"Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!"
After seeing the video, Steven paced angrily in front of Walter's trailer. It was sturdy and bigger than Steven's, with concrete blocks instead of wheels. Walter had a flashy cell because he got paid for helping his dad on pest control calls. In the video, a boy stomped a squirrel to a battle drumroll until its contents splattered al over the screen. Walter replayed it while leaning against the trailer and chuckled.
"It's not funny!" Steven reached for Walter's cell but the latter easily elbowed him away. Walter was shorter but bulkier than Steven.
“You think Vlad made this?"
"Nah, Vlad's a dumbass.”
“Who cares? It's online now."
Steven shook his head to clear his mind, and looked his friend dead in the eyes. "I didn't do it."
"I know." Walter was more thoughtful than people realized. On fishing trips, Walter and his dad would be the ones to gut the catch and never asked Steven to help. Walter put his phone away.
“What you gonna do about it?”
Steven rarely got excited, but this was a challenge he had to answer. “Everything!”
That morning, Steven walked to Columbus Middle School alone in the Fall chill, wind ruffling his brown hair. His mother always left the trailer early and his stepfather never offered him a ride. This week was the 6th grade annual science fair competition. His best friend, Walter, went on pest control rounds with his dad instead to make money.
Outside, a large science fair banner hung proudly. Walter’s classmates emerged from the cocoon of warm vans, carrying formidable looking projects with their parents’ help. The winner, selected from the entire 6th grade, would be honored by the Principal, given cash and interviewed by the local paper.
Steven didn’t have an experiment. When he asked his mother to buy glue sticks, she was busy sorting through some mishap over the phone at work.
“The poor new girl’s found rats in storage and I gotta do triage. Do you have to compete?”
Steven said it wasn’t required and his mom darted out the trailer door. His step dad wasn’t home but left the T.V. on, so Steven watched his cop show. In the dark, the T.V.’s eerie blue glow enveloped his thin frame. The T.V. cops walked briskly, spoke confidently and always caught the bad guy. Most nights, they were the only adults around. Steven didn’t think about the science fair again.
What’s the point if he couldn’t stop it and couldn’t be a part of it? Hopefully, the week wouldn’t be insufferable.
Inside, children darted about like fish in undersized tank. Teachers hurried to their classrooms, coffee spiling out of their mugs, while student hall monitors hollered at latecomers. This week, the hallway was covered in science fair posters. Bright eyed children held up flasks and calculators, flashing white smiles. Steven frowned at their affectation.
"Good morning, Steven."
Mr. Swanson, Steven’s first period science teacher, stood before his classroom, and greeted each student like clockwork. Mr. Swanson wasn’t like the men Steven knew. He was too polite, wore soft turtlenecks, and spoke so carefully to his students, that he’d bend his elongated neck over them.
Like clockwork, Steven ignored him.
Steven went straight to his desk. At the front of the class, his classmates hovered over the science entries. Unsurprisingly, Fat Freddie was also sitting. He was shorter than Steven and weighed two hundred pounds. He wasn’t required to do physical education; so he’d sit on the bleachers, crushing stray ants to death while everyone else sweated. During lunch, he'd sit alone in the Squirrel Park, flapping his lips or hands as if having an animated conversation. Steven was glad they didn't sit together. Steven’s social status balanced precariously on teetertotter. He couldn't risk anything.
"Simmer down! We'll have plenty of time to go over these." Mr. Swanson made shooing motions with his hand. Students scattered like minnows. After roll call, Mr. Swanson asked each entrant to describe their experiments. Only a handful, like Steven, didn't participate.
Minerva’s red and black volcano was one of many but everything she did captivated Steven.
When it exploded, droplets landed on her hands and dress. She squealed and Steven grew a bit hot. He shifted uneasily in his seat.
“Its baking soda,” she smiled and the wrinkles on her brown face smiled too. “I, I mean, we, made it from Plaster of Paris.” Steven remembered Paris from Greek myth. He pictured Minerva rising out of the bubbly lava like Venus.
