The Limit, by Kristen Landon
- ISBN: 9781442402713 | 1442402717
- Cover: Hardcover
- Copyright: 9/7/2010
AN EIGHTH-GRADE GIRL WAS TAKEN today.
Whispers and text messages flew through Grover Middle School. They slapped handcuffs on her and shoved her into the back of a van. They shot her with a tranquilizer dart in the middle of the lunchroom. She escaped and she’s hiding in the library—right now—texting her friends.
The girl went to Lakeview Middle School. My cousin goes to Lakeview. He said they called her out of first period and she never came back. An eighth grader! Nobody could believe it. Up until now they’d only taken high school students.
Up until now we thought we were off-limits.
Bam-swish. Bounce, bounce. Bam-swish.
My hand—with the follow-through fingers bent—hung high in the air. “Yeah, baby, who’s the free-throw king?”
“Four in a row. Big deal.” Brennan stretched those long arms of his toward the basketball and me. “Give it here.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I’m gonna show you up.”
“No way. I’m in the middle of a streak. Besides, you couldn’t make two free throws in a row if your perfect GPA depended on it.”
“Well, it doesn’t, Mr. 3.997.”
Ouch. Just because he never had Ms. Tullidge for English and her You must support your thesis statement with facts. And Yes, Matt, ninety-three percent is still an A-minus in my class.
“Taking your shooting history over the past seventeen minutes into account, the probability that you will successfully complete the next shot is only eight-point-seven percent,” said Lester, who’d been standing in the same spot since my mother kicked us off the computer and made us go outside and process some fresh air through your lungs, boys.
Even during a basketball game Brennan and Lester processed more numbers through their brains than air through their lungs. I probably did too.
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do.” I slammed the ball against the concrete of my driveway with every couple of words I spoke. “Anyone who gets their hands on the ball can shoot, but we’re going to score it different. We all start with . . .” Today was March 12. “Twelve points.” A car drove by. It had two eights on its license plate. “Every time you score, you get to multiply by eight. Every time you miss, you have to divide by four.” No reason for the four. I just pulled it out of the air. “First guy to a billion wins.”
“Too easy,” said Lester. “Four, eight, and twelve? Couldn’t you have thrown in a three or a seven to make it more challenging?”
“The basket is going to be your challenge, runt.” I only had a couple of inches on Lester, but that was enough.
“I think it’s the shoes,” he said, not afraid to poke fun at himself. “If I just had a pair of JockAirs, I’d score every time—according to their commercials.”
“Got that right.” Brennan laughed. “I’ll get a pair too and join the basketball team.”
I added in some fancy double-time dribbling. “Seriously, Lester, you could use a new pair of shoes. Look at those things on your feet. The stitching’s coming undone.”
“They’re okay. They’ll last a while longer.”
“Why should they?” I dribbled fast and close to the ground. “You know what brand is really sweet? Keetos.”
“Keetos? They cost . . . a lot.”
“Yeah? So? They’re cool.”
Whistling softly, he shook his head. “Extremely expensive.”
“What does it matter, if that’s what you really want?” My dribbling slowed. “It just goes on your family’s account.”
“It matters,” he said in almost a whisper. “The limit. Forget it. Can we just play?”
“Sure. Ready, set, go!” I faked a break to the right, leaving Lester off balance. As I sprinted for the basket, Brennan stretched up tall in front of me with that amazing reach of his that makes basketball coaches drool all over their sneakers—until they see him play. As I ducked and darted around my beanpole buddy, he twisted, trying to follow my move. His legs didn’t respond fast enough, and by the time I banked the ball for an easy layup, he had one hand on the ground to break his fall.
I grabbed the loose ball and headed for the back of the driveway—just to give them a chance. “Twelve times eight. Ninety-six.”
Seven more made shots with two misses thrown in got me to 12,582,912. Brennan had achieved a whopping score of 1.5. Lester hung steady at twelve.
I dribbled close to the ground, tormenting my buddies for a few more seconds. “Three more to go, boys, and there’s nothing you weenies can do to stop me.”
“Six by my calculations.” Lester crinkled his nose under his glasses as he squinted into the sun.
The ball froze between my palms. “What kindergarten calculations would those be?”
“I told you—four, eight, and twelve are too factorially compatible. In my mind I’ve been multiplying by five instead of eight—to spice things up with a few decimal points. According to my scoring system you need six more baskets.”
“Can you believe this math geek?” I asked Brennan, shifting the ball from one hand to the other.
