I heard heavy footsteps in the hallway and took a deep breath. There was no mistaking who was coming. Mrs. Zelinski had sent me an email earlier in the day informing me she would be dropping by to “give me a review.” Shoot me now.
Last time she “gave me a review,” it had come with a warning. Shape up, or be fired. I looked around the classroom at my students. A whole room of mismatched pupils trying to get easy science credits. They ranged from high school students with bright eyes and bright hopes for the future getting their first college credit as a dual class, all the way to the little old woman with the beady eyes beneath her huge glasses; librarians, they were always easy to pick out.
Camian, the librarian, raised her hand for the twelfth time since the lecture started. I looked up at the clock—ten minutes down, forty to go. “Yes Camian?”
“What do you mean in the syllabus when you say—” thankfully, she was cut off by Mrs. Zelinski pounding on the door with her meaty hand. My mind shot to an image of her face jowls jiggling at the movement.
I only had just enough time to get my face out of a grimace and into an uneasy smile before the door swung open, Mrs. Zelinski did not wait for an answer before coming into the classroom. In all fairness she didn’t need to. She ruled her domain with an iron, albeit fat-covered, fist.
“Welcome Dean Zelinski,” I said in my best teacher voice, “we were just beginning our lecture, you are just on time.”
“Just beginning your lecture now? What the hell did you do with the first fifteen minutes?” She grunted, the words having to claw their way out of her mouth and then past her three chins, giving her the sound of a choking victim. I opened my mouth to answer her, but she just waved for me to continue my lecture and moved to the back of the classroom to sit.
I could hear the chair’s unhappy groan as she settled down onto it. For a brief moment I flashed a dark thought to the chair, tempted to push the already strained wood a little farther with my will, sending her falling to the floor, but the thought was gone just as fast as it came; the careful wall I’d erected over the years pushing aside any thoughts of using magic. That wasn’t me anymore.
I shook my head and launched back into my lecture, glad that Camian appeared to have forgotten her question. The flow of teaching resumed, and before long the class was over and the students were drifting out of the room.
As I gathered my papers I could hear Mrs. Zelinski’s labored breathing as she tried to get out of her chair. At least that is what I assumed she was doing, without looking at her I couldn’t tell if she was trying to get out of the chair or climb Mount Everest. I snuck a glance, but no, it was just the chair.
My gaze passed over the room as my bony hands pushed the last of the papers together. I was about to turn my face back to my desk to mentally prepare for Mrs. Zelinski’s inevitable scolding session, when my hackles rose.
Normally I’m not easy to disturb. Being of a more logic driven temperament I can take things in stride most of the time, but something was triggering my extra senses. Something was wrong. I darted a glance at the door but didn’t see anything in the hallway that could have tripped my internal alarms. I glanced back to the room just in time to see a small hooded figure darting out the door. When the person left, the alarm dissipated. I could still feel it there, nagging at the back of my mind like I’d left the oven on, but the immediacy of the warning went away.
I took a deep breath and focused back on the classroom, directly into the Dean’s eyes. Once the last student had left the room Mrs. Zelinski brought down the hammer. She leaned against the desk, causing it to bow noticeably. “You are the worst teacher I have ever seen Dragan, and I do mean ever. I have been the Dean of this community college for over a decade now, and never have I seen such a display of inadequacy. If I had it my way you wouldn’t be disgracing my halls another single day.”
I opened my mouth to defend myself, but her words rushed over me before I could say anything, “I gave you a warning before, shape up or you were out. This is a final performance warning. You slip up,” she leaned in closer, “you go. End of story.”
I braced my neck, a cold fury that had been building for the last five years I’d suffered under this woman pushing its way up past my brain and out through my mouth, “What would you do without me though? You need me, me and my red skin.” The words were out of my mouth, it was too late to take them back. It was a generally acknowledged fact that I was the diversity hire at the school. Hell I only had a bachelor’s degree, and even that was a fake, although they didn’t know that. But it was hard to find diversity in Oregon. The Hispanic lunch team and I were about the only non-white people on the entire campus despite the name being Heritage Community College.
She needed me, she knew it and I knew it. If they fired me they would have to pay more taxes, and sadly, given my meager salary, it was cheaper to keep me than to pay the penalty. She looked up at me and gave a grim smile, “Your time will come.” Then she stomped out of the room. Or maybe she was just walking, in either case the room definitely shook with her fury/weight. As she squeezed past the door I let out a breath at the empty classroom. I shot a quick rude gesture at the now—empty doorway.
One of these days I was going to get fired. As I lowered my offending hand I saw the clock hanging over the door. Shit, I only had five minutes to get across campus to the labs for my next class. Hastily grabbing my stack of papers I stuffed them into a backpack and slung it over my shoulder. Most of the teachers here had fancy leather briefcases to hold their papers. Well fuck them, I’m poor.
Moving through the hallway at full speed I made it to my next classroom just before the clock hit 10:00. Right on time. I stepped into the lab and was greeted with the musty smell of compost and a vision of my little peaceful slice of paradise. In the summer we would be outside, enjoying the fullness of nature, but in early February the greenhouse was my happy place.
I taught horticulture, and in the summers a forest conservation class. It wasn’t a glamorous life, but hey, it was a living. Besides, what better way to spend my time then tending to the Earth Mother? Sure I wasn’t in that business anymore, not directly, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t care.
