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The zombie apocalypse begins on the day Rabi, Miguel, and Joe are practicing baseball near their town’s local meatpacking plant and nearly get knocked out by a really big stink. Little do they know the plant’s toxic cattle feed is turning cows into flesh-craving monsters! The boys decide to launch a stealth investigation into the plant’s dangerous practices, unknowingly discovering a greedy corporation’s plot to look the other way as tainted meat is sold to thousands all over the country. With no grownups left they can trust, Rabi and his friends will have to grab their bats to protect themselves (and a few of their enemies) if they want to stay alive…and maybe even save the world.
Table of Contents
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Don't let anyone tell you it builds character or any of that junk; it sucks. It sucks that someone else is beating you. It sucks that you've worked so hard and it's going to mean nothing. It sucks that you can't hit the ball the way you want and can't field the grounder the way you imagined—a thousand things about losing suck.
But it sucks worse when you're stuck in the dugout on a 102-degree day in the humidity, and the heat index is 120, and sweat is pouring off you, and your team is losing—not because you suck at baseball, but because your baseball coach, Mr. Cocoran, sucks at coaching.
Mr. Cocoran won't listen to you when you tell him he's got the batting order wrong. He likes big hits and loves guys who hack at the ball and swing for the fences and all that junk, and he doesn't understand about getting runners on base. He doesn't know squat about baseball.
But you know the thing about losing that sucks even worse than that?
Knowing you're the one who's going to get blamed.
When you're finally up at bat, with Miguel on third and Sammy on first, and you're down by two in the bottom of the sixth, and you're the last and final hope of the Delbe Diamondbacks—you're the one everyone is going to remember.
Maybe I could hit a single on my good days (and if the pitcher was off his game), but basically, for me, the ball just moves too darn fast.
My dad says I swing with my heart.
Well, he said that after I struck out once and spun myself all the way around and all the other kids were so busy laughing at me—even my own team—that nobody minded so much that we'd lost another game.
After that game, my dad came up to me and put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Don't worry about it, Rabi; you swung with your heart. You were all in. We can work on your swing. As soon as I'm back from the rigs, we'll work on it."
Of course, baseball season was going to be over by then, so my swing wasn't going to improve in time to save me from more humiliation. Dad works oil and gas rigs—ten weeks on, two weeks off—so I was on my own.
There was no way I should have been batting cleanup, I can tell you that, but there I was, sitting on the bench, watching the lineup come down to me, like a slow-moving train wreck.
Miguel was sitting next to me, chewing gum. "What're the odds?" he asked.
I shrugged. "I don't know."
"Come on, Rabi." Joe, who was sitting on my other side, poked me in the ribs. "Do that trick you do. With the numbers."
A couple of the older guys, Travis Thompson and Sammy Riggoni, both looked over. Beefy dudes with mean piggy eyes who liked to hassle anyone who was littler than them. I didn't want their attention at all. I looked away.
"Nah," I said. "There's not enough numbers to do it. I need more stats. You can't do stats with Little League. You need a lot of numbers before you can predict anything."
"Come on," Miguel said. "You know you can."
I looked out at the bases, frowning. I studied the batters in our lineup, eyed the Eamons Eagles defense, their catcher and fielders and pitcher. And then I started setting stats. It was a trick I used. I could set stats over the different players' heads in my mind, a little like health bars in World of Warcraft, and then I could figure out probable outcomes.
Numbers. Stats. I have a cousin in Boston who calls it my inner Asian math nerd.
But whatever it is, I'm good at it. The Eagles pitcher was still going strong, even after pitching most of the game. We hadn't worn him down much. I'd read up on his stats and seen how he normally did after pitching four innings. I'd been counting how many times he'd actually had to pitch against all our batters, and I knew he wasn't tired. Not a bit.
He'd just struck out Billy Freudenberg on three straight pitches. And now Shawn Carney, at the plate, had two balls and two strikes on him. But Shawn barely hit .225, even against a weak pitcher. Against the Eamons guy, he was more like .075. Shawn was always hacking at random pitches. When he hit, he hit with power, but the Eamons pitcher was smart enough to bait him into swinging at a mean little curveball.
Shawn was dead meat.
