Chapter 04

"Are we late?" Bitru asked as he struggled to keep pace with Brandton.

"No. But the bus doesn't always arrive on time. Sometimes it's early." Brandton explained, then stopped at a corner and hit the button for the crosswalk.

As Bitru stopped at his side, he noticed six other students of various ages approaching.

"I'm just kinda curious, after going through eight classes, did you learn anything today?" Brandton asked as he kept careful watch on the crosswalk signal.

Before Bitru could formulate a response, the signal changed and Brandton started walking.

Bitru was nearly overrun by the students rushing to make it through the crosswalk before the light changed back.

* * * * *

"So, did you learn anything?" Brandton asked again, once they were able to walk at a normal pace.

"Yes. I learned to hate school." Bitru said frankly.

Brandton chuckled, then said, "Welcome aboard."

Conversation faltered as they crossed the street at an intersection without a stoplight.

* * * * *

It wasn't until they reached the bus stop that they were able to talk to each other again. There were four people already waiting for the bus to arrive.

"We made it." Brandton said in triumph.

"How long do we have to wait?"

"I don't know. I stopped wearing a watch because it was such a pain to keep having to take it off and put it on at the metal detector."

"Couldn't you just keep it in your pocket?" Bitru asked cautiously. It seemed like a perfectly reasonable suggestion to him.

"Nope. If they can tell that you've got something in your pocket, they'll constantly want to be searching you. And every time you put your hand in your pocket, they think that you're going to be drawing a weapon."

"Before today, I wouldn't have believed such a thing. But now, I can accept your assessment without reservation."

"Yeah, well, just remember that today was a good day. We got to all our classes on time, we were able to eat, and we even had a few minutes in the yard to talk to people. Most days are a lot worse."

As he was saying the words, the bus pulled up and the people waiting formed a line, preparing to board.

"Get out your school ID, so you won't have to pay."

Bitru hurried to do so and had his ID ready to present as he stepped aboard the bus.

* * * * *

All the seats were taken, but the walkway wasn't too crowded. Brandton and Bitru were able to stand side by side, holding on to the hanging straps as the bus got underway.

"The bus ride takes about an hour, so just try to be comfortable."

"When I mentioned earlier that they should build another school, you said that you would explain later why they wouldn't."

"Oh, yeah. Well, I don't know a lot about it. But they've been doing this thing where they're closing down a bunch of schools, usually in the poor neighborhoods, and then packing those kids into the schools that are left. They have all kinds of excuses for it, saying that they can't afford to pay a bunch of teachers and stuff like that. But the next thing you know, they've turned around and are building this new multi-million dollar administration building."

"So the deplorable conditions at school were engineered to give evidence of the need for more funding. But when the funding was provided, they used that money for other purposes?"

"It looks that way. But I don't know for sure how it all works."

"From what little I've observed, your school seems to be the antithesis of a learning environment."

"Our school. And, yeah. I don't know if there's some kind of master plan at work, or if things just turned out this way, but I've noticed that if something happens that you accidentally learn something, they hurry to find a way to take it away."

"Another thing that was surprising to me is that there were no computers in any of the classrooms. From all accounts, American schools frequently espouse teaching computer literacy as being one of their primary missions."

"Yeah. From what I hear, we've got a really nice computer lab in a big room off the library. But I've never been in there, so I don't know that for sure."

"You mentioned before that you hadn't been in the school library. Can you tell me why that is?"

"I guess because my parents don't have a lot of money and aren't 'important'."

Bitru's eyes went wide at the blunt answer.

"But as far as not having computers in the rest of the school, everyone's so freaked out about the idea that someone might look at porn or text their friends or something that they pretty much stopped letting us use them at all."

As the bus slowed to a stop, six more people got aboard, causing Brandton and Bitru to have to move further back in the bus and stand more closely together.

Once the bus was underway again, Bitru quietly asked, "Was Nate correct in what he said about us doing nothing but preparing for the next test?"

"Yeah. The schools get graded by how well the students do on the tests. If we don't pass, they either lose funding or get completely shut down. So now, all day, every day, we prepare for the next test, so we can make them money." Brandton said with a note of bitterness under his words.

