Fiction

The Math Contest

Belinda Sweeting, hands on hips, wearing that ridiculous-for-a-teacher letter jacket, stood in the doorway and blocked my way into class. Her poison-spice perfume clashed with my mint gum and invaded my air. If she felt indignation at Albert Johnson having ripped down the fern that I, a fellow math teacher, had stapled to the bulletin-board in hopes the wonder of Nature’s fractals might inspire my pre-pre-pre-Algebra classes to heights of multiplication competence, she said nothing about that. Albert had rolled up the fern. He pretended to smoke. He tipped imaginary ash off the end, blowing smoke rings. Then he ate it. He masticated that wad, a leaf hanging from between glossy lips until he swallowed with an exaggerated, theatrical gulp. The rest of the class whinnied admiration, high-pitched and hormonal, as Juneau’s horizontal rain clapped against the windows. Belinda, covering her mouth with manicured fingers, hid a smirk.

She addressed my class. “I know some of you don’t care for math. But next door, we’re working on our calculus project.” She meant the All-Alaska Math Contest, with cash prizes for teachers and schools. This year’s theme: “Using Math in Alaska.” Belinda’s class was doing something—if you asked she would claim you couldn’t understand if she explained. A class in Nenana was predicting the date the river ice would break up, based on its thickness. My class project hadn’t begun. The kids’ limitations made my first idea infeasible: calculating average rainfall was out, once Albert drank from the rain gauge. As I attempted to worm around her, Belinda tossed her tightly-permed mane like a pillow to my face. “Could you keep down your fun and games while we try to learn next door? I don’t want to have to report anyone to the principal.” She fake-smiled. “Okay Michelle, er, Mrs. Griffin, I’ll leave you to it.”

Albert’s grin dulled as Belinda left and I finally entered my own classroom. Was it Albert’s fault Mark had dragged me from my federal research position in Albuquerque, mapping outer space, to Juneau so he could lobby for fish processors? It was not. Was it Albert’s fault that my classroom smelled of wet feet? Not entirely. Was it Albert’s fault the high school had advertised for, interviewed, and hired me as the Advanced Placement math teacher? No. Was it Albert’s fault that Belinda Sweeting persuaded the superintendent to give her those students destined to escape Juneau or at least run the state government, sticking me with the low-end kids? No. That winter’s Challenger explosion which killed an old classmate of mine symbolized the impossibility of my hopes that Juneau would be a short episode. There again, not Albert’s fault. I blamed him for his lack of effort, his lack of curiosity, and his lack of respect. Plus he exposed all this to Belinda. “Detention, Albert,” I said. “Three days.”

After the lunch bell I entered the Teachers’ Lounge. My first day of work, I had approached a big table of well-dressed teachers who seemed fun. “Mind if I join you?” A strawberry-blonde woman with a little ski-jump nose—Belinda, I later learned—said there was no room even though there was. Today, Belinda whispered to her pals, Moira the gym teacher, Denise from Home Ec., and Bob, the English teacher with the droopy walrus mustache. Perhaps Belinda et al. would relent another day. In the meantime, the only person to sit with was Pam Gunther, who taught Oceanography. Other teachers whispered that she was a lesbian. She wore brown coveralls. So? This is the 80’s. I set my brown bag on the table across from Pam. “What’s going on?”

“Big ass whale,” said Pam.

“Pardon?”

“I said, ‘Big ass whale.’ It’s dead. It’s a humpback.”

I nodded, continued unfolding cellophane from my tuna sandwich. “Yeah.”

“Do you know what that means?”

Mid-bite, I thought hard. “Well.” Three feet from me, whatever Belinda and crew were talking about, they sure found absorbing. If not for Belinda I could have made friends with the others. Every other minute, laughter cascaded like spilled water. “Not really.”

