack on the tile outside and the shush shush shush of her skirt getting louder as she approached. Mrs. Lemonhurtz entered the office and marched past him. Her face was the shape of a lemon, and her skin had the same rumply texture, and she puckered all the time like being a lemon really did hurt. She held a thick batch of papers, each filled with black type and all held together by a twisted staple.

“Do you know what the word formality means?” Mrs. Lemonhurtz asked as she pulled out her metal chair and sat behind the big white desk.

Ben gulped. “Could you use it in a sentence?”

Mrs. Lemonhurtz’s smile showed teeth the color of mushrooms. “Just as a formality, why don’t you tell me what happened today in Life Sciences?”

Ben blinked. “We got a test about the Tree of Life. You know—kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.” Ben might have been small and shy, but he was also very bright.

Mrs. Lemonhurtz’s eyes flared. “Hands, please!” she said, lifting her craggy palms toward him. Ben showed his own hands in the same way, and Mrs. Lemonhurtz squinted to see if the answers were written in the creases of his palms. “How did you know all that?”

“Oh, it’s K-P-C-O-F-G-S. I came up with a sentence: Kids Puke the Cafeteria’s Obnoxious, Foul, Greasy Sandwiches.”

Mrs. Lemonhurtz scowled and drew out Benjamin’s test paper, with a big red F on it. “Well, if you know the Tree of Life so well, why did you flunk the test?”

Ben stared in sad amazement at the paper. “I don’t know why.”

“I’ll tell you why,” she said, turning to the second page, where the essay question was. “This question asked you to describe the Tree of Life, and here’s what you wrote:

“ ‘The Tree of Life shows how animals and plants are connected. The kingdom tells if the thing is a plant or animal, and the phylum tells what kind of plant or animal. The class tells things like if it has a nervous system, and the order tells things like if it has a skeleton inside or out. The family tells if it has warm blood or cold. The genus tells if it is a dog or cat or whatever, and the species tells exactly what it is.’ ”

Ben shrugged. “That’s right, yeah?”

Mrs. Lemonhurtz held up her finger and went on reading: “ ‘But there’s plenty of living things that aren’t on the tree. That’s because scientists don’t see them. Boggles, for example.’ ”

Ben nodded.

“ ‘Boggles are small, yellow men with wide mouths like frogs and balding foreheads. They’re not as bald as Mr. Jenkins, the gym teacher, but they’re more bald than Mrs. Reynolds, who dyes her hair. Boggles ride doves through the air and squirrels through the trees and moles through the ground.’ ” Mrs. Lemonhurtz let the paper sag and said. “What’s all this about boggles?”

Ben pointed to the paper. “Just what it says—they’re not on the Tree of Life.”

“Of course they’re not on the Tree of Life! They don’t exist!”

“Yeah they do.”

“No they don’t! No one has ever seen these creatures.”

Ben blinked. “I’ve seen them. I see them all the time.”

Mrs. Lemonhurtz snorted. “Where? Show me a boggle.”

“They don’t come into . . . places like this,” Ben said defensively. “They’re like squirrels. You know—all around, but they know where they’re not wanted.”

Just then, a pearl-colored dove lighted on the windowsill, and a little yellow man stood up in the bird’s stirrups and pulled off his jaunty green hat and waved a greeting. Ben had seen this fat-bellied boggle a few times before, fighting crows for first pickings out of the cafeteria Dumpster. Ben had even given this fellow a name—Old Tom.

“Look! There’s one now!”

Mrs. Lemonhurtz whirled about and glared at the dove. Old Tom returned her glare but then flipped the reins and sent the dove flapping away. Mrs. Lemonhurtz turned slowly about. “A pigeon?”

“Not the bird. The rider, Old Tom—a boggle!”

With a heavy sigh, Mrs. Lemonhurtz showed the final page of Ben’s test, with his essay marked out with a big red X. Beneath the essay was a picture he had drawn of a boggle. “Benjamin, I’m ashamed. You broke Rule Number 1: No referring to mythical creatures.”

“But boggles aren’t mythical—”

She flipped to another part of the permanent record. “Your I.E.P states that ‘Ben will cease to refer to mythical creatures ninety-nine percent of the time.’ ”

“Maybe this is the one percent.”

“This is the ninety-nine percent, Benjamin. This is what always happens! Your teachers are fed up. Your foster parents are fed up. Your principal is fed up. Do you know the meaning of the word incorrigible?”

Ben bit his lip. “It means someone who’s cheer-up-able?”

