Multiplication and the Devil
Daniel K. Appelquist
The rain poured steadily down on top of the one-room schoolhouse. To David, it sounded like the world was crashing down around him, and the normal routine of morning multiplication tables proved to be little comfort. David was smallish for his age, with sandy hair that didn't quite cover his gray eyes, eyes that were now closed tightly shut.
The eyes sprang suddenly open in an expression that was a mixture of fear and surprise. "Yes, Mrs. Wadlemire?" The words came almost unconsciously, as his head swiveled to survey his surroundings. He saw only faces, turned towards him in amusement. There were only fifteen other children in the morning session, but to David it seemed like the entire population of some child-inhabited planet was staring him down, taunting him, making fun of his stupidity, his ignorance.
"I asked you: Would you care to recite the second row from the table?" She pointed a stiff, bony finger to the chart which hung on the wall. Conical hat and flowing black robes only materialized afterward in a brief flash.
"Uh..." Hat and robes were suddenly gone, as were the millions upon millions of rapt watchers. All was replaced with the suddenly confining space of the small classroom, rain still descending in a cacophony above his head. Mrs. Wadlemire, now clothed in her traditional blue dress, stared at him expectantly.
"Two times one is two," he began.
One by one, his classmates started to look back towards the front of the room.
"Two times two is four," he continued in his well-practiced monotone. The beating of the rain on the roof seemed to intensify. Mrs. Wadlemire may have said something. Something to do with fish, perhaps. Whatever it was, it was droned out by the incessant downpour.
"Two times three is six." At this point, the lights went out, shrouding the room in a sort of gray darkness, the color of rainy skies. Through the skylight, David could see a dark shape moving above. David squinted to see what it might be through the continually renewed layer of water, but its form remained indefinable.
"Two times four is eight." A face! For an instant, he could definitely make out a face, staring down at him from the otherwise featureless gray rectangle of the skylight. The face was full of strange, mixed-up features, and yet had been strangely familiar to him, as if it was one he was supposed to recognize.
"Two times five is ten." He looked around to see if anyone else had seen it, but the other children were all gone, replaced with cardboard cutouts, decorated with crayons. Only Mrs. Wadlemire seemed untouched by this strange transformation, as if whoever had affected it had let her be, out of disgust. Her face, now framed in harsh shadows, seemed like an amalgamation of the worst traits of mankind. In it he could see hatred, cruelty, as well as a host of other, equally undesirable traits.
"Two times six is twelve," still he recited on, as if any deviation from the norm might alert them to his presence; the monsters that stole children and replaced them with cutouts. A chill started to work its way up his spine. He could feel the presence of something behind him. A dank, musty odor assaulted his nose, almost eliciting a sneeze. He did not turn, for he knew that to do so would mean certain death. The whatever-it-was that he had seen on the roof had definitely made its way down here, somehow switching the other children in the class while he wasn't looking.
"Two times seven is..." he faltered. The answer was on the tip of his tongue. He had recited the same phrase over fifty times, but today it stuck in his throat like chunky peanut butter. He felt the presence behind him closing, closing on its target like some great snake, now ready for the kill. If only he could remember!
"David..." The voice of Mrs. Wadlemire cut through his concentration. Why didn't she do something? Was she blind? Didn't she realize that her class now consisted of a host of badly drawn replicas, one child and an unmentionable beast? Perhaps she had been in on it from the beginning!
"Fourteen," the momentary distraction of these thoughts was enough to dislodge the word from his throat and cough it up. In the presence of the word, the creature behind him seemed to shrink back, as if it couldn't bear to hear it. Mrs. Wadlemire, now blindfolded, holding a calculator in one hand and a chalkboard eraser in the other, smiled a faint smile and shifted inside the folds of her white robe.
"Two times eight is sixteen," he went on, causing the thing to shrink back even further (had it emitted a gasp of terror, just then?) One by one, the cardboard children were replaced with their flesh-and- blood equivalents.
"Two times nine is eighteen." He definitely heard a stifled cry from the creature (he dared not look back yet, lest he be turned into cardboard and become unable to recite the last verse of the deadly spell). Under the fluorescent lights, even Mrs. Wadlemire seemed to radiate a goodness, a quality which David found to be quite at odds with her Nazi armband and smart officer's cap.
"Two times ten is twenty."
With this last incantation, the beast shrieked in agony. In its death-throes, it managed to overturn a table, and set a globe careening down the aisle towards the blackboard with its immense claws, now waving randomly in the air. When David finally looked back at it, it had almost shrunk out of site, seeking to hide, in its disgrace, behind the plastic jack o'lantern.
David sat back down behind his desk, his job completed, the monster vanquished. Even Mrs. Wadlemire, now clothed in her traditional blue dress, would have to thank him. He had, after all, saved her class from a fate most probably worse than death. But she only looked at him, with her not-disgusted expression and said, "Very good, David."
Hmm. Some thanks that was.
Daniel K. Appelquist (email@example.com) is an Internet publishing trailblazer. He created Quanta, the on-line magazine of Science Fiction, in 1989. He lives in Washington, D.C.
InterText stories written by Daniel K. Appelquist: "A War In the Sand" (v1n1), "Anticipation of the Night" (v1n1), "Multiplication and the Devil" (v2n1), "A Handful of Dust" (v2n1), "Tracks" (v4n3), "In VR" (v5n1).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 2, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1992 Daniel K. Appelquist.