From the author: Blind kids at a local high school are getting cured without their consent. Two students set out to solve the mystery.
Mrs. Burger sounded exhausted. Then again, she always sounded exhausted when she was teaching our class. Her peach-scented perfume kept wafting in and out of my nose as she paced in front of us. I imagined her brisk, weighty footsteps forming cracks on the floor. I was just about to imagine myself downing a hefty helping of chocolate smoothie, when a sharp ruler whacked against my desk.
“Some people just have no idea how to pay attention,” Mrs. Burger tittered.
I rolled my eyes in reply, and another whack caused me to jump.
“What was I just talking about, Mister Hardy?”
“Why do you have to be borderline nuts and thwack that stupid ruler?” I snapped. There was a harder thwack as she whacked my desk three times with that malignant ruler.
“Because,” she said, with each whack, “You—don’t—listen.”
I wanted to snatch that ruler out of her hands, but I restrained myself. I could hear the other kids stopping their braille writers and screen readers to listen. At this school for the blind, even the smallest conflict was of national importance around the campus. And, for whatever reason, everybody loved watching us going at it.
“I swear. Even my kids aren’t this lazy or careless. You can’t even tell me what I was —just—talking—about!” She shouted a little on that last one, but I held fast. She hadn’t intimidated me before today, so today, there wasn’t going to be a miraculous change.
“I think you’re using the wrong word. I think you meant to say something a little more worthy of your practice.”
All around me, I could hear the distinct sounds of VoiceOver telling various camera-happy classmates that their camera app had just loaded. A few screen readers vanished from hearing distance as she sighed and leaned on my desk. Her perfume didn’t waver though. In fact, it only grew stronger, nearly choking me.
“I’ve been here for over ten years, and I’ve never, ever, had a student as...” She drew in a sharp breath, then let it out in a forced exhale. “Demanding as you.”
“Did you seriously think that all blind people were angels?” I snapped, still conscious of the various phones behind me recording audio and video, with their screen readers not even routing through headphones. How stupid of them.
Mrs. Burger suddenly stood up and cleared her throat.
“I believe in the democratic process, especially for repeat offenders who decide to show me up in my own classroom. So, class, who thinks I should send Kevin here to the principal’s office?”
Almost everybody clapped, which only got my blood boiling. I stood up, purposefully tipping over my desk chair, and stormed out, unfolding my cane as I went.
I had no doubt she was texting the principal the second I stepped out of the door, so I decided the best thing to do was to head to his office. Mr. White, a six-foot-seven, African American man with an alarmingly loud voice was no stranger to kids like me. The other kids who got sent to his office were far rowdier and, even in some cases, more dangerous than I was, though.
VoiceOver announced I had an incoming message, so I crooked my cane in my pit, pulled over to the lockers, and issued the various gestures and double taps needed to get to my messages app.
Donnie Buie had texted me: I seriously don’t get you. Why can’t you just stop, close your mouth, and let her do her job?
I’m not stopping her from doing her damn job. What if I don’t like or care what she has to say? Why should I give her any of my serious time and attention? I texted back.
Look, Kevin, again, I don’t get why you don’t like her. She knows the material, she brings up interesting science discussions, and she even manages to throw some philosophical questions into the science lessons. Isn’t that what you want out of a teacher?
You just like her because she’s got the illusion of tenure.
Donnie sent emojis with his next text. I’m just glad he put punctuation after each emoji. That was the good thing about being around other blind people. We just got stuff, like, how VoiceOver reads emojis, for example— “Man with dark skin face-palming. Sad pensive face. Disappointed face. Tired face.”
You know I’m right. You know she’s not as good as other teachers here.
“Face with open mouth and head exploding.” We’ll talk later. I sent back a thumbs up with a light-skin-tone emoji, but he didn’t reply. I shoved the phone back into my pocket and trudged along to the principal’s office.
“You in here again?” Mr. White scolded as soon as I took a seat and gave a little wave and a grin. “What did you say to Mrs. Burger this time?” he huffed.
“I actually didn’t say anything to her,” I snapped. “I just didn’t want to listen to another one of her lectures.”
“What do you expect her to do, text in class?” Mr. White snapped. “She’s lecturing, so you can actually pay attention when tests come around.”
“How do you know she isn’t texting in class instead of teaching?” I retorted right back.
“Because, Kevin, I believe her over you.” He sighed and leaned forward, his breath lightly patting my face. “I don’t like seeing you in here.”
“I agree,” I began, but he interrupted me, putting a hand on my shoulder.
“I mean, I don’t like seeing you in here because I think you’ve changed. I mean, I was your principal when you were much younger, a second grader, and you were just so easy to get along with. Remember? You and my son, Donnie, met each other, and you were so…so…carefree.”
