You Smell Like a Monkey

8:05 a.m.

The yellow bus rumbled through a tumbledown section of town, an industrial no-man’s-land of railroad tracks, warehouses, and empty factories with broken windows and rusted steel roofs. The bus didn’t stop here, because no kids lived here.

The sound of the tires changed to a high-pitched hum as the bus crossed a tall bridge that soared over a rail yard and a narrow river. Alex turned to look out the window. From the highest point of the bridge, he could see over the rooftops of Jersey City, all the way to the tall towers of the Manhattan skyline, poking up like the teeth of a comb in the distance.

Alex loved that view. And he loved thinking about his dad, somewhere out there under the Hudson River, driving his PATH train to the World Trade Center.

The bus descended the other side of the bridge. Manhattan disappeared for good.

“Yo, A-Dawg. Check it out.” It was Kwan, behind him.

Alex glanced up to see if Mary Jo was looking, but her eyes were on the traffic. The brakes squealed as she pulled over to pick up more kids. Alex turned sideways in his seat. Kwan held up his Gameboy.

“I broke 8 million.”

“Dude.” Alex and Kwan slid palms in an elaborate high-five:  up, down, side-to-side, then a bump-bump to finish.

“Mayday mayday. Bogeys at twelve,” Doug interrupted, under his breath.

Alex turned—and came face to face with the sneering mug of Calvin Butts.

Calvin Butts was one of Jordan McCreevey’s two goons. All three were a grade ahead of Alex. Calvin jerked his head, and the boy in front of Alex scrambled to a different row. Calvin slammed his squat, square, heavy body into the seat and stared hard at Alex.

A second kid threw himself into the seat beside Calvin, took one look at Alex, and let out a creepy laugh. He laughed backwards, exhaling in a raspy pant and then making long, wheezy, squeaky yelps while he inhaled. This was Deemer. If he had a second name, nobody knew it. Deemer never said anything; he just wore a sick, pasted-on grin all the time like some kind of crazy clown.

But they didn’t worry Alex.

The real trouble was coming down the aisle.

Jordan McCreevey.

Unlike Calvin and Deemer, who advertised their weirdness from a hundred yards away, Jordan kept his face so empty that the emptiness alone was menacing. With Calvin and Deemer, you knew what was coming. But Jordan’s meanness could sneak up on you. That made him a hundred times more dangerous.

As Jordan made his way to the rear of the bus, kids shrank back in their seats, hoping to be passed over this day. He worked his way steadily down the aisle, never once looking at Alex. But somehow, Alex knew Jordan was coming for him. Alex forced himself to stare out the window, knowing not to make eye contact. He didn’t have to look up to sense that Jordan was there. Armpit and Cheetos:  he’d know that smell anywhere.

But to Alex’s complete surprise, Jordan kept going, right past Alex’s row.

Alex exhaled. He hadn’t even realized he’d been holding his breath.

“Anyone sitting here?”

Jordan was right beside him.

Without waiting for an answer, Jordan started to flop down on the empty seat. Alex barely managed to snatch the box of cupcakes off the seat and onto his lap.

Jordan pointed at the bakery box.

“Birthday?” His voice was even, almost friendly. Alex nodded. But he wasn’t fooled. Jordan lifted up the corner of the box and peered inside.

“Bake ’em yourself?”

“My mom.”

“My mom can’t even cook toast.”

He made this sound like it was Alex’s fault.

Alex slid the cupcakes over to his right, away from Jordan, next to the bus wall.

“You better leave them alone.”

Behind him, he heard Kwan gasp. No one told Jordan what to do.

Jordan looked right at Alex. “I’m not gonna touch ’em. Swear.”

Alex clenched his jaw, smart enough not to lower his guard. Jordan turned back and continued to stare straight ahead with that same blank expression. They rode in silence, the hum of the bus the only noise. Up ahead, the road curved to the left. Mary Jo steered the bus into the turn.

