Alton One: Friday, February 12, 2012
By Lance Goodman
Today Tsatso told me a story from his childhood. It was early morning and we were sitting at his work station gazing down at Earth, admiring her beauty. "It's amazing how innocent it looks from up here," I said.
"Alton looks innocent too from this distance," Tsatso said. I leaned back in my leather chair and looked over at him. "The Alton Guard doesn't just guard over your planet, you know."
It's amazing how I never thought of that before. It's amazing the stereotypes we develop. When we think of aliens we think of large heads, big black eyes, and thin, white bodies. We think they are so technologically advanced they don't have the problems we do. Ditto for how they thought of us on that infamous day 2012 years ago.
So Tsatso told me a story, and while he was telling it I found myself gazing down upon a planet focusing on North America.
I don't want to get this story wrong, so I'm entering the printed version of what he said into this blog. Yes we have the technology for that. You'd be so amazed what can be done here. But that's not the topic for today. So here's Tsatso in his own words.
I was a boy of 12, innocently playing on the Rotabond play set. It's a computerized play set that kids on your planet would yearn to try out. I found myself on a spaceship on my way to planet Earth, when all of a sudden all went dark.
So now I'm no longer an Alton boy, and my life is forever changed, or so I thought. You know how it turned out, but back in 3012 I had no idea how things would turn out. I didn't even get much of a chance to think about that.
Just to give you an idea what life was like living among the Sassa Guard I want to tell you a story. You see, I trudge down to the principal's office and sit on an old wooden chair reserved for the naughty Children of Sassa Elementary. Mrs. Nehpson is an old prune faced secretary who shows her lack of respect for me by monotonously typing as though I didn't exist.
Click-clack, click-clack, click clack went the keyboard as the old goat works away on her project. I look up at the clock on the wall behind the secretary’s desk and not the hands seem to stay on 3:10 for what seem an eternity. I continue watching the clock as the second hand works its way around.
I look back down at
Mrs. Nehpson who said brusquely the first time I sat in this chair, “Stay seated and be very quiet as to be respectful to others who pass through this office. Mr. Chnarb will let me know when he’s ready to see you.” Since then I sat in this chair way too many times, becoming all too familiar with her -- Mrs. Nehpson's -- habits.
I look back at the clock, the monotonous din of her typing in the background, and not it now reads 3:11. I watch as the second hand slowly, slowly works its way back around until the minute hand moves over a smidge to indicate 3:12. While these few minutes move by unnoticed by the secretary, to me they seemed an eternity.
I hear the shuffle of feet just outside the door behind me and to the left. There's a little hallway, and a guard stands tall and stiff in his full military gear. He looks as you remember me looking the day I introduced myself to you, how most humans remember us. I can't see him now, I just know he's there, waiting to nab me if I choose to run.
Finally, as I watched the minute hand move over to the 3:13 spot, another little boy with a sheen of snot spread across his face sat beside me in a second old wooden chair. This boy wipes tears off his face with the back of his hand, and then used his forearm to wipe snot from his nose to his neatly pressed Dleiftsew Elementary uniform.
He sniffs and sniffs and sniffs again until the old goat stops typing, grabs a box of tissues, and tosses it at the snot-faced boy. The box smacks the boy on the forehead and lands on the floor by his feet. Stunned, he looks up at the secretary who proceeds typing as though nothing had happened. Tears run down his face in torrents, his cheeks reddening with fear. He moves his hand as though to pick up the tissue box, but then he must have decided how foolish that would be -- how deadly that could be, and sits back in his chair.
The clock ticks and now indicates 3:14. I never stop watching that red second hand go slowly, slowly round and round the face of the clock. The whole incident with the snot-faced boy and the secretary was observed only by my peripheral sight, without any movement of my body or head. I was well aware of what might happen if I made the wrong move, or even blinked too many times.
The clock strikes 3:15.
In the distance I (we) hear a muffled scream followed by an adult male voice bellowing, “Hush!” Then there is a snap, as though by a whip, and another scream, and another bellow of, “Hush.” Then the room is silent except for the old goat click-clacking away.
