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The Case of the Missing Z

Michael Zorn knew he was from another planet, he sure didn't feel like he belonged on this one.

Michael Zorn was angry. Every time a new teacher took over the class, the kids were moved around and seated alphabetically. For the teacher’s convenience. It didn’t matter how the kids felt about it. No more sitting next to his only friend, Josh Carter. And he’d just broken Josh in.

People always changed things for the dumbest reasons. Another thing wrong with this planet.

With a grunt of annoyance, Michael collected his stuff and headed toward the back of the room where he figured a Zorn would be sent.

“Michael Zorn, first seat, first row,” Ms. ‘Pipes’, pronounced ‘Peeps’, chirped.

Michael rolled his eyes at Josh, who’d settled in comfortably somewhere in the middle and was talking about baseball, his favorite topic, a game Michael now hated. Baseball was outlawed on planet Zorn, Michael decided.

Peeps was being creative, working the alphabet backwards. The A kids, Ahmed and Abernathy, sat in the back. The Z kid, Zorn being the only one, moved up front.

“Clever,” Michael muttered, not happy to be sitting directly in front of the Peeper’s desk, surrounded by kids he didn’t know and, therefore, hated.

Michael hated school enough as it was. Now, he’d actually have to pretend to pay attention.

“What happened to Mrs. Belcher?”

Michael deliberately mispronounced the former teacher’s name, earning him chuckles from the class.

“Maternity leave,” the Peeper replied, not sure how much she should say. “She had to leave earlier than she expected.”

“Belcher belched so much, she belched the baby out before it was time.”

The class laughed. The Peeper did not.

“That isn’t funny. It so happens that Mrs. Belker isn’t doing very well. Maybe the class can send her get well cards.”

“Yeah right,” someone muttered from the back of the class, one of the A kids, feeling brave, hidden away from the Peeper.

Being in his usual mood to hate everything, Michael Zorn decided to hate his name. Not the whole Zorn part, that was okay. Sounded like the name of an alien, cool since Michael was from the planet Zorn. Today, though he decided to hate the letter Z part. As in the Peeper whining at him, “Michael Zzzzzzorn, turn around and face front this instant.”

Michael needed to hate something new on a regular basis. He was making a list of the things he hated. Being an alien from the planet Zorn, he had the power to destroy whatever he hated but he didn’t want to be obvious. Just wait until the space ship that had delivered him from Zorn returned to take him home. Then, he could destroy everything he hated.

Hate was one of the humans strongest qualities, and the first thing Michael Zorn learned, the minute he set foot on the planet. Since nothing else was interesting, hating stuff helped him get through everyday stuff, like going to school. Michael concentrated on everything he hated instead of listening to what was going on in class.

Michael had added some people to his hate list.

He hated Mr. Jocks, the gym teacher, who made him sit out for “clowning around during class”. What? Instead of really focusing on kick ball? There was no kick ball on the planet Zorn. He would never have to worry about being the worst kick ball player and always losing on the planet Zorn.

He hated Jenny Gaskill, too. She pushed him to the ground in front of all the kids in the school yard just because he’d called her skinny. There were no skinny people on the planet Zorn…at least, none who were skinnier than Michael. He’d never be called fat there, the way Jenny teased him in the playground.

That was another thing about humans. They pretended they were something they weren’t and whenever somebody told them what they really were, they got mad. Zorn wasn’t like that.

This week, he started hating the bus driver, ancient Mrs. Fuzzlips. She yelled at him for mooning Josh Carter, after Josh got off the bus. Josh’s mother had met him at the bus stop that day. Michael was only trying to be funny so he could get save himself from being picked on by the big kids who sat in the back of the bus.

He hated Josh Carter’s mom because she didn’t think he was very funny.

He hated his kid sister, too. She couldn’t wait to run off the bus and tattle to mom. That got him grounded for the rest of the week. No tattlers on planet Zorn. No one would ever squeal on him once he got there. No sisters, either. All those people were nothings on Planet Zorn.

Now this Peeper comes along, inspiring something brand new to hate.

The letter Z. If it wasn’t for that Z, there’d be no me, Michael figured. Then I could get out of here and back to planet Zorn where I belong.

Michael stared at the alphabet cards running above the blackboard from one side of the classroom to the other. Reaching the end of the line of letters, he focused angrily on the letter Z.

He remembered being a little kid a million years ago and reciting the alphabet for the first time.

Old Mrs. Crab, the pre-school teacher, taught them to chant the alphabet, the way she learned it back in the 17 th century when kids lived in caves, wore animal skins, and rode in chariots to school.

Michael tuned out the class the way he always did when he wanted to concentrate his superior alien intelligence on something he hated.

That card with the letter Z.

Suddenly, light flashed in Michael’s eyes. The light shot toward the blackboard. Michael closed his eyes tight and slammed his head back against Chantelle Shumaker’s desk. Then he slumped to the floor.

“There goes Micheal Zorn again.” one of the kids whispered. The Peeper continued the math lesson.

