by Morris J. Marshall
Part 1 appears in this issue.
At ten minutes to eight, students began drifting quietly into class. Greg went up to each one and passed out the class handouts, hearing the buzz of their thoughts but not fully absorbing their content. There was time for that later.
“I’m Professor Greg Sanders,” he said once everyone was seated and had quieted down. “Your regular prof isn’t well, and I’ll be taking over for a while. This isn’t an excuse to slack off. I have work for you to do, and I’ll be taking attendance.”
Several students groaned. A guy in the back row with spiked purple hair put his head down on his desk.
Greg reached into his briefcase and pulled out some papers. “From what I understand, you’ve gone over Price Elasticity. Your prof left me some practice questions for you to try.”
After handing them out, he sat down behind his desk and watched the fifty or so students as they quieted down and worked through the questions. He got up and walked around, commenting on student answers and offering help where needed.
A cacophony of thoughts bombarded him, but without focusing it was just noise like the merging sounds of music, voices and static you get when moving the band across an AM radio dial. When he did focus, his mind recorded others’ thoughts for future retrieval and use.
The guy with the purple hair leaned over and talked to the blonde woman sitting next to him, who was in her early twenties, wearing a snug blue T-shirt and grey sweat pants. Although Greg couldn’t hear what they were saying, he mentally deflected the noise from the class’ conversation and thoughts. He stared at Mr. Purple’s forehead and, once he’d quieted his mind, he began probing:
I know she likes me. She’s waiting for me to ask her out. With a chest like that, I—
Nothing of interest there, Greg thought and disconnected the Probe. Sometimes he didn’t want to know what people were thinking. Like that time he’d gone on a lunch date with a secretary he’d met at one of the schools where he’d worked. Although he’d been warned by Simms to use Probes only for professional purposes, he couldn’t resist finding out what his date thought of him. He learned that she couldn’t stop thinking about how bad his breath smelled.
As he moved around the class helping students, Greg noticed an early-twenties guy in a black leather jacket sitting in an aisle side desk in the second row. Every so often the student would reach into his jacket pocket, feel around and then pull out his hand.
Fear slithered into Greg’s stomach. What’s he looking for? A cell phone? His wallet? A weapon? He calmed his mind, drowning out the thought noise coming from other class members. He stared at Mr. Leather’s forehead:
I’m never going to pass this class. It’s too hard. Maybe I could take it in the summer. If I could only find my keys. I wonder if I dropped them on the floor.
Greg breathed a sigh of relief. “Let’s take up the first two questions,” he said.
He picked up his smart pen and wrote the definition of Price Elasticity on the computer screen:
A measure of the change in demand to a change in price. Demand is elastic when a small increase in price leads to a large drop in demand.
He stopped writing and faced the class. Most of the students were taking notes. It was the ones who weren’t that you had to focus on. While training to be a Probe, he had taken several courses, most of them in psychology. In a typical college class, there were too many students to Probe everyone. You had to be selective and target them by sight first. No one short of a psychopath could remain perfectly calm while planning a murder. Their body language or facial expression would usually give them away.
“Question two: ‘Why are elastic goods almost always advertised?’” Greg asked.
A young lady with red hair tied back in a ponytail put up her hand. She sat in the middle of the lecture hall. Her green backpack lay on the chair beside her. Greg approached her so he could hear her more clearly.
“In order to prevent consumers from substituting similar products.”
“That’s right,” Greg said.
He was about to ask another question when he glanced at the red-haired lady. She turned and looked toward the back of the class in the direction of the purple-haired guy.
When she turned back around, Greg stared at her forehead, filtering out the thought sounds of the other students:
He messed with me. Now it’s my turn. He won’t get away with it...
That was a possibility. What did she have against Mr. Purple? What did he get away with? Greg tried probing her again, but he couldn’t get anything. It was as if she knew he was trying to get into her mind and was pushing him out. Blocked.
“Okay, everyone,” he said, “let’s finish here for today. I’ll post the homework on the Internet by this evening.”
All but three students got up and left. The red-haired young lady who had correctly answered Greg’s question stared at her smart phone. The purple-haired guy at the back of the class and Mr. Leather Jacket also remained seated.
Greg had to use the washroom, but there was no way he could leave the class now. Not until he figured out what was happening. He went up to Mr. Leather Jacket. “I was wondering if you could give me some time alone with these two other students.” He nodded at them.
“Sure,” the student replied.
Greg escorted Mr. Leather Jacket to the back of the lecture hall and opened the door for him. He returned to the front of the hall and looked at the red haired woman and purple haired guy. “Could you both come to the front so we can talk?”
Once they were seated by his desk, Greg focused directly on the young woman’s forehead first, pushing away Mr. Purple’s thoughts:
Eddie raped me and put images of me up on the Internet. Now he’s going to pay. All I have to do is follow him home, take out my gun and...
Greg’s heart thudded. Where is it? In her bag? Her locker? Perhaps she’s hidden it someplace outside the school. Maybe she even has it on her. His mind turned to Eddie:
Why am I up here? What does this teacher want? Did Victoria tell on me? She wanted it as much as I did. And the stuff I put up on the Internet? She put pics of her own up. What’s an extra image or two?
“Don’t worry, Victoria,” Greg said. “Everything’s going to be fine.”
“How did you know my name?”
“I... well... it must be obvious.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was talking to your professor,” Greg said. “He said, ‘Victoria is my best student.’ Then you answered that difficult question and I knew it must be you.”
