The application process is no different from any other: transcripts, teaching philosophy, Skype. Until it reaches the in-person interview stage, and a flame-edged portal opens in your living room. But when you peer through, there are no fiery pits on the other side, no shrieking tormented sinners. There’s just an institutional-yellow waiting room and a secretary behind a formica-topped desk.
“Yes?” she says, glancing up from what looks like a fashion magazine. “The Dean’s waiting for you.” She indicates an unlabeled door. “Go right in.”
Here’s how it works. He’s naked, extravagantly male. He looks at you through eyes so narrow they’re yellow slits, and lets a puff of smoke escape from the black holes of his nostrils. They all were smoking when you saw them on Skype, but you now realize you never saw any pipes, any cigarettes. He lowers his face a bit and takes in a deep, snuffling breath. You almost expect him to bury his nose in your crotch.
Then he speaks.
“So, what we have open is one Anatomy and Physiology lecture,” he says. “It’s three credits, two thousand a credit. I assume you’re familiar with Netter’s Atlas?”
You tell yourself all the usual stuff. It’s a free market society. Your role is to make the best bargain you can, not to hobble yourself with ideals the academy would never follow in its interactions with you.
You tell yourself education—even teaching demons how to take apart humans—is a civilizing force. You’ll teach them more than they bargained for! Disruptive pedagogy R US.
You tell yourself you deserve a job. You’ve played by the rules all your life—spent years as almost-free labor in somebody’s lab—only to find that the tenure-track positions they groomed you for are extinct, have been for years. The system’s screwed you over. Here’s your chance to screw it back.
But finally, it isn’t anything you tell yourself that matters. It’s the bills.
It’s embarrassing how quickly you get used to teaching a roomful of naked demons, who assemble themselves out of mist before your eyes. Your classes topside start to look stodgy and timid, hypocritical. Cleavage, miniskirts, tight jeans, why do they bother?
The first time you stumble on two of your demon students moaning in the underworld’s scraggly bushes, you almost applaud them. Straightforward, you think. Then the topmost student looks up at you and smiles. They all have perfect teeth. But his have blood on them.
“Want some?” he says, and stretches an arm toward you—not his own arm. You see why the bottom student is moaning. The top of the humerus is perfect, white and smooth. The rotator cuff has every tendon in place. But a part of you says, That’s so wrong! There ought to be nerves in there.
You back away, but you can’t back away from yourself. An arm torn off one of your students, and you find nothing to criticize but its anatomy? For ten minutes you hate yourself. But when class meets, they’re both in their accustomed seats, with all their limbs. They’re both smiling at you with perfect teeth. Who are you most furious at, them or yourself?
“Today,” you say, “we’ll discuss the brachial plexus.”
“We have a problem,” the Dean says. Is he even more male than he was a month ago? “We’ve lost an instructor. How would you feel about taking on the anatomy lab?”
Lost an instructor? Just how… You hesitate, so he lays it on thicker. “Eight thousand,” he says. “It would make you a category two employee. Campus facility memberships. Benefits.”
“A one-credit lab pays more than the whole lecture section?”
“The lab is the whole point,” he says.
Of course they have a cadaver. No cats—you’re relieved. You love cats. No, you don’t have any problem with what’s laid out on the steel table. You have a problem with the second table, the empty one. And with the students crowded around it. A pre-human part of your brain recognizes the way they’re moving. Prowling. An eddy through the classroom, each student checking the others. You don’t catch the moment when they decide, but you see them pounce. You hear the victim squeal. You watch them strap him to the empty table. Two dissection groups, after all. What are you thinking?
You snap at them, at yourself. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Big innocent eyes look up at you, one pair of them wide with hope and terror.
“The practical,” says one. “You have to see what we’ve learned, don’t you?”
You remember that day in the shrubbery and the shoulder with no nerves in it. You frown at the speaker, channeling the most imposing profs of your past. “What you’ve learned about dissection technique or about construction?”
He smirks. “We already know dissection, don’t we? Construction, of course.”
You jerk your chin toward the struggling figure on the table. “Just how does viewing his work tell me about yours?”
This surprises them. They look honestly baffled.
“He’s the weakest of all of us. If he can do it, you know the rest of us can.”
“But I won’t know that the rest of you did.” You scan the class, mentally dividing by two. “We’ll need another six tables, won’t we?”
The big innocent eyes have narrowed now. Not so interested in dissection when they might be the recipients, are they? Wicked glee warms your chest. Disruptive pedagogy R US. “Perhaps we can identify an alternative method of assessment,” you state, your tone cutting off any disagreement. “Discuss it among yourselves for the next five minutes and present me with some possibilities.”
It’s a vigorous discussion, the kind you wish you could get from your students topside. But then, the stakes are higher. They finish while you’re still busy thinking about assignment redesign.
“You have a consensus?” Before me, they didn’t even know the word.
They glance side to side, none of them really happy with the agreement. The strongest and weakest are both sulking, so it’s a middling student who speaks up. “We’ll each make one,” she says.
“Whatever you’re teaching that day. Then you can assign us a full body to make for the final.”
