In which Johnny’s education becomes a sticking point, and things get complicated.
“They can’t let him back into school,” Merton said as he read over Beverly’s draft.
“He’s absolutely coming back.” She was stacking up leftovers of the previous edition. The image of Johnny struck by lightning graced every page. “Merton, if you died and then suddenly didn’t, what would you want? To be locked up in our room with only your beautiful friend for company? Or maybe dragged off to a military compound for untold tests and horrors? Or would you want everything to go back to normal.”
He glared at her over the paper. “I can’t believe you’re still sweet on him.”
Her cheeks flushed and she looked away. “I’m his friend.”
“He’s a corpse, Bev. I think it’s time to let this one go.”
“First of all, he’s still Johnny, even if he worries about bits falling off.” She cringed and shook her head. “Second, he’s having a very difficult time since coming back.”
“Digging yourself out of your own coffin’ll do that.” He tossed aside the draft and stood. “You sure you don’t want to come with me to Devon Fields.”
“For the last time, Merton.” She rolled her eyes. “There’s nothing out there. And I’m definitely not going out to Devon Fields. What if someone sees?”
“They’re generally not looking around much.” He picked up his camera and set the strap around his neck. “And it seems to me, with Johnny coming back from the dead and everything, we could all stand to be a little less skeptical.”
“You think aliens did this?”
“They could be related.”
She huffed. “They said it was the storm, Merton. Supercharged lightning brought back every cell in his body.”
“You believe that?”
Well, she didn’t. It was a ridiculous but the only explanation they’d logically come up with. The storm had been bad enough, with lightning strikes everywhere. One in the ground to wake him up, and a second for good measure. It didn’t sound good, but with no other sign of the dead and nothing in the soil everyone had latched on to the idea. Freak accident. Probably never to happen again.
“It’s a better explanation than anything else,” she said. “Come on. It’s almost time.”
The front of the school was filled with people. It was still fairly early, but the hallways were filled with people. A nervous energy was going through the school. Teachers were hanging outside their doors, waving students away and talking amongst themselves. No one was really sure what was going to happen. Johnny stood in front of a school, and a crowd had formed a few feet away from him. No one stood too close, except Principal Whale, who was chatting with Johnny’s parents. Beverly nudged Merton, and he raised his camera. When they finished, Beverly bounded forward. Johnny was tugging on the sleeve of his shirt like a child on his first day of kindergarten.
“Morning, Johnny,” she said.
“Morning.” He waved to Merton. “Lot of people here early.”
“Lots of excitement.” Merton waved the camera. “Hope you don’t mind.”
“I trust Bev.”
He glanced at the people around them, and behind his turned head Merton rolled his eyes. She glared at him.
“I think it’ll be fine, Johnny,” she said. “People liked you. Like you, I mean. You only have to remind them.”
“Remind them fast,” Merton said. “Here come some of your friends.”
A handful of football players strutted forward. Billy was in front, hands jammed in his pocket, dark hair dipped down. He stopped in front of Johnny, nervously rocking on his heels. Johnny held out his hand. There was a hesitant moment, the two boys looking at each other, and then Billy reached out. They shook.
Beverly sighed in relief. She was pretty sure this was all Johnny needed. A couple of friends at his back and he could survive.
“You have no idea how glad I am to see you,” Billy said. “I’m sorry, man.”
“Past is past.” Johnny nodded at the boys behind him. “I’m still living, technically.”
“You know if you’re good to play?” one of the boys piped up.
He shrugged. “Leg’s still wonky, and they’re still not sure if my limbs’ll start falling off.”
There was nervous laughter at that. Billy thumped his friend’s back.
“Without us these boys are nothing,” he said. “A zombie on the team can only help.”
They started to walk into the school, and Beverly took a step to follow. Merton placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Let baby bird fly,” he said. “He’s too cool for us now.”
She shook him off. “Johnny’s never been too cool for anyone, which is what makes him so cool.”
She turned her gaze anyway to Principal Whale, who was now engaged in conversation with a few onlooking parents. She pulled out her notebook and stepped closer.
