Vertical Excerpt

Chapter One

RAT TRAPS

My mom tells me I have skateboarding on the brain because it’s
all I ever think about—skateboard wheels clicking across the
grooves in pavement, dropping in on the half-pipe—flying, floating
. . . totally free. See, for me, the next best thing to actually
skateboarding is thinking about it, so I guess my mom is right, I
do have skateboard brain, or whatever she calls it. The problem is,
having a skateboard brain doesn’t always help me “live up to my
potential” at my local prison otherwise known as school, and not
living up to my potential can be a bad thing. Here’s why.
First period starts in exactly sixteen minutes. My lunch sits on
the counter and even though I’m in ninth grade, my mom still
writes my name, JOSH LOWMAN, with a big black marker on my
lunch bag like I’m in kindergarten or something. “Live up to your
potential!” “School first!”—that’s what my folks say. And things
like bad grades, wet towels on the bathroom floor, and being late
for school are all things that can seriously “restrict” my afternoon
skate sessions with my best friend Brendon. I look at the clock—
first period starts in exactly fourteen minutes. I grab my lunch and
my skateboard and bolt out the door.
Valley View High’s not too far from my house and most days,
if I skate hard and take the shortcut, I get there in plenty of time.
I fly down the main boulevard and pass under the cheese board—
that’s what we call the giant billboard that towers over our town.
There’s this huge picture with these two guys smiling, leaning on
a car in a driveway, and at the bottom it says: WELCOME TO GREEN
VALLEY, CALIFORNIA—WHERE THE BREEZE FLOWS FREELY THROUGH
DEEP VALLEYS AND YOUR NEIGHBORS ARE YOUR FRIENDS. Right!
This scraggly dog pops out from nowhere sniffing around and he
must think the cheese board’s pretty cheesy too ’cause he looks up
at the picture of those two guys, sniffs one of the poles that holds
the thing up, lifts his leg, and takes a leak. I laugh so hard I almost
fall off my skateboard.
I carve a turn into the alley, the dog running beside me like he’s
my new best friend, when a siren screams in the distance and the
little dog stops, points his snout toward the sky, and howls. I’m
busy checking out my new friend so I don’t see the small chunks
of broken glass that wedge themselves underneath my skateboard
wheels and the next thing I know everything happens in superfast
motion—my board stops but I keep moving, I fly through the
air, and splat, I slam across warbly, pockmarked pavement, then
skid to a stop.
Splattered against the pavement, I lie there for a second and all
I can think about is stupid Mrs. Fudrucker who’s gonna mark me
late for first period again, then there’ll be the detention notice in
the mail and my D in algebra and my mom and dad and restriction.
I roll over, lying flat on my back, the blue sky and the cheese
board floating above me, and I feel like climbing up on that thing
with one of my mom’s black markers and writing: WELCOME TO
GREEN VALLEY, CALIFORNIA—WHERE YOU WIPE OUT IN DEEP ALLEYS
AND IT SUCKS! But I know if my parents get squirrelly about
a wet towel on the floor, graffiti will definitely send them over the
edge.
I sit up, check out the damage—scratched-up palms, bloody
elbow—and I know it sounds impossible, but that’s when my
morning gets even suckier. Grunts and scratching noises emerge
from this car parked against a garage. I look over. It’s Lenny—this
huge hotshot street skater from our neighborhood. He’s in Mrs.
Thompson’s car, leaning across the front seat, digging around like
some kind of wild scavenging hyena. He doesn’t see me. I think
about grabbing my board and getting the heck out of there, but before
I can move he hops out of the car and lands with Mrs.
Thompson’s wallet in his hand. He rifles through it, grabs a couple
plastic cards and dollar bills, and slides them into his back
pocket. I’m curled up into a frozen ball hoping I’m invisible when
Lenny reaches for his skateboard, turns around to bail, and stumbles
over me.
“Jeez, what the—” His face hangs over me; his shadow stretches
across the alley like some kind of giant.
“I fell,” I say.
He looks around real quick, stares at me real hard, his eyes like
laser beams cutting into my flesh. “Hey . . . ya know what happens
to rats?” he asks. I shake my head. Out of the corner of my eye I
see that little dog duck behind a garbage can. “They get their
brains squashed in rat traps, that’s what happens.” Lenny stands
there, his nostrils flared, his teeth clenched, and I wish I could be
anywhere else but here. He raises his hand over his head and I
think he’s gonna bring it down across my body like a sledgehammer,
but luckily he just flings Mrs. Thompson’s empty wallet and
it smacks me in the head. He laughs then skates away.

I peel myself off the asphalt, brush all the dirt and stuff off my
clothes, when I feel something press against my leg. It’s that stray
dog, rubbing against me, whimpering. He looks hungry . . . really
hungry. I look at my watch; first period starts in five minutes. I
know if I don’t get on my board right now and skate as fast as I can
. . . I’m gonna be late, but then the dog whines and stares up at me
with big eyes. I shake my head and sigh, reach into my backpack,
tear my bologna sandwich in half, and drop to one knee. “Here,
boy,” I say. He wolfs it down then licks my face. I hop on my board
and skate the rest of the way to school thinking about what I’d
write on that billboard if I had the nerve.

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