By: Laurie Stewart
Aspiring fifth-grade scientist Candy and her best friend Kiera are determined to win first prize for their project at the science fair and a chance at the summer STEM camp, but when a series of thefts rocks their small southern Missouri grade school, they must solve the mystery and catch the thief before their principal cancels the fair and wrecks their hopes.
Candy knew she should apologize for snapping at her friend. “Maybe one of them took the books,” she said before she knew she would.
Kiera squinted at Candy. “‘Cause Jacob’s dad is in jail, you think Jacob’s a crook too?”
“I didn’t mean that. But they never did figure out who did it. I wonder if they’re still trying.”
“Of course they are. They have to buy all new books to replace those, and I heard maybe they won’t be able to, ‘cause there’s not enough money left. Something about the book budget already being spent.”
“Wow.” Candy thought about that. “So whoever took the books didn’t just take them from the school, or from the library. They took them from everyone here.”
Kiera nodded. “Yep. And every class from now on, ‘cause you see how long some of the books stay in the library. Some of the Nancy Drew books have checkout dates from the ‘90s.”
“Or the library had to buy new ones when the old ones got worn out.”
Candy wasn’t worried about it. Mrs. Brandt had gotten her the two water books she’d wanted, and their project would be the best in their class. Mrs. Ellis had posted a list once everyone turned in their ideas, and most of the others looked like the person doing it had Googled “Science fair project fifth grade” and done whatever came up first. Only two others looked like they’d be really good. Ruby was going out at night with flashlights covered in different-colored cellophane, then seeing what moths came to what colored lights. She figured the results could be used to help endangered species. Ethan was being top-secret about his, but he’d gone to the third-grade classroom a couple of times, once with a bunch of papers that looked like field trip permission slips.
Candy figured the commotion on the playground was something to do with his project. He was in the middle of the group of kids by the swings, talking to a third-grade boy. The kid took something from a cooler Ethan held out to him and took a big bite.
“I bet they had to sign off they’re not allergic to whatever he’s feeding them,” Candy said just as Ethan said something to the kid. The boy gurgled, bent over, and threw up all over the gravel, loudly enough they could hear the splash.
A couple of kids screamed. One clapped. Most of them cheered and whooped with laughter.
“Dude!” Ethan yelled. “I hope they don’t make me clean that up!”
Kiera held her nose. “What did he do?”
“Gave him something to eat. Probably something gross.” Candy shook her head. “Boys. Come on, this is the day that science fair judge is here.”
Ethan left his cooler in the cafeteria kitchen, so no one knew what was in it, but the whole fifth-grade chattered about it. “That’s why he used third-graders,” Kiera said, nodding. “They can talk about him all day in their classroom and we’ll never hear what they’re saying.”
“Why’s he feeding them stuff that makes them throw up?” Candy’s nose scrunched. She felt like she could still smell the third-grader’s mess, although really, she never had. A teacher had come over and hustled everyone else inside right away. “What kind of science project is that?”
Kiera’s head tipped to one side and her butterfly earrings dangled against her neck. Candy envied them. Her mom wouldn’t even let her pierce her ears until she was twelve. “I bet it’s something psychological. I mean, he can’t poison them, right? If Mrs. Ellis won’t let us use nicotine on plants, she sure wouldn’t let Ethan feed poison to the little kids.”
The science judge arrived later that morning, bringing a couple of college students with her. They talked about adult stuff like careers in biology and chemistry. Candy could see herself being a biologist with the Conservation Department, but she didn’t think she’d like being a chemist, which sounded like pouring liquids from one beaker to another all day.
Then the professor talked about the STEM camp. It sounded even better than Candy thought—the kids were going to stay all week in the dorms at the community college, like grown-ups. When the professor asked how many of the students were planning to go, Ethan’s hand shot in the air so hard Candy expected him to topple out of his chair—and hoped he would. Kiera raised her hand as well, and gave Candy’s arm a gentle tug. You’re going, she mouthed. Ruby, the girl with the moth project, also raised her hand.
The professor smiled. “We’ll be happy to have all of you. Everyone else, if you want to go, please try to sign up in the next couple of weeks. We’re taking students from all over Ripley, Carter, and Butler counties, and the slots are filling up.”
They wouldn’t be competing against all those kids for the scholarships. The first-place winner at each grade school would get one, thanks to a donation from one of the big banks. But Candy wasn’t sure if she should sign up now. The scholarship wouldn’t be given out until after the fair, at the beginning of May. If the money had to be paid when they registered, she wouldn’t have it. She wanted to ask the lady, but not in front of everyone.
Especially not Ethan. He was already smirking at her.