so speaketh the trauma gods
by John Medaille
Illustrated by Linda Saboe
House cleaning by Linda Saboe

Ms. Rawlings, the seventh grade social studies teacher, and Mr. Haskel, the eighth grade life science teacher, are trapped in the crawlspace above the cafeteria ceiling. Mr. Haskel, who is insane, mutters, "Consider the aphid, prized for its honeydew."

Ms. Rawlings is furious. They have been trapped in the crawlspace for three days. Her clothes stink and she thinks that she is getting emphysema from all the balls and carpets of dust that lie like diseased gray rabbit skins on top of the white cork paneling of the ceiling. It is hot in the crawlspace, and yet mildewy. It is dark in the crawlspace. There is nothing to eat in the crawlspace. Until yesterday she and Mr. Haskel had been sucking the condensation off the air conditioner tubes and vents for water, but that had coughed and wheezed dead yesterday and it would never turn on again.

Ms. Rawlings is most furious at the song. That damn Freak Baby. Ms. Rawlings hates the song more than she hates the children. She hates it more than she hates Ronald Reagan Middle School and all the severed arms and legs on its soccer field. She hates Freak Baby more than she hates this crawlspace, which is a horrible and ugly word, crawlspace, and more than she hates Mr. Haskel, who lies prone beside her in the ceiling and whose armpits emit rancid, needlelike clouds of body odor whenever he changes position. Mr. Haskel, whose teeth are bad and whose mustache is ridiculous, Mr. Haskel who must have been mentally ill or he wouldn't have lost his mind so easily.

Mr. Haskel is not aware that Ms. Rawlings is furious. He lies on his stomach, peeking through the pinhole he poked in the ceiling panel with the tiny screwdriver from his eyeglass repair kit, and he watches what goes on on the cafeteria floor. He would make notes about the goings on if he could, but it is too dark in the crawlspace to read what he would write. Now and then he mutters crazy things.

Freak Baby. Ms. Rawlings hates Freak Baby. They are humming it in the cafeteria, they hum it all day and night. The vibrations rise up to the cafeteria ceiling. It makes the latticework and ducts shimmy slightly, resonating, skewering the hum under Ms. Rawlings' skin like ringworm. At least they're not singing the words anymore, which was worse. They just hum the beat and the chorus, the incessant, dancey rhythm. They would hum Freak Baby forever, Ms. Rawlings knows. They would hum it after the teachers in the ceiling starved to death. They would hum it as the teachers' bodies desiccated and dehydrated, until there is nothing left of them but little, dry moth husks on the windowsills. The children would hum it for a thousand years.

This was all Freak Baby's fault.

"We're going to die up here," Ms. Rawlings whispers.

"We certainly will," agrees Mr. Haskel. "I feel safe in saying we can say goodbye to sperm competition. Pupa. Pupa. Have you ever read Childhood's End?"

It had started, the end of the world, three days earlier, on a Wednesday, third period. Ms. Rawlings was teaching world cultures. She was projecting an array of powerpoint slides on the board, showing photos of step farming and Asia. Flooded rice paddies cut staircasewise into the sides of hills and mountains. Ms. Rawlings was thinking of all the mosquitoes in those green, waterlogged, communist jungles.

She told the class, "Step farming represents one way in which humans modify and develop the environment for their own benefit. Who can tell me one way in which culture would benefit from altering the landscape in this way?"

No one raised their hand. The students had been very quiet this period, and all day. Even the compulsive talkers and gigglers were quiet, staring forward at the slides of disfigured, Vietnamese mountains. "Anyone?" Ms. Rawlings said.

Not even the know-it-alls raised their hands, and the know-it-alls always raised their hands.

"Remember," Ms. Rawlings announced, "class participation is fifteen percent of your grade."

The singing started somewhere in the back of the classroom, just a faint, prepubescent voice. It could have been either a boy or girl voice; Ms. Rawlings never could figure out which child it was that started singing. Then it spread, an airborne influenza, from student to student, until it warbled and waved up to the front row. The children sang, in unison:

I go pump, pump, pump that rump
All the shawties in the party
Want my fine ass flow.

They sang it dully, without intonation or verve. They were not smiling.

