We the Children

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We the Children Page 4

by Andrew Clements

  That Independence Day had been a tipping point in his life.

  And standing on a dock more than three years later, Ben felt his life tipping again.

  An old janitor had given him a special assignment, a task written in worn letters on a gold coin, a school project involving the school itself: DEFEND IT.

  Throwing the coin into the sea wouldn’t change the captain’s command. Nothing could change it, just like nothing could ever bring back his broken teeth. Or bring Mr. Keane back. He was gone too. Forever.

  And looking across the water at the school, Ben issued a command of his own, this time to himself. Because if there was some way he could save that place, he had to find it. He had to.


  A We Thing

  When Ben got back to the Tempus Fugit, the cell phone in his book bag was buzzing. He glanced at his watch, yanked at the bag’s zipper, and grabbed his phone. “Hi, Mom,” he said. Because it was four o’clock, and his mom called him at four every single afternoon.

  Dead air.

  Then, “I’m definitely not your mom.”

  “Oh—hi.” It was Jill.

  “I called three times. You at home?”

  “No . . . I mean, yes. At the boat.”

  “Well . . . I wanted to say I’m sorry. For getting mad.”

  “No,” he said, “it was my fault.” Ben picked up his backpack, walked out onto the catwalk between the slips, and stepped up onto the deck of the boat.

  “Yes, I agree—it was completely your fault,” she said, and he could hear the smile in her voice. “Still, I shouldn’t have gotten all huffy and stupid.”

  “Right,” he added, “completely stupid, really.”

  “So,” she said.

  “So,” he replied.

  Ben had his key out now, and he opened the hatch and took three steps down into the galley, the tiny kitchen of the sailboat.

  She said, “Could you do something for me?”

  “That depends,” he said.

  “Send me the words from both sides of the coin in a text. Or an e-mail. Okay?”

  “How come?”

  “I want to see the exact words again, really look at them. And do some more thinking. And I’m going to look through all the stuff my mom collected about that company during the hearings. Just to see who we’re up against here.”

  “Whoa,” said Ben. “‘Who we’re up against’? When did this turn into a ‘we’ thing?”

  “When you showed me that coin. And when you said Mr. Keane would have trusted me. Except we both know he would have trusted me more—’cause I’m so naturally charming.”

  “And so humble, too.”

  “Right,” said Jill. “I’m very proud of how humble I am.”

  Ben was in the saloon now, the main living area of the boat. He flopped onto the couch and put his feet up on the table that was bolted to the floor.

  Smiling, he said, “Well, my bravery scares me sometimes, but I’ll send you those words anyway.”

  “Good,” said Jill. “And I’ll meet you tomorrow morning at the corner of Jefferson and Atlantic.”

  “Right, because I’m so much fun to hang out with.”

  “I can deal,” she said. “Seven forty-five, okay?”

  “Yup. Bye.”


  Ben had barely closed his phone when it rang again.

  He pushed talk, and using his most cheerful voice, he said, “Hi, Mom.” Because this time it was really her.

  “Hi, Ben. Just wanted to be sure you got home all right.”

  “It’s seven blocks, Mom. I’m fine. I’m always fine.”

  Ignoring that, she said, “So, how’s everything going?”

  Ben dreaded this daily question. If his answer sounded too happy, she worried that he was hiding his true feelings, or worse, that he didn’t miss her at all. And if he let on that he was upset or sad, sometimes she got super smotherly, or even weepy, and he really couldn’t deal with that.

  So, in a neutral tone, he said, “Everything’s pretty good—school’s going okay, and I’m really glad the weather’s getting nicer. We have to plant the garden soon, y’know. So, yeah, everything’s good. How’s Nelson?”

  Rats! he thought. Dumb question! He tried to think quick and change the subject, but it was too late.

  His mom paused a second, and then there was a catch in her voice. “Poor thing hates it when you’re gone—runs to the door with his tail wagging like mad, and when it’s not you, he just mopes back to his bed. Hardly eats a bite all week long.”