“No, it means someone who can’t be corrected. Someone who can’t be fixed.” Mrs. Lemonhurtz’s face clenched as she pulled one terrible sheaf from the permanent record. “It means you, Benjamin.”

Ben stared at the pages in Mrs. Lemonhurtz’s hands, only then noticing all the places where people had signed their names.

“They’ve all signed it,” Mrs. Lemonhurtz replied, pretending to be sad. “Your teachers, every last one—and the school psychologist, and Sandy, the state social worker, and your foster parents—”

Which foster parents?”

“The latest ones,” Mrs. Lemonhurtz intoned.

“Oh, they would,” Ben said miserably. He’d been with the Carlsons for just two weeks. “I’ve not been with them long enough for them to sign papers about me.”

“Apparently you have,” Mrs. Lemonhurtz noted. “And now, I will add my signature, and you will need to leave Adalai Stevens Middle School. You’re bound for a school for your own kind—the School for Incorrigibles.” She placed the signed document in Ben’s permanent file, closed it, and said, “Maybe they will have boggles there for you.”

Chapter 2: The Lion and the Gate of Pearl

in which Ben journeys through

the darkness and into the light

 

Ben sat on a crowded South Shore train beside the state social worker, whose name was Sandy and whose hair was, as well. She wore a white pants suit with little uneven black blotches on it like the state of Texas ten thousand times over. Sandy felt chatty—not with Benjamin but with the cell-phone in her hand. She wore a diamond engagement ring, and she used her thumb to spin it over and over while saying things like, “I know! Can you believe it? Half a carat, on his salary?”

Sandy seemed nice, but she had signed the papers just like all the rest.

Those papers were why Benjamin’s two-week stay at the Carlsons’ was at an end. Because of those papers, he had to pack up his life in the big black trunk—again. This time, Ben was riding with Sandy into Chicago. “You’ll love it,” she had told him. “It’s hog butcher to the world.”

Ben had nothing against hogs.

Sandy had driven him to the South Shore station, and they had boarded the train and ridden past the dump and the refineries and the grain silos and the hundred thousand weary old houses jammed together. The train was bound for the heart of heartless Chicago, for the School for Incorrigibles.

All because of Rule Number 1: No referring to mythical creatures. Adults knew that if you couldn’t mention something, the thing started to fade. If Ben didn’t talk about boggles, soon he wouldn’t be able to see them, either. He’d be like everyone else.

Instead, he was an Incorrigible.

The train was deep in the heart of Chicago now, riding on elevated tracks down a canyon of looming gray buildings. They looked old and frustrated. On a platform ahead, weary adults crowded, waiting to trudge into the car. With a hiss and a rumble and a thump, the train slowed and stopped.

Sandy glanced out the window and said into her phone, “Got to go. We’re at our stop. I’ll call again once the urchin’s settled.” She folded her phone, stowed it in a pocket of her pants suit, and turned her smile on Ben. “We’re here!”

Ben looked out the windows at row on row of gray storefronts and pessimistic doorways. “We here?”

“Yep,” Sandy said brightly. “Well, it’s actually a little bit of a hike. The home’s about two blocks away.” Standing, she pointied at Ben’s big black trunk. “Come along.”

Ben grabbed the handle of the trunk and hauled the heavy thing up on his back. As the train doors opened, he waddled after Sandy out onto the platform. He felt like a Galapagos tortoise.

“It’s a historic neighborhood,” Sandy said breezily as she walked down the metal stairs that led to the street. “Jewelers Row. . . This is where raw diamonds are cut and traded. Think of that—all those rough stones coming here, and with just the right taps of the chisel—voila—” she kissed the stone on her engagement ring, “a precious diamond!”

“Chislers.”

“Look at these buildings,” Sandy went on. “Most are over a hundred years old. They say the School for Incorrigibles is twice as old. It’s the only building in the Loop that survived the great Chicago fire. Pretty suspicious, if you ask me. Some people say it was the kids that set the fire—that they framed the cow.”

Ben looked up at the gray buildings and imagined them on fire and felt a little better.

He and Sandy passed door after unfriendly door and finally reached one that was half the width and half the height of the others. Above it, a wrought-iron sign announced, “School for Incorrigibles.”

“Small,” Ben said.

“You’re small,” Sandy pointed out, tweaking his nose. “It’ll fit you fine. Besides, two hundred years ago, everybody was small. They didn’t have vitamins.” Sandy’s eyes searched the scarred wooden doorframe. “Now, where’s the doorbell?” She began flipping back ivy.

