The proposition takes place on Friday, during American History class, right after lunch.
Dr. Cann, who has a Ph.D. and therefore is a Doctor instead of a Mister, paces in front of the room, oxfords clicking reassuringly against glossy concrete. From her front row vantage point by the window, Shelby sketches the teacher's wool vest and plaid bow tie as his capable voice explains to the group of juniors and seniors that they are about to discuss how the first settlers conquered this continent. A few students scribble notes in tidy notebooks. Shelby's mind drifts back to her drawing. She adds a deep shadow to the bow tie.
Outside, a squirrel scampers halfway up a tree trunk and turns its tiny face toward the classroom. Inside, Shelby thinks the rodent may be looking at her. Words—indigenous, quiz, colonies—float in and around her, but never slip inside. Useless ears, Shelby thinks. Why are ears called ears, anyhow? Such a funny word: ear. She vaguely remembers playing an ear of corn in her kindergarten Thanksgiving production, in which she wore a costume made of thick felt and proclaimed that “my name is Shelby and I'm corn.” That was eleven years ago. Eleven years is a long time to be stuck inside, filling out worksheets and memorizing facts to please adults. She glances back at her drawing. It looks remarkably complete. A stranger may as well have filled in the details.
The seating in Dr. Cann's class is meant to be precise. Originally at three long tables with neatly spaced plastic chairs, now students sit clustered: a group of girls near the front; a clump of boys near the back; couples sharing books. Next to Shelby, Mae simultaneously takes notes and studies for a Biology quiz. Side by side, their phones buzz in unison. The girls squint at their screens and squint at each other. Ethan and Jasper, slouched at the table closest to the door, peer at them from the back of the room.
It's from Ethan. Under any other circumstances, a group text would have resulted in fervent, immediate discussion before a response. But here, in a class relaxed enough for texting but definitely not chatting, the girls can only glance helplessly behind them. The boys smile back, waiting for a reply. Mae pokes Shelby's t-shirt, but Shelby replies anyway.
The finger digs deeper, all the way into the flesh between ribs. Shelby stomps on Mae's closest foot. The aggressive finger backs off.
Shelby straightens in her chair quickly, as if struck by lightning. She clutches her phone and wonders why she feels compelled to answer, since she doesn't owe anything to Jasper, that's for sure. He probably doesn't even remember that time they kissed, a lifetime ago in seventh grade and only once, when they both arrived at a Halloween party as vampires, after which there was not much to do besides rub fangs together. She gazes blankly at Dr. Cann while her thumb slides about under the table.
Which is not even a lie. Until now, the girls' Saturday night plans involved watching romantic comedies in bed and eating macaroni and cheese on fine china. Shelby ignores Mae's nudges, desperate now, under the table. Dr. Cann continues to pace. He asks the class, “So how did a small number of settlers, who didn't know the area, who were having trouble feeding themselves, essentially wipe out thriving, complex civilizations consisting of millions of people? Matt?”
“What types of weapons?”
Shelby didn't even know Jasper still had her number, since Ethan and his friends date only the most beautiful seniors, their feeds glamorous streams of both boys posing in full football gear, flanked on either side by midriff-baring girls with shiny hair.
The teacher leans against his desk and gestures as wildly as a symphony conductor. “Once European settlers landed in the Americas, the native population would drop by thousands at a time. What was killing most of them? Not guns. What was it? Yes, Harriet.”
“It was disease.”
Way in the back, Jasper cracks his knuckles. Shelby steals another peek, and is reminded of the time Mae quipped that Jasper and Ethan both have big heads, just different kinds of heads. Shelby admits that Jasper is oddly proportioned, with his thick neck and sizable skull, but he also happens to be a soft, confident kisser. He even asked permission before locking lips at that long-ago party organized by somebody's mother.
“Exactly.” Dr. Cann scribbles gleefully yet illegibly on the blackboard. “How many think the Europeans knew what they were doing?” Hands rise in response. “That's right. We have proof that most of them knew exactly what they were doing.”