From their seats the two girls stared back at Dennis in the way that the instructor would sometimes stare at the dummy grenades they used in training when he was a recruit—with a certain restrained expectation that they might explode. And indeed he was a grenade, though decommissioned now and filled, instead of adrenaline, with the memories and troubles of his peacekeeping days. Namibia. Somalia. Now Rwanda—he felt as though he had folded at just the right time, just when his spirit was beginning to tremble. “Grieve not the holy Spirit,” he reflected now cautiously. There are horrors beyond these shores, he wanted to say to people—all people, everywhere, these children who by the grace of God would not know the meaning of the word atrocity, yet not as those lost souls overseas did not know the meaning. Murder there was endemic, un-noteworthy. Rape was an endemic thing. Theft. Witchcraft. And mob justice was harsh. He remembered the flaming tyre necklaces, the lynchings from rafters, men getting dragged behind wagons until their screaming stopped, because they were dead or just suddenly and completely dissociated from their pain and from the world, like zombies. It was like another world. Dennis had experienced a lot of the worst growing up, sexual abuse and other horrible things, and had thought it was normal, which it more or less was—but only in the places he had grown up. When he had been rehomed, when he had gone through school and then through university he realised he had been in a bubble, and that the law was very much a revered thing for most people. But his childhood stayed him. He joined the army because he was afraid of taking up the responsibility of being a father, and afraid of the possibility his own children would be exposed to the dangers of other adults.
Dennis drew a line dividing the blackboard in two. “This,” he said, jabbing the left side with the piece of chalk, “this is where you girls are now. This is comfort. This is the calm before the storm.” The two girls shared a glance. Jasmine looked characteristically wary; there was a way she chided Abigail with a quick running down of her eyes, as though she were sizing her up and pitying her for her cowardice. “In high school,” he said, smacking the right side of the board so that a small piece of the chalk flew off, “you’ll be expected to be adults, there’ll be the rule of law. The content, all the things you’ll be expected to learn and do will be hard, and you’ll be expected to pick things up or fall behind.” He retreated to his desk, deliberately ambiguous and leafed through a pile of unfinished reports. He charged through them, licking his finger periodically. He pulled one out, held it up for the girls to see but didn’t stop, cycled back, forward, riffling. He found the other, then leaned forward on his elbows with the two reports facing them.
“Yours,” he said. “Both of yours. I haven’t finished them. What do you think they’re going to say? Abigail?” he said, targeting the more timid of the pair.
“Is that my report?”
“I don’t know, Mr Woodley, I hope it’s good?”
“Jasmine? What do you think?”
“I don’t know, I’ve had consistently good grades. Is that not enough?”
“You’ve had mediocre grades, and the most inconsistent academic performance of all the students, and a bad attitude. And something else. Something else is happening between you two that I can’t get to the bottom of.”
“Like what?” said Jasmine.
“Like I think you know what. Something that can make your lives very difficult outside of these walls.”
“Cheating,” Abigail offered, then realised her mistake.
“Shut up, Abigail, seriously?”
Dennis Woodley leaned back in his chair. He had broken through, but he had also just begun—Jasmine would never break that easy, he felt. He didn’t want a quick and simple admission of guilt, he wanted a full disclosure on the things that had been baffling him the year through. Abigail was his target—in various ways she sought out what was humbling and shaming, sought opportunities to be deferential to authority and be rewarded for it. They shared a mother, but Jasmine, who came before Abigail, had never met her real father. Abigail had a kind of here-there relationship with her own. They were both frequently in the presence of their mother’s boyfriends, though had times when they would stay with their grandparents, because of the troubles. Abigail definitely benefitted from having contact with her father, albeit limited, and was easier to control than Jasmine. Woodley tended to believe that being timid and introverted was worse than being brash as a child, because at least the brash one was less open to manipulation. Not that he believed Abigail was in danger, and neither were particularly bad kids—just mysterious. Several times that year, only the first he had been teaching all together, he felt as though something were not quite right in the classroom, and like with certain experiences in Africa, it’s as though he had been challenged from up high regarding what he thought the world was, what he thought people were, how things ran together exactly, macrocosmically speaking. He was also somewhat attuned to ruses, and vaguely suspected that he might be in the midst of one now. He wasn’t satisfied in any case.
“What do you mean by cheating, Abigail? I know what cheating is but cheating, as far as I can see, can’t account for what’s been going on this year.”
“So what are you saying?” Jasmine retorted, “Let us go if we didn’t do anything wrong.”
“But I believe you have done something wrong. That’s why you’re here.”
