Ben stared at his quiz paper, trying to remember the capital of Pennsylvania. He knew that it wasn't Pittsburgh. Was it Scranton?
Excerpted from Kickers #3: Benched by Rich Wallace; illustrated by Jimmy Holder Copyright © 2010 by Rich Wallace. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
He glanced across the aisle at his best friend Erin's paper, but she hadn't reached that question yet. So he tried to see all the way across the next aisle to Loop's.
"Ben!" his teacher said sharply. "Keep your eyes on your own paper."
Ben looked down. He didn't want to cheat. He just wondered if anyone else was struggling the way he was.
The last state on the list was New York. He wrote Albany in the space. He was sure he had eight of the ten capitals right, but he'd left Maine blank. Was it Portland? Or was that the capital of Oregon? He just couldn't concentrate this morning.
At recess, Ben kept to himself instead of joining his usual game of four square. He hadn't had enough sleep last night. His parents had been arguing about something until nearly midnight.
Mom and Dad had been very quiet at breakfast this morning. Ben could tell that something was wrong.
So he took a seat on a swing and slowly moved back and forth, staring into space and thinking. Usually he'd be running and jumping and burning off energy with the other fourth graders. But right now, he had no energy at all.
A red ball was rolling quickly past. Ben stopped the swing and put his foot on it. When he looked up, Loop was running toward him.
Ben picked up the ball and tossed it to Loop, who grabbed it with one hand and bounced it. "What are you doing over here?" Loop asked.
Ben shrugged. "Just thinking."
Loop took a step closer and leaned toward Ben. "Eyes on your own paper!" he said, imitating the teacher.
Ben frowned. "Very funny." He and Loop were friends but rivals. They competed hard against each other in sports and games.
"I thought you were the perfect student," Loop said. "What did you do, forget to study?"
"I studied. I was distracted this morning."
"Still thinking about that beating we gave your team a few weeks ago?" Loop said with a laugh.
"Maybe I'm thinking about the beating you'll be getting if you don't shut up." Ben made a fist and held it up.
Loop raised both hands as if to surrender, but he had a big grin. "Look how scared I am," he said. "I'm shaking."
"Get lost," Ben said. He pumped his legs hard to get the swing moving again.
Loop went back to the four-square game. Ben kept swinging. The October sun was warm on his bare arms.
It was true that Loop's team had shut out Ben's team in a Kickers League soccer game. Ben was still sore about it, but that wasn't the trouble today. Besides, Ben's team had won its most recent game and was in the chase for a spot in the play-offs. It looked as if the Bobcats would get in if they won two of their last three games.
Ben looked up. Loop was waving him over to the four-square game. "We need you," he called.
Ben could see his classmate Nigel sitting on the ground with his head back, pressing on his nose. There was blood seeping through his fingers.
"What happened?" Ben asked as he walked over.
"Nigel took a whack in the nose," Loop said. "We need another player."
A teacher came over and helped Nigel to his feet, then led him toward the school. There were drops of blood on the front of Nigel's shirt.
"Did he get hit with the ball?" Ben asked.
Loop shook his head. "The ball was on the line and he and Mark both dived for it."
Ben looked at Mark. Mark frowned and rubbed the top of his head.
"Okay, so what square am I in?" Ben asked.
"First, of course," Loop said.
Ben didn't feel like playing, but they needed at least four for a game, so he stepped in. Then he noticed Erin walking over, so now there would be five players.
When Ben looked back, the ball was already coming toward him. He lunged for it, but it bounced in his square and went out-of-bounds.
"I wasn't ready for that," Ben said.
"Too bad," Loop said. "You were at the square."
"I was here for about half a second!"
"Doesn't matter. If you're at the square, you're ready."
Ben stood still with his mouth hanging open. Then he gave Loop a hard look and stepped to the side of the court. Erin replaced Ben in the first square.
That was no fun, Ben thought, folding his arms. I might as well go back to the swings.
But with only five players, he'd be back in the game as soon as this round ended. First chance he had, he'd get back at Loop.
