I arrived with three minutes to spare and quickly wove my way through the throngs of people shuffling to class. It took half-a-minute, but I eventually located the locker Matt and I were assigned to and punched in the temporary code to unlock it.
We’d shared a locker since freshman year so the arrangement was easy: he took the top shelf and the left-side hook, while I occupied the bottom shelf and right-side hook. There wasn’t much to put in it, though, being the beginning of the school year and not yet needing a winter coat. On top of that, I forgot my lunch, so I just made sure nothing had been left over from the last pair who had used it. This was important because at the beginning of our freshman year, some chump the year before had skimped on the end-of-school clean up and left us with the sickening smell of a decayed banana peel, not to mention the host of ants still scouting for a big meal. They gave us a new locker, but having to deal with that on your first day of high school only added to the anxiety.
“I’d thought you’d never show,” a sweet voice purred.
I finished punching in our pre-arranged code and turned around. Allison planted a kiss on my cheek. I nervously checked around hoping one of the hall monitors hadn’t seen. Getting a demerit on the first day would not be a good way to start our final year.
“Don’t worry,” she reassured me, “they’re too busy helping all the confused freshman.”
I nodded as though I understood their plight but would never admit to actually having experienced it. The social order must be maintained and we seniors were the king of the realm.
“What do you have first period?” I asked as she hurried us toward the stairs, arm-in-arm.
“Pre-Law ... you?”
“Physics,” I began to say, but was cut off by the stern look of a hall monitor. We immediately unhooked arms.
“Close one,” Allison said with a grin. “You don’t have it with Berger, do you? He’s tough.”
“No, Mrs. Lee, so I dodged a bullet there.”
“Okay, see you after class ... good luck,” Allison exclaimed with all the excitement of a bookworm.
She was smart, which I liked, but she was also outgoing, which I liked even more. We didn’t have many classes together since she was mostly in the advanced placement ones. I had once been assigned to an advance placement history class, but quickly had my father pull me out when I discovered the reading consisted of an in-depth analysis of the writings of some French guy named Voltaire and his impact on the court of King Louis XV. For one, I didn’t speak French, and two, who cares what happened in the 1700s? I mean, did anything really matter if it happened before the Past Lives Identity Database?
No, I was more interested in cool things like architecture and massive engineering projects of the galactic scale. However, to be honest, I had become more interested in Crimson James lately. He was considered the Father of Modern Thought and had actually devised the Past Lives Identity Database, or the Tracer, as it was commonly called. Allison was in love with the guy, which was kind of weird since he’d been dead for some 300 years. According to Allison, he was a renaissance man. I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant, but I think it had something to do with him dabbling in engineering, architecture, painting, music and philosophy. So maybe philosophy wasn’t so bad after all.
The bell began its five second ring allowing me enough time to sprint two doors down and slip into class. Mrs. Lee shot me a raised eyebrow until another delinquent, Malton Corbett, the perennial trouble-maker and all around pain in everyone’s ass, bumped into me.
“Watch out, Trenton,” he sniped, using my body as a shield against Mrs. Lee’s scornful eye. I threw him a sour look and made my way to the other side of the room. I slid into an empty seat next to Steve, near the back.
“Luckily for you two, this is a demerit-free first day of the school year,” Mrs. Lee stated. “But don’t think that come tomorrow, if you’re even a second late, I won’t write you up. Got it?”
I nodded, slightly embarrassed, but Malton mumbled something that those on his side of the class found amusing. Steve and I exchanged glances knowing that most of those who laughed did so out of fear; that is, Malton was in the cool clique and had been known to harass and bully without prejudice. Most people were happy to pretend he was the laugh of the party if it meant keeping the bull’s-eye off their back.
Actually, I had been spared this treatment last year when we brushed shoulders between classes. Allison was telling me a story about the time she lived in Japan and had to eat some raw, slimy fish at a dinner party her dad had taken her to and how she almost threw up. I was enthralled at how animated she got and wasn’t paying attention to anything else. The next thing I knew, I had run into someone, turned to see Malton staring hard at me, and my stomach lurched. It must’ve been how Allison felt eating the fish.
