Every day Sherry Birkin prays that her parents will come to pick her up at 3:30 in the back parking lot, like everybody else's parents. She prays that they'll be driving an old station wagon or van, not the scary-looking silver armored cars with Umbrella's logo on the sides. Most of all she prays that her parents will come, period, so she won't be waiting alone in the teachers' lounge.
Sometimes they come on time. Sometimes they don't. Sherry keeps praying.
But not today.
Please don't let them come, she thinks, kicking her feet stubbornly. The chairs in Mrs. Applebaum's room are cheap blue plastic with annoying metal legs and bars at the bottom. They're too bright and too simple and tooteachery, like everything in Mrs. Applebaum's room. Even the students' art feels generic, like somebody else's idea of what fifth-grade pictures should be. Maybe all fifth-graders really are the same, everywhere in the world, and school is just an exercise in being the same so that kids can be the same kind of grown-ups.
"I've tried reaching your parents three times now," Mrs. Applebaum says, her voice crisp like autumn leaves on old oak trees. For all her talk about how she loves creative children she doesn't like Sherry, because Sherry is the bad kind of creative that writes stories about bears who break out of their cages and eat everybody in the circus. Sherry knows that and does it anyway. The bear story had been her father's favorite; he'd photocopied it and showed it to all his co-workers, and his approval was the most important in the whole world.
"Your parents should be more communicative," Mrs. Applebaum continues. "They're really busy," Sherry snaps back. Sometimes she cries because she's so lonely at home, but that's her private need, not for anybody else to claim or criticize. "They do important research work."
Mrs. Applebaum frowns down at her. Her hair is stacked in short, stiff curls around her flabby face. She wears big sweaters with lots of colorful sequins that make her look like a Christmas tree. "No work is more important than their daughter," she says with an air of self-imagined wisdom, like nobody had ever come up with that before. The only thing worse than grown-ups trying to play dumb, Sherry thinks, is grown-ups trying to play smart.
And I'm way smarter than Mrs. Applebaum, Sherry decides confidently. "Sorry that you couldn't find Mom or Dad," she says, not sorry at all. "But that's okay. I can take the late bus home."
"Oh, you won't have to do that. I was able to contact your guardian---" She sees Sherry's terror and her mouth becomes a horrible tight-lipped smile. "---and he'll be here in their place. I'm sure he'll give a faithful report to your parents."
Sherry is still terrified, but she isn't about to let Mrs. Applebaum have any more satisfaction. She squirms in her chair, trying to look indifferent. "Maybe he will," she says. "But he's busy a lot too, so he might forget. I'm very independent."
"I know," Mrs. Applebaum replies dryly. "I had thought we might discuss that today."
A whole bunch of retorts come to mind, and almost all of them would get Sherry in even more trouble, so she doesn't say anything. Instead she counts to ten, takes a deep breath, and pulls a battered book with red velvet binding out of her knapsack. Her mother always tells her to be careful about starting conflicts. "Don't cause a fuss, Sherry," she advises, on the days when she's too excited to scold and there's a kind of animal hunger in her face. "You can't afford to be vocal every time you're angry. Part of life is learning to swallow your pride and learning to fight for what's really important. Remember...pick your battles!"
Both her parents are scientists, but they have a weird way of talking as if the whole world's against them. They do a lot of things Sherry can't understand. Once she was sneaking downstairs for a midnight snack when she heard voices in the kitchen. Her mother and father were sitting in the darkness, holding hands and whispering passionately.
Then the barest trickle of moonlight flickered through the window and Sherry saw two strangers with sunken cheeks. They didn't look or sound like her parents, or even like people. "I'm almost there, Annette!" Sherry's not-father was saying. Sweat stood up in beads on his brow. "I need just a little longer. Hold out for me. We'll make it, we'll go through this together, the way we always have. Do you trust me, Annette?"
"You know I do," she'd said, sounding loving but fierce. "Oh, William! But what about the company?"
"Damn the company! We don't need them. I don't need anyone anymore..." His voice had risen to a fever pitch and he'd looked around skittishly. Sherry had flattened herself against the wall so he wouldn't see. "Just you, and Sherry. Only you! To hell with the rest of the world!"