“How ’bout the knocker?” Ben asked, pointing to a life-sized lion head in bronze. The knocker was so old that the brass had turned greenish-black, and centuries of rain had worn down the lion’s features and stained the wood beneath them. In the beasts’ great teeth hung a large black ring, crusty with age.

“It’s the twenty-first century, for goodness sake. Who would want to risk a nail grabbing that old grimy—” Sandy was saying even as Ben grabbed the ring and rapped it against the door.

“ROOOOOAAAAR!” said the brass lion.

Ben staggered back in terror, the ring dropping loose in his grip as the lion’s mouth yawned wide. He stumbled against Sandy, and they both tumbled to the sidewalk, Ben landing on top.

“What was that for?” Sandy wanted to know.

Ben gabbled, “It—it roared!”

“What roared?”

“That lion.”

Sandy pushed him off her lap and struggled to her feet, patting dust out of her pants suit. She forced a laugh and pointed overhead, where a train rattled past on the elevated track. “It was just the train.” She studied her engagement ring. “You’re lucky you didn’t damage the ring.”

Ben held up the big black ring and blinked. “Not damaged. Just loose.”

“Loose?” Sandy yelped, checking the stone on her finger.

“Yeah, it came out of the lion’s—” He stopped speaking because, there before him, the old doorway was creaking slowly open, revealing a long, low, dark tunnel.

“Well,” said Sandy. “I guess it’s unlocked.” She crooked a finger. “Come on.” Sandy stepped across the threshold, right past the greenish lion.

Numbly, Ben stood up, brushed himself off, and followed. He slid sideways through the door, not wanting to take his eyes off the lion. Just as he passed the beast, though, it lunged. Ben yelped as a black tooth scratched his hand, and that horrible mouth clamped down on the ring, pulling it free.

“Thanks,” it said in a muffled voice.

Ben scuttled away from it, dragging his trunk down the dark passageway. He couldn’t see anything, but he smelled a cold and oozy smell, like the underside of a rock where pill bugs live.

“Stop playing around,” Sandy said from the darkness ahead. “I see a light.”

Ben rushed toward the sound of her voice and plowed straight into her again.

“Ow! Watch it! The door’s closed!”

“Sorry,” Ben mumbled, stepping back to see a slim crescent of light overhead. As his eyes adjusted, he realized the light was bleeding out around a huge, spherical stone. “Is that a door?”

“Well,” Sandy huffed. “I thought it was . . . but—what a strange door! And there’s no handle.” She grunted a little. “And it won’t budge.”

“I don’t think it’s right,” Ben said.

“Eww,” Sandy said with sudden dread. “You don’t think we’re in the sewer, do you? The Chicago sewer!” Panicking, she shoved her way past Ben and his trunk.

He turned to follow her, but his hand brushed against the wonderfully smooth sphere of stone. Soundlessly, it rolled back, and bright light poured in around it. Ben winced from the light but heard a craggy old voice say, “Benjamin Gosling, I presume.”

Ben froze in place.

“Don’t look at me that way. You must be Benjamin Gosling,” the voice went on. “Only an Incorrigible can open the gate of pearl.”

Ben squinted into the light but couldn’t see the speaker. “Yes. I’m Ben  Gosling.”

“Come in! Come in! Let’s not linger in doorways, shall we?”

Wincing from the brightness, Ben stepped tentatively forward and let his trunk drop down beside his feet.

“Oh, yes, of course. Tunnel vision. Here, try these,” the man said, sliding a pair of blue-tinted glasses over Ben’s eyes.

 

Chapter 3: Strange Sights

in which Ben sees for the first time

what he has seen all along

 

Now Ben could see the old man: tall and thin, with a bald head like a boggle’s. White tufts of hair surrounded it, and eyes the size and color of fresh peas blinked at him. The man’s nose was long like a carrot, and his lips were thin and jaunty like green beans with the stems on. The man wore a red velvet jacket that reached to his knees, which were exposed above a pair of tall, scuffed brown boots.

Shoes scuttled to Ben’s left, and he glanced over to see Sandy stagger into the room. Her pantsuit was smudged, and her eyes bugged out, stupefied by the bright space, until the man flicked glasses onto her face.

He smiled at them both and bowed grandly. “Welcome to the Incorrigible Library.”

And what a library it was! The chamber was shaped like a silo—tall and round, reaching up toward a glass dome that blazed with sunlight. Each curved wall of the library was packed with books, and an assortment of ladders on wheels leaned against the stacks. Eight-foot ladders and sixteen and twenty-four and thirty-two and forty . . . but even the tallest ladder reached only halfway up the wall. It left off with a good forty feet of shelves, accessible only by a set of trapezes.

