Josie Has a Secret, Chapter One

CHAPTER ONE

As the undisputed best artist in the fifth grade I can draw just about anything worth drawing: zombies, robots, monsters, giant tentacled creatures from beyond space, you name it. The only thing I can't draw is regular people, probably because they're so unbelievably boring. You'd think this wouldn't impede my artistic progress, but it turns out to be a major problem, because without good people-drawing skills there was just no way I was ever going to properly finish my Masterpiece, The Horrible, Nasty Children of Forest Hill Being Tortured For All Eternity in the Surprisingly Uncomfortable Flames of Perdition.

The best part of the title, obviously, is the word "Perdition," which Ms. Dopplemeyer taught us in Religion. She told us "Perdition" is the place bad people go after they die. According to the dictionary perdition also means "utter destruction." I've always felt that words with more than one meaning give painting titles a little extra pizzazz. (See my third-grade Masterpiece, Only Ewe Can Make a Difference, which shows a skyscraper-sized mutant Ewe fighting off the entire United States Marine Corpse, which is pronounced "corpse" because in my painting they're all zombies.)

I based my fifth-grade Masterpiece partly on "The Garden of Earthly Delights," a famous painting by a guy named Hieronymus Bosch, who I'm guessing also wasn't too popular in elementary school. A tiny little section of the painting shows him and his friends having a picnic beside a pretty lake, and the rest of the painting shows people he doesn't like being tortured by demons. This is about a gazillion times better than the scariest movies, comic books, and video games put together, and is a primary example of why Art History is my favorite subject.

Surprisingly, Ms. Dopplemeyer didn't seem too happy about my Masterpiece. She said it showed a "negative attitude," and originally tried to talk me into doing a unicorn painting like every other girl in class. (Don't get me started on the whole reason all girls seem to be obsessed with unicorns. I asked Dad about this once, and he said, "You'll understand when you're older." He seems to think this magic phrase will make me drop the subject, even though the previous thousand times he's used it have without exception produced the opposite result. This inability to learn from past experience is peculiar characteristic shared by most adults I interact with, which I'll discuss in more detail later.)

Anyway, I pointed out that Ms. Dopplemeyer herself had said that if we commit the sin of lying, we'll be punished for all eternity in rivers of boiling lava. Then I indicated the part of my Masterpiece which shows Bobby Droober drowning in a river of boiling lava. I drew him as a zombie, but you can tell it's Bobby Droober because he's wearing that black leather jacket he thinks is so cool. Obviously the Boiling Lava of Perdition has caused the black leather jacket to catch fire, which is further tormenting the Bobby-Droober-Zombie and I think adds a nice element of realism to the painting. I reminded Ms. Dopplemeyer that earlier in the year the real Bobby Droober had told everyone that his father was a secret agent, but it turned out that he was really just an insurance salesman, so according to Ms. Dopplemeyer this meant Bobby Droober was going to boil in rivers of lava for all eternity.

This made Ms. Dopplemeyer do "The Thing," which is to roll her eyes and emit a low, moaning noise, like when Godzilla or someone dies at the end of a particularly good Japanese giant-monster movie. Sometimes she even mumbles something about "not being paid enough for this," or "early retirement," which is especially rewarding. Getting Ms. Dopplemeyer to do "The Thing" has become one of my primary goals in life, right after completing my Masterpiece and winning the statewide Fifth Grade Art Competition. Once I got Ms. Dopplemeyer to do The Thing four times in a single day, which I would have ran home and recorded in bright red ink my diary, if I had one, like every other girls in my class. But for me it was enough just knowing that I could make Ms. Dopplemeyer do The Thing and still be her favorite pupil. Dad calls this a love/hate relationship, which I think must be the only relationship worth having. Because if you make someone crazy but they love you anyway, I think that counts more than if they love you for always doing exactly what they want.

It's a good thing that Ms. Dopplemeyer and I are such good friends, because pretty much everyone else in school hates my guts. This is partially because I refuse to waste time playing kickball and hopscotch at recess when I could be working on sketches for my Masterpiece, and partially because I'm about a gazillion times smarter than everybody else. Although a few of them, particularly Bobby Droober's twin sister Amanda, say they hate me because I'm fat. In my Masterpiece there's a werewolf with the same stupid blond ponytails as Amanda Droober being eaten alive by an enormous purple chimera. I'm thinking of adding a little voice balloon, like in a comic book, where the Amanda-Werewolf is yelling, "Oh, no! Not only am I being devoured by a chimera, but I don't even know the word chimera, because I spent vocabulary class gossiping instead of paying attention!"

My Dad says that if I want to make friends I should stop using what he calls "showoff words," which as far as I can tell is a sneaky way to say "pretend to be dumb." This never sounded like such a great deal to me, especially if the big payoff was being allowed to waste recess periods playing hopscotch and kickball.

