This will be my last post for 2019, and while the content isn’t brand new, the sentiment behind the story will never go out of date.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!
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?”
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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
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?”
“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.
“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.