"J! We've made real progress!" Deane said, tugging on J's sweatshirt and dragging him into the Alchemist's classroom. J had come to school early because the Alchemists had texted him an "848" messagethe US penal code for "continuing criminal enterprise," essentially, running a drug ring. Deane was one of the heads of the six Alchemists, seventeen and pimply, with a shock of black hair that stuck straight up like a hedgehog. He was the one who researched poppy plants and the least accessible land routes in Afghanistan, carefully calculating where opium was likely to be grown and distributed. With the Alchemists' ad hoc supercomputer, they had created a high-resolution map of the country, dividing it into multiple square kilometer cells, and analyzing each one for potential plant production, weather patterns, and news of trafficking and arrests, so they could determine where the opium was probably growing, and who was doing the selling. It was Deane's dream to be a Central Intelligence Agent or a mastermind mobster, and he thought discovering some underground Afghani drug deal would be his ticket to either one. J was just interested in the technology and essentially followed orders. Deane was hopping up and down, and his eyes were bugging out. "Falbcrest gave us extra Ethernet cards, and last night we were able to do channel bonding. Jwe'll be so much faster! The slave PC's are already responding."
"Cool!" J said, and turned his cap around backwards on his head. Four of the other Alchemists were there, each at a workstation. Jorge looked up at him.
"Jdid you even shower this morning? You look like the breakfast that came out of my ass."
J winced. Jorge was an asshole, but he was good with tools, and everybody appreciated him when they needed to weld something onto a motherboard, or toggle tiny switches somewhere. J was the programmer, and he liked to think of his clique as a sort of computer itselfeach member doing its part, competently humming as a whole. "Well you look like the paper I wiped with," J answered back. "And you didn't give me any time for hygiene. You sent the 848."
Deane looked up from his headphones, where he was simultaneously listening to "Learn Arabic! The Easy Way" and said, "Don't fight, assholes. There's work to do." And then, "J, seriouslyyou should be our spy. You look like a guy but you're really a girl. You're way smarter than a real girl, anyhow. You'd be great undercover."
J swallowed hard. He never knew how to take these comments. He'd been mistaken for a boy since he was four, playing with the trucks in preschool. He remembered being devastated when the neighborhood kids, Gus and Junior, told him he couldn't throw the football with them in the streets anymore, because he was a girl. He was about ten when this happened and he ducked his head whenever he saw Gus or Junior after that. As he got older, he snuck into the men's restroom at restaurants and held it at school, because he got such angry looks and even screams when he used the women's room. Still, Deane's comment bothered him. He wasn't smarter than a girl; he felt a deep course of shame when anyone even said the word"girl" around him. At school these days, where some teachers still used his old name, he liked to think of himself as a "nothing"especially now that his body had betrayed him by growing hips and curves, now that the fantasy he had nursed as a childthat he'd miraculously wake up as a boyhad long since simmered, smoked, and died. Most days, he didn't want to think about it.
J looked back at his screen and was logging on, when Mischa, the usually-quiet kid from Russia, joined in. "Yeah, Jyou should be our spy! You practically look Afghani anyway," He looked around at the other Alchemists, and smiled when they laughed. He saw he had everyone's attention, so he puffed out his chest and pushed on. "Maybe you could even bring home a girlfriend. She'd look even more covered up than you."
Excerpted from I Am J by Cris Beam. Copyright © 2011 by Cris Beam. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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