Our History Teacher

Every other Friday, our history teacher takes us on field trips through history. We visit Pompeii, Mount Ararat, and the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. He guides us through the depths of the Pyramids of Giza, rides with us through Venetian canals, and shows us the paintings of Vermeer and the prints of Hokusai. He brings these places to life for us, illuminating them through seemingly trivial details, showing us how the shape of an arch reflects the philosophy of the time. He is in love with history, just as we are in love with him.

Our history teacher answers all of our questions, even the silly ones. He laughs when we make jokes. He leads our discussions of the textbook, which he also wrote, and asks us questions to stimulate our understanding of each subject. He grades our papers. He’s a harsh grader, but fair. Occasionally, his algorithm gets a bit off kilter, and he answers our questions in a strange way, or his face freezes in an odd expression, but it only lasts a second and when he comes back, we laugh about it together.

We wonder if he remembers us, although we know he won’t. We ask him about stories the older students tell us, and he smiles and gives us vague answers. He never tells stories from previous classes. He doesn’t understand our in-jokes. He can answer any question about history, so long as we remember to use the right syntax and don’t mush our words, but he can’t remember who asks him these questions.

We need to find out where he lives so we can copy him. There are rumors about a copy of the civics teacher that someone installed in an adult game. There are rumors about a house of pleasure that got shut down for using the likeness and personality of someone’s grandmother. There are rumors of dream pods using memories to reverse engineer a person. If we can’t copy him, perhaps we can make a better, wiser and handsomer history teacher, someone who is better, wiser and handsomer than the real Mr. Simon ever really was. The school is more and more careful every year about how they secure their teachers while still delivering the lesson. The lawyers find more and more ways to retard the pace of technology. It doesn’t matter. We will find him in time.

Today is Friday the 27th. We’re going to medieval Ireland, fifteen minutes before the arrival of Henry II at Waterford. We meet in a large green field overlooking the sea. A fleet of ships heads toward a small settlement in the distance. We look for our teacher and can’t find him. We begin to panic until we see him, standing far above us on the hill, smiling and waving to us.

We smile back.

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Choice

Caelyn woke up at four in the morning to the sound of a cat vomiting over her head. When she turned the light on, she saw Lunabella, standing up next to the pillow, vomiting green chunks of half-digested meat all over the sheet. Caelyn felt her face. It was wet.

She went into the hallway to get a towel. Then she went into the bathroom, to wash her face without looking at it. When she came back, Lunabella was eating the vomit. Caelyn shooed the cat away and sopped up as much vomit as she could, then stripped the sheets from the bed.

It was no use going back to sleep. The washing machine would keep her up, and then the dryer would keep her up after that. She could only use electricity at night, anyways. An adjunct professor could not even think about paying the day rates.

Maybe Mary, the woman who lived in the apartment next door, could take her and Lunabella to the vet tomorrow. Maybe Mary could take her to the doctor’s office on Wednesday, too. If not, she’d have to cancel her 10AM class twice in one week, or maybe take a taxi on her credit card.

If her benefits came through, Caelyn could afford to hire an assistant once a week. She could finally buy the medication that would dissolve the clots in her legs. The prescription was still displayed on her refrigerator, held up by a magnet that Professor Barnes had given her, three cities and six universities ago. Under a drawing of a laughing, white-bearded man, the magnet read, “How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans.”

It was funny at the time.

Story Based on an Overheard Conversation

You should never cut a sandwich with a hunting knife. Not in a car going 80 miles an hour down the freeway. Cat imagined the lectures Dad would give her when she came home. There was no way to hide an injury like this.  She held her arm up over her head, just like Marcus had told her to.

She closed her eyes against the light. Imagine working here every day, she thought. I’d go crazy.

“Does it still hurt?” Marcus asked. Cat nodded and fiddled with the end of the tube tied around her armpit. Marcus batted her hand away.

“Don’t do that,” he said. A man in scrubs passed by the open door. Someone moaned down the hall.

A woman came in and asked a series of questions about the injury. She wrote on a clipboard while Marcus answered. Her nametag read “Rita Nguyen – Licensed Vocational Nurse.” Marcus wondered what hour of her shift she was on.

“What’s taking them so long?” Cat said. “I wanna get stitched up and get outta here!”

“They’ll be here soon,” Marcus assured her. “They––stop!––they’re busy. It’s Friday night.”

