Prose Header

Unpredictable Factors
in Human Obedience
Obtained via Computer Chips
in Saline Solution

by Jessica Knauss

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

I laid out more than fifty saltines on an enormous serving platter dating from my parents’ wedding, peanut-buttered them one by one, and then, when Claud was already at the station for the early morning broadcast, I used an eyedropper to put exactly one chip in the upper right corner of each peanut butter mass. I stuck toothpicks into some of them and laid plastic wrap gingerly over the top to ensure nothing would disturb the chips.

In fact, they weren’t taking potluck at the charity dinner, and my elegant platter lay in the dark on the school’s kitchen counter next to stacks of canned beef ravioli, undoubtedly intended for next week’s hot lunch. I suppose to show off the school or perhaps to show how much we needed the charity, they had simply decorated the multipurpose room with streamers and multicolored paper tablecloths, and there they served the $100-per-plate repast to people in blue jeans and sweatshirts.

In attendance were all the town magnates — the city council, the school board, the television stations — precisely the targets of my peanut butter crackers. With powerful adults even temporarily obedient to my authority, well, the improvements would surpass phenomenal! I complained that the food didn’t have enough protein in the hope that I could take the crackers from the kitchen later and calm their growling stomachs. The principal, stereotypically venerable with his grey hair and elbow patch jacket, got up to speak.

“Friends, as you know, you are here this evening to help our school, our crucible of the future. We couldn’t create the responsible citizens of tomorrow without the help of you, the responsible citizens of today. As you also know, the proceeds of this dinner will go to fund a program for improvement created by the woman who has already done so much in her short career, Emily Mattheson.” (I hadn’t changed my name when I married.)

The principal hadn’t warned me I was to be honored in this way and I was rooted to my seat as he motioned for me to stand up to the applause. As I began to move, I saw out of the corner of my eye some movement outside the windows. I turned around and clearly saw some five of the middle school students peering inside with their antiestablishment eyes. They darted away when they knew they’d been noticed.

“Those are precisely the kinds of things we need to improve about this school,” I said to everyone at the dinner, and darted out the door crouching under my suspicion.

As I made my way around the outside of the mostly darkened building, I found I was leaving a trail of concerned adults along every turn, as all the responsible citizens followed, curious about my now famous nurturing instinct. The hooligans were nowhere to be found.

“Perhaps they’ve seen our numbers and been scared off,” I surmised to the gathering, but even as I did, one of the twelve-year-olds stuck his head out the main entrance and shouted something utterly unintelligible, then ran back inside. I told Claud to keep the crowd calm, then followed the boy with the principal.

We all dashed together into the boys’ locker room, where, who knows why, there was a bathtub next to the shower stalls. Something was evaporating out of it and practically gushing into the air duct above. The boys were staring intently at the tub in a supervisory mode, but when they sensed our presence, they stood back and beckoned us near to it.

We leaned over the tub. Inside was a dramatic blue liquid, which began to swirl and bubble.

“What is it?” the principal asked me.

“This is the dumbest stunt I’ve ever seen,” I said, turning to the kids. “Why should we care if you put blue dye in the bathtub?” But then my eyes began to smart.

When he saw our eyes beginning to tear up, the messenger boy shouted, “Everyone who goes to this school is going to die!” and they all ran out of the locker room, not bothering to lock us in. I ran quickly after them. They were headed for the front entrance, but as they passed the kitchen I thought fast. I grabbed a couple of the ravioli cans, and with astonishing accuracy, I hit the last kid in the head with one of them. He fell over and lay bloodied, but the other four kept running.

I hoped Claud and the others would be enough to detain them, and before I did a single other thing, I unwrapped the platter of peanut butter crackers. I turned the wounded kid over and forced a finger full of top-right-corner peanut butter into his mouth. When he woke, he would be a changed man. Then I remembered that these were temporary chips, sized him up, and gave him two more chips for good measure.

I noticed the principal and the other teachers hadn’t emerged yet, but decided to go out front first. The adults looked at me in relief — here was someone in control of the situation. I could see that’s what they were thinking. They were forcibly holding the last four kids, several adults to each kid, and one’s hands had even been tied with someone’s belt.

Claud was on his cell phone with 911, so really I wasn’t in control of the situation but at least someone was. Then Claud said, “What about the principal?”

“No one panic,” I said, “but is Mr. Wood here? I need him to analyze a chemical substance.”

Various gasps went through the crowd, and by the time I had Mr. Wood taking me to the chemistry lab for goggles and gloves, several people had pulled out anti-biological warfare pills, popping a few and offering some to friends.

Well outfitted and carrying several sterile beakers, the chemistry teacher and I returned to the boys’ locker room only to find the principal passed out on the floor next to the bathtub. Two police officers arrived on the scene as we began taking our samples.

“Please,” Mr. Wood told them, “get him out of here now. We can’t wait for EMT’s: he’s been poisoned!”

“If that’s hazardous, everyone’s got to get out of here, now,” said one of the officers, eying the air duct.

We agreed. Mr. Wood and I clutched the samples and each officer took hold of one victim. Then we came across the fifth kid, lying in the hallway.

