Savage breath bashed the swamp’s surface, turning it a dieted black sort of color. Crash into one another, crash, crash. The swamp had been still for eternities and eons and decades and years and months and days and now. Now it was something of a fairy tale how it cranked and battered and willowed and walloped. The blue dragonflies were gone, the birds’ cries whipped away with the wind too many minutes ago, and the leaves shattered. The grass attacked the mossy marsh that held up nothing but itself and the now vanished children. Their games and laughs were distant. The booming clouds had starved not just the water but the air of its regular flavor. From something usually so sour and stagnant it was now the vividly fresh vibrant unraveled cleanliness of a star. So far away and so clear; so old and decaying, its new marks were old marks turned so dry and liquid-cracked it looked nothing but crystal to a face millions of miles away. Too new for this land, too old for this day. His cries chalked into the air and slammed down right at his feet, dust in scattered bits. They poured and poured from his pounding head, from his veins came the wails of lost. He held a shield of cries to that new day not for self-defense but for fear. The day had vibrated out to spread and spread and spread and the boy sat still then. Then it battered in, walloped around, and willowed its way into the lines of that water and moss and grass. Greyish marsh oozing with grey water caressed the boy in his suit of horror, familiar land clinging to another familiar face. Bubbly cheeks bounced tears in steps from his eyes to the weeping grey.
A substitute teacher has no pride, joy, or love other than whatever beautiful city they construct in their own mind.
Mr. Jeffrey loved his job. Most every day, he would meet new children, spread the joy of learning, eat his lunch in an empty classroom and stare out the window (if there was one). Windows large, high up, ground level, looking out at nature, out to the city. If there was a window, Mr. Jeffrey would set one of the student desks in front of it, whip his feet up to the top of that usually wooden and soft worn surface and glare out into space, mindlessly observing moving life while mindlessly chomping on his tuna salad sandwich with chopped celery and white crust-free bread. His time for ease. His eyes could slide from one object, student, tree, bus, car to the next and his inner machinery would slowly wind down, he would forget about anything, everything. He was very loose like jelly during lunch period. No matter what was outside, this was time for Mr. Jeffrey to bathe in his clear and cool successes of substituting for 15 years, a pool that had been filling each weekday and become progressively more and more refreshing. Today’s window was enormous with eight different panes, three floors up and overlooking a large grass field. As the grey sky pounded the ground with its flowing and monstrous dark shapes, the grass seemed to scream back in vibrant green to the black water-filled figures above. How was that floor so green? Kids tap dancing on top in an endless circle, cheerful devilish grins, old pine trees scattered on the field’s edge but somehow retreating in aged, slow motions awa—
Tuna sandwich gone. Oh, criminey! There had been a change to the attendance list for 5th, he needed the printed copy from the faculty office. Mr. Jeffrey quickly wiped down the mini-desk with a Clorox wipe, slid it back into place two spots from the front of the class, and skipped to the door. Turned the knob on the door, and hustled down the hall, making sure not to run. Checked the black Timex digiwatch. Three minutes until lunch ended. Down the stairs, right,
turned the knob on the door,
Mr. Jeffrey entered and headed straight to the printer. At first, he did not notice Mr. Lucile pouring himself a fresh one from the pot in the corner. Until the door closed. Then Mr. Lucile’s thick nose breathing filled the room with an unpleasant wheeze. Mr. Jeffrey did not look up. He was checking to see if the attendance sheets were there. Mr. Lucile sipped his Joe and turned to eye Mr. Jeffrey. He had seen the guy around but not thought much of him. As if his barely existent tiny smile, perfectly ruffled strands of hair, straight back, pale skin, and slightly untucked brown button up had camouflaged him against the crowd of students. But made him stand out, too?
“Mr. Jeffrey, yeah?” Mr. Lucile gurgled from his thick chin through a mouthful of coffee. Mr. Lucile spared him a quick glance.
“Yes…see I must go…just, uh, see if all the sheets are here.”
“You’re that one sub I see all over. Who you got today?”
Mr. Jeffrey looked up, breathed in, and played along: “Mrs. Donda.”
Mr. Lucile’s colorful, chunky face turned the color of a white, round saucer. He uttered a suffocated chuckle.
“Holy shit and you got fifth now. Bunch of damn demons is what they are, that fifth. Sure, there are probably some good kids, but that main group. When the right kids get together it can be too much. Violent, man.”
