Virgins are people, too! (Encore)

What? Virgins are people, too?

Snidely and NellOf course they are! They’re also a primary category in my conglomerated approach to the characters of popular fiction: Villains, Virgins, and Vigilantes. Who could take a look at dear, sweet Nell — Dudley Do-Right’s heartthrob — and not be overcome with sympathy? (Or at least some socially responsible emotion.)

But while Nell embodies much of what we think of when imagining a damsel in distress, she hardly epitomizes all such victims or the broader sense of “innocence at risk” which is what I’m going for in my vastly oversimplified category.

What I’m really talking about are victims, and they come from all demographic groups, not just from Miss Montague’s Finishing School for Pale-skinned Girls of Lofty Repute. <wheeze>

Nope, our victims come from all over. What’s important for writers of popular fiction to remember, is that these characters need to be sympathetic. Readers need to care about them and care enough to keep turning pages to find out what happens to them.

A toddler steadying himself with the aid of a kitchen stool isn’t nearly as sympathetic as one reaching for a pan of boiling water on the stove. Readers automatically fill in the blanks for such a thin description. They’ve seen toddlers, and they’ve seen boiling water; they can imagine the rest.

dandyWith adult characters, the writer has to do considerably more work. If Wall Street scion, Cranston J. Flossweight reached for the pan of boiling water, most readers wouldn’t care if he dumped it on himself. In fact, most would probably prefer that he did. But what if the writer needs Cranston to be sympathetic? What can she do to make it so?

Lots of things!

For starters, either change his name or show that he’s carried the moniker like Jacob Marley’s chain collection. It’s weighed him down and cast him as a rich wastrel, when in fact, he’s a really decent fellow who’s made giving to charity his life’s work. Show that the reason he puts in so many, many hours at his brokerage house — Finagle, Flossweight, and Phlegm — is that he truly wants to make the world a better place for everyone. Or, just in case his ambitions aren’t quite that noble, have someone make fun of him for something he can’t control: a peculiar walk, the way he laughs, or a bald spot that’s off-center but rings a birthmark. How charming would that be? (I’m pretty sure God invented mean girls so writers could have sympathetic school kids–despite zits, anxiety, and the never-to-be-forgotten fear of being labeled “different.” <sharp intake of breath> )

It really doesn’t take too much effort to crowd readers into your character’s corner, but it’s labor that will pay wonderful dividends. Can’t you just imagine your readers cringing in fear, praying that you don’t do anything really nasty and loathsome to your beloved virgin? “Say it ain’t so!”

nosferatu-shadowBut of course it’s so!

That’s what it’s all about. If we were able to be mean to our villains, imagine the truly rotten things we can do to our victims. Bwahaha! What’s a little bit of harmless evil between friends?

It’s not all sadistic pleasure, however. I can still remember the first time I had to kill off a good guy. It came in the second book of a trilogy, and the player in question was the uncompromisingly decent sort of person anyone would want for a friend. Wise, worldly, clever, patient — basically all the attributes most of us would like to think we have without any of the other stuff that makes us merely human. So, of course, this character had to go. He’d served his time, made his friends, and angered his enemies. Ergo, he was doomed.

Just dispatching the poor schlep might have been enough, but since we had to do away with him anyway (the book was a collaborative effort), we decided to make his demise the focal point of nastiness for another character, an arch-villain. If you think reading it was tough, try writing it. Somehow, we did.

I hate this guyBoy did that work! When my son-in-law read it, he called me — across three time zones no less — and told me we were no longer on speaking terms. (“I’m calling to tell you we’re no longer talking.” Huh? I never said it made sense.) Anyway, he felt we had betrayed him by killing off a beloved character.

But notice that he didn’t stop reading the book. In fact, he dug in even harder suspecting that we wouldn’t let the meanie get away with his crime. Nor did we disappoint him in that regard. We found a particularly gruesome way to dispatch the villain, thus restoring my relationship with my daughter’s other half. Eventually. More or less. Kinda. Whatever.

Please understand, killing that particular virgin was emotionally wrenching for the writers as well as the readers, possibly even more so, since we had the means to avoid it and opted not to. We both really loved that guy, and terminating him was difficult. Extremely so.

Why? Because we’d spent a significant part of two long volumes making him sympathetic.

Some victims deserve itFrom time to time we run across an individual victim who isn’t sympathetic. In such cases, it’s usually hard to apply the word “victim,” since the player involved has character traits that make one root for the bad guy. Some of these characters simply deserve what they get. They tend not to be memorable, though they may provide comic relief. (Jar Jar Binks, a particularly annoying alien who first appears in the fourth “Star Wars”® movie, was so universally loathed that many viewers adopted the slogan “Jar Jar Binks must die!” Technically speaking, Binks was a VIP — Very Important Pal — rather than a victim, but most viewers wanted him to become a victim. Much more on VIPs later.)

Scope and perspective play an important role in the discussion of victims. Joseph Stalin said, “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” This sort of callous disregard for life has, to the everlasting shame of our species, been repeated over and over. But it didn’t begin with Hitler’s death camps, Russia’s gulags, or China’s peasant massacres.

In researching early European history for the Druids trilogy, we studied Caesar’s chronicles of the Gallic Wars (Commentarii de Bello Gallico). These surprising documents detail what Julius Caesar did to enhance his political standing in Rome. They also served as a sort of travelogue for the majority of Romans who never ventured far from their birthplace.

Julius Caesar, crown prince of buttheads.

Julius Caesar, crown prince of buttheads.

Caesar encountered scores and scores of Celtic tribes and annihilated many of them. To him, his enemies were all the same. Age, sex and infirmity were irrelevant when it came to “defeating” these people, usually for the sin of objecting to Caesar stealing their property. He killed them by the thousands and was acclaimed a great warrior for it in Rome. The Celts, no doubt, had other titles for him in mind.

So, from one perspective — Caesar’s — we have tens of thousands of defeated villains (Caesar claimed he killed about a million, mostly civilians). But viewed from the other side of the political divide, we have tens of thousands of innocent victims. Obviously, how one sees a thing, matters.

We have similar grim smudges in the history books of America. One need look no farther than the infamous 1838 “Trail of Tears” which saw 13,000 native Cherokees rounded up and crammed into concentration camps prior to their forced march to Oklahoma. Fully a third of them died en route.

Trail_of_tears_signFrom the comfort of our 21st-century recliners, it’s easy to find fault and shake fingers at those involved. A careful writer, however, will look deeper and find the individual stories that flavor the whole. Some of those same Cherokees forced to leave their homes had sided with the British in 1776 and 1812. Some of the men who forced them to make that dreadful journey found their task utterly shameful and went to their graves regretting their parts in it.

A writer willing to do the extra work will take a deeper look at a tragedy, for there are many more stories, and many more interesting stories, to be told than those which float on the surface.

Next up: A closer look at some popular victims.