Sandy’s eyes fluttered behind her blue glasses. “Incorrigible Library?”

“Oh, yes. Most Incorrigible,” the man replied. “This is where the banned books go.”

Sandy gave a little shudder and walked toward one wall. “The Origin of Rashes by Charles Darwin, The Care and Feeding of Imaginary Friends by Joan of Arc, How to Get Rich by L. Ron Hubbard, Why Bishops Limp by Mark Twain, True Divinity by C.S. Lewis, What I Saw by Wee Willie Winky—I’ve never heard of any of these books.”

“Of course not,” said the man. He had circled around behind her and now rammed a chair up against her legs, causing her to plop down into it. “Let me introduce myself. I am Mr. Bodachan, headmaster of the School for Incorrigibles.” Suddenly, the headmaster was behind Ben and shoved a chair to make him plop down, too. “And young Ben here is seeking entry to the school, yes?”

Sandy blinked dizzily behind the blue glasses she wore, but she managed to say, “Yes. Exactly.” She reached down into her satchel and pulled out Ben’s permanent file, with its thousand signatures and its single twisted staple. “You’ll find that everything is in order.”

Mr. Bodachan was suddenly at her side, and he snatched up the papers and fanned through them, his pealike eyes darting. “Almost everything.” Lifting the papers high, he crossed to a single file drawer that protruded from the stacks. The front of the drawer was marked, “A-Z.” Mr. Bodachan yanked on the handle and drew the drawer out and marched, dragging the drawer behind him. Six feet, ten feet, twenty feet—it was a very deep drawer. Having strode halfway across the library, Mr. Bodachan stopped and said, “Ah, yes: G.” Then he rammed Ben’s permanent file in among thousands of untidy others. “Mr. Gosling, I’ve put you in right after Geronimo and right before Gypsy Rose Lee.” He returned to the handle and kicked it, sending the gigantic file sliding back into place. Then he grasped Benjamin’s hand and wrung it heartily. “Welcome aboard!”

Sandy gaped at the man. “Is—is that it? Don’t you have to sign something?”

“Oh, yes, that!” said Mr. Bodachan. He reached into his coat pocket, drew out a little slip of paper, scrawled his name on it, and handed the paper to Sandy.

She stared at the paper and read, “Received, one Incorrigible. Signed Otis P. Bodachan.

Before she could say another word, Mr. Bodachan pried Sandy up out of her chair and pushed her toward the exit. “Well, let’s not linger inside doorways, shall we? Thank you very much. Good-bye.”

“But . . . but . . .”

“Follow the passage out to the lion and make sure not to get bit,” Mr. Bodachan said. With that, he snatched the blue glasses from Sandy’s face and pushed her through the gate of pearl. The giant pearl rolled soundlessly into place and sealed the library.

Pivoting on his much-scuffed heel, Mr. Bodachan rubbed his hands together. “Well, Benjamin, you can take off your glasses, now.”

 

Chapter 4: Boggle Goggles

in which Ben sizes up

 his new surroundings

 

Nervously, Benjamin reached up to the blue glasses and drew them down from his nose. He winced, fearing that the room would suddenly be too bright, but he needn’t have worried. Everything looked exactly the same. But where had Mr. Bodachan gone?

“Down here,” said that craggy voice.

Ben looked toward the ground and saw Mr. Bodachan standing there: tiny and yellow-skinned, and with the wide mouth of a frog. “You’re no taller than a boggle!” Ben exclaimed.

“No taller than one,” Mr. Bodachan replied, winking, “because I am one.”

Ben blinked in amazement, lifting the blue glasses back to his face. The boggle suddenly seemed to swell up, becoming once again an adult-sized man. “These glasses—”

“Boggle goggles,” Mr. Bodachan supplied. “That’s my name for ’em. Others call them soul-seers. They let you see a person’s size from the inside rather than outside.”

Ben drew the boggle goggles off and then put them on again, over and over, watching the man before him shrink and swell. “But, I thought these were sunglasses—you know, because of the blinding light—”

“It’s why we keep that tunnel so dark—an excuse to shove boggle goggles on visitors.”

Ben had just perched the goggles again on his nose when a door in the far wall opened. Something appeared in the door—something huge and black and shaggy. Through the door, it squeezed: the head of a giantess—a head the size of a Volkswagon Beetle! It was surrounded by dreadlocks that hung down as thick as gymnasium ropes. The giantess’s arms were as broad around as full-grown men, and when she stood up straight, her head bumped the glass dome.

