I’d never heard the lunchroom this silent before. There was nothing but the ragged breathing of the four of us. I wiped away an angry tear. It just wasn’t fair! We’d come all this way, and gone through so much, only to arrive home too late!
Conner put a hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry, Callie. We did our best.”
“Quiet!” hissed Tan. He pulled a stethoscope out of his medical bag and held it to Moon’s back. I held my breath. Tan cocked his head and listened. “She’s…she’s still breathing. Just very slowly. We may still have time!” Quickly, he opened the aluminum case and pulled out a bottle of shut-off factor. Moon didn’t even react to the needle as he shoved it into her arm. Tan injected the shut-off and pulled the syringe out. Moon still didn’t move.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Isn’t that the antidote?”
“This has to be the right shut-off,” said Tan. “We wouldn’t still be awake if it weren’t. I don’t know how long it takes to work. Let’s get everyone else.”
Tan moved quickly from one person to the next, injecting them with the shut-off. Conner followed, carrying each person to the exercise mats in the corner so Tan would know who he had done already. Finally, Tan pulled out the small dose he’d been saving and injected Pippen.
“That’s the last one,” said Tan.
I counted the curled-up bodies on the mats, struggling with the simple addition. “That’s fourteen, plus the three of us is eighteen. No, seventeen! We’re still missing Jon and someone else.”
“Vega,” said Tan. “She would have been watching Jon.”
Suddenly the reason it was so quiet filtered through to the front of my brain. A noise that had always been in the background was missing. “The troll’s not running! Power’s out!”
Tan looked up. “You’re the only one who knows how to talk to that thing! And Jon’s on a ventilator!”
We ran down the darkened hallways and burst through the door into sickbay. Jon lay motionless in the hospital bed, a thick tube down his throat, and a smaller one going into his nose. Vega lay curled up on the floor next to the bed. The power was out, but from the ventilator came a steady click and hiss. How on earth? I followed the ventilator’s power cord and saw it wasn’t plugged into the wall socket, it was plugged into one of the Uninterruptible Power Supplies from the computer lab. Next to the bed was a cart with a stack of the power supplies, half of them labeled with green Post-it notes that said “Full” and half with red Post-its that said “Empty.” I recognized Newt’s handwriting. Good computer geek! Tan filled a syringe with shut-off and shot it into Vega’s arm. Then, hands shaking with exhaustion, he injected Jon. Neither of them stirred. Were we too late after all?
“The ones in the lunchroom will wake up first,” said Tan. “Conner, bring Vega.”
Conner scooped up Vega and slung her over his shoulder.
“What about Jon?” I asked.
“He’s too deep in a coma and can’t breathe without the ventilator. We’ll have to leave him here.”
With a backward glance at Jon, I ran back toward the lunchroom, ignoring the ache in my side and the fear in my heart.
In the lunchroom, everyone still lay on the mats, curled up in sleep.
“Now what?” I asked Tan.
“We’ve done everything we can. Now we wait.”
We slumped to the floor of the dim, silent lunchroom, and waited. I glanced at the Big Board. Taped near the bottom was the large map of the United States I’d last seen in the classroom where Jon had collapsed. Little yellow Post-it notes traced a path across the map from Utah to Florida and back again. The notes were marked “Day 1,” “Day 2,” “Day 3”…the last one had “Day 10” and a shaky question mark drawn on it. They’d been using my original estimate of ten days! They’d expected us home two days ago. Then I noticed something else on the Big Board. In the Controller Of the Day slot, it said “Callie.” How could that be? It hadn’t been eighteen days since my last turn. But if the scheduled Cod wasn’t able to take the clipboard by the time breakfast was over, it passed on to the next person in line. Conner and Pippen and Tan had been off on a quest when their turns came up. Vega and Moon would have been taking care of Jon around the clock, and Harri had been standing in for Jon. It was my turn again today! It looked like the clan had been just starting breakfast. They were probably getting ready to erase my name if I didn’t show up, but I was touched they’d had the faith to write me in the box in the first place.
Tan turned. “Did Moon just move her fingers?”
We watched, not daring to speak. Moon’s eyelids flickered. It was just a tiny motion, but it was there, and in my whole life, I’ve never seen an eye twitch that made me that happy! In a few minutes, Moon uncurled. Then she opened her eyes and blinked blearily at me. “Callie? What are you doing here? I thought you went to find the shut-off.”
