[Fiction] Pure Radical - part 2
Read part 1 of Pure Radical here.
Teri spent the next month getting used to the heavy feel of the gun in her pocket and sleeping with Mark, while the camp descended into active violence.
She hadn’t meant to keep the gun, of course, but she had to admit, it felt good. Everyone who could was carrying now, and Teri couldn’t blame them.
The Mobility Activists had begun pelting the Medical Team with rocks whenever they tried to come into the dining hall, fistfights regularly broke out in the bathrooms over the one remaining working toilet stall, and, worst of all, Mark had started encouraging people to attack Li, of all people, calling the Cosmic Radical Foundation “violent ruling class oppressors.” The Hospital was seeing a steady stream of knife wounds, broken noses, and poison cases, on top of the usual malnutrition illnesses.
None of this was the Education Team’s fault, obviously, but Phyra kept up a steady stream of tweets about “killer teachers,” which only served to drive even more people to Teri’s account; she’d finally topped five million. It was war, apparently, and Teri found that she was increasingly willing to do whatever it took to win.
Teri, for her part, had become laser-focused on the kids (and maintaining her exploding Twitter feed thanks to the constant attacks). She’d decided that, no matter what happened, she needed to track down every single kid in camp and make sure that they were safe, well fed, and knew that they had a safe adult to turn to for help. Every single one. Over her dead body would one more kid turn to the Gun Team out of desperation. She’d also hunted down the sexually harassing judge, but it turned out he’d disappeared in the hills weeks ago, and she was increasingly sure that Janice’s bone had come from his corpse; she made sure to give Janice extra pets now whenever she played with the bone. Some people were beyond help.
Not kids, though. Or teachers.
Unfortunately, the kids she tried to find all avoided her, like they were in some bizarre game of hide-n-seek. They’d occasionally let her get close, but then run away laughing and screaming “alien!” They’d regressed so much.
The temperature in the camp was a solid 90 degrees, and creeping up, and the gunmetal burned. Teri began to live stream everything, except the nightly sex; it was her last defense.
“Why is there a new metal cabin, Li? And are you sure Tay is okay?” Teri had finally seen the girl reading the fractal book on a rock near the beach earlier that day, and was furious at how gaunt she looked; Tay had run off before she could get too close. It was late September now and this was the first glimpse she’d gotten of the girl since the Gun camp. Tay had been one of two surprising sights that day. “And did the Housing Team finally build something? A school, hopefully?”
The structure had gone up that afternoon.
Li frowned and rolled his eyes at the gleaming new metal structure across from the beach. “No, not quite a school. The Legal Team’s barrage of formal suits on behalf of the various factions of the Housing Team were getting tedious to answer. So I told them they’d have to figure out a solution on their own if they didn’t want me to settle it with death.” Li laughed.
Teri fondled her gun and let her eyes search out the Medical Team tent across the road from the jail and the new patrol that had started to guard the Medical Team’s sharper equipment and drugs; they’d been disappearing at alarming rates. The prison structure next to the hospital was surprisingly well made. And full. “So they built a jail?”
Li pressed his palms together and closed his eyes for a moment. He looked unaccountably sad, though Teri refused to let herself care; she wasn’t going to fall for him again. “They’re calling it a Restorative Chamber. So. The bigger question is, what are you going to do about Angie? If you don’t get those schools open soon, love, you know you all are going to end up in the Restorative Chamber, or worse. They don’t care if you two are fighting. They assume you’re all the same since you’re on the same team.” Li glanced to the giant metal cannon in the northern hills. The Gun Team had begun making noises that morning about reclaiming their rightful space at the beach camp now that it was boiling hot up in the hills, and everyone was on edge. “The Medical Team is using the Legal Team to start filing suits against you with my office if you must know.”
Teri blanched and hit stop on her phone stream, ignoring the frantic buzzing of her now 5.3M followers. It hadn’t occurred to her yet that she could end up in the prison; she was a math teacher! She fingered the gun and then reached down for Janice, but the dog was gone. She’d begun spending more time up in the hills, with Mark, much to Teri’s annoyance.
“How can I open the schools if Angie refuses to budge, Li? She spat on me in the last Education Team meeting, not that we have them much anymore! She’s gone crazy. What, it’s not like I can kill her!”
Li leaned back on his charred log and turned his face up to the tumultuous sky. The weather had grown more violent over the last month, for some reason, and it felt like a hot thunderstorm storm was about to roll in. “Indeed. You sure you have the luxury to think that way? How well do you know Angie?”
The Housing Team formally introduced motions at a Friday bonfire to kill two of its members—they’d apparently never gotten over that first night’s fight. The motion only failed because half of the team insisted it needed to go through more community process first. The camp was tense.
The Gun Team had also formally declared their intention to “reclaim” the Dining Hall, one dormitory, and the Education Team’s precious bathroom. It would be up for a vote next week, and Angie ordered extra patrols to protect their team’s territory.
But the Gun Team knew how to fight dirty. In a punch to Teri’s gut, the Black teachers in the Education Team formally seceded in a somewhat insulting Twitter post that seemed to imply that the rest of the team didn’t care about their needs. They’d been offered the Gun Team’s former camp for free, it seemed. Not that they didn’t have a point, but … Teri had fought so hard for an equitable proposal for the Education Team, and particularly those teachers. Hadn’t she? Teri’s hatred of Angie reached a fevered pitch, and she began to dwell on Li’s words.
How safe were any of them with Angie in charge?
When the Black teachers announced a plan to open their own school within a week, Angie lost her mind. Though Phyra also wouldn’t stop retweeting their posts as proof of the importance of school for kids, so it was a little hard to use that as external ammo. (In fact, Teri and the rest of the Education Team felt obligated to retweet their Black peers with a “listen to Black teachers!” comment pinned on for good measure. She got 12K likes. Mark got 20K on the exact same post, which Teri found especially irritating.) Still, she was savagely happy that the Education Team had seen Angie’s true colors, at long last.
There was a lot more chatter about changes during the evening cocktail hours, and well into the night, none of which Angie attended anymore. Teri was increasingly confident she’d win this fight without having to pull out her gun and let herself relax a little.
That all changed on a blazing hot, smoky day in November when Janice failed to show up for breakfast and then lunch and dinner for the fifth day in a row, and Angie slapped her at breakfast.
“Did they take your dog, lady?” One of the teen boys was laughing at her from down the beach, along with his tribe of friends, while a fuming Teri combed the beach calling for Janice that afternoon. “They like to eat them, I hear. Nom nom nom!”
Teri stared at the boy in confusion and suspicion—was he one of the thugs who spied on the Deaf Team camp? She ran a hand over the red mark on her face. Had he taken Janice?—and tried to get closer without scaring them off. “They? Who do you mean they?”
But the boy and his friends only laughed louder and started waving their hands above their heads like antennae—goddamn alien jokes—until they were doubled over with laughter. Teri had a horrible feeling. No, she was angry.
She stopped trying to be careful in her approach and started running at them. “Tell me where my dog is young man, or …”
“Or what? You going to give me a detention? In ‘school’? You know I’ve seen you have sex, with lots of people. I’ve seen your—”
Teri stalked toward him, hands intentionally raised to seem unthreatening, but he didn’t even flinch. Teri stumbled and grabbed the boy to help her break her fall by accident, shoving him onto the sand.
A second later, Phyra came sprinting out of the hospital with a gun aimed at Teri. “Get away from these children!”
Teri screamed at the sight of the weapon and scrambled back to her feet. “Oh my god, what are you doing?!”
“I’m saving these children from you!” Phyra was staring at Teri’s right hand, which had automatically gone to the gun in her pocket. Not that she was going to use it—she just needed to make sure it didn’t slip and accidentally shoot the horrible boy! That fucking horrible little monster of a boy.
“I’m not going to shoot them! But do you even know how hard it is to teach the little assholes you people raise?!”
Teri regretted the words as soon as they came out, but she couldn’t stop to think about it. There were only a few more hours of sunlight left in the late November day and she had to find Janice. Before she did something drastic. She needed her dog. The world made no sense without Janice. Angie’s slap rang in her mind, and Teri was terrified at her overwhelming desire to kill her. No, she couldn’t let Angie turn her into a monster. She needed Janice. Janice would calm her down.
Teri slowly brought the gun out of her pocket and stared at her nemesis. “I said, I’m going now and you better not fuck with me.” And backed slowly towards the hills until she felt safe to break into a dead sprint.
Her eyes strayed warily up and over the northern hills as she pumped her arms, where the sound of gunshots was once again cutting through the blazing blue morning sky. She knew where she had to go.
