Chapter 03

It wasn't until they reached the cafeteria and were standing in the serving line that Bitru was able to say, "Before we get our food, I need to go to the toilet."

"Just hold it for a few more minutes, then you'll be able to go." Brandton said seriously.

"I will do as you say, but I don't understand why." Bitru said honestly.

"Okay. Today we're lucky because our last class before lunch was right around the corner from the cafeteria. Some days, we're all the way on the other side of the school. You have to get here as fast as you can and get into line. If you end up too far back in line, sometimes you'll still be standing in line when the bell rings and you won't get to eat at all." Brandton said frankly.

"You can talk later! Keep it moving!" A man screamed. Bitru looked at him with surprise, then realized that the man wasn't speaking to him specifically but rather to the entire line of students.

Brandton turned his attention forward since they were nearly to the front of the line.

"Did you bring any money with you, today?" Brandton asked as he was handed a tray.

"Yes. But I was told that I could pay for my meal with the food card we purchased in the office." Bitru said as he, too, accepted a styrofoam tray of food.

Bitru was surprised when Brandton put a handful of condiment packets on his tray.

"Don't get the milk." Brandton said to Bitru as he moved forward in line and presented his card to pay for his food. When he was done, he stood aside as Bitru did the same. As soon as Bitru had his card in hand, Brandton ushered him to an empty table.

"The reason I asked you about money is because they're serving crap today, so we're going to need to get something from the vending machines to make up the difference or we're going to be starving before the last class." Brandton said frankly.

"This doesn't look too bad." Bitru said consideringly.

"If you can't handle Mom's frozen lasagne, I doubt that you'll be able to stomach the mystery meat burger." Brandton said frankly.

Bitru cautiously lifted the top bun. At first he thought that it was toasted, but on closer inspection, he deduced that it was stale. Beneath it, he found a grotesquely wilted piece of nearly transparent lettuce, which he promptly removed to reveal an equally transparent, paper thin pink shaving of tomato which was stuck like an applique to a glossy orange piece of something shaped to resemble cheese. When Bitru looked beneath the 'cheese', he couldn't help but ask, "What is it?"

"I don't know." Brandton said honestly, then explained, "I think that this is one of those things that's 'technically' or 'legally' considered to be meat without 'actually' being meat."

Bitru looked beneath the grey slimy patty to find a solitary pickle chip, pressed into the gluey, grease soaked bottom bun.

"If you put enough catchup and mustard on it, you might be able to choke it down." Brandton said as he suited actions to words.

Bitru looked at the rest of his 'food'. The seven tater tots on his tray were cold, but didn't appear to be otherwise objectionable. The 'vegetables', however, consisted of three individual green beans and four carrot 'coins'. From the 'crinkle cut' of the carrots and the general 'washed out' appearance, Bitru was certain that they had come from a can. There was a slight aroma coming from the vegetables which made Bitru think of a sterile adhesive bandage.

"Whatever you're going to do, you need to do it. We don't have a lot of time." Brandton said before taking the first bite of his 'burger' which was dripping mustard and catchup.

Bitru leaned closer to his plate and sniffed the 'burger' once before shaking his head.

"We'll hit the vending machines when we're done here. Seriously, you need to hurry!" Brandton urged him.

After one or two attempts, Bitru gave up trying to use the disposable plastic 'spork' and picked up one of the tater tots with his fingers. The flavor of the tater tot wasn't bad and the texture was relatively pleasant. If it hadn't been stone cold, it might have actually been somewhat palatable.

As Bitru reached for a second tater tot, the harsh voice of one of the lunchroom monitors barking at the students caused Bitru to flinch. The screaming voice was telling the people in line to stop talking and move faster.

"Do you mind if I sit here?"

"Sure. Go ahead." Brandton said easily.

Bitru turned and was surprised to see that it was the one and only person that he had met the entire day.

"Hello, Chris." Bitru said with an honest smile.

"Brandon, did you hear that Greg and Melissa got suspended?" Chris asked quickly as he moved at lightening speed to drown his 'burger' in condiments.

