Eleven-year-old Josh Duncan has never had much luck making friendsnot the real kind, anyway. Moving to a new town is supposed to be a chance to leave behind the problems that plagued Josh at his last school. Problems like Big Brother, Josh's favorite and best friend. Because, as Josh's parents tell him, he's too old to still have imaginary friends.
But even before the first day of school is over, Big Brother reappearsand he's not alone. Only this time one of Josh's imaginary friends seems to be interacting with another boy at school, Lucas Hernandez. Can Lucas see them, too?
Brought together by an unusual classroom experiment and a mysterious invitation to join something called the Gorilla Club, Josh and Lucas are about to discover how a unique way of seeing the world can reveal a real-life friend.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The two things Josh Duncan remembered most about his very first day of school: He got a nickname, and he met Big Brother. The way the memory came back, all these years later and on another first day, seemed like a bad omen. If a person believed in those.
He tried to block out both—the nickname and Big Brother—by concentrating on details around him.
Look: a giant tree!
Look: a deer crossing sign!
Look: a squirrel doing squirrel stuff in the middle of the road!
When those details didn’t work, Josh tried to hum his thoughts away. That made everything worse.
“Why are you humming?” his mom asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Did you know you were humming? Or are you wheezing?”
“Are you nervous? Is that why you’re humming?”
“Why would I be nervous?” Josh looked out the car window at the swaying pine trees and fuzzy green moss and lightly drizzling sky. “It’s not like it’s my first day of kindergarten.”
First day of kindergarten: He’d had a really bad cold. The skin underneath his nose was red and raw from wiping. His mother was going to keep him home, but Josh had begged. It was his first day! Kindergarten! He was wearing his new shirt! He’d already brushed his teeth!
So he went. And it was fantastic. Until Book Circle.
At Book Circle the brand-new class sat on a blue rug while the teacher read a story about a hibernating bear. The rug was itchy but nobody squirmed. It was the first day, and they all sat with their backs perfectly straight.
The story was a good one, about a bear who slept in his den while other animals snuck in from the storm and had a party and ate his food. Josh loved it. It was the best he’d ever heard. It was so good that he leaned forward. Maybe (he’s not sure but maybe) he even started to crawl, right into the circle. It was the picture of the bear’s den that was pulling him in—all the shapes in shadowy corners.
When his nose started to run, because of his cold, Josh reached up and wiped it on his sleeve. He would have done that even if he hadn’t been experiencing such fascination over the hibernating bear, and he probably would never have remembered it, except for what happened next.
Because right then, when he was wiping his big glob of green snot on his first-day-of-school sleeve, his teacher, Mr. Lombardi, looked up. “Joshua,” he said, “in this classroom we use Kleenex.”
There was a silence, and then one person laughed. That’s all it took. Suddenly everyone was laughing and repeating, “Joshua, in this classroom we use Kleenex.”
Mr. Lombardi clap-clapped his hands and chanted, “Class-class!”
They had just learned they were supposed to clap-clap back and answer, “Yes-yes!” but instead they kept shouting “Klee-nex!” and “Ooh, boogers!”
Kleenex. They said it on the playground at recess. In the lunch line. Chanted it. Whispered it. Made it into a song. Klee-nex, Josh-ua, Klee-nex! Someone started calling him Kleenex, and soon everyone followed.
Ruined, Josh stood by himself at the farthest edge of the playground. And that’s when he showed up, slipping through some sort of invisible crack in the air. At least, that’s how it appeared to Josh.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “They’ll forget about it soon.”
Josh pressed his back against the chain-link fence. “I don’t think so.”
“But how do you know? And who are you, anyway?”
“I’m Big Brother,” he said. “That’s how I know. Big brothers always know.”
And he was right.
Mostly right. Josh learned to walk close to walls. He didn’t play kickball at recess or raise his hand in class. And he certainly never crawled into Book Circle again. And while his classmates did forget about Kleenex, they remembered something. There was a mark. Through first grade and second grade and third grade and fourth, there was a mark that set him apart.
