Change of Habit
Okay, I’m in a bed. Why am I in bed? This isn’t my bed. The last thing I remember….Then he started to chuckle, but stopped quickly as the sharp pain reiterated its warning to his brain.
“Bill, good to see you’re alive.” Ryder shifted his gaze to the side of his bed and saw his dad sitting with his feet stretched out in front of him. From the stubble on his father’s face, he could see that Dad had been there a while.
“I’m okay,” Ryder croaked. “Where’s Debbie?”
“Debbie’s fine. She’s at home. Mom will be here in a few minutes. You had us worried.” Dad looked a little glassy eyed.
“Where am I?” Ryder struggled to get the frog out of his throat, but it wasn’t working.
“Diablo Medical Center. You’ve been her for two days. Glad to have you back”
Hospital? Two days? Ryder thought. Then everything flashed back. He could feel his blood pulse, and it hurt his head. He was getting angry. He was mad at Barry, he was mad at the school, he was mad at his father for making them move here, he was mad at himself. He started to shiver, and his dad stood to his feet. His father had a different look in his eye, one he hadn’t seen before. He looked furious.
“Dad, I’m sorry,” Ryder muttered.
“Sorry? Sorry for what?” The expression on his dad’s face disappeared. “You don’t have anything to be sorry about. You just need to rest and get better. Sorry is a word better used by someone else! That kid should be tossed off Phar Lap or points even higher.” The angry look started to grow on his dad’s face again.
By afternoon, Ryder was getting testy. The restraint to his right arm was tied to a needle in his hand, attached to a tube that went up to a bag, hanging from a metal rail. The problem was they kept pouring new bags of liquid into him, and it hurt. There was a burning sensation as the fluids poured way too fast into the vein in his hand. It felt like it bulged all the way through his arm. I’d rather go back and play with Barry’s boot again, Ryder thought.
The diagnosis was a concussion, multiple contusions, two cracked and one broken rib. He was going to hurt for quite a while apparently. But, he would “be released tomorrow, if you’re good.” They wanted another twenty-four hours of observation. Ryder wanted to curl up. No, forget curling, he wanted to lie flat on his own bed, in his own bedroom, and be left alone. Every time he dozed off, a nurse or doctor wanted to prod or poke or draw some more blood.
Ryder got home Monday. He threw up on the way home. Mom wanted to go back to the hospital. Dad said it was a side effect of the medication, and that he would be fine.
Debbie met them at the door sporting a black eye that seemed to go well with her long blond pony tail. “Look what the cat drug in.”
“Dragged,” Dad corrected.
“Drugged is more like it,” Ryder managed to get out with a faint smile. “It’s good to get out of that place. Medieval torture chambers could learn something from that hospital.”
Getting into the house wasn’t too bad, but he just stood at the top of the stairway leading down to his room. There was no way he could make it down those steps. Ultimately, Dad took his back and shoulders, and Mom and Debbie took his feet. By the time they got down the thirteen steps, he was pretty sure they were going to have to take him back to the hospital. But there was no way they were taking him back up those stairs. He collapsed into the bed and slept.
By Wednesday he could make it back up and down the stairs, slowly. He even thought he could make it back to school by Thursday.
“Afraid not,” Dad said tersely.
“Why not? You’ve made me go to school when I felt worse than this,” Ryder queried.
“You’re suspended.” Dad’s face was starting to turn red.
“Huh? What for?” Ryder asked
“I asked the same thing.” Dad’s eyes were starting to get that frosty look.
Mom interjected. “The principal said you were suspended because you were so banged up that he was afraid it would cause more fights at school if you came back right away.”
Mom was trying to calm down the situation, but Dad was in the mood to rage. “That idiot! The worst thing that ever happened to this school district was to put a noodle-spined fool in as the principal. He’s lucky I didn’t hit him.”
“Honey, he could have had you arrested for what you said to him.”
“He wouldn’t have dared. He knows darn well I didn’t say anything he didn’t deserve.”
“Well at least he came up with a reasonable solution. And he removed the suspensions on Deborah and that other girl.”
“And that homicidal maniac!”
“Wait, wait, I’m lost. What solution? What suspensions?” Ryder finally was able to interject.
