From the author: If you could go back in time to kill Adolf Hitler before his atrocities, would you do it? Would you still do it if you had to kill William Shakespeare to get to Hitler? Those are big, philosophical questions, perhaps too big for a short tale to tackle, but everyone can relate to the weirdness of substitute teachers, although maybe not like the one in this story.
Monday started bizarre. At the bus stop, the sun rose like a diseased orange, dark and ruddy at the bottom and a sick yellow at the top. “It’s the fires in California,” said someone as we shivered in the October cold, but it looked like an omen to me. I shouldn’t have worn a skirt.
The bus arrived late. A little girl who’d missed her ride to the elementary school sat in my seat. I asked her to move. She said, “Who do you think you are?” I had to sit on the other side and watch houses slide by I’d never watched before. At the high school, scraps of paper and an empty milk carton littered the hallway by my locker. The janitors must have taken the weekend off. My locker combination didn’t work the first three times, and then it did. In the meantime, kids walked back and forth behind me, headed to their rooms. I didn’t catch what anyone said, and what I did hear sounded foreign.
My stomach hurt.
And to top it off, Ms Benda didn’t show up for English. A stranger stood at the door, wearing a substitute teacher badge, checking off names as we entered the room. There was a line. He looked up when I stepped behind Carmen Tripp, and then did a double take, before looking away. He didn’t meet my eyes when he asked, “Do you know who you are?”
I said, “Olivia Langdon.”
“Of course.” He studied the clipboard and made a mark.
He wrote his name on the board before the bell, Mr. Herbert. Thirtyish. Bad complexion. Black tie. Shirt untucked in back. One gray sock and one blue one peeking out from pants an inch too short. He carefully put his briefcase on the desk, patted it twice, like it was a pet dog, then stepped behind the podium. The school district scrapes the bottom of the barrel for subs. Latasha texted me before the bell rang. “wrdo.” I sent back, “no kdng.”
To open class, he said, “You’re all dead.” He glanced at his briefcase. “But two of you will be famous. Hey, nonny, nonny.”
This is going to be interesting, I thought. Ms Benda had spent the last week discussing symbolism in Steinbeck’s The Pearl, a book that had taken me all of a half hour to finish. Her idea of an entertaining class was to move onto a grammar lesson after fifteen minutes of spirited defense of Steinbeck’s contribution to American literature. The week before she’d done the same routine, except the author was Sherwood Anderson. She practically collapsed with joy while reading “I’m a Fool” out loud.
Mr. Herbert said, “In the future, I mean, you’re dead. A hundred years from now, high school students will be reading the classics, maybe some of the same books you are studying today, but you will be long gone, so how are you going to spend your days now?”
Latasha, sitting near the front, said, “Doing college applications.” A couple of kids laughed.
“Thank you, Latasha.” He didn’t consult the seating chart, but stared at her intensely. I wondered if he’d memorized everyone’s name at the door. My phone buzzed. Latasha texted, “& drnkng beer.”
“Of course, maybe they will be reading what one of you has written. Mark Twain was your age once, you know, and so was Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway. I wonder if they knew they would be literary legends when they were seventeen. If they could feel it.” He paced slowly from the podium to the desk, looking out at us. “I wonder what the rest of the class would think if they had known they were in the presence of greatness.”
Latasha texted, “17 yr old Hmngwy on a date—yum.”
I sent back, “perv.”
Tyler what’s-his-name, from the golf team, raised his hand, and then said before Mr. Herbert could call on him. “We’re studying The Pearl. Are we going to have a quiz on yesterday’s reading?”
Somebody groaned. Depend on Tyler to bring up the quiz. I texted to Latasha, “a-hole.”
She snickered. Like me, she palmed her phone in her lap, out of sight. She typed with her thumb without looking. Beneath the desks where the teacher couldn’t see, a whole other conversation was taking place. I’ll bet half the kids were texting at any time. I once had an argument with my boyfriend, broke up with him, made up and broke up again before the end of a lesson on Emily Dickinson’s “Twas Just This Time, Last Year, When I Died.”
