Vyse took a few days to process Ruta’s alleged doctor’s note. Finally, the first approval came in the form of an email. Ruta didn’t know that things like this required two approvals. Such was the nature of bureaucracy in action.
The second approval required a face-to-face meeting with Principal Holloway himself. On a bright, hot morning, Ruta stood outside the door to his office within the academy. Only then and now did she fully ponder on what a second approval might entail.
She swallowed nervously. Would a second approval require her to undergo a medical test to prove her allergy? No, that would be preposterous. If they purposely exposed her to peanut butter after being informed of her alleged allergy, that would be grounds for a lawsuit. And if that happened, Ruta would certainly make herself a darling of the media, getting celebrities and the like on the side of the poor girl tossed around by the monolithic entity known as the man.
No, surely they would not actually force her to prove it through a test. Perhaps she might have to prove it through words to the principal, but Ruta felt confident she could pull it off. She never met the principal before, but he had all the looks of a middle-aged man with too many failed marriages, burnt out from a long career that’s nowhere close to actually finishing.
Ruta knew she could overpower someone like that. Thus, when she knocked on the door and the principal told her to come in, Ruta stepped inside, armed with confidence, ready to become that mighty gazelle she spoke so highly of.
Principal Holloway’s office looked like any other office belonging to someone of a high rank within their institution. The carpet was a deep blue color; his windows, framed with red curtains, had a perfect view of the outside world; paintings covered the white walls, along with a framed diploma.
Holloway himself sat behind his mahogany desk, his hands neatly folded on its surface. He wore a crisp blue suit, and his gray hair revealed his age. He had an inquisitive, amused look on his face as Ruta stepped deeper into his lair.
Ruta felt her confidence dropping by the minute. Holloway stood up as she arrived at his desk; she shook his hand with a sweaty one of her own, then accepted his offer to sit in a seat in front of his desk.
“Ruta Applesmith,” he greeted. “I’m sorry to hear about your unfortunate allergy.”
Ruta knew she needed to speak clearly and confidently in situations like these.
Holloway’s desk had a mug of pencils and pens, framed photos, and a small bonsai tree. He took a pen out of the mug and fiddled with it.
“You know, I used to be a teacher here,” he began. Ruta decided it would be best to merely give polite nods until his middle-aged rambling came to an end. “I put in my time and rose all the way to the principal’s office. But it’s ironic. The higher up within the school hierarchy you get, the actual less interaction with students you get. Sure, with a mere word I can affect the lives of nearly a thousand students, but that’s only on a mass basis. As principal, I lose out on connecting with my students on an individual basis. Those spontaneous teaching moments. How I miss those. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.”
Ruta politely nodded.
Holloway flipped the pen around in his hands. “Perhaps you’ll let me have a teaching moment here. It’s been so long.”
Ruta felt a creeping change in the air, as if the temperature in the room had gone up several degrees since she took her seat.
“Good.” Holloway smiled. “Ever since you arrived in my office, I’ve been keeping track of the little things in your body language. The slight sweat in your palms, the ways your eyes ever so often dart around the room, your decision to politely nod and merely say ‘yes sir’. You’re nervous.”
Ruta’s head started pounding.
He motioned with a hand. “But that’s alright. It’s natural to be nervous. But I’m curious as to why. I suppose the answer is obvious. You’re meeting with a bigwig. The bigwig, if you will. The big cheese. The head honcho. The chief. The prez. The principal. In your position, I’d be nervous, too. In fact, I’d be more concerned if you weren’t nervous at all. If you weren’t nervous, then, perhaps, I’d be nervous.”
“But my question is, why are you nervous?”
Ruta swallowed, her head swimming with fearful thoughts. Didn’t he just ask that?
“Now, you might be thinking, ‘didn’t he just ask that?’ And you’re right. But I’m looking at it from a different angle now. Why does meeting with me make you nervous? Is it because you fear that you’ll slip up, say something you shouldn’t say, make a fool out of yourself? Again, such feelings are natural.”
Holloway leaned over his desk. Ruta’s heart felt like a drummer was going to town on it, her cheeks felt flushed, her forehead hot. “Perhaps you’re afraid of my opinion of you. In your head, you’re worrying about my perception of you. The fear of scrutiny, whether or not it’s actually real. But what, exactly, am I scrutinizing? Perhaps it’s not just about your interaction with me on a conversational level; perhaps it’s you as a person. Perhaps you’re afraid a facet of your personality will accidentally be revealed, and my opinion of you will change because of it. And once I know, there’s no going back. The truth will remain visible for all time.”