Vlad, her partner, stood next to her side. Rumor was that they were going steady. He had blond hair and blue eyes, and wore new outfits. The girls in class giggled whenever he passed them. Steven thought he’d make a better science partner. But that chance had passed; he couldn’t rewrite history.
Students gasped when Raul unveiled his tiny robot. Its eye bulbs peered out of a round head and a complex of rainbow wires scaled its body. With a remote, Raul moved its arms and spun it around.
Mr. Swanson objected to these profanities. After presenting, Raul bowed and everyone clapped. Raul’s dad, who dropped him off, wore a lab coat. Steven wondered if he was a scientist and frowned. Cheats.
The class was restless by the time purplehaired Erika or “Eerieka," in black clothes and oversized Doc Martin boots, gestured impassively to a box labelled “The Last Meow” in Gothic letters.
The box was halved by a divider with a hole in it. A water gun was stuck through, and pointed at the half that contained five hand molded miniature black cats. The other half was empty.
Her face was stone and voice monotonous. Some yawned, others stared incomprehensibly.
Eerieka said that some physicists believed that reality was flexible. The very act of measuring caused a particular reality. Here, what if observing caused the gun to fire some of the time and not others? Thus, at any given time, the cats are simultaneously in a state of being both alive and dead. Eerieka moved a top slider on the box to cover the cats and show the empty side with the gun’s trigger exposed.
“You’re the observer and hold the cat’s fate in your hands. Alive?” She moved the slider to reveal the erect cats. “Or dead?” she knocked them down one by one.
Vlad shouted from his seat, “That's bull. You can't make what's real.” Steven wanted to make a reality without Vlad.
Before Eerieka could respond, Mr. Swanson jumped in, “Thank you Erika, Dr. Erwin Schrödinger’s cat was more of a thought experiment but I appreciate the . . . unique subjectmatter.”
Surprisingly, Fat Freddie also had a project. He waddled between desks to the front and stood next to indecipherable charts. Freddie’s project involved changing the diet of tiny fish at specific times and then recording their behavior. Mr. Swanson showed just as much interest in Freddie’s project as Raul’s. One could see his project as the mark of blooming genius. But Freddie lacked any showmanship and his voice sounded pinched, as if the air inside his large body struggled to escape. Mr. Swanson asked why Freddie didn’t bring the fish to school.
Someone said, “He probably ate them.”
The class laughed. Freddie’s face reddened like a balloon. He swung his head and looked about, fat cheeks jiggling, trying to isolate the perpetrator.
“They’re at home resting,” he declared.
“Yeah, on a grill.”
“Who’s feeding whom?” The class laughed again. Steven had to chuckle at the last one.
“You al think you’re better than me but you’re not,” Freddie huffed and continued to glare them into silence. “You’ll see.”
At this point, Mr. Swanson hushed the room and thanked Freddie for his presentation. Mr. Swanson explained the Fair rules again and carefuly put the projects away in an unlocked cabinet.
After class, Steven lingered near the experiments. He wanted to praise Minerva on hers. The little cats in “The Last Meow” box glittered and caught his eye.
“Black sugar crystals,” someone whispered. He started and spun around. Up close, Eerika resembled a rodent with her narrow chin and large eyes. She looked at him without expression or blinking.
“Molded from my special blend.”
“The gypsum is for shape; the crystals, to give it life.” She stared at him blankly and Steven couldn’t tel if she was joking. He glanced about to make sure no one saw them. People start rumors over the stupidest things. He quietly slipped to his next class.
During recess, Steven played handball. He was skinny but dexterous. Then, Vlad and his buddy arrived, challenging any pair to a match.
“You scared? How about you? I’d say, two games and you’re out.”
With Walter as his partner, Steven would knock his Royal Blondness out in a few rounds. But Walter wasn’t here. Steven looked at a hapless boy waiting on the bench, who just shrugged. Steven left the handball court. With no game and no plan, he walked away.
Without intending to, he wandered to the Squirrel Park, the farthest corner of the playground.
Large walnut trees dotted this area. Kids came here to tell secrets, make out, and squirrels came to eat.
