Home > Ask Him Why(11)

Ask Him Why(11)
Catherine Ryan Hyde

Then I walked back up to Mrs. Blankenship’s desk.

“Do you still have the newspaper?” I asked.

“No,” she said quietly. “I mean, not right here with me I don’t. I left it out in my car.”

“Maybe you can just tell me the gist of it. Because now I really feel like I need to get this over with.”

She looked past me to the kids filling up the room. I’d forgotten they were still coming in while I hadn’t been able to notice. I looked around, too, and saw that we were standing in a crowd now. Thirty-five students or so.

The bell rang.

Mrs. Blankenship tossed her head in the direction of the hall, so I walked out into it. For a minute or two she didn’t, and I wondered if I’d been wrong to expect that she would. I also wondered what I was supposed to do next.

Then she was there, closing the classroom door behind her.

She never once met my eyes.

“I hate to be the one to have to tell you,” she said.

I want to report that I had a reaction to those words, but the truth is that I was fresh out of reactions. I was at the bottom of the reaction well, with no more options beneath me.

“But you just have to, though,” I said, “because when you know something is that bad, it’s torture to have to wait.”

She raised her eyes to my face and smiled sadly, but I couldn’t help noting that her gaze landed more or less on my nose.

“I understand,” she said.

But then she didn’t say anything for a torturous length of time. I think at the time I might truly have believed she was trying to torture me. Now I look back and see that it was hard for her, too.

“Could you please . . .”

“Somebody who fought in the war with your brother is saying some things anonymously. Somebody got in touch with the reporter. With a lot of people, I guess. Anyone who’ll listen. He says your brother didn’t just fail to show up for duty one night. He’s saying Joseph talked several other soldiers out of going. So he thinks Joseph should be charged with mutiny.”

I’m not sure if there was a silence while the word “mutiny” rang in my head, or if I simply missed something else she was saying. I tried to think what I knew about the word. It made me picture men on a ship dueling with their captain, swords drawn, but I knew I would have to find out what it meant in real modern life.

“They had to go out on a raid four men short,” she added. “And two men in their unit were killed.”

I found a new level at the bottom of the reaction well.

“How does he know they wouldn’t have been anyway?”

“That’s a good question,” she said. “An important question. I guess we don’t know, and maybe we never really will. But he’s saying that when a unit loses men it’s hard on morale, and it throws off the whole way they’ve been trained to operate. So he’s making a strong case for the two things being related. But he can’t prove it all by himself. It’s something the army will have to investigate. They’ll decide if one was a direct result of the other. And outside the army, well . . . people are going to have to decide for themselves, I guess.”

“Oh,” I said. “Okay. Well. People will see that it could have happened anyway, right? I mean, they’ll look at both sides.” I waited for her to assure me. She must not have known how desperately I needed that worldview confirmed. “People will be fair, right?”

More silence.

Then she said, “Some will. I’m sorry to have to have been the one to tell you. Also I hate to tell you it’s time to go in and sit down now, but you know it is.”

“No,” I said. “I’m going home.”

“You need to go to the office and get permission.”

“No,” I said again. “I’m just going.”

“If you’re not feeling well—”

“I’m not.”

“You have to go to the nurse first.”

“No. I’m just leaving.”

And I did. I walked down the hall without looking back. Down two flights of stairs and out into a cold and bright morning that felt unfairly unchanged. I was outraged at how unaffected the world seemed to be, and with seemingly no sense of apology, either.

I knew no one would stop me, and no one did. I knew I would never be taken to task later for the desertion, and I was right.

At the very bottom of human experience comes a set of certain privileges, a special zone where the rules apply to everyone else except you. It was good of the world to build itself that way, and include that tiny consolation prize for those who have nothing else to recommend their lives in that moment.

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