“I’ve been multiplying by three-point-five.” He lunged for the ball, which I easily diverted with a quick dribble behind my back. Breathing heavily, he stared down at me, his hands on his hips. “According to me, you need nine more baskets.”
“Geez, thanks for your input. Doesn’t matter. Nine, five, twenty. I’m still skunking you two.”
As I visualized the trajectory of my next shot, a car horn blasted from a few houses down the street. The honking continued every four seconds until Dad pulled into the driveway, scattering the three of us.
The guys salivated as Dad’s sleek silver machine glided by us and into the garage. They continued to stare until Dad climbed out of his car and popped the trunk.
“Hey, Matt. Hello, boys.”
“Hi, Mr. Dunston,” said Lester.
Brennan only managed a sort of grunt.
“Been slaving at the computer all day?” I asked with a joking smile. The khaki pants and gray, blue, and pink argyle sweater-vest he wore made up his official golf uniform.
“Some days I wish,” he said, shaking his head. Edging back onto the concrete, I started dribbling again. Brennan waved his long arms frantically in front of my face. Lester shuffled around under the basket. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Dad pause, his golf clubs halfway out of the trunk, to study a small piece of paper.
“No, that wasn’t right. I swear I shot a birdie on the fourth hole and the thirteenth.” Dad’s mumblings grew louder and more animated by the second, soon drowning out the thump of basketball against cement. “An eagle on the eighth? I don’t think so, Miller, you cheating maggot. Ha! Par on the fifteenth. More like double bogie, with that sand trap.”
My shot fell short, and Brennan easily scooped up the rebound.
“Dad? Everything okay?”
A wide, toothy grin flashed up at me. “Sure. No problems. I just let Miller cheat me out of a few th . . . ah, a few bucks.” The smile stayed frozen in place as Dad neatly folded the paper and slid it into his back pocket. In one swift movement he spun around, snatched a loose golf ball from the trunk, and chucked it somewhere back in the garage. A clattering, crashing noise made Brennan stumble over his approach to the basket.
He lowered his arms and sent the basketball my way in a wimpy bounce pass. “You know what? I think I’m going to go home. It’s getting close to dinner.”
“Yeah, me too,” said Lester, moving faster than he had all day on the court.
“Okay, see you guys later.”
They’d hustled to the end of the block by the time I’d missed my way down to 768 points. Finally, I gave up and went inside, using the front door instead of going through the garage.
I headed straight for the kitchen, where a hearty aroma should have clued me in to what we’d soon be eating. I didn’t notice one today. Before I had the chance to open the fridge for some juice, Mom stopped me.
“Wash,” she said without turning around. The swoosh of her butcher knife slicing through celery stalks increased to hammering bangs.
“Ease up,” I said, flicking a bit of the water from my hands against the back of her neck. “What’d the celery ever do to you?”
She kept banging, harder and faster, until she reached the end of her stalk.
“I just don’t know what to do with you, Matt.”
“Um . . . buy me a car like Dad’s in three years for my sixteenth birthday?” I offered.
“I’m serious.” She turned around, that knife in her hand looking a little too much like a weapon. “Do you have any idea who I just got off the phone with?”
Of course I didn’t, so I didn’t bother answering. I don’t think she expected me to.
“And do you have a reasonable explanation for why you stopped doing your assignments in his class?”
She opened her eyes wider, even as they shot laser beams at me. The knuckles of her hand clutching the knife turned white.
“I figured it out a couple weeks ago.” My words came out fast. “I had one hundred sixty-eight percent in his class. Even if I don’t turn in another assignment for the rest of the semester, I’ll still get a strong A-plus.”
She clicked her tongue. “How can you possibly have one hundred sixty-eight percent?”
“Ask Lochee,” I said, making my voice all innocent. “All I know is what I saw in his online grade book. It’s not my fault if my assignments are so brilliant he can’t stop himself from dumping a ton of extra-credit points into my total.”
“Matt.” Shaking her head, Mom twisted her mouth to hide her growing smile. She tossed the knife into the sink and grabbed me by the shoulders. The shake she gave me was more a hug than an act of aggression. “Okay, listen. Schoolwork is about more than grades. You need to do the work to learn the material, not just to maintain a 4.0.”
3.997, but who wanted to get picky?
Abbie walked into the kitchen. “I’m hungry.”
“You,” I said, twisting to point at her. “If you finished all your work in kindergarten, would you do extra work, or would you go play?”
“Play,” she said, as if the answer were so obvious the question shouldn’t have been asked.
“See?” I said to Mom.
My other younger sister, Lauren, wandered in, her eyes stuck on her cell phone. “When’s dinner?”
