by Kostas Charitos
Translated by Dimitra Nikolaidou and Victor Pseftakis
In Kyra’s eyes, they didn’t look like children at all. They were more like post-modern sculptures — small, transparent figures, devoid of both features and color, human-shaped ice, ready to break at the lightest touch.
Kyra looked at them closely, scrutinized them; after, all, she was supposed to spend an entire year by their side. Only, she hadn’t expected to see something like that when the school’s Headmaster, Mr Galanis, had led her to the Emotionarium Virtual Reality room. They had discussed this type of tech back at the university, but it was still too new, experimental, and she had never used it herself until now.
“I was expecting to see colors,” she said.
“For that, you’ll have to sign some paperwork. What the parents signed, more or less. You know how it is when it comes to personal data,” the Headmaster said.
Kyra reached out and touched a figure. The transparent little human flinched, its shape shifted for a moment as if about to transform, but, in the end, it bounced back. She snapped her hand away as if she had been caught in the act.
“Whatever you say or do in your class is such a touch. Don’t forget that,” the Headmaster told her before exiting the room. Kyra cast a last glance at the crystal students before she took off her VR glasses. She followed the Headmaster to his office and signed away a dozen documents without thinking.
She went back home, made jasmine tea and sat in the living room. She picked up the remote and switched on the TV. Vengeance of Hector was on — that series about zombies flooding ancient Greece to avenge the Fall of Troy.
“Perfect. A bunch of walking corpses in togas will surely help,” Kyra mumbled, but just before she changed the channel, her phone rang; it was her mother. She headed to the kitchen to speak without the noise of moaning zombies and Attic Greek instructions on how to best sever a head playing in the background.
“Hey mum, how are you?”
Oh. She isn’t calling just to make sure I’m wearing a jacket in the morning chill.
“You know. This illness.”
It has a name, this illness. But she didn’t say that. “I know. Did you go back to the doctor? What did he tell you?”
“More of the same. But he doesn’t look very good lately.”
“Is he taking his medication?”
“You know him. He’s stubborn.”
“All right, we’ll have to see, then.”
“Come over for dinner on Sunday.”
“I will. Take care,” Kyra said.
Her mum muttered something under her breath and hung up. Kyra sipped her tea and went back into the living room. On the screen, a Macedonian phalanx bravely fought against hordes of dead Trojans. For a brief moment, the Trojans resembled the faceless bodies she’d seen in the Emotionarium that morning. Feckless, soulless and dispensable.
The next day though, when she stepped into the real classroom, those faceless bodies were transformed into scary little humans. Their eyes wide, watching her every move, their bodies shrunken as if afraid she’d grab one of them, any of them, as she moved between the desks
“So, let’s get to know each other,” she said. “I’m Kyra. What about your names? We can draw something nice from our vacations, and write our name underneath. I’ll start.”
She took out a set of colored pencils. The children did the same, some excited, some still hesitant. The air was soon filled with the sounds of pencils and erasers racing on paper.
When the bell rang, the children rushed to tidy up and run out of the room, leaving a pile of drawings before her. Kyra packed them up, placed them in her bag and didn’t look at them until she got on the subway home.
Beaches, mountains, lakes, playgrounds, all their summer experiences were lying on her lap. Beautiful, light colors in different styles; crayons, colored markers, colored pencils. And underneath, their names. Anna, Spyros, Panos. But, among those small slices of heaven sprang a single drawing done in black marker. It showed neither towers made of sand nor colorful flowers. Just a tiny child in front of a huge wall. And at the bottom of the paper, in small, faded letters, the name read: Faidon.
The next day, after the lesson, she headed to the Emotionarium along with Mr Galanis to take a look at the emotional depiction of her class.
“We care about the lessons, but, most of all, we care about the mental state of the children,” the Headmaster said as he was handing her the VR glasses. Kyra put them on. At first it was just pitch black, but soon her students started to appear. They stood next to each other, forming lines.
“The color of the figures indicates their emotional state; the more intense the better. They’re malleable, ready to accept change, full of potential,” the Headmaster said.
