The ravens arrived unnoticed with the third snowstorm right before Thanksgiving. The residents of Wreathen, Delaware were too preoccupied with making preparations to survive the storm to notice the gray specks that were swooping and winging about their town. They were more concerned with the flaky white snow that was piling up around them faster than the line at the coffee shop on a Monday morning. Living near the coast, the inhabitants knew how to bundle-up against the cold and frost, but the snowfall accumulation this year had been more than the past five years put together.
The school buses had been outfitted with wheel chains after the first storm but were rendered useless after the second wave of flurries made it impossible to tell a bank of bushes from a regular bank of snow. Poor Mrs. Schott nearly crashed into her own house, having mistaken it for her garage; although to be fair, she probably would have done the same even if there were no snow.
The residents of Wreathen were definitely divided between those who loved the snow, as it allowed for sledding and snowmen, and those who despised the wintery weather, as they wished for nothing more than to never have to pry open their ice-encrusted mailbox ever again. But after the second storm, even those who loved winter began to tire of its drudgery. And soon, most could agree that they were all looking forward to the red, circled date on their calendars that marked the first day of spring.
So it was no wonder than no one noticed as the ravens watched them scurry about. Alighting on the tinsel-covered lampposts, the two birds would cock their heads and observe each passersby. They would bob or shake their heads, as if inspecting each person they watched and passing judgement, before moving onto the next post. After several days of flying about Main Street, they began zipping their way through the rest of the small downtown. They crisscrossed around the elementary and middle school playgrounds, circled the big-box store U-Buy, and then flapped their way to the outlying farmhouses. Each day the ravens would find a new spot in town to sit and watch. There were several times they would caw or cackle as someone walked under their gaze, but that seemed more of a commentary than any real item of note.
By December 9th, the two birds had covered the entire town except for one final neighborhood. It was a tiny street, really, with a cul-de-sac at the end that held four homes. On this particular day, the ravens’ squawking drew only the attention of howling dogs as they alighted on a snow-covered fencepost beside a small blue house with a red door and black shutters. The birds nodded to themselves as a petite girl with long blond hair and gangly legs shouldered her way through the red door.
“Ack!” Amanda West cried, skidding on an ice patch that had hardened over the old planks of their front porch, and flapping her arms while tumbling down the steps.
A chorus of cackling laughter rang through the morning air as Amanda caught herself on the railing, barely avoiding landing bottom first on the ice-cold pavement. Two ravens, their black and gray feathers tipped with white, sat watching as she pulled herself up. They looked like two elderly gentlemen rocking on the banister of the fencepost that divided the Wests’ yard from their neighbor’s.
“Nice swan dive, Amanda. I’d give it a 9.5 for form, but a deduction for the landing.” Jack Isen was standing at the end of his driveway, trying to speak between large fits of laughter. Wearing his standard denim on denim, her friend stood like a blue jean post in the snow with a mane of curly dark hair.
Behind him was Jack’s latest take on holiday decorations. Santa was riding a rocket ship that flashed and beeped the notes of a song popular on the radio. Every year Amanda’s mother would shake her head as she watched her neighbors get more and more adventurous with their spin on holiday traditions. Amanda would never tell her, but she had secretly been helping the Isens plan their decorations each year since she was five.
“What do you know of good form? You were the one who skated into the side of the ice rink last week.” Amanda tried to wave the birds away, but they blinked and ignored her. Amanda picked her way across the sidewalk toward Jack. Thanks to the snow, the sides of every driveway along the street were flanked by mounds that were taller than she was. Amanda thought it made the cul-de-sac look like a valley of white death.
“I blame that on the Zamboni.”
Amanda paused as she heard some kind of lilting notes filter through her scarf that was wrapped around her head. She saw an old woman was making her way down the street, salting the sidewalk, and humming to herself. Amanda grimaced as a gust of snow caught her in the face. “How are you not freezing?”
Jack, who was only wearing a light denim jacket, spread his arms wide. “This doesn’t bother me at all. I am immune to the cold!”
Amanda groaned. “Well, I’m always cold. I wish I could live in a place where I never saw ice or snow again. I also wish we could live somewhere where Ms. Biggs wasn’t our neighbor.”
