There was a school assembly in the cafeteria. We couldn’t use the stadium, for obvious, police-related reasons. They’d set up a stage and pushed all the tables aside, replacing them with folding chairs. It was at 10:00 AM. They canceled my lunch hour. There was no possible way I could complain about it, because Tracy and Bonesaw were dead, and I was just hungry. Luckily, I was able to locate Ronnie and latch onto her, like a mollusk.
The principal made a grand speech about recent losses, and a huge projector played various noble-looking pictures of Tracy and Bonesaw on a loop. A lot of people were crying. Eric was sitting on my other side, and, even though I was making an active effort to avoid eye contact with him, he still tapped my shoulder.
“Hey, James,” he whispered as the principal read a poem about the brevity of life. “Have you noticed anything weird?”
I shook my head. “This is important,” I said. “We should be respectful.”
“This is important too!” Eric said. “Why aren’t they mentioning how they died? They were both murdered, probably by the same person. I think that we should start worrying about other people at this school.”
My stomach churned, and I was suddenly happy that I hadn’t eaten anything. “I don’t think they want us to get scared,” I said.
“We should be scared!” Eric said. “What if we’re next? I don’t know about you, but, personally, I really like not being dead! Shouldn’t we be looking into—” Ronnie interrupted him by reaching over my lap and shoving a hand in his face.
“If the boy doesn’t wanna talk, you don’t make him talk,” she said flatly. Her arm was right in front of my face.
“It’s okay,” I said quietly.
Ronnie withdrew her arm slowly, giving Eric the evil eye. “Behave,” she said. Eric nodded.
Ronnie was rolling the pen around in her fingers, nervously glancing at Olga every few seconds. I really wanted her to give it back and get the whole thing over with, but she was a romantic. If she was going to do something, she wanted to do it right, even if that something was returning a pen in the smoothest way possible.
Mr. Fitz coughed loudly and deliberately. “Richard, was there something you wanted to say?” he asked.
“I think this Pushkin guy has a foot fetish,” Dick announced shamelessly. I suppressed a snort. I’d been thinking the same thing: in the Russian author’s short stories, he often elaborately described the delicate and pretty feet of his various female characters.
“You’re getting two demerits for that,” Fitz said, crossing his arms.
“I’m just saying!” Dick said, spreading his arms out. “If he doesn’t, then why?”
“Even if he does, it doesn’t really make a difference,” Francesca said quietly. Her mood hadn’t improved much, but at least she was talking again. “The stories are the same either way. I liked this one.”
“It may not make a difference to the story, but you shouldn’t show such blatant disrespect to a literary genius,” Mr. Fitz said.
“Yeah,” Eric added, obviously hoping for an approving nod. He didn’t get one.
“How’s it disrespectful to just say it like it is?” Dick said.
“Yeah, don’t kinkshame the Russians!” Ronnie called. Mr. Fitz ignored her.
“I thought the descriptions were nice,” Dolly said. “…Janie, how about you?”
“Didn’t read it,” Janie said flatly, just quietly enough for Mr. Fitz not to hear her. “Was it dirty?”
Mr. Fitz hit his desk with his copy of the textbook: a loud signal that usually meant “shut your mouths, you little creeps.”
“Please keep your teenage hormones out of the classroom,” Mr. Fitz said. “We aren’t here to defame any famous authors. Why should their personal lives make a difference in a formal analysis?”
“I think Mr. Fitz has a foot fetish,” Ronnie whispered over my shoulder. I burst into silent giggles and buried my face in my hands.
“James?” Mr. Fitz asked. “Is there something you’d like to tell the class?”
I looked around. Ronnie had gone pink with shame. Dick was smirking at me. He was probably happy that I was the bad one now. I swallowed.
“I, uh…” What could I say without getting myself in trouble? If I said anything else wrong, I’d have to spend another hour in detention. That time stacked up. “I was thinking about this thing from history class,” I said. “About George Washington.”
On the other side of the room, Olga nodded in approval.
“Heyyy,” Ronnie said slowly, leaning in conspicuously towards Olga. The other girl tilted her head in confusion. I watched from the back of the room, like a stalker. Not everyone else had left the classroom yet, so it was acceptable.
