Already Dead Things

by Stacy Bierlein

Outdoor education was a thing the parents liked. Kids should know how things grow, they said. Children want to take care of things, we agreed, to be individually responsible. If the cabbage actually survived we took it to a local food bank. This time, though, the rabbits got in.

Was something wrong with the soil? a little girl wanted to know.

No, I said, the rabbits were hungry.

I didn’t explain that they probably came down from the cemetery at the top of the hill, displaced by a digging of graves. In our perfectly constructed greenhouse everything that should have been green was dead. The Lahiris had endowed the new greenhouse. Two of their sons were alums and five of their grandchildren were here. It all should have been very nice but I had forty kids in there with me, my second graders and Ms. Frothmeyer’s first graders, staring into empty planters, scattered soil, absence. It was pathetic.

To make it worse, that semester the turtles died. They had been science room pets for years. Sometimes Ms. Frothmeyer held the turtles so close to her waist that a visiting parent would mistake one for her handbag. The turtles checked out because the water was contaminated. The kids seemed sad but not surprised. It was on the news every night about the water. Parents too smart to believe the city council when they said everything was fine—and that was most of them—had kids brushing their teeth with bottled water from the Central Coast.

They actually expected the tropical fish to die. The art teacher put a giant painting of orange and blue fish on the wall where the aquarium used to be.

Soon the invading rabbits were dead too, some of their carcasses found in front of children’s screams in the field adjacent to their playground. That’s when we heard from the funeral director that it hadn’t been graves alone displacing the rabbits—they’d been moving away from coyotes migrating from Bonita Canyon. Birds and voles had vanished too. None of us could remember the last time we heard a bird song.

The director said we had to remind the coyotes to be scared of humans. We needed to throw rocks at them. Several kindergarten parents were known to bring small dogs to afternoon dismissal. It occurred to me that a teacup Chihuahua named Paul could be the perfect amuse-bouche for an average coyote.

We didn’t have worms and frogs delivered as planned. Mr. Walter insisted we cancel the already dead things. The kids dissected digital creatures on their iPads with an ambition that might have been relief.

We had experience speaking to students about losses of grandparents and pets in previous years but never in such extraordinary numbers. We were alerted to heart attacks, strokes, and a suicide. Canine leukemia, feline lymphoma, dehydration. Three grandfathers, four grandmothers, and a Great Nana. A golden, a labradoodle, a Yorkie, and a spaniel. Two ragamuffins, a munchkin, a Burmese, and a Russian blue.  It didn’t help our collective anxiety that everyone’s middle school siblings were addicted to an unsettling X-Envio game where humans and animals died en masse.

Something is wrong with this place, one of the mothers, Ms. Flynn, kept saying. She sent her specialist in at night when all of us had left, someone who chanted and burned sage. When that didn’t help she said her specialist was distracted; coyotes are so loud at night.

It wasn’t the school, I told her, it was the world.

Soon teachers were dying too. Mr. Slaussen’s chemo stopped working and our woodshop closed. A skiing accident took Ms. Chloe, the new assistant coach. Beloved Ms. Bromowitz left a faculty meeting with a stomachache, went home, dropped dead in her kitchen.

After the holiday break it was the twins, Mara Lopez’s stepsisters, activists, fatally gunned down in their high school parking lot. One of them was wearing a March for Our Lives t-shirt. Her friends said she had a crush on the Parkland kid who was on MSNBC all the time. You can be aware as hell and it still doesn’t save you.

We promised to postpone active shooter drills. In a faculty meeting I glared at the administrator who instructed us to call the decision a wellness initiative; only Mr. Walter noticed.

It is a difficult time, teachers kept saying, to parents, amongst ourselves. We all turned greenish-grey in my mind’s eye, our eyes deep red. Even the most positive-minded among us started to look like zombies. Des morts-vivants. It was a hideous year.

Maybe we should have known better, given everything, than to let Mr. Gabriel rent the van. He felt so proud of the five sixth-graders who made it to the state history bee that he volunteered to drive them to Sacramento himself. A tire blew on the freeway, there was no visibility with the rain, there was a cement wall. What happened exactly remains the subject of some debate. The unspeakable result is the same. The heartbreak was like nothing we had ever seen.

This was all before the virus came.

The learning specialist’s ringtone was “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger-stronger-stronger,” and I told her please let’s stop with that song. For the love of God, they’re strong enough.

I hope so, she said. The mayor might direct us to close the school early this year. There are rumors of community spread.

Most of my kids were already wearing face masks. I wasn’t wearing one because little Zoie Thornton was hearing-impaired and read my lips.

When the grief counselors left the children finally wanted to talk.

Where did they all go really, they wanted to know. Our cabbage, the rabbits, the birds, our turtles, the fish, our pets, the nanas and papas, the twins, the teachers, our friends?

I don’t know, I said, there are various ideas about this. I’m so sorry—I just don’t know.

So who does know, they demanded.

I said, Maybe nobody knows.

They said, Is it true that we are going to grow up in existential crisis?

Maybe, I said.

We don’t like this, they said.

I tried not to fix my vision on the empty desk in the middle of the room, the reminder of a classmate at home with a fever.

This totally sucks, they said, all of it.

It totally does, I agreed.

We hate it, they kept saying.

I understand, I said.

Then one of the boys said, Will you at least make out with Mr. Walter so that we can see something new? We think you like him, one of the girls added. We think he likes you, another clarified quickly.

He’s nice enough, I said, laughing, but I will not.

He’s virus free, one of the boys told me. We had him for technology today. He took a test right in front of us and he’s fine.

It is important to be safe, I agreed.

We know he dated you in college, they said. You used to like a band called Counting Crows.

I opened the classroom windows wider. He told you that, did he? I said.

His homeroom kids are in the library, one of the girls said. He is all alone this period.

They had put some thought into this. I admit I was never so proud of them, my sweet, masked, grief-stricken kids.

Why did you break up in college? one of the girls wanted to know. He wasn’t mean to you, was he?

Not at all, I assured her. Our relationship was not … defined. I left California to study in France. Neither of us was sure I was going to move back.

So will you do it? They weren’t giving up. Will you make out?

Still a no, I told them. It would not be appropriate. We could be fired. Making out is not something one does as a demonstration. Not usually anyway.

Please, they said. Please-please-please make out with Mr. Walter. We need to see something new and weird. Something in-person. Something good so that we won’t be as scared.

It’s good that you are trying not to be scared, I said.

I told them that sometimes I am scared too. That’s when Jakob Walter walked into my classroom, unmasked. Jake, as I used to call him when we were the students. He had a forehead scanner in his right hand. He stood between the long blank whiteboard and the children’s desks and showed me his 98.60 reading on the tiny square screen.

Whatever, fine, okay, I said. He stepped closer to me, pointed the scanner to my head, took my reading. He smelled like a Mr. Sketch grape marker.

98.65. Close enough, he said, smiling.

He kissed my forehead. He ignored the stares of nineteen curious children and embraced me as if a hundred thousand terrible things hadn’t happened since the last time we touched. We held each other. He kissed my forehead again. The children were excited. The bell rang but they didn’t leave their seats which made us laugh a little. D’accord, I said, okay, nodding with consent.

Briefly we made out. The kids cheered. Some even whooped, some made a standing ovation. Suddenly a yellow-rumped warbler flew in through the window, circled the room. Even with the cheering I could hear the flutter of its wings as it circled again.

The kids cheered harder, jumped up and down, laughing, alive.

Stacy Bierlein is the author of the story collection A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends, editor of the anthology A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection, and co-editor of the anthology Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience. She was a founding editor of Other Voices Books.