Then there'd be Miguel. Miguel was hitting .525 on the season, steady all the time, dangerous. And the Eamons pitcher was afraid of him. Miguel could get himself on base, for sure. He was a slugger and he hit for extra bases more often than not. After that, Sammy would be up—.305, but not with as much power as Miguel. Then there'd be me. It all added up to…
"You need a double or better," I said. "And Sammy needs the same for us to tie."
Miguel cracked his gum. "And if we do, that means you got to…"
"I got to do anything except strike out. Anything at all."
"What are the odds?"
I laughed. "If you two nail it? Twenty to one, against. If you don't?" I shrugged. "No shot."
"Don't sell yourself short," Miguel said. "You can get on, no problem."
"Numbers don't lie. It wouldn't be a problem if they moved me ahead of you two. I do better when there's no one on base, and no pressure. If Mr. Cocoran would just concentrate on getting players on base, concentrate on getting more walks instead of big hits, we'd already be winning right now. And this wouldn't matter at all. We'd probably be up two at this point. Game over, Delbe wins."
Miguel nodded out at Shawn, who was getting ready for his next pitch. "What if Shawn gets a hit?"
I looked over at the redheaded boy. "He won't. Not with two strikes on him. He always chokes once he gets two strikes."
"Shut up, Rabi. You're on a team."
That was Mr. Cocoran, our king of a coach. Funny-looking guy with a big nose and a face that was red like a tandoori chicken. He was always irritated. Mostly at me. "You don't rip your own teammates," Mr. Cocoran said. "Especially with your batting average."
Sammy Riggoni snickered. "Yeah, Rabi, have you even hit a ball this season?"
I think somewhere in the Little League rule book, there's something about being a good sport, and everyone playing hard, and winning clean, and working together as a team. I'm pretty sure it's there, somewhere.
For Mr. Cocoran, that meant telling the good players they were amazing, and pretending the crummy players didn't exist. I mean, sure, I'm a terrible hitter. But so is Shawn. I'm not being mean; the kid's got a serious hole in his swing. When the count's 2–2, he always chokes. It doesn't do any good to stand around clapping and cheering and saying he can do it, after you've spent the entire season ignoring the problem.
My dad says there's no point pretending reality doesn't exist; otherwise, you can't fix anything. Mr. Cocoran should have paid attention to Shawn and helped him get better. Instead, he spent his time helping Sammy, because Sammy was a "natural."
That was how Cocoran rolled, and now, under Cocoran's glare, I shut up. I didn't want to argue with him, and I sure didn't want to get in a fight with Sammy. Besides, two seconds later, the numbers lined up, just like I expected, and made my point for me. Shawn hacked at a crummy pitch and popped the ball straight up, and the catcher snagged it nice and easy. Two outs.
Cocoran glared at me even harder.
It's got to be annoying when a middle school kid knows more about baseball than you.
Miguel was up. He went out into the sun, and just like the numbers predicted, he got a hit. He roped a double, which wasn't as good as we needed. Then Sammy singled, which moved Miguel to third. If Sammy had tripled, then we would've had a chance… but no.
It was down to me, walking out to home plate.
It should have been Miguel standing where I was now. The guy who hits a double on his bad day. If Cocoran had changed the batting order, Miguel could have driven runs in all day long. Instead he liked to get Miguel out there early, and tried to get him to steal bases.
Cocoran was standing at the entrance to the dugout, sweating and shouting for me to make it happen. I stood over the plate. The pitcher was looking at me, smirking. He had runners on first and third, which might have worried him, except he was facing me, a batter he'd struck out every time. He knew that I was the end of the inning—and the game.
Miguel was nodding encouragingly, willing me to bring him home. Sammy was just staring at me. I could tell he hated that he had to depend on a shrimp like me to do something right for once. Too bad for him that I'm a strategizer, not a slugger. I think. I don't do.
The sun pounded down. The stands got quiet.
And then my mom started clapping.
Everyone swung around to look at her.
There she was, up in the stands, calling, "Rabindranath! Ra-bin-dra-nath! Ra-bin-dra-nath!" This crazy Indian lady in a bright yellow sari, with night-black hair in a bun and a red bindi in the middle of her brown forehead, was cheering for me. She didn't care that everyone was looking at her, or that she was embarrassing me. She was all in, supporting her son.
