by Mimi Hayes
It must have been a bustling city, some 100 years ago. There were strange frames of buildings, now toppling over into the deserted streets. Abandoned cars littered the roads; windows shattered and items strewn across the sidewalks. A street sign dangled from a crooked post, “Welcome to Denver, Colorado: The Mile High City.” The trees lining the buildings must have been beautiful in the fall; their golden leaves gently landing on the heads of passerby’s on their morning commute. But that was all gone now.
At the intersection of Josephine and 2nd Avenue was a crumbled building. A billboard with several letters missing and discolored from the sunlight read, “Sa-nt Thomas High S-ho-l.” The entrance door had been ripped off of the building and laid lifeless on the lawn. Inside desks were toppled over and textbooks disseminated on the tile floors. The classrooms were boarded up with thick plywood and nails that had rusted and stuck out at odd angles.
In one classroom sat the skeleton of a woman. She was sitting in a chair attached to a desk, stuck upright as if waiting for something. Or someone. Her posture suggested that it pained her to sit up this straight for the bones in her shoulders and arms looked heavy. Shreds of clothing hung from her bones like slabs of uncooked bacon. A pencil skirt, blouse perhaps. The skirt seemed to be caught in the frame of the desk. Her legs were crossed politely. What once were heel wedges were now worn down and dangled from the bones that used to be feet. Her jewelry must have been fashionable in her time; it contained elements of shiny things and reflected the sun as it crossed the windows. But there was no wedding ring. Nobody had “put a ring” on this boney broad.
The hot wind picked up as the skeletal woman sat in her desk, resolute. Engraved into the desk was a riddle. It looked as though the words had been etched into the wooden table; the dark pencil marking created grooves in the surface.
Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch
Suddenly the winds shifted. A silver pod emerged from the sky and careened to the hot Earth with a thud on the corner of 2nd and Josephine. The dust settled. The Boney Lady did not stir.
Two aliens surfaced from the smoking ship. They were green. Obviously. They muttered to themselves in disarray as they dusted off their gangly green limbs. The language they spoke resembled odd clicks and slurs.
“Blark bloop bee bloop bingo?” The taller one, named Blarp said.
“You’re the one who insisted on not stopping for gas on Planet 12,” The shorter one, Dingo said. “Idiot.”
“It wasn’t my fault,” Blarp said. “The fucking generator broke down.”
“Practice proper English, won’t you? We don’t want to scare off any survivors.”
Blarp dusted off his vest and craned his neck around. “Mile High City. Well I hope they were high when the shit hit the fan –”
“Don’t be such a jerk, Blarp.” Dingo said and unearthed a large trunk with wheels out of the back of the pod. “We have a job to do. Let’s just go inside this school already, at least that’s what I think it is.”
Blarp and Dingo walked toward the school. Dingo eyed the door on the lawn with suspicion. Looters, Dingo thought. Earth had fallen 100 years ago. Their alien race had been investigating The Fall for the past 10, slowly uncovering more clues. But they’d hit a standstill. They needed teams to be on the ground to collect data and bring back samples. Dingo joined the exploration crew during his summer break at the local university as an adjunct professor. His course was Appreciation for Human Poetry 101. The problem was, fewer and fewer students were enrolling in his class each semester. The university was now threatening to shut down his beloved poetry department. He would never admit it to Blarp, but he was looking for something; a purpose, an answer, anything. Blarp was only looking for a paycheck.
They walked cautiously through the deserted halls, crawling over broken desks and books with their pages flapping as the wind came through the gaping entrance.
“All these rooms are boarded up,” Blarp yelled from behind a turned over and gum-covered desk. “This is a waste of time. We should just go back to that abandoned Whiskey Bar back in Alamosa. I liked that place –”
Dingo tuned out Blarp’s shrill nonsense and walked further down the hall. A particular room caught his eye. Light reflected off of one of the nails and drew him closer. He inched his face to the boards to peek through the spaces of wood and cobweb.
“We should get paid overtime for this shit, you know. It’s just pointless –”
“Shut up!” Dingo interrupted. There was a shadow of a figure on the other side. “Hey, there’s someone in here. Get over here and help me!” Dingo shouted and began pulling at the boards. “There’s someone in here! HELLO?!”
Blarp rushed over and the two of them pulled madly at the wood. They created a hole just large enough for one to fit through and squished themselves inside. It was the skeletal woman. Dead, but very much alive with expression.
