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Chapter 4 of Holding the Fort: The Fatal Error

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

Chapter 4 Summer School Ethan was having a strange, yet awesome, dream about saving a small Chinese village from a gang of panda bears armed with machine guns. He had the menacing black-and white furballs on the run, and the village cheering his name, when his mother abruptly ended his heroics.

“Ethan, wake up! It’s seven o’clock. You have summer school today.”

Ethan shook his head and slowly came to his senses. He trudged down the hall to get ready for his half-day of school…in the summer. All the kids in Blackwoods had to attend class for the first five weeks of summer. It was a strict rule. Ethan didn’t think much of that rule, but he was used to it by now. Finally, he came downstairs and joined his mother at the breakfast table. After one bite of cereal, he rubbed his smooth, hairless cheek and looked thoughtful. He glanced up at his mother. “Darn it, I forgot to shave. How do I look?” His mother put a hand over her mouth to hide a small smile sneaking on her face. “You know, I think you could probably go another day or so.”

Ethan nodded. He only knew one kid in school who really needed to shave every day, and he figured that guy might end up being one of those real-life wolfmen he’d seen on a television show about medical mysteries. Poor guy. Ethan shoveled in one last bite of cereal, grabbed his backpack, and headed out. “Bye, Mom,” Ethan said in a rush, like he was in some sort of race. “Bye, Ethan…I’m leaving soon too,” she said with a playful smile. Ethan picked up his pace and bolted out the door. # Everything except the research facility in Blackwoods was within easy walking distance of the houses in the neighborhood. The school was only a quarter mile from Ethan’s house. He began his walk alone but was soon joined by Caleb. Several other students along the way began to leave their houses and make the dreaded march toward the school on a beautiful summer’s day. Ethan looked back and saw his mother trailing him in the distance. She was a librarian at the school. Ethan was glad that, ever since the fourth grade, she’d had the decency to give him a head start. But every once in a while, to torment him, she would speed up and get close. Ethan would respond by walking faster. Sometimes he couldn’t help but laugh. It was kind of like a game they played. His mother knew when to quit, though-- when Annika Pepper was in close proximity. Annika left her house and began her trek to school just as Ethan and Caleb walked by. Ethan purposely slowed down. He pretended to sound surprised as she caught up. “Oh…Hi, Annika.”

“Hi, Ethan. Gotta double-time it. Gonna be late,” Annika said hastily as her walk turned into a trot and then a full run.

“Good idea,” Ethan said. He picked up his pace and ran along beside her. Caleb tried his best to keep up, but he lagged behind them.

“Come on, Caleb, you can do it!” Ethan urged. “No, I’m just slowing you down! Save yourself!” Caleb joked between strained breaths as Ethan and Annika pulled farther away from him. Ethan sighed, then stopped to wait for Caleb, leaving Annika to run ahead. “You have got to run more, Caleb,” Ethan said as he watched Annika gallop away in the distance. “Yeah, yeah, yeah… Scouts run, engineers think,” Caleb wisecracked. Ethan smiled and gave him a playful shove. # An especially bright and cheery classroom was filled with all nineteen soon-to-be eighth graders in Blackwoods. The light blue sky and radiant sunlight teased and taunted them through a long panel of windows. They had had only one measly day of uninterrupted summer break, and they all wished to be anywhere else. Making matters worse was the fact that the space where they were currently imprisoned used to be a first-grade classroom. The school was preparing for major renovations, and their usual classroom was among the rooms getting a makeover. Ethan stared indignantly at the decorations on the walls and those hanging from the ceiling. It seemed as if he were marooned in the Hundred Acre Wood, with Winnie the Pooh and the gang mocking him. Ethan was further disturbed by the fact that he hadn’t had much to eat that morning, and the honey pot that Pooh was clutching so dearly was starting to make him hungry. At least the school had brought in chairs and desks that fit. The teacher, Ms. Goodfoot, stood at the front of the classroom. She was a stout woman well into her fifties but looked younger than her age. There was no trace of gray in her dark brown hair, and she stood up straight and tall like the Marine captain she used to be. Every adult in Blackwoods was either currently serving in the military or had at some point, and had been thoroughly checked for trustworthiness. Everyone. That was a firm requirement for working in the most secret and secure place on earth, in a town that didn’t exist.