Sherry still has nightmares about that time. She tries to pretend it never happened. Her mom and dad are strange, not sick. Maybe she doesn't understand them, but she loves them, has to love them, because they're her parents and she knows they really do love her too. Love is a secret in the Birkin family, buried way deep down.
The classroom door opens. "Oh, hello," Mrs. Applebaum says, rising. Her voice takes on the special warmth that some adults get when they're finally around somebody who they expect to like. "You must be Mr. Wesker! I'm Mrs. Applebaum, and thank you so much for coming. I apologize for the short notice, but I wasn't able to reach the Birkins. They're very---"
"I understand. Thank you for contacting me."
Some of Sherry's earliest memories are of Mr. Wesker (just Wesker to her, he's Wesker to everyone but her father). She remembers him looming over her playpen like a big black shadow that seemed to touch the ceiling, and nine years later he still looks just as big. He looks even bigger now, surrounded by kid-sized furniture and educational toys. Behind his head on the wall is a poster that says BE KIND TO ONE ANOTHER in red block letters.
Mrs. Applebaum gestures to her desk. "Please, Mr. Wesker. Take a seat and make yourself comfortable. This may be a rather lengthy conference." She gives a coy little smile. Sherry is immediately grossed out.
Wesker takes a seat beside Sherry. His lanky form cramps out at sharp angles in the little chair, but he manages to hold himself with some kind of grace. After a moment's pause he adjusts his sunglasses and looks up.
"What are your concerns?" he asks.
"Ah. Yes. Well. Sherry is..." Mrs. Applebaum sits down and immediately begins rifling through a stack of papers on the desk. She picks out one of Sherry's tests, notable because it's the only one without two gold stars on top. "Sherry's been exhibiting a very passive-aggressive attitude in her work. The enrichment teacher reports she's withdrawn from group assignments. She doesn't interact with the other children."
"I recall Sherry has had problems with her peers in the past," Wesker says coolly. "Have the children complained to you?"
His response catches Mrs. Applebaum off-guard. "No, but the school system is required to keep a thorough log and inform parents of prolonged antisocial behavior. Other teachers have raised the issue of her behavior. She has mouthed off to faculty, staff, and myself."
Wesker raises an eyebrow at Sherry, the first direct acknowledgement he's given so far. The look makes her red with shame. "I didn't mean it," she mumbles, too quiet to be heard. When Wesker turns away without any motion to defend her she feels worse than ever.
"Please accept my apologies, ma'am. You have my word that the matter will be referred to her parents."
This elicits another smile from Mrs. Applebaum. "Thank you for understanding. It's important that the...guardians recognize the importance of the problem. Attitude issues are first and foremost in improving overall behavior."
Sherry wonders what it is about grown-ups that makes them come up with so much silly language. Every job has its own vocabulary, but it's all just different ways for saying the same thing over and over again. If Sherry were in charge, everybody would have to say what they mean all the time.
"Sherry has also begun acting out in other ways," Mrs. Applebaum continues, clasping her hands. "Her most recent science unit test was dismal. I feel such low performance is unacceptable considering Sherry's aptitude in science. She missed every question and wrote nonsense for the short essay portion."
For a minute it looks like Sherry's about to get another terrible expression from Wesker, but his reaction is benign. "Every question?" he repeats, with some interest. "Of how many?"
"One hundred multiple choice and the short essay. Like I said, unacceptable---"
"Mrs. Applebaum," Wesker says. Although he isn't smiling there's definitely a smile in his words, a private joke. "Do you know the odds of anyone missing one hundred multiple choice questions?"
"If she didn't care---"
"If she didn't care and chose thoughtlessly she would have had to have picked several correct answers." Somehow the balance of power has shifted and now Wesker is the teacher, telling Mrs. Applebaum what's what. Sherry is impressed and a little proud. Wesker knows how to say anything to anybody. "The odds of such a failure are astronomical, Mrs. Applebaum. It is far more likely, yet even more remarkable, that Sherry identified every correct answer and then deliberately chose the wrong one.
"It's possible to answer every question correctly with a combination of knowledge and luck. Scoring a zero effectively eliminates lucky guesses. Although I would agree that Sherry should accept the consequences for her decision," Wesker says lightly, "it's worth recognizing that her zero is equivalent to, or rather greater than, a perfect score."
