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Best Nerds Forever
By Chris Grabenstein
Read by Mark Sanderlin
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One minute, Finn was biking home from school, and the next, he was run off the road by a maniac in a big van. Now, he's a ghost. He can do lots of fun things, like try every ice cream flavor in the store, sneak up on people, and play as many video games as he wants. Finn even has a new ghost friend, Isabella, to show him the ropes. But he also has a lot of BIG questions, like: who wanted him dead? And can he stop the maniac from striking again?
Packed with hilarious moments, epic friendships, and fun art, Best Nerds Forever celebrates the nerd in each of us and the joy of living life to its fullest.
GREAT. YOU’RE HERE. I might as well get this whole messed-up story off my chest.
On June sixth, right before I was about to finish middle school, I was out riding my Tony Hawk bike, which my parents never liked because, come on—Tony Hawk. That maniac started skateboarding when he was nine years old. You ever seen the moves he makes in his video game? Extremely dangerous.
I love them, but my parents aren’t big risk-takers. That’s why my bike was neon orange. My mother wanted people, specifically drivers, to be able to see me from half a mile away.
Except that didn’t exactly work.
It’s after school. Maybe four-thirty in the afternoon. I’m riding my bright-orange bike up, down, and around Ridge Rim Road. Just cruising. Psyching myself up for the big hill I know is coming.
All of a sudden, I hear this engine roaring behind me. I mean, the driver’s gunning it.
I shoot a quick look over my shoulder.
Here comes a HUGE rattling black van. It looks like the driver is aiming straight for me. I pump my legs. Pedal harder. Ride really, really fast.
The van picks up speed, too. Its engine is screaming. It’s like I’m being chased by some super-creepy clown straight out of a Stephen King horror movie, which, as it turned out, I kind of was.
I can’t figure out what to do because all I can think about is how the van might be trying to kill me. Seriously. When the driver saw me and my bright-orange bike, I swear they floored the gas pedal.
So, of course, I’m terrified. (You ever been chased by a demon van? It’s very terrifying stuff.)
I work my legs so hard it feels like my thigh muscles might explode and burst into flames.
We’re racing straight up a very steep hill. And, in the high-stakes road version of rock, paper, scissors, van always beats bike.
I can hear that motor whining behind me. It’s getting closer. Closer. I can smell burning oil. I can almost feel the heat blasting out of the radiator grille. Its front bumper is nearly nudging my rear tire. The maniac wants to run me off the road!
I decide to ditch in some bushes I see on the shoulder. Sounds like the smart thing to do, right? Nope.
Very bad move.
Those shrubs are masking something: a low stone wall acting as a guardrail. My front tire slams into it. I go flying over the handlebars.
And I plummet off a cliff.
Oh—did I mention, there’s a whole pile of sharp, craggy rocks a hundred feet below?
Well, there is. Trust me. I know. I died on them.
I KNOW, I KNOW, I KNOW—you weren’t expecting me to die so soon.
Anyway, I’ve never died before so I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to do.
I—or my soul or spirit or whatever—just sort of hang out down on those jagged rocks. My first reaction is “Whoa,” because I look up and see how far I’ve fallen. We’re talking a long, long, long way. Enough to make me sick to my stomach.
You might be wondering if, back when I was being chased, I memorized the demonic van’s license plate number. Well, no, I did not. In fact, I only looked over my shoulder that one time. I was panicking, remember? Plus, even if I did know my killer’s license plate number, what good would it do me? I’m dead. I can’t really go running to the nearest police station to file a complaint or whatever.
And you’re right. Seconds ago, I was up on Ridge Rim Road looking down at my mangled bike so how can I, all of a sudden, be standing next to it looking up? I have absolutely no idea. I’m clearly new at this being dead thing.
I start thinking about movies I’ve seen about dead people. (I watch a lot of movies.) I expect to see a tunnel of light because, in the movies, there’s always a tunnel of light you’re supposed to walk into after you die. Usually, it’s filled with ancient ancestors who help you move on. I think they call them guide spirits.
But the thought of bumping into some distant aunts, uncles, or cousins—ones I might not even remember or know—makes me a little nervous. Did I send enough thank-you notes to these dead people while they were still alive? Or will they be all like, “Oh, look who’s here. It’s Finn. The boy who never thanked me for that five-dollar bill I slipped into his birthday card… eight years ago!”
Oh, in case you were wondering, the van that chased me off the cliff never turned around to see what it had done. My hit-and-run driver showed absolutely no remorse. Psychopaths driving demonic vans straight out of a Stephen King movie seldom do.
But one thing I notice for maybe the first time? How great the pine trees smell along Ridge Rim Road. I’ve ridden up that hill a thousand times but never once smelled the trees. Now, the pine scent is kind of spectacular. Like Christmastime at my best friend Christopher’s house. His family always brings home a real evergreen tree. And it always smells way better than the pine-scented air freshener we use at my house to make our fake tree seem less, you know, fake.
