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Even as his hand raced furiously across the paper, Jack knew it was already too late. He could hear each footstep from the hallway, he could feel the sweat that was dripping between his fingers, and he could taste the fear that was rising from his stomach. Jack realized he was becoming desperate. He ignored the spitballs launched at his head and the laughter from the back of the class.
“Why do you even try, Harris?” shouted a student.
Jack sat in his usual wooden desk, surrounded by his classmates, and he was overjoyed that his teacher always came late. Since the beginning of the school year, their teacher had made it a habit to arrive ten minutes late. None of the students ever minded, of course, and on this particular Monday morning, Jack Harris thanked his lucky stars for it.
In front of him were two pieces of loose-leaf paper. One was a neat, organized, and most importantly, correct, homework sheet. With each answer placed carefully on the red line, it resembled a work of art. Written at the top was the name Adam Baker.
The second piece of paper, although mostly illegible and appearing rushed, contained the same correct answers as the first. The left side of the page numbered one through twelve. The only problem was that the teacher had assigned twenty math problems to solve.
Well, I really screwed myself this time.
If Jack failed the class, he’d be forced to attend summer school, which would be catastrophic. What could be worse than school in the summer? To Jack, that was a violation of human rights.
“Time’s up. Give it back,” his friend, Adam, whispered. “Just hand in what you have before we both get caught.”
“Please,” Jack begged. “You know if I miss another assignment he’s gonna fail me.”
“Oh, well in that case … still not my problem.”
The classroom door swung open. Thirty-two students turned to face the teacher as Adam snatched the assignment from Jack’s desk.
Jack’s only hope was that the teacher would let him slide for missing a few questions. It was true they’d been given a week to complete the assignment. It was also true that this was one of the easier ones. But in Jack’s mind, no part of this awful situation was his own fault. After all, how did the teacher expect him to complete his homework, especially when a House marathon was airing that week? Jack hated putting in effort, and he hated it even more when he had better things to do, like watching television and eating popcorn.
Jack shifted forward in his seat, wiping sweat from his face with the palm of his hand. He brushed aside his messy black hair that fell just short of his eyes. He looked enviously at his friend Adam, whose brilliant blond hair and stylish glasses amplified his look of intelligence. Adam was calm and collected as usual, alert, with his eyes directed at the teacher in the front of the room.
“Good morning, class,” Mr. Munson said. He laid his briefcase down on the teacher’s desk. Opening the folder, he took out the day’s attendance sheet.
Despite the late-night movies, television shows, and snacks that had occupied Jack’s life for the past week, he really had intended to finish the assignment. In fact, he had gone so far as to plan out precisely when he was going to complete it. Jack figured if it was assigned on a Monday and due the following Monday, then Sunday at midnight would be the perfect point in time to get started. Needless to say, it didn’t work out quite the way he had planned it.
When the time had come on Sunday night, Jack no longer felt up for the task of doing math. After a glass of soda and a quick shower, he crawled into bed muttering “to hell with it” before rolling over and falling asleep. Well, that wasn’t exactly true, either. He should have gone to sleep. Instead, he’d sprung out of bed and spent the next four hours reading Bleach. Damn internet, once it had you it was like the Matrix.
“Well,” Jack said, “no one can say I didn’t try.”
Adam rolled his eyes. “Will you just calm down?”
“I am calm!” Jack responded just a few too many decibels above a whisper. Mr. Munson stopped calling surnames beginning with the letter G. He removed his gaze from the attendance sheet and his eyes fluttered around the room, searching for the source of the distracting noise.
“Excuse me, Mr. Harris. Do you have something you would like to share with the rest of the class?”
Jack pointed a finger at himself and gave a questioning look. “Do you mean me? I didn’t say anything, Mr. Munson. Are you sure it was from my direction?”
Mr. Munson stood from his chair, his face contorting into a scowl. To interrupt him during attendance was one thing, to lie about it was unforgivable.
“Well now, what do you think, Mr. Harris?”
Jack needed an excuse, and he needed one quickly. He was never very good with words, but this time, he had an idea.
“Umm, I don’t know. Maybe one of the students is a ventriloquist and he’s trying to frame me. I saw this one thing on CNN about that, and wow, let me tell you—once you’ve seen what these ventriloquist people can do, you wanna be able to do it yourself. Like, you wouldn’t even believe the—”
“Are you trying to make a fool out of me, Mr. Harris? Do you think I can’t recognize the sound of your incessant yak?”The other classmates turned to watch, and Jack knew they were eager to hear more yelling. If there was one thing they all had in common, it was that they loved to see Jack Harris get into trouble.
“Well, I, umm … what does incessant mean again? That’s the one that means not stopping, right?” This set the class further into giddy chaos. Someone threw a paper ball, which bounced off Jack’s head with a thud.
“Everyone be quiet this instant!” the teacher yelled. “Richard, if you throw another object in my class, I will have you removed. Jason, I can discipline him on my own, thank you. Keep your comments to yourself. And Mr. Harris, don’t interrupt me when I’m taking attendance.”
