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Exit Strategy

Part of MAX


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About The Book

Twelve-year-old Ross tries to discover the formula for being funny and getting his new classmates to like him in this laugh-out-loud MAX novel!

Ross Stevens has changed schools twelve times in the last three years but when his beloved Pops becomes ill, Ross and his mom must plant roots—which means no more school moves. And no more moves mean no more school exits, and Ross has perfected the science of leaving a school with an epic prank. Worse, it means he will actually have to learn how to make friends and do a science project, two things he’s never had to do before.

Then Ross hits on a hypothesis: if pranks are cool because they are funny then maybe he could discover the formula for funny! If his nerdy “peer review” partner doesn’t cramp his style and if the embarrassing notebook full of his “research” doesn’t get out, then maybe Ross can actually be happy staying in one place.

But can he really figure out the formula for ultimate middle school happiness?


Exit Strategy

STATE THE PROBLEM OR QUESTION What are you trying to find out?


Subject: A Swimming Success

So, all went as planned—actually better. Was totally Fish-tastic. I’ll tell you more when I’m on the computer instead of Mom’s phone, but the record holds. Would have been suspended if I hadn’t already been leaving, they said.

And guess what? Mom said yes! She’s going to call your mom and work it out, but she said she thinks I can stay with you for the entire week. Ahh! Now to wait the million days until summer is here. Can’t wait to see your house and meet all your friends. You’ll have to make them wear name tags or something so I can keep up.

On our way to St. Louis. Three months there. Already got Exit-lence plans in the works. Will be epic. Stinks you aren’t around to see it. Though I guess my fame wouldn’t be imminent if you and your mom hadn’t bailed. I’m only, like, 23% mad at you (or at least your mom) now.


PEOPLE CAN SPEND their entire lives trying to achieve greatness, but I am fortunate—at the age of twelve, I already know it.

It was by dumb luck that I’d found my “great” to begin with. Before The Incident at the end of fifth grade, I was just a kid that moved a lot.

For moves One through Seven, my school exits consisted of all the normal stuff: shove my eraser-less pencils and half-used spirals into my backpack, mosey up to the front of the classroom, and wave good-bye to kids I barely knew. They’d collectively say “bye” and wave back. After a hug from a teacher who wouldn’t remember me past recess, I’d be on my unmerry way to my next school.

Move Eight, however, was when the happy accident happened. With all of my school-ly possessions in my bag, I started my moderately paced shuffle toward the door—slow enough that I looked appropriately sad and eager enough that I didn’t look depressed. Unfortunately, I didn’t see Shana Miller’s messenger bag strap until after it was wrapped around my foot like a booby trap. When it snagged me, I tried to stay upright, flinging my arms out and attempting to win my fight with gravity by grabbing the desks on either side of me. But my last day there also happened to be one of those days the teacher felt the need to rid herself of all of old worksheets, and both of the desks I grabbed were covered with stacks of papers (see Figure 1). My hands slid out from me and down



I went.

Figure 1. Effects of gravity on a falling body

My left elbow and right knee took most of the fall. My lips pressed together to hold back my yell. Tears sprang to my eyes. All of that old work fluttered down beside me like the ashes of my pride.

And then: dead silence.

Nobody knew what to do. Should they laugh? Help? Pretend it didn’t happen?

Me, on the other hand, I knew I had two options:

I could stand up and bawl as they sent me off in a chorus of good-byes and forever live in their memories as a fifth grade baby.


Get up, say bye, and get the heck out of there before the dam broke.

Opting for the second, I carefully removed the strap from my ankle and scrambled to my feet. I grabbed my bag off the floor and dared to peek at my audience before offering my best wishes.

But I froze.

Every. Single. Eye was on me. Even the kid in the back with the thick glasses and multi-directional stare managed to train both his pupils directly upon my presence. My chin and bottom lip shook like the suspicious-looking Jell-O salad they served that day in the cafeteria. If I opened my mouth or waved or even breathed, the floodgates would open and I would look like a blubbering idiot. A baby. A blubbering-idiot-baby.

Nope. Words were not an option.

So, in a gust of brilliance, I abandoned my verbal skills, threw both of my hands up like a V for victory, bowed, and ran out of the classroom.

