Jay Greer leaned back in his chair. He was a veteran of many a parent teacher conference evening, but still they wore him down. All he could think about was the early start tomorrow, a Saturday, and the ungraded work still littering his desk.
“But how is he during group activities?” An expectant parental gaze clashed with his weary eyes.
“Yeah, he’s keen to get involved,” he mentally flipped through hundreds of prepped lines, well-practiced and betraying no fatigue, “a great team player, and always keeps his mind on the task.”
“OK, but how about… Socially, you know, is he getting on with the others in class?”
Jay smiled in an attempt to reassure, “I’d say he was getting on just fine. You know, since we’ve introduced Linkup, a lot of the kids have been coming up with their own projects, independent learning ideas and so on… Syd’s been one of our most creative students.”
It was the first conference evening of the year, yet Jay didn’t even need to look down at the appointment sheet to know it was Syd’s father sitting there. The man’s blonde tousled hair and bushy eyebrows were identical to his son’s.
“Oh, that’s good to know. The Linkup thing sure does seem to be helping a lot with his concentration.”
Yep and thank god for it… Jay thought, sensing this particular parent was now placated. A fumbling handshake and murmured goodbye signaled an end to the session. Only a few more remained on the schedule. Now came the final push to battle through before he could escape into the night. He sipped a lukewarm coffee and looked at his watch.
The cloudless late October skies had started to close in. The sun rippled purple light down across the horizon, and leafless trees made spindly silhouettes against it. Jay had close to an hour drive back to his apartment. He sank into the driver’s seat and let out an audible sigh, vapor escaping his mouth along with the last dregs of motivation leaving his body. Heaving the door closed, he sat contemplating for a moment. His eyes scanned across the dashboard, focusing on her photograph. It had been two years since she died. That perfect smile never failed to warm him to his depths no matter how hard the day had been. He reached out to touch the edge of the magnetic frame for a moment before he turned the key and pulled out onto the road.
The commute was just enough time to purge the workday from his mind. Now he thought of her. It had felt wrong to stay in his old place after she had gone. Too many reminders. As Jay’s dress shoes clacked along the concrete floor of the parking garage, he remembered finding a stray hair the week before he was due to move. Long and jet black, it had been lying under a box of clothes. He paused before entering the elevator. The garage’s ventilator fans whirred emptily across the windowless interior.
Jay flung his rucksack down to the floor as he slumped through the apartment door. Immediately he kicked off his shoes and flipped on the small TV in the corner. There was no furniture. A mattress lay in the middle of the room serving as bed, sofa and dining table. Jay sank into it then leaned over to boil a kettle still full from last night. He fished a pack of Top Ramen out of a pile he had built up against the wall.
He dreamed of her again that night. He could almost feel the light brush of her skin as he held her, and she ran her fingers down his spine, feeling out each notch as she went. She moved her lips to speak, but the sound was muted and faint as if it travelled through water. Her eyes stared back at his but there was no color to them, just grey where there had once been piercing deep green. He remembered those eyes vividly, along with her waist-length flowing black hair. It was always such an effort for her to brush out the knots. The marks on her hands, her citrus scent, the way she glided through the room; memories dulled and faded. She slipped from him in the way sand had slipped through his fingers that evening on Pipers’ beach when everything had seemed so certain.
It was a rhythmic flashing through his curtain-less windows that woke him. Jay inhaled sharply as he sat up on the mattress, clenched fists gripping the thin blanket he had curled up underneath. Realizing he was sweating, he forced himself to slow his breathing. The white light continued to flicker. He peeled himself off the mattress and peered outside. The street was empty apart from a few parked cars, and wind rustled through the poplars that had been planted evenly down each side of the road. Even at 4am there were still a few lights on in the adjacent apartment buildings. Jay rested his forehead against the window, attuning his eyes to the gloom. Nothing. His thoughts inevitably turned to tomorrow’s classes. He could already tell he was going to be too tired. He sighed, his breath leaving a little fogged up patch on the glass as he collapsed back into a mercifully dreamless sleep.
“Hey Mr. Greer, can we watch the rest of Toy Story 4?”
“Mr. Greer, why is the front cover of our books blue now?”
“Mr. Greer, I’ve got a-” CRASH.
Jay looked up from his marking and saw Syd’s curly blonde hair shoot past at improbable speed. Syd’s table partner, Terry Simms, had begun yelling incoherently.
“SYD.” The boy froze as Jay rounded the desk to bear down on the boy. “What is going on?”
Terry was the first to respond, between sobs, “He… He tore up my work Mr. Greer!”
Without thinking Jay whipped another sheet of paper out of his desk and placed it down in front of the aggrieved boy, “Get on with it, Terry.” He then subjected Syd to the full might of a well-honed death-stare. This was one of those teaching situations where it was necessary to display a pure kind of primal dominance. Jay’s eyes locked onto Syd’s with deadly precision. “You.” Unblinkingly and without breaking eye contact, Jay lifted his arm and gesticulated towards the desk at the front of the U-shaped seating plan. “Here.” His relief was palpable as the boy complied and shuffled over like the condemned.