"No. What did they do?" Brandton asked curiously.

"PDA." Chris said before taking a huge bite of his dripping 'burger'.

"Personal Data Assistant?" Bitru asked with confusion.

"Public Display of Affection." Brandton explained.

Chris quickly wiped his mouth with a paper napkin, then said, "Yeah. Melissa was crying because she got bitched out in front of the entire class for something and after class, Greg hugged her and someone saw it."

Two more people sat down at the table without invitation and began to eat.

"Dusty and Collin, this is my cousin, Bitru." Brandton said down the table.

"Hey." One of the boys said before devoting his full attention to his food.

"How long are they suspended?" Brandton asked Chris curiously.

"One week. In school." Chris answered quickly as he virtually inhaled the last of his food.

"Bitru, if you're finished, we need to go." Brandton said seriously.

Bitru looked at Brandton's tray and was surprised to find that he had eaten everything. As for Bitru, he had only eaten four of his tater tots, but couldn't force himself to eat more, so he picked up his tray and stood.

"We'll see you guys out in the yard." Brandton said as he picked up his tray and led the way to the nearest garbage can.

"What are we doing now?" Bitru asked as he followed.

"Bathroom. Vending machine. Then we get to go outside for a few minutes before the next class starts." Brandton said seriously.

Another bout of barking from the cafeteria monitors drew Bitru's attention as they hurried toward the door.

* * * * *

They had to wait in line for a few minutes to make it to the urinals, but both Bitru and Brandton had the opportunity to relieve themselves.

From there they hurried to the vending machines and, again, had to stand in line.

"Make sure you know what you want and have your money ready before you get to the front of the line. If you take too long, someone will throw you out of the way." Brandton said seriously.

"Once we've purchased our snacks, then we are going outside?" Bitru asked to confirm.

"Yeah. When we're out there, make sure that you're not with a group of more than six people and don't stand too close to the fence. There will be 'enforcement officers' out there, but as long as you don't do anything to draw attention to yourself, they'll usually leave you alone." Brandton said as he watched the person in front of him make their vending machine selection.

* * * * *

As they were walking away from the vending machines, Bitru quietly said, "I'm quite thirsty. I know that you've said that we should monitor our fluid intake, but I need something to drink."

"Yeah. There's a water fountain on the way to 'the yard'. I need a drink, too. Just be sure not to drink too much. Not only do we have four more classes before school lets out, but then we have to ride the bus for an hour to get home... you have a school ID now, don't you?"

"Yes." Bitru answered cautiously, then asked, "Can't we use the bathroom before we leave school?"

"They lock all the bathrooms except for the one in the front hallway on the first floor before classes let out for the day. They're all freaked out that someone might smoke or do drugs or something if they can have one minute of privacy. Besides, if you go to the bathroom after classes, you'll miss the bus home and have to wait for another half an hour." Brandton said seriously, then gestured toward the line at the water fountain.

"I believe it might be worth waiting an extra half hour so we won't be as rushed." Bitru said as he got into line ahead of Brandton.

"This school doesn't have 'yellow' buses. That's why I asked you if you got a student ID. That's your ticket to ride the public transportation. If you catch the bus when school lets out, it's not too bad, but if you take the next one, then there's a lot of people who are getting off work at the same time and it's really miserable." Brandton said frankly, then gestured for Bitru to step forward in line.

"Having witnessed what I have today, I have no desire to experience what you consider to be 'miserable'." Bitru said honestly.

Brandton smirked at the comment, then gestured for Bitru to step forward again.

* * * * *

As they stepped outside into the chilly midday sunlight, Bitru noticed that 'the yard' seemed to be a large paved area surrounded by chain link fence. There were two basketball hoops at the far end, but nothing else, other than a few garbage cans by the entry doors.

Small groups of people were standing around, talking. But as Brandton had said earlier, none of the groups had more than six people. Two 'enforcement officers' were conspicuous as they stood, grimly watching the students, on alert for any prohibited behaviors.

"The primary reason I was sent here was so that I could learn to socialize with a group of peers. However, I haven't had the opportunity to say more than a few words to anyone." Bitru said honestly.