“He’s dead,” a furtive looking mother was saying. “It seems a proper reason for unenrollment.”
Principal Whale shrugged his heavy set shoulders. “The boy is functioning, and I was promised by his father and a large number of parents that there’d be no reason for concern.”
A father in a tweed jacket huffed. “We can’t know for sure, Colin. It’s not as if there’s documentation on the subject.”
“We still don’t know what caused it,” a stern-faced mother in a pink sweater said. “What if it’s radiation or some kind of virus? Gregory was doing some reading on those parasitic wasps. What if there’s an outbreak?”
“We know there’s some precedent for zombies.” The first mother narrowed her eyes. “Black magic.”
“We are scientists,” Principal Whale said. “We don’t fall into superstition so easily.”
Merton grabbed Beverly’s arm and dragged her away. They followed the growing crowd into the school. The halls were already lighting up with gossip. Most people seemed to keep their distance from Johnny, though the ring of football boys helped. For a moment Beverly saw Betty turn down the hall and quickly run away. She couldn’t see Johnny’s face or if he’d seen as well. By the time the bell rang for first period, the news was completely out. As they walked into homeroom, the rows of seats beside Johnny were empty. Beverly dutifully sat beside him. As class began, everyone settled, and for a moment you could believe that everything was back to normal.
It seemed impossible to escape the undead. Marya had read over the plea to keep Johnny Maxwell in school printed in the newsletter. It’d been forced into her hands a few times over the week. The overall reaction at school was difficult to gauge. Johnny’s football friends had welcomed him back with open arms, but other seemed less willing. A few parents had started a petition to kick him out of school again, and some teachers kept their distance. Girls clutched their books and moved out of his way, while others seemed bolstered by his apparent breakup with Betty.
Marya only watched. She’d been trying to contact her father with little success. She was no longer sure this was a punishment. There was something wrong in Whitby. It wasn’t just prom kings rising from the dead, or the strange lights she’d heard rumor of at local makeout point, or the local legends of haunts beneath the town itself. Something in the air crawled inside her head. The earth itself felt strange as she pressed it between her fingers. There was something missing.
She found Betty outside the school, watching the janitors scrub away at a spray painted sign that had, an hour ago, read “No Undead”. They’d gotten most of the ‘No’ removed before everyone started showing up for class.
“A month ago they were putting flowers on his locker,” Betty muttered.
Marya glanced at her. “I thought you were unhappy he returned.”
She shook out her blond hair. Black was still her color, but a purple scarf now accented the dress, and she’d actually attempted a shade of lipstick today. “I don’t think vandalism is the answer.”
They walked into school. The hallways had grown considerably more tense in the past week and a half, and the hallway parted down the middle. Those that were unhappy Johnny returned huddled together, giving glares at anyone who supported Johnny. Teachers had taken to walking the halls, but a few of them had expressed their disapproval at having a zombie student. Principal Whale had been out of his office more and more, possibly to escape the angry lines of parents, but also to ensure nothing was going on in the halls.
No one talked to Betty about it, at least. She hadn’t spoken to Johnny since seeing him after rising from the grave, and she expressed no interest in doing so in the future. Marya was the only person she talked to anymore, and a few cheerleaders flounced by, giving her a glare as they did. Betty slammed her locker and turned on her heels, marching towards class.
“People want to make me into the bad guy,” she said. “Like I’m the one who’s a freak for not wanting to get cozy with a zombie.”
Marya walked quickly behind her. “People want everything to be normal.”
“Well it’s not, is it? God, are people still reading that?”
Someone was flipping through the Laemmle High Newsletter, now grown up to five pages. The brilliant image of Johnny struck by lightning stared at them. Betty turned away in a huff, Marya still trailing behind.
“I’ve been reading it,” Marya said. “It’s the only thing around here that seems to know what’s going on.”
Betty said nothing as she marched to the classroom. Shelley Rathbone stood there again today, newsletter clutched in her hands. She perked up as Betty walked by, opened her mouth to say something, and was promptly ignored. Marya slowed, though. Shelley glanced at her behind her huge glasses, gripped her books tighter, and hurried off.