Dad sat down, crossed his arms, and glared.
Mom at least was willing to talk. “Well, they suspended Deborah and that other girl for fighting.”
“Debbie was fighting with another girl? When did that happen?” Ryder asked sitting up, curious, with an unfortunate twang in his ribs as a reward, combined with a bit of spinning in his head.
Dad actually smiled. “No Debbie and…Cathy?
“Cynthia,” Debbie corrected.
“That’s right. Debbie and Cynthia apparently gang tackled that Hales sleazebag,” Dad spouted. “He looks like he’s got a bad case of ringworm in his head where Debbie tore the hair out.” Dad was actually grinning.
“Anyway,” Mom continued, “part of the deal was that they also lifted the suspension on the Hales boy. The principal said we could file a civil suit against the boy and his family if we wanted to.”
“Do you want to file a lawsuit?” Dad asked Ryder. Suddenly Dad’s face had turned bland.
Ryder couldn’t remember his dad shifting his demeanor so much in a week, let alone in less than five minutes. But Ryder could also read Dad’s bland composure easily enough. The message was, “Son, I’ll support you if you want to do it, but I hate lawyers and lawsuits.”
“Nah,” Ryder said, “but I would like to see a picture of Barry’s head. He was always pretty prissy about his looks.”
“So if the suspensions are lifted from everyone else, when can I go back to school?” Ryder asked.
“Well, the term ends Friday, and the principal agreed to give you a P grade for all your classes. That means you passed without having to take the quarterly exams,” Dad volunteered. “You won’t be going back to Diablo Junior High at all. You start at Verdan Junior High Monday.”
“They’re expelling me and sending me to a special needs school?” Ryder asked incredulously.
“Verdan has numerous programs. You’re actually going to their gifted student program. Everyone, including you, knows that the courses at Diablo aren’t challenging you,” Mom said in a too cheerful voice.
“And, I told that idiot principal I wasn’t letting you back into his three-ring circus anyway. I’d sooner you go over Kuu’Aali Falls in a barrel,” Dad declared.
Mom gave Dad a stern and cryptic look.
His father’s face fell, and he added softly, “I hope that’s all right with you, son.”
Ryder didn’t know what he felt, but he could see Dad had done something he usually didn’t do, blasted an education leader. “It’s fine,” he decided was the best answer.
“And the really good news is that I’m coming too,” Debbie added.
“Wait a minute! I want a recount if she’s going to Verdan too. Oh, special needs. I guess it makes sense.” Ryder could feel Debbie running at him from the side. He braced for the pain, but she held up just before launching.
“You’re special needs,” Dweeb said. “They’re sending me along as your body guard.”
The deal was that both he and Debbie would leave the school, as Dad refused to let her stay. Fortunately, according to the school counselor, they both had test scores that merited their going to Verdan. Of course, Ryder couldn’t resist upon hearing this. “Yeah, mine’s too high and Dweeb’s is too low for regular school.” Debbie was a little too close that time, and he paid for it with shooting pain in his shoulder for the next ten minutes. It was worth it, he thought afterward. I’m glad she’s coming, but I’m not going to tell her that.
Et Tu, Brute?
Monday morning started earlier than usual. For all Diablo’s warts, Ryder could walk out his front door as the first bell rang and still make it to class on time. Now, going to school was a project. Dad was leaving later for work and heading off in the opposite direction from his office for a twenty-minute drive to Verdan Junior High School. Being day one, Dad also had two packets of information from Diablo that had to be delivered to the principal of Verdan.
Verdan Junior High School was as old as Diablo was new. The grounds were covered with lush green lawns and mature, budding maple trees that cast giant shadows first thing in the morning. The undersized asphalt parking lot was so sun bleached that it was almost off-white except for the fresh tar that ran like black snakes plaguing the parking lot. Dad parked on the street in one of the few spots that did not have the curb painted red.
The building was two stories high with a flat roof. The brick was a sickly yellowish brown. Ryder wondered if the brick had always been so puckish or if the pollution over a century had just settled into the bricks. There was a wide sidewalk straddled with trees from the street to the front door. The cracks in the cement were filled with the stubble of dry grass or weeds. Three well-worn steps led to a large stone portico. The granite keystone in the middle of the arch was engraved with “Founded in 1892.” The school had been remodeled, but it still looked old. The front of the building was dressed with tall paneled windows. Ryder calculated that there were 576 window panes just on the front of the building. Glad I don’t have to wash those, he thought.
