Beyond Humanity – Chapter One

“Come look at this,” Bridgett said, pointing to the screen her eyes were locked on. She undid her long blonde hair from the bun it was in and then reworked it into a neater form, as she often did in the laboratory. Her nearby workstation and sculptured physical appearance alluded to her need for symmetry.

            “What did you find?” Karen asked, shaking disinfectant solution from her hands as she approached. A bit shorter than Bridgett, Karen’s brunette hair barely touched her shoulders and her bangs often wandered into her eyes whenever she hunched over her microscope.

            Both women were standing in a relatively small laboratory, only a ten by fifteen foot space. Two large metal office desks and chairs made up the majority of the workspace, with a separate workbench holding microscopes and testing equipment. The plants they worked on were all one room over, only visible through the eastern wall, which was two thick inches of glass. It usually took an hour to move into the testing room, considering all of the donning of protective clothing and disinfecting that a researcher had to accomplish moving between the spaces.

            “Just look,” Bridgett said, leaning back on her desk, which held a monitor on one end and carefully stacked books on the other. Bridgett quietly watched Karen’s eyes but found herself glancing back at the screen on the wall that she had just been viewing.

            “What?!” Karen spat out in surprise. She crossed her arms in contempt and took a step back, unable to remove her gaze from the screen. “That’s faster than anything we’ve seen before… that’ll kill… everything, right? I mean, there’s no way that many mutations in that short of a time period will allow for regulator cells to reset the system.”

“Yeah,” Bridgett said breathlessly. Her eyes wandered to the floor as she tapped her fingers on the steel desk she was leaning against.

“Do you know when this was taken?” Karen asked, pointing to the screen and continuing to watch cells divide in an irregular manner. Text to the bottom right of the screen noted the hour of the day the video was taken along with the words ‘Mission Alpha Centauri’.

Bridgett nodded and crossed her arms over her chest to match Karen. “The boss said that it was taken yesterday- right around Jupiter, but they left the date on the video file name. The footage came from about a week ago.”

Karen backed up and sat down in the metal chair next to her desk. It squeaked and wheeled back a few inches along the floor before coming to a stop. “Then the timeline has moved up,” Karen said.

“Yeah,” Bridgett said.

“But our work isn’t even close to being done,” Karen exclaimed, her eyes drawn to the glass wall nearby, to the variety of plants in the room beyond. “Do you think they’re ready? I mean, will they just take what we have and go?”

Bridgett shrugged her shoulders. “They’ve probably been using the seed samples we’ve been sending off, if what’s on the video is the real timeline.”

“When were they going to tell us?” Karen asked in frustration. She took a deep breath and told herself to calm down. “We’re still lined up to go on the Magellan, right?”

“I think so… I don’t even know anymore.” Bridgett pushed herself up onto her desk to sit with her legs dangling below.

Karen looked over to her friend and frowned. “I haven’t seen you this shaken up since Stephan left you.”

Bridgett frowned and looked up to meet Karen’s eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Karen said quickly. “I’m not doing any better, I suppose.”

Bridgett shook her head. “What are we going to tell the boys?”

“I don’t know.” Karen swallowed and sighed. “I- I don’t know Bridgett. I mean, they don’t even-”

An overhead speaker squeaked into the room, the male receptionist’s voice quickly following the whine. “Karen Thompson, you have a call.”

“Crap,” Karen said. “It’s probably Phil.”

“-It’s Phil,” The receptionist continued. “Something about your son.”

“Oh crap,” Bridgett said. “Sorry. I forgot that it’s Thursday…”

“It’s not your fault,” Karen replied. She quickly finished up the program she had been working on and closed out of the computer.

“I can pick them up, if you’d like,” Bridgett said.

“No,” Karen responded, “They were all excited to try out some new game that Ryan got. I’ll get them both. Thank you though.” She grabbed her jacket and took two steps toward the door before halting. “Think you can get any additional information on whether they’ve moved up the timeline?”

