Kid Lit

By Lenny Levine

O2nce upon a time… No, that’s a stupid way to begin a story. I have to do better than that, or I’ll never get out of here.

Maybe these words I’m writing now should be the story I give to Ms. Zuckerbraun. The sad tale of Ivy Gortner, the girl who’s been kidnapped by her fifth-grade teacher.

Yeah, fat chance of that! I don’t even want to think about what she’d do if she caught me writing this. I mean, after all, she’s a witch. Literally.

No, this is just for me. And for whoever finds it someday.

I wish I could say where I am but I don’t actually know. I do know that it’s not real. She already explained that part of it to me.

My body is still walking around in the world, and no one knows I’ve been kidnapped. There’s a big screen on the wall here. It shows me as I live my regular life: getting up in the morning, having breakfast with my mom, even sitting in Ms. Zuckerbraun’s boring class. But I’m just going through the motions, like a zombie.

Because my imagination has been kidnapped. It’s been taken away and locked in an imaginary room that a witch made up from my memories.

Aside from the screen on the wall, it’s exactly like my old room, the one I grew up in and loved. That was three years ago, before my dad’s job changed and we had to move to this town.

I know my old room doesn’t exist anymore. But Ms. Zuckerbraun says I’ll be more comfortable in familiar surroundings. Sure!

As for the story I’m supposed to be writing, well, get ready for this. She says it has to be so mystically wonderful that it will finally break The Curse.

The one that made her a witch. The one that condemned her to teach fifth grade for eternity.

According to the rules of this curse, if she writes one children’s story that gets published the curse will be lifted and she’ll be free. And she wants it to be this story.

But of course, she’s not writing it. I’m writing it.

’Cause that’s where the technicality comes in.

At the time of The Cursing, or whatever they called it, they showed some mercy. They gave her the one essential thing a writer needs: the power to capture the imagination.

She decided to interpret that in her own way. Which is why my imagination is her prisoner, and anything it produces now belongs to her.

Oh, God, she’s coming! I have to hide this. I’ll tell you more later. I hope.

*   *   *

Whew, okay!

I don’t actually hear her coming so much as I sense her coming. It’s hard to explain. The room shimmers slightly; that’s the best I can describe it.

Then, there she is, standing in the middle of the room, looking down her big, bulbous nose at me as I sit, cowering, at my laptop. The wart on her chin, the one with the hair growing out of it, always twitches, along with her lower lip, as she sneers.

“Well, Ivy,” she says, in a voice that sounds like her throat is full of broken glass, “how’s the story coming?”

I always give the same answer: “Fine, Ms. Zuckerbraun.”

Then she glares at me, and I try to look her in the eye so she can’t tell I’m lying. You don’t know how hard it is to keep staring at her without gagging.

Anyhow, she has to take my word for it because, according to The Curse, she’s not allowed to see the story until it’s done. I guess that’s the condition the Cursers imposed when they found out she was kidnapping children’s imaginations.

I’m not the first one, of course; she told me that. I don’t know how many others there have been. I do know that Ms. Zuckerbraun has been in this school forever, and no one can remember when she started.

I don’t want to think about the others, and whatever happened to them.

By the way, if you’re curious as to the title of this magical story I’m supposedly writing, it’s Private Ivy, Super Sleuth.

This is entirely her idea.

She thinks I’ll be more inspired if I make myself the main character.

But Private Ivy? It’s such a lame-o pun on “private eye” that it’s pathetic.

I plead with her to change it. “People will think I’m in the army,” I say. She ignores me.

It all began last year, when I won the fourth-grade writing contest. I wrote about my experience in camp the summer before, when I found out who stole Melissa Cromwell’s Girl Scout cookies.

It was a huge thing at the time. Melissa’s parents had sent her this stupid box of cookies and she didn’t tell anyone. Then she discovered they were missing from where she’d hidden them under her bunk, and she went nuclear.

We were all confined to the bunkhouse until someone confessed, but no one did. Then I happened to notice the crumbs on Amy Sotherhorn’s blanket, and I instantly became the one who solved the case. Believe me, it was no major deal.

