- Doug Dalglish
How It All Ends
(Note: occasionally, Story Sanctum will publish the first chapters of upcoming novels. Here is one from writer Doug Dalglish)
The old building stood alone in the center of a vast and flat horizon. It was three stories tall and showed signs of decay from withstanding decades of sea wind and hurricanes. Justo Contreras stood in the salty, sandy parking lot, looking up the concrete stairway leading to the building’s entrance.
Is this the place for me, for us? he wondered.
Justo walked up the stairs and tried to open one of the glass doors. It was locked. He looked at himself in the reflection of the glass. Tall and thin. His eye sockets seemed a little dark and sunken. In his black suit, he looked like a very somber man, he thought. An undertaker, perhaps. Maybe a tired businessman.
He walked down the stairs and around the building. As he reached the corner of the building, the sea wind hit him and threw him slightly off balance. Sea gulls hovered over the sand. In the distance, a pelican was gliding over the waves. Justo pressed his hand against the corner of the building, to steady himself against the stiff, salty wind. He looked out to the open water, the great Gulf of Mexico.
That is where Julia died, he thought.
“And so here is where I will build my new world,” he said quietly to himself.
He heard a car pull into the parking lot near the front entrance of the building. He turned to see the friar priest and the lawyer step out of the car. Justo walked quickly to greet them.
“Brother James,” Justo said as his shook the friar priest’s hand, “it’s good to see you.”
The friar priest was a friendly looking man, a little taller than Justo. The attorney was a very well-dressed woman of middle age.
“Justo!” the friar priest smiled. “I’m glad you found the place.”
“It’s hard to miss. It’s the only building for miles,” Justo said.
“This is the diocesan attorney, Julie Peterson,” the friar priest said. “I don’t believe you’ve met.”
“Julie?” Justo said thoughtfully. “That was my wife’s name. Julia.”
The attorney smiled and shook Justo’s hand, unsure of how to respond to Justo’s reference to his deceased wife. For a moment, her professional demeanor dropped, and she felt like an awkward schoolgirl at a loss for words.
“It’s good to finally meet you,” she said.
“Is everything in order?” Justo asked.
“Let’s go inside and we’ll show you,” the friar priest said.
He led them up the steps, unlocked the doors, and arranged them around a little table in the reception area. The attorney passed around a set of papers for each of them.
“As you know, the land is leased on a 99-year agreement to the county which then has a covenant agreement with the diocese. The county can only transfer that covenant to a not-for-profit agency. Probably due to the remote location of the building, your school is the only organization that has shown any interest in the property.”
“This is a challenging location,” Brother James said, “but I would hate to see this school disappear. We’ve spent so much of the church’s resources to keep it in repair. I hope a new school under your leadership can benefit from the work we’ve done.”
“And before the church operated the school, it was a military facility?” Justo asked.
“Yes,” the attorney said. “It was used as barracks and offices for the Navy when it was built, around 1940. After the Korean War it was empty until the church took it over.”
“And why did the school fail?” Justo asked.
“The location was simply too remote,” Brother James said. “We never learned how to fill the school, with families so distant. But it sounds like your international school has experience with such things.”
Justo nodded. He stood and walked across the reception area towards the windows that looked out to sea.
“This is the place,” he said.
“Do you mind if I ask why you’re doing this?” the attorney asked. “Schools are closing down across the nation. As the number of infections rise, parents are keeping their children at home. Why try to start a new school?”
“We may very well be facing the end,” Justo said. “But I’d like to face it on my own terms.”
Two women sat around a small campfire. One was old, and her skin was tanned by too many years in the sun. The other was middle-aged and slender, with long black hair streaked with gray and tied back in a tight braid. The sun was setting as the older one stood and poured water over the flames.
“Don’t want to be seen at night,” she said. She quenched the fire so expertly that almost no smoke arose from the coals.
“The stars are amazing out here at night,” the younger woman said.
The old woman agreed, nodding her head.
“We have a lot of time to watch them,” the younger woman said. “The nights are so long it can start to drive you crazy. But then I have to admit that I miss the long, dark nights when I’m back in civilization. It’s hard to know where I belong.”