For just a moment Mr. Jeffrey’s face scrunched up. He was confused, nothing of the sort was written on the teacher’s notes, perhaps she forgot. Then he dipped his toe into that clear pool and felt cool ease relax his face. He had dealt with all kids.
“I am sure it will be alright. Mrs. Donda did not mention anything out of the ordinary for fifth period. I will be able to handle these children, care for them.”
The fuck? Care for them? Mr. Lucile closed his eye slits and bellowed laughter from deep inside his stomach.
“This ain’t no damn day care. Care for them like I care for my stupid dog, if you want to, but don’t give them anything to grab hold of and tear at. You know what I mean? Donda talks about them like…I mean she doesn’t even talk about them at all anymore…but when she did it wasn’t no good.”
“I understand. Everything will be completed in proper fashion.” The bell rang and bounced off everything in the room, most notably Mr. Lucile’s bulging belly.
“Bye now,” and Mr. Jeffrey turned and strode to the door, turned the knob, and promptly exited.
“Odd duck, man,” Mr. Lucile murmured to himself. Sipped his Joe.
“Phones in the bucket, please.” A reluctant moan filled the room. Mr. Jeffrey trotted around the room with a plastic red pail outstretched. Minimize distractions, take away their connection to the seventh-grade version of real (virtual) life.
Chunk, chunk, chunk.
Pink phone, yellow phone, silver phone, all those pretty colors. Mr. Jeffrey was always amazed how free these children were to have phones so young. So young. They did not even know a life without texts. Could they ever detach themselves? Cyborgs in a cyborg world would not even realize they are part robot until someone really told them, he guessed. They would probably never know.
“You give me your phone,” said a child who looked up with a wide smirk. He was wearing a bright orange shirt and had strong features.
“I don’t have a phone.”
“What is that shape in your pocket, then?”
“My pencil.” Laughter. “Look, sir. I’ll give you my phone if you show just how far up your ass your tighty whities go.”
“‘Phone, please.’ Are you a robot? ‘Phone, please.’ What’s next? ‘I’ll be back.’ You know that movie? Terminator. Classic.”
Chunk. A golden phone with a black case landed expectedly on the top of the pile.
After several more chunks, Mr. Jeffrey started up to the front of the classroom, but walked right into a white sneaker that shot out at the last second. His frail stature fell quietly to the floor and his hands hit the wood with two thuds like lifeless hooves, and pain shot through Mr. Jeffrey’s bad knee as it smacked the ground. He winced but held in a sharp squeal, slightly shaken and exhausted on all fours like a cow just prodded and electrocuted and fit into a tiny metal box in one of those giant factory farms. He felt like a dying animal. It rained phones, some attacking the kids in the next couple rows.
“BAHAHAHHHAAAHAHA.” For a second everything in the room morphed into that sound and a flood of hate crashed into his mind, but Mr. Jeffrey speedily regained his cool, scuttled into a crouch, and retrieved every phone faster than anyone would have thought possible for this weak substitute. He stood up and looked directly at the child with white sneakers. The laughter died.
“Come sit in the front of the class. Now.” A grin from the rosy cheeked boy with fresh clothing turned into a straight line along his mouth; he slumped to the front of the class, away from the orange shirt. His eyes flashed from an evil confidence to nothing more than shaking remorse. Normal teachers would whip or mangle that child. Mr. Jeffrey had been taught (by himself) that composure spread to others if applied in the right degree. Accountability for these children was one thing, but past a certain point its roughness bred even more fire and chaos. He had been bullied, beaten, and attacked by countless children, but never destroyed. If he showed anger, he would lose, and they would savagely rip at his flesh. The principal’s office was an option, but he needed to show them he could handle himself. Before and after his lunch break, during business time, substituting had become more than teaching to Mr. Jeffrey. Behind the pleasant surface of “desire to teach” and “better our future generations” and “make parents proud,” it was an internal game of control that he wanted to externally win. Years had taught him how to seize that power.
“I’m really sorry,” said a small girl to Mr. Jeffrey, who looked to him like she was always ready to learn. Her bob pinned hair sat steadily on top her head and she stared at him with an expression of sorrow. He nodded, marched to the front of the class, and clawed at the attendance sheet with his skinny fingers.
Without a tinge of embarrassed flush on his face, “No more funny business. I am Mr. Jeffrey, your substitute teacher today. Let us begin the attendance. Alabaster, Maddy?”