  “Well, I’ll be home Saturday, Mom. Can’t wait to be with you. So, give Nelson a pat, and tell him we’re all okay.”

  “That’s right.” She sounded braver now. “That’s right, sweetheart. Well, good to talk. And I’ll call you tomorrow. And I’ll see you on Saturday. And remember that I’m going to drive over to the sailing club at about one thirty. And after your race we’ll go get something to eat before you come home.”

  “Right, and thanks for calling. Love you.”

  “I love you too, Ben. Bye.”

  “Bye, Mom.”

  On any other afternoon, a chat like that would have left Ben staring out a porthole for ten minutes, maybe longer, worrying about his mom and dad and everything else—like his first sailing race of the season. But not today.

  Today he had to think about other things.

  He had a mission now. Plus a partner.

  Which reminded him that he had to text Jill the words from the coin.

  And maybe make some plans for tomorrow. Because it wasn’t going to be just another Friday at school. In one day, everything about the place had changed.

  There was that word again—no way to avoid it. But maybe the changes could at least be controlled a little. Or maybe a lot—Duncan Oakes seemed to think it was possible. And important.

  But he was dead and gone.

  This job needed someone very much alive . . . and present.

  And Ben knew who it had to be.


  War Zone

  It was Friday morning, and Ben was deep in thought as he walked beside the harbor on his way to meet Jill. He was thinking about Thursday night with his dad aboard the Tempus Fugit, replaying it through his mind, almost word for word, moment by moment, starting as they made dinner together.

  “So, Ben,” his dad had asked, “how was school today?”

  “Well, this old janitor gave me a secret gold coin, and he made me promise I’d keep the school from being destroyed. And then he died.”

  That’s what he hadn’t said. All that stuff was secret.

  “Had a big social studies test, and I’m pretty sure I aced it.”

  That’s what had come out. Which hadn’t been much of a surprise.

  But his dad had still said, “That’s great!” Then added, “Pass me the oregano, will you?”

  Ben wished he could have talked about the plans to tear down the school, and about his terrible nightmare. And especially about Mr. Keane’s death. But he’d kept all those thoughts and feelings bottled up—a skill he knew he was getting too good at.

  And he’d handed his dad the oregano.

  Then his dad had asked, “So what do you think about Saturday’s race—your class is sailing the Optimists, right?”

  And thinking about it, Ben knew that question had rescued the evening. Because suddenly there was plenty of stuff that they both loved to talk about.

  They analyzed the weather forecast—strong breeze from the west, low seventies, some afternoon sun—excellent conditions. For May. In the Atlantic.

  And then there was the course: Would the race committee make it a two-buoy course, or would they lay out a triangle? Lots of possibilities.

  “But I just bet,” his dad had said, “what with the water temperature in the forties, it’s probably going to be a short course—a forty-minute race, tops.”

  And Ben had agreed.

  Over salad and warm bread and steaming p
lates of spaghetti and sauce, they talked about starting strategies, about the new sails the club had bought, and also about clothes.

  “Does your wet suit still fit?” his dad had asked. “You’ll need it out there, guaranteed.”

  “Actually, it’s too small, so Mom got me a dry suit, weighs almost nothing. Should be great.”

  That had stopped the conversation cold.

  “A dry suit? I don’t know, Ben . . . there’s nothing like a good wet suit right next to your skin when there’s a stiff spray coming onboard. . . . But you’ll just have to see how this other thing works, that’s all. If it’s lousy, then we’ll go to the Swamp Shop and get you a new wet suit, okay?”

  Walking along the harbor twelve hours later, there was one thing Ben wished he’d been able to tell his dad about the race. Because he hadn’t told him that his mom was also coming to watch.

  But maybe he already knew that. Ben was pretty sure his mom and dad talked on the phone a lot. But he never really overheard them.

