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I sat down to read my email on the first day of winter semester. “Professor Howard,” one of them read. “My name is Shanae, and I am in your math class. I won’t be there today. I hope you won’t drop me from your class. I’m not sure when I will get there. We had a family emergency. I don’t have any clothes or anything to wear. I know this isn’t making sense, but it’s a long story. I will explain when I get there. I’ll try to get there as soon as I can.”

I have received a lot of strange emails from students over the years, and each time I do, I can hardly wait to hear the explanation. It was almost a full week after the semester started before Shanae arrived. She came to class and asked me what seat was available. I pointed out the only one that was left. She sat down, and we started class.

“Shanae,” I said, “I had all of the other students introduce themselves the first day, but you weren’t here. Would you mind taking a minute to tell us a little about yourself?”

Shanae nodded and rose to her feet. She told us the basic things. She was a freshman, hoping to major in nursing. She told us the town she was from and a few other interesting facts.

“You are starting class almost a week late,” I said. “You wrote that the reason you’d be late coming to school was a long story. Is it something you can share with us?”

She smiled and nodded. “It’s an interesting story, and it might sound a little strange. You see, my family lives on a ranch which takes up most of a small valley. Our nearest neighbor lives about a mile away. We have to go about forty miles to the nearest town to buy groceries and stuff like that.

“On the other side of the mountain from where we live is a big ski resort. On winter nights, it lights up the sky above the mountain. In the winter, almost everyone gets part time jobs in town to help support the influx of people coming to the ski resort. My dad works on the ranch in the summer, but in the winter he works in town at a sporting goods store. My mother works as a waitress in a restaurant for the breakfast and lunch shifts.

“Every morning we would all get up and drive to town, and we kids would go to school while Mom and Dad worked. But since I graduated last spring, I got a job this winter working at the restaurant with Mom.

“Just a couple of days before I was to come here, my dad picked up Mom and me after work, and then we picked up my brothers and sister from school. When we got home, we found our home had been blown up. Everything was destroyed; our clothes, furniture—everything.”

The class gasped. “What happened?” a boy asked.

“We wondered that ourselves,” Shanae said. “But we didn’t know. The sheriff and the county investigator came, and at first they assumed it was a gas explosion from our propane tank. But then the investigator found evidence of something. It was a mortar shell. Our house had been bombed. The sheriff figured it had been done on purpose and asked us questions about whether we had any enemies, or if anyone who would want to kill us. It was scary. We drove back to town and got a hotel room. We didn’t dare let anyone know where we were except the sheriff and the investigator.

“We were nervous about going to work or school the next day, afraid that whoever wanted to kill us would come back. But then the sheriff came to the hotel. He said he had found out it was an accident.

“An accident!” a girl in class said. “How does someone blow up your home with a mortar shell and claim it was an accident?”

“Well,” Shanae said, “it appears the ski resort was firing mortars onto the hillside to trigger avalanches to make skiing safer. The idiot firing them happened to aim one too high, and it went over the mountain.”