"So, in that sense, we're seen as their slave labor."

"No. Slaves have some value, as property. They don't think that highly of us." Brandton said casually as the bus came to a stop.

Bitru looked around curiously as the bus driver opened the door, but no one got aboard.

"We must be a few minutes ahead of schedule, so the driver's having to wait."

"It seems odd to me that several of the teachers read directly from the book, today. I expected to receive more of a 'lecture' in the classroom environment."

"From what I hear, they're not allowed to teach anything that's not approved by the board of education. If they say something that they weren't told to, they can get into trouble for it."

"So it's possible that the teachers are as much victims of the school system as we are."

"Maybe." Brandton conceded, then said, "But I think we've got it worse. I mean, they can get other jobs. We're required by law to go there."

The bus driver closed the door, then the bus pulled into traffic.

"We have a considerable amount of homework tonight. How do you typically deal with that?"

"Well, first thing I do when I get home is use the bathroom and get something to eat. After that, I'll either turn on the TV or play some video games or something. If I don't sit and relax for a little bit after school, I'll go crazy." Brandton said frankly, then thought to ask, "But now do you see why I wouldn't want to sit down and read a book after school?"

"Yes. The day was both mentally and physically exhausting. The last thing I would want to do is to engage in an activity that required thought and concentration."

"I usually do my homework after my parents get home from work and we've had dinner. And you don't have to worry about thought or concentration on the homework, either. It's all either busy work or memorization. You don't have to think about any of it."

"I noticed that the majority of our homework seemed to consist of answering questions to which they have already given us the answers."

"Yeah, that and filling in names on maps." Brandton confirmed, then thought to add, "But since you're new to this, there's one important thing that you need to watch out for."

"What's that?"

"When you're answering the questions, don't dig too deep or spend too much time on one thing. None of the homework is really hard, but there's a lot of it. If you get interested in something and start reading about it, you're going to run out of time."

"Once again, this seems the antithesis of learning."

"Learning is not an option. Just answer the questions and move on."

When the bus pulled to a stop again, a few people got off, but a greater number boarded.

Brandton and Bitru were pressed against each other as more and more people filled the aisle.

"You said that the next bus is worse than this?"

"Yeah. Sometimes the driver even has to tell people to wait for the next bus because they can't fit anymore on."

Bitru determined that it was too crowded for them to be able to carry on a conversation, so he focused his attention and energy on the task of surviving the experience.

* * * * *

"We need to start moving toward the door. This stop coming up is the closest one to the house, but it's a really bad neighborhood. So we're going to get off at the next stop after that, then we'll walk farther, through better neighborhoods, to get home."

Bitru couldn't do much more than follow as Brandton started wedging his way between people and forcing his way toward the exit.

* * * * *

Even though it only took a few minutes, Bitru felt as though he had climbed a mountain by the time they were finally off the bus.

"You do this every day?" Bitru asked as he looked around the nondescript suburban neighborhood.

"Yeah. Sometimes there's crying babies, perverts trying to feel you up, smelly homeless people, someone with a dozen shopping bags or a ghetto punk who looks like he'll slit your throat as soon as look at you. Then, of course, there's the rain, snow, hail... But it's just like with school, we don't have another choice." Brandton said wearily as they walked.

"You said the previous bus stop was nearer to your house."

"Yeah. Don't get off at that stop. People die there."

Bitru went silent as they continued to walk down quiet neighborhood streets.

* * * * *

When Brandton turned to walk up to one of the houses, Bitru was surprised. He wasn't familiar enough with the appearance of Brandton's house to realize that they had arrived.

"We're going to need to get you your own key. If I get detention or get sick or something, you may need to go home on your own." Brandton said as he unlocked the front door.

Anxiety welled within Bitru at the prospect of having to face any of the elements of the day without Brandton's support, much less all of them.

* * * * *

"Do you need the bathroom first?" Brandton asked as he walked into the house.

"No. I can wait a moment."

Brandton didn't need any further encouragement. He dropped his backpack and hurried through the living room and into the hall.

As Bitru slid off his backpack and was about to walk further into the living room, he looked at Brandton's backpack curiously, then experimentally tried to lift it.