Mark muffed an easy shot and stepped off the court with a sheepish smile. Erin moved up one square and Ben came back in.
The ball moved quickly around the court. Ben knocked it into Erin's square, then returned a volley from Jordan. He was biding his time, waiting for the perfect chance to smack that ball hard into Loop's square.
Here it came. Jordan hit the ball softly and it bounced straight up in front of Ben. Ben whipped the side of his hand into the middle of the ball, chopping it on a line drive at Loop. The ball dipped and just barely caught the inside of the square, then bounced across the playground.
"You're out!" Ben said.
Loop was jogging after the ball, but he turned his head and said, "No way."
"No slams allowed," Loop said. "You know the rules."
"That wasn't a slam," Ben said. "A slam has to bounce higher than your shoulder."
"No, it didn't!" Ben took several quick steps to come face to face with Loop. "You're out," he said.
"Quit being a baby," Ben said, giving Loop a shove.
Loop shoved back harder.
Ben was in no mood for talking. He took a swing at Loop, hitting him in the shoulder. Loop swung back but Ben ducked.
Head down, Ben wrapped his arms around Loop and tackled him to the pavement. Immediately they were circled by dozens of kids, all yelling at once.
Loop rolled on top of Ben, but Ben dug in with his heels and flipped Loop off of him. Two teachers pushed through the crowd. Mr. Kane grabbed Ben by the shoulders and pulled him away, yelling, "Stop it this instant!"
Ben shook free and glared at Loop. Loop glared back.
"That was a clean shot," Ben said.
"What was? The slam or the punch?"
Mr. Kane stepped between them. "Enough!" he said. "Both of you start marching. Right to Mrs. Nolan's office. Now!"
The principal's office. Ben shut his eyes and scowled. Then he looked down and saw that his pants were ripped below the right knee. His arm was scraped from the pavement.
Loop was scratched up, too.
Mr. Kane followed them to the office. Ben and Loop sat across from each other in folding chairs. They had to wait a long time.
Whenever Ben looked up, Loop was staring at him. Loop mouthed the word "jerk" several times and rubbed a fist into his palm when the secretary wasn't looking. Ben wasn't scared, but he was still angry.
When they finally got into the principal's office, she said, "It seems that there's been a lot of tension over four square lately." She looked directly at Ben. "A lot of it has involved you."
"Why is that?" she asked.
Ben jutted his thumb at Loop. "He said I slammed the ball when I didn't."
"That's not what I care about," Mrs. Nolan said. "I've had several reports of arguments, and now this fight. I don't expect that from nine-year-olds. A game isn't worth that kind of distress."
Ben looked at the floor and chewed on his lip. Mrs. Nolan told them they'd be staying in for recess for the rest of the week, and there'd be no four square for either of them for another week after that.
"Now both of you go wash up and get back to class," she said. "Can I trust you to get along?"
"Yes, ma'am," Loop said.
"Yes," said Ben.
Loop walked ahead of Ben along the hallway. He stepped into the bathroom and let the door swing back at Ben. Ben caught it with his scraped-up arm and winced.
There were four sinks. Ben stood at the one farthest from Loop and pushed the soap dispenser, then carefully lathered his arm. He looked into the mirror to see what Loop was up to, but Loop was looking down at the sink.
Loop finished washing and shook his hands rapidly. Then he cleared his throat and pulled some paper towels out of the dispenser. As he dried his hands, he leaned toward the mirror to inspect a tiny cut below his eye. "Maybe that wasn't quite a slam," he said.
Ben patted his own scrape with a paper towel. "Yeah, well, maybe I should have been ready for that first serve."
"Then again," Loop said, "it probably was a slam. Otherwise I would have returned it." He turned to Ben and grinned. Then he threw the wad of wet paper towels at him.
Ben caught the wad and threw it back. It thumped against a metal trash can and fell to the floor.
"Now that was a slam," Loop said.
Ben laughed. "What are we supposed to do all week with no recess? I'll go nuts just sitting in the classroom."
"Me too," Loop said. "Three days of that." He shook his head. "That's what I call distress."