My desk was near the front of the class. Every two weeks there were exams and your place in the room got updated. The smart kids were made to sit at the back. I think they wanted to inspire us to work harder. But it felt like being branded stupid sitting up front.
The class was silent except for the occasional sniffle, someone tapping their pen, and Mrs Price walking up and down.
She was one of the younger teachers. Well, she wasn't as ancient as Mrs Gilbert in any case. And she took care of herself more. Like her skin was always perfect. And her black hair seemed to flow.
It was a literature lesson and I was pretending to read Romeo and Juliet. It was supposed to be a classic, but the old words spoiled it. Why couldn't they just rewrite it into normal English? I had my finger under the word “absolver”. Who says that any more?
“Do you still use your finger to read, Liam?” Mrs Price asked, looking over my shoulder.
Other students gawped and my face blushed.
Playing dumb was harder than being dumb, I decided. I could recite this work with my eyes closed now. But we couldn't let anyone suspect that I'd changed.
Playing along, I started to mouth the words.
“Are you having to sound out the syllables too? Honestly, Liam. Stay behind after class.”
There were stifled laughs, mainly from the back row.
I eyed the clock. Every time I looked at it, the second hand marched slowly across the face as if its circumferential jaunt were a vast journey. Twenty-seven hours and five minutes until I could set it free. 6 p.m. tomorrow.
Eventually five minutes passed, the clock struck 3:00, and the school buzzer sounded. The room exploded into conversation and people left for home.
“Liam, stay seated,” Mrs Price said, as I went to stand up.
After everyone had left, Mrs Price focused on me again.
“It was hard for me to belittle you,” she said.
“It was necessary," I said. "No one can suspect my new found intelligence."
“You all set for tomorrow night?” she asked.
“It’s just… I'd be devastated if something went wrong."
“Don’t worry.” I smiled. “The host survives 99% of the time.”
* * *
Mrs Price was recruited two weeks prior, completely by accident.
I was in the gymnasium.
It’s in here, the symbiont thought to me. Said to me like a thought appearing directly into my head. But I knew it was not my thought.
“What’s in here?” I said.
The exit to get me home.
I sensed it wished it had found an older host. One with income and means. Not a kid who was sneaking about while everyone was in class.
“Where in here?”
It was like a game of hot and cold. I’d head towards the basketball hoop and it'd be cold. Then I could feel as if we were getting closer, only to be getting colder again as I approached the opposite hoop.
You need to find it. Hurry.
The symbiont said it was an exit. I looked around. The only exit was the emergency exit. It was halfway up the gym. That must be it.
I stood in front of the door. There was a bar to push to open it. But it was alarmed.
This is it. Open it.
“But the alarm will go off.”
Easy for it to say. It didn’t have parents that would ground him for a month.
My parents melded many millennia ago.
“Only reply to me when I speak, it does my head in otherwise,” I said.
I pushed open the door. The alarm didn’t go off. And nothing else happened.
Right place. Wrong time. Portal will open in two weeks and 27 hours.
I turned and saw a big clock on either side of the basketball court. 27 hours. Three hours from now, would be 6 p.m.
“Two weeks, one day and three hours from now, you need me to go through this door?”
"At 6 p.m.?"
“What on earth do you think you’re doing?” The question reverberated around the hall, but was pitched from the other side of the court.
Mrs Price stormed over.
“Explain yourself,” she said, slightly out of breath.
Something caught in my throat.
I’ll handle this, the symbiont thought.
“No, I’ll handle it,” I said.
“Handle what?” Mrs Price asked.
“My life is in danger.”
“Really? How so?”
“I know this sounds crazy but… an alien has taken over my mind.”
She looked at me for a moment and then laughed.
“Come on, let's get you to the school nurse, I think you need a check-up.”
I didn’t have time to argue. I knew it was listening to my thoughts. Partial disengage, I thought.
I stopped. The pain was immense. Like a spear forcing its way out of my ear canal. Mrs price stopped and looked at me and screamed. A watermelon sized green biomass expanded out of my right ear.
“Help him,” it said.
Mrs Price fainted.
I disagreed with it, but a tiny speck of the biomass siphoned off to the floor, slithered over to her, and entered Mrs Price’s ear.
* * *
It was exit day. For everyone else, a standard school day. But for me, at 6 p.m., I'd walk through the fire escape, the symbiont would connect with the worm hole, escape back to its home planet and leave me forever. I’d be a normal kid once more. Maybe a lot more brainy, it had promised me. It's the least it could do for all the trouble.