But Ms. Sweeting, my fourth-grade teacher, seemed to like the way I wrote about it. She submitted it to the contest and I won.

I was over the moon with joy. What I should’ve been was terrified out of my mind.

The first day of fifth grade, Ms. Zuckerbraun kept me after class. She told me she was very impressed by what I’d written last year, and she thought I had a special gift.

This was a shock, because Ms. Zuckerbraun never said anything nice to, or about, anyone. I must’ve stammered something, but I don’t remember what.

Then she said the magic words that I had no idea were magic.

“Ivy,” she rasped, “I wish I had your imagination.”

Well, I didn’t know how to react. I murmured, “Thank you, Ms. Zuckerbraun,” or something along those lines.

Then she went on, following a sacred ritual I didn’t know existed.

“Ivy, are you glad? Are you glad that I wish I had your imagination?”

“Sure,” I said uneasily, and that sealed the deal.

The next thing I knew, I was in this room.

Oh, God, here she comes again. More later. If there’s a later.

*   *   *

Okay, she’s gone. Brrr, I can’t stop shivering.

As you can probably figure out if you find this, I’m saving what I write on a flash drive that she doesn’t know I have. It was in my pocket when I was kidnapped.

As soon as I feel her coming I delete everything on the laptop, remove the flash drive, and put it back in my pocket. So far, she hasn’t suspected.

At least I hope she hasn’t.

Sometimes, when I’m really down, I can’t stop thinking that she must know. How could she not? She’s just letting me do this because it doesn’t matter. I’m never getting out of here.

But I can’t think that way. I can’t.

I won’t!

God, I still can’t stop shivering! I guess I’m especially upset by her visit just now because she told me there’s a deadline. I have to finish this thing by Christmas vacation, which is less than a month away! Do you know how much I’ve written so far?

Zero!

If only she’d left my writer’s block behind, along with the rest of my zombie self. But apparently, it’s part of your imagination.

I have no trouble writing this, but when it comes to the story, I freeze up as soon as I begin to think about it.

Understandable, wouldn’t you say?

Aside from her crushing news about the deadline, she thought she would help me out. She told me she was considering my objections to Private Ivy and how people might think I’m a soldier, so she wanted to put my mind at ease.

“Here,” she said, throwing a couple of drawings at me. “These will be the illustrations, so no one will have any doubt as to what you’re supposed to be.”

They’re drawings of a cute little girl in a Sherlock Holmes cap, with a large magnifying glass. As I’m looking at them now, they seem familiar. They look like something Tommy Tribanco would do.

Tommy is this friend of mine who sits across from me. I’m certain now that he drew these. Was it in class, in the real world? Or is he…?

Oh, God, no! It can’t be!

The classroom is showing on the screen right now. I can see myself sitting dully in my seat and staring ahead, like always. But what’s Tommy doing?

I have to take a closer look. I’ll be right back.

*   *   *

It’s true, she’s got him!

I can’t believe it! Tommy is sitting there with the same glassy-eyed expression I have.

So she can do this to more than one kid at a time.

Is it everyone in the class? Is it more than that? How many, hundreds? Thousands?

Okay, I’ve got to calm down. Let’s move over to the screen for a minute.

There we go. I’m looking very carefully at all the kids right now, and the only zombies seem to be Tommy and me.

Suzanne McClosky is raising her hand like a maniac and sucking up to Ms. Zuckerbraun, as always. Josh Becker has his usual comic book under the desk. The McCarthy twins, Maisy and Daisy, are passing notes back and forth, so everything else seems normal.

It’s just me and Tommy. The best writer and the best artist, that figures.

Small comfort.

I can’t stop looking at us sitting there vegetating like two lumps. It’s killing me but I can’t take my eyes off it.

Wait, what’s going on?

The screen just flickered and almost went blank. That never happened before.

Was I staring at it too long and she noticed? She always warns me about staring at the screen and not concentrating on my writing. Is she going to take it away from me?

Oh, God, is she?

Please don’t let that happen.

I can’t stand this. Excuse me, I have to lie down on my bed and cry for a while. Sorry.

*   *   *

Okay, I think I’m calm now.

You’ll have to forgive me. That screen is the only connection I have to my real life, so I guess I panicked there.