Jasmine folded her arms and stared. Abigail squirmed.
Dennis stood and moved leisurely to the front of his desk where he sat, folded his own arms in his go-to reminiscent pose.
“When I was a peacekeeper—”
“Here we go.”
“When I was a peacekeeper I had to step outside the box a little bit. I had to admit that what I saw couldn’t be explained with the tools of understanding I had been given growing up. So there was something else happening behind the scenes that I wasn’t privy to, like a magic trick.”
Jasmine opened her mouth to say something but just shook her head. She loathed his mysterious and indirect way of speaking. She felt as though she were about to be cornered, she and her sister. As he talked, Abigail sat with her mouth open dumbly, and she knew her sister was incapable of formulating a deflection, doubted she had the cunning to attempt it.
“Okay, we cheated!” Jasmine said, thrusting her face forward. “Is that going to help? Not that we did! Just to make you be quiet!”
Abigail looked from Jasmine to Mr Woodley, unsure of her place in this new battle. Mr Woodley continued.
“There were times when I felt as though I were alone. Everywhere I looked my mates were…” he paused, almost uncannily like a machine, searching, “battered, worn-out, not coping at all with what we realised was the worst thing we had ever experienced. And that was replaced week after week with worse things which I’ll spare you of. I believe that I was blessed with a kind of insulation, because although I saw what my mates saw, I never slipped off the edge into complete alienation—I stayed ahead of insanity by reassuring myself that there was an answer to every riddle, and a true path through every problem.”
Dennis began pulling the blinds. The girls watched as the outside world disappeared, frame by frame and they were in a dim room alone with their teacher. Mr Woodley brought the overhead projector in from a corner of the room then lowered the projector screen. Then he opened a file from his cabinet and inspected a small collection of transparencies, lifting them out one at a time. Stopping on one he brought it to the projector and lined it up. Adjusted the focus. Abigail squinted. What looked like an essay came gradually into view, though no student’s essay—written in perfect cursive, spaced impeccably, with neat, sensible and repeating flourishes on the Y’s and S’s, terse, straight lines crossing the T’s. For Jasmine there was a very odd and unsettling feeling of recognition. The effect was akin to seeing someone in the flesh whom a friend had described elaborately, at length—certain things clicked in a disturbing way. Mr Woodley studied her face.
“Why should it be?”
“Abigail?” he tested. Abigail shook her head.
“You’ve gone all out for this, haven’t you?” Jasmine said.
“This is an essay. It’s a Social Studies essay I wrote, to mark against your own, several months ago. ‘…tempted to look at this as a problem, but many ways of…’” he read, cutting off. He switched transparencies. A girl’s handwriting. Abigail gasped, covered her mouth with her hands.
“’Tempted to look at this as a problem, but many ways of…’” Dennis read. He turned calmly and absorbed the girls’ faces. Jasmine looked maybe slightly fazed, but maybe entirely placid, too, it was hard to tell. Abigail was coming loose.
“Abigail? You remember this one?”
“So?” he pressed. Jasmine turned imperceptibly, floated her eyes over to her sister threateningly.
“I…I remember writing it. The essay.”
“How about that sentence in particular, you remember that?”
“’Tempted to look at this as a problem, but many ways of…’” he repeated, pointing to each word in turn. The template essay never left my house. I marked these essays in my house, at night, and the template essay was never at any time outside. It didn’t need to be.”
He let that sink in, watching.
“Do you know what disturbed me? Abigail?”
Abigail shook her head again slowly. Mr Woodley inspected the transparency, searching the margin. With a marker he circled something there behind the ruled border. “Hard to see isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Abigail.
“Jasmine? Just a scribble isn’t it?”
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to say. Yes?”
Dennis pulled a loupe from his pocket he used to inspect forgeries—signatures on absence letters mostly. He put it to the transparency and slid it over the little mark, magnifying it on the screen. It looked like alien writing, Arabic or something. It was definitely strange.
“Abigail?” he prompted.
“Yes, Mr Woodley?”
“Do you remember doodling this?”
“Yes, Mr Woodley.”
“You remember scratching this little thing in the margin of the page all those weeks ago?”
“It’s alright, you don’t have answer,” he encouraged. “Looks a little bit like writing. Or like numbers, doesn’t it?” he said as he changed the transparency out once more. “The funny thing is,” he said, sliding the loupe over the copy of his own essay to the same place, “it occurs here too, a bit clearer, here on mine. And not only does it look like numbers on mine…” he flipped the transparency, then brought the loupe down onto the scribble with a smart click that made both the girls jump in their seats, “they are numbers.” On the projector they saw—’$1259.50′. The scribble was in fact a number, a price, though hastily written and hard to read.