It transpired: the dead whale had drifted ashore onto Spuhn Island, northwest of Juneau. Fishermen alerted the Coast Guard, who shrugged. Pam had paid to have it towed to Juneau, into Harris Harbor, and winched up onto the dock that connected to the overflow parking lot across the highway from the high school. Her classes would conduct a necropsy that week. “I plan to deliver a full skeleton to the Smithsonian,” said Pam.

“The Smithsonian.” I tried to not sound too awed. “Impressive.”

“If we deliver it complete, they’ll give me a grant for a research vessel. Just a small one. Maybe take the kids up to Glacier Bay. Count some whales, birds, pinnipeds.”

Applying for grants, why hadn’t I thought of that?

She glanced at the clock. “Only one thing I’m worried about.”

“What’s that?”

“Timing. Once it rots it’s not safe to work around.”

“Sorry to hear,” I said. “How much time do you have?”

“A week, a day, maybe ten, depending on temperature.”

“Shouldn’t be bad—April.”

“It would sure help if we had some help.”

“Are you thinking of hiring someone?”

“Actually, I was hoping to use more students.”

“You mean like my students?”

“No, I’ll bus some in from Ketchikan. Of course I mean your students.”

“They don’t care about whales.”

“How do they like sitting at their desks?”

“I never asked. I think they think it sucks.”

“Make it into a story problem. How much does decomposing leviathan weigh if you cut it apart and weigh each piece?”

“Trick question. It weighs just as much cut up as all together.” I thought. “As long as you don’t lose any. Do seagulls take bites?”

“I cover it with a tarp.”

“What about, I don’t know, thieves?” Even as I spoke I knew “thieves” wasn’t right but I thought of Albert. Pam busted up. I laughed too. It was a dumb thought—even Albert wouldn’t steal any part of a dead whale. I stopped laughing when Belinda flicked her little eyes over at us. The bell rang. Outside, thick fog dissipated into visions of wet pavement and the sodden forests across Gastineau Channel.

The next morning I offered my class a choice. “We can work on square roots. Or, well, has anyone looked at the Oceanography project across the street?” At least it had stopped raining —unusual for Juneau. The kids looked incredulous.

Albert pinched his nose shut. “Ew, that thing’s disgusting. You won’t catch me over there for nothing.” Two girls next to him tittered.

“I see.” I folded my hands in front of me. “You’d rather learn square roots. Good. That will come in handy when you learn the quadratic formula.” I drew a large square root sign on the chalkboard.

“Wait,” said a squeaky-voiced little girl in the back row. Angela was her name and she had been quiet all semester. “I want to see the whale.”

I beamed. “I wonder if anyone else might like to investigate the practical application of mathematics this morning. The thing is, the Oceanography class needs help.” I glanced at Albert. “You don’t have to go. I can leave you in Study Hall with a worksheet if you’d prefer.”

His mouth twitched as he visualized and compared his alternative fates. “No way.”

“Wear your coats and hats.”

We meandered over the Egan Expressway overpass in small groups, larger groups, and roving singletons. The sun actually came through a little. We smelled the whale before we were close enough to see it. I’d heard a rumor that I neither believed nor disbelieved, that Juneau’s air contained mold—this was titanically worse than mold. As expected, the area smelled of fishing boats, rot, and the sea, but also something pervasive and oily. In my imagination, flammable gasses churned inside the carcass and heat rose heavy, wet, and wavy.

Pam, in a ball-cap, waved as I moved upwind. She had duct-taped the ends of her bright yellow rain-gear coveralls around her brown rain boots—a practical look, delicate and strangely stylish. She yelled at her class, “Let’s show our guests their gear.” She pointed my class to a pile of insulated orange gloves and rain coats.

I walked gingerly around puddles, regretting how the day’s rare sun had lured me into not changing out of my brown topsiders with their frilly tassels. What was I thinking? This was no place for me: I was an indoor-scientist, geek genus, egghead species. Now I was supposed to butcher sea-carrion?

“You’re a pal, M.G.” Pam came over and patted me on the back. “You know, if you want to leave your class here and prep for the afternoon, I can bring them back.”

