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Chapter Two of Holding the Fort: The Fatal Error

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

Chapter 2

School’s Out

June 3 marked the last day of school for all the kids in Blackwoods. The school held the usual graduation ceremony that evening in the auditorium. All grade levels were included, but two classes in particular were highlighted. It was the same show every year. The kindergarteners graduated from barefoot and illiterate toddlers to little kids with impressive shoe-tying and phonics skills. Their parents in attendance looked so proud, beaming as they feverishly snapped pictures of their waddling bundles of joy as if kindergarten might be the last grade their kids ever passed. At the other scholastic end, the high school seniors were graduating from the safety of school to the uncertainty of the real world. Their parents also looked proud, but there was always a note of anxiety and sadness in the air around them. Perhaps the idea of their children growing up and leaving the nest was responsible for the emotion. Or maybe it was the idea of how much college costs, for those who chose not to go into the military, that brought tears to their eyes.

Ethan Tate and most of his fellow seventh-grade graduates were under the radar. They were not as accomplished as the high school seniors and not as cute and cuddly as the kindergarteners, nor as unpredictable—no self-respecting, soon-to-be fourteen-year-old would dare stick his certificate in his mouth right after yelling “Mommy!” as loud as humanly possible.

Ethan didn’t mind the attention gap. Actually, he didn’t even notice. It was hot in the auditorium that night, and he was fighting with his suit that was wrapped around him like a boa constrictor. His mother had bought the suit for him when he was twelve, and, at the time, it was a little big for him. But now, it felt like a wetsuit a diver would wear two hundred feet underwater.

He finally gave up wrestling with the suit and stood at attention when the principal of the school glanced in his direction. Ethan stood in line with the rest of his class as the principal began to read the names of those satisfactorily completing seventh grade.

“Megan Ambrose… Kyle Brooks…” The names were called out in alphabetical order in an even, monotone cadence. Family members applauded as their kids walked up to the stage and received their seventh-grade certificates. As Ethan watched his classmates collect their glossy pieces of paper adorned with calligraphy, he couldn’t help but wonder: What powers could this ridiculous document possibly bestow? He was pretty sure he wouldn’t want a surgeon with only a seventh-grade education poking around in his brain, no matter how fancy the lettering on his certificate. Ethan chuckled a bit out loud at the thought of it. The thought was quickly interrupted when one particular girl was called up to the stage.

“Annika Pepper,” the principal announced in the same flat tone. Ethan shot a subtle scowl at the principal. He thought a girl like Annika deserved a special introduction, something befitting a movie star or a president.

Annika walked up the stairs to the stage wearing a blue sundress that was much nicer than the T-shirt and jeans she wore to school every day, and much less intimidating than the camouflage she wore on the weekends in their games of Laser Wars. Ethan watched her admiringly as she accepted her certificate from the principal. The audience clapped politely, and Ethan joined along, but he soon found that he was clapping, by far, the loudest in the auditorium. People began to stare at him. Finally, and with much embarrassment, Ethan muted his applause. Annika faced the audience and caught her parents’ gaze. They waved excitedly at her. She waved back. Actually, her wave wasn’t so much a wave as it was a salute.

Annika Pepper was, in fact, a cute girl with strawberry blonde hair whose smile could disarm a parent armed with intentions of grounding her for a week. However, she’d never been just a pretty face, nor a frilly, delicate thing who played with her Barbie dolls, afraid to get in the mud. Sure, Annika played with Barbies when she was in the second grade. But by the third grade, those Barbies had become hostages that the G.I. Joes she played with instead had to rescue (in many of her story plots, Barbie went on to become a Marine sniper; boyfriend Ken often joined the Marines with her, but he’d always accidentally shoot himself in the foot and require a medical discharge ). And by the time the seventh grade was over, Annika had been the best Laser Wars sniper in Blackwoods for three years running.

Ethan liked Annika’s tough side. He thought it was a good thing that if they ever went on a date and were attacked by ninjas or zombies—or zombie ninjas—she would help fight instead of watch and scream or run away like the girls in too many horror movies. Ethan was presently in a dreamlike state, smiling goofily as Annika took her place in the group of seventh-grade graduates assembling on the stage.

