The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect South Asia Scene’s editorial policy.
Jim Wallis had to know what was in the box on Mr Merrik’s desk.
It was eating up his insides.
In that moment, it seemed more important than his lunch, his Xbox, his pet gerbil (Billy), and even his mum. Today was his first R.E. lesson, and Jim was already a little queasy in the bowels. He squirmed in his seat. Mr Merrik, their new teacher, seemed to sense this, and he squeezed his lips tightly before speaking in a thick accent.
“R.E. is deep, sticky subject. Before we learn religion, lets play a guessing game, na? To smash the ice.” One of Mr. Merrik’s chunky eyebrows was leaping up in excitement and nearly touching his scalp. His vast figure towered over the school children, and his face cracked into a strange smile.
The year 7s threw confused glances at each other. Elmwood Community was an ordinary school, in a ordinary town with ordinary people. The classrooms were lit with sterile white light, and the carpets were discoloured from years of weary, tired feet.
Some of the students had already lost interest, and regarded Mr. Merrik with a dull indifference. Not Jim. The box called to him.
The box was also ordinary. Jim remembered dozens like it when he’d moved house last summer to Elmwood. It was a dull, brown colour with four sides, a top and a bottom. There were seven small holes on every surface. The top folded over to make a carry-handle.
It has to be a pet, thought Jim. The airholes reminded him of the container that he had brought Billy home in. He hoped it was something cool, like a boa constrictor!
“My little friend, he very shy” beamed Mr Merrik. “ I would like each you to come and pet him. Tell class what you think. How he feel? He wriggle against your hands?”
The students had questions.
“Does it bite?” asked Pam Shelly, meekly. “ I am NOT touching it if it bites.”
“No bitten anyone” reassured Mr Merrik “So far”.
“But what has this got to do with religious education?” piped up Johnny Cristo. Jim thought Cristo was a world class smartass.
“I think we’d all like it if you taught us the curriculum instead of a stupid game.” He despised Cristo. Blood boiled in Jim’s chest, as he suddenly remembered when his mum had compared his poor grades to Cristo’s straight ‘A’s, on parent’s evening.
Cristo brought that one up, every single lunchtime.
“Ah Johnty..” Mr Merrik didn’t seem to be fazed by Johnny Cristo’s killjoy rhetoric. It seemed to stir his odd enthusiasm even more. “It is EVERYTHING with R.E. Why no you go first, so that you can see it with your own eye sockets, na?”
The entire class exploded in a cacophony of murmuring. Pam Shelly turned a funny grey colour. Next to her, Pam’s chatty friend Nicole was suddenly lost for words.
Cristo’s eyes puckered with sarcasm. “Its Johnny”, he muttered, entirely under his breath. “Learn some english, freak”.
Mr. Merrik eyed Cristo curiously, and his face split into another eccentric grin. He silenced the class with a swish of his gigantic hand.
Cristo paused for a millisecond. It seemed to take him an eternity to make his way up to the mysterious, ordinary-looking box.
Mr Merrik carefully picked up the box. “Shhh..verrrry shy, my littles friend is.” With surprisingly delicate movements, which Jim thought impossible of a such a crass man, his teacher gently placed the box on a small table in the middle of the classroom. He was holding the box as if it carried a landmine.
Cristo drew his hand towards the small opening made for him. He shuddered as his hand scraped past the side of the handle. The whole class stared on, like a troupe of mimes. When the box had swallowed his arm up to the elbow, Cristo’s face contorted strangely.
“Share with class your thoughts.” nodded Mr Merrik.
“Warm, and alive..”
But Cristo said nothing else. In fact, he spoke no more for the entire class. Once Cristo had returned to his seat, Jim could see a damp patch growing on his trousers. No one else had noticed.
Jim hardly believed it.
Gosh, Cristo’s PEED himself, he thought. What on earth could be in there? His curiosity swelled.
“Ok. We go alphabetically. Tip toop, class!” shrieked Mr Merrik.
One by one, the students lined up and went to the box. Some stayed with it for several minutes. Others didn’t touch it, and returned to their seat whimpering. Whenever anyone tried to peek, a shrill giggle would escape from Mr Merrik, who would promptly shoo them away and tell them it was against the rules. Every single student returned with an identically bewildered expression, but no one uttered a word.
When Pam Shelley’s turn came, she was one of the freezers. Eventually, she put her finger in through one of the airholes, and claimed she could feel nothing. That was, until she felt something. In a split second, a shriek tore through the classroom, and Pam burst out of the door in tears.
Nicole, who was up next, darted out and joined Pam whilst stifling sobs of her own.
And then Jim Wallis was the only one left. No time was wasted, and he darted to the box in a flash when his name was called. His heart thundered under his school shirt.
There was an endless expanse of space in the box.
It feels like I’m in some kind of ‘other’.
There was a peculiar resistance, as if his limb was submerged in a swimming pool. For a while, he felt nothing else. The voices of his classmates and Mr Merrik faded to a dull, inaudible drone.
An insurmountable amount of time flowed by.
Something soft brushed against his limb. Jim’s skin prickled, almost seeming to lift away from his bones and muscles. The otherworldly ‘thing’ felt pulpy and gelatinous, like a plate of jelly. He reckoned it to be the size of a grapefruit. For once, Jim agreed with Cristo, it did feel..
The bulk of the mass felt symmetrical. On the top, there were two bulbous globes, and under them, a pair of small depressions. Eyes and nostrils. On either side of the head, there were slightly harder helical structures.
He traced his finger lower, and the mass seemed to split into four. Jim froze. He was sure he felt tiny fingers and toes.
Jim was back in the gloomy Elmwood classroom.
His vision blurred and refocussed on a pair of colossal eyebrows. Mr. Merrik was staring at him, expectant.
“Ho hoh, you were gone for while. How do you think, Jeemy? Did it bite?”
Jim was silent.
He was not quite sure how to express what he felt. He was left with more questions than answers.
Mr Merrik clapped jubilantly. “Okay..guess time over, well done Jeem! He is my little nephew..err how old…6 months old maybe, what do you think class, cute?”
In one fluid motion, Mr Merrik kicked the box onto the floor. A singular gasp echoed across the entire room. No one spoke. Jim felt a scream die in his throat.
Calmly, Mr. Merrik walked to the mangled box. He pull back one sleeve, and reached his own bucket-sized paw inside.
He pulled the thing out. And laughed diabolically.
“See…only toy, one those alien pod babies..heheh” He looked around sheepishly. “I got from Toys R Us. You see your reactions? Like crazy people. Cost me £1.99 only. Now class, learn lesson from this. Next week we learn syllabus — Worship and Key Beliefs.”
Without dismissing the children, Mr. Merrik was the first to leave class. The children sat open-jawed.
Time passed. Classes piled on, and most of the students forgot about that peculiar day. It left a permanent mark on Jim, yet its purpose eluded him for the longest time. The jelly alien sometimes sneaked into his dreams.
When the 2000s rolled on, many more things happened outside the classroom walls.
Eventually Jim understood the point of the lesson.
Hasan Zaheer was born in Rawalpindi, Pakistan and emigrated to the UK at the age of eight. He currently works as a junior doctor in London, and pursues writing as a hobby with an interest in short fiction, writing regularly for SAS.