–Josh

Posted in Historical writing, novel writing, short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A little bit at a time (Encore)

A dear friend asked me recently how I managed to write so fast. When I recovered from the shock of the implication that I might–actually–write [cough, wheeze] fast, I tried to put her question in context. [Stop laughing, dammit!] She claims only to be able to write when the spirit moves her. Early Times logoMy spirit of choice, as most readers of this blog know, is cheap bourbon (and sweet vermouth). But I’m pretty sure that’s not what she had in mind.

I  believe she meant whatever remains of the old Greek muse. But honestly, I didn’t have the heart to tell her the muse is an utterly fickle bitch. You can’t depend on her for anything. Seriously, if you wait for that witch to tap you on the shoulder and inspire something, you’re in for a really, really long wait. This is because–lean close, ’cause I’d rather not have to repeat this–the muse doesn’t give a damn. Not even a teeny-weeny one. Nope.

I know; I know. That sounds awfully harsh, and there are no doubt legions of writers, and sorta/kinda/wannabe writers, who’ll swear that the muse visits them on a more-or-less regular basis. She probably feeds them bonbons and rubs their aching feet, too. But I’m guessing she never actually reads anything. She never offers words of wisdom like, “Darlin’, I know you think this passage is spiffy. And this bit, especially, where you describe the sunrise and then go into detail about how you couldn’t really think of anything relevant so you branched off into the land of free association, and by the end of the day you had several lines of top-shelf poetry which, while not exactly easy to understand would surely strike someone as uber-cool, assuming they’d been drinking heavily or taking lots of drugs with ‘don’t drive’ warning labels.”

K20.10BMousaAnd, because I’m a consummate [cough] researcher/writer type, I dug up a picture of the muse for those who aren’t precisely sure what the old gal looks like. Well, here she is, stuffing a clarinet up her nose. And why the hell not? It’s way–way–better than having her stick it up YOUR nose.

Oy.

I say this in all sincerity, writing is a solitary act. It requires some self-discipline. Not a whole lot, just enough to convince yourself that you need to sit down, relax, and write a little bit. Every day. Just a little. Really. That’s all. A few sentences. 500 words.

Now, I can’t guarantee you’ll have the same results, but usually, once I’ve got a couple sentences down, I’m thinking, “Hey, this isn’t so bad. I can probably write a couple more.” And pretty soon, I’m getting close to finishing a whole scene, which is, for me anyway, a pretty neat accomplishment. I’ll sit back and give myself a psychic pat on the back and a couple hearty attaboys.

ATTABOY“Nice work,” I’ll say. “Mighty fine. Maybe the best scene you’ve ever done. Really! I mean that. I’m proud of ya. Damn, you’re good.”

And then, depending on the time of day, I’ll either get another cup of coffee, or I’ll treat myself to a Manhattan. Either way, I’ll have my reward in hand when I start reminiscing about how ridiculously easy it was to knock out that scene. Oh sure, it was only 4oo words or so, but the next one will be longer, and much more involved, loaded with action and angst and passion and other cool stuff. In fact, I’ll bet I can bang that sucker out before lunch (or dinner, or whatever).

And thus it goes. A sentence, and then another. Soon, a scene is done, and then another, and another, and eventually I’ve hit the profoundly arbitrary word count that tells me I’ve finished a chapter. (I aim for around 4K. Your mileage may vary.)

And all without the help of the muse. Who needs her?

–Josh

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Courting Steve Irwin’s ghost?

We’re near Grand Cayman, it’s partly cloudy but warm, with gentle swells in the crystal clear Caribbean. Unlike my previous foray into the land of “Papa” Hemmingway’s spirit, the following day I had visions of the late naturalist and all-around “good bloke,” Steve Irwin in mind. Known for his selfless attitude about animals, endangered and otherwise, Irwin suffered a bizarre death having been stabbed in the heart by a stingray off the coast of Australia. He was just 44 when he left this world in 2006. The loss was felt worldwide.

We convinced ourselves that the rays in the Caribbean, and more specifically those in Stingray City, a sandbar about 30 minutes from the capital, George Town, were of a much more benign nature. Australia, as everyone on Earth knows, plays host to more deadly creatures than all the other continents combined. So, we assumed their stingrays were most likely a lethal breed, too. That conviction (and the promise of all the post-stingray margaritas we could consume) propelled my bride and me into the water in fearless fashion. By the by, ignore the seemingly happy face on the critter pictured here. He’s just trying to sucker you in.

Full disclosure: the “gentle” swells were less gentle than anticipated. This truth of this was underscored by a substantial mouthful of saltwater which I consumed about two seconds after I stepped off the ladder and into the sea. It was cold at first, too. Not damned cold, but close. Much to my surprise, I adapted to the temperature quickly, aided no doubt by the presence of dozens of dark, disk-shaped critters circling me like silent, aquatic vultures.

“They eat squid, mon,” said one of the helpful (and courageous) Jamaican crewmembers who leaped into the water ahead of us. “Spread your legs, mon. Give ’em room to cruise about.”

Right. I’m thinking they’ve got the whole freakin’ Caribbean in which to cruise about. Why would they need to… “Oh, holy [expletive deleted]!” Trust me when I say, having a stingray slither between your legs is a simultaneously exhilarating and frightening experience. I tried to focus on the promised margaritas.

We emulated a pair of bowlegged cowboys as we danced on the sandbar between “gentle” waves determined to knock us over when guess what stops to investigate?

Looking for all the world like fifty pounds of fresh liver, this creature from the deep glides right up into our collective wheelhouse where he/she (who the hell can tell?) surfaces mere inches from our noses. I’m suddenly very glad I’m in the water and not on land where someone might inspect the front of my shorts.

The happy crewmember then maneuvers his way over to us with a bucket of wet, pink, fully tentacled stingray food and suggests we feed the beast. “Fold your thumb inside your fingers, mon,” he says. “Don’t let de ray suck your thumb into his mouth. Very bad idea, mon.”

Gotcha. Let the ray suck the food outta my hand. I’m telling myself to be brave so my bride won’t get worried. Meanwhile, there’s a stingray rubbing himself on my inner thigh, a most unsettling sensation. I’m worried he’ll be disappointed when he discovers his buddy already snagged the pink, squiggly treat a couple feet above.

I’m also keenly aware that a young, female crewmember is taking photos of us while we dance our little jig with the ray. She’s laughing and offering stage directions while we do-si-do with a gang of aquatic killers. What great fun, I’m thinking, as the second ray makes his way back through my legs in search of anything which might be dangling about in the current. I cinch up my swim trunks as best I can.

Shortly thereafter, one of the intrepid crewmembers grabs the ray and lifts most of it out of the water so the whole world can see its cute little mouth smack in the middle of its stark, white underbelly. What we didn’t get to see was the critter’s stinger, a sharp appendage mounted beneath his tail and about six inches long. Naturally, I’m envisioning the collection of butcher knives mounted on the wall in our kitchen.

Shortly thereafter, that same crewmember held up the creature’s posterior, fully exposing its deadly stinger for all to see. He then licked it. I swear to God, he licked it; right there in front of me. “It’s no big deal, mon,” he said. “He loves me.”

I suspect Steve Irwin had much better things to do than look down on us. I certainly hope so.

