It was the last hour of the last class on the last day of the semester. In a scant nineteen minutes the holidays would begin. If you were to ask a typical sixth-grade student what their favorite time of the year was, most would blurt out that surely it was the summer holidays due to their sheer abundance; only the mature child would remember the eventual summertime lassitude, and realize that the comparably brief winter break, in which each day was exciting and seemingly all too brief, was the true apex of the year.
From the next room they could hear muffled laughter; Mr. Ross was rewarding his students with a movie day and they were happily munching on caramel corn and enjoying the flatfooted antics of Will Ferrell. Mr. Ross's good-natured voice was booming and his delight was apparent even though his words were unintelligible through the thick cinderblock walls. But no such jollity would ever be allowed by Mrs. Clenschaw; she was as strict and demanding as ever and ran her class in the same manner on the last day of the term as she had on the first and every day in between; structured, unforgiving, and dull. The children before her sat in jealous misery, silently hating her as they had for the previous four months. She tapped her pen on her desk and croaked...
"...well, i suppose we have time for one more. Tate McCrayne?"
The slender bespectacled lad got up from his seat and walked to the front of the class when his name was called. He cleared his throat and held his paper before him. His voice was low at first but he gained confidence with every word he spoke.
"My original thought essay is on why people should stop singing the song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, starting with all of us at Oakhurst Middle School. In the following paragraphs, i will make the case that, among all the traditional Christmas songs, it contains uniquely horrible messages, both implicit and explicit...
A few in the back of the class groaned. Here we go again, they thought, Smartypants McCrayne is going to lay another one on us. From the corner, Corey St. Clair began to interrupt under his breath with some of his customary idiotic jibes...
"Taint!" he hissed, trying to keep his voice at the perfectly modulated volume level that would be audible to his peers but not to Mrs. Clenschaw.
"...the characters of the eight reindeer, with whom we are supposed to associate with our siblings or classmates, are shown to be nothing more than a clique of bullies who exclude Rudolph from all social activities, the 'reindeer games.' Disturbingly, their exclusion is not some forgivable momentary lapse of morality, but an ongoing state of systematic abuse. The supposedly loving authority figure -- Santa Claus -- is absent and either unaware of this neglect or unwilling to address it..."
"Taint! Taint McCrayne! "
"...adding to the moral vacuum is the utter lack of agency on the part of Rudolph, our supposed protagonist. He is passive, cowardly, blithely accepting of his oppression. What sort of role model..."
"Taint! Taint sucks donkey dick! Donkey dick sucker! Faggot fucker!"
Corey's friends were now giggling and their slight hubbub was finally noticed by Mrs. Clenschaw despite her ever-deteriorating hearing.
"Silence!" she snapped. Corey and his chums did so.
"...which brings us to the conclusion of the conflict. When Rudolph is finally recognized for his unique talent, he reaps the dubious reward of recognition from his formerly uncaring peers. Are we to suppose for even a moment that their affection is genuine? And although we have no clue as to Rudolph's internal compass, unless he has the IQ of a baby, he will recognize the superficial praise for the empty and brown-nosing pablum that it is. What makes this resolution ring particularly hollow to the youth of today is the simple truth that..."
Here, young McCrayne hesitated, knowing full well the depths of Clenschaw's bitterness and capacity for petty vengeance.
"...that no real kid today would have their opinion of a peer so drastically altered by the adulation of an authority figure. It's not an honest reaction. If a teacher were to ladle praise on a student, it would more likely provoke further abuse and resentment from his or her peers, not a sudden about-face and outpouring of genuine respect and affection. For all of these reasons, i think that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is, as stated in my thesis, a horrible, wretched, worthless song that should be relegated to the dustbin of musical history. Thank you."
His job done, Tate walked confidently back to his seat as many in the class applauded. Corey St. Clair lobbed a spitball in his direction but he batted it aside with a surprising dexterity. Things had changed so much since just last year, when giving such a report would have earned him nothing but days of teasing and abuse. Back then, Corey St. Clair and his odious circle were the unquestioned rulers of the classroom. It was hard to say when things had changed; Tate, along with his friend Rory, had battled back against the lugs using superior intelligence and humor, refusing to apologize for their smarts and geeky pursuits. There had been a few bloodied noses and shoving matches as well, and despite being outnumbered and physically outmatched, the two boys had never backed down for a single moment. The majority of the class, including nearly all the girls, were now firmly on their side and the goons were now amusing only themselves with their simpleminded mockery. Keesha Marable shot Tate a smile and he returned it. Her original thought essay was sure to be along the same lines as his, critical and ambitious, now that "being smart" was, astoundingly, no longer considered uncool. Out of all the things that Tate had learned this was the vital lesson -- that evil needn't always prevail, and that courage and teamwork could change the tide of human events, even if only on the microscopic scale of a single classroom. It was a lesson that Tate would carry with him into the future.