An hour of hard run/walking later, and pleading at the gate of the Gun Team camp for any information, Teri hadn’t found Janice in the hills, but she did find Tay, and a massive headache. Worse, she couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was following her the whole time; but apparently very good at concealing themselves.
Teri crested the hill that should have led Teri to the Golden Gate Bridge and the 101 one more time, her last ditch effort to find her sweet Janice, and the girl was sitting on a rock. It disoriented Teri for a moment. Tay, not Janice, the view on the hill. The horizon should have been a breathtaking view of the highway and the Golden Gate Bridge. However, Teri had run/walked up and down the hill further out three times, and all she could see was more hills and a sort of inexplicable wavy black line that looked like a kindergartener’s drawing of a road. No highway and no bridge, or really a horizon. Teri shook her head like Janice when she was wet. It made no sense. In fact, geometrically, it made so little sense that she almost forgot to care about Janice. Or Tay.
Janice. The pain of really losing her dog was starting to radiate across her skull, along with the memory of the blood wormhole that had roared that morning when Angie hit her. She’d wanted to shoot her so bad in that moment. Or maybe that was the ringing; she’d gotten so used to it now that sometimes she forgot to notice it.
Teri grabbed her head, closed her eyes, and tried to slow down her head. She really was losing her mind.
“Tay, I need to talk to you. I know your mom has convinced you that I’m crazy, but I’m just desperate to make sure you and the other kids are OK. And now—now I’ve lost Janice somehow.”
Tay shrugged. “You’re not crazy. The road is gone. So is your dog.”
“No, I don’t think you understand. Wait, what do you mean gone?” Teri was shaking with exhaustion and pain, but the shock of Tay’s emaciated body and the state of her torn clothes shook her out of her sense of the universe being all wrong for a second. But only a second. Teri walked toward the girl as cautiously as possible, surveying every inch of her tiny, awkward body. Phyra truly was the worst mother; it was freeing to be able to say that and not feel an ounce of pity. Teri lay her hands flat in her pocket over her phone in one hand and the gun handle in the other, trying to look unconcerned and unthreatening. She couldn’t shake the feeling of being followed.
“Does your … mother know you’re up here, Tay?”
Tay didn’t seem to hear her. Instead, when she did respond, her voice was completely flat. “The highway is gone, and the horizon is all wrong. We need to leave before it’s too late. That’s what happened to Janice.”
Teri’s voice caught in her throat from emotion. The girl was so broken. Janice. “It’s not your fault that everything feels like it’s falling apart. Sometimes when we don’t get enough water, we start seeing things wrong.” And we make bad decisions, like stealing other people’s dogs, she added silently. Had it been Mark? The teen boys? Phyra?
A shiver of rage and grief washed through her, so strong, it made her teeth rattle. People should not neglect the people and animals they love. Teri took her role as a Mandatory Reporter seriously as an educator. Very seriously.
She blinked up into the bright blue sky, shimmering with intense heat. The color was almost otherworldly, and Teri had to look away when her eyes watered.
She needed to put all her petty bullshit aside and find Janice and then get Tay in her car and drive out to get cell reception and call Child Protective Services as soon as she could get back down to the main camp (cell service was notoriously absent in the park, much to everyone’s annoyance). Before she became a murderer. She was better than that.
Teri put her arms around Tay and pulled her to her feet, trying to covertly remove the gun from the girl’s pocket.
Just then, though, Phyra rounded the hill with her baby strapped onto her front, a scalpel in hand and her gun in the other like a ridiculous mother Chucky doll. Both mom and baby were covered in blood.
So that’s who had been following Teri. Figured. Teri rolled her eyes and tried not to groan.
Phyra’s voice was like a whip. “Take your hands off my daughter! NOW!”
Teri started to reflexively do as she was asked, but then stopped herself. No, she couldn’t fail Tay, or Janice. Not like she’d failed her dad. She had to be willing to fight back, at long last. She forced herself to square her feet and fight back, at long last; she consoled herself in the fact that she’d managed to take Tay’s gun. She’d be safer now. “No. Tay needs help, Phyra. From people who care about her.”
“I said, get your fucking hands off my daughter, Teri! And don’t lecture me about helping kids. Someone just died at the hospital, Teri. Because we’re understaffed thanks to the fact that I had to round up those teens—again—because they’re all terrified of the teacher stalking them with a fucking gun. Pia from the Food Team had a heart attack and died because of you Education Team assholes. She actually fucking died. And I could have saved her. But once again, you fucking teachers ruined someone’s life. So get your hands off my daughter.” Phyra clapped against her thigh after each word in that last sentence.
Teri stared at her in shock. “Why do you hate teachers so much? Do you not understand how deadly your hate is? We work our asses off for no money, and you literally try to kill us.”
Phyra howled. “That’s what you have to say? Classic! Someone. Just. Died, Teri!”
Teri took a step closer and tried to reach a protective arm around Tay and get her away from this lunatic woman, but before she could lay hands on her, Phyra roared.
“I said get off my daughter!” The hills around then shook. “Tay, RUN, baby! I’ll find you!” Phyra fired the gun in a warning shot (?) right over Teri’s head, and Tay bolted towards the far hills, away from her mother. Except, Phyra apparently didn’t know much about shooting guns, and the bullet grazed Teri’s arm. Not that Phyra waited to see. The woman turned and sprinted after her daughter, completely ignoring the fact that she had shot Teri.
She had shot Teri. Teri had been shot. With a gun.
“You shot me! You, you—OW!!! OWW!! YOU HURT ME!!!!” Teri raised Tay’s gun and fired it at Phyra’s retreating back. And missed. A piece of rock chipped off a rock formation blocking Phyra’s sprinting body.
And then it was just Teri, left to stand alone and contemplate her shaking hands, bleeding arm, and the ringing abyss of a black line where the road should have been. A woman alone, with two guns. She had finally drawn a line and seen what the universe thought of her and other teachers.
Things were going to come to a head, whether Phyra and the rest of her enemies were ready or not.
Unfortunately, the Legal Team arrested Teri and the rest of the Education Team the next morning at breakfast for attempted murder and something new called “indirect murder.” The red-haired woman from the Legal Team was appointed their “mediator” and let them know that they’d be put on trial at the next bonfire, and Angie let it be known that Teri would be taking the fall for them all and that if she objected, they’d kill her. She’d expected Mark to defend her, at the very least, but he’d winked at her and then turned his back and chosen to comfort Angie.
Teri curled up in the poorly-constructed jail and cried until her eyes cracked red.
That Friday night at bonfire, the entire camp (minus the newly-named Restorative Enforcers, who were still surrounding the prisoners with very sharp sticks) stood up and turned their backs on the Education Team when Li called for a moment of silence to honor Pia, the fallen Food Team radical and great ally to the Education Team. The Food Team was openly weeping and someone was keening like Janice used to. Many people were live streaming as well.
Teri sat in the sand with her team, but not. They all stank, and not a single one of them had spoken to her in over 24 hours. Angie had kicked her repeatedly in the stomach and head the night before and Teri’s mouth was filled with the taste of blood.
Li’s voice was low and husky when he spoke. Teri absently noted the way it echoed around the beach; sound didn’t travel that way. She glanced up to the stars. She fingered her shorts. The Education Team was in for a surprise. They all were.
“I’ve been asked to hold a vote. Should the Education Team be allowed to stay if they don’t open schools immediately, or should they be put back in jail for the duration of the camp? Why don’t we hear arguments pro and con before we take a vote.”
“No, that’s not necessary.” It was Mark’s stentorian tenor.
Teri glared at him and stuck her hand into her pocket, waiting for him to put the blame on her. The metal felt cool.
Mark winked at Teri and she paused. What?
Mark was massaging Angie’s back and whispering in her ear while he pushed her forward towards the bonfire. Angie looked shocked and, inexplicably, kept darting her eyes over to the Wellness Team like she was apologizing. The rest of the Education Team looked just as outraged as Teri felt, but were clapping Mark along; people had even forgotten to put on their masks.
Wait, what about the trial? What about the plan to make Teri the scapegoat?
Angie, in angry tears, and looking like she’d just threatened to throw herself into the fire stamped to the center of the bonfire. Her voice was sandpaper; they’d been given no water in jail. She ripped off her sagging, wet mask. “Fine. We’ll open the fucking schools. Two days a week until you pay us what we’ve demanded. But you have to give us the sleeping cabins back, and we start voting off teams that fail to live up to camp expectations set up by representatives from every team. Simple majority.”