Brandton opened the bag of chips that he had purchased from the vending machine and motioned for Bitru to do the same. Although the 'multigrain' chips weren't something that he would normally eat, they seemed to be the least offensive of the available options. The phrase 'better than nothing' came to Bitru's mind, although that remained to be seen.

"Socialization, huh? Let me see... First, remember that we're grouped by age. If someone asks 'what' you are, you're 'seventh grade'. That's your identity, here. That means that everyone who's older than us hates us and that we're supposed to hate everyone who's younger. It's called the 'pecking order'."

Bitru looked at Brandton with surprise at his evaluation of the social hierarchy of the school.

"Once you've got that, then there's the cliques. Jocks, cheerleaders, preps, band, stoners... there's a bunch. If you're one of them, great! You've got your social group. If you're not, then they all look down on you and think that you're scum. The rest of us just do what we can to fit in wherever we can and try to get through each day." Brandton said thoughtfully.

"Hey, Bitru! There you are!" Chris said as he approached.

"Hello, again, Chris." Bitru said with a smile in the boy's direction.

"I noticed that you didn't like the lunch. Pretty gross, huh?" Chris asked with a smile.

"Yes. Quite disgusting." Bitru agreed.

Chris laughed, presumably at Bitru's accent and formal response.

"Well, if the rumors are true, next year we might be getting a pizza or chicken franchise in here. We probably won't be able to use our food cards anymore, but if you've got cash, then you'll be able to get some real food at lunch." Chris said happily.

"Yeah. But only if you have enough money and if you're at the front of the line." Brandton interjected.

"Yeah. I didn't get to eat yesterday. I had Geometry before lunch." Chris said gravely.

"We've got that tomorrow." Brandton said with an apologetic look at Bitru.

"I don't understand the connection between Geometry and not being able to eat lunch." Bitru said honestly.

"Geometry and World History are in a portable building all the way across the parking lot on the other side of the school. By the time you make it to the cafeteria, the line is already out the door and halfway to the staircase. Most of the time you don't even make it to the front of the line before the bell rings for you to go to your next class." Brandton explained.

"Either that, or they run out of food and you end up getting a cheese sandwich and applesauce." Chris added.

"You're the new guy, aren't you?" A girl asked as she joined their group, followed by another.

"Tina and Emily, this is my cousin, Bitru." Brandton said in a reasonably formal tone.

"It's a pleasure to meet you both." Bitru said courteously.

"Wow. I love your accent. Where are you from?" Emily asked with a giggle.

"I have never lived one place long enough to be 'from' anywhere." Bitru said thoughtfully.

"You kids need to break it up." One of the 'enforcement officers' said sternly as he approached.

Brandton looked Bitru in the eyes and tilted his head in the direction of the building.

Following his lead, Bitru walked away without exchanging farewells with the people he had just met.

Brandton and Bitru threw their empty chip bags in the trash before stepping through the door.

* * * * *

Once they were back inside, Brandton quietly said, "I should have told you before, when an 'enforcement officer' tells you something, just do it. Don't say anything, not even 'yes, sir', or he'll find a reason to arrest you."

"You know, in other countries, America is touted as being 'The Land of the Free'." Bitru said frankly.

"Yeah. Well, that doesn't apply to kids." Brandton said wearily, then thought to ask, "Did they assign you a locker?"

"Yes. However, I haven't been there, yet. I'm carrying everything in my backpack." Bitru said honestly.

"I don't use mine either. We don't have time right now, but you're going to need to check your locker out sometime and make sure that no one has put anything in there. Even if you don't use it, you're still responsible for anything found in it." Brandton said seriously, then his attention was drawn by the sounds of a scuffle down the side hallway they were passing.

It appeared that a boy was backed into a corner with two or three other boys closing in on him, taunting him.

"Come on. We can't be here." Brandton said as he abruptly changed direction and led Bitru away.

"Shouldn't we at least tell someone?" Bitru asked anxiously as he looked back over his shoulder.