“Heyyy,” Olga copied. “What’s up, Rhonda?”
“Um, Ronnie,” Ronnie said. “Rhonda is my aunt’s name. It’s weird. Sorry.”
“It’s fine. People always say my name wrong, too,” Olga said. “It’s not Ol-gah, It’s more like ‘Ool-yah.’ It’s Russian.”
“That’s pretty,” Ronnie said. “Have your pen.”
“I mean, you dropped it!” Ronnie said, rifling through one of the many pockets in her oversized cargo pants. I’m not sure I’ve ever known anyone else who actually uses all those pockets, but she’s always got trinkets and ibuprofen and beef jerky on her. She’s like a walking convenience store. She shook her head. “It’s in here, I promise! It has three colors! Just wait!” She continued searching desperately. Her glasses fell off (it was inevitable; they were always too big for her, and she always had to adjust them) and she didn’t even pick them up. “Here!” she pulled the pen out with a flourish.
“Thank you,” Olga said, extending a hand. Ronnie was visibly sweating. She handed over the pen, a little shakily. She made an effort not to touch hands. Most people wouldn’t have noticed it, but I knew Ronnie well. I guess it would have been too much for her.
“Okaybye,” Ronnie said, and she flat-out ran out of the door. I followed her, giving Olga a small wave. She waved back, looking a little perplexed.
“That was super smooth,” I said after I finally managed to catch up. It was only a few minutes until history class, but this seemed important enough to be late over.
“She thinks I’m a monster,” Ronnie said, staring morosely into the distance. “She thinks I’m a pen-stealing creature from hell.”
“That’s a little dramatic,” I said.
“Ool-yah,” Ronnie said. “I’m gonna say it like that from now on. Russian is a beautiful language.”
“A beautiful language, with so many ways to talk about feet,” I replied.
Ronnie shoved me a little. I deserved it.
On Wednesday morning, I learned that Eric was dead. Like Tracy and Bonesaw, he’d been found with a missing hand. Unlike Tracy and Bonesaw, he’d been weighted down. There was evidence that he’d been tied to something heavy with fishing twine, but that something had come loose. Unfortunately for whoever had tried to drop him in the middle of the lake, he was just a bit too buoyant to stay down.
Eric never was the type to give up easily.
Fitz didn’t acknowledge Eric’s death. Like he did with Tracy, he simply skipped his name during the roll call.
With a second death hanging heavy over the classroom, nobody was in the mood to discuss Rudyard Kipling. Even Ronnie, who was always up to talk about tall tales and talking animal stories, was uncharacteristically morose.
“Was he the person who wrote the tiger poem?” Dolly asked a little nervously. “’Tiger, tiger, burning bright, in the forests in the night.’ Right?”
“’Of the night,’ Ms. Abbot,” Mr. Fitz corrected. He kneaded his brow with his knuckles. He looked tired. “And we’re not discussing poetry. We’re discussing ‘How the Leopard Got His Spots.’ Yes, Mr. Stewart?”
“It was kinda racist…?” I said. I usually didn’t speak up in class, but it seemed kind of like the elephant in the room. “I mean, it had ‘the Ethiopian’ being listed with a bunch of animals.”
“Man in general is treated as an animal in Kipling’s works,” Mr. Fitz said.
Ronnie made a noncommittal grunt, which signaled to me that she agreed. She was wearing her spare glasses, the ones with the hearts on the arms. She’d worn them in elementary school, and they were obviously too small for her.
“Are there no other comments?” Mr. Fitz asked. Everybody was quiet, sad and nervous. Eric never missed class, not even when he was sick. He’d brought a bucket in once and had to be ushered out as a vector of disease. How could any of us think about Rudyard Kipling and his weird racist fairy tales when Eric was gone? It was hard enough with just Tracy, and Bonesaw’s sub made everything weird, but Eric was a constant, obnoxious voice in the room. If he were here, he wouldn’t shut up.
“None,” Janie said, more loudly than usual.
“Very well. You can take out your notebooks and work on Friday’s due assignment until class is over.” Mr. Fitz sat down and pulled out a book and didn’t look up from it for the rest of the hour.