Ben staggered back and tripped over his own feet and sprawled to his backside on the stone floor. The jolt knocked the glasses from his face and left him staring into the eyes of a beautiful girl who was—suddenly—his own size.

“Well done, Mr. Bodachan,” the girl said serenely.

Mr. Bodachan smiled up at this magnificent girl, and his eyelashes batted. “Sorry about the drawer. I’ll try to remember not to open it like that when they have their glasses on.” He gestured at the file drawer, and Ben now saw that it did not say, “A-Z,” but rather: “Trash.” Mr. Bodachan smiled. “It always looks so much larger, given all the great souls whose permanent records have been thrown away in there.”

“How did you . . . ?” Ben began, staring at the girl. “Where did you . . . ? What are you . . . ?”

She laughed, and her cheeks dimpled in the most beautiful way. “I’m a girl. My name is Bethel.” She extended a hand to help Ben to his feet.

Ben looked warily at that hand, remembering when it was the size of an armchair. Then he slipped his fingers into her warm palm and felt her tug him up to stand.

Bethel was actually two inches shorter than he.

“Um. Hi,” Ben said awkwardly. “I’m Ben.”

“I know,” Bethel replied, squeezing a welcome before dropping his hand.

“Of course she knows,” said Mr. Bodachan, looking up at them from the floor. “She picked you out.”

“What?”

Bethel tapped the pocket of her jumper. “I have my own boggle goggles. Every month or so, I go to the top of the Willis Tower and put them on and look around to see what giants I can spot. I saw you from ten miles away—trudging with that backpack of yours all the way to Adalai Stevenson Middle School.”

“But—but you weren’t the one who—I mean, it was Mrs. Lemonhurtz and Sandy and my foster family who—” He thumped his chest in exasperation. “I have a permanent record!”

“You had a permanent record,” Bethel corrected gently, nodding at the Trash drawer. A wisp of smoke rose from it, apparently all that remained of the paperwork Mrs. Lemonhurtz had so ruthlessly stapled.

Ben smiled despite himself but tried to regain the thread of the conversation. “I mean, my permanent record’s why they sent me here—all the things I’ve ever done wrong.”

“You can’t help doing things wrong. Your soul is too big for your body. It can’t be contained in a school or a foster home, let alone a desk. People with giant souls are always accidentally stepping on things or bowling things over or triggering explosions. Other people get angry at these kinds of accidents, and they write down their anger and it becomes a permanent record.” She smiled dazzlingly. “Those papers don’t tell anything about you, but only about what other people think of you. And what other people think of you is . . .” she gestured at the smoldering file drawer “. . . ash.”

Ben loved this girl.

“Of course,” Bethel continued, “permanent records make my job easy. Once you have one, I can just send out a pamphlet in the mail and make a phone call as the secretary of Mr. Bodachan, and an Incorrigible lands at my door.”

Ben trembled, trying to understand it all. “So, you’re his secretary?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” barked Mr. Bodachan. “What? Did you think a boggle ran this place? Boggles don’t run anything—don’t want to . . . well, except craps games. Bethel my secretary? No. I’m just a front man so that pipsqueaks like Sandy can feel they’ve talked to a proper grown up.”

“Which is almost right,” said Ben with a sudden smile, “except he’s a grown down.”

Mr. Bodachan stomped his little foot. “It’s a fine thing to grow—down or up or sideways or . . . or even in. I’ll thank you not to make fun.”

Bethel crouched down and patted Mr. Bodachan’s back, her little hand stretching from elbow to elbow. “There, there. Ben has a lot to learn.”

Mr. Bodachan purred and nestled into her hand, but then he caught Ben smirking and stomped his foot again. “Well, he can learn it on someone else’s time!” With that, Mr. Bodachan spun on his heels and marched away. It took thirty-two tiny steps to carry him to a mouse-hole over which hung a swaying sign that read “Bodachan, Esquire.” With a huff, Mr. Bodachan scuttled through the hole and slammed the tiny door.

“Touchy,” Ben said.

Bethel shrugged. “He’s a boggle. I thought you knew boggles.”

“Well, I’ve seen them all along, sure enough. I’ve given some of them names. But just seeing a creature and naming it doesn’t mean you know it.”

“Well, if you want to get to know boggles here—”

“Oh, I do—”

“Then you’ll learn not to laugh at their height. They expect regular folks to be cruel, but Incorrigibles should be empathetic.”

Ben didn’t like the sound of that. He knew “pathetic” was a word for losers, but this word . . . “What’s empathetic?”

