The Substitute

by Angela Kempe

They looked so innocent as they filed into the music room, eyes staring widely at their substitute. Miss Doolittle stood nervously at the front of the classroom.

“My name is Miss Doolittle,” she said, pointing to the board. “Mr. Frederick is out today and I’m very excited to be your substitute!”

Miss Doolittle didn’t know exactly how many students she had. In fact, she wasn’t exactly sure what grade she was teaching either. The sub that brought them in had only said they were two combined classes and to go hard on them. If they were out of line, then tell them they’d have no field trip. Miss Doolittle tried to remember, but she was too busy going over the lesson plan in her head. The music teacher hadn’t left much. Only a printout with general class times, grade levels, and teaching topics. Arrows were handwritten to signify a change in schedule, which had so far not gone as planned. And USE YOUTUBE, was written in red along the right margin.

But Miss Doolittle hadn’t figured out how to get the speaker system or the TV to work and no one had come to help her yet. That was okay, she had taught private piano for twenty-five years and was filled with musical knowledge to share with her class. She had taught thousands of times. How hard could public school teaching be?

One big kid broke from the lineup in the risers. He started shifting uncomfortably in his pants. Then his dance became a karate kick.

“All of Mr. Frederick’s rules still apply,” she warned.

Then there was another rumble of voices and five students sat down on the risers and began drawing in their notebooks.

“Everyone quiet! Stand up! No drawing!”

Miss Doolittle searched her memory for one of the common teaching techniques. She clapped an elementary rhythm.

A few students knew to repeat it, but the others just ignored her.

She clapped again…

That seemed to work momentarily, but the same boy who had been wiggling was jumping off the risers now.

“Stop that! Stay in place!”

He glanced back at her and grinned, his fat cheeks protruding like soft nectarines.

“If you’re not good, you will lose your field trip!”

She caught some of the kids attention. That was enough for her.

“Everyone take a deep breath and raise your arms to the sky.”

“Now sing, Mommy made me mash my M&Ms!”

The kids laughed.

“That’s stupid!” one girl yelled from the front row.

It was the first time Miss Doolittle had tried it. It had worked for her Kindergarteners. Wrong age… she thought. As she fumbled for another warmup, the boy had found a few other kids and began running around the classroom with them, all the while, the noise level escalating. Miss Doolittle began to feel the hot sweat of defeat.

“Sing Ha-ha-ha!” she resumed, singing a simple scale and conducting the class to repeat it.

But the class entered in two different places and were completely out of tune.

“Hold on! You don’t do warmups?”

“Why don’t we watch TV like the other subs?” another voice announced from the crowd.

Miss Doolittle was a stubborn woman and a traditional one. She would teach them music today.

 

“You have music? That should be fun!” the teacher laughed during morning planning period.

Miss Doolittle remembered her encounter with one of the fifth grade teachers at the school.

“Yes,” she said, enthusiastically. “It will be fun!”

She hadn’t understood the strange look in his eyes that morning. The rumble of sound had become an ear-piercing roar. Kids were running in every direction. Some were coming up to Miss Doolittle in an attempt to give her advice about her class. Some were jumping from the risers in absolute defiance. Miss Doolittle stood in the middle of the room shouting, but her voice had gone hoarse from yelling over them.

A young boy came up to her in the confusion and tugged at her shirt.

Miss Doolittle looked down at his worried expression. His eyes were glassy, his brow furled.

“It’s too loud!” he cried.

“Yes,” she said. “It is too loud. Go back to your place and be a good boy.”

She imagined herself standing in a war zone. They had won… She knew it.

If You Loved Me

byAngela Kempe

 

I thought that we,

Had what we need.

I would love you,

You would love me.

What are these dreams,

crumbling?

It’s as it seems,

Tumbling.

What could we be,

If you loved me,

Like I do?

 

I promised you,

You promised me.

We promised us,

All we could be.

But you loved you,

And I loved me.

Now you are gone,

I am set free.

What could we be,

If you loved me,

Like I do?