Brandton felt a chill wash over him as he responded, "There's cameras everywhere and they're always watching, so they probably already know."

"But what if they don't?" Bitru asked with concern.

Brandton stopped and looked Bitru in the eyes as he said, "Listen. The people in the office or the 'enforcement officers' probably already know about it. Most likely, they're waiting to see what happens or maybe they're even placing bets on how it turns out. I don't know. But what I do know is that if we went to the office and told anyone, they'd either find a way to turn it around so that we were the ones fighting, or they'd find some other way to punish us for getting involved. The first rule around here is to keep your head down and your mouth shut."

"So the administration may choose to ignore serious infractions of the rules, such as violence against a student, but they will harshly penalize something as benign as a hug of comfort between friends?" Bitru asked to clarify.

"Yeah. If you were looking for 'fair', you came to the wrong place." Branton confirmed, then added, "We need to get moving, the bell's about to ring and our next class is all the way on the other side of the building.

* * * * *

The classbell rang as they were on their way across the school grounds, which meant that the four minute countdown had begun.

Even so, Brandton and Bitru were among the first to arrive in the classroom.

"I have been looking forward to American History class. Although I've done quite a bit of research on the subject, I'm sure that there is much that I still don't know." Bitru said honestly.

"Yeah? Well, don't expect to learn it here. Mr. Sawyer reads to us straight from the textbook in class and the only thing he tests on is the dates. If you can memorize a list of dates, that's all you'll need to know for the whole year." Brandton said simply.

"So you don't have to know anything about what factors contributed to the American Revolutionary War or the details of the significant battles?" Bitru asked cautiously.

"Nope. Only when they happened." Brandton confirmed.

Bitru was going to question further but noticed that the classroom was unusually cold. As he looked around, he saw that all the other students were still wearing their coats as they settled into their desks.

"I don't know, maybe if you listen while he's reading, you'll get something out of it." Brandton said quietly, then hurried to his seat.

When the final bell rang, Mr. Sawyer walked into the room and went directly to his desk.

"For those of you who don't have desks, I've put in another request and been told that we should have desks for you soon. Until then, just sit on the floor and try not to block the aisles." Mr. Sawyer said firmly.

"Excuse me, Sir. I've just been enrolled in this class." Bitru said as he held out his class schedule.

Mr. Sawyer accepted the schedule without comment and wrote Bitru's information on his class roster. As he handed the piece of paper back to Bitru, he said, "Just find a place to sit along the wall, over there."

Bitru took the next available space along the wall, next to a girl who was huddled and shivering.

"Pass up your homework." Mr. Sawyer said wearily, then began to work on his attendance sheet.

A growing stack of papers made its way up the wall to where Bitru was sitting.

Although Bitru wasn't usually affected by changes in temperature, he was surprised to find that the cold was distracting him.

After a few more minutes of marking his attendance sheet, Mr. Sawyer opened a textbook and said, "I want us to get through the American Revolution before we leave for the winter break, so we're going to have to pick up the pace. We left off with September nineteenth, seventeen seventy-seven, the Battle of Freeman's Farm..."

* * * * *

Since the beginning of the school year, they had never been able to get the furnace in this particular portable building working properly. Brandton was one of the few students who was thankful for the cold. It was the only thing that kept him awake through the long and incredibly boring monotone reading. Not only did Mr. Sawyer not seem to have any enthusiasm for what he was reading, he didn't even seem to comprehend it. The words were just spilling out of his mouth exactly as they appeared on the page of the textbook.

"Answer your homework on a separate sheet of paper. You're going to turn it in when we meet on Friday and it will count as half your test grade." Mr. Sawyer said as he passed out stacks of papers.

When Brandton received his homework, he let out a sigh at yet another blank map, this one being of New England.

"Excuse me, Sir. Will I get a textbook?" Bitru asked cautiously.

"There aren't any more and they're out of print. Just... borrow someone's before Friday." Mr. Sawyer said with annoyance.

The sound of the bell caught Brandton off guard and he rushed to get his homework put away. By the time he had his backpack zipped up, Bitru was waiting for him by the door.

