I hope that most of you will see this as a wake-up call," Mrs. Bean announced to the class, folding her arms haughtily. "If you got over an eighty-five, you've done tolerably. If you got lower than that, you should be concerned. If you got below a seventy, I'm going to make you concerned."
Tack gritted his teeth and clenched his test paper, wrinkling a good portion of it before he unceremoniously shoved the paper into his backpack along with his books and binder. Untamed brown strands of hair dropped in front of his eyes, obscuring his vision as he bent over to zip up his backpack and await the ending bell. Despite the cheerful sunlight streaming through the classroom's single window, an unmistakable aura of gloom emanated from the students around him, which Tack actually found to be oddly comforting. It meant that he wasn't the only one the teacher was going to "make concerned."
"There are a lot of you who can do better," Mrs. Bean continued, lifting her chin. "And there are a few who are beyond hope. If you don't work your butt off and if you don't follow instructions, that reflects on your tests. These test grades let me know how obedient you've all been. As you all know, that weighs heavily on your report card."
"Guess that means I'm out of luck," a boy to Tack's right murmured tiredly under his breath.
"Hey, is that talking back there?" Mrs. Bean spun about, glaring wildly around like a starved lioness with an appetite for students. Spotting Tack, who looked suspicious with his gritted teeth and packed bag, she quickly drew herself up into attack position.
"You of all people should be trying to do better!" she shouted, jabbing an accusing finger at Tack. "After your performance on this test I'd have thought you'd have learned to behave yourself!"
"M-me?" Tack sputtered haplessly.
At this point, Tack didn't even want to know how the teacher could've made such a huge mistake at his expense so much as he wanted to know how this class could possibly have gone any worse than it already had.
"Yes, you!" Mrs. Bean hissed. "You know what you did; you don't need anyone else to say it for you!"
"I didn't do anything!" Tack protested.
"Are you talking back to me?" Mrs. Bean stalked closer to Tack, lowering her voice menacingly.
"No buts, you need to learn some respect, young man!"
"I . . . I . . ."
Still recovering from this latest misfortune, Tack quickly assessed his options. The teacher looked ready to sink her teeth into him, and the only thing that could save him now would be to rat out the real culprit, who was currently doing his best not to look involved. But being a rat simply wasn't an option; betraying a fellow student to a teacher would make Tack the enemy of all the other students. He simply couldn't afford that, as all the teachers were already by nature his enemies.
And so there was only one way that Tack could finish his sentence.
"I . . . I'm sorry."
Mrs. Bean purred contently. "Good. Now apologize to the class too. It was their time that you just wasted."
Tack felt an urge to stand up and tell Mrs. Bean that she was the one wasting their time by making such a huge deal over something so petty. Fortunately for Tack, he was quickly able to suppress that urge.
"I'm sorry, class," Tack mumbled, dropping his gaze.
"I don't think they can hear you," Mrs. Bean said.
"I said, ‘I'm sorry, class'!" Tack nearly yelled.
"Better," Mrs. Bean said, resuming her prowl around the class.
Tack slumped in his chair, his stomach churning in humiliation and stress. The boy next to him, the real culprit, clapped him on the shoulder in a silent show of thanks, but Tack shrugged him off moodily. Eventually the bell rang, and the students began their silent mass exodus.
Tack stood up to join them, unconsciously tugging at the collar of his shirt. The gray school uniform felt annoyingly itchy and tight, no matter how many times he wore it. As he filed out of the classroom with the rest of the class, still adjusting his clothes, Tack couldn't help but wonder if they had been designed to be as unpleasant as possible.
Tack joined the gray river of uniformed students flowing neatly up and down the hallways, his stomach quickly forgetting the stress of the classroom as it began growling, reminding him that he had at least one good thing to look forward to in the immediate future: lunch.
All students looked forward to lunch, even if they weren't hungry. For one single period each day, students had permission to leave the school in search of nourishment and conversation, two luxuries that Tack noticed that adults of the City took for granted. Inside school no eating and no speaking were two rules that were rigidly enforced.
