Malcolm at Midnight, page 1
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
Dear Mr. Binney
Epilogue, or, Thought you Might Want to Know
Text copyright © 2012 by Rebecca Hogue Wojahn
Illustrations copyright © 2012 by Brian Lies
All rights reserved. For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children is an imprint of
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
The illustrations are pencil and powdered graphite on vellum.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
Beck, W. H., 1970–
Malcolm at midnight / W. H. Beck ;
[illustrated by] Brian Lies.
Summary: Malcolm, a smaller than average rat, loves life at McKenna School and the secret society of classroom pets that keep children out of trouble, but when Aggy the iguana disappears Malcolm must use all of his ratty persistence to prove his innocence and save her. ISBN 978-0-547-68100-9 (hardback) [1. Mystery and detective stories—Fiction. 2. Rats as pets—Fiction. 3. Pets—Fiction. 4. Animals—Fiction. 5. Schools—Fiction. 6. Secret societies—Fiction. 7. Humorous stories.] I. Title.
FOR MY OWN NUTTERS
AND LANKY, CAL, ELI, AND DON.
TO MY SECOND GRADE TEACHER,
NANCY VANATTA —
A TEACHER OF VALOR
AND MERIT !
I found the following note and story on my desk when I came in to work one morning. Who wrote it? Well, I have my ideas...
Mr. Mark Binney, fifth grade teacher
Dear Mr. Binney,
You asked us how that ring came to be on your desk the morning after the Dedication Day carnival. You said we could leave you an anonymous note. That you just wanted—needed—to know. Well, it took a while, but here it is. Some parts you may recognize. Some parts might get you mad. But all of it is true.
A lot happens in school when the teachers aren't looking.
It began with a rat. There was also a glasses-wearing elderly iguana, a grumpy fish who could spell, a ghost in the clock tower, a secret message in the library, and a twisted evil that lived on the fourth floor of our school. But those'll all come later. First, there was a rat: Malcolm.
I know this'll surprise you, Mr. Binney, but yes, Malcolm's a rat. I know because he told me so.1 Don't feel bad about bringing him to our class thinking he was a mouse. He is small. And that pimply clerk down at the Pet Emporium just wants to sell anything. I know—once he tried to convince me a goldfish was still alive even though it was floating upside down!
Remember, too—back then, last fall, you were kind of ... distractible. Like a kid listening to his mom while Cartoon Network is blaring. Hearing, maybe, but not really listening. I know why now, but still. That must have helped the clerk's duplicity.2
So, I suppose, in an effort to get down the whole story, I should share how it happened. How Malcolm came to stay in Room 11 with us fifth-graders. I know you know this part, Mr. Binney, but I suppose it's important to tell the whole story.
Malcolm doesn't remember much before the Pet Emporium. Maybe he was born there. He does know that he used to be in a cage with lots of other rats. But they all got sold. People want their money's worth, and the tiniest rat isn't the one to pick. Of course, when you're being sold as feeder rats, maybe that's not the worst thing.
So, Malcolm was the lone rat in his cage when you walked in that day, Mr. Binney. You came in for fish food, but somehow you found yourself stopped in front of the "Pocket Pets" section, jiggling a little square box in your hands. Every few minutes, you cracked it open and peeked inside.
Malcolm was racing on his wheel. He's very fast. Maybe you weren't really looking at him, but you have to admit, there's something about Malcolm that catches the eye.
The pimply-faced clerk noticed your pause. "Can I help you?" he asked. "Hey, don't you teach at McKenna School? I used to go there."
You jerked a little, snapped the box shut, and shoved it in your pocket. "Um—what? Yes, yes, I do." You pointed at Malcolm. "Cute ... mouse. That brown splotch on his back almost makes him look like he's wearing a cape."
"Mouse?" The clerk frowned and chomped on his gum. He glanced at the cage, then the frown switched to a slick smile. He slid in front of the sign that read RATS, $2.99 EACH and rolled his gum to the other side of his mouth. "Yes, he is a handsome one. You know, ra —mice make great classroom pets. And they're quiet and don't take up much room. Smart, too."
You both watched as Malcolm started licking himself. All over.
The clerk cleared his throat. "And, well—clean."
Malcolm finished grooming his tail. He considered your conversation. Whatever a "classroom" was probably was preferable to being sold to the next python owner.
Malcolm put his paws up on his food dish and stared at you. You've maybe never noticed, Mr. Binney, but Malcolm's got very intelligent eyes. Shiny dark brown, like steaming coffee. He added a little squeak.
You nodded. "Yes. Maybe. What kinds of supplies would I need?"
The clerk cracked his gum and grinned. "Well, let me show you our selection of cages and water bottles over here..."