“That means our plan is working,” the older woman said. “This will be our home someday if we succeed.”
The younger woman looked around. The land was flat and extended seemingly forever. Nothing could be seen but grass and scrub and cactus.
“How many people are we talking about?” the younger woman asked. “At the very most, how many?”
“You’re the one doing the research on this. How many are there room for?”
“If we were totally on our own… I just don’t know. It takes so much land to support just a few of us. Hundreds of acres. Even then, I think we’d start to deplete the food sources. Things grow very slowly out here in the desert.”
“We’ll need to have a number in mind. This is going to be a reality soon.”
“Okay, then, here’s another factor to consider,” the younger woman said. “If we had no outside help at all, and if we had enough land to supply the resources, what would be the survival rate? How many would survive even three years out here?”
“In three years? We’d lose a quarter of them—to infection, to hunger, to lack of medical care. And ten years out, not half would be alive.”
The younger woman considered this. “One half dead? That’s worse than the worst-case scenarios for urban centers.”
The older woman stirred the wet coals and watched the last few red and glowing spots die away.
“But that means half might live,” she said. “Let’s keep working. We owe it to the ones who survive to get this right.”
The young man swung gently in his hammock. It was another hot night. He thought about turning on his bedroom fan, but worried about his electricity rations. Even though he was leaving today he didn’t want to use all his rations. He hoped maybe his mom would enjoy using them after he was gone.
His neuro chip informed him it was 6:29 a.m. and 89 degrees Fahrenheit. He did the calculation in his head—that would be 32 degrees Celsius. He checked with his neuro chip; the correct answer was 31 degrees Celsius. Pretty close, he thought. His answer would’ve been counted wrong on the national standardized test, but it was close enough for him.
He slipped out of his hammock and walked over to his third-floor window. His artificial foot clicked against the wooden floor. He kept meaning to replace the padding on the bottom of his foot so that he could walk more quietly.
His window looked out over a long line of residential high-rise apartment buildings. His street looked like the other hastily constructed neighborhoods in the city of Waterloo—tall buildings generously surrounded by carefully protected trees and shrubs, ending at a central plaza.
A number of people were already walking to work. The electrobus station was two blocks away. If he were going to school today, he would have to start walking to the station by 6:55 a.m. But he wasn’t going to that school ever again, so he had plenty of time.
He grabbed his robe and walked to the bathroom. Click-step, click-step, click-step. His foot was beginning to annoy him. He hung up his robe and touched the shower stall. His two-minute water allocation registered.
He stepped into the shower and pushed the 30-second button. Cool water rained down. After the initial shock of the cold, it felt great. Once the water stopped, he grabbed the ecosoap and lathered up. He shaved what little facial hair he had, then pushed the 30-second button again to rinse off. As soon as the water stopped, he hit the button again. Thirty seconds later, he was finished.
He dried off, put on his robe, and walked to the kitchen. He looked in a cabinet and grabbed a NutriVitaPro breakfast disk and a bowl. He set the bowl on the kitchen table, crumbled the disk into the bowl, and then topped the crumblings with some dried cranberries. The resulting granola-like mixture would keep him going until lunch. His neuro chip recommended he drink 1.5 liters of water with breakfast, so he got up and filled a glass with water.
“Good morning, mijo!” his mom said, walking out of her bedroom. “I’ve got a surprise for you. Your father and I rented an electrocar to take you to your new school today.”
“Mom, that’s crazy,” the boy said. “That’s going to cost a lot.”
“But it will be much more comfortable, and it will be easier to talk on the way,” his mom said. “We’re not going to see you again until Christmas.”
“Good idea,” the boy said.
Secretly he was worried about what his mom wanted to talk about on the three-hundred-mile trip.
As it turned out, she didn’t say much. They had already discussed the fact that rural areas seemed to be less affected by the worst of the new superbugs. Beto would be safer in this school. His parents would stay as safe as they could in the city.
At the school, they moved Beto into his room. He hugged his mom then waved to his dad, who was already in the car. His mom got into the electrocar, and they drove away. Beto was left alone in the parking lot of the school. The nonstop wind was aggravating. Just like being here at this school was aggravating. The world was falling apart, and the best his parents could think of doing was to send him away.
