Below is a short story (fiction) I wrote for a contest. It’s a departure from my usual style.
“The Substitution Method”
“Tiffany, I told you I don’t like being called that, especially over the phone.”
“And I’m fine myself. Thank you so much for asking.”
“I’m sorry. How has the evening found you?”
“Want to meet at The Pub tonight?”
“7:00 sound good?”
“Gag, that’s way too fuckin’ early for me. Make it 11.”
“That’s darn late for me, but I guess.”
“So, how many days you looking for?”
“Four would be ideal. Starting next Wednesday.”
“Gotcha. What is it this time?”
“AP English is doing Romeo and Juliet.”
“Eww, gross. Soooo,” now affecting a sing-song tone, “who’s your real target?”
Steve, or “Mr. Roberts,” as he preferred to be referred to by everyone, had tired of explaining to her that he had no ulterior motive in that regard. He simply wanted to teach what he wanted to, in this case his favorite Shakespeare play. True, he had gotten declarations of love and informal marriage proposals from girls as young as eight, as well as a guy as studly as one of the football team’s stars. But Tiffany’s incessant insistence that he was looking for love in inappropriate places, like pursuing a cheerleader fetish, irked him.
Tiffany, or “Tiffinatrix,” as she instructed the select few she counted as close confidantes to call her, kept looking in vain for an explanation for the enigma that was Steve. Surely, she had once mistakenly thought, there’s got to be some romantic or
sexual impetus that drove him. When he claimed that his love of teaching was his raison d’etre, she gradually came to believe him. The pair was duplicitous in a morally dubious endeavor, but she had no reason to suspect his integrity in this regard. He was a sexual deviant only inasmuch as he was largely asexual. Were Steve to earnestly apply his handsome looks and personability, he could seduce practically anyone he desired.
“I’m messing with you, Steve-O,” voicing her trademark cachinnation, “but I’ll give you a discount if you get up there and do some goddamn karaoke tonight.”
“Maybe. We’ll see.”
It was his karaoke performance that initially drew her to him several months ago. Who else would sing “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” and elicit an enthusiastic ovation with such a performance? When she realized it was the handsome loner she’d been fantasizing about from the moment she locked eyes on him, she realized she had to meet him.
And meet him she did. The first disappointment to afflict Tiffany concerning Steve was that he was quite straight-laced when it came to alcohol and drugs. Her medical training had instilled in her a knack for precise measurement. He had drank one and three-quarters glasses of wine that night, and she could detect that he was not visibly under the influence of any drugs. She was confident about her judgment, despite
being quite blitzed herself on an impressive assortment of intoxicants at the time.
The next unsettling thing Tiffany discovered about Steve was his sexual ineptitude. So much charisma and good looks, so disciplined in all things, yet he was so cold and mechanical in bed. She wondered why she even remained in contact with him afterwards. She belatedly realized that if she’d pressed him for an hour-long lecture on the Stamp Act as foreplay, he may have gotten vitalized enough to ravish her to her orifices’ content.
Notwithstanding his emotional retardation, she fell for him. The failure of the love spell she cast upon him even led her to question her devotion to Black Wicca. She mentally stored him in her “Friends” compartment, cross-referenced with the “Enigma” and “Business” files.
They had forged an odd symbiotic conspiratorial syndicate as they struck up “The Arrangement.” She had access to a veritable trove of pathogens of various stripes. He needed to temporarily sicken teachers he could sub for. He chased the godlike high that he got from teaching, Tiffany the chemical high she got from drugs.
It took a while for Mr. Roberts to realize why he was so stultified by “real” teaching as a college instructor. He enjoyed it for about two weeks, then became so bored by the monotonous tedium that be barely managed to complete the semester. Realizing he could not be an efficacious college professor, yet desiring no other work in the field of psychology, he dropped out of the PhD program he had nearly completed.
When he started subbing, he’d found his true calling. Even when personally unenthusiastic about a subject, he presented any topic so competently that one might suspect he had studied it his whole life. He’d cultivated a well-rounded education since his youth, an innate curiosity that he parlayed into a four-day run on Jeopardy!. He invested his winnings smartly. If he played his cards right, his finances would be fine for a long time.
