The Happy Students of Jayden M. Martinez Middle School

“The Happy Students of Jayden M. Martinez Middle School”

by Jonathon Mast

“You all know about depression, right? Self harm, feeling sad, all that? All right, let’s skip ahead then.” The presenter turned to fast-forward through a handful of slides.

Darcy pursed her lips and looked around at the other teachers. No one else seemed bothered. She looked down at the heading on her agenda. “Seminar on Adolescent Mental Health.” She scanned the page. Yep, depression was right there.

The presenter turned back. “All right. Now that we’ve walked through the most common mental illnesses, I wanted to talk about how to encourage good mental health. Sorry, ma’am. We need to keep moving, or we won’t finish in time. We’ll get to questions later.”

Darcy kept her hand up anyway.

Angel glanced up from his phone at her, raising an eyebrow.

Darcy felt her face redden. The presenter droned on as more and more eyes went to her raised hand. She refused to meet anyone’s gaze. Finally she called out, “Hey!”

The presenter paused.

“Go back to depression! It’s a big threat in middle school.” She swallowed. How was it she was fine teaching kids, but get her talking in a room of adults and she started overproducing saliva? “I’d appreciate some info on that.”

The corner of the presenter’s mouth twitched up just a fraction. “Ah. New to the school, I take it?”

“First year here. Moved from San Perdido,” she answered.

“Yeah. Thought so. Look, the schools in Encubierto face a lot of . . . unique challenges. I’m sure your principal’s filled you in on your school’s particular policies.”

Darcy tried not to think about the strange active-shooter procedures, along with the need to make sure that the third light bulb in the back of the classroom was always left on, even when she left for the night.

“Well, maybe you weren’t informed. Children here at Jayden M. Martinez Middle School don’t have depression. Not one since this place opened ten years ago. We take good care of our children here. The only reason depression is even on the agenda is so admins from the district office don’t come sniffing around when we don’t need them.”

“The kids here don’t have depression? What kind of crap is that?” Oh, good. The only thing that overcame her shyness: Her anger.

The presenter sighed. “Remember the values of the school system. One of the biggest ones: We want kids happy. We follow those values well. And you will, too, right?”

Every eye in the room landed on her.

Darcy glared at the presenter, refusing to give in to the shame that crept in at the edges of her anger. “Of course I stand by the values of the district. They’re a big reason why I came here.”

“Good. So can we move on, then?”

He was patronizing her. That tone, that face. Making fun of the new girl.

Screw him. Fine. He wants to skip ahead? Let him.

Darcy gave a stiff nod.

“What is wrong with you, girl?” Mary slapped Darcy on the back. One of the Marys. The one with the straight black hair.

The Marys filled the other three classrooms down the little hall Darcy had been stuffed into. Darcy hadn’t learned their last names yet. Learning names was one of those things that took up too much bandwidth in Darcy’s mind. “Hey you” was a favorite thing for her to call students. Thankfully most of them never paid enough attention to realize her deficiency.

She winced. She needed to learn names. Needed to show she valued people at least that much. Just because she was bad at it didn’t mean she shouldn’t put in the effort.

Mary-with-straight-hair walked beside Darcy as she stalked from the cafeteria that held today’s training. “You want to start by getting the whole school pissed off at you?”

Mary-with-curly-hair came up on her other side. “Look, just keep your head down. Keep that light on in your room, and you’ll probably make it through your first year. Oh, also don’t drink out of the fountain in our hallway after school lets out for the day. Trust me.”

“What is wrong with this town?” Darcy grumbled.

“Lots of things.” Mary-with-curly-hair shrugged. “Just give thanks depression in our kids ain’t one of them.”

Darcy shook her head. “How is that possible? I’ve seen the neighborhoods these kids live in. The broken homes. The abuse. I’ve read enough of the IEPs of the kids I’m going to have. There’s no way that depression isn’t a thing.”

Mary-with-curly-hair shrugged again. “Maybe our culture at the school makes up for it. Estelle makes sure everything flows well, and we stress the family aspect a lot.”

“It is rad,” Mary-with-blond-dreadlocks joined in, her thick braids bobbing in time with her steps. “Especially the lunches here. Someone keeps dropping off fresh-baked bread in the teacher’s lounge. Nothing smells better than that!” She inhaled deeply and burst into a coughing fit.

Mary-with-straight-hair slapped her on the back. “Told you to quit those.”

“Yeah, yeah. Lady’s gotta deal with the pain somehow.” She gave one last cough and looked over at Darcy. “They ain’t kidding about that fountain, though.”

“Oh! Maybe it’s something in the water!” Mary-with-straight-hair laughed. “We put Prozac in all the fountains so the kids never get depression!”

The Marys laughed. Darcy didn’t say a thing.

Mary-with-curly-hair patted Darcy on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. The first month or so is always hard on newbies. You should do okay, though. You said you taught in some rough neighborhoods before.”

Darcy frowned. “Yeah.”

“You wanna grab some coffee or something?”