She closed her eyes and smiled. “I wouldn’t mind a scar,” she said. “I could be like the Joker, but with my arm.”

“Add to your street cred?”

“Yeah. My nonexistent street cred.”

Rita Nguyen left. A man in dark blue scrubs came into the room. His name tag read “Dr. Severinghaus.” He took Marcus’s seat and began unwrapping the gauze around Cat’s arm.

“Finally,” Cat said. “I was majorly freaking out.”

“We’ll get you home soon, Cat. Don’t worry.”

“I’ll be okay though, right?”

In the room across the hall, a woman muttered something about COINTELPRO. Marcus leaned against the sink and watched Dr. Severinghaus unwrap the gauze covering Cat’s hand.

Acid Nightmares

Ashley Banks peered down the telescope to the pale dot of light at the other end. He could see his own eye reflected in the mirror around it. The dot darkened and disappeared.

“You’re looking through the wrong end, dummy,” Milton said.

“You don’t understand the exercise,” Ashley said without looking up. “Focusing all your attention onto a single, infinitely small point––that’s the meaning of life.”

Milton sighed. The dot reappeared, first red and then white. The floor creaked under Milton’s feet. Ashley looked up at his friend, who was now turned away from him, facing the bookshelf.

“You should try it,” he said. “You’re young. You should be expanding your mind. This––” he tapped the telescope with his finger “––this is the newest form of meditation.”

“It’s a new way to look at yourself with approval.”

Ashley laughed. Milton turned. He was holding a book in one hand, the other pressed against a stack of books teetering over on one of the shelves.

“Come on, Ash,” Milton said. “It’s still early. Why don’t we go to the park? Maybe we could get a sandwich. I know a girl, Carolyn, who works at the King Street Deli. She might…”

Ashley wasn’t listening. He returned his attention to the small dot of light surrounded by a mirror image of his face. Milton petered off and stabilized the stack of books on the shelf. He stood there for a few minutes, before walking across the room to the couch.

Ashley peered into the telescope while Milton tried to read the book. At noon it grew hot, and Milton got up to turn on the fan and take off his coat. Ashley didn’t move. Milton returned to the book, and read five pages without taking in a word. He looked at the cover and quickly forgot what it said; the image of a girl, dressed in white, with large, imploring blue eyes stuck with him.

Milton looked at the cover again. The words Acid Nightmares screamed up at him in jagged, yellow letters. The girl’s white dress stood out against a tie-dye background; demonic shadows attacked her from all sides. One figure held a knife to the girl’s throat, while a hand from the crowd tore at her dress.

“Jesus,” Milton said. “What is this, anyway?”

“Everything,” Ashley said. “Everything in the entire universe.”

“You didn’t even look.”

“I did,” said Ashley, and swung the telescope so the viewfinder was pointing at Milton. “Everything that ever was or is or will be, it’s all inside your soul––”

“––My soul isn’t in that viewfinder,” Milton said. He slammed the book on the ground and stomped across the room. He yanked the telescope out of Ashley’s hands and took it to the far corner.

Ashley took a moment to focus on the other boy’s face. When their eyes met, Milton was scowling.

“You’ve wasted a morning on nothing, Ash. I’ve had it. Why don’t we––”

Milton’s scowl vanished as his gaze turned inward. His face sunk. He walked across the room, picked up the book and placed it on the couch. Ashley watched him without moving.

“Milton?” Ashley asked. “What’s the matter?”

Milton didn’t answer. He crossed the room and left without picking up his coat. Ashley heard him descend the stairs two at a time. The door creaked open and slammed, rattling the blinds.

Ashley saw Milton once more, twenty years later. They were crossing King Street, traveling in opposite directions. When they were two feet away from each other, Ashley’s eyes passed across his old friend’s face. He didn’t recognize him, and the memory of the bald man crossing the street vanished as soon as he turned the corner.

Milton was in his car when the realization hit him. The man he’d just passed was wearing an old coat with a patch of faded calico fabric on the chest. Milton remembered sewing that patch on that coat after tearing it on a branch. He lost it before he moved away, probably in a break-up or a spring cleaning. Back then, he would put the clothes Goodwill rejected in a box on the sidewalk. Occasionally he’d see his old sweatshirts on teenagers or one of the homeless downtown. But many years had passed since then. He’d assumed that was all in a landfill by now.