After a while, I start feeling guilty. I mean, why’d I have to go and die in a place where nobody ever goes, especially when looking for dead people? Ridge Rim Road is sort of close to the Lake, but nobody drives on it much (except, you know, demented psycho van drivers).
I try screaming anyway.
“Little help down here! Hello???”
I don’t think my ghostly attempt at yelling made much sound. A bird chirping in a nearby tree did stop singing for a second and tilt its head slightly sideways. Did it hear me? Two seconds later, it’s cheerfully chirping again so who knows.
The bird’s happy.
Me? Not so much.
I KNOW MY PARENTS will start worrying pretty soon.
It’s getting close to dinnertime and we have a very rigid meal schedule at my house. Dad walks in the door at precisely five-twenty-two every evening. Then we all sit down to dinner at precisely five-thirty. Every day. Spring, summer, winter, fall. Weekdays or weekends. Dinner is always at five-thirty sharp.
If I’m not home by then, they’ll definitely send out a search party.
I wonder if this might turn into one of those deals where everybody in town goes out into the woods and holds hands and walks in a line until somebody yells, “Chief! You gotta come look at this.”
Like I said: I watch a lot of movies.
Only problem with the search party scenario? They’ll have to hold hands and walk across a rocky ravine to find me. I don’t think I could’ve picked a worse place to die.
What if nobody ever finds my body?
What if they don’t even know if I’m dead and just think I’m missing, like that girl from school who disappeared like four months ago? What if I become the new Isabella Rojas?
All of a sudden, I sense that someone is watching me. Someone from above.
I look up and see a helicopter. It has WROL painted on its belly. It’s the eye-in-the-sky traffic chopper from our number one local news station, off to do its rush hour traffic report.
I wave at the chopper. I know the pilot! It’s Mrs. Owens. She’s Christopher’s mom. Yes, he’s always Christopher. Never Chris. He told me Christopher is classier.
You ready for a laugh? I’ve been in the WROL helicopter before. Mrs. Owens took Christopher and me up for a ride once for Christopher’s birthday. Some kids get piñatas or bouncy houses. We got a ride in a whirlybird.
And here’s the funny part: I was terrified. The whole time.
Mrs. Owens, who was in the army for a bunch of years, tried to calm me down. While we hovered over a carpet of bumpy green treetops, she told Christopher and me that when she was serving overseas, she realized that “fear is the true enemy.” She suggested that we not let fear hold us back. That we live every day as if it were our last.
Now that I’ve actually lived my last day, I’m not sure I would agree with Mrs. Owens’s recommendation. If you live every day knowing you might die before it was over like I just did, you might never leave your house again. You might never crawl out from underneath the covers.
I’m staring straight up.
Mrs. Owens is making circles over my final resting spot. I’m pretty sure she sees me or, you know, my body.
I have to wonder: Did some supernatural force guide Mrs. Owens to the scene? Did one of my ancestors come out of that tunnel of light to guide her instead of me?
Her chopper floats lower. Oh, yeah. She sees me. The empty shell of me still on the rocks.
This is probably the worst day of her helicopter-piloting life.
It’s time for what comes next.
I go to my own funeral.
SOMEHOW, IN A BLINK, I’m there.
Time doesn’t work the way it used to. Probably because I don’t work the way I used to, either. Anyway, my four nerdy best friends are sitting together in the third row of the funeral home chapel.
By the way, in case you’re thinking it, calling my friends “nerdy” isn’t a bad thing. It just means we’re all a little different in a middle school organized around the standard cliques. You know: the Normals, the Mean Girls, the Jocks, the Popular Squad, the Geeks, the Artistes, the Brainiacs, and the Wannabes (the kids trying hard to work their way into one of the other cliques).
My four friends and I are a strange mix of all the cliques jumbled up and poured into a weird mold nobody really recognizes. Some of us are geeky but funny; smart but never boring. One is a jock but not a jerk. We’re all nerds. We don’t quite fit.
Neither does the music somebody picked for my funeral. Seriously. I have never heard organ music so weepy and sad before, not even at the ice-skating rink, where I had plenty of time to focus on the organ music since my parents wouldn’t let me actually skate with my friends. Sliding around the ice on thin blades instead of rubber-soled snow boots with cleats? Way too dangerous.
As the funeral music drones on, I realize this is Major Drawback #1 of dying before my time. I don’t get to choose my final playlist.
Anyway, like I said, my best friends—Christopher, Annie, Axe, and Mickey—are sitting together in the third row. The first row is where my mom, my dad, and my little brother Charlie are seated. They’re all so sad, which makes me feel sad, too.