“We found it!” I said, grinning.
Moon raised her head and looked around at the bodies sprawled on the mat. “What happened to everyone?” she asked.
“Fixer got you,” said Conner. “But you’re okay now.”
Around us, people began to stir. One by one, the clannies stretched, opened their eyes, and sat up. All except for Pippen. Conner and Tan and I gathered around her. She lay silent and still as death.
“Why isn’t she waking up like the rest?” I asked.
“She had more damage,” Tan said. “A lot more damage.” He brushed Pippen’s singed hair away from her eyes. “Pippen!” he called. “Can you hear me?”
Pippen drew in a deep, shuddering breath. She blinked her eyes and looked up at us. “Zow!” she said, her voice slurred. “I had the weirdest dream! I was on this crazy adventure, and everything kept trying to kill me!” She struggled to a sitting position and looked around at us. “Callie, you were there, and you were there, Conner!” She looked groggily at Tan. “And even you were there, Scarecrow!”
Tan groaned. “Pippen’s back!”
“Anyway,” Pippen continued, “I’m home! Home where I belong, and I’ve had enough excitement to last a lifetime! I’m never going on another adventure ever again, as long as I live!” She lay back with a peaceful, contented smile on her face.
It lasted a full twenty seconds.
“Okay, I’m bored. Now what do we do?”
Harri held out his hand and Conner hauled him to his feet. Harri swayed a bit, but stayed standing. Kell and Fahina pulled themselves up, hanging on to a table for support. Tan and I got glasses of Tang for the ones still sitting on the ground. As soon as everyone could stand, the clan staggered unsteadily toward sickbay. As she walked, Pippen peeled Band-Aids off her arms. Underneath, the skin was pink and perfect. Fixer hadn’t healed Pippen’s hair; her bangs were still half burnt off. Her yellow pants were cut up and stained with dried blood. Bonni stared at her.
“What happened to you?”
“Almost everything!” said Pippen.
Everyone crowded into sickbay and surrounded the bed. Jon was still unconscious.
“Did you already give him the shut-off factor?” Tuck asked.
Tan nodded. “About twenty minutes ago. But he’s been in a coma for almost two weeks. Nobody’s ever been in the jaws of Fixer for that long.”
We stood in silence, listening to the click-hiss of the ventilator. I hadn’t noticed before, but a bit of black and gray stubble stood out on Jon’s sunken cheeks. Then the tone of the ventilator changed slightly. The hissing became faster, and more irregular. Tan checked the readings on the front panel.
“Jon’s fighting it! He’s breathing on his own now!”
Jon opened his eyes.
The entire clan erupted into cheers. Aldo jumped up and down screaming. Sal was crying and laughing at the same time.
Conner punched me in the arm. “You did it, Callie!”
“We did it,” I corrected him. I rubbed my arm where Conner had punched me. I’d have a bruise there tomorrow. I wondered if I’d be able to find it among all the others.
“Okay,” Tan yelled above the noise, “Jon is fine, but he won’t be able to talk until I get this tracheal tube out. Vega, help me. Everyone else, get out! We need space to work!”
The clan poured out into the hall. Everyone was laughing and talking and demanding to hear the whole story. My legs were suddenly shaky, so I leaned against a locker. We’d saved Jon. Actually we’d saved the entire human race! I was so full of swirling feelings it was a wonder my heart didn’t explode! I was overjoyed and relieved and proud and grateful and really, really tired. And then, deep inside, there was one more feeling. The feeling that something was still broken.
No matter how exhausted I was, I had to find the problem and fix it. It’s what I do. The mob staggered toward the lunchroom. I headed the opposite direction.
“Callie! Where are you going?” Moon asked.
“I’ve got my own patient to cure,” I answered.
I climbed down into the cave of the troll, and set my flashlight on the shelf.
“Okay,” I said, “what’s wrong with you this time?”
Fifteen minutes later, the lights were back on, and I climbed up the metal stairs from the troll’s cave. It had been a simple problem. The oil had run low, so the troll had shut down automatically. It should have taken me only five minutes to refill the oil, but I was so tired I kept dropping tools. The troll was okay now. But I still had the nagging sense everything wasn’t right.