“Maybe. I’m not really ready to talk about it yet, though.” She paused. “I just don’t understand how not one middle-school kid has depression. I remember those years. They weren’t pretty.” Darcy tried to make sure she was swinging her arms like normal. She didn’t want to call attention to her scars.

“Oh, we got plenty of drama at the school!” Mary-with-curly-hair burst out. “Kids experimenting with dating, with drugs, all that. Lots of tears every day! But we keep depression on the run. We want the kids happy, you know?”

A week later, the first day of school fell on all the teachers. Students shrieked and guffawed in the hallways. The boys either didn’t wear any deodorant or sprayed on way too much. The girls wore things that would let them blend in and stand out. Experienced teachers went home exhausted; inexperienced teachers went home with various forms of PTSD. All in all, a pretty normal first day.

Good. Darcy had heard stories from her neighbors – things like what roads to avoid, stay inside during full moons, don’t take a date to the beach unless you want to drown him—that had unnerved her. And all the strange rules—the light, the fountain, all the others—that she’d been given for the school. And add in the no-depression thing? She’d begun to think that maybe the children would be robots, and she would only train them how to kill humans.

But, no. As far as she could tell, as the first day of classes wound down, these were normal kids, like the ones she’d taught up north.

Well, hopefully they weren’t exactly the same.

At the end of the week, Darcy’s phone told her she had an appointment with the principal, Estelle. She didn’t remember entering the info, but the phone always knew better than she did, so at the end of the day to the principal’s office she went.

Estelle was a dumpy woman with a smile that could light up the valley of the shadow of death. Today she wore black slacks and a bright purple blouse. Darcy knocked on the door frame —Estelle’s office door was legendary for always being open—and Estelle looked up from her computer. “Darcy! Good! Come on in!” Her smile immediately lifted Darcy’s spirits.

She hadn’t even realized she was feeling down.

“Come in, come in! Have a seat! I like touching base with all the newbies after the first week, making sure we’re doing everything we can in administration to support them. So tell me, how are you doing?”

Darcy felt herself smiling. She took one of the padded chairs facing Estelle’s desk. The front of the desk was plastered with various construction paper cards from students: “We love Mrs. Hada!” “Yore the best!” “Hooray for Hada!”

“Well, Estelle, I’m surprised. After all the warnings about strange things in this town, I thought I’d be teaching werewolves. But the kids are very sweet. There’s still problems, of course, but nothing worse than I’d expect in any classroom.”

“Oh, good, good.” Estelle’s smile simply glowed. “Are you taking advantage of the free lunches we offer the teachers?”

“Hm? Oh, I haven’t gotten to the teachers’ lounge much.” Or at all. The three Marys pretty much kept her up with anything she needed to know.

“Dear, it’s one of the big things here. The warnings . . .well, they were true. And when something happens to the one of the school families, we need to be equipped to support the children. And that means we need to support one another. I learned long ago from my abuela that people bond over food, so there’s always a good lunch for the teachers. Trust me. Come down during your lunch period. Please. When I hired you, I knew you’d be good for the students. But we always stand stronger together.”

Darcy nodded. She’d been there for all the initial team-building exercises, and of course the Marys had assimilated her into their strange collective. She thought she was close enough to the faculty, but she could probably commit to getting down there at least sometimes. “I’ll see if I can swing by next week.”

“Please do.”

“Is this… does this have something to do with the low rates of depression among the students?”

“Oh, honey! I suppose it could. But you know as well as I do: We don’t have depression at all. Not in my school. We want our students happy. There’s too many scary things out there.”

That weekend she hid at home. Each of the Marys called at least once to invite her out to coffee or beer or even church, but she turned them all down. Instead, Darcy wrapped herself in a knit shawl and didn’t cry as she read a book and tried to write a book.

Monday came, and the kids were hyper from two and a half days of unrestricted screen access. They were normal kids, all of them. Darcy lurked in her classroom during her lunch, though. She told herself she had to do correcting.

Tuesday came, and during lunch Angel poked his head into the room. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Darcy answered, cautious.

“I haven’t seen you around. Thought I’d come to make sure that your haunted light didn’t try to take you away or anything.”

“Nope. It’s still on.” She pointed with her red pen.

He wandered into the room. Angel was a tall, younger science teacher with dark hair and eyes. He stuck his hands into his slacks pockets, and then behind his back, and then back to the pockets. “I never see you around the teachers’ lounge, and I like getting to know the new teachers. You know. And you made a splash at the seminar before school started.”

Darcy put a hand over her face. “Great. That’s what I want to be known for.”

“No!” he stammered. “I mean, I like curiosity. It’s kind of a science thing, you know?”

Oh, gosh. Did boys ever grow up? He looked like one of the seventh graders trying to ask out a cute girl and realizing he messed up.

Oh. He looked like he was trying to ask her out.

Oh. Maybe Darcy should respond. “Yeah, I like curiosity.” Yep. Smooth. Right.