“Mr. White, I wasn’t going to sit and listen to her talk to us about cures for our blindness, like we’re broken or something. I’m not going to sit there and take that kind of crap. And you wonder why I’m a little prickly?” I could feel my face growing hot, but I managed to keep the blush from enveloping my whole face. I sat back and took a few deep breaths as I listened to Mr. White’s breathing. Once I relaxed a little, I leaned forward and tried to speak in a calmer, more even tone.
“Donnie agrees with me. That kind of ableist bull stinks, especially if it’s coming from sighted people specifically hired to meet our needs.” I let out a long, low breath. Mr. White, I could tell, was watching me intently. His labored breathing told me he was either thinking really hard about something or mimicking my breathing from a few seconds ago.
“Look. Kevin, I don’t, for one second, believe she’s that much of a bigot. This is all stemming from your dislike of her. It needs to stop. It’s getting old, having you in here every few months or so. It’s getting tiresome to see someone whom I consider one of my sons in here so often over a petty dislike for a teacher.”
His words struck a chord. It wasn’t just the fact he had called me something of a son, which had never happened before, but he really thought that my reasons for disliking Mrs. Burger were based on just my emotions alone. I started to get up, popping my cane open, when the phone on his desk rang. He picked it up, and I could faintly make out Sheryl, the receptionist, on the other end. Mr. White “hmmed” and “mmmed” a lot of times before saying in a surprised voice, “Really?”
It was times like these when I wished that all the sighted stereotypes about us were true, especially the one about super-human hearing. I could only catch one side of the conversation because Mr. White was holding the receiver right up to his ear, making sure sounds couldn’t leak from the handset.
I decided to use this time to text Donnie: Don’t worry. I’m being nice to your dad. Emoji. Face with tongue out and crossed eyes.
I don’t believe that, came his rapid reply.
I wished I could use Braille Screen Input as fast as he could. Sadly, I had gone fully blind only after entering high school. I stupidly had never learned braille, always relying on large print to get me by until, well, it couldn’t any longer.
I snapped back to reality when Mr. White said, “That’s great that he’s healed.”
I immediately stopped texting Donnie and looked toward Mr. White’s shocked voice.
“That’s the fortieth student that’s been cured of their blindness. This is great news for the family! I mean, we’ll be sad to see them go, but...yes...I know! Yes...no, I’ll do that.”
After he hung up the phone, I sat straight up in my chair, trying to fix him with a hard stare. “What’s going on? Cure?”
“Oh yes! It’s the best thing ever! There has been some sort of scientific breakthrough. Disabled people are getting—I’m sorry...people with dis—”
“Say disabled people around me,” I barked. “Don’t say, ‘person with a disability.’”
“You and Donnie are the same way,” he mused. “But, anyway, disabled people are getting cured all over the country. It started after those UFO sightings, but nobody knows how the cures are happening or even why the cures are happening.”
“I know! It’s exciting, right? It’s great!”
The bell rang, stopping me from replying. I just shook my head, popped my cane out, and started to head to the teachers’ lounge where I would sometimes spy on the teachers just because I wanted to know what was going to be on the next test.
I dug my iPhone out and opened the virtual assistant app for the blind called Aira. Aira, pronounced eye-ra, is an app that allows us to connect to an on-demand sighted person for real time audio descriptions of our environment. I loved listening to the agents as they described various aspects of my school. For instance, I had no idea all of the lockers were bright blue.
I booted up the app as I stepped towards the teachers’ lounge. I started a call with a message, telling the agent through text that I couldn’t talk right now, asking if they would provide a real time audio description of my surroundings.
An agent named Keith came back with a text: Yes. I would be delighted to. He was new, I could tell.
As I made my way to the lounge with my Bluetooth earphones in, Keith alerted me of two people in the camera’s lens. I heard Mrs. Burger leading a student into the lounge. The student was shaking, Keith said. I was pretty sure she had caused it and was just trying to cover her tracks so the union wouldn’t be able to fire her. I stepped closer so Keith and I could get a better look.
“A white woman and a brown-skinned man stand before you in the lounge,” he told me. “She’s putting a hand on his back and looking very concerned. He looks like he’s going to cry. There’s a bright-mahogany table in front of them, and now they’re both sitting down at the table... Are you gonna try to get closer?”
I typed, Yes, and resumed my creeping. I finally got close enough to hear what they were saying.
“Thanks for understanding, Mrs. Burger!” the kid gushed through whimpers and sobs. “Your discussion today, well, it really touched me. People like Kevin will never understand why someone like me may want a cure for my blindness.”
“I absolutely understand, dear!” Mrs. Burger chirped.
Keith told me she was looking at him through sad, but hungry eyes.
