by Robert Hinderliter
From Fall 2017
One day when Baxter was a high school freshman, his pre-algebra teacher, Mrs. Gutierrez, turned around from the chalkboard with a surprised look on her face.
“Through the blue window, exponents can be expressed as a tornado siren,” she said. Then she smiled, dropped her chalk, and collapsed, cracking her head against the corner of her desk. A girl in the front row screamed. Baxter sat motionless, his pencil hovering over his notebook. She had looked right at him before she fell. Later, he heard a rumor that she would’ve survived the stroke. It was the blow to the head that killed her. That was Baxter’s first encounter with death.
The next year, Baxter’s mother accidentally used salt instead of sugar in her famous banana pudding. A week later, she tore down all the family pictures and threw them in the basement. There were too many lips, she said. How could anyone stand to look at all those lips? Within three months she was nearly blind. She stumbled through the house cursing or howling with laughter. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the doctors said. Her brain was disintegrating in her head.
They moved her to the hospital for round-the-clock care. Baxter’s dad took leave from the telephone company and slept on a cot in her hospital room. Baxter visited three times. On his final visit, his mom grabbed his hand, dug her fingernails into his wrist, and soiled her pants. That was the last time he saw her. Seven months after ruining the banana pudding, his mother died. She was 48.
After the funeral, his father had some bad news. His mom’s Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease was the familial variety, which meant it was genetic, which meant there was a 50% chance Baxter would inherit it.
“But it won’t appear until your late 40s or early 50s,” his dad said. “Maybe they’ll have a cure by then. And even if it’s in your DNA, you can still live a full life.”
“A full life?” Baxter said.
“Well, all the fun stuff happens when you’re young anyway. After 45, it’s all impotence, hemorrhoids, and an enlarged prostate. These days it takes me five minutes to take a leak.” His dad laughed loudly, then stopped and grabbed his son and hugged him so hard that Baxter felt all the air had been squeezed from his lungs.
Soon Baxter began suffering from insomnia. He’d be listless during the day and exhausted by late afternoon, but under his blanket in the dark, his mind would whirl with thoughts of sickness and death: the fear in his mother’s eyes as she babbled pitifully, or the way Mrs. Gutierrez had smiled as the blood vessel burst in her brain. Most of all, he thought about the last time he saw his mom—the pain from her nails on his wrist, the curl of her lip as she released her bowels, the sound and the smell… That final memory played over and over in his mind.
The only thing that helped was music. With his headphones on, his Discman tucked beside him under the covers, he was able to escape into the sounds of The Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against the Machine, or Korn. If he turned up the volume, the music would drown out the dark thoughts until eventually he could fall asleep. He had to change his Discman batteries every three days.
One night a month later, Baxter was lying in bed listening to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and missing his mom desperately when he noticed a faint flicker of light in the corner of his room. It was a small ball of illumination, wavering and barely visible. Slowly, as Baxter pulled off his headphones and sat up in bed, it began to expand into the shape of a human figure. Baxter sucked in a breath, paralyzed with fear. The figure was still hazy, like a staticky TV channel, but now he could see that it was a woman in a long dress.
Baxter gulped. “Mom?”
The light grew brighter, the edges sharper, and then suddenly it moved, taking one tentative step toward the center of the room. As the figure became clear, Baxter realized it wasn’t his mother.
It was Mrs. Gutierrez.
She took a few more steps and then stopped at the foot of Baxter’s bed. She looked around the room, squinting, her expression confused. When her eyes fell on Baxter, her face changed from puzzled to fearful. She took a step back, and as she did so, her form grew dimmer. Another step back and her body broke apart into shards of dying light, and then the room was dark.
Baxter sat in bed without moving for a long time. Eventually he got up and waved his hand through the space where Mrs. Gutierrez had been. When he climbed back into bed, he held his Discman against his side but didn’t put on his headphones. He stared at the darkness in the corner of his room.
He didn’t tell anyone about the ghost. Every night over the next six months he watched the darkness for any sign of the figure, but she didn’t appear again. Maybe it had been a dream, he thought, or a hallucination brought on by exhaustion and grief.
At the start of his junior year, with his dad’s permission, he dropped out of school. He’d always been an average student, but after his mom’s death his grades had plummeted. The sleepless nights led to many sleep-filled classes. Plus, it was hard to muster any motivation to study iambic pentameter or the economic effects of the New Deal after realizing that life was just a steady march toward a horrific end.
