Summary: When Mr. Ratburn assigns a difficult task to his students, Fern and Brain are left in the dust of their classmates, stuck in the classroom with Mr. Ratburn until they complete their task properly. What Fern comes up with causes her to make a discovery about herself and her imagination, and she even helps Brain as well.
Can also be found here.
Fern clutched her books nervously. She’d been in this dream before, a dream where she was a student in a strange school far, far away. But this time it felt different, overly different, in the not-so-good kind of way. She felt herself trembling on the inside and she quickened her pace. She knew by now that she had to get to class before the bell rang, just like the older kids in middle school and high school.
“Miss Walters?” an ominous voice called from behind her. Fern felt the world distort, like the shaky picture of an old television. The colors flickered into black and white for a moment, turning the marble floor from a light peach color to a shimmery grey and back again. The woman remained in vibrant color the entire time, like someone colored her in with neon lights. She was even glowing, and Fern’s inner shivering made her trip. “So clumsy and worthless!” the woman spat, drawing up her ruler like a weapon. “I can’t believe they’d send you to us. We’re better than you. We always will be.”
Fern gasped, raising up in bed with sweat pouring from her brow. She took a sip of water as she got her bearings. The world around her was still the same, but it was shimmering, begging her to drift back to sleep. She obeyed…
Fern’s breath caught a little as she looked around. She was in a philosophy class of sorts, a course where they talked about people Fern never heard of and what they’d accomplished in their lives. Today they talked about Albert Wilham, and his picture was projected onto the black chalkboard. Like the woman from the hallway, he was colored differently, his form flickering as dust poked at the light of the projector. It made Fern nervous to see such a man, and she sank down in her seat.
‘Why am I here?’ Fern thought, looking up as the teacher approached. Fern gulped. He looked like an older form of Mr. Ratburn, the kind of man who would devour you from the inside out before you could even scream.
“And what can you tell us about Mr. Wilham’s birthplace, Miss Walters? Have you been paying attention? Have you?” he said with a hint, leaning forward until his whiskers almost tickled Fern’s sheepish, white face, “I know you don’t know, Miss Walters. You never will if I have anything to do with it. Go back to exploring the halls. That’s where you belong, not in here,” he said, his voice starting quiet then turning into a booming roar that shook the room and made Fern’s ears feel funny.
“But she’s out there,” Fern pleaded, hoping the man would change his mind, but Fern’s strange classmates agreed. They chanted her name while pointing to the door, and with a few fearful starts, Fern ran from the room, leaving her books behind. A moment later, a voice called after her. Fern cowered, expecting someone devious to be tossing her books back to her. Instead, a boy that looked like an older Arthur tapped her shoulder and handed her the books she’d left behind.
“You shouldn’t leave your things. They’re important here,” he said, patting her shoulder before disappearing into the classroom. He had melded into their group, Fern thought. He was colored like them; he wasn’t pale and faded like Fern.
Fern moved to a quiet dead-end hallway to look over her things. On top was a diary of sorts, the leather cover half embroidered, half not. Fern ran her fingers over the threaded areas, to the empty black spaces, and back again trying to make sense of it. She flipped open the pages, but they were blank. She cast the book aside, not knowing its purpose.
The next book was a tiny spiral planner. The dates seemed strange and used letters instead of numbers. Fern recognized them as Roman numerals, but she didn’t know those as well as Mr. Ratburn wanted her to know them, so the planner became useless as well. The same could be said for the tiny textbook/pamphlet thing underneath. Fern didn’t know what to call it because it was so tiny, but the one thing that caught her eye was the language. It wasn’t English, and it didn’t even resemble any of the Asian languages. Fern didn’t know what to think of them, so the tiny book was put in front of her feet, cast aside for the moment.
The last book was larger, but it was still novel-sized. The cover was like the odd journal, except someone finished embroidering the border and the lettering. The title was in English, and Fern ran her fingers over the threads trying to get her swimming eyes to focus on the words…
“Fern? Fern, don’t you feel well? Fern?!” her mother called with a worried tone. Fern could barely open her eyes, like she was under some sort of spell. “Fern, I’m worried about you. This is the second day in a row you’ve been like this. One more, but I’m calling your doctor. I hope he still makes house calls,” she muttered, leaving the room. Fern felt the other world pulling her back inside…
“‘Modern Supernatural Philosophy’,” Fern read, not knowing if the book was a novel, a novella, or a short story. She could only comprehend the words, not organize the title into its proper grouping. The words within the book swam away from her, dodging her eyes and refusing to come into focus. The particularly long ones changed color and form, turning into shapes and jumping from the page. “Come back!” she pleaded, reaching out for the letters as they danced onto the walls.
“It doesn’t work like that, Fern,” a familiar voice called. Fern looked up to see Muffy standing at the beginning of the dead-end part of the hallway. Muffy was taller and slimmer, her form more angellic and beautiful. “Our world is different. You must embrace it before it will fully let you inside.”
“Why won’t the words focus? They aren’t supposed to do that! They’re supposed to stay where they’re printed!” Fern cried, sinking back to her sitting position on the floor. “Why are you and Arthur here? Who else is here? I need answers. I don’t want to be here anymore.”
“Embrace the unknown; release the reality that binds you,” Muffy said, her voice almost chant-like as it bounced off the walls, the sound waves acting more like choppy ocean waves than the perfect circles they’d learned about in class. Muffy’s voice came from all directions, arriving at different times so it echoed. Before Fern could make sense of the sounds, Muffy was gone, replaced by a piece of notebook paper fluttering in the breeze that constantly blew through the hallways, gentle in most places but stronger in others.