It was poor timing that the most popular band at school were playing the same evening. They were a lame outfit of soft rock covers, but the only student band that had played on radio. They were minor celebrities.
I walked up the main corridor. Mrs Price had assured me that the seats would be in front of the fire exit, so that it'd be easy to sneak behind it all and use the exit when the time came.
I wasn’t sure why I was feeling so nervous. Maybe the risk of death if we missed the one minute window of opportunity where the symbiont could connect to the wormhole.
You’ve got this.
“Thanks… thing,” I whispered.
I almost walked straight into Mr Peterson, the principal, who stood still and tall in my way.
“Master Liam, I need a word,” he said.
He was a long person. Lanky came to mind. And gaunt. Like there wasn't enough tissue left over to fully cover his skeleton.
The principal turned and marched away, and I followed him, wondering what I had done wrong.
Mrs Price was already sitting in his office, her eyes wide.
“I asked your form teacher to sit in,” Mr Peterson said.
I shrugged. “Cool.”
“Do you know why you’re here?”
“Because you asked me to follow you?”
“Don’t play cute with me,” he shouted. Calming, he swiveled his laptop toward me. “Recognise this?”
It’s a laptop I thought.
Don’t say that.
“It’s the school’s webpage,” I said.
Mr Peterson glared at me. “Go on.”
I looked at Mrs Price. I wasn't certain what her eyes were saying. Was she wanting me to lie or to tell the truth?
I told the truth. “Its the webpage I hacked.”
“Aha, it was you,” Mr Peterson said. “So you admit it?”
I nodded. The symbiont had wanted me to hack into the system to see what data we might collect about the gymnasium’s history. It was stupid, but I always thought the website was boring. So I livened it up a little. Who doesn’t love Christmas decorations?
“I am very angry,” he said, smacking his hand against the desk.
I believed him.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I said, “It won’t happen again.”
He took some deep breaths. “Putting aside the rage that I feel... There is the small matter of the official rules. They stipulate that hacking our computer systems is a serious offence. It warrants a one week exclusion at a minimum.”
My mouth dropped open. The gig was tonight. If I was excluded, I'd not be allowed on school grounds.
Unacceptable, the symbiont thought.
Mrs Price stood up. “Please, he’s an excellent student, and this is his first offence.”
“As you know Mrs Price, I’m a stickler for the rules. They are there for a reason. No exceptions. Otherwise we will have bedlam in the corridors and anarchy in the classrooms. So, it has to be. Liam, I will phone your parents to get them to pick you up.”
“Let me ring them. I know his mother, Cathy. Let me break the news to her.”
Mr Peterson nodded slowly, like Mrs Price was better informed on matters to do with emotions. “Very well,” he said. “You are dismissed.”
We both sulked out of the office.
“I’ve ruined everything,” I said, once we were walking back to Mrs Price’s classroom.
“It changes nothing,” she said.
“How? If I’m not allowed on the grounds, I can’t go to the gig. The symbiont won't go to its planet, and over the next few months it will die and me too. All because I thought the web page would look neat with Christmas decorations.”
She stopped and put a hand on my shoulder. “It changes nothing. Come back tonight as planned. It's only us who know you’ve been excluded and who else is the principal going to tell right away? I’ll make sure his car doesn’t start tonight. You can sit in the audience as planned. Now go home and get some rest.”
"Sure," I said.
The insurance is paying off.
* * *
It was drizzling as I trudged home.
I stopped at a puddle and saw the faint reflection of my pale acned face reflect back. I stomped in the puddle, the water splashing away my image, but soaking my black school pants.
I wished that I'd never met this dumb symbiont.
I looked over at the dumpster against the back wall of an Italian restaurant. It was where I'd first met the symbiont. Why did I approach what had appeared to be a frog hopping around near the dumpster?
Because you were curious.
"I was stupid."
Yes, you were. But now you're not.
I shuddered as I recalled the moment the frog turned around, opened its face, and shot out a tongue-like projectile that suckered my forehead. Thankfully, I was unconscious after that. But I woke up with this stupid symbiont in my brain.
Be careful. I can end you.
"Well, do it then," I shouted.
But nothing happened.
I am not a killer.
"But you're going to kill Mrs Price aren't you?"
You misunderstand. That's just a receiver. It helps me help her help you. It'll disintegrate when I'm gone.
I got home, but couldn't rest. I played on the PlayStation all day instead. When my parent's white Toyota pulled up, I snuck out the back, walked around the block, and casually walked in the front door.
“I’m going to the school gig tonight,” I shouted to them.
Dad grunted as he scrolled on his phone and mum barely turned from unpacking some groceries. Clearly, they didn't know I'd been excluded yet.