  Thinking ahead to the race, he imagined taking first place. Because that would be something both his parents could feel happy about. Maybe they could even be happy about it together. Maybe they would remember how much they loved to go sailing together. And then that big summer trip to the Bahamas just might seem like a good idea again.

  But Ben knew that was a long shot. A very long shot. Still . . .

  After dinner he had gone to his room—a tiny cabin up in the bow of the boat. It was barely big enough for a single bunk with two drawers beneath it, and a tiny fold-down desk that could hold his laptop and one book at a time.

  He’d spent the night working on a reading assignment—and also replying to the e-mails Jill kept sending him.

  Way too much information, really.

  She could be like that sometimes, obsessing about stuff. Like the time in fourth grade when they had worked together on a science fair project about the ozone layer. Jill had checked out five huge library books, found half a dozen articles on the NASA and the NOAA websites, and even did a telephone interview with a professor at Endicott College—all to make a small tabletop display and give a four-minute oral presentation.

  Still, all the little details she was finding out about the Tall Ships Ahoy! project might be useful, and he was glad she liked digging around for them.

  The next morning Jill met him at the corner of Jefferson and Atlantic, and they began retracing their steps to school—except this morning they walked on the west side of the street. A strong east wind had come up overnight, and the larger waves showered the harborside path with a heavy spray of seawater.

  Jill picked up where her e-mails had left off the night before. “So what did you think about that last batch of stuff I sent—sort of scary, don’t you think?”

  “Yeah, scary’s the right word.”

  Jill’s final e-mail had been about the Glennley Entertainment Group, the company that had bought the school property. In the past four years they had opened three new historical theme parks, and each time, they had crushed every bit of opposition from the local communities. These people were ruthless.

  But Ben had been wondering about an earlier message Jill had sent him, the one about the captain’s last will and testament. She had found a copy of the will in the handouts her mom had brought home from one of the public meetings. One quote had stuck in his mind: “If the town ever stops using the Oakes building and its grounds as a public school, then full ownership shall pass immediately to my direct heirs.”

  As they paused to let the spray die down from an unusually large wave, he said, “I don’t see how the town overturned the captain’s will. I thought a thing like that was impossible to change.”

  “But they didn’t change it,” said Jill. “They went around it. First the Glennley lawyers found the captain’s heirs—about fifteen people. And then they got the town to make the heirs an offer: ‘If you give up all your rights to the school property, the town will pay each of you five hundred thousand dollars right now; but if any of you refuse, then the building will go on being a school forever, and none of you will ever get a penny.’ So all the great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren of Captain Oakes sold out to the town. And then the town turned around and sold everything to the Glennley Group for more money—like, thirty-five million dollars. And everything was nice and legal—even though they completely trashed the captain’s will.”

  “Thirty-five million bucks? Really?”

  Jill nodded. “That’s the money they’re using to build the new school.”

  “Sheesh—how do you fight people who’ve got that much money to throw around?”

  “By being smarter,” said Jill, without missing a beat. “And by learning stuff they don’t know about yet. And that message on the coin? Captain Oakes must have figured something like this might happen—an attack. And he definitely wants us to look for something.”

  “Right,” Ben said, “‘on the upper deck.’ Wherever that is.”

  They both fell silent as they crossed Washington Street and entered the school grounds. After about ten paces, they stopped short and then stared.

  Off to their left, midway between a copper beech tree and a tall white oak, a woman wearing an orange safety vest and a blue hard hat was hammering a long wooden stake into the ground. And she had been busy—there were eight or ten others scattered around the schoolyard. About a hundred yards beyond her, a man dressed the same way was peering into something that looked like a telescope on a yellow tripod. The woman dropped her hammer and tied a strip of bright pink ribbon around the top of the stake. Huge red X marks had been spray painted onto most of the tree trunks.

  “What’s going on?” asked Jill.

