Jeffrey Penn May
Lindsey wanted to help the little ones and she felt ready for the viciously competitive world of elementary education. She stood artificially tall on her raised platform and orchestrated images of waterfalls and rainbows on the classroom walls. She wore her first-term uniform of khakis and blue blouse; her level-three corporate citizens wore their black slacks and white shirts and marched to their workstations. A soothing voice flowed from the fake waterfalls, a recitation of the company prayer – Bless me lord and help me destroy my competitors. Then the walls went dark and the voice boomed – On your marks... Go! And the little ones swiped their screens in unison. Except student 4C8, whose big eyes darted about the room before rushing to catch up.
Lindsey’s first week breezed by with coding, analyzing data, and monitoring performance. She perfected her reports while the little ones visited body-sculpting specialists. They returned to class with red faces, barely able to repress their rage, but Lindsey individualized their workstations with visual trickery, sounds and smells. She was good at this.
In the company cafeteria, she tried to discuss 4C8 and his “slowness” between bites of powerful blue cuisine, but her colleagues fell silent, except one who said, “You’ll figure it out.” She understood. No one wanted to give away secrets, each gunning for the best teacher award, which came with a bonus and a paid vacation, this year to the Arctic beaches.
Everything seemed okay until the third week when test scores inexplicably slumped. Even their cold, precise visual art was suddenly marred by jagged lines, lumpy circles, and angry scribbles. After several days of trying to figure it out, she again sought help.
At lunch, Lindsey sat next to an experienced teacher. While chewing her blue food, she mulled over her approach, having done her research, scanning the open documents on each teacher, and choosing this one – Mary, with her white hair tied back into a long ponytail, impeccable record, promotion after promotion, a long-time star in this school, in this district, almost able to compete nationally. Lindsey cleared her throat and adjusted her cushioned chair, and spewed niceties – excuse me, pardon me for interrupting, I know I might be too forward, and so on, until she blurted, “May I ask you a question?”
Mary stared, but Lindsey forged on. She quickly outlined the students’ deteriorating performance and then asked, “What am I doing wrong?”
“Nothing,” Mary responded, “You’re doing fine.”
Lindsey leaned forward. “I understand your reluctance to help, but I promise I won’t–”
“You’re successful, you know a lot. I won’t use it against you.”
Mary turned her head, grey eyes cold, steady. “You think you’re the best, don’t you?”
Lindsey flinched. “Well... yes. Don’t you?”
“I really don’t care about any Arctic beach trip... and I don’t want to earn more than you.”
“I said the same thing to my friend Gracie.”
“So what happened?”
“She helped me, we traded a few students, I got my Stage 10 promotion, and she was terminated.” Mary smirked. “Now. How may I help you?”
“I’m not afraid.”
Mary pushed away from the table. “Try Matt, he seems helpful.”
She’d assessed Matt along with the others; he seemed the most ambitious and was relatively new like her, having started only six months earlier than she, and having trained at an obscure Southeast coast academy. His company photo revealed a congenial smile and kind twinkling brown eyes unlike the mostly determined, serious photos of almost everyone else. For the next few days, she prowled the cafeteria, looking to make contact, but he never appeared, unusual she thought because they were required to eat near their “teammates” at least three times per week. Even so, no Matt.
Then one day he slid into a nearby chair, his eyes exuding confidence, “I hear you’re looking for me.”
Startled, Lindsey gripped her fork, but quickly recovered. “You don’t eat in here the required number of days.”
“You aren’t as good as you think.”
She glanced over her shoulder and concluded that he’d been watching her. “No, guess I’m not.”
Matt seemed to expand with energy and confidence, his brown eyes boring into her and overtaking her. “After a few weeks on a new level,” he said, “they all become a little strange. Sure, their brains are ten times more neuroplastic than ours, but like any brain, theirs can malfunction, and the more you traumatize it, the more it wears down.”
“Traumatize? I’m following procedure better than anyone here. That includes you.”
Matt leaned back, stabbed a red oval, shoved it in, and chewed systematically.
“And,” she forged on, determined to set him on his heels, “I can modify the input better than you.” She stopped short of adding, you bastard, as she’d learned long ago early in her training that profanity was like admitting defeat.
Matt smiled. “They’re still just kids.”
Lindsey retreated, suddenly looking inward, not wanting to, but seeing her parents’ bodies. Those were difficult times, years of starvation and genocide.
“But the manual...”
“That’s from corporate. You think those high salary administrators ever spent any time in a classroom?”
She felt drawn to his words, to his compassion for his students and his willingness to help. “Okay, what should I do?”
