Thursday, June 23, 2016

"Ghoul"--a short short story

By Alan Haehnel

    Clipboard in hand, Delia stands in front of her gang of sliced, mangled, dead and dying volunteers. “Look, guys, the point of a spook alley is to be--guess what?”  she prompts.  Liz the zombie, entrails dangling from her shirt, says the word with Delia:  “Spooky.”  Only while Delia shouts the word, trying to marshal her troops, Liz’s delivery is drawled, bored.
    “What is your problem?”  Delia asks.  Liz just pops three blood capsules, bites them, and lets the gore drool down her chin.  “Cute,” Delia says.  Liz cocks her head and grins bloodily.  “Come on!” Delia yells, hating that she’s sounding whiny.  “I just walked through what was supposed to be a completely terrifying experience, one surprise after another, and all I got was...deadness!”  She regrets her word choice even before Kevin, with his blue-white painted face, says, “I thought I was supposed to be dead.”  Laughter.  Delia takes a deep breath.
    “Listen.  This is for an important cause, okay?  We look great.  Everybody’s done a good job with their costumes.  The gym doesn’t even look like the gym, right?  The lighting, the decorations…”  (All my doing, Delia thinks) “…they’re awesome.  We just need to put more effort into playing our roles, into being, you know, scary.”
    “What difference does it make?” This from Serena or Sarah--Delia can’t remember everybody’s name.  She lied about the costumes.  All S. has brought is a sheet smeared with something resembling chocolate; she’s wearing it like a toga.  When Delia walked through the spook alley, S. was sitting under a tangle of spider webs that had taken Delia over an hour to create—just sitting there, texting.  S. says, “I’m just doing this to get my community service hours so I can frigging graduate, okay?”  The undead and mangled murmur in agreement.  
    “The difference it makes is that if we make this a good event, a truly scary event, word will get out, people will come, and we’ll raise lots of money.  If we don’t, we won’t, and that will suck. Get it?”
    “And if it sucks,” Liz says, “our fearless leader here won’t be able to say she organized a highly-successful fund-raiser for refugees, and maybe, just maybe, she won’t get into Princeton.”  
    “What, so trying to help out the needy is suddenly a terrible thing?”  
    “Which needy?  The refugees in war-torn Syria or you, Delia?”
    “Where the hell is Syria, anyway?” shouts a vampire from the back of the group.
    “All right, people, look.  Maybe this isn’t your favorite activity in the world and maybe you don’t care about refugees and maybe you think I’m just...whatever!  We’re here!  We open this spook alley tomorrow, and I’ve got some notes.  So listen to me.  Please.”
    Liz spits out a piece of plastic from the blood capsule.  Delia decides she’ll have to sort out what’s eating Liz later.  If she’s still resenting my supposedly taking too much credit for the chemistry lab, thinks Delia, she’s just going to have to get over herself.  With most of my applications due in less than two weeks, with all of my college essay drafts sounding way too clichéd, I don’t have time for her shit.   
    Delia shifts her focus back to the group at large.  “Okay, where is my girl with the slit throat?”   A gray hand raises.  “Hi.  So, you do a great job of lying in the coffin, but when somebody passes by, I want you to open your eyes really suddenly.  And every few seconds, you should sit up and reach out, maybe even touch the people.  Use your judgment, but just make it startling.”
    “Startling.  Got it,” the slit-throat girl mumbles.
    “And maybe you could make your gash a little more jagged.”
    “Sure.  I’ll get right on that.”
    “Good,” says Delia, ignoring the sarcasm, and forges on with her list.  “Hanging dude in the closet--I like the legs shaking, but you could definitely play it up more.  And make some gagging sounds, too.  It’s got to be more realistic.  Hanging dude?”  Delia scans the group for the kid wearing the noose. “Where is he?  Where is…”  
    “His name’s Jeff,” says the girl with the bullet hole in her forehead.  
    “Jeff, right.  Where is he?”
    “I’ll get him,” bullet girl says and heads back through the entrance to the spook alley.   
    “The main thing is,” Delia continues, “you guys, you have to get into it.  You have to think about the audience walking through.  Be unpredictable.  Make them scream!”
