Nirvana High

by Eileen Gunn and Leslie What

Sunday morning. Barbara awoke from a Technicolor dream in which she was holding hands with the sexiest person in the universe (though the person’s head was blank and fuzzy, and she was afraid it might be a girl instead of a boy), and dove straight into a vision predicting her chemistry teacher’s death. Barbara watched the accident unfold as it would happen that night: Mrs. Rathbone, dressed in her scarlet microfiber inflatable-bra-and-bustle outfit with spangles and silver fringe, was going to teleport from the Microsoft Park marina to Microsoft Stadium on the other side of the lake. It would be a fundraiser for the basketball team at Cobain High, which meant that nobody Barbara knew would attend. Special-ed students didn’t do team sports.

The textile-arts class had added the fringe and spangles on Friday to get extra credit. Everyone was nervous, especially Mrs. R. She had never tried to teleport so far in public before.

Barbara never knew the why of things that she foresaw, so she wasn’t sure if it was the distance or maybe some kind of interference from the spangles and fringe that would cause Mrs. Rathbone to rematerialize surrounded by a hundred cubic meters of frigid lake water, flooding the stadium.

Not that it mattered: she couldn’t change the outcome anyway. She lay in bed, in the room she shared with her younger sister, holding the dread inside and ignoring the details of what she had just seen. Mrs. R was the only person she liked in the entire school.

Eventually her alarm clock went off, its tiny voice soft and insinuating: “B.J., this is the beginning of a wonderful new day! It’s truly lovely weather outside, and today’s Sunday, a great day to develop the extrovert in your personality!” It sounded like her mother, and its voice got louder and more insistently cheery if she ignored it. “Barbara! If you get up right now, you can —” She whacked it with the heel of her hand and it shut up. Her sister was already downstairs watching cartoons. She had begun before dawn and would continue until bedtime, pausing only for commercials. Sometimes the whole cartoon was a commercial.

Barbara washed her face and carefully shaved designs in her scalp with a tiny electric razor. She hoped it looked okay: she couldn’t really see what she was doing in the back. She put more glue on the dreads, just in case. Then she got dressed and went down to the kitchen for breakfast.

“Well, good morning, B.J.,” said her mother. “You’re up early for Sunday. That new alarm clock must be working, hey?” Her mother looked at her hair, started to say something, then reconsidered. Instead, she grabbed Barbara’s wrists, turned them over, and inspected them in the sunlight. “You can hardly see the scars now.” She nodded in satisfaction. “I’m so glad we went ahead with the plastic surgery. Your father was wrong — it’s certainly worth the extra money.”

“Waste of dough, Mom,” said Barbara. “Scars rule.”

Her mother let go of her. “This bacon your father got for breakfast — I worry about the sodium content. On the Today Show they were talking about sodium and nitrous in packaged meats. It causes cancer.”

“Nitrates, Mom. Nitrous is what you inhale.” But her mother was already off on another subject, spouting some completely incomprehensible psychobabble she’d heard on TV that morning. “Mom, was I adopted?” Her mother didn’t answer.

Throughout the day, Barbara did her best to keep her mind off her premonition, so her parents wouldn’t notice anything unusual. They were worried enough about her self-esteem, without her troubling them with something real. Mostly she stayed in her room, listening to Airhead real loud on the phones and trying to figure out the words.

At dinner, she picked at her food: soggy ramen noodles with overcooked peapods and undercooked carrots. For dessert, a kiwi-fruit-flavored Jello with embedded banana slices. The Jello had achieved a colloidal state, and the banana slices hung suspended in light-green goo. It reminded her of chemistry class. She pushed it away and excused herself from the table.

“You didn’t take very much to eat,” said her mother. “You’ve been awfully quiet.”

Barbara groaned and pulled on her jacket. “I’m going to the basketball fundraiser,” she said. She didn’t really want to go, but she had to be there. She had to see what happened.

“Dressed like that?” asked her father. “What the hell did you do to your hair?”

“That’s nice,” said her mother quickly. “You make some friends who like basketball. That’s a good idea.”

She figured she’d go to the marina, where Mrs. R was starting from. The crowds would be at the stadium, waiting for her to reappear.

Barbara knew there was nothing she could do. When she was a kid, when she first started premoting, she tried to change things. She told her father not to eat at the JellyBelly Deli, but her remark whetted his appetite for knishes; he got salmonella. She told her sister not to get up on the high slide, but Tina didn’t like being ordered around; she broke her arm. The incident with her mother’s car was especially unfortunate.

Barbara caught on, and now kept her mouth shut — it didn’t make any difference in the results, but at least she didn’t get blamed for it. She had never premoted anything this serious before, but she knew what she had to do: stay out of the way of the inevitable.

At the marina, a platform had been set up overlooking Lake Washington, with a field of folding chairs in front of it. Most of the chairs were empty, except way up near the stage. Barbara sat on the side in the back and tried to look invisible.