“Fancy meeting you here,” said Blarp with a devilish smile. “It’s like she was waiting for us. Would you like some coffee, my love?” Blarp walked across the room to a broken coffee pot and raised it up to the air.
Dingo eyed her closely. She was unlike other specimens they’d encountered on their journey so far. He flipped over an overturned stool and sat before her. Blarp looked to the bag beside her and opened it.
“What is all this?” He began to pull out tight wads of crumpled up paper; the markings hardly legible. Also in the bag were books, paperclips, and what looked like an old sack lunch.
“I can’t make it out, Dingo,” he said. “This can’t be English. Oh man, lady! What did you eat? This smells awful.” Blarp made the mistake of picking up the deteriorating lunch sack. “Check this out, ‘Worldwide School Catastrophe: End Is Near?’” he read from a coffee stained newspaper headline in the front pocket of the bag.
“The schools collapsed,” Dingo took the article clipping from Blarp and poured over it in his stool. “Teacher walk-outs, school shootings. Once the schools went, everything else followed –”
“What do we do with all this crap?” Blarp interrupted as he began emptying the contents of bins onto the floor.
“Put it all in the ship,” Dingo called over from the stool as he eyed the article closer. “And go get the camera.”
As Blarp hauled the heavy bag back to the pod, Dingo pulled his stool closer to the desk to get a better look at the woman. A pencil was hanging loosely in her hands. It was snapped clean in half.
“What’s your story…what have you seen…” Dingo moved closer, whispering to the Boney Lady as if asking her a secret. He looked into her eye sockets, straight through to the inside of her nonexistent brain. Her eyes were fixed down at the desk. Dingo shifted out of the stool to read the engraving.
Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch
“Beware the Jabberwock –” he whispered. “Beware…that’s Alice Through the Looking Glass. Lewis…C.S. Lewis –” He looked back into her eyes.
“ –It’s going to take them years to make this out,” Blarp said as he stumbled back into the room. “All I can decipher is Period 2, U.S. History –what are you doing?”
“Shh! She was about to say something to me –” Dingo was now inches from her skull, holding his breath.
“Knock it off, Dingo. All this Earth sun is getting to your brain tubes,”
Dingo continued to eye the woman. She was sad, but strong. It was possible she once held power in her world. But that power was dried up, possibly along with her patience and the Denver tourism. Her fists were clenched, accounting for the snapped pencil. By the stature of her body she looked broken. Not by an accident of any kind, but by years of wear and tear. This looked impossible as her bone structure itself suggested she couldn’t have been a day over 25. She must have been beautiful, Dingo thought. Well, for a human anyway.
It was hard for Dingo to tell, but he could have sworn he saw a glimpse of a tear roll down her cheek as he turned away. He did a double-take but the tear was nowhere to be found.
“Get the pictures already,” Blarp interrupted, snapping Dingo back to his senses. “Let’s just get our samples and go. I don’t want to wake the dead.”
Dingo aimed the shiny, black camera square at the Boney Lady and clicked down on the shutter. The flash filled the unkempt room and then vanished in an instant. Dingo stood motionless.
“Come on, let’s get out of here.” Blarp said and finished rummaging through the remains of a drawer by the window. “I want to get back to Base for the Blingo Buffet.” They turned to leave out the boarded up door. Dingo lingered for a few moments, looking at the writings on the desk and back to the woman.
“It feels wrong,” Dingo said, packing his tools and camera back into the ship for departure. “She used to be somebody.”
“Well she’s nobody now,” Blarp said closing the pod door loudly behind them.
“Don’t worry, Miss Boney,” Dingo whispered, clicking down his seatbelt in the cockpit and eyeing the crumbling school beside them. “You are somebody to me.”
Upon Blarp and Dingo’s return, the photographs and bone samples were handed over to Headquarters. Their job was over. The deal was done. But Dingo felt uneasy. He asked to be informed about Miss Boney when the results were in. He wanted to know. He had to know.
After months of analysis the research team identified The Woman in the Chair. Unlike The Man on the Bike and The Dog in the Wagon, her story seemed to be monumental clues that could uncover the truth of The Fall.
“Here’s your girl,” A lab technician smiled handing Dingo a lab report. Dingo held tight to his coffee cup. He wasn’t sure if he’d be relieved or disappointed to learn about who she was.