“I know. And again, I thank you! Did you mean what you said earlier? Can you really do it? Cure me? I don’t want to struggle just to live my life anymore. I just wanna live, you know? My whole family is sighted, and they will never see me as one of them. So, why should I fight so hard?” the kid said.
I gasped, and nearly dropped the phone.
“She’s smiling at him,” Keith said. “She’s taking something out of her bag, but I can't see what it is. Can you get closer?”
When I typed, no, he went back to describing the scene as best he could. He assumed Mrs. Burger had given the kid a card of some kind.
“The kid just stood up and is now walking out of the lounge. He’s putting something into his pocket,” Keith said.
I darted back into the hall and shut the app down as I ran back to my locker. I was already fuming and texting Donnie everything I had overheard.
I’m just happy she’s doing this with consent, he typed. I mean, think of all the legal gray areas she is playing with, with these experimental cures.
That’s just it. I don’t think they’re exact— A hand touched my shoulder, and I yelped and jumped, nearly dropping my iPhone. Luckily, my headphones were still in. I spun around to grab the hand that held me, and Donnie laughed.
“Your echolocation skills stink,” he said, smirking. I rolled my eyes. We quickly dashed into a nearby men’s bathroom to plan and discuss.
“I’m actually really shaken up by this,” Donnie said, as he held me in the bathroom. It usually soothed me when he wrapped his muscular arms around me, but today, it just made me restless and uneasy. I proposed that the only way she could be stopped, or at least investigated, was if we got some eyeballs on her.
“I have an idea,” I said. “Maybe we can steal that stupid ruler of hers so she will chase after us, and then we just lay it all out to the authorities. I’m just as unnerved as you are, Don. I mean, because she’s erasing a whole disability identity.”
He nodded behind me, his chin lightly touching my shoulder. “But you’ve never thought about what it would be like to be sighted?”
“Of course, I have,” I snapped. “But I’m proud of who I am without feeling the need to change.”
He was quiet as he released me, silent and still. He wasn’t even moving or shuffling or anything like he usually did. It made me very uneasy, and that was something I’d never felt around him.
I exited the bathroom in deep thought. I found myself going to Mrs. Burger’s classroom, with Donnie in tow. I dug through the drawers in her desk, shocked that nobody was in the room. I found it, her trusty ruler. I grinned as I held it up, triumphant. Donnie tried to wrestle it out of my hands, but I held on tighter.
It was when I held it up to face level, that I noticed something shift around me and expand. It was as if the air suddenly became far heavier and the ground became wider. I felt as if I were walking on a football field rather than in a classroom. I turned my head rapidly, even though I couldn’t see, thinking maybe Donnie had pushed me down or something, but he seemed just as confused as I was.
“So, where are we?” Donnie asked.
I was sure something had happened, but I wasn’t sure if we had moved within time or space, or neither, or both.
“Beats me,” I said, standing up. The air around me seemed to echo a lot more than normal, which was unusual on its own because Mrs. Burger’s classroom never echoed. We walked around for a bit. I was convinced we were walking on solid ground, when my stomach ran into something round and metal.
It was a nail—a nail that was almost as tall as I was.
When Donnie touched the nail, he slowly spoke, “I think I know what happened to us.”
“You shrunk,” a familiar voice growled behind us. We turned, and immediately, that peach-scented perfume hit my nose.
“Shrunk?” I asked.
“Yes,” Mrs. Burger sneered. “You shrunk.” She started towards us, but I held the ruler up in defense.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, stupid Kevin,” she sneered again. “The last thing you wanna do is make me normal size again. I could squish you with my finger then!”
My heart was pounding, but Donnie was dead silent. “This is how you cure people. You shrink down to molecular size and go into bodies...and cure them somehow.”
“But you can’t cure all kinds of blindness,” I began, grabbing Donnie’s arm, ready to bolt. “Technology can’t cure all bli—”
“Who said anything about your puny human technology,” she snapped. “I have my own technology that’s far better than anything on this planet.”
I was stunned into silence. So was Donnie. Neither of us could move, and this was really bad, because she was advancing towards us.
“I have the technology to shrink humans. And more. I came to this planet years ago because—”
“The UFO!” I interrupted. She seemed impressed.
“Well, well, yes! See, I knew you could use your brain if you just tried.”
“You go into people’s bodies and cure them?” I said, desperately trying to keep her talking. I really didn’t like the tone in her voice at all. I gripped Donnie’s arm and tried to fiddle with the ruler again, but something tentacle-like wrapped around my wrist and lifted me up off the floor. I could hear Donnie’s cries as he was lifted beside me.
“I just said that,” she snapped. “There’s another reason why I shrink down to this size, though, and why I bring some students, well, like you, with me. It’s easier to kill you this way.”