All I could think about was how embarrassing it was going to be to have Allison watch as I got my butt kicked. I waited for the beat down, but it never came, or at least that’s what everyone told me, because from the point when my stomach signaled the alarm until the actual class bell rang, I couldn’t remember a thing. It was as if I hadn’t even been there.
Anyway, I eventually figured out why Malton hadn’t done anything – he was afraid of my cousin Gable, who was a couple of years older than us and in college. Malton had had a run in with Gable during our sophomore year and it didn’t turn out well for the brute. I guess it pays to know people and I was glad Gable was on my side.
“Welcome to Advanced Placement Physics,” Mrs. Lee said. A collective strain of confusion surfaced as half the class turned their attention to the front of the room and sat up straight. Steve had the same horrified look as I did. “Just kidding,” she added, obviously enjoying the moment. “Now that I have your attention, let’s not waste any time getting started. Please open the class syllabus.”
I finished fixing my hair – Malton running into me may have knocked a few strands out of place – and tapped the cloud strip on my desk, but nothing happened. A holographic pad should have appeared, but this one was on the fritz.
“Does everyone have it open?” she asked rhetorically. “Good-”
“Mine’s not working,” I said, raising my hand.
Her stern eye reappeared. “Well, Mr. Locke, you’re batting zero for two this morning, aren’t you?”
“I guess so,” I said, hating the intense warm feeling rushing through my body. Group attention was the worst, especially when you hadn’t volunteered for it. I wanted to hide.
“It looks like you’ll just have to find another seat,” she said and I cringed. The only one available was in the front row, directly in front of her. Now I’d definitely have to pay attention. “Come on now, we don’t have all day.”
I reluctantly switched seats, the warm feeling turning into a nuclear blast. Then I noticed something peculiar out of the corner of my eye. On the short table behind her desk was a stack of booklets. Odd, I thought, what in the world were those doing here. Had someone robbed an ancient library?
“Now as you can see from the syllabus,” Mrs. Lee continued, “we will be studying something very interesting, important and relevant to today’s world ... your world!”
The sharp delivery startled us and I wondered if the stack of booklets had anything to do with her plan.
She continued, “Physics, my dear students, is not some abstract concept involving math and chemistry we use to torture you with.” The class chuckled. “I’m guessing that only a few of you actually kept up with current events during your summer break, which is all too disappointing because there’s been good news and there’s been bad news that directly affects each and every one of you.”
Everyone looked around curiously. Mrs. Lee always had a way of grabbing our attention and today was no different.
“They’ve just announced that our probes have located the energy mineral we desperately need in order to survive beyond the next fifty years!”
I wasn’t sure if I’d heard her correctly, but the cheers and grunts of approval from a few other students reassured me. I was shocked at the excitement and optimism filling the room because I didn’t think half of these people could point to China on a map. Maybe I wasn’t the only one who acted like I didn’t care about current events but secretly found it interesting. Unfortunately, the good cheer was short-lived as a familiar voice punctured the mood. It came from the usual suspect, Jim Blake, serial negativist.
“You mentioned bad news?” Jim asked, nervously. Gloria Stodka, Jim’s antithesis, nudged him on the arm.
“Yes, Mr. Blake,” Mrs. Lee responded, quieting the rest of us. “Unfortunately, with current technology it would take 300 years to reach it, which by then will be too late because as you all know, the small amount we obtained fifteen years ago is almost depleted.”
Jim’s forearm crashed loudly on his desk. The class stared and he slumped in his chair, embarrassed.
Wow, this guy’s a mess, I thought. I’d hate to see him if something really bad happens. However, I must admit that I too felt a little deflated at the news.
Mrs. Lee continued, “I ask you then – great minds of our future – what’s the answer?”
I looked around, searching, hoping someone besides Jim would offer a positive note. Gloria cleared her throat, but Jim beat her to it.
“What about the Chinese?”
