Read Small Steps Online

Authors: Louis Sachar

Tags: #Ages 10 and up

Small Steps

To Laura and Nancy,
for all you taught me


Once again Armpit was holding a shovel, only now he was getting paid for it, seven dollars and sixty-five cents an hour. He worked for Raincreek Irrigation and Landscaping. He was in the process of digging a trench along the side yard of a house that belonged to the mayor of Austin, a woman with the unusual name of Cherry Lane. As his shovel knifed through the dirt, he carefully kept the sod intact so that it could be replaced later. His shovel was short and had a rectangular blade, unlike the five-foot shovels with pointed blades he had used when he was at Camp Green Lake Juvenile Correctional Facility.

Beads of perspiration rolled out from under his red
cap. His shirt was drenched in sweat. Yet none of this had anything to do with how he got his name.

During his first week at Camp Green Lake, close to three years before, a scorpion had stung him on the arm, and the pain had traveled upward and settled in his armpit. It had felt like there was a hot needle twisting around inside him. He’d made the mistake of complaining about how much his armpit hurt. The pain eventually went away, but the name stuck.

“Theodore!” called his boss, Jack Dunlevy, a white man in his late thirties. “There’s someone who would like to meet you.”

Armpit stopped digging as his boss and a woman approached. The woman wore blue jeans and a loose-fitting white shirt. Her long silver hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Austin had a reputation for being a little weird, and the mayor fit right in.

“This is Theodore Johnson,” said his boss.

Cherry Lane extended her hand. “How ya doin’, Theodore?”

Armpit stood a head taller than the mayor. He had broad shoulders and thick muscular arms. At one time in his life he had been a little overweight, but all his digging and sweating had long since burned away any excess fat.

“Just fine,” he said as he wiped his dirty hand on his shorts. “Sorry, I’m kind of sweaty.”

“That’s all right,” the mayor said, and shook his hand.

Afraid of his own strength, Armpit tried not to grip the elderly woman’s hand too hard, and was a little taken aback by the firmness of her handshake.

“I read all about the terrible things that went on at Camp Green Lake,” she told him. “I want you to know that I admire you for getting through it and turning your life around.”

Armpit wasn’t sure what to say. “I admire what you’ve done for Austin.”

He really had no idea what she’d done for the city. He knew she was supposed to be a strong environmentalist, but he’d heard his dad complain on several occasions that the “tree-huggers” only seemed to care about west Austin, an area well known for its rolling hills, nature preserves, and hike and bike trails. Most African Americans, including Armpit’s family, lived in the flatlands of east Austin.

A mosquito buzzed by his ear, and he swatted at it. At least there hadn’t been mosquitoes at Green Lake. It was too dry.

He had been sent to Camp Green Lake because of a bucket of popcorn. He had been trying to ease his way along a row of seats at the movies. He was only fourteen at the time, and was making his way past a couple of high school seniors when one of them stuck out his foot. They yelled at him for spilling popcorn on them, and he demanded that they pay for the popcorn, and by the time it was all over, the two older boys were in the hospital, and he was on his way to Camp Green Lake Juvenile Correctional Facility.

The name Green Lake was a cruel joke. He spent fourteen months in a dried-up lake bed, where he did nothing except dig holes. Later, when he applied for a job at Raincreek, Jack Dunlevy warned him the job would require a fair bit of digging. Armpit just smiled and said, “No sweat.”

After leaving Camp Green Lake, he first spent six months at a halfway house in San Antonio, where he attended school and received counseling. There were sixteen boys at the halfway house. The counselor there told them that the recidivism rate for African American boys was seventy-three percent. That meant, according to the statistics, that eleven or twelve of them would be arrested again before they turned eighteen. The counselor said the rate was even higher if you didn’t finish high school.

“If you think life was unfair before you went to prison,” she told Armpit, “it’s going to be twice as bad when you go back. People are going to expect the worst from you, and will treat you that way.”

She said his life would be like walking upstream in a rushing river. The secret was to take small steps and just keep moving forward. If he tried to take too big a step, the current would knock him off his feet and carry him back downstream.

Upon returning to Austin, he set five goals for himself. Five small steps. 1. Graduate from high school. 2. Get a job. 3. Save his money. 4. Avoid situations that might turn violent. And 5. Lose the name Armpit.

He picked up his shovel and went back to his trench.

Jack Dunlevy always brought a radio to the work site, and it was now playing a song by Kaira DeLeon.