“You let us find the ruler,” Donnie said, beside me in the air.
“Very good, Don. Yes, I was hoping you two would have played with it sooner, but well, here we are now, right?”
Another wet, strong tentacle wrapped around my throat this time. “But why kill us?” I said, quickly. Her extendable arms tightened their hold.
“Simple. You would have stopped me and my mission.”
This was such an obvious statement, that I burst out laughing without realizing it. “Well, duh. Yeah, of course I’d have tried to sto—”
“Donnie, why did you come with him? You know you were next for the cure, right? Why come with him and ruin your chances of sight?”
Even though I was in mortal peril, the realization that Donnie wanted to give up his blindness to be in a world separate from me made me stop squirming. I was so stunned; I didn’t even hear Mrs. Burger laughing.
“I’ll never understand humans. I really won’t. Why would you wanna make your lives harder by staying the way you are with all the challenges rather than change and be better? Live a better life? That’s why I stopped asking if humans wanted it—except for a few cases.”
“You don’t get it!” I said, seething. “You’ll never get what it’s like to be part of a community, to be a part of something unique.” I stopped talking because I had to conserve oxygen.
I still gripped the ruler in my left hand. Since my right hand was bound, I maneuvered the ruler between my fingers so that the end that had shrunk us was pointing at Mrs. Burger. I wasn't pointing at her face, though. I was pointing at her tentacles, willing the ruler to obey my command. To my shock, I could feel the pressure around my neck loosen. She screamed, but I held steady, not even sure if the device was still working or not. When the vice around me had released, I grabbed it in my other hand and squished it with my fingers.
She screamed so violently that I heard Donnie shout in reply too. He suddenly thudded to the floor, or wherever we were. I suspected we were actually on a desk. He rushed over and grabbed my arm, pulling me away, but I held the ruler in my hands and advanced on Mrs. Burger, this time pointing it directly at her.
“Nooo!” she screamed, but her voice was getting fainter by the minute. Soon, after a minute, there was no voice at all.
“Did she—” Donnie began, but I cut him off, placing my hand on his.
“I think she disintegrated.” I fiddled with the ruler, turning it backwards, hoping logic still applied to alien technology. A few seconds later, the air around me seemed to thin again. I padded around and felt Donnie’s hand beside mine. We both just sat there in that classroom, perplexed that an alien race felt the need to actually come to our planet and, well, cure us. I was more disturbed by the fact that Mrs. Burger had started curing kids without their consent. I turned to Donnie, resigned. I gripped his hand. He instantly tightened his grip on mine. After sitting in silence for a few minutes, I turned towards Donnie's slowly steadying breathing.
“Don, I gotta know. Why did you want the cure?”
“Because,” he said, simply, “life would be easier.”
“What about our history? Our unique way of living? What about all the people who don’t want to be society’s version of normal? I mean, don’t you think agency and identity are important? Besides, you’d have to learn life all over again. Reading, and such.”
His hand tightened harder on mine. I heard him shift his weight as he turned to face me.
“You’re right. Still, it’s fun to think about, though. What our lives would be like, sighted.” He moved closer to me. I grinned.
“I just can’t imagine you driving,” I giggled. As he leaned in, I tilted my face up to meet his hotly eager breathing.
“Yeah?” I said, softly.
“Thanks for saving my life.”
“No prob—” His warm, hot, gentle lips on mine cut me off. I kissed him back, deeply and longingly.
As soon as we wrapped our arms around each other, clutching each other tightly, other students started filing in the room. Soon after, the bell rang.
"Let's go outside," I murmured. Don agreed without hesitation. I, for one, didn't want to be around anybody right now.
When we made it out to the hallway, we pulled over to a nearby wall. We continued to hold each other as students walked into the classroom. I wondered what would happen when they realized Mrs. Burger wouldn't be attending class. The late bell seemed to jar Donnie because he pulled away from me but still held me tightly.
"I can't go to class," he said, shakily.
"I know what you mean," I said. "What if there's other aliens?"
"and," he said, "I just wanna be with you, alone, for a while. To relax."
I nodded then told him to come with me. I guessed he felt the same way I did right now, I didn't trust anybody else in this school. I wanted to get away from here.
We stepped outside the school building and started walking towards the campus gates.
"Hey Don," I tentatively began.
"What are we gonna do after we, well, relax? Hunt down more aliens? If there's one, you know there's more."
"Could we cross that bridge when we get to it?" he asked, sounding as tired as I felt.
"Definitely!" I said with a long sigh. We passed the campus gates, still holding hands, as if we didn't know how to walk without each other. I started to say something else, then stopped myself. Maybe Donnie was right. We should worry about the other aliens after we recover. For now, we needed each other more than an action plan.