Name: Elizabeth Miller
Age: 24, Single
Height: 5 ft 4 in
Cause of Death: Dehydration
Profession: High School Teacher
The Records Team was able to track down her picture in a school yearbook that was stashed in her bag and cross-referenced it with her DNA. Her name was actually Ms. Miller, but Dingo continued to call her Ms. Boney. She wasn’t married but was a beautiful as Dingo hoped she would be. Her hair glimmered from the pages of the yearbook and her eyes held strong and sturdy like she was on a mission of some kind. It was hard for him to contemplate how she’d ended up in that boarded up classroom.
Her files revealed that she taught at St. Thomas High for five years and was an avid member of the afterschool Tutoring Program. She attended school events regularly and always had her grades in on time. A crumpled up lesson plan revealed that she was passionate about teaching History. She’d created simulations about the stock market crash of the 1920’s and tracked down touching firsthand accounts of the Vietnam War. A stained napkin with pen markings on it revealed that she was even more passionate about helping her students. Bring Johnny stress ball Monday. Tell Kimberly that I’m sorry about her grandma.
The newspaper article found in her bag described a worldwide educational collapse. Ms. Boney’s school was hit hard by budget cuts and overcrowding. She had too many students and not enough textbooks. School test scores were dropping every year as kids were forced to take lengthy tests that decided the fate of their schools. Soon tensions rose and schools from Denver to Paris began shutting down. Teachers walked out by the masses and school shootings began in large cities as teachers were blamed for their failing students. Riots caused the shutdown of the banks and then the government. The Fall of Earth was a result of the Fall of the Human Mind.
“How did she die?” Dingo asked the technician.
“Poor girl died of dehydration,” he said. “Found some videotapes in the wreckage. The janitor was boarding up all the classrooms and she was in her room grading papers. I guess she was listening to music or something. Whatever it was, she was so intensely into her work that she didn’t notice when she was sealed inside. The janitor must not have heard her. She yells for a bit, paces, here and there, but it’s like she knows it’s over… and just goes back to grading the papers. Poor broad must have died a few days later sitting in that chair.”
“No one came looking for her?”
“Humans thought teachers caused the collapse. They blamed them for almost everything. She probably would have had it worse if she had escaped.”
Dingo was stunned. Miss Boney must have dedicated her young life to her students; grading their hard-to-read hand written assignments late into the evening, sacrificing her own health to lesson plan the best lessons for them each day and calling parents daily to try to help them be successful. Her life outside of teaching was minimal. There were no letters from friends or dates in her calendar for social gatherings outside of school. Instead, her planner was filled with extensive To-Do lists with items like: Organize special education plans, make copies for tomorrow, email administrator about observation, plan new assessments, seating charts so that Jarred doesn’t bug anyone and make sure Judith can sit in front.
Unfortunately, none of this seemed to matter during The Fall. Even Miss Boney’s undying dedication could not save her or her students from the ravage of the planet.
Ms. Boney’s death was not celebrated or mourned. It wasn’t long after she was boarded up in her own classroom that the rest of the world fell to pieces around her. After several days of crying out for help she gave up. She reached for her bag and slowly etched the words from her favorite poem into the desk. She traced the words over and over until her pencil snapped in half and she felt her last breath escape her lips.
Dingo sat looking at the yearbook picture of Ms. Boney. “Beware the Jabberwock, my son,” he repeated to himself. He wondered why she’d chosen those words. It was a nonsense poem, of course, Dingo had studied it many times before and come to minimal conclusions.
But maybe the Jabberwocky wasn’t a real monster, but the monster that education could become if left unchecked. The Fall of Earth was due to the crippling of the educational system. It could have all been avoided. Miss Boney could have lived. If only humans had figured out that education was the key to their survival.
He sipped his black coffee and sighed heavily into the mug. He pulled from his jacket pocket the Polaroid picture he’d taken from the desert and placed it next to her shining and hopeful face. She was warning him, she was warning everyone.
“You are somebody to me, Ms. Boney,” he said. “You will always be somebody to me.”
Mimi Hayes is a Denver-based high school teacher, comedian, and occasional buffoon. When she is not covered in ungraded papers and pizza sauce, you can find her telling jokes to strangers and 14 year olds about her brain bleed. She is currently writing a memoir titled “Break Ups and Brain Hemorrhages: How You Can Make It Through Anything” which she hopes her mom will read.