means . . . ?â
âThe school collapses and we all die.â Peter laughed.
The thought Iâd had before returned:
Thereâs a lot of death attached to this school.
The day was long, but I got through. At Penda, at three oâclock you were supposed to check in at homeroom before leaving. But when I did, Batalie asked me if I would mind staying after school, saying, âWe should go over some things.â
Knowing I was heading home to an empty apartment, I said, âSure.â
âHave you picked a sport?â he began.
I shook my head.
âYouâll need to. Along with a Wednesday club.â
Jessica must have overheard the remark, because as she left the room, she looked at me and smiled. I was flattered by her interest.
âIâll be right back,â said Mr. Batalie. âI want to get things youâll need. Take a look at the class portraits. Good way to know people.â He left the room. In the hallway I saw him chat briefly with Jessica and then walk off.
I was aloneâexcept for Uncle Charlie, who was looking at me from the back of the room. âWas this place as creepy when you were here?â
I called to him.
When he faded away, I muttered, âThanks.â
I stood by the picture wall, which had a headshot of every student in the class. Under the pictures there was a banner, which read:
ONLY SIGNED POSITIVE REMARKS ALLOWED.
Beneath each picture was a sheet of paper on which people had scrawled comments.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Great response paper. Rich
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Loved your polka-dot neck scarf. Lucy
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Terrific soccer player. Mia
There were many messages for some people. I guessed they were the popular kids. Others had fewer. Under Macâs picture, one remark:
Your ideas are curious. Jessica
Under Jessicaâs picture, it read:
The way you look at things is cool. Mac
A second line:
You have original ideas. Mac.
I got it: The Weird History Club people kept to themselves, or were forced to. âThe freaks,â as Peter had said.
I checked for a picture of that blond, curly-headed boy, the one I kept seeing, or thought I kept seeing. I didnât find him, but there was that blank space. Was it Austinâs? The kid who disappeared? Was it going to be mine? Sort of strange to think I was going to take a disappeared kidâs place.
Batalie returned, papers in hand. Noticing where I was standing, he said, âI change the comment-board sheets every week. Please note: only signed, positive remarks.Anonymous, negative stuff is forbidden.â
âIs there a picture of everyone?â I asked.
âAbsolutely. Right, Iâll need to put your picture up. Letâs take one.â He set the papers on his desk, pulled out a phone, and aimed it at me. âSmile.â
âI donât, much.â
âWell, starting a new school in a new town is hard. And someone close to you died. So sorry.â
, I asked myself,
do all these people know about Uncle Charlie?
I said, âThereâs one kidâs picture I donât see.â
âI donât know his name. Blond, curly-haired boy.â
Batalie looked up sharply, alarm in his eyes.
âYou know,â I said. âThe kid who looks like the painting in the school office.â
âOh, the Penda Boy.â Batalie forced a laugh. âWe like to say his
Penda, but not in class.â
I was about to reply,
But I keep seeing him
checked myself, since I wasnât really sure I
Instead, I said, âMr. Batalie, Iâm replacing someone named Austin, right?â
The alarm in Batalieâs eyes intensified.
I said, âWhat . . . what happened to him?â
Batalie turned to his desk. âLetâs go over some things. Have a