Ms. Madge Biggs was the Wreathen Middle School vice principal, and unfortunately for Amanda – her neighbor. Citing a historical lack of demonstrating disciplinary skills, the Sussex County School Board decided to promote Mr. Carmack to principal over Ms. Biggs. As vice principal of the smaller school, she was also responsible for substituting for any of the teachers that were out for longer than a week. So, thanks to her lack of promotion and an unfortunate allergic reaction that Amanda’s history teacher had just recovered from, Ms. Biggs had been performing both her duties as vice principal and substitute history teacher since the beginning of the year. To say she had been unpleasant as a teacher and frustrated by what she referred to as the “Carmack Coup,” would be a jarring understatement for Amanda and her classmates. As such, she also happened to be a sore subject around the West family home due to the sudden influx of detention slips Amanda was bringing home with her on almost a weekly basis.
Every time Ms. Biggs found Amanda or anyone of her classmates in violation of even the slightest infraction, she sent them to detention. There was the time Amanda had used a pen instead of a No. 2 pencil, which earned her two detentions. Then there was the time she raised her hand to answer a question and, when called upon, hadn’t spoken loudly enough, which meant detention for three Wednesdays in a row. The list went on. This last time Amanda found herself in trouble was for being a minute late to lunch because Ms. Biggs had sent her to the gym teacher with a note right as the second period bell had rung. Since the cafeteria and the gymnasium were on opposite sides of school, Amanda had to cross two different sets of stairs, make it through the lunch crowd in the corridors, listen to Mr. Zucker read the note aloud and dictate his reply, and then make it all the way back in under ten minutes. Needless to say, her efforts had been in vain. For her late arrival, Amanda was rewarded with a pink slip and a puddle of sweat running down her back. Her parents knew of the infractions, of course, but were too preoccupied with the store to listen to her side of the story. It stung that her parents didn’t take her side. She had never before gotten even a warning before Ms. Biggs started teaching her class.
Jack waved his hands. “Hey, no, ixnay on saying that name. We get a day free from her, so let’s not jinx it. Mr. Donaldson coming back might be the best Christmas present ever. Did you remember to get your permission slip signed?”
Amanda patted her satchel. “I grabbed it from the counter last night after promising both mom and dad that there would be no more detention slips in my future. I am not sure mom believed me, though, or forgave me for the last one. My oatmeal was lukewarm again this morning. You know she always undercooks my oatmeal when she’s really mad at me. She also gave me a ten minute lecture on bus behavior. Thanks, Ms. Biggs.” Amanda turned and frowned at the house to her right; it had always reminded her of an evil pilgrim’s hat.
The West family had moved to Wreathen ten years ago, when Keith and Liz got their management jobs with U-Buy. Amanda had only been three at the time. The town itself was pretty much a pass-through – it was known only for the big-box store where vacationers would stop on their way to the Delaware beaches to buy sunscreen or umbrellas, and the old textile mill that closed years ago.
Of all the neighborhoods from which to choose, the Wests moved to the cul-de-sac at the end of Rivers End Road. The cul-de-sac held four houses: the Wests’, the Isens’, the Whybans’, and Ms. Biggs’. The first two on the right side of the circle, owned by the Whybans and the Isens, were identical, with yellow siding, white trim, and brick chimneys where ivy liked to grow during the spring. Then there was the West’s home. It was a bit run down when they moved in, but they soon hired a crew to spruce up the siding and give the door a new red coat of paint. Lastly was Ms. Biggs’ house, which had a black pointed roof and a brown railing that went around all four white sides.
“Put all of that out of your mind. We can deal with that later. Today we get to go to the Museum of Natural History in D.C.! We are just a short bus ride away from getting to see -- wait for it -- dinosaurs! They are the best distraction ever from Ms. Biggs, detention slips, and lukewarm oatmeal-making parents. We also don’t even have to go to school because they got us one of those charter buses!” Jack bounced his shoulders up and down. Jack was obsessed with anything dinosaur related; he even subscribed to several magazines to have on hand to read when Ms. Prian was taking her nap during their daily pop quiz.
Rolling her eyes, Amanda rubbed her hands up and down on her shoulders. Amanda almost lost her footing as she started rocking forward on her toes to try and keep warm; her thermal leggings, boots, and thick green overcoat were apparently indefensible against the cold. “You’re right. Although, not about the dinosaurs. I am going to sit in front of the Hope Diamond for as long as they let me. That is something to look forward to.”
“You do your thing, and I will do mine.” Jack gave Amanda a dopey grin as a long black and red bus turned on their street, looking slightly ominous against the blinding white snow. Coming to a sluggish stop beside the old magnolia tree between their houses, the bus driver waved them over. Amanda followed Jack to the center of the circle, slipped several times, and paused at the slick-looking black treads that led up to the bus. She had fallen one too many times up the bus steps to take these in one bound, as Jack was doing. She carefully placed one foot ahead of the other, and held onto the railing for dear life. Feeling quite proud when she reached the top, having only slid twice, Amanda almost missed Laurie snicker at her from the front seat.