By now Mrs. Applebaum's good mood is gone. Her face is like a big wrinkled prune with fatty bumps. "Her grade will stand, Mr. Wesker. It is fortunate for Sherry that her average is high enough to suffer a zero, even on a unit test. But the behavior that triggered it must not be encouraged."
"I assure you it will not."
"And her free response portion," she begins again. She's obviously confused about what happened; she doesn't seem to know when or how Wesker pulled the rug out from under her, but she knows she's on the defensive. Neener neener, Sherry thinks. "Unintelligible nonsense, just lines of letters going all the way down the page..."
"What was the question?"
"It was..." Mrs. Applebaum clears her throat and reads from the page off the back. " 'Describe a case of food poisoning.' Very simple, very straightforward. I'm not looking for answers from the Encyclopedia Britannica, just a paragraph or two about how harmful bacteria enter the system. The class studied in two weeks ago and I informed them it would be on the test. Sherry's response was gibberish."
Wesker leans forward ever so slightly in the too-small chair. "And what did she write, exactly?"
Sherry notices his attention and feels a cold dread. What if he doesn't understand what she wrote? What if he does? Which would be worse? No, of course he knows: Wesker knows everything. The way he pays attention can't be good, she decides, or he's not going to find it funny and she'll be grounded for sure. The anticipation is almost as bad as the shame.
Mrs. Applebaum reads like she's holding the words at arm's length, unwilling to get too close. Every letter is pronounced with a snobby disgust. "T-g-g-t-g-g-t-t-g-a, t-a-a-g-c-a-g-g-c, c-g-c-c-c-g-a-c-t-g, a-t-a-c-g-t-t-g-a-t, t-t-t-c-c-a-a-g-t-t..." She pauses. "You get the idea."
If there's anything more humiliating than being embarrassed in front of Wesker, Sherry doesn't want to think about it. It's her own fault, of course, but how was she supposed to know he'd show up? She buries her face in her hands, blushing furiously. I'll never act up again, she swears to whatever invisible thing is up there that does good things for kids. I'll be good forever, just please don't let him be mad or think I'm stupid! Please don't let him get me in trouble with Mom and Dad!
"No, please continue."
Sherry looks up. Mrs. Applebaum stares in astonishment.
"Go on," Wesker encourages.
Mrs. Applebaum is incredulous but continues reading, as if she's under a magic spell that makes her do whatever Wesker says. Sherry's noticed that a lot of people feel like they have to obey him, even if they don't really understand why. "G-a-a-c-t-a-g-a-t-a, g-a-c-a-a-a-t-g-g-a, t-c-t-c-g-t-a-a-c-c, g-a-a-c-t-t-g-a-g-a, a-c-a-a-c-c-a-g-a-t, a-a-a-a-a-t-g-a-a-t, g-g-t-g-a-c-a-a-a-t..."
Wesker tilts his head towards Sherry without looking straight at her. "Missed one," he murmurs lightly, holding his steepled fingers to his lips.
"The last letter of that sequence is A, not T. The next letter is T, however, so the mistake is understandable. Mrs. Applebaum," he announces, and now he's smiling for real, "Sherry's answer is obscure, not unintelligible. The letters she provided, at least to the end of line 121, describe the genome of the pIS2 plasmidescherichia coli."
Of course he knows that, Sherry thinks, and feels a little disappointed for being found out. It occurs to her that she doesn't really know what Wesker does for a living, besides working with her dad. But he isn't a chemist, and she's never heard about him making cures or anything like that. Wesker is pretty mysterious.
The room gets unnaturally quiet. Mrs. Applebaum's big chest heaves up and down. "Mr. Wesker," she says, "it is not my job to solve puzzles, nor memorize scientific minutae. Sherry is deliberately acting up to get attention from adults, which I believe stems from a serious deficit in parenting. Do you have any recommendations for putting an end to such inappropriate classroom behavior?"
"If you're so concerned, I would suggest contacting the Birkins themselves for a serious appointment. In the meantime..." Wesker looks like he's about to sigh, but doesn't. He never does the normal things like sneezing or sighing or laughing that everybody else. Only the little black tips that always peek out from under his sunglasses show that he gets tired like a regular person. "Maxine Chambers works at this school, correct?"