Mr. Herbert touched a pile of papers on Ms Benda’s desk. Undoubtedly the quizzes. “Nobody reads Steinbeck anymore.” He looked mournful. When I think back on the incident, this is where I started creeping out. I thought for a moment he was going to cry in that way a street person will just start crying for no reason, or have an argument with himself.
“What do you mean?” said Tyler. “We started on Monday. It was The Pearl or The Red Pony. We got to vote.”
Mr. Herbert gathered himself and shrugged. “Literary reputations wax and wane. How many of you read Rudyard Kipling now?”
Nobody raised their hand. I looked around. The class was sitting up, watching Herbert warily. They caught the same vibe I did.
He moved up and down the rows, then stopped at my desk. “How about you, Olivia? Have you read ‘The Man Who Would be King’? How about The Story of the Gadsbys?”
“You mean The Great Gatsby?”
He leaned too close too me, and his hands were on my desk. The little hairs on his knuckles caught the light. Definite boundary issues. Hospital breath. “No, that was Fitzgerald, another fading star.”
I wanted to bolt.
Somebody whispered to someone else on the other side of the room. Their heads bent together in my peripheral vision, but I couldn’t look away. Mr. Herbert’s face moved a half foot from my own. “Even you might be famous in the future.” His shoulders scrunched up, and his tongue clicked against the back of his teeth twice. Then he straightened. My heart pounded in relief as he moved away.
“Wouldn’t that be something, to teach in the class where a young William Shakespeare listened to your words, where you could observe the child on his way to becoming . . . a shaper of culture?”
Latasha texted, “bghs ntfk,” which translated as “bughouse nutfuck.”
What Latasha said out loud was, “If I had a time machine, I wouldn’t want to teach Sylvia Plath. I’d go back and kill Hitler when he was in high school.”
Mr. Herbert jumped like he’d been shocked. “Interesting example, Latasha. Almost prescient. But how would you know him? Hitler, I mean. When he was seventeen, he wanted to be an artist.”
He sidled to the front of the class. I’d never actually seen anyone “sidle” before. Peculiar looking.
The class watched, all of them. Something wasn’t right with his voice; it quivered, and when he reached the desk and actually stroked his briefcase, I could almost hear the goosebumps rising on the other kids’ skin.
Latasha seemed unperturbed, but that’s the way she has always been, utterly confident. She called it detachment. She’d told me once that you had to be able to step back from what was going on or you couldn’t judge it. When she burned her leg so badly on a motorcycle exhaust pipe last summer (who hops on a motorcycle while wearing a short skirt with a guy she just met?), she said that she smelled the burning skin before she felt it, and it was like it was happening to someone else.
“I’d have a picture of him, of course. Even Hitler didn’t know he was Hitler at seventeen.”
“Yes.” Mr. Herbert laughed, and by then everyone had to have been convinced he was not right. “Hitler didn’t know. Mark Twain didn’t know. Twain thought he would be a riverboat captain.”
He toyed with his briefcase’s latch. Suddenly, I pictured a gun in it, or a bomb.
“Now here’s an interesting thought.” His finger popped the latch, then he pressed it closed with a click. “What if Adolf Hitler and Sylvia Plath were in the same high school class? Wouldn’t that be an incredible coincidence? Don’t you think a historian would love to see their interactions, if he could?” The latch popped open again. He snapped it shut.
Mr. Herbert looked out at us, waiting for an answer. Finally, Taylor said in a shaky voice, “They couldn’t be classmates, could they? He was in Germany, and she was American?”
I texted Latasha, “911?”
“Did you know that Plath’s epitaph on her tombstone reads, ‘Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted.’ If she and Hitler had been classmates, wouldn’t that have been an appropriate message? He would have destroyed and she would have created. But Plath isn’t influential enough. No, imagine William Shakespeare and Adolf Hitler in the same class. The bright and dark, side by side, maybe drinking buddies when they were young.” He glanced at his watch. “I don’t have much time. Hey, nonny.”