Kind of her—I wanted to retch at the smell. “Thanks.” But, nothing was required of me and I wanted to set a good example for my class. Besides, the clouds were fading into actual sky. Next to the dumpster, a stray alder unfolded new leaves. Pam’s project seemed interesting. “I want to see what you’re up to.”

“Let’s get you kitted out. I bet our feet are the same size—you wear a 7?”

“7 1/2,” I said, grateful and at the same time absurdly embarrassed, thinking my feet seemed too big.

Pam walked over to her truck, reached in the passenger side, and pulled out a newer pair. “These’ll fit you.”

I pulled on the rubber rain boots which fit fine, curious as to why she carried around new, wrong-sized boots. I pulled on a jacket and orange gloves. The green nylon cuffs were damp and stunk of dead whale. Everyone wore them. The wind was from the south—I stayed south of the corpse.

Pam handed Angela a heavy meathook and a foot-long flensing knife. “Y’all promise to be careful, now. Points down when you walk. No running.” Two boys had climbed onto the school-bus-sized whale and were sawing away at the head. “Leave the ear alone,” Pam shouted. “Remember, we have to take out the earplug to estimate the age? Don’t get near it.”

“How did it die?” I asked.

Pam pointed at the head, black, with rotting blood. “See this hemorrhage?” The tissue varied in grades of rust-black. It looked mushier, less-firmly striated than other muscle layers. “It’s necrotic, like a bruise. Means blunt-force trauma before death. Probably a big boat.”

“Fishing boat?”

She shrugged. “Maybe a big one. Too bad your satellites didn’t spy the culprit. What did you do for the space program?”

“Topology. Mapping. I gathered data, I measured the universe.”

“Dang—should have had you measure this bad boy.”

Our swarming students hacked at blubber and flesh. The blubber was a dirty grey, like scrambled eggs left in a mud puddle. Each kid would cut off a chunk, carry it to the big scale, weigh it, tell the weight to the student recording weights, and throw the chunk off the dock. A blond girl in an open skiff wearing an orange life jacket steered an outboard while another leaned out, hooked the floater, and set it in the bottom of the boat. The girl steering flicked a glance, then avoided all eyes, too cool to acknowledge spectators, while the other girl stuffed the chunks into a large burlap sack.

Albert rushed to the ramp yelling, “Can I—”

“No.” Pam and I yelled together.

The boat sped off. Pam said that the girls would sink the sacks in deep water for the crabs’ meals. “Circle of life.”

Albert stuck a flensing knife in the blubber. A putrid stream of oil spurted out at him. Students’ shocked squeals turned to relieved, disgusted laughs. I reflected that the same sun now drying mud was sub-optimal for Pam’s project, now that blubber was visibly dissolving. Albert assisted Pam’s students pushing long metal rods into the whale.

“That’s to help release decomposition gasses,” said Pam.

“Stab its guts,” said Albert.

It made sense: Challenger blew up when hot gasses exploded from cold O-rings.

Pam winced. “We hope our efforts help to preserve future cetacean life. But yeah, for now, go ahead, stab away.” Seagulls screamed overhead. “Hope that fixes it—it’ll blow us all to the deck if I’m wrong.”

At lunch that day I went right to Pam’s table. “That was great,” I told Pam. “We totally have an entry for the All-Alaska Math Contest.”

“Let’s hope so.” Pam grimaced. “He’s rotting fast.”

The school held a mandatory pep rally all afternoon. Belinda led the cheerleaders. Everyone cheered. Everyone else, I mean. The boys’ and girls’ basketball teams, all in their uniforms dribbled around the gym. They formed two lines under each basket and took turns free-throwing, rebounding, and passing the balls to the adjacent lines, moving in braided patterns. Coaches, Moira for the girls and Bob for the boys, wore red and black track suits. Moira blew a silver whistle and the teams separated. They slammed, tossed, or set the balls in a giant metal basket, and stood in lines while Belinda led a cheer “for our Southeast Alaska Champions!”