Bitru was surprised that the backpack seemed to weigh fifteen to twenty pounds more than the one that he had been carrying. His back was already complaining from the increasing weight that he had carried that day. He was afraid that starting off with that full amount of weight and carrying it throughout the day might be more than he could bear.

"Is peanut butter and apples okay with you?" Brandton asked as he walked out of the hallway.

"For what?"

Brandton chuckled, then explained, "For a snack. You're not allergic or anything, are you?"

"No. Although, I don't recall ever having that combination before." Bitru said hesitantly.

"Go use the bathroom if you need to and I'll have this ready in a few minutes." Brandton said before walking into the kitchen.

At Brandton's suggestion, Bitru realized that he very much needed to use the toilet and hurried away.

* * * * *

"I figure that you're probably pretty hungry, so I made some extra." Brandton said as Bitru walked into the kitchen.

"I am. Thank you."

When Brandton set the plate on the table between them, Bitru wasn't entirely sure what he was looking at.

"Come on! At least give it a try before you say that you hate it."

Bitru was about to explain that he was hesitant simply because he couldn't imagine the combination of flavors, but instead picked up one of the apple wedges, which had been coated with peanut butter, then covered with a slice of sharp cheddar cheese.

After taking a bite, it took a moment for the flavors to register in Bitru's mouth. The salty tang of the cheese, the sweet crisp apple and the deep rich peanut butter combined into an astounding blend of flavors and textures that amazed him.

Brandton watched carefully for Bitru's reaction and broke into a smile when he could tell that Bitru was enjoying the snack that he had provided.

"Are you okay with milk?" Brandton asked cautiously.

Bitru appeared to want to answer but kept determinedly chewing.

"Nod if you want some milk." Brandton finally said with a smile.

Bitru quickly nodded.

Brandton walked to the refrigerator and took out the milk, then took down two glasses from the cupboard and poured milk for them both.

As he was walking back to the kitchen table, Bitru was finally able to say, "Thank you, Brandton. This is incredibly good."

"I'm glad you like it. I usually wouldn't make this much, but I know that you've got to be starving."

"I will admit that I was feeling some weakness, but I don't know if it were from being hungry, the degree of physical activity I performed in the gym class or if it were from carrying the increasing weight of my backpack."

"How about all three?" Brandton asked before taking a bite of one of his apple wedges.

"Yes. Perhaps it was the combination. Regardless, I don't recall ever feeling this... weary... before."

"Well, you'd better get used to it, because that's how I feel every single day."

Bitru seemed to be about to respond, but instead picked up another apple wedge and took a large bite out of it.

The lack of response made Brandton want to explain, "I wasn't always like this. I used to play and have fun and... do things. Now, even when I'm not in school, I don't want to do anything but lay around because I know that I'm going to need to save all my energy. I mean, on Sundays, I don't want to go to church because it sucks, but I don't want to do anything else either, because I've got to go back to that life sucking, soul destroying hellhole."

"I thought you didn't believe in souls." Bitru said with an impish grin.

"I was speaking figuratively." Brandton said as he tried to restrain a smile.

"What if you were speaking literally? How do you really feel about going to school?"

"I hate it." Brandton said simply, then thought to add, "Duh!"

Bitru looked at Brandton with confusion for a moment, then cautiously asked, "What about the other local schools? What are they like?"

"The only other school I really know about around here is the one that gave Mac books to their students, then remote activated the web cams so that they could spy on them at home. From what I've heard, that school's better than ours, but it's still pretty bad."

* * * * *

Bitru seemed to be lost in thought as he and Brandton sat at the kitchen table and ate their apple slices.

"What do you want to do to relax before we have to do homework?" Brandton finally asked.

"I believe that I would like to call my father."

"I've never thought of talking to my parents being something relaxing, but whatever works for you."

"I don't know that it will be relaxing, but I believe that I will feel better."

"Take what you can get." Brandton said with a smile at his cousin.

* * * * *

The peanut butter was most likely the main reason that the cousins remained silent while they enjoyed the remainder of their snack. But after the noise and having to hurry all day, the unrushed quiet held it's own appeal.