Ms. Rawlings said, "That's enough of that."

The children sang:

I bounce my nasty biscuit
Too bad if you missed it.

"All right. Stop that right now," said Ms. Rawlings, and she flashed the class her withering teacher look, the look that never failed. She had worked on this withering look for years, even practiced it in the mirror. It consisted of a pursed mouth and a lowered, hooded, snakelike gaze of deadly discipline, with one eyebrow cocked to strike. It was her look that said she meant business and heads would roll. It always reduced a class to petrified terror. Except for now.

My legs they be Mercedes
But my bootie's pure Ferrari.

Sang the class, unterrified.

Ms. Rawlings had heard the song, of course. Everybody had. It had been on the radio for weeks, even on the smooth pop lite station that Ms. Rawlings listened to. She had heard students singing it in the halls before, during passing periods, and she had coolly growled at them to knock it off and they had. Even the elderly teachers, Mrs. Ackers and Mrs. Bremen, had heard Freak Baby and had spoken of it in the teachers' lounge, of its insipid obscenity. It was, Ms. Rawlings remembered the word, an earworm. A pneumonic parasite of a pop ditty and even the conservative would find themselves drumming its spastic beat on their desks.

Such ubiquitous conqueror earworms seemed to pass in waves like pinkeye and lice through the junior high about every six months, and within a month they were used up and forgotten and she couldn't even remember the song's hook or whatever particularly repeated phrase about glocks or hotties or junk-shaking had offended or amused her. Ms. Rawlings had been sure that Freak Baby would come and go like all the rest of the earworms, that it would be consigned to the abused and grafittied lockers of the students collective memories and that it would not end Western Civilization with a final, eminently danceable assault on decency and virtue.

But still, during that third period three days ago, the students did not stop singing Freak Baby. Ms. Rawlings noticed that their eyes did not appear to be focused.

My naughty body ass go smack
It big and bangin' as a Cadillac.

"Children," Ms. Rawlings said. "Students." She did not scream. She knew from long experience that if she screamed they won.

I rub my bits up on yo man
Got them tasty chops
Make 'em all go 'damn!'

Ms. Rawlings considered, but only for a second, that this was just a prank. She remembered her own years in junior high when some mastermind ringleader would orchestrate all the students in class to drop their pencils in the same second, making an anticlimactic, wooden clatter. But Ms. Rawlings did not consider the youth of today to be either so well organized or as easily amused as that. Also, they weren't smiling. No smiles at all.

I go pump, pump, pump that rump
I got that disco butt
I be your chica queen
I be your Freak Baby
Freak Baby
Freak Baby.

Ms. Rawlings backed herself to the hallway door, her hand spiderwalked the wall to its knob. The students stared ahead and sang without emotion. They did not look at their teacher or at the rice paddies gouged in swaths on the sides of foreign mountains. They looked and sang towards nothing or to something far interior. Ms. Rawlings wondered briefly if she was doing something cowardly or immoral, but then she knew she didn't care. She opened the door softly and slipped out into the hallway and closed the door without a click behind her.

Alone in the hall, Ms. Rawlings heard the song, Freak Baby, echoing out in a low, synchronized susurrus. She realized it was coming not only from her class but from every classroom in the hall, possibly from every occupied room in the school. How had they done it, at the same instant? How were they keeping time with each other so exactly?

I go pump, pump, pump that rump.

Said Ronald Reagan Middle School. The lack of laughter was the most disturbing thing.

She heard teachers in their rooms trying to restore order. Some were shrill and hysterical:

"Stop that this instant!"

"I'm going to count to five! One! Two! Three!"

"Okay! That's it! That is it!"

One low, baritone coach voice repeated, "No. No. Bad." Like it was a prayer.

Ms. Rawlings put a hand over her mouth and shivered a little. Freak Baby did not stop, but here and there, throughout the school, screaming rose over it. It was no longer the screaming of reason or the imposition of order and good citizenship, it was a pained screaming. A dying screaming. It was the screaming of adults being killed.

