It takes less than an hour for the higher ups to decide I won’t be given the opportunity to be culled at The Sorting on Friday. I’ve been kicked out of Marseilles Military Academy, effective immediately. Secretly altering peoples’ grades is frowned upon harder than I thought.
“Did you not read the rules and regulations of conduct befitting a Peacekeeping cadet?” a captain asks me after Professor Munger removes me from her class. His questions are so aggressive, the medals on his shirt shake.
“I did not,” I answer truthfully.
He gapes. I understand. Everyone is a bit flustered. Professor Munger is “disappointed.”
“I’m not surprised in Rodney but I believed you were capable of better,” she said. “This will seriously damage my reputation.”
I don’t argue with her, even though I don’t believe what I did was that wrong. Other than changing two of Zelda’s grades – and sure, all of mine for the better – I graded my peers’ essays honestly. Jancy earned her Fs. She genuinely sucks.
“I’m sorry,” I said, because I could tell it was what she wanted to hear.
It’s Zelda I’m actually sorry about. It’s her I dread seeing as I finish my last round of screamy lectures and head back to our room. It’s getting dark. I keep my head down to avoid people’s stares. Look at that soil, I think. Great things sprout from darkness. At least my conscience is finally clear. I just have to hope Zelda forgives me before they put me back on a train in the morning.
“You’ll be processed out in Chicago,” one of the brass explained to me. “We don’t have the resources to do that quickly here and it would be bad for morale to keep you around.”
“And then I’ll be sent home?” I asked.
“You’ll be processed out in Chicago,” he reiterated.
I take a deep breath and try to memorize the smell of the air. I didn’t expect this to be my last night on campus. There are so many people I won’t get to say goodbye to.
Zelda isn’t waiting for me when I get home: Señora Chabela is.
“Buenas noches, hita,” she says, as if lounging outside my door is a normal occurrence. It is not. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen her without an apron on and hair wrapped up. I guess the word is out.
“Buenas noches,” I murmur. “Would you like to come inside?”
She shakes her head, hovering at the doorway.
“I understand you are leaving tomorrow. I brought you this,” she holds out a simple canvas bag. “It’s not military, it’s a personal item. Be sure to tell them that if anyone tries to take it. It has a few things inside… some snacks for your journey, a few papas. Things you’ll need.”
I’m touched. “Muchas gracias, señora. Por todos.”
She puts the bag in my arms and I cradle it because it is thoughtful and thus precious. I can feel the solid lumps of potatoes inside. Won’t Vivian be surprised to see those. Maybe this small offering will lessen the sting of me returning home, disgraced.
“Remember: this is a personal item. They can’t take it from you.”
I want to express how much I treasure the kindness, patience, and knowledge she’s given me but my tongue is thick and slow, and my throat is tight. So I just nod.
With a squeeze of my hand and a parting, “ten cuidado,” Señora Chabela exits my life.
To kill time while I wait for Zelda to come home, I start writing kamikaze letters. Not to Peasant or my family, but to people on base I’m going to miss, like Señora Chabela. At least this way, I can explain myself to those who matter.
At 3 a.m. I finally admit to myself that Zelda isn’t coming home. It hurts. I want to be angry – how dare she not give me a chance to explain? But I swallow my hurt and I write her a letter, too.
As you already know, I’ve been kicked out of school, effective immediately. By the time you read this, I’ll be gone. I’m sorry I couldn’t say goodbye in person. You must’ve gotten stuck in traffic on your way home. Ha ha ha.
I know you’re mad at me. I deserve it. Yes, I altered essay grades for you, twice. Once because I was mad, and once after prison. I regret the first instance but not the second (and no, I don’t think the second instance excuses the first).
You grew up with friends but no family. I grew up with family but no friends, which is probably why I sucked at it at first. You were my first real friend. As far as firsts go, I couldn’t have asked for a better friend than you. You are honest, brave, hard-working, loyal, clever. If I ever meet someone I admire as much as I do you, I will consider myself struck by lightning twice and die happy.
