Monday, April 13, 2009

The Little Star of Bethlehem (Children's Short Story), by Mark L. Hough

(Completed Children's Short Story)

Jeremy Dinkins paused before stepping out from behind the curtains. His cue had been long in coming; the three school bullies should have said “Lo! What light shines just beyond grasp like a guide in our search for a king?” exactly four minutes earlier, but as usual they had bungled their parts to the point that their teacher, Mrs. Herald, had to prompt their every line. Pretty pathetic actually. Jeremy had told Mrs. Herald this would happen months ago when she gave them the roles of “three wise men” for the winter play entitled “Bethlehem”...but somehow the irony of making the three buffoons into wise men for a day must have been irresistible. And now here they were laughing through their embarrassment as if each guffaw would smooth over the fact that they had four months to memorize exactly eighteen words (words that every other student could now recite) and managed only to get the line “Where is the King?” stuck inside their primitive brains. Jeremy shook off the annoyance that came with yet another correct prediction and closed his eyes, immersed in the meditations of the Stanislavski Method—his preferred method of preparation for acting.
“I am a comet…I am a comet…” He knew in truth that “the little star of Bethlehem” really was a comet whose flight path happened to coincide with a cluster of stars in the vicinity of Ursa Minor. This knowledge resulted in weeks of research and debate with Mrs. Herald. Her arguments had been pretty weak and he hadn’t even had a chance to introduce the four studies made by scientists in the 1970’s before they had reached a compromise: Mrs. Herald would add a small tail to Jeremy’s “star” costume and Jeremy would not paint “I’m a comet—not a star” to the bottom of his poster board.
It hadn’t really been a compromise after all, he told himself; it would take a real idiot in the audience to miss the obvious fact that stars didn’t have tails—and the three biggest idiots he knew were on stage right now.
He parted the curtains, face frozen in his most comet-like expression. He hoped the audience, consisting of parents, siblings, and the assorted elderly patrons of the school, would pick up on the look of quiet disdain he knew comets must have for creatures whose life expectancy was approximately one trillionth that of a comet. He had been working on the face for weeks, during classes, bus rides, and even on the playground—earning him a bloody nose in the process. But nobody said acting was easy, and in the end it paid off; he could feel disdain building up inside of him and knew he simply had to let the emotion flow from his face. Ah…it really was too bad he had higher ambitions in life…acting was sooooo easy.
“Follow my trail (pathetic earthbound humans, he added to himself) and I will lead you to the newborn king!” He began walking regally around the stage—the cue for the “wise men” to follow—when the unexpected happened, or rather the expected happened for unexpected reasons.
He knew the bullies would have trouble following a simple task like “follow the glittering star” but it took just one look for Jeremy to know something else was wrong. The three kids looked like three confused monkeys…more so than before at least...and were pointing off stage. Jeremy followed their stares and saw instantly what had stopped the three stooges in their tracks: Mrs. Herald. She was lying face down upon the floor by the props table, half covered in torn pages from the script.
Jeremy’s eyes widened, the only relaxation from character he would allow himself—remembering the age-old actor’s rule, “the show must go on,” he stepped to the front of the stage. Improvisation had never been his strong suit, but if it was left to the other three boys the whole production would fall apart.
“Ladies and Gentlemen. This ends scene four. There will be a fifteen minute intermission.” The curtains closed and Jeremy pushed his way through the crowd of students.
“She’s having a seizure. She must be diabetic!”
Jeremy didn’t have to see the face of the speaker to know it was Amanda Byrd. She was never seen without the dark iPod on her hip, wires hanging out of her ears like black spaghetti. She suffered from asthma and seemed to enjoy finding that other people had sicknesses as well.
“That’s absurd,” said Jeremy, giving Mrs. Herald a once-over, “She never snacks between classes. Besides, this wasn’t a seizure. It was an attack.” He pointed to two thin wires that were attached to Mrs. Herald’s back like a marionette. “She’s been Tasered.”
A gasp and more predictable dramatics arose from the girls, while some of the boys couldn’t help letting their eyes wander curiously from the wires to the small hand-held gun lying a few feet away.
“Does anyone have a phone? We should call 911!” said another kid.
“No!” replied Jeremy. “She’ll be all right; the shock will wear off in a few minutes. But whoever did this was after something.” He looked over the pile of torn papers.
“Then he’ll get away!” cried another girl dressed as a camel. It was a sore spot with Jeremy that her costume had two humps on the back when he knew that only the single humped variety lived anywhere near the Holy Land. He tried to ignore this fact as he answered her.
“No, he won’t get away, because whoever did this didn’t get what they were after.”
“How do you know they were after something?” asked Amanda.
Jeremy sighed. He could have told them all two weeks ago that something like this might happen.