“Juneau,” the students chanted with her and clapped-stomped twice after “Juneau,” and everyone shrieked, stomped, and clapped. The basketball teams ran off, waving.

Belinda kept the microphone. “We’ve got even more winners,” she shouted. “Our Advanced Placement Math Team.” She gave a “Whoo-hoo” cheer. After a moment, a sympathetic whoo-hoo answered from the bleachers. Her students ran in, wearing the same school-colors track suits Moira and Bob had worn. Faint applause followed. Belinda tossed her curls, her signature move, and gave another “whoo hoo,” although for a millisecond, doubt shadowed her tight smile. “Now, I know we don’t all view math as a sport. But the Advanced Placement team is almost finished with its entry for the All-Alaska Math Contest. If,” she paused, laughed, “I mean, when we win, there’s a big cash prize. Who wants a new state-wide trophy?” Some applause. “Who wants a new oven for the school cafeteria so you can eat pizza every day for lunch?” More applause. “Where do we live? Alaska” Lots of clapping. “What makes us rich? Oil. Yeah—we’re calculating your Permanent Dividend Fund check at varying world oil prices. We’ll send our recommendations to the Permanent Fund Corporation! Yay! You’re going to get rich! Let’s give it up for the Advanced Placement Math Team.”

Amid a surprising explosion of applause, her students trotted off. Belinda waved. Students whistled.

I studied my knees. Why hadn’t I managed to make math seem cool like that? And why couldn’t everyone see through the pointlessness of Belinda’s project? Flocks of Wall Streeters, schools of accountants had already calculated and published estimates of Alaskans’ share of distributed oil wealth. My mouth fell open as it hit me: Belinda already had her answers—anyone could write to the State for pamphlets of that information. She had them and she would mix them up, perhaps with the odd adding-error, and submit them, no matter what her students came up with. And speaking of adding, subtracting, multiplying, interpolating, extrapolating, adding graphs, adding maps, adding photos and adding color, my class’s final report could be a masterpiece of interesting and comprehensive data. Beat that, Belinda with your copy-catted crap.

When I got home, instead of my usual lingering in the car for an interesting news story to tell Mark about, I ran into the house. “Guess what I did today?” But Mark wasn’t home. I ate alone, fed the goldfish, reviewed lesson plans, sharpened my pencils, and ironed tomorrow’s blouse. A friend from my old lab sent me a letter describing their annual cookout and star party in the desert and asking whether I watched the Northern Lights—she heard they were spectacular. Thanks to Juneau’s omnipresent nimbostratus clouds, I had yet to view any aurora. I wrote back, “Guess what I did today?”

I woke up when Mark came home. After happy hour at the Happy Halibut, the Senate Fisheries Subcommittee had a late dinner with the cannery lobbyists. Fish, bonhomie, strategizing. “Guess what I did today?” I said as he said something.

“No, you first,” said Mark.

“My class helped cut up a dead whale.” I yawned—it was after midnight.

“You what?”

“We helped the Oceanography class. The kids were really into it. They listened. It was really great.”

“Oh.” Mark sniffed. “That’s the smell from the laundry. Great.”

“It was.”

“Good. I have news too.” He took my dirty clothes from the hamper and stuck them in a plastic bag, knotting the top. “The University of Alaska has its fisheries program headquartered in Fairbanks, as part of their Geophysical Institute, which also contracts with the space program. Their director told me they might be hiring a new lobbyist for next year. If we moved to Fairbanks you could switch back to research.”

“I’d like that.” It was exciting. Not just exciting—it could be my lifeline before my skillset atrophied. But I was tired.

We were discussing square roots the next day, when Angela raised her hand. “Excuse me, why are we cutting up that whale?”

“Because we’re winning,” I said. “It gives you all something interesting to visualize when we learn math concepts.” I explained how we could write a story problem showing how to figure out the cumulative weight from weighing each piece.

“That’s just adding.” Angela’s shoulders drooped.

“It’s math,” I said.

“Why even enter?” asked Albert.