Not many students opted to take the horticulture lab. It wasn’t required, thank you again Mrs. Zelinski for making my job obsolete, so the ones who were here actually wanted to be here. It made all the difference. There were ten students in the class and each of them had arrived early and were already working in the greenhouse, pruning away at the bushes we’d been growing all winter as a test of the hydroponics we’d installed in the fall.
I needed to be in contact with nature after my experience with Mrs. Zelinski, so I took up a pair of clippers and went over to a nearby plant. It was a medium sized rhododendron, and it had a few dead-heads on it. Before I went to work on it I placed my hands on the ground to feel the solid energy there. As I did so, I felt my mind being torn out of the room. I tried to pull back but something strong, like really strong, had me by the metaphysical neck.
After a long feeling of falling and a sharp crack I opened my eyes. All around me spread a vast desert. The baked sand was burning hot against my feet, the scenery far too bright. It wasn’t just the naked sun in the sky overhead with no shade in sight, it was the actual scenery that was too bright. The red brown earth below me was too present, the blue sky above was too vast, the green cacti and sage were so alive it threatened to overwhelm.
I took in a breath and felt the real air in my lungs bolstering my spirit. And spirit was what I was here—as were all who were in this place. This was the Spirit World after all. I looked around at the landscape. It had been years since I had been to the Spirit World. The place pushed at the wall I had built in my mind between my current self and the past life from which I had walked away. I pushed back. This wasn’t me anymore. But despite my pushing, the Spirit World remained strong around me.
From deep in the desert I heard a howl, and suddenly it was night. The Spirit World did that from time to time. It wasn’t a physical place. It just shifted to whatever it needed to be, and right now apparently that was night.
A series of images flashed in front of me. Me, a much younger me, prominent in them. Me fighting beside a lithe black woman. Me taking off the head of a bird/man creature. Me walking different paths than I was now. The images left as swiftly as they came, the sun out once again. Only now I wasn’t alone on the plain. Just to my left was a building. It was about four stories tall, and would take up approximately a city block if we were anywhere close to a city. Brick on three sides with the fourth a solid cement covered in murals of whales leaping out of a colorful ocean.
Then the building was gone. Another howl sounded, this time more urgent somehow. A billboard appeared. On the billboard was, oddly enough, a phone number. The numbers seared into my brain, and then suddenly I was falling out of the Spirit World, back into my body with a thump. The turquoise pendent around my neck ice cold.
I snapped my hands out of the dirt and looked around to see if any of my students had noted my spirit’s absence while I rubbed at my necklace, trying to warm it with my hands. Fortunately, they were hard at work and seemed to have noticed nothing. I brushed the strange vision away and bent to work on the rhododendron, my mind still reeling from the experience.
I was halfway through dead-heading the rhododendron, my hands sticky with sap, when the hairs on the back of my neck rose again. Looking around the greenhouse carefully I saw nothing out of the norm. I extended my senses into the plants around me, feeling the pulse of life within them, but could sense no distress there. Whatever it was I was feeling, it was directed at me and not the life around me. I grabbed the pruning shears in front of me and held them against my body, away from prying eyes. Sure I was done with my old life, had been for years, but that didn’t mean it was done with me. It wouldn’t be the first time something from back then had tracked me down with malicious intent.
I focused in on the feeling and let my senses guide me to its source. There was an extra student in my room. An eleventh person I hadn’t even noticed. I shook my head. I’d been out of the game for too long, my mental reflexes were dulled. I could chalk it up to the strange vision quest I had been sent on, but to be honest that shouldn’t have affected me this much.
I looked around the room, focusing in on the strange person. With a shock I recognized the figure. It’s back was turned to me, but I recognized the brown hood from my previous class. Whatever that petite form contained I didn’t want to find out, at least not here, not where I could endanger my new life, not to mention the actual lives of my students and colleagues. For that matter, I would be fine with not finding out at all. Time to make a run for it.
Making no more noise than a mouse I backed out of the room, none of the students noticing. My eyes remained fixed on the cloaked form of the strange figure. Once safely in the hallway I took off at a run. I caught a glimpse of Mrs. Zelinski’s face as I ran past her office, her flush face pinching in anger as I sprinted past. A meaty fist rising. I ran faster.
Once outside the building I moved with alacrity to my old truck. I know, stereotypical for a Native to have an old beat-up pickup, but hell, it was the only thing I could afford. I scrambled for my keys, beginning to feel the old mindset dropping in on me, the chill from my necklace seeping into my mind and giving me clarity. My movements became smoother, quicker, and I pushed my key into the worn ignition of my old truck. I turned the key and grimaced as the truck coughed a little but didn’t start. Damn carburetors, of all the days not to start….
I looked up just as a hooded figure came out of the school doors thirty feet away. The hidden head moved until it was pointed at me and then whatever it was moved toward me. I stepped out of my truck, no time to coax it to life. I would need to do this now. Out of the bed in the back I grabbed an old walking stick and swung it in front of me, the tip beginning to smolder, sending off the crisp smell of cedar into the air around me.
Ten feet out the figure stopped and raised its hands. Rather small human hands to be precise. “Who are you and what do you want?” I thundered in my best intimidating voice, only ruined slightly by the part of my brain recognizing a woman’s hands and beginning to doubt my current course of action.
“My name is Adsila. Are you Dragan Earth Strider?”
“How do you know my name?”
“I’ve been looking for you.”