But the strangest thing of all is this: I can’t wait to go back.

Yeah, okay. I’m crazy.

The margaritas, by the way, were yummy.

–Josh

 

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Courting Hemingway’s Ghost

Key West, Florida, ninety miles from Cuba, slight overcast, seventy-five degrees. I’m trying to get into Hemingway mode. Be concise. Straight forward. Where’s the bar?

The cats here have too many toes. The abundance of bars begins to make up for it, however. My goal is to achieve a connection with the ghost of the late writer and raconteur, Ernest Hemingway, aka “Papa” (he was not a fan of his first name). The plan is to wander among his old watering holes, avoid his polydactylic felines, and consume copious amounts of adult beverages.

Nobody told me about the roosters and chickens. Key West is loaded with ‘em. They compete with the pigeons, but the baby chicks are way cuter. And, I must say, the adult chicks I’ve seen wandering around are pretty darned cute, too. Sadly, for my male friends, they’re typically accompanied by hunky guys. But for sightseers, there’s someone for everyone!

According to Hemingway, one should “Never delay kissing a pretty girl or opening a bottle of whiskey.” If my lovely bride and the mini bottles we brought along count, I’m on pretty solid ground here. That said, I found it slightly confusing after hearing the above quote and then running into the Hemingway Rum Distillery. Could the man not make up his mind? Rum or whiskey? C’mon Papa, geez. But back to the distillery. Fine folk work there, and they offer a dandy tour. Alas, we were running slightly behind and couldn’t squeeze it in. Next trip, for sure. (As if we needed an excuse for a return trip!)

While pondering the whole rum vs. whiskey thing, I stumbled across a bit of local lore which settled the issue of Hemingway’s favorite adult beverage. It seems he started with a Daiquiri from El Florida and had various elements eliminated until what remained amounted to a double shot of rum and a twist of lime. (I haven’t tried one yet. I’m quite fond of all the stuff that got left out.)

But Papa’s grizzled old spirit surely pervades this place. Everyone we saw seemed happy, except for one overly excited adolescent who berated her poor mother at the top of her lungs. Sadly, the only muzzles we saw were designed for canines. (There’s a joke in there, somewhere, involving the “B” word, but I’ll leave that for readers to find.)

Another quote, allegedly from the man: “I drink to make other people more interesting.” Whoa. Head shake. Now I’m wondering if I want to spend any time with this jerk’s ghost. We’re walking; we’re walking. The restaurants are awesome here. We stopped at two, ate and drank at both. The Pina Coladas in Key West are to die for. If Hemingway eschewed them, then he was more idiot than savant.

Two more pieces of Hemingway advice caught my ear. Both make excellent sense and restored my temporary loss of faith in him. To wit: “Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.” Keep in mind folks, that came from the man who, when asked for the key to his best work, told the interviewer he always worked standing up. Shortly thereafter, he laughed all the way to the bar.

Oh, and the other quote: “Don’t bother with churches, government buildings, or city squares. If you want to know about a culture, spend a night in one of its bars.” Sadly, our boat departed right around sundown, so a night in a Key West bar wasn’t an option. Leastwise, not on this trip. So, now there’s a second good reason to come back!

Okay, I’m putting this to bed as there’s a Pina Colada calling my name, and if I can’t connect, I can always dial up a Manhattan.

–Josh

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Are all superheroes really vigilantes? (Encore)

superheroShort answer: yep, pretty much.

At least in the context of my Villains, Virgins and Vigilantes thesis which holds that these three character types are the primary staples of popular fiction. There are two other categories I’ll also discuss — VIPs and Vegetables — but they’re far less important, for reasons that will become apparent soon enough.

For now, we get to talk about vigilantes!

According to the American Heritage Dictionary (which publication I heartily endorse), a vigilante is: “a person who is not a member of law enforcement but who pursues and punishes persons suspected of lawbreaking.” I prefer a more broad interpretation for our purposes; I’d expand the definition to read: “Anyone who endeavors to right wrongs, with or without official government sanction.”

Rosebud-Vigilantes

Care to explain your recent activities to these gentlemen?

In most “official” contexts, vigilantes are frowned upon. They’re considered extra-legal, and most folks would equate vigilantism with an attack on the rights and/or freedoms of individuals. But we’re talking about fiction, and in the broader context I proffer, anyone who fights back is a vigilante.

Consider the real heart of popular fiction: conflict. Without it, there’s no story, and without characters, there’s no conflict. A tree falls in the forest, and no one cares; whether or not it makes a sound is immaterial. Put a person near that tree, and instantly there’s a potential for conflict.

In the Villains, Virgins and Vigilante schema, conflict occurs when bad things happen, usually because the villains and vigilantes are reacting to something about to, or which has already happened, to the virgins, er… victims. Think of these types as a three-legged stool on which a story rests. It’s the very definition of stability! The oft-sited protagonist vs. antagonist arrangement completely ignores a class of characters to which most of the negative stuff occurs. How is that fair? Or reasonable? And with only two legs on which to stand, it’s inherently unstable.

And before I get too far off-topic, I’ll rein myself in.

The role of the vigilante is critical, as any reader of superhero comic books can attest. But for some reason, new writers will often overlook this simple type and serve up a bunch of characters who don’t really do much. god-touching2They’re often parked in a potentially interesting setting or given a hypothetically intriguing problem, and then they’re left to fend for themselves, or else God steps in and fixes things. Neither resolution will likely find a home in print. (The first is sometimes referred to as a HAITE script — Here’s An Idea The End. The second is a deus ex machina.)

So, if your story isn’t working, take a step back and figure out which of your players is a villain, which is a victim, and which is a vigilante. I’m willing to guess that if the majority of your players don’t fit any of these categories, your story is suffering from a terminal lack of conflict. Worse still, there’s a good chance all your characters may be vegetables. They don’t do anything, they just sit there. They may be colorful, even zesty, but they aren’t engaged in a solution. They can’t cook themselves.

Vigilantes can be almost anyone, from a bumbling comedic clown, like John Belushi in “Animal House,” to Jean Valjean, the long-suffering parolee who dedicates his life to doing the right thing in “Les Misérables.”charlottes-web Surely, somewhere between those extremes, you can find a character type willing to do something to kick start your balky plot.

It occurs to me that digging up examples of the kind of character represented by the vigilante trope is just too easy. Any hero or heroine qualifies. Anyone, in fact, who tries to “do the right thing” (emphasis on do), whether or not they succeed, also qualifies.

There is a special sub-group that deserves mention: Very Important Pals or VIPs. More often than not, these characters can be lumped into the vigilante category. Virtually all sidekicks qualify, including BatKid, Tonto, Dr. Watson, and Lassie, although one could reasonably argue that Timmy, Lassie’s supposed “master,” would more accurately wear the label.

Why single out this group? Because many of them don’t always act like vigilantes. Quite often their role is more observer than player, and yet they still get involved in the action from time to time. There’s also a subset of anthropomorphic things. These include talking animals and robots, of course, but also self-aware cars and spacecraft. For those familiar with children’s fiction, sentient trains, skateboards and backpacks won’t come as a surprise. Such critters are closer to VIP status than they are to being vigilantes.