I know I haven’t always been a good friend to you. I wish I had the words to convince you I could be better. I wish I had the time to show you I could be better. But I don’t. All I can do is offer you my sincerest apology – and I can honestly say it’s my sincerest apology because sincerity is still pretty new to me.
I’m sorry. I hope someday, you forgive me. If that day comes and you want to get in touch – or even if that day never comes and you want to colorfully, poetically chew me out, you know where to find me. I’ll be in Reno, cleaning toilets.
I climb into bed but I don’t sleep. My ears strain for sounds of Zelda until 0500, when I receive a comms alert: Be packed and ready to depart at the front gate at 0600.
There’s nothing to pack. I have no personal possessions except the sack given to me by Señora Chabela. There’s nothing to do. I don’t want to see people, which eliminates things like showering. It would be ludicrous to make small talk on a morning like this.
If it were any other morning, I would be running right now. Or preparing for morning drills while musing with Zelda about who among us would be cut on Friday, and who would stay. As I close our door for the final time, I know that odds are, I’ll never see her again.
Already I miss her in a way I’ve never missed anyone before.
Sure, I miss my dead siblings, but there was always some peace in knowing they were dead. I also vaguely miss Los and my parents – the parents I remember from my childhood, the ones who parented. But they are different people now. And I miss Peasant, but I always knew I’d see her again. I have to. She’s my sister.
But Zelda is different. She’ll be here, the same wonderful Zelda, but I will miss out on all of her reminders and her annoying ticks and her friendship. I will miss her so much. It shocks me how deep the feeling goes. It’s pouring out of me, as if my body already can’t contain my grief.
I wish she would’ve come home last night. Why didn’t she come home?
Maybe she tried to come home. Maybe on her way home after dinner, she slipped in the dark and sprained her ankle and she had to spend the night in the medic unit. Perhaps she hit her head and they evaluated her overnight for a concussion. What if she was seriously hurt? Why didn’t I think of checking sooner?
I glance at my comms bracelet: 0550, not enough time to head over there now. Then I remember: I’m being kicked out. It’s not like they can punish me any harder if I’m a few minutes late.
I swing Señora Chabela’s sack over my shoulder and sprint to the other side of campus. On my way, I run through a few groups of cadets making their way to morning drills but the urgency of my mission eclipses my shame and embarrassment. My focus is getting to Zelda.
When I reach the doors, my hands are sweaty. I pause to wipe them on my pants, take a deep breath, and enter.
I check every room. All empty. My heart feels punched in the gut.
It’s 0558. I’m out of time. I failed.
FL Stewart is standing in the doorway to the gym.
“I heard you’re… leaving?”
“Yes, I’ve been kicked out for cheating. I’m leaving today. Right now, in fact.”
We stand there awkwardly staring at each other. I said all I wanted to say to him in a letter that is now sitting on my newly vacated desk in my newly vacated room. I don’t have the time or energy to rehash it all now.
“So goodbye,” I finally say.
“I’m sorry Rodney roped you into that. I’m sorry to see you go.”
I shrug. “Yeah, well, I could’ve said no. I cheated on my own accord. I guess I’m just not cut out for this. I’m actually sorry I got Rodney discharged, too.”
He shakes his head. “Rodney’s not being discharged.”
“No. His uncle is a Navy Admiral. He’s not going anywhere.”
I try to swallow the swell of bitterness this news brings. It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters now, except that I’m going home.
My comms bracelet starts shrieking – like, actually shrieking at me. I look down: 0601. Huh. I suppose that’s what happens when you’re late for getting booted from school. I turn back to FL Stewart.
“Do me a favor and tell Zelda goodbye for me, will you? Tell her I’m sorry. Make sure she knows I mean it. Please.”
He nods. I open the door and take off running again, my presence announced by the shrieking of my comms bracelet. This time, when I sense eyes on me, I feel the full weight of my embarrassment.