     Dale, his werewolf mask shoved up on top of his head, chimes in with one of his typical comments:  “Hey, Mrs. Tarantino, I’m having a hard time figuring out my motivation.  Do I kill because I love to or because I need to?”
    Bullet girl comes bursting out of the spook alley, screaming, “Oh, my God!  You guys, you guys!  Oh, my God!”  She gets to Delia and pukes on her shoes.  
    “That is disgusting and not even vaguely funny!  If that doesn’t come out of the fabric, you are going to…”  Then the smell hits, and Delia knows bullet girl isn’t faking.  
     “Haley, what’s the matter?  Where’s Jeff?” asks the guy with the knife protruding from his chest. Delia is about to tell Haley she should go home if she’s feeling sick, that she needs to recover before the opening tomorrow, when Haley stops crying long enough to shout, “Help him!  I think he’s dead!  Really dead!” 
     Half a minute later, everyone stands in front of the closet where Jeff was supposed to be pretending to hang himself, where Jeff lost his footing in the dark and accidentally, actually hanged himself.  They all stand—still, silent, shocked—looking at him.  Liz sniffs.  Delia doesn’t have to turn to know that tears are running down her face.  Liz whispers, “Oh, no.  What should we do?”
     Delia stares at blue-lipped, tongue-protruding Jeff for two more seconds, and then she knows exactly what has to be done.  “Liz, call 9-1-1.  Now.”  Liz runs to get her cell.  Delia scans her crowd of fake traumas to find someone whose name she knows.  “Dale!”
     “I’m here.  What?” he asks, no longer the smart ass. 
     “I need you to run and get Mr. Cochran.  He’s in his room.”
     Dale takes off to get Mr. Cochran, Delia’s faculty advisor for the project who will most likely not have his job much longer.  “You, you and you,” she says, pointing to the mummy, the vampire and toga girl, “help me get Jeff down.” 
     “Do you think we should touch him?” asks the mummy.  “Maybe we’re supposed to wait.”
     “Wait?  Wait for what?  He needs help!  Let’s go!”  Delia is lifting up on Jeff’s legs.  “Do I have to do this by myself?  What is the matter with you people?”
     Once Jeff is down and lying on the floor, Delia tries to loosen his noose.  The rope is practically embedded in his neck.  “You, Mummy!”  she yells. “Get me some scissors!”
     “But nothing!  Hurry!”
     Mummy just stands there, her strips of sheet unraveling.  Delia kneels beside Jeff and starts chest compressions.  She’s taking careful mental notes of every detail around her.  A few seconds ago, Jeff’s neck was cold and clammy.  The rope was smooth, white, probably clothesline, not like the splintery brown rope they hang people with in the Westerns.  Jeff is wearing a brown suit with subtle pin-stripes, quite a nice suit, actually, probably a wool blend.  He’s also wearing basketball sneakers—a wrong choice Delia had been planning to tell him about.  The mummy hasn’t moved.  Three of her toes peek through the frayed wrapping around her foot.  The big toenail is painted red; the next two, green.  Christmas colors for Halloween. 
     Delia’s arms are getting tired, but she will not stop until the ambulance arrives. She has decided that the paramedics will have to bodily remove her from trying to save Jeff.  “Isn’t he, I mean, he’s…he’s already dead,” Mummy says. Delia keep pushing on Jeff’s chest—hard, regular compressions like she learned in CPR class.  She looks up to see that a couple kids have pulled out their cell phones to video the action. Perfect. Delia readies herself, steadies herself, takes a deep breath so she can get her words out though she’s getting winded.
     “I am not…going to…give up!” Delia starts, projecting as best she can.  “I am in charge…of this project.  Jeff put…” (This is harder than she thought, pumping on his chest and delivering a speech.) “…his trust in me.  He deserves…everything…I’ve got to keep…to keep him alive!  Everyone needs…needs someone…to pull for them no…matter…what!”
     Now it’s time for the mouth-to-mouth.  Delia pushes Jeff’s tongue back into place and leans down.  Behind her, someone says, “Oh, God, how can she do that?” 
      One bit of wisdom Delia is learning right now will definitely not appear in her kick-ass college essay:  Getting a good seal on a corpse’s lips is hard…when you’re smiling.

