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Chapter 1. Mitchell’s Skateboard

Mitchell Huff’s day began like any other summer day—with a squabble with his twin sister Amy. At breakfast Amy grabbed a cereal box top and said, “I’m going to send away for the plastic harmonica that looks like an ear of corn.”

“Oh, no you don’t!” said Mitchell. “It’s my turn to get the box top.”

“It is not!” said Amy. “You got the last one.

“But it wasn’t a good box top,” said Mitchell. “How come you get all the good box tops?”

“I don’t,” said Amy. “You sent away for the pedometer.”

“Yes, but it broke the first time I used it,” said Mitchell.

“That wasn’t my fault,” said Amy.

“It’s no fair,” said Mitchell. “You always grab the good box tops, and then don’t send away for things.”

“Be quiet, both of you,” said Mrs. Huff, “or I shall serve hot oatmeal every morning, three hundred sixty-five days of the year, and you won’t have any box tops to send away.”

Mr. Huff, who had to catch a bus to the city, glanced at his watch and said, “That ought to settle this morning’s squabble.”

“Okay, Mom. You win,” Mitchell said amiably.

“Oatmeal, ick,” said Amy.

After breakfast Mitchell went out to the patio to work on the skateboard he was building out of an old board and a roller skate while Amy went to her room and began to play her cello. That’s funny, thought Mitchell, sawing the board in two, nobody told her to practice. There was something familiar about the catchy tune his sister was playing, and Mitchell grinned when he recognized that it was not her lesson, but the music from a television commercial. That Amy!

In a few minutes the cello was silent, but Amy’s tune ran through Mitchell’s head half the morning. He was pounding the last nail around the half of the skate fastened to the front of the board when Amy came out the back door.

“I thought I heard Marla come through the gate,” Amy said. She picked a dandelion that had gone to seed in a flower bed and held it up to examine it more closely.

Mitchell gave the nail a final bang with the hammer and sat back on his heels, waiting for Amy to say something about his skateboard, but Amy was looking at the ball of dandelion fluff as if she found it a thing of magic and, while Mitchell watched, she closed her eyes to make a wish.

Mitchell looked at his sister standing there in her play clothes with her knees bruised, her brown hair falling to her shoulders, and her summer freckles bright in the September sunshine. Her lips were puckered beside the dandelion’s white head as if they had been drawn up by a string. He saw her chest rise as she drew a deep breath and held it for a moment.

Suddenly the temptation was too great for Mitchell. Gathering his breath he rose and moved swiftly and silently across the concrete on his rubber soles.

Whoof! Mitchell blew as hard as he could and sent every one of Amy’s dandelion seeds dancing off into the sunshine.

Amy’s eyes flew open, and for a moment she stared at the empty stem in her hand. Then with a yell of rage she flung it onto the patio. “Mitchell Huff!” she shrieked. “You spoiled my wish! I’ll get you for this!” There was nothing dreamy about Amy as she began to chase Mitchell. Around and around the patio they went, sneakers pounding up on the bench and down on the concrete again, Mitchell ducking and sidestepping Amy and always managing to stay just out of her grasp.

“You’re despicable!” cried Amy, who already read on the fifth-grade level or even higher, although she was about to enter the fourth grade. Mitchell felt his sister’s fingers on his shirt and jerked away. Around and around they went, and as they grew short of breath they both began to laugh.

Mrs. Huff opened the back door and stepped into the patio with ajar of peanut butter and a knife in her hand. “You two,” she said. “Stop it.”

The chase slowed and came to a halt. “He blew—the fluff off—my dandelion—when I was about to—make a wish,” said Amy, giggling and gasping and appealing for justice.

“I couldn’t—help it,” panted Mitchell. “She was just—standing there—all puckered up with her eyes closed and suddenly something came over me—”

“Something comes over you altogether too often.” Mrs. Huff spread a gob of peanut butter on a pinecone tied to the branch of a crab-apple tree outside the dining-room window. “I saw the first chickadees of the season this morning, and I thought if I started putting peanut butter out again we might persuade them to stay with us for the winter. Amy, pick another dandelion, and I’ll stand guard while you make your wish.”

“It won’t be the same,” said Amy, but she found a second dandelion.

“Mitch, if you blow the fluff off Amy’s dandelion this time, I’ll spread you with peanut butter and leave you for the chickadees,” said Mrs. Huff, as she smeared peanut butter between the scales of the pinecone. Since Amy had made a bird feeder out of the pinecone for a Brownie project in the third grade, Mrs. Huff had become interested in bird-watching. “Mom’s feathered friends” her children called the juncoes, sparrows, and chickadees that grew fat on her peanut butter.

“I’ll try to control myself,” said Mitchell, when his mother had finished with the pine-cone. “It will be a struggle, but I’ll try.” He noticed that this time Amy did not shut her eyes; she remained vigilant until with one breath she had sent all the dandelion seeds flying out across the patio. “What did you wish?” he asked.

“As if I would tell you,” said Amy.

Mrs. Huff screwed the lid back onto the peanut-butter jar. “I know what I wish. I wish you two would stop bickering. I’ll be glad when school starts.”