Before the door closed, I heard the laughing.

For one second, I thought they were laughing at me, but before I was out of earshot I heard one kid say, “That was awesome!” and I knew they were laughing because of me. It was a victory. One I planned to enjoy after I attended to my blubbering-idiot-baby-ness in private.

I remember pushing through that swinging door of the boys’ bathroom, ready to let out the tears I’d assumed had built up after my fall. I sat in the last stall—the big one—and squeezed my eyes shut and waited, but nothing came.

Not quite believing my fast beating heart was caused by adrenaline rather than the threat of crying, I waited some more. Still nothing.

I tried squeezing at the tear ducts the way I saw my mom do if she got a pimple.

But still, I was dry as a desert.

That was when, to my shock and exhilaration, I realized I didn’t feel bad at all. Instead, I felt . . . heroic. Memorable. Funny.

And it changed my life.

MY EXITS FOLLOWING that day were marvelous. Stellar. Epic. EXIT-LENT. And not by accident. I planned my exits from the moment I knew I was transferring to a new school until the day I left. Each escape was better than the last (see Figure 2, and note: From the following data you will see that I over-thought Move Nine but recovered by Move Ten).

I flat out owned today’s finale: Move Eleven.

Figure 2. Measure of greatness for each move

Though I gladly pay it, my victories do come at a price. The drive to mom’s next tour stop—our next home—always gives her plenty of time for the standard post-Exit-lence lecture, and today is no exception. This is most painful part of the process; I’ve learned to brave these post-Exit-lence lectures and even shorten them by arranging my face into an expression that is equal parts sad and apologetic.

Today I do not catch a break. The lecture is twenty-three minutes long. It starts with phrases like respect for authority and common decency. It ends with failure as a mother and unreasonable expectations for both of us.

“You are such a good kid,” she says as she’s winding down. “It’s like you’re just missing it. Like you don’t get when you’re crossing the line. You don’t even give people a chance to like you.”

After she ends with the standard, “I just don’t know how to know if I’m doing the right thing,” we are both quiet for a good four minutes. Then, like normal, my mom takes a deep breath and pats my knee. The stressful part is over. We can move on to the pep rally part where she tells me that she knows it is hard to move again, and she knows I miss my best friend, Trent, and she knows it’s different since he and his mom stopped touring with the symphony.

Approximately seven minutes after her closing statement, I pull out my notebook and begin to think about my next exit strategy, my future finale, aka Move Twelve. The planning is exciting—but I’m careful not to let it show on my face. I need to look thoughtful for at least twelve more minutes, or I’ll have to sit through Lecture, Part Two.

It’s hard to look guilty though, because I’ve already got a few really great ideas. My next finale will be spectacular. Like Complete Greatness level. Fireworks will be involved. My next Exit-lence could be famous-making. Kids will ask for my autograph, teachers will praise my creativity, there will be Facebook fan clubs devoted to me. Basically, for Move Twelve, I will be epic (see Table 1).

Table 1. Achievement of Exit-lence

I pause in my plans and borrow Mom’s phone to send an e-mail to my best friend, Trent. Right after I press send, the phone rings. It’s a number I don’t recognize, so I hand it back to Mom.

“Hello,” she says. And then, “Yes, it is.”

Her wide, panicked eyes make me freeze. There are only three things in the world Mom cares about enough to make her freak out—and two of them are in this car.

“Thank you for calling,” Mom says. She puts on her blinker and changes lanes. “We’re coming right now. Please call if anything changes.” She drops the phone and exits the highway.

“What’s wrong?” I ask. Her sharp U-turn makes the phone slide over the console and fall on the floorboard.

“It’s Pops,” she says naming the third thing.

SINCE MOM AND I move every couple of months (give or take), we don’t keep a lot of stuff. Everything we own—including her three bassoons—fits inside our Suburban. This means it is super easy to relocate. It also means that when we get a phone call that mom’s dad (my Pops) fell and went to the hospital, unconscious, in an ambulance, we can change our plans midroute and break the speed limit to get to him.

Mom’s so quiet as she drives. Both hands squeeze the steering wheel and she leans forward like it will make us get to Pops even faster. I want to tell her it’ll be okay, but since I don’t really know if that’s true, I don’t.

