Chapter 1

There were plenty of things which Ari Soffit could ignore.  Sometimes he could ignore Flossie Beemis, casting dopey, dewy gazes at him over her maracas during music class. Usually he could ignore Jimmy Jasper, humming off-key, behind him in math. But he couldn’t ignore Finbar Fenker. Not anymore. Not after Finbar had spent all of recess following Arden Feeny from tree to tree singing “Feeny weeny pinto beeny, are your eyeballs brown or greeny?” Ari wondered how anyone in the entire school could ignore it.

There wasn’t any particular reason why Ari would want to defend Arden Feeny. He barely knew Arden Feeny. All Arden Feeny ever did was glare at him through her big glasses, the way she glared at everyone else in Mrs. Kirkle’s fifth grade class. And if she wasn’t glaring, she was reading encyclopedias.  Still, Ari couldn’t think of a single good reason why reading encyclopedias–or glaring– should make a person deserve to spend an entire recess being tormented by Finbar Fenker.

Ari ducked out of the dodge ball game for a minute, feeling pretty sure someone else would nail Jimmy Jasper, and he watched  Finbar doing a goony dance around Arden Feeny’s tree.

“Hey Fenker,” said Ari,  “Bug off. Go compose an opera or something.”

Finbar’s eyes got as big as saucers.

“Feeny weeny pinto beeny,” he singsonged, pointing at Ari with both index fingers. “He the king and you the queeny! Feeny beeny, marry Ari, have some kids all dumb and hairy!”

“Like you Fenker?” said Ari, wishing immediately he hadn’t.  He could almost hear Uncle Ellery’s voice: Control your temper Ari…don’t let your fists be the boss of you.

Finbar’s eyes got even bigger than saucers, or maybe it just seemed that way, because suddenly Finbar’s dorky face was singing Finbar’s dorky song five inches from Ari’s nose.

“Feeny weeny marry Ari? Feeny weeny marry Ari? Dumb and hairy! Dumb and hairy! Dumb and OOOOWWWWW! HEEEEEEEY! YOU BROKE MY NOSE! MRS. KIRKLE! ARI BROKE MY NOSE!!!!”

Luckily, Finbar’s nose was not actually broken. But it was bloody.

Ari didn’t mind the three day suspension from school for fighting.  And he didn’t really mind his appointment with the school guidance counselor. But there was one thing he did mind. And that was Uncle Ellery’s disappointed silence as Ari did his chores around the Deli. Ari hauled a smelly bag of eggshells and potato peels to the dumpster. Uncle Ellery said nothing. He just chopped onions.  Ari swept the front walk, hosed off the awning, and restocked the canned tomatoes. Uncle Ellery said nothing. He just hacked the pimento loaf into slices.  Ari wiped pickle juice off the counter and refilled the napkin holder.  Uncle Ellery said nothing. He just pounded on the bagel dough. Hard.

Ari thought his brain would explode from the silence.

“I didn’t mean to hit him,” Ari said quietly as he closed the napkin holder.

“Ari,” said Uncle Ellery. “Remember where I grew up?”

Ari did remember. Because they’d had this conversation about one-hundred times. But at least Uncle Ellery was talking.

“Daylatch Military Academy,” replied Ari, “For Active Boys.”

“And why did I go there Ari?” asked Uncle Ellery between pounds on the dough.

“Because you kept getting into fights, and Gran and Gramps didn’t know what to do with you,” replied Ari.

Uncle Ellery stopped pounding and looked Ari right in the eyes.

“Ari,” he said, “I left Daylatch Academy ten years ago. I have not thrown a punch since then. You’re going to have to trust me on this–fighting is almost never a good idea.”

“So what do you do now?” said Ari. “What do you do when someone makes you really angry?”

Uncle Ellery picked up a heavy cleaver.

“I chop vegetables,” he replied. “Or knead bagel dough…but at school you’re just going to have to ignore the bugger and count to ten. Or maybe one hundred!”

The bell on the Deli door jingled. Ari started to duck behind the counter. Then he caught Uncle Ellery’s glare.

“Ariiiii…,” said Flossie Beemis  sashaying up to the counter with a stack of papers. Her eyes looked as dewy and dopey as ever, and they were staring straight at him.

Ari found himself both appalled and intrigued by the green powdery stuff she’d smeared on her eyelids.

Flossie giggled.

“I told Mrs. Kirkle I’d bring you your missed homework,” she said. “We’re starting square dancing in gym tomorrow. With partners. You’ll be back won’t you?”

Ari nodded. He felt like a squirming worm on a fish hook.

Flossie left with a wink of her dewy, green-smeared eyes. Ari let out a relieved breath. Uncle Ellery grinned. And the pile of homework sat there waiting.

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