“Give them a break, deviate from the corporate curriculum.”
“Won’t that get me in trouble?”
Matt smiled, and Lindsey listened intently to his calm secure voice. “You can be ‘overlooked.’ If you ease up on your kiddos, you’ll look good when they rebound from their bad scores, and that’s really the bottom line, isn’t it?”
So during the next few weeks, Lindsey took her students walking along the pavement circling the building, risking exposure, but taking advantage of the turbulent cool winter while it lasted, before it gave way to the heat. She covered the hard floor next to her control station with a colorful circular rug, and they all sat on the rug while she read with them, occasionally sneaking in stories that weren’t in the official curriculum, stories her mother had read to her.
But the students, contrary to what Matt said, seemed to malfunction even more, panicking over how their listening skills would be measured. But Lindsey kept with it. Not only that, each time she read a story, especially the ones with no apparent meaning, she felt momentarily tranquil.
She measured their ability to recollect the words, and that seemed to pacify their fears and over time, they offered their own stories, mostly a series of nonsensical events, a list of things that happened. She assigned importance to their claptrap. And finally her students seemed to gain more focus, test scores recovering, and she was feeling good, confident enough to ask Matt out to dinner.
At his favorite nearby restaurant, The One-Percent Solution, they discussed the corporate curriculum and other company schools. Lindsey told him about Mary’s advice. “Not worth much, except suggesting I talk to you.”
Matt smiled broadly and exuded warmth. “So tell me, who is your ‘difficult’ student?”
Lindsey flinched. “I don’t think I have one.”
Matt laughed, a good-natured laugh. “Everybody has at least one,” he said. “Didn’t Mary tell you her Gracie story?”
They discussed tweeting workstations, helping slow students like 4C8, and the cafeteria food. Lindsey nearly melted into her seat, not having shared this sort of complicity with a colleague since early on in her training, and never this honest and straightforward, never this feeling of admission, of knowing exactly what they were doing, and doing it together. They discussed attaching names to student numbers, which Lindsey had secretly done, and apparently so had he. Their professional discourse felt stimulating to the point where she found herself saying, “I know they don’t like teachers becoming friends, but...”
“I thought,” Matt said, “we’d be more than that.”
They hurried across the black parking lot to her car. Already the summer heat was blowing in and soon the cool, often refreshing air would succumb to the inevitable. When Matt leaned toward her, she felt that if she didn’t kiss him, the moment would never be replicated. She’d had few opportunities for intimacy, three previous sexual relationships and only one barely even approximating love. When Matt asked if she would like to see his apartment, she didn’t pass up this opportunity. She had no illusions, but she wanted at least a physical connection.
Driving back to her place late that evening, the temperature rising, she felt satisfied, physically, and hoped that maybe they could grow to love each other.
One day, during an exam assessing not only coding skills but the ability to use an upgraded digital ePen while withstanding sudden loud noises of various pitches – sirens, explosions, and rising static – her “difficult” student 4C8, Jack, suddenly and with no provocation, fell onto the floor and screamed “I don’t know!” Then a long weeping wail. Lindsey stared at the kid. The other students gripped their ePens, obviously distracted. Unauthorized distraction of other students was forbidden. She touched the alarm and waited for the Administrator of Behavioral Management to arrive, a thin woman starkly dressed in stovepipe black pants, white shirt, and black blazer. The ABM nodded at Lindsey and walked over to Jack. The other students pretended not to watch, hunched over their workstations. The ABM gripped Jack’s arm, lifted him with what seemed like superhuman strength, and dragged him out of the classroom down the long narrow white corridor to the administrative offices.
Within ten minutes, Jack returned on his own, compliant and apologetic. A message appeared on Lindsey’s screen – Your job includes all students. Not just the easy ones.
In the café, during what had become their frequent meeting time, Matt pacified her. “Don’t worry about it. That’s what they told me last year too, but sending the kid down the corridor has an effect. They don’t like to be sent out. Best to send that message early. Nip it in the bud.”
But the next day, when Jack balled up his little hand, pressed his fist against his forehead then banged it on the touch screen, Lindsey didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t call the ABM again. The others hunched their collective shoulders and furrowed their brows trying to focus ever more resolutely on their studies, each vying for the highest test score. A fraction of a percentage point made all the difference and this distraction by Jack was unfair to them. But what could she do? Come on, she thought, don’t freeze, what did Matt say, what would he do? She quickly altered Jack’s personal space, an artful combination of soothing sounds and threatening air pressure simulating the grip of the ABM on his shoulder. Jack wrapped his arms around himself and squeezed, and swayed forward and back, controlling himself, his eyes wide as if terrified, but nevertheless hyper alert and ready for conflict. Lindsey stroked her touch screen, manipulating sensory combinations, and eventually returned Jack to normalcy.