Michael lifted his head and rubbed it. He’d bumped it hard on Chantelle’s desk. He opened his eyes. He hadn’t been taken away to planet Zorn. He was still in school. The Peeper’s voice droned like she was talking from under ten feet of jello. She was showing the class something on the Smart Board. Michael wondered why everything put on the smart board was so dumb.

He heard a voice from the other corner of the room.

“Something’s gone wrong. The universe is out of order.”

It was the letter A, shouting hysterically at Michael. A looked up and down the line of letters, following him along the wall. They had all bunched up. The alphabet looked like a mess of inky curves, lines, and squiggles.

C had turned around and had swallowed B’s lower bump. D’s huge belly had pushed E’s points through F. F and G tried to remain calm but realized they were mismatched, being two letters that never went together. I squeezed between H and J. J poked I in the eye with his sharp hook.

As usual, LMNOP stuck together. They sounded like a strange vegetable, elemenopea.

Her majesty, Q waited for King K to come to her rescue. Q stood apart from the rest of the alphabet, followed by her loyal maid, U. If U wasn’t with her all the time, Q couldn’t breathe a word.

R, S, and T, largest and boldest of the letters, stood tall, the strongest characters in the alphabet. The other letters couldn’t do much without them.

V and W held hands and waited quietly while vexed X crossed his arms.

Y ran along the line in confusion asking ‘whywhywhy?”

And finally, Z. The anchor of the alphabet, usually fast asleep at the end of the line. That was n’t the case now, upper or lower. Z was gone. A hole burned into the wall in Z’s place.

The door to the long forgotten book closet creaked open. A dust crusted book staggered out.

“It’s a dictionary,” Rachel Hazleton shouted. She was the class brainiac and knew all sorts of useless things…like what a dictionary was.

The Peeper panicked, locking herself in the closet.

The dictionary wheezed up to the front of the classroom and fell, open to the last page, beside Michael Zorn’s desk.

The dictionary ended at Y.

Animals jumped out of the dictionary. Every animal from aardvark to yak surrounded Michael Zorn’s desk.

Without the letter Z, there were no more zoos. The cages had all disappeared and the animals were freed. They expected Michael to take them to planet Zorn.

“What do you want me to do, build an ark?” he shouted. “You’ll have to wait for the space ship, like me.”

One shy creature hid behind a computer terminal.

“My stripes vanished,” the creature explained. “I used to be a zebra. I’m not sure what I am without the letter Z.”

“Take us with you Michael.” The animals growled and bleated, squealed and chirped, grunted and hissed.

Instead Michael giggled.

The kids thought Michael was being his usual rude weird self but then, all of the kids started giggling.

“Stop tickling me," Jose Guibas said to Marcia Hoover

“I’m not tickling you. You’re tickling me,” Marcia shot back.

I’m the tickler,” a tiny voice squeaked near Michael’s ear.

“A bee,” Michael Zorn announced. “Bees everywhere! How come we didn’t hear you come in?”

“We lost our buzzers. You try buzzing without a Z. Michael, this is serious. Without our buzz we can’t let flowers know we’re coming. They won’t be ready for us to pollinate them. No pollination means no more flowers or food.”

“Why should I care, I’m going home to planet Zorn. There aren’t any flowers there. No bees either. Just skateboard parks and stands that give away pizza and ice cream.”

There was more commotion in another part of the classroom. The beads on Mrs. Belker’s abacus started clacking against one another. The Belcher had brought in the abacus to show the class how people used to count before there were computers. Now the beads were making a racket.

“We know where Z went. And he took our zero.”

Z hated zero for being a nothing. Z wants to be counted. Z figured that if he hid zero he could amount to something.”

“Where would Z take zero?” Michael asked.

“Where else. The Land of Nothing .”

“How do we get there?”

“Michael, that’s where you come in. Do what you do best. Think of nothing.”

It was harder to think of nothing than Michael thought. Even thinking about nothing was thinking about something. He began thinking about everything he hated, finally reaching the letter Z.

As he thought, Michael realized that thinking about hate was really thinking about nothing worthwhile and cluttered his brain. But thinking about Z gave him an idea

“Since it no longer exists, I’ll think of a word with the letter Z. That should be nothing

A zipper opened down the middle of the blackboard. A portal to the land of Nothing .

Michael jumped through the zipper. Josh Carter followed. Michael was happy his friend came along. Rachel Hazleton joined them. She brought along the abacus

“In case things don’t add up,” she said.

A huge balloon floated above them..

“It’s a Zeppelin,” Rachel said.

The children were led aboard the balloon by a faceless being.

“Step to the rear,” it announced in a toneless voice. The creature had no eyes or ears, no nose or mouth. There were dozens of such creatures all exactly alike, working on the balloon.

They were ciphers from the Land of Nothing .

The children looked around the balloon. They weren’t the only passengers. An ancient man with long white hair and beard played with bolts of lightning, tossing them from one hand to another as they flashed bright white light.

“I am Zeus, father of the gods in Greek mythology,” the man shouted proudly.

“I can tell from the blank stares that you’ve never heard of me. Maybe you should read more books and play fewer video games.”

“I seek zeta. You call it Z. Without it, I can not exist.”