Mrs. Lee, trying not to show her agitation, pressed on. “Never mind the Chinese for now, Mr. Blake.” A sparkle in her eye prompted a needed jolt of optimism. “What’s the quickest way from point A to point B?”
I thought I knew the answer and may have offered it in my old seat, but to be wrong in the front with all those eyes on me – no thanks.
“A straight line,” Gloria offered eagerly.
“Right,” Mrs. Lee replied.
“Wormholes!” Gloria shouted.
Mrs. Lee turned around, grabbed the stack of booklets and handed them out.
“Unfortunately,” she continued, “Crimson James, one of the greatest minds we’ve had, did not finish his theoretical work on the matter and only provided us with a framework. I thought examining his thesis from a different perspective might help shed new light on the subject.”
“What about the Chinese?” Jim harped.
“Yes, Mr. Blake, what about the Chinese?” Mrs. Lee asked rhetorically. “Like us, we know they can travel into the past, but unlike us, they can’t make it back. However, we’re certain that they’re making headway on space travel via wormholes.”
“You don’t think they’ll attack us, do you?” Jim persisted.
I pictured Allison’s father going on a tirade. As far as he was concerned, the Chinese were perpetually crossing the Pacific. Then I thought of the dinner we were supposed to have with him on Friday and cringed.
“No, Mr. Blake, but you can be certain that if they find a way to cut through the fabric of space and acquire the mineral before we do, the U.S. is finished!”
Jim’s panicked reaction spoke for us all. Would the Chinese attack? It’s true they had a history of aggression, such as wiping Taiwan off the map and the two-week war from around fifteen years ago. But if they got their hands on the mineral before us, did that mean the end of America? I guess anything was possible.
“But it’s not all doom and gloom, folks.” Mrs. Lee waved her booklet. “We’ve got you to pick up where Crimson James left off.”
Of course we do, I thought, looking at Jim and trying not to show my doubt.
“Over the course of this term,” she continued, “we will be analyzing Mr. James’s wormhole theory. You need to read this by Friday as there will be a quiz.” A big sigh interrupted her flow. “But it gets even worse ... your final exam will be a term-paper on his theory and it will include – I repeat – it will include your attempt at completing his unfinished theory.” An even bigger collective sigh erupted and Mrs. Lee smiled. “I see that I have your attention – good. Now let’s begin by reviewing the theoretical history leading up to Mr. James’s thesis.”
We spent the next forty minutes doing just that. The first five minutes were tough as we had been out of practice for three months and our thinking caps were rusty. However, like riding a bicycle, we soon found ourselves pedaling down James’s theoretical lane.
The bell rang and as the class filed out, Mrs. Lee waved a booklet and shouted, “And I don’t have to remind you to be careful with these.”
As I passed, she signaled me over.
“You were awfully quiet today, Mr. Locke. Is this not challenging enough for you?”
Truth be told, I actually enjoyed this stuff. On top of that, by studying Crimson James, I would be better equipped to talk with Allison about things. I might even impress her with a few facts she didn’t know.
“I’ve just got a lot on my mind lately,” I replied.
“I was sorry to hear about your mother. I know that’s a tough loss as I recently lost my mother too.”
“Really … you did?”
“Yes, but we all soldier on, right?”
“Right,” I agreed, suddenly feeling courageous in her company. We had a common bond that I never thought would happen in a million years. After all, she was one of my teachers. I just figured she had experienced everything already.
“Are you excited to learn one of your past lives this afternoon?”
“I try not to give it much thought.”
She looked me up and down as though I were an experiment gone wrong. A moment later, a smirk emerged. “So you’re one of those rebels who’d rather not know his past, is that right?”
“Something like that,” I replied, shifting uneasily. “I guess I’d rather figure out who I’m going to be on my own, you know? I don’t want to be labeled based on my past.”
She nodded as if considering the notion. “Don’t underestimate the power of that knowledge, Mr. Locke. You may just change your mind yet and want to know who you were. There’s no denying you are in some way entwined with your past. It can be liberating and comforting, but, ultimately, the choice is yours. This is still America, after all.”