“I’m passing around a topics list for your first summer school project. Note that I’m doing this on the first day of class, so there will be no excuses that you didn’t have enough time,” Ms. Goodfoot said as she passed out the lists. Ethan scanned the list of topics. George Washington: Been there, done that…not again. The Civil War: North won, South lost…spoils the ending. The Great Depression: Too…depressing.

Just then, Ms. Goodfoot walked past his desk and stopped to talk to a student behind him. Ethan took the opportunity to get a good look at her feet. It had long been quietly rumored that Ms. Goodfoot had seven toes on her left foot. An anonymous student years ago once said that he had seen her trying on shoes in a store. At one time, the number of toes on her foot was thought to be twelve. That was eventually scaled back to seven. Seven sounded a lot more reasonable. Ethan intentionally dropped his ruler on the floor and leaned over in his seat to pick it up. While doing so, he covertly laid the ruler up to Ms. Goodfoot’s left foot and quickly took a measurement. He sat up and made some marks on a piece of paper and drew a picture of her shoe. Then he proceeded to carefully draw a foot in the shoe with seven toes. Ethan examined his work critically. A seven-toed foot could probably fit in there, he thought. But he soon found himself on the verge of laughter as he stared at the ridiculous, jumbo shrimp- looking toes he had stuck onto her foot. He covered his snickering mouth with his hand. “It’s not true,” an irritated voice hissed into Ethan’s ear. It was Ms. Goodfoot. Ethan jerked up quickly. He swallowed hard and met her eyes with a bug-eyed stare. Ms. Goodfoot grabbed Ethan’s caricature of her foot, wadded it up into a little ball, and slammed it into a trash can. She eyed Ethan scornfully until she walked back up to the front of the classroom. No one in the room noticed the incident. For that, and that only, Ethan was grateful.

“On these projects, you may work in pairs,” Ms. Goodfoot announced. “I’ll give you ten minutes to meet with your partners.”

Caleb bounded toward Ethan excitedly. They always worked on projects together when it was allowed. “What topic do you want to do?”

“I don’t know. Still looking,” Ethan answered, distracted as he watched Annika meet with her partner, Tristan Fox, a member of her Laser Wars team. He was the scout on their team and her usual project partner. And, as some girls had noted superficially, “He’s really cute.” Caleb poked Ethan with his finger repeatedly, breaking him out of his jealous trance. “Let’s do The Role of Artificial Intelligence in the Future,” he blurted enthusiastically as he pointed out the topic. “Computers, machines…robots!” Ethan slowly returned his attention to the task at hand. He looked at the topic and smiled. He hadn’t gotten to that one yet. “Artificial intelligence… Cool.” At another table, Austin was partnered up with his second-in-command of Bravo Team, Bradley Wuddle. Bradley was short for his age but made up for his lack of physical stature by screaming a lot at his subordinates—namely, the engineer, sniper, and scout. Ethan, the scout, was the lowest rank on the team. As a result, he had to endure the most yelling and name-calling from the fiery, pint-sized sergeant. Ethan figured he had the two worst leaders on his team, but he enjoyed playing the game so much that he dealt with the annoyance. His beloved leaders were currently in the midst of drawing up battle plans for the next Laser Wars game and making it appear to the teacher as if they were working on their school projects.

“Time’s up,” Ms. Goodfoot announced. “Take your seats. We’ll be working on algebra.” Everyone quickly scurried back to their desks. Tristan had to leave Annika and return to his seat three rows away. Ethan smiled. He’d never been so happy to hear the word “algebra” in his life. In the middle of the commotion, Austin took the chance to quickly pass an order to his soldiers. A note slid across Ethan’s desk. MEET AT JUDY’S AT 1:00. FULL GEAR. DON’T BE LATE.


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