Chapter Description: Will joins Viridia's fifth-grade class and begins to realize the depth of the town's regressive conspiracy.
Will's newfound confidence got its first test when he entered the school and found its halls empty – apparently he was the anomaly and not Liam when it came to heeding the call of the school bell. He pushed away the instinctual fear of being caught wandering those halls by focusing on the search for his class, the school thankfully small enough that there was but one room for every year. It wasn't long before he came to a door with a placard that read MR. BYRD – FIFTH GRADE, taking a deep breath as he put his hand on the knob and steeled himself for what was sure to be a strange, trying day.
“Hey, speak of the devil.” Will froze in the doorway when the friendly-looking man standing at the front of the class trained his pleasant smile on the new student. This of course got the attention of all the boys and girls already in their seats, their newly-minted peer fighting the temptation to wither beneath the stares of twenty ten and eleven-year-olds. “I'm Mr. Byrd, and you must be Will! You're a little late, but I'll cut you some slack since it's your first day – so long as you do me the favor of introducing yourself to all your new classmates.”
“Uh, no, I'd really rather not.” The boy's cheeks burned as his flat refusal raised a buzz among the class, some snickering and others whispering in awe of the stones on the new kid. “I'll just take my seat if that's okay.”
A curious twist came to Mr. Byrd's expression as he tilted his head and studied Will in silence. The boy's eyes hardened in defiance as he met his teacher's appraising gaze, hours seeming to pass before the man chuckled and shrugged.
“Not big on public speaking, huh bud?” Mr. Byrd grinned. “Well, I don't want your first experience in my class to be a traumatic one, so I'll let you off the hook for now. There's a seat open in the back, you'll find all the supplies you need inside your desk.”
Will exhaled and gave the teacher a curt nod before walking stiffly towards the indicated spot, his relief at no longer being on display before the class tainted somewhat by the giggles and curious peeks that followed him all the way to the back of the room. He felt the eyes of his classmates on him even as he took his seat and Mr. Byrd launched into his first lesson for the day.
“Alright folks, time to get those brains up and running with a quick math worksheet.” The teacher laughed at the collective groan that went up among his students. “Oh, relax, it's not that bad - this is stuff that all of you already know and I'm not even going to be grading it. I will be walking around to make sure everyone's actually working on the sheet, though, so no slacking off.”
The exercises eventually made their way to Will, who had no interest in providing the answers for the fraction-based multiplication questions. His classmates got to work on their sheet while Will flipped his over, hunched over his desk as he began scribbling down every detail of his plight in hopes that it might spark some idea on how he and Liam could escape. Lost in the exercise – struggling with his reduced dexterity and with the hopelessness of the situation only growing the more he considered it – Will wasn't aware of Mr. Byrd's approach until the teacher's shadow stretched across his worksheet.
“Hey there, Will.” The kindly man nodded kindly at the boy's jottings. “What's that you're working on?”
“It's, uh, an outline for a story I'm writing.” Will blurted out as he not so casually covered the notes with his hands.
“Cool! Hopefully you'll let me read it when you're done. We're focusing on math right now, though, so could you please give those exercises a try?”
“I said no.” Will repeated with increased confidence, forcing himself to lock eyes with those of the increasingly unimpressed man. “Let me work on what I want to work on. Please.”
Another titter went up among the class as the new kid defied their teacher for the second time in ten minutes, most of them now openly staring at the pair in hopes that the conflict would spill over into something spectacular. Instead, however, Mr. Byrd simply put on a cordial smile and gestured to the classroom door.
“Will, would you please join me in the hallway?”
The boy regarded the teacher with a scornful glare before he scraped his chair noisily back, stalking confidently behind the much larger man. Mr. Byrd stood in the frame as he held open the door, forcing Will to duck under his arm. The man let it swing firmly shut behind him before, to Will’s surprise, he turned and trained his still-affable smile on the new student. He crouched down ever so slightly so that his eyes were directly opposite the boy’s, his hands resting on his knees.
“Alright, Will.” He intoned politely. “You’re obviously a very intelligent boy, and I appreciate…”
Will let out an audible sniff of disdain, just barely resisting the urge to roll his eyes.
“I appreciate that you have your own interests.” The teacher reasserted a little more firmly. “But I want to make a deal with you. In my classroom, we operate off respect. If you respect me, then I’ll respect you. Sound fair?”