“Yeah,” Bridgett nodded as she stood up from her desk and hugged Karen. “Just don’t let them both know yet,” Bridgett added. “I’d like to tell Tyler on my own.”

“Of course,” Karen said, attempting to offer a smile before she headed out of the laboratory, past a variety of posters warning employees of loose lips, and walked back into society.

Forty minutes later, two teenagers clambered into Karen’s SUV, their muddy shoes adding to the brown and white spots that had yet to be cleaned from the plastic mats that month. Both Ryan and Tyler were chatty as they awaited their ride, but the boys immediately hushed as they strapped themselves in with a click. Ryan stood two inches shorter than Tyler, whose thick blonde hair bounced as the car moved forward. For what Ryan lacked in height though, he made up in strength, at least compared to Tyler’s wiry frame. Both teenagers wore light jackets and jeans, autumn having blown in over the past week.

“How was it?” Karen asked, pulling out onto the four lane city road that led back to their residence.

“It was fine mom,” Ryan said quickly. He tapped his fingers along his thigh, ready to be home. His muscles were tired and his stomach was shouting in its emptiness.

Karen rolled her eyes. “Tyler, how was it?”

Tyler nodded with wide eyes and looked up at his friend’s mother in the rearview mirror. “It was good Mrs. Thompson.”

“Just good?” Karen asked. She bit her lip, trying to force her full attention onto the boys but keeping one hand near her phone, a silent threat to call Bridgett and ask what she might have discovered in the last hour. “It was a shortened practice, right? So did they do anything special?”

“Nope,” Ryan said quickly. “Just like any other practice. Boring and exhausting.” He ground his teeth and looked over at his mom. “What are we having for dinner?”

“Is that all you ever think about?” Karen laughed.

Ryan crossed his arms. “I’m just ready for food and to be home.”

“You need to fix your attitude mister.”

“Why? I feel like crap after that workout.”

Karen sighed. “Your attitude should determine your emotions, not vice-versa. And those workouts build character.”

“I thought you said the other night that I had good character,” Ryan pleaded.

“It can always be better.”

“It was a pretty rough workout,” Tyler added sheepishly with the goal of assisting Ryan’s argument.

Karen looked at her phone and then back up just in time to slam on the brakes, finding a truck stopped at the signal in front of her. “Dammit,” She said under her breath, taking a deep breath and looking back at the boys to check whether they had lunged forward in their seats as much as she had imagined they must have.

“Are you okay mom?” Ryan asked, his face morphing into a worried expression as there was a temporary reprieve from the desire for calories.

“Yeah,” Karen said as she started the vehicle moving again, the signal having just turned to green. She bit her lip and struggled to get her mind back on track. “Are you excited for the basketball game this weekend?” She asked almost breathlessly.

“I guess,” Ryan remarked. “Why can’t I just do frisbee though?”

“Your dad would call heresy on that statement,” Karen said with a laugh. “Plus, you’re doing well at basketball. Why stop now?”

“It’s just a lot of workouts and…” Ryan’s voice wandered off.

“And what?” Karen asked. “Every sport has workouts.”

Ryan looked at Tyler and then back at his mom. “I’m just not as good at basketball as I am at frisbee.” He carefully avoided eye contact with Tyler after finishing his remark.

“I think you’re pretty good at both man,” Tyler said quickly. His stomach was also beginning to cry out, but he felt it best to keep that to himself.

Karen ignored Tyler’s comment. “You need to put in the time to get better,” She explained. “You can’t get there overnight, and if you did, then it would rob you of the joy of success at the end.”

“Well, I wish I was there now,” Ryan said with a frown. “Like school. I can’t wait to be out.”

Karen chuckled and rolled her eyes. “Trust me. You’ll miss it someday. Enjoy it while you can.”

Ryan took a deep breath and thought through what he wanted to say. “I know you’re trying mom, but I don’t think you really understand. School is different now than when you went through.”

“Of course,” Karen said with a laugh, consciously working to ensure she didn’t roll her eyes. “Who’s ready for pizza?” She asked, acknowledging that the conversation wasn’t moving any further.