I’m gonna take you for a ride,

And we’re gonna have some fun!

The mayor, who had started to walk away, came hurrying back. “Oh, I love this song!” she exclaimed.

I’m gonna take you for a ride,

Ooh, and we’re gonna have some fun!

Cherry Lane raised her arms in the air as she wiggled to the music. Armpit tried not to laugh. At least there was music. There had been no radios to listen to when he was digging holes at Camp Green Lake.

I’m gonna take you someplace

you never been before,

And you’ll never be the same again!


A rusted Honda Civic drove noisily down the street and parked across from the mayor’s house. Armpit had finished digging his trench and was attaching PVC pipe. The mayor had gone back inside.

The driver-side door had been bashed in, and it would have cost more to fix than the car was worth. The driver had to work his way over the stick shift and then exit on the passenger side.

The personalized license plate read:

“Armpit!” X-Ray shouted as he crossed the street. “Armpit!”

The guys at work didn’t know him by that name, but if he didn’t say something X-Ray would just keep on shouting. Better to answer and shut him up.

“Hey,” he called back.

“Man, you’re really sweating,” X-Ray said as he came near.

“Yeah, well, you’d sweat too if you were digging.”

“I’ve already dug enough dirt to last one lifetime,” said X-Ray.

They had met each other at Camp Green Lake.

“Look, don’t call me Armpit around other people, all right?” Armpit said.

“But that’s your name, dawg. You should never be ashamed of who you are.”

X-Ray had the kind of smile that kept you from hating him no matter how annoying he was. He was skinny and wore glasses, which were now covered with clip-on shades.

He picked up Armpit’s shovel. “Different shape.”

“Yeah, it’s for digging trenches, not holes.”

X-Ray studied it awhile. “Seems like it would be harder to dig with. No leverage.” He let it drop. “So you must be making a ton of money.”

Armpit shrugged. “I’m doing all right.”

“A ton of money,” X-Ray repeated.

Armpit felt uncomfortable talking about money with X-Ray.

“So really, how much you got saved up so far?”

“I don’t know. Not that much.”

He knew exactly how much he had. Eight hundred and fifty-seven dollars. He hoped to break a thousand with his next paycheck.

“Got to be at least a thousand,” said X-Ray. “You’ve been working for three months.”

“Just part-time.”

Besides working, Armpit was also taking two classes in summer school. He had to make up for all the schooling he’d missed while at Green Lake.

“And they take out for taxes and stuff, so really I don’t take home all that much.”

“Eight hundred?”

“I don’t know, maybe.”

“The reason I’m asking,” X-Ray said, “the reason I’m asking is I got a business proposition for you. How would you like to double your money in less than two weeks?”

Armpit smiled as he shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“I just need six hundred dollars. Double your money, guaranteed. And I won’t be taking out any taxes.”

“Look, things are going all right for me right now, and I just want to keep it all cool.”

“Don’t you even want to hear me out?”

“Not really.”

“It’s not against the law,” X-Ray assured him. “I checked.”

“Yeah, you didn’t think selling little bags of parsley for fifty dollars an ounce was against the law either.”

“Hey, it’s not my fault what people
they’re buying. How is that my fault? Am I supposed to be a mind reader?”

X-Ray had been sent to Camp Green Lake for selling bags of dried parsley and oregano to customers who thought they were buying marijuana. That was also why his family had to move from Lubbock to Austin shortly after he was released.

“Look, I just don’t want to do anything that might screw things up,” Armpit said.

“That’s what you think? That I came here to screw things up? Man, I’m offering you an opportunity. An opportunity. If the Wright brothers came to you, you would have told them it’s impossible to fly.”

“The Wright brothers?”
asked Armpit. “What century are you living in?”

“I just don’t get it,” said X-Ray. “I don’t get it. I offer my best friend an opportunity to double his money, and he won’t even listen to my idea.”

“All right, tell me your idea.”

“Forget it. If you’re not interested I’ll find somebody else.”

“Tell me your idea.” He actually was beginning to get just a little bit curious.

“What’s the point?” asked X-Ray. “If you’re not going to even listen . . .”

“All right, I’m listening,” said Armpit.

X-Ray smiled. “Just two words.” He paused for effect. “Kaira DeLeon.”