He didn’t bother to tell any of his classmates he was dropping out. He’d drifted away from old friends and retreated so far into himself that now everyone at school just left him alone. It had been months since he’d had a conversation longer than a few sentences with anyone other than his dad.
Job opportunities in Haskerville, Kansas, population 700, were scarce, but Baxter found a position working maintenance for his high school. On his first day, his boss put him on groundskeeping duty and sent him out to the equipment shed to meet his partner.
When he got to the shed, he found a short, tan man in sleeveless shirt with massive biceps refueling a weedeater. The man looked up and mumbled something when he saw Baxter.
“What?” Baxter said.
The man set down the weedeater, picked up a can of Dr. Pepper, and spit a long stream of tobacco juice into the can. He had a golf ball-sized wad still tucked in his cheek.
“I said you must be my new assistant.”
“I think Mr. Duffry said I’d be your partner.”
“Uh huh.” The man walked over to Baxter and looked him up and down. “How old are you?”
“Shit.” The man narrowed his eyes. “You that kid whose mom died from mad cow disease?”
Baxter glared at the floor. “Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.”
“It’s like mad cow disease.”
“Well that’s what I said, ain’t it?” He spit into his can and swirled its contents. “Anyways, I’m sorry about that, bud. That’s real tough. Working will do you good, though.” He gestured to the weedeater. “You know how to use one of them?”
“Well, grab it and let’s go.” As they walked out of the shed, the man stuck out a hand. “I’m Garrett,” he said.
Garrett was 26, a Haskerville High graduate. After school, he’d spent two years working on his family’s farm, followed by one year in jail, followed by two years at Taco Bell, followed by one more year in jail. Now he was beginning his second year as a maintenance worker.
“Seems like I got one more year before they lock me up again,” he told Baxter, “that being the pattern of my life and all.”
The first football game of the season was that evening, so Baxter and Garrett had to prepare the field. Baxter trimmed around the bleachers and goalposts while Garrett drove a riding lawnmower.
After cutting the grass, they painted the lines by stretching a string from one side of the field to the other and following it with a motorized field striper. Baxter walked ahead, stepping on the string to keep it in place, while Garrett pushed the striper.
“What were you in jail for?” Baxter asked.
“First time? Arson. Accidently burned my uncle’s tractor.”
“And the second time?”
“Accidently burned my uncle’s pickup.”
The striper rattled and hummed as it coughed white paint onto the grass.
“How is it you keep accidently burning your uncle’s vehicles?” Baxter said.
“Some people don’t learn the first time,” Garrett said.
They painted the ten-yard lines first, and then refilled the striper before starting the sidelines. When they finished, Baxter looked down the line by the visitor’s bleachers and cocked his head to the side.
“It’s not very straight,” he said.
“It’s straight enough,” said Garrett. “These kids ain’t goin’ pro.”
The job wasn’t so bad. Eight hours of trimming trees, blowing leaves, and spraying poison on weeds made Baxter exhausted enough to sleep at night. Still, he spent most of his free time alone in his room listening to music or playing PlayStation, avoiding any thoughts about the future.
After two months of work, he came home and found that his dad had left a book on his bed: Reach for the Stars! Preparing for the GED Test. Baxter took it into the dining room and dropped it on the table where his dad was doing a crossword puzzle and having a drink. A bottle of rum and a two-liter of Sam’s Choice Cola stood next to the newspaper.
“Careful, that’s from the library,” his dad said, looking up. The Haskerville Public Library was a few bookshelves in the living room of a retired chiropractor who had adopted dozens of disabled cats and dogs. The litter box by the young adult fiction was wheelchair accessible.
“I’m not taking the GED,” said Baxter.
“You know, they say the best way to be happy in life is to look for the positive in every situation, no matter how bleak.” He added a splash of rum to his glass, took a sip, then added a splash of Sam’s. “But what do they know? In my experience, the happiest people are the ones with lots of money.”
“I like my job.”
“And it’s fine for now. But eventually you’ll want something that pays a little more, and those jobs don’t go to people who haven’t finished high school.”
Baxter grabbed a cup from the counter, sat down, and poured himself some cola. It was warm.
“And I’m sorry to pull this card on you, but think about your mom. You think she’d want her son to be uneducated?”
“Well, it doesn’t matter what she thinks anymore, does it?” Baxter said bitterly, looking away. Immediately a cold burst of shame filled his chest, but he set his jaw and let the words hang in the air.
