By Shya Scanlon
Forecast is being serialized semiweekly across 42 web sites. For a
full list of participants and links to live chapters, please visit
It was the year emotional energy had been introduced, the fall of the summer. Children everywhere were greeted, upon their bitter return to class, by an object, vaguely aglow, the size of a small car. They walked in to witness it bulging, pulsing, and slightly sweating in the center of the room, like it was about to give birth to a billion little clowns. They seemed to the children, these machines, to be composed primarily of snot. Indeed, they oozed a small amount of mucousy bi-product, generally thought to be discharged feelings indecipherable by the apparatus. And they were not alone. Each Emotional Transfer Machine (ETM) was accompanied by a much smaller device, one bearing the familiar traces of technology: metal-made, LEDs, switches and knobs, the works – which adapted the power output to whatever regulation electrical current ran the mechanical objects still rather insufficiently powered by the available wind and solar sources. Together these two new classmates caused quite a stir, and everyone was eager to take their turn turning on whatever the teacher had determined as the virgin demonstration of this new technology. Mr. Handpepper had chosen an electric pencil sharpener.
He stood before the class, at once attempting to disguise his age and boast of it, and launched into an only half-lucid explanation of the technological breakthrough that had only weeks earlier been “introduced into the lives of everyday citizens.” Zara zoned out. She appreciated the novelty of ETM technology, had read dumbed-down descriptions of its function, use, and promise, but Handpepper had a unique ability to make everything seem unpleasant and perverse. The only thing aiding her interest, keeping her from completely falling asleep or just diving on-line and losing herself in atrociously over-designed websites was the fact that her parents, mystics not, were wary of the new machines, did not like the sound of objects driven by human emotion, and were made even more skeptical by the casual observation that they seemed to run only on negativity.
The cumulative effect of Jennifer and Marshal’s criticism and ambivalence toward this recent invention made Mr. Handpepper’s banality bearable. Almost. Truth be told, Zara dozed off a few times during her teacher’s introduction. She had at the time been having a recurring dream for a few months where her arms would come loose from their sockets and sort of roam around her body, making unsubtle use of their new positions – now erupting from her belly and back to swing wide before and behind her, now jutting injuriously from her knees and teaching her own feet a lesson in quickstep. She had no idea what the dream “meant,” or even if “meaning” was an appropriate object of speculation. But she was warmed somehow, despite the troublesome intentions of her AWOL appendages, by their curiosity, by the interest they took in other parts of her body, and in their seemingly complete avoidance of her sex. When she’d made the mistake, early on, of telling her mother about the dream, she’d only been encouraged to see if there wasn’t any kinky new angle from which Zara might approach her own crotch, some new indelible diddle. “Mom,” she’d sighed, disappointed. Her mother had cluck-clucked and turned away, proud of herself for having secured another deep point of contact with her seed, who was so lucky to have parents, wasn’t she Marshal?, with whom she could share such intimacies. “Mmm-hmm,” nodded Zara’s father, nose deep in book.
Back in class, something woke Zara from her catnap. Her classmates, she saw, were clamoring for attention – something rare – and were actually leaning forward in their seats, eager to be called on for a chance to grind a number 2 pencil down to a nubbin. Mr. Handpepper was trying desperately to maintain his own composure. He stood in front of the class, pencil between thumb and index finger flopping around like a fish, and smiled like his face felt guilty for being what it was. It was even vaguely endearing, thought Zara in her groggy, inter-nap state, seeing this strange, bird-like man enjoying himself in class. The enjoyment, however, did not last long. For in his enthusiasm, Handpepper made the rash decision to choose one of the only people whose hand was firmly, resolutely not raised: Asseem.
Talib, Asseem’s father, had warned him about this new technology, calling it unholy. Asseem suspected his father had no sense of holiness other than that which lay beyond his pedestrian understanding, but Asseem, for all his spite, couldn’t help but feel the same way. He felt threatened. He looked upon the sliming, organic shape in the front of the room as one might a peace offering from an enemy, and throughout the initial demonstration, unmoved by his classmate’s abrupt, attention-getting flatulence, he’d been watching with growing disgust as the pencil was ground down to a nubbin, feeling that the sharp instrument, surely, was some sort of blunt metaphor.
As on any other day, Asseem was simply counting down the minutes before he was “allowed” to leave the classroom. But today he felt even more eager to walk. And he felt justified. Sharing his father’s disdain for this object, this technology, was something he ought to take advantage of. They shared so little, as it was. Surely there was leverage to be gained. The consequence, he knew, should his father be feeling less friendly, was harsh: transcription of the Qur’an, word for word – a continuing chore that was expected bit by bit, and used as punishment for transgressive acts. But he found himself actually weighing this against the alternative: remaining in his seat. That they were on par, Asseem took to signal the depth of his distrust of this class, Mr. Handpepper, and his unholy instrument.
