The whole shabang. Featuring wacky formatting

Chapter One: Barf, Bugs and Baseball

On the morning of the day he made the kindergarteners throw up, Robby and a bunch of other kids were gathered around in a big circle on the blacktop before school. Alex Rosten was going to eat a bug. Alex was one of Robby’s best friends and Robby had seen Alex eat boogers, scabs, and even a glob of something that Alex said was a peanut fossil, but today Alex was going to eat a black, shiny beetle. It had icky black legs and some antlers or something coming off its head.

It was a beautiful, sunny morning and kids were laughing and joking around. But when Alex lifted the beetle towards his mouth nobody said one single word. It was quiet. Outer space quiet. The beetle must have known it was in trouble, because it started pumping its legs really fast like it was trying to run away. Dirt was flying off.

“Better chew him good,” Robby said, “or he’s going to crawl out.”

“I know how to eat a bug,” Alex said.

With that, he clamped his eyes shut, opened his mouth and tossed the bug in. One of its legs popped out between his lips and somebody screamed. But “thwerp!” he sucked it back in and gave the bug a big chew. “Crunch.”

The crunching sound made Robby’s stomach gurgle. Robby had seen Alex eat tons of stuff, and never thrown up, but the big glob of green bug juice that dripped down Alex’s chin made his legs…feel… wobbly.

“Dude, you look awful,” said Robby’s best friend, Melvin Hawkins. “You gonna yak?”

Like always, Melvin’s glasses were fogged up and he was wearing his green golf hat. It said “Ping” on the front, which Melvin said was the sound a golf ball made when you hit it with your club. Melvin’s dad was the golf pro at the country club, and Melvin had been taking golf lessons since he was like six months old. He could hit a golf ball like 10 miles.

“I’m not gonna yak,” Robby said.

Alex burped and wiped bug juice off his chin with his arm. “You know the rules. You barf, you owe me a buck.”

“I’m not gonna…barf,” said Robby.

“The dork’s gonna barf!” said Jeff Hicks. He and the other Sports Guys started laughing really loud.

Robby didn’t like Jeff too much. He and the Sports Guys spent all recess running around on the basketball courts or hogging the tether ball poles. Jeff called himself “The King of Sports” and he was the toughest kid in third grade. You didn’t mess with him. In second grade, Robby had beat Jeff in a spelling bee and Jeff had made him eat a handful of crayons.

“I’m not gonna barf,” Robby said for the third time.

“Dorks, dorks, they can’t play sports,” Jeff laughed. He walked over to Robby, put him in a headlock and gave him a noogie, rubbing his fist over the top of Robby’s head.”

Robby tried to get out of the headlock. He pushed his hands against Jeff’s arm and tried to pull his head out from under Jeff’s arm pit, but Jeff was too strong. Robby couldn’t breathe too well. He could feel his face turning red.

“Golf’s a sport,” said Melvin.

Jeff laughed. “No it’s not. My dad says golf is a hobby, like coin collecting.”   Then he smiled at his friends. “The dork, the booger eater and the coin collector.”

He started to give Robbie another noogie, but stopped when Alex said:

“Dume’s coming! Better go line up!”

All the kids watched as Principal Dume walked out of his office and across the black top. He was wearing his “Monday clothes,” jeans and a big fluffy blue sweater that made him look like cotton candy in a blue paper cone. He was holding a clipboard with a bunch of papers clamped onto it.

Most of the kids scattered. Jeff let Robby go just as Principal Dume walked up.

“Who wants to lead flag salute today?” Principal Dume asked. Nobody said anything. Leading the flag salute was for dorks.

Principal Dume looked around. He looked at Alex. He looked at Jeff. Then he looked at Robby.

“You,” he said. “Why is your face red?”

“I…” Robby looked at Jeff. Jeff made a mean face at Robby. Robby knew if he told Principal Dume that his face was red because Jeff had put him in a headlock, Jeff would pound him during recess. You never told on Jeff Hicks. Not if you wanted to live.

“I…I was holding my breath,” said Robby.”

“Good for you. You can lead flag salute. Come with me.” He walked off toward where the rest of the kids were lined up on the black top. Robby put his hands on his knees and tried to suck some air into his lungs.

“You okay, dude?” Alex asked.

“I’m okay,” said Robby. “Let’s go.”

Robby and his friends walked off to where Principal Dume was waiting for him to lead the flag salute. Each class had a yellow line painted on the blacktop where the kids had to stand each morning for the flag salute. Alex and Melvin walked over to their lines. Robby stood next to Principal Dume. He handed Robby an American flag.

“Alright, people,” Principal Dume yelled. “Today, third grader Robert Dobler will lead us in the flag salute. But before he does, I have something to tell you.”

Principal Dume looked down at his clipboard and started reading.

“Oak Park Jr. Baseball League is coming toOak Park!” read Principal Dume. “Anyone can try out. Anyone can play.”

“Alright!” shouted Jeff Hicks. “Baseball!”

“Tryouts will be on March first,” read Principal Dume. “Hm. That’s six weeks from now. There will be two leagues for each grade level: an A league for those of you who know your way around a baseball field, and a B league for beginners. B is, after all, for beginner, right?”

He held up his clipboard with the papers clamped to it. “I have flyers here that will tell you how to sign up. So anyone who wants to play baseball, please see me after flag salute and I’ll give you a flyer.”

Principal Dume looked down at Robby.

“Now then” he said. “It is time for flag salute. Anyone wearing a hat or a helmet, please take it off.” Principal Dume pointed to Robby. “Begin.”

“Um. I pledge allegiance,” Robby said. But as he did a white ball came flying out of nowhere and—WHAM!—slammed right into his stomach. It felt like Robby’s guts were exploding. Like somebody had shot off fireworks under his shirt. Robby dropped the flag and flopped onto the ground like a fish.

“Who threw that baseball?” Principal Dume yelled.

Robby felt gravel digging into his face, so he rolled onto his back. The sky was filled with puffy, white clouds. Everybody was upside down. He sucked air, but couldn’t breathe.

Somebody yelled: “Dorks, dorks, they can’t play sports!”

Looking at all the upside down kids made Robby dizzy. His stomach flip flopped like it had when Alex ate the bug. Ugh. Robby closed his eyes and saw the big glob of bug juice dripping down Alex’s face. He clamped his mouth shut. Oh no.

Principal Dume grabbed him by the shoulders and lifted him back onto his feet. His legs were wobbly. He opened his eyes and still saw bug slime. A big, black beetle was crawling up his throat. Its legs were pumping, scratching his throat.

“Better stand back guys,” Alex said. “Robby looks like he’s finally going to…”

“Baseballs may only be thrown at lunch!” yelled Principal Dume. “And they may not be thrown during flag salute!”

“BLURP!”

Principal Dume jumped back as Robby spewed green goo onto the first row of kindergartners. Three-foot-high kids screamed for their mommies. One of them slipped and fell down. Principal Dume flailed his arms and his clipboard sailed up into the air. The baseball flyers came loose and floated all over the place like snow.

“BLURP!” Six of the kindergartners threw up too! It sounded like somebody was throwing buckets of water onto the blacktop.

Robby tried to cover his mouth, but he was too late and more vomit splashed onto the kindergartners. A kid in the front row was so green he looked like Kermit the Frog.

A second grader dropped her books and “BLURP” Then another.

Pretty soon kids were spewing goo all over the place. BLURP! BLURP! BLURP!

Melvin and Alex grabbed Robby by the shirt.

“Awesome!” screamed Melvin. “You are the Pied Piper of barf!”

“Teachers, please take your children to their….classes!” Principal Dume screamed.

Robby clenched his eyes together and wrapped his hands around his mouth. His legs were wobbly. He didn’t know where his backpack was. There was a piece of paper stuck to his shirt.

Principal Dume put his face right in front of Robby’s. His glasses were fogged and his breath smelled awful.

“Did you see who threw the ball?” he said. “Did you see who did it?”

Robby’s head hurt, he wasn’t thinking straight. He felt like he was gonna blow chunks again. He said two words.

“Jeff Hicks.”

Chapter Two: A Good Idea

 

The school nurse’s big white skirt and clompy white shoes made her look like a snowman. She put her arm around Robby’s shoulders and walked him to her office. There was a desk and a bed/table thingy that they made you lay down on when you we feeling sick.

Robby climbed up onto the bed/table thingy and laid down on his back. There was a big window and Robby could see the blacktop where the janitor guys were mopping up the vomit. Robby gagged just as the nurse stuck a thermometer in his mouth.

“Keep your mouth closed,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”

Robby didn’t feel good. He closed his eyes, sucked on the thermometer and just laid there until the nurse came back and told him to sit up.

She popped the thermometer out of his mouth and gave it a look.

“How is your stomach feeling now?”

“It feels like there’s something inside my stomach trying to eat its way out,” said Robby. Lifting up his shirt he showed the nurse the big angry red mark where the ball had smacked into his stomach.

“Wow. You have a really good imagination,” said the nurse. “Do you want me to call and have your Mom pick you up?”

The last thing Robby wanted was for his Mom to know he’d been hit by a baseball and thrown up.

“No,” Robby said. “Please don’t do that. I’ll be okay.”

“Alright, but you should lie down for a while,” the nurse said. She put a wet towel on his forehead and walked out of the room.

Robby laid back and was about to close his eyes when he saw a piece of paper stuck to his stomach. Robby grabbed the paper with his right hand.

BANG, BANG, BANG!  Somebody was pounding on the window. Robby turned his head and saw Jeff Hicks and all the Sports Guys standing outside. Jeff looked right at Robbie and pounded his fist into his hand. Then he said, “I am gonna pound you for telling on me, dork.” All his friends started laughing. BAM BAM BAM. They kept  pounding on the glass. Then they started chanting.

“Dorks, dorks, they can’t play sports! Dorks, dorks, they can’t play sports!”

Robby looked away. He looked at the piece of paper in his hand.Oak ParkBaseball League. It was one of the flyers from Principal Dume’s clipboard. It said, “Everybody can try out! Everybody can play!”

The Sports Guys banged on the window. “Dorks, dorks, they can’t play sports! Dorks, dorks they can’t…”

EVERYBODY CAN TRY OUT. EVERYBODY CAN PLAY. Hmm. Robby got an idea. He slid off the bed/table thingy and pulled the shades over the window. Still lots of banging, but no more Sports Guys.

So Jeff Hicks thought dorks couldn’t play baseball. Well, why couldn’t they? What if Robby played baseball? What then? Would he still be a dork? Would he?

Robby spent the next two hours in the nurse’s office lying on the bed/table thingy thinking so hard his brain started smoking. The nurse came in every half hour or so to check on him and give him a new wet towel to put on his forehead. His stomach hurt. He was just starting to get hungry when Alex and Melvin walked in. They had his backpack.

“We thought you’d probably want your lunch,” Alex said.

Melvin, said, “Jeff Hicks had to go to the Principal’s office. He said you told on him and he’s gonna pound you.”

            “Guys, I’ve got an idea,” said Robby, holding up the flyer. “We are going to play baseball.”

            Robby’s friends looked at him like he’d grown an extra head and 10 extra ears. “Why?” said Melvin.

            “Because if we make the baseball league then Jeff Hicks and those guys will leave us alone.”  

            “Why?” said Melvin.

            “Because we won’t be dorks any more,” said Robby. “The whole reason those guys pick on us so much is because we don’t play sports. They think if a kid doesn’t play sports, he’s got to be a dork. And guys like Jeff think if somebody’s a dork, they can pick on them and give them noogies and stuff.”

            Melvin and Alex looked at each other. Then they looked at Robby.

            “Well can’t they?” said Alex. “I mean, those guys are stronger than us. They’re tougher.”

            “But it’s not right,” said Robby. “We gotta show those guys we’re just as good as they are. We gotta show them that dorks can play sports.”

            “You’re right,” said Melvin. “Let’s do it.”

            “I’m in too,” said Alex.

            Robby hopped off the table even though it hurt his stomach. “Alright you guys. We’ve got six weeks to learn how to play baseball. My class has library today so I’ll see if they have some kind of book on baseball for beginners or something.”

            After lunch, when Robby’s class went to the library, he asked the librarian where he could find the baseball books. There were a lot of books with titles like The Babe and Me, and Heroes of the 1967 World Series and stuff, and it took Robby 15 minutes to find the one he wanted.

The title was Baseball for Beginners. There was a picture of a kid wearing baseball clothes on the cover. The kid was standing in the middle of a baseball field by himself. A ball was coming right at him. He looked scared. This looks like the one for me, Robby thought.

He sat down on the carpet and flipped the book open to the Table of Contents. There were 10 chapters. Each chapter taught you one thing you needed to know if you wanted to play baseball. The first chapter was called, “The Stuff You Need to Play Baseball.” It had a picture of a baseball just like the one that hit Robby in the stomach. Robby started to read:

Hi kids! If you want to play baseball but don’t know how, this book will teach you all you need to know! But before you learn to play baseball, you need some stuff.

Robby read the whole chapter. It said the first thing you needed if you wanted to play baseball was a glove. The book showed what a baseball glove looked like, and what it was for. Robby learned about baseball bats. He learned that there were bats made of wood and bats made of some kind of metal called aluminum. He learned that baseballs were made out of cork and rubber wrapped in leather and stitched up with cotton thread. Each baseball had 108 stitches. Pretty cool stuff, Robby thought. He wondered if Jeff Hicks and those guys knew this stuff.

By the time library hour was over, Robby had read the whole chapter. He knew that you played baseball on a “field” and that fans (people who came to watch a game) sat in the “stands” which seemed weird. He knew about bases. He knew that when players hit a “home run” they usually didn’t run at all. He could hardly wait to read the next chapter, which was called “How to Throw a Baseball.” But library time was over. Robby walked over to the librarian’s desk and checked out the book. He had a lot of reading to do, but he felt like he was already getting the hang of baseball. Maybe dorks could play sports after all.

            Chapter Three: Way Germier Than Softball

After school, Robby waited for his mom in the pickup line by the curb. Mondays were the worst because his dumb sister Claire had ballet practice and Robby had to sit on the bench outside the studio with his mom and wait for her until the class was over.

            Robby lifted up his shirt. Right above his belly button, was the big red circle. And running from one side of the circle to the other was a super red line that Robby knew from Baseball for Beginners, was from the 108 stitches that held the baseball together. He felt like a cow that some cowboy had branded with a baseball brand.

He was just pulling his shirt down when Melvin and Alex came running up.

“Wow, that must really hurt,” said Melvin.

“It hurts a lot,” Robby said.

“Well, don’t show your Mom,” said Alex. “If she sees that, she’s never going to let you play baseball.”

“Yea,” said Melvin. “She may not let you play any way. You know how she is germs and disease and stuff.”

“I know,” said Robby. “She’s weird about that stuff. But I’m going to convince her to let me play.”

Robby took Baseball For Beginners out of his backpack and showed it to his friends.

“This book says if we’re going to play baseball we gotta have gloves,” Robby explained. “If you don’t have a glove, you can’t catch the ball because it’s super hard and it will smash your hand off.”

“Too bad your stomach didn’t have a glove,” Alex said.

            “Claire had a glove when she played softball,” Robby said. “I’ll get my Dad to get me one too.”

            “We’ll all get gloves and bring them to school tomorrow,” said Melvin. “That way we can practice at lunch.”

“Great idea,” said Robby.

Two seconds later, Robby’s sister Claire came bopping up with a whole bunch of her dumb fifth grade friends. Claire was so tall and skinny that Melvin said she looked like a golf tee. Claire mostly ignored Robby because he was only in third grade and she said his brain was still way too small for him to understand what she said.

“Nice job at flag salute.” Claire said. “You made 19 kids and the principal throw up. That’s a record.”

“I got hit by a baseball.” 

“Jamie Brown took a video of it on her phone and posted it on the Internet. It got over a thousand hits!”

Claire and her friends started laughing, but Alex pulled a big brown booger out of his nose held it up and that shut them up pretty quick.  

Luckily, just then Robby’s mom drove up in her big, blue minivan. Robby said goodbye to his friends, pulled open the door and jumped inside. Like always, his mom handed him the box of handi wipes. He took one, rubbed it over his hands and tossed it in the trash.

Robby tried to close the door before Claire got in, but she was too fast.

“Nice try, dweeb,” she said.

“Claire, are you ready for your big ballet recital?” Mom asked. “Just six weeks until the show.”

“Hey, Mom,” Robby blurted out. “Can I try out for baseball?”

“She’s talking to me,” said Claire. “And yes, Mom, I’m ready. Also, Robby threw up on some kindergarten kids at flag salute today.”

“What?” said Mom. “Why?”

“I got…just didn’t feel good,” said Robby. He did not want to tell his Mom about getting hit with a baseball. Not now. “I’m fine, Mom.”

“Did you go to the nurse?” Mom asked. “Did they give you tests?”

“Yes. I…I took a bunch of tests. I’m fine.”

“Can we talk about me again?” said Claire. “And how I’m Clara, which is the star dancer in the whole Nutcracker show.”

“Yes, I am very proud of you.” Mom popped a peanut into her mouth. She ate a lot of peanuts and the floor of the minivan was crazy with peanut shells. Most times it crunched when you walked. Mom had low blood sugar, whatever that was, and had to eat peanuts and cheese and beef jerky all the time or she got really grumpy. Her breath smelled like Robby’s dad’s feet.

“Mooooooom!” said Robby as he bounced up and down on his seat to get her attention.

“Wait one minute please.” Mom rubbed her head and made the “Mom is stressed” look, where she rolled her eyes up into her head.

“Everybody wishes they could be Clara,” said Claire. “But I’m Clara and Claire.”

“Who cares about dumb old ballet anyway?” Robby said. “There aren’t even any boys in it.”

“Yes there are boys, smarty,” said Claire. “There are two boys who are mouses. In the Mouse King’s Army. And they’re in fifth grade so they could kick your butt.”

Ugh. This was going nowhere. Robby counted to five in his head to keep from being angry. “Mom, can I speak now?”

“Yes, Robby,” she said. “Thank you for waiting. What did you want to say?”

“Baseball tryouts are coming up and I want to play. So I’m asking if it’s okay.”

“You don’t know how to play baseball,” Claire said. “All you know how to do is play video games with Dad and that silly monster card game where you and Melvin are always screaming ‘Attack!’ at each other. That’s why everybody thinks you’re such a dork. If you played baseball, I bet you’d get knocked on the head in the first game and they’d have to take you to the hospital and have an operation. Look what happened today.”

“What happened today?” said Mom.

“Nothing,” Robby said.

“Robby got hit in the stomach by a baseball. That’s why he threw up on those kindergartners.”

“You did?” Mom said.

“It was an accident Robby said. “No big deal.”

“Do you want me to show you the video of Robby throwing up on your cell phone?” Clair asked.

“Mom, come on,” Robby just about yelled. “Can I play baseball, please?”

“I don’t know, Robby,” Mom said. “Baseball is an outside sport.”

“Yes, but I think…”

“So there’s grass.”

“Yes, but….”

“Grass is dirty, Mom,” said Claire, scrunching up her nose.

“The dirt is under the grass,” said Robby.

“And bugs live in grass, Mom,” said Claire. “And germs.”

“Don’t’ listen to her, Mom!” said Robby.

“And disease,” Claire added. “Grass is crazy with disease.”

“That’s a problem,” said Mom. “How often do they wash the field?”

“Wash it? I don’t know,” said Robby. “But baseball is just like softball. And you let Claire play softball.”

“Yes, and she had a cough the whole time,” said Mom.

“Please, Mom,” said Robby leaning forward in his seat until the seat belt started hurting his shoulders. “I’d have practice once a week. You can drop me off and have an hour to yourself. You can get a smoothie and charge your batteries.”

“Hmmmm, that would be nice….”

“The Great Plague of 1665 started in grass,” said Claire. “And you know what happened to those guys.”

“Come on, Mom. This is important. Please!”

“I wouldn’t do it, Mom,” said Claire. Leaning way forward in her seat, she put her hand up next to her mouth and tried to whisper to Mom. But of course, Robby could hear what she said. “Baseball is way germier than softball,” said Claire. “And baseballs are much harder than softballs. Robby could get hit in the head. And he’s only ten years old so his head bone is still soft.”

“My head bone is really hard, Mom.” Robby yelled. He made a fist and punched himself in the head. “See?”

Mom ate a peanut and thought it over.

“If I let you play baseball will you protect your head?”

“You bet!” said Robby. “I’ll wear a helmet and everything.”

“And you’ll make sure all your homework is done without me having to tell you?”

“Yes!”

“And you’ll wash your hands with soap without me having to tell you?”

“Yes!”

“All the way up to your wrists?”

“All the way up to my shoulders, okay?”

“Okay. You can play baseball. But you’re going to take extra vitamins and no talking back.”

“I will take as many vitamins as you want,” Robby said. “Thanks, Mom. Thanks a bunch.”