Teri’s mouth dropped open in shock. She couldn’t stop staring at the horrific rash around Angie’s mouth, and her decidedly yellow skin. What in the world?
Li looked around the fire. “All in favor?”
And much to Teri’s shock, the vote passed. There was no trial. Instead, she was being forced back to school. By Mark. Had he taken Janice?
There was very little dancing and a lot more drinking and whispering during the post-bonfire party that night. No one on the Education Team spoke to Angie, and Teri’s overtures to rekindle friendships with her team were drowned out by the gossip.
Angie was an alcoholic. She had been organizing substance abuse group meetings with the Wellness Team the whole time of the camp; worse, she was in AA—with Phyra, of all fucking people. With Phyra. Mark had been the only one who knew.
Teri got blindingly drunk. So, so drunk.
Phyra and Angie had probably been planning this takedown of the Education Team from the very start, she reasoned. Some sort of undercover conspiracy between Phyra and Angie didn’t quite make sense, of course, but the more that Teri drank, the more the idea loomed large in her head. Dark money, dark webs.
She drank some more and tried not to laugh. Absolutely no one cared that Phyra had won. Teri had lost and Phyra had won. Because of Angie. And Mark.
Every time Teri reached for Janice, forgetting she was gone, she found herself holding a new flute of champagne instead. Or was that her gun?
She blacked out completely an hour later.
Teri’s confessional the next night with Li was a bitter, drunk mess. She wouldn’t remember a single moment of it later.
“I should leave, Li.” She was crying—on camera. She tried to remind herself through her wine haze to ask him to edit this all out. That was in the contract, wasn’t it?
“Angie really sold you out, huh? After all that work. How does that make you feel? More importantly, who will you teach now?”
“What does that mean?” Though of course, the Black students had all been poached and Teri had heard the two Latinx teachers in the group talking over the idea of doing the same with the Latinx kids. Which was—Teri was furious with them all, she realized through the wine. Just the white kids left. How was that radical? Oh, and well the Asian kids, too. She really should leave, maybe; that was the radical thing to do. It had to be. They’d put her in jail. Phyra had shot her. Janice was gone. All she had was her guns—and Li.
Li was studying her mouth as she thought hard. Shit, had she accidentally said that all out loud?!
“Do you mind turning your face this way, toward the light? What a beautiful specimen!” It was one of the camera people, which was strange because they usually never spoke. Ever. Come to think of it, why were there so many here for their one-on-one interview tonight of all nights?
Someone handed Teri another flute of wine, and she could have sworn the cameraperson’s skin disappeared from their body for a second. She drank faster. She was better than this. She wasn’t a drunk. She reached for Janice and the ringing got too loud.
She wanted it all to STOP!
“Who are you going to teach, Teri?” Li pressed. “Your contract stipulates that you only get paid if you stay for the entire camp experience. Are you going to go back to your old job? Who are you going to teach?”
“Who won’t I teach?” Teri said it more belligerently than she intended, trying to speak over the inhuman chords. That was a good soundbite for the documentary, after all. Li wouldn’t definitely use it. TEACHER Teri. It was right in her Twitter bio.
Li smiled. “Yes, but why you? Are you the most radical teacher for these budding humans? Look what you let happen to Tay and the other kids. Would a good teacher let that happen?”
“What?!” Teri looked at Li in bewilderment and studied him closely. Surely she had to have misheard him. Li was her friend. Her only friend! Nothing was making sense. No one cared more about kids than teachers, especially Teri. Teri and her guns.
“You go back to the classroom next week, Teri, with no consequences to you for all the time you and the rest of your team deprived those kids of an education. Is this the most radical solution, friend?”
Teri latched on to the first sentence and word and let her eyes close, choosing to ignore the second; the camera lights were much too bright. “Yes! I get to teach again, Li. I’m a teacher.”
Li’s earlier words felt like something that Teri urgently needed to be unpacked if she could open her eyes, but unfortunately, GRACE interrupted the interview after that to scream at Li about a fire burning down the bathroom cabin (much, much too loudly). Really, everyone needed to use their inside voices.
“Why can’t we leave, Li?! The teens are saying the tunnel doesn’t end and the cars are gone! Where the fuck are we?!”
Teri drifted to sleep on the sand where she’d lain down with her bright and ringing thought. No matter what, she had to teach. She was a teacher.
Those kids better be grateful.
The next Wednesday, in-person school officially reopened, albeit two days a week only. (Teachers needed prep days to deliver the kind of curriculum the kids deserved, Mark decided.) Teri was in charge of teaching upper middle school and high school math and had barely been able to sleep the night before from nerves and cold. She’d gotten up in the middle of the night to practice target shooting at the old horse pasture, which had taken the edge off. A new habit.
Teri adjusted her mask and hat blocking the impossible September sun, and paced nervously behind the whiteboard she’d twisted Li’s arm to bring on site for school. The kids were late, and her headache still hadn’t dissipated.
In fact, it would be another half hour before the first student showed up: Tay, of course. A handful of teens—the boys from outside the Deaf Team camp—straggled in after her over the next hour looking like they’d rather be anywhere else, which really ticked off Teri, after all this. One lay down to sleep and the rest hadn’t even brought paper or pencils. Teri was flabbergasted, but tried to reign in her feelings and invite the students to learn. No need for drastic disciplining, she reminded herself. They would be grateful.
“We’re going to start with a real-world math problem. Does anyone recognize the kind of equation on the board?” Teri’s voice wavered slightly.
Tay sighed but didn’t respond. She had her eyes pinned on the problem Teri had written on the board, a diagnostic equation that would also be a fun way to teach the hidden cost of being poor in America; it was intersectional and culturally disruptive for these kids, exactly the kind of curriculum she wished she’d been able to use back at home. Even if she was only teaching white kids.
The kid sleeping on the ground snorted and sat up while some of the other kids made high-pitched woo-woo noises and snickered. “Uh, sorry about your dog, Ms. Teri Teaches. Ya know they ate her, right? This is a radical school, right?”
“My dog is not dead, young man. She’s … just off on a long hunt.” Teri forced her shoulders to relax at the mention of Janice and ignored the rest. She’d deal with Mark soon enough. Besides, here was a point of common interest with these boys, and she was a teacher. They were opening up to her! “Of course. Student-centered, intersectional real learning!”
But the boy just stared at her like she was an idiot. “Yeah, so if this is supposed to be a student-centered school system, why aren’t we in charge? The youth? Also, why are the schools segregated? Isn’t that, like, illegal? By the way, you know we have a video of you having sex. More than one.”
Things went downhill from there. Over the next hour, as she watched the sun slowly arc over their little clearing in the hills and her skin burn along with it—indoor teaching had been ruled out since Li refused to make any ventilation upgrades in the remaining cabins—Teri would have given anything for a bell to cut this class short. Tay was the only one even listening to her lesson. The sleeping boy was snoring now, and the others had moved one by one to hang out with each other under a tree, completely ignoring Teri’s entreaties to return. “Why?” was their only response.
Teri found herself grabbing at her guns every now and then, but managed to bite back the urge. She was a good teacher.
At around 11:45 am, after two of the kids under the tree had begun making out while the others watched, Teri finally broke.
“Tay, I need to speak with you outside for a moment.”
Tay looked at her funny and Teri cringed. They were, after all, outside. Nonetheless, Teri gestured at Tay to follow her behind the whiteboard. The Education Team had made a point to not create any sort of principal or official disciplinarian that could step in at their radical school; they all assumed there would be no need with so few students and such incredible curriculum (in progress). Teri was also newly and uncomfortably aware that turning to the parents for support was no longer really an option thanks to all the camp politics; she had to get control of these kids. She grabbed the whiteboard edge and put the guns out of her mind. She was a really good teacher.
Tay before she could finish. “Ms. … uh … Teri, they already know how to do the, uh, equation. We all do. When there wasn’t any school, our moms made me teach them all this stuff, like hardcore. I saw that problem on maybe TikTok?” Tay shrugged and Teri blushed. That’s where Teri had gotten the idea, too; she felt an unreasonable surge of anger towards Tay that she immediately tamped down.
“I follow you on Twitter, you know. You’re RadicalMathTeachgrr. Do you have my gun still?”
“I’m sorry?” Teri’s brain felt like she was having two separate conversations at once. Teri angled her body so Tay couldn’t see the bulges in her right pocket as well.
Not that Tay seemed to notice. “Oh, well that’s OK. I don’t really like guns. But you know on Twitter I agree with some of the stuff you say, but …”
Teri softened and remembered why she was there. Twitter could be a scary place for a teen, surely. After the gun battle with Phyra, Teri needed to be Tay’s safe space. “You can ask me anything, I promise. I’m sure this is all very confusing and scary, but I swear you’re safe with me.”