Only 26 years old, Mr. Roberts had vaulted to the top position in the substitute hierarchy. Circumventing the entrenched bias toward seniority, the administrators gave him first pick of the available slots. Just like Tiffany with her withcraft, Mr. Roberts had strayed wildly from the Lutheran piety of his youth. He abandoned his faith shortly before matriculating at a prominent university; the materialistic slant of his studies buttressed his agnosticism.
He regarded the temporarily stricken teachers as collateral damage, effectively poisoned as an expedient and necessary evil. He got his high from teaching, Tiffany got hers from her costly drug habit, and his students and her patients benefited from their states. Steve couldn’t imagine having to deal with patients, some terminally ill, like Tiffany did on a regular basis. She thrived in that environment, seemingly mastering the intricate art of consuming drug cocktails to see her through.
How did she get away with it? She never got into the logistical details of how she procured what she sold him. He likewise could not fathom how she evaded drug screens, chalking both mysteries up to her beguiling nature; she seemed to always get what she wanted in life. He could tell that first night they met that she was an addict. When he intuited that her amorality equaled his, he jokingly suggested what they came to euphemize as “The Arrangement.”
Genuine laughter did not come naturally to Mr. Roberts, but he internally laughed whenever a colleague thanked him for offering to fetch coffee or lunch. It eased the task of employing his impressive sleight-of-hand by slipping whatever vial of E. coli, flu, or poison Tiffany had provided him into something they would ingest. The key was variety; they’d done this 16 times, but he didn’t want to use the same substance twice. Engaging her ingenuity for this challenge swelled Tiffany’s sense of power and control two-fold. She felt like the “Tiffinatrix” she longed to become.
* * *
For the last week or so, Steve began to fear getting caught more than ever. He may have initially craved the thrill that came from their machinations, but he began to become more and more paranoid. When he intimated such to Tiffany at their meeting late that evening, he crouched it in moral terms.
“Hey there, you little Munchkin! Why so glum? I mean, why more than usual?”
“Don’t you mean ‘Munchausen-kin’?” he dead-panned.
“Ha! I love that double-meaning! I guess that’s a good, proximate description for each of us.
“That’s, like, what we do. Our link is that you just replace ‘drugs’ for me with ‘teaching’ for you. It’s the same fucking thing! We both get our rocks off, the world is a better place–“
“The thing is, Tiffany, I’m really starting to feel some inner conflict about our arrangement. I know you know what you’re doing and all, but–“
“–But I just feel like I can’t do this anymore. What if one of us got caught? This will be our 16th time, but I really think we should stop soon.”
“Steve, you say the word and that’s absolutely cool with me. I don’t need the money anyway.”
“Oh really?” He arched his eyebrow, tacitly conveying his disbelief about her statement.
“Steve, I’m just along for the ride. I have this morbid curiosity about what we can get away with. Like, how close can we fly to the sun without getting burned?”
“Regardless, maybe we should both go back to the honest way, let the chips fall where they may. If it means I have to teach PE from time to time–“
“–Then I’m sure you’ll be great. Give them lectures on the relevance of World War whatever and geometry to dodgeball. Add a fucking pep talk to boot! Yes!”
“And I’m sure they’ll have the decency to not interrupt me, which you apparently seem to enjoy doing.”
“Sorry, man. Geez! Even for a teacher, you’re testy. ‘Testy,’ get it?”
“Yes, fabulous bon mot. But you’d be just as good without the shit you’ve got going on. Neither of us needs help to do what we naturally excel at. Maybe we’d be better the natural way.”
“Jesus fucking Christ. I’ll just, like, fucking quit my job then? Is that what you’re suggesting, Steve? You may be ‘unfulfilled’ or whatever, but for me, there’s no fucking way I can deal with those people—some of them about to die, by the way; it’s just a matter of how long—who are such buzzkills.”
“Steve,” she seamlessly transformed from near-hyperventilation to calm mode, “I’ve been getting that sense from you for two weeks now. You’re done with our arrangement. It’s plain as day, based on your aura. That’s totally cool.
“Promise me, though, that you won’t drop off the face of the earth on me. We still need to hang out when we’re done with this.”
“Yes, we’ll keep in touch, regardless of business arrangements.”
“You know I can’t resist you, Steve,” now affecting her flirtatious persona, “you sexy robot.” She rubbed her fingers through his hair for emphasis.