But it was okay. Because he had Big Brother.
Until the day Josh dug a hole and buried him in the backyard.
Josh had stopped humming but was still thinking about hibernating bears and snot and Big Brother’s burial hole when the Mountain View K–8 reader board appeared.
Smile! Picture retakes next Wednesday!
The announcement, in big bold letters, brought him back to the present moment, and the day he was about to face.
“That’s good.” His mother turned at the sign. “You didn’t miss picture day.” She maneuvered through the parking lot and slid into the No Parking zone, reserved for buses.
“I did miss picture day. No one ever shows up for retakes.”
“Well, you’re going to have to.”
“You can’t park here.”
“I’m not parking. I’m dropping you off. Unless you want me to come in—”
“Mom! No!” Josh’s nose tickled like crazy. Without thinking, he rubbed it with the back of his hand.
“Do you need a Kleenex?”
Josh shook his head. He wished his mom wouldn’t have said the word.
“It’s normal to be a little nervous.”
“Not nervous.” Kleenex. Kleenex.
“Your dad and I, we think you’ll love it here.”
Josh looked out the window and watched his new schoolmates, already three weeks settled. He saw them jump off buses and sling backpacks and snap onto one another like little magnet trains. His mom kept yakking about how great everything would be—the forests and lakes. Hiking. Skiing. “And Dad—he’ll be back soon. And he’ll call every night, to see how it’s going.”
She got quiet then. Josh was pretty sure she was thinking about all the boxes stacked in their new living room, the ones she would have to unpack herself while his dad was traveling through Asia, inspecting airplane factories. And maybe thinking about the job she needed to find. And how the grocery stores were all backward, with the cereal aisles not where they were back home.
His breath made a foggy spot on the inside of the window. When he wiped it clean, his new classmates came into focus. Some of the kids wore football jerseys, green and blue. “Do you have to be a Seahawks fan to go here?” he asked.
“We can ask.”
“I was kidding.”
His mom scratched her wrist, where a bumpy rash was creeping past the cuff of her sleeve. “Josh, listen. This is the perfect chance for you.”
“Your rash is back. Why is your rash back if it’s going to be so perfect?”
She yanked her sleeve and squinted past her son, to the mess of kids on the other side of the window. “I just want you to be happy,” she said finally.
Josh stretched out his mouth, the way monkeys do at the zoo, when people stare at them through glass and want to believe they are smiling. After a moment, his mom smiled back. She opened her purse and rummaged around, finally pulling up a small white pack of tissues.
“Here,” she said. Josh took the crinkly pack. His mouth went dry.
The last bus pulled out of the parking lot and the older kids straggled up the walkway, to the long buildings that made up the school. Almost all of them wore faded jeans and sweatshirts. Josh had worn a uniform at his old school—polo shirts and khaki pants—so all his jeans were stiff and new. And he was wearing a raincoat: bright red. His mom had picked it out.
A bell rang and they both jumped. Josh’s mom grabbed his arm and held on tight. “How about if I pick you up, right here, after school? The sky is so gray it looks like it might rain.”
“That’s okay. I’ll walk like we planned. I have my new raincoat.”
“Josh, honey. This is a great opportunity. Just—try and stay in the real world. Like Dr. Ted talked about.”
Josh was sweating in his armpits, something new. When he reached for his backpack, his mother’s clamped hand kept him in place.
He glanced at the rash. “I thought we moved here for Dad’s job.”
“We did. But it’s also a chance for a fresh start. So I want you to remember a few things, okay? Are you listening?”
“I’m going to be late.”
“Don’t—” She was searching for last-minute mom advice. “Don’t sneak your lunch into the library.”
“You mean the haunted one, or the—”
“You know what I mean. And don’t—” She searched some more. “Don’t hum!”
