Favorite School Project

Submitted into Contest #138 in response to: Set your story on a day when the sun never sets.... view prompt

6 comments

Speculative Fantasy

It was 1983, but not quite the version you remember.


In third grade gifted class, we made these little terrariums. I thought they were the coolest. Mrs. Manchester lined us up in front of a formica table covered with newspaper, a bag of potting soil, and a box of gravel. We each got our own fishbowl and filled it up, added a lonely jade plant, spritzed water on top, and behold, we were gods. My fishbowl was green and tumbled like sea-glass, not smooth and transparent like everyone else’s. 


“The pet store didn’t have enough new bowls,” Mrs. Manchester said. “Sorry, Eileen. I found this one in Mr. Reed’s storage closet.”


Mr. Reed was our janitor, and he could fix anything. I didn’t mind getting an old bowl. It was beautiful.


“Take them home tonight and make them your own,” Mrs. Manchester said.


The next day, we shared our creations. Laura Jane Katz had stolen three plastic GI Joe soldiers from her brother Jim’s stash and put them in her terrarium. Her big brother, Tom, had rented War Games on VHS when their parents were at the dinner theater, and she’d been fixated on war ever since.


“The Russians blew up a plane in Korea,” she said ominously. “Tom says they can blow us up, too.”


Ben Sibely had found a baby bullfrog in his basement window well and held him prisoner in his fishbowl. We’d all just seen the movie about Adam Walsh’s kidnapping on primetime and felt sorry for the frog.


Becca France had poured tiny square glitter all over her world. We just shook our heads. Most of our parents worked for Jensen Chemical. Didn’t she know she was poisoning the soil?


Me, Eileen Luo, I loved the containment of the sphere, the elegance, the sense of purpose it gave me. I was responsible for my domain, and I would not abandon it. I’d added a pink Polka Dot plant from Mama’s garden, because lo, Let There Be Some Color.


Hot lunch was spaghetti and meatballs, which made the cafeteria smell like tomatoes and vomit. Afterwards, we lined up for recess along the concrete block wall outside the cafeteria, under the black and yellow Fallout Shelter sign. We did drills now and then, and I never understood how standing under the sign would protect us from a nuclear bomb. Our school was nice and all, but I had doubts it had the money for being bomb-proof. If Clark Elementary were that rich, our lunch wouldn’t reek like barf every third Monday of the month.


Outside, the sun had stopped rising in the sky. We didn’t notice at the time. It was cold for the middle of October in Harrisburg and we pulled our hoods over our heads.


On the playground, I stood at the top of the metal slide, behind Becca. She did a flip effortlessly on the crossbar before gliding gracefully down. I envied her bravery and attempted to summon the gumption to follow. But down near the big gingko tree in the middle of the park, a gaggle of kids squatted, white Nikes and Tretorns in a circumference.


Zip! The metal slide was cold on my legs, and I ran over to my classmates.


Ben Sibely hid his fishbowl under his jacket. Cupped in his palms, he held a katydid the color of sour apple. Her antennae quivered between his fingers.


“No, Ben,” Becca said firmly. “They sell crickets at the pet store for that.”


“What’s the difference?” Ben said. “Those get eaten alive too. But this one’s free.”


“That’s not fair to the katydid,” I protested. “She’s part of the park. She’s not part of the terrarium.”


“Mr. T was part of my backyard,” Ben said, pointing to his frog. “And he’s hungry.”


I was about to witness an animal sacrifice. A large bug to be chewed alive before our eyes. I could feel the spaghetti becoming real vomit, creeping up my esophagus.


“You’re not God,” I said, sweat dripping down my armpits. What was God, anyway? My parents never talked about God much. Baba claimed Buddhist affiliations when people invited him to church potlucks. And Mama said when we died, it was like turning off a lamp.


Ben stood firm and crossed his arms. “I’m his God. He’s my frog, and I have to feed him.” 


Becca picked up a twig and tapped the glass. “Poor guy. He looks lonely.”


Mr. T’s eyes were closed, like he’d resigned himself to his glass matrix. Ben dropped the katydid next to him, but Mr. T ignored it.


“It’s not a real world. You shouldn’t butt in,” I said.


“Why’d Mrs. Manchester give us a terrarium if we’re not gonna take care of it?” Ben said.


“You should build a hole for your frog,” Laura Jane advised. “For when the nukes come.”


Our bodies cast abbreviated shadows onto the cracked sidewalk. Unsure of what was to come, purple late-blooming asters tilted their faces away from the sky. Canadian geese tottered along the creek across the street, unsettled by the immobile sun.


The pale blue sky yawned above, and for the rest of the day, nothing momentous happened at Clark Elementary. But an hour previously, three events had crystallized, causing the sun to stop in its tracks.


Number One. Halfway around the world, above the Black Sea, a low-orbit satellite for the US Strategic Defense Initiative malfunctioned. Like a thief dropping his crowbar onto a tile floor, the atmosphere released the satellite into Soviet airspace. 


Number Two. At the Soviet Air Defense Force command center in Moscow, a computer chip glitched, resulting in the lone US satellite appearing as four-hundred high-speed missiles on radar, headed straight for the USSR.


Number Three. A solar storm flared, releasing electromagnetic radiation and disrupting the radar system. It resembled a massive jam of the Soviet defense operation.


Calls to General Secretary Andropov were made. He had no choice. There was no question what had to be done. This meant war, and certain nuclear winter.


At that point, the invisible hand intervened, stopped the Earth from turning, and interrupted the sun in its worn path across the Heavens.


See, Earth had been at it for almost five billion years. If you’d been watching animals evolve into brilliant flashing cuttlefish, only to have them sicken and die in a nuclear Armageddon, wouldn’t you feel a bit gypped?


Back in class, Mrs. Manchester read us a chapter of Where the Red Fern Grows and we ate Jiffy Pop for a snack. When school let out, the sun had not shifted in the sky. Our great yellow school bus stopped before the railroad tracks, creaked its front door open, peered across, and lurched us home, all under the mid-morning sun.


At eight in the evening, I sat with my terrarium on my bed, cardinals still chirping in the dogwood in front of my bedroom. A Lone Star Tick crept up the leaves of the Polka Dot plant. I reached in the bowl, plucked the tick out and squashed it in a Kleenex. I breathed a sigh of relief.


And then, I saw it. All of us gods saving our little worlds, our dear creatures, our terraformed dioramas. I saw Ben feeding Mr. T. brown crickets from Concord Pet Supply, Laura Jane sheltering her GI Joes into a cut-up chocolate milk carton, Becca adding green slime to the glitter coating her dirt.


As I held the green fishbowl, I saw the invisible hand hold our planet, sweep away errant satellites out past Earth’s orbit, shield us from the sun’s wrathful outbursts, reset computers, turn back anxieties, rewind incalculable misunderstandings, stall omnipresent fears, and postpone inevitable death.


You don’t remember that 1983, because the gods were looking out for you.




March 25, 2022 04:17

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6 comments

John Hanna
19:33 Apr 01, 2022

beautifully written, lovely thought.

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Daphne Chou
21:08 Apr 01, 2022

Thanks, John!

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Eldon Letkeman
13:41 Mar 31, 2022

Great story! I love the perspective of the children. It gives us an innocent view of the world. Well written!

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Daphne Chou
22:57 Mar 31, 2022

Thanks, Eldon!

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18:04 Mar 28, 2022

Such a beautiful story! The last paragraphs are so powerful!

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Daphne Chou
20:56 Mar 28, 2022

Thank you, Maria!

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