I wanted to die.
I looked down at the plate, then up at the pitcher. He was grinning at me. He knew he had me now. And that made me mad, him thinking he could just whup me that way.
So what if I had a name no one could pronounce? So what if I had a mom who wore saris? I was going to take his pitch and knock the cover off the ball. I was going to teach them all not to laugh at me.
I looked at the pitcher, and I pointed, just pointed toward left field, letting him know where I was going to put the ball, staring him down, letting him know that I owned him.
Rabindranath Chatterjee-Jones was going to knock the ball out of the park.
Around me, everyone went quiet. Even my mom.
I was ready. I touched the plate. Wound up the bat.
The pitch came in high.
I let it go.
"Strike one!" the umpire shouted.
I stepped off the plate, trying not to let it rattle me.
The catcher snickered. "Shoulda swung at that one, huh?"
It didn't matter. I wasn't going to let him get to me. I just needed to think about the bat knocking the stuffing out of the ball.
"You should swing at this next one," the catcher said. "We're trying to make it easy for you, man."
I let the second pitch come by, too, knowing that the Eamons pitcher would try to fool me. It was coming low, this time.
What the…? I thought it was a ball, for sure.
But now, here it was: the pitch I'd been waiting for—fast and straight and right down the pipe. Perfect.
I swung like there wasn't ever going to be another tomorrow—and once again, I swung so hard I spun around and tripped over my own tangled legs.
I fell down in a pile.
And that was it. End of the game. Everyone laughing at me… Miguel walking toward me, shaking his head… my mom, up there in the stands, sitting there like a bright yellow dandelion, looking sad, like I'd disappointed her—even though she never really liked baseball anyway and only cared about cricket… and Sammy Riggoni, coming over to me as I started to get up.
To my surprise, Sammy reached down to give me a hand up. I let him pull me upright, but then he jerked me close.
"Coach is right, red dot, you're a crummy hitter," he said in my ear, and then gave me a shove that made me stumble back.
Miguel and Joe saw it happen and charged in to back me up, but then Sammy's friends were there, too. Rob Ziegler and Bill Tuffin and the rest of them, glaring. All of them bigger and stronger than us, except maybe Miguel. There was no way we could beat them. If you stacked up the stats, a fight with Sammy's friends added up to GAME OVER.
"Come on, Rabi. Take a swing," Sammy goaded. "I want to watch you spin around again." He gave me another push. "What you got, red dot? Let's see that pretty twirl you do."
Parents were starting to stand up in the bleachers, trying to see what was going on between us, but they were too far away to help. Sammy gave me another shove. "Why don't you swing, twirly? Let's see your swing."
Miguel grabbed my bat off the ground. "I'll take a swing."
That got everyone's attention. Sammy took a step back, and I swear he looked scared. Joe gave a whoop of glee.
"Oh yeah! Now it's a fight!"
I grabbed the bat away from Miguel. "Are you crazy?"
"Someone's got to shut him up," Miguel said.
Mr. Cocoran came busting in between us as I turned around to glare at Sammy.
"What's going on here?" Mr. Cocoran shouted.
Sammy pointed at us. "They were going to hit me with that bat!"
"That's not what hap—" I started to say, but Mr. Cocoran shut me down.
"Cool it, Jones! I don't take shift time off from Milrow just so I can watch you pick fights on this team. Especially not after you lose a game."
"I didn't pick—"
"Is that a baseball bat in your hand?"
Sammy was grinning at me from behind Cocoran's back.
"What are you thinking, Jones? You don't pick fights with your own team. And you sure as heck don't threaten another human being with a bat."
"Sammy's human?" Joe asked. "You sure about that?"
Mr. Cocoran swung around. "Save the smart remarks, mister. One more, and you're off this team."
I tried again. "I didn't pick the fight—"
But Mr. Cocoran was all wound up now. "Not another word, Jones. You're an inch from being kicked off this team yourself. You snark from the bench and you pick fights after you lose games. That's not good sportsmanship, not by a long shot."
I could tell Mr. Cocoran was going to go on, but someone honked a horn from the parking lot.