Kyra tried to listen but the figures around her had captivated her attention. There was a sense of transparency about them; she could see a colorful thick liquid flowing inside them, twisting and turning, ready to pour out, to conquer the world. She almost felt guilty to have to tame this raw material.
“You will be able to monitor your students’ development whenever you wish,” the Headmaster said, but Kyra wasn’t really listening. Among the rows of students she spotted something she had missed at first, perhaps, because her mind had dismissed it as impossible. She got closer, passed by the colorful shapes and stood next to the black figure. It wasn’t just the color but also its texture, the feeling of stiffness, of this liquid material of unlimited potential remaining still, frozen in time. Faidon immediately flashed in her mind, the quiet curly-haired child who spent all day without breathing a word.
“Why doesn’t it display the students’ names?” Kyra asked.
“We decided on this uniform presentation in order to eliminate any kind of discrimination,” the Headmaster said.
Kyra took off the VR equipment, counted her breaths as she did when emerging from a prolonged scuba dive and walked out of the room, concerned.
“I’ll need some fresh air,” she said.
“You will make a fine teacher, Kyra,” the Headmaster said as she was leaving.
On Sunday, Kyra took the plunge and went for lunch at her parents’ place. Her mum welcomed her with hugs and kisses. They sat on at the table for lunch. Four chairs, three plates, two people. Her father was still nowhere to be seen, as always. A man of the sea, the land was never good enough for him. Before his retirement, Kyra would only see him for a month every couple of years. And during this one month, he always presumed to instruct her on how to live her life.
Her mum got up without a sound, went into the bedroom and came back out again. Her father still took some time before joining them. He sat down without a word, without even looking at her; weakened. Her mother served pastitsio, her classic Sunday delicacy, and they started eating. The food was tasty, but it was hard to chew and shallow her bites, as hard as the words left unspoken.
As usual, her mum acted as the self-appointed mediator.
“Our Kyra has started a new job. And in a good school, too.”
“All schools are good, mum.”
“What grade did they give you?”
“Oh, they’re very young. You’ll make it. You love children. What do you think Yiorgo?”
Her father took his time before he answered. He pretended to swallow, had a sip of water, his hand shaking lightly.
“What should I think? It’s not as if she ever asks me.”
That was how her father always spoke, only a single word out of the dozens that buzzed in his mind. The rest were to be assumed. That he’d sacrificed his life in the sea; that he hoped to see her become a doctor; that he’d been saving to send her to study abroad.
Mum served some more potatoes.
“So, did you find yourself a boyfriend yet? How about Nikos,” she asked, and Kyra sighed and looked up.
“Not your business, mum. I’m a grown up.”
“You shouldn’t hide him from us. Bring him over, let us meet him.”
Kyra remained silent and kept eating; her mum fought to keep the conversation between Kyra and her father going. As soon as they had finished, it was dessert time: chocolate cake from the bakery around the corner. Her mum made coffee in the small cups which were decorated by hand with exotic flowers.
“Do you remember those, Yiorgo?” she asked.
“When you brought them over from China, and we had to chase Kyra around in case she broke them?” her father said.
Kyra raised her head slightly and looked at him, but her father avoided catching her eye.
“I was a child. What did you expect? You appeared once a year and wanted us to stand at attention?”
“Kyra,” her mum said.
“Leave me alone, mum. What on earth was I thinking coming here? What good is it if we can only talk by proxy?” She picked up her purse from the couch and left.
Back at home, she made coffee in a big, cheap IKEA cup, went out at the balcony and spent some time looking at the trains in Peloponnisou Station. Her phone rang. It was Nikos.
Perhaps he wanted to know what happened with her father; perhaps he wanted to go for a drink and whatnot. She weighed the phone in her hand for a while. She remembered the calls she made to Nasos, the texts she sent him, and him just ghosting her. Like her father.
She didn’t pick up. She needed to decompress. She didn’t want to talk to anyone. Other people’s voices would turn everything black and hard like the pebbles on the train rails. She looked at the station. A carriage was departing for some place far away, a place unknown, scary and wonderful at the same time.