Two hours later, Karen and her husband Phil stood in their kitchen with two empty cardboard boxes nearby, marinera stains and melted cheese blobs all that remained from the family dinner. Phil still wore his work clothes, having only removed his suit jacket prior to getting a dinner plate. He held the final piece of pizza in his left hand to finish it off as he paced back and forth. His black hair stood our against his tan skin, with grey speckles beginning to appear throughout his mane.

“How sure are you?” Phil asked, shaking his head as he chewed.

“Do you really want me to answer you again?” Karen asked.

Phil frowned. “No.” He paused and sighed, setting his plate down. “It’s just frustrating that they didn’t say a single thing today. I mean – Congress was only a quarter full and the government has barely commented on the absences. It’s not like their excuse of an early flu season is going to last very long.”

“Do you really think the actuary department is the first place they’ll announce it?” Karen inquired. She was also too anxious to take a seat and was beginning to grow concerned about how restless the night would be.

“No,” Phil said. He looked into the family room to see Ryan and Tyler playing on a game console that they had purchased the previous Christmas. “We’re still on the mission, right?” He asked, turning back to his wife.

“As far as I know,” Karen said.

“When are we going to be notified?”

Karen shrugged her shoulders. “Probably in the next 72 hours.”

“Damn,” Phil said, running his hands through his hair. “What are we going to tell him?” He asked in a softer tone.

“I don’t know,” Karen admitted.

Phil looked up at the clock and stepped forward into the living room. “You boys have five minutes, then I have to take Tyler home.”

“We’re men dad,” Ryan called out, his eyes still glued to the game.

“Five minutes,” Phil repeated.

“Can I come with you?” Ryan asked.

“No!” Karen exclaimed from the kitchen. “You need to finish your homework and get a shower.” She smiled, hearing a grunt from the living room. “Drive safe,” Karen said, walking over and placing a kiss on Phil’s cheek.

“Always,” Phil replied, heading over to grab his coat and start the car.

A half an hour later, Karen began to shut off the lights on the main floor when she heard a voice call for her from the second floor. “Yes?” She asked, climbing the stairs.

Ryan’s face appeared, his hair still sopping wet from his very recent shower. “Do I really have to do college visits next month?”

“Why do you ask?” Karen said with a sigh, reaching the top of the stairs and following Ryan to his bedroom.

Ryan shrugged. “It just sounds boring. Can’t I just select one later – or visit when I’m a junior?”

“It’s not boring. You’re deciding where you’re going to spend four years – God help me if it’s more – but four years of your life. It’s important.”

“Sitting in lecture halls to hear presentations sounds pretty boring to me,” Ryan said as he sat on the edge of his bed.

Karen sat down next to him on the bed. “What’s exciting then Ryan? What would you rather do?”

“Play a game of frisbee,” Ryan explained, “Or go on vacation.”

Karen took a moment to ponder her son’s words before she spoke again. “I get that school’s not as fun as a game.”

“Or vacation,” Ryan added.

Karen chuckled. “Yes, or vacation.” She took a deep breath and met Ryan’s eyes with her own. “But you have to learn to appreciate the normal moments as well. They don’t last forever.”

“I know,” Ryan admitted. “I’m just ready for tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow will be here soon enough,” Karen explained, wrapping her arm around Ryan’s side. She swallowed her saliva and allowed her eyes to fall to the floor. “Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed though. Today is, so enjoy it. Plan ahead, but live now. Alright?”

“Alright,” Ryan said, exhaustion apparent in his eyes.

“I love you,” Karen said, quietly, offering Ryan a hug and then heading toward the door, closing it slowly behind her.

“I love you too mom,” Ryan said, his eyes closing as the last bit of light exited from his room, the door closed and the day finished.

            Ryan’s alarm blared, forcing his heart to jump as he instinctively turned over and smacked at the machine. He sat up and took in a deep breath of stagnant air. As his nostrils opened, the aroma of musky cologne mixed with the freshness of new sheets and entered his lungs. It felt like only minutes had passed since he had fallen asleep, so Ryan began to lay back down, his goal halted by a voice calling from outside his door.

