Breaking Badger Excerpt
“Hey. Hey, kid.”
Again the seat jerked forward and Mads Galendotter did what she’d been doing for the last ten minutes: focus on the white, red, and blue basketball she had clutched between her hands.
This was her first day of junior high. She would be trying out for the junior high basketball team later today. She knew she was good enough to make it, but she had to be sure nothing happened between now and tryouts right after school. So she wasn’t about to blow it by getting involved. Even though that’s exactly what her cousins were hoping she’d do.
They really knew how to get to her, didn’t they?
They were two years older than Mads. In ninth grade. By all rights, they should be in the very back of the bus with all the other ninth graders, harassing the nerds like everyone else. But her cousins hated her as much as Mads hated them. So they’d plopped themselves down in the seat right behind her and then this poor kid had put herself right beside Mads. Now, instead of harassing Mads, her cousins were harassing the kid. Because they knew that would bother Mads more than if they harassed her directly. Hell, she was used to them harassing her. She’d been tortured by them since birth. It was rumored that when she was a baby, they’d used a stray cat to suffocate her. If her great-grandmother hadn’t walked in and found them shoving the screeching animal on top of her face . . .
So, yeah, she’d been emotionally prepared for her cousins to make her entire school year a nightmare until they finally graduated to the high school a few blocks away. But now they had a new victim to abuse. This poor kid. She was a cute little thing—Asian, with pigtails and an actual lunchbox. Her parents hadn’t even given her a brown-paper-bag lunch like everyone else in junior high. Or lunch money. Even worse, her lunchbox had Barbie on it. Barbie! She might as well have put an actual target on her back.
“Hey, kid!” Mads’s twin cousins pushed the seat again before they kicked the back of it.
Both Mads and the kid jerked forward.
Mads let out a long, slow breath. She could tolerate this sort of thing for ages. All the way to the school’s front door. But she knew if she looked at the kid’s face, she’d probably see tears welling or something. Hell, by now, those tears could be silently pouring down the poor kid’s cheeks.
She glanced around at everybody else on the bus. They were busy talking to each other, tormenting the nerdy kids, or simply praying that no one noticed them. They had no idea what was happening right in front of them. At least not yet. Plus, Mads had picked a seat close to the front of the bus. She’d sat there in the hopes that her cousins would want to sit in the back with everyone else.
They weren’t completely alone, though.
Close to them were two other girls sitting in the seat across the aisle. One was reading a book on time management. The other, another Asian girl who appeared way too old to be in junior high, was staring out the window. In the seat in front of them was a third girl, with long brown hair. She sat alone so she was able to sit with her back against the window and her feet up on the seat. She was reading Vanity Fair magazine.
And there was definitely no point in talking to the bus driver. None. Mads wouldn’t even bother.
Meaning that no one was going to stop her cousins from tormenting the poor kid sitting next to her, and they were still some distance from the school. There was more than enough time for her cousins to give this poor kid years of future therapy needs.
The seat jerked forward again.
“Hey, kid. What’s your name? At least tell us that.”
“Yeah. Come on. We’re just being friendly.”
Unable to take any more—because her cousins were never “just being friendly”—Mads finally looked at the twins over her shoulder and said as calmly as she could manage, “Leave her alone.”
Two sets of cold brown eyes turned in unison to Mads.
“You say something, cousin?” That came from Tilda. She talked more than Gella. She talked and Gella hit. It was a partnership that worked well for them.
No use in backing down now. Signs of weakness just meant they’d come for her harder. Her cousins always ran down the weakest. They couldn’t help themselves. It was instinctual. “I said leave her alone.”
Gella giggled and Tilda asked, “Or what?”
“Or I’ll rip your face off.” That response was instinctual, too. For Mads anyway.
Gella jerked forward, ready to leap on Mads, and Mads was nearly on her feet when the kid next to her spun around, resting on her knees and smiling sweetly at Tilda and Gella as she placed her little Barbie lunchbox on the back of their seat.
It was such a weird development that Mads immediately stopped what she was doing and Tilda blocked Gella with her arm.
“Hi!” the kid said with a sweet smile. “I’m Max.”
Mads’s cousins just stared, completely confused by what was happening.
The whole thing was so weird that even the other three girls in the seat across the aisle were now watching them.
“If I had lunch money, I’d give it to you,” Max went on, “but I’m poor. But I can give you my lunch.”
“From your little Barbie lunchbox there?” Gella cruelly teased.
“It’s really good. It’s my favorite lunch in the whole world.”
Christ, this poor kid! She was so innocent. Just a walking victim. She seemed way younger than thirteen. Mads knew her cousins wouldn’t be satisfied with this kid’s tuna sandwich and Snickers candy bar. She knew they’d want blood. But as Mads listened to the conversation going on between her cousins and the kid, her “other hearing” kicked in. This was the hearing her great-grandmother called her “real” hearing. “The one that makes you better than all those little full-human bastards you are around all day, every day,” she’d say. Mads picked up a different sound. A sound coming from inside the kid’s Barbie lunchbox. Something scratching against the metal of what Mads realized now was an old metal lunchbox. A more secure lunchbox than the plastic ones made these days.
“My mom always gives me the best stuff,” the kid promised Mads’s bitchy cousins.