Two months went by — a repetition of the first days of the school year with small variations. Like Vengeance of Hector, where all episodes looked the same until something small, a new detail, an unexpected element helped tell them apart and recapture her attention. Nikos kept on flirting with her, her friends were singing his praises, but she couldn’t make up her mind to give him the green light. Most of her energy went into her class. She handed over photocopies, marked notebooks, checked her students’ progress. She did her best but she could tell that it wasn’t enough. The children were initially willing, but soon they got tired, started showing way more interest in the next student’s pencil than conjugation. And amid all this chaos, she had to deal with Faidon, too. She was ashamed to admit that she felt like he hadn’t made any kind of progress since she’d taken over. For Faidon, school seemed to be a place where he simply sat on a chair for hours on end before going back home. She’d asked him if anything was wrong several times, but he’d just shaken his head.
Kyra was thinking of all this stuff while making orange flavored tea at home, when her phone rang; it was Nikos again.
“I’m in the neighborhood,” he said. “Do you have some time to say ‘hi?’”
“Good idea. Come up,” she said. And ten minutes later, Nikos was making himself comfortable on the couch.
“I’m having orange tea,” she said, “do you want some? Or maybe some coffee?”
“Tea is fine,” Nikos said. Such a good guy. He’d humor her in the beginning, just like Nasos had done. The difficult part would come after. She poured him a cup, sat on the armchair and sipped her tea. The acidic tinge of the orange travelled from the tip of her tongue to the roof of her mouth.
“You look troubled.”
“The children are giving me a hard time. It’s one thing to attend lectures at the Academy, but the classroom is a totally different beast.”
“I thought that a yell would make them behave.”
“You lot from the Polytechnic Uni all think the same. Too many courses on robotics, perhaps?”
“I’ll take it as a compliment,” Nikos said and sipped some tea. “Not bad.”
Kyra switched on the TV. There was a series where an undead detective had to solve a series of murders.
“What’s with all the zombies? They’re everywhere,” Kyra said.
“That’s what they’re supposed to do; expand. Though, to be honest, I’m sick of them.”
“You don’t like them either?”
“In such high dosage, they’ll kill you. And I didn’t mean that as a pun. I only watch the shows so that I’m not left out of conversations.”
“So do I,” Kyra said, smiling.
“Well, if you ask me, TV zombies are not the problem. After all, it’s not like they were given a choice,” Nikos said.
Kyra switched off the TV. He brought her cup close to her face. She inhaled the citrus fragrance. She had a sip. She let the hot liquid flow inside her. She thought of her life. He was right. The TV zombies weren’t the problem.
The next day, during the long twenty minute break, Kyra went out into the yard, and found Faidon sitting alone on the bench in front of a flower bed strewn with artificial grass. She sat next to him and offered him some of the koulouri she’d bought in the morning from the bakery. He took a tiny piece.
Kyra broke off a larger piece and handed it to him.
“I like your drawings,” she said.
The boy didn’t speak, but he was obviously listening.
“They’re not ordinary,” she continued. “Τhey remind me of the movies I like watching.”
Faidon took a bite of the bread and started chewing.
“They’re mysterious, your drawings,” she went on. “And you know what’s the most mysterious thing about them?”
“What?” the boy asked as soon as he swallowed.
“The wall. What’s behind it?”
Faidon looked down as if ashamed; as if all the children playing and running around in the yard would stop and stay still, listen in to what he was about to say.
“My father,” Faidon said and for a moment, her own father’s large and heavy figure flashed in her mind.
The bell rang, but Faidon didn’t get up. He kept chewing the small piece of bread he was holding. Kyra stood up and nodded for him to follow. She led him to the classroom. They had Arts and Crafts and she couldn’t stay with him even if she wanted to. As soon as her day was over she headed to the Emotionarium and looked at her students. The black figure was still there, standing still among the soft green hues and the fiery red whirls. But tiny cracks had started to appear on it, as if the hard, impervious, dark material had started to give.
