“What happened to Mr. Matthews?”
The question shimmered in the air, breaking into pieces as it registered with the twenty-five students in Mr. Matthew’s Advanced Trigonometry class.
Kaci turned in her front-row seat and stared at the rest of them with wide brown eyes. “What happened to Mr. Matthews?” she repeated.
A series of shuffling noises and confused “huhs” chorused from around the room. Richie sat in the back with his graphing calculator in his hand and a pen dangling from his slack mouth. It detached itself from his lip and clattered onto his desk.
When no one responded with a suitable answer, Kaci said, “I just put my head down to write some notes, and when I looked up, he was gone. No one saw where he went?” As if to illustrate her point, she looked back to the whiteboard. A half-completed exercise stared back at them. It looked like Mr. Matthews had stopped writing in the middle of SOH-CAH-TOA.
In answer, Gina shrieked. It was enough to get everyone moving.
“Jesus, Gina, shut the hell up!” Chris yelled as he leapt from his desk. Papers scattered. No one noticed a few sheets shred into nothing in midair.
“She disappeared!” Gina said, pointing with a shaking hand to a desk two rows from her own. “Ashleigh! Didn’t anybody else see? She got all fuzzy and then she was just gone!”
“Fuzzy like unfocused, or fuzzy like a bunny?” Sean said, forcing a laugh. A few others joined him, too loudly.
“I’m not stupid,” Gina said. “She --”
Gina’s skin paled, faded, and vanished. Kaci burst into tears.
“Oh man, what the hell. What the hell?” Chris said. He ran his hands through his product-heavy hair, leaving it sticking up at odd angles. No one laughed at him.
“We have to go. We have to get out of the room.”
“The main quad. We’re supposed to evacuate to the main quad, right?”
“Didn’t you people read Left Behind?”
“What’s happening? Oh God, this shouldn’t be happening.”
“God damnit, move!”
“Richie, will you get off your ass? We’ve got to go!”
Richie remained seated at his desk. He stared at the screen of his graphing calculator, oblivious to the chaos around him. Sean grabbed him by the arm and yanked him along.
If the classroom had been chaos, the hallway was pandemonium. Teachers screamed instructions, but no one listened. Several students had given up and sat against the walls away from the surge, sobbing. Even as Mr. Matthews’ class pushed their way through the thick crowd, it seemed to thin. Doors disintegrated. Panels of the linoleum floor flickered in and out of existence.
They burst into the main quad, sprinting for the lone tree in the center – an old pink peppercorn tree, tall and twisted. Its branches whipped through the air, although the students felt no wind. The stinging smell of pepper and sap permeated everything. Leaves kept breaking off and falling toward the ground, but none ever landed.
They stopped beneath the tree, doubled over and panting. When they looked up, they could see half of the main building was gone. Not blown up, or bashed in. Gone. Like someone had taken a giant eraser and rubbed out part of a drawing. Even as they watched, it continued to erase itself, brick by brick.
More students and teachers poured from the doorway, but they twisted and cried out and were gone in a blink. Only Richie, Sean, and Kaci were left.
“What is this?” Sean said, turning in place like his current patch of grass was a safe zone. “This doesn’t make sense. It’s not real.”
Kaci had stopped crying. “Are they dead? They’re dead, aren’t they?”
“It’s fine. We’ll be fine. It’s not real.”
“Why are you comforting me if I’m not real?”
Sean swallowed hard. They watched the sky open. It didn’t turn white, black, or even gray. It was the color of nothing.
“It’s my fault.” The whisper filled the empty space. Kaci turned to look at Richie. They were all that was left. Him, her, a patch of grass, and a vanishing peppercorn tree.
“What?” she whispered.
He held up his calculator. The screen glowed and swirled. Numbers and curves pulsed within, drawing her eye.
“It was an accident,” he said. “I was just messing around. Trying to program a game to pass the time. They were just random numbers. It lit up, and there were words.”
“What words?” Her voice split and scattered.
“The System. It said I’d cracked it.”
He waited for her response, but it didn’t come. He stood alone.
The calculator fell from his hand. There was no sound. No ground to hit anymore.
“God, I hate Trig.”