Mr. Gobi did not raise his voice to his club members, even to get attention. Instead, his malamute Cody stood nearly to his waist as he stood before his door, waiting for people to notice him. Anyone else to try this in any other club or classroom would stand for hours and look like a fool, but for Mr. Gobi, in this particular club, it worked. Mr. Gobi would stand for no more than ten seconds before whispers spread around the room. People would tap each other on the shoulder and jab each other in the ribs and before the minute was out, all eyes would be on him. When Mr. Gobi had an announcement, the room was so quiet he didn’t have to raise his voice.
Mr. Gobi had taken great care to ready himself today. The chaos in his mind had been bundled up and hidden in the back behind a musty old box of dreams and aspirations, and, he hoped, no child in the room would be perceptive enough to see it. One person might have, but she was gone. He took one last breath and surveyed the remaining members. Joshua sat at his desk with his chocolate lab and his blank expression, like he was thinking about something else even as he was looking at Mr. Gobi. Ethan’s confident posture sagged almost imperceptibly, as if something was exhausting him nearly to the point of breaking his careful facade. Maybe it should break. Maybe he’ll be happier in the long run. His dog’s fur looked heavy, as if she had not been properly dried for her usual poofy look. He and Stacy had offered no greetings to each other all morning, and now she gave unusual attention to her own scruffy one-eyed dog, throwing an occasional angry glance in his direction. Upon closer inspection, her dog was not nearly so scruffy as Mr. Gobi had come to expect. In fact, he looked positively well-groomed. Mr. Gobi confirmed that he was still missing an eye, a leg, and half an ear, which he was. Something happened last night. Mr. Gobi was as ready as he was going to get. He adjusted his glasses and addressed the Romero High journalism club. “Julia Sable has accepted a study abroad opportunity in Costa Rica.”
Ethan’s eyes narrowed and he raised his hand. “How long will she be away?”
“I wondered the same thing, Ethan. This club will be a dreary place without her. It does not have a fixed end date that I can see.”
Stacy was next. “What is she going to do out there? Why is she leaving in the middle of the year? Is this the first you’ve heard of it?”
“She’s going to be taking classes just like she does here, she has become particularly enamored with the Spanish language and reached out for an opportunity, which several schools were eager to provide. I learned this morning.”
Stacy furrowed her brow, but returned her attention to her dog. No one looked hurt. No one wanted her contact information. They would rearrange the paper, and life would go on. Would anyone even remember her besides him? Did anyone else worry about her sudden disappearance? At least hope that she would be ok? High school can be such a cruel time.
Walking to the curb to summon his car, Ethan did not have the spring in his step he would have expected upon hearing the news. Julia is gone. That should make him happy, but still he felt empty inside. No, he felt like Julia was inside him. A nasty parasite lurking in his subconscious telling him You’re a monster. You’re only still here because you have them all fooled. You can’t keep it up forever. Banishing Julia didn’t cure it. It just left him with no one to blame. He had to face the truth.
Ethan thought as he walked through the aisles of the Brooks Supermarket that was on the way home. Stacy was the most gung-ho zombie safety nut Ethan knew. If he came out to her, she might report him. It might be the last thing he ever did. On the other hand, had that ever stopped him before? He stopped in front of the flower display. Lush red roses and purple and yellow tulips came together into an explosion of color, but another vase held open orange roses showing off all their petals in the height of bloom alongside some flowers that made Ethan wonder if Nature had decided to reinvent pom-poms. He was tempted to buy the whole display case, but then he’d have to figure out how to bring it to Stacy, and it might backfire since she already thought he was an ostentatious jerk. Better to settle on just one bouquet. He grabbed the pom-poms and took them to the cash register. He knew a place that sold gold-leaf chocolate for $250 a box. That would be just right.
Ethan loaded the zombie-containing videos from the wildlife camera onto a flash drive and added it to his growing gift basket. Whatever he told Stacy, after what happened last night, this gift basket was the least he could do. While the car drove him to Stacy’s house, he tapped notes on his phone, trying to figure out the best way to say it, if he did decide to. “Stacy, you deserve to know…”
He deleted it. Nothing that Julia said could come into his own speech. He wouldn’t allow it. “Stacy, I want you to know something that I don’t tell many people. We’re close enough that I think I can trust you.” That’s good.
Ethan’s typing stopped when flashing lights appeared behind him. Ethan dropped his phone and kicked it under his seat as he pulled over. If everything went well, he wouldn’t have to explain to some stupid cop how a self-driving car doesn’t need him to have his eyes on the road. Princess whined as Ethan put on a smile for the heavy man with the somber expression. “Hello, officer. Is there a problem?”
“Get out of the car,” said the officer.
“Stay,” said Ethan, his anxiety rising. Usually police officers liked to call him “young man,” and comment how much they appreciate his mother’s contributions to the fund. He kept up his smile, though. Just be polite to cops and everything is fine.
“Nice night, isn’t it?” Ethan said as he stepped out of his Tesla. Or that’s what he meant to say. It came out more as “Nice night huungh” when the officer slammed him against the side of the car and clicked handcuffs around his wrists.
Ethan groaned, his already stiff limbs aching from the awkward position. “I, augh, I think there’s been some mistake.”
Another skinnier cop with a white beard had a dog carrier in a gloved hand. He held it to the open door, and Princess walked right in. “Nothing to be worried about, Mr. Stowe,” he said as he closed the bars on her. He struggled to suppress a grin as the heavy cop frog-marched Ethan to the cop car. The police decal he had expected wasn’t there. Instead, the car said Romero Safety Patrol and had a little shambling stick figure behind a big red circle with a slash.
“We’re going to take you in for a little SP-12 test, then you’ll be free to go back to your mother.”
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