He had just moved into his room and met his weird roommate, Simon. Simon was actually happy to be here. Evidently no schools still operated in the little town in Mexico where he was from.
Everyone said this was a great school. It was a great opportunity, his dad had said. You’ll get to make friends from all over the world, his mom had said.
Beto did not want to go inside the school. Instead, he stood in the parking lot and looked at his surroundings. He saw a big, ugly school building. A boys’ dorm on the right. A girls’ dorm on the left. And then nothing as far as the eye could see. Sand and grass and ocean stretched seemingly forever. No convenience stores. No coffee shops. He thought about running away, but he would probably die in this blazing sunlight. It was hot out here.
According to his neuro chip, it was thirty-seven degrees Celsius. He had a meeting with the headmaster in ten minutes. And he was beginning to sweat in the heat. It was time to go inside.
The school receptionist greeted him.
“Are you all settled in your room?” she asked. She was a pleasant-looking woman. She acted as if she was accustomed to calming down panicky students.
“Yes, ma’am,” Beto said. “I’m ready for my meeting with the headmaster.”
“You’ll make a better impression if you refer to him as Director,” Mrs. Mendoza said, emphasizing the Spanish pronunciation. “Director Contreras. He’s a very formal man.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Beto replied as politely as he could. “I’ll try to remember that.”
“Mr. Gonzalez?” a voice said.
Beto turned to see the headmaster addressing him. He had a friendly smile.
“Welcome to our school,” the headmaster said. “I am sure you will find it both challenging and enjoyable.”
He spoke with a distinctly Spanish accent.
“Thank you, Director,” Beto said. He thought he should say something else, like “I’m happy to be here,” but he wasn’t. So, he just shook hands and waited for the headmaster to say something.
“Please come to my office and I will speak with you about your academic record,” Director Contreras said. “And if you have any questions for me I’ll be happy to address them.”
Beto followed. They walked up the stairs. Director Contreras moved quickly and Beto had trouble keeping up. After climbing the first set of stairs, the headmaster paused.
“I’m sorry to be going so slowly,” Beto said. “I have an artificial foot. It doesn’t negotiate stairs very quickly.”
“Ah, yes. I saw that in your records. You lost your foot to an infection?”
“Yes, sir. One of the superbugs that we have no antibiotics for,” Beto said. “Someday when I stop growing, I hope to invest in a really good foot.”
“We’re seeing too many students affected by the superbugs,” Director Contreras said. “Maybe out here on this island we’ll have fewer of those terrible new bacterial strains.”
Beto nodded in agreement. Director Contreras looked around at the grand hallway of the second floor.
“Most of the faculty members have offices on the ground floor. This floor holds most of the classes for underclassmen. Upperclassmen are usually on the third floor. As is my office.”
Beto looked down the long hallway with door after door of classrooms. The school had a very old, institutional look to it. High ceilings and wide halls. A slight smell of mildew. Director Contreras continued up the stairs.
His office was the first door at the top of the stairs. They entered the office; it was huge—the size of a classroom. On one side of the room was a large table with wooden chairs around it. An ornate silver coffee service sat on a small table against the wall.
“I’ve only seen those in movies,” Beto said, indicating the coffee service. “It must be an antique.”
Director Contreras nodded. “It belonged to my wife’s grandmother.”
“And coffee is so rare these days,” Beto said. “I’ve never actually tasted it.”
“Ah! Then that may be a small pleasure you will experience here. We often receive coffee as a gift from our African students. Since the coffee industry in Central America failed, there are few other sources.”
“Is it much different from the holly tea we drink for breakfast?” Beto asked.
Director Contreras frowned. “Although I admire the Americans for reviving the use of their own native holly for caffeinated beverages, I must say it does not compare in flavor or aroma to coffee. But that is merely my preference.”
Beto nodded and turned to see the rest of the huge office. Towards the back of the room was a large desk, and behind it was a magnificent view of the gulf. He walked to the windows and looked out over the ocean.
“It is quite beautiful, is it not?” the Director asked.
“It’s amazing,” Beto said.