No one said anything to that. I wondered if I could text the main office to send help. Maybe I was crazy, and Mr. Herbert was just an eccentric, or he was setting us up for an amazing lesson on John Steinbeck. I was in this classroom once where Ms. Benda staged an argument with a principal. The principal came in and began yelling at her, but it was nonsense, like, “We don’t flatter pancakes when they are stuffed with raisins.” Then Ms Benda took an umbrella from her desk, put it in the corner of the room, while he pulled an apple, a bouquet of flowers and a flashlight out of a red backpack he carried, dropping them one by one into the trashcan. She walked to the blackboard and started writing, all the time they were still yelling. This went on for a minute, before she said, “Thank you,” and he left. She told us to write down everything that happened in detail in our notebooks. It turned out the whole façade was an exercise in observation and description.
What if Mr. Herbert were doing something like that to us?
Mr. Herbert opened the briefcase. I took a deep breath.
He said, “The real question is what would you do if you met Shakespeare and Hitler in the same room. Would it be better to save the literature at the cost of the lives, or should the lives be spent? What if that was your only choice because you couldn’t come back in time with a weapon, not even a knife--your companions would know--but you could make a bomb?” When his hand came out of the briefcase, it held a switch. His thumb rested on the button.
My fingers quivered above my phone. It wasn’t his words, so much, but the posture of his back, how his head jutted forward to scan us, like a vulture. And, of course, the button.
He said, “The first row is dismissed. Take your books.” They filed out, sweat on their brows. One girl whimpered. I knew I didn’t need to text anyone. They’d get help. Mr. Herbert dismissed the fourth and fifth row. That left my row and Latasha’s. I sat in the back seat. She sat in a front seat, near the door. He walked toward me. “Everyone from here forward can leave.”
In a minute it was just Latasha, Mr. Herbert and me. I said, “Why would you kill Shakespeare too?” Under my desk I thumbed a message, “I wll dstract & u run.” I hit send. The way Mr. Herbert was turned, he couldn’t see her. She shook her head.
He sat on a student desk, his feet on the chair. His pants pulled above his socks, revealing a strip of pale skin. “What if a writer was only great because she wrote out of great suffering? What if she wrote about war and loss so well that she destroyed war forever after that? She’d have no destiny without Hitler. Better she write nothing at all than less than her best.”
My phone hummed with a new text, but I couldn’t look down.
Latasha said, “You can get help.”
When he turned to look at her, I checked the message. “Rscue in t/hall.”
“I don’t need help. I’m saving the world.”
A sharp buzzing filled the room. Mr. Herbert’s button hand glowed blue and sprayed a shower of sparks. He howled as two men ran in. One tackled him, knocking over seats and desks. The other bent over the briefcase. I found myself standing, backed into a corner. I don’t remember getting out of my chair or stepping back.
Latasha hadn’t moved. “You boys from the future too?”
They looked at her. For a moment the scene seemed ludicrous. Mr. Herbert wasn’t moving. Maybe he was unconscious. The man who had tackled him put a device in his pocket that looked a bit like a toy gun, while the other man held up a box that he’d yanked from the briefcase. It dangled a couple of wires.
“Uh . . . no. We’re . . . um . . . the police.”
The one at the briefcase had two buttons in the middle of his shirt that were undone, and I’d never seen a police uniform that looked like his. Kind of cheesy, like one that you’d get at a costume shop. But I didn’t have much time to look because they both picked up Mr. Herbert and hustled him and the briefcase out the door.
Latasha and I faced each other, then dashed into the hallway. At the end toward the main office, a crowd of kids and the assistant principal stood. Mr. Herbert and the two policemen were gone.
Much later, after we’d been interviewed and debriefed, after our parents came to pick us up, after we stayed up to watch the evening news, I lay in bed staring at the ceiling. My heart had long since settled into a calm rhythm, and my hands had quit shaking, but every time I closed my eyes I could see Mr. Herbert’s face six inches from my own, breathing his antiseptic breath in my face.
My phone buzzed beside my head on the nightstand. I picked it up, opened to the screen. The text message from Latasha glowed in the dark. “Whch 1 R U?”
I closed the phone. My counselor at school told me once that most kids change their minds four times about what they are going to be while in college, and very few students end up as they imagined themselves. I pictured a young Adolf Hitler lying in his bed at night, his future stretching out before him like a canvas. Did he know, deep down? Could he sense his destiny?
I thought about how I would text it. How would I send the message? It would be a question I’d send to myself, “Whch 1 M I?”
But I didn’t know the answer.
This story originally appeared in Cucurbital.