With his free hand, Josh shut his notebook on the picture he’d been drawing. He wrestled his other one loose from her claw.
“And the biggest, most important one . . . Are you listening? Josh?”
Josh bit his lip. When would she stop?
“No imaginary friends. Right? You’re almost a teenager.”
That was it. “Mom! I’m eleven. I’m in fifth grade!”
“Exactly. That kind of play was fine when you were five. It was not fine when you were six, seven—”
“Okay, I got it.”
“Don’t even talk to yourself.”
“Okay!” His chest. So tight. But he didn’t want to use his inhaler, not right then with all that talk about all that stuff. The name Big Brother hovered in the air around them, but both pretended it didn’t.
“Have a good day,” she said as he opened the door. “Josh!” He turned. She held out the Kleenex. “You forgot this.”
Josh shoved the Kleenex deep into his backpack and stepped onto the curb, where he stood and monkey smiled until the car was out of sight. Then he grabbed his inhaler and took his first real breath of the day.
Josh did have a first impression of Mountain View K–8. “Creepy,” he’d whispered.
This was on the Friday before, when he and his mother had taken a tour of the school. Classes were over, the place was deserted, and the two stood outside on the gray walkway, waiting for the assistant principal to finish her phone call.
Mountain View K–8 was the complete opposite of Josh’s old school, a redbrick building in the city. “I bet from a helicopter this school looks like a giant bug.” Josh pointed to the long buildings that spread out from the circular center. “Those are the legs. And this is the body.”
His mother glanced up, to the building above them. “So, what part of the bug is that? The shell?”
“That’s not part of the bug. It looks like a weird, hovering alien ship.” In his mind the weird, hovering alien ship was about to suck up the giant bug. “I don’t know about this school, Mom.”
“Joshua Duncan!” She gazed past Josh to the mountain that seemed close enough to touch. “Everyone else just sees all this beautiful outdoor space. This fantastic view.” She took in a deep breath. “Smell that. Fresh mountain air.”
“Yeah but you know what? That mountain is a dormant volcano. You know what that means? It could erupt.” He shuffled in a circle, taking in the nature all around him—the grass and trees and bushes. “And why is everything so green? Don’t you think that’s weird? When everything is so green?”
“Remember, Josh: first impressions.”
The assistant principal had tucked away her phone and was striding toward them with an extended hand and wide smile. “Good to see you again,” she said to Josh’s mom, and the two of them talked about the move: how it had been delayed and what a shame it was that Josh missed out on the first several weeks.
She turned to Josh and held out her hand. “Hello, Josh. I’m Ms. Yoshida. Are you ready to see your new school?”
Ms. Yoshida was chatty and helpful. She gave Josh a map of the school and pointed to the four long buildings—the ones that Josh thought looked like bug legs. “A, B, C, and D,” she said. “Not the most creative names, but they work.”
Josh studied the map while Ms. Yoshida explained that the different buildings were for the different grades. “You’ll mostly be in C,” she said. “Although you’ll move for Spanish. And PE is either in the gym or outside, depending. I’ll show you that next and the locker room.”
“What’s the Hello Walk?” Josh asked. According to the map, it was exactly where they were standing.
“The Hello Walk is this wonderful space—right here.” Ms. Yoshida pointed to the smooth gray circle with a border of benches. “And right above us is the old library.”
“Josh thought it was the underside of an alien space ship,” his mother announced. “Didn’t you, Josh?”
The assistant principal smiled. “Well, the kids say it’s haunted.” She began to walk away, motioning for them to follow. “The new library is right over there, between the gym and the cafeteria. We call it the media center.”
Josh heard her shoes clicking away from him, but he stood in place, staring at the underside of the old library. “Why do they say that?”
Ms. Yoshida stopped and turned. “What?”
“That it’s haunted.”
“Well . . .” She puzzled for a moment. “Just for fun.”
“How do you get in?”