She left the school excited, and called Nikos. She wanted to see him, to tell him what had happened; he told her to come over to his place, and he’d order pizza. She took the underground to Nea Smyrni, found the house and, even though Nikos lived on the third floor, didn’t take the elevator. She’d rather climb the stairs as fast as possible without even stopping on the landings. She got there as flushed as a marathoner at the finishing line.
Nikos was wearing bleached jeans, a white shirt and some light perfume. They sat on the couch of the small living room. She told him about the boy and his father and the light cracks on the dark figure in one breath.
“I don’t understand what’s the deal with the father,” Nikos said.
“That’s the problem. There’s obviously something wrong.”
“Why don’t you invite him over at the school?”
“I’ve been calling them, but it’s the mother who always answers the phone. He’s always out.”
“Perhaps they’ve recently separated?”
“I’ve thought about that. I need to speak to his mother in order to find out.”
“You’ll get to speak to her sooner or later.”
“I hope so,” Kyra said though, truth be told, she wasn’t hopeful at all.
They spent the rest of the night talking about Faidon, about children and their problems, about how what seems small to an adult might become a huge obstacle in their eyes. They talked of parents, of caring mothers, of fathers who work all day long, of kids that retreat in their shells and then grow up looking for a partner to give them some peace only to end up with the wrong one.
And as time went by and Kyra realized that they were actually talking about her, she felt better. It’d been a long time since she had opened up to someone, since she felt listened to, accepted exactly as she was. Soon, before the sun set on the horizon over Lycabettus hill, Nikos hugged her shoulders gently and gave her a kiss. Kyra kissed him back, felt his hands on her and didn’t flinch. She wanted these caresses, this hug, this body. For the first time in her life, she felt that she really knew what she wanted from the world.
Faidon’s mother came to school after two days. She was well dressed in black slacks, a beige silk shirt, a big bronze bracelet, hoops and bright lipstick. Her hair was perfectly done in a low ponytail. Kyra nearly asked her whether she’d scheduled a job interview after her.
“Good morning. I am Faidon’s teacher, Kyra,” she said extending her hand.
The woman’s nails were perfectly manicured. “Good morning. How are you today?” Faidon’s mother didn’t want to be here.
“I’m fine, thank you.”
“Are you new in this school?”
“Yes.” Kira suddenly became very conscious of herself, her clothes, her posture, but she pressed on. “I wanted to talk about Faidon.” The mother waited. “He is a good boy. He is sensitive, good-hearted and diligent.” She smiled but got no response. “However, there are certain behaviors that could be the cause of some worry, and I wanted to discuss those with you.”
“Do not be alarmed. I called you here so we’ll be able to deal with anything that comes up together.” The mother didn’t respond. “Now, to begin with, I noticed that Faidon’s drawings are always dark.”
“And is that always a bad thing?”
“It could signify some problems. And then there’s the issue of friends. Faidon tends to isolate himself during breaks.”
“He is shy.” Faidon’s mother had put a fake smile on, one of those smiles that sent chills down Kyra’s spine.
“Usually, when children this age keep to themselves, something is weighing on them. Do you have any idea what that could be?”
“No. Everything is fine at home.” Kyra waited, but nothing more was said. “So is that all?”
“Well, these behaviors tend to signal a child might need our help.”
“Yet, I’m telling you there are no problems at home. And you’re telling me he is not causing any problems at school either. So I’m not sure why you called me.”
“Is he getting along with his father?”
Faidon’s mother now looked at her as if she’d seen a zombie crawl out of the ground.
“What’s that have to do with anything?”
“Faidon seems to be thinking of him a lot. How is their relationship? Do they spend a lot of time together?”
Faidon’s mother didn’t speak for a while, and, then, Kyra felt the invisible scales inside her tip.
“His father is in jail,” she finally said.
“Does Faidon know?”
“What should I tell him? That he had trouble with the tax office, and he was sentenced to two years in jail?”
“And what have you been telling him?”