“Soon,” said Mom, slipping on a pair of oven mitts.
The second she pulled open the oven door, she growled and leaned so far inside I thought the layers of makeup on her face would melt off and drip into the food. She shook the oven mitts onto the floor and grabbed the rack.
“Mom!” I yelled.
Grimacing, she slid her hands along the inside oven wall. “Lauren, run in the garage and get your father. Now!” Lauren bolted as Mom plastered her palm against the roasting pan.
“Mom,” I said, “stop touching that!”
A minute later Dad bounced into the kitchen, carrying a giggling Lauren over his shoulder. He slid her to the ground the instant his eyes landed on Mom.
“It’s cold,” she snapped. “Ice cold.”
He reached for the door of the cupboard that contained our stash of chips and crackers. “So call a repairman.”
“And have it break again in a week? No thank you. We’re buying a new oven, and this time we’re not going the frugal route. I’m getting every feature that’s available—just like the model Wendy Beil bought last month.”
“Anything you want, love.” Dad blew her a kiss, poked me in the ribs, and said softly in my ear, “If a new oven’s what it takes to bribe your mom into putting on a killer dinner for the Duprees, then that’s what we’ll have to buy her.” He spoke louder, so Mom could hear. “Order it right away, honey. We’re going to nail that Dupree account. Matt, start shopping for a new bike.”
“But I just got—”
He wasn’t listening.
“Lauren, what do you want, baby? A new phone?”
“Okay,” she said, her thumbs going crazy on her current one.
“Can I have a pony?” asked Abbie.
“Absolutely.” Dad rubbed his hands together. “I’m going to buy a set of custom titanium golf clubs and finally step up to a country club membership.”
“I’ll buy you anything you want too, Becca.” Dad blew her another kiss. He pumped his fists and shook his hips in a weird, embarrassing, grown-up-person sort of dance as he headed for his room to change out of his golf uniform.
Ten minutes later the five of us sat around the table over bowls of freshly nuked frozen stew. Bored, Dad turned the conversation away from Abbie’s description of her day in kindergarten.
“So, what’s the news from middle school? Anything as exciting as a boy bringing his dead pet cricket for show and tell?”
I let out a snort. “Hardly. Middle school puts me to sleep.”
“What about that girl they snatched?” Lauren asked.
Mom dunked a corner of bread into the juices of her stew. “Who snatched what girl? Did the police come? I’m surprised I didn’t hear about this.”
“She wasn’t kidnapped. I don’t know who took her,” said Lauren, chatting away as calmly as if discussing how one of her little twelve-year-old friends had a crush on a certain boy that week. “Those people who take kids whose families go over their limit came and got her.”
Dad’s fork clattered to the table. “Is this true, Matt? They took a kid from middle school?”
“I guess,” I mumbled. Stupid Lauren. I wish she’d think before she talked. Dad was sure to start fuming about our overreaching, too-powerful government, blah, blah, blah.
“Middle school kids.” Dad shook his head. A second later his fist came down hard against the table, making a splatter of milk fly out of his glass. The rest of us jumped. “I knew it. They suck us into a bad idea—make us accept it—and then crank up the rottenness another couple of notches. It’s only been what—two years since they started this workhouse program?”
“A year and a half,” Mom corrected.
“Either way, not long at all,” said Dad. “The whole stinking program is just going to get worse and worse.” Dad flung his napkin onto the table. A corner of the white fabric landed in his bowl, soaking up the brown liquid.
Mom took another careful bite of stew and lowered her fork slowly to the table. “I just can’t imagine any parent choosing to send one of their children to that place. What’s the name of the family the girl came from?”
“I don’t know,” said Lauren. “She went to Lakeview. Goes. She goes to Lakeview. At least she will again when they let her come back. The kids are supposed to come back someday, aren’t they? I mean, we’ve never known anyone who’s come back, but we’ve also never known anyone who got taken. They really don’t take many kids there, do they.” Stupid, stupid Lauren. Dinner isn’t supposed to be so tense. Can we just drop this subject? “I wish we did know someone. I’d love to find out what goes on inside those workhouses.”
“No you wouldn’t,” I said. No one really knew, of course, besides the families who’d been directly affected—and I didn’t think it was a subject they loved to brag about. I could sure imagine what went on inside the workhouses.
“Did you say the girl went to Lakeview? That would explain it, then.” Mom dug into her stew. “Those people who live in the Lakeview boundaries haven’t got the sense of a donkey. We can’t expect them to be able to manage their accounts. I suppose the government had no choice but to step in. Honey, will you please pass me the pepper?”
© 2010 Kristen Landon