By the time his name was called, Asseem had almost reached the decision on his own, and hearing his name uttered with Handpepper’s whiny, white voice, always, he felt, stressing the first syllable, the boy rose from his seat, slowly picked up his bag, and began marching forward from the back of the class.
“Oh no, Asseem, you don’t need your bag,” Handpepper said, he hoped warmly.
Asseem scowled at his teacher, and continued up the isle. As he walked by, his classmates smelled the spicy incense his father incessantly burned at home, a smell he couldn’t wash out, and drew their faces into one common discourteous sneer. Handpepper looked on as Asseem approached the front of the class and instead of standing in the designated spot turned right and made for the door.
“Asseem!” he called. “Asseem return immediately to the conduction spot!”
The boy took two more steps and then stopped. He was fuming. He turned. He surveyed the class, met with a few pairs of eyes, gaping up at him like they might bear witness to something beyond control. He smirked, avoiding Handpepper’s astonished gaze. He knew no one here, he thought. He was alone.
“The class is waiting,” encouraged Handpepper, who was beginning to wonder if he hadn’t made the wrong choice with this little brown fellow. He held his gaze. They respect authority, he was thinking. All you have to do is hold your position.
“The class ain’t waitin’ for shit.”
Uh-oh. Handpepper went for his desk. He wanted to be in reach of the panic button. Student swearing at him; it couldn’t be a good sign.
“The class,” continued Asseem, “don’t even know what’s goin’ on.”
Handpepper looked out across the room and sure enough, in the 15 seconds it had taken for Asseem to respond to his most recent entreaty, all but a couple of students had found “better things to do.”
“W-well,” he stammered in attempted enthusiasm, “they’ll pay attention once we get this show on the road!”
Asseem took a step closer and began to point his finger around, at Handpepper, at the class, stabbing holes in the thin air’s thick tension. “Damn dude you clueless,” he began. “You really think they give a shit what happen up in here? They juss watchin’ tha clock.”
“Asseem I’m not going to argue with you,” Handpepper said with mock confidence. “You have very little choice in the matter. Now will you please just stand in the-”
“You trippin’ if you think I’ma make this slimy shits run, cracka!” he slurred, gesturing toward the ETM. “The only thing I’ma make run is deez feets, and they bouts ta run up outta here.” Asseem stared directly at Handpepper, beckoning a rebuttal. His clean head was cocked to the side, arms crossed. Handpepper, taken somewhat aback, forced a furtive glance across the room to make sure no one was looking, and quickly planned his defense.
“Asseem,” weapon number one, “you’re aware of the special arrangement we’ve worked out with your father.” Number two. “I’m sure you wouldn’t want to disappoint him, would you?” He had no real idea what this implied, and no idea, therefore, of its effectiveness in battle, but it was all he had. He made the best of it. Not many parents came in specifically to check up on their children’s progress – he took it to indicate familial tension.
“You full a shit, cracka,” Asseem began. “My dads ain’t got nuttin ta do wit dis. Dis heres between me an you an at big ol’ ball a snot you got sittin in you class.” But as he continued, Handpepper noticed slight changes in his student’s speech patterns, isn’ts replacing ain’ts, yours standing in for possessive yous, until he witnessed an entire shedding of one dialectic skin to reveal another, sober, familiar voice, a voice not unlike his own. By the end of his tirade, Asseem had all but dropped his slang, and was critiquing his teacher’s ridiculous decision making process on grounds that Handpepper had actually to stop himself from taking as legitimate peer review.
Zara listened intently, intensely amused.
“A technology that utilizes unprocessed emotions,” Asseem espoused, “would obviously function more efficiently when run by people who have either complex inner lives or are able, due to the severe imbalance of miniscule IQ met by massive ego, to overwhelm their natural emotional state with false ideology.” He paused, unaware of himself. “And that shit ain’t you style.”
Asseem took another step forward. He thought of his father. He thought of the book he’d copied, word for word, two and a half times since he’d learned to write. He summoned what he could of his hatred for school, for this class, for this teacher, and for the damned rotting god that kept them all one step ahead. He raised his voice in resistance, and fired a seething summary of everything he felt. “Dis machine be tha devil’s work!” He hurdled the accusation at his defenseless teacher with all the venom he could muster, and as he did so the room was filled with a brief, high pitched buzz. Handpepper looked over at the pencil sharpener, just the erasered metal end of its pencil poking out, and at the ETM, glowing and drooling unceremoniously onto the hardwood floor. Asseem looked down to see that he’d accidentally stepped into the machine’s conduction spot. Zara looked at both of them, at the class who’d not paid the slightest attention to the episode, and began to laugh hysterically.
Emprise Review has Chapter 3.
Chapter 5 is available at Flatmancrooked.