Holloway started tapping his finger on the desk. “Perhaps this truth is the peanuts? Perhaps you’re afraid that I’ll think negatively of you due to your allergy? If an anxious person fears to stand out, then this allergy of yours would certainly make you stand out. If this is the case, then have no fear. My opinion of you won’t change based on something like a peanut allergy. As a student, there’s so much more to you than a mere allergy.”
But then Holloway’s eyes darkened. “Or perhaps you’re afraid of an absence of truth? In other words…a lie. Rather than fearing I’ll uncover a hidden truth about you, you fear I’ll discover a lie. A lie about peanuts, perhaps? If that’s the case, then you should be filled with fear. My opinion of you will completely change based on a lie. That lie will haunt you for the rest of your days at this academy. I will ensure it follows you around like a ghost just trying to stay in the sun, grasping at whatever scraps of life it can. You’ll be a marked woman until you leave my school. Except it will continue beyond that.”
He rose to his feet, the air in the room turning stale. “I’m a powerful man. I have connections everywhere. Corporations, politicians, armies. You’ll not escape my justice. Because it is justice, yes? A lie is inherently not true; justice is about fairness, and fairness requires truth. I am justice. I am fairness. I am your judge, jury, and executioner. I am your principal.”
Holloway towered over her. Ruta took short breaths, trembling in her seat.
“Tell me, Ruta Applesmith. Are you telling the truth right now?”
Ruta took a deep breath.
The stale air instantly evaporated. Holloway smiled, a genuine smile full of warmth, and returned to his seat. He placed the pen back in its mug.
“I see. Thank you for telling the truth. Now, go sit at the peanut butter allergy table!”
Ruta, having survived a near heart attack, rose as quickly and respectfully as she could.
Should I bow? Shake his hand? Or just, you know, get out of here?
“...thank you, sir.”
Holloway gave her a cheerful nod.
Mr. Connolly’s fourth period Talent class.
Bass ahem’d as she stood in front of all her peers. The September sun shone through the window, illuminating the paper she held in her hands. Mr. Connolly himself, a tall man in his late twenties, sat at his desk, listening intently.
“My dream is to become the President of the United States,” she began. She ignored Rankin’s snicker at the back of the class and continued. “I cannot think of anything more you can achieve in life. I can’t think of how anyone could ever amount to anything more than that.”
She sighed at the sight of half the class yawning.
“Thank you, Bass,” Mr. Connolly said. At least he wasn’t bored. His eyes looked lively and he seemed as though he took a great interest in his students.
Sarika herself struggled to stay awake. She spent all of last night deep in her notebooks, pushing herself deeper and deeper into her studies. The answer always seemed so close, just out of reach!
Her peers came and went to the front of the class, delivering a short statement on what their dream was. Why, exactly, they got out of bed in the morning and took on the world every day. Sarika half-listened, too engrossed in her own world.
“I want to own a bakery!” Ruta declared. “My Nightmare makes people sad, so I want to do something while I’m awake to make people happy!”
Bass started clapping, but when she realized nobody else was clapping, she lowered her head in shame.
“I want to be rich!” Rankin proclaimed.
“I’m going to open a national chain of EEL PITS!” Quaid yelled, flexing his big arms for emphasis.
“I’d like to become the CEO of my father’s company,” Edith said next, looking bored as she stood in front of the whiteboard at the front of the class. “They’re a conglomerate specializing in medical equipment.”
This time, everybody clapped, even a fearful Ruta, because you clapped for someone like Edith. Only Sarika remained aloof, doodling equations on her notebooks.
“Thank you, Edith,” Mr. Connolly said. “Next is Sarika.”
Sarika blinked herself awake and trudged to the front of the class. The sooner she got this over with, the sooner she could get back to her own world.
“My dream is to overcome death,” she informed the class. A few classmate’s eyes flickered in interest, Edith and Rankin snickered once again, Ruta gave her an encouraging thumbs up. Sarika didn’t particularly care for their reactions.
Mr. Connolly rubbed his chin. “Dare I say it, but I’m curious. Everyone else’s dreams seem far more concrete than yours. How would you go about overcoming death?”
“Everything can be boiled down to equations and math,” Sarika explained. “If our reality is merely numbers, then there has to be a formula for life and death. Something that makes a living thing live and a dead thing dead. Once I find this formula, I can tinker and work with it until I change it into a formula that prevents death.”
“Hmm. How interesting. Thank you, Sarika.”
Sarika nodded and returned to her seat, zoning out once again as the next classmate went to the board.
Half an hour later, the bell rang, and Mr. Connolly clapped his hands. “Thank you for letting me in on your dreams, everyone. As a teacher, I’d like to know what exactly motivates my students. I have to get you guys interested in pursuing your Talents. This will allow me to tailor our curriculum and become a better teacher for everyone.”
