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#145

Chalk Child



         Mr. Anneraught pushed his shopping cart down the pet food aisle at the Diamond Food. He did not have a pet but this was one of his favorite aisles down which to push a cart. He wore a disguise: a false beard, non-prescription glasses, a floppy fisherman’s hat, and a t-shirt promoting a bluegrass music festival called “Banjovial” that he had never attended and never would attend. In fact, he would prefer death to attending Banjovial. Mr. Anneraught often degraded bluegrass music during the science classes he taught at Multioak High School in order to strengthen the effect of his disguise. After all of his disparaging remarks about bluegrass, his students would never expect to see him out in public wearing a shirt promoting bluegrass. Even if their powers of perception penetrated the beard, glasses, and hat, his hope was that the shirt, so brazenly contrary to his known contempt for bluegrass, would still throw his students off the scent, and they would pass him by without addressing him.

Mr. Anneraught hated interacting with his students outside of school. For one thing, the interactions were always stilted and awkward. But more importantly, the in-class relationship Mr. Anneraught had developed with his students was delicate and carefully balanced and the result of a lot of conscious effort, and conversations with his students out of the classroom and on the street or in the public library or at the movie theater had a way of undermining all of that.

                As Mr. Anneraught came to the end of the pet aisle, he felt a twinge of sadness. He only allowed himself one trip down the pet aisle per Diamond Food visit and now that trip was over. Then he noticed a man and a woman approaching him, hand in hand. They looked to be the age of people who could be the parents of a high school student, a realization that alarmed Mr. Anneraught. He turned to push his cart in the opposite direction, toward the produce section, but the man called out to him by name, putting the stress on the final syllable. “Mr. Anneraught!”

                Mr. Anneraught didn’t know if he should attempt to maintain the integrity of his disguise by not responding, but before he could decide, it was too late. The man and the woman walked past him on either side – the woman on his left and the man on his right – and then rejoined hands in front of his cart, facing him and blocking his path to the produce.

                “Good evening, Mr. Anneraught,” said the woman. “My name is Minnie Hatherton and this is my husband Grant, of the same last name.”

                “Yes,” said the man. “My name is Grant Hatherton.”

                “It’s nice to meet you,” said Mr. Anneraught, backing his cart up in order to steer around the couple.

                “Hold on just a moment,” said Grant, grabbing the front of Mr. Anneraught’s cart. “We would like to extend you an invitation.”

                “An invitation to dinner,” said Minnie. “At our home. It would be in your best interest and in the best interest of your 4th period Physics class, which our daughter Jasmine will be joining on Monday.”

                “Joining my class?” asked Mr. Anneraught. “But school will be out in less than a month.”

                “Yes,” said Minnie. “But we just moved to Multioak and we can’t have her sitting at home while school is in session.”

                “You really should come to dinner,” said Grant. “That way you can meet Jasmine and we can give you some helpful information that, I should reiterate, will be in everyone’s best interest.”

                “My wife won’t want to come,” said Mr. Anneraught.

                “She needn’t,” said Minnie. “In fact, we’d prefer that she not. We didn’t realize you were married.”

                “Oh, yes,” said Mr. Anneraught. “I’m very much married.” This was an exaggeration. If there could actually be said to be degrees of marriedness, he wasn’t very much married at all.

                “Can I be frank?” asked Grant. He didn’t wait for a response, just as few people who ask if they can be frank ever do. “We love our daughter. But her presence in your class could serve to undermine your position with the students at Multioak High School for a very long time, perhaps even permanently, unless you let us help you.”

                Mr. Anneraught felt a pang of panic and his knuckles whitened as he gripped the handle of shopping cart.

                “Tomorrow night,” said Minnie. “At 9. We believe in late dinners. Bring a bottle of wine, nothing under twenty dollars, please. We’ll send directions to your school email address.”

                “You know,” said Grant, gesturing at Mr. Anneraught’s shirt. “I’ve never really understood the appeal of bluegrass music. Perhaps you can explain it to me over dinner.”

                “Absolutely not,” said Mr. Anneraught. He was not an assertive man but he had his limits.