“Ryan Thompson!” Karen shouted. “Breakfast is ready. Eat up before the bus gets here!”

“Just a minute,” Ryan’s tired voice responded. “I’ll be down in a second.” He pulled his legs to the side of the bed and stood up. He began to slide clothes on when his alarm blared a second time. He hopped over with only one leg down his jeans, and flipped the off button on the machine. As the alarm went silent for good, Ryan sighed and sat back down for a second. For a moment, he believed that he might just fall back onto the warm pillows and close his eyes again. The only thing that kept him from returning to his slumber was a scent of waffles and syrup that was wafting through his doorway.

As Ryan finished dressing and re-packing his backpack, he rushed out of his room, knocking a picture from the wall. Glancing at the frame, which held a photo of him and his parents on vacation in Florida, Ryan tossed it over onto his bed to be rehung at another time. Ryan rushed downstairs and plopped down into a wooden chair at the dining room table, straightening his jacket over his t-shirt.

“Do you think you’re ready for that physics test today?” Karen asked curiously. She was hurrying through her morning duties quicker than normal, but Ryan barely noticed as he filled his mouth with food.

“Yeah,” Ryan answered, “I’ll be fine, okay?”

“I know you will be,” Karen said with a smile. She brushed his hair and patted his back, grabbing at Phil’s recently finished dishes. “Dad already headed-”

“Out for the day?” Ryan asked. “I know, otherwise he’d have his morning money show on.”

He chuckled to himself and looked up at the television, watching for any headlines that might be relevant- or really just anything he could use as a joke with Tyler, who was a comedic success when compared to Ryan’s fledging attempts. He watched the screen and noticed that Karen had turned it to a national news program, rather than her regular local station.

“Mom?” Ryan asked. “What happened to Channel 13?” He would have attempted to change it himself, but after seeing the remote on the other side of the room and finding that his waffles were half-gone anyway, there seemed to be no point.

“I-uh,” Karen started. “I think they’ve just been running over the same stories all week. I figured we’d find something more interesting watching this.” She pointed to the tv and then glanced back at her laptop, which was sitting out on the counter with work email open.

Ryan shrugged and shook his head, looking back to the nearby television screen.

“Do you think the Bengals will really pull through this year?” Russel Westbrook, one of the regular sports reporters, asked.

“Only time will tell,” Another reporter, one Ryan failed to recognize, responded before the show turned to another segment in its newscast.

An image of Saturn flashed onto the screen. “We aren’t sure what’s causing the pattern at the moment,” A subject matter expert, who Ryan failed to see the name of, noted. “But it’s the most unique weather we’ve ever seen on the planet.”

“You look worried Bill,” Alaina Cook asked from her seat as the video switched back to her and a male reporter sitting in a news room. “It’s not like this could have any effect on us, right?”

“Well actually,” Bill started, “I believe that-”

Deciding that gathering humor fodder was going to be a failure of a mission, Ryan turned away from the screen, stood up from the table and deposited his dishes in the sink. Grabbing his backpack, he headed outside to catch the bus that would arrive soon. He stood at the end of his neighbor’s driveway along with two younger teenagers in the chilly air, all of them waiting for the bus.

“Hey,” The tallest boy in the group called out, “It’s sniffles!”

“Really?” Ryan said under his breath. “That cold lasted, like, a week. Probably less than that…”

“That cold lasted, like, a week,” The second boy repeated, his whining tone piercing normally quiet air.

“Aren’t you both seniors?” Ryan shot back, nearly under his breath. “Why are you still riding the bus?”

“Why are you riding the bus?” The second boy squealed, throwing his upper lip into the air as he repeated Ryan’s words.

Ryan let out a sigh as he watched as his mother pull out of the driveway and head off to her work, her vehicle’s exhaust condensing in the fall atmosphere. When the rumbling yellow bus finally arrived, Ryan climbed on board and found a seat with no one else in it.