As soon as I got back to the main hallway, I could hear the happy sounds of the clan at a nearly deafening level. I stopped in the lunchroom doorway. There was a party going on! Someone had made a makeshift banner reading “Welcome home, heroes!” Lightman was picking out the chords for “We are the Champions” on his electric guitar. Kell had broken out the boxes of party food. Fahina was making a giant batch of popcorn. Someone had shut the blinds on the windows, and Moon was standing by the light switches, flipping lights on and off for effect. There was more chattering than the monkeys back in the jungle! I grabbed a bowl of nuts and tried to head back out the door before anyone noticed me, but I ran into Tan, who was coming in.
“You can’t leave!” hollered Tan above the noise. “You’re the reason for the celebration!”
“There’s something that’s wrong and I have to take care of it,” I told Tan.
“I’m still trying to figure that out,” I admitted. “How’s Jon?”
Tan frowned. “He’s awake, and physically he’s fine. But he’s not talking. He’s had a tube through his larynx for twelve days, so I’d expect him to be a little hoarse, but he’s not talking at all. He just lies there, staring at the ceiling. I can’t figure it out. I came to get him some semi-solid food.”
I lowered my voice. “Tan, did we do the right thing?”
“Well,” I said, uncertainly, “if this were a science fiction movie, Jon would be the mad scientist who created the monster. In the end, it would be no surprise when the monster turned on its creator and killed him. Did we just save the villain?”
“No, no!” Tan said. “I’ve got it figured out now. Jon isn’t the villain, he’s the wise old man who trained the hero! Or in our case, heroes.”
I thought about that. Jon had raised us, protected us, and taught us never to give up. Maybe Tan was right. But still, Jon did lie to us…
Pippen came over carrying a plate of food. “Callie, go get some apple juice! Kell’s been saving it!”
“No, thanks,” I said. “Something’s not right yet. I can feel it.”
Tan headed off for the food table. Pippen looked at me curiously. “You said you feel like things aren’t right?”
“Sort of,” I said. “Everything’s back to normal, but I feel like…like there are still some gears out of place.”
Pippen nodded. “Doctor Pippen understands! Twelve days ago, this valley was our entire world. Now we’ve cracked out of our shells. The four of us fought monsters, cheated death, and saved the world. We’ve changed. Now you’re back where you started, but everything else stayed the same. You have to decide if you’re going to go back to being the same as you were before. See?”
I saw, but I also saw something else. The rest of the clan had changed too. When Jon collapsed, they had all rallied together to get us equipped and off on our quest. They had kept hope alive while we were gone, believing that we’d return. And they’d kept Jon alive. Pretty impressive for a bunch of fourteen-year-olds. With a twinge of guilt, I remembered who it was who had raised us to believe we were capable of doing anything.
“Hey, Pippen!” called Harri. “You promised you were going to tell us the story of what happened!”
Pippen climbed a bit unsteadily onto a table, and the noise level dropped as people gathered around. Moon turned off most of the lights, and Pippen began.
“Once upon a time, there was a very clever girl named Pippen. She lived with her clan, who all adored her. But cruel Nature grew jealous of her beauty, and decided to do away with her.”
I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Hey, Conner,” I said, without turning.
“Tomorrow, people are going to come ask you for the real story,” Conner said.
“Probably. But Pippen’s version will be lots more exciting.”
We stood and listened for a while.
“This is an exciting story,” said Conner. “I like the part where we fought the bear with nothing but sharp sticks.”
“Almost makes me wish I’d been there,” I said. “Oh, that reminds me, I have something I need to return to you.”
I unzipped my backpack and got out the knife he had loaned me. The worn leather sheath had a few more scratches on it than it had two weeks ago. “Thanks,” I said, a bit awkwardly. “It…saved my life.”
Conner shook his head. “I gave it to you. It’s yours now.”
“But it’s your best knife!” I protested. “I can’t just take it!”
I held out the knife again, but Conner stubbornly kept his hands at his sides. He is so irritating sometimes! In sudden inspiration, I reached into my backpack and pulled out my screwdriver. “Here, I’ll trade you.”
Conner looked at the screwdriver. “Isn’t that your most favorite screwdriver in the whole world?”
“Yes,” I said, “so I want to trade you. I’ll keep your knife, and you keep my screwdriver. If you ever change your mind, you can give me the screwdriver back, and I’ll return your knife.”
Conner reached out and took the screwdriver. “I’ll keep it forever and ever,” he said softly.
