The next morning, the stranger was all that Astrid could think about, at least until she and her friends arrived at Rachel Carson High School on the monorail. The school was abuzz, but not about any strange man arrested by police. Instead, everyone was talking about the lake monster. Boys drew pictures of various marine reptiles on the backs of their notebooks. Girls recounted how strange Pearl Lake had seemed last summer when they went swimming. And every conversation seemed to revolve around Austin Tretower. Some of the teachers even got into the act. Dr. Ikeda decorated the science hallway with a gigantic Elasmosaurus mural, and Mr. Hall assigned essays on the Loch Ness Monster in English Composition.
“I want an alternate assignment,” said Astrid, raising her hand.
“What?” said a startled Mr. Hall.
“I don’t want to write about something as silly as the Loch Ness Monster.”
Astrid could feel Denise and Christopher, on either side of her, staring.
“You’re not limited in the way that you approach the assignment, Astrid,” said Mr. Hall. “You have written more than enough persuasive essays. Perhaps you’d like to do something more creative—a fictional story, perhaps?”
“No, Mr. Hall, I don’t think I would like that at all.”
“What’s going on?” whispered Christopher.
Denise shrugged, and then made a crazy circle with her finger next to her head.
“Then Astrid,” continued the teacher, “if you insist on sticking to your routine, why don’t you write a paper explaining why you believe the Loch Ness Monster does not exist? Might I recommend the book by Steuart Campbell…?”
“I read it when I was five,” said Astrid. “Right after I figured out that there was no Santa Claus.”
“Wait a second,” said Madison Laurel from the far side of the room. “You mean Santa Claus isn’t real?”
“Oh no,” said Denise. “Santa Claus is totally real.”
The class erupted into laughter, and Mr. Hall, with difficulty, brought them back on task.
“Your parents may expect a call this evening,” he told Astrid.
Astrid didn’t enjoy her next three classes as much as usual, but at least the talk of monsters was limited to the students. As they left US History on their way to lunch, Christopher pulled her aside.
“What’s going on with you, Astrid?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re awfully testy today,” he said. “Everybody has an off day now and then… I mean everybody but you. I’ve never seen you have an off day, and I’ve never seen you short with a teacher before.”
“There’s a lot going on, I guess,” said Astrid. “And this lake monster talk is really annoying. You know there’s no such thing as a lake monster. We’ve gone swimming in Pearl Lake a hundred times.”
“I know,” said Christopher.
“Plesiosaurs like Elasmosaurus died out 65 million years ago.”
“Sixty five point two million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous,” confirmed Christopher.
“Loch Ness is less than 10,000 years old, and Pearl Lake is only about a thousand years old. There’s no way there could be a prehistoric monster in either of them.”
“Of course not,” said Christopher. “Kids just like monsters, Astrid. It’s like all those zombie movies or that vampire that the girl’s like. I don’t know why you’re letting it get under your skin.”
“People shouldn’t believe ridiculous things,” she said. “Pretty soon they’ll think the world is flat and Neil Armstrong didn’t land on the moon.”
“I don’t think many people really do believe there’s a monster in Pearl Lake. They’re just having a little fun making themselves scared. It’s like riding the Screaming Pterodactyl at Joyland. It’s just a little thrill to shake things up. Not everyone has spies, sharks, and air-to-air missiles to spice up their lives.”
“All right, I see what you mean,” said Astrid. “But it really wasn’t much of a shark.”