It had seemed like a kind offer from one of the quirky old men in town at the time. Mr. William Redford the Third, descendent of the man who had founded the old mining town 150 years before, had always liked being in the spotlight. His grizzled beard and mustache were always brushed and waxed in a style that would have made any Austrian Baron jealous. And every Christmas, the man’s desire to be noticed by the town seemed to peak. Last year, for instance, he had surprised the entire town of Redford by importing three magnificent elephants from Africa for the living Nativity display outside the Town Hall. He took great enjoyment in keeping everyone in the dark about his plans until the last minute.
This year had been no exception. Two weeks earlier, while Jeremy had been busily reading the Wall Street Journal during his lunch break, he’d overheard Mrs. Herald upon her cell phone.
“Yes…Yes, well that would be wonderful…the kids will be quite surprised…yes, I think it will add to the reality of the play. Thank you. No, of course I won’t tell anyone. Yes, the fewer who know, the safer it will be. Thank you.”
Jeremy had continued to flip the pages of the paper while eavesdropping; it always annoyed him in movies when spies appeared to remain forever on the same page while overhearing important conversations. Mrs. Herald, as expected, didn’t seem to pay him any attention but had instead searched her drawers with an excited smile on her face for the script the kids had been working on so diligently. She had skipped through the majority of the play, straight to the last page where she scribbled for about five minutes before putting the play back in her desk. Jeremy waited, knowing well that the look on his teacher’s face could not keep the secret for long; in two minute his prediction, once again, was proven accurate. Mrs. Herald rose and quickly hurried down to the office of the school principle, Mr. Borek—a short man who seemed to enjoy the fact that as a middle school principle, he was finally surrounded by people a head shorter than himself.
Jeremy had never had a problem debating people and even then the arguments for sneaking into Mrs. Herald’s desk were winning dramatically over his own arguments not to.
She’s a teacher, his thoughts said, and as such she desires her pupils to develop a great hunger for knowledge.
In less than thirty seconds the internal debate was over. He made his way to Mrs. Herald’s desk and in a mere six and a half seconds picked the simple two tumbler lock. The script was a mess, with scribbles and pencil drawing all over the place….when would she learn that an organized mind makes life easier?….and finally he found the page he was looking for. The middle of the paper was still warm from where her hand had rested while writing. He looked past the type-written sections to the base of the page where, in an excited version of Mrs. Herald handwriting, he read:
“I hope you have enjoyed this play. The children would like to thank all the parents that have helped with its production and especially Mr. William Redford—who has loaned to the school the real gifts the wisemen brought to Jesus: Frankincense from Saudi Arabia, Myrrh from India, and lastly, the largest single Gold Nugget found in North America—from right here in Redford. (Wait for applause.) All three will be on display after the play. Thank you and a Happy Holiday.”
Jeremy had seen the wisdom in keeping such information quiet, but knew (especially in teacher’s lounges) how quickly secrets became common knowledge. As the days leading up to the performance ticked away, however, no mention of Mr. Redford’s eccentric loan was made by anyone.
A hand was shaking his arm and it took Jeremy a second to snap back into the present.
“Jerry,” said Annette Frisco, using a pet name he absolutely despised from anyone but her. Thinking about it once, he realized to his great annoyance that the girl could probably call him “aardvark” and he’d let her. Many distracting moments had been spent wondering whether the girl felt the same for him, even though he knew the thoughts were about as useless as trying to beat her at ultimate Frisbee. Still he couldn’t help keep a sigh from escaping from his chest whenever he saw her.
Ah L’amour…who can stand up to it?
“Jerry, what should we do?”
“Right, first: Amanda, John, go to the front entrance and keep anyone from leaving—tell them it will disturb our performance. Roger,” Jeremy then said, looking to the biggest of the three bullies, “come with me.”
Amazing how a small disaster like this could turn the middle school’s entire social structure on its head. Normally Roger would have boxed Jeremy’s ears for telling him to do something...and now here he was following behind Jeremy like a confused dog.
They ran to the back doors of the auditorium; they were locked, as Jeremy had expected. That left just the main doors and the one janitors’ entrance as possible escapes. The janitor, Mr. Dench, wasn’t on the best terms with Principle Belok. The principle had publicly accused the janitor of taking school supplies for his own use. Mr. Dench swore it wasn’t him but some student and the resulting argument ended with Mr. Dench stating he would lock every door on the school lest he be wrongfully accused again. It was Jeremy’s belief that the janitor had a winning court case against the principle for public defamation of character, but after working the figures, Jeremy realized it would not be worth the man’s while after court costs and everything. Too bad, he thought, if only the man was capable of self representation, he’d save a ton on lawyer fees.
They reached the janitors’ door, and Jeremy’s heart sank as he saw it; it was unbolted and open. Surprisingly, Roger spoke, and it wasn’t in the usual grunts.