Marya didn’t call after her, though she wanted to. Whitby was filling her with questions, and that had led her to the graveyard soon after Johnny’s resurrection. There she’d seen the military personnel digging up soil samples and taking away data, and beyond them, hidden in the shadow of the graves, Shelley had been there too, taking her own evidence. Someone else was interested in exactly how weird Whitby was.
Betty wouldn’t entertain the thought. Someone scrawled “Student Life” across Johnny’s locker, and she kept her head turned. People tried to talk to her in the halls, and she ignored them. She and Marya skipped class more frequently, avoiding familiar places like the football stands or service closets and choosing the back stairs on the east side of the school, where a few girls smoked cigarettes, and a few teachers as well.
At night Marya would return to the empty house she’d taken occupancy of, lingering in the empty rooms and climbing the stairs until she reached the window overlooking most of Whitby. Lights shone in the windows of houses as the sun set behind the trees in Devon Fields. Her nightly jaunts had revealed nothing, and she’d started to tire. The longer she was here, the less energy she had. She was starting to believe there was something in the air. Whatever mysteries Whitby held, they were determined to stay that way, no matter how hard she tried.
Beverly tapped her pen against the copy as she stared at the wall in front of her. She’d put up the second issue of the newsletter beside the first. The image of the funeral beside the brilliant white lightning strike was an interesting one. She’d been staring at it for the last ten minutes trying to come up with inspiration. Around her notes and all the things she’d collected since Johnny returned to school. Her head was killing her, and the musty smell of the room was burying itself into her frontal lobe. An hour had been wasted on the filing cabinets. They had no idea what was inside of them, but she listened to the rattle as she kicked it and wondered why anyone would bother locking up the Laemmle High Newsletter and throwing away the key.
The door handle gave a hesitant turn, and then the door creaked open. Beverly turned, expecting Merton or Miss Helim, and was surprised to come face-to-face with Betty instead. The blond beauty had bounced back in recent weeks, her hair brushed again, and while she still wore all black, she’d added some color to it. Betty looked around, eyeing the dusty cabinets and ink splattered equipment. She stood in the middle of the room, as if afraid to touch anything. Beverly stared at her and blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
“Johnny’s not here,” she said.
Betty didn’t look at her as she walked up to the desk Merton had laid out some pictures on. There were some from the football game, and a few of Johnny standing with the principal. Her eyes moved to the wall, where the newsletters were pinned to the wall.
“Are you looking for something?” Beverly moved in her line of sight.
“I haven’t been reading these,” she said.
“Oh, um.” Beverly glanced to the wall as well. “I guess it was hard for you.”
“No one ever told me how it happened.”
“Supercharged lightning.” It felt sillier the more she said it.
Sure enough, Betty laughed. “Is that really it? A town full of scientists and that’s what they came up with?”
Beverly didn’t know what to say. She wanted to ask why she was here. If she wasn’t looking for Johnny, then what could she possibly have to say to her?
The prom queen leaned back against the table, and looked at her. “He’s doing okay then? No one’s harassing him in the halls?”
“N-not that I’ve seen. His friends are sort of buffering, I think.”
She nodded. “Billy felt so guilty. You’ve been spending a lot of time with him lately.”
“Johnny.” She narrowed her eyes. “You’re writing all these articles.”
“I’m on his side,” Beverly said. “And Johnny’s my friend. You aren’t here because–”
“I just wanted to look around.” She tugged free her ponytail and started to put it back up again. “You don’t think it’s weird that he’s dead?”
“Of course. He came back from the dead at a football game and no one knows why. He’s green now. But he’s still Johnny.”
“I’m glad then. He’s going to need a lot of friends.”
Beverly looked at her and felt the words fall out of her mouth before she could stop it. “Why aren’t you his friend?”
Betty blinked her wide eyes, and her hair tie drooped around her fingers. “What?”
“Because you’re right, Johnny needs friends, and it seems to me you’d be his most important one.”