“Okay, so, like, wasn’t teaching me just now while you ignored the other kids wrong since I’m already ahead? Shouldn’t we both be helping the kids who are behind? Like what you said in your tweets? My mom told me we’re not supposed to have any tests here, but I know for a fact that some of those kids can barely do fractions. Since I had to teach them when you, you know, wouldn’t.” Tay’s voice trailed off awkwardly.
Teri gritted her teeth and decided to overlook Tay’s fundamental misunderstanding of the strike. Still, her voice was far less even than she would have liked when she did finally respond. “Sure, but I can still help you. I love that you love math so much, Tay. I’m a teacher!”
“Yeah sure, my mom is …” The girl trailed off. “But, like, how is this any different from school back home?”
Teri really did try to be as gentle as possible. It felt good to be her old, softer self for a minute, in fact. “Well, we got rid of grades and standardized tests for starters. You’re learning what you want to be learning!”
Tay stared blankly at her. “Yeah, but that only works if you’re a good teacher. Are you?”
Teri was speechless, and the ringing ground in her ears.
Not that Tay seemed to notice. “Like, have you ever been graded or held accountable, though? Like we are? Li wouldn’t let the kids speak at bonfire and stuff, so, yeah. But like, why do kids have to get grades and pass so many tests to be allowed to learn at nice schools with clubs and counselors and stuff, but teachers only have to take some shitty classes at community college to get to teach us or maybe not even that? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Like, if we really think every kid has potential and should have, like, the best? Wouldn’t that be more radical?” Tay’s voice was getting louder from excitement, and it was the first time Teri could really see the resemblance between the girl and her mom, she realized, with a vicious roar. A thought slowly dawned in her throbbing head: Is this what Phyra was saying to the kids at home this whole time? Violent, dangerous Phyra, who’d fucking shot at her? Who’d wounded her?!
Teri failed to keep control of her voice, but it was so, so hard. “I worked hard for my teaching credential!”
Tay rolled her eyes. Yup, she 100% looked just like Phyra, and Teri’s hand automatically reached into her pocket. Why hadn’t Teri seen it before? “I mean, that’s what everyone says, though. Like, my dad’s new kid says that when he’s taking a shit—sorry, my mom thinks I shouldn’t swear as much, but … By the way, did you notice that the angles on the horizon are all wrong? I don’t think we’re really in the Marin Headlands. Some kids tried to go through the tunnel and leave, you know, but they couldn’t. They think we’re on another planet, and some of the math in this book doesn’t work properly anymore.” She waved around the textbook Teri had handed out at the beginning of class (another plea to Li). “Have you noticed that? Like the angles?”
Teri’s head spun like a squirrel bolting from a dog. None of what Tay was saying made any sense, just like that day in the hills. Sure, Teri had wondered, too, but it wasn’t mathematically possible that they’d somehow ported to another planet. Every logical bone in Teri’s body pushed back against her niggling doubt like it wanted to burst. The girl shoved the book closer to Teri’s face and Teri swatted it back with the butt of her gun, overwhelmed, maybe a bit too hard. Tay gasped as it collided with her face.
“You hit me! With a gun! Are you an alien, too?!”
Tay was brainwashed and maybe insane, Teri realized in horror. This happened to math people sometimes, and Teri felt a lump of disappointment with herself that she hadn’t realized what was happening sooner as the sound of heavy panting and laughter got louder on the other side of the whiteboard.
Instead, she stared at the traumatized girl in front of her, gripping her reddened cheek, and tried to ignore the creeping sense of guilt. Tay didn’t look as much like Phyra anymore. No, she looked like Teri had at that age. Awkward, shy, in need of guidance and love. Good god, yes, Tay needed help. She wasn’t Teri, of course. She needed to be away from Phyra, and—just as Teri had resolved before—she needed professional help. No wonder all these kids were so burnt out on school, and Tay like this. Phyra and the other mothers had helicoptered them to pieces these past few months. Like Cassie and her mom. These poor kids were abused. They were coping with White trauma.
“I care so much about you, Tay. I’m so sorry she hurt you.”
“Ms. … uh … Teri? You look weird. I think you hit me, not, uh? Are you going to eat me, too?”
Teri stepped closer to the girl, overwhelmed with pity and sadness for this poor, abused girl. “This is not your fault, Tay. None of this is your fault.” Teri tried to hug her, but Tay stepped back, tense, and Teri immediately shook her head in sadness. “Class dismissed.”
The girl bolted back to the classroom and Teri ran her fingers over her phone, deep in thought on her side of the whiteboard. It was true that it really was strange that nothing but Twitter ever seemed to work properly for Teri on her phone. She could try to post for help for Tay on Twitter, she supposed, but … well, she stopped and thought—hard. Oh god, what would happen if Child Protective Services came out here to get the kids and saw the prison, or the Gun Team camp or the Deaf Team orgies, the burned down bathroom, and shit-infested Dining Hall? Pia’s grave? Would they arrest all of them for living this way? It’s not like the government was known for its support of radicals. Teri snorted. She’d read about COINTELPRO. That made her think of something else: Jesus, what if Phyra was an FBI plant? Was that really so far-fetched?
The ringing in her ears whined into a higher pitch.
She couldn’t take that risk. Plus, she also didn’t want to get Li and the Foundation in trouble. What would be the actual radical thing to do here? The cosmic radical thing?
Teri collapsed on a nearby rock overlooking the beach and parking lot and thought harder than she ever had in her life, rocking slightly. It was okay if this was uncomfortable, she reminded herself, reaching for Janice and only finding air. She was so alone. Still, she needed to push herself here and not hold back. Children’s lives were at stake. All the work of this camp was at stake. Her promise to her dad, and herself.
She stared at the roof of the cabins on the beach below, starting to crumble from lack of upkeep this past year. The Housing Team had not really fulfilled its promise to pursue a truly radical agenda.
She couldn’t make the same failure. She was a radical. She had proved it, over and over and over.
So, what would she have wanted when she was Tay’s age? To be free of her parents and the awful kids at her school, yes. Teri kicked the scrubby dirt. That was surface-level TV-drama bullshit. There was nothing radical about an hour of reality TV.
What had she really needed? What was the truly radical solution here? For a long, keening moment, she missed the reassuring presence of Janice so much, that her body ached. But she needed to stand alone now. No more crutches.
When the answer came to her twenty minutes later, she took a deep series of Hatha breaths and let a few tears fall in acknowledgment of the hard work she had just done. Yes, she’d shot at Phyra in self-defense, but she hadn’t been willing to go far enough before. She’d been too afraid. The radical thing would be for the white moms like Phyra to finally admit that they have no business raising children, and certainly no business shaping schools. The radical thing for them, and only them, would be to leave—forever. Not dead, per se, though she wouldn’t rule it out, if necessary. Teri took a long inhale. No, no she wouldn’t.
Teri wrote a note on a piece of paper and took a photo of the note under her gun under the baking sun. It took a second to upload to Twitter, and barely a few more seconds to type her final plea into the tiny Twitter dialogue box.
Her father would have been so proud of her.
Teacher Teri is a Hard-Ass Cosmic Radical @RadicalMathTeachgrr
A proposal to @CosmicRadical and everyone at this camp: One last vote. The most radical team gets to stay and keep all the prize money and children over 10. Everyone else willingly leaves or gets shot. I think it’s time for @doulaonamission to zero out, don’t you? #finalbonfire
Though she had to hold her nose to do it, she tagged Mark. He had the largest Twitter following for absolutely inexplicable reasons, with Teri and Phyra not so close seconds and thirds (and the Pleasure Activists an annoyingly intimate fourth).
It was the logical move and paid off. Mark retweeted Teri’s post within one minute along with an “I’m in!” and the likes and comments began rolling in, obliterating all past social records for Teri. 10M, 50M, 100M, 200M. She stopped watching after that point. Only one comment mattered, even if she found it surprisingly (and inappropriately) reductive given the gravity of the project, from her friend, Li.
Pure Radical Foundation @Cosmicradical
Friday at 8 pm. It’s on: the final vote! @RadicalMathTeachgrr versus @doulaonamission. To the death.