He glared at us all, looking from Sammy and Travis and Rob and Bill, to me, to Miguel and Joe. Parents were coming down onto the field now to see what was happening, including my mom and Sammy's parents. The car honked again. "You're lucky I've got to get to my shift," Mr. Cocoran said. "But we'll talk about this next practice. Don't think we're done here. Now clear out, all of you."
My mom came up behind me in her yellow sari. "Rabi, what's going on? Were you fighting?"
"It wasn't anything, Mom. Just some joking around."
"It didn't look like joking."
As everyone else left the field and walked up the low grassy slope to the parking lot, Sammy looked back at me one more time, making a face at my mom's back.
Red dot, he mouthed.
I was so mad, I could have gone after him right then and there. But Mr. Cocoran was watching me, and I could tell he was just waiting for me to step out of line.
"Rabi?" my mom pressed, not seeing what was happening behind her.
"It's nothing, Mom."
I glared after Sammy, wishing he were dead. Hating Mr. Cocoran for taking Sammy's side. Hating them all.
I feel bad about it now, looking back.
When you're mad, you wish all kinds of things on people. Maybe you even think they deserve it. But it turns out that I didn't want anyone dead. I didn't even want anyone hurt.
Not even when Mr. Cocoran tried to eat my brains.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Mr. Cocoran didn't try to snack on my skull candy right away. I mean, he hated me right from the moment when I started asking questions about his baseball strategies, but that's not a brain-eating offense, right? It takes some serious weirdness to turn your baseball coach into a flesh-hungry maniac.
After the baseball game, I was going to stay behind with Miguel and Joe to practice batting, because no matter how crummy Mr. Cocoran was as a coach, I really had lost the game for my team. I had to be honest about that: I needed serious batting help.
My mom says that if you want to get good at anything, you have to practice at it, and practice really hard, otherwise you don't deserve to have anything at all. She speaks four languages—Hindi, Bengali, English, and French—because she practices. She likes to remind me about how my grandpa (my dadu, in Bengali) walked out of Bangladesh and into India with nothing to his name. Just a poor farmer who couldn't read or write or even do math, but he was crazy determined, and he taught himself all those things. Eventually he worked his way up until he was the finest sari merchant in Kolkata, taking custom orders for saris that had diamonds and gold woven into them for some of Bollywood's biggest stars. But he sweated it all the way.
So I knew that if I really wanted something, I had to be willing to sweat for it. And even if it was 102 degrees, I was willing to sweat for baseball, and Miguel and Joe were willing to help.
The problem was that Sammy and his friends decided to hang around the baseball field, too, looking to finish what Sammy had started. They were watching us from the bleachers, passing a cigarette back and forth among them, acting all tough. Now that everyone else was gone, they were starting to call us names.
"Looks like we're going to get that fight after all," Joe said. He didn't sound scared. Mostly just curious about what would happen next.
Just so you know, Joe is kind of crazy. His dad drinks a lot of beer and gets in a lot of fights, and the two things Joe seems to have learned from that are that he's never going to drink alcohol and that nothing is as scary as his dad—so Joe does whatever he wants, and doesn't worry much about the consequences. He's always wearing raggedy clothes, and he cuts his blond hair with clippers without using a mirror, so it always sticks up in chunks. He thinks everything is a joke.
Sammy took a drag on his cigarette and stood up. He pointed at me, real serious, like, You're dead. His buddies all stood up, too. One of them had to be six feet tall. Rob Ziegler had been held back for, like, three grades.
"They're going to turn us into mango pulp," I said.
"Doesn't your mom make that?" Joe asked.
"You're thinking of aamar payesh," I said.
"Oh yeah," Joe said. "I love that stuff. I could totally go for that right now."
We were about to get pounded, and Joe was thinking about mango rice pudding. Like I said, Joe's kind of crazy. My mom got really worried when I started hanging out with him, because she was sure it was the first step to me not going to college and not getting my engineering degree, which basically is the worst thing you can do to your mom if she's a mom like mine.
I grabbed Joe's and Miguel's arms. "Let's go to Milrow Park," I suggested. "They won't bother us there."
"That's because it smells like dead dogs out there," Joe said.
"You seriously going to let these idiots run us off?" Miguel asked, looking hard at Sammy.
