(19) Pure, Dumb Luck

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All this time, I've been operating on the assumption that me and the others have survived this apocalypse thanks to our wits, skills, and basic common sense. Ember has just deconstructed that in one fell swoop. The fact that I should have seen it coming is almost the worst part.

Wits and common sense have never made much difference for me. I was the kind of quiet, somber kid who tried hard but still never did well in school; I was average or below in all classes except gym and biology, and I suspect I only kept up in biology because I had a really good teacher. I made it all the way to high school on the benevolence of teachers. Then I scraped through high school by the skin of my teeth. I was never a popular kid. I never won any academic awards. All my report cards came home with the same note, so many times for so many years, I could recite it from memory. Teagan is very cooperative and a delight to have in the class. She may benefit from extra help in order to reach her full potential.

I got that extra help. At lunch hour, after school, some weekends, and often through the summer. That's a privilege my sister and I both had, I guess, not that she needed it; our parents just had enough money to spend on tutors, and they had to make up for me somehow. As for that "full potential," I reached it. I maxed out in the B-grade range on everything from English to calculus, and nearly failed chemistry. It would have been easy to blame an audio processing disorder for that—I don't know how anyone is supposed to discern the difference between ethane, ethene, and ethyne when a teacher rattles them off at the front of a 30-person class—but the truth is, I didn't grasp it even after I saw them written down. Even physics made more sense. At least I could visualize the physics problems.

I'm pretty sure my guidance counselor only recommended a Recreation and Tourism degree because my parents showed consternation at the idea of me taking an apprenticeship or going into trades school. I thought the trades sounded pretty appealing, to be honest. Approachable, under-recognized, and eminently useful. But Recreation and Tourism also sounded cool, so I looked into it and started to get excited about school for the first time in my life. The university's Accessibility Services office was full of wonderful people. My first week went great. Then Red Thursday brought it all down again.

I never even got to see where my grades might land in a program that actually felt like me. There's still a voice in my head telling me they'll all be in the B-range again. I never got to prove it either way.

As for skills, I've always been pretty proud of what I can do outdoors. But that got shaken by the river accident two years ago. When it came down to what mattered in that situation, I didn't make it through on any kind of skills. Just pure, dumb luck. Even the guides who'd been paddling that river for decades agreed.

Now Ember's telling me we've gotten through this apocalypse on something like a miracle, too. I can't even bring myself to feel surprised. And I've had enough practice to hide just how much it still manages to crush me.

"So what have you guys been doing?" says Ember, drawing me back to the run-down office room in the back of a decrepit house in the backwoods of nowhere somewhere west of Cape Morgan. Her skepticism is back, and with it comes a familiar anxiety: the kind that would always kick in as a teacher handed out tests from the front of the class, preparing to judge the intelligence of students by their ability to absorb and retain information. "Do you have a vaccine or something? Something you've been eating? Where have you stayed?"

I answer numbly. There's nothing special about our living situation. Not that I can tell, anyway. We didn't do anything significantly different from the students in the cafeteria, except keeping our group small. This group is bigger, and they're still surviving. Ember's brow furrows as I detail our process for finding safe houses or screening food. How none of us have ever told the others our real names, even in writing. How we deal with Sleepers in the streets, the grocery stores, and the houses we stay in. Ember responds to everything the same way. We were more thorough than the Anport Rescues, but our groups' approaches have otherwise been the same.

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