“Your essay was brilliant, Leonard. Perhaps the finest I’ve come across in all of my nineteen years of teaching. I read it several times. You have a real way with words. And your arguments—you could be a fantastic lawyer if you wanted to be.”

I keep staring at those few clinging leaves, waiting for her to flip the praise into scorn like she always does.

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Who the fuck would want to be a lawyer? Being forced to argue for money—supporting sides you don’t even believe in.

After a dramatic pause, she says, “But you didn’t answer any of the simple multiple choice questions. Why?”

“You only ask those to make sure everyone read the play,” I say. “My essay clearly proves that I read the play, right? I demonstrated proficiency, did I not?”

“They were worth thirty points. You didn’t demonstrate the ability to follow simple directions. That counts in my class and in life too. No matter how smart you may be, you’re going to have to follow instructions once you leave this high school.”

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I laugh because we’re talking about her grades and points as if they’re real or something. And knowing that I’m about to kill Asher Beal and then myself makes this conversation all the more absurd and irrelevant.

“I don’t really care about the grade. You can fail me. It doesn’t matter.”

“That’s very noble of you, but you have to think about your future, Leonard.”

“Do you think Hamlet would have followed directions if he had taken this exam? Do you?”

“That’s hardly the point.”

“Then why do you make us study characters like Hamlet—heroes—if we’re not supposed to act like them? If we’re supposed to worry about points and college acceptance letters and all the rest. Do what everyone else is doing.”

“Hamlet went to college,” she says weakly, because she knows I’m right. She knows she’s fighting on the wrong side.

I smile and keep looking at the tree. She has no clue. Never in her wildest dreams would she imagine I have a Nazi gun on me. Her imagination is so limited. She has a multiple-choice-question-making imagination. It makes me laugh, how stupid our A.P. English teacher is.

She says, “I’ve tried to contact your—”

I use my acting voice to say, “Make you a wholesome answer. My wit’s diseased. But, sir, such answer as I can make, you shall command—or, rather, as you say, my mother. Therefore no more but to the matter. My mother, you say—”

Mrs. Giavotella just sort of stares at me like she’s afraid, so I say, “You’re supposed to jump in as Rosencrantz,” and in my acting voice I say, “ ‘Then thus she says: your behavior hath struck her into amazement and admiration.’ You see—I was quoting from Hamlet. You did realize that, right? You can’t be that much of a shitty teacher. Come on!”

Her face goes blank and her mouth becomes an O, like I slapped her hard.

Eventually, she stands and walks to her desk.

I watch her write a pass.

She hands it to me and in this new stern faraway detached voice she says, “I’m here to help, Leonard. I’m glad that you found Hamlet so stimulating. I won’t pretend to know what’s going on with you, but I have to report your bizarre behavior to Guidance. I just want you to know that. And I’m not really sure what you’re after, but I try very hard to be a good teacher. I spend a lot of time and energy on my tests and lesson plans. I care about all of my students, thank you very much.” In a whisper, she says, “If you want to throw that in my face then—then you can go to hell.” Much louder she says, “When you’re willing to talk straight with me, I’m willing to listen. But if you ever come to my class again even one second late, you won’t be permitted entrance. You understand me?”

I look into Mrs. Giavotella’s eyes and her lids are quivering, which is when I realize that she’s going to cry just as soon as I leave the room. And this is going to be her last memory of me. I’m not really sure why, but I feel terrible all of a sudden. Like I want to pull out the P-38 and off myself in the bathroom stall. If I didn’t have to deliver the other three presents and shoot Asher Beal in the face, I probably would just get it over with and be done with everything.

I have the pass in my hand and now Mrs. Giavotella’s looking at the almost completely bare Japanese maple outside her classroom window.

What makes sad people want to look at that tree?

Her back fat is hanging over her bra strap and it makes me wonder if she was picked on a lot in high school for being so short, overweight, and squishy. She probably was, which makes me feel even worse.

“You’re a good teacher,” I say. “I knocked my own hat off too. I’m an asshole, okay? A HUGE asshole. I don’t deserve to have such a fine teacher as yourself. Okay? Don’t worry about the stupid things I said. I’m sorry I interrupted your class today. My head’s not right. I’ll answer multiple-choice questions in the future if it will make you happy. I know you work hard on your lesson plans and—”

Without facing me she says, “Just go, Leonard. Please.”

“Are you okay?”

“I’d like you to leave now,” she says in a shaky voice.

So I do.

