Charlie and his teacher, Cameron Miller, stood side-by-side leaning over at the waist and peering through the glass of the terrarium at Sedgwick. Sedgwick was staring back.
“He doesn’t look any different.” Charlie put a finger on the glass.
Sedgwick eyed it cautiously before waddling across the sawdust, through the other hamsters, and nosing at it with a twitch of his muzzle.
“I don’t know.” Mr. Miller leaned in closer and brought his glasses down to give the rodent a thorough appraisal. “I think I might see a little progress.” He took his glasses off as he stood up. “We'd have to weigh and measure to be sure, of course.”
Half the class was already diving into covert yet boisterous discussion, half-disguised as classwork. The morning announcements had droned on and lost both the students and the teacher’s attention.
Charlie Carter, please report to the principal’s office. Miss Nuti’s voice snapped off with a static hiss. The last word of the morning.
Charlie hung his head.
Mr. Miller put a hand on his shoulder. “You tried hard, Charlie.”
Charlie nodded. “It’s fine.”
“Just remember.” Miller pointed a finger at him. “What got you through?
Charlie hung his head and rolled his eyes. “Follow Through.”
“You did good.” Miller patted Charlie on the shoulder. “Just keep it up.” He gave his shoulder a squeeze and nudged him toward the door. “Now go on.” He caught his eye and shot him a quick smirk-and-wink. “Don’t worry, I told Woodkey you've turned a new leaf.”
Charlie turned back, underwhelmed. He gave a grateful nod, as he cinched the straps of his backpack and pushed the door open. As it whooshed closed behind him, he could picture Mr. Miller clapping his hands together as he listened to him corral the kid’s attention. “Ok class! Pop quiz.” Charlie huffed a chuckle.
Normally, He hated Pop quizzes, but he knew today was a freebie, just to get them pumped for the zoo, and the relief of getting out of class wasn’t as relieving as it would have been last Tuesday. He trudged down the empty halls, the muffled instruction of class seeping through the jams and echoing off of the lockers.
Charlie weaved through the morning office traffic and stood, eye level, at the section of counter in front of Mis Piedmont’s desk. He peered over it, catching the corner of her expectant eye.
“Mr. Carter,” she said with a flash of acknowledgment, followed by a flurry of type and a stroke of a pencil on a notepad. She leveled a stare. Menacing, yet covertly benevolent. She brought her glasses down and leveled a more serious glare. “Mr. Woodkey will see you now.”
Charlie nodded and pushed his way through the almost defunct swinging gate that separated administration from the parents and students. He took a left in front of Mrs. Piedmont’s desk, her brows raised, ushering him along with a gesture as he passed. He stopped in front of Mr. Woodkey’s open office door, peering through the threshold as Mr. Woodkey waved him in. ”Mr. Carter.”
Charlie took a breath and stepped in.
Mr. Miller wasn’t kidding. Woodkey really was taking it easy on him, the other nine kids that couldn’t go were sent to study hall. Charlie was tasked with cleaning the burners and balancing the scales and tending to some minor chores in Mr. Miller’s science class under Miller’s TA, Brad’s supervision. Charlie thought he was a nice enough guy and knew he wasn’t going to ride him. He’d probably just spend the whole time on his phone anyway.
Charlie wasn’t even an hour in before they got the news. Mr. Woodkey, himself, had come down to the classroom to tell Charlie. It was no secret that Charlie and Mr. Miller had a close student/pupil relationship. Mr. Woodkey's face was washed over white. At first glance Charlie knew that something terrible had happened.
Woodkey’s stern timbre had been replaced with a low, careful tone. “Mr. Carter.” he softened further. “Would you please accompany me to my office?”
Charlie gave a wave to the disheveled station he was in the middle of organizing. “I’m only halfway through—”
“Don’t worry about that, Charlie. I’ll have Brad see to it.” He gestured toward the station for Brad to take over. “When you are finished up here, please report to my office as well, Mr. Madock.”
“Yes, sir.” Brad agreed. A tilt of curiosity as he watched them leave.
Woodkey guided Charlie into the empty hall and held a consoling hand on his shoulder as they strode slowly and awkwardly, their footsteps echoing.
“Charlie, first off, I would like to say that I’m proud of the progress you’ve made this year. You’ve made a real effort to turn things around and I want you to know that I have seen it, and I have hope that you’ll continue along a path that will lead to a bright future for you, son.”
Charlie wrinkled his face and glanced nervously up at Woodkey. He had never talked to him like this, and he had definitely never called him son. He shrugged. “Well, thanks a lot Mr. Woodkey. I sure have been trying.”
“I know you have.” he gripped the boy's shoulder and shook it. “I also know Mr. Miller has played a significant role in your education.”
“Yeah, Cam’s—” he corrected himself. “Mr. Miller’s the best.” He agreed with a nod.
“He is.” Woodkey patted him. “I know the two of you had a friendship that—”
“What do you mean “Had,” Mr. Woodkey?” Charlie cut him off as he examined the principal’s face.
Woodkey grimaced and let out a low grumble. “I, uh, we… Let's, uh… Let’s talk in my office.”
“Did something happen to Cam?”
Woodkey hurried their pace, fumbling with his words as he repeated his previous accolades for Charlie. As they passed through the strangely deserted administration desks Charlie noticed the faculty gathered at the door of the vice principal’s office, in a final glance he thought he saw some of them crying.
