Two minutes passed, then three.
Nicholas had almost decided it was a false alarm, when he heard whispers in the passage. They were startlingly close to where he crouched on the dark stairs. Indeed, if the door had not been there, he could have reached out and grabbed the whisperers. Or vice versa. Through the keyhole he caught a glimpse of a leather belt cinched carelessly about its owner's waist — two frayed denim loops had been missed entirely — and then a large, scuffed metal belt buckle rotated into view. The person had turned toward the door. A hand passed slowly across the keyhole view, reaching for the doorknob.
There was nothing for it — he could hardly leap away — and so Nicholas swung the door open and sprang out of the stairway with a grin."There you are!" he cried, beaming at three startled boys in the passage. They were giants compared to Nicholas — eleven or twelve years old, and all of them big for their age. All had crew cuts like John's. The one with the belt buckle, who was also the tallest, had jumped back to avoid being struck by the opening door. He was holding Nicholas's suitcase.
"I heard you were looking for me," Nicholas said, grinning. "You are the Spiders, aren't you? I've heard great things about you already! Great things!"
The belt buckle boy was evidently the leader, for the other two were looking back and forth between him and Nicholas, wondering what would come next. But the belt buckle boy was staring at Nicholas in astonishment, as if this newcomer had just claimed to be a talking squirrel and shown his tail to prove it. The boy licked his lips, which were quite chapped, and after a long, considered pause, he said, "What?"
"I'm excited about initiation," Nicholas said, lowering his voice confidentially, as if they might be overheard. "I love secrets! But I'm worried Mr. Collum will stop us. What should we do?"
"Do?" said the belt buckle boy. He glanced around at the others,who were clearly confused. One of them — a pale, lanky boy with a pinched expression, as if he'd just eaten something bitter — was mumbling the words that Nicholas had spoken. He seemed to be trying to get at their meaning by saying them himself.
"Yes, do!" Nicholas said, clasping his hands together. "I've never had an initiation before. It's a kind of welcoming party, right? I don't want to miss it, but Mr. Collum will be here any second!"
"So you think..." said the belt buckle boy, with a slowly spreading grin that showed he understood the situation now — or thought he did, anyway. He chuckled, then tried to mask it with a cough. "Well, little buddy, that won't be a problem, see, because we're headed to the bathroom. That's where we do it. Come on, we'll show you. It's just around the corner." He winked at the other boys, who were now exchanging knowing looks. They both spoke up in false- friendly tones, encouraging Nicholas to join them.
Nicholas was surprised by their winks and insincere manner — even a toddler would have been suspicious, he thought — but of course he pretended he hadn't noticed. "The bathroom? But Mr. Collum is in the bathroom — that's where he's coming from!"
Once again the Spiders looked stunned.
The pale, lanky boy said, "The bathroom around the corner? Are you sure?"
"But we just saw him in his office talking to John Cole!" put in the third boy, a handsome, muscular brute who seemed already to have a mustache, or at least the shadowy beginnings of one. "How did he get up here so fast? We're fixed good if he catches us, Moray!" He looked anxiously to the belt buckle boy.
"Shut up, both of you, and let me think!" Moray hissed, and the features of his face — round cheeks, dark, round eyes, a smallish snub nose — all bunched together into a circle of concentration so tiny that a coffee cup might have covered them entirely. He licked his chapped lips again. "I don't see how old Collum could have got past us —"
"He came up these stairs," Nicholas interjected, "and then he told me to go back down and turn off the light while he paid a visit to thebathroom. He seemed to be in an awful hurry — I think it was an emergency."
"These stairs?" Moray said. Nicholas watched him working it out in his mind. "The servants' stairs?"
"That sounds like Collum, all right," said the handsome, muscular boy. "Turning off the light, I mean."
"So he really could be here any second?" said the lanky boy. His tone was worried now, but he still looked simply peevish, as if he had mothballs in his mouth.