Once I stopped crying, though, I started to think about it.

Whatever it was, that flickering probably had nothing to do with how long I’d been staring at the screen. I’ve stared at it much longer than that before.

In fact, I’m looking at it right now and it’s fine.

It’s not showing the classroom, it’s showing me at home with my parents. They’ve always been totally unaware of my zombiness, but I guess that’s not surprising.

The company my dad works for has all kinds of problems, and he thinks they might go under. My baby brother Ralph just turned two, and he’s a handful and a half for my mom. So I’m just flying under the radar.

Right now, Ralph is in bed and the three of us are watching Mythbusters on TV. If anyone is paying attention, I’d be very surprised, since my parents are lost in thought, and I’m just plain lost.

But back to that flickering thing. I believe it might have happened because I wasn’t only looking at myself, I was also looking at Tommy.

I’d looked at other kids plenty of times before, but none of them were zombies like me. That’s the only thing that was different.

What it all means I have no idea, but it sure was scary.

The big piece of news, however, is that I’ve actually started the story!

I guess desperation is the mother of invention, or something, but that moment when the screen almost died must have blown away my writer’s block. It jolted me to action.

It’s essentially the missing Girl Scout cookies mystery, but I’ve changed things. Everyone’s name is different, of course, and instead of a box of cookies, it’s an encrypted message to Melissa Cromwell’s father, who works for the CIA. It seems our counselor might be part of a Russian spy ring.

Melissa lies to us and tells everyone it’s only a letter to her parents, so we don’t suspect. That’s as far as I’ve gotten.

I’m all excited about it, and I want to do more work, but for some reason, I’m feeling tired. I notice on the screen that my zombie self is getting ready for bed, so I guess I should follow my own lead.

Let me tell you, writing, crying, and worrying can sure take a lot out of a person.

More tomorrow.

*   *   *

I just woke up to a shocking sight. In fact, it made me scream.

Ms. Zuckerbraun was standing right over my bed. It scared the bejeebers out of me.

It’s the first time she’s ever done that. Things that never happened before seem to be happening routinely now.

She asked me her usual question about how the story was coming, and I gave my usual, “Fine, Ms. Zuckerbraun.” But for the first time, I wasn’t lying.

“Did you like the illustrations I gave you?” she said.

Maybe it was because I’d just woken up and couldn’t think straight yet, but what came out of my mouth was, “Have you got Tommy Tribanco too?”

The look she gave me was so ugly that I cringed. Then she shrugged her stooped shoulders.

“Blame yourself for that. If you hadn’t whined about people getting Private Ivy mixed up with the army, I wouldn’t have done it. I’ve always waited until a story was finished before I got an illustrator. Now, for the first time, I’ve had to involve two of you, so I hope you’re proud of yourself.”

She glared at me again. Then she said, “By the way, did you experience a problem with the screen yesterday?”

My stomach lurched.

“Yes,” I murmured hoarsely. “Did you do that?”

She didn’t answer, just rubbed the wart on her chin. Then she looked contemptuously at the screen, which was showing the classroom again. I was there in my seat, and she was standing in front of the class, like normal. I avoided looking at Tommy.

“I’ve always hated that thing,” she growled. “I don’t see what good it does.”

Then she disappeared.

*   *   *

Well, I got all excited about this story, but now I’m running into problems.

That’s because I can’t stop thinking about what she said. She hates the screen and doesn’t see what good it does. Then maybe it wasn’t her idea. I’d never considered that.

And actually, it makes sense. Why would she want my real life to distract me from my writing? It might have been useful to her in the beginning, to make me see what my situation was, but after that, why should she care?

So it must have been the Cursers, or whatever they are, who put it there. Maybe she has no control over it.

Does Tommy have a screen? I’ll bet he does.

It’s thoughts like these that are getting in the way of my story, and I don’t know what to do.

I keep sneaking peeks at us, although I know it’s crazy. Each time I do, the screen flickers just a little, then I look away. I’m like a kid playing with matches.

Maybe the Cursers are good people, or good entities, or whatever. When they found out she was cheating, they kept Ms. Zuckerbraun from seeing a story until it was finished. And if they were the ones who put in this screen, well, that was wonderful of them. Because I’d go insane without it.