The Band

by Angela Kempe

Melissa stood on the lawn of the city garden as the bluesy sound of the rock band welled up through the park in a lazy summer haze. People were lounging in short folding lawn chairs, sipping cheap $7 beer out of plastic cups as the hot sun burned the delicate skin of their pale cheeks. Melissa wanted to stay and listen, but her kids were tugging at her arms. The heat had gotten to them and their patience for the fair had already run out.

“Do you want to play on the playground?” she asked.

Her daughter looked interested, but sweat was beading up on her hairline and she looked more like she needed a nap. Melissa wasn’t ready to admit it yet. Her eight-year-old son, Jerry, would do it for her.

“Let’s go!” he said, tugging at his mother’s arm. “It’s too hot!”

It was decided between the children. Her kids began pulling at her arms incessantly, leaning into their weight with all forty-some pounds of their little bodies.

Melissa stood looking longingly at the band. She remembered her dream of being a musician that had faded long ago. She felt the fat of motherhood gathering sticky sweat between her legs, reminding her that she’d never be a superstar. Melissa pressed her feet into the ground, turned away from her children, and leaned on her own weight to counter their effects.

At that moment, their small hands melted into heavy shackles and the heat formed a rippling wall between herself and her beloved. She turned towards the stage again, and suddenly she was standing in front of a mic with thousands of eager faces looking back at her.  She could still feel her children pulling, straining to bring her back from this new dimension she was lost in.

She could hear the band wailing. The drummer smiled at her and nodded for her to make her entrance. His sticks played a crisp four-four. The bass was repeating that soulful melody just for her. Melissa searched for some memory of the lyrics. She took a breath. Maybe something would come to her. Maybe she could still find the song deep inside. Then, she remembered.

“Summertime…” she sang.

The mic echoed over the crowd. Her children jerked at her and her body crossed briefly back into reality. She tried to stretch her neck forward. She could still see the crowd.

“…And the living is easy.”

Her children’s sweaty hands locked themselves on her wrists. They pulled her back. She stared at them defeated. The stage was gone. All was gone, but she was beyond crying.

“Good voice,” called out someone from the crowd.

Melissa looked over at a man sitting on a lawn chair. He took another sip of beer. His face had turned red from sitting for hours in the sun. He looked at her through his sunglasses.

“Wrong song though,” he criticized and he finished off his beer.

Antique

by Angela Kempe

Michaela was rummaging through the bins of a Sunday yard sale when she spotted it; a vintage handheld mirror. The reflection of light first caught her eye, but it was the intricately carved solid wood handle that made her stop what she was doing to study the old mirror. She wiped the dust off the glass and gazed softly into it, astonished by what she saw: Her reflection looking back at her in more detail than she had ever seen it.

“Is that the way I look?” she asked her friend Judy.

Judy looked up casually from the clothes bin.

“Yep,” she said and held up a pair of jeans. “Do you think I should buy these? Only two dollars. Good brand.”

Michaela whisked her away with her hand.

“Yeah, yeah. Get it.”

She took out a five dollar bill from her jacket pocket and un-crumpled it.

“I’ll take this.”

“Dollar fifty,” said the lady.

The lady took the money and searched for the change in her metal box.

“That’s a good one. It was my grandma’s.”

“Looks old,” Michaela smiled.

She handed her the change.

“Take care of it well.”

On the way back from the sale, Michaela found herself captivated by her reflection in the mirror.

“I didn’t know I had this much gray,” Michaela said,  picking at the small hairs on her scalp.

Judy was driving.

“Maybe I should start dying my hair.”

“You don’t have any gray!”

“Right!” she said and leaned against the car window with the mirror.

Two weeks passed. Michaela barely ate. All she could see in the mirror was fat. She stopped calling her friend Judy. She just lay on her bed with the mirror. Sometimes she cried as she watched the wrinkles forming on her face. She lay in her bed searching for the girl she once was. Months passed. She stopped taking phone calls. Finally, her friend called Michaela’s parents and had them let her into the house.

Judy knocked on the door.

“I’m doing something! Go away, mom!” Michaela hollered.

“It’s me!” Judy said and opened the door.