Ms. Rawlings sprinted from her station in the hall, towards the administration office. Behind her, doors crashed open and there was the squeaky patter of sneakers on linoleum, and that song of course. Ms. Rawlings bolted past the classrooms; she saw the insides in her peripherals; the students were calmly tearing the teachers apart, raising them by their flailing arms and legs and pulling and pulling, like a tug of war until something came off. Quartering, that was called. Little hands reached for Ms. Rawlings' flapping hair and ankles and she slapped them away. The students were dead-eyed and introspective. They did not run or jump. Ms. Rawlings saw that the administration offices were overrun already. Hideous gurgles and wails issued from the vice-principal's office, along with the pump, pump, pump that rump.

Ms. Rawlings was unsure which way to run, she balled up her fists and put one of them into her mouth and squealed like an animal. A hand clutched her elbow and pulled, she chopped at it with the heel of her hand. She said go to hell. But the hand was strong and pulled her, writhing, into a utility closet with mop buckets and jugs of disinfectants. It was only in the closet that Ms. Rawlings noticed that the hand that pulled her was attached to Mr. Haskel and his moustache.

Mr. Haskel told her, "Consider the thrip. Consider royal jelly," because he was already insane.

They listened to the chaos unfolding outside the closet, until the screaming stopped and only Freak Baby remained. Later they felt around in the dark and found the trapdoor to the crawlspace and there they were.

They had waited for some authoritarian force to descend, some group of helmeted men with rifles and hot chocolate. They had waited for the army, the National Guard, SWAT, the Red Cross, anyone, to come. On the first day they had heard distant, warbling sirens and once Mr. Haskel thought he heard a helicopter. Then there were two insignificant sounding explosions and the chatter of what might have been gunfire, and then there was nothing.

Mr. Haskel crawled along the ceiling, slowly so it didn't creak, careful not to put his weight on the flimsy, cork paneling and fall through down into the Freak Baby that was wafting up. He became entangled in pipes and light fixtures and by the first hour he was covered in grease and a fur of dust. He showed Ms. Rawlings a crack he had found between the exterior cinderblock wall and an air duct; they could see the outside world in a pie-slice wedge. The wedge showed part of the shockingly green soccer field outside, and they watched the students carrying dismembered teacher bodies — arms and legs and torsos — onto the field and heaping them diligently in piles.

"Consider the mortuary bee," said Mr. Haskel. "Very wise. Hygienic. The hive mind tends to be no-nonsense. This is promising."

Beyond the soccer field, where the school grounds abutted the grounds of Gillman Elementary School, divided by a chain link fence, they saw elementary students similarly piling bulky, teacherly bodies on a playground. The elementary school children were not running, not jumping. They plodded at a calm and efficient pace. They stayed in straight lines without being asked or ordered.

"This is happening everywhere," Ms. Rawlings whispered to herself, not to Mr. Haskel. "The whole world is like this. They will never show the last episode of that show."

Mr. Haskel said, "The song has unlocked a disused portion of the human psyche. The portion where we keep the naked mole rat." Mr. Haskel said a lot of things. He spoke for three days. He made quiet observations to Ms. Rawlings and Ms. Rawlings thought about how there would never be any more electric blankets, no more coffee from Guatemala, no more romantic comedies, no weddings, celebrity pregnancies, new cars, bridges, poems, moon landings, or churches ever, ever again.

Freak Baby never stopped. Ms. Rawlings did not notice when the children switched from singing the song and reverted to a burbling humming of the tune. Mr. Haskel pricked his pinholes into the ceiling so they could spy down onto the students. It was the only thing to do besides be hungry and dirty and think about all the things that would never be made again.

On the first day, they saw the students gather in the cafeteria in a great mound. They had lost all sense of personal space, crowding up onto one another without complaint or anger. They began to dance, great looping figure eight shimmies on the cafeteria floor.

Mr. Haskel said, "This is known to beekeepers as 'the waggle dance.' They are divided into specialized members and castes. Consider the siafu of the Amazon."

Mr. Haskel pointed out to Ms. Rawlings, who did not respond, the 'workers,' the 'soldiers,' the 'drones,' the 'nurses.' Amanda Schnell, who had been the tenth most popular girl in school before Freak Baby, became the 'queen.' She stood in a circle of uncommenting middle schoolers and faced off in single combat with several rival girls. They approached each other slowly and made several passes in quick succession like robotic boxers. They lashed out and slapped each other, springing forward and butting heads. Amanda, her blond bangs gone orange with blood and her jumper irreparably ripped, knocked all contenders out of the ring. If she was happy with her victory, she gave no sign of it.