Chapter Four: A Whole Herd of Girls

Robby was so excited about being able to play baseball that sitting through ballet was even more boring than usual. All the ballet girls wore dumb pink dresses and pink tights. A bunch of them even had pink ribbons tied around their stomachs. What were those for? Robby watched them jump and spin around for a while. There was a whole herd of girls, but only two boys. The boys were doing push ups, up and down, up and down. How was that fun? And they were wearing wacky stuff too. They had black tights, like Batman wore and hats with big plastic mouse ears stapled to them. They even had pieces of black rope tied around their stomachs and hanging off their butts to look like tails. What a dopey thing. Robby would eat dog guts and cat brains before he wore that dumb stuff.

Claire’s ballet room had a big mirror on one wall with a wooden bar running across it from one end to the other. The bar was about four feet off the ground and all the girls spent a lot of time with their legs up on that bar. Then they skipped for a while, and then did some hopping and some little jumps straight up in the air and twirling around. Robby watched the boys. They did some jumping jacks and then some sit ups. Then they put their feet up on the bar, too. Robby couldn’t stand it anymore. He walked outside, sat down on the bench next to Mom and played video games. He spent the next 45 minutes blowing away aliens and saving the earth.

Finally, Claire and the whole herd of girls bopped out of the ballet studio.

“Mom,” said Claire. “Miss Robin said we have to rehearse every day for the next six weeks to get ready for the show.”
    

“Every day? Mom frowned. Are you sure?”

“Miss Robin says so,” said Claire.

Mom marched right inside to talk to Miss Robin. Claire and another girl walked over to Robby. Claire grabbed his video game player out of his hand.

“Hey! Gimme that!” Robby said.

“I need you to be in the ballet,” said Claire.

“Me?” Robby laughed. “No way. Why?”

“Because I’ll pound you if you don’t,” said Claire, making a fist.

The other girl nudged Claire with her shoulder. “You should tell him,” she said.

“No,” Claire shook her head.

“Tell me what?” asked Robby.

“We need another boy in the Mouse King’s Army,” the other girl said. “And Miss Robin says if she doesn’t get another boy, she’s going to put Kendall Miller in the Mouse King’s army because Kendall has short hair and looks kind of like a boy anyway. And Kendall Miller likes the Mouse Army boy with the long blonde hair, which is the same one Claire likes…So, Claire does not wantKendallto be in the Mouse King’s Army. Get it?”

Robby looked at Claire. She was biting her lip like she was going to chew it off.

“Tough beans. I’m not doing ballet,” Robby said.

“But you have to!” said Claire. “I asked you nice so you have to do it.”

“You said you’d pound me,” Robby said. “Forget it.”

“Why nooooooooot?” Claire whined.

“Cause it’s dumb. And if the kids at school found out, they’d make fun of me even more than they already do. I’m not doing it.”

Robby grabbed his game out of Claire’s hand and walked inside to find Mom. Claire ran after him.

Inside, Mom was having a talk with Miss Robin. Miss Robin was tall and had long brown hair tied up in a ribbon way up on top of her head. Robby thought her hair kind of looked like a big spout of water shooting out of a whale’s blow hole.

“Claire is doing very well,” Miss Robin said. “She is quite good at ballet.”

“Well, it does run in the family,” said Mom. “We all love to dance.”

“Really?” said Miss Robin. “Maybe we should get your brother in the show, Claire.” She smiled at Robby. “We could use another mouse in the Mouse King’s Army.”

“I’m playing baseball,” said Robby, feeling his face burn red.

Miss Robin looked at Robby and smiled again. She had super big, shiny rabbit teeth. “Okay. But if you change your mind, we really need another boy and I would love to have you in the show.”

Robby didn’t say what he was thinking which was, “There’s a better chance that I’m going have a sleep over at Jeff Hicks’ house than there is I’m going to do ballet.”

Chapter Five: A Tight Spot

            When he got home, Robby ran upstairs to find his dad. Dinner was not until six o’clock, so they still had time to go buy a baseball glove. Dinner was at six because Robby’s dad used to go to work all day at the library and not get home until six. But now, since he got laid off, he was home all the time. He didn’t go anywhere.

“’Laid off’ means they don’t have enough work for me to do so I have to find another job,” Dad explained.

Laid off also meant that on some days, Dad never came out of his bedroom. Most of the time if you stood outside the door, you could hear him typing clack clack on the computer, but sometimes, you couldn’t hear anything at all.

Dad used to wear white shirt and shiny ties and black shoes and stuff to work. But now he always wore the same thing; his big white underwear, a gray sweatshirt and white socks. He never shaved, so his face was really hairy. And he’d gotten crazy about saving money. Last week, Dad nailed one of his watches onto the wall inside the shower and you had to make sure your shower didn’t last more than three minutes. And there was no more Dollar Scoop Night at Baskin Robbins or bike rides to the donut shop on Saturday morning after cartoons.

The only good thing about ‘laid off’ was that Robby and Dad had more time to do their favorite thing which was play video games. Robby had gotten a new game system for his birthday, the kind that had a motion sensor thingy that let you wave the controller around instead of just pushing buttons. Robby and Dad played all kinds of games, except sports games of course, but their favorite was sword fighting games where you were a knight or a thief and you had to fight your way through a billion monsters to get the treasure or save the princess. Robby and his Dad were expert level on every game they played. Dad was getting even more expert since he got laid off.

The game they were playing now was called The Fire Sword of Glar. Robby always played as the elf prince who finds a magic fire sword in a far away land and uses it to fight his way back to his kingdom. Dad was always his wise-cracking dwarf side kick. As long as the elf prince used the fire sword, he can’t lose a fight, even when he battles the Mega Fighters of Glar Mountain. Each level had new sword fighting moves you had to learn if you wanted to destroy the monsters on that level. The motion sensor on the controller let you actually do the moves with your arm, pretending like you really had a sword in your hand, instead of just pushing buttons. It was awesome.

Robby knocked on the door. “Hey dad? Can I talk to you?”

“Sure, come on in.”

Robby opened the door and walked in. Dad was not at his desk. Dad was not typing on the computer. Dad was standing on the bed in his underwear holding a video game controller and swinging his arm around really fast.

“Hey,” said Robby. “Why are you playing without me?”

Robby walked around and looked at the TV, just in time to see the side-kick dwarf guy get his arm chopped off by a battle troll swinging an axe.

“Darn it!” Dad said as “Game Over” appeared on the screen. He put the controller on the bed and ran his hands through his hair.

“Hey, sport. You’ve been carrying me through the last few levels of this game, so I thought I’d get in a little practice. But that battle troll is too tough.”

“Let me try.” Robby took the controller off the bed and pressed “restart.” Robby had never beaten this troll either. But he knew how to beat trolls.

“Against trolls, you gotta play defense,” Robby explained. “You gotta parry a lot.” Parry meant block. Every time the troll swung, Robby raised his controller and the dwarf raised his sword to parry the troll’s sword. When he couldn’t parry, Robby jumped the dwarf character out of the way. “See? You gotta let him get tired. Then, when he’s good and tired, you can stick him.”

Robby went on the attack, whirling the controller around his head, hacking and stabbing. On the screen, the dwarf did the same moves with his sword.

“You can move in,” Robby said. “But you gotta stab him with the point of your sword, not slash at him. A troll’s armor’s too thick for slashing.”

Robby stabbed the controller and on the TV, the dwarf stabbed the troll in the stomach. The troll groaned and fell over.

“See?”

“Boy, you have got to be the best video game sword fighter in the world,” Dad said. He turned off the TV and then turned off the video game.

“How was school today?” he said.

“It was okay,” Robby said. “But listen, Dad. There’s a new baseball league and I’m going to try out.”

“I didn’t know you liked baseball.”

“I don’t know if I like it,” Robby said. “But I want to find out. Okay?”

Dad chuckled. “What did you mom say?”

“She said I could play.”

Dad scrunched his face. “You’re kidding? She said you could play baseball? Outside?”

“I can’t believe it either. But there’s one thing. I need a glove. Can we go get one tonight? Me and the guys are going to practice tomorrow at lunch.”

            Dad thought for a moment, then shook his head.

“I’m sorry, son. I’d really like to buy you a glove, but…baseball gloves are expensive. Until I find a job, we just can’t afford it. Can’t you borrow one from one of your friends for a while?”

“Dad, they don’t have gloves either. And I need one tomorrow. We’re going to play catch at lunch.”

“I’m sorry, son,” said Dad. “But we just don’t have the money for it right now. When I get a new job, fine, but you’re just going to have to borrow a glove from someone until then.”

Oh man, things had gone from good to bad pretty darn quick. This was worse than the time he’d gotten chicken pox the night before his birthday and couldn’t go to Disneyland. Robby thought about telling Dad the real reason he was going out for baseball, but decided he wasn’t ready to do that yet. Dad didn’t know that everybody at school thought he was a dork. Or that the Sports Guys picked on him. Dad thought Robby was a real cool kid. And Robby didn’t want to make him sad by telling him he was wrong.

“But I have to practice,” Robby said. “Tryouts are in six weeks.”

Dad put his hand on Robby’s arm.

            “I get it. You are in a tight spot. But here’s an idea. If you’re brave and you’re tough, and you ask her in just the right way, your sister might let you use her softball glove. I think it’s probably still out in the garage somewhere.”

            “Dad, Claire’s glove is pink!” Robby said. “I’ll have kids making fun of me for the rest of my life.”

            “You’re right. It is pink. But it’s a glove. And you need a glove.”

            “Jake Miller wore his sister’s backpack ONCE last year, and he got teased so bad he had to go to another school!”

            “Robby, Jake’s family moved toSan Francisco.”

            “They glued Barbies to his locker!”

            Dad stood up. “I’m sure the kids will understand.”

            “The kids will not understand!” said Robby. “Not at all. Please, Dad. You have to get me a glove.”

            “I wish I could, Robby. Really. But I don’t have a job and right now I need all our money to pay bills. You can borrow a glove from one of your friends, or talk Claire into letting you use hers for a couple of weeks. When I’m working again, I’ll take you out and buy you one of your own. Now, let’s go get our hands washed for dinner, or your mom is not going to be happy.”

            Dad stood up and went into the bathroom to wash his hands. Maybe he would put on some pants.

            Robby thought it over. A girl’s glove? A pink girl’s glove? How was he going to play baseball with a pink glove? Maybe he shouldn’t even try out for baseball. No. This was his idea. Alex and Melvin were counting on him. And he had to admit it was a really good idea. He had to play. He was going to have to ask Claire. After dinner. Before bath time. It was going to be awful.

Chapter Six: A Good Deal

 Robby started to sweat and feel big gurgles in his stomach about half way through dinner. Waiting to ask Claire if he could use her glove was worse than when he had to wait in the doctor’s office when he knew he was going to get a shot. Yep, it was worse than that.

After dinner, Claire ran up to her room, and Robby’s dad winked at him like nothing in the world was wrong and said, “Robby, I need to chat with your mother. This would be a good time for you to talk to Claire about…about that thing you wanted to talk to her about.”

Slogging up the stairs to Claire’s room took about three years. Robby dragged his feet on each step. It felt like his stomach was a drum and somebody was pounding on it. When he reached the top of the stairs, Claire’s door was closed. Robby heard music playing behind the door.

When he knocked on the door, nothing happened, so he knocked louder. After a minute, the door opened. Music blasted him in the face. 

“Robby, can’t you see I’m dancing? What do you want?” Claire yelled.

Robby froze. Like a kidsicle.

            “What do you want, Robby?” She rolled her eyes just like Mom did.

            “Um…Claire? Me and my friends are going to play baseball tomorrow at lunch and I…well…I need a…um…a glove.”

            Claire smirked a big smirk. “And that’s my problem how?” The way she said it made him feel like he was a little kid again, three years old, blubbered up with baby fat and wearing a diaper. His legs wanted to run away. So did his feet. So did his toes. But he didn’t.

            “Can I please borrow your softball glove? Dad says I can’t get me my own until he gets a job.”

“No. It’s mine.”

            “I know it’s yours. But you don’t use it, and I’m asking can I just borrow it for a few days.”

            “A few is three.”

            “Well, more than a few then,” Robby said. He was getting angry, like he always did with his sister. It was like he had a big, red “MAKE ME MAD” button coming out the top of his head and Claire knew just how to push it.

            “Sorry. No can do.” Claire started to go back into her room, but paused in the doorway, closed one eye, scrunched up her face and looked back at Robby.

            “Hmmmmm,” she said. “On second thought, what will you give me if I let you use my glove?”

            “I don’t know,” Robby said. “Gee whiz, Claire, what do you want?”

            “How about fifty bucks?”

            “Fifty!” said Robby. “If I had that much I could buy my own glove.”

            Claire leaned in, put her big nose right in front of Robby’s face and gave him a big, fake smile. He could see a piece of lettuce stuck in her tooth. “Fine,” she said. “You can use my glove, but you have to wear a big diaper to school tomorrow and ask Principal Dume to put you on his knee and burp you during flag salute.”

Robby jumped back against the wall. “Claire, come on! I can’t do that.”

Claire squeezed her eyes together and held her finger up to her head like she was thinking. “Wait…..wait…”

Robby clenched his fists. There was a big red ball of mad shooting up his neck into his head. That kind of mad ball usually got him grounded.

Claire clapped her hands together, and skipped around behind Robby. She was laughing now, and there was nothing Robby could do to stop her.

“You can use my glove if you eat one of Alex Rosten’s boogers. But it has to be a big wet, slippery one.”

            “No way, Claire, I’m not going to do that! Now, stop messing around. Can I have the glove or not?”

Claire squeezed her eyes together and made her mouth real tight.

            “I’ve got it!” She jumped up in the air and clapped her hands. “I’ll let you use my glove, but if I do, you…have…to…be…in…my…ballet.”

“I told you, Claire. I’m not doing ballet.”

“If your brain was larger Robby, you could see this is a fair deal. You dance in the Mouse King’s Army for me, and I let you use my glove for you.”

Robby put his hands on his hips. “I’m not wearing dumb ears and a tail and jumping around with a bunch of dopey girls. And I’m sure not doing it in front of people!”

            Claire skipped into her room and started to close the door. “Too bad for you, because that’s my final offer. Take it or leave it. You can be a mouse with a baseball glove, or a dork sitting all by himself at lunch.”

Robby just stood there not knowing what to do. He really needed the glove…but dancing? In front of everybody? With girls? He was stuck and he knew it. There was no other way he was going to get that glove. And he was desperate.

“Fine. I’ll be a mouse. But if you tell anybody, the deal is off. That means any of my friends, any of your friends, anybody you see at school, and anybody you don’t know. Basically, anybody but Mom and Dad. Deal?”

“Deal,” Claire said, and closed the door. And before Robby took one step away from her room, he heard her scream, behind the door, and over the music, “Yes!”

 Robby went out to the garage to look for the glove. After a few minutes, he found it at the bottom of the old toy box. Even though it was really dusty, it was still pink. Barbie pink.

“Holy moly, look how pink it is.” He put it on his right hand first, and when it didn’t fit, he put it on his left one. He pushed his fingers all the way up into the glove and opened his hand. The glove opened. He closed his hand and the glove closed, too. Well, at least it worked. But what the heck was he going to tell his friends? What would they say? What would Jeff Hicks do?

Chapter Seven: The Boy In The Bathroom

The next day, when Robby went to school, he stuffed the pink glove way down in his backpack under his lunch. The box of handi-wipes his mom had made him take was in there too. She’d written ROBERT on it in big, black letters.

Principal Dume had not come out of his office yet so all the kids were hanging around on the blacktop. Robby watched Jeff Hicks and the other Sports Guys tossing baseballs around. They threw mostly with their right hands and caught the ball with gloves on their left hands. When the ball hit their gloves, it made a loud popping noise, like when you stepped on a snail.

Vivian Slepka, “The Girl Who Was Better Than Boys at Everything” was throwing the ball really high in the air to another kid. Alex thought since her hair was cut so short and she was so good at sports that Vivian might be a boy in disguise. Robby didn’t think so. Not at all.

            Robby found Alex and Melvin standing in their lineup line. Alex was holding a plastic baggie of cookies.

            “What kind of cookies are those?” Robby asked.

“They’re oatmeal,” Alex explained. “My mom says they’re good for you. But they taste like paste a little bit. Paste mixed with dirt. I’m going to try to trade ‘em to a kindergartner for some French fries or something at lunch.”  Alex zipped up the baggie and put in his pocket.

            “Hey, Robby,” said Melvin. “Did you get a mitt? My dad says baseball guys call their gloves ‘mitts.’”

            “I got one,” said Robby.

Somebody yelled, “Head’s up!”

Robby looked up and saw a baseball rolling across the playground toward him. It rolled through a group of first graders and stopped right by his shoe. He looked down. The ball was just sitting there.

“Hey spazz. Throw me that baseball!” Jeff Hicks was standing about 10 feet away, looking at him. Even though he was only nine years old, Jeff already had kind of a mustache. “Come on, dork. Flag salute’s going to start.”

            “You better throw it to him,” Alex said.

Robby reached down and picked up the ball. He’d never held a baseball before. He had no idea how to throw one. If only he would have read chapter two in Baseball for Beginners instead of playing Magic Sword of Glar with Dad last night.

            “You got one second to throw me that ball,” said Jeff. He pounded his fist into his glove. By now, the Sports Guys…and everybody else were watching.

            “Throw it,” whispered Melvin. “You’re dead if you don’t.”

So Robby threw it. Kind of.

PLUNK. The ball fell out of Robby’s hand. It landed right in front of him, two inches from where it was when he picked it up. Nobody said a word. Jeff just stood there looking at him with his mouth wide open. Vivian Slepka shook her head and walked away. The ball just sat there. Robby could feel his ears turning red.

“Pick it up, dude,” Melvin whispered.

But before Robby could move, a little girl, a kindergartner in a fluffy pink dress, skipped over from her line. She reached down, picked up the ball and tossed it to Jeff. The ball hit his glove with a loud PLUNK.

And that’s when everybody started to laugh. Really loud.

Even the kindergartners, some of whom Robby had thrown up on yesterday, were laughing at him. Then the first graders, both classes of them, were laughing. And the second graders. And then all the third, fourth and fifth graders too. Even some of the teachers were laughing, and Robby was pretty sure they should not be laughing at a kid.

Somebody yelled, “Robby can’t throw!”

Then somebody else said it and everybody laughed louder. Pretty soon, everybody was saying it. “Robby can’t throw! Robby can’t throw!”

There was only thing Robby could do. And he did it. He ran to the bathroom, turned off the lights and squeezed into the last stall, right next to the toilet. Then he buried his head between his knees and decided that he was never coming out.

***

 “Young man? Hello in there, young man? It’s Principal Dume. Are you alright?”

            Robby didn’t answer. “Can’t throw. Can’t throw. Can’t throw,” he mumbled as he rocked back and forth. His head hurt. Somehow, the left leg of his pants had gotten wet.

            “I really need you to come out now, son. School is starting and you need to be in your classroom.”

            Robby just rocked back and forth. If he could have flushed himself down the toilet he would have.

            “Are you sure there’s someone in there?” Robby heard someone say.

            “He’s in there.” It was Melvin. “I saw him go in.”

            “Robby, you get out of the bathroom, right now or I’m going to call Mom.” That was Claire.     

            “Are you his sister?” Principal Dume asked.

            “Yes. I’m normal though. Can you believe it? He does this sometimes at home. You just have to yell at him for a while and he’ll come out. Robby!”

            “Go away,” Robby mumbled. “Just leave me alone.”

            “Well, son, I can’t do that,” said Principal Dume. “School is starting and all children have to be in their classes.”

“I don’t care,” Robby said.

“Okay. Well, I wasn’t going to tell you this son, but you’re in the girls’ bathroom, and there are several young ladies here who really need to go.”

            The girls’ bathroom? Robby stood up, turned on the lights and looked around. If this was the girl’s bathroom, where were all the stuffed unicorns and rainbows and hair scrunchies and stuff? The boys’ bathroom had three urinals and two stalls. This bathroom had five stalls and NO urinals. Robby walked over to the third stall where Melvin had drawn the golf ball smiley face last year. It wasn’t there. Instead, somebody had written, “Barbie Rules!”

“Ohmagosh,” said Robby. “I AM in the girls’ bathroom.” He grabbed his backpack, burst through the door and raced outside. He ran straight past Melvin, Claire and Principal Dume, and didn’t stop until he got to his classroom. The girls’ bathroom!!! This was turning out to be a bad day. A bad, bad day.

 Chapter Eight: If You Can Throw a Cookie, You Can Throw a Baseball

At lunch, Robby’s friends ate their lunches really fast, and ran to their lockers to get their gloves.

Robby ate as slowly as he could. The girl’s bathroom? Could things get any worse?

“Come on, Robby,” said Alex. “Don’t be a slow poke. Let’s go play catch.”

After what had happened that morning, Robby wasn’t feeling too much like playing catch, or using a pink glove to do it.

“My stomach hurts,” Robby said. “You guys go.”

“Dude, you need the practice as much as we do,” said Melvin. “That kindergarten girl throws better than you do. Besides, you got the book. How are we gonna know what to do if we don’t have the book?”

“You can have the book,” Robby said.

“Come on,” said Melvin. “We’ll go out on field three. It’s so far out there, nobody can see how bad we are.”