“W-what are you doing here?” Amanda’s surprise made her half shout the end of her question.
In Amanda’s opinion, being an eighth-grader sucked, and not just for the usual reasons. There was Ms. Biggs, of course. But the other reason was something even worse. No, it had nothing to do with all the homework, pop quizzes, or very boring lectures on ancient civilizations. It was Laurie Gellar.
Laurie Gellar had moved to Wreathen over the summer. Her previous school had been unwilling to overlook her issues with spelling and math, even though she had won the junior wrestling division for the state, so she had been held back twice, making her at least double the size of anyone in their grade. Whether it was thanks to her larger stature or wrestling prowess, Laurie had become the most popular girl in school by the end of September. Amanda tried to be nice to Laurie, but for some unknown reason Laurie had decided Amanda was her number one enemy.
Laurie smiled, revealing shiny braces wrapped in dark red bands to match her tracksuit. “Did you miss me, West?”
“You’re not supposed to be here today. You’re supposed to be taking a make-up test.” Amanda’s voice rose even higher, causing the other students on the bus to pivot their attention to her.
Laurie smiled at Amanda’s dismay. “Well, I guess I’m not – if it’s any of your business. My parents convinced Ms. Biggs to let me take that stupid test another day so I wouldn’t miss out on today’s trip. We just couldn’t let you go and have all this fun by yourself. Could we girls?” Susan and Nicole quickly nodded from the seat behind Laurie, sporting new matching red tracksuits.
“Look, Laurie, just leave me alone today.”
“Now why would I do that? You could get lost in the museum or trapped in one of the tombs. I would feel just awful if something like that happened. I’ll keep a close eye on you to keep you safe.” Laurie punched the back of her seat and laughed.
Jack waved to her from the back of the bus and mouthed “Come on!”
Amanda ducked her head as she tried to skirt past the group of girls. Without warning, although she should have anticipated it, a foot shot out, sending Amanda and her bag flying. Amanda screamed like a strangled flamingo, and she went down hard onto the wet floor, the contents of her bag scattering about. The front of the bus erupted into laughter. Amanda pushed herself up from the floor with a wet leaf clinging to her hair.
Jack charged down the aisle. “I saw that, Laurie. That was no bueno!”
“You saw what, Isen? All I saw was West here trip and fall. Right, everyone?” Laurie got up from her seat and cracked her knuckles as she looked to see if anyone else wanted to contradict her.
“Why can’t you just leave Amanda alone and stop being such a dumb ape?” Jack reached down to help Amanda and the bus instantly quieted as if someone had turned off the TV.
Laurie towered over both Amanda and Jack with red hair that was pulled into a messy ponytail and looked like the frayed end of a pompom. “Who are you calling an ape?”
“I thought I came across your picture near the ape section of the dictionary yesterday. You mean that wasn’t you?” Someone bit back a laugh and the tension in the bus changed its focus from Amanda to Jack.
“What is going on here, Miss Gellar? Miss West? Mr. Isen?” Laurie jumped as a shrill voice chirped from the steps of the bus. Amanda and Jack looked at each other and groaned. Jack helped Amanda to her feet while they scurried to refill Amanda’s soggy satchel.
Ms. Biggs was brushing the snow off the shoulders of her gray and black striped faux fox fur jacket and looked to her three students for a response. Standing with her head tilted slightly to avoid her brown, permed hair touching the ceiling of the bus she began to play with one of the strings of her pearl necklace. “Am I missing something or are you waiting for an engraved invitation? No? Then take your seats – immediately.”
Laurie dove into her seat as Jack helped Amanda limp back to theirs. Ms. Biggs looked around the bus as she pulled off her gloves one finger at a time. “Unfortunately, Mr. Donaldson will not be able to take you to the Smithsonian today. He has fallen ill, with some other kind of allergic reaction, and as such, I have been tasked to be your chaperone.” The eighth-graders shifted uneasily, and Jack looked longingly at the emergency exit at the back of the bus.
“You all know my rules. There will be no shouting or loud music. Anything bordering on improper student behavior will earn you a week’s worth of detention and a call from me to your parents. Are we clear?” Ms. Biggs looked pointedly at Amanda. “Take out your permission slips and have them ready as I come down the aisle to collect them.” Ms. Biggs opened her large purse with the pearl chain and pulled out a clipboard.