“It looks like whoever did this got away.”
Jeremy didn’t want to give the kid the satisfaction of agreement but stuck his head out the door, trying to stare through the swirling snow that was dusting the cars and pavement.
“Not quite,” said Jeremy. “There are no footprints. Somebody wanted us to think they got away…which means they’re still here.”
Roger slowly nodded and mumbled something that sounded like, “Whoa…..Dude.”
“We’ve got to get back to Mrs. Herald and the others—the attacker is still in the auditorium.”
They ran all the way back, and Jeremy was pleased to learn, for his own records, that while Roger could counterbalance a small tank he couldn’t run more than a dozen steps before getting winded. That will come in handy next time he tries to take my glasses to burn ants, Jeremy thought.
They arrived back at stage left, where Mrs. Herald was finally coming around. It would be no good if she ruined everything and brought the police into this—they had a habit of waiting weeks before giving a press conference in which they declared what everybody already knew. Jeremy pulled the wires from Mrs. Herald’s sweater and hid them amongst the items on the prop table.
“What happened?” Mrs. Herald asked in a sleepy voice.
The kids in unison looked to Jeremy. All right, he thought, here it goes…I am a convincing liar…I am a convincing liar….
“You fell, Mrs. Herald. You must have hit your head on a block and tackle.” Okay, it wasn’t great, but it was the best he could do.
“Oh, really?” she said, rubbing her head. It feels okay…”
“Shock does that to you,” answered Jeremy in a breath. “We go back on in two minutes, Mrs. Herald.”
This had the affect he was after. She jumped to her feet and once again was their fifth grade teacher.
“Everyone, in places...Wait. Where are we?” she said, trying to scoop up the pages of script from the floor.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Herald,” said Jeremy, with a twinkle in his eyes, “I’ve got the whole play memorized.” He ran to the three kings and whispered to them quickly. “Listen, we’ve got one chance at figuring out who the attacker is. The four of us will go onstage and I’ll feed you your lines. Got it?” He hated having to use slang but it was the only way to get through to these guys.
The three nodded in agreement—and relief, once they realized they wouldn’t be required to make anything up.
Jeremy grabbed the wise men’s props from around the corner and, shoving them into their hands, pushed the three back onstage.
Clapping. Jeremy rolled his eyes at the barbaric custom and waited for silence before he made his entrance.
“I am the star of Bethlehem…which you have been following from afar….er, actually from Arabia, Mesopotamia, and North Africa, to be precise,” he said. If he was making up the script, why not make it informational?
Roger looked to Jeremy and like a perfect parrot repeated what he said, line for line.
“I am Balthazar….from Arabia…the eastern tip according to most scholars…and I bear a gift…. of finest Frankincense.” The boy opened his box, revealing the large chunks of crystallized sap to the audience.
So far so good, thought Jeremy, staring out into the crowd. No reaction but smiles.
Tony was the second of the three kings, and he seemed a bit uncomfortable with the new arrangement. Perhaps he realized how much the three were at Jeremy’s mercy. Jeremy smiled…Brains win over brawn yet again.
“I am Caspar…a brutish king of Meso….Mesopat…er, Mesopotamia. And I bear a gift of stinky myrrh.” Tony glared at Jeremy who signaled the boy to open his box. He did, and to his surprise, and the amusement of the audience, the box was empty.
Great, thought Jeremy, two down one to go. He scanned the audience one last time before feeding Dan, the third wise man, his lines.
“I am Melchior…of Northernmost Africa….and I have followed this star-like comet…with gifts of purest gold.”
Jeremy locked the audience with his most intense stare as he signaled the boy to open his case. Dan did so, fumbling with the lock. The box slipped from his grasp and fell to the floor, spilling its contents at the foot of the stage.
The entire audience burst into laughter; it was unavoidable, as Jeremy had known it would be. Primed by the previous unexpected loss of the Myrrh, the audience—following the well-researched rules of mob mentality—would search for another thing to release emotion, in this case laughter. And, like lemmings before a cliff, they all fell—holding their sides and wiping their eyes. All but one.
It wasn’t the gold that lay like glittering tinfoil upon the floor that kept the one man from laughing. If anything, Jeremy caught the slightest gleam of want in the man’s eyes as he watched it roll to a stop near the stage lights. What really caused the man to break apart from the pack of laughing innocents was the second item that fell from the box: a black handle attached to two long wires.
“Ladies and Gentlemen!” cried Jeremy in the most awe-inspiring voice he could muster. “There has been an attack on Mrs. Herald and an attempt to steal a rare prop loaned to us from Mr. Redford: the largest gold nugget found in North America!”
