The student at Elyse’s feet was missing half his face. The blackened edges of what little skin remained curled at the tips like brittle autumn leaves. If she touched him, she suspected he might crumble, like tapping the ash from the end of a cigarette. She considered picking up the blowtorch again, setting fire to the rest of him, not stopping until what remained amounted to little more than a silhouette on the pavement, to be easily vacuumed up and disposed of.
But it was more satisfying like this. She knew he would die—for fucking certain; she could see through to his skull—she just wasn’t sure how long it would take.
Little Derek Cooper—Coop to all his friends—twisted and writhed. Elyse frowned. She tapped the side of her head twice, upped the volume. His animal wail was at first a screech, static feedback. The noise quickly levelled out; the distortion scrubbed clear and everything was—
Elyse shut her eyes, hummed a nursery rhyme alongside Coop’s not-so-fire-retardant self. She was practically blissed out on his agony.
When she decided she’d had enough—when she pulled up the HUD and clicked the, oh shit, I should’ve been at work twenty minutes ago—she lit Coop up like a medieval funeral pyre and reached to her eyes and—
—Removed the ARtopia Model AR-15 headset. She sucked in a large gulp of cinnamon air; she’d made sure this time to light the scented candles before going under, to mitigate the lingering stench of baconated twelve-year-old. Didn’t do the job 100 percent, but it made a difference.
She placed the sleek black headset on the desk in her bedroom, between her stacks of to-read romance novels and the District 36 Teacher of the Year award given to her at an awards ceremony the previous June. She grabbed her coat and her purse and hurried out the door.
And Elyse dreamt all goddamn day that it had been real. As Derek—as Coop talked to his friends while she tried, with great futility, to focus on the lesson; as he took red paint and dumped it on Marietta’s self portrait during Art class; as he spent twice as long as any other student in the washroom, and when a hall monitor finally brought him back she said he and two boys from another class had been discovered pulling clothes out of change room lockers and flushing them in the toilets.
She thought about how great it had felt to watch him cook as he did all this and got away with it—because he was “only twelve,” and “boys will be boys,” and because his mother was Stalin 2.0 of the goddamn PTA. She commanded her wine-soaked acolytes as if the teachers were their sworn enemies——a roadblock in her hell spawn’s education, because she didn’t have the time to teach him herself or she would (because of course the teachers were the problem, and never her dear, darling, perfect widdle angel). Elyse pictured Coop’s mother—chemotherapy gaunt, all hard lines and acute angles beneath a dyed-blonde bob so tight her eyes didn’t shut all the way when she blinked—and thought about how much she wanted her to have to watch as she took Moira Cooper’s son out into the parking lot and backed over him once or twice or a dozen times.
And then Coop snatched another student’s book right out of her hands and chucked it out the classroom window, down onto the all-weather field below, and Elyse grit her teeth and smiled her Teacher-of-the-Year smile and calculated down to the second the time remaining before she could go home and kill every inch of him again, and again, and again.
So it was a bit odd when, the next morning, Vicki, who taught Third Grade, went up to Elyse in the teacher’s lounge and asked if she’d heard the news. What news, Elyse inquired.
“That Derek Cooper kid is missing.”
“Missing? Really?” Elyse worked to contain her grimace—more than likely Coop had had a fight with his mom and ran away when he cut a hand on her cheek or something.
“True story: I saw Moira Cooper already in the principal’s office with two police officers when I got here this morning. She was looking all kinds of panicked. Sounds like he never made it home last night.”
One can only hope, Elyse thought gleefully (thankfully) to herself. “What a tragedy,” she said with her outside voice.
“He’s in your class—have you noticed anything, I don’t know, strange going on with him?”
“No more than any other prepubescent boy.”
“Well, they’re probably going to want to talk to you. Just to be on the safe side.”
No shit. “Of course. I’ll do what I can.”
Vicki smiled. She put a hand over her heart, over her puke orange sweater knitted from the coats of a thousand dead cats. Maybe. Probably.
“You’re just . . . you’re too much,” she said sweetly, with complete and total sincerity.
Elyse grinned, mock-aw, shucks. “I just want to do what I can.”
They did want to talk to Elyse, though they didn’t get around to her until after the start of lunch. Principal Chalk and two officers who called themselves Wilks and Sanderson came up to Elyse at her desk as she ate a small goat cheese and tomato salad and a bowl of grapes, and asked if they could steal a moment of her time.
“What can I do for you, officers?” she asked once they were in the hall, outside her seventh-grade classroom.
“Miss Winstead,” Officer Wilks began, “as I’m sure you’ve been made aware, one of your students, Derek James Cooper, has been missing now for nearly twenty-four hours.”
“Well you’re jumping the gun a bit, aren’t you?” As soon as she spoke, Elyse wished she hadn’t.