Dad, Debbie, and Ryder walked into an empty hallway extending in both directions. There was a scratched, but clearly legible brass sign pointing to the right for “Administration.” Their footsteps echoed as they walked down the hallway to the school office.
Debbie and Ryder sat on a deeply grooved, yellow varnished, wooden bench in front of the office door while Dad went in to chat with their new principal.
“It sure smells old,” Debbie quipped.
“It is old. The last time I smelled something this old was at the Pioneer Museum in Panguich.”
“It’s hot in here, and it’s only seven thirty in the morning,” Debbie complained.
“Actually it’s not that hot, but it is muggy in here, and it smells of mold or mildew,” Ryder replied.
“What’s the difference between mold and mildew anyway?” Debbie asked.
Ryder was happy to have something to talk about rather than just stare at ceiling fans. “Mildew is fungi. Powdery mildew and downy mildews usually are parasites associated with plants, so you’ll probably find it in the school lunch salads. Mold? Well mildew is a form of mold, but in buildings like this it could grow in the walls and bathrooms. Black molds can be toxic”
“I’m bringing my own lunch then. And I think I can hold it until I get home.” Debbie’s face contorted.
Dad came out a few minutes later and introduced Ryder and Debbie to Mrs. Prescott, the principal. Mrs. Prescott was a lean woman. There was just a touch of gray in her hair, and she was wearing some kind of business suit with a dark blue skirt that hinted at efficiency. Dad made a quick exit, as he was already late for what he considered a good start on a work day. Mrs. Prescott led Ryder and Debbie down the hall together.
In the distance, down an intersecting corridor, they heard a locker slam. As they passed open classrooms with windows facing the street, Ryder could see cars starting to pull into the parking lot, fighting to beat the school buses into the side driveway. “Your classroom is at the end of Hallway B on the second floor. We have restrooms on the first and second floor on Hallway A,” Mrs. Prescott directed. Then with a hesitant look on her face she added, “At the end of Hallway A, on the first floor of this building, is the cafeteria and vending machines. Your lunch schedule is from eleven thirty to elven fifty-nine, or first lunch. Miss Li and the new teacher will guide you to the gymnasium today and help you set up your lockers. Did you remember to bring your gym clothes?”
“Oh, I won’t be needing mine for the next couple of weeks. Doctor’s excuse.” Ryder tried to sound embarrassed, although he really was hoping he could stretch his exemption to the end of the school year, or forever if possible.
“I brought mine!” Debbie bubbled.
The principal continued down the hall without further comment about PE. “You won’t need to check out books from the library for your texts. Miss Li keeps all your books in her classroom. You can register with the library, which is to your right, during your study hall.” Even before Ryder glanced to the right he could tell he was going to like this school, as the musty smell of books caught his senses. Looking to the right, he saw a large room with two small tables, a front desk, and row upon row of books. So there, Diablo! he thought.
Ryder missed the rest of what Mrs. Prescott said as they finished the trip down the long hallway. He came back to himself when she asked, “Do you have any questions?”
“No, I’m—What is that?” Ryder was caught off guard as he looked into the classroom at which they had arrived. There was something odd about the shape of the room, and the light shifted from blue on the floor, to red on the walls, to a dark magenta reflecting off the ceiling.
“Good. Miss Li, you’re here. Is the new teacher in yet?” Mrs. Prescott inquired.
“He’s arrived and left,” Miss Li said with a smile.
“Left?” Mrs. Prescott asked.
“Yes, he brought in materials, but had to make another trip to get the rest of his boxes. I told him I could hold down the fort until he gets back.” Miss Li smiled again.
“Oh? Okay, I’ll be back in a few minutes. What are you doing today?” Mrs. Prescott asked.
“We’re going to look at the Milky Way today. I’m just setting up my planetarium.”
“I may stop in to see that. What time will the show start?” Mrs. Prescott looked curious.
“In about half an hour, I would say.”
