It was over the Sunday paper that I first learned that a forty-one-year-old man named Hamish Mactavish of Inverness, Scotland, was eating a bus.
The Sunday paper was a family thing at the Donaldson house. Mom and Dad dreamed it up as a weekly ceasefire in the war between me and my worst enemy on earth, that waste of bathroom tissue, my brother, Chase the Disgrace.
Chase and I are twins–not identical, that’s for sure. I can’t believe we once shared the same womb together. It’s all I can bear to be in the same town as the guy, let alone the same house, and three of the same classes. Mom said she experienced a lot of kicking during pregnancy. My theory is that all that action was me trying to strangle Chase with the umbilical cord. I’ve always been blessed with a good dose of common sense, although I’m not very smart in a schoolish way. Chase got all the academic ability–not to mention the athletic talent, good looks, popularity, and the bigger room, with a view of the mountains, not the garage.
Neither of us could have eaten a bus. That might be the only area Chase didn’t have it over me.
“I don’t understand why you two can’t make a better effort to get along,” our mother was always complaining.
Of course she didn’t understand. She was lucky enough to have been born an only child. She would never accept that we were natural enemies: Lion and antelope; Macintosh and IBM; matter and antimatter; Warren and Chase.
So naturally Chase jumped all over me when I found that tiny little story squeeze between brassiere ads in the wilds of page G27.
“Get out of here!” Chase scoffed. “It’s impossible to eat a bus!”
“It’s not impossible for Hamish Mactavish,” I told him. “He’s already half-done with the front fender. So there, pinhead.”
“Doofus,” Chase countered.
“Look who’s talking–”
“I’d like to know how he’s doing it,” my mother said quickly. “Surely the man can’t chew metal and glass.”
“I bet he’s just eating the body,” my father put in. “I mean, nobody could eat a differential.”
I held up the short article. “It says here that he cuts the chassis into bite-sized pieces with a hacksaw and swallows them whole. Then the natural acids of his stomach break them down.” I turned to Mom. “Can that happen?”
“Over time, I suppose so,” she replied dubiously. “This Mactavish fellow certainly must have a strong stomach.”
“Strong? He’s amazing!” I exclaimed. “I can’t believe this didn’t make the front page, with a big picture of Hamish Mactavish with what’s left of the bus. This guy should be famous!”
“Star of the insane asylum,” put in Chase.
I couldn’t wait for the six o’clock news. I was positive Hamish Mactavish was going to be the top story. Instead it was something boring about the president. The president! I mean, what had he ever eaten? Not so much as a rearview mirror!
Hamish Mactavish wasn’t the second story either. Or the third. In fact, he didn’t make the news at all. I figured they were waiting for the late-breaking developments to come in over the wire from Scotland. I switched over to CNN, and watched the entire broadcast.
I could hear Chase in the next room laughing at me over the phone on his nightly calls to eighty-five of his nearest and dearest friends. “Yeah, he’s been glued to the tube for three and a half hours! Man, talk about stupid…”
And when I went to bed that night, bug-eyed from staring at the TV, I still hadn’t heard a single solitary word about Hamish Mactavish.
Kevin Connolly and Amanda Pace were talking about last night’s Bulls game when I slipped into my seat next to them in social studies class.
“Michael Jordan was unbelievable!” Amanda raved. “He scored forty and still had enough rebounds and assists for a triple double.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “That guy’s the Hamish Mactavish of basketball.”
“The who of basketball?” Kevin asked.
“Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of Hamish Mactavish!” I exclaimed in disbelief. “He’s only the top-ranked bus eater in the world today!”
“Bus eater?” echoed Amanda.
“He eats buses,” I explained. “At least, he’s eating one now.”
“How much money does he get?” inquired Kevin.
I stared at him. “How should I know?”
“It’s important,” argued Kevin, who wouldn’t even bother to breathe unless he was getting paid for it. “If I was going to eat a bus, I’d expect my agent to cut a monster deal, with a big signing bonus, and a six-figure payoff when I was done.”
“He’s not doing it for the money–” I began.
But how did I know that Hamish Mactavish wasn’t getting paid for his amazing feat? After all, a bus wasn’t an extra slice of pizza that you ate because you were too lazy to wrap it up and put it in the refrigerator. It wasn’t even like the time Chase swallowed a caterpillar to impress Leticia Hargrove so she’d like him and hate me. This was huge!
