Sample text for One final firecracker / by Gregory Maguire ; illustrated by Elaine Clayton.


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1. THE SINISTER SISTERS

Miss Earth concluded, "Any questions about your final homework
assignment of the year, kids?"
For once, her students were speechless--shocked with joy. Each child held
a graduation present. The green ticket with gold letters promised to ADMIT
ONE to The Sinister Sisters" Circus on the evening of July 2.
"How many Sinister Sisters are there?" asked Fawn Petros. "And how
sinister are they?"
"I know the answer to that," said Thud Tweed. "I saw their circus once before,
when I spent the summer at a fat farm in the Poconos. The Mistress of
Ceremonies is named Vampyra. Her skin is a deathly pale and her straight
black hair is pulled all to one side and falls to her hip. Corpsina, the comic
relief, is dumpier. Her red curls flatten on the top, and spring out like wings
on either side of her head. The Sisters are creepy. I love them."
"They"re not really sinister. It"s entertainment, that"s all," said Miss Earth
consolingly. "The greatest show on earth. Your last assignment of grammar
school is to come to the circus with me, and enjoy it. You don"t have to hand
in a written report afterward."
"We couldn"t even if we wanted to," complained Sharday Wren. "The circus
comes to town on July 1st. It plays one night only, on July 2. And by then
school will be out. It"s all over."
"I never heard of a bunch of kids who didn"t long for summer vacation!" said
Miss Earth in a bright tone.
"But Miss Earth," said Hector Yellow. "You"re being married the next day!
You can"t take us to the circus the night before your wedding."
Miss Earth replied, "I can do anything I want. My fiance; will be having a
bachelor party with his pals in the town garage, and I have decided I"d rather
spend the evening with you. It"ll be my last night as a single woman, and who
better to celebrate it with than my students?"
"Your former students," moaned Anna Maria Mastrangelo.
"Oh, lighten up," said Miss Earth. "I"m not going anywhere."
"But we are," said Anna Maria. "We"re going to middle school. Assuming we
graduate, that is."
"A safe assumption," said Miss Earth. "Graduation is the day after tomorrow.
You"d know by now if you were being kept back a year."
There were several sighs. Some were sighs of relief. A few were sighs of
regret, from children who wished they could repeat the grade so they wouldn"t
have to say goodbye to Miss Earth.
Their teacher continued. "I know most of you are coming to my wedding on
July 3. But on that memorable day, I"ll probably be too preoccupied to attend
to you as I"d like. Going to the circus the night before seems like a more
suitable capstone to our happy time together. It has been happy. Hasn"t it?"
She looked around. She"d never seen her students with such long faces.
Miss Earth had been their teacher for two years running. Life as they knew it
was about to come to an end.
Changing the subject usually helped. Miss Earth said, "Thud, why don"t you
tell us a little more about the Sinister Sisters" Circus?"
Thud Tweed said, "Oh, it"s so cool. It has a few wild animals--a lion in a
cage, some elephants. Maybe they have got a gorilla by now. A real gorilla,
not a Missing Link." At this Thud turned and sneered affectionately at
Sammy Grubb, who returned a smile, though wincingly. Some weeks ago,
using a rented gorilla suit, Thud had tricked Sammy into thinking that a
Missing Link in the human evolutionary chain had turned up in Hamlet,
Vermont. Sammy hadn"t entirely lived down the shame.
"Also," Thud continued, "the Sinister Sisters have this great trick just before
the final parade. They shoot an audience member out of a cannon. It"s so
cool."
"Do they ask for volunteers, or do they accept nominations?" asked Sammy
Grubb. "Thekla Mustard would be a good candidate to shoot out of a cannon.
Preferably into New Hampshire."
"Sammy Grubb, though I intend to go far," said Thekla primly, "I"ll do it under
my own steam, thank you very much."
"Class, pay attention," said Miss Earth. "Due to the snow days we took this
winter, our school year is running later than usual. Our graduation ceremony
is on Friday. Saturday night is the Big Night in the Big Top. Sunday is my
wedding, and Monday is the Fourth of July--hardly a week away. It"s a
packed schedule to close out a very packed year. So before we"re dismissed
today, let"s reflect on our time together. I like that phrase of Thekla"s, that
she intends to go far. I"m sure you all do. I"m sure you all will."
She continued. "Now, put those circus tickets in a safe place. We need to
prepare for change. Imagining change helps it to happen. Can you think up a
connection between something that happened to you this year and
something you would like to happen to you in the future?"
Hands went springing up in the air. Miss Earth thought: How bracing to see
my students so engaged in the possibilities of life!
"Don"t just rush forward with your first thought," she said. "Take out a bit of
scrap paper and write down several ideas. Put them in order of priority.