The air was brisk but there was no wind. Today, it was eerily lifeless.
The leaves cracked as he walked. Then he stepped on something soft and stopped. He lifted his shoe. Blood. Startled, he scanned the ground. He saw a squishy brown object.
It was a dead squirrel with sprawled limbs and blood had seeped out of its behind. His tiny face was frozen in anguish, revealing his small, ugly teeth.
“What are you doing?” Steven turned to find Lisa, the redhead monitor he disliked. She ratted on other kids when they copied homework or excluded her from gossip. Thanks to her, some teachers kept their drawers stocked year round with confiscated items. Lisa had run after a ball that landed near him. She picked it up and held it against her hips.
"Nothing," Steven quickly put his palms up, "just taking a stroll."
Lisa narrowed her eyes at the brown thing. She cautiously walked closer to it. Then the corner of her lips slowly turned upwards, "Ewwwwww," she said. Then she looked up accusingly at Steven.
He took a step away from the corpse. "It's not like that. I just stepped on it."
"Ewwwwwwww," she said louder and in a higher pitch. "Ewww! Ewww! Ewww!" With each refrain, she pointed at the carcass. Some of her playmates, who had been waiting for the bal and attracted by her squealing, had come over for a look. One girl covered her mouth with her hand.
“Who did this?"
"I was walking, minding my own business . . ." Steven started.
Lisa turned to the crowd, "He did it! I saw the whole thing."
They gasped, and waited in colective eagerness for more. With her ball, she had the bearing of Zoltara, the Fortune Teller.
"I thought it was weird, the way he was sneaking around here. Then he was all stamping about like a crazy. Look at his feet!"
They inhaled at once. When Steven backed away, he had inadvertently left a trail of partial bloody shoe prints that connected him to the dead squirrel. He desperately rubbed his sole on the ground to clean it.
"What a pervert!" someone said.
The bell rang, and the kids hurried off to class before the monitors could cite them for tardiness.
The insult hung in the air. Steven was anxious. Whatever his current reputation, being labeled a pervert would be much worse.
During Homeroom, Ms. Holly usually sat at her desk, texting and checking websites on her mobile. She rose only to make schoolwide announcements, or tell embarrassing, cautionary tales of troublemakers. Students just read. Steven chose a book version of the T.V. cop show that explained how they solved crimes. Steven saw Lisa, red hair shining like a sinister siren, gossip and occasionaly glare at him. Someone tapped him from behind.
“What was it like?” Vlad grinned.
“What was what like?” Steven felt his heart beat rising.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Why you kill it?”
“I didn’t kill anything.”
Instead of responding, Vlad smirked, privy to some secret hidden from Steven. He hovered over a friend and the latter’s mobile in the next row, snickering. Steven couldn’t focus on his book.
“Dude, that’s some crazy psycho shit. Didn’t know he had it in him.” The friend said to Vlad.
“Peeps like him do this shit all the time.” Vlad said.
People like me? He turned towards them. The friend’s cel revealed a putrid squirrel in high resolution. The blood shone vibrant red and its bared teeth, set in a deathly grimace, was an ungodly white.
“Where you get that?” Steven asked, trying to keep his voice steady. Someone must have taken it after he left that scene.
Vlad’s friend snorted, “Everyone’s got it.”
Steven’s mom never bought him a mobile despite his complaints. He glanced around the classroom and saw it. There would a buzz at one desk folowed by another somewhere else. The vibrations leaped from one desk to desk like an insidious insect. The students with mobiles would furtively glanced at them under their desks.
He wanted to shout that he wasn’t the killer. It was already dead. How can they blame me without proof? Instead, he just sat lower in his seat and hid behind his book like a cornered animal.
Before Homeroom ended, Ms. Holy read the announcements from her cell. The Principal encouraged every 6th grader to enter the Science Fair and warned that the Insane Clown Posse gangs were cruising south of town. Steven realized that was near his trailer park.
“You kids are into somethin’ strange.” Ms. Holly snorted. “Dressing up as clowns. Joining gangs. Joining clown gangs.”
