No Substitute for Terror

A short story by Michael Price

His new wife tried to talk him out of it.  “Sweetheart, listen… I have a good job,” was how it began.  “You really don’t have to do this…”

“No,” he said, smiling stubbornly. “I’m the husband now.”

“But you just got out of school,” she reasoned.  “We’ll be fine.  You’ll have lots of offers next year, I’m certain of it…”

“I need to get started.”

“… or you could do something else.”

“Not a chance,” was the firm response.  “It’s my calling, I know it, it’s what I was meant to be.  Besides, it’s great experience–what better training could there possibly be?”

“Or we could move.  Everybody needs nurses, I could get a job anywhere.  We don’t have to live in the city just so I can be close to work.”

“Honey, you know I love you and I love what you’re trying to say, I really do, but… look, you know my father was a teacher, both grandfathers were teachers, an uncle, an aunt, my sister, two older cousins… all teachers.”

“I know, I know.  But sweetheart, you remember how it was.”

“It wasn’t that bad…”

*

Larry knocked twice on the open door, took one large step into the classroom, inquired, “Anybody home?”–and smiled broadly at the seated students.

Twenty-two sixth graders stared back at him in silence, blatantly unimpressed.

“Okay,” he gulped, striding toward the blackboard, stopping directly behind the teacher’s chair and over-sized desk.  The term buffer zone bolted through his head, masked by a more normal smile.  “And a good morning to you all, ladies and gentlemen.”

No response.

Larry licked his lips with a dry tongue.  “Okay again.”  He turned and picked up a sliver of chalk.  “My name…” writing on the board, “… is Mister… Maschke.”  He set the chalk back in the tray and faced the class, an assemblage impressively unified in its expressionlessness.  Larry inhaled deeply, exhaled quickly, and utilizing his pleasantest tone, “Now, as I understand it, you’ve already been informed that your Mrs. Brewer is starting her maternity leave today and won’t be with you for some time.”

“No shit, Sherlock.”

Larry discerned the male voice from the back right corner of the room.  It startled him for a second, not so much because of the profanity but due, to a greater extent, to the deepness of voice—for a sixth grader—as well as the turn of the century literary reference—again, for a sixth grader.  There was a sprinkling of youthful giggles.

He reached down and picked up a clipboard of papers from the desk.  “And let’s see, back there, you would be Mister…”  He ran an index finger up and down the top page on the clipboard, stopped, and looked up again, concealing a burgeoning grin.  “Huh.”

Resorting to the first-day-on-the-job, get-off-on-the-right-foot, play-along-with-the-students variety of humor, he straight-manned, “Unless I’m misreading Mrs. Brewer’s seating chart, young man, you must be Sabrina Whitehead.”

A maleficent wave of juvenile snickering ripped through the room, lasting several seconds.

After most of the laughter had subsided, “Probably not, genius,” sneered the same voice from the back corner, a young man’s voice severely bitten with sarcasm.  “You’re an idiot.”

The room fell eerily silent.

“He’s Brock,” sotto voced a smallish girl seated in the first row, directly in front of Larry, displaying the sourest of faces.  “Yucky Brock Drew.  He’s older.”

“Yeah,” nodded Larry, pasting on a smile, “I got that.  Thank you, Miss…” he checked his chart.  “… Miss…”

“Whitehead.”  She smiled, a helpful smile.

Which elicited yet more laughter, including a mostly mirthless chuckle from Larry.  “I see,” he said.  Then, as jovial as he could muster, “Okay Mr. Drew, Miss Whitehead, class,” he nodded, edging his way around the desk, “I can take a joke as well as the next guy…”

A spitball hit him in the ear.

“Hey!”

He hadn’t seen from which direction it had come much less who threw it, but it evidently had traveled a fair distance and with considerable velocity because it stung more than he thought a flying spitball ought to, but he had no real reference in the matter.

Larry allowed himself a few moments to compose himself as yet more juvenile snickering simmered through the room.  “All right… okay,” he started slowly, suppressing mounting gall.  “I hope I don’t have to explain why that’s the last time that’s going to happen.  We’ve had our fun for the day, now—are we all clear on that?”  He paused in silence, panning the room, feigning extreme exasperation.  Then softer, kindlier, “Okay.  Now… I would appreciate it, very much, if those of you not seated at your assigned desks would take the next thirty seconds to move to wherever you’re supposed to be so we can take attendance and get started.”

All twenty-two students stood.  They began to mingle, dawdle about, softly droning at and with each other as if it was a post-A.A. Meeting smoking and coffee confab, only for little kids.  Larry sat behind his desk and waited patiently for the students to sit, but few did.

“Okay,” he clapped, “let’s everybody take a seat—now, please,” he volumed above the din, accenting the now with theretofore unprecedented sternness, fully aware of how precipitously close he was to slipping into the domain of actual anger, an area he had consciously resolved to avoid on his first day as a professional teacher.

And again, “Now… please.

The class dissolved into silence as the students grumpily began to sit: the most uninspired round of musical chairs in history, thought Larry.

He never did find out if anyone ended up where they were supposed to be.

He knew for certain that at least three boys didn’t.  Brock Drew and two other boys, smaller in stature but with bullyish deportment, were standing, scowling, in front of a large side closet, containing, among other things, gym equipment.

“Yeah teach, we usually have gym class first thing,” said Brock, opening the closet door.  “Ain’t that right, boys?”

“That’s right,” paraphrased the other two boys.

“Yeah,” agreed a few classmates, softly.