“Please, I just want to go home,” Fern sighed, tears forming in her eyes. The lights of the school went out, and clouds of the thickest sort covered the sun. The world was dark and hard to see, since light came from some places and not others, casting eerie glare on most shiny objects. Fern tightened her form; she was really scared now, and she couldn’t help but feel like the walls were closing in. She closed her -eyes and tried to wish herself away.
When she opened them again, the walls really were closing in. She was in a round room, and a grinding sound seemed to vibrate the floor. She gasped, standing and feeling the stone walls. They were vibrating too as they came ever closer. Fern cried out for help, which caused a light to shine down from above.
It was almost like Fern was in a well, and when she looked up, she could see the ominous school she left behind, along with numerous faces looking down to her. They were all familiar in their own way, each of them members of her class, though all looked different…except Brain. He was the same, and he even had a paleness to him that Fern had.
He also had the same fear.
“Please, don’t lower me down there! We’ll be swallowed up! Help! Help! They’ve gone mad!” he screamed, clawing at the ropes holding him during his descent. Someone above snapped and the rope turned to chains, stopping him from clawing to keep from hurting his hands.
“You can make it stop if you both believe,” the menacing neon woman cackled, beginning a chant of, “Believe it away,” with the others. The sounds flowed like water, arriving at different times as the walls continued to inch closer. Brain hit the floor just as the well became its smallest yet, just large enough for the two to stand back to back.
“This is all absurd. What’s doing on? I thought this was only a dream!” Brain cried, trying to back up into Fern. She was trying to back up into him as well, but there was nowhere to go as the floor space grew smaller and smaller as the walls got closer and closer.
“We have to believe it away,” Fern whispered. “This has something to do with that assignment in class.”
“What assignment?” Brain asked.
Suddenly the scene changed to days before. Brain and Fern were in class surrounded by their classmates, receiving papers from an imagination exercise. Mr. Ratburn had just finished a unit on ancient storytelling and using the unbelievable to make others see the moral of the story. Fern and Brain received the lowest marks; they were simply too rational. Everyone else passed with flying colors, and the art teacher wanted them all to paint or sculpt scenes from their own stories. Fern and Brain would have to stay in the classroom, alone, doing something else-
“That silly assignment caused this? It doesn’t make any sense!” Brain hissed, squirming as the walls inched ever closer.
“We have to believe it away,” Fern repeated. “If you ever feel you’re in a tight, confining space, remember those times when you were surrounded by open space: the open ocean, a meadow of nothing, a snowy tundra!”
“It’s working on your side,” Brain observed. “Um…um…I can’t do this!”
“Never give up,” Fern said, her voice lighter as her color started to change to that of their peers above, who were still chanting loudly with the neon woman. “Believe it away, Brain. The more you doubt yourself, the tighter your chains become-”
“I’m choking!” Brain coughed as his chains came to life. They squeezed him harder when he said that, and Fern scolded him. He had to relax. He had to believe it away.
“Come up with something, Brain. It’s fun to be irrational! Those with the greatest minds can soar high above the rest!” Fern giggled, smiling as she began to soar upwards with the others at the top of the well. “Come on, Brain, it’s fun!”
“Don’t play with fire?” Brain guessed.
“No, you’ve got to do better than that,” Fern said joyfully, doing a weightless sommersault as she entered the large room above. “Hurry! The walls are still getting smaller for you!”
“I can’t do it. I just-”
Fern woke up. She found herself in the classroom with Brain, his hands trembling as he stared at a blank sheet of paper. She slid it to her desk. “Believe it away,” she wrote at the top.
“Use that to create something. I just did,” Fern smiled, passing him her story. He was terrified of the horrors inside, but he felt inspired to try. His story was silly, about a boy who saw aliens in his telescope and decided to fly up in his mother’s laundry basket to meet them, but he’d done it. He’d used his imagination. Fern had done the same…
The dream snapped. Fern took a deep breath as Lakewood Elementary returned to focus. She’d never written something so intense before, so fantastic. She gave it to Mr. Ratburn, who nodded and looked up to Brain, who also had his story ready.
“I’m glad you two figured out how fun it could be to be absurd,” Mr. Ratburn said, gesturing for them to follow him to the art room. “Writing isn’t always easy, especially if you’re asked to write something outside of your comfort zone. You two are rational people, so writing about the irrational side of life is difficult. Your classmates,” he said, opening the door to the art room, “had to write something rational using the heroes I gave them.”
“The artwork is of historic figures. Look, there’s Einstein!” Brain pointed.
“Hi, Brain,” Buster waved, adding a little more white to Einstein’s wild hair.
“I do this assignment every year to test my students’ limits, not to punish them, but to show them what they’re capable of,” Mr. Ratburn smiled, handing off his two students to the art teacher. “They can’t leave until they do something fantastically supernatural!” Mr. Ratburn grinned, patting them on the back. “I’m sure they can do it if they put their mind to it.”
“We can,” Fern nodded in agreement, putting on a smock and carrying her assignment to an easel. After pinning it away from the paper, she began painting a self-portrait of sorts. She painted the school from her story in brilliant colors, careful to keep her classmates bright and the mysterious woman a blinding neon. Then she used color pencils a few days later to add herself, a pale figure small against them. Brain was added once he gave his permission, and both knew they’d learned their lesson about the unknown, as well as how to overcome any obstacle they would face: They would simply try.