Final Three Chapters

Jarrod Towne’s Dream: 
Solving for Grammy

     “Are you sure about this one?” asks Mr. Bluthen.  He’s beside my desk and pointing at number 7 on my worksheet:  If x + 8 = 10, then 4x + 1 = 2.   
     I don’t need this, not today.  I mean, Mr. Bluthen is pretty nice and everything, but I just want to be left alone.  I don’t care if I got number 7 wrong.  I don’t care if I got them all wrong.
     I just care that last night I was visiting Grammy Peters and she didn’t make sense. She was practically my best friend from before I can remember up until seventh grade.  She read to me and painted with me and took long walks with me.  She taught me to ride a bike by having me push off again and again from the lowest step of her deck to pedal across her lawn.  She listened to the lame songs I made up before I even knew how to play the guitar.  She’d record them.  I went over to her house, just last year, and what did she have playing on her stereo?  Fifth grade me, strumming all the wrong notes, singing these god-awful lyrics about butterflies and bumblebees.  I mean, I came into her house--she didn’t know I was coming, and that’s what she had playing on her stereo.   
     “Take another look,” says Mr. Bluthen.   “What are you solving for?”
     “Really?”  By the way he says “really,” I know I’ve done something wrong, but I’m not seeing the algebra problem.  I’m seeing Grammy Peters, sitting in that ratty orange chair in the nursing home.  The place smells like piss.  When I first came in, the nurses had her tied to the chair with padded restraints to keep her from wandering away.  A week ago, they found her out in the woods a half mile from the home, digging at the leaves.  She said she was harvesting potatoes.  They brought her back, and now they have to keep her tied down unless someone is right there with her.  I should be there. She doesn’t know me half the time, but at least I could keep her from walking away.  They wouldn’t have to tie her down like that.  
     “Jarrod, are you with me?”  He’s trying to be patient, but the little edge to his voice tells me I’ve got to snap back to algebra.  Algebra, right.  I look at the problem again, and I can’t figure out what Mr. Bluthen is complaining about.  This is stupidly simple:  x + 8= 10, so x is obviously 2.  I want to shout to my teacher to just move on and bother somebody else.  Go talk to Greg Wallace over there.  I’m sure he could use some help, and his grandmother isn’t going crazy in a nursing home!  As if these numbers matter to me, as if they’re ever going to matter to me.  Mr. Bluthen keeps talking to me.  “You’re making a common mistake. Focus for a second and you’ll see it.  Look at the whole problem.”  
     Fine.  Mr. Bluthen is obviously not going to get off my back until I answer his stupid questions.  I close my eyes for a second, trying to get Grammy Peters’s image out of my mind long enough to get this man crouched at my desk away from me.  When I open my eyes again and look at question 7, my error jumps off the page.  The problem is still crazy easy, but Mr. Bluthen was right; I hadn’t looked at the whole thing.  Knowing that x was 2 was just the first part.  The problem is calling for me to transfer the 2 to the other side of the equation and do simple math to come up with 9.  I erase the 2 and put the 9.  Mr. Bluthen gives me a quick pat on the shoulder and says, “Good.  Stay focused.”  
     As I watch my teacher walk away, my thoughts of  Grammy Peters suddenly convert into this weird algebra problem in my head.  It’s like x is her age and y is her experiences and n is her illnesses, and it all comes together to equal her behavior.  The amazing thing is, I know how to solve for all of the variations!  I see it, just as clearly as I saw the answer to question 7 was 9, not 2.  Grammy hasn’t lost her mind.  Her age has just rearranged it.  She’s still functioning with logic, but my family and I haven’t followed the transition.  It’s like, for all the years we’ve known her, x equaled 42, but now it equals 24!  
     I know her again, or at least I know how to know her again.  The fact that she went out into the woods a half mile from the nursing home to dig up potatoes--that makes perfect sense to me now.  I know why she doesn’t eat.  I know why she doesn’t recognize her own family sometimes.  I know what she means when she looks at me out of the blue and says things like, “The Mormons sometimes wake me in the middle of my compost.”  There is no more out of the blue.  I see the way the code goes together.  
     I’ll go home and let my family in on it.  Maybe they’ll understand and maybe they won’t, but no matter.  I get her now.   I can be her translator.  And as long as she lives, she won’t drift away from me.  As long as she lives, she’ll stay my Grammy Peters.  The nurses won’t have to tie her down anymore because I’ll be able to explain her thinking to them, and I’ll be able to explain their thinking to her, and Grammy won’t be a problem anymore.  She’ll just be my grandmother, my friend, the person I could always count on to love me. 
Reality Check:  Dream 68
ü  Note to office:  “Please excuse Jarrod Towne from school for the next two days.  He will be attending his grandmother’s funeral.  We hope he will be ready to return after that.  Will keep you apprised.  Thank-you, Meredith Towne.”  

