“Look!” A little brown head bobbed out from under the dock; the feet under it propelled it around the reeds and out of sight. “What was that thing?” asked Ted, almost falling into the water trying to find it.
“A muskrat, kids. You can use that in your essay when we get back to school,” said Miss Cole.
Ann Dover looked out at the ripples shimmering and glistening with the reflected sun. She sighed, her breath sending a gray smoke-like puff over the lake. The gently swaying cattails rustled and Ann caught a whiff of the dusty incense they gave off, tickling her pink, cold nose.
“OK, class, you may start taking notes now.” Ann stared into the water. The bottom was covered with long, stringy algae, which she assumed was making the almost-faint stench. It looked cold and lonely, but Ann knew it was full of life.
“Full of life,” she wrote.
As Ann looked back at the warm biological station, she noticed something by the bank. It was a big pile of what looked like algae, but it was more clumpy, like individual things. She started to examine it, but out of the corner of her eye, she saw her teacher looking disapprovingly at her, and quickly started writing.
“OK, kids, pack up. It’s snack time!”
Ann heard people hiss, “Yesssss!” under their breath. Everyone got up and formed a line. As they trudged back up the dock, stomping their feet to warm them, Ann heard Bob whisper to Jeff, “Finally. It smelled like dead fish over there.”
Dead fish. That was what the pile was. But how did all those fish die? Ann thought. Best not to think about that now, she decided. All she was thinking about was having a nice snack in the warm biological station.
* * *
Ann was relieved when the class stepped in front of big doors leading to a warm, cozy habitat. Everyone wanted to get in, and there was a scramble as the doors of the biological station opened.
Along the wall were all sorts of stuffed marsh birds, displays of life cycles, and glass cases of rock samples marked with little labels. Off to one side, there was a little shelf. In it were eleven or twelve species of fish. Fish. Ann caught up with her class and seated herself against the wall. After unzipping her backpack, she took out a fruit rollup.
Dead fish. True, it was still cold from the winter that had passed, but they should have been hibernating, or whatever fish do. She would have to look around the lake again.
Sitting up, she saw a little plate that said “Men’s Room—205. Women’s Room—128.” The women’s room was downstairs! She could ask to use the bathroom, and then slip out the door that led to the lake. Getting up, she walked over to her teacher.
“Miss Cole, may I use the bathroom?” Ann held her breath.
“Hurry back. We’ll be working on the trail next.”
Rushing downstairs, Ann started searching for the lake door. She had only seen it from the dock, and it wasn’t a main door.
“Hi!” Ann glanced up. Looking down at her was a kind-faced woman in a scientist’s white lab coat. Her name tag read Biologist Mason. “May I help you?” she asked.
Ann thought quickly. “Could you show me to the bathroom?” she asked, hoping her face didn’t give her away.
“Right down the hall, and through the third door on the left,” the woman answered. Ann thanked her, and started to the bathroom.
“Do you like the lake?” she heard Biologist Mason call after her. Ann turned around and nodded, trying to make it look like she was in a hurry.
“Come with your family sometime, and I’ll show you around. My name’s Jennifer.” With that, finally, the biologist turned and retreated into a lab.
Ann stood a moment, thinking. Then, she realized how little time she had. Stepping down the last of the stairs, she looked right. There was a lab. She looked left. There was a big door propped open by an oar. Ann pushed open the door and stepped out onto a dirt path. A little to the right stood the dock. Ann ran out to where the fish were. It hadn’t changed from a few minutes ago. There was nothing she could see to cause the fishes’ death. Crushed, Ann turned around; she was face-to-face with Jeff Schiller, one of her seventh-grade classmates.
Ann stared at him. Then, knowing they would both get in trouble if they were late, they started walking back. “You’re going to tell on me, aren’t you,” Ann said without looking at him.
“No, I was coming out for the same reason. To see about the fish.” Seeing Ann didn’t trust him, he added, “We can find out together.”
