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art by Stephen James Kiniry

Classroom of the Living Dead

James Van Pelt teaches high school and college English in western Colorado. His fiction has made numerous appearances in most of the major science fiction and fantasy magazines. His first collection of stories, Strangers and Beggars, was recognized as a Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association. His second collection, The Last of the O-Forms and Other Stories includes the Nebula finalist title story, and was a finalist for the Colorado Blue Spruce Young Adult Book Award. His novel, Summer of the Apocalypse was released November, 2006. The recently released The Radio Magician and Other Stories received the Colorado Book Award. James blogs at jimvanpelt.livejournal.com.
They came for me on a Monday morning when I was too exhausted to hear the backdoor caving in. Only when their hands were on me did I realize that all was lost, but the dead didn't consume me. They dragged me out of the house, shambled the three blocks to the school, holding me tight in their rotted hands, shuffling in that loose-limbed, broken way that they had, until they'd pulled me up the stairs, through the front doors with their glass knocked out, down the hall strewn with books and abandoned backpacks, until we came to my room.
Here, too, windows were broken, and the Venetian blinds hung askew. Morning sun slanted through the uneven slats. They pushed me toward my podium. I clung to the top, sick with fear. When would they kill me? Would I become like them?
They stumbled against the desks, former students, all of them: Daniel, who used to play his guitar at lunch; Lisa, with her pierced lip and blue-dyed hair; Landon, who read manga and drew big-breasted girls in the back of his notebooks, all my students. They bumped into the chairs, moaning low in their throats, until they were sitting, a terrible parody of the class they once had been.
What did they want, with their white-washed eyes and bruised faces? They looked at me, blank-faced, but ravenous, expectant somehow. Hands gripped the sides of their desks. A breeze stirred a loose paper on the windowsill.
Finally, Joselyn, a girl who used to look like she ran a brush through her long, brunette hair a thousand strokes before she came to class, raised her hand, her hair a knotted mess now, her blouse torn and stained. She raised her hand and waited.
"Yes, Joselyn," I squeaked.
She opened her mouth, and for a while nothing came except a strangled gasping, until she forced the word: "Braaaiiins." Her hand dropped with a thud. "Braaaiiins."
"That's what you want?"
She nodded. They all nodded.
Was this what remained, after they died, after they reanimated? A desire to continue, to be a little bit of what they once were? Was it all habit? Would the athletes head to the gym after school to make layups? Would the marching band tramp across the field, their tuneless instruments dead in their grips?
Joselyn said, "Braaaiiins," a third time.
I found a marker in the desk. What could be more surreal, but who was I after all? The world had ended. The apocalypse had arrived. Still, I was who I was. They were what they had become.
I turned to the board. "Today, I will show you how to diagram sentences." I wrote on the white surface. I drew lines and made connections and spoke the arcane language of grammar. When I faced the class again, they were silent and attentive.
"Braaaiiins," someone in the back groaned.
By the time the sun had traveled to the horizon, I'd filled the board and erased it a dozen times. It didn't matter what I talked about. They didn't answer questions. They didn't move.
But they let me live.
Tomorrow I think I'll teach literature. Some Dickenson, some Poe. Tomorrow I'll teach to the dead and for the moment pretend that the world will go on.
Tomorrow they won't have to drag me to school.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, October 31st, 2011


I wrote "Classroom of the Living Dead" in support of our high school's "Write a Book in a Year Club," a group of students who love to write who meet in my room once a week. The kids wrote short pieces to share with each other, and this was my contribution. I don't know if I think of it as a teacher wish-fulfillment piece (the students want to learn!), or a teacher horror story (the kids are... well... dead, and I don't think they'll give him the weekend off).

- James Van Pelt

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