Ryder peered around the room. Instead of traditional desks, the room contained six narrow tables set up in an odd array, with two chairs to each bench. The walls were different. They curved outward, like a castle tower or the inside of a silo. On one side of the room there was a full-sized mural of an ocean or lake dotted with small islands. Ryder was hypnotized briefly by the vividness of the mural; it looked like he could step right into it. The islands were mostly long and narrow. He expected he could walk around one of them in about five minutes. They were covered with lush green vegetation and white beaches in the spots where the vegetation didn’t extend to the water. It looked like no one had ever set foot on any of the islands. The water was turquoise, and the sky…that was odd, the sky looked almost metallic with multicolored shades of blue. Finally, he reluctantly looked away.
At the opposite side of the room were two wooden desks, like Ryder had seen in every classroom he’d ever been in. One of the desks was neat and clear of papers; a set of three office baskets, stacked and empty, adorned the right front corner. There was another wooden desk off to the side that was covered with boxes and papers. Ryder assumed that desk belonged to the new teacher.
“Deborah. William. I’m Miss Li. I hear that you’re transferring from Diablo Junior High, and that you’re both very bright.”
Ryder noticed that Miss Li had an almost singsong quality to her voice. She was taller than Ryder by an inch or more. She had long, striking black hair that was so shiny he wanted to reach out and touch it. Her complexion and bone structure looked Oriental? Japanese? Chinese? Maybe Eurasian? Ryder couldn’t make up his mind. She wore a shiny, perhaps satin or silk dress with a swirling pattern of blues and greens accented with gold embroidery.
Miss Li brought him back to reality. “We really don’t have rows in class,” she said with a smile, “but you can sit at any of these three tables.” She pointed at three tables on one side of the room.
“Where do the rest of the kids sit?” Ryder asked suddenly.
“Rest of the kids? At these other tables,” Miss Li mused.
“How many kids are in this class?” Debbie interjected.
“Well, we had seven. The Foyle cousins moved away this term. We’ll be back up to seven today.”
“I don’t understand. I thought all the classes in the district had forty students in them,” Ryder said.
“We have a special grant from a private donor for this class. The district only provides the room. All the other costs are paid for by the donor.”
“Who’s the donor?” Ryder queried.
“They prefer to remain anonymous.” Miss Li turned and walked toward her desk, ending the conversation.
“Hey, wait a minute. Where’s Debbie’s class? She’s in seventh grade,” Ryder asked concerned.
“We have seventh and eighth grade together here.” Miss Li smiled as she sat on the end of her desk.
Ryder caught the sound of the bell in the distance. It sounded almost muffled in the classroom. Three students walked into the class together, laughing about basketball and who was going to win March Madness. The two boys were as tall as Miss Li. The third member of the group was a girl, not as rangy, but looking just as athletic. A few moments later another girl walked in alone, carrying the largest stack of books Ryder could imagine being carried by a single person. In his mind he pictured a forklift being a more applicable tool for transporting the small library.
The two boys sat down at the far table, still laughing and arguing over who would win this game and that game in the series. It was hard to miss as they were using what mom would refer to as “your outside voice”. The athletic looking girl sat near the boys at the second table. She had dark hair that was clipped short in what almost looked like a bowl cut. The walking library sat down at the same table as the other girl. So far, Walking Library hadn’t said a word, as far as Ryder could tell. She was also tall and slender, wore round wire-rimmed glasses, and had strawberry blond hair tied back in a ponytail.
The second bell rang, and the room was suddenly silent. Miss Li stood up from her desk and glided toward the center of the classroom. “As you know, three of our class members moved over the weekend, and we will sorely miss them. However, we are fortunate to have some new class members join us. William and Deborah Ryder will be with us for the remainder of the school year, and may be joining us in Europe this summer for our year abroad.”
This was news to Ryder. Europe? Cool, he thought. Did Mom and Dad know anything about this? he wondered.
“When do we leave?” Debbie piped up.
“We have not yet worked out the schedule, but it will actually be before the end of the term,” Miss Li replied in a kindly voice.
“Will we travel much while we’re there?” Debbie continued in an excited voice.
“We’ll actually discuss that later. Wouldn’t you like to meet the other students in the class first?” Miss Li interjected.