I have to think about this. If they’re watching, should I trust them? Should I keep staring at Tommy and me, just to see what happens?

Aargh! I hate not knowing!

*   *   *

Okay, I’m going to do it. It may be nuts but I really have no choice. Even if, by some miracle, I finish the story before Christmas, she still won’t let me out of here.

She has to get it published, and who knows if that would ever happen?

No, I have to try this. I’m going to keep staring at Tommy and me, no matter how much the screen flickers. Maybe it’ll go blank and die. Maybe I’ll go blank and die.

But I’ve got to do it.

Wish me luck, whoever you are. Here goes!

*   *   *

Wow, I’m back and I’m still alive! For a while there, I had serious doubts I’d be saying that.

The screen began flashing on and off like a lightning storm, and the room shook so violently I thought I was in an earthquake. Or an etherquake.

Whatever it was, I was sure I was gone.

But then the room stopped shaking, and there was Tommy in the center of the screen, looking slightly distorted, like on Skype or FaceTime.

I knew it wasn’t the zombie Tommy because he wasn’t in the classroom. There were sports posters on the wall behind him, so I assumed he was in a replica of his own room, the same as me. He looked as shocked as I felt.

“Ivy?” he said, his normally droopy eyes wide in amazement. “Did you just do that?”

“I don’t know. I was staring at both our images on the screen and it just happened.”

“I was doing that too,” he said, “staring at both our images. But nothing ever changed before.”

“Maybe we have to do it at the same time,” I said.

“Yeah, maybe that’s it.”

“What do you know about all this?” I asked him. It turns out he knows a lot more than I do.

It seems that, before The Curse, Ms. Zuckerbraun had a son Tommy’s age. She once told him that, when he was freaking out and she was trying to calm him down.

Whoever that poor kid is, he has my condolences, but it’s probably why she relates to Tommy more than me, thank you, God!

He told me that she comes to his room and watches him draw. Sometimes, she makes him draw her.

Tommy pulled one of his gross-out faces as he said it, which would’ve been screamingly funny in the real world, I guess. But the point is, while he was drawing her, she told him some interesting stuff.

In addition to having a ten-year-old son before she was cursed, Ms. Zuckerbraun used to be a beautiful woman. Her students loved her, and she was a fine teacher.

But she was unhappy in life. She was convinced she was a great writer, and that she could write much better books than the ones her students were reading.

Ideas came easily to her in those days, and she wrote lots of stuff. But no one was ever interested. They kept rejecting her. They said her writing was too adult. They told her she needed to think more like a child.

But despite being with children all day long, she couldn’t do it, no matter how she tried.

Eventually, she grew to hate those children and her job.

A fellow teacher happened to lend her a book about the occult, and she got interested in it. She read some other books and learned that there were phrases that became magic if spoken under certain circumstances, like standing in the center of a pentagram.

Ms. Zuckerbraun used to go to her son’s Little League games a lot and root for him fanatically. People would move away from her, that’s how loud she was. Well, one time, her son was called out at the plate when he was clearly safe.

She bolted out of the stands, ran over to the umpire, and started screaming in his face, yelling horrible insults. Among other things, she said he didn’t deserve to live, which was one of those magic phrases.

She happened to be standing on home plate when she said it, the same home plate that had been used as the center of a pentagram during a fraternity prank the summer before.

Which is why the umpire keeled over and died of a massive heart attack.

And very soon after, Ms. Zuckerbraun stood on a misty hillside in front of three hooded figures, on trial for abuse of power.

She was found guilty, and we all know the rest.

But just as Tommy was finishing the story, his image began to fade from the screen. I called his name but I could tell by the expression on his face that I was fading from his screen too.

His image disappeared and was replaced by me, getting on the school bus for home. Tommy and I take separate buses, which leads me to believe this only works if our real selves are together in the real world. I’ll have to wait for school tomorrow before we can try it again.

Boy, do I have a lot to think about. I’ll get back to you.