Officer Sanderson cocked her head. “What do you mean by that?”
Elyse cleared her throat. She felt her face go neon. “You know, I just thought you had to wait at least twenty-four hours before reporting these sorts of things.”
“That’s a myth,” said Officer Wilks. “If something’s wrong we like to get started right away, especially with . . . these sorts of things.” He paused, glared curiously at Elyse. “Is anything the matter, Miss Winstead?”
Elyse shook her head. “Not that I know of, no.”
Sanderson squinted. “You get enough sleep, Miss Winstead?” She pointed to Elyse’s eyes. “You’re looking a little worse for wear.”
Elyse crossed her arms. “I’m fine. I like to read at night. I probably don’t get as much sleep as I should.”
Sanderson nodded like she knew something but wasn’t ready to divulge. She passed Elyse a business card. “Our number’s on there. Call us if you hear anything.”
Elyse took the card, nodded. Principal Chalk and the officers turned and left.
That night, Elyse spent several minutes staring into the mirror above the sink in her washroom, noting her bloodshot eyes with large dark hammocks underneath, which seemed more exaggerated than they’d appeared that morning.
She left the washroom and turned off the light. The ARtopia was on the nightstand where she’d left it after that morning’s session, which she thought at the time had been a mere thirty minutes but had in actuality been almost two hours spent watching and listening as her virtual marionette screamed bloody murder, his limbs hacked off one-by-one with a woodsman’s axe. A blunt woodsman’s axe. It had been more satisfying than the blowtorch, though not as directly pleasurable as that night the previous week when she sawed off the top of his skull and tore out gelatinous hunks of brain like she was a child in the plastic ball pit at a McDonald’s restaurant. She considered the ARtopia for a minute before deciding to go straight to bed; it wasn’t as much fun when the little shit might actually be in some kind of trouble.
They came for Elyse the next morning—Wilks, Sanderson, and a small army of crime scene investigators equipped with rubber gloves and plastic bags for gathering evidence. Sanderson said it was procedure—that they had to cover all their bases, because the last place anyone reported seeing Coop was in Elyse’s class.
They didn’t arrest her until after Sanderson picked the ARtopia up off the nightstand, put it on, and played back the previous week’s archives.
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” said Elyse, seated at a small table inside a glorified broom closet. Sanderson sat across from her, hands clasped together on top of a manila folder. “They’re just fantasies. It isn’t real.”
Sanderson sighed. “I was married once.” She held up her left hand, showing the hard tan line around her finger, where a ring had been until, it appeared, quite recently. “Love of my life and all that. Takes a while for things to fade, if you get what I mean.”
“I’m . . . sorry?” Elyse said, confused.
“Things were good at first. Great, even. That’s why you get married, right? Because you can’t imagine life without them. But time takes a toll on everything. We tried counselling, saw some people—professionals who promised us the sun and the moon—but things just kept getting worse. So one day I picked up an ARtopia—for the both of us,” she added quickly. “The AR-12 model. Not as advanced as yours, but it got the job done. We decided to give it a try. Shouting at one another wasn’t helping matters, but I thought if we could do a little more to each other—safely—that maybe we’d unearth something.”
“Did it work?”
“For a spell. We worked through our shit that way and we started liking each other a little more on the outside.”
“Then what happened?”
“A few weeks passed and she tried to cave my head in with the toaster.” Sanderson pointed to the left side of her head. “Twenty-five stitches, just under the hairline. After that, we were done.”
“Officer, I don’t see—”
“She was confused,” Sanderson interrupted. “She thought she was still inside the ’topia. She’d been using it so often she’d started to build a world of her own in there. Whatever you imagine is there, waiting for you.” She paused. “That was why we found all those scented candles in the trash—you couldn’t not imagine the smell.”
“This is all well and good, Officer, but I’m not your wife and I know my limits. I’ve never once gotten my realities knotted up like—”
“We found Derek Cooper.”
Sanderson nodded. “His body was discovered in a ravine a half mile from the school. He was missing half his face, Miss Winstead. It’d been burned clean off the bone.”
The revelation grew fat, filling the space between them until Elyse felt as if Sanderson’s words were pressing against her, shoving her up against the wall. When she was finally able to find her words again, she uttered, “I didn’t kill him.”
“But you wanted to. The ’topia’s flash memory archives every thought you have. You literally daydreamed about killing him for weeks.”
“I didn’t kill him,” she said again, with a bit more confidence. “I hated him, but I didn’t— I couldn’t— I would never—”
“‘Never’ is the defense of the naïve, Miss Winstead. It’s a fool’s claim. No one knows what they’d never do until they just fucking never do it.”
“But I didn’t.” Elyse started to cry.
