The Graduates of Room Nineteen
by J. R. Rustrian
J.R. Rustrian is a writer living and working in Southern California with works published in Brave New Girls anthologies, Bards and Sages Quarterly and Collective Realms Magazine. He is an ardent supporter in more Latinx voices in science fiction and fantasy. You can check him out at his Twitter @J_R_Rustrian
Diego leered at the minute hand of the clock for what seemed like hours, waiting for any sign of movement. The clock, seemingly with a mind of its own, taunted and teased him much like an older student would bully a younger one. Just when it seemed like it would tick, his eyes dried and he blinked. The minute hand remained frozen in place, secretly and silently laughing at him from behind a thin piece of glass.
It was 8:19 a.m. in the morning, or at least it had been for the past several hours. School felt like it had started days or even weeks ago. The loud ticking signaled nothing wrong with the clock, other than it being a fancy model which lacked a second hand. Diego blinked in succession for a few seconds, shook his head and forced his gaze back on the clock. He wasn’t going to miss 8:20 a.m. when it came.
Seventy seconds later and the hand still taunted him. There was something about 8:19 a.m. that seemed so off and…familiar. Frustrated, he stretched his hands behind him and sulked into his desk. There was something off about the flow of time in room nineteen. Everything felt like it was covered in a dream. Did he even wake up that morning? There was no memory of eating corn flakes for breakfast.
The minute hand remained frozen, much to Diego’s consternation. He leaned back into his chair, ran his fingers through his black, unkempt hair and sighed. Maybe Mike would have something to say about it, he thought to himself. Mike was usually the voice of reason in the classroom.
He turned to his left, expecting to see his friend working on some sort of superhero art project or chewing on the eraser at the end of his pencil, but was faced with an empty, wooden desk. Confused, he looked around the classroom. He glanced at the dirty aluminum sink and water fountain at the back but found nobody and the backpack cubbies near the door were devoid of people.
“Hey, Jay,” he said, still looking around. “Where’s Mike?”
Diego turned to look at Jay, a squat blond-haired kid working on a paper football and completely ignoring the workbook on which he was supposed to be working on.
“Mike? Mike who?” he answered, completely disinterested.
“Very funny, Jay. Where’s he at?”
“Um…hm…didn’t he graduate yesterday?”
“I dunno. Good grades, I guess?”
Diego shook his head, took a breath and looked back up at the clock. The hands were still stuck at 8:19 a.m.. A sharp pain spread through the left side of his temple, like a knife slicing through his skin and sticking into his brain, then, as quickly as it came, it disappeared much to the amazement of Diego.
What was that?
“Mis estudiantes! Everybody! Can I get your attention?” Miss Petersen, the six-foot-something teacher towered over the students of room nineteen. She was a person of magnificent presence and energy. Nothing about her screamed subtlety, least of all her strong, fun, and kind personality. Diego often wondered whether her middle name was ‘Perky’ or if that was just something he made up in an earlier life.
In fact, he could hardly think about a time where Miss Petersen wasn’t perky, or nice, or sweet. There was always something making her happy and, in return, making the students of her class happy. Diego struggled to conjure up an image in his head where she was frowning or angry. It was just a little too strange.
“I just want to say good job on your last test, ninos! You all got A’s!” Scattered cheers followed her announcement. Diego again looked around the classroom and quickly noticed only five other students around him. Another pain, albeit small, shot into his head.
“That means we get an ice cream party, right?” Maryse, the short girl sitting at the desk in front of him with her hands clasped, sat with nearly perfect posture. She was a pain from the moment she got to the class, Diego remembered, always ready to ask questions.
Actually…when did she come to the class?
He raised his hand.
“Yes, Diego?” Miss Petersen said.
“What happened to Mike?” he asked, worried at the answer.
“Oh, Diego, mijo. He graduated yesterday, remember?”
“Yes, we had a pizza party for him and everything. He spilled sauce on his shark T-shirt, don’t you remember?”
