Sam has finally finished his first year of teaching and loved every minute of it. Summer school is well underway and he’s starting to feel like he’s getting the hang of this teaching gig, particularly since he’s pretty sure his students are the most awesome kids ever. When a suspiciously high number of students and teachers don’t show up one day, Sam is thrown into a situation he can’t believe. Nanites have saved many lives, but now it’s all gone wrong and people are going crazy.
Trapped inside the school, Sam has to ride out the wave of insanity sweeping across the land. There’s one thing he’s very sure of…no one is going to hurt his kids. He’ll get them to safety, no matter what comes between them and the road home.
Between Life and Death Origins
Chapter One – Day One
The school bell rings and I look at the students in front of me. Only eight today. Bella is missing, but I half-expected that at some point. She has an older sister more than capable of taking care of her during the day while her mother works, something many of my students don’t have. The hassle of getting Bella to the bus stop, waiting for the bus, and then worrying about picking her up at the end of the day can be alleviated by simply letting her stay home rather than attend summer school.
Still, summer school is important for my students, no matter how much of a pain it might be. The challenges of Down syndrome are significant enough without adding a nine-week break from school into the mix. These students often lose more during the course of a summer than children in mainstream classes if nothing is done to reinforce what they’ve learned. And Bella had been doing so well.
I sigh, drawing the attention of one of my students. Little Piper—so sweet that it almost seems she might melt in the rain like a cube of sugar—gives me a sidelong glance and smiles her sweetest smile. It’s the one that brings up two dimples next to her lips and lifts her chubby cheeks into two rosy balls. I can’t help but smile back. We’re not supposed to pick favorites, but some kids are just too awesome not to adore. Piper is one of those.
“Okay, kids! Let’s settle down,” I call out to the socializing group of kids. Aged between seven and eleven, they’re at that age where any meeting with a friend is cause for loud celebration. “Paulie, that’s enough hugging for now. Okay? Can everyone find their name for me?”
They sort of turn their attention to me, but the lure of chatting is a strong one. I walk toward the rough circle formed in X’s of tape stuck to the short carpet, the name of a child in the class carefully written in bold capital letters on each one. Having their attention shift to me, and then to the X spots on the floor, lowers the decibel level a little more.
Each child seeks their X, most of them remembering exactly where their mark is, but going through their standard process of sounding out their name and pointing to each letter in turn, before sitting. I have to help Corinne to her X. She’s still working on the spelling of her name and she still doesn’t always recognize it. We point to each letter and sound it out, her giggling and laughing in delight the whole while. I love my job. I really do.
The two empty spots that should be for Bella and Thomas are a bit like a silent rebuke. Unfortunately, chance would have it that those bracket my most sensitive student, Michael. He looks to either side of his spot, his face crumpling as he does. Michael is the youngest in his family, with four much older siblings. He feels rejection very keenly, even when there is none intended.
Michael is a loud and expressive crier, so I scoot over toward one of the empty spots and sit down on the X marked Thomas. That drawers his attention, so I lean down to grin at Michael and say, “I’m very lucky to sit next to you today, Michael!”
The confusion on Michael’s face fades quickly, the happiness returning like the sunshine after the passing of a single obscuring cloud, and he leans over to put his head against my arm. As much as I like the kids, I have to gently adjust the boy back to a seated position in short order. I’m always keenly aware of the caution that all teachers must have with respect to contact with their charges. The cameras in each corner of the room remind me of it every time I see their obtrusive and untrusting eyes.
“Does anyone remember what we were doing at the end of the day yesterday?” I ask, looking around the circle and meeting the eyes of each student. I’m careful to give an encouraging smile to each and every one of them.
Several hands shoot up, then a few more because raising hands is apparently great fun. I call on one of the first to raise her hand, so that I’ll be sure to get a correct answer. No one likes to start the day by giving a wrong answer.
Mary, the oldest in my class at almost twelve, yells the answer just a little too loudly, “Counting and colors!”