Dr. Phyra Beckdel, MD is a Cosmic Radical @doulaonamission
@RadicalMathGrrrl Have you lost your mind?! I will kill you first if you even try to look at my children wrong. I will fucking KILL YOU. Do you even realize how much danger we’re all in?! #HELP! #ALIENS
Angie and a dozen parents with kids from various teams disappeared from camp the night before the final vote on Friday, which Teri thought was unbelievably cowardly. Though she took some satisfaction when she heard that Phyra and the rest of the Medical/Wellness Team had also tried to leave. Even more unbelievably, they were claiming that aliens had prevented them. Teri gasped at the absolute insanity and racism of the claim; Phyra wasn’t so out of her mind that she thought that there were literal interstellar travelers on hand, so it was pretty clear that Phyra was trying to blame her lack of success on Teri, in what felt like some incredibly gross joke.
Thankfully, in a surprising fit of work for someone who usually just did whatever she wanted, Mark had organized some of the remaining allies to take over the Food Team work and commandeered the more capacious sleeping quarters that the families from various teams had claimed for their own months ago. It felt amazing to have such nice places to sleep and secretly Teri was glad the parents had fled, not that anyone felt comfortable saying that out loud judging by what got posted on Twitter versus what was being said in the dorm.
Then the Education Team—minus the Black educators and families, who had run into some tension with the Gun Team over the deal they’d struck in October and Teri—spent all of Thursday and Friday preparing for the vote. Mark and the team’s one drama teacher led the charge by reaching out to potential remaining allies in the camp for votes. Teri ground her teeth when she heard that a) Mark was taking charge again and b) giving pleasure to anyone who would entertain voting their way. This was Teri’s fight. He’d stolen her reckoning before, and over her dead body would he do it again.
Teri officially went rogue and cornered the team members under Mark’s thrall to threaten them to fall in line, no longer shy about bringing out her gun. This was her show. They needed to fall in line.
The threat worked.
So, as far as she was concerned, her only job in the lead-up to the vote was to continue making the case against Phyra and the rest of the Medical/Wellness Team on Twitter (“Seriously, do any of you _feel_ well?! Who’s not doing their job here?!!🧐”). It was satisfying work as her numbers climbed higher and higher, almost as high as Mark’s ridiculous 5M followers (what in the world was his appeal?!), though of course she couldn’t compete with the naked shots of him floating in the ocean under the moonlight. Whatever, she was so over that tool. With Li’s encouragement, she dug up tons of dirt on dear Phyra, including the fact that the woman had worked for 20 years at a major corporate Health Care conglomerate. (“There certainly is a conspiracy here, but it’s not ‘aliens,’ folx, it’s the fact that Dr. Phyra is a tool of Big Health Care and that she feels comfortable throwing around such an offensive term towards a hard-working TEACHER!! 🧐”)
She felt so alone at the top, and it was only Li’s new habit of retweeting all of her posts that kept her going on the long nights before the vote. And the daily target practice.
“You’re almost there, Teri. Just a little more hard work to achieve your radical dreams,” Li kept saying at their nightly one-on-ones. “No one else is doing this level of work.”
He also started giving her way more hot food, and they spent the nights feasting under the stars, close but never crossing any lines. Romance was for the unserious, Teri knew now. She burned with something so much brighter.
Finally, Friday night’s sunset was blood red and tense. Teri figured it was wildfire smoke, though strangely, the air quality in the Marin Headlands seemed untarnished. Fresh, and hopeful. Inexplicably, she felt a surge of gratitude to be at this camp once again. Despite everything. This was a life worth fighting for, at last, through all the pain and blood and hunger; to discover that she could be a north star and find true meaning. To not be lonely in her righteousness. To be so in sync with her friend, Li.
Li opened the meeting with a dramatic lighting of the bonfire as the sun dipped just below the horizon for the last time, and Teri couldn’t help but grin savagely. Her old friend looked like a fire god surrounded by the flames.
Tonight was Teri’s night, and Li’s. It couldn’t be clearer.
“Welcome to the final bonfire! One vote to see which team stays in radical paradise! Can you believe we’ve gotten here? What a journey!” Li threw out his arms and turned around to take in the entire camp, faltering only a little at the sight of some kids clutching at their moms, in tears.
It would be for the best, Teri reassured herself. Her eyes flitted onto Tay and the other remaining teens, who looked terrible, as usual. There was so much trauma there. Whatever new family they ended with after Teri won this vote would be so much more healing. Kids were so resilient.
“Now, let’s bring up our spokespeople for this final debate.” Li looked pointedly at a terrified-looking Phyra with her baby clutched tightly in her arms and the Education Team.
Much to her shock, though, Teri had to suffer through a 10-minute heated debate with the rest of her team over whether it should be Teri or Mark to speak on their behalf. She was livid. The documentary crew pressed in far closer to watch Teri’s embarrassment. It hadn’t even occurred to her to press this issue in their earlier strategy meetings. Why wouldn’t it be her? How many times had she already taken on that role and won? But it was like all of Teri’s hard work had never happened, all of a sudden; the team just looked at her blankly when she brought it up.
When she brought out her gun, the rest of the team also pulled knives. Mark had a machete.
Teri screamed and shot a bullet into the air in rage.
So, the compromise was that both Teri and Mark would go up to speak, with Teri speaking first. Teri rather felt like spitting at Mark’s wide grin of triumph, but he grabbed her hand and pulled her up to the center of the extra-large bonfire fire before she could respond. Teri tried to remove her hand, but he seemed oblivious to her discomfort, and so there they stood, looking to all the stars like some happy couple while Teri mentally squared off against an approaching Phyra. Phyra was the ultimate enemy, not Mark, after all. She’d deal with him and the rest of the Education Team later. Maybe she’d even shoot him.
Phyra’s baby was crying.
“Teri, please listen to me very closely. This is not a game.” Phyra’s voice was low and intense, and her eyes kept darting in panic at Li and then the camera people, who continued to silently point their glowing cameras. “This is real life.” Phyra clutched at her baby, who looked strange. “Something very dangerous and weird is going on here, and I need you to look past your blind hatred towards me and see this. Please.”
Teri rolled her eyes at the incredibly ableist comment and spit back the first thing that came to her mind. “You’re right, it’s not a game, Phyra!” It wasn’t the smoothest retort, but she was proud of herself for getting so much better at these things thanks to this experience. She was obviously the moral center of this camp, and no one else. She was the one fighting for that poor, squalling baby.
Soon everything would be right at long last.
“So then, let’s work together. Away from the cameras and these … people.” Phyra bugged her eyes out at Teri and reached out a shaking hand.
“It’s a trick,” Mark whispered in her ear, much to Teri’s mild annoyance. Why did Mark always think she was so stupid and pathetic? Phyra’s words were a classic diversion move by people in power who didn’t want to be held accountable for their actions.
“No. We stay here and finish this. I don’t back down on my promises, even if you do, Dr. Phyra. You never deserved to be here.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?!”
“It means that you worked at a Big Healthcare Corporation—in sales!—for 20 years. I mean, are you even a doula?”
Mark stepped forward, blocking Teri from the cameras. “We’re math teachers, Phyra. Did you really think I wouldn’t dig into the number trail you left on Twitter?”
Phyra erupted, though not before placing her hands like earmuffs over her filthy baby’s head. “Oh my fucking god! I’m not hiding that—I hated that place! Why else do you think I left and started my own doula practice where I make exactly no money?! Why do you think I was desperate enough to come here?! I’m a single mom, recovering alcoholic, and broke! That company totally fucked me over for daring to stand up for women and gender non-binary people in the grips of big hospital. Persona non grata right here!”
Teri felt a tiny twinge of sympathy for Phyra for exactly a nanosecond, but then the woman started crying, and Teri felt total disgust with yet another stalling tactic. (As well as lingering annoyance with Mark.) It was classic white women tears and Teri backed away as Phyra stepped forward again, hands outstretched. “We don’t need to be arguing right now. We need to figure a way out of here before someone else dies! Pia is gone, Teri. Dead.”
A roar of rage went through Teri remembering the hell Phyra had put her through after that completely unnecessary death. It wasn’t her fault Phyra had failed at her job! Teri shoved Mark’s intruding arm out of the way and to the front again. “Says the racist who called our immigrant camp members aliens!”
“I wasn’t talking about immigrants, I was talking about actual aliens. You heard what Tay and the other teens said!”
“Leave the kids out of it, Phyra!” That was Mark again. He’d stepped in front of her again. WTF? Teri pulled out her gun and pushed it into Mark’s back.
Phyra took a deep breath, glanced at Tay and the other alarmed kids, and seemed to steel herself for a last push. Her shining blue eyes were completely focused on Teri, like Mark and Teri’s gun didn’t exist, which Teri found she rather didn’t appreciate. Didn’t anyone notice Teri’s power moves? Anyone?