Sitting down onto the cold grey plastic, he glanced out of the frosted window and pulled his backpack around to his front, grabbing the headphones that lay within. The music that followed assisted with drowning out the two arguing teenagers that sat one seat ahead.

What’s Mrs. Saylor have for us today? Ryan considered, thinking of his chemistry teacher. Maybe she’ll pair Lauren and I up… that would be nice. He allowed a smile to climb along his cheek as he scooted closer to the side wall of the bus, watching as orange and red trees passed by. Maybe we’ll have a fire drill today. That would add some excitement… Ryan chuckled, wondering if he could convince Tyler to pull the alarm. Considering his likely success, he shook his head and allowed his mind to wander further, as he often did. Anything to be out of here.

He took a deep breath and pulled out a pencil, tapping it against the plastic seat in front of him as the bus turned, throwing at least one child into the aisle. Ryan held the pencil flat in his palm and focused on it, squinting in his attempt at telekinesis. He thought for a second that the writing device successfully moved to his will before realizing that the bus driver had been brake checked by a car just ahead. Ryan swallowed and looked down at the pencil again, trying once more. He truly felt something for just a moment and shivered, but couldn’t tell if he had any success as the bus pulled into the school parking lot.

Just as Ryan was reaching over to place his pencil back inside his backpack, the vehicle stopped sharply in its parking space, causing a few student’s backpacks, including Ryan’s, to fall to the floor. Others jumped up to move off the bus, some of them shoving forward in misguided attempts to hurry the process. Other students sat there uncaring, with their feet propped up on the seats in front of them. Ryan grabbed his backpack and pulled his headphones out of his ears. He rose from his seat and walked off the steps of the bus and into the chilly air. His every breath hung like tiny clouds and his feet crunched leaves beneath him as moved toward the school. The building itself was a two story swathing mass of brick and concrete.

As he began to shuffle toward the school, Ryan was shoved to his left, nearly losing his balance. His face immediately flashed red in anger as he took a step back to see who had assaulted him. Finding Tyler’s blonde hair and beaming smile, Ryan’s frown morphed quickly into confusion and then into a sheepish smile.

“So are you ready for the game this weekend?” Tyler asked, embarrassed for shoving Ryan as hard as he had. The two boys jumped up from the asphalt parking lot onto the concrete sidewalk surface, weaving in between waves of students as they moved.

“I uh-” Ryan started, still working to slow his heartbeat and force the adrenaline in his system to dissipate. “Yeah, of course. How many practices until we get there though?”

“Four or five?” Tyler responded with a shrug. “You think that Melissa will be there?” He added with a sly grin.

Ryan blushed. “Maybe. She was at the last two, right?” He knew that Tyler had asked her out twice already and that she had continued to delay any positive answer. Maybe she’s waiting for me to ask her out, Ryan considered, eliminating the thought as quickly as possible as he tried to focus back in on what Tyler was explaining.

“-but that last message couldn’t have been about me, right? I mean, she probably has a lot going on right now. Wasn’t she dating Colton back May before summer break? It was probably in reference to him.”

Ryan shook his head. “You’re thinking into it way too much.”

The two of them headed into the building and were separated by three teachers speaking to one another, oblivious to the children around them.

“See you at lunch?” Tyler asked.

Ryan nodded and offered a thumbs-up before turning a corner and passing the usual ‘Say No To Drugs’ posters along with another few sets of teachers that were monitoring the halls. Fading blue and dark green paint spread across the walls and weaved in and out of students’ clothing, the two colors accompanied often by the otter mascot the school was known for.

“Hey, if you keep your grades up, you’re going to get us to state, alright?” Mr. Greco, the history teacher and basketball coach, said as he patted the tallest high schooler in the hall.

Ryan attempted to hurry past the two of them, averting his eyes from the pale overweight man that spent far more time on the bench-press than the treadmill. Mr. Greco saw Ryan pass by though, and pointed a finger in the boy’s direction as he spoke to the school’s basketball star.