"Maxine? Why, yes," Mrs. Applebaum nods, puzzled. "She teaches special needs children in the first and second-grade block. But I don't see---"
"Maxine's daughter is a very well-adjusted young lady who is a prodigy in much the same vein as Sherry. It may be beneficial for you to arrange a certain amount of time per week for private counseling."
Counselors are no big deal to Sherry; she's only twelve and she's already seen three, but none of them have ever done much. On the other hand, it might be neat to talk with somebody who really knows what smart kids are like. The lady could maybe be friends with Sherry's mom and dad, and get together to talk about science stuff.
It seems like it could be okay, even cool, but Sherry knows not to say so. Instead she hangs her head as if she's really upset about being punished but willing to take it. She sits motionless and repentant until Wesker speaks.
"It's a pleasure to know Sherry's teachers are so involved," he says. "Thank you for bringing this to my attention. If there are any further developments please do not hesitate to call me. I'm sure Sherry is sorry for having caused you any trouble---isn't that so?"
Sherry realizes she really is sorry, even if she still thinks that Mrs. Applebaum is being unfair. Anything that makes Wesker give her the I'm-disappointed-in-you look isn't worth the trouble. "Yes. I'm sorry, Mrs. Applebaum," she says, and means it.
Mrs. Applebaum draws back. She regards Sherry with wide eyes, like she's never really seen her before. There's surprise and pity in her eyes, and a little fear of the man who took over so confidently. "The pleasure is mine. It's...good that we could come to an understanding. Thank you, Mr. Wesker, and thank you, Sherry."
It sounds like Mrs. Applebaum means it, too.
Wesker stands beside the driver's door of his big black Cadillac. His brow is furrowed at Sherry, who's holding the door handle on the opposite side.
"I'm twelve," she protests, a little surly. "Mom lets me sit in the front seat of her car."
"Your mother's car has many new safety features. This car isn't designed for children." Unlike Sherry's mother and father, who sometimes give in when they're tired, Wesker never relents. He doesn't need to repeat himself; as soon as Sherry sees his unyielding gaze, she knows she's beat. She reluctantly gets in the back and sits down.
When Wesker climbs in he adjusts the mirror so that he can see where Sherry is sulking. He starts the car and steers them into the streets for the trip home. A few kids walking on the side of the streets stop to point at the Cadillac with its creepy tinted windows.
It's only a few blocks to Sherry's house, but it seems like hours. The radio is off and the car is quiet, so quiet it's hard to breathe. Sherry realizes she has to say something or else Wesker's just going to keep sitting there and judging her in awful silence.
"I'm getting a haircut on Saturday," she announces. "I'm gonna have short hair, like Mom."
"You're getting rid of your pigtails? Your father will be so disappointed."
"Pigtails are for little kids," Sherry tells him very matter-of-factly. "All the girls in the fifth grade have short hair and headbands, like they do at the middle school. If you have ribbons and pigtails it means your mom does your hair for you."
"Ah, of course," he replies.
Everything is quiet again. Sherry's going to have to endure the stifling silence until Wesker's ready to lecture. She feels like she's shrinking, smaller and smaller into a little tiny speck. The car moves on somewhere outside time.
"You shouldn't antagonize your teachers," Wesker says at last.
Without Mrs. Applebaum or anything about the school frowning down on her Sherry can talk freely. "She hates me!" she cries, with a fresh burst of anger. "She's always trying to get me in trouble, and she never puts my pictures or stories on the wall. Even the dumb kids get their stuff on the walls sometimes."
"Mrs. Applebaum may not be a great teacher, but I'm sure she's a very good one. She's smart and has paid attention to your work. And besides..." Wesker glances at Sherry in the rear view mirror. "There's far more to being smart than memorizing gene sequences."
No way! He thinks Mrs. Applebaum is smart? "But she never listens to me! She just ignores me and gets mad when I try to do something different. She thought I was just messing up on that test, remember?"
"And weren't you trying to give her that impression?" He pauses thoughtfully. "Mrs. Applebaum can't do her job if you're deliberately trying to provoke her. You should accept her as an authority figure and do as she says."
"Just because she's a teacher doesn't mean she's better than me."