It was eleven-thirty in Austin, but it was an hour later in Atlanta, where Kaira DeLeon, a seventeen-year-old African American girl, was just waking up. Her face pressed against Pillow, which was, in fact, a pillow. There wasn’t much oomph left in the stuffing, and the edges were frayed. The picture of the bear with a balloon, which had once been brightly colored, had faded so much it was hardly visible.

Kaira groggily climbed out of bed. She wore boxer shorts and was unbuttoning her pajama top as she made her way to what she thought was the bathroom. She opened the door, then shrieked. A thirty-year-old white guy, sitting on a couch, stared back at her. She clutched the two halves of her pajama top together and slammed the door.

The door bounced back open.

“Doofus!” Kaira shouted at the man, then closed the door again, making sure it latched this time. “Can’t a person have some privacy around here!” she screamed, then made her way to the bathroom, which was on the opposite side of her bed.

Over the last three and a half weeks she’d been in nineteen different hotel suites, each with no fewer than three rooms, and one with six. So really, it was no wonder she went through the wrong door. She didn’t even remember what city she was in.

She suspected that Polly, her psychiatrist, would tell her she had done that on purpose; something about wanting to show her body to her bodyguard. Maybe she was better off not telling Polly about it. Everything she said in her therapy sessions was supposed to be confidential, but Kaira suspected that Polly, like a parrot, repeated everything to El Genius.

She had no privacy—not in her hotel room, not even in her own thoughts.

The problem was that, except for Polly, there wasn’t anybody on the tour she could talk to. Certainly not her mother. And not her doofus bodyguard. The guys in her band were all at least forty years old, and treated her like she was a snot-nosed little kid. The backup singers were in their late twenties, but they seemed to resent her being the center of attention.

The only time she felt at peace was when she was singing. Then it was just her and the song and everybody else just disappeared.

Her concert tour would take her to a total of fifty-four cities, so she wasn’t even half done yet. She was now on the southern swing. From Atlanta they’d be going to Jacksonville, then Miami, Birmingham, Memphis, Nashville, Little Rock, and Baton Rouge, and on to Texas: Houston, Austin, and Dallas. Originally the tour was supposed to include San Antonio instead of Austin, but that was changed at the last minute due to a monster truck rally at the Alamodome—not that Kaira cared, or even knew about the change.

Other people took care of things like that. Other people took care of everything. Kaira had accidentally left Pillow behind in New Haven, and Aileen, the tour’s travel coordinator, took a flight back to Connecticut and personally searched the hotel laundry until she found it.


Kaira emerged from the bathroom thirty minutes later wearing a hotel robe. She called room service and ordered a glass of orange juice, pancakes, a cappuccino, and French fries. It would have to last her until the concert. If she tried to eat before the concert she’d puke. After a concert she usually had a bowl of ice cream.

She got dressed, then stepped back out to the sitting area. Fred, her doofus bodyguard, was still there, going through her mail.

“As soon as I turn eighteen, you’re going to be the second person I fire.”

Fred didn’t even look up. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard it.

The television was on CNN. Kaira changed the station to the Cartoon Network.

The first person she’d fire would be El Genius. He was her business manager and agent, and also happened to be married to her mother. They had gotten married shortly before the tour. His real name was Jerome Paisley, but he actually wanted people to call him El Genius. No matter how hard Kaira tried to sound sarcastic when she used that name, he always took it as a compliment.

Her father had been killed in Iraq. His name was John Spears. Kaira’s real name was Kathy Spears, but there was already a famous singer with that last name.

El Genius had come up with the name Kaira DeLeon.

“You mean like Ponce de León?” Kaira had asked him.


Some genius.

Kaira explained to
the genius
who Ponce de León was, which was why her first CD was titled
The Fountain of Youth.
El Genius thought it looked classy for DeLeon to be spelled as one word, with a capital letter in the middle.

Kaira had learned all about Ponce de León when she was in fourth grade and living at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. She had to learn the history of Florida. By year’s end she was living at Fort Myer, where they’d been studying the history of Virginia all year. She had never spent an entire school year in the same place.

“So, anything from Billy Boy?” she asked Fred.

Fred shook his head.

“Aw, too bad,” Kaira said. “He writes such charming letters.”

“It’s not funny,” said Fred.

“I think it’s hilarious,” said Kaira. She sang,
“Oh, where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy? Oh, where have you been, charming Billy?”

Billy Boy had sent her four letters so far. He told her he thought she was lovely, she sang like a bird, and someday he would kill her.

