All twelve inches of the ruler reigned over the desk in malignant glory. It dominated Tony’s mind. Somewhere Matron was talking, but he didn’t hear her. She paced behind the desk, her bony body sliding between the bright windows as she lectured. He didn’t care about her words. Her words had no power.
The ruler, though, was another matter.
She slammed a fist on the desk. The ruler jumped a micrometer closer to him. Tony shoved himself back into the chair. His feet hung off the floor. The ruler couldn’t come any closer.
Rulers could measure anything if you knew how to use them.
Matron’s fleshless, knobby fingers wrapped around the ruler. Her voice had stopped. Tony looked up at her sunken eyes.
Oh, good. She was just going to beat him again.
– – –
Tony sat beside his bunk on the rigid wooden chair. The shirt under his sweater was rumpled. His shoes were untied.
The janitor shuffled past. “Young man, straighten up. This is no place to look slovenly!” He twitched his big white mustache as he shook a sausage-finger. “Don’t let the Matron catch you!”
Tony flicked his eyes to the old man.
“Ah, already did, I see. And what did she catch you on this time?”
Tony puffed his lips up with air, rolling the words around before he let them out. “Language.”
“Those four-letter words will always get you in trouble. As much garbage as what I sweep up under your beds. How do you boys get so much candy, anyway?”
– – –
The mutterings in Cafeteria Eleven subdued any radical thoughts. The children sat on their benches, spooning broth or gelatin into their yawning traps, trying to find something to say that was both safe and unique.
Nadine shook her head. “Tony, you need to stop needling her.” She raised a milk carton to her mouth. Her fingers were porcelain-white, like the latrines.
Tony shook his head. Nothing in Nadine was dirty like a latrine. That was a stupid comparison. “I didn’t mean to get caught. I just don’t belong here.”
Sol leaned against him with a grin. “Right. Like there’s anywhere else besides the Academy.”
Tony rolled his shoulders, shoving Sol away. “Lay off. I hurt.”
“Course you do, mate!”
“Sol, let him be.” Nadine rolled her eyes. She glanced around and leaned forward. “How close are you?”
The corner of Tony’s mouth twitched up to a tiny smile.
– – –
The Elevens filed into the classroom. High frosted windows brightened the room in gray light. Professor Barr stood behind his desk, his thin, stooped form grinning at them from beneath a mop of greasy hair. His fingers clicked on the desk, tapping with long fingernails. His fingers never stopped moving. “Hurry hurry, my students, hurry hurry, we have much to learn today, much much, yes, hurry!”
Tony trudged to his seat, easing himself down gently. Matron must have been royally put out if he was still feeling it three periods later. Nadine settled herself two rows ahead of him, as she had been assigned back when they were Sixes.
Tony used to wonder what people were before they were Six.
Sol flumped into the desk behind him and leaned forward to whisper, “Don’t get in trouble!” His fingers tapped on his desk.
Professor Barr and Sol were alike in that.
“Yes yes, my students, all seated now! Well done! Well done!” Professor Barr nodded, his mass of hair flopping over his ears, his humpback towering over his head. “Matron has asked me to talk about language and how we use it! Some nasty-child has been saying things that are untrue, and things that are untrue must be unlearned!” He thrust one of his fingers in the air. “Remember, the language you use reflects how you see reality. If you use dirty language, you will see reality as dirty. And you will become dirty. Dirty, dirty children must not be allowed in Academy, so we will clean you as we always do! That is what professors do: We clean your minds so squeaky-nice, so when you are Eighteens, you can graduate and be like us: Clean! Clean! Yes yes!”
– – –
Librarian Clarisse peered at him over her purple cats-eye glasses. “Yong Tony, the library will close in five minutes.” She crossed her arms and grabbed her shoulders with long, long fingers.
Tony nodded. “I know. Thank you.”
“Matron told me to revoke your privileges. She said you are learning too much.”
Tony’s hands trembled. “But learning is good.”
“Of course it is.” The librarian narrowed her eyes. “But perhaps you should keep your learning to yourself. Keep those words to yourself. The right learning in the wrong head leads to bad thoughts. And if you are rejected from the Academy, well, where would you be?”
– – –
“When I’m Eighteen, I’m going to be a Coach,” Sol said from the next bunk.