Mrs. Clenschaw rose to her feet and began to hobble around the front of the class.
"Another well-reasoned essay, Mr. McCrayne. A+, of course, but you already knew that..."
Tate nodded, his attention already drawn back to his notebook where he was scribbling with purpose. Five minutes to go. Once he was home, he was planning to be consciously lazy that afternoon and probably just help Mom with dinner and watch TV with Dad. But the next morning the Tate McCrayne Winter Vacation Plan would begin in earnest. He'd blow through the assigned homework in a day or so, and he'd already read the novel they'd be discussing in January. That left approximately 13 days of total freedom. The itinerary in his messy notebook read as follows...
-- Redesign website template, more animated .gifs, learn to make stamps/icons/avatars.
-- See "The Hobbit" with James/Ted/Rory. See "Skyfall" if time allows, maybe with Dad? "Les Miserables" also possibility, if Jen/Steph/other girls involved.
-- Possible library books: Slaughterhouse-5. Wizard and Glass. Narnia? L'Engel?
-- Dinner with grandma and grandpa. Bring grandpa wood carving knife. Try to get family to watch something decent (no Christmas Story this year, srrsly! Let's watch Dark Knight or something.)
-- Learn basics of calculus. Just overview. No biggie.
-- Samsung Galaxy III. 95% it's already under the tree. Pleasepleaseplease.
-- Begin learning Flash, 3D StudioMax.
-- Custom character ideas -- Bloodfeaster, Columbine Man. Have some fun.
Tate read it over, and while it looked like a fun and worthwhile two weeks, he still felt a pang of premature regret, a slight shadow in his mind... as if he was filling his days with trifles and diversions, when something else -- something grand, and meaningful -- could fill that space instead. But what? He did not yet know, but...
"...you think you're just so damned smart, don't you, Mr. McCrayne?"
He looked up and saw Mrs. Clenschaw looming over him. He hadn't been paying attention to whatever she had been spewing out of her mouth after hearing his grade. But she'd drawn near him and was glaring down, and he could smell the repulsive odors emanating from her body.
The old woman sneered and glowered with some kind of spontaneous hatred. What the fuck was she doing?
"Oh, i was just saying, Mr. McCrayne, that you fully realize that your intellectual capacities have progressed far beyond the rest of these drooling morons," she barked, motioning to the stunned class, "and they will continue to do so until you reach your full physical maturity. It is known, it is expected..."
Tate was truly baffled. The old bat had lost her fucking mind apparently. His first thought, which was shared by many of the class, was that she was going to say something so crazily offensive that she'd be fired before the next term.
Clenschaw doddered back around to the dry-erase board, becoming more agitated. The stench of her aged flesh seemed to increase, a mingled draught of sweat, perfume, ointment, rotten skin, and accumulated vaginal smegma. The students nearest her began to gasp with disgust as they began to notice the blisters and boils that were festering on her withered calves.
"....i have spoken with the Dark Walker. The future is certain, or is it? You see, class, you should be honored. None of you realize that you're sitting in the same room with an important man, a man of fate! More than a celebrity! Don't you know that? The great Tate Allen McCrayne! Ha hha ha!"
Her hands reached between her legs and she violently rubbed her crotch. Tate and the others were on their feet now. Something truly inexplicable was happening. They could hear Mr. Ross bellowing his cheery farewells to his students before the bell could ring. But Clenschaw was between them and the classroom door, and she was changing. The stink was bad enough but now there were blackish stains forming on her blouse and her tongue was slopping about inside her mouth, stirring up her pasty mucous which was beginning to fall to the floor in little dollops and clumps.
"...it is known to the Walker, it is known, yes! In his time, still in our future, the name of McCrayne is very well known indeed. He is not like the rest of you drones and humanoids, you poor little creepy-crawlies who will mature and spend your lives in offices, restaurants, retail stores, and freight exchanges, no! He will, in his time, ascend to heights that few men ever achieve, and he will, he will change the world! Yes! Yesssssss! So lucky we are to be in his exalted presence!"
As she croaked out this speech, her clothing began dissolving from the acidic nature of the excretions leaking from her thickening hide. She was soon nude and continuing to change into something incontrovertibly inhuman. She was a grayish thing, all withered and folded flesh, and her head was expanding, joining with her neck, becoming sharklike. At the back of the class, some of the goons were frantically trying to open a window, even though they were on the third story. Others were cramming into the supply closet out of pure terror, but most of them were huddling in the far side of the room, crying, screeching, wailing in panic.
