Mrs. Langella entered the computer lab at the end of fourth period to find a horror that would haunt her to the end of her days. There, in the center of the room, stood young Ian, a boy of ten, in suspenders and a dust-covered, careworn hat, broken amidst the bodies of his friends.
“Ian,” she whispered, barely audible, “What…what happened here?”
He looked to her – through her – with glassy eyes, eyes that had lost any trace of emotion. After a long moment, he began his story in a slow, even tone:
“I… didn’t know. To leave earlier. When they asked. They asked when I was to leave, and I said ‘June.’ June’s my birthday, you see. I thought maybe I’d wait and there’d be a party and then we would leave. They told me to go earlier, in April, that we could have a small celebration along the way, but I wouldn’t have any of it.
“I went to the smith, to the general store, to the livery. I loaded up on oxen, bullets, food. I never thought of the wheels, the extra wheels – never knew that our lives could hinge on the fate of a single axle so far from home.
“Funny, now, looking back. Funny looking back and seeing my pride overtaking logic. Heather said, ‘Don’t we need spare parts? In case something were to break down along the way?’ And do you know my response? I laughed at her. I laughed in her face and I’m ashamed to say now that when I saw the hurt in her eyes, I felt like a man. So much like a man. I wish now I could go back and…but we can’t, Mrs. Langella, can we? Go back. To the beginning. This isn’t just a game that you can reset. To go back…To touch her shoulder and apologize, to say, ‘You are a valuable member of this party. You know what’s right as well as I do.’
“But she fell by the wayside, a victim of the rattlesnake. And Nicholas, of dysentery. And Mary Charlotte – my heart, my passion, my reason for taking this cursed journey in the first place…To give her a better life, something we couldn’t have done back East. The River. Again, I’d been warned: ‘It’s too deep. We’ll never ford it. Wait, just wait for the ferry…’ Oh, Mary Charlotte. I could stand losing the food, the oxen. But you…”
He regarded with an inconsolable sadness the bodies around him.
“Everywhere I looked in the wild, in the shadows, I saw wild beasts poised to attack, highwaymen with knives and guns waiting to rob us and murder us, a landscape waiting to destroy us and absorb our remains. I was convinced that there were monsters in the hills, but the monsters were in me. I was my own worst enemy, and I made my loved ones pay the price for my hubris. I was right. I always had to be right.
He closed his eyes. A sort of peace flickered for a moment over his worn face.
“I deserve this end,” he said to no one, “Alone, in the prairie. A broken axle. The November wind, blowing through these beggar’s rags. I deserve this and hope that someone will one day come upon my grave and maybe for a moment feel pity for this too-proud man. If I’d known before what I know now, I never would have made this journey. I never would’ve…”
Mrs. Langella stepped toward the boy. “Ian,” she said, “you never left. You’re still here, in the lab…”
He didn’t hear her. He shook his head.
“It was all for naught. The American Dream was a lie I told myself to sleep at night. And I beat on blindly, damning the consequences. But in that blindness, you lose and you lose and you die alone, everything lost.”
He looked once more to her.
“Mrs. Langella, tell them. Tell the other children not to do what I have done.”
And with that final thought, he lay down on the floor, the last cold light of November leaving the window of the computer lab at Holy Oak Elementary School.
It was at that moment, as the day passed into night, that Mrs. Langella looked to the corner where young Johnny sat shivering in front of a screen. His body slowly rocked back and forth in the cold blue light of the monitor.
“Johnny?” she whispered, “You too, Johnny?”
“They said I’d never find her,” Johnny replied, “The Chief said: ‘She’s stolen the Pyramids, John, nobody knows how, but she’s done it again.’ And I set out on my own to find her. But she’s the devil, Langella, I came close and saw it in her eyes…I almost had her, after the years of obsession, foregoing a good life, God, so many wasted years…She just… vanished, I grasped her and she just vanished, and now. Now, their voices taunt me in my dreams: ‘Where is she, Johnny,’ they ask me… ‘Where in the world?'”