Short Story: Back to School
School had been out for a long time; longer than Jack could remember. He wasn’t sure why they’d had to stay away. But he was excited to be going back.
They didn’t take the car. He could barely remember the last time they had even driven the car. Instead, mommy and daddy led him out onto the street and turned right. Mommy took one hand and daddy the other and they walked steadily through the quiet morning. It was cold and he was glad they’d remembered to put his jacket on.
“Are we going to the park?” he asked.
“No, we’re going to see your friends,” said mommy.
“But this isn’t the way to school.”
“They’re having school in a new place,” said daddy.
“And my friends will be there?”
“Yes. You’ll be able to play with them all day.”
Jack jumped up and down between them. He hadn’t been anywhere to play since everyone got sick.
He heard their voices long before he saw them. Loud cries and exclamations of children at play. The voices grew louder and more distinctive. He recognized the voice of Ms. Harriet. And then he rounded a corner and saw them.
They were in a large yard near a white house. There were no fences or classrooms. But the teachers were there. And his friends were there, running around and crawling over the play equipment. When they saw him, the children rushed over in a mob. They grabbed and hugged him, telling him how long it had been since they’d seen him and how much they’d missed him and how happy they were that he was back.
He froze up, unable to speak or to return their affections. But eventually, Ms. Harriet came over and shooed the other children away.
“Give Jack his space. He just got back. He’ll play with you.”
The children dispersed and resumed their wild play. Jack watched quietly, his face immobile, still processing everything.
“He’s kind of like this when he’s been away for a while,” said daddy apologetically.
“It’s OK,” said Ms. Harriet. “We’ll give him some time.”
They let go of his hands. Both parents gave him kisses and hugs. And then his mom gently pushed him out into the yard.
His first steps were slow. He watched his friends, familiar and strange at the same time. They played on, occasionally glancing at him, once in a while talking to him. But he wasn’t able to respond. Not yet.
Slowly, his mind cleared and energy returned to his arms and legs. He said, “Hi” to the next friend who spoke to him. He began to walk around, still not interacting with anyone, but just moving among them, letting the noise and the laughter and the whirlwind surround him. He heard Raphael’s laughter high above all the others and grinned. He liked Raphael. He suddenly remembered all the games they once played, the secrets they once had, the stories they once told.
He picked up the pace. He was now jogging around, watching his friends, getting into the periphery of their little groups without getting involved. The impassive look began to melt from his face, giving way to the occasional grin.
It was Gabriella who first got him to join in, taking his hand and leading him to the play equipment. He climbed onto a little plastic car, still not saying anything, but pulling himself up and down on the vehicle.
“Jack, you want to play tag?” said Raquel.
He hesitated a bit. She came up and took his hand.
“Play with us,” she said. “Joel is it.”
He looked to see Joel barreling to them. And instinct took over. He ran as fast as his little legs would carry him. He heard Joel behind him, felt his breath and then pitched over as Joel’s hands touched him.
“You’re it,” he heard and then the feet stomped away.
In a flash, he was up. The wind was in his ears, the cool air in his lungs. For a moment, the Sun came out and the fall chill was dispelled. The fading leaves of the trees blossomed orange and red. The grass flamed green under his feet. He found himself running after Gabriella. How she screamed as she ran.
Jack laughed and laughed with delirious joy.
The man had been watching the boy for five minutes before he called the woman over.
“Do you see this?”
She looked. And nodded. The boy in the orange parka was still running around the little yard. Every now and then, he would stop and talk. Or he would sit down formally, as though in a circle. Then he would run and shout to friends who weren’t there. She has assumed there were others. But now she could see he was utterly alone.
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen him before.”
He walked across the street and into the yard. The boy didn’t see him at first. But then he suddenly stopped and looked at them both, puzzled.
“Who are you?” the boy asked.
“Who are you?” asked the man.
“I’m Jack. I’m back in school.”
The man looked around at the lonely windswept yard under the gray skies. It was barren apart from the colorful play equipment in one corner. He has seen Jack crawling over it, shouting to invisible companions.
He then looked over the boy in front of him. Jack was dressed reasonably for the weather but his socks didn’t match and the pants were too big and on backward. He was dirty, as though he hadn’t bathed in a long time. The man gently turned Jack around. Even under the grime, he could see the telltale four scar lines that both gave the virus its name –- the Punisher –- and indicated one of the rare survivors.
“Where are your mommy and daddy?”
“They were asleep. But then they woke up. And they told me it was time to go to school. They’re over there.”
Jack pointed at a nearby rise. There was no one there. The man looked back at the woman, who shook her head.
“Well, I think school has to close again. Just for now.”
“Awww. But what about my friends?”
The man looked around the yard again. Not a soul except for the one in front of him.
“Well, we’ll see if we can catch up to them sometime.”
Jack cocked his head to one side.
“I’m not supposed to go off with a stranger.”
The man nodded. “I know. But …”
He struggled for some argument. He pondered explaining to the boy that his parents weren’t coming for him. He looked over at the woman for help. But then Jack looked over at the rise again.
He turned back.
“They said I can come with you. They’ll pick me up later.”
The man looked over at the rise again. There was still nothing there. He took the boy’s hand and led him across the street to the woman.
“Will we come back tomorrow? I’ve missed my friends. And maybe my mommy and daddy will come back for me?”
“We’ll see,” said the man. “We’ll see.”
The woman took Jack’s other hand. And together they walked down the street, toward the shelter with the other survivors.