Finally, Beto turned around to look for a place to sit when his eye was caught by the sight of a framed picture on the wall next to the Director’s desk. The photo was a portrait of a woman looking, not at the camera, but off into the distance.
“Director,” Beto asked, “who is this?”
“That is a photo of my wife, now deceased,” the Director said.
Deceased? Beto thought. He felt a wave of sadness move over him as he looked at the photo.
“I’m sorry,” Beto said.
“It is a sad thing to lose the love of one’s life,” Director Contreras said. “I hope it is a feeling you may be spared. But we all suffer sadness and loss, true?”
Beto nodded in agreement.
“Please have a seat,” Director Contreras said, indicating a comfortable-looking upholstered chair. “And speaking of sadness and loss, I see on your application that you are coming to our school under less than favorable conditions.”
“Yes, sir,” Beto answered. He had prepared himself for this line of questioning. “I’ve lost several family members.”
“I am familiar with the circumstances that you describe, having spoken at length with your parents. And then following those terrible losses, your grades dropped. Understandable,” the headmaster said. “But why have you chosen this school?”
“My parents felt it would be best for me to leave the city,” Beto said.
“But why this school, Mr. Gonzalez? There are many other schools in many different communities.”
“It’s a religious school, and my parents thought that might be good for me,” Beto said. “And the international aspect of the school seemed interesting to me.”
Director Contreras nodded, listening intently. When Beto failed to say anything more, the headmaster smiled.
“Most of the students here feel very fortunate to have been granted a place in this school. It is an exceptional institution. We choose our students carefully.”
“Then why accept me?” Beto asked. “I’m not an especially good student.”
“Your previous teachers have described you as creative—sometimes too creative for your own good. Many people struggle in their youth until they learn to control their intelligence and creativity. I see potential in you, Mr. Gonzalez.”
“Thank you, sir,” Beto said. “But I think my record also shows that I often neglect to do my homework. And I’m tardy to class a lot. I’m maybe not as great a student as you think.”
“Not yet perhaps. Maybe you have not yet discovered your passion,” the headmaster said. “We will challenge you here. I think you will find this school both difficult and worthwhile. It will require all of your heart and soul and mind and strength.”
“That’s a quote from the Bible,” Beto said.
“I am glad you recognize the reference,” the director said. “But consider the meaning. This is not just a school. This is something much bigger, as far as I am concerned.”
Beto was impressed by the intensity of the man sitting before him. No one had ever spoken to him like this before.
“Wow,” Beto said. “This gives me a lot to think about.”
After the interview, Director Contreras led Beto to the auditorium, which was already full of students. A woman on the stage approached the podium and the room fell silent.
“Now that we are all here,” she said, “let me introduce myself. I am the lead teacher of this school, Maestra Naomi Solis. You may refer to me by my title, Maestra. Welcome to the Lindheimer School. You will see around you students from all over the world.”
As she spoke, Beto began to think he would end up liking this woman. She spoke with intelligence, kindness, and a little humor.
“Each of us, students and faculty, have chosen to come to this isolated place, this lonely island, because we know the importance of education and none of us are willing to settle for anything less than excellence. Look around this island and you will see that there is very little reason for us to be here, if not for your education. I take this very seriously, and I expect you to do the same.”
Beto heard whispering around the auditorium, and he realized that some students were quietly translating what Maestra Solis was saying to some of the younger students. He remembered that many of the students here did not yet speak English. Each student had a neuro chip that would translate for them, but the chips were never as accurate and understandable as a fluent human translator.
Beto began to search the open neuro channels and he quickly found the Spanish translation. He scanned a few other channels, hearing other languages he didn’t know. But then he found an English channel. Some female student was providing a running commentary on Maestra Solis’ speech.
“Most of the faculty at the Lindheimer School have come here from our previous campus and have many years of experience in our system. You will come to know them very well. Sister Virginia Elizondo, PhD, is our director of religious instruction.”
In the auditorium, a thin woman dressed in black stood up and gave a brief nod and smile to the audience.
"That evil witch gave me a B last year on my final paper,” the commentator said. “And now that grade is lowering my GPA when it’s a class I don’t even need for college. I wish she had stayed at the old school.”
Beto noticed a few quiet laughs in the audience.