“Like you, Abigail, I remember doing this little scribble—I had finished the template assignment and I got a call. It was a quote I had asked for on a new fence. The essay was the nearest thing to me, so I took a page, flipped it over and took down the quote, which bled through to the other side. So I know why I wrote these particular numbers. But why did you?” Mr Woodley rested against the projector trolley, relaxed with his fingers interlaced at his thigh.
“Because…because I…felt like it,” Abigail managed.
Mr Woodley took another transparency from the folder and put it on the glass.
“A multiple choice. Yours, Jasmine; this was the test for the advanced learning stream, which you both took at the beginning of the year, and both scored well on.”
Mr Woodley ran a finger down the list of item numbers with their circles, ‘A’ to ‘E’.
“Students sometimes have trouble with this type of exam if they skip an item, and use the wrong line for the successive items. I’ve seen that a couple of times. What I haven’t seen is this.” He indicated the last item on the list with a knuckle.
“Yes, I chose ‘D’, so what?” said Jasmine, “was it correct or not?”
“Neither. It was a mistake on the part of the test makers. It didn’t correspond to any question or item, it was just a mistake. A good many of the students pointed that out to me, but neither of you did, you just filled in an answer.”
He swapped the transparency.
“The answer key,” he said, including the bogus thirty-first item, at the bottom. “Notice that?”
“’D’,” Jasmine said. “A coincidence. There are only five to choose from. That doesn’t show anything.”
Mr Woodley pulled up a chair, sat cowboy with his arms folded on the back and focussed on Jasmine.
“You’re not in trouble,” he said gently.
“You could have fooled me.”
“I want to know how you did it. I want to know what’s happening with you guys, because it’s extremely disturbing to me.”
“I thought you were a tough military guy.”
“On the school excursion the first semester we went with the year sixes too see the rock paintings. You remember that?”
“Yes. It was boring.”
“But something happened. We were about to head out, it was a short walk so only a few of us took our water. But you insisted that I take the water cooler. I blew you off but you insisted I carry it with me. There’s was something about the panic in your voice that made me take it, even though I’d taken the walk before and knew it wasn’t far. When we got there Mr Daniels had a cigarette off by himself. When he got back you said you could smell smoke, so I questioned Mr Daniels and he took me to where he had had his cigarette. A fire had started. It was only because I had that water in hand that I was able to put it out, and only just. There would have been a serious bushfire if things were different. When I brought it up with you, and tried to congratulate you, you shut me down. But you knew. And I knew you knew.”
Jasmine didn’t say a word. Dennis returned her stare for several long seconds before standing. When he opened the blinds again the girls winced.
“You’re not in trouble,” he said, sitting at his desk again, organising his things. “I just wanted to satisfy myself that I wasn’t crazy. I wanted to offer you advice, because I’m concerned for you.”
“You’re concerned for us, are you?”
Dennis looked up from his desk.
“You say we’re not in trouble but it sure feels like we are. Neither of us asked for this. Our mum does card reading and seances. We both live with spirits. You saw death in Rwanda or whatever but we see death every day. I know why you want to find all this out before we go, it’s because you want something from us—”
“That’s not it,” said Dennis, but Jasmine continued.
“Maybe I stopped a bushfire but we don’t always see the right thing, or the good thing. Can you imagine waking up and being so confused about your feelings that you don’t even want to leave the house, because of what might happen? I’ve seen my own death and my mum’s death and Abigail’s death so many times I’ve lost count, and because a lot of the stuff I feel and see turns out to be true, I’m always scared that this will be true as well, that today I’m going to die! Abigail only has to brush up against someone and she can sense exactly what’s in their head, exactly what’s going to happen to them. We were trained for it, they put it in us! To use us!”
“I can help, Jasmine, I know what fear is and how to overcome it—”
“Oh you know what fear is? How about choosing the wrong horse?”
“The wrong horse!” Jasmine screamed, standing “the wrong horse! The wrong horse! Do you know what it’s like to choose the wrong horse, or the wrong card!”
Abigail began fretting.
“Stop it, Jasmine! Stop it!”
Jasmine collapsed back into her seat and cried with her face in the crook of her arm.
“Yes, Jasmine,” Mr Woodley said after a time. “I do know. I know what it’s like to be not enough for my dad. And I know what it’s like to be hit with a bottle, and a shoe, and a belt, because we were poor, and it was my fault. I do know.”