Behind my family in the second row are all the relatives who could make the trip on short notice. My three living grandparents. My aunts, uncles, and cousins—including some I’ve only ever met once or twice at the beach for a family reunion. This one guy, cousin Rod, stole my boogie board at the reunion, which was fine by me because my dad would only let me use it in the motel’s pool, not the ocean. Apparently, the ocean is full of sharks just waiting for kids like me kicking their legs behind a boogie board. You look worse than nerdy when you use a boogie board in a motel pool. You look dorky.
Some other people from school are there, too. Okay. One. The principal. I think “attending funerals for any and all dead students” is listed as a job requirement when you become principal. None of my teachers are in the chapel. Maybe because none of them know who I am or, you know, who I was. I never participated in class discussions or raised my hand to answer a question.
In that way I took my dad’s advice. “Why risk it, Finn?” he’d tell me. “If you avoid all the questions, you never have to worry about giving the wrong answer. If you stay invisible, you never have to worry about looking like a fool.”
Now, I guess, I really am invisible.
They have a picture of me on a placard mounted on an easel up front next to the casket. They’ve labeled it with my name: Finn McAllister. (Although I think most of the people in the pews already know my name.)
I can’t be one hundred percent certain, but I’m pretty sure my spirit face looks the same as my eighth-grade class picture face—the one in the blown-up photo. Although I’m a little whiter, a little paler now. Very wax paper–ish.
Now I feel horrible. I see my mom. The one who insisted I buy that bright-orange bike.
And once she starts sobbing, so does everybody else. Including me. It’s like she’s given us all permission. “I’m Finn’s mother and I’m crying, so you can cry, too!”
I’m so, so sorry I died. I know how much it hurt my parents. Worse than it hurt me crashing into those pointy rocks. My pain passed. My parents’ pain will last for as long as they live.
Even my dad is sniffling a little (though I can tell he’s trying really hard not to). That cousin who “permanently borrowed” my boogie board? Little Rod? His shoulders are shuddering. Maybe he finally regrets ripping that boogie board out of my hands at that family reunion.
The whole chapel is crying, crying, crying. According to the preacher up at the podium, I “died far too young.”
While the preacher keeps preaching, the crying becomes weeping.
Even my four friends are blubbering.
Finally, I’ve had enough. “All right, you guys,” I say out loud, hoping somehow the people in the pews can hear me.
In fact, I’m practically screaming.
“All right, all right, all right. STOP CRYING. You guys? JUST STOP!!! Please?”
That’s when the weirdest (but kind of amazing) thing happens.
BOOM! My friends stop crying.
Did I just make that happen?
OKAY. Time for a flashback.
Seeing my four best buds at my funeral isn’t the best way to really get to know them. So, let’s go back in time. Not too far. Just last week. My last middle school cafeteria lunch before I decided to go cruising up Ridge Rim Road on my bike.
That’s right, my last meal on earth was Pizza-Filled Breadsticks. But I loved ’em. A very easy way to eat pizza without dribbling sauce and grease all over your shirt. And the smell? I don’t think I ever realized how good a cafeteria-baked breadstick filled with pizza toppings like tomato sauce, meat, and cheese actually smells until now. I mean, is there a better smell on earth than fresh-baked bread of any kind? Nope. Especially when it’s all warm and gooey and soaked with something like butter or pepperoni drippings. Especially when you’re starving, which I was every day because we had the late lunch period.
But we didn’t come back here to my final meal on earth for the food (although the chicken tenders in the deep fat fryer smell awfully good, too). So, like they say on Family Feud, let’s meet the Lunch Bunch.
First there’s me. Finn the observer. Finn the eyewitness. Finn the not-so-innocent bystander. The one who’s always just a little removed from the action, watching the cool stuff everybody else is doing (because my parents won’t let me do it) and then telling them, in a funny way, about what they’ve just done. I guess I’ve always been our storyteller.
We laughed a lot around that cafeteria table.
I’m gonna miss the laughter even more than the deep-fried food.
Next to me is Christopher. He’s been my best friend since forever. He’s wicked smart, which of course automatically qualifies him for nerd-dom. Ten years from now? He’ll probably be a brain surgeon or a billionaire in Silicon Valley. Maybe both. I wish I could be there to see it.
Christopher (never Chris, as you recall) doesn’t like to look people in the eye. So, we’re all used to him staring at his shoes, his carton of milk, or whatever our T-shirts have to say that day. He’s so smart, he could tell you why his mother’s traffic helicopter doesn’t spin around in circles when those rotary blades up top start whirling. I’m sure he could also tell you exactly what bones I broke in my tumble off Ridge Rim Road.
Next to him is Annie. She’s always been kind of confusing to me. One day, she’s wearing flannel shirts and jeans and splashing around in the mud to retrieve the football she heaved farther than anyone else—with a perfect spiral, by the way. The next day, she’s doing girly things, like obsessing over selfies or getting into Aztec nail art.