“It means feeling what other people feel. Boggle goggles let you see a person from the inside, but empathy let’s you be the person from the inside.”

Ben fingered the boggle goggles in his shirt pocket. “Where can I get some empathy?”

Bethel laughed. “I’ll give you all I have to spare. And once you have empathy, boggles will learn to trust you. They have a saying: ‘If it’s bigger than a tricycle or smaller than a motorcycle, don’t trust it.’ ”

Ben mentally sized himself up and felt suddenly very untrustworthy. “But they trust you.”

Bethel smiled. “I’ve earned it. Now, let’s be off. There’s plenty more to see, and already the day is getting late.”

Ben saw that it was true. The glass dome overhead was streaked with sunset.

“So, um, well, this is the Library of Banned books,” Bethel said, gesturing at the circular shelves all around. “The books down low are pretty safe. The higher you go, though, the more precarious the books become. I’m currently reading the Love Song of Ghengis Khan.”

Ben nodded, impressed. “What shelf did that come from?”

“Oh, it’s one of the books from the rooftop.”

“Wow. A great place for reading—”

“Yes,” Bethel agreed. “For reading, pizza parties, and sword fights. Speaking of which—” she grasped his hand and dragged him to a great round door. She turned the central knob three times to the right, stopped on 37, went back around to the left and stopped on 44, and then went right to 11. The doorknob clicked, and tumblers rolled, and the door swung slowly open, revealing a great hall.

 

Chapter 5: School Tour

in which Ben realizes

 even little worlds can be huge

 

“Wow,” said Ben as they stepped into the vaulted great hall. The room was three stories high, with wide tables lining the first floor, an ironwork gallery running all the way around the second floor, leaded-glass windows surrounding the third floor, and a ceiling with ornate rafters above it all. “Beautiful!”

“Filthy,” Bethel said sourly. She gestured to the tabletops, where silver dishes and bowls lay scattered, the remains of a meal. “Get this cleared up!” Bethel barked.

Ben jolted, looked at her in shock, and then stepped toward the nearest table.

Bethel’s grasped his shoulder and gently drew him back. “I meant them.”

Only then did Ben see the other children in the room. A group of three girls and two boys were scuttling along the tables and snatching up the dishes. They bustled past Ben and Bethel, grinning, and went to the far end of the great room where a catapult stood. Unceremoniously, they dumped the dishes within the launching bowl.

“What are they doing?” Ben asked.

“Cleaning,” Bethel replied.

One of the girls cried, “Fire!” and one of the boys tripped a giant lever. The catapult launched, metal bowls and plates swarming through the air with hunks of bread and dollops of applesauce suspended among them. The filthy cloud clattered past Ben and Bethel and crashed through an archway on the other side of the great hall.

“This is our dining-hall-slash-war-room. Here’s the main place where we eat and fight.”

Ben watched, amazed, as the children fired again. A platter full of gnawed turkey legs launched through the air and came down, chiming and spraying, in the archway. “A food fight?”

Bethel nodded.

“This is allowed?”

Bethel shrugged. “What should they be fighting with? Guns? Knives? Better to fight with food.”

“But they’re making a mess.”

“Actually, they’re cleaning one up. That archway leads to the canals beneath the city—part of the deep tunnel system. It’s a regular Venice down there. The canals wash our dishes. They tumble and spin in the currents until we catch them in our nets and haul them out to set the table.”

Ben stared, his mouth hanging open. “It’s a giant dishwasher.”

“Not just,” Bethel said. “We use it for all kinds of things—gondola rides, naval battles, skinnydipping—”

“Skinnydipping?” Ben blurted. “With forks?”

A pudding cup crashed into the wall beside Ben, and Bethel pulled him back through the doorway. She shut it, spinning the knob again and working a new combination.

“Are all the doors in the school locked?”

“No. Only one door is locked, but the lock has plenty of combinations.” So saying, she clicked the knob in on 22 and swung the door open again.

The scene beyond was a beautiful green garden surrounded by looming gray skyscrapers.

“The rooftop,” Bethel said.

“How did we suddenly go—up?”

Bethel quirked an eyebrow at him. “Doors can go up. Haven’t you ever seen a Lamborghini?”

In fact, Ben hadn’t. He wasn’t sure if a Lamborghini were a car or a type of sausage. Still, he’d had about enough of staring dumbfounded at each new wonder that presented itself—silos of banned books, great halls with food fights, a water-world beneath the city, and now this Garden of Eden. He pledged no longer to stand with mouth agape.

“It is like Eden, isn’t it?” Bethel said.

Ben’s mouth dropped open yet again, and he asked, “How . . . how did you do that?”