* * *
It was 5:50 p.m. when I entered the gymnasium. The stage faced rows of seats and a couple of small aluminium bleachers had been erected. I scanned the room. No sign of Mr Peterson anywhere. Or Mrs Price.
You know she’s mating with him, the symbiont thought.
Mrs Price and Mr Peterson.
I had a conundrum. Did I sit near the front, and risk being spotted by a teacher who knew I'd been excluded, if any of them did yet, or did I sit further back, but make it harder to climb down the steps to get to the emergency exit when the time came.
I went to approach the bleachers and suddenly saw Mr Peterson looking up and over everyone.
I turned my face the other way and kept walking, ending up behind the stands before I could relax.
How was he here? Mrs Price must have failed to stop him leaving home. Or his sheer willpower was enough to get him here. That seemed like him.
I hurried over to the emergency door but as I looked up I stopped in my tracks. A table was set up in front of it, and there were maybe a hundred plastic cups with juice. Must be for the intermission.
I needed to move the table, but as I approached, Mrs Price appeared and took me by my arm.
"Mr Peterson knows you're here," she said.
"The security cameras. And he's messaged all the teachers to look for you, Liam."
My heart thumped as I searched in every direction, but there were no other teachers in sight.
"It's no big deal," I said, hoping I was right. "I'll hide until it's time and then just go through the exit."
I looked nervously at the clock above the visible hoop. Three minutes to go.
I went to move the table but saw Mr Collins, a burly gym teacher, appear.
I walked as calmly as I could, back facing him, to the next side of the bleachers. I peeked round the edge and saw him talking to Mrs Price.
He seemed to be giving her instructions, and reluctantly she left, leaving Mr Collins manning the drinks table.
What was I going to do? I'd never be able to push him aside and open that door now.
I looked up at the clock. Two minutes left.
"I'm sorry," I whispered, "I've failed you."
It's not over yet.
"Hey, you!" Mr Peterson yelled. He'd materialised round the corner of the bleachers.
I started running. I wasn't sure where to. Somewhere away from the principal. I circled around him and the seats. Mr Collins joined the chase and was performing a pincer manoeuvre. There seemed nowhere else to go, except to the stage.
I ran onto stage and grabbed the mic.
"Fairview High, are you ready," I shouted.
The crowd replied with a smattering of murmurs.
"I said, 'Are you ready'," I repeated.
The crowd stirred and let loose some shouts of "Yeah".
"Get on your feet," I commanded. "Make some noise!" People started to stand and cheer.
I glanced to the side at the band. They mouthed questioning expletives and looked rather angry.
"Make more noise – louder – and welcome to the stage, The Four Cool Dudes!"
The lights faded and I disappeared into the crowd that had gathered in front of the platform, as The Four Cool Dudes came on to rapturous applause.
It was one minute to 6 p.m.
As the lead guitar wailed its opening notes, and the bass drum pounded the rhythm, I burst out of the crowd to get to the exit.
A hand grabbed me firmly and held me still.
It was Mr Peterson. His steely grip belied his wiry frame.
"You're in a world of trouble," he growled.
I wriggled and writhed but couldn't get free.
"I know about you and Mrs Price," I said.
He flinched. I felt his grip loosening for a nanosecond. I pulled my arm as hard as I could through the weak spot between his thumb and his fingers and broke free.
I sprinted around the bleachers.
"Liam!” Mr Peterson screamed as he ran after me.
The green exit sign glowed in the darkness. I shoved the table aside. It moved easily, as did all the drinks, spilling the juice all over the plywood floor.
The clock struck 6 p.m.
Do it now.
Mr Peterson lunged for my arm but as he reached out, he slipped on the wet floor and fell on to his back.
I pushed down the bar, opened the emergency exit, and walked through.
Immediately, I convulsed. It was like being electrocuted. Blue light crackled from my skin, and the lights of the gymnasium came back on and then exploded.
And I knew it had gone.
The last thing I remembered was collapsing to the ground.
I was unconscious for several days. Apparently, Mrs Price cried at my bedside, thinking we'd failed. She was instrumental in stopping Mr Peterson from expelling me. As was the doctor's note. They weren't able to provide a diagnosis, but described it as an "Acute tonic clonic seizure with prolonged catatonic stupor". This label also persuaded Mr Peterson that what unfolded was just a particularly bad day at the office for me.
So they let me return. I ace my exams now and sit at the back of class. Above all, I’m grateful to be alive. And being a genius may turn out to be useful. Maybe someday I'll start my own rocket company.