 

                The bottle of wine that Mr. Anneraught selected to bring to the Hathertons’ for dinner cost 19.99. It was well over twenty dollars with tax, but he wasn’t exactly sure if that counted. He hoped that the Hathertons wouldn’t ask too many questions. He threw his receipt away on purpose so that if they wanted to inspect it, they wouldn’t be able to.

                The Hathertons’ house was not as nice as Mr. Anneraught had expected it to be. He had assumed they were rich, but their two-story house was modest and their furniture was actually less nice than Mr. Anneraught’s own furniture, which his wife had picked out and which Mr. Anneraught had thought cost too much, but not because they couldn’t afford it, just because he didn’t care about furniture. Minnie Hatherton accepted the bottle of wine from Mr. Anneraught without comment and Grant ushered him into the dining room. The table was set for three.

                “Jasmine is dining in her room this evening,” said Grant. “We’ll call her down to introduce you once we’ve discussed what we need to discuss with you.”

                Dinner was pork chops slathered in a very sweet, pink sauce. There were also steamed carrots, and croissants. After everyone was seated and served and had begun to eat, Grant said, “Well, Mr. Anneraught, let me tell you something. I admire teachers, especially high school teachers. Teenagers can be terrifying.”

                “I don’t know if ‘terrifying’ is the right word,” said Mr. Anneraught, but in his heart, he knew it was.

                “Whatever word you choose to describe them,” said Grant, “they are certainly difficult to control.”

                “Yes,” said Mr. Anneraught. “Each student presents a unique challenge.”

                “Which brings us to Jasmine,” said Grant. “She’s very bright. Very bright. I know all parents think their children are bright, but Jasmine is very bright. Brighter than me, brighter than Minnie, and, please don’t take this the wrong way, brighter than you, I’m sure. Unfortunately, she’s well aware of how much brighter she is than every person she meets. As a result, she does not take instruction well. Minnie, will you please tell Mr. Anneraught the next part?”

                “Of course,” said Minnie, putting her fork down on her plate. “Another thing about Jasmine is that she’s become fascinated with exploring her own identity. She loves to explore different facets of herself and this causes her to treat her life as a grand experiment with herself as the subject. This can be problematic for her teachers. If you’re a teacher in one of the classes in which she’s decided to explore her desire to please, well, you’re in luck, because she’s going to be your favorite student you’ve ever had. But if you happen to be the teacher of a class in which she’s decided to explore her desire to rebel, then you’ve got a crisis on your hands. Which is why we invited you here tonight, Mr. Anneraught. You’ve got a crisis on your hands. She has chosen your class as one in which she intends to explore the rebellious facets of her identity.”

                “I’ve handled problem students before,” said Mr. Anneraught, and he had, but not exceptionally well, especially internally, where problem students made him feel anxious and disturbed his sleep patterns and kept him from being able to enjoy thought-provoking comic books.

                “I’m sure you have,” said Grant. He’d finished his food while his wife talked. “But Jasmine is unlike any problem student you’ve encountered before, I promise. She will attack you in ways you’ve never anticipated. She can turn the whole class against you. Involving the dean of students or other administrators won’t help either, she’s much brighter than any of them. She’ll turn them against you too if she has to.”

                Mr. Anneraught felt trembly and sweaty. The sweet sauce on the piece of pork chop in his mouth had become sickening. “Please don’t enroll your daughter in my class,” said Mr. Anneraught. “I can’t deal with this now. My 43rd birthday is coming up soon and I’ve been waiting so long…” He trailed off. He couldn’t tell the Hathertons about Chalk Child, of course, but his distress had nearly caused him to slip.

                “I can see you’re very worried,” said Minnie. “That’s good. You’re right to be worried. But now, the good news: our daughter can be controlled.”

                “Very early on, we realized we were overmatched,” said Grant. “As parents. We could not persuade Jasmine to obey us, even when she was barely old enough to walk. So when she was 10, we enlisted the help of an expert. A team of experts. Very, very expensive. In fact, we’re still paying them to this day. But it’s worth it, for the good of our daughter, ourselves, and the rest of the world.”