“Yeah, well, I was thinking about it. And I’ve been watching the kids this week. And I realized that, well, it is a little weird, isn’t it? I mean, there’s things you can do to lower depression rates. At least, I think so. Except this isn’t lower rates. I checked with the counselors. They’re right: Not one single kid diagnosed with depression or associated disorders anywhere in Jayden M. Martinez Middle School. And that’s, that’s a little messed up, you know?”

That was not the direction Darcy expected this to go. “Yeah. Yeah, it is! Thank you for noticing.”

“So I thought, maybe, we could talk it over. Outside of school. Compare notes, you know?”

Well, there it was.

Did she want a date?

Yeah. Yeah she did. “When were you thinking?”

The three Marys all squealed when she told them.

“He’s dreamy! I’d eat him up if I weren’t married,” Mary-with-straight-hair said. “You’re just lucky you don’t have any competition from me, girl.”

Mary-with-blond-dreads laughed. “I’m not even straight, and I think he’s dreamy!”

Mary-with-curly-hair slapped her on the shoulder. “You don’t talk about that kind of thing at school!”

“Hey, there ain’t any kids around! Besides, we’re open and inclusive, remember, you bigot?”

The two laughed. They were happy for her. When was the last time anyone was happy for her? It felt good.

Every day the Marys asked for updates. Considering the date wasn’t until Friday, there wasn’t much to report. Darcy kept lurking in her room during lunch, so she and Angel didn’t have any encounters.

And then Friday arrived. That morning, Darcy stood in front of her closet. Red blouse? Fridays were casual days for the teachers. Should she take advantage of that? The Marys told her they all wore t-shirts and jeans. But if Darcy was going on a date right after school, should she wear something so casual?

She split the difference and slipped on some black leggings and a midnight blue tunic top. It made her feel less ugly. Maybe attractive. Maybe.

During homeroom, she supervised a passel of twenty-three kids as announcements staticked over the intercom. No one paid attention. Then they had fifteen minutes to do “team building exercises.” Darcy had already decided that Fridays meant they could talk quietly, and she’d call up the kids on rotation to just touch base and give them a chance to talk if they needed.

Today she started by calling up Nathaniel Tucker. Nate slouched his way to her desk and slumped into the chair. The rest of the students chatted with each other and generally ignored Darcy’s desk.

“Nate, I’m still meeting most of the kids. There’s nothing you and I have to talk about, but I’d like to get to know you a little bit.”

“All right.” He avoided eye contact. Crossed his arms.

“Is there anything you want me to know about you?”

He shrugged. “I dunno. I really don’t do much of anything. I have to go home right after school.”

“Oh? Do you have a job?”

His eyes flicked to her. “Not really. I have to take care of mom.”

“Oh.” Darcy waited a moment to see if he’d keep going.

He didn’t.

She hated these kind of conversations. A lot of the kids were reticent, of course. Who wanted to talk to a teacher? But this was part of caring for them. When she’d told Estelle about her Friday plan back during interviews, Estelle had been ecstatic.

Darcy waited.

Nate finally uncoiled enough to answer. “She’s got this thing. She can’t get out of bed most days. I don’t get it. She says she saw something a few years ago. And she just doesn’t live anymore.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, like, she used to smile. And now she doesn’t. It’s like something took all the stuff that made her her away. Like she’s empty now. So after school, I go home to make sure she’s not—” His eyes darted to the other students. Still no one was paying attention. He slumped further down before answering. “Well, I go home to take care of her. And that takes all my time. So if I don’t get all your homework done, I’m sorry. Life’s more important than homework.”

“It is.”

His eyes shot to hers.

Darcy offered a gentle smile. “Life is more important than homework. Homework is important, too. It hopefully prepares you to be able to live better, one way or another. But sometimes other things get more important. Like taking care of your mom.” She waited a few beats. “How’re you doing with all this?”

He shrugged. “I’m fine.”

“It’s okay if you’re not.”

“Why would I not be fine?” His eyebrows knit together. “I mean, that’s the weirdest thing. Mom just sort of died, and I don’t get how anyone can do that. Sure, get sad, that I kinda get. And the doc talked about depression. But . . . how can anyone be depressed? I don’t understand.”

***

Next period, Darcy stood in front of her class. “Every school has a different culture, and if I’m going to teach you well, I need to understand yours. And let’s face it: What the teachers think you understand and what you actually understand are totally different, right?”

There was some quiet giggling at that. More than one couple gave not-so-discrete glances at each other.

“So this isn’t a graded thing. I just want you to give some honest answers. So you’re going to take this anonymously. Don’t put your name on it. Just give honest answers. Take out a sheet of paper. Answer ‘no’ if you’ve never had to deal with this, and ‘yes’ if you have, all right? Good. Question one: Do you have a close relative or friend who’s in active military duty?”

And she ran through a bunch of questions, but threaded through there were questions like, “I struggle with smiling,” or “I feel sad a lot.” The last question said, “I have depression, even though no one knows.”

This hadn’t been the plan, of course. They were supposed to discuss Act II of Romeo and Juliet. Adding the quiz meant that they’d talk about it on Monday, and no one complained about not having to read anything over the weekend.

After the tone signaling the end of the period sounded, the kids piled out of the room. She scanned the completed quizzes.