“He died,” she said, squeezing her fingers together.
“And now he’s back.” Something righteous rose in Beverly’s throat. “Why did you come here, Betty? To make sure he’s okay? To avoid talking to him some more?”
She jumped up. “Are you really going to blame me for being confused?”
“I don’t know!” Beverly threw up her hands. “I think everyone’s confused. I think freak electrical storm is the only reasonable explanation they could come up with and I think we’re willing to believe it because any alternative is too scary. I think it’d be easier if everything went back to normal.”
“It would be easier.” Betty shook her head. “But Johnny died and came back. Even if he is still Johnny, I can’t undo the last month. You can’t pretend that you weren’t at his funeral, that you watched him go into the ground. And I don’t know if normal’s an option after next week.”
Beverly jolted. “What’s happening next week?”
“Girl Friday didn’t hear? There’s an emergency PTA meeting or something.” She folded her arms. “My mother told me about it. Some parents formed an anti-zombie league and they’re going to get Johnny kicked out of school.”
“That’s not–they can’t–”
“Oh they can. Surely Johnny knows. His parents are going to be there.”
Beverly ran a hand through her hair. “He didn’t tell me.”
Betty turned her head. “That’s all I know. You can ask him about it.”
Beverly wished she had some kind of biting comment, but worry had already taken hold. Why had no one told her? Why hadn’t Johnny told her? She grabbed her bookbag and ran into the hall. In the Home Ec room she found Miss Helim, who was sitting at her desk grading papers.
“Shouldn’t you be going home,” she said as Beverly rushed to her desk.
“Is there a PTA meeting next week?” She was mildly out of breath.
Miss Helim sat back and looked at her. “There is. Next Friday.”
“Are they going to kick out Johnny?”
“They–” The teacher’s lips formed a thin line and she set down her pen. “Some parents are concerned, Beverly. They’re going to voice those concerns, and that’s all.”
“That’s not all. I know a lot of parents have been complaining. Principal Whale said he wouldn’t.”
“Some parents think he might be a distraction.” She folded her hand over her mouth and looked at Beverly. Something flickered over her face, like regret, or sadness. “I feel badly about lying to you. They’re scared, Beverly. They feel threatened. I believe the majority of students will be fine with Johnny’s presence, if they aren’t already. But their parents think they can’t be, or they shouldn’t be. I don’t think Principal Whale wants to remove him, but they may give him reason to.”
“But Johnny’s fine! He’s thinking of re-joining the football team!”
A knock at the door caused Beverly to jump. Mr. Colburn stood at the door, jacket on, glancing at his watch. Miss Helim nodded and began putting away her papers. She offered Beverly a smile.
“If you feel so strongly about Johnny,” she said, “I’m sure others do as well. The meetings are open to students as well. You have a right to be there.”
Beverly followed her out. Surely Johnny’s friends knew. The football team had accepted him back with open arms. She wondered if they’d planned to attend the meeting.
Merton found her on the way to the football field. He caught her expression immediately.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“There’s some kind of meeting next Friday,” she said. “They want to kick Johnny out.”
Merton’s mouth twisted. “I kind of expected it.”
“You did not.” She climbed up the steps of the bleachers. The boys were running drills. Johnny was chatting with some people off to the side. “There’s no reason.”
He placed his elbow on the bar, putting his chin in his hands. “Bev, I hate to break this to you, but he’s a zombie. He is outside the realm of the natural world. You didn’t think anyone would freak out?”
She sat in a huff and offered a small wave when she caught Johnny’s eye. “That doesn’t mean he deserves this.”
They sat in silence a minute. Johnny broke away from the group and walked towards them.
“What’re you going to do?” Merton asked.
“I’m thinking.” Her mind turned back to what Miss Helim had said. “I’m thinking of telling people. Maybe mention the time and location of the meeting.”
“That’s not a terrible idea.” He looked off. “Don’t know if I’ll be there.”
She turned to him. “What? Merton, I need you.”
He smiled. “I told you I wanted to go check out those lights.”