                “We don’t exactly understand what they did,” said Minnie. “Or how they accomplished it. Hypnosis, I’m sure, played a big part. Some kind of conditioning. All we know is that when Jasmine returned to us, she could be controlled. And it’s so easy.”

                “We’re telling you, Mr. Anneraught,” said Grant, “something that we’ve told very few other people. If you need Jasmine to do something or to stop doing something, whatever the case may be, all you have to do is utter her secret middle name followed by whatever it is you want her to do or not do. I know it sounds counterintuitive to say her secret middle name first, but that’s how it works.”

                “Almost no one knows her secret middle name,” said Minnie. “Her true middle name.”

                “It’s ‘Corabeth,’” said Grant.

                “It doesn’t work for generalized commands,” said Minnie. “You cannot, for example, say, ‘Corabeth. Jasmine, obey me forever.’ That won’t work.”

                “But,” said Grant, “You can say, ‘Corabeth. Jasmine, stop inciting rebellion in David.’ And she will comply, at least for that class period. And it should be noted that ‘David’ was just an example. I don’t know whether or not you have anyone in your class named ‘David.’”

                “I do,” said Mr. Anneraught. “Two of them. Two Davids.” His head was spinning.

                “Lucky guess!” said Grant, delighted at the luckiness of said guess.

                “Obviously,” said Minnie, “we would ask that you use this method discreetly. We don’t want students or even teachers of other classes in which she isn’t rebelling to know about the power of using her secret middle name.”

                “And it should be noted,” said Grant, “that she has been conditioned not to do anything dangerous, illegal, etc. while under the power of her secret middle name. This method of control was implemented to prevent her from doing bad things. Safeguards were put in place to ensure that no one could use their control over her for evil purposes. Not that we suspect that you’d misuse your control.”

                “Certainly not,” said Minnie. “But some people would, if they knew.”

                Grant stood up from the table. “Now,” he said, “I’ll go get Jasmine.”

                Minnie continued to talk while Grant was gone, but Mr. Anneraught heard none of it. His mind reeled. The sweet, pink sauce that had coated his pork chops was not sitting well in his stomach.

                A minute later, Grant returned to the living room with his arm around the shoulder of a teenage girl. She had short brown hair and glasses. She wore a dress that at first appeared to be floral print, but upon looking again, Mr. Anneraught realized that the shapes were not flowers, but merely flower-esque.

                “This is Mr. Anneraught,” said Grant. “Your new Physics teacher. Mr. Anneraught, this is Jasmine.”

                Jasmine smiled. “I’m going to dismantle your class, Mr. Anneraught. I’m going to pull it down around you and strew it across the landscape.”

                Grant gave Mr. Anneraught a reassuring smile. “Apologize to Mr. Anneraught, Jasmine.”

                “Never,” said Jasmine. “I never apologize.”

                Minnie winked at Mr. Anneraught. “Corabeth. Apologize to Mr. Anneraught, Jasmine.”

                Jasmine looked Mr. Anneraught directly in both of his eyes and said, “I apologize, Mr. Anneraught, that was a rude thing to say and I shouldn’t have said it.”

                Mr. Anneraught had never before heard an apology sound so sincere.

                “I’m going back to my room now,” said Jasmine, and she turned and left the dining room.

                “You see?” said Grant. “You just have to be watchful. And specific.”

                “I’ll get dessert,” said Minnie.

                Dessert was peach ice cream drizzled with the exact same sweet, pink sauce that had been on the pork chops. Mr. Anneraught surprised himself by not vomiting on the table or anywhere.

                On his way home, Mr. Anneraught realized they hadn’t drunk any of the wine he’d brought for dinner. He thought that was strange.

 

                Mr. Anneraught was excited for his 43rd birthday because that’s when he would finally be able to talk to Chalk Child again. Chalk Child had been Mr. Anneraught’s imaginary friend for three of the best weeks of his life when he was 9 years old. Then Mr. Anneraught had intentionally smashed chewing gum into the hair of a younger girl on the school bus, lied about it to the bus driver and his parents, but confessed the truth to Chalk Child, weeping with shame at his own villainy and cowardice. It was then that Mr. Anneraught had imagined that Chalk Child, disgusted with his disgraceful imaginer, had declared that he would not speak with Mr. Anneraught, nor interact with him in any other way, until his 43rd birthday.