“Right!” I exclaim—though not as loudly—and flip over the pile of oversized cards lying in the center of the circle. Bright shapes in vibrant colors along with the letters spelling out the color cover the cards, and several of the children clap at the sight of them. This is a favorite activity for many of them. It’s true that a good many of my kids are well past the need for counting and color activities like this one, but it’s an excellent reinforcement for them. It also allows them the chance to lead the younger ones. From my point of view, that’s another important part of growing up.
The morning class begins and I feel that same sense of fulfillment I do whenever I enter the classroom. It takes more to prepare these wonderful children for their future lives than many teachers have the patience for, but to me this is a balm to the soul and the fulfillment of a promise to the brother I lost.
My older brother, George, was born with severe Down Syndrome. Unfortunately, he was also born with most of the physical problems that can come along for the ride with the syndrome. Though he had corrective heart surgery as a toddler, he passed away one night in his sleep. There was no warning, no hint that it was coming. We shared a room, so it was to my mother’s screams that I woke that morning, seeing her bent over his bed and shaking him, begging him to wake up.
I was only ten and George was thirteen. To say that his loss struck me deeply would be an understatement. And I don’t mean just because I was just eight feet from him when it happened and I slept right through it, though that’s certainly bad enough. It was because he was gone and I missed him in a way I’ve never missed anything or anyone else.
I still do.
While it’s true that George was three years older than me, I learned pretty early that he needed me to stick up for him. He didn’t understand the casual cruelty of children at our primary school. I didn’t always understand it, but I sure knew it when I saw it. Though I never got into another fight after he passed, I learned to scrap pretty well at a young age.
So, it’s easy to see why I chose the profession I did. Every single day I work is like me saying thank you to my brother. I promised I would always take care of him. This is how I do that now that he’s not here himself.
Before the first recess bell sounds, the door to my classroom bangs open, the metal kickplate banging against the stop like a shot. The kids jump, but I think I jump even more. Bethany, another teacher and probably my best “teacher friend” rushes in. The look on her face sets my heart to racing. Something is very wrong.
She stops after two steps inside, probably realizing that she’s just scared the bejesus out of me, and then makes it worse by waving me over with urgent sweeps of her hand. I’m guessing she also notices the effect her facial expression is having on my kids, because she tries to smile at the kids. It looks more like a grimace.
In a shaky voice, she says, “It’s okay kids! Everything is fine. I just need Mr. Sam for a minute. Is that okay?”
Piper shouts up at her, “We’re on blue!” She waves the big card with a circle of bright blue on it to demonstrate what she means.
“Blue is my favorite!” Michael shouts and tries to grab for the card.
I get up from my spot in the circle and pass the stack of cards to Michael to distract him from his grabs. He snatches them in delight and I tell him, “Why don’t you take one and then pass them around the circle. Everyone take a card when it gets passed to you and practice on that color. Okay?”
That suggestion gets me a round of happy agreements, so I step away, but keep half an eye on the kids, while worrying what that pale, strained look on Bethany’s face might mean. As always, my first thought is that something bad might be happening inside the school. Even in elementary school, it’s something all teachers have in the back of their minds. That’s just the way things are nowadays. That possibility is an unfortunate fact of life.
Then again, Bethany wouldn’t likely be standing in full view of the hallway with an open door at her back if there was that kind of problem. She’d have hit the deck, closed and bolted the door, or be herding her kids out of the building. Plus, there’s no noise.
As soon as I get within reach, Bethany grabs my forearm, her fingers sharp and tight. I lean close, hoping that will encourage her to keep her voice down. She looks more than worried now that we’re close, she looks frightened.
“Sam, can you take my class? I have to go. Now,” she says without delay.
I look back at my charges, but they’re busily exchanging cards with each other to get their favorites, then back at Bethany. “I really shouldn’t. You understand, right?”