“You’re going to skip this for that?”
“I dunno. It’s supposed to be a full moon. Mr. Carmichael said that’s when he sees them the most.”
“There is something wrong with you.”
He shrugged. “Maybe I also need a zombie break. Besides, if you get Billy and them involved, they’ll probably get the whole school there.”
“I was hoping.” She sat back. “You’re really going to chase aliens instead?”
“Feeling like anything’s possible these days.”
She sighed. “You’re not wrong.”
Johnny joined them in the seats. “What’re you guys talking about?”
“There’s going to be a PTA meeting Friday,” Beverly said. “About you.”
“Oh yeah, that.” He ran a hand through his hair. “My parents have been shouting about that all week.”
“Did you tell those guys?” She nodded towards the field.
“I don’t know. Seems silly getting worked up over it.”
“Johnny, they want to kick you out of school.”
Merton rolled his eyes. “She’s got a plan to save your academic career, John.”
He smiled at Beverly. “That’s sweet of you, Bev, but it’s nothing to get worked up about.”
She looked at him. “You aren’t concerned at all?”
“I died. Pretty sure everything else is roses.”
She sat back. “If it’s all the same I’d like to be there. And I think they would too.”
“I can’t stop you, I guess.”
Her mind was already whirring. Lots of kids cared about Johnny. Lots of kids would want to be there for him. Maybe enough kids could convince enough adults otherwise.
Beverly had printed up the third issue of the newsletter by Monday. On the front page, in big letters, were the words “SHOULD ZOMBIES BE ALLOWED IN SCHOOL”. On the back was her plea that, yes, they should. People grabbed them out of her hands as she walked through the halls, and they littered the floors. In classrooms they were left on desks, and in the halls they were stuffed into lockers. Everyone had an opinion about Johnny. Parents were getting angry, and Beverly and Merton walked into the journalism closet one day to find Principal Whale and Miss Helim talking. They stopped in the doorway as the two adults turned to them.
“Miss Jones and Mister Dewitt have taken it all on singlehandedly,” Miss Helim continued without missing a beat. She gestured them both forward. “Student involvement is very important.”
“I’m aware.” He looked them over. He wasn’t a tall man, and he was a little doughy at the midsection, the brown blazer looking a few years worn. He wore glasses that constantly slipped down to the bridge of his nose. “I’ve gotten a lot of calls from parents about this newsletter.”
Beverly stared at him, wide eyed. “I–I didn’t know, sir.”
He turned to Miss Helim. “We’ve never officially had a journalism class at this school have we?”
“The previous administration had thought it unnecessary,” she said. “I like to encourage my students.”
“Colburn is the official adviser, surprising. He isn’t, er, concerned about you being involved in this?”
She shook her head. “He expressed no sentiment to the effect.”
“Then we may as well put you on officially.” His attention returned to the students. “Were you planning on making another after the meeting on Friday?”
“Um.” Beverly glanced desperately at Miss Helim, who only looked at her blankly. “I hadn’t decided.”
“I would recommend it. I’d like a copy whichever way it goes. If any parents hassle you directly, let me know.”
He left the room. Beverly and Merton stared at each other before slowly turning to Miss Helim, who reacted not at all what had just happened.
“Will you be there Friday?” Beverly ventured, unsure of where to step.
“Oh, no,” Miss Helim said. “Gustav worries it’ll be too thrilling for me. But I’m happy to hear you’ve been organizing, Miss Jones.”
“It was your idea.”
“I like to see my students involved.” She offered them a vague smile. “You’ll let me know how it goes.”
She waved to them, leaving the two alone in the room. Beverly sat in one of the chairs, staring straight ahead.
“Do you really think there’s a bunch of parents angry over our newsletter?” she said.
Merton smiled. “Absolutely. You know how people get.”
“I got so scared for a second.” She buried her face in her hands, but the sound that came out was a laugh. “I barely got this thing running, and I was so sure he was going to pull the plug.”
“There’s been a lot of miracles lately, huh?”
She shook her head, still laughing. “I think I’m in shock. I just saw my whole academic career flash before my eyes.”