I watch as the clock strikes 3:16. I think of my dad telling me stories of the the principal, of how he was in every horror tale ever told. How he must be older than dirt. I wonder if he was older than the prune faced secretary.
"There is a tale I will relay when you are older," my dad said the day before he lost his head. "Of how this man lost his arm when he was a boy, and yet conformed to Dleiftsew standards. Now he is the inflictor of what he once feared most, and does so without empathy."
Without having to look, I know to my right is a door with the name Enaz Hcnarb in large bold black letters painted sloppily across it, and the word Principal scribbled in red paint below that. The red paint had dripped down the door and some drops had even landed on the floor. I had asked another boy about it once, a naughty boy who sat next to me, and he had said the red was not paint but blood of innocent boys, boys they call naughty. Earnest had never seen that boy again. From this same door the muffled screaming is heard once more.
The noise had ceases, and I continue to watch the clock for what seems like years but is actually only ten minutes. Ican tell the boy next to me is miserable, as the boy occasionally turns his head and rubs his nose on the shoulder of his navy uniform. He blows his nose twice more and sits stiffly every time he thought the secretary sneers.
I watch the second hand work its way awkwardly around the face of the clock. Via my periphery, I can see flashing blue and red lights out the window to my left. I hear a hover car door shut, and
think I see people moving. I know what they are doing: They are gathering a stretcher and are heading for the back door to the principal’s office to haul another naughty boy off to Dleiftsew Hospital.
The clock strikes 3:20. Click-clack, click-clack, click-clack goes the keyboard, and a sniff, sniff, sniff from the boy with the snotty face.
Finally, the phone rings. Mrs. Nehpson stops typing. “
Mrs. Nehpson,” says the brusque, raucous voice into the receiver. “Yes… He sure did deserve it… I have two more brutes waiting so don’t go far… Yes. Call me when you know how long he will be out of school; I need to let Mr. Cochran know… Good day, sir.”
She hangs up the phone and continues with her typing.
The clock strikes 3:22.
To my right I can hear the principal speaking and figure the paramedics had entered his office to take away the naughty and severely punished, perhaps mutilated child. I could hear a beeping sound coming from the principal’s office, a slam of a door, an inexplicable screeching sound, and then silence but for the click-clack, click-clack, click-clack.
I almost didn't realize what I did, but I'm now staring at the principal's door. I look at the secretary and notice she is staring at the computer screen as she had been doing all along. "Whew!" she didn't notice my slip. “Not very often one gets a break like that,” I thought. I look back at the clock and see that it is 3:25. I figure I better not test my luck like that again.
Out the window I see paramedics loading the hover ambulance. I hear the double doors in the rear slam shut, then the door in the front slam shut as the driver boards. I hear the engine rev, and then, in a heartbeat, the rescue craft is gone.
The phone rings the typing stops and the prune faced secretary picks up the receiver, “Hello,” she says. There must not have been anyone there, for she hangs up the phone. In the silence that ensues, and for the first time since I'm in this old, musty smelling place, I hear the ticking of the object I'm so focused on. Mrs. Nehpson turns in her chair so she is now facing her desk and us boys; but she never looks at either of us. She continues to sort out papers on her desk until the phone rings again.
“Hello,” she said. “Okay.” She puts down the receiver, lights a cigarette (yes, such habits are not just human), and walks across the room. As she does, a cool breeze wafts the cigarette scent past my nose. The snot-faced boy sneezes. I wince slightly, but otherwise don’t budge -- don't dare to.
The old bat knocks on the principal’s door. “Come in,” the principal shouts. She opens the door just enough to squeeze through; then closes it tight behind her.
“God, she looks so scary,” the acne faced boy whines; then sniffs. He snatches the box of tissues from the floor. “What do you think they’re going to do with us?” He looks at me, then at the floor, then back at me. I, on the other hand, continue to look at the clock; and listen to its ticking. I can hear the muffled sound of voices from behind the principal's door. I know my time will be up soon. He figure the old goat will be coming back out this time. My heart starts racing.