Bethany sneaks a peek around my shoulder at my students and bites at her lip. I can see the warring needs in her as clearly as if they were written in magic marker across her forehead. I’d love to help her, but the rules are very firm in a few regards and this is one of them. Bethany’s class is made up of mainstream summer schoolers. Specifically, her class is made up of math students who might noth otherwise pass up into the next grade. They’re also all fourth and fifth graders. And there are more than twenty of them.
It’s not just about breaking class size rules, because there’s always room to wiggle on that when it comes to an emergency like a teacher having to stop a class for whatever reason. The real problem is that mixing mainstream students with his students is just not done. My first priority is the safety of my students, but my second is their happiness. I won’t have them scarred by unthinking slights or rude giggles.
“What about one of the other teachers?” I ask. There aren’t many here—this is a small neighborhood school—but there are some. I can’t be the only choice. It may be summer school, but we’ve got five classes going.
Bethany shakes her head, lips thin and tight. “Debbie’s got thirty-three kids in her class already and Rob’s already got two classes worth because Sherry didn’t show up. She’s probably in the same boat I’m in,” she says, then trails off, her eyes finding the clock and her jaw muscles tightening.
“Wait, what?” I ask, now concerned. A teacher just not showing up is a big deal any day, but particularly during the summer. There’s just one admin person, no aids at all this week because of training, and like every week after a holiday, a whole lot of people scheduling vacation time.
When I came in, I saw the office was occupied, and I passed Bethany getting ready in her classroom, but I was running late so I didn’t go to the teacher’s lounge or anywhere else this morning. I lean forward just enough to see down the hallway, and everything looks fine, if somewhat empty. There’s only Henry, the single school maintenance person on duty, rolling his mop bucket down the hall on squeaky wheels.
Bethany takes a deep breath, as if centering herself or reaching for calm when being pushed by a particularly challenging child, and says, “Right. Okay. I’m guessing you don’t know what’s going on out there?”
She looks up at me with those huge, dark eyes of hers and I’m pretty much done for no matter what she says. I can tell she’s searching for an answer even before I speak. I can also tell she knows I’m clueless. My shrug just confirms it.
“You remember about my Dad?” she asks.
This is a jarring change in topic. I should have realized what it was about as soon as I realized nothing was on fire and no one was shooting. The concern, the wringing hands, the ways she’s shuffling her feet a little as if she’s poised to run finally come together in my clearly, inferior brain.
“Oh, no. Did he…I mean…has he…” I trail off, not sure what the appropriate words are when asking if someone died.
She grips at my forearms again, understanding what I mean—which is good, because it was so not clear—and smiles a shaky smile. “No, no! Nothing like that. It’s the opposite. He woke up, but he’s very disoriented and…not himself.”
The relief I feel at not have to do any consoling cannot be overstated. Seriously. That sort of thing doesn’t come easy to me yet. I’m never sure if I’m doing it right or saying the right thing. Plus, this is good news. Or, it should be good news. But if it is, why does she look so scared?
“Are you okay, Bethany?” I ask her, but this time I focus entirely on her so she’ll know I want to hear the truth.
She surprises me by leaning forward and bumping her forehead into my chest. Seriously, she couldn’t have surprised me more if she’d kissed me. Even so, this feels like an overwhelmed lean instead of a flirting one, so I just let her keep doing it. I should just enjoy it while it lasts, though I’d never, ever confess that to anyone.
Bethany is older than me—as in almost twice my age—but there’s something about her. She’s divorced, has kids that aren’t too many years younger than me, and probably hasn’t thought twice about me that way. Even so, I have my daydreams. And even without daydreams, we’re friends and I know how hard the last two years have been for her.
After a boat accident, her father had been shot full of First Responder nanites by emergency services. It was protocol, but like so many others, it hadn’t worked the way it was supposed to on him. The First Responders boost oxygen in the blood, encourage heart activity, and stimulate the body’s natural responses to trauma, helping many survive the trip to the hospital and giving most those crucial few minutes they need to get truly sophisticated medical care. They are, on the whole, a good and life-saving thing.