Speaking of Kid Lit, I believe too many of these things have replaced human characters who make decisions and take stands. Gadgets have supplanted trial and error; button-pushing has replaced risk-taking. Oy. Kids these days!

Just because your character is playing in the superhero’s favorite role, you needn’t make your vigilante super. Give him or her some foibles and a serious weakness or two. It doesn’t have to be kryptonite, but if you make it understandable, your character’s vulnerabilities will translate into strengths, at least from a reader’s standpoint.

Greatest american heroA couple examples come readily to mind. The first was a TV show from the early 1980s called “The Greatest American Hero” and featured a milquetoasty school teacher named Ralph who’s given a spandex costume that grants the wearer super powers. Unfortunately for Ralph, the suit didn’t come with a manual, and the poor schlep spends much of the series crash landing before, during and after his adventures. Yes, it was funny, but his vulnerability also endeared him to viewers.

In another TV drama, “The Closer,” Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson is a whiz at solving cases and extracting confessions, but she’s also a closet junk food junkie who keeps a drawer full of candy and cupcakes handy for whenever she’s on edge, which is pretty much all the time. Viewers loved it because they could identify with her. Your vigilante could do much worse. In fact, I recall at least two such characters who had a deep and abiding love of soap operas. This stuff matters, folks.

BenjiThe last area I want to touch on in regard to vigilantes concerns dogs. More than any other non-human animal, dogs appear in popular fiction. And more often than not, they’re vigilantes. Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, Asta, Toto, Snoopy, Gromit, Goofy, Pluto, Scooby-Doo, Bolt… The list of such famous fictional and sometimes non-fictional dogs goes on and on, and for a very understandable reason: people love ’em! They can imagine their own pets standing in for these fictional fidos. Cats? Not so much.

At the risk of offending a legion of cat lovers, felines just don’t have the same heroic cache’ that comes with the tail-waggers. Sorry. That’s just the way it is. If Jon Arbuckle ever fell in a well, a highly probable event, few people on Earth would believe that Garfield might go for help. Pizza? Maybe. A fireman or an EMT? Not happenin’.

That wraps up my introductory look at Villains, Virgins and Vigilantes, the power tropes of popular fiction.

I challenge my readers to think of a fictional character, from film or print, who doesn’t fit any of these V-types.

–Josh

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Happy–cough–New–snort–Year!

So, I’m sitting here at my machine, and in between sneezes, coughs, and attempts to clear my sinuses (and everything attached thereto), I’m thinking it’s way past time for me to post something useful and writerly. (“Writerly” is a word, by God; I don’t care what Grammarly says.)

Alas, the muse must also be sneezing, coughing, and blowing her nose, because she certainly hasn’t blessed me with any ideas about a topic. We’re sick, y’see. Both of us.

Honking, hacking, and hankies have become our/my stock in trade. I picked up this damned bug in suburban Portland, Oregon, where it likely gestated for a geological age or two, just waiting for some poor schlub from the hills of Appalachia to come along and give it a home. Mission accomplished. The Portland pathogen has arrived. Yea team. <wheeze>

And then it occurred to me that I could write about being unwell, physically. Mentally? Who the hell knows, or cares? The thing is, fictional characters can be ill, too. And that got me to thinking about the characters I’ve dreamed up who weren’t in the best physical shape.

I’ve featured several characters with disabilities: Meadow in Whisper  had a club foot; in Treason, Treason! two characters, Benedict Arnold and Joel Dawkins–one historical and one fictional–both suffered from the effects of gunshots to the leg. In the Druids trilogy, an untold number of characters suffered from dreadful wounds, and in one case, cancer. But as best I can recall, none of my characters ever had a cold.

As someone who prides himself on finding ways to complicate the lives, and by extension, the plots of my characters, it’s clearly high time to drop a bucket of bacterium on one or more of them. Heh, heh. Poor darlings. But I won’t be killing them, oh no. I’ll simply let ’em stew in their own microbial juices. Their lungs will become phlegm factories; their sinuses will flow like Victoria Falls in the rainy season. Their heads will become storage areas for cotton bales, and their ears will pop if and when they cease to ache.

Oh, and their doctors will be away on holiday, all of them. The nurse practitioner at the local pharmacy will likewise be unavailable. The ER at the nearby hospital will feature a sign that reads: “Standing Room Only!”

Over-the-counter meds will provide temporary respite but only at the cost of muddled brains, upset bowels, and/or nervous tics. They’ll be sneezing on loved ones, coughing on their offspring, growling at their pets, and wishing they had the energy to crawl into a shower stall and hose themselves down. That, of course, assumes there would be any hot water available.

If “write what you know” is truly a thing–and I’ll offer my thoughts on that in a broader sense at some point–then I’m merely taking advantage of what I’ve “learned” in this latest mucus laden lesson.

(I’m feeling positively gleeful right now–giddy, giggly, and vengeful. It’s most likely due to the meds. The labels on those old plastic pill bottles didn’t fare well when the bathroom flooded. Or maybe it has something to do with what I added to my coffee. Whatever.)

In short, I’ll deliver unto my cast of imaginary victims everything I’ve gone through during any illness I can recall, including the effects from the current plague of microorganisms running amuck inside me now. “Pestilence is mine,” sayeth the writer!

I’ll show them!

[cough]

By cracky.

[sneeze]

–Josh

 

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Christmas Cheer — Part Five

This will be my last post for 2019, and while the content isn’t brand new, the sentiment behind the story will never go out of date. Please understand, I love teachers; I even married one! And I do a bit of teaching myself, so don’t think of this tale as being–in any sense–mean or degrading. This is also the last of the Christmas stories I’ll be posting, and like the others, it’s just a wee bit different. Please let me know what you think. Enjoy!

                                                  “Do one thing every day that scares you.”                                                                                                            ~Eleanor Roosevelt

Two weeks before Thanksgiving, Casey Bolen’s old teacher, the round and amiable Miss Emry was replaced by an angular woman whose lipstick and fingernail polish always matched. She wrote her name on the whiteboard in a flourish of bright purple: Ms. Chantre. She even underlined the Ms.

Casey couldn’t understand why no one else noticed how she maintained order. After all, none of the other teachers turned their unruly students into hamsters. Yet, whenever he tried to tell anyone, they just gave him The Look and walked away.

Casey and his two best friends, Ray and Marybeth, sat at a small table preparing to play “Phonics-opoly,” which, despite being the world’s stupidest game, was vastly more interesting than memorizing multiplication tables. Casey ignored Marybeth as she dumped out colored tokens and cardboard squares. He concentrated instead on the drama near the teacher’s desk.

Billy Garber, who spent more time out of school than in, had been busted for calling Simon Smithers a bag of snot. “That’s neither nice nor accurate,” Ms. Chantre said. “He’s a human.”

“Are you kidding?” Billy laughed. “He’s a snot machine. Just look at him!”

