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“A classroom like this…it’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it?”

Ms. Khumalo turned to the old chalkboard with a smile, trying to avoid the mold as she scratched out the word “Everywhere” with the chalk. “It can take you anywhere you like. Anywhen you like. For instance…” She leaned back for a moment, pondering, wondering what would most interest those expectant faces. “The Boer War. Who can tell me about the Boer War?”

One of the students raised their hand, and Ms. Khumalo gestured at them with the pointer, grinning from ear to ear. “Very good! A war between the British and the Boers, over a matter of independence. But it isn’t just about facts. Facts are useless without understanding.”

She turned back to the chalkboard, her chalk dancing over the surface, picking out a beautiful scene. She had always wanted to be an artist. She would have been a good artist, if they hadn’t needed a teacher so badly…

“Imagine what it’s like to be in the Battle of Stormberg. Imagine what it’s like to be there on the veldt, your horse chuffing under you as the sun crawls up over the horizon. You have your orders, orders from a distant person, a person you will never meet. But here, within sight of the hill, those orders seem less important. There are enemies up there, hidden up among the brush on that hill. You ride, trying to keep in formation, fear soaking into you as your companions try and keep straight their masks of courage…and then – BANG!”

She grinned. It was a bit of a game for her, to get the class to jump a little at things like that. “Gunshots ring out. One of your companions falls with a scream and a splash of blood. You panic, you charge, imagining the grinning faces of your foe up on that hill. You don’t know them. You haven’t met them. You don’t understand them. But they are firing on you, and if you don’t charge them, you’re going to die.”

She finished the drawing and turned back to the students, still smiling. She hoped that would cover for the fact that she’d been late that morning…again…Why was it so hard for her to come to class? They needed her so badly…

“But it’s not just about whens. Sometimes it’s about wheres. The inside of a cell, maybe. Who can tell me about the inside of a human cell?”

One of the class started describing something. They went on and on, in elaborate detail, and Ms. Khumalo nodded and encouraged them on. As they spoke, she drew that on the board as well – the amorphous shape, the spheres and blobs and ripples of organelles lining it, the pills that were mitochondria swirling around within it. And as they finished, she nodded, and turned from the board.

“Now imagine you are that cell. Bathed in blood and protein, feeding and metabolizing it into energy and mass, occasionally splitting into a second cell once you are large enough. You are part of a vast, complex whole, a whole you have no knowledge of or ability to comprehend. Sometimes it moves you. Sometimes it gives you what you need, sometimes it does not. You do not know. You do not think you care.

“But suddenly – into your membrane – a shape. A shape you do not know, that knows the secret backdoors into your body. It told you it was a protein, but it lied, and now it is within you. It has gripped your very nucleus, probed into it, unspooled your genetic code. The most private part of you, the part you protect and fight to keep safe, it has taken that part and laid it bare, and it has altered it. Suddenly the creature you were is lost. Your old functions have died. And all that remains is the desire – the need – to make more of yourself. But no. Not more of yourself. More of it.

All those smiling faces…They were enjoying her lesson. That was what kept her going, through all this. Bringing them joy.

“But there’s more to life than just wheres and whens. Sometimes there’s whats. Things like the Smiling. Who can tell me about the Smiling?”

Every single one of the class raised their hands. As she knew they would. But nonetheless, she spoke anyway. She was much too far along not to.

“The Smiling is a hungry forever, where everything is upside down and everything has eyes. Where things watch you, things that you will never understand, can never understand, and their smile is everywhere, in every cloud and every dead end and etched on every face.”

“You aren’t anything, in the Smiling. You are you, and they are everything else. Fear is with you constantly, and you run, run as fast as you can, and you don’t get anywhere. It’s insidious, it invades you, and they watch from on high, everywhere you go. They tear you apart and share you and put you back together again, and you don’t know who you are when you come out of it. You don’t know if your mind is your or theirs, or if there’s even a difference. And then…BANG.”

She could feel her breath starting to get short, feel herself starting to shake. Those memories were bombarding her…For as much as she liked to make those chipper metaphors, that hell was the only place this classroom had ever taken her.

“There’s a soul-shattering shock. And you’re out. You don’t know how or what or why, any more than you know anything about them. There’s no cause, nothing to analyze, it just ends…You don’t know when those smiles stopped happening. You don’t know when your body and your mind started being your own again. It just ended.”

“But it didn’t end. Not really. There will always be smiles. And they will always want something from you.”

She heard the things the townsfolk said. “But no one’s there!” they’d cry, and in response murmur, “Oh, let her go anyway, if it makes her happy. Poor thing never did really recover…”

She never understood them. Why would they say the classroom was empty, when there were so many smiles waiting there?

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Brilliant Concept[]

TetsuyaH (talk) 13:04, 28 August 2022 (UTC) I want to start by saying I love the concept that you came up with for your image I think that's one of the most difficult things to handle in this contest. The story is poignant and certainly does pack a punch but I as a reader I want to know more. Some stories lend themselves to the mystery and lack of detail but I think there's a lot more to explore with your character here that I don't think would lessen the impact of the story. Also, one of the scoring categories is image and while you do use a classroom as your setting I don't think you truly explore the image that you have been given. Realistcally I think these are small nitpicks becasue the story as it is now is powerful and enjoyable and I think you'll do well. Good luck in the contest!