An invisible belt tightened around Jack’s stomach. Shame and embarrassment spread over him like a blanket. “I’m really sorry. It won’t happen again.”
“Yeah, it better not. You kids need to learn that Mr. Munson doesn’t take crap from anyone. Especially not you, Mr. Harris. Oh, and by the way, how did you manage to score a ‘seven’ on the last test? I graded it out of two hundred.”
More laughter came from the class, and Jack wanted to crawl under his desk and hide from the humiliation. To make matters worse, Mr. Munson was lying! Jack's grade was a nine, not a seven. It would have been a fifteen, too, but the evil teacher had marked him wrong on a question he'd answered correctly. At least, Jack was pretty sure he’d answered it right.
Of course I did, Jack reassured himself. Two plus ‘X’ equals ‘Z.’ Everyone knows that!
Jack cringed while he waited for the laughter to die down. The worst part was that Melissa, the girl he had his thinly-veiled crush on, had laughed harder than everyone. She sat two seats in front of him. Her golden hair dangled from her shoulder and ran over the back of her seat. She had beautiful blue eyes and a warm smile. Jack’s heart beat faster at the sight of her.
“Before we start today, I'm checking your homework, which I really hope you all completed. It is, after all, fifteen percent of your grade." The teacher hummed and wiggled his finger. “It all adds up, it all adds up.”
Adam sighed. “I suppose we’ve got no choice here. Alright, look, just give me your paper. I can copy your handwriting pretty well, and I’ll finish these last few before he gets to us, okay? But this is the last time, Jack. I swear it. And don’t even give me that look.”
Jack had to cover his mouth to stop himself from bubbling with excitement. He waited until Mr. Munson faced away before sliding over his pen and paper.
As usual, it was an incredible sight to behold, for not only was Adam writing at a lightning-quick speed, but he was making his handwriting appear identical to Jack’s. For the next few moments, Adam’s hand skipped and danced over Jack’s paper, at a speed that made Jack wonder how he wasn’t burning a hole through it.
“Okay, it’s done.”
“Yeah, it was easy. Just make sure you—”
Adam stopped short and his eyes widened. He bit the corner of his lip.
“Adam, is something wrong?” Jack asked. He didn’t understand what could have stopped Adam mid-sentence. A few seconds went by before Adam turned and inhaled, meeting Jack’s eyes.
“Yeah, what’s up?”
“Do you remember when I told you to copy my homework exactly as it appeared?”
“Yup. I wrote it just as you said—number for number, word for word.”
“Well, when I said that, I thought you understood what I meant by ‘copy exactly.’”
Now Jack was confused. What was Adam talking about? Why did he look so angry?
“Do you see this?” Adam slid the homework back over to Jack, pointing to a spot at the top of the paper. “Do you see what that is?"
Jack gasped. His eyes were ready to pop out of their sockets. Nerves rushed into his stomach, and his pain grew exponentially.
“When I told you to copy my paper, I assumed you wouldn’t put my name on the top of yours too!” Adam’s tone was a whispered scream. “Why are you such an idiot? How did you manage to copy my name as well? Tell me, Jack, is this news to you? You know, that you’re supposed to put your own damned name on your own damned paper? And to make it worse, you wrote it in pen.”
Jack wanted to close his eyes and pass out. Now, both he and Adam were in jeopardy. “Adam, I—”
“Don’t even speak,” Adam said, cutting him off. “Sometimes you amaze even me with your stupidity. We’ll just have to find another way out of this.”
Jack felt another violent pinch in his stomach, the fiercest yet, causing him to steady himself with a trembling palm on his wooden desk. “Aww man, my stomach is killing me.”
Jack could tell by the wrinkles forming under Adam’s eyes that his friend was taking notice of his pained condition. “What’s going on with you today?”
“It’s nothing,” Jack said. “I just, well, I’m nervous is all.”
“Alright, just take it easy. No sense having a fit over this.”
Adam’s words were ineffective. Jack barely heard them. He was too busy following Mr. Munson with his eyes, watching each step as the teacher neared their desk. Jack’s arms trembled, his pain intensifying. A hot, prickly sensation ran across his spine, and Jack twitched, knocking his pen and notebook to the floor.
“Hey, seriously, man, are you okay?”
Why is my stomach hurting so much?
The pain multiplied. His stomach felt as if it were being sliced open. Jack had missed many assignments before, but why was this one so important? He couldn’t understand it. All he could do was watch in silence as Mr. Munson came closer and closer to his desk. Everything was going wildly out of control. His head started to fog up. The room was spinning, each rotation adding another notch of pain. He closed his eyes, wondering what was happening to him.