Ms. Chantre escorted Billy to the back of the room where small animal cages crowded the wall-length countertop. She sat Billy between the hamsters and an overweight rabbit, then stood between him and the rest of the class, hiding him from view. When she returned to her desk, Billy was gone–bad attitude and all.

Casey was still staring at the cages when Ms. Chantre tapped a ruler on her desk to get everyone’s attention. “The school board and the PTA require that you do an art project,” she said. The students perked up. Art was cool. Best of all, it meant they didn’t have to do any work.

“There are materials on the front table for your use. Your parents would probably prefer you do something related to the holidays. I don’t care what kind of art you commit, just do something. And please, do it quietly.”

During the rush to grab materials, Casey slipped to the back of the room to look for his classmate. Sadly, Billy was nowhere to be found. Casey did, however, find an extra hamster. It looked pretty much like the other four except it had orange fur–exactly the same color as Billy Garber’s hair.

“She did it again,” he told Marybeth when he returned.

The girl’s normally friendly features quickly shifted into The Look. “You are so weird,” she said. “Ms. Chantre is the coolest teacher we’ve ever had.”

“I liked Miss Emry.”

“She was fat,” Ray said.

Marybeth chimed in quickly, “And Ms. Chantre never makes us do anything but phonics and multiplication tables. When Miss Emry was here, we had to do hard stuff.”

“But haven’t you noticed that every day, somebody disappears? Today, it was Billy. Tomorrow, it could be us!”

“Billy didn’t even come to school today,” Marybeth said.

“Yes, he did! Don’t you remember? He called Simon a snotbag.”

“So? That’s what he is,” Ray said.

Casey laughed. “I’ll ask Simon. I bet he remembers.” Casey crossed the room to where Simon sat alone drawing a sky full of flying pogo sticks, each of which appeared to be releasing an impossibly large load of bombs on a broad square blob labeled “skool.”

“I heard what Billy called you,” Casey said.

“Kaboom! Chuka-chuka!” Simon said, furiously rubbing the acreage in his drawing with a flat, brown crayon.

“And I saw what happened to him.”

“Budha-budha-budha, pow!” Simon said. He paused to wipe his nose on his sleeve, then grabbed crayons in both hands. Streaks of red and yellow Crayola fire pierced the brown layer.

“Did you see it?”

“Blamo!”

Casey gave up. If only he had a hidden camera, he could prove Billy had really been there. His dad had a camera, but it was way too big. It’d be easier to hide a pony. Walking back to his seat, he wondered what it would feel like to be a hamster.

~*~

At the dinner table, Casey struggled to explain what he’d seen to his parents.

Mrs. Bolen, Casey’s Mom, was a permanent member of all the PTA committees, including the Winter Holiday Task Force, which despite a name change to protect the overly sensitive from hearing the word “Christmas,” was still the organization’s most prestigious workgroup. She listened patiently before leaving the room to retrieve a well-worn paperback book. “Let’s just see what the experts have to say.”

Casey slumped forward until his head rested on his crossed arms. It had been just a week since she’d last used the book–when he announced that the only thing he wanted for Christmas was a ferret. She had thumbed through several chapters before announcing: “The experts say ferrets are terribly expensive. And, they bite.”

Case closed.

Casey almost cried. He’d never wanted anything so much in his life.

“What’s it say about hamsters?” Mr. Bolen asked.

She scanned the index. “Nothing, but there is an item about hallucinations.”

“Hala-what?” Casey asked.

“Seeing things that aren’t there,” she said. Her left eyebrow inched upward. “What did you have for lunch the day you claim your little friend turned into a rodent?”

~*~

The first few times trouble-makers were sent to Ms. Chantre, everyone paid attention, but almost immediately, they all lost interest. All except Casey. He watched as victims were marched to the back of the room where they were hidden from view while Ms. Chantre turned them into small animals. Stranger still, no one else ever seemed to notice.

Casey offered to take care of the small but growing zoo, and he had no idea who would provide that care during the Christmas break. He counted heads every day before and after class and kept track of the changes on the inside cover of his spelling folder since it wasn’t being used for anything else.

He also took notes on who went missing, and when. Billy Garber, for example, came back to class after a one-day absence, but some kids stayed gone much longer. And for reasons he couldn’t understand, everyone else explained those absences the same way.

One busy morning in early December, three older boys arrived. Well-known bullies, none of them had or wanted other friends. The rest of the students in the school merely represented a steady supply of lunch money.

Ms. Chantre made them wait in the hall while the custodian retrieved a big cage from storage and put it with the others in the back of the room. He had to stack several of the smaller cages to make room for it. When the custodian left, she brought the three villains into the room, one by one, and carried out their sentences.

At lunch, Casey found three guinea pigs in the new cage. Once again he alerted Ray and Marybeth to what he had seen.

“If you keep saying such crazy things, they’ll put you in a cage,” Marybeth said.

Casey looked at Ray. “Do you think I’m crazy, too?”

“No,” he said. “Only, sometimes I wish you’d talk about something else.”

“If I could just take movies of it or–”

“Use a tape recorder? My dad gave me one,” Ray said. “It’s small enough to fit in your pocket.”

Casey felt a ray of hope. “Could I borrow it?”

“You’re both crazy,” Marybeth said.

~*~

After school, Casey took care of the animals, including a new one he hadn’t seen before. Ms. Chantre called it a hedgehog. Casey thought it looked like a pygmy porcupine. And even though it was covered in prickly spines, he wondered if a hedgehog would make a better pet than a ferret. He decided he’d have to do some research before he made up his mind. Moving on, he filled the water bottle on the guinea pig cage and fed the chubby rabbit. It seemed to like him a great deal.

“Thanks, Casey,” Ms. Chantre said. “You’re a good worker. I’m sure our little friends appreciate all you do for them.”

Casey shrugged. It wasn’t the first time he’d been alone with Ms. Chantre, but she still made him nervous.

“Sadly,” she said, “they won’t be able to remember.”

“Remember what?”

“You, of course. When they return to human form.”

Casey swallowed, hard. The windows were all locked, and Ms. Chantre stood between him and the only door out of the room. Trapped!

“I know you know,” she said. As Casey backed away, she pointed at him, the sharp nail of her index finger was tinted blood-red. “It’s okay. I don’t mind. In fact, you can do it, too.”

“What?”

“Don’t play dumb, Casey. Unlike the others, you’ve seen what I can do. Would you like me to show you how it’s done?”

“You’d teach me how to turn people into animals?”

“Sure.”

“But, I’m just a– a kid. I can’t do magic!”

“Stuff and nonsense,” she said. “Here, I’ll show you.” She walked to her desk and took a small, silver box from the bottom drawer, then reached into her huge handbag and pulled out a set of note cards bound with a wide rubber band. She tossed the cards to Casey. “Go through those and find the one marked ‘White Mouse.’ Pull it out.”

Casey stared at the cards. They were blank.

“Oops! Wait. You can’t read them without these.” She slipped a dainty pair of spectacles from her nose and handed them to him. The lenses appeared to be plain glass, but when he looked through them, words hovered above the cards like special effects in a 3D movie.

