Strike up the Bland
It was the first rehearsal for our play, and I wished I was at the dentist. Or staked to an anthill with red fire ants crawling up my nose. Or even on the losing end of a parent-teacher conference.
Anywhere but the auditorium.
Still, there I was-the last one into the building where the entire fourth grade waited. Given the choice, I'd rather pull the whiskers off a werewolf than perform in a dorky play like Omlet, Prince of Denver. But who had a choice?
The auditorium (or cafetorium, as the principal calls it) buzzed like a nest of baby rattlesnakes on Christmas morning. My teacher, Mr. Ratnose, huddled onstage with the other teachers. My fellow students fidgeted on the rows of wooden benches, jabbering amongst themselves.
Something was up.
I scanned the crowd. My partner and friend, Natalie Attired, had saved me a spot in the second-to-last row. Good ol' Natalie.
With a little luck, I could slip into place before Mr. Ratnose noticed my tardiness. Bending low, I hurried toward my seat. Just a few more steps...
I didn't see the foot in my path, but I sure felt it.
"Whoa!" I stumbled and staggered like a Rottweiler on Rollerblades.
Ka-flump! I sprawled in the aisle, flat on my face.
The room fell silent with worry.
"Haw-haw-haw!" burst from a hundred throats.
Or maybe they were just catching their breath.
I got up and brushed myself off, scowling at the guilty foot's owner-a chubby chipmunk. He smiled back as sweetly as a big brother with a carload of water balloons.
And then my bad luck multiplied.
Mr. Ratnose stepped to the edge of the stage. "Chet Gecko," he said, "even though you're tardy, I'm giving you an honor that many students dream of."
"You're letting me out of this dumb play?" I asked.
The kids giggled again. Mr. Ratnose glared at them, pricklier than a hedgehog's hug.
"Wrong," he huffed. "Our lead actor, Scott Freeh, has disappeared."
My ears perked up. (As much as two holes in your head can perk.) A missing persons case?
I trotted up the aisle. "You want me to find him, right?"
"Wrong again," said my teacher. "I'd like you to take on Scott's role."
"Thanks, but no thanks. I'm a private eye, not a hambone."
Mr. Ratnose crossed his arms. "Be that as it may. You will play the part, or you will write a fifty-four-page report on French classical theater."
He sure knew how to put the screws to a guy. The only thing I like less than looking foolish onstage is writing fifty-four-page reports (although math class and lima-bean pie are right up there).
I sighed. "Okay, I'll do it. Out of curiosity, what's the part?"
His black eyes sparkled, and a smile tweaked his ratty lips. "The lead: Omlet, Prince of Denver. You've got a dramatic duet with a ghost..."
"Swell," I said.
"A swashbuckling sword fight..."
"And a romantic song with Azalea that ends in a kiss."
"That's-Wait a minute! A kiss!?"
Mr. Ratnose nodded. "Yes, you fourth graders should be mature enough to handle that by now."
My stomach churned and tumbled like a dingo in a washing machine. Sweat turned my palms into the Okefenokee Swamp.
"Wh-who plays Azalea?" I choked out.
"Why, Shirley, of course."
My mind spun. A lip-lock with Shirley Chameleon, Smooch Monster and Cootie Queen of the Known Universe? Yikes! In fact, double yikes.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" asked Mr. Ratnose. "Get up here and rehearse."
Right then, I gave myself a new case. I would find Scott Freeh before our play opened, or my name isn't Chet "Too Young to Be Smooched" Gecko.
Through Thick and Twin
Before you lose your lunch, let me reassure you: I didn't have to kiss Shirley that morning. We just read the play.
The kids who weren't acting got stage crew duty. They met in a corner with Ms. Bona Petite, the teacher in charge of scenery and stage props. What a happy bunch-knowing they'd get to play with hammers, saws, and paint.
Too bad I couldn't join them.
Instead, I sat with the cast and listened to Mr. Ratnose blather on about the meaning of the play, and how he'd improved on Shakespeare's Hamlet.
"You'll notice," said Mr. Ratnose, "that not only have I made it a musical, which Shakespeare probably wished he'd thought of..."
Ms. Petite sniffed and rolled her eyes.
"But I've also given it a happy ending." Mr. Ratnose beamed at us. "That way, no first graders in the audience will get nightmares."
Igor Beaver, a championship nerd, raised his paw. "Teacher, will we be wearing tights and doublets, like the actors of Shakespeare's time?"
Mr. Ratnose's tail curled happily. I could almost see the brownie points piling onto Igor's permanent record.
"Yes, Igor," he said. "We'll use traditional costumes."
Great. Now I'd have to wear sissy tights while frolicking around the stage like a doofus. Would the torture never stop?
Miraculously, it did. After we read through the play, the recess bell rang, and our teachers dismissed us. I buttonholed Natalie Attired for some sleuthing.
Did I mention already that Natalie, my mockingbird pal, is as sharp as a pocketful of pins (but without the annoying tendency to stick into your fingers)? She is. But she does have other irritating habits.
"Hey, Chet," she said, as we watched kids milling about. "Do you know why gorillas have such big nostrils?"
"Because they have such big fingers!" She cackled.
See what I mean?
I took Natalie by the shoulders. "Birdie, this is no time for jokes. We've got to find Scott Freeh, and pronto-so he can take back his stupid role."
"You don't want to play Omlet?" she asked. "It's such a great part."
"I don't care." I fumed. "I'd rather gargle with a skunk's bathwater than kiss Shirley Chameleon. Are you gonna help me or what?"
She held up her wings. "All right, don't get grouchy. I'll help."
"Great. First we need to know what Scott looks like."
"Easy-peasy," she said. "He looks just like that." She pointed to a skinn...