When her alarm clock launched into its customary drone of menacing beeps, Connie Jugate awoke with the usual feeling of dread in her stomach, which accosted her at the beginning of every weekday on which she attended school. School wasn’t the problem in and of itself, but Connie’s first period inspired a feeling of terror in all who attended it.
“Mom,” she called, her voice carrying through the house as she stumbled out of bed, flipped on the light switch which momentarily stung her eyes, and lethargically shuffled her way into the living room where Mrs. Jugate was perched on the couch, just like every other morning, watching the morning news and drinking her coffee. “I don’t feel good! Can’t I please miss first period today? What do I need gym class for anyway?” she bemoaned.
“What kind of example would I be setting if I let you skip class?” Mrs. Jugate questioned disapprovingly, after taking another dignified sip of her morning ambrosia.
“But, mom,” Connie groaned. “You don’t understand. It’s literally torture!”
“I never liked gym class much either, when I was your age,” Mrs. Jugate conceded. “But the fact remains that you’re a young girl who’s still growing, and it wouldn’t hurt you to get some exercise, especially when you don’t seek it out on your own. You lead a pretty sedentary lifestyle sitting at your desk doing math in your free time—”
“But, mom, you know how much I love math!” Connie interjected.
“Yes, dear, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but your gym teacher just wants to ensure that everyone’s bodies are as healthy as their minds. It’s not like she’s actually out to make you all miserable,” Mrs. Jugate explained as she watched her daughter from behind her glasses, her eyes pleading with Connie to understand.
“Fine,” Connie snapped, frustrated that she couldn’t explain the full extent of the situation to her mother without sounding like a crazy person. After uttering her dismissal of the conversation, she stomped off to get ready for school and flew through her morning routine, dressing in an over-sized plaid shirt, a pair of jeans, and crisscrossing her black-as-a-printed-multiplication-symbol hair into a single braid.
After a short drive, Connie was at school and she rushed to the gym. Experience had taught her that, though being late lessened the amount of time spent in class, the consequences attached made it far worse than enduring an entire class period of gym.
Once standing in the hallway outside the gymnasium, Connie cautiously reached for the door handle, a veteran to the fate she knew was in store for her. She even had her long shirt sleeve extended over her hand in an attempt to the metal as little as possible. However, as always, the heat from the searing handle penetrated her flesh through the flimsy safeguard that her shirtsleeve provided.
Connie was the first to arrive, beating even the teacher to class, since she had made certain to arrive before everyone else after her first and only time ever being late to gym. She dutifully dragged a chair from where it sat leaning against the white cinder-block wall, and propped it in front of the door, in order to hold it open, so that everyone would be able to file into class without having to touch the door handle for themselves.
“Connie,” Bess called, dressed in jeans and a shirt with the words ‘Book Worm’ printed across it. She sprinted down the hallway to her friend’s side, right as Connie was placing the chair in front of the door.
“Hi, Bess,” Connie greeted, as they rushed together into the locker room to change into their gym clothes.
“Are you worried?” asked Bess nervously, as she reached into her locker for her gym bag and began to change into her white tank top and black gym shorts.
“A little bit. On Friday, Ms. Atrox hinted that she’s got a new twist in store for us today,” Connie responded, as she too reached into her locker and quickly swapped the outfit in which she had come to school for a pair of black yoga pants and a turquoise short sleeved shirt.
“That can’t be good,” Bess agreed.
“I’m sure it’s not too bad,” Connie speculated. “It’s not like there’s much she can dream up that will be worse than before.”
“It can’t be any worse than my grade on our last math test,” Bess joked with a grin, though she really had failed the last math test.
Connie and Bess exited the locker room, hurried to their usual spots on the gym floor, and begun stretching in preparation for the demanding physical activity they would doubtlessly be required to endure. As they did so, they stared in rapt attention on Mrs. Atrox, who was now standing precisely in the middle of the gymnasium and going through her usual routine of chanting a series of garbled, incomprehensible words that sounded like wolfish snarls, and making a series of wild hand gestures, which allowed her to conjure up an enormous murky portal that was surrounded by gray wisps of smoke.
As Connie and Bess observed this peculiar procedure, their classmates began to take their places on the gym floor as well, collectively looking wide eyed and terrified as they braced themselves for the torture that was in store for them for the next hour and forty-five minutes.
