It's not necessary, but it might help if you read part 1.
Sick with children, the colossal red-brick building sneezed and the entire fourth grade shot out of its doors. 122 ten-year olds exploded onto the green hillside, kicking dust and mud onto the beastly edifice. They were like a happy load of buckshot, a swarm of jubilant disorder, all of them running, tripping, jumping for freedom. All of them except for one; a really little, skinny one called Adam. This one shuffled from the building, his frail, brainy body moving in slow motion while the other children blurred past. He stared at the grass as shoe-drawn currents ripped through it, fatefully tearing and snapping select blades, leaving others to stand the test of life for at least a few more moments.
Adam shrank into the grass, got small like the ants and climbed aboard a prime leaf, the perfect launchpad. He waited and watched, ready to surf the next hapless wave that followed in the wake of his new classmates.
"Heads up! Heads up! Heads up, uh, Adam? Heads up ADAM?" He looked up, but it was too late. Whack! A kickball to the side of the face and Adam dropped to the ground. Tommy Keeler, a miniature lumberjack with hair the color of vacuum-cleaner dust, ran over and grabbed the ball. Adam held his burning right cheek and hid his pain, keeping Tommy Keeler in his periphery, afraid to look him in the eye. Third-grade legend taught Adam that to look Tommy Keeler in the eyes in a time of weakness meant certain death, or at least a wedgie.
Keeler loomed above him, a boulder waiting to tumble, a tidal wave ready to pummel the sand. Adam wanted very badly at that moment to be demoted back to third grade. Maybe he could find a passage if he shrank again, some kind of tiny portal hidden in the grass, a portal that would take him back to third grade, a portal that would make him normal, like the other nine-year olds. He tried to shrink again, but Keeler stopped him with his voice. "Sorry, didn't mean to hit ya. You're still smart, right?"
"You didn't become retarded or nothin' from bein' hit in the head, did ya?"
"No, no I'm OK." If anything, the knock on the head unlocked another of his mystery abilities, like time travel or laser eyes.
"Good," Tommy Keeler nodded and looked around to make sure no one was watching, "Hey, don't cover your tests so much in class. Mrs. Carnanan don't like it when kids do that. She likes to see all the tests. I know -- I've been in fourth grade all year long."
Keeler's ruse was easy to see through, even for a child. Adam's alphabetically assigned seat happened to place him directly to left of Tommy Keeler. Keeler's tests had a notorious thirst for red ink -- a thirst dutifully quenched by Mrs. Carnanan's pen.
"I don't think that's a good idea." Adam uttered and stared at the grass, thinking he might be able to shrink back into it again.
"I do and I think I might tell Mrs. Carnanan if you keep doin' it."
Adam called his bluff, "Tommy, you can't cheat off of me."
Keeler's nostrils flared, "Oh, I don't know about you. I don't know about you. Do you think ya could punch me out? I don't think ya could, but I think I could punch you out." Tommy Keeler's eyes became black and dumb like the eyes of great white shark.
Adam sat motionless, his own eyes following an ant gliding down a blade of grass. Tiny and nearly weightless, the insect touched earth and scrambled into an anthill disappearing from the dangerous world outside. Adam wanted to step into his own anthill, but Tommy Keeler's stare shackled him to the ground, powerless. Maybe the ant saw what was going on and knew Adam was in trouble. Maybe six billion of his brothers and sisters would crawl out of the anthill and march up Tommy Keeler's legs, across his belly and chest and swarm his eyes, eating away his onyx gaze. He'd collapse, his flannel shirt and ripped jeans colored by new grass stains with every tumultuous wriggle.
"Hey Tommy," Keeler's partner in crime, Jimmy Keyman shouted from the center of the makeshift kickball diamond, "let's go." A cloud of ten-year-old toughs stood at Keyman's side, grey, scruffy, and expressionless.
Keeler intensified his stare for a moment, just long enough to let Adam feel its squeeze, and ran to join the pack of future gas station attendants who awaited his company.
As soon as Keeler's focus inched away, Adam let himself get small again, even smaller than before, small enough to drift like a dandelion seed floating in the air, aimless and hoping for safe ground. As he let the day's slight breeze push him over the playground, over the fourth grade, he remembered third grade recess. It was only a month ago that he and Billy Switzer, after laboring for nearly five whole minutes on a sketched-out plan, found a way to travel into outer space using nothing but their digital watches and a piece of quartz they'd found in the gravel pit near the sliding board. They got on the merry-go-round and their friend, the mighty John Maynard, pushed it. With every revolution the speed increased and the sky got darker; blue, indigo, navy blue, black, the force of gravity tugging on their cheeks, giving them stretchy faces. Stars whizzed by and moon grew closer until, success! They landed on the moon and, reaching back through the cosmos, pulled John Maynard up there with them. The three stood on the celestial body, gazing down at their third-grade compatriots dotting the grassy hills outside of Weisburg Elementary.