"Do we need to hurry?" Bitru asked cautiously.

"Yeah. But not too bad. The next class is art and it's about three trailers down from this one." Brandton said as he walked past Bitru and led the way.

"I assumed that you wouldn't mind if I borrowed your American History book at some point tonight. That's alright, isn't it?" Bitru asked as he followed.

"Yeah. Of course it is. I figured that we'd be working together on most of this, since we have the same homework to do." Brandton said honestly.

Before Bitru could respond, Brandton led the way into another of the portable classrooms.

* * * * *

Bitru noticed that unlike most of the teachers in the other classrooms, this one didn't wear an expression of vacant disinterest or bone-deep weariness. She instead wore an expression of nothing less than absolute contempt for every student that dared to walk into her classroom.

Seeing that she had noticed him, Bitru quietly said, "I've been enrolled in this class."

"Schedule." She snapped, not bothering to affect a facade of courtesy.

Bitru cautiously handed his schedule to her, having the feeling that she might actually be inclined to bite him if he approached her too aggressively.

After a moment of writing on her class roster, she looked around the room, then handed his schedule back to him and said, "Sit on the bench, by the door."

There were already four people sitting on the bench, all of them girls, but they were kind enough to squeeze in and make a place for him when he approached. So long as they all didn't take a deep breath at the same time, they could fit.

The room was silent as the teacher was apparently taking roll.

Bitru looked around the room, trying to find any indication that it was an 'Art' classroom. With the exception of the round tables, instead of desks, he couldn't see how it was in any way different from any of the other classrooms. There were no examples of art of any kind, nor were there any of the 'tools of the trade', so to speak.

"Hand in your homework. We're going to pick up where we left off yesterday, with the art of the Inupiat. Follow along in your books because you're going to need to be able to identify the different artistic styles by tribe." The teacher said firmly.

As she was about to continue, she noticed Bitru's raised hand.

Rather than call on him, she walked to a cabinet at the side of the room and took out a book, then walked across the room and handed it to him.

"Thank you." Bitru said quietly.

"Page one-twelve." She absently responded, then continued to the entire class, "Notice the illustration showing that the tools that the Inupiat use to create art could themselves be considered works of art..."

When Bitru had found that he was taking an art class, he had envisioned that he would be drawing, painting or sculpting something so that he could learn how to develop any talent that he might inherently have. It hadn't occurred to him that he would instead be learning a seemingly random and obscure collection of absolutely useless facts.

"Attention: All personnel. We are in lockdown. Attention: All personnel. We are in lockdown. All students please report immediately to the nearest classroom or office." Sounded over the intercom system.

The teacher calmly got up from her desk, then walked to the door.

She opened the door and glanced around outside, then closed the door and locked it.

"Everyone, move to the inside wall and sit quietly." She said in a firm voice that was devoid of any real emotion.

As Bitru got up from his seat by the door, he saw Brandton motioning for him to join him. That brought Bitru some small measure of relief since he didn't really understand what was going on.

The drop in temperature was noticeable as Bitru approached.

"Everything's alright. We're just going to sit and wait until it's over." Brandton said as he guided him to the wall to take a place sitting on the floor.

After pulling the shades down on all the windows, the teacher turned and said, "Everyone sit down and be quiet. If any of you have cell phones, please turn them off now."

Bitru looked down the row of students sitting on the floor. They all were sitting down. They all were being quiet. And none of them had an electronic device. The teacher was obviously following some sort of script that had been written before personal electronics had been prohibited in the school.

Suddenly, the teacher began calling out names from her class roster, to which each student would respond 'here'.

Bitru was very aware that she had taken attendance at the beginning of the class. From his position, sitting right next to the only door in the classroom, he was also quite aware of the fact that no one had entered or left the classroom since class had started. He was reasonably sure that the teacher was aware of the very same thing. But still, they continued on with the theater, following the script, no matter how pointless it was.

When the teacher finally called his name, Bitru dutifully answered, "Here."

After the roll call, they all sat in silence until the phone beside the door rang.

The teacher answered it and talked for a moment before hanging it up.

