Coming of Age in a Time of War: Part Two excerpt
Kristina Hamier had just turned sixteen, and she and her boyfriend Andy were strolling along the ill-kept streets of the old downtown area of their `Clave of S’attl. Kris, as everyone called her was tall and graceful with a cheerful open face that always seemed to smile. She was an extremely pretty girl with black hair and blue eyes and gave promise of soon becoming a strikingly beautiful woman. Andy, also 16 was taller and stronger than most in his cohort and had honest good looks. The two had been friends and lovers since they were 14 years old.
S’attl had once been the City of Seattle in what had been the State of Washington in the United States, before the Chinese attack and invasion twenty years earlier. As the invaders occupied more territory, land contact was disrupted between the invaded areas in the West, so their local governments were forced to declare martial law in favor of the US military units defending them. The urban areas that had resisted the Chin forces were now protected enclaves, or `Claves in the argot of the time.
Kris and Andy were different from their classmates in that they preferred each other’s company over the group life of their fellow students, and they also chose to be either be out-of-doors or to read in their leisure time rather than to watch the continuous videos on the Network broadcasts furnished by the `Clave governors. They both excelled in school in their classes, and in their mandatory military training.
Kris maintained perfect grades in all of her science and military subjects, as well as always shooting perfect scores in her marksmanship training with rifle and pistol. Therefore, the school administrators grudgingly allowed her to pursue the academy’s meager curriculum in fine arts as well.
She loved her classes in art and dance and music and showed great promise in all three areas, but her passion was history and reading old books. She had quickly exhausted the content of the few instructional discs her mousy little history instructor had given her as take-home assignments, so the gray-haired woman had quietly arranged for Kris to become an assistant monitor for the school’s closed and neglected library. This gave her an access to its musty stacks of paper volumes that was denied to the other students.
The mousey little woman also cautiously invited Kris to visit in her own dingy one-room apartment in a poorer part of the `Clave occasionally, and tutored the young girl in the evenings from her private collection of old books, as well as serving her tea in elegant little china cups.
During the latest session, which Kris instinctively welcomed as secret high points in her happy life, the faded old woman showed her a faded paper photograph of a happily smiling young blond girl wearing a black gown and a strange flat-topped cap with a bright gold tassel hanging over its edge.
She said as she then handed Kris a manuscript in a plastic binder, “That is a picture of me when I graduated with my Bachelor’s, and this is the only hard copy of the dissertation I wrote for my Master’s.
“The war started about that time and before my advisors had a chance to accept it, the Chin bombed Eugene - and killed the University,” she finished with a sigh.
Kristina followed her heart, leaned over the tray with its delicate tea service, and gently hugged the old woman with a wordless moan of sympathy.
Her teacher sighed after several moments and carefully pushed the young girl away from their embrace.
“Kristina, my life has been hard and very disappointing but it has been easy compared to what you will face, because of both the person you are and the times we are in,” she said with a slight smile.
“When they come for me,” she added softly, “Whatever they leave of mine is yours. Now go dear please, for your own good.”
Kris carefully placed her teacup in its saucer on the little table and honored her teacher’s request by rising from her seat with tears suddenly trickling down her cheeks.
“Yes Ma’am,” was all she said as she rushed from the tiny apartment, sobbing from her heart.
Two days after this last visit with her teacher, Kris went to the next scheduled history class at her academy, only to find the classroom door locked and a crudely lettered card taped to its front saying,
“Class canceled permanently. Students are to attend Video Recreation Hall for this hour”.
The tall girl left the building by a side door instead, and ran the four kilometers to the old woman’s apartment building. Her cheeks were pink but she breathed easily as she mounted the stairs two at a time to the top floor. She strode to her teacher’s door only to find it ajar. She pushed it open and stood in the doorway. The little was room bare and empty of all the simple furnishings and piles of books it had contained only two days ago.
She felt a chill as she stepped slowly to the center of the place where her teacher and friend had lived, and gazed about at the bare walls. They now showed only lighter spaces and dirt shadows where the bookcases had stood, and where the old woman’s cheaply framed copies of classic art had hung.
Her eye suddenly caught a gleam of white from the bare wooden floor at one corner of the room. She moved to it with slow steps and stooping, retrieved a broken piece of one of the little china teacups, its delicate handle still attached.