Choose the most thrilling one to tell us about."
She watched the children scramble to obey. Sunny children in t-shirts and
jeans, ribbons and braces, ponytails and earrings--both boys and girls--and
a few outlawed rub-on tattoos that Miss Earth decided to overlook this once.
Chin up, she said to herself; you don"t know for sure where you"ll be in the
fall. Behind this desk with a new set of students? Or--somewhere else? In
any event these children will have flown on toward the rest of their lives. Don"t
let your lower lip wobble!
"Ready? All right, who would like to start? Yes, Thekla, your hand is up first,
as usual. I wonder if you"ll ever give anyone else a chance to lead?"
Thekla ignored this question as rhetorical. She stood properly by her desk
and smoothed down the front of her skirt. "My year has been spent at the
helm of the Tattletales club, whose members are all talented, all wonderful,
all girls, all the time. With largeness of spirit, of course, I overlook the short
time I was deposed by the ingrates and turncoats whom otherwise I"m happy
to call my closest friends."
Thekla turned her brilliant, somewhat phony smile on the whole class. "With
this in mind, I imagine for myself next year a new position. I dream about
being the founding head of a new group comprised of the Tattletales and the
Copycats. Girls and boys both, together in one club, Miss Earth; that ought
to please you. In recognition of your contributions, we could call ourselves
the Earthlings. My title, more magnificent than either Chief or Empress, will
be--Angel. Angel Thekla. You"re all invited to join."
Thekla smiled. She had Miss Earth"s attention. Miss Earth had always
disapproved of how the boys and the girls in her classroom banded together
in separate clubs. This Earthlings notion should please her.
"A noble aspiration," said Miss Earth. "From there?"
In bored voice, studying her fingernails, Thekla recited, "Class president,
homecoming Queen, a seat in the House, two-term Senator from Vermont,
chair of some important subcommittees, Cabinet Member, my party"s
nominee by acclamation, and beloved President of the United State of
America. Perhaps I"ll reform the U. N. while I"m at it, as a sort of after-hours
hobby."
"What makes you think any boy would join any club you wanted to run,
Angel Thekla?" asked Sammy Grubb. "Or live in any country you intended to
govern, Madame Dictator?"
Miss Earth looked at Thekla Mustard as if seeing her for the first time--or for
the last. How she"d changed! She"d had a haircut over the summer, and now
sported a cap of tight golden ringlets. She was more... pert. And almost
willowy.
And Sammy Grubb had shot up three inches this year. He looked less like a
grubby Little Leaguer and more like a teen heartthrob on the cover of a
magazine that sneak-peaked the daytime soap operas.
She brought herself back to earth--back to herself. "Oh, all right, Sammy,
since you"ve volunteered to go next."
Sammy leaned forward on his elbows and looked around. "I"ve been Chief of
the Copycats for all these years, but it hasn"t made me want to be chief of
anything else. If anything, I"ve had my fill of clubs. No, my best time this year
was hunting for the Missing Link in Foggy Hollow, and finding the
Flameburper"s cocoon. I like the thought of missing links. Learning what"s the
same about different creatures, and what"s not. Maybe I"ll go into deep-sea
exploration to find new species of fish. Or travel to Mars and discover if there
are Martians."
"Admirable," said Miss Earth.
Lois Kennedy the Third raised her hand next. Lois was looking more like a
kickbutt radical activist than ever. Somewhere over the hills, corporate
America had every right to tremble.
Lois asked, "Remember the investigative TV reporter, Meg Snoople, who
came here last fall when the Siberian snow spiders infested the town? Meg
Snoople snoops till she droops. She"s my role model. I like spying on people.
I want to be like Meg Snoople."
"Perhaps you"ll work for the IRS," suggested Miss Earth. "Hector?"
Hector Yellow said, "I enjoyed decorating the church hall when Petunia
Whiner gave a charity concert to raise money for the town"s new fire engine. I
think I"ll take art courses, and maybe go into scenic design."
The kids all nodded. That made a lot of sense. Hector had always been the
best artist in the class.
"Thud?" asked Miss Earth.
Thud Tweed had transferred to the school in midyear. He had started out a
bully, but Miss Earth"s exceeding charms had tamed him some. "I"ve spent
my whole academic career bouncing from school to school, since I got
thrown out so often," he said. "I"m looking forward to things not changing so
much this year. To staying in Hamlet and watching things get more and more
routine and boring."
"Is there no other ambition you"ve uncovered in yourself? What"s second on
your list of priorities?"
"Well, while you were lost in Foggy Hollow, sunk in that coma," said Thud, "I
helped your mother make the doughnuts in her Auto Repair and Baked
Goods Shop. I thought it was sissyish at first, but I grew to like it. Perhaps I"ll
become a master pastry chef."