“If you’re not careful,” Mr. Greco said, “Then Bryan here is going to take your position. You need to up your grades or Ms. Meadows is going to force me to kick you off the team.”

Ryan continued walking past but responded softly as he went. “It’s Ryan,” He explained. And there’s no way they’ll kick Chad off the team, He thought, swallowing and turning another corner.

“Huh?” Mr. Greco asked, barely averting his eyes from Chad as he finished the pep talk he had been working through.

Walking into his first class, Ryan took a seat at the metal and wood desk, which he had been using for the past few months.  Neither the desk or the walls of the classroom had aged well. The school had put off replacing the furniture four times now, and the attempts to cover up student graffiti were getting pitiful. Faded sharpie barely covered up the piece of male anatomy that another student had added to the desk some time ago. Ryan used to chuckle when he saw it, but he had tired of the desk long ago, finding the lack of care for the furniture to be representative of the school’s attitude about education and sports, among other things. Why take any real action when you can just wait another year and pass the buck onto someone else? He thought as he unzipped his backpack and took out his notebook.

He quickly flipped past the pages of penciled-in superhero symbols and skipped forward to a blank page. Finding the classroom filling up and chatter growing, Ryan took a deep breath and attempted to focus on the board, where the morning’s math problems were written. He sighed and began to work through them one at a time, tapping his foot as he moved through each line. Finishing the equations by the time the bell rang, Ryan stared at the motivational posters on the walls, trying to conjure up any new un-motivational posters he could joke with Tyler about at lunch.

Mrs. Stoner clapped into the room, her arms folded across her chest. “Quiet Amanda,” She called out, somehow keeping her lips pursed through her speech. “You know what you should be doing.” She pointed to the board and slapped her hand twice against it, the claps echoing throughout the room thanks to the painted concrete walls. She headed over to her desk and took a seat before looking out on the room, her tongue picking a piece of celery out from her teeth. “Why aren’t you working on the equations, Ryan?” Mrs. Stoner asked, her eyebrows raised.

“I finished them,” Ryan explained, waving his notebook in the air.

Mrs. Stoner rolled her eyes, perturbed. “Well then, you can go ahead and do this sheet too, while we wait for the others to finish.”

Ryan sighed as he was handed a page full of problems to work on.

Forty miles away, Phil tapped his pen against a recently printed sheet of paper. His eyes were locked onto the two televisions that hung on the other side of his office, just low enough for the edge cubicle to block the bottom two inches of the screen. Phil raised his body up to read the scrolling text on the local government channel as he straightened his dark grey suit jacket and patted the creases out of his khakis.

“When are you going to finish that?” Gregory, Phil’s coworker, said from two desks down, rubbing his stuffed stomach, which nearly popped out from the stretched dress shirt buttons.

The office was half cubicles and half open desk space, where the actual financial work was done. While the red carpet spread across the floor hadn’t been replaced in years, the twelve-foot high ceiling offered reprieve from the monotony of numbers, showcasing intricate moldings before reaching limestone pillars. Working in a government center had perks, which often were outweighed by the limited desk space that was forced due to the need for file cabinet after file cabinet of records.

“Phil,” Gregory said, “What’s going on?”

Phil turned around with a sour taste spread across his mouth. “What? Can you relax for just a minute?”

“You know that Brenda is going to send it back twice for revisions. I want to be out of here by five.”

“Yeah, fine,” Phil said. He filled out the form quickly, copying down the correct accounting codes before handing it over to his balding and obviously nearsighted coworker.

“Thanks,” Gregory said, his attitude immediately altered. “Why are you so focused on the news today anyway?”

“Huh?” Phil asked, only half paying attention.

“I know you like to keep an eye on legislation, but aren’t they all out this week for-”

“Shut-up,” Phil said, standing up out of his seat.

On the television, an unexpected announcement was being made by the President of the United States’ press secretary. Phil read the black and white closed captions, the sound muted to minimize distractions.

“Are you okay Phil?” Gregory asked, suddenly sheepish as he held his pen above the form he had been handed. Gregory swallowed and watched Phil’s eyes widen. “What? What’s going on?”