El Genius hired Fred after the first letter. Kaira wouldn’t have been surprised if El Genius had actually written the letters, to scare her into staying confined to her hotel room. He was such a control freak. She was sure Fred told him everything she did.

“You got another marriage proposal,” Fred said.

“White or black?”

A photograph had been sent with the letter. Fred looked at it. “White,” he said.

“What is it with you guys?” asked Kaira.

It was her seventh proposal, and every one had been from a white man.

Fred carefully put the letter and the photograph in a plastic bag.

“What are you doing that for?”


“He said he wanted to marry me, not kill me,” Kaira pointed out.

“For some people, it’s the same thing,” said Fred.

Kaira glanced at him, surprised. The Doofus had actually said something kind of profound.

“Let me see what he looks like?”

Fred handed her the plastic bag.

Kaira laughed when she saw the picture. “He looks like you!” The photograph was that of a very muscular man wearing no shirt. The only difference between him and Fred was that his hair was long and wavy, while Fred had a buzz cut.

“You ought to grow your hair out,” Kaira told him as she handed the plastic bag back to him.

Seven marriage proposals, and she’d never had a boyfriend.


“Okay, here’s the deal,” said X-Ray. “Here’s the deal. They just added Austin to her tour because of some kind of screwup in San Antonio. Tickets go on sale day after tomorrow. Fifty-five dollars a pop.”

“Fifty-five dollars for just one ticket? I don’t think so.”

“In Philadelphia two front-row seats sold for seven hundred fifty dollars. Each.”

Armpit couldn’t believe it. “Seven hundred and fifty—”

“Each,” X-Ray repeated.

“She’s got a nice voice,” said Armpit. “Kind of sassy, and playful, you know? You can always tell it’s her.”

X-Ray looked at him like he was crazy. “I don’t want a critique! I want six hundred dollars.” He spoke as if to somebody else. “He gives me a critique. Now he’s a critic.”

“Well, if I didn’t think she could sing, I wouldn’t give you six hundred dollars.”

“So you’re going to give me the money?”

He was considering it.

“See, here’s the deal,” X-Ray explained. “They only let you buy six tickets. So together we can buy twelve. Six hundred and sixty dollars. I’ve already got sixty, so I just need the rest from you. You won’t have to do a thing. I’ll do all the work. Then we’ll split the profits.”

Armpit slowly exhaled. “Six hundred dollars,” he said.

“You’ll make that back on one ticket,” said X-Ray.

“No one’s going to pay six hundred dollars for a ticket.”

“They paid seven hundred and fifty in Philadelphia.”

Armpit picked up his shovel and began filling in the dirt around the pipe.

“Okay, let’s say we only sell the tickets for two hundred,” said X-Ray. “After three tickets you get your money back. I won’t get any of that. Then I get my sixty back out of the next ticket, and we split the rest right down the middle. So really there’s no risk to you at all. You know we can sell three tickets.”

Armpit replaced the sod, stomping it down with his boot.

“Think of it this way. It’s like someone is offering to pay you to stand in line for him. What if your boss says to you, he says, ‘Armpit, instead of digging today, I want you to stand in line for me, and I’ll pay you a thousand bucks to do it.’ Wouldn’t you do it?”

“Of course.”

“Same thing!” X-Ray said. “Some dudes are going to pay us a thousand bucks to stand in line for them. We just don’t know who they are yet. See, you got to think outside the box.”

A siren blared over the radio.

“Oh! Oh!” X-Ray exclaimed as he fumbled for the cell phone attached to his belt.

The siren noise had been made by an electric guitar, which slowly wound down and transformed into a flurry of notes and chords. It was the intro to Kaira DeLeon’s biggest hit.

I hear a w-w-warning sound

Every time you c-c-come around.

Should you ch-chance to glance at me,

Threatens my security.

“C’mon, c’mon,” X-Ray said into his phone.

Red Alert!

My hands are sh-sh-shakin’.

Red Alert!

Stomach’s achin’.

Red Alert!

Other books

Borrowing Trouble by Mae Wood
Conspiracy of Silence by S. T. Joshi
Back Channel by Stephen L. Carter
Iron Goddess by Dharma Kelleher
Pushed Too Far: A Thriller by Ann Voss Peterson, Blake Crouch
French Leave by Anna Gavalda
Blade Runner by Oscar Pistorius
Four New Words for Love by Michael Cannon
Alice in Bed by Judith Hooper