“OK,” Ann said. “But not now, we’ll be late. I’ll talk to you at break.” She immediately regretted it, but there was no time to take it back. Jeff followed her as they ran up the stairs, clanging on the metal, making an echo loud enough for the world to hear.
* * *
“Rinnnnnnng!” Back at school, break time had finally crept its way up to pounce on Ann. She looked around, but in the mass of kids, she lost sight of Jeff by the door. Slowly, she slipped her essay paper (titled “Wingra Marsh”) in a blue folder and, putting her pencil back in her desk, got to her feet.
Other girls have crushes on boys, but not me, she thought, staring at the door. What will people think when they see me talking to Jeff—the most popular boy at Henry James Middle School? She took a deep breath and started outside.
Ann jumped. She had forgotten about Miss Cole correcting papers at her desk.
“May I see your essay, please?”
“Oh,” Ann said, taking the folder out again. She brought it up to Miss Cole’s desk. “It’s not done.” She handed it to her teacher, who took it and started reading it. Wondering how much break was left, she glanced at the clock: 11:48. Already, four minutes had passed. If her teacher had a talk planned, she’d never get outside. Tick, tick, tick. The clock continued ticking and her teacher continued reading. Ann could see that she was impressed. Another minute went by.
“You seem to know a lot about the marsh.” Miss Cole had finally finished reading. “Why don’t you speak up in class if you know things so well?”
Ann immediately knew she was not getting outside today. Next and last break she had to stay in for a special class.
“I’m afraid I’ll be wrong,” she answered half-truthfully, her head down. The whole truth was, if she were wrong, she thought Jeff would think she was stupid.
“There’s stuff in here I didn’t know, Ann.” Ann looked up. “Is it OK if I publish it when it’s done?” Miss Cole looked hopeful.
“Uh, OK . . .” Ann stammered.
“Thank you,” Miss Cole said as the door opened. The class came spilling into the classroom. Jeff looked at her. They sat down across from each other.
The class began algebra. Ann took out her textbook but didn’t try to solve 5m + 2 = 3m + 2(m + 1). Instead, she looked at Jeff, who was scribbling something on a piece of paper. Then Jeff crushed it up in a ball under his desk as quietly as he could, put it on the floor, and watched Miss Cole as did the rest of the class.
What’s he up to? thought Ann, as Joey McCarfy gave the answer to the math problem. Finally, when Miss Cole turned to the blackboard, Jeff kicked the paper across the aisle and it landed under her desk. Ann looked at him and picked up the paper, smoothing it out. Wow, he’s got good handwriting, she thought as she read, “Why didn’t you come outside?”
Ann looked up at Miss Cole, who was busy writing an answer on the board, and wrote under Jeff’s message, “Miss Cole wanted to see my essay.” Well, I may as well impress him, she muttered, and printed, “She wants to publish it. We can talk at my house.” Ann rolled the note up and kicked it back. She watched Jeff’s eyes flicker across it.
Just then, Miss Cole turned around. When Miss Cole turned back to the board again, Jeff caught Ann’s eye and nodded.
* * *
Ann felt the cool handbar on the school’s front door. “You’re standing where everyone will see us, Jeff—move!” she muttered. She looked through the glass at all the kids standing around. She tried to get his attention by waving a little, but Jeff was talking to another boy, still looking around.
When the boy moved away, Ann, having no other choice, put up her hood and went through the door. Jeff saw her and opened his mouth to speak.
“No.” Ann shook her head. She put a finger to her lips. They moved away and started across the street.
“Why did you shush me?”
“Well . . .” Ann didn’t want him to know she was embarrassed. “I . . . I want to keep it private.”
“OK. Where do you live?”
“Oh. You live really close to school.”
“Yup.” She looked down at an ant crawling over her shoe. “I know. Let’s go down to the marsh. There’s this lady—Jennifer—who could take us on one of those tours. With all those people, we’ll blend right in. I’ll leave a note for my dad, and you can call your mom or dad.”
They went inside. Ann showed Jeff the phone, then fumbled around in a drawer for a pad of paper. As she wrote “Gone to the marsh. Be back soon. Love you,” she heard Jeff say, “Mom! We’re just interested in the same things.” He glanced around impatiently and, spying Ann watching, said, “Uh, I should go now. Bye.” Ann turned to hide a giggle.