She expanded the rug time beyond nonsensical stories to deeply personal stories, fictional or not, no one knew and it hardly mattered. Only the quality of their articulation and elocution, and their use of high-point vocabulary. The data exploding from their mouths was sucked from the air and was calculated and manipulated by Lindsey so that her own score rose with her students. Something about the circle on the rug made Lindsey feel as if she were “connecting” with her little ones, except Jack who remained silent and hard – as if his staring straight ahead spoke more eloquently and clearly than elocution.
“What’s his strategy?” she asked Matt while sitting on his sofa, his costly high-end air conditioner protecting them from the extreme heat now that it was March and daytime temperatures soared near 100; winter had retreated early and the students would no longer be allowed to go outside.
“He could be faking it.”
Or, she thought, probably not, because the data showed terror.
“Don’t worry about it,” Matt said, “you’ll be fine.”
But Lindsey didn’t feel fine, and his words, casual and self-assured as usual, did not help – her shoulders tightening, her neck constricting as if darkness had found a home in her larynx – and a tear ran down her cheek.
Matt responded efficiently, manipulating the lighting and the music and cooling the air, his apartment clacking sex, but she grimaced, and he shifted tactics, holding her face, telling her that everything would be okay. She couldn’t recall his hands touching her face before; their sex had been proficient and perfunctory, and when now he leaned toward her, she puckered almost in defense rather than engagement. Then he said, “I love you.”
She resisted, but his words were perfectly timed, calculated, and therefore believable, and her walls crumbled. She buried her face into his chest and sobbed and melted into his body becoming one with him more than ever, and he timed his next move even more beautifully, pushing her away. “Hey!” he said, “I know what to do!”
“What?” Lindsey wiped away tears.
“We can trade.”
“I want to keep Jack, not discard him, make him feel worse.”
“No, no... I wasn’t suggesting that. On the contrary. I had a student like him last term and all he needed was someone to help motivate him.”
“Mary said trading wasn’t a good idea.”
He laughed that deep and sincere but strange laugh. “Even if Mary’s Gracie story is true, does it always have to be that way? Is there something in corporate procedure that explicitly states you must screw your colleague?”
Lindsey chuckled at the obvious double entendre, feeling good about it until she had to point it out to Matt. Perhaps he wasn’t as bright as she thought, but she trudged on, asking him to clarify, wanting to love him.
“My point is, of course,” Matt said, seemingly irritated he didn’t get the joke fast enough, “that we don’t have to be like her. She’s not very happy, although you’d have to wonder why, considering she’s at the top of the pay scale.”
“Okay,” Lindsey said, with emphasis, “screw her.” This time he laughed right away and she felt good for having repaired the chink in his self-confidence, and consequently, she felt assured. “How do we make it work?”
“I have just the kid. You’ll love him. He’s bright, energetic, and he loves to help others.”
Lindsey was surprised at how easily Matt got the move approved and as a bonus, he magnanimously took one of Lindsey’s other “low-achieving” students in exchange.
Starting on a Monday, she had a new student, Billy, a boy with brown hair and bright blue eyes who she strategically positioned next to Jack. Billy said hello and Jack beamed. Not another word was spoken between them, but Jack seemed more engaged, his scores improving slightly, working hard for the rest of the week.
Then, the following Monday, Lindsey was called into one of the numerous administrative nodules where a woman she’d never seen before swiveled to face her, monitors and touch pads unfolding to reveal a young, attractive body, although Lindsey suspected she’d had adjustments.
“Mary says you’re not following procedure.”
“Why does she care?”
“You don’t think we’ve noticed?”
“You’ve also noticed that their scores have improved.”
“They’re engaged in their lessons.....”
“Higher test scores,” the woman said, “or you’ll need to give up your little on-the-rug sessions. If you have children who need internal adjustments, remember we have a pharmacist on staff. It’s your responsibility to correctly identify and refer them.”
That evening she told Matt, “Maybe I should have sent Jack to the pharmacist.”
“He seems normal.”
“You said he could be fooling me.”
“Yeah, sometimes we fool ourselves.”
Lindsey waited for more insight, more discussion, then realized that Matt may have had his own difficult students. Perhaps she was being selfish. “What about you,” she asked, “Do you have any tricky ones?”
“Yes,” he said, winking, “but I’ve got her well under control.” Lindsey let out an obligatory laugh, if for no other reason than to show him she wasn’t as dense as he, and then asked again for guidance, and he kept assuring her. “You’re handling it beautifully.”