Mr. Anneraught had never told anyone about his falling out with Chalk Child. In fact, no one had ever known Mr. Anneraught had an imaginary friend at all. But if they had, Mr. Anneraught knew what they would ask. They’d ask, “If you’re the one imagining him, why not just imagine that he forgives you and talk to him again?” They’d ask, “Why didn’t you imagine that he forgave you years ago?” Or they might ask, “Why not just imagine a new imaginary friend who isn’t mad at you?”

                And Mr. Anneraught had an answer to all of those questions. It was, “Because that would be too easy.”

 

                On Monday, in 4th period Physics, Jasmine was there in Mr. Anneraught’s classroom, seated at a desk in the middle of the room. This time her dress appeared to not be floral print, but upon closer inspection, was floral print. Mr. Anneraught, his mouth dry, introduced Jasmine to the class at the beginning of the period and told them to make her feel welcome.

                He had just begun his lecture on some tedious physics stuff, tentatively easing his way into the subject with a lot of redundant introductory remarks, when Jasmine raised her left hand. Terror pinched Mr. Anneraught’s heart between thumb and taloned pinky. “Yes, Jasmine?”

                “Nothing,” said Jasmine. But she kept her hand raised.

                “Your hand is raised,” said Mr. Anneraught, feeling like a fool for saying it, but literally unable to say anything else. The other students were all looking at Jasmine now, except for those who were looking at Mr. Anneraught. They sensed his discomfort. They sensed, he thought, his weakness. “Usually when one raises one’s hand in this classroom, it’s because one has something one wants to say,” said Mr. Anneraught, wishing he hadn’t said “one” so much.

                With her left hand still raised, Jasmine looked down at the notes on her desk and began to write, the tip of her pen silent on her notebook paper made from recycled materials.

                Mr. Anneraught felt faint. He didn’t dare look any other student in the eye. They would see his panic and, who knows, punch him in the mouth, maybe? Break windows, burn books, hang him out the window with the power cord torn from his classroom computer around his neck? He walked over to Jasmine and, struggling to wrangle in his own tongue, he whispered, “Corabeth. Jasmine, please put your hand down.”

                Jasmine lowered her hand without hesitation. Mr. Anneraught returned to the front of the classroom and faced the empty blackboard, his back to the class so he could compose himself. He blinked his wet eyes. It worked, it worked, it worked and there was nothing to be afraid of.

                He turned to face the class and, after three false starts, staggered through the waves of relief and back into his lecture.

 

                Chalk Child had begun as the outline of a neighbor boy named Joseph. Mr. Anneraught, a thick piece of green chalk in hand, had asked Joseph to lie down on the sidewalk. Joseph had been a year or two younger than Mr. Anneraught, eight or maybe seven. Mr. Anneraught had really wanted someone to trace him, but he was desperate for Joseph to like him, so he’d made the generous offer to trace Joseph first. Joseph had chosen to lie on his stomach, his face turned toward his left shoulder. Mr. Anneraught had assumed Joseph would lie on his back, but he didn’t make a fuss about it, he just traced all around Joseph’s body with the green chalk. When he had finished, Joseph got up and looked down at his outline on the sidewalk. He was not impressed. “That doesn’t look like me.”

                “It’s just an outline,” Mr. Anneraught had said. “So far.”

                “I’m going home,” Joseph had said. And he never played with Mr. Anneraught again. And no one ever traced Mr. Anneraught’s outline on the pavement either.

                But that night in bed, after Mr. Anneraught’s father had come into his room to say good night and to remind Mr. Anneraught that household chores were something he was expected to choose to do of his own volition, Mr. Anneraught had imagined that the chalk outline of Joseph rose up from the pavement outside, slid under the front door, and came up to his room for a visit.