Seven minutes later they stepped into the Mazzuchelli Biological Station. “Hmmm . . . there’s no one here,” Jeff said, looking around.
“Let’s go outside and see if she’s leading a tour.”
Jennifer was, and was just saying to her group, “So, if you see anything, tell the police, and you’ll be able to visit soon.” She looked worried. Ann and Jeff went up to her. “Back so soon?” Jennifer asked Ann when she recognized her. “Is this your big brother?”
“No, he’s . . .” She tried to find a way to say “not my brother or my boyfriend” without hurting Jeff’s feelings. “. . . a classmate from school. Is there something wrong?”
“Yes. Someone just snuck into some labs and ruined all the equipment and experiments. I’m afraid you’ll have to go home until we get things sorted out.”
Ann stared at her. “But who?”
“We don’t know. I need to sort this out, so . . .” She gestured to the gate.
“But we think we found something,” Jeff put in quickly.
“What sort of something?” It was obvious Ms. Mason was ready to accept help from anyone she thought could help.
“Dead fish.” Ann was now active when she realized she could help. “They’re over here.”
Ann and Jeff led Jennifer over to the dock and pointed to the fish. “Yuck! This water looks too thick and slimy to be sanitary for fish,” Jennifer said. “I’ll take a sample to test at whatever’s left of the lab.” They took the sample to the lab.
“Oh my, it’s oil. Someone tried to kill the fish.”
Ann and Jeff looked at each other, not proudly because they had found something important, but with worry. “We’ll find the people who did this, don’t worry,” Ann said bravely. Right now, she and Jeff were in this together. “Unless the marsh gets destroyed first. If the marsh goes, the clues go!”
* * *
Jeff and Ann walked home together. “I’ll call you after dinner. You know, see if we’ve thought of anything useful.” Ann went in the house, and Jeff walked on to his apartment seven or eight blocks away.
Ann didn’t think of anything and neither did Jeff, she found when she looked up his number and called him. “We can’t do anything . . . wait!” Ann paused.
“What?” came Jeff’s voice from the forgotten telephone.
Ann put it to her ear again. “I just thought of something. We have to go back. Tonight, after you’re in bed, get dressed again and meet me at the playground across from Mazzuchelli. Without your parents knowing.”
Jeff, apparently stunned, asked, “How?”
“Climb out a window or something. I don’t know.”
Her father’s voice came from the hall. “I need to call your mother. What are you doing?”
“Just getting a homework assignment,” Ann called back. “Bring a flashlight,” she hissed into the mouthpiece, and hung up.
* * *
“He’s not here. I shouldn’t have trusted him.” Ann was waiting under a streetlight at the gate by the marsh.
“Trusted who?” a voice came from behind her. It was Jeff. “Hey, I went through a lot to get here. I twisted my foot climbing down the tree from my window. Now, what’s your little plan?”
Ann looked at his annoyed face in the dark. “Now that you’re here, you don’t have to be sarcastic.” She held up a camera. “We, two middle-school kids, are going to catch the culprit in action.”
“They have to be here. Why wait? They could come here tonight and do whatever their sick little minds command them to do.”
* * *
It was very dark and rainy outside, and Ann was afraid she wouldn’t get a clear picture of the person’s face. She also knew that this was extremely dangerous, going after a criminal at night, alone, without an adult. She held on to Jeff’s hand harder, as she helped him along the edge of Wingra Lake on his bad foot.
“Why are we here? What are the chances the people will come back? They’ve only been here two times.”
“Jeff, I know it’s been two times. I can add. My initials spell add. Ann Danielle Dover.”
“Well then, maybe you can add up all the hours we’ve been here.”
“Boys.” Ann sighed and looked around a tree, holding up her flash camera. They went on and on and on, listening and watching for movement other than their own. Suddenly, Ann stopped and put out an arm to stop Jeff. “What’s that?” She pointed to a big unmoving object sitting on the trail.