"That's what he said, isn't it?" whispered the muscular one, shooting the peevish one a contemptuous look. The two of them fell at once into a heated, whispered argument, during which Nicholas learned that the muscular boy was called Breaker, and the other was called Iggy.
Pretending to be alarmed, Nicholas urgently laid his finger againsthis lips, signaling them to be quiet. With a start, they remembered why theywere arguing, and fell silent, glancing apprehensively toward the candle corner. Moray, meanwhile, had screwed his face up tight again, presumably trying extra hard to think.
"I know!" Nicholas said, softly snapping his fingers. "You can sneak down these stairs, and we'll do the initiation tomorrow. Should I bring cookies? I was given some when I left the last place. They're right in here!" He took the suitcase from Moray, who released it without thinking (no doubt he was unused to having things snatched from him), and stepped aside to let them pass. "Don't worry, I won't say a word to Mr. Collum. Just tell me where to meet you!"
Moray hesitated, perhaps wondering what kind of cookies Nicholas had. Then he nodded. "Bathroom around the corner. Right after breakfast. We'll be waiting for you."
"Swell!" Nicholas said, flashing an eager grin. "Oh, that's swell of you, Moray! Thank you!"
Moray regarded him with affection, rather as a weasel might look upon an unguarded chicken. "Don't mention it. Oh, and don't mention it to anyone else, either. Not a word about initiation to anyone, got it? You don't want to ruin the surprise."
Nicholas looked horrified. "Oh no! That's the last thing I'd do!"
"Good man," Moray said, patting Nicholas's shoulder. "And be sure to bring those cookies."
Nicholas put his hand over his heart. "I will, Moray! You can count on me! Good night, Moray! Good night, fellows!"
Moray smirked and hurried down the stairs, followed by the other Spiders, looking equally smug. "Did you see the honker on that kid?" whispered Breaker when they were only halfway down the stairs.
Nicholas heard him quite plainly, along with Iggy's snickering reply: "How could I have missed that? It looked like something out of a root cellar!"
All three were chuckling when Nicholas abruptly closed the door, shutting them into blackness. He heard them stumbling and cursing, which gave him some small satisfaction. He opened the door a crack and whispered down into the darkness, "Sorry! I heard someone coming!" then quickly closed it again. Moments later he heard the downstairs door rattle open and bang shut. The Spiders were much less cautious now that they weren't sneaking up on him.
Nicholas sank to the floor, his heart hammering like a woodpecker against his rib cage. It seemed a miracle that he hadn't gone to sleep and fallen at the bullies' feet. That was something, anyway. And he had managed not to get his head dunked in a toilet (he was sure that was what initiation involved), so all in all it was a successful escape — perhaps even one of his best.
But Nicholas had made things far worse for himself in the long run, and he knew it. There is no fury greater than one born of humiliation, and when Nicholas didn't show up the next morning, the Spiders would realize that he had indeed humiliated them. A nine-year-old duping them so easily? With no warning, no preparation at all? Oh yes, he had made the Spiders look like fools, and they would understand that all too soon. If it hadn't been personal before, it most certainly would be now. The bullies would do everything in their power to get him back. They would do their worst — and from the look of them, their worst would be terrible indeed.
Yet what else could Nicholas have done? Let them humiliate him? No, that never had been an option. Nicholas simply didn't have it in him to give in to bullies. He never had. If they wanted to humiliate him, they were going to have to work for it.
With a groan, Nicholas leaned back against the stairway door. This whole situation felt sadly familiar. But the Spiders were much bigger than any bullies he'd ever known, and this place was so large that there had to be countless shadowy corners in which to trap unsuspecting victims. Like actual spiders, he thought. He drew up his knees and rested his chin on them. Had he really been thinking, back at the train station, that this new place could hardly be worse than the last?
So much for that.
From the book The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict by Trenton Lee Stewart. Copyright 2012 by Trenton Lee Stewart. Illustrations Copyright 2012 by Diana Sudyka. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.