He patted her shoulder. “I think you’ll be alright.”
She had drafted out something, just in case, and it lay on the table with a few pictures and torn out note pages. Their wall was growing. She was starting to feel proud.
“Are you really not going to be there?” she asked, looking at the image of Johnny being struck by lightning. It really was good. Somehow his shutter had clicked at just the right second. “A triumphant image would really sell papers.”
“You give ‘em out for free, Bev,” he said as he pulled his camera out of its drawer. He’d gotten used to carrying it around. “I need a break is all. It’s been nothing but zombies for practically a month now.”
She looked at him. “You don’t think they should kick him out, do you?”
“Of course not. He’s Johnny. Even undead he’s the nicest guy around.”
“Well you’re acting weird about it,” she said. “And you never want to hang around with him.”
He rolled his eyes, but so she couldn’t see him. “You’re always making goo-goo eyes at him.”
Her face went red. “Not always!”
“Anyway, there’s no way they’re going to vote to kick him out. He’s got a legion of adoring fans and his parents will show up and remind everyone he’s not radioactive. You could write the article now.”
“I still want you to be there,” she said with a frown.
“In spirit.” He raised a fist to her. “Ol’ John’ll be fine.”
“What if he’s not?” she asked, seriously, her brown eyes looking up at him. “What if they kick him out?”
“I’ll bet you’ll raise hell putting him back in,” he said. “Come on. Don’t you have a big story to cover or something?”
She turned back to her desk, looking over it all. There was so much work to be done, and still a long way to go.
Few noticed Marya’s presence. She slipped easily into the PTA meeting and listened to every word. Betty had informed her she had no interest in attending, but Marya was curious. Concerned parents sat, sneering at the teenagers that had poured in to support Johnny. The football team had done their job in convincing half the school to attend. A number of kids wore pins stating their poor opinion of the undead, but many more had crafted signs in support. Johnny himself sat among his friends. Marya found herself staring. She hadn’t had a moment to examine the body that was once Johnny Maxwell, and her new loyalty to Betty prevented too much interest. The thing here was very different than the thing on the night of the homecoming game. His flesh didn’t peel away like a corpse’s might, though rot marked his skin in green and black blotches. He didn’t seem traumatized from where she was sitting. He laughed with his friends and smiled at his parents and didn’t even look perturbed by the meeting against him. The dead shouldn’t be so casual.
The proceedings began. Principal Whale was at the head of it, and the parents leading the PTA sat at a long table in front of the crowd. Johnny’s parents sat in the front row, their friends and colleagues around them, and on the other side of the room were the parents opposed. Students filled in the spaces and lined up against the walls when seats were gone. Beverly Jones also sat at the front, already jotting notes. More came in even after the meeting had started, and the PTA attempted to get to business that wasn’t sitting right in front of them. Already the crowd of teenagers was growing restless. The meeting moved on to new business, and instantly a parent stood up and pointed an accusing finger Johnny’s way.
“Someone,” the concerned mother said, “let this abomination attend school with our children.”
Johnny’s father stood as well. “Abomination’s a strong word, Marigold, considering your own family.”
Principal Whale held out his hands. “This is not a time for name-calling and mud-slinging. We are considering the future of a child. Let’s try not to act like one.”
Mr. Maxwell only smirked. “We’re all scientists, we should observe the facts. Johnny is not mentally deranged, he’s shown no signs of radiation poisoning, viral infection, or cannibalism. If I knew how to test for magic I would, but we are still beyond that understanding.”
Another man stood. “Just because we can’t find an explanation for why doesn’t mean we should just accept it. The fact that that boy was taken out of quarantine at all before any conclusive results could be drawn shows a clear bias from the researchers involved.”
“We followed procedure, and all researchers involved agreed–”
A flurry of voices rose up, and a thousand arguments broke out. The meeting quickly dissolved into chaos. Those in charge stood, trying to reel it back. The principal whistled loudly, and the voices quieted.
“We are here until nine,” he said. “And we will do this one at a time.”