A few classmates waved goodbye to Connolly as they left. Ruta stood up and tapped Sarika on the left shoulder; Sarika looked over and sighed, realizing Ruta had done it from her right side.
“Peanut allergy table time,” Ruta said with a grin.
“Godspeed, young man,” Sarika mumbled. Ruta skipped off, and so did everybody else in the class (well, walked off). Only Sarika remained, simply because she moved slowly, at her own pace, since this was her own life.
“Sarika, may I speak with you for a moment?” Connolly called out from his desk.
Sarika raised an eyebrow, but did as instructed. She gathered her books, slung her backpack over her shoulders, and stood in front of his desk.
“This death project of yours,” he began. He had his elbows on the table, his hands folded in front of his mouth, only letting Sarika see his eyes. “Is this a solo project?”
“Just me,” Sarika answered.
“I see.” The sunlight flickered and danced across his eyes. “What if I told you that such a project might prove a risk to national security?”
Cicadas chirped outside, their long hums blanketing the classroom while Connolly let Sarika chew on his words.
“What if I told you that you haven’t been the only person to pursue the defeat of death?” Connolly asked, his voice low. “And what would you do if you actually succeeded in this project?”
“I’d bring back my sister,” Sarika answered immediately. What kind of question was that? The answer was obvious.
“You speak of formulas, but that’s just theory,” Connolly said coolly. “You’ll have to create some sort of device or machine to actually implement your formula. Do you have the money for that? Would you ever have the money for that?”
Connolly reached into his desk and pulled out a handrolled cigarette along with some matches. He struck it slowly and deliberately, lighting the cigarette afterwards, letting it hang from his mouth. As if to further impress Sarika, he threw on a pair of aviator shades. Sarika felt bored with the whole performance.
“You might have to sell your formula,” Connolly continued. “You might have to sell your services. And who would you be selling it too? There are a number of organizations that will want your equation. And, should everyone succeed, who would they sell this death-defying device to?”
He let out a long puff, the smoke covering his desk, drifting up towards the ceiling. “Would everyone have equal access to this device? Or merely those who can afford it? What would the societal ramifications be of your success?”
Sarika frowned. “Then I’ll do it all myself. I can do everything myself.” She looked off to the side. “Since my sister died, I’ve had to do everything by myself. This will be no different.”
Connolly looked amused. “You’ve put up boundaries of your own, Sarika. You’ve tried to seal yourself off. But those boundaries are artificial. You cannot live in a vacuum.”
Connolly leaned over. Sarika stood still, unimpressed with his little show.
“I’d like to meet further with you. Trust me. I’m on your side. My job is to prevent those shadowy organizations from getting too powerful.”
Sarika grunted. “Yeah, right.”
Connolly laughed. He ashed his cigarette and grinned. “Think on it, Sarika-”
The sprinklers in the room’s ceilings suddenly came on. In a second, both of them were drenched in the downpour. The teacher and student looked at each other blankly for a moment.
“Damnit, not again,” Connolly mumbled, trying to continue smoking out of his ruined cigarette.
“Yeah, I’m not staying here,” Sarika muttered. And it wasn’t just because of the sprinklers. Nor the fire alarm that now blared across the entire school.
“Very well. All I’m saying is - think on it.”
Sarika turned and left. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mr. Connolly still sitting at his desk, hands folded, water falling all around him, his uniform and person soaking wet, the last gasps of a dying cigarette in his mouth.
“What the hell was he going on about?” Sarika mumbled, not for the first time today. The school day (and a change of clothes into her PE uniform (and a fire drill)) and a marathon session in the library had come and gone, and Sarika was on her way back to the dorm, shambling along the winding road, deep in thought. Orange streetlights towered over her like silent sentinels; a handful of stars were visible above her in the night sky.
Yet Sarika kept her eyes on the paved asphalt below her. She didn’t want to admit it, but Connolly had a point. She had spent so much time working on the theory that she never considered the practical side.
But when it really came down to it, she didn’t care. The world, the people, whatever - all she wanted to do was bring back her sister. If she could just do that, then let the world burn, because they’d be walking together through it, and that’s all that mattered.
She gave half-hearted nods to the security guard and secretary as she passed through the dorm lobby. She sighed as she leaned against the wall, waiting for the elevator.
Then she paused when she arrived on her floor, at her room, and placed her key into the doorknob. When she turned the key, she didn’t hear any signs of resistance. The door had been left unlocked.
“That Ruta,” she muttered, since a locked door was a necessary security precaution against any sort of thievery, especially when death-defying notebooks were involved.
But then Sarika shrugged, because maybe Ruta was already there. She stepped inside and realized two things.
One, Ruta was not there.
Second, neither were her notebooks.