The sun rose and fell and rose on the solar model. The larger, orange orb, with sun written across the equator, revolved. A metal pole stuck on the bottom and connected the orb with to the mechanism under the blue earth. From the mechanism, six other string-thin, metal arms held six other orbs. earth sat in the middle. A finger pressed one of three switches at the device’s base and the sun stopped. Charlie blushed, shook his head, and turned to the finger’s owner.
“So” Mike said, hand still on the model’s base, “what do you think? It was my dad’s idea.”
Charlie retracted. He blinked and muttered. He examined the two two-liter Sprite bottles in his arms. A mass of electrical tape connected the bottles at their opening. Diamonds of white adhesive remained from when the label had been removed. He flipped the bottles and watched the liquid spin from the top. The whirlpool drained. He flipped the bottles.
“It doesn’t look right,” Charlie said.
“My dad says that’s the point. He said it’s supposed to be a toe-la-may-ick structure. My mom said I’ll win because my project’s thinking outside the box.”
“Parents weren’t supposed to help.” Charlie brought the bottles to his chest. Around the auditorium, he saw his classmates standing behind volcano replicas, tri-folded poster boards with cross-sections of seeds becoming plants, metallic arms bound to whining motors, and abstract metallic designs adorned with wires. Some students practiced speeches, referring to printed pages. A banner hanging from the ceiling declared the fifth grade’s science fair.
“They just say that.” Mike pushed the farthest reaching orb. It moved a bit but retracted when he removed his hand. “They know parents are going to do the work anyways.”
Charlie walked around the tables, stood next to Mike, and placed his bottles next to the off-kilter solar system diorama. The teachers entered. They stood side-by-side. Chatter ceased. Students hurried behind tables. Motors buzzed. A hamster wheel spun. Charlie centered his bottles. Mike flipped the different switches. Seven orbs, at different elevations, revolved around the singular, blue orb. The whole diorama emitted a slight buzzing.
The teachers patrolled the aisles, pausing at each table. Mr. Bently and Mrs. Squire bent over the exhibits while Ms. Landry scribbled on her clipboard. After she finished, she held the clipboard against her chest. At the mechanical arm, the student demonstrated, with the use of a RC car controller, the arm’s dexterity. It picked up and stacked blocks. The teachers conversed and moved to the next then the next. The arm dropped a block and powered down.
Three exhibits away, the hamster running in an exercise wheel connected to a lit sign, Charlie’s knees started to shake. A certain heat traveled under his shirt, settling near his hairline. As the teachers moved down the lone, Charlie gripped his table. The top bottle wobbled until he released his grip. Mike smiled. He stood straight, chin elevated, hands on hips.
The teachers came to rest before the diorama. The planets and the sun clicked along their paths. The teachers frowned in unison. Mr. Bently and Mrs. Squire turned to Ms. Landry, forming a circle. Mike offered Charlie a wink. Charlie heard the teachers discussing fast but couldn’t hear any particular words. The teachers quieted and took a few seconds before breaking the circle. Their faces showed no expression.
“Mike,” Mr. Bently said, with a throat clearing huff, “your exhibit shows disturbing signs. Not only does it not display the proper science, it displays an ignorance of the real world.”
“You do know the sun is the center of our solar system?” Mrs. Squire said
“And that Neptune is the final planet?” added Ms. Landry.
“This is supposed to represent a toe-la-may-ick view of the solar system.” Charlie said. His smile fell a few degrees. He lowered his chin to a normal angle. “It’s supposed to show how it could be set up.”
“Do you believe the solar system is geocentric?” Mr. Bently took a step. He fumbled with the switches until the miniature orbits halted. He then thrust the diorama toward Charlie’s bottles.
“Do you deny the structure of our solar system? Who taught you about the Ptolemaic model of the solar system?”
Mike smiled. Mr. Bently glared, a vertical crease forming between his thick, dark, and rectangular eyebrows. The other two teachers looked inches above the student’s heads, enough to demonstrate their height. Mike’s smile twitched before falling. His whole body trembled with slight but quick tremors. He turned to Charlie. Mr. Bently cleared his throat, which thundered in the static auditorium.