The whole room jumped up, except Marya and Johnny. She watched him closely and listened.
Merton had gone out to Devon Fields, camera in hand. Despite the heavy clouds that obscured the full moon and the light mist that threatened rain, he was actually quite content. The usual parking spot was bare this night, and no one was talking to him about zombies and social opinion.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like Johnny. It was hard to spend any amount of time with him and hold onto anything less than a grudging acceptance. Even undead he was an upstanding guy, and if everyone was successful that night, he’d be happy to welcome him back to school. It had a little more to do with Beverly. The more she gushed about him, the fewer nice things he had to say about the guy.
Merton tried to focus on the woods around him. He’d spent most of his childhood doing cub scouts and camping in the woods, and he didn’t mind trudging through the dark with a flashlight pinned to his jacket. He fiddled with his camera. Weird things have been happening lately. Bev made fun of him for picking up magazines with entries about that unknown and the vast mysteries of space, but with everything happening here on Earth he didn’t think there was any room to judge.
As he moved away from the park area, the trees grew closer together. The storms had knocked down branches and muddied the ground, sucking at his shoes. A chill hit him, and for a solitary moment he imagined the dead still beneath the soil, scraping away at the ground above them. He hopped over a fallen tree and shook off the feeling. The precedent for undead did not fill his heart with fear. In the movies zombies always shambled about, kidnapping white women, and occasionally turning on their masters. He tried to imagine Johnny carrying off Beverly on his shoulders, and then cursed his imagination.
He’d been crawling through the trees for nearly an hour when he saw something through the trees. At first he thought he’d been turned around and those were headlights from someone parking, but they didn’t move like a car’s headlights. They wavered and bounced, and then they were joined by others. They were hazy, like being viewed through a fire, and they danced around each other. He held his breath as he crept forward. Beverly was going to flip.
Merton stopped moving when he heard something in the trees around him. A dark shape moved nearby, crashing through the debris the storms had caused. A low growl erupted, echoing around him, and the shape moved. For a moment its silhouette was illuminated by the lights, and he caught the glimpse of a frame that was not quite human. It crouched low on two legs. It seemed to be waiting for something.
Merton didn’t think as he lifted his camera. It clicked.
The creature turned its head.
Nine o’clock drew nearer, and Beverly began to worry. A hundred adults had all stood and said their piece. Some of the words had been vitriolic, but Johnny’s expression remained jovial as he leaned in and whispered something to Bill. She’d been surprised at how many of her peers had actually shown up. A number of them were just as opposed to Johnny as their parents, but they were here, and they were standing. She didn’t know her generation had it in them.
But none had been invited to speak. The parents were looking straight ahead, eyes focused on those leading the meeting, and not once had they entertained a suggestion by any of the teens occupying the space. Principal Whale was focused heavily on mediating. Beverly’s notepad sat on her lap, and she scratched at it idly. Her mind had been forming an article.
The clock ticked towards two minutes left.
Principal Whale spread his arms. “We’re nearing the end of our evening, and a decision still hasn’t been made. I think all that’s needed to be said has been. I’m now leaving this up to the chair.”
The chairpersons of the PTA began to move, and Beverly realized they were ending this.
“Wait,” she said, jumping up. “That’s it?”
She realized all the eyes in the room had turned to her. A number of parents looked at her with disdain. The PTA stared as well with annoyance.
“This is how procedure is done,” a chairperson said.
“But–it’s just–” She looked at Johnny, and a heat coiled in her throat. She stood straight and stared back. “You haven’t listened to any of us.”
The high school students murmured in agreement. Johnny looked at her with a smile.
“Look,” she said, swallowing her anxiety. “Everyone’s said all they care about is the children, but nobody’s asked us anything. We’re the ones Johnny’s going to school with. Whether we want him here or not, we all showed up tonight. We should get a chance to speak.”
Principal Whale looked at the table behind him, and she swore she saw him smiling. He turned back to her and said, “Speak.”
Beverly realized she was now appointed spokesperson. She glanced around at the expectant faces. Her mind turned over the notes she’d been writing, and she sucked in a breath.