“Here,” whimpered the girl in the front row who had apologized. Mr. Jeffrey quickly looked up at her with gleams of loving sympathy in his eyes. But that soon faded as well. Emotion was forbidden for a substitute teacher. It was at this moment that he really noticed the layout of the room. In the back flocked a murder of crows, all sitting in their own desks but still hunched over one Bright Orange Shirt, all with beady contempt floating in their eyes just inches above permanently molded smirks on their crystal sharp beaks. One sullen crow brooded in the front row. Their heads constantly twitched and moved around looking for a threat, victim, something to pester.
“We’re all here tighty whitie Jeffrey. Twenty on the list, twenty in the class.” Mr. Jeffrey scanned the class with an unnaturally rapid glance of a hawk eye only obtained by the meticulously studious substitute teacher. He counted twenty, same number of students as listed on the attendance sheet. To Mr. Jeffrey’s left, the clouds had thickened to a dense black-grey forest, and began to squeeze several raindrops onto the large window. The air outside had shrunk into hiding and turned into a murky reflection of the forest above. All this overshadowed and fogged up the vivacious green floor that was a grass playfield. Mr. Jeffrey began again and completed the attendance with no more than fifteen interruptions. The Orange Shirt had a name, and it was Horace. A seemingly ancient name to Mr. Jeffrey. Horace had been the center of everything for a long time, only knew what it meant to control, only knew how to win the lust of those around him. Horace did not view those below him as less than, everyone had just lived so long in their respective places. Things were just the way they were.
“All right class, today on the lesson pla-,” and at that moment from one scrawny hunched crow exploded the loudest belch ever heard at Jefferson Middle School, a great feat for such a famished animal, Mr. Jeffrey noted. No, that child meant no harm he was just playing around. Accident at that. The murder laughed and laughed, really screaming laughter, and that disease spread to the outer rimmed desk students, who stifled grins and tried to hold back bursts of giggles. Loudly, “THE LESSON PLAn today involves finishing your annotations. I am sure you know to what I refer. This should take no more than 20 minutes, and then on to the next task of outlining your initial response to ‘The Lottery.’”
Papers ruffled out from some, most students’ backpacks, while Horace slid out of his chair and flew to the very back of the class. He whispered something in a husky boy’s ear. Chester was wearing a blue Texas Rangers baseball cap, too small for his head. The hat reminded him to throw like Nolan Ryan when he stepped on the mound. Whatever news Horace gave him turned his face sour and despondent. He shook his head slightly. Horace firmly placed his hand on Chester’s shoulder. That physical feel was so comfortable to Chester, so loving as he felt nothing but stale and stinky air press against his shoulder at home. That orange touch soothed Chester. His face drooped into a deep expression of calm urgency. Horace uttered a slight snicker, patted his shoulder, and smoothly glided back to his seat. Mr. Jeffrey saw none of the finer details in this confrontation and was just asking Maddy if she would not mind handing out “Anyone Can Annotate” sheets to students who had lost theirs. He turned around to face his (Donda’s) desk and began organizing its surface. Ha, managing maniac children and aligning pencils. What “juxtaposition.” That’s a good literature term. Was it juxtaposition though? He was not entirely sure. And then Maddy shrieked. A shriek that penetrated the ears and skin and bones of everyone. That noise was interrupted for Mr. Jeffrey by a shot of pain to the back of his head, something so sudden it faded as quickly as it came.
Then the scream vanished.
The scream was whisked away by a non-existent wind pounding through the classroom. Mr. Jeffrey still stood facing his (Donda’s) desk, and only a dull and faint tapping could be felt on the back of his skull. To his right, outside the window, lighting attacked the murky air from the black forest above, thunder quickly following. The rain was no longer squeezed out like juice but banged against the window, sounds Mr. Jeffrey could not hear. Silence infested his brain, which made that dull tapping seem slightly louder. He whipped his stringy neck around, to look at the twenty-three empty seats in Mrs. Donda’s classroom. The room seemed to bend, the walls falling down on him, raising up, falling down. He stared in wide-eyed horror at the absence of life. Dim light illuminated all the desks that stared back at him like dead fish, waiting. He could not move, was paralyzed at the death in front of him. Then came a noise which sent knives of ice into Mr. Jeffrey’s veins, stinging his heart. Thump, from behind the door leading into the hall, opposite the window. Mr. Jeffrey yipped and clamped his eyes shut, heart frozen but beating rapidly in his chest, ears, head, and fingers to melt the icicles of fear. He opened his eyes and the room began to feel normal again, welcoming to his sight, warm and pleasant. The walls had stopped falling, the tables were just tables, and he realized the children must have just gone out for recess, yes. Thump, again. Like a big, dead animal being picked up and dropped. Like a cow. He creaked his neck to look at the door, and it called for him.