He stared at her forehead, temporarily drowning out the thoughts coming from Eddie:
What does this Prof want to talk to us about? If I don’t do anything, Eddie will keep going after other women. Just wait until he leaves the college. I’ll follow him and once I get him alone...
“Professor,” said Eddie, “what did you want to talk about?”
“Can you wait outside? I’d like to speak to Victoria alone.”
Once Eddie was gone, Greg said, “I didn’t want him to hear our discussion.”
“He’s a disgusting person,” she said. “We have history.”
“I’m here to help you, Victoria. I can’t tell you how, but I know what Eddie did to you and I’m sorry you had to go through that. I know people who can help you. They can charge Eddie and put him away.”
Victoria looked at Greg. “I... I was planning to take care of him myself.”
“Don’t do it!”
“Why do you care? You don’t even know me.”
“I know what it’s like to come to the end of your rope, and I don’t want you to ruin your life. Nothing’s been done so far that can’t be fixed, but if you kill him, I can’t help you. There’s another reason I care, though. One that’s much more personal.”
“What do you mean?” Victoria asked.
Greg reached for his wallet, took out a photo and passed it to Victoria.
“Who’s this?” she asked.
“Krista, my daughter. She was killed twelve years ago by a psycho in a school shooting. It was in all the newspapers. That picture was taken two weeks before she died. Look at her red hair and green eyes. She looks like a younger version of you. If she’d lived, she’d be around your age today.”
Victoria looked at the floor. “I’m sorry about your daughter, but if I don’t do something, Eddie’s going to walk.”
“You’re smart,” Greg said. “You’ve proven that in the classroom. Let me help you.”
Victoria handed Krista’s photo back to Greg. “You’re only a professor. How could you possibly help me?”
“A threat against a student was called in last night, and I was brought in to investigate. One more thing, Victoria: the gun in your bag.”
“How did you—?”
“I can’t explain right now. Please trust me. We’ll get Eddie through legal means. But I need you to give me the gun. To protect you from yourself.”
Victoria opened her backpack and took out a black revolver. For a few fleeting seconds, Greg wondered if she’d point it at him and pull the trigger. He imagined the bullet tearing through his forehead, blood and brain matter splattering the grey carpet, his surroundings fading to black as he went unconscious.
Tears streaming from her eyes, Victoria handed the gun over.
Greg put it in his briefcase. “If you want to pursue charges, here’s my boss’s number.” He passed her Simms’s card.
* * *
One year later:
Someone was knocking at the front door of Greg’s cottage in the Central Ontario wilderness. It was nine in the morning; he had just finished breakfast and was staring with interest at his computer screen. Since he never had visitors, he assumed it was his monthly food delivery, groceries shipped in from the nearest town thirty miles away. The knocking jarred Greg out of his concentration on the email he’d been reading:
Hi, Mr. Sanders,
Hope everything is going well. Are you still teaching? I got your email from Simms. Just wanted to thank you for your encouragement last year. My dad passed away just before the summer. Your kind words got me through the most difficult time of my life. I charged Eddie, and the trial is currently taking place. I’m not sure if you’ll be there, but it would be great to see you and maybe have coffee sometime.
The knocking sounded again, this time louder. Greg put his tablet down on a side table, got up and went to the door. “What are you doing here?” he said through the screen to the grey-haired man standing on the porch outside. “I thought I asked you not to—”
“I’m breaking my promise,” Simms said, smiling. “Wow. That’s quite a beard you’ve grown.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Is that any way to treat a guest?”
Greg opened the door. “I don’t see many people out here, so my etiquette has eroded. Have a seat on the couch. Would you like something to drink?”
“Black coffee would be great,” Simms said.
A few minutes later, Greg brought the drink in and set it down on the coffee table.
“You’re set to testify for the prosecution in Victoria’s rape case,” Simms said. “All your thought readings from that day at the college are evidence and have been extracted from your brain. They want you to testify in person, so I agreed to come pick you up.”
“Why do they need me,” Greg asked, “if all the evidence has been extracted from my brain?”
Simms sighed. “They don’t. Look, Victoria told me how helpful you’d been to her through everything, and I thought it would be nice if you’d appear on her behalf. I know it’s tough for you to be around people but, if you’d like, I can take you back to Toronto now. You can stay with me. It’s your choice, of course.”
After Simms had gone, Greg sank back into his chair and reread Victoria’s email. She reached out to you, a voice in his mind said. That must mean something. And didn’t you promise to help her?
Greg stared out the living room’s large bay window. A hawk, perched in a nearby oak tree, screeched, flapped its wings and took flight, perhaps in pursuit of some prey.
Since his retirement, Greg had spent his time experiencing life through a computer screen. He’d always wanted seclusion. It was safe, a buffer against the pain of communicating with others and hearing their thought noise. Now he couldn’t stop thinking about Victoria, who resembled his daughter, facing the abuse alone. Without her dad.
Greg knew about loneliness. He had felt it while in the psych ward when the nurses and doctors had looked “through him” as though he didn’t exist. He’d felt it after his daughter had been cruelly snatched from his life. After Krista’s death, he’d given up on any possibility of a second chance at life. But here it was.
Although he’d told Simms not to contact him, Greg was glad his boss hadn’t listened. He went into his bedroom, removed his suitcase from the closet and began packing for the trip back to Toronto.
Copyright © 2019 by Morris J. Marshall