“Ms. Yu-Ju Lin is the head of our history department.”
“She’s okay. But we end up learning world history from a Chinese perspective. In college we’ll be like, ‘Oh, yeah, Queen Elizabeth. Wasn’t she during the Ming Dynasty?’”
“Natural science and mathematics is led by Dr. Carl Stewart.”
An older man dressed in boots and a bolo tie stood up and waived. He seemed to be unable to stand up completely straight.
“He’s awesome. Why isn’t he the headmaster of the school? Instead, we have the crazy man from a gothic novel, wandering around on the beach at night obsessed with his dead wife.”
“Our field laboratory program is headed again by Antonio Reyes. Of course, Antonio is in the field as usual, so he’s not here today. But you returning students know him well. And for you new students, you will be learning about our field program soon.”
“I cannot wait to start in the field program. No classes. No research papers. This spring is gonna be awesome!”
“Finally, I am the head of the English department and your lead teacher. Since many of you will be working hard to learn English, we will spend a lot of time together.”
“If she would spend less time with her students and more time with Director Contreras, maybe the school would be better for all of us. She wouldn’t be so lonely, and he wouldn’t be so depressed. And they might give us a little more time to be kids instead of doing homework all the time.”
“And now, I’d like to introduce our headmaster, Director Justo Contreras.”
“Notice how she has that little smile whenever she talks about him. She definitely has the hots for him.”
Director Contreras jogged up the stairs to the stage and shook Maestra Solis’ hand.
“A handshake? Here’s this beautiful, single, smart woman who’s totally in love with you and you shake her hand? The man is hopeless!”
“Thank you, Maestra,” the Director said. “The school is fortunate to have you as our lead teacher. And thank you to all our staff. Working here will be an intense experience. We are fifty miles from the nearest grocery store, and even farther from most of your families. But I promise that we will make this experience worthwhile for both our students and our faculty.
“I have two important announcements to begin the year. First, as many of you know, I was the one who started the field laboratory program five years ago. That program has flourished, and this new school will now be the home base for that program. It is my hope that every student in this school will be involved in the program in some way. It’s my firm belief that the best way to learn is to get out into the real world and face real situations.”
"And to spend a few weeks with Antonio Reyes is the kind of real world situation I’m looking forward to. That young man is gorgeous!”
“Second, I have some very good news. We will have a guest lecturer with us this year who is doing truly innovative work. She is very excited about our field laboratory program and wants to be a part of it.
“Dr. Celeste Esquivel Caballero has done groundbreaking work in how cultural mythology shapes and limits educational possibilities. Another way of saying this is that we are limited in what we can achieve by our beliefs. In the generations before Columbus, Europeans had no reason to think you could go east by traveling west. And even if you could, the distances were too far for ships to travel. But Columbus, as a sailor along the western seas of Europe, kept meeting people who told him rumors of lands to the west. Eventually, he believed these stories enough to risk his life trying to reach those lands. And once he did it, the whole world changed.
“Dr. Esquivel’s work centers around creating new possibilities by controlling our social mythology. Our parents believed they had to have electricity twenty-four hours a day to be comfortable. They spent huge amounts of money to keep lights on all night. They heated every building every hour of the day in winter. They cooled every building every hour of the day in summer. These were things they believed they must have, even though no one in the history of the world had ever needed them before. As you all know, our mythology has changed. We ask ourselves each day how little can we use instead of how much. Dr. Esquivel is coming to help us create a mythology for this school, our own mythology, so that we can do things others assume impossible.”
“Well that sounds totally crazy. We’re all going to be lab rats for Director Contreras’ new social experiment. Like I said, I’ll be very happy to head out into the wilderness with Antonio while the rest of you have your minds altered.”
“Finally, I want to welcome each of you to the new possibilities of this school year. Now get to your classes and work hard.”
Beto followed the instructions from his neuro chip to Ms. Lin’s history class on the second floor. He sat at a two-person table. A few seconds later, a girl sat next to him.
“Hi, I’m Adriana,” the girl said.
“Hi, Adriana. I’m Beto.”
“You’re new,” said the girl.