Her cell suddenly buzzed and she beamed, eyes widening. “Ha! Some of us are even squirrel kilers.”
Ms. Holly’s words fell swiftly as a gavel. Steven's heart sank with the finality of the pronouncement. The students laughed. The floodgates opened and they texted with impunity now.
Those mobileless grinned and elbowed each other. Steven feared that even Fat Freddie would laugh, but he sat at like a stone, eyes glued to his book, unmoved by the tumult.
For the rest of the day, Steven couldn't focus. He watched others carefully, sensitive to any whispers, sideglances and jokes at his expense. Even the kids on the posters mocked him with their white teeth. While walking in the halway, bathroom, or cafeteria, he stuck to the periphery. Steven hoped that if he ignored them, they'd forget. He breathed a sigh of relief when the last bell rang.
Outside, the multicolored fallen leaves painted the ground. Buses and cars competed to park or escape in a chaotic and uncoordinated dance. Minerva waited alone on the sidewalk for her ride. No Vlad. She was always friendly to him and after class, they'd sometimes chat. He wanted to tel her how brilliant her volcano was, and walked over slowly.
"Hey there." He had to keep his voice steady and reminded himself to act cool. Girls didn't like creeps.
"Oh," she said hesitantly as if she wasn't sure how to address him, "it's you."
"That volcano of yours . . . realy disruptive . . . no, I meant eruptive. I meant, when it erupted, I felt like it, like I was erupting too." Idiot.
"Are the rumors true?" She asked, raising a petite brow. Steven stared at her. He didn’t want to ask but curiosity overcame him.
"You know, the stuff about the squirrel. It's al over the group pages and there’s even a video.
At first, I didn't believe it but now I'm not sure."
Minerva frowned, and Steven's heart sank. All the humiliation and spitefulness he tried to evade during the day, had returned. The detritus flowed without hindrance.
"You shouldn't listen to rumors." He swallowed hard.
"They're caling you names." Minerva kept her eyes on the ground.
"Like what?" There was no bottom to the torrent’s murky depths.
"Serial Steven. Psycho Steven. Steven the squirrel kiler."
Right then, a pink sedan puled over beside them and honked. Minerva didn’t say good bye and quickly got in the car. It drove away, leaving Steven in the cold. Apparently, girls didn’t like squirrel kilers either. If he didn’t resolve this, he'd sink lower than Fat Freddie.
After Minerva, Steven walked around the playground to cool down. Kids gradualy left for home and he found himself alone. Driven by curiosity, disbelief and anger, he went to Squirrel Park again, making sure that he wasn't followed. He looked around the exact spot where he first saw the dead squirrel but it was gone. The groundskeeper couldn't have cleaned it; spots of blood remained.
The fence would've kept out strays.
That’s when he saw it a smal white rock next to his bloody footprint. Its color and unnatural shape stood out against the foliage. While walking home, Steven felt its weight in his pocket with every step.
"You went back?" Walter laughed like a cheerful little bear.
"I didn't want to but al cop shows talk about evidence this and that . . ."
"Hoelice." Walter sneered at even the mention of cops.
"Look!" Steven handed Walter his discovery.
"The hell?" Walter raised his eyebrows, rubbed and sniffed it. His thick fingers could've easily crushed it into powder.
"I thought since you do business with your dad, you could help." Also, Walter was only the friend Steven could trust.
"Let's see." Walter licked it.
"Like candy? Is it candy? Nevermind. Don't eat it," Steven said. If Walter died, Steven would be the one getting stomped. Walter threw the piece back to Steven. Steven wiped it on his pants.
"It reminds me of something." Walter walked to a locked shed next to the trailer. He opened it to reveal the pest control tools. Items were labeled, some with only a skull and crossbones. There were bags of plants and canisters of mixed liquids. Walter held up a bag of pellets with crystalized coating.
“We make our own. It’s OR GAN NECK.” He rounded out each vowel.
“Whose neck now?” Steven asked.
“Means its natural, healthy. Better for the planet, world peace….blah blah. But it kills just the same.”