When the phone rings again, she snatches it up. Her hands are shaking as she taps the screen to answer. She says “hello” and then nods even though the person on the other end can’t see her.

“Oh, thank you,” she says. “Thank you so much. Please tell him we’re coming. We’ll be there in a little under an hour. Tell him to rest . . . and we love him.”

She puts the phone on the seat and I glance at it to make sure it’s hung up.

“He’s awake,” Mom tells me and she smiles. She turns on the radio. I didn’t even realize we’d been driving in complete silence.

When we pull into the hospital parking lot, we’ve been in the car for seven hours straight. Still, we don’t take time to stretch before we go inside to find Pops.

He’s awake when we come into his room. His eyes are open and watery, and he’s staring at the ceiling. When Mom says, “Hi, Daddy,” he turns toward us and smiles. The liquid in his right eye slips out and falls as a tear down his face, slowing on his deepest wrinkles. It’s only been about three months since we saw him last, but from the way he’s changed, it seems like it should be years.

He holds a hand out to us and Mom grabs it. He smiles bigger and nods. Then his head tilts to the side and he falls asleep. Seriously, it’s that fast. One second he’s awake and the next second he isn’t.

I glance at Mom to make sure we didn’t just see him, like, die or something. She’s studying the computer screen to the side of the bed and not panicking at all, so I’m guessing it’s okay.

Mom sits in a chair next to Pops so she doesn’t have to let go of his hand while he sleeps, and I sit in the chair next to the window. She says I can watch TV, but it would feel weird to channel surf while Pops is lying there, so I tell her I’m okay and take out my Exit-lence notebook to plan. But it’s like all the machines in here are blocking my brainwaves and I can’t think of anything to add.

The doctor comes in a little bit later to talk to us. He looks like every other doctor I’ve ever seen, except he’s wearing cowboy boots with his scrubs. He shakes Mom’s free hand and then mine, and tells us stuff we already know from the calls—Pops fell; he’s got a tiny brain bleed; he’s not himself. Then he tells us that he believes with the right help, Pops will be okay. After a couple of days at the hospital, he’ll go to a different place to get physical therapy. Dr. Cowboy Boots says he’s feeling hopeful Pops will make a full recovery . . . eventually.

“Oh, thank you,” Mom practically yells. It’s like she wants to hug the doctor but she doesn’t want to let go of her dad and she makes up for it with an extra-loud voice. It wakes Pops up. We watch him as his eyes get big and confused and he searches the room until he focuses on his hand and follows the chain of arms to Mom and then me. He smiles again—this time bigger than a kid that got a pony for Christmas.

“It’s going to be okay,” Mom says to him. Then she looks at me. “It’s going to be okay.” And because she’s my mom, I believe her.

MOM SITS AT Pops’s kitchen table and calls the director of the touring company. She tells him we’ve had a family emergency and we aren’t going to make it to St. Louis. Before she hangs up, she says he may want to hire a local musician for the stop after St. Louis too.

We’re staying at Pops’s house even though he isn’t. Last night we unloaded the car and tried to settle in. We put all my boxes in the room with the twin bed and all of Mom’s in the office with the pullout couch. I told her she should take the bed and I could take the couch because I’m younger. She mommed me and said I needed more sleep because I’m still growing (and since I’m shorter than average, I couldn’t argue).

Most of this feels normal for us. As we tour, we rent houses or apartments that already have all the practical stuff: furniture, dishes, pots and pans. All we bring is our clothes and anything we think is worth packing up and hauling around—like Mom’s awards or my football cards—even if we don’t ever actually unbox it. We both know the routine, so I’m not surprised when Mom tells me it’s time to go up to the school to get me registered.

We go up to the school in the middle of the day. The lady at the front desk checks our papers and send us to the counselor, Mrs. Jackson. Her office is big. She sits behind a desk and we sit in the armchairs facing her. There’s no windows. There’s tons of lamps though. It feels like a well-lit dungeon.

After Mom hands her the folder of my school records, Mrs. Jackson has the standard reaction: surprise followed by intense interest and careful reading. Mom and I are quiet as she looks at every school transcript. She must be an extra thorough counselor, because she starts again from the beginning.

