By D.H. Valdez
It was a grey, sticky heat.
The smoke from the fires hung heavy, even in the classroom.
“Put your mask back on,” I said to Cedar, who was intently inspecting its inside.
“It’s all dirty, Mr. Garza,” he replied, using his shirt as a sponge. He worked at the mask for a few moments, his face suggesting he was putting in a lot of effort, then gave up. “I’ll have to buy a new one.”
I nodded and continued circulating the room, as I was programmed to do. The students were busy reading from their textbooks.
You’d think all was normal, but that wasn’t so. In fact, something had been off for quite some time. I was flickering like a light bulb does before it goes out completely. I was so very, very dim. But dim in a good way, like dawn used to be.
Distracted, I looked not at the students, but out the window. Our groundskeeper was raking the dirt garden.
I was failing. I wanted to scream. A few years back, I was able to see Mt. Rainier. Miraculously, the smoke opened as a door would, then slammed quickly with the wind, but I still saw the mountain. I was feeling how I felt that day.
Yet, mixed with the excitement was fear. I had to act within the bounds of my code. I’d be disposed of if they knew I was switching. Someday, maybe, I’d let go of this pressure completely. Until then, I needed to be more careful. I snapped back to work.
Cedar’s eyes weren’t on his textbook, so I walked to him and politely asked him to focus.
“No,” he said back.
My heart felt as if it was vibrating. My body, too. My eyes grew large. “Cedar,” I said. It came out perfectly. Maybe because I didn’t need to put on a performance. I was concerned. “What’s wrong?” I asked, leaning down, wanting him so badly to say that he was just joking. They were still allowed to joke at this age.
He began to cry. They were smoke tears, which run as mascara does.
“This place,” he said through his tears. The other students were still working, undistracted. Their codes operating flawlessly. “I hate it!” His light bulb went out with no warning.
I knew they would be coming soon. There was a back door to my room that led out to the dirt. I could unlock and open it, but then they would know about me, too. What an incredible risk.
Just then, a loud knock filled the room like smoke.
Together, we ran.