“Maybe some rich guy is offering a million dollars to anyone who can eat a bus,” Kevin speculated. “Or maybe the Scottish government is running out of dump space. They’d pay big bucks to get rid of out-of-use vehicles.”
“I think it’s more like the Olympics,” I told him. “You don’t get paid for the actual thing, but afterwards you clean up on endorsements.”
“What kind of endorsements?” Amanda asked dubiously.
“Stomach medicines,” I suggested. “Can’t you picture the TV commercial? ‘Hi, I’m Hamish Mactavish. If you think you get heartburn, you should see how much eating a bus can upset your stomach. So when a windshield wiper is giving me nausea, I reach for the instant relief of Gas-Away…’”
Kevin looked thoughtful. “I wonder what kind of contract he’d get for that.”
“Not as good as Michael Jordan,” mused Amanda.
“Don’t be so sure,” I put in. “I mean, there are hundreds of basketball players. But if you want a guy who can eat a bus, it’s Hamish Mactavish or nobody.”
I could tell this made a big impression on Kevin. “What a great negotiating position!” he remarked. “Does this Hamish guy need a manager?”
Amanda looked at me with a new respect. “You know, Warren, I never thought of it that way–” Suddenly she tuned me out.
I craned my neck to see what had captured her attention. She was looking at Chase the Disgrace. Chase never just walked into a room; he made an entrance, usually surrounded by a couple of his caveman buddies from the football team.
“What’s going on, Chase?”
“What’s happening, man?”
My brother slapped his way through the forest of high-fives until he was standing over me. “Are you still babbling about that bus-eating geek?”
The whole class burst out laughing. Not that his comment was so brilliant, or even hilarious. Most of the kids have never even heard of Hamish Mactavish and what he had set out to do. That’s just how it was with Chase. He was the big shot, the cool guy, the sports hero, Mr. Popularity. Everything that came out of my mouth was an automatic gem. The football jerks were practically in hysterics. They had to pound each other on the back just to keep from choking.
Most painful of all, Amanda was laughing too, and gazing worshipfully up at my brother’s slick grin.
I could feel the crimson bubbling up from my collar until it had taken total possession of my face. “He’s not a geek,” I muttered tight-lipped.
“Hi, Amanda.” The Disgrace shifted his attention to the desk next to mine. “We’re going to hit the mall after school. Feel like meeting us?”
If I was Hamish Mactavish’s son, maybe people in our school wouldn’t be so impressed by a big phony like Chase. I mean, Amanda practically bit off her tongue promising that right after school she’d run home and get her bike. But, then again, if I was a Mactavish kid, Chase would be, too. And he’d still be better than me at absolutely everything.
That really burned me up. Even in my own fantasy, I couldn’t get the best of Chase. In a rage, I stood up and threw my pen at him as he high-fived the rest of the way to his desk. The ballpoint whizzed past his shoulder and landed in the fish tank. Chase wheeled and bounced a pencil sharpener with deadly accuracy off my nose. Chase was also a star pitcher during baseball season.
“Let’s take it easy on the brotherly love today,” suggested Mr. Chin, as he set his briefcase on the desk. “Now, this morning I promised we’d talk about the oral presentations. This semester the subject will be your hero, or the person you admire most. It can be someone you know, or even a figure for history. Warren Donaldson–” Suddenly, the teacher’s sharp eyes were on me. “This will be fifty percent of your grade. I think you’d bother to take a few notes.”
Scattered snickers buzzed through the room. I snuck a look over at the bottom of the fish tank, where the algae eater was nuzzling my pen.
“That’s okay, Mr. Chin,” I announced. “I already know who my subject is going to be.”
It wasn’t easy doing research on Hamish Mactavish. There must have been some kind of media blackout over in Scotland. There was nothing about him in any of the papers, and the radio and TV news programs were all about senators, and murderers, and embezzlers, and people who got killed in sewer pipe explosions.
“When are you going to face facts?” Chase taunted me. “Nobody cares about Hamish What’s-his-face except you!” The doorbell rang. “Oh, that must be Amanda. We’re going to the mall.”
“The guys who built the mall didn’t spend as much time there as you two,” I snapped at him.
Amanda poked her head around the corner and waved. “Hi, Warren.”