“How’ll I see what’s in it?”
“We can always dissect them afterwards—or you can watch while we make part of it. We can explain it as we go.”
That appeals. Oral exams are the best—no reading, no writing feedback, and they can learn from each other’s performance. You nod. “That’s a good basic idea. But you’re missing the most important part.”
Big innocent eyes, again.
“It’s an Anatomy and Physiology class,” you say. “Your bodies need to be able to maintain homeostasis. They need to live.”
They look at each other, as if you are missing something obvious. “A body can’t live without a soul,” says the middling student.
Now you’re the surprised one. This goes against most of your experience in graduate school. “Are you sure?”
They all nod.
Well! You are nothing if not able to revise a procedure. “Don’t you have souls all over this place?”
Their first attempt is pitiful. The body never opens its eyes; they can’t even make the heart beat once. A dead frog could do better, you think—and tell them. They’re starting to look like your topside students, to you at least. The bloom is off the rose.
By the time you finish lecturing on the cardiovascular system, they’re making bodies whose hearts beat. But they still haven’t mastered perfusion or the baroreceptor reflex, so their projects are brain dead before they’re conscious. They stopped complaining to you after the third frog comparison, but you recognize their expressions. These are the sullen, hangdog looks, the righteously indignant glares, that presage a summons from the nearest administrator.
“I understand that you’ve revised the assessment structure for the lab,” says the Dean.
“Yes. I felt the original plan was a bit too focused on anatomy.”
“I see.” He shuffles papers, leaving charred fingerprints on their edges.
“If it helps any,” you volunteer, “students usually make a huge breakthrough two days after they’ve told an administrator the project is too hard.”
“Do they indeed?” He looks at you sort-of-but-not-quite over the glasses which grow out of his nose; their fleshy frames bisect his pupils. It’s a good expression, potentially threatening or even ogling, but impossible to pin down. You resolve to practice it in the mirror.
Two days later, the demon students succeed. Their body sits up, opens its eyes, looks around, and screams. Then it gasps for breath and you discover what a shoddy job they’ve done with the motor neurons and the diaphragm.
You also discover a little guilt as it suffocates (turning properly blue) at your feet. You remind yourself that this is by no means the worst thing that’s happened to a damned soul. This is probably a vacation for it. They probably volunteer for it, you tell yourself. How can this comfort you, when you know it’s not even slightly true?
With the taste of success on their long purple tongues, the demon students become obsessed. All hours of the day and night (so far as those exist in the always yellow-hazed underworld) find them in the lab creating microscopic neuromuscular junctions, wiring the columns of the spinal cord, inserting venules and capillaries between every layer of cells. The brightest student learns to put himself inside the body, testing its ability to move and breathe while the rest of them fine-tune it around him.
“It’s just a kind of possession,” he says offhand when you compliment him, but his chest flushes with pleasure. They’ve mastered the parasympathetic system.
It’s harder and harder to pay any attention to your topside students. On the other hand, you’re more prepared than you’ve ever dreamed of being. You develop a reputation among students as the prof who knows everything.
One day Vice-President Terrovian from Academic Affairs stops you in the hall. He’s neither naked, nor extravagantly male. “I hear good things about your command of the material,” he says.
You can’t tell what he means by this, but the other adjuncts can. “He’s making a case for hiring adjuncts instead of tenure-track to replace Hobbes when he retires,” says the thin woman from Chemistry. She’s taught here for thirty years, but nobody’s ever bothered to learn her name. “Terrovian the Terror, they call him. He’s led the push to downsize every year, no matter what enrollment’s like.”
“So he’s not really complimenting me.”
“Oh, he’ll be full of compliments until you ask for a full-time position. Compliments don’t cost anything.” She shakes her head. “He led a task force once that suggested discontinuing the pre-med program just long enough to fire the tenured faculty.”
“You bet. They tried to claim financial exigency, but the courts knocked that down. Now he’s just letting people retire and replacing them with adjuncts.”
“Not that he’ll ever retire himself,” says the Mathematics adjunct in her sixties. “He’ll work till he’s dead.”
“If not after!” They both nod. With no savings, no benefits, they’ll have to work that long themselves. You don’t point this out.
Meanwhile, in the netherworld, your contract’s been renewed for next semester with a ten percent raise and an office that opens into your living room through a flame-edged portal. Your commute is thirty seconds.
The demon students are all silent as the body stirs, opens its eyes. This time it doesn’t scream; they’ve fixed the free nerve endings and the inflammatory mediators. It looks around instead and sits up. There’s minimal paling of the face, and it recovers color within a minute. One of the students is following respiration rate, another watching a pulse oximeter you borrowed from your topside lab; both of them nod.
“Can you stand up?” asks the student beside the bed.
The body considers it and shakes its—his—head. “I’m dead,” it points out. “I’m in hell. You should know that. You were there—and you, and you.”
“That may be true, but now you have a body.”
The body checks itself from head to toe. “This isn’t my body,” it—he—says. “I was a girl.”
“Just try it out,” urges one of the students. “See if it works.”