Of course, if any students displeased teachers, the teachers could revoke those students' lunch privileges for as long as they liked. Tack was glad that Mrs. Bean hadn't gone that far, at least.
Tack froze in mid-step as the voice, barely a whisper, rose above the silent gray multitude that walked both around and into him. His heart racing frantically, Tack's first instinct was to look around for any teachers that might have noticed a student speaking his name. When he found none, his second instinct was to look for who it was that had nearly given him a heart attack. Looking up the staircase he was about to climb, Tack saw a younger girl with brown pigtails looking down at him with a lopsided grin.
"Suzie, what do you think you're doing?" Tack asked quietly, his face torn between worry and joy.
"Nothing much, Bro; Melissa is sick today, so I've got no one to eat lunch with," Suzie whispered back, causing more than a few passing students to stare at her.
At that Tack smiled and nearly forgot about the trouble that his sister could land them both in by speaking. Suzie always ate lunch with her friends, so much so that she and Tack rarely ever saw each other except for the few hours that they spent at home.
"Wanna go grab something then?"
"Sure!" Suzie agreed so happily that Tack winced at how loud her voice had become.
A moment later, Suzie joined the flow of students descending the stairs, and together she and Tack made their way towards the lobby of the building. Much to Tack's relief, Suzie refrained from speaking aloud the rest of the way. Soon after they reached the lobby they came into sight of the armed guards that were manning polished metal turnstiles with scanners that inspected the arms of each of the many students filing in and out. It was very fast, very quiet, very orderly, very clean, almost unsettlingly so.
As they approached the nearest turnstile, Tack and Suzie rolled up the sleeves of their uniforms to reveal the nine-digit numbers and bar codes that had been imprinted upon their arms when they had first entered the City school system. The guards seized their arms, scanned them to make sure that the children were indeed allowed to eat lunch, shot them a nasty look in case they were thinking of breaking any rules, and then released them and turned their attention towards the next students in line.
Having finally cleared that last, oppressive hurdle, Tack and Suzie burst out of the large double doors, just two more students enjoying the feeling of the relatively fresh air of the City streets. As they strode upon the hard gray sidewalks under the looming shadows of steel-and-glass skyscrapers, Tack let out a quiet sigh as he allowed the thoughts of his test, Mrs. Bean, school, and everything else that was wrong with the City to fade away.
"So what do you feel like eating today?" Tack asked. It felt a little odd to be able to use his voice again.
"I dunno; what're you hungry for, Tacky?" Suzie inquired.
"I'm not sure either. Maybe we should just get pizza," Tack suggested.
"That sounds good, Tacky." Suzie grinned.
"Don't call me that." Tack scowled.
"But it fits you!" Suzie said, shoving Tack playfully.
"No, it doesn't, and don't call me that," Tack said with mock annoyance, brushing her hand aside.
"You really are talky, Tacky."
"I'll poke you; I swear," Tack threatened in exasperation.
"No, you won't," Suzie said matter-of-factly.
"Why not?" Tack demanded.
"Because I'd tell on you." Suzie giggled.
"That's just below the belt," Tack complained.
The siblings laughed and continued to poke fun at each other until they reached their preferred pizza parlor. His stomach would have been just as satisfied at any of the other pizza places in the neighborhood, and while this one sported the typical yellow walls and dirty red floor tiles just like the rest, it always had plenty of seats available, as well as a large fan that kept the air circulating, along with a television hanging from the ceiling that was, unfortunately, always set to one of the City's news channels rather than anything Tack would've preferred to watch.