Michaela looked up at Judy with tears in her eyes.

“I’m so old! How come you never told me how old I was?”

Judy’s eyes welled up with tears. She stepped towards her friend.

“Michaela, you are only sixteen.”

The Disappearing Man

by Angela Kempe

It happened again. Jake was rummaging through the fridge the first time when it happened. He thought it was a hallucination and called his therapist who referred him to a Psychologist who put him on Paxil. Jake was getting used to the fact that he was disappearing. Sometimes as he sat on his sofa, he’d watch his hand vanish while he pet his dog. One time he vanished so much he rushed over to the bathroom and got on the scale, just to make sure he was still there. The scale read thirty-two pounds. He told his therapist everything, but she didn’t seem to care. Maybe she’d heard it all. Maybe he was just disappearing to her as well.

Often when Jake disappeared he’d start to have a panic attack. He felt like he couldn’t breathe. His face would drain of blood and his hands would get clammy. The meds helped a little with the breathing, but they didn’t seem to help with becoming invisible.

“Can you still see me?” he asked his dog.

Buster was used to him. When it first happened, he’d fill the house with his ear-piercing barks. He’d press his long black body into his paws and look up at Jake with his tail wagging madly. But Buster was used to him by now. He shifted his body at the sound of Jake’s voice as he laid by the couch and then went back to sleep.

But Jake wasn’t accustom to being gone. Jake ran to the bathroom mirror and watched his face closely in the smudged glass. He could barely make out the details of his body. His reflection stared back at him like a faint pencil sketch. The contours rippled like shadows on a water surface. He tried to remember the details of his face before they went. He had never paid attention to his lashes or the small bumps on his skin before, but somehow they had become important now that they were vanishing. How many eyelashes did he have? What was the true color of his lips? Jake felt a heaviness in his lungs again. He tried to calm himself and force a breath passed the asthmatic feeling he had. Then it happened.

Jake tried to put his hands on the sink, but they fell right through the porcelain. He searched for himself in the mirror. The reflection only showed the bathtub behind him and the tiled walls.

“Help!” he shouted, frantically.

He cried, but couldn’t feel any tears run down his cheeks.

 

Suzy searched the playground for a man in the distance. She thought it was her father and stood up from the sandbox with her dirty barbie in hand. But before she could run to him, she started wondering. What did Daddy look like? She couldn’t remember anymore.

Beautiful

by Angela Kempe

The Alps carved the skyline with its frosty jagged edge, laying across the soft blue of the sky like torn decoupage. I shivered a little in my long white dress, kicking at the dirt with my cowboy boots and hiding my cold hands in the pockets of my white knit sweater. The dusty trail overlooked a grassy meadow, and I could see a few Swiss cabins and some trees gently adorning the majestic landscape while the snowy mountains towered above them.

I stared into the eyes of my husband. His face was worn and tired from years of raising a family, but his smile was still as bright as a child’s as he gazed lovingly back at me.

“We made it,” he said.

The children were already fidgeting restlessly. Timmy was wiggling in his suit like a worm and Grace had slowly started inching towards the rocks. They were too young to really understand, but for me it was a new commitment. A commitment to another ten years of life, and this time maybe we’d be more mature and ready for it. This time we might not rush into things. We’d bring our total selves and somehow it might be better.

“I love you for who you are and who you will become. In sickness and in health, I will love you unconditionally and forgive you without reservation. I promise to be a friend to you and to journey through this life together as your partner. I will listen to you and respect you. And as your equal, I will share my spirituality and the lessons I learn in life. I will lift you up when you can no longer stand and smile proudly as you achieve your dreams. I know that life has ups and downs, and I will be with you through all the highs and lows, so that we may one day look back at this great accomplishment: our lifetime commitment to each other.”

John slipped the ring over my finger. I had sent for it to be custom made. It had our original diamond in the middle and our children’s birthstones on either side. Ten small diamonds representing our ten years of marriage were set around the main diamond. And as John held my hand, the ring caught the morning light and sparkled.

In my mind it was beautiful. In my mind everything was perfect. I turned the ring in my hand as I looked out the airplane window. Why couldn’t he commit to me like I did him? I thought.