Baxter’s dad stared at him for a minute. Finally, in a gentle tone, he said, “Remember how when you were young you wanted to be an architect? You and your mom would sit for hours building these massive Lego cities. And she was always on your case about studying math.”
“I’m not going to be an architect.”
“Certainly not without a GED.”
“I’m not taking it,” Baxter said. “What would be the point? My brain’s going to rot out of my head in twenty years anyway.”
“More like thirty years.” His dad grimaced and set down his drink. “I mean, never. Probably.” He held up his hands in a helpless shrug. “Come on, Bax. Are you just planning to waste your life because you might get sick in the future?”
“I’m not going to waste it. I just don’t see the point of struggling and suffering and most likely failing when in the end it doesn’t mean anything. I think Mom would agree. I mean, she was almost fifty, and all she did was give baths to old folks down at the Home.”
Baxter’s dad shook his head. “She was a light in the lives of those people. And she was a remarkable woman: a tango dancer, Native American history buff, chess champion of her university, talented flutist, sponsor of two African children…I could go on. But above all, she was a wonderful mother to you. And she gave everything she had every day.” He downed the rest of his drink and set the glass down hard on the table.
Baxter stared down into his cola. “She sure gave me something special, didn’t she?”
His dad crossed his arms and let out a long sigh. “I can’t force you to take the test, Bax. But your future is coming one way or the other.”
Baxter finished his cola, stood up, and grabbed the book from the table. In his room, he lay on his bed and opened it to the first page. He started reading, and then stopped and sniffed. He pressed his nose into the book. Was that…?
Cat piss. He threw the book across the room.
One Friday morning in October, Baxter was picking up trash from behind the football field concession stand when Garrett pulled up beside him on the riding lawnmower.
“Hey! Did you hear that?” Garrett cut the mower’s engine and raised a finger in the air. “Shh…”
Baxter listened intently. “Huh? I don’t hear anything.”
Suddenly, Garrett leaned to the side and let loose a monstrous fart. He nodded in approval.
“Jesus,” Baxter said. He backed away with a hand over his nose.
“Oh come on, it don’t stink. I’m all bark, no bite.”
This wasn’t the first time Garrett had made a point of sharing his flatulence. Sometimes Baxter would be hosing weeds with poison or doing a touch-up paint job on a fence when suddenly he’d hear an earth-shaking blast. He’d look up to see Garrett fifty yards away waving and grinning.
“That doesn’t sound healthy,” Baxter said.
“Ah, it’s fine. Just my protein shake talkin’.”
Garrett got up at 6:00 AM every morning to get in a workout before his shift started at 8:00, he explained. After hitting the weights he drank a creatine and whey protein shake.
“Gives you a little gas, but big guns,” he said, flexing his bicep. “It’s totally worth it. Girls love muscles.”
“I’m sure they love smelling your rotten insides too,” Baxter said.
“I hold it in for the girls. I’m a gentleman.” He gave Baxter a questioning look. “You like girls, bud?”
“You a virgin?”
Garrett sighed. “Yeah, you’re a virgin. Oh boy.” He shook his head with disappointment. “We can’t have that.”
“I’m not a virgin,” Baxter said, trying to give his voice conviction, but Garrett was deep in thought and not listening.
“Alright, I’ll tell you what,” Garrett said. “You have plans tonight?”
“I don’t know.”
“You and me are gonna take a trip to Pratt. I’ll make some calls. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of this.”
“Hold on. I don’t think I should—”
But Garrett had already started up the tractor. He slapped Baxter on the shoulder and rode off toward the field.
At home that evening, Baxter got a call from Garrett.
“It’s all arranged,” Garrett said. “Her name’s Brittany, my friend’s sister. She’s a student at PCC, and she’s down for anything.”
“No way. I’m not going with you to Pratt to…” From the phone in the kitchen, Baxter glanced over to the living room where his dad was stretched out on the couch watching a Royals game. “I’m not going.”
“Look, bud, I’m pullin’ up in front of your house in an hour and layin’ on the horn till you come out.”
“I won’t come out.”
“Then I guess you won’t be gettin’ any sleep tonight.”
“I don’t think my dad will let me go.”
“You’re seventeen! It’s a Friday night! I’ll be there at eight. You better wash your pecker.” Garrett hung up.
Baxter leaned against the wall by the phone. How had he let himself get roped into this? But Garrett wasn’t taking no for an answer, so he might as well ask his dad.
His dad was thrilled. It had been ages since Baxter had gone out with friends. He gave Baxter a ten dollar bill and told him not to let Garrett drink and drive.