“Then who cares what it’s made of?”
Walter shrugged. “We coat ours with fake sugar. Rats eat ‘em like candy and their guts explode.” Walter slowly spread his fingers upwards to mimic the bomb cloud. “No funky smell though.”
Steven eyeballed his own piece, “I don’t need to lick this to know it ain’t candy.”
“Nah, yours is soft, rubs off, and isn’t chemicky. Maybe organic.” Walter put everything back in the shed and locked it.
“Someone poisoned it?”
“Dunno, but the pics made it look like his guts exploded. That happens to some of our rats.”
“You’re good at this stuff.” Steven said. Walter shrugged. Steven wouldn’t have come to these conclusions without Walter’s help. “I need to use your computer.”
Usualy around this time, they’d be watching T.V., using Walter’s cell to sneak pictures of their elderly neighbors, or looking at girls on his computer. Their parents didn’t come home until late. But this was not a typical day. Steven had to know the truth. Going to school again among those derisive stares and Minerva’s disappointed lips was unbearable. The danger was that these same classmates and their prejudice could folow him to the 7th or 8th grade. It’s better to snuff it early.
“Nah. My crew and I got business.”
“Your crew?” Steven’s face contorted in puzzlement. When did Walter get a crew?
A black Mustang pulled into the Park and honked loudly. The driver, a large set man with red fuzzy hair, chucked his chin at Walter and made a weird handsign. Walter did the same and walked toward the car.
“Where you going?” Steven asked. Walter didn’t respond. “Can I borrow your cell? Give it back at school tomorrow?” Steven didn’t recognize the car or the man. What was so important?
“Nah, we busy.” Walter smiled slyly and vanished inside the car. It drove off, kicking up a wave of dusk.
“Go on and have fun without me then. Yeah, I’l be alright. No need to worry about ole’ Steven.” Only an autumn chill answered him.
In his family trailer, alone, Steven watched the cop show on T.V. Now and then, he’d rub the white thing between his fingers, to help him think. The world had spun off in a new direction. The old Steven had no reputation and went unnoticed. He and Walter worked together .
That’s how he survived.
Now, Fate thrusted him into this brave new world, where he was framed as a perverted squirrel kiler, and Walter replaced him with new friends overnight. Perhaps it was not Fate but his choices. Steven considered al his mistakes. If he hadn’t gone to Squirrel Park or to school that day, maybe he could’ve avoided this disaster. Now, the tettertotter had overturned. But if his actions led to disaster could they also reverse it?
Walter suggested that someone kiled the squirrel on purpose. But why? And why use this? It smelled familiar but he couldn’t recall where he first encountered it. The more he rubbed, the smaller it became as the powdery layers fell. It was as if the truth hid in its core, reeling him closer. On T.V., a cop showed an arrestee some pictures and the man wept, confessing to everything. Steven frowned: he had no cuffs, gun or jail but only the white thing. If he wanted to solve anything and save his own sanity, he’d have to rely on himself.
The next day, inside the janitor’s closet at school, Steven saw a cornucopia of chemicals, detergents, and vibrantly colored liquids. He was just walking to his next class when he saw the unlocked door. The cheerful boxes and smell of sugary sweet chemicals beckoned him. A student could’ve easily took something from here to kill the squirrel. The more he thought about it, the more he felt drawn inside. It’d take him a long time to rummage through the various boxes and containers. If a hall monitor caught him, Ms. Holly would give him detention or worse, cal his mom.
“As I told them other boys . . .”
Steven jumped out of the closet and turned. The janitor was right behind him. Steven had never seen him upclose and didn’t realized that the guy could speak.
“I ain’t loaning anything for the Fair,” said the uniformed Janitor. He sounded older than Mr. Swanson and stood erectly. “This all school property.” The elderly man waved his hand over the supplies like a possessive magician.
“Oh yeah, but I mean, this isn’t for that. I mean, I wasn’t trying to borrow.” Steven’s heartbeat quickened as images of his angry mom and detention flooded his mind. He tried to swallow but his mouth was dry. “I was looking for some poisons. Er, I mean rats. No, I mean I hate rats.”