The boy didn’t move a muscle, refusing to betray even a hint of emotion. Did this guy really think these fawning faux-mature negotiations would work on him? The speech was almost vomit-inducing; straight out of the pre-prepared notes of the corny canned seminars that produced this particular pedigree of teachers that prided themselves on being cool, relatable, and down with the kids. The duplicitous little lecture might have worked on a real fifth grader, but it was clear to Will that this man didn’t respect him in the slightest. It was clear that Mr. Byrd saw him as nothing more than some bothersome little kid who refused to know his place.
“I don’t want to make a deal.” He eventually stated, refusing to let his voice quiver. “I don’t want to be here. I don’t need to be here.”
“Oh, Will.” Mr. Byrd sympathized, shaking his head. “Everyone feels like that sometimes. It’s just a question of whether you’re mature enough to know that not everything is always going to go your way. That’s why we have rules.”
The former lawyer narrowed his eyes at that, amused by the teacher’s all too elementary school summation of the problem. He allowed the corners of his lips to turn up, imagining that the pseudointellectual school teacher fancied himself a great scholar of jurisprudence.
“You get it.” Mr. Byrd encouraged, misinterpreting the vaguely contented expression forming on the boy’s face. “I mean come on Will, did your last teacher let you do whatever you wanted whenever you wanted?”
Will took a deep breath, hardly believing the man’s gall. His last teacher? Was he serious? He paused, studying the man’s face. Was it possible that he didn’t know? That he wasn’t involved in the town’s bizarre reality bending scheme? But no – that couldn’t be. Abby and Liam had made it quite clear he’d find no allies here. The explanation was much simpler. This asshole was toying with him.
“You know that’s a stupid question.” He snarled, staring up fiercely into the man’s eyes.
Mr. Byrd just let out a disappointed sigh. “I really want you in my class, Will.” He coaxed. “Believe me, I do. But if you keep acting this way, I might have to discuss with the principal and your mother whether you’d be better off somewhere else.”
And there it was, what they had both known was coming – the not-so-subtle threat to send him back to preschool. Was that how they dealt with every little problem here? The slightest defiance, and they brought out the gas? Will cursed internally, disgusted down to his very core by the profound injustice of the situation. He maintained his steely glare however, determined not to show any fear.
“Is that what you want, buddy?” The man continued. “Or are you going to be a good boy for me?”
Will let the question hang, not wanting to dignify the infantile query with a response. How quickly the man’s veneer had shattered, he thought. They might have sent him back to tweendom, but it seemed that his well-honed radar for fakes, fraudsters and pretenders was just as sharp as it had ever been.
“I’m gonna need an answer, or you’re going to lose your recess.” Mr. Byrd eventually stated, clearly starting to lose his patience.
After everything the man had said, Will was ashamed to admit that that simple childish threat was all it took to break him. Losing recess was simply out of the question. It was one of the few opportunities he’d have to meet back up with Liam, his only respite from this stupefying childish fog. Although it pained him, he forced himself to give a curt nod – prompting a rewarding tap on the shoulder from Mr. Byrd.
“Attaboy!” He praised, ushering him summarily back into the classroom.
Will felt very shy as he made his way back down the solitary aisles, still smarting in shame from how the confrontation with the teacher had stripped him of his former bravado. He felt unimaginably little, much littler even than the fifth grader he’d become, as he took his seat to the simmering sounds of whispers and giggles. The experience was an all too stark reminder of how school had been the first time, when the crushing pressure to conform had quickly tamed any wild disobedient instincts he might have had.
Still, he gave a defiant huff as he turned over his worksheet. If Mr. Byrd wanted him penciling mindlessly through math problems, then that was exactly what he’d do. Will worked his way efficiently down the paper, easily solving the trivial questions at a lightning pace. He might have physically been eleven years old, but he was still a college graduate. Despite everyone else’s head start, he channeled his bubbling fury into the exercises, and he was soon the first to complete the paper.
“I’m done.” He declared over the low chattering hum, not bothering to raise his hand and trying to sound entirely uninterested.
“Great job, bud!” Mr. Byrd looked up from the desk of a student he was helping to shoot Will a winning grin, completely ignoring the boy's dour attitude. “Other people are still working, though, so why don't you ask one of your neighbors if they need any help with their exercises? We'll be doing group work next and it'd be great if you could make a friend.”