“You’re a myth, you don’t exist anyway.” Michael sneered. “Who cares what happens to somebody who doesn’t exist. There are no myths on planet Zorn.”

Josh said that it would be a sadder universe without those old stories. Michael looked at Zeus’ noble old face. Maybe something would be missing from his life without Zeus, even though he had no idea what that might be. He looked at Josh, feeling a little ashamed.

Even Josh Carter was smarter than me, Michael thought, hating Josh for it.

Suddenly, Josh’s face vanished. His clothes turned all grey …Josh became a cipher.

“In ancient times, I’d handle this by rolling out the thunder and lightning. You should have seen Olympus when I got going,” Zeus bragged.

“Mere parlor tricks,” another voice hissed.

A giant covered by a long grey cloak, rose before them.

“I too seek the Z,” the giant said. “I am Zephyr, the West Wind. Without Z, I can not blow. You can’t imagine all the hot air I’m holding inside.”

“Don’t blow up on us inside this balloon,” Rachel cautioned, just as a boy with curly blond hair ran clacking up the aisle.

“He’s wearing wooden shoes,” Michael said scornfully. “Whoever heard of wooden shoes?”

“I’m here to ask Z to return to save my homeland,” the boy explained. “Since he left, the Zuider Zee has been leaking. Without the dike, the sea will flood my country.

“Once upon a time, I could blow back the ocean with a single breath,” Zephyr noted.

“And I could push it back with my mighty hands.”

“Look at you,” Michael snarled. “Pathetic. Why, on the planet Zorn, I just think and make all the oceans disappear.”

Michael hated the little boy in the wooden shoes and wished the clacking would stop. Suddenly, the shoes disappeared. Then the boy’s face vanished. He became a cipher just like Josh.

The Zeppelin glided to a noiseless landing. The passengers emerged into a cloud. They couldn’t see one another.

“Here’s a toast of welcome to you all,” a shrill voice shouted gleefully. “Zwieback toast that is.”

Toast flew at them from all directions.

“Zip, zap, zing,” the toast sang.

“Zounds! Company,” the shrill voice giggled.

The missing Z!

Z emerged from a cloud. He was wearing a zoot suit.

“I’m a zany sort of guy, y’know.” Z laughed.

“Zut! What a day. Or is it night? Hard to tell here. Well, come in.”

“Why are you so happy?” Rachel demanded. “You’re nothing here.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, smarty,” Z answered. “I am something here. There’s no more zero so everything counts, especially little insignificant Z.”

Z wouldn’t stop laughing. That annoyed Michael. He hated the naughty letter. Z felt Michael’s anger and shivered.

“Michael?” Z asked slyly. “Don’t you know where we are?”

Michael scrunched his eyebrows, the way he did when someone asked him a hard question that made him think.

“This is the planet Zorn! All this is your doing! All that hatred of yours created those clouds for you to hide in. And the people are all ciphers here. You don’t have to care anything about them at all. Isn’t that great!”

Michael didn’t think it was great. He missed Josh already. And what about Rachel and the others? Would his hate turn them into ciphers?

“I came to Zorn to have fun,” Z explained. “Michael showed me the way. I watched him from the end of the wall. I was tired of always being last, pushed around by the rest of the alphabet. Here, I do or say whatever I want. No rules of grammar or punctuation can stop me.”

“But what about the zoos? The animals are homeless,” Rachel asked.

“And Zeus has lost his thunder,” Zephyr offered.

“And it’s hot without this guy blowing to cool things off,” Zeus added.

“Oh sure, put it all on me,” Z shot back. “I couldn’t have done it without him.”

Z pointed at Michael.

“Stop pouting and come along.”

The abacus stepped forward. It was talking in the Belcher’s voice! “The numbers need a zero and zero needs a Z. It all adds up.”

“You can’t have anything without nothing to measure it against. Planet Zorn will disappear too,” Rachel said.

“I never thought of it that way,” Michael replied. Everyone began talking at once. He wished Josh Carter was back. His only friend would stand between him and all the noise, like he used to. Michael missed Josh and was sorry for hating him.

“How can you say something is free if it can’t cost nothing?”

“How can we know if it’s cold outside if the temperature can’t go below zero?”

“How can a pitcher throw a no hitter if he can’t hold the other team to no hits?” Josh asked. He was back, still a baseball nut.

"How can we figure what comes after nine or ninety-nine or…” Rachel continued.

“I get it,” Michael shouted, realizing for the first time that Zorn without the Z was ‘orn’. Maybe that’s why he always felt ornery.

Seeing that his fun was done, Z agreed to return to the alphabet. The zipper reappeared, opening the way back to the classroom.

Everyone cheered when they came through. Z resumed its place at the end of the alphabet. The letters were all glad to see him. Not even X was vexed.

The dictionary returned to the closet. It started collecting dust again but the Z section had been restored and the animals had a zoo they could call home.

Outside, bees buzzed from flower to flower. A gentle breeze blew from the west.

And the Peeper? Having locked herself in the closet during all this, she had fallen fast asleep.

How did Michael know she was asleep?

Even with the closet door closed, he could hear her snoring…


This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

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