Wyatt stood outside his classroom. His palms were damp and dread twisted his insides. His grade, the outcome of their latest exam, would determine if he remained at Westfield Military Academy or if he went back to bagging groceries at the Quick Mart in Lewisville.
He pushed to his toes, craned his neck, and tried to see the results thumb-tacked to the wall. But his classmates, clustered in front of him, blocked his view. He rocked back on his heels and imagined another failing grade. His stomach churned. He belched back the tuna salad sandwich he had for lunch and suddenly wondered if things went bad if he’d be able to keep his meal down.
“Yes!” Meathead Malone pumped his arm like he just scored a hole in one. He flashed a goofy grin and then peeled away from the grade sheet.
If Meathead passed, maybe he did too.
Wyatt pressed closer and tried to fill Meathead’s space, but the football team flooded the hall, and Wyatt was swallowed in a sea of black and gold jerseys.
Shrek, his roommate, played offensive lineman. At seven feet and 375 pounds, he stood out among the crowd. He lumbered over to Wyatt. “How did you do?”
Wyatt swallowed, his throat thick. “Don’t know yet.”
Cadets, men and women, flowed in behind the football team. Some carried signs with game day slogans: Sink Maritime. Maritime has small decks. They’re going to need a bigger goat.
“You coming to the pep rally?” Shrek thumbed toward the students headed toward the gym.
“Depends.” Wyatt’s eyes went back to the wall and his looming grade.
“I’m pulling for you, brother.” Shrek squeezed Wyatt’s shoulder, his grip so tight Wyatt nearly folded into a fetal position.
“Appreciate that, man,” Wyatt said, his voice an octave higher than normal.
Shrek elbowed Wyatt. “Check it out.” He pointed at a cadet, another rally goer, with a sign that said: Westfield Keep That Winning Streak. A smile tugged at Shrek’s lips.
Wyatt shook his head. “Don’t do it, man.”
Shrek kicked off his shoes.
“Think about the punishment tours.”
Shrek peeled off his jersey.
“Marching for hours on the quad.”
Shrek unbuckled his pants.
“Remember the last time you got in trouble …” But Wyatt knew it was too late.
Shrek, in full pasty glory, sprinted forward, grabbed the cadet’s sign, gave a war cry, and streaked toward the gym.
Despite everything, Wyatt laughed. He watched Shrek until he disappeared, and then forced himself to look back at the grade sheet. Everyone had melted into the pep rally mob, and he was the only one left by the classroom. Dread gripped him again.
It’s now or never.
He lifted his chin and walked up to the paper. It showed the last four digits of each student’s social security number followed by the exam grade—standard format for Westfield. Wyatt ran his index finger down the sheet until he reached his number and then glanced across at the grade.
His shoulders sagged.
Wyatt was still in a daze, when Newman’s nasally voice came over the school’s public address system: Cadet Wyatt to the front office. Cadet Wyatt, report to the Superintendent’s office.
Cadet Newman, or The Bootlicker as his classmates called him, was the Corps of Cadets Brigade Commander. He resided in the Superintendent’s office when he wasn’t in class. Newman came from money and his father, a Westfield graduate, was head of the academy’s alumni association—a detail Newman made sure everyone knew.
Wyatt arrived in the Superintendent’s reception area. Large fluorescent lights flooded the room and an old heater buzzed overhead. Academy pictures lined the grey walls—crusty-faced faculty and baby-faced students. Some images dated back to the school’s inception in 1802. These pictures usually brought Wyatt a sense of pride, a sense of being part of something greater than himself.
But not today.