 

                 If anything, after three days, Jasmine’s presence in his classroom had actually served to bolster Mr. Anneraught’s authority, not undermine it. Here was a new student whom the other students immediately recognized as a superior, and here she was challenging Mr. Anneraught’s authority in subtle and clever ways a few times every class period, and yet, somehow, after nothing but a whispered command from Mr. Anneraught, she always backed down. Maybe she saw something in Mr. Anneraught that the rest of the students couldn’t? If Jasmine, radiating eerie intelligence and self-assurance, couldn’t crack Mr. Anneraught, what hope did the rest of the students have to crack him? He’d never struck any of them as formidable before, probably somewhere near the bottom of the pack in terms of classroom management but too dull to earn much torment, but something had changed. All the students knew was that they did not want Mr. Anneraught to bend close to their ears and whisper whatever he whispered to Jasmine to them.

 

                 

                On Monday of the second week with Jasmine in his class, Mr. Anneraught crossed a threshold. The bell to indicate the beginning of 4th period, or the ending of the passing period directly preceding fourth period, depending on how you looked at it, had just rung. Mr. Anneraught realized that he had forgotten to make copies of a handout for the students. He needed someone to take his handout down to the library and, after securing permission from the librarians, enter the copy room and make 24 copies. There were several trustworthy students he could ask. Or, rather, students he thought were trustworthy. But there was only one student about whom he could be certain. Provided, of course, that he took the proper steps to ensure her trustworthiness.

                Mr. Anneraught walked over to Jasmine’s desk. She did not look up from her book. As Mr. Anneraught bent low to whisper his command to Jasmine, he saw that her book was not written in English. Even the letters were unrecognizable. He was no language expert, but they didn’t seem to be Chinese or Japanese characters either.

                “Corabeth,” whispered Mr. Anneraught. “Jasmine, go to the library and make 24 copies of this handout.” He put the handout face-up on Jasmine’s book, obscuring the pages of strange text. Then he walked to his stool and podium at the front of the room as Jasmine left with the handout. “Just hang tight, folks,” said Mr. Anneraught. “I’ll have handouts for you in a few minutes. Until then, you can read quietly or work on other homework.”

                After the initial rustle of books and backpacks and papers, the room became more silent than it had ever been since Mr. Anneraught began teaching. It was astonishing.

 

                Mr. Anneraught’s wife was named Estelle. He was pretty sure she didn’t like him and never had. He didn’t know why she had married him. Once, after weeks of working up the nerve, preparing himself for the worst, Mr. Anneraught had asked Estelle why she had married him. She acted like she she didn’t hear him. Either that or she really hadn’t heard him.

                Estelle was also the one who had wanted to move to Multioak. Mr. Anneraught had wanted to stay in Heavenburg, the city in which he’d grown up, but he had not voiced his opinion to Estelle. He had the feeling that she was going to move to Multioak with or without him, but he decided he did not want her to confirm his suspicion, so they moved to Multioak together.

                Mr. Anneraught hadn’t been able to imagine how Chalk Child would find him in Multioak on his 43rd birthday, but he had no problem imagining that Chalk Child was more resourceful and capable than himself and it wasn’t difficult to imagine that Chalk Child would find a way to keep his word. Just as Chalk Child had resolutely followed through with his promise to not speak to Mr. Anneraught for decades, so too would he follow through with his promise to speak to Mr. Anneraught again on his 43rd birthday. Chalk Child was, in Mr. Anneraught’s imagination, which was the only place he could truly be said to exist, a model of personal integrity.

 

                Only one week of school remained. Then summer break would begin. It was Monday, 4th period Physics, and Mr. Anneraught did not understand why Jasmine was still challenging him. What was the point when she knew she could never get away with it for more than a few seconds before Mr. Anneraught would walk over, whisper “Corabeth,” and tell her to stop? Was she just trying to prove that even though Mr. Anneraught could control her actions, the rebellious corners of her heart remained as untamed as ever? Or maybe, since the “Corabeth” secret middle name control word was the result of some kind of hypnosis conditioning, she didn’t remember what happened to her when people said it? Maybe she didn’t remember Mr. Anneraught saying it at all. Maybe she wasn’t even consciously aware of her own secret middle name. Whatever the reason, here she was again, sitting in her seat in the center of the classroom, surrounded by other students, pulling a small set of watercolor paints out of her backpack, filling a small cup with water from her water bottle, and now a clear plastic case with paint brushes in it had appeared, now a folded piece of thick, beige paper.