Though the cards were all different, a line of text floated across the top of each. Near the middle, in English, was the name of an animal. Casey guessed the word was repeated in other languages. A series of symbols and partial words appeared on the body of the card. He knew many of the words since they were simply the names of common critters, but one card stumped him. It bore the word Esrever, but he couldn’t imagine what sort of creature that might be. However, since there were other exotic animals like Manticore and Gryphon, he assumed it was something like that.

“You don’t need to memorize them,” she said, her voice snarly. Patience was not a word one used with Ms. Chantre.

Finally, Casey found the white mouse card. “Got it! Now what?”

Ms. Chantre opened the silver box and took out a pinch of green powder as fine as talc. She put the box on the counter, reached into a terrarium, and captured a plump frog. It squirmed in her grasp, its eyes bulging and its front and back legs making swimming motions. “Now, now,” she mumbled and dusted the amphibian with powder. In moments, it quit wiggling and lay limp in her fist like a sock full of sand.

“Is it dead?” he asked.

“Of course not. It’s merely–” she groped for a word “–suspended.” She flicked the index card with her finger. “Now, read the card out loud. All of it.”

Casey stumbled at first but then took his time, pronounced each syllable according to his best phonetic guess, and got all the words right. He looked up in time to see the frog sprout fine white hair as its limbs became shorter and furry. In moments the last traces of the frog vanished, replaced by a tiny mouse with an extremely busy nose. Ms. Chantre held it in her hand and rubbed it between the ears with a crimson fingernail. “See how easy that was?”

Casey realized his mouth had fallen open. “Are you saying I did that?

“Of course! Anyone with The Sight can do it, and you obviously have it. As long as you know what a creature is when you start, the words on the cards determine what it will become.”

“And how do you change ’em back?”

“There’s a spell for that, too. It’s in there,” she said, pointing at the cards in his hand. “I can’t give away all my secrets, but I will share one: none of this works without the powder, and I’m the only one who knows how to make it.” She held up the silver box and chuckled. “You’ve probably heard people say, ‘take a powder,’ but I’ll bet you never knew where the expression came from.”

He not only didn’t know; he didn’t care. “That’s all there is to it?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. There’s much, much more–enough to keep you busy for years. The training takes a long time, but you could do it. And, you’re smart enough not to say anything about it to anyone.” Though she held his shoulder lightly, each of her sharp fingernails dug into his skin. “We can always use new blood.”

“I should talk it over with Mom and Dad.”

“Suit yourself. They’re down there.” She nodded at a pair of pale blue parakeets sharing a perch in a cage at the end of the counter. “Cute, aren’t they?”

Casey turned slowly in their direction. Breathing became difficult. Mom? Dad! He turned to look at the teacher. “What did they do wrong?”

Ms. Chantre pursed her lips. “Your mother chairs the Winter Holiday committee which hasn’t done anything to prepare for the Solstice. Can you imagine? The shortest day of the year, and her entire committee ignores it like it’s not going to happen. What’s wrong with those people? Anyway, I got tired of waiting and put someone else in her place.”

“But, Dad? He’s never done anything with the PTA!”

“Exactly. What a clever boy you are! But your father?” She gave a deep sigh. “Not like you at all, I’m afraid. He could have been so much more helpful.”

Casey put his face next to the cage. The birds edged sideways as if afraid of him.

“Don’t get too close,” she said. “One of them tried to bite me.”

“Really?” Casey felt a touch of pride. “How long before you change them back?”

Ms. Chantre removed the lid from a glass cage containing a python. “Not much longer.” She put the little white mouse in with the snake and closed the top.

“Some changes,” she said, her voice almost too low to hear, “are permanent.”

~*~

Mrs. Groves, Special Assistant to the Superintendent of Schools, glared at Casey as he sat in a hard wooden chair across the desk from her. “Let me get this straight. You think your teacher is turning people into animals?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You’ve seen her do this?”

Casey nodded. “She was sneaky about it at first. Now, she wants my help. I’ve got a list of everyone she’s done it to.”

Mrs. Groves stood up, walked across the room, and opened the door to the outer office. She motioned to someone, then turned back to face Casey. “Why are you just now reporting it?”

“‘Cause it’s getting worse.” He explained about his parents, the white mouse, and the snake. The snake bothered him most of all. Ms. Chantre had brought it with her when she arrived. It might have been a person once, but he had no idea who it might have been.

The Special Assistant to the Superintendent of Schools stepped away from the door as a man in a dark suit entered the room. “Casey, I’d like you to meet Dr. Carr, our staff Psychologist. Do you know what a Psychologist is?”

“Sure,” Casey said. “They work with crazy people.”

Carr laughed. “I don’t think you’re crazy, Casey. By the way, do your parents know you’re here?”

“I told them I was coming.”

“And what did they say about that?”

“Nothing. Parakeets don’t talk much.”

~*~

“We told you we’d be out of town,” Mrs. Bolen said. “You were supposed to stay with the Hills, next door. Remember?” She smiled at the man in the dark suit. “I’m sorry you had to drive all the way out here.”

“My pleasure,” Dr. Carr said. “Your son certainly has a bizarre imagination.” He patted Casey’s head as if he were a spaniel.

Casey growled as Carr walked away.

“It’s a good thing we came home early,” Mrs. Bolen said. “Poor Mrs. Hill would’ve had a heart attack if you hadn’t shown up.”

~*~

“It’s not working,” Casey said. He held Ray’s tape recorder out for inspection. “Listen.” He pressed the PLAY button, but the sound came out muffled.

“That’s terrible,” Ray said, “where did you record it from?”

“Right here at my desk. I had it in my book bag.”

“Well, duh!” Ray grabbed the recorder and pointed to a spot at one end. “This is the microphone, but it’s kinda crummy. You’ve gotta get it closer to what you want to record.”

“How am I gonna do that? Shove my desk next to the teacher’s?”

Ray shook his head. “Do what I do when I want to record my big sister and her boyfriend out on the porch.” He grinned and pointed at a switch on the back of the little machine. “Put it on automatic. It’ll start recording whenever somebody talks. You should hear some of the tapes I made of my sister!”

Casey looked at the teacher’s messy desk. And then he smiled.

~*~

The following day, after school, Casey stood beside Ms. Chantre’s desk as she made notes in a ledger. He had just cleaned the hamster cage and was brushing cedar shavings from his shirt into a trash can. “Is there any kind of animal you can’t turn somebody into?” he asked.

“No, but I don’t do big ones. People might ask questions.”

“You mean you could turn somebody into a dinosaur or a dragon?”

“Sure.” She jotted a number in her book and turned the page. “But it’s not practical. For something like a dragon, I’d have to draw too heavily on the essence bank.”

Casey plunked himself down in a chair beside her desk. “You can get dragons from a bank? I thought you used the magic cards.”

She leaned back and crossed her arms. “The cards aren’t magic. They’re just… cards. The ink is tricky, sure, but it’s not magic, and neither are the transformations. Ever heard of physics?”

Casey nodded yes. “But I don’t know what it means.”