She clutched it to her breast with a deep sob. Then tears coursed down her cheeks as she stepped out of the dusty room and down the dingy stairs and walked slowly back to the academy.
Kristina went to her art instructor in her next class and asked quietly what had happened to her history class and to her teacher. Professor Heurtley only shook his gray head and refused to meet her gaze. Then he addressed the tall girl and the other ten students in the classroom in a hoarse voice.
“Today we begin a unit of practical work for the good of S’attl, and will stop wasting our time drawing flowers.”
“I will briefly show a tri-view of a Chin armored car on the screen, and you will sketch it as accurately as possible.” He continued in a flat monotone in the same dead voice,
“I warn you that there have been small but important modifications to this vehicle which you must note in order to inform your superiors, and in this exercise you must sketch it because your cam is broken.”
“I also will warn you that from now on all of your work will be graded for its usefulness to the Clave and its practicality. Your work will become part of your cadet portfolio of record,” he finished in a rush without meeting the shocked eyes of his class. In a very low voice that cracked he added, “Good Luck…”
Then shouting, “Begin!” he savagely jabbed the start button of the tri-view projector.
The gray-haired artist walked between his students’ desks looking over their shoulders as they furiously marked at their papers, and slowly approached Kristina’s table. He leaned over her shoulder and shouted, “That’s wrong! You’re missing it completely! Dammit you can do better than that!”
He bent over her desk and slapped at her almost finished sketch, then moving his hand he began pointing to various parts of it, and so exposed a carefully placed scrap of paper with its message printed in his architect’s block letters, “The only thing the Administrator told us was, “History is Unnecessary.” I couldn’t learn any more - and don’t you ask anyone else!”
Then standing erect again and retrieving and rolling the paper scrap into a tight cylinder he said gruffly, “See me after class.”
He turned to the room and asked in a normal voice, “Anyone have a light?” as he drew a cheroot from the breast pocket of his frayed tweed jacket.
He lit the rolled paper spill from a match eagerly offered by one of the less capable students, then slowly and carefully lit his cigar from its flame and allowed the spill to burn down to his fingers before discarding its small stub on the floor.
Professor Heurtley called time several minutes later and collected the assignment from the other students, most of which were unfinished. He briefly admonished them on the need to increase their accuracy and speed as he dismissed them, except for Kris. He growled to her, “You stay.”
The girl sat staring ahead with her cheeks red and speechless, both in her confusion, and her embarrassment at the snickers from the other students as they clattered out of the dusty room.
The gray-haired artist returned to his desk and took his seat after they had left. He pulled another chair up beside his and said, “Bring your work over here and have a seat. I will show you what you are doing wrong.”
Kris took the offered seat and placed her completely finished sketch before him. He said in a kinder tone, “I will list your mistakes in the margin. Please pay careful attention.” Then he swiftly sketched in a light set of lettering guidelines and paused in thought for a moment, before making letters at seemingly random places on the spaces he had delineated.
Kris, remembering his earlier message and the way he had delivered it, watched his hand intently.
As she watched, he quickly wrote letter by letter in seemingly random spaces, “TAKE CARE THEY WATCH ALL THE TIME” Then looking at her until she returned his gaze, he smiled and started filling in the rest of his annotation which then made his warning disappear, as it now read,
“EXCELLENT WORK, THE ONLY STUDENT TO COMPLETE WITH TOTAL ACCURACY, ALSO THE ONLY STUDENT TO SPOT THE EXTRA ANTENNA, NEW TIRES AND THE NEW MOTOR EXHAUST”
As she gasped in sudden joy, the old artist added in a free flowing script below his lettered message, “Grade is 4.0”
Then dropping his pencil, he dropped his hand under the desk and gripped her thigh. Kris instinctively jerked her hand down to thwart his attempted grope, then relaxed as he turned his palm up and met hers in a friendly clasp.
He winked to her at her startled glance and said gruffly, “Meet me at the fountain in the park during lunch break tomorrow with your materials, and I will try to give you some more pointers on sketching.”
Then he stood abruptly and said, “Now you are dismissed,” As he strode out of the classroom.
Kris gathered her things and glanced again in wonder at his approving notation on her sketch where it still lay on his desk. Then she walked out of the room as well.