Greg Wallace’s Dream:
Leaking Secrets

     I’m late for school because my father got drunk last night and he hit my mother so she called the cops on him.  I was up until two in the morning, couldn’t sleep because of the lights from the cop car and the yelling and the crying, the typical bullshit.  So I’m late for school.  My father didn’t get hauled in this time.  My mother said she didn’t want to press charges, so he was at the house and he gave me a ride to school--late, like I said.
     When I walk in I think everybody’s dead.  The school feels dead, quiet except for the hum of all the electricity it uses.  Then when I see the frozen people I realize they’re not dead.  If they were dead they wouldn’t be like this, like statues.  The secretary that always asks me why I’m late and no matter what I tell her, she just puts an x in the box marked “unexcused”—she’s frozen behind her desk.
     I’m thinking some kind of weird-ass virus, or maybe something got loose from the chemistry lab and gassed everybody.  Statues everywhere I look.  I wave my hand in front of Jen Brooks’s face.  Nothing.  Not a blink, not a flinch.  She’s out in the hall where she usually is this time of day, waiting to meet up with her boy Carl.  I look up and he’s there, coming down the stairs, frozen half-way down with that crooked grin he gets  when he’s thinking about Jen or any other chick, like he’s going to get laid right there in the hallway or something.
     I take a tour around the school.  Everywhere it’s the same.  I wander into places I’ve never been before—the whole place is suddenly the high school wax museum and I’m the only visitor.  Come see the statues!  Get as close as you want.  Touch them, even.  I do.  Not much, but I do.  Room 225, where all the smart kids sit for Advanced Placement something-or-other, I pass up and down the rows and look over shoulders and read the notes.  Most of them are boring as hell.  One pretty girl—her name’s Crystal, I see from the top of her worksheet—has drawn some sweet doodles in her notebook with a couple different-colored pens.  I touch her cheek.  She’s warm, definitely not dead.  
      I think about other places on Crystal’s body and I’m about to reach there when I hear this sound, really hushed.  At first I think it’s just the pipes from the a.c. or something, but then I recognize some words.  Or I think I do.  They’re like the shadows of words, they’re so soft.  I lean in towards Crystal’s mouth.  Her lips aren’t moving.  Words just kind of leak out from her mouth, seep out like steam over the edge of a pot.  I bring my ear so close to her mouth that her lips touch my skin.  The words say, “Last week I tried to kill myself with sleeping pills.”  
     “Jesus,” I whisper and back away.
     I walk up to the front of the room where Mr. Draper is leaning on the edge of the desk, looking like the king of all knowledge or something.  I wonder if any words leak out of his mouth, too, and I lean in to listen.  Sure enough, there’s that hiss as I get close.  With my ear less than an inch from his mouth, I hear, “I poisoned the dog.  I hated that little thing.  It took my wife’s attention so I killed it.” I step back, trying to figure out if this is me going nuts or if this is actually happening.  I mean, here’s this guy with his coat and tie, marker between his fingers, glasses part-way down his nose.  The teacheriest-looking teacher you’ve ever seen.  I lean in close to hear more. “She cried for days.  I covered my face a lot to look like I was upset, too, but I could barely keep from laughing.  That damned mutt was ruining my life.”
     I go from room to room, from person to person:  They’re all spilling out secrets.  Some are pitiful.  This one blonde chick lets out the words, “I told my mother I loved her last night before I went to bed, but I really didn’t like her at all.”  That’s it?  Whatever has turned everyone in the school into statues has also injected some sort of truth serum that makes them spill their deep, dark secrets, and that’s the worst this girl has to offer?  She told her mother she loved her when she didn’t?  
     I listen to a bunch of these confessions about jerking off in the closet and wanting to hit little brothers and other tiny shit.  What would that be like, to have your secrets be that innocent?  By the time I was in sixth grade I had secrets ten times worse than any of that little stuff.  
     Others blow me away.  Joy Estes has been raped three times, once by her uncle.  Jeff Freed drops acid.  This mousy little kid in gym class, holding a basketball that looks like it takes all his might just to lift up--he gets off on torturing cats.  And good old Mr. Connelly, the dude who’s lectured me more times than I can count, who’s threatened to expel me?  How about if I posted in the school newspaper his little problem with popping pills?  I wonder how that would fly with the school board.
     After an hour of wandering the wax museum, I see the party’s winding down.  The words stop dripping out of people’s mouths (I don’t have time to listen to them all, but nobody’s immune from drooling out stories they never want told), and slowly the statues thaw.  They start to quiver a bit, like their bodies are shells and they’re chicks trying to peck their way out.  Then, all of a sudden, everybody busts out of the deep freeze.  
     It’s over in a second.  Everyone looks around, like they’ve just been caught falling asleep, and then they go back to their business.  I’m caught standing in the middle of the wrong classroom.  Ms. Tingdale says, “Young man, can I help you?”  
     “Nope, nope, I’m all set; just...passing through,” and I take a quick walk out the door.  The teacher, kind of pretty if you’re into older chicks, admitted when she was a statue that she had an abortion last week and never told her boyfriend because it wasn’t his baby.
     Not that I would turn around on the way out the door and yell that.  No, I’m not going to blackmail anybody.  I wasn’t writing anything down, so I’ve already started to lose track of who diddled who and who stole what.  But as I walk down the hall headed to second period, I’m walking tall.  My father’s a drunk; my mother’s a junkie.  I’ve been beaten, and I’ve done some beating myself.  I used to feel alone because of things like that.
     Not anymore.  
Reality Check:  Dream 69
ü  In Principal Connelly’s notes:  Suspended Greg Wallace for 5 days (2nd offense) for fighting with Scott Dundee.  Two days for Scott, first offense.  Greg claims Scott made an insulting remark about Greg’s father.  Letters sent home to both families.


