Chapter 1: The Present Dilemma


Mr. Harold Fitz makes it clear on the first day of the semester: in his English class, there won’t be interruptions or back-desk flirting, and late work is unacceptable.  Though he doesn’t say it, there’s another rule:  his favorites are sacred.  His favorite books, writers, and students are off-menu for any criticism about writing, behavior, or plot.  Worse, his least-favorites are the opposite: nobody can praise his hated stories, and his loathed students should be shunned.

James doesn’t want to break any rules, but he knows he’s at the bottom of the hierarchy.  However, his goofy best friend Rhonda (called Ronnie) climbs the “Fitz-List” with ease.  This makes things a little easier, until…!

People on the Fitz-List begin to disappear mysteriously.  Fitz’s behavior doesn’t change.  He doesn’t even mention they’re gone.

James discovers the dark secret behind the disappearances.  He finds Fitz’s shrine: the bones of his favorites, kept in perfect order with “relics” like scrunchies and notebooks.  In an empty space, he sees Ronnie’s spare glasses!

Fitz sees James scramble out in panic.  James has found the nest of a murderer, and that murderer has seen him leave.  Will Henry save his friend and live to tell the tale?



Chapter 1

The Present Dilemma

The desk where Tracy was supposed to be sitting was empty.  It was towards the front of the room and built for someone left-handed.  Someone had left a mug of flowers, clearly stolen from the front garden, in its center.  Carnations and baby’s breath.  The flower thief was probably Francesca.  She loved Tracy; they’d lived in each other’s pockets since middle school.

The other kids were whispering nervously amongst themselves, casting furtive glances at the mug, and at Francesca.  She was sitting in her back-corner desk, tapping absentmindedly at her glittery pink cellphone with a blank look on her face.  I kept quiet.  I was feeling kind of sick.  I’d never been friends with Tracy, but everybody knew her.  She was one of the prettiest girls in our grade, and she was good at both pre-calculus and art, which was rare.  My best friend, Ronnie, talked about her every now and then; Ronnie had a complicated internal chart of all the cute girls in her proximity, and how likely they were to pay attention to her.

Tracy Stein was dead.  On Friday evening, her body had been found by some rusted boats, washed up on the far side of the lake, missing one hand.  She was recently dead, and had a gunshot wound to her throat.  The police had kept the details quiet, but our town is of imaginative people, and it was obviously a murder, if a clumsy one.  What kind of place is the throat to shoot?  It’s such a small target that it must have been accidental.  Everybody had a whole weekend to speculate about what had happened to Mulberry High’s charming, intelligent student body president, and now that it was Monday, every student had their own theory as to how she’d died.

“Hey, Jimbo,” someone said, nudging my shoulder.  “You holdin’ up okay?”

“I’m fine,” I responded, shifting to face her.  It was Ronnie.  As always, she was late (relatively speaking; Mr. Harold Fitz wasn’t the most punctual teacher in the school, so even slackers tended to show up before he did).

“You don’t look fine,” she said, pushing her cat-eye glasses up her long, freckled nose.  “Did you get any sleep last night?”

I shrugged.  “A little.  Are you okay?”  Ronnie knew Tracy a little better than I had, just because she’d been in her periphery.  Tracy had been a member of the girls’ soccer team, and Ronnie often showed up to their practices to root for female friends (at least, that was what she said she went for).

“It’s weird,” she said, smiling a little nervously.  Her dimples showed.  “Even though I know she’s gone, it doesn’t feel like it, you know?  I’ve never had someone die on me before.  What’s the right way to react?”

“I don’t think there is a right way,” I said.  “I mean, everyone reacts differently when bad stuff happens.  I think it’s normal?”  Then, the door opened loudly, with a creak so grating that it would make a car alarm upset.

Mr. Fitz, our foul-tempered teacher, strode into the room on his long legs, with his usual stern expression.  “Class is in session,” he said.  “From 1:15 to 2:30.  If the clock is correct, then it’s 1:24.  Why am I hearing so much talking?”

Immediately, the room went silent, except for the rustle of people settling into their proper seats and pulling out their notebooks.  We all looked expectantly at Mr. Fitz; Tracy’s desk was at the very front of the room, flowers and all.  However, he took one look at it with his impassive blue eyes, said nothing, and began writing on the board:

MONDAY: Return Friday analysis of “The Yellow Wallpaper.”  In-class discussion.

Mr. Fitz coughed slightly and shuffled through his papers.  Finally, he found his blue attendance sheet:

“Abbot, Dahlia.”  (Present.)

“Anders, Henry.”  (Present.)

“Andrews, Eric.”  (Here.)

“Basset, Stephan.”  (Absent.)

“Batista, Cameron.”  (Present.)

The list went on alphabetically.  One of the things about Mr. Fitz was that he never used nicknames.  Nobody called Dolly Abbot “Dahlia.”  That name didn’t suit her.  She was a soft, sensitive girl with round freckled arms and a mop of curly hair and big mopey eyes.  She was a “Dolly” to the core, but to Mr. Fitz, she would always be “Dahlia,” just as Lenny Goldstein would be “Leonard” and Dick Harris would be “Richard.”  Of course, I didn’t mind being called “James,” because Ronnie was the only person allowed to call me by that dumb nickname (even if Dick disagreed).  Also, it was wrong to call Dick anything but Dick.  He was a dick.

“Connors, Dirk.” (Present.)

“Daniels, Lucinda.” (Present.)

“Darcy, Harriet.” (Absent.)

“DeAngelo, Preston.”  (Present.)

The roll call always felt painfully long, but it was worse knowing that Tracy’s name was coming up on the attendance sheet.  There were twenty-five of us on the sheet, but only twenty-four of us were left.  Even if Steve and Harriet were sick or skipping or something, at least we were pretty sure they weren’t dead.  Nobody had thrown their bodies into the lake.  They hadn’t been on the news.

“Southerland, William.”  (Present.)

“Stanley, Rhonda.” (Present, even if Ronnie hated her “grandma name.”)

The class waited with bated breath.  Tracy was next on the list.  Was Mr. Fitz going to say her name?  Was he going to even mention that she was gone?  It would be wrong not to acknowledge her.  She was our classmate, our friend.  Did Mr. Fitz somehow not know about the awful thing that happened last week?  Mr. Fitz cleared his throat loudly.

“Stewart, James.”

My stomach turned.  There was a moment of silence.  Suddenly, I realized that I was “Stewart, James.”

“Here!” I said, raising my hand up so fast and hard that I knocked my pencil case off my desk.

Mr. Fitz stared at me.  He squinted his droopy gray eyes.  His lip curled.  “Incorrect,” he said.  “A demerit for a lack of professionalism.”

I was frozen.  That was my third demerit this month.  Now I’d have to spend Wednesday afternoon in Fitz’s office shredding paper or something.  He always had stupid punishments.  What had I done wrong?  I was there.  I answered the roll call, even if I answered late.  I—oh.

“Pr—present,” I stuttered, staring at my desk.

Mr. Fitz shot me another contemptuous glare, then returned to the list.

“Thackert, Jane.”  (Present.)

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