The first one didn’t struggle with smiling. Felt happy most of the time. Certainly didn’t have depression.

The second one said the same thing, even though apparently several people had died recently in his or her family.

The third one struggled with grades. No depression.

And the quizzes piled up:

No one struggled with smiling.

No one felt sad a lot.

No one admitted to having depression.

It made no sense. None at all. How could this be? These were middle school kids. They were supposed to be angsty. They were supposed to be at least a little down; it went with the territory. And some of them were facing some major challenges.

The next period, she did the quiz again.

And the next.

And the next.

Eight periods of quizzes.

Nearly two hundred kids.

Not one struggled with depression.

Angel stuck his head into the room. “Hey. You ready to grab that coffee?”

Darcy jumped. “Oh. Sorry. Yeah. Um. Here, let me just gather these up.” She shuffled the stack of quizzes into her messenger bag and closed up her laptop.

Angel wandered the room. He paused in front of a color print of a girl facing down a dragon. Her sword was made out of books. “Hey. I like some of these posters.”

“Thanks. We had some good teacher supply stores up north. Haven’t found anything local yet.”

“There really isn’t much. Encubierto really exploded in the last couple decades; some of the industries haven’t really caught up yet. You should have grown up here. It’s so different now.” He shook his head. “I’m glad this school isn’t like the city, though. At least not much.” He glanced up at a certain fluorescent light.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, there’s a lot of stories.” He paused, sticking his hands into his pockets. “I mean, I remember wanting to go swim out into the bay and just . . . let whatever happen, happen. Because it would be better than what we had to face.”

Her scars prickled on her arms. “What stopped you?”

“I honestly don’t know.” Angel shook his head. “Kids are dumb, you know? The things that you think ruin your life really just ruin your day or your week. And they suck, sure, but then life changes, and you get over it. Plus, well, there’s stories about what’s out in the bay. Some things are scarier than killing yourself.”

Darcy looked down and away. “Yeah.”

“Anyway, I hadn’t really considered the depression thing until you brought it up at that seminar. Can I carry anything for you? We should probably move to the coffee shop and compare notes.”

Angel drove a beat-up blue Corolla. He opened the door for her like a gentleman. Some kind of Mexican waltz played on the radio as he drove the car out of the school’s lot and down the road, past fast-food huts, ramshackle markets, and down a quaint street where old, well-kept buildings leaned over the road. He parked on a side street and guided her to a building of dark brick and forest green trim. A sign on the door said, “Debarian’s: Coffee, Tea, Cryptids, Hair Care.”

“This looks like a unique stop,” Darcy said.

“Yep. One of my favorite places. You won’t find anything quite like it anywhere else.” Angel held the door for her.

The scent of fresh-ground coffee beans and hair spray wafted out to her, creating a strange but not unpleasant odor. Darcy stepped into a room with a low ceiling and black-and-white floor tiles. A coffee bar stretched along one side of the room. A few people sipped from mugs of various colors at mismatched tables. The other side of the room sported four barber chairs. Two men were getting trims at that moment.

Darcy raised an eyebrow at Angel as he stepped in behind her. “Isn’t this against some sort of health regulation?”

He shrugged. “I dunno. I’ve never had any coffee in my hair, and no hair in my coffee, so I keep coming back.”

“Angelo!” a man boomed from behind the coffee bar. “Trim or cappuccino first?” He had a ridiculously large mustache and one equally gigantic unibrow. His welcoming smile reminded Darcy of Estelle: It made you instantly feel at home, comfortable, even happy. His dark eyes found hers, and she felt the smile in them. “Oh! Never mind. A date! Two cappuccino?”

“One for me,” he answered as he strode toward the bar. “Darcy? What would you like?”

“Cappuccino. Sure.” She nodded and followed in his wake.

“Gus, I want to introduce you to a fellow teacher at Martinez. This is Darcy Immanuel. Darcy, this is Gus Debarian, the guy who works the magic here.”

“Hey! You don’t tell her my secrets, eh? No magic talk!” Debarian winked at her. “Enchanted, madam. You take care of kids?”

“Well, only a few,” she answered.

“Feh. You take care of kids. You’re a teacher. It’s what you do. A shepherd of madness and a tamer of the disenchanted. And if you escape the year sane and willing to come back, free cappuccino every Friday! My brew will keep you safe. And just for today, free for both of you.” He turned to the espresso machine to rattle the equipment. “Just don’t make me regret it, you hear me, Darcy?”

Angel sat at the bar. “Gus must like you. He only gives free cappuccino to good teachers. And I’ve found he’s an excellent judge of character.”

“And you try to flatter your way into people’s pants!” Gus roared.

“Well, it never seems to work.” Angel reddened.

She joined him at the bar. “Into people’s pants, huh?”

“I’m a guy, what can I say?” He cleared his throat. “But you and I have some pretty serious things to talk about. And Gus, he’s been here a long time. He might have something he can add.”

“You grew up here,” she said.

“Sure, but Gus gave my parents coffee when they were little.”