“Your class got rats?”
“You ain’t in Bungalow 5, eh?”
“Bungalow 5?” Steven echoed.
“Is there more than one?” the Janitor glared at him and rubbed his whitehaired chin. “I set the traps a few weeks ago. School don’t use poisons. Guess some buggers won’t die. You tell your teacher to send a request form, not a monitor. I don’t work without a form. Got it?” Steven’s rational mind told him to run but his curiosity overcame him.
The Janitor frowned at Steven like he was a dense wooden block. “District rules. Too many kids around.” The Janitor grabbed a can out of the closet, edging Steven out, and locked the door.
Lunch was dull without Walter. He’d make everyone laugh by using his cell to take upskirt photos of passing girls. Without his lead, the boys at their usual lunch bench descended into an anime argument. At least they didn’t mention the squirrel.
Steven twirled his spork in his spinach.
Steven looked and saw Vlad across the cafeteria room. He was joking with Minerva and her friends. Vlad caught Steven looking at him and grinned. He turned to the girls and pretended to strangle himself; he shut his eyes and hung his tongue out of his mouth. The girls laughed and Steven lost his appetite. Vlad knew that Steven was too distant to retaliate. Steven imagined leaping over the benches and shoving the spinach down Vlad’s throat, and Vlad’s horribly contorted face.
Like the squirrel. Steven patted his shirt and felt the small thing in his pocket. Walter said it might be poison but there wasn’t any at the school. Could it just be food that just kills squirrels?
Afteral, Walter licked it, declared it sweet, and didn’t die. If Steven could find a similar item . . .
Steven looked at the kitchen’s doubledoors. The large cafeteria lady kept it open so she could easily buss trays. By now, she was probably on break. Steven checked for monitors in the cafeteria.
Lisa was busy yeling at a student to pick up his trash. He got lucky once; he’d carefuly listen to approaching steps, and run at the first sign of trouble. With a coplike presence of mind, he rose and walked discreetly through the doors.
The kitchen was like a steel trap no windows and one exit. The cabinets that hung from the ceiling, counters, sinks and knives gleamed with a metalic sheen. He opened the large refrigerator.
Inside that icy cave, there was a vat of lifeless, gray mush, patties glued in one stack, and bals suspended in a jar of murky liquid. He smelled nothing. Any of these could be used to kill a squirrel, or a kid. The Janitor’s closet looked more appetizing. He heard clanging sounds behind him. Startled, he released the refrigerator door.
Steven swung quickly around and saw the cafeteria lady entering with large trays that blocked her view. In a panic, he backed away and saw a space behind the fridge. He slipped into it like a slice of ham. The large, rotund figure went over to the sink and began washing, with her back to Steven. He felt like punching himself. Almost caught twice in one day. He was a lame cop. His mind raced for the right excuses.
Sorry Miss, but I was looking for something that would kill a squirrel; it ate my science project.
Sorry, Miss, I was just testing the security. It’s pretty lax.
Steven wished Walter were here. The gushing water and clanging dishes echoed off the kitchen walls. She was engrossed in her work. He started sliding out, his heart beating rapidly. He walked softly toward those double doors, watching her back all the while, his pace quickening with each advancing step. Once he reached the exit, he ran.
During recess, Steven played handball. Occasionally, he’d look around for signs of the Janitor or Cafeteria lady. Did the school have security cameras?
He had this recurring image of them physically dragging him off to the Principal’s Office. So many crazy things were happening to him. In response, he did crazy things that he’d never envisioned. These events stretched him. He could never be his old self again.
To ground himself, Steven focused on the familiar. He played as hard as he could, hammering on his opponents weak spots and blocking out their jeers. He imagined Vlad’s head as the ball. All that risk and no reward meant he was a terrible sleuth, but least he knew how to play. Every time he won, he felt more confident and in control. He avoided Squirrel Park and didn’t even look in that direction.