The television screen displayed the closed caption text over the segment’s title, reading ‘-no need to be alarmed. In order to increase readiness, you will see a variety of military drills taking plaece-’ The text was erased and the rewritten with the correct spelling.

As one of the reporters asked why the President was out of the office, Phil whipped out his phone. “Crap,” He said to himself as he navigated through the options to call his wife. Just as he reached the button, he saw her face illuminate the screen as Karen beat Phil to the punch.

“What-” Gregory began to ask again, cut off by a wave from Phil.

“Hey,” Phil said quickly, answering his phone. “Yeah, okay,” He responded to his wife’s voice on the other end. “Did you call the school yet?” There was another pause. “Okay. I’m moving as quickly as I can.” Phil began to breathe quicker and pace back and forth between the nearby desks. Every few seconds, his eyes would wander up to the televisions, where the press secretary continued to answer reporter questions. “Yeah… Yeah. I love you too honey.”

His left hand shaking, Phil took a deep breath and used his right hand to brace himself against a nearby file cabinet. He bit his cheek and looked over at his coworker, who was half out of his chair in concern. Gregory’s mouth began to open to ask the question once more.

“Go home,” Phil said before any other words could be uttered. “Go home and turn on the news” He grabbed his briefcase and headed for the door.

“What’s going on Phil?”

“I’m sorry,” Phil said, grabbing onto the nearby door handle and pulling on it so hard that the wood slammed into a nearby bookshelf, knocking over two stacks of completed government forms. “If I told you…” Phil murmured to himself as he cross the threshold of the door.

“Hey!” Gregory shouted after him, sitting back down in his seat, which formed perfectly to his body thanks to years of use. “Those were supposed to go to Brenda as well!” He said, pointing to the fallen papers. “My God,” Gregory said to himself as the door shut, “It’s like he thinks the world is ending.” He sighed and turned back to his half-eaten candy bar.

 The rest of the morning’s classes were a study in monotony, with Ryan wading through the muck of speech presentations by his fellow classmates and then a substitute teacher’s attempts at Chemistry 2. Looking forward to ceramics but knowing that Government lay in wait, Ryan charged forward to lunch, simultaneously excited and exhausted.

The wafting smell of country fried steak and mashed potatoes poured through the cafeteria’s glass doors, flooding Ryan’s brain with a sense of familiarity. Student noise seemed to continuously erupt as teenagers moved back and forth between the tables, lunch lines, and trash cans. Ryan paid for lunch with his school card and grabbed an Oreo pudding desert, content with the moment of reprieve the minor reward that the sweet would bring. He headed over to the region of the room where he usually found his friends, but was surprised when he scanned the area and found no comfortable seats.

“Hey Ryan,” Tyler called from a raised portion of the cafeteria, which was filled with booths.

“Ah, cool,” Ryan responded, heading quickly up to the dark blue plastic seats and taking his place alongside Tyler and across from Renee and Adam.

Renee’s brunette hair partially covered the acne that affected her jaw line and her sweater added to her wiry frame. Adam was much more heavyset and he had recently given up shaving daily, having started on a beard much earlier than anyone else his age.

“Nice,” Renee said in a high-pitched voice, pointing to Ryan and Tyler’s matching blue and green jackets.

“We planned it,” Tyler said with a wink.

“The whole basketball team planned it,” Ryan said as he rolled his eyes. He began to dig into his food, only partially listening to the conversation that Tyler was confidently leading.

“What would you choose?” Adam asked suddenly, meeting Ryan’s eyes.

“What wish would I choose?” Ryan responded, replaying the last two sentences of the discussion in his mind.

“Yeah,” Tyler said. “You could choose anything.”

Ryan took a deep breath and thought it over. “Have you all heard of Shackleton?”

“Who?” Tyler asked.

Renee downed the rest of her soda and looked across the table. “The explorer?”

“Yeah,” Ryan said quickly. “You know, Antarctica and all?”

