In this weekend’s story, Amber Sparks takes us back to school, where sometimes what we need to study—how to grow up, how to be safe—is nowhere to be found in the required reading. Sometimes we need to make our own studies. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
Study for the New Fictional Science
This subject is different from all the others. This one travels with you. It will comfort you, it will teach you to make do with what you have and what you lack. It will teach you to make the best of the unhappy chance that has left you alone and different. After all, Peter Parker became Spiderman by accident. Bruce Banner made the best of his terrible growth spurts and temper spasms. You, too, can turn trouble around and become a small god. So says the fictional science.
It will show you how to protect yourself. It will show you how to make your earmuffs out of duct tape and ashes. To fix your glasses with nail varnish. To conjure the words that will warm your mind, even when your body is cold and the fires have gone out all around you and the wolves have your pimply skin in their teeth. It will help you understand that even in your head you can create a world that matters; you can create a world that’s yours. You can create a world that promises love for those who shine and pride for those who fight and a story that lives on, for those who understand the imaginary costs.
First Period: Chemistry
You study the periodic table, brush up for your quiz today. Gold. Au. Lead. Pb. Iron. Fe. You wish you were made of iron, especially when John Allen and Ricky Baker blow spitballs at the back of your neck and laugh and call you a fag. Lithium. Li. Uranium. U. You wish you could call down a small, focused nuclear blast and blow their cells apart. You wish you could do it slowly enough that they’d know it was you who called it down, you who had a secret strength after all.
But this is not impossible. Sometimes fictional elements will serve you best. Bassnium, for example, could help you create a powerful robot to destroy your enemies and make you sandwiches. With Mithril you could construct a strong suit of armor to stop punches, wedgies, or flying detritus (like spitballs) from harming you. Or you could use Cavorite to shield yourself from the effects of Earth’s gravity and slowly float away, the world a tiny diorama in your rear view mirror.
Assignment: Become well acquainted with the following fictional elements and materials. Adamantium, AntiPlastic, Arcanite, Bazoolium, Beresium, Capsidium, Carbonite, Dalekanium, Dark Ore, Destronium, Dilithium, Eternium, Galvorn, Indurium, Inertron, Jasmium, Kryptonite, Liquid electricity, Lunar, Magicite, Melange, Necrogen, Nitrium, Nth metal, Omega, Phazon, Plasti-Steel, Polarite, Red matter, Residuum, Runite, Solenite, Strongium 90, Transparent aluminum, Truesilver, Turbidium, Uridium, Vibranium, Zamonium, Zyflud crystal, Zuunium. Learn them. Recite them like a spell. They may be that important. They may save your skin someday.
Second and Third Period: Nurse’s Office, Asthma Attack
You hate American History. That’s really why you’re here. Actually you like history, but you don’t like sitting next to Paul Boehler and Landon Shaffer while they draw pictures of you in your underwear doing unspeakable things to pigs and sheep. Mary Elizabeth Johnson and Heather Hoffman sometimes throw pencils at your head to impress the boys. And your American History teacher, Mrs. Leighton, is three-fourths blind and has never noticed anything. The last time, a pencil hit you so hard it drew blood and you gasped out loud, and Mrs. Leighton turned around and said, Bless you, dear.
The nurse keeps walking by, eyes narrowed, looking at you suspiciously. And so should she—you practically live in here. Don’t you have your inhaler today, she said when you arrived in a panic, narrowly avoiding being slammed into a locker by an asshole friend of your asshole brother.
No, you said. I mean yes, you said. I don’t know.
Why can’t you just be a little bit brave, the nurse sighed. Why can’t you.
But you just can’t, that’s all. It’s the one thing you have no talent for: being a little bit brave. You think you could be very brave, if the need arose, and if you had to slay a dragon or fight a Sith Lord. But enduring Paul Boehler’s wedgies and Marvin Grossman’s under-the-breath-threats? It’s too much psychic trouble for so small a reward. You cannot do it. And so you’ll stay here for third period, lunch, too. There is no one to eat with in the cafeteria, no place to sit without feeling alone, and so you eat in the nurse’s office and pretend that you are her assistant. She never really seems to mind, though she sighs a little whenever she looks in your direction.
You unwrap your cheese sandwiches slowly, eat them bite by bite, each bite chewed 11 times. 11 is your lucky number. Though you’ve never won anything in your life, you believe in luck completely. You carry a rabbit’s foot on your keychain, cross your toes inside your tennis shoes, wear red on prime number days. You blow on your eight-sided dice. You confuse luck with hope, of course, in the helpless way you have of getting anything that really matters wrong.