Won’t you dine with me, Mr. Jeffrey, said the door.
NO, NO, NO! cried Mr. Jeffrey.
He stepped towards it; no longer in control of his body.
Tiny little people were tap dancing in his head, spinning, and singing to him. In an endless, timeless circle. They giggled and frolicked and cheered when he moved towards the door. They laughed and laughed at each step, loving Mr. Jeffrey, oh wonderful Mr. Jeffrey, yay Mr. Jeffrey, oh yay! Thump. From the crack at the bottom came a deep orange glow, comfortable and safe to him now. He was one foot away and stared at its beautiful flat face, the faded and knowing surface of a gorgeous—woman? (did he know what that looked like?). He lifted his steady yet weak fingers to the door, clasped ahold of the soft silver knob, warm to the touch, and imagined all the love he could feel. Then he imagined what would be behind. The glowing and smooth wood turned rough; splinters jumped up from its surface, snarling and chomping at him, looking for meat. Behind that door he imagined decay and rotting faces and upside-down grins and drooping, melting eyeballs. Clocks running and spinning, there was no time; every day was the exact same behind that door, that was his life. The children didn’t matter, he never had any power. He imagined himself behind that door: just a sack of meat teaching the same type of children with razor talons and space black eyes every day who were always hungry. They slept with stardust and were ancient demons not from this planet but some sharp world that snapped bones and sucked out marrow like sweet apple juice. The tiny little people cheered. He screamed loud, so loud, but he could not hear his scream it drowned in a deep blue-black lagoon. He did not want to open the door. But it was too late, he was already turning the knob.
Maddy’s own shriek came back and washed away the memories to a deeper, more permanent place in Mr. Jeffrey’s soul. A place overcrowded with identical memories. He opened his eyes and stared at the bright red laces of a baseball, inches from his face on the floor. He felt an agonizing ache on the back of his head. Overpowering that was a great fear which clenched onto his gut when he saw one student (Simon?) rushing to the door that led into the hallway, panting “ohmiodohmigodohmigod.” There was no laughter in the classroom now. Mr. Jeffrey pulled his face off the floor and jumped to his feet. He took one step towards the door until he felt a wave of dizziness or uncertainty splash over him. He had to grab hold of the desk with his right hand to stay upright. He was losing control.
He cannot reach that door. “NNOOO,” Mr. Jeffrey bellowed at (Simon?) who was just about to turn the knob. He charged forwards like a tipsy bull, and Simon stood in awe at a substitute wavering crazily and madly, tripping and falling towards him. Mr. Jeffrey shuffled in his pockets for the key ring and pulled it out, sweaty palms sifted through the keys, and Simon looked into the eyes of a madman who jammed a piece of metal into the lock and turned. An old door that locked on both sides. “Mr. Jeffrey, are you alright?” The child asked from a distant place, far away. Before turning to address the class, Mr. Jeffrey closed his eyes, inhaled, and cannonballed into his clear, cool pool. It had turned into an orange hot, sticky, boiling liquid that scorched his brain. He moaned from deep pain and spun around. Rain fell heavy through the ceiling and the walls on his clothes and hair, which stuck mercilessly to his skin.
Mr. Jeffrey’s mind was melting.
Thunder bashed above him while chips of lightning illuminated his murky surroundings. Tiny little people tap danced and giggled and whistled and sung in a timeless circle around him on a vivid green floor. The rain hammered his head to grey mush, but it did not touch the tiny little people. Mr. Jeffrey collapsed to the grass. Then they flew eagerly at him with their wings and ripped at his flesh with their beaks.
Tuna sandwich gone. Oh, criminey! He had to get the printed attendance list for 5th and 6th from the faculty office. Mr. Jeffrey quickly wiped down the mini-desk with a Clorox wipe, slid it back into place two spots from the front of the class, and skipped to the door. Turned the knob on the door, and hustled down the hall, making sure not to run.
Just another day at school.