“Yeah,” Renee nodded.

“I think something like that would have been cool.”

“Like, the exploration part of it all?” Adam asked.

Ryan swallowed a bite of mashed potatoes. “Yeah, you know… to live in a time period where there’s more than just school and work? When there’s still stuff to explore?”

“Didn’t Shackleton eat his dogs?” Tyler asked, poking at his carrots.

“Look, he-” Renee began to explain.

Tyler couldn’t help but laugh. “You couldn’t have picked Lewis and Clark?”

Ryan grinned but shook his head. “Nah, I want to be the first at something.”

“Weren’t Lewis and Clark the first to travel all of America?” Tyler asked.

“You’re not going to count the Native Americans that were there beforehand?” Renee shot back.

“Either way,” Tyler said, changing the conversation, “Do you have any clue how cold Antarctica is? You must have a short memory man, because last winter felt like the Ice Age.”

“I think there’s still some opportunity to explore,” Adam added, ignoring Tyler’s comments. “I mean, look at the ocean-”

The bell blared and then was quickly drowned out by the squeaking of chairs as students rushed to finish their food, throw away their trash, and head out to their afternoon classes.

“See you all later today,” Ryan said as he got up out of the booth.

“Just don’t eat any dogs,” Tyler said as he patted Ryan on the back and headed in the opposite direction.

Ryan headed back out of the glass doors and worked his way through the crowds toward his physics class. Every once in a while, one of the female students would catch his glance, but otherwise it was a normal passing period. Ryan changed out his books in his locker as he moved toward the science hallway. About to shut the door, he noticed Lauren’s blonde hair and high tan cheeks from out of the corner of his eye. Ryan’s heart began to beat quickly and he was about to walk away when something in his chest told him to ask her out. He stood there for a moment, his palms perspiring. He watched Lauren open her locker and change out her backpack as he considered the right words. Tripping over them even in his head, he started toward her and opened his mouth just as two of Lauren’s friends called after her. Ryan watched as Lauren turned with a beaming white smile and headed after her classmates.

“Next time,” He said under his breath as he turned and rushed toward the classroom, realizing how little time he had left to arrive.

Entering the room for his physics test, Ryan found a pudgy man up front, erasing numbers on the chalkboard. The substitute teacher then began to write ‘60’ over a poorly erased whitish blot. The overweight instructor scratched the back of his head as students finished streaming into class. Only a moment after the bell rang, he began passing out tests to each individual student, licking his fingers every two or three papers. Receiving his test, Ryan flipped it over immediately and began answering the simple questions on the first page. As time passed, the instructor would erase the ‘60 on the board and replace it with new numbers every ten minutes. Ryan worked methodically through the paper, his eyes drooping and his breath slowing as he reached the halfway point. He shook his head and took a deep breath, willing himself to move forward to the end. He bypassed a couple of questions, coming back around to answer them after he finished anything that would guarantee him points.

When the board said ‘20’ and Ryan was just laying down his pencil, a knock resounded against the door. The instructor pushed himself slowly out of his chair and moved across the room, waving for the individual standing in the hallway to come in. A woman entered and whispered into the substitute teacher’s ear. She appeared to be one of the receptionists for the front desk, but Ryan didn’t know which one because they all looked the same. Each had slightly wrinkled skin, silvery hair and kind smiles.

Ryan glanced up at the distraction, forgetting that he had finished his test. Both of the adults at the front of the room turned to look at him. Ryan’s teacher waved him up front.

“Are you Ryan?” The pudgy man asked.

“Ye- yeah,” Ryan voice barely could be heard as he sat up straight and cleared his throat.

After a wave from the substitute teacher, Ryan stood up and headed to the front, his thought process stunted as he looked up at the receptionist.

“I’m not finished yet,” Ryan said, pointing back to his seat. The receptionist stepped close to Ryan and whispered near his cheek, “It doesn’t matter if you’re done or not. There was a call from your parents. You need to come quickly to the front of the school, where they will pick you up. I can’t tell you any more than that right now.”

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