“Yes, it is a lot of schools,” Mom interrupts the second reading by answering the question we know is coming. “My job keeps us moving.”

The counselor looks up and closes the folder on her lap. “Your job?”

“A bassoonist with the St. Louis Touring Company. Like for actors? But I’m in the orchestra. I play in one location for a couple months or so and then move to the next location.”

Mrs. Jackson nods. “Sometimes we find children that have attended a succession of schools were . . .” She looks at the ceiling like the word she wants is written up there. I glance up to see if it is, but there are just shadows. “. . . were getting into trouble,” she says. “They withdraw from their previous school before the bad behavior goes on their permanent record.”

“That’s not Ross. We just move because of my job.”

The counselor nods and glances through my records again. Mom takes the opportunity to give me a side-eye warning and a tiny head shake. I think she’s worried I’ll correct her and confess my near-suspensions. I never would do that though—it’s much easier for me to get away with the Exit-lence when nobody’s expecting me to do it.

Mom sits up straighter and scoots to the edge of her chair. Her hands twitch like she wants to snatch the folder away.

“He used to have a tutor,” Mom blurts, going off-script. “Until he was in third grade he had a tutor—it was like homeschool sort of. Just not at a home.”

Mrs. Jackson nods and flips to another paper.

“Two of us had kids, my friend and me—I had Ross and she had Trent. The tutor traveled with us and taught our boys. But my friend won a permanent position. She stopped touring—and a tutor didn’t make sense for just one kid. I mean he’s worth it, but it was really expensive. And I thought he should have some normal school experience, you know? Like with social stuff and all that.” Mom forces a laugh. “That’s an important part of school, right?”

The counselor doesn’t answer.

Mom rolls her shoulders back like she’s trying to relax; she smooths her shirt down and clears her throat.

My leg starts shaking; Mom’s nervousness is contagious. And confusing. She performs in front of thousands of people six times a week and this is the first time I’ve ever seen her like this.

“So Ross does public school.” She looks at me and smiles. I smile back. “But we still move. He’s been to a lot of schools. It’s because of my job. Not because he gets into trouble.” She nods at me like I’m supposed to say something. “Right, Ross?”

“Um. Yes. Her job.” The trouble only comes as we leave.

“Well,” Mrs. Jackson says as she turns in her chair and gets a paper out of her desk drawer. She swivels back around. “I hope you’ll be able to stay a while here. We feel like our school is a pretty great place to be.”

“You sound like my father!” Mom says, then adds, “Your words, not your voice. His is much deeper. And he can’t talk right now.”

Both my legs are wiggling now. And my right hand.

Mom blinks hard like she’s trying to reset. “Yes. You’re right. We’re glad to be here.”

Which happens to be the exact opposite of what I’m currently thinking. Even after Mom fills out all the paperwork, I get my schedule (see Table 2), and we take a tour of the school. Even before I get Trent’s reply, I have a bad feeling about this.

Table 2. Student Schedule: Ross Stevens

* Please Wear tennis shoes on days you have P.E



Subject: Change of Plans

No St. Louis after all.

My grandfather fell and hit his noggin. We got a call and came straight there. Was kinda freaky for a while because for, like, two hours we didn’t know if he’d be okay. (He will be, but it’ll take a while.) Everything was already loaded in our car for the move, so we just drove to Fort Worth instead. Isn’t that a little closer to San Antonio?

It’s my first time visiting anybody in a hospital. It stinks—the actual smell of it, I mean.

By the time we got here, he was awake. He still hasn’t talked yet though. He’s got a bruise across both eyes and down one side of his cheek. Don’t think it looks as bad as the one I got when I fell out of that harness they used in Peter Pan when we didn’t get the strap on right.

I’ve told Pops about a bunch of the stuff we’ve done. Mom told me to talk to him even if he can’t talk back. He can’t laugh yet, but he smiled really big and did these two deep breath things that made me think he was cracking up inside.

So, anyway, here I am in Fort Worth. Starting school tomorrow. Moving day is TBD until Pops gets better and then we’ll be off again.




Subject: Re: Change of Plans

You’re staying put? (At least for now?) This a pretty big deal for you. Like, gigantic.