“This isn’t about Johnny’s education,” she said, testing the words on her tongue. “The only people here interested in impeding anyone’s education are the people who don’t want him back in school. Some people want to pretend this is about public safety, but that’s wrong too. Johnny isn’t dangerous. He isn’t radioactive, he hasn’t attacked anybody, and he passed all the tests. He’s been going to school for a few weeks now, and as far as anyone can tell, he’s the same old Johnny. So anyone here concerned about that hasn’t been paying attention. The question that’s been raised tonight, and the real issue you’re voting on, is fear. Fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear that things are different now and we can’t go back. The people who want to keep Johnny out of school are voting for fear to rule them. Johnny… died and came back, and that changes a lot of things, but Whitby was built on the idea of the future. A future for everyone. You can feel however you want about the nature of his resurrection, but Johnny is a person. He deserves that future too.”
A lot of parents were giving her an annoyed look, but Johnny was gazing up at her with kind of a dreamy look. She’d stood up for her friend. That was all she could do.
“Well,” Principal Whale said, clasping his hands. “We haven’t got much time left, so we can do this informally. Those who wish to allow Johnny Maxwell to continue his education despite his condition, raise your hands.”
More than half the room went up.
“Then it’s decided. Chairman?”
There was an instant uproar, but the meeting was declared closed. Johnny came up to Beverly and squeezed her in a hug so tight he lifted her feet off the ground. She stood back from him, dazed.
“Those were some sweet words,” he said. “You gonna put that in your newsletter?”
She blushed brightly. “I’ll figure it out tomorrow.”
His friends came up, slapping him on the back and high-fiving. Principal Whale was swarmed by parents and teachers with their own opinions. Beverly didn’t stick around. She followed Johnny and his friends as they left. Johnny squeezed her hand.
“We’re going to celebrate,” he said. “Come with us?”
The sun was shining brightly on her face. “I-I could. I can. I don’t have a ride.”
He just laughed as he and his boys headed to their cars. They chatted for a few minutes before agreeing to meet up at a malt shop, and he looked at her, patting the roof of his car. Beverly did not think of the disapproval it would garner from her parents to ride alone in a car with a boy, nor did she think of Merton, who’d probably laugh in her face when she told him later. She tried not to think of the stirring in her belly but failed. She climbed in and looked at him as he shifted into gear. It was unfair for a boy to die and come back just as handsome.
He glanced at her. “I liked what you said about the future and everything.”
The low rumble of the road hummed through her, and the close proximity was making it difficult to concentrate. The whole car smelled like Johnny and gasoline.
“It wasn’t anything,” she said, tugging on her ponytail. “Mostly rhetoric.”
“I’m glad I got you in my corner, Bev.”
Her whole body was flushing. “Of course, Johnny. You’re my friend.”
“I got a lot of friends, and you’ve been fighting the hardest. I appreciate it.”
Her mouth twisted up. She wished he wasn’t driving. She wanted more than anything to kiss him right now, to throw herself across the seat and do all the things her mother disapproved of. The feeling bubbled up in her chest, and she reached for his hand.
“Johnny,” she started.
He looked at her briefly, just brief enough for him to not quite see what had darted into the road. When he did, he slammed on the brake, and the car crunched angrily and rocked forward. Beverly threw up her hands to protect herself from smashing into the dashboard, and the car squealed into a stop, rocking gently into place. Johnny threw open the door and jumped out, looking down at the body that lay in the road. Beverly staggered out as well, head spinning, and she held onto the car as she leaned forward. The street light illuminated the round face and curly hair of her best friend. Blood streaked across Merton’s face, and his clothes were torn and ruined. She didn’t scream, but she was suddenly sick, and she fell to the ground, reaching a shaky hand out. She touched his cheek, and he sputtered to life, spitting up blood. His eyes rolled back, and he said something she couldn’t hear. A sob escaped her throat, and she looked at Johnny, clutching her friend tight.
The front of the car was starting to fall off, but they drove it all the way to the hospital.