And that was how Malcolm came to live in Room 11 at McKenna Elementary School in Clearwater, Wisconsin. With a three-story deluxe cage, a fleece-lined Comf-E-Cube, a tail-safe plastic exercise wheel, and a drip-free, antibacterial water bottle.
By the way, Malcolm wants to thank you for all that.
McKenna at Midnight
Malcolm thought McKenna School might be the grandest place ever. Once at the Pet Emporium, he overheard a girl wearing a tiara describe a princess's castle. The steep brick walls, the rows of tall windows with their rippling glass, the tile and woodwork worn dark and smooth—it all seemed to fit. McKenna even had a tower with a white round face looming above the arched entrance. Of course, Malcolm's view of Clearwater up until then was the inside of a musty pet store and a rumbly Toyota, so anything was impressive. But still. He couldn't believe this was his home now.
That first day in Room 11 started with a bunch of sticky, sweaty kids all goggling
The rest of that first morning was a blur of handing out books, labeling folders, and finding lockers. The room was packed with kids. It reminded Malcolm of the rat cage at the Pet Emporium when a new shipment of rats arrived. Lots of crowding, pushing, and squabbling as each kid staked out his territory. The classroom was so crammed with students that one, Amelia Vang, had to share Malcolm's table. Malcolm liked her right away. She lined up her notebooks and erasers just so. And each notebook was labeled. Science. Math. Writing. Malcolm wasn't sure what those things were, but he liked the order of it.
Finally, when Malcolm's head ached and buzzed from all the directions and rules, you pulled out your high stool, Mr. Binney, and opened a book. In fact, you pulled your stool right up next to Malcolm's cage. "Many of you have noticed our classroom pet. In honor of Malcolm, I have a special book for our first read-aloud: The Tale of Despereaux."
Malcolm's ears perked up. How exciting to have a story read in his honor!
Then you continued, Mr. Binney. "It's a story with a mouse hero."
Malcolm's ears drooped. A mouse story? Hold on a whisker. Malcolm was willing to be mistaken for a mouse in order to not be sold as a snack for a snake, but this misunderstanding had to end! One thing people don't know about is that rats have a very strong sense of pride.
Then you started reading, Mr. Binney. Amelia had a copy of the book, too. While the rest of us were swept away within a few pages, a horrible feeling started to climb in Malcolm's stomach. He scanned ahead, trying to see the words on Amelia's pages. Was that what people really thought of rats? That they are sneaky, conniving, lazy, greedy? Malcolm retreated to his Comf-E-Cube and stuck his ears in the fleece.
That night, Malcolm lay awake in his cage. Rats are nocturnal,3 so it wasn't unnatural for him to be awake in the dark. But this was different. You see, it was the first time Malcolm had ever—ever—been alone.
Can you imagine what it felt like for him to be alone for the first time? No hulking rats sitting on his face, no parrots across the room talking in their sleep, no wild mice sneaking in to get free meals from spilled kibble on the floor. Malcolm was alone. Shivery, echo-y alone. It was a wonderful and terrifying feeling. Finally, he got up to run a little on his tail-safe exercise wheel.
When you're alone, you have time to think. Malcolm's head was buzzing about how everyone at his new home thought he was a mouse. And that if they knew he was really a rat, they probably would be disgusted, and maybe even a little scared. Malcolm wondered what he could do about that.
When you're alone, you hear things you wouldn't normally hear. As Malcolm thought, he listened to the strange night sounds of McKenna. Far-off beeps and clicks. The distant thud of a door shutting. A faraway screech that made Malcolm shiver. Then the small creaks and cracks of the building settling.
When you're alone, you also notice things. Like the latch of the cage door. Malcolm slowed on his wheel. The wheel rocked back and forth as he stepped off it.
His door wasn't all the way shut.
Malcolm blinked. If he pushed hard enough ... He grunted as his feet slipped. Then he did it. His pink nose was out in open air! Malcolm quickly wiggled the rest of his body through and leaped onto the counter.
Suddenly, the alone-ness, the thoughts, the sounds, they were all behind him. Now Malcolm trembled.
He was free.
Now, don't get me wrong. Malcolm was happy—delighted—with life so far in Room 11,4 but ... well, if you noticed that something off-limits to you was suddenly not, wouldn't you check it out?
Maybe you'd answer differently, Mr. Binney. You're a teacher, after all. But I have to say that most regular folks—well, kids anyway (and rats, apparently)—would go for it.
Malcolm did. He figured he could easily squeak out and be right back. Surely you and the fifth-graders wouldn't return in the night. No one ever did at the Pet Emporium. Besides, he was hungry.
Malcolm's whiskers quivered. So many places to explore! He tiptoed over the neat stacks of papers and books. He took a drink from the sink. He wasn't really thirsty, but it tasted so much better than the water in his cage. Maybe it was all the bacteria.