Woodkey had waited for Charlie’s mother to arrive before telling him about the accident. A semi had blown a tire on the bridge that crossed the bay into the city, causing it to swerve into another large truck, that, in turn, swerved into the school bus, sending it careening off the bridge and into the icy waters below. Almost half the students had been rescued. Witnesses had reported sightings of Mr Miller pulling children free of the wreckage as it sank before diving down and never returning to the surface.
“I’m so sorry, darling.” Charlie’s mother stroked his hair.
Charlie stared blankly through Mr. Woodkey as Mr. Woodkey tried his best to stifle his sobs. After what felt like an eternity, Charlie came to with a breath and a rapid succession of blinks. He spoke softly. “Mr. Woodkey?”
Woodkey cleared his throat, tried to speak, found he couldn’t, and grumbled an acknowledgment toward Charlie.
“What about Sedgwick?”
“Huh?” Woodkey tilted his head, confused. “Sedgwho?”
“Sedgwick. He’s Cam’s hamster.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Was… Cam’s Hamster.”
“Oh. I see.” He considered with a deep breath. “Well, Charlie. I suppose there’s a lot to consider that—”
“Can I take him home?”
Woodkey gave Charlie’s mom a raise of his brow.
She nodded and shrugged and rubbed Charlie’s back as she turned a consoling gaze down on her son.
Woodkey brought his hands together. “Well, Charlie, I don’t see why not. I’ll arrange for someone—”
“You see, we were in the middle of this experiment.” He slid to the edge of his seat and grasped the arms of the chair, ready to spring up. “And the last thing Cam told me was That I have to follow through.” He shot his mom a pleading nod. “Is it cool, mom?”
She smiled softly. “Of course, Charlie.”
Mr. Woodkey stammered. “Well, uh, we have to see if—”
There were two knocks on the door before Mrs. Belkin entered without waiting for an answer. She appeared rushed, gave a glance around the room, and took a breath before she spoke. “Mr. Woodkey. We need you in Mr. Wilks office.”
Mr. Woodkey closed his eyes as he gave her a deep nod. “I’ll be right there, Ann.”
She gave Charlie and his mom a quick nod of apology before bowing her head and closing the door softly.
Mr. Woodkey placed his hands on his desk and took a deep breath as he steadied himself to a stand. He leveled a gaze on Charlie and his mom before steading it on Charlie. “I’m so sorry, Charlie.”
“Thanks, Mr. Woodkey. We’re really gonna miss him.”
He turned to Charlie’s mom. “I’ll let you know how we plan to proceed with classes.”
“Of course. Thank you,” she said with a smile.
“So, I can go get Sedge?”
Woodkey squinted in a moment of confusion before remembering and chuckling under his breath. “Of course, Charlie.” he gestured toward the door. “Brad should still be—”
There was another knock at the door before Brad broke in even quicker than Mrs. Belkin had. He glanced around the room, hunched and held up a hand. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry, Brad.” He flashed an exaggerated smile. “Go see Mrs. Belkin. They should all be in Mr. Wilks’ office.”
Brad quickly scanned the room before throwing Woodkey a nod and turning to go.
“Mr. Madock.” Woodkey raised a finger.
Brad stopped and looked back.
“Did you lock up Mr. Miller’s class?”
Brad’s eyes darted and he shrugged before setting his eyes on the floor. “No, Mr. Woodkey.” He shot an excited glance back up to him and started to go. “I’ll do it right now.”
Woodkey stopped him with a raised hand, “Don’t worry about it, Brad,” and then gestured for him to leave. “I’ll see you in a minute.”
Brad glanced around the room again, his eyes settling for a flash on Charlie’s, before he left.
Woodkey redoubled his sorrowful smile. “Charlie.”
Charlie nodded hopefully.
“Do you want to go get him now?”
“Yes, Mr. Woodkey. I know how to do it all. I can even take care of the others.”
Surprised, Woodkey raised an eye of concern to Charlie’s mother.
She returned it with a nod and a shrug and a clutch of her son’s shoulder.
“Thanks,” Charlie said with a wave and pulled at his mom’s sleeve to go.
Charlie’s mom held the door for him as he carefully plodded through it holding the terrarium squarely. “Do you want a hand?” she called after him as he was already making his way up the stairs.
“No. I’ve got it, mom.” He trundled up the steps.
“Do you want me to—?”
“Let me just get them set up and I’ll be right down.”
“Ok.” she said with a wave of her hand as she dotingly watched him disappear over the landing of the staircase. She took a breath, set her purse on the landing, and headed to the phone.
Charlie pushed back in his seat, wrinkling the throw rug with the legs of the chair, and clasped his knees as he stared into the tank.
He set the tank up in the middle of his desk. The lights were all in place and he had brought the rest of the stuffing Mr. Miller had left. He made a mental note to get more as soon as possible. He gave it all a satisfied nod before pulling his seat forward with a squeak, the legs of the chair straightening the rug, and resting his elbows on the edge of his desk. He held his face to the glass, not quite touching it as he watched the hamsters scurry about, starting burrows and then abandoning them, nibbling and darting. He settled a smile on Sedgwick. Sedgwick paused and seemed to stare back at the boy. Charlie leaned in closer. “Is it you, Cam?”
The hamster ran to the glass and stood in front of it staring up at him.
Charlie put a finger against the glass.
The hamster put his paw against his finger and twitched his muzzle, his black eyes staring into the boy’s.
Charlie tilted his head in a gesture of recognition and smiled. “It is you.”