I always figured I was better off concentrating on my Masterpiece, and someday I'd meet at least one other kid who had a masterpiece of their own, and the two of us could be friends without either one of us having to pretend to be something they're not.

That kid was Josie Taylor.

***

I knew that Josie Taylor was something special right away, for three main reasons: One, she was the exact model I needed for Curmudgerella, Queen of the Underworld, who torments thieving little sketch-stealing bullies like Todd Raskin in the Harrowing Flames of Righteous Penitence. Josie had just the sort of tall, lanky frame and broad shoulders that would give her good leverage in picking up a sneaky sixth-grader by his arms and legs and tossing him high enough to really take advantage of the Stalagmites of Fiery Contrition.

Two, she wore the exact same outfit every day: a white T-shirt, work boots, and scruffy overalls with a worn-out daisy patch covering one knee. Beside the obvious advantage of causing her to seem more like a comic-book character, this infuriated most of the other kids. Because the whole reason they wore different brightly-colored outfits to school every day was to get noticed, and Josie became the most noticeable kid in school in only a week, just by wearing the same scruffy overalls.

Three, she made Ms. Dopplemeyer do The Thing within the first ten minutes of her very first day of school.

It all started during Math Period. Ms. Dopplemeyer had written several long division problems on the blackboard, and the class was expected to work on them for the remainder of the period. Josie glanced up at each problem, did a quick little fidgety thing with her hands, and scribbled down the answer. She worked through the entire set of problems in about two minutes, all without doing any obvious work. Then she produced a huge, leather-bound book out of her backpack and started reading.

"Is there a problem, Ms. Taylor?" Ms. Dopplemeyer always called us by our last names.

"Sort of." Josie answered without looking up. "How could Houdini possibly have died just from being punched in the stomach? He did his iron-stomach thing all the time!"

Josie lowered the book and hushed her voice, as though she were realizing something very important for the first time. "Unless... I may have a theory."

Ms. Dopplemeyer stomped over to Josie's desk, where she snatched up Josie's math paper. She glared at it in surprise, then slammed it down. "Give it to me," she said furiously.

"Okay," said Josie. "My theory is that he faked his own death."

"I meant give me the calculator." Ms. Dopplemeyer said.

"I'm sorry, I don't have one," Josie said innocently. After a minute, while Ms. Dopplemeyer was figuring out what to say next, Josie leaned over and pointed past her shoulder. "But isn't that one there on your desk?"

The class erupted with laughter.

"I had hoped you would be more cooperative, Ms. Taylor," Ms. Dopplemeyer said. We all knew that Ms. Dopplemeyer only used the word "cooperative" when she was getting mad. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you for the book you seem to think is more important than performing long division. You'll get it back at the end of the year."

Josie looked pretty upset at this idea. "Can't I just stay in detention until Perdition, or something? I really, really need this book."

I thought Ms. Dopplemeyer would perk up when she discovered that Josie already knew the word "perdition," which was pretty much Ms. Dopplemeyer's favorite word. But, amazingly, she looked even angrier. "You should have thought of that before you behaved so uncooperatively." She took the book from Josie's hands, brought it back to her desk, and threw it in her famous desk drawer with the combination-lock.

Josie looked like she was on the verge of tears. "Are you accusing me of cheating?" She asked, "Because if you are, just ask me another problem, and I'll prove I'm not cheating."

Ms. Dopplemeyer pulled her head back an inch or two, as though she had discovered a tail hanging out of the end of her sandwich. "The issue, Ms. Taylor, is not whether you cheated or not," she said sternly. Of course, we all knew that was exactly the issue. Another curious characteristic of adults in my neighborhood is that they'd rather tell an obvious lie than lose an argument to a kid. "The issue is behaving in an uncooperative..."

"What's 89 divided by 16?" Bobby Droober shouted out suddenly.

"5," Josie answered, moving her fingers as if she was typing on an invisible typewriter instead of her desk, "5 point 5625."

"You'll get your book back at the end of the year." Ms. Dopplemeyer said in a tone of voice which meant the subject was closed. Then she spun the combination dial on her desk safe. Then she did The Thing.

***

"Hey, Kid," said an especially dark and foreboding shadow which fell over me during recess. I looked up from my sketchbook to discover that the shadow belonged to Todd Raskin, overly-large six-grade and general playground menace. "Amanda Droober says you've been drawing stupid pictures of me," he said, straining his little prepubescent voice to try as hard as possible to sound like Clint Eastwood.

This was conclusive evidence that Amanda Droober was not only a bossy little know-it-all, but a snitch, which presented complicated artistic problems. Namely, should she remain in The Realm of Chimeras Who Bite the Legs Off Stuck-Up Skinny Kids, or move to The Pit Of Creepy-Crawly Spiders and Other Yucky Things Who Torment Snitches? Eventually I decided that she should stay in the Realm of the Chimeras, but that a few of the Spiders could visit.