“Why do anything?” I asked. “Wasn’t it nice to hear everyone cheer Mrs. Sweeting’s math class yesterday?”

Blank faces.

“I mean, they are a little different from basketball teams, but they’re doing math, just like you and people are cheering them for it.”

“They’re wieners,” said Albert.

“Al—” I decided to not bother with more detention even though degrading fellow students was technically a detention-worthy offense.

Ginny interrupted. “They haven’t won anything. The basketball teams won.”

“Why do they get school sweats and a pep rally and we get nothing?” asked Angela.

“Can we win this contest?” asked Albert, not slouching.

“Yes.” I glanced outside, across the freeway at the whale, Pam pacing, students in a purposeful swarm. “We’ll calculate the weight. We’ll find records of other sitings of this whale and we’ll calculate the distance he traveled and how fast. We’ll add graphs and maps. We’ll even triangulate if you’re up for it.”

“Would we get a pep rally?” Ginny asked.

“Yes. I will personally make them cheer for you at the next assembly,” I said.

“Jun-eau, Jun-eau.” Albert stomped his feet, chanting.

Two steps into the teachers’ lounge and Belinda said to me, “Don’t you think adding is too babyish for a high school math contest?” She stood, wide-legged, hands on hips.

“The contest is about math applications. We’ll perform analysis and write up our findings. Excuse me.” I pushed past.

“You were over there, weren’t you?” Belinda asked, over her shoulder.

Denise’s lips curled. “Kind of an odd way to teach math, isn’t it, Michelle?”

“It’s practical application,” I said.

“I smell it. Were you rolling around in it?” asked Belinda.

“Of course not.”

Dr. Marvin McQueen, assistant vice principal, pulled his head out of the fridge, an apple in his hand which he rubbed on his slacks. “Michelle, we can’t give up on these kids. Your students don’t need enrichment. Drills, drills, drills is what they need.”

“Math in action inspires students to study.” I recited the math contest brochure.

He raised his right eyebrow. “Your students’ scores have to improve if you want to teach math in Juneau.”

“Data shows that engagement in the academic community improves skills and scores.” I narrowed my eyes at him, leaning in. “I’ve seen their records: they haven’t been this engaged in years.” I almost yelled “years,” reflecting that my students’ deficits must have begun with teachers like Belinda, more motivated by prestige than in figuring out what interested them.

He backed off. “If you say so.”

I visited the whale after school with any kids who wanted to help, except Albert, left in detention. The rest came with me. The whale smelled worse, if possible. One side bulged. Pam nudged it with her rain boot. “There’s a big gas build-up right there. We poke it every day, but every night it grows bigger than the day before. I don’t know. I’m worried.” After draping it for the night with a tarp, she covered it in yellow “DANGER! DANGER! DANGER!” tape. Pam frowned. “Maybe opening a permanent hole and attaching a hose or something could help.” She clapped her hands at the kids. “Hey, thanks for helping today. Set hooks and knives on that pile in my truck and I’ll see you tomorrow.” Once they were gone, she turned to me, voice lowered. “I think we’re going to get some sabotage.”

“What?”

“I was in the ladies room. Dumb Denise didn’t see me come in. I heard her and Moira. Belinda is going to try to shut us down.” Her sea-colored eyes didn’t crinkle like they did when she joked.

“How can they?”

“Wouldn’t take much. Come out at night, wreck our whale. I’m keeping watch from midnight to four tomorrow night. My pal Jerry will be on his boat the rest of the week and he’ll check periodically but,” she paused, gazed at boats, then back at me, “I might as well tell you. I’m gay.”

I stepped back.

“My girlfriend Rachel’s flying in from Anchorage in two hours.” Pam took off her ball cap and her hair fell out in a fluffy cascade. That’s whose boots I borrowed. That was why the truck looked so clean today: Pam would rush home, shower, spritz on Mark’s same nautical aftershave, and speed to the airport. She twisted her hair up and replaced her hat. “But that’s the thing. We need someone to watch tonight. There’s a game on—Belinda would never miss cheering. Nine to four, we need you to watch. I think after the game is when she’ll make her move.”

