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On a bright morning in May the lady at the corner grocery store turned Derek Henshaw into a frog.
It happened very quietly. If Sarah and Ben hadn't been in the store looking for spaghetti for their science project, and if they hadn't been watching Derek to see what he was going to steal (he always stole something), no one -- except Derek and the woman -- would have known what happened.
But they were there. They saw it all from behind the rack of potato chips. Derek slipped a water pistol into his pocket. A hand reached out from around the corner and touched him on the left shoulder. A voice spoke a single word.
Derek was gone. On the floor in the middle of the aisle was a frog. The frog blinked once, croaked twice, and hopped out the open door. The woman who worked at the store smiled to herself all the way back to the till.
Ben looked at Sarah and Sarah looked at Ben. Of one mind, they ducked low. They crept behind the potato chips and around a large stack of toilet paper to where they could see through the front windows of the store.
Derek Henshaw was sitting on the curb in front of the store. He looked two shades sneakier and tougher and even more bad-tempered than he usually did, but he was no longer a frog. The only thing at all peculiar about him, in fact, was the way he was sitting with his large knobbly knees up around his ears.
As Sarah and Ben watched, first one leg and then the other slipped down into a normal position. Derek stood up and looked around. He spotted Sarah and Ben watching him from behind the windows. He scowled at them, but he did not come back into the store. Instead, he turned and walked away down the street. And although one could tell he was trying to walk in a perfectly normal way, there was the oddest hitch to his step; a small, half-stifled jerk that had faded, but still had not gone completely, when he finally passed from view.
"That's it," whispered Ben. "I'm leaving."
He and Sarah stole down the aisle, out the door, and around the corner of the building.
"Wait," called Sarah as they reached the alley.
Ben stopped and looked at Sarah. Sarah crept back to the edge of the building and peered around the corner.
Through the windows Sarah could see the woman who worked behind the counter of the store. She was filling the slush machine. Sarah had seen her countless times before but this time she looked with renewed interest.
The woman was perfectly normal-looking, not too tall and not too short, with dark eyes and long dark hair that she wore braided and pinned neatly around her head. If her hair had been short and her eyes not quite so dark, she would have looked a good deal like Sarah's Aunt Em, except that Sarah's Aunt Em didn't go around turning people into frogs. Not that Sarah knew of, at least.
Sarah knew the woman's name. She had heard it spoken once in the store and she had remembered it. It was a rather grand name for someone who looked so ordinary. Her name was Anastasia Morningstar.
Sarah Mathews and Ben Clark lived across the street from each other. Sarah lived with her mother. Ben lived with his mother, his father, three brothers, two sisters, his grandfather, two dogs, three budgies, and a cousin who came and went from time to time. When Sarah wanted to liven up her day, she went over to Ben's house. When Ben needed a little peace and quiet, he went over to Sarah's house. They both had other good friends but, all in all, Sarah and Ben understood each other. That was why Ben knew, without needing to ask, that Sarah was thinking very,
very hard as they walked home together. Sarah thought very hard about a good number of things. It was a little frightening at times.
"I think she did it by mass hypnosis," said Ben at last as they rounded the corner onto their street.
Sarah looked at Ben and frowned.
"Either that or she used mirrors," said Ben.
Sarah frowned even harder.
"In any case," said Ben, "I think we should both keep out of Derek's way for about two years, just in case he thinks we had something to do with it."
"Something to do with what?" asked Sarah.
"You know," said Ben. "It."
"It what?" asked Sarah.
Ben looked over his shoulder to make sure no one could hear them.
"Derek being turned into a frog!" he said.
Sarah looked at Ben and smiled. It was not a very big smile. It was just big enough to show exactly how she felt.
"I don't think it was mass hypnosis or mirrors either," she said. "I think she really turned him into a frog."
"But how could she do it?" demanded Ben.
"I don't know," said Sarah. "But she did."
"She'd have to be really, really weird," said Ben. "I mean really weird."
"I know," said Sarah. "In fact, she's perfect."
"Perfect?" asked Ben.
"For my science project," said Sarah.
Ben's eyebrows dropped low over his eyes.
"We're building the world's tallest spaghetti tower," said Ben. "Structural engineering."
"That's what you want to do, Ben," said Sarah. "You're the one that's interested in building things. The only reason you let me in on it was because Mr. Wyanth asked you to. He thinks I can't find anything good to do on my own. Well, I just have."
What Sarah had said was true. Mr. Wyanth didn't have a lot of confidence about Sarah's science projects, especially after the magical moving rice she'd brought to school.
They were standing now in front of Ben's house. They could hear rock music thumping from the basement, a video game zoinking in the living room, a clarinet being practiced by an upstairs window, a budgie chirping in the kitchen and someone shouting,
"Hey, Jumbo, get out of the garbage!" Jumbo was a miniature terrier.
"Mr. Wyanth isn't going to like this," said Ben, sitting on the front steps. "You know how he is about science. He likes it straight no talking animals, no incredible superheroes. I've a feeling that what you're getting into is worse than either."
"I'll handle Mr. Wyanth," said Sarah. "But will you help me at least, Ben? I might, you know, need help."
Ben knew exactly what Sarah meant.
"I don't want to be turned into a frog," he said.
"We're not going to steal anything," said Sarah. "And anyway, Derek turned right back into his rotten old self as soon as he was out of the store."
"And I still want to build a spaghetti tower," said Ben. "It doesn't really have to be the tallest one in the world but I want it to be pretty big and I want it to be able to support some sort of weight to prove it's strong. That takes time to figure out."
"I'll help," said Sarah. "I'll do everything exactly the way you tell me to do it and I won't even change things when you're not looking."
This sounded fine to Ben. There was, however, still something bothering him.
"I don't want to be known as the school crazy, either," said Ben.
"That's why we're not going to tell anybody except Mr. Wyanth," said Sarah. "Mr. Wyanth doesn't think much of me, you know. He says he's going to flunk me in science if my project isn't any good."
"Can you blame him, Sarah?" asked Ben.
"I didn't claim it was real rice," said Sarah defensively. "I didn't make anybody eat it. I can't help it if magnets and maggots sound the same. And how was I to know maggots turn into flies?"
Ben just shook his head. He'd hadn't thought about that