Anji labored up the last few stairs, electric pain lancing through her body with each step. The rest of the class had long since passed in a scurry. They were blissfully ignorant to her struggles.
She had to hurry; the lunch hour was quickly winding down. Just a few more…
A spasm rocked her legs, and she collapsed in a heap of useless flesh. Her eyes bled tears as she stifled a cry. Flush with embarrassment, she managed to heave her body upright.
It was one of the few times she was glad to be forever alone.
Mocking stares met her at the classroom door. Waddling, wheezing, and light in the head, she finally found her seat just in time for the chime. The other children gathered their trays and empty milk cartons. Anji chanced a pleading look to her teacher, Mr. Mori, stick thin and humorless; but he only shrugged indifferently. That ubiquitous notion: can’t be helped.
Rules were rules. Special privilege was never given.
“I don’t know how she can be so fat when she never eats lunch,” one boy jeered, much to the amusement of his tablemates.
“It’s because she’s half-American. Don’t you know all Americans are fat?” another girl informed her.
Swallowing the wound, Anji brushed sickly strands of hair to cover her red-stained eyes.
Her blubbering would be ignored regardless. Cleanup students buzzed about like worker bees; more diligent peons in the making. Mr. Mori oversaw with military precision. Everyone fit so snuggly in their uniform culture, but there was no place for Anji here.
After lunch, the class departed for English in the foreign language room. The other students ardently hated it. What use did they have for broadening their minds? But Anji thrived here, soaking up every modicum of the language. It fed her dreams of a foreign paradise; offered an escape from the prison of this rigid society.
The impassive class greeting was already finished by the time Anji arrived. Their native assistant, Mr. Steve, stood nonchalantly to one side, making silent jokes with two of the quieter girls. He smiled and nodded as Anji sat, puffing hopelessly for air. Mr. Mori drawled on about the day’s lesson. His accent was atrocious, but he clearly didn’t trust Mr. Steve enough to do much of anything in class except introduce vocabulary. Little was thought of foreign workers’ capabilities in their town.
Mr. Steve snapped from his stupor, diving into the new words practice on cue. “Okay, repeat after me!”
As the monotonous list of vocabulary droned on, Anji wondered: perhaps he too faced the same isolation, eternally an outsider in this programmed world.
Problem sets arrived, and though the simple grammar points eluded the rest of the students, Anji faced each question with boundless vigor. The others sniggered at her diligence. It was just one more rift between them. “What does she hope to accomplish?” they wondered.
Fluency seemed an impossible pipe dream. But if she could just succeed in this one thing, it might give her the option, however improbable, of a brighter future. Even after the chime Anji studied on; the world around her drowned in syntax and spellings.
When she finally looked up from her work, the room was deserted save for Mr. Steve, gathering a pile of perpetually unused games and stickers. Ignoring the closer exit, he approached Anji, and her heart leapt frantically. She had never spoken with him in the two years he had been teaching.
Outside of class he seemed exhausted, his weary eyes worn beyond the years of his youth. He greeted her with a wistful smile. “Did you enjoy today’s class, Anji?”
“Yes, Mr. Steve. Thank you.”
He nodded pensively. “Tell me something; why don’t you raise your hand during class?”
“I’m sorry. Nobody participates. It isn’t my place.”
He seemed disappointed. “Why not? I visit six different schools, and amongst all those students, you’re the only one who has shown any interest in English. Or another culture for that matter. I’ve heard you practicing your pronunciation. You’re miles ahead of your classmates.”
“You don’t understand. I can’t. We’re taught to fit in. It’s in poor taste to show off one’s skill.”
The aberrant flower must be plucked.
He frowned. “Did you hear that in moral education class, where they teach you what to think and feel?”
She shrugged meekly.
“Listen to me.” His eyes searched with worry. “There’s nothing wrong with having dreams and goals. I gave up on mine, and now I’m coasting through a life I loathe.”
He paused, but Anji was at a loss for words.
“However, there is something special that keeps me going.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a secret, but I suppose I could share it with you,” he said with a wink. A spark of energy had touched him.
Reaching into his teacher’s bag, he produced a thin, hardcover book. The cover was stark: a russet field with a frameless white door.
He offered it. “This is The White Door, my favorite book. It’s unique; not another copy exists.”
“What’s it about?” she asked.
“Whatever you want,” he replied with a warm chuckle. “Take care of it for me.”
After he left, Anji inspected the book, only to find the pages blank within. Crestfallen, she gathered her things and headed for the door.
Touching the handle, she felt a static tingle. As she slid the warped wood door, a magnificent world opened up before her. The corroded concrete of her school was gone, replaced by vibrant hues of tangerine and lilac. Colorful lichens encrusted the walls, and a hint of roses scented the air. Amazingly, Anji found that the pain was gone. Her encumbrance had somehow lifted. For the first time in her life, she could move freely.
Overcome with emotion, she opened the book once more. This time the pages were filled. Cover to cover a magical story unfolded: a journey of love and wonder.
Anji blinked back tears. It was her story.
Patrick Tiffany is an Indiana native and speculative fiction enthusiast. He is currently working as an ESL instructor in Japan.