“Wake up, you loser! It’s your turn,” a voice right behind him barked.

Ethan turned around to find Austin Turnbull glaring at him. Austin was a broad-shouldered fellow with a hard-nosed disposition, and he was Ethan’s commanding officer in their Laser Wars games. Austin basically became the leader of the team by virtue of his father’s position at the base—General Turnbull was the highest-ranking officer at Blackwoods—and because he was about four inches taller and twenty pounds heavier than the next largest kid. He was also a few months older than anyone else in his class, the result of being pulled out of school one too many times as his dad climbed his way up the military chain of command. Ethan didn’t like Austin, but he tried to respect his authority. He just hated it when Austin’s orders seeped into his everyday life.

“Move it out!” Austin ordered Ethan as if still on the battlefield. Austin grabbed Ethan by the shoulders and turned him around sharply to face the stairs leading to the stage.

“Ethan Tate,” the principal called out with exasperation in his voice. Ethan realized he hadn’t heard the principal’s first several attempts to call him. He scurried up to the stage, nearly tripping on the last step. He took his certificate from the principal and shook his hand, then waved modestly at his parents who were both standing and taking pictures far too conspicuously for his liking. Blushing and feeling about as cool now as the kindergartner who yelled “Mommy!” and chewed on his diploma, Ethan sped up and joined the rest of his class that was gathered on stage.

“Austin Turnbull,” the principal announced with what seemed to be a more dignified and enthusiastic tone to his voice.

Austin walked—strutted, to be more precise—up to the stage to get his certificate. The entire audience cheered loudly for him, not because of his vast achievements as a graduating seventh grader, but because he was the top general’s son and there was a sense of obligation.

General Turnbull stood up like a pillar in the crowd, and, decked out in his uniform dripping with medals, clapped forcefully for his son. Ethan rolled his eyes at the sight of it all. He quickly brought his eyes around to their original, unsarcastic position when Austin walked past and took his place beside him.

“Glenn Vaden,” the principal called out next. Again, the audience cheered loudly, though not quite so much as when Austin had been called.

Glenn walked up to the stage. He did not strut but maintained both a sense of dignity and modesty in his approach. Glenn was African-American and the son of the second-in-command at Blackwoods, General Carl Vaden. Glenn was smart, a good leader, and loyal to a fault. He was also the commanding officer of another Laser Wars team, Delta Team, the main rival of Ethan’s Bravo Team. Ethan had always wished he could be on Glenn’s team. It’s easier to take orders from someone you respect, and Ethan respected Glenn. Plus, being on Glenn’s team would have another advantage—it was the team Annika was on.

“Caleb Warren,” the principal announced.

Caleb walked up to the stage. Ethan clapped loudly, even letting out a little whoop, as he did so. Caleb was a brilliant student and served as the engineer on Bravo Team. He was also Ethan’s best friend by a mile. Ethan and Caleb high-fived as Caleb walked by him on the stage. The high five wasn’t perfectly cool. In fact, they almost missed it entirely. Ethan had to quickly change the trajectory of his hand mid-swing to meet Caleb’s. Caleb wasn’t exactly the most athletic kid in school, but if something needed to be designed, built, or trouble-shot, he was your guy. He eventually hoped to follow in his father’s footsteps at Blackwoods and work on the top-secret projects there code-named: “The Magic Tricks.” And he appeared well on his way. The scientists at Blackwoods Research Facility already had their eyes on him.

A few other students plodded up to the stage, rounding out the seventh-grade student body. After the pattern was repeated with the rest of the classes, the principal stood at the front of the auditorium to address all the students and their families. He gripped his microphone tightly.

“Today marks a major step in the progression of your lives,” the principal began, his words resonating dramatically. “The decisions you made yesterday got you to this point, and the decisions you make today will lead you to your future… You are the future of the world. The future of the world will depend on you, and it will all happen much sooner than any of you think… Ladies and gentlemen, I present the graduating classes of Blackwoods.”

The audience cheered raucously. The kids were much more indifferent. Ethan was busy alternately sharing quiet inside jokes with Caleb and sneaking glances at Annika. Austin was busy trying to look strong and heroic.

Nobody really paid much attention to the principal’s words that night.

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