The audience had stopped laughing now and Jeremy realized instantly he was losing them. Grrr. Why must people always think of him as a kid…besides the obvious fact that he was one…?
“He’s right!” cried a voice from behind him. It was Annette, looking as welcome as a vision from the angel Gabriel itself. “Mr. Redford, someone tried to steal your prize gold nugget from backstage. They attacked Mrs. Herald in the attempt.”
Mr. Redford stood, looking flustered. He had wanted a bit of attention for sure, but not at the cost of losing his gold.
“Young lady, but, that’s impossible. Nobody but Mrs. Herald knew about the gold. She wasn’t even going to announce it before the final bows.”
Jeremy stepped forward, removing the ridiculous star/comet costume as he did so. He was wearing a white button-down shirt and dress pants. It had taken him all morning to decide whether he should where a sweater or a button-down shirt. Now, standing with his hand gentle stroking his smooth chin, he was glad he went with the button-down. Definitely more Holmes-ish.
“Dear sir,” he began, cringing at his own use of a cliché, “Mrs. Herald was not the only one to know about the generous loan of your gold. There were two others who knew of its place in the play tonight. The first was a boy, smarter than most and concerned for the safety of your property. The second was a man, selfish, greedy, and of such small stature, he saw it fit to arm himself when going out at night.” Jeremy raised his arm and his look of utter disdain needed no prompting as it fairly pierced the blanched visage of the principle sitting two rows from the front. “Mr. Belok, you have been caught.”
The principle paused in his seat, the way every criminal on TV did just before running. It surprised Jeremy, who thought for certain it was something done just for dramatic effect. But then, just as hundreds of paid actors had done before him, Mr. Belok ran. He leapt over feet and handbags—and would have made it to the door had not a two- foot-wide, glittering piece of posterboard hit him in the back of the head. Though he tried not to be, Jeremy was impressed.
“Whoa…..Dude,” he said, oblivious of the slang escaping his lips and the look of satisfaction on Annette’s face. Apparently she wasn’t Captain of the Ultimate Frisbee team for nothing.
By the time Mr. Belok came to, the police had arrived and were, as usual, making a mess of things. Mr. Belok claimed to have no knowledge of an attack and told the police the reason he ran was that he was afraid of a lynching. Predictable, thought Jeremy, as he told the other cast members to stay where they were. He leapt from the stage with as much grace as his thin Rockwellian frame could manage and strolled up to the man.
“You…You…lying deceitful boy. How can you claim I tried to steal Mr. Redford’s gold when it is obviously right there in front of you on the stage?”
The surrounding people, police included seemed to find the logic of his statement staggering and looked to Jeremy.
Always obliging, he answered. “True, Mr. Belok, there has been no theft of Mr. Redford’s gold tonight. I said there was an attempt made to steal his gold and an attack in the process. But, Mr. Belok, if you are as innocent as you claim, can you honestly say you have not been backstage tonight?”
The man sputtered in a most indignant manner. If not for the drips of sweat falling from the principle’s nose, Stanislavski would have been proud.
“Of course I haven’t been back there.”
“Then, could you explain how, between scenes three and four, the gold from Melchior’s chest came to be in your vest pocket?”
The principle smiled. “How absurd! The gold is right there on stage where everyone can see it!”
It was Jeremy’s turn to smile and he did so with flair. “I did not say “Mr. Redford’s gold”….I said “Melchior’s gold”...or, to be more precise, a piece of modeling clay that I painted with metallic paint two days ago. I replaced the true gold before the play began. We have no need to check your pocket, sir; I’m sure you have thrown it away by now...though I'm sure a full police analysis will find traces of the paint. It’s not just about the money, though. It's about attacking Mrs. Herald to get it…” Jeremy shook his head like a disappointed parent.
“You have no proof, none at all. I don’t even own one of those Taser things,” Mr. Belok said, pointing to the wired box on the stage floor.
“Really?” said Jeremy slowly, choosing every word. “You’ve never seen one in your life?”
“Only once or twice on TV.”
Jeremy felt the familiar feeling of over-dramatization building up within him but did not care. He signaled to Dan, who walked over carrying both Mr. Redford’s gold and the box with black wires.
“It’s a funny thing, Mr. Belok…for one who has never owned and rarely seen a Taser, you were pretty quick to “mistake” Amanda’s iPod for one. Only the man who had used one minutes earlier could be so confused as to mistake a harmless iPod for a Taser, Mr. Belok. And, if you will remember, you were the first person to mention the weapon tonight.”
Jeremy, seeing the face of Mr. Belok fall as the police escorted him outside, smiled. It was a real smile and he wanted to remember it for later plays. He would label it in his overly complex brain as “my smile of victory.” Yes, he thought, picking up his posterboard comet. Maybe he could work a little victory monologue into the rest of the play.

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