I took another step back and sniffled to convey what an unreasonable request she was making. Yet, of the two of us, who was the real researcher? Rainy days, Pam used waterproof field notebooks. What if she was right to worry—I doubted it, but what if she was? I had an image of Pam, her whale at the bottom of Harris Harbor, throwing her data into the dumpster and paying misdemeanor fines for creating an obstruction to navigation. “Okay, Ahab,” I said. “For the kids. For math and science.”

She whacked me on the back. “That’s the spirit.”

“You’re what?” Mark asked when I called to explain. “It’s just, this close to the end of the session, there’s a meeting, a late dinner for everyone working on our fisheries security bill. I want you to meet the University lobbyists—we could both get better jobs . . . Michelle? Are you there?”

“I’m here, I’m thinking.” A new research position, a ticket out of Juneau, and none of this would matter. Belinda could harangue her children. And yet, our project—there was still so much data still waiting—well, rotting—but attainable. “Let me try to meet you later—maybe 9:30.”

“Promise?”

“Absolutely.”

Nine p.m., and the sun had set but dusk lingered at the high latitude. I backed my car between two pick-ups. I had a clear view of the whale. I slouched behind the wheel, my own ball-cap over my eyes, my seat tilted low, the game still on. I heard cheering from the gym and five minutes later, yelling, car horns, and traffic. Then it got really quiet: no seagulls, nothing but the grunt of buoys as wave-struck boats mushed them into the docks. Nine twenty-five and there was still time: time for Mark, halfway through a dry baked potato he’d give up on soon, to explain my devotion to paper-grading. I asked myself why I wasn’t with Mark, chatting up the people who could resurrect my career. Instead, I guarded a corpse.

It was for my students, for my inner-competitor, and for Pam. I admired my closest-thing-to-a-friend-in-Juneau—her work ethic, her innovation, her humor, her generosity. I would save the whale, my students and I would score a memorable achievement, Pam would get her boat, and we’d become actual friends. I imagined her and Rachel, Mark and me, clinking gin-and-tonic glasses in the cockpit (I could dose myself first with anti-seasick pills).

A small orange car sped into the lot, parking between the whale and me. It couldn’t be Belinda. I wriggled outside as quietly as I could, shuddering with damp cold, adrenaline, and revulsion at the fetid odor which had expanded into its own nearly solid dimension. What could I do anyway, besides reporting Belinda to the police? I felt my pocket for car keys—I should leave. Instead, I tiptoed around the car.

There she was: Belinda, sawing away at the tail with a mean-looking, end-pointed, pruning saw. The abdomen was swollen bigger than ever. Pregnant with death gas, the whale’s remains dwarfed mosquito-sized Belinda. “Hey,” I yelled. “That’s ours—I mean Pam’s.”

“Mind your own business. Go dial 911.” She pointed at the harbor payphone. “Report I’m cutting up a dead whale as your emergency. See how fast the police get here. Go on.”

No one was around to help. I stuck my hands in my pockets, wishing I carried a weapon, wondering, whether I should really fling my thin, useless body into boxing Belinda, armed as she was, with the saw.

“Just turn around. We don’t need another math teacher. I worked up from the cafeteria line. Then remedial. Then you came in, thinking you’re taking the A.P. class? I earned that class. I know you people, you brains, last picked on every team, messing up every grading curve, now you’re going to win on creativity? You’re not winning the contest. I don’t care who you tell— I’ll cut you if you come closer.” She raised the gore-smeared saw as she spoke, tossing carrion over her shoulder. “So beat it.” A smirk, as she channelled a reigning pop star.

“Dishwashing gloves can’t save you, Belinda. You know that poor whale died of AIDS?”

“AIDS?” Belinda paused, stared at me briefly.