While you spend your hours in the nurse’s office, please ignore the salves and compounds on her shelves. Think broader. There are many fictional tonics, cure-alls you’d be better off with a spoonful of. You don’t have time to learn the side effects and benefits of all of these marvelous medicines, but you could start with Dylar, to remove the fear of death, and Substance D, to see what it’s like on the other side for a while. In case you start to feel your luck or your hope has run out. In case you start to consider your options.
Assignment: Memorize these medicines in case of a fictional emergency. Break the glass round your mind to ingest them. Atheas, Aqua Cure, Bacta, Cordrazine, Daylight, Doloxin, Digitalis, Healing potion, Hydromel, Kick, Moly, Morpha, Nectar, Neodextraline solution, Phoenix Down, Retinax 5, Ryetalyn, Safsprin, Sapho, Serum 114, Stress Pill, Tretronin, Triox. Roll their names around in your mouth like a pill capsule. Swallow with plenty of water. Breathe. Breathe. Keeping breathing.
Fourth Period: Shop Class
You don’t mind shop class so much. You like making things with your hands. You like using the circular saw, the protection it gives you, how it makes you feel powerful for the fourteen seconds you’re sawing through that two by four. You like to picture Paul Boehler’s neck pressed to the metal table, those teeth slowly driving toward his jugular vein. You like to picture the fountain of scarlet that will spring up and spill out, his life yours for the minute or so it takes to bleed out onto the sawdust-sprinkled floor.
Still, you’d be better off fashioning weapons you can take with you. The kind of weapons a hero wields. You could carry them to your locker, to your classes, to the cafeteria. You could hold them threateningly on the long bus ride home. You could demonstrate how the meek will truly inherit the fire, if not the earth.
Assignment: Solder, weld, saw, hammer, tie, carve, break off, bind and fire until you have the weapon of your choosing in mind. It can make you strong in real life, too. What do you need to be strong? A powered armor suit or a power ring, an enchanted lasso, webbing, Adamantium claws, a billy club, a hammer. Or a shield that doubles as a weapon, a batarang or maybe a whole utility belt, a magic sword, a light saber, a katana, supersonic wings, nuclear fire breath, fangs, superhuman strength, or even a special surfboard. The rule is usually this: whatever you need will find you. Whatever you need will seek you out in the end and it will be yours. No one will be able to wield it against you, unlike most everything else you’ve ever treasured.
Fifth Period: Literature
In class you are reading the story of Beowulf. You think it’s bullshit that Beowulf could slay Grendel, just like that. You like this story but you can’t believe they would kill such a great bad guy so quickly. Grendel, you whisper to your one and only friend Jeremy, should be a regular monster. They could have written lots of ballads about him. He could have been a great adversary for Beowulf. Jeremy nods. He’s not really into medieval stuff—he’s pretty exclusively into DC Comics.
Your teacher clears her throat. She asks if you would like to share your thoughts with the whole class and not just Jeremy. She says his name like this: Germy, like the all the kids do. So you know she is not on your side. But, okay, you say, fine, and you do share your thoughts. You tell the class about Beowulf and how it was too easy, killing Grendel. Your teacher seems impressed with your observation. She says there were characters that appeared again and again in ballads and stories, like Arthur and Taliesin. She smiles, and the class snickers at you behind your back.
After class your crush, pretty Tanisha Smith, laughs as Paul Boehler (of course) dumps a ketchup packet down the back of your shirt. Someone slams you into a locker. Someone else has you in a headlock. You think about Beowulf, and how he should have been invincible. You think about being invincible, and how that would be the best thing. Even if you have a weapon, they can still hurt you. Medicine can heal you but it won’t stop you getting hurt again. You can even be hurt while wearing strong armor. But to be invincible—that would be the only way to do it. The only way to be sure no one could ever hurt you again.
Assignment: Find out how to become invincible. Study famous invincible figures like Superman, Wolverine, Galahad, Tom Strong, James Bond, Godzilla, The Punisher, the Wolf Man, Achilles, Hercules, even the Monkey King. Study them and learn the terrible truth about fictional science: Krypton is lost forever. And you will never stand up to a dosing of radiation. You will never be born of heroes or gods. Study and understand, finally, that this fictional science is just that—fictional. Some people are just born with the wrong sort of mind.
Think that maybe the world is very small. Think that despite the hope you confuse with a winning streak, you will never be the same as the others. That you will always eat your cheese sandwiches alone. Dream of invincibility or barring that, invisibility at least. Dream of throwing a blanket over your lonely life at last.
—photo Flickr/Nestor Galina