“That he was transferred at work.”
“How long ago did this happen?”
“Six months now, give or take.”
Kyra had a flash of herself when she was little, when her father sailed off. Waiting for him every weekend, and him not coming. Same as Faidon. Twenty six times he had waited, and twenty six times he had been disappointed.
“And how do you explain to him that he’s not coming to visit?”
“I told him that something went wrong at work and they demoted him. That when he gets his position back, he’ll come back to us.”
“So, they don’t talk on the phone?”
“I told you. Everything will go back to normal when he gets his position back.”
Kyra remained silent for a bit. “You know, it would be very helpful for Faidon to see his father, to have some sort of contact with him. The way his father vanished, so abruptly, the loss of contact is a huge issue,” Kyra insisted. “You have to try. For the sake of your child.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Faidon’s mother said, picked up her leather bag and walked out in steady steps. Her hills echoed like nails on wood. Kyra watched her walk among the running children and go out of the iron gate without casting a single glance over her shoulder.
A quiet week passed by. Kira went out with Nikos daily. She liked that they’d taken it slowly. They would just chat, he didn’t smother her in gifts and he didn’t try to get her in bed at every opportunity.
On Friday, just before the last class, her phone rang. It was her mother, calling from the hospital. Her father’s health had suddenly taken a turn for the worst.
Kyra asked Mr Galanis for leave, notified Nikos that she’d be late for their date, ran all the way to the underground, got off at Evaggelismos Hospital and got up to the third floor of the neurology ward. Her mother was there. She hugged her; she could barely hold her tears back. Her father was lying on one of the four beds of the room. The air smelled of antiseptic.
Kyra came close to him. She took his hand into hers, and he looked up.
“How are you?”
“How do you think? They won’t let me go home.”
“When they had run all the tests, they will.”
“That’s what they keep saying.”
“They’re doctors. They should know better.”
Her father frowned.
“Doctors… And I spent all my years at sea to see you become one of them. The only thing I ever asked of you,” he said.
Same old, same old. It should have stopped when she’d submitted her university application. Back when she blew everything by refusing to apply for Medical School, when she decided that she didn’t want to spend her life around the sick. But no; he’d been going on and on for six years now. While she was studying, while she was doing her MA, while she was an intern. For a moment, all his words gathered inside her and were about to pour out like a torrent, destroying everything it passed through. Just for a moment. The next moment, his words melted like a candle, vanished, became something unimportant, something that had been left behind for good. She reached out and touched her father’s forehead gently. His skin was rough, eaten away by the salt.
“I’m fine, father.”
She thought she saw a single tear gleaming at the side of his eye, but she might have just imagined it. She didn’t remember her father ever crying.
“Can you get me some water?” he asked and pointed at his glass with a trembling hand.
Kyra filled the glass and brought it to his lips. He tried to sip, but he choked and started coughing. Her mother tried to take the glass off her hand, but Kyra didn’t let her. When the coughing stopped, she tipped it on his lips, slower now, just leaned it a little bit, just enough to wet them. Her father managed some small sips. When he finished, she leaned over him, kissed him on the forehead and got out of the room. Her mother followed her.
“He’s having difficulty with water,” she said.
“Call me if he gets worse,” Kyra said.
“Thank you for coming. He won’t admit it, but you two not talking to each other has taken its toll on him.”
“We do now,” Kyra said and left because she didn’t want to see her mother cry. They had managed to build such a massive wall between them, and it only took a glass of water to bring it down. Nonsense. No wall had come down. It had only suffered a tiny crack. But even this infinitesimal split had been enough to allow her to catch a glimpse of the other side of the wall. She texted Nikos to ask him whether he could drop by her flat. He replied that he would wait for her outside. And there he was, indeed. Holding a small red rose.
Her father got out of the hospital two days later. His condition was irreversible, but the doctors were hoping to delay its advancement. For how long, weeks or months, no one could be certain.