It had been a while since they had last used Linkup, but after a morning like that one, it felt like it was about time. While the kids were at recess, Jay unlocked a long steel cabinet on the far side of the room and dragged open the shutter. A row of headsets lined the shelf, just enough for one student each thanks to funding from Acom Corp. one year prior. He unhooked one and held it up to his face, using his sleeve to wipe off the thin layer of dust that had accumulated. He caught the reflection of a grey receding hairline in the visor’s shiny surface, the crow’s feet around his soft blue eyes cut deeper furrows than he remembered. First smartphones had perplexed him, then tablets, and now here he was trying to get his head around VR. He glanced once more into the dark plastic before placing the rest of the headsets and matching gloves on the tables, all the while counting off the years until retirement in his head.
The kids raised the usual ruckus as they lined up outside the classroom door, but as soon as they caught sight of what was on the tables they fell silent and filed in slowly. Syd took his time, walking almost in lockstep with the girl in front. Jay had to admit to himself that Linkup did wonders for behavior management. The implied threat of being left out of a Linkup lesson was enough to ensure compliance even from those determined to misbehave.
“Ok guys, it’s time to put on the headsets. Remember you’re in ancient Egypt.” He did his best to channel Mrs. Frizzle. Jay had spent a few evenings last week designing a new virtual learning environment. The class would need to find materials to construct a boat and use it to raft down the Nile towards the pyramids, solving math problems thrown at them by a series of crocodiles and hippos along the way. “As you journey down the River Nile, you will encounter some pretty cool stuff. You’ve got an hour to find as much as you can, and be sure to double touch any objects you want to find out more about. We’ll discuss when the time is up. Everyone ready? Good luck!”
There was no response as Jay began the program; normally a good sign that everything was up and running smoothly. He surveyed the class. The silence was golden. Now Jay would have time to do some prep work, grading and more importantly, cruise around on YouTube for a while. As the kids moved their gloved hands in the air, interacting with their virtual environment, Jay suppressed the sense of unease that invariably crept up on him whenever he saw them in this state. He knew they could communicate with each other in-program by typing out messages to the group on a virtual keyboard. Naturally, when they had first started with Linkup he figured this would be far too much effort and that most of the kids would end up yelling instructions at each other. To his surprise this had not happened, it was silence from day one. Years of experience had taught him to make the most of these opportunities. He sat back in his chair and got on with his grading.
As class was being dismissed for the day, one of the girls sat in front of Syd came up to the front. She reached out a hand to touch Jay, lightly, on the elbow.
“I’m sorry.” She said, eyes looking directly up at his. Jay merely stared back, momentarily frozen, unable to muster a response. She turned, joined the line, and walked out with the others.
On the drive home Jay thought about her. The night she left, he had just got back from work. It was a long, drawn-out summer evening with the sun only one third of the way set. Reddish light shone through the West-facing bay windows. She stood at the top of the stairs, immaculate in a floral patterned dress. Her hair had a wave in it that she could never straighten out, and Jay would always comment that it was too energetic, just like her. He looked up, smiling, “Need some help with that?”
“Ugh, no. If I’ve got to lug this thing through Newark, I can sure as hell get it down the stairs.” She sassed. He loved it.
“OK…” Eyebrows raised, he watched as she dragged the knee-high travel case down one step at a time. “Didn’t think I’d catch you.”
She steadied the case and flicked her hair out of her eyes, “Yeah, well, glad you did. Wouldn’t want you to miss pre-conference me.” Twirling around, she placed a hand on his shoulder. Jay’s smile turned into a grin and he pulled her close.
“Love you Jen.”
“Love you too.”
Jay placed his lips to hers for the last time and watched as she stepped out into the cool night air. He stood in the open door, waving her off as she pulled out of the driveway.
He had got the call the next morning. A sedan had run off a deserted section of 206, down a ditch on the roadside. It was dawn before someone stopped, and by then it was too late. The months that followed had been a slow interminable grind, punctuated by supportive friends, relatives and colleagues. He smiled, thanking them for their kind words and thoughts. He attended work, birthdays, family gatherings and retirement parties. Each time he forced himself to be happy, and each time a tiny piece of him felt like it was being chipped away. Jay internalized the damage; it was just the kind of guy he was. Unfortunately for him it was the kind of damage that, when internalized, was liable to leave a person hollowed out entirely. Gradually the supportive drop-ins and calls diminished, conversations began to float by as if everything was normal. It was like an invisible needle had made a tiny pinprick in him the moment of that phone call, and out of it the old Jay had slowly drained away. To the casual observer he still looked, acted and sounded like Jay Greer, and that was good enough for him right now.