Amanda reached into her bag and rummaged through to the bottom to find the paper her mom had signed. The bag was cluttered with a reading light, wet notebooks, pens, and lint, but there was no note. Amanda’s stomach dropped and her skin felt clammy. She looked up and then down to the floor where she had fallen, frantically noting Ms. Biggs had already made it halfway down the aisle. There was no note.
Amanda pushed her bangs out of her face and stared into her bag. Where had it gone? She remembered picking it up and putting it in her bag. Just then, she saw Laurie and her crew pop their heads up over their seats to look back at her. Laurie slowly waved a wet and tattered piece of paper that bore her mother’s signature and, with a sneer, tossed the permission slip out the window, where it plummeted into the snow.
Amanda turned to Jack and whispered frantically, “Laurie stole my slip!”
Jack had been flipping through Bones Across America. “So, get it back.”
“I can’t. She threw it outside. It’s gone!”
“Oh, man. Ms. Biggs isn’t going to let you go on the trip without one! No, wait. First she’s going to give you detention and then not let you go on the trip!”
“My parents will kill me!” Amanda couldn’t believe her luck. First, her Laurie-and-Ms. Biggs-free day had been ruined, and now she was probably going to get another detention! Amanda tentatively leaned into the aisle. “Ah, excuse me, Ms. Biggs?”
“Wait your turn, Miss West,” Ms. Biggs said crossly. Holding Billy’s note by the only corner that didn’t have teeth marks, she marked a check onto her list.
Amanda sat back in her seat and closed her eyes. She had to do something! She wished there was a way she could explain to Ms. Biggs what had happened. Jack nudged her in the ribs and Amanda looked up to see Ms. Biggs standing at their seat, looking annoyed as usual.
“Is there a problem, Miss West?” Ms. Biggs looked over her clipboard at Amanda as her eyes narrowed.
“It’s my permission slip. It’s gone. Laurie…”
“No permission slip, no trip, no excuse.” Ms. Biggs raised her eyebrows and smiled as if someone had given her an early Christmas present. Folding the clipboard under her arm, she pointed to the front of the bus. “Exit the bus immediately.”
“But,” Amanda pointed to the snowbank that held her note.
“No excuses!” Ms. Biggs grabbed Amanda by the jacket and marched her to the front of the bus, and then down the steps. Once outside the bus, “Inform your parents they will be hearing from me for wasting my time. I will also be forced to tell the district manager of U-Buy, Mr. Burr, how your parents, his employees, couldn’t be bothered to make sure their daughter was prepared for the day. They are a sponsor of our trip after all.” With that, Ms. Biggs got back on the bus and barked at the bus driver that they were ready to leave.
Amanda walked numbly back to her driveway, but then her anger began to boil within her chest. She couldn’t let Ms. Biggs tell Mr. Burr. Not after she promised her mom and dad that she was done getting into trouble at school. Amanda felt her skin tingle again as if a porcupine had been rolled across her entire body. The bus’s tires squelched as they pivoted and began to turn in the snow. Amanda clenched her fists as she felt another wave of anger hit her. There was a burst of light, accompanied by the sound of jingling bells, and the back tires of the bus began to spin out of control as if they were being held in place. Amanda turned in surprise.
Ms. Biggs threw open the bus doors and glared at Amanda. Amanda held up her hands. Ms. Biggs grumbled as she stalked to the back of the bus, and began to push. Without warning, there was another flash of light and the bus suddenly lurched forward. As if in slow motion, Ms. Biggs looked up in horror while she flailed about before falling face first into the dirty snow in the street. Amanda couldn’t help but laugh before wondering where that strange light had come from. She hoped it would come back again.
The snow blower from the Wests’ freshly cleared driveway shuddered and green arcs of light shot across the machine as it launched itself forward, mowed through the snow of Amanda’s yard, making a beeline straight into the magnolia tree. The snow blower crumpled upon impact, but its collision caused the tree to rain down the snow it was holding on its branches on top of Ms. Biggs and the bus. Amanda couldn’t help herself from laughing, the entire bus joining her as they crammed into the back seats to see what was going on. Ms. Biggs coughed and gagged from the snow. Frantically trying to brush the snow from her coat, Ms. Biggs looked like a disheveled raccoon trying to empty a garbage can.
“You will pay for this, Miss West! Consider yourself suspended until further notice. I don’t know how you did it, but I know this was your doing!” Ms. Biggs screeched as she staggered her way back onto the bus. Amanda could see the rest of the students on the bus trying not to laugh at Ms. Biggs as the bus shot forward, trailing snow and debris down the street. The ravens from the fencepost flew behind the bus, laughing the entire way.