                Mr. Anneraught didn’t walk over to her. He didn’t whisper. “Jasmine,” he said. “Corabeth. Put your paint supplies away and pay attention.”

                Jasmine showed no surprise at Mr. Anneraught’s open vocalization of her secret middle name as she refolded the paper, put the brushes back in their case, carefully poured the water from the cup back into her water bottle, closed up the paints, and returned all of it to her backpack.

                “You know what?” said Mr. Anneraught. “Jasmine? Corabeth. You deliver the lesson today. Explain chapter 28, section 3.”

                Jasmine stood up and walked to the podium at the front of the room, which Mr. Anneraught conceded to her. He walked to his desk and, before he had sat down, Jasmine had launched into her lecture, and it was brilliant. Clear, concise, witty, engaging, packed with rich content. Even Mr. Anneraught understood the concepts better after he heard Jasmine explain them. She really was very bright.

                Jasmine was the last student to leave the classroom when the bell rang. Just as she was about to walk out the door, Mr. Anneraught, still seated at his desk, without knowing why, called out, “Jasmine. Corabeth. Be tardy for your next class.” Jasmine didn’t turn around, didn’t break stride, she just walked out of the room, but Mr. Anneraught knew she’d heard him, he could just tell.

                Sure enough, when he checked the attendance records on his computer later, Mr. Anneraught saw that Jasmine had indeed been tardy to her 5th period English class.

               

                It was the night before the last day of school. It was also Mr. Anneraught’s 43rd birthday. He had the house to himself. Estelle was gone on a business trip. All the lights in the house were off and Mr. Anneraught sat at the dining room table with a birthday cake he’d purchased for himself at the Diamond Food. There were lit candles on the cake, but only ten. He thought that was plenty. He didn’t make a wish before he blew them out. The thing he most wanted was about to happen and he didn’t need to wish to make it so. It had been promised and now that promise would be made good.

                The dining room was not completely dark after Mr. Anneraught blew out the candles. The curtains were open and light came in from outside: moonlight, street lights. He realized that he did not have a knife to cut the cake, nor a plate, nor a fork. But he couldn’t wait any longer. He imagined Chalk Child striding up his front walk and slipping under the door in his usual way.

                “In here,” called Mr. Anneraught. “In the dining room down the hall!” He imagined Chalk Child following the sound of his voice through the unfamiliar house and, at last, after almost 34 years, the two of them coming face to face again.

                Chalk Child was the same size as he had been when Mr. Anneraught was 9, of course. Chalk outlines of little boys don’t grow. But Chalk Child was no longer just an outline. In the intervening years, he had somehow acquired a face. It had been drawn onto one side of his head with a smaller piece of chalk than the one used for his outline. In the dim light, Mr. Anneraught couldn’t tell how closely the color of Chalk Child’s face matched the rest of him. Chalk Child’s eyes were round and half-lidded, his nose was a triangle, his mouth was a line stretching horizontally from just short of one side of his head to just short of the other side of his head.

                “I knew you’d come,” said Mr. Anneraught. He remained seated because he didn’t want to have to imagine himself towering over Chalk Child. “I knew you’d keep your word.”

                “I’m only here for a brief word,” said Chalk Child.

                “What do you mean?” asked Mr. Anneraught. “I thought we were going to recommence our friendship.”

                “Not anymore,” said Chalk Child. “This will be the last time you see me. Unless-”

                “What?” shouted Mr. Anneraught. “No, Chalk Child! Why?”

                “Unless,” Chalk Child continued after Mr. Anneraught imagined him holding an ominous pause. “Unless you can secure Jasmine’s forgiveness for how you’ve abused your power over her. You’ve changed so little since you were 9. I left you then because of your mistreatment of a young lady and I return all these years later to find you still at it. It’s appalling. If you can secure Jasmine’s forgiveness in writing, then I will visit you again, Mr. Anneraught. But if you do not secure Jasmine’s forgiveness in writing, then this will indeed be the last time you see me.”

                “No,” said Mr. Anneraught. “No, no, I waited so long for this, Chalk Child. She was trying to undermine my authority, her parents warned me, they told me to use her secret middle name. I was just trying to maintain order. How do you even know about Jasmine? I haven’t spoken to you since I was 9!”