“Oh, yes please.”
Ryder smiled at how easily Debbie could be distracted.
Miss Li introduced the boys with a twinkle in her eye. “Randall and Joel Porter are brothers. Randall prefers to be called Randy. They are particularly interested in sports, I’ve noticed. I wish I could get them as interested in writing.”
Ryder wasn’t sure which was Randy and which was Joel, but he was sure he would find out soon enough, although it seemed unlikely they would have much to talk about. Both were taller than Ryder and somewhat muscular. It was obvious they were brothers, and could be twins, but one looked distinctly older than the other, with a scruff of facial hair starting.
“Athena Swenson is our other sports enthusiast.” Ryder was sure he knew which of the two girls was Athena. “And Rebecca Creer is our avid reader.”
Randy, Joel, Athena, Rebecca, Ryder thought. I think I can remember that.
“Who’s the other new member of the class?” Athena asked.
Just at that moment the door swung open and Mrs. Prescott reappeared with a dark haired girl, whom Ryder immediately recognized. “Cynthia Flores,” he whispered just loud enough that everyone could hear. He wanted to crawl under the table as Cynthia turned in his direction and gave a knowing grin.
Miss Li eventually got everyone settled into their seats. Ryder sat at the far end of table five, with Debbie next to him. Next to Debbie at the adjoining table sat Cynthia. Debbie and Cynthia started chattering right away. Meanwhile he edged closer and closer to the end of the table, eventually bumping into the far wall.
Miss Li flashed the lights twice and everyone grew quiet. She asked Ryder to close the blinds, which wouldn’t have been so bad, but he had to reach behind Cynthia to pull them down. He inadvertently pulled them up instead. Cynthia and Debbie giggled, followed by a catcall from either Randy or Joel (Ryder wasn’t sure which). Ryder tried again to pull the blinds down and almost dislodged them. Finally, the taller of the other two guys, the one with facial hair, came over. “Don’t worry, they’re just finicky,” he told Ryder.
“Thank you, Randy,” Miss Li said.
“If you will look at the ceiling you will see a representation of the galaxies in our part of the universe,” Miss Li began.
Ryder looked at the ceiling and observed a number of spiraling groups of stars. He was surprised that the lights seemed suspended in the air rather than reflecting off the ceiling. The lights were turning slowly in a multi-spiral effect that seemed three-dimensional. He felt like he could reach out and touch the individual stars in the display. The several spiraling systems began to contract while one multi-arm system became the focus of the projection.
“The system you see now is our own Milky Way.” The spiraling Milky Way grew to encompass the entire viewing area. “You’ll notice several branches at the outer edge of the Milky Way that spin in a circular pattern.” A red laser pointer was indicating the appendages of the Milky Way. “These two arms are of particular note.” The pointer flashed back and forth between two of the hook-shaped divisions. “These are Sagittarius and Perseus,” Miss Li continued.
Cynthia raised her hand.
“Yes, Miss Flores?”
“How big is the galaxy?” Cynthia asked.
“Good question. The galaxy is approximately one hundred thousand light years from one end to the other. A light year is the distance that light can travel in a year. Light travels at a little over one hundred and eighty-six thousand miles per second. So, to put it in perspective, it takes light less than two seconds to travel from here to the moon. It takes just over eight minutes for light to reach us from Sol, your Earth’s sun.”
Ryder’s mind was racing. “So that means that light would travel nearly six trillion miles in a light year?”
“That’s correct, Ryder, and six trillion miles times one hundred thousand light years would be?”
“Six quintillion miles?” Ryder was trying to remember if quintillion was the right set of numbers.
“Very good, Ryder. Does anyone have an idea of how far that would be?”
Randy jumped in. “A really, really long way.”
Miss Li laughed. “That will be adequate for this discussion, Randy. Thank you. Let’s get back to the spiral arms. Can you see that spur that sits between the two arms?” She didn’t wait for a response because the pointer was clearly showing it. “That is the Orion Spur. The Earth sits in the Orion Spur between Sagittarius and Perseus.”
“How far from the center of the galaxy is the Earth then?” Cynthia asked without raising her hand.