Same as with Faidon. He was improving, but who knew how long it would take him to catch up with the rest of the class. He’d started using color in his drawings. Blue, purple and brown mostly, but, once in a while, there was some red fruit or a yellow sun. And the wall’s size changed. Not day by day but week by week.
His behavior had also affected Kyra. Her attitude towards her class had changed too. Faidon had made her lean over her students and trace their needs. For a while, she put aside spelling and times tables and tried to find out what they liked, what they were afraid of and how they could overcome it. Little Anna now flourished when at first she was too shy to speak up; she raised her hand to answer questions all the time. Panos opened up and became best friends with Spyros. Even Marianthi started being more thorough with her homework.
Until one day, just before the Easter break, she had the children draw their family once more. She gathered their drawings, and, as soon as they left the class, she started leafing through them. She felt a bit ashamed that she was going through them so quickly, but she couldn’t wait to see Faidon’s drawing. It was at the bottom of the pile. She looked at it and almost burst out crying. There was no wall. A little child was holding his mother’s hand, and, in the background, on an small island not very far away, stood a man with his hands extended, waiting to hug them.
After the Easter break, right before leaving the school, she heard the Headmaster’s voice. He was standing at the end of the corridor and nodded to her to approach. Kyra went over.
“I told you you’d be a good teacher,” he said.
“I remember that though I never understood why.”
“Let’s get in the room, and I’ll explain.”
They entered the Emotionarium together, wore the special glasses, and the empty space manifested before her once again.
“The training period will soon be over. You can now watch the video to see what you’ve accomplished. I’ve set it to project the regular layout of the class if you don’t mind. It’s very good feedback for the next year,” the Headmaster said.
Kyra could hear her heart thumping. Cold sweat run down her spine as if she was about to sit for the Finals. She would be now able to recognize her students, to associate their faces with the unknown figures she’d been seeing so far.
“Very well,” she said.
Her class started taking shape around her. It looked almost similar to the real one with the same rows of futuristic lighting on the ceiling, the three dichromatic walls and the window wall that looked out to the yard. Her students were sitting at their desks. The image before her started moving. She saw the colors inside the children change; from soft and pale hesitantly becoming brighter, more decisive, prettier, ready to pour out of them and conquer the world. She looked at the children on their seats. Anna was golden yellow, pale in the beginning and much brighter later on. Spyros was painted in orange hues, he almost shone like the sun as the weeks passed. She looked for Faidon, spotted the desk by the window, the figure that was looking outside.
“You never asked for the names of the figures during the entire year. That’s how I knew,” the Headmaster said.
But Kyra wasn’t listening. She was staring at Faidon, dumbfounded.
She should have known before. Children don’t have a shell; they’re too young to have weaved a cocoon around them to protect themselves from the world. The red figure she’d mistaken for Anna was in fact sitting in Faidon’s seat. Just a bit of a red in the first days, which burned brighter and brighter as time passed, finally becoming a flame that could no longer be dimmed. She’d made it; Faidon had changed. She replayed the video right from the start. She scanned the classroom. At first, she thought that there had been a mistake, that the VR had forgotten to display the black figure, but then she slowly turned her gaze towards her desk. She saw the black figure standing there, dark, cold, hidden from the children’s eyes. She saw the cracks on its shell, the thin emerald veins that become more and more prominent, a sign that the black casing was crumbling. Kyra walked up to her, held her hand out and touched the golden green liquid that flowed inside her. It stirred, and then it continued to flow. The figure didn’t move; she remained still, looking over the children in the classroom.
“You’ll be a good teacher,” Kyra said and smiled.
Kostas Charitos was born in Arta and lives in Athens with his family. He has a PhD in Chemistry and he is teaching in secondary education. His latest story “Deja Loop” was published in the Future Science Fiction Digest (issue 15). His science fiction short stories have been included in Greek as well as in international anthologies like Nova Hellas (in Italian and in English), and The Viral Curtain (in English). Two of his novels, Project Fractal (2009) and Lost Colors: Red (2020), have been published in Greek. He is a member of the Athens Science Fiction Club and is co-ordinating its bi-annual writing workshops.