Klieg lights were waving through the sky, and cameras from the school TV station were trained on Mrs. R’s presumed trajectory, although no one had ever been observed in the act of teleportation. Huge screens from the Microsoft-Sony Educational Channel had been set up to make the experience of being there as real as watching it on TV. The Cobain Marching Band was on the platform playing the school song, “Live Through This.” The drum majors, dressed as Courtney Love, screamed out the lyrics. The norms really made a big deal of all this fascist school-spirit stuff. Barbara wondered how they faked it.

She moved quickly into a seat at the back, leaving a space between herself and a skinny geek with a scramble of hair at the top. He looked like a spesh — funny she didn’t know him.

And then, there she was on the screen, bigger than life: Mrs. R, spangles twinkling, silver fringe fluttering. She’d obviously been given a heavy dusting of glitter just before taking the stage, and she left a shimmery trail behind her, like a slug.

Cobain’s principal, Mr. Madonna, an XXY with extra-high intuitive qualities and an inclination to hold pep rallies, introduced her, though he said she needed no introduction, then led the band in a medley of sentimental grunge. Barbara loathed grunge.

And then Mrs. R stepped forward very quietly and started to, well, ripple. She wavered, like hot air on the highway in August.

In her dream, Barbara had seen all the details: the water, the noise, the rush of people to the exits, Mrs. R’s cold, white, limp body lying alone on the stage afterward.

The reality was worse. The audience at the stadium was really spooked, not to mention they got wet. The CPR team entered the hall cautiously, and way too late. At Microsoft Park, the audience couldn’t figure out what was going on. The guy next to her couldn’t seem to believe it. He kept saying, “This is incredible!” over and over again. Finally he turned to Barbara and asked, “Why did she do herself like that in front of everybody?” Barbara got up out of her seat and walked away.

He followed her, still babbling. “She’s the oldest spesh I’ve ever seen. She must have been one of the first. If she held out that long, what made her crack?”

“She didn’t do it to herself,” Barbara said finally. Mrs. R wouldn’t have. She was sane. She was happy. She couldn’t have done it to herself.

“My God, I hope you’re right.” He grabbed her elbow. Barbara almost pulled away, but he didn’t seem dangerous. “Come on,” he said.

She felt the ground beneath her feet fall away, then return. Wooden flooring. It was dark. The guy let go of her elbow. What kind of a nut was he? Where had he taken her? What the fuck was going on. He hit a light switch, and she realized where she was: Mrs. R’s chem lab.


“Don’t be scared: watch.” He grabbed a beaker and some flasks from a cabinet. “You take a little of this, a pinch of that. Use your bunsen burner like a blow torch, and—”

“No! I’m outta here!”

The air in the room grew thick with noxious clouds that fizzled and popped and made her nose burn. He grabbed her and pulled her tightly to him, forcing his mouth onto hers. The clouds in the room turned black and heavy, and she

couldn’t breathe — she couldn’t even take a breath. She started to pass out, his mouth on hers, his tongue down her throat. My mother was right, she thought. I shouldn’t talk to strange guys.

The next thing she knew, they were back outside the marina. He was still kissing her, and he’d pressed up against her real close. He had a hard-on, and she was kissing him back.

She broke away.

“Did that help?” he said.

“What the fuck is the matter with you?”

“I thought you could use a rush. Like in her honor, you know?”

“You are seriously fucked,” said Barbara. “Stay away from me.” She ran for the bus.

At the school door on Monday morning, Barbara pushed her right hand against the security switch that verified her ID, scanned her person for possible weapons, and then evaluated her emotional state to determine whether or not she would use them. The twitch switch, they called it. Since they could no longer ban guns, the schools tried to keep out students who would use them irresponsibly.

The solenoid seemed to hesitate. She forced herself to take a deep calm breath and slowly traced the raised lettering with the fingers of her free hand. “Donated by Microsoft-ADT Intrusion Insurance.” I am not an intruder, she thought, without feeling. It worked; the switch beeped its discreet little signal, and the door opened to admit her to school.

A norm, by his looks one of the CAs — the criminally active students — was standing by the lockers. He turned to stare at Barbie as she walked down the hall. The CAs weren’t too friendly to the special-skills students. None of the norms were, but the CAs, who sometimes tipped toward the sociopathic end of the scale, worried Barbara more than the other norms. Supposedly every student at Cobain was a suicide risk, but you kind of got the feeling that the CAs might just take you with them.

“Hey, spesh,” said the norm, fiddling with a bone-handled folding knife. “Guess what I’m thinking.”

Her class was through the first door, and she had to pass him to get there. She put an edge on her voice that was sharper than his knife. “I’m thinking you’d look pretty funny with half a dick…. And now you’re thinking ‘I wonder if she can see into the future,’ because that wasn’t what you were thinking at all.”

The norm looked confused. “Psycho bitch,” he muttered, but he turned back to his locker and didn’t pursue her as she walked by.