                “I have means,” said Chalk Child.

                “How?” asked Mr. Anneraught, nearly sobbing. “Give me specifics. I’m the one who imagines you, I should know what your means of observing me are. I’ve been so strict with myself, Chalk Child, I’ve never let myself cut corners with you, I’ve always thought you’d seem more real if I didn’t just imagine you acting however I’d want you to act, and now here you are, knowing things you shouldn’t know and providing no logical explanation for how you know them. It’s not fair.”

                “Then that’s a failure of your imagination,” said Chalk Child. “But that doesn’t make what I know any less true. And it doesn’t make me any less disgusted with you. Now, goodbye, Mr. Anneraught. I’ll either see you again or I won’t. It’s up to you.” And with that, Chalk Child left the dining room and Mr. Anneraught was alone with the cake and his feeble imagination.

 

                Mr. Anneraught couldn’t wait. His need to rectify the situation with Chalk Child was too urgent. It was a long shot, but he could still salvage the birthday for which he’d waited decades if he acted fast. He drove to the Hathertons’ place in a panic. Just as he pulled up in front of their house, the garage door opened and a car roared down the driveway and out into the street with squealing tires. Mr. Anneraught saw the silhouettes of two figures in the front seat before the car sped down the block and around the corner. The garage door stood open and inside the garage, Mr. Anneraught saw that the door leading into the house stood open as well. It was into this doorway that Jasmine appeared. As Mr. Anneraught watched from his car, Jasmine pressed a button on the wall and the garage door began to close. Mr. Anneraught felt a strong sense of foreboding, but he needed Jasmine’s forgiveness in writing. He would ask her with all sincerity to forgive him, but if that didn’t work, he would use her secret middle name and make her forgive him. But that would only be a last resort since Chalk Child would undoubtedly reject the letter of forgiveness if he found out it had been produced through the same means for which Mr. Anneraught was supposed to be seeking the forgiveness. But if that was Mr. Anneraught’s only option, he’d take it. Even if Chalk Child only showed up to condemn him for his method of procuring the forgiveness, that would be another opportunity for Mr. Anneraught to explain himself, to try to make Chalk Child understand why he had done what he had done, that he was just a man with flaws and faults like anyone else, that he had never had any real control in his life before, not even over his own imagination as Chalk Child well knew.

                Mr. Anneraught got out of his car and walked to the front door. He knocked. There was no reply. He rang the doorbell and again there was no reply. He pounded on the door to no avail. Finally, he stepped down off of the front porch and walked over to the front window. The curtains were open and all the lights were on in the living room. Jasmine sat on the couch, perusing a notebook, a stubby pencil in her hand. Mr. Anneraught rapped on the window but she did not look up. “Jasmine!” he shouted, again rapping on the window. She turned a page in her notebook. “Jasmine!” shouted Mr. Anneraught. “Corabeth! Jasmine, answer the door!” Jasmine wrote something in the notebook with her pencil. “Corabeth! Jasmine, answer the door! Corabeth! Come over to the window! Corabeth! Just look at me!”

                Jasmine couldn’t hear him. The window must have been made of very high quality glass. Mr. Anneraught returned to his car and drove home. He would speak to Jasmine tomorrow after class, he would get the letter of forgiveness from her then. Mr. Anneraught knew that with everything up in the air with Chalk Child, he wouldn’t be able to sleep at all that night, but there was nothing else he could do. The situation was, for the moment, out of his control.

 

                Mr. Anneraught stood in front of his 4th period Physics class, exhausted and haggard. He had not slept and he had not eaten breakfast. He took attendance, glancing back and forth from the class roster to the students in their seats. Some of them were absent but Jasmine was not. Would he really be able to conduct an entire class period with her sitting right there in the middle of the room? With the suspense of whether or not she would attest in writing to her forgiveness of him hanging over him like a headsman’s nicked, notched ax-blade? There was no way he would be able to focus. He had barely been able to mumble his way through the first three periods of the day. He would not wait any longer. He would meet with Jasmine now, he would speak with her out in the hall. Mr. Anneraught was just about to request that Jasmine join him in the hallway when Jasmine rose from her seat. Her dress today was not floral print and could not be misconstrued as such. It was just off-white.