The teacher kept his eyes on Will for an extra second to make it clear that this was not a suggestion, the boy cursing himself under his breath for being cowed by a mere look. Making matters worse was the fact that Will didn't appear to be very popular amongst his peers – impressed as they were by his defiance, whatever cool factor the boy had earned vanished when Mr. Byrd marched the humbled eleven-year-old back into the classroom. The boys and girls surrounding him also didn't seem especially impressed by Will announcing his completion of the sheet, branding himself as a know-it-all on top of everything else. Indeed, it didn't seem there was anybody in his direct orbit interested in working with him – until he laid eyes on the kid to his direct right, a small Latino boy in jeans and a white polo who stole shy glances at his next-desk neighbor as opposed to glaring at him in disdain.
“Um, hey.” Will forced a smile when he startled the lad just by addressing him, having worked with enough sensitive, introverted kids to recognize one on sight. “Can I, uh, help you with any of those problems?”
“...I can do most of them okay.” The boy muttered after a moment, clearly not used to conversing with such a friendly peer. “I don't get this last one, though.”
“Oh - the one with the X?” Will scooted a little closer when his neighbor nodded, pointing his pencil at the lone pre-algebra problem among the bunch. “So, 3/8 times X/7 equals 15/56 – you see how to get the bottom number of the answer? The denominator?”
“Uh-huh, you just multiply the denominators they give you.”
“Right! This question is just like all the other ones on the sheet, the only difference is that they want to know what number would have to go in that X spot to make the equation correct.”
The boy furrowed his brow but didn't say a word, clearly still confused but too ashamed to admit it.
“Think of it this way.” Will gently pressed, trying to coax the kid out of his shell. “What's the opposite of multiplying?”
“So instead of multiplying three times X to get fifteen, what else can you do with those numbers?”
Several silent seconds passed before the boy suddenly looked up, eyes alight with inspiration.
“Five!” He declared a bit too loudly. “I mean, you divide fifteen by three to get X, and that's five! Right?”
“One hundred percent correct.” Will grinned as he extended his fist for the boy to bump. “I'm Will, by the way.”
“I know.” His neighbor blushed as he tapped his fist against Will's. “I mean, I'm Julio. Nice to meet you.”
“Hey guys!” Will jumped when Mr. Byrd appeared from out of nowhere, the teacher paying no mind to the wilting look worn by the annoyed boy. “Has our new friend been helping you out, Julio?”
“Yeah. He's really nice.”
“Well, he’s certainly a little firebrand.” The teacher chuckled as he patted a scowling Will's shoulder. “And he's smart as a whip, there's no denying that. We're going to switch to paired reading here in a moment, would you be so kind as to catch Will up on what's happened in our book so far?”
“Sure!” Julio chirped, looking delighted to be given the responsibility. Not wanting to damper the boy's enthusiasm, Will's expression brightened the instant Mr. Byrd left – and only grew brighter when his new friend excitedly ran down the events of the exciting middle-grade adventure the class had been reading together, his enthusiasm indicating a clear love for literature that his other peers perhaps didn't understand or appreciate.
Will allowed himself a smile, seeing so much of his own young self in the shy, bookish kid chattering on so passionately about the assigned reading. He narrowed his eyes, wondering for a moment if Julio too might have once fallen victim to Viridia’s regression program. He studied the enthusiastic young boy carefully, trying to discern any hint of adult intelligence in his excitable juvenile ramblings – but there was nothing. As far as he could tell from his breathless prattling, Julio had never been anything over than a cheerful, innocent, bashful little boy. Still, that was no guarantee. The process was meant to make you forget – at least that’s what Liam had told him. He wondered exactly how long it took – Liam had said that he only had three or four days left until he was completely gone. Will gave a shudder, trying not to think too hard about how long he himself might have.
“Hey, Julio.” He interrupted, trying to sound nonchalant. “You ever hear anything about people like…getting younger?”
The boy’s face fell, his infectious grin dampening into a somber grimace. “What do you mean?” He eventually squeaked, his quivering voice filled with fear.
“Oh…it’s nothing.” Will retreated, Julio’s reaction immediately halting his first cautionary probe. “Don’t worry about it.”
Julio was only spooked further by his stumbling evasions. He averted his eyes, fumbling around in his desk in search of his copy of the assigned book. Will put a concerned hand on the boy’s shoulder, but he practically jumped out of his skin – the book tumbling out of his hand and landing on the floor with a loud clatter.
“You alright?” Will asked, genuinely concerned.
The boy nodded hurriedly, shrugging off Will’s hand and physically budging his chair a few inches away from him. He ducked down, recovering his book before shooting his hand anxiously into the air – ushering urgently for Mr. Byrd’s attention. Will narrowed his eyes, perturbed by his formerly cheery companion’s sudden change in attitude.