In class, she took her seat at the back of the lab, in the Microsoft-Dow section, still fuming at what jerks norms were. Pretty much everyone had heard about the drowning at Lake Washington; Barbara didn’t bother to block it from her mind, even though she usually guarded her thoughts around the telepaths.

Minerva, seated next to her, looked up. “Entertain us!” she called out. “Barbie was there when Mrs. Rathbone made like a salmon and went extinct.”

Before Barbara could brace herself, almost everyone in the classroom was pushing for a place inside her brain, probing her consciousness with questions like icy fingers. Telepaths froze her nose, the way they plugged in at will.

“Did she die all at once, or was it slow and lingering?”

“Did our test scores die with her?”

“Did her bra fill up with water?”

“Entertain us!”

“Entertain us!”

“Entertain us!”

That was a Cobain thing. It meant one thing to the teachers, another to the students. To the teachers it meant “pay attention.” To the students it meant “stop whatever you’re doing that’s interesting and do what we want you to do.” To Kurt Cobain, of course, it had meant “stick a shotgun in your mouth.”

All she needed to do was answer. Tell them all the grim details. Make it sound funny, make it sound like she didn’t care. If she gave them what they wanted, she’d be one of the gang. So why couldn’t she do it?

“Nevermind,” Barbie said.

“Did she leave a note?” Minerva asked. She gave a nervous laugh.

“That’s not funny,” Barbie said. “It was an accident.”

The ITV buzzed on and Mr. Madonna spoke to the class.

“Special-skills students,” he said, “As most of you know, Mrs. Rathbone met with a tragic accident last night, in the service of Cobain High. I am sure she would want you to quietly resume your studies and to welcome Mr. Collins, who will be will be with you shortly. We can all be proud of Mrs. Rathbone, because Microsoft-Boeing will be presenting the basketball team with new uniforms in her memory. Grief counseling will be provided in the cafeteria at lunchtime, courtesy of Microsoft-Taco Bell, and there will be a celebration of life sponsored by Microsoft Coca-Cola on Friday at noon.”

“Yeah?” shouted Carl. “What’s in it for me?”

Grief counseling probably wasn’t going to be necessary for most of the students, because Mrs. R was one of the few special-ed teachers who had the power to control her class, and most of the kids hadn’t liked her very much. The other teachers had the psychic strength of fig newtons, but when you gave Mrs. R a hard time, she teleported you straight to detention.

And Barbara had been her pet. There was no denying that: Barbara could have said anything in that class and gotten away with it. This had put her in an awkward predicament. When you can say anything you want, and the teacher takes your questions absolutely seriously and understands what you were really asking and answers that question, it’s not so much fun to be smartass all the time. It’s more interesting to think up really good questions. Especially when you’re actually getting interested in the subject. This is what had earned her the nickname “Barbie” in the first place.

“Mrs. Rathbone’s Teen-Talk Barbie,” Carl had called her when she asked too many questions about chemistry. Just like the Barbie doll that said “Trigonometry is fun! Want some help with it?” and “I find chemistry very stimulating!”

Carl’s names for people stuck like birdshit because of the leadership thing: some people had it, most people didn’t. Minerva once told her straight out: “I don’t trust anybody except for Carl. And I wouldn’t trust him, except he makes me.”

Why don’t you just stay out of my head, Barbara thought, but the TPs fought to get in, just because it bugged her. Barbara shut an imaginary door and locked her thoughts away in an imaginary room, then sat back in her chair and flashed what she hoped was a smug and knowing look. Why give these shitheads the details?

“Aaaaaugh! Too late,” Minerva groaned. “She’s closed us out, the bitch.” There was a slight note of respect in the way she said “bitch.”

Barbara smiled. She brought up an image of the three little pigs inside the imaginary room, with the big bad wolf and her classmates outside. She made the wolf piss on Carl.

“Up yours,” said Carl. “I’m ditchin’ you, bitch.” There wasn’t any respect in his tone. With that, he left her head. The others followed, even Minerva. Barbara bricked up the outside of the door and settled back in her imaginary room. She stopped thinking about the pigs, but kept the door and the bricks fixed firmly in her mind.

Then, for the first time since Saturday morning, Barbara began to think about Mrs. Rathbone. She’d known about a lot of dank things, not just chemistry. Though chemistry was dank enough.

She had never told Mrs. R how much she liked her. She’d actually liked this teacher as if she was a person. Well, as much as she could like somebody that old. And now Mrs. R was dead.

Entertain us, Barbie thought. She forgot the brick wall. A vision washed over her: a stocky, bearded man in a cheap green suit walking down a corridor, accompanied by a too-thin, too-tall boy in just-pressed clothes. Oh, fuck: the horny chemist from last night.

Minerva caught on and screamed to the others. “Hey! She sees the sub! It’s a beard! And he’s with some toothpick dweezle wannabe.” The other TPs tuned in to Barbara’s premonition.