“This,” Mr. Bently jabbed a finger on the table, “is a serious issue. This is no laughing matter.” He brought his hands to the diorama’s base. The fingers trembled centimeters away. He took a deep breath and grasped the base. His jaw clenched. He lifted the diorama then held it away from his body, with his elbows locked. Mrs. Squire and Ms. Landry groaned. Ms. Landry brought her hand to her lips. Mr. Bently spun in his heel. The other two teachers dodged the diorama.
“Where,” Mike’s voice squeaked, “are you taking it?”
“I’m taking this,” Mr. Bently reeled from diorama, “thing away. I’ll probably have to throw it in the trash.”
“No! My dad and me worked hard on it.”
“So,” Ms. Landry stopped. Mike gulped. His shoulders drooped. Ms. Landry re-approached the table in three strides. Her shadow fell over Mike. Charlie focused on his own experiment. He flipped the bottles, thumbed the electrical tape, and made quick, uninformative glances toward Mike and Ms. Landry.
“It was your father who taught you about this? We may need to have a parent-teacher conference.”
Whispers appeared in the corner. Students murmured. A hamster wheel stopped and the hamster froze. Wet sobs, convulsing Mike’s back, broke the silence. He sniffled at whined and backed from the table. Charlie watched, without raising his eyes, as Mike slinked to the auditorium’s back door.
Mr. Bently returned, brushing his hands together. He nodded to Ms. Landry, who repeated the gesture. They conversed in hushed tones again. They stopped when Mrs. Squire joined. The three teachers reformed their group.
“Students,” Mrs. Squire said. Her voice echoed. “I apologize if Mike’s project offended you. I understand seeing something so unnatural can be upsetting. The matter will be dealt with shortly. If any of you feel troubled or deeply offended by this,” she sucked air through her teeth, “project, feel free to speak with your counselor. Thank you for your patience.”
The teachers continued to Charlie’s table. He kept his head down as he stood the bottles upright. He heard the water pour. When the liquid sat at the bottom, he flipped the bottles.
“What do we have here?” Mr. Bently said. He grabbed the bottles, turning and tilting them in different directions. He squeezed and shook.
“It’s a portable tornado,” Charlie said, “or whirlpool. As the water goes, it looks like a tornado. I added some color to make it easier to see.”
“It’s rather…” Mr. Bently looked to Mrs. Squire.
“And a little…” he turned to Ms. Landry.
“Yes. It is simplistic and derivative.” Mr. Bently squeezed and bent the bottles. The electrical tape stretched. He sloshed the water. Charlie lowered his eyes, seeing just the edge of his experiment in Mr. Bently’s hands. Mr. Bently dropped the bottles, creating another whirlpool, in the middle of the table. The top bottle wobbled. Charlie’s throat tightened.
“What do you think?” Mr. Bently spoke to Mrs. Squire. She began to speak when the top bottle leaned too far. Electrical tape slipped and unfolded. The top bottle fell one way, pushing the bottom bottle the other way. Water flooded across the table, soaking Mr. Bently’s pants. Charlie dodged a splash. The bottles rolled, an oval of water in both. The drips filled the silence. Mr. Bently wiped the dark splotches on his trousers. He and Charlie groaned the same sound.
“Brilliant!” Ms. Landry said. Charlie and Mr. Bently, with raised eyebrows, looked toward her. The student body surged and receded. For a few seconds the dripping stopped. “Absolutely brilliant. This shows not just the current but also the future. Charlie, you should have explained that your experiment also demonstrated entropy. All aspects of the physical world are and will be victim to entropy.”
Mr. Bently and Mrs. Squire watched Ms. Landry. When she applauded, they copied. After the teachers swept their sights across the scattering of fifth graders, the students joined. Their hands came together without force. Charlie’s knees locked. He tilted his head. Ms. Landry nodded. The other teachers did the same.
“Tell me,” Ms. Landry stopped clapping. She stepped around the table, avoided the puddle, and knelt beside Charlie. “How did you think of this experiment? What inspired you to tackle a concept that, in my opinion, is too difficult for an elementary student?”