Robby was pretty sure when Melvin said “we” he meant “you.”

“Really, I don’t want to…I….”

“Hey!” said Alex. He walked over and shook Robby by the shoulders. “You think we’re going to laugh at you because you can’t throw? We’ve been friends since we were like two years old. We’ve seen you in your underwear…and covered in poop and crying at movies and scared of the dark and…gosh Robby, we’re your friends.”

“He’s right, dude,” Melvin grinned. “We’re pals. Besides, this was your idea. So go get your glove and the book and let’s get going.”

“Okay, geez…” said Robby. “Gimme a second, wouldja?”

Robby walked to his locker, fished the pink glove and Baseball for Beginners out of his backpack and stuffed them under his shirt. Maybe, Robby thought, his friends wouldn’t laugh at him. Would he laugh at them if they were the ones with the pink glove?  Maybe he could just use Claire’s glove for a while, and it would be okay. He wouldn’t have to switch to a new school…nobody would glue any Barbies on his locker.

“So what was it like in there?” Alex asked as they walked out to the field. “In the girls’ bathroom, I mean.”

“It’s pretty much like the boys’ bathroom, I guess,” said Robby. “Except somebody wrote ‘Barbie Rules!’ on the walls.”

“Well wasn’t there any hair ribbons, or doll holders, or anything?” Melvin said. “I always thought they had stuff like that in the girls’ bathroom.”

“I didn’t see any,” Robby said. “Or any stuffed trolls, or art supplies or you know anything really. It was pretty much like our bathroom, I guess.”

“Geez,” that’s weird,” Alex said.

“Yea,” said Melvin. “That’s weird.”

When they got out to the field, Alex and Melvin put their gloves on their left hands. Robby reached under his shirt and took out his glove. He put it on his left hand.

            “What the heck, dude?” said Melvin. “You got a pink baseball glove?”

             “It’s Claire’s softball glove,” Robby said. “My dad got laid off and says he can’t afford to buy me a glove. So I have to use this one until he gets a new job.”
            “Boy, you better not let Jeff Hicks and those guys see it,” said Melvin. “Remember what happened to Jake. They glued Barbies to that guy’s locker.”

            “I know what happened to Jake,” Robby said. “Now, can we just forget about my glove and play some catch?”

            “Robby’s right,” said Alex. “We told him we wouldn’t laugh.”

“Okay then,” Melvin said. “That’s it. No more making fun of Robby’s glove. Let’s play catch.”

“Yea,” Robby agreed. “Let’s just play catch.”

Robby fished Baseball for Beginners out from under his shirt. He held it in his glove, opened it to chapter two and started reading:

Throwing a baseball is easy,” Robby read. “The first thing you do is, hold the ball in your hand.” 

“Rats,” said Melvin. “I don’t have a ball. Do you guys have one?”

“All I have is this bag of cookies,” said Alex. He reached into his pocket and held up the baggie of cookies.

“Well, if we don’t have a ball it’s going to be kind of hard to play catch,” Robby said. “I say we use Alex’s cookies.”

            “Good idea,” said Alex, “If you can throw a cookie, you can throw a baseball, right?”

Alex handed each of his friends a cookie and put the baggie back in his pocket.

“Okay. Tell us what the book says, Robby.”

            Robby put the book on the ground next to his foot and started to read. “Throwing a baseball is easy. Hold the ball in your hand. Now, hold it up over your head.”

Robby and his friends held the cookies over their heads.

Now, put your hand behind your head,” Robby read.

            The boys put the cookies behind their heads until their elbows were sticking up in the air.

            “Now turn sideways and point your front foot at the target,” Robby said. “The target’s where you want the ball to go.”

            The boys turned sideways and pointed their feet.

            “Use your other hand, the one with the glove on it, to point at the target.”

            Robby and his friends pointed with their gloves. Robby thought they all looked like giant “X’s” with their hands and feet all out in different directions.

            “Now, it’s time to throw,” Robby read. “Twist your shoulders and your hips and throw towards your target. Don’t forget to follow through.”

            Okay, here it goes,” Robby said. The three boys twisted, brought their arms forward and threw their cookies.

            “Ow! What the heck!”

            It was Jeff Hicks. Of course. He and the Sports Guys just appeared out of nowhere. Like ghosts. Like bully ghosts. There were cookie crumbs on Jeff’s forehead.

“You hit me with a cookie, dork!”

            “Oh my gosh, I did that,” Melvin whispered. “That was my cookie.”

            “That was a pretty good throw,” whispered Alex.

            “Thanks,” whispered Melvin.

            “What are you dorks doing out here throwing cookies around?” Jeff said. “Shouldn’t you be in the library or…”  Jeff saw Robby’s glove.

“Oh my gosh, Robby’s got a pink baseball glove,” said Jeff. “Why are you wearing a pink baseball glove, Robby?”

“What do you care?” Robby said. “Leave us alone.”

            Jeff started laughing. “What do I care?” 

Jeff reached out and grabbed Robby’s arm. Robby tried to twist away, but Jeff was too strong. Robot strong. Giant monkey strong.

“I don’t care one bit. I just came over here to pound you for telling on me.”

            “Wait!” said Robby. “Wait a second, will you?”

            Jeff rolled his eyes and twisted Robby into a headlock. “No matter what you say, I’m still going to pound you.”

            “I want to make a bet,” Robby said. Ugh. Jeff’s arm pit smelled awful.

“What kind of bet?” Jeff said. He made his right hand into a fist. “Talk fast, dork.”

“Let me go,” Robby said. “I can’t talk into your arm pit.”

Jeff laughed. Then he shrugged and let Robby go. “Okay, what’s the bet?”

“I’m trying out for baseball,” Robby said, rubbing his neck. “And I bet you I make the A league.”
            “What? You? You’re going out for baseball?”

            “We all are,” said Robby. “Melvin, Alex and me. And we’re going to make the A league.”

            “No you’re not,” said Jeff. “You suck. You can’t throw at all.”

Then he pointed at Alex. “And that kid eats boogers.” Then at Melvin. “And that one collects coins. You don’t have a chance of making A League.”

“Well then, let’s bet,” said Robby. “If we make the A league, you leave us alone. If we don’t you can pound us.”

“Us?” said Jeff. “I can pound on all of you dorks?”

            Robby looked at his friends. Both of them were shaking their heads, “no, no, no”

            “Yep. All of us,” Robby said.

            “Well, what kind of bet is that?” Jeff said. “I can pound you guys any time I want.”

            He made a fist and took a step towards Robby. Robby took a quick step away from Jeff.

“You’re right,” said Robby. “But if you do, I’m going to go right to the Principal’s office and tell on you again. And this time you’ll get kicked out of school. But if we don’t make A league, you can pound us and we won’t tell,” Robby said.

            “What?’ said Melvin. “Robby, that’s crazy.”

            “You can pound us and none of us will tell.”  Robby repeated. He stuck out his hand to Jeff. “Is it a bet?”

Jeff thought it over. “Hm. I kind of want to pound you now.”

            “You want to get kicked out of school? Do you? Come on. You said yourself, we don’t have a chance. You can’t lose.”

            Jeff looked over at the Sports Guys and then back at Robby’s hand. Robby kept his hand right out there.

            “What the heck,” Jeff said. He reached out, shook Robby’s hand and squeezed it super hard. “It’s a bet. No sense getting kicked out of school if you don’t have to.”

            Jeff and his friends laughed and walked off to hog the tether ball polls.

            “We are dead,” Melvin said.

            “What are we going to do?” Alex said, digging in his nostril for a booger.

            “We’re going to practice,” said Robby. He reached down and picked up Baseball for Beginners off the ground. “And then we’re going to make A league.”

Chapter Nine: BLECH-The Eating Chapter

The next day was Saturday. Robby’s Mom picked Melvin up and drove them over to Alex’s house. Usually, Robby and his friends spent Saturdays playing video games, sucking down pizza and watching cartoons. But today, they were going to play baseball. Alex was waiting for them when they pulled up.

            “Guys, I’ve been doing some reading on the Internet,” Alex told them as they followed him into the house. “If we want to be baseball players, we’ve got to start eating the right stuff. Stuff that can make us strong. So we can throw the ball and um, hit it and run around and…do other baseball things…you know?”

            “What kind of stuff do we have to eat?” Robby asked.

            “This kind of stuff,” Alex said as they walked into the kitchen.

The kitchen table was covered with apples, carrots, bananas, and big piles of other red, yellow and mostly green stuff that Robbie had never seen before. It was just laying there.

            “Wow, what is this stuff?” Robby said.

            “Those are, veg…veguh….veggies,” said Alex. “But don’t be scared.”

Robby picked up a green prickly thing that kind of looked like the brush Mom used to clean the ring out of the toilet bowl. One end was fluffy like a tree, and the other was kind of a stalk or a trunk.

            “That’s broccoli” said Alex. “It’s like the hardest veggie you can eat. Try it.”

Robby looked at the broccoli and then at Alex. “Which end do I eat?” he said.

            “The puffy end I think,” said Alex.

            Robby lifted the broccoli to his mouth and bit down. It was like biting a sponge. “Oh my gosh!” he said. “That’s terrible.”

            “It’s not so bad,” Alex said.

“Dude, you eat boogers,” said Melvin. “Anything probably tastes better than boogers.”

“Boogers actually taste better than most of this stuff,” said Alex. He held up a yellow thinga majig that looked kind of like a water balloon that was bigger on one end than on the other.

“What’s that?” Melvin said.

“That’s squash,” said Alex. “It’s even better for you than broccoli, so I guess it probably tastes worse too.”

“Well if it tastes so bad, how are we going to eat it?” Robby said. “I know we’ve gotta get strong if we want to make A league, but I already threw up once this week and I don’t really want to do it again.”

“Yea,” said Melvin. “I want to get strong too. But how are we going to eat this awful stuff?”

“I don’t know,” said Alex. “My Mom said fruits and veggies are what the pro baseball guys eat before they play. If we want to be good at baseball, we gotta eat it.”

            The three boys looked around the table. Melvin picked up a plum. “There’s gotta be some stuff we can eat without throwing up, right?”

            “I’ve got an idea,” Robby said. “My mom is always eating smoothies, which is just a bunch of stuff smooshed up in a blender. What if we put all this awful tasting stuff in a blender and smooshed it up?”

            “How would that help?” said Alex. “It would still taste awful, wouldn’t it?”

            “And it would look a lot grosser,” added Melvin, “All smashed up and stuff.”

            “Sure, said Robby, “But at least we could eat it quicker. I mean it’d be kind of like cough medicine. You could just drink it super fast and then drink some water to get the taste out of your mouth. It would still taste bad, just not for so long.”

            Two minutes later, the boys were standing around a blender. “Here we go,” said Alex. He flipped a switch and the blender started whirring. “I’m gonna put it on ‘crush.’ You guys toss some stuff in there.”

            Robby grabbed the squash. “Okay, since this squash is the grossest, let’s put it in first. He held his hand over the blender and dropped the squash in. BLAM, the squash exploded out of the blender like a yellow rocket, smashed into the ceiling, and plopped down right on top of Melvin’sPinghat. There was a big yellow mark on the ceiling and thick brownish goop dripped over the brim of Melvin’s hat onto the floor. Melvin screamed and flailed his arms around his head.

“Get it off of me!” he said.

“Relax, dude,” said Alex. He reached up and brushed the squash off of Melvin’s hat. “It’s food. It can’t hurt you.”

“It jumped on me,” Melvin said. He eyed the yellow glob of squash on the ground. Yellowish brown goop was still dripping off the ceiling.

            “Um, maybe we should put the stuff in first, then put the lid on before we grind it up,” Robby said.

            “Good idea,” said Alex.

            Alex put some carrots, a big purple thing he said was called an “eggplant” and a tomato into the blender.  Robby added a pear, a handful of strawberries and two stalks of celery. Melvin put some little green things that looked like marbles in. Nobody know what the heck those were.    

            “That ought to do it,” said Melvin. He put the lid on. “Smoosh it up, Alex.”

            Alex flipped the switch and the blender started churning. WHIRR, everything was spinning and flipping and turning green and…blech. Finally, there was nothing but a dark green mass of goop. When Alex switched the blender off and took off the lid, all three boys held their noses.

            “Oh my gosh, that smells like me right before I have to drink Pepto Bismol,” said Robby. “We can’t drink that.”

            “I’ll do it,” said Alex as he poured some of the green goop into a glass. “I’m not scared.”

            Alex took a drink. But before he could swallow, his eyes got really big and BLAM!  He opened his mouth sprayed a fountain of goop all over Robby and Melvin.

            “Holy moly that tastes awful,” Alex said. He wiped goop off his face with his arm. “Um. Let me get you guy some paper towels.”  

            It took almost five minutes for Robby and Melvin to clean themselves off. There was green goop everywhere. There was a glob of it running down the inside of Robby’s pant leg. Melvin found some in his underwear.

            “I am not drinking that stuff,” Melvin said. “I don’t care how strong it makes me.”

            “Wait a second,” said Alex. “I’ve got an idea.”

Alex walked over to the refrigerator and took out a bottle of chocolate syrup. “This ought to make it taste better.”

            “Great idea,” said Robby. “Pour a lot of it in there.”

            Alex squeezed the syrup bottle and shot a jet of chocolate syrup into the blender.

            “More,” said Robby. So Alex shot some more in. “Okay, here goes,” he said.

            The blender began to whir and pretty soon the green glop turned brown, dark brown, gross brown. “That should do it,” Alex said. He poured glop from the blender into the three glasses.

            “BLECH.” Robby said.

            “Great idea,” said Alex. “Let’s call it BLECH.”

            “Okay, let’s drink the BLECH.” Robby grinned. “We better spread out, though. Just in case one of us yaks.”

            The boys moved away from each other. Robby stood in the kitchen doorway, Alex went over by the window and Melvin backed up to the refrigerator.

            “On three,” said Robby. “One, two, three.”

            Nobody drank. Nobody moved. “Come on you guys,” said Robby. “We all gotta drink the BLECH. You wanna be strong don’t you?”

            Melvin and Alex nodded their heads.

“Let’s do it,” said Melvin.

            “I’m not scared,” said Alex.

            “One….two….three.” Robby tilted back his head, opened his mouth and gulped the glop. It tasted like, like….well, BLECH, but he kept gulping until it was all gone.

            “You guys okay?” Robby asked.

            Melvin rubbed his stomach. “I think so,” he said. “I feel a little dizzy though.”

            Robby reached out and felt Melvin’s arm. “Do you feel any stronger?”

            “No. Just dizzy,” Melvin said. “Do you?”

            “Maybe a little bit,” said Robby. “I need to burp.”

            “I feel super strong,” said Alex. He made a muscle in his left arm. “Let’s put all this stuff away and go play catch!”

            “Yea,” said Robby. “Let’s go play catch.”Chapter Ten: The Mighty Mr. Quinn

Monday was the first day of ballet. Robby almost chickened out. He almost told Claire the deal was off. He almost did. But he didn’t.

As soon as he climbed into the minivan, Mom tossed him a plastic bag with some clothes inside.

            “What the heck is this?” Robby said.

“Those are your tights,” said Mom. “I picked them up from the ballet studio this morning. They are so happy to have you in the show that Miss Robin gave them to us for free. There’s a black t-shirt and some ballet shoes in there too. ”

Claire giggled as Robby took the tights out of the bag and stretched them over his hand. They were black and shiny and looked like the leggings the kindergarten girls always wore to school.

“Mom, do I have to wear these?”

“It’s the official uniform for the Mouse King’s Army,” Mom said.

“Guess what, Mom?” Claire said. “Did I tell you Robby locked himself in the girls’ bathroom last week before school and wouldn’t come out for like an hour? Did I tell you that? I meant to, but I think I may have forgotten. Did I?”

Robby saw Mom glance back at him in the rearview mirror, so he looked out the window, and tried not to think about bathrooms…or ballet.

“He’s like famous at school now,” Claire said.

When they reached the dance studio, Robby followed Claire inside, and like always there were whole packs of sparkly girls in leotards, tights and little pink shoes all over the place. Robby noticed that most of them were staring at him like rabbits staring at a carrot.

Miss Robin had her foot up on the bar in front of the mirror when they walked in.

“Hi, Miss Robin,” Claire said. “Remember my baby brother, Robby? He has changed his mind and wants to be a mouse in the Mouse King’s Army.”

“You have?” said Miss Robin smiling down at Robby. “You do?”

“Yeah. I mean, yes. I would like to be a mouse in the Mouse King’s Army,” said Robby, looking down at his shoes.

“So now you don’t have to put Kendall Miller in there,” Claire piped up. “Do you, Miss Robin?”

Miss Robin smiled, put her arm around Robby’s shoulder and walked him away from Claire. Miss Robin smelled like bubble gum.

“Look,” Miss Robin said, when they were far enough away to keep Claire from hearing, “your dad called me this morning and told me you wanted to be in the show. He also told me why you want to be in the show.”

Miss Robin looked over at Claire and shook her head.

“So, I know you’re only doing it so Claire would let you use her glove for baseball.”

Robby saw the smirk drop off Claire’s dumb face. “I wouldn’t normally do this, but since I really, really need boys for the Mouse King’s Army, I’m going to let you join our show.”          

Robby nodded his head. “Thanks.”

“But I have to make sure you’re not going to quit on me, Robby. Once I let you in the ballet, you have to stick it out the whole time. That means for the next five weeks. Understand?”

“I’m not a quitter,” Robby said.

“Good. Because we don’t like deserters in the Mouse King’s Army.”

Miss Robin smiled at Robby with her big rabbit teeth.

“I just want to play baseball,” Robby said.

“Fair enough,” said Miss Robin. “Welcome to the show. Go put on your tights. Then you can go stretch with the other mice.”

Robby went into the bathroom and put on the tights. Right away, they went up his butt. The shirt was too tight and the ballet shoes just barely squeezed over his feet. Robby stood up and looked at himself in the mirror. He was fully dressed, but he still felt naked. It was crazy weird.

Still, he walked over to where the two boys were stretching. One of the boys, the one with the long blonde hair, was doing the splits. The other one was standing on one foot with his other foot stretched up over his head.

“Those are really sweet tights,” the second boy said. “I can totally see your thigh muscles. Flex your leg so Jay, can see your quads.”

“Rockin’ quads, dude,” said Jay.

“Uh, thanks,” Robby said. “So are you guys like ballet guys?”

The boys looked at each other and then over at Robby. “No way, dude. We’re here to get flexible,” they said at the same time. “We’re skateboarders.”

Robby didn’t get it. “What’s flexible?”

“It means stretchy…kind of,” the boy with long, blonde hair said. He stood up, then grabbed his right foot and pulled it up until it was pretty much up over his head.

“Look how far I can bend my foot over my head,” he said. “That’s flexible. Tony and me take ballet so we could get flexible enough to do that…for skateboarding, you know?”

Robby still didn’t get it. But then again, he knew even less about skateboarding and ballet than he knew about baseball.

“Watch this,” the other boy, Tony, said. He jumped up in the air and then, BANG he spread his legs out to each side and slid right into the splits.

“Ow!” Robby said. “Doesn’t that hurt?”

“It doesn’t hurt at all, dude.” Tony laughed. “Me and Jay stretch so much in ballet class we’re super flexible. So if I’m grinding, or going big on the lip of a super pipe, I’ll be able to pull it off. Cause I’m flexible.”

He smiled at Jay and slapped him a high five.

“I’m Senór Rubber,” he added. “That means Rubber Man.”

“Thanks to all the stretching we do in ballet, we’re the most flexible guys around,” Jay explained. “And if you’re jumping backside off a ramp and need to grab your rail…” Jay bent backwards until his hand was on the ground behind his feet, “…you GOTTA be flexible.”

“That’s right,” said Tony, “I learned ‘bout flexibility in the January issue of Skate Rat magazine. There was this ultra rad skateboard guy in likeFrance orIndia or someplace who had like a million sisters so his parents made him do ballet since he was two years old. He was like, ‘man all the stretching and standing on my tiptoes and putting my leg up on bars and twirling and stuff made me like really bendy.’ He was this kind of Mr. Plastic Super Flexibility Guy from France Guy.”

“He was doing double back flips in the half pipe when he was like four,” Jay added. “We figured if it worked for him, it would work for us. You should try it.”

“Here,” said Tony. He got behind Robby, grabbed both his arms, squeezed them together and pulled them backwards away from Robby’s body..

“Hey!” Robby yelled. “That hurts.”

“Course it did,” Tony laughed, letting him go. “Cause you’re not flexible yet,”

“Try this,” Jay said. He pushed Robby down on the ground and grabbed both his legs by the ankle. Then he yanked Robby’s feet up and then back over his head until Robby was looking up at the bottom of his shoes.

“How’s that feel?” Tony said.

“It kind of hurts my butt,” Robby said.

“Awesome,” Jay said. “Want me show you how to do the splits?”

“No, thank you,” Robby said.

“Dude,” said Jay, dropping smoothly into the splits. “The splits are the key to being flexible.”

“They are?” Robby said. “Are you sure?”