“Who’s that?” asked an officer.

“That’s one of the suspects. He’ll need to go into custody, after he’s treated,” I explained, handing Mr. Wood my vials and throwing off my goggles. I slung the kid over my shoulder in spite of his size, and grabbed my peanut butter cracker platter when no one was looking.

They were ushering the suspects into two police cars when I made it out. “Wait!” I shouted. Quickly but carefully, I lay the kid on the ground to wait for an ambulance. The principal must’ve already been taken away. I scrambled to the first police car and handed several of the jostled crackers to the suspects in the back seat. Their hands were cuffed behind their backs, but I saw them begin to elbow and nose the crackers into their open mouths.

I put the entire platter into the laps of the suspects in the second car and they leaned right into them. Peanut butter crackers just aren’t the sort of food you ask questions about. Even the cops accepted my actions as normal and took a few crackers for themselves before closing the doors and driving off.

Most of the crowd had hurried home already. Claud came to take me by the hand and lead me back to the kid on the ground. “What was all that peanut butter cracker stuff about?”

Too much exposure to reporters, surely, he was too inquiring for his own good. “I want to go to the hospital with this one,” I replied. “I was the one who hit him.”

“You did that to him?”

“Well, a ravioli can did that to him.”

In the ambulance, the kid’s breathing became increasingly asthmatic and in the floodlights I thought I saw him breaking out in spots. “Live, damn you, live!” I hissed at him so no one could hear, but after several hours of pacing through hospital corridors with Claud, I found that the chips hadn’t been able to produce that much obedience.

“There was nothing we could do, we were too late,” the doctor said, his eyes averted. “We think he must’ve had a severe peanut allergy.”

“A peanut allergy!” I gasped.

Claud looked at me aghast. “Did you give him a peanut butter cracker?”

“I didn’t know he had a peanut allergy! I thought I was giving him a better future!”

Claud made his excuses to the doctor and took me by the hand yet again, directing me through the hospital corridors to the ground floor. As we walked he asked under his breath, “What did you mean, a better future?”

Wiping away tears with my free hand, I shouted back to him, “A focused, purposeful future of fulfilled civic duty! No more crime! Self-respect! Whatever I bloody well told him, in fact!”

Claud put me into a taxi and gave the driver our address. I said, “I want to go to the police station, to see the other suspects.” Claud was unmoved. “Who knows how they’ve reacted to the peanut butter!” I pressed.

“They do,” he said impassively. “They know.” The driver turned up his Hindi chant. He was thinking about the wonderful day when he would be granted the day shift.

It was about midnight when we landed in our living room. I sat on the couch with my hands folded, mightily annoyed and thinking what I could do to get Claud to cooperate. Should I tell him everything, the way my conscience had been urging me to do for so long?

He emerged from the kitchen with some decaffeinated tea and set it on a coaster next to me. I stared at it while it cooled. The wisps of steam reminded me of the awful bathtub.

“Those hooligans have shut down the school. I won’t have anywhere to work on Monday.” I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. Then I wasn’t sure about my decision to give the hooligans so many chips. Not only would their natural creativity be stunted, but who knew what sort of influence they would come under at the police station? Surely they were at enough risk with their youthful impressionability.

Claud said, “I’m sure they’ll find somewhere to hold classes while the school is fumigated, or whatever it needs. Now, drink yer tea, luv.”

His impression of a Yorkshire accent was disarming. I refrained from protesting that there was nowhere else to fit so many students and sipped at the bitter brew. “You’re such a problem-solver, Claud. I love you.”

He puffed up a little and smiled. Then he leaned in to stroke my hair. He only did that when he felt very paternal and he knew I hated it. “You know what I love about you?” he murmured. “How you’re so innocent. You never expect anyone to be evil.”

I pulled away. “Wait a minute! I thought that was what I saw in you!”

He just kind of smirked, and that decided me. I disappeared into the kitchen and slid things around in the refrigerator until I found the vial and eyedropper. Sure we were soulmates, and we always agreed, but sometimes he just got out of hand. He’d said himself he could’ve been more perfect and I’d vowed long ago never to settle for less than perfection. I was rummaging around, looking for something he would eat at that hour when he appeared in the doorway, “Whatcha doing?”

I looked guiltily at the vial and eyedropper, then said, “Oh, just getting ready to take my medicine.” I thought I’d pretend to take the saline solution as if it were medicine, but really put a drop on my lip, and then kiss him.

Before I could, he said, “It’s too late for that. Just come to bed.”

What he said made sense. I picked up the vial, then placed it back in the refrigerator. I was going to wait until Claud went to work the next day and then go to the police station by myself to find out about those kids. What else would I have to do?

Claud put his arm around me, moving me to the bedroom, and said just casually, “You won’t go to the police station tomorrow. I’m sure they’ll contact you if they need you for anything.”

What he said made sense. Especially if I didn’t want to reveal the secret of my teaching success to the authorities. It oppressed me suddenly. “Oh Claud! I have something to tell you!” I cried.

“Just go to sleep,” he said.

So I did.

Copyright © 2010 by Jessica Knauss

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