Larry quietly corrected, “The word is isn’t, not ain’t, Mr. Drew,” then flipped the top page on his clipboard.  “See now, that’s not at all what Mrs. Brewer says in her notes,” he said, pointing down, maintaining a peripheral awareness of Drew and his pals.  “It says right here that you have language first thing in the morning.”

“Bullshit.”

Giggles.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Bullshit what Mrs. Brewer says.”

“Yeah, bullshit!”

Larry felt his stomach flip-flop.  “Please watch your language, Mr. Drew.”

“Or else, what?”  Brock glowered daggers at Larry.   Larry stared back, outwardly firm, Jello on the inside.

Brock lifted a small softball bat from the closet, eased the hallway door shut, and stepped forward, the other two boys flanked behind him.  “Who here wants to play kickball?” he voiced in the direction of the rest of the class, two wildly nefarious eyes burning directly into Larry’s.

“We do, we do!” unisoned the class with volume.

“Now just wait…”

Louder, “Kickball!  Kickball!  Kickball!…”

Larry was losing control of the room and he knew it but this was all new to him; he was absolutely, positively unsure of his viable options under such circumstances.  Later, he would recall thinking at that very moment… keep it light.  When in doubt, always go with your strength.

“Kickball!  Kickball!…”

“But Brock,” Larry stated with an uneasy chuckle, “everybody knows that bats aren’t allowed in kickball…”

“Shut up!”

The class was now supremely rabid.  “Kickball!  Bullshit!  Shut up!  Kickball!  Bullshit!  Shut up!…”

With ambush-like execution, Brock and his two buddies strode forward as one and penned in Larry, up against the big desk.

Brock began violently hacking away at Larry with the bat.

“Hey… Ow!  Cut it out!  Hey!”

Larry blocked the first few swings with his arms; he knew immediately that his left wrist was broken.  Brock’s next swing landed in the pit of Larry’s stomach, knocking the wind out of him, rendering him temporarily voiceless.  One last swing sent him to the floor, writhing in silent, air-sucking pain.

“Get ‘im!  Get ‘im!” yelled the students, many rising to join in the onslaught.

Brock dropped the bat and began kicking Larry in the rib cage, over and over and over.  The other two boys aimed for Larry’s head, kicking and punching with their little fists in fury, just as Larry began getting his wind back.

“Help!  Somebody… ow!… somebody … ah, ow!… go get Mr. Lundquist, somebody… ah, God!  Help!”

“Hold ‘im down!” bellowed Brock, the driving force of the young mob, over the din.  “Get his mouth!  Shut ‘im up!”

Now every student was up, all twenty-two sixth graders, all but a few involved in the fray.  They pinned Larry flat on the floor, face up, three or four students per extremity.  Larry could barely move, only his head side to side, and only a little bit.  One of the smaller boys stuffed an eraser in Larry’s mouth; Brock took some white tape from the medicine kit from the same side closet, wrapped it tightly over the teacher’s mouth and around his neck, to secure it in place.

“Uueh!  Uueh!” was Larry’s muted cry for help.

A boy grabbed a stapler off the teacher’s desk, opened it flat, and repeatedly punctured Larry’s face when it wasn’t being pummeled by the students’ battering fists and feet.  The biggest, chubbiest girl in class, hesitant at first, got into the melee by bouncing up and down on his stomach.  Not to be left out, two of the smaller girls collected stick pins from the bulletin board and jabbed him dozens of times, all over his lower abdomen and legs.  Everybody else was, indeed, playing kickball—with Larry’s beaten and bruised body in the featured role as the ball—the entire class with wild fury blazing in their eyes.

But it could have been worse.

During the savage frenzy of feet, fists, and all else, nobody had noticed little Sabrina Whitehead slip out of the classroom.

“STOP THAT RIGHT NOW!”

            She had calmly walked down to the end of the hall–because you weren’t supposed to run in the hall, not ever–to inform the school’s principal, Mr. Lundquist, very matter-of-factly, that her class was killing the nice substitute teacher.

            “Uueh… Uueh…”

And she was just in time.

Just as the principal arrived, Brock Drew discovered the desk drawer in which Mrs. Brewer kept her scissors.

“GET OFF THAT MAN!” screamed Mr. Lundquist.

A fractured skull, three broken ribs, collapsed lung, broken wrist (in two places), broken nose, several chipped teeth, countless bumps and bruises (both external and internal), and seventy-seven stitches.

“It really wasn’t that bad…”

And a concussion.

*

“Sweetheart, please… you don’t have to do this.”

“Yes, I do, now more than ever.”

“You could do… almost anything else.”

Larry sighed.  “Honey, we’ve been through this.”

“But… so soon?”

“I told you, it’s what I was meant to be.  It’s my calling in life.”

“But sweetheart, you remember how it was…”

“Chalk it up as an experience.  It’ll be different this time, I promise.”

*

Larry rapped twice on the open door, took one large step into the classroom, inquired, “Anybody home?”–and smiled an unseen smile at the seated students.

Sixteen kindergarten students stared back at him in stunned silence, most of them terrified, thoroughly unnerved at the sight of all the bandages, as Larry strode to the front of the class.

All except one five-year old boy, a child noticeably larger in stature than his classmates, sitting in the first row, who immediately stood and peed on the substitute teacher’s feet.

WIDELY PUBLISHED IN LITERARY JOURNALS, MICHAEL PRICE HAS BEEN WRITING FICTION FOR OVER 30 YEARS.  HE EARNED HIS BA IN THEATER FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA IN 1980 AND PERFORMED HIS OWN ONE-MAN ONE-ACT PLAY “NO CHANGE OF ADDRESS” TO CONSIDERABLE ACCLAIM AT THE 2011 MN FRINGE FESTIVAL.
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