It wasn't until they were finished, that Brandton and Bitru gathered their backpacks and made their way to the bedroom.

"I'm just going to check my email and veg out online for a few minutes. If you want to talk to your dad in private, I'll stay in here until you're done." Brandton said as he walked to his computer and turned it on.

"I don't believe that I will be saying anything to him that I would be ashamed for you to hear. And there is a chance that he might have questions that I will be unable to answer."

"Okay. I just didn't want you to feel like you had to let me listen in or anything." Brandton said, then turned his attention to his booting computer to watch its progress.

As Brandton was getting his email program opened, he heard Bitru say, "This is Bitru. I apologise for calling so late, but I need to speak with father."

"Physically, I am well. However, circumstances here are not as I had anticipated."

There was a long moment of silence, then Bitru quietly said, "No, Mother. Quite the opposite. Meeting my cousin has been one of the few positive experiences that I have had since my arrival. I would very much like to tell you of my arrival in detail. However, I must speak immediately with father. I do not know what, if anything, he will be able to do to address my concerns, but I am certain that time is not on our side."

Brandton glanced toward Bitru to find an expression of concern on his face.

"Father. Before anything else, I wish to apologise to you. You were right. My insistence on going to a 'regular' school with 'regular' people was a horrible mistake."

"Yes Father, I understand that I must face the consequences of my decisions."

"If that is your final answer, I will remain. But please understand that the consequences you are asking me to endure may include drug addiction, violence or death."

"No. I am not exaggerating. The institution that I attended today is little more than an indoctrination center, producing mindless, compliant workers who have systematically had their wills broken. If you insist that I continue to attend, then you will need to disregard any future plans that you might have held for me."

"Father. They chemically lobotomize people who are spirited or question too much. They publicly demean and humiliate people for little or no reason, to keep the masses timid and fearful, lest they be targeted for such humiliation. They routinely stage events to keep the students in a state of fear. If one were to deliberately concoct a system to demoralize and subjugate a populace, I can't imagine how it would be substantively different."

"Thank you, Father. I know that you do not revisit your decisions easily or often. I appreciate that you are willing to do so, now. I will await your decision with anticipation."

After a minute or two of silence, Brandton chanced a look over his shoulder to find Bitru standing and staring sightlessly at the phone in his hand.

"Are you okay?"

"There is so much more I should have told him... both of them."

"When you needed help, you called your dad. Even if you didn't say the words, I'm pretty sure that he got the message, just from that."

After a moment to consider, Bitru quietly responded, "You have uncommon wisdom."

"You're smart, Bitru. I've got the feeling that you already know more things than I will ever learn."

"Although I have had academic advantages, I am surprised to find myself in a situation in which I do not know how to react."

"You're in a different place, having to deal with stuff that you've never heard of before. So don't beat yourself up if you're afraid and don't know what you're supposed to do."

"Should I be afraid, right now?"

"You feel however you feel. But if you are afraid, I can understand why."

After a moment of careful consideration, Bitru quietly asked, "If a person were afraid in a circumstance such as this, what would one do to alleviate the feeling?"

Brandton stood from his chair in front of his computer, then slowly walked to Bitru, so as not to spook him.

"I don't know how much logical sense this makes, but it might make you feel better." Brandton said, then pulled Bitru into a firm hug.

It took a moment, but Bitru eventually put his arms around Brandton and started hugging him in return.

They stood like that for a few minutes, until Brandton finally asked, "Are you feeling better?"

"My family doesn't do this. Although I've never heard them say as much, I have the sense that they feel that it is beneath them."

"Well, to be honest, my parents aren't very touchy feely, either. But every now and then, when my dad gets really into something, he might pull me into a hug. When he realizes what he's doing, he pulls back and sometimes even says that he's sorry... I guess I never really thought about it, before."

"Were I to speculate, I would say that it has to do with societal perceptions of masculinity. Your father doesn't wish to cause you harm by exposing you to non-masculine displays of emotionalism."

"He thinks that if he hugs me, it'll make me gay."

"Perhaps. But I don't think it works that way."