“You’re probably wondering why there’s a special meeting.” Mr. Swanson announced from his podium. He sent a note to their homeroom teachers and requested their presence for an emergency meeting that period.
“We’re special?” Someone quipped. Chuckles folowed. The darksuited Principal stood next to Mr. Swanson, eyes alert. He wasn’t laughing.
“The judging for the Fair is soon and there has been some . . . problems. Thanks to the help of some of your peers,” Mr. Swanson continued and Lisa nodded as if in acknowledgement, “we’ve discovered that some of your projects have been changed.”
“Sabotaged,” corrected the Principal grimly.
Mr. Swanson puled out some of the science projects. Students gasped. Some cursed and muttered under their breath. The best volcanos had their colorful outer layers ripped away or defaced with profanities. Raul’s robot lost its arm. Erieka’s cats had their heads broken off. Lesser projects were disturbed less thoroughly. There was a pause. The students looked at one another and then began flooding Mr. Swanson with questions.
“Can we fix them? What wil the Judges do?”
“Who did it?”
“Was it someone from this class?”
Mr. Swanson and the Principal exchanged glances. They didn’t order other students from Mr. Swanson’s other science periods here, and the Principal did not make a schoolwide announcement. In fact, only the projects from Steven’s science period were damaged. Someone hated Steven’s science class.
“We’re stil looking for those individuals responsible.”
“Culprits,” corrected the Principal.
“But I thought I check with you first. The SafeTell policy applies. If any one tells me something, it’ll be anonymous. You don’t need to worry about getting into trouble. We just want to resolve this.”
Lisa’s hawkeyes surveyed the class, ready to pounce on anyone suspicious. Once Mr. Swanson dismissed the group, most students darted out of the classroom, muttering disbelief. After whispering something in Mr. Swanson’s ear, the Principal left. Mr. Swanson spoke to each affected student individually, patting them on the shoulder and assuring them that their projects would be judged based on their original conditions.
Minerva and Vlad stood near their volcano, debating how to repair it. Steven wanted to comfort her. The closer he got to her, the more blank his mind became. All nerve and words slowly leaked out of him, like baking soda out of the volcano’s puncture. Steven waited for Vlad to leave first, so he examined the other ruins.
Erieka’s cats were, without a doubt, dead. Steven picked up a severed head. The sparkling black sugar rubbed off easily, cascading to the floor. The white base material had a powdery consistency. Curious, Steven rubbed another. Then another. Steven did this to all four heads one was missing. They smelled like the volcanos. The distinctive scent jumpstarted his memory. He took out the little white thing in his pocket and held it side by side with a severed cat head. The same material.
Was the little thing he found a former cat head? How would he prove it? He looked around but Erieka wasn’t here. She always dressed for a funeral but wouldn’t actualy kill. The destroyed science projects were laid bare before him, shamelessly exposed like the squirrel corpse. Was there a link?
Every thought was a separate string that spiraled off in its own direction. It seemed impossible to connect or make sense of the tangled threads. The truth would clear his reputation but it laid just beyond his reach.
“You have this thousand mile stare,” Mr. Swanson said as he appraised Steven, smiling. He sat at his desk, finishing up work. Al the other students, including Minerva, had already left. It was just the two of them. Once again, the outside world moved on without him. He was too dense to notice. Steven threw the head back into the box and wiped his hands on his shirt.
“I feel bad about what happened,” Steven said.
“Me too. Think of the countless hours these students spent. I’ll have a hard time explaining this to their parents.” Mr. Swanson shook his head.
Steven didn’t respond but looked at the ground. He rubbed the white thing between his fingers meditatively.
“Steven, do you know what happened?” There was nothing accusatory in his tone. He probably asked because Steven stayed behind.
“I’m not sure,” Steven said. He was being honest. Mr. Swanson waited patiently for him to continue. Steven couldn’t stand the silence. He felt compelled to fill it, and started from the beginning, leaving out the parts about the Janitor’s closet and cafeteria. When he mentioned the dead squirrel pictures and video, he watched for any sign of recognition. Seeing none, Steven felt less judged and safer. He occasionaly looked down on his floor as he narrated, the sparkling black sugar catching his eye.