Eventually, Lindsey felt relieved; he had made her feel good about herself. And the sex. That was better, or at least for her it was, and she assumed for him also because he’d begun shouting “God I love it!”
For the next several weeks, Lindsey loved her job. Matt’s trade-off plan seemed to be working well. Then in early May, on a hot Sunday evening, Lindsey and Matt were dining at the One-Percent, sitting at their favorite table next to a street level window, when a homeless woman pounded on the glass, bloodshot eyes glaring, police swooping in and removing her. Normally, indigent were kept at bay in sweltering shantytowns. Lindsey was shaken. “How horrible!”
Matt shrugged, poured more wine, and bragged about his students. They scored so high that he’d gotten a small bonus. Lindsey drank and she thought about her own children’s scores, which were still meeting expectations, but just barely.
“I wish my students would do better,” she said.
“Things will change,” Matt said.
The next morning, after her car parked itself, she sat for a long time with the air-conditioning blasting, then got out, sweating more than usual, feeling dirty and light-headed by the time she made it inside. She hoped the school would soon deploy their sealed entry slots to each parking space, looking forward to avoiding exposure to the oppressive air. She felt sluggish while her classroom walls glowed with a multi-tier presentation, replete with suspenseful music.
A little blonde girl, Alice, started squirming. As the narrator with his bold voice warned them not to allow unwanted electric discharge, Alice stood and stared down at a tiny puddle on her seat, a circle of wetness on her black pants. After a moment, Jack and a few others burst out laughing, jarring because nobody ever laughed in her classroom, the sudden cacophony of giggles and gags and chortles and guffaws overwhelming her, but through it all she could hear Billy telling Jack to “calm down.”
As the disruption subsided, Lindsey kneeled beside Alice and asked if she was okay. She nodded yes, but Lindsey knew she was not, and impulsively hugged Alice who embraced Lindsey in return. Lindsey mentally counted one-two-three as the manual stated, more than three was an offense, but Alice wouldn’t or couldn’t let go. Rather than pushing away as trained, Lindsey held on.
After a while, she eased out of Alice’s grip. But now what? The pharmacist did not, according to the manual, carry extra clothing, and the manual stated repeatedly that students must accept responsibility. In this case, that meant Alice would suffer the sting of urine soiled clothing.
“I’m so sorry Alice,” Lindsey said, “Maybe I can find you something to wear.”
“It’s okay,” Alice said, “I know I must wear these.”
Lindsey felt the students’ eyes shifting to her, some clearly scared or amazed, but most scoring points by sitting still and staring. “Okay,” she said, “back to the lesson.” But by the end of the day, Lindsey was rattled, maybe from the drinking – those four glasses of wine with Matt were well beyond her Sunday night limit, and the anti-hangover pills didn’t seem to be working. Maybe it was all the sex.
While they didn’t have plans, Lindsey convinced Matt to sit for awhile in her car after school. She told him what happened. “All right,” he said, “no big deal, she’ll get over it, you’ll do fine.”
By the time Matt got out and rushed through the unforgiving air to his own small car, she felt a little better, but still had the lingering feeling that she wasn’t doing all she could to help her students. Tomorrow would be different.
But it wasn’t. At lunch, Mary stormed into the café and screamed. “For God’s sake, that little girl of yours. She needs pharmacology!”
Lindsey hurried into the student lunchroom where Alice was standing on a table threatening Jack with a fork, the other students frozen in their seats.
“Alice?” Lindsey said.
“He did it!” Alice was pointing at Jack who smiled and shrugged.
“What’s this about?”
“Nothing. She’s crazy.”
Lindsey looked at the frenzied little girl’s face red, heaving chest. “Alice,” she said, “please put the fork down.”
“He made me do it!”
Lindsey noticed another spot of urine on her pants. “Look Alice,” she said, “This sort of thing happens, the doctors can help with it...” Alice jumped from the table, sobbing into Lindsey’s arms. Lindsey did the right thing this time and promptly took her to the school pharmacy where the pharmacist gave her bladder control pills and a powerful anti-anxiety pill. That afternoon marked the deterioration of Alice’s performance, a common side effect. If she did not improve, she would be given stimulants, and everything would go back to normal, but the dip in test scores would accumulate against her and against Lindsey.
The class settled into a routine again and lulled Lindsey into thinking that everything would be okay. Rather than eliminating the rug sessions, she expanded them. She asked the little ones to share their thoughts on a science lesson, which had focused on energy and mass and new ways our country could develop hydrogen power. Billy nodded at Jack as if giving him permission to participate, and he calmly asked why we couldn’t use leftover rocket fuel for electric power. As Lindsey tried to explain, he interrupted and asked if she blasted off when she went to the bathroom. Billy looked at Lindsey with his blue eyes, and shrugged, as if to say, I’m trying to help.
