Today's Reading

"Day four," Jason said. He hadn't combed his hair, either, and he knew it went five directions at once. Only one of his shoes was tied. The other one he had overknotted yesterday and couldn't get it undone. He had actually worn his left shoe to bed last night. He watched Madeline coughing and digging through her backpack for her textbook. She really shouldn't be here. She didn't even notice the substitute call her name. "Here," he said.

The substitute looked at Jason over the top of his glasses. "Your name is Madeline Oliver?"

"Nah, it's my partner, but she's busy coughing up a lung. She needs to go to the office."

The sub regarded Madeline skeptically. He had a big nose and a wreath of brown hair that stuck up on the sides. He looked like an angry koala bear. "It's not my first time as a substitute," he said.

"I'm fine," Madeline said, still coughing.

"Try not to distract the class," he said, and continued calling roll.

Jason spun on his stool. He knew what was coming. He leaned over and whispered to Madeline, "He's going to read my Chinese name, I can feel it. And he's gonna say it wrong. I hate this guy already. Maybe you should take your inhaler."

"Already took it," she said, gasping for air between words.

He opened her purse—she tried to stop him, and yes, he knew you shouldn't dig in a girl's purse—and pulled out her inhaler. He shook it three times and handed it to her. She took a deep puff, her eyes shut. She leaned on the counter, panting.

"Song Wuh," the substitute said.

"Jason," he called. "It's Jason."

"Says Song Wuh here."

Jason sighed. Should he correct the guy? He got so tired of correcting people when they said his name wrong. "With Jason in parentheses, right? And it's pronounced woo, and the o in Song is long, like in hope. Wu Song, that's how you say it—family name first. It's not that hard. Seriously."

The substitute wrote something on his paper. "Ah. Jason. Yes, the principal mentioned you."

The principal mentioned him? It made him sound like some sort of troublemaker. One little incident with a man's fake hair and you're branded for life. Was it in his personal record? Would it follow him to college? Make sure this boy never gets near a toupee—he will take it and run around the gym, waving it like a hairy flag. Oh yeah. He had done that, too. He hadn't run it up the flagpole, though. That had been someone else.

"Is my name so hard?" Jason asked Madeline. "Wu Song is famous, too. Killed a man-eating tiger with his bare hands. Doesn't seem like it's asking too much to get my name right, especially when I'm named after a famous guy."

"Your life is hard," Madeline gasped. She had her phone out and was texting someone.

"It's like mispronouncing Robin Hood."

"Jason." Her body listed to one side, like a sinking ship. She grasped at the counter, trying to keep herself upright. Jason grabbed her sleeve, pulling her toward him, pulling her upright, and then she was slipping, falling. Her arm slid out of her jacket, and she half rolled, half fell onto the floor, her head knocking against the polished cement.

Jason jumped off his stool, knocking it over with a clang. He threw Madeline's stool out of the way and knelt over her. He asked if she was okay, but she didn't answer.

"Mr. Substitute," Jason shouted. "Call an ambulance."

"You two stop messing around."

"She's actually sick," Jason shouted, and other kids in the class chimed in, telling the sub it was true, that she had some lung sickness or something.

"I'll call the office," he said, but he was still standing there, staring.

Madeline's eyes rolled back into her head, and her skin went pale. Jason put his hand on her face. Cold and clammy. She wasn't breathing. A knot of panic sat in his chest, small and cold as her skin. For a second he was looking at Jenny's face, still and pale, but he shoved the image out of his mind, hard. He needed to think about right now. He tilted Madeline's head back and got ready to do chest compressions.

One of the other kids said, "Dude, you're not going to—"

"Shut up," Jason said, and started chest compressions.

He pinched her nose shut, sealed his mouth over hers, and breathed two quick breaths into her mouth. Her chest rose, she coughed, and she started to breathe again.

"Her color is coming back," one of the kids said.

The substitute stood there at the end of the row, the stack of worksheets in his hand. His mouth was open, and his glasses had slid down his nose. He cleared his throat. "Calm down, class. We'll—"

Jason interrupted him. "Mr. Koala Bear. Snap out of it. Call the office. Right. Now."

This was taking too long. The sub was in shock or something. Jason pointed at a kid in the row in front of him. "You. Kid with the braces. Call 911. Tell them we're headed to the hospital."

He leaned over Madeline. "It's gonna be okay. Keep breathing." He slipped one hand under her neck, grabbed the belt loop on her jeans with the other, and lifted.

The classroom door slammed open, and Darius stood on the other side, panting. "What happened? She just texted me."

"Help me get her to the car," Jason said.

The security guard in the parking lot said something to them, but Jason rushed past. Darius shouted an explanation, and then he helped sling Madeline into Jason's sports car and put her seat belt on.

"Where are you taking her?"

"She can't breathe, Darius, where do you think? The hospital. Get in the car or step back." Why were people such idiots during times of pressure?

The car settled under Darius's weight as he got in the back. "Drive," he said.

Jason peeled out of the parking lot and screeched onto the road.

"Red light!" Darius yelled.

Jason punched it through the intersection.

"An accident won't get us there faster," Darius said.

"This isn't driver's ed," Jason said. "I know what I'm doing." He glanced at Madeline. She was coughing up blood now. There's no way he was going to stay quiet, no way he was going to wait for an ambulance. No way. "Hang in there, partner."

She coughed until she fainted. Jason laid on the horn and sped toward the hospital.


This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.
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