“It wasn’t fair, Mr. Swanson. I didn’t do it.” Besides Walter, Mr. Swanson was the only other person Steven told. By giving voice to his confusions and frustrations, Steven felt relieved. He took a fresh, deep breath.
“Can I see what you found?”
Steven handed his teacher the white thing. Mr. Swanson eyed it carefully, turning it over in his hand, his long neck curving downward. Steven watched him with anticipation. “Well, it’s definitely some form of craft material. That’s not surprising since it’s Fair week. I bet many kids’ projects use the same stuff.” Mr. Swanson handed it back to Steven.
“I can’t prove anything.” Steven sighed as even Mr. Swanson seemed stumped.
Mr. Swanson thought for a moment. In the silence, the taunts and lies echoed in Steven’s mind.
He frowned at the thought of trudging through the school year while his classmates rewatched that horrible gif and told lame jokes. Worse, Minerva would snub him. His mom wouldn’t alow him to skip school and besides Walter, he had no crew of his own.
“No, it seems like you have more leads than answers.”
“I know. It sucks.”
“Well, many great scientists in the past never found the answer. They just raised great questions.”
“Like Columbus?” Steven raised his eyebrow.
“So you have been listening.” Mr. Swanson smiled. Steven, mildly proud, never realized that it was so easy to talk to his teacher. “I’m curious, Steven, how come you did not enter the Fair? You’ve decent grades.”
Steven didn’t have a worthy excuse or one that wouldn’t embarrass him. Vlad referred to him as a separate species and his words stil stung. But when Steven looked at his life, he realized he couldn’t easily explain a lot of it to others. Much of it didn’t even make sense to him.
“I didn’t have time.”
“Hahaha . . . if I had a nickel every time a student told me that.” Mr. Swanson said. “But you had time to think about all this, look for things and ask questions.”
“I mean I didn’t have the supplies.”
“Are you saying you wanted to do one?”
Steven shrugged, “Kinda.”
Mr. Swanson crossed his arms on his chest and leaned back in his chair. He appraised Steven once more. “I have an idea, Steven. It’s too late to enter the Fair, but you can make a science project about your pebble. You can use this room and its supplies after school. I usually stay late anyways.”
“What do you mean?”
“You can do a chemical analysis and comparison of different plasters from the other students’ projects using yours as a control. Then maybe you can at least figure out its origins.”
“Then the real killer.”
Mr. Swanson opened his mouth partly and then closed it again. He was going to let Steven run with it.
“Do you think whoever killed the squirrel also damaged the projects?” Steven asked.
“I don’t know. But if you can help us get us closer to the truth, even just an inch,” Mr. Swanson held his thumb and index fingers apart to demonstrate. “That’s closer than when we first started.”
Mr. Swanson waited for Steven’s response. Steven pondered his changed circumstances. If his classmates knew he went through al this trouble just to prove his innocence, would they think him insane? If the dead squirrel was connected to the sabotage, would that explain the why behind each?
By habit now, he looked at the pebble to help him think. His rubbing made it much more polished than when he first found it. When the classroom light hit its white surface, it brightened up like an unhatched egg.
Steven had too many questions; his thoughts spiralled in all directions. It’d take work to link them together, trim the unpromising ones and develop new patterns. His peers might find him baffling, call him names, or just snub him. It couldn’t be worse than now. If Lisa knew that Mr. Swanson gave Steven such special treatment, she’d fly into a jealous rage. Steven smiled at the last thought. The fact that he couldn’t enter or win the Fair didn’t bother him either, after all, Raul built a robot.
Despite his doubts, Steven wondered if this was what the T.V. cops caled a “break.” They never wavered from their purpose, always pressed forward and eventualy, luck helped them solve that intractable mystery. Here, Steven could do the same. Walter wouldn’t help him but Mr. Swanson would. He could prove his innocence, clear his name, stick it to Vlad, and impress Minerva. He could remake his Fate. All he had to do was pull the trigger.