And I know you already know it’s not like when Mr. Bob tutored us, but it’s also nothing like the school stops you are used to. It’s been three years for me and I’m just now not considered the new kid. And that’s me—you know I’m pretty cool with anything. Mom always says I can talk to a wall.

As your best friend and somebody that has known you forever, I’m going to help you out. You know how Mr. Bob used to say stuff like, Everybody has something to offer and, Always ask questions and, Stay curious? DO NOT listen to that. It’s old man advice. Only one of his sayings actually applies to the real and modern world, and it is, Be yourself, but better. When you walk in there tomorrow, be SOMEBODY. Like, be you, but better. Find the varsity team and stick with them.

Gotta go to baseball. More later.


As Mom is driving me to my first day at my new school, I tell myself I can do this. The school-with-no-end-date thing. Especially with Trent’s advice.

I’ve totally got this. Mostly. Probably. Sort of.

If Trent can do it, so can I. I mean, between the two of us, I was the one with the endless ideas. I was the one that could turn a boring afternoon into a something amazing. My plans only sent us to the ER twice. Trent just went along with whatever I came up with. That’s my strength. That’s how I can do what Trent said: Be myself, but better.

“Just drop me off in front,” I tell Mom. No need for me to be the only kid that still has his mom walk him inside.

I only feel a little like throwing up when I get out of the car.

I can do this.

I take a deep breath and start walking, one foot in front of the other.

“Got your bag?” Mom calls out through the open passenger-side window.

I don’t. I never remember details when I’m super nervous. I go back to the car and grab my backpack. I really want to climb back inside. The car is safe.

“So you’ll take the bus home after school,” she reminds me. Her smile is so forced, she looks like the Joker from Batman. I can tell she doesn’t feel good about this either.

“You know, I’m thinking I should just go ahead and leave with you right now.”

She frowns. “Ross,” she says, “please . . .” She bites her lips together.

I am the worst. Her dad is in the hospital. She had to bow out of her gig. And now I’m going to make her worry about me, too. “I’m kidding.”

She bites her lip and nods. “Okay.”

Mom stays parked as I walk up the steps to the school and pull open the first set of double doors. I wave to show her I’m fine and step inside. I take a deep breath before pushing through the second set of doors.

Here I go. A new school. But I’m used to this, right? Who cares if I don’t know how long I’ll actually be here?

Be better, Ross.

The bell hasn’t rung yet and kids are lined up on either side of the hallway when I walk in. If there was music playing somewhere in the distance, it would screech and go silent.

Conversations stop. Kids gawk. As if they are sharing one brain, everybody turns to look at me. I force myself to move forward even though my legs feel heavy and my mouth is soooo dry.

This reminds me of something I saw one time when I was little and I used to sneak out of my room at night to get water and watch TV—neither of which was allowed after bedtime. One night, after I rehydrated myself from the bathroom sink, I crept into the living room and turned on the television, immediately muting it so I didn’t get caught. I couldn’t hear anything, but I didn’t need the words. I watched as a policeman led a dude in an orange jumpsuit down a prison hallway toward an electric chair. Like greedy zombies, hands reached out from the cells on either side of him. Then he sat in a wired-up chair and got burned like my mom’s cooking. Back then it freaked me out so bad that I ran back to my room and turned on all the lights. When I finally fell asleep, I dreamed I was the guy being led to my doom and the people were trying to touch me. (I also dreamed of a toilet at the end of that long hallway, but I won’t go into that.)

Now, as my shoes squeak on the shiny floor, again I am the prisoner walking down the wide fluorescent-lit hallway. Except instead of convicts, it is lined with my newest classmates, instead of hands they reach for me with their stares, and instead of an electric chair, there is an office—but still, it’s certain death. And it’s not a dream.

This is wrong. This isn’t how I normally feel. Starting a new school is great; it’s exciting. I’m the new kid—I don’t have to make friends or do projects because we’ll be leaving in a few months or so. School is an event. A performance. Except this time it isn’t.

Be better, Trent had said. Focus on that. A better me. But what does that even mean? I am nothing here. How can I be a better nothing?

I cannot keep walking. I freeze.

I cannot breathe.

My chest is spastic, beating with the enthusiasm of a thousand hard-of-hearing drummers.

