Jackson Jones and Mission Greentop

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C
HAPTER
O
NE

He's driving hard down the court. Ball under perfect control. Fake right, pivot. The way is clear…. YES! Ball headed for basket and … it's innnnn. Two points. Victory!

“You dreaming?” Reuben, my best friend, poked me.

I sighed. I could catch the far-off sounds of the game down the street. The mind picture of me quick-dribbling, shooting, scoring … disappeared.

No, I was rooted at Rooter's. Stuck in my plot at the community garden.

“Whatcha think of the name?”

I stubbed a weed. “Good for a monster.”

“It'll be huge, green, and hated by all.”

“Entire galaxies will tremble.”

“The Unspeakable Z.”

Reuben and I slapped skin. We had the perfect villain for our next comic strip.

Since third grade, Captain Nemo Comics has been our life's work. Reuben and I are an excellent team. I write; Reuben draws. I work fast; Reuben peers and puzzles, eyeballs and erases. Poke-turtle slow, that's Reuben. And finicky! But he does make Nemo look good.

Our favorite part is creating the villains. We make them mean, scary, and outer-space strange. Captain Nemo has tackled a six-headed Cerebral and a no-armed Flawt. Would the Unspeakable Z bring him down?

“Hey, you two,” Mr. Kerring hollered from his fold-up chair. “You been on that weed for an hour. You think it's gonna pull itself up?”

Mr. K. is the oldest Rooter in the garden. And the best. His plot next to mine is laid out like a kingdom. Beet greens march in neat rows; leeks line up like soldiers. He can remember back to the garden's beginning— in 1944.

He can tell you how city folks grew food during World War II. “There was none of this running to 7-Eleven for chips,” he humphs. Mr. K. calls Rooter's a victory garden.

Victory.
I knew the word. It meant the drive to the basket. Slam dunk—and SCORE. The other team left in the dust.

Victory had nothing to do with a rosebush and squash.

The stuff surrounding me now.

People might have needed city gardens in the old days. But now? You can buy tomatoes and lettuce from Safeway. Gardens belong in the country. Deep in the country with cow muck and wasps.

Try telling that to my mama, though. She grew up in the country. And she
loved
every cow-flopping, bee-stinging minute. She worries that the city is no place for a boy.

So she made me a Rooter, last April. My tenth birthday, and I got … dirt. A patch of ground on Evert Street. Plot 5-1 rented in my name.

And there was no way I could give it back.

Mama's eyes had been so shiny-happy. “A little piece of country,” she called my present. She had wanted to give me my own green spot.

So I dug and sowed, watered and waited. I dealt with puddles and thorns, a stingy bush with no roses. Now it was almost September, one week till school started. My crop had been mostly weeds—and trouble.

Here came some more.

Huge, green, and hated. The very thing Captain Nemo must conquer. The thing that made galaxies tremble.

The Unspeakable Z.

Zucchini.

Mailbags Mosely, who has the plot two over, laid it at our feet. He gave Reuben and me an easy smile. The man is as BIG as a buffalo— but that green vegetable, I swear, was as long as his shoes. Mailbags actually liked growing weird garden things. He passed them round like Hallmark cards.

Bang!
went the garden gate. And more trouble blew through. Gaby and Ro Rivera, followed by their big sister, Juana. She was
hollering at them in English and Spanish. Whatever the language, they paid no attention. They rushed through Rooter's like two wild winds.

We all live in the same apartment building. Juana, Reuben, and Mailbags are excellent neighbors. Gaby and Ro are not. Those two know only three volumes: loud, extra loud, ear-breaking. Their mission in life: to annoy.

The Riveras made straight for that zucchini. Gaby poked it with her toe.

Zucchini. It grows better than weeds at Rooter's. I have had it fried, stewed, sliced, and diced. I have had it baked, boiled, broiled, and breaded. I have had it up to here with zucchini.

“Jackson should get the zuke.” Gaby grinned slyly. “His mama
loves
plants.”

True. Our apartment is crammed with strange-sounding greens. Philodendrons, geraniums, begonias. But here's the embarrassing part: Mama chats with the things. Gives them pep talks. And they grow like the Amazon rain forest. Other kids have brothers, sisters, pets;
I live with a six-foot ficus. It towers by the phone, where, as Mama says, it has optimal light.

“But those plants are still growing.” Juana spoke up fast. “Jackson's mama doesn't talk to
produce.”

Juana. She is one Super J. To the rescue, quick as Captain Nemo. Saving me from a meal of Unspeakable Z.

“Zucchini that size is too tough to fry,” Mr. K. pronounced from his chair. “Make it into gazpacho.”

“Mama doesn't know how to cook gaz— whatever,” I said quickly.

“Neither does Miz Lady,” Reuben said of his grandma. “Anyway, she's sick.”

Mr. K. snorted. “Gazpacho's easy to make. Practically makes itself. In fact, young man”— he turned to Mailbags—”you hand that zuke to me.”

Listen to the man bossing Mailbags! Huh, I know why Mr. K. has no weeds. He's commanded them to leave.

“Everyone's invited for dinner tomorrow
night.” Mr. K. smiled upon us all. “Jackson, bring your mother.”

I blinked and nodded.

As we hurried out the garden gate, I whispered to Juana, “What's gazpacho?”

“Soup,” she whispered back.

Soup. That didn't sound so bad.

Right then, I should have sensed even more trouble. But I was too focused on Captain Nemo and the Unspeakable Z.

That's how trouble could creep up on me so easy. Creep up and whomp me on the head.

C
HAPTER
T
WO

Gazpacho.

Crammed with zucchini.

Cold.

Reuben and I stared into our bowls. Put down our spoons.

Mr. K. humphed while Mama and Mailbags spooned and sipped and paid compliments. Lucky Juana. She'd gone school-shoe shopping with Gaby and Ro. Lucky Miz Lady, at home with a cold.

“Now we have two Nemo villains,” Reuben murmured. “Unspeakable Z and Gazpacho of Doom.”

“They're closing in,” I whispered. “Nemo's mission:
urgent.”

“Shhh,” Mama said.

I slumped, glancing round the apartment. Brown couch, square TV, books stiff on a shelf. The one plant looked lonely without a green buddy.

Mr. K. lived in a building for old people. In this retirement home, Mama told me, the furniture came with the room. There were rules about what you could have.

Huh, no wonder the man dragged his lawn chair to Rooter's. In that mishmash of plots, no one cared what you grew.

“More soup?” Mr. K. peered from his kitchen.

No more, no way, I wanted to say.

Then I caught Mama's worry frown. It shows whenever she frets. Like when I talk back. Slip on my homework. Fill up on soda and chips.

So I decided to smooth on some strategy. My mission: to save myself from eating cold soup.

“Mr. K.,” I said, “you ever hear how Mama rescued a ficus?”

Normally, I would never mention this tree.
Talk about embarrassing! Mama had hauled it out of the Dumpster in May. She had carted it home, cooed to it.

The thing had flourished. Like one of my weeds.

I plowed forward with my story. It was that or stare at cold soup. “Mama poked the soil and—”

“Overwatered,” declared Mr. K.

“How did you know?”

Mr. K. shrugged. “Houseplant's number one problem.”

“That's what Mama said,” I told him. “That tree used to be so scrawny. Now it is looking
fine.”

Mama smiled; the worry frown disappeared.

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