by Gabe Durham
(Previously published in Expressionists magazine. © Gabe Durham 2006)
“What was that?” said Brooks, looking up from his black college-rule spiral notebook.
Mrs. Conley frowned. “I told you to take out your Literature book, Brooks. You did bring your Literature book today?”
“No,” he said. “I guess I forgot it.”
“Well, that’s a point off for participation. Look on with Sandy.” Sandy inched her desk closer to his and he inched his away from her.
What good were participation points when Brooks was working on the masterpiece that was to launch him to superstardom? The collection was tentatively entitled Altered Perception, a book of short stories where nothing was what it seemed. Brooks, you see, was breaking all the rules. Every cultural value, every more, every taboo was to be shattered by Altered Perception. He had written four stories already in the past two days—like a prophet inspired by God.
This is how Brooks’ fifth story began:
“How did you become commander of this spacecraft?” asked the princess.
“Well,” said the toad, “It’s actually quite a funny story.”
“Out with it,” said the toaster. “We all love a good laugh.”
A strong opener, no doubt. The reader was filled with questions: Why do the frog and toaster talk? How did the princess end up on the spacecraft? How did the toad become commander of the spacecraft? Is the princess hot?
“I trust you all read the assigned reading on page 432,” said Mrs. Conley. “‘Raymond’s Run.’ It’s a fantastic story of a young girl named Squeaky who is a faster runner than anyone in town, except for her father. Squeaky takes care of her mentally handicapped brother, Raymond, and she protects him even though he is older than her.”
Mrs. Conley opened her book. “Let’s begin our discussion. First of all, did you kids like the story?”
Henry raised his hand. “It was really boring. I didn’t even like it at all.” Mrs. Conley glared at Henry. Henry could barely read, everybody knew that. He just said that every story was “really boring” or “so lame,” but he barely understood a word he read.
Jessica raised her hand. “I really loved it a lot. Sqeaky is a really strong girl, and I think it’s really great how she takes care of the retard.” Jessica just rephrased things that Mrs. Conley had already said. She had the highest grade in the class.
“That’s wonderful, Jessica,” said Mrs. Conley. “I also liked that.”
Brooks had read “Raymond’s Run,” and it was okay. But it was so conventional! Anyone could make up a story about some girl and her brother. But the stories in Altered Perception, those were different and special. The first story, for instance, was about how sometimes it’s a good idea to just kill yourself and this kid tries to shoot himself in the brain, but he misses and shoots his mom and kills her. Nobody sees it coming. Then the reader is invited to wonder whether or not he ever intended to kill himself in the first place.
An incredible tale, indeed, though certainly not Brooks’ last.
Brooks wrote on:
“Alright then,” said the toad. “You see, one time not too long ago, I was sitting on my lily pad, when three flies perched right beside me. So I did what any God-fearing frog would do.”
“I’m sorry, but aren’t you a toad?” interrupted the princess.
“Indeed I am,” said the toad. “Frog and toad are very interchangeable words. I would know.”
“Do go on,” said the toaster, glaring at the princess for the rudeness that she showed his glorious commander.
The toad doesn’t even know the difference between a frog and toad! How suspect. And why would the toad fear God? Toads don’t even have souls. But do talking toads have souls? Brooks’ story raised this question in a way that “Raymond’s Run” never could.
Brooks felt Mrs. Conley’s cold gaze fall on him, but he didn’t dare lose focus.
She moved on. “What does Squeaky think of the girl who pretends she doesn’t practice piano, but secretly does?”
Jenny raised her hand. “She hates them! She thinks they’re big, stupid phonies and I practice piano, like, all the time and I don’t care who knows it, so there.” The sound of Jenny’s defiant, poisonous voice pulled Brooks’ attention away from the story for just a moment, and he resented her for it. Five weeks and two days ago, Brooks had passed her a note that said, “Do you like me? Circle: Yes / No.” Jenny sent the note back, having circled a new category that said, “No Way, Gross.” They hadn’t spoken since that day… Not that they had spoken before that day, either. Anyway, Brooks didn’t even care anymore, he just felt sorry for Jenny because she was such a bitch.
“That’s right, Jenny,” said Mrs. Conley. “It’s important to be honest and truthful.”
How’s this for honest and truthful? Brooks’ second story was about how all the fat cats up in Washington are evil and corrupt and all they care about is money. No one was willing to say it but everyone knew it was true, and Brooks said it. But through allegory. Brooks’ story takes place on planet Americana, and the “fat cats” actually are cats. The story ends with anarchy, and all the cats die.
Were the fat cat story and the mom-shooting story merely flukes? Were Brooks’ creative juices depleted? No way. Story #5 was off to a great start.
The toad cleared his throat. “Where was I? Yes, the flies. Well I did what any God-fearing toad would do. I stuck out my long, impressive tongue and I ate one of the flies.
“How did it taste?” asked the toaster eagerly.
“Quite good, my dear boy,” said the toad. “Yet I was still hungry. So I ate a second fly.”