Vague memories of a pizza party flashed in his mind, invading his mind like an insect burrowing into his head. He remembered Maryse not liking the fact there were no vegan options, along with Jay completely shoving whole slices into his mozzarella and sauce covered mouth. Aromas of cheese and pepperoni filled his nostrils.
Am I wrong? What’s wrong with me today?
“I, uh, actually do. Sorry, Miss Petersen,” he sheepishly acknowledged.
“It’s okay, mijo,” she responded with a slight Mexican accent. “In fact, because you were so inquisitive, I’m giving you a gold star for today. Congrats!”
The rest of the class applauded. Diego smiled uncomfortably. Who would give a gold star for that? Maryse crossed her arms as she turned around to look at him with daggers in her eyes.
“Good job, pal. I haven’t gotten one yet this year,” Jay said, finishing his paper football. Diego looked over near Miss Petersen’s desk and wondered how many he had so far this year. Underneath his name written in black felt pen, he spied five gold stars. Nearly twice as many as Jay, and not enough to catch up to Maryse.
“Okay, mis ninos! Let’s get cracking on our next assignment! Write your names on your paper and write down the title ‘If I could be any animal, I would be…’ Please be creative. Get to work!”
The sound of pencils scratching paper pulled Diego out of his thoughts as memories of animals flashed through his head. The image of an orangutan floated through his mind, pushing out whatever he had been thinking.
What are we doing?
Diego looked at Jay, starting on another paper football. He turned ahead and tapped Maryse on her shoulder. She whipped around, clearly annoyed.
“What is it, Diego? I’m really busy,” she grumbled.
“I just want to know what the assignment was again.”
“Seriously? Fine, I’ll write the prompt again for you.”
She ripped a small piece of paper from his workbook, furiously scribbled on it, and tossed it on his desk.
“Thanks…I guess,” he said as Maryse turned back to her own work. He opened up the note only to find in Maryse’s elegant handwriting:
Diego’s heart skipped a beat. He crumpled up the note and looked over at Miss Petersen writing their agenda on the whiteboard. Immediately, he grabbed his pencil and nervously scribbled a note back.
I DON’T THINK THIS IS OUR SCHOOL.
He tossed the note back to Maryse, who slipped it underneath her workbook.
What felt like minutes went by. Diego struggled to ignore the ticking of the clock as it grew louder than it had been earlier. Maryse continued to work on her assignment in silence, along with the rest of the class. He pretended to work, taking one quick glance at the clock. It stood frozen, but the hands seemed to quake ever so slightly as if they knew they were being watched.
Before long, Maryse raised her hand. “Miss Petersen, can I get a drink of water?”
Miss Petersen, with a perfect and beautiful smile, nodded and went back to her work. Maryse tugged on Diego’s shirt, gesturing to him to follow her. Confused, he peeked over at his teacher, silently got up and followed.
“What do you think is happening?” Diego asked Maryse as she knelt down to drink at the sink and water fountain combination that lay at the rear of the room.
“Not sure. Could be an experiment we aren’t aware of. Maybe we’re dreaming. Maybe Miss Petersen’s a robot,” she said.
“Uh, maybe? Anything is possible at this point, but we need to figure out what we do,” he answered, looking around the classroom again. The clock was hidden now, but the rest of the classroom looked completely normal. Sweaters and jackets hung quietly from the back of their chairs. Books lined the library shelf and the walls were covered with their art, from assignments Diego struggled to remember doing.
“Did you notice Miss Petersen never seems to yell at us?” Maryse’s voice pulled him back to the present. “Or time stands still? It was you asking about Mike that really made me question what’s going on here. I mean, he was your best friend, wasn’t he?”
An image of Mike walked across Diego’s mind, when Mike nearly fell off the jungle gym and landed on his shoulder. He was in pain for days after that, staying in the hospital for what seemed like weeks…or was it months?
The pain resurfaced suddenly, and Diego grasped his temple, gritting his teeth. After a few seconds, it dissipated. Diego looked to Maryse and noticed her holding her throat. Just like him, a second later, she breathed a sigh of relief.
“That’s been happening to you too?” he asked her.