Mr. Haskel said, "Amanda has established her dominance as the virgin queen. Her rivals now become her subordinate workers and slaves and surrender their reproductive rights. They are relegated to sterility within the superorganism. Consider the bull walrus and the silverback gorilla."

Amanda Schnell became the center of the buzzing school, surrounded by cheerleader lackeys and football player drones who formed a tight, protective knot around her at all times and attended to her needs, feeding her with their own fingers, carrying her droppings away.

"Consider Henry Ford," said Mr. Haskel.

Workers foraged off school grounds on raiding parties, carried back massive loads - sacks of sugar, syrups, colas, Pixie Stix, and Pop Rocks. Mr. Haskel called it 'nectar' and advised Ms. Rawlings to consider the leafcutter ant. Students stuck balls of looseleaf paper into their mouths and chewed, then regurgitated white, plastery spitballs, which they spread onto the walls. Soon Ronald Reagan Middle School was jacketed in a blobby, organic wallpaper of pop quizzes, worksheets and emergency contact lists. The workers burrowed tunnels into the gym, the principal's office, the art room. A yeasty, paper-mache stink rose up into the ceiling. The school took on a constant, uncomfortable, moist warmth that made Ms. Rawlings sweat and shiver and itch.

"Consider temperature regulation among the termite mounds of the Kalahari. Damaraland hive construction. Oogenesis," said Mr. Haskel.

Pale, sickly little toadstools began to sprout up on the spittle-damp walls. The workers farmed the fungus diligently and ate it without delight or disgust. Girls, who only days before had had straight A's and been members of the Spirit Squad, now secreted gelatinous, off-color honey into rubbery, hanging pea pods which dangled glottally from the rounded walls. Ms. Rawlings could not tell where they secreted the honey from, but when she slept she dreamed about it.

Queen Amanda Schnell, who became fat, now squatted, dumpling-like, on the cafeteria floor and laid several glistening, tennis-ball sized eggs on the floor. "When did Amanda get pregnant?" whispered Ms. Rawlings. It was the first thing she had said out loud in two days.

"Parthenogenesis," said Mr. Haskel. "All female, clonal, asexual reproduction. Consider the Komodo Dragon. I predict that within three months this school will be overrun with a brood of little Amanda Schnells. Haploid. Diploid."

"That's enough," said Ms. Rawlings. "Stop talking now."

"Larva," Mr. Haskel continued. "The queen honeybee can lay more than her own weight in eggs every day."

"You will be silent now, Mr. Haskel. I'm going to count to five."

"Red ant queens can live up to thirty years, but male ants live only a few weeks. I suspect all these boys will die off soon."

"One. Two," said Ms. Rawlings.

"Meosis," said Mr. Haskel.

"Three," said Ms. Rawlings.

Mr. Haskel shut up for an hour.

The nurse bees attended to the eggs. The workers buzzed Freak Baby and carried out their labors. There was a day and a night, but there wasn't any difference between them.

Now, on the third day, Ms. Rawlings is saying that we are going to die up here and Mr. Haskel, in his craziness, confirms it. It is getting hotter and smellier and hungrier and louder in the crawlspace. Ms. Rawlings is vibrating with anger pheromones and Freak Baby. Sometimes she finds herself humming it.

They could kick out the air vents, get to the roof and slide down the rain gutter to the boneyard of the soccer field. She could try to avoid the scouts and raiding parties of child soldiers; she might make it home without being caught and pulled apart. She could have pancakes, and there might be enough water left in the pipes for a cold bath and she could die there; she thinks there are enough sleeping pills for that at home.

"Mr. Haskel," she whispers in the dark. "What would happen if we went down there, into the school?"

Mr. Haskel does not look up from his pinhole observing station, perched precariously on his belly above the weak paneling. "We would be considered foreign invaders, set upon by warrior ants and dismembered. Consider Napoleon Bonaparte."

"What if we were, in some way, with Amanda? What if she let us become part of the hive?"