The body gets up, gingerly. It takes a few steps and stops. “Yeah, see, that’s weird. You have to walk like a cowboy. Why would anyone want to have those things down there?”
The students, however, are glowing. Literally. One of them has actual smoke coming off his head. “It worked! We did it!”
You check the pulse-ox. “The vascular and respiratory systems seem to be working. What about urinary and digestive tracts?”
“Here!” The student with his hair on fire holds out a glass of something sickly green. “Are you thirsty?”
“Not really,” the body says, eyeing the glass with an uneasy expression.
“Go on, try it!” they urge.
The body takes a tentative sip, then makes a face. Another student reaches out to touch the glass; now the liquid is wine-colored, and the body approves of it. He—she—downs it in a few gulps.
“Do you have any more of that?”
The body lives for two weeks. Her digestive tract is always giving her trouble, and her kidneys fail after a few days.
“They hadn’t studied that part yet,” you apologize. “It’s a two-semester course.”
The body is surprisingly mellow about this. “I just wish they’d known the reproductive system,” she says. “I never got to try that when I was alive.”
You boggle. How could a virgin end up in hell? This is something the body won’t tell you, though. The students offer to, but it seems wrong to let them. “When she dies this time, does she get a chance to be… reassigned?”
The bright student shakes his head. “She hasn’t changed. She can’t change.”
She doesn’t seem that bad to you. But what do you know? You’ve only known her for two weeks when she lapses into a uremic coma and sleeps her way to a second death. You’re surprised by how much you miss her, by the drunken tears you shed in front of the other adjuncts topside. “A friend died,” you explain, and they buy you drinks they can’t afford. Guilt is becoming a lifestyle.
You can’t fault the demons’ work ethic. But for sheer stubbornness, they don’t match up to the damned. Every soul they put into one of their handcrafted bodies says the same thing: “I’m dead.” It lies down, shuts its eyes, and refuses to move. It dies from pure force of will. The semester’s worn on, midterm has come and gone, and the little virgin (you never learned her name) remains the only soul that would say more than those two words about its second chance at life.
It makes you think, doesn’t it? How bad can Hell be if the damned would rather be there than have bodies again? You ask the students offhand questions, but they just look at each other sideways and shrug. And those sideways looks and shrugs, too, you know. They portend rebellion. Requests that assignments be revised or reduced. “It’s not fair!” the bright student says. “Our grade depends on their behavior!”
Payback? You wonder. “What we need,” you say, “is a soul that doesn’t know it’s dead.”
“Oh,” they say in the tones of people who’ve just been shown the answer right there on their worksheets, in 18-point bold.
“We have to make it look like his original body,” the bright student’s saying as you come into the lab.
“Whose?” you ask.
“Someone just died in his sleep.” You see sidelong glances between them. “We’re going to put him in our body and he’ll wake up not knowing anything’s happened!”
Should you ask what he died of? No point, you think. Too late now… the waxy figure on the table looks familiar. Where have you seen him before? A niggle in your mind blossoms into full-blown Oh no! “That’s Vice-President Terrovian!”
“I know,” the student says, grinning. How proud he looks. “It couldn’t be more convenient, could it? He’ll be right there for you to observe.”
Before you can come up with an objection (and really, what is there to object to?) they’ve finished. They dim the lights, so you can’t see the Terror’s expression when he wakens. He grunts, rolls over, and goes back to sleep. In the morning he’ll think he had a bizarre dream. Three of the students volunteer to take him back to the bedroom they carried him out of. In a way, it’s an anticlimax.
But as you walk back to your office, an idea is growing. If you know student work—and you know student work!—there’ll be a full-time position coming open soon, with no Terrovian to block the hire.
You’re so entranced by this—by plans to make yourself indispensable, the inside candidate, by the time Terrovian dies and Hobbes retires—that you don’t realize the Dean’s waiting in your office. You look around, sure you’ve gone into his by mistake. Something’s different…
Here’s how it works. He’s naked, extravagantly male. He looks at you through yellow-slit eyes, and you imagine you see flames dancing inside them.
“The department’s very impressed with you,” he says. “We’ve voted to give you tenure. It was unanimous.”
“Wow,” you say. “That’s really great. When do you need to know?” Inside, you’re counting weeks. How long the Terror can last. After that, your topside department will still need to do a search, even if you’ve made yourself indispensable.
The Dean hasn’t moved. He’s still looking at you, and now it’s obvious that those are flames dancing behind his eyes, greedy, gleeful flames. He clasps his hands and leans back. Your office doesn’t seem as nice as it was a minute ago. Are those flames dancing on its walls or reflections of his light? You look around again. What’s different?
It’s the wall, or what isn’t on the wall. The portal to the topside, to your living room—the one you’ve stepped through twice a day for the past two semesters. It’s gone. You whirl, looking everywhere. There’s no trace of it, and when you turn back to the Dean, he’s bathed in flame. What you took for friendliness on his face is mockery, and his smile promises nothing pleasant.
“I’m sorry,” he says, when it’s obvious he’s not sorry at all. “Do we have different interpretations of what ‘tenure’ means?”
© 2015 by Patricia S. Bowne
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