As the centrifugal force pushed them sideways, Jordan slid across the seat and slammed hard into Alex, ramming him into the side of the bus and smashing the cupcakes into the wall. It happened so fast that Alex hadn’t seen it coming.

Calvin and Deemer were laughing, beside themselves.

“Don’t cry, crybaby,” Deemer hissed.

Jordan continued to stare straight ahead, as if nothing were going on.

As the bus came out of the turn, Jordan didn’t let up. Alex could feel Jordan’s hips flex as he pressed his feet into the floor, shoving his body harder and harder against Alex’s, mashing him against the side of the bus. Alex tried to push back, but he had no leverage.

Pinned and powerless, with Jordan pressing into him with all his might, Alex found it hard to breathe. Even if he could have filled his lungs, he wouldn’t have said a word to the bus driver. If he tried to get Jordan in trouble, Jordan would wiggle out of it, claiming it was an accident. That was Jordan’s genius:  he never got caught. Even now, as Mary Jo glanced back, all she saw above the seats was Jordan sitting quietly, staring calmly ahead.

And all Alex could do was sit there and take it.

He knew they couldn’t be that far from school, but the rest of the ride seemed to take forever. Alex tried making deals with the universe, the way he usually did:  “If I hold my breath to the count of thirty, he’ll get bored and stop.” “If I close my eyes for three more blocks, he’ll let up.”

Jordan never let up, even as he was telling dirty jokes to Calvin.

Deemer kept up a sing-song taunt:  “Crybaby, crybaby, stick your head in pie, baby!”

Alex clamped his eyes closed, trying to shut them out. He was in the middle of one of his deals, counting to forty-five this time, when the bus stopped hard for a red light. Alex opened his eyes, hoping to see their school out the window.

He saw something better.

A dog.

A muddy stray, nosing through a pile of trash next to an abandoned gas station. He wasn’t much to look at, but the mere sight of him made Alex’s heart lift.

Alex had imagined getting a dog for as long as he could remember. He’d thought up a hundred different names and pictured himself with every possible breed. Up to then, his dream of getting a dog had always seemed just that:  a dream.

But as he stared at the stray, something lit up inside him. The dog had cornered a sock and was playing a game with himself, picking it up and flinging it across the ground, only to chase it down again. He was everything Alex had ever wished for, fun and feisty and full of mischief.

Alex knew with a certainty he couldn’t explain that this dog was the one.

Then the dog looked up. Right at Alex.

They locked eyes. The dog stared at him, head cocked to one side. Alex stared right back.

“Hey, boy,” Alex whispered.

The dog’s ears twitched.

He heard me, Alex thought.

The light changed, and the bus started to move. Alex held the dog’s gaze as the bus gained speed.

And then the dog took off in hot pursuit.

Alex twisted his neck around. “Go, boy,” he whispered.

Miraculously, the dog started to gain on them. He was only half a block back, when suddenly the bus turned a corner, and the dog disappeared.

Alex’s stomach dropped. He stared back, searching—

—and then the dog bolted out from an alley, right behind them. He’d found a shortcut! Alex couldn’t believe how smart this dog was. The dog raced down the sidewalk after the bus. He was actually gaining on them.

And then the bus zoomed across a busy intersection. Four lanes each way. Sixteen lanes of traffic at rush hour.

A death zone.

“STAY!!!” Alex shouted.

Jordan turned toward him sharply.

Alex didn’t notice. All he cared about was this:  the dog stopped with one foot in the street, then pulled back onto the curb and sat down, staring after the bus.

“Good boy,” Alex murmured under his breath, sad, but relieved.

He stared back until he couldn’t see the dog anymore.

The bus finally pulled to a stop in front of Alex’s school. The brakes hissed as Mary Jo turned off the engine and swung open the door.

Jordan stayed seated, still leaning into Alex, until the rows in front of them had emptied. At last, he eased off and yanked himself into the aisle. His eyes lingered over the crushed bakery box, cake and icing oozing out the seams. Then they flicked back to Alex.

“Happy birthday,” he said.