“Mom! You said abad word,” said Mitchell. “It begins with s.” He was about to try standing on his skateboard when Marla Brodsky came through the patio gate.

“Hi, Amy. Hello, Mrs. Huff.” Marla stopped when she saw what Mitchell had been working on. “How come you built a skateboard when you already have a skateboard?” she asked.

“I just wanted to, is all,” answered Mitchell.

“I know,” said Marla. “I like to make things, too.”

Mitchell already knew she did. Marla and Amy were always making things when they were not pretending something. He stepped carefully onto his skateboard and hoped it would bear his weight. Bending nails around the skate halves had not been easy. Nothing cracked and nothing fell off. He bounced to test the strength of his skateboard, and still it held. It was sturdy enough to hold a sixty-seven-pound boy.

“It looks like a fine job to me,” said Mrs. Huff. Mitchell felt this comment was generous of his mother, who thought all skateboards were dangerous.

“Do you suppose it will really work?” Amy asked.

Mitchell stepped off his board and picked it up. “I think I’ll go road test it. So long, Mom.”

“You mean sidewalk test it,” answered his mother. “You stay out of the street with that thing.”

“Sure, Mom.” Mitchell knew his mother was nervous, because all the streets in their neighborhood were hilly and winding and only a few had sidewalks.

“And please don’t break your neck,” said Mrs. Huff, “and don’t run down any little old ladies.”

“You can count on me, Mom.”

Mitchell carried his homemade skateboard through the patio gate, down the steep driveway to a gently sloping street with a sidewalk. Mitchell felt good. It was a bright, clear day. Down below he could see the red tile roofs of the University, and across the bay he could see San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. He had built himself a skateboard that was probably going to work, and in a few days he and Amy would go into the fourth grade. Why shouldn’t he feel good? He had everything to feel good about. He set his skateboard on the sidewalk, stepped onto it, and began to coast slowly down the sloping concrete.

“Yea!” Mitchell cheered out loud. The skateboard he had built himself really did work! Of course, it did not steer easily like the skateboard he had saved his allowance for, but it worked and that was the important thing. Not often did something that Mitchell had built really work. His sister Amy was different. She was always making something that worked—a crocheted pot holder or a bird feeder out of a pinecone— but Mitchell doubted if even she could build a working skateboard.

The sidewalk curved, and although Mitchell tried steering by shifting his weight, the skateboard headed for the street. He jumped off and caught the board before it coasted off the curb. Around the curve he set it on the sidewalk once more, and feeling pleased with himself, his skateboard, and the sunny day, he coasted on down the sidewalk past a small boy who was sitting out in front of his house on his tricycle.

“Hi there, Johnny,” said Mitchell, as he coasted by.

“Why don’t you thut up?” said Johnny.

“Okay, Johnny.” Mitchell knew Johnny was wishing he was old enough to have a skateboard, and Mitchell wished Johnny were too. His neighborhood was full of little boys and teenage boys, girls of all ages, but no nine-year-old boys. Next Mitchell had to stop for a lady who was backing out of her driveway. “Did you build that yourself?” she asked.

“Yes, I did,” said Mitchell modestly.

“Well, you did a fine job,” said the lady, as she backed out into the street, “but be careful you don’t break your neck.”

Mitchell coasted to the end of the slope in the sidewalk, and on his way he met the mailman, a milkman, and a lady who was setting a sprinkler on her lawn. They all told him to be careful not to break his neck, but this attitude did not surprise Mitchell. All grown-ups expected all boys on skateboards to break their necks. When he came to the level part of the sidewalk, he picked up his skateboard, walked back up the slope, and started all over again.

“Hi there, Johnny,” he said, coasting toward the little boy on the tricycle once more.

Johnny took two fingers out of his mouth. “You thut up,” he said.

Mitchell grinned and coasted along, holding his arms out for balance. He felt good to be so much older than Johnny on his tricycle, to be old enough to ride on a skateboard he had built himself. Mitchell felt so good he decided he might even use his other skate to build a skateboard for his sister.

Amy had really been pretty good lately, and she hadn’t tattled when he helped himself to more than his share of the cookies she had baked. Of course, Amy had been mad a little while ago, but he couldn’t say he blamed her. He knew he shouldn’t tease his sister so much, but he couldn’t seem to help himself. He would think he wasn’t going to tease her, and then he would see her doing something like making a wish on that dandelion and something just seemed to come over him. . . .

The funny part was, although he wouldn’t want Amy to know, Mitchell liked being known as one of the Huff twins. “Mitchell Huff?” people would say the first time they met him. “You must be one of the Huff twins,” as if being a twin was something special. And Mitchell felt that being a twin was something special. Special but sometimes difficult.

The sound of skateboards approaching behind him interrupted Mitchell’s thoughts. Boys! Someone to play with! He jumped off his own board beside the bus-stop sign, turned, and saw two boys, both of whom he recognized, coasting toward him in the street. The older boy, Dwight Hill, usually called Dwight Pill, was going to start junior high school and had been famous at Bay View School, when he was in the sixth grade, because he was the first person to bring a battery-powered eraser to school. Mitchell was not surprised to see him riding the longest, most expensive skateboard manufactured.

