Copyright is held by the author.
MILES EDWARDS, 67, former outdoor life editor of the Bismarck Tribune and part-time substitute schoolteacher, entered room 134 of Bismarck High. Murmurs of recognition greeted him, punctuated by Stephanie Riley’s squeal and then shout of “Miles! Yes!” While the students laughed, Stephanie poked her friend, Anna, and said, “See, I told you it would be him.”
Miles waved and closed the door, temporarily sealing out the chaos behind him. As he walked to the podium, he thought I should just go home. I should go home before the next onslaught of probability waves. I should go home before I break down in front of the kids.
When Miles entered the school that morning, his gift — the ability to see the multitude of reality states and probable futures of an individual — had again turned dark and pessimistic. As he studied the kids’ faces, he saw only lives of despair, futures filled with tragedy. Lord, he wondered, what happened to the days when I not only saw the darkness in their lives but also the light?
He couldn’t leave, though. He and his wife needed the money. At 67, his job prospects had been reduced to substitute teaching or delivering newspapers. His 401(k) decimated; he and his wife needed the $80 per day to supplement their Social Security. Miles took little comfort knowing that in all his realities, the results were similar. The worldwide economic downturn raged across all his existences.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” Miles said.The students playfully snickered when he wrote his name on the whiteboard with the honorific, “Mr.” To the kids, he was Miles, and had been since the first time he subbed for Ms. Klusmeyer in her freshman English class. Stephanie had asked if she could call him “Miles,” and looking out at the plump and sweet Ms Riley, he had said yes. Now he was known as Miles, nothing more.
Miles gazed at the students, starting to his left. It was a relief to see Janet Hastings looking well. He recalled seeing nothing but doomed futures for her the last time he taught: childhood leukemia, traffic accidents, drugs and poverty. It was as if the universes had a malicious vendetta against the poor girl. He quickly turned away, afraid to look closer. For now, he could convince himself she would be safe.
Stephanie raised her hand. “Hey, Miles, what’s the plan?”
When Miles turned toward the student, one of his favourites, a sickness slithered in his gut. He hadn’t noticed before, but the young redhead wore a Goth-inspired ensemble: black scarf, black T-shirt, black socks, shoes and pants — an unusual colour palette for the girl whose current reality states rarely involved anything more serious than classroom anxieties, troubled romances, and family disputes. Although he recalled her probable futures as being mostly cloudy, Miles had not worried about this because his visions were often unclear and shifting in nature — clarity was not a given. Now darker harbingers gathered around the girl, each one fighting for prominence and each one shaded with predatory undertones.
Miles shuddered. He felt a protective affection for the girl as a parent might have for a favoured and awkward child. Despite her good nature, he had sensed loneliness within her, which transcended all her possible lives.
“Miles?” Stephanie said with a wave. “Our assignment?”
“Yes, the plan,” Miles stammered. He flipped through his notebook for Klusmeyer’s instructions. “The plan, the plan,” he said, forcing a smile. “Well, Stephanie, it appears you have a pop quiz on chapter three of Steinbeck’s The Red Pony. Ah, one my favourite Steinbeck works.”
The students groaned.
“How about a movie instead?” Leo Mazano asked.
Miles turned to the thin, dark-haired boy sitting in the second row by the windows. The morning light slipping through the half-drawn shades illuminated the boy’s dull, grey eyes. The beast in Miles’ gut dug deeper. He saw needle tracks along the boy’s thin arms, and Mazano lying prone and alone on a worn and filthy bed. He saw a father, a man buried in anger, wielding a belt on the cowering boy. He saw the boy handcuffed and led away by police.
“Jesus,” Miles uttered. Must all their lives be consumed with hopelessness? What have they done to incur the wrath of all the universes?
“Yes, a movie,” Stephanie said. “A Pixar.”
Miles shook his head. “A movie? No, not today. I’m sorry. We must complete our assigned tasks. Test conditions, please. Books on the floor and no cell phones. I trust you’ve kept them in your locker.”
“Oh, Miles,” Stephanie said, “you’re breaking our hearts.”
And you, mine, Miles thought.
During his lunch break, Miles sought refuge in the library, finding an empty cubbyhole buried behind the periodicals, hidden by the lonely shelves of science and geographic magazines. Whispers hung in the air; their masters unseen. Even in the empty spaces free of children — and the kids were just children, knowing nothing of all the worlds and desires the universes held — probabilities haunted him.
He opened his book and read. He hoped seeking sanctuary in the familiar comfort of his favourite writers would drown out the din, and he’d find shelter in the arc of imagined lives.
He scanned the pages, but nothing emerged. The letters did not form words. They were only patterns — art forms without thought, without story.
He set aside the book.
The voices grew louder. Miles grimaced. He knew the speakers. He knew the kids. They screamed. They pleaded. They cowered under blades of angry indifference.
“Miles, what’s wrong?”
Miles lifted his head, twisting toward the voice off to his right. It was Stephanie. He felt a thickness gather in his throat. He forced the words to form. “I’m not feeling well, Stephanie. Nothing more.”
Stephanie glanced to her left and right and leaned close. “You’ve been crying,” she said, each word carrying the weight of empathy.
“Old men get sad,” Miles said. “Please don’t tell. I wouldn’t want to lose my reputation — you know, the biggest badass substitute in Bismarck.”
Stephanie laughed. She also cried. She raged. Probability waves blinked in and out as if a line of Stephanie’s were auditioning for a part in a play and quickly exiting off stage.
Miles felt as if he would break down into more tears. He had exposed too much already. The girl needed help, but he could not bear to bring himself to listen or watch. Ashamed of his weakness, Miles stood. “I must go, Stephanie. Sorry.” He left without turning. No, he fled.
Students jammed the hallways as they left the cafeteria for their afternoon classes. Head down, with his workbag slung over his shoulder, Miles slipped through the torrent of kids. Students called out his name, but he neither stopped nor waved. The voices of those seen and unseen rose, building to a crescendo. Where can I find peace? Miles inwardly pleaded.
He approached his classroom. Stopping at the door, he considered leaving. At home, locked away in his den, he’d be safe. He could shut out all the worlds, or at least try.
He didn’t. He never shirked a responsibility. His wife loved that about him. I am a stand-up guy, he thought bitterly. I always do what’s right. What a fool…
He entered the classroom.
Stephanie stood in front of his desk, looking distant and small. “Miles, please don’t run away from me. You once told us we could tell you anything. You were talking to the whole class, but I knew you meant me.”
He couldn’t recall the conversation, but that didn’t mean it hadn’t occurred. Lately he had problems separating the probable lives with the one being led. “You’re right. I shouldn’t have run away from you. Sorry.”
Miles closed the door and checked the clock: Class would begin in 15 minutes, then the kids would file in and the probability waves would renew their assault. He remembered when he had loved his gift, when he had embraced all the possibilities the worlds offered. He had revelled in the richness of existence. He felt privileged to know its secrets. Now, all he saw was the crap a cruel and bitter world, no, worlds, had dumped on humanity, on these kids. Christ. He loved them. He didn’t do this job for the money, not anymore. He did it because he cared for the kids, for the hope they held, blissfully unfazed in their hearts by all the brutality of the world.
Stephanie slipped to the floor. Her backpack landed with a sad thump. Her hair fell over her face and she shook and choked out soft sobs.
Miles rushed to her. He knelt close. “Stephanie, what’s going on?”
She turned away and said softly, “I guess young girls get sad, too.”
“Yes, and they lead secret lives, fiercely hiding them from all those who care about them,” said Miles.
Stephanie nodded. She gathered a breath and spoke. Her words showered him like a meteor storm: all she had endured at the hands of her stepfather — the hopelessness, the degradation, and now the suicidal thoughts. She had carried the secret for years; it was her burden to carry, alone, and to hide.
How had I missed this? Miles lamented. What use is this gift if I can’t see the reality in front of me?
Miles studied the girl.
She looked ready to fold in on herself, collapsing under the weight of her sadness. She saw only one future, one terrible end.
He understood his gift.
He gently pulled on the girl’s sleeve, guiding her up. “Come with me, Stephanie. Let’s talk. I know you only see one outcome, one way out, but there are other possibilities. Trust me. You may not see them, but I do.”