Fortunately, I had already anticipated the possibility of Todd finding out about my painting, and had prepared a cunning response. "I only draw ugly zombies," I told him innocently. "You don't really think you look like an ugly zombie, do you?"

Unfortunately, this didn't work as well as I'd planned. Todd grabbed the sketchbook out of my hands, put one enormous hand on my face, and pushed me over. Then he kicked so much dirt in my eyes I could barely see Amanda Droober and all her friends, pointing at me and laughing.

All and all, it was not a proud moment for the arts.

***

I cried for maybe fifteen minutes, and was just noticing that tears mixed with dirt made the exact color I needed for The Fecal River of Perpetually-Drowning Bullies when Josie Taylor sat down next to me and shook me by the shoulders.

"Hey, are you Darla Whipp?"

"Who wants to know?" I asked. Or actually I sort of blubbered, so that it was probably hard to tell what my exact words were, but Josie got the general idea. I had intended to ask where she learned the word "perdition," but it seemed unlikely I'd be able to convey such a complicated question. So instead I waved my hands.

"Are you really the kid who painted that mural in the front hallway?" Obviously Josie was referring to the Masterpiece I had done during summer detention, called Reflections On Forest Hill Elementary School. It looked just like a regular wall-sized picture of Forest Hill Elementary, but every kid in school knew that if you held a mirror up to a certain part of the painting and squinted your eyes just right, it spelled out, "THIS PLACE IS UNBELIEVABLY BORING." Also, if you wore psychedelic glasses with red-tinted lenses you could make out vampires that looked just like the teachers, chasing after the students with blood-thirsty grins on their faces. Without the psychedelic glasses, the part with the vampires just looked like regular bushes. I had always figured no one else would ever notice the part about the vampires.

"I especially like the Vampire Bushes," Josie said, capitalizing the name with her voice. She pulled a pair of psychedelic glasses with red-tinted lenses halfway out of the pocket of her overalls, winked, and slid them back in her pocket.

I was so surprised I stopped crying and wiped my eyes on my sleeves.

"You don't think they're not subtle enough?" I asked.

Josie threw one arm over my shoulder. "Not subtle enough! Why, if anything, they're too subtle! For instance, that one drawing of Principal Laquit biting the neck of Bobby Droober - it is Bobby Droober...?"

I nodded.

"You can barely see the blood!" Josie said mournfully. "A kid like Bobby Droober, you gotta figure he's a big bleeder."

I'd always figured Bobby Droober was a big bleeder, too, but - and I told Josie this - I was afraid the painting would lack realism if I made the blood too obvious.

"That's just the thing about vampire paintings," Josie told me, "To do a really good vampire painting, a truly realistic vampire painting, you've gotta use a lot of blood. Otherwise, what have you got?"

I shook my head.

"Otherwise, you've got a zombie painting. A painting about a zombie who just happens to bite necks."

This was such an obvious, and yet such an important point, that neither of us spoke for a few minutes. We just looked up at the clouds and let the awesome realization sink in. A vampire without blood is just a zombie who bites necks. It was so simple, yet so insightful, I knew I was in the presence of genius.

"The thing is," Josie said after a while, "I'm in the market for a painting myself. A very special painting. And I wondered if you could help me out."

"Why do you need it?" I asked, sitting up and unsuccessfully trying to brush the dirt off my shirt.

"Well, I can't tell you that." Josie frowned. "It's all part of my master plan, which is a secret."

"If you won't even tell me your big plan, why should I do a painting for you?" I asked.

"But I can't tell you the plan!" Josie threw her hands up in frustration. "Telling you the plan would mess up the plan!"

I shrugged and went back to wiping dirt off myself.

"Okay, okay - help me out a little with the plan, and when the time is right, I'll tell you everything." Josie smiled winningly, pulling me to my feet.

"Does this painting involve people?" I asked her. "Because if it doesn't have tentacles or fangs, I can't draw it."

"I can fix that."

I gave Josie a look. "Oh really. I'll have you know that I've had over a dozen art teachers, and not a single one of them..."

"No, really!" Josie said. "How do you think I did those math problems so fast? I'm a grade-A certified magician's apprentice." She started waving her fingers at me. "Presto, chango, alakazam!"

"Anyway," I told her, "I'm out of the painting business, at least until Todd Raskin lets me have my sketchbook back."

"That fishface over there?" Josie pointed at the vaguely six-grader-shaped tank who was trampling kids half his size on the basketball court. I nodded "yes," and she made a "no big deal" noise, which in case you're not aware sounds like you're snorting boogers.

"And if I get your sketchbook back, you'll do a painting for me?" Josie asked again. Before I even had time to agree she was on her feet and waltzing towards the basketball court.

"Hey, Raskin," she said as though she weren't half Todd's size and guaranteed to get the pounding of her life, "I hear you're a fishface."

How did Josie solve the division problems so fast? See the "Finger Math" section on the page with all the answers.
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