“It comes and goes, like when I’m trying to remember certain things.”
A chill went down Diego’s spine. He knew that Maryse could feel it too. They turned towards the large, clear windows on the left side of the classroom. Outside, a thick fog started to roll in, obscuring what was once bright sunny skies, green grass and an excellent view of the playground and blacktop.
“We need to get out of here, Maryse. I don’t like it here.”
“We need more information, Diego,” she said, not taking her eyes off the window.
“Let’s try room 18 next door, see if it’s happening there too,” he offered.
“Okay, but we need to be quick. Let’s get Jay to cover for us.”
Diego silently tiptoed over to Jay, keeping an eye on the front of the class. Miss Petersen whistled idly to herself, deep into a whiteboard cleaning session.
“Jay,” Diego whispered to him. “We’re going to room 18. We need you to cover for us.”
“Us? You and Maryse? Why?” he asked, setting the next completed paper football on his desk.
“There’s something strange going on here and we’re going to find out what. Just cover for us until we get back.”
“Fine, buddy, but you owe me your breadsticks at lunch.”
Diego and Jay quietly fist-bumped before Maryse beckoned him back to the door. He knelt down behind the cover of the desks and moved over to Maryse.
The duo exited the classroom and stood up in the open air hallway. The fog was thick and heavy, obscuring the muted colors of school and world beyond. The sky, bright blue only minutes before, turned into an ugly gray as if the clouds themselves had spilled out their contents. The grass was now a sickly pale green, unhealthy but full of strength. Even the blacktop, crisscrossed with yellow and white lines, vanished slowly into the fog’s grayish domination.
“We need to hurry,” said Maryse. They crossed the blacktop over to room 18 and knelt directly beneath the windows, trying to stop their hearts from racing. Diego cautiously popped his head up and peeked inside. The classroom, devoid of any people, still held the telltale signs of activity all over the place. Pencils and papers littered wooden desks while open backpacks hung motionless from plastic chairs. Writing covered the whiteboard next to the teacher’s desk with the expensive laptop opened to the home screen.
“Do you hear that?”
Diego shook his head and pressed his ear to the window. It was the unmistakable sound of a classroom busy with work, muted and off key. The two friends crawled up to the door from the exposed hallway, tentatively turned the handle, and slipped inside. The eerie sounds of students laughing and whispering collided with occasional shouts from the nonexistent teacher, while the sound of pens, markers and crayons dropping onto the linoleum floor reverberated through the empty room.
“Okay, I’m pretty freaked now, let’s get out of here,” Maryse begged him, grabbing tightly onto his arm.
“Yeah…this is pretty creepy. Let’s go.”
The two bolted out of the room and back outside. All around them, a steady fog settled in, obscuring most of the school in misty darkness.
“Diego?” he heard Maryse say.
“I’m here. Hold my hand, I don’t want to lose you.”
She quickly grasped on and together they tiptoed through the gray nothingness with nothing to accompany them other than the sound of their footsteps and Maryse’s nearly silent whimpering. A shiver went down Diego’s spine. He gripped harder onto Maryse’s hand.
She stopped cold, causing him to bump into her. Diego spied Maryse staring straight into the misty landscape. Ahead, a black mass darted swiftly in and out of the grey, followed by similar black forms. They pulsated like a heartbeat, followed by a low, ominous rumble that sent a shiver up Diego’s spine. Through the mist, two tiny, golden lights stared at the two.
“Do you see that?” asked Diego. Maryse backed away. Her teeth chattered so loud it echoed off the moisture filled air.
Then, a small, dark humanoid figure darted past them with great speed. Diego fell backwards, causing him to let go of Maryse’s hand.
“Diego!” yelled Maryse. The blackness pulsated more as dozens of golden eyes peered at them through the veil. She disappeared into the clouds, leaving Diego alone surrounded by the murky, inky figures. The sharp pain returned. The sound of human voices and ticking clocks filled his head. He scrambled up to his feet and bolted into the grey mist, crying out after Maryse. Minutes later, he entered the exposed, colorless hallway and traced his way back to room nineteen.