Then, as if he’d fallen out of reality, there was pure silence. Jack could no longer hear the sound of Adam’s voice, he could no longer hear the sound of Mr. Munson checking papers, and with a start, when Jack opened his eyes, he realized he could no longer see the two, either. Everything had gone black. All at once, his vision had been stripped from him, and the entire world had been submerged into darkness. Nothing filled his vision, nothing filled his mind, and nothing filled his ears. He was senseless.
Jack tried to look around the room, but he could see nothing. The spinning had stopped, and thankfully, all at once the pain in his stomach faded. Everything was quiet.
It was then that Jack came to realize the assignment didn’t matter to him. In fact, even his own well-being didn’t matter to him. He was calm, and yet something else—Jack felt his mind open like a door sealed shut for hundreds of years.For the first time in his life, everything became crystal clear. A simple truth emerged. It was a truth that was so obvious, so apparent, and so pure. It was a simple fact, a simple reality made bright.
If the damned assignment didn’t exist, it wouldn’t even matter if I did it.
Jack didn't know why the words had so much meaning to them. Obviously, if there had never been an assignment to finish, he would not have had to complete it, but what did that matter? There was an assignment, and yet he had not completed it. And there was nothing he could do to change that, right?
But what if I could?
Jack filled with excitement. What if he could change it? What if there was still something he could do to fix everything? Something had clicked in his mind, something he couldn’t explain.
In that instant, sound returned to him, as well as sight. The class was once again noisy and chattering away while waiting their turn to have their homework checked. Jack surveyed the room. He could once again see the gum-filled desks, the blackboard, and the freshly-cleaned tile floors. He could see something else, too. There was wild amazement in Adam’s eyes.
“Adam, what’s wrong?” Jack asked. His voice was calm and serene.
Adam’s expression held an air of disbelief. “Something is dangerously wrong here. It’s like … It’s like someone poured drops into your eyes when I wasn’t looking. Your eyes are dilated.”
“My eyes are what, Adam?”
“Jack, don’t move.” Adam rose from his seat and turned to face the teacher. “Mr. Munson!” he called. “We have an emergency.”The class turned to face Adam, all probably eager to find out what was happening.
“Well, it had better be, for you to disturb me during a homework check.”
“Mr. Munson, it’s Jack, he—”
An ear-piercing scream from the back of the room cut Adam off. Everyone turned to look at the redheaded girl who jumped from her desk, knocking over her chair in the process.
“What in the hell?” she yelped. “Oh my god, there’s a freaking fire. M-my … my desk is on f-fire!”
Burning on top of the girl’s desk, in bright yellow flames, were her notebook, her homework assignment, and her binder. Dozens of students crowded around, pointing and shoving each other for a better view.
Mr. Munson, wasting no time, grabbed the fire extinguisher off the wall and sprinted to the back of the classroom, where he unleashed it on the burned papers. What had once been an organized desk was now nothing more than a charred piece of wood, covered with burnt, unreadable papers turning to ashes. Thick black plumes of smoke trailed from the wrecked desk, filling the classroom with an acrid smell.
Mr. Munson looked down at the fire extinguisher and then back up at the class. “Somebody better explain to me what just happened. If I find that anyone was playing with matches, you can bet that your entire high school career is—”
There was another scream, this time from the middle of the room. The boy who had been throwing paper balls at Jack leapt from his burning desk and fell backward. Every paper on top of it was now shooting flames.
“Oh, for the love of God, what is happening now?” Mr. Munson darted to the middle of the room, fire extinguisher in hand. He wasted no time hosing down yet another desk.
He wasn’t half finished putting the flames out when two more students cried out, one from the front of the room and one from the back, each with their desk on fire. Mr. Munson, now in a complete state of confusion, sprinted back and forth between the three fires, trying to put little bits out at a time, as if he was somehow holding each at bay. Students panicked. Shouts of terror filled the classroom.
One by one, the papers, homework assignments, and notebooks erupted in flames all around the classroom. Eventually the class became too shocked to speak, settling instead for barely audible whimpers. Adam and Jack stood up in unison as their desks ignited. The smell of smoke was thick in the air, and as if on cue, the sprinklers above activated, showering the room with cold water.
The bright yellow flames continued until every last desk—including the teacher’s—had been set alight. Mr. Munson’s mouth fell open while he watched the impossible take place. Between his drenched hair and horrified expression, Jack found the sight of him comical.
“Everyone out of the classroom—now!” Mr. Munson opened the door and evacuated the room. He might not have known what was going on, but Jack knew that now wasn’t the time for the teacher to worry about it. His first priority was the safety of the students.
Everyone on the third floor tried to catch a glimpse of the fire before being led out of the school. That is, everyone except Jack, who was shaking his head in confusion, marveling at the coincidence that had just taken place. He felt a bit groggy, and he had the feeling that he’d forgotten something very important, but he pushed the thought out of his mind, grateful for his sudden change in luck.
Whatever had just happened, Jack was saved, though at the expense of his entire classroom. He swore that from then on he would hand in all his assignments on time.
Oh, who am I kidding?