Adam wished he had stayed on the moon that day. That was the day the teachers told him he'd learned everything, that nothing challenging remained for him in the third grade, that he needed a challenge and fourth grade was a grade filled with challenge. In addition to all of the inherit challenge, fourth grade was filled with 122 kids, big kids, kids a year older, kids Adam didn't know. So the smallest, smartest, shyest kid in third grade was dropped into fourth grade; he was the freakish 123rd student. He'd choose the solitude of outer space any day over a promotion to fourth grade.
Tiny and alone, he landed on the last bit of lawn on the playground, a small slope, a buffer zone between the school's property and a nearby forest. He looked up hill and saw Mrs. Carnanan and Mr. Billman, tiny specks half-heartedly presiding over the hundred-plus kids playing on the hilly expanse. Safe from their distant eyes, Adam strolled along the edge of the forest, finding solace in the rustling leaves and cool air that edged out onto the grass. He spotted a squirrel on a tree branch and stopped to watch it. It nervously nibbled on an acorn, each of its movements fast with the twitch of anxiety. A tenuous peace surrounded the squirrel like a soap bubble -- glistening one moment, gone the next.
The squirrel froze and Adam heard a noise. Something in the forest stepped lightly, cautiously, hunting. It was after the squirrel. The squirrel felt its pursuer nearing but held fast, froze, a perfect statue, no longer eating. The hunter, shrouded in the trees' shadows, took another step and the squirrel ran, clawing its way up the tree onto a high branch, and jumped away into the forest's dark canopy. The dissapointed hunter's pace relaxed and it began to walk freely.
"Those squirrels are absolutely no fun, no fun at all," the voice came from near the ground, from the same place as the hunter's footsteps. It was a deep, gruff voice, the voice of a favorite uncle or likable-yet-tough TV detective. It was exiting the forest, nearing Adam. In situations like this he'd usually retreat: shrink, become invisible, disappear and reappear somewhere else, somewhere safe, but for some reason, he didn't feel threatened. Curiosity glued Adam in place. He watched the thicket, waiting to meet whoever or whatever this hunter was. The unruly brush at the edge of the forest rustled and through the weeds Adam saw bits of the creature: white fur spotted with brown fur and a pair of torn-up khaki pants. The thing struggled and complained, cursing the briars and snapping branches. Finally breaking free, it leapt out of the forest. It was a medium-sized dog wearing pants.
"Hey kid, why didn't you help me outta there? That was tough going. You could have, you know, snapped a few branches, held back the briar something, anything." The dog's fur was filthy, matted down. In some spots it actually looked glued in place.
"You can talk?"
"Of course I can talk. Hey, no time for introductions, I need your help. I was looking for you."
"You were looking for me?"
"Yeah, kid I need you. Listen, it's a long story, but I don't want to waste too much time. Just follow me."
"Are you hungry? Do you need any food?"
The dog stopped. Every dog likes food. "Make it quick kid, what do you have in your lunch?"
"Probably not too much stuff you'll like. I have a peanut butter and jell--"
"Listen, I'm on a health kick. Got any carrots? I like carrots."
"Dogs don't eat carrots."
"Yes, but I'm a talking dog and I'm on a diet. Forget it, I have to show you something up here."
Adam followed the talking dog, walking along the brink of the woods to a path entering the forest not fifty yards from where they'd met. "Look in there," the talking dog motioned toward the trailhead. Adam looked down the trail, into the lush, shadowy mass of trees. The foot-worn line of mud and dust cut through the woods like a tunnel and at the other end, a dull yellow glow shined through. Adam could just barely make out what was in there, but he knew it wasn't natural. He scanned it, studied it. It looked like an enormous mass of translucent plastic the color of fingernail clippings, giant swaths of the substance crisscrossing each other to form a wall. He noticed the edge of one the sections was serrated -- serrated like scotch tape.
The talking dog stood behind Adam, scared of whatever lay at the end of that wooded path. Just then his ears twitched. Something was coming from the playground, sneaking up behind them. The talking dog whispered, "Adam, turn around."
It was a faint rumble at first, but as it got louder and voices rode along with it, Adam realized what it was. It was the thundering gallop of misunderstanding, the narrow-minded trot of ignorance. Tommy Keeler, Jimmy Keyman, and the Future Highway Workers of America had lost their kickball and found Adam. They stood upon the hill, eight unkempt warriors, the sun shining above their mussed, kerosene-scented hair. Fueled by a bewildering hatred of the unknown, Tommy Keeler gave the signal and they charged, war whoops filling the air.