“Boy? Boy? What do you…?” the snot faced boy starts, but stops as we hear the handle on the door make a sound. After several minutes of staring stiffly at the door, he the boy turns and faces me again, and whispers, softer this time, “I’m scared. What are they going to do with us?” I don't answer. I turn to look at the boy to see his eyes are still teary. I wonder what this little kid had done. I wonder what his punishment will be. I wonder what MINE will be. No time for those thought, though. I look back at the clock, note the time (3:31), listen for the sound of voices, hear none, and look back at the boy.
“What do you…?” the little kid starts, but stopped as I mouth, "Be Quiet!
“What?” the kid inquires, “I don’t understand.” Then I mouth, "Be quiet!" The snot-faced boy says, "Shut-up?”
I concentrate on the second hand.
“My name is Wilbur. What is yours?” he says. He looks down at the floor, sniffs, and then at me. Concentrating on the clock, I mouth the word, “No."
The boy starts taking again, and I whisper very quietly, "We are both going to die if you don't shut!" My teeth grit so hard my face aches.
“They won’t kill us, will they?” He continues to whine naively, his voice a bit louder this time. “They surely won't kill us.” He looks from the floor at me. He's now shaking his head vigorously. “Would they?”
I don't answer, only pucker my lips and work hard to hold back my own tears. I mouth, "Shhhhh!"
The boy says, "What? What are you trying to tell me?” I mouth, "Shhhhh!"
He isn't getting the clue. So I turn in my chair, sit upright, and stare back at the clock. He note the time as 3:36.
“Should I run for it? Is that what I should do?” he says. He rips a tissue from the box and blows his nose, loudly. The boy gets up from his chair, looks at me, and says with a shaky voice, “I can’t go in there. I can’t.” Tears stream down his face. I don’t budge.
The boy sits, as though finally trying to compose himself, but not for long. I understand why he's so full of trepidation. I feel so bad for him. But if I do anything, show any fear, we will both die. Staying calm is hard, but in his state of mind this boy is not going to survive. He was scared to death what will happen once he enters that door. By God, so was I.
"Why,” he said in a more composed voice this time, “My name is Wilbur. Don’t you stop looking at that clock and help me. You could get out too. Why can’t you just answer my questions?”
I mouthed again for him to be quit. The boy again ignores my plee.
“Come on!” Wilber demands. “Tell me something. I’m tired of people at this school being so serious. I’m tired of not knowing what happens in the real world. I’m tired of being scared that doing one little thing will result in me becoming a missing person. I’m tired of all the boys leaving Dleiftsew for a week and coming back with missing arms and legs and…”
The door to the principal’s office opens and
Mrs. Nehpson pokes her ugly head out. A puff of smoke billows into the room as she exhales loudly. I stare intently at the clock and Wilbur at the floor. Mrs. Holden then shuts the door. We can hear the muffled voices of the secretary and the principal from behind the door. We know the time will come very soon when one of us will have to enter that room
The clock ticks 3:42. Wilbur sniffles and blows his nose. I watch as the second hand revolves around the clock to 3:43, 3:44, 3:45 and, an eternity later, 3:46. That was when Wilbur shoots up from his seat, moves so that he stands right between me and the clock, and peers down into my eyes.
“Why can’t you just tell me something?” he roars. “Why do you have to follow the rules? I’ve followed the rules all my life and now look at me." His screeching voice gets louder with each progressive syllable. "What’s the purpose of your silence? Why do you have to delay your response to me? I WANT TO KNOW NOW!”
With that, mostly out of annoyance at the little boy’s credulity, and, perhaps, also because i had empathy for the boy who was acting as I myself did last month, I turn to face the smaller boy, and opened my mouth wide as he can.
Wilbur screams! Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!
Out of sheer surprise I'm knocked back in my chair. I hear a click and look at the pricipal’s door, see it opening, and watch as both
Mrs. Nehpson and Mr. Hcnarb come rushing out. Wilbur rushes for the exit, but he ran right into a security guard who is now standing in the doorway. The guard wraps his arms around Wilbur’s scrawny body as the boy writhes and squirms in his panic and his feeble attempt to escape.
“Take him into my room. The straps are ready,” decrees the principal. The guard awkwardly carries the flailing boy across the room and through the entryway to the room the kids of Dleiftsew fear the most, and so seldom talk about.