"It's not a matter of being 'better'; it's about social standards. If you want to people to respect your role, you need to respect the roles of others. The only wy to achieve anything in the world is by careful compromise and negotiation."
"Why do I have to compromise with people if I'm smarter than them?"
The left side of his mouth quirks upwards. "You really are just like your father."
Those are the most magic of the magic words, more powerful than "please" and "thank you" or even "I'm sorry". Whenever anybody says Sherry's like her father she feels hot inside, anxious and a little sick. Her dad has heavy bags under his eyes, short bristly stubble and clammy skin that sticks when it's touched. Sometimes he skulks around the house like a zombie in the late-night horror films Sherry's not supposed to watch; other times, he paces so much he wears a hole in the carpets. As much as she loves him, Sherry doesn't want to be like him: something about her father is different in a way that's a little scary.
But other times she just has to know things, has to figure stuff out, and she'll stay up all night memorizing the letters in a chemistry book because the letters are like sorcerer's spells. When she remembers something or solves a puzzle she gets a feeling like too much sugar that makes her head rush: I did it, she'll think, I did it and I know the answer. The feeling is so good Sherry spends a long time trying to do it again, with more books and more puzzles, and more than once she's stayed up all night reading in the hopes of getting that feeling back. In the morning she has nothing left but open books and thick black lines under her eyes.
Sherry is suddenly very cold and hugs herself tightly. When Wesker pulls up to the house Sherry is so upset she doesn't even notice.
She jolts upwards, startled.
Wesker puts his enormous briefcase on his lap and opens it, with seven different deft gestures for each of the seven different locks. Inside the briefcase are separate file folders, separate compartments for small metal boxes, and an appointment calendar. He withdraws a large book with a worn cloth cover and yellowed paper.
"I think you'll enjoy this," Wesker says. He hands the book to Sherry without turning around in his seat. The cover of the book saysÀ la recherche du temps perdu - Du côté de chez Swann in large block letters. in smaller text under the French isRemembrance of Things Past.
"I began reading it when I was about your age. Let me know when you've finished the first volume."
"It's...big," Sherry says, holding it up. The book looks older than her, maybe even older than Wesker. When she carefully looks at the inside cover she sees a single date printed on the page with other publication information, so faded it's almost disappeared: First Edition - 1922. "There are more books in this?"
"Seven in total. It's well over three thousand pages, so take your time."
She grips the book close, feeling all its potent mysteries just waiting to be unlocked. It excites her to know that other people have felt those same mysteries in the same pages. The thrill for new knowledge bubbles up in her stomach like a storm, making her dizzy.
Wesker gives Sherry a yeast donut topped with pink frosting and lots of white sprinkles, a special treat from the 7-11 Krispy Kreme stand. They've been her favorite dessert since she was a little girl and her father would go to the convenience store before work. Sherry has a little pang when she thinks that Wesker must have stopped to get her one.
"Thanks," she says quietly.
"Take care, Sherry."
That's her cue to get out of the car. She takes her things and steps out, stumbling a little on the pavement. She waks over to Wesker's side of the car, where he lowers the window.
"I really am like my father?" Sherry asks.
"Is that good?"
It's too bright outside to see the expression behind Wesker's sunglasses. The muscles in his face don't seem to move, either. Sherry's question hangs heavy in the hair for a long time.
"I think you're brave enough to make your own decisions," Wesker replies, turning away, and the window rolls up. Sherry can tell that that's all the response she's going to get. She walks to her house, lost in thought. By the time she steps indoors the donut is already half gone. Sherry always eats the bottom part of the donut first so she can savor the sweet frosting at the end.
There is no one in Sherry's house. The lights are off and the dishwasher is running. Pages from her father's office are starting to spill out into the hallway. It's just a little too messy and lonely to be comfortable. Even when everyone's home it's still a lonely place. All the Birkins live in libraries and their own heads, miles away from the rest of the world. It makes Sherry frustrated, but she knows she does it too.
Sherry goes into her room, locks the door behind her, and sits down on the bed. She decides homework can wait and carefully opens Wesker's book, curious. She's hardly started before the book seizes her heart. Her worries about that strange question disappear into the back of her mind.
I think you're brave enough to make your own decisions...
It's two hours later when, drowning delightfully in the best of Proust, Sherry realizes that Wesker didn't know the answer.