The following was written by Amelia Day, an 8th grader at Lakeridge Middle School. This short story, titled “A.I.,” won second place in the 7th and 8th grade short story category in this years Our Own Expressions art and writing contest, hosted by the Pierce County Library System.
Grey walls, grey floor, grey faces. I survey everything as always, from my seat at the back of the classroom, never missing a detail. I suppose they put me here to not distract the rest of the kids (if I can even qualify as part of their group), but to me it feels like they’ve sentenced me to solitary confinement.
As Teacher ends her final statement with a final, regal sweep of her arm, her harsh gaze casts around the room until she locks eyes with me. I know what this means.
“A.I.!” she calls out across the classroom. I flinch. Why can’t they ever call me by my real name? She stares coldly at me from the front of the classroom, her lips pulling into a taut line. I only sit straighter, hold her gaze with an equally frigid glare of my own. “We need an incentive, do we?” she says, walking down the aisle of desks, her heels clicking sharply against the concrete ground. “Need I remind you what happened last time?” She stops at my chair, her arms folded tight against her chest. I say nothing in return.
Teacher doesn’t hesitate in pulling me up by my hair, ignoring my cries of pain and protest. She proceeds to drag me up to the front of the class, sit me on a brown stool, the pyre of classroom 301, and return to her desk.
“Speak the oath,” she drawls in monotone as I rub my scalp, feeling embarrassment crawl up my neck. As I stare into the mass of students, I search for a solitary beam of pity, but find none. They’re all here for the show, and compassion’s not the ticket in. I clench my fists again and again, my knuckles white, trying to let all of my anger just drain away, but I know it never will. I grit my teeth, and start the oath, trying not to give Teacher the satisfaction of a tear.
“I am an abomination,” I begin slowly, my jaw tense, sweat beading my brow. My voice comes out cracked, gravelly, but I don’t care. They’ve humiliated me enough already.
“I am shameful,” I continue. “I am just programming. I am not human. I am fake. I am an image.” I am human, I repeat again and again in my head. It’s the only thing that keeps me from throttling someone in moments like this. I know if I harm anyone, my punishment will be much greater than this. It has been much greater.
“I am not deserving of the hospitality I receive. I am nothing.” As I finish, I drop my head, not wishing to hold anyone’s gaze, my body trembling with both embarrassment and rage.
“Thank you, Anton Ives,” Teacher whispers in my ear as she stalks by, a hint of sarcasm gracing her tone. As her skeletal figure reaches the doorway, the bell rings, signaling the end of this torture, and my “quality time” with Teacher. No matter how many times I have to undergo this ritual, I will never become used to it. I file out in line with the other students, keeping my head down as I pass Teacher, not wanting to meet her piercing blue eyes yet again.
As soon as I reach the open corridor, I walk straight to The Old Spinster, our meeting spot, trying to ignore the pointed revulsion from all of the other students. Her cheek is cracked as always, the one familiar blemish running down her otherwise flawless, marble face.
Standing, watching The Old Spinster, I jump at a sharp tap on my shoulder, and spin around flustered, half expecting Teacher to be standing there next to me, but it’s just Rider.
“Hey,” he says, laughing at my surprised expression. “What’s up? Admiring the architectural beauty of The Old Spinster?”
“Oh yes!” I say, in mock enthusiasm, smiling with relief. “Right before I write an essay about the sound structure of Teacher’s hair. I’m sure that’ll count as an ancient relic too, right?” I start laughing, but stop abruptly, noticing a large group of assorted students watching our conversation with suspicion.
“Rider, sorry, but we might need to be more discreet,” I whisper in his ear, subtly gesturing to the set of kids listening in. If Teacher or any of the other Educators caught word of me talking to another student, I’d be sent to The Room in an instant.
“Oh, sorry Anton,” he whispers back apologetically, pushing his overgrown hair out of his eyes, a nervous tic. “I’d completely forgotten. Let’s just go get lunch.”
As we start walking steadily down the hall, he leans over and asks me, “How was the oath today, everything go all right?” genuine concern painting his face. Rider’s being taught a few classes over, a fact I despise, so he doesn’t often know what goes on in the other classrooms.
I look down at my feet. “As well as it ever goes,” I mumble.
“Did Teacher’s face go ten shades of red this time, or only five?” he asks, cocking a mock inquisitive eyebrow.
“Only two this time, but I’m predicting eight for tomorrow!” I laugh back, glad to be joking again. “I’m onl-” Suddenly a rough hand grabs me from behind and turns me around.
“You’re Anton Ives?” a man whispers, keeping his grip on my shoulder.
“Um…yes, uh, why…I mean, what are you…?” I stutter, glancing around the room, hoping one of the students is watching, but the hall is empty.
“Special Services,” he says tersely. “And if you want to live, you’re coming with me. We need you for a special mission, A.I.”
“What…what do you mean?” I choke out, trying to understand.
“Yeah, what do you mean?” Rider counters, his eyes sparking as he shoves the man’s arm off my shoulder and steps between us. “If you’re taking him anywhere, you’re going to have to get through me.” The man’s lips curl into a sneer. “Oh, the best friend, ever the hero.” Quick as lightning, his fist knocks Rider to the floor, a sickening crunch. “And ever the one to fall first.” I yell, trying to reach out for Rider as the man wraps his burly arms around me, and pulls me down to the ground.
“That boy is nothing to you now, you hear me?” he spits in my face. I shake my head violently, desperately trying to free myself from the man’s grasp.
“No!” I cry out.
“Well, he’s going to have to be,” the –man says, gruffly. “You’ve been training for this from the moment you were born.” I drown him out, staring at Rider. His lips are moving, repeating the same word over and over again. I watch him for a minute, trying to figure out what he could possibly be saying, until it hits me. Anton. He’s saying Anton. Despite the man holding me down, berating me, and my uncertain future looming in the distance, this small, mouthed word makes me feel strangely powerful.
No matter what they put me through wherever I’m going, no matter what I have to do in the future, I’ll always be Anton. Not A.I.