As the bell rang, signaling that class was to begin, Ms. Atrox, clad from head to toe in fiery-red track suit, finished her nefarious task and proceeded to snatch up her clip board from where it had been discarded on the gym bleachers.
She silently called role, checking names off of her list with a self-satisfied smirk, until she quickly determined that everyone was present, aside from a single student. “Riley is late today. Let’s hope he’s prepared to run laps,” she cackled, her blood red lips now positioned into an angry line that was at odds with her mirthful tone.
Mere moments after Ms. Atrox had proclaimed him tardy, Riley tiptoed out of the locker room with his shoulders sagging and his head angled downward, as he quietly took his place among his classmates, hoping against hope that his lateness would go unnoticed.
Ms. Atrox stared pointedly at Riley, taking long strides towards him until she caught and held his gaze. “You’ll be running laps all period,” she snapped briskly. “Now, everyone move—through the portal,” she shouted shrilly, before ushering a procession of reluctant students through the murky opening in the gymnasium floor.
The scenery changed abruptly as everyone was deposited through the portal and onto charred black grass that stretched on for miles. The portion of this decimated field on which they were standing was surrounded by flames that formed a wide circular fence, preventing them from attempting an escape. The students formed a ring around Ms. Atrox, who had sprouted horns upon their arrival to the Hell Dimension into which she had led them.
A series of persistent howls and anguished wails could be heard in the distance. “Those are souls that my siblings and I have trapped here. The wails you hear come from the newly suffering, and the howls from those who have been here so long that they have lost their sense of selves. We call them Hell Hounds,” Ms. Atrox explained like a demented tour guide, as if her students had forgotten the lecture she gave at the beginning of every unwilling voyage.
She paused dramatically, as she let an unnerving silence linger long enough to make the break in routine apparent. “Today you will join them. However, I am not without mercy. Towards the end of class, I will submit to one test of your choosing. If I cannot complete the exercise, you may all go free and I will lose my ability to jump between worlds, remaining here in your stead,” she stated, before growling incomprehensibly once again.
After the unnatural noise was emitted from the back of her throat, a scaly and deformed winged creature of hulking proportions appeared by her side, as though summoned. “Riley, start running,” she commanded. He obeyed the order instantly, only to be chased by the fearsome being, which swiped its claws into jagged lines down his back every time he deviated from an acceptable pace into a slower one.
“As for the rest of you, you’ll be playing dodge ball,” she crooned. After the cue, spiked balls rained down from the sky in torrents, and the students barely avoided the impact of each offending ball. While she worked to avoid each spiny ball, Connie’s mind schemed as she racked her brain for a test that Ms. Atrox would not be able to successfully complete.
Her muscular gym teacher had never proven herself to be particularly bright, since she seemed to dedicate all of her brain space to thoughts of malice as opposed to intellectual pursuits, so it only made sense for the exercise to be a mental one. Immediately her mind moved to math, and she worked to devise a math problem she was confident Ms. Atrox would be unable to solve. Finally, Ms. Atrox clapped her hands, and the storm of barbed balls came to an end.
“Have any of you come up with a challenge for me?” she inquired, her hands now clasped together.
“If you would be so kind as to provide me with pen and paper,” began Connie, “then, yes, I can set a task for you.”
Ms. Atrox unclasped her hands and then opened, closed, and reopened her left hand; the gesture causing a black feathered quill, an inkwell, and piece of parchment paper to appear right in her palm.
“Here you are,” she said, as she handed the writing supplies to Connie, who immediately dipped the quill in the ink and scrawled an algebraic equation before handing the writing utensils back to Ms. Atrox.
Her gym teacher simply gaped at the problem for the remainder of the class period. Then, at the precise time class was set to end, the portal appeared once more, this time without being conjured, as a result of Ms. Atrox’s inability to solve the math problem Connie had set before her. The students wasted no time as they leaped through the portal, which regurgitated them out into their school gymnasium, but disappeared, leaving Ms. Atrox back in her home world just like she had promised.
“Connie, what did you write on the paper?” Bess asked once they were safe again, away from Ms. Atrox.
“Just a problem similar to the ones on our test last Friday,” Connie answered.
“Wow, Connie, you saved us all! Math really is radical!” Bess exclaimed, humoring Connie with her use of the word radical, since Connie had been trying to re-popularize the word among her peers. “In fact, I think I’ll pay more attention in class from now on,” Bess concluded amid the cheers of her classmates.