"You"ve continued to lend my mother a hand, for which I"m grateful," said
Miss Earth. "I hear you"re going to help her make the wedding cake."
"I"m taller than she is, and I can put the top layer on," said Thud proudly. "It"s
going to be a white feather cake with almond crumble base, red currant
smear between layers, double butter-cream icing in ivory, satin-blue, and--"
"Yumm," said Miss Earth, "but enough about all that. Salim?"
Salim Bannerjee was the second newest child in the class. He had moved to
the United States from India almost a year ago. He said, "My dear Miss
Earth. I remember when the elephant ghost of Baby Tusker traveled with me
from India to London, arriving in Vermont a few months later than I due to a
missed connection. I liked introducing Baby Tusker to the ghosts of
mastodons who haunted the hillside. It was gratifying to bring a family
together in this way, even if only a ghost family. Perhaps I shall become a
lawyer specializing in international adoptions. I"ll help waiting families find
lonely orphan babies from overseas."
"You have a kind heart, Salim," said Miss Earth. "I"ve no doubt you"ll do much
good in life." She had to touch the corner of her eye with her monogrammed
handkerchief. "Anna Maria Mastrangelo?"
"I haven"t changed much this year," said Anna Maria. "In September I wanted
to be a singing nun with my own TV show, and here it is next June, and I still
want it."
"Stick to your guns," said Miss Earth.
"Nuns don"t have guns," said Anna Maria, though she looked thoughtful, as if
this had given her a new idea at last.
Fawn Petros spoke next. She said, "I know I"m not the swiftest arrow in the
quiver, Miss Earth."
She waited for her classmates to nod agreement. They didn"t. All of them had
learned something this year about being kind. So Fawn continued. "I can"t
imagine the distant future. I can only picture this summer. Maybe I"ll start a
babysitting service or something."
She was thinking about the four cupids who had come for a visit in February,
and how much fun it had been to take care of them.
"You"d be very good at that," said Miss Earth. "I can see the bell is about to
ring for recess. I"m not sure we have time--"
The other children chimed in anyway, speaking over each other. Sharday
Wren wanted to dance as a Rockette in the Radio City Music Hall. Stan
Tomaski wanted to work in a used car shop. Moshe Cohn, the resident Mr.
Science, wanted to go to MIT and study particle acceleration. Carly
Garfunkel wanted to get married and have kids but keep her figure, once she
got one. Mike St. Michael wanted to become a professional soccer player.
Nina Bueno wanted to become a firefighter who drove the town"s shiny new
truck, since sirens made everyone"s heads turn to stare and Nina looked
good in red.
The recess bell rang. As the kids were lining up, Miss Earth put a hand on
Pearl Hotchkiss"s shoulder. "What do you want?" she asked.
Pearl said, "Miss Earth, I have spent my childhood helping my parents take
care of my five sisters, Opal, Ruby, Amethyst called Amy, Beryl, Zirconia,
and my brother, Wilberforce. One day they will be able to take care of
themselves. At that point, I"d be perfectly happy to read for a living."
"Perhaps you"ll become a librarian like Mr. Dewey."
"Or a teacher like you," said Pearl. "I"ve had enough practice, and you are
certainly an inspiration." She started to run out the door, little guessing how
close to tears she had brought Miss Earth with that compliment.
But then Pearl turned and said, "Miss Earth? You hardly ever give us an
assignment without doing it yourself. What do you imagine for yourself next
year? I mean, I know you"ll be married soon--but anything else?"
Oooh, thought Miss Earth.
She pursed her lips. This very question had been bothering her mightily.
What would happen to her when she got married? Would she change much?
Should she keep the same job? Should she move away, so as to give her life
a fresh start, her marriage the room to grow? She just didn"t know.
She smiled nicely at Pearl, whom she admired. She said, "That is none of
your business, young lady. Run along."
Pearl stood a moment longer. Her expression, perhaps, was one of charity,
as if she could imagine the troublesome fog blocking Miss Earth"s ability to
picture her own future. But before she could think of anything more to say,
there was a cry of wonder from the kids in the schoolyard. A huge black and
white hot-air balloon was wafting five hundred yards overhead. Two women
were waving from the basket that hung beneath. The taller one had long dark
hair swept to one side. The other looked like a pig in a red wig.
The Sinister Sisters passed overhead, dropping leaflets about the circus.
Then the Sinister Sisters drifted wherever the wind blew them, which in this
case meant over the Grand Union parking lot.


Copyright © 2005 by Gregory Maguire. Reprinted by permission of Clarion
Books / Houghton Mifflin Company.


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Schools -- Fiction.
Teachers -- Fiction.
Fourth of July -- Fiction.
Vermont -- Fiction.
Humorous stories.