Bethel’s smile felt like sunshine. “When you spend so much time looking at people from the inside, it’s not hard to see some of their thoughts.”

Ben shivered, wondering if she knew he thought her smile was sunshine. Of course, the moment he wondered, he felt utterly exposed, and turned away in embarrassment.

“It’s all right,” Bethel said. “I won’t look at your thoughts if you don’t want me to.”

With his eyes turned from Bethel, Ben now could really see the garden. It was wide and green and rolling, with twisted trees and meandering pathways and an ancient stone bridge over a gurgling stream. The water in that stream was crystalline, and it rolled gently down to a waterfall on the far end of the garden. At the top of the waterfall stood a pair of boys in swim trunks. On the count of three, they grabbed each other’s hands and leaped together, shouting, “CANNONBALL!” Plunging, they landed in a deep blue pool in one corner of the garden. Other kids were in that pool, too, stroking along or swinging out on the ropy branches of a willow tree that hulked there.

Ben’s heart was pounding. All of this was so new—so wonderful, so frightening. How wonderful it would be to yell CANNONBALL and leap from a waterfall, but how frightening to land in a pool, especially since Ben had never learned to swim. How wonderful to have food fights that actually clean the dishes—but how terrifying to leap aboard gondolas and follow the tumbling plates down the dark waterways beneath Chicago. In a single, spasm of the heart, Ben both wanted and feared everything he saw.

And, of course, it all was impossible. How could these towering trees and green hills and blue pools exist atop a building? How could doors open to any room or rooftop they wanted to? How could boggles pose like people, and little girls be in charge of whole schools? He wanted to pour out his questions to Bethel—she might even be listening to them already—but Ben remembered his pledge and said simply. “Nice.”

“Come along,” Bethel said, taking him by the hand and leading him through the archway onto the garden path.

Ben followed. He let all his hopes and fears drop away and allowed himself to feel happy for perhaps the first time in his life. “You want to take me to the books on the rooftop?”

“Heavens, no. You’re not ready for those. Do you want your head to explode?”

Ben laughed at this, but when he looked over at Bethel, he saw that her face was deadly serious. He swallowed uncomfortably.

Bethel led him around a hummock of grass where a pair of goats stood munching. They lifted their strange horned heads from the grass and blinked their square-pupiled eyes at him as he passed.

On the other side of the hummock, the path reached a quiet little corner hemmed in by purple lilacs with benches tucked beneath them. On one bench sat a pudgy little boy with his hands folded between his knees and his face overhung by bushy hair the color of rust. He seemed to be looking at something on the ground by his feet, seemed to be talking to the something, but Ben saw no boggles. He tugged the boggle goggles from his pocket and slipped them on, but still he saw no little people. Weirdly enough, though, the boggle goggles made the pudgy boy seem even smaller.

“Not a very big soul,” Ben murmured.

Bethel shook her head sadly. “At least not one he’s showing.” As they approached, the boy gave no sign that he heard them, and even when Bethel stopped right in front of him, he didn’t look up. “Ben, this is Joey Rubel. He arrived just before you did.”

“Hi,” Ben said with a little wave of his hand. “Ben Gosling.”

Joey sat unmoving, though there was a certain tenseness in his shoulders that told that he knew they were there.

Bethel said, “Ah! Best of friends already. That’s good, since you two will be bunkmates.”

“Bunkmates!” Ben said in dismay.

Joey also began to speak, but it didn’t seem that he was talking to anyone. “That’s the thing about ladders. They can be folded up and moved. They can reach one place one time and someplace else the next time. They can get misplaced. And the tall ones, well, just because their bottoms are in the same place doesn’t mean their tops are. You have to climb up to see. Climb up to see where they go. And once you climb up to see, you’re there. Jack and the Beanstalk.”

“We’re bunkmates?” Ben echoed hollowly.

Bethel nodded. “Come along, both of you. It’s time you saw your room.” She reached out to Joey and scooped one of his hands into her own, and then took Ben’s hand again, and she pulled the reluctant bunkmates away from that little corner of Eden.

Ben and Joey trudged on either side of Bethel. Ben glanced at his bunkmate, but Joey would not return the gaze, instead, staring at his own toes as they plodded along.

Ben sidled up to Bethel and whispered, “So, what’s wrong with Joey?”

Bethel looked askance at him and replied, “Why, he’s an Incorrigible—just like you.”

That shut Ben up.