I’ve kind of had an on-again, off-again crush on Annie my whole life, which I guess has to end now that, you know, my whole life is over. Duh. One time at a party we were playing Seven Minutes in Heaven and when we were in the dark closet, we talked about football. And the Vikings’ chances this year. And how to throw a perfect spiral.
So, yeah. So much for seizing the romantic moment.
Did I ever end up telling her how I felt?
Are you kidding? That would’ve been scarier than being chased off a cliff by a maniac in a van.
Next up is Axe. Everybody thinks because he’s an oversized black kid he should be great at sports. Spoiler: He isn’t. He’s a terrible athlete. When we were younger and played kickball, he could strike out swinging. He’d miss the ball three times in a row—even though the pitcher was rolling it straight at his kicking foot. SWISH!
Axe is unbelievably nice to everybody. Except total jerks. (Like the ones who keep asking him why he isn’t on the football team because he looks like an NFL linebacker.) Sweet as Axe is, if a jerk gets in his face (or one of his friends’ faces), he will become that jerk’s worst nightmare.
Finally we have Miguel or, as he likes to say, “Yo, call me Mickey. Like the baseball players, not the mouse.” Mickey is an amazing athlete. Football, basketball, baseball—if it has a ball, he’s on the first-string team. He’s great at everything athletic, and wow does he know it. He’s extremely cocky but he’s also funny about his cockiness. “Life without me,” he once told a girl, “would be like a broken pencil. Pointless.”
So if Mickey is such a super jock, what’s he doing sitting at the nerd table? Well, back in elementary school, when Axe’s growth spurts were having growth spurts and Mickey was just Miguel and not, you know, Mickey, Axe used to protect him. Mickey never forgot. None of us did.
Oh, have I mentioned that girls totally love Mickey?
All of them.
Anyway, let’s jump back to my funeral now because I’m wondering: Did Mickey and Annie come to the chapel together? It is a Saturday. Was my death an excuse for them to have an early afternoon date?
I’m making my way up the center aisle to check out my friends in the third row of pews when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, I’m blinded by a light. It’s beaming from behind my coffin. I see a silhouette shuffling forward.
It’s my grandfather.
The one who died five years ago.
MY GRANDFATHER on my father’s side, Desmond McAllister, was very tall and skinny when he was alive.
He’s still tall and skinny now that he’s dead. His face is extremely stern. He always looks like he just smelled a carton of sour milk.
The last time I saw him was at my eighth birthday party. That’s right. Five years ago. Way to do the math.
Not even the ice cream and cake could make him smile.
He slowly raises his hand and gestures for me to come join him in the light. “It is time,” he announces in a low, spooky voice. He’s giving me goose bumps. He never used to do that, back when he was alive. He was just, you know, Grandpa McAllister. The old man in the assisted living facility. I never really spent much time with him. Maybe I should’ve. Maybe there were a lot of things I should’ve done.
“We need to leave, Finnegan,” he tells me. “Say your good-byes. I’ve come to guide you on.”
I look around. Nobody in the pews can hear Grandpa McAllister. They’re all crying again.
“Um, where are we going?” I ask him.
Grandpa McAllister doesn’t answer. He simply turns around and starts walking back into the light. He’s a slow-moving silhouette surrounded by hazy brightness. He raises his hand to point toward wherever the light is coming from. When he does, he breaks up the beam into blinding slivers.
I cover my eyes and summon my courage, something I never really had a lot of when I was alive.
“No,” I say even though my voice cracks when I say it. “I’m not going with you.”
I never talked back to my grandfather like that before. I was always afraid to talk like that to scary adults. Now I figure it might be even worse because he’s even scarier. He’s now a ghost. A guide spirit.
He turns around to face me.
“No?” he says. “No?!?”
His voice echoes. Maybe it’s bouncing off the walls of the light tunnel. Maybe it’s some kind of special effects. Whatever it is, I’m scared.
I shake my head because I’m too petrified to speak again.
My grandfather squints at me—hard.
“Unfinished business?” he says, arching an eyebrow.
This time I nod. “Yes, sir. Uh, I have some stuff I need to take care of. Like you said, unfinished business. Business that needs finishing…”
Grandpa McAllister heaves a sigh and exhales a cloud of steam, like you do when you’re outside playing in the snow.
“Be quick about it, Finn,” he tells me. “Finish your business. Carry no regrets with you into the next life.”
When he says that, his gaze drifts to the funeral crowd. Everyone is frozen in some kind of suspended animation. No one is budging. Nobody is even breathing. It looks like they’re doing that viral video thing from a few years ago—the mannequin challenge.
Something glistens in my grandfather’s eye. A tear? A drop of ice?
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