“This is a really good school,” Adriana said. “You’ll like it. Everyone is very friendly here.”
Beto noticed that Adriana spoke with a Spanish accent. She had a cute, round face, long, brown, wavy hair, and brown eyes. He noticed something odd about her right eye.
“You went to the old school?” Beto said. “What was it like?”
“Much the same as this one, except this school is in a more isolated place. But the ocean is beautiful. I really like it here.”
“Hey!” someone behind Beto said. “You’re an American.”
Beto turned around and saw two boys, one smiling at him and one looking very serious, almost depressed.
“You know how I can tell you’re an American?” the smiling boy said.
Beto shrugged, not sure if this was the beginning of some kind of hazing or something else.
“You have the NC3 neuro chip,” the boy said, pointing to the chip behind his own ear. “Those of us on visas can only have the NC2. We can’t get video. And we can only access the short version of Wiki Mem.”
“Oh, really?” Beto said. “I didn’t know that.”
“By the way, my name is Gonzalo,” the boy said.
“Good to meet you, I’m Beto.”
“Did you notice how Adriana’s right eye kind of moves slower than her left?” the boy said. “She has an artificial eye. The NC2 chip makes it move just a little too slow to look natural.”
Beto looked at Adriana, who didn’t look embarrassed at all.
“Wow. I didn’t notice your eye at all,” he lied. “It looks great. Very natural.”
“Thank you,” Adriana said, smiling.
“But with a chip like yours, her eye would be perfect. The NC3 is awesome,” Gonzalo continued. “Yeah, Juan and I are going to make sure we study with you,” the boy said, pointing to himself and then the silent boy next to him.
Ms. Lin walked in, and the students began to turn their attention to her. Ms. Lin was small in stature and relatively young, but she held herself with a degree of authority. She gave a stern glance at Gonzalo, and he immediately stopped talking.
Adriana leaned close to Beto and whispered, “You’ll like those two. Juan is really smart. And Gonzalo is very friendly.”
“Thanks,” Beto whispered back.
Ms. Lin began to write something on the board. It was in Chinese. Beto watched closely as she wrote. After the first two Chinese symbols, Ms. Lin began writing in English, “It is not the failure of others to appreciate your abilities that should trouble you, but rather your failure to appreciate theirs (Analects 1.16).”
Adriana wrote this in her spiral notebook, so Beto did the same.
“Every week I will write a quote from Master Kong on the board. These first two symbols say, ‘The master said,’” Ms. Lin explained. “The quote will be part of the ongoing theme we will be discussing each week as we move through world history. Now, I want you to get in groups of four, learn each other’s names and where each person is from. Then discuss what this saying means to you. You have five minutes.”
Gonzalo quickly moved his chair next to Beto’s table. Juan slowly brought his chair over.
“Gonzalo. Juan. Adriana. All from Mexico,” Gonzalo said. “Where are you from, Beto?”
“Wait,” Adriana said. “I think Ms. Lin expects a little more detail than that. I’m Adriana Cavazos Aguilar. I’m from a city called Xalapa in the state of Veracruz. And as Gonzalo has already pointed out, I lost one eye from an infection three years ago. But my electronic eye is very good, so I guess I am lucky I can still see.”
Beto started writing this down. “Adriana Aguilar. From… How do you spell the city you’re from?”
“No,” Gonzalo said. “Her last name is Cavazos. Our first last name is our last name in the US. Our second last name is something you don’t even have.”
“You have two last names?” Beto asked. “And the first one is the one I need to know?”
“Correct,” Gonzalo replied. “And the city is X-A-L-A-P-A. Like jalapeno, but with an ‘x.’ Because that is where jalapenos come from.”
“Really?” Beto laughed, not sure whether this was a joke or not.
“Really,” Adriana said. She looked sincere and so Beto assumed she was.
“Well, I’m Roberto Gonzales from Waterloo, Texas. People call me Beto. I have an artificial foot. I lost my real one to an infection.”
Adriana wrote this down. Then she looked at Gonzalo.
“Gonzalo Huerta Narciso, from Matamoros, Tamaulipas. I have two normal eyes and two normal feet.”
Beto laughed politely but looked to make sure Adriana wasn’t offended. She looked okay. Then, everyone looked at Juan and awaited his reply.