Bethel led them through a garden archway that led to a long tunnel of wooden arches with grapevines rankling across it. The tunnel sloped down into the ground. For a moment, Ben had trouble breathing, with all that moldy stone and mortar pressing down around him, but then the passage suddenly open in a huge chamber.

“This is the dormitory,” Bethel said, flinging her hands out.

Beside her, Ben and Joey stared up into a cathedral. That was the only word Ben could use to describe it. It was a huge, cross-shaped hall, with four tall wings meeting at a central dome that shone like gold. The Dome hovered hundreds of feet above, supported by eight great stone columns. Each of the columns was carved with vines and leaves, deer and bison, Indians and fur traders. The walls between the columns also bore many deep carvings. As Ben focused on the walls, he saw that the carvings were actual niches—hundreds of rectangular bunks carved right into the sides of the hall.

“This is where the upperclassmen sleep—bunks in the hive. They don’t mind the communal dreaming. Some even prefer it.” She kept walking, dragging her awe-struck companions after her. Passing one column, she entered a low tunnel that led into an eight-sided chapel. On each side of the chamber were pairs of bunk beds—sixteen in all. Bethel walked to the pair on the far wall, beneath a stained-glass window. “This is where the new arrivals sleep.”

Ben looked at the bunks and the dry sink with towel and pitcher beside them and the shrunken candles that squatted in their wall mounts. Ben’s gaze dropped to the floor.

“Is there a problem?” Bethel asked.

Ben looked up, his eyes bright and rimmed in red. “Everything’s so . . . strange.” He felt terrible, breaking down like this. He’d been taken out of a miserable place into a wonderful place—but it all was too much too soon.

“Ben,” Bethel said gently, “stop looking with your outside eyes. From the outside, everything is strange. From the inside, everything is beautiful.”

“Yeah, but in the foster home, I had my own room. Now, I’m in with—fifteen others. Now I’ve got a bunkmate who won’t even look at me.”

“But you didn’t belong in the foster home,” Bethel explained patiently. “You belong here. You’re wanted here. I chose you.”

Those three words—I chose you—meant more to Ben than any three words he’d ever heard.

Suddenly, the bunk beds in the weird chapel felt like home. Suddenly, Ben had arrived where he was wanted. And on a dressing table at the foot of the bunk bed rested his good old trunk. Ben didn’t even think to ask how it had gotten there.

He let go of Bethel’s hand and moved forward as if in a dream. When he reached his new bed, he just stood there for a while, quietly breathing. Then Ben sat down on the lower bunk and said, “Come on, Joey. This won’t be so bad.”

Joey still didn’t make eye contact, but he nodded just perceptibly. Then, he began to drift forward. His eyes were fixed on the base of the ladder, where it was bolted to the bottom bunk. Then his gaze rose rung-by- rung until he blinked at the bolts that held the ladder to the top. “It always starts in this one place and ends in this other. It never gets lost. Reliable.” With that, Joey slowly climbed the ladder. He crawled out on top and lay down and released a sigh that seemed too large for his body.

“It’s time for me to go. Good night, you two,” Bethel said, blowing a kiss to each of them.

Ben caught the kiss . . . and wondered if Joey had also.

Bethel turned and left the room.

In the semidarkness, Ben went to his trunk and changed out of his clothes into his pajamas. Meanwhile, Joey climbed down the ladder and opened his own suitcase at the head of the bunk and changed as well. Without speaking a word, the boys climbed back into their beds.

The blankets—somewhat musty and somewhat tattered and somewhat woolen—received Ben with a silent welcome. In the stained glass window beside his bunk, Ben glimpsed the last light of day winking from the world. He lay for a long while in silence.

“Good for playing ‘Taps,’ ” Joey blurted.

Ben blinked, his heart fluttering. “Good for playing what?”

“ ‘Taps.’ And ‘Revelry.’ And anything else, as long as you got the lips for it.”

Wide awake now, Ben asked, “What lips?”

“Dooter lips,” Joey replied placidly.

“All right,” Ben sighed, “dooter lips. What’re dooter lips? What’s a dooter?”

Joey cleared his throat and said, “Dooter: the cardboard roll inside of toilet paper. Children often put the tubes to their mouths and go ‘dooter, dooter, dooter, doot!’ ”

Ben laughed.

“So, dooter lips are the lips pushed in a dooter. And if dooter lips have the will and the strength, they can do any song ever written,” Joey said with satisfaction. “I once dootered the second movement of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony.”

“You didn’t,” Ben said.

“I did.”

Nodding, Ben smiled. “Some bunkmate.”

Overhead, Joey started to play ‘Taps’: “Dooter doo. . . . Dooter doo . . .”