“People here call it a science.” She chuckled. “Anyway, according to the laws of physics, matter can’t be created or destroyed. It can only be changed into some other form. When we change something big into something small–like a boy into a blue jay–there’s a lot of ‘stuff’ left over. It’s called essence. We can store it for later, or let it turn into energy, which is pretty wasteful unless you like bright flames and smoke.” She tapped her teeth. “But it looks lovely at night.”

“And when you turn somebody back into a person, you use the essence stuff to sort of fill ’em back up?”

“Yes, but any extra essence stays in my personal account.”

“Like money?”

“Better. This is the essence of life. The more you have, the longer you live. Lose a lot, and you grow old. Lose too much, and you die.” She dragged a bright red fingernail across her throat. “I’m only here to build up my account.”

“You mean, you really don’t care about teaching?”

She laughed until her face turned as red as her lipstick and fingernails. She was still gasping when Mrs. Groves walked through the door.

“I’d better get my stuff and go,” Casey said. He stepped to a table beside the teacher’s desk, reached into a mound of books where he’d hidden Ray’s machine, and pressed AUTO-RECORD.

He smiled and waved on his way out of the room.

~*~

The following day, Ray and Casey huddled in a back corner of the lunchroom. Marybeth chose to eat with “normal” kids. Casey held the recorder in his lap. They leaned close together and listened to the voice of Mrs. Groves: “Is he the only one who knows?”

“Yes. I’m sure of it,” Ms. Chantre said.

Ray looked at Casey. “Know what?”

Casey shushed him.

“Do you think he’ll play along?” Mrs. Groves asked.

“I think so. He’s not terribly bright.”

Ray giggled, and Casey punched his arm.

“Thankfully, none of them are,” Mrs. Groves said.

Casey stuck his tongue out at Ray.

“Now that everyone brings me their behavior problems, I average two transformations a day. I ran out of cages last week. Plus, I’ve still got old what’s-her-name in the rabbit pen.”

“That’d be Hazel Emry. People have been asking about her. We can’t keep this up much longer. We need to pile up as much essence as we can.”

“I’ve altered the spell,” Ms. Chantre said. “Anyone I restore comes back smaller than they were, and we bank the difference. I haven’t transformed anyone skinny yet. No one will notice.”

“In the meantime, while they’re still animals, you’ve got to watch out for overcrowding. In the mice, especially, or they’ll go crazy. They’ll eat each other y’know.”

“Casey keeps them fed. I needn’t worry about that.”

“Not now, maybe, but we can’t leave him behind. Sooner or later he’ll find someone who believes him.”

The boys stared at each other in surprise.

“I can always turn him into a rabbit when I bring the old teacher back. I’ll use the same breed. We’ll be long gone before anyone notices.”

Sounds of chairs scraping interrupted the voices. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” Mrs. Groves said.

“Relax. I’m an expert.”

“Things can change a lot in a thousand years.”

“Stuff and nonsense,” said Ms. Chantre.

~*~

“See? The rabbit really is Miss Emry!” Casey said. “We’ve gotta tell Marybeth.”

Ray gave Casey a blank look. “Tell Marybeth what?”

Casey’s shoulders slumped like a deflated balloon.

Ray smiled. “Just kidding,” he said.

Casey wanted to hit him, then had the urge to hug him instead. He settled on shaking his fist as Ray laughed.

“Marybeth can’t do anything,” Ray said. “Why don’t we just take the tape to the Principal?”

“Good idea. C’mon!” The boys pushed away from the table and turned toward the lunchroom exit. The Principal and Mrs. Groves stood in the doorway, talking. They waved to Ms. Chantre across the room.

The boys dropped back into their seats, defeated before they’d begun. “We need a new plan,” Casey said. “I don’t know who we can trust.”

“There’s only one person, besides you and me,” Ray said.

“Miss Emry?”

“Yeah, but she won’t be much help the way she is now.”

But instead of feeling sad, Casey began to smile.

~*~

After school, Casey worked his way down the long shelf, cleaning cages and refilling food and water dishes. He gave Miss Emry a little extra and quietly promised her everything would be okay. He wanted to give the hedgehog a treat, but he didn’t have any fresh insects. They tended to be scarce in the winter. As usual, Ms. Chantre sat at her desk working on her ledger.

Casey tried to act normally. Ray should have already arrived. It was his job to get the teacher out of the room while Casey went through her things to find the powder and the cards. Once he had them, all he had to do was read through the cards and– The glasses! Why hadn’t he thought of them? He couldn’t read the cards without the glasses.

“Ms. Chantre! Come quick!” Ray stood at the door, panting. “Marybeth fell and landed on her head. She’s not moving!”

Casey waved his arms to call Ray off, but he was only warming up. “There’s blood everywhere,” he wailed. “Her brains are leaking out! You gotta come now!”

Ray hurried down the hallway with Ms. Chantre close behind him. Casey ran to her desk and opened the bottom drawer where he’d seen her put the powder.

The drawer was empty.

He felt sweat beading up on his forehead as he yanked open the other drawers–no time for caution. He pulled books, ungraded homework, a box of tissues, and other junk out of the drawers as he hunted for the silver box. He dug frantically through every drawer while the clock ticked on and on. So little time left!

He looked out the window at the playground and saw Ms. Chantre pinching Ray’s ear, dragging him back to the building. If only Marybeth had gone along with them, he would’ve had more time. Now, Ray was in for it. And if Casey didn’t find the box soon, they would both be in for it.

Tick.

Tock.

Still no silver box.

Still no green powder.

Angered by his failure and impending doom, Casey slammed his hand on the desktop sending a shockwave through Ms. Chantre’s stuff. A coffee cup tipped over and sloshed its cold contents over the desk. Casey reached for the cup and almost knocked over the little silver box sitting beside it.

“Yes!” he whispered and turned toward the huge purse where he had seen Ms. Chantre put the cards. He yanked it open and reached in with both hands.

“Casey! Come out here,” she commanded from the hallway.

“Just a minute,” he yelled. “I’ve gotta finish one last cage.” Desperate, he continued to rummage through her purse.

“What are you doing in there, Casey?”

“Almost done,” he said. Her voice and Ray’s squeals grew louder as they neared the room. He kept digging in the handbag.

“Get away from there!” she barked from the doorway.

Casey’s breath caught in his lungs. He stumbled backward clutching the little silver box behind him.

Ms. Chantre stood in the entrance as Ray squirmed in her grip. “How dare you betray my trust!” Her eyes grew dark, and her brows pinched down like daggers. Casey backed away, fumbling with the lid on the box. There had to be a trick to opening it.

“I trusted you. I was going to teach you great things, but you’re no better than this whining little brat!” She gave Ray’s ear a cruel tug, and his friend howled.

“I didn’t mean for this to happen, Ray! I’m so sorry!” The lid on the box still wouldn’t budge.