Isn’t it funny, he thought to himself. The first day of my visit, and I see my old coat on someone else’s back! I wonder where it’s been all this time?

He considered running after the man, but decided against it. How would you feel if someone came up to you and said that your coat used to be theirs? He imagined the girls laughing at him while Carolyn rolled her eyes.

“And then what happened, Dad?” Marina would ask, before collapsing into a giggling fit.

Maybe I’ll tell them a story when I get home, Milton thought. I’ll say that I went after the man. That I told him about the coat. He didn’t understand––he thought I was making fun of him. He thought it was a t.v. prank. Maybe he was a wino. That would work…

He drove past Ashley walking on Commerce Street, his head bent against the sun. A wino, for sure, Milton thought. A wino plays better than some poor, nondescript bastard. He took one last look at the coat before driving off.

The Atheist at the Machine

I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be — in a better light than any light that ever shone — in a land no one can define or remember, only desire — and from forms divinely beautiful.
— Sir Edward Burne-Jones

The young man’s face glowed in the evening light. He worked next to the window, and management had removed the window-side cubicle walls to cultivate a “culture of openness.” They also forbade hats and sunglasses indoors. The young man shaded his eyes with his hand or else pretended to work. No one had pulled the blinds down yet, or even attempted it.

Outside, a few men in suits walked through the parking lot. He liked to watch their long, purple shadows trail behind them, slipping across cars, windshields, and the lines painted over the asphalt.

“How long have you been here?” a woman said behind him.

He turned around and blinked away the sun. Suzy squinted down at him. Henna-red hair framed her soft, jowly face. He saw her smile at the Christmas party last year, touching Martinson’s forearm with her free hand.

“Since seven,” he said. Suzy whistled.

“That’s dedication,” she said, her voice as flat and insipid as a gluten-free pancake. “You coming in tomorrow, too?”

“I expect so.”

She walked away scowling.

The sun set. When the young man put down his hand, everything in the world outside was tinted blue. A few stars shone near the roofline; he could see them if he rolled his chair to the window and looked up.

He watched light fade from the world. At seven, the parking lot lights came on and the stars disappeared. He drew one of the lights on a Post-It note.

The janitor vacuumed and turned off half of the overhead lights. The light in Suzy’s suite communicated a translucent, refrigerated glow to the rest of the office. Keys and keypads clacked all around him. The young man looked over and saw Martinson’s face, illuminated by a desk lamp and the bluish light of the screen.

Whatever They Like

The clerk was on his last hour of overtime before a mandatory four-hour break. Four hours wasn’t enough time to sleep off a sixteen hour workday, and this break would make him late for his next shift. He wasn’t looking forward to the abuse he’d get from Hailee Winstead for being late, again.

“By order of the state” was no excuse, even if he had LA’s top labor lawyer on retainer, which he did. He’d spent the money his dad left him on a mink coat for his then-girlfriend and funneled the rest into paying the monthly retainer fee for Weiznacki and Harmann. He’d regret buying the coat until his dying day, but the retainer fee was worth every penny. He’d never used Weiznacki’s services, but knowing these services were there gave him great peace of mind, like a gun in the nightstand. He had eleven more months of peace of mind left, then the money would be gone. What on earth would he do then? He should have quit his job and moved to Puerto Rico, like his brother. At least then he’d get laid.

The man in front of him had a black eye and red cotton in both nostrils. A string dangled from the left nostril that quivered whenever the man spoke; the clerk’s attention, or whatever scrap of it wasn’t attuned to the slow passage of time, was hypnotized by the movement of this string.

“Slow down, sir,” said the clerk. “What happened?” The man did not slow down. He launched into the same story he’d been telling for the last twenty minutes. This story, without beginning or end, involved the man’s daughter, last June, a neighbor who didn’t speak English and a purse in something called a culvert. What was a culvert? Never mind. The clerk tried to piece the man’s story together with the tiny shred of attention he had left for it. He couldn’t.

“I’m not sure how we can help you, sir,” the clerk said finally.

“You don’t see? Last night she didn’t come home!” said the man.

“People can do whatever they like, sir,” said the clerk, “So long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.”

“It hurts me.”

“You’re not anybody.”

The man started crying. The string in his nose rose and quivered mid-air with each sob. The clerk looked at the clock. Thirty-eight minutes left!