Mr. Simonov kept looking at Johan. They were taking a test, three hours today and three tomorrow, standardized, very important. Or so the teachers said, anyway, even though they had these tests in the fall and spring too, and no one ever told Johan what his score meant or went over wrong answers with him. Maybe he had no wrong answers. That was a nice thought.
“Johan,” Mr. Simonov whispered. “Hey. What are you doing?”
“Sorry,” Johan mouthed. He’d been hearing a song about teachers and kids and not needing no education. He liked it. It seemed right. He must have been dancing in his seat in time to the music. He tried to stop, to focus on the test and sit still like Lupe and Dean and pretty much everyone else, except Julie two seats ahead, who was twisting her hair around her pencil. It took all his concentration not to beat the desk like a drum, so he gave up trying to focus and started marking B for every question. If you don’t know the answer, guess B. Someone told him that once. Maybe Mr. Simonov.
No one else seemed to hear the music, so it must be in his head. Other people talked about having a song stuck in their head, but they knew it was all mental. Johan didn’t, not always. The sounds he heard were as rich and full as anything oozing out of hi-fi speakers. So he had to go by environment—they wouldn’t play Pink Floyd during a test, surely—or the looks on others’ faces. Not that it changed anything, knowing it was in his head. He never got to pick the song.
The song ended, giving Johan a chance to concentrate and fix some of the Bs. Not all, though. B had to be right some of the time.
After the test, Mr. Simonov stopped Johan at the door. There was a new song playing now, a peaceful guitar piece. He’d heard it before, but couldn’t think where.
“You doing all right?” The teacher’s eyes were red and tired behind his thick glasses.
“Sure. I just get distracted is all.”
“Hang in there. One more day.”
The next day, Johan arrived for the test to find his classmates lined up outside the door.
“It was an aneurysm,” someone said.
“It wasn’t an aneurysm, it was…” Dean mimed putting a gun to his temple.
“How would you know?”
“What’s going on?” Johan said.
“Mr. Simonov’s not here.” Julie clenched and unclenched her hands. “People are saying he died.”
The guitar music from yesterday was playing again, this time punctuated by the click-clack of the principal’s high heels. She pushed past the students, unlocked the door and shoved the doorjamb underneath. Johan took his seat and noticed that Dr. Carter was holding the stack of test booklets, counting them, as though she was going to give the exam herself. She looked like she’d been crying.
He raised his hand. “Excuse me? Where’s Mr. Simonov?”
“Absent,” she said. “He’s absent.”
A wave of voices swelled from the seats. Dr. Carter began passing out the exam booklets, pointedly ignoring the murmurs and questions.
She fumbled with the proctor’s manual and began to read. “Today you will take the second part of the state mathematics exam. Please check…”
Johan leaned back in his seat. He could barely hear her over the guitar music, louder now, electric, rock, but still the same song. He recognized it from one of his dad’s old albums. Stairway to Heaven. That was nice, for Mr. Simonov. He pictured the old man, his loose clumsy necktie, the careful way he said “Johan,” and felt his jaw tense and his vision go blurred. Mr. Simonov was a good guy. This wasn’t right. Johan swallowed, breathed in, and focused on the song, tapping the rhythm on his thigh.
Strange how the music seemed to know things. Didn’t help him much on tests, but if he got stuck, he could always guess B.
Anna Zumbro lives in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in Cricket, Daily Science Fiction, Fantasy Scroll, and other publications.