“Mommy,” Grace said, nudging my arm.

A tear streamed down my cheek.

“Are we ever going to see Daddy again?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said and took her hand. “But it will be different now.”

The Challenger Deep

by Angela Kempe

The day James lost Suzy to cancer was the day he gave up on life. But he hadn’t given up on his dreams of exploration. He vowed to go back to The Challenger Deep before he died and solve the great mystery of the abyss. It was the deepest part of the ocean; seven miles deep. More than the height of Mt. Everest turned upside down with an equivalent of three SUVs of pressure squeezing every square inch of his submarine. James’ final adventure would be to go back to that dark place and find what every explorer dreamed of: New life.

James plunged his green submarine down into the abyss and waited hour after hour for the first sign of the ocean floor. At three thousand feet there was no light left from the sun. He sat in his black cap and shirt, balled up in a sphere that was his only safety from the extreme pressures of the sea.

“Suzy,” he whispered as he brushed his fingers over the wrinkled portrait of his beloved.

Before, he had reason to fight for his life in the deep, but now everything on the surface seemed trivial. Kids were grown and had seemingly forgotten about him. The ex-wives hated his guts. No, today he would push his submarine to its limit.

As he descended to five thousand feet, he saw a school of amphipods swim passed the lights of his camera. Their bodies glowed neon pink as they passed the submarine. He observed the occasional deep sea fish whose bioluminescent bodies glowed in the dark distance. But as he fell deeper, so did every sign of life vanish one by one until he was finally truly alone.

Suddenly, the controls began to flash. It was nothing new to him. He examined the alarms. An oil leak brought him up early before. The oil looked good this time, but he could hear the creaking of the sub walls as they began to crush like an aluminum can. He started tapping his fingers in his lap nervously, reminding himself to breathe. Breathe. Just breathe.

Then the submarine grazed the bottom of the sea floor. He brought it down ever so gently, knowing that if he landed too hard, it would surely kick up a storm of loose sediment that would fog up the sea around him like thick milk.

“I’ve reached the bottom,” he said over the radio.

“Roger that.”

He looked earnestly at the camera, the repetitive sound of alarms pinging in his ears.

“I don’t see much of anything yet. Just the same things as last time.”

He scanned the sea floor for life, but the bottom of The Challenger Deep was as desolate as the surface of the moon. The light of the submarine gave off a hazy blue glow. He missed Suzy’s voice on the radio. He could have used it right about now.

Hours passed and still nothing. Then, that same cloud of oil came up from the side of the sub. This was the end. He hadn’t any time left.

“I’ve detected an oil leak. I’m going to have to ascend soon.”

“Roger that.”

The voice of the marine was monotone and casual. Just a soldier doing his job, not Suzy, who would have been excited or worried for him.

“I’m going to bring her around one more time before I go.”

James brought his sub around and pointed the camera into the dark behind him. That same underwater desert he knew so well stretched before him. He took some last soil samples and pressed a few buttons to begin his ascent.

Then, he noticed a glimmer of light in the distance. James perked up in his sphere. He tried to move his legs that had gone numb hours ago and were aching horribly, but he couldn’t move them enough to ease the pain. Didn’t help that he was seventy-years-old.

“What was that?”

A few minutes later he saw another flash of light. He read the sonar anxiously. He couldn’t believe it. What he thought was a large rock formation was something hiding against the steep wall of the trench, and as it came towards him it flashed a yellow light in the water.

James didn’t have time to think. He stuttered at the radio in horror. If his instruments were right, that creature was five times larger than his submarine. He tried to gather himself as the creature swam towards him.

“I see something. It’s big…” he gasped.

Sweat began to drip from his hat down into the white of his trimmed beard. His hands were clammy with fear. The creature came into the light of the camera. Its body became a wall of flesh in front of him.

“Dear Lord,” he mumbled.

Suddenly, the animal flashed another light. This time the light was so blinding that James had to squeeze his eyes shut in pain.

All that was left in the end was the deep lonely ocean, and another mystery of the great Challenger Deep.