Mrs. Nehpson follows the guard and closes the door behind her.
Mr. Branch stands before me, blocking my view to the clock as Wilbur did moments before. He says, “Now what did you do this time boy? I figured you were here. "I don't budge, just continue to stare at the principal's chest, at his black tie, white shirt, neatly pressed. If I'm not mistaken, there is a tiny drop of blood just to the left of the tie.
"Why are you here boy?" Mr. Hcnarb demands. I notice my heart is racing, reverberating like a jackhammer trying to split my ribs and open my chest. I fear Mr. Hcnarb might hear it.
For fear of my life I DO NOT BUDGE.
"What did you do?" Again, I DO NOT BUDGE.
“Well, what?” He places his right hand firmly on my chin and lift my head so I'm forced to look him square in the eyes. “Cat got your tongue.”
I think of my dad and what he said. If this guy is older than dirt, older than the secretary, his face didn't show it. He had not one wrinkle. I grit my teeth so hard my face aches. Please let me live! Oh God, I hope I didn't just mouth...
An awkward expression appears on the old man’s face; his eyes bulge, an eerie grin spreads. The stump that once was the principal’s right arm flailing back and forth like the tail of an overly excited puppy’s.
"Aha,” he says, “That’s it. I don’t have to punish you for your delayed response, because you can’t respond. Open your mouth boy, let me see how your stub is healing.”
I opened my mouth. The old man looks pleased.
“Yep,” he says. “You can close your mouth now. I see you’ve conformed well, and I’m quite pleased. I am, however, surprised to see you back here. You have heard stories of what we do to boys who keep coming back, I’m sure.” He steps back and leans against Mrs. Nehpson's desk, folding his good arm across his chest. The sleeve of the other, I cant help but notice, had been cut off and tied neatly to cover the stump.
“Would you like to get off with a warning this time?” He says more as a statement than a question. I nod solemnly, unrelenting.
“Good. Well, let me think,” Mr. Hcnarb continues. “Since you can’t answer me, I won’t order you to tell me what you did wrong this time. I can’t play that game.” He stops as a scream is heard from his office. Wilbur continues to yell things that can not be understood through the door.
“Ah,” says Mr. Hcnarb. “It won’t be long before he learns a lesson the hard way just as you did last month. You did learn your lesson quite well, I think. Your conformity this evening is impressive.” Then the principal, agile for a man supposedly older than dirt, leaps forward so he stands right before me, grabbing me by the collar, losing his grip and slapping the me across the chin. The corners of me lips curl just so slightly, but otherwise I don't budge.
“Oops,” the old man says. “I wanted to get you to stand.” He gestures for me to stand. I stand. The old man bends down awkwardly so his face is level with mine.
“ Guess what,” Mr.
Hcnarb says, and smils a huge gaping smile that reveals teeth perfectly aligned and white as a toddler’s. I want to look away, but I did that last time and it cost me. I force myself to look right at the old man’s face, at his eccentric grin, flat nose that looks awkward on his narrow face. Then he look at his hair all perfectly, meticulously combed back but for one strand of hair on top that stood straight up. Then I look right into the old man’s deep, dark eyes.
“YOU'RE ALL RIGHT, YOUNG MAN!” the principal shouts. A God awful smell of rotten mints comes from his mouth. “You know, I think I might have a job for you some day. Well, if you don’t get yourself killed like that Preen boy did today. You know, he kept coming back and coming back; I just couldn’t let him continue being that way. You know: If you can’t be perfect, then what’s the point of being. I know you understand what I’m talking about. You do, don’t you?”
I don't budge.
“Do you?” Mr. Cndnarb asks earnestly. I'm afraid to nod, instead I continue to heed my dad's advice. Yet I give in. I nod.
“There you go again with your delayed responses. You know, just because you have no tongue does not mean you can’t answer me prompt. Do you understand?”
“Much better. Yes. Much better.” He smiles, turns, takes two long steps toward his office door, and stands; his nose nearly touching it. I focus my eyes upon the clock again. It reads 4:05.
“They should be here any time now to pick Preen up. I told Mr. Cochran to just leave him lying in the front of the classroom. Perhaps this will be a lesson to the class, and they will stay out of the naughty chair.”