“Wannabe,” said Carl. “That’s his name now. Juan-na-be. Juan for short.” All the dumb toadies laughed. It was too late, but Barbara put up a block anyway. She brought the picture of the boy to a place no one could find. He wasn’t a telepath, that much she was sure.

The sub, Mr. Collins, was totally weird. The minute he walked in, everybody could tell he was paranormal, though they couldn’t figure out what he did. The telepaths went for broke on it, but couldn’t crack him. He sent two of them down to the assistant principal’s office. And they went, which was pretty strange in itself. Maybe that’s what he did, thought Barbara. Maybe he bent people to his will, in spite of themselves. Maybe that’s how he got girlfriends, since he was such a fat old dork.

“Barbara! Earth to Barbara!” said Mr. Collins in a commanding voice.

“Um. Yes, Mr. Collins?” Oops. Keep the brick wall up. Maybe this guy was a TP.

“You gotta stay tuned in, Barbie! Entertain us!” He thought for a moment. “Here’s something easy! Separate the leaders from the sheep! Yes or No! Give me an answer: Do the inner electrons of an atom participate in chemical bonding?”

Barbara felt the class waiting for her to respond to the teacher’s challenge. Minerva probed her mind just a little, just a poke to get her attention. Carl glared. Barbara knew she could side with the new teacher or side with the class. She looked Mr. Collins right in the eye and said, “They get a little horney now and then, but that’s about it.”

Mr. Collins called on the new kid, T’Shawn, who answered, “No.”

“Lucky guess, Juan,” said Carl in a singsong voice.

That’s not his name, thought Barbara. I should call him by his real name. Fuck it, she thought, I might as well call myself Barbie and give up. Why fight it? If it sticks, it sticks. That was leadership ability. Good thing everybody didn’t have it.

Anyway, it wasn’t a guess, everyone knew the answer. Maybe that’s what Mr. C. meant about separating the leaders from the crowd. She was curious about Juan, but every time she let down the brick wall to glance his way, she saw a fuzzy cloud form around his head, then start to disintegrate. If she continued to look, she would see something she didn’t want to know.

“Who wants to tell us about today’s reading assignment? Barbara?” He’d already picked up on the fact that she was interested in chemistry. This was not going to do her rep any good.

“I have no idea, Mr. Collins, but Minerva could probably tell you.”

Mr. Collins looked at Minerva. “Maureen?” he said.

Minerva recited in a bored voice. “Valence electrons are those electrons farthest from the nucleus, which are responsible for chemical bonding within the atom. I could go on, but I don’t really give a fuck.”

The rest of the class snickered. Mr. Collins looked confused. Barbie felt a little sorry for him, but then she thought of Mrs. R, dead and everything, and hardened her heart to this grotesque nerd. He didn’t even know most of the class could read his mind.

Juan — T’Shawn — spoke out of turn, but politely. “Mr. C, is this your first day of substitute teaching?”

“Nevermind,” Mr. Collins answered, smiling broadly. His cheeks puffed up and took on a ruddy tone. His beard somehow looked softer and whiter.

“Hey, it’s Santa,” said Carl. “Santa C.” The suckups snickered again.

Mr. C opened his mouth to speak, then seemed to change his mind. He shook his head and a wave of laughter shook its way up from his gut and burst out of him like the explosion in the sink. “Ho, ho, ho!” boomed Mr. C. “Ho! Ho! Ho!” Mr. C was starting to look scary rather than jolly, though he kept on laughing. Even the telepaths seemed a bit subdued. His beard looked scruffy now, and Barbie noticed that his ears were kind of pointy. Had they been that way before?

“What’s so funny?” she asked. Her voice quavered a little. It had been doing that a lot lately.

Mr. C’s laughter trailed off; he coughed a little and seemed more like a teacher than he had all morning. “Some of us need to get a handle on the real drama of chemistry,” he said. “It’s life and death stuff, guys. You’ve got to take it more seriously. Quiz tomorrow. I strongly recommend that you study sections twelve-nine through twelve-twelve: ‘Predicting Redox Reactions.'”

The bell rang, signaling second lunch. Second lunch was noisier than first lunch, and chances of getting physically damaged were somewhat higher than they were in the halls between classes, though certainly not as great as at the bus stop after school. Barbie usually brought a sandwich and ate it on the bench in front of the secretarial station, the safest place on campus.

“Macaroni and cheese, or beans and rice with a choice of condiments,” said Minerva, wrinkling her nose. “That’s all that’s left. They’re laughing at us right now in the cafeteria.” She eyed Barbie’s backpack. “Wish I could see into the future. I would have known to bring my lunch.”

Carl rushed to hold the door, watching to make sure no one told Mr. C that the telepaths would know the answers to any test. They’d probe Mr. C’s brain like fruit-salad Jello, pulling out plump little facts and formulas. The telepaths would, anyway. Barbie and Juan and a few of the others would have to study. She tried to predict her grade, but she just couldn’t see it. If he graded on a curve, Barbie knew she’d be in trouble.