THIRTEEN

LETTER FROM THE FUTURE NUMBER 2

My Dearest Hamlet,

I’m five foot five with short brown hair (think pixie cut), a cute ass (or so you say, and I believe you because you can’t keep your hands off it!), and I wear a full (perky) B-cup. You find me irresistible and we make love at least once a day, but usually manage to do it multiple times employing all sorts of creative positions too. That ought to get your horny little teenage mind reeling.

Can you even imagine sex every day with another human being?

You told me that when you were a teenager you believed you wouldn’t ever have consensual sex with anyone—that you would die a consensual virgin, which would have been a shame, because let me tell you something, you LOVE sex.

Sometimes I make you beg, and beg you do.

And if you would just ask a girl on a date, Mr. King of Masturbation, you would definitely be surprised, and maybe we’d have fewer issues to work through when we first get together. Not that I want you fooling around with little chicken-assed high school girls before we meet! Ha!

You get to make love to me in the future hundreds (thousands?) of times!

Doesn’t that make you want to live on into adulthood?

Aren’t I enough?

All joking aside—for a couple that lives with a small child and an old man in a lighthouse, our sex life is mind-blowing.

We work all day outside, doing routine rounds, excavating buildings, checking our flotation devices, testing the radioactive levels of the water, and then we swim for hours and hours, so our bodies are firm and tan and beautiful, unlike the fat mush they would have turned into had we gone to the enclosed cities and worked desk jobs where no one ever sees the sun.

We are very, very lucky.

In many ways, we avoided adulthood.

Outpost 37 is our own private utopia.

You call it “second childhood.”

Do you want to know how we meet?

Should I ruin the surprise?

I feel like I better entice you. It would be a shame if you never made it this far—to the best part of your life.

After the war, when things settled and the North American Land Collective was formed, thousands of nomads were forced to repatriate through camps set up along the new controlled borders, which began in the state you now call Ohio, but have since been forced much farther west due to rising water, earthquakes, and general instability. Those who repatriated were absorbed by one of the many enclosed cities that were built and continue to be built upward. Those who refused to repatriate were considered a threat to the new order and therefore were hunted and, once captured, given the choice between death and forced labor in outdoor prison camps.

From what you’ve told me, the bounty hunters employed by the Repatriate Act of 2023 caught you asleep in a cave. You were surviving off wild berries and the small rodents you could kill, mostly rats. It was not a good life for you, I’m afraid, and you were not very well mentally. Actually, you were certifiably insane.

You did a tour overseas, during the Great War of 2018. You won’t talk about your time in the military, but sometimes you have nightmares when you scream about killing. Again, you won’t talk about it so I don’t know more.

You say, “That was the before life. Let’s live in the now life.”

And since you are generally happy when you are awake and are such a good husband, I don’t push it with the questions about the past and the night terrors.

But back to the story of how we met. You were brought into an outdoor labor camp, and you refused to work or talk, even when they withheld food and water and finally tortured you, almost to death.

When they decided that you were expendable and that it had been a mistake to bring you in alive, you were saved by a request from the heartland for test subjects and shipped to a government testing facility. I just so happened to be an administrative operator back then, and you were assigned to me.

I was a scientist working on a drug that made it easier for adults to conform to the new enclosed world. The idea was to rid the planet of rebellious people and to make sure we curbed the human tendency to disagree and argue, which has led us to nuclear war and all that followed.

Mother Earth was angry with us, and so we had to “teach ourselves to be better children,” which was the tagline the new North American Land Collective government preached.

At first you wouldn’t speak to me either. I had you in a padded cell and I would talk to you via speakers. But you just sat in the corner with your head between your knees, getting skinnier and skinnier.

At night we’d gas you, and then my aides would give you shots full of vitamins, nutrients, and the experimental chemicals.

I don’t remember why I decided to read to you, but we started with Shakespeare—Hamlet—which was damn lucky for us. Made me believe in fate again, if you’ll allow me to be mystical.

I read, saying, “Act I. Scene I. Elsinore. A platform before the Castle. Francisco at his post. Enter to him Bernardo. Who’s there?”

That’s when you lifted your head and said, “Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.”

I was shocked. You hadn’t spoken once and here you were reciting the next line in Hamlet. It was like I found the key to your mouth. So I read on, saying, “Long live the king!”

“Bernardo?” you said.

“He,” I replied.

“You come most carefully upon your hour,” you said, and then we traded lines from Hamlet all day long.

A few times I tried to break and ask you questions, but you would only say, “More words! Words, words, words!”

And for a week or so we played this game—putting on the play, just the two of us through speakers.

You were so passionate about it, such a good actor, actually—reciting Hamlet’s soliloquies with such zeal and conviction that I began to think you were perhaps once a budding movie star.

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