Elyse had read once that a supervisor at a local electronics store bludgeoned one of his employees to death with a laptop in the middle of his shift. When questioned after the fact, he thought he dreamt the whole ordeal—stated that he wasn’t to blame, he couldn’t do such a thing. At the time it sounded ludicrous, the idea that someone could lose track of what was and wasn’t real. But then it happened to her, when she went up to the guy at her gym she’d been thinking about for weeks and kissed him on the lips, asked if he was picking up Chinese for dinner. He’d looked at her as if they’d never spoken a word to one another—which they hadn’t. She stopped using the ARtopia for a while after that. It was a wonderful affair while it lasted—she’d been so much less afraid of being rebuked. The embarrassment she’d experienced when reality slipped like a steak knife between her ribs was almost more than she could handle.
That was different, though. That was a brief lapse in judgement. A stupid, childish mistake—a rookie mistake, her face appearing in the dictionary alongside the word itself. What had happened to Coop, though—how does someone not know when they’ve killed another human being? Wouldn’t there have been blood on her hands? Her clothes?
Elyse didn’t want to think about it.
But then she did.
And the more she tried not to think about what had happened, the more her mind brought her back to what she’d experienced inside the ARtopia. How easy it was, knowing there’d be no consequences, to take Coop’s life and burn it all away, every last day of it. Like it didn’t fucking matter. Like no one would miss him in the slightest.
And the more this happened, the more Elyse allowed herself to be taken back—to take herself back to the moment(s) she extinguished his sorry little life (well, not quite extinguished—more the opposite, actually), the more she realized she hadn’t gotten confused. She hadn’t gotten confused at all. She knew she hadn’t killed Derek Cooper. She’d have remembered.
She’d have enjoyed it too much.
They released Elyse the next day on insufficient physical evidence. On her way out the door, she saw Moira Cooper looking distraught, looking downright polygonal. Looking like she was ready to go to war. She was demanding to know how they could let a monster like Elyse Winstead go. She vowed revenge against the woman who so hated her perfect widdle angel. She swore it even after they found the man responsible for Coop’s death—some guy nobody knew, nobody had even heard of, nobody had ever seen before.
It had all been a messy coincidence. A messy, kind of hilarious coincidence, though Elyse kept that last part to herself. They wouldn’t understand—people, that is. Anybody, really. They hadn’t had to deal with Moira Cooper’s perfect widdle hellion ten months of the year.
They didn’t understand at school, either. Moira Cooper made it her mission to inform every parent about the horrible, inhuman monster their teacher of the year really was. Elyse thought of appearing before them to defend her actions, saying she was so good at her job precisely because she went home at night and tortured and maimed and beat the ever loving shit out of Coop—just Coop, it was worth noting—with a five iron. It meant she was relaxed and better equipped to help the rest of their kids be the best they could be. And you wouldn’t want a teacher who bottled all that rage, would you? No, I don’t think you would. I don’t think you know just how dangerous that could be. And Coop was just that special—her own personal four-foot-nothing tumour in jeans and a basketball jersey three hundred days of the year. Principal Chalk, however, told her not to bother, said they had an image to uphold, and employing teachers who fantasized about murdering their students was, for some reason, out of line with that image.
Not students, she tried to say. Just Coop.
Principal Chalk just shook his head, told her she should’ve tried something else—kickboxing perhaps, or maybe yoga.
“He told me I should’ve tried smiling more,” she said to Vicki on the afternoon of her last day, as she collected her personal effects into a plastic egg crate. “He said I should’ve just tried being happy, and maybe Coop wouldn’t have gotten to me the way he did.”
Vicki sighed as she played with the jar of pencils in the World’s Best Teacher mug at the edge of Elyse’s (former) desk. “He doesn’t understand,” she said, sadly.
“But you do?” Elyse took the mug from Vicki’s hand. She contemplated hurling it across the room, or maybe stepping into Chalk’s office and cracking it upside his head, watching as a seam opened up in the side of his face and—
“I do,” Vicki said rather bluntly, the words coming out of her like a pronouncement. “Life is about balancing perspectives. You found yours. It made you good at what you do. Chalk’s using you as a scapegoat. We’ve all had similar thoughts. He’d just rather they stayed hidden.”
She paused then said again, “It’s all about balancing perspectives. Derek was just something you had to work through in order to do your job.”
“But I didn’t actually do anything. I could never—”
“I know. But it would’ve been a lot more interesting if you had.”
That night, unable to sleep, Elyse rolled out of bed and dived once more into the ARtopia. She pulled little Derek Cooper from the ether. And as she started slicing away at his skin with a paring knife in thin Velveeta strips, she sighed dispassionately and thought about missed opportunities, wondering how much better it had felt to do it for real.