The toaster laughed politely as the princess stared blankly at the toad.
What does this story have to do with how the toad became commander of a spaceship? Brooks didn’t even know yet. All he knew was that pretty soon his readers were in for a shock.
Mrs. Conley walked up the aisle, trying to glance over Brooks’ shoulder at the masterpiece. He quickly pressed the notebook to his chest.
She moved back to the front of the class. “Why does Raymond run alongside his sister?”
Tim raised his hand. “He wanted to encourage her. Make her go faster.” Tim hadn’t said an interesting thing in his life.
Clarissa raised her hand. “He loved her.” Clarissa was new this year. She was from the South, and was way too polite for her own good.
“Even though he’s a retard,” Jessica added.
“That’s true,” said Mrs. Conley. “They had a very strong bond of love.”
You want love? Try Brooks’ third story on for size. It’s a romantic love story about two spy killers who are assigned to kill each other but fall in love. And there’s a really hot sex scene. But in the end, their duties are to their countries and they kill each other anyway.
So, how to end the toad’s tale? Predictably, that’s how. They’d never see it coming. Then you hit them with a twist, just when they thought they were safe.
“But I digress,” said the toad. “Now here’s the important part of the tale: My hunger was not yet satisfied, so I ate the third and final fly.”
The toaster went into a fit of applause. “The ending catches me off guard every time. Truly, you are the master of storytelling.”
The toad bowed at his friend, the toaster, who had served him so faithfully for years as first lieutenant aboard the vessel.
“That hardly explains a thing,” said the princess. “Who are you? What is this place? Why do you insist on calling me ‘princess’?”
What is going on? Is the princess even a princess? Does the toad want her to kiss him or something? Why does the toaster look up to the toad? Admiration? Fear?
Brooks glanced at his teacher quickly. She was staring right at him.
He brought his eyes back down to the notebook, and she resumed. “How has Squeaky changed by the end of the story?”
“She’s better,” said Henry.
“Raise your hand!” said Mrs. Conley.
Rachel raised her hand. “She’s more selfless. She learned that it’s not all about her, and that she can coach her brother at his running career and still be really happy.”
Selfless, eh? So is Brooks’ character in the fourth story, which he had written earlier that morning in 7th grade math. It’s about this radio deejay who swears all the time (and the story has the f-word in it a lot) and almost gets kicked off the radio so he cleans up his act. But then he gets a chance to speak at the Oscars, and he tells everyone to go f*** themselves because they’re all so fake. The deejay could’ve done the easy thing and been admired by the mindless drones, but he doesn’t, and that’s the most selfless thing of all.
It was time to administer the first punch in the face to the readers.
The princess was right to ask. These questions were legitimate. The problem is that they do not all have answers. Perhaps now it is appropriate to explain that the princess does not actually exist.
“Where did the princess go?” asked the frog, confused.
“Never mind her,” said the toaster. “We’ve got many light-years to travel before the day is done.”
“You’re right, of course, Dr. Toaster.” Apparently the toaster had a Ph.D. It is unclear what field he received his degree in.
“Remind me what you got your degree in,” said the toad.
“Uh… sociology,” said the toaster.
“Ah,” said the toad.
BAM! The princess doesn’t even exist! No one expected that! And what’s up with the toaster? Is he lying about being a doctor? Why would he lie? Is anything what it seems? Is ONE, TINY THING possibly what it seems?
Brooks could no longer hear the sounds of the classroom. Mrs. Conley, Raymond, Squeaky—they all took a backseat to this mysterious toaster. How to end a story with so much deception? So many loose ends? Then it came to him, all at once.
The toaster hesitated because he was lying to the toad. That’s okay because the toad does not actually exist.
The spaceship, also, does not actually exist.
But did you know that the average toaster only spends seven minutes a day actually toasting? This leaves quite a lot of free time. When nothing good is on the TV, the toaster makes up scenarios involving princesses, frogs, and spaceships.
It was all in the toaster’s head! The whole thing was just part of the overactive imagination of a lonely toaster! Has anyone ever come up with a story this original? Has anyone ever, in their lives, thought of something so clever? No! Impossible!
Mrs. Conley slammed her fist on her desk. “Brooks, what is going on? You’ve been writing furiously for the past twenty minutes! And now you’re just sitting there shaking, staring at your notebook? Stand up and bring it to me.”
No. No, the story’s time had not yet come. There was editing to do. Fine-tuning. Mrs. Conley’s small, simple mind would never comprehend the greatness of this story.
Brooks’ mission was clear. He had to protect his tale of the poor, lonely toaster. Not just for the sake of the toaster in the story, but for all the scorned, misunderstood, rejected toasters out there. They needed this story, and no 4th period hack English teacher was going to deny them of it.
Brooks bolted for the door. This was Brooks’ Run. He was not as fast as the retard in the story, but the notebook in his hand was his lotto ticket out of this hellhole and he might as well cash it in now.