“Course I’m sure. I’m a fifth grader,” said Jay. “You’re only in third grade, so you’re….um…two years dumber than me.”

“Hey.” said Robby. “How do you know what grade I’m in?”

“Dude, we go to the same school,” Tony said. “You’re that lame kid who threw up on the kindergartner kids last week.”

“And locked himself in the girls’ bathroom,” added Jay.

Robby felt his ears turn red.

“Is that why you have to do ballet?” Jay asked. “Cause you went in the girls’ bathroom?”

Robby’s eyes bugged. “That was an accident.”

“I’ve always wanted to go in there,” said Jay. “Just to explore.”

“Were there any girls in there?” Tony asked.

“No,” Robby said.

“How about sugar and spice and everything nice?” Jay asked.

“No. There isn’t any of that stuff.”

“So, why are you here, then?” said Tony. “Don’t tell me you like ballet?”

“No way,” Robby explained. “I’m trying out for the new baseball league next month. I don’t have a glove, but my sister said if I danced in her dumb ballet show, she’d let me use hers.”

“Man, that’s tough,” said Tony. “Me and Jay used to play tons of baseball. Before we decided to be skateboard heroes.”

Jay grinned. “We used to sneak out back during breaks and play catch in the parking lot. But not so much since Mr. Quinn got here.”

“Who’s Mr. Quinn?” asked Robby.

Jay grinned and pointed across the studio to where a huge guy in black tights and a tight black t-shirt was, was KISSING Miss Robin on the cheek.

“That’s him,” said Tony. “He’s Miss Robin’s boyfriend.”

“He teaches us how to be strong.” Jay explained. “And how to fight. He is awesome.”

“There’s fighting in ballet?” said Robby.

“Yea, can you believe it?” said Jay. “For the Mouse King’s Army, the Nutcracker ballet is like one big battle. And we get to battle the girls, which is something you can’t do in baseball or any of those other sports.”

“We really get to fight girls?” said Robby.

“Play fight,” said Mr. Quinn, who had walked up while the boys were talking. He stuck out his hand. Robby shook it. His hand was the biggest hand Robby had ever seen. It was bigger than his dad’s feet. It was almost as big as his dads head. Shaking it was like shaking a pizza. But Mr. Quinn didn’t squeeze hard at all. Mr. Quinn’s arm muscles were huge, and they were crazy with veins. He had big shoulders, and his chest was so big it looked like it was going to jump out of his shirt. But he had a big smile on his face. Robby liked him right off.

“I’m Mr. Quinn,” the huge guy said. “Good to have you in the Mouse King’s Army, Robby. You missed stretching today, but you’re just in time for pushups.”

Tony and Jay dropped to the ground on their hands and knees and started pumping out push ups. Robby had never done a push up in his life. But he dropped down beside them and tried to copy what Jay and Tony were doing. On the first push up, he smacked his nose against the floor and his eyes started watering.

“Protect your nose on those pushups,” Mr. Quinn smiled. “If you want to be strong, you have to do it right. And in this ballet, you need to be strong.”

“Why?” said Robby.

Mr. Quinn pointed a big finger right at Robby. “Because dancing is hard. So be strong.”

“And flexible, right?” said Tony in between a push up.

“And flexible,” Mr. Quinn smiled.

Jay and Tony did 30 pushups. Robby did six. And he was lucky to get that far. By the second one it felt someone was roasting marshmallows on top of his shoulders.

“Okay then,” Mr. Quinn said. “Now jumping jacks.” Tony and Jay started jumping up and down, moving their legs in and out. At the same time they moved their hands up over their heads and then down to their sides. Robby followed along. After eight jumping jacks, he was sweating. After 15, he was dizzy and his legs were killing him. What the heck was going on? He hadn’t put his foot up on the bar one time, or hopped or done any of that stuff. The stuff he was doing was not that stuff. This stuff hurt, but he had to admit, it was kind of fun.

The boys spent the next half hour doing all sort of wacky get strong stuff. They held each other’s feet and did sit ups, they ran in place, they even did pull-ups on the bar that Mr. Quinn hung in the doorway. Jay and Tony did 15 each. Robby could not do one. By the time they were done, every muscle in Robby’s body hurt. His arms were killing him. His chest felt like somebody had stabbed him with a hundred forks. His back felt like he had the worst sunburn in the world. He laid down on a matt in the corner of the room and curled up in a ball. What the heck was this? Ballet hurt!

Robby looked up to see Mr. Quinn standing over him grinning. “Don’t worry,” Mr. Quinn said. “Those two guys were curled up in balls their first day too. They looked like hamsters. Just come to practice, stick with it and you will be fine. Okay?”

Robby wiped sweat out of his eyes with his arm. “Okay.”

“Super,” said Mr. Quinn. “Now stand up. It’s time to dance.”

Chapter Eleven: Time to Sword Fight

Robby and the boys danced for a half hour. Mr. Quinn taught them the five basic positions of ballet. He taught them how to leap. And he taught them how to hold their hands and how to point their toes. By the time the dancing was over, Robby was back in a corner curled up in a ball again. Even his toes hurt now. Jay came over and nudged him with his foot. “Come one dude. Time to sword fight.”

Robby stood up slowwwwwwwly. His legs were still wobbly and his arms felt like rubber bands. But sword fight? He was always up for a sword fight.

“What kind of swords do we use?” Robby said.

“We use thee-at-rick-al swords,” Mr. Quinn said, as he handed Robby a plastic sword. “They’re props, but you can still hurt someone with them, so be careful. Let’s practice the battle scene where the Mouse King leads his army in to kidnap Clara.”

“Who’s the Mouse King?” Robby asked.         

“It’s supposed to be some dude named Leo from another ballet studio,” Jay said. “A real ballet kid, not like us.”

“Yea,” said Tony. “He’s in another show and can’t practice with us until it’s over. Mr. Quinn says he’s been the Mouse King a bunch of times, so he doesn’t even have to practice.”

Mr. Quinn looked over to where the girls all had their legs up on the bar. “Vivian, can you and the Toy Soldiers come over here? I want you to practice the fight scene with the Mouse King’s Army.”

Four of the girls stepped out of line and walked over to the boys. One of them was tall and had short curly brown hair, and wore red tights, shorts and a t-shirt. No ribbons. No bows. Robby recognized her right off. It was Vivian Slepka, “The Girl Who Was Better Than Boys at Everything.”

“Who’s the new mouse?” Vivian asked.

“This is Robby,” said Mr. Quinn. “This is Vivian. She’s our Nutcracker. As always, boys, please take it easy on the girls with the swords.”

“Take it easy on her?” Robby looked over at Tony and Jay. “She’s in my grade. She’s like the best at everything.”

Jay smirked, “Better than boys?”

“Better than everybody.”

“Well, I guess that explains it,” said Tony. “Jay and me have battled her a bunch of times and we never won once.”

“Yeah,” Jay chimed in. “It’s two on one, and we’re fifth graders, and we’re super flexible, but she always wins. It’s awful.”

“And I’ll beat you too,” Vivian said to Robby. She had her own plastic sword and she held it out in front of her. Then she stuck out her tongue at Robby.

“You’re not afraid of a girl, are you?”

Robby’s arms hurt so bad he could hardly hold his sword. There were blisters on the palms of his hands hurt from grabbing onto the chin up bar. His fingers hurt. His finger nails hurt. But still…

“I’m not scared,” Robby said.

But he kind of was. The only sword fighting he’d ever done had been on TV, playing video games. Vivian was taller than he was. She was good at everything. He was awful at everything. Robby held the sword up with the tip pointed toward Vivian like he did in The Fire Sword of Glar when the prince was getting ready to fight.

“Please show Robby what he needs to do. I will be back soon,” said Mr. Quinn.

With that, he flipped over, kicked his feet in the air and stood on his hands.

“Watch this,” whispered Jay. “He’s like the strongest dude in the world. He’s like upside down all the time.”

The boys watched Mr. Quinn walk on his hands over to the wall. Putting his back against the walls he bent his arms and began to do upside down push ups. His arm muscles bulged and his face turned super red as he pumped out push up after push up, sliding his back up and down on the wall and lowering his face until it almost touched the ground.

“Tony Hawk used to be our hero,” said Tony. “But now it’s him. He’s like my American Idol.”

“Hey, kid, don’t I know you?” Vivian asked Robby.

“I’m in Mrs. Anderson’s class,” he said. “At Red Oak.”

Vivian stared at him. “Wait a minute. You’re that kid who threw up.” She said.

“And locked himself in the girl’s bathroom,” Jay added.

“Come on you guys,” said Tony. “Stop gabbing. Let’s battle.”

“You guys are going down,” said Vivian.

She and the other girls bent their knees and dropped into sword fighting stances.

“Nobody beats Jay and me thirty eight times in a row,” said Tony, and the fight was on. The Mouse King’s Army and the Toy Soldiers began stabbing and swinging at each other. What it really was, was that the girls danced around and the boys pretended like they were sword fighting them. There was a lot of hopping and twirling, actually. Vivian was the only girl who was really sword fighting.

Wow, Robby thought as he watched the battle. Ballet was not what he expected. The Mouse King’s Army battled the Toy Soldiers for a while and then Vivian stabbed Jay in the stomach. Real fast after that, she whapped Tony across the hand and he dropped his sword.

“Ouch,” said Tony.

Vivian turned to Robby and held out her sword.

“Now it’s your turn,” she said to Robby.

Vivian jumped toward him and stabbed at him with her sword. But Robby swung his own sword down on top of hers and smashed it into the floor.  Then he flipped his sword up and tapped her in the stomach.

“You’re dead,” he said.

“Whoa,” Jay said. “That third grade girl’s bathroom kid totally beat the Nutcracker.”

“Cool,” said Tony.

Vivian jumped back and held her sword up again. “That was just lucky,” she said. “Bet you can’t do it again.”

She swung her sword hard, but Robby dodged it, and it swooshed past his shoulder. He reached out with his sword and tapped her again in the stomach.

“Dude, he totally beat you again,” Tony laughed.

“I am not a dude,” Vivian said. “And he didn’t beat me.”

“Well, you still lost,” Jay said.

Jay and Tony looked at Robby in awe. “Who are you, dude? Some kind of super sword fighting, third grade, ninja kid?”

Robby shrugged. “I just play a lot of sword fighting video games. I guess it’s pretty much the same thing.”

“You’re a one-kid sword fighting machine,” said Tony. “And that is the coolest thing I have ever seen…except for Jay touching the top of his head with his foot.”

“I admit it,” Vivian said. “You are really good, but the show isn’t for five weeks. I am going to be way better than you by then.”

“No way,” Robby heard himself say.

“Way,” said Vivian. “En Garde.”

Robby, Vivian and the other kids battled for the rest of the class, with swords smashing all around, and battle cries of “Ha!” with every swipe. Vivian got in a few good whacks on Robby, but he won just about every battle. Who would have known that being a good video game sword fighter could make you a good real life sword fighter?  Robby felt great. For the first time in his life he was good at something. Something that was not hooked up to the TV. Something that you did standing up.

When Vivian went to get a drink, Jay tapped Robby on the shoulder.

“Here’s the deal,” he said. “Tony and I are tired of getting our butts kicked by a third grader girl. So if you teach us some of your sword fighting ninja tricks, we’ll show you how to throw a baseball better than any third grader in school.”

            “Wow, you guys can teach me how to throw?” Robby said.

            “Of course we can,” said Tony. “We’re fifth graders. We can teach you how to do anything. Catch, pitch, all of it. So is it a deal?”

            “It’s a…” said Robby. Then he remembered Melvin and Alex.

            “Hey guys. I’ve got two friends who are trying out for baseball, and they’re probably just as bad as I am. Can you teach them too?”

“No problem, dude. Come one, come all. Lesson one is tomorrow at lunch. Field Number Three. Don’t forget your glove.”

 Chapter Twelve: The First Day of Baseball School

            The next day at lunch, Robby and Melvin were getting their gloves out of their lockers when Alex ran up holding a huge grocery bag in both arms.

“What’s in the bag?” said Robby.

“BLECH,” said Alex. He reached into the bag and took out three plastic water bottles full of brown goop.

“I spent like two hours last night grinding up all the vegetables,” Alex explained. “My eyes were watering. But I made like thirty bottles and put them in the fridge. I’ll bring one for each of us every day. By the time tryouts get here, we’ll be the strongest guys in school.”

“That’s good thinking,” said Robby. “Give me one.”

Alex handed him a bottle of BLECH.

“One, two three, go!” said Robby and the three friends drank their bottles of BLECH in one long gulp.

“My stomach hates me when I do that,” said Melvin.

            “So, where’s the book?” asked Alex.

            “I took it back to the library,” said Robby. “We don’t need it any more.”

“Why not?” said Alex.

“Come on,” said Robby. “I’ll show you.

Robby, Melvin and Alex walked out to the playground. The place was crazy with kids playing baseball. Even the kindergartners were playing catch with baby balls and baby gloves. The Sports Guys were on Field Number One. Jeff Hicks was tossing high fly balls to the other guys. Field Number Two was full up with fourth and fifth graders. Robby and his friends kept walking.

When they finally got to Field Number Three, Robby stopped and looked around.

“What’s going on, Robby?” said Alex. “What are you looking for?”

“Them!” said Robby as he saw Jay and Tony walking towards him. When they saw Robby, they waved. They were each wearing baseball gloves. Jay was tossing a ball up into the air and catching it.

“Hey Robby,” said Tony. “Are these your friends?”

“Yep,” said Robby. “Alex and Melvin. Guys, meet Tony and Jay. They’re friends of mine from…uh….”

“Church,” Jay said. “We’ve been going to Sunday school with Robby for like two years now. He can really sing.”

“Aren’t you guys fifth graders?” said Alex.

Jay eyeballed Alex. “Aren’t you that kid who eats boogers?”

“And scabs, and bugs.” Alex said. “Nice to meet you.”

“We’re like you’re biggest fans!” Jay said. “That time you ate the snail…when you were like licking like the bottom part of it with all the slime and stuff. That was so cool.”

“Thanks!” said Alex. “I am good at what I do.”

“You sure are,” said Jay. “Slap me some skin, dude!”

Jay reached his hand up and slapped Alex a high five.”

“Wow,” said Alex. “That’s the first time I’ve ever touched a fifth grader.”

“Man, I’ve never even talked to a fifth grader,” said Melvin.

“Well,Pinghat kid, this is your lucky day,” said Jay. “When the other third graders find out you’re hanging with us, they’ll think you’re so cool they’ll all start wearingPinghats too.”

“Jay and I are going to be like your personal coach guys. We are going to teach you dudes everything you need to know about baseball.”

“But why?” said Melvin. “Why would you guys teach three third graders like us how to do anything? Huh?”

“Well, Robby’s teaching us some stuff too,” Tony winked. “And if Alex can maybe eat a booger once in a while for us, well…that makes us even, okay?”

“Okay!” said Robby, Melvin and Alex.  

“Well, now that that’s out of the way,” Tony said. “Let’s play some catch.”

            Jay tossed a ball up in the air and caught it. “Did you dudes bring your gloves?”

            Robby started to pull his glove out from under his shirt, but stopped. “Before I show you my glove, I just want to tell you guys something,” he said. “This is not my real glove.” He took the pink glove out from under his shirt. “It’s my sister’s softball glove. I know it’s pink and it looks dumb. But I have to use it until I get my own.”

            Melvin and Alex giggled, but Jay and Tony just shrugged.

“So put it on,” Tony said.

            “You guys aren’t going to make fun of it?”

“Course not,” said Tony. “It’s not like it’s a pink dress or anything. A glove’s a glove. It’s how you use it that counts. Here, everybody take a ball.”

Tony tossed a ball to each kid.

“Now, Jay, go over there and give me a good target to aim at.”

Jay flipped the ball he was holding to Tony, walked off a few feet and held out his glove. Tony held the ball in his right hand and held it up so Robby and his friends could see it.

“Okay, lesson number one: make sure you’ve got the right grip on the ball. Put your fingers across the seams. The seams are the red strings that hold the ball together. Just put your fingers right across them and squeeze tight.”

Robby put his fingers over the seams of his ball and squeezed.

“Good,” said Tony. “Now put the ball behind your head and hold your elbow up high. My dad says that’s the way the pros do it. We used to watch a lot of games on TV and they sure do.”

            Robby and his friends held their balls like Tony told them with their elbows up high. They stood sideways and pointed their left leg at Jay.

            “Okay, now watch this,” Tony said and threw the ball to Jay. The ball smacked into Jay’s glove.

“That’s how you do it,” Tony said. “But remember. After you let go, follow through with your arm all the way down until it touches your left leg. Your arm has to touch your leg or you won’t be able to throw the ball very hard, so give it a good slap.” Tony slapped his leg hard and looked at Robby. .

“Okay. Let’s split up. Robby. You stay here with Jay. He’ll teach you good.”

He pointed at Melvin and Alex. “Booger eater kid and Ping hat guy. You come with me.”

Tony, Melvin and Alex walked a little ways off to practice. Robby looked over at Jay, who was giving him a big target with his glove.

            “Put it right in my glove,” Jay said, pounding his fist into his glove.

            Robby turned sideways, held the ball behind his head and made sure his elbow was up as far as it would go. Then he threw the ball and…well, it didn’t go very fast…but it didn’t roll either. It sailed through the air and just before it hit the ground, Jay reached down and scooped it up with his glove.

            “Cool!” Jay said. “That was awesome, Robby. Do it again. But this time, take a step backward with your left leg, bring your knee up by your chest and then push off with your right leg. And try to do a growl, like you’re an angry guy.”

            Robby threw the ball again. He even growled a little bit. This time, Jay didn’t have to bend down to catch it.

            “Wow!” said Robby. “You guys must be the best coaches ever.”

            “You know it,” smiled Jay. “Stick with us and you’ll never see the inside of the girls’ bathroom again.”

            Robby and his friends threw the ball back and forth with Jay and Tony until the lunch bell told them it was time to go back to class. Robby went from feeling silly to feeling pretty good about himself. For the last five minutes of so, he hadn’t rolled the ball at all. He even threw a few that made the snail-smooshing sound he’d heard the balls the Sports Guys were throwing make. Maybe, just maybe, with Jay and Tony’s help, he could make A League after all. Then Jeff Hicks would leave him alone. That would be sweet.

Chapter Thirteen: Funny Things on Field Number Three

            For the next month, Robby did three things: he drank a lot of BLECH, he played baseball and he went to ballet.

Every day at lunch, whether it was a school day or not, Robby drank a big bottle of brown, goopy BLECH. It always made him want to wash his teeth. It always made him want to throw up. But he always drank it anyway. At first, Alex brought a water bottle full of BLECH for each of them. But then, Robby and Melvin started making their own.

            “You want me to buy, what?” Mom said, when Robby handed her his shopping list. “You want tomatoes?  And squash? And…and an eggplant?  Who are you? You’re not my son. You’re a robot zombie who looks like my son, but you’re not him. My son hates veggies.”

She reached out and put the palm of her hand on Robby’s forehead. “Are you sick? Are you….honey? What are you going to do with this stuff?”

When they got back from the grocery store, Robby showed his mom how to make BLECH. He even let her squirt in the chocolate syrup. At first, Mom was not keen on BLECH, mostly because it smelled awful and got chocolate syrup all over the counter. But pretty soon she said, “If BLECH is the only way I can get you to each your veggies, I guess I’ll make you as much of it as you want.”

From then on, each day, after he took his shower, brushed his teeth and put on his clothes, Robby and Mom would grind up some veggies in the blender and make a bottle of BLECH. And when they were going out the front door, Mom would do a “BLECH Check,” to make sure Robby had remembered to put the bottle of BLECH in his backpack.

After a while, Alex stopped eating scabs and bugs, and stared eating veggies. He ate egg plant, squash and even two of the little green ball things, which were called brussels sprouts.

“Veggies are just as gross as boogers, but when I eat them, the kids always cheer louder when I eat ‘em,” Alex explained. “I mean, when I take out a big purple egg plant, everybody goes ‘Woooo!” and takes a big step back like it’s going to jump out of my hand and slime them or something. I ate a piece of squash the other day and a kid started crying right there on the playground. And he was a fourth grader. It was awesome.”

Pretty soon all the other booger and scab eating kids switched to eating veggies too. There was even a fifth grade kid who mixed veggies AND boogers. He’d eat a banana with a scab, a booger with green beans. Crazy, man.

One day, Principal Dume walked up just as Alex was about to eat a handful of green beans. There were a hundred kids gathered around to watch, and it took the Principal a minute to get through them.

“Young man,” he said to Alex. What is that you are about to put in your mouth?”

“It’s green beans, sir,” Alex said. “Want some?”

“Green beans?” said Principal Dume. “Not boogers?  Or scabs? Or um…a stink bug or something?”

“No sir,” Alex smiled. He opened his hand so Principal Dume could see the green beans. “You should try ‘em. They taste awful, but they make you strong. Check out my muscle.”

Alex rolled up his sleeve and made a muscle.

“Have some, sir. I’ve got plenty.”