Later, a dark girl with screaming red hair, Mindy, wanted to know why Jack kept poking her with his ePen.
“I did not,” Jack screamed.
“Quiet down,” Lindsey urged, struggling to find a better response. “We need to focus.”
“The data will tell us the truth.”
“They lie too!”
Jack’s eyes suddenly expanded as if his brain was swelling. He attacked, tackling her and slapping at the top of her head. Lindsey grabbed his arms and subdued him. While she held him down, she commanded Billy to touch the alarm. The white-coated pharmacist and the thin black-suited ABM arrived. Jack whimpered and twisted, letting his legs go limp as they dragged him away.
Jack did not return; several days passed without the boy, or any word about him, until finally, Lindsey was called to the administrative offices after school, this time to see CEO Moran.
A woman wearing a blue blazer and red tie, and a casually dressed man in knit shirt and loafers, sat in white leather chairs. Jack’s mom sat straight, used to taking charge, and Jack’s dad nervously rubbed his hands together. Lindsey felt like hugging both of them. She could only imagine having a child in this sort of situation. She wished Matt was with her. Moran, face enhanced, stared at Lindsey with steely dark brown eyes while Jack’s mom spoke.
“I want to apologize for my son. I honestly don’t know where he got it.”
Moran responded quickly, “Are you sure he didn’t create it?”
Lindsey was perplexed. “Create what?” She felt her heart speeding up. Be calm, she thought, don’t emit bad data. She leveled her breathing and sat quietly waiting for some clarity.
Moran stared at her, the slight trace of a smile. “Clever bit of pharmacology. Not necessarily original, but clever. Hallucinations here, then gone, with no physical side-effects, almost untraceable.”
Jack’s mother stated flatly, “We’ll take him to another school.”
Moran looked to the ceiling, “Our records are not foolproof.”
“You’ll get your money,” she said, “only when they are.”
So Jack was gone and Lindsey renewed her focus on the others; she had failed Jack, but no time to dwell on it. This was a setback but she would salvage the term, and her career, with a strong showing, with scores higher than anyone would ever expect under the circumstances. This was her chance to show them how she could overcome adversity. The others never questioned what happened to their classmate, fearing that it could happen to them.
During the resurgence in her efforts, she visited Matt more frequently, and he held her and said he loved her and that after she survived her first term she’d be a great teacher. Lindsey nestled into his arms, thinking he was such a kind person, and felt an odd longing for a baby, even though there had been no discussion about it – no discussion at all about their future. Just as strangely, she thought, Moran sent her a compliment – Impressed with your resiliency.
Then in mid-July, the outside air more dangerous than ever, Lindsey turned on the classroom walls to old images of snow in cities and clear crystalline rivulets gushing through ice on far away receding glaciers and Mindy screamed, “I want to go home!”
Lindsey could feel the class anxiety rise and, with it, her own. Matt had told her repeatedly that she had to detach, that her empathy got in the way. Detach, she told herself as the little girl ran into her arms and held tightly. “It’s okay,” Lindsey whispered. “Okay.”
Lindsey asked Billy to reassure the others. So Billy talked to them about the next lesson, and Lindsey started to feel great affection toward him. He was like a miniature Matt, she thought, and felt disturbed about the comparison. Then Mindy complained she couldn’t breathe.
Billy said, “The pharmacist has oxygen.”
Lindsey called for the oxygen and the white-coated pharmacist appeared with a small silver tube about the size of an ePen. Mindy was soon breathing normally. Lindsey checked the data and found Mindy’s colorfully rendered anxiety spikes, but it seemed unlikely glacier pictures meant to soothe would cause such a severe reaction. She paced with her arms crossed, and she worried that her own nervous behavior was affecting her class. Only Billy’s ability to ask well-timed questions kept them all from spiraling out of control. Not her training. Not her professionalism. She felt breathless just like Mindy must have felt. As she walked past Billy, he whispered, “I like you.”
“I like you too Billy. You’ve been a tremendous help.”
“I know,” he responded. Lindsey thought he was cute. For a moment, she had an irrational hope that the child could reassure her, tell her she was doing a good job.
That night she told Matt how helpful Billy had been, and he nodded. “But not as helpful as this.” Then he thrust his hand down her pants, a bit abrupt but she decided to allow this new approach, always open to new methodology, until he entered her; she wasn’t fully ready and it hurt. She told him later, but he didn’t seem to understand.