He stumbled inside, closed the door, and collapsed on the floor. Diego’s head pain returned. He clasped his head and his heart as each throbbed. Eventually, the pain subsided and he was able to catch his breath. Over by the water fountain, he spied Maryse kneeling with tears in her eyes. There was a small glimmer in her eye, a quick flash of a gold star.
“Where have you two been?” Miss Petersen asked them as she stood at her desk.
“We, uh, we…uh, just went to go to the bathroom, Miss Petersen,” answered Diego, getting to his feet and helping Maryse up.
“The bathroom? You didn’t ask me,”
“Yeah, sorry, Miss Petersen. I need to go ask Jay something,”
“Jay? Why? And How?”
“Sorry, Miss, I just need–”
He looked at Jay’s empty desk. The seat was pushed in and completely polished. The top was devoid of any paper, pencil, or any sort of dirt of grime, save for a lone paper football sitting silently on the right corner.
“Jay? Where’s Jay? What happened to Jay?” Diego asked, his voice quaking.
“Jay graduated last week, Diego. Don’t you remember?” Miss Petersen had the tiniest smile on her face.
“No…that can’t be right. I was just talking to him! Maryse, we just saw him a few minutes ago, didn’t we?”
Diego already knew what had happened by the time he finished his sentence, and turning around only confirmed his worst fear. Maryse, determined, annoying, but also scared and anxious, was nowhere to be found. He stumbled back and crashed into a row of desks.
“Diego, are you okay? Are you feeling sick?” Miss Petersen sounded worried.
“Who are you? What did you do with Maryse?” he asked.
“Maryse…graduated a few days ago. We had a party for her. She got mad that you took the last of the vanilla ice cream, remember?”
Miss Petersen cautiously approached him. Somehow, Diego knew she was right. He could remember the party and Maryse’s growling face. The feelings returned to him. The fear. The laughing afterwards with Jay and Mike.
Was that his name?
“No, you’re lying to me! What is going on here, Miss Petersen? Tell me!” Diego yelled at her, pounding his fists on one of the desks, his mouth quivering.
“Diego, breathe, mijo. Everything is going to be all right. Remember, you’re graduating soon so that’s exciting, yeah?”
“No!” He dashed past Miss Petersen and outside. The rest of the world had completely disappeared, save for the hallway and the rows of classrooms that bordered it. Diego ran down the hall, past rooms seventeen and sixteen.
“Help! Anybody? Can anybody hear me?” he yelled. No one answered his cries for help, save for echoes of himself cutting through the stillness. Diego banged onto the door of room thirteen, to no avail. Tears streamed from his eyes as he looked around for his next option.
The main office!
Diego stumbled down the darkened hallway, panting and heaving before stopping at the office’s double doors. A soft, otherworldly golden glow emanated from inside. Diego cautiously opened the door and stepped inside. Miss Petersen stood next to the main desk, holding a clipboard and a pen.
“Hello, Diego. Happy graduation,” she said with a soft smile. She shone with a comforting warmth, and Diego was taken aback at her beauty and majesty. All of a sudden, his terror was replaced with a slight melancholy. The rest of the room faded out of existence, leaving himself, his teacher and the door to the principal’s office alone in a blaze of brilliant gold light.
Voices flooded his head. Sad voices, lamenting his departure mixed in with happy ones, wishing him a happy farewell. The soft wail of familiar people. The complete sadness of goodbyes overtook him.
“What happened to Mike, Miss Petersen? And Jay? And…Maryse?” He could barely manage a whisper.
“You’ll see them again in a bit. Come with me.”
“They tried their best down there, but it is your time with us now, mijo.”
Miss Petersen glowed brighter and warmer, calming him with love. The headaches subsided, the pain went away. Peace overcame Diego. Unafraid, he took her hand, and walked towards the principal’s office, hearing the voices of his friends welcoming him inside. Before walking in, Diego heard the ticking of the clock. He took a glance and smiled as he walked in. It was 8:20 a.m.