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She walked into class exactly sixteen seconds late: she had counted. The heads of the teacher, mid-way in opening her attendance binder, and the students, ready with a clean sheet of lined paper on their desks for the daily quiz, turned as one. The teacher’s eyebrows scrunched slightly; dilatory behavior was not a common occurrence in her classroom. In fact, this had been the first tardy of the year.
“Please take a seat, Ms. Bell. I hope I will be assured that this will not happen again,” the teacher’s voice was smooth, even, and unperturbed, peremptory in its complete assurance of undisturbed peace. Mutely, she picked her way to her desk, alone in a sea of blank, eager faces. Methodically, the teacher passed out the page of questions detailing the previous night’s reading.
Everyone received perfect scores on the test. Except her. It was difficult to ratiocinate her way through the problems; it was as if she had lost some sort of universal truth from the previous night and this morning.
The bell rang, and everyone smoothly rose from their desks as a single unit, orderly filing out of the classroom.
“Ms. Bell? Will you please stay after class?” The teacher’s voice floated suavely through the air, chiming rancorously against her ears.
She talked of her worries, her concerns, her observation of the day. For some reason, Ms. Bell was simply not performing up-to-par. She had seemed perplexed when the teacher explained the concepts the class was learning, or so it seemed. She was had been asking so many questions, so many curious questions.
She walked outside. The air was redolent with the unfulfilled promises of a nearing summer—spring had failed to bring about the assured sweeping changes; for some reason, the flowers seemed not quite as aromatic, the sky not quite as blue as it had seemed before. The reserved, peaceful chatter of students wafted into the open air, and then dissipated, as if it had never existed.
She tripped over a step.
These were the steps that she had walked for the past four years, surely this shouldn’t have happened. It had never happened. Sixteen seconds late. It was the fifth step down, she was sure.
She was seized by a sudden, inexplicable new feeling, one that she had never felt before, as if the smiling faces pullulated around her, calmly staring and quietly scrutinizing. It was as if their very presence had permeated into a sacrosanct level of the soul and violated it in an irreparable manner. She glanced about frantically; the air around her had somehow disappeared; the crowd advanced in measured, harmless steps; she did not know why, but she was scared for her life. The scene before her transmogrified into a grotesque imitation of reality. The doll-like figures before her eyes did not contain faults, did not contain flaws, did not contain any substance. They were copy-cats of one another, perfect in imitating, so perfect that their actions were synchronous. Yet in the depths of their carefully mirrored eyes was something far more truculent, lambasting her in a barrage of silent rejection.
They did not need to communicate; they were all acting under the same will. Or perhaps it was no will. One of the multitude—she didn’t know who, they all looked the same—extended a hand. An inviting smile was on his face.
The outstretched hand was an ultimatum; it was a lifeboat bound for home; it was final. It proclaimed absolutely the absolute absence of any place but home.
The outlandish feeling returned violently, gripping her heart and violently pounding it against her chest. He kept on smiling. She could not do it, yet with a detached passivity, she saw her body move against her wishes, her lips contorting in an equally fabricated smile, her hand reaching toward the outstretched one, despite the crawling sensation running just underneath her skin.
She clutched the hand, and she thought no more.