"Unlikely. We lack the essential chemical parasitism. Consider Varroa Destructor."

"Mr. Haskel, focus. Focus. Listen to me. What if there was a new queen? How would that happen?"

"Supersedure," says Mr. Haskel. "A new queen must establish dominance. Among paper wasp colonies, this is sometimes done when rival females eat the queen's eggs. Or Amanda could be rendered unfit for the queendom. This might be accomplished by removing her arms or legs or reproductive capability. The hive might then activate a subroutine known as 'cuddle death.' The workers would crowd around Amanda so tightly that she would become overheated and suffocate. Then competitive females would battle for supremacy and the right to breed. Consider the wily yellowjacket."

"Hmm," says Ms. Rawlings. "I see."

"It is, however, essential that we not interfere with the culture of the hive," continues Mr. Haskel.

"Why not?"

"This is an evolutionary leap forward towards eusocial happiness. This generation is exponentially more important than ours. Consider a unified global hive. Consider a singular world brain. Consider its continent-sized thoughts and galactic yearnings. Fascinating!" whispers Mr. Haskel.

Ms. Rawlings says, "Yes. Yes. Fascinating."

She then lifts herself up from her position in the crawlspace, and she crab-crawls to Mr. Haskel. With the heels of both her pumps, she kicks downward at the ceiling tile beneath the life science teacher. The panel groans dustily and breaks in half. Mr. Haskel manages to brace himself with his hands and knees on the metal latticework. He pleads, "Consider the archaeopteryx!" and Ms. Rawlings knees him in the small of his back and down he goes, tumbling the twenty feet down into the cafeteria below.

In the royal chamber, the court of the queen, an invader is detected. Chemical alarms resound throughout the tunnels and the hive goes into a frenzy, an anthill kicked open by evil children. Warriors rush to protect the queen. They find the outsider and latch onto his wiggling extremities and pull, to make him into smaller, less contaminating, parcels which will be expelled. As they do, the contaminant howls, "Consider the obstreperous platypus!"

As the hive busies itself, Ms. Rawlings scuttles through the crawlspace to the trapdoor and down into the utility closet. She opens the door into the hallway which is now soft and tubular and bile-smelling with regurgitated Spanish verb conjugations. Twenty feet to her left are the glass doors of the school, cleanly shattered. Outside is the world and home and whatever has happened out there. Instead, Ms. Rawlings walks over to a hanging honey bladder. She peels its thin, translucent film back with her fingernails and bathes herself in the globular honey that comes out. There are many hundreds of Amanda's eggs lining the hall, and because Ms. Rawlings is desperately hungry and because she is what she is, she gobbles a dozen of them up quickly. The seventh grade social studies teacher then walks to the cafeteria, where the last of Mr. Haskel's limbs is being toted away.

Upon seeing another invader, the hive goes mad again, buzzing Freak Baby at a panic pitch, but they are confused as well. This invader smells of honey and life and kin, but she is large and somehow too familiar and she cannot speak or think. Cautiously, the warriors advance on her.

"Wait!" the foreigner screams in some strange-thought non-speak. The foreigner addresses the queen, who stands in the middle of the throng, surrounded by a defensive escort of jittering, furious drones. The queen has grown great these three days, she has ballooned up and is twice the foreigner's weight. Her abdomen hindquarters ripple with precious eggs. "Amanda, I challenge you for the queendom! Children, I want to be queen!"

The warriors do not understand the yammering and march closer and latch onto her fingers and calves.

"I go pump, pump, pump that rump!" the foreigner yells, speaking. The warriors relay chemical confusion, which smells like bananas.

I got that disco butt!
I be your chica queen!
I be your Freak Baby!
Freak Baby!

Queen Amanda emits an acrid, pheromonal cloud which fills the room. The hive calms and its temperature lowers. The warriors withdraw and form a ring around the maybe-invader. The queen dismisses her retinue of drones, and she sloshes her great weight into the ring and faces this strange, rivalrous female, who might be outsider, but might be one of the hive.

The two in the ring square off and circle. They make their hands into hooks and claws and they charge.

So Speaketh The Trauma Gods © 2011 John Medaille
House cleaning © Linda Saboe
pinned spider