The boy has a bomb on his mind.
No. It’s not like that. The bomb is not meant for a fetid corner in this high-school classroom or for Mr. Connell up front or for the sloe-eyed girl one seat over who tsks every time Connell urrs. The boy is harmless, so much so that harmlessness seeps—a clear fluid—from the scabs of wounds unsuffered, leaving him sticky in the eyes and soft in the palms. He is so harmless, in fact, that people always end up calling him Nicky, even though he has made certain to introduce himself with the thudding, fricative Nick.
Nicky arranges his bombs in the woods behind his house: a lone sneaker, a doll with grime on the side of her rubber face, or a tray of his mother’s old hot rollers. At each object’s center he places an explosive: under the sneaker’s silent tongue, in the doll’s fibrous belly, between the rollers alongside a strand of his mother’s dyed blond hair. Then, Nicky backs up and lets the bomb go.
It is not the potential violence that Nicky likes. It is not even the explosions—the bang, the boom, the smithereens. It is this: There is a moment before the explosion, and then there is a moment before that moment. In the moment before the moment before, Nicky crouches in the underbrush, finger-plugged ears, eye to eye with the leering doll (even it does not deserve to die); he can feel the landscape of his own scalp, the pucker of his knuckles, the cracks between his teeth. He wishes he could live forever in the pocket of that moment, in that place where he knows what is to come.
In the desk next to Nicky, Danica rotates slowly in the center of a golden egg. She opens her mouth and takes in a sip of the albumen; it is warm and viscous, not much different from the tissue of her now-forming lips, esophagus, and stomach. Instead of hair on her head, Danica bears a scalp of cut-you sharp feathers. When smoothed down, their tips reach the backs of her knees. The rest of her body appears human, but already she senses that her tears, slipped under a liar’s tongue, will force him to speak the truth, and her menstrual blood, dotted on slumbering eyelids, will reel the sleeper into the world beyond sleep, the world of the dead, allowing him to return only when he carries a message from one of the wretched whom she might seek. Danica will be born the world’s last birdcreer, and even now, a cabal of ancient assassins has gathered, conspired, and scattered in search of her egg.
Danica hates it here. She hates that her mother has gotten this stupid job as a legal assistant in this stupid town with this stupid high school. She totally and utterly knows that she’s capable of home-schooling herself. For example, this particular teacher, Mr. Connell, knows beans about Anne Bradstreet.
The birdcreer will know her assassins by their fifth fingers, which will be made of granite or quicksilver or ice, the substance of the finger revealing the weapon with which that assassin has sworn to kill her.
Fuck-all. That’s what she meant. Mr. Connell knows fuck-all about Anne Bradstreet’s poetry. At least Danica knows enough about this place to say fuck-all instead of beans. She’ll make it hard for them to laugh at her here.
To the creature that swallows her heart is granted the curse of immortality. These assassins, foolishly, mistake it for a blessing.
Mr. Connell breaks the stick of chalk thinking too hard about Anne Bradstreet’s tits. One of the kids snickers (Danica?). They hate the poem. They hate him. But Anne Bradstreet, she’d like him all right. Yeah. Mr. Connell bets she’d be good in the sack. Devoted. You could ask her to do stuff, and she would. Wouldn’t even give you a look about it. He bets she was stacked. She wrote like she was stacked. He could spread her out in the ashes where her house used to be, paint her over with soot, let her be devoted to him.
Mr. Connell doesn’t feel devoted to much of anything these days. Certainly not to these students who stare or don’t stare. And who can say which is more disconcerting, the staring or the not? He’s even less devoted to his dissertation, all six-hundred and twenty-three pages of it finished and saved on his computer. Not printed out, not tangible, just there on his hard drive, but somehow all the more an object for that fact.
No, no, Mr. Connell has given up on devotion. He’ll trade it for Anne in the ruins of her burned-out house. Who else? Kate Chopin, she’d be freaky. And, the good money on Harper Lee was that she left scratch marks. Maybe with the appropriate amount of alcohol, he’d even try Whitman (yawp!), not that he’d ever admit that to anyone. Here! Here was a dissertation worth reading.
Lizzie has a plan: eat fruit for an after-school snack. Get an A on her Boxer Rebellion essay. Ask John Tutmun to the prom. Have him say ‘yes’. Improve by sixty points on the SAT. By five on the ACT. Finish her community service credits. Get an acceptance letter from at least five of the Seven Sisters Colleges, a clear majority. Talk her grandma into buying her the luggage set with the embroidered navy flowers. Make best friends with her Freshman-year roommate. Discover that they’re both still virgins. Edit the school newspaper. Clerk for a Republican senator. Marry her college boyfriend. Tell a knock-knock joke to the president. Have him laugh. Opt for the C-section. Name it Nancy if it’s a girl. Be appointed Secretary of State. And so on and so forth.
Mr. Connell is still talking about Anne Bradstreet. Lizzie has five things to say about her, the woman whose house burnt down. (She used to have six things to say, but she lost one.) Lizzie has five things to say about Anne Bradstreet, but she’ll restrain herself and just say three of them. She raises her hand and pictures Anne Bradstreet’s house afire, the way the flames wave and flicker. There is a logic to their movements. Can’t you see it? Lizzie can.
The sansevieria on the windowsill imagine that they are the sunlight and that the sunlight is them. If they were Mrs. Walters’s sansevieria two doors down on the windowsill of the Biology classroom, and if Mrs. Walters had the ability to communicate with plants, and they the ability to understand her, she would have been able to explain that, in a certain sense, they are the sunlight and the sunlight is them. It is not their imagination after all.
Sometimes Mrs. Walters dreams that she can talk with plants. They always call her by her middle name, which is Marie. She isn’t sure why. Perhaps she’s introduced herself that way.
The fruit fly buzzing in the corner of the ceiling repeats the word giggle, giggle, giggle, liking the way all those g’s sound in its head.
Neve Hogan thinks nothing at all. This is much harder to do than it seems.
The school building keeps to itself; it has had practice in this. If it were forced to share, it might wish to point out that while, in one sense, there exists a classroom that contains students, an American Lit teacher, plants, and a fruit fly, there exists another classroom containing a bomb, an egg, Anne Bradstreet’s lover, a plan secretly wishing to be a house-fire, some sunlight, a Marie down the hall, giggles, and a void. Both classrooms, it would advise you, are equally valid.