Miguel won't back down from anyone who acts like a jerk. He's like a samurai from ancient Japan that way. If he thinks something's not right, he doesn't back down, no matter what.
Which is just how his dad used to be, too, and it didn't do him any good at all. The apple didn't fall far from the tree with Miguel. His dad made all kinds of trouble out at Milrow's meatpacking plant. Even made a video of what it was like working inside the place and uploaded it to YouTube. He was crazy brave, like Miguel, but it ruined his whole family.
Now I was afraid we were getting to that point with Miguel, where it didn't matter how bad the odds were—Miguel would step up and fight, just because it wasn't right to back down.
"They're not running us off," I said. "It's just being smart about the stats. You might be strong, and Joe might be crazy—"
"I like to think of myself as inspired," Joe said.
"—but they're all bigger than us. Even you, Miguel. And six against three doesn't add up to anything other than a bloodbath."
"You can't live afraid," Miguel said.
"I can't live dead, either, so come on."
"You ever stop to think maybe we could win?" Miguel asked.
"Yeah," Joe said. "Like in X-Men. When the odds are against you, and you really step up."
"Quit with the comic book stuff," I said. "You're both nuts."
"You sure it won't smell at Milrow?" Miguel asked.
I wasn't, but I wasn't going to tell them that.
"Oh yeah. It'll be totally fine."
"It smells like dead dogs, Rabi."
Miguel laughed at Joe's wrinkled nose of disgust. "You didn't actually believe him, did you?"
"It's not that bad," I said, trying to make the best of it. "At least we're not downwind of the feedlots."
We were sitting on our bikes, staring at the Milrow beef-processing facility, a whole series of big white metal-sided buildings and smokestacks puffing steam. A giant Milrow cow logo smiled out at us from the side of the nearest building, along with the words MILROW MEAT SOLUTIONS—MODERN FARMING EXCELLENCE MEETS ALL-NATURAL QUALITY.
Beyond that, it was feedlots to the horizon, an ocean of cows all packed together, practically knee-deep in their own manure, feeding in long troughs full of whatever it was that Milrow gave its cows to fatten them up.
We were told in school that Milrow makes beef to feed people in seven states, but until you see cows and feedlots as far as the eye can see, you can't really understand how big a deal that is. Acres and acres of cows, all waiting to go in one end of the plant as mooing animals, and pop out the other end as cuts of beef that would get packed into refrigerated trucks, where they'd be taken to supermarkets all over.
"Whew," Joe said, covering his nose with his shirt. "I'll sure be glad when they're all steak instead of stink."
I had to agree there. My family doesn't eat beef, because my mom's Hindu, but looking at all those sad, packed-together cows, it seemed like they'd sure be better off once they were turned into chunks of shrink-wrapped steak instead of a bunch of mangy and gross animals spattered with manure.
When I thought about it, though, it was kind of disgusting that this was where all that bright, clean-looking supermarket meat was coming from.
A big old semitruck was coming up the road, packed with more cows for the feedlots. We rolled our bikes out of the way as it rushed past in a blast of smelly wind and dust and loud mooing from inside the metal trailer. We all gagged from the stink.
"Come on," I said. "Let's go hit some balls before we get run over."
"It's going to be just as nasty on the grass."
"Look at it," I said. "It's a nice park."
Milrow Park stood just a little way off from the processing plant, and it really was nice. Emerald-green grass, perfectly manicured, with picnic tables and clumps of trees scattered around for shade. Of course, it was also a ghost park, because feedlots and a meatpacking plant don't make for a great view at your average Sunday family barbecue and touch football game.
My dad said Milrow only made the park because it had to clean up a huge sewer lagoon from its feedlots. There was some kind of tax deduction for turning a big lake of cow poop into a park, so they made Milrow Park and called it open space. At first, all the trees and grass died, but they'd finally figured out how to make things grow, and now, if you held your nose and just focused on the park, it was actually pretty nice—that is, if you'd run out of all other options.
"If you want to complain, go ahead," I said. "This is the only place where Sammy and his thugs aren't going to bother us. Better get used to it."
- A 2013 VOYA Top Shelf Fiction for Middle School Readers Book
- On Sale
- Sep 23, 2014
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers