By Otis Fuqua
The moon is not out. Deborah is not in bed. A stranger’s silhouette is not rolling toward her like a panther.
“Mish Deborah?” a child’s voice asks—Ricardo, at the front of the classroom. The esses catch on his braces.
There is no face like a saber-tooth tiger. An eely stripe of stubble does not pass through a moonbeam that does not bisect the bedroom Deborah is not in.
Deborah wobbles, steadies herself against Jeffrey’s flip-top desk.
“Ish everything okay?” Ricardo asks.
Deborah is not pinned to a mattress. No bedsprings squeak in protest. The moon is not out.
“Yes, Ricardo. Thank you for asking.” Deborah sounds upbeat and relaxed, as she wants the ten-year-olds to hear her. “I think I’m just dehydrated.” She goes to the teaching station in the corner, toasts the class with her water bottle. “Those of you with hydration units, a moment for hydration!”
Deborah drains the bottle in three staccato swigs. Some of her students sip with her, but most slip off into side conversations and distractions. Aly and Grace, the horse girls, are neighing at each other. Morgan and Savoy are clunking their feet together in a competitive game of footsie. Shana is smiling at her crotch. This means she’s taking pictures of herself. Elijah’s arm is buried in his pants up to his elbow.
Outside, a cloud moves in front of the sun. The classroom dims to a pale blue. The students’ faces look shadowy and old.
There is no chemical spreading through the air, thick and soporific. There is no hand like a manhole cover over her nose and mouth.
Deborah’s neck prickles.
“Bill Nye—” The words come out of Deborah’s mouth stronger than intended. Thirty childish faces turn toward her at the same time. She feels like she’s dumped a spoonful of sugar on top of an anthill.
No cloth scrapes against her tongue.
“—is in your future. We will watch Bill Nye, if you pull yourselves together for fifteen minutes.”
Madison scribbles something to Chris. Jeffrey farts—a soprano boink that rocks the class with laughter.
The moon is not out.
As the class laughs, Deborah removes a marble from a jar at the front of the room. A second. A third. A wave of shushing circulates through the room until all eyes are on Deborah, and there is silence.
“I don’t like asking twice, squirrels. Pull yourselves together for fifteen minutes. You’re the oldest in the school. I expect you to act like it. I’ll put these back in the pizza party jar if you can get through this activity, but please, pull yourselves together.”
The class transforms into a sea of tiny executives. Spines straighten, hands clasp, love-notes and sketchbooks and phones disappear.
“Thank you, squirrels.” Deborah slips the marbles into her pocket. They rattle. “The fifth grade community service project: Raise your hand if you’ve seen fifth-graders working around the school in years past.”
No one raises their hand.
The moon is not out. No bed. No sting.
“Well. Some of you have. Those who haven’t, every year, the fifth grade class takes on a project to improve the school or surrounding neighborhood. The gardens by the primary playground, the kindergarten mosaic, and the picnic tables out front were all fifth-grade community service projects.”
Eulalia raises her hand. “Is the new fence on the highway a community service project?”
Deborah crosses her arms. “Yes. It is. That’s a specific kind of community service though, different from ours. Those men committed a crime and are doing community service as a punishment.”
Elijah doesn’t wait to be called upon. “Did they kill somebody?”
There is no stubbled, saber-tooth tiger face. No one’s thighs are squeezing Deborah’s ribcage. No one’s breathing sour air into her nostrils. The moon is not out.
“Elijah. One strike. Don’t test me.”
Elijah slouches and looks at his toes.
Deborah pulls her lips into a smile. “Our community service project is a reward, not a punishment.”
Opposite Elijah, Mariah raises her hand. “Isn’t a reward where you get something, not give something away?”
Deborah uncaps a dry-erase marker and points it at her. “Good question.” On the board behind her, Deborah draws a table with two columns:
ME MY COMMUNITY
The marker squeaks as she writes.
There is no mattress. There are no bedsprings. The moon is not out.
“Can anyone name an effect of community service?”
The usual hands are up before Deborah has finished the question.
“The preservation of nature,” Mariah says. Deborah writes this under my community.
“Friendship!” Eulalia says. This goes under me.
“It improvesh our infrashtrucshure,” Ricardo says. This makes it under both headings.
The table fills with ideas. They come in bursts. Grace’s “stables” and Jeffrey’s “basketball court” do not make the list. Madison’s “dirt management” confuses the entire class. In general, the discussion is off topic and below grade-level. Unsatisfactory.
Fifteen minutes are up. Elijah’s pointing at the clock.
Deborah’s chest tightens. “Almost there. You’re missing one. On the me side. This is a big one. What do you get from community service?”
“Exhaustion!” Elijah cries.
Everyone, even Eulalia, giggles at this.
A voice like a broken bottle isn’t growling into Deborah’s ear. She doesn’t hear the words. Chapped lips don’t scratch her cheek. No tastes of copper and sugar burn her tongue. The moon is not out.
“Every weekend I read to the seniors at Dignity Village. I don’t build anything. It’s not super fun. I don’t have any friends there. The place looks the same when I leave as when I came. But it has this one specific effect on me. Can any of you tell me what that effect is? It goes on the me side.”
Most of the class is staring out the windows. The first flurries of a new storm are falling.
A blurry ring forms around Deborah’s vision.
A man’s silhouette doesn’t grow until all she sees is darkness. The moon is not out.
“Thursdays and Fridays I volunteer at the American Legion. I cook dinner for the veterans and do the dishes. Do you think I do those dishes for the exercise? Do you think I’m friends with those dishes?”
Eulalia laughs nervously. On opposite ends of the room, Elijah and Brandon begin to chant at a whisper, “Bill. Bill. Bill.”
A rivulet of sweat runs down Deborah’s spine.
No sour air, no soporific chemical, no body odor pounds her nostrils. The moon is not out.
“No. I’m not. This should be easy. You’re smarter than this. For a marble in the pizza party jar, why do I do those dishes?”
Mariah raises her hand. “Because no one else will?”
Deborah jabs her fingers into the nerves at the tops of her hips. “Mondays and Fridays I visit an old woman.”
The chant snakes from pod to pod. “Bill. Bill. Bill.”
The moon is not out and no one is in it.
“This old woman has no friends or family, and is very sad and angry. She says some really hurtful and sometimes even painful things.”
The flurries outside turn to dense sheets of snow. Shana’s voice joins the chant. “Bill. Bill. Bill.”
Deborah is not trapped beneath someone gigantic. Her voice is not stifled by something wet and scratchy.
“I don’t like this woman, but I bring her fresh groceries, I change her oxygen tanks, I clean her house, I drive her around town. I even give her a shower. Twice a week I do all of this. I do all this and when I leave I feel good. I feel good. Now class, why do you think I feel good? For a marble in the pizza party jar, why do I feel good?”
Jeffrey farts, and the chanting swells to a wailing. “Bill! Bill! Bill!”
Nothing compresses Deborah’s chest until she fears it will collapse. Nothing forces her eyelids closed, the air from her lungs, the world to disappear. The moon is not out.
“Quiet!” It is an unfamiliar voice that comes from Deborah. A squeal. A death metal scream.
The chanting stops.
“You don’t deserve to watch Bill Nye! No! We will not be watching Bill Nye! No Bill Nye!” Deborah rests her forehead against the white board. “I’m fine, Ricardo. Thank you. Everyone just put your heads down. Someone turn off the lights.”
The students fold onto their desks without a sound. An icy wind whines through a crack beneath the door.
Beneath the me heading, Deborah writes self-worth in messy letters. She drops her arm from the h. Its tail runs off the board.
Deborah lets them watch Bill Nye for the last half hour of school. As they bundle up and leave, she catches snippets of plans for snowball fights and play-dates. It’s unpleasantly silent when they’re gone. Deborah returns the marbles to the pizza party jar, with three hollow clicks.
On the drive home, Deborah doesn’t blink once. The town melts into a blur of color behind her. The Christmas lights on her building look like a city veiled in fog.
Inside, she slumps in her chair with a bottle of wine. A thumping house beat registers behind her head, and she realizes she’s left the radio on.
“How long were you on?” Deborah asks the radio. She reaches around and turns it off, then back on, louder, until each beat sends a prick of pain through her ears. With her mouth full of wine, Deborah pushes herself to a stand. She shuffles her feet to the clank of the drums, wiggles her elbows to the thrum of the strings. It is work, keeping the moon from rising, but to the woman Deborah sees reflected in the TV, it looks like dancing.
Otis Fuqua is a Colorado native with his head out of the clouds. Fresh from school, he’s taking some time at home before diving into the whole writer-in-New-York thing. When he’s not hunched over a story trying to get the words right, he’s hiking, writing sappy songs on guitar, and doodling. Past works have been published in Laurel Moon and can be expected in the forthcoming issue of Horror Sleaze Trash.