It was the most romantic thing anyone had ever said to me. The moment only lasted a few seconds, then Conner blushed and turned away. “We ought to go see how Jon’s doing.”
“Tan says Jon’s not talking yet.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Conner asked.
“Tan doesn’t know,” I said, a bit worried.
“Let’s go see Jon, even if he can’t talk.”
“No, there’s something broken, and I have to fix it.”
“Can’t it wait?”
I looked around. Everyone was listening to Pippen tell about our epic battle against hundreds of wolves. I grabbed Conner’s wrist and towed him over to the Cod desk where it was quieter.
“Conner, I just can’t forgive Jon for lying to us all those years. I know Fixer getting loose wasn’t his fault. I don’t even blame him for ending civilization. In some ways, the world is better off now than it was before! But the fact that he didn’t trust us enough to tell us who he really was…well I don’t think I can forgive him for that.”
Conner frowned. “Maybe Jon didn’t tell us who he used to be. But we know who he is now. He’s our Guardian. You have to let it go, Callie.”
I didn’t know what to say. Maybe Conner was right, but Jon’s betrayal hurt me too much.
Conner sat down on the edge of the Cod desk. “So, tell me how the Pandora story ends,” he said brightly.
“Huh?” I blinked at the sudden swerve the conversation had taken. “I already told you the end! Pandora realized she’d made a mistake by opening the box, so she slammed the lid shut. By then the monsters had already escaped, but she did manage to keep Hope in the box, so no matter how bad things got, mankind would always have Hope.”
“So what happens after that?”
“What do you mean? That’s it. That’s the end of the story.”
“But what does Pandora do?” Conner asked. “How does she feel, knowing that for the rest of her life, people will blame her for what happened?”
“I don’t know!” I said, a bit exasperated. “The story doesn’t say how Pandora feels! Does it matter?”
Conner looked at me. “I think it matters to Pandora. Maybe to Pandora, what other people think about her makes the difference in whether it’s worth it to keep fighting or just give up and die.” He stood up. “Well, I’m gonna get some pretzels before they’re gone.”
He turned and walked off. I stared after him, stunned. I said before that Conner wasn’t very smart. I was wrong. He’s just smart about different things.
I plopped down in the chair behind the Cod desk. After all, I was Cod today, even though I didn’t feel like much of a leader right now. Pippen was getting to the part where she’d swum through shark-infested tunnels to reach the vault. I had a few more minutes to myself before she finished and Moon turned the lights back on. I looked up at the Big Board. It was too dark for me to read the rules, but I could see them even with my eyes closed. It seemed like a hundred years ago when I’d sat behind this desk and used rule 25 to get Pippen out of being punished for stealing Bonni’s diary. At the time, I’d thought I was so clever! But it’s a lot easier to ask for forgiveness than to give it. After a minute I stood up and picked up the clipboard. I’d finally figured out the thing that still needed to be fixed. It was me. And I knew what I needed to do. I needed to talk to everyone in the world.
Two hours later, I stumbled down the hall toward sickbay. Tan was just coming out. He looked like leftover exhaustion noodle casserole. “How’s Jon?” I asked.
“Still the same. He just stares at the ceiling. I don’t know what’s wrong with him.”
“I do,” I said.
“You do?” Tan asked, surprised.
“Go get some sleep. I’ll take care of Jon.” I said.
Tan looked confused, but he staggered off toward the boys’ hall.
Jon was lying in the hospital bed, eyes open, staring at nothing.
“Hi, Jon!” I said.
His eyes flicked toward me, then back to the ceiling.
I sat on the chair next to the bed. “You had us worried when you keeled over in class, Jon. We were really scared when we realized it was Fixer. But Tan figured we could cure you if we could just get the shut-off factor, and Pippen knew where it was. I knew it would be hard to get there and back. But you’re our Guardian! We couldn’t just let you die! You saved us from Fixer, you raised us, you taught us to work and to take care of each other–”
I stopped. Jon was crying. Ragged, anguished sobs from deep inside. It was embarrassing to hear an adult cry, but I’d been expecting something like this. According to rule 25, the first step of being forgiven for doing something wrong was to feel sorry. I figured Jon had been doing that for fourteen years. The next step was confession, and I wanted to give him a chance to do that.
“Oh, Callahan,” Jon said in a raspy voice, “you should have just let me die!”