Jeff Freed’s Dream:

Just a Game

      I open the door to my Western Civ. class and get blasted full in the chest with a bazooka round.  Virtually cut in half, my blasted remains slam against the lockers outside the room.  I am, of course, dead.  Dead in an odd way, though, a familiar way: I know I’m dead, and I know I’ll be back.  My vision goes black.  I feel a brief shaking.  When I open my eyes, I’m standing in front of the classroom door again, resurrected, and I know what to do.  First, I duck to the side so I can get a look into the room.  I scope out the situation, see where Mr. Draper stands with the rocket launcher.  He’s covered head to toe in armor.  I note a tiny triangle on the front of his helmet.  A couple more quick glances left, right and down show me the dead bodies of my classmates scattered around.  Blood-and-brains-spattered walls.  More of Draper’s arsenal behind him on the desk:  pistols, rifles, grenades.  I’ve seen all I need to see.  
    When I enter the room, I immediately dive to the left.  As I roll, Draper’s bazooka shell obliterates the door I just came through.  I snatch two guns off the floor, knock over some desks and crouch behind them.  Draper has his rocket launcher down on the desk, trying to jam another shell into it.  I stand quickly and fire two shots.  One bounces off Draper’s armored back, but the other does the trick; it hits the firing mechanism on the bazooka,  making it useless.  
     “You’ll pay for that, sucker,” Draper says in a robotic voice.  By now, I’m back behind my barricade of desks.  Draper fires off several rounds from his pistols, but the bullets just ping off the obstacles.  Three, two, one, I count in my head, then stand and take aim.  Draper gets off one more shot; it grazes my shoulder.  I’m using just one pistol  now so I can focus. I squeeze the trigger.  A millisecond later, Draper’s head explodes and he topples over.  As I suspected, the emblem on the front of his helmet was the weak spot.  My bullet precisely found it to end the level.  
    My classmates, the few who remain, come up and clap me on the back, congratulating and thanking me.  Since Mr. Draper is dead, we have nothing to do but shoot the shit for the rest of the period, and we leave without homework.  
    Phys. Ed is pitiful.  One glance into the gym and I’ve got the level figured out.  The multi-colored, spike-covered basketballs that bounce around from wall to wall and floor to ceiling all follow a predictable pattern.  A couple of freshmen lie splattered on the shiny floor.  As I watch, Max Jackson navigates across the gym with ease, hopping and ducking at all the right moments.  He’s seen the pattern, too, just like anybody would with half a brain.  Suddenly, a brilliant blast of light comes from the right corner of the gym.  Max bursts into flame, shrieks, and dies.
      I look over to see Coach Callahan holding a laser.  I watch a while longer as two more kids get killed, one by Callahan, another from a spiked basketball to the groin.  Stupid moves got them both.  Even Callahan follows a set pattern--if you make an extreme move left or right, she fires.  Keep the moves subtle and she doesn’t.  Like I said, pitiful.  
     I walk in, make a few simple countermoves to avoid the spiked balls and easily get to the center of the gym floor.  I have to roll one of the splattered freshman--I think his name might’ve been Dale--to retrieve the circular mirror on the floor.  Once I get it, I move a few more feet, then make my one planned leap to the left.  Coach Callahan fires, right on cue.   I hold up the mirror, bouncing the laser back at her.  Flash of light, burst of blood, end of level.
    The rest of the day is just about as easy.  Rock hard burgers knocking kids’ heads off in the caf, a white board monster in Spanish that suffocates you if you don’t keep track of how many marker explosives you had left, Mr. Bluthen spinning razor-sharp protractors around in geometry.  I’ll admit I got killed three times, but those were more out of boredom than lack of skill.  Leave it to the school:  They finally figure out how to make classes at least a little appealing to us gamers, but they don’t bother to put together quality levels that’ll hold our attention for more than a few seconds.  I spend most of the day just hanging out after I’ve killed off the teacher in each round.
    Last period of the day: computer science.  I scope out the room before entering.  Weird. It looks normal.  Crap.  They probably ran out of budget so I’ll have to end with a complete non-event.  I walk in and have a seat in front of the ancient, three-year-old PCs they have.  Carl Moore says “hey.”  I say “hey” back.  He asks me where Mr. Dhamrait went.  
     I’m in the middle of telling him I have no idea when Carl is suddenly yanked forward.  His rolling chair flies out from underneath him; his face is flattened against his computer screen like his cheek is metal and the monitor is some kind of incredibly strong magnet.  The machine makes a slurping sound as it pulls him in.  In a few seconds, the computer spits Carl back out as nothing more than a shrunken bag of skin with some bones sticking out here and there.  I feel the pull myself.  Interesting, I think, but that’s my last thought before my head is hurtling toward the computer screen and I, powerless, have my innards liquefied and sucked out.
    A few seconds later, I’m sitting in front of the computer again, saying “hey” to Carl.  I look down to see the tally on my arm--four hashmarks, four deaths.  The number 6 is tattooed up near my elbow.  Two to go and I’m gone for good.  I look around to see other kids’ heads jerking toward their computer screens.  What the hell?  How does this level work?  And where is Mr. Dhamrait?  The teacher has always been the enemy, but I don’t see him this time.  
     Carl dies beside me.  I try to stand, but my butt is glued to the chair.  I weave my upper body left and right.  No good.  I feel the pull on my face again.  At the very last moment before I get my insides devoured, I turn to take in as much of the room as I can.  There!  In the corner, a flash of green that I’m pretty sure is Dhamrait’s sweater.  And then I’m gone again.
    Once back at the beginning of the level, I glance down at my arm again.  Hashmark #5 is there, and now the tattooed six is glowing bright silver.  This is it.  Even before my classmates’ faces start hurtling toward their monitors, I rotate my torso.  The wheeled chair spins around.  Dhamrait is there, control box in his hands, happily pushing buttons.  Distracted by his destruction, he doesn’t notice me.  I test my feet against the floor.  I think, though I’m glued to the seat, that the chair will still roll.  I hear Carl’s cheek thwack against his monitor.  I’m out of time, so I thrust for all I’m worth with both feet.  The chair rolls, and I’m heading right at Mr. Dhamrait.  But what am I supposed to do when I get to him?
    He looks up, and now I know I’m in trouble.  My chair slows very quickly, pulled from behind by my computer.  The chair stops.  I’m about to be yanked across the room to my final death, this time going in back-of-the-head first.  I look around quickly and catch a glimpse of something skittering by on the floor.  It’s a computer mouse, but it’s moving like a real one, erratically skating across the tile.  I reach out and grab its cord-tail.  As I’m flying backwards, the computer hungrily pulling me in for one last meal, I spin the mouse above my head and let it fly, right at Dhamrait’s wide-mouthed grin.  Dhamrait’s eyes widen.  His mouth opens in surprise, and in flies the mouse.  Just as I feel my head make contact with the computer screen, Dhamrait’s face implodes toward his nose and then, with a satisfying pop, his heads caves down into his neck.  
    Level over, game over.  I have conquered school.  

Reality Check:  Dream 70
ü  General e-mail to staff from Mr. Dhamrait:  “Due to his inappropriate computer use for on-line gaming, Jeff Freed is prohibited from accessing the school network for any reason.” 

Chapters 65-67

Keith Connelly’s Dream: 