The next day, Billy asked to sit at her workstation, and Lindsey explained that it was against company policy. He frowned and she reassured him, “But you will someday,” she said, “You’d make a great teacher.”
Billy glowed, and Lindsey relaxed in the glow, almost closing her eyes to relish the moment, the feeling she’d hoped for long ago when she struggled out of the devastation to become a teacher, and fought hard to gain a position at a corporate school. Then she heard a high, grating scream.
“Get it off!”
Polly, a perfect student in almost every way, was clutching at an unreachable spot on her back where an orange and brown spider probed her shirt, fuzzy legs mechanically moving up and down. Lindsey stared at the spider, possibly a Brazilian wandering spider – life-threatening venom, causes severe pain, aggressively attacks people.
The spider crawled toward Polly’s neck and Billy jumped from his seat, swatted it onto the floor and stomped on it, leaving a brown splat. Polly sat sobbing while Lindsey comforted her, holding her and rocking her, their shared fear subsiding. The others sat wound tight ready to explode. Lindsey coded in an amended assignment about spiders, and the students immediately set to work, channeling their fear into extermination plans and extra credit.
Lindsey checked her data, the visuals, the sounds and smells. The spider seemed to appear from nowhere. That night she asked Matt about it while lying in bed after they’d again had abrupt sex, Lindsey for the moment more concerned about her teaching.
“Has Moran said anything to you?” he asked.
“About the spider? No.”
“If you couldn’t find it, then he probably didn’t either. Polly won’t say anything because she doesn’t want to disappear like Jack, so you’re good.”
But of course she didn’t feel good, and she waited for Matt to comfort and reassure her.
“How are your scores?” he asked.
“And your performance review, that was fine, wasn’t it?”
“Haven’t had one.”
“Maybe they’re considering job targets.”
Lindsey sat and turned away. “Maybe,” she said, pulling on her clothing, feeling a sudden urge to escape. “Or they could be waiting for my Summative Evaluation.”
“I’m sure that’s it,” he said, leaping to intercept her, standing naked yet concealed by his smile. “And after that let’s go to the Arctic, regardless of who wins.”
At one time, she’d hoped he would suggest a cool resort get away, but now the idea felt threatening. She moved quickly, fleeing his apartment to the airtight garage below, her car carrying her efficiently back to her own place where she struggled to sleep and ended up fondling an old ink pen commemorating her Mother’s retirement and staring at photos of her Mother standing in a classroom prior to the devastation.
Lindsey had only a few more days before her Summative Evaluation, exabytes readily accessible to everyone, and not favorable to her. Her only hope was the judgment of her supervisors and perhaps the influence of her colleagues. She was determined to capture whoever was responsible for the disruptions. She examined her data again, zeroed in on the spider, and yes, a Brazilian wandering spider, newest of the poisonous migratory spiders from the equator, a spider that could kill. If Jack were still there, she would have suspected him, but now she suspected everyone. The training manuals said to avoid paranoia and to expect disturbances near the two-week break because the children knew that exams would come with greater frequency, a barrage surpassing any they’d yet experienced, culminating in the moment before the break.
Lindsey was horrified but at the same time relieved when Billy became the next victim, Charlie attacking him with an ePen, the sensitive point grazing his arm as he leaned away.
“Charlie!” Lindsey screamed. “Stop!”
Charlie froze, his eyes squinting and beady, intensely focused, white knuckles, clutching his ePen.
While the others watched, Lindsey grabbed Charlie by the shoulders and pushed him back into his seat where he sat mute, eyes dilated, glaring.
“Are you all right?” she asked Billy. “Do you need the pharmacist?”
“I’m good,” he said, smiling.
Charlie refused to move from his desk and said nothing as she interrogated him, concluding that he was also the culprit who had released the spider, that student who blended in, but was nefarious to the core. She should have seen it from the beginning. She wondered if her empathy had gotten in the way of her ambition. But now she knew what to do.
With Charlie clearly revealed as the disruptive force, she isolated him and reorganized his data, pooling his answers into categories – wars, severed limbs, drowning, starvation, dehydration. Accurate, but revealing a preoccupation with catastrophe. So Lindsey followed guidelines, channeling Charlie’s talents; he would join a special attack unit.
She spent the rest of the day with her children in a circle on the rug. Mindy told her about pills she took every week because she was never the same since the river engulfed her house and washed away everything, but her parents built an even bigger house for them. Lindsey remembered that flood, which came after another series of tornadoes. She had been fortunate, as had others, but many died and bodies lay in the streets before being scooped up by bulldozers and buried together. Then Polly spoke about her fear of spiders, her sister having died from a spider bite that ate away her leg. Even if the spider that Charlie slipped onto Polly’s arm had been harmless, the little girl would have been terrified. Billy smiled and when his turn to talk came, he said he loved his wealthy and intelligent family.