“I—I made some mistakes, Teri. Maybe we could have been friends if I hadn’t reacted so badly to your genocidal tweet that first week, who knows?”
Teri bristled and Phyra shook her head.
“I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you in any way.” It looked like it was taking everything in her to say these next words, which gave Teri not a small amount of satisfaction.” So please, please, consider the possibility that we both care about these kids and need to work together here. Maybe it’s even possible to agree with people you otherwise despise on the really important things? Can you consider that this could be true?”
Teri thought about that for a long moment, the gun tight in her hand, as the rest of the camp live streamed their showdown onto Twitter and the documentary cameras zoomed in tight. Her phone was already buzzing like mad, and the heat from the fire was warping the air so that all she could see was the rapt faces from the Education Team flicking from her to Mark. Teri swallowed hard. Could they sense that she was wavering? That she thought Phyra might have a point? Mark snaked a hand around his back and grabbed Teri’s arm with the gun like he was about to step forward again and speak, and it hurt. Li crossed his arms and pursed his lips (in amusement?). Fuck. Teri wanted to shrink from their disapproval; her gun arm wavered. To come this far and betray her team? To turn her back on all the hard, radical work that they had all done this past almost year?
Teri knew what she had to do. She stepped directly in front of Mark, her heel purposely stomping on his foot enough to free her gun arm. She leveled the gun at her true enemy.
“No. We are not on the same team, Phyra.”
Phyra threw up her arms and screamed, startling the baby, who began to wail. Teri watched in horror as Phyra ignored the poor baby and instead turned every ounce of her ire, and a very pointy finger, at Teri. Teri could suddenly see the years of drink and rage etched on her pretty blonde face.
“Fine. I give up! Here’s the real truth that you’re still too dumb to listen to: Li is an alien. A fucking alien. We are on an alien planet somewhere, and Tay says that this is a TV show that they’re using to invade Earth! All those new Twitter followers who Mark sends videos to of you having sex? They’re mostly not humans either! They have their own fucking Twitter! Are you actually going to help an alien invasion just because you hate me? Are you going to shoot me and a baby?!!”
Teri felt nothing but a mounting sense of triumph. This was so insane that Phyra was practically making the case for the Education Team to win this vote for them. This was why Teri had needed to come to the front, not Mark (she’d check with him on the sex video thing later—Phyra better not be right about that bit)!
Teri turned to Li and winked at him to make it clear that she also thought everything that Phyra was saying was insane. “Do you promise to get rid of all the Phyra’s if you ‘invade Earth?’”
Li smiled. “I am but a humble servant of your wishes.”
Phyra was still screaming. “How is an alien invasion part of your values?! Are you out of your fucking mind?!”
“Are you?” Teri rolled her eyes at the convenient hypocrisy. “Phyra, Li has been a beacon of radical thinking throughout this retreat, unlike you. I wouldn’t be here without him. None of us would.” Teri decided to solve Phyra’s ludicrous f(x) just to show her how even then, Teri was right. “So even if he is an alien, would it really be so bad if his intersectional alien species finally liberates the earth from you fake radicals?! I mean, is your faux-manity worth saving, Phy-ra?”
Phyra went silent. “Oh my god. You are absolutely hopeless.” She glanced at Mark, who was massaging Teri’s shoulders like she was a boxer; it was extraordinarily annoying. “You probably slept with that alien, Mark, too. All of you fools did!” She shook her head in disgust and raised her hands to do a slow clap as her baby continued to wail. “I hope you get everything you want, Teri. Brava. Remember: I tried to save you and you said no.”
The bit about the bad judgment about sleeping with Mark rankled a bit, though Teri reminded herself that Phyra was more or less slut-shaming her, and that wasn’t cool. And so what if there was some weird stuff going on with the air and horizon. Climate change was changing so many things around them, so fast. Everyone knew that. Teri always believed the science. Always.
Teri hated it when people made her doubt herself. When people told her she didn’t know what was right. No more. She raised her arm and was about to shoot the gun into the sky again in warning when a hand grabbed her from behind. Mark. That asshole had grabbed her gun!
Teri whirled, reaching for her second gun, but that was gone, too. Mark winked and held up both guns. “I win.” He raised his voice and directed his words to Phyra and the rest of the Medical & Wellness Team. “Go now! You are hereby banished, losers.”
And much to her fury, Teri had to stand there and watch Phyra and most of the other parents as they got up, brandishing guns (much to Teri’s shock), and begin filing out, never once turning their backs on Teri and the rest of the bonfire as they scurried backward and away.
“But the kids!” Teri screamed. Waving her hands frantically at Mark and then Li. Anyone! This wasn’t what was supposed to happen. Teri was supposed to win! She was supposed to be the one to save the kids!
Mark ignored her. And worse, Li did, too. It’s like no one could hear or see her. She screamed and screamed. “The kids! What about the kids?!”
Instead, one or two childfree people from the Housing Team and even one woman from the Education Team also left with them.
Phyra was the last to leave. Teri leaped at Mark, trying to get to her guns as Phyra pulled out a gun and pointed it at Li, Mark, and Teri, though she had to keep waving her arm to keep it out of reach of her baby. Mark danced out of her reach and Teri froze and raised her hands. Phyra shot a bullet into the bonfire just behind Teri, and Teri screamed! She lunged for the woman, but Phyra was too fast.
“We’re leaving now, and you are not going to follow us or attempt to hurt anyone from the Gun Team. They figured it out first, and they’re batshit crazy. You got me?” Phyra waved the gun one last time and then fired it at Teri’s feet, blasting off the top of Teri’s sneaker.
Teri screamed and fell down.
Li nodded and Phyra took off running as Teri howled in the sand, ready to explode.
She was supposed to win! She had everything under control! She’d had a gun—guns! And now, she was sitting in the sand, bleeding and pathetic while everyone applauded. They were applauding Mark!
What had just happened?!
It was Li who broke the tension. “Talk about hysterical, amirite? So, who do you think is the most radical person here, my dearest true radicals?” Suddenly there were waiters with trays of champagne circulating around the bonfire.
Teri tried to get up and lunge for Mark. She was going to get her guns back and go after those children. She could still save them! She was going to kill Mark. Why wasn’t Li helping her?!
Someone in the remaining shell of the Housing Team called out tentatively. “What? Like, is it a competition?” A few people had grabbed entire bottles.
Li waggled his eyebrows. “Of course not! But if you had to vote for someone right now, who would it be? Teri or Mark? Which one of them really defeated Phyra and her team? It’s obviously one of them, right folx? After that scene.”
Teri looked up in shock. What? There was another vote? What was happening? Why wasn’t Li helping? Teri lunged for Mark again and fell—again. Everyone ignored her.
She was alone, in the sand, and no one cared. After all that.
Had Phyra been right about Mark? About Li?
Teri turned her head in dawning horror.
Yes, Mark had somehow landed on the larger side of the bonfire in the last minute, and Teri realized with sinking worry that he looked 10 feet tall. His skin also had that weird hot steaming, velvet sheen going on. It really wasn’t human … No, Teri shook her head to banish Phyra’s voice. It couldn’t be. Teri—not Mark—had won, because her math was always correct. She had solved for √ and Phyra hadn’t. No one else had. Not as hard as Teri.
Her phone buzzed in her hand. Yes, this was proof! Her phone, and her Twitter feed was proof. She was the biggest radical here. Aliens didn’t use Twitter; that was insane.
Teri cleared her throat and forced a laugh, forcing herself to stand and look tall, too. Forcing herself to believe in the work she’d done, and could still do if she won this vote and got her weapons back. It would take a while for Phyra and the kids to reach the tunnel. She could still help Tay. “Well, really we should be looking at the metrics we use to evaluate what winning means. For example, are we centering the voices of the public who have a real stake in this outcome? Like, on Twitter?” She had to be absolutely blowing up, even compared to Mark, after what had just been live streamed.
“Such a good point, Teri.” Li nodded. “Shall I post on Twitter now? Just to be fair?”
Mark’s voice was louder, though. “Absolutely!”
Cosmic Radical @CosmicRadical
Vote for the season finale of #PureRadicaltheShow now! Is it @RadicalMathTeachgrr or @markgiveshimselftoyou who takes home the prize—and new planet ;)! You have 10 minutes to vote! #FanChoice #SeasonFinale
Teri initially stared at the tweet in confusion. This was a joke, right? Li was going to wink at her any second and clap his hands and then it’d be cocktail hour.