“Ace it,” whispered Minerva, reading her thoughts. “Look ahead and predict what I’m gonna write on my paper. I bet I’ll get an A.”

Barbie nodded. “Yeah, you will, but I can’t see the test. I can’t control when I premote.” That’s why the government wouldn’t give her a scholarship: no military applications, they said. You couldn’t count on it, but it thrust itself on you at the worst times.

“So why don’t you just copy off my test when I do it? Sit close, and I’ll let you see it. It’s retro, but it works.”

Barbie sighed. She hated having to explain this. “I can’t cheat,” she said. “I can see the consequences, or something.”

“Well, nevermind then,” said Minerva, with a toss of her shiny bald head. She stomped away to join Carl and the other telepaths. They walked down the hallway in a group, heading toward the cafeteria.

Barbie walked slowly down the hall in the other direction, toward her locker.

Here’s a formula for creating a teenager: take a negative charge, constrain it in time and space, add a catalyst, and get away. Get away, Barbara thought, and she started running down the empty hallway. Faster, she thought. Why not? Even the monitors had gone to lunch.

Then she heard footsteps following her, light as raindrops on a window. Startled, she stopped and turned, twisting her stun ring. She was ready to fight if she had to. It was Juan behind her. He braked to a halt about seven feet away, grinned, and shrugged his shoulders apologetically.

She kept her finger on the stun ring’s safety, but she wasn’t really afraid of this guy. At least he didn’t have pointy ears.

A vision flashed before her — of the principal, Mr. Madonna, nibbling Mr. C’s ears. She blinked and it went away. They do that? she thought. Jeeze. The things she didn’t want to know about.

“I heard what you said to Maureen,” Juan said. He licked the corner of his mouth. “I want you to know I don’t cheat either. At least not in any conventional sense of the term.”

Barbie started walking down the hall towards him, and towards the cafeteria. She could tell he wasn’t going to jack her or anything. He fell in step beside her.

“I’m sorry if what I did last night, like, made it worse for you,” he said. “I heard she was a spesh. I wanted to be in her class. When I thought she killed herself, I was really mad at her.”

Barbara didn’t want to talk about it. “So, who’d you kill, to end up at Cobain?” she asked.

“That’s rude,” said T’Shawn with a slight smile. He shrugged. “The principal at Dick Silly thought I’d be better off with a bunch of other young people who were troubled like myself. For my social development, of course.”

Dixie Lee Ray was the academic magnet school sponsored by Microsoft IBM. There were hardly any speshes there, and certainly no telepaths, who usually developed “behavior problems” by the age of fourteen.

They stopped by Barbara’s locker, and she fumbled with the lock and opened it. As she put her chem book inside, T’Shawn held the door and leaned in to give her a kiss. She thought for a second — but only a second. She kissed him back.

When school ended, Barbie walked as slow as she could, trying to look natural, like she wasn’t in a hurry. Minerva spotted her and waited.

“Are you okay?” Minerva said. “Don’t forget what I told you. About the test? My answers are yours,” she said. She seemed hesitant to leave, and the niggling worry that she was about to be busted caught Barbie off guard. Before she could stop herself, she was thinking of Juan.

“Oh,” said Minerva. “That’s what your problem is.”

Barbie shrugged.

“Hey, entertain us,” said Minerva. “You’ve got it bad, don’cha?” She smoothed her bald head and closed her eyes, concentrating. Barbie expected to feel the icy probe, but didn’t. “Your pathetic secret is safe with me,” Minerva said.

Barbie was embarrassed to face her.

“I’m not gonna tell, don’t you get it?” She reached out as if to pat Barbie on the shoulder, but must have thought better of it. “Nevermind,” she said with a salute. “See you tomorrow.”

The next day, when Mr. C passed out the quiz sheets, Barbara felt ready. Nervous, but ready. “Don’t turn them over until I say it’s time,” he said.

Carl looked at the wall clock. He closed his eyes in mock sleep and murmured smugly, “Wake me five minutes before the bell rings.” Barbie wanted to kick him.

Mr. C stood behind the low counter, surrounded by buckets and burners and flasks of labeled chemicals. “Okay now, everyone turn over your sheets. Entertain us!”

Papers rustled like leaves. Minerva giggled. “Prank! A blank!”

“They’re all fucking blank,” said Carl. He sat up.

Mr. C’s face went slack and his eyes rolled back to show the whites. He swayed from side to side and a low rumbling noise came from the area near his mouth.

“Oh gross,” said Minerva. “Here it comes — his claim to fame. God, I hope he isn’t a contortionist.”

“I thought they killed them at birth,” said Carl.

“That’s abortionists,” said Minerva.

“He’s not a contortionist,” said Juan. “It’s something else.”