The day before her Summative Evaluation, Lindsey was feeling confident once again and her kids seemed relaxed. Surely administration would see that she had survived her first term despite tremendous challenges. As the barrage of tests reigned down upon her students, their scores were projected on the walls and as she predicted Charlie scored dead last and Billy nearly perfect. But the class average was the lowest in the conglomerate and near the bottom nationally.
After the testing carnage, her kids bravely sat, staring stoically at her, and she felt their angst, and struggled to lift not only their spirits, but her own. She allowed them to roam freely about the room, but most didn’t move. Then she gave them their end of term gift.
Lindsey handed Billy a new nano-monitor, able to collect data in unexpected places, not the latest generation, but close, and by far the best class gift, rewarding him for his help and performance. She felt good about giving it to him even though it consumed most of two pay periods.
“I already have one,” he said.
Lindsey flinched, but understood that Billy was still, beneath the veneer, a little boy. “What about a hug then?”
Billy had never needed a hug before and in fact she and Billy had never even shaken hands. For a moment, Lindsey questioned who it was for, him or her? She hugged him and felt her heart skip, his little hands pressed and squeezed so tight. She realized then how much she would miss him. I will miss them all, she thought, and had the sinking feeling that she was about to be terminated.
The students filed up to leave, giggling and happy, waving and smiling, except Charlie. He still scowled. But Lindsey didn’t care. Sure, she wished she could have done more for him, but she hadn’t, and there was nothing she could do now. Billy left without looking back, sauntering down the hallway. She waved and thought, good luck little guy.
It was 4:45 PM, fifteen minutes before her Summative Evaluation. A message from Matt appeared on the walls in big letters with a smiley face – Good luck! You’ll need it!
Lindsey frowned. Was it a joke? She gathered her data into her touch pad, zipped it into her small pouch where she’d carried her Mother’s retirement pen in a desperate attempt to believe in luck; she buttoned up her blue shirt, and headed down the long polished corridor to the evaluation room. The walls instructed her to sit in the center. While this arrangement had intimidated her a little during the interview process, she had been confident, cocky even. Now she felt nothing but dread. She felt paralyzed by the inevitable. She wondered if the rest of the staff would be there, Mary, Matt, and the five others she’d only seen at her hiring and occasionally in the café eating guardedly, and flitting along the hallways like ghosts.
Moran appeared promptly, the well-adjusted woman at his side, then the pharmacist, the ABM, Mary, but no one else.
Lindsey nodded toward Mary and asked, “So why is she here?”
Moran shrugged. “Trying to change our minds.”
Lindsey leaned forward ready to assail them with questions but quickly changed her tactics recognizing that she didn’t have enough info. She waited.
“First,” Moran said, “Your scores.” The room filled with data like galaxies swirling on the ceiling and walls all pointing to her failure. Lindsey’s body was wound tight and she struggled to suppress memories of her childhood. She instinctively looked to Mary because, as teacher and not an administrator, Mary might understand what was happening, might help in some way, but Mary stared at her own folded hands, her frown perpetual, a corporate teacher statue.
Moran stated the obvious. “Billy was exceptional.”
Maybe, she thought, Billy would be the “exceptional” student who saved her career. Matt’s gift to her. Moran nodded at the ABM, and the walls flashed data images of her class that year – Lindsey’s rule-breaking hugs and circle sessions and each incident in rapid succession, her first term unfolding before her. First, Alice and her urinary embarrassment, and something Lindsey hadn’t seen when she analyzed her own data, an inconsistent alteration of Alice’s body chemistry, correlation points and dots and blue red green spiking like a lizard’s tongue then gone. In the lunchroom, the same alteration only smaller; she felt like an idiot for having missed it.
Then Jack’s hallucinogenic break, the data clearly showing his chaotic brain waves and body chemistry, the question of origin remaining, where did the abnormality originate? Then Mindy’s breathing problems, showing nothing unusual but heightened anxiety, although Mindy had never before shown any predisposition toward panic. Then along came Polly’s spider, echoing the old nursery rhyme she had heard as a child, one that she believed provoked her sense of empathy and compelled her, among other things, to become a teacher.
The poisonous spider from nowhere crawled onto poor Polly from a test-tube, all of it suddenly clear, the hand gripping the test tube, her exceptional student sitting back with his cold blue eyes and broad winning smile.
