The Chemistry of Fear

I decided to try another flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig’s blog. The task was to come up with a story from a batch of truly bizarre and hilarious stock photos. I picked #3, which you can see here, along with the other 20 strange pics. Definitely a lot of fodder for the imaginative mind.

The Chemistry of Fear

Ms. Grainger loved her Shining Apple Awards for Excellence in Teaching. She’d won three times — a record for high school teachers in the district. Only that loveable granny of a grade one teacher over at Fairbrook Elementary had won more, and she was ancient, so there was still time to catch up.

At the start of every school year, Ms. Grainger, or Laura if you weren’t one of her students, always set the three polished apples on her desk. A new batch of students needed to be reminded that she knew her stuff. That she was fun, as well as inspiring. That she was still a great teacher, and worthy of their nomination.

The summer Laura turned 34, her husband left her. Not for his hot secretary, or the nanny, or that personal trainer with the ridiculous rear end. That was too cliché for Marcus. Instead he decided, after fourteen years together, ten of those married, that he never really liked women at all.

“It’s not you, Laura. I will always love the years we had together. It’s me. I’m finally able to face who I am, and Steven has helped me do that. I never wanted to hurt you. But I don’t want either of us to pretend any longer.”

He was sincere. Laura knew that. But somehow that didn’t make her hate him any less. She never pretended.

He tried to kiss her on the cheek the day he came back to the house with that van and loaded up all his clothes, his jazz record collection, and his Grandma’s antique rocking chair. She jerked her head away to avoid those lips, and couldn’t meet his eyes. When the door clicked it was like a switch flipped in her brain and things started to flicker and fizz.

“I think I’m losing it,” Laura thought in those first weeks he was gone. But school was starting in days, and she had that. She always had her teaching. And the students would always need her.

———–

“I think Ms. Grainger’s losing it,” Kyle said to his girlfriend, Joelle, at the start of October.

“What do you mean? Ms. Grainger’s awesome! I had her last year and I swear I would’ve failed chem if I didn’t have her. Plus, she’s funny. Does she still throw those silly cartoons into her PowerPoints and pretend she doesn’t know how they got there?”

“No, no fun stuff. She’s kinda normal some days. Like smiling and helpful and stuff. And then some days she doesn’t even really talk to us. She just tells us to read our textbook and then stares off at nothing. Sometimes it looks like she’s talking to herself.”

“Maybe she’s going through something. Cut her some slack.” Joelle smiled and brushed her fingers up against Kyle’s cheek. “It’s not your first time in Chem 11 anyway. You must remember something.”

“Har har. Yeah, it’s not the grade thing this time. It’s her. It’s just…weird…to go to class.”

“Well, I guess if you’re worried about it, you could talk to the principal.”

———-

Ms. Grainger didn’t like unexpected meetings. When the principal strode into her class after the final bell, she was busy arranging the beakers in the cabinet. No matter which way she moved them, she couldn’t get them to sit in even, straight rows. There was always one too many.

“Laura, how are you?”

He was behind her with that creamy voice that sounded phony no matter what he said.

“Michael, I didn’t hear you come in. Can I help you with something?”

“Just checking in. We haven’t talked much this year. How are your classes going?”

“Fine. Great bunch of kids. A few bright stars in the freshmen class, which is exciting.”

“Wonderful. Listen Laura, one of your students has asked me for a transfer. Apparently this student has some…concerns…about your attention to the material this year. This student says you don’t really seem like yourself.”

“Who is it?”Laura’s face was hot and she began chewing the inside of her cheek.

“Oh, it doesn’t matter. I don’t have a section for this student to transfer to right now anyway, and he …this student…said that’s ok. But it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t follow up. No one ever complains about you. But you know that. I mean, just look at all those apples! Pretty soon we’ll have to get you a bigger desk!” He laughed, but stopped suddenly when he saw Laura wasn’t laughing with him.

“This is upsetting to me, Michael. I care about my students very much. If one of them has a problem in my class, I’d like to know who it is so I can help.”

“Well, I’m not really supposed to say, but maybe a quick face-to-face with him will clear everything up.” He leaned in and whispered. “It’s Kyle Miller. A senior, but he’s one of our strugglers.”

“Oh, yes. Kyle. In my morning class. Thank you for telling me, Michael. I’m sure we can get everything cleared up and make sure he’s happy with things.”

“I know you can, Laura.” He clapped his hands together and turned to leave. “Good talk!”

Laura kept smiling until he’d left the room. When he was out of earshot, she batted one of the beakers off the shelf. The sound of the shattering glass was perfect, and she gave a contented sigh, then bent to pick up the larger shards. For the first time all year, she was looking forward to class tomorrow.

The next morning she hummed as she put on her favourite red dress. The last time I wore this was for my anniversary dinner with Marcus, she thought. He told me I looked “smashing” and we had sex that night. I wonder who he was thinking about when he was inside me?

She put on some lipstick, grabbed her purse, and was almost to her car when she remembered she had to grab something from the shed.

The bell rang and the students sauntered in. “Good morning!” Laura sang out to most of them. “Hayley, you coloured your hair! It looks great!”

When everyone was settled in their seats, Laura went to the chalk board and wrote the word “fear” in large capital letters. A few of the students snickered.

“Every emotion produces a chemical reaction in our bodies,” Laura said as she walked slowly down the rows of desks. “Every time we feel, there is a physiological response. Each person’s exact mix of adrenaline, hormones, that will be a little different for everyone. But behind every smile, every frown, every feeling of fear, well, the chemistry of us is working to make that happen.”

The students watched as Ms. Grainger strode toward her desk, then turned and stared right at Kyle. “The threat of pain, our anticipation, and fear will make us react in a certain way. It’s not something we can control. Even the toughest person, the coolest guy, will have a chemical response.”

“Is this in our textbook?” one of the students asked, and a round of giggles followed.

“No, this is a life lesson. The best kind. I need a volunteer. Kyle, can you come up to the front please?”

Kyle hesitated, then got up and stood next to Ms. Grainger. She smiled and asked him to sit in her chair.

“Now, all of us know that I have no intention of hurting Kyle, but even our reasoning can’t stop our emotions.” She leaned over and pulled on the squeaky, bottom drawer of her desk. She raised a pair of hedge trimmers above her head and turned it side to side for the class.

“I want you to observe what happens to Kyle’s face, his body, when he’s presented with a threat —even one that’s not real. I want you to feel what’s happening in your own body when you think you’re about to witness someone in pain. What does your own fear do to you?”

Kyle shifted in the chair, and cleared his throat. A nervous smile crossed his lips as he said “You aren’t really going to use those on me, are you Ms. Grainger?”

“Of course not, Kyle. It’s an experiment. Now put your right arm on the desk please, and spread your fingers.”

Kyle did it, and watched as the teacher leaned over him, placing the open blades on either side of his pinky finger.

“What are you feeling now Kyle? What are you feeling class? Is anyone sweating? Have your mouths gone dry?”

“I can’t watch!” Kyle said, half-laughing, and exaggeratedly turned his face to the side.

“Oh my god this is so freaky!” one of the girls squealed.

Ms. Grainger’s lips twisted into a grimace, and her hands gripped the hedge trimmer tighter. Then the satisfying ka-chunk sound of the blades coming together. Laura let the sound linger in her ears. She didn’t even notice Kyle’s pained wailing, the screaming and crying of the students. She watched, calm, as the blood pooled across the desk and moistened her pretty red dress.

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