*   *   *

Well, here’s something else that never happened before. For the first time ever, I was so anxious for school to begin the next day that I couldn’t sleep. And you know what’s really weird? Instead of thinking about how to get out of here, I couldn’t stop thinking about my story. All kinds of things occurred to me, so I couldn’t help it. I got out of bed and started writing.

Amy Sotherhorn, who I’ve renamed Debbie Smith, is still the one who stole Melissa’s cookies, which I made into a letter to her CIA father. But instead of discovering cookie crumbs on her blanket, I discover the letter while I’m alone in the bunkhouse. I notice that the Girl Scout Manual on her shelf has a slight bulge in it, so I take a closer look. There’s the letter, stuck between two pages.

At the moment I discover this, Amy/Debbie discovers me, and we have this big fight. Then she shows me how the letter is in code, and how she’s broken it.

For instance, Melissa (who’s named Carla in my story) begins the letter, “Dear Father.”

“Carla always calls him ‘Daddy,’” Amy/Debbie points out, “so I thought it was strange. But if you take the inside letters of the word, then add the outside letters, it forms two words, ‘the’ and ‘far.’”

She shows me other examples in the letter, such as “Mandy” (which is suspicious in itself because there’s no one named Mandy in camp) becoming “and my,” and “bitsy” becoming “it’s by.”

Most of the words are gobbledygook when you do this to them, but they’re only there so that the letter seems to make sense. When you take only the words that form two other words and then rearrange them, you can put the secret message together.

“We have to see everything from the inside out,” says Amy/Debbie.

I don’t know where it’s going from there, but at the moment it doesn’t concern me. Class is starting on the screen, and I’ve got to try and reach Tommy.

Here we go again.

*   *   *

I can’t believe it. It didn’t work!

I stared and stared at our images until my eyes were crossing, and nothing happened. Does she control the screen after all? Is this it?

Wait, wait. Maybe she’s in his room right now, watching him draw or having him draw her (I get nauseous just picturing it). If she’s there, he can’t stare at the screen. That’s why it’s not working.

I have to hold onto that hope. I have to!

In the meantime, I’m watching the class. At the moment, it’s math, and she’s calling on people randomly, which I’ve always dreaded.

In fact, she’s calling on me. She’s asking me which fraction is equivalent to 1/2. Is it 3/5, 1/4, 3/8, or 4/8? I know that one.

Not to insult math, but my zombie self is pretty good at it because I don’t need my imagination; I mostly just memorize stuff. So I’m watching myself nail it here.

Hmm, that’s odd. As I was giving the answer, everyone looked at me except Tommy. He was just looking straight ahead.

Now she’s calling on him, and he’s standing up. She wants him to divide 986 by 100. I know that one too, and so does Tommy. He says 9.86 and he’s right. But wait a minute, check this out.

Everyone in the room is looking at him except me.

I’d never noticed it before, but my real self never looks at or talks to Tommy’s real self, and vice versa. If we did, would it change anything?

I wonder.

Okay, my eyes are uncrossed enough. Time to start staring at both of us on the screen again. C’mon, Tommy, here we go.

Oh, God, it’s happening. It’s happening!

*   *   *

Man, oh, man!

I’m back, but it was by no means a certainty. The flashing and the shaking were way more intense this time. It felt as if cosmic forces were struggling against each other, and everything was about to blow apart. I don’t think we can do this again.

But hopefully, we won’t have to. Very hopefully.

When Tommy appeared on the screen, he looked scared out of his wits. Sure enough, I was right. Ms. Zuckerbraun had been there with him in his room, but not to check out his drawings. She was there to threaten him, because she’s on to us.

I made him slow down and tell me exactly what she said. It was something like, “Whatever you’re doing, you’d better stop it or you’ll face dire consequences.”

I asked him if he was sure that “whatever you’re doing” were her exact words, that she never specifically said it was because Tommy and I were in contact with each other. He said she never did.

“Then she doesn’t really know,” I said. “She’s aware that something’s going on, but that’s all.”

“How can you be sure of that?” Tommy’s voice was still about an octave higher than usual.

I explained how the screen was the Cursers’ idea, and how they’ve always put obstacles in her way. “I think screen-related stuff is beyond her control,” I said. “Also, have you noticed that our real selves never look at each other or talk to each other?”