“Sol is about twenty-seven thousand light years from the center of the galaxy.” Miss Li did something with the controls, and the spiral arm shifted to show the breadth of the galaxy. “You’ll also notice the galaxy is relatively flat, like a plate. Sol sits about eighteen light years above what could be deemed the center of the plane of that plate, if you consider that the plate is about one thousand light years thick. So it is pretty close to the center or equatorial line of the galaxy.”
“Cool,” said the boy who had to be, by default, Joel. “So how many stars are in the galaxy?”
“Our best estimate is three hundred and forty billion stars. Just in our region of the Milky Way there are over a billion planets. Of those, the habitable planets…” Miss Li hesitated. “Well, we assume that there are many planets that would be habitable.”
Cynthia interjected. “I thought they didn’t know if any of the planets were habitable.”
“Well, Earth scientists do not have any clear evidence of habitability, but statistically there is a strong likelihood that some of the planets could support life, especially for different life-forms.”
Randy replied defensively. “My uncle says that Earth is the only planet with life on it, and that all the stories we hear about UFOs and stuff are just somebody’s imagination running wild.”
“Yes, many people believe that, Randy,” Miss Li responded. “Can you explain how all one billion planets are devoid of life, while Earth has such an abundance and variety of life?”
Randy sat pondering, but his brother Joel jumped in. “Well, God created the universe, the galaxies, the solar systems, and the planets. He created it all for us.”
“Interesting idea,” said Miss Li. “Cynthia Flores, what do you think?”
Cynthia seemed to be caught off guard for a moment, but Ryder could tell she was thinking because she always furled her brow when she was considering something challenging. He’d first noticed that pattern on a science test just a couple of weeks earlier. Cynthia began hesitantly. “I believe in God, and my family goes to church every Sunday, but it seems to me that God would not create something so vast just for us. I think he created it for us, and probably other…” She seemed stuck for the word she was looking for. “People, creatures, whatever,” she stammered at the end.
“Ryder, what are your thoughts?” Miss Li inquired.
Ryder was ready for this one. “Miss Li, I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure out how you know there are a billion planets. Last I heard, we had only been able to verify a few hundred. But, if there are a billion planets, considering that there are various types of stars, various different rotations around respective stars, and various life forms, it seems to me that the odds of one supporting life would be roughly eight hundred and fifty to one, which would work out to….one million one hundred seventy-six thousand four hundred and seventy-one.”
Miss Li gave Ryder a pleased look. “Actually, Ryder, our best estimate is between one-point-four and one-point-five million planets in this galaxy that can support life.” She frowned and paused. “In any event, it seems likely that there are some habitable planets even in our galaxy. Now multiply that by thousands of galaxies.”
Ryder started thinking about that, and he suddenly felt very, very small. Then something clicked in the back of his mind. “Who are the “we” who estimate one-point-four to one-point-five million habitable planets? I haven’t seen anything online about that, and I do pay attention to astronomy articles“.
“A very good question, Ryder.”
Just then the door opened and a short man started backing into the classroom with a dolly loaded with six boxes. “Sorry I’m late,” the man said.
Ryder didn’t have to wait for the man to turn around. He immediately recognized the voice, then the back, of Mr. Small.
“Mr. Small! What are you doing here?” Ryder couldn’t keep the enthusiasm out of his voice.
Mr. Small turned, with several beads of sweat covering his brow, and smiled broadly. “I heard this was the best class in the school district, so I begged for the opportunity to be part of it.”
Miss Li gave him an exasperated look. “Roger, I’ve told you not to lie to the students.” She then turned toward Cynthia, Debbie, and Ryder. “Mr. Small had a disagreement with the principal of Diablo Junior High School about some management issues. They came to a mutual agreement that it would be good for Mr. Small to join me here and let Mrs. Mallard come out of retirement to finish the year for him. Is that not closer to the truth, Mr. Small?”
“Yara, as always, you are perfectly correct,” Mr. Small replied, then winked at Ryder in a way that Miss Li could not see.
By the time Mr. Small had finished introducing himself to the class, it was time for break.
Ryder looked at his schedule. PE, yuck! He scowled, then smiled. Oh yeah, doctor’s excuse. I think I’ll get a start on that library.
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