After the assembly, the fear and chaotic thinking from earlier this morning had dissipated and I went into English class confidently, planting myself in a desk near the front. In the minutes waiting for the teacher, the class was deathly silent, and at first I thought that the news about the explosion had actually settled into the students. Then I remembered that the announcement had all been a hallucination emerged like a fungus from my irrational fears, and the class only seemed silent because I was completely insane.
"Heheh!" I chortled out loud. A few students looked at me with what seemed like confusion, maybe even anger. I became startled at first, and thought maybe I was acting like an ass again, but I remembered once more that I was crazy, and the confusion and anger had been an illusion as well. The students probably hadn't even looked at me. There was nothing to fear, I could do whatever the hell I wanted! I smiled broadly. Everything was finally coming together. I would defeat these insane hallucination and make it home. There was no emergency! Everything was fine!
Right then, my dad was probably having lunch at the steel mill, which was still fully intact. My mom was at home, beheading roses and refilling the bird feeders strewn all about our yard. My brother would be at home too. Yeah, he'd be reclining on the filthy couch in his room, and when I get home today after 3:00 he won't have moved from that very spot, and he'll maybe pat me on the back and say something like "Hey man, how was your first day at the box factory?" and slap me a little too hard on the back. A series of annoying squeaks like mice being squished intruded upon my thoughts. I looked up and the teacher was standing right in front of me writing on the chalk board. I didn't even notice him come in. He looked like the stereotypical crotchety old man who yells at you from his porch and steals your frisbees, baseballs, remote control helicopters, or whatever it is kids play with these days. Except he was older and wore orange-tinted sun glasses and a neck tie.
"All right kids," he croaked as he slowly, slowly, turned around and swept those glassy, light blue eyes across the classroom.
"Now I know you're probably upset about the explosion, all right? But there's nothing to worry about, all right? Hasn't never been an emergency the town couldn't handle, and I taught all your parents and I know they're all right, all right? I just want to make ONE THING CLEAR!" he said, raising his voice and pounding on the desk with his fist at the last three words.
"I will NOT tolerate slackers, all right? And I will NOT accept this emergency as an excuse for all you kids to slack off, horse around, or dilly-dally. I will NOT tolerate shennanigans, and I will NOT tolerate dilly-dallying. Do I make myself clear?" The teacher had begun to tremble, and his lips were sealed into a grim line.
Explosion? My insanity seemed to be inescapable. He hadn't mentioned an explosion, it must've been an auditory hallucination. Here was my opportunity to battle the madness and prove that I was in control, so that I'd make it home to see my parents and my brother. Immediately I tried to think of soothing things, to put my mind back in balance. Butterflies landing on balloons… colorful fish floating gracefully, eating underwater cupcakes… confetti falling from maple trees… finding my mother after getting lost at the mall… waiting on the lawn for my dad to come home from the mill…
The teacher droned and sputtered on and on like an old motor, but I didn't understand any of it. My head started to sway back and forth as I calmed myself with my earliest memories… when I was four, whenever I fell out a window or tripped over my feet and started to cry, my brother would place me in front of the television and we'd watch Discovery Channel documentaries. For some reason, the strange images and the smooth narration would distract me from whatever pain I was in. My favorite was always the dinosaur documentaries. The gigantic beasts fascinated me to no end. I think my leg could've been broken or my head split open, whatever the catastrophe, and the colorful images of the dinosaurs would never have failed to enthrall and distract me, and let me forget the otherwise unbearable ache.
The teacher droned on and on, someone in the back of the room started to cry and wail about an explosion or something. I remembered that the stegosaurus could change colors on its plates, and that the baryonyx fed primarily on fish.
After I threw up for a few minutes, I instinctively walked towards the exit of the school. It seemed like most people were in class, but I certainly wasn't about to go to mine. I couldn't possibly sit still for an hour now, not now, not after this. There was a chain over the door, locked with a huge padlock. A few kids were standing in front of it, looking listless and aimless. There was nowhere to go. I walked back towards the cafeteria to get a cup of water. With nothing else to do, I stumbled over to the painting room and picked up my paint marker again. I get lost in it like I did before, but this time my thoughts are on my parents. My dad worked at the factory. Was he dead? Was my mom dead, sitting at home on the couch holding the TV remote in her dead lifeless hand. I remembered English class—“Television is easy!” So is dying. Dying is never a hard thing to do.
I realized, suddenly, what the doodle from earlier was. It was the explosion. And I realized what the dream was. The face with no definition was Lindsay, because I had no idea who she was anymore. And the sky was the explosion at the factory, the poisonous gas drifting through the town like storm clouds.
I picked up a small Xacto knife from the table next to me and stab through the painting. I made neat, thin, long incisions down the canvas in columns, ten of them total across the thing. In one quick cutting motion, I slashed across the canvas, and the strips sprout out like ribbons. I started crying again. I run to the bathroom again, letting no one see my face. It didn't really matter. There were people all over crying, even that jerkoff Chester. I doused my head in cold water and rubbed my eyes, but the tears didn't stop. I kept crying, and sat down in the corner. The cold tile felt comforting on my legs. I wanted to try and find Sara to steal a cigarette from her, but I didn't know where to look, and couldn't see myself going on a wild goose chase for her. I walked out of the bathroom and saw the freshman who had been smoking the bathroom earlier.
He looked up, scared. “Yeah?”
“You got any more of those cigarettes?”
“Uh, yeah, sure. But you can't go outside…”
“Do you really think that matters anymore?” and as if I had cued it, the loudspeaker crackled to life.
“The day of reckoning is upon us!” a female voice I didn't recognize shouted.
“Just give me the cigarette, kid.” I walked into the bathroom, lit it, and inhaled deeply. The window was closed, but I stood near it as if it wasn't. Eventually the room was somewhat smoky and the cigarette was finished. I threw it in the toilet and walked out with no clear direction. The bell rang and all of a sudden the halls were filled with crying, shouting teenagers.
But then there’s everyone crying and staring at walls again. The teachers are rushing around looking for open windows. I find Jay and Lena sitting against a wall in the hallway. I slide down next to them. So maybe it’s all real. I still feel better. My disbelief is suspending my emotions.
“So, toxic chemicals in the air outside, huh?” says Lena. “It’s only a matter of time before they get into the school. We can’t seal all the air out. We’re all going to die.”
“Yup.” I say, and burst out laughing again. Jay and Lena stare at me. I tell them about the principal, so calmly climbing out of his window. We all laugh nervously, hysterically.
“So what do you say we find a closet and smoke the rest of this pot?” suggests Jay.
We hotbox a janitor’s closet. A teacher smells it and pokes her head in, but quickly realizes that there’s nothing she can do. She leaves us alone. I feel a comforting haze drift over my mind, and I pull Jay and Lena in with me. They’re warm and comfortable, and we lay our heads on each other’s stomachs and tell stories, laugh a lot, recall happy memories. We sit in a circle, holding hands with our heads touching in the center.
“So what do you think?” I ask them.
They both go quiet. I kiss Jay, then Lena. Maybe they’re just too stoned to care, but they
kiss back and we lie on the floor of the closet snuggling and I feel wonderfully safe and happy next to my best friends. I feel exceptionally sleepy. And start to drift off.
Strange half-dreams float through my head. Students lining up single file and walking calmly, one by one through the principal’s open window. Factory workers like my dad curling up on the ground to sleep. The doors of the houses are their mouths, the windows eyes. Mouths close and windows go dim. To all this, a backdrop of upbeat music. What should be disturbing is happy. I watch my family members. See each of them born, grown, change, die. I reach out to grab someone, but I’ve died too, and I’m turning into dust. Can’t touch anything. But it’s not really that bad. To be dead. I still feel alright.
I open my eyes. Jay and Lena are shaking me, seem concerned. I am very sleepy, have trouble getting up. As we walk down the hall, I remember the window. I try to say something, but my tongue feels big and heavy and won’t move. I stop walking, and Jay and Lena prop me against the wall. I smile and wave at the people I know, because I want them to know that it’s alright. I was dead a few minutes ago, and it really wasn’t so bad, so I feel like I should comfort them all. I slide down the wall.
I find Rose in a corner of the hallway, alone. She’s all curled up into a ball. She’s the cutest little thing ever. Like a kitten or something. I don’t know man. Weird day.
I sit down next to her. “Hey,” I say, “you okay?”
“Not really,” she says, “No. I’m not. I’m worried about my parents. No contact with what’s going on out there.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “They’re probably fine.”
“Yeah, I guess. But I don’t know. It’s hard when I don’t even know anyone here.”
“Yeah,” I say, “I broke up with my boyfriend today.” I don’t usually talk this much about what’s going on with me. I’m reticent and shit.
“Sorry,” she says.
“Yeah,” I say.
I got out of the auditorium at about 12:20. It was empty. I'm empty. Fuck. I need to get out. Dad works there. He doesn't work on the floor. He's in management. He works in the offices. He's fine, I'm sure. No I'm not. I need to call Mom. She's at the animal shelter. I need to get a phone. Left mine at home. FUCK. I need to get out. Go to the door. Go to the exit. Chained and padlocked. Shit. Shit. I have to go somewhere. They can't keep me in here. Shit. I'm crying. I haven't cried since I was 9 when I broke my arm. What the fuck do I do. I can't breathe. I need more cigarettes. Fuck Jack. He went home. I need to get to a phone. I need to hear my mother's voice. I need to talk to someone. I need to breathe. I can't breathe in this building. Can't go outside, air is filled with chemicals. I can't think, I have too much to think about. My brain hurts. I can barely move. Where am I. I'm twitching on the floor of the bathroom. Get out of this room, it's bad for me. I'm in the hallway. Walk. Walk. Sara's on the floor, too. I hear crying coming from all over. I'm not alone. Classrooms are full. Who the fuck would try to teach at a time like this. I always thought I could handle myself in a crisis situation. So much for that. I need to get away. I need to find people.