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American Fiction

The panic erupted his sleep. It was a fire alarm going off in his head, a realization that he’d left a pot of soup boiling on the stove or the bathtub running, and he’d driven hours from home and had no cell service.

It was none of those issues, though. It was worse.  Joe Boyle realized he’d failed to drop a course and tomorrow was the final exam. It was his last class in his final semester and how on earth was he still in it, how could he have forgotten? He tried to remember what the professor had taught in those first few classes, the ones he went to before deciding to drop the course; it was political science, something about European integration, he thought. Or was it about geology? He wasn’t sure which. Maybe he’d forgotten to drop more than one, but tomorrow, tomorrow for sure, there was a final, at least one final. God, what if there were two?

Geology, he decided. Yes, it had to be. And it wasn’t “Rocks for Jock,” the easy course that got people through the science requirement. No, it was the real one, the hard one, the one intended for budding geophysicists which Joe Boyle decidedly was not. It was, oh God, the one that has a lab, a lab he’d never been to.

That would be his luck. He could BS his way out of a poli sci class, anyone could. But geology? No way. He tried to remember the layers of the earth. There was the crust. That was easy. And a core or maybe more than one. A mantle? Was there a mantle? And rocks, too many to recall. He saw volcanoes in his head. He felt the earth shutter with quakes, but no, that was him shaking.

This had happened to Joe before, at least once, maybe twice, where he recalled the date for a test and panicked – once he had dry heaves – only to realize that, phew, yeah he’d dropped the thing in question or had already taken the class. Crazy, right? But this one, this time, he was sure. It wasn’t good. It was two in the morning, too early to call the professor and try to get some sort of a break and what would that look like? Maybe he could take the exam later or do a paper. He counted the credits he had, that he needed, again and again but the sum never came out the same. It was like he was climbing a muddy cliff and falling back to the bottom. He couldn’t remember the professor’s name but saw before him a strict by-the-book tweeded sort of with leather patches on his elbows, a sooty briar pipe clenched in his mouth, and an ever- contemptuous glare for his students. A cliché in other words. A cliché that wouldn’t abide student accommodation.

He could almost smell Balkan Sobranie smoke and wasn’t sure how he knew such a tobacco existed.

Boyle knew he should look at notes if he still had them, or the textbook. He went back and forth between the notes in his head, what he could remember. There were those layers below the crust. If it was multiple-choice, he might get those. Rocks. That was in the text; igneous, metamorphic. There were more that slipped in and out of his mind, but he couldn’t hold onto them. There was a chapter, he was sure, on map reading. He could get that. He had been treasurer of the school’s mountain club and they did that orienteering course. Boyle knew how to find his way around a map, he felt sure of that.

And he could cheat. If he sat in the way back, far from the professor’s contemptuous gaze, he could maybe get away with it. He only needed to pass. Boyle figured, easy peasy, he’d cozy up to some jock, someone who’d make big marks on the test he could see. Not a girl, though. Or a nerd. They’d write too small and cover the test paper with their arm.

A new realization blew him away. He didn’t know where the exam was being held. He didn’t know the time. He could call someone who’d been in the class if only he knew someone. Boyle couldn’t remember anyone. He was shaking. What if couldn’t graduate? He’d accepted that job offer; they’d take it away now. His parents were coming in. They kill him. Maybe he could get hit by a car on the way to the exam wherever that was. Or just fall down the steps that led to the geo building down the hill. That would be a great reason to skip the exam and take it later. The school would get that. The professor would have to agree. He’d study, cram, limp into the exam and, voila. It might work. 

There were the steps down the hill that led to the bus stop. He’d fall on the final few steps, not enough to crack his head, but enough to break something, a leg or an arm. Enough to get him into the hospital. He’d put the geology text in his backpack, notebook if he had that, and they take it all in the ambulance. Six AM would be about the right time, he figured. Early enough so no one would see him fake the slipping, but late enough so someone would be around to call 911. He had to protect his head, that’s all. And his crouch. 

He roused when the dog barked downstairs. Boyle looked at the clock; it was five-thirty in the morning. His dog was right on cue. Time for a walk, then breakfast. He tried to recall what he’d been thinking about. Geology, it was geology for God’s sake. An exam. In college. He hadn’t thought about that for a while, for a long while, and had to laugh. At sixty-three, forty-two years out of college – he’d graduated early – he thought it rather bizarre that such a memory, a panic, was anywhere in his mind.

The funny thing was he passed Geology, with flying colors, in his freshman year.

November 05, 2023 14:20

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4 comments

Rudy Greene
23:01 Nov 15, 2023

Loved the story. It captured every professional student's recurrent nightmares. I still have them. I particularly loved the humor at the end. Great work. Only suggestion might be to add a little background for the narrator.

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Shirley Medhurst
15:31 Nov 14, 2023

Ha ha, love the ending, David !😂

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Tom Skye
19:03 Nov 11, 2023

I once read about why nightmares like this are so common. Supposedly it's something to with our identity being threatened. We live in a world where our cv is basically the proof of our worth in society so if part of it is taken away, our life as we know it could be taken away. This story was a clever depiction of those fears. Quite often "it was all a dream" endings are criticized, but I think the subject matter here made it a great read. Enjoyed it a lot. Thanks for sharing

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Mary Bendickson
02:17 Nov 11, 2023

Yea, sorry to admit I have had nightmares like that!

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