One of These Things Is Not Like the Other
Stephanie Johnson

The science teacher sweats. Big dots like Holstein spots darken his shirt as he chases you and the other kids around the playground. You run screaming like he's a monster, like he's the devil after your soul, like he's a hungry giant who'll catch you and take a bite out of your thigh because you've got delicious drumsticks. But, really, he's just a man. A fat, divorced, father-of-three that the district hired to teach you about electricity and magnetism, physical and chemical changes. Just a man whose wife left and whose kids get triple portions from the lunch ladies, triple portions that the daughter refuses to eat. The lunch ladies say the daughter is saddest because she misses a mother the most.

The other girls gossip that the science teacher stands in front of the swings when he pushes them because he likes the white cotton underwear under their plaid skirts. They say he holds doors because he likes to see you from behind. At the end of recess, the first person in line has to hold his hand as you walk back into the school and the way his moist palm chokes your nail-bitten fingers makes your back ache, makes you feel like you need to pee, makes you want to hide in the last stall of the girls' bathroom, squatting with your feet tucked under you on the seat as if you can compress yourself tighter and tighter until you simply disappear. So you've learned how to pretend to tie your shoe, how to look for something you might have lost, how to camouflage yourself in the middle of the pack.

If you could see the future, you'd know that the science teacher will eventually lose so much weight he'll look like half of his current self. He and the youngest son will move away. The oldest son will enlist and go AWOL somewhere in the desert—he'll never come home. Two weeks before her eighteenth birthday, someone will find the daughter as the winter sun is rising. Underdressed and unprepared, a stiff blue-lipped snow angel, she'll be frozen, curled against a cornfield's impenetrable earth.

Got lost walking home, they'll say. Passed out.

Smiling, they'll say. Then they'll stop talking.

And the little boy, the one who barely said a word and followed you everywhere—even into the girls' bathroom where you thought you could hide—you'll remember how he wanted to hug you, to hold on as if you could carry him away. You ran from him, too, even though it made him cry, and even though he cried, he never gave up. You were older and stronger, and you outran his chubby little-boy legs. He's the one you'll have to try hardest to forget because no one will ever tell you what happened to him.

Stephanie Johnson lives in Madison. Her collection of stories, One of These Things Is Not Like the Other, is due out in June from Keyhole Press.

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