Mr. C opened his eyes, but the expression was glazed and unfocused. His lips moved as if he were chewing something. A low voice came out between them, but the words didn’t match the way his lips moved. It was like he was being used as a megaphone by someone inside his head.

“Ticonderogas sharpened and ready?” asked a gentle voice. “It’s so good to be back here in the Northwest. Born in Portland, you know. This is a test I always wanted to give my students at Caltech, but unfortunately not a one of them was expendable. Geniuses every one, the little bastards.” He cleared his throat. “The test takes the form of a real-life chemistry experiment. I hope you studied hard, because you’ll need to stop the reaction before it kills you.”

Mr. C seemed to be growing taller and thinner. His neck got longer, his skin grew looser, hanging in wrinkled wattles, like a turkey’s.

“Oh my God! He’s so incredibly old! Ooh! I can’t look,” said Minerva, covering her eyes.

“What happening to Mr. C?” Barbie asked. “Is he gonna die too?”

Carl got that look, like he was probing the teacher. His jaw dropped. All the telepaths listened in.

Minerva whispered to Barbie. “It’s not Mr. C,” she said. “It’s some scientist dude…. Huh! I know who it is! Mr. C is channeling Linus Pauling! Mr. C. can talk to the dead!”

“Whet,” said Barbie. “Who’s Linus Pauling?”

“I dunno, he’s sort of blank inside, because he’s not really here — he’s dead. I think he invented vitamin C or something.”

Pauling scooped a yellow lump from an unlabeled cannister and transferred it to a burette. “I love this!” he said, clapping his hands. He opened the valve on the bottom of the burette, just enough to let an anorexic stream of powder drip onto the counter. He fiddled with his keys and walked slowly to the door. “Locks from the inside,” he said, putting the key in the lock and turning it. “Just in case we want you whippersnappers to stay put.” From his pocket he brought out a small bottle and added an eyedropper full of clear liquid to the burette. “Whoa, baby,” said Pauling. His eyes glistened.

White gas roiled up and wafted toward them as the students watched in disbelief. By the time the visible cloud reached the front row, the entire class was coughing and rubbing their eyes.

“Augggh!” cried Carl, in tears. “It’s concentrated dog fart!”

The odor was pungent and extremely unpleasant. Barbie choked. Carl was wrong: dog farts smelled better.

“Anybody study the material?” Pauling asked. “Hope so, for your sake.”

“Hydrogen sulfide?” Barbie asked tentatively. Juan nodded.

“This substance is, of course, extremely unpleasant to breathe,” said Pauling with a chuckle. “And oh yes, it could in fact kill you.” He reached into a cardboard box on the floor and pulled out two containers and a rubber gas mask. “We have here two chemicals with which I’m sure you are all quite familiar, as you have just read Chapter Twelve. Each chemical will react in a different way with the element I’ve just liberated into the air. One should neutralize its effects; one may create a substance even more noxious than the one you’re breathing right now.” He chuckled.

“Hey-hey. If you’re guessing, your odds of staying alive are fifty-fifty. If you studied last night, your chances improve.”

His face disappeared beneath the gas mask. Then he jumped up on top of the counter, pulled his shirt-tails out of his pants, and shook his hair down over his face. He bent his knees and played an invisible guitar. A familiar voice echoed from the gas mask, singing. “No one is ever too young to die….”

“This is no time to entertain us,” yelled Carl, tossing a half-full can of Pepsi at the Cobain impersonator.

“Mr. C! Don’t do this!” screamed Minerva. “It’s not fair!”

“Life isn’t fair,” said the man who looked like Linus Pauling. “You twerps have the attention span of fruit flies. Solve the problem, or you’ll have their life expectancy too.” He adjusted his gas mask. “This is it. Give me the answer or die trying.”

The fumes from the spilled chemical were becoming unbearable. Barbie felt as though her nose was on fire, and her eyes stung. It was the second time in two days that a guy had tried to suffocate her, which kind of pissed her off. Then she noticed that she couldn’t actually smell the stuff anymore, though her nose still burned. Maybe it shorted out, she thought. Did noses do that? She was starting to feel sick.

Suddenly, T’Shawn grabbed her wrist, and they both rose to the ceiling. She sucked in a deep lungful of untainted air. The chemistry test, heavier than air, was roiling below. Some of the students were trying to get out, but the door was locked and the windows were barred. “Are they all going to die?” she asked.

“Don’t worry,” said T’Shawn. He leaned in close to kiss her. “We’ll take care of it.”

It was exciting to be near him like that, unnoticed and apart from the pandemonium below. She slid her hands around his waist and drew him closer. He put his mouth on her earlobe, and she suddenly understood about ear nibbling: your ears were hotwired to your twat. Electricity spread throughout her body.

They were both breathing hard. He reached up under her shirt.

“Don’t,” said Barbara. “I mean, there’s all these people.”

“I don’t think they’re paying any attention,” said T’Shawn. He reached between her legs, and for a moment all she could think about was getting him inside her. His hand, his cock, whatever.