Tate McCrayne grabbed the only weapon he could, a pair of scissors. Wielding them like a stiletto, he rushed forward and plunged them deep into the Clenschaw-creature's throat. He knew that if he waited, its hide would soon be too thick to penetrate; only while a small measure of her human frailty remained would she be vulnerable. No armored plates must form. They were wrenched from his hand and she emitted an earsplitting shriek. A froth of curdy blood and meaty foam gurgled from the wound. He grabbed the handle of the scissors and worked them back and forth, trying to inflict as much trauma to the tissue as possible. One of her clawed limbs caught him on the side of his head and he was flung backwards. He fought to retain consciousness. Through the haze he could see Rory and David flinging desks and chairs at the beast, futile distractions. Something inside her popped and dribbled, and a sour-smelling gas began to fill the room. Clenschaw bubbled and shrieked in triumph. One by one, the students nearest to her began to faint as they were overcome by the noxious fume. Green juice ran from their eyes and they were motionless.
Near the window, Corey St. Clair and a few of the other goons were lost in a maelstrom of frenzied and mindless action. They had pried open a window and were haltingly sticking their legs out, contemplating the fall, and sliding back in, too overcome by terror to settle on a choice. But their proximity to the outside air meant that the creature's fume had not yet affected them. Corey was getting very near to finally climbing out the window when something stopped him. A strange fog was coming over his brain and he was near fainting. But then he heard a voice whispering inside his skull, a comforting voice, and although he couldn't make out the words it spoke, it had a tranquilizing effect. The voice told him that everything would be fine, just fine, don't worry for a moment. He steadied himself and turned to the gray beast. Inside his mind time had stopped. Corey St. Clair had always heard that your life "flashed before your eyes" before you died, but rather than his past he seemed to be viewing his future. A rapid succession of images and emotions were playing out -- he saw himself in high school, playing football and becoming interested in women's breasts and alcohol. He saw himself as a young man, working on cars, living in a small and shoddy house filled with humdrum and everyday misery. He saw himself driving a semi truck for years and years on end. He saw two wives, rock concerts, road trips, bars, fishing, and a memorable vacation to the Grand Canyon where he tripped on acid and ecstasy -- even though he had no idea yet what those things were. And he saw himself dying of a cocaine-related heart attack on a city bus somewhere in the year of 2042, as other passengers tried doggedly to revive him. His face was stubbly and graying then and he was disgusted at how he would look. This would have been your life, the voice said sadly. But you must give it up. It must be a sacrifice, a sacrifice for the greater universe. A sense of lightness overtook him then, and there was suddenly only one course of action that made sense...
Clenschaw's abdomen had sprouted four pods of some variety and from them raw tentacles emerged, and they rushed for Tate, who was holding his breath but still very near to succumbing to the fume. He saw them coming and was unable to take evasive action. Then, Corey St. Clair dashed between them, and the stringy flesh ropes penetrated his body and sent jets of blood spurting from his shredded intestines. His screaming form was slowly drawn into the gray beast's vaginal cavity which had grown into a toothed maw. Tate saw the sharp teeth grind and gnash the boy's limbs into bloody froth. He fell backwards, and his hand touched another potential weapon -- a ruler, one of those three-sided ones molded out of a solid bar of hard plastic. He'd always wanted a ruler like that. He grasped it in his hand and made one final suicidal rush at the Clenschaw, who was rapidly absorbing the other boy's remains and shrieking in rage at the interference. Tate ran behind the thing and leaped on to her desk, and from there he leaped again, screaming "DIE, YOU FREAKISH CUNT!" His aim was accurate and the plastic tool was driven deep into a soft membraneous patch just behind her neck. He used the side of his fist like a hammer and pounded it in as far as he could. The beast bucked in agony and he was thrown backwards, and along with the rest of the class, could do little else but watch in paralyzed horror and fascination at the thing's prolonged death spasms; her body burst apart, tentacles and sacs of fluid launching themselves in random directions. When it finally lay still, the grayish soup and the remaining flaps and chunks of Corey St. Clair were indistinguishable...
...the bloody stew was still, but then began to pulse and bubble weakly. It was trying to reform.
When Mr. Ross entered the class, he saw Tate McCrayne covered in blood and filth, but standing tall and steady. The boy looked at him with the weary face of a general after a long campaign, and said "Fire. Mr. Ross, we need fire. Only fire can finish it off. Now!"
Mr. Ross did not question it. He reached into his pocket for his cigarette lighter.