She eyed the man laboring behind the bar. “He can’t be over fifty.”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?”

The mustached man approached and handed Darcy a midnight blue mug that sloshed with foam. He gave Angel a white mug that stated, “I can quit any time I want.”

“So,” Gus said, “what is so serious that you bring a date here to talk work?”

Angel nodded to Darcy.

She sipped her drink and burned her mouth. Setting down the mug and wincing in pain, she said, “No one at our school has depression.”

Gus raised his enormous unibrow. “And the problem is?”

Angel said, “Yeah, it’s a good thing. But you have to admit it’s weird. Especially here.”

“Sure, sure. And you would examine my free cappuccino for flaws next? Let me tell you: Sometimes a gift is a gift, and you should accept it!”

Darcy fiddled with her mug and considered. “It’s not that we’re saying it’s bad. And I’m willing to accept it, except I’m worried for the students. See, kids don’t always know what depression is. And they think they should bottle up this struggle, since it looks like no one else has that struggle. Maybe they’re told it’s bad to express those negative feelings. And if it bottles up too long and no one lets it out, it’ll explode. And when it explodes. Well.” She tried not to think about her last school. She tried not to think about the scars on her own arms. Or on her heart.

Gus took a stool on his side of the bar. “I think that maybe the problem is not the kids, eh?”

Darcy glanced up to him, to Angel, and back again. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Gus’s voice was gentle. “You are feeling alone, Darcy? That there is no one who understands you? That you won’t be accepted because you are so alien?”

She sputtered. “That’s not—no, that’s not right.” She looked away, her eyes taking in the rest of the shop. “It’s not safe for the kids, all right? They have to know it’s okay to have depression, that it’s safe to express it, I mean, to get help. But if the school thinks that no one has depression, those kids won’t get the help they need.”

She felt Angel’s eyes on her. She felt Gus’s eyes on her. The man with the mustache asked, “Who didn’t get the help they needed?”

Darcy looked up at him, refusing to acknowledge the pressure building behind her eyes. “I can’t tell you that story.”

Gus gave a shallow nod. “No. I suppose not. I am a man you have just met in a city where you know no one. You do not trust me. You should not trust me. You do not know what I do with stories, how I use them. But I can tell you this: If someone has found a way to protect the children of this city from depression, if someone has found a way to keep darkness away, maybe, maybe it is better not to ask why. Maybe it is better to rejoice that the children are protected.”

They finished their cappuccinos and wandered out of the store. They walked the warm, warm city streets.

Darcy let her gaze follow the road, seeing broken-down cars, fire hydrants, old buildings. “I can’t fathom it. Just, an entire school without depression. But I can’t help but feel something is wrong. Something, I don’t know, repressed.”

“And we all know repression is a bad thing.” He smiled at her.

She stuck a tongue out at him. “Stop trying to get in my pants.”

“All right. Repressing depression is bad. Repressing pants is good. Got it.”

She stuck her tongue out at him again. They walked in a silence a few moments. “Can I tell you something?”

“Probably.”

“I came to Encubierto because I failed. I failed as a teacher.” She wrapped her arms around herself. “They said it wasn’t my fault. But I just can’t deal with it. And it’s weird, but not seeing depression every day is just making it even more in my face.”

“What are you talking about?”

She didn’t answer. Darcy’s eyes grazed the area around them again, noting the businesses, the houses with their awnings, feeling the sun baking her skin. Noting Angel’s eyes watching her. She sighed. “One of my kids, one of my students, was depressed. And I thought it was just kid stuff, you know? I ignored it. And I ignored it. And one day I got a text from the principal. The kid, she. She killed herself. I should’ve seen it coming. I should’ve done something. But I didn’t. And I couldn’t stay there any more.”

Angel closed his eyes and pressed his lips together. “What was the kid’s name?”

“Hazel. Hazel Glass.” Darcy didn’t fight the pressure behind her eyes.

Angel slipped his arm around her. “Maybe you should have done something. Maybe you could have. But you didn’t make Hazel do that. It was her choice.”

“I know. I don’t care. I still feel guilty.”

“And now you’re trying to make sure no kids get ignored here.”

Darcy nodded. “The thing is . . . I survived my depression.” She ran her fingers over her wrists. “I mean, I hate it. But surviving it changed me. Made me stronger. Different. I wouldn’t be who I am without depression.” She lapsed into silence. She hated that she was crying.

“You’re good people, Darcy Immanuel. I’m glad you’re at our school.” He squeezed her into him.

She felt his weight around her, holding her close. Protecting her.

“You’re still not getting in my pants,” she said.

“Fine. I’ll settle for drying your tears, I guess.”

Monday Darcy snuck into school at the last possible moment. She didn’t want to deal with the grilling the three Marys would give her about her date. She had dodged their calls all weekend. Saturday morning Angel had asked who was calling, but she just shook her head at him.

She walked into her classroom exactly five seconds after the tone for homeroom sounded.

“Whoa, Ms. Immanuel, you look really happy,” Nathaniel said as the rest of the class jabbered at each other in the moments before announcements.