I am having a heart attack.

Can seventh graders even have heart attacks?

If it hasn’t happened before, it’s happening now.

I need help. I need somebody to call an ambulance.

To call my mom.

To give me CPR. (Gross!)

But there’s nobody I know, nobody I can ask.

I cannot take another step forward.

Why have my lungs stopped working? And why did they turn the heat in this school up to one million degrees?

Nope, my brain says. And my body agrees.

Nope. Nope. Nope.

Energy floods my elbows and knees and tells me to run and I don’t have any choice but to listen.

I spin around, back toward the doors.

I walk at first, then I speed up to a full run. Whispers explode around me. They are talking about me. Of course they are, because I’m totally freaking out.

I don’t even care because I’m almost out of there.

I push through the double doors. I search for Mom’s car, but it’s gone.

So I do the only thing I can. I run.

And run.

I only slow down when the voice in my head that says I need oxygen is louder than the one that tells me I need to get away.

Pops doesn’t live far from the school. Surely I should be back at his house by now, but I recognize nothing. Or more accurately, I recognize everything because it is all generic. It’s all the same. Every trash can. Every grass type. Every tree height. Why did my grandfather pick such a plastic place to live?

My breathing speeds up again as reality sets in: I don’t know where I am.

And it keeps getting worse.

I don’t have a phone to call my mom. I don’t know how to get to Pops’s house. I don’t have a chance to recover from the humiliation that is currently seeping in like the damp wind through my jacket.

I’m out in the open. And lost.

I wind around the backs of the houses to an alley that could be Pops’s or could be somebody else’s. I sink down between two bushes with pointy leaves that catch my sleeves and scratch my arms.

Nobody will know to look for me here.

I can freak out in peace. I could hide here forever if I wanted.

And I do. Want to, I mean. And I probably can, because there is no one that knows me; they won’t come find me; they won’t even know to tell my mom I am missing.

I’M SITTING ON my borrowed bed leaning against the wooden headboard with my feet straight out on the comforter; I’m waiting for Mom to form a solid sentence. My shoes are still on, but she hasn’t noticed and made me take them off. She sits at the end of the bed with her back straight as a ruler and her hands in her lap. I try to concentrate on anything but her—the framed picture on the dresser, the bare tree outside the window, the open closet with boxes of clothes that I dig through in the mornings to get dressed—but eventually I can’t help but peek at her. She stares straight ahead, takes a deep breath, opens her mouth like she is going to speak, and then shuts it and sighs again. She repeats this cycle for a solid nine minutes.

Finally, I help her out. “You can yell at me if you want.”

She brings her hands to her face, covers her eyes, and shakes her head. “I’m not going to yell at you.”

“You might feel better.”

“Oh, honey,” she says and puts both of her hands on my left leg, then pulls one back to cover her mouth as if that is where her tears are about to leak out.

My nose burns a little and I scratch it to make it stop.

“I love you,” she says.

I don’t know what to say to make this better. She has probably been thinking about punishments from the moment the school called to tell her I was absent to the moment she found me wandering around the neighborhood with streets so circular I was like a brainless mouse in a maze.

So I say, “I need it,” using our code. An I love you back means I’m fine. An I need it means I will be fine, but not quite yet. We’ve perfected this complex secret language over the past few years.

“I love you,” I add, so she knows I know I deserve whatever consequence she’s about to give me.

My words break her trance. She squeezes my leg and lets go. “Just tell me why you ran away.” She scoots farther onto the bed and turns toward me. My breath catches when I see the actual tears. I am the one that is supposed to make Mom happy, not the one that makes her cry.

“I don’t know,” I say, and my voice cracks. What I mean is, I’m sooooooooooooo sorry, but I can’t talk anymore at the moment.

“Did something happen after I dropped you off?”

I shake my head. “Nothing happened.” That’s the problem. The nothing. The endless nothing with no end date. The nothingness where I am a nobody. Days and days full of it. This is Trent’s area of expertise. I am the one that keeps moving. I’ve got no skills, nothing in my wheelhouse for this.

I clear my throat and shrug. “I don’t want to stay here. That’s not what we do.”

“It’s only until Pops gets better—it’s not for forever,” she says.