Max unlatched the lunchbox and slipped her hand inside. Mads again glanced around the bus. The only ones paying attention to them were the three other girls across the aisle.
By the time Mads looked back at the kid, she’d pulled her hand out. It was balled around whatever she now held and when Tilda leaned in, openmouthed, to see what the kid held, the kid shoved in something black and moving past Tilda’s lips.
She tried to scream, but the kid wrapped her hand around Tilda’s face, using her fingers to pin her mouth shut.
Tilda’s eyes grew wide in panic, her hands reaching, pawing and slapping at the hand pressed against her face. Gella let out a startled giggle while trying to move the kid’s arm, but that “innocent” kid couldn’t be budged.
Mads grabbed the lunchbox and opened it. There were at least seven, maybe ten, black scorpions inside the box. This kid was carrying around venomous scorpions in her Barbie lunchbox!
One of the scorpions crawled out and onto Mads’s hand. It immediately stung her, but Mads barely blinked. Instead, without really thinking about it, she simply brought her hand to her mouth and scooped the insect inside with her tongue. She was in the middle of eating it when she realized that she was doing something very weird in the middle of a bus filled with full-human children.
Everything was so strange at the moment, she’d forgotten to pay attention to her surroundings!
Slowly, she looked up and across the aisle at the three girls who, at the very least, she knew had been watching the small drama playing out. They were still watching but now they just appeared . . . curious. And . . . and hungry?
The one sitting alone took a quick glance around before scrambling over and sticking her hand into the lunchbox Mads still held so she could grab her own scorpion. Ignoring the stings she now had all over her hand, she shoved the scorpion into her mouth, crunching on it as if it was peanut brittle and smiling seconds before the other two girls followed suit.
Mads watched, shocked. Like Mads, they were all stung. Multiple times. But none of them had a reaction. Unlike her cousin. Who, by now, was having seizures, foam leaking from the corners of her mouth. Her eyes even rolled to the back of her head so all they could see were the whites.
And the kid? What was she doing? Still holding Tilda’s mouth shut. Still ignoring the punches and slaps from both Tilda and Gella. And still smiling. Happily.
Boy, Mads was going to get it tonight when she went home, but she didn’t care. For once, she was enjoying herself! How could she not when her cousins were the ones on the receiving end of—ack!
A big hand wrapped around Mads’s throat and lifted her off the seat. She almost lost control of the still-open lunchbox, but one of the other girls grabbed it and secured the latch, trapping the rest of the scorpions inside.
Mads and the kid were both yanked away from the twins and carried to the front of the bus.
Mads hadn’t even realized the bus had been pulled over or that the driver had come to get them. She should have. The bus driver was her aunt. And the twins were her cubs. Not her favorites but she liked them way more than she liked Mads. Her aunt opened the doors and threw Mads and the kid out of her bus. A few minutes later two of the other girls came flying out. But the other Asian girl, who looked too old for junior high, walked off herself. For whatever reason, Mads’s aunt didn’t lay a finger on this one, even though she appeared to be easy prey in three-inch heels, which seemed highly inappropriate for a thirteen-year-old. Fortunately, she carried everyone’s backpacks and lunch bags and even Mads’s basketball. A kind gesture they all appreciated.
The bus shifted into gear and rumbled off, leaving the five of them standing on the sidewalk with their stuff by their feet.
“I love breaking in the new bus drivers!” the kid finally announced with a wide smile, throwing her arms up in the air like she’d actually won something.
“Does she know the closest hospital is the other way?” the girl with the long hair asked.
Mads shook her head. “She’s not taking them to the hospital. She has other daughters she likes better. So if they don’t make it . . .” Mads shrugged. “She’ll get over it.”
Max wiped away her concern—what there was of it—with a wave of her hand. “Such whining from those two. Those scorpions weren’t even that poisonous. I’ve eaten way more deadly ones.”
“Centruroides sculpturatus,” the reader stated, but when everyone just stared at her she simply added, “Arizona bark scorpion. That’s what those were. Poisonous but probably not deadly to a healthy hyena adolescent.” She paused a moment before pointing at the watch on her wrist and announcing, “We’re going to be late.”
“Is that a Minnie Mouse watch?” Mads wanted to know.
The girl quickly covered the watch with her free hand. “For now. But I am saving up for something much better.”
“Late for what?” Max asked.
“That’s a big concern for you?”
“Being late is always a big concern for me,” the reader explained. “I don’t like being late.”
The kid shrugged. “I don’t like school. We should ditch! How about the mall?”
“Don’t you think someone will notice us in the mall?”
“We’ll tell ’em we’re homeschooled.”
“I’m not ditching,” Mads told them. “I’m trying out for the basketball team today. I’m not missing it.”
“How far is school?” the other Asian chick asked. “I’m not wearing my walking heels.”
“How old are you?” Mads had to ask.
“Really? Because you look twenty-three.”
“Awwww.” She smiled warmly. “Thank you.”
“We need to start walking if we’re going to get to school on time,” the reader pushed, tapping her watch face again and again. It was a little . . . obsessive.
“We’ve got, like, twenty minutes to get there.”
“Anything could happen between here and there. Anything.” She leaned in closer. “Anything.”
“What about the bus driver?” long hair asked.
“What about her?” Max replied.
“You did poison her children.”