Shouting continues from the boy tied up in the room behind the door Mr. Hcnarb was staring at. Through the window to my left I hear a craft pull up to the school and shut its engine off. Without taking my eyes off the clock (4:07) I think the vehicle was a hearse, but I can't be sure without turning to look, which I surely couldn't risk.
Hcnarb shouts as he spins around quickly, taking two long steps back so he was once again stands between me and the clock. He looks squarely into my eyes. He says, haughtily, “I’m going to let you off this time boy. I know you were imperfect in gym class today, but I don’t care anymore. From now on, I’m not even going to have you take gym class. Yeah.” He nods. “For now on, I’m going to have you take another class instead. I say this because you're the brightest Alton I've ever met. You have potential for conforming brilliantly and making me look good.”
A shout of some profanity is heard through the door to his office. The door opens, and Mrs.
Nehpson pokes her head out, looking dismayed. “Mr. Hcnarb,” she says, “you had better get in here.”
“Right there.” He says without looking away from my face.
"Yes, we are ready," Mrs.
Nehpson says before disappearing into the mysterious room. She leaves the door open, but not enough so I can't see in.
“I didn’t do anything wrong!” Wilbur bellows. “I’m innocent. All I did was sneeze. I’ve been absolutely perfect all my life and what do you do to me for it. I’m innocent I tell you I’m…
“You know," Mr. Hcnarb says. "He was perfect. But we can’t have him sneezing on the other children. We can’t have him inconsiderately spreading his germs."
Hcnarb takes a step back, turns to his right, and looks toward the window. "Yep," he says, "That boy preen is dead; I’d hate to make it two today."
He turns to face me, stands silent for a moment, then says, "You know if you wouldn’t have panicked last month like Wilbur is right now I never would have had to..."
Wilbur screams and I can't help but to jerk back. It was a deathly scream like none other I'd ever heard. Mr. Hcnarb seemed oblivious to it, conditioned to such chilling sounds. Instead of flinching, he steps forward and says:
"Wilbur’s going to learn the same way you learned, my boy. I sure hope he turns out as well as you have. Imperfect, intractable and ignoble children: they do need to be punished. Don’t you agree?”
I nod. That jackhammer now working through my skin. Thank God I had a shirt on.
Hcnarb continues, "Yes, allowing an intractable child to leave this school without the proper disciplinary actions would result in internecine behaviors from which few, if any, would benefit. We cannot have that in this world; especially in our attempt to homogenize.”
He spins on his heel so his back faces me, and in a single motion scoops up a paper from the desk, and saunters to the entryway of his office. There he stops, turns, and says, “Now Tsatso, I’m giving you one more chance to conform. Don’t screw up.”
I nod. The principal disappears into his office and shuts the door. I continued staring at the clock, not confident that I should stop or leave. But, if I stayed, perhaps the principal would change his mind about letting me go if he came out and saw me still seated
here. What should I do? I surely didn’t want to make the wrong move. But, then again, indecisiveness is punishable.
I watch as the clock strikes 4:10. I can still hear the muffled shouting from the panicked boy with the snotty face. Then, as the clock strikes 4:11, a scream is heard, and then silence. Then please of, "Don't hurt me! DON'T HURT ME! DON'T HURT ME!'
Silence. I watch the second hand as it works its way around to show 4:15. I make a cursory glance out the window, and observe that it was, after all, a hearse waiting out there. Was it for Preen? “What if it’s waiting for me to make a wrong decision?”
Before I have a chance to make a decision I hear a deathly scream from Wilbur. I jolt out the door, past the security guard, and book for home.
I return to school the next day, and, thank God, never sit in the naughty chair again. I did, however, return to the principal’s office, but that wasn’t until several years later when I was promoted from my job as professor of inaudible students at Dleiiftsew Elementary.
So that was Tsatso's story. My gaze barely peered away from Earth (mother Earth as he calls it). People on that planet have no clue how good they have it, I thought. I had so many questions, like how he progressed from professor for the Sassa Guard to protector of earth for the Sassa Guard? Did he have to kill Sassa boys and girls? How did he do it? I decided it was best to hold my questions for another day.