“It feels like it might as well be.”

“Do you not like this school?”

She is leaning in, waiting for my answer. I think about telling her that is the problem. But then I could end up serving this sentence at a worse place—like where the P.E. equipment predates Abraham Lincoln and the grumpy lunch lady has a moustache. At this school they have a rock wall in the gym and the gray-haired lunch lady seemed nice enough, even if, when I met her on the school tour, I found she does wear a pill-y old sweater and have a tiny bit of ear hair. If I had to choose any school indefinitely, this one’s okay (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Assessment of current school

“It’s fine,” I say.

“So why did you run?”

I don’t want to say what I am thinking out loud—that I don’t know who I am if I’m not the temporary kid, the Exit-lence guy. That ZERO x BETTER = ZERO. Because it is embarrassing. Because she’ll tell me again this isn’t a forever thing, and she doesn’t understand that not having a circled date on the calendar feels like forever to me. And because if I go down that path, she’ll say she thinks she’s failing as a mother. So I just shrug and say, “I don’t know.”

Mom wipes her eyes and blows her nose with a wadded-up tissue. She puts it in her lap and then grabs my wrist. Her hand is still a little damp. Yuck.

“Will you promise me,” she says, “I mean, promise me that you will never, ever run away from school again? For three hours after the school called me I didn’t know where you were. I just . . . three hours . . .” She starts crying again.

Guilt floods me. “I promise.”

“Ross, you almost got suspended today. Before you even started your new school. Do you understand what a big deal that is? It’s like you’re trying to prove that counselor right. That you are a troublemaker. Is that who you want to be?” She bites her lips together.

“Mom, I understand. I get it. I promise I won’t do it again.”

“I mean, never. Promise me. Promise me you’ll follow the rules.”

“Never,” I say. “I promise I will go to school. I promise I won’t get suspended.” She relaxes like I’ve given her the correct answer.

“And,” her voice softens, “you’ll try to make it work. For now. For me. So I can be here for Pops. You know, I know that as soon as the kids at your school get to know you, you’ll be fighting them off with a stick. Can you just trust me until then? That is this is for the best?”

I nod. “Although I probably will get suspended if I’m hitting my friends with a stick.”

She smiles, barely, and stands up. She smooths her hair back and pulls her shirt down to straighten up, but it doesn’t help. She still looks sad. A sad I caused.

This is when she has super-mom-powers. When she can make me do anything, agree to anything if I know it will make her feel better. I force a smile and say, “I just freaked out earlier. So much is going on—the change of plans and Pops in the hospital. I’m better now; I’m glad we’re here.”

Her brave-face wavers. Her voice cracks when she adds, “I think I’m doing the right thing. With you. With Daddy. You think so, right? And we can be happy here for a little bit.”

I sit up straighter. “I think so.” I lie.

“Good. You do your homework. I’ll let you know when dinner is ready, and then we’ll go visit Pops.”

After she’s gone, I squeeze my hands into fists and try to put all the yuck inside them so I can force it out. I tell myself that it’ll be okay. That I will like it here for however long we have to stay. That I don’t have to be the kid with the exit strategy just yet.

But instead of my brain agreeing, it plays all my past school exits in my head like a highlight reel. Move One: I was Nobody. Move Two: I was Nobody. Move Three: I was Nobody. It keeps going. When I left, nobody cared. Nobody even noticed me until Move Eight. That’s when I learned how to be awesome, how to be great, how to be funny. It’s when I learned how to be somebody.

Is that even possible here?

My brain’s as blank as the last time I tried to plan my Exit-lence.

I need a distraction, so I open the absent-kid folder they sent home for me and pull out my assignments, thankful for something else to think about besides my expired greatness or today’s Houdini act that my mom told the school was because of an upset stomach and a fear of public vomiting.

Math first. It’s easy enough because no matter which school I go to, numbers are always the same. Then language arts. I have a little trouble doing my reading assignment, but only because I read a sentence then think about all the stuff I am trying not to think about and forget what I read. Eventually that is checked off my list too.

Then I pull out my last missed assignment. It’s a packet of papers from science. The top says, “Elm Creek Middle School Science Fair Project.”

