It is strange the way they encourage us to seek out and squirm into places which are usually forbidden to us, but we are having too much fun to waste time questioning. Miles has spent most of the morning under Ms. Collars’ desk, rummaging through the small collection of shoes she keeps there, searching through the drawers for confiscated phones or the giant wad of gum she is rumored to fashion from the pieces we spit into the trash can throughout the year.
I have chosen the coat closet for my hiding place. For most of the morning I have been burrowing into a giant pile of coats, each bearing a tag marked with its owner’s initials. I have been bathing in the various smells, luxuriating in the strange imagined home lives of my classmates. I have always wanted to do this; I have fantasized about it for hours on end while Ms. Collars droned on and on about the branches of the government and the water cycle. For me – for all of us, I think – this day is a dream come true.
One of the other teachers is said to have rappelled down from the roof to the window of her classroom, tapping on the glass with a ruler and shouting, “I can still see you!” to a number of students who didn’t reckon on being looked for from that particular angle, sending them screaming delightedly to find new, more secure spaces in which to secrete themselves. Ms. Collars is far too old and hefty to pull off such a stunt; she strolls up and down the hall, past the windows, gripping her own ruler at shoulder-level and peering into the room with the same squint with which she searches our class daily for “cheaters and malingerers,” as she calls them. One glimpse of a cowlick, one flash of the sole of a shoe, and she barges into the room and bellows out the name of the student she has spotted. She asks him or her how his or her parents would feel. Then she exits the room and we try again.
The lights are off; anyone passing by would assume the room is empty. Signs have been placed on each door: LIBRARY. FIELD TRIP. BACK IN A JIFFY. The silence is delicious. Some of us fall asleep, safe in the warmth of our hiding places. Some of us whisper to friends across the room from our secret stations. Some of us shush each other while others start giggling and cannot stop. Then comes the tapping of the ruler on the glass, and all noises immediately cease.
The whole afternoon is like this. In the morning, up until lunch, we ran No Time to Hide drills, in which we are given ten seconds (counted over the loudspeaker by our principal, Mr. Weller) to search for items which could be used as weapons and then present them to Ms. Collars. I brought up an English textbook and was awarded a single star. Miles brought a staple remover he keeps in his backpack and was given three stars, which he stuck to the front of his shirt. Later in the morning Mr. Weller poked his head in the door and said, “Oh, look at this! A whole galaxy of stars!” Then he moved on to the class next door and we could hear him use the same line.
In a few minutes teachers from all over the school will storm our classroom, brandishing their rulers before them and screaming. They will uncover each of our hiding places, and when we are found we are to stand up and hold our “weapon” out in front of us. The longer we can stand still without laughing, crying or running – all while the teachers scream and jab their rulers within inches of our faces – the more stars we will be awarded. The winning class receives the Bravery Star and is given a picnic lunch on the last day of the school year. The act of standing still with our “weapons” in front of us is supposed to signify an “attack.” When Mr. Weller told us about it at the assembly he grinned and said, “That’s right! You actually get to attack your teacher! About time, right?” Then he kept nodding his head and everyone was quiet.
I lie back on the coats and listen to the sounds of the raid taking place a few doors down the hall. Next to me a purple coat – I can’t see the initials – begins to move. I pull at it and and uncover the head of Sara Guidry, who begins to giggle up at me. I had not realized she was here. I thought I was alone. I smile back, then reach over to pluck a purple sequin from her cheek. And then, not understanding what I am doing or why, I lean over and kiss her. I kiss her on her lips, which taste like syrup and stick to my own. And neither of us says a word.
My father once told me to keep away from girls, winking at my mother and explaining the dangers of the kissing disease, which he said could keep me laid up in bed for up to a month. Later, when I asked about it again, he said, “Honestly? It’s probably worth it,” and I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the pleasure of the thing that caused it or the time away from school that would result from contracting it. Lying on the coats next to Sara I hear the classroom next door erupt in shrill squeals and laughter – a voice I recognize as Ms. Collars’ cries, “Don’t you know how much danger you’re in?” and rulers rattle on desktops. I stare up at the ceiling and I can feel, deep inside me somewhere, the first tentative movement of the virus.
Jeffrey Winter is a married father of two young children and a high school English teacher in Cypress, Texas. He has been published in The Collagist, Pif Magazine, Eunoia Review, and others.