“Would you like to have sex tonight?” he blurted out hastily.
She cackled, “No! Never again! Probably not, anyway.”
Her rejection relieved Mr. Roberts of his sense of duty, while her obfuscation simultaneously confirmed his distaste for the inferior sex.
* * *
Normally, Mr. Roberts was a stickler for traffic laws. Not so much out of a Kantian esteem for law for its own sake, but rather as an allegiance to a game to which the rules must be followed. It was a matter of winning within established parameters. Yet as he raced around the streets to arrive at the hospital that night, he cognized that he was in the midst of a special occasion where the rules must be flouted for the greater good. His mind was still reeling from the conversation he’d had that day with Mrs. Lawton, the high school principal.
“Mr. Roberts,” her stress visibly manifest, “we all think you should be the one to tell your students that Ms. Lepping might not be back for a while. Maybe never. I mean, don’t tell them that last part.”
“Oh my goodness! What—what’s wrong?”
“Well, what started as probably the flu has progressed into full-blown pneumonia. She has a, uh, compromised immune system to begin with. Suffice it to say, it’s quite serious.”
“So she’s in the hospital, I take it?” he queried as beads of sweat adorned his forehead.
“Yes. The Westbridge VA.”
While it was merely a coincidence, the fact that Tiffany was under the employ of that particular hospital rendered a revulsion in his gut akin to a sucker punch. He had to use his imagination to surmise this, as he had always been able to talk himself out of tight jams of the physical nature.
“You okay, Scott?”
Another punch to the gut.
“Yes, just shocked. I didn’t—I had no idea she was even a veteran.”
“Yeah, Gulf War. There’s a card being circulated among the staff. It would be neat if you could get a poster board from Art to get the students to sign. Have them put their wishes of goodwill on it.”
“Sure. I mean, it will cut into class time, but I can do it. And I will visit her tonight.”
“Really? I think that would be awesome! Really, Scott, everyone should have a friend like you.
“One more thing, and this is very important. Please get yourself certified ASAP.”
“Get certified so you can teach for us full-time. I know it didn’t work out with the college stuff, but this is what you were made to do.”
“Yes Ma’am. I will take it under advisement.”
* * *
“Ms. Lepping. I’m sorry to see you so convalescent.”
“Bless you, Steve. You’re the only one from the school to come see me. That’s nice.”
“I’m in shock. For so many different reasons now, to be honest. I hear you were in The Gulf War?”
“Yes, Steve. One of the reasons I’m so fucked up right not,” her profanity an unwelcome reminder of his involvement with Tiffany, “is that I have AIDS.”
“Please, Steve. I can handle what I’ve been through. Shit-luck of the draw: I get raped by someone who has AIDS. I get it. Get sick, may now die. All that time I was worried about ‘the enemy,’ and now I’m worrying about this. At least now I know who’s on my side.” She took his hand.
As if on cue, Tiffany came into Ms. Lepping’s room at that precise moment. “Hey there, Sarah! The good news is that while we have not yet found a cure for your rockin’ pneumonia, we do have one for your boogie-woogie flu! Take it away now, Sar–!”
She stopped abruptly when she saw Steve standing there, giving her his cold-as-death stare. She even dropped her clipboard, a rare sign of discombobulation for her.
“Yes, nice to see you Tiffany.”
Ms. Lepping, fancying herself an intuitive observer of human nature, had to chime in. “Oh, I see what’s going on, here.”
Mr. Roberts and Tiffany felt their hearts cease in unison.
“You two are in love.”
Their eyes transfixed upon each other, then abruptly looked away in a mutual feeling of disgust. How could that stupid half-dead bitch think such a thing?
They were able to play it off as a mere coincidental encounter. Ms. Lepping would go on to recover, but the effects upon our two protagonists were salient. The next day, Mr. Roberts taught like he’d never taught before, his only lament being that there was not a Nobel committee in attendance for his performance. His heinous deeds of the past several months had left his conscious unaffected.
It was likewise a peak experience for Tiffany. She saw a refraction of her destiny through the synchronicity of that meeting. She had drastically altered the lives of several people, and she truly got off on that feeling. It made her feel in charge. It made her feel truly Tiffanatrix.