“If you need a ride, call me,” he said. He took a sip of rum and cola. “And I’ll call someone who’s sober.”
In the shower, Baxter spent five minutes scrubbing his crotch. Garrett had been right—he was absolutely a virgin. He’d had one awkward kiss after an eighth grade dance, but all his sexual experiences since then had been with lingerie catalogs or his parents’ R-rated VHS collection. After his mom died, he’d gone four months without touching himself. What if she was looking down at him? Some nights his hormones got the best of him, but not often. The shame outweighed the pleasure.
After he toweled off, he found an old bottle of his dad’s cologne in the back of the medicine cabinet and splashed some on his neck. He pulled on a polo shirt and khakis and looked at himself in the mirror. He knew he should feel excited if he was really about to lose his virginity, but instead he just felt numb.
At 8:00, Garrett drove up in a rusty Chevy pickup and honked. When Baxter climbed in the passenger seat, Garrett coughed and rolled down the windows.
“Shit. Did you use the whole bottle? This girl won’t care how you smell. I’m telling you, it’s a sure thing.”
Baxter’s house was on a dirt road near the edge of Haskerville. They rolled through stop signs until they reached Main Street, the only paved road in town, and then headed over the railroad tracks, past the water tower and grain elevator, and turned east onto Highway 54.
The sun was just setting—a wide endless sky streaked with purple and orange in the rearview mirror. Garrett gunned the truck to 70, passing a semi on the two-lane highway. He flipped down his sun visor to reveal a CD organizer with mostly hard rock and metal: Pantera, Slipknot, System of a Down.
“I got a new subwoofer a few months ago,” he said, cranking the volume on a Limp Bizkit song. “Feel this bass.”
The whole truck rattled. Baxter’s head jostled against the seat. The glove box came unlatched and fell open, dumping a half dozen empty chewing tobacco cans on his lap.
Twenty minutes later they pulled up in front of Brittany’s apartment on a quiet street a few blocks from Pratt Community College. Garrett killed the engine and rubbed his hands together.
“All right! Are you ready?”
“I guess so.”
“Come on, how about some enthusiasm? It’s the end of your childhood! A boy goes in, a man emerges.”
Baxter nodded. His head was still throbbing from the ride.
“One more thing,” Garrett said. “I bet you didn’t come prepared, did you? And I don’t mean pouring a bottle of Stetson down your drawers.” He rummaged in his pocket and pulled out a row of three condoms. “Best advice of the night, bud: use a new one every time.”
Baxter took the condoms and stuffed them in his pocket.
Brittany lived in the basement of an old two-story house that had been separated into three apartments, each floor with its own entrance. To get to Brittany’s, they had to walk around to the side and descend a short, leaf-strewn stairway.
The young woman who answered the door didn’t seem thrilled to see them. She was dark-haired and wide-hipped, wearing jeans and a black hoodie, and she had a nose piercing—a small silver bead poked through her left nostril. She glanced at Garrett and then eyed Baxter skeptically.
“What’s up, Britt?” said Garrett. “This is Baxter. He’s my assistant. He has mad cow disease.”
“He has what?” she said, taking a step back.
“Guess I didn’t mention that,” Garrett said.
“I don’t have it,” Baxter said, his face flushing. “I mean, I might get it later, but not now.” He gave Garrett a dirty look.
“Is he contagious?”
“Don’t think so,” Garrett said. “All the same, I wouldn’t swallow.”
“Go fuck yourself.”
Garrett grinned. “Guess I’ll leave you kids to it, then. I’ll be over at Frankie’s. Just call when you’re ready.” He tussled Baxter’s hair and then clomped back up the steps.
“What a jerk-off,” Brittany said when he’d gone. She turned around and Baxter followed her inside.
Despite the low ceilings and crumbling concrete, Brittany’s apartment felt cozy. Christmas lights strung along the walls weaved around surreal paintings and maps of fantastical worlds populated with sea monsters. One of the paintings depicted a woman standing in a forest clearing who appeared to be Brittany, but great elk antlers tangled with vines had sprouted from her head.
“My sister painted that,” Brittany said, noticing Baxter staring. “She painted all these. Can you believe she’s only 15?”
“They’re amazing.” Baxter nervously stuck his hands in his pockets. He felt his face flush when he touched the condoms.