     Nine years.  That’s how long ago Grace’s parents sat in this office pleading with me to recall every scrap of conversation I had had with their daughter.  It was a day just like today, in late March.  I remember looking out this window:  sun blazing, temperatures in the 60s after a long winter, the snow gone everywhere except for a few dirty piles in the shadiest corners of the building.  I had been looking forward to a long walk.  Grace’s parents came in at 3:00.  By the time they left, the temperature had dropped 15 degrees and night had fallen.  Not that I had the energy for a walk anymore, not after that meeting.
     Grace had run away.  Understandably frantic, her parents were turning over every stone.  So they came to me, and I lied.  I told them that I had advised Grace to be more diligent with her studies.  I told them that I had cautioned her about her choice of friends.  I told them I had assured Grace I cared about her welfare, as did all of those who worked with her at the school.
     In truth, I had completely lost my temper with Grace the last time I saw her.  Perhaps because she looked too much like my own daughter, then off at boarding school, or because she rolled her eyes so often, or simply because she was the last straw on a day full of belligerent students, I did not even try to check my anger at Grace.  I screamed and threatened and told her that her days at this school were numbered and if I heard one peep of complaint from anyone in the school, I would bounce her out so fast it would make her head spin.  I lied to Grace’s parents, making them believe that my last interaction with their daughter had been supportive.  To protect myself, to hide my shame, and knowing that any story from Grace would not be believed over mine, I had lied.
     For most of the meeting, I sat and listened to them unpack the catalog of difficulties they had had with their daughter--her defiance, her sneakiness, the hints of her drug use.  I couldn’t do anything but make sympathetic noises and tell them that their daughter would surely be back.  “They come home,” I said.  “They think things will be better out in the world.  We adults are just idiots trying to control them.  Grace will learn, though.  You’ll hear from her.  I’ve been doing this long enough to know that.”    
     Grace didn’t come back.  Despite the posters, the alerts, the reward offers, her parents never heard from her again.  Now and then, I run into them at the gas station or The Home Depot.  Though they’re both younger than I by a few years, they look old.  The husband has put on probably a hundred pounds; the wife looks as if she’s lost as much.  Every time I see them, I have an impulse to confess.  I just say hello, though, and pass the time with comments about the weather.  We never bring up Grace.  
     Today reminds me so much of that day nine years ago.
     I am just finishing up a letter to Peter Gibson’s parents, warning them about his abysmal attendance, when a woman comes into my office.  She takes off her sunglasses and gives me a firm handshake.  “Mr. Connelly, do you remember me?”  She looks vaguely familiar.
     “I’m sorry.  So many students over the years, I just can’t…  
     “I’m Grace Parker.”
     Fortunately, I’m sitting down.
     “Grace?  I...I didn’t realize you had...when did you…?”  She laughs gently at my confusion.
     “I’m back,” she says.  “I don’t blame you for not knowing.  Nobody does, not even my parents. Don’t worry; I’m planning to see them.  I was just passing by here on the way, and I thought I’d stop in.  I wanted to tell you, Mr. Connelly, that if it weren’t for you, I probably never would have come back.  I mean, who knows where I would be?  Maybe dead.  God knows I’ve been close.  I’ve been through just about every kind of trouble you could imagine.”
     “I’m sorry to hear that.”
     “Nothing you could do. I was bound and determined that I knew the right course for my life.”  Grace pauses and looks around.  “This place hasn’t changed much, Mr. Connelly.  Even looks like the same plants.”  
     “Oh, no--I’ve killed a few since you were here last.”
     She smiles, pauses and says, “You were pretty rough on me nine years ago.”
     “I was, Grace.  Too rough.  I lost my temper, but I want you to know, if it’s any solace at all, that I learned something about myself and my profession when you ran away.  I can honestly say that, while I may still yell now and then, I always stay in control.  Not like with you.  I was unprofessional, and I’m sorry.  If it contributed to your…”
     “Hey, whether you yelled or not, Mr. Connelly, I was going to leave.  The point is, you were right, and some of the things you said never left my mind.  Ever.  You were the only one willing to really lay it on the line and tell me the truth, no sugar-coating.  I hated it at the time, but, over the years, I came to understand you were right.  I stopped by to say thank-you, sir.”  
     I can’t speak.  Finally, I get out, “I appreciate that, Grace.”
     “I’d better be getting over to my parents’ house.  Do you suppose they’ll have me back?”
     I don’t mind that she sees the tears in my eyes.  I tell her I know they will; I absolutely know they will.  I hold out my hand to Grace, but she hugs me instead.  “Thank-you,” she whispers, and then she leaves my office through the same door she walked through nine years ago.  This time, she’s heading home.  

Reality Check:  Dream 65
ü  Keith Connelly’s blood pressure two minutes before presenting the Second Annual Grace Durnan Memorial Scholarship to Abigail Kolinkowicz:  164/100.

ü  Note in Keith Connelly’s personal journal:  “Top goal for school year:  expel Zander Paolino.”

Peter Gibson’s Dream: 

