There was a new professor at the front of the class.
It was three minutes past the hour, the time when Professor Herman would normally shuffle in, balancing a pile of loose paper and a full-to-the-brim coffee mug. The class had waited, cell phone keys clacking and last minute homework being done. At three after, they put their phones away. The door opened. Professor Herman did not shuffle in.
The new professor strode into the room, empty handed, confident. He was young. When he reached the front, he turned and scanned the class, letting his eyes rest on each of the fifty seats. His eyes were alert, troubled, dark. They were eyes that had seen too much.
Abby Norris, unaware that there was a new professor at the front of the class, felt the eyes stop on her. She lifted her head from the notebook she was writing in and her gaze met his. He held it for a long moment as her eyebrows lifted in surprise. He broke eye contact and moved on across the rows of seats, a smile at the corner of his mouth.
“Good afternoon, class,” the new professor said. “My name is Alexander James and I will be your substitute for today. I believe we are discussing the Second World War.” He leaned casually against the chalkboard, crossing his arms.
At four minutes after, Professor Herman would normally begin droning. His students dreaded that moment. They were stuck silent in their seats for the next two hours and fifty-six minutes, waging war on their own eyelids to stay awake and trying in vain to take coherent notes.
The clock hit four minutes after in the class with the new professor at the front. Something inside the students groaned and died. Then Professor James began talking.
Abby Norris was a storyteller. From the moment she could communicate she was weaving worlds and fabricating beings to populate those worlds. Not only that, but making things happen to the people in those worlds: beautiful things, tragic things, things that were true, things that should have been true. It went beyond the medium of words on the page. The story was something wild and eternal, just out of reach. Abby’s goal was to capture it, and words were her trap.
Professor James met her eyes again as he began to speak. The class sat spellbound, mouths open, pens still. They didn’t need to take notes. They would remember. The students felt for the first time that they understood what it was like to face death on the battlefield, and what it was like to wait at home for the news of death.
Professor James spoke with emotion and vibrancy, pacing back and forth and looking directly at each of the students in turn, Abby twice as often. He told of the battle of Saipan, his voice shaking as he described the eyes of a mother, holding her baby on the edge of the cliff. The woman had been led to believe that death was better than an American soldier. She jumped out of fear, just before the soldier could reach them. The class was silent for a long moment after this description. The girls had tears in their eyes. The boys pretended they didn’t.
Two hours and fifty-six short minutes later, the lecture ended.
Normally, when Professor Herman ended his unique method of torture, the class erupted with scraping chairs, rustling papers, voices, laughter, noise. Today was not a normal day. The class gathered and stood and left, unusually subdued. One of the boys made a joke and everyone ignored him.
Abby Norris gathered her things and stood, but didn’t leave. She made her way to the front of the class as the last stragglers were nearly to the door. Professor James was leaning on the chalkboard, arms crossed, eyes closed. Abby stood in front of the desk, waiting for him to open his eyes and see that he wasn’t alone. He was still. Now that she was closer, she could see how young he was. His skin was smooth except for a worried crease in the middle of his forehead. He couldn’t have been older than twenty. She started to back away.
“Abigail Norris, how may I help you?”He said, then opened his eyes and looked at her. His gaze was piercing and dark and he looked older. He could have been any age.
“That lecture was beautiful,” she told him. It suddenly sounded like a stupid thing to say and she took another step back in embarrassment. She was the only student left in the room now.
He smiled. “Miss Norris, I was reading over some of the homework the class has already completed and your pieces were well done. Very well done. You seem to have an understanding of history that goes beyond recitation of facts.”
She blushed. “Thank you.”
“Have you ever heard of a man named Nikola Tesla?”
“Of course. He was Edison’s rival. Invented the alternating current.”
“How much do you know about his work?”
“That’s about it.”
He stood and brushed the chalk dust from his shoulder, preparing to leave.
“That is, apart from the legend.”
He froze, staring at her. “What?”
“The school legend about Tesla.”
He took a deep breath. “What legend?”
Everyone knew about the legend. Everyone’s parents knew about the legend. It was a school myth, a scary story to be joked about, a whispered tale that grew with each telling. It was as much a part of life at the university as the mascot or the cafeteria food.
“What does the legend say?” He repeated.
Everyone knew about the legend. Who was this man?
He was still as ice, waiting. She explained. “That Nikola Tesla secretly had a son. He tested his experiments on him. Something about electricity and the brain. It worked and his son became a genius, which made Tesla jealous. They say that Tesla put him in a mental institution and he died, then the mental institution was turned into this school. Now the ghost of Tesla’s son haunts the halls, and everyone blames their bad grades on him.”
He studied the carpet. Finally he nodded. “Thank you very much for telling me, Abigail Norris. I’ll be here again next class period.”
He strode up the aisle, then stopped just before the door, hesitating. He glanced back at Abby with those deep eyes.
“Tesla didn’t have a son. Not really.”
He stepped through the door.