Julia, who had no other friends besides Mr. Gobi, had once seen him looking into a hand-mirror he kept in his desk and assumed that he was a more vain man than his countenance would lead someone to expect. In fact, Mr. Gobi had a brave face that he had painstakingly developed over the last seven years, and the hand mirror served as both a mechanism for checking in on this brave face and a meditative talisman to bolster it. With deep, mindful breaths, Mr. Gobi brought back the color that had drained from his cheeks. Red eyes took time to clear. Nothing he could do about that. He tried a smile, but it looked like it felt, strained and devoid of any real joy. Mr. Gobi could not fake a smile. Usually when his journalism students were involved, he could bring a real one to his lips in short order, but today that would not happen. Cody whined and pushed his wet nose against Mr. Gobi’s hand, and he put down the mirror to pet him. Be patient with yourself, Sanjay. You don’t have to look happy for the boy, just stay calm.
When he called Ethan in, Stacy stood in the way. He didn’t even mind looking at the back of her head, the rough waves of her brown hair cascading down her back. He opened his drawer to pull out Angela’s braid. All the natural shape was lost in the tight weave that looked like nothing Angela would wear herself. Someone else had arranged her hair thus, to make it sturdy for travel. Yet another zombie act of generosity that would never be recognized. Years ago when Angela’s hair was clean, her waves were as gentle as her soul, her color as light as his heart when they were all together. Where Angela’s hair was an amber sea in a bright, calm morning, Stacy’s was a choppy umber ocean in the midst of a hundred-year storm.
Mr. Gobi cleared his throat, and Ethan pushed through Stacy, who turned to look at the two of them. What Mr. Gobi had to say was for the boy who killed his daughter and no one else. “Ethan, would you mind closing the door behind you?”
Stacy and Ethan had a tiny standoff right there. What are they going on about? Mr. Gobi wondered, but he didn’t have the energy for high school drama, and in a moment it resolved itself. Stacy stepped back and allowed Ethan to shut her out.
Ethan then turned to look at Mr. Gobi. He stood rooted to the spot. Welcoming children with rich parents like Julia and Ethan into Stacy’s surprisingly popular journalism club created a buffer against administrative crackdown that Mr. Gobi could use to allow his students to publish more than just puff pieces. Naturally, it didn’t give them the safety to investigate things like the art fund, but racy stories about bears fighting zombies in the school woods were the sweet spot. Mr. Gobi would love to say that Ethan had become more than a political bargaining chip in the time that he’d spent in the club, but since everyone knew he was using the club for his own purposes, Mr. Gobi thought it only fair that the club would use him for its.
This article changed the dynamic. Stacy clearly wrote it, making no attempt to disguise the hard-hitting visceral style that made “The Thinking Bear of Romero High” a hit, but the series of poor decisions required to get into such a situation could only have been made by Ethan. Mr. Gobi looked the terrified boy over for any sign he may have been bitten. This would be a very different conversation if Ethan was on the way to becoming a zombie himself. What are you afraid of, Ethan? Despite his anxiety, Ethan was impeccable as usual, and with her lush fur and elegant snout, Princess would not have looked out of place on a movie poster. Remorseless killers seldom did.
“Ethan,” said Mr. Gobi, “I want you to know that you can trust me with anything.” He lifted the paper. “No judgement. If you were bit, you need an ally and I can be that for you. Nothing you say leaves this room.”
Ethan pressed his lips together. “I was not bit, Sir.”
There was more to this story, but there was no need to push it directly. “Ethan, please sit down. Would Princess like some water?” Mr. Gobi pushed forward a red plastic water dish with the name “CODY” scrawled on the front in sharpie. He opened a water jug under his desk and filled the dish. Cody began to lap at it, but the dish was large enough for Princess to fit her head in even next to the huge malamute.
“Go ahead, Girl,” said Ethan, and Princess padded forward to drink with Cody. Ethan rolled his wrist absently while he watched the two dogs drink.
Mr. Gobi latched on, “how is your wrist doing, Ethan?”
Ethan’s eyes flashed, and Mr. Gobi took note of that and his forced casual demeanor. “Oh, uh, it’s no big deal. I think I must have strained it. Hey, I heard a rumor. Was that your daughter?”
Mr. Gobi kept his face perfectly still. With years of practice, he could let talk of his daughter float away. She’s in a better place now, Sanjay.
“Ethan, I want you to know that I don’t hold you responsible for anything you and Princess did in self-defense. From the description, I have no doubt that that’s exactly what happened.” Mr. Gobi made to pet Princess between her ears, but he saw a glimpse of a long, sharp tooth as she opened her mouth to drink and he withdrew his hand. “From the moment she decided to make the most of her life with zombieism, Angela and I both knew that she was on borrowed time. She didn’t have many options, but she did pick that life.”
Ethan nodded stiffly, and Mr. Gobi continued, “But you cannot release that article. We don’t have the political clout to question the National Safety Curriculum. The club would be shut down. I would be fired. That would be the end of it.”
Ethan didn’t like that. No, he’d gone to a lot of trouble to impress Stacy, and this would not make him look good. Mr. Gobi saw it all play out on his face. “What if, uh, what if we just shared the story and dropped the commentary? Let people draw their own conclusions?”
Well, Ethan, I’m impressed. Stacy is rubbing off on you. Or maybe she told you to say that if I wouldn’t release the full article. “No, Ethan. No intelligent zombies. From there it’s a hop, skip, and a jump to ‘zombies are people, too’ and Principal Moss will personally open my head and eat my brains before she lets this club become an epicenter for that particular controversy.”
Mr. Gobi could almost see Ethan’s head spin. “But your daughter-“
The boy stopped cold and Cody stopped drinking to nose Mr. Gobi’s hand again. Mr. Gobi took a breath and made a point to soften his expression.
“Ethan, you’re a good kid. Angela was under no illusions about the world she was living in and neither am I. No campus protest is going to bring her back. There are people that rely on this club much more than you do, and it’s my job to give them stability. My daughter doesn’t need me anymore, these kids do. Tell Stacy, if you want to fight this battle, please think of your classmates and leave the Romero Star out of it.”
“Who is that?” you may be wondering. Look no further than the series glossary to refresh your memory on characters you may not have seen in a while.