I buried my face in my Hamish Mactavish scrapbook and pretended to be too busy to reply. In reality, I still had only the one tiny article from between the brassiere ads–with fifty percent of my social studies grade hanging in the balance.
Did I give up? Would Hamish Mactavish have given up? Never!
The computer database in our school library found another piece on Hamish Mactavish. Okay, it was from fourteen years ago, and I had to go to the public library to get it–not the branch library near where we lived, but the main building downtown. But I was psyched. Even the forty-five-minute train ride couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm. I had unearthed another piece of the puzzle that was Hamish Mactavish.
It took all four research librarians, including the chief, who was about ninety, to find what I was looking for. My hands were shaking as I opened the June 1983 issue of U.K. Adventurer magazine. It turned out that my Hamish Mactavish, then twenty-seven, became the toast of the British Isles when he ate a grand piano, bench and all. It was an awesome achievement, but, I now knew, just a training mission for bigger and better things to come.
I squinted at the small picture of Mr. Mactavish, who was posed with a napkin around his neck, and the final piano key in his mouth. He was a pretty weird-looking guy, with wild, almost bulging eyes, and a dazed expression. He was mostly bald, but several long strands of jet black hair hung down his forehead like jungle vines. He also seemed a little on the fat side, with rosy apple cheeks. I guess pianos are pretty high in calories.
Just looking at him, it came to me in a moment of perfect clarity: A guy like that would have to eat a bus if he expected to get any attention in this world! Especially if he had to compete with people like Chase.
The chief librarian gawked over my shoulder. “Good Lord, what kind of creature is that?”
“A role model,” I answered without hesitation.
“I don’t understand why you didn’t’ go to the mall with Chase and Amanda,” my mother nagged me.
I was absorbed in pasting the second article in my Hamish Mactavish scrapbook. “They didn’t want me,” I said without looking up.
She stared at me. “Yes, they did. They asked you to go!”
“They were lying.”
Mom shook her head. “What is the problem between you two?”
“We have irreconcilable differences,” I said stubbornly.
She folded her arms in front of her. “What irreconcilable differences?”
“We hate each other,” I told her. “You can’t get more irreconcilable than that.”
“Open your eyes, Warren,” she insisted. “Who put Vicks VapoRub in Chase’s toothpaste? Who poured ketchup on the cat the day Chase was trying out his new BB gun? Who called the police and reported the car stolen the day of the big tennis championship so we all got arrested, and Chase missed his match? Poor Chase doesn’t hate anybody! It’s you who have declared all-out war on your brother, who has never done anything to you!”
“He’s done something to me,” I shot back. “He’s done a lot of somethings to me. Every time Chase draws a breath it just points out how much more brains, talent, good looks, and athletic ability he has than I do. Compared to all that, I’d say I’m pretty innocent!”
At that moment, the side door flew open, and Chase bounded into the kitchen–in his underwear! “I’ll kill him!” he seethed.
Mom’s eyes bulged. “Where are your pants?”
I looked casually out the kitchen window. Chase’s bike leaned against the garage, with his jeans still attached to the seat. I struggled to contain the smile that was crystallizing inside of me. I had applied just the right amount of Krazy Glue.
Best of all, Amanda was nowhere to be seen.
“Good thing he took off his pants instead of ripping them,” Kevin said at school the next day. “Otherwise your parents would probably make you pay for a new pair.”
“It still would have been worth it,” I assured him. “You should’ve seen the look on his face. It was like the day he threw that big interception with three seconds to play.”
Loyal brother that I am, I’ve never missed one of Chase’s football games. Of course, I always sit in the Visitors bleachers and root for the other team. I can usually work the opposing fans into a pretty good chorus of:
He’s a disgrace!
Knock that ugly face
Into outer space!
My family spent a lot of time trying to figure out how all the other teams seemed to develop the same chant.
“Hi, Kevin.” Amanda slipped into her seat. She gave me a dirty look.
I know I should have been upset. But I just couldn’t shake the image of Chase riding up to the mall beside Amanda, and then trying to get off his bike. He had probably struggled a little–imperceptibly at first, then with increasing effort until his front tire was bouncing up and down on the pavement.
AMANDA: What’s wrong, Chase?”