As the time dragged on, Bitru realized that his new classmates not only weren't worried about the lockdown, they appeared to be completely numb to it. In fact, the majority of them seemed to be fighting to stay awake.

* * * * *

"This Lockdown drill is now over." Was finally announced over the intercom.

"Well, so much for this class." The teacher muttered wearily, then added, "Everyone, pick up a homework sheet before you leave."

Brandton and Bitru were relatively close to the desk, so they were among the first to pick up the assignment sheet.

As Bitru stepped away from the desk, he puzzled over the assignment, which seemed to be to identify the different types of traditional dresses worn by different dolls pictured on the handout.

In the end, Bitru was forced to revise his earlier judgement about the artistic styles of indigenous Alaskan people being the most random and obscure collection of absolutely useless facts it was possible to be forced to learn.

The bell ringing snapped him out of his thoughts and he automatically followed Brandton out the door.

* * * * *

"Is there anything I need to know before the next class?" Bitru asked cautiously as they hurried into the building.

"Not really. It's gym. There's not much you can do but just roll with it." Brandton said frankly.

"I have to admit that this is one of the classes that I was most worried about." Bitru said honestly.

"The coach might scream at you. He screams at everybody. Just try not to let it get to you." Brandton said simply as they entered the gymnasium.

* * * * *

As the other students were walking across the gym, Brandton was leading him in a different direction.

"Coach Lyons. This is my cousin Bitru. He's enrolled in this class." Brandton said seriously.

"Got a schedule?" The coach grunted.

"Yes, Sir." Bitru said as he handed his schedule to the coach.

"Got gym clothes?" The coach asked as he wrote Bitru's information on his clipboard.

"Yes, Sir." Bitru responded immediately.

The coach handed his class schedule back to him, then said, "Go suit up!"

"Yes, Sir." Bitru said, then followed Brandton to the locker room.

* * * * *

As they walked into the locker room, everyone there was already in various stages of changing.

Bitru felt nervous and was on guard, but the others didn't seem to take any notice of him.

Brandton noticed the drop in temperature as they walked in, but disregarded it as he said, "We need to hurry."

That snapped Bitru out of his anxiety and he noticed that Brandton had taken his gym clothes out of his backpack and was beginning to undress.

"We don't get lockers. The lockers in here are saved for the jocks who play team sports. Just stack your clothes on top of your backpack." Brandton said seriously.

Bitru took a deep cleansing breath, then began to change.

* * * * *

As the students assembled at the edge of the basketball court, Bitru reluctantly glanced over at the canvas 'classroom' that he had been in earlier.

"Line up! We're going to have five stations today! Count 'em off!" Coach Lyons bellowed to the class.

The first boy in line called out, "One!" and the next called, "Two!"

When it came around to Brandton, he called "Four!" and Bitru followed with, "Five!"

After the last student sounded off, Coach Lyons said as he walked, "Group one, over here. Give me twenty sit-ups. Group two, in this corner. Twenty push-ups. Group three, line up at the bar. Ten pull-ups. Group four, line up in front of the bleachers. Thirty lunges. Group five, over here by the door. Twenty squats. When I call 'rotate!' everyone move to the next station. Let's get to it! We ain't got all day! Get to your stations!"

Bitru moved with the other 'fives' to the area by the doors, then watched for a moment until he understood what was expected of him.

Brandton did his best to keep an eye on Bitru, but before long determined that Bitru seemed to be doing as well as any other member of their class.

"Move your fat ass you worthless little puke!" Coach Lyons screamed, drawing Bitru's attention to the other side of the gym.

"If you didn't eat so many Twinkies you wouldn't have a fat ass and you'd be able to do sit-ups, like a normal person!" Coach Lyons bellowed.

Bitru felt sincerely sorry for the target of Coach Lyons humiliation, but followed Brandton's advice to keep his head down and his mouth shut.

* * * * *

The litany of abuse, directed at the overweight student, continued throughout the class as the students moved from one station to the next.

Fortunately, Bitru was able to do the exercises, although he did need help from his classmates to reach the pull-up bar.