Principal. Dume did not want any green beans. But after that, he made Alex be a teacher’s helper every day in first grade nutrition class. He stood up in front of everybody and showed the kids how to eat carrots, and pears and green beans and even eggplant. The first graders loved it. They loved him. On the third day, one of the kids asked him to sign his arm. He was like a rock star.

Every day at lunch, Robby and his friends sucked down their BLECH, and walked out to Field Number Three to practice baseball with Tony and Jay. The first thing was always stretching and baseball trivia, which was like fun facts about baseball that Jay and Tony said Robby and his buddies had to know if they were going to be baseball guys.

“Anybody know who Babe Ruth is?” Jay asked while they were doing forward and backward shoulder rolls. Melvin raised his hand.

“It’s a really good candy bar with peanuts and, I think, caramel.”

“Good guess, but wrong,” Jay said. “Tony. Tell the boys about the Babe.”

“Babe Ruth was the best baseball player to ever,” Tony explained. “He was a big fat guy who hit a lot of home runs and smoked cigars. He once hit 61 home runs in a single season. Way awesome.”

And that’s the way it would go pretty much the whole time they were stretching.  They stretched their necks, back and forth, dropping their chins onto their chests, and learned about the New York Yankees. They did toe touches, while Tony told them what a knuckleball was. They did jumping jacks and quad stretches, while Jay told them about Barry Bonds, a guy who wasn’t as big and fat as Babe Ruth, but who also hit a ton of home runs, and who may or may not have been a cheater.

With all the trivia and stretching and stuff, learning how to play baseball was about as much fun as you could have at school. They always played a ton of catch. Back and forth. Back and forth. After about 15 minutes into each practice, Jay would hold up his hand and say something like:

“How many teams are there in major league baseball?” or “How many ways are there to reach first base?”

At first Robby and his friends never new any of the answers. But then they started spending a lot of time reading about baseball on the Internet and they began to get some answers right. When Jay said, “What was Joe Jackson’s nickname, and what position did he play?” Robby yelled out: “His nickname was Shoeless Joe and he played left field.”

“Bang!” said Jay.

“Double Bang!” said Tony.

One day, a funny thing happened out on Field Number Three. The boys were doing jumping jacks when a group of kindergartner kids came bopping up. There was about ten of them and each one of them had a little baseball glove. They didn’t say anything, they just stood there and watched as Robby and his friends stretched. One of them was picking his nose. Finally, when he’d finished his jumping jacks, Robby walked over to the kindergartners and said, “Hey guys. What are you doing here?”

“We want to join your baseball school,” a chubby dude in a yellow shirt and black high top sneakers said.

Robby looked at his friends, then back at the kindergartner kid.

“You do?”

“Yep,” the kindergartner kid said. “We want to learn how to play baseball.”

“Well, it’s not really a school, it’s more like…” Robby said and then stopped.

These kindergartner kids were looking at him with a look he’d never seen before. Each of them was staring at him, like, like he was cool or something. Him. The Dork.

“We want to play baseball and eat veggies, and get muscles just like you guys do,” the chubby kid said. “Look,” he said, reaching into his pocket and taking out a squash. “I brought squash.”

Robby walked over to Melvin and Alex. Jay and Tony were grinning big, stupid grins, and looked like they were about to bust out laughing.

“Robby,” said Tony. “This is pretty much your uh…baseball school. So if you want us to, Jay and I will teach these little dudes how to play. But if you say so, we’ll tell them ‘sorry little dudes, hit the road.’”

“What do you guys think?” Robby asked his friends.

Melvin and Alex shrugged. “I don’t know,” said Melvin. “There’s only two weeks till tryouts.”

Robby thought it over. There were only two weeks till tryouts. Robby could throw okay , and catch and stop about every third ground ball that Jay or Tony rolled to him. Melvin and Alex were getting better too. Robby thought that even if tryouts were tomorrow, he and his friends would have a pretty good chance of making the A league.

“Okay,” he told the kindergartners. “You can join our baseball school. Bring your gloves to school and meet us here every day at lunch.”

“Alright!” the chubby kid in the yellow shirt yelled. The kindergartners all started jumping up and down like little jumping beans.

“Okay little dues, welcome toBaseballSchool. It’s time for your first baseball trivia,” grinned Tony.

“Who is the youngest dude to ever play baseball in the major leagues?” said Jay.

Jay and Tony gave them a few seconds to think about it. When nobody answered, Jay said, “His name was Joe Nuxhall. That’s “nucks” “hall.” He was like 15 when he pitched a game for the Cincinnati Reds. He only played one game though, because he sucked and the Reds got killed. Still, he’s the dude.”

Everybody laughed. And from then onBaseballSchoolwas Robby, Alex, Melvin and 10 squash-eating kindergartner kids. It was like Willy Wonka and the Oompa Loompas.

But then another funny thing happened on Field Three. One day, while they were stretching their quads, all of them balancing on one leg like storks, Jeff Hicks and The Sports Guys showed up.

“What the heck is this?” Jeff said, “The circus?”

Robby and his friends kept stretching and ignored them, but one of the kindergartners peed his pants.

“I said, ‘is this the circus,’” Jeff said. He reached out and pushed Robby in the shoulder, almost tipping him over. Luckily, Robby was able to catch himself. He looked over at Jay and Tony. Neither of them said anything.

“Just leave us alone,” Robby said.

Jeff looked down at the pile of baseball gloves on the ground. “Looks like somebody’s playing baseball,” Jeff said.

He pointed at Robby. “The dork” Then at Alex, “The booger eater” and at Melvin “and the coin collector are playing baseball. And here I thought all that stuff about trying out and making A league was just so I wouldn’t pound you.”

            Robby and his friends didn’t say anything. Jay and Tony just stood their smiling, waiting to see what Robby would do.

            “Why don’t you just give it up?” Jeff said. “No matter how much you guys practice you’re never going to make the A League.”

            “Yes, we will,” said Robby.

“No, you won’t,” said Jeff.

“Yes, we will.”

“You’re crazy.”

Robby felt a big ball of mad working its way up his throat into his mouth.

“Yes, we will!” he said again.

“No…..You….Won’t,” Jeff said. And this time, he poked Robby in the chest with his finger. Hard.

Robby didn’t think. He reached out and grabbed Jeff’s finger. And held on. Jeff tried to pull his finger back, but Robby held on tight. It was finger tug of war. Robby held onto the finger and looked right at Jeff. And then, he heard himself say, “Yes, we will. And we’ll prove it. We challenge you to a game.”

            Jeff yanked his finger hard and pulled it out of Robby’s hand.

“What?” said Jeff. “You challenge us to a game?”

            “Me and my friends against you and your friends,” Robby heard himself say. One week from today. At lunch.”  

“We’ll smear you a million to nothing,” said Jeff Hicks.

            “No you won’t,” said Robby. “Are you scared?”

            “Scared?” said Jeff Hicks. “You guys suck at baseball. These dudes are kindergartners. They still probably wear diapers.”

Jeff reached out, picked one of the kindergartners up and turned him upside down. A little bit of white, fluffy diaper was sticking out above the waist band of the kid’s shorts.

“See,” said Jeff. “Diapers.”

“They’re Pull Ups,” said the upside down kindergartner.

Jeff put the kindergartner down. He started to poke Robby in the chest again, but then pulled his finger back.

“I can hardly wait to play you goofballs,” said Jeff. “And I hope you’re the pitcher, Robby. Because if you pitch to me, I’m going to hit the biggest home run in history off you. I’m going to hit the ball so far it will go all around the world, and hit you in the back of the head. And when people hear about it, they’re going to start calling me ‘Hit-a-home-run-off-Robby-Jeff Hicks.’ Kindergartners are going go start wearing          t-shirts with ‘Hit-a-home-run-off-Robby-Jeff Hicks’ on the back. Pretty soon, everybody at school, even girls, will be wearing them. And I’ll make a million dollars selling them and buy a huge house with a pool with a sparkly blue bottom. And little kids will go to Disneyland and they’ll be able to hit a home run off you too ‘cause there’s gonna be a ‘Hit-a-home-run-off-Robby-Jeff Hicks’ ride with a robot me hitting a home run off a robot you. And it’s going to have a real long line.”

Jeff and The Sports Guys slapped each other high fives and walked over to hog all the tether ball poles.

A couple of the kindergartners started crying. Alex, and Melvin gathered around Robby.

“That was a big mistake,” said Melvin.

            “A gimungus mistake” said Alex.

            “I’m sorry you guys,” said Robby. “But I just got so mad. And then stuff just started coming out of my mouth. I couldn’t stop.”

            “Those guys are going to smear us,” said Alex. “I mean it’s us and a bunch of kindergartners against the Sports Guys.”

            But Tony raised his hand for Robby to slap him a high five. “Wow, that was pretty cool for third graders. Way to stand up to those guys, dude.”

“Yea,” said Jay. “You totally captured that dude’s finger with your Kung Fu grip.”

“Why didn’t you guys stop me?” Robby asked them. “Why did you let me do that?”

“Cause it was awesome,” said Jay. “And brave, and cool. And you know what? You guys could use a game or two before tryouts. It’ll be fun.”

“Don’t worry, Robby,” said Melvin. “There’s no wayDisneyland’s going to make a ride with robots and stuff, even if he does hit a home run off of you.”

“And even if they do, there’s no way I’m going to wait in a long line to go on it,” Alex said. “So don’t worry about that.”

Chapter Fourteen:  The Mouse King

The day Robby challenged the Sports Guys to a game was also the day everything changed at ballet. When Robby and Claire walked in, Mr. Quinn and Miss Robin were huddled with the other teachers in the office. The door, which was always open, was closed. All the girls were sitting around in clumps stretching out. There was lots of whispering. Robby walked over to where Jay and Tony were stretching. Jay was doing the splits. After a month of stretching and push ups and stuff at ballet, Robby still couldn’t come close to doing the splits. And it still gave him the heebie jeebies when Jay did it.

But Robby could do 20 pretty good push ups. He could do jumping jacks without his legs feeling like they were on fire. His tights didn’t go so far up his butt any more. And Jay and Tony thought he might be growing a muscle on his left arm.

“Yep. That’s totally a muscle,” Jay said when Robby sat down next to him. “I got a few of those myself, so I know what they look like.”

“Did you guys know the biggest muscle in your body is your butt?” said Tony. “The only way you can stretch it is by farting.”

“What’s going on, you guys?” Robby said. Why are all the girls whispering? Why are all the teachers in the office?”

“Don’t know,” said Jay. “But they’ve been in there for a long time. Tony and I were checking them out through the window and they did not look happy.”

The office door opened and all the ballet teachers walked out. Mr. Quinn clapped his hands together.

“Okay, everyone,” said Mr. Quinn. “We are going to have a class meeting. Everyone please gather around. All the girls scooted over into in a big circle around the teachers. Robby and the boys walked over. Robby watched Mr. Quinn’s face. It looked grim, like Dad looked when somebody ate all the cookies and he didn’t get any.

“I’ve got some bad news,” Mr. Quinn said. “Leo, the boy from The Dancer’s Academy who was going to dance the role of the Mouse King, is out. He broke his leg on Saturday playing soccer and is going to be wearing a cast for six weeks.

All the girls groaned. Two of them started crying.

“So, um, what do we do?” said Jay. “How can we have a Mouse King’s Army if we don’t have a Mouse King?”

“Good question,” said Mr. Quinn. “The answer is, we have to pick a new Mouse King. “

He looked around the room. “Any volunteers? Just go ahead and raise your hand.”

Nobody raised their hand. Mr. Quinn frowned. “Oh come now, there’s got to be someone. It’s a very good part.”

One of the girls raised her hand. “I don’t think a girl should have to be the Mouse King,” she said. “I mean, it’s like a mouse. And mouses are so gross and greasy.”

“And hairy” another girl said.

“And they’ve got those tails,”

“I can’t even look at their tails,” said another.

Claire raised her hand. “I think the Mouse King should be a boy.”

All the girls nodded their heads “yes.”  The two who were crying, stopped crying. Mr. Quinn looked over at the boys.

“It looks like one of you is going to have to be the Mouse King,” Mr. Quinn said. “I’ll leave it up to you to decide who’s going to do it.”

“I’m not doing it,” said Jay.

“Me either,” said Tony.

“But I…” said Robby.

“Robby’s the youngest,” said Tony. “So he should be the Mouse King.” Tony looked over at Jay. “Robby would be an awesome Mouse King, wouldn’t he Jay?”

“I think Robby would be a great pick for that job,” said Jay.

“You have our votes, Robby,” said Tony. “Good luck.”

The two fifth graders stepped back, clicked their heels together and saluted Robby.

“Mouse King’s Army at your service, oh King of the Mouses” they said.

Robby looked at Mr. Quinn. Mr. Quinn shrugged. “What do you say, Robby? Do you want the job?

Robby thought it over. He tried to not think about all the girls who were staring at him. Could he be the Mouse King?

“I don’t know,” he said. “What do I have to do?”

“Being the Mouse King is pretty much the same as being the Mouse King’s Army,” Mr. Quinn explained. “In the second scene, after Clara falls asleep, you lead your army from off stage into the big room where the Christmas party was taking place. Everybody has gone home and Clara is asleep on the couch. You start to kidnap her to take her back to your castle, but the Nutcracker comes to life and leads his army of toy soldiers against you. You guys battle for a little bit and then you fight the Nutcracker one on one.”

Robby looked over at Vivian. She shook her fist at him and smiled.

“You can take her,” said Jay.

Robby turned to Mr. Quinn. “Do I get to beat her, I mean the Nutcracker?”

“Well, sort of,” said Mr. Quinn. “You win the fight. But before you can kidnap Clara and take her back to your castle, she throws her slipper at you. It hits you in the head, and well, kind of knocks you out. Your army picks you up and carries you back to theMouseKingdom. Sound okay?”

“Wait a second,” said Robby. Clara’s my sister. She threw a sandal at me last summer and it really hurt. Does she have to be the one who throws the slipper?”

“Don’t be such a baby, Robby,” Claire said. “I won’t hurt you.”

“Well, you’ll be wearing this, so you don’t have to worry about getting hurt,” Mr. Quinn said.

There was a big, black canvas bag on the floor next to the mirror and Mr. Quinn reached into it and pulled out a giant mouse head mask. It was big and round, and made of paper mache that was painted black. There was a big mouse nose with black pipe cleaner whiskers, a mouse mouth with a couple of white pointy teeth, and even a red, rubber tongue that flopped out of the side of the mouth. On the top of the mouse head was a spiky, gold paper mache crown.

Mr. Quinn plopped the mouse head mask over Robby’s head. There were two big eyes cut out of the front. Robby looked through them and saw Jay and Tony bent over with their hands on their knees, laughing. Hard. It was hot inside the mask. And it smelled like glue. Glue mixed with the polish dad used to make his work shoes shiny.

“How am I supposed to do anything with this thing on?” Robby asked. He jiggled his head around and the mouse mask started bopping all over the place. The eyes spun around to the back and Robby couldn’t see a thing. He lifted the mask off his head.

“This is not going to work,” he said. “I can’t wear this mask. It stinks, it’s hot, it goes all over the place, it….”

Robby started to hand the mouse mask back to Mr. Quinn, but then he stopped. He stopped because he was having a thought. The thought was: that if he was wearing the mouse mask, nobody would be able to see his face. Nobody would know he was even in the ballet!

“I’ll do it,” Robby said. “I’ll be the Mouse King.”

“That a boy,” said Jay.

“Are you sure?” Mr. Quinn said.

“I am,” said Robby. “Just show me what I have to do.”

And everybody cheered. All the girls. All the teachers. Everybody. Even Claire.

It was pretty cool.

Chapter Fifteen: The Lift: Part One

The only problem with being the Mouse King, besides wearing the giant paper mache Mouse King mask, was The Lift. The Lift was the part during his one-on-one battle with the Nutcracker where Vivian jumped up into the air and Robby had to catch her, lift her over his head, spin her around a couple of times and then put her back down. He usually caught her okay, but his arms and legs just weren’t strong enough to hold her up there, and he ended up dropping her every time.

“Don’t give up, Robby,” Mr. Quinn said, after Robby had dropped Vivian for the 37th straight time. “You’ve almost got it.”

“I don’t think so,” said Robby. “Can’t we do it without The Lift? Can’t I just stab her or something?”

“No. You have to do The Lift,” said Mr. Quinn. “Every Mouse King lifts every Nutcracker. Try again.”

Vivian walked off and got ready to jump. Robby bent his knees into first position, and got ready to catch her.

“If you drop me again, I’m going to sock you one,” Vivian said.

“One, two, three, go!” Mr. Quinn said. Vivian raced forward and jumped into the air. Robby reached out with both hands, grabbed her around the waist and lifted her over his head.

Wow, Robby thought. I did it. Finally. He began to spin, but then his legs started feeling wobbly. His right leg shook, then his left…

“Uh oh!” he said.

“Don’t drop me!” Vivian screamed. But it was too late.

Robby’s left leg gave out and tipped. Vivian slipped out of his hands and tumbled onto the ground.

“That’s it,” she said, brushing her hair out of her face. “You’ve dropped me 38 straight times. My butt is so sore I can’t even sit down.”

“I’m sorry, Vivian. I’m sorry, Mr. Quinn,” Robby said. “I just can’t do it. I’m trying, but I can’t. Can’t one of the other guys do it? They’re stronger than me.”

“If you’re going to be the Mouse King, Robby, we need to get your legs stronger,” said Mr. Quinn. “Come with me.”

Robby followed Mr. Quinn over to where a couple of the girls were doing ballet stuff with their legs up on the bar. One of the girls was Claire. She giggled when Robby walked up, and then stared at him like he was a bug.

“This is the barre,” said Mr. Quinn. “It is spelled b-a-r-r-e, which means bar in French. Got it?”

Robby nodded. Mr. Quinn popped his leg up on the barre. His thigh was so big that Robby didn’t think he could put his arms around it and touch his hands on the other side.

“Go ahead,” Mr. Quinn said. “The barre is the best way to make your legs strong. A half hour each day and in two weeks, you will have huge legs. Like the trunk on a tree.”

Robby wasn’t sure he wanted to have legs that were as big as the trunk on a tree, but he put his leg up on the barre anyway. It kind of hurt his ankle.

“A half hour?” said Robby. “Gee whiz, if I’m standing up here with my leg up on this bar for that long how am I going to battle or stretch or do pushups or any of that stuff?”

Mr. Quinn reached out and rubbed Robby’s shoulder. “We will figure it out. You are the Mouse King. You need to do The Lift.,” said Mr. Quinn, “Now, first we’ll stretch. Hold your left arm up like this.”

Robby held his left arm up over his head. And held it. And held it. After a couple of minutes, even though his arm was a lot stronger than it used to be, his arm muscles were screaming “stop, stop, stop!”

“Okay, you can put your arm down,” Mr. Quinn said finally. “Now, lean forward and put your head on the barre next to your foot.”

Robby tried. He leaned forward. It hurt the inside of his leg up by his junk. He didn’t get anywhere close to touching his head on the barre. Next, Mr. Quinn told him to keep his foot up on the barre, grab the barre with his left hand and lean back. Robby did. But his hand slipped and WHAM, he fell back onto his back. He looked up from the ground to see Claire giggling.

“That’s okay,” Mr. Quinn said. “That’s enough stretching. Take your leg off the bar. We’ll do some pliés. They will make your legs very strong. Like this.”

Mr. Quinn put his feet together with his heels next to each other in first position, then, with one hand on the bar, he bent his knees and lowered his butt toward the floor. It was basically, Robby thought, a deep knee bend. Robby took his leg off the barre and they did plies for what seemed like forever. Robby’s thighs started shaking.

Robby worked on the barre with Mr. Quinn for one half hour every day for the rest of the week. It was dumb. It kind of hurt. But if it was going to make him strong enough to do The Lift, Robby was going to make the best of it.

            Still, every day, Robby and Vivian practiced The Lift, and every day, Robby dropped her. One day, Vivian followed Robby over to the drinking fountain. He’d just dropped her for the fourth time that day and she was rubbing her butt. And her arm. And the back of her head.

            “Sorry I keep dropping you,” Robby said. “I’m trying really hard. I’m just not strong enough, I guess.”

            Vivian bent over and took a sip of water. “It’s okay,” she said. “I know you’re doing your best. At least you’re short, so I’m not falling that far.”

            “Hey, I’m not short,” Robby said. Then he saw Vivian grinning.

            “You know you’re not as big a dork as I thought you were,” she said. “In fact, I don’t think you’re really much of a dork at all.”

            “Thanks,” Robby said. “I never really thought I was a dork either.”

            “Jeff said you challenged him and the Sports Guys to a baseball game tomorrow.”

            Robby shook his head and blushed. “I did. It was dumb.”

            “Those guys are going to cream you,” Vivian said.

            “I know,” said Robby. “I told you it was dumb.”

And that’s when Robby had an idea.

“Hey, Vivian,” he said. “Do you want to play? We could sure use a pitcher.

            Vivian scrunched her lips together but didn’t answer.

            “Well, do you want to play? We could win if you were our pitcher.”