He had, in fact, noticed it.

“Whose idea do you think that was, Ms. Zuckerbraun’s or the Cursers’?”

He thought about it. “Sounds like something she would do.”

“I agree.”

We were both silent for a moment. Then something bubbled up from the back of my brain, something I’d just written in my story.

“We have to see everything from the inside out!” I exclaimed, quoting Amy/Debbie.

“What?”

“We have to, somehow, get inside our real selves and look out at each other.”

As these words were escaping my lips, the rightness of what I was saying was practically overwhelming.

“But how can we do that?” Tommy said.

“The same way we’re doing this. By concentrating. After all, what are we? We’re imagination, the most powerful force humanity possesses.”

So we’re going to try it.

But first, we had to figure out how to leave the Skype-like screen and get back to the classroom screen. The last time, it had changed because our real selves were no longer in proximity, but now they still were. So how could we change the screen?

“Let’s try looking away from each other and picturing the classroom,” I suggested.

It worked! Which makes me think the next thing we’re going to try just might also work.

There’s a bell that rings ten minutes before lunchtime. It’s to alert the kids in the older grades to return to their homerooms, but the fifth grade never leaves their homeroom, so it means nothing to us. But it’s going to mean everything to Tommy and me.

As soon as that bell rings, we’re going to simultaneously imagine ourselves inside our real bodies. Maybe other kidnapped kids had tried this in the past, but this is the first time that two of us will be trying it together. So I’m hoping.

I’m hoping with all my might.

There’s the bell. Here goes nothing!

*   *   *

It was chaos, utter chaos!

I fiercely homed in on myself while imagining Tommy as I’d see him across the aisle, if only I’d look at him. I stared at myself with my eyes, while simultaneously staring at Tommy’s image in my mind. It’s some trick, let me tell you. But things were beginning to happen.

The room began to close in around me. It was terrifying but I couldn’t let it distract me. I just kept staring and picturing, staring and picturing.

I could see myself on the screen, starting to turn toward Tommy.

Then everything went WHOOM!

That’s the best I can describe it. There was an instant when, I swear, I didn’t exist anymore. Then I was back in my body, sitting across the aisle from Tommy, who was looking at me in wonder.

We gaped at each other.

“Ivy, we did it!” he cried, just before the rest of the kids started screaming.

We looked toward the front of the room, where Ms. Zuckerbraun should have been. Instead, there was a column of fire, whirling and hovering above the floor.

Nothing was burning. Just itself.

The other kids fled to the back of the room in terror, but Tommy and I didn’t move. I could see something forming inside the flames. It was the shape of a woman.

Slowly the fire subsided and she was revealed. She was beautiful, with long, blonde hair, twinkling green eyes, and a smile that could light up a room. In fact, it actually did.

As soon as they saw her, the kids calmed down. They silently returned to their seats, then looked up at her expectantly. She gazed down on them with affection.

“I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you at last,” she said. “I don’t know what I was thinking there for a while, but in my punishment I’ve come to learn the truth. There are great writers and there are great teachers. And one is just as important as the other.

“I was so sick with envy that it made me hate children, because I hated myself. But no more.”

She looked straight at Tommy and me and smiled. Then she looked around the room.

“I promise,” she said, “to help each and every one of you become the best you can possibly be. And I’m going to do it with my love.

“Because I believe that all of you deserve an A-plus in life. So every day, I will do everything I can to make sure you get it.

“And best of all, you’ll be doing it with me, and we’ll even have some fun along the way. What do you think of that?”

The kids broke into cheers, as Tommy and I gazed at each other and traded dopey grins.

And that about wraps it up.

So I guess you could say we all lived happily ever…

No, that’s a stupid way to end a story!

___

 Lenny Levine began writing mystery novels and short stories in the early 90s after a long career as a recording-studio singer and songwriter. His songs have been recorded and performed by Diana Ross, The Pointer Sisters and Barry Manilow, and he has sung backup for Billy Joel, Carly Simon, Peggy Lee and others. His stories have been widely published in literary magazines and journals, and he received a 2011 Pushcart Prize nomination for short fiction. His Web site is www.lennylevinewriter.com.


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