Ben Hoffman presents us with a terrifying tale that examines the lasting nature of fear. In “Other Dangers,” a teacher convinces her third-grade class that every misbehavior—each missed homework assignment, each tug of a girl’s ponytail—brings them that much closer to doomsday. Find out what happens when the class reunites after decades and decides to pay their old teacher a visit.
by Ben Hoffman
Don’t you know how easy it is to visit someone in a nursing home? We told the man at the front desk the truth, or a version: she had been our teacher, and we were eager to see her before she passed. We thought he’d say, Must have been some teacher. But we could have been the horsemen of the apocalypse for all the man at the front desk cared. He had a box of Cheez-Its and a tied Cardinals game on the radio and we could visit whom we pleased, provided we kept our voices down. This last bit he stressed: voices down. We had heard this before. It was yet another wrong directive. The place was half dead, its residents rotting from the inside—it could have used an influx of life, could have stood some ruckus. How many of these geezers could have heard our shouting anyway, deaf as they were? No one heard our old teacher gasping and croaking when she finally recognized us. No one heard her croaking at her end. Walking past the man at the front desk with our laminated visitors’ badges, some of us still a little drunk, starting down that long hallway toward our past, we wondered again why we were always being given the wrong instructions.
And who had given us the wrong instructions first but her? Why else were we here?
* * *
We’d been surprised, the night before, at our 25th reunion, to hear she was still alive. She’d been our third grade teacher, and we had the usual complaints. She was strict on chewing gum and tucking in shirts. She offered no extra credit. She was known to curtail recess. But really we hated her for the clock. Not the clock on the back wall, the one that in other classrooms we’d turn to out of habit, though it was as if those little instruments had been stopped for years, eternally five minutes until the bell.
No, the clock at the front of her classroom, the one of her own creation. She’d fashioned the face from a circular map of the world and the hands from a drafting compass from the art room, and the authority she usurped from the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, who had designed the original Doomsday Clock a decade earlier, in 1947. They’d started it at 11:53, seven minutes to midnight—seven minutes until doom. A little breathing room. By 1957, however, the scientists had wound the clock forward, pegged us at two minutes to midnight, to reflect the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union had tested thermonuclear devices. So this was where we started, too, on the first day of third grade: Two minutes. Two minutes until. Then one of us pulled Janice Meyer’s ponytail, which did not exist but to be pulled, and one of us was caught with candy, and our teacher wound the clock forward. We were one minute and forty-five seconds until doom. We were very, very good for the rest of the day.
To read the rest of “Other Dangers,” click here.