“What’s the big deal?” He demanded.
Julio shot an uneasy look across the desk, regarding with a fearful frown. “Y...you’re not supposed to talk about that.” He stuttered “I’m supposed to tell a grown-up…”
Will’s eyes widened in panic. Clearly, whoever was in charge of this crazy place didn’t want their victims asking any difficult questions. He grimaced gravely, feeling a new spur of determination to get to the bottom of this sickening scheme. Still, he couldn’t risk Julio telling on him.
“Chill out, man.” He smiled, trying to sound calm despite his racing heart. “It’s nothing. Just an idea for a story that I had.”
“R...really?” The boy asked skeptically, lowering his hand a little.
“Yeah. It’s just a story.” Will reassured him. “Put your hand down, bud.”
The boy gave a shy smile but kept his hand hovering loosely in the air – seemingly stuck halfway between his loyalties to his new friend and whatever vicious propaganda had been drilled into him. Seeing Mr. Byrd stalking his way back towards them, Will eventually scrambled to his feet – reaching across the aisle to physically pull down the other boy’s hand. It was too late however, the imposing teacher already looming behind him.
“Will.” He chided. “What are you doing out of your seat?”
“I...” Will's stomach flip-flopped as he scrambled for a reasonable excuse, something that would satisfy Mr. Byrd and not erode his tenuous relationship with Julio any further. “...I was too embarrassed to ask to go to the bathroom, so Julio raised his hand to ask for me even though I didn't want him to.”
The teacher stood in silent judgment of Will for a moment, eyes narrowing almost imperceptibly as the boy's insides quivered at the thought that he'd finally pushed his luck too far.
“I'm - I'm sorry for touching Julio without his permission.” Will hastily added, so desperate to get Mr. Byrd off his case that he recited some trite apologetic nonsense to appeal to the man's need to see the boy submit. “And I'm sorry for disturbing the class. I'll try to be more, um, respectful of you and the other students.”
Mr. Byrd held his horrible, stony gaze on Will for another second before turning to Julio.
“Julio, is this the truth?”
“...yes.” Will nearly collapsed in relief when the shy boy peeped the word out, shaking as he somehow found the courage to meet Mr. Byrd's eyes. “I'm sorry for raising my hand even though Will didn't want me to.”
“You've got nothing to apologize for, buddy, our new friend is big enough to manage his own toilet issues.” The teacher chuckled, Will's relief giving way to indignant fuming when an amused Mr. Byrd turned his attention back on him. “Well, Will, you can ask me now if that'd be less embarrassing for you.”
“...may I please go to the bathroom, Mr. Byrd.” Will mumbled, so desperate for a moment alone that he forced himself to utter the humiliating question.
“Yes you may. Please be quick, though, I don't want you to miss any more of the lesson than necessary.”
Will stood from his seat and walked swiftly out of the classroom, getting but a few steps out into the hall before his knees buckled beneath him. The trembling, bone-white boy gripped a wall to keep from collapsing as he struggled to process the sheer humiliation and hopelessness of the morning thus far. Mr. Byrd and his systematic stripping of Will's adult sensibilities represented but one cog in a monstrous clock whose hands spun constantly backwards – the boy didn't understand the true width of the net that'd trapped him until he realized that there wasn't a single soul in town besides Liam that he could even make mention of his plight to.
He kept one hand on the cool tile to steady himself as he staggered his way towards the facilities, thankful at least that both the hall and the bathroom were empty. The upside of his lie was that he really did have to pee, a task Will carried out while doing his best to not look down – or at the lowest urinal at the end of the row. There was no avoiding his reflection when he went to wash his hands and splash water on his face, though, no avoiding how his expression of deepest dread was rendered a solemn pout by his boyish, undeveloped features.
“You are twenty-seven years old.” Will whispered, so quietly that he wouldn't have to hear the height of his pitch. “You are a grown man. You are a lawyer. And you are going to get out of this.”
The boy in the mirror seemed less than convinced. Will didn't have the time to persuade him further, however, knowing that the longer he lingered the greater his chance of invoking Mr. Byrd's judgment. The mere thought of the man looming over him made Will want to turn and run, in that moment thinking him more intimidating than the whole of the outside world. Will sighed as the impulse passed, knowing that he was thinking out of fear and that his smartest play was still to bear his situation until he could reconvene with Liam - something he told himself several times before he could bring himself to return to the fifth grade classroom.