She fumbled with his belt buckle, trying to get it undone.

“We’ve got time,” he said. “We can do it and get out. We’ve got time.”

“I never flunked a chemistry test in my life.”

He laughed. The sounds of coughing below grew louder.

“What the fuck,” yelled Carl, from the floor. “Anything’s better than just standing around with our thumbs up our asses.” He reached for a cannister, without even bothering to read the label.

“All right!” said T’Shawn. “Acetic acid.” He laughed.

“No,” said Barbara. “We really have to help them.”

“Not yet,” he said. “We’ve got a couple of minutes.”

Minerva was choking and sobbing.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and let go of him. She took a deep breath, and dropped to the floor. She made her way to the front of the classroom, eyes watering, and found the canisters that Mr. C. had set out. Hydrogen peroxide — that would do it. Oxidize the hydrogen sulfide and stop the reaction. She grabbed the H2O2 and baptized the burette.

The production of caustic gas stopped, and Mr. C gave her a thumbs up, then unlocked the door and opened the windows. He smiled genially. “Barbara, you did very well, though it took you a bit longer than I expected. A+ for you. Carl, you were about to toss acetic acid into the burette, which would have liberated the hydrogen sulfide more quickly, raising it to lethal levels. I’m afraid you flunked. The rest of you will be graded on the curve. Take five megs of vitamin C and get a good night’s sleep away from nuclear fallout. Next time I tell you to study for a quiz, I’ll expect better results.”

“Way to go, Carl,” said Minerva hoarsely.

“Asshole,” said Angela. “Class president. Hah. Class turd.”

Carl was studying his shoes. He didn’t look up.

Friday was the day of the Celebration of Life for Mrs. R. The bus from Cobain Magnet High lumbered through the gates of the cemetery. Inside, Barbara looked at a hillside marked with uneven rows of oddly shaped tombstones. Grey granite plinths, long red chaises-longues like swimming-pool furniture, low cement scrolls with lambs lying on top, Japanese garden lanterns. It wasn’t a nice tidy cemetery where all the headstones were set flush with the ground so they didn’t get in the way of the lawnmowers. It was a little wild-looking, with weird bits — kind of like Barbara’s hair, actually. There were weeds.

A row of huge cement boxes blocked the road beyond the sign. They were maybe eight feet long, four feet square. Not recyclable. These boxes were built to last, and to keep whatever was inside from getting free. Barbara wondered what they were. Then the bus stopped abruptly and the rude truth about cemeteries hit home. Duh.

“He-e-ere we are!” said Mr. Simmons, the death sciences instructor. He got up from his seat and stood in the aisle, facing the special-skills students. Nobody paid any attention to him, except for Barbara, who wished she’d gotten a seat further back with her friends, not that she had any.

Mr. Simmons jangled his key-ring against a bronze plaque that was bolted to the back of the driver’s seat. At one time it had read “Sponsored by Microsoft Boeing,” but someone had lasered it to say “Sponsored by Microsoft Boring.”

The class quieted down. “Everybody out for Eternity,” said Mr. Simmons cheerfully.

The students dragged themselves out of their seats and fought for standing room in the aisle. Carl was first off the bus, of course. He leaped into the grey November chill and scoped out the terrain.

“Note the cement bunkers to your left as you exit the bus,” said Carl. “If anybody starts shooting, get those bunkers between you and the guns as fast as you can.”

Barbara wondered if she could project her thoughts to bounce off the sides of the boxes, like billiard balls. Risky, but she thought she could do it. She rounded her thoughts into a ball, smoothed off the clues to who she was, and flung them at an angle between two cement boxes. “They’re tombs, not bunkers, you sphincter!” She blanked her mind and tried to look nonchalant.

“—sphincter! —sphincter! —sphincter!” Huh. There was such a thing as a psychic echo.

Carl whipped his head around, and all the other telepaths snickered. He looked suspiciously at Barbara, but she was doing logarithms in her head. “Buttmunch,” he muttered.

Hah. Leadership suck. Nobody was going to shoot at them in the cemetery. Jeez. .

Mr. Simmons was talking about some guy who was buried in the cemetery. “Interesting man, Bruce Lee,” he said in a musing tone. “He was an actor and a martial art expert. Bit of a philosopher, too. Started his own martial art school….

“There was a TV show called ‘Kung Fu,'” he continued. “Supposed to be about the spiritual side of Asian martial arts. But Bruce Lee found that there were no acting parts for a Chinese martial artist and philosopher on a show about Chinese martial arts and philosophy. They gave his part to a hippie white guy.”

“That guy’s buried next to Brandon Lee, that goth actor,” said Minerva. “Wonder if they’re related.”

Mrs. R’s grave was towards the back of the cemetery, near the chainlink fence that separated it from the playground at Volunteer Park. It was dark there even in the middle of the day, and it didn’t have the great view of the mountains that Brandon Lee had. Kind of where you’d expect to find someone who made a teacher’s salary.