Dennis stood and went to the window. The day was waning. There was an emptiness to the parking lot, to the streets beyond the school that he didn’t find eerie until that moment. He looked to his own car longingly and wanted to go home to his TV, his bar fridge and word puzzles before the light went out. In his living room it was impossible to tell what hour it was.
“I didn’t mean to confront you girls, I’m sorry. I want you to be prepared for high school, and I don’t want you to get caught cheating, more than I want you to not cheat in the first place, all of that. That to me is sort of beside the point.” He turned. “There are serious penalties for people in this world who challenge expectations. Like Jesus. People expect people to be a certain way. They think of the world as following certain rules, which we know for sure. We feel more like animals or like things, at the mercy of the universe when that’s seriously challenged, especially when it’s right in your face and you can’t ignore it, and people lose their minds and get scared, or destroy whatever it is that frightens them. If you don’t know how to hide what makes you different, you girls could be like the little folds in a uniform that have to get ironed out. You have to be smart about it, or else, you see?”
A car horn beeped. Dennis went to the window. At a distance a man stood half in, half out of a beat-up sedan, squinting at the class window. When Dennis turned the girls had already stood and gathered their things.
“Bye, Mr Woodley,” Jasmine said without looking, and left.
Abigail came to the desk. She held out her hand. Dennis hesitated, then took it, a firm handshake. “You’re going to have a big family,” said Abigail, then left.
When Dennis nodded off it was to the sound of a young preacher who had invaded his favourite church broadcast in recent months. The tone was urgent, urgently monotone, synonyms ran together in spurts, the message was ambivalent, not to the point, which is what he craved more as he got older. And Dennis was at just the age to be limber enough to get up and do something useful, but tired enough to comfortably endure something he didn’t like, because it was already there. The doorbell rang and he started awake. He put on his glasses and stared at the door. He would often hear noises in a hypnogogic state and wake up to discover it had been in his head. Typically gunfire, but sometimes cutlery, shouts, boots on wooden steps. Janet came in and stopped above him. She pointed her nose down at the tea he hadn’t drunk.
“Well what’s the point if it’s just going to get cold?” she said as she went to the door. When she opened it a child ran at her legs.
“Grandma!” it yelled, waving something like a recorder, some cheap toy. Dennis groaned inaudibly.
“It’s been too long!” Janet lamented, embracing their daughter, Marsia as she stepped inside.
Energy flooded the living room around Dennis suddenly.
“You’ve done your hair again,” he said to his daughter as she threw open the curtains. He didn’t know whether she had or hadn’t but it was safest to make a note in any case.
“Yes, you like it, Dad?” She gave him a kiss on the forehead. As Dennis leaned forward to get up James gave his shoulder a good-natured slap and squeeze and they shook hands.
“Old man,” he said.
James was several years older than Marsia but he treated her well, Dennis reflected, infinitely better than her previous partners, and he had given Janet a grandchild, which she was overjoyed about. Dennis sat down again when Penny ran in and nearly stabbed him in the eye with her toy flute.
“Poppy!” she yelled, scrambling up to sit in his lap. He held her hands.
“James, I’ll bet you’ll be interested in Dennis’s new workshop,” Janet said, “he’s pretty modest about it, but I think it’s amazing.”
“New workshop, eh?” James said. Janet winked.
“Oh, the workshop, the workshop,” Dennis said with mock-enthusiasm. “It does the job.”
“Have you been doing more sculptures, Dad?”
“Yeah, a little.” Penny thrust the toy flute at his mouth and he gave it a couple of toots to Penny’s great amusement.
Marsia took up the remote.
“Are you watching this?”
“Go for your life.”
Marsia sat on the arm of his chair and flicked through the channels.
“Oh! I like this lady,” she said, stopping. A woman was being interviewed. She had bright blue eyes, brown hair. She smoke happily, self-assuredly about her new book. A joke was exchanged, she laughed with the interviewer.
“I know this woman,” Dennis said.
“Oh, I didn’t know that. Do you follow her program? James and I have been doing it recently, it’s all about self-awareness and empathising and that kind of thing, it’s really good.”
“I-I…” Dennis began, the wheels turning in his head. “I know her…”
Suddenly, as though caught off-guard the woman stopped mid-sentence. She turned slowly, toward the camera. It zoomed in. In her eyes and on her lips the same process of recognition was daunting her. A smile flickered across her face.
“Look, Poppy! She’s looking at you!” said Penny.
Marsia looked from the television to her father.
Dennis, in the strangest moment of his life smiled too, nodded, and the interview went on.