“Thank you, Nathaniel. How was your weekend?” she asked.

He shrugged. “No big deal. My mom got taken away by child protective services. You know.”

She froze. “What?”

“Someone must have reported that she wasn’t taking care of me. So some people came by Friday night while I was feeding her dinner. No one came to take care of me, but that’s not a big deal.” He shrugged again.

“Are you okay?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

Mary-with-curly-hair leaped into the room between classes. “You’ve avoided us long enough! What happened?”

Darcy jumped, her heart hammering. She gulped and reported, “Nathaniel Tucker’s mom got taken by CPS over the weekend.”

Mary blinked. “That sounds like a terrible date.”

Darcy stood and paced, her hands waving. She didn’t wave her hands around unless she trusted the people she was with. Or she was really freaked out. “He’s okay. He shouldn’t be okay. He should be shook. Or in shock. Or scared. Or even happy. But he acted like it was no big deal.”

Mary grabbed Darcy’s shoulders. “Girl. Hey. Hey! If he’s fine, he’s fine.”

“He’s bottling those emotions up. He must be. And when he explodes—” She stopped herself. “This time I’m doing something about it. You’re free this period, right?”

“Sure.”

“Watch my classroom. Just have them read or something. I need to go talk to Estelle.” She ran out of the classroom before she had the chance to think about it.

Estelle’s door was open.

Darcy’s heart thundered. They said they didn’t have depression here. But they had something. Something wasn’t working in Nathaniel. She had to report to someone.

But the principal didn’t want to talk about depression.

But she did want to help kids.

Just knock, Darcy. Just knock. Trust Estelle. She’s good people, right? Even if she didn’t want to talk about depression, she wanted happy kids. She could help.

Come on, Darcy.

She knocked.

Estelle looked up from her computer, a phone at her ear. She gestured to one of the comfy chairs and nodded into the phone. “Yes, I agree. Good. See you then.” As she set the phone down, she looked up at Darcy. “I feel like we just talked! How are you doing, Darcy?”

“Not great,” she answered.

“Have you been stopping at the free lunches in the teachers’ lounge? We give each other a lot of support there, you know.”

“Estelle, I appreciate it, but this isn’t the time. I’m worried for one of the kids.”

The principal pressed her lips together. “Sounds serious.”

Darcy caught her breath before answering. “It is. I found out one of my students, Nathaniel Tucker, had a pretty major event over the weekend. His mom was taken away by CPS, and no one came to take care of him. He’s been alone this entire time. I’m surprised he came to school at all.”

Estelle nodded. “Well, that is a bit unusual. I’m glad he made it to school where we can support him, though.”

“Yes, but something’s clearly wrong. He acted like it was no big deal when he told me. And it wasn’t like a shock reaction, either. I’m afraid for him.”

Estelle nodded slowly. “I don’t blame you.” She turned to her computer and typed in some queries. Reading the screen, she picked up the phone. “Hello, Mary? Do you have Nathaniel Tucker in your classroom? Oh, good. Could you send him down to the cafeteria, please? Thank you.” She hung up, refocusing on Darcy. “I’ve always found a little food can help a young man feel better. Care to join me?”

They set out for the cafeteria.

“Darcy, you are very concerned for the health of the children, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.” Darcy concentrated on her breathing. Now would not be a good time for an anxiety attack.

“Good. That’s one of the reasons why I hired you. You came in with all these ideas, but the thing that grabbed me most was your failure.”

Darcy’s heart jumped. Just breathe, Darcy. Just breathe.

Estelle kept talking, not noting Darcy’s respiratory difficulties. “Yes, Darcy, I know about it. I knew we’d be able to take care of you, though. And this gives me the opportunity to show you how serious we are about our values here. We want every child happy.”

They turned into the doorway for the cafeteria. Tables filled the large room, at the moment empty except for an eighth grader who seemed far too relaxed for having been summoned by the principal. A woman whom Darcy didn’t recognize stood near Nate.

Estelle continued speaking to Darcy as they descended the ramp that led down to the floor of the cafeteria. “You know how serious depression is. You’ve seen it. Experienced it. And my guess is you don’t want anyone else to walk the path you’ve had to walk. Am I right?”

How did Estelle know all this about her? And not just about her previous school, but about her life? No, she didn’t want any child to experience what she did, even if it did make her stronger in the end.

They approached Nathaniel and the other woman. She was about as dumpy as Estelle, with deep wrinkles around her eyes.

“Darcy, I’d like to introduce you to Miss Linda Fada, our dietitian. Linda, this is Darcy Immanuel, our new language arts teacher. She’s the one who noticed that Nathaniel was acting off.”

“Charmed.” Linda nodded toward Darcy. Darcy returned the favor.

Estelle sat at the table across from Nathaniel. “Nate, honey, Ms. Immanuel told me that you had a heck of a weekend. Can you tell me?”

“Yeah, sure,” he shrugged. “I don’t see what the big deal is. Mom got carted off. I was by myself.”

“Has this happened before?” Estelle asked.

“First time.”

“I see. You seem to be taking it very well.”