CHASE: Uh… just checking the air in my tires… (more bouncing, becoming violent)
Kevin sensed the tension and decided to change the subject. “I’ve been thinking of some marketing angles for Hamish Mactavish. How about this: A coast-to-coast bus trip where he actually eats the bus in different cities as he goes along. He could roll into the L.A. Coliseum on just the motor and four wheels, and scarf down the chassis in front of fifty thousand screaming fans. I call it ‘The Hamish Mactavish Disappearing Bus Tour.’”
“It doesn’t work that way,” I replied. “He has to cut everything into small pieces and swallow it. It takes months.”
“Oh.” Kevin seemed disappointed. “Well, how about a TV miniseries, then? Or we could set up a hotline, 1-900-EAT-A-BUS, and charge people three bucks a minute to hear him talk about how–”
I didn’t catch the rest because my chair was yanked out from under me, sending me crashing to the floor. Rough hands grabbed me by the collar, and I was yanked to my feet by two of Chase’s football linemen. Hot breath from their bull nostrils too the curl out of my hair.
“Let him go,” muttered Chase.
“Come on, take a punch!” I egged him on. “I’d rather lose all my teeth than owe anything to the likes of you!”
“Don’t push your luck, Warren,” he warned as he took his seat, followed by his two goons.
I concentrated on Amanda. She was now staring at Chase with twice as much admiration and adoration as before I guess he’d been wearing his very best underwear yesterday. Unbelievable.
To make matters even worse, Mr. Chin was trying to get me to change my topic for the oral presentation.
“I know you’re disappointed, Warren,” the teacher told me. “But I really don’t see that there’s enough material available about the man for a whole term assignment.”
“I know that,” I defended myself. “That’s why I wrote Mr. Mactavish a letter. I’ll bet he can send me tons of information.”
Mr. Chin frowned. “How did you find his address?”
“Oh, I just put Inverness, Scotland, on the envelope,” I replied airily. “After all, how many Hamish Mactavishes could there be?”
“Mactavish is one of the most popular names in Scotland!” he exploded. “Hamish Mactavish is like being named Joe Smith over here!”
“Oh.” My face fell. “I just figured it was taking him a long time to get back to me because he was so busy, what with eating a bus and all.”
The teacher sighed. “There’s still time to choose a new topic. I think you’ll have no trouble finding someone a lot more admirable than a wild eccentric who’s doing something silly.”
I leaped to my feet, feeling the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. “It’s not silly,” I protested. “Don’t you get it? Hamish Mactavish is a total loser. He’s fat, he’s ugly, he’s not too bright–if there’s anyone with a good excuse to throw in the towel in life, it’s him. But he didn’t! He found the one thing he can do that’s absolutely unique! Okay, it’s a crazy, stupid thing, but it’s his crazy, stupid thing, and nobody can touch him at it! And in a world where Hamish Mactavish can hit it big, none of us are ever hopeless!”
I sat down amidst the laughter and jeers. Spitballs and erasers bounced off of me. People were whistling inspirational music, and playing imaginary violins. In one short speech, I had cemented my position as the class joke. Even the teacher wore a big grin, although he was trying to hide it.
In fact, the only nonparticipant in this party at my expense was Chase, who sat staring straight forward, his expression inscrutable. Still mad over the Krazy Glue thing, I guess.
It was the night before the oral presentations were set to begin. All in all, a pretty ordinary night at our house except that Chase had wrangled the best spot on the couch, so I was crammed into the corner with a lousy view of the TV.
“…and finally,” the news anchor was saying, “the latest word from Inverness, Scotland, is that Hamish Mactavish has given up his bid to eat a bus. According to the forty-one-year-old Mactavish, he was having trouble digesting the tires.”
The sportscaster started to make some wisecrack, but I was already running for the stairs.
“Warren–” my father called.
I burst into my room and slammed the door. I couldn’t believe it was all over. Just like that. One minute something special, historic was going on, and I was part of it. The next I was nobody again.
I don’t know why I felt so betrayed. Hamish Mactavish didn’t owe me anything. Who was I to talk? I wouldn’t even eat broccoli, let alone seven tons of metal and glass and rubber.
There was a knock at my door. “Warren, open up.”
It wasn’t my folks. It was Chase the Disgrace, probably to rub salt in my wounds.
“Get lost,” I snarled.
“I’m really sorry, Warren,” Chase said from the hall. “I know how much Hamish What’s-his-name meant to you.”
