Here’s another story based on a writing prompt from Rachel Marek’s A Writer’s Discrepant Memoirs and Other Tales. The picture’s pulling pretty hard for some kind of post-apocalyptic survival story… so I decided to write something completely different. It was tricky to come up with a not-obvious story. Then, once I had the story, my imagination ran away and created a story that would have been way too long for a blog post, had I written it all out. Hopefully the parred down version is interesting. I’m not 100% percent statisfied with this story, so I think it’ll be the first post that I’ll go back an edit. Feel free to leave any critiques you have!
And with that, enjoy!
They said it can’t be done, but gosh darn it, I’m gonna do it.
Jules rummaged through the back seat of her VB bug looking for something to cover her nose. She had to use the light of her industrial flashlight. Her car’s interior light was long dead, and even though it was only 10 o’clock in the morning the sky around her was pitch black. There wasn’t a single streetlight to aid her search, but she had expected that. You could expect nothing less from Dark City.
Although she only lived a ten minute drive from the city limits, Jules never before had the urge to visit. A metropolis should light up the sky at all hours of the day, not suck up all the light so that it exists in an omnipresent orb of shadows. A city like that just isn’t right. Add to that a citizenry of trolls, and you’ve got a place that Jules had no interest in visiting.
But she didn’t have much choice on this day. The tutoring request came in. The assignment had been passed to her. She couldn’t turn down an assignment. First of all, she needed the money to help her get through college. Student loans don’t pay themselves. Second of all, Jules had earned Outstanding Math Tutor of the Semester for the past three semesters, and Jules wasn’t going to give that up without a fight. Most importantly, even if the client was a troll and everyone knows that trolls just don’t do math, she couldn’t abandon the poor kid. If this troll wanted to learn math, then by gosh! She was going to teach him! When it came to math tutoring, she was a hardened arithmetic warrior!
At last Jules found her bandana. She sat the flashlight up in the seat so she could tie it around her face. Between the trolls’ notoriously poor hygiene practices, their questionable if not downright rancid culinary choices and their general disregard for proper garbage collecting procedures, Jules had smelled the city well before her little car puttered across its boundaries and into its darkness.
With the bandana finally around her nose and mouth, the gentle breeze of fetid air had to do a little work to get into her lungs. Jules relaxed her muscles and breathed deeply. The air was still foul but at least the edge was gone. She would’ve secured the cloth earlier but didn’t want to be pulled over for looking like she was on the way to rob a bank.
Jules checked that her backpack had all the supplies she needed—graph paper, math workbooks, compasses, protractors—before throwing it over her shoulder. Then she grabbed her saddle bag full of snacks; trolls love snacks. She tapped her head to make sure her night vision glasses were still there. Last, she turned her graphing calculator on and then quickly back off. Without sun to charge it, she didn’t want to waste any battery life. She attached it to her belt and grabbed the flashlight.
The sidewalk crackled underneath her feet. A generous smattering of empty food containers and other debris littered the ground in every direction. Below that was a fine pulp of refuse that constant troll foot traffic had pounded down. Jules kept her flashlight beam on the garbage. She didn’t need a troll jumping out at her, yelling her ears off about the city lighting ordinances. She could hear them rustling by just outside of the beam.
The steps in front of the brownstone were built to handle the bulk of trolls. Made from thick slabs of rock, Jules had to lift her feet up higher than normal to climb them. She was panting a little when she reached the top. The doorbell was a thick, nearly impenetrable button. She put the flashlight down and press it with the might of both hands. The bell rang out like a fog horn. A few seconds later, she heard the lumbering footsteps of a troll.
“You tutor?” a deep voice asked from behind the door.
“Yes, I’m the tutor. My name is Jules Samson,” Jules called out from behind her bandana.
“No light.” Knowing it would come to this, Jules flicked off her light. She pulled her night vision goggles down as the troll opened the door. Bathed in the green of her lenses, the troll was a squat but hefty being. Jules couldn’t make sense of the lumpiness under its burlap clothing to determine if the troll was man or woman. She opted to consider it a woman because most often mothers made the tutoring appointments.
“Is your son—“ Jules pulled out her appointment card to check her client’s name, “Borgdag ready for his lesson?”
“Borgdag not son,” the troll said, ushering Jules inside. At least in the home the concrete floors were free of trash. “Husband.”
“Oh, he’s your husband? Normally we tutor students.”
“Yes, we students. I Ramdot. You teach both.”
“Both of you?” Jules asked. She looked back at the troll who pushed her deeper into the house. It was beginning to feel more like a cave, the straight walls giving way to curved rock, the even floor rising and falling as if carved by centuries of flowing water.
“Borgdag in here.”
Jules had to climb through a round, door-like opening. She looked around at the room. Another squat troll sat at a long, level stone that resembled a desk. He had his hands on its surface and stared at her like an eager pupil.
“You know, I’m not really supposed to tutor more than one student. I’ll have to get permission from my boss to tutor both of you.”
As Ramdot took a seat next to her husband, Jules pulled off her backpack. She rummaged through it but couldn’t find her cellphone. Rolling her eyes up to the stone ceiling in frustration, she could picture it clearly at home, recharging on her sun-lit nightstand.
“I guess I can tutor you today, but just for today. We’ll have to work out a better plan for next week.”
Jules pulled out the workbooks with extra-large print and the crayons. All the textbooks said trolls respond well to bright colors, and their clunky hands can’t manage anything as skinny as a pencil.
“Basic arithmetic,” Borgdag said, tapping on his workbook with a sizable forefinger.
“Yes!” Jules clapped. “Yes, you’re already familiar with it? Wonderful, let me just test you on it and—“
“No. Want learn more harder maths.”
“Well, we need to make sure we understand the basics first,” Jules said with a smile. She’d dealt with plenty of children who wanted to move onto the harder problems because they found flashcard embarrassing, but without a good foundation advanced problems wouldn’t fly!
“We interest transinfinite numeracy,” Ramdot said, beating her chest. Borgdag nodded in agreement.
“W-What? Transinfinite numeracy? But that’s…pretty abstract.”
“Yes,” Ramdot nodded. “Omega is lowest transinfinite number and is order isomorphic of natural numbers under usual linear ordering. We want know more. Tutor us aleph-null transinfinite cardinal number. Tutor us Dedekind-infinite set.”
“The Dedekind-infinite set?” Jules flipped through her teacher copy of the workbook. “I’ve only been certified to tutor up to trigonometry…”
“We tutor you,” Bordag said. He flipped to the bank cover to the workbook and started rapidly writing equations and proofs. “Best way learn, to teach!”
Jules stumbled out of the trolls’ brown stone, struggling to get her bandana over her mouth in time. Her brain felt like mush. Everyone had always said trolls were dumb as rocks, doublely-dumb when it came to math, and here they were schooling her on concepts she’d only heard professors mention in passing once lectures were winding down. In her brain fog, she removed her night vision goggles. The darkness reminded her where she was.
“Come back next week!” Borgdag called. He and Ramdot waved from their stoop as Jules shuffled silently back to her car. “We tutor you quantum entanglement!”