“Someone reconciled a penis on all the desks this morning.”
Kate laughed into her cup of coffee. She had been scanning the playground and trying to keep track of her kids. Luckily, none of them were in earshot.
“It's not that I mind a penis,” continued Liane. “But why so many?”
Kate glanced over to see if she really wanted an answer, but Liane had turned away towards a sudden noise.
“Do you know who did it?”
Liane nodded towards the monkey bars. “Either Jalay,” she said, then motioned to the picnic tables, “or Rosalia. They’re my only free reconcilers.”
“At least you have some,” said Kate, thinking back on her struggles with her class. “Mine are all still stuck on active toys.”
“Active toys. I doubt they even help.” Liane flashed a smile. “Besides, kids learn at their own rate. Jalay only recently clicked, so of the two, I would guess it was his artwork this morning. Typical male.”
Kate was watching the foursquare court, but managed to shrug in response. “Maybe it wasn’t him then. A boy would have drawn boobs, right?”
Liane’s veneer shimmered as her eyebrow bounced. “Good point.” As they both turned to look at Rosalia, she continued, “But she seems so innocent.”
“Never judge a person by their veneer,” said Kate, echoing the maxims that adorned the hallways of the school.
“I don’t know. Maybe she’s bored. She’s already mastered this year’s curriculum. I don’t even know what else to teach her.”
“You’re lucky you have a gifted.” Kate searched out Deron’s face in the crowd. He was sitting alone on a bench by the mural wall. “I’ve got a non-believer in my congregation.”
Nodding in his direction, she replied, “Deron Bishop. He’s only reconciled an active toy once or twice and I don’t even know how he did it. Everyone else can reconcile the toys, but Deron… It’s like he doesn’t think it’s possible.”
“You know what Professor Ghose would say about that?”
Kate nodded. “Controlling the veneer is not a matter of if, but of when.”
“So we just have to find a way to reach him.”
Smiling at the offer, Kate replied, “He’s got some kind of mental block, but I think one day it’s just going to pop for him.”
“Sure, and then you’ll have wieners all over your desks too.”
“At least he’d be reconciling. I don’t know what he’s going to do when we start on active palettes in the spring.” Kate looked down at the palette in her lap. The small rectangle of molded plastic responded to her mental command and displayed a cartoon version of Deron sitting at his desk crying, his active palette broken in half on the floor.
Liane laughed at the image, reached out, and reconciled it away. “Don’t worry about it, Katie. If he’s still struggling by then, we can put him in an after-school program at Dahlstrom. You know they’re always interested in these problem children.”
“He’s not a problem child,” said Kate, feeling protective. She looked at the mural wall again. “He’s a good student. I just need to be a better teacher.”
“He doesn’t smile much, does he?” asked Liane. “Maybe there’s something going on at home that we’re not aware of?”
“I don’t know. His mother seems very caring.”
Still, Liane had a point. Deron didn’t look like he was enjoying his free time. He was ignoring the other children and focusing on the red ball in his lap. The active toys weren’t supposed to leave the room, but Kate couldn’t fault him for wanting some extra practice time. She thought he might have reconciled the red color, but if so, why was he so upset?
“I’d better go check on him,” said Kate, setting her palette on the bench. She stood and pulled her sweater tighter around her body.
It wasn’t a long walk to the jungle gym, but she had to stop every few feet to talk to one of her kids. In the classroom, especially when it was time to answer a question, they would do their best to be invisible. But out on the playground, they all vied for her attention. Kate humored them as best she could, ending each encounter with a reminder that recess would be over soon.
At last, she reached the mural wall and sat down on the bench beside Deron. There were tears at the corners of his eyes, but he made no attempt to wipe them away. When Kate cleared her throat, he looked up for only a moment.
“Did you reconcile that ball, Deron?”
He shook his head minutely and crossed his arms, dropping the ball into his lap. His eyes drifted to the swing sets and when Kate followed his gaze, she saw he was looking at Russo Rivera. The little devil was doing his best not to appear interested.
“Russo turned my ball red,” said Deron, as if there were no greater injustice. He picked up the ball again so she could see.
“You don’t like red?” asked Kate. “It’s like an apple.”
“I hate red!”
Kate nodded and waited a moment for Deron to calm down. He wasn’t usually a slave to his emotions, but when they took control, the results were difficult to predict. In a soft voice, she asked, “What color do you like?”
He replied without hesitation. “Blue.”
Kate leaned forward and put her elbows on her knees. She whispered so that only he could hear her. “You can turn its veneer blue if you really want to, Deron. All you have to do is reconcile a new color. Do you remember what we’ve been practicing?”
Deron shrugged. “I can’t do it.”
“Well, let’s give it a try, okay?” After a nod, she continued, “Alright, now what kind of blue is your favorite? Is it like the teeter-totters over there?”
“No,” he replied, looking up. “Blue like that.”
“Light blue,” said Kate. “It’s a beautiful color, Deron. Good choice.”
He nodded in agreement and almost smiled.
“Now, what’s step one?”
“Hold the ball.” His words were unsure. “I have to be touching it, right?”
Deron lifted the ball with two hands and spread his fingers around it.
“What’s step two?”
Kate pointed to the sky. “You need to imagine that color in your head. Look at it and then shut your eyes.”
It took him a moment, but he finally replied, “Uh-huh.”
“Then let’s do step three. All you have to do is believe that the ball in your hand is that color. Tell yourself that when you open your eyes, the ball will be blue.”
Deron scrunched his eyes tight, but Kate could see that the color was not changing.
“All you have to do is believe, Deron.”
She could repeat the lessons over and over, keep telling him that believing was seeing and imagination dictated reality, but it wouldn’t be her efforts that made it click for him. Something had to change within Deron, something in the way he viewed the world.