  “Surveyors,” Ben said. “That PDF file you sent me, the diagram of the theme park? They’re marking it out on the ground—the theater, the parking lots, the twin wharves—everything. Bulldozers and chainsaws come next.” He unclenched one fist and pointed at the nearest stake. “That is the beginning of the end.”

  As they walked closer to the building, Jill said, “There was one e-mail I didn’t send you last night. ’Cause I didn’t want you to stay up all night worrying. It’s about Lyman.”

  “What about him?”

  “You know how nosy I am, right?”

  Ben smiled. “The queen of nosiness.”

  Ignoring that, she said, “So I did some snooping. When my mom went to the town meeting last month, she got a booklet with a list of all the town employees. Lyman’s full name is Jerroald F. Lyman.”

  “Gerald?” asked Ben.

  “No, J-E-R-R-O-A-L-D—which is an odd spelling. And when I put his name into Google, it turns out that there is only one Jerroald F. Lyman in the whole United States. And . . . I found stuff.”

  Ben stopped and looked at her. “Like what?”

  “He was born in St. Louis. He went to an expensive prep school in Chicago. He graduated from Stanford University, then got a business degree in Philadelphia. He owns a house in Newport and a condo in Florida, plus a sixty-foot sailboat. The guy’s rich. But for the last four months, Jerroald F. Lyman has been living in a rented room at an apartment house in Edgeport, Massachusetts. And he’s working as the assistant janitor. At our school. And I’m sure it’s the same person—I found pictures.”

  Ben stared at her, his mouth open. “But if he—I mean—oh . . . Oh! He’s a spy!”

  She nodded. “That’s what I figured too. He has to be working for Glennley.”

  Ben froze, then grabbed Jill’s arm. “Mr. Keane! Do you think he told Lyman about the coin? And the principal—he has to know about Lyman too, right? That he’s working for Glennley?” Ben noticed he still had her arm and quickly let go.

  Jill shrugged. “All I know for sure? We’ve got to watch out. Because Lyman’s real job is to make sure nothing goes wrong with the deal. And it sounds like he’s already suspicious of you—the way he questioned you yesterday. If he figures out that we’re up to something, we�
��ll lose the element of surprise. And he’ll try to stop us.”

  “Right,” Ben said, impressed with Jill all over again. “Except for one thing—we don’t know what he’s supposedly going to try to keep us from doing. Or finding.” The sound of the surveyor’s hammer started up again, sharp and jarring. With a grim smile he said, “But we’re gonna figure it out. We have to.”

  “We shouldn’t hang out at lunch,” Jill said.

  “Or talk in the halls where Lyman might see us,” said Ben.

  “So I’ll see you in math.”

  “Right,” he said. “But I’ll set my phone to vibrate, and if you get any ideas, sneak me a text. And I’ll do the same.”

  Jill smiled. “Good. See you later.”

  “And don’t forget,” Ben said. “Until they rip it down, it’s like Captain Oakes said—this place belongs to us.”

  Brave talk. But as Ben followed Jill into the front hall of the school, he felt like they were walking into a war zone.

  But worse than that, he also started feeling like all this stuff was just plain crazy. Because, really—spies? And secrets? It seemed pretty far out, right there at the edge of nutsville.

  On the other hand, what if Lyman was really dangerous? Maybe the smartest thing would be to put on the brakes right now—hard. And just not get mixed up in any of it. Whatever was going to happen to the school and the town, let it come.

  But Ben knew he couldn’t walk away, not now. Because stealing the school from the kids, and changing the whole town this way? It just wasn’t right.

  He stumbled on that word.

  Right? What, was he suddenly some kind of superhero, deciding all on his own what was right for everybody else?

  And as he started up the south staircase, he thought, Hey, look, everybody—here comes SCHOOL BOY, ready to battle the forces of evil!

  He smiled at that thought, but only for a second.

  Because a different truth hit him. Now there were feelings involved, his feelings. Feelings about this town. And about his parents. Feelings about a dead janitor, and feelings about a funky old building at the edge of the sea. Even some feelings about Jill.


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