The man at the counter eyed Tack and Suzie suspiciously, as if the gray-clad students were vagrants in disguise. It wasn't uncommon for adults to treat students with suspicion, as each generation always accused the next of general disrespect and misbehavior. Tack thought that the generalization was somewhat unfair but didn't let it bother him as he drew enough cash from out of his pocket to pay for two plain slices of pizza. The squinty-eyed cashier seized the money and spent a few moments satisfying himself that the students weren't trying to rip him off. Meanwhile, the friendlier pizza maker, who seemed to recognize Tack and Suzie as regular customers, sliced up two pieces from a freshly baked pie and stuck them on a plate on a tray with a wink.
Tack grabbed the tray and led Suzie over to an empty plastic table. Tack's stomach was no longer growling but rather roaring with discontent. Suzie obviously felt the same as Tack. Even as they sat down, Tack tore into his slice, grease cascading down his chin. A moment later, Suzie followed suit. As Tack's stomach sated itself, he took the opportunity to concentrate on the broadcast that was blaring loudly from the television.
"Welcome back to CNC, the City News Channel," the brown-haired anchorwoman droned. "Today the Educators denied all rumors of human error concerning last week's catastrophic blackout, maintaining that the accident was solely the result of mechanical failure. This morning the Mayor himself issued a comment on the incident."
The broadcast switched to the familiar face of the Mayor as he stood on the marble steps of City Hall, surrounded by a sea of microphones. It was a face that every citizen of the City knew, from his salt-and-pepper hair to his glittering dark eyes, and the exaggeratedly large smile that always seemed plastered on to his face.
"Thorough investigation has concluded from the start that, popular speculation notwithstanding, this accident was just that--an accident," the Mayor said firmly. "Nothing has changed since. I promise you that measures are already being taken to prevent such an incident from occurring again. In the meantime, I urge every citizen of this City to do their part and work toward conserving electricity."
The brief message concluded, the image changed to show a series of test tubes, followed by coughing patients in a hospital ward.
"In our top story today, a terrifying new disease epidemic has taken the City by storm." The anchorwoman's voice took on a dramatic tone. "The new RAS virus has already been blamed for at least one death, with forty-two confirmed cases. The virus is airborne, and the three-week incubation period has City scientists fearing that many more people might be carrying the disease right now without even knowing it. No vaccine yet exists, and today the Educators issued a written statement asking citizens to take measures to slow the projected spread of the disease. Suggested preventive measures include avoiding large crowds and public transportation, as well as using a protective mask to cover the mouth and nose."
Tack stopped listening. Weird diseases were always ending up on the news, and while adults seemed to take the threats quite seriously, Tack figured that the lack of bodies dropping in the streets was a good sign. There were even times that he would have welcomed disease, in order to escape the torments of school, and he couldn't imagine walking around all day with a rag strapped around his face.
Reaching for a nearby shaker, Tack poured large amounts of powdered garlic onto the remnants of his slice to make it taste less like boring routine and more worth the money he'd spent. Suzie, he noted with affection, had already garnished her slice with liberal amounts of both garlic and red pepper, and was busying herself by piling on green herbs.
As he resumed eating, Tack's mind strayed to the Educators, idly wondering, and not for the first time, how they were chosen. The Educators essentially called all the shots in the City, and formed one of the two branches of its government. They made the City's laws and formed its policies while their subordinate branch, the Enforcers, enforced them. Educators presided over all matters of government in the City, especially, as their title suggested, education.
The Educators appointed principals and teachers, and had final say in the fate of any lowly student. Of course, there were various ranks of Educators. Tack knew that his own father had once had a minor position with them, but neither father nor son really liked to talk about that. As a matter of fact, Tack and his father rarely talked at all, as one or the both of them were usually busy with either work or school.
Other than his father, the only other type of Educator that Tack had ever seen in person was the Disciplinary Officers. These were special Educators, the inspectors of schools, and the only ones who could deal out the most serious punishment of expulsion. If a Disciplinary Officer ever showed up in a school for any reason other than a scheduled inspection, every student would instantly understand that someone must've really done something.
"So, Bro," Suzie said, finishing her slice and wiping her chin. "How's your day going?"