There were a lot of people all milling about in the cold. All the science classes from Cobain were there, of course, plus some college types who had probably gone to Cobain years before. There were old people she didn’t know, and even older people she was sure she’d never even heard of. Mrs. R’s family, probably.

A plumpish bearded guy in a dark suit sat on a folding chair near the grave, his head in his hands. He was trembling a little bit; he was crying, Barbie realized. She looked around, feeling helpless. She didn’t know guys would cry.

She held her body in a polite position that looked as if she was listening to the service, and set up a double-thick brick wall inside herself. She counted the bricks and got up to two thousand. She looked at the sky, which was astir with dark, bulbous clouds. She glanced around the crowd, and slipped away to its farthest edge. She didn’t want to listen to what people were saying about Mrs. R.

The road she was standing on was old, and had sunk a bit into the earth. There was a high curb containing the hillside, and Barbara sat down on its edge. The speakers voices droned on, trying to make sense of stuff that didn’t have to make sense.

At the back of the crowd, Carl stood on a gravestone to get a better view. Other kids followed his lead, of course, and soon there was a whole cluster of them standing there, a meter taller than anyone else.

Barbara cringed. She looked at the tombstones next to her, an odd arrangement of bed-like slabs of polished red granite with cylindrical pillows at their heads. There were two long ones, side by side, and a short one set at a right angle, like camp cots in a small tent.

She read the inscription on the short one’s pillow. Regina Mary Dugan. Born 1896, died 1901. A five-year-old child. The others would be her parents, Barbara thought. She read their pillows, to give the family all its names. Mary Frances Dugan, 1845-1883. T. Constantine Dugan, 1874-1901.

So Mary Frances died 13 years before Regina Mary was born. Her grandmother? Poor little kid. Buried next to some grandmother she’d never even met. With her father, probably. He died the same year, so maybe it was an accident that killed them both. Or a fire, and he tried to rescue her. Where was Regina’s mother? Remarried? Dead somewhere else, no doubt.

All these tombstones, Barbara thought, and though she tried to push it away, a vision came to her — in flashes, like a slide show. Pictures, click-click-click, each one a different gravesite, with different mourners. Each one a ceremony for someone who had died. Thousands of them. Dead now, dead then, dead to come. All those people left behind, weeping, alone. Their time would come, too. Buried with strangers.

She didn’t want to think about it. Box it up, she thought, in one of those cement vaults. Put your feelings aside, keep them in a box where no one can get to them. Even you. Even you can’t get to them — that’s how it works. That’s what Minerva does, and Carl. That’s the secret of high school. Box yourself in, bottle yourself up. Explode at leisure.

She heard shouts from her classmates. Each student had been given a 1.5-liter bottle of Coke. They shook the bottles, and now they were uncapping them in unison. She was missing her chance to show respect. Shaking her bottle of Coke, she ran to join the others.

Brown foam surged from the crowd of students into the open grave. Kids cheered. A few cried. Barbara was one of them.

She tossed a handful of dirt in after the Coke. “Goodbye,” she whispered.

Then it was over.

“Okay, kids, back to the bus,” said Mr. Simmons. “Pick up those bottles before you go.”

Carl shook his head and dropped crosslegged on the grass. He gestured toward row upon row of graves. “Forget it. What’s the point of going to school if you’re gonna die?”

“Hey, Carl’s flipping!” said Minerva, delighted. “Entertain us!”

“Just tell me why I should bother,” said Carl.

“Get a grip or be a slave,” said Minerva.

“Please,” said Carl. “Shove the motivational crap. Entertain us.”

“Okay,” said T’Shawn. He waved his Coke bottle and leaped up a good five feet in the air, scissor-kicking his legs at the same time. When he landed, everyone was staring at him. He started screaming, “Here we are now, entertain us, here we are now, entertain us….”

Carl started leaping too, though Barbara could tell that at first he was astonished to find himself in the air. “Here we are now, entertain us, here we are now, entertain us….”

The whole class found themselves bouncing all over the Lakeview Cemetery, most of them singing, some of them simply yelping in surprise. The other classes, teachers, and funeral attendees stared at first, then began to twitch and bounce a little bit as T’Shawn found the limit of his strength. Slowly he lowered his classmates to earth. He and Carl came down last.

T’Shawn looked at Carl and shrugged. “I don’t know what gets into me, but sometimes I feel like I want to teach the world to sing.”

“Then it’s a good thing this gig wasn’t sponsored by Microsoft Ex-Lax,” said Minerva.

“Entertain us,” said T’Shawn.

“Nevermind,” said Barbara.

The group headed back to the bus.

© Copyright 2004, Eileen K. Gunn and Leslie What
All rights reserved, including electronic, plain text, and Web rights.
First published in Stable Strategies and Others by Eileen Gunn, Tachyon Publications, San Francisco 2004

Shortlisted for the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, 2005