Sensing his frustration, Kate reached out and placed a finger on the ball, turning it blue instantly.
“Open your eyes, Deron.”
The smile on his face made a warmth bubble up through Kate’s body. “See how easy it is?”
Deron turned the ball over in his hands. Behind his smile was disbelief that made Kate’s heart sink. There was no lesson here. Reconciling for Deron wouldn’t hold up in the long run and even if he did manage it himself, he still might not believe it.
The smile faded as Deron looked to the swings again. “He’s just gonna turn it red when you’re not looking.”
“Then you turn it back.”
“He’s better at it than me.”
Kate put her hand on Deron’s back and gave him a reassuring pat. “Yeah, but I’m better than him. He can only reconcile the active toys. Look what I can do.” She reached back and put her hand on the mural wall. New color cascaded from the top of the wall and replaced the cartoonish landscape with a snow-covered hill against a sea of stars. Little green triangles representing trees dotted the hillside. “This is what the wall will look like at Christmas.”
“Russo can’t change it?”
“Not yet. But one day when you’re both older, you’ll both be able to change anything you want. You can even change your hair or your face. You like the color blue?” Kate concentrated for a second and reconciled a bluish tint on her eyes. “See?”
“I want to do that.”
“Soon,” said Kate, cycling back to her normal brown. “For now, you can practice on the active toys. If you want, you can take that ball home. It’ll be special homework and no matter how you do, you’ll get a star for trying.”
“Okay,” he replied, though the edges of his mouth still dipped. A veneer would have masked his emotions. Until he learned to control it fully, he would be at the mercy of his true appearance.
“You should go play,” said Kate, standing up. She touched the wall again and returned it to the previous Thanksgiving theme. “There are only ten minutes of recess left.”
Deron squeezed the ball with both hands. “I’m going to practice.”
It’s a start, thought Kate. Deron went through cycles of ambition and apathy, neither of which made it easy to teach him. Good reconciliation required a clear mind and a vivid imagination. Kate thought about what else she could do for him as she crossed the playground and returned to the bench. Liane was talking to one of her kids, but she sent the girl away.
“How did it go?” she asked.
“Russo turned his ball red.”
“That little shit,” whispered Liane.
Kate felt herself nodding. “Deron just doesn’t get it.”
“He will. One day his mother is going to walk into his room and find all sorts of nasty stuff on his walls.” She paused, made a connection in her head. “You’re right; boys will reconcile boobs the first chance they get.”
“So you suspect Rosalia now?”
“Maybe. I’ll just give them all detention until someone fesses up.”
Kate chuckled and looked out over the playground again. Deron had gotten up and was now walking towards her. In his hand, he held a red ball. Kate shook her head; it had only been a minute or two since she left him.
“He did it again,” said Kate.
Liane followed her gaze to Deron. “Russo?”
“He’s been terrorizing Deron, turning all of his toys red.” Kate started to stand up, but felt a hand on her arm.
“Wait,” said Liane, urging Kate back to the bench. “Look at this.”
Rosalia had left her seat at the picnic table and was moving to intercept Deron. They met between the monkey bars and the foursquare court. Their conversation was muted by the distance, but Kate could see that Deron was having a hard time looking Rosalia in the eyes. He kept his head down as he handed over the red ball. Only after she returned it with a bright blue veneer did he look up and smile.
“Aw,” said Liane, nudging Kate with her shoulder. “Isn’t that sweet?”
“It is,” agreed Kate. “Maybe she should tutor him. I’ll trade you Samantha.”
“Would if I could, but I’ll probably have to put her in Talented and Gifted after the winter break. Then I’ll only have Jalay.” She paused for a moment and sighed. “It’s a shame. They do look cute together.”
“Yeah.” Kate watched Deron’s eyes follow Rosalia as she walked away. “I guess it wasn’t meant to be.”
Deron stood for a few minutes before turning and heading back to the mural wall. There, he studied the ball in his hands, maybe tried to change its veneer if his face was any indication. He only looked up to cast quick glances at Russo.
“Would I be a bad teacher if I had Russo transferred to Glenmore?”
“Not if you think that’s best. If he’s a special case, then he needs special attention. He’d get that at Glenmore.”
“He wouldn’t be able to mess with Deron anymore.”
“At least not until high school,” said Liane.
Kate dipped her head and pulled her palette into her lap. With a quick tap, she reconciled an image of Deron in a graduation gown that bunched up at his feet and a cap that covered most of his face. “Hopefully he’ll be stronger by then.”
Liane was right. Little monsters grow up to be big monsters.
“You don’t have to decide now,” said Liane. “Give him the rest of the year to turn it around. Make him understand the consequences.”
“If I don’t lose Rosalia to TAG, maybe she can work with him.”
It might not be enough, thought Kate. She let her doubt bubble up to her veneer.
Liane put her hand on Kate’s shoulder. “She can teach him to reconcile little peeners all over your desks.”
Kate tried to stifle her laughter.
Across the playground, Deron hadn’t made any progress with his ball. It was still Rosalia’s blue, not that he seemed to mind very much. She knew he wouldn’t even try to change it now. At least not until Russo turned it red again.
One way or another, Deron Bishop was going to learn to reconcile.
Daniel Verastiqui is a Science Fiction author from Austin, Texas. His latest novel, Brigham Plaza, is the sixth entry in the Vinestead Anthology, a series of books that take place in a shared alternate reality but aren’t direct sequels. His books explore the themes of relationships and identity in the context of advanced technology, pervasive violence, and gratuitous swearing.
tags: #sciencefiction #cyberpunk #robots #virtualreality #augmentedreality #artificialintelligence