"Eh . . . I've had better," Tack admitted, choking down the last of his slice.
"What was it this time?" Suzie rolled her eyes.
"Science class. You know, with Mrs. Bean." Tack grimaced.
Suzie nodded wisely. "Oh, her. I heard she's awful."
"That's putting it lightly," Tack said bitterly, wiping his mouth on the gray sleeve of his uniform.
"Yeah, well, what can ya do?" Suzie shrugged.
Tack raised an eyebrow. "Rhetorical question?"
"Duh." Suzie rolled her eyes.
"Well, then we ought to be getting back to school before we're late and make a few more teachers act awful," Tack suggested, standing up.
"Don't you have Mr. Kiner next?" Suzie asked.
"Don't remind me," Tack groaned.
"Hey, don't sweat it, Bro; I heard he's not so bad until he starts shouting." Suzie elbowed Tack playfully.
"You hear a lot of things." Tack ruffled Suzie's hair.
Suzie grinned. "Yep."
"A lot of those things are true," Tack offered.
Suzie's grin widened. "Yep."
"We should still be getting back, you know," Tack said.
"Yep." Suzie's grin was now roughly the size and shape of a watermelon.
"Oh come on, you." Tack smiled in spite of himself, dragging Suzie along.
Tack and Suzie made their way back to the school, this time nagging at each other with each step upon the concrete. They drew close to the school, and quickly rejoined the herd of students marching back towards class. Reaching the doors, both siblings got in line and rolled up their sleeves, prepared to present their arms to the security guards. As they stepped into the queue, however, Tack and Suzie both hesitated briefly, knowing that they would now have to go their separate ways.
"Are you gonna be waiting for me today after school?" Suzie asked.
"You know I only have the time for that on Saturday," Tack said apologetically.
"And today is Wednesday, yeah yeah." Suzie's frown deepened. "Why do I have to get out a period later than you?"
"Because you get to school a period later than I do," Tack explained. "They have to make it equal, you know."
"That was a rhetorical question too, you know," Suzie teased as they drew closer to the glaring guards. "Anyway, Tacky, see ya later!"
Tack sighed as a guard seized his arm. "See you, Suzie."
The rest of Tack's classes passed by without much incident. After what had happened to him that morning, Tack took extra care to give his teachers no reason to focus their attentions on him. In math class, Mr. Kiner did throw a loud tantrum and call security upon finding two of his students exchanging notes in class, and his language teacher revoked the lunch privileges of a student who had spoken out of turn, but Tack wasn't either of those unfortunate victims, and so he didn't worry about any of it. One bad school experience a day was bad enough for him--and he hadn't even deserved that one.
When the 3:00 bell finally rang, Tack wearily made his way towards the front entrance, presented his numbered arm to the guard, who scanned him and waved him through with a dismissive gesture. Tack walked along with the other gray-clad students, making his way down the dull paths of concrete and across wide lanes of asphalt until he finally reached the nearest entrance to the City's underground subway. Making his way down the stairs that led into the station, Tack reached the turnstiles and allowed one to scan his bar code. Having confirmed that Tack was a student and wasn't cutting class, the machine quickly allowed him to pass through with a curt beep. Another flight of stairs brought Tack into a filthy, cavernous area that constituted the subway platform.
As he stood patiently on the platform with other commuters, adults and students alike, Tack barely noted the earthshaking rumble of subway cars entering and leaving, but still managed to haul himself onto the appropriate train after it rumbled into the station and slid its doors open. Once inside, Tack sat down quietly with his eyes shut, the day's weariness catching up to him and furiously bludgeoning him upside the head in the form of a throbbing headache.
Unconsciously, he scratched at the number scarred onto his arm, the one that he never looked at or bothered to memorize, feeling suddenly like there was something, something unidentifiably wrong with his life, something that he just couldn't pin down.
At least, not for now.
Copyright © 2008 by Isamu Fukui. All rights reserved.