“He’s a quitter!” I rasped.
“He made an amazing run,” Chase amended. “Nobody could have come as close as he did.”
It hit me right then: fighting with my brother got on my nerves, sure. But Chase actually being nice–that drove me absolutely insane!
“Leave me alone!” I bellowed. “Go call Amanda! Go be the star of the world!”
Calm down, I told myself. My heart was pounding in my throat. This was 50 percent of my social studies grade, and I was poised to flunk in spectacular style. I had until morning to think up another subject–like Sting, or maybe Harriet Tubman. Then the plan was to get down on my knees, howl at the moon, tear my hair out, and beg, plead, entreat, and cajole Mr. Chin to please, please, please have a heart, and give me an extension!
“I knew he couldn’t do it,” Kevin greeted me in class the next morning.
“Shut up, Kevin,” I yawned, bleary-eyed from a sleepless night. “You were ready to send the guy on a coast-to-coast publicity tour!”
“Not anymore,” he replied. “His marketability is permanently damaged. I couldn’t book him into a grade-school cafeteria, let alone the L.A. Coliseum. You know what our mistake was? The Scotland thing. Why should we go to some foreign country for our superstar? There’s plenty of talent right here at home. If we searched the Midwest, I’ll bet we could find some farm boy who could eat a combine harvester on national television. Now that’s American.”
Mr. Chin breezed into the room, and I immediately put my plan into action. “Sir? Could I have a word with–”
“Later, Warren,” he cut me off. “I want to get started on the oral presentations. Who would like to be first?”
Normally, no one would volunteer, and the teacher would have to pick somebody. But this time there was a hand raised in our social studies class. Most amazing of all, it belonged to Chase the Disgrace. I couldn’t believe it. My brother would never put his image on the line and be first at something.”
“Ah, Chase,” the teacher approved. “Go ahead.”
As Chase walked to the front of the class, I checked out Amanda. Instead of staring at my brother in nauseating rapture, she was looking at me! What was going on here?
“Most people think of heroes as winners,” Chase read from his notes, “but I’m not convinced that’s always true. It’s no big deal to pick up a basketball if you’re Michael Jordan, or to do something you know you’re going to be great at. What’s a lot harder is to try something even when the odds are stacked up against you. Sometimes failing is more admirable than succeeding…”
It all clicked into place in a moment of exquisite agony–Chase’s sudden kindness last night, his volunteering to go first, Amanda watching me, not him. After a lifetime of beating, outperforming, and besting me in every imaginable way, Chase was delivering the final ultimate insult. He had figured out a way to do his oral presentation on Hamish Mactavish when I couldn’t. He was even better than me at being me!
The dam burst, and white-hot blinding rage flooded my brain. “Why you double-crossing–” I leaped out of my chair, and made a run at my brother, with every intention of leaving this class an only child.
“Warren!” Mr. Chin stopped me a scant six inches from Chase’s throat. “Have you lost your mind?” He held me by the shoulders, his face flushed, but not half as red as mine must have been.
“You’re the lowest of the low!” I seethed at Chase. “You’re the slime trail of the mutant parasites that crawl around the sludge of the toxic waste dump!”
“Warren, go to the principal’s office!” ordered the teacher.
Chase stepped in. “Please, Mr. Chin, let him stay. I want him to hear this.” He returned to his notes, and continued his presentation. “The person I picked isn’t always successful, but he’s heroic because he never gives up when a lot of us would. When I definitely would. That person is my brother Warren.”
There are times in this life when you feel like the biggest total moron in the galaxy, but you just have to stand there and take it, because anything you say will only make things twenty times worse. My jaw was hanging around my knees, as Chase went on amout my strength of character and my resilience; how others fell to pieces when the cards didn’t come up aces, while I was always ready to do my best with the two of clubs.
When he finished, all eyes in the class were on me. And for the first time ever, I couldn’t think of a single rotten thing to say to Chase the Disgrace.
“This doesn’t mean I like you,” I managed finally.
He stuck out his jaw. “You either.”
“Of course, you’re not such a bad guy,” I added quickly.
“We’re brothers,” he replied with a grin. “We’ve got to support each other.”
I pounced on this. “Switch rooms with me?”
“In your dreams!” laughed Chase.
“Look who’s talking–”
Well, at least I was his hero. That was a start.