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At the End of the World: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Monday, May 25, 2020 19:15 EDT



July 6

    It turns out that Chloe had problems in school. Discipline problems, mostly, but they spilled over into her academics. If she works too long, or runs into a dead end, she gets tense, which means she gets snippy and then resentful if you try to keep her at it.

    Frankly, she’s okay at math. In fact, she’s better than average at almost everything. It’s her attitude that sucks. On the first day, she was so hostile that I figured I’d better start by finding her comfort zone. So I asked her what subject she liked best when she was in school.

    “Gym,” she answered without batting a lash. And they are very long lashes.

    Okay, I should have seen that coming. “So what made everything else so crappy? A school full of lousy teachers?”

    She shook her head. “No. I just don’t like to re — to work.”

    I shrugged and didn’t let on how I noticed that, at the last minute, she’d shifted away from saying “I just don’t like to read.” Instead, I got her started on the material we had to cover for navigation: basic math. At which she was okay, once I walked her through it. But when I asked her to go over some written instructions about procedures, we didn’t get anywhere.

    We stopped early and I went to find the captain. Who was apparently waiting for me in his cabin. “Sir, I’m not sure that Chloe is going to prove the best choice for a back-up navigator.”

    He folded his long, thin arms, and leaned back. “Is that a fact?” His tone was mild, almost amused.

    Everything became a lot more clear. “So you already knew that she –“

    “Quiet. My question was rhetorical. And yes, I still think she’ll be a good navigator. And yes, I do think you’ll be able to teach her to read. And no, I don’t bloody care that it will take longer, or that you’re likely to consider suicide before it’s over.” The last was hyperbole. I think.

    “Yes, sir, but –“

    “– But why is it worth all the trouble? Because, if you haven’t noticed, she’s healthy, reasonably smart, and jolly well the most aggressive of you all. Traits which mark her as a survivor.”

    “A . . . survivor, sir?”

    “Yes. The sort of person who will be useful in any situa — in any walk of life. Just needs a bit of work, a bit of fixing, to her education.”

    That was the first time that I didn’t just suspect the Great Ghoul of the Ocean-Sea was bullshitting me: I knew it. Something was wrong. Really, big-time wrong. My palms suddenly felt cold. I couldn’t call the captain on it, but I needed to find out why it was so important that Chloe was a survivor. “Well, I’ll do my best, sir. Any particular subjects you want me to push her toward, in addition to the navigation?”

    He speared me with his eyes. “Don’t be so clever, lad. I’m not her — what do you call them in the States? — her ‘guidance counselor.’ But you should know this: I get a file on each of you from the charter company.”

    I couldn’t keep my eyebrows from raising.

    “Nothing particularly revealing, usually. But in her case –” He shook his head and leaned forward. “Some of you come from pretty hard backgrounds. We get a little extra information on those. Just in case.” He waited for me to nod before he went on. “Her parents never married. Split up when she was young. Father tried, but fell down a bottle — the way only an Inuit can, according to the report. The mother either started as or became an addict; wasn’t even in Alaska, let alone Juneau, half of the time.” He stood, which, since it was his cabin, made it pretty clear that my time was up. “She had to raise — and protect — herself,” he muttered. “I just want her to have the tools she’ll need. For the future.”

    Until today, I had never heard anyone utter the word ‘future’ like it was part of a eulogy for the present.

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