Brittany led Baxter down the hallway to her room. Inside was more soft lighting and a spicy, earthy smell. A stick of incense burned on her dresser. A TV hooked up to a PlayStation sat on a small table across from Brittany’s unmade bed.
“Have a seat,” she said, gesturing to a beanbag chair on the floor. She grabbed a small box from a shelf and then sat down a few feet from Baxter, leaning against her bed. “You smoke?” She opened the box and took out a baggie of weed and some rolling papers.
“I never have,” Baxter said.
“You want to?”
He thought for a second and then nodded. She started rolling a large joint.
“So what’s the deal with your mad cow disease?”
Baxter hesitated. This was the last thing he wanted to talk about. But refusing to answer would be even more awkward. “It’s called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans,” he said quickly. “My mom died from it last year. I might get it when I’m her age.”
Brittany licked the paper as she finished the joint. She shook her head. “That sucks. Really.” She lit the joint and took a big drag, then leaned forward and passed it to Baxter. “You’re gonna cough,” she said.
He did. But then he took another drag and tried to hold it in his lungs for as long as he could. He passed the joint back. The sweet, skunky smell wafted around them. They sat for a while and smoked without talking.
Eventually Brittany said, “You know, I’ve got my own health thing too.” She massaged her temples. “I get these dizzy spells sometimes, like the room starts spinning and I want to puke. It started a year ago when a wasp flew in my ear.”
“Huh?” Baxter said. He was trying to focus on his cognitive functions. Was he feeling anything yet? He couldn’t tell.
“I was at the park, and it just flew right up in there, like it wanted to make a nest in my brain or something.”
“Did you go to the hospital?”
“No way. I didn’t move. I just sat perfectly still and waited for it to leave. The buzzing was like a chainsaw in my head. It was in there for like an hour.”
“And now you get dizzy.”
“Yeah. The doctor said it must have fucked up my inner ear. Something to do with crystals.”
Baxter laughed. “You have crystals in your head?”
“It’s a real disorder, asshole. Pass that back.”
He hadn’t realized he was holding the joint. He looked over at Brittany. It seemed suddenly that the distance between them had stretched to a mile. How could he possibly hand her the joint over such an immense distance? Instead he sunk deeper into the beanbag and grinned.
Brittany sighed and climbed to her feet. She plucked the joint from Baxter’s hand and walked over to a CD player on the shelf. “Have you heard of the Bone Grottos?” she said.
Baxter shook his head to her back.
“They’re from Oregon. This album’s called Last Night on Earth. The singer wrote it on his deathbed. He was in his thirties, but he got skin cancer. It was on his scalp, under his hair. Really horrifying shit. Anyway, check it out.”
As the album started, she came back over to Baxter and nudged him with her foot. “Scoot over,” she said. She sat down beside him, shoulder against his shoulder, and handed him the joint. They sat and smoked and listened to the music, exchanging a few words now and then. Some songs were slow and plaintive, others were fuzzed-out and bouncy, with jangly guitars and kooky keyboards behind the singer’s hoarse, emotional voice.
Baxter’s brain felt like it was caught in the surf on a beach, strange waves washing over it and then retreating, tossing it around in the sand. One minute everything seemed staggeringly funny, and he would giggle like a child at anything Brittany was saying. A minute later he would be enraptured by the music, all the lyrics imbued with wondrous meaning. The last line of one of the songs made his eyes well with tears, but a few minutes later he couldn’t remember it. He looked down at Brittany. She’d slumped low in the bean bag and was resting her head against his side. He said her name.
“Hmm?” She was staring ahead blankly and didn’t look up.
“I saw a ghost.”
“What?” She sat up and scanned the room. “Here?”
“No, no, no. Last year, after my mom died.”
Brittany relaxed again. She tucked her legs underneath her and scrutinized Baxter. “You saw your mom’s ghost?”
“No. It was my math teacher. She died in the classroom when I was a freshman. Her ghost came to my bedroom.”
“Oh damn. What did she do?”
“She just looked at me. But it was like she was scared, like she could see this fog of death hovering over me.”
“Why would she be afraid of death? She’s already dead.”
“Maybe it’s scarier for the dead than it is for us.”
“Wow,” Brittany said, shaking her head. “You’re kind of fucked up, aren’t you?”
“The doctors say there’s a fifty percent chance I’ll get what my mom had. But I know I’ll get it. I can feel it inside me already, just lurking there. And until then I have to walk around with this curse.”
“You’re not cursed, dude.”
“You don’t know.”
“I know you’re being a jackass.” Her eyes locked with his. “Yeah, death sucks. It’s frightening and mysterious and confusing. But so is life.” She rubbed her eyes with her palms. “Especially when you’re high.” She took a deep breath. “In the end, you’ve got a choice: you can be a mopey asshole, or you can use the time you have left to try and do cool stuff. It’s not complicated.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Last Night on Earth ended.
After a while, Brittany gestured to the TV.
“Wanna play Tekken?” she said.
As the PlayStation booted up, Brittany rummaged under her bed for the second controller. Baxter stared at her butt sticking out, curvy and tight in her jeans. He’d almost forgotten the reason he’d come to her house. “Why did you agree to hang out with me tonight?” he asked.
“Garrett said he had a friend who needed cheering up,” she said, half her body still under the bed. “And I was bored. Ah ha!” She came back out with the controller. “That guy’s sweet, in a way, but dumb as a box of rocks. I made out with his friend one time at a party, and now he thinks I’m the easiest lay in Southwest Kansas.”
They played Tekken for an hour until Garrett called to say he was coming by. When he pulled up, he gave five long honks.
At the door, Brittany handed Baxter the Last Night on Earth CD.
“You can give it back to me next time,” she said. “Burn a copy if you want. But don’t scratch it.” She gave him a quick, tight hug and then closed the door.
In the truck, he returned the condoms to Garrett.
“Oh no, she didn’t tell you she was on the pill, did she?” Garrett said. “They always forget to take that shit.”
“We didn’t do it.”
“No? I thought it was a slam dunk.” He shook his head sadly and then sniffed and looked over at Baxter. “You sure got high as fuck, though. You’ll need to air out those clothes. And let’s get you some eye drops.”
They stopped at the Kwik Shop at the edge of town. Baxter cleaned the store out of Peanut M&M’s and Cool Ranch Doritos.
As they drove west on the empty highway, windows down and high-beams cutting through the night, Baxter put in the Bone Grottos CD. He closed his eyes, reclined his seat, and listened to the music.
“What’s this garbage?” Garrett said. He flipped down the sun visor and pulled out a CD. “Here, put in Puddle of Mudd.”
Five months later, Baxter was sitting in a small classroom at Hutchinson Community College to take the GED test. HCC was an hour and a half from Haskerville, but it was the closest testing center.
There were six other people in the room: five more test-takers of various ages, and the test proctor, a short, red-faced man with enormous sweat stains under the arms of his dress shirt. The proctor was eating lunch during the test. The sound of him chewing his turkey sandwich and licking mayo off his fingers was the only noise in the room.
They’d started with the social studies test and then moved on to science. They were hard, but Baxter felt he’d passed them both. His current test, the hardest yet, was math. He’d puzzled over pie charts and simplified fractions and grown dizzy staring at circles, hoping their circumferences would reveal themselves. His head was throbbing, and he only had ten minutes to finish nearly half the test.
At first it just seemed like a dryness in his eye, or a dust mote on his eyelash. He blinked a few times and stared down at the paper on his desk. But it didn’t go away—a fuzzy patch in his vision, an awkward bending of light. He looked up and squinted at the front of the room. There, hovering in the air next to the proctor’s desk, was a blurry, distorted ball. As he watched, it advanced toward him, stretching and elongating, slowly taking a human shape. No one else seemed to notice it. The proctor glanced at his watch and crunched on a carrot stick.
Baxter’s pencil shook in his hand as the figure drew nearer. Under his breath, he whispered its name: “Mrs. Gutierrez.” His math teacher, come back to help him in his moment of need.
But it wasn’t Mrs. Gutierrez. As the figure glimmered into focus, its features became clear. It was a short woman with glasses and a bouncy perm, her round cheeks dotted with freckles. She glided over to Baxter’s desk and stood above him. He looked up into his mother’s eyes. Time stopped and the rest of the world disappeared. His mouth hung open. She leaned down—he could hear a faint crackle of energy—and pressed her lips against his forehead. He felt the warmth of her kiss. And then she pulled back, smiling softly, and faded away.
Baxter sat motionless, staring at the empty space beside his desk.
“Five minutes!” the proctor said.
Baxter took a few deep breaths. Then he looked down at his test. It was a disaster. But fuck it—he could take it again. There was, he realized, plenty of time.
He started filling in C’s for every answer. After the first few, he started laughing. The proctor gave him a confused look, and a few of the other test-takers glared. He laughed and laughed as he filled in one C after another, all the way down to the end.