I put on my Controller Of the Day face. “Death seems like a bit of a harsh punishment. What have you done to deserve that?”
Jon choked out the secret he’d been keeping for fourteen years. “I…I killed everyone in the world!”
“Really?” I asked calmly. “You did that on purpose?”
Jon stopped sobbing, shocked. “Of course I didn’t! I was trying to save lives! I thought we were going to end disease on earth! But somehow we made a mistake! A terrible, terrible mistake…”
I figured I’d let Jon suffer long enough. Time to let him off the hook. “We know, Jon. We found the lab. We found your office, and we read your email. But it wasn’t you who let the monster loose. You know the marketing guy you hired? He mailed the vials of Fixer B all over the world as part of the invitation he made.”
Jon gasped. “So that’s what happened! I’ve gone over and over it in my mind, trying to think of what I could have done wrong, but I never thought Howard would have done that! I can’t believe he didn’t realize…” Jon stopped, then scowled. “No, it’s still my fault. It was my company, and I was the one who insisted on pushing everyone forward.”
“Jon,” I said, “maybe you made a mistake. But you taught us that when you make a mistake, you do everything you can to put it right. You’ve certainly done that. And the clan rules say when you’ve done everything you can, we forgive you. There’s nothing in the rules that says we don’t do that just because it’s a really big mistake.”
Jon turned his head and looked at me in amazement. “You could forgive me?”
“I had a hard time,” I admitted, “but yes, I forgive you. And in the last few hours, I’ve talked to everyone on earth. I explained to them what happened, and they all forgive you. Everybody except for one person.”
“Lightman?” guessed Jon. “He’s been going through the sullen teenager phase…”
“No, even Lightman forgives you. Jon, the only person who still needs to forgive you is you. Can you do it?”
I waited silently while Jon fought a private battle inside. Finally he sighed. “I’ll try, Callahan. I’ve been carrying this weight on my shoulders for so long, it may be hard to put it down. But I’ll try.”
“That’s all I can ask,” I said. I leaned back in my chair. “Someday, Jon, the descendants of the clan are going to look back and remember you, not as the man who started the fire that scorched the earth, but as the gardener who planted the new seeds and protected them until they were strong enough to grow on their own.”
Jon turned his head and looked at me like he’d never seen me before. “You're different, Callahan.”
“Well, I’ve been gone for nearly two weeks,” I said. “I might have grown a bit.”
Jon looked stunned. “It’s been two weeks? What exactly happened after I passed out? Tan tried to tell me, but he kept falling asleep.”
In answer, I put my notebook on Jon’s blanket and pressed the button on the hospital bed that raised him to a sitting position. I opened the torn and dirty cover and leafed through the pages. The whole story was there, in slightly shaky writing. The horrible moment when our guardian collapsed, and then the birth of the quest. The mountains, the sea of grass, the forest, the jungle, and the dungeon. The triumph of finding the cure, and then the despair of losing everything in the river. Then the dragon, the wall of fire, and the long, frantic flight home.
Jon tried to pick up the notebook, but it slipped out of his hand and clattered to the floor. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m a bit weak. I’ve recovered from Fixer once before, and it took me several days before I could walk. But I feel a lot worse this time. I guess the older you are, the more repairs you need.”
“Tell you what,” I said. “While you’re recovering, I could come in every day and read a chapter of my notebook to you.”
Jon smiled for the first time in twelve days. “I’d like that very much. Just give me a hint though, does the story have a happy ending?”
I felt like forgiving Jon had opened a drain valve in the bottom of my soul, emptying out the very last drop of anger and bitterness I had about him. In fact, the last drop of bitterness I had about anyone or anything in the world, leaving nothing but a warm glow. “Oh, yes,” I said. “It’s a very happy ending.” I retrieved the notebook from the floor. “There are still a few blank pages left. I think I can stay awake just long enough to write the last chapter. Then tomorrow I’ll start reading it to you.”
Jon smiled again. “I can hardly wait!”
Date: Year 14, day 12.
Time I’m getting up tomorrow morning: 11:59 AM. And if anyone tries to wake me earlier, Tan’s going to have a patient to practice on.
Plan for tomorrow: Read to Jon. Get a new notebook. Write down whatever the clan does next.
Things I need to worry about tomorrow: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Finally, everything is fixed.