As his car turned into the parking garage, Jay felt like he had just woken from a trance. “Not good Jay…” he muttered under his breath as he reeled his thoughts back in. On the way over to the elevator he thought about finally getting some furniture, maybe just a couch, before his head whirled round to the left. That strobe-like flashing was there, coming from behind a Toyota Camry and illuminating the whole garage. “Who’s there?” Jay’s voice bounced off the walls. From the same direction, he thought he could hear a faint giggle floating distantly through the air. It was the high-pitched laugh of a little girl struggling to maintain composure. The light continued to pulse. He walked towards it, not really thinking about who or what it could be. He just needed to know. His pace quickened as he approached within arm’s reach of the Camry, his neck craned to see over the hood, but nothing. The flashes had stopped, and there was only grey asphalt between the car and the concrete wall.
About a week later, class was in session again. The trees lining the playground were completely bare now, fallen leaves mashed into a brown pulp by a hundred children’s pounding feet. As the temperature dropped, little puffs of steam escaped their mouths as they shuffled back into school from the damp playground. They entered the classroom in single file, calmly sliding the chairs out from under the table and sitting with no commotion. This had not escaped Jay’s attention. Since the start of term, the class had adapted to the new classroom rules and routines with ease. Even Syd, once the source of much annoyance, now filed in with the rest. Syd’s eyes focused intently on the girl’s hair in front. Jay said nothing, observing with barely concealed satisfaction as the students took their seats. With behavior management going this well, it was shaping up to be a great year.
Before Jay could begin the lesson, he heard the scrape of metal chair legs against the tiled floor. He instantly regretted feeling so smug. It was Syd, up again and bounding towards the front of the class. Jay drew his breath ready for a confrontation, but cut himself short. He was met with an almost wistful sadness projected from the boy’s eyes. Syd stopped a few steps short of Jay, pausing before he approached further. The class was still silent as the boy reached out a hand to grasp Jay’s forearm.
“I’m sorry.” Syd said simply, eyes still locked on Jay’s.
“We’ve really learned a lot from you Mr. Greer.” A girl’s voice piped up from the back of the room.
Terry chimed in, “We liked your programs.”
A murmur of agreement spread throughout the class. None of the children fidgeted, there was no background chatter, their attention was focused solely on Jay. He stood there, and the acute sense came over him that he was no longer the one in control of the room.
Syd removed his hand from Jay’s arm and stepped back, “We made something for you too, Mr. Greer.”
Two girls sat near the back wall reached over to the cupboards containing the headsets. Jay did nothing to stop them, he was curious. He had never really taken the time to customize the programs much, normally just adding in relevant material here and there and making a few tweaks to some of the scenarios. The thought that some of the students could have independently made a program had never occurred to him.
“Mr. Greer you’re so quiet!” Giggled the girl who now stood next to Syd and Jay, holding the headset in one hand and gloves in the other. The kids laughed and a hubbub rippled through the room as Jay came back to his senses.
“I’ve got to say guys, I’m really-”
“Just put it on, Mr. Greer!” Someone yelled from the back.
“Alright alright.” The heckling instantly put him at ease, this was more like it, “This better not be weird!”
He chuckled and loosened the straps on the headset and gloves. Syd had pulled up a chair and a few cheers went up as Jay sat down in full view of everyone. It didn’t stop a few of the further kids from standing up and jostling for a better view. The sensory outputs felt smooth against his fingers, encased in the gloves’ black fabric. He gripped the helmet in both hands, slowly lowering it over his greying hair and exhausted features. Before it covered his eyes he caught a glimpse of Syd.
“Goodbye Mr. Greer.” The boy smiled.
The salt-air blew fresh and cleansing against his pale, unshaven skin. The sun hung low and washed the sand in tangerine hues. Rogue gusts pushed against the long grass that had taken root in the dunes, and the grains of sand they carried scratched against his face. He looked out over the grey Atlantic, at sleepy breakers rolling over as the tide dragged slowly out.
He felt his hair lift up in the wind. He ran a hand through it, there was more of it than he had felt in years. Some program…
It was all he had time to think. As he looked inland, the orange tinted cloud gave way to purple velvet. A figure walked towards him, trudging through the dry sand furthest from the sea. A knee-length black dress blew out behind her. She stepped awkwardly, her shoes sank into the sand and she looked down at her feet so that Jay could only really make out the top of her head. The smile that Jay saw when eventually she looked up sent a hundred cascading memories slamming into him. It radiated warmth, despite the gooseflesh that had by now started pricking up all over his body as the night took hold.
He stared, meek, unbelieving. Her smile broadened. He held out his arms. She pressed her body to his. They pulled each other close. Strands of her hair blew across Jay’s face and everything was the same. Her smell, the way her heart beat against his chest.
Hand-in-hand, they started the walk down Pipers’ Beach.
BIO: Matt Flintoff is a teacher and writer of English based in Hong Kong. He has previously taught English Composition at City University of Hong Kong. When not in the classroom or gorging on dim sum, he dabbles in writing science fiction and horror. Add him on social media: @Flintyflop