            “I do,” said Vivian. “But, Jeff already asked me to play for his team.”

            Robby couldn’t believe it. “Gosh, Vivian, you don’t want to play with those guys do you?” said Robby. “I mean, do you?”

            “Not really. They’re kind of bossy. And they make dumb fart jokes all the time. But I already told them I would.”

            “Oh, man. With you on their team, they’re going to kill us. I mean they probably would have killed us anyway, but now, with you…they’ll super kill us.”

            “I’m sorry, Robby. I wish I could be on your team, but I already said ‘yes’ and I think you should always keep your word.”

            “It’s okay,” Robby said. “I think you should keep your word too.”

Chapter Sixteen: A Chance to Change Everything

And then it was Friday…the day they were supposed to play Jeff Hicks and The Sports Guys, and Vivian Slepka. Robby though maybe this would be a good day to pretend like he was too sick to go to school, but in the end, he decided he couldn’t do that. He was the one who challenged Jeff to the game. If his friends were going to get creamed, he was going to get creamed.

Everybody brought their gloves. Jeff snuck a bat into school and hid it in the bushes behind the janitor’s shack. Alex got some of the first graders from nutrition class to keep a lookout for the playground monitor whose name was Mr. Crouch, but who everybody called The Grouch. The Grouch was just like Robby’s mom. He hated grass. He hated walking on it. He hated smelling it and he was always telling kids, “Wash your hands! You were playing in grass, do you want to get sick!” There wasn’t much chance he would even come out to Field Number Three, but Robby figured they should keep a watch just in case. Baseball bats (and golf clubs, said Melvin) were against the rules.

The two teams met at Field Number Three and started playing catch to warm up. Only five of the kindergartner kids showed up. Robby couldn’t really blame the other little kids for chickening out. If he was a kindergartener he would have chickened out too. He would have peed his pants, and then chickened out.

Alex brought BLECH for everybody. One of the kindergartner kids brought bananas and passed them out. Robby looked around for Tony and Jay, but didn’t see them.

That made Robby nervous, so he put on the pink glove and tossed the ball back and forth with Melvin. While they played, he thought about all the things he’d learned from Tony and Jay. Step back, turn sideways, kick your leg, and keep your elbow up. He let the ball go and POP, it actually smacked into Melvin’s mitt.

“Nice one,” said Melvin. “How many ways can you strike out?”

“Thanks,” said Robby. “You can strike out looking, swinging, and fouling off a bunt when there are already two strikes.”

“Correct,” said Melvin.

“Hey, dorks!” Jeff Hicks yelled. “Are you guys going to play or not?”

“We’re ready,” Robby yelled back.

“Hey, Robby, you guys look like you need a few more guys on your team,” somebody said.

            Robby turned around and saw Jay and Tony walking up to home plate. Whew!  With those guys, Robby figured they might have a chance.

            “Oh boy, am I glad to see you guys,” Robby said.

            Jeff Hicks came running up. “No way. Fifth graders can’t play,” said Jeff.

            “Oh yeah?” said Jay. “Who says?” Jay stepped up and put his face right in front of Jeff’s. He was bigger than Jeff, and his long hair made him look even bigger. “You going to tell me I can’t play in your game third grader?”

            “Well, I…it won’t be fair if you guys play on their team,” sputtered Jeff.

            “Why not? You’ve got more players than they do,” Jay said. “And most of their team is kindergartners, so I figure Tony and me just kind of even it out a little.”

Jay slapped Tony a high five. Then he looked over and saw Vivian.

            “Hey, Vivian. Why are you playing for those guys?”

            Vivian shrugged. “You guys can play. Who’s up first?”

“We are,” said Jeff. “They’ve got fifth graders.”

Everybody put on their gloves and walked out onto the field. Alex walked out to shortstop, halfway between second and third base, pulled a piece of celery out of his pocket and started munching on it. Melvin took second and pounded his fist into his mitt. Jay took the kindergartners out to the outfield and showed them where to stand. Then he walked back to the infield and stood next to first base.

“Wait a second,” Robby said. “Who’s going to pitch? One of you guys is going to pitch, right?”

“Tell you what,” said Tony, patting Robby on the shoulder. “You pitch and I’ll be the catcher. Okay?”

“I only learned how to throw a few weeks ago,” said Robby. “Remember?”

“Come on,” Tony said. “If Baby Joe can pitch in the majors when he was only 15, you can pitch a game at lunch can’t you?” 

Robby was not sure he could pitch a game at lunch. He looked down at the ball by his feet. The stitches were smiling at him.

“You really think I should pitch? I mean I just learned how to throw.”

“Look, dude. It doesn’t matter whether or not I think you should pitch,” said Tony.  “You should want to pitch. You should be dying to pitch.

“Why?” Robby said.

“Don’t you get it?” said Tony. “This is it, dude. This is your chance to show these kids something. Up until right now, up until this lunch time on this Friday, all these guys think you’re just some geek they can push around and make fun of. But if you pick up that ball. And if you do like we showed you, in 15 minutes, they’re going to be thinking ‘hey, this guy Robby is not a dork at all. He’s okay. He can play. May be I should have a sleepover with him.’

Robby looked down at the ball and Tony smiled big. “You don’t have to wait till tryouts. You can change things right now.”

Robby felt a wobble snake its way up his legs to his stomach. But Tony was right. This could change everything. He’d been practicing a ton. And drinking a lot of BLECH. And growing a muscle. He knew in his heart he could play baseball. He knew in his heart that he wasn’t a dork.  This was his chance to prove it.

“Okay,” he said, and reached down to pick up the ball. “I’m pitching.”

“Good,” said Tony. “Just hit my glove.” 

Tony ran off behind home plate and Robby looked down at the ball. It was still smiling at him. It knew things were about to change.

“Hey dork!” somebody said.

Chip Hord, who was like the second best Sports Guy, was standing next to the plate ready to bat.

“You going to pitch the ball or roll it to me?” said Chip.

“Pitch it,” Robby said.

He got a good grip on the ball and turned sideways like he was supposed to. Chip stood in the batter’s box and bent his knees.

“Roll it right in here,” Chip said, and all his friends laughed.

Tony was squatting down behind the plate. He held up his mitt to give Robby a target. Robby took the ball back behind his ear and threw it toward the plate. POP! It smacked into Tony’s glove. Chip didn’t swing. He just stood there with his mouth hanging open like a statue.

“Strike one,” Tony called out, as he threw the ball back to Robby. “Throw another one, Robby. Put her right in there.”

Robby looked in and tried to zero in on Tony’s glove. Tony held the glove out over the plate and gave him the thumbs up. Then Robby threw another pitch. It wasn’t super fast, but it wasn’t rolling either. It was more like looping. This time, Chip swung and “CRACK!” the ball shot off the bat and bounced right at Melvin. Man, it was bouncing hard, and fast. For a second, Melvin bent his knees, and held his glove down to the ground just like Jay and Tony had taught him to. For a second he was right there. For a second he looked like a guy who could field a ground ball. But then, when the ball bounced right in front of him, he said, “Ahhhhh!” and turned his head away. The ball smacked into his shin and rolled out into the outfield. Melvin’sPing hat went flying, and he fell into the dirt and started thrashing around like he was on fire.

“My leg’s broken!” Melvin screamed. “My leg’s broken!”

Robby ran over and knelt down next to his friend. “You okay?” Robby asked.

“It hurts!” Melvin said.  

All the kindergartners scurried in from the outfield and everybody stood around for a few minutes while Melvin rubbed his leg. He didn’t cry. But he came close and his eyes really red and puffy. There was dirt and some grass stuck in his hair. Robby picked up thePinghat and brought it back to Melvin.

“His leg’s not broken,” yelled Jeff Hicks. “Geez, stop stalling. Are you guys going to play or not?”

Robby looked down at his friend.

“Can you stand up?”  Robby said.

“No,” Melvin said.

“We’ll carry him,” said one of the kindergartners. “We’re strong.” With that, all five kindergartners put down their gloves and grabbed a part of Melvin. Two grabbed his legs, two grabbed his arms and one grabbed him around the stomach. The kindergartners carried Melvin like ants carrying a leaf. It took them a while, but they finally got Melvin off of the field. Then they put on their gloves and ran back out to the outfield.

Robby walked back to the pitcher’s mound. Somebody had put the ball on the mound and he reached down and picked it up. He felt the ball in his hand, and for the first time since he’d gotten hit in the stomach, Robby thought about how hard a baseball was. It was really, really hard. Melvin’s leg was going to have a big red mark.

“Throw it right in there, Robby,” Tony said from behind home plate. “You can do it.”

The next batter stood up next to the plate, and—uh oh—it was Jeff Hicks. Just please don’t let me roll it to him, Robby said to himself as he watched Jeff stand in the batter’s box.

“All you kindergartners better get ready to duck,” yelled Jeff. “Cause I’m hitting it at you and I’m gonna hit it hard.”

“Bring it!” yelled one of the kindergartners. And the rest of them cheered.

“Come on, Robby,” said Alex. “Strike him out, man.”

This is crazy, Robby thought. There’s no way I’m going to strike out Jeff Hicks. Still, he’d thrown that first one to Chip Hord pretty darn hard, hadn’t he? Maybe he could strike out Jeff Hicks. He decided to try.

“Uh oh,” Alex said. “Hurry up and throw it, Robby. Here comes the Grouch!”

Robby looked over and sure enough, the Grouch was walking straight toward him. He was walking like one of those speed walkers on TV, hunched forward, and hardly bending his knees at all, swinging his arms like crazy.

“Come on, come on, come on,” said Jeff. “Just throw the ball. If I don’t hit it, I’ll eat my glove.”

Tony held his glove out to give Robby a target.

This was it, Robby thought. Things are going to change right now. Robby stepped back with his left foot, put the ball behind his ear, lifted his elbow and threw. He threw it hard. Harder than he’d ever thrown before. It left his hand like a rocket. Like a bullet, like a…BLAM! Jeff Hicks hit the ball and it took off like an airplane. It sailed over Alex’s head and flew way, way out into the outfield. Oh my gosh. It had to be the longest, highest hit ever. It was…it was…ginormous.

Somebody yelled, “Home run!” But the ball was still going. It was up over the school now. Heading toward the clouds. Down below, kids were eating their lunch. Should he yell out “duck!” or “cover up your soup?” No, they were too far away. They wouldn’t hear him. Would it come down in another city? Another state? Another country? Finally, the ball disappeared over the library building. Jeff didn’t even run. He just stood their at home plate staring at Robby with a big smirky look on his face.

“I told you,” said Jeff. And all his friends started laughing. Just like they always did. It made him feel awful. Finally, after a good long laugh, Jeff dropped the bat and started walking…yes walking to first base. He was about half way there when…

            “Who brought this bat to school?” The Grouch stood at home plate shaking the bat. His eyes were bugged out like balloons.

Tony took a big step away from him.

            “I said who brought this bat to school?”

            “We found it,” Tony said. “It was in some bushes.”

            “Well, you can’t have a bat at school,” the Grouch said. “There could be trouble. Kids get bopped, or get broken arms, or even bruises. Don’t you kids know these things? What grade are you in?”

None of the kids said a word. Needless to say, it was straight to the principal’s office after that.

Robby had never been in the principal’s office before. It had really nice chairs. All the boys were lined up along the wall with the Grouch. Principal Dume sat on the corner of his desk.

“Well, if nobody is going to admit bringing the bat to school,” said Principal Dume, “then I have no choice but to call your parents. All of your parents.”

Robby looked around. All his friends, Jeff Hicks, the Sports Guys, everybody, was looking straight down at their feet. It was hot in the principal’s office. The backs of Robby’s legs were sweating. All the kindergartners had peed their pants except for the kid with the Pull Ups. There was a big clock on the wall. A loud one. TICK, TOCK, TICK TOCK.

Robby’s neck started to itch. Then his ears. A sneeze was tickling its way up the back of his nose.

“Anybody?” said the principal.

Nobody said a word.

“Alright,” Principal Dume finally said. Then he started to dial.

Chapter Seventeen: Dancing, Dancing, Dancing

Needless to say, after having Jeff Hicks hit a ginormous home run off of him, sweating it out in the principal’s office for an hour, then listening to his mom lecture him about the importance of rules and how they kept anarchy, whatever that was, from destroying our great nation (huh?), Robby was not in a good mood for ballet. It just didn’t seem worth it. Not today, anyway. All the skipping and jumping and Jeté pas…and especially The Lift seemed like a big fat waste of time.

Jay and Tony did their best to pep Robby up.

“Dude, cheer up,” laughed Tony. “Me and Jay got in tons of trouble when we were in third grade. Third graders are supposed to get in trouble, right Jay?”

“Right,” said Jay. “It’s how they learn.”

“I don’t care about that,” Robby said.

“I know. You’re bummed about the home run that big kid hit off you,” Jay said, putting his arm around Robby’s shoulders. “But at least you tried. You did your best and well, so what, it didn’t work out for you this time.”

“Jay’s right,” said Tony. “You stepped up to the plate. You gave it a shot and this time things didn’t work out. But you were brave enough to take your shot. And that counts for something. It counts for a lot.”

“But I didn’t change anything,” said Robby. “I really thought we were getting good you know, at baseball. We’ve been practicing really hard and eating veggies and stuff, but after yesterday. Well, those guys are still a lot better than we are. We’re still dorks.”

“You’re not a dork,” said Jay. “A dork would have been too scared to pitch. A dork would not have picked up that ball. You picked up the ball.”

“Jay’s right,” said Tony. “You’re not a dork, dude. You’re our favorite third grader kid. You’re like a little tight wearing brother to me and Jay. I mean, I wish we could adopt you and like take you home and raise you, you know.”

“That would be so cool,” said Jay. “We could get you your own room and buy you a puppy or something. And we could check your homework and make sure you only play E for everybody video games…”

“And make sure you always wore your helmet when you rode your bike,” Tony added.

“And we could take you toDisneylandand you could have your birthday party at the Chuck E. Cheese and….”

“Okay, you guys, I get it,” said Robby.

“You know Robby, if you want, Jay and me could go have a talk with that kid Jeff and his friends, stuff a few of them into trash cans, pull their underwear up over the heads and tell them they should start treating you and your friends better,” said Tony.

“That would be pretty cool,” Robby laughed. “But that would just get everybody in trouble. I guess we just have to handle it ourselves. We just have to make the A league. That’s the only way to do it.” 

“Okay, Mouse King’s Army,” said Mr. Quinn. He walked up sucking on a purple Popsicle. There were purple juice stains on the front of his shirt. “Time to practice the big battle from Scene two. No time to waste. Only a few days till the show.”

Robby stood up, and went to get the Mouse King mask out of the black bag.  When he got back, everybody was standing around Mr. Quinn and Miss Robin. Jay and Tony were shaking their swords and growling at the girls.

This was Robby’s favorite part of ballet. Even though it was kind of dance fighting, it was still fun. Every day before they practiced the big battle scene, Miss Robin gave the same warning.

“Remember girls,” said Miss Robin. “You are dancing. Dancing, dancing, dancing. And Mouse King’s army, please remember that they are dancing. It’s up to you to make it look like you’re fighting each other, to pretend like you’re sword fighting, but don’t get in their way. Don’t trip them, don’t stab them, don’t tackle them. Just fake it, okay? Okay?”

Robby and the boys always gave her the thumbs up. They’d practiced this battle a bunch of times in the five weeks. They knew the deal. Don’t hurt the girls.”

“Alright then,” said Mr. Quinn. “Robby, lead the Mouse King’s army into battle.” 

Robby led his army onto the stage. The Mouse King mask kept sliding around and he had to hold it in place with his left hand so he could see.

Vivian Slepka yelled “Get the Mouses!” and the girls all danced forward. Robby and his friends chased them around as they danced. It was kind of like puppies chasing rabbits. The girls were hopping and bouncing and leaping everywhere with their arms up over their heads and their toes pointed. Robby and his friends were running all around almost stabbing them, almost knocking them over, almost fighting them.

After about five minutes of this, Mr. Quinn sucked off the last inch of the Popsicle and said, “Good, good! Now, Vivian and Robby. Time for your big fight.”

Vivian stopped hopping and pointed her sword at Robby. “This is where I get you back for dropping me. I’m going to beat you this time, Mouse King.”

Robby lifted his sword.

“Come and get me,” Robby said.

Vivian ran towards him and took a swing at his legs. Robby lowered his sword and parried. Vivian tried to poke him in the stomach, but Robby jumped back and parried that one too. Every time Vivian tried to stab him, Robby parried. But he didn’t swing back.

“Okay! Great job you two,” said Mr. Quinn. “Time for the lift!”

Vivian took a few steps away from Robby, “You can do it this time,” she said. Vivian launched herself into the air toward Robby. Robby bent his legs and reached up to grab her. His fingers closed around her waist and he lifted her high up over his head.

“That’s it!” Mr. Quinn said.

“Way to go, Mouse King!” Jay yelled. “Spin her!”

Robby balanced Vivian over his head and began to turn in a circle. Once, twice, three times he spun around. Girls started clapping. Jay and Tony were screaming his name. This was it. He was doing it. He was doing The Lift. He was doing….and then he felt Vivian starting to slip. He tried to tighten his grip, but his fingers were sweaty and he couldn’t get a hold. Oh no.

BLAM. Vivian hit the floor and rolled.

“You had it,” Jay said. “You totally had it.”

Robby shook his head. He’d done it again. “I’m not strong enough,” he said.

“You did have it,” said Vivian. Her legs were wobbly, but she stood up and rubbed her hands through her hair. “You’re strong enough. Don’t give up.”

Mr. Quinn reached and squeezed Robby’s shoulder.

“Robby will be fine,” he said. “In fact, I’m so sure Robby will be able to do The Lift on the night of the show that I will tell you all this. If he doesn’t. If he drops Vivian. Or if he can’t lift her. I will buy ice cream for everyone for an entire week. Deal?”

“Any kind we want?” asked Claire.

“Any kind you want,” said Mr. Quinn.

All the girls cheered.

“Alright then,” Mr. Quinn said. “Let’s do it again.”

As Robby and the guys took their places for the battle, Jay leaned over and whispered. “Dude, I hope you do it, I really do. But I gotta say, I really like ice cream.”

Chapter Eighteen: The Next Time

The next week flew by in a blur of BLECH, baseball, and ballet. Finally it was Saturday, and time for baseball tryouts. Melvin and Alex came over to Robby’s house to get in some last minute practice and drink some BLECH. Their parents would meet them at tryouts.

“My stomach’s doing flip flops,” Robby said.

“I put extra brussels sprouts in this batch,” said Alex as he handed out water bottles filled with BLECH. “It’s Super BLECH, cause we gotta be extra strong.”

Robby took off the cap to his bottle and started to drink, but the smell was so bad he had to stop and hold his nose.

“Oh my gosh,” he said. “That smells horrible. It smells like our bathroom when my dad comes out.”

The Super BLECH did smell awful. But Robby and his friends knew that today was not the day to skip their veggies, so they each opened their bottles and sucked it down.

Then they went out into the back yard and played catch. First they threw back and forth for a while, and then tossed each other ground balls.

“Watch out for my leg,” Melvin said. “It still kills from last week.”

The boys tossed the ball around until it was time to go to tryouts.

“My stomach’s starting to do flip flops,” Alex said. “I mean, we’ve been practicing at lunch and eating our veggies and stuff, but still…us playing baseball? Doesn’t it seem kind of weird?”

“It does, a little bit,” Robby said. “But things are going to change. We can do it, guys. I know we can. And when we make A League, Jeff and those guys will leave us alone.”

“And nobody will make fun of us,” said Melvin. “That will be cool.”

“That will be so cool,” Alex agreed.

The screen door opened and Dad popped his head out.

“Let’s go, boys,” said Dad. “I just spoke with Alex’s Mom and your Dad, Melvin. They said you could ride with us and they will meet us there.”

“We can do this, you guys,” Robby said. “We can do it.”

Everybody piled into the mini van. Mom handed Robby a small bottle of hand sanitizer and made him promise to keep it in his pocket and use it any time he actually touched the grass or dirt. Then she gave him a hug.

“Good luck with baseball, honey,” she said. “Remember, if you get a stomach ache, have Dad bring you right home.”

Robby kind of had a stomach ache already, but he said he would and they drove toIndianSpringsPark, where the tryouts were being held.

Robby had never been toIndianSpringsParkeven though he only lived five minutes away. The place was crazy with cars and it took Dad almost 10 minutes to find a parking space. The park had five baseball fields and all of them were packed with kids. Baseballs were flying around everywhere. There was a big sign that said “Mustang – Ages 9-10” tied to the backstop on one of the fields, so Robby and his friends walked over.

Two men sat at a picnic table next to the backstop signing kids up for tryouts. A bunch of kids were gathered around in front of the table and a lot more were warming up out on the field.

            Some of the dads were standing out on the field talking. Each of these dads carried a clipboard and wore a baseball cap. I bet those are the coaches, Robby thought.

Robby started feeling butterflies zooming around in his stomach. Big fluffy ones. This was for real. This was “the next time.” He was going to try out for baseball. Six weeks ago, he couldn’t throw a baseball two feet, and now here he was trying out. He looked down at his glove, Claire’s glove, and opened and closed it a few times. It was still pink, but it didn’t feel so funny any more.