“There’s a stairwell, on the other side of the Hello Walk. But it’s closed to students right now. The new media center—”
“Ms. Yoshida—” His mother cleared her throat. “Why is this called the Hello Walk?”
“You know, the kids started calling it that, years ago, and the name stuck. It’s our biggest covered outdoor space and a lot of students gather here at breaks. The playground for the younger students is on the other side of buildings A and B. So most of the older kids either go out to the playfields or they socialize here. It’s a very friendly school, Josh.”
Josh nodded but fixed his eyes on the map.
Ms. Yoshida looked up. “This old library will eventually be remodeled and repurposed, but until then we like to think of it as our giant umbrella.”
“That’s good,” his mom said, scratching her wrist. “Isn’t it, Josh? Because we heard it rains all the time here.”
“Well—” Ms. Yoshida shook her head. “We call it liquid sunshine.”
Laugh, laugh. Laugh, laugh.
On that Friday tour, while the grown-ups had laughed, Josh stared at the Hello Walk on his map, trying to imagine how it would look on Monday morning, packed with kids. Hello, hello. Hello, hello.
“What about earthquakes?” he blurted suddenly. “Did anyone think of that?”
They stopped laughing.
“There’s a major fault line. With shifting tectonic plates”—he motioned wildly—“all around! What would happen if the earthquake hit while we were all just standing here? Underneath the giant cement umbrella?”
“We have drills,” Ms. Yoshida answered calmly. “Earthquake drills. You will be prepared for any sort of disaster.” She pointed to the wide cement perimeter dotted with fat green bushes. Everything was so green. “Or you can go around it. Most of the walkways are covered. But you’ll see. You’ll meet up with friends here. Sometimes there are bake sales.”
Josh’s mother shot her laser-beam eye message to s-t-o-p and f-o-c-u-s. It was an amazing skill and froze Josh on the spot.
It was true about the shifting tectonic plates: Josh had done the research before they moved. But now, on Monday, his actual first day, Josh knew it wasn’t the thought of an earthquake that was making his heart pound. It was the vision of those kids, his new classmates. Hello, hello.
Another bell rang. Josh couldn’t remember if it was the late bell or the really late bell. Not that it mattered. He’d be the new kid, walking in either late or really late. Probably really late, since no one else was around.
Right before he reached the Hello Walk, Josh spotted the glass door to the old library stairwell. A sign on the door said do not enter. Josh tried to see past the sign, but it was nothing exciting. Just a dusty gray entry and a flight of worn stairs. When he stepped away, though, he heard a voice.
Josh shook his head, like an insect was buzzing in his ear.
“I know you heard me.”
The voice made Josh’s heart pound fast. Because it shouldn’t have been there. It shouldn’t have been anywhere, but especially not there, at that school, on that first day of a brand-new start. The voice made everything mixed up and muddled.
He began to walk quickly. Which one was building C? Everything looked like everything else. And where were the building signs? Josh swung his backpack around and fumbled with the zipper. He pawed through his notebook, searching for the map.
Where-where-where was it?
“Everyone is in class already.” It was the voice again, familiar but older. “Not exactly the best impression on a first day, is it?”
This wasn’t real. This wasn’t happening. It was just because of Ms. Yoshida’s joke about the haunted library. It was just about feeling anxious, and about his dad being gone, and his mom’s awful rash.
Josh pulled out the crumpled map. With it came the pack of Kleenex.
So Josh ran. On what was supposed to be the first day of his brand-new start, he ran. He aimed for the clear space between two buildings, far away from cement benches and bug-legs and the Hello Walk and a haunted library. Bushes and grass and trees blurred their terrible green all around, and his stiff new jeans made a rhythmic swishing that sounded like a whisper:
Run, Josh! Run, Josh! Run, Josh! Run!
Josh wanted to stop, but it was too late to go back to school. Way too late. Because “You only get one chance to make a first impression.”
It was the truth. Josh had the poster at home.