When the coach finally called the class to an end, they all retreated to the locker rooms to shower and change back into their regular clothes.

"Miserable, huh?" Brandton asked as he walked to Bitru's side.

"I am not a mean spirited person. But I believe that if I were to see Coach Lyons suffering, it would cause me to feel satisfaction." Bitru said simply.

"You haven't seen the worst. Not even close." Brandton said, then began to undress.

Bitru looked around the locker room for the boy who had been the primary target of the Coach's bullying and intimidation, but didn't spot him.

* * * * *

Although Bitru had been in communal bathing situations before, usually with his father, the environment that he presently found himself in made him more than a little apprehensive as he walked naked into the shower room.

"How are you doing?" Brandton asked with concern as he quickly washed himself.

"Was there some point to what we just endured?" Bitru asked as he turned on his shower.

"It's just a class we have to take. Even though it's something that could be a lot of fun, they found a way to make it absolutely miserable." Brandton said frankly.

"Yes. That does seem to be the point to all of this, doesn't it?" Bitru asked thoughtfully.

"You'd better hurry. We've got to be dressed and ready to go when the bell rings and our next class is all the way on the other side of the school." Brandton said seriously.

"You're new here, right?" A boy asked from Bitru's other side.

"Yes. Today is my first day." Bitru answered hesitantly.

"I'm Nate. I just started here two weeks ago. It's a real hellhole, isn't it?" Nate asked with a smile.

"It's nice to meet you, Nate. My name is Bitru. And yes, it is indeed a hellhole." Bitru said honestly.

"Hurry." Brandton whispered from Bitru's side, then walked back into the locker room.

"Excuse me, I have to hurry. It appears that my next class is on the other side of the school." Bitru said as he stepped away from the shower. It was only then that he realized that he didn't have a towel.

"Here." Brandton said as he appeared in the doorway, holding a towel out to him.

"Thank you." Bitru said gratefully as he accepted the towel, then followed Brandton back into the locker room.

* * * * *

While Bitru was drying off, Nate walked into the locker room, with a towel draped around him, and asked, "Are you ready for the big test?"

"Which test is that?" Bitru asked as he began to get dressed.

"The next one. That's the thing that I've figured out since I've been here. All we ever do is prep for the next test. You don't have to learn anything or get better at doing anything. You just have to pass the next test. Then, when that's done, you can forget everything and get ready for the next one after that." Nate said frankly as he toweled himself dry.

"Yeah. Pretty much." Brandton agreed.

"Nate, do you know my cousin, Brandton?" Bitru asked curiously.

"No. I don't really know much of anyone, yet." Nate said to Bitru, then turned to Brandton and said, "Hi, I'm Nate."

"It's nice to meet you, Nate." Brandton automatically responded, then thought to add, "And I think you're right about the school."

"The last school I went to was a lot better than this one. It wasn't great, but at least I didn't hate going every single day." Nate said frankly.

"Yeah." Brandton quietly agreed, then noticed the clock and quickly added, "Two minutes!"

"I hate going out in the cold with wet hair." Nate grumbled as he rushed to dress.

"Are you about ready?" Brandton asked Bitru as he picked up his backpack.

"Yes. I believe so." Bitru said as he quickly took stock of himself.

"What's your next class, Nate?" Brandton asked as he waited for Bitru to gather his backpack.

"French." Nate said sourly.

"Do you ever actually get to speak French in there?" Brandton asked curiously.

"No! We're learning about the evolution of Germanic languages or some shit like that!" Nate exclaimed indignantly.

"Yeah. In Spanish we're learning about conjugating verbs without learning any actual verbs." Brandton said sympathetically.

Nate was nearly ready to go, so Brandton and Bitru waited a moment, then the three left the locker room together.

* * * * *

At the sound of the bell, Brandton and Bitru made a mad dash across the school grounds and arrived at their next class just in the nick of time.

Brandton went immediately to his assigned seat at one of the lab stations and was sitting down just as the bell rang.

When the teacher walked into the room, Bitru quietly said, "I'm enrolled in your class."

