The school bell rang just as the teacher finished writing her assignment on the board. She turned to face the students. “I want 1,200 words, no less. Do you all understand?”
The class let out a collective groan. Tony closed his eyes and wrinkled his nose. English was not one of his favorite subjects.
“Some of you have grade averages that need improvement. This assignment will help, if you take the time and do it right.” She smiled at the faces staring up at her. “Class dismissed.”
The room filled with happy chatter. Another school day had finally come to a close. As Tony was gathering his books, he heard the teacher call his name.
“Tony, may I see you for a minute?”
“Yes, Miss Coffman?” The boy walked up to the big metal desk in front of the room. “Is something wrong, Miss Coffman? Didn’t you like my last essay?”
The teacher smiled. “Oh, it was very good, Tony. I’d always wondered how composite materials would help man reach Mars in the next century. And your report on the energy cycles of Malaysian tiger plants . . .” Miss Coffman spread her hands. “Fascinating!”
Tony grinned. “I’m researching the effects of acid rain on sensitized toxic waste storage containers. Should have it finished next month. I thought I’d write about it for English class.”
The woman swallowed hard. “Toxic waste containers? I can hardly wait.”
“What did you want to see me about?”
Miss Coffman shook her head as if to reorganize her thoughts. “Oh, yes. I’ve got good news! Last night we held a teachers’ conference and decided to advance Tie Li to the third grade next quarter. She’ll be with boys and girls her own age. Isn’t that exciting?”
Tony’s eyes brightened. “Hey, yeah. That’s great! She’ll be excited. Can I tell her this afternoon?”
“Sure. Tell her congratulations for me, too.”
Tony ran from the room and sped down the long central corridor leading to the exit, completely forgetting the no-running-in-the-hallway rule imposed by school officials. Once outside, he raced to the bus where Tie Li stood waiting for him.
“Guess what!” he called as he approached.
“In January you’re going to be a third grader at this school! What do you think of that?”
Tie Li thought for a minute. “That mean I smarter?”
“Smarter than Simon?”
“Then that good.”
They both broke out laughing and climbed the stairs into the bus. Tie Li felt good inside. She was making progress in her wonderful adopted land.
In a country far away a young boy gazed from the window of another bus as it picked its way among the deep ruts crisscrossing the muddy road that led to the city.
Beside him sat the doctor trying to read words scrawled on a piece of paper. The bus jolted heavily from side to side, almost tossing passengers into the isle.
“Can’t say much about public transportation around here,” the doctor muttered, holding tightly to the handrail in front of him. “Beats walking, though.”
The boy continued to look out the open window, studying the rice paddies and fruit-filled orchards they passed. The damp air smelled of blossoms and animals. Occasionally collections of buffalo, led by boys not any older than he was, pressed to the side of the road to let the bus squeeze through. He used to herd buffalo along this highway. At least he thought he did.
“You’ll like the hospital director.” The doctor’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “She’s a very nice person indeed.”
The boy rubbed his forehead. Something was strangely familiar about this countryside. He searched his memory. Had he been here before?
“The hospital is really very modern, almost as nice as the ones back in London.” The doctor pointed at the letter. “I spent a few weeks here before I came out to the jungle clinic. The director was in charge of some of my training. She’s very intelligent.”
That hill over thereóthose treesówhere had he seen them before?
“I was surprised to get this letter so fast. I only wrote to her about three weeks ago.”
The boy pressed his chin against the window railing. His heart began to beat faster and faster as something stirred deep inside him. Thereóover there beside that clump of banana treesóhe’d been there before. He knew it!
“She says the medical center in America wants to review your case. They think they can help you get better.”
The bus crested the top of a rise. Beyond a nearby field lay the remains of a small village, half hidden under a twisting mass of vines and leaves. The boy’s breathing became shallow, rapid.
He closed his eyes. Smoke. I smell smoke. Look! The village is on fire! Run! Run! Mother? What’s happening? Who are those men? What are they doing?
The boy’s hands pressed tightly against his ears. Screams. I hear screaming! The village is burning! I must get out. I must find help!
The boy lunged past the doctor and ran toward the rear of the bus. Without stopping, he leaped through the open back door, landing hard on the side of the road. Jumping to his feet, he raced toward the vine-covered outline of the village.
The doctor yelled for the driver to stop. Tripping over passengers in the aisle, he fought his way to the exit and ran after the fleeing form of his companion.
The boy’s face was ashen, his mouth dry. Sharp thorns grabbed at his legs, scratching his skin. I must warn them. I must tell the village of the attack.
He opened his mouth to shout, but words refused to come. He reached the outskirts of the village. Sung Chi. I will find my friend Sung Chi. He’ll help warn the people!
An explosion threw him to the ground. Hot, suffocating smoke filled his eyes and nostrils. Stumbling over piles of burning rubble, he made his way through the columns of thick black smoke, trying to find the path leading to his friend’s house.
The doctor yelled after the boy as he ran. “Come back! Come back! There’s nothing here. No one is here!”
The boy heard bullets ricocheting off the ground near his feet. He could see soldiers running among the villagers, shooting and slashing with their guns and knives. Another explosion tossed him like a wad of paper against the side of a wall.
“Where are you?” The doctor stumbled among the vines and stones littering the path. “Please come back. It’s over. Everyone is gone. There’s nothing left here!”
Sweat poured from the boy’s face as he tried to stand, but he fell back again. The heat from the fires was unbearable. His house! He had to get back to his house. Maybe the soldiers were gone. Maybe they didn’t hurt his family.
Holding his hand over the deep gash in his leg, he began crawling along the ground. All around he heard shouting and cursing, guns firing in rapid sequence. More explosions. If he could just make it home again, everything would be all right. Mother would fix his leg. He’d be fine if he could just get back home.
Dragging himself around a corner, he looked up to see a wall of flame where his house had been. The blast of heat from the inferno pinned him to the ground. Mother, Father, sister! Get out! Get out!” He tried to stand, but the heat and pain in his leg wouldn’t allow it. “Get out! Please get out!”
The doctor saw the boy kneeling in front of a mound of rocks and vines. He ran, calling out to him. “Stay there. I’m coming. Don’t run away!”
A series of explosions rocked the village. The boy felt the ground shake with each detonation. Using the last of his strength, he stood to his feet, arms outstretched toward the burning house. He screamed with all his might. ìNo! No! No!”
The doctor’s arms encircled him. Together they fell to the ground, rolling, tumbling.
“It’s over! It’s over!” The doctor grabbed him tightly by the shoulders. “The fires are gone. The soldiers are gone. Look at me. Look at me! It’s over. Do you understand?”
The boy’s eyes continued their frantic searching.
“Listen to me! You’re safe now. You’re safe! I’ll take care of you. You don’t have to be frightened anymore. Please let me take care of you!”
The boy stared at the doctor. Recognition began to seep into his tormented mind. He suddenly felt tired, very tired. He was trembling, shaking. His village. It was gone. His family. His loving family. They were gone too. Everything. The fires had taken everything.
He began to cry uncontrollably. It was as though his whole body were grieving, as though every cell and fiber in him were releasing their burden of pain and anguish. Great sobs wrenched his thin, exhausted frame.
The doctor held him close, rocking slowly back and forth amid the rubble. He stroked the boy’s hair. “That’s right, son. Let it go. Let it all go.”
High above, clouds had gathered. A gentle rain began to fall, forming tiny rivers of water that ran among the broken stones and walls of the village. It was as if nature herself wept.
(To be continued)