“Sol, you can’t even run two laps.”
“Yeah, well, I can’t be a Professor or a Librarian. And I don’t want to work the Cafeteria! What’s left?” He thought for a few minutes. “Matron?”
Tony burst out laughing. “Well, soon enough, you’ll have more options.”
“Why?” Sol sat up, propping himself up on his elbow. “Did you find something?”
Tony leaned over the canyon between their bunks, lowering his voice. No one could hear. The word was dangerous. The word threatened everything the Academy was built on. “Home.”
– – –
“You said a four-letter word again. A word we don’t appreciate here.”
This time Tony could hear Matron just fine. She held the ruler, tapping it against the desk. Tony didn’t answer.
“That word is dangerous. Like all lies are. There is no such thing. It’s as mythical as centaurs and robins and Outside.” She leaned on the desk. “Tony, you’re an Eleven. Would you like to be Twelve? Twelves don’t believe in lies. They know the truth, and that keeps them safe.”
Tony glanced up at her face. “You don’t know, do you? That I don’t belong here.”
“There is nowhere else, Tony.”
“I have a different home.”
She dropped the ruler and clutched her ears. “Lies!”
“This isn’t my home!” Tony stared at the little stick of wood.
“There is nowhere else!” she snarled.
“I can prove it!” He trembled. He reached for the ruler. He picked it up.
It didn’t burn his hands like he expected.
“Look how close I am!”
He held the ruler up to his heart.
The wood sat there up against his shirt, showing the exact width of his chest.
Tony blinked. “But… but…”
Matron plucked the ruler from his hands, clutching it to her chest. “Tony, you will go to study hall, and you will remain there for three days. You are suspended from classes, Cafeteria, Library, and Dormitory. And we will wash you of that dirty, dirty word!”
– – –
Tony didn’t belong here. Who was made for eternal school, from student to staff to death? There was someplace else. Someplace better.
Mr. Wallace glared at him. “Young men shall study,” he croaked, his stubby fingers interlocking like two friendly flippers.
Tony stared at the book on his wooden, creaky desk. It was something about triangles and angles and where two lines meet.
Tony wasn’t made for this. Wasn’t there an Outside? Somewhere?
– – –
The Library was closed.
Tony had already snuck out of study hall as Mr. Wallace snored. What more could they do to him? Once he had heard of a student being expelled, but expelled to where?
He kicked the door.
He kicked the door again. Again.
On the fourth kick, the door flew open with a crash. He ran in, flicking the lights on. To the back. To the Hall of Lies. To the fiction section.
He was close. The ruler had lied to him. It could measure how close he was to home. It was here. Somewhere.
Pounding feet came to the door. Matron’s voice rang out, “Tony! You shall come here at once!”
There had to be a way. Tony looked up. No one ever looked on top of the shelves, did they? He scampered up the shelves like a ladder, flattening himself on the top of the dusty, dusty shelves. He pressed against – against the window.
Shoes clicked against the floor as Matron came into the Library. More footsteps followed hers.
Something cracked. Tony looked – a spiderweb had formed on the window where he pressed against it. The spiderweb was growing. What did that mean?
“Tony, come down here. You need to be cleaned out. Get that filthy lie out of your head. There is no home. There is only the Academy. We take care of you. We make you what you are. And when you are Eighteen, you shall join the staff. Like everyone does.”
Tony didn’t ask, but he thought: Where do Fives come from?
The cracking continued. And then – the window broke.
And he fell out.
He landed in a heap in a scratchy substance. He rolled out of it. Things clung to his uniform. He stood.
The air was cool. The ceiling – he couldn’t see the ceiling. Tiny lights sparked on it. The floor was very dirty. In fact, all he could see was dirt; he couldn’t confirm if the floor beneath was cement or wood or carpet!
This wasn’t the Academy. He’d never seen a place like this.
Was it home?
No. Home was supposed to have golden streets and a tree and light like nothing else. And a Lamb on a throne.
This wasn’t home.
But it wasn’t an Academy, so it was a step in the right direction. Tony dusted off his uniform and walked away from the Academy. He’d explore. He’d find home.
And once he found home, he’d be back to tell his friends how to get there.
This story should not have been written, but I wrote it anyway.