But when she looked up, no one was laughing and something strange was happening to the sky. Weird lights and sounds were pressing down all around them, the stars turning sonic and that ringing—so strong. OMG, was this not a joke?
No, no. She was just imagining things. She hadn’t eaten in 24 hours, hadn’t slept, hadn’t drunk enough water. She was traumatized—by Phyra.
Teri voted for herself, of course. And waited. The radical thing was to wait, surely.
And waited … How long would it take to tally that kind of vote on Twitter anyway? She started to think about the impossible logistics and her brain refused to do the full math. It wasn’t possible unless this was all planned.
Wait, had this all been planned?
Teri slowly looked up at the sky and tried to focus. Tried to really, really focus.
Her mind slowly pulled apart the details, the impossible, alien details, just as Li’s voice acquired a few octaves when it rang out into the night, just like the ringing in her head. “Congratulations, Mark! You are the winner of Pure Radical: Earth Season 38!”
And Teri froze in shock. The whole sky—it was thundering with that horrible ringing noise. But it wasn’t ringing, was it?
The remaining humans at the camp seemed to realize the truth at the same time as her and began sprinting for the hills, too. All but the two horrible teen boys who’d been so mean to her.
Teri stood still, frozen, unable to process the truth.
Teri’s voice was so small in the deserted campfire. “But I did all the work!” Teri spluttered, shaking her head to try to remove the ringing. She didn’t know what else to say. Phyra couldn’t have been right. There was no way Phyra could have been right. Or poor abused Tay.
There were two teens sitting high up on a dark rock overlooking the beach who laughed at her. One of them was the boy who had slept in her math class on Wednesday.
“He’s a fucking alien, Teri, what do you expect?! They like to touch people and take their skin! I told you about your dog, didn’t I?” And then dissolved into a fit of laughter. The smell of pot wafted over towards Teri and the remaining—what? Aliens? Had she really had sex with an alien?—on the beach.
Teri blanched and grabbed her stomach, flashing to the image of Sigourney Weaver birthing in Aliens. They took skin? Mark’s hot skin … OMG, did condoms work against alien … sperm????
Teri thought she might vomit. And then that she might faint. Instead, she did the one thing she could think of, she swiped open Twitter and checked her feed!
Ituul It @ituulitASTRATH
.@RadicalMathGrrl’s human binary and its annihilation math is entertaining and masturbatory—0, 1, 0, 1, 0! Such a great season! But if we kill all the humans with this kind of algorithm, how will we have enough host bodies we need for #EarthRemodelSeason1? #IVoteforMark #PureRadicalSeasonFinale
10M likes 9M retweets 1.5K comments
A today wave of ringing slammed through Teri’s body, and she fell into a black abyss of sleep. Radically uncomfortable sleep.
Teri woke up the next day to an empty beach and Li and Mark floating in the ocean like dead bodies. It took Teri a moment to realize that they were still breathing and that Janice was back, and licking her face. She screamed.
They were aliens!
“It’s still Janice.” Li was suddenly standing right next to her, albeit totally naked. “Mostly.”
Teri tensed and averted her eyes. How had he moved so fast? Could a human do that? Could an … alien?
“And I’m still your same friend. I’ve so enjoyed your algorithm, Teri. Truly.”
Teri backed away further. “Are we even in the Marin Headlands?”
“Yes and no. As you know from your math, one point can exist in multiple dimensions at once. Let’s leave it at that, and get to the real questions. I know you have a few. And I have two for you, love.”
“So you don’t deny it?” Teri was going to say that Phyra was right, but it wouldn’t come out of her mouth. “Tay was right about the alien thing.”
“Children really are magnificent. I see why you love teaching so much, Teri.” Li sat down on the beach, criss-cross, apple sauce. A dark silhouette of a man appeared behind him but never quite resolved.
Teri was so confused, about the black shape, about all of it. Was this the end? Had this been her whole life? What the hell had just happened?!
“Your questions, love?”
She looked down at her torn clothes and thought about her apartment and the world she’d left behind—for good? For what? What was that black hole wavering its arms behind Li? She couldn’t bring herself to ask the harder questions, so she started with something more practical. “Is the money real or did I just leave my job for like, alien monopoly scrip?”
“The money is real, though it’s actually in Bitcoin. I hope you don’t mind? Such a fascinating form of species suicide.”
Teri sighed but nodded. She could exchange that when she got home, right? Surely this couldn’t be it. Her whole life. She didn’t want to die. “Do I get to go home?”
“Yes. Everyone else is already safely home on your beautiful Earth. You, Teri, can choose to stay here with us for the remainder of the sabbatical time with—well, we’ll get to that in a moment—or go home now. You have become very popular on our planet, believe it or not. Such a susceptible expression of a binary algorithm; it’s very exotic for us. Sexy even.”
Teri shuddered and looked over Li’s shoulder and the creepy but somehow familiar silhouette at Mark, who was wrestling naked in the shallow water with Janice and laughing. Was that Janice? Was it really her dog, or had she been changed? How would she be able to tell? Teri had the strong sense that Mark (and probably Li) didn’t actually look like this normally, but well, who cared if the equipment worked so well, right? Better than any human, even if they were actually that black hole thing. Were they? Had the experience on the show been a total waste? Teri blushed at the completely inappropriate thought. Though was it? What was she going back to at home anyway? An empty apartment and a job she hated? Human men, no more dad once again. And it’s not like any of the, she couldn’t bring herself to think the word “aliens,” had hurt her exactly.
She stared at Mark’s body again, and then Li’s face, shadowed by the black hole man. Quite the opposite! “I guess I’ll stay a little while longer. Maybe we can talk more about your planet’s math?” Teri ran her hands through the sand and tried to gather her thoughts. Tried not to ask this next question. “But Li, why me? Why us? I mean, are you really invading our planet? That was a joke, right?”
Li laughed, putting her at ease against her better judgment; the silhouette sat down next to them. “Our people are very ancient. We have long since tuned our core algorithm to optimize for what you call peace, but honestly, it gets a little boring. Like I said before, no binary. It’s real fucking boring, love. Plus, we love your bodies and your water here. Just fucking fantastic O2, don’t you think?”
Teri scrunched up her brow. She’d never been in the water here, not even once yet. “I guess. So you pluck random humans from Earth and put them on a TV show?”
“Well, it’s not random. In our pilot season, we tried a few other countries first, but it didn’t go so well. People were too polite, even the—what are they called again?” Li called over his shoulder to Mark. There was a swell in the ringing in the air; she’d gotten so used to the noise, that she hardly noticed.
Mark rang back. “Italians. Remember, North Korea said no.”
Teri gaped. She and Li were far away enough from Mark that he shouldn’t have been able to hear anything they were saying. Had there ever been privacy in the camp?
Li laughed at Mark’s response, oblivious to Teri’s discomfort. “Oh yes, the Italians. Though the Danish and some of the Africans were truly the worst. So dull. We needed something more inherently violent.”
Why her, though? What made Teri so special? He still hadn’t answered. “So you came to the US?”
“No, even better, we went to Twitter! What a glorious find! We were so happy.”
“Because you wanted to see the best of us? You thought you could learn to be more radical?”
Li laughed and suddenly he was back in the water again, and Teri was alone with the silhouette, though she could still hear everything he said. Were they even talking with words? “Oh, no. We just needed to refresh our algorithm. You understand. The math gets stale after a while. The reverse singularity you’ve created through that app is like, what do you call it? A defibrillator?”
“More like a fusion reaction, Li,” Mark called out.
Teri had nothing to say to that. At no point in her existence had math ever felt stale. Maybe she wasn’t special.
Teri lay down hard on the sand and stared glumly at the dog (“dog”?) swimming with Mark in the ocean. She could have been anyone, she realized. They could have chosen any math teacher. But they hadn’t. They had chosen her. She had been the star of the show.
It rather warmed her heart, and she was slightly less creeped out when the black silhouette’s hand started morphing into something human next to her.
“My questions, then.” Li pressed on. He was back again, sitting much closer, and had his hand on her arm like he didn’t want her to look at the black thing; his skin burned just like Mark’s. “Just between me and you. Are you willing to admit now that Phyra was right?”
Teri flinched and tried not to notice how good Li’s hand felt on her arm. How much she craved his touch, too. It was much easier, truthfully, to think about his question. Was Phyra right? Was she? Should Teri regret what she did on the show? After all, Li and Mark did turn out to be aliens. She had been wrong about that, and it probably meant that Teri should be more careful in the future about who she trusted. Catfish or cat alien or alien cat? And yeah, more than anything, she was definitely too quick to dismiss Tay, poor Tay. But thinking about that too much hurt her head, and seemed so besides the point now. Maybe it had been too harsh and scary to threaten to take Phyra’s kids, maybe not. She was a Mandatory Reporter. Still, she had come here to be radical, and she wasn’t going to apologize about that. Tay and the other kids deserved the best—well, the right kids.