     The official story, the cover story, is that first I got a concussion falling off a skateboard, and that kept me out of school for a week, and then, the morning I was going to go back, I woke up feeling like complete crap.  I could barely move; I could barely swallow; I felt like someone had stuffed my head chock full of packing peanuts.  My mother thought I was faking it at first, that I was used to staying at home so I was trying out the old pseudo-flu.  She did the usual:  came into my room five times, each time telling me more loudly to get up.  I just groaned.  She brought in a pitcher of cold water, made like she was going to dump it on my head.  I croaked out, “Go ahead.”  When she heard my voice, she knew I wasn’t kidding.  After two days of me not getting better, off to the doctor’s I went again.  The verdict this time:  Mono.  Two weeks minimum out of school, maybe more.
     That, like I said, was the official story--the e-mailed report that went out to the school nurse, the administration, guidance, my teachers.  They could send me the instructions and materials to try to keep up, but chances were that I wouldn’t be able to do much.  
     So here I am, three and a half weeks after my supposed dumb skateboard move, coming back to a hundred variations of “Where the hell have you been?”  I tell them:  Can you believe it?  First a concussion, then mono.  
     Typical response:  “Dude, that’s rough.”  Pause.  “How’re you gonna catch up?”
     Thankfully, my cover story is only that.  Otherwise, after only half a day of going to my classes and realizing how totally lost I am, I’d be tempted to crawl back into bed and never come out.  No, I don’t have to feel that way because of what I’ve actually been doing in my absence.
     Apple and Windows, in an unheard-of alliance, collaborated to create the most powerful operating system and interface yet launched:  The iMe.  I am the prototype.  For the past three and a half weeks, a crack team of technicians has transformed my room into an elaborate laboratory--a sealed off, completely undercover clean room.  Even my own family was not allowed into the space.  In the center of the banks of computers, the miles of cable, the sheets of plastic, the intense army of techs covered in clean suits head to toe--in the middle of all that...was me.
     So now here I am meeting with Ms. Warren, my sophomore English teacher.  She rattles off my list of work and the due dates:  Finish reading Frankenstein; create 30 multiple-choice questions on the novel; memorize 50 vocabulary words; write the first draft of a paper that demonstrates why the book is still applicable to today’s society; create a collage including at least 20 different images; write a paragraph that mirrors Shelley’s use of sentence structure and punctuation.  With each one of these assignments, Ms. Warren hands me a flurry of papers and gives me an avalanche of explanations--all stuff that would have definitely overwhelmed the old version of me.  Equipped as am with a subdermal network of wiring creating an interface directly between my brain and the Internet, not to mention hundreds of software innovations created specifically for the iMe application, I take it all in and feel the machine that is me eat it for breakfast, a light one at that.  
     As Ms. Warren speaks, iMe transcribes her words into a text document for later reference.  The papers she hands me I could toss right in the recycling bin since the moment I glance at them, they’ve been scanned and stored.  The 50 vocabulary words are already “memorized,” which is to say I can whisper any one of them and see the definition in my peripheral vision (interactive contact lenses, of course).  Only 20 images for the collage?  I’ve already started to scan through the top 100 pictures iMe has selected from its search of Frankenstein, both the original text and the critical writings about the novel from its publication up to the present day.  
     Ms. Warren has stopped talking and is staring at me.  I’ve been so busy starting my work that I must have missed something.  “Sorry?”  By the time Ms. Warren has sighed and shaken her head, iMe has played back her last four seconds of talking, about how she also expects me to keep up with the current class work.   I quickly say, “Oh, right, I’ll do my very best to keep up, Ms. Warren. ”  I know this sounds a little wimpy, but the iMe installers have warned me not to act too confident; after all, this is top secret stuff, and I can’t let on that I’m returning super-charged.  iMe will need to be rolled out carefully to maximize profits.  In fact, the release probably won’t be for another year or more.  In the meantime, though, I am the very lucky guinea pig.
     Ms. Warren surprises me by getting a little soft.  Contrary to rumor, maybe she does have some sort of heart.  She says, “Peter, maybe we need to spread these assignments out a bit more.  You’re looking a little lost.”  
     What she interprets as me looking lost is actually me being totally distracted by the functions zooming around inside me, all designed to make short work of her homework.  The collage is done.  The vocabulary is a non-issue.  The novel is read, meaning I can access any part of the story I need whenever I need it.  The multiple choice questions will probably take me five minutes of decision-making--automatic iMe functions have chunked the novel into the most important concepts, one for each 30th of the book.  I’ll just need to choose which ideas I want to focus on and then pick from the generated array.
      None of this is cheating, by the way.  I’m not plagiarizing.  iMe has uploaded and analyzed every paper I’ve ever written, so when I put together the multiple choice and the papers, I’ll be using my own language.  The paragraph is about done.  I’ve quickly chosen a topic--swimming lessons.  Now that iMe has accessed everything in my personal database about this experience and created a template of Mary Shelley’s most common sentence structures and punctuation, it’ll be practically a fill-in-the-blank assignment.  Still, I’m going to have to work on looking like I’m paying attention when teachers talk to me.  Humble is good.  Lost might raise suspicions.  
     “Uh, I really appreciate your help, Ms. Warren.  I think I can handle the makeup work with the schedule you’ve given me.  I mean, you know, I’m all over my concussion now, ha, ha.  No more skateboards for me.”  
     “Well,” she says doubtfully, “we’ll see.  You keep me apprised of your progress.”  A voice in the back of my head defines the word “apprised” and I answer, “Oh, yeah, I’ll definitely keep you informed, Ms. Warren.”  Her eyebrows lift a little and I think, That’s right, you’re not the only professor in the house anymore.
      As I leave the room, I say good-bye and thank-you very much and I’ll work really hard to get all the make up work done.  Truth its, it’ll all be finished within the hour,  along with every other assignment I get today. As I check out the hallway full of students rushing around to get to their next class, their next test, I can’t help feeling like a god looking down on all the puny humans.  What am I going to do with all my time?
     That question stays with me for about half a second.  It’s gone when I see Roya Sundaram.  My gaze hangs on her long enough for iMe to kick in.  Within seconds, all her on-line information, from Facebook postings to the fact that her father is an insurance salesman, has been fed into me along with general information about all the Roya-like girls who have ever existed.  Suddenly I’m knowing exactly how to approach this set of curves that’s been making me crazy for the past year and a half, and the likelihood of me kissing her within the next week is hovering around 97%.  If there was ever a concussed, barely-mono-recovered, totally overwhelmed kid in this world, I am definitely not him.  
     I am iMe, and iMe is awesome.  
Reality Check:  Dream 66
ü  From e-mail sent from Guidance to Peter Gibson’s teachers:  “This poor kid has had quite the string of bad luck—first a concussion, then mono, now a bout of depression.  Let’s put our heads together to see what he can salvage of the year.” 

Roya Sundaram’s Dream:

