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art by Tais Teng

Late Homework

James Van Pelt teaches high school and college English in western Colorado. His fiction has made numerous appearances in most of the major science fiction and fantasy magazines. His first collection of stories, Strangers and Beggars, was recognized as a Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association. His second collection, The Last of the O-Forms and Other Stories includes the Nebula finalist title story, and was a finalist for the Colorado Blue Spruce Young Adult Book Award. His novel, Summer of the Apocalypse was released November, 2006. The recently released The Radio Magician and Other Stories received the Colorado Book Award. James blogs at jimvanpelt.livejournal.com.

"Miss Linderman," said the voice--it sounded like the principal's secretary--"there's been an accident. Two of our students were killed driving home from a haunted house. Cathy Jackson and Melinda Cranford."
Miss Linderman held the phone tight in the dark room. On the dresser, her clock's red letters glowed 2:59. "If you think you'll need a substitute, I can arrange one for you."
"No, I'll go in. It will be easier on the kids if I'm there. They were in my afternoon Literature and Composition class."
She hung up but didn't fall asleep. She watched the clock instead until it was time to get up for school.
When fifth hour came, kids filed in almost solemnly. Pushing was half-hearted. Laughter sounded too shrill and cut off early. Quietly, students walked around Cathy and Melinda's empty desks a bit wider than would be normal, and when the bell rang, they lapsed into silence.
Miss Linderman busied herself marking role. Nothing in education classes prepared her for students' deaths, but in her twelve years they had happened like the tolling of a relentless bell that rang every other year.
This year took two. Cathy and Melinda made the death class roster a total of seven. Seven young spirits snuffed out. Seven memorials in the yearbooks. We will miss you, Harper. The class of '02 celebrates Gracie's irrepressible spirit. Two years ago the message read, Trey is gone but not forgotten. Miss Linderman could see the white doves released at graduations they never attended.
She didn't want to look up at her class. Today was Halloween. She was afraid she'd see familiar faces, like she did every Halloween. The faces that expected her to lead them, to teach them, perhaps even to save them, but all she had to offer was grammar, literature, and an encouragement to write better. On Halloween especially, on a holiday about death, she wished to give them more.
The Halloween day was never like any other day for Miss Linderman. Twelve years ago, also on Halloween, she lost her first student; the first of seven, and it hit her just as hard today.
"I know you have heard what happened last night," she said. "The counseling department asked me to remind you their doors are open for anyone who would like to talk. They also suggested I let you share your feelings before we start if you would like."
No one spoke. Cathy and Melinda had kept mostly to themselves. They were a majority of two against the world. Their friendship held them together and kept them secure.
Finally, to break the silence, Miss Linderman said, "If you'd get out your homework, make sure your name is on it, then pass it to the front."
Papers rustled and made their way from student to student until they were piled on her desk.
What would she say to them now? Would, "Let's review gerunds," be appropriate? How about, "Turn to the chapter on Emily Dickenson"?
What could she say to the students in the last row who always seemed so far away?
The door at the back of the room opened. Miss Linderman glanced up. Melinda and Cathy walked in, their books clasped to their chests, looking lost. They took their seats. No one else acknowledged them.
"Perhaps it would be best if we did a reading assignment today," she said. "We can work at our own pace."
Miss Linderman's hands shook as she wrote on the board. Students opened their books. Read to themselves. Wrote responses to the questions at the end of the chapter. They handed them in when the bell rang. The class filed out. All but Cathy and Melinda, and five other students sitting in the back row.
Cathy and Melinda stood. They approached her, apologetically, holding out papers to turn in. She could see it was their homework.
Before she could accept it, though, even before she reached out her hand, the papers faded to mist and were gone.
Where the girls stood a moment before, dust motes stirred and then were still.
The five students in the back looked at her as they had last Halloween. Two years ago, there had been only four, and then Trey walked through the door, tried to turn in his late homework, but he dissolved.
The remaining students dimmed into nothingness. Miss Linderman was alone in the room.
In thirty years, she thought, I will retire. At this rate, my Halloween class will be twenty-five students.
I'll wait, after I retire, for the end. Maybe then I'll join my absent students.
Maybe then I'll take their homework, and I can teach and they can learn, and none of us will fade away.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, January 13th, 2011

Author Comments

I wrote "Late Homework" last year around Halloween because I was thinking about the events that scare high school teachers most. Sadly, we had a student die in an automobile-related accident this year. The story is fiction, but the reality is that any high school suffers tragic losses on a way too regular basis.

- James Van Pelt
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