“I don’t know,” Charlie said. His eyes fell upon Ms. Landry’s, then fell to his feet. He pushed the puddle with his toe. He felt Ms. Landry’s hand on his shoulder, and buckled. “I just thought to do it.”
“Just thought to do it.” Chuckling, Ms. Landry shook her head. She gazed at Charlie, and her eyes sparkled. Her smile revealed small, white teeth. Her grip on Charlie’s shoulder tightened. Her hand radiated warmth. “Charlie, you have shown clear intelligence. I think you may be a genuine genius.”
She rose, clicked her pen, and wrote on the clipboard. She hummed and bounced her head. Mr. Bently looked to Ms. Landry, and when she smiled, he produced a blue ribbon from his bag. He situated the ribbon against one bottle, which rolled away. Charlie worked his lips into a smile. He scanned the auditorium. Each other student frowned above clasped hands. Eyes focused on him. Sneers and glares and scowls were directed at him. The students to his right stamped feet and crossed arms.
The student behind the hamster wheel disconnected the electrodes and shoved the experiment. The wheel travelled in a parabolic arc and rebounded on the floor once. The hamster scampered to one edge of its table then scampered to the opposite. After the wheel came to rest, the student behind the metal arm threw the whole contraption, where it landed beside the wheel. A volcano with baking soda lava joined the pile. Seeds and potatoes flew across the room. Poster boards toppled. Tables flipped.
Mr. Bently and Mrs. Squire cowered behind Ms. Landry. She stood with a wicked grin and the clipboard pressed against her chest.
“The knowledge,” she said, “spreads.”
The students shouted. They broke from tables and toppled experiments. They ran along the walls and jumped on tables. They kicked the papier-mâché models and tore lap reports. Ms. Landry laughed. Releasing the clipboard from her chest, she held out her arms. The students ran around her, and she twirled with the flow. Mr. Bently and Mrs. Squire staggered back and forth, left and right. Charlie retrieved his ribbon. He withdrew into the surge, bumping shoulders, and found the door with his sights on the whirling crowd. The door opened and Charlie stumbled.
The doors clicked together and silenced the ruckus. Charlie stood in the start white hall, hearing repetitive sobs. Next to the turn, Mike sat, arms wrapped around his shins. His head was hidden. With each sob, his shoulders lurched. Charlie ran a thumb over his ribbon’s silver 1st. At this distance, the ribbon could cover Mike. Charlie approached his friend. The ribbon hung and swung with each step.
Mike quieted, but didn’t raise his head. Charlie stood over the ball of elbows and knees that Mike formed. Charlie mumbled. Mike, eyes red, glanced, then resumed his posture. Charlie tossed the ribbon. It veered, landed on Mike’s scalp, slid to his arms, and then slid to the floor. A minute later, Charlie sighed. He leaned his back against the wall and slid. He stretched his legs. His feet tipped left and right.
Charlie didn’t speak. He sniffled, scratched his nose. He switched from watching the wall decorated by posters feature stars and messages of never aiming too high, watching his friend motionless, and watching the auditorium doors. He sniffled and scratched the inside of a nostril.
In time, the bell rang. Mike lifted his head, uncurled his spine, and stretched his legs. Classmates flew from the auditorium. Ms. Landry, Mrs. Squire, and Mr. Bently followed, faces expressionless above the screaming children. Doors down the other halls squeaked open. Younger students joined the horde. Feet pounded. Backpacks rattled. Students ran both ways through the hall, dodging and colliding. Charlie sat next to Mike. He watched the ribbon lifted by the rush, watched a shoe trample it deeper into the crowd. A piece tore. Edges frayed. The ribbon disappeared, and, when the children dispersed and Charlie and Mike sat on the floor, couldn’t be found.
Bennett Durkan: Bennett Durkan is a graduate of Stephen F. Austin. His fiction has appeared in "Howl", "Agave", and "Birds Piled Loosely". His poetry has appeared in "Ikleftiko", "Five 2 One", and "The Red River Review".