“I don’t know, Ann. Maybe it’s dynamite the people here are going to use to blow us up with.”
Ann rolled her eyes and turned on a flashlight to see it better. She gasped. “It’s a Bobcat. They’re going to try to destroy the land.” The little bulldozer was just sitting there. Someone must be coming back for it.
The moon went behind a cloud like it was afraid of something coming. “Jeff, we have to hide. Then we can take the picture and get out of here. Quick! Get behind this tree!”
In his rush, Jeff tripped on a stone. He yelled, teetered a little, then fell backward into the lake with a splash.
“Jeff, give me your hand. Be quiet.” Just then a light from a flashlight appeared and men’s voices rang in their ears as they froze.
* * *
Ann was standing in the water holding Jeff’s hand and Jeff was lying on his back next to the dock, his eyes wide.
No time to help him out of the lake, Ann thought. Holding the camera above the water, she pulled Jeff under the dock, their heads still above the surface. They peeked around the side of the dock. There, indeed, were two men walking around. They were so close that Ann could smell their cigarettes burning and hear the two men muttering. As she held her breath, Ann could hear what they were saying.
“Doesn’t care what could happen to us. Just wants his mini-mall. I’ve been in jail before, and I don’t want to go there again. If it weren’t for that ‘dozer I’d be at home right now, relaxing.”
Ann choked, thinking the whiner had said “Dover,” instead of “dozer.” In the moonlight, she saw a pistol stuck in his belt. Ann pointed to Jeff’s flashlight, and motioned to hold it up at the villains’ faces. She held up her camera. “This should get both faces and the Bobcat,” she thought.
“Get ready to swim,” she whispered to Jeff. “Turn the flashlight on . . . now!”
“I guess we’d better get started,” the other man began.
Jeff’s flashlight flicked on and Ann’s camera clicked.
The bigger man, who was just speaking, had been twirling the keys to the bulldozer on his thumb. Ann got a perfect shot of his face as he dropped the keys. “Get them!” the bigger one shouted at the other.
Ann and Jeff turned around and swam. They swam as if the lake would swallow them up if they didn’t get out of the water in half a breath.
Ann looked back. The smaller man was running the length of the dock. He reached the end and plunged in the water with a clumsy dive. He landed flat on his stomach with a slap; water sprayed up into the bigger man’s face, who was screaming at the other one. Ann didn’t look back but kept swimming, but Jeff didn’t. Even in the dark, she could make out his face from the man’s flashlight. He was smiling!
“Don’t swim, you idiot! Shoot them!” the man on the dock yelled.
“He can’t swim, look!” said Jeff. Ann looked and, sure enough, the man in the water was floundering around, more intent on trying not to drown than getting his gun out.
Reaching the other side of the small lake, Ann and Jeff scrambled under the fence. They ran across the bridge to the park, right into a policeman. Then they saw Jennifer. Jeff just pointed, but Ann said, “I left the camera under the dock, in case they’re not there.”
The police ran around to the gate and Jennifer walked the kids back home. “What happened to you guys? The police said someone walking by Mazzuchelli heard someone inside and called them.” She looked at them, soaked and dirty.
Jeff grinned at Ann, and picked a leech off his knee. “Let’s just say we don’t need any more swimming lessons.”
* * *
YEARS LATER . . .
“And the police found the camera, developed the picture, and caught the people who were trying to ruin the marsh. Their boss wanted the land to be sold for a mall that he would make profits from.”
Ann Dover sat with her husband on the dock, her auburn hair flying with the lake wind, and her naturalist name tag gleaming proudly.
Jeff smiled at her. “We grew up together, and that’s when we fell in love. Ann couldn’t leave the marsh, so her new job is teaching kids like you about it.”
The school kids, a little younger than Ann was when her class took a field trip to Mazzuchelli, stared at them.
“OK, kids, back to your teacher.” It was Jennifer. She winked at Ann and her husband as she ushered the kids back on land. Ann let out a deep sigh and looked into the water, which she knew was “full of life.”