He jumped down to the floor. Already, this was the farthest distance he had gone in his life. He had been born in a cage and lived in a cage. Malcolm sniffed out every corner of the room that night. Behind the bookcases. In the closet. Under the big desk up front. Down the marker rail of the white board. He even tried a little nibble of a social studies textbook, but it was too dry.
Then there it was: the door. It was shut, but a narrow slip of light at the bottom beckoned to Malcolm. A current of air blew in. Malcolm's nose twitched with exotic scents. Mud. Spoiled milk. Wet sneakers. He couldn't resist. He slipped under the door5 and skittered down the edge of the hallway. It was dark except for a glowing sign at either end. As he traveled down the hall, Malcolm tried to memorize the school's layout. You may not know it, Mr. Binney, but rats have a remarkable sense of feel. It's all in their whiskers.
Malcolm followed his whiskers and nose to a long, cavernous room. Windows lined one side. The rest was full of rows of books. He recognized their scent because you have so many in your classroom, Mr. Binney.
At first, Malcolm wandered under the tables. He sniffed a pink eraser. He nibbled a stale cheese puff.
Then something caught his eye. A flash of silver from the long, low counter near the door. Malcolm scrambled up the desk chair, tiptoed across the computer keyboard, and came face-to-face with a glass cage filled to the top with swirling water.
And deep in the dark water, shiny fish flashed their scales.
Malcolm, of course, was familiar with aquariums from the pet store. What's more, he had once seen a wild rat in the pet store go "fishing" for food with his tail. And here Malcolm was. All alone. Roaming free. For the first time.
Malcolm jumped up to the top of the aquarium. Along the back, open water churned. Malcolm peered into it, watching the shimmer of the fish. For a second he thought he spied something darker, something bigger, glide by. He blinked and leaned closer, but all he could see were the silver glints schooling near the top.
They were practically begging to be eaten.
Malcolm turned and stretched out his tail.6 The fish scattered at first. Then they swam back over to investigate. One tasted the tip of Malcolm's tail. Malcolm stifled a giggle. It tickled!
A bolder fish took a bigger bite. This was it! Malcolm pulled his tail up fast, but the fish slipped off and fell back in. Nubbins! This was trickier than it looked.
Malcolm was about to try again when suddenly they scattered like spitballs out of a shooter. Before Malcolm could register what was happening, a dark shape burst from the water's surface. A giant mouth opened. Then it closed—with Malcolm's tail caught inside.
Yow! You remember how much Jovahn whined when he stuck his finger in the electric pencil sharpener, Mr. Binney?7 Well, this was every bit as painful. More, maybe. Malcolm squealed and shot straight up.
But the grip on his tender tail wasn't Malcolm's only problem. No, whatever was attached to that mouth wasn't letting go. In fact—Malcolm started fumbling furiously at the edge of the glass—it was pulling him into the water.
Malcolm scrabbled for a pawhold. His claws left tiny grooves in the hard black plastic of the aquarium's lid as they scraped across its surface. But little by little, Malcolm was dragged into the swirling water.
Splash! Malcolm's back legs fell in. He rat-paddled furiously. Gristle, he was a goner! How could this be happening?
Like a rubber band shot across a classroom, Malcolm launched into the air. He flew over the aquarium and the edge of the counter. Then he was falling, falling. Finally, with a soggy thud, Malcolm landed on the worn carpet of the library floor.
Oof. Malcolm's shoulder ached, he was half-soaked, and his tail throbbed. He looked up at the aquarium. Only the sloshing water at the top gave any indication of the struggle he'd been through. What was that thing in there?
And then— brrrrring!
A bell jangled through the silence. It was a long, drawn-out rattling sound that seemed to go on and on. Malcolm's whole brain vibrated with the noise. He squeaked and leaped up so quickly, he smacked his head on a table leg. The noise came from a glass and metal disk that hung over the door. Two black arrows on it pointed straight up.
Malcolm didn't know about clocks or time yet, but it was exactly midnight.
In the quiet after the bell stopped, the noises really started. First a thump, thump, thump —getting louder as it came closer. Then a pitter-pat, pitter-pat. And then—most terrifying of all—a slow and steady scritch ... scritch ... scritch.
Malcolm trembled and darted around. Where to hide? Where to hide?
Thump, thump, thump.
Scritch ... scritch ... scritch.
They were headed his way.
The Midnight Academy
Malcolm backed away from the noises in the hallway. His sore tail hit a bookcase and he squeaked in pain. But he didn't have time to think about that. Whatever was making those noises had entered the library. The sounds were more muffled now, but still growing closer. Malcolm scurried up two shelves.