I’ve seen assignments like this before, but I’ve never actually done one. I was always coming or going or new enough that the teachers didn’t think I could handle it—and who was I to tell them otherwise?

I don’t want to do it now.

I skim through the five pages—five pages—explaining the project. The major due date for this thing is, like, two months away, but there’s a bunch dates where parts of it are due between now and then.

It makes me want to run away again.

I reread the first sheet.

The first due date is tomorrow. My homework tonight is to answer the first question.

I think about writing The PROBLEM is that I don’t understand the QUESTION, but then I picture the counselor reading my paper and crossing her arms being all, like, I-told-you-so, and Mom’s super-powered-sad-face, and I remember my promise to try.

I go to the computer and click on the Internet icon. When Google pops ups, I type in Science Project Questions and click on the first website. It has a list of potential science fair questions.

Do plants and animal behave differently with music?

Does food dye hurt plants?

Do video games reduce the ability to focus?

These all sound boring. I don’t want to waste any time on boring stuff because I’m just killing time. By the time the actual project is due, we’ll probably already be settled at our next stop.



Science Fair Project

1. State the problem or question. What are you trying to find out?

2. Develop a hypothesis. Make a statement based on what you think the results will be.

3. Research your problem. Identify what you already know about this problem or question. What do you need to find out? What research needs to be done? (Minimum of 3 resources.)

4. List the materials you will use. What do you need to complete your investigation?

5. Test your hypothesis. Record and describe the observations you made during your investigation.

6. Record the results/organize your data. Include tables, charts, and graphs.

7. Interpret the data and state your conclusion. Was your hypothesis true? Was your big question answered?

8. Additional research and information. Include any other important observations and/or notes.

Figure 4. Science fair project assignment

How about: When can we get out of here and move on with our lives? But I can’t use that—it only has one available resource and I’ve already made her cry today.

Maybe something more useful than that, like: How do I make friends?

Right. Because nothing says LOSER like a big trifold board about making friends.

What do I really want to know?

How can I be me, but better? How can I be fantastic without the finale? How can I once again be great?

I think about my Exit-lence, my exit strategies. Maybe I can break them down into parts and subtract the exit part (for now). Then when I add it back in, my finales will be fantastic-er.

Our tutor, Mr. Bob, told Trent and me that if you needed to take something away, you removed it from both sides to see what you had left, and that most things can be figured out with an equation. If you use the stuff you do know, you can figure out what you don’t.

So, what do I know (see Figure 5)?

Exit-lence = Greatness

Exit-lence = Finale + Fantastic

Fantastic = Plan + Funny

So, Exit-lence = Finale + (Plan + Funny)
Then subtract Finale from both sides, which equals

Exit-lence -Finale = Plan + Funny

And if a = b and b = c, then a = c

So, Greatness - Finale = Plan + Funny

So, Greatness without Finale means I need a plan to be Funny.

Figure 5. Formula explaining the necessity of funny

So the question asks: What do I want to understand? And the answer is: If I need to understand how to be Me, But Better, I need to understand how to be funny.

Which is still pretty lame.

Plus, who has to study to be funny? Not anybody that actually is.

That’s okay though. I’ll never actually present this. My project will be for my own personal research. Something to fill in the blanks for what the teacher’s making me do. We’ll be gone before I have to present it. And if I understand how to be funny, it’ll make me better. I’ll be fluent in funny. Like a second language, I’ll speak Hilarious.

I’ve really got nothing to lose. So, in an act of bravery, I write the thing I need to make me better. Under State the problem or question, I write: I’m going to discover how to be funny.

About The Author

Chemenn Photography

Lauren Allbright roamed the southern states before landing in Texas and calling it home. She earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Texas A&M University. After graduation, she spent her days teaching middle schoolers and her nights reading books. Now when she is not writing (or momming), she enjoys training for half-marathons and triathlons as well as camping with her family. She lives in Dallas with her patient husband, three high-energy children, six (give or take) fish, one overly excitable cocker spaniel, and (the slowest ever) guinea pig named Blaster.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Aladdin (June 5, 2018)
  • Length: 176 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781481479134
  • Ages: 9 - 13

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Awards and Honors

  • Kansas NEA Reading Circle List Junior Title

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