“Hey, Mouse King,” somebody said.

Robby turned around and saw Vivian Slepka standing there grinning at him. Melvin and Alex were looking at Robby. “Mouse?” Alex started to say, but Vivian cut him off.

“There are two things I hope,” said Vivian. “Thing one is that I hope you don’t drop me. Thing two is I hope you make A league. Good luck.”

Vivian grinned at him, and then at Alex. “You too, booger veggie eating kid” she said. “I hope all you guys make it.”

Vivian walked off and Melvin punched Robby in the shoulder.

“Since when are you such pals with Vivian Slepka?” he said.

“I don’t know. We are kind of pals, I guess,” Robby said, as he felt himself blushing. “Geez, let’s just warm up, huh? Okay?”

“What are you so geeked out about? Just because she’s your girlfriend or something.” said Melvin.

“She is not my girlfriend,” Robby said. “Just throw the ball.”

He and Melvin and Alex played some three-way catch to warm up. They tossed the first few softly just to loosen up their arms and then the next few a little harder.

            After a while, the butterflies went away and Robby started to feel pretty good. Really good, actually. The grass looked super green, and he could feel the breeze on the back of his neck. Alex and Melvin were starting to really throw them in there hard and fast and Robby was catching every one. Even the hand sanitizer smelled good. And if there were any germs crawling off the grass and up his legs, he couldn’t feel them. Man, this is really, really cool, he thought. I hope I do okay in tryouts because baseball is fun and I want to play.

            “I can’t believe you actually showed up,” a mean voice said. “Especially with that dumb pink glove.”

            Robby knew who it was. Jeff Hicks. But this time, Robby wasn’t scared.

“Just go away,” Robby said.

“Make me,” said Jeff, shoving him again. “Because…”

Before he could say anything else, one of the coaches walked up. “Hey there, knock that off.”

The coach had a blue baseball hat and a whistle and a clipboard, and his t-shirt said “BASEBALL” in big black letters across the front. “There’s no place for that kind of silly stuff in baseball,” the coach said. “If you want to do that, you go somewhere else. This is baseball. Do you understand me, son?”

            The coach frowned down at Jeff. “I said do you understand me?”

            “I get it,” Jeff said, looking down at his feet.

            The coach with the clipboard pointed toward a white chalk line that ran from home plate to first base.

            “Go stand on that white line and cool off.”

            Jeff trudged over and stood on the white line.

The coach blew his whistle. “Mustang league tryouts begin right now! Anybody who wants to play baseball come over here and line up along the first base line.”

He pointed to the white line that Jeff was standing on.

Robby, Alex, Melvin and the rest of the kids hustled over and stood on the line. Robby made sure there were a few kids in between him and Jeff Hicks.

            “Okay,” the coach said. “I am Coach Gehrig, and I’m running tryouts today for the Mustang League. Thank you all for coming out. It’s about time this town got a Little League, don’t you think?”

All the kids cheered. Robby shouted “Yea!” as loud as he could and looked down the white line. Man, there were a lot of kids. How many of them would make the A League?

“Here’s how it works,” Coach Gehrig explained. “There are two Mustang leagues: Mustang A and Mustang B. Those of you who have played some baseball before, kids that can throw and catch and know the rules, will probably be in Mustang A. If you’re just starting out, or if you need some time to work on the basics, the B league will give you a great chance to learn the game without worrying about winning and losing.”

“B stands for Baby,” Jeff Hicks snickered.

Coach Gehrig didn’t hear him. “We’re having tryouts today so the coaches can see how well you can catch, how well you can hit, and how well you throw. Then we’ll try to put you in the league where you’ll learn the most and have the most fun. Any questions?”

One of the kids raised his hand.

“How do we know what team we’re on?”

“Good question,” Coach Gehrig said. “After tryouts, maybe in a day or two, you’ll get a call from your coach. He’ll tell you when practice is and all the other stuff you need to know. Okay then. Let’s get started. I want the first ten kids in line to go over and see Coach Rizzo out by second base. He’s going to give you each a number. Then he’s going to toss you some ground balls, so don’t forget your gloves. ”

Robby and his friends ran to second base. Coach Rizzo, a chubby guy wearing a green windbreaker jacket with “A’s” on the front, safety-pinned a piece of paper with the number “5” on Robby’s back. Alex got number “4,” Melvin got “6” and Jeff Hicks, who was the first kid in line, got number “1.” They all stood in line behind second base. One by one, Coach Rizzo rolled them ground balls. Jeff Hicks was first. He fielded all three of the ground balls and flipped them back to Coach Rizzo like it was no big deal. He made it look easy.

A few minutes later, Alex stepped up and got two out of three. The last ball hit his foot and rolled toward first base.

“You’re up, number five,” Coach Rizzo said.    

Robby stepped forward. He was pretty good at ground balls. At least Jay and Tony said he was. He tried to remember everything he was supposed to do. Bend your knees. Put your glove down on the ground. Stay in front of it. Coach Rizzo tossed him a slow roller and he managed to knock it down with his glove before it got past him. He picked it up with his bare hand and tossed it back to the coach.

“Not bad number five. Way to stay in front of it. Let’s try a few more.”

The coach rolled the next one harder. Robby tried to stop it, but it went shooting through his legs and into the outfield. So did the next one.

“Okay, number five. Good job. Next.”

“Darn,” said Robby, as they walked over to get their helmets. “I only got one ball.”

“Don’t worry about it, Robby,” said Alex. “Fielding grounders is only one part of tryouts. We still have hitting and throwing. One of those coaches will pick us for A League for sure.”

Melvin’s first two balls went right through his legs. He took off his glasses, and wiped them on his shirt, then put them back on. That must have done the trick, because he reached down and gloved the last ball right before it went through his legs.

When all the kids had taken their turn fielding ground balls, Coach Rizzo told them to go over to the backstop for the pitching part of the tryouts.

“This is it you guys,” Robby said. “Throwing’s our best thing. Let’s get over there and show them what we’ve got.”

They started to walk to the backstop, but Melvin stopped.

“Man, my leg hurts,” Melvin said. He pulled up the leg on his jeans and there was a big, dark bruise the size of an apple on the front of his shin.

“Man, that looks like it really kills,” said Alex.

“It’s been killing me all week,” said Melvin. “But I’m not going to quit. I’m going to make A League.”

“We all are,” said Robby. “Let’s go.

Chapter Nineteen: Pitching and Hitting

“This is where we find out who can pitch,” Coach Hernandez said. “I want everybody to grab his gloves and go out to the pitcher’s mound.”

Alex, Robby and the rest of the kids stood up and walked out to the pitcher’s mound. Coach Hernandez raised his hand.

“I forgot,” said Coach Hernandez. I need a catcher. Can one of you go behind the plate and help me out?”

None of the kids said anything. Then Robby got an idea. He was a pretty good catcher. Maybe if he showed them how well he could catch, they’d put him in the A League.

Robby shot his hand up. “I’ll do it, Coach.”

“Thanks a lot number five,” Coach Hernandez said. “Go on over to home plate.”

Robby walked over to home plate and looked out at the pitcher’s mound.

“Okay,” Coach Hernandez said, “let’s have player number one up on the mound. Show me what you’ve got, kid.”

Jeff Hicks walked up onto the pitcher’s mound. There was a white bucket filled with baseballs. He reached into the bucket, took out a baseball and gave Robby a big, long smirk.

“Let’s see if you can catch this one,” Jeff said.

“I’ll catch it,” Robby said.

Jeff threw the ball at Robby and Robby reached out with his glove to catch it. He thought he had it, really thought he had it, but the ball smacked into his glove and bounced onto the ground. Rats. Robby picked it up and tossed it back.

“I knew you couldn’t catch it,” Jeff said.

            Jeff kicked his leg up, reared back and threw a super hard one right at Robby’s head. Robby reached out and caught it. SMACK. It slammed into his glove, right in the palm of his hand and the pain shot all the way up his arm. Still, he reached into his glove, grabbed the ball and tossed it back as hard as he could. Jeff caught it and sneered again.

“Okay, number one,” Coach Gehrig said. “Looks like you can throw too. Player number two, you’re up.”

One by one, the kids went out on the mound and pitched. Robby caught for all of them. He missed a few more balls, but he caught most of them. He even caught the ones that bounced. It was hot and sweaty, and one time a ball bounced in front of him and smacked into his leg, but still, it seemed like he was doing pretty well. There was dirt everywhere. On his neck. On his arms. On his socks. Inside his socks! It was a good thing Mom was not there. She would not be happy about the dirt.

Alex took his turn on the pitcher’s mound and managed to throw three pretty good pitches. Robby caught them all. Robby saw a couple of the coaches writing on their clip boards after Alex got done pitching. But he didn’t know if they were A League coaches or B League coaches. There was dirt in his eye and he rubbed it with the side of his hand.

Coach Hernandez waved at him. “You’re up, number five!”

Robby ran out to the pitcher’s mound. Dirt flew off him all over the place.

“I’ll catch for him,” Alex said and ran behind the plate.

“Great job catching, son,” Coach Hernandez told Robby. “Grab a ball, and let’s see some heat.”

            Robby stood on the mound, reached down and grabbed a baseball out of the bucket. Behind the plate, Alex held his glove up for a target.

Robby got a good grip across the seams, focused on Alex’s glove and took a deep breath. This was it. You can do it. Robby stepped back, kept his elbow up, stepped forward and let the ball go. WHAM! It smacked into Alex’s glove.

            “Woo hoo!” Alex yelled. That’s the way to do it!”

            Coach Hernandez whistled. “Nice pitch, kid.” “Let’s see another one.”

            Alex tossed the ball back and Robby caught it. He saw a couple of the coaches writing on their clipboards. Don’t think about that, he said to himself. Just throw it over the plate. Robby took a deep breath and pitched another one, even harder this time.

            WHAP! Right into Alex’s glove.

Coach Hernandez whistled again. “Well, that’s about the fastest pitch I’ve ever seen a 10-year-old throw,” he said. “Hey, all you coaches,” he said. “I think we’ve got a real Cy Young here.”

Alright! He didn’t know who Cy Young was, but the way Coach Hernandez said it, it sounded like he must be pretty good. Maybe he could make A league after all. Maybe he would do good enough pitching so the coaches would forget how bad he was at fielding ground balls. Maybe he’d win his bet with Jeff Hicks and never get picked on again. Maybe for once things would go his way. Maybe.

The next thing was hitting with Coach Decker. Coach Decker was a tall guy in a blue windbreaker with “Tigers” across the front. When Robby and his friends walked up, he stuck out his hand, which was big and covered with hair, and gave them each a shake.

“Good to have you at baseball tryouts,” he said. “Take a seat in the stands behind home plate.

Robby, Melvin and Alex sat down in the stands with the other kids. After a few minutes Coach Decker hooked his fingers through the backstop screen.

“Okay you guys. This is the fun part. We’ll hit a couple off the tee just to get warmed up and then I’ll toss you a few off the mound.”

He pointed over to the backstop fence. “There are helmets in the bag and bats over there against the backstop. Pick the ones that feel right for you.”

All the kids picked bats and helmets. Robby tried on a couple of helmets until he found one that fit. Then he picked up a bat and sat down in the stands with the other kids. He was nervous. Since you couldn’t bring a bat to school, he’d never hit before. Not one time.

“Just watch what the other guys do and do the same thing,” Robby told Alex and Melvin.

Coach Decker looked over to Jeff Hicks. “Okay, number one. You’re up.”

Jeff jumped up and grabbed his bat. Coach Decker set up the tee, which looked like a long, black rubber tube. The bottom of the tube was connected to a flat, square piece of rubber that Coach Decker put right on top of home plate. The top end of the tube came up to about Jeff’s stomach. Coach Decker reached into a bucket of baseballs, took one out and put it on top of the tube.

“Ever hit off a tee, number one?”

Jeff rolled his eyes. “Sure. When I was a baby.”

Coach Decker grinned real big. “Alright then, Babe Ruth, step in there and let’s see what you’ve got.”

Jeff stepped up next to the tee. Coach Decker picked up the bucket of balls and walked out to the pitcher’s mound. Some of the other coaches stood around the infield with their clipboards.

“See that?” Robby told Alex. “The coaches write down stuff about you if they’re going to pick you on their team.”

“I’m not taking any chances,” said Alex. “Here.” He reached into his pocket and took out a handful of brussels sprouts. He bit into one and handed one each to Melvin and Robby. “If we eat these, we’ll hit the ball a mile.”

Robby munched on the brussels sprout and watched Jeff Hicks take practice swings. Robby watched how he held the bat with both hands and how far he spread his legs when he stood next to the plate. Jeff bent his knees, held the bat over his shoulder and swung. WHAM! He smacked the ball right off the top of the tee and into center field. He whacked it so hard it almost hit one of the coaches in the chest.

“Whuuhhhh!” said Alex, whose mouth was full of brussels sprout. “Idd ooh thee at?”

“That was almost as far as the one he hit off of Robby,” said Melvin, who was between bites.

“Nice rip, son,” said Coach Decker to Jeff. “Now, I’m going to pitch you a couple. Take a nice easy swing. Just like you did on that one.”

“I know how to hit,” said Jeff, shoving the tee off the plate.

Coach Decker tossed the ball to Jeff. Jeff swung and SMACK! He hit it even harder than he’d hit the first one. It went screaming right at the same coach who almost got hit before. This time, the coach couldn’t jump out of the way in time and the ball hit him in the leg.

“Ow!” the coach yelled and sprawled out onto the grass.

Two of the other coaches ran over and helped him stand up.

“I’m fine. I’m fine.” He told them as he brushed some dirt off his pant legs. “But I guess I’m going to have to pick that kid for my team if I don’t want him hitting me anymore.”

“Okay,” Coach Decker said to Jeff. “I will pitch you one more. And this time, after you hit it, I want you to run the bases. All the way to home plate, okay?”

Jeff said okay and got into his hitting stance. Coach Decker threw another pitch and Jeff smacked that one too. It sailed into the outfield bounced twice and hit the fence. As Jeff dropped his bat and raced off to first base, some of the parents started to cheer. Robby looked over and saw Melvin’s dad sitting on the grass. Alex’s mom was there too.

Two more kids hit and then it was Alex’s turn. Alex stood up and put another brussels sprout into his mouth.

“What are you doing, kid?” Coach Decker asked Alex.

“I’m eating a brussels sprout. It makes you strong,” said Alex.

“It does?” said Coach Decker. “Let’s get you up to the plate and see.”

Alex stood up, put on his batting helmet and walked over to home plate. Coach Decker put the tee back on the plate and dropped a ball onto the top of the tee.

“Whenever you’re ready, Mr. Sprout.”

“I’m ready, coach,” said Alex. He smacked the ball off of the tee, and it rolled out into the outfield.”

Alex smashed two more balls into the outfield. They didn’t go as hard or as far as the ones Jeff Hicks hit, but they were really good just the same. After the third hit, Alex ran around the bases and stomped on home plate.

“Great job, kid,” Coach Decker said. All the coaches started writing on their clipboards.

Now it was Robby’s turn. He stood next to home plate and tried to bend his knees like he’d seen Jeff Hicks do. Coach Decker made sure the tee was in the right spot, on top of home plate. Then, he put a ball on top of the tee and stepped back.

“Are you a sprout-eating type kid too?” Coach Decker said.

“Yep. And broccoli and green peppers,” Robby answered.

“Well, good,” Coach Decker said. “Let’s see if you can hit like your friend did.”

Robby tried to hold the bat like Jeff Hicks. He put it back over his shoulder and looked down at the ball on the tee. His heart was pounding so hard it felt like it was going to launch out of his chest. He’d never hit off a tee before. In fact, he’d never hit before. He looked out at Coach Decker and zeroed in on the ball. Then he pulled the bat back, took a deep breath and swung.

WHIFF! Instead of the solid thump he’d hoped for, Robby felt nothing at all. The ball was still sitting there on top of the tee.

“Strike one!” somebody yelled.

Coach Decker yelled out. “Don’t swing so hard, kid. You don’t need to kill it.”

Robby wasn’t trying to kill it. He was trying to hit it like Jeff Hicks had hit it. He looked down at the ball, sitting there on top of the tee. Now the red stitching on the side of the ball looked like a mouth that was laughing right at him. He hadn’t even nicked it. If he missed again…well, he couldn’t even think about that.

Robby took the bat back again, but not quite as far this time. He swung again and this time, managed to make the bat hit the ball. POP. It sprang off the tee and rolled out about thirty feet to second base.

“Good job, Robby!” Melvin yelled. “That’s the way to do it.”

But was it? Was that hit good enough to get him into the A league? Robby wasn’t sure. It had gone pretty far, but it was rolling, not sailing like Jeff’s. And well, he hadn’t really hit it that hard had he?

“Okay, this is the last one,” Coach Decker said. “I’m going to pitch to you. After you hit it, I want you to run it out.” Coach Decker took a ball out of the bucket and walked out to the mound. Robby moved the tee out of the way and got into a crouch at home plate. Here goes nothing. Robby looked out at the coaches with the clipboards, and most of them weren’t watching him at all. Two of them had their backs to him and were watching another group of kids throwing in the outfield. One was tying his shoe.

Coach Decker pitched the ball, and Robby watched it leave his hand. It came in straight toward the plate and when it got close, Robby swung. He kept his eyes on the ball, he didn’t swing too hard, he swung at just the right moment and…

POW!  The ball smacked against his bat and sailed out into the outfield. Robby couldn’t believe it. He stood there holding the bat, watching as the ball plopped into the grass and rolled all the way to the outfield fence. Wow.

Robby took off toward first base, running as fast as he could. He rounded first base, then second base, then third base. As he stomped his foot down on home plate, he heard Alex and Melvin screaming. Coach Decker walked over, grinned and held out his hand.

“Okay,” he said. “Good job. But next time, don’t take the bat with you, okay?”

Robby looked down and saw he was still holding the bat. “Okay, coach” he said.

Robby leaned his bat against the backstop, put his helmet in the bucket and sat down next to Alex to watch Melvin bat.

“That was amazing,” said Alex. “You hit it almost as far as Jeff Hicks. Here, have a radish.”

He handed Robby a shiny red radish. Melvin put on his helmet and walked up to the plate.

“Hey coach,” Melvin said. “I’m pretty good. Can you just pitch to me instead of using the tee? And if you could, I like ‘em low.”

“What’s he doing?” Alex said. “Mel’s never hit a ball in his life.”

“Maybe not a baseball,” Robby said. “Watch this.”

Coach Decker grabbed three balls and went out to the mound. Melvin stood next to home plate and lifted the bat up over his shoulder like a golf club.

“Here it comes,” Coach Decker said. “Nice and low.” The pitch came in pretty fast and right about at Melvin’s ankles. Melvin turned his hips, swung the bat down, almost straight at the ground and WHAM! He smacked the ball dead center into the outfield.

“See,” Robby told Alex. “I told you.”

“Oh, I get it,” Alex grinned. “Hitting a baseball’s pretty much like hitting a golf ball.”

“As long as it’s low,” Robby said.

Melvin grinned and crouched down as Coach Decker threw the next pitch. Melvin smacked this pitch even farther, almost to the fence. It went almost as far as the one Jeff Hicks hit.

“Boy, you sure like those low ones,” Coach Decker said. “After you hit the next one, run the bases.”

He threw the pitch and Melvin smashed it. He killed it. High and long and over the fence! A home run!

Robby and Alex jumped out of their seats cheering. Melvin took off running, but after about four steps, he did a little jump, and came down with his left leg straight out in front of him.

“Ow!” Melvin said.

“Oh no,” said Robby. “His leg.”

Melvin stood for a moment, leaning down with his hands on his knees. His eyes were scrunched tight. His batting helmet was on crooked. Robby thought he was going to quit. But he didn’t. He took one step, then another, then a little hop and then he started to run. It took him a while. He limped a lot, but he made it all the way around the bases.

When Melvin got to the stands, he took the helmet off and Robby could see tears on his cheeks. Melvin rolled up the leg of his jeans and man oh man, the bruise was twice as big as it had been before. Big and black and angry.

“You okay, man?” Robby asked his friend.

“My leg really hurts,” Melvin said. “Really bad.”

Melvin’s dad walked up. He had aPinghat just like Melvin’s and a big, worried look on his face.

“That looks pretty bad, Coach Decker told Melvin’s dad. “I think you should take him to the Urgent Care just to be sure.”

“I think you’re right,” Melvin’s dad said. “Son, I’m going to carry you out to the car, okay?”

“No!” said Melvin. “I gotta finish tryouts.”

“Son, you did great. You hit the ball a mile. But you’re not finishing anything on that leg,” Coach Decker said. “Let your dad take you to the Urgent Care and they’ll fix you up. We’ll see you when the season starts.”
            “It’s just baseball,” said Melvin’s dad.

“It’s not just baseball,” Melvin said and that’s when he started crying. Right there in the stands at baseball tryouts. Robby watched as Mel’s dad picked him up and carried him off to the parking lot.

“Man,” he said to Alex. “Poor Mel. I hope he’s okay.”

“Me too,” said Alex.

But both of them were thinking the same thing: It’s not just baseball.

Chapter Twenty: Mouse King’s Army Rules         

On the drive home, Robby and Alex ate green beans and talked about baseball.

“Wow,” said Robby. “That was a blast. Do you think we did good enough to make the A League?”

“Maybe. There were some pretty good guys out there,” Alex said. “And Vivian Slepka. I bet she made A League for sure.”

“Robby, I bet you made A league,” said Alex. “That last ball you hit was like a King Kong ball.”

“As soon as you find out what team you’re on, you gotta call me,” Robby said.

“Good idea,” Alex said. “And you call me when you find out, okay?”

“Man, I hope Mel’s okay. Can you believe it hit it over the fence?”

At that moment, Dad’s cell phone range. Dad answered it, said a few words and then handed the phone back to Robby.

“It’s Melvin,” Dad said.

“Hey Mel,” Robby said. “Is your leg okay?”

“They said my leg’s broken,” Melvin said. “Can you believe it?  They’re putting a cast on it.”

“Oh man, that sucks,” Robby said. “Does it still hurt much?”

“They gave me some pills,” Melvin said. “So it doesn’t hurt too bad. They said I’m going to have to have to use crutches for a while, which is pretty cool I guess.”

“Crutches,” said Robby. “Yea, you’ll be like an army guy or something.

“The bummer thing is I gotta wear the cast for like six weeks, so baseball is out. I can’t believe it. Did you see those balls I hit? Smack, way out far.”

“You were better than Babe Ruth,” said Robby. “You killed those balls.”

“Next year,” said Melvin. “I’m going to tryout next year and I’ll really kill ‘em then.”

Robby’s Dad drove Alex home. When they got back to the house, Robby went up to his room, laid down on in his bed with his eyes closed and brain-movied tryouts over and over in his head. He re-swung each swing, and re-caught every catch, re-dropped every drop. Pretty soon, there was a knock on the door.

“Come in,” Robby said.

The door opened and Claire walked in. She was wearing a pair of blue sweatpants over her ballet leotard. There were ribbons in her hair and glitter on her cheeks and around her eyes. She smelled like cotton candy.

“Robby, why aren’t you ready? We have to leave in five minutes.”

Oh no. The Nutcracker.

Robby jumped up off the bed. “Oh my Gosh, I totally forgot.” 

“You better hurry up and not make me late,” she said.

“I won’t,” he said. “Oh gosh, I gotta find my stuff.”

Robby scrambled around his bedroom. He found his tights and the rest of his ballet stuff and put it on. The tights had been feeling really tight on his legs lately, which he figured, was why they called them tights, and today, boy, they were really tight. It took him five minutes to pull them on.

“Let’s go, Robby!” his dad yelled from downstairs.

Robby brushed his teeth and combed his hair and ran downstairs. Claire and Mom were already in the mini van. Dad was standing by the door. Robby blew by him and jumped into the mini van next to Claire. Dad got in the car and they drove away. After about five minutes, Claire looked over at Robby.

“Hey, I’m sorry I yelled at you,” she said. “I guess I’m a little nervous, you know?”

Robby wasn’t sure what to say. His sister had never said she was sorry to him for anything before. He smelled a rat.”

“How’d you do at baseball?” she said.

Now he really smelled a rat. Claire had never cared about anything he’d done before. Ever.

“Answer your sister,” Mom said. “She’s trying to be nice, Robby.”  

“Uh…I don’t know. Okay, I guess.”

Claire smiled at him. Big and “sweet.”  “Well, I hope you did okay, you know?  I hope you made it.”

“Thanks,” Robby said. “I, um, you know, I hope so too.”

Even with Dad driving super fast, they barely got to the show on time. Robby and Claire jumped out of the minivan and raced toward the auditorium. As he ran around a corner, Robby almost smashed into Vivian, who came running up from the other direction.

“Way to go at tryouts,” Vivian said. “I was rooting for you.”

“Thanks,” Robby said. “I was rooting for you too.”

Inside the auditorium, Robby ran smack dab into Jay and Tony. They were doing the splits and eating pizza.

“Hey dude, have some pizza. There’s plenty left.”

“And tell us about tryouts,” said Tony. “How’d it go?”

“I think I did okay,” Robby said. “Mel broke his leg, though. Right where he got hit last week.”

“Ow!” said Tony. “That sucks.”

“He’s got to wear a cast for six weeks,” Robby explained.

“Curtain goes up in 30 minutes you guys,” Mr. Quinn said. “Be sure to get stretched out. Don’t want to pull a leg muscle in front of six hundred people.”

Mr. Quinn looked sharp. He was all dressed up, shiny black pants, big shoes and a fat, purple tie. He’d stuffed his chest muscles into a tight, white shirt.

“Six hundred people!” Jay said. “Everybody inOak Parkmust be out there.”

The Mouse Army hurried to get ready. Mr. Quinn took Robby backstage and helped him put on the Mouse King mask.  Even though he was used it, Robby wasn’t a big fan of the mask. It was still hot, it still smelled like glue and pretty much the only good thing about it was that nobody in the crowd would know who he was. Robby thought that was enough.

“Today,” said Mr. Quinn. “Is the day you do The Lift. How do your leg muscles feel?”

“They feel good,” said Robby.

“Do they feel strong?”

“Pretty strong,” said Robby.

“Pretty strong might not be strong enough,” Mr. Quinn said. “Today, Robby, you have to be really strong. To lift Vivian, Robby, you will need to be as strong as you have ever been. Do you feel that strong, Robby?”

“I think so, Mr. Quinn,” Robby said. “I do feel really, really strong.”

“Good then,” Mr. Quinn stuck out his hand. “Believe in yourself. You will be

fine.”

It was too hot in the Mouse King Mask so Robby put it on the floor and sat down to wait. His tights itched. He was sweating a little bit down his back. Pretty soon, Miss Robin yelled “Curtain goes up in 10 minutes, people! Time for a quick pep talk.” She clapped her hands and all the kids gathered around. The girls were looking super sparkly in their costumes—pink, and yellow and green puffy dresses with matching tights, glittery makeup, hair ribbons and bows. The three boys stood together, each decked out in full mouse gear; black tights with suspenders, ears, and tails.

“You’ve all practiced really hard and I wanted to tell all of you that you’re going to do just great,” said Miss Robin. “I really appreciate all your hard work, and I’m super proud of each and every one of you.”

“Even the boys?” Claire asked.

“Of course, the boys,” Miss Robin shook her head at Claire. “We could not do the show without the boys. Just remember what you’ve learned, smile big and give it your best. Now, let’s go out and have fun. Places everybody! The show is about to begin!”

Everybody ran to their places. Claire and the other girls struck poses in the middle of the stage with their arms up over their heads.

Robby started to run backstage, but then he saw Jay and Tony peeking out through a crack in the curtains.

“Whoa! There’s like a million people out there,” Tony said.

“Lemme see,” said Robby. He took a peek and there was his dad and his mom in the third row and…oh no! There was Melvin …and oh my gosh, all the kindergartners from the lunch time baseball school! What the heck was going on? Claire must have told them! Alex was out there chewing on a carrot. It seemed like everybody inOak Parkwas out there. They were all out there…and Robby was going to do ballet. In tights. And even though he was wearing the mask, everybody was going to know exactly who he was.

“Dude, you look green,” said Tony. “Are you gonna hurl?”

“I think so,” Robby said. “My sister told my friends I was dancing in the ballet. They’re all out there. I can’t do this.”

“Sure you can.” said Tony, putting his arm around Robby’s shoulders. “All my friends are out there too. Just get your brave on and let’s show ‘em how the Mouse King’s Army kicks butt!”

The three boys grabbed their swords and ran backstage. Robby felt a swarm of butterflies flapping around in his stomach, just like at baseball tryouts.

The music started, the curtain went up and the audience began to cheer. The music played and the girls were sparkling super bright and twirling around all over the stage.  

The boys watched from backstage. Finally, it was time for Robby to lead the Mouse King’s army onto the stage. He put his mask on and grabbed his sword.

“Okay, here we go,” he said. “Mouse King’s Army rules!”

When Robby and the guys ran out on stage waving swords, the audience started cheering again and Robby’s stomach did a flip flop.

“Get the girls!” Jay yelled, even though he was definitely not supposed to.

Robby and the guys charged around and pretended to stab the girls with their swords. But they made sure to get out of the way when the girls did their leaps and hops and other ballet move type stuff.  

And then the butterflies went away and Robby got the same great feeling that he’d gotten when he’d hit that last ball at baseball tryouts. Adagio, plié, try and stab the Nutcracker. Jay and Tony were making all kinds of faces at him, so he stuck his tongue out at them and accidently licked the inside of the mask. Glue. Tony did the splits like a million times, and Jay did the owl thing with his head and almost got it all the way around. The crowd was going crazy.

And then it was time for The Lift. Vivian waved her sword at Robby, and all the girls backed away from her. Robby bent his knees like he was supposed to and lifted his hands over his head.

“You can do it, dude,” said Tony from behind him. “Lift that Nutcracker up to the ceiling!”

Vivian raced toward him and leapt into the air. It seemed like she was up there forever, sailing, sailing toward him, all stretched out like she was Superman or something. But when she came down, Robby was right there. He reached up and caught her around the waist with both hands. He felt so strong he could lift a hundred Nutcrackers! But then Vivian’s arm smacked against the Mouse King mask, and it spun half way around his head. Suddenly, Robby was in the dark. He couldn’t see a thing!  But he could hear the crowd cheering for him like crazy. What was he going to do? He couldn’t take his hands off Vivian to turn the mask, but he couldn’t see a thing, so he did the only thing he could do. He began to spin. Once, twice, three times, four times.

“Okay, okay,” he heard Vivian say. “That’s enough. You can put me down.”

Robby knelt down, and lowered Vivian onto the ground. As soon as he did, he reached up and turned the Mouse King mask back around so the eye holes were in front. Vivian was pretending like she was knocked out in front of him and beyond her, he could see the crowd. They were standing and cheering. For him! For The Lift!  He’d done The Lift! He’d really done it! 

Robby stood there for a moment and listened to the crowd cheer. His stomach was still churning, but it felt amazing. He felt like he could stand there forever while they cheered for him. He didn’t want it ever to end.  

And then Claire was standing in front of him. She was sparkling and up on her toes and she had a slipper in her hand. Just like Jeff Hicks at baseball tryouts, she threw the slipper right at him, and without thinking, he reached up and caught it with his left hand.

Oh yea, Robby said to himself. Oh….wait a second, I’m supposed to be knocked out. Robby dropped the slipper and he fell to the ground, sprawled out with his arms and legs out wide like a snow angel. And the crowd cheered more. Jay grabbed his arms and Tony grabbed his legs and they dragged him offstage.

“Dude,” said Jay, when Robby took off the mask. “We are definitely going to take you to Chuck E. Cheese orDisneylandor something! You rock, dude!”

When the show was over, Miss Robin brought everybody out on stage for a bow. Robby left the Mouse King mask back stage. When he walked out to take his bow, he looked out and saw his parents and his friends. They were cheering! Alex slapped Melvin a high five.

After they’d changed out of their costumes, all the ballet kids went out to meet their families in the lobby. Jay and Tony gave Robby high fives as they walked by.

“See you at baseball school, Robby,” Tony said.

“Mouse Army rules!” Jay added.

“Mouse Army rules!” laughed Robby.

Mom gave Claire a big bunch of flowers (with the stems wrapped in plastic of course, to protect against flower germs) and hugged her for like five minutes. Robby was amazed when Mom handed him some flowers too. Robby wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do with them, so he put them on a chair.

“Hey, where’s Dad?” Robby asked.

“He’s outside talking on his phone,” Claire said. “He said he’d be back in a…”

“Hey! You’re the Mouse King! You rock, dude!”

Robby turned around and saw a kid with big ears sticking out from under a baseball hat.

“You were awesome,” the kid said.

Before Robby could answer, Alex, Melvin and all the kindergarteners from lunch time baseball school came tumbling out of an elevator. Melvin was hobbling on crutches and there was a big, white cast on his leg. The kindergartners stampeded him and dog piled him onto the floor.

“That was amazing!” said Alex. “You are like the bravest guy I know. Up there in front of everybody and dancing with girls and everything. You looked like Batman in those tights and stuff.”

Robby tried to stand up, but there was a whole pile of kindergartners on top of him. “Did my sister tell you guys I was doing ballet?”

“No way,” said Alex. “Jay and Tony said if we came to the show we could see you lift Vivian Slepka over your head. How could we miss that?”

When he got untangled from the kindergartners and up off the ground, Robby saw Dad talking on his phone through the glass doors outside the building. After a few minutes, Dad walked back inside.

“Hey, Robby, I’ve got some great news. I just got off the phone with Coach Stengel. He’s the coach of your new baseball team.”            

            “Really?” Robby said. “Did I make it, Dad? Did I make A League? What team am I on, Dad? Did Alex and I get on the same team?”

            Dad was smiling so big it almost stretched around his whole face. “Well, I don’t know what team you’re on, Alex, but I do know that you, Robby, are going to be playing on the Angels. And yes, they are in the A League. And your coach told me he thinks you’re going to be a heck of a player.”

            “Woo hoo!!!!!” Robby yelled. “I made the A league! Woo hoo!”

            “Woo hoo!” yelled Dad.

            And then they all piled on top of him again. Even Claire

Chapter Twenty One: The Lift: Part Two

The next day at school it was like Robby was dreaming. From the moment he stepped out of Mom’s minivan, he was surrounded by kids wearing baseball gloves. Some of them were the same kids he’d seen at tryouts.

“We want to learn how to play baseball at lunch,” they said. “We want to eat celery and go to lunch time baseball school!”

Robby walked over to the lunch tables and watched as Alex ate three brussels sprouts, some baby carrots and an onion in front of a huge group of kids. When he was done, they cheered like mad. A bunch of them asked him to sign his name on their backpacks and arms and stuff.

“Man, we’re like the kings of the school,” Alex said.

“So?” Robby said. “Did your coach call you? Did you make A League?”

“He did and I did,” Alex smiled. “He called right before bed last night or I woulda called you. I’m on the Royals. And we’re going to kick the Angels’ butts.”

Robby laughed and punched Alex in the arm. “We’ll see who kicks whose butts!”

And then Melvin hobbled up with the big, white cast on his leg. He took a big, black magic marker out of his back pack and let all the kindergartners from baseball school sign their names on it.

Suddenly, Robby noticed Melvin’s hat. Instead of Ping, it said, Dodgers.
            “Hey, where’s yourPing hat?” Robby asked.

“At home. My dad got me this one yesterday. Someday, I’m going to play for the Dodgers and I’m going to hit more home runs than Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds.”

After lunch, they all headed out to Field Number Three, which was crazy with kids, not just kindergartners, but first graders, third graders, kids from every class tossing baseballs around.

Jay and Tony were stretching out over by home plate. Jay was doing the splits and the little kids were screaming and laughing like mad.

“Looks like we got some more students,” Tony said, when Robby and his friends walked up.

“There’s way too many kids for just me and Tony to teach,” said Jay. “I think it’s time you three dudes started helping out. I mean, you made the A’s leagues, you’re big grade school heroes and stuff, there’s not really much more you can learn from us.”

“Sure,” Robby said. “We’ll help out.”

“Uh oh,” said Melvin. “Here comes Jeff.”

“Who cares?” Robby said. “We won the bet. He won’t mess with us any more.”

Jeff Hicks and the Sports Guys were walking straight toward them. When they got there, Jeff walked right up to Robby and crossed his arms in front of his chest.

“Time to pay off on that bet,” Jeff said.

“I know,” Robby smiled. Could this day get any better?

“Why are you smiling, dork boy?” Jeff said. “There’s no way you made A League. There’s more chance of me farting an elephant out of my butt than there is of you making A league.”

A couple of the kindergartners giggled, but they stopped when Jeff glared at them. “What’s so funny?” he said.

“What’s so funny is that those kindergarteners are getting ready to see an elephant come out of your butt,” said Robby. “Because I made A League. I’m on the Angels.”

“You’re not on the Angels,” said Jeff.

“I am so,” said Robby.

“No, you’re not,” said Jeff, taking a big step toward Robby and pointing his finger.

“You’re not on the Angels. And you know how I know? Because I’m on the Angels. The Coach called me yesterday.”

“Well, the Coach called Robby yesterday too,” said Alex. “I was there.”

“We were all there,” one of the kindergartners said.

“Oh, yea?” said Jeff, whose face didn’t’ look quite so mean, quite so I’m-gonna-pound-you any more. “If the coach called you, what’s his name?”

“Coach Stengel, of course,” Robby said. “And our first practice is tomorrow at Indian Springs Park.”

Jeff looked like a kid who didn’t have any bones any more. Like he was just skin and eyeballs and Jell-O in a third grade bully skin. His legs wobbled and his eyes crossed and if steam could come out of a kid’s ears, it would have been coming out of his. But it only lasted for a second. After that second his bones and the I’m-gonna-pound-you look came back.

“What about you, Booger Eater?” Jeff said to Alex. “If you made A League I’ll eat my glove.”

“Well, get started then, because I made A League too,” Alex laughed. “I’m on the Royals and we’re going to kick the Angels’ butts around the block and down the street.”

Alex slapped Robby a high five. The kindergartners began to chant.

“Eat the glove! Eat the glove!”

But then Jeff pointed at Melvin and said. “Well, that kid didn’t make A League, did he? He can’t even walk.”

“My leg’s broken,” said Melvin. “So I can’t play this year. A League or B League. But I would have made A League. I’d have made it for sure.”

“Well that settles it,” said Jeff. “The bet was that all three of you dorks would make A League and if you didn’t I get to pound you and you won’t tell. The Coin Collector kid didn’t make A League, so let’s get pounding.”

“Wait a second,” Robby said. But it was too late. Jeff jumped forward, threw his arm around Robby’s neck and put him in a headlock. He locked his hands together under Robby’s chin and started to squeeze.

Robby couldn’t believe it. He’d made A League. He’d done it. And Alex had too. And it didn’t matter. Nothing had changed. Here he was in a head lock, just like always, and Jeff Hicks was getting ready to pound him, just like always. He could hear the other Sports Guys laughing. He thought he could hear a kindergartner starting to cry.

“Sorry, Robby, it was a good try,” said Jeff. “But like I always say, dorks, dorks, they can’t play sports.”

Jeff squeezed tighter and his arms rubbed against Robby’s neck, just like they always did, and Robby could feel his face getting red just like it always did. Robby grabbed Jeff’s arm with both hands just like he always did and….and pulled Jeff’s hands apart!  Robby pulled and Jeff’s hands came apart. Before Jeff could do anything, Robby twisted Jeff’s arm behind his back.

“Hey, what the heck?” Jeff said. “What the heck!”

Then, quick as a flash, Robby shifted his grip, grabbed Jeff around the waist with both hands, bent his knees and lifted Jeff up over his head!

“Ahhh. Put me down!” screamed Jeff. “Put me down!”

But Robby did not put Jeff down. Instead, he began to spin. Once, twice, three times, he spun Jeff Hicks around over his head. His arms were sore, his legs were tired, but he kept spinning, four times, five times, six times. The playground grass blurred green. The clouds were spinning puffs of white surrounded by light blue sky.

“Whoa!” yelled Tony.

“Super whoa!” yelled Jay.

“Put me down!” yelled Jeff.

Robby spun Jeff around until he started to get dizzy and his legs started to shake. It took him a turn and a half to slow down enough to stop, but once he did, he looked up at Jeff.

“I’m going to put you down now,” Robby said. “But if you or the Sports Guys mess we me or any of my friends, I’m going to pick you up again, and I’m not just going to spin you around next time. Got it?”

“I got it! I got it!” Jeff said. “Put me down.”

“We won that bet fair and square,” Robby said to Jeff. Robby knelt down and lowered Jeff onto the ground. Jeff scrambled up to his feet and stumbled over to the Sports Guys. They all started grumbling. Robby thought maybe they were going to try something, but they didn’t. They just shook their heads and walked away towards the lunch tables.

“Did you see that? said Alex to the other kids. “Veggies really do make you strong. King Kong strong.”

“That was my favorite thing that has happened all year,” Jay said, “That kind of thing hardly ever happens, especially at school, and we were all were right here to see it.”

“Way to go, dude,” said Tony. “You are definitely my favorite third grade kid.”

All the kindergartner kids gathered around Robby and patted him on the back and tried to shake his hand and stuff.

Robby’s arms were on fire. Red hot fire. His legs felt like they were made out of pancake mix. But he was about as happy as he’d ever been. He’d made the A League. He’d been the Mouse King and finally did The Lift. And he’d stood up to Jeff Hicks. For once, things had turned out pretty darn good.

Robby looked off to where Jeff Hicks and his friends were walking back to the lunch tables.

“Hey Jeff,” Robby said.  

Jeff stopped walking and looked back over his shoulder.

“See you at practice!” said Robby.

The End

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