"No. Him hugging me won't make me gay. But I think I understand what he's thinking. Showing feelings is a girl thing. Hiding feelings is a boy thing. When he slips up and shows his feelings toward me, he's afraid that he's setting a bad example. Of course, the other way of looking at it is that when he hugs me, it means that he loves me so much that he's breaking his conditioning. So that's kinda cool."

Bitru released Brandton from the hug and slowly started to back away.

"Feeling better?"

"I still have the same concerns weighing on me that I had before. However, the underlying emotion welled within me seems to have been calmed, somewhat. So, yes, I am feeling better."

"Good. And just so you know, I'm not my dad. If you need a hug, I'll give you one... well, except at school."

"Yes. Although it might be worth a week of in school suspension."

"Actually, if they caught two guys hugging, it'd be a whole lot worse than that. They'd probably call the CPS and get us taken away from our parents, then get us drugged up real good and send us off to different schools. They'd never admit to it in public, because it's not politically correct to say it, but they hate gays really bad."

"What is CPS?"

"Child Protective Services. They're supposed to step in when kids are being abused or neglected. But from what I hear on the news, they're not too good at it."

"But, can the school really have children removed from their parents?".

"Sure. They do it all the time. If a kid does something to piss someone off, or even if the parents piss off the wrong person, then they call CPS and find a reason to take the kid away. The parents are threatened with jail if they resist, so that keeps them quiet. And since just about all the CPS kids are drugged outta their minds, there's no big fight there. I guess the judge could stop it if he wanted to, but he probably thinks that he's getting juvenile delinquents off the street, since we're all guilty until proven innocent."

"For as long as I can remember, I would spend many hours a day with a tutor. At some point, I came to realize that other children didn't live as I did. While I was being taught privately, they were in schools, together. I was alone and sought an end to the loneliness. I never for a moment imagined the horror that awaited me outside my sheltered world."

"There's worse schools than ours, but there's a lot better, too. You just ended up near the bottom of the barrel."

"Excuse me. You had said that you wanted to use this time before your parents came home for relaxation. I am interrupting you."

"Talking with you is very relaxing. I can't think of anything else that I'd rather be doing right now."

"Thank you. I enjoy talking with you, too."

They stood in silence for a moment, then Brandton quietly admitted, "I don't have anything to say."

"Nor do I." Bitru admitted with a slight smile.

"Let's go into the living room and watch TV until my mom gets home. I need to turn my brain off for a little while."

"I don't think I've ever turned my brain off, before."

"You're in America, now. This is what we're good at." Brandton said with a smile, before leading the way out of the bedroom.

* * * * *

"What are we watching?" Bitru asked cautiously.

"I don't know yet. I'm waiting for the commercials to be over."

"I am not accustomed to watching television. I didn't realize that there were so many commercials."

"Yeah. There's a lot."

A particularly festive commercial started playing, then Bitru looked around the living room before asking, "Does your family celebrate the Christmas holiday?"


Bitru looked around the room again, not seeing any evidence of decorations.

"We'll probably put the tree up this weekend, when Mom and Dad are both off work. We would have done it last weekend except that after the whole Thanksgiving thing, I don't think anyone was really up to diving into another holiday, right away."

"I would like to have experienced the Thanksgiving holiday. I have heard of it but it wasn't celebrated anywhere that I have lived."

"All we really do is eat too much. We'll be doing exactly the same thing at Christmas, so you haven't missed anything." Brandton said simply, then quickly added, "The show's on."

"What are we watching?"

"I don't know. Some sitcom from twenty or thirty years ago. That's the good thing about these shows. You don't have to know anything or think about it. Just let your mind go blank and laugh when you hear the laugh track."

"They tell you when to laugh?"

"Yep. Just try it."

"My parents always discouraged me from watching such things."

"Yeah. It's like candy. Empty calories for your mind." Brandton said as he kept his gaze fixed on the TV screen.

After a moment more of watching, Bitru quietly muttered, "Not particularly good candy."

* * * * *

Brandton and Bitru both looked toward the entry hall as the front door opened.

"So, Bitru, how was your first day of school?" Liz Anne asked as she hurried into the house.


"Just give it some time." Liz Anne said before darting down the hallway.

After a moment to consider, Bitru turned to Brandton and asked, "Why does your mother dismiss my concerns so easily?"

"She probably remembers when she went to school and thinks that what you went through today was something like that. Of course, Mom's really good at remembering only the good things and believing what she wants to believe. I think her church taught her that. Anyway... when I tell her that I hate school, she remembers a time when she didn't want to go to school and how she got past it."

Bitru thought for a moment, then said, "Yes. I can understand that."

"Well, to be honest, I might just be telling myself what I want to hear so I won't think that my mom is a callous monster who doesn't care if I'm miserable or not."

"I believe that I prefer your first explanation, as well."

* * * * *

"Bitru, do you like fried chicken?" Liz Anne asked as she walked into the living room.

"While I have had fried chicken in the past, I have always heard good things about American fried chicken. I would like very much to try it." Bitru said with the beginning of a smile.

"Good! I'm going to go get dinner started." Liz Anne said happily as she hurried out of the living room.

"Don't get your hopes up, Bitru. It's from the freezer." Brandton warned.

"How do you know that?"

"Because, as far as I know, that's the only kind of fried chicken she's ever made. I'm not saying that it's bad. But it doesn't taste the same as real food."

"This situation is unfamiliar to me. But I feel that it is wrong for me to sit while your mother prepares the evening meal for us. Shouldn't we offer to help her?"

"You can if you want, but I doubt that there's anything to do. Taking stuff out of the freezer and sticking it in the oven doesn't really take that much work."

"Perhaps she could use some help with the salad."

"Nope. She just rips open a bag and dumps it in a bowl."

"So all the food served here is pre prepared?"

"Yeah. Me cutting up the apples and putting peanut butter on them is probably as close to 'cooking' as you'll get in this house."

"If that's truly the case, then I thank you. The snack was flavorful and enjoyable."

"You're welcome. But try not to think too bad about my mom. She works hard all day, then comes home and fixes a meal for us. I know that she's got to be tired. Even if she had the time, I doubt that she'd have the energy to do much more than what she already does."

Bitru silently considered Brandton's words.

Before he could think of a way to respond, the front door opened and Brandton's father walked in.

"I see that you survived your first day. How was it?" Warren asked as he walked into the living room.

"Miserable beyond my ability to express." Bitru said honestly.

"Must be that kind of day." Warren said as he walked past them and down the hallway.

"Your father had a bad day?" Bitru asked in confusion at the response.

"I guess so. He doesn't talk about it much, but I get the feeling that most of his days are like that."

Bitru thought for a moment, then quietly asked, "Is your family ever 'happy'?"

"Every now and then." Brandton said carefully, then explained, "In the summer, when I'm out of school, both my parents take a vacation from their jobs for a week and we all go and do something. When I was little, I guess they made it all about me and we'd go to a theme park or something like that and all have a good time. This year we didn't go anywhere... we just stayed home and worked on things that needed to be done, here at the house. They said that we couldn't afford to go anywhere."

"So, one week out of the year, all of you are able to do something enjoyable together?"

"Yeah. And then there's Christmas. We're all off for a few days, then. So we get to be together and give each other gifts and eat too much and stuff like that."

"But the rest of the year, you and your parents are all miserable, doing what is required of you?"

"What's our other choice?"

"I don't know." Bitru admitted, then added, "But I feel that there must be one."

"If you figure it out, let me know." Brandton said seriously, then turned his attention back to the decades old sitcom.

* * * * *

"Dinner's almost ready." Liz Anne said from the kitchen doorway.

Bitru looked up with surprise and realized that nearly an hour had passed without his notice.

"Now I understand what you meant about 'turning off' your brain." Bitru said as he got up from the couch.

"Yeah." Brandton said as he also stood, then asked, "Do you remember how bad you were feeling about things before you sat down?"

"Yes." Bitru said absently as he fought to bring his thinking mind back from its brief slumber.

"Even though watching TV didn't make anything better, at least it took your mind off stuff for a little bit, so you didn't feel so worried." Brandton said as he walked into the bathroom.

Bitru slowly nodded his agreement.

* * * * *

After they had both washed their hands, Bitru and Brandton walked into the kitchen, to find the table empty. From there, they walked to the dining room and found dinner laid out for them.

The fried chicken was in a large glass bowl in the middle of the table. Beside it was a cardboard tray of macaroni and cheese. In a small basket, there were the same dinner rolls from the night before, and to round out the meal was a bowl of salad.

Liz Anne took her seat, then looked at Warren expectantly.

"Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts which we are about to receive, through Thy bounty through Christ our Lord we pray. Amen." Warren said reverently.

When the prayer was finished, Warren looked to his wife and said, "This looks great. Thank you."

"Just help yourselves. We've got plenty of everything." Liz Anne said happily, taking her husband's gratitude to heart.

Bitru waited for a moment to watch the others before tentatively serving himself.

He selected a drumstick from the bowl of fried chicken, then took a small portion of everything else, just in case there was something that he couldn't force himself to eat.

After a glance around the table, Bitru put down his knife and fork and picked up the chicken leg with his fingers and took his first bite.

He slowly chewed as he waited for the taste to register.

"How do you like it?" Brandton asked cautiously.

Bitru forced himself to swallow before honestly answering, "This is far too salty for my taste."

"Yeah. That's the batter. Just peel it off and the chicken inside should be okay." Brandton said before taking another bite of his food.

Bitru did so and found that Brandton was right.

The chicken was a bit dry, and still a bit too salty. But it wasn't intolerable, so he continued to eat.

When he tried the macaroni and cheese, he was hit first by the intense tang of the cheese. But it was the excessive saltiness that made him unable to take another bite.

While the salad wasn't salty, the variety of bottled dressings to go with it, were. Even though he only used a small amount, the salt was noticeable and off putting.

With the exception of the macaroni and cheese, Bitru was able to finish all the food that he had put on his plate.

As he was putting down his silverware, the sound of a timer going off in the kitchen caught his attention.

"I hope everyone saved room for dessert." Liz Anne said as she got up from the table.

Bitru felt a wave of dread wash over him, still remembering the vile perfumy dessert from the night before.

"Was everything okay?" Brandton asked Bitru quietly.

"Everything tasted too salty to me, but I enjoyed it otherwise." Bitru said carefully.

"We need to let this rest for a minute. Just hold on while I get the ice cream." Liz Anne said as she walked into the room carrying an apple pie, fresh from the oven.

"You like ice cream, don't you, Bitru?" Warren asked curiously.

"Yes. Very much."

Liz Anne walked into the dining room with a cylindrical cardboard tub of ice cream and a scoop.

"Say when." She said as she was putting a scoop on Bitru's dinner plate.

"Excuse me?"

"Let me know when you have enough." Liz Anne said as she dropped another scoop onto his plate.

"This is more than enough." Bitru said quickly, then added a quiet, "Thank you."

Liz Anne went around the table, giving ice cream to everyone else before she took the tub of ice cream back to the kitchen.

Bitru noticed that Warren and Brandton weren't eating their ice cream, yet. So he also waited, unsure of what to do next.

When Liz Anne returned, she had a pie server in hand. She quickly and skillfully cut the pie and started dishing it out around the table.

Bitru looked down at the wedge of pie and two scoops of ice cream on his plate. It was nearly three times what he would expect to be served for dessert with his family.

"Go ahead. Give it a try." Brandton encouraged.

As Bitru had come to expect, the crust of the apple pie tasted too salty to him. In contrast, the apple pie filling tasted far too sweet. Even though the ice cream was smooth and creamy, once again, it was the cloying sweetness that Bitru objected to. But beyond all of that, it was the excessive size of the portion that was most troubling to him.

"Don't you like it?" LIz Anne asked with concern.

"It is good. Just far more than I am used to eating." Bitru said carefully, not wanting to offend.

"I'll be sure to give you a smaller piece next time. Just eat as much as you're comfortable with." Liz Anne said gently.

"Thank you for understanding."

In the end, Bitru was able to eat about half of his dessert.

When the meal was finally finished, Brandton announced, "We'd better get to work on our homework."

"Yes. I suppose that we should." Bitru said regretfully.

"Do you boys have a lot of homework to do?" Warren asked curiously.

"About normal. But Bitru and I are going to have to share books for a few of the assignments, so that might slow things down."

"Would it be easier for you to work in here at the dining room table?" Warren asked curiously.

Brandton thought for a moment, then said, "Yeah. That would probably work out best."

"Help your mother clear the table, then you'd better get to work." Warren said as he stood from his chair.

Brandton and Bitru both started gathering dishes and carrying them to the kitchen.

* * * * *

"You have a Spanish book, right?" Brandton asked as he started taking his homework folders out of his backpack.

"Yes. Although, from what I saw of the homework, I can't see how it will be of any use."

"Just look at the quizzes and find where she got the questions from. Most likely, the answers will be listed in the back of the book." Brandton said as he organized his books and folders on the dining room table.

"So, you don't have to read the text to answer the questions?"

"Nope. If you do that, you'll probably run out of time to do everything else. Besides, you don't have to learn the homework stuff. It's all just busy work." Brandton said frankly, then thought to say, "Remember to take your gym clothes out so that they can be washed."

"Should we wash them now?"

"No. We have gym twice a week. The next class is on Friday. Just make sure to put your gym clothes in the laundry tonight." Brandton said seriously.

Silence fell between them for a moment, then Bitru quietly said, "This homework seems pointless."

"The point is to waste your time. I promise, it does that very well." Brandton said without looking up from his worksheet.

* * * * *

"Do you have my History book?" Brandton asked as he put a completed assignment into its proper folder.

"Yes. I haven't used it yet. But you may have it if you need it now." Bitru said as he scooted the book in Brandton's direction.

"Are you just about finished with whatever you're working on?"

"Yes. I completed the English homework easily. I was just seeking to find corroborative statements in the textbook to justify my answers."

"Use the answers in the back of the book. If you answer the questions that way you're going to get some of them wrong."

"But I am certain that I have answered the questions correctly."

"I'm sure that you did, too. But that doesn't mean that the book answered them right. And the teacher grades from her key. Period."

"Of course."

"I was thinking that if you can leave that for a minute, we could go ahead and fill in the maps together."

"Yes. That sounds like an efficient use of our time." Bitru said as he set his worksheet aside.

Brandton opened the History book and flipped to the proper map before scooting it to where they could both see it easily.

* * * * *

After doing the New England and Ottoman Empire maps, they also worked on the Art homework together. The inferior quality of the photographs of the dolls in the handouts made identifying all the different doll dresses somewhat challenging. But eventually they were able to complete the assignment and each went back to doing his own work.

A knock on the door caused both of them to look up in surprise.

Brandton used the interruption to ask, "How are you doing?"

"I must admit that I am having some difficulty. Answering questions thoughtlessly is a skill that I will need to develop. I keep finding myself wanting to investigate beyond the scope of the questions."

"Yeah. You'd better stop that. If they find out that you're learning stuff, they'll nail you for sure."

"How are you doing?"

"Okay. Even though I'm not as smart as you are, there's still some of this stuff that bugs me because I know it's wrong. I'm doing the Science homework and the book still has Pluto listed as a planet." Brandton groused, then added, "I was three years old when they decided that it was a dwarf. I mean, come on!"

"In the short time that we have been doing homework, I have spotted two instances in which I believe that the textbooks are incorrect. But, on your suggestion, I have refrained from trying to verify the truth of the matter."

"Yeah. We don't have to like it. We just have to do it."

"Are you guys ready for a break?" Warren asked as he walked into the dining room.

"Sure." Brandton answered for both of them.

There was a movement from behind Warren, then Mr. Silverstone walked into the room and said, "Good evening, gentlemen."

To Be Continued...

Editor's Notes:

My anger juices are flowing. I remember school being annoying in certain ways, but, somehow, I am sure that we were not nearly as stifled from learning new information. I also remember that back then, if an answer in a textbook was found to be wrong and we pointed it out, most times our 'correct' answers were counted as correct, as was the answer given in the book, but with the explanation that the book was, in fact wrong.

I have contact with young people still in school, and their experiences seem to more closely reflect what Brandton and Bitru are 'learning'. What a sad state of affairs, isn't it.

Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher