By Tim Pratt
1. Exterminator’s Helper
I was eleven when a little man with watery eyes who blinked and sniffed all the time shuffled into my classroom, moving carefully, not brushing up against any desks or people. My teacher stood frozen with her hand pointed at a map of Africa, and the kids all around me were unnaturally still, too, stuck in whatever moment they’d been caught in when time stopped: note-passing, nose-picking, empty-space-gazing.
I held my breath at first, hoping this strange person in the gray suit looking at a scrap of paper in his hand wouldn’t realize I was still conscious, still capable of movement. I didn’t know what he was, or what was happening, but I’d read a lot of books and seen a lot of shows about fairies and monsters and magic, and being in the middle of a story like that was so scary I was afraid I’d wet myself.
He squinted around, peered in my direction, and bustled over. “You’re . . .” A glance at the paper. “Makayla?”
“Kayla,” I whispered.
A brisk nod. “Never saw the point of nicknames, but whatever makes you happy. I’m Sigmund. I need your help. Actually, all your friends and . . . so on . . . here at school need your help.” He rubbed at his nose and sniffled more. I wondered if he had a cold. “It’s not quite a save-the-world thing, but you can save this little part of your world. Won’t that be, um, fun?”