“Yeah. I guess.”

“Do you think most people would be sad?”

“Why? I don’t see why anyone would ever be sad. It’s a waste of time.” He rolled his eyes.

A waste of time to be sad? Being sad was how people coped. It helped people process. Darcy shook her head. Depression was terrible, but if not having depression meant people acted like this? This was worse. Far worse.

Estelle looked up at Linda. “He’s been sneaking extra food?”

Linda snorted. “The little pig’s been snitching food for weeks. It’s going to take a while to equalize his levels.”

Darcy started. “You put something in the food!”

“Of course we do, Darcy,” Estelle answered, her eyes still on Nathaniel. “A few years ago, the Court realized the damage that was being done to humanity’s children in Encubierto. Our presence unbalances your world. It was never our intention to harm anyone, so we decided to do something to equalize our presence here.”

Darcy couldn’t process any of what was going on.

“Are you hungry? I really must insist you have something. You look pale. My guess is your blood sugar is low.”

Breathe in. Breathe out. Control the anxiety. “What happened to him?”

“We make sure that the children don’t face depression. They are far, far too valuable to lose to the darkness. We lost too many already. Well, Nathaniel here overdosed, unfortunately. We try to make sure that doesn’t happen. He must have snuck a lot of food during the last weeks. This isn’t our goal; we don’t want unfeeling children. Simply ones that are immune to the deepest darkness.”

“You use drugs to make the children happy?” Darcy was on meds, but they were administered by a doctor, not a—a dietitian? A principal with delusions of medical degree?

“Oh, no. Not drugs.” Estelle wrinkled her nose. “Not drugs. We want healthy, happy children. Children who can dream. Children who can tell stories. Those of us of the Court are able to . . .” She paused to consider, looking back to Linda.

Linda shrugged.

“It’s hard to find the right word. But what we do is safe. There can be side effects if a child overdoses, of course. But Nathaniel won’t suffer any permanent damage. In a week or two everything will flush out of his system, and then we can work on finding the right balance for him again.” Estelle reached out and took Nathaniel’s hands in her own. “Nathaniel has some of the best dreams, don’t you, Nathaniel?”

“And that’s why we’ve begun to starve.” Angel strode down the ramp into the cafeteria, his long arms swinging, thunder in his eyes. “Because you’re cheating.”

“No cheating.” Estelle seemed unsurprised at his presence. “Every human parent signed a contract, of their own free will, that their children would eat the food we would supply. We made it clear that our goal was happy children.”

Darcy’s head swirled. Angel was involved in this? But angry about it?

Angel snarled. “You have no right to take the choice of darkness from them!”

A tight smile formed on Estelle’s lips. “If you wish to resign your teaching position, please file the proper paperwork.”

“You revealed yourself to a human!” he flung an accusing finger at Darcy.

“So I have.”

“I can summon the Council.”

“Do so,” Estelle answered, still not bothering to stand.

Breathe. Keep breathing. It’s not good if you faint, Darcy.

The Marys entered. They descended the ramp of the cafeteria as one. Mary-with-curly-hair approached and hugged Darcy. And then Mary-with-straight-hair followed suit. Mary-with-blond-dreadlocks seized her in a bear hug that smelled of body odor and incense.

Something in Darcy uncoiled, just a little, in their embraces. She realized, though—she was here. And they were here, too. There was no one in their hallway at all supervising. “Wait—who’s watching my class?” Darcy asked.

Mary-with-blond-dreadlocks winked.

“That’s not reassuring!” Darcy’s blood pressure surged again. How long had she been gone?

She spotted the cafeteria clocks. The numbers were gone. Instead they had stick figures. The little hand pointed to a stick figure without a head. The big hand pointed to a stick figure with a knife through its chest.

Mary-with-straight-hair faced the assembled. “The Council of the Mary has been assembled to give judgment. Who accuses?”

“Angel, of sixth grade science and the observation of souls.”

“And lover of this human?” Mary-with-straight-hair asked.

“She gave herself freely,” he answered, defensive.

Darcy wrapped her arms around herself. She had trusted him. He had encouraged her to explore this.

He had used her, hadn’t he? To find out what was going on here.

“And the accusation?” Mary-with-straight-hair continued.

“This one has caused human attention to be cast on her kind.”

Mary-with-straight-hair nodded. “And who is accused?”

Estelle stood with a sigh, her winning smile vanished. “Estelle, of the administration of this school and the regulation of joy.”

“And the accusation?”

“I did willingly reveal our presence to this human, to bring an ally to our side. The Rules are clear that such revelations are allowed.”

“There. Now that that’s out of the way.” Mary-with-straight-hair relaxed. “Darcy, the formalities are over. I cannot explain who we are, but I can give you a choice, a choice that may change everything for Jayden M. Martinez Middle School. Estelle has been accused of revealing our kind to you, and she says it’s fine because you’re going to be her ally. So, it comes down to this: Do you want to be her ally?”

Breathe, Darcy. Think. Think. They’re all looking at you. She said that it was up to you. That it depended on whether you wanted to be Estelle’s ally? “What does that mean?”