"Of course you are." The teacher said wearily, then asked, "May I see your schedule?"

Bitru handed the schedule to him and waited.

After copying down Bitru's information, the teacher looked around the room and finally said, "See if you can squeeze in here at the first lab station."

Bitru looked to where the teacher indicated and found four other people clustered around an area that had been designed for two, at most.

There was a long moment of silence as the teacher filled out his attendance sheet, then there was another moment as the teacher seemed to be bracing himself for something unpleasant.

"Everyone. Hand your homework forward." He finally said unenthusiastically.

Brandton took his homework out of his backpack and was ready when the stack made it to him from the back of the room.

Once the teacher had the stacks of papers, he set them aside, then picked up a book and said, "By state law, those who object to learning about heredity, genetics and the theory of evolution, can report to the office and be assigned to other class activities, without academic penalty. Those of you who wish to opt out, may leave now. And remember that you have to stop by here every day. If you aren't marked as being present it will be viewed as an unexcused absence."

Bitru looked around the room, but no one made a move to leave.

"Now that that's out of the way, please turn to page seventy-six." The teacher said wearily.

Bitru raised his hand and waited to be recognized.

"Yes?" The teacher asked impatiently.

"May I have a book?" Bitru asked cautiously.

"Sure. Why not." The teacher said with an exhausted huff, then walked to a bookcase at the side of the room and took one down.

Bitru stood and accepted the book, then went back to his seat.

"Seventy-six, when two different alleles are present they interact in specific ways..."

* * * * *

Somehow Bitru had thought that being in a classroom lab setting, discussing the intricacies of genetics would somehow be less... boring.

After a few minutes to look around, Bitru concluded that there was no practical way that they could possibly conduct any type of meaningful lab study with the equipment that they had on hand. With twenty people the lab would be too overcrowded for them to work efficiently, but with forty it was simply impossible.

Likewise, with forty people crowded into a room ideally designed for ten, 'discussion' was also not likely to happen. So, as with his other classes, Bitru sat and listened while the teacher read aloud from the textbook, not embellishing or explaining anything.

When the homework assignments were handed out, Bitru was surprised to find that it had to do with the mass, gravity, density and diameter of each planet in the solar system. When Brandton had described their homework assignments as 'busy work', Bitru didn't have a frame of reference to really understand what he had meant.

As Bitru was putting his homework assignment into his backpack, the classbell rang, heralding the end of classes for the day.

As quickly as he could, he made his way to Brandton's side. It did not escape his notice that but for the efforts of Mr. Silverstone, he most certainly would have been placed in different classes and been completely on his own.

"Are you ready? We've got to walk about six blocks to catch the bus." Brandton asked seriously.

Despite how physically and emotionally exhausted he felt, Bitru firmly said, "Yes. Lead the way and I'll do my best to keep up."

To Be Continued...

Editor's Notes:

As I finished reading this chapter, I remember back to my days in high school.

To give you some perspective, I graduated from High School in 1965, I attended my first seven years of public school, integrated into regular classes. I was what is called 'legally blind', so many of our classes were taught to us in a special resource room, where we had large print books, and chalk boards which were not black, but green. That in itself made it harder for me to see the board, since the contrast between the colour of the blackboard and the chalk was practically nonexistent. That is because the boards were pukey green and the chalk was pale yellow. Believe it or not, they called it sight saving, which, in my opinion that was a total oxymoron; right up there with semi boneless ham and Military Intelligence. We didn't have any calculators, other than maybe a slide rule or an abacus.

At the end of my seventh grade year, I was told that because of budget cuts, we would not have a full time resource room teacher. We would be on our own except for the three hours we got from her, once a month.

We used large type books which were in no way equal to the regular textbooks that the rest of the students were using. Theirs were pretty much up to date. Ours were much older than the normal textbooks; usually around the late 1940s.

That was the main reason for us having a separate room for us, since some of our classes were taught by that helper teacher, since all the pages and much of the information contained therein, were completely different.

Let's just say that as different as those situations are, a lot of the frustrations we had to deal with were very similar.

Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher