It began with a sneeze. Malcolm didn’t mean to sneeze, but when you’re a small rat stuffed into a fifth-grader’s jeans pocket, these things happen. Especially if the pocket is, for some unknown reason, filled with pencil shavings.
Skylar, the owner of the pocket, jiggled at the sneeze, and Malcolm scrambled to stay upright. Crumb! This was no good. Back in Room 11, when Skylar had held out his hand, Malcolm had jumped at the chance to go with him to the class’s rehearsal of the fifth grade program.1 After all, Malcolm had never been to McKenna Elementary School’s auditorium before, and it was his duty—as a member of the school’s secret society of classroom pets, Midnight Academy—to seize these opportunities when they presented themselves. Besides, Skylar carried Cheezy Bits Snack Crackers in his pocket. It is hard for anyone to think around Cheezy Bits Snack Crackers.
But so far this afternoon, all Malcolm had seen was the inside of Skylar’s pocket. The other one. The one filled with pencil shavings. Malcolm was beginning to think Amelia had been right to shake her head at Skylar’s invitation.
Nevertheless, he was here, so he might as well use his eyes, ears, nose, and whiskers to report something back to the Midnight Academy. He fought his way up to the edge of the pocket and stuck his nose out. Ah—already this was better: fresh air.
He scanned the view. Skylar and the rest of the fifth-graders (or “nutters,” as the Midnight Academy liked to call kids; “lankies” were grownups) swayed to the refrain of “Rocky Top.” Kiera, decked out in pink sequins, warbled in the spotlight with a much-coveted solo.
Mrs. Findlay paused her piano playing, and the song creaked to a halt. “Kiera, this is not American Idol. Please, just sing. No need to stalk about the stage.” The rest of the students—including the two classes waiting in the audience—twittered. Mrs. Findlay wasn’t done, though. She snapped her fingers at the back row on the risers. “You—singers in the back. You’ve got to stand still. The audience can see every little move.” She turned and shaded her eyes. “Isn’t that right, Mr. Binney?”
You sat up from your seat in the front row, Mr. Binney, and frowned. “Yes. What’s going on back there? Skylar, do you need to use the restroom?”
Skylar wiggled his jeans around his hips, knocking Malcolm back down into the pencil shavings. “Um, what?”
The classes in the audience snickered again.
Tianna, Kiera’s best friend, who happened to be standing next to Skylar on the stage, elbowed him. “Stand still!” she muttered under her breath. “You’re making us look bad.”
Jovahn leaned over from the other side of Skylar. “It’s only the fifth grade program, Tianna. Not American Idol, remember? And it’s a rehearsal.”
“It’s Malcolm,” Skylar said, pushing Malcolm down inside his pocket again. “He keeps poking his head out.”
At the sound of Malcolm’s name, another fifth-grader twisted around from the row in front of Skylar, her long black hair swinging back. “Is he okay? I told you not to bring him!” Amelia Vang whispered.
Jovahn held out his hand. “Dude, here. Give him to me.”
Yes, this was a good idea. Jovahn Grayson probably also had strange things in his pockets, but he was definitely more predictable than Skylar. Malcolm crept out, climbing up to Skylar’s shoulder. He was poised to make the leap to Jovahn, when, from high up above—a rustle. Then a low thunk. Malcolm’s ears pricked up, and he tilted his head. In the rafters, a shadow shifted. A small shower of dust sprinkled down, and Malcolm’s nose twitched. Dirt?
And then, with another thunk, the lights winked out, and the auditorium was plunged into darkness.
The nutters—onstage and otherwise—shrieked and hooted. In the dark, someone knocked into Skylar, and Malcolm somersaulted off his shoulder. He landed, hunched, on the risers as they rumbled with the feet of thirty panicked fifth-graders. Shoelaces whizzed by Malcolm’s whiskers, and he latched on. Better to be on than under this foot.
“FREEZE!” Your voice boomed through the darkness, Mr. Binney, and the foot under Malcolm came to a standstill. Malcolm peered in your direction and saw a flashlight beam bobbing in the audience. “Nobody move. The lights will come on again. They always do. It’s not like this hasn’t happened lately—so SETTLE DOWN.”
And like you commanded it, the power clicked back on.
“See? There.” Mrs. Findlay laughed nervously from the piano. “That won’t happen during our program tonight, right, Mark?” she asked you. She turned to the class, clapping her hands for attention. “Now—again. From the top.”
“Actually, Mrs. Findlay”—you were leaping up the stage steps two at a time—“I think that’s enough for today. The bell’s about to ring.” You whispered to her, “Tonight will be better. I promise.”
As the class thundered off the risers, Amelia looked around. “Where’s Malcolm?” she called to Skylar. He patted his pockets, panic blooming on his face.
“Relax—I got him,” Jovahn said, hopping on one foot so he could untangle Malcolm from his shoelaces on the other.
“Oh, good. I was afraid—”
A hand clamped down on Jovahn’s shoulder. More specifically, your hand, Mr. Binney.
“That’s not a certain rat from our classroom, is it, Jovahn?”
“Uh—well . . . ”
Just then, Amelia bumped her way over. To anyone else, she looked to be on her way out the door, but in one smooth motion, she grabbed Malcolm, adjusted the hood on her sweatshirt, and tucked him safely there.
Jovahn grinned. He held out his empty hands. “Ah—no, in fact!”
You nodded. “I see.” Then you raised your voice to your best stage level. “Well, I sure hope he gets back to his cage and doesn’t find his way out for a long, LONG time.”
Amelia flinched but kept moving.
Whew. For the first time since Skylar had scooped him out of the cage to go to the auditorium, Malcolm took a deep breath and relaxed. It wasn’t simply that he was safe in Amelia’s hood. It was more than that. It was Amelia. It might partly be the therapeutic qualities of her strawberry shampoo, but mostly Malcolm Knew—knew with a capital K—that if there was anywhere in the world that he belonged, it was with Amelia. He’d do anything for her, and she would do the same for him.
As the rest of the class bottlenecked at the side...