Li was drawing circles on her arm, and it was so soothing. The ringing in the background, so soothing, so familiar now. “Phyra was the only one who tried to fight us, you know. The other people who figured it out just tried to flee. She thought she could beat us and still keep the money she was so desperate for, too,” Li added. “That’s pretty damn radical.”
Teri bristled and yanked her arm away, accidentally drawing a line in the sand with her free hand at the same time. The silhouette’s arms were human now, too, she noticed; she’d seen that shirt before and it triggered something in her. Something deep. How was chasing money at the expense of the safety of your children radical?! “How could I trust someone who let her daughter run off to the gun people? Were Tay and the baby any safer in that environment than they were here with Li and the other, nonviolent aliens?”
The words were pouring out of Teri now. There was no way she was going to hold back, ever again. Not after all this. The links kept lighting up in her brain. Aliens. Aliens. It was such a loaded term. “So what if you’re aliens? What does that xenophobic bullshit even mean? I mean, aren’t radicals all about open borders, about embracing other cultures? I mean! When Phyra ran up into those hills to get guns she had at the end of the show, which she must have done, she wasn’t brave! She was just revealing that she was really a reactionary this whole time. Unwilling to even consider that she could be wrong!”
Teri sensed the glint of a camera off behind a tree in the distance, but she didn’t even care. She instinctually turned her body so the camera people (camera aliens?) could get a more flattering angle.
Li inhaled deeply. “So there’s no hope for a reconciliation between the two of you? Oh, and by the way, the cameras don’t actually work. We just figured that they’d make you all a little more extra, you know?”
Teri snorted and looked at the line she’d drawn in the sand below her and then at Janice, who was bounding back over to her, demanding pets. She reached down and sank her hand in soft fur, shuddering at the familiar sensation. Though there was something different about the feeling, wasn’t there? The fur wasn’t quite right—or was it Teri’s own skin? Teri bit down on her tongue and shook her head, done with this soft thinking. So what if this wasn’t her “dog” anymore? Isn’t love all that matters? Kindness? Who had been kind to her in this game? The answer was easy. “No. I’m not like Phyra and never will be.”
Li clapped in delight. “That’s the gold right there. Stay binary, Teri.”
“Thanks?” All major human inventions were based on binary, so how could it not be a compliment?
“Now, second question. Would you rather we erase your memory of this whole experience and wake up at home with your father and your old life or stay in this reality and return to your home when you’re ready to take a break from being a star?”
Teri gasped as the black hole next to her fully resolved into the body of her dead father. She choked on sand from the speed of her body whipping around to look. “Dad?!”
“Hi, honey. You gave ‘em hell, huh, Ter?” There was even a red pencil tucked behind his ear and he smelled like old paper and coffee when he leaned over to hug her paralyzed body. Her dad. Her actual, real-looking dad, down to the overgrown brown and gray eyebrows and grinding teeth.
She reached out to touch him, to remember what it felt like to be a daughter. To feel safe knowing adults were in charge. Teri could barely get words out. She could barely breathe. How was this possible? The thing she’d wanted for so long. The one thing: her dad, alive! It was impossible! That’s right. It was impossible. “But you’re dead!” She turned to Li in the water, heart racing. Of all the things to dangle in front of her! Of all things. Was this a sick joke? Or the act of a true friend? “My dad is dead!”
Teri’s dad chuckled darkly and grasped her hand, lacing his so very real-feeling fingers through hers. “Not in every mathematical timeline, little warrior. You know that, Ter. So, are you ready to go home with me? Shower off all this sand and take on the assholes in the Central Office together, the old fashion way? I’ll teach you everything I know about raising some real hell. Maybe someday you’ll be principal, eh? Wouldn’t you like that? This can all be a bad dream. All of it.” He nodded pointedly at Mark and the guns lying by the charred remains of the bonfire down the beach.
The words took a moment to sink in. Principal? The old fashion ways? Learning how to protest from her dad—the man who wasted his life pouring all his small rage into his red pencil. No, this was a sick joke. Forget the sex? The feel of the gun in her hand? It had to be. “How could you do this to me?!” Teri exploded at Li, the stress of the experience finally pouring out in full. “How could you do this to my dad’s memory?! Family is off-limits! Off limits! You can’t do this to me—make things so, so … personal! Give me such a fucking impossible choice! I was reborn here! I came alive! And now you want me to forget it! To go back to being no one—a miserable little no one! But with my dad?” Teri choked.
Li stood up and was instantly back towards the water and Mark. “I thought this was what you wanted, love.”
“It is.” Teri glanced at her dad sitting next to her and ran her sandy fingers down her face as she screamed. Janice barked and curled up to sleep, head in Teri’s lap, and Teri’s scream fizzled out. She felt hollow. “I mean, it was.” Janice’s neck was banging uncomfortably against the metal of Teri’s phone as she snored. A phone that was painfully inert.
If she chose her dad, she might also go back to being an insignificant egg on the Internet. Was Phyra right about that? Were all her Twitter followers aliens, too? Would she lose them if she chose option one? If she forgot all of this? Teri ran her fingers lightly over Janice’s head with one hand and squeezed her dad’s hand with the other. They felt so good, but what kind of person would choose to become a more naive version of themselves? How would it be radical to choose comfort and love over fighting for her principles? Could she live with herself?
Teri felt ill and held on tighter. Was there any way to have it all? Her dad and the new, fire-purified person she’d become? Her mind frantically searched for loopholes in this proposed equation. “Wait! What about Twitter? Can I keep them when I go home if I choose option one?” That way she’d be able to piece together what happened, even if she didn’t have her memories. Maybe? Hopefully?
Li kept floating in the water but the ringing in the air carried his voice into Teri’s ear. “No, you only keep them if you choose option two. People loved your math jokes and the whole romance with Mark, but you know, it just wouldn’t be that satisfying for our audience if you didn’t have the same reference points. Mark won’t admit it, but he only won because of you. Our planet doesn’t usually like his foam algorithm, but you made it so fresh again. Like a brave wave cresting. Brava, Teri!”
“An alien Twitter influencer, huh?” Teri muttered to herself and held on to her people even harder, allowing herself to feel awe of herself for a moment. Her hands were getting sweaty from holding on so tight and she looked at her dad for help. He stared back. When had he become so small, she wondered, taking him in fully. Had he shrunk? And his pencil looked so beat up. His teeth were stained and his clothes were fraying. Was that going to be her, too? Sixty-something and a bitter, poor nobody? Would her original dad want that for her? “Back home, no one would ever believe I could have done that,” she explained to her dad, needing him to understand what had started to become clear in her head. “I love you but I don’t want to be like you. There’s so much I can do with this platform. Things you care about, too.”
Li’s voice cut off her dad’s frown. “Beyond a pixel of a doubt, love. We’ll call you about the All-Stars series in a few human years. So, what’s your choice? Dad or a new world?”
Her dad’s voice was harsh as he finally got in his words. His hands shook as he tried to hold on to her. “Don’t do this, Ter. Don’t be a fool. None of this is real.”
But Teri released his hand, turned away from him, lay back, and closed her eyes to the blinding sun. She loved this beach like she loved math. And mathematically, all of this was possible. All of it. That was the beauty of the experience. Sure, this creature might be sitting next to her, but her dad wasn’t really saying this to her. Well, some version of her dad, but not the one that mattered. For all she knew, this version of his dad would have agreed with Phyra. Not the one she held in her own heart, who still dreamed about fundamental, radical change. Who would have hated Phyra with as much passion as Teri. That dad would understand. This was the reality she chose. She had to choose it. There was no other option left for her.
Her dad’s silhouette disappeared as she spoke her decision to Li and Mark. Beautiful, all night Mark. He’d give himself to her as she worked through the pain of this choice, as was only fair. GRACE would be proud of how much she’d learned. “I choose option one. But the pay better be good, Li. Way better than this time. And I get to pick the other humans—and the weather.” How easy it had become to speak up for herself in this reality. How much better, more human. The essence of her humanity.
At the thought of that word, a blinding panic raced through her body and she opened her eyes and stared at her hand, remembering the unnaturally long black tunnel she’d passed through to get here. Her fingers grazed the skin and checked and re-checked for any signs of change.
But nope. She lay back down and closed her eyes, her truest self. It was all her; still perfectly human.