“Only diseases kill without wounds—you know that—that’s why Pam’s studying it. Better rush home and take a cold shower—viruses travel slower through cold.” I sidled closer, coughed, and burped quietly as the sandwich I had bolted came up my esophagus. My alveoli gagged as my red cells turned green.

“And you exposed students? Bullshit, Griffin.” She resumed sawing.

I hesitated: would she really use the saw as a weapon?

She held up the saw like a sword. “No one would know if I cut your scrawny throat. No one would miss you. Those students of yours will forget you, if you register with them at all.”

I backed up: I have always been useless at this sort of thing and, in my nausea, I could barely breathe. How could Belinda stand it? Her jacket was smeared where the edges and sleeves had brushed the whale. She seemed impervious while I felt a cold sweat, even in my throat. Belinda’s color was fine, her movements, unhurried. Unlike her, I shivered at the same time I was burning up. I unzipped my collar and aimed sudden vomit at Belinda.

She screamed, “You pig!”

As she clawed barf from her hair, I was still heaving but grabbed at the saw.

“No you don’t.” She yanked it away and lunged—a ripping sound as she grazed my coat. I fell against the whale, felt the liquified insides quiver. I threw myself, spread-eagled, across the gas bubble, slime clinging and soaking through, whale gas lurching below. “I have been loyal to this town. It’s a good, Christian, mining and fishing town. I won’t see it degraded by you bunny-huggers and homosexuals”

“You’re insane,” I yelled.

She bared her teeth, advancing with the saw. “I just have high standards.”

“Don’t cut the calf from this poor dead mother whale,” I yelled. “Don’t do it, Belinda.” Anticipating her, I rolled right as she raised the saw and stabbed. It disappeared in the dead—male—whale.

A deep spraying explosion belched out as I stumbled backwards. Dark entrails flapped like carpet remnants out of the side of the whale. I fell. On my back, my face hurt and I wiped cold, stinging slop from my eyes. I rolled over, snorting my own blood and rancid whale guts from where the blast packed offal up my nose. Belinda lay on the pavement where the blast had propelled her. I crawled through sticky puddles, gravel embedding in my palms. Belinda, covered in black tar slime, groped for her saw. I forced myself upright and, weaving towards her, dove onto the saw as her hand grasped my ankle. I threw it off the dock, kicking at Belinda’s head. I missed but she let go. She didn’t get up. I staggered to the payphone. “Accident,” I told 911, fingers turning bloody as I picked gravel from my scalp.

Paramedics and police audibly gagged as they piled out of their ambulance and cruisers. A trooper pulled out a small spiral notebook and asked me what happened.

“Isn’t it obvious?” I asked.

Pam didn’t get the grant—Belinda had managed to toss the flippers before I stopped her. We searched the rocks below the dock but a raven must have grabbed them, robbing Pam a second time.

Rain slapped our windows as I gave the final exam. As vice principal McQueen walked in, I slid lesson plans over the letter from the university in Fairbanks with its message that they wouldn’t be hiring at the Geophysical Institute until such time as the space program resumed full exploration—kind of a disaster, since Mark had already moved there and we planned I would join him as soon as the Geophysical job came through.

“Mrs. Sweeting will be indisposed for a while,” said McQueen.

“I understand.”

“Under the weather. It’s uncertain when she’ll be back to her full abilities.”

“No doubt.”

“It’s a difficult time. And we were counting on winning that math contest.”

I nodded. A class in Angoon won the All-Alaska Math Contest. They used triangulation to estimate the height of totem poles. Why hadn’t I thought of that?

“So I guess I’m asking you to pitch in.”

The A.P. class—finally. And bittersweet: my current students’ scores were way up—even Albert was putting his name on his paper and cracking the 70% mark. They were actually a joy to teach.

“We appreciate your commitment, these past months. So we’ll need you to help out with the upper-level classes next fall. You’ll team teach with Belinda Sweeting. When she’s out of her coma.” A bleating seagull, flying close past the windows, startled him and he frowned through bleary grayness. “That’s the plan, anyway.”