“Juan Guzman Mendoza, also from Matamoros. I have the NC2 chip like Gonzalo, but I haven’t filled mine up with games, so it works pretty fast. Not as fast as yours, though.”
Just then Beto's neuro chip signaled an emergency. The room fell silent. Evidently everyone had received the same warning.
“Everyone please stay seated and remain calm. The headmaster has issued a campus security alert,” Ms. Lin said.
The class sat quietly. A group of girls near the door whispered and giggled. One of them caught Beto’s attention. She was absolutely gorgeous.
“Who is that girl over there talking?” Beto quietly asked Adriana.
“The loud one?” Adriana said. “That’s Marisa. The Voice, as we call her. She’s the one who has her own channel on the neuro chip network.”
“Is she the one who was commenting on all the teachers this morning during Maestra Solis’ assembly?”
“That’s her. She has a very sharp tongue,” Adriana said.
“Doesn’t she get in trouble for that?” Beto asked.
“The faculty doesn’t have time to worry about everything each student says,” Adriana explained. “Especially that one. No one would ever get anything done if they had to monitor her.”
Beto looked up and noticed that the entire class was staring at him and Adriana. Ms. Lin was also staring at them.
“If you are finished, Adriana,” Ms. Lin said, “The headmaster has an announcement.”
“We have a sad announcement,” Director Contreras said through the neural network. “One of our students has tested positive for a particularly virulent strain of bacteria. He will have to be quarantined.”
Beto heard the sound of a helicopter. Several students rushed to the window to see the medivac chopper land on the soccer field.
“Hey, that’s Simon!” someone said.
Beto ran to the window. It was his roommate who was being carried onto the helicopter.
“Please have a seat, class,” Ms. Lin said. “Simon is getting the help he needs. Now let’s come back to order.”
She looked around the room.
“Beto,” she said. “You’re new to our school. Why don’t you tell us where you are from and what this saying from Master Kong means to you?”
Beto froze. He wasn’t great at public speaking. He looked down at Adriana. She was giving him an encouraging look and that helped him to calm down a little. He took a deep breath.
“My name is Beto Gonzalez and I’m from Waterloo,” he said.
“Would you mind pointing that out on the world map?” Ms. Lin said.
Beto walked over to the giant map on the wall.
“Here we are on the south coast of Texas, on the barrier island,” he said. “I am from the central part of Texas, about three hundred miles away. Waterloo is the state’s new capital. The old capital had to be evacuated.”
“Interesting,” Ms. Lin said. “Many of our students from Mexico are closer to home than you are.”
Beto nodded and felt a little depressed about this observation. Home was a long way away.
“And now for the saying,” Ms. Lin said. “What would that mean to people in Waterloo.”
Beto lifted up his spiral and read the saying again. He actually had no idea what it meant. He was so distracted about being watched by the entire class that he had very little brainpower left to try to untangle Chinese wisdom.
Adriana spoke up, “I was part of Beto’s group, and I think we were talking about teamwork, about how it is good to study with others because then we can benefit from each person’s abilities.”
Ms. Lin was willing to accept that answer and move on to another group. Beto collapsed back into his chair, relieved that the ordeal was over.
“Thanks,” he whispered to Adriana.
Adriana smiled back. Beto heard very little of the rest of the class discussion. But he did have the presence of mind to write down his homework assignment in his spiral.
“Why do we still have homework when the world is ending?” someone mumbled.
Ms. Lin clapped her hands to quiet the class.
“The world is not ending, so please stop saying that,” she said. “The human part of the world, as we know it, is drastically changing due to the decrease in population. But we can face these changes more appropriately if we are prepared for them.”
“But we know these infections are getting worse,” Marisa said. “The fact is, many of us here are going to die before too long.”
“Then you will die smarter and wiser,” Ms. Lin said. “Until then, you will live with dignity.”
Doug Dalglish has worked as a US Marine, an electrical engineer, and a Presbyterian pastor. He has been active in the Texas Master Naturalist program since 2001. For seven years, he was the head of staff of a residential high school in South Texas. He and his wife, Sonja, have four adult children.