The second boy, Alan Hibbler, was riding a medium-priced skateboard. Alan was a good-looking boy who was about to enter the fifth grade and who was the son of a famous scientist at the University. The whole school knew about Alan’s father, Judson Hibbler, who was so famous that his picture had been in Life magazine.

The two boys coasted to a stop at the curb beside Mitchell. “Hi there, kid,” said Alan.

“Hi.” Mitchell did not much care to be called kid by a boy who was only one grade ahead of him in school.

“Look at his little skateboard,” scoffed Dwight, who was noted not only for his battery-powered eraser, but for the number of times he had been sent to the principal’s office.

“Did you build it all by yourself?” Alan wanted to know. Mitchell could see he was trying to act big because he was with a junior-high-school boy.

“I have a boughten one at home,” said Mitchell, indignant at the way he was being treated. “I just wanted to see if I could make one that would work.”

“I bet,” said Alan.

Mitchell’s stomach suddenly tightened as if it were clenched into a fist. “Well, I do have a real one at home,” he said defiantly.

No one spoke for a moment. Dwight pulled a cigarette out of his shirt pocket, tapped it on his wrist, and stuck one end into his mouth.

Mitchell watched, fascinated. “You’re not old enough to smoke,” he said.

“Who says so?” Dwight squinted as he struck a match and held it to his cigarette.

“Yes, who says so?” echoed Alan.

Mitchell did not answer. If Dwight was stupid enough to smoke, that was his business. Mitchell only wished he would go someplace else to do it and stop spoiling his fun.

Dwight flicked out the match and took a deep puff on the cigarette. Mitchell could not help watching while Dwight’s face grew red, his eyes watered, he spluttered, and was finally forced to give in to an embarrassing fit of coughing.

Mitchell managed not to laugh out loud, but he could not keep the corners of his mouth from quirking. Old Dwight wasn’t as big as he thought he was. One puff and he was practically choking to death. Another puff would probably make him sick, but after all that gasping and coughing he wouldn’t dare try a second puff.

“What’s so funny?” demanded Alan, embarrassed and angry because the boy he had been imitating looked ridiculous.

“Old Dwight,” said Mitchell. “That’s what’s funny.”

Dwight struggled for breath, which seemed to make Alan madder. Before Mitchell realized what the other boy was doing, Alan had picked up the homemade skateboard and was pounding it with all his strength against the bus-stop sign. There was a sound of splintering wood and another fit of coughing from Dwight.

“You cut that out!” yelled Mitchell, making a lunge for Alan. He did not care if Alan was bigger. He was not going to get away with wrecking the skateboard Mitchell had worked so hard to build. His fingers clutched at Alan’s T-shirt.

Alan shook him off. The skateboard split and one of the skate halves fell to the sidewalk. Before Mitchell could get his hands on the skate, Alan had it and was beating it on the concrete until it was bent and twisted out of shape. Then Alan turned on Mitchell with menace on his face. “Start running,” he ordered.

Furious, Mitchell faced the two older boys with his fists clenched. Who did they think they were, pounding up his skate that way and then giving him orders?

“You heard him,” said Dwight, finally able to speak. “Start running.”

Mitchell did not move, and the two boys stepped forward. “Now,” said Alan. “N-o-w. Now.”

A lot of thoughts seethed through Mitchell’s mind—he did not like to be spelled at. Alan and Dwight weren’t fair. They had no right to gang up on him this way. They were two against one, and both boys were bigger. Mitchell realized there was only one decision he could make and that he had to make it now. He turned and ran.

The bent skate half came flying past. The splintered board with the other half skate still attached to it hit Mitchell’s back. Mitchell paused long enough to scoop up the remains of his skateboard before he ran up the hill toward home. He twisted his ankle on the gravel at the edge of the road where the sidewalk ended and behind him he could hear the boys laughing.

Mitchell held back tears of humiliation, but he could not keep his heart from pounding with exertion and fury. Let them laugh. They were just a couple of no-good bullies. Who did they think they were anyway, a couple of characters on some TV program? Well, they weren’t. They were plain old boys even if one did go to junior high and the other had a famous father. Mitchell stopped running and dragged himself on up the hill, lugging his broken skateboard. His back hurt where the board had hit him, and he felt hot and sweaty as he plodded up his steep driveway. Hot, sweaty, and defeated. His day was spoiled. His whole school year was spoiled. Dwight would be going down the hill to junior high school, but Mitchell would have to see Alan every day at school, sometimes even on the way to school, and he would always know, and Alan would always know, that Mitchell had turned and run.

The knowledge that running was the only thing he could have done did not help Mitchell much. I’ll get Alan for this, he thought, but he did not really believe what he was thinking. Alan was older and Alan was bigger. There was not much Mitchell could do to him.

Mitchell paused for breath and looked up the driveway at his redwood-and-glass house under the eucalyptus trees. He tried to catch sight of Amy and Marla, but the big windows only gave back the reflection of blue sky and eucalyptus leaves turning and fluttering in the breeze. He hoped the girls had gone to Marla’s house to play, because he did not want them to see him come dragging home with his broken skateboard in his hands.

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