Lindsey couldn’t move. Her back felt on fire, as if she’d been stabbed, and the knife twisted. She could still feel his embrace, his little hands so tight on her back, a little twinge all the way through to her heart. Had he somehow poisoned her with his hug? She tried to speak but her lips felt numb, and her arms as if they were strapped to the chair.
“You can’t,” Mary said, “Reward her.”
“Mega-outcomes,” CEO Moran replied.
Lindsey watched as Moran elaborated, his words coming to life in codes and data colorfully flowing into the space around her head and his lips ballooning as if full of helium. She closed her eyes and listened, trying to control her visions but the sound amplified and the pitch of Moran’s voice was screaming and exploding in her head. Then suddenly, all seemed quiet, his speaking voice settling upon her like ash.
Moran had explained that despite her miserable overall scores, and the detrimental effects on her class as a whole, she had provided an excellent leaning environment for Billy. His parents were extremely pleased with his progress, his rapid increase in skills, his ability not only to win, but to do so convincingly, showing everyone that he belonged on the national stage, where he could oppress with the elite, where the competition would push him to become number one. Weighed statistically, Moran was saying, Billy’s successes far outweighed the failure of the others.
“When did you know?” he asked, his voice suddenly like a laser on her forehead, and Lindsey could feel sensors from the room measuring her. She worked to control her breathing, fighting the panic and focusing on a steady inhalation and perfectly equal exhalation, breathing evenly, deceitfully, staring into his eyes, smiling calmly.
Lindsey felt a slow expanding awareness overwhelm her; Moran wanted to believe that she had purposely enhanced Billy’s talents, believing her benefited him, and she knew that his pointed question was merely a worn-out act. Eventually Moran looked away. “Honestly,” he said, “I don’t know how you were able to overlook the spider.”
Mary gave a halfhearted objection, the success of one Billy not warranting the failure of many Pollys, but Moran easily brushed it aside, again addressing Lindsey but this time in a warm-hearted generous elocution, “For your impressive accomplishments in your first term,” he announced, “A ten-percent pay increase and an Arctic beach vacation.”
Lindsey managed to feign humility and submissiveness, thanking Moran and giving him credit for allowing the term to end without firing her.
Moran ended the summative evaluation, telling her to enjoy her well-deserved bonus and break, and Lindsey stepped carefully into the narrow corridor, nearly stumbling over data-glow afterimages, gripping her data bag, touching the cold wall to guide her, wanting to make a clean escape. If she could just make it to her vehicle, she might be able to recover, and appreciate her success; she had come out on top as she’d said she would, but the feeling wasn’t what she expected. Maybe, she thought, she only had to wait until the effects of Billy’s poisonous hug subsided.
She’d almost made it to the passageway, almost free, but Matt advanced from the other direction and blocked her way.
“Bet that didn’t go as you expected.” He flashed a smile, so much like Billy, pleasant, helpful, charming.
Lindsey nodded and tried to sneak by him but he jammed his hand against the wall. She pivoted and tried the right flank, but he met her maneuver head on. “I suspected Billy, but it was long after we traded.”
She held both hands up, palms out.
“Come on Lindsey, you know you are too fucking nice. If I told you about him, what would you have done? Huh? What? You would have tried to help him, that’s what, and you would have ruined it. You should be thanking me.”
“Thanking you?” She glanced at the passageway.
“It was all Billy. Not me. Except I did block the spider data from you. If not for that we wouldn’t be going to the Arctic.”
Lindsey clutched her bag and visualized her tactics. “You did that just for me?”
“Yes, of course, for us.”
Lindsey heard her mother’s spirit whispering from the destruction, you learn from your students, honey, never forget that.
She made her move, rushing toward the open hallway, and then pivoting back to the wall. She almost made it, but Matt lunged, grabbing her forearm and twisting her around, pushing her against the wall, his big hands cupping her face, his body pressing against her, Matt attacking with his kiss, then thrusting a hand down her pants.
She gripped her Mother’s retirement gift, and raised it like a knife. As he probed with his fingers, she brought the pen down with all her strength stabbing his neck.
Matt howled, jerked his hand away, ripping her pants. He wrenched out the pen, blue ink, blood squirting from his neck.
Lindsey ran down the passageway, climbed into her car, the airtight seal releasing as she pulled away. She drove through sweltering heat and poisonous air on her way, yes, to the Arctic beaches, passing bodies in the street, and an old brick building full of lowlife who weren’t smart enough afford Arctic vacations. She drove through shantytowns where people were merely shadows of a prosperous past, and she continued north, steeling herself to survive among the cold-hearted.