“It means you’ll help her make sure none of the children here have depression for as long as they’re here. That when someone accidentally overdoses, as Nathaniel did, you will attempt to correct the problem. That you will keep all of this secret. We don’t want any attention from the outside world here.”

“And if I say no?”

“It means that Estelle gambled and lost. She will be removed from this place, along with any of her allies like Linda here. The children will face the darkness of the night and all that means without her protection.”

Darcy looked at Nathaniel, staring off into space.

Angel said, “Darcy, remember what you told me. That you wouldn’t be you without depression. It shaped you. Made you stronger. Imagine these kids once they’re out of here. They won’t know how to deal with the emotions. The darkness. They’ll be fine here, sure, but they’ll be messes out there. You’d be setting them up to fail.”

Darcy looked at him. “You used me.”

He looked away, stuck his hands in his pockets, put them behind his back, back to his pockets.

Estelle said, “Darcy, I have always been transparent with my goal, even if you didn’t realize how I did it. You know what it is to lose a child to the darkness. Agree to be my ally, and we can make sure that as much as is within our power, no child is ever lost again.”

Mary-with-straight-hair said, “Now the accused and the accuser have spoken. Darcy, it’s time. What do you choose?”

Darcy fell back onto one of the cafeteria chairs. “I need to choose whether or not the kids here will be able to get depression?”

“Honey, I know it’s big. I know it’s not what you were expecting.”

“You knew this was coming, didn’t you?”

Mary-with-straight-hair leaned down over her, placing a hand on Darcy’s shoulder. “We thought it might come, yes. We tried to dissuade you from looking into it. We like you. We know you care for the kids, and that is a high calling. A difficult calling. And now you’re being asked to choose if Estelle and her kind will control this school, as they have for the last several years.”

“Are all the teachers here, um, different like you?”

Mary-with-straight-hair chuckled. “I think this is all of us. You never know, though. We still don’t know what’s up with the light in your room. Kinda scared of it, honestly.”

Darcy looked again from Angel to Estelle. The hands hadn’t moved on the clock. She stood on shaky legs and moved to sit next to Nathaniel. Breathe. She took his hands. “Nathaniel? Nate? Can you help me out?”

“Sure. Whatever.”

“Do you want to miss your mom?”

His gaze slid over to her, confused. “Why would I want to do that?”

“Because it means you love her.” Darcy nodded. “I’m ready to choose.”

Nathaniel hid his face. His body shook. Darcy put her hand on his back. “It’s okay. It sucks. I’ll wait with you here until CPS shows up. And I’ll stay with you as long as you need.”

The woman who arrived shortly after identified herself as Marsha. “Nate, we’re going to take care of you. You don’t have to take care of yourself anymore. You’re safe. We’ll get you through this.” After another hour or so, Nate was ready to go with her, back to the apartment where he’d taken care of his mom, and pack up some belongings for a night or two while they figured out their next steps.

As she escorted Nathaniel out, Marsha leaned over to thank Darcy. “I’m so glad you caught on to this. Kids who fall through the cracks, sometimes they do drastic things. Some of our people,” she stopped herself and shook her head. “I think we caught this one early enough.”

Darcy nodded mutely. This is what she chose? Crying kids?

Angel came up behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist.

Darcy jumped and spun. “No! You don’t get to do that. Not after all this. You didn’t tell me who you really were. I still don’t know!”

“I’m someone who cares about kids.”

“And?”

He cocked his head. “And something more. Not anything I should explain to you. But I wouldn’t mind going out on another date.”

“No. We’re done. I don’t date things that use me.”

Angel pressed his lips together and looked down. Hands in pockets. He turned and walked away.

The three Marys arrived. “You chose well,” Mary-with-curly-hair said. “You care enough to let people feel bad.”

Darcy glared at all three. “I don’t like being used.”

“We know. Angel tried using you. Estelle tried using you. It didn’t work. Good job, kiddo. Now, what do you say we head down to Debarian’s for some cappuccino? It’ll help you feel better.”

_______________

Jonathon Mast lives in Kentucky with his wife and an insanity of children. (A group of children is called an insanity. Trust me.)”You can find him at https://jonathonmastauthor.com/

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2 Responses to The Happy Students of Jayden M. Martinez Middle School

  1. Nathan says:

    Wow! I’m not a person who normally reads short stories, but I follow Jonathan Mast and saw he contributed to this magazine. I’m impressed how much someone can do, say, and comment on in just a 20 minute or less read. I enjoy the diversity, the twists and turns, and the possibility of there being “more” to this world that seems just out of reach. Thank you Abyss & Apex, and thank you Jonathan Mast!

  2. Pamela Deering says:

    An unfortunate choice of premise, in light of Tucker Carlson’s recent comments about who is to blame for school shooters:

    “They’re numbed by the endless psychotropic drugs that are handed out in every school in the country by crackpots posing as counselors.”

    Which is not a thing. School counselors are absolutely not authorized to give medication to anyone. I hope this story is just making use of a standard scifi/horror trope, and not something you actually believe.

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