                Jasmine looked at Mr. Anneraught as if she knew he had been thinking about her, as if she knew he needed something from her. Her expression was not one of grace, of generosity. She walked to the front of the room and, taking Mr. Anneraught by the elbow, she guided him a few steps away from his podium. Then she took Mr. Anneraught’s place behind the podium and surveyed the class. The students watched her and only her, rapt, still.

                “Jasmine,” said Mr. Anneraught. “Corabeth. Return to your seat.”

                Jasmine didn’t look at him but she laughed. “What’d you say? Coral breath?”

                “Corabeth,” said Mr. Anneraught, enunciating very clearly. “Return to your seat, Jasmine.”

                “You’re gonna be so embarrassed when I tell you this,” said Jasmine.

 

                Mr. Anneraught lay on the floor of his classroom closet, bound hand and foot with the cord torn from his classroom computer. It was better than being hanged from the window by the cord, but not much better. He was also gagged with his own necktie. He had no idea what Jasmine and the other students were up to now. They had responded to her instantly, leaping to obey every order. She spoke and moved and breathed and lived with such authority that the other students couldn’t help but submit to her control. They wanted to. She didn’t need tricks, manipulations, strategies. All she needed was the force of her own brilliant will.

                The “Corabeth” thing had, of course, turned out to be a big deception. There was no secret middle name. Jasmine had never visited any experts, never been hypnotized or conditioned or programmed. Her parents had thought she had, but she hadn’t. They’d been deceived too. Mr. Anneraught wondered where the money they thought they were paying to the experts had been going all this time. And many others had been deceived too, probably, all tricked into feeling safe, tricked into thinking they could control the uncontrollable. And now Jasmine’s long-term plan, whatever it was, had come to fruition, or was beginning to come to fruition, or maybe not, maybe she’d already been thwarted, although Mr. Anneraught couldn’t imagine how. He moaned and tried again to work himself into a sitting position.

                It was in this pathetic moment that Chalk Child slipped under the closet door and stood over Mr. Anneraught, looking down on him with his crudely-rendered, unreadable expression. And then Chalk Child began to weep. “What’s become of you? How did you get here? I think back to that little boy who first imagined me 34 years ago, and now to see that same little boy as a grown man, tied with a computer cord and thrown into a closet by teenagers…”

                Mr. Anneraught was stunned. He had not expected this level of sympathy from Chalk Child.

“If only I weren’t imaginary,” said Chalk Child. “I’d be able to untie you, help you escape, maybe even stop Jasmine, if that’s even possible now. But I can’t even take your own tie out of your mouth. I’m useless.”

Mr. Anneraught wanted to console Chalk Child, to tell him he wasn’t useless, but the gag prevented his tongue from forming the words and Chalk Child definitely couldn’t read minds. Mr. Anneraught couldn’t even extend a hand to Chalk Child since his wrists were bound with the computer cord. There was nothing Mr. Anneraught could do to make Chalk child feel better, but that was fine, Chalk Child’s mere presence, unhelpful in every practical way, was enough.




Discussion Questions

  • What are some things you can’t imagine? How many of them can you imagine yourself imagining if your imagination were to someday improve?



  • Do you have an imaginary friend? How often do you disappoint him or her? Have you damaged the relationship beyond repair? Does it bring you spiteful pleasure to know that your imaginary friend cannot outlive you?



  • Have you ever run into any of your high school teachers outside of school? Were they wearing shorts? Ew.



  • What are some techniques for maintaining order in the face of deliberate undermining by teenagers? What if the teenagers are brighter than you? What if the teenagers are bigger than you? What if the teenagers don’t value their own educations on a fundamental level?



  • If you could utter a word to make one person in your life do whatever you told him or her to do, how long would it be before you were making that person give you free haircuts, hand you things you don’t feel like reaching for, and take dictation for all of your official correspondence?



  • Do you feel as if a chalk outline of your body on a sidewalk would be a satisfactorily accurate representation of you? Or would you need to add a crude face?