Only they don’t always work. Her father’s traumatic brain injury meant that the nanites kept his body alive, but without enough brain function to return to normal life. He became one of the many people commonly referred to as vegetables, perfectly healthy yet never again to wake.
And now Bethany is saying he’s awake. But she’s not talking to me and she’s leaning against me in front of my class instead of jumping for joy.
“Aren’t you happy? You always said he would beat it,” I say, extricating an arm so I can pat her on the back. I look back around at the kids, some of whom are very interested in what we’re up to. That must bring her back to the present, because she pulls away and pushes back her hair. She smiles at the kids, then at me.
Something flashes through her smile, some hint of emotion other than joy. I think it really is fear. I don’t think I’m imagining it. Then it hits me what she said before. “Wait, you said Sherry was in the same boat as you. What’s going on?”
One of the children calls, so we pause long enough for me to persuade Piper to go back to her spot in the circle. Back at the door, Bethany says, “Yeah. She never talked about it, but her grandmother is in long term care in nearly the same condition as my father. Anyway, I haven’t talked to her or anything, but it’s happening all over, so it’s probably happening with her grandmother too.”
“Wait,” I say, because now I’m really confused. “You mean it’s not just your father waking up? Did something happen?”
Bethany’s eyes widen and she gives a little shake of her head, “Really? Sam, do you never watch the news? Seriously.” She puffs out a breath and waves a hand as if it doesn’t matter. “It’s all over the news. There was some experiment to try to correct neural deficits or something—basically wake up the people like my Dad—but it wasn’t supposed to be everywhere. The nurse called me here and said that it has something to do with the Monitor nanites Dad has now. They picked up the signal or something. I don’t know. Honestly, I’m just glad he’s waking up! Except…”
Sentences that trail off after words like that are never good. Not ever. “Except?” I prod.
“Well, he’s strapped down now, but the first thing he did was bite my mom on the arm. Hard. And he’s sort of out of it.” Again she flaps her hands in agitation. “It doesn’t matter. But I need to get to their house. I really do. The nurse is only supposed to be there for an hour and she has a lot of other patients. My mom can’t handle him like this on her own. Who knows what will happen?”
I’m no more capable of resisting that sort of plea that I would be able to leave a kitten in the middle of a busy street. It just isn’t in me. I push a hand through my hair and sigh. It must have been enough of an answer for Bethany, because she squeezes my arms and says, “Oh, thank you, Sam! I will totally return the favor someday!”
“Fine, yes,” I say, but I’m still very unsure about the whole thing. “Can you go to the office on your way out and ask them to call in a sub?”
Bethany nods, her mind clearly already shifting to getting out of the school as quickly as possible. “Sure, sure. I’ll go get my kids. Or do you want to bring yours over?”
I consider it, but decide that this room, which is about twice the size of a regular classroom given the variety of activities that go on in here, is the better choice. “No, bring them over for now. But give them some sort of assignment to tide them over until a sub gets here. Will you?”
“Of course! And school’s out at lunch anyway. Everything will be fine,” Bethany says, stepping away and clearly ready to dash. I let her go and then face my kids, wondering how I’m going to handle two such disparate groups for another two hours. There’s no way a sub will make it in time and I know it. At least it’s only a half day. It could be worse.
The In-Betweener- AMAZON
Forever Between - AMAZON
Between Life and Death- AMAZON
Ann Christy is a recently retired navy commander and secret science fiction writer. She lives by the sea under the benevolent rule of her canine overlords and assorted unruly family members. She’s the author of the popular Silo 49 series set in the WOOL universe, assorted novels and a slew of stories. Her latest work, the Between Life and Death series, is a new and entirely novel take on the zombie genre that is turning out to be equally popular with teens and adults. It includes The In-Betweener, Forever Between, and Between Life and Death.
You can find out more about Ann Christy and read extended sneak peeks of her books at her website.