Chapter 1

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When Mr. Scott's third grade class returned from holiday break, something was wrong.

    As the students took off their coats and boots, damp with melted snow, a solemn quiet hung over them. They avoided each other's eyes. Their teacher sat at his desk, glued to his computer screen, mouth set into a thin, immobile line.

    The electronic bell sounded over the loudspeaker, and each kid, a bundle of knees and elbows and missing teeth, took their seat for morning announcements. As the school secretary read the lunch menu over the airwaves, her voice melted into a rushing sound, the words indistinguishable from one another. Something about tater tots. No one was listening.

    Instead, each child stared at the empty desk in the center of the room. Three seats back, three rows in. The plastic chair at this desk was empty.

    As the announcements died down, silence pervaded the room. Mr. Scott stood up, straightened the collar of his sweater, and slouched before the class with one leg up on a chair and his rear on a table, arms crossed over his broad chest. "So, I'm sure you all heard what happened to Lana."

    Shane Elliott didn't know what he was talking about. He stared hard at Lana's empty desk, puzzling over it, waiting for someone to say something. It was a long time before anyone did. He tried to catch Michael's eye, but Michael just looked away at the math book in front of him.

    Mr. Scott opened his mouth, and Shane's mind filled in several possible sentences that might spew forth. Lana's dad got a new job and they had to move right away. Lana got head lice and had to stay home this week. Lana and her sisters all have the chicken pox. Lana's family is still on vacation, snowed in at their ski cabin.

    "I want you all to know that I'm here if you need me," Mr. Scott said. "And we can talk about it if you want. If anyone needs to go to the counselor, please let me know."

    Silence. Shane's mind was white noise, his receiver between stations.

    "The other teachers and I have been talking and we think it's best if we try to give you guys a sense of normalcy," Mr. Scott went on. "It'll make things easier if some parts of our lives are normal like nothing's wrong." He let that sink in. "Okay. Well, let's see where we left off with fractions. Turn your books to page 292."

    Shane stared at the empty desk. He looked at Michael again, but his friend flipped busily through his math workbook looking for the right page. He wanted to scream, "What happened?" in his outdoor voice, to reach over and shake Carlos's shoulder in front of him with violence until the truth came rattling out. But the time had passed. The moment he could have raised his hand and asked what had happened to Lana was over.

    Fractions came and went before his eyes and his notebook paper was filled with scribbles that looked more like ancient hieroglyphs than recognizable formulas. He sighed, ruffled the sheaf of dishwater blonde hair that hung over his eyes and stuck his pencil between his teeth. He stole his hundredth glance toward Lana's empty desk.

    It wasn't empty anymore.

    He squinted at it a second, and then dragged his arm over his eyes as if something obstructed them. When he lowered his arm, it was still there. He glanced about wildly, looking for something hanging from the ceiling and obstructing the light, perhaps -- anything that could cast a shadow like that.

    There was nothing. And the shadow was moving.

    It had form and shape, though the edges were fuzzy, like TV snow. The more he focused on it, willed it to make sense in his mind, the clearer the shadow became. The edges solidified. It was the outline of a person sitting in Lana's desk.

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