“Not as sorry as you’re going to be,” Ms. Chantre said. “You’d be amazed by how hungry my python can get. Did you notice what happened to the little mouse I threw in there? It ran around the cage until it was exhausted, then the snake curled up around it and crushed the air from its lungs. It’s not a very strong snake, so it took a long, long time.” She chuckled. “And then the silly thing didn’t want to let go, but of course I had to take the mouse away. I like to keep the snake hungry.” She gave him a wicked smile. “You’ll make such a yummy Christmas dinner for it.”

Casey felt something click on the bottom of the box. The lid flipped open. He stopped retreating, though she kept coming.

“You know, I can change the spell just a little and make sure you understand what’s happening to you. Tiny creatures like mice are too stupid to get the full measure of fear you deserve.”

“Casey,” Ray pleaded, “do something!”

“Oh, yes,” Ms. Chantre said, “by all means, do something.” Her lip curled into a sneer.

“Now!” yelled Ray as he kicked savagely at her shin. She cursed and let go of his ear.

As Ray fell out of the way, Casey tossed a handful of the green dust over the woman’s head. A look of pure hatred flickered across her face before she came to a stop, like a toy robot whose batteries just went dead. She blinked once, then her focus faded, and her head slumped forward.

Casey snatched the glasses from the end of her nose and put them on, then dug his hands into the deep pockets of her sweater. There he found the index cards.

Ray was still rubbing his mistreated ear as Casey tore off the rubber band and searched through the cards for the ones he wanted. “Go get Miss Emry,” he said, then nodded at Ms. Chantre. “But hurry. I don’t know how long she’ll stay frozen.”

“Right,” Ray said. He trotted to the back of the room.

Casey’s heart pounded a rock n’ roll beat as he clawed one card from the deck after another. Finally, he had the two he wanted and paused long enough to take a deep breath. He prayed his mind wasn’t playing tricks on him. If he’d made a mistake, if the meaning of the card marked Esrever wasn’t what he thought, then….

But, no! He’d done his homework. There was no such thing as an Esrever. At least, not in this world. Of course, Ms. Chantre most likely didn’t come from this world, in which case an Esrever might really be something–a gigantic, kid-eating gollywhumpus, or maybe even a tyrannosaurus rex.

“Got ‘er!” Ray said, his arms bulging under the weight of the corpulent bunny. He settled his burden on the floor near the statue-like Ms. Chantre. “You sure this is gonna work?”

“I hope so,” Casey said. He sprinkled some of the fine, green powder between Miss Emry’s long droopy ears. When her nose stopped twitching, he looked straight into Ray’s eyes. “You’d better step back.”

Ray stepped back.

“And,” Casey continued, “if she starts turning into anything other than our regular old teacher…” His voice trailed off.

Ray suddenly looked as nervous as he had when Ms. Chantre pinched his ear. “If she turns into something else?”

“Yeah.”

“Like what?”

“I dunno. A dinosaur maybe.”

“Geez! What do we do then?”

“We run for it,” Casey said.

Ray looked like he’d forgotten how to breathe. “Maybe we should go for help.”

Casey pointed at Ms. Chantre who had managed to tilt her head upward. Though her eyes hadn’t focused on him yet, that seemed to be her goal. “There’s no time for that.”

He began reading the card he’d chosen for Miss Emry. If Esrever meant anything other than Reverse, spelled backward, they would be in deep, deep trouble.

Turning his back on Ms. Chantre, Casey finished reading the spell he hoped would bring their old teacher back. He crossed his fingers and almost closed his eyes, then realized that would be a huge mistake, especially if the bunny rabbit became a bunny rex. Or worse.

Fortunately, the spell merely restored Miss Emry.

Or, most of her.

Asleep.

“She sure looks different,” Ray said, stepping forward once again. “Is she alive?”

“She’s breathing,” Casey observed. “That’s a good sign. But you’re right about her looking strange.” He squinted at her, then realized the glasses might be at fault. But even after he took them off, she still didn’t seem to be her old self.

“She’s almost… skinny,” Ray said.

Casey giggled. “Well, duh! She’s been eating nothing but rabbit food for weeks.”

Suddenly, an eerie growl emanated from Ms. Chantre. The two boys spun around and faced the woman’s dark, angry glare.

Casey immediately began to read from the second card.

Ms. Chantre moved her arms in his direction, and there could be no doubt she meant to grab him before he could complete the spell.

“More powder?” Ray asked, his voice a whisper. The teacher’s eyes quickly shifted toward him–a python in search of prey.

Casey ignored the thought and finished reading.

And Ms. Chantre began to shrink.

“What’ll we do with her?” Ray asked.

“When she stops changing, we’ll stick her in the rabbit cage. At least for now.”

Casey glanced from the green powder in the silver box to all the cages in the back of the room, and all the animals in them. With any luck, he’d have enough powder to bring everyone back.

On the floor, Miss Emry continued to snooze.

“If we can finish this before she wakes up,” Casey said, “maybe we can sneak out and not have to answer a lot of questions.”

~*~

On Christmas day, Casey and his parents enjoyed a quiet morning, listening to carols and exchanging gifts. Mrs. Bolen was cooking a turkey, and the wonderful smells of the bird and all the trimmings had Casey longing for the big meal.

“Oh,” his mother said, “I forgot to mention. Miss Emry will be joining us for dinner. The poor dear doesn’t have any family, and she can’t remember a thing about her mysterious disappearance. Fortunately for everyone, she felt well enough to take her old job back.”

“I just don’t understand people anymore,” Mr. Bolen said. “In my day, when someone had a job, they stuck with it. Now, people just up and quit in the middle of a contract. We’ve lost three from the school system just this past week.”

“Three?” Casey asked.

“Your new teacher, the principal, and Mrs. Groves, from the Superintendent’s office. They all took off without so much as a how-do-you-do.”

“Weren’t they all new this year?” Mrs. Bolen asked.

Just then, the doorbell rang. Casey ran to the front hall and welcomed Miss Emry into the house. She gave a basket of plump, hot dinner rolls to Casey’s Mom, then went back out to her car for something else. Casey waited patiently for her to return.

Casey’s dad gave a little wolf whistle as she walked out to her car.

Casey’s mom jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow. Moments later the slender Miss Emry returned to the house.

“I have a favor to ask of you,” she said. She held something large, square, and covered with a sheet in her arms. She brought it inside and put it on the floor.

“Sure,” Casey said. He couldn’t remember Miss Emry ever looking so pretty. “What do you need me to do?”

“Well,” she said, smiling, “I’m still trying to sort everything out, but when I returned to our classroom, I found two animals in cages at the back of the room. One was a snake, which I turned over to the nature preserve, and the other was this.”

She pulled the sheet away from the cage. Casey dropped to the floor for a closer look.

“It’s a ferret,” Miss Emry said. “I need someone to take care of it over the holidays.”

“Cool!” said Casey. He tried not to stare at the little animal’s bright red claws.

“What will you do with it after the holidays?” asked Mrs. Bolen, a little nervously.

Miss Emry shrugged. “Ferrets make marvelous pets, you know. I hope to find a permanent home for it.”

“I know a place!” Casey said.  He didn’t add that he also knew just the right person to keep an eye on it.

~End~

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