     I watch myself walk through the door of the high school.  I’m not thrilled with what I’m wearing today.  I took a risk with a turtleneck.  I like the comfort of it, but I see that it makes my head seem to float above the rest of my outfit.  The turtleneck is black, which particularly adds to the effect. I shouldn’t have worn the turtleneck.  Who wears turtlenecks anymore?  Maybe they’re coming back, but they’re not back yet.  As I look around, no one else is wearing a turtleneck.  
     I pass by Diana Broomquist and give her half a smile.  She gives me the same sort of smile back, but just as we are side by side, she says, “Hey,” but by the time I’m able to say “hey” back, she’s already gone.  She’s going to think I’m a snob; I know she is.  I see the interaction in my mind’s eye, replay it from Diana’s point of view, and I definitely come off seeming like a snob.  I can’t afford to come off like that to Diana.  She has a lot of the friends I’m trying to be with, and if she starts saying I’m a snob, it could ruin my chances with that whole circle.
     I get to my locker and begin my daily battle with my lock.  How many times have I gone through this?  36, 12, 11.  Spin to the 36, spin past the 12 once, hit it the second time, then spin back to the 11.  Why is not working again?  I try it twice.  No go both times.  I puff out my cheeks and breathe out heavily, letting the lock clang against my locker. I realize I’m making too much noise.  I’m coming off like a lowly freshman who can’t handle her locker.  
     I instruct myself, correcting the image I should portray:  Step away from the lock.  Crouch down and reach into your bookbag.  Pull out your notebook.  Look at an empty page as if you’re actually checking something.  Keep pretending to read.  Make an upward motion with your eyebrows as if you found the thing you were looking for.  Nonchalantly put the notebook on top of your bookbag.  There, that’s a much better look.  
     Jarrod Towne passes me and says hi.  I turn to him a bit too quickly and say, “Oh, hello.  Hi.”  “Hello, hi?”  Could I possibly come off more desperate to please, more eager to be liked?  Damn it!  I might as well have been the freshman in the losing battle with the lock.  Jarrod might at least have been a bit amused by that picture.  Me with my three-word greeting--the I’m-surprised-to-see-you “oh,” and then the too-formal “hello” followed by the forgive-me-for-being-so-formal “hi.”  What was that?  Why do I have to get so flustered when guys like Jarrod walk by?  
     All right, class will be starting soon.  Have to get myself together.  I need to pull this off--unlocking my locker without looking as if it’s my third attempt.  No deep breaths, no signals of anxiety.  I need to look like I just arrived at my locker and I’m very confidently spinning it to the 36, the 12, the 11.  Done.  Now a smile, just a tad, to indicate assurance that it will work.  Pull down.  Yes!  No.  My face registered too much relief just then.  Why should I look relieved when I knew it was going to work?  I’m not having a good day.  Every image of myself I’m creating is just off.
     Just then, Heather Demeres comes up with a camera around her neck.  Heather is generally a nice person, but when she has that camera, she’s in yearbook mode, and then she must be feared.  “Candid!” she yells and lifts the camera to take a shot.  
     “No, no!”  I raise my hands.  I see the image of me with my hands raised like I’m in an old-fashioned stick-up, with my mouth in a circle from saying the O of  No, and the picture looks ridiculous.  Before I can shift my expression, Heather snaps the photo.  The sound of the camera when she pushes the button seems strangely loud, practically echoing down the hallway.
     Heather looks at the display on the back of the camera and says, “Very cute.  Look for it in the yearbook!  Did you put in an order yet?”  I don’t even have time to respond when she’s off looking for her next victim.  
     As I walk toward Spanish, something feels different.  I’m taking a familiar path, passing the normal lockers, walls, rooms, bulletin boards, other students.  Yet everything seems new now, in sharper focus.  It’s like when I’m home watching a show on the computer and the Internet is slow, the picture is just slightly blurry, but then the bandwidth gets uncluttered and the show snaps into focus.  Sometimes it feels like I’ve put on 3-D glasses.  
     The walk to first period is like that.  The drunk driving poster has been there for at least two years; I’ve passed it hundreds of times, yet I feel as if someone has painted the bloodstain on the pavement a much more vibrant red than I ever remember.  It’s really disgusting.  Jonica DuMoulin walks by with two of her friends.  They’re chatting together and don’t acknowledge me.  Jonica is short.  That’s not new information.  If someone asked me to describe her, I would have said she was shorter than me.  Today, this morning, I notice she’s shorter than just about everybody.  She can’t be more than four and a half feet tall.  How strange that I never saw that before, how short she is.  
     The walls are two-toned—light green on the bottom and white on the top.   That’s fascinating.  These walls in this hallway are two-toned!  Are all the walls in the school like that?  I want to know.  I’m suddenly very curious and excited about my surroundings.  Why do I feel this way?
     In Spanish, a class that usually bores and baffles me, this feeling of newness hangs on.  I notice that Senora Backus is wearing a multi-colored blouse, a typical top for her, but she’s clearly taken care to coordinate it with her earrings and her eye shadow.  When she talks about the culture of Spain, I raise my hand and ask her if she’s ever actually been to Spain.  All this time I’ve been in her room and seen all the posters of Spain and listened to her lectures about the customs of the place, but suddenly it occurs to me that Spain is a long ways from here.  And Spanish is a language very different from English.  And Senora Backus is many years older than I am and not from around here.  I actually want to know if she’s been to Spain, so I raise my hand and ask her.  “Yes,” she says.  “I believe I’ve mentioned several times that I was actually raised there until I was a teenager.  My father taught at the University of Madrid.”  
     “You moved to the United States when you were our age? Really?”
     Senora Backus smiles and nods, surprised by my interest.  I’m surprised by it, too, but it’s not fake.  She keeps talking about why she lived in Spain and what it was like to move here.  I find the story amazing.  I find the world amazing!  Why, though?  Why do I feel such a lightness now, such curiosity about things that have always surrounded me?  
     I look over at Dawnelle Grossman and Sarah Malleck.  They’re not paying any attention to Senora Backus.  They’re leaning their heads close together so Dawnelle can snap a selfie.  
     That’s it! I know what’s missing, and by its absence, everything looks entirely different to me now.  My cameras have shut off.  
     I’m not looking at what I look like.  I’m sitting here--listening, looking, smelling, feeling, experiencing, being--and that’s all.  I’m here.  Just here.  Not beside myself, above myself, behind or ahead of myself, second-and-third guessing myself.  My self is